A whisky slave — The pleasures of monotony — The mountain lion — “Another mouth to feed” — A tiresome boy — An outcast — Thanksgiving Day — The newcomer — A literary humbug — Milking a dry cow — Trout-fishing — A snow-storm — A desperado’s den.
ESTES PARK, Sunday.
A trapper passing last night brought us the news that Mr. Nugent is ill; so, after washing up the things after our late breakfast, I rode to his cabin, but I met him in the gulch coming down to see us. He said he had caught cold on the Range, and was suffering from an old arrow wound in the lung. We had a long conversation without adverting to the former one, and he told me some of the present circumstances of his ruined life. It is piteous that a man like him, in the prime of life, should be destitute of home and love, and live a life of darkness in a den with no companions but guilty memories, and a dog which many people think is the nobler animal of the two. I urged him to give up the whisky which at present is his ruin, and his answer had the ring of a sad truth in it: “I cannot, it binds me hand and foot — I cannot give up the only pleasure I have.” His ideas of right are the queerest possible. He says that he believes in God, but what he knows or believes of God’s law I know not. To resent insult with your revolver, to revenge yourself on those who have injured you, to be true to a comrade and share your last crust with him, to be chivalrous to good women, to be generous and hospitable, and at the last to die game — these are the articles of his creed, and I suppose they are received by men of his stamp. He hates Evans with a bitter hatred, and Evans returns it, having undergone much provocation from Jim in his moods of lawlessness and violence, and being not a little envious of the fascination which his manners and conversation have for the strangers who come up here. On returning down the gulch the view was grander than I have ever seen it, the gulch in dark shadow, the park below lying in intense sunlight, with all the majestic canyons which sweep down upon it in depths of infinite blue gloom, and above, the pearly peaks, dazzling in purity and glorious in form, cleft the turquoise blue of the sky. How shall I ever leave this “land which is very far off”? How CAN I ever leave it? is the real question. We are going on the principle, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” and the stores are melting away. The two meals are not an economical plan, for we are so much more hungry that we eat more than when we had three. We had a good deal of sacred music today, to make it as like Sunday as possible. The “faint melancholy” of this winter loneliness is very fascinating.
How glorious the amber fires of the winter dawns are, and how gloriously to-night the crimson clouds descended just to the mountain tops and were reflected on the pure surface of the snow!
The door of this room looks due north, and as I write the Pole Star blazes, and a cold crescent moon hangs over the ghastliness of Long’s Peak.
ESTES PARK, COLORADO, November.
We have lost count of time, and can only agree on the fact that the date is somewhere near the end of November. Our life has settled down into serenity, and our singular and enforced partnership is very pleasant. We might be three men living together, but for the unvarying courtesy and consideration which they show to me. Our work goes on like clockwork; the only difficulty which ever arises is that the men do not like me to do anything that they think hard or unsuitable, such as saddling a horse or bringing in water. The days go very fast; it was 3:30 today before I knew that it was 1. It is a calm life without worries. The men are so easy to live with; they never fuss, or grumble, or sigh, or make a trouble of anything. It would amuse you to come into our wretched little kitchen before our disgracefully late breakfast, and find Mr. Kavan busy at the stove frying venison, myself washing the supper dishes, and Mr. Buchan drying them, or both the men busy at the stove while I sweep the floor. Our food is a great object of interest to us, and we are ravenously hungry now that we have only two meals a day. About sundown each goes forth to his “chores” — Mr. K. to chop wood, Mr. B. to haul water, I to wash the milk pans and water the horses. On Saturday the men shot a deer, and on going for it today they found nothing but the hind legs, and following a track which they expected would lead them to a beast’s hole, they came quite carelessly upon a large mountain lion, which, however, took itself out of their reach before they were sufficiently recovered from their surprise to fire at it. These lions, which are really a species of puma, are bloodthirsty as well as cowardly. Lately one got into a sheepfold in the canyon of the St. Vrain, and killed thirty sheep, sucking the blood from their throats.
