The Elephant

“It was not the river alone which demanded its pound of flesh. ‘The Elephant’—that fantastic name for the heaped-up terror of the trail—took its share as well. the horror of cholera, fear of Indians, dread of the deserts and quicksands, dangerous currents, and precipitous bluffs—these did terrible things to a man’s nervous system. Add the gradual wearing down of resistance through overexertion and lack of proper diet, and the deadening, hardening effect of the constant sight of agony—deserted and dying animals, bereft wives and orphaned children, men with shattered outfits unable to care for their families, illness without medicine, amputations without anesthetics—it sickened a man to the very soul.

All this apprehension of suffering, and then its terrible realization, which was what the Argonauts jestingly called ‘seeing the elephant,’ brought out the latent tendencies in any man—unsuspected nobility or lurking meanness. If nobility, then its display was always welcome (and all too often unnoticed). If violence, then even hard-bitten Argonauts sometimes stood aghast at its display.”