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The Call of Gold (1936) by Newell D. Chamberlain


There were many miners who enjoyed the wealth produced by their mines, but there were others, who perhaps owned rich mines but their wealth was only enjoyed in thought. Of such, is the following story and although the author was intimately acquainted with the character, the details were not pieced together until after his death.

“Mariposa Al”, so-called by many of his friends, was old in years but young in spirit. He lived in the future and trusted in his God of Hope to always lead him on but of his past he never spoke.

His father was one of the early-day miners but Al did not like the mining camp environment, so when he was old enough, he went to the city and learned to be a pattern maker. After he became a journeyman, in this line, he decided to see the United States, and he became a member of the army of tramp tradesmen. He experienced many hardships but when necessary, he was usually able to find a job. Owners of shops liked to hire these tramp tradesmen, whenever a vacancy occurred or extra help was needed, for they were generally good experienced men; in fact, they had to be or starve.

At one time, over a period of several months, Al was jobless. His clothes and shoes were practically worn out and he presented such a woe-begone spectacle that possible employers, at a glance, turned him down. While camping in a hobo rendezvous one evening, he learned that in the adjacent city, there was a kindly priest, who sometimes helped needy persons by supplying them with clothes. Immediately, he visited the priest, who asked him many questions and gave him some excellent advice. “As to clothes”, he said, “I will go up into the attic and see what I can find in your size.” He returned with a Prince Albert suit and a pair of shoes. Al hesitated to accept this contribution for fear he would be taken as a masquerader. But he needed the clothes and agreed in exchange to leave his old clothes with the priest, as thereby the temptation, a little later, to sell the new clothes would be avoided.

Clad in his Prince Albert, Al visited a number of shops, hunting a job and aroused great amusement among the workers. Employers were afraid to hire him, thinking him “nutty”. In desperation, one day, he gladly traded this garb for a shiny, worn, blue-serge suit, belonging to a sign painter. He soon found a job and life again was worth living.

It has been said many times, concerning the son of a gold-miner, that, even though he tries to evade his heritage, the inward call will come and lead him back to the mines; in other words, the mining bug in his blood will get him. The call of the mines was in Al’s blood and finally he started westward. While in Salt Lake City, he made a visit to a gypsy fortune teller.

She told him to stay away from relatives, forget that he had any brothers or sisters, go out to California, roam awhile through the gold regions and that he would come across a ledge, sticking out of the ground, with gold in it. It would be near a creek and close to the outcroppings there would be a massive oak tree. He should start a tunnel into the hill, build his cabin, make his trails, and that some day, a little, weasled old man would come walking up the trail and buy the mine at a price that would enable him to live comfortably the balance of his life.

Coming to Mariposa County, he, within a few years, found a ledge answering the description given by the gypsy fortune teller. Purposely failing to inform any of his relatives as to his whereabouts, he went each year to San Francisco and worked awhile at his trade, until he had accumulated about five hundred dollars. Then, according to the lady who managed the boarding house, where he stayed, a peculiar look would come into his eyes and he would act like a little, sheepish child. In a few days he would master enough courage to say to her, “The mine is calling me. I

Re-union of old-timers at Hornitos. Front row, left to right: Ralph W. Barcroft, Al Sylvester, Sam Collier, Joseph 'Joe' Spagnoli, Nathaniel 'Nat' Bailey, Tom Thorn, Robert Arthur, and Tom 'Spanish Tom' Williams, rear row: Henry Nelson, Smith Thomas, John Branson, William Dennis, Ben A. Shepard, G. Gagliardo, Jim D. Craighan, Moses L. Rodgers
[click to enlarge]
Re-union of old-timers at Hornitos.
[Editor’s note: Taken in front of Ralph Barcroft’s Hornitos Saloon, 1890. Left to right, front row: Ralph Wood Barcroft, Alexander “Al” Sylvester, Sam Collier, Joseph “Joe” Spagnoli, Nathaniel “Nat” Bailey, Tom Thorn, Robert Arthur, and Tom “Spanish Tom” Williams.
Rear row: Henry Nelson, W. Smith Thomas, John Branson, William Dennis, Ben A. Shepard, Guiseppe Gagliardo, Jim D. Craighan, Moses L. Rodgers [black] —dea]

guess, I will have to go”.