This has been a day of minor events, as well as a busy one. I was so busy that I never sat down from 10:30 till 1:30. I had washed my one change of raiment, and though I never iron my clothes, I like to bleach them till they are as white as snow, and they were whitening on the line when some furious gusts came down from Long’s Peak, against which I could not stand, and when I did get out all my clothes were blown into strips from an inch to four inches in width, literally destroyed! One learns how very little is necessary either for comfort or happiness. I made a four-pound spiced ginger cake, baked some bread, mended my riding dress, cleaned up generally, wrote some letters with the hope that some day they might be posted and took a magnificent walk, reaching the cabin again in the melancholy glory which now immediately precedes the darkness. We were all busy getting our supper ready when the dogs began to bark furiously, and we heard the noise of horses. “Evans at last!” we exclaimed, but we were wrong. Mr. Kavan went out, and returned saying that it was a young man who had come up with Evans’s wagon and team, and that the wagon had gone over into a gulch seven miles from here. Mr. Kavan looked very grave. “It’s another mouth to feed,” he said. They asked no questions, and brought the lad in, a slangy, assured fellow of twenty, who, having fallen into delicate health at a theological college, had been sent up here by Evans to work for his board. The men were too courteous to ask him what he was doing up here, but I boldly asked him where he lived, and to our dismay he replied, “I’ve come to live here.” We discussed the food question gravely, as it presented a real difficulty. We put him into a bed-closet opening from the kitchen, and decided to see what he was fit for before giving him work. We were very much amazed, in truth, at his coming here. He is evidently a shallow, arrogant youth. We have decided that today is November 26th; tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and we are planning a feast, though Mr. K. said to me again this morning, with a doleful face, “You see there’s another mouth to feed.” This “mouth” has come up to try the panacea of manual labor, but he is town bred, and I see that he will do nothing. He is writing poetry, and while I was busy today began to read it aloud to me, asking for my criticism. He is just at the age when everything literary has a fascination, and every literary person is a hero, specially Dr. Holland. Last night was fearful from the lifting of the cabin and the breaking of the mud from the roof. We sat with fine gravel driving in our faces, and this morning I carried four shovelfuls of mud out of my room. After breakfast, Mr. Kavan, Mr. Lyman, and I, with the two wagon horses, rode the seven miles to the scene of yesterday’s disaster in a perfect gale of wind. I felt like a servant going out for a day’s “pleasuring,” hurrying “through my dishes,” and leaving my room in disorder. The wagon lay half-way down the side of a ravine, kept from destruction by having caught on some trees. It was too cold to hang about while the men hauled it up and fixed it, so I went slowly back, encountering Mr. Nugent in a most bitter mood — almost in an “ugly fit” — hating everybody, and contrasting his own generosity and reckless kindness with the selfishness and carefully-weighed kindnesses of others. People do give him credit for having “as kind a heart as ever beat.” Lately a child in the other cabin was taken ill, and though there were idle men and horses at hand, it was only the “desperado” who rode sixty miles in “the shortest time ever made” to bring the doctor. While we were talking he was sitting on a stone outside his den mending a saddle, shins, bones, and skulls lying about him, “Ring” watching him with jealous and idolatrous affection, the wind lifting his thin curls from as grand a head as was ever modeled — a ruin of a man. Yet the sun which shines “on the evil and the good” was lighting up the gold of his hair. May our Father which is in heaven yet show mercy to His outcast child! Mr. Kavan soon