Dick Baker’s Cat

a reflection by Cantinker Moss

A day is coming, when, in the eye of the law, literary property will be as sacred as whisky, or any other of the necessaries of life.” —Mark Twain

(“Everything Mark Twain wrote that was published before 1923 is now in the public domain and therefore may be freely quoted or reproduced in its entirety, without permission or fees. ” See more about copyright and permissions from the Mark Twain Project of the University of California at Berkeley. http://www.marktwainproject.org/copyright.shtml http://www.marktwainproject.org/homepage.html

Note: Roughing It was published in February 1872.)

Earlier in this blog, I wrote about my beloved cat, Sergeant Gumball. (My great American buddy, June 12, 2018) and before that, an original poem, From an American poet: Cat, Feb. 22, 2018.) So you can see I have an affinity with cats. What I never before realized is that Mark Twain also loved them.

While Twain entered into the world of literature with his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in 1865, his longer account, Roughing It, revealed a “Wild West” tapestry of land, legend and people…barely after the Civil War ended. It is on this tapestry we find miner Dick Baker and his remarkable cat, Tom Quartz

I first read this several years ago, and I still find myself laughing whenever I read it. First, the frontier vernacular is exemplary. Consider the following, in all its Twainian glory:

“…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. “

Second, Twain was an author and knew the elements of literature. Case in point—Irony. Why would a cat be named Tom Quartz, when quartz mining was the undoing of him.

Finally, and this is what has made “Dick Baker’s Cat” so memorable. When Tom Quartz is minding his own business, asleep on the gunnysack, and Dick and Jim light the fuse to blast the quartz shaft, forgetting that Tom is there, a scene, reminiscent of slapstick unfolds. It is not unlike the dog without hind legs who defeats the dog needing to fight a dog with hind legs in a battle of attrition, or a frog full of quail-shot who suddenly can’t jump and turns out not to be the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” It seems that Twain’s literature is full of these kinds of eye-openers . I once taught A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and I made an emphasis at the end of the book when The Boss builds his electric fence, and electrocutes the knights—only to find the bodies stacked up around them with no way of getting out. This was not unlike Hiroshima, and the trap of dead bodies: the Atomic Age/Cold War in which we find ourselves presently.

(Oh, one other thing. In the papers from the University of California, there are a number of brackets and incidents of type, all related to academic notes. In my judgement, the reader of this post is not interested in that extra baggage but would rather enjoy the story as a casual reader. And by no means does a casual reading of “Dick Baker’s Cat” subtract any enjoyment from the story. Any way you read it, you can’t help but see the genius of Twain. (No wonder that William Dean Howells called him the “Lincoln of Our Literature.”) So if you need to write a thesis about Roughing It, and need to explore the “behind the scenes” of the novel, (Dick Baker is based upon a miner whose actual name was Dick Stoker.) I recommend the text and annotations from the Mark Twain Project Online ( http://www.marktwainproject.org/homepage.html ) of the University Of California, which I have used extensively here.

So enough analysis—let’s enjoy “Dick Baker’s Cat.”

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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-Horse 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—maybe 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 a interest in I reckon—most anybody 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 a 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, by an’ by, up comes this yer quartz excitement. Everybody was into it—everybody was pick’n’ ’n’ blast’n’ instead of shovelin’ dirt on the hillside—everybody 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 anything. 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.an advantage taken. 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, maybe 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.

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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.

“That was jest his style. An’ maybe 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’ by 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.

At the end of two months we had never “struck” a pocket. We had panned up and down the hillsides till they looked plowed like a field; we could have put in a crop of grain, then, but there would have been no way to get it to market. We got many good “prospects,” but when the gold gave out in the pan and we dug down, hoping and longing, we found only emptiness—the pocket that should have been there was as barren as our own. At last we shouldered our pans and shovels and struck out over the hills to try new localities.  We prospected around Angel’s Camp, in Calaveras County, during three weeks, but had no success. Then we wandered on foot among the mountains, sleeping under the trees at night, for the weather was mild, but still we remained as centless as the last rose of summer. That is a poor joke, but it is in pathetic harmony with the circumstances, since we were so poor ourselves. In accordance with the custom of the country, our door had always stood open and our board welcome to tramping miners—they drifted along nearly every day, dumped their post shovels by the threshold and took “pot luck” with us—and now on our own tramp we never found cold hospitality.

Our wanderings were wide and in many directions; and now I could give the reader a vivid description of the Big Trees and the marvels of the Yo Semite—but what has this reader done to me that I should persecute him? I will deliver him into the hands of less conscientious tourists and take his blessing. Let me be charitable, though I fail in all virtues else.

Some of the phrases in the above are mining technicalities, purely, and may be a little obscure to the general reader. In “placer diggings” the gold is scattered all through the surface dirt; in “pocket” diggings it is concentrated in one little spot; in “quartz” the gold is in a solid, continuous vein of rock, enclosed between distinct walls of some other kind of stone—and this is the most laborious and expensive of all the different kinds of mining. “Prospecting” is hunting for a “placer;” “indications” are signs of its presence; “panning out” refers to the washing process by which the grains of gold are separated from the dirt; a “prospect” is what one finds in the first panful of dirt—and its value determines whether it is a good or a bad prospect, and whether it is worth while to tarry there or seek further.

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