A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
by Isabella L. Bird
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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 to-day 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 to-morrow, 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.

November 29.

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 to-day?" 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."

November 30.

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.

December 1.

I was to have started for Canyon to-day, 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.

Letter XVI

A harmonious home—Intense cold—A purple sun—A grim jest—A perilous ride—Frozen eyelids—Longmount—The pathless prairie—Hardships of emigrant life—A trapper's advice—The Little Thompson—Evans and "Jim."


Once again here, in refined and cultured society, with harmonious voices about me, and dear, sweet, loving children whose winning ways make this cabin a true English home. "England, with all thy faults, I love thee still!" I can truly say,

Where'er I roam, whatever realms I see. My heart, untraveled, fondly turns to thee.

If it swerved a little in the Sandwich Islands, it is true to the Pole now! Surely one advantage of traveling is that, while it removes much prejudice against foreigners and their customs, it intensifies tenfold one's appreciation of the good at home, and, above all, of the quietness and purity of English domestic life. These reflections are forced upon me by the sweet child-voices about me, and by the exquisite consideration and tenderness which are the atmosphere (some would call it the hothouse atmosphere) of this house. But with the bare, hard life, and the bare, bleak mountains around, who could find fault with even a hothouse atmosphere, if it can nourish such a flower of Paradise as sacred human love?

The mercury is eleven degrees below zero, and I have to keep my ink on the stove to prevent it from freezing. The cold is intense—a clear, brilliant, stimulating cold, so dry that even in my threadbare flannel riding dress I do not suffer from it. I must now take up my narrative of the nothings which have all the interest of SOMETHINGS to me. We all got up before daybreak on Tuesday, and breakfasted at seven. I have not seen the dawn for some time, with its amber fires deepening into red, and the snow peaks flushing one by one, and it seemed a new miracle. It was a west wind, and we all thought it promised well. I took only two pounds of luggage, some raisins, the mailbag, and an additional blanket under my saddle. I had not been up from the park at sunrise before, and it was quite glorious, the purple depths of M'Ginn's Gulch, from which at a height of 9,000 feet you look down on the sunlit park 1,500 feet below, lying in a red haze, with its pearly needle-shaped peaks, framed by mountain sides dark with pines—my glorious, solitary, unique mountain home! The purple sun rose in front. Had I known what made it purple I should certainly have gone no farther. Then clouds, the morning mist as I supposed, lifted themselves up rose lighted, showing the sun's disc as purple as one of the jars in a chemist's window, and having permitted this glimpse of their king, came down again as a dense mist, the wind chopped round, and the mist began to freeze hard. Soon Birdie and myself were a mass of acicular crystals; it was a true easterly fog. I galloped on, hoping to get through it, unable to see a yard before me; but it thickened, and I was obliged to subside into a jog-trot.

As I rode on, about four miles from the cabin, a human figure, looking gigantic like the spectre of the Brocken, with long hair white as snow, appeared close to me, and at the same moment there was the flash of a pistol close to my ear, and I recognized "Mountain Jim" frozen from head to foot, looking a century old with his snowy hair. It was "ugly" altogether certainly, a "desperado's" grim jest, and it was best to accept it as such, though I had just cause for displeasure. He stormed and scolded, dragged me off the pony—for my hands and feet were numb with cold—took the bridle, and went off at a rapid stride, so that I had to run to keep them in sight in the darkness, for we were off the road in a thicket of scrub, looking like white branch coral, I knew not where. Then we came suddenly on his cabin, and dear old "Ring," white like all else; and the "ruffian" insisted on my going in, and he made a good fire, and heated some coffee, raging all the time. He said everything against my going forward, except that it was dangerous; all he said came true, and here I am safe! Your letters, however, outweighed everything but danger, and I decided on going on, when he said, "I've seen many foolish people, but never one so foolish as you—you haven't a grain of sense. Why, I, an old mountaineer, wouldn't go down to the Plains to-day." I told him he could not, though he would like it very much, for that he had turned his horses loose; on which he laughed heartily, and more heartily still at the stories I told him of young Lyman, so that I have still a doubt how much of the dark moods I have lately seen was assumed.

