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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter IV

Roughing It

Chapter IV

As the sun went down and the evening chill came on, we made preparation
for bed. We stirred up the hard leather letter-sacks, and the knotty
canvas bags of printed matter (knotty and uneven because of projecting
ends and corners of magazines, boxes and books). We stirred them up and
redisposed them in such a way as to make our bed as level as possible.
And we did improve it, too, though after all our work it had an upheaved
and billowy look about it, like a little piece of a stormy sea. Next we
hunted up our boots from odd nooks among the mail-bags where they had
settled, and put them on. Then we got down our coats, vests, pantaloons
and heavy woolen shirts, from the arm-loops where they had been swinging
all day, and clothed ourselves in them--for, there being no ladies either
at the stations or in the coach, and the weather being hot, we had looked
to our comfort by stripping to our underclothing, at nine o'clock in the
morning. All things being now ready, we stowed the uneasy Dictionary
where it would lie as quiet as possible, and placed the water-canteens
and pistols where we could find them in the dark. Then we smoked a final
pipe, and swapped a final yarn; after which, we put the pipes, tobacco
and bag of coin in snug holes and caves among the mail-bags, and then
fastened down the coach curtains all around, and made the place as "dark
as the inside of a cow," as the conductor phrased it in his picturesque
way. It was certainly as dark as any place could be--nothing was even
dimly visible in it. And finally, we rolled ourselves up like silk-
worms, each person in his own blanket, and sank peacefully to sleep.

Whenever the stage stopped to change horses, we would wake up, and try to
recollect where we were--and succeed--and in a minute or two the stage
would be off again, and we likewise. We began to get into country, now,
threaded here and there with little streams. These had high, steep banks
on each side, and every time we flew down one bank and scrambled up the
other, our party inside got mixed somewhat. First we would all be down
in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture,
and in a second we would shoot to the other end, and stand on our heads.
And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail-
bags that came lumbering over us and about us; and as the dust rose from
the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would
grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: "Take your elbow out of
my ribs!--can't you quit crowding?"

Every time we avalanched from one end of the stage to the other, the
Unabridged Dictionary would come too; and every time it came it damaged
somebody. One trip it "barked" the Secretary's elbow; the next trip it
hurt me in the stomach, and the third it tilted Bemis's nose up till he
could look down his nostrils--he said. The pistols and coin soon settled
to the bottom, but the pipes, pipe-stems, tobacco and canteens clattered
and floundered after the Dictionary every time it made an assault on us,
and aided and abetted the book by spilling tobacco in our eyes, and water
down our backs.

Still, all things considered, it was a very comfortable night. It wore
gradually away, and when at last a cold gray light was visible through
the puckers and chinks in the curtains, we yawned and stretched with
satisfaction, shed our cocoons, and felt that we had slept as much as was
necessary. By and by, as the sun rose up and warmed the world, we pulled
off our clothes and got ready for breakfast. We were just pleasantly in
time, for five minutes afterward the driver sent the weird music of his
bugle winding over the grassy solitudes, and presently we detected a low
hut or two in the distance. Then the rattling of the coach, the clatter
of our six horses' hoofs, and the driver's crisp commands, awoke to a
louder and stronger emphasis, and we went sweeping down on the station at
our smartest speed. It was fascinating--that old overland stagecoaching.

We jumped out in undress uniform. The driver tossed his gathered reins
out on the ground, gaped and stretched complacently, drew off his heavy
buckskin gloves with great deliberation and insufferable dignity--taking
not the slightest notice of a dozen solicitous inquires after his health,
and humbly facetious and flattering accostings, and obsequious tenders of
service, from five or six hairy and half-civilized station-keepers and
hostlers who were nimbly unhitching our steeds and bringing the fresh
team out of the stables--for in the eyes of the stage-driver of that day,
station-keepers and hostlers were a sort of good enough low creatures,
useful in their place, and helping to make up a world, but not the kind
of beings which a person of distinction could afford to concern himself
with; while, on the contrary, in the eyes of the station-keeper and the
hostler, the stage-driver was a hero--a great and shining dignitary, the
world's favorite son, the envy of the people, the observed of the
nations. When they spoke to him they received his insolent silence
meekly, and as being the natural and proper conduct of so great a man;
when he opened his lips they all hung on his words with admiration (he
never honored a particular individual with a remark, but addressed it
with a broad generality to the horses, the stables, the surrounding
country and the human underlings); when he discharged a facetious
insulting personality at a hostler, that hostler was happy for the day;
when he uttered his one jest--old as the hills, coarse, profane, witless,
and inflicted on the same audience, in the same language, every time his
coach drove up there--the varlets roared, and slapped their thighs, and
swore it was the best thing they'd ever heard in all their lives. And
how they would fly around when he wanted a basin of water, a gourd of the
same, or a light for his pipe!--but they would instantly insult a
passenger if he so far forgot himself as to crave a favor at their hands.
They could do that sort of insolence as well as the driver they copied it
from--for, let it be borne in mind, the overland driver had but little
less contempt for his passengers than he had for his hostlers.

