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McTeague

CHAPTER 20
The day was very hot, and the silence of high noon lay close and thick between
the steep slopes of the cañóns like an invisible, muffling fluid. At intervals the
drone of an insect bored the air and trailed slowly to silence again. Everywhere
were pungent, aromatic smells. The vast, moveless heat seemed to distil
countless odors from the brush—odors of warm sap, of pine needles, and of tar-
weed, and above all the medicinal odor of witch hazel. As far as one could look,
uncounted multitudes of trees and manzanita bushes were quietly and
motionlessly growing, growing, growing. A tremendous, immeasurable Life
pushed steadily heavenward without a sound, without a motion. At turns of the
road, on the higher points, cañóns disclosed themselves far away, gigantic
grooves in the landscape, deep blue in the distance, opening one into another,
ocean-deep, silent, huge, and suggestive of colossal primeval forces held in
reserve. At their bottoms they were solid, massive; on their crests they broke
delicately into fine serrated edges where the pines and redwoods outlined their
million of tops against the high white horizon. Here and there the mountains lifted
themselves out of the narrow river beds in groups like giant lions rearing their
heads after drinking. The entire region was untamed. In some places east of the
Mississippi nature is cosey, intimate, small, and homelike, like a good-natured
housewife. In Placer County, California, she is a vast, unconquered brute of the
Pliocene epoch, savage, sullen, and magnificently indifferent to man.
But there were men in these mountains, like lice on mammoths' hides, fighting
them stubbornly, now with hydraulic "monitors," now with drill and dynamite,
boring into the vitals of them, or tearing away great yellow gravelly scars in the
flanks of them, sucking their blood, extracting gold.
Here and there at long distances upon the cañón sides rose the headgear of a
mine, surrounded with its few unpainted houses, and topped by its never-failing
feather of black smoke. On near approach one heard the prolonged thunder of
the stamp-mill, the crusher, the insatiable monster, gnashing the rocks to powder
with its long iron teeth, vomiting them out again in a thin stream of wet gray mud.
Its enormous maw, fed night and day with the car-boys' loads, gorged itself with
gravel, and spat out the gold, grinding the rocks between its jaws, glutted, as it
were, with the very entrails of the earth, and growling over its endless meal, like
some savage animal, some legendary dragon, some fabulous beast, symbol of
inordinate and monstrous gluttony.
McTeague had left the Overland train at Colfax, and the same afternoon had
ridden some eight miles across the mountains in the stage that connects Colfax
with Iowa Hill. Iowa Hill was a small one-street town, the headquarters of the
mines of the district. Originally it had been built upon the summit of a mountain,
but the sides of this mountain have long since been "hydrau-licked" away, so that
the town now clings to a mere back bone, and the rear windows of the houses on
 
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