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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter XXXII

Roughing It

Chapter XXXII



We seemed to be in a road, but that was no proof. We tested this by
walking off in various directions--the regular snow-mounds and the
regular avenues between them convinced each man that he had found the
true road, and that the others had found only false ones. Plainly the
situation was desperate. We were cold and stiff and the horses were
tired. We decided to build a sage-brush fire and camp out till morning.
This was wise, because if we were wandering from the right road and the
snow-storm continued another day our case would be the next thing to
hopeless if we kept on.

All agreed that a camp fire was what would come nearest to saving us,
now, and so we set about building it. We could find no matches, and so
we tried to make shift with the pistols. Not a man in the party had ever
tried to do such a thing before, but not a man in the party doubted that
it could be done, and without any trouble--because every man in the party
had read about it in books many a time and had naturally come to believe
it, with trusting simplicity, just as he had long ago accepted and
believed that other common book-fraud about Indians and lost hunters
making a fire by rubbing two dry sticks together.

We huddled together on our knees in the deep snow, and the horses put
their noses together and bowed their patient heads over us; and while the
feathery flakes eddied down and turned us into a group of white statuary,
we proceeded with the momentous experiment. We broke twigs from a sage
bush and piled them on a little cleared place in the shelter of our
bodies. In the course of ten or fifteen minutes all was ready, and then,
while conversation ceased and our pulses beat low with anxious suspense,
Ollendorff applied his revolver, pulled the trigger and blew the pile
clear out of the county! It was the flattest failure that ever was.

This was distressing, but it paled before a greater horror--the horses
were gone! I had been appointed to hold the bridles, but in my absorbing
anxiety over the pistol experiment I had unconsciously dropped them and
the released animals had walked off in the storm. It was useless to try
to follow them, for their footfalls could make no sound, and one could
pass within two yards of the creatures and never see them. We gave them
up without an effort at recovering them, and cursed the lying books that
said horses would stay by their masters for protection and companionship
in a distressful time like ours.

We were miserable enough, before; we felt still more forlorn, now.
Patiently, but with blighted hope, we broke more sticks and piled them,
and once more the Prussian shot them into annihilation. Plainly, to
light a fire with a pistol was an art requiring practice and experience,
and the middle of a desert at midnight in a snow-storm was not a good
place or time for the acquiring of the accomplishment. We gave it up and
tried the other. Each man took a couple of sticks and fell to chafing
them together. At the end of half an hour we were thoroughly chilled,
and so were the sticks. We bitterly execrated the Indians, the hunters
and the books that had betrayed us with the silly device, and wondered
dismally what was next to be done. At this critical moment Mr. Ballou
fished out four matches from the rubbish of an overlooked pocket. To
have found four gold bars would have seemed poor and cheap good luck
compared to this.

One cannot think how good a match looks under such circumstances--or how
lovable and precious, and sacredly beautiful to the eye. This time we
gathered sticks with high hopes; and when Mr. Ballou prepared to light
the first match, there was an amount of interest centred upon him that
pages of writing could not describe. The match burned hopefully a
moment, and then went out. It could not have carried more regret with it
if it had been a human life. The next match simply flashed and died.
The wind puffed the third one out just as it was on the imminent verge of
success. We gathered together closer than ever, and developed a
solicitude that was rapt and painful, as Mr. Ballou scratched our last
hope on his leg. It lit, burned blue and sickly, and then budded into a
robust flame. Shading it with his hands, the old gentleman bent
gradually down and every heart went with him--everybody, too, for that
matter--and blood and breath stood still. The flame touched the sticks
at last, took gradual hold upon them--hesitated--took a stronger hold--
hesitated again--held its breath five heart-breaking seconds, then gave a
sort of human gasp and went out.

Nobody said a word for several minutes. It was a solemn sort of silence;
even the wind put on a stealthy, sinister quiet, and made no more noise
than the falling flakes of snow. Finally a sad-voiced conversation
began, and it was soon apparent that in each of our hearts lay the
conviction that this was our last night with the living. I had so hoped
that I was the only one who felt so. When the others calmly acknowledged
their conviction, it sounded like the summons itself. Ollendorff said:

"Brothers, let us die together. And let us go without one hard feeling
towards each other. Let us forget and forgive bygones. I know that you
have felt hard towards me for turning over the canoe, and for knowing too
much and leading you round and round in the snow--but I meant well;
forgive me. I acknowledge freely that I have had hard feelings against
Mr. Ballou for abusing me and calling me a logarythm, which is a thing I
do not know what, but no doubt a thing considered disgraceful and
unbecoming in America, and it has scarcely been out of my mind and has
hurt me a great deal--but let it go; I forgive Mr. Ballou with all my
heart, and--"

Poor Ollendorff broke down and the tears came. He was not alone, for I
was crying too, and so was Mr. Ballou. Ollendorff got his voice again
and forgave me for things I had done and said. Then he got out his
bottle of whisky and said that whether he lived or died he would never
touch another drop. He said he had given up all hope of life, and
although ill-prepared, was ready to submit humbly to his fate; that he
wished he could be spared a little longer, not for any selfish reason,
but to make a thorough reform in his character, and by devoting himself
to helping the poor, nursing the sick, and pleading with the people to
guard themselves against the evils of intemperance, make his life a
beneficent example to the young, and lay it down at last with the
precious reflection that it had not been lived in vain. He ended by
saying that his reform should begin at this moment, even here in the
presence of death, since no longer time was to be vouchsafed wherein to
prosecute it to men's help and benefit--and with that he threw away the
bottle of whisky.

Mr. Ballou made remarks of similar purport, and began the reform he could
not live to continue, by throwing away the ancient pack of cards that had
solaced our captivity during the flood and made it bearable.

He said he never gambled, but still was satisfied that the meddling with
cards in any way was immoral and injurious, and no man could be wholly
pure and blemishless without eschewing them. "And therefore," continued
he, "in doing this act I already feel more in sympathy with that
spiritual saturnalia necessary to entire and obsolete reform." These
rolling syllables touched him as no intelligible eloquence could have
done, and the old man sobbed with a mournfulness not unmingled with
satisfaction.

My own remarks were of the same tenor as those of my comrades, and I know
that the feelings that prompted them were heartfelt and sincere. We were
all sincere, and all deeply moved and earnest, for we were in the
presence of death and without hope. I threw away my pipe, and in doing
it felt that at last I was free of a hated vice and one that had ridden
me like a tyrant all my days. While I yet talked, the thought of the
good I might have done in the world and the still greater good I might
now do, with these new incentives and higher and better aims to guide me
if I could only be spared a few years longer, overcame me and the tears
came again. We put our arms about each other's necks and awaited the
warning drowsiness that precedes death by freezing.

It came stealing over us presently, and then we bade each other a last
farewell. A delicious dreaminess wrought its web about my yielding
senses, while the snow-flakes wove a winding sheet about my conquered
body. Oblivion came. The battle of life was done.


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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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