The Pewter Eye was the first saloon in Judas Gulch. From the earliest point, when all he had was a wagon with six jugs of whiskey and a flap awning thet propped itself a little half-cocked along the sideboard, Ole Ollarud the barkeep was quite the popular man. Within a month of his opening shop, as they termed it, and sleeping on a mat inside where he’d rearranged things “just so”, Ole had been able to get some “critters” together to help him build a right an’ proper saloon hall. Didn’t matter that the front of it stuck up a good six feet over the real ceiling—he were the man of the hour, and his aqua vitae was the next nearest thing to mother’s milk for the weary, the teary, and the beery of Judas Gulch, fresh off the strike with coins to blow. Ollarud kept a scale behind the bar too in case he had some customers didn’t think to get their dough converted by the assyers first (this was ackshully a common condition—the nearest assyers was in Marysville or Hangtown or Sackaminnow, and many of them being as weary and teary and beery as they were, were in hardly the shape to get all the way to one of these places by the time they pulled up at Farplay, which warnt thet far as it were.
Outside, the Pewter Eye was a common storefront, except it had the swingin’ doors common to saloons and its sign hung dolorously over the slat boards making up the front walk. From the sign beamed down ominously the very mystic Eye of the Republic— the same indeed that graced the back of ever’ Uncle Sam dollar—and reminded ever citizen of Judas Gulch that someone, whether it was God or the Govamint, was always watching everything they did, and every move they made. It helped old Ollarud sometimes just by its being there to keep some common civil manners between one customer to another. Maybe it helped Sheriff Neatness, too, in its own way. But on the other hand, there was plenty of fellows who saw the Eye of the Pewter Eye as nothing but blind to earth and heaven, a paper tiger, a useless threat, a symbol of nothing so much as ignorant bliss yet a place where the welcome mat was always out, and where good company (or worse) could always be found.
Beginning in October of Forty-Nine, the rains of winter hinted first but a few days precognition of what might come later. Rain fell two weeks early in San Francisco, breaking the idyll of Indian Summer a bit too soon. Normally the squash harvest might have taken place first— now the squash lie in the muddy fields, their bottoms turned white and began a slow mildew to accompany the ripening. Half of them would need be thrown away— hard luck for miners who had barely seen vegetables nor fruits for much of summer- partly due to a lack of supply, but also, what supply there may have been was rendered dear by scarcity.
These few rains were accompanied in the gold country and Sierras by much larger systems, of course. It always seemed that’s how they came. The four days of rain San Francisco saw was doubled at Judas Gulch, and there was even the start of a snow pack on the Sierra. Then a false grace, while nature regathered her breath, and when she returned the first week of November it was with a vengeance rarely seen until the end of the century.
Thirty-three inches of rain for San Francisco, and near to a half-that and more at Judas Gulch. Those miners attempted to remain on the Columns found shambles where their Toms had been left at the banks. Splintered remnants of sluices and rockers and uprooted claim stakes. The river rose a good eight feet, sweeping all evidence of activity, as if the banks themselves were a fallow field, and the river a scouring plow.
Men took shelter as they could. Those who had not been able to gather and construct cabins made pitiful canvas tenets of duck and attempted a vain waterproofing with cans of paint or shellac. Where men had means or a ken to, they nestled together in bunches of four and five, huddled out of the rain, or wasted against the trunks of trees, they shivered in their damp work clothes. The first use of a blanket would not have been warmth but to keep out the wet. The relentless endless wet, that rotted the flesh on the feet and left them riddled, pickled, and brined.
Beyond the need for shelter there was the problem of getting here or there. Streets that in summer ran with clodden dust now turned to streams of mud— ever-present, thick, deepening mud, made soup like by the tread of horses and carts and stages and wagons, and the man who could still claim his boots wore a shine was a liar. No foot escaped. Some boots were even sucked off by the mud. In San Francisco men took stocks of ruined tobacco and threw the tins into the knee-deep mud to construct attempted sidewalks, but even these were not enough, without ripping precious planking from the very shelters, or sideboard walls of the few real wooden houses, to make walkways.
