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Life in the Rocky Mountains. Bird, Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy), 1831–1904.
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page: 285

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.

CHEYENNE, WYOMING, December 12.

THE last evening came. I did not wish to realise it, as I looked at the snow‐peaks glistening in the moon‐fight. 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 page: 286 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 travelling, 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. page: 287 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.¹

Rich spoils of beavers' skins were lying on the cabin floor, and the trapper took the finest, a mouse‐coloured 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 foothills, 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


¹ 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.

page: 288 without prayer—prayer chiefly that God would give him at 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 weather “glaze” had formed since or no. 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 writhing 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 in‐ intensely page: 289 tensely bright, and a well‐defined auroral arch, throwing off fantastic coruscations, lighted the whole northern sky. Yet I was only in the foothills, 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 realise 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 page: 290 and her alone. Already the disrealness of a level land comes over me. The canyon of the St. Vrain was in all its glory of colour, 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 depth 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 spiritualised 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 page: 291 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, prononcée, 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 page: 292 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 shakedown 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 houses if he had been the President, and I gained a reflected importance! All the men in the settlement page: 293 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 neighbouring 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 re‐ recited page: 294 cited 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 page: 295 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° zero. I think I never saw such a brilliant atmosphere. That curious phenomena 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‐waggon 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,¹ he put out a small hand cased in a


¹ 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.

page: 296 perfectly‐fitting lemon‐coloured kid glove. 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 realised 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!

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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