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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter III

Roughing It

Chapter III


About an hour and a half before daylight we were bowling along smoothly
over the road--so smoothly that our cradle only rocked in a gentle,
lulling way, that was gradually soothing us to sleep, and dulling our
consciousness--when something gave away under us! We were dimly aware of
it, but indifferent to it. The coach stopped. We heard the driver and
conductor talking together outside, and rummaging for a lantern, and
swearing because they could not find it--but we had no interest in
whatever had happened, and it only added to our comfort to think of those
people out there at work in the murky night, and we snug in our nest with
the curtains drawn. But presently, by the sounds, there seemed to be an
examination going on, and then the driver's voice said:

"By George, the thoroughbrace is broke!"

This startled me broad awake--as an undefined sense of calamity is always
apt to do. I said to myself: "Now, a thoroughbrace is probably part of a
horse; and doubtless a vital part, too, from the dismay in the driver's
voice. Leg, maybe--and yet how could he break his leg waltzing along
such a road as this? No, it can't be his leg. That is impossible,
unless he was reaching for the driver. Now, what can be the
thoroughbrace of a horse, I wonder? Well, whatever comes, I shall not
air my ignorance in this crowd, anyway."

Just then the conductor's face appeared at a lifted curtain, and his
lantern glared in on us and our wall of mail matter. He said:
"Gents, you'll have to turn out a spell. Thoroughbrace is broke."

We climbed out into a chill drizzle, and felt ever so homeless and
dreary. When I found that the thing they called a "thoroughbrace" was
the massive combination of belts and springs which the coach rocks itself
in, I said to the driver:

"I never saw a thoroughbrace used up like that, before, that I can
remember. How did it happen?"

"Why, it happened by trying to make one coach carry three days' mail--
that's how it happened," said he. "And right here is the very direction
which is wrote on all the newspaper-bags which was to be put out for the
Injuns for to keep 'em quiet. It's most uncommon lucky, becuz it's so
nation dark I should 'a' gone by unbeknowns if that air thoroughbrace
hadn't broke."

I knew that he was in labor with another of those winks of his, though I
could not see his face, because he was bent down at work; and wishing him
a safe delivery, I turned to and helped the rest get out the mail-sacks.
It made a great pyramid by the roadside when it was all out. When they
had mended the thoroughbrace we filled the two boots again, but put no
mail on top, and only half as much inside as there was before. The
conductor bent all the seat-backs down, and then filled the coach just
half full of mail-bags from end to end. We objected loudly to this, for
it left us no seats. But the conductor was wiser than we, and said a bed
was better than seats, and moreover, this plan would protect his
thoroughbraces. We never wanted any seats after that. The lazy bed was
infinitely preferable. I had many an exciting day, subsequently, lying
on it reading the statutes and the dictionary, and wondering how the
characters would turn out.

The conductor said he would send back a guard from the next station to
take charge of the abandoned mail-bags, and we drove on.

It was now just dawn; and as we stretched our cramped legs full length on
the mail sacks, and gazed out through the windows across the wide wastes
of greensward clad in cool, powdery mist, to where there was an expectant
look in the eastern horizon, our perfect enjoyment took the form of a
tranquil and contented ecstasy. The stage whirled along at a spanking
gait, the breeze flapping curtains and suspended coats in a most
exhilarating way; the cradle swayed and swung luxuriously, the pattering
of the horses' hoofs, the cracking of the driver's whip, and his "Hi-yi!
g'lang!" were music; the spinning ground and the waltzing trees appeared
to give us a mute hurrah as we went by, and then slack up and look after
us with interest, or envy, or something; and as we lay and smoked the
pipe of peace and compared all this luxury with the years of tiresome
city life that had gone before it, we felt that there was only one
complete and satisfying happiness in the world, and we had found it.

After breakfast, at some station whose name I have forgotten, we three
climbed up on the seat behind the driver, and let the conductor have our
bed for a nap. And by and by, when the sun made me drowsy, I lay down on
my face on top of the coach, grasping the slender iron railing, and slept
for an hour or more. That will give one an appreciable idea of those
matchless roads. Instinct will make a sleeping man grip a fast hold of
the railing when the stage jolts, but when it only swings and sways, no
grip is necessary. Overland drivers and conductors used to sit in their
places and sleep thirty or forty minutes at a time, on good roads, while
spinning along at the rate of eight or ten miles an hour. I saw them do
it, often. There was no danger about it; a sleeping man will seize the
irons in time when the coach jolts. These men were hard worked, and it
was not possible for them to stay awake all the time.

By and by we passed through Marysville, and over the Big Blue and Little
Sandy; thence about a mile, and entered Nebraska. About a mile further
on, we came to the Big Sandy--one hundred and eighty miles from St.
Joseph.

As the sun was going down, we saw the first specimen of an animal known
familiarly over two thousand miles of mountain and desert--from Kansas
clear to the Pacific Ocean--as the "jackass rabbit." He is well named.
He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one third to
twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the
most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but a
jackass.

