Read CHAPTER TWO of A Mountain Boyhood , free online book, by Joe Mills, on ReadCentral.com.

GETTING ACQUAINTED WITH WILD COUNTRY AND ANIMALS

Parson Lamb’s ranch consisted of a fenced garden tract surrounded on every side for miles by high mountains that shut it in. There was heavy forest on the slopes above the ranch; and out of these came many lively little streams that were almost as cold as their parent snowbanks.

I hoarded my few remaining dollars. The Parson gave me room and board, in return for which I helped about the place, doing various chores, such as wood-splitting and clearing land for more garden, and occasionally going the nine miles to the village for the mail. My work took only a small part of my time, leaving me free to explore the near-by region, with its deep, evergreen forests, and the wild animals which lived in them.

Many were the tales the tall, rawboned Parson told of his early pioneer days (for he had lived there since the early seventies, and was a loquacious old fellow), as he and his wife, Jane, and I sat beside the granite fireplace, when the coals glowed low and the shadows scurried here and there over the rough logs of the cabin walls. He had been shot and nearly killed by a bandit, gored by a bull, dragged by a frightened horse, and bitten by a bear. Upon one lonely excursion far from any settlement, he had been followed by a huge, stealthy, mountain lion.

Harrowing as were these tales, the one that made me shiver despite the radiant pitch knots, was that of his perilous descent of the precipice on Long’s Peak. Time has not changed the character of that face it is sheer and smooth and icy now, as then. He was probably the first man to attempt its descent, and I was always weak and spent when he ended his story of it, so vividly did he portray its dangers. I sat tense, digging my nails deep into my palms, living through every squirm and twist with him, from the moment he slid down from the comparatively safe “Narrows” to the first niche in the glassy, precipitous wall, till, after many nearly-the-last experiences, he landed safely at its foot. That adventure had almost cost him his life, for he had once missed his foothold, slipped and slid and had hung suspended by one hand for a long, terrible moment.

Always I sat with eyes glued upon the story-teller, thrilling as he talked, planning secretly to emulate his example, proving some of his statements by daily short excursions. However, the Parson was not always away on trips. Sometimes he guided visitors to the top of the Peak or worked on the trail to its summit. He chopped wood, worked in the garden, hunted stray cattle or horses. Frequently he rode off with his Bible under his arm, for he was a circuit rider, carrying the gospel into the wilderness. He gave good, if free, advice, officiated at weddings and funerals, at barn-raisings and log-rollings. He preached or worked as the notion moved him; lingered in one place or rode long trails to fulfill his mission. His own ranch was thirty miles from the railroad, but many of his calls were made on settlers even more remote.

Gradually I extended the scope of my explorations, frequently spending the night abroad, carrying a pair of worn and faded blankets and a little food. A number of times I climbed Long’s Peak alone. On these trips to high country I scouted the high-flung crest of Battle Mountain, Lady Washington, Storm Peak, and Mount Meeker; explored Glacier Gorge, investigated Chasm Lake, and from the top of Peak and Meeker looked down into Wild Basin to the south.

I sketched a rude map of the great basin in my notebook and named it “Land of Many Waters,” because of the scores of small streams that trickled down its inclosing mountain sides. The oval bowl I estimated to be fifteen miles long by about half as wide, its sides formed of mountain slopes densely wooded up to bleak timberline. Save the murmur of falling water, or the wind upon the heights, it was a land of silence. Small streams converged, dropped into deep canyons and reached the river that rumbled far below. There were vivid, emerald lakes everywhere some lost in the woods near the river, others pocketed behind the ridges, while still more could be seen up above naked timberline.

I returned, thrilled with the thought of exploring Wild Basin, sought the Parson and told him my ambition. At first he was much amused, but when he found I was serious he grew grave.

“There’s no neighbors over that way,” he objected. “If anything happens, you’ll be beyond help.” Even though he was older and much more experienced, I thought him hardly qualified, after his own foolhardy adventures, to discourage me; but I decided to wait until fall before setting out. This delay would enable me to know more about the mountains, to add to my experience, and better fit me to cope with the emergencies of that inviting, great unknown Wild Basin.

