Friday, May 17, 2019

Prospector's Fate Ends In Loss

Photograph of miner with loaded donkey or burro. "Steady Jack" used for "packing" the miners' tools in Nevada's Comstock Lode. Courtesy: George Wharton James Collection UNR).

(Editor's note: In this post, we find The Comstock Club's members contemplating unrequited love, fate, labor, charity, hard work and more.)

"All that is good," said Carlin, "but the rule does not always hold true. There is sometimes a limit to man's capacity to suffer, and his heart breaks; and still after that his face gives no sign, and there is no abatement of his energies. In such cases, however, men generally lose the capacity to reason calmly and chase impossibilities. I saw a case yesterday. I met a man mounted on a cheap mustang, and leading another on which was packed a little coarse food, a pick, shovel, pan, coffee-pot and frying pan. As he moved slowly up C. street, a friend — himself an Argonaut — clutched me by the arm with one hand, and with the other pointing to the man on horseback, asked me if I knew him. Replying that I did not, he said: 'Why, that is "Prospecting Joe"; I thought everybody knew him.' I told him I had never heard of him, when he related his story, almost word for word, as follows:

"He came to the far West from some Eastern state in the old, old days. He was not then more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old. Physically he was a splendid specimen of a man, I am told. He was, moreover, genial and generous, and drew friends around him wherever he went. He secured a claim in the hills above Placerville. One who knew him at that time told me, that, calling at his cabin one night, he surprised him poring over a letter written in a fair hand, while beside him on his rude table lay the picture of a beautiful girl. His heart must have been warmed at the time, for picking up the picture and handing it to my friend, he said. 'Look at her! She is my Nora, my Nora. She, beautiful as she is, would in her divinity have bent and married a coarse mold of clay like myself, and poor, too, as I was; but her father said: 'Not yet, Joe. Go out into the world, make a struggle for two years, then come back, and if by that time you have established that you are man enough to be a husband to a true woman, and you and Nora still hold to the thought that is in your hearts now, I will help you all I can. And, mind you, I don't expect you to make a fortune in two years; I only want you to show that the manhood which I think you have within you is true.' 'That was square and sensible talk, and it was not unkind. So I came away.

"'Then he took the picture and looked fondly at it for a long time, and said: 'I see the delicious girl as she looked on that summer's day, when she waved me her last good by. I shall see her all my life, if I live a thousand years.'

"Well, Joe worked on week days; on Sundays, as miners did in those days, he went to camp to get his mail and supplies. His claim paid him only fairly well, but he was saving some money. In eight months he had been able to deposit twelve hundred dollars in the local bank. One Sunday he did not receive the expected letter from his Nora, and during the next hour or two he drank two or three times with friends. He was about to leave for home, when three men whom he slightly knew, and who had all been drinking too much, met him and importuned him to drink with them. He declined with thanks, when one of the three caught him by the arm and said he must drink.

"At any other time he would have extricated him self without trouble and gone on his way. But on that day he was not in good humor, so he shook the man off roughly and shortly told him to go about his own affairs.

"The others were just sufficiently sprung with liquor to take offense at this, and the result was a terrific street fight. Joe was badly bruised but he whipped all three of the others. Then he was arrested and ordered to appear next morning to answer a charge of fighting. He was of course cleared without difficulty, but it took one-fourth of his deposit to pay his lawyer. Then the miners gathered around him and called him a hero and he went on his first spree.

International Hotel in Virginia City, Nevada. Courtesy of the University of Nevada, Reno.

"Next morning when he awoke and thought of as much as he could remember of the previous day's events, he was thoroughly ashamed. As he went down to the office of the hotel, in response to an inquiry as to how he felt, he answered: 'Full of repentance and beer.' A friend showed him the morning paper with a full account of the Sunday fight and his trial and acquittal. This was embellished with taking head-lines, as is the custom with reporters. It cut him to the heart.

