They put up at a poor hotel in Angel's, and on good days worked pretty faithfully. But it was generally raining, and the food was poor.
In his note-book, still preserved, Mark Twain wrote: "January 27 (1865). --Same old diet--same old weather--went out to the pocket-claim--had to rush back."
So they spent a good deal of their time around the rusty stove in the dilapidated tavern at Angel's Camp. It seemed a profitless thing to do, but few experiences were profitless to Mark Twain, and certainly this one was not.
At this barren mining hotel there happened to be a former Illinois River pilot named Ben Coon, a solemn, sleepy person, who dozed by the stove or told slow, pointless stories to any one who would listen. Not many would stay to hear him, but Jim Gillis and Mark Twain found him a delight. They would let him wander on in his dull way for hours, and saw a vast humor in a man to whom all tales, however trivial or absurd, were serious history.
At last, one dreary afternoon, he told them about a frog--a frog that had belonged to a man named Coleman, who had trained it to jump, and how the trained frog had failed to win a wager because the owner of the rival frog had slyly loaded the trained jumper with shot. It was not a new story in the camps, but Ben Coon made a long tale of it, and it happened that neither Clemens nor Gillis had heard it before. They thought it amusing, and his solemn way of telling it still more so.
"I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's better than any other frog," became a catch phrase among the mining partners; and, "I 'ain't got no frog, but if I had a frog, I'd bet you."
Out on the claim, Clemens, watching Gillis and Stoker anxiously washing, would say, "I don't see no pints about that pan o' dirt that's any better than any other pan o' dirt." And so they kept the tale going. In his note-book Mark Twain made a brief memorandum of the story for possible use.
The mining was rather hopeless work. The constant and heavy rains were disheartening. Clemens hated it, and even when, one afternoon, traces of a pocket began to appear, he rebelled as the usual chill downpour set in.
"Jim," he said, "let's go home; we'll freeze here."
Gillis, as usual, was washing, and Clemens carrying the water. Gillis, seeing the gold "color" improving with every pan, wanted to go on washing and climbing toward the precious pocket, regardless of wet and cold. Clemens, shivering and disgusted, vowed that each pail of water would be his last. His teeth were chattering, and he was wet through. Finally he said:
"Jim, I won't carry any more water. This work too disagreeable."
Gillis had just taken out a panful of dirt.
"Bring one more pail, Sam," he begged.
"Jim I won't do it. I'm-freezing."
"Just one more pail, Sam!" Jim pleaded.
"No, sir; not a drop--not if I knew there was a million dollars in that pan."
Gillis tore out a page of his note-book and hastily posted a thirty-day- claim notice by the pan of dirt. Then they set out for Angel's Camp, never to return. It kept on raining, and a letter came from Steve Gillis, saying he had settled all the trouble in San Francisco. Clemens decided to return, and the miners left Angel's without visiting their claim again.
Meantime the rain had washed away the top of the pan of dirt they had left standing on the hillside, exposing a handful of nuggets, pure gold. Two strangers, Austrians, happening along, gathered it up and, seeing the claim notice posted by Jim Gillis, sat down to wait until it expired. They did not mind the rain--not under the circumstances--and the moment the thirty days were up they followed the lead a few pans farther and took out, some say ten, some say twenty, thousand dollars. In either case it was a good pocket that Mark Twain missed by one pail of water. Still, without knowing it, he had carried away in his note-book a single nugget of far greater value the story of "The Jumping Frog."
He did not write it, however, immediately upon his return to San Francisco.