Everywhere I found strange birds and animals, and began to get acquainted with them. The handsome, black and white, long-tailed magpies were much like the crows I had known in Kansas, so far as wariness was concerned. The Rocky Mountain long-crested jays, quite unlike our prairie jays, much more brilliant in coloring, their gorgeous coats of turquoise blue and black flashing in the sunshine, were continually bickering, and following me through the woods to see what I was about. Chickadees and nuthatches were always inspecting the trees for food, running up and down, paying no attention to me and going about their business with cheerful little chirrups that expressed their contentment. Occasionally a crow flew up the valley with raucous calls; and sometimes a raven pursued his way toward the deeper woods. Meadow larks and robins were everywhere.

Woodpeckers and flickers did their bit to keep vermin off the trees, and performed daily operations on trunk and limb, removing borers and beetles that had penetrated beneath the bark, thus saving the lives of many evergreen monarchs. Around ten and eleven thousand feet there were campbirds, Canada jays, friendly and inquisitive; on first acquaintance they often took food from my hands, and helped themselves freely of any food accessible in camp. They were unruffled, flitting softly from tree to tree, with little flapping, calling low, and in a sweetly confidential tone.

However friendly I found the birds, the big game animals were extremely wary. I mentioned the fact to the Parson.

“They’ve been shot at,” was his explanation. “Every time they’ve come in contact with men they’ve suffered. They know men are dangerous, always have guns.”

In spite of the Parson’s observations we always had wild game hanging in the log meat house; there was never any question about securing whatever we wanted in that line. Except during the winter months, deer could be had with little effort. But the elk had practically vanished; occasionally a lone survivor strayed into the ranch valley. There were bears, of course, shy and fearful, in the rough, unsettled country. We had great variety of meat, venison, Bighorn sheep, grouse, ptarmigan, wild pigeon, sometimes squirrel and, rarely, bear steaks.

Wherever I went, even in the far-away places where few men had ever been, the deer and elk and bear were very wild, and I found it impossible to approach them unless the wind was from them to me, and I moved forward carefully hidden. I spent many eventful days, walking, climbing, sitting motionless to watch the scampering chipmunks, or to invite the birds up close. Thus, a little at a time, I came to know the habits of the wild folks I met; learned their likes and dislikes the things that excited their curiosity, and that frightened them away in panic.

Upon my first climb to the top of Long’s Peak alone, I halted above timberline and stared about in amazement at the wide stretches of rock-strewn slopes. From a distance these had appeared no larger than a back yard, but a close-up revealed they were miles across; and instead of being barren, were a series of hanging gardens, one above another, each of different shape and size, and all green with grass and with a hundred different kinds of wild flowers waving in the sunshine. I counted more than fifty varieties, none of which I knew, and still they seemed endless.

Usually I wandered off the trail to follow birds or animals. In the arctic-like zone above were birds entirely strange to me, and animals that never came down to the valley of the ranch. It was not long before I discovered that nearly all birds and animals live at a certain zone of altitude, rarely straying above or below it.

Occasionally I heard a queer “squee-ek.” It sounded close, yet its maker was invisible. Many times I looked up, searching the air overhead for the elusive “squee-eker.” At last I came upon a bunch of grass, no larger than a water pail, and stopped to examine it. Grass and flowers had been piled loosely in an irregular heap, resembling a miniature haystack.

“Something making a nest,” I observed aloud.

“Squee-ek,” denied a shrill voice almost at my elbow.

Ten feet away upon a bowlder that rose above the rest of the rocks, sat a small animal which at first I mistook for a young rabbit. In shape and size he closely resembled a quarter-grown cottontail, but his ears were different from any rabbit’s, being short and round. His eyes were beady; somehow he made me think of a rat. He ran down the rock and climbed to another perch. Not even so much tail as a bunny none at all. In some respects he resembled a rabbit, a squirrel and a prairie dog. His actions reminded me of all of them. In fact, he is sometimes called “Rock Rabbit” and “Little Chief Hare.” He may have other names besides.

I watched the interesting little fellow for some time and later found his actions characteristic of his tribe. He literally makes hay while the summer shines. He is the only harvester I ever saw who works on the run. He dashed at top speed, without stopping for breath, bit off a mouthful of grass and again ran pell-mell for his growing stack. He scampered down its side, then leaped from an adjacent rock to its top, laden with his bundle of hay. Evidently he found the alpine summer short and felt it necessary to step lively. Altitude, that convenient scapegoat of tenderfeet, did not seem to affect his wind or his endurance. He stacked his harvest in one corner of the field from which he cut it. He cut flowers along with the grass. Perhaps he used them for flavor as grandmother put rose-geranium leaves in her crab-apple jelly. The haycock he built was about the size of a bucket I have since seen them as large as bushel baskets. His tiny fields lay between bowlders; some of them were but a few inches square, others a foot, several a yard, perhaps.

