Roughing It, Part 3.
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
Produced by David Widger
by Mark Twain
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
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
"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.
It was the end of August, and the skies were cloudless and the weather
superb. In two or three weeks I had grown wonderfully fascinated with
the curious new country and concluded to put off my return to "the
States" awhile. I had grown well accustomed to wearing a damaged slouch
hat, blue woolen shirt, and pants crammed into boot-tops, and gloried in
the absence of coat, vest and braces. I felt rowdyish and "bully," (as
the historian Josephus phrases it, in his fine chapter upon the
destruction of the Temple). It seemed to me that nothing could be so
fine and so romantic. I had become an officer of the government, but
that was for mere sublimity. The office was an unique sinecure. I had
nothing to do and no salary. I was private Secretary to his majesty the
Secretary and there was not yet writing enough for two of us. So Johnny
K---- and I devoted our time to amusement. He was the young son of an
Ohio nabob and was out there for recreation. He got it. We had heard a
world of talk about the marvellous beauty of Lake Tahoe, and finally
curiosity drove us thither to see it. Three or four members of the
Brigade had been there and located some timber lands on its shores and
stored up a quantity of provisions in their camp. We strapped a couple
of blankets on our shoulders and took an axe apiece and started--for we
intended to take up a wood ranch or so ourselves and become wealthy.
We were on foot. The reader will find it advantageous to go horseback.
We were told that the distance was eleven miles. We tramped a long time
on level ground, and then toiled laboriously up a mountain about a
thousand miles high and looked over. No lake there. We descended on the
other side, crossed the valley and toiled up another mountain three or
four thousand miles high, apparently, and looked over again. No lake
yet. We sat down tired and perspiring, and hired a couple of Chinamen to
curse those people who had beguiled us. Thus refreshed, we presently
resumed the march with renewed vigor and determination. We plodded on,
two or three hours longer, and at last the Lake burst upon us--a noble
sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the
level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that
towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! It was a vast oval,
and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling
around it. As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly
photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the
fairest picture the whole earth affords.
We found the small skiff belonging to the Brigade boys, and without loss
of time set out across a deep bend of the lake toward the landmarks that
signified the locality of the camp. I got Johnny to row--not because I
mind exertion myself, but because it makes me sick to ride backwards when
I am at work. But I steered. A three-mile pull brought us to the camp
just as the night fell, and we stepped ashore very tired and wolfishly
hungry. In a "cache" among the rocks we found the provisions and the
cooking utensils, and then, all fatigued as I was, I sat down on a
boulder and superintended while Johnny gathered wood and cooked supper.
Many a man who had gone through what I had, would have wanted to rest.
It was a delicious supper--hot bread, fried bacon, and black coffee.
It was a delicious solitude we were in, too. Three miles away was a
saw-mill and some workmen, but there were not fifteen other human beings
throughout the wide circumference of the lake. As the darkness closed
down and the stars came out and spangled the great mirror with jewels, we
smoked meditatively in the solemn hush and forgot our troubles and our
pains. In due time we spread our blankets in the warm sand between two
large boulders and soon feel asleep, careless of the procession of ants
that passed in through rents in our clothing and explored our persons.
Nothing could disturb the sleep that fettered us, for it had been fairly
earned, and if our consciences had any sins on them they had to adjourn
court for that night, any way. The wind rose just as we were losing
consciousness, and we were lulled to sleep by the beating of the surf
upon the shore.
It is always very cold on that lake shore in the night, but we had plenty
of blankets and were warm enough. We never moved a muscle all night, but
waked at early dawn in the original positions, and got up at once,
thoroughly refreshed, free from soreness, and brim full of friskiness.
There is no end of wholesome medicine in such an experience. That
morning we could have whipped ten such people as we were the day before
--sick ones at any rate. But the world is slow, and people will go to
"water cures" and "movement cures" and to foreign lands for health.
Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy
to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do
not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.
The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and
delicious. And why shouldn't it be?--it is the same the angels breathe.
I think that hardly any amount of fatigue can be gathered together that a
man cannot sleep off in one night on the sand by its side. Not under a
roof, but under the sky; it seldom or never rains there in the summer
time. I know a man who went there to die. But he made a failure of it.
He was a skeleton when he came, and could barely stand. He had no
appetite, and did nothing but read tracts and reflect on the future.
Three months later he was sleeping out of doors regularly, eating all he
could hold, three times a day, and chasing game over mountains three
thousand feet high for recreation. And he was a skeleton no longer, but
weighed part of a ton. This is no fancy sketch, but the truth. His
disease was consumption. I confidently commend his experience to other
I superintended again, and as soon as we had eaten breakfast we got in
the boat and skirted along the lake shore about three miles and
disembarked. We liked the appearance of the place, and so we claimed
some three hundred acres of it and stuck our "notices" on a tree. It was
yellow pine timber land--a dense forest of trees a hundred feet high and
from one to five feet through at the butt. It was necessary to fence our
property or we could not hold it. That is to say, it was necessary to
cut down trees here and there and make them fall in such a way as to form
a sort of enclosure (with pretty wide gaps in it). We cut down three
trees apiece, and found it such heart-breaking work that we decided to
"rest our case" on those; if they held the property, well and good; if
they didn't, let the property spill out through the gaps and go; it was
no use to work ourselves to death merely to save a few acres of land.
Next day we came back to build a house--for a house was also necessary,
in order to hold the property. We decided to build a substantial
log-house and excite the envy of the Brigade boys; but by the time we had
cut and trimmed the first log it seemed unnecessary to be so elaborate,
and so we concluded to build it of saplings. However, two saplings, duly
cut and trimmed, compelled recognition of the fact that a still modester
architecture would satisfy the law, and so we concluded to build a
"brush" house. We devoted the next day to this work, but we did so much
"sitting around" and discussing, that by the middle of the afternoon we
had achieved only a half-way sort of affair which one of us had to watch
while the other cut brush, lest if both turned our backs we might not be
able to find it again, it had such a strong family resemblance to the
surrounding vegetation. But we were satisfied with it.
We were land owners now, duly seized and possessed, and within the
protection of the law. Therefore we decided to take up our residence on
our own domain and enjoy that large sense of independence which only such
an experience can bring. Late the next afternoon, after a good long
rest, we sailed away from the Brigade camp with all the provisions and
cooking utensils we could carry off--borrow is the more accurate word
--and just as the night was falling we beached the boat at our own landing.
If there is any life that is happier than the life we led on our timber
ranch for the next two or three weeks, it must be a sort of life which I
have not read of in books or experienced in person. We did not see a
human being but ourselves during the time, or hear any sounds but those
that were made by the wind and the waves, the sighing of the pines, and
now and then the far-off thunder of an avalanche. The forest about us
was dense and cool, the sky above us was cloudless and brilliant with
sunshine, the broad lake before us was glassy and clear, or rippled and
breezy, or black and storm-tossed, according to Nature's mood; and its
circling border of mountain domes, clothed with forests, scarred with
land-slides, cloven by canons and valleys, and helmeted with glittering
snow, fitly framed and finished the noble picture. The view was always
fascinating, bewitching, entrancing. The eye was never tired of gazing,
night or day, in calm or storm; it suffered but one grief, and that was
that it could not look always, but must close sometimes in sleep.
We slept in the sand close to the water's edge, between two protecting
boulders, which took care of the stormy night-winds for us. We never
took any paregoric to make us sleep. At the first break of dawn we were
always up and running foot-races to tone down excess of physical vigor
and exuberance of spirits. That is, Johnny was--but I held his hat.
While smoking the pipe of peace after breakfast we watched the sentinel
peaks put on the glory of the sun, and followed the conquering light as
it swept down among the shadows, and set the captive crags and forests
free. We watched the tinted pictures grow and brighten upon the water
till every little detail of forest, precipice and pinnacle was wrought in
and finished, and the miracle of the enchanter complete. Then to
That is, drifting around in the boat. We were on the north shore.
There, the rocks on the bottom are sometimes gray, sometimes white.
This gives the marvelous transparency of the water a fuller advantage
than it has elsewhere on the lake. We usually pushed out a hundred yards
or so from shore, and then lay down on the thwarts, in the sun, and let
the boat drift by the hour whither it would. We seldom talked.
