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CHAPTER III.

About an hour and a half before daylight we were bowling along smoothly over the road--so smoothly that our cradle only rocked in a gentle, lulling way, that was gradually soothing us to sleep, and dulling our consciousness--when something gave away under us!

We were dimly aware of it, but indifferent to it.

The coach stopped.

We heard the driver and conductor talking together outside, and rummaging for a lantern, and swearing because they could not find it--but we had no interest in whatever had happened, and it only added to our comfort to think of those people out there at work in the murky night, and we snug in our nest with the curtains drawn.

But presently, by the sounds, there seemed to be an examination going on, and then the driver's voice said: "By George, the thoroughbrace is broke!" This startled me broad awake--as an undefined sense of calamity is always apt to do.

I said to myself: "Now, a thoroughbrace is probably part of a horse; and doubtless a vital part, too, from the dismay in the driver's voice.

Leg, maybe--and yet how could he break his leg waltzing along such a road as this?

No, it can't be his leg.

That is impossible, unless he was reaching for the driver.

Now, what can be the thoroughbrace of a horse, I wonder?

Well, whatever comes, I shall not air my ignorance in this crowd, anyway." Just then the conductor's face appeared at a lifted curtain, and his lantern glared in on us and our wall of mail matter.

He said: "Gents, you'll have to turn out a spell.

Thoroughbrace is broke." We climbed out into a chill drizzle, and felt ever so homeless and dreary.

When I found that the thing they called a "thoroughbrace" was the massive combination of belts and springs which the coach rocks itself in, I said to the driver: "I never saw a thoroughbrace used up like that, before, that I can remember.

How did it happen?" "Why, it happened by trying to make one coach carry three days' mail-- that's how it happened," said he.

"And right here is the very direction which is wrote on all the newspaper-bags which was to be put out for the Injuns for to keep 'em quiet.

It's most uncommon lucky, becuz it's so nation dark I should 'a' gone by unbeknowns if that air thoroughbrace hadn't broke." I knew that he was in labor with another of those winks of his, though I could not see his face, because he was bent down at work; and wishing him a safe delivery, I turned to and helped the rest get out the mail-sacks. It made a great pyramid by the roadside when it was all out.

When they had mended the thoroughbrace we filled the two boots again, but put no mail on top, and only half as much inside as there was before.

The conductor bent all the seat-backs down, and then filled the coach just half full of mail-bags from end to end.

We objected loudly to this, for it left us no seats.

But the conductor was wiser than we, and said a bed was better than seats, and moreover, this plan would protect his thoroughbraces.

We never wanted any seats after that.

The lazy bed was infinitely preferable.

I had many an exciting day, subsequently, lying on it reading the statutes and the dictionary, and wondering how the characters would turn out. The conductor said he would send back a guard from the next station to take charge of the abandoned mail-bags, and we drove on. It was now just dawn; and as we stretched our cramped legs full length on the mail sacks, and gazed out through the windows across the wide wastes of greensward clad in cool, powdery mist, to where there was an expectant look in the eastern horizon, our perfect enjoyment took the form of a tranquil and contented ecstasy.

The stage whirled along at a spanking gait, the breeze flapping curtains and suspended coats in a most exhilarating way; the cradle swayed and swung luxuriously, the pattering of the horses' hoofs, the cracking of the driver's whip, and his "Hi-yi! g'lang!" were music; the spinning ground and the waltzing trees appeared to give us a mute hurrah as we went by, and then slack up and look after us with interest, or envy, or something; and as we lay and smoked the pipe of peace and compared all this luxury with the years of tiresome city life that had gone before it, we felt that there was only one complete and satisfying happiness in the world, and we had found it. After breakfast, at some station whose name I have forgotten, we three climbed up on the seat behind the driver, and let the conductor have our bed for a nap.

And by and by, when the sun made me drowsy, I lay down on my face on top of the coach, grasping the slender iron railing, and slept for an hour or more.

That will give one an appreciable idea of those matchless roads.

Instinct will make a sleeping man grip a fast hold of the railing when the stage jolts, but when it only swings and sways, no grip is necessary.