He took me back to the track; and the interview which began with a pistol shot, ended quite pleasantly. It was an eerie ride, one not to be forgotten, though there was no danger. I could not recognize any localities. Every tree was silvered, and the fir-tree tufts of needles looked like white chrysanthemums. The snow lay a foot deep in the gulches, with its hard, smooth surface marked by the feet of innumerable birds and beasts. Ice bridges had formed across all the streams, and I crossed them without knowing when. Gulches looked fathomless abysses, with clouds boiling up out of them, and shaggy mountain summits, half seen for a moment through the eddies, as quickly vanished. Everything looked vast and indefinite. Then a huge creation, like one of Dore's phantom illustrations, with much breathing of wings, came sailing towards me in a temporary opening in the mist. As with a strange rustle it passed close over my head, I saw, for the first time, the great mountain eagle, carrying a good-sized beast in his talons. It was a noble vision. Then there were ten miles of metamorphosed gulches—silent, awful—many ice bridges, then a frozen drizzle, and then the winds changed from east to north-east. Birdie was covered with exquisite crystals, and her long mane and the long beard which covers her throat were pure white. I saw that I must give up crossing the mountains to this place by an unknown trail; and I struck the old trail to the St. Vrain, which I had never traveled before, but which I knew to be more legible than the new one. The fog grew darker and thicker, the day colder and windier, the drifts deeper; but Birdie, whose four cunning feet had carried me 600 miles, and who in all difficulties proves her value, never flinched or made a false step, or gave me reason to be sorry that I had come on.

I got down to the St. Vrain Canyon in good time, and stopped at a house thirteen miles from Longmount to get oats. I was white from head to foot, and my clothes were frozen stiff. The women gave me the usual invitation, "Put your feet in the oven"; and I got my clothes thawed and dried, and a delicious meal consisting of a basin of cream and bread. They said it would be worse on the plains, for it was an easterly storm; but as I was so used to riding, I could get on, so we started at 2:30. Not far off I met Edwards going up at last to Estes Park, and soon after the snow-storm began in earnest—or rather I entered the storm, which had been going on there for several hours. By that time I had reached the prairie, only eight miles from Longmount, and pushed on. It was simply fearful. It was twilight from the thick snow, and I faced a furious east wind loaded with fine, hard-frozen crystals, which literally made my face bleed. I could only see a very short distance anywhere; the drifts were often two feet deep, and only now and then, through the blinding whirl, I caught a glimpse of snow through which withered sunflowers did not protrude, and then I knew that I was on the track. But reaching a wild place, I lost it, and still cantered on, trusting to the pony's sagacity. It failed for once, for she took me on a lake and we fell through the ice into the water, 100 yards from land, and had a hard fight back again. It grew worse and worse. I had wrapped up my face, but the sharp, hard snow beat on my eyes—the only exposed part—bringing tears into them, which froze and closed up my eye-lids at once. You cannot imagine what that was.

I had to take off one glove to pick one eye open, for as to the other, the storm beat so savagely against it that I left it frozen, and drew over it the double piece of flannel which protected my face. I could hardly keep the other open by picking the ice from it constantly with my numb fingers, in doing which I got the back of my hand slightly frostbitten. It was truly awful at the time. I often thought, "Suppose I am going south instead of east? Suppose Birdie should fail? Suppose it should grow quite dark?" I was mountaineer enough to shake these fears off and keep up my spirits, but I knew how many had perished on the prairie in similar storms. I calculated that if I did not reach Longmount in half an hour it would be quite dark, and that I should be so frozen or paralyzed with cold that I should fall off.

Not a quarter of an hour after I had wondered how long I could hold on I saw, to my surprise, close to me, half-smothered in snow, the scattered houses and blessed lights of Longmount, and welcome, indeed, its wide, dreary, lifeless, soundless road looked! When I reached the hotel I was so benumbed that I could not get off, and the worthy host lifted me off and carried me in.

Not expecting any travelers, they had no fire except in the bar-room, so they took me to the stove in their own room, gave me a hot drink and plenty of blankets and in half an hour I was all right and ready for a ferocious meal. "If there's a traveler on the prairie to-night, God help him!" the host had said to his wife just before I came in.

