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Western Short Story
Riding and tramping trails would lose half their charm if the motive were only to hunt and to fish. It seems fair to warn the reader who longs to embark upon a bloody game hunt or a chronicle of fishing records that this is not that kind of story. But it will be one for those who love horses and dogs, the long winding dim trails, the wild flowers and the dark still woods, the fragrance of spruce and the smell of camp-fire smoke. And as well for those who love to angle in brown lakes or rushing brooks or chase after the baying hounds or stalk the stag on his lonely heights.
We left Denver on August twenty-second over the Moffet road and had a long wonderful ride through the mountains. The Rockies have a sweep, a limitless sweep, majestic and grand. For many miles we crossed no streams, and climbed and wound up barren slopes. Once across the divide, however, we descended into a country of black forests and green valleys. Yampa, a little hamlet with a past prosperity, lay in the wide valley of the Bear River. It was picturesque but idle, and a better name for it would have been Sleepy Hollow. The main and only street was very wide and dusty, bordered by old board walks and vacant stores. It seemed a deserted street of a deserted village. Teague, the guide, lived there. He assured me it was not quite as lively a place as in the early days when it was a stage center for an old and rich mining section. We stayed there at the one hotel for a whole day, most of which I spent sitting on the board walk. Whenever I chanced to look down the wide street it seemed always the same—deserted. But Yampa had the charm of being old and forgotten, and for that reason I would like to live there a while.
On August twenty-third we started in two buckboards for the foothills, some fifteen miles westward, where Teague's men were to meet us with saddle and pack horses. The ride was not interesting until the Flattop Mountains began to loom, and we saw the dark green slopes of spruce, rising to bare gray cliffs and domes, spotted with white banks of snow. I felt the first cool breath of mountain air, exhilarating and sweet. From that moment I began to live.
We had left at six-thirty. Teague, my guide, had been so rushed with his manifold tasks that I had scarcely seen him, let alone gotten acquainted with him. And on this ride he was far behind with our load of baggage. We arrived at the edge of the foothills about noon. It appeared to be the gateway of a valley, with aspen groves and ragged jack-pines on the slopes, and a stream running down. Our driver called it the Stillwater. That struck me as strange, for the stream was in a great hurry. R.C. spied trout in it, and schools of darkish, mullet-like fish which we were informed were grayling. We wished for our tackle then and for time to fish.
Teague's man, a young fellow called Virgil, met us here. He did not resemble the ancient Virgil in the least, but he did look as if he had walked right out of one of my romances of wild riders. So I took a liking to him at once.
But the bunch of horses he had corralled there did not excite any delight in me. Horses, of course, were the most important part of our outfit. And that moment of first seeing the horses that were to carry us on such long rides was an anxious and thrilling one. I have felt it many times, and it never grows any weaker from experience. Many a scrubby lot of horses had turned out well upon acquaintance, and some I had found hard to part with at the end of trips. Up to that time, however, I had not seen a bear hunter's horses; and I was much concerned by the fact that these were a sorry looking outfit, dusty, ragged, maneless, cut and bruised and crippled. Still, I reflected, they were bunched up so closely that I could not tell much about them, and I decided to wait for Teague before I chose a horse for any one.
In an hour Teague trotted up to our resting place. Beside his own mount he had two white saddle horses, and nine pack-animals, heavily laden. Teague was a sturdy rugged man with bronzed face and keen gray-blue eyes, very genial and humorous. Straightway I got the impression that he liked work.
"Let's organize," he said, briskly. "Have you picked the horses you're goin' to ride?"
Teague led from the midst of that dusty kicking bunch a rangy powerful horse, with four white feet, a white face and a noble head. He had escaped my eye. I felt thrillingly that here at least was one horse.
The rest of the horses were permanently crippled or temporarily lame, and I had no choice, except to take the one it would be kindest to ride.
"He ain't much like your Silvermane or Black Star," said Teague, laughing.
"What do you know about them?" I asked, very much pleased at this from him.
"Well, I know all about them," he replied. "I'll have you the best horse in this country in a few days. Fact is I've bought him, an' he'll come with my cowboy, Vern.... Now, we're organized. Let's move."
We rode through a meadow along a spruce slope above which towered the great mountain. It was a zigzag trail, rough, boggy, and steep in places. The Stillwater meandered here, and little breaks on the water gave evidence of feeding trout. We had several miles of meadow, and then sheered off to the left up into the timber. It was a spruce forest, very still and fragrant. We climbed out up on a bench, and across a flat, up another bench, out of the timber into the patches of snow. Here snow could be felt in the air. Water was everywhere. I saw a fox, a badger, and another furry creature, too illusive to name. One more climb brought us to the top of the Flattop Pass, about eleven thousand feet. The view in the direction from which we had come was splendid, and led the eye to the distant sweeping ranges, dark and dim along the horizon. The Flattops were flat enough, but not very wide at this pass, and we were soon going down again into a green gulf of spruce, with ragged peaks lifting beyond. Here again I got the suggestion of limitless space. It took us an hour to ride down to Little Trappers Lake, a small clear green sheet of water. The larger lake was farther down. It was big, irregular, and bordered by spruce forests, and shadowed by the lofty gray peaks.
The Camp was on the far side. The air appeared rather warm, and mosquitoes bothered us. However, they did not stay long. It was after sunset and I was too tired to have many impressions.
Our cook appeared to be a melancholy man. He had a deep quavering voice, a long drooping mustache and sad eyes. He was silent most of the time. The men called him Bill, and yelled when they spoke, for he was somewhat deaf. It did not take me long to discover that he was a good cook.
Our tent was pitched down the slope from the cook tent. We were too tired to sit round a camp-fire and talk. The stars were white and splendid, and they hung over the flat ridges like great beacon lights. The lake appeared to be inclosed on three sides by amphitheatric mountains, black with spruce up to the gray walls of rock. The night grew cold and very still. The bells on the horses tinkled distantly. There was a soft murmur of falling water. A lonesome coyote barked, and that thrilled me. Teague's dogs answered this prowler, and some of them had voices to make a hunter thrill. One, the bloodhound Cain, had a roar like a lion's. I had not gotten acquainted with the hounds, and I was thinking about them when I fell asleep.
Next morning I was up at five-thirty. The air was cold and nipping and frost shone on grass and sage. A red glow of sunrise gleamed on the tip of the mountain and slowly grew downward.
The cool handle of an axe felt good. I soon found, however, that I could not wield it long for lack of breath. The elevation was close to ten thousand feet and the air at that height was thin and rare. After each series of lusty strokes I had to rest. R.C., who could handle an axe as he used to swing a baseball bat, made fun of my efforts. Whereupon I relinquished the tool to him, and chuckled at his discomfiture.
After breakfast R.C. and I got out our tackles and rigged up fly rods, and sallied forth to the lake with the same eagerness we had felt when we were boys going after chubs and sunfish. The lake glistened green in the sunlight and it lay like a gem at the foot of the magnificent black slopes.