Overland drivers and conductors used to sit in their places and sleep thirty or forty minutes at a time, on good roads, while spinning along at the rate of eight or ten miles an hour.

I saw them do it, often.

There was no danger about it; a sleeping man will seize the irons in time when the coach jolts.

These men were hard worked, and it was not possible for them to stay awake all the time. By and by we passed through Marysville, and over the Big Blue and Little Sandy; thence about a mile, and entered Nebraska.

About a mile further on, we came to the Big Sandy--one hundred and eighty miles from St. Joseph. As the sun was going down, we saw the first specimen of an animal known familiarly over two thousand miles of mountain and desert--from Kansas clear to the Pacific Ocean--as the "jackass rabbit." He is well named. He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but a jackass. When he is sitting quiet, thinking about his sins, or is absent-minded or unapprehensive of danger, his majestic ears project above him conspicuously; but the breaking of a twig will scare him nearly to death, and then he tilts his ears back gently and starts for home.

All you can see, then, for the next minute, is his long gray form stretched out straight and "streaking it" through the low sage-brush, head erect, eyes right, and ears just canted a little to the rear, but showing you where the animal is, all the time, the same as if he carried a jib.

Now and then he makes a marvelous spring with his long legs, high over the stunted sage-brush, and scores a leap that would make a horse envious. Presently he comes down to a long, graceful "lope," and shortly he mysteriously disappears.

He has crouched behind a sage-bush, and will sit there and listen and tremble until you get within six feet of him, when he will get under way again.

But one must shoot at this creature once, if he wishes to see him throw his heart into his heels, and do the best he knows how.

He is frightened clear through, now, and he lays his long ears down on his back, straightens himself out like a yard-stick every spring he makes, and scatters miles behind him with an easy indifference that is enchanting. Our party made this specimen "hump himself," as the conductor said.

The secretary started him with a shot from the Colt; I commenced spitting at him with my weapon; and all in the same instant the old "Allen's" whole broadside let go with a rattling crash, and it is not putting it too strong to say that the rabbit was frantic!

He dropped his ears, set up his tail, and left for San Francisco at a speed which can only be described as a flash and a vanish!

Long after he was out of sight we could hear him whiz. I do not remember where we first came across "sage-brush," but as I have been speaking of it I may as well describe it. This is easily done, for if the reader can imagine a gnarled and venerable live oak-tree reduced to a little shrub two feet-high, with its rough bark, its foliage, its twisted boughs, all complete, he can picture the "sage-brush" exactly.

Often, on lazy afternoons in the mountains, I have lain on the ground with my face under a sage-bush, and entertained myself with fancying that the gnats among its foliage were liliputian birds, and that the ants marching and countermarching about its base were liliputian flocks and herds, and myself some vast loafer from Brobdignag waiting to catch a little citizen and eat him. It is an imposing monarch of the forest in exquisite miniature, is the "sage-brush."

Its foliage is a grayish green, and gives that tint to desert and mountain.

It smells like our domestic sage, and "sage-tea" made from it taste like the sage-tea which all boys are so well acquainted with.

The sage-brush is a singularly hardy plant, and grows right in the midst of deep sand, and among barren rocks, where nothing else in the vegetable world would try to grow, except "bunch-grass." --["Bunch-grass" grows on the bleak mountain-sides of Nevada and neighboring territories, and offers excellent feed for stock, even in the dead of winter, wherever the snow is blown aside and exposes it; notwithstanding its unpromising home, bunch-grass is a better and more nutritious diet for cattle and horses than almost any other hay or grass that is known--so stock-men say.]--The sage-bushes grow from three to six or seven feet apart, all over the mountains and deserts of the Far West, clear to the borders of California.

There is not a tree of any kind in the deserts, for hundreds of miles--there is no vegetation at all in a regular desert, except the sage-brush and its cousin the "greasewood," which is so much like the sage-brush that the difference amounts to little.

Camp-fires and hot suppers in the deserts would be impossible but for the friendly sage-brush.

Its trunk is as large as a boy's wrist (and from that up to a man's arm), and its crooked branches are half as large as its trunk--all good, sound, hard wood, very like oak. When a party camps, the first thing to be done is to cut sage-brush; and in a few minutes there is an opulent pile of it ready for use.

