Cover image for Shorty Harris, or, The price of gold
Shorty Harris, or, The price of gold
Bevis, William W., 1941-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
x, 338 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Americans are seekers. Shorty Harris, or The Price of Gold is the story of a legendary desert prospector who spent his whole life searching for gold and, when he found it, gave it away. He died broke in 1934 and wrote his own epitaph: "Here lies Shorty Harris, a single blanket jackass prospector".

William W. Bevis's sweeping western novel begins during the gold rush of 1849 and brings Shorty from violin lessons in Providence, Rhode Island, to the mining camps of Nevada, then follows the misfortunes and mistakes that leave him, finally, estranged from family and society, facing only himself.

The wild boom towns built on Shorty's strikes -- Rhyolite and Harrisburg -- the vivid stories, gold fever, and colorful characters, all play out against his obsessive search for gold. But this is also the story of a desert consciousness, and Death Valley is a major character. As Shorty slowly and painfully learns the land -- the desert plants and animals, and their subtle, necessary rhythms of waiting, finding, and letting go -- his search also becomes, ironically, a quest for harmony with the land he exploits.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Shorty Harris (1872-1934), who called himself "a single blanket jackass prospector," spent most of his 62 years wandering the mountains of Montana and the deserts of Nevada and California in search of gold. Shorty struck it rich twice, establishing two boom towns, but gave his wealth away and died penniless. Bevis's fiction debut (after the nonfiction Ten Tough Trips, etc.) is literate, sometimes poetic, and very detailed as it follows the ill-starred, stoical Shorty from his early exploits in Panamint City, Nev., to his Death Valley grave. While still in his 20s, Shorty finds himself on the wrong end of a shady mining scheme in Nevada. He kills a man who is about to poach on a gold strike, abandons his wife and daughter, to whom he never returns, and heads out into the hills. Preferring the solitary life of a prospector to the fate of a married man with debts, Shorty endures freezing winters and broiling summers, lured by the dream of just one more gold strike. Inured to hardship, constantly hungry and wary of success, Shorty hikes up and down unforgiving canyons through chapter after chapter, always expecting disappointment. Bevis seems to admire this tough, sad fellow immensely; as indicated in a prologue and an epilogue, his research was thorough and empathetic. But trying to make a novel out of Shorty's life turns out to be a lot like looking for gold in those harsh hills. Despite some efforts at dreamy lyricism, this is a melancholy tale, heavy on introspection and on geological data. Past the dusty, jargon-filled lectures about igneous intrusions and magnetites, a reader seeking plot and character will find only a forlorn old man, vainly seeking that last vein of gold. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Morning, July 4, 1872 But Shorty needed more. The faint dawn light on May's arm descended in smooth round curves from her shoulder to her hand dangling off the edge of the bed. He looked up and out, past the timbered trestles, the tailings and the slag, past the town, to the same dawn light on the bare hills descending in the same round curves from the barren Panamint crest. He needed something farther than that, too, something like what he had felt when they were first in love, not the passion itself but the feeling of having come to the other side, finally, to a place where he could rest.     "If I can just get through this day," he thought. What he did not know was that this would be his last day in Panamint City. In eighteen hours he would be gone.     "Shorty?" May turned over. "What's wrong?"     "Nothing new." He looked out the window. "Hicks wants money." It was not exactly a lie.     "A lot of money?"     "Yes."     May settled back down in the bed and watched him closely.     "I'll make it," Shorty said.     She laughed. "June said you give willpower a bad name."     "Your sister has a tongue." June. June. He pulled on his boots and got up, bent by unseen weight. One big strike could turn things around. It really could. He had come to hate the whole town for the thought.     May sighed and spoke gently. "This is the day your father died, isn't it?"     He looked at her. "Tomorrow," he said. "July 5. And he didn't die. He killed himself." Then Shorty loosened, walked over, touched her hair, kissed her on the top of the head and held her ears in his hands. "I don't know," he said quietly. "Maybe we should go back East."     "You've had all those advantages, Shorty. I can't talk books. What would I do there? What would you do? At least you can do whatever you want here."     Where is here, he thought, looking out the window at the ore dumps and mineshafts. And doing what? Wanting what? He let go of her ears. She was right, of course. She hadn't had his advantages, and the East could be rough on an uneducated half-breed, and she wasn't smart like her sister, and none of that was her fault. He had chosen.     "I know you miss those things, Shorty. The Ladies Auxiliary is planning to bring the Virginia City Philharmonic, if they have one."     He walked out. It hadn't been worth it for two years. He peeked through the door into Abigail's room. The colorless dawn glow touched the mirror and the brass bed rails. Abigail cried. Shorty crept in and picked her up in the blanket. She put her head on his shoulder and went back to sleep. He pulled back the quilt, laid her down, and drew the covers up.     Downstairs he lit the kerosene lamp and made a fire in the kitchen range. Then he opened the door to the pantry and the light fell on his father's saddlebags, on the leather pocket where his father had kept his diary, the diary Shorty had taken out every night for the past two weeks to read over and over again the opening page: "What," said he, "makes the difference between man and all the rest of the animal creation? Every beast that strays beside me has the same corporal necessities with myself; he is hungry and crops the grass, he is thirsty and drinks the stream, his thirst and hunger are appeased, he is satisfied and sleeps; he rises again and is hungry, he is again fed and is at rest. I am hungry and thirsty like him but when thirst and hunger cease I am not at rest; I am, like him, pained with want, but am not, like him, satisfied with fullness. The intermediate hours are tedious and gloomy.... Man has surely some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification, or he has some desires distinct from sense which must be satisfied before he can be happy." --JOHNSON, "RASSELAS"     The quotation was copied onto the first page in his father's tiny, neat quill script. The rest of the diary was blank, except for a heading every two or three pages in his father's hand--"Death Valley," "Primary Gold," "Secondary Gold" and more--as if he had planned formal essays on each subject and then was waiting until he knew more, or less. At the end of the diary was a page of Greek and Latin vocabulary. His father had the largest library in Panamint City, probably in Nevada territory--over four hundred books but it had not helped. Shorty had thumbed through the diary only once, right after his father's death, and those blank pages had filled him with horror; they seemed a vacuum that had claimed his father and could suck him in too. He had looked up quickly only to face Emerson--"Self Reliance" and "Fate"--staring from the shelf.     And now, nine years after his father's death, he had been opening the diary again, every day. What did he expect to find? Hicks and his scams were sucking him down the more he struggled to break free, and now this money ... His marriage was a rising whine in his ears. And why was he turning to his father, dead and unmourned, the least likely source of comfort on earth? His mother, Catherine, was still living in Panamint City, but he hardly spoke to her. Each consultation of his father's diary only angered him more. And he found himself wondering, for the first time, with a sympathetic curiosity, just what his father had been thinking about, the weeks before he died. About his wife and partners, his children ... his life in this desert canyon ...     Back in Providence, his father and Shorty had once argued over a passage in the Iliad , when Achilles is angry at Agamemnon and is about to draw his sword. Suddenly Athena appears, visible only to Achilles, and says she has come to stop his anger, "ai ke pithai": if you will obey, or be persuaded, or in the hope that you might calm down. No one, from Liddell and Scott to his father, seemed to know what the phrase meant, and so no one could resolve in this crisis the relation of man to God, that is, how Athena advises us to get a grip on ourselves. Shorty had favored Pope's translation: Let great Achilles, to the gods resigned, To reason yield the empire o'er his mind. His father favored Chapman: "if thy soule will use her sovereigntie in fit reflection." Shorty now remembered the argument with bitterness. Was that what his father was engaged in, "fit reflection," the moment before he blew himself up? Was the fuse lit by sovereignty of soul? The translation was lost. Only the empty diary remained.     There was no need to take the diary out this morning; Shorty knew the first page by heart. But the other pages, he thought, the blank ones ... How would he know them? And he could smell her. June. His wife's sister. His best friend's wife. That didn't help. He could smell her skin, he could smell if she had been in the room two hours before. He shut the door hard.     At dawn Frank Shorty Harris walked to work through the empty streets of Panamint City. Dust swirled behind his baggy trousers and his boots; short legged and hard armed, he left toe prints in the dirt and hobnail heel marks on the boards. His hands were jammed deep in his trouser pockets; his loose jacket flapped behind. He leaned forward against the air as against a post or a wall or a room; when he paused for a moment he stood his ground, occupying his own body with an air of uneasy triumph, tiny and taut and vigilant as Napoleon in Russia, a man who must push in all directions or be crushed.     