I found Evans there, storm stayed, and that—to his great credit at the time—my money matters were all right. After the sound and refreshing sleep which one gets in this splendid climate, I was ready for an early start, but, warned by yesterday's experience, waited till twelve to be sure of the weather. The air was intensely clear, and the mercury SEVENTEEN DEGREES BELOW ZERO! The snow sparkled and snapped under one's feet. It was gloriously beautiful! In this climate, if you only go out for a short time you do not feel cold even without a hat, or any additional wrappings. I bought a cardigan for myself, however, and some thick socks, got some stout snow-shoes for Birdie's hind feet, had a pleasant talk with some English friends, did some commissions for the men in the park, and hung about waiting for a freight train to break the track, but eventually, inspirited by the good news from you, left Longmount alone, and for the last time. I little thought that miserable, broiling day on which I arrived at it with Dr. and Mrs. Hughes, of the glories of which it was the gate, and of the "good times" I should have. Now I am at home in it; every one in it and along the St. Vrain Canyon addresses me in a friendly way by name; and the newspapers, with their intolerable personality, have made me and my riding exploits so notorious, that travelers speak courteously to me when they meet me on the prairie, doubtless wishing to see what sort of monster I am! I have met nothing but civility, both of manner and speech, except that distraught pistol shot. It looked icily beautiful, the snow so pure and the sky such a bright, sharp blue! The snow was so deep and level that after a few miles I left the track, and steering for Storm Peak, rode sixteen miles over the pathless prairie without seeing man, bird, or beast—a solitude awful even in the bright sunshine. The cold, always great, became piteous. I increased the frostbite of yesterday by exposing my hand in mending the stirrup; and when the sun sank in indescribable beauty behind the mountains, and color rioted in the sky, I got off and walked the last four miles, and stole in here in the colored twilight without any one seeing me.

The life of which I wrote before is scarcely less severe, though lightened by a hope of change, and this weather brings out some special severities. The stove has to be in the living-room, the children cannot go out, and, good and delightful as they are, it is hard for them to be shut up all day with four adults. It is more of a trouble than you would think for a lady in precarious health that before each meal, eggs, butter, milk, preserves, and pickles have to be unfrozen. Unless they are kept on the stove, there is no part of the room in which they do not freeze. It is uninteresting down here in the Foot Hills. I long for the rushing winds, the piled-up peaks, the great pines, the wild night noises, the poetry and the prose of the free, jolly life of my unrivalled eyrie. I can hardly realize that the river which lies ice bound outside this house is the same which flashes through Estes Park, and which I saw snow born on Long's Peak.

Yesterday morning the mercury had disappeared, so it was 20 degrees below zero at least. I lay awake from cold all night, but such is the wonderful effect of the climate, that when I got up at half-past five to waken the household for my early start, I felt quite refreshed. We breakfasted on buffalo beef, and I left at eight to ride forty-five miles before night, Dr. Hughes and a gentleman who was staying there convoying me the first fifteen miles. I did like that ride, racing with the other riders, careering through the intoxicating air in that indescribable sunshine, the powdery snow spurned from the horses' feet like dust! I was soon warm. We stopped at a trapper's ranch to feed, and the old trapper amused me by seeming to think Estes Park almost inaccessible in winter. The distance was greater than I had been told, and he said that I could not get there before eleven at night, and not at all if there was much drift. I wanted the gentlemen to go on with me as far as the Devil's Gate, but they could not because their horses were tired; and when the trapper heard that he exclaimed, indignantly, "What! that woman going into the mountains alone? She'll lose the track or be froze to death!" But when I told him I had ridden the trail in the storm of Tuesday, and had ridden over 600 miles alone in the mountains, he treated me with great respect as a fellow mountaineer, and gave me some matches, saying, "You'll have to camp out anyhow; you'd better make a fire than be froze to death." The idea of my spending the night in the forest alone, by a fire, struck me as most grotesque.