A hole a foot wide, two feet deep, and two feet long, is dug, and sage-brush chopped up and burned in it till it is full to the brim with glowing coals.

Then the cooking begins, and there is no smoke, and consequently no swearing.

Such a fire will keep all night, with very little replenishing; and it makes a very sociable camp-fire, and one around which the most impossible reminiscences sound plausible, instructive, and profoundly entertaining. Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure.

Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child the mule.

But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner.

Mules and donkeys and camels have appetites that anything will relieve temporarily, but nothing satisfy. In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet. He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before, in his life.

Then he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve. Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing about an overcoat.

The tails went next, along with some percussion caps and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople.

And then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that-- manuscript letters written for the home papers.

But he was treading on dangerous ground, now.

He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity.

He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter's work-bench, and died a death of indescribable agony.

I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public. I was about to say, when diverted from my subject, that occasionally one finds sage-bushes five or six feet high, and with a spread of branch and foliage in proportion, but two or two and a half feet is the usual height.

“腹条断了”——邮件送到适当的地方——艰难的睡眠——长耳大野兔的沉思,及其表演——当代格利弗——山艾树——外衣当饥粮——骆驼的厄运——对尝试者的劝告

还有大约一个半小时就要天亮了,我们在平坦的道路上飞快而平稳地前进。路是那样的平展,我们的摇篮只是轻轻摇晃着,渐渐地我们的感觉模糊了,进入了梦乡——突然,下面有什么东西不对头了!我们只是模糊地觉得好象发生了什么事,但并不在意。马车停下来,听到车夫和押车在外面说话,找灯的声音和找不到灯的咒骂声。那些人在黑沉沉的夜里卖力,而我们却蜷缩在窗帘拉得紧紧的窝,倒更增加了我们的舒服感。接着,从声音上判断,好象是在检查什么,后来传来车夫的声音:

“天哪,腹条断了!”

这下子我们惊醒了——祸事临头时的那种说不出的感觉常是这样。我想:大概腹条是马身上的一部分吧,听车夫那沮丧的口气,无疑还是致命的一部分呢。是腿吧?但在这样平坦的路上轻松地跑着怎么会折断腿呢?不可能是腿。这不可能,除非那匹马要掉过头来走。那末,马的腹条是什么呢?我不得其解。但无论如何,也不能让人们觉得我无知。

这时,窗帘被撩起处,现出了押车的脸,他手里的灯光射进车箱,照在我们身上和那道邮包墙上。他说:

“您老,下来一会儿吧,腹条断了。”

我们爬下车,就落进冷嗖嗖的细雨中,感到是多么的孤苦伶仃和疲倦不堪。我们发现,他们叫做腹条的东西原来是一大团皮条和弹簧,车箱就安在上面。我对车夫说:

“我记得,从前还没有见过象这样用腹条的,怎么搞的?”

“怎么搞的?一辆马车硬要装三天的邮件,当然要坏事的,”他说,“瞧这些,每个报纸袋上都写着指示,带给印第安人,让他们闭嘴。要是那个废物腹条不断,我可以趁这黑夜神不知鬼不觉地过去,那才是他妈的好运气。”

我知道他一使劲,又眨了一下眼睛,虽然他弯着腰我看不见他的脸。我希望他能把邮件都安全送到,便走过去帮他们搬下邮袋。全部搬完后,路边立即出现了一座巨大的金字塔。腹条修好后,我们又把行李柜装满,顶篷上不再放东西,车箱里也只装上了原来的一半。押车把所有座椅靠背都放倒,这样,车箱里从头到尾都铺满了邮件。我们大声抗议,因为这样一来我们就没座位了。但押车比我们精明,他说床比座位好,再说,这样做还可以保护腹条。打那以后,我们就再没有要什么座位。这懒人床无比舒服。结果,我们过了好几天舒心日子,躺在那张床上,读法规,翻字典,猜想那些神秘人物怎样出场。

