« ZurückWeiter »
rifle-target, about forty rods from Comstock's door, passed for a magnificent white-oak until we got near enough to examine its foliage; and everywhere in the neighborhood these mimetic trees wore the mien of the elm, the ash, or the hickory. Nature on the Plains, like the poet Saadi, has but a limited vocabulary, yet makes a wonderfully polytoned music with her scant material.
It was about eleven o'clock on the night of May 30th, that we broke away from the cordial grasp of our friends and entertainers, to resume our places in the Overland Coach. To give some idea of the cheapness of board and the generosity of soul existing in the Comstock ranch, I will chronicle that our bill amounted to twenty-five cents a meal for the days spent in-doors, nothing at all for our lodging, as little for the share of transportation and edibles which we had enjoyed during our hunt; and that for the days elapsing between our return from the Republican and our resumption of the road, we could only obtain the privilege of squaring our account by depositing the debt as a concealed keepsake in Frank's and Mary's hands, and running away before they discovered what it was.
We were fortunate enough to find our favorite box-seats unoccupied, and mounted to them with great satisfaction, thus avoiding the dreadful grudge which is created in the minds of a stageful of insides, by new-comers entering at an inhuman hour, with a proposition to re-sort their heads and legs.
For the first forty miles our road lay along the Little Blue. The light-and-shade effects on its dense fringe of foliage, and occasional glimpses of its gliding water, were well worthy of an artist's enthusiasm. Every turn of the road brought us into some new loveliness: some deep embowered 'dell, scented with the ethereal spice of the wild grape-vine; some lofty bluff leaving us just space to pass by a dug-way between it and the river (one such place, called the Narrows, awakens some anxiety in the breasts of travellers who have not been case-hardened to danger farther west); some broad stretch of rolling plain, where the distances were vague and mystical, — and ours was the only living spot in the great solitude.
Our first driver told us that Munger, on his way back to Atchison from the ranch, had run down, with his buggy, drawn by Nig and Ben, a pair of young antelope kids a fortnight old, captured them, and carried them home with him in triumph! That was indeed a buggy superior to its birth. What tales it will have to relate, when it finally gets invalided among the veteran stage-coaches in that Chelsea of vehicles, a wagon-shed! how their venerable doors will open with astonishment at a buggy that has hunted buffalo and captured antelope!
During the night we accomplished three stations, Little Blue, Liberty Farm, and Lone Tree. We rode at the average Overland Stage rate of a little over one hundred miles in twenty-four hours. Our second driver was a fine-looking young fellow who interested us much. A year before, he had been at the very bottom of the pit of drunkenness,— as apparently hopeless a case as existed on the road. From that horror his good angel had brought him up once more to his perfect manhood; and now he refused the proffer of liquor from one of the passengers, with an earnest " O no! no, I thank you," which only seemed brusque to those who did not know his history, and contained in it the significance of a whole youth of misery. Many tunes afterward, on stage-boxes between Nebraska and California, I thought of that handsome young face, hoping to Heaven that its frank brown eyes might be beclouded by death before liquor should redim them. He impressed me as a soul whose inhabiting devil would be no common fiend. His face was so written with the possibilities of extreme feeling that it haunted one like Guide's "Beatrice."
It grew light enough, before we reached the breakfast station at Thirty-two Mile Creek, for us to see at wide distances apart several ranch houses and corrals, one at least of which was steadily inhabited. This appeared at our crossing of Pawnee Creek, a shallow affluent of the Blue. Here, too, we found real pathos in the sight of a rudely inclosed little grave-yard, containing one large and one small headstone. Even in this loneliness a man might be left still more alone!
The country in general was as uninhabited as we saw it about Comstock's. Antelope abounded on all sides, scouring out of sight from within easy rifle-shot at every turn of our road. The day before, a hunter had shot an elk on the river bottom, but a few miles from Thirty-two Mile Creek, so large that he had to return to his camp, and send back a wagon for him.
The journey from Thirty-two Mile Creek to Fort Kearney (a distance of thirty-five miles) disclosed to us increasing barrenness in the soil, accompanied by a corresponding change in the zone of the flora. Cactuses became a prominent feature on all the hot sand dunes; a peculiar desert species of the Asclepias here and there began showing itself; and wherever the arid ground yielded any herbage, the succulent grass of the Little Blue region was replaced by the short, wiry gramma. This little plant is the main support of the herds along the Platte. Both the emigrant cattle and the buffaloes are very fond of it, though their attachment seems rather eccentric to anybody who has ever examined it. If you can imagine an inventive genius who had discovered a method of making an article for army rations, called "Desiccated Corkscrews," his products would be an approximate imitation of the gramma. If I ever felt like decrying that intolerable old fallacy to the effect that figures don't lie, it was when I heard a ranchman mention the avoirdupois of an ox who had fed on gramma entirely. How it can be nutritive, needs chemistry to show; that it is so, all the plainsmen aver, and their cattle seem to prove it.
The ground rose perceptibly between breakfast and Fort Kearney. We climbed several of the loftiest and longest hills we had seen since leaving St. Louis. About twenty miles east of the fort, we seemed to reach the top of a new terrace, and thenceforward rode nearly all the way on a level sand-plain, extremely barren, very hot and dusty, and quite distressing to the horses. This plain was interspersed with bare sand-hillocks from five to twenty feet high, making it look as if it were the now abandoned dumpingground of some pre-Adamic race of genii, who followed the dustman's trade for the rest of the solar system, and came to this world to unload. Beyond the hillocks, perhaps a distance of eight miles southerly, rose a much higher range of equally barren bluffs, giving us, for the first time in our journey, a sensation of mountain scenery, and, so to speak, striking the resolving chords between the low plains of Kansas and the high plateaus of the Rocky Mountain
region, whither we were tending. On our northern hand, about fifteen miles from the fort, we saw for the first time bounding our horizon the fringe of trees along the Platte. At first sight this river appeared as wide as the Hudson at Tappan Zee, or the St. John's below Pilatka. Its further banks were enveloped in a misty veil, and looked languidly soft, like far islands seen through tropical fog. Atmospheric distance never deceived so completely. The charming grandeur and tenderness of scale on which this view seemed constructed, were delusions of the mirage. Hot sun and mirroring sand had wrought up the scanty materials of the stream into a dream of beauty which had no geometric reasons. Our best dreams of beauty are generally of that sort, belonging to the soul, and not to the intellect. We hated to have this vision disturbed by Gradgrind measurements of space. "If this were a delusion, let us dream on!" I must confess that this region of mirage is almost the only place, till one reaches the Platte's ice-cold canon, in the mountains of Colorado, where the river exerts any fascination on the tourist. It will presently lose the assistance of mirage and imagination, and turn out the most miserably uninteresting and feeble-minded stream to be found on the continent. If it were compressed into a single bed, instead of being vaguely dispersed about great and small islands, in all sorts of intricate channels, it would approach the size of the Oswego River at the city of that name.
About two o'clock, we passed a very picturesque party of Germans going to Oregon. They had a large herd of cattle and fifty wagons, mostly drawn by oxen, though some of the more prosperous "outfits" were attached to horses or mules. The people themselves