« ZurückWeiter »
to my understanding for any pathfinding purposes as if they were cuneiform inscriptions on a slab from Nineveh. Still, every word John Gilbert said was afterward substantiated; and how good reason I personally had to thank my stars that those “fellows” did go astray, as well as who they were, and other matters concerning them, will all plainly appear before the close of this chapter. For the present, I refer to our quandary only as a remarkable illustration of the intuitional sixth sense acquired by a man like Gilbert, in protracted frontier experience. It must be remembered that since the ranch-wagon had passed down to the Republican, “ten days ago,” the tremendous rain-storm, through which we came to Comstock's, had beaten the prairie hard enough to obliterate any vestige of travel on an ordinary road. We kept to the easterly, following John Gilbert's lead, passed the rise in the divide of which I have spoken, and came to the brink of a lofty bluff, from the base of which a broad plain extended two miles to the now clearly visible cotton-wood fringe along the Republican. We were compelled to ride along the edge for nearly three miles further, before we found a draw running back into the divide with sides sufficiently gradual to permit our descent to the river's first bottom. But none of the time demanded by this detour was thrown away. The view from the brink was one of the loveliest in nature. Broad level sunshine flooded the green plain below us, and drifting cloud-shadows brought out the contour of the lofty bluffs, which alternately projected into and receded from the plain on the river's further side. Here and there the fringing cotton-woods broke away, and let up to us pure blue glimpses of the river, itself reflecting the deeper sapphire of the summer sky. The air was wonderfully clear, -distance seemed partially annihilated. The White Rock Buttes, which we knew to be many miles away to the southward, came out clear and strong, so that we could see the undulations of their surface almost as plainly as if they were in the near foreground. The whole extent of territory within our vision was as fertile in appearance as the finest meadow-lands of the East, and so closely simulated cultivation in its smooth rolling downs and level fields that the eye continually looked for signs of human residence, and found ever fresh astonishment in the utter loneliness of the landscape. It was as if some great agricultural nation had suddenly been driven out of its ancient possessions, or stricken quickly asleep by magic in the deep green groves along the river-bank. But without apparent hyperbole it is impossible to convey the strange impression of this lovely region of lawns without mansions, and farms without grange or barn. I am wrong in saying “without mansions;” for on our descent to the broad alluvial level below the bluffs, the faces and voices of merry little colonists greeted us on every hand. The river-bottom was so riddled by the burrows of the prairie-dogs that we had to drive cautiously lest our horses should sink mid-leg deep at every step. I have travelled for miles in Nebraska and Colorado through the villages of these marmots; but I never saw their life so teeming, and their habits so active, as here on the utterly undisturbed and unfrequented border of the Republican. The little creatures made the air lively with their chattering, which is a peculiar short shrill squeak rather than a bark, and the honeycombed soil as far as the eye could see was in motion with their antics. They were to be seen in every variety of position. Here sat one on the top of his burrow, completely out of his hole, resting on his haunches, nearly upright like a squirrel, and peering curiously at us with a pair of shiny black eyes till our neighborhood grew too close for his nerves. Another showed both head and tail out of his door, keeping his more vulnerable middle below the edge of the earth-pile; and the still more cautious dog exhibited a mere nose-tip above his entrenchment, chirping at us occasionally in a querulous manner, as if he were asking what in the world could be our business in his municipality. We made several attempts to get specimens, but failed here, as we indeed did everywhere else where we attempted the thing. In the first place, it was almost impossible to calculate one's aim for an object projecting so short a distance from the ground; and in the second, when one's shots did not go over or fall short, there was always enough life left in the little animal to tumble him down his hole beyond the risk of capture. So we soon abandoned the job. The people on the Plains have an effective but rather tedious way of catching prairie-dogs alive. They draw a barrel of water to some isolated hole that does not communicate with the rest of a village, and drown the occupants out by deluging their cul-de-sac. A couple of days' confinement tames them so thoroughly that they can be handled with impunity, and when they are let loose again they cannot be driven from the neighborhood of the house, but burrow somewhere about the foundation or under the doorstep, coming
at a whistle to be fed with corn as fearlessly as a . .
house-bred puppy. Though called dogs, they have of course no right to the name, belonging to the rodents,
and resembling in all respects the Eastern woodchuck more closely than any other of the tribe with which we are familiar. We shall find them repeatedly hereafter in our progress to the Rocky Mountains, and have occasion to speak of their habits in various localities. I was offered a very pretty and well tamed pair of them at a station two hundred miles east of Denver, and much regretted my inability to close the bargain in consequence of unwillingness to hamper myself with pets all the way to California. We found the Republican a clear stream, about fifteen rods in width at the place where we struck it,full of sandbars and quicksands, with treacherous banks of black and yellow loam, which came near casting our horses when we tried to ford. We managed, however, to get across without “sloughing” where the water was only a little above our hubs. The southern edge of the stream was well timbered with fine old growths, mainly of elm and cotton-wood, under whose shadow we made our camp, and picketed our animals. We were on the Sioux hunting-ground; and although our numbers and armament were sufficiently formidable to warrant us presumably against any attack, in accordance with frontier habits we disposed ourselves between the river and our large wagons, and stacked our guns within easy reach. Here the Eastern members of our party made their first acquaintance with an animal we had known by reputation since the earliest days devoted to the perusal of Mrs. Trimmer. The gifted beaver had left his “sign” on every tree adjoining the bank. If a workman may be known by his chips, the admiration which we felt for an animal hitherto familiar only in the form of old-school hats, was thoroughly well grounded. We saw many trunks a foot in diameter, and some as thick as eighteen inches, gnawed through with an even bevel all round the girth, as neatly as an experienced wood-chopper could have cut them with an axe. Beside the trees, which the next strong wind or another night's felling-bee of the beavers would tumble to the ground, we found immense numbers of logs, varying from the full length of the trunk to three feet, lying near the severed stumps, awaiting deportation to some projected dam, or further truncation by the tools which had felled them. A neater workshop or nicer work than this on the bank of the Republican never existed among the professors of any handicraft. Where the logs had suffered their final reduction, they were of as uniform length as if they had been cut by the gauge, and their conical extremities of such polished smoothness that one had to examine closely before perceiving the channels made by the ivory gauges of the little workmen. With true human dishonesty, we helped ourselves freely from their woodpile, and in a few moments had a blazing camp-fire and a kettle singing pleasant prophecies of coffee. Before the water boiled, and while the antelope was dressing for dinner (the last he should ever be invited to, poor little fellow !) a few of us strolled out beyond the timber with our field-glasses. We did not need them to discover that the crown of the whole adjoining bluff was alive with buffalo. There were certainly quite a thousand in plain sight; yet these were only the second line of outposts, – the first, as we had seen, having already been pushed across the river as skirmishers. Some of them stood on the brink of a clay precipice, fifty or sixty feet high, surveying the horizon, but without any apparent emotion in view of