Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 7–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7

At Overland City, the stagecoach is changed out for a "mudwagon" and then continues on, crossing the sandy, shallow South Platte River. The wagon breaks down the next morning, and the passengers are invited to join a buffalo hunt (on horseback) while the vehicle is being repaired. George Bemis is chased up a tree by a wounded bull buffalo, much to the amusement of his companions. Unamused, Bemis tells his side of the story, blaming his horse for panicking. He claims the animal stood on its head, shed tears, and did handsprings in trying to escape the charging buffalo. Bemis, holding on for dear life, was thrown about violently until the saddle broke and he was thrown from the horse. The saddle was tossed "more than four hundred yards up in the air" and fortuitously landed in the very tree Bemis has scurried up to avoid the bull. But the bull climbed up the tree! When his companions object that a bull can't climb a tree, Bemis retorts, "He can't, can't he? Since you know so much about it, did you ever see a bull try?" He breezes on with his story, telling how he fashioned a noose from the lariat (rope) on the saddle. Bemis then lassoed the bull around the neck and shot it in the face, and the animal fell, hanging itself in the process. He swears the story is true, offering as proof the fact that he hasn't brought back his lariat or horse, nor have they ever seen the bull again. Twain reflects, "If this man was not a liar he only missed it by the skin of his teeth."

The incident reminds Twain of his travels in Siam (Thailand), where an Englishman named Eckert was "famous for the number, ingenuity, and imposing magnitude of his lies." Twain and a man named Bascom try to draw him out one evening, hoping to hear such a lie. Eventually, they manage the feat, for one night Eckert tells a ludicrous story about his cat eating coconut. Much to their chagrin, however the cat actually eats a coconut right in front of them. Bascom advises Twain not to speak of the matter to their friends.

Chapter 8

The passengers eagerly await the arrival of the "pony rider," a mail carrier who travels the 1,900 mile route from St. Joseph to Sacramento "in eight days!" These riders and their horses are "flying light," says Twain, for they carry next to nothing in order to reduce weight and ride faster. They travel twice as fast as a stagecoach, and at any time, night or day, about 80 riders are flying in both directions alone the route. At last, a pony rider overtakes the party, "and man and horse burst past our excited faces ... winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!" It is over so quickly that they wonder if it ever happened at all.

The wagon next comes to their first sighting of soapy alkali water, "a first-class curiosity, and a thing to be mentioned with éclat in letters to the ignorant at home." They then pass by "the scene of the Indian mail robbery and massacre of 1856," from which only one survivor escaped. "This must have been a mistake," Twain writes, for thereafter, over a hundred people tell him the story of how they escaped this very massacre. The "most trustworthy" story is that of a man named Babbitt. Severely wounded and suffering greatly, he reaches a safety at a nearby station by crawling at night and hiding from the Indians during the day.

Analysis

In Chapter 7, the passengers must downgrade their comforts once again. This time, they trade in the stagecoach for the unromantic, unreliable "mudwagon," which breaks down almost immediately. Luckily, the party is invited to partake in an adventure—the buffalo hunt. George Bemis takes center stage here, and the reader is able to learn more about his personality. He is obviously a big talker who embellishes the facts with enticing impossibilities. In fact, his story is a tall tale, a story of exaggerated or unbelievable elements. A horse can't kick a saddle 400 yards in the air, nor is it probable that the saddle would land precisely in Bemis's tree. A buffalo probably couldn't be hung from a tree, either—the rope or branch would likely break. Never mind the fact that buffaloes can't actually climb trees to begin with. Twain and his companions know that Bemis is full of hot air, but although they goad him with their doubting queries, they allow the story to unfold for its entertainment value. Besides, as Twain's anecdote about the coconut-eating cat shows, sometimes-unlikely stories turn out to be true. This anecdote once again shows his world travels, this time to exotic Siam.

Twain has even more to write home about and impress his readers with in Chapter 8. The Pony Express had started only one year prior to Twain's trip, and it had quickly become legendary for its fearless, speedy riders. It would have been uncommon to witness a rider in action, and Twain plays up the experience in vivid detail. His descriptions of speed and emotions project his excitement, making the reader feel as if he were there himself. Another oddity not experienced by Twain's friends back home is alkali water, which may be salty, soapy, or even caustic to the skin.

The site of the 1856 massacre once again brings up an element of tall tales, as Twain meets over a hundred people who claim to be the sole survivor. Many of the stories they tell are fantastic and unbelievable, and while the tale of Babbitt is the "most trustworthy," that doesn't mean it's true, either. All of this was part of the character of the Old West. Everyone had his own tall tale to tell, and there was no way of corroborating what was true. Yet as Twain notes, "There was no doubt of the truth of it—I had it from their own lips." Such tales seemed to be not only tolerated, but relished in that era, when "larger than life" was the typical state of existence. The massacre also touches on the matter of Indians, and the antipathy travelers and settlers in the West felt toward them. Since the massacre happened only 5 years prior to Twain's trip, it would have still been considered a recent event. Twain and his party may have felt uneasy passing the site, wondering if they, too, might come into conflict with hostile Indians along the route.

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