We did not start again till one, and the two gentlemen rode the first two miles with me. On that track, the Little Thompson, there a full stream, has to be crossed eighteen times, and they had been hauling wood across it, breaking it, and it had broken and refrozen several times, making thick and thin places—indeed, there were crossings which even I thought bad, where the ice let us through, and it was hard for the horses to struggle upon it again; and one of the gentlemen who, though a most accomplished man, was not a horseman, was once or twice in the ludicrous position of hesitating on the bank with an anxious face, not daring to spur his horse upon the ice. After they left me I had eight more crossings, and then a ride of six miles, before I reached the old trail; but though there were several drifts up to the saddle, and no one had broken a track, Birdie showed such a pluck, that instead of spending the night by a camp-fire, or not getting in till midnight, I reached Mr. Nugent's cabin, four miles from Estes Park, only an hour after dark, very cold, and with the pony so tired that she could hardly put one foot before another. Indeed, I walked the last three miles. I saw light through the chinks but, hearing an earnest conversation within, was just about to withdraw, when "Ring" barked, and on his master coming to the door I found that the solitary man was talking to his dog. He was looking out for me, and had some coffee ready, and a large fire, which were very pleasant; and I was very glad to get the latest news from the park. He said that Evans told him that it would be most difficult for any one of them to take me down to the Plains, but that he would go, which is a great relief. According to the Scotch proverb, "Better a finger off than aye wagging," and as I cannot live here (for you would not like the life or climate), the sooner I leave the better.

The solitary ride to Evans's was very eerie. It was very dark, and the noises were unintelligible. Young Lyman rushed out to take my horse, and the light and warmth within were delightful, but there was a stiffness about the new regime. Evans, though steeped in difficulties, was as hearty and generous as ever; but Edwards, who had assumed the management, is prudent, if not parsimonious, thinks we wasted the supplies recklessly, and the limitations as to milk, etc., are painfully apparent. A young ex-Guardsman has come up with Evans, of whom the sanguine creature forms great expectations, to be disappointed doubtless. In the afternoon of yesterday a gentleman came who I thought was another stranger, strikingly handsome, well dressed, and barely forty, with sixteen shining gold curls falling down his collar; he walked in, and it was only after a careful second look that I recognized in our visitor the redoubtable "desperado." Evans courteously pressed him to stay and dine with us, and not only did he show the most singular conversational dexterity in talking with the stranger, who was a very well-informed man, and had seen a great deal of the world, but, though he lives and eats like a savage, his manners and way of eating were as refined as possible. I notice that Evans is never quite himself or perfectly comfortable when he is there; and on the part of the other there is a sort of stiffly-assumed cordiality, significant, I fear of lurking hatred on both sides. I was in the kitchen after dinner making rolled puddings, young Lyman was eating up the relics as usual, "Jim" was singing one of Moore's melodies, the others being in the living-room, when Mr. Kavan and Mr. Buchan came from "up the creek" to wish me good-bye. They said it was not half so much like home now, and recalled the "good time" we had had for three weeks. Lyman having lost the ow, we have no milk. No one makes bread; they dry the venison into chips, and getting the meals at all seems a work of toil and difficulty, instead of the pleasure it used to be to us. Evans, since tea, has told me all his troubles and worries. He is a kind, generous, whole-hearted, unsuspicious man, a worse enemy to himself, I believe, than to any other; but I feel sadly that the future of a man who has not stronger principles than he has must be at the best very insecure.

I. L. B.

Letter XVII

Woman's mission—The last morning—Crossing the St. Vrain—Miller—The St. Vrain again—Crossing the prairie—"Jim's" dream—"Keeping strangers"—The inn kitchen—A reputed child-eater—Notoriety—A quiet dance—"Jim's" resolve—The frost-fall—An unfortunate introduction.


The last evening came. I did not wish to realize it, as I looked at the snow-peaks glistening in the moonlight. No woman will be seen in the park till next May. Young Lyman talked in a "hifalutin" style, but with some truth in it, of the influence of a woman's presence, how "low, mean, vulgar talk" had died out on my return, how they had "all pulled themselves up," and how Mr. Kavan and Mr. Buchan had said they would like always to be as quiet and gentlemanly as when a lady was with them. "By May," he said, "we shall be little better than brutes, in our manners at least." I have seen a great deal of the roughest class of men both on sea and land during the last two years, and the more important I think the "mission" of every quiet, refined, self-respecting woman—the more mistaken I think those who would forfeit it by noisy self-assertion, masculinity, or fastness. In all this wild West the influence of woman is second only in its benefits to the influence of religion, and where the last unhappily does not exist the first continually exerts its restraining power. The last morning came. I cleaned up my room and sat at the window watching the red and gold of one of the most glorious of winter sunrises, and the slow lighting-up of one peak after another. I have written that this scenery is not lovable, but I love it.

