Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Jim Beckwourth’s Pond.

Not long after that (said old Jim Beckwourth, beginning a new story) there was a party of about a dozen of us down in the Powder River country, after buffalo. It was the worst place! Just think of the most barren and sterile spot you ever saw, or ever will see. Now take that spot and double it: that is where we were. One day, about noon, we halted near a sickly little arroyo, that was just damp enough to have deluded some feeble bunches of bonnet-wire into setting up as grass along its banks. After picketing the horses and pack-mules we took luncheon, and then, while the others smoked and played cards for half-dollars, I took my rifle and strolled off into the hills to see if I could find a blind rabbit, or a lame antelope, that had been unable to leave the country. As I went on I heard, at intervals of about a quarter of an hour, a strange throbbing sound, as of smothered thunder, which grew more distinct as I advanced. Presently I came upon a lake of near a mile in diameter, and almost circular. It was as calm and even as a mirror, but I could see by a light steamy haze above it that the water was nearly at boiling heat — a not very uncommon circumstance in that region. While I looked, big bubbles began to rise to the surface, chase one another about, and burst; and suddenly, without any other preliminary movement, there occurred the most awful and astounding event that (with a single exception) it has ever been my lot to witness! I stood rooted to the spot with horror, and when it was all over, and again the lake lay smiling placidly before me, I silently thanked Heaven I had been standing at some distance from the deceitful pool. In a quarter of an hour the frightful scene was repeated, preceded as before by the rising and bursting of bubbles, and producing in me the utmost terror; but after seeing it three or four times I became calm. Then I went back to camp, and told the boys there was a tolerably interesting pond near by, if they cared for such things.

At first they did not, but when I had thrown in a few lies about the brilliant hues of the water, and the great number of swans, they laid down their cards, left Lame Dave to look after the horses, and followed me back to see. Just before we crossed the last range of hills we heard a thundering sound ahead, which somewhat astonished the boys, but I said nothing till we stood on a low knoll overlooking the lake. There it lay, as peaceful as a dead Indian, of a dull grey colour, and as innocent of water-fowl as a new-born babe.

“There!” said I, triumphantly, pointing to it.

“Well,” said Bill Buckster, leaning on his rifle and surveying it critically, “what’s the matter with the pond? I don’t see nothin’ in that puddle.”

“Whar’s yer swans?” asked Gus Jamison.

“And yer prismatic warter?” added Stumpy Jack.

“Well, I like this!” drawled Frenchwoman Pete. “What ’n thunder d’ ye mean, you derned saddle-coloured fraud?”

I was a little nettled at all this, particularly as the lake seemed to have buried the hatchet for that day; but I thought I would “cheek it through.”

“Just you wait!” I replied, significantly.

“O yes!” exclaimed Stumpy, derisively; “’course, boys, you mus’ wait. ’Tain’t no use a-hurryin’ up the cattle; yer mustn’t rush the buck. Jest wait till some feller comes along with a melted rainbow, and lays on the war-paint! and another feller fetches the swans’ eggs, and sets on ’em, and hatches ’em out! — and me a-holding both bowers an’ the ace!” he added, regretfully, thinking of the certainty he had left, to follow a delusive hope.

Then I pointed out to them a wide margin of wet and steaming clay surrounding the water on all sides, asking them if that wasn’t worth coming to see.

That!” exclaimed Gus. “I’ve seen the same thing a thousand million times! It’s the reg’lar thing in Idaho. Clay soaks up the water and sweats it out.”

To verify his theory he started away, down to the shore. I was concerned for Gus, but I did not dare call him back for fear of betraying my secret in some way. Besides, I knew he would not come; and he ought not to have been so sceptical, anyhow.

Just then two or three big bubbles rose to the surface, and silently exploded. Quick as lightning I dropped on my knees and raised my arms.

“Now may Heaven grant my prayer,” I began with awful solemnity, “and send the great Ranunculus to loose the binding chain of concupiscence, heaving the multitudinous aquacity upon the heads of this wicked and sententious generation, whelming these diametrical scoffers in a supercilious Constantinople!”

I knew the long words would impress their simple souls with a belief that I was actually praying; and I was right, for every man of them pulled his hat off, and stood staring at me with a mixed look of reverence, incredulity, and astonishment — but not for long. For before I could say amen, yours truly, or anything, that entire body of water shot upward five hundred feet into the air, as smooth as a column of crystal, curled over in broad green cataracts, falling outward with a jar and thunder like the explosion of a thousand subterranean cannon, then surging and swirling back to the centre, one steaming, writhing mass of snowy foam!

As I rose to my feet to put my hand in my pocket for a chew of tobacco, I looked complacently about upon my comrades. Stumpy Jack stood paralysed, his head thrown back at an alarming angle, precisely as he had tilted it to watch the ascending column, and his neck somehow out of joint, holding it there. All the others were down upon their marrow-bones, white with terror, praying with extraordinary fervency, each trying his best to master the ridiculous jargon they had heard me use, but employing it with an even greater disregard of sense and fitness than I did. Away over on the next range of hills, toward camp, was something that looked like a giant spider, scrambling up the steep side of the sand-hill, and sliding down a trifle faster than it got up. It was Lame Dave, who had abandoned his equine trust, to come up at the eleventh hour and see the swans. He had seen enough, and was now trying, in his weak way, to get back to camp.

In a few minutes I had got Stumpy’s head back into the position assigned it by Nature, had crowded his eyes in, and was going about with a reassuring smile, helping the pious upon their feet. Not a word was spoken; I took the lead, and we strode solemnly to camp, picking up Lame Dave at the foot of his acclivity, played a little game for Gus Jamison’s horse and “calamities,” then mounted our steeds, departing thence. Three or four days afterward I ventured cautiously upon a covert allusion to peculiar lakes, but the simultaneous clicking of ten revolvers convinced me that I need not trouble myself to pursue the subject.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31