A man named Jefferson Doman arrives at the mining camp, Hurdy-Gurdy. Whereas only a few years ago this camp boasted thousands of residents, it is now totally abandoned save for a few decrepit cabins. A lone figure arrives and sets up a stake claim in accordance with the laws of Hurdy-Gurdy. But peculiarly, he does so in the area of the little cemetery that sprung up around the camp during its heyday.
Six years ago, he said goodbye to a demure blonde woman named Mary Matthews in New Jersey; she urged him not to go prospecting in California, but he ignored this advice and went anyway. In the meantime, Mary became involved in gambling and ended up being savagely mutilated by a gangster. She wrote Jefferson a letter with a picture of her mutilated face enclosed, but this did not serve to lessen his love for her. She was shocked by this, however, and gradually stopped sending him letters.
Jefferson also exchanges letters with Mr. Barney Bree of the Hurdy-Gurdy camp. Barney works as a grave digger, and is primarily known for his alcoholism. He is, however, a good friend to Jefferson. He sends Jefferson a letter explaining that he has found a particularly rich vein of gold in the cemetery, and invites his friend to share in this wealth.
It is here that Jefferson Doman now stands. He seeks the grave of someone named Scarry - an imposing woman who had a famous reputation among the camps. He finds it and notices an inscription - "she was a holy terror"! Though he was quite far away when this woman died, he recalls her infamous reputation. Doman shrugs and sinks his pick into the earth as a raven croaks above him. He digs all day and into the night, only to discover that the coffin has no handles. He carefully drags it upright, and is startled to see the reflection of a human head - which is only his own face reflected upon a golden coffin-plate. He realizes that the coffin was placed into the grave upside down, which makes his own task more difficult.
He is overcome by a terrible chill. He stares at the coffin-plate, which he cannot read in the darkness, and imagines the state of the woman inside the coffin. For some reason, he thinks of Mary Matthews and her scarred face. He recalls that Scarry earned her nickname from a terrible disfiguration. He hallucinates the coffin moving toward him, but realizes this is not true. He uses him knife to pry the coffin-plate off, but this causes the entire coffin to disintegrate and fall onto him.
Many months later, a party of distinguished San Francisco residents decides to stop by the old Hurdy-Gurdy camp. One of them is a millionaire, Mr. Porfer, who got his start in the camp; his invalid wife, however, does not share his enthusiasm. The group notices the skeleton of a donkey and the remains of a miner's kit nearby. They also discover an open grave with a confusion of human bones at the bottom, and one of the men hands up a coffin-plate engraved with the name Manuelita Murphy. Mrs. Porfer complains loudly about this unholy act. The party also finds pyrite, fool's gold, in the pit.
Mrs. Porfer walks away from this grisly scene, and finds an old miner's jacket. In the pocket, she finds a stack of letters from New Jersey, along with two pictures of a beautiful blonde girl, one showing her with a mutilated face.
A few moments later, the rest of the party goes over to her. They find that she is dead, and it is revealed that she is Mary Matthews Porfer.
The vein of gold that so excited Barney Bree and that drew Jefferson Doman to this distant spot turns out to be fool's gold, nothing significant at all. The whole reason that Jefferson Doman came to this place and met his doom was nothing but folly.
This story contains a great deal of impressive imagery, especially in the description of the abandoned Hurdy-Gurdy. "[Across the valley] extended a double row of forlorn shanties that seemed about to fall upon one another’s neck to bewail their desolation; while about an equal number appeared to have straggled up the slope on either hand and perched themselves upon commanding eminences, whence they craned forward to get a good view of the affecting scene. Most of these habitations were emaciated as by famine to the condition of mere skeletons, about which clung unlovely tatters of what might have been skin, but was really canvas" (48). Through extensive use of personification, this quotation brings to life the desolation of the abandoned mining camp, Hurdy-Gurdy. The shanties are "forlorn" about to "fall upon one another's neck to bewail their desolation," though of course buildings do not have necks. This does, however, evoke the ramshackle quality of poorly constructed buildings that have been abandoned for a very long time. The concentration of words with negative connotations ("emaciated," "skeletons," "unlovely") also creates an unsettling and frightening atmosphere in which the dead seem to have special power.
A raven appears just as Jefferson starts to dig up the grave of Scarry. "At that moment a raven, which had silently settled upon a branch of the blasted tree above his head, solemnly snapped its beak and uttered its mind about the matter with an approving croak" (52). This creature may symbolize Jefferson's impending death. Ravens are associated with death in many cultures, and this one seems to be expressing approval about an act that will lead directly to Jefferson's death.
The supernatural does not necessarily appear in this story, but it does certainly contain a number of events that require the reader to suspend disbelief. For example, Jefferson Doman finds that the grave under which the gold vein is buried is that of a scarred-faced woman, and cannot help but wonder if this might be his own Mary Matthews. Later, Mary Matthews comes to the same camp with the millionaire she has married, and ends up finding the remains of Jefferson, which causes her such grief and horror that she instantly dies. Though deaths from strong emotion are common in Bierce's stories, they do not have a natural explanation.