But on a deserted street corner in Panamint City, no adversary could be seen. He strode to the assay office and turned the key in the black padlock. As he pushed the heavy door, the iron hinges squealed and groaned in the still air. Inside he raised the shades behind the scales and hung his jacket on a peg below the sign: "A just balance is His delight." He pushed his white sleeves up and secured them with garters as he read an assistant's notes for the day: sample from the prospect near Frenchman's Ridge to be divided and assayed; low grade; probably crucible assay but check for arsenic and sulphides; Mr. Harris would please confirm.     Out back he built a small fire of kindling and charcoal under the muffle furnace, then turned to the sample: a hundred pounds of dirt from the Panamint Range in a dirty burlap sack bearing faint red circles. Shorty knew the design. Pride Flour, from Los Angeles, but the letters had faded. It wasn't the first time this sack had been filled with ore, had bulged on either side of a mule's back, had squatted outside an assay office. Shorty shook his head. Had the sack ever held paydirt, five dollars to the ton? Twenty-five cents to the sack? He turned the tag over: "Buckeye Mine Sample One."     He'd heard about it. Hicks had given Mann and Hern an advance, two cousins from Ohio who had come out the year before. Hern had gone back when word reached him that his wife had died of pneumonia. Back in Ohio he had stashed his six sons with their aunt and returned to the Panamints. The two didn't drink much, lived now and then in a tent down canyon but spent most of their time on a claim near Frenchman's Crest. One night in the Nugget they had told how their savings had dried up in a year. Thirteen children between them. They were farmers whose land had been overmortgaged during the drought in 1870. They needed the money.     Shorty shook his head again as he carried the sack to the weighing room and emptied it into the hand crusher. He picked through the decomposed slate, conglomerate, dust, pebbles, sand. Hicks had said there were tiny filigrees in the slate; it might average out all right. He poured the crushed sample onto a clean tarpaulin and quartered it three times, saving opposite quarters each time and crushing each remnant again. He screened the ten-pound remnant, weighed a ten-gram sample to a tolerance of five milligrams, and recorded it. He stared at the ore. Worthless. He could tell when he opened the sack. He could probably have known from one look at the digs.     He closed the windows and shut the blinds behind the scales to keep direct sunlight off the balance. He mixed the flux--five parts sodium bicarbonate, four parts potassium carbonate, two parts borax, one part flour, and eight parts litharge. He added a nail to balance sulfides, combined the flux with the ten-gram charge in a crucible, and stoked the furnace.     As he cleaned up the quartering room and arranged the cupels he imagined the two men: farmer's overalls, new boots, blue shirts, wide black hats; two men swinging picks at a crumbling ledge, farmers now and then looking to the cloudless sky as they wiped their faces and necks with bandannas, turning back with a shock not to the team and harness and rich black loam but a pick in the hand where a plow should be.     "What the hell do they think they're doing?" He brought the crucible out with tongs and set it to cool. Big slow farmers hanging on his word. Every year he'd seen them coming, their cow eyes full of gold. He separated the gold button, what there was of it, from the gross slag and placed it in the cupel, back in the furnace. He watched the tiny button in the cup. The surface film had gone and the button glowed. He could smell the lead oxide. Feathers of litharge crystals gathered on the sides of the red-hot cupel. The litharge flux was passing off, into the bone ash cupel and the air; the button dwindled, smaller and smaller. Jesus, would there be anything left? Even he knew that farming was better than this. As the thought clarified he drew back his foot to kick the scales. But the transformation had begun. The gold button shrank in the red-hot cupel. Shorty leaned forward, shielding his eyes. Rainbow colors began to play over the surface as the litharge formed the thinnest film over the gold. The button seemed to be spinning--his heart beat faster and faster; he leaned closer; the tiny bead spun, suddenly brightened, and freed of lead glowed brilliantly for just an instant--flared--flashed--then a dull film slowly closed across the surface, and the moment was gone. The cupellation was complete. He leaned back and sighed. His face was flushed, his eyebrows were singed. He lit a cigarette, smiled, and pushed the cupel farther back to heat up for a few minutes and guarantee the purge of dross.     