John Brent/Chapter V

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Across Country[edit]

I led my friend toward the corral.

“A fine horse that gray of yours,” said I.

“Yes; a splendid fellow, — stanch and true! He will go till he dies.”

“In tip-top condition, too. What do you call him?”


“Why Pumps? Why not Pistons? or Cranks? or Walking-Beams? or some part of the steam-engine that does the going directly?”

“You have got the wrong clue. I named him after our old dancing-master. Pumps the horse has a favorite amble, precisely like that skipping walk that Pumps the man used to set us for model, — a mincing gait, that prejudiced me, until I saw what a stride he kept for the time when stride was wanting.”

“Here is my black gentleman. What do you think of him?”

Don Fulano trotted up and licked a handful of corn from my hand. Corn was four dollars a bushel. The profits of the “Foolonner” Mine did not allow of such luxuries. But old Gerrian had presented me with a sack of it.

Fulano crunched his corn, snorted his thanks, and then snuffed questioningly, and afterwards approvingly, about the stranger.

“Soul and body of Bucephalus!” says Brent. “There is a quadruped that is a horse.”

“Isn’t he?” said I, thrilling with pride for him.

“To look at such a fellow is a romance. He is the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”

“No exceptions?”

“Not one.”

“Woman! lovely woman!” I cried, with mock enthusiasm.

“If I had ever seen a woman to compare with that horse, after her kind, I should not be here.”

“Where then?”

“Wherever she was. Living for her. Dying for her. Chasing her if she were dragged from me. Snatching her from the jaws of death.”

“Hold hard! You talk as furiously as if you saw such a scene before your eyes.”

“Your horse brings up all the chivalric tales I have ever read. If these were knightly days, and two brothers in arms, like you and myself, ever rescued distressed damsels from the grip of caitiffs vile, we ought to be mounted upon a pair of Don Fulanos when we rode the miscreants down.”

The fine sensitiveness of a poetic man like Brent makes a prophet of him, — that is to say, a man who has the poet’s delicate insight into character anticipates everything that character will do. So Brent was never surprised; though I confess I was, when I found men, horses, and places doing what he had hinted long before.

“Well,” continued I, ‘‘ I paid two years’ work for my horse. Was it too much? Is he worth it?”

“Everything is worth whatever one gives for it. The less you get, the more you get. Proved by the fact that the price of all life is death. Jacob served seven years for an ugly wife; why shouldn’t an honester man serve two for a beautiful horse?”

“Jacob, however, had a pretty wife thrown in when he showed discontent.”

“Perhaps you will. If the Light of the Harem of Sultan Brigham should see you prancing on that steed, she would make one bound to your crupper and leave a dark where the Light was.”

“I do not expect to develop a taste for Mormon ladies.”

“It is not very likely. They are a second-hand set. But still one can imagine some luckless girl with a doltish father; some old chap who had outlived his hopes at home, and fancied he was going to be Melchisedec, Moses, and Abraham, rolled into one, in Utah, toted out there by some beastly Elder, who wanted the daughter for his thirteenth. That would be a chance for you and Don Fulano to interfere. I’ll promise you myself and Pumps, if you want to stampede anybody’s wives from the New Jerusalem as we go through.”

“I suppose we have no time to lose, if we expect to make Missouri before winter.”

“No. “We will start as soon as you are ready.”

“To-morrow morning, if you please.”

“To-morrow it is.”

To-morrow it was. Having a comrade, I need not wait for the mail-riders. Lucky that I did not. They came only three days after us. But on the Humboldt, the Indians met them, and obliged them to doff the tops of their heads, as a mark of respect to Indian civilization.

“We started, two men and seven animals. Each of us had a pack mule and a roadster pony, with a spare one, in case accident should befall either of his wiry brethren.

Pumps and Fulano, as good friends as their masters, trotted along without burden. We rode them rarely. Only often enough to remind them how a saddle feels, and that dangling legs are not frightful. They must be fresh, if we should ever have to run for it. We might; Indians might cast fanciful glances at the tops of our heads. The other horses might give out. So Pumps, with his fantastic dancing-step, that would not crush a grasshopper, and Fulano, grander, prouder, and still untamable to any one but me, went on waiting for their time of action.

I skip the first thousand miles of our journey. Not that it was not exciting, but it might be anybody’s journey. Myriads have made it. It is an old story. I might perhaps make it a new story; but I crowd on now to the proper spot where this drama is to be enacted. The play halts while the scenes shift.

One figure fills up to my mind this whole hiatus of the many-leagued skip. I see Brent every step and every moment. He was a model comrade.

Camp-life tests a man thoroughly. Common toil, hardship, peril, and sternly common viaticum of pork, dough-cakes, and coffee sans everything, are a daily ordeal of good-nature. It is not hard for two men to be civil across a clean white table-cloth at a club. If they feel dull, they can study the carte; if spiteful, they can row the steward; if surly, they can muddle themselves cheerful; if they bore each other, finally and hopelessly they can exchange cigars and part for all time, and still be friends, not foes. But the illusions of sham good-fellowship vanish when the carte du jour is porc frit au naturel, damper à discretion, and café à rien, always the same fare, plain days or lucky days, served on a blanket, on the ground.