The hostlers and station-keepers treated the really powerful conductor of
the coach merely with the best of what was their idea of civility, but
the driver was the only being they bowed down to and worshipped. How
admiringly they would gaze up at him in his high seat as he gloved
himself with lingering deliberation, while some happy hostler held the
bunch of reins aloft, and waited patiently for him to take it! And how
they would bombard him with glorifying ejaculations as he cracked his
long whip and went careering away.

The station buildings were long, low huts, made of sundried, mud-colored
bricks, laid up without mortar (adobes, the Spaniards call these bricks,
and Americans shorten it to 'dobies). The roofs, which had no slant to
them worth speaking of, were thatched and then sodded or covered with a
thick layer of earth, and from this sprung a pretty rank growth of weeds
and grass. It was the first time we had ever seen a man's front yard on
top of his house. The building consisted of barns, stable-room for
twelve or fifteen horses, and a hut for an eating-room for passengers.
This latter had bunks in it for the station-keeper and a hostler or two.
You could rest your elbow on its eaves, and you had to bend in order to
get in at the door. In place of a window there was a square hole about
large enough for a man to crawl through, but this had no glass in it.
There was no flooring, but the ground was packed hard. There was no
stove, but the fire-place served all needful purposes. There were no
shelves, no cupboards, no closets. In a corner stood an open sack of
flour, and nestling against its base were a couple of black and venerable
tin coffee-pots, a tin teapot, a little bag of salt, and a side of bacon.

By the door of the station-keeper's den, outside, was a tin wash-basin,
on the ground. Near it was a pail of water and a piece of yellow bar
soap, and from the eaves hung a hoary blue woolen shirt, significantly--
but this latter was the station-keeper's private towel, and only two
persons in all the party might venture to use it--the stage-driver and
the conductor. The latter would not, from a sense of decency; the former
would not, because did not choose to encourage the advances of a station-
keeper. We had towels--in the valise; they might as well have been in
Sodom and Gomorrah. We (and the conductor) used our handkerchiefs, and
the driver his pantaloons and sleeves. By the door, inside, was fastened
a small old-fashioned looking-glass frame, with two little fragments of
the original mirror lodged down in one corner of it. This arrangement
afforded a pleasant double-barreled portrait of you when you looked into
it, with one half of your head set up a couple of inches above the other
half. From the glass frame hung the half of a comb by a string--but if I
had to describe that patriarch or die, I believe I would order some
sample coffins.

It had come down from Esau and Samson, and had been accumulating hair
ever since--along with certain impurities. In one corner of the room
stood three or four rifles and muskets, together with horns and pouches
of ammunition. The station-men wore pantaloons of coarse, country-woven
stuff, and into the seat and the inside of the legs were sewed ample
additions of buckskin, to do duty in place of leggings, when the man rode
horseback--so the pants were half dull blue and half yellow, and
unspeakably picturesque. The pants were stuffed into the tops of high
boots, the heels whereof were armed with great Spanish spurs, whose
little iron clogs and chains jingled with every step. The man wore a
huge beard and mustachios, an old slouch hat, a blue woolen shirt, no
suspenders, no vest, no coat--in a leathern sheath in his belt, a great
long "navy" revolver (slung on right side, hammer to the front), and
projecting from his boot a horn-handled bowie-knife. The furniture of
the hut was neither gorgeous nor much in the way. The rocking-chairs and
sofas were not present, and never had been, but they were represented by
two three-legged stools, a pine-board bench four feet long, and two empty
candle-boxes. The table was a greasy board on stilts, and the table-
cloth and napkins had not come--and they were not looking for them,
either. A battered tin platter, a knife and fork, and a tin pint cup,
were at each man's place, and the driver had a queens-ware saucer that
had seen better days. Of course this duke sat at the head of the table.
There was one isolated piece of table furniture that bore about it a
touching air of grandeur in misfortune. This was the caster. It was
German silver, and crippled and rusty, but it was so preposterously out
of place there that it was suggestive of a tattered exiled king among
barbarians, and the majesty of its native position compelled respect even
in its degradation.

There was only one cruet left, and that was a stopperless, fly-specked,
broken-necked thing, with two inches of vinegar in it, and a dozen
preserved flies with their heels up and looking sorry they had invested

The station-keeper upended a disk of last week's bread, of the shape and
size of an old-time cheese, and carved some slabs from it which were as
good as Nicholson pavement, and tenderer.

He sliced off a piece of bacon for each man, but only the experienced old
hands made out to eat it, for it was condemned army bacon which the
United States would not feed to its soldiers in the forts, and the stage
company had bought it cheap for the sustenance of their passengers and
employees. We may have found this condemned army bacon further out on
the plains than the section I am locating it in, but we found it--there
is no gainsaying that.

Then he poured for us a beverage which he called "Slum gullion," and it
is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really
pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old
bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.