I left on Birdie at 11 o'clock, Evans riding with me as far as Mr. Nugent's. He was telling me so many things, that at the top of the hill I forgot to turn round and take a last look at my colossal, resplendent, lonely, sunlit den, but it was needless, for I carry it away with me. I should not have been able to leave if Mr. Nugent had not offered his services. His chivalry to women is so well known, that Evans said I could be safer and better cared for with no one. He added, "His heart is good and kind, as kind a heart as ever beat. He's a great enemy of his own, but he's been living pretty quietly for the last four years." At the door of his den I took leave of Birdie, who had been my faithful companion for more than 700 miles of traveling, and of Evans, who had been uniformly kind to me and just in all his dealings, even to paying to me at that moment the very last dollar he owed me. May God bless him and his! He was obliged to return before I could get off, and as he commended me to Mr. Nugent's care, the two men shook hands kindly.[21]

[21]Some months later "Mountain Jim" fell by Evans's hand, shot from Evans's doorstep while riding past his cabin. The story of the previous weeks is dark, sad, and evil. Of the five differing versions which have been written to me of the act itself and its immediate causes, it is best to give none. The tragedy is too painful to dwell upon. "Jim" lived long enough to give his own statement, and to appeal to the judgment of God, but died in low delirium before the case reached a human tribunal.

Rich spoils of beavers' skins were lying on the cabin floor, and the trapper took the finest, a mouse-colored kitten beaver's skin, and presented it to me. I hired his beautiful Arab mare, whose springy step and long easy stride was a relief after Birdie's short sturdy gait. We had a very pleasant ride, and I seldom had to walk. We took neither of the trails, but cut right through the forest to a place where, through an opening in the Foot Hills, the Plains stretched to the horizon covered with snow, the surface of which, having melted and frozen, reflected as water would the pure blue of the sky, presenting a complete optical illusion. It required my knowledge of fact to assure me that I was not looking at the ocean. "Jim" shortened the way by repeating a great deal of poetry, and by earnest, reasonable conversation, so that I was quite surprised when it grew dark. He told me that he never lay down to sleep without prayer—prayer chiefly that God would give him a happy death. He had previously promised that he would not hurry or scold, but "fyking" had not been included in the arrangement, and when in the early darkness we reached the steep hill, at whose foot the rapid deep St. Vrain flows, he "fyked" unreasonably about me, the mare, and the crossing generally, and seemed to think I could not get through, for the ice had been cut with an axe, and we could not see whether "glaze" had formed since or not.

I was to have slept at the house of a woman farther down the canyon, who never ceases talking, but Miller, the young man whose attractive house and admirable habits I have mentioned before, came out and said his house was "now fixed for ladies," so we stayed there, and I was "made as comfortable" as could be. His house is a model. He cleans everything as soon as it is used, so nothing is ever dirty, and his stove and cooking gear in their bright parts look like polished silver. It was amusing to hear the two men talk like two women about various ways of making bread and biscuits, one even writing out a recipe for the other. It was almost grievous that a solitary man should have the power of making a house so comfortable! They heated a stone for my feet, warmed a blanket for me to sleep in, and put logs enough on the fire to burn all night, for the mercury was eleven below zero. The stars were intensely bright, and a well-defined auroral arch, throwing off fantastic coruscations, lighted the whole northern sky. Yet I was only in the Foot Hills, and Long's glorious Peak was not to be seen. Miller had all his things "washed up" and his "pots and pans" cleaned in ten minutes after supper, and then had the whole evening in which to smoke and enjoy himself—a poor woman would probably have been "fussing round" till 10 o'clock about the same work. Besides Ring there was another gigantic dog craving for notice, and two large cats, which, the whole evening, were on their master's knee. Cold as the night was, the house was chinked, and the rooms felt quite warm. I even missed the free currents of air which I had been used to! This was my last evening in what may be called a mountainous region.

