Read Letter XIV of A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, free online book, by Isabella L. Bird, on

Estes park.

I must attempt to put down the trifling events of each day just as they occur. The second time that I was left alone Mr. Nugent came in looking very black, and asked me to ride with him to see the beaver dams on the Black Canyon. No more whistling or singing, or talking to his beautiful mare, or sparkling repartee.

His mood was as dark as the sky overhead, which was black with an impending snowstorm. He was quite silent, struck his horse often, started off on a furious gallop, and then throwing his mare on her haunches close to me, said, “You’re the first man or woman who’s treated me like a human being for many a year.” So he said in this dark mood, but Mr. and Mrs. Dewy, who took a very deep interest in his welfare, always treated him as a rational, intelligent gentleman, and in his better moments he spoke of them with the warmest appreciation. “If you want to know,” he continued, “how nearly a man can become a devil, I’ll tell you now.” There was no choice, and we rode up the canyon, and I listened to one of the darkest tales of ruin I have ever heard or read.

Its early features were very simple. His father was a British officer quartered at Montreal, of a good old Irish family. From his account he was an ungovernable boy, imperfectly educated, and tyrannizing over a loving but weak mother. When seventeen years old he saw a young girl at church whose appearance he described as being of angelic beauty, and fell in love with her with all the intensity of an uncontrolled nature. He saw her three times, but scarcely spoke to her. On his mother opposing his wish and treating it as a boyish folly, he took to drink “to spite her,” and almost as soon as he was eighteen, maddened by the girl’s death, he ran away from home, entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and remained in it for several years, only leaving it because he found even that lawless life too strict for him. Then, being as I suppose about twenty-seven, he entered the service of the United States Government, and became one of the famous Indian scouts of the Plains, distinguishing himself by some of the most daring deeds on record, and some of the bloodiest crimes. Some of these tales I have heard before, but never so terribly told. Years must have passed in that service, till he became a character known through all the West, and much dreaded for his readiness to take offence, and his equal readiness with his revolver. Vain, even in his dark mood, he told me that he was idolized by women, and that in his worst hours he was always chivalrous to good women. He described himself as riding through camps in his scout’s dress with a red scarf round his waist, and sixteen golden curls, eighteen inches long, hanging over his shoulders. The handsome, even superbly handsome, side of his face was towards me as he spoke. As a scout and as an armed escort of emigrant parties he was evidently implicated in all the blood and broil of a lawless region and period, and went from bad to worse, varying his life by drunken sprees, which brought nothing but violence and loss.

The narrative seemed to lack some link, for I next found him on a homestead in Missouri, from whence he came to Colorado a few years ago. There, again, something was dropped out, but I suspect, and not without reason, that he joined one or more of those gangs of “border ruffians” which for so long raided through Kansas, perpetrating such massacres and outrages as that of the Marais du Cygne. His fame for violence and ruffianism preceded him into Colorado, where his knowledge of and love of the mountains have earned him the sobriquet he now bears. He has a squatter’s claim and forty head of cattle, and is a successful trapper besides, but envy and vindictiveness are raging within him. He gets money, goes to Denver, and spends large sums in the maddest dissipation, making himself a terror, and going beyond even such desperadoes as “Texas Jack” and “Wild Bill”; and when the money is done returns to his mountain den, full of hatred and self-scorn, till the next time. Of course I cannot give details.

The story took three hours to tell, and was crowded with terrific illustrations of a desperado’s career, told with a rush of wild eloquence that was truly thrilling.

When the snow, which for some time had been falling, compelled him to break off and guide me to a sheltered place from which I could make my own way back again, he stopped his horse and said, “Now you see a man who has made a devil of himself! Lost! Lost! Lost! I believe in God. I’ve given Him no choice but to put me with ’the devil and his angel.’ I’m afraid to die. You’ve stirred the better nature in me too late. I can’t change. If ever a man were a slave, I am. Don’t speak to me of repentance and reformation. I can’t reform. Your voice reminded me of .” Then in feverish tones, “How dare you ride with me? You won’t speak to me again, will you?” He made me promise to keep one or two things secret whether he were living or dead, and I promised, for I had no choice; but they come between me and the sunshine sometimes, and I wake at night to think of them. I wish I had been spared the regret and excitement of that afternoon. A less ungovernable nature would never have spoken as he did, nor told me what he did; but his proud, fierce soul all poured itself out then, with hatred and self-loathing, blood on his hands and murder in his heart, though even then he could not be altogether other than a gentleman, or altogether divest himself of fascination, even when so tempestuously revealing the darkest points of his character. My soul dissolved in pity for his dark, lost, self-ruined life, as he left me and turned away in the blinding storm to the Snowy Range, where he said he was going to camp out for a fortnight; a man of great abilities, real genius, singular gifts, and with all the chances in life which other men have had. How far more terrible than the “Actum est: periisti” of Cowper is his exclamation, “Lost! Lost! Lost!”

