The agony that alkali water inflicts on bruises

About seven o’clock one blistering hot morning–for it was now dead
summer time–Higbie and I took the boat and started on a voyage of
discovery to the two islands. We had often longed to do this, but had
been deterred by the fear of storms; for they were frequent, and severe
enough to capsize an ordinary row-boat like ours without great
difficulty–and once capsized, death would ensue in spite of the bravest
swimming, for that venomous water would eat a man’s eyes out like fire,
and burn him out inside, too, if he shipped a sea. It was called twelve
miles, straight out to the islands–a long pull and a warm one–but the
morning was so quiet and sunny, and the lake so smooth and glassy and
dead, that we could not resist the temptation. So we filled two large
tin canteens with water (since we were not acquainted with the locality
of the spring said to exist on the large island), and started. Higbie’s
brawny muscles gave the boat good speed, but by the time we reached our
destination we judged that we had pulled nearer fifteen miles than

We landed on the big island and went ashore. We tried the water in the
canteens, now, and found that the sun had spoiled it; it was so brackish
that we could not drink it; so we poured it out and began a search for
the spring–for thirst augments fast as soon as it is apparent that one
has no means at hand of quenching it. The island was a long, moderately
high hill of ashes–nothing but gray ashes and pumice-stone, in which we
sunk to our knees at every step–and all around the top was a forbidding
wall of scorched and blasted rocks. When we reached the top and got
within the wall, we found simply a shallow, far-reaching basin, carpeted
with ashes, and here and there a patch of fine sand. In places,
picturesque jets of steam shot up out of crevices, giving evidence that
although this ancient crater had gone out of active business, there was
still some fire left in its furnaces. Close to one of these jets of
steam stood the only tree on the island–a small pine of most graceful
shape and most faultless symmetry; its color was a brilliant green, for
the steam drifted unceasingly through its branches and kept them always
moist. It contrasted strangely enough, did this vigorous and beautiful
outcast, with its dead and dismal surroundings. It was like a cheerful
spirit in a mourning household.

We hunted for the spring everywhere, traversing the full length of the
island (two or three miles), and crossing it twice–climbing ash-hills
patiently, and then sliding down the other side in a sitting posture,
plowing up smothering volumes of gray dust. But we found nothing but
solitude, ashes and a heart-breaking silence. Finally we noticed that
the wind had risen, and we forgot our thirst in a solicitude of greater
importance; for, the lake being quiet, we had not taken pains about
securing the boat. We hurried back to a point overlooking our landing
place, and then–but mere words cannot describe our dismay–the boat was
gone! The chances were that there was not another boat on the entire
lake. The situation was not comfortable–in truth, to speak plainly, it
was frightful. We were prisoners on a desolate island, in aggravating
proximity to friends who were for the present helpless to aid us; and
what was still more uncomfortable was the reflection that we had neither
food nor water. But presently we sighted the boat. It was drifting
along, leisurely, about fifty yards from shore, tossing in a foamy sea.
It drifted, and continued to drift, but at the same safe distance from
land, and we walked along abreast it and waited for fortune to favor us.
At the end of an hour it approached a jutting cape, and Higbie ran ahead
and posted himself on the utmost verge and prepared for the assault. If
we failed there, there was no hope for us. It was driving gradually
shoreward all the time, now; but whether it was driving fast enough to
make the connection or not was the momentous question. When it got
within thirty steps of Higbie I was so excited that I fancied I could
hear my own heart beat. When, a little later, it dragged slowly along
and seemed about to go by, only one little yard out of reach, it seemed
as if my heart stood still; and when it was exactly abreast him and began
to widen away, and he still standing like a watching statue, I knew my
heart did stop. But when he gave a great spring, the next instant, and
lit fairly in the stern, I discharged a war-whoop that woke the

But it dulled my enthusiasm, presently, when he told me he had not been
caring whether the boat came within jumping distance or not, so that it
passed within eight or ten yards of him, for he had made up his mind to
shut his eyes and mouth and swim that trifling distance. Imbecile that I
was, I had not thought of that. It was only a long swim that could be

