Read CHAPTER XXVIII - THE GOPHER of First Fam'lies of the Sierras, free online book, by Joaquin Miller, on

And do you remember the man they called The Gopher? Poor old Gopher! His was another story. He died before Baboon found his fortune, else they might have set up together, and behind their bull-dogs and grizzlies growled at the world a day or two with perfect satisfaction. But fate said otherwise.

The Gopher had always been misunderstood, even from the first. If the camp held him at arm’s length in the old days, it, as a rule, shunned him now, when new men came in, and murder began to be a word with a terrible meaning, and even the good Widow almost forgot him.

The camp went down, and cabins were deserted by hundreds. But there was one cabin that was never vacant; it stood apart from town, on the brown hill-side, and as it was one of the first, so it promised to be the last of the camp. It always had an ugly bull-dog tied to the door was itself a low, suspicious-looking structure that year by year sank lower as the grass grew taller around it, till it seemed trying to hide in the chaparral. It had but one occupant, a silent, selfish man, who never came out by day except to bury himself alone in his claim at work. Nothing was known of him at all, save the story that he had killed his partner in a gambling-house away back somewhere in ’51. He was shunned and feared by all, and he approached and spoke to no one except the butcher, the grocer, and expressman; and to these only briefly, on business. I believe, however, that the old cripple, Baboon, sometimes sat on the bank and talked to the murderer at work in his claim. It was even said that Baboon was on fair terms with the dog at the door.

This solitary man of the savage dog was, as you guess, “The Gopher.” That was not the name given him by his parents, but it was the name the camp had given him a generation before, and it was now the only name by which he was known. The amount of gold which he had hoarded and hidden away in that dismal old cabin, through years and years of incessant toil, was computed to be enormous.

Year after year the grass stole farther down from the hill-tops to which it had been driven, as it were, in the early settlement of the camp; at last it environed the few remaining cabins, as if they were besieged, and it stood up tall and undisturbed in the only remaining trail. Still regularly three times a day the smoke curled up from the Gopher’s cabin, and the bull-dog kept unbroken sentry at the door.

In the January spring that followed, the grass and clover crept down strong and thick from the hills, and spread in a pretty carpet across the unmeasured streets of the once populous and prosperous camp. Little gray horned toads sunned themselves on the great flat rocks that had served for hearth-stones, and the wild hop-vines clambered up and across the toppling and shapeless chimneys.

About this time a closely-contested election drew near. It was a bold and original thought of a candidate to approach the Gopher and solicit his vote. His friends shook their heads, but his case was desperate, and he ventured down upon the old gray cabin hiding in the grass and chaparral. The dog protested, and the office-seeker was proceeding to knock his ugly teeth down his throat with a pick-handle, when the door opened, and he found the muzzle of a double-barrelled shot-gun in his face. The candidate did not stay to urge his claims, and the Gopher’s politics remained a mystery.

Here in this land of the sun the days trench deep into the nights of northern countries, and birds and beasts retire before the sunset: a habit which the transplanted Saxon declines to adopt.

Some idlers sat at sunset on the verandah of the last saloon, looking down the gulch as the manzanita smoke curled up from the Gopher’s cabin.

There is an hour when the best that is in man comes to the surface; sometimes the outcroppings are not promising of any great inner wealth; but the indications, whatever they may be, are not false. It is dulse and drift coming to the surface when the storm of the day is over. Yet the best thoughts are never uttered; often because no fit words are found to array them in; oftener because no fit ear is found to receive them.

How lonesome it looked, that little storm-stained cabin thus alone, stooping down, hiding away in the long strong grass, as if half-ashamed of the mournful history of its sad and lonely occupant.

A sailor broke silence: “Looks like a Feejee camp on a South Sea island.”

“Robinson Crusoe the last man of the original camp the last rose of Summer.” This was said by a young man who had sent some verses to the Hangtown Weekly.

“Looks to me, in its crow’s nest of chaparral, like the lucky ace of spades,” added a man who sat apart contemplating the wax under the nail of his right fore-finger.

The schoolmaster here picked up the ace of hearts, drew out his pencil and figured rapidly.

“There!” he cried, flourishing the card, “I put it an ounce a day for eighteen years, and that is the result.” The figures astonished them all. It was decided that the old miser had at least a mule-load of gold in his cabin.

“It is my opinion,” said the new Squire, who was small of stature, and consequently insolent and impertinent, “he had ought to be taken up, tried, and hung for killing his pardner in ’51.”

“The time has run out,” said the Coroner, who now came up, adjusting a tall hat to which he was evidently not accustomed; “the time for such cases by the law made and provided has run out, and it is my opinion it can’t be did.”

Not long after this it was discovered that the Gopher was not at work. Then it came out that he was very ill, and that Old Baboon was seen to enter his cabin.