The water was full of little floating particles that Teague called wild rice. I thought the lake had begun to work, like eastern lakes during dog days. It did not look propitious for fishing, but Teague reassured us. The outlet of this lake was the head of White River. We tried the outlet first, but trout were not rising there. Then we began wading and casting along a shallow bar of the lake. Teague had instructed us to cast, then drag the flies slowly across the surface of the water, in imitation of a swimming fly or bug. I tried this, and several times, when the leader was close to me and my rod far back, I had strikes. With my rod in that position I could not hook the trout. Then I cast my own way, letting the flies sink a little. To my surprise and dismay I had only a few strikes and could not hook the fish.
R.C., however, had better luck, and that too in wading right over the ground I had covered. To beat me at anything always gave him the most unaccountable fiendish pleasure.
"These are educated trout," he said. "It takes a skillful fisherman to make them rise. Now anybody can catch the big game of the sea, which is your forte. But here you are N.G.... Watch me cast!"
I watched him make a most atrocious cast. But the water boiled, and he hooked two good-sized trout at once. Quite speechless with envy and admiration I watched him play them and eventually beach them. They were cutthroat trout, silvery-sided and marked with the red slash along their gills that gave them their name. I did not catch any while wading, but from the bank I spied one, and dropping a fly in front of his nose, I got him. R.C. caught four more, all about a pound in weight, and then he had a strike that broke his leader. He did not have another leader, so we walked back to camp.
Wild flowers colored the open slopes leading down out of the forest. Golden rod, golden daisies, and bluebells were plentiful and very pretty. Here I found my first columbine, the beautiful flower that is the emblem of Colorado. In vivid contrast to its blue, Indian paint brush thinly dotted the slopes and varied in color from red to pink and from white to yellow.
My favorite of all wild flowers—the purple asters—were there too, on tall nodding stems, with pale faces held up to the light. The reflection of mountain and forest in Trappers Lake was clear and beautiful.
The hounds bayed our approach to camp. We both made a great show about beginning our little camp tasks, but we did not last very long. The sun felt so good and it was so pleasant to lounge under a pine. One of the blessings of outdoor life was that a man could be like an Indian and do nothing. So from rest I passed to dreams and from dreams to sleep.
In the afternoon R.C. and I went out again to try for trout. The lake appeared to be getting thicker with that floating muck and we could not raise a fish. Then we tried the outlet again. Here the current was swift. I found a place between two willow banks where trout were breaking on the surface. It took a long cast for me, but about every tenth attempt I would get a fly over the right place and raise a fish. They were small, but that did not detract from my gratification. The light on the water was just right for me to see the trout rise, and that was a beautiful sight as well as a distinct advantage. I had caught four when a shout from R.C. called me quickly down stream. I found him standing in the middle of a swift chute with his rod bent double and a long line out.
"Got a whale!" he yelled. "See him—down there—in that white water. See him flash red!... Go down there and land him for me. Hurry! He's got all the line!"
I ran below to an open place in the willows. Here the stream was shallow and very swift. In the white water I caught a flashing gleam of red. Then I saw the shine of the leader. But I could not reach it without wading in. When I did this the trout lunged out. He looked crimson and silver. I could have put my fist in his mouth.
"Grab the leader! Yank him out!" yelled R.C. in desperation. "There! He's got all the line."
"But it'd be better to wade down," I yelled back.
He shouted that the water was too deep and for me to save his fish. This was an awful predicament for me. I knew the instant I grasped the leader that the big trout would break it or pull free. The same situation, with different kinds of fish, had presented itself many times on my numberless fishing jaunts with R.C. and they all crowded to my mind. Nevertheless I had no choice. Plunging in to my knees I frantically reached for the leader. The red trout made a surge. I missed him. R.C. yelled that something would break. That was no news to me. Another plunge brought me in touch with the leader. Then I essayed to lead the huge cutthroat ashore. He was heavy. But he was tired and that gave birth to hopes. Near the shore as I was about to lift him he woke up, swam round me twice, then ran between my legs.
When, a little later, R.C. came panting down stream I was sitting on the bank, all wet, with one knee skinned and I was holding his broken leader in my hands. Strange to say, he went into a rage! Blamed me for the loss of that big trout! Under such circumstances it was always best to maintain silence and I did so as long as I could. After his paroxysm had spent itself and he had become somewhat near a rational being once more he asked me:
"Was he big?"
"Oh—a whale of a trout!" I replied.
"Humph! Well, how big?"
Thereupon I enlarged upon the exceeding size and beauty of that trout. I made him out very much bigger than he actually looked to me and I minutely described his beauty and wonderful gaping mouth. R.C. groaned and that was my revenge.
We returned to camp early, and I took occasion to scrape acquaintance with the dogs. It was a strangely assorted pack—four Airedales, one bloodhound and seven other hounds of mixed breeds. There were also three pup hounds, white and yellow, very pretty dogs, and like all pups, noisy and mischievous. They made friends easily. This applied also to one of the Airedales, a dog recently presented to Teague by some estimable old lady who had called him Kaiser and made a pet of him. As might have been expected of a dog, even an Airedale, with that name, he was no good. But he was very affectionate, and exceedingly funny. When he was approached he had a trick of standing up, holding up his forepaws in an appealing sort of way, with his head twisted in the most absurd manner. This was when he was chained—otherwise he would have been climbing up on anyone who gave him the chance. He was the most jealous dog I ever saw. He could not be kept chained very long because he always freed himself. At meal time he would slip noiselessly behind some one and steal the first morsel he could snatch. Bill was always rapping Kaiser with pans or billets of firewood.
Next morning was clear and cold. We had breakfast, and then saddled up to ride to Big Fish Lake. For an hour we rode up and down ridges of heavy spruce, along a trail. We saw elk and deer sign. Elk tracks appeared almost as large as cow tracks. When we left the trail to climb into heavy timber we began to look for game. The forest was dark, green and brown, silent as a grave. No squirrels or birds or sign of life! We had a hard ride up and down steep slopes. A feature was the open swaths made by avalanches. The ice and snow had cut a path through the timber, and the young shoots of spruce were springing up. I imagined the roar made by that tremendous slide.
We found elk tracks everywhere and some fresh sign, where the grass had been turned recently, and also much old and fresh sign where the elk had skinned the saplings by rubbing their antlers to get rid of the velvet. Some of these rubs looked like blazes made by an axe. The Airedale Fox, a wonderful dog, routed out a she-coyote that evidently had a den somewhere, for she barked angrily at the dog and at us. Fox could not catch her. She led him round in a circle, and we could not see her in the thick brush. It was fine to hear the wild staccato note again.
We crossed many little parks, bright and green, blooming with wild asters and Indian paint brush and golden daisies. The patches of red and purple were exceedingly beautiful. Everywhere we rode we were knee deep in flowers. At length we came out of the heavy timber down upon Big Fish Lake. This lake was about half a mile across, deep blue-green in color, with rocky shores. Upon the opposite side were beaver mounds. We could see big trout swimming round, but they would not rise to a fly. R.C. went out in an old boat and paddled to the head of the lake and fished at the inlet. Here he caught a fine trout. I went around and up the little river that fed the lake. It curved swiftly through a meadow, and had deep, dark eddies under mossy, flowering banks. At other places the stream ran swiftly over clean gravel beds. It was musical and clear as crystal, and to the touch of hand, as cold as ice water. I waded in and began to cast. I saw several big trout, and at last coaxed one to take my fly. But I missed him. Then in a swift current a flash of red caught my eye and I saw a big trout lazily rise to my fly. Saw him take it! And I hooked him. He was not active, but heavy and plunging, and he bored in and out, and made short runs. I had not seen such beautiful red colors in any fish. He made a fine fight, but at last I landed him on the grass, a cutthroat of about one and three-quarter pounds, deep red and silver and green, and spotted all over. That was the extent of my luck.