When it was cool he stared at the tiny bead in disgust. With quick, jerky movements he parted the gold and silver, poured off the nitric acid, annealed the gold bead over a low flame, and watched the natural gold color emerge. He leveled the pans on the button balance, picked up the tiny yellow bead with tweezers, and placed it in a pan. For this they had left Ohio bottom land. He weighed the bead at .13 milligrams, marked the figures on a pad, and began the arithmetic. Total: $1.39 per ton. He placed the button in a tube, corked and labeled it, and attached it to the ten-pound sample charge sack. Then he took a large card and recorded the relevant details. He wrote across the card in red crayon, "Nulla Bona," tied it to the sack and slid it to the end of the shelf. On second thought he reached up, turned the tag over, and wrote on the back: "The world owes me a living." With one swipe he could wipe out the rack of test tubes. He could feel the brittle glass, hear the crash, see the flying fragments catch the light like swallows, in the evening, on the wing. That's how June would say it.     He went outside and stood blinking at the yellow light. The dawn had come--flared, flashed--and gone. The wind was moaning on the ridge. He stood near the furnace and lit another cigarette. He looked up at the mountains. Small dark holes, rickety timbers, fantastic lacework trestles with tiny ore carts, dizzying switchbacks, men with lanterns, ropes, tools, dynamite. "A dream come true." He could see every detail of his house in the afternoon, complete with himself facing the other way. An old man was leaving town with nothing but a pick, a pan, a blanket, and a jackass. Shorty snorted, threw away half a cigarette, and stomped inside. There had to be more.     After the assay of the Buckeye sample the boiler was ready. He filled the hopper with ore, started the steam crusher, made himself coffee, and sat, feet on the desk, blinds drawn. He spread the Panamint News across his knees: Truth and the marvellous go hand in hand when America finds a good gold gulch. The motto was followed by T. S. Smith's original statement of purpose: "To furnish the people of Panamint with the latest news; to give to the `outside world' accurate information regarding the mines; and to make money." The last wasn't true, Smith claimed, but if he didn't say it no one would trust him. Shorty reached for his coffee. The east wall by the furnace, and the south wall where the dark boards took the sun, were stoking up. He pulled the blinds tighter. He sat back and scanned the front page: July Fourth . Contestants and nominations for the July Fourth Goddess of Liberty contest may still be registered at the mayor's office. The Goddess of Liberty will ride in la grand pageant de burro with three little ladies in waiting on a float. We know the hungry and bereaved will have their memory strings plucked when they recognize under the float their old friend the butcher's cart, first vehicle to reach Panamint City and which served us many years as a hearse. The parade will also include trained goats and educated fleas from Resting Spring. Bishop Randall . We were amused neither by the sparse turnout for Bishop Randall's sermon in the Lotus Dance Hall last night, nor by the behavior of those present. Panamint City was lucky to be graced by the visit of the Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, but as he observed, "unbelief prevails among the multitudes." Rudeness, too, we might add. Bishop Randall. The lecture committee had paid an old man and a cracked soprano two hundred dollars to declare that though All is Vanity yet His Yoke is Easy and His Burden is Light. Just like that. Shorty had tried to walk out; May had fixed him with a glance. They ought to string him up, he thought: Rustling Religion, Poaching Peace.     About him in the office the light grew strong even though the blinds were shut, the raw raised grain of wood came forth, the splinters shone silver and the walls pushed waves of heat across the room. He pulled his tie off and tossed it on the desk as his eye wandered down to the bottom of the page: Thank you . Ted and Henrietta Hopefield wish to thank the Panamint City Volunteer Fire Brigade, Lieutenant Virgil, friends, and neighbors, for their efficient help in containing the fire, and removing the remains of Mr. Russell. It is in times like these that friendship is precious. Again, Thanks. Hopefield. She was head of the Lecture Committee. "A just Balance ..." My mind is not right, he thought.     The rest of the page was filled with articles on "The Biggest Mirror in the World," the mirror for Dexter's bar arriving that day. The articles were all gathered under the headline "A Day for Reflection": when it would arrive (6 P.M. that day), who made it, shipped it, the frame, cost, how it was almost dropped at Le Havre, etc. He turned to the second page and read the biweekly economic summary: the Wonder, Hemlock, and Wyoming mines were yielding $2,500 per ton; eight tons per day of silver ore was going to Senator Jones and Senator Stewart's smelter, two tons of copper ore per day was being freighted out of Surprise Canyon for the long trip to Britain to be smelted. Gold production was one ton per day. Stocks other than gold had risen another 10 percent.     