It was late in July when he wrote:
If I do not forget it, I will send you, per next mail, a pinch of decom. (decomposed rock) which I pinched with thumb and finger from Wide West ledge a while ago. Raish and I have secured 200 out of a company with 400 ft. in it, which perhaps (the ledge, I mean) is a spur from the W. W. — our shaft is about 100 ft. from the W. W. shaft. In order to get in, we agreed to sink 30 ft. We have sublet to another man for 50 ft., and we pay for powder and sharpening tools.
This was the “Blind Lead” claim of Roughing It, but the episode as set down in that book is somewhat dramatized. It is quite true that he visited and nursed Captain Nye while Higbie was off following the “Cement” ‘ignus fatuus’ and that the “Wide West” holdings were forfeited through neglect. But if the loss was regarded as a heavy one, the letters fail to show it. It is a matter of dispute to-day whether or not the claim was ever of any value. A well-known California author26 declares:
No one need to fear that he ran any chance of being a millionaire through the “Wide West” mine, for the writer, as a child, played over that historic spot and saw only a shut-down mill and desolate hole in the ground to mark the spot where over-hopeful men had sunk thousands and thousands, that they never recovered.
26 [Ella Sterling Cummins, author of The Story of the Files, etc]
The “Blind Lead” episode, as related, is presumably a tale of what might have happened — a possibility rather than an actuality. It is vividly true in atmosphere, however, and forms a strong and natural climax for closing the mining episode, while the literary privilege warrants any liberties he may have taken for art’s sake.
In reality the close of his mining career was not sudden and spectacular; it was a lingering close, a reluctant and gradual surrender. The “Josh” letters to the Enterprise had awakened at least a measure of interest, and Orion had not failed to identify their author when any promising occasion offered; as a result certain tentative overtures had been made for similar material. Orion eagerly communicated such chances, for the money situation was becoming a desperate one. A letter from the Aurora miner written near the end of July presents the situation very fully. An extract or two will be sufficient:
My debts are greater than I thought for — I bought $25 worth of clothing and sent $25 to Higbie, in the cement diggings. I owe about $45 or $50, and have got about $45 in my pocket. But how in the h — l I am going to live on something over $100 until October or November is singular. The fact is, I must have something to do, and that shortly, too. . . . Now write to the Sacramento Union folks, or to Marsh, and tell them I’ll write as many letters a week as they want for $10 a week. My board must be paid. Tell them I have corresponded with the N. Orleans Crescent and other papers — and the Enterprise.
If they want letters from here — who’ll run from morning till night collecting material cheaper? I’ll write a short letter twice a week, for the present for the ‘Age’, for $5 per week. Now it has been a long time since I couldn’t make my own living, and it shall be a long time before I loaf another year.
Nothing came of these possibilities, but about this time Barstow, of the Enterprise, conferred with Joseph T. Goodman, editor and owner of the paper, as to the advisability of adding the author of the “Josh” letters to their local staff. Joe Goodman, who had as keen a literary perception as any man that ever pitched a journalistic tent on the Pacific coast (and there could be no higher praise than that), looked over the letters and agreed with Barstow that the man who wrote them had “something in him.” Two of the sketches in particular he thought promising. One of them was a burlesque report of an egotistical lecturer who was referred to as “Professor Personal Pronoun.” It closed by stating that it was “impossible to print his lecture in full, as the type-cases had run out of capital I’s.” But it was the other sketch which settled Goodman’s decision. It was also a burlesque report, this time of a Fourth-of-July oration. It opened, “I was sired by the Great American Eagle and foaled by a continental dam.” This was followed by a string of stock patriotic phrases absurdly arranged. But it was the opening itself that won Goodman’s heart.
“That is the sort of thing we want,” he said. “Write to him, Barstow, and ask him if he wants to come up here.”
Barstow wrote, offering twenty-five dollars a week, a tempting sum. This was at the end of July, 1862.
In ‘Roughing It’ we are led to believe that the author regarded this as a gift from heaven and accepted it straightaway. As a matter of fact, he fasted and prayed a good while over the “call.” To Orion he wrote Barstow has offered me the post as local reporter for the Enterprise at $25 a week, and I have written him that I will let him know next mail, if possible.
There was no desperate eagerness, you see, to break into literature, even under those urgent conditions. It meant the surrender of all hope in the mines, the confession of another failure. On August 7th he wrote again to Orion. He had written to Barstow, he said, asking when they thought he might be needed. He was playing for time to consider.
Now, I shall leave at midnight to-night, alone and on foot, for a walk of 60 or 70 miles through a totally uninhabited country, and it is barely possible that mail facilities may prove infernally “slow.” But do you write Barstow that I have left here for a week or so, and in case he should want me, he must write me here, or let me know through you.
So he had gone into the wilderness to fight out his battle alone. But eight days later, when he had returned, there was still no decision. In a letter to Pamela of this date he refers playfully to the discomforts of his cabin and mentions a hope that he will spend the winter in San Francisco; but there is no reference in it to any newspaper prospects — nor to the mines, for that matter. Phillips, Howland, and Higbie would seem to have given up by this time, and he was camping with Dan Twing and a dog, a combination amusingly described. It is a pleasant enough letter, but the note of discouragement creeps in:
I did think for a while of going home this fall — but when I found that that was, and had been, the cherished intention and the darling aspiration every year of these old care-worn Californians for twelve weary years, I felt a little uncomfortable, so I stole a march on Disappointment and said I would not go home this fall. This country suits me, and it shall suit me whether or no.
He was dying hard, desperately hard; how could he know, to paraphrase the old form of Christian comfort, that his end as a miner would mean, in another sphere, “a brighter resurrection” than even his rainbow imagination could paint?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00