It interrupted the Sabbath stillness, and marred the dreams the luxurious
rest and indolence brought. The shore all along was indented with deep,
curved bays and coves, bordered by narrow sand-beaches; and where the
sand ended, the steep mountain-sides rose right up aloft into space--rose
up like a vast wall a little out of the perpendicular, and thickly wooded
with tall pines.
So singularly clear was the water, that where it was only twenty or
thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat
seemed floating in the air! Yes, where it was even eighty feet deep.
Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every
hand's-breadth of sand. Often, as we lay on our faces, a granite
boulder, as large as a village church, would start out of the bottom
apparently, and seem climbing up rapidly to the surface, till presently
it threatened to touch our faces, and we could not resist the impulse to
seize an oar and avert the danger. But the boat would float on, and the
boulder descend again, and then we could see that when we had been
exactly above it, it must still have been twenty or thirty feet below the
surface. Down through the transparency of these great depths, the water
was not merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so. All objects
seen through it had a bright, strong vividness, not only of outline, but
of every minute detail, which they would not have had when seen simply
through the same depth of atmosphere. So empty and airy did all spaces
seem below us, and so strong was the sense of floating high aloft in
mid-nothingness, that we called these boat-excursions "balloon-voyages."
We fished a good deal, but we did not average one fish a week. We could
see trout by the thousand winging about in the emptiness under us, or
sleeping in shoals on the bottom, but they would not bite--they could see
the line too plainly, perhaps. We frequently selected the trout we
wanted, and rested the bait patiently and persistently on the end of his
nose at a depth of eighty feet, but he would only shake it off with an
annoyed manner, and shift his position.
We bathed occasionally, but the water was rather chilly, for all it
looked so sunny. Sometimes we rowed out to the "blue water," a mile or
two from shore. It was as dead blue as indigo there, because of the
immense depth. By official measurement the lake in its centre is one
thousand five hundred and twenty-five feet deep!
Sometimes, on lazy afternoons, we lolled on the sand in camp, and smoked
pipes and read some old well-worn novels. At night, by the camp-fire, we
played euchre and seven-up to strengthen the mind--and played them with
cards so greasy and defaced that only a whole summer's acquaintance with
them could enable the student to tell the ace of clubs from the jack of
We never slept in our "house." It never recurred to us, for one thing;
and besides, it was built to hold the ground, and that was enough. We
did not wish to strain it.
By and by our provisions began to run short, and we went back to the old
camp and laid in a new supply. We were gone all day, and reached home
again about night-fall, pretty tired and hungry. While Johnny was
carrying the main bulk of the provisions up to our "house" for future
use, I took the loaf of bread, some slices of bacon, and the coffee-pot,
ashore, set them down by a tree, lit a fire, and went back to the boat to
get the frying-pan. While I was at this, I heard a shout from Johnny,
and looking up I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises!
Johnny was on the other side of it. He had to run through the flames to
get to the lake shore, and then we stood helpless and watched the
The ground was deeply carpeted with dry pine-needles, and the fire
touched them off as if they were gunpowder. It was wonderful to see with
what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled! My coffee-pot was
gone, and everything with it. In a minute and a half the fire seized
upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chapparal six or eight feet high,
and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific.
We were driven to the boat by the intense heat, and there we remained,
Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of
flame! It went surging up adjacent ridges--surmounted them and
disappeared in the canons beyond--burst into view upon higher and farther
ridges, presently--shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again
--flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the
mountain-side--threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and
sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among remote ramparts and
ribs and gorges, till as far as the eye could reach the lofty
mountain-fronts were webbed as it were with a tangled network of red lava
streams. Away across the water the crags and domes were lit with a ruddy
glare, and the firmament above was a reflected hell!
Every feature of the spectacle was repeated in the glowing mirror of the
lake! Both pictures were sublime, both were beautiful; but that in the
lake had a bewildering richness about it that enchanted the eye and held
it with the stronger fascination.
We sat absorbed and motionless through four long hours. We never thought
of supper, and never felt fatigue. But at eleven o'clock the
conflagration had traveled beyond our range of vision, and then darkness
stole down upon the landscape again.
Hunger asserted itself now, but there was nothing to eat. The provisions
were all cooked, no doubt, but we did not go to see. We were homeless
wanderers again, without any property. Our fence was gone, our house
burned down; no insurance. Our pine forest was well scorched, the dead
trees all burned up, and our broad acres of manzanita swept away. Our
blankets were on our usual sand-bed, however, and so we lay down and went
to sleep. The next morning we started back to the old camp, but while
out a long way from shore, so great a storm came up that we dared not try
to land. So I baled out the seas we shipped, and Johnny pulled heavily
through the billows till we had reached a point three or four miles
beyond the camp. The storm was increasing, and it became evident that it
was better to take the hazard of beaching the boat than go down in a
hundred fathoms of water; so we ran in, with tall white-caps following,
and I sat down in the stern-sheets and pointed her head-on to the shore.
The instant the bow struck, a wave came over the stern that washed crew
and cargo ashore, and saved a deal of trouble. We shivered in the lee of
a boulder all the rest of the day, and froze all the night through. In
the morning the tempest had gone down, and we paddled down to the camp
without any unnecessary delay. We were so starved that we ate up the
rest of the Brigade's provisions, and then set out to Carson to tell them
about it and ask their forgiveness. It was accorded, upon payment of
We made many trips to the lake after that, and had many a hair-breadth
escape and blood-curdling adventure which will never be recorded in any
I resolved to have a horse to ride. I had never seen such wild, free,
magnificent horsemanship outside of a circus as these picturesquely-clad
Mexicans, Californians and Mexicanized Americans displayed in Carson
streets every day. How they rode! Leaning just gently forward out of
the perpendicular, easy and nonchalant, with broad slouch-hat brim blown
square up in front, and long riata swinging above the head, they swept
through the town like the wind! The next minute they were only a sailing
puff of dust on the far desert. If they trotted, they sat up gallantly
and gracefully, and seemed part of the horse; did not go jiggering up and
down after the silly Miss-Nancy fashion of the riding-schools. I had
quickly learned to tell a horse from a cow, and was full of anxiety to
learn more. I was resolved to buy a horse.
While the thought was rankling in my mind, the auctioneer came skurrying
through the plaza on a black beast that had as many humps and corners on
him as a dromedary, and was necessarily uncomely; but he was "going,
going, at twenty-two!--horse, saddle and bridle at twenty-two dollars,
gentlemen!" and I could hardly resist.
A man whom I did not know (he turned out to be the auctioneer's brother)
noticed the wistful look in my eye, and observed that that was a very
remarkable horse to be going at such a price; and added that the saddle
alone was worth the money. It was a Spanish saddle, with ponderous
'tapidaros', and furnished with the ungainly sole-leather covering with
the unspellable name. I said I had half a notion to bid. Then this
keen-eyed person appeared to me to be "taking my measure"; but I
dismissed the suspicion when he spoke, for his manner was full of
guileless candor and truthfulness. Said he:
"I know that horse--know him well. You are a stranger, I take it, and so
you might think he was an American horse, maybe, but I assure you he is
not. He is nothing of the kind; but--excuse my speaking in a low voice,
other people being near--he is, without the shadow of a doubt, a Genuine
I did not know what a Genuine Mexican Plug was, but there was something
about this man's way of saying it, that made me swear inwardly that I
would own a Genuine Mexican Plug, or die.
"Has he any other--er--advantages?" I inquired, suppressing what
eagerness I could.
He hooked his forefinger in the pocket of my army-shirt, led me to one
side, and breathed in my ear impressively these words:
"He can out-buck anything in America!"
"Going, going, going--at twent--ty--four dollars and a half, gen--"
"Twenty-seven!" I shouted, in a frenzy.
"And sold!" said the auctioneer, and passed over the Genuine Mexican Plug
I could scarcely contain my exultation. I paid the money, and put the
animal in a neighboring livery-stable to dine and rest himself.
