But the debris must go somewhere. A rushing mud and boulder-filled torrent tore down stream beds adapted to a tenth of their volume. It wrecked much of the country below, ripping out the good soil, covering the bottomlands many feet deep with coarse rubble, clay, mud, and even big rocks and boulders. The farmers situated below such operations suffered cruelly. Even to this day the devastating results may be seen above Colfax or Sacramento.
John Gates suffered with the rest. His was not the nature to submit tamely, nor to compromise. He had made his farm with his own hands, and he did not propose to see it destroyed. Much money he expended through the courts; indeed the profits of his business were eaten by a never-ending, inconclusive suit. The Hydraulic Company, securely entrenched behind the barriers of especial privilege, could laugh at his frontal attacks. It was useless to think of force. The feud degenerated into a bitter legal battle and much petty guerrilla warfare on both sides.
To this quarrel Charley had been bred up in a consuming hate of the Hydraulic Company, all its works, officers, bosses, and employees. Every human being in any way connected with it wore horns, hoofs, and a tail. In company with the wild youths of the neighbourhood he perpetrated many a raid on the Company’s property. Beginning with boyish openings of corrals to permit stock to stray, these raids progressed with the years until they had nearly arrived at the dignity of armed deputies and bench warrants.
The next day of significance to our story was October 15, 1872. On that date fire started near Flour Gold and swept upward. October is always a bad time of year for fires in foothill California—between the rains, the heat of the year, everything crisp and brown and brittle. This threatened the whole valley and water shed. The Gateses turned out, and all their neighbours, with hoe, mattock, axe, and sacking, trying to beat, cut, or scrape a “break” wide enough to check the flames. It was cruel work. The sun blazed overhead and the earth underfoot. The air quivered as from a furnace. Men gasped at it with straining lungs. The sweat pouring from their bodies combined with the parching of the superheated air induced a raging thirst. No water was to be had save what was brought to them. Young boys and women rode along the line carrying canteens, water bottles, and food. The fire fighters snatched hastily at these, for the attack of the fire permitted no respite. Twice they cut the wide swath across country; but twice before it was completed the fire crept through and roared into triumph behind them. The third time the line held, and this was well into the second day.