The mosquitoes

My brother had just been appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory–an
office of such majesty that it concentrated in itself the duties and
dignities of Treasurer, Comptroller, Secretary of State, and Acting
Governor in the Governor’s absence. A salary of eighteen hundred dollars
a year and the title of “Mr. Secretary,” gave to the great position an
air of wild and imposing grandeur. I was young and ignorant, and I
envied my brother. I coveted his distinction and his financial splendor,
but particularly and especially the long, strange journey he was going to
make, and the curious new world he was going to explore. He was going to
travel! I never had been away from home, and that word “travel” had a
seductive charm for me. Pretty soon he would be hundreds and hundreds of
miles away on the great plains and deserts, and among the mountains of
the Far West, and would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, and
antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and may be get hanged or
scalped, and have ever such a fine time, and write home and tell us all
about it, and be a hero. And he would see the gold mines and the silver
mines, and maybe go about of an afternoon when his work was done, and
pick up two or three pailfuls of shining slugs, and nuggets of gold and
silver on the hillside. And by and by he would become very rich, and
return home by sea, and be able to talk as calmly about San Francisco and
the ocean, and “the isthmus” as if it was nothing of any consequence to
have seen those marvels face to face. What I suffered in contemplating
his happiness, pen cannot describe. And so, when he offered me, in cold
blood, the sublime position of private secretary under him, it appeared
to me that the heavens and the earth passed away, and the firmament was
rolled together as a scroll! I had nothing more to desire. My
contentment was complete.

At the end of an hour or two I was ready for the journey. Not much
packing up was necessary, because we were going in the overland stage
from the Missouri frontier to Nevada, and passengers were only allowed a
small quantity of baggage apiece. There was no Pacific railroad in those
fine times of ten or twelve years ago–not a single rail of it.
I only proposed to stay in Nevada three months–I had no thought of
staying longer than that. I meant to see all I could that was new and
strange, and then hurry home to business. I little thought that I would
not see the end of that three-month pleasure excursion for six or seven
uncommonly long years!

I dreamed all night about Indians, deserts, and silver bars, and in due
time, next day, we took shipping at the St. Louis wharf on board a
steamboat bound up the Missouri River.

We were six days going from St. Louis to “St. Jo.”–a trip that was so
dull, and sleepy, and eventless that it has left no more impression on my
memory than if its duration had been six minutes instead of that many
days. No record is left in my mind, now, concerning it, but a confused
jumble of savage-looking snags, which we deliberately walked over with
one wheel or the other; and of reefs which we butted and butted, and then
retired from and climbed over in some softer place; and of sand-bars
which we roosted on occasionally, and rested, and then got out our
crutches and sparred over.

In fact, the boat might almost as well have gone to St. Jo. by land, for
she was walking most of the time, anyhow–climbing over reefs and
clambering over snags patiently and laboriously all day long. The
captain said she was a “bully” boat, and all she wanted was more “shear”
and a bigger wheel. I thought she wanted a pair of stilts, but I had the
deep sagacity not to say so.

The first thing we did on that glad evening that landed us at St. Joseph
was to hunt up the stage-office, and pay a hundred and fifty dollars
apiece for tickets per overland coach to Carson City, Nevada.

The next morning, bright and early, we took a hasty breakfast, and
hurried to the starting-place. Then an inconvenience presented itself
which we had not properly appreciated before, namely, that one cannot
make a heavy traveling trunk stand for twenty-five pounds of baggage
–because it weighs a good deal more. But that was all we could take
–twenty-five pounds each. So we had to snatch our trunks open, and make a
selection in a good deal of a hurry. We put our lawful twenty-five
pounds apiece all in one valise, and shipped the trunks back to St. Louis
again. It was a sad parting, for now we had no swallow-tail coats and
white kid gloves to wear at Pawnee receptions in the Rocky Mountains, and
no stove-pipe hats nor patent-leather boots, nor anything else necessary
to make life calm and peaceful. We were reduced to a war-footing. Each
of us put on a rough, heavy suit of clothing, woolen army shirt and
“stogy” boots included; and into the valise we crowded a few white
shirts, some under-clothing and such things. My brother, the Secretary,
took along about four pounds of United States statutes and six pounds of
Unabridged Dictionary; for we did not know–poor innocents–that such
things could be bought in San Francisco on one day and received in Carson
City the next. I was armed to the teeth with a pitiful little Smith &
Wesson’s seven-shooter, which carried a ball like a homoeopathic pill,
and it took the whole seven to make a dose for an adult. But I thought
it was grand. It appeared to me to be a dangerous weapon. It only had
one fault–you could not hit anything with it. One of our “conductors”
practiced awhile on a cow with it, and as long as she stood still and
behaved herself she was safe; but as soon as she went to moving about,
and he got to shooting at other things, she came to grief. The Secretary
had a small-sized Colt’s revolver strapped around him for protection
against the Indians, and to guard against accidents he carried it
uncapped. Mr. George Bemis was dismally formidable. George Bemis was
our fellow-traveler.