In the afternoon I brought the creature into the plaza, and certain
citizens held him by the head, and others by the tail, while I mounted
him. As soon as they let go, he placed all his feet in a bunch together,
lowered his back, and then suddenly arched it upward, and shot me
straight into the air a matter of three or four feet! I came as straight
down again, lit in the saddle, went instantly up again, came down almost
on the high pommel, shot up again, and came down on the horse's neck--all
in the space of three or four seconds. Then he rose and stood almost
straight up on his hind feet, and I, clasping his lean neck desperately,
slid back into the saddle and held on. He came down, and immediately
hoisted his heels into the air, delivering a vicious kick at the sky, and
stood on his forefeet. And then down he came once more, and began the
original exercise of shooting me straight up again. The third time I
went up I heard a stranger say:
"Oh, don't he buck, though!"
While I was up, somebody struck the horse a sounding thwack with a
leathern strap, and when I arrived again the Genuine Mexican Plug was not
there. A California youth chased him up and caught him, and asked if he
might have a ride. I granted him that luxury. He mounted the Genuine,
got lifted into the air once, but sent his spurs home as he descended,
and the horse darted away like a telegram. He soared over three fences
like a bird, and disappeared down the road toward the Washoe Valley.
I sat down on a stone, with a sigh, and by a natural impulse one of my
hands sought my forehead, and the other the base of my stomach. I
believe I never appreciated, till then, the poverty of the human
machinery--for I still needed a hand or two to place elsewhere. Pen
cannot describe how I was jolted up. Imagination cannot conceive how
disjointed I was--how internally, externally and universally I was
unsettled, mixed up and ruptured. There was a sympathetic crowd around
One elderly-looking comforter said:
"Stranger, you've been taken in. Everybody in this camp knows that
horse. Any child, any Injun, could have told you that he'd buck; he is
the very worst devil to buck on the continent of America. You hear me.
I'm Curry. Old Curry. Old Abe Curry. And moreover, he is a simon-pure,
out-and-out, genuine d--d Mexican plug, and an uncommon mean one at that,
too. Why, you turnip, if you had laid low and kept dark, there's chances
to buy an American horse for mighty little more than you paid for that
bloody old foreign relic."
I gave no sign; but I made up my mind that if the auctioneer's brother's
funeral took place while I was in the Territory I would postpone all
other recreations and attend it.
After a gallop of sixteen miles the Californian youth and the Genuine
Mexican Plug came tearing into town again, shedding foam-flakes like the
spume-spray that drives before a typhoon, and, with one final skip over a
wheelbarrow and a Chinaman, cast anchor in front of the "ranch."
Such panting and blowing! Such spreading and contracting of the red
equine nostrils, and glaring of the wild equine eye! But was the
imperial beast subjugated? Indeed he was not.
His lordship the Speaker of the House thought he was, and mounted him to
go down to the Capitol; but the first dash the creature made was over a
pile of telegraph poles half as high as a church; and his time to the
Capitol--one mile and three quarters--remains unbeaten to this day. But
then he took an advantage--he left out the mile, and only did the three
quarters. That is to say, he made a straight cut across lots, preferring
fences and ditches to a crooked road; and when the Speaker got to the
Capitol he said he had been in the air so much he felt as if he had made
the trip on a comet.
In the evening the Speaker came home afoot for exercise, and got the
Genuine towed back behind a quartz wagon. The next day I loaned the
animal to the Clerk of the House to go down to the Dana silver mine, six
miles, and he walked back for exercise, and got the horse towed.
Everybody I loaned him to always walked back; they never could get enough
exercise any other way.
Still, I continued to loan him to anybody who was willing to borrow him,
my idea being to get him crippled, and throw him on the borrower's hands,
or killed, and make the borrower pay for him. But somehow nothing ever
happened to him. He took chances that no other horse ever took and
survived, but he always came out safe. It was his daily habit to try
experiments that had always before been considered impossible, but he
always got through. Sometimes he miscalculated a little, and did not get
his rider through intact, but he always got through himself. Of course I
had tried to sell him; but that was a stretch of simplicity which met
with little sympathy. The auctioneer stormed up and down the streets on
him for four days, dispersing the populace, interrupting business, and
destroying children, and never got a bid--at least never any but the
eighteen-dollar one he hired a notoriously substanceless bummer to make.
The people only smiled pleasantly, and restrained their desire to buy, if
they had any. Then the auctioneer brought in his bill, and I withdrew
the horse from the market. We tried to trade him off at private vendue
next, offering him at a sacrifice for second-hand tombstones, old iron,
temperance tracts--any kind of property. But holders were stiff, and we
retired from the market again. I never tried to ride the horse any more.
Walking was good enough exercise for a man like me, that had nothing the
matter with him except ruptures, internal injuries, and such things.
Finally I tried to give him away. But it was a failure. Parties said
earthquakes were handy enough on the Pacific coast--they did not wish to
own one. As a last resort I offered him to the Governor for the use of
the "Brigade." His face lit up eagerly at first, but toned down again,
and he said the thing would be too palpable.
Just then the livery stable man brought in his bill for six weeks'
keeping--stall-room for the horse, fifteen dollars; hay for the horse,
two hundred and fifty! The Genuine Mexican Plug had eaten a ton of the
article, and the man said he would have eaten a hundred if he had let
I will remark here, in all seriousness, that the regular price of hay
during that year and a part of the next was really two hundred and fifty
dollars a ton. During a part of the previous year it had sold at five
hundred a ton, in gold, and during the winter before that there was such
scarcity of the article that in several instances small quantities had
brought eight hundred dollars a ton in coin! The consequence might be
guessed without my telling it: peopled turned their stock loose to
starve, and before the spring arrived Carson and Eagle valleys were
almost literally carpeted with their carcases! Any old settler there
will verify these statements.
I managed to pay the livery bill, and that same day I gave the Genuine
Mexican Plug to a passing Arkansas emigrant whom fortune delivered into
my hand. If this ever meets his eye, he will doubtless remember the
Now whoever has had the luck to ride a real Mexican plug will recognize
the animal depicted in this chapter, and hardly consider him exaggerated
--but the uninitiated will feel justified in regarding his portrait as a
fancy sketch, perhaps.
Originally, Nevada was a part of Utah and was called Carson county; and a
pretty large county it was, too. Certain of its valleys produced no end
of hay, and this attracted small colonies of Mormon stock-raisers and
farmers to them. A few orthodox Americans straggled in from California,
but no love was lost between the two classes of colonists. There was
little or no friendly intercourse; each party staid to itself. The
Mormons were largely in the majority, and had the additional advantage of
being peculiarly under the protection of the Mormon government of the
Territory. Therefore they could afford to be distant, and even
peremptory toward their neighbors. One of the traditions of Carson
Valley illustrates the condition of things that prevailed at the time I
speak of. The hired girl of one of the American families was Irish, and
a Catholic; yet it was noted with surprise that she was the only person
outside of the Mormon ring who could get favors from the Mormons. She
asked kindnesses of them often, and always got them. It was a mystery to
everybody. But one day as she was passing out at the door, a large bowie
knife dropped from under her apron, and when her mistress asked for an
explanation she observed that she was going out to "borry a wash-tub from
In 1858 silver lodes were discovered in "Carson County," and then the
aspect of things changed. Californians began to flock in, and the
American element was soon in the majority. Allegiance to Brigham Young
and Utah was renounced, and a temporary territorial government for
"Washoe" was instituted by the citizens. Governor Roop was the first and
only chief magistrate of it. In due course of time Congress passed a
bill to organize "Nevada Territory," and President Lincoln sent out
Governor Nye to supplant Roop.
At this time the population of the Territory was about twelve or fifteen
thousand, and rapidly increasing. Silver mines were being vigorously
developed and silver mills erected. Business of all kinds was active and
prosperous and growing more so day by day.
The people were glad to have a legitimately constituted government, but
did not particularly enjoy having strangers from distant States put in
authority over them--a sentiment that was natural enough. They thought
the officials should have been chosen from among themselves from among
prominent citizens who had earned a right to such promotion, and who
would be in sympathy with the populace and likewise thoroughly acquainted
with the needs of the Territory. They were right in viewing the matter
thus, without doubt. The new officers were "emigrants," and that was no
title to anybody's affection or admiration either.