He had no sugar and no milk--not even a spoon to stir the ingredients

We could not eat the bread or the meat, nor drink the "slumgullion." And
when I looked at that melancholy vinegar-cruet, I thought of the anecdote
(a very, very old one, even at that day) of the traveler who sat down to
a table which had nothing on it but a mackerel and a pot of mustard. He
asked the landlord if this was all. The landlord said:

"All! Why, thunder and lightning, I should think there was mackerel
enough there for six."

"But I don't like mackerel."

"Oh--then help yourself to the mustard."

In other days I had considered it a good, a very good, anecdote, but
there was a dismal plausibility about it, here, that took all the humor
out of it.

Our breakfast was before us, but our teeth were idle.

I tasted and smelt, and said I would take coffee, I believed. The
station-boss stopped dead still, and glared at me speechless. At last,
when he came to, he turned away and said, as one who communes with
himself upon a matter too vast to grasp:

"Coffee! Well, if that don't go clean ahead of me, I'm d---d!"

We could not eat, and there was no conversation among the hostlers and
herdsmen--we all sat at the same board. At least there was no
conversation further than a single hurried request, now and then, from
one employee to another. It was always in the same form, and always
gruffly friendly. Its western freshness and novelty startled me, at
first, and interested me; but it presently grew monotonous, and lost its
charm. It was:

"Pass the bread, you son of a skunk!" No, I forget--skunk was not the
word; it seems to me it was still stronger than that; I know it was, in
fact, but it is gone from my memory, apparently. However, it is no
matter--probably it was too strong for print, anyway. It is the landmark
in my memory which tells me where I first encountered the vigorous new
vernacular of the occidental plains and mountains.

We gave up the breakfast, and paid our dollar apiece and went back to our
mail-bag bed in the coach, and found comfort in our pipes. Right here we
suffered the first diminution of our princely state. We left our six
fine horses and took six mules in their place. But they were wild
Mexican fellows, and a man had to stand at the head of each of them and
hold him fast while the driver gloved and got himself ready. And when at
last he grasped the reins and gave the word, the men sprung suddenly away
from the mules' heads and the coach shot from the station as if it had
issued from a cannon. How the frantic animals did scamper! It was a
fierce and furious gallop--and the gait never altered for a moment till
we reeled off ten or twelve miles and swept up to the next collection of
little station-huts and stables.

So we flew along all day. At 2 P.M. the belt of timber that fringes the
North Platte and marks its windings through the vast level floor of the
Plains came in sight. At 4 P.M. we crossed a branch of the river, and
at 5 P.M. we crossed the Platte itself, and landed at Fort Kearney,
fifty-six hours out from St. Joe--THREE HUNDRED MILES!

Now that was stage-coaching on the great overland, ten or twelve years
ago, when perhaps not more than ten men in America, all told, expected to
live to see a railroad follow that route to the Pacific. But the
railroad is there, now, and it pictures a thousand odd comparisons and
contrasts in my mind to read the following sketch, in the New York Times,
of a recent trip over almost the very ground I have been describing. I
can scarcely comprehend the new state of things:


     "At 4.20 P.M., Sunday, we rolled out of the station at Omaha, and
     started westward on our long jaunt. A couple of hours out, dinner
     was announced--an "event" to those of us who had yet to experience
     what it is to eat in one of Pullman's hotels on wheels; so, stepping
     into the car next forward of our sleeping palace, we found ourselves
     in the dining-car. It was a revelation to us, that first dinner on
     Sunday. And though we continued to dine for four days, and had as
     many breakfasts and suppers, our whole party never ceased to admire
     the perfection of the arrangements, and the marvelous results
     achieved. Upon tables covered with snowy linen, and garnished with
     services of solid silver, Ethiop waiters, flitting about in spotless
     white, placed as by magic a repast at which Delmonico himself could
     have had no occasion to blush; and, indeed, in some respects it
     would be hard for that distinguished chef to match our menu; for, in
     addition to all that ordinarily makes up a first-chop dinner, had we
     not our antelope steak (the gormand who has not experienced this--
     bah! what does he know of the feast of fat things?) our delicious
     mountain-brook trout, and choice fruits and berries, and (sauce
     piquant and unpurchasable!) our sweet-scented, appetite-compelling
     air of the prairies?

     "You may depend upon it, we all did justice to the good things, and
     as we washed them down with bumpers of sparkling Krug, whilst we
     sped along at the rate of thirty miles an hour, agreed it was the
     fastest living we had ever experienced. (We beat that, however, two
     days afterward when we made twenty-seven miles in twenty-seven
     minutes, while our Champagne glasses filled to the brim spilled not
     a drop!) After dinner we repaired to our drawing-room car, and, as
     it was Sabbath eve, intoned some of the grand old hymns--"Praise God
     from whom," etc.; "Shining Shore," "Coronation," etc.--the voices of
     the men singers and of the women singers blending sweetly in the
     evening air, while our train, with its great, glaring Polyphemus
     eye, lighting up long vistas of prairie, rushed into the night and
     the Wild. Then to bed in luxurious couches, where we slept the
     sleep of the just and only awoke the next morning (Monday) at eight
     o'clock, to find ourselves at the crossing of the North Platte,
     three hundred miles from Omaha--fifteen hours and forty minutes

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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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