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    Chapter XXXIX

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    Chapter 43
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    About seven o'clock one blistering hot morning--for it was now dead
    summer time--Higbie and I took the boat and started on a voyage of
    discovery to the two islands. We had often longed to do this, but had
    been deterred by the fear of storms; for they were frequent, and severe
    enough to capsize an ordinary row-boat like ours without great
    difficulty--and once capsized, death would ensue in spite of the bravest
    swimming, for that venomous water would eat a man's eyes out like fire,
    and burn him out inside, too, if he shipped a sea. It was called twelve
    miles, straight out to the islands--a long pull and a warm one--but the
    morning was so quiet and sunny, and the lake so smooth and glassy and
    dead, that we could not resist the temptation. So we filled two large
    tin canteens with water (since we were not acquainted with the locality
    of the spring said to exist on the large island), and started. Higbie's
    brawny muscles gave the boat good speed, but by the time we reached our
    destination we judged that we had pulled nearer fifteen miles than
    twelve.

    We landed on the big island and went ashore. We tried the water in the
    canteens, now, and found that the sun had spoiled it; it was so brackish
    that we could not drink it; so we poured it out and began a search for
    the spring--for thirst augments fast as soon as it is apparent that one
    has no means at hand of quenching it. The island was a long, moderately
    high hill of ashes--nothing but gray ashes and pumice-stone, in which we
    sunk to our knees at every step--and all around the top was a forbidding
    wall of scorched and blasted rocks. When we reached the top and got
    within the wall, we found simply a shallow, far-reaching basin, carpeted
    with ashes, and here and there a patch of fine sand. In places,
    picturesque jets of steam shot up out of crevices, giving evidence that
    although this ancient crater had gone out of active business, there was
    still some fire left in its furnaces. Close to one of these jets of
    steam stood the only tree on the island--a small pine of most graceful
    shape and most faultless symmetry; its color was a brilliant green, for
    the steam drifted unceasingly through its branches and kept them always
    moist. It contrasted strangely enough, did this vigorous and beautiful
    outcast, with its dead and dismal surroundings. It was like a cheerful
    spirit in a mourning household.

    We hunted for the spring everywhere, traversing the full length of the
    island (two or three miles), and crossing it twice--climbing ash-hills
    patiently, and then sliding down the other side in a sitting posture,
    plowing up smothering volumes of gray dust. But we found nothing but
    solitude, ashes and a heart-breaking silence. Finally we noticed that
    the wind had risen, and we forgot our thirst in a solicitude of greater
    importance; for, the lake being quiet, we had not taken pains about
    securing the boat. We hurried back to a point overlooking our landing
    place, and then--but mere words cannot describe our dismay--the boat was
    gone! The chances were that there was not another boat on the entire
    lake. The situation was not comfortable--in truth, to speak plainly, it
    was frightful. We were prisoners on a desolate island, in aggravating
    proximity to friends who were for the present helpless to aid us; and
    what was still more uncomfortable was the reflection that we had neither
    food nor water. But presently we sighted the boat. It was drifting
    along, leisurely, about fifty yards from shore, tossing in a foamy sea.
    It drifted, and continued to drift, but at the same safe distance from
    land, and we walked along abreast it and waited for fortune to favor us.
    At the end of an hour it approached a jutting cape, and Higbie ran ahead
    and posted himself on the utmost verge and prepared for the assault. If
    we failed there, there was no hope for us. It was driving gradually
    shoreward all the time, now; but whether it was driving fast enough to
    make the connection or not was the momentous question. When it got
    within thirty steps of Higbie I was so excited that I fancied I could
    hear my own heart beat. When, a little later, it dragged slowly along
    and seemed about to go by, only one little yard out of reach, it seemed
    as if my heart stood still; and when it was exactly abreast him and began
    to widen away, and he still standing like a watching statue, I knew my
    heart did stop. But when he gave a great spring, the next instant, and
    lit fairly in the stern, I discharged a war-whoop that woke the
    solitudes!

    But it dulled my enthusiasm, presently, when he told me he had not been
    caring whether the boat came within jumping distance or not, so that it
    passed within eight or ten yards of him, for he had made up his mind to
    shut his eyes and mouth and swim that trifling distance. Imbecile that I
    was, I had not thought of that. It was only a long swim that could be
    fatal.