The new government was received with considerable coolness. It was not
only a foreign intruder, but a poor one. It was not even worth plucking
--except by the smallest of small fry office-seekers and such. Everybody
knew that Congress had appropriated only twenty thousand dollars a year
in greenbacks for its support--about money enough to run a quartz mill a
month. And everybody knew, also, that the first year's money was still
in Washington, and that the getting hold of it would be a tedious and
difficult process. Carson City was too wary and too wise to open up a
credit account with the imported bantling with anything like indecent
There is something solemnly funny about the struggles of a new-born
Territorial government to get a start in this world. Ours had a trying
time of it. The Organic Act and the "instructions" from the State
Department commanded that a legislature should be elected at
such-and-such a time, and its sittings inaugurated at such-and-such a
date. It was easy to get legislators, even at three dollars a day,
although board was four dollars and fifty cents, for distinction has its
charm in Nevada as well as elsewhere, and there were plenty of patriotic
souls out of employment; but to get a legislative hall for them to meet
in was another matter altogether. Carson blandly declined to give a room
rent-free, or let one to the government on credit.
But when Curry heard of the difficulty, he came forward, solitary and
alone, and shouldered the Ship of State over the bar and got her afloat
again. I refer to "Curry--Old Curry--Old Abe Curry." But for him the
legislature would have been obliged to sit in the desert. He offered his
large stone building just outside the capital limits, rent-free, and it
was gladly accepted. Then he built a horse-railroad from town to the
capitol, and carried the legislators gratis.
He also furnished pine benches and chairs for the legislature, and
covered the floors with clean saw-dust by way of carpet and spittoon
combined. But for Curry the government would have died in its tender
infancy. A canvas partition to separate the Senate from the House of
Representatives was put up by the Secretary, at a cost of three dollars
and forty cents, but the United States declined to pay for it. Upon
being reminded that the "instructions" permitted the payment of a liberal
rent for a legislative hall, and that that money was saved to the country
by Mr. Curry's generosity, the United States said that did not alter the
matter, and the three dollars and forty cents would be subtracted from
the Secretary's eighteen hundred dollar salary--and it was!
The matter of printing was from the beginning an interesting feature of
the new government's difficulties. The Secretary was sworn to obey his
volume of written "instructions," and these commanded him to do two
certain things without fail, viz.:
1. Get the House and Senate journals printed; and,
2. For this work, pay one dollar and fifty cents per "thousand" for
composition, and one dollar and fifty cents per "token" for press-work,
It was easy to swear to do these two things, but it was entirely
impossible to do more than one of them. When greenbacks had gone down to
forty cents on the dollar, the prices regularly charged everybody by
printing establishments were one dollar and fifty cents per "thousand"
and one dollar and fifty cents per "token," in gold. The "instructions"
commanded that the Secretary regard a paper dollar issued by the
government as equal to any other dollar issued by the government. Hence
the printing of the journals was discontinued. Then the United States
sternly rebuked the Secretary for disregarding the "instructions," and
warned him to correct his ways. Wherefore he got some printing done,
forwarded the bill to Washington with full exhibits of the high prices of
things in the Territory, and called attention to a printed market report
wherein it would be observed that even hay was two hundred and fifty
dollars a ton. The United States responded by subtracting the
printing-bill from the Secretary's suffering salary--and moreover
remarked with dense gravity that he would find nothing in his
"instructions" requiring him to purchase hay!
Nothing in this world is palled in such impenetrable obscurity as a U.S.
Treasury Comptroller's understanding. The very fires of the hereafter
could get up nothing more than a fitful glimmer in it. In the days I
speak of he never could be made to comprehend why it was that twenty
thousand dollars would not go as far in Nevada, where all commodities
ranged at an enormous figure, as it would in the other Territories, where
exceeding cheapness was the rule. He was an officer who looked out for
the little expenses all the time. The Secretary of the Territory kept
his office in his bedroom, as I before remarked; and he charged the
United States no rent, although his "instructions" provided for that item
and he could have justly taken advantage of it (a thing which I would
have done with more than lightning promptness if I had been Secretary
myself). But the United States never applauded this devotion. Indeed, I
think my country was ashamed to have so improvident a person in its
Those "instructions" (we used to read a chapter from them every morning,
as intellectual gymnastics, and a couple of chapters in Sunday school
every Sabbath, for they treated of all subjects under the sun and had
much valuable religious matter in them along with the other statistics)
those "instructions" commanded that pen-knives, envelopes, pens and
writing-paper be furnished the members of the legislature. So the
Secretary made the purchase and the distribution. The knives cost three
dollars apiece. There was one too many, and the Secretary gave it to the
Clerk of the House of Representatives. The United States said the Clerk
of the House was not a "member" of the legislature, and took that three
dollars out of the Secretary's salary, as usual.
White men charged three or four dollars a "load" for sawing up
stove-wood. The Secretary was sagacious enough to know that the United
States would never pay any such price as that; so he got an Indian to saw
up a load of office wood at one dollar and a half. He made out the usual
voucher, but signed no name to it--simply appended a note explaining that
an Indian had done the work, and had done it in a very capable and
satisfactory way, but could not sign the voucher owing to lack of ability
in the necessary direction. The Secretary had to pay that dollar and a
half. He thought the United States would admire both his economy and his
honesty in getting the work done at half price and not putting a
pretended Indian's signature to the voucher, but the United States did
not see it in that light.
The United States was too much accustomed to employing dollar-and-a-half
thieves in all manner of official capacities to regard his explanation of
the voucher as having any foundation in fact.
But the next time the Indian sawed wood for us I taught him to make a
cross at the bottom of the voucher--it looked like a cross that had been
drunk a year--and then I "witnessed" it and it went through all right.
The United States never said a word. I was sorry I had not made the
voucher for a thousand loads of wood instead of one.
The government of my country snubs honest simplicity but fondles artistic
villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable
pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two.
That was a fine collection of sovereigns, that first Nevada legislature.
They levied taxes to the amount of thirty or forty thousand dollars and
ordered expenditures to the extent of about a million. Yet they had
their little periodical explosions of economy like all other bodies of
the kind. A member proposed to save three dollars a day to the nation by
dispensing with the Chaplain. And yet that short-sighted man needed the
Chaplain more than any other member, perhaps, for he generally sat with
his feet on his desk, eating raw turnips, during the morning prayer.
The legislature sat sixty days, and passed private tollroad franchises
all the time. When they adjourned it was estimated that every citizen
owned about three franchises, and it was believed that unless Congress
gave the Territory another degree of longitude there would not be room
enough to accommodate the toll-roads. The ends of them were hanging over
the boundary line everywhere like a fringe.
The fact is, the freighting business had grown to such important
proportions that there was nearly as much excitement over suddenly
acquired toll-road fortunes as over the wonderful silver mines.
By and by I was smitten with the silver fever. "Prospecting parties"
were leaving for the mountains every day, and discovering and taking
possession of rich silver-bearing lodes and ledges of quartz. Plainly
this was the road to fortune. The great "Gould and Curry" mine was held
at three or four hundred dollars a foot when we arrived; but in two
months it had sprung up to eight hundred. The "Ophir" had been worth
only a mere trifle, a year gone by, and now it was selling at nearly four
thousand dollars a foot! Not a mine could be named that had not
experienced an astonishing advance in value within a short time.
Everybody was talking about these marvels. Go where you would, you heard
nothing else, from morning till far into the night. Tom So-and-So had
sold out of the "Amanda Smith" for $40,000--hadn't a cent when he "took
up" the ledge six months ago. John Jones had sold half his interest in
the "Bald Eagle and Mary Ann" for $65,000, gold coin, and gone to the
States for his family. The widow Brewster had "struck it rich" in the
"Golden Fleece" and sold ten feet for $18,000--hadn't money enough to buy
a crape bonnet when Sing-Sing Tommy killed her husband at Baldy Johnson's
wake last spring. The "Last Chance" had found a "clay casing" and knew
they were "right on the ledge"--consequence, "feet" that went begging
yesterday were worth a brick house apiece to-day, and seedy owners who
could not get trusted for a drink at any bar in the country yesterday
were roaring drunk on champagne to-day and had hosts of warm personal
friends in a town where they had forgotten how to bow or shake hands from
long-continued want of practice. Johnny Morgan, a common loafer, had
gone to sleep in the gutter and waked up worth a hundred thousand
dollars, in consequence of the decision in the "Lady Franklin and Rough
and Ready" lawsuit. And so on--day in and day out the talk pelted our
ears and the excitement waxed hotter and hotter around us.
