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    Chapter XXXVI

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    Chapter 40
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    I had already learned how hard and long and dismal a task it is to burrow
    down into the bowels of the earth and get out the coveted ore; and now I
    learned that the burrowing was only half the work; and that to get the
    silver out of the ore was the dreary and laborious other half of it.
    We had to turn out at six in the morning and keep at it till dark.
    This mill was a six-stamp affair, driven by steam. Six tall, upright
    rods of iron, as large as a man's ankle, and heavily shod with a mass of
    iron and steel at their lower ends, were framed together like a gate, and
    these rose and fell, one after the other, in a ponderous dance, in an
    iron box called a "battery." Each of these rods or stamps weighed six
    hundred pounds. One of us stood by the battery all day long, breaking up
    masses of silver-bearing rock with a sledge and shoveling it into the
    battery. The ceaseless dance of the stamps pulverized the rock to
    powder, and a stream of water that trickled into the battery turned it to
    a creamy paste. The minutest particles were driven through a fine wire
    screen which fitted close around the battery, and were washed into great
    tubs warmed by super-heated steam--amalgamating pans, they are called.
    The mass of pulp in the pans was kept constantly stirred up by revolving
    "mullers." A quantity of quicksilver was kept always in the battery, and
    this seized some of the liberated gold and silver particles and held on
    to them; quicksilver was shaken in a fine shower into the pans, also,
    about every half hour, through a buckskin sack. Quantities of coarse
    salt and sulphate of copper were added, from time to time to assist the
    amalgamation by destroying base metals which coated the gold and silver
    and would not let it unite with the quicksilver.

    All these tiresome things we had to attend to constantly. Streams of
    dirty water flowed always from the pans and were carried off in broad
    wooden troughs to the ravine. One would not suppose that atoms of gold
    and silver would float on top of six inches of water, but they did; and
    in order to catch them, coarse blankets were laid in the troughs, and
    little obstructing "riffles" charged with quicksilver were placed here
    and there across the troughs also. These riffles had to be cleaned and
    the blankets washed out every evening, to get their precious
    accumulations--and after all this eternity of trouble one third of the
    silver and gold in a ton of rock would find its way to the end of the
    troughs in the ravine at last and have to be worked over again some day.
    There is nothing so aggravating as silver milling. There never was any
    idle time in that mill. There was always something to do. It is a pity
    that Adam could not have gone straight out of Eden into a quartz mill, in
    order to understand the full force of his doom to "earn his bread by the
    sweat of his brow." Every now and then, during the day, we had to scoop
    some pulp out of the pans, and tediously "wash" it in a horn spoon--wash
    it little by little over the edge till at last nothing was left but some
    little dull globules of quicksilver in the bottom. If they were soft and
    yielding, the pan needed some salt or some sulphate of copper or some
    other chemical rubbish to assist digestion; if they were crisp to the
    touch and would retain a dint, they were freighted with all the silver
    and gold they could seize and hold, and consequently the pan needed a
    fresh charge of quicksilver. When there was nothing else to do, one
    could always "screen tailings." That is to say, he could shovel up the
    dried sand that had washed down to the ravine through the troughs and
    dash it against an upright wire screen to free it from pebbles and
    prepare it for working over.

    The process of amalgamation differed in the various mills, and this
    included changes in style of pans and other machinery, and a great
    diversity of opinion existed as to the best in use, but none of the
    methods employed, involved the principle of milling ore without
    "screening the tailings." Of all recreations in the world, screening
    tailings on a hot day, with a long-handled shovel, is the most

    At the end of the week the machinery was stopped and we "cleaned up."
    That is to say, we got the pulp out of the pans and batteries, and washed
    the mud patiently away till nothing was left but the long accumulating
    mass of quicksilver, with its imprisoned treasures. This we made into
    heavy, compact snow-balls, and piled them up in a bright, luxurious heap
    for inspection. Making these snow-balls cost me a fine gold ring--that
    and ignorance together; for the quicksilver invaded the ring with the
    same facility with which water saturates a sponge--separated its
    particles and the ring crumbled to pieces.