overtook me, and we had an exciting race of two miles, getting home just before the wind fell and the snow began. Thanksgiving Day. The thing dreaded has come at last, a snow-storm, with a north-east wind. It ceased about midnight, but not till it had covered my bed. Then the mercury fell below zero, and everything froze. I melted a tin of water for washing by the fire, but it was hard frozen before I could use it. My hair, which was thoroughly wet with the thawed snow of yesterday, is hard frozen in plaits. The milk and treacle are like rock, the eggs have to be kept on the coolest part of the stove to keep them fluid. Two calves in the shed were frozen to death. Half our floor is deep in snow, and it is so cold that we cannot open the door to shovel it out. The snow began again at eight this morning, very fine and hard. It blows in through the chinks and dusts this letter while I write. Mr. Kavan keeps my ink bottle close to the fire, and hands it to me every time that I need to dip my pen. We have a huge fire, but cannot raise the temperature above 20 degrees. Ever since I returned the lake has been hard enough to bear a wagon, but today it is difficult to keep the water hole open by the constant use of the axe. The snow may either melt or block us in. Our only anxiety is about the supplies. We have tea and coffee enough to last over tomorrow, the sugar is just done, and the flour is getting low. It is really serious that we have “another mouth to feed,” and the newcomer is a ravenous creature, eating more than the three of us. It dismays me to see his hungry eyes gauging the supply at breakfast, and to see the loaf disappear. He told me this morning that he could eat the whole of what was on the table. He is mad after food, and I see that Mr. K. is starving himself to make it hold out. Mr. Buchan is very far from well, and dreads the prospect of “half rations.” All this sounds laughable, but we shall not laugh if we have to look hunger in the face! Now in the evening the snow clouds, which have blotted out all things, are lifting, and the winter scene is wonderful. The mercury is 5 degrees below zero, and the aurora is glorious. In my unchinked room the mercury is 1 degrees below zero. Mr. Buchan can hardly get his breath; the dryness is intense. We spent the afternoon cooking the Thanksgiving dinner. I made a wonderful pudding, for which I had saved eggs and cream for days, and dried and stoned cherries supplied the place of currants. I made a bowl of custard for sauce, which the men said was “splendid”; also a rolled pudding, with molasses; and we had venison steak and potatoes, but for tea we were obliged to use the tea leaves of the morning again. I should think that few people in America have enjoyed their Thanksgiving dinner more. We had urged Mr. Nugent to join us, but he refused, almost savagely, which we regretted. My four-pound cake made yesterday is all gone! This wretched boy confesses that he was so hungry in the night that he got up and ate nearly half of it. He is trying to cajole me into making another.
Before the boy came I had mistaken some faded cayenne pepper for ginger, and had made a cake with it. Last evening I put half of it into the cupboard and left the door open. During the night we heard a commotion in the kitchen and much choking, coughing, and groaning, and at breakfast the boy was unable to swallow food with his usual ravenousness. After breakfast he came to me whimpering, and asking for something soothing for his throat, admitting that he had seen the “gingerbread,” and “felt so starved” in the night that he got up to eat it. I tried to make him feel that it was “real mean” to eat so much and be so useless, and he said he would do anything to help me, but the men were so “down on him.” I never saw men so patient with a lad before. He is a most vexing addition to our party, yet one cannot help laughing at him. He is not honorable, though. I dare not leave this letter lying on the table, as he would read it. He writes for two Western periodicals (at least he says so), and he shows us long pieces of his published poetry.