We went back to the point, and thought we would wait a little while to see if the trout would begin to rise. But they did not. A storm began to mutter and boom along the battlements. Great gray clouds obscured the peaks, and at length the rain came. It was cold and cutting. We sought the shelter of spruces for a while, and waited. After an hour it cleared somewhat, and R.C. caught a fine one-pound cutthroat, all green and silver, with only two slashes of red along under the gills. Then another storm threatened. Before we got ready to leave for camp the rain began again to fall, and we looked for a wetting. It was raining hard when we rode into the woods and very cold. The spruces were dripping. But we soon got warm from hard riding up steep slopes. After an hour the rain ceased, the sun came out, and from the open places high up we could see a great green void of spruce, and beyond, boundless black ranges, running off to dim horizon. We flushed a big blue grouse with a brood of little ones, and at length another big one.
In one of the open parks the Airedale Fox showed signs of scenting game. There was a patch of ground where the grass was pressed down. Teague whispered and pointed. I saw the gray rump of an elk protruding from behind some spruces. I beckoned for R.C. and we both dismounted. Just then the elk rose and stalked out. It was a magnificent bull with crowning lofty antlers. The shoulders and neck appeared black. He raised his head, and turning, trotted away with ease and grace for such a huge beast. That was a wild and beautiful sight I had not seen before. We were entranced, and when he disappeared, we burst out with exclamations.
We rode on toward camp, and out upon a bench that bordered the lofty red wall of rock. From there we went down into heavy forest again, dim and gray, with its dank, penetrating odor, and oppressive stillness. The forest primeval! When we rode out of that into open slopes the afternoon was far advanced, and long shadows lay across the distant ranges. When we reached camp, supper and a fire to warm cold wet feet were exceedingly welcome. I was tired.
Later, R.C. and I rode up a mile or so above camp, and hitched our horses near Teague's old corral. Our intention was to hunt up along the side of the slope. Teague came along presently. We waited, hoping the big black clouds would break. But they did not. They rolled down with gray, swirling edges, like smoke, and a storm enveloped us. We sought shelter in a thick spruce. It rained and hailed. By and bye the air grew bitterly cold, and Teague suggested we give up, and ride back. So we did. The mountains were dim and obscure through the gray gloom, and the black spear-tipped spruces looked ghostly against the background. The lightning was vivid, and the thunder rolled and crashed in magnificent bombardment across the heavens.
Next morning at six-thirty the sun was shining clear, and only a few clouds sailed in the blue. Wind was in the west and the weather promised fair. But clouds began to creep up behind the mountains, first hazy, then white, then dark. Nevertheless we decided to ride out, and cross the Flattop rim, and go around what they call the Chinese Wall. It rained as we climbed through the spruces above Little Trappers Lake. And as we got near the top it began to hail. Again the air grew cold. Once out on top I found a wide expanse, green and white, level in places, but with huge upheavals of ridge. There were flowers here at eleven thousand feet. The view to the rear was impressive—a wide up-and-down plain studded with out-cropping of rocks, and patches of snow. We were then on top of the Chinese Wall, and the view to the west was grand. At the moment hail was falling thick and white, and to stand above the streaked curtain, as it fell into the abyss was a strange new experience. Below, two thousand feet, lay the spruce forest, and it sloped and dropped into the White River Valley, which in turn rose, a long ragged dark-green slope, up to a bare jagged peak. Beyond this stretched range on range, dark under the lowering pall of clouds. On top we found fresh Rocky Mountain sheep tracks. A little later, going into a draw, we crossed a snow-bank, solid as ice. We worked down into this draw into the timber. It hailed, and rained some more, then cleared. The warm sun felt good. Once down in the parks we began to ride through a flower-garden. Every slope was beautiful in gold, and red, and blue and white. These parks were luxuriant with grass, and everywhere we found elk beds, where the great stags had been lying, to flee at our approach. But we did not see one. The bigness of this slope impressed me. We rode miles and miles, and every park was surrounded by heavy timber. At length we got into a burned district where the tall dead spruces stood sear and ghastly, and the ground was so thickly strewn with fallen trees that we had difficulty in threading a way through them. Patches of aspen grew on the hillside, still fresh and green despite this frosty morning. Here we found a sego lily, one of the most beautiful of flowers. Here also I saw pink Indian paint brush. At the foot of this long burned slope we came to the White River trail, and followed it up and around to camp.
Late in the evening, about sunset, I took my rifle and slipped off into the woods back of camp. I walked a short distance, then paused to listen to the silence of the forest. There was not a sound. It was a place of peace. By and bye I heard snapping of twigs, and presently heard R.C. and Teague approaching me. We penetrated half a mile into the spruce, pausing now and then to listen. At length R.C. heard something. We stopped. After a little I heard the ring of a horn on wood. It was thrilling. Then came the crack of a hoof on stone, then the clatter of a loosened rock. We crept on. But that elk or deer evaded us. We hunted around till dark without farther sign of any game.
R.C. and Teague and I rode out at seven-thirty and went down White River for three miles. In one patch of bare ground we saw tracks of five deer where they had come in for salt. Then we climbed high up a burned ridge, winding through patches of aspen. We climbed ridge after ridge, and at last got out of the burned district into reaches of heavy spruce. Coming to a park full of deer and elk tracks, we dismounted and left our horses. I went to the left, and into some beautiful woods, where I saw beds of deer or elk, and many tracks. Returning to the horses, I led them into a larger park, and climbed high into the open and watched. There I saw some little squirrels about three inches long, and some gray birds, very tame. I waited a long time before there was any sign of R.C. or Teague, and then it was the dog I saw first. I whistled, and they climbed up to me. We mounted and rode on for an hour, then climbed through a magnificent forest of huge trees, windfalls, and a ferny, mossy, soft ground. At length we came out at the head of a steep, bare slope, running down to a verdant park crossed by stretches of timber. On the way back to camp we ran across many elk beds and deer trails, and for a while a small band of elk evidently trotted ahead of us, but out of sight.
Next day we started for a few days' trip to Big Fish Lake. R.C. and I went along up around the mountain. I found our old trail, and was at a loss only a few times. We saw fresh elk sign, but no live game at all.
In the afternoon we fished. I went up the river half a mile, while R.C. fished the lake. Neither of us had any luck. Later we caught four trout, one of which was fair sized.
Toward sunset the trout began to rise all over the lake, but we could not get them to take a fly.