As the rain, snow, hail and sleet fell across the northern mountains and foothills, it packed itself into tall and deep drifts which were bound to swell the now raging white waters even fuller. Not until April would come a relief on the riverbanks. Those who held claims worked out means of holding on, for to be absent one’s claim for a week was to invite parsimony, and new claimants on one’s hard-bitten land. If men were honest, it was an honesty born of the dolorous pleasantry of six-shooters and threats of what might come about should one be anything but. And yet still the lure of the mines deepened, beckoned, brought more and more tenderfeet to be broken to the laws of luck and risk and prospect and chance.
One day I helped Nicletto git his stuff on down to Hangtown m’self. Twas about two pounds in all o’ dust he’ saved up an’ kept it in a little tea caddy til he had what was a might fine and hefty sum. He says, I wanchoo t’ come with me, Sardo, an’ you take yer pinto and I’ll take Jezebel muh mule, and we’ll go down t’ the assyers and I’ll git this dust cashed in, and have a roll. A course I thinks I needja with me so I kin be safe. Ain’t no tellin’ what’s out thar on the roads.
Was true, was no tellin what dainjer might face a man, specially a man all laid up and burden down with gold. I figgered in that there 2 pounds that Nicetto must have had some two hunnert fifty dollars— ain’t a lot but its sure enough fer some men to thank about makin improvements.
So I agreed I would help him git guarded on his way to Hangtown, ef he would buy me a shot of Wise Ass at the saloon when we gits thar. He nodded and we set out then on a Saturdy afternoon.
Was a real pleasant like Saturdy too, an’ thar wuz hawks a flyin up thar in the hot blue sky an’ the sun pour’n down like silver gold, and everthing was like it was just orter be. I dunno eff any of you peoples can imajin what them days was like, before thar wuz trains or horseliss cairjus nor no stuff like that, but thet road to Hangtown wuz dusty, hot, an’ culd be outright miserble, even eff it were a pleasant and beautiful drive t’ git thar.
Which we did, a course, and we decidet t’ stay at the Hotel Flea Bag when we got thar an’ come back on the followin mornin’, since who could resist a Saturdy night in Hangtown? I reckon not too many redblooded men.
When we got ‘ the assy office we found the Assyer about to close up, but he gladly took us in. The gold was set in the scale, and Nicletto kept a sharp eye was no dust fallin’ in the cracks or flyin’ away with a sneeze or nothin’. Yep, it was jest like I said, he would git his two hunnert fifty dollers. Ackshully Nicletto bein’ of the old school he took it in mostly Spanish Reals, and he gimme one jest for comin along.
Then we headed for the real biness, and that was the Firewall Saloon which were next to the Flea Bag. Inside it were like a real hoedown goin’ on. I guess it were one of Ninefinger Ned and Johhny Spondino’s little wingdings, but there they wuz, playin on their git-tars, and Hog Wald blowin his harmonicer and they even had Pearl Genull settin’ in with them, and of course, Pearl bein’ the great attraction she wuz, all them mens inside wuz hollerin’ and screamin’ an’ carryin on in as much a ruckus as Pearl.
Boy I tell ya there warn’t no other woman ever could sing like that girl Pearl. Some said “that ain’t singin that’s screamin!” But she could carry a tune good and she put her heart and tit into everthing and that were no exaggerations. She belted out a tune about a pore girl in love with a ball an’ chain shackled round her pore little heart, and dang if Ninefinger Ned didn’t play his git-tar behind her like to make you fit to cry! Hog Wald blew his harmonicer with the wind of a wizard, an behind them playin’ the drums wuz Crustyman, who I guess wuz rather new to the goldfields, since he wore his har rather shorter an’ dressed like a pinky dew sailor right off the Chilly boat. I dint mention it none but thar was English Edward, too, over in the corner but pumpin on the pianner and makin’ everone jes’ go crazy.
Cuz when Pearl sang, you jest had to smile, and feel your little Willy go all hard up inside and make you want to send yer brains war yer imagination only could travel. Especially with no other wimmins around! Yep, she had her har done up in a boo-font and wore sum painted fethers around her neck an’ Mardis Gras beads an’ highheel slippers.
