As I have been putting the finishing touches on my curriculum – California Out of the Box – one of the wonderful resources that I stumbled across are selections from Mark Twain’s epic journey out west written between 1870-71, chronicled in his book Roughing It. This book recounts his stagecoach journey from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento. One of my favorite stories is about an opinionated, tenacious miner’s cat, Tom Quartz.
One of my comrades there—another of those victims of eighteen years of unrequited toil and blighted hopes—was one of the gentlest spirits that ever bore its patient cross in a weary exile: grave and simple Dick Baker, pocket-miner of Dead-House Gulch.—He was forty-six, gray as a rat, earnest, thoughtful, slenderly educated, slouchily dressed and clay- soiled, but his heart was finer metal than any gold his shovel ever brought to light—than any, indeed, that ever was mined or minted.
Whenever he was out of luck and a little down-hearted, he would fall to mourning over the loss of a wonderful cat he used to own (for where women and children are not, men of kindly impulses take up with pets, for they must love something). And he always spoke of the strange sagacity of that cat with the air of a man who believed in his secret heart that there was something human about it—may be even supernatural.
I heard him talking about this animal once. He said:
“Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you’d a took an interest in I reckon—most any body would. I had him here eight year—and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large gray one of the Tom specie, an’ he had more hard, natchral sense than any man in this camp—’n’ a power of dignity—he wouldn’t let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life—’peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever, ever see. You couldn’t tell him noth’n ’bout placer diggin’s—’n’ as for pocket mining, why he was just born for it.
“He would dig out after me an’ Jim when we went over the hills prospect’n’, and he would trot along behind us for as much as five mile, if we went so fur. An’ he had the best judgment about mining ground—why you never see anything like it. When we went to work, he’d scatter a glance around, ’n’ if he didn’t think much of the indications, he would give a look as much as to say, ‘Well, I’ll have to get you to excuse me,’ ’n’ without another word he’d hyste his nose into the air ’n’ shove for home. But if the ground suited him, he would lay low ’n’ keep dark till the first pan was washed, ’n’ then he would sidle up ’n’ take a look, an’ if there was about six or seven grains of gold he was satisfied—he didn’t want no better prospect ’n’ that—’n’ then he would lay down on our coats and snore like a steamboat till we’d struck the pocket, an’ then get up ’n’ superintend. He was nearly lightnin’ on superintending.
“Well, bye an’ bye, up comes this yer quartz excitement. Every body was into it—every body was pick’n’ ’n’ blast’n’ instead of shovelin’ dirt on the hill side—every body was put’n’ down a shaft instead of scrapin’ the surface. Noth’n’ would do Jim, but we must tackle the ledges, too, ’n’ so we did. We commenced put’n’ down a shaft, ’n’ Tom Quartz he begin to wonder what in the Dickens it was all about. He hadn’t ever seen any mining like that before, ’n’ he was all upset, as you may say—he couldn’t come to a right understanding of it no way—it was too many for him. He was down on it, too, you bet you—he was down on it powerful—’n’ always appeared to consider it the cussedest foolishness out. But that cat, you know, was always agin new fangled arrangements—somehow he never could abide’em. You know how it is with old habits. But by an’ by Tom Quartz begin to git sort of reconciled a little, though he never could altogether understand that eternal sinkin’ of a shaft an’ never pannin’ out any thing. At last he got to comin’ down in the shaft, hisself, to try to cipher it out. An’ when he’d git the blues, ’n’ feel kind o’scruffy, ’n’ aggravated ’n’ disgusted—knowin’ as he did, that the bills was runnin’ up all the time an’ we warn’t makin’ a cent—he would curl up on a gunny sack in the corner an’ go to sleep. Well, one day when the shaft was down about eight foot, the rock got so hard that we had to put in a blast—the first blast’n’ we’d ever done since Tom Quartz was born. An’ then we lit the fuse ’n’ clumb out ’n’ got off ’bout fifty yards—’n’ forgot ’n’ left Tom Quartz sound asleep on the gunny sack.
“In ’bout a minute we seen a puff of smoke bust up out of the hole, ’n’ then everything let go with an awful crash, ’n’ about four million ton of rocks ’n’ dirt ’n’ smoke ’n; splinters shot up ’bout a mile an’ a half into the air, an’ by George, right in the dead centre of it was old Tom Quartz a goin’ end over end, an’ a snortin’ an’ a sneez’n’, an’ a clawin’ an’ a reachin’ for things like all possessed. But it warn’t no use, you know, it warn’t no use. An’ that was the last we see of him for about two minutes ’n’ a half, an’ then all of a sudden it begin to rain rocks and rubbage, an’ directly he come down ker-whop about ten foot off f’m where we stood Well, I reckon he was p’raps the orneriest lookin’ beast you ever see. One ear was sot back on his neck, ’n’ his tail was stove up, ’n’ his eye-winkers was swinged off, ’n’ he was all blacked up with powder an’ smoke, an’ all sloppy with mud ’n’ slush f’m one end to the other.
“Well sir, it warn’t no use to try to apologize—we couldn’t say a word. He took a sort of a disgusted look at hisself, ’n’ then he looked at us—an’ it was just exactly the same as if he had said—’Gents, may be you think it’s smart to take advantage of a cat that ’ain’t had no experience of quartz minin’, but I think different’—an’ then he turned on his heel ’n’ marched off home without ever saying another word.
“That was jest his style. An’ may be you won’t believe it, but after that you never see a cat so prejudiced agin quartz mining as what he was. An’ by an’ bye when he did get to goin’ down in the shaft agin, you’d ’a been astonished at his sagacity. The minute we’d tetch off a blast ’n’ the fuse’d begin to sizzle, he’d give a look as much as to say: ’Well, I’ll have to git you to excuse me,’ an’ it was surpris’n’ the way he’d shin out of that hole ’n’ go f’r a tree. Sagacity? It ain’t no name for it. ’Twas inspiration!”
I said, “Well, Mr. Baker, his prejudice against quartz-mining was remarkable, considering how he came by it. Couldn’t you ever cure him of it?”
“Cure him! No! When Tom Quartz was sot once, he was always sot—and you might a blowed him up as much as three million times ’n’ you’d never a broken him of his cussed prejudice agin quartz mining.”
The affection and the pride that lit up Baker’s face when he delivered this tribute to the firmness of his humble friend of other days, will always be a vivid memory with me.
Project Gutenberg. (n.d.). Retrieved July 16, 2018, from www.gutenberg.org.
Incidentally, this passage can also be found on a free online source which features quality audio recordings of works in the public domain, called Librivox. To try it out, hit Librivox, Roughing It, Chapter 61 (this selection will run from 0-7:35). Also, copies of this book and many other works in the public domain can be downloaded for free at Project Gutenberg.