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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter XX

Roughing It

Chapter XX


On the seventeenth day we passed the highest mountain peaks we had yet
seen, and although the day was very warm the night that followed upon its
heels was wintry cold and blankets were next to useless.

On the eighteenth day we encountered the eastward-bound telegraph-
constructors at Reese River station and sent a message to his Excellency
Gov. Nye at Carson City (distant one hundred and fifty-six miles).

On the nineteenth day we crossed the Great American Desert--forty
memorable miles of bottomless sand, into which the coach wheels sunk from
six inches to a foot. We worked our passage most of the way across.
That is to say, we got out and walked. It was a dreary pull and a long
and thirsty one, for we had no water. From one extremity of this desert
to the other, the road was white with the bones of oxen and horses.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the
forty miles and set our feet on a bone at every step! The desert was one
prodigious graveyard. And the log-chains, wagon tyres, and rotting
wrecks of vehicles were almost as thick as the bones. I think we saw
log-chains enough rusting there in the desert, to reach across any State
in the Union. Do not these relics suggest something of an idea of the
fearful suffering and privation the early emigrants to California
endured?

At the border of the Desert lies Carson Lake, or The "Sink" of the
Carson, a shallow, melancholy sheet of water some eighty or a hundred
miles in circumference. Carson River empties into it and is lost--sinks
mysteriously into the earth and never appears in the light of the sun
again--for the lake has no outlet whatever.

There are several rivers in Nevada, and they all have this mysterious
fate. They end in various lakes or "sinks," and that is the last of
them. Carson Lake, Humboldt Lake, Walker Lake, Mono Lake, are all great
sheets of water without any visible outlet. Water is always flowing into
them; none is ever seen to flow out of them, and yet they remain always
level full, neither receding nor overflowing. What they do with their
surplus is only known to the Creator.

On the western verge of the Desert we halted a moment at Ragtown. It
consisted of one log house and is not set down on the map.

This reminds me of a circumstance. Just after we left Julesburg, on the
Platte, I was sitting with the driver, and he said:

"I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed, if you would like to
listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was
leaving Carson City he told the driver, Hank Monk, that he had an
engagement to lecture at Placerville and was very anxious to go through
quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace.
The coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the
buttons all off of Horace's coat, and finally shot his head clean through
the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to
go easier--said he warn't in as much of a hurry as he was awhile ago.
But Hank Monk said, 'Keep your seat, Horace, and I'll get you there on
time'--and you bet you he did, too, what was left of him!"

A day or two after that we picked up a Denver man at the cross roads, and
he told us a good deal about the country and the Gregory Diggings.
He seemed a very entertaining person and a man well posted in the affairs
of Colorado. By and by he remarked:

"I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed, if you would like to
listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was
leaving Carson City he told the driver, Hank Monk, that he had an
engagement to lecture at Placerville and was very anxious to go through
quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace. The
coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the
buttons all off of Horace's coat, and finally shot his head clean through
the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to
go easier--said he warn't in as much of a hurry as he was awhile ago.
But Hank Monk said, 'Keep your seat, Horace, and I'll get you there on
time!'--and you bet you he did, too, what was left of him!"

At Fort Bridger, some days after this, we took on board a cavalry
sergeant, a very proper and soldierly person indeed. From no other man
during the whole journey, did we gather such a store of concise and well-
arranged military information. It was surprising to find in the desolate
wilds of our country a man so thoroughly acquainted with everything
useful to know in his line of life, and yet of such inferior rank and
unpretentious bearing. For as much as three hours we listened to him
with unabated interest. Finally he got upon the subject of trans-
continental travel, and presently said:

"I can tell you a very laughable thing indeed, if you would like to
listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was
leaving Carson City he told the driver, Hank Monk, that he had an
engagement to lecture at Placerville and was very anxious to go through
quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace. The
coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the
buttons all off of Horace's coat, and finally shot his head clean through
the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to
go easier--said he warn't in as much of a hurry as he was awhile ago.
But Hank Monk said, 'Keep your seat, Horace, and I'll get you there on
time!'--and you bet you he did, too, what was left of him!"

When we were eight hours out from Salt Lake City a Mormon preacher got in
with us at a way station--a gentle, soft-spoken, kindly man, and one whom
any stranger would warm to at first sight. I can never forget the pathos
that was in his voice as he told, in simple language, the story of his
people's wanderings and unpitied sufferings. No pulpit eloquence was
ever so moving and so beautiful as this outcast's picture of the first
Mormon pilgrimage across the plains, struggling sorrowfully onward to the
land of its banishment and marking its desolate way with graves and
watering it with tears. His words so wrought upon us that it was a
relief to us all when the conversation drifted into a more cheerful
channel and the natural features of the curious country we were in came
under treatment. One matter after another was pleasantly discussed, and
at length the stranger said:

"I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed, if you would like to
listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was
leaving Carson City he told the driver, Hank Monk, that he had an
engagement to lecture in Placerville, and was very anxious to go through
quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace. The
coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the
buttons all off of Horace's coat, and finally shot his head clean through
the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to
go easier--said he warn't in as much of a hurry as he was awhile ago.
But Hank Monk said, 'Keep your seat, Horace, and I'll get you there on
time!'--and you bet you bet you he did, too, what was left of him!"

