home | authors | books | about

Home -> Arthur Conan Doyle -> A Study in Scarlet -> Part II. Chapter 1 - On the Great Alkali Plain

A Study in Scarlet - Part II. Chapter 1 - On the Great Alkali Plain

1. Part I. Chapter 1 - Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

2. Chapter 2 - The Science of Deduction

3. Chapter 3 - The Lauriston Garden Mystery

4. Chapter 4 - What John Rance Had to Tell

5. Chapter 5 - Our Advertisement Brings a Visitor

6. Chapter 6 - Tobias Gregson Shows What He Can Do

7. Chapter 7 - Light in the Darkness

8. Part II. Chapter 1 - On the Great Alkali Plain

9. Chapter 2 - The Flower of Utah

10. Chapter 3 - John Ferrier Talks with the Prophet

11. Chapter 4 - A Flight for Life

12. Chapter 5 - The Avenging Angels

13. Chapter 6 - A Continuation of the Reminiscences of John Watson, M.D.

14. Chapter 7 - The Conclusion

IN the central portion of the great North American Continent
there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a
long year served as a barrier against the advance of
civilisation. From the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, and from
the Yellowstone River in the north to the Colorado upon the
south, is a region of desolation and silence.
Nor is Nature always in one mood throughout this grim district.
It comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark and
gloomy valleys. There are swift-flowing rivers which dash
through jagged canons; {18} and there are enormous plains, which
in winter are white with snow, and in summer are grey with
the saline alkali dust. They all preserve, however,
the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality,
and misery.

There are no inhabitants of this land of despair. A band of
Pawnees or of Blackfeet may occasionally traverse it in order
to reach other hunting-grounds, but the hardiest of the
braves are glad to lose sight of those awesome plains, and to
find themselves once more upon their prairies. The coyote
skulks among the scrub, the buzzard flaps heavily through the
air, and the clumsy grizzly bear lumbers through the dark
ravines, and picks up such sustenance as it can amongst the
rocks. These are the sole dwellers in the wilderness.

In the whole world there can be no more dreary view than that
from the northern slope of the Sierra Blanco. As far as the
eye can reach stretches the great flat plain-land, all dusted
over with patches of alkali, and intersected by clumps of the
dwarfish chaparral bushes. On the extreme verge of the
horizon lie a long chain of mountain peaks, with their rugged
summits flecked with snow. In this great stretch of country
there is no sign of life, nor of anything appertaining to
life. There is no bird in the steel-blue heaven, no movement
upon the dull, grey earth -- above all, there is absolute
silence. Listen as one may, there is no shadow of a sound in
all that mighty wilderness; nothing but silence -- complete
and heart-subduing silence.

It has been said there is nothing appertaining to life upon
the broad plain. That is hardly true. Looking down from the
Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the
desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance.
It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many
adventurers. Here and there there are scattered white
objects which glisten in the sun, and stand out against the
dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They
are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more
delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter
to men. For fifteen hundred miles one may trace this ghastly
caravan route by these scattered remains of those who had
fallen by the wayside.

Looking down on this very scene, there stood upon the fourth
of May, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, a solitary
traveller. His appearance was such that he might have been
the very genius or demon of the region. An observer would
have found it difficult to say whether he was nearer to forty
or to sixty. His face was lean and haggard, and the brown
parchment-like skin was drawn tightly over the projecting
bones; his long, brown hair and beard were all flecked and
dashed with white; his eyes were sunken in his head, and
burned with an unnatural lustre; while the hand which grasped
his rifle was hardly more fleshy than that of a skeleton.
As he stood, he leaned upon his weapon for support, and yet his
tall figure and the massive framework of his bones suggested
a wiry and vigorous constitution. His gaunt face, however,
and his clothes, which hung so baggily over his shrivelled
limbs, proclaimed what it was that gave him that senile and
decrepit appearance. The man was dying -- dying from hunger
and from thirst.

He had toiled painfully down the ravine, and on to this
little elevation, in the vain hope of seeing some signs of
water. Now the great salt plain stretched before his eyes,
and the distant belt of savage mountains, without a sign
anywhere of plant or tree, which might indicate the presence
of moisture. In all that broad landscape there was no gleam
of hope. North, and east, and west he looked with wild
questioning eyes, and then he realised that his wanderings
had come to an end, and that there, on that barren crag,
he was about to die. "Why not here, as well as in a feather
bed, twenty years hence," he muttered, as he seated himself
in the shelter of a boulder.