In one there are twenty lines copied (as Mr. Kavan has shown me) without alteration from Paradise Lost; in another there are two stanzas from Resignation, with only the alteration of “stray” for “dead”; and he has passed the whole of Bonar’s Meeting-place off as his own. Again, he lent me an essay by himself, called The Function of the Novelist, which is nothing but a mosaic of unacknowledged quotations. The men tell me that he has “bragged” to them that on his way here he took shelter in Mr. Nugent’s cabin, found out where he hides his key, opened his box, and read his letters and MSS. He is a perfect plague with his ignorance and SELF-sufficiency. The first day after he came while I was washing up the breakfast things he told me that he intended to do all the dirty work, so I left the knives and forks in the tub and asked him to wipe and lay them aside. Two hours afterwards I found them untouched. Again the men went out hunting, and he said he would chop the wood for several days’ use, and after a few strokes, which were only successful in chipping off some shavings, he came in and strummed on the harmonium, leaving me without any wood with which to make the fire for supper. He talked about his skill with the lasso, but could not even catch one of our quietest horses. Worse than all, he does not know one cow from another. Two days ago he lost our milch cow in driving her in to be milked, and Mr. Kavan lost hours of valuable time in hunting for her without success. To-day he told us triumphantly that he had found her, and he was sent out to milk her. After two hours he returned with a rueful face and a few drops of whitish fluid in the milk pail, saying that that was all he could get. On Mr. K. going out, he found, instead of our “calico” cow, a brindled one that had been dry since the spring! Our cow has gone off to the wild cattle, and we are looking very grim at Lyman, who says that he expected he should live on milk. I told him to fill up the four-gallon kettle, and an hour afterwards found it red-hot on the stove. Nothing can be kept from him unless it is hidden in my room. He has eaten two pounds of dried cherries from the shelf, half of my second four-pound spice loaf before it was cold, licked up my custard sauce in the night, and privately devoured the pudding which was to be for supper. He confesses to it all, and says, “I suppose you think me a cure.” Mr. K. says that the first thing he said to him this morning was, “Will Miss B. make us a nice pudding today?” This is all harmless, but the plagiarism and want of honor are disgusting, and quite out of keeping with his profession of being a theological student. This life is in some respects like being on board ship — there are no mails, and one knows nothing beyond one’s little world, a very little one in this case. We find each other true, and have learnt to esteem and trust each other. I should, for instance, go out of this room leaving this book open on the table, knowing that the men would not read my letter. They are discreet, reticent, observant, and on many subjects well informed, but they are of a type which has no antitype at home. All women work in this region, so there is no fuss about my working, or saying, “Oh, you mustn’t do that,” or “Oh, let me do that.”
We sat up till eleven last night, so confident were we that Edwards would leave Denver the day after Thanksgiving and get up here. This morning we came to the resolution that we must break up. Tea, coffee, and sugar are done, the venison is turning sour, and the men have only one month left for the hunting on which their winter living depends. I cannot leave the Territory till I get money, but I can go to Longmount for the mail and hear whether the panic is abating. Yesterday I was alone all day, and after riding to the base of Long’s Peak, made two roly-poly puddings for supper, having nothing else. The men, however, came back perfectly loaded with trout, and we had a feast. Epicures at home would have envied us. Mr. Kavan kept the frying pan with boiling butter on the stove, butter enough thoroughly to cover the trout, rolled them in coarse corn meal, plunged them into the butter, turned them once, and took them out, thoroughly done, fizzing, and lemon colored. For once young Lyman was satisfied, for the dish was replenished as often as it was emptied. They caught 40 lbs., and have packed them in ice until they can be sent to Denver for sale. The winter fishing is very rich. In the hardest frost, men who fish not for sport, but gain, take their axes and camping blankets, and go up to the hard-frozen waters which lie in fifty places round the park, and choosing a likely spot, a little sheltered from the wind, hack a hole in the ice, and fastening a foot-link to a cotton-wood tree, bait the hook with maggots or bits of easily-gotten fresh meat. Often the trout are caught as fast as the hook can be baited, and looking through the ice hole in the track of a sunbeam, you see a mass of tails, silver fins, bright eyes, and crimson spots, a perfect shoal of fish, and truly beautiful the crimson-spotted creatures look, lying still and dead on the blue ice under the sunshine. Sometimes two men bring home 60 lbs. of trout as the result of one day’s winter fishing. It is a cold and silent sport, however. How a cook at home would despise our scanty appliances, with which we turn out luxuries. We have only a cooking-stove, which requires incessant feeding with wood, a kettle, a frying pan, a six-gallon brass pan, and a bottle for a rolling pin. The cold has been very severe, but I do not suffer from it even in my insufficient clothing. I take a piece of granite made very hot to bed, draw the blankets over my head and sleep eight hours, though the snow often covers me. One day of snow, mist, and darkness was rather depressing, and yesterday a hurricane began about five in the morning, and the whole park was one swirl of drifting snow, like stinging wood smoke. My bed and room were white, and the frost was so intense that water brought in a kettle hot from the fire froze as I poured it into the basin. Then the snow ceased, and a fierce wind blew most of it out of the park, lifting it from the mountains in such clouds as to make Long’s Peak look like a smoking volcano. To-day the sky has resumed its delicious blue, and the park its unrivalled beauty. I have cleaned all the windows, which, ever since I have been here, I supposed were of discolored glass, so opaque and dirty they were; and when the men came home from fishing they found a cheerful new world. We had a great deal of sacred music and singing on Sunday. Mr. Buchan asked me if I knew a tune called “America,” and began the grand roll of our National Anthem to the words:
My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty, etc.
