[Transcriber's note: Extensive research found no evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
[Frontispiece: AT THAT INSTANT THE BEAR CAME TO LIFE.]
A MOUNTAIN BOYHOOD
by JOE MILLS
Author of "The Comeback"
ENOS B. COMSTOCK
J. H. SEARS & COMPANY, Inc.
COPYRIGHT, 1926, BY
J. H. SEARS & CO., INCORPORATED
COPYRIGHT, 1926, BY
THE BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA (INC.)
MANUFACTURED COMPLETE BY THE KINGSPORT PRESS KINGSPORT, TENNESSEE
United States of America
TO THE ONE WHO MADE THIS BOYHOOD POSSIBLE MY WIFE
I. GOING WEST II. GETTING ACQUAINTED WITH WILD COUNTRY AND ANIMALS III. FIRST CAMP ALONE—EXPLORING IV. DANCING ACROSS THE DIVIDE V. TRAPPING—MOUNTAIN-TOP DWELLERS VI. A LOG CABIN IN THE WILDS—PRIMITIVE LIVING VII. GLACIERS AND FOREST FIRES VIII. THE PROVERBIAL BUSY BEAVER IX. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING X. MODERN PATHFINDERS XI. OFF THE TRAIL XII. DREAMERS OF GOLDEN DREAMS XIII. THE CITY OF SILENCE XIV. BEARS AND BUGBEARS XV. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
At that instant the bear came to life . . . . Frontispiece
I plunged downward, struggling frantically
I sat down by the fiddler and dozed
I glimpsed his flaming eyes and wide-open, fang-filled mouth
Sheep and rock dropped straight toward me
Never before had the ring of an ax echoed in Silent Valley
"See all fools ain't dead yit," he observed
The memory of that race for life is still vividly terrifying
Every fall I watched Mr. and Mrs. Peg at their repairs
They turned tail and came racing back, straight toward me
Out of the dust of years, we dug the history of a buried past
A MOUNTAIN BOYHOOD
Father and mother settled on the Kansas prairie in the early fifties. At that time Kansas was the frontier. Near neighbors were twenty miles or more apart. There was no railroad; no stages supplied the vast unsettled region. A few supplies were freighted by wagon. However, little was needed from civilized sources, for the frontier teemed with game. Myriads of prairie chickens were almost as tame as domestic fowls. Deer stared in wide-eyed amazement at the early settlers. Bands of buffalo snorted in surprise as the first dark lines of sod were broken up. Droves of wild turkey skirted the fringes of timber. Indians roamed freely; halting in wonder at the first log cabins of the pioneers.
In my father's old diary I found the following:
Drove through from Iowa to Kansas by ox team. Located four days' drive south of Portsmouth.* Not much timber here.
* Later Kansas City.
Just returned from visit to our nearest neighbor, John Seeright, a day's drive away. Took the chickens and cow along and stayed several days.
Father told me that the early settlers did not like a region after it got "settled up." He laughed heartily when he said this. It is quite true nevertheless; as soon as a region became "settled up," the pioneers were ready to push on again into the unknown. They loved the frontier—it held adventure, hazard always, mystery, ofttimes, romance, life. They moved ahead of and beyond civilization—even the long arm of the law did not penetrate their wilderness fastnesses. Their experience—so numerous books cannot hold them all—have become history.
It is not strange that my parents welcomed the gold rush of '59. It called them once more into the farther wilderness, the vaster unknown. When news of the finding of gold in the Rockies came across the plains, legions of adventurers trailed westward. The few roads that led across the rolling prairies to the Rockies were soon deep-cut. Wagons trains strung out across the treeless land like huge, creeping serpents moving lazily in the sun. Joyfully the adventurers went—happy, courageous. They were the vanguards of civilization, pushing ever to the West.
To my lifelong regret, my boyhood came after the gold rushes were over; the buffalo bands had passed for the last time; the Indian fighting ended. However, these exciting events were still fresh in the memory of my parents. When neighbors came to visit us, long hours were spent in talking over and comparing experiences. I thrilled as my father told of climbing Long's Peak, the eastern sentinel of the Rockies—of Estes Park, teeming with trout and game. I thought then that I had been born too late—that all the big things in the world were past history. I feared then that even the Rockies would lose their wildness before I could explore them.
Within sight and sound of the farm where I was born, a number of Civil War skirmishes took place. The eastern Kansas border during the trying time of the early sixties was perhaps the worst place in all the world to live. Raiding parties plundered on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri line. My mother watched the battle of Mine Creek from the dooryard; saw the soldiers streaming by, and prayed fervently as the tide of battle swayed back and forth. My father was fighting in that battle. These frontier conflicts were still the favorite topics of conversation at neighborhood gatherings when I was a little boy. I listened breathlessly to them and lived them over in my imagination. Of all the tales recounted around our fire, I loved that of the gold rush of '59 best—my father and mother had participated in it—and I'm sure that story moved me most of all to obey Horace Greeley's injunction.
The wagons, in the beginning of the journey, formed a train, keeping close together for mutual protection. As they neared the Rockies, they scattered, each party following its individual route. Late in the summer, high up in the mountains near Breckenridge, Colorado, my father fell ill of "mountain fever." My mother, who weighed less than one hundred pounds, alone drove the pony team back across the plains to eastern Kansas. Many weeks were spent en route. Sometimes they camped for a night with westward-bound wagons; then resumed the eastward journey alone. Buffalo, migrating southward, literally covered the prairie—at times, so dense were their ranks, my mother had to stop the team to let the herds go by.
One experience of this trying trip, often related by my father, filled me with lasting admiration for my plucky mother.
"We were camped one night beneath some cottonwoods beside a wide, shallow stream," father would say, "and I was unable to move from my bed in the wagon. Your mother cared for the team, started a fire, and got supper. Shortly after dark, and before supper was ready, a dozen Indians filed solemnly into our camp and sat down facing the fire. They said nothing, but followed your mother's every movement with watchful eyes. If your mother tasted the brew in the brass kettle, every Indian eye followed her hand, and every Indian licked his lips eagerly. The brass kettle was about the only cooking utensil we possessed, and your mother guarded it carefully.
"This night the kettle held a savory stew of buffalo meat. When the stew was done, your mother set it off the fire to cool. During a few seconds—while her back was turned—the kettle vanished. From the shelter of the wagon I saw an Indian reach out stealthily and slip it beneath his blanket. The next moment your mother was facing the silent circle with blazing eyes. And there, hundreds of miles from a settlement, with no help at hand, she defied a dozen Indians. In spite of the fact that she weighed just ninety-two pounds, she swept around the circle slapping the surprised braves, pulling their hair and demanding the kettle. She noticed that the chief was sheltering something beneath his blanket. At once she gave his blanket a jerk. The hot brew spilled over the surprised redskin's legs. There was a yell that rent the stillness. The fellow leaped high into the air, and vanished into the night, leaving the brass kettle behind him."
Little did my parents realize that their recounted experiences would eventually lead me, still a boy, to venture into new regions.
At ten years of age I hazarded the statement that I was old enough to shift for myself; that I was going West to live the rest of my life in the Rocky Mountains. But my parents, in order to frighten me out of my plans, told me that Indians still infested the wilds; that terrible bull buffaloes and horrible grizzly bears roamed the wilderness.
These attempts to frighten me only strengthened my desire for adventure and my determination to seek it. When all else failed I was told that I was too young to strike out for myself. At last father put his foot down firmly, a sign that his patience was at an end—so I postponed my adventure.
The day finally came when I was aboard a train, heading westward, toward the mountains of my dreams. I possessed twenty dollars, my entire savings. During the journey I hardly slept, but kept watch out the window for the first glimpse of the Rockies. I have no recollection that there were sleeping cars at that time; anyhow, my thin little purse afforded no such gross extravagance if I had known. I recall that the individual seat of the chair-car gave me much concern. I had considerable trouble adjusting it—putting it up and laying it down.
Beside me in the companion seat rode a man of middle age, bearded, roughly dressed, who took keen interest in my destination. He was located, I learned, over the Continental Divide in that vast region beyond Grand Lake. He talked of the forests of uncut timber near his homestead, of the fertile valleys and grassy parks that would eventually support cattle herds. "Some day," he predicted, "there'll be a railroad built between Denver and Salt Lake City; and when it comes it's bound to pass close to my claim."
At dawn I caught my first sight of the great snow-covered peaks, a hundred miles away, rearing rose-red in the early morning light. At first I mistook those misty ranges for cloud banks, lighted by the rising sun. Then, as we drew nearer and day wore on, I made them out.
Toward noon I reached Fort Collins, Colorado, fifty miles from Long's Peak, where there was no stage connection with Estes Park, but Loveland, a town fifteen miles south, had a horse stage that made three trips a week. The fare, I learned, was quite prohibitive, three dollars for something more than thirty miles. The walk would be interesting, I decided. But the old canvas bag, containing all my worldly possessions, was too bulky and awkward to be carried. After some hours of dickering, I paid eight dollars for a second-hand bicycle, tied the bag on the handle bars and started for the Mecca of my dreams.
That first journey to the mountains was filled with thrills. The old stage road shot up successive mountain ranges, and plunged abruptly down into the valleys between. There was no Big Thompson route then; instead, the road ascended Bald Mountain, climbed the foothill range, crossed the top, then dropped into Rattlesnake Park. It squirmed up Pole Hill, a grade so steep that I could scarcely push up my wheel. Up and down, up and down, it seesawed endlessly. The afternoon wore on; each successive slope grew harder, for my legs were weary. Twice, braking with one foot on the front crotch and sliding the wheel, I had pitched headlong over the handle bars. Upon two descents that were too precipitous to venture unballasted, I tied fair-sized pine trees to the rear of my craft to act as drag-anchors.