The next morning, as soon as the sun was well risen, we left for our journey of 30 miles, which had to be done nearly at a foot's pace, owing to one horse being encumbered with my luggage. I did not wish to realize that it was my last ride, and my last association with any of the men of the mountains whom I had learned to trust, and in some respects to admire. No more hunters' tales told while the pine knots crack and blaze; no more thrilling narratives of adventures with Indians and bears; and never again shall I hear that strange talk of Nature and her doings which is the speech of those who live with her and her alone. Already the dismalness of a level land comes over me. The canyon of the St. Vrain was in all its glory of color, but we had a remarkably ugly crossing of that brilliant river, which was frozen all over, except an unpleasant gap of about two feet in the middle. Mr. Nugent had to drive the frightened horses through, while I, having crossed on some logs lower down, had to catch them on the other side as they plunged to shore trembling with fear. Then we emerged on the vast expanse of the glittering Plains, and a sudden sweep of wind made the cold so intolerable that I had to go into a house to get warm. This was the last house we saw till we reached our destination that night. I never saw the mountain range look so beautiful—uplifted in every shade of transparent blue, till the sublimity of Long's Peak, and the lofty crest of Storm Peak, bore only unsullied snow against the sky. Peaks gleamed in living light; canyons lay in depths of purple shade; 100 miles away Pike's Peak rose a lump of blue, and over all, through that glorious afternoon, a veil of blue spiritualized without dimming the outlines of that most glorious range, making it look like the dreamed-of mountains of "the land which is very far off," till at sunset it stood out sharp in glories of violet and opal, and the whole horizon up to a great height was suffused with the deep rose and pure orange of the afterglow. It seemed all dream-like as we passed through the sunlit solitude, on the right the prairie waves lessening towards the far horizon, while on the left they broke in great snowy surges against the Rocky Mountains. All that day we neither saw man, beast, nor bird. "Jim" was silent mostly. Like all true children of the mountains, he pined even when temporarily absent from them.

At sunset we reached a cluster of houses called Namaqua, where, to my dismay, I heard that there was to be a dance at the one little inn to which we were going at St. Louis. I pictured to myself no privacy, no peace, no sleep, drinking, low sounds, and worse than all, "Jim" getting into a quarrel and using his pistols. He was uncomfortable about it for another reason. He said he had dreamt the night before that there was to be a dance, and that he had to shoot a man for making "an unpleasant remark."

For the last three miles which we accomplished after sunset the cold was most severe, but nothing could exceed the beauty of the afterglow, and the strange look of the rolling plains of snow beneath it. When we got to the queer little place where they "keep strangers" at St. Louis, they were very civil, and said that after supper we could have the kitchen to ourselves. I found a large, prononcee, competent, bustling widow, hugely stout, able to manage all men and everything else, and a very florid sister like herself, top heavy with hair. There were besides two naughty children in the kitchen, who cried incessantly, and kept opening and shutting the door. There was no place to sit down but a wooden chair by the side of the kitchen stove, at which supper was being cooked for ten men. The bustle and clatter were indescribable, and the landlady asked innumerable questions, and seemed to fill the whole room. The only expedient for me for the night was to sleep on a shake-down in a very small room occupied by the two women and the children, and even this was not available till midnight, when the dance terminated; and there was no place in which to wash except a bowl in the kitchen. I sat by the stove till supper, wearying of the noise and bustle after the quiet of Estes Park.