Brent and I stood the test. He was a model comrade, cavalier, poet, hunter, naturalist, cook. If there was any knowledge, skill, craft, or sleight of hand or brain wanted, it always seemed as if his whole life had been devoted to the one study to gain it. He would spring out of his blankets after a night under the stars, improvise a matin song to Lucifer, sketch the morning’s view into cloudland and the morning’s earthly horizon, take a shot at a gray wolf, book a new plant, bag a new beetle, and then, reclining on the lonely prairie, talk our breakfast, whose Soyer he had been, so full of Eden, Sybaris, the holocausts of Achilles, the triclinia of Lucullus, the automaton tables of the Œil de Boeuf, the cabinets of the Frères Provençaux, and the dinners of civilization where the wise and the witty meet to shine and sparkle for the beautiful, that our meagre provender suffered “change into something rich and strange”; the flakes of fried pork became peacocks’ tongues, every quoit of tough toasted dough a vol au vent, and the coffee that never saw milk or muscovado a diviner porridge than ever was sipped on the sunny summits of Olympus. Such a magician is priceless. Every object, when he looked at it, seemed to revolve about and exhibit its bright side. Difficulty skulked away from him. Danger cowered under his eye.

Nothing could damp his enthusiasm. Nothing could drench his ardor. No drowning his energy. He never growled, never sulked, never snapped, never flinched. Frosty nights on the Sierra tried to cramp him; foggy mornings in the valleys did their worst to chill him; showers shrank his buckskins and soaked the macheers of his saddle to mere pulp; rain pelted his blankets in the bivouac till he was a moist island in a muddy lake. Bah, elements! try it on a milk-sop! not on John Brent, the invulnerable. He laughs in the ugly phiz of Trouble. Hit somebody else, thou grizzly child of Erebus!

Brent was closer to Nature than any man I ever knew. Not after the manner of an artist. The artist can hardly escape a certain technicality. He looks at the world through the spectacles of his style. He loves mist and hates sunshine, or loves brooks and shrinks from the gloom of forests primeval, or adores meadows and haystacks, and dreads the far-sweeping plain and the sovran snow-peak. Even the greatest artist runs a risk, which only the greater than greatest escape, of suiting Nature to themselves, not themselves to Nature. Brent with Nature was like a youth with the maiden he loves. She was always his love, whatever she could do; however dressed, in clouds or sunshine, unchanging fair; in whatever mood, weeping or smiling, at her sweetest; grand, beautiful for her grandeur; tender, beautiful for her tenderness; simple, lovely for her simplicity; careless, prettier than if she were trim and artful; rough, potent, and impressive, a barbaric queen.

It is not a charming region, that breadth of the world between the Foolonner Mine and the Great Salt Lake. Much is dusty desert; much is dreary plain, bushed with wild sage, the wretchedest plant that grows; much is rugged mountain. A grim and desolate waste. But large and broad. Unbroken and undisturbed, in its solemn solitude, by prettiness. No thought of cottage life there, or of the tame, limited, submissive civilization that hangs about lattices and trellises, and pets its chirping pleasures, keeping life as near the cradle as it may. It is a region that appeals to the go and the gallop, that even the veriest cockney, who never saw beyond a vista of blocks, cannot eliminate from his being. It does not order man to sink into a ploughman. Ploughmen may tarry in those dull, boundless plough-fields, the prairie lands of mid-America. These desert spaces, ribbed with barren ridges, stretch for the Bedouin tread of those who

“Love all waste
And solitary places, where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.”

It may be a dreary region; but the great white clouds in the noons of that splendid September, the red dawns before us, the red twilights behind, the vague mountain lines upon the far horizon, the sharp crag lines near at hand, the lambent stars that lit our bivouacs, the moon that paled the lambent stars, — all these had their glory, intenser because each fact came simple and alone, and challenged study and love with a force that shames the spendthrift exuberance of fuller landscapes.

In all this time I learned to love the man John Brent, as I had loved the boy; but as mature man loves man. I have known no more perfect union than that one friendship. Nothing so tender in any of my transitory loves for women. We were two who thought alike, but saw differently, and never quarrelled because the shield was to him gold and to me silver. Such a friendship justifies life. All bad faith is worth encountering for the sake of such good faith, — all cold shoulder for such warm heart.

And so I bring our little party over the first half of its journey.

I will not even delay to describe Utah, not even for its water-melons’ sake, though that tricolor dainty greatly gladdened our dry jaws, as we followed the valley from Box Elder, the northernmost settlement, to the City of the Great Salt Lake.

In a few days of repose we had exhausted Mormon civilization, and, horses and men fresh and in brave heart, we rode out of the modern Mecca, one glorious day of early October.