I was interested to learn if the little haycocks were blown away by the timberline gales, so returned later, not really expecting to find them. Nor were they in the same location, but their owners, not the wind, had moved them. Evidently, as soon as the hay was cured, it was stored for safe-keeping, usually beneath the overhang of a rock, away from the wind.

I was then curious to see how the cony would transport his hay in winter. Many of his under-rock passages would, at that season, be filled with snow, forcing him to appear on the surface where the wind was often strong enough to blow me over, to say nothing of what it would do to the little midget in fur with a load of hay attached. He met the storm situation easily. Whenever he exhausted one hayloft, he moved his home to another. Thus he solved the transportation question and gained a new home at the same time. Several times, upon digging beneath the slide rock, I discovered cony dens, merely openings far down between the jumbled rocks, beyond the reach of wind and weather. They were of great variety, large, small, wide, narrow; all ready to move into. They were the conies’ castles, ready refuges from enemies, their devious passages as effective as drawbridge or portcullis.

The cony is something like the heaver far down on the flats below; working at top speed when he does work, and then resting for many months. Outside the brief harvest period I have found him sitting idly atop a rock, napping in the sun, dreaming apparently; thus for days and months he is idle, always harmless a condition that does not apply to human beings under similar circumstances. He is energetic, ambitious, courageous, and acrobatic. He is the scout of the mountain top, always alert and friendly.

The altitude zone of the cony I found to be between eleven and thirteen thousand feet. He and the Bighorn, ptarmigan, weasels and foxes are mountain-top dwellers throughout the year. Marmots hibernate during the long alpine winters. But the cony I have seen on sunny days in January; his welcome “squee-ek,” piercing the roar of the wind, has greeted me on the lonely storm-swept heights when not another living thing was in sight.

But in spite of his living in the out-of-the-way world the cony has enemies for whom he is always watching. In summer there are hawks and eagles, foxes and coyotes. In winter his feathered foes depart, but the foxes remain, as do the weasels. Sitting motionless in the midst of jumbled rocks I have faded into the bowlder fields, and thus have been able to watch the cony and his enemies. Usually his “squee-ek” announced the appearance of a foe before I discovered it. Then, if the enemy was a bird or a beast, he merely hugged the rock, watching alertly until he was discovered, then flipped out of sight to the safety of rocky retreat, giving a defiant “squee-ek” as he went. But if a weasel appeared...

I sat watching a cony one day in early fall as he lay in the sunshine upon a bowlder. From somewhere below us came the distant “squee-ek” of a relative, followed shortly by the shrill whistle of a marmot. The cony sat up suddenly, awake and alertly watching. The signals were repeated. Instantly the little fellow departed from his outpost and hurried away, circling the bowlder, leaping to another, disappearing in the rocks and reappearing again. His actions were so unusual that I wondered what message the signals had carried; to me they were no different than they were when they announced my coming yet the difference must have been plain to the wee furry ears, judging from their owner’s apprehensive actions. Indeed, a weasel was abroad seeking his quarry. When his presence was announced, neither the cony nor I could see him because of an intervening upthrust of rock.

Soon the weasel appeared, circling the rock where the cony had been sunning himself, searching beneath it, hurrying along the tunnels through which the cony had fled. Emerging upon the bowlder, he paused for a few seconds as he looked in all directions. The weasel was brownish-yellow in color. I was to learn later that he changed to pure white in winter.

I sprang to my feet and pursued him, shouting as I ran, throwing rocks and attempting to scare him off. Losing track of both pursuer and pursued, I stopped for breath. Suddenly, from almost beneath my feet, the agile villain reappeared, staring at me with bright, bold eyes, advancing toward me as though to attack. He was no coward; with amazing agility he dodged a rock I threw at him, turning a back-spring and landing at my feet. For a moment we glared at each other, then he made off as though utterly unconscious of my presence.

I watched the long slender body disappear among the rocks in the opposite direction to that taken by the cony, standing for a moment to regain my breath and recover from my surprise.

Suddenly there was a shrill whistle behind me. I jumped and whirled about. Twenty feet away a marmot stood erect atop a rock, eying me inquiringly, watching every movement. He had whistled his signal about me, whether good or bad news I could not detect, but from the distance came other whistles in reply. He was the cony’s ally, broadcasting information about the skirmish taking place before his eyes; but whether he was attempting to interfere and divert my attention, I could not make out. Certainly, though, he was giving information, signaling my presence to all within hearing. My intrusion upon the heights in summer has ever been announced by the conies and the marmots.