When they would finsh a number, Jonny Spondino, Ned, and the drummer would sneak off into a corner and smoke the Messican cuerda, and then they’d all come back laughing, and set up for another tune. It was kinda funny but I don’t think I ever saw them two togeher they wasn’t hyped up on that Messican weed. I heared that even the Messicans was a feared of Ned, wth is fearsome reputation as a consumpter of that wicked stuff, but eff you knew Ned you knew it were but a big bluff (and a goo one) cause it kept the interlopers off his case.
We set thar and Nicletto got me the drink o’ Wise Ass he promised me and we heard about seven or eight more tunes, most of them with Pearl singin’, but a couple of ‘em was sung by Hog. Hog could be fierce to look at, but like Ninefinger Ned, it were his image only, and it kept the botherers from be-botherin’ him. He wore his har long like a Injun and had a funny mustache like a Chinee, an’ he wore a vest was designed with a hole in the arms frayed on the edges, and all kinds of buttons and ins from strange organizations, like the Masons and the Odd Brothers and much more all pinned over it. He wore thick boots too, with straps across the tongue, and tucked his duck trowzers into that. He looked to lots a people liked he coulda use a bath, but then so did everone else up har in them days, and weren’t no Aunt Sally round to give him no grief for it.
Hog Wald played a kinda music I guess them Suthrun and Jamjob boys mighta called it “nigger music” but it were very soulful and he learned all the tunes down south himself he like to tell us. I guess there were no gainsayin the voic e of experience, and what the hell did Suthrun and Jamjob know about music anyway? (So Nicletto said, when I broached upon the subjeck in our conversation.) I swore as I sipped my Wise Ass that, yep, when you wants an original rendition of a great old traditional tune, Hog Wald sure could play the blues.
Well then, it were only headed into the first munths of summer but Cakey tole ever one he had made his pile and set to take off now back fer the Sanwich Islands. He tole me et were a good time I should git down to Frisco too afore the winter an’ all an maybe I culd see bit more of the place. We set out fer Sackaminnow with hiz dawg Scratch besides us and dang if when we it ta Scakaminow but he takes thet loyl ole dawg an’ sells him to sum Chinaman. Don’t feel much like thinkin bout thet dawg much any more, cuz it real jes makes me shudder... We catcheted thet ferryboat tho and come down the Delta agin. I seen from the marsh plants even they wuz startin ta turn a bit yeller. I wondered a bit whut it musta bin like fer the Injuns round hear afore the white man come. Cuz it were mighty spooky on thet Delta, when alls you kin see is about ten feet in front of you, then thet ole fog jes covers the world.
When the rains came, the rivers rose, and there was little work anyone could do (once one had seen to saving one’s life from a sudden drowning) until the spring, when the trickles of snowmelt tapered down to a reasonable level, and the banks of the rivers could once more be panned for fresh nuggets, swept down from their lode-veins by the inexorable dripping waterfalls, streams, creeks, and freshets. Gold-leaved oaks that had been shed in the fall put out new green thorny leaves, puffballs hung precariously over moss-carpeted branches, madrones and mountain laurels and ponderosa pines freely bent to the calmer breezes which swept east from the Pacific and brought with them the morning fogs which departed when the sun had risen no higher than ten...
All along the river banks, if men had not moved their sluice gear and rocker-boxes, the wrack and flotsam from upstream lay smashed or scattered in crazy heaps as though giants had been playing with tinker toys, and thrown delicious tantrums. Huts or tents which had not been placed a good ten feet above summer’s waterline would be swept along themselves, and often, one man’s shack of last year made the roof of another’s for the new one. Veterans of prior winters snickered at the bad luck of newcomers who hadn’t taken the time to site themselves proper to the whims of the waters. Sardo Pat was one of those who had placed his own shack in a good spot, for once he had seen the river running full and strong, he knew that there could be but one safe spot for him- up the hill behind the town, and he could walk to his claim in the morning, he didn’t mind the budging, because the coyote hole was high enough above the waterline it could be worked at any time of year and it kept him busy, and he kept bringing out the scales.
The sweet air always seemed to be singing with sounds of birds he knew and didn’t know, but they all made pretty music, and the dew was always sparkling in the early sunlight.