The storm was very severe, and the landmarks being blotted out, I lost my way in the snow, and when I reached the cabin after dark I found it still empty, for the two hunters, on returning, finding that I had gone out, had gone in search of me. The snow cleared off late, and intense frost set in. My room is nearly the open air, being built of unchinked logs, and, as in the open air, one requires to sleep with the head buried in blankets, or the eyelids and breath freeze. The sunshine has been brilliant to-day. I took a most beautiful ride to Black Canyon to look for the horses. Every day some new beauty, or effect of snow and light, is to be seen. Nothing that I have seen in Colorado compares with Estes Park; and now that the weather is magnificent, and the mountain tops above the pine woods are pure white, there is nothing of beauty or grandeur for which the heart can wish that is not here; and it is health giving, with pure air, pure water, and absolute dryness. But there is something very solemn, at times almost overwhelming, in the winter solitude. I have never experienced anything like it even when I lived on the slopes of Hualalai. When the men are out hunting I know not where, or at night, when storms sweep down from Long’s Peak, and the air is full of stinging, tempest-driven snow, and there is barely a probability of any one coming, or of my communication with the world at all, then the stupendous mountain ranges which lie between us and the Plains grow in height till they become impassable barriers, and the bridgeless rivers grow in depth, and I wonder if all my life is to be spent here in washing and sweeping and baking.

To-day has been one of manual labor. We did not breakfast till 9:30, then the men went out, and I never sat down till two. I cleaned the living room and the kitchen, swept a path through the rubbish in the passage room, washed up, made and baked a batch of rolls and four pounds of sweet biscuits, cleaned some tins and pans, washed some clothes, and gave things generally a “redding up.” There is a little thick buttermilk, fully six weeks old, at the bottom of a churn, which I use for raising the rolls; but Mr. Kavan, who makes “lovely” bread, puts some flour and water to turn sour near the stove, and this succeeds admirably.

I also made a most unsatisfactory investigation into the state of my apparel. I came to Colorado now nearly three months ago, with a small carpet-bag containing clothes, none of them new; and these, by legitimate wear, the depredations of calves, and the necessity of tearing some of them up for dish-cloths, are reduced to a single change! I have a solitary pocket handkerchief and one pair of stockings, such a mass of darns that hardly a trace of the original wool remains. Owing to my inability to get money in Denver I am almost without shoes, have nothing but a pair of slippers and some “arctics.” For outer garments well, I have a trained black silk dress, with a black silk polonaise! and nothing else but my old flannel riding suit, which is quite threadbare, and requires such frequent mending that I am sometimes obliged to “dress” for supper, and patch and darn it during the evening. You will laugh, but it is singular that one can face the bitter winds with the mercury at zero and below it, in exactly the same clothing which I wore in the tropics! It is only the extreme dryness of the air which renders it possible to live in such clothing. We have arranged the work better. Mr. Buchan was doing too much, and it was hard for him, as he is very delicate. You will wonder how three people here in the wilderness can have much to do. There are the horses which we keep in the corral to feed on sheaf oats and take to water twice a day, the fowls and dogs to feed, the cow to milk, the bread to make, and to keep a general knowledge of the whereabouts of the stock in the event of a severe snow-storm coming on. Then there is all the wood to cut, as there is no wood pile, and we burn a great deal, and besides the cooking, washing, and mending, which each one does, the men must hunt and fish for their living. Then two sick cows have had to be attended to.

We were with one when it died yesterday. It suffered terribly, and looked at us with the pathetically pleading eyes of a creature “made subject to vanity.” The disposal of its carcass was a difficulty. The wagon horses were in Denver, and when we tried to get the others to pull the dead beast away, they only kicked and plunged, so we managed to get it outside the shed, and according to Mr. Kavan’s prediction, a pack of wolves came down, and before daylight nothing was left but the bones. They were so close to the cabin that their noise was most disturbing, and on looking out several times I could see them all in a heap wrangling and tumbling over each other. They are much larger than the prairie wolf, but equally cowardly, I believe. This morning was black with clouds, and a snowstorm was threatened, and about 700 cattle and a number of horses came in long files from the valleys and canyons where they maraud, their instinct teaching them to seek the open and the protection of man.

I was alone in the cabin this afternoon when Mr. Nugent, whom we believed to be on the Snowy Range, walked in very pale and haggard looking, and coughing severely. He offered to show me the trail up one of the grandest of the canyons, and I could not refuse to go. The Fall River has had its source completely altered by the operations of the beavers. Their engineering skill is wonderful. In one place they have made a lake by damming up the stream; in another their works have created an island, and they have made several falls. Their storehouses, of course, are carefully concealed. By this time they are about full for the winter. We saw quantities of young cotton-wood and aspen trees, with stems about as thick as my arm, lying where these industrious creatures have felled them ready for their use. They always work at night and in concert. Their long, sharp teeth are used for gnawing down the trees, but their mason-work is done entirely with their flat, trowel-like tails. In its natural state the fur is very durable, and is as full of long black hairs as that of the sable, but as sold, all these hairs have been plucked out of it.