Before sitting down, he had deposited upon the ground his
useless rifle, and also a large bundle tied up in a grey
shawl, which he had carried slung over his right shoulder.
It appeared to be somewhat too heavy for his strength, for
in lowering it, it came down on the ground with some little
violence. Instantly there broke from the grey parcel a
little moaning cry, and from it there protruded a small,
scared face, with very bright brown eyes, and two little
speckled, dimpled fists.

"You've hurt me!" said a childish voice reproachfully.

"Have I though," the man answered penitently, "I didn't go
for to do it." As he spoke he unwrapped the grey shawl and
extricated a pretty little girl of about five years of age,
whose dainty shoes and smart pink frock with its little linen
apron all bespoke a mother's care. The child was pale and
wan, but her healthy arms and legs showed that she had
suffered less than her companion.

"How is it now?" he answered anxiously, for she was still rubbing
the towsy golden curls which covered the back of her head.

"Kiss it and make it well," she said, with perfect gravity,
shoving {19} the injured part up to him. "That's what mother
used to do. Where's mother?"

"Mother's gone. I guess you'll see her before long."

"Gone, eh!" said the little girl. "Funny, she didn't say
good-bye; she 'most always did if she was just goin' over
to Auntie's for tea, and now she's been away three days.
Say, it's awful dry, ain't it? Ain't there no water,
nor nothing to eat?"

"No, there ain't nothing, dearie. You'll just need to be
patient awhile, and then you'll be all right. Put your head
up agin me like that, and then you'll feel bullier. It ain't
easy to talk when your lips is like leather, but I guess I'd
best let you know how the cards lie. What's that you've got?"

"Pretty things! fine things!" cried the little girl
enthusiastically, holding up two glittering fragments of mica.
"When we goes back to home I'll give them to brother Bob."

"You'll see prettier things than them soon," said the man
confidently. "You just wait a bit. I was going to tell you
though -- you remember when we left the river?"

"Oh, yes."

"Well, we reckoned we'd strike another river soon, d'ye see.
But there was somethin' wrong; compasses, or map, or somethin',
and it didn't turn up. Water ran out. Just except a little
drop for the likes of you and -- and ----"

"And you couldn't wash yourself," interrupted his companion
gravely, staring up at his grimy visage.

"No, nor drink. And Mr. Bender, he was the fust to go,
and then Indian Pete, and then Mrs. McGregor, and then
Johnny Hones, and then, dearie, your mother."

"Then mother's a deader too," cried the little girl dropping
her face in her pinafore and sobbing bitterly.

"Yes, they all went except you and me. Then I thought there
was some chance of water in this direction, so I heaved you
over my shoulder and we tramped it together. It don't seem
as though we've improved matters. There's an almighty small
chance for us now!"

"Do you mean that we are going to die too?" asked the child,
checking her sobs, and raising her tear-stained face.

"I guess that's about the size of it."

"Why didn't you say so before?" she said, laughing gleefully.
"You gave me such a fright. Why, of course, now as long as
we die we'll be with mother again."

"Yes, you will, dearie."

"And you too. I'll tell her how awful good you've been.
I'll bet she meets us at the door of Heaven with a big
pitcher of water, and a lot of buckwheat cakes, hot,
and toasted on both sides, like Bob and me was fond of.
How long will it be first?"

"I don't know -- not very long." The man's eyes were fixed
upon the northern horizon. In the blue vault of the heaven
there had appeared three little specks which increased in
size every moment, so rapidly did they approach. They
speedily resolved themselves into three large brown birds,
which circled over the heads of the two wanderers, and then
settled upon some rocks which overlooked them. They were
buzzards, the vultures of the west, whose coming is the
forerunner of death.

"Cocks and hens," cried the little girl gleefully, pointing
at their ill-omened forms, and clapping her hands to make
them rise. "Say, did God make this country?"

"In course He did," said her companion, rather startled by
this unexpected question.

"He made the country down in Illinois, and He made the Missouri,"
the little girl continued. "I guess somebody else made the
country in these parts. It's not nearly so well done.
They forgot the water and the trees."

"What would ye think of offering up prayer?" the man asked

"It ain't night yet," she answered.

"It don't matter. It ain't quite regular, but He won't mind
that, you bet. You say over them ones that you used to say
every night in the waggon when we was on the Plains."

"Why don't you say some yourself?" the child asked,
with wondering eyes.

"I disremember them," he answered. "I hain't said none since
I was half the height o' that gun. I guess it's never too late.
You say them out, and I'll stand by and come in on the choruses."

"Then you'll need to kneel down, and me too," she said,
laying the shawl out for that purpose. "You've got to put
your hands up like this. It makes you feel kind o' good."

