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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XLVIII. The Refuge of the Hills
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Those who remember Mark Twain's Enterprise letters (they are no longer
obtainable)--declare them to have been the greatest series of daily
philippics ever written. However this may be, it is certain that they
made a stir. Goodman permitted him to say absolutely what he pleased
upon any subject. San Francisco was fairly weltering in corruption,
official and private. He assailed whatever came first to hand with all
the fierceness of a flaming indignation long restrained.
Quite naturally he attacked the police, and with such ferocity and
penetration that as soon as copies of the Enterprise came from Virginia
the City Hall began to boil and smoke and threaten trouble. Martin G.
Burke, then chief of police, entered libel suit against the Enterprise,
prodigiously advertising that paper, copies of which were snatched as
soon as the stage brought them.
Mark Twain really let himself go then. He wrote a letter that on the
outside was marked, "Be sure and let Joe see this before it goes in."
He even doubted himself whether Goodman would dare to print it, after
reading. It was a letter describing the city's corrupt morals under the
existing police government. It began, "The air is full of lechery, and
rumors of lechery," and continued in a strain which made even the
Enterprise printers aghast.
"You can never afford to publish that," the foreman said to, Goodman.
"Let it all go in, every word," Goodman answered. "If Mark can stand it,
It seemed unfortunate (at the time) that Steve Gillis should select this
particular moment to stir up trouble that would involve both himself and
Clemens with the very officials which the latter had undertaken to
punish. Passing a saloon one night alone, Gillis heard an altercation
going on inside, and very naturally stepped in to enjoy it. Including
the barkeeper, there were three against two. Steve ranged himself on the
weaker side, and selected the barkeeper, a big bruiser, who, when the
fight was over, was ready for the hospital. It turned out that he was
one of Chief Burke's minions, and Gillis was presently indicted on a
charge of assault with intent to kill. He knew some of the officials in
a friendly way, and was advised to give a straw bond and go into
temporary retirement. Clemens, of course, went his bail, and Steve set
out for Virginia City, until the storm blew over.
This was Burke's opportunity. When the case was called and Gillis did
not appear, Burke promptly instituted an action against his bondsman,
with an execution against his loose property. The watch that had been
given him as Governor of the Third House came near being thus sacrificed
in the cause of friendship, and was only saved by skilful manipulation.
Now, it was down in the chain of circumstances that Steve Gillis's
brother, James N. Gillis, a gentle-hearted hermit, a pocket-miner of the
halcyon Tuolumne district--the Truthful James of Bret Harte--happened to
be in San Francisco at this time, and invited Clemens to return with him
to the far seclusion of his cabin on Jackass Hill. In that peaceful
retreat were always rest and refreshment for the wayfarer, and more than
one weary writer besides Bret Harte had found shelter there. James
Gillis himself had fine literary instincts, but he remained a pocket-
miner because he loved that quiet pursuit of gold, the Arcadian life, the
companionship of his books, the occasional Bohemian pilgrim who found
refuge in his retreat. It is said that the sick were made well, and the
well made better, in Jim Gillis's cabin on the hilltop, where the air was
nectar and the stillness like enchantment. One could mine there if he
wished to do so; Jim would always furnish him a promising claim, and
teach him the art of following the little fan-like drift of gold specks
to the nested deposit of nuggets somewhere up the hillside. He regularly
shared his cabin with one Dick Stoker (Dick Baker, of 'Roughing It'),
another genial soul who long ago had retired from the world to this
forgotten land, also with Dick's cat, Tom Quartz; but there was always
room for guests.
In 'Roughing It', and in a later story, "The Californian's Tale," Mark
Twain has made us acquainted with the verdant solitude of the Tuolumne
hills, that dreamy, delicious paradise where once a vast population had
gathered when placer-mining had been in its bloom, a dozen years before.
The human swarm had scattered when the washings failed to pay, leaving
only a quiet emptiness and the few pocket-miners along the Stanislaus and
among the hills. Vast areas of that section present a strange appearance
to-day. Long stretches there are, crowded and jammed and drifted with
ghostly white stones that stand up like fossils of a prehistoric life--
the earth deposit which once covered them entirely washed away, every
particle of it removed by the greedy hordes, leaving only this vast
bleaching drift, literally the "picked bones of the land." At one place
stands Columbia, regarded once as a rival to Sacramento, a possible State
capital--a few tumbling shanties now--and a ruined church.
It was the 4th of December, 1864, when Mark Twain arrived at Jim Gillis's
cabin. He found it a humble habitation made of logs and slabs, partly
sheltered by a great live-oak tree, surrounded by a stretch of grass.