Below the economic news was a small feature on Virginia City's Belcher Mine: its stock had risen from $1.50 a share in late 1870 to $1,525 a share that week of 1872, and "A gentleman visitor from the East, viewing the activity in the vast main shaft, wrote to his home papers: `A wondrous battle raged, in which the combatants were man and earth.'"     Shorty laughed a bitter laugh. "Man and earth." They have no idea, he thought. Try man against man. Try one man against himself.     The crusher rattled and fell silent. He threw the paper on the floor, set the dirty cup aside and walked to the crushing room. The red "Nulla Bona" crayoned on the dangling Buckeye tag caught his eye. No need to tub it in. He gently tucked the tag under the sack.     At noon Hicks came through the door and shut it behind him. Shorty didn't even look up. He had seen it all, seen the pimply-faced runaway sixteen-year-old boy from West Virginia stagger into town, crawl up a hill and by sheer luck and sudden need squat on the richest vein in Surprise Canyon. Hicks had picked up hundreds of thousands in cash and investments, stocks, buildings, franchises, women, burros, more friends and even more enemies than he could meet in a lifetime--and once he had convinced himself that he was rich it all seemed unreal, so he pinched himself with culture: traded his mule for a horse, got a cane, a new accent, and finally a woman who could read. It worked. He felt so real that he entered politics. First and second generation of himself within ten years. Panamint's mayor. Then came the second wave of strikes that created Panamint City. Hicks was running with the big boys.     "Frank, I need the twelve hundred dollars," Hicks said.     "I haven't got it." Shorty folded the paper and got up from the desk.     "You have properties all over town, Frank, and you owe me three times that much."     "So does everyone else, Brandon. Most of those properties are in May and Abigail's names. The one above the Stewart mine assayed at nothing yesterday. You know that and so does everyone in town."     "But they don't know that in Argus. There's a friend of Gibbons coming in with the mirror this afternoon. I told him the Stewart claim was worth twenty-five hundred dollars."     "The assay report--"     "You do a lot of assays. You could forget a few."     "You're rich, Brandon. Borrow."     "A little cash problem, Shorty. Let's just say I'm twelve hundred short of sixteen thousand cash and somebody is impatient and I don't want the bank to know and the rest is none of your business. You owe me, and you're about the only one I can trust."     "Lucky me. I can't raise it."     "What about Dayton's claim? Don't you have a sample waiting?"     "Yes."     "I hear that ground's good. Tell you what: give it a low report, I'll take it off your hands and turn it over for five or eight hundred. Then I'll let you off the hook."     "I don't fake assay reports, Brandon. You know that."     "You'd be doing your friend Dayton a favor. You know damn well the claim's marginal and he'll bust his butt working it anyway. I'll give him one hundred cash and save him time."     "No."     "Frank, you're not so squeaky clean. I could tell stories."     "They'd all include you, Brandon."     "Look, Frank. Say your formula was doubtful on your Stewart assay. Say maybe you ought to do it over. Then it hasn't really been assayed yet--not properly. That's all you have to do, not really be sure. Not till tomorrow. This Jud Foster will be in from Argus at four. Sell to him. He's loaded. Twenty-five hundred bucks."     "He can't be that stupid."     "I've made sure he is, Frank. He's had lots of inside tips. He's bringing cash. It's that or Dayton's assay report."     "Either one is my decision."     Hicks moved to put a hand on Shorty's shoulder. Shorty stepped back.     "Frank, you're in an excellent position in this town. People respect you, you do a good job, and you're sure as hell the only one here who speaks Greek."     "Reads Greek."     "You'll be mayor, if I say so. Then you won't have to worry about your little girl. Be smart, Frank. Get me the cash today."     Hicks reached out to the doorknob, then turned.     "Frank, if you don't want to be rich, why the hell did you come here?"     "My father brought me, Brandon."     "Jesus, your father." Hicks looked down. "I'd forgotten that." He straightened and started out. "I'll meet you at the Nugget." He poked his head back in. "And after lunch I'd like you to meet the bishop."     Shorty sat down at the desk, then dropped his pen and shoved his chair back. As he ran his fingers through his thick dark hair he remembered one of his mother's friends saying that he looked more like his father every day. Hicks and money weren't the real problem, he knew that. It was something far away. He jerked his hat and coat off the hook and stood by the door, one hand on the knob, as if listening. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division ofthe University. All rights reserved.