As darkness came on I coasted down a sharp pitch to a little brook. In the aspens that bordered the road was a range cow standing guard beside a newborn calf. Across the road, like grisly shadows among the trees, skulked several coyotes. The calf half rose, wabbled, and went down. Three times it attempted to rise, grew weaker, and at last gave up the struggle. With the waiting coyotes in mind, I leaned my wheel against a bowlder and went to its rescue. Several things happened at once. The half-wild range cow misunderstood my good intentions. She was accustomed to seeing men on horseback; and one afoot was strange. She charged headlong. I dodged quickly aside but not in time to escape entirely. She raked me with her sharp horns. There was a wild race through the aspens; I leading, but the cow a close second, her horns menacing me at every leap, while I doubled and backtracked sharply about among the trees. I had no chance to "tree"; though no mountain lion was ever more willing, for Mrs. Cow was too near. Only Providence and my agility saved me from an untimely end. At last the cow halted, for she was getting too far from her calf. She shook her horns after me menacingly, turned and hurried back toward where her offspring lay.
Each mile I covered impressed upon me more and more that there is not even a distant relationship between mountain miles and my Kansas prairie miles. The latter are ironed out flat, the former stand on end, cease to be miles and become trials. Slowly the shadows filled the canyons, and came creeping up the slopes. I gazed in awesome wonder at the beauty of my land of dreams. My legs, cramped almost past pedaling, still kept on—for my goal, my mountains, were at hand. Exaltation of spirit overcame exhaustion of body.
At no time had I given any particular thought to what would happen when I arrived; so far my whole attention had been centered on reaching the Rockies. Such trivialities as no job, no relatives, practically no money, made little impression upon my Rocky-bound mind.
Long after nightfall I reached the crest of Park Hill, the last barrier to Estes Park. The moon shone full upon the valley below, and upon the snow-capped mountains beyond. The river murmured softly as its shining folds curled back and forth across the dark green meadow, suddenly vanishing between dark canyon walls. Coyotes raised their eerie voices; across the canyon, from the cliffs of Mount Olympus, an owl hooted gloomily. Before me loomed the Rockies, strangely unreal in the moonlight and yet very like the mountains of my imagination. I gazed, spellbound. My dream was realized.
It was midnight when, completely exhausted, I stopped before an old log cabin. Dogs charged out, barking furiously at the strange thing I rode and nipping at my legs; but I was too weary to remember distinctly even now what happened. I must have tumbled off my wheel for I learned afterward that I was picked up and put to bed; but for hours I tossed about, my body racked with pain, my thoughts jumbled. But boys must sleep, and I slept at last.
Next morning, pushing the wheel slowly, I headed for the most remote ranch in the region, that lay at the foot of Long's Peak. Progress was slow and painful for my body was stiff and sore; the road I followed wound upward, climbing steadily to higher altitude. Frequently I halted to rest, and spent my time of respite searching the mountains with eager, appraising eyes, planning explorations among them. Toward noon I came to the ranch I sought, located nine miles from the nearest neighbor, at nine thousand feet altitude, and surrounded by rugged mountains. Above it rose Long's Peak, up and up into the clouds, to more than fourteen thousand feet. The rancher was the Reverend E. J. Lamb, one of the early settlers of Estes Park. The Parson, as he was known, was more than six feet tall, straight as a lodge-pole pine physically—and even more so spiritually. He wore a long, flowing beard, rose habitually and unprotestingly at four in the morning—a man of diverse talents and eccentricities.
GETTING ACQUAINTED WITH WILD COUNTRY AND ANIMALS
Parson Lamb's ranch consisted of a fenced garden tract surrounded on every side for miles by high mountains that shut it in. There was heavy forest on the slopes above the ranch; and out of these came many lively little streams that were almost as cold as their parent snowbanks.
I hoarded my few remaining dollars. The Parson gave me room and board, in return for which I helped about the place, doing various chores, such as wood-splitting and clearing land for more garden, and occasionally going the nine miles to the village for the mail. My work took only a small part of my time, leaving me free to explore the near-by region, with its deep, evergreen forests, and the wild animals which lived in them.
Many were the tales the tall, rawboned Parson told of his early pioneer days (for he had lived there since the early seventies, and was a loquacious old fellow), as he and his wife, Jane, and I sat beside the granite fireplace, when the coals glowed low and the shadows scurried here and there over the rough logs of the cabin walls. He had been shot and nearly killed by a bandit, gored by a bull, dragged by a frightened horse, and bitten by a bear. Upon one lonely excursion far from any settlement, he had been followed by a huge, stealthy, mountain lion.
Harrowing as were these tales, the one that made me shiver despite the radiant pitch knots, was that of his perilous descent of the precipice on Long's Peak. Time has not changed the character of that face—it is sheer and smooth and icy now, as then. He was probably the first man to attempt its descent, and I was always weak and spent when he ended his story of it, so vividly did he portray its dangers. I sat tense, digging my nails deep into my palms, living through every squirm and twist with him, from the moment he slid down from the comparatively safe "Narrows" to the first niche in the glassy, precipitous wall, till, after many nearly-the-last experiences, he landed safely at its foot. That adventure had almost cost him his life, for he had once missed his foothold, slipped and slid and had hung suspended by one hand for a long, terrible moment.
Always I sat with eyes glued upon the story-teller, thrilling as he talked, planning secretly to emulate his example, proving some of his statements by daily short excursions. However, the Parson was not always away on trips. Sometimes he guided visitors to the top of the Peak or worked on the trail to its summit. He chopped wood, worked in the garden, hunted stray cattle or horses. Frequently he rode off with his Bible under his arm, for he was a circuit rider, carrying the gospel into the wilderness. He gave good, if free, advice, officiated at weddings and funerals, at barn-raisings and log-rollings. He preached or worked as the notion moved him; lingered in one place or rode long trails to fulfill his mission. His own ranch was thirty miles from the railroad, but many of his calls were made on settlers even more remote.
Gradually I extended the scope of my explorations, frequently spending the night abroad, carrying a pair of worn and faded blankets and a little food. A number of times I climbed Long's Peak alone. On these trips to high country I scouted the high-flung crest of Battle Mountain, Lady Washington, Storm Peak, and Mount Meeker; explored Glacier Gorge, investigated Chasm Lake, and from the top of Peak and Meeker looked down into Wild Basin to the south.
I sketched a rude map of the great basin in my notebook and named it "Land of Many Waters," because of the scores of small streams that trickled down its inclosing mountain sides. The oval bowl I estimated to be fifteen miles long by about half as wide, its sides formed of mountain slopes densely wooded up to bleak timberline. Save the murmur of falling water, or the wind upon the heights, it was a land of silence. Small streams converged, dropped into deep canyons and reached the river that rumbled far below. There were vivid, emerald lakes everywhere—some lost in the woods near the river, others pocketed behind the ridges, while still more could be seen up above naked timberline.
I returned, thrilled with the thought of exploring Wild Basin, sought the Parson and told him my ambition. At first he was much amused, but when he found I was serious he grew grave.
"There's no neighbors over that way," he objected. "If anything happens, you'll be beyond help." Even though he was older and much more experienced, I thought him hardly qualified, after his own foolhardy adventures, to discourage me; but I decided to wait until fall before setting out. This delay would enable me to know more about the mountains, to add to my experience, and better fit me to cope with the emergencies of that inviting, great unknown—Wild Basin.
Everywhere I found strange birds and animals, and began to get acquainted with them. The handsome, black and white, long-tailed magpies were much like the crows I had known in Kansas, so far as wariness was concerned. The Rocky Mountain long-crested jays, quite unlike our prairie jays, much more brilliant in coloring, their gorgeous coats of turquoise blue and black flashing in the sunshine, were continually bickering, and following me through the woods to see what I was about. Chickadees and nuthatches were always inspecting the trees for food, running up and down, paying no attention to me and going about their business with cheerful little chirrups that expressed their contentment. Occasionally a crow flew up the valley with raucous calls; and sometimes a raven pursued his way toward the deeper woods. Meadow larks and robins were everywhere.
Woodpeckers and flickers did their bit to keep vermin off the trees, and performed daily operations on trunk and limb, removing borers and beetles that had penetrated beneath the bark, thus saving the lives of many evergreen monarchs. Around ten and eleven thousand feet there were campbirds, Canada jays, friendly and inquisitive; on first acquaintance they often took food from my hands, and helped themselves freely of any food accessible in camp. They were unruffled, flitting softly from tree to tree, with little flapping, calling low, and in a sweetly confidential tone.
However friendly I found the birds, the big game animals were extremely wary. I mentioned the fact to the Parson.
"They've been shot at," was his explanation. "Every time they've come in contact with men they've suffered. They know men are dangerous, always have guns."
In spite of the Parson's observations we always had wild game hanging in the log meat house; there was never any question about securing whatever we wanted in that line. Except during the winter months, deer could be had with little effort. But the elk had practically vanished; occasionally a lone survivor strayed into the ranch valley. There were bears, of course, shy and fearful, in the rough, unsettled country. We had great variety of meat, venison, Bighorn sheep, grouse, ptarmigan, wild pigeon, sometimes squirrel and, rarely, bear steaks.