I would have been more or less than human if I had not gone mad like the
rest. Cart-loads of solid silver bricks, as large as pigs of lead, were
arriving from the mills every day, and such sights as that gave substance
to the wild talk about me. I succumbed and grew as frenzied as the
Every few days news would come of the discovery of a bran-new mining
region; immediately the papers would teem with accounts of its richness,
and away the surplus population would scamper to take possession. By the
time I was fairly inoculated with the disease, "Esmeralda" had just had a
run and "Humboldt" was beginning to shriek for attention. "Humboldt!
Humboldt!" was the new cry, and straightway Humboldt, the newest of the
new, the richest of the rich, the most marvellous of the marvellous
discoveries in silver-land was occupying two columns of the public prints
to "Esmeralda's" one. I was just on the point of starting to Esmeralda,
but turned with the tide and got ready for Humboldt. That the reader may
see what moved me, and what would as surely have moved him had he been
there, I insert here one of the newspaper letters of the day. It and
several other letters from the same calm hand were the main means of
converting me. I shall not garble the extract, but put it in just as it
appeared in the Daily Territorial Enterprise:
But what about our mines? I shall be candid with you. I shall
express an honest opinion, based upon a thorough examination.
Humboldt county is the richest mineral region upon God's footstool.
Each mountain range is gorged with the precious ores. Humboldt is
the true Golconda.
The other day an assay of mere croppings yielded exceeding four
thousand dollars to the ton. A week or two ago an assay of just
such surface developments made returns of seven thousand dollars to
the ton. Our mountains are full of rambling prospectors. Each day
and almost every hour reveals new and more startling evidences of
the profuse and intensified wealth of our favored county. The metal
is not silver alone. There are distinct ledges of auriferous ore.
A late discovery plainly evinces cinnabar. The coarser metals are
in gross abundance. Lately evidences of bituminous coal have been
detected. My theory has ever been that coal is a ligneous
formation. I told Col. Whitman, in times past, that the
neighborhood of Dayton (Nevada) betrayed no present or previous
manifestations of a ligneous foundation, and that hence I had no
confidence in his lauded coal mines. I repeated the same doctrine
to the exultant coal discoverers of Humboldt. I talked with my
friend Captain Burch on the subject. My pyrhanism vanished upon his
statement that in the very region referred to he had seen petrified
trees of the length of two hundred feet. Then is the fact
established that huge forests once cast their grim shadows over this
remote section. I am firm in the coal faith.
Have no fears of the mineral resources of Humboldt county. They are
Let me state one or two things which will help the reader to better
comprehend certain items in the above. At this time, our near neighbor,
Gold Hill, was the most successful silver mining locality in Nevada. It
was from there that more than half the daily shipments of silver bricks
came. "Very rich" (and scarce) Gold Hill ore yielded from $100 to $400
to the ton; but the usual yield was only $20 to $40 per ton--that is to
say, each hundred pounds of ore yielded from one dollar to two dollars.
But the reader will perceive by the above extract, that in Humboldt from
one fourth to nearly half the mass was silver! That is to say, every one
hundred pounds of the ore had from two hundred dollars up to about three
hundred and fifty in it. Some days later this same correspondent wrote:
I have spoken of the vast and almost fabulous wealth of this
region--it is incredible. The intestines of our mountains are
gorged with precious ore to plethora. I have said that nature
has so shaped our mountains as to furnish most excellent
facilities for the working of our mines. I have also told you
that the country about here is pregnant with the finest mill
sites in the world. But what is the mining history of Humboldt?
The Sheba mine is in the hands of energetic San Francisco
capitalists. It would seem that the ore is combined with metals
that render it difficult of reduction with our imperfect mountain
machinery. The proprietors have combined the capital and labor
hinted at in my exordium. They are toiling and probing. Their
tunnel has reached the length of one hundred feet. From primal
assays alone, coupled with the development of the mine and public
confidence in the continuance of effort, the stock had reared
itself to eight hundred dollars market value. I do not know that
one ton of the ore has been converted into current metal. I do
know that there are many lodes in this section that surpass the
Sheba in primal assay value. Listen a moment to the calculations
of the Sheba operators. They purpose transporting the ore
concentrated to Europe. The conveyance from Star City (its
locality) to Virginia City will cost seventy dollars per ton;
from Virginia to San Francisco, forty dollars per ton; from
thence to Liverpool, its destination, ten dollars per ton. Their
idea is that its conglomerate metals will reimburse them their
cost of original extraction, the price of transportation, and the
expense of reduction, and that then a ton of the raw ore will net
them twelve hundred dollars. The estimate may be extravagant.
Cut it in twain, and the product is enormous, far transcending
any previous developments of our racy Territory.
A very common calculation is that many of our mines will yield
five hundred dollars to the ton. Such fecundity throws the Gould
& Curry, the Ophir and the Mexican, of your neighborhood, in the
darkest shadow. I have given you the estimate of the value of a
single developed mine. Its richness is indexed by its market
valuation. The people of Humboldt county are feet crazy. As I
write, our towns are near deserted. They look as languid as a
consumptive girl. What has become of our sinewy and athletic
fellow-citizens? They are coursing through ravines and over
mountain tops. Their tracks are visible in every direction.
Occasionally a horseman will dash among us. His steed betrays
hard usage. He alights before his adobe dwelling, hastily
exchanges courtesies with his townsmen, hurries to an assay
office and from thence to the District Recorder's. In the
morning, having renewed his provisional supplies, he is off again
on his wild and unbeaten route. Why, the fellow numbers already
his feet by the thousands. He is the horse-leech. He has the
craving stomach of the shark or anaconda. He would conquer
This was enough. The instant we had finished reading the above article,
four of us decided to go to Humboldt. We commenced getting ready at
once. And we also commenced upbraiding ourselves for not deciding
sooner--for we were in terror lest all the rich mines would be found and
secured before we got there, and we might have to put up with ledges that
would not yield more than two or three hundred dollars a ton, maybe. An
hour before, I would have felt opulent if I had owned ten feet in a Gold
Hill mine whose ore produced twenty-five dollars to the ton; now I was
already annoyed at the prospect of having to put up with mines the
poorest of which would be a marvel in Gold Hill.
Hurry, was the word! We wasted no time. Our party consisted of four
persons--a blacksmith sixty years of age, two young lawyers, and myself.
We bought a wagon and two miserable old horses. We put eighteen hundred
pounds of provisions and mining tools in the wagon and drove out of
Carson on a chilly December afternoon. The horses were so weak and old
that we soon found that it would be better if one or two of us got out
and walked. It was an improvement. Next, we found that it would be
better if a third man got out. That was an improvement also. It was at
this time that I volunteered to drive, although I had never driven a
harnessed horse before and many a man in such a position would have felt
fairly excused from such a responsibility. But in a little while it was
found that it would be a fine thing if the drive got out and walked also.
It was at this time that I resigned the position of driver, and never
resumed it again. Within the hour, we found that it would not only be
better, but was absolutely necessary, that we four, taking turns, two at
a time, should put our hands against the end of the wagon and push it
through the sand, leaving the feeble horses little to do but keep out of
the way and hold up the tongue. Perhaps it is well for one to know his
fate at first, and get reconciled to it. We had learned ours in one
afternoon. It was plain that we had to walk through the sand and shove
that wagon and those horses two hundred miles. So we accepted the
situation, and from that time forth we never rode. More than that, we
stood regular and nearly constant watches pushing up behind.
We made seven miles, and camped in the desert. Young Clagett (now member
of Congress from Montana) unharnessed and fed and watered the horses;
Oliphant and I cut sagebrush, built the fire and brought water to cook
with; and old Mr. Ballou the blacksmith did the cooking. This division
of labor, and this appointment, was adhered to throughout the journey.
We had no tent, and so we slept under our blankets in the open plain. We
were so tired that we slept soundly.