The following day we went up to Twin Lakes and found them to be beautiful little green gems surrounded by spruce. I saw some big trout in the large lake, but they were wary. We tried every way to get a strike. No use! In the little lake matters were worse. It was full of trout up to two pounds. They would run at the fly, only to refuse it. Exasperating work! We gave up and returned to Big Fish. After supper we went out to try again. The lake was smooth and quiet. All at once, as if by concert, the trout began to rise everywhere. In a little bay we began to get strikes. I could see the fish rise to the fly. The small ones were too swift and the large ones too slow, it seemed. We caught one, and then had bad luck. We snarled our lines, drifted wrong, broke leaders, snapped off flies, hooked too quick and too slow, and did everything that was clumsy. I lost two big fish because they followed the fly as I drew it toward me across the water to imitate a swimming fly. Of course this made a large slack line which I could not get up. Finally I caught one big fish, and altogether we got seven. All in that little bay, where the water was shallow! In other places we could not catch a fish. I had one vicious strike. The fish appeared to be feeding on a tiny black gnat, which we could not imitate. This was the most trying experience of all. We ought to have caught a basketful.
The next day, September first, we rode down along the outlet of Big Fish to White River and down that for miles to fish for grayling. The stream was large and swift and cold. It appeared full of ice water and rocks, but no fish. We met fishermen, an automobile, and a camp outfit. That was enough for me. Where an automobile can run, I do not belong. The fishing was poor. But the beautiful open valley, flowered in gold and purple, was recompense for a good deal of bad luck.
A grayling, or what they called a grayling, was not as beautiful a fish as my fancy had pictured. He resembled a sucker or mullet, had a small mouth, dark color, and was rather a sluggish-looking fish.
We rode back through a thunderstorm, and our yellow slickers afforded much comfort.
Next morning was bright, clear, cold. I saw the moon go down over a mountain rim rose-flushed with the sunrise.
R.C. and I, with Teague, started for the top of the big mountain on the west. I had a new horse, a roan, and he looked a thoroughbred. He appeared tired. But I thought he would be great. We took a trail through the woods, dark green-gray, cool and verdant, odorous and still. We began to climb. Occasionally we crossed parks, and little streams. Up near the long, bare slope the spruce trees grew large and far apart. They were beautiful, gray as if bearded with moss. Beyond this we got into the rocks and climbing became arduous. Long zigzags up the slope brought us to the top of a notch, where at the right lay a patch of snow. The top of the mountain was comparatively flat, but it had timbered ridges and bare plains and little lakes, with dark domes, rising beyond. We rode around to the right, climbing out of the timber to where the dwarf spruces and brush had a hard struggle for life. The great gulf below us was immense, dark, and wild, studded with lakes and parks, and shadowed by moving clouds.
Sheep tracks, old and fresh, afforded us thrills.
Away on the western rim, where we could look down upon a long rugged iron-gray ridge of mountain, our guide using the glass, found two big stags. We all had our fill of looking. I could see them plainly with naked eyes.
We decided to go back to where we could climb down on that side, halter the horses, leave all extra accoutrements, and stalk those stags, and take a picture of them.
I led the way, and descended under the rim. It was up and down over rough shale, and up steps of broken rocks, and down little cliffs. We crossed the ridge twice, many times having to lend a hand to each other.
At length I reached a point where I could see the stags lying down. The place was an open spot on a rocky promonotory with a fringe of low spruces. The stags were magnificent in size, with antlers in the velvet. One had twelve points. They were lying in the sun to harden their horns, according to our guide.
I slipped back to the others, and we all decided to have a look. So we climbed up. All of us saw the stags, twitching ears and tails.
Then we crept back, and once more I took the lead to crawl round under the ledge so we could come up about even with them. Here I found the hardest going yet. I came to a wind-worn crack in the thin ledge, and from this I could just see the tips of the antlers. I beckoned the others. Laboriously they climbed. R.C. went through first. I went over next, and then came Teague.
R.C. and I started to crawl down to a big rock that was our objective point. We went cautiously, with bated breath and pounding hearts. When we got there I peeped over to see the stags still lying down. But they had heads intent and wary. Still I did not think they had scented us. R.C. took a peep, and turning excitedly he whispered:
"See only one. And he's standing!"
And I answered: "Let's get down around to the left where we can get a better chance." It was only a few feet down. We got there.
When he peeped over at this point he exclaimed: "They're gone!"
It was a keen disappointment. "They winded us," I decided.
We looked and looked. But we could not see to our left because of the bulge of rock. We climbed back. Then I saw one of the stags loping leisurely off to the left. Teague was calling. He said they had walked off the promontory, looking up, and stopping occasionally.
Then we realized we must climb back along that broken ridge and then up to the summit of the mountain. So we started.
That climb back was proof of the effect of excitement on judgment. We had not calculated at all on the distance or ruggedness, and we had a job before us. We got along well under the western wall, and fairly well straight across through the long slope of timber, where we saw sheep tracks, and expected any moment to sight an old ram. But we did not find one, and when we got out of the timber upon the bare sliding slope we had to halt a hundred times. We could zigzag only a few steps. The altitude was twelve thousand feet, and oxygen seemed scarce. I nearly dropped. All the climbing appeared to come hardest on the middle of my right foot, and it could scarcely have burned hotter if it had been in fire. Despite the strenuous toil there were not many moments that I was not aware of the vastness of the gulf below, or the peaceful lakes, brown as amber, or the golden parks. And nearer at hand I found magenta-colored Indian paint brush, very exquisite and rare.
Coming out on a ledge I spied a little, dark animal with a long tail. He was running along the opposite promontory about three hundred yards distant. When he stopped I took a shot at him and missed by apparently a scant half foot.
After catching our breath we climbed more and more, and still more, at last to drop on the rim, hot, wet and utterly spent.
The air was keen, cold, and invigorating. We were soon rested, and finding our horses we proceeded along the rim westward. Upon rounding an out-cropping of rock we flushed a flock of ptarmigan—soft gray, rock-colored birds about the size of pheasants, and when they flew they showed beautiful white bands on their wings. These are the rare birds that have feathered feet and turn white in winter. They did not fly far, and several were so tame they did not fly at all. We got our little .22 revolvers and began to shoot at the nearest bird. He was some thirty feet distant. But we could not hit him, and at last Fox, getting disgusted, tried to catch the bird and made him fly. I felt relieved, for as we were getting closer and closer with every shot, it seemed possible that if the ptarmigan sat there long enough we might eventually have hit him. The mystery was why we shot so poorly. But this was explained by R.C., who discovered we had been shooting the wrong shells.
It was a long hard ride down the rough winding trail. But riding down was a vastly different thing from going up.
On September third we were up at five-thirty. It was clear and cold and the red of sunrise tinged the peaks. The snow banks looked pink. All the early morning scene was green, fresh, cool, with that mountain rareness of atmosphere.
We packed to break camp, and after breakfast it took hours to get our outfit in shape to start—a long string, resembling a caravan. I knew that events would occur that day. First we lost one of the dogs. Vern went back after him. The dogs were mostly chained in pairs, to prevent their running off. Samson, the giant hound, was chained to a little dog, and the others were paired not according to size by any means. The poor dogs were disgusted with the arrangement. It developed presently that Cain, the bloodhound, a strange and wild hound much like Don of my old lion-hunting days, slipped us, and was not missed for hours. Teague decided to send back for him later.