Ten miles out of Ragtown we found a poor wanderer who had lain down to
die. He had walked as long as he could, but his limbs had failed him at
last. Hunger and fatigue had conquered him. It would have been inhuman
to leave him there. We paid his fare to Carson and lifted him into the
coach. It was some little time before he showed any very decided signs
of life; but by dint of chafing him and pouring brandy between his lips
we finally brought him to a languid consciousness. Then we fed him a
little, and by and by he seemed to comprehend the situation and a
grateful light softened his eye. We made his mail-sack bed as
comfortable as possible, and constructed a pillow for him with our coats.
He seemed very thankful. Then he looked up in our faces, and said in a
feeble voice that had a tremble of honest emotion in it:

"Gentlemen, I know not who you are, but you have saved my life; and
although I can never be able to repay you for it, I feel that I can at
least make one hour of your long journey lighter. I take it you are
strangers to this great thorough fare, but I am entirely familiar with
it. In this connection I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed, if
you would like to listen to it. Horace Greeley----"

I said, impressively:

"Suffering stranger, proceed at your peril. You see in me the melancholy
wreck of a once stalwart and magnificent manhood. What has brought me to
this? That thing which you are about to tell. Gradually but surely,
that tiresome old anecdote has sapped my strength, undermined my
constitution, withered my life. Pity my helplessness. Spare me only
just this once, and tell me about young George Washington and his little
hatchet for a change."

We were saved. But not so the invalid. In trying to retain the anecdote
in his system he strained himself and died in our arms.

I am aware, now, that I ought not to have asked of the sturdiest citizen
of all that region, what I asked of that mere shadow of a man; for, after
seven years' residence on the Pacific coast, I know that no passenger or
driver on the Overland ever corked that anecdote in, when a stranger was
by, and survived. Within a period of six years I crossed and recrossed
the Sierras between Nevada and California thirteen times by stage and
listened to that deathless incident four hundred and eighty-one or
eighty-two times. I have the list somewhere. Drivers always told it,
conductors told it, landlords told it, chance passengers told it, the
very Chinamen and vagrant Indians recounted it. I have had the same
driver tell it to me two or three times in the same afternoon. It has
come to me in all the multitude of tongues that Babel bequeathed to
earth, and flavored with whiskey, brandy, beer, cologne, sozodont,
tobacco, garlic, onions, grasshoppers--everything that has a fragrance to
it through all the long list of things that are gorged or guzzled by the
sons of men. I never have smelt any anecdote as often as I have smelt
that one; never have smelt any anecdote that smelt so variegated as that
one. And you never could learn to know it by its smell, because every
time you thought you had learned the smell of it, it would turn up with a
different smell. Bayard Taylor has written about this hoary anecdote,
Richardson has published it; so have Jones, Smith, Johnson, Ross Browne,
and every other correspondence-inditing being that ever set his foot upon
the great overland road anywhere between Julesburg and San Francisco; and
I have heard that it is in the Talmud. I have seen it in print in nine
different foreign languages; I have been told that it is employed in the
inquisition in Rome; and I now learn with regret that it is going to be
set to music. I do not think that such things are right.

Stage-coaching on the Overland is no more, and stage drivers are a race
defunct. I wonder if they bequeathed that bald-headed anecdote to their
successors, the railroad brakemen and conductors, and if these latter
still persecute the helpless passenger with it until he concludes, as did
many a tourist of other days, that the real grandeurs of the Pacific
coast are not Yo Semite and the Big Trees, but Hank Monk and his
adventure with Horace Greeley. [And what makes that worn anecdote the
more aggravating, is, that the adventure it celebrates never occurred.
If it were a good anecdote, that seeming demerit would be its chiefest
virtue, for creative power belongs to greatness; but what ought to be
done to a man who would wantonly contrive so flat a one as this? If I
were to suggest what ought to be done to him, I should be called
extravagant--but what does the sixteenth chapter of Daniel say? Aha!]

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Index Index

Prefactory
Contents
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII
Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXV
Chapter XXXVI
Chapter XXXVII
Chapter XXXVIII
Chapter XXXIX
Chapter XL
Chapter XLI
Chapter XLII
Chapter XLIII
Chapter XLIV
Chapter XLV
Chapter XLVI
Chapter XLVII
Chapter XLVIII
Chapter XLIX
Chapter L
Chapter LI
Chapter LII
Chapter LIII
Chapter LIV
Chapter LV
Chapter LVI
Chapter LVII
Chapter LVIII
Chapter LIX
Chapter LX
Chapter LXI
Chapter LXII
Chapter LXIII
Chapter LXIV
Chapter LXV
Chapter LXVI
Chapter LXVII
Chapter LXVIII
Chapter LXIX
Chapter LXX
Chapter LXXI
Chapter LXXII
Chapter LXXIII
Chapter LXXIV
Chapter LXXV
Chapter LXXVI
Chapter LXXVII
Chapter LXXVIII
Chapter LXXIX
Appendix

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