We were fifteen days making the trip--two hundred miles; thirteen,
rather, for we lay by a couple of days, in one place, to let the horses
We could really have accomplished the journey in ten days if we had towed
the horses behind the wagon, but we did not think of that until it was
too late, and so went on shoving the horses and the wagon too when we
might have saved half the labor. Parties who met us, occasionally,
advised us to put the horses in the wagon, but Mr. Ballou, through whose
iron-clad earnestness no sarcasm could pierce, said that that would not
do, because the provisions were exposed and would suffer, the horses
being "bituminous from long deprivation." The reader will excuse me from
translating. What Mr. Ballou customarily meant, when he used a long
word, was a secret between himself and his Maker. He was one of the best
and kindest hearted men that ever graced a humble sphere of life. He was
gentleness and simplicity itself--and unselfishness, too. Although he
was more than twice as old as the eldest of us, he never gave himself any
airs, privileges, or exemptions on that account. He did a young man's
share of the work; and did his share of conversing and entertaining from
the general stand-point of any age--not from the arrogant, overawing
summit-height of sixty years. His one striking peculiarity was his
Partingtonian fashion of loving and using big words for their own sakes,
and independent of any bearing they might have upon the thought he was
purposing to convey. He always let his ponderous syllables fall with an
easy unconsciousness that left them wholly without offensiveness.
In truth his air was so natural and so simple that one was always
catching himself accepting his stately sentences as meaning something,
when they really meant nothing in the world. If a word was long and
grand and resonant, that was sufficient to win the old man's love, and he
would drop that word into the most out-of-the-way place in a sentence or
a subject, and be as pleased with it as if it were perfectly luminous
We four always spread our common stock of blankets together on the frozen
ground, and slept side by side; and finding that our foolish, long-legged
hound pup had a deal of animal heat in him, Oliphant got to admitting him
to the bed, between himself and Mr. Ballou, hugging the dog's warm back
to his breast and finding great comfort in it. But in the night the pup
would get stretchy and brace his feet against the old man's back and
shove, grunting complacently the while; and now and then, being warm and
snug, grateful and happy, he would paw the old man's back simply in
excess of comfort; and at yet other times he would dream of the chase and
in his sleep tug at the old man's back hair and bark in his ear. The old
gentleman complained mildly about these familiarities, at last, and when
he got through with his statement he said that such a dog as that was not
a proper animal to admit to bed with tired men, because he was "so
meretricious in his movements and so organic in his emotions." We turned
the dog out.
It was a hard, wearing, toilsome journey, but it had its bright side; for
after each day was done and our wolfish hunger appeased with a hot supper
of fried bacon, bread, molasses and black coffee, the pipe-smoking,
song-singing and yarn-spinning around the evening camp-fire in the still
solitudes of the desert was a happy, care-free sort of recreation that
seemed the very summit and culmination of earthly luxury.
It is a kind of life that has a potent charm for all men, whether city or
country-bred. We are descended from desert-lounging Arabs, and countless
ages of growth toward perfect civilization have failed to root out of us
the nomadic instinct. We all confess to a gratified thrill at the
thought of "camping out."
Once we made twenty-five miles in a day, and once we made forty miles
(through the Great American Desert), and ten miles beyond--fifty in all
--in twenty-three hours, without halting to eat, drink or rest. To stretch
out and go to sleep, even on stony and frozen ground, after pushing a
wagon and two horses fifty miles, is a delight so supreme that for the
moment it almost seems cheap at the price.
We camped two days in the neighborhood of the "Sink of the Humboldt."
We tried to use the strong alkaline water of the Sink, but it would not
answer. It was like drinking lye, and not weak lye, either. It left a
taste in the mouth, bitter and every way execrable, and a burning in the
stomach that was very uncomfortable. We put molasses in it, but that
helped it very little; we added a pickle, yet the alkali was the
prominent taste and so it was unfit for drinking.
The coffee we made of this water was the meanest compound man has yet
invented. It was really viler to the taste than the unameliorated water
itself. Mr. Ballou, being the architect and builder of the beverage felt
constrained to endorse and uphold it, and so drank half a cup, by little
sips, making shift to praise it faintly the while, but finally threw out
the remainder, and said frankly it was "too technical for him."
But presently we found a spring of fresh water, convenient, and then,
with nothing to mar our enjoyment, and no stragglers to interrupt it, we
entered into our rest.
After leaving the Sink, we traveled along the Humboldt river a little
way. People accustomed to the monster mile-wide Mississippi, grow
accustomed to associating the term "river" with a high degree of watery
grandeur. Consequently, such people feel rather disappointed when they
stand on the shores of the Humboldt or the Carson and find that a "river"
in Nevada is a sickly rivulet which is just the counterpart of the Erie
canal in all respects save that the canal is twice as long and four times
as deep. One of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can
contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt river till he is
overheated, and then drink it dry.
On the fifteenth day we completed our march of two hundred miles and
entered Unionville, Humboldt county, in the midst of a driving
snow-storm. Unionville consisted of eleven cabins and a liberty-pole.
Six of the cabins were strung along one side of a deep canyon, and the
other five faced them. The rest of the landscape was made up of bleak
mountain walls that rose so high into the sky from both sides of the
canyon that the village was left, as it were, far down in the bottom of a
crevice. It was always daylight on the mountain tops a long time before
the darkness lifted and revealed Unionville.
We built a small, rude cabin in the side of the crevice and roofed it
with canvas, leaving a corner open to serve as a chimney, through which
the cattle used to tumble occasionally, at night, and mash our furniture
and interrupt our sleep. It was very cold weather and fuel was scarce.
Indians brought brush and bushes several miles on their backs; and when
we could catch a laden Indian it was well--and when we could not (which
was the rule, not the exception), we shivered and bore it.
I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying
all about the ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the
mountain summits. I said nothing about this, for some instinct told me
that I might possibly have an exaggerated idea about it, and so if I
betrayed my thought I might bring derision upon myself. Yet I was as
perfectly satisfied in my own mind as I could be of anything, that I was
going to gather up, in a day or two, or at furthest a week or two, silver
enough to make me satisfactorily wealthy--and so my fancy was already
busy with plans for spending this money. The first opportunity that
offered, I sauntered carelessly away from the cabin, keeping an eye on
the other boys, and stopping and contemplating the sky when they seemed
to be observing me; but as soon as the coast was manifestly clear, I fled
away as guiltily as a thief might have done and never halted till I was
far beyond sight and call. Then I began my search with a feverish
excitement that was brimful of expectation--almost of certainty.
I crawled about the ground, seizing and examining bits of stone, blowing
the dust from them or rubbing them on my clothes, and then peering at
them with anxious hope. Presently I found a bright fragment and my heart
bounded! I hid behind a boulder and polished it and scrutinized it with
a nervous eagerness and a delight that was more pronounced than absolute
certainty itself could have afforded. The more I examined the fragment
the more I was convinced that I had found the door to fortune. I marked
the spot and carried away my specimen. Up and down the rugged mountain
side I searched, with always increasing interest and always augmenting
gratitude that I had come to Humboldt and come in time. Of all the
experiences of my life, this secret search among the hidden treasures of
silver-land was the nearest to unmarred ecstasy. It was a delirious
By and by, in the bed of a shallow rivulet, I found a deposit of shining
yellow scales, and my breath almost forsook me! A gold mine, and in my
simplicity I had been content with vulgar silver! I was so excited that
I half believed my overwrought imagination was deceiving me. Then a fear
came upon me that people might be observing me and would guess my secret.
Moved by this thought, I made a circuit of the place, and ascended a
knoll to reconnoiter. Solitude. No creature was near. Then I returned
to my mine, fortifying myself against possible disappointment, but my
fears were groundless--the shining scales were still there. I set about
scooping them out, and for an hour I toiled down the windings of the
stream and robbed its bed. But at last the descending sun warned me to
give up the quest, and I turned homeward laden with wealth. As I walked
along I could not help smiling at the thought of my being so excited over
my fragment of silver when a nobler metal was almost under my nose. In
this little time the former had so fallen in my estimation that once or
twice I was on the point of throwing it away.
The boys were as hungry as usual, but I could eat nothing. Neither could
I talk. I was full of dreams and far away. Their conversation
interrupted the flow of my fancy somewhat, and annoyed me a little, too.
I despised the sordid and commonplace things they talked about. But as
they proceeded, it began to amuse me. It grew to be rare fun to hear
them planning their poor little economies and sighing over possible
privations and distresses when a gold mine, all our own, lay within sight
of the cabin and I could point it out at any moment. Smothered hilarity
began to oppress me, presently. It was hard to resist the impulse to
burst out with exultation and reveal everything; but I did resist. I
said within myself that I would filter the great news through my lips
calmly and be serene as a summer morning while I watched its effect in
their faces. I said:
"Where have you all been?"
