« ZurückWeiter »
rails, and by the time we reached Lancaster, — a station merely, not a town,-ten miles out of Atchison, the rails themselves had succumbed, and we were running through an unbroken waste. “The Plains” are very different in their character from the Prairies. Nowhere, after leaving the Missouri River westward, does the traveller behold such stretches of grass running to the horizon, everywhere level like the sea, as he finds in Illinois. The great sedimentary deposits which form the prairies proper, were laid in a period of long quiet, and denuded of their superadjacent water by a slow uniform upheaval, or equally slow evaporation, which embraced much larger tracts of country than the formative influences further west. As might be expected, the land gives evidence of more spasmodic and irregular disturbances the nearer we approach the great spinal mountainchain of the Continent. The grass around us was long and rich. Prairiehens abounded in it, seeming almost as tame as barnyard fowl. They were continually coming to the road and running ahead of the horses, so close to us, indeed, that, had we chosen, we might have bagged the whole party's supper from the wagon as we rode. The common plover were only less plenty, dodging about in the grass with their peculiar culprit manner as we approached. The mourning dove, a little creature of lovely shape and typical color, whose haunts embrace the entire Plains region, fluttered or hopped constantly about us in pairs. Several varieties of hawks, one of which we afterward discovered to be a true falcon; some large ravens, and a species of meadow-lark, were the other principal birds which attracted our attention on this day.
The air was delightfully soft, the sky clear, and the road in excellent condition, even without considering that Nature and the wheels of travel are here the only menders of highway. In some places it was as compact and smooth as the finest gravel roads of the East. Indeed, with the exception of the portion traversing the terrible desert of Utah, and a few shorter pieces elsewhere, the entire route astonished me by its excellence. Just after sundown we arrived at Seneca, a settlement as well as a station, sixty miles from Atchison. Here we took tea in quite an ambitious frame tavern, and our eyes lay lingeringly on the shingle of Civilization's last justice of the peace. There was a tinshop in Seneca; I think a lawyer's office; and there were several dwelling-houses. After the darkness came on, and we rolled away from Seneca into its darkness, I began to realize that we were not going to stop anywhere for the night. It was a strange sensation, this; like being in an armchair, and sentenced not to get out of it from the Missouri to California. I do not know whether it is necessary to inform anybody that the Overland Mail travelled night and day. I had known it always, but I never felt it till about twelve o'clock the first night out, when my legs began growing unpleasantly long, and my feet swelled to such a size that they touched all the boxes and musket-butts upon the floor. When these symptoms were further accompanied by a dull heat between the shoulders, and a longing for something soft applied to the nape of the neck, I wondered whether this was not what people on shore called wanting to go to bed. The facilities for such a gratification were so amusingly scanty that I concluded I must be mistaken. The back cushions of the wagon were stuffed as hard as cricket-balls, and the seat might have been the flat side of a bat. I tried fastening my head in a corner by a pocket-handkerchief sling; but just as unconsciousness arrived, the head was sure to slip out, and, in despair, I finally gave over trying to do anything with it. At Guittards', a station famous among such passengers as have reached there in proper season for delicious suppers, we to-night stopped only long enough to change horses, and I took advantage of the halt to climb to the box. Here I rode the rest of the night, convinced that I could not surrender to Sleep until he had made a more protracted siege around the outworks. I felt convinced that my friends inside would not miss me, they having, some time before, reached that stage of sensation in which a stage-floor seems piled with human feet. When the fresh team started out with a plunge, and the fresh night-breath of the Plains began fanning my forehead, the fever of unsuccessful sleepiness left me, and I enjoyed myself as much as if I were not sure it would return toIn OrroV. During the night, near a small settlement called Marysville, we forded the Big Blue, one of the largest streams in this portion of Kansas–timbered with cotton-woods, sycamores, oaks, and occasional elms— and, a little after sunrise, stopped at “Seventeen Mile Point,” one hundred and eleven miles from Atchison, and the last station this side of Nebraska. The stations on the Overland Road, between the Missouri and Denver, generally consist of a single wooden house, with stables attached, and a large corral, or inclosed yard, just adjacent. Some of the more ambitious station-keepers cultivate several acres of land adjoining, in which case the traveller is delighted by the entrance of fresh vegetables into a bill of fare, which is elsewhere unqualified pork and greasy potatoes. Occasionally, too, the station-keeper has both time and penchant for hunting; the happy result being buffalo-hump, antelope-steaks, and fricassee . of prairie-chickens. But the majority of these important personages seem to have retired from the world under the influence of an ascetic spirit, and take grim delight in visiting the wrongs inflicted upon them by the society which they have left, on the innocent wayfarer compelled to pay for their hospitality. Many of them have married copartners in their social grudge; stern females, who boil bad coffee in an affronted manner, and hand you hot saleratus biscuit with an air of personal insult. All their principal supplies are drawn from Atchison by the Mail Company's conveyances; and it is no unusual occurrence to lack sugar as well as milk in your tea, because “that stage” hasn't brought up the last order. The station-keepers charge variously from fifty cents in Kansas to a dollar in Nebraska, and westward, for every meal, without regard to quality. Their charges upon the passengers they collect personally (though it is possible to buy meal-tickets at Atchison for the whole route); the board of the drivers is paid by the Company, who keep an account with the keepers for them and the stable-tenders. While breakfast was cooking, I loaded a shot-gun, and started out for a short excursion in search of prairie-hens. Though we had seen numbers of them along the road, I was unable to start a single one in the grass. This I found to be the ordinary case at this hour of the morning and season of the year.
They wait till the sun is high and warm before they come out to strut and coquet with each other, —being the dandies and people of elegant leisure in the social system of the Plains. I got back to the stationhouse with the charge in my gun, yet with pleasant sensations of willingness to be charged myself, due to more than a mile's tramp through the rich grass of the breezy divide. Just beyond the breakfast-place we entered Nebraska. The country now became wilder and somewhat more sterile. The signs of human occupation disappeared entirely, and with them the prairie-chickens became less and less abundant. These fowl, as may be known, flourish best in the neighborhood of settlements, – sometimes, like quail, relying principally, over tracts of many miles square, for most of their subsistence, upon gleanings from the rick and stubble field. When found to any extent in perfectly wild regions, they occupy some secret spot far in the bosom of the Plains, where their natural food is steady and abundant; but they always prefer grain when they can get it, and will accompany wagons or stages for miles to pick up the droppings. Though the prairie-fowl diminished, the plovers and doves were still abundant. At Virginia City, one hundred and thirty miles from Atchison, the stage stopped for dinner about noon; but our recollections of a station breakfast were not sufficiently fascinating to tempt us into sitting down at table. We now had occasion to congratulate ourselves on our provision in the matter of commissary stores, for, opening one of the boxes under our feet, we lunched, alfresco, under lee of the station-barn, on pilot-bread, sardines, and canned peaches. Our trav