    We put our pile of quicksilver balls into an iron retort that had a pipe
    leading from it to a pail of water, and then applied a roasting heat.
    The quicksilver turned to vapor, escaped through the pipe into the pail,
    and the water turned it into good wholesome quicksilver again.
    Quicksilver is very costly, and they never waste it. On opening the
    retort, there was our week's work--a lump of pure white, frosty looking
    silver, twice as large as a man's head. Perhaps a fifth of the mass was
    gold, but the color of it did not show--would not have shown if two
    thirds of it had been gold. We melted it up and made a solid brick of it
    by pouring it into an iron brick-mould.

    By such a tedious and laborious process were silver bricks obtained.
    This mill was but one of many others in operation at the time. The first
    one in Nevada was built at Egan Canyon and was a small insignificant
    affair and compared most unfavorably with some of the immense
    establishments afterwards located at Virginia City and elsewhere.

    From our bricks a little corner was chipped off for the "fire-assay"--a
    method used to determine the proportions of gold, silver and base metals
    in the mass. This is an interesting process. The chip is hammered out
    as thin as paper and weighed on scales so fine and sensitive that if you
    weigh a two-inch scrap of paper on them and then write your name on the
    paper with a course, soft pencil and weigh it again, the scales will take
    marked notice of the addition.

    Then a little lead (also weighed) is rolled up with the flake of silver
    and the two are melted at a great heat in a small vessel called a cupel,
    made by compressing bone ashes into a cup-shape in a steel mold. The
    base metals oxydize and are absorbed with the lead into the pores of the
    cupel. A button or globule of perfectly pure gold and silver is left
    behind, and by weighing it and noting the loss, the assayer knows the
    proportion of base metal the brick contains. He has to separate the gold
    from the silver now. The button is hammered out flat and thin, put in
    the furnace and kept some time at a red heat; after cooling it off it is
    rolled up like a quill and heated in a glass vessel containing nitric
    acid; the acid dissolves the silver and leaves the gold pure and ready to
    be weighed on its own merits. Then salt water is poured into the vessel
    containing the dissolved silver and the silver returns to palpable form
    again and sinks to the bottom. Nothing now remains but to weigh it; then
    the proportions of the several metals contained in the brick are known,
    and the assayer stamps the value of the brick upon its surface.

    The sagacious reader will know now, without being told, that the
    speculative miner, in getting a "fire-assay" made of a piece of rock from
    his mine (to help him sell the same), was not in the habit of picking out
    the least valuable fragment of rock on his dump-pile, but quite the
    contrary. I have seen men hunt over a pile of nearly worthless quartz
    for an hour, and at last find a little piece as large as a filbert, which
    was rich in gold and silver--and this was reserved for a fire-assay! Of
    course the fire-assay would demonstrate that a ton of such rock would
    yield hundreds of dollars--and on such assays many an utterly worthless
    mine was sold.

    Assaying was a good business, and so some men engaged in it,
    occasionally, who were not strictly scientific and capable. One assayer
    got such rich results out of all specimens brought to him that in time he
    acquired almost a monopoly of the business. But like all men who achieve
    success, he became an object of envy and suspicion. The other assayers
    entered into a conspiracy against him, and let some prominent citizens
    into the secret in order to show that they meant fairly. Then they broke
    a little fragment off a carpenter's grindstone and got a stranger to take
    it to the popular scientist and get it assayed. In the course of an hour
    the result came--whereby it appeared that a ton of that rock would yield
    $1,184.40 in silver and $366.36 in gold!

    Due publication of the whole matter was made in the paper, and the
    popular assayer left town "between two days."

    I will remark, in passing, that I only remained in the milling business
    one week. I told my employer I could not stay longer without an advance
    in my wages; that I liked quartz milling, indeed was infatuated with it;
    that I had never before grown so tenderly attached to an occupation in so
    short a time; that nothing, it seemed to me, gave such scope to
    intellectual activity as feeding a battery and screening tailings, and
    nothing so stimulated the moral attributes as retorting bullion and
    washing blankets--still, I felt constrained to ask an increase of salary.
    He said he was paying me ten dollars a week, and thought it a good round
    sum. How much did I want?

    I said about four hundred thousand dollars a month, and board, was about
    all I could reasonably ask, considering the hard times.

    I was ordered off the premises! And yet, when I look back to those days
    and call to mind the exceeding hardness of the labor I performed in that
    mill, I only regret that I did not ask him seven hundred thousand.

    Shortly after this I began to grow crazy, along with the rest of the
    population, about the mysterious and wonderful "cement mine," and to make
    preparations to take advantage of any opportunity that might offer to go
    and help hunt for it.
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