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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter XXI

Roughing It

Chapter XXI

We were approaching the end of our long journey. It was the morning of
the twentieth day. At noon we would reach Carson City, the capital of
Nevada Territory. We were not glad, but sorry. It had been a fine
pleasure trip; we had fed fat on wonders every day; we were now well
accustomed to stage life, and very fond of it; so the idea of coming to a
stand-still and settling down to a humdrum existence in a village was not
agreeable, but on the contrary depressing.

Visibly our new home was a desert, walled in by barren, snow-clad
mountains. There was not a tree in sight. There was no vegetation but
the endless sage-brush and greasewood. All nature was gray with it. We
were plowing through great deeps of powdery alkali dust that rose in
thick clouds and floated across the plain like smoke from a burning

We were coated with it like millers; so were the coach, the mules, the
mail-bags, the driver--we and the sage-brush and the other scenery were
all one monotonous color. Long trains of freight wagons in the distance
envelope in ascending masses of dust suggested pictures of prairies on
fire. These teams and their masters were the only life we saw.
Otherwise we moved in the midst of solitude, silence and desolation.
Every twenty steps we passed the skeleton of some dead beast of burthen,
with its dust-coated skin stretched tightly over its empty ribs.
Frequently a solemn raven sat upon the skull or the hips and contemplated
the passing coach with meditative serenity.

By and by Carson City was pointed out to us. It nestled in the edge of a
great plain and was a sufficient number of miles away to look like an
assemblage of mere white spots in the shadow of a grim range of mountains
overlooking it, whose summits seemed lifted clear out of companionship
and consciousness of earthly things.

We arrived, disembarked, and the stage went on. It was a "wooden" town;
its population two thousand souls. The main street consisted of four or
five blocks of little white frame stores which were too high to sit down
on, but not too high for various other purposes; in fact, hardly high
enough. They were packed close together, side by side, as if room were
scarce in that mighty plain.

The sidewalk was of boards that were more or less loose and inclined to
rattle when walked upon. In the middle of the town, opposite the stores,
was the "plaza" which is native to all towns beyond the Rocky Mountains--
a large, unfenced, level vacancy, with a liberty pole in it, and very
useful as a place for public auctions, horse trades, and mass meetings,
and likewise for teamsters to camp in. Two other sides of the plaza were
faced by stores, offices and stables.

The rest of Carson City was pretty scattering.

We were introduced to several citizens, at the stage-office and on the
way up to the Governor's from the hotel--among others, to a Mr. Harris,
who was on horseback; he began to say something, but interrupted himself
with the remark:

"I'll have to get you to excuse me a minute; yonder is the witness that
swore I helped to rob the California coach--a piece of impertinent
intermeddling, sir, for I am not even acquainted with the man."

Then he rode over and began to rebuke the stranger with a six-shooter,
and the stranger began to explain with another. When the pistols were
emptied, the stranger resumed his work (mending a whip-lash), and Mr.
Harris rode by with a polite nod, homeward bound, with a bullet through
one of his lungs, and several in his hips; and from them issued little
rivulets of blood that coursed down the horse's sides and made the animal
look quite picturesque. I never saw Harris shoot a man after that but it
recalled to mind that first day in Carson.

This was all we saw that day, for it was two o'clock, now, and according
to custom the daily "Washoe Zephyr" set in; a soaring dust-drift about
the size of the United States set up edgewise came with it, and the
capital of Nevada Territory disappeared from view.

Still, there were sights to be seen which were not wholly uninteresting
to new comers; for the vast dust cloud was thickly freckled with things
strange to the upper air--things living and dead, that flitted hither and
thither, going and coming, appearing and disappearing among the rolling
billows of dust--hats, chickens and parasols sailing in the remote
heavens; blankets, tin signs, sage-brush and shingles a shade lower;
door-mats and buffalo robes lower still; shovels and coal scuttles on the
next grade; glass doors, cats and little children on the next; disrupted
lumber yards, light buggies and wheelbarrows on the next; and down only
thirty or forty feet above ground was a scurrying storm of emigrating
roofs and vacant lots.

It was something to see that much. I could have seen more, if I could
have kept the dust out of my eyes.

But seriously a Washoe wind is by no means a trifling matter. It blows
flimsy houses down, lifts shingle roofs occasionally, rolls up tin ones
like sheet music, now and then blows a stage coach over and spills the
passengers; and tradition says the reason there are so many bald people
there, is, that the wind blows the hair off their heads while they are
looking skyward after their hats. Carson streets seldom look inactive on
Summer afternoons, because there are so many citizens skipping around
their escaping hats, like chambermaids trying to head off a spider.