"He knew that if the news reached his old home of his being in a street fight on Sunday, all his hopes would be ended. His first thought was to draw his money and take the first steamer for Panama and New York. He went to the bank and asked how his account stood, for he remembered to have drawn something the previous day. He was answered that there was still to his credit $150. The steamer fare was $275. Utterly crushed, he returned to his claim. The fear that the news of his disgrace would reach home, haunted him perpetually and made him afraid to write. He continued to work, but not with the old hope.

"After some weeks, a rumor came that rich ground had been 'struck' away to the north, somewhere in Siskiyou county. He drew what money he had, bought a couple of ponies, one to ride and one to pack, and started for the new field. Before starting, he confided to a friend that the previous night he had dreamed of a mountain, the crest of which glittered all over with gold, and he was going to find it. "The friend told him it was but a painted devil of the brain, the child of a distempered imagination, but he merely shook his head and went away.

"He has pursued that dream ever since. His eyes have been ever strained to catch the reflection from those shining heights. When he began the search, his early home and the loving arms which were there stretched out to him, began to recede in the distance. In a few years they disappeared altogether. Then his hopes one by one deserted him, until all had fled except the one false one which was, and still is, driving him on. Youth died and was buried by the trail, but so absorbed was he that he hardly grieved. As Time served notice after notice upon him; as his hair blanched, his form bent and the old sprightliness went out of his limbs, he retired more and more from the haunts of men; more and more he drew the mantle of the mountains around him. But his eyes, now bright with an unnatural splendor, were still strained upon the shining height. There were but a few intervening hills and some forests that obstructed his view. A little further on and the goal would be reached. Last night he was in his cups and he told my friend that this time he would 'strike it sure,' that the old man would make his showing yet, that he would yet go back to the old home and be a Providence to those he loved when a boy.

"Poor wretch. There is an open grave stretched directly across his trail. On this journey or some other soon, he will, while his eyes are still straining towards his heights of gold, drop into that grave and disappear forever.

"Some morning as he awakens, amid the hills or out upon the desert, there will be such a weariness upon him that he will say, 'I will sleep a little longer,' and from that sleep he will never waken.

"Heaven grant that his vision will then become a reality and that he may mount the shining heights at last.

"Of course it is easy to say that he was originally weak, but that is no argument, for human nature is prone to be weak. His was a high-strung, sensitive, generous nature. He never sought gold for the joy it would give him, but for the happiness he dreamed it would give to those he loved.

"His Nora was a queen in his eyes and he wanted to give her, every day, the surroundings of a queen. He made one mistake and never rallied from it. Had the letter come that fatal Sunday from Nora, as he was expecting it, or had he left for home half an hour earlier, or had he been of coarser clay, that day's performance would have been avoided, or would have been passed as an incident not to be repeated, but not to be seriously minded.

This may be the Savage Mine's Virginia City office. Undated. Courtesy of the UNR.

"But he was of different mold, and then that was a blow from Fate. It is easy enough to say that there is nothing in that thing called luck. Such talk will not do here on the Comstock. There is no luck when a money lender charges five dollars for the use of a hundred for a month and exacts good security. He gets his one hundred and five dollars, and that is business.

"But in this lead where ore bodies lie like melons on a vine, when ore is reported in the Belcher and in the Savage, when Brown buys stock in the

Belcher and Rogers buys in the Savage; when the streak of ore in the Belcher runs into a bonanza and Brown wakes up rich some morning, and when the streak of ore in the Savage runs into a Niagara of hot water which floods the mine and Rogers's stock is sold out to meet an assessment, it will not do to call Brown a shrewd fellow and Rogers an idiot.

"Still, I do not object to the theory that a man should always keep trying, even if the lack is against him, because luck may change sometime, and if it does not, he sleeps better when he knows that with the lights before him he has done the best he could. A man can stand almost anything when his soul does not reproach him as he tries to go to sleep.

"Then, too, man is notoriously a lazy animal, and unless he has the nerve to spur himself to work, even when unfortunate, he is liable to fail and get the dry rot, which is worse than death.

"But my heart goes out in sympathy when I think of the glorified spirits, which on this coast have failed and are failing every day, because from the first an iron fortune has hedged them round and baffled their every effort, struggle as they would."

"Carlin ceased speaking, and ... silence ... prevailed in the Club for a moment. ..."

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