It was a strange sight had there been anything but the
buzzards to see it. Side by side on the narrow shawl knelt
the two wanderers, the little prattling child and the
reckless, hardened adventurer. Her chubby face, and his
haggard, angular visage were both turned up to the cloudless
heaven in heartfelt entreaty to that dread being with whom
they were face to face, while the two voices -- the one thin
and clear, the other deep and harsh -- united in the entreaty
for mercy and forgiveness. The prayer finished, they resumed
their seat in the shadow of the boulder until the child fell
asleep, nestling upon the broad breast of her protector.
He watched over her slumber for some time, but Nature proved
to be too strong for him. For three days and three nights
he had allowed himself neither rest nor repose. Slowly the
eyelids drooped over the tired eyes, and the head sunk lower
and lower upon the breast, until the man's grizzled beard was
mixed with the gold tresses of his companion, and both slept
the same deep and dreamless slumber.

Had the wanderer remained awake for another half hour a
strange sight would have met his eyes. Far away on the
extreme verge of the alkali plain there rose up a little
spray of dust, very slight at first, and hardly to be
distinguished from the mists of the distance, but gradually
growing higher and broader until it formed a solid,
well-defined cloud. This cloud continued to increase in size
until it became evident that it could only be raised by a
great multitude of moving creatures. In more fertile spots
the observer would have come to the conclusion that one of
those great herds of bisons which graze upon the prairie land
was approaching him. This was obviously impossible in these
arid wilds. As the whirl of dust drew nearer to the solitary
bluff upon which the two castaways were reposing, the
canvas-covered tilts of waggons and the figures of armed
horsemen began to show up through the haze, and the apparition
revealed itself as being a great caravan upon its journey for
the West. But what a caravan! When the head of it had
reached the base of the mountains, the rear was not yet
visible on the horizon. Right across the enormous plain
stretched the straggling array, waggons and carts, men on
horseback, and men on foot. Innumerable women who staggered
along under burdens, and children who toddled beside the
waggons or peeped out from under the white coverings.
This was evidently no ordinary party of immigrants, but rather
some nomad people who had been compelled from stress of
circumstances to seek themselves a new country. There rose
through the clear air a confused clattering and rumbling from
this great mass of humanity, with the creaking of wheels and
the neighing of horses. Loud as it was, it was not
sufficient to rouse the two tired wayfarers above them.

At the head of the column there rode a score or more of grave
ironfaced men, clad in sombre homespun garments and armed
with rifles. On reaching the base of the bluff they halted,
and held a short council among themselves.

"The wells are to the right, my brothers," said one,
a hard-lipped, clean-shaven man with grizzly hair.

"To the right of the Sierra Blanco -- so we shall reach the
Rio Grande," said another.

"Fear not for water," cried a third. "He who could draw it
from the rocks will not now abandon His own chosen people."

"Amen! Amen!" responded the whole party.

They were about to resume their journey when one of the
youngest and keenest-eyed uttered an exclamation and pointed
up at the rugged crag above them. From its summit there
fluttered a little wisp of pink, showing up hard and bright
against the grey rocks behind. At the sight there was a
general reining up of horses and unslinging of guns, while
fresh horsemen came galloping up to reinforce the vanguard.
The word `Redskins' was on every lip.

"There can't be any number of Injuns here," said the elderly
man who appeared to be in command. "We have passed the Pawnees,
and there are no other tribes until we cross the great mountains."

"Shall I go forward and see, Brother Stangerson,"
asked one of the band.

"And I," "and I," cried a dozen voices.

"Leave your horses below and we will await you here,"
the Elder answered. In a moment the young fellows had
dismounted, fastened their horses, and were ascending the
precipitous slope which led up to the object which had
excited their curiosity. They advanced rapidly and
noiselessly, with the confidence and dexterity of practised
scouts. The watchers from the plain below could see them
flit from rock to rock until their figures stood out against
the skyline. The young man who had first given the alarm was
leading them. Suddenly his followers saw him throw up his
hands, as though overcome with astonishment, and on joining
him they were affected in the same way by the sight which met
their eyes.

On the little plateau which crowned the barren hill there
stood a single giant boulder, and against this boulder there
lay a tall man, long-bearded and hard-featured, but of an
excessive thinness. His placid face and regular breathing
showed that he was fast asleep. Beside him lay a little
child, with her round white arms encircling his brown sinewy
neck, and her golden haired head resting upon the breast of
his velveteen tunic. Her rosy lips were parted, showing the
regular line of snow-white teeth within, and a playful smile
played over her infantile features. Her plump little white
legs terminating in white socks and neat shoes with shining
buckles, offered a strange contrast to the long shrivelled
members of her companion. On the ledge of rock above this
strange couple there stood three solemn buzzards, who,
at the sight of the new comers uttered raucous screams
of disappointment and flapped sullenly away.