I was to have started for Canyon today, but was awoke by snow as stinging as pinpoints beating on my hand. We all got up early, but it did not improve until nearly noon. In the afternoon Lyman and I rode to Mr. Nugent’s cabin. I wanted him to read and correct my letter to you, giving the account of our ascent of Long’s Peak, but he said he could not, and insisted on our going in for which young Lyman was more anxious than I was, as Mr. Kavan had seen “Jim” in the morning, and departed from his usual reticence so far as to say, “There’s something wrong with that man; he’ll either shoot himself or somebody else.” However, the “ugly fit” had passed off, and he was so very pleasant and courteous that we remained the whole afternoon. Lyman’s one thought was that he could make capital out of the interview, and write an account of the celebrated desperado for a Western paper. The interior of the den was frightful, yet among his black and hideous surroundings the grace of his manner and the genius of his conversation were only more apparent. I read my letter aloud — or rather “The Ascent of Long’s Peak,” which I have written for Out West — and was sincerely interested with the taste and acumen of his criticisms on the style. He is a true child of nature; his eye brightened and his whole face became radiant, and at last tears rolled down his cheek when I read the account of the glory of the sunrise. Then he read us a very able paper on Spiritualism which he was writing. The den was dense with smoke, and very dark, littered with hay, old blankets, skins, bones, tins, logs, powder flasks, magazines, old books, old moccasins, horseshoes, and relics of all kinds. He had no better seat to offer me than a log, but offered it with a graceful unconsciousness that it was anything less luxurious than an easy chair. Two valuable rifles and a Sharp’s revolver hung on the wall, and the sash and badge of a scout. I could not help looking at “Jim” as he stood talking to me. He goes mad with drink at times, swears fearfully, has an ungovernable temper. He has formerly led a desperate life, and is at times even now undoubtedly a ruffian. There is hardly a fireside in Colorado where fearful stories of him as an Indian fighter are not told; mothers frighten their naughty children by telling them that “Mountain Jim” will get them, and doubtless his faults are glaring, but he is undoubtedly fascinating, and enjoys a popularity or notoriety which no other person has. He offered to be my guide to the Plains when I go away. Lyman asked me if I should not be afraid of being murdered, but one could not be safer than with him I have often been told. The cold was truly awful. I had caught a chill in the morning from putting on my clothes before they were dry, and the warmth of the smoky den was most agreeable; but we had a fearful ride back in the dusk, a gale nearly blowing us off our horses, drifting snow nearly blinding us, and the mercury below zero. I felt as if I were going to be laid up with a severe cold, but the men suggested a trapper’s remedy — a tumbler of hot water, with a pinch of cayenne pepper in it — which proved a very rapid cure. They kindly say that if the snow detains me here they also will remain. They tell me that they were horrified when I arrived, as they thought that they could not make me comfortable, and that I had never been used to do anything for myself, and then we complimented each other all round. To-morrow, weather permitting, I set off for a ride of 100 miles, and my next letter will be my last from the Rocky Mountains.
I. L. B.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48