Generally, he lived alone in his cabin and cooked his own meals. On one occasion, however, and on one only, he shared his cabin with another miner. His friend did the cooking while Al washed and dried the dishes and kept the cabin clean, for cleanliness was almost an obsession with him. He, really, was meant to live alone, for he was so fussy, and at times, became sore at his friend, if everything was not done just right.

Then the two refused to speak to each other for weeks. Each went about doing his part of the work, without a word to the other, but they each talked, in turns, to the large gray cat, which shared the cabin.

The cat showed no preference, for one night it slept on Al’s bed and the following night on the friend’s cot. It was amusing to hear first one and then the other conversing with the cat. Finally, the ridiculousness of the situation dawned upon the men and they became on speaking terms again.

Possible buyers came, from time to time, to see the mine. Al took great pleasure in showing the property. He would take samples from the ledge, pound them up fine in a large mortar, then pan the pulverized material and display the grains of gold. Several times, he signed papers, giving a lease and bond on the mine, but a sale never materialized, principally because he did everything to discourage a deal, after it was started. Then, when a deal was declared off, he appeared to be the happiest.

At these times, he would say, “The right man hasn’t come along yet”. Evidently, he was waiting for the little, weasled, old man, as described by the gypsy fortune teller. Year after year passed; he became older and crankier, especially in respect to his mine. Frequently, he wrote to the daughter of the boarding-house manager, in San Francisco. She read one of the letters to her father, which said, “I have a buyer coming in about a week, whom I am sure will buy my mine.” The father replied, “That’s just what he wrote you fifteen years ago”. Every letter was the same, “The right man is soon coming to buy my mine”.

More years passed and he found himself unable to go below to work at his trade and earn the five hundred dollar stake. He really suffered from the lack of some of the necessities of life, although his friends gave him everything he asked for, for he was a loveable, kindly man. But he still lived on hope and never for a moment, became discouraged. He always said to his friends, “Everything is fine. It will only be a few weeks, when the right buyer will come and then everything will be jake.” And he said it, with such a sweet smile, that no one could doubt but that he believed the truth of his remark. Finally, it became necessary to take him to a hospital, where in a few months, he passed away.

His was a large funeral. To the surprise of everyone, two of his brothers were present. They had been looking for him for twenty years. Both lived within a few hours run of his mine and one had passed his hospital the day before he died. A neighbor of one, noticing an item, in a city paper, about the death of Mariposa Al and giving the date of the funeral, had communicated the news.

Faithfully observing the instructions of the gypsy fortune teller, he had, until death, successfully kept his whereabouts unknown to his relatives. One of the brothers was a weasled, old man, with white hair and a kindly, intelligent face, which was almost an image of Al’s, in his last years at the mine. This brother said, “I have been looking for my brother for many years and worried about him, wondering if he was in need. I have plenty of money and would have gladly purchased the mine at a price that would have enabled him to live out his life in comfort”.

Al left a will, naming, out of the sale of the mine, several five hundred dollar bequests to children, whom he had known for years, and the balance to the daughter of his boarding-house friend. The will stated that should any relatives show up, they were to receive one dollar each.

He may have been happy in following the instructions of the gypsy fortune teller and dying with his mine unsold, but what a different story could have been written, had he not been advised to keep aloof from his own kin. So far as could be found out, there had never been any trouble between him and his brothers, and the little, weasled, old man, his own brother, had been waiting for years to walk up the trail, along the creek, to the big oak tree, if Mariposa Al had only informed his brother where he was. His wealth, left in the ground proved a great benefit to his successors, while the only pleasure he received from it was in his own mind.

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