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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711

Mike Braneen has been looking for gold in the rugged desert mountains of Central Nevada for fifty-two years, roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century. He apparently has found enough gold to support his meager lifestyle, but he has long since...

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Mike Braneen has been looking for gold in the rugged desert mountains of Central Nevada for fifty-two years, roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century. He apparently has found enough gold to support his meager lifestyle, but he has long since ceased expecting to strike it rich.

Mike’s life has become routine to the point of ritual; he spends eight months of every year—from April to December—in the mountains, and when the first snow falls he takes refuge in the little mining town of Gold Rock. For eight months, Mike is alone, with only his burro for company. However, in his loneliness be perpetually relives the social phase of his life. Though comfortable with his solitary life, Mike’s self-identity is clearly defined by his human relationships.

As the story begins, Mike is descending from the mountains on the rugged old wagon road, into the sunset, and toward Gold Rock. It is late December, and snow flurries are in the air. Mike is keenly attuned to nature’s cycles, and he knows that this will be the first storm of winter. He picks his way down the old Comstock road, avoiding the new highway, the cars and trucks, and all other manifestations of the new era that has passed him by. Alone with his burro Annie, there is nothing to interrupt the flow of Mike’s memories.

Mike thinks about the burros he has had—eighteen or twenty in all. He can remember the names of only a few, those with some unique characteristic, and for the past twenty years he has gradually felt less personal about them. He has begun to call all the jennies “Annie” and the burros “Jack.”

Mike remembers women he has known, usually fleetingly, like the “little brown-haired whore” with whom he spent one night in Eureka. He cannot remember anything about her in bed, but he remembers standing with her by the open window of the hotel, listening to piano music from below. He also remembers her heart-shaped locket with the two hands gently touching. Her name was Armandy, and Mike remembers with pleasure this brief moment of human contact.

The sun sinks lower, and Mike and Annie climb the last rise before the final descent to Gold Rock. He remembers the town: John Hammersmith’s livery stable, where he will take Annie; his room in Mrs. Wright’s house on fourth street; the International House, where he will go for their best dinner; and most of all the Lucky Boy Saloon, where he will find the proprietor, Tom Connover, and the rest of his old friends. He relives the ritual of his arrival, how he will trim his beard, put on his suit, and go down to the Lucky Boy, how Tom will look up and greet him warmly. From somewhere in the recesses of Mike’s memory, however, comes an alternate picture of a nearly empty town, of strangers who work for the highway department or talk of mining in terms that Mike does not understand.

Mike and Annie reach the summit, stop, and look down. Instead of a bright string of orange windows, Mike sees only scattered lights across the darkness, producing no “communal glow.” Mike realizes that this is how Gold Rock is now, a town grown old like himself, a town that, like him, is going to die. As Mike and Annie descend into Gold Rock, a highway truck swerves to miss them. Mike stops in front of the Lucky Boy; the saloon is boarded up and dark.

A younger man approaches, and the bewildered Mike stops him. Mike learns that the Lucky Boy has been closed since Tom Connover died in June. Confused, Mike asks directions to Mrs. Wright’s place. The stranger tells Mike kindly that Mrs. Wright has been dead for some time and reminds him that it was at Mrs. Branley’s house where he stayed last winter. Mike is afraid to ask about John Hammersmith, afraid that he, too, is dead. Mike recognizes that he has outlived his time, that his death is also approaching. As the man and the burro turn up the street, their “lengthening shadows” are obscured by the snowflakes.

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