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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter VI

Roughing It

Chapter VI

Our new conductor (just shipped) had been without sleep for twenty hours.
Such a thing was very frequent. From St. Joseph, Missouri, to
Sacramento, California, by stage-coach, was nearly nineteen hundred
miles, and the trip was often made in fifteen days (the cars do it in
four and a half, now), but the time specified in the mail contracts, and
required by the schedule, was eighteen or nineteen days, if I remember
rightly. This was to make fair allowance for winter storms and snows,
and other unavoidable causes of detention. The stage company had
everything under strict discipline and good system. Over each two
hundred and fifty miles of road they placed an agent or superintendent,
and invested him with great authority. His beat or jurisdiction of two
hundred and fifty miles was called a "division." He purchased horses,
mules harness, and food for men and beasts, and distributed these things
among his stage stations, from time to time, according to his judgment of
what each station needed. He erected station buildings and dug wells.
He attended to the paying of the station-keepers, hostlers, drivers and
blacksmiths, and discharged them whenever he chose. He was a very, very
great man in his "division"--a kind of Grand Mogul, a Sultan of the
Indies, in whose presence common men were modest of speech and manner,
and in the glare of whose greatness even the dazzling stage-driver
dwindled to a penny dip. There were about eight of these kings, all
told, on the overland route.

Next in rank and importance to the division-agent came the "conductor."
His beat was the same length as the agent's--two hundred and fifty miles.
He sat with the driver, and (when necessary) rode that fearful distance,
night and day, without other rest or sleep than what he could get perched
thus on top of the flying vehicle. Think of it! He had absolute charge
of the mails, express matter, passengers and stage, coach, until he
delivered them to the next conductor, and got his receipt for them.

Consequently he had to be a man of intelligence, decision and
considerable executive ability. He was usually a quiet, pleasant man,
who attended closely to his duties, and was a good deal of a gentleman.
It was not absolutely necessary that the division-agent should be a
gentleman, and occasionally he wasn't. But he was always a general in
administrative ability, and a bull-dog in courage and determination--
otherwise the chieftainship over the lawless underlings of the overland
service would never in any instance have been to him anything but an
equivalent for a month of insolence and distress and a bullet and a
coffin at the end of it. There were about sixteen or eighteen conductors
on the overland, for there was a daily stage each way, and a conductor on
every stage.

Next in real and official rank and importance, after the conductor, came
my delight, the driver--next in real but not in apparent importance--for
we have seen that in the eyes of the common herd the driver was to the
conductor as an admiral is to the captain of the flag-ship. The driver's
beat was pretty long, and his sleeping-time at the stations pretty short,
sometimes; and so, but for the grandeur of his position his would have
been a sorry life, as well as a hard and a wearing one. We took a new
driver every day or every night (for they drove backward and forward over
the same piece of road all the time), and therefore we never got as well
acquainted with them as we did with the conductors; and besides, they
would have been above being familiar with such rubbish as passengers,
anyhow, as a general thing. Still, we were always eager to get a sight
of each and every new driver as soon as the watch changed, for each and
every day we were either anxious to get rid of an unpleasant one, or
loath to part with a driver we had learned to like and had come to be
sociable and friendly with. And so the first question we asked the
conductor whenever we got to where we were to exchange drivers, was
always, "Which is him?" The grammar was faulty, maybe, but we could not
know, then, that it would go into a book some day. As long as everything
went smoothly, the overland driver was well enough situated, but if a
fellow driver got sick suddenly it made trouble, for the coach must go
on, and so the potentate who was about to climb down and take a luxurious
rest after his long night's siege in the midst of wind and rain and
darkness, had to stay where he was and do the sick man's work. Once, in
the Rocky Mountains, when I found a driver sound asleep on the box, and
the mules going at the usual break-neck pace, the conductor said never
mind him, there was no danger, and he was doing double duty--had driven
seventy-five miles on one coach, and was now going back over it on this
without rest or sleep. A hundred and fifty miles of holding back of six
vindictive mules and keeping them from climbing the trees! It sounds
incredible, but I remember the statement well enough.

