Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 9–11 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 9

The party reaches the Black Hills after passing Fort Laramie (Wyoming) and they are now officially in "hostile Indian country." Several dangerous run-ins happen nearby, while their coach has a bullet hole in it from its last trip along the route. Anxiously, the group proceeds, always expecting an attack and sleeping on their firearms. That night, they are startled out of their sleep by "a ringing report" and "a long, wild, agonizing shriek." The driver cries out for help, while an answering voice shouts, "Kill him! Kill him like a dog!" Two shots are fired, and amidst the confusion of trampling feet, shouts, and "several heavy, dull blows, as with a club," the coach gets away. The incident happens so fast that passengers inside don't see what has happened, and they are left to wonder and worry as the coach escapes. "We fed on that mystery the rest of the night," Twain writes, as the conductor would not stop to tell them what had occurred. The passengers speculate they've been attacked by Indians, though they can't account for the fact that the attackers spoke "such good English, if they were Indians."

In the morning, they learn that the attack happened at a station, and that the driver was in fact killed by outlaws, not Indians. The conductor drops the name of Slade, a notorious desperado, and Twain's interest is immediately captured. Stories of the man's "ghastly exploits" have followed them along the trail. He is "a man whose heart and hands and soul were steeped in the blood of offenders against his dignity" and "an outlaw among outlaws." Yet, he is "the most valuable citizen" of the region, for he is also the most feared and most effective division agent on the Overland route.

Chapter 10

Twain relates the story of Slade, an Illinois native who had killed a man and then fled west. He joined a wagon train but shot one of the drivers dead, and then escaped once more, "fighting Indians and avoiding an Illinois sheriff" who was hunting him down. Slade gained a reputation for being both ruthless and fearless, qualities that made him the perfect candidate to take on the division agent post. "Gangs of outlaws" had been harassing and robbing the coaches, and the previous agent, Mr. Jules, had been unable to rein the outlaws in. Slade "made short work of all offenders," beginning by killing several men, though "the world was richer for their loss," says Twain. Jules hates Slade for outshining him, and the two begin a deadly feud, stalking each other in the street armed with loaded guns. After wounding each other, both are carried away to recover, and Jules sneaks away as soon as he is able. He hides out in the Rocky Mountains for months, and eventually everybody forgets about him—except for Slade, who still wants him dead.

The coach company then transfers Slade to the Rocky Mountain division, "the very paradise of outlaws and desperadoes." It is an entirely lawless land where violence rules and "force was the only recognized authority," with murders happening in broad daylight and for the slightest provocations. Slade again makes quick work of the desperadoes, hanging and shooting offenders left and right until the rest of the bunch "respected him, admired him, feared him, obeyed him!" So notorious is Slade that he is even profiled in a book Twain quotes from: The Vigilantes of Montana, by Thomas J. Dimsdale. Dimsdale writes of "Slade's hanging men, and of innumerable assaults, shootings, stabbings, and beatings," as well as his adoption of a "little half-breed boy" after killing the boy's father. Slade shoots a bartender at pointblank range, burns up an entire family in their home, and is busted out of jail by his own wife. Then lo and behold, Slade comes upon his old enemy Jules in the mountains. He ties the man to a post overnight "and then went to bed, content to wait till morning before enjoying the luxury of killing him." This he does, but first he torments the man by "nipping the flesh here and there" and shooting off a finger or two.

Twain's party stops for breakfast at a stage station, and who should be dining with them but "SLADE!" Twain is bowled over, writing "Here was romance, and I sitting face to face with it!" He finds Slade to be "so friendly and so gentle-spoken" that it is hard to believe the harrowing tales told of him. However, when the coffee runs down to the last cup, Twain declines a refill so that Slade can have it. "I was afraid he had not killed anybody that morning, and might be needing diversion," he explains.

Chapter 11

Twain relates how, a few years later, he hears that Slade has been hanged in Montana. He offers several pages of excerpted text from the Dimsdale book (The Vigilantes of Montana), which tell of the incident. Montana, virtually lawless at the time, had created "a People's Court" and a "Vigilance Committee" to try to establish order. Slade, writes Dimsdale, was both "a kind husband, a most hospitable host and a courteous gentleman" and a drunken, violent "fiend incarnate." He had become a public nuisance, drinking too much, destroying property, and causing trouble for local businesses. Slade had been given many warnings about his destructive behavior, and though he always paid for any damages he caused, he nonetheless made enemies.

After a particularly drunken evening in which Slade and his friends "had made the town a perfect hell," the sheriff came to arrest him. Slade tore up the warrant for his arrest. The Vigilance Committee acted swiftly to prevent Slade from retaliating against them, backed by a large group of miners who wanted to see him hanged. Slade "wept bitterly at the gallows, and begged for his life with all his power." He begged to see his "dear wife," but she arrived too late—her beloved husband was already dead. Twain then ruminates on Slade's character. Although the man had cried and begged for his life piteously in the end, he had proved many times that he was no coward. On the other hand, many cowardly villains had seemed outwardly brave when they were executed. Twain cannot figure out this "conundrum."

Analysis

While Twain does have a tendency to exaggerate and tell tales in his writing, Chapter 9 shows that his stories aren't just all talk—sometimes he is in real danger in the West. Twain builds drama in his writing by withholding details of the stagecoach attack (what really happened) and instead offers titillating speculation about Indians to tease the reader. While it doesn't turn out to be an Indian attack, outlaws are almost as romantic a notion when it comes to the West. The topic of outlaws also provides a perfect transition for Twain to talk about Slade in Chapters 10 and 11. Compared to most of the people in the book, who are merely mentioned in passing, Slade's character is examined in great depth. Twain offers multiple perspectives on the man, rather than just giving his own opinion. The primary source he borrows from (Dimsdale's book on Montana) corroborates his own accounts of Slade, lending a sense of authenticity to his commentary.

Slade is a "conundrum" to Twain, both in life and in death. On the one hand, Slade seems to be a heartless killer who tortures his victims for pleasure. On the other hand, he deeply loves his wife (and in turn inspires her devotion and love), and he also allegedly adopts an orphan boy (though only after killing the boy's father). Slade roughs up the town regularly, but always seems contrite afterwards and pays for the damage he has caused. He's an outlaw on the run, but also a valued division agent. Slade's execution adds to the mystery of who this man really is. One would expect this fearless man to put on a brave face at his death, but Slade instead cries and pleads to see his wife. Twain cannot understand it, for he knows that Slade does not lack courage. It is worth considering, perhaps, that it might require more courage to show one's true feelings to a hostile crowd. Slade did just that, rather than putting on a false front of bravery. He would not give up seeing his true love again without a fight, and the weapons he used were tears. Tears might stir his captors to compassion, while brave defiance never would. In the end, Slade's tears are for nothing, and the reader can't help but feel sorry that he and his wife are unable to reunite before his death. Somehow, Twain manages to make this bloody killer sympathetic to the reader, a real feat of writing. (That being said, it's also hard to blame the Vigilance Committee for hanging him while they have the chance.)

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