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was one of the pleasantest nights in the entire year. I expressed to the driver my sincere desire that I might never be here during the least pleasant ones, and climbed around through the stage door into the interior. It was early daybreak when we stopped at the base of the great Elk Mountain. The air was perfectly clear, and so intensely cold that while our horses were changing, we collected the dead boughs of some stinted cedars, and made ourselves a jolly camp-fire, at which we simultaneously warmed our benumbed bodies, and extracted our breakfast coffee. Just at our left and southernmost hand rose the rugged wedge of the Elk Mountain, save in occasional reddish-gray patches of protruding granite, snow-clad from base to edge. It overtopped our own lofty level by full three thousand feet, we ourselves being at between nine thousand and ten thousand feet of elevation. The two most massive mountains which I saw during my entire journey, were this Elk Mountain and the Old Cheyenne, guarding the south approach to Pike's Peak. There are higher peaks, but no nobler mountains than these broad masses of bald or snowclad rock, with a general trapezoidal surface, broken into splendid variations of light and shade, and having an almost horizontal sky-line, when the sunlight strikes its crest of eternal ice, defined as sharply as a razor's edge. The base of the Elk Mountain is surrounded with forests, consisting of all the mountain species; and the water from its snow rivulets keeps the herbage fresh under the trees. As a result, game has always been very plenty here, the Elk Mountain hunting-grounds being famous alike to the Indian and the white man, who, by struggles not a few, have tested their relative rights of entry upon the domain. The animals which gave the mountain its name were abundant at this season, and the Colorado deer and antelope no less so. We had frequent opportunities to try the meat of all these animals, and found elk-meat a translation of venison into the vulgar dialect, while antelope was venison's apotheosis.
After leaving the Elk Mountain, we continued during the entire morning to traverse one of these desert plateaus, which are characteristic of the Rocky Mountain system, and to which I have already referred in the itinerary of the day before we reached Laramie Plains. It consisted of a series of terraces, casually mistakable for an effect of wind-blown sand, had not occasional ledges of trap shown that all belonged to one system of elevation, and that where the sand had heaped the rock out of sight, the dikes still kept their strike uniform. For ten miles the plateau was mainly covered with sand. Through this here and there projected a columnar mass, or a curious series of trapezoids, arranged stair-fashion; but its general effect was that of a level ash-bed, in which throve the pale saffron blossoms of the palmate cacti, and the delicate pink cactus flower, like a baby's finger-tips seen in sunlight, which grows on a globular body like an aristocratic artichoke. Add to the inventory of vegetable life an occasional whorl of gramma-grass, a scattering of dwarfed wormwoods, a patch of grease-wood here and there, and a variety of those pale-leaved plants, covered with a soft sessile down, which, all over the barrenest tracts east of Salt Lake, cling to the ground so close that frequently they are not distinguished from it by the traveller.
For the first time on our journey, I found, crawling among the cactuses and sand-heaps of this plateau, that singular little animal, known vulgarly as the Texan Toad, or Horned Frog, though in reality he does not belong to the family of the Ranidae at all, but is a nearer relation to the lizards and salamanders. The range of this animal is singularly eccentric. On the baked, droughty prairies of Texas, it is found under a semi-tropical sun; travellers have met with it as high north as the Sweetwater, and indeed, for aught I know, it may exist on many of the sand-plains between the South Pass and the Dalles of the Columbia; and frequent specimens of it are met with on the way between Julesberg and Fort Laramie, along the North Platte trail. This plateau, however, was the only tract on which we found them during our present expedition. At a height at least equal to that of Laramie Plains, surrounded visibly on almost all sides by snowpeaks, and itself snowed under for several months of the year, this waste still supports an animal whose type resembles those of the torrid rather than the temperate zone. The only condition on which he seems inclined to stickle is aridity; put him where there is apparently nothing for him to live on, and temperature is a secondary matter.
These “toads” have an earthy brown back, which is broader and flatter than that of the true garden reptile; a white belly; a small, twinkling black eye, not all ugly or malicious in its expression, and set in an almond-shaped slit, which in some of the older animals is inclosed by two dark lines of the same shape. This has an effect to enlarge the eye as if it, had been penciled, and give it a soft look like that of a miniature sheep or antelope. The two retrocurved horns which arise out of the bony plate above the eyes, add still more to this odd resemblance. The skin of the back, and the long stiff tail, instead of being warty like the true toad's upper surface, are thickly set with thorny excrescences, sharp as those of a rose, and nearly as hard. That of the belly is not a soft mucous surface, like those of the frog and toad, but a dry, tough tissue, almost horny in its character, imbricated with exquisite delicacy in minute rectangular patterns, that give the little creature sufficient freedom of motion, and at the same time provide him with the most accurately linked and fitted of breastplates. What all this panoply is for, I have never learned. The rattlesnake may be his enemy; but, if so, toady leaves the offensive to him. The little animal is so far from pugnacious, that he submits to being taken into the hand; in fact, if placed on it right after capture, will often stand there without an attempt to get away; and it is the easiest possible thing to catch him in the first place, his gait, over the loose sand of his haunts, not exceeding in speed that of a common box-tortoise. This, by the way, is an animal which I only twice saw between the Missouri and California: once on the road between Cottonwood (at the confluence of the North and South Platte) and Fremont's Spring in Nebraska; again far up toward the snow-range, among the mines back of Denver. Neither of these differed remarkably from our commonest Eastern variety. Just as I had about finished my naturalizing, having a handkerchief full of lizards, insects, and plants, and a pail brimming with horned toads, the area about us became suddenly still more sterile, and within a few hundred yards the sand plateau gave way to one of almost absolutely bare rock, terraced or escaladed in right lines, but with such a gradual descent to the westward that our road in most places went down the steps easily without detour, débris having filled in the sharpest angles. Nowhere do I recollect seeing a more colossal landscape of desolation. Both my artist-friend and I rode through it for a long way silent, because we were overawed. It is difficult by an enumeration of details so to describe this tract as to give any adequate notion of it to a reader who has never visited the scenery characteristic of rainless plateaus in a lofty mountain region. Our road followed the lowest indentations of the rocky uplifts, being in many places a mere wheelscratch on their surface; and thus we might fancy ourselves upon a street, along which these trap structures had been erected. It was difficult not so to fancy when we noticed the remarkable symmetry with which the rocks were arranged. They mostly seemed of the same coarse trap variety as those of the Palisades, with an occasional streak of greenstone or of phonolite. They had come up through the most curious net-work of dikes, in which the strikes crossed each other nearly at right angles, producing a foursquare arrangement of masses which reminded one forcibly of architecture and city blocks. But neither a city nor an architecture that was human. Many single blocks of trachyte, standing isolated to mark the corner of a square, were fifty feet cube, and as regular as if they had been chiseled. In other sit. uations I saw numerous series of tabular masses, arranged like a flight of stone steps each ten feet