Wherever I went, even in the far-away places where few men had ever been, the deer and elk and bear were very wild, and I found it impossible to approach them unless the wind was from them to me, and I moved forward carefully hidden. I spent many eventful days, walking, climbing, sitting motionless to watch the scampering chipmunks, or to invite the birds up close. Thus, a little at a time, I came to know the habits of the wild folks I met; learned their likes and dislikes—the things that excited their curiosity, and that frightened them away in panic.
Upon my first climb to the top of Long's Peak alone, I halted above timberline and stared about in amazement at the wide stretches of rock-strewn slopes. From a distance these had appeared no larger than a back yard, but a close-up revealed they were miles across; and instead of being barren, were a series of hanging gardens, one above another, each of different shape and size, and all green with grass and with a hundred different kinds of wild flowers waving in the sunshine. I counted more than fifty varieties, none of which I knew, and still they seemed endless.
Usually I wandered off the trail to follow birds or animals. In the arctic-like zone above were birds entirely strange to me, and animals that never came down to the valley of the ranch. It was not long before I discovered that nearly all birds and animals live at a certain zone of altitude, rarely straying above or below it.
Occasionally I heard a queer "squee-ek." It sounded close, yet its maker was invisible. Many times I looked up, searching the air overhead for the elusive "squee-eker." At last I came upon a bunch of grass, no larger than a water pail, and stopped to examine it. Grass and flowers had been piled loosely in an irregular heap, resembling a miniature haystack.
"Something making a nest," I observed aloud.
"Squee-ek," denied a shrill voice almost at my elbow.
Ten feet away upon a bowlder that rose above the rest of the rocks, sat a small animal which at first I mistook for a young rabbit. In shape and size he closely resembled a quarter-grown cottontail, but his ears were different from any rabbit's, being short and round. His eyes were beady; somehow he made me think of a rat. He ran down the rock and climbed to another perch. Not even so much tail as a bunny—none at all. In some respects he resembled a rabbit, a squirrel and a prairie dog. His actions reminded me of all of them. In fact, he is sometimes called "Rock Rabbit" and "Little Chief Hare." He may have other names besides.
I watched the interesting little fellow for some time and later found his actions characteristic of his tribe. He literally makes hay while the summer shines. He is the only harvester I ever saw who works on the run. He dashed at top speed, without stopping for breath, bit off a mouthful of grass and again ran pell-mell for his growing stack. He scampered down its side, then leaped from an adjacent rock to its top, laden with his bundle of hay. Evidently he found the alpine summer short and felt it necessary to step lively. Altitude, that convenient scapegoat of tenderfeet, did not seem to affect his wind or his endurance. He stacked his harvest in one corner of the field from which he cut it. He cut flowers along with the grass. Perhaps he used them for flavor as grandmother put rose-geranium leaves in her crab-apple jelly. The haycock he built was about the size of a bucket—I have since seen them as large as bushel baskets. His tiny fields lay between bowlders; some of them were but a few inches square, others a foot, several a yard, perhaps.
I was interested to learn if the little haycocks were blown away by the timberline gales, so returned later, not really expecting to find them. Nor were they in the same location, but their owners, not the wind, had moved them. Evidently, as soon as the hay was cured, it was stored for safe-keeping, usually beneath the overhang of a rock, away from the wind.
I was then curious to see how the cony would transport his hay in winter. Many of his under-rock passages would, at that season, be filled with snow, forcing him to appear on the surface where the wind was often strong enough to blow me over, to say nothing of what it would do to the little midget in fur with a load of hay attached. He met the storm situation easily. Whenever he exhausted one hayloft, he moved his home to another. Thus he solved the transportation question and gained a new home at the same time. Several times, upon digging beneath the slide rock, I discovered cony dens, merely openings far down between the jumbled rocks, beyond the reach of wind and weather. They were of great variety, large, small, wide, narrow; all ready to move into. They were the conies' castles, ready refuges from enemies, their devious passages as effective as drawbridge or portcullis.
The cony is something like the heaver far down on the flats below; working at top speed when he does work, and then resting for many months. Outside the brief harvest period I have found him sitting idly atop a rock, napping in the sun, dreaming apparently; thus for days and months he is idle, always harmless—a condition that does not apply to human beings under similar circumstances. He is energetic, ambitious, courageous, and acrobatic. He is the scout of the mountain top, always alert and friendly.
The altitude zone of the cony I found to be between eleven and thirteen thousand feet. He and the Bighorn, ptarmigan, weasels and foxes are mountain-top dwellers throughout the year. Marmots hibernate during the long alpine winters. But the cony I have seen on sunny days in January; his welcome "squee-ek," piercing the roar of the wind, has greeted me on the lonely storm-swept heights when not another living thing was in sight.
But in spite of his living in the out-of-the-way world the cony has enemies for whom he is always watching. In summer there are hawks and eagles, foxes and coyotes. In winter his feathered foes depart, but the foxes remain, as do the weasels. Sitting motionless in the midst of jumbled rocks I have faded into the bowlder fields, and thus have been able to watch the cony and his enemies. Usually his "squee-ek" announced the appearance of a foe before I discovered it. Then, if the enemy was a bird or a beast, he merely hugged the rock, watching alertly until he was discovered, then flipped out of sight to the safety of rocky retreat, giving a defiant "squee-ek" as he went. But if a weasel appeared...
I sat watching a cony one day in early fall as he lay in the sunshine upon a bowlder. From somewhere below us came the distant "squee-ek" of a relative, followed shortly by the shrill whistle of a marmot. The cony sat up suddenly, awake and alertly watching. The signals were repeated. Instantly the little fellow departed from his outpost and hurried away, circling the bowlder, leaping to another, disappearing in the rocks and reappearing again. His actions were so unusual that I wondered what message the signals had carried; to me they were no different than they were when they announced my coming—yet the difference must have been plain to the wee furry ears, judging from their owner's apprehensive actions. Indeed, a weasel was abroad seeking his quarry. When his presence was announced, neither the cony nor I could see him because of an intervening upthrust of rock.
Soon the weasel appeared, circling the rock where the cony had been sunning himself, searching beneath it, hurrying along the tunnels through which the cony had fled. Emerging upon the bowlder, he paused for a few seconds as he looked in all directions. The weasel was brownish-yellow in color. I was to learn later that he changed to pure white in winter.
I sprang to my feet and pursued him, shouting as I ran, throwing rocks and attempting to scare him off. Losing track of both pursuer and pursued, I stopped for breath. Suddenly, from almost beneath my feet, the agile villain reappeared, staring at me with bright, bold eyes, advancing toward me as though to attack. He was no coward; with amazing agility he dodged a rock I threw at him, turning a back-spring and landing at my feet. For a moment we glared at each other, then he made off as though utterly unconscious of my presence.
I watched the long slender body disappear among the rocks in the opposite direction to that taken by the cony, standing for a moment to regain my breath and recover from my surprise.
Suddenly there was a shrill whistle behind me. I jumped and whirled about. Twenty feet away a marmot stood erect atop a rock, eying me inquiringly, watching every movement. He had whistled his signal about me, whether good or bad news I could not detect, but from the distance came other whistles in reply. He was the cony's ally, broadcasting information about the skirmish taking place before his eyes; but whether he was attempting to interfere and divert my attention, I could not make out. Certainly, though, he was giving information, signaling my presence to all within hearing. My intrusion upon the heights in summer has ever been announced by the conies and the marmots.
From another direction came a second whistle; apparently I was surrounded. Then, as I moved, the second marmot hurried away from his observation post. He was short-legged, reddish-yellow in color, with a bushy tail, and he ran with great effort but with very little speed, like a fat boy in a foot race.
Down in the valley near the ranch were numerous grouse, old and young, so tame that it was like knocking over pet chickens to kill them. But there was a strange bird above timberline, the ptarmigan, the arctic quail of the north—fool hens, the Parson told me. These birds were mottled in color, matching the rocks among which they lived, and so closely did their color blend with their environment it was impossible to distinguish bird from rock so long as the fowl remained still. It was because they depended so utterly upon their protective coloration, making no effort to get out of the way but acting with utmost stupidity, that they came to be called "fool hens."
The days I spent above timberline were the most wonderful of all. From high above the world I could see tier upon tier of distant, snow-capped mountains—ghost ranges—and southward, at the horizon, loomed Pike's Peak a hundred airline miles away, a giant pyramid above the foothills, standing sentinel over the vast, flat plains that reached to its foot.
As weeks passed and my interest in the wild things increased, I began to wish for a cabin of my own, a home or a den to which I could retreat and spend the time as I desired. Wherever I rambled I was alert for a location for my little house. I was not yet old enough to take up a homestead and claim land for myself.
Climbing to the summits of various promontories I planned the sort of cabin I would like to build there; I'd have a dog, and a horse too, and a camera—I began to doubt whether I'd want my rifle for as I developed my acquaintance with the animals I found myself less eager to shoot them.
Hunting and trapping was the habit of everyone I knew; even back in Kansas the boys and men had gone shooting at every opportunity; and the few men I encountered upon the trails in the Rockies were for the most part real trappers and hunters, following the trade for a living. They gave no thought to the cruelty of their traps or the suffering their operations occasioned, It is not strange, then, that such men saw no harm in their actions, for they considered all game fair prey.