押车说,到了下一站,他再派个看守来照看这些不受约束的邮件。于是,我们又上路了。

这时已曙光初现,我们伸开麻木的腿躺在邮包上,透过车窗注视着那广阔的未经开垦的草原,沉浸在一片凉丝丝的雾露之中,眺望着东方地平线上我们向往已久的景色。这时,这绝佳的享受,变成了心中憩静、惬意的狂喜。驿车跃马飞奔,微风撩起窗帘吹拂着衣衫,令人极为振奋;摇篮纵情地摇晃,马蹄得得,鞭儿清脆,加上车夫的“啊驾”声,构成了美妙的乐章;转动的大地,一闪而过的树木,默默地向我们致意,然后,又带着好奇,或是妒嫉,或是别的什么心情目送我们。躺在床上,悠闲地抽着烟,对比着眼下的欢乐与昔日城市生活的辛酸,我们觉得,世上只有一种绝对的幸福,而我们已经找到了。

早饭后,来到一个现在已经忘记名字的驿站。我们三人爬上去坐在车夫的后座上,让押车在我们的床上打个盹儿。不久,太阳晒得我昏然欲睡。我趴在车顶上,手抓住纤细的铁栏睡了约莫一个多小时,从这点,你可以想象那是一条多么无与伦比的路。马车颠簸时,睡着的人会本能地抓住栏杆,如果只是摇摇晃晃,就没有必要了。车夫和押车常在座位上睡上三四十分钟,而车却以每小时八到十英里的速度奔驰。我见他经常这样睡觉。这样并没有危险;马车颠簸时,一个睡觉的人会抓住铁栏杆。他们很劳累,时时刻刻保持清醒是不可能的。不久,我们穿过了马里斯维尔,涉过了大蓝河和小沙河。前行一英里就进入内布拉斯加,再往前走一英里便来到大沙河——离圣约瑟夫已有一百八十英里。

太阳落山的时候,我们第一次看见了一种叫“长耳大野兔”的动物,从堪萨斯到太平洋——在方圆两千英里的山区和沙漠上,它远近闻名。这种动物真是名符其实,它跟一般野兔的长相一样,只是个头大小不同,小的只有一般野兔的三分之一,大的可达一般野兔的两倍,长着和它的身材不相称的长腿,顶着两只反常的大耳朵,只有驴子才比得上。当它安静地坐着,思索它的罪孽或者以为平安无事,心不在焉的时候,它那神气的耳朵赫然耸立着;但是折断一根小树枝就会把它吓得要死,于是它便轻轻地耷拉下耳朵跑回家去了。一眨眼,你就只能看见它那伸直的灰色身躯“划过”低矮的山艾树,头直立,眼朝前,耳朵稍微后倾,给你指明它的去向,好象它身上架着一张三角帆。时而,它用那长腿令人吃惊地纵身一跳,凌空越过矮小的山艾树,创造的跳高纪录,马儿也得眼红。时而,它又来个优雅的“慢大步”,倾刻间便神秘地消失了。它会躲在山艾树丛后面缩成一团,蹲在那里一边仔细听着一边浑身发抖,当你走到离它还有两码的地方时,它又跑开了。如果你希望看到把它吓得屁滚尿流,只要对它开上一枪就行了。现在,它已经是亡命逃窜了,它把长耳朵平放在背上,每跃起来,身子挺得象把直尺,遥遥数里,不过举足之劳,速度之快,令人咂舌。

我们这群人使这畜牲(照押车后来的话说)“干得更卖力些”。秘书那支科尔特放了一枪;我的武器也开了火,几乎就在同时,老“亚伦”的全部弹膛也发出一阵破响,一点也不过份地说,那只长耳大野兔急得发了疯。它垂下耳朵,竖起尾巴,向旧金山跑去,那速度之快,只能用“转瞬即逝”来形容。它跑得无影无踪了,还能听见那嗖嗖的风声。

