It was the rainy season, the winter of 1864 and 1865, but there were many pleasant days, when they could go pocket-hunting, and Samuel Clemens soon added a knowledge of this fascinating science to his other acquirements. Sometimes he worked with Dick Stoker, sometimes with one of the Gillis boys. He did not make his fortune at pocket-mining; he only laid its corner-stone. In the old note-book he kept of that sojourn we find that, with Jim Gillis, he made a trip over into Calaveras County soon after Christmas and remained there until after New Year’s, probably prospecting; and he records that on New Year’s night, at Vallecito, he saw a magnificent lunar rainbow in a very light, drizzling rain. A lunax rainbow is one of the things people seldom see. He thought it an omen of good-fortune.
They returned to the cabin on the hill; but later in the month, on the they crossed over into Calaveras again, and began pocket-hunting not far from Angel’s Camp. The note-book records that the bill of fare at the Camp hotel consisted wholly of beans and something which bore the name of coffee; also that the rains were frequent and heavy.
January 27. Same old diet — same old weather — went out to the pocket-claim — had to rush back.
They had what they believed to be a good claim. Jim Gillis declared the indications promising, and if they could only have good weather to work it, they were sure of rich returns. For himself, he would have been willing to work, rain or shine. Clemens, however, had different views on the subject. His part was carrying water for washing out the pans of dirt, and carrying pails of water through the cold rain and mud was not very fascinating work. Dick Stoker came over before long to help. Things went a little better then; but most of their days were spent in the bar-room of the dilapidated tavern at Angel’s Camp, enjoying the company of a former Illinois River pilot, Ben Coon, 38 a solemn, fat-witted person, who dozed by the stove, or old slow, endless stories, without point or application. Listeners were a boon to him, for few came and not many would stay. To Mark Twain and Jim Gillis, however, Ben Coon was a delight. It was soothing and comfortable to listen to his endless narratives, told in that solemn way, with no suspicion of humor. Even when his yarns had point, he did not recognize it. One dreary afternoon, in his slow, monotonous fashion, he told them about a frog — a frog that had belonged to a man named Coleman, who trained it to jump, but that failed to win a wager because the owner of a rival frog had surreptitiously loaded the trained jumper with shot. The story had circulated among the camps, and a well-known journalist, named Samuel Seabough, had already made a squib of it, but neither Clemens nor Gillis had ever happened to hear it before. They thought the tale in itself amusing, and the “spectacle of a man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever smiling was exquisitely absurd.” When Coon had talked himself out, his hearers played billiards on the frowsy table, and now and then one would remark to the other:
38 [This name has been variously given as “Ros Coon,” “Coon Drayton,” etc. It is given here as set down in Mark Twain’s notes, made on the spot. Coon was not (as has been stated) the proprietor of the hotel (which was kept by a Frenchman), but a frequenter of it.]
“I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog,” and perhaps the other would answer:
“I ain’t got no frog, but if I had a frog I’d bet you.”
Out on the claim, between pails of water, Clemens, as he watched Jim Gillis or Dick Stoker “washing,” would be apt to say, “I don’t see no p’ints about that pan o’ dirt that’s any better’n any other pan o’ dirt,” and so they kept it up.
Then the rain would come again and interfere with their work. One afternoon, when Clemens and Gillis were following certain tiny-sprayed specks of gold that were leading them to pocket — somewhere up the long slope, the chill downpour set in. Gillis, as usual, was washing, and Clemens carrying water. The “color” was getting better with every pan, and Jim Gillis believed that now, after their long waiting, they were to be rewarded. Possessed with the miner’s passion, he would have gone on washing and climbing toward the precious pocket, regardless of everything. Clemens, however, shivering and disgusted, swore that each pail of water was his last. His teeth were chattering and he was wet through. Finally he said, in his deliberate way:
“Jim, I won’t carry any more water. This work is too disagreeable.”
Gillis had just taken out a panful of dirt.
“Bring one more pail, Sam,” he pleaded.
“Oh, hell, Jim, I won’t do it; I’m freezing!”
“Just one more pail, Sam,” he pleaded.
“No, sir, not a drop, not if I knew there were a million dollars in that pan.”
Gillis tore a page out of his note-book, and hastily posted a thirty-day claim notice by the pan of dirt, and they set out for Angel’s Camp. It kept on raining and storming, and they did not go back. A few days later a letter from Steve Gillis made Clemens decide to return to San Francisco. With Jim Gillis and Dick Stoker he left Angel’s and walked across the mountains to Jackass Hill in the snow-storm —“the first I ever saw in California,” he says in his notes.
In the mean time the rain had washed away the top of the pan of earth they had left standing on the hillside, and exposed a handful of nuggets — pure gold. Two strangers, Austrians, had come along and, observing it, had sat down to wait until the thirty-day claim notice posted by Jim Gillis should expire. They did not mind the rain — not with all that gold in sight — and the minute the thirty days were up they followed the lead a few pans farther and took out — some say ten, some say twenty, thousand dollars. In either case it was a good pocket. Mark Twain missed it by one pail of water. Still, it is just as well, perhaps, when one remembers that vaster nugget of Angel’s Camp — the Jumping Frog. Jim Gillis always declared, “If Sam had got that pocket he would have remained a pocket-miner to the end of his days, like me.”
In Mark Twain’s old note-book occurs a memorandum of the frog story — a mere casual entry of its main features:
Coleman with his jumping frog — bet stranger $50 — stranger had no frog, and C. got him one:— in the mean time stranger filled C.‘s frog full of shot and he couldn’t jump. The stranger’s frog won.
It seemed unimportant enough, no doubt, at the time; but it was the nucleus around which was built a surpassing fame. The hills along the Stanislaus have turned out some wonderful nuggets in their time, but no other of such size as that.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00