Next in order of events, as we rode up the winding trail through the spruce forest, we met Teague's cow and calf, which he had kept all summer in camp. For some reason neither could be left. Teague told us to ride on, and an hour later when we halted to rest on the Flattop Mountain he came along with the rest of the train, and in the fore was the cow alone. It was evident that she was distressed and angry, for it took two men to keep her in the trail. And another thing plain to me was the fact that she was going to demoralize the pack horses. We were not across the wide range of this flat mountain when one of the pack animals, a lean and lanky sorrel, appeared suddenly to go mad, and began to buck off a pack. He succeeded. This inspired a black horse, very appropriately christened Nigger, to try his luck, and he shifted his pack in short order. It took patience, time, and effort to repack. The cow was a disorganizer. She took up as wide a trail as a road. And the pack animals, some with dignity and others with disgust, tried to avoid her vicinity. Going down the steep forest trail on the other side the real trouble began. The pack train split, ran and bolted, crashing through the trees, plunging down steep places, and jumping logs. It was a wild sort of chase. But luckily the packs remained intact until we were once more on open, flat ground. All went well for a while, except for an accident for which I was to blame. I spurred my horse, and he plunged suddenly past R.C.'s mount, colliding with him, tearing off my stirrup, and spraining R.C.'s ankle. This was almost a serious accident, as R.C. has an old baseball ankle that required favoring.
Next in order was the sorrel. As I saw it, he heedlessly went too near the cow, which we now called Bossy, and she acted somewhat like a Spanish Bull, to the effect that the sorrel was scared and angered at once. He began to run and plunge and buck right into the other pack animals, dropping articles from his pack as he dashed along. He stampeded the train, and gave the saddle horses a scare. When order was restored and the whole outfit gathered together again a full hour had been lost. By this time all the horses were tired, and that facilitated progress, because there were no more serious breaks.
Down in the valley it was hot, and the ride grew long and wearisome. Nevertheless, the scenery was beautiful. The valley was green and level, and a meandering stream formed many little lakes. On one side was a steep hill of sage and aspens, and on the other a black, spear-pointed spruce forest, rising sheer to a bold, blunt peak patched with snow-banks, and bronze and gray in the clear light. Huge white clouds sailed aloft, making dark moving shadows along the great slopes.
We reached our turning-off place about five o'clock, and again entered the fragrant, quiet forest—a welcome change. We climbed and climbed, at length coming into an open park of slopes and green borders of forest, with a lake in the center. We pitched camp on the skirt of the western slope, under the spruces, and worked hard to get the tents up and boughs cut for beds. Darkness caught us with our hands still full, and we ate supper in the light of a camp-fire, with the black, deep forest behind, and the pale afterglow across the lake.
I had a bad night, being too tired to sleep well. Many times I saw the moon shadows of spruce branches trembling on the tent walls, and the flickering shadows of the dying camp-fire. I heard the melodious tinkle of the bells on the hobbled horses. Bossy bawled often—a discordant break in the serenity of the night. Occasionally the hounds bayed her.
Toward morning I slept some, and awakened with what seemed a broken back. All, except R.C., were slow in crawling out. The sun rose hot. This lower altitude was appreciated by all. After breakfast we set to work to put the camp in order.
That afternoon we rode off to look over the ground. We crossed the park and worked up a timbered ridge remarkable for mossy, bare ground, and higher up for its almost total absence of grass or flowers. On the other side of this we had a fine view of Mt. Dome, a high peak across a valley. Then we worked down into the valley, which was full of parks and ponds and running streams. We found some fresh sign of deer, and a good deal of old elk and deer sign. But we saw no game of any kind. It was a tedious ride back through thick forest, where I observed many trees that had been barked by porcupines. Some patches were four feet from the ground, indicating that the porcupine had sat on the snow when he gnawed those particular places.
After sunset R.C. and I went off down a trail into the woods, and sitting down under a huge spruce we listened. The forest was solemn and still. Far down somewhere roared a stream, and that was all the sound we heard. The gray shadows darkened and gloom penetrated the aisles of the forest, until all the sheltered places were black as pitch. The spruces looked spectral—and speaking. The silence of the woods was deep, profound, and primeval. It all worked on my imagination until I began to hear faint sounds, and finally grand orchestral crashings of melody.
On our return the strange creeping chill, that must be a descendant of the old elemental fear, caught me at all obscure curves in the trail.
Next day we started off early, and climbed through the woods and into the parks under the Dome. We scared a deer that had evidently been drinking. His fresh tracks led before us, but we could not catch a glimpse of him.
We climbed out of the parks, up onto the rocky ridges where the spruce grew scarce, and then farther to the jumble of stones that had weathered from the great peaks above, and beyond that up the slope where all the vegetation was dwarfed, deformed, and weird, strange manifestation of its struggle for life. Here the air grew keener and cooler, and the light seemed to expand. We rode on to the steep slope that led up to the gap we were to cross between the Dome and its companion.
I saw a red fox running up the slope, and dismounting I took a quick shot at three hundred yards, and scored a hit. It turned out to be a cross fox, and had very pretty fur.
When we reached the level of the deep gap the wind struck us hard and cold. On that side opened an abyss, gray and shelving as it led down to green timber, and then on to the yellow parks and black ridges that gleamed under the opposite range.
We had to work round a wide amphitheater, and up a steep corner to the top. This turned out to be level and smooth for a long way, with a short, velvety yellow grass, like moss, spotted with flowers. Here at thirteen thousand feet, the wind hit us with exceeding force, and soon had us with freezing hands and faces. All about us were bold black and gray peaks, with patches of snow, and above them clouds of white and drab, showing blue sky between. It developed that this grassy summit ascended in a long gradual sweep, from the apex of which stretched a grand expanse, like a plain of gold, down and down, endlessly almost, and then up and up to end under a gray butte, highest of the points around. The ride across here seemed to have no limit, but it was beautiful, though severe on endurance. I saw another fox, and dismounting, fired five shots as he ran, dusting him with three bullets. We rode out to the edge of the mountain and looked off. It was fearful, yet sublime. The world lay beneath us. In many places we rode along the rim, and at last circled the great butte, and worked up behind it on a swell of slope. Here the range ran west and the drop was not sheer, but, gradual with fine benches for sheep. We found many tracks and fresh sign, but did not see one sheep. Meanwhile the hard wind had ceased, and the sun had come out, making the ride comfortable, as far as weather was concerned. We had gotten a long way from camp, and finding no trail to descend in that direction we turned to retrace our steps. That was about one o'clock, and we rode and rode and rode, until I was so tired that I could not appreciate the scenes as I had on the way up. It took six hours to get back to camp!
