Abbildungen der Seite

Here we found, in the person of the station-keeper, one of the finest specimens of the American hunter and fearless pioneer encountered in our whole journey. He was a splendidly built fellow, not more than twenty-two or three years old, six feet high, with an arm like a grizzly's paw, a fine, frank, fearless face, full of ruddy health and quenchless cheerfulness. There was a look of capability and resource about him which made it easy to understand-how the wilds of our country are settled, its rocky fastnesses made to roar with the blast of the forge, and echo to the sound of axe and hammer. Set him beside one of our pale, puny Metropolitan counter-jumpers, and ask the inhabitant of another planet to label the two for the shelves of some anthropological cabinet: ten to one they would not be included in the same species, perhaps not in the same genus of animal life. The young station-keeper told us that he had a partner, but it was very rare for both of them to be at home together. He had now been alone for several days, taking care of the stock, while the other man was trapping and shooting equally alone in the mountains. When we asked him what game he hunted, he invited us into his cabin and pointed us to the walls for the shortest answer. The skins hung so thick that we could not see the logs. Among them were a number of full-sized grizzly robes, and a few pretty little cub-skins, very soft and silky, belonging to the same species; a cinnamon bear-skin, besides gray and white wolf-skins, fox-skins, deer-hides, and smaller peltry without stint, including the wolverine, an exquisitely marked tiger-cat, and the robe of a mountain lion. His cabinet of deer and elk horns would have brought hundreds of dollars, if offered to an Eastern sportsman decorating his library. His taste in adornment was excellent; the lady-love of a prince might have envied him his boudoir. All his skins were in excellent preservation. The only one that he had never been able to preserve was that of the antelope; and that animal must forever baffle the cabinet collector, for his hair differs from that of every quadruped but the porcupine. It is stiff and spongy; the gentlest pull brings out a bunch of it in one's fingers, and this bunch looks and feels like a bundle of short threads of spun glass. Where it is thickest, on the breast and about the haunches, it stands out like bristles radiating from a centre in the brush form, with concentric rings of coarse, brittle fibre arranged round it. I have never seen anything exactly like it in any other animal, and never in the antelope anything like the other ruminants' wool or hair. The fibres of the antelope pelt are sometimes so brittle that they break across as easily as the spun glass which they resemble. The skin is thus valueless for the fur trade or the cabinet, a fact which I have often regretted; for its appearance upon the animal, with the sunlight striking its tawny ground and snow-white patches, as it goes glancing down a bluff in the arrow-flight of a stampede, is very beautiful. Among other trophies which interested me greatly, were the horns and skin of a “Bighorn,” or Rocky Mountain sheep (Ovis Montana), an animal which even in the heart of this savage region is practically rare, since, like the chamois, it frequents the most inaccessible fastnesses, and is never seen save by the hunter who devotes himself entirely to its pursuit. The wariest Indian often lies in wait for it for days without seeing it, and when finally he does catch a glimpse of it, it only reveals itself on the brink of some snow-covered crag hundreds of feet above him, where neither ball nor arrow could strike, and no living being but its own kind could reach it without wings. Its color is a grayish brown, like that of a ram in a dusty, droughty summer just before “sheepwashing” time, with a darker line down the spine, after the ass's fashion. Its horns (as one of the popular names indicates) are immense. Some of the old hunters told me that a pair, with the clean skull, "sometimes weighed sixty pounds, but I have never found any actual authentic weight exceeding half that. The horns, like those of the antelope, are rooted so immediately above the orbital process that they seem to rise directly out of the eyes. They are almost close together at the base, where it is not unusual to find them measuring twenty inches in circumference. They curve gradually and evenly backward in an arc of about two hundred degrees, and to a length of thirty to forty inches, their tips being about half their length apart from each other. Their hoofs are generally black, and unlike the antelopes' are provided with the dew-claw, or upper and posterior rudimentary hoof common to the allied genera. Their hair is less brittle than the antelopes', and in winter is interspersed with a short, fine fleece, apparent on parting the straight fibres; but they have nothing that in the least approaches the wool of our domestic sheep. The animal is of immense size, the adults weighing between three and four hundred pounds. I have heard from old hunters and Indians, that when surprised upon a precipice where there is no room to turn, the bighorn will plunge headlong a distance of a hundred feet, and strike on his horns without breaking them or bruising himself, then bound to his feet by aid of their elastic spring, and run away as if nothing had happened. I cannot vouch for this story, since our party had no time to make a protracted halt at the great altitude which is the favorite and almost only habitat of the bighorn. Indeed, I must confess to never having seen him alive; but I have found the hunters of this country more strictly and conscientiously accurate in regard to facts, than any class of men from whom I have ever sought information. The theories by which they explain their facts have no more value than attaches to those of uneducated men anywhere, being, of course, frequently in diametrical opposition to established principles of science, and arising from a confusion of concomitant circumstances with the idea of cause and effect. But their report of matters lying wholly within experience is more trustworthy than that of the best educated savant, their eyes, ears, and all their senses being trained to a vigilant keenness which nothing escapes, and their freedom from superstition (a constant element of error in information given by the wildwoodsmen of other nations) securing them from the danger of mystical exaggeration. I believe I have before referred to an instance of this in the notion of prairie-dogs, owls, and snakes all inhabiting the same burrow. I was perpetually assured by plain, practical frontiersmen that the notion was a correct one, and after putting the question to repeated careful tests, discovered that they were right and the savant was wrong. So I can conceive it possible that the Rocky Mountain sheep does dive headlong from precipices and break his fall by a pair of horns for whose magnificent spiral curves and immense size there can scarcely be imagined any other, and certainly no better use. But it needs an enthusiast indeed to study an animal who keeps his admirers a week at the perpetual snow-line before vouchsafing them so much as a glimpse of him. The young station-keeper's cabin was not far from that altitude. It was situated on a narrow shelf of one of the highest ranges, in a dense grove of firs and pines, and built of nicely hewn logs, cut close at hand. When we consider that, with the exception of this timber which made his dwelling, and the water which trickled from the adjacent snow-peaks for his drink, every necessary of life both for his horses, his partner, and himself, had to be brought to this solitary crest of the Continent all the way from the Missouri River (nine hundred and thirteen miles) by wagon, we may form some proximate idea of the indomitable energy required of the man, who, like Ben Holladay, could keep in steady running order a daily freight and passenger line across the entire Continent. A hitch in the machinery of this vast system, occurring in the stables or granaries of this station, packed away as it is in the loneliest recesses of the world's topmost ridge,_the furthest-off place, so to speak, that mortal can imagine,—anything awry here may throw out of gear important interests and arrangements in St. Louis or San Francisco. But things did not go awry; for one single tireless man, with the finest talent for business combinations that exists in America, was forever dropping into cabins under the snow-peaks and adobes sweltering on the sand of the desert; making the master's eye felt by the very horses; creating a belief in his omnipresence, and a sense that it was

« ZurückWeiter »