Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 29–33 | Summary



Chapter 29

Mr. Ballou leads the mining expeditions, but the men find no silver and their enthusiasm begins to wane. After much heavy toil, they find one promising vein of quartz with flecks of silver and gold in it. They post a claim notice and name the mine "Monarch of the Mountains." Ballou explains to his partners that the mine's riches may be hundreds of feet below the earth. They will need to dig a shaft or tunnel to reach it, but they can only dig about five feet per day. Once they reach the rich deposits, they'll have to dig, haul, and process the ore at a distant silver mill. Twain laments, "Our fortune seemed a century away!" but nonetheless, they start work on digging a shaft. Picks and shovels are set aside for blasting powder as the rock gets harder and harder, but the explosives hardly make a dent in the stubborn rock. After a week and only twelve feet of progress, Mark Twain, Clagett, and Oliphant all quit, deciding that a tunnel will be easier to dig. After week of digging the tunnel, they give that up, too, and stop work on the Monarch entirely. They stake new claims elsewhere, trading "feet" of their own mines for "feet" in other people's mines, accumulating over 30,000 "feet" each. The men are sure they're going to get rich, but they have nothing to show for their time and effort but worthless rocks. In truth, they are "in debt to the butcher" and have no credit at the grocer's either.

Chapter 30

Miners all over town try to trade away "feet" of their mining ventures for cash, producing specimens of gold-flecked rock as proof of the mine's worth. The miners have their claims assayed, or evaluated for worth, but they're a bit sneaky about it. They tend to "hunt out the richest piece of rock" for evaluation, thus making the claim seems more valuable than it really is. Twain and his partners decide that the real way to get rich isn't through hard labor, but rather by selling their mines to others. Meanwhile, Twain, his brother, Mr. Ballou, and Ollendorff return to Carson City to check in on their "feet" in the Esmeralda mine. They stop for the night near the Carson River at a remote inn, which is crowded with dozens of wagon drivers, vagabonds, and others. Nearby, a group of Indians are packing up their camp in a hurry, believing that a flood will soon be coming. This seems ridiculous to Twain and his companions, since the weather looks perfectly clear, so they go to bed. As predicted, though, a huge flood begins to rise during the night, and the men fly about to rescue the horses and wagons. The mud-brick stable melts away in the deluge, and soon the inn is surrounded by water as far as the eye can see. For eight days, Twain's party is stuck at the inn with the boisterous crew of drinking, swearing, gambling strangers.

Chapter 31

Two of the men at the inn are quite annoying to Twain. One is a young Swede who constantly sings the same song and the other is a belligerent drunk named "Arkansas" who always wants to fight. Arkansas tries to provoke everyone, though most refuse to take the bait. One morning, he tries to start a political argument with the landlord Johnson, who stammers apologies and flatters Arkansas to avoid trouble. Johnson offers a round of drinks to everyone and a toast to Arkansas, who is mollified for the moment, but the peace doesn't last long. The irrational Arkansas picks another fight with Johnson, this time because the landlord is reminiscing about his father rather than talking about the people who are present. "Ain't this company agreeable to you? Ain't it?" he demands, asking if the landlord is trying to get rid of them all. Arkansas draws his gun, shouting that Johnson plans to murder him, and he begins to shoot. As the men scramble to escape, Johnson's wife appears, brandishing a pair of scissors. Arkansas balks, backing away from her as she gives him a thorough scolding until he is quite humiliated. The room bursts into applause, and after that, Arkansas keeps to himself around the inn.

By the eighth day, the water has receded some, and Twain's party can't bear staying at the inn any longer. They set out during a snowstorm to cross the swollen river by canoe, the horses following behind. The dangerously swift water frightens Ollendorff, who upsets the boat as they near the opposite shore. The men and horses make it ashore, but their saddles are lost, and they are all soaked. They return to the inn for the night, acquire replacement saddles, and set out again the next morning despite a raging snowstorm. Visibility is terrible, but Ollendorff is certain he knows the way to Carson City, so the men are happy enough to follow him. Soon they come upon fresh tracks which seem to indicate that they're on the right path. Cheered, they keep going, trying to catch up to whomever is before them. Strangely, though, the number of footprints ahead of them increases as the time passes. Finally, Ballou realizes they have been going in circles for two hours, following their own tracks, and he cusses Ollendorrf out. They are back where they started, with the inn visible just across the river. The Overland stage passes by, though, so they decide to follow its tracks. They can't keep up, though, and night falls quickly around them as the wheel tracks are covered with snow. After wandering aimlessly for a time, they become worried and dismount to look for the trail.