Next morning we took the hounds and rode off for bear. Eight of the hounds were chained in braces, one big and one little dog together, and they certainly had a hard time of it. Sampson, the giant gray and brown hound, and Jim, the old black leader, were free to run to and fro across the way. We rode down a few miles, and into the forest. There were two long, black ridges, and here we were to hunt for bear. It was the hardest kind of work, turning and twisting between the trees, dodging snags, and brushing aside branches, and guiding a horse among fallen logs. The forest was thick, and the ground was a rich brown and black muck, soft to the horses' feet. Many times the hounds got caught on snags, and had to be released. Once Sampson picked up a scent of some kind, and went off baying. Old Jim ran across that trail and returned, thus making it clear that there was no bear trail. We penetrated deep between the two ridges, and came to a little lake, about thirty feet wide, surrounded by rushes and grass. Here we rested the horses, and incidentally, ourselves. Fox chased a duck, and it flew into the woods and hid under a log. Fox trailed it, and Teague shot it just as he might have a rabbit. We got two more ducks, fine big mallards, the same way. It was amazing to me, and R.C. remarked that never had he seen such strange and foolish ducks.
This forest had hundreds of trees barked by porcupines, and some clear to the top. But we met only one of the animals, and he left several quills in the nose of one of the pups. I was of the opinion that these porcupines destroy many fine trees, as I saw a number barked all around.
We did not see any bear sign. On the way back to camp we rode out of the forest and down a wide valley, the opposite side of which was open slope with patches of alder. Even at a distance I could discern the color of these open glades and grassy benches. They had a tinge of purple, like purple sage. When I got to them I found a profusion of asters of the most exquisite shades of lavender, pink and purple. That slope was long, and all the way up we rode through these beautiful wild flowers. I shall never forget that sight, nor the many asters that shone like stars out of the green. The pink ones were new to me, and actually did not seem real. I noticed my horse occasionally nipped a bunch and ate them, which seemed to me almost as heartless as to tread them under foot.
When we got up the slope and into the woods again we met a storm, and traveled for an hour in the rain, and under the dripping spruces, feeling the cold wet sting of swaying branches as we rode by. Then the sun came out bright and the forest glittered, all gold and green. The smell of the woods after a rain is indescribable. It combines a rare tang of pine, spruce, earth and air, all refreshed.
The day after, we left at eight o'clock, and rode down to the main trail, and up that for five miles where we cut off to the left and climbed into the timber. The woods were fresh and dewy, dark and cool, and for a long time we climbed bench after bench where the grass and ferns and moss made a thick, deep cover. Farther up we got into fallen timber and made slow progress. At timber line we tied the horses and climbed up to the pass between two great mountain ramparts. Sheep tracks were in evidence, but not very fresh. Teague and I climbed on top and R.C., with Vern, went below just along the timber line. The climb on foot took all my strength, and many times I had to halt for breath. The air was cold. We stole along the rim and peered over. R.C. and Vern looked like very little men far below, and the dogs resembled mice.
Teague climbed higher, and left me on a promontory, watching all around.
The cloud pageant was magnificent, with huge billowy white masses across the valley, and to the west great black thunderheads rolling up. The wind began to blow hard, carrying drops of rain that stung, and the air was nipping cold. I felt aloof from all the crowded world, alone on the windy heights, with clouds and storm all around me.
When the storm threatened I went back to the horses. It broke, but was not severe after all. At length R.C. and the men returned and we mounted to ride back to camp. The storm blew away, leaving the sky clear and blue, and the sun shone warm. We had an hour of winding in and out among windfalls of timber, and jumping logs, and breaking through brush. Then the way sloped down to a beautiful forest, shady and green, full of mossy dells, almost overgrown with ferns and low spreading ground pine or spruce. The aisles of the forest were long and shaded by the stately spruces. Water ran through every ravine, sometimes a brawling brook, sometimes a rivulet hidden under overhanging mossy banks. We scared up two lonely grouse, at long intervals. At length we got into fallen timber, and from that worked into a jumble of rocks, where the going was rough and dangerous.
The afternoon waned as we rode on and on, up and down, in and out, around, and at times the horses stood almost on their heads, sliding down steep places where the earth was soft and black, and gave forth a dank odor. We passed ponds and swamps, and little lakes. We saw where beavers had gnawed down aspens, and we just escaped miring our horses in marshes, where the grass grew, rich and golden, hiding the treacherous mire. The sun set, and still we did not seem to get anywhere. I was afraid darkness would overtake us, and we would get lost in the woods. Presently we struck an old elk trail, and following that for a while, came to a point where R.C. and I recognized a tree and a glade where we had been before—and not far from camp—a welcome discovery.
Next day we broke camp and started across country for new territory near Whitley's Peak.
We rode east up the mountain. After several miles along an old logging road we reached the timber, and eventually the top of the ridge. We went down, crossing parks and swales. There were cattle pastures, and eaten over and trodden so much they had no beauty left. Teague wanted to camp at a salt lick, but I did not care for the place.
We went on. The dogs crossed a bear trail, and burst out in a clamor. We had a hard time holding them.
The guide and I had a hot argument. I did not want to stay there and chase a bear in a cow pasture.... So we went on, down into ranch country, and this disgusted me further. We crossed a ranch, and rode several miles on a highway, then turned abruptly, and climbed a rough, rocky ridge, covered with brush and aspen. We crossed it, and went down for several miles, and had to camp in an aspen grove, on the slope of a ravine. It was an uninviting place to stay, but as there was no other we had to make the best of it. The afternoon had waned. I took a gun and went off down the ravine, until I came to a deep gorge. Here I heard the sound of a brawling brook. I sat down for an hour, but saw no game.
That night I had a wretched bed, one that I could hardly stay in, and I passed miserable hours. I got up sore, cramped, sleepy and irritable. We had to wait three hours for the horses to be caught and packed. I had predicted straying horses. At last we were off, and rode along the steep slope of a canyon for several miles, and then struck a stream of amber-colored water. As we climbed along this we came into deep spruce forest, where it was pleasure to ride. I saw many dells and nooks, cool and shady, full of mossy rocks and great trees. But flowers were scarce. We were sorry to pass the head-springs of that stream and to go on over the divide and down into the wooded, but dry and stony country. We rode until late, and came at last to a park where sheep had been run. I refused to camp here, and Teague, in high dudgeon, rode on. As it turned out I was both wise and lucky, for we rode into a park with many branches, where there was good water and fair grass and a pretty grove of white pines in which to pitch our tents. I enjoyed this camp, and had a fine rest at night.
The morning broke dark and lowering. We hustled to get started before a storm broke. It began to rain as we mounted our horses, and soon we were in the midst of a cold rain. It blew hard. We put on our slickers. After a short ride down through the forest we entered Buffalo Park. This was a large park, and we lost time trying to find a forester's trail leading out of it. At last we found one, but it soon petered out, and we were lost in thick timber, in a driving rain, with the cold and wind increasing. But we kept on.
This forest was deep and dark, with tremendous windfalls, and great canyons around which we had to travel. It took us hours to ride out of it. When we began to descend once more we struck an old lumber road. More luck—the storm ceased, and presently we were out on an aspen slope with a great valley beneath, and high, black peaks beyond. Below the aspens were long swelling slopes of sage and grass, gray and golden and green. A ranch lay in the valley, and we crossed it to climb up a winding ravine, once more to the aspens where we camped in the rancher's pasture. It was a cold, wet camp, but we managed to be fairly comfortable.
The sunset was gorgeous. The mass of clouds broke and rolled. There was exquisite golden light on the peaks, and many rose- and violet-hued banks of cloud.
