Open main menu

The Gold Mill

by Raymond S. Spears

PETER MASKIN was dead and in his grave. The mill where he ground corn, and more than corn, was silent in the gully of the run. There was no one to lift the shuntboard and let the water pour down over the great overshot wheel. The corn that was in the toll-bin grew musty and sour where it lay heaped.

There was no one, so far as the countryside knew, who could claim the mill and thirty acres of land. The bullet that bored through the heart of Old Pete the Miller made joy where there had been suffering and dismay.

It seemed as if the man's bones had cast their blight, like salt, across the mill lot, for only rank weeds grew there, except at the entrance to the mill: there was hard, bare ground. It was easily believed that the bones did not rest.

The crowd that came to the man's funeral was large—not to increase the mourning, but to see with their own eyes that Old Pete had not been too mean to die, as some had said. If he had stood up in his coffin and demanded tolls, demanded interest money, demanded payments, there would have been fear, dread, horror, but no surprise.

The face was no grayer in death than it had been in life; across that countenance had spread the terrible disease of avarice.

He would have cursed the extravagance that took from his leather pocketbook the money for the coffin in which to inter his own remains. A box, made with his own hands from weather-old fence-boards had been good enough for his wife; he asked no better for himself. He had denied none more than he denied himself.

Now. when the wind blew at night, with Old Pete in that extravagant box of his—the box that had made the undertaker and the coroner grin with triumph—there came loud wails from the old mill; there came low howls, quavering yells, bellowings, and laughter. It was the laughter that made that road unpopular at night.

When the screams of the wind whirling through the mill were loudest one could see by moonlight pale figures come pouring out of the door between slams—figures that danced whirling over the bare place, killing all the things that might have grown there, and then leaped up over the burdocks and were gone in a puff.

By day the snakes gathered on that bare ground in sunny weather and made trails across the dust of bran and corn.

It was a brave man who would go to that old mill and stand in the gloom, looking into the dusty recesses, curtained by the wavering cobwebs swung down from beams and frames.

Youths made passing the old mill the test of their courage. They reported green eyes in the dark of the mill. Every one knew that it was Old Pete the Miller's cat, but none knew whether the cat was alive or dead.

The cat had been Old Pete's wild companion—a lank, black hunter that never grew fat. The very rats in the mill were lean from dodging the angry miller and his no less angry cat. A mad she-cat, an old maid that had never littered kittens, helped make the place untenantable, no matter whether she was alive or dead.

There was yet the hoarded gold.

It was gold that had transformed the pretty, green water, Maskin's Run Gully, into the terrible mill site that it had become. Every one knew the story of that gold. It lured while it repelled.

When Peter Maskin was a young man he was like all the other young men of the land. He skylarked round, courted the girls, and even spent his money for moonshine. He used to go down the river on log rafts, and came home on the train and overland on the stage with the long coil of handyline rope over his shoulder with the rest of them.

One trip the Chattanooga sawmill paid him off in gold—paid him one hundred dollars in gold for his string of logs. He had never seen gold before: if the word was a part of his vocabulary none remembered ever hearing him use it; if he had ever hungered for gold not a man or woman in all the world knew it.

Now he stared at the coins, the five coins, and his companions saw growing in his eyes the terrible look which was never again to leave them—the look that spread across his countenance and stretched down into his hands and fingers, changing them into hooks that always pulled toward him.

Never a piece of gold did Peter Maskin spend! He doled out his pennies and his silver and eked out his toll of corn, but never did a gold coin slip past those hooked hands of his. If he loaned money he paid it over in silver and paper, and drew it back in gold.

"Pay me back in gold!" he would demand as he counted out his paper and his silver. Always he had paper and silver.

They paid for his coffin with paper and silver: they paid the coroner's fees, the sheriff's fees, everybody's fees, with silver and paper from the dead man's wallet.

There was one empty compartment to that cowhide wallet: when some one who was curious held the leather to the reflection of the sun it gave off the sheen of gold. They could not help but divine that Old Pete had never let his silver or his paper touch his gold or go into the receptacle of his gold.

"Where did he put his gold?" men asked one another.

None could answer. None dared to seek it.

"He took it with 'im!" tradition took to saying. Some believed that the kettles in which he was supposed to have buried it had gone into his grave to rattle among his bones.

In the depths of their hearts many a man wished that he could stumble upon that gold. Not one had his wish.