We had never seen him before. He wore in his belt an old original
“Allen” revolver, such as irreverent people called a “pepper-box.” Simply
drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger
came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over,
and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball.
To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat
which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world. But George’s
was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers
afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch
something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed
against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to
the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with
a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow. It was a
cheerful weapon–the “Allen.” Sometimes all its six barrels would go off
at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about,
but behind it.

We took two or three blankets for protection against frosty weather in
the mountains. In the matter of luxuries we were modest–we took none
along but some pipes and five pounds of smoking tobacco. We had two
large canteens to carry water in, between stations on the Plains, and we
also took with us a little shot-bag of silver coin for daily expenses in
the way of breakfasts and dinners.

By eight o’clock everything was ready, and we were on the other side of
the river. We jumped into the stage, the driver cracked his whip, and we
bowled away and left “the States” behind us. It was a superb summer
morning, and all the landscape was brilliant with sunshine. There was a
freshness and breeziness, too, and an exhilarating sense of emancipation
from all sorts of cares and responsibilities, that almost made us feel
that the years we had spent in the close, hot city, toiling and slaving,
had been wasted and thrown away. We were spinning along through Kansas,
and in the course of an hour and a half we were fairly abroad on the
great Plains. Just here the land was rolling–a grand sweep of regular
elevations and depressions as far as the eye could reach–like the
stately heave and swell of the ocean’s bosom after a storm. And
everywhere were cornfields, accenting with squares of deeper green, this
limitless expanse of grassy land. But presently this sea upon dry ground
was to lose its “rolling” character and stretch away for seven hundred
miles as level as a floor!

Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous
description–an imposing cradle on wheels. It was drawn by six handsome
horses, and by the side of the driver sat the “conductor,” the legitimate
captain of the craft; for it was his business to take charge and care of
the mails, baggage, express matter, and passengers. We three were the
only passengers, this trip. We sat on the back seat, inside. About all
the rest of the coach was full of mail bags–for we had three days’
delayed mails with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall
of mail matter rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it
strapped on top of the stage, and both the fore and hind boots were full.
We had twenty-seven hundred pounds of it aboard, the driver said–“a
little for Brigham, and Carson, and ‘Frisco, but the heft of it for the
Injuns, which is powerful troublesome ‘thout they get plenty of truck to
read.” But as he just then got up a fearful convulsion of his countenance
which was suggestive of a wink being swallowed by an earthquake, we
guessed that his remark was intended to be facetious, and to mean that we
would unload the most of our mail matter somewhere on the Plains and
leave it to the Indians, or whosoever wanted it.

We changed horses every ten miles, all day long, and fairly flew over the
hard, level road. We jumped out and stretched our legs every time the
coach stopped, and so the night found us still vivacious and unfatigued.

After supper a woman got in, who lived about fifty miles further on, and
we three had to take turns at sitting outside with the driver and
conductor. Apparently she was not a talkative woman. She would sit
there in the gathering twilight and fasten her steadfast eyes on a
mosquito rooting into her arm, and slowly she would raise her other hand
till she had got his range, and then she would launch a slap at him that
would have jolted a cow; and after that she would sit and contemplate the
corpse with tranquil satisfaction–for she never missed her mosquito; she
was a dead shot at short range. She never removed a carcase, but left
them there for bait. I sat by this grim Sphynx and watched her kill
thirty or forty mosquitoes–watched her, and waited for her to say
something, but she never did. So I finally opened the conversation
myself. I said:

“The mosquitoes are pretty bad, about here, madam.”

“You bet!”

“What did I understand you to say, madam?”

“You BET!”

Then she cheered up, and faced around and said:

“Danged if I didn’t begin to think you fellers was deef and dumb. I did,
b’gosh. Here I’ve sot, and sot, and sot, a-bust’n muskeeters and
wonderin’ what was ailin’ ye. Fust I thot you was deef and dumb, then I
thot you was sick or crazy, or suthin’, and then by and by I begin to
reckon you was a passel of sickly fools that couldn’t think of nothing to
say. Wher’d ye come from?”

The Sphynx was a Sphynx no more! The fountains of her great deep were
broken up, and she rained the nine parts of speech forty days and forty
nights, metaphorically speaking, and buried us under a desolating deluge
of trivial gossip that left not a crag or pinnacle of rejoinder
projecting above the tossing waste of dislocated grammar and decomposed

How we suffered, suffered, suffered! She went on, hour after hour, till
I was sorry I ever opened the mosquito question and gave her a start.
She never did stop again until she got to her journey’s end toward
daylight; and then she stirred us up as she was leaving the stage (for we
were nodding, by that time), and said:

“Now you git out at Cottonwood, you fellers, and lay over a couple o’
days, and I’ll be along some time to-night, and if I can do ye any good
by edgin’ in a word now and then, I’m right thar. Folks’ll tell you’t
I’ve always ben kind o’ offish and partic’lar for a gal that’s raised in
the woods, and I am, with the rag-tag and bob-tail, and a gal has to be,
if she wants to be anything, but when people comes along which is my
equals, I reckon I’m a pretty sociable heifer after all.”

We resolved not to “lay by at Cottonwood.”