The sea was running high and the storm increasing. It was growing late,
too–three or four in the afternoon. Whether to venture toward the
mainland or not, was a question of some moment. But we were so
distressed by thirst that we decide to try it, and so Higbie fell to work
and I took the steering-oar. When we had pulled a mile, laboriously,
we were evidently in serious peril, for the storm had greatly augmented;
the billows ran very high and were capped with foaming crests,
the heavens were hung with black, and the wind blew with great fury.
We would have gone back, now, but we did not dare to turn the boat
around, because as soon as she got in the trough of the sea she would
upset, of course. Our only hope lay in keeping her head-on to the seas.
It was hard work to do this, she plunged so, and so beat and belabored
the billows with her rising and falling bows. Now and then one of
Higbie’s oars would trip on the top of a wave, and the other one would
snatch the boat half around in spite of my cumbersome steering apparatus.
We were drenched by the sprays constantly, and the boat occasionally
shipped water. By and by, powerful as my comrade was, his great
exertions began to tell on him, and he was anxious that I should change
places with him till he could rest a little. But I told him this was
impossible; for if the steering oar were dropped a moment while we
changed, the boat would slue around into the trough of the sea, capsize,
and in less than five minutes we would have a hundred gallons of
soap-suds in us and be eaten up so quickly that we could not even be
present at our own inquest.

But things cannot last always. Just as the darkness shut down we came
booming into port, head on. Higbie dropped his oars to hurrah–I dropped
mine to help–the sea gave the boat a twist, and over she went!

The agony that alkali water inflicts on bruises, chafes and blistered
hands, is unspeakable, and nothing but greasing all over will modify it
–but we ate, drank and slept well, that night, notwithstanding.

In speaking of the peculiarities of Mono Lake, I ought to have mentioned
that at intervals all around its shores stand picturesque turret-looking
masses and clusters of a whitish, coarse-grained rock that resembles
inferior mortar dried hard; and if one breaks off fragments of this rock
he will find perfectly shaped and thoroughly petrified gulls’ eggs deeply
imbedded in the mass. How did they get there? I simply state the fact
–for it is a fact–and leave the geological reader to crack the nut at his
leisure and solve the problem after his own fashion.

At the end of a week we adjourned to the Sierras on a fishing excursion,
and spent several days in camp under snowy Castle Peak, and fished
successfully for trout in a bright, miniature lake whose surface was
between ten and eleven thousand feet above the level of the sea; cooling
ourselves during the hot August noons by sitting on snow banks ten feet
deep, under whose sheltering edges fine grass and dainty flowers
flourished luxuriously; and at night entertaining ourselves by almost
freezing to death. Then we returned to Mono Lake, and finding that the
cement excitement was over for the present, packed up and went back to
Esmeralda. Mr. Ballou reconnoitred awhile, and not liking the prospect,
set out alone for Humboldt.

About this time occurred a little incident which has always had a sort of
interest to me, from the fact that it came so near “instigating” my
funeral. At a time when an Indian attack had been expected, the citizens
hid their gunpowder where it would be safe and yet convenient to hand
when wanted. A neighbor of ours hid six cans of rifle powder in the
bake-oven of an old discarded cooking stove which stood on the open
ground near a frame out-house or shed, and from and after that day never
thought of it again. We hired a half-tamed Indian to do some washing for
us, and he took up quarters under the shed with his tub. The ancient
stove reposed within six feet of him, and before his face. Finally it
occurred to him that hot water would be better than cold, and he went out
and fired up under that forgotten powder magazine and set on a kettle of
water. Then he returned to his tub.

I entered the shed presently and threw down some more clothes, and was
about to speak to him when the stove blew up with a prodigious crash, and
disappeared, leaving not a splinter behind. Fragments of it fell in the
streets full two hundred yards away. Nearly a third of the shed roof
over our heads was destroyed, and one of the stove lids, after cutting a
small stanchion half in two in front of the Indian, whizzed between us
and drove partly through the weather-boarding beyond. I was as white as
a sheet and as weak as a kitten and speechless. But the Indian betrayed
no trepidation, no distress, not even discomfort. He simply stopped
washing, leaned forward and surveyed the clean, blank ground a moment,
and then remarked:

“Mph! Dam stove heap gone!”–and resumed his scrubbing as placidly as if
it were an entirely customary thing for a stove to do. I will explain,
that “heap” is “Injun-English” for “very much.” The reader will perceive
the exhaustive expressiveness of it in the present instance.