Occasionally I left my gun at home and found that I rambled the heights above timberline in a changed mood from when I carried it. The animals were more friendly, perhaps my actions were more open and aboveboard. My rifle naturally inspired a desire to shoot something; a mountain sheep, a bear, even the fat marmots did not escape my deadly fire.
But, without a gun—there was interest everywhere. Many times I laughed at the antics of the animals, especially at the awkward, lumbering haste of the marmots. These animals, while very curious, were quick to take alarm. They would climb to a lookout post at the top of a rock, watching me eagerly and whistling mild gossip for the delectation of their neighbors who could not see me. One day, far skyward, I came upon an exceedingly fat marmot busily eating grass in a narrow little hayland between bowlders. He must have weighed more than twenty pounds, but this fact did not deter him from adding additional weight for the long, winter sleep. At best his active period was short, his hibernation long, so he ate and slept and ate again through all the hours of daylight. At my approach he reluctantly left off eating, crept up a rock and whistled mildly as though merely curious. For a time I amused him by advancing, retreating, and circling his rock.
Suddenly I dropped out of sight behind a bowlder. Instantly his whistle carried a note of warning. So long as I remained in sight I was merely a curiosity, but the instant I dropped from sight, I became a suspicious character. Again he broadcasted sharp warning to all within hearing. From near and far came answering marmot shrillings, and from near by a cony "squee-eked" his quick alarm.
My reappearance reassured the marmot. He whistled again, and I thought I distinguished a note of disgust or of disappointment.
This marmot lived on the south slope of the big moraine that shoulders against Lady Washington, neighboring peak to the giant mountain, Long's Peak. Sometimes I found the roly-poly fellow saving hay by eating it, or asleep in the sun on an exposed rock. Often he ventured down into the canyon at the foot of the moraine to investigate the grass that grew down there.
One day as I sat atop the big moraine, I heard his shrill whistle from the edge of the trees in the canyon below. It was somehow different from any signal I had heard him give before, but just how it was different I could not make out. The notes were the same, but the tone was different—that was it, the tone had changed. Then the reason for the difference came out of the scattered trees—a grizzly bear stalked deliberately into the open and sat down facing the huge bowlder upon which the marmot sat.
The marmot stood erect on his hind legs, eying the bear warily, prepared to dash for his den beneath the rock the instant the visitor made an unfriendly move. But the bear was a very stupid fellow; he took no note of the marmot. Instead, he looked off across the canyon, swung his head slowly to and fro as though thinking deeply of something a hundred miles away. He was a young bear with a shiny new coat of summer fur. He had just had a bath in the stream where ice water gushed from beneath a snowbank.
The marmot gave a second whistle, carrying less fear. Apparently the slow-moving, sleepy bear meant no harm. For half an hour the marmot watched alertly, then slid down beneath the bowlders and started eating. From time to time he sat stiffly erect, peering suspiciously at the intruder. But since the bear made no overt move, he continued his feeding as though he were too hungry to wait until his uninvited guest departed.
At length the bear rolled over on his back with all four feet in the air. The marmot surveyed the performance for a few seconds, then went on feeding, gradually grazing out beyond the shelter of the rock beneath which he had his den. The bear "paid him no mind," apparently asleep in the sunshine. Slowly the marmot fed away from the rock, the farther he ventured the more luxuriant his feast, for the grass was eaten off short around his dooryard. For an hour I watched every move of that silent drama, trying to guess the outcome, wondering if the bear were really asleep. All at once the little gourmand whistled reassuringly: "All right, it's a friend."
The marmot was not more surprised than myself at what happened next. The bear lay perhaps a hundred feet from the marmot's home, and the marmot had fed perhaps forty feet from it—a distance he could quickly cover if the visitor showed unfriendly symptoms.
But there were no symptoms. It was all over so quickly that I was left dazed and breathless. There was a small bowlder about four feet high in the midst of a tiny hayfield where the marmot fed. The unsuspecting whistler fed into the little field, passed behind the rock, and was out of sight for just a second. At that instant the bear came to life, leaped to his feet and dashed toward the den beneath the rock, cutting off the marmot's retreat.
Too late the quarry saw the bear. It made a frantic dash for home and shelter, its fat body working desperately, its short legs flying. Ten feet from the den the bear flattened the marmot with a single quick slap of his paw. Then he sat down to eat his dinner. His acting had been perfect; he had fooled me as well as the marmot.
FIRST CAMP ALONE—EXPLORING
My short trips into the wilds tempted me to go beyond the trails. So far my rambles had taken me only to the threshold of the wilderness, I wondered what lay beyond; I wanted to follow the game trails and see where they led. Above all I was eager to pit my scant skill against primitive nature and learn if my resourcefulness was equal to the emergencies of the unknown. Somehow I never doubted my courage—I simply didn't fear.
As the short high-altitude summer began to wane, I grew restless. September advanced; the aspen trees near timberline turned to gold; from day to day those lower down turned also until a vast richly colored rug covered the mountain sides. Ripe leaves fluttered down, rustling crisply underfoot. Frost cut down the rank grass, humbled the weeds and harvested the flowers. Forests of spruce and lodgepole were dark with shadow. A beaver colony returned to its former haunts at the foot of Long's Peak and was working night and day. Its pond of still water was glazing over with clear ice.
October came. The nights grew colder. The snow of early winter came to the high peaks, dusting their bare, bald crowns.
"Fur ought to be getting prime now," the Parson said one day. "It'll be better still, higher up."
This was the message I had been waiting for. It set me packing at once, for I was going into Wild Basin, alone, to hunt, trap and explore.
On a morning near the middle of October, much excited, I set out for the land of mystery. Ahead lay the unknown, uncharted wilds. I could go where I chose and stay as long as I wished. Bold Columbus, looking westward, I could not have been more thrilled. Mountain maple beckoned with ripe, red banners. The mountains peeked through the autumn haze, divulging nothing, promising everything!
My outfit consisted of an old, ragged tent, a little food, a camera that had been through a fire and leaked light badly, a knife, an ax, a six-shooter, and an old rifle that had been traded about among the early settlers and had known many owners. In addition I had bought six double-spring steel traps sufficiently large to hold beaver, coyotes or wolves. The pair of ragged blankets that had served me on my short trips about the region had been reinforced with an old quilt, faded and patched, but sweet and clean.
All this duffle I packed upon a "return" horse, lent me by the Parson, one that would return home as soon as it was let loose.
The Parson chuckled at the appearance of my pack, even the horse turned his head inquiringly, but I was too excited to mind their insinuations. As the sun topped the mountains, I led the horse slowly down the old tollroad toward a game trail, and swung up in the direction of Wild Basin.
Deer tracks showed in the old road and in the game trails; I also recognized coyote tracks, and puzzled over strange tracks which I could not make out. The small streams I crossed had many deep pools where trout were collecting for the winter. I tossed stones into them and the fish, like rainbow darts, dashed for shelter beneath the rocks. Hourly my excitement grew—a million plans ran through my head. I would become a mighty hunter and make a fortune trapping; I would turn prospector and locate a mine: Father and Mother would yet have the gold of which they were thwarted.
The second evening brought me into such rough country that going farther with the horse was next to impossible. With excited hands I unpacked, bade the beast good-by, and started him toward home on the back trail. He trotted off, neighing eagerly.
Save for the rumble of the river deep down in its canyon, the great basin was voiceless. The forest showed no signs of man. Above and beyond rose a circle of snow-capped peaks. I paused in awe; the world was bigger than I had dreamed. I was a boy without a woodsman's skill—a boy alone in the heart of an overwhelming silence. I turned, with a pang of homesickness, just in time to see the return horse disappear. Whistling loudly, I set about making camp. It should be my headquarters, from which I could explore in all directions, returning as often as necessary for supplies.
A lake with sandy shores lapped in and out among immense bowlders. On the west side a cliff rose straight from the water. At the upper edge a small cataract came leaping down the ledges and plunged noisily into the pool that overflowed into the lake. Above the water was a grove of Engelmann spruces, giant trees that rose straight for more than a hundred feet. I pitched my tent in a small open glade, but had trouble getting down the stakes, for everywhere was granite. The first test of my resourcefulness had come—I met it by piling stones around the tent stakes, bracing them taut for the ropes.
The call of the wild was too loud to ignore—I hastened my camp making. The sun was going down on a world of splendor. Overhead were brilliantly colored clouds, while deep in the canyon below the early darkness was thickening. From somewhere in the distance came the cry of an animal. Camp was left unfinished; I climbed to a jutting shoulder that overlooked the canyon. From far below came the noise of the river as it chugged and sobbed and roared endlessly between its towering walls. I promised myself I would go down and explore that dark canyon at an early date.
Of a sudden there came an indescribable, unearthly sound that echoed and reechoed among the cliffs. I could not tell the direction from which it came; a sudden chill crept along my spine, my hair prickled and lifted. Then the echoes ceased, the silence that followed was equally terrifying. I bethought me of my unfinished camp. Later I learned that alarming sound was the bugling of a bull elk. It was the mating season.
As darkness came on I ate beans and bread by the light of the campfire. The beans came out of a can, so were well cooked; but the bread was my first campfire, culinary concoction. It was a flour and water mixture, plus salt and baking powder, cooked against a hot rock. It was smoked black and cooked so hard it nearly broke my teeth, besides, it had a granite finish from association with the rock oven. But I ate it with boyish relish in spite of its flaws. My imagination expanded as I watched ghostly shadow-figures dance upon the face of the cliff. The shifting flame, the wood smoke, the silent, starry night swelled my heart to pride in my great adventure. I ignored the incident of the animal cry that had sent me scurrying to camp. This first camp was just below timberline, at an altitude of eleven thousand feet or more.