我是在哪里第一次见到“山艾树”的,现在已记不清了,但是既然我已多次提到它,不妨也描绘一番。这很容易办到,只要读者能想象出一棵盘根错节的老橡树缩成了两英尺高的灌木,你就得到了山艾树的确切形象,它那粗糙的树皮,繁茂的枝叶,扭曲的躯干,一应俱全。在山区那些懒洋洋的下午,我常去躺在地上,头钻进山艾树丛里,怡然自得地想象枝叶中的那些虫子是小人国的鸟儿,在那土堆附近浩浩荡荡地前进的蚂蚁是小人国的牛群和羊群,而我就是从布罗布丁纳格来的那个巨大的二流子,等待着捉一位小公民来吃。

在精巧微型的植物中,山艾树是庄严的森林之王。它的叶呈灰绿色,染绿了荒原和山地。气味就象家养的苏叶,用它的叶子泡制的茶,味道好象孩子们熟悉的苏叶茶。它是种坚毅非凡的植物,可以在深沙或不毛的岩缝中生根,植物界里,除了“鼠尾草”外没有别的植物愿在这里落脚。山艾树高达六至七英尺,遍布西部大平原和山区,直到加里福尼亚边界。在那数百英里的荒漠中,根本没有别的植物,只有山艾树和它的表亲“肉叶刺茎藜”,它们俩的长相极象,几乎毫无差别。在沙漠上,没有这种好客的山艾树,就不可能有篝火,也吃不上热腾腾的晚餐。它的茎干粗如小孩的手腕(大的可达到成人的手臂),扭曲的枝杈有茎干的一半粗细——它是优质、坚硬的木料,很像橡木。

当一群人扎下营来,第一件事就是砍山艾树,几分钟就可弄到一大堆备用,挖个坑,宽一英尺,长两英尺,深两英尺,把山艾树柴放进去,点起火来,直烧到满满一坑红彤彤的火炭,然后就可以造饭了。这种火没有烟,当然也就不会听到咒骂声。营火可以整夜不息,几乎不需要再加柴;这里便成为一个交际场所,围着火堆,连最不可思议的联想听起来也十分有道理,意味深长,极为有趣。

山艾树是优质的燃料,但作为蔬菜却是惊人的不及格。除了公驴和它那非法定的孩子骡子,谁也忍受不了它那气味,它们证明山艾树的营养价值一文不值,因为它们吃得下松节疤,无烟煤,铜锉渣,锡烟袋,旧瓶子或任何别的东西,只要顺口,吃完后便满足地走开,简直象享用了一顿山珍海味。骡子、驴子和骆驼的食欲,无论什么都可以暂时解馋,但什么也无法满足。在叙利亚的约旦河上游,有一次我正在搭帐篷的时候,一头骆驼弄到了我的外衣,它用批评的眼光里里外外检查了一通,看它那感兴趣的模样好象要照样子再做一件似的。它这样盘算了一番之后,开始思索是否值得一吃。它用脚踏上去,用牙齿撕下一条袖子,嚼了又嚼,慢慢吞进去,同时不断地眨巴着眼睛,似乎它一辈子还没有尝过象外衣这样好吃的美味。而后,它咂了咂嘴又去撕另一条袖子。接着,它又吃下丝绒领子,满意地笑了笑,显然,它认为领子是外衣最可口的部分,再吞进去的是衣襟,还有雷管、咳嗽糖以及从君士坦丁堡带来的无花果软糖。这时我的新闻通讯稿件掉了出来——是为国内报纸写的信件手稿,它又尝了一下。但这次它遇到难以对付的东西了,开始碰到对于它的胃来说是相当沉重的“固体智慧”了。它随随便便开的这个玩笑使它浑身发抖,直到抖松了牙齿;它感到越来越不行了,但仍以巨大的勇气,充满希望地忍着绞痛,到后来,它开始在那些文件上打滚。那些东酉,没有哪匹骆驼吞下去而不倒霉的。它不断抽搐,眼睛爆出,前腿直伸,大约十五秒钟,它就象木匠的镜头一样硬邦邦地倒地而死,其惨状难以尽述。我走过去从它嘴里扯出手稿,发现这头敏感的畜牲是被一篇报道闷死的。后来,我把这篇最委婉、最温和的真实报道提供给我深信不疑的公众。

在我转变话题以前,我要说的是,有时找得到五到六英尺高、枝叶匀称铺开的山艾树,但通常这种植物只有二到三英尺半高。