The coffee

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
with meaning.

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.