London’s story is about a secluded canyon meadow and the man who finds gold there. There are three parts to the story. The first part describes the meadow as an idyllic place, of cool water, fresh green grass, and the smell of flowers. A large buck is wading in water, half asleep. This is a place of natural perfection, unspoiled by man; the spirit of the place is “was the spirit of the peace of the living, somnolent with the easement and content of prosperity, and undisturbed by rumors of far wars.” The buck seems to understand and “acknowledge the lordship” of this spirit.
The second part of the story begins with the buck scenting the prospector and fleeing the meadow. The man is noisy, but impressed with the beauty of the place. For the man, however, the spirit of the place lies in the secret of the gold that is hidden in the ground. London provides a detailed description of the miner’s methodology for locating the gold, which involves the systematic excavation of the meadow, and painstaking washing away of test pans of dirt to reveal tiny specks of gold. The prospector is consumed by his work, but also aware that someone might have followed him secretly; afraid that he will lose his claim,...
he climbs out of the canyon, moving like a mountain goat, but cannot see any hint of human activity, except for what might be a tiny wisp of smoke.
Of course, the smoke does mean he was followed. In the third part of the story, just as the miner finds the richest part of the gold deposit, he becomes aware of someone watching him. He spends long agonizing minutes thinking of what to do, when suddenly he feels a burning pain in his side and realizes he has been shot. There follows a life-or-death struggle between the man and this stranger. Eventually the miner is able to wrestle the gun away from him and shoots him dead.
The story concludes with the prospector packing up his gold, which he calculates is worth $40,000, and leaving the canyon. He has hastily bandaged his gunshot wound, and leaves behind much of his gear so that his two horses can bear the weight of the gold. When he leaves, the meadow returns to its former state of peace, except the remnants of the miner’s activities. The meadow has been "broken" by these activities.