Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

among a swarm of small straggling clouds. About eight miles from Plum Creek, her light fell on a broad encampment of Sioux, silvering the dingy skins and occasional canvas of the smoky it-pis into something like the Fenimore Cooper romance of Indian .life. I could not help thinking that part of this illusion was owing to the early habits of the savage, which prevented any Indians from being in sight. It would take a good deal of moonlight to make an Indian look romantic. About the tents were a herd of picturesque, ewe-necked horses, feeding at their ease on the short, dry herbage, and showing their sides, mottled with the spots which characterize what we at the East call a "circus-horse," — still odder in the broad moonlight.

Just as we passed the last tent, a strange figure burst through the narrow slit in it used as a doorway, and hailed our driver, who stopped for him, and took him on the box. He wore a handsome buckskin hunting-blouse, profusely embroidered and dangling with leather tags, a low slouch hat, and a beaded belt, from which peeped the butt of a six-shooter. His .complexion was so bronzed, and his hair so long and black, that until I had looked him full in the face, and ;heard him speak, I took him for a Sioux. He was a white man, — or white as a man can be who has lived much with the Indians of th*e Plains, — and had in his Countenance one of the most singular mixtures of good-fellowship and desperadoism that I ever saw. I should have liked to see him on my side in a Plains fight, and been sorry to think he was on the other; but there was an lago quality in his restless black eyes and the iciness of his laugh, which must have made any student of human nature uncomfortable in a protracted acquaintance with him among lonely surroundings.

About eleven o'clock, when we were about half a mile from the station called Willow Island, the moon became as suddenly obscured as if she had been put out with an extinguisher. The clouds grew inky black, and simultaneously the wind rose to a tempest. I never saw in my life such dispatch in getting up a storm. Another minute, and the clouds were pelting down on us hailstones as large as musket-balls. The mules became frightened, and plunged furiously. It was too black to see the heads of the leaders, but there was nothing to be done except advance; so by coaxing, cursing, and whipping, the driver finally persuaded the team to take us as far as the station. We jumped down from the box, and in the dark, after imminent danger from the hoofs of the madly kicking wheel-mules, managed to unhook the traces instead of cutting them, as we had contemplated the necessity of doing. It will seem almost incredible to anybody who has not seen a hailstorm on the Platte; but after we had got the team loose, and were standing by their heads, while the inside passengers used up half a box of matches in getting the lanterns lighted, the stage heavy with mails, seven inside passengers, and all their baggage, was forcibly blown back by the wind a distance of several yards. I could compare its effect on myself only to having a stable door pressed steadily against my person; and if I had not held on by one of the most obstinate of nature's animals, I should have bee.n sent scurrying out of sight in the direction of Fort Kearney.

Just as our patience began to give out under the buffets of the wind and the sound whipping of the hail, our friend in the buckskin made his voice heard through the roar, and a stable-keeper appeared with a light, which was instantly put out. By this time our lanterns were lighted, and we managed to get our mules into their stalls without any accident more serious than a graze on one of the shins belonging to our driver.

It was quite out of reason to attempt going on in such a tempest. Accordingly we let our relays stay in the stable, and went back to tell the insides, penned into darkness and uncertainty by tightly buttoned carriage leathers, that we had concluded, after the manner of the Connecticut River mate, " to anchor our end of the schooner." This seemed to meet as much approbation .as they had to expend upon anything under the circumstances. They resigned themselves to an upright sleep against the straps and cushions, while we, who had still enough wakefulness in our legs to hunt up something better, betook ourselves to the stable, and lay down on clean straw in some, empty stalls. I blessed the hailstorm which was pelting outside, for it had given me a chance to stretch myself. Dearest opportunity to the overlander! I have known hours when I speculated curiously on the torture of the rack, and wondered how.the old martyrs could have found it so disagreeable. Certainly it seemed to me that any amount of relaxation could not be so painful as that sense of being shortened up, driven in, and clinched on the other side, which results from twenty-four hours' constancy to a bent position. I accordingly welcomed the chance of extending myself on the Willow Island straw, with a delight which would have scarcely been lessened, had the bare boards been substituted as a lying-place.

About three o'clock in the morning I was awakened by a tumbling and groaning in the next stall to mine. I rose, and felt my way to the .sufferer, thinking that he had a fit . In the dark 1 put out my hand, and touched a leathern fringe. It belonged to our new passenger. He continued to toss and twist; he got into deadly combat with the wisps of straw under him; I heard him send home three or four well-meant blows with his fist against the side of the stall, and then he muttered in a voice of horror, " Murder! murder! 0 God, murder!"

I caught him by the shoulder, and shook him soundly. As he woke, he felt for his pistol. I held his hand, and explained the facts of the case. '•' 0 thank you !" said he; "I sometimes have the nightmare very badly, and then I remember,— O such disagreeable things — everything in fact that I ever saw in my life."

It was broad daylight when I woke the second tune. My friend of the next stall had disappeared, and did not join us when we again put ourselves en route. The hail had ceased, but had left a gray, greasy, despondent heaven, and a sullen, sobbing wind. We rode through a sterile country, with distant bluffs of dun sand bounding our plain on either side, till at Midway Station we stopped for breakfast.

One of the greatest puzzles of the Plains is their nomenclature. You stop at stations called something "Spring," and look in vain for anything' to drink but stagnant water. When you come to anything " Luke," you are nearly sure to find no expanse a pig could wallow in. If you discovered a station named Brown's, you might be very sure that no one had ever lived there but a family of Johnsons; and there is no better Western reason for calling a station Pratt's Hill than because it is a hollow occupied by Joneses.

We reached Cottonwood at dinner-time, but our previous experience gave us no encouragement to alight. We satisfied appetite with canned peaches, hard tack, and that charmingly portable little fish which so invariably accompanies Western immigration that its empty tin coffins are seen scattered around every station door; and the name for a spindling little fellow, whom the plainsman does not wish to compliment, is "You Sardine."

The country around Cottonwood is more undulating than any we had seen since leaving Comstock's. For miles both east and west of it, we continually climbed and descended hills, and passed through a series of sand canons, beginning to assume the typical look of the mountain galleries further west. We observed projecting from the side of one of these, the first limestone outcrop we had noticed west of the Missouri River.

Just west of Cottonwood, the Platte River ia formed by the junction of its north and south forks. In the neighborhood of the confluence, the land begins rising westward perceptibly. About ten miles from Cottonwood, I got my first sensation of ascent toward the Rocky Mountains. There was a solid, under-braced look in the hills, a firm, resonant quality to the road, which did not belong to alluvial bluffs. I felt as if I were standing on the first fold of the old fire-serpent, who ages ago wriggled himself up under the crust, and protruded his flaming crest in the form of the Rocky Mountain summit. We continued passing over extensive undulations all

« ZurückWeiter »