I had much to learn about altitude, as well as of winds and weather, woods and mountains. In the mountains the higher one goes the harder the wind blows. In the Rockies, around timberline, gales often reach a velocity of a hundred miles, or more, an hour. Here during the long alpine winters, the wind booms and crashes among the peaks, roars through the passes, and rips through the shattered trees. That first night I lay in camp and listened to its unceasing roar, as it tore along the ridge tops. Occasionally, a gust would scatter my fire. It raged through the spruces like a hurricane, causing me much uneasiness lest one of the trees should come crashing down upon my frail shelter. At last, after dozing before the dying fire, I went inside the tent, crept between my blankets and fell asleep.
I was aiming at a charging grizzly, when there came a swishing, banging crash! I sat up, half awake. The tent flapped wildly, lifting clear of the ground. My stone cairns had been jerked down by the repeated yanks of the stake ropes. A stronger gust, the tent went down, or rather up, and vanished into the night. The spruce tree, which was my tent pole, struck me on the head. I sat dazed. Gradually it came to me that my clothes, as well as my tent, were gone. I realized, too, that I had pitched camp on the wrong side of the little stream, for the mischievous gusts, saturated with water from the falls, spat upon me and soaked my blankets. I managed to strike a match, but the wind snuffed it out instantly. I tried again and again to make a light—with no success. I crawled dazedly about—I struggled upright—my toe caught beneath a rock, and I pitched headlong. That hour of darkness taught me never to venture about blindly.
The night was unbelievably cold. During the day, while the sun had shone brightly, the temperature had been very comfortable, even warm. But now, with wind blasts from the snow-fields and glaciers and waterfall, I was chilled through and through. As I felt about for my vanished clothes, my teeth chattered. Soon I gave up the search and sought shelter in the spruces; I found a leaning slab of rock and crept beneath it as a wild animal would have done. Through the remaining hours of the night I shivered and shook there; my imagination dulled, my ambition dampened. I decided to break camp as soon as it was light.
But it is marvelous what sunshine will do. When at last the tardy sun came up, and the wind died down and I had recovered my clothes and warmed myself at a leaping fire, my heart too leaped up with renewed courage. All was serene. It seemed impossible that I could have been so miserable in the night.
As soon as I had eaten I dragged the tent back among the spruces where I set it up and anchored it securely. Lesson Number One had sunk in. It would not need repeating.
When camp was at last secure, I climbed slowly to the ridge top above. Its crest was above timberline. On all sides rose lofty mountains, many of them patched with snowbanks. Deep canyons cut sharply between the ridges and shoulders. Ice fields indicated possible glaciers. I wanted to explore everything at once; wanted to climb the peaks, and delve into the canyons; hunt out the game and explore the glaciers.
At timberline I stopped in silent wonder. Broken trees were scattered about upon the ground like soldiers after a battle. I didn't quite comprehend its significance, but Parson Lamb had described it to me. I had seen other timberlines in my rambles, but none so impressive as this. Here was the forest frontier. How dauntless, how gallant, these pioneers were! How they strove to hold the advantage gained during the brief summer respite! Here a canny stripling grew behind a sheltering bowlder, but whenever it tried to peep above its breastworks, the wind, with its shell-shot of sand and gravel and ice bullets, cut off its protruding limbs as neatly as a gardner might have done. Consequently its top was as flat as a table.
In the open, other trees trailed along the ground like creeping vines, their tops pointing away from the wind. It seemed as if they banded together for mutual protection, for they formed a dense hedge or "bush." Here was the deadline established by altitude. The forests were commanded to halt; this line of last defense was not unlike the sweeping shoreline of the sea. Here and there were lone scout trees in advance of the ranks. They were twisted and dwarfed, misshapen, grotesque.
There were wide, naked stretches bare of snow. Great drifts lay in the woods; the deep, narrow canyons were piled full of it. Many of these drifts would last far into the following summer; a few would be perpetual. At the approach of summer, such drifts turn to ice through frequent thawing and freezing, since the surface snow, melting under the glare of the summer sun, seeps down through the mass beneath in daytime, and freezes again at night. From such drifts flow icy streams for the leaping trout. Countless sparkling springs gurgled forth at the foot of the slopes.
Here I had my first lessons in conservation and learned that it is indeed an ill wind that does no good. Here nature hoards her savings in snowbanks. To these savings she adds constantly throughout the winter. Long I sat upon a promontory and marveled. Dimly, only, did I grasp the significance of what lay before me! The ranks of primeval forest waiting to aid civilization; snow, that white magic eventually destined to water crops on the distant plains; and, above all, woods, the final refuge of the big game; the sanctuary of the birds.
Everywhere were scattered unnamed lakes. These edged out and around the rock peninsulas, folded back into dark coves and swung out of sight behind the timbered bends. Some were almost pinched in half by the crowding cliffs till they formed giant hour-glasses; again they bulged and overflowed like streams at high water. I began to name them according to their shape. "Hourglass," of course; the one that bulged out at one end was surely a plump "Pear"—yes, and "Dog-with-three-legs"! My imagination was recovering.
For miles I followed the strange, fantastic timberline. Occasionally I found stunted little trees scarcely knee high, peeping through the crushing weight of snow that had smothered them, even throughout the summer. I cut several trees to count the rings of growth. I found trees growing close together and about the same size, with centuries of variation in age. One, that had been broken off by a rock slide, had two hundred and ninety-six annual rings. It had grown in a sheltered nook. Ten yards away another, much smaller, but growing upon an exposed, rocky point, was no higher than my head, yet I counted five hundred and seven rings; for half a thousand years it had stood at its post. I found the counting of these annual rings extremely difficult, as they were so dense that it was hard to distinguish them and they averaged from fifty to a hundred rings to an inch of thickness, but the small magnifying glass I carried made it possible.
The most striking thing I discovered about the timberline trees was their irregularity. There was no similarity of form, as prevails among trees of the deep forest. Each tree took on a physical appearance according to its location and its opportunities. One resemblance only did they have in common: none had limbs on the west side. All their leafy banners pointed toward the rising sun. Thus I learned the direction of the prevailing winter winds. The west side of the trees were polished smooth, many cut halfway through. Trees that had reached maturity, or had died, were stripped almost bare of limbs, which had been cut away by the constant scouring.
There were abundant tracks of deer, and some of elk, but I saw not a single animal. Near the spot from which had risen the terrifying sounds of that first night, a deep-worn game trail led down into the heavy forests. Sharp hoofs had cut into it recently, yet neither hide nor hair of an animal did I glimpse. There were no traces of beaver nor any coyote tracks. There were bear tracks, but the small traps I had brought would not hold bear, so I did not set them. I was running low on provisions, for I had counted on the game for meat: I had meant to have venison steak as soon as I had got settled in my permanent camp.
Here was mystery! My curiosity was challenged; I determined to fathom it!
How I studied those tracks! Those of the sheep could be distinguished by the rounded toe marks of their hoofs, worn blunt by the granite rocks they lived on. This was especially true of the forefeet. They were also wide apart, while the deer tracks were sharply pointed, with the hoofs close together. Days passed and the tracks in the trails grew dim, but not before I had read their story. I followed the sheep's up above timberline—they grew plainer and more numerous. So that was it! The sheep climbed where the wind would keep their tables, spread with sweet cured grass, swept free of snow, and had placed the barrier of timberline drifts between them and their enemies!
The other tracks all led down to the valleys. There in the foothills winter would be less rigorous, and the grass would not be buried for months beneath the snow. Winter was at hand in the high country and all but the Bighorn had deserted it. What with them above me, and the rest below, I found myself in a no-game zone.
There was no repetition of the frightful sound that had sent me scurrying for camp. I suspected a bull elk had made it, though I recognized no resemblance between that hair-raising sound and a bugle.
My thoughts turned to other game. I must have meat—how about a bear? If I couldn't trap one, perhaps I could shoot one. I got out my battered old rifle, so like the timberline trees, and boldly set out for "b'ar." In and out of the dense forest I blundered; crashed through the tangle at timberline; toiled up the rocky ridges. Up and up I climbed, paying no heed to the direction of the wind. I found bear tracks, both large and small, but no sight of Bruin himself.
Discouraged, I lay down to rest and had a nap in the sun. Later, with the wind in my face, I peeped over a rocky upthrust near a large snowbank. My eyes bulged, my mouth opened. There was a bear just ahead. Surely it was mad—crazy—for no animal in its right mind would do what it was doing.
First it would lumber along a few feet from the edge of the snow, stopping, sniffing, striking out suddenly with its forepaws; it repeated this performance again and again. I watched, hypnotized, unaware of the gun gripped tightly in my hands. Anyhow, who'd want to eat a mad bear?
A slight sound caused me to turn my head. Twenty feet away another bear stood regarding me curiously.
Not being absent-minded, I have never been able to understand why I left my rifle on the mountainside after lugging it up there for an avowed purpose. At any rate I made record time back to camp, glancing rearward frequently, to see if the "flock" of bears was pursuing me.