It had not much in the way of pretentious furniture, but there was a
large fireplace, and a library which included the standard authors.
A younger Gillis boy, William, was there at this time, so that the family
numbered five in all, including Tom Quartz, the cat. On rainy days they
would gather about the big, open fire and Jim Gillis, with his back to
the warmth, would relate diverting yarns, creations of his own, turned
out hot from the anvil, forged as he went along. He had a startling
imagination, and he had fostered it in that secluded place. His stories
usually consisted of wonderful adventures of his companion, Dick Stoker,
portrayed with humor and that serene and vagrant fancy which builds as it
goes, careless as to whither it is proceeding and whether the story shall
end well or ill, soon or late, if ever. He always pretended that these
extravagant tales of Stoker were strictly true; and Stoker--"forty-six
and gray as a rat"--earnest, thoughtful, and tranquilly serene, would
smoke and look into the fire and listen to those astonishing things of
himself, smiling a little now and then but saying never a word. What did
it matter to him? He had no world outside of the cabin and the hills, no
affairs; he would live and die there; his affairs all had ended long ago.
A number of the stories used in Mark Twain's books were first told by Jim
Gillis, standing with his hands crossed behind him, back to the fire, in
the cabin on jackass Hill. The story of Dick Baker's cat was one of
these; the jaybird and Acorn story of 'A Tramp Abroad' was another; also
the story of the "Burning Shame," and there are others. Mark Twain had
little to add to these stories; in fact, he never could get them to sound
as well, he said, as when Jim Gillis had told them.
James Gillis's imagination sometimes led him into difficulties. Once a
feeble old squaw came along selling some fruit that looked like green
plums. Stoker, who knew the fruit well enough, carelessly ventured the
remark that it might be all right, but he had never heard of anybody
eating it, which set Gillis off into eloquent praises of its delights,
all of which he knew to be purely imaginary; whereupon Stoker told him if
he liked the fruit so well, to buy some of it. There was no escape after
that; Jim had to buy some of those plums, whose acid was of the hair-
lifting aqua-fortis variety, and all the rest of the day he stewed them,
adding sugar, trying to make them palatable, tasting them now and then,
boasting meanwhile of their nectar-like deliciousness. He gave the
others a taste by and by--a withering, corroding sup--and they derided
him and rode him down. But Jim never weakened. He ate that fearful
brew, and though for days his mouth was like fire he still referred to
the luscious health-giving joys of the "Californian plums."
Jackass Hill was not altogether a solitude; here and there were
neighbors. Another pocket-miner; named Carrington, had a cabin not far
away, and a mile or two distant lived an old couple with a pair of pretty
daughters, so plump and trim and innocent, that they were called the
"Chapparal Quails." Young men from far and near paid court to them, and
on Sunday afternoons so many horses would be tied to their front fence as
to suggest an afternoon service there. Young "Billy" Gillis knew them,
and one Sunday morning took his brother's friend, Sam Clemens, over for a
call. They went early, with forethought, and promptly took the girls for
a walk. They took a long walk, and went wandering over the hills, toward
Sandy Bar and the Stanislaus--through that reposeful land which Bret
Harte would one day light with idyllic romance--and toward evening found
themselves a long way from home. They must return by the nearest way to
arrive before dark. One of the young ladies suggested a short cut
through the Chemisal, and they started. But they were lost, presently,
and it was late, very late, when at last they reached the ranch. The
mother of the "Quails" was sitting up for them, and she had something to
say. She let go a perfect storm of general denunciation, then narrowed
the attack to Samuel Clemens as the oldest of the party. He remained
"It wasn't my fault," he ventured at last; "it was Billy Gillis's fault."
"No such thing. You know better. Mr. Gillis has been here often. It
"But do you realize, ma'am, how tired and hungry we are? Haven't you got
a bite for us to eat?"
"No, sir, not a bite--for such as you."
The offender's eyes, wandering about the room, spied something in a
"Isn't that a guitar over there?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, it is; what of it?"
The culprit walked over, and taking it up, tuned the strings a little and
struck the chords. Then he began to sing. He began very softly and sang
"Fly Away, Pretty Moth," then "Araby's Daughter." He could sing very
well in those days, following with the simpler chords. Perhaps the
mother "Quail" had known those songs herself back in the States, for her
manner grew kindlier, almost with the first notes. When he had finished
she was the first to ask him to go on.
"I suppose you are just like all young folks," she said. "I was young
myself once. While you sing I'll get some supper."
She left the door to the kitchen open so that she could hear, and cooked
whatever she could find for the belated party.