"What did you find?"
"Nothing? What do you think of the country?"
"Can't tell, yet," said Mr. Ballou, who was an old gold miner, and had
likewise had considerable experience among the silver mines.
"Well, haven't you formed any sort of opinion?"
"Yes, a sort of a one. It's fair enough here, may be, but overrated.
Seven thousand dollar ledges are scarce, though.
"That Sheba may be rich enough, but we don't own it; and besides, the rock
is so full of base metals that all the science in the world can't work
it. We'll not starve, here, but we'll not get rich, I'm afraid."
"So you think the prospect is pretty poor?"
"No name for it!"
"Well, we'd better go back, hadn't we?"
"Oh, not yet--of course not. We'll try it a riffle, first."
"Suppose, now--this is merely a supposition, you know--suppose you could
find a ledge that would yield, say, a hundred and fifty dollars a ton
--would that satisfy you?"
"Try us once!" from the whole party.
"Or suppose--merely a supposition, of course--suppose you were to find a
ledge that would yield two thousand dollars a ton--would that satisfy
"Here--what do you mean? What are you coming at? Is there some mystery
behind all this?"
"Never mind. I am not saying anything. You know perfectly well there
are no rich mines here--of course you do. Because you have been around
and examined for yourselves. Anybody would know that, that had been
around. But just for the sake of argument, suppose--in a kind of general
way--suppose some person were to tell you that two-thousand-dollar ledges
were simply contemptible--contemptible, understand--and that right yonder
in sight of this very cabin there were piles of pure gold and pure
silver--oceans of it--enough to make you all rich in twenty-four hours!
"I should say he was as crazy as a loon!" said old Ballou, but wild with
"Gentlemen," said I, "I don't say anything--I haven't been around, you
know, and of course don't know anything--but all I ask of you is to cast
your eye on that, for instance, and tell me what you think of it!" and I
tossed my treasure before them.
There was an eager scramble for it, and a closing of heads together over
it under the candle-light. Then old Ballou said:
"Think of it? I think it is nothing but a lot of granite rubbish and
nasty glittering mica that isn't worth ten cents an acre!"
So vanished my dream. So melted my wealth away. So toppled my airy
castle to the earth and left me stricken and forlorn.
Moralizing, I observed, then, that "all that glitters is not gold."
Mr. Ballou said I could go further than that, and lay it up among my
treasures of knowledge, that nothing that glitters is gold. So I learned
then, once for all, that gold in its native state is but dull,
unornamental stuff, and that only low-born metals excite the admiration
of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of
the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of
mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that.
True knowledge of the nature of silver mining came fast enough. We went
out "prospecting" with Mr. Ballou. We climbed the mountain sides, and
clambered among sage-brush, rocks and snow till we were ready to drop
with exhaustion, but found no silver--nor yet any gold. Day after day we
did this. Now and then we came upon holes burrowed a few feet into the
declivities and apparently abandoned; and now and then we found one or
two listless men still burrowing. But there was no appearance of silver.
These holes were the beginnings of tunnels, and the purpose was to drive
them hundreds of feet into the mountain, and some day tap the hidden
ledge where the silver was. Some day! It seemed far enough away, and
very hopeless and dreary. Day after day we toiled, and climbed and
searched, and we younger partners grew sicker and still sicker of the
promiseless toil. At last we halted under a beetling rampart of rock
which projected from the earth high upon the mountain. Mr. Ballou broke
off some fragments with a hammer, and examined them long and attentively
with a small eye-glass; threw them away and broke off more; said this
rock was quartz, and quartz was the sort of rock that contained silver.
Contained it! I had thought that at least it would be caked on the
outside of it like a kind of veneering. He still broke off pieces and
critically examined them, now and then wetting the piece with his tongue
and applying the glass. At last he exclaimed:
"We've got it!"
We were full of anxiety in a moment. The rock was clean and white, where
it was broken, and across it ran a ragged thread of blue. He said that
that little thread had silver in it, mixed with base metal, such as lead
and antimony, and other rubbish, and that there was a speck or two of
gold visible. After a great deal of effort we managed to discern some
little fine yellow specks, and judged that a couple of tons of them
massed together might make a gold dollar, possibly. We were not
jubilant, but Mr. Ballou said there were worse ledges in the world than
that. He saved what he called the "richest" piece of the rock, in order
to determine its value by the process called the "fire-assay." Then we
named the mine "Monarch of the Mountains" (modesty of nomenclature is not
a prominent feature in the mines), and Mr. Ballou wrote out and stuck up
the following "notice," preserving a copy to be entered upon the books in
the mining recorder's office in the town.
"We the undersigned claim three claims, of three hundred feet each
(and one for discovery), on this silver-bearing quartz lead or lode,
extending north and south from this notice, with all its dips,
spurs, and angles, variations and sinuosities, together with fifty
feet of ground on either side for working the same."
We put our names to it and tried to feel that our fortunes were made.
But when we talked the matter all over with Mr. Ballou, we felt depressed
and dubious. He said that this surface quartz was not all there was of
our mine; but that the wall or ledge of rock called the "Monarch of the
Mountains," extended down hundreds and hundreds of feet into the earth
--he illustrated by saying it was like a curb-stone, and maintained a
nearly uniform thickness-say twenty feet--away down into the bowels of
the earth, and was perfectly distinct from the casing rock on each side
of it; and that it kept to itself, and maintained its distinctive
character always, no matter how deep it extended into the earth or how
far it stretched itself through and across the hills and valleys. He
said it might be a mile deep and ten miles long, for all we knew; and
that wherever we bored into it above ground or below, we would find gold
and silver in it, but no gold or silver in the meaner rock it was cased
between. And he said that down in the great depths of the ledge was its
richness, and the deeper it went the richer it grew. Therefore, instead
of working here on the surface, we must either bore down into the rock
with a shaft till we came to where it was rich--say a hundred feet or so
--or else we must go down into the valley and bore a long tunnel into the
mountain side and tap the ledge far under the earth. To do either was
plainly the labor of months; for we could blast and bore only a few feet
a day--some five or six. But this was not all. He said that after we
got the ore out it must be hauled in wagons to a distant silver-mill,
ground up, and the silver extracted by a tedious and costly process. Our
fortune seemed a century away!
But we went to work. We decided to sink a shaft. So, for a week we
climbed the mountain, laden with picks, drills, gads, crowbars, shovels,
cans of blasting powder and coils of fuse and strove with might and main.
At first the rock was broken and loose and we dug it up with picks and
threw it out with shovels, and the hole progressed very well. But the
rock became more compact, presently, and gads and crowbars came into
play. But shortly nothing could make an impression but blasting powder.
That was the weariest work! One of us held the iron drill in its place
and another would strike with an eight-pound sledge--it was like driving
nails on a large scale. In the course of an hour or two the drill would
reach a depth of two or three feet, making a hole a couple of inches in
diameter. We would put in a charge of powder, insert half a yard of
fuse, pour in sand and gravel and ram it down, then light the fuse and
run. When the explosion came and the rocks and smoke shot into the air,
we would go back and find about a bushel of that hard, rebellious quartz
jolted out. Nothing more. One week of this satisfied me. I resigned.
Clagget and Oliphant followed. Our shaft was only twelve feet deep. We
decided that a tunnel was the thing we wanted.
So we went down the mountain side and worked a week; at the end of which
time we had blasted a tunnel about deep enough to hide a hogshead in, and
judged that about nine hundred feet more of it would reach the ledge.
I resigned again, and the other boys only held out one day longer.
We decided that a tunnel was not what we wanted. We wanted a ledge that
was already "developed." There were none in the camp.
We dropped the "Monarch" for the time being.
Meantime the camp was filling up with people, and there was a constantly
growing excitement about our Humboldt mines. We fell victims to the
epidemic and strained every nerve to acquire more "feet." We prospected
and took up new claims, put "notices" on them and gave them grandiloquent
names. We traded some of our "feet" for "feet" in other people's claims.