Morning found us shrouded in fog. We were late starting. About nine the curtain of gray began to lift and break. We climbed pastures and aspen thickets, high up to the spruce, where the grass grew luxuriant, and the red wall of rock overhung the long slopes. The view west was magnificent—a long, bulging range of mountains, vast stretches of green aspen slopes, winding parks of all shapes, gray and gold and green, and jutting peaks, and here and there patches of autumn blaze in grass and thicket.
We spent the afternoon pitching camp on an aspen knoll, with water, grass, and wood near at hand, and the splendid view of mountains and valleys below.
We spent many full days under the shadow of Whitley's Peak. After the middle of September the aspens colored and blazed to the touch of frost, and the mountain slopes were exceedingly beautiful. Against a background of gray sage the gold and red and purple aspen groves showed too much like exquisite paintings to seem real. In the mornings the frost glistened thick and white on the grass; and after the gorgeous sunsets of gold over the violet-hazed ranges the air grew stingingly cold.
Bear-chasing with a pack of hounds has been severely criticised by many writers and I was among them. I believed it a cowardly business, and that was why, if I chased bears with dogs, I wanted to chase the kind that could not be treed. But like many another I did not know what I was writing about. I did not shoot a bear out of a tree and I would not do so, except in a case of hunger. All the same, leaving the tree out of consideration, bear-chasing with hounds is a tremendously exciting and hazardous game. But my ideas about sport are changing. Hunting, in the sportsman's sense, is a cruel and degenerate business.
The more I hunt the more I become convinced of something wrong about the game. I am a different man when I get a gun in my hands. All is exciting, hot-pressed, red. Hunting is magnificent up to the moment the shot is fired. After that it is another matter. It is useless for sportsmen to tell me that they, in particular, hunt right, conserve the game, do not go beyond the limit, and all that sort of thing. I do not believe them and I never met the guide who did. A rifle is made for killing. When a man goes out with one he means to kill. He may keep within the law, but that is not the question. It is a question of spirit, and men who love to hunt are yielding to and always developing the old primitive instinct to kill. The meaning of the spirit of life is not clear to them. An argument may be advanced that, according to the laws of self-preservation and the survival of the fittest, if a man stops all strife, all fight, then he will retrograde. And that is to say if a man does not go to the wilds now and then, and work hard and live some semblance of the life of his progenitors, he will weaken. It seems that he will, but I am not prepared now to say whether or not that would be well. The Germans believe they are the race fittest to survive over all others—and that has made me a little sick of this Darwin business.
To return, however, to the fact that to ride after hounds on a wild chase is a dangerous and wonderfully exhilarating experience, I will relate a couple of instances, and I will leave it to my readers to judge whether or not it is a cowardly sport.
One afternoon a rancher visited our camp and informed us that he had surprised a big black bear eating the carcass of a dead cow.
"Good! We'll have a bear to-morrow night," declared Teague, in delight. "We'll get him even if the trail is a day old. But he'll come back to-night."
Early next morning the young rancher and three other boys rode into camp, saying they would like to go with us to see the fun. We were glad to have them, and we rode off through the frosted sage that crackled like brittle glass under the hoofs of the horses. Our guide led toward a branch of a park, and when we got within perhaps a quarter of a mile Teague suggested that R.C. and I go ahead on the chance of surprising the bear. It was owing to this suggestion that my brother and I were well ahead of the others. But we did not see any bear near the carcass of the cow. Old Jim and Sampson were close behind us, and when Jim came within forty yards of that carcass he put his nose up with a deep and ringing bay, and he shot by us like a streak. He never went near the dead cow! Sampson bayed like thunder and raced after Jim.
"They're off!" I yelled to R.C. "It's a hot scent! Come on!"
We spurred our horses and they broke across the open park to the edge of the woods. Jim and Sampson were running straight with noses high. I heard a string of yelps and bellows from our rear.
"Look back!" shouted R.C.
Teague and the cowboys were unleashing the rest of the pack. It surely was great to see them stretch out, yelping wildly. Like the wind they passed us. Jim and Sampson headed into the woods with deep bays. I was riding Teague's best horse for this sort of work and he understood the game and plainly enjoyed it. R.C.'s horse ran as fast in the woods as he did in the open. This frightened me, and I yelled to R.C. to be careful. I yelled to deaf ears. That is the first great risk—a rider is not going to be careful! We were right on top of Jim and Sampson with the pack clamoring mad music just behind. The forest rang. Both horses hurdled logs, sometimes two at once. My old lion chases with Buffalo Jones had made me skillful in dodging branches and snags, and sliding knees back to avoid knocking them against trees. For a mile the forest was comparatively open, and here we had a grand and ringing run. I received two hard knocks, was unseated once, but held on, and I got a stinging crack in the face from a branch. R.C. added several more black-and-blue spots to his already spotted anatomy, and he missed, just by an inch, a solid snag that would have broken him in two. The pack stretched out in wild staccato chorus, the little Airedales literally screeching. Jim got out of our sight and then Sampson. Still it was ever more thrilling to follow by sound rather than sight. They led up a thick, steep slope. Here we got into trouble in the windfalls of timber and the pack drew away from us, up over the mountain. We were half way up when we heard them jump the bear. The forest seemed full of strife and bays and yelps. We heard the dogs go down again to our right, and as we turned we saw Teague and the others strung out along the edge of the park. They got far ahead of us. When we reached the bottom of the slope they were out of sight, but we could hear them yell. The hounds were working around on another slope, from which craggy rocks loomed above the timber. R.C.'s horse lunged across the park and appeared to be running off from mine. I was a little to the right, and when my horse got under way, full speed, we had the bad luck to plunge suddenly into soft ground. He went to his knees, and I sailed out of the saddle fully twenty feet, to alight all spread out and to slide like a plow. I did not seem to be hurt. When I got up my horse was coming and he appeared to be patient with me, but he was in a hurry. Before we got across the wet place R.C. was out of sight. I decided that instead of worrying about him I had better think about myself. Once on hard ground my horse fairly charged into the woods and we broke brush and branches as if they had been punk. It was again open forest, then a rocky slope, and then a flat ridge with aisles between the trees. Here I heard the melodious notes of Teague's hunting horn, and following that, the full chorus of the hounds. They had treed the bear. Coming into still more open forest, with rocks here and there, I caught sight of R.C. far ahead, and soon I had glimpses of the other horses, and lastly, while riding full tilt, I spied a big, black, glistening bear high up in a pine a hundred yards or more distant.
Slowing down I rode up to the circle of frenzied dogs and excited men. The boys were all jabbering at once. Teague was beaming. R.C. sat his horse, and it struck me that he looked sorry for the bear.
"Fifteen minutes!" ejaculated Teague, with a proud glance at Old Jim standing with forepaws up on the pine.
Indeed it had been a short and ringing chase.
All the time while I fooled around trying to photograph the treed bear, R.C. sat there on his horse, looking upward.
"Well, gentlemen, better kill him," said Teague, cheerfully. "If he gets rested he'll come down."
It was then I suggested to R.C. that he do the shooting.
"Not much!" he exclaimed.