The canyon was glorious, ah! glorious beyond any other, but it was a dismal and depressing ride. The dead past buried its dead.

Not an allusion was made to the conversation previously. “Jim’s” manner was courteous, but freezing, and when I left home on my return he said he hardly thought he should be back from the Snowy Range before I left. Essentially an actor, was he, I wonder, posing on the previous day in the attitude of desperate remorse, to impose on my credulity or frighten me; or was it a genuine and unpremeditated outburst of passionate regret for the life which he had thrown away? I cannot tell, but I think it was the last. As I cautiously rode back, the sunset glories were reddening the mountain tops, and the park lay in violet gloom. It was wonderfully magnificent, but oh, so solemn, so lonely! I rode a very large, well-bred mare, with three shoes loose and one off, and she fell with me twice and was very clumsy in crossing the Thompson, which was partly ice and partly a deep ford, but when we reached comparatively level grassy ground I had a gallop of nearly two miles which I enjoyed thoroughly, her great swinging stride being so easy and exhilarating after Birdie’s short action.


This is a piteous day, quite black, freezing hard, and with a fierce north-east wind. The absence of sunshine here, where it is nearly perpetual, has a very depressing effect, and all the scenery appears in its grimness of black and gray. We have lost three horses, including Birdie, and have nothing to entice them with, and not an animal to go and drive them in with. I put my great mare in the corral myself, and Mr. Kavan put his in afterwards and secured the bars, but the wolves were holding a carnival again last night, and we think that the horses were scared and stampeded, as otherwise they would not have leaped the fence. The men are losing their whole day in looking for them. On their return they said that they had seen Mr. Nugent returning to his cabin by the other side and the lower ford of the Thompson, and that he had “an awfully ugly fit on him,” so that they were glad that he did not come near us. The evening is setting in sublime in its blackness. Late in the afternoon I caught a horse which was snuffing at the sheaf oats, and had a splendid gallop on the Longmount trail with the two great hunting dogs. In returning, in the grimness of the coming storm, I had that view of the park which I saw first in the glories of an autumn sunset. Life was all dead; the dragon-flies no longer darted in the sunshine, the cotton-woods had shed their last amber leaves, the crimson trailers of the wild vines were bare, the stream itself had ceased its tinkle and was numb in fetters of ice, a few withered flower stalks only told of the brief bright glory of the summer. The park never had looked so utterly walled in; it was fearful in its loneliness, the ghastliest of white peaks lay sharply outlined against the black snow clouds, the bright river was ice bound, the pines were all black, the world was absolutely shut out. How can you expect me to write letters from such a place, from a life “in which nothing happens”? It really is strange that neither Evans nor Edwards come back. The young men are grumbling, for they were asked to stay here for five days, and they have been here five weeks, and they are anxious to be away camping out for the hunting, on which they depend. There are two calves dying, and we don’t know what to do for them; and if a very severe snow-storm comes on, we can’t bring in and feed eight hundred head of cattle.


The snow began to fall early this morning, and as it is unaccompanied by wind we have the novel spectacle of a smooth white world; still it does not look like anything serious. We have been gradually growing later at night and later in the morning. To-day we did not breakfast till ten. We have been becoming so disgusted with the pickled pork, that we were glad to find it just at an end yesterday, even though we were left without meat for which in this climate the system craves. You can fancy my surprise, on going into the kitchen, to find a dish of smoking steaks of venison on the table. We ate like famished people, and enjoyed our meal thoroughly. Just before I came the young men had shot an elk, which they intended to sell in Denver, and the grand carcass, with great branching antlers, hung outside the shed. Often while vainly trying to swallow some pickled pork I had looked across to the tantalizing animal, but it was not to be thought of. However, this morning, as the young men felt the pinch of hunger even more than I did, and the prospects of packing it to Denver became worse, they decided on cutting into one side, so we shall luxuriate in venison while it lasts. We think that Edwards will surely be up to-night, but unless he brings supplies our case is looking serious. The flour is running low, there is only coffee for one week, and I have only a scanty three ounces of tea left. The baking powder is nearly at an end. We have agreed to economize by breakfasting very late, and having two meals a day instead of three. The young men went out hunting as usual, and I went out and found Birdie, and on her brought in four other horses, but the snow balled so badly that I went out and walked across the river on a very passable ice bridge, and got some new views of the unique grandeur of this place.

Our evenings are social and pleasant. We finish supper about eight, and make up a huge fire. The men smoke while I write to you. Then we draw near the fire and I take my endless mending, and we talk or read aloud. Both are very intelligent, and Mr. Buchan has very extended information and a good deal of insight into character. Of course our circumstances, the likelihood of release, the prospects of snow blocking us in and of our supplies holding out, the sick calves, “Jim’s” mood, the possible intentions of a man whose footprints we have found and traced for three miles, are all topics that often recur, and few of which can be worn threadbare.