The man who found the gold had never heard of it, nor dreamed of having gold, and it fastened itself to him like the Old Man of the Sea.

His name was Doland Colb—a harmless man who spent most of his time playing the fiddle. He would rather feed his soul with music, thanked his stomach with food, or clothe his body with wool.

Shiftless, good-natured, care-free, he had never been drawn taut in all his born days. He shambled through the mountains, playing as he walked along. He would stop and play for a gray squirrel if the squirrel showed interest and appreciation: he charmed a whole drove of mules one day; foxes came a long ways behind him. doubtful of the man, but charmed by the inspired strains.

If a man invited him in to a snack, well and good: he was worthy of his hire, and he would play a family to sleep to show his appreciation. But if a dog howled he would take down his strings and loosen up his bow. rather than hurt even the feelings of a beast.

He bore no hard feelings against any man in all the world when he came over the divide and started down the trail of Maskin's Run.

Others called that the lonesomest trail in all the world, but not so Doland Colb. It inspired him; a storm was just coming on, and the far lightnings bellowed forth low thunderings which the fiddler set to music, and poured it back into the full sky, a part of the chorus and the play.

If the sky had its lightning, clouds, and thunder, the earth had its mountains, shadows, and Doland Colb—ragged, shaggy, and impassioned, pouring out his tunes like a bird.

His eyes were on the belching, black clouds of the sky, and he stepped high to avoid the boulders and cobbles of the road. He was awakened from his reveries by the loud and discordant splash of a huge rain-drop on his fiddle.

The splash stretched a string, and he looked about him in haste and dazed surprise, trying to place himself, wondering how he had come to be in such a place without shelter at such a time. Heretofore it had been a picture, but now he saw the gray, sheeting rain coming, and to save his precious strings he must find shelter.

Ahead of him loomed a mill, gray and solemn, with the water pouring out round the shunt-board and falling down in spray, wasted on all but an eye for neglect and beauty and fallow scenes. Lie swung into the old mill and sat down just inside the doorway to wait while the storm should drive by.

If his fiddle-strings had not been dampened by that one drop that splashed on the instrument he would have played on. As it was, he could only look at the rain. Then, growing restless, he began to look round him in the mill.

He saw what all the others had seen—cobwebs, dust, musty toll-bin and wheels and burrs that did not turn. He walked round and climbed up-stairs to look where the corn was shoveled into the hopper, and he gingerly brushed away the dust that was on webs across the little window there, trying to let in light in order to see better.

He knew the mountain mills, had listened while they turned over and over—"calink—calank—calunk"—and in the silence of this mill his mind reverted to those other mills. He remembered that each mill had its own sound—the undershot, the overshot, the turbine.

There in the quiet of this mill he could feel the music held in the planks, beams, and stones of all mills. He could hear the spirit of the mill singing; as he looked at the unground corn sprouting there, and as he thought of the green toll-bin, something of the calamity of the mill that was dead stirred in his soul.

His breath began to come in short gasps, thinking of what was unplayed—what no man had ever yet played. He listened, and amid the uproar of the storm, while the loose planks rattled and the wind drew screaming through the whistling places, he caught the rhythm of the old mill, and he knew that after a time he would play it on the fiddle and make it into music that would cheer him on his way.

Listening, he heard a chinking sound, followed by another and another. He looked around, puzzled and doubtful. He could not tell whether it was up-stairs or down.

When he stepped he heard a rippling of chinking. He stamped, and there was a splashing of metal somewhere, he looked down the steep stairs on which his tracks were printed in the dust as if he had stepped on snow.

On the floor, beside his fiddle, was a piece of gold, round and dull, but unmistakable.

He stared at it curiously, wondering, not quite comprehending at first, for when one has been a wandering minstrel during many, many years the heart does not at first bound with exultant greed when one sights the shift of wind that changes his fortune.

"Oh!" Doland Colb said half aloud. "That was the strange note that I heard!"

Then he descended, making his footprints in the dust upon each step that he had climbed. When he was downstairs he saw what had happened. His weight on the floor above had shaken the beams and timbers, and one supporting beam beside the burrs had sprung under the weight, and from its hollow heart had fallen a cascade of old gold, which Pete the Miller had accumulated in the years of his grasping and hungering and greed.

The fiddler did not stoop at once to pick it up. He was thinking of the sound that it had made, and he did not want to forget that.

Then he picked up the coin that he had seen first, where it had rolled through the dust, leaving a sharp black trail to its resting place beside the old fiddle. It was a contrast—that scarred fiddle and the piece of dull gold.

