THE COUNTRY OF THE SAINTS
ON THE GREAT ALKALI
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 civilization. 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; and there are enormous plains, which in winter are white with
snow, and in summer are gray 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, gray earthabove all, there is
absolute silence. Listen as one may, there is no shadow of a sound in all that mighty
wilderness; nothing but silencecomplete 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 dyingdying 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 realized 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
Before sitting down, he had deposited upon the ground his
useless rifle, and also a large bundle tied up in a gray 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 gray 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.
Youve hurt me! said a childish voice,
Have I, though? the man answered penitently;
I didnt go for to do it. As he spoke he unwrapped the gray 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 mothers care. The child was
pale and wan, but her healthy arms and legs showed that she had suffered less than her
How is it now? he answered anxiously, for she was
still rubbing the tousy golden curls which covered the back of her head.
Kiss it and make it well, she said, with perfect
gravity, showing the injured part up to him. Thats what mother used to do.
Mothers gone. I guess youll see her before
Gone, eh! said the little girl. Funny, she
didnt say good-bye; she most always did if she was just goin over to
aunties for tea, and now shes been away three days. Say, its awful dry,
aint it? Aint there no water nor nothing to eat?
No, there aint nothing, dearie. Youll just
need to be patient awhile, and then youll be all right. Put your head up agin
me like that, and then youll feel bullier. It aint easy to talk when your lips
is like leather, but I guess Id best let you know how the cards lie. Whats
that youve got?
Pretty things! fine things! cried the little girl
enthusiastically, holding up two  glittering
fragments of mica. When we goes back to home Ill give them to brother
Youll see prettier things than them soon,
said the man confidently. You just wait a bit. I was going to tell you
thoughyou remember when we left the river?
Well, we reckoned wed strike another river soon,
dye see. But there was somethin wrong; compasses, or map, or somethin,
and it didnt turn up. Water ran out. Just except a little drop for the likes of you,
And you couldnt 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,
Then mothers 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 dont seem as though weve improved matters.
Theres 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 thats about the size of it.
Why didnt you say so before? she said,
laughing gleefully. You gave me such a fright. Why, of course, now as long as we die
well be with mother again.
Yes, you will, dearie.
And you too. Ill tell her how awful good
youve been. Ill 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 dont knownot very long. The
mans 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?
Of 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. Its not nearly so well done. They forgot the water and the trees.
What would ye think of offering up prayer? the man
It aint night yet, she answered.
It dont matter. It aint quite regular, but
He wont mind that, you bet. You say over them ones that you used to say every night
in the wagon when we was on the plains.
dont you say some yourself? the child asked, with wondering eyes.
I disremember them, he answered. I
haint said none since I was half the height o that gun. I guess its
never too late. You say them out, and Ill stand by and come in on the