Chapter 32

The party fears they are lost, so they decide to stop where they are to build a sagebrush fire for the night. They try starting the fire with guns first, then by rubbing sticks together—tricks from books they've read—but neither method works. Meanwhile, Twain stops minding the horses and they wander off into the snow. Mr. Ballou finally finds a few matches, but each one goes out as soon as it is lit. The men truly begin to lose heart, and "a sad-voiced conversation began" in which they all admit they expect to die that night. Ollendorff apologizes profusely for his part in their misfortune, and he begins to cry. Soon they are all crying and making amends with one another. Ollendorff then swears off whiskey, wishing he could live longer "not for any selfish reason, but to make a thorough reform in his character." He would help the poor and sick! He would preach against alcohol and be a role model for youths! He throws his bottle away after this speech, and the other men all follow suit with their own vices. Ballou throws away his playing cards and Twain tosses out his pipe, finally feeling "free of a hated vice." Each man is completely sincere, for they are facing death and have no hope of living until morning. The men huddle together in tears, awaiting icy death and saying their goodbyes, until at last they lose consciousness.

Chapter 33

Miraculously, Twain awakens at dawn to Mr. Ballou's voice, who asks bitterly, "Will some gentleman be so good as to kick me behind?" Twain sits up and sees the stagecoach station very close by, where the still-saddled horses have taken shelter in a shed. The men, embarrassed and angry, unsaddle the horses and take shelter themselves. After breakfast, they begin to feel better, but Twain gets fidgety when he realizes he wants to smoke his abandoned pipe. He sneaks away to find it, guiltily recalling his vows of the previous night to reform his ways, but can't resist the urge to smoke. He sneaks behind the barn to light his pipe and there discovers Ollendorff drinking his whiskey and Ballou playing with his cards. They agree to speak no more of what has happened. At last they make their way to Carson City, where they stay for a week before heading to Esmeralda.


Mark Twain's youthful, naïve enthusiasm takes another hit as he begins to understand just how much work it takes to "get rich quick." He begins with unrealistic expectations of how easy it will be to find silver, imagining it will simply litter the ground. When it becomes clear that they'll have to dig for it, he doesn't seem to understand the enormity of the task ahead of them. Throughout the story, he has hinted at his own lazy streak when it comes to physical labor. Now his lack of stamina is proven when it's time to start actual digging. He is impatient to be rich with as little effort as possible, and the idea of having to put in the time and expense to mine, haul, and process the ore frustrates him greatly. His two lawyer companions are no better at sticking to the plans to dig. Only older, experienced Mr. Ballou understands the reality of mining and the amount of work it requires to make a living at it. The young miners then turn to speculating with their shares of the mines, again hoping to strike it rich without actually putting in any work. Twain admits, though, that they are penniless and can't even afford to buy food. Twain excuses his foolish choices by pointing out that everyone else in town is doing the same thing.

The description of the flood at the inn creates excitement. It also hints at the mystifying knowledge the Indians seem to have of nature—how they knew a flood was coming is a complete mystery to Twain. The men's forced stay at the inn also offers Twain the opportunity to profile a few colorful characters of the West, especially the "ruffian" Arkansas. Twain's records of his interactions with other guests at the inn show Arkansas's deft ability to turn any conversation into an argument. He is a classic desperado, spoiling for a fight and ready to do anything to get it. Poor Johnson, on the other hand, seems like an average Joe who is simply trying to make a living and enjoy himself with his guests. He does everything he possibly can to pacify Arkansas, tactfully avoiding a fight at first. However, the outlaw is determined to escalate the situation no matter what the landlord does or says. The unexpected twist to the story is the landlord's wife, who fearlessly shouts down the trigger-happy bully with nothing but a pair of scissors. Twain is partly making fun of Arkansas's "tough guy" image in this scene and partly showing the toughness of women in the West. Despite Arkansas's bravado and weaponry, his spirit is broken by words alone, and the words of a housewife, at that. His humiliation is complete.

Twain and his companions make more poor choices when they decide to leave the inn. Because the river is still quite swollen with floodwaters, Ollendorff panics and they lose their saddles and get soaked to the bone. This isn't warning enough to delay their departure, though, and they set out into the barren desert in the middle of a December snowstorm. Their foolish trust in Ollendorff leads them in circles, a truly ridiculous circumstance that would likely be funny to them if conditions weren't so miserable. Twain and his companions are possibly the worst survivalists ever. They lose their horses, have no clue where they are, and can't even get a fire going to save their own lives. The scene in which they prepare to die is both sobering and hilarious. Obviously, at least Twain would have to survive, or the book would never have been written. Even so, his sorrow and regret are poignant and sincere; the reader can feel how truly he believed he was going to die. The "dying" men stereotypically repent at the end, swearing to give up their awful ways and become model citizens if only they could live. Their own hypocrisy is revealed in less than a day, for the very next morning they give up their vows. Here again, Twain shows that he is only human. He makes mistakes, but he is not afraid to show his flaws to the reader truthfully—if exaggerated at times for humorous effect.

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