Presently he had a following of friends who loved his quaint manner of speech and his yarns. On cool nights they would collect about Orion's office-stove, and he would tell stories in the wonderful way that one day would delight the world. Within a brief time Sam Clemens (he was always "Sam" to the pioneers) was the most notable figure on the Carson streets. His great, bushy head of auburn hair, has piercing, twinkling eyes, his loose, lounging walk, his careless disorder of dress invited a second look, even from strangers. From a river dandy he had become the roughest-clad of pioneers--rusty slouch hat, flannel shirt, coarse trousers slopping half in and half out of heavy cowhide boots, this was his make-up. Energetic citizens did not prophesy success for him. Often they saw him leaning against an awning support, staring drowsily at the motley human procession, for as much as an hour at a time. Certainly that could not be profitable.
But they did like to hear him talk.
He did not catch the mining fever at once. He was interested first in the riches that he could see. Among these was the timber-land around Lake Bigler (now Tahoe)--splendid acres, to be had for the asking. The lake itself was beautifully situated.
With an Ohio boy, John Kinney, he made an excursion afoot to Tahoe, a trip described in one of the best chapters of "Roughing It." They staked out a timber claim and pretended to fence it and to build a house, but their chief employment was loafing in the quiet luxury of the great woods or drifting in a boat on the transparent water. They did not sleep in the house. In "Roughing It" he says:
"It never occurred to us, for one thing; and, besides, it was built to hold the ground, and that was enough. We did not wish to strain it."
They made their camp-fires on the borders of the lake, and one evening it got away from them, fired the forest, and destroyed their fences and habitation. In a letter home he describes this fire in a fine, vivid way. At one place he says:
"The level ranks of flame were relieved at intervals by the standard- bearers, as we called the tall dead trees, wrapped in fire, and waving their blazing banners a hundred feet in the air. Then we could turn from the scene to the lake, and see every branch and leaf and cataract of flame upon its banks perfectly reflected, as in a gleaming, fiery mirror."
He was acquiring the literary vision and touch. The description of this same fire in "Roughing It," written ten years later, is scarcely more vivid.
Most of his letters home at this time tell of glowing prospects--the certainty of fortune ahead. The fever of the frontier is in them. Once, to Pamela Moffett, he wrote:
"Orion and I have enough confidence in this country to think that, if the war lets us alone, we can make Mr. Moffett rich without its ever costing him a cent or a particle of trouble."
From the same letter we gather that the brothers are now somewhat interested in mining claims:
"We have about 1,650 feet of mining-ground, and, if it proves good, Mr. Moffett's name will go in; and if not, I can get 'feet' for him in the spring."
This was written about the end of October. Two months later, in midwinter, the mining fever came upon him with full force.
The wonder is that Samuel Clemens, always speculative and visionary, had not fallen an earlier victim. Everywhere one heard stories of sudden fortune--of men who had gone to bed paupers and awakened millionaires. New and fabulous finds were reported daily. Cart-loads of bricks--silver and gold bricks--drove through the Carson streets.
Then suddenly from the newly opened Humboldt region came the wildest reports. The mountains there were said to be stuffed with gold. A correspondent of the "Territorial Enterprise" was unable to find words to picture the riches of the Humboldt mines.
The air for Samuel Clemens began to shimmer. Fortune was waiting to be gathered in a basket.