The "Washoe Zephyr" (Washoe is a pet nickname for Nevada) is a peculiar
Scriptural wind, in that no man knoweth "whence it cometh." That is to
say, where it originates. It comes right over the mountains from the
West, but when one crosses the ridge he does not find any of it on the
other side! It probably is manufactured on the mountain-top for the
occasion, and starts from there. It is a pretty regular wind, in the
summer time. Its office hours are from two in the afternoon till two the
next morning; and anybody venturing abroad during those twelve hours
needs to allow for the wind or he will bring up a mile or two to leeward
of the point he is aiming at. And yet the first complaint a Washoe
visitor to San Francisco makes, is that the sea winds blow so, there!
There is a good deal of human nature in that.

We found the state palace of the Governor of Nevada Territory to consist
of a white frame one-story house with two small rooms in it and a
stanchion supported shed in front--for grandeur--it compelled the respect
of the citizen and inspired the Indians with awe. The newly arrived
Chief and Associate Justices of the Territory, and other machinery of the
government, were domiciled with less splendor. They were boarding around
privately, and had their offices in their bedrooms.

The Secretary and I took quarters in the "ranch" of a worthy French lady
by the name of Bridget O'Flannigan, a camp follower of his Excellency the
Governor. She had known him in his prosperity as commander-in-chief of
the Metropolitan Police of New York, and she would not desert him in his
adversity as Governor of Nevada.

Our room was on the lower floor, facing the plaza, and when we had got
our bed, a small table, two chairs, the government fire-proof safe, and
the Unabridged Dictionary into it, there was still room enough left for a
visitor--may be two, but not without straining the walls. But the walls
could stand it--at least the partitions could, for they consisted simply
of one thickness of white "cotton domestic" stretched from corner to
corner of the room. This was the rule in Carson--any other kind of
partition was the rare exception. And if you stood in a dark room and
your neighbors in the next had lights, the shadows on your canvas told
queer secrets sometimes! Very often these partitions were made of old
flour sacks basted together; and then the difference between the common
herd and the aristocracy was, that the common herd had unornamented
sacks, while the walls of the aristocrat were overpowering with
rudimental fresco--i.e., red and blue mill brands on the flour sacks.

Occasionally, also, the better classes embellished their canvas by
pasting pictures from Harper's Weekly on them. In many cases, too, the
wealthy and the cultured rose to spittoons and other evidences of a
sumptuous and luxurious taste. [Washoe people take a joke so hard that I
must explain that the above description was only the rule; there were
many honorable exceptions in Carson--plastered ceilings and houses that
had considerable furniture in them.--M. T.]

We had a carpet and a genuine queen's-ware washbowl. Consequently we
were hated without reserve by the other tenants of the O'Flannigan
"ranch." When we added a painted oilcloth window curtain, we simply took
our lives into our own hands. To prevent bloodshed I removed up stairs
and took up quarters with the untitled plebeians in one of the fourteen
white pine cot-bedsteads that stood in two long ranks in the one sole
room of which the second story consisted.

It was a jolly company, the fourteen. They were principally voluntary
camp-followers of the Governor, who had joined his retinue by their own
election at New York and San Francisco and came along, feeling that in
the scuffle for little territorial crumbs and offices they could not make
their condition more precarious than it was, and might reasonably expect
to make it better. They were popularly known as the "Irish Brigade,"
though there were only four or five Irishmen among all the Governor's

His good-natured Excellency was much annoyed at the gossip his henchmen
created--especially when there arose a rumor that they were paid
assassins of his, brought along to quietly reduce the democratic vote
when desirable!

Mrs. O'Flannigan was boarding and lodging them at ten dollars a week
apiece, and they were cheerfully giving their notes for it. They were
perfectly satisfied, but Bridget presently found that notes that could
not be discounted were but a feeble constitution for a Carson boarding-
house. So she began to harry the Governor to find employment for the
"Brigade." Her importunities and theirs together drove him to a gentle
desperation at last, and he finally summoned the Brigade to the presence.
Then, said he:

"Gentlemen, I have planned a lucrative and useful service for you--a
service which will provide you with recreation amid noble landscapes, and
afford you never ceasing opportunities for enriching your minds by
observation and study. I want you to survey a railroad from Carson City
westward to a certain point! When the legislature meets I will have the
necessary bill passed and the remuneration arranged."

"What, a railroad over the Sierra Nevada Mountains?"

"Well, then, survey it eastward to a certain point!"

He converted them into surveyors, chain-bearers and so on, and turned
them loose in the desert. It was "recreation" with a vengeance!
Recreation on foot, lugging chains through sand and sage-brush, under a
sultry sun and among cattle bones, cayotes and tarantulas.