The station-keepers, hostlers, etc., were low, rough characters, as
already described; and from western Nebraska to Nevada a considerable
sprinkling of them might be fairly set down as outlaws--fugitives from
justice, criminals whose best security was a section of country which was
without law and without even the pretence of it. When the "division-
agent" issued an order to one of these parties he did it with the full
understanding that he might have to enforce it with a navy six-shooter,
and so he always went "fixed" to make things go along smoothly.

Now and then a division-agent was really obliged to shoot a hostler
through the head to teach him some simple matter that he could have
taught him with a club if his circumstances and surroundings had been
different. But they were snappy, able men, those division-agents, and
when they tried to teach a subordinate anything, that subordinate
generally "got it through his head."

A great portion of this vast machinery--these hundreds of men and
coaches, and thousands of mules and horses--was in the hands of Mr. Ben
Holliday. All the western half of the business was in his hands. This
reminds me of an incident of Palestine travel which is pertinent here, so
I will transfer it just in the language in which I find it set down in my
Holy Land note-book:

     No doubt everybody has heard of Ben Holliday--a man of prodigious
     energy, who used to send mails and passengers flying across the
     continent in his overland stage-coaches like a very whirlwind--two
     thousand long miles in fifteen days and a half, by the watch! But
     this fragment of history is not about Ben Holliday, but about a
     young New York boy by the name of Jack, who traveled with our small
     party of pilgrims in the Holy Land (and who had traveled to
     California in Mr. Holliday's overland coaches three years before,
     and had by no means forgotten it or lost his gushing admiration of
     Mr. H.) Aged nineteen. Jack was a good boy--a good-hearted and
     always well-meaning boy, who had been reared in the city of New
     York, and although he was bright and knew a great many useful
     things, his Scriptural education had been a good deal neglected--to
     such a degree, indeed, that all Holy Land history was fresh and new
     to him, and all Bible names mysteries that had never disturbed his
     virgin ear.

     Also in our party was an elderly pilgrim who was the reverse of
     Jack, in that he was learned in the Scriptures and an enthusiast
     concerning them. He was our encyclopedia, and we were never tired
     of listening to his speeches, nor he of making them. He never
     passed a celebrated locality, from Bashan to Bethlehem, without
     illuminating it with an oration. One day, when camped near the
     ruins of Jericho, he burst forth with something like this:

     "Jack, do you see that range of mountains over yonder that bounds
     the Jordan valley? The mountains of Moab, Jack! Think of it, my
     boy--the actual mountains of Moab--renowned in Scripture history!
     We are actually standing face to face with those illustrious crags
     and peaks--and for all we know" [dropping his voice impressively],
     "our eyes may be resting at this very moment upon the spot WHERE

     "Moses who?" (falling inflection).

     "Moses who! Jack, you ought to be ashamed of yourself--you ought to
     be ashamed of such criminal ignorance. Why, Moses, the great guide,
     soldier, poet, lawgiver of ancient Israel! Jack, from this spot
     where we stand, to Egypt, stretches a fearful desert three hundred
     miles in extent--and across that desert that wonderful man brought
     the children of Israel!--guiding them with unfailing sagacity for
     forty years over the sandy desolation and among the obstructing
     rocks and hills, and landed them at last, safe and sound, within
     sight of this very spot; and where we now stand they entered the
     Promised Land with anthems of rejoicing! It was a wonderful,
     wonderful thing to do, Jack! Think of it!"

     "Forty years? Only three hundred miles? Humph! Ben Holliday would
     have fetched them through in thirty-six hours!"

The boy meant no harm. He did not know that he had said anything that
was wrong or irreverent. And so no one scolded him or felt offended with
him--and nobody could but some ungenerous spirit incapable of excusing
the heedless blunders of a boy.

At noon on the fifth day out, we arrived at the "Crossing of the South
Platte," alias "Julesburg," alias "Overland City," four hundred and
seventy miles from St. Joseph--the strangest, quaintest, funniest
frontier town that our untraveled eyes had ever stared at and been
astonished with.

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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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