Colb picked it up; he picked up the other coins and put them in his pocket. Then he pulled out the wooden plugs which had served as a ladder up the beam from which the miller could reach the chute and the hopper of the mill. Each plug was driven into a two-inch auger hole. In each hole were pieces of gold. One of the plugs had shaken loose, and the coins had tumbled out.

The fiddler's pockets would not hold it all; they would have torn out if they had held it all. There were eight hundred double eagles, or fifty pounds troy. The fiddler looked about him, trying to find something, trying to think of something in which to carry that dead weight of sixteen thousand dollars net.

He was glad that the storm was lasting as long as it did. He wanted no company there at such a time.

As he gazed about his thoughts quickened, and his eyes gained in sharpness; his frame stiffened. From a thousand directions came pouring the avalanche of hopes deferred, of longings ungratified, of inspirations never voiced. He took out the coin he had first seen, and held it in his hand to compare it with his weather-beaten, wet-stringed fiddle; it was a contrast that he would never forget as long as he should live.

There was some heavy canvas on the mouth of the chute to guide the corn down into the hopper, and also to prevent the corn from overrunning the brim of the hopper. This canvas at last struck the eye of the man, and he pulled it down—a strip sixteen inches wide and three feet long.

It would lap itself round his slim waist, and he drew from under his coat a long needle and a black thread, the inevitable kit of a wandering minstrel and of those who travel to forget. With this needle and thread he made himself a canvas money-belt, whose compartments he loaded with gold.

He swung it round his waist, and over his shoulders he led strips of canvas to support the weight. When this was done he picked up the pegs and drove them into the holes in the upright timber again.

When he was all through a slim, black cat came purring up out of a hole in the corner and brushed round him, her eyes shining green in the dark of the mill.

The storm had ceased its downpour, but overhead the black clouds milled and made ready to break away. Doland Colb, after a look at the weather, picked up his fiddle and his bow and stepped out on the hard-pan before the mill doorway.

There was weight to his step and swagger to his swing. He saw, with not quite clear understanding, that the world looked different than he had ever before seen it.

He strode away down the run, and as the string of his fiddle had dried out by this time, he turned up the bridge and set up the keys. He tightened the hair of the bow, and with a flourish began to play—and he played as he had never played before.

Hardly had he begun, however, when there was an interruption.

Down from the milling clouds shot a bolt of lightning, shivering and splitting the air. It struck the mill fairly, and out of the broken windows and the doors burst clouds of dust, followed by darts and whirls of flame. In a half minute, while the fiddler stared, the dust turned to black smoke, and when a sharp gust of wind swept up the run it threw back the smoke long enough to give him sight of a black cat standing with arched back on the peak of the mill's roof, surrounded by puffs of while steam spurting up through the split wet shingles.

Then the fire rolled up.

Doland Colb laughed while he shuddered. The laugh was for the music that he had in mind; the shudder was for the cat, which a minute before had been so friendly.

"I better play that piece before I forget hit!" he said to himself, giving another flourish to his bow to limber up his arm and shake his coat-sleeve clear.

As he strode along, playing, he passed a cabin down in the valley at the foot of the run. He heard a man remark:

"Sho! That feller's jes a cuttin' hit down, ain't he?"

"Yassuh!" another answered, and then shouted to the fiddler: "Hey, you! 'Low I'll gin ye a night's lodgin' fer some o' that music!"

The fiddler glanced at him with considerable scorn and strode on—playing as he had never played before. Neither the mud nor the hunger that was coming on checked the exuberance of his spirits.

He cared nothing now; many problems had been solved. He was on his way to town—to Rogersville, the nearest one.

He fiddled till he struck the sidewalk, when he ceased and stalked with dignity till he came to the brick hotel, where sat the proprietor at his ease.

"Hello, Dole!" the proprietor hailed. "Just in time! We're goin' to have a dance yere to-night. Got somethin' new fer us?"

"Nope!" Doland grinned, "I'm stoppin' to the Marble Hall to-night."


The fiddler scorned the surprise and sauntered on to the big hotel where they played orchestras.

There he tossed a double eagle on the cigar-case and demanded a smoke. This he followed with a call for a room, and then he was shown to the dining-room.

"I kin remember when that feller used to play up the street for his night's lodging," the proprietor remarked, turning the coin over in his hands fondly. "Now look at 'im! Beat's all. don't it?"