"Romantic adventure" could go no further. They surveyed very slowly,
very deliberately, very carefully. They returned every night during the
first week, dusty, footsore, tired, and hungry, but very jolly. They
brought in great store of prodigious hairy spiders--tarantulas--and
imprisoned them in covered tumblers up stairs in the "ranch." After the
first week, they had to camp on the field, for they were getting well
eastward. They made a good many inquiries as to the location of that
indefinite "certain point," but got no information. At last, to a
peculiarly urgent inquiry of "How far eastward?" Governor Nye
telegraphed back:

"To the Atlantic Ocean, blast you!--and then bridge it and go on!"

This brought back the dusty toilers, who sent in a report and ceased from
their labors. The Governor was always comfortable about it; he said Mrs.
O'Flannigan would hold him for the Brigade's board anyhow, and he
intended to get what entertainment he could out of the boys; he said,
with his old-time pleasant twinkle, that he meant to survey them into
Utah and then telegraph Brigham to hang them for trespass!

The surveyors brought back more tarantulas with them, and so we had quite
a menagerie arranged along the shelves of the room. Some of these
spiders could straddle over a common saucer with their hairy, muscular
legs, and when their feelings were hurt, or their dignity offended, they
were the wickedest-looking desperadoes the animal world can furnish.
If their glass prison-houses were touched ever so lightly they were up
and spoiling for a fight in a minute. Starchy?--proud? Indeed, they
would take up a straw and pick their teeth like a member of Congress.
There was as usual a furious "zephyr" blowing the first night of the
brigade's return, and about midnight the roof of an adjoining stable blew
off, and a corner of it came crashing through the side of our ranch.
There was a simultaneous awakening, and a tumultuous muster of the
brigade in the dark, and a general tumbling and sprawling over each other
in the narrow aisle between the bedrows. In the midst of the turmoil,
Bob H---- sprung up out of a sound sleep, and knocked down a shelf with
his head. Instantly he shouted:

"Turn out, boys--the tarantulas is loose!"

No warning ever sounded so dreadful. Nobody tried, any longer, to leave
the room, lest he might step on a tarantula. Every man groped for a
trunk or a bed, and jumped on it. Then followed the strangest silence--a
silence of grisly suspense it was, too--waiting, expectancy, fear. It
was as dark as pitch, and one had to imagine the spectacle of those
fourteen scant-clad men roosting gingerly on trunks and beds, for not a
thing could be seen. Then came occasional little interruptions of the
silence, and one could recognize a man and tell his locality by his
voice, or locate any other sound a sufferer made by his gropings or
changes of position. The occasional voices were not given to much
speaking--you simply heard a gentle ejaculation of "Ow!" followed by a
solid thump, and you knew the gentleman had felt a hairy blanket or
something touch his bare skin and had skipped from a bed to the floor.
Another silence. Presently you would hear a gasping voice say:

"Su--su--something's crawling up the back of my neck!"

Every now and then you could hear a little subdued scramble and a
sorrowful "O Lord!" and then you knew that somebody was getting away from
something he took for a tarantula, and not losing any time about it,
either. Directly a voice in the corner rang out wild and clear:

"I've got him! I've got him!" [Pause, and probable change of
circumstances.] "No, he's got me! Oh, ain't they never going to fetch a

The lantern came at that moment, in the hands of Mrs. O'Flannigan, whose
anxiety to know the amount of damage done by the assaulting roof had not
prevented her waiting a judicious interval, after getting out of bed and
lighting up, to see if the wind was done, now, up stairs, or had a larger

The landscape presented when the lantern flashed into the room was
picturesque, and might have been funny to some people, but was not to us.
Although we were perched so strangely upon boxes, trunks and beds, and so
strangely attired, too, we were too earnestly distressed and too
genuinely miserable to see any fun about it, and there was not the
semblance of a smile anywhere visible. I know I am not capable of
suffering more than I did during those few minutes of suspense in the
dark, surrounded by those creeping, bloody-minded tarantulas. I had
skipped from bed to bed and from box to box in a cold agony, and every
time I touched anything that was furzy I fancied I felt the fangs. I had
rather go to war than live that episode over again. Nobody was hurt.
The man who thought a tarantula had "got him" was mistaken--only a crack
in a box had caught his finger. Not one of those escaped tarantulas was
ever seen again. There were ten or twelve of them. We took candles and
hunted the place high and low for them, but with no success. Did we go
back to bed then? We did nothing of the kind. Money could not have
persuaded us to do it. We sat up the rest of the night playing cribbage
and keeping a sharp lookout for the enemy.

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Index Index

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 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 LXXIX

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