The next day, after surveying the mountainside to make sure that no bears were lurking there, I went back up and recovered the rifle. The sand beneath the shelving rock where I had seen the second bear was disturbed. Claws had rasped it sharply. It appeared as though this bear had been startled suddenly; had wheeled about and fled for its life in the opposite direction to that I had taken. The tracks were small, too, apparently those of a cub. This was my first hear experience. I had yet to learn that bear are as harmless as deer or mountain sheep; they attend strictly to their own business, and they never come near man except through accident. At that time, though, I was willing to give all bears the benefit of the doubt—and the right of way.
While further exploring the ridge above the camp I came upon an old abandoned tunnel with its dump concealed among the trees below timberline. The entrance to the tunnel had been timbered to prevent its caving. There was nothing in its appearance to tell how long it had been abandoned. Beside the dump was a small selected pile of ore. This I gloated over happily, mistaking mingled stains and colors for pure sold. But if it was a gold mine, why had the owners departed—and why had they left rich ore? These and, other questions unanswered, left me with an uneasy feeling. I wondered if a tragedy had happened here, so many miles from civilization. With a torch of small twigs I ventured into the dark hole running straight back beneath the cliff. A short distance inside the tunnel I stopped uneasily. The silence was intense. The twig torch fluttered faintly and went out. The darkness was black beyond belief. Without delay I felt my way out into the sunshine, leaving further exploration for another day.
For weeks I roamed the forest, circled the scattered lakes, climbed to the jagged tops of high-flung peaks; and daily, almost, had new and strange experiences. Everything was intensely interesting, and all was fairyland. Many times I was torn between timidity and curiosity. Though I often carried the huge old rifle with deadly intent, I failed to bring down any big game. Invariably when I had a good chance, my gun would be at camp.
Before breakfast one morning I made an excursion to a promontory to watch the sunrise. Deep down in the canyons below, darkness still lingered. Slowly the world emerged from the shadows like a photographic plate developing and disclosing its images in the darkroom. Beyond the promontory a great spire lifted high above the canyon; I climbed to its top. Above the spire was a higher crag. Again I climbed up. Up and up I climbed until almost noon. Each new vantage point revealed new glory; every successive outpost lured me on.
At last the long ridge I followed shouldered against a sheer-topped peak of the Continental Divide. It was mid-afternoon and hunger urged me homeward. The way I had come was long and circuitous. There was a short cut back to camp, but this threatened difficulty, for there was a deep canyon to be crossed; and even though I reached its bottom there seemed to be no possible way up the precipitous farther wall.
I did, however, make the homeward side of the canyon very late. The clouds had shut down over the peaks, leveling their tops to timberline. All day I had carried the heavy camera with a supply of glass plates. Besides I carried my six-shooter, with belt and cartridges, buckled around my waist. Several times I saw grouse and fired at them, but not once did I get a close-up shot.
As I toiled upward to cross the ridge that overlooked camp, I entered the lower cloud stratum. The air was biting cold. It was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. I regretted that I had brought no food. Snow began to fall; and the higher I plodded the thicker it fell. Darkness came rapidly; footing became precarious. The snow plastered the rocks; the light was ghostly and unreal. I began to stumble; I slipped and slid, lost my balance, and fell.
Then, as the snow deepened and the darkness increased, I realized that to attempt the descent of the slope above camp would be folly, for it was as steep as a house roof, and covered with loose bowlders. Besides it had many abrupt cliffs fifty to a hundred feet high. There was only one thing to do—camp here, for the night. But I was on an exposed shoulder of the mountain, above timberline, and it would be impossible to live through the night without shelter and fire.
I headed downhill without regard for direction. I was becoming numb, but in half an hour I safely reached the dwarf trees at timberline and plunged through them to a dense grove of spruce. Occasionally there was a dead tree, and nearly all trees had dead limbs low down. With such limbs or small trunks as I could find I constructed a rude lean-to, with closed ends. With my pocket knife I cut green boughs, covered the lean-to and plastered the boughs with a coating of wet snow. The green branches, together with the snow that was streaming down like a waterfall, soon rendered the shelter windproof.
With a glowing fire in front to light my way, I ranged in ever-widening circles for fuel to last through the long night ahead. Within an hour I had collected a fair-sized pile of wood, but I thought I'd better have even more. My quest took me farther among the trees. Of a sudden there came a whirr of wings that made me jump and drop my load, as a number of grouse flew in all directions, their booming wings fairly exploding with energy.
One of the grouse alighted in a tree overhead and I snatched out the six-shooter, aimed carefully and fired. It was a new experience for the grouse; it stretched its head out, and, twisting sidewise, stared down at me curiously. Once more I fired. The interest of the grouse increased. Again and again I fired, pausing confidently after each shot for the bird to tumble down. Three times I emptied the cylinder without a hit. Then in disgust I shoved the gun back into its holster and fumbled in the snow for a stone. The first throw was close, the second hit its mark, and the bird came fluttering down.
The clouds dropped lower, enveloping my camp. The night was inky black. I lay beneath my lean-to, watching the fire before which the plump grouse was slowly turning round and round as it roasted. The turning was accomplished by hooking a green twig into its neck and tying the other end of the twig with a string that wound and unwound as the bird alternated directions. I unloaded one of the revolver cartridges and used the salty powder for seasoning my feast. I saved some ammunition after all!
It was noon next day before I reached camp. Then the storm shut down again. Snow began to accumulate. In the woods it lay knee deep, while the high ridges above the timberline were swept bare by the howling wind.
Quite unexpectedly, in the dead of night, I had a visitor. He was uninvited, but was determined to make himself at home. Awakened by the rattle of tin, I sat up, listened and waited. I struck a match and caught a glimpse of a huge mountain rat disappearing in the darkness. I had scarcely fallen asleep again before he returned, and when I struck a light he stared at me with villainous, beady eyes. By the uncertain light of a match I took aim with the faithless six-shooter and fired. When I sprang up, expecting to find the mangled remains of the intruder, I discovered a gaping hole in my only frying pan.
After an hour the pest came again, satisfied, no doubt, that my marksmanship was not dangerous. This time I was prepared for his coming. I had a lighted pine torch to see to aim by. I tried another shot. The rat kept moving while in the open and only stopped when behind shelter, peeping out with one eye. At last he left the tent, and I followed him into the woods. Beneath the overhang of the cliff he stopped, his piercing eyes flashing in the darkness as I advanced with the torch. Patiently he waited beneath a leaning tree trunk. Ten feet from him I knelt upon the velvet needles of the forest, and with torch held aloft, steadied the six-shooter, aimed carefully, and fired.
At the shot the rat disappeared. I pressed forward confident that at last I had scored a hit. The torch had gone out. I was feeling among the dead needles for the rat's mangled body when my fingers touched something wooden. Instantly the pest was forgotten. By the light of a match I saw that I had uncovered the corner of a little box. It flashed upon me that I had stumbled upon the cache where the old prospectors had hidden their gold. They were gone; the gold was mine!
I tugged and tugged till I dragged it from its concealment beneath the rotting log. In trembling haste I tore off its cover. Then...
I staggered back with a cry of dismay! The box was filled with old, crystallized dynamite. An inch above the top layer of the deadly stuff was a fresh hole where my bullet had crashed through. A little lower and it would have hit the powder crystals!
The next morning snow lay deep about the tent. It was impossible to make my way through the woods. I was marooned far from civilization. The wind rose; crashing among the peaks, tearing along the ridges, roaring through the passes. Blinding clouds came sifting down from the wind-swept heights.
After days of patient waiting, I started the laborious climb upward, for it was impossible to make progress downward, where the soft snow lay. Now, like the sheep, I would take advantage of those wind-swept stretches above timberline.
Before dawn I was on my way. It required three hours to gain the first mile. Then, as I reached the cleared stretches, progress became easier. Though the wind came in angry squalls, that sometimes flung me headlong, and buffeted and drove me about, the going underfoot was good.
If I could keep my bearings and head northward, steer out around the heads of countless canyons, hold my given altitude above timberline, I would eventually reach a spot some miles above the valley where the home ranch lay. All day I plodded. The wind did not abate, but came in a gale from the west. At times it dropped to perhaps fifty miles an hour, and again it rose to more than a hundred miles; it shrieked, pounded at the cliffs, tore the battered timberline trees to bits, caught up frozen snow crust and crashed it among the trees like ripping shot. At such times I was forced to turn my back, or to feel my way blindly, head down. I moved with utmost caution lest I walk over a cliff.
The time came when I had to abandon the wind-swept heights and flounder through the soft snow of the canyons. Through narrow passes I had to crawl, so terrific was the wind that poured through the channel like a waterfall. Nothing short of a Kansas cyclone can match the velocity of a mountain-top gale. All day I stemmed its tide, which sapped my strength, bowled me over and cut my face.
As early darkness came on I reached a familiar canyon that dropped down toward the valley where the ranch lay hidden. Drunkenly I staggered homeward, too exhausted to care what happened. The last three miles required three hours of heroic work. I became extremely weary and wanted nothing so much as to sink down in the snow and go to sleep; but I knew what that would mean, so I kept slapping and beating myself to keep awake. In the end I reached the ranch, pounded upon the door and, when it was opened, pitched headlong across its threshold.
The Parson gazed down at me from his six feet of height.
"Well," he said at length, "guess you found a pretty big world."
DANCING ACROSS THE DIVIDE
So new was the life, so fascinating the animals and elements of the primitive world, so miraculous was it that my lifelong dreams were come true, that I never thought of home-sickness, nor missed the comrades left behind me, although the Parson and his quiet wife were rather elderly companions for a youngster. There were, too, the diversions of going for the mail, either horseback or in the old spring wagon behind the steady, little mountain ponies, the swapping of yarns while waiting for the generally belated stage to dash up, its four horses prancing, and steaming, no matter how cold the weather, from the precipitous ups and downs of the mountain roads they had traveled. The return journey in the dusk or by moonlight was never without incident: porcupine, deer, bear, Bighorn, mountain lion—some kind of game invariably crossed my trail.