The bear looked really pretty perched up there. He was as round as a barrel and black as jet and his fur shone in the gleams of sunlight. His tongue hung out, and his plump sides heaved, showing what a quick, hard run he had made before being driven to the tree. What struck me most forcibly about him was the expression in his eyes as he looked down at those devils of hounds. He was scared. He realized his peril. It was utterly impossible for me to see Teague's point of view.
"Go ahead—and plug him," I replied to my brother. "Get it over."
"You do it," he said.
"No, I won't."
"Why not—I'd like to know?"
"Maybe we won't have so good a chance again—and I want you to get your bear," I replied.
"Why it's like—murder," he protested.
"Oh, not so bad as that," I returned, weakly. "We need the meat. We've not had any game meat, you know, except ducks and grouse."
"You won't do it?" he added, grimly.
"No, I refuse."
Meanwhile the young ranchers gazed at us with wide eyes and the expression on Teague's honest, ruddy face would have been funny under other circumstances.
"That bear will come down an' mebbe kill one of my dogs," he protested.
"Well, he can come for all I care," I replied, positively, and I turned away.
I heard R.C. curse low under his breath. Then followed the spang of his .35 Remington. I wheeled in time to see the bear straining upward in terrible convulsion, his head pointed high, with blood spurting from his nose. Slowly he swayed and fell with a heavy crash.
The next bear chase we had was entirely different medicine.
Off in the basin under the White Slides, back of our camp, the hounds struck a fresh track and in an instant were out of sight. With the cowboy Vern setting the pace we plunged after them. It was rough country. Bogs, brooks, swales, rocky little parks, stretches of timber full of windfalls, groves of aspens so thick we could scarcely squeeze through—all these obstacles soon allowed the hounds to get far away. We came out into a large park, right under the mountain slope, and here we sat our horses listening to the chase. That trail led around the basin and back near to us, up the thick green slope, where high up near a ledge we heard the pack jump this bear. It sounded to us as if he had been roused out of a sleep.
"I'll bet it's one of the big grizzlies we've heard about," said Teague.
That was something to my taste. I have seen a few grizzlies. Riding to higher ground I kept close watch on the few open patches up on the slope. The chase led toward us for a while. Suddenly I saw a big bear with a frosted coat go lumbering across one of these openings.
"Silvertip! Silvertip!" I yelled at the top of my lungs. "I saw him!"
My call thrilled everybody. Vern spurred his horse and took to the right. Teague advised that we climb the slope. So we made for the timber. Once there we had to get off and climb on foot. It was steep, rough, very hard work. I had on chaps and spurs. Soon I was hot, laboring, and my heart began to hurt. We all had to rest. The baying of the hounds inspirited us now and then, but presently we lost it. Teague said they had gone over the ridge and as soon as we got up to the top we would hear them again. We struck an elk trail with fresh elk tracks in it. Teague said they were just ahead of us. I never climbed so hard and fast in my life. We were all tuckered out when we reached the top of the ridge. Then to our great disappointment we did not hear the hounds. Mounting we rode along the crest of this wooded ridge toward the western end, which was considerably higher. Once on a bare patch of ground we saw where the grizzly had passed. The big, round tracks, toeing in a little, made a chill go over me. No doubt of its being a silvertip!
We climbed and rode to the high point, and coming out upon the summit of the mountain we all heard the deep, hoarse baying of the pack. They were in the canyon down a bare grassy slope and over a wooded bench at our feet. Teague yelled as he spurred down. R.C. rode hard in his tracks.
But my horse was new to this bear chasing. He was mettlesome, and he did not want to do what I wanted. When I jabbed the spurs into his flanks he nearly bucked me off. I was looking for a soft place to light when he quit. Long before I got down that open slope Teague and R.C. had disappeared. I had to follow their tracks. This I did at a gallop, but now and then lost the tracks, and had to haul in to find them. If I could have heard the hounds from there I would have gone on anyway. But once down in the jack-pines I could hear neither yell or bay. The pines were small, close together, and tough. I hurt my hands, scratched my face, barked my knees. The horse had a habit of suddenly deciding to go the way he liked instead of the way I guided him, and when he plunged between saplings too close together to permit us both to go through, it was exceedingly hard on me. I was worked into a frenzy. Suppose R.C. should come face to face with that old grizzly and fail to kill him! That was the reason for my desperate hurry. I got a crack on the head that nearly blinded me. My horse grew hot and began to run in every little open space. He could scarcely be held in. And I, with the blood hot in me too, did not hold him hard enough.
It seemed miles across that wooded bench. But at last I reached another slope. Coming out upon a canyon rim I heard R.C. and Teague yelling, and I heard the hounds fighting the grizzly. He was growling and threshing about far below. I had missed the tracks made by Teague and my brother, and it was necessary to find them. That slope looked impassable. I rode back along the rim, then forward. Finally I found where the ground was plowed deep and here I headed my horse. He had been used to smooth roads and he could not take these jumps. I went forward on his neck. But I hung on and spurred him hard. The mad spirit of that chase had gotten into him too. All the time I could hear the fierce baying and yelping of the hounds, and occasionally I heard a savage bawl from the bear. I literally plunged, slid, broke a way down that mountain slope, riding all the time, before I discovered the footprints of Teague and R.C. They had walked, leading their horses. By this time I was so mad I would not get off. I rode all the way down that steep slope of dense saplings, loose rock slides and earth, and jumble of splintered cliff. That he did not break my neck and his own spoke the truth about that roan horse. Despite his inexperience he was great. We fell over one bank, but a thicket of aspens saved us from rolling. The avalanches slid from under us until I imagined that the grizzly would be scared. Once as I stopped to listen I heard bear and pack farther down the canyon—heard them above the roar of a rushing stream. They went on and I lost the sounds of fight. But R.C.'s clear thrilling call floated up to me. Probably he was worried about me.
Then before I realized it I was at the foot of the slope, in a narrow canyon bed, full of rocks and trees, with the din of roaring water in my ears. I could hear nothing else. Tracks were everywhere, and when I came to the first open place I was thrilled. The grizzly had plunged off a sandy bar into the water, and there he had fought the hounds. Signs of that battle were easy to read. I saw where his huge tracks, still wet, led up the opposite sandy bank.
Then, down stream, I did my most reckless riding. On level ground the horse was splendid. Once he leaped clear across the brook. Every plunge, every turn I expected to bring me upon my brother and Teague and that fighting pack. More than once I thought I heard the spang of the .35 and this made me urge the roan faster and faster.
The canyon narrowed, the stream-bed deepened. I had to slow down to get through the trees and rocks. And suddenly I was overjoyed to ride pell-mell upon R.C. and Teague with half the panting hounds. The canyon had grown too rough for the horses to go farther and it would have been useless for us to try on foot. As I dismounted, so sore and bruised I could hardly stand, old Jim came limping in to fall into the brook where he lapped and lapped thirstily. Teague threw up his hands. Old Jim's return meant an ended chase. The grizzly had eluded the hounds in that jumble of rocks below.
"Say, did you meet the bear?" queried Teague, eyeing me in astonishment and mirth.
Bloody, dirty, ragged and wringing wet with sweat I must have been a sight. R.C. however, did not look so very immaculate, and when I saw he also was lame and scratched and black I felt better.
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