In a little while we owned largely in the "Gray Eagle," the "Columbiana,"
the "Branch Mint," the "Maria Jane," the "Universe," the
"Root-Hog-or-Die," the "Samson and Delilah," the "Treasure Trove," the
"Golconda," the "Sultana," the "Boomerang," the "Great Republic," the
"Grand Mogul," and fifty other "mines" that had never been molested by a
shovel or scratched with a pick. We had not less than thirty thousand
"feet" apiece in the "richest mines on earth" as the frenzied cant
phrased it--and were in debt to the butcher. We were stark mad with
excitement--drunk with happiness--smothered under mountains of
prospective wealth--arrogantly compassionate toward the plodding millions
who knew not our marvellous canyon--but our credit was not good at the
It was the strangest phase of life one can imagine. It was a beggars'
revel. There was nothing doing in the district--no mining--no milling
--no productive effort--no income--and not enough money in the entire camp
to buy a corner lot in an eastern village, hardly; and yet a stranger
would have supposed he was walking among bloated millionaires.
Prospecting parties swarmed out of town with the first flush of dawn, and
swarmed in again at nightfall laden with spoil--rocks. Nothing but
rocks. Every man's pockets were full of them; the floor of his cabin was
littered with them; they were disposed in labeled rows on his shelves.
I met men at every turn who owned from one thousand to thirty thousand
"feet" in undeveloped silver mines, every single foot of which they
believed would shortly be worth from fifty to a thousand dollars--and as
often as any other way they were men who had not twenty-five dollars in
the world. Every man you met had his new mine to boast of, and his
"specimens" ready; and if the opportunity offered, he would infallibly
back you into a corner and offer as a favor to you, not to him, to part
with just a few feet in the "Golden Age," or the "Sarah Jane," or some
other unknown stack of croppings, for money enough to get a "square meal"
with, as the phrase went. And you were never to reveal that he had made
you the offer at such a ruinous price, for it was only out of friendship
for you that he was willing to make the sacrifice. Then he would fish a
piece of rock out of his pocket, and after looking mysteriously around as
if he feared he might be waylaid and robbed if caught with such wealth in
his possession, he would dab the rock against his tongue, clap an
eyeglass to it, and exclaim:
"Look at that! Right there in that red dirt! See it? See the specks of
gold? And the streak of silver? That's from the Uncle Abe. There's a
hundred thousand tons like that in sight! Right in sight, mind you!
And when we get down on it and the ledge comes in solid, it will be the
richest thing in the world! Look at the assay! I don't want you to
believe me--look at the assay!"
Then he would get out a greasy sheet of paper which showed that the
portion of rock assayed had given evidence of containing silver and gold
in the proportion of so many hundreds or thousands of dollars to the ton.
I little knew, then, that the custom was to hunt out the richest piece of
rock and get it assayed! Very often, that piece, the size of a filbert,
was the only fragment in a ton that had a particle of metal in it--and
yet the assay made it pretend to represent the average value of the ton
of rubbish it came from!
On such a system of assaying as that, the Humboldt world had gone crazy.
On the authority of such assays its newspaper correspondents were
frothing about rock worth four and seven thousand dollars a ton!
And does the reader remember, a few pages back, the calculations, of a
quoted correspondent, whereby the ore is to be mined and shipped all the
way to England, the metals extracted, and the gold and silver contents
received back by the miners as clear profit, the copper, antimony and
other things in the ore being sufficient to pay all the expenses
incurred? Everybody's head was full of such "calculations" as those
--such raving insanity, rather. Few people took work into their
calculations--or outlay of money either; except the work and expenditures
of other people.
We never touched our tunnel or our shaft again. Why? Because we judged
that we had learned the real secret of success in silver mining--which
was, not to mine the silver ourselves by the sweat of our brows and the
labor of our hands, but to sell the ledges to the dull slaves of toil and
let them do the mining!
Before leaving Carson, the Secretary and I had purchased "feet" from
various Esmeralda stragglers. We had expected immediate returns of
bullion, but were only afflicted with regular and constant "assessments"
instead--demands for money wherewith to develop the said mines. These
assessments had grown so oppressive that it seemed necessary to look into
the matter personally. Therefore I projected a pilgrimage to Carson and
thence to Esmeralda. I bought a horse and started, in company with
Mr. Ballou and a gentleman named Ollendorff, a Prussian--not the party
who has inflicted so much suffering on the world with his wretched
foreign grammars, with their interminable repetitions of questions which
never have occurred and are never likely to occur in any conversation
among human beings. We rode through a snow-storm for two or three days,
and arrived at "Honey Lake Smith's," a sort of isolated inn on the Carson
river. It was a two-story log house situated on a small knoll in the
midst of the vast basin or desert through which the sickly Carson winds
its melancholy way. Close to the house were the Overland stage stables,
built of sun-dried bricks. There was not another building within several
leagues of the place. Towards sunset about twenty hay-wagons arrived and
camped around the house and all the teamsters came in to supper--a very,
very rough set. There were one or two Overland stage drivers there,
also, and half a dozen vagabonds and stragglers; consequently the house
was well crowded.
We walked out, after supper, and visited a small Indian camp in the
vicinity. The Indians were in a great hurry about something, and were
packing up and getting away as fast as they could. In their broken
English they said, "By'm-by, heap water!" and by the help of signs made
us understand that in their opinion a flood was coming. The weather was
perfectly clear, and this was not the rainy season. There was about a
foot of water in the insignificant river--or maybe two feet; the stream
was not wider than a back alley in a village, and its banks were scarcely
higher than a man's head.
So, where was the flood to come from? We canvassed the subject awhile
and then concluded it was a ruse, and that the Indians had some better
reason for leaving in a hurry than fears of a flood in such an
exceedingly dry time.
At seven in the evening we went to bed in the second story--with our
clothes on, as usual, and all three in the same bed, for every available
space on the floors, chairs, etc., was in request, and even then there
was barely room for the housing of the inn's guests. An hour later we
were awakened by a great turmoil, and springing out of bed we picked our
way nimbly among the ranks of snoring teamsters on the floor and got to
the front windows of the long room. A glance revealed a strange
spectacle, under the moonlight. The crooked Carson was full to the brim,
and its waters were raging and foaming in the wildest way--sweeping
around the sharp bends at a furious speed, and bearing on their surface a
chaos of logs, brush and all sorts of rubbish. A depression, where its
bed had once been, in other times, was already filling, and in one or two
places the water was beginning to wash over the main bank. Men were
flying hither and thither, bringing cattle and wagons close up to the
house, for the spot of high ground on which it stood extended only some
thirty feet in front and about a hundred in the rear. Close to the old
river bed just spoken of, stood a little log stable, and in this our
horses were lodged.
While we looked, the waters increased so fast in this place that in a few
minutes a torrent was roaring by the little stable and its margin
encroaching steadily on the logs. We suddenly realized that this flood
was not a mere holiday spectacle, but meant damage--and not only to the
small log stable but to the Overland buildings close to the main river,
for the waves had now come ashore and were creeping about the foundations
and invading the great hay-corral adjoining. We ran down and joined the
crowd of excited men and frightened animals. We waded knee-deep into the
log stable, unfastened the horses and waded out almost waist-deep, so
fast the waters increased. Then the crowd rushed in a body to the
hay-corral and began to tumble down the huge stacks of baled hay and roll
the bales up on the high ground by the house. Meantime it was discovered
that Owens, an overland driver, was missing, and a man ran to the large
stable, and wading in, boot-top deep, discovered him asleep in his bed,
awoke him, and waded out again. But Owens was drowsy and resumed his
nap; but only for a minute or two, for presently he turned in his bed,
his hand dropped over the side and came in contact with the cold water!
It was up level with the mattress! He waded out, breast-deep, almost,
and the next moment the sun-burned bricks melted down like sugar and the
big building crumbled to a ruin and was washed away in a twinkling.
At eleven o'clock only the roof of the little log stable was out of
water, and our inn was on an island in mid-ocean. As far as the eye
could reach, in the moonlight, there was no desert visible, but only a
level waste of shining water. The Indians were true prophets, but how
did they get their information? I am not able to answer the question.
We remained cooped up eight days and nights with that curious crew.
Swearing, drinking and card playing were the order of the day, and
occasionally a fight was thrown in for variety. Dirt and vermin--but let
us forget those features; their profusion is simply inconceivable--it is
better that they remain so.
There were two men----however, this chapter is long enough.
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