The cries of the foul birds awoke the two sleepers who stared
about {20} them in bewilderment. The man staggered to his feet
and looked down upon the plain which had been so desolate
when sleep had overtaken him, and which was now traversed by
this enormous body of men and of beasts. His face assumed an
expression of incredulity as he gazed, and he passed his
boney hand over his eyes. "This is what they call delirium,
I guess," he muttered. The child stood beside him, holding
on to the skirt of his coat, and said nothing but looked all
round her with the wondering questioning gaze of childhood.

The rescuing party were speedily able to convince the two
castaways that their appearance was no delusion. One of them
seized the little girl, and hoisted her upon his shoulder,
while two others supported her gaunt companion, and assisted
him towards the waggons.

"My name is John Ferrier," the wanderer explained; "me and
that little un are all that's left o' twenty-one people.
The rest is all dead o' thirst and hunger away down in the south."

"Is she your child?" asked someone.

"I guess she is now," the other cried, defiantly;
"she's mine 'cause I saved her. No man will take her from me.
She's Lucy Ferrier from this day on. Who are you, though?"
he continued, glancing with curiosity at his stalwart,
sunburned rescuers; "there seems to be a powerful lot of ye."

"Nigh upon ten thousand," said one of the young men;
"we are the persecuted children of God -- the chosen
of the Angel Merona."

"I never heard tell on him," said the wanderer.
"He appears to have chosen a fair crowd of ye."

"Do not jest at that which is sacred," said the other
sternly. "We are of those who believe in those sacred
writings, drawn in Egyptian letters on plates of beaten gold,
which were handed unto the holy Joseph Smith at Palmyra.
We have come from Nauvoo, in the State of Illinois, where
we had founded our temple. We have come to seek a refuge
from the violent man and from the godless, even though it
be the heart of the desert."

The name of Nauvoo evidently recalled recollections to John
Ferrier. "I see," he said, "you are the Mormons."

"We are the Mormons," answered his companions with one voice.

"And where are you going?"

"We do not know. The hand of God is leading us under
the person of our Prophet. You must come before him.
He shall say what is to be done with you."

They had reached the base of the hill by this time, and were
surrounded by crowds of the pilgrims -- pale-faced meek-looking
women, strong laughing children, and anxious earnest-eyed men.
Many were the cries of astonishment and of commiseration which
arose from them when they perceived the youth of one of the
strangers and the destitution of the other. Their escort did
not halt, however, but pushed on, followed by a great crowd
of Mormons, until they reached a waggon, which was conspicuous
for its great size and for the gaudiness and smartness of its
appearance. Six horses were yoked to it, whereas the others
were furnished with two, or, at most, four a-piece.
Beside the driver there sat a man who could not have been more
than thirty years of age, but whose massive head and resolute
expression marked him as a leader. He was reading a brown-backed
volume, but as the crowd approached he laid it aside,
and listened attentively to an account of the episode.
Then he turned to the two castaways.

"If we take you with us," he said, in solemn words, "it can
only be as believers in our own creed. We shall have no
wolves in our fold. Better far that your bones should bleach
in this wilderness than that you should prove to be that
little speck of decay which in time corrupts the whole fruit.
Will you come with us on these terms?"

"Guess I'll come with you on any terms," said Ferrier,
with such emphasis that the grave Elders could not restrain
a smile. The leader alone retained his stern, impressive

"Take him, Brother Stangerson," he said, "give him food and
drink, and the child likewise. Let it be your task also to
teach him our holy creed. We have delayed long enough.
Forward! On, on to Zion!"

"On, on to Zion!" cried the crowd of Mormons, and the words
rippled down the long caravan, passing from mouth to mouth
until they died away in a dull murmur in the far distance.
With a cracking of whips and a creaking of wheels the great
waggons got into motion, and soon the whole caravan was
winding along once more. The Elder to whose care the two
waifs had been committed, led them to his waggon, where a
meal was already awaiting them.

"You shall remain here," he said. "In a few days you will
have recovered from your fatigues. In the meantime, remember
that now and for ever you are of our religion. Brigham Young
has said it, and he has spoken with the voice of Joseph
Smith, which is the voice of God."

© Art Branch Inc. | English Dictionary