The landlady asked, with great eagerness, who the gentleman was who was with me, and said that the men outside were saying that they were sure that it was "Rocky Mountain Jim," but she was sure it was not. When I told her that the men were right, she exclaimed, "Do tell! I want to know! that quiet, kind gentleman!" and she said she used to frighten her children when they were naughty by telling them that "he would get them, for he came down from the mountains every week, and took back a child with him to eat!" She was as proud of having him in her house as if he had been the President, and I gained a reflected importance! All the men in the settlement assembled in the front room, hoping he would go and smoke there, and when he remained in the kitchen they came round the window and into the doorway to look at him. The children got on his knee, and, to my great relief, he kept them good and quiet, and let them play with his curls, to the great delight of the two women, who never took their eyes off him. At last the bad-smelling supper was served, and ten silent men came in and gobbled it up, staring steadily at "Jim" as they gobbled. Afterwards, there seemed no hope of quiet, so we went to the post-office, and while waiting for stamps were shown into the prettiest and most ladylike-looking room I have seen in the West, created by a pretty and refined-looking woman. She made an opportunity for asking me if it were true that the gentleman with me was "Mountain Jim," and added that so very gentlemanly a person could not be guilty of the misdeeds attributed to him.

When we returned, the kitchen was much quieter. It was cleared by eight, as the landlady promised; we had it to ourselves till twelve, and could scarcely hear the music. It was a most respectable dance, a fortnightly gathering got up by the neighboring settlers, most of them young married people, and there was no drinking at all. I wrote to you for some time, while Mr. Nugent copied for himself the poems "In the Glen" and the latter half of "The River without a Bridge," which he recited with deep feeling. It was altogether very quiet and peaceful. He repeated to me several poems of great merit which he had composed, and told me much more about his life. I knew that no one else could or would speak to him as I could, and for the last time I urged upon him the necessity of a reformation in his life, beginning with the giving up of whisky, going so far as to tell him that I despised a man of his intellect for being a slave to such a vice. "Too late! too late!" he always answered, "for such a change." Ay, TOO LATE. He shed tears quietly. "It might have been once," he said. Ay, MIGHT have been. He has excellent sense for every one but himself, and, as I have seen him with a single exception, a gentleness, propriety, and considerateness of manner surprising in any man, but especially so in a man associating only with the rough men of the West. As I looked at him, I felt a pity such as I never before felt for a human being.

My thought at the moment was, Will not our Father in heaven, "who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all," be far more pitiful? For the time a desire for self-respect, better aspirations, and even hope itself, entered his dark life; and he said, suddenly, that he had made up his mind to give up whisky and his reputation as a desperado. But it is "too late." A little before twelve the dance was over, and I got to the crowded little bedroom, which only allowed of one person standing in it at a time, to sleep soundly and dream of "ninety-and-nine just persons who need no repentance." The landlady was quite taken up with her "distinguished guest." "That kind, quiet gentleman, Mountain Jim! Well, I never! he must be a very good man!"

Yesterday morning the mercury was 20 degrees below zero. I think I never saw such a brilliant atmosphere. That curious phenomenon called frost-fall was occurring, in which, whatever moisture may exist in the air, somehow aggregates into feathers and fern leaves, the loveliest of creations, only seen in rarefied air and intense cold. One breath and they vanish. The air was filled with diamond sparks quite intangible. They seemed just glitter and no more. It was still and cloudless, and the shapes of violet mountains were softened by a veil of the tenderest blue. When the Greeley stage wagon came up, Mr. Fodder, whom I met at Lower Canyon, was on it. He had expressed a great wish to go to Estes Park, and to hunt with "Mountain Jim," if it would be safe to do the latter. He was now dressed in the extreme of English dandyism, and when I introduced them, he put out a small hand cased in a perfectly-fitting lemon-colored kid glove.[22] As the trapper stood there in his grotesque rags and odds and ends of apparel, his gentlemanliness of deportment brought into relief the innate vulgarity of a rich parvenu. Mr. Fodder rattled so amusingly as we drove away that I never realized that my Rocky Mountain life was at an end, not even when I saw "Mountain Jim," with his golden hair yellow in the sunshine, slowly leading the beautiful mare over the snowy Plains back to Estes Park, equipped with the saddle on which I had ridden 800 miles!

[22] This was a truly unfortunate introduction. It was the first link in the chain of circumstances which brought about Mr. Nugent's untimely end, and it was at this person's instigation (when overcome by fear) that Evans fired the shot which proved fatal.

A drive of several hours over the Plains brought us to Greeley, and a few hours later, in the far blue distance, the Rocky Mountains, and all that they enclose, went down below the prairie sea.

I. L. B.


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