    The sea was running high and the storm increasing. It was growing late,
    too--three or four in the afternoon. Whether to venture toward the
    mainland or not, was a question of some moment. But we were so
    distressed by thirst that we decide to try it, and so Higbie fell to work
    and I took the steering-oar. When we had pulled a mile, laboriously,
    we were evidently in serious peril, for the storm had greatly augmented;
    the billows ran very high and were capped with foaming crests,
    the heavens were hung with black, and the wind blew with great fury.
    We would have gone back, now, but we did not dare to turn the boat
    around, because as soon as she got in the trough of the sea she would
    upset, of course. Our only hope lay in keeping her head-on to the seas.
    It was hard work to do this, she plunged so, and so beat and belabored
    the billows with her rising and falling bows. Now and then one of
    Higbie's oars would trip on the top of a wave, and the other one would
    snatch the boat half around in spite of my cumbersome steering apparatus.
    We were drenched by the sprays constantly, and the boat occasionally
    shipped water. By and by, powerful as my comrade was, his great
    exertions began to tell on him, and he was anxious that I should change
    places with him till he could rest a little. But I told him this was
    impossible; for if the steering oar were dropped a moment while we
    changed, the boat would slue around into the trough of the sea, capsize,
    and in less than five minutes we would have a hundred gallons of soap-
    suds in us and be eaten up so quickly that we could not even be present
    at our own inquest.

    But things cannot last always. Just as the darkness shut down we came
    booming into port, head on. Higbie dropped his oars to hurrah--I dropped
    mine to help--the sea gave the boat a twist, and over she went!

    The agony that alkali water inflicts on bruises, chafes and blistered
    hands, is unspeakable, and nothing but greasing all over will modify it--
    but we ate, drank and slept well, that night, notwithstanding.

    In speaking of the peculiarities of Mono Lake, I ought to have mentioned
    that at intervals all around its shores stand picturesque turret-looking
    masses and clusters of a whitish, coarse-grained rock that resembles
    inferior mortar dried hard; and if one breaks off fragments of this rock
    he will find perfectly shaped and thoroughly petrified gulls' eggs deeply
    imbedded in the mass. How did they get there? I simply state the fact--
    for it is a fact--and leave the geological reader to crack the nut at his
    leisure and solve the problem after his own fashion.

    At the end of a week we adjourned to the Sierras on a fishing excursion,
    and spent several days in camp under snowy Castle Peak, and fished
    successfully for trout in a bright, miniature lake whose surface was
    between ten and eleven thousand feet above the level of the sea; cooling
    ourselves during the hot August noons by sitting on snow banks ten feet
    deep, under whose sheltering edges fine grass and dainty flowers
    flourished luxuriously; and at night entertaining ourselves by almost
    freezing to death. Then we returned to Mono Lake, and finding that the
    cement excitement was over for the present, packed up and went back to
    Esmeralda. Mr. Ballou reconnoitred awhile, and not liking the prospect,
    set out alone for Humboldt.

    About this time occurred a little incident which has always had a sort of
    interest to me, from the fact that it came so near "instigating" my
    funeral. At a time when an Indian attack had been expected, the citizens
    hid their gunpowder where it would be safe and yet convenient to hand
    when wanted. A neighbor of ours hid six cans of rifle powder in the
    bake-oven of an old discarded cooking stove which stood on the open
    ground near a frame out-house or shed, and from and after that day never
    thought of it again. We hired a half-tamed Indian to do some washing for
    us, and he took up quarters under the shed with his tub. The ancient
    stove reposed within six feet of him, and before his face. Finally it
    occurred to him that hot water would be better than cold, and he went out
    and fired up under that forgotten powder magazine and set on a kettle of
    water. Then he returned to his tub.

    I entered the shed presently and threw down some more clothes, and was
    about to speak to him when the stove blew up with a prodigious crash, and
    disappeared, leaving not a splinter behind. Fragments of it fell in the
    streets full two hundred yards away. Nearly a third of the shed roof
    over our heads was destroyed, and one of the stove lids, after cutting a
    small stanchion half in two in front of the Indian, whizzed between us
    and drove partly through the weather-boarding beyond. I was as white as
    a sheet and as weak as a kitten and speechless. But the Indian betrayed
    no trepidation, no distress, not even discomfort. He simply stopped
    washing, leaned forward and surveyed the clean, blank ground a moment,
    and then remarked:

    "Mph! Dam stove heap gone!"--and resumed his scrubbing as placidly as if
    it were an entirely customary thing for a stove to do. I will explain,
    that "heap" is "Injun-English" for "very much." The reader will perceive
    the exhaustive expressiveness of it in the present instance.
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