And, as was true in all pioneer regions, the community abounded in interesting personalities. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the fame and fairness of the country had reached the centers of Eastern culture, and had lured the ambitious and the adventurous to try their skill in hunting and trapping and fishing in this Paradise, roamed over by big game, crossed by sparkling streams, alive with trout. Kit Carson was the first white man to look down upon its beautiful valleys. Others soon followed: Joel Estes, for whom the Park was eventually named; "Rocky Mountain Jim," a two-gun man, living alone with his dogs, looking like a bearded, unkempt pirate, taciturn, yet not without charm, as later events proved, unmolesting and unmolested, enveloped in a haze of respected mystery. There was also that noted lady globe-trotter, Miss Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman of undoubted refinement, highly educated—whose volume, "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains," is one of the earliest and most picturesque accounts of that time—upon whom "Rocky Mountain Jim" exerted his blandishments. Some sort of romance existed between them, how serious no one knows, for the tragic shooting of Jim, by an irate pioneer father, cut short its development.
In the early sixties, an English nobleman and sportsman, the Earl of Dunraven, attracted by the wealth of game in the region, attempted to make it into a private hunting park or preserve. He took up all the acreage which he could legitimately acquire in his own name, then took up fraudulent claims in the names of his tenants. But the hardy pioneers, who were coming into the country in ever-increasing numbers, rightly doubting the validity of his own ownership of so many thousands of acres, homesteaded land to their liking and built their log cabins upon it. Lord Dunraven tried to scare them off, but they would not be bluffed, and in the contest which followed, he lost out and departed from the region. Although his coming to the Park contributed much to its romantic history, in his "Memoirs"—two thick, heavy volumes, published a few years ago—he devotes only half a page to his Estes Park experiences. Whether this is because he considered them negligible or unworthy, would be interesting to know.
The old Dunraven Lodge was the first hostelry in the region, and about the great fireplace in its spacious, trophy-hung lobby gathered many of the political and artistic celebrities of that day. The fame of the mountain beauty spot spread—visitors came. The settlers added "spare rooms" to their log cabins, and during the summer and early fall "took in boarders," thus helping to eke out their living expenses and, what was even more far-reaching perhaps, the outer world was thus "fetched in" to them: they heard of railroads annihilating the long oxen-traversed distances of covered wagon days, of new gold strikes, of national politics, rumblings of the Civil War, slavery agitation, presidential elections, and those other momentous, history-making events of their time.
The most important and regular social occasion of that day was the community dinner and "literary." Imagine the picturesque company, congregated from miles around, each contributing whatever he could muster of food and drink—the old Earl of Dunraven, as well as others, had a bar!—and seated at a long, single table. What genuine, home-made fun! What pranks, what wit—yes, what brilliance! Some one, usually Parson Lamb, sometimes gaunt old Scotch John Cleave, the postmaster, rarely some noted visitor, who either from choice or ill-health lingered on into the winter, made a speech. There were declamations, debates, the interminable, singsong ballads of the frontier, usually accompanied by French harp or fiddle. Families were few, bachelors much in the majority; I remember that at one of the community affairs there were eighteen bachelors out of a total attendance of thirty persons! But as the region settled up, the bachelor ranks dwindled. They, like the big game, disappeared, as though in their case "open season" prevailed likewise.
I had attended several of these pioneer festivities and had enjoyed them greatly, and was much impressed with their importance, for underlying all the fun was an old-fashioned dignity seldom found nowadays. But Parson Lamb told me these dinners were tame compared to a real mountain dance. "Just you wait till you see a real shindig" he said. "Then you'll have something to talk about." In January, there was a letter in the mail from Jim Oss, my acquaintance of the train on which I came West. We had been carrying on a desultory correspondence, but this message was momentous.
"I am giving a dance Monday," he wrote, "to celebrate proving up on my homestead. Come ahead of time so you can see all the fun." His hundred and sixty acres lay on the western slope of the Continental Divide—fifty-five miles away. Snow lay deep over every one of those intervening, upstanding miles! The Parson was concerned about my going alone.
"'Tain't safe to cross that old range alone any time of year, let alone the dead of winter. Hain't no one else agoing from here?"
I inquired, but it seemed there was not. Secretly I was well pleased to have it so. I was young enough to thrill at the chance of so hazardous an experience.
Parson Lamb agreed that Friday morning would be a good time to start. We were not superstitious, and it wasn't the thirteenth. The trip had to be made on snowshoes, with which I was not very adept, but that only added to its attractions. In order to cross the Divide, it was necessary to descend from my lofty nine thousand feet elevation to seven thousand five hundred, before starting to climb Flattop trail, which led over to Grand Lake, the last settlement before reaching Oss's place. By sundown I reached a deserted sawmill shack, the last shelter between me and Grand Lake. It was six miles below the top of the Divide, and twenty miles to the Lake. There I spent the night and at dawn was trailing upward, in the teeth of a sixty-mile gale!
The first two of those uprising six miles were fair going, and took only a little more than an hour. Thereafter the trail grew more precipitous. The third mile required one hour, and the fourth, two hours of exhausting work. The sun rose, but not the temperature; powdery snow swirled around the heads of the peaks; clouds swept above the ridges, flayed and torn; from above timberline came the roar of the wind.
Dark glasses protected my eyes from snow and wind; and I was warmly dressed. I left my bedding roll at the sawmill, to be picked up on the return trip, for shelter could be had at Grand Lake. The light pack I carried contained peanuts, chocolate, and a change of socks.
The higher I climbed the wilder became the wind. From timberline I surveyed the prospect ahead and hesitated. Clouds and snow whirled up in a solid mass, blinding and choking me. The cold penetrated my heavy clothing. I went on. In a few minutes I was in the midst of the turmoil, utterly lost, buffeted about. I tried to keep the wind in my face for compass, but it was so variable, eddying from all directions, that it was not reassuring. Near the top of the mountain a blast knocked me down, and half smothered me with flying snow. I arose groggily, uncertain which way to head; it was impossible to see even a step in front. The staff I carried served me well, with it I went tapping and feeling my way like a blind man. There I was on the top of the world, thirteen thousand feet above sea level—and overlooking nothing.
Flattop mountain is shaped like a loaf of bread, sloping off steeply at the ends, its sides guarded by sheer cliffs.. It was these cliffs I feared and strove to avoid. I had heard startling tales of the effects of high altitude on one; how the atmosphere was very rare and light. Had it been any heavier that day, I could not have survived. Violent blasts of wind frequently bowled me over. After one of these falls, I arose uncertainly, drifted with the wind for a moment's respite, neglected to feel ahead with my staff—and walked out upon a snow cornice that overhung the top of the cliff. The cornice broke away! Amidst an explosion of snow I plunged downward, struggling frantically as I went!
I landed in a snowdrift featherbed which, while it broke my fall, almost buried me alive. The wind reached me only in occasional gusts, so I realized that I must be sheltered by the cliff wall. In the first brief lull I took my bearings. I had landed upon a narrow ledge a few feet wide. Below me yawned the gorge. It was a terrible half hour's work with a snowshoe as a shovel to extricate myself, but a few minutes later I was once more on top.
Again I struggled upward. I reached the pass and started down the western slope toward timber. My fingers and toes were frosted, I was numb with cold, and so battered by the gale I could only pant. My careful calculations had come to naught, as I was far behind the schedule I had planned. I decided to make up time by abandoning the trail and taking a shortcut to timber and shelter through an unknown canyon which I thought led to Grand Lake.
But the canyon was hard going. Thick, young evergreens, entangling willows and fallen logs impeded every step. I could make no headway and darkness was coming on. Disgusted, despairing, I took to the frozen stream, only to skid over icy bowlders and at last to break through the ice crust into the frigid water.
Long after dark I staggered down the single street of Grand Lake toward a dim patch of light. It proved to be the window of a store. Within was a glowing stove, surrounded by a group of men.
The proprietor eyed me with suspicion. "Where'd you drop from?"
I waved vaguely toward the Continental Divide.
"Must 'a' bin something urgent to make you tackle the Flattop trail in winter."
He awaited my explanations curiously—but I had slumped down near the stove and was half asleep.
Next morning I looked back up the way I had come—low clouds, tattered to shreds. Even at that distance I could hear the roar of the wind among the loft crags. I was thankful that I had crossed the Divide the day before. It was still thirty miles to the cabin of my friend, but they were fairly easy miles compared with those I had just traversed. Even so, so spent was my strength, it was pitch dark when I dragged wearily up the broken road to where that cabin nestled in its grove of spruces.
The dance was not until Monday night, so I took it for granted that I should be the first to arrive, since I was a full day ahead of the function. But no! Many were already there! They were eating supper and made room for me at the long table before the open fire. They were cordial and made me feel at home at once, marveling over my making the trip alone, and praising my pluck. I was much too weary and hungry to protest, even though I had been becomingly modest. Seeing this, they filled my plate and let me be, turning their nimble tongues on our host—What handsome whiskers—la! la! He'd better be careful with those hirsute adornments and a cabin with a plank floor! He couldn't hope to remain a bachelor long! So the banter ran.