When he is sitting quiet, thinking about his sins, or is absent-minded or
unapprehensive of danger, his majestic ears project above him
conspicuously; but the breaking of a twig will scare him nearly to death,
and then he tilts his ears back gently and starts for home. All you can
see, then, for the next minute, is his long gray form stretched out
straight and "streaking it" through the low sage-brush, head erect, eyes
right, and ears just canted a little to the rear, but showing you where
the animal is, all the time, the same as if he carried a jib. Now and
then he makes a marvelous spring with his long legs, high over the
stunted sage-brush, and scores a leap that would make a horse envious.
Presently he comes down to a long, graceful "lope," and shortly he
mysteriously disappears. He has crouched behind a sage-bush, and will
sit there and listen and tremble until you get within six feet of him,
when he will get under way again. But one must shoot at this creature
once, if he wishes to see him throw his heart into his heels, and do the
best he knows how. He is frightened clear through, now, and he lays his
long ears down on his back, straightens himself out like a yard-stick
every spring he makes, and scatters miles behind him with an easy
indifference that is enchanting.

Our party made this specimen "hump himself," as the conductor said. The
secretary started him with a shot from the Colt; I commenced spitting at
him with my weapon; and all in the same instant the old "Allen's" whole
broadside let go with a rattling crash, and it is not putting it too
strong to say that the rabbit was frantic! He dropped his ears, set up
his tail, and left for San Francisco at a speed which can only be
described as a flash and a vanish! Long after he was out of sight we
could hear him whiz.

I do not remember where we first came across "sage-brush," but as I have
been speaking of it I may as well describe it.

This is easily done, for if the reader can imagine a gnarled and
venerable live oak-tree reduced to a little shrub two feet-high, with its
rough bark, its foliage, its twisted boughs, all complete, he can picture
the "sage-brush" exactly. Often, on lazy afternoons in the mountains, I
have lain on the ground with my face under a sage-bush, and entertained
myself with fancying that the gnats among its foliage were liliputian
birds, and that the ants marching and countermarching about its base were
liliputian flocks and herds, and myself some vast loafer from Brobdignag
waiting to catch a little citizen and eat him.

It is an imposing monarch of the forest in exquisite miniature, is the
"sage-brush." Its foliage is a grayish green, and gives that tint to
desert and mountain. It smells like our domestic sage, and "sage-tea"
made from it taste like the sage-tea which all boys are so well
acquainted with. The sage-brush is a singularly hardy plant, and grows
right in the midst of deep sand, and among barren rocks, where nothing
else in the vegetable world would try to grow, except "bunch-grass."
--["Bunch-grass" grows on the bleak mountain-sides of Nevada and
neighboring territories, and offers excellent feed for stock, even in the
dead of winter, wherever the snow is blown aside and exposes it;
notwithstanding its unpromising home, bunch-grass is a better and more
nutritious diet for cattle and horses than almost any other hay or grass
that is known--so stock-men say.]--The sage-bushes grow from three to
six or seven feet apart, all over the mountains and deserts of the Far
West, clear to the borders of California. There is not a tree of any
kind in the deserts, for hundreds of miles--there is no vegetation at all
in a regular desert, except the sage-brush and its cousin the
"greasewood," which is so much like the sage-brush that the difference
amounts to little. Camp-fires and hot suppers in the deserts would be
impossible but for the friendly sage-brush. Its trunk is as large as a
boy's wrist (and from that up to a man's arm), and its crooked branches
are half as large as its trunk--all good, sound, hard wood, very like
oak.

When a party camps, the first thing to be done is to cut sage-brush; and
in a few minutes there is an opulent pile of it ready for use. A hole a
foot wide, two feet deep, and two feet long, is dug, and sage-brush
chopped up and burned in it till it is full to the brim with glowing
coals. Then the cooking begins, and there is no smoke, and consequently
no swearing. Such a fire will keep all night, with very little
replenishing; and it makes a very sociable camp-fire, and one around
which the most impossible reminiscences sound plausible, instructive, and
profoundly entertaining.

Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished
failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his
illegitimate child the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness
is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or
brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes
handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for
dinner. Mules and donkeys and camels have appetites that anything will
relieve temporarily, but nothing satisfy.

In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of
my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a
critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of
getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as
an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet.
He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth,
and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while
opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had
never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before, in his life. Then
he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve.
Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment
that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing
about an overcoat. The tails went next, along with some percussion caps
and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople. And then my
newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that--
manuscript letters written for the home papers. But he was treading on
dangerous ground, now. He began to come across solid wisdom in those
documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he
would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it
was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good
courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements
that not even a camel could swallow with impunity. He began to gag and
gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about
a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter's work-bench,
and died a death of indescribable agony. I went and pulled the
manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had
choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact
that I ever laid before a trusting public.

I was about to say, when diverted from my subject, that occasionally one
finds sage-bushes five or six feet high, and with a spread of branch and
foliage in proportion, but two or two and a half feet is the usual
height.


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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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