After leaving the Sink, we traveled along the Humboldt river a little
way. People accustomed to the monster mile-wide Mississippi, grow
accustomed to associating the term "river" with a high degree of watery
grandeur. Consequently, such people feel rather disappointed when they
stand on the shores of the Humboldt or the Carson and find that a "river"
in Nevada is a sickly rivulet which is just the counterpart of the Erie
canal in all respects save that the canal is twice as long and four times
as deep. One of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can
contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt river till he is
overheated, and then drink it dry.
On the fifteenth day we completed our march of two hundred miles and
entered Unionville, Humboldt county, in the midst of a driving snow-
storm. Unionville consisted of eleven cabins and a liberty-pole. Six of
the cabins were strung along one side of a deep canyon, and the other
five faced them. The rest of the landscape was made up of bleak mountain
walls that rose so high into the sky from both sides of the canyon that
the village was left, as it were, far down in the bottom of a crevice.
It was always daylight on the mountain tops a long time before the
darkness lifted and revealed Unionville.
We built a small, rude cabin in the side of the crevice and roofed it
with canvas, leaving a corner open to serve as a chimney, through which
the cattle used to tumble occasionally, at night, and mash our furniture
and interrupt our sleep. It was very cold weather and fuel was scarce.
Indians brought brush and bushes several miles on their backs; and when
we could catch a laden Indian it was well--and when we could not (which
was the rule, not the exception), we shivered and bore it.
I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying
all about the ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the
mountain summits. I said nothing about this, for some instinct told me
that I might possibly have an exaggerated idea about it, and so if I
betrayed my thought I might bring derision upon myself. Yet I was as
perfectly satisfied in my own mind as I could be of anything, that I was
going to gather up, in a day or two, or at furthest a week or two, silver
enough to make me satisfactorily wealthy--and so my fancy was already
busy with plans for spending this money. The first opportunity that
offered, I sauntered carelessly away from the cabin, keeping an eye on
the other boys, and stopping and contemplating the sky when they seemed
to be observing me; but as soon as the coast was manifestly clear, I fled
away as guiltily as a thief might have done and never halted till I was
far beyond sight and call. Then I began my search with a feverish
excitement that was brimful of expectation--almost of certainty.
I crawled about the ground, seizing and examining bits of stone, blowing
the dust from them or rubbing them on my clothes, and then peering at
them with anxious hope. Presently I found a bright fragment and my heart
bounded! I hid behind a boulder and polished it and scrutinized it with
a nervous eagerness and a delight that was more pronounced than absolute
certainty itself could have afforded. The more I examined the fragment
the more I was convinced that I had found the door to fortune. I marked
the spot and carried away my specimen. Up and down the rugged mountain
side I searched, with always increasing interest and always augmenting
gratitude that I had come to Humboldt and come in time. Of all the
experiences of my life, this secret search among the hidden treasures of
silver-land was the nearest to unmarred ecstasy. It was a delirious
By and by, in the bed of a shallow rivulet, I found a deposit of shining
yellow scales, and my breath almost forsook me! A gold mine, and in my
simplicity I had been content with vulgar silver! I was so excited that
I half believed my overwrought imagination was deceiving me. Then a fear
came upon me that people might be observing me and would guess my secret.
Moved by this thought, I made a circuit of the place, and ascended a
knoll to reconnoiter. Solitude. No creature was near. Then I returned
to my mine, fortifying myself against possible disappointment, but my
fears were groundless--the shining scales were still there. I set about
scooping them out, and for an hour I toiled down the windings of the
stream and robbed its bed. But at last the descending sun warned me to
give up the quest, and I turned homeward laden with wealth. As I walked
along I could not help smiling at the thought of my being so excited over
my fragment of silver when a nobler metal was almost under my nose. In
this little time the former had so fallen in my estimation that once or
twice I was on the point of throwing it away.
The boys were as hungry as usual, but I could eat nothing. Neither could
I talk. I was full of dreams and far away. Their conversation
interrupted the flow of my fancy somewhat, and annoyed me a little, too.
I despised the sordid and commonplace things they talked about. But as
they proceeded, it began to amuse me. It grew to be rare fun to hear
them planning their poor little economies and sighing over possible
privations and distresses when a gold mine, all our own, lay within sight
of the cabin and I could point it out at any moment. Smothered hilarity
began to oppress me, presently. It was hard to resist the impulse to
burst out with exultation and reveal everything; but I did resist. I
said within myself that I would filter the great news through my lips
calmly and be serene as a summer morning while I watched its effect in
their faces. I said:
"Where have you all been?"
"What did you find?"
"Nothing? What do you think of the country?"
"Can't tell, yet," said Mr. Ballou, who was an old gold miner, and had
likewise had considerable experience among the silver mines.
"Well, haven't you formed any sort of opinion?"
"Yes, a sort of a one. It's fair enough here, may be, but overrated.
Seven thousand dollar ledges are scarce, though.
"That Sheba may be rich enough, but we don't own it; and besides, the rock
is so full of base metals that all the science in the world can't work
it. We'll not starve, here, but we'll not get rich, I'm afraid."
"So you think the prospect is pretty poor?"
"No name for it!"
"Well, we'd better go back, hadn't we?"
"Oh, not yet--of course not. We'll try it a riffle, first."
"Suppose, now--this is merely a supposition, you know--suppose you could
find a ledge that would yield, say, a hundred and fifty dollars a ton--
would that satisfy you?"
"Try us once!" from the whole party.
"Or suppose--merely a supposition, of course--suppose you were to find a
ledge that would yield two thousand dollars a ton--would that satisfy
"Here--what do you mean? What are you coming at? Is there some mystery
behind all this?"
"Never mind. I am not saying anything. You know perfectly well there
are no rich mines here--of course you do. Because you have been around
and examined for yourselves. Anybody would know that, that had been
around. But just for the sake of argument, suppose--in a kind of general
way--suppose some person were to tell you that two-thousand-dollar ledges
were simply contemptible--contemptible, understand--and that right yonder
in sight of this very cabin there were piles of pure gold and pure
silver--oceans of it--enough to make you all rich in twenty-four hours!
"I should say he was as crazy as a loon!" said old Ballou, but wild with
"Gentlemen," said I, "I don't say anything--I haven't been around, you
know, and of course don't know anything--but all I ask of you is to cast
your eye on that, for instance, and tell me what you think of it!" and I
tossed my treasure before them.
There was an eager scramble for it, and a closing of heads together over
it under the candle-light. Then old Ballou said:
"Think of it? I think it is nothing but a lot of granite rubbish and
nasty glittering mica that isn't worth ten cents an acre!"
So vanished my dream. So melted my wealth away. So toppled my airy
castle to the earth and left me stricken and forlorn.
Moralizing, I observed, then, that "all that glitters is not gold."
Mr. Ballou said I could go further than that, and lay it up among my
treasures of knowledge, that nothing that glitters is gold. So I learned
then, once for all, that gold in its native state is but dull,
unornamental stuff, and that only low-born metals excite the admiration
of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of
the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of
mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that.