Supper over and the dishes cleared away, the candles were snuffed out and the company (visitors were never called guests) sat around the flickering hearth and speculated over the possible coming of the Moffat railroad. What an assorted company it was! Young and grizzled—trappers, miners, invalids seeking health, adventurers, speculators, a few half-breeds; all men of little education, but of fascinating experience; a few women of quiet poise and resourcefulness. Their clothes were nondescript and betrayed the fact that they had come from the East, having been sent west by condoning relatives, no doubt after having lived in more fashionable circles. There were two little children who fell asleep early in the evening in their parents' arms.
The company was put to bed in Oss's one-room house by the simple means of lying down upon the floor fully dressed, feet to the fire.
All were up early next morning, and each found some task to do. Some of the men cut wood and piled it outside the door; the women folks assisted Oss with breakfast which was cooked in the fireplace; for he had not yet reached the luxury of a cook stove, which would have to be "fetched in" over sixty miles of mountain roads and would cost a tidy sum besides.
Some artistic soul, with a memory of urban ways, made long ropes of evergreens and hung them in garlands from the rafters, a flag was draped above the fireplace, lanterns were hung ready to light.
Distant "neighbors" kept flocking in all day, each bringing a neighborly offering; fresh pork from the owner of an only shoat; choice venison steaks; bear meat from a hunter who explained that the bear had been killed months before and kept frozen in the meat house. Wild raspberry jam, with finer flavor than any I have ever tasted before or since, was brought by a bachelor who vied with the women folks when it came to cookery. The prize offering, however, were some mountain trout, speared through the ice of a frozen stream.
Dancing began early. The music was supplied by an old-time fiddler who jerked squeaky tunes from an ancient violin, singing and shouting the dance calls by turns. Voice, fiddle and feet, beating lusty time to his tunes, went incessantly. He had an endless repertoire, and a talent for fitting the names of the dancers to his ringing rimes.
Some of his offerings were:
"Lady round lady and gents so low! First couple lead to right— Lady round lady and gents so low— Lady round gent and gent don't go— Four hands half and right and left."
The encores he would improvise:
"Hit the lumber with your leather— Balance all, an' swing ter left."
All swayed rhythmically, beating time with their feet, clapping their hands, bowing, laughing. The men threw in their fancy steps, their choice parlor tricks. A few performed a double shuffle; one a pigeon's wing; a couple of trappers did an Indian dance, twisting their bodies into grotesque contortions and every so often letting out a yell that made one's hair stand on end.
There was little rest between the dances, for the old fiddler had marvelous powers of endurance. He sawed away, perspired, shouted and sang as though his life depended on his performance. He was having as good, or better time, than anyone. With scarcely a moment to breathe he'd launch into another call—and not once the whole night through did he repeat:
"Ole Buffler Bill—Buffler Bill! Never missed an' never will."
Then as the dancers promenaded he'd switch to a new improvisation, ending in a whirlwind of wit and telling personalities, which sent the company into hysterical laughter. I joined in the dance, rather gawkily no doubt, for my mother's father was a Quaker preacher and we had never been allowed to dance at home. The ladies regarded my clumsiness with motherly forbearance, and self-sacrificingly tried to direct my wayward feet. But either because I was not recovered from my trip or because the strangeness and confusion wearied me, I could not get the hang of the steps. Presently an understanding matron let me slip out of the dance, and I sat down by the fiddler and dozed. Clanking spurs, brilliant chaps, fur-trimmed trappers' jackets, thudding moccasins, gaudy Indian blankets and gay feathers, voluminous feminine flounces swinging from demure, snug-fitting basques—all whirled above me in a kaleidoscopic blur!
A wild war whoop awakened me—nothing but a little harmless hilarity! It was two o'clock in the morning. I wished the dance would end so I could sleep undisturbed. I envied the two children asleep on the floor. But the dance went on. The fiddle whined, its player shouted, heavy shoes clumped tirelessly on the plank floor. There was still energetic swing and dash to the quadrilles, still gay voices were raised in joyous shouts. Those hearty pioneers were full of "wim, wigor and witality"!
Dawn broke redly over the Divide; still the dance continued. Daylight sifted over the white world, and yet the dancers did not pause. At last as the sun came up, the old fiddler reluctantly stood on his chair and played "Home Sweet Home."
All-night dances were at that time the custom of the mountain folk; the company assembled as far ahead of time as was convenient, and remained, sometimes, a day or two after the close of the festivities. There was no doubt as to one's welcome and there was no limit to the length of his stay. Isolation made opportunities for such social intercourse rare and therefore everyone got more "kick" out of these occasions than is possible in our swiftly moving, blase age.
Weather conditions changed while we danced: the wind eased off and the mountain tops emerged from the clouds and drifting snow. I trailed up the canyon I had struggled through in the darkness; and except for the final stretch of the steep mountain above timberline the snowshoeing was nothing except plain hard work. In some places the wind had packed the snow hard; again it was soft so that I sank knee deep at every step. In the soft snow, where there was a steep slope to negotiate, each snowshoe had to be lifted high, until my knee almost touched my chest. The webs accumulated snow, too, until each shoe weighed many additional pounds.
But the fairyland that I found on top of the Divide was worth all the effort required to reach it. It was the first time I had found the wind quiet; every peak stood out sharp and clear, many miles away seemed but a few minutes' walk. There were none of the usual objects that help estimate distance; no horses or cattle, no trees or trails, nothing but unbroken space. The glare of the sun was blinding; even my very dark snow glasses failed to protect my eyes.
The silence was tremendous. Always before there had been the wind shrieking and crashing. Now there was not a sound, not a breath of wind, not even a snow-swirl. I shouted, and my voice came back across the canyon without the usual blurring; each word was distinct. I whistled softly and other echoes came hurrying back. Never have I felt so alone, or so small. As far as the eye could reach were mountains, one beyond the other. Near by loomed the jagged Never-summer range, while farther down the Divide Gray's and Terry's peaks stood out; then the Collegiate range—Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
In the midst of my reverie there came a creaking, groaning sound from almost beneath my feet. I had paused on the brink of the same precipice over which I had fallen on my way to Grand Lake. Before I could move, the snow-cornice broke away and several hundred feet of it crashed down the cliff. In places it appeared to be ten to forty feet thick. It must have weighed thousands of tons. It fell with a swishing roar, with occasional sharp reports, as loose rocks dropped to the clean-swept ledges of the cliff. It seemed to explode as it struck, to fly into powder which filled the gorge between Flat top and Hallett peaks.
The wind had drifted the snow over the edge of the precipice where some of it had clung. Farther and farther it had crept out, overhanging the abyss, its great weight slowly bending the cornice downward until it had at last given way.
I shuddered a little at the awfulness of it; felt smaller than ever, backed away from the rim of the canyon, and headed for home.
Gold and fur have ever been beckoning sirens, luring men into the unknown. As I have said, the famous trapper, Kit Carson, was the first white man to look down upon the picturesque, mountain-guarded valley, later known as Estes Park. From the foothills, he had followed up one of the streams, seeking new fur-fields, until, after crossing the last barrier range, he looked down upon a broad, river spangled park set like a gem in the midst of the encircling peaks of the Divide, with that sheer, pyramidal face of Long's Peak dominating all. We like to think that these early adventurers appreciated the beauty of the primitive lands they explored, but whether or not Carson thrilled at that exquisite alpine panorama, he noted keenly the profusion of tracks criss-crossing its green and white expanse, promising an abundance of game, for he moved down into the region and at the foot of Long's Peak built himself a rude log cabin. There he spent the winter trapping beaver, and the following spring bargained with the Indians to help pack out his catch. The walls, the hearth, and part of the stone chimney still mark the site of that first cabin.
I selected the top of a high cliff overlooking these storied ruins for the location of a cabin which I planned to build as soon as I could manage it. I, too, would be a trapper, and though the beaver and other fur-bearing animals were not nearly so numerous as they had been that day, sixty years gone, when Carson first beheld their mountain fastness, there still remained enough to make trapping interesting and profitable. Game tracks still abounded, and notwithstanding that I was a mere boy, inexperienced in woodcraft, I could distinguish that they differed, even though I could classify only a few of them; coyote tracks, I found, were very like a dog's; sheep, elk and deer tracks were similar, yet easily distinguished from one another; bear left a print like that of a baby's chubby foot. Yes, there was still a chance for me!
As soon as I returned from the dance at Jim Oss's, I set about carrying out my plans. I mushed over deep snow back into Wild Basin, to recover the six traps I had abandoned there on that memorable first camp alone, and found my tent crushed under six feet of drifted snow and the region still deserted by game. I set the traps out in the vicinity of the home ranch. Every few days I inspected them, only to find them empty. Indeed, over a period of long weeks I caught but one mink, two weasels and three coyotes. The Parson kindly said the country was trapped out; still, I suspected my lack of skill was responsible for my scanty catch.
One morning in following up my trap line, I found a trap missing. In the sand about the aspen tree to which it had been anchored were coyote tracks. Ignorantly fearless, I set out to track down the miscreant. The trail led down toward a forest, where dense thickets of new-growth lodge-pole pines livened the stark, fire-killed trees. As I neared the forest, the tracks were farther apart and dimmer, but here and there were scratches on fallen logs as though a trap had been dragged across them; moreover, there were occasional spots where the earth was greatly disturbed, showing that the animal had no doubt threshed about in his efforts to dislodge the trap, caught on the snags or bowlders.