An unnamed narrator, recounts his experiences thirty-five years earlier mining for gold in the Stanislaus River region of California. The Stanislaus region was once lush and temperate, with balmy woodlands and a thriving populace sustained by the riches of the Gold Rush. The local town once boomed with a bank, a courthouse, newspapers, and a firehouse—all of the trappings of civilization. The town also sustained several charming country communities on its outskirts, characterized by cozy cottages whose owners tended to with great care. However, when the Gold Rush went bust, and the ground ceased to yield its valuable metals, the civilization that it sustained withered and died.
Now the region around the Stanislaus is a hollowed-out shell of its former glory. The once-thriving town is now deserted, and the charming cottages that dot the country neighborhoods where families lived are now in complete disrepair: covered in cobwebs and vines, they stand in silent testament to the lives they once sheltered. Now the only occupied dwellings on the Stanislaus are dank log cabins, the homes of grizzled, beaten-down gold miners, whose failure to strike it rich on the Gold Rush has left them financially destitute and cost them their families. They are tortured by the regret of broken dreams and economic failure.
As the narrator describes the isolated state of the Stanislaus, he comes across a man in his mid-forties who, in contrast to the other depressed residents, appears joyful and lively. The man’s name is Henry, and he cheerfully tends to a country cottage that appears lived-in and cared-for, with a lovely garden full of flowers. Henry’s cabin is a stark contrast to the other dilapidated cottages the narrator has observed. Seeing the narrator approach, Henry invites him in.
The narrator is overcome with delight over the furnished decoration inside Henry’s home. In contrast to the cold, masculine functionality of miners’ cabins—all dirt floors, bean cans, ruffled beds, and drab ornamentation—Henry’s cabin is decorated by the careful grace of a woman’s touch. The myriad comforting bits of decor that fill Henry’s cottage soothe the narrator’s soul. Henry explains that his nineteen-year-old wife decorated the cabin with a loving precision that lies beyond a man’s capabilities. Women, Henry explains, intuitively know how to turn a mere dwelling into a welcoming home. Henry beams with delight as the narrator discovers a picture of Henry’s wife in the washroom. He tells the narrator that she is visiting friends some forty miles away and will return in three days. It is Wednesday, and although the narrator plans to leave the Stanislaus before she is set to arrive at nine o’clock on Saturday evening, Henry implores him to stay. The narrator senses that there is something peculiar about Henry, but he spends the night talking with him, and ultimately decides to wait there to meet Henry’s wife upon her return.
After a few days pass, another miner named Tom arrives and asks about Henry’s wife. Henry retrieves a letter she wrote and offers to read it to Tom, who responds enthusiastically. The letter contains warm salutations that bring Tom to the brink of tears. He tells Henry he will be there on Saturday to welcome his wife home. As Friday afternoon sets in, another miner, Joe, arrives at Henry’s cottage and offers to throw a welcoming party for the young woman, provided she is not too weary from her journey. Finally, Saturday arrives, and the hours pass with no sign of Henry’s wife. The narrator becomes noticeably impatient, and Henry becomes increasingly uneasy. The narrator chides Henry for his excessive worrying, causing Henry to back away in shame.
As Henry and the narrator continue to wait, a miner named Charley arrives. He assuages Henry’s nerves by reassuring him that his wife is merely running late, and then he commences decorating for her welcoming party by adorning Henry’s cottage with flowers. As nine o’clock approaches, Tom and Joe return. The men play music while Henry stands in his cottage doorway, staring at the road. They then start drinking to the safe return of Henry’s wife. One of the miners tells a now-drunk Henry that his wife’s horse is lame and that she will be there in another half-hour. The men then tuck Henry into bed and prepare to leave. The narrator asks them to stay so that the young woman will not meet a stranger upon her arrival. Joe tells the narrator that Henry’s wife went missing in an Indian raid nineteen years ago. Henry lost his mind over her disappearance, and each year since, the other miners have come to Henry’s cottage three days before her expected return to keep Henry from descending into total insanity.