From another direction came a second whistle; apparently I was surrounded. Then, as I moved, the second marmot hurried away from his observation post. He was short-legged, reddish-yellow in color, with a bushy tail, and he ran with great effort but with very little speed, like a fat boy in a foot race.

Down in the valley near the ranch were numerous grouse, old and young, so tame that it was like knocking over pet chickens to kill them. But there was a strange bird above timberline, the ptarmigan, the arctic quail of the north fool hens, the Parson told me. These birds were mottled in color, matching the rocks among which they lived, and so closely did their color blend with their environment it was impossible to distinguish bird from rock so long as the fowl remained still. It was because they depended so utterly upon their protective coloration, making no effort to get out of the way but acting with utmost stupidity, that they came to be called “fool hens.”

The days I spent above timberline were the most wonderful of all. From high above the world I could see tier upon tier of distant, snow-capped mountains ghost ranges and southward, at the horizon, loomed Pike’s Peak a hundred airline miles away, a giant pyramid above the foothills, standing sentinel over the vast, flat plains that reached to its foot.

As weeks passed and my interest in the wild things increased, I began to wish for a cabin of my own, a home or a den to which I could retreat and spend the time as I desired. Wherever I rambled I was alert for a location for my little house. I was not yet old enough to take up a homestead and claim land for myself.

Climbing to the summits of various promontories I planned the sort of cabin I would like to build there; I’d have a dog, and a horse too, and a camera I began to doubt whether I’d want my rifle for as I developed my acquaintance with the animals I found myself less eager to shoot them.

Hunting and trapping was the habit of everyone I knew; even back in Kansas the boys and men had gone shooting at every opportunity; and the few men I encountered upon the trails in the Rockies were for the most part real trappers and hunters, following the trade for a living. They gave no thought to the cruelty of their traps or the suffering their operations occasioned, It is not strange, then, that such men saw no harm in their actions, for they considered all game fair prey.

Occasionally I left my gun at home and found that I rambled the heights above timberline in a changed mood from when I carried it. The animals were more friendly, perhaps my actions were more open and aboveboard. My rifle naturally inspired a desire to shoot something; a mountain sheep, a bear, even the fat marmots did not escape my deadly fire.

But, without a gun there was interest everywhere. Many times I laughed at the antics of the animals, especially at the awkward, lumbering haste of the marmots. These animals, while very curious, were quick to take alarm. They would climb to a lookout post at the top of a rock, watching me eagerly and whistling mild gossip for the delectation of their neighbors who could not see me. One day, far skyward, I came upon an exceedingly fat marmot busily eating grass in a narrow little hayland between bowlders. He must have weighed more than twenty pounds, but this fact did not deter him from adding additional weight for the long, winter sleep. At best his active period was short, his hibernation long, so he ate and slept and ate again through all the hours of daylight. At my approach he reluctantly left off eating, crept up a rock and whistled mildly as though merely curious. For a time I amused him by advancing, retreating, and circling his rock.

Suddenly I dropped out of sight behind a bowlder. Instantly his whistle carried a note of warning. So long as I remained in sight I was merely a curiosity, but the instant I dropped from sight, I became a suspicious character. Again he broadcasted sharp warning to all within hearing. From near and far came answering marmot shrillings, and from near by a cony “squee-eked” his quick alarm.

My reappearance reassured the marmot. He whistled again, and I thought I distinguished a note of disgust or of disappointment.

This marmot lived on the south slope of the big moraine that shoulders against Lady Washington, neighboring peak to the giant mountain, Long’s Peak. Sometimes I found the roly-poly fellow saving hay by eating it, or asleep in the sun on an exposed rock. Often he ventured down into the canyon at the foot of the moraine to investigate the grass that grew down there.

One day as I sat atop the big moraine, I heard his shrill whistle from the edge of the trees in the canyon below. It was somehow different from any signal I had heard him give before, but just how it was different I could not make out. The notes were the same, but the tone was different that was it, the tone had changed. Then the reason for the difference came out of the scattered trees a grizzly bear stalked deliberately into the open and sat down facing the huge bowlder upon which the marmot sat.

The marmot stood erect on his hind legs, eying the bear warily, prepared to dash for his den beneath the rock the instant the visitor made an unfriendly move. But the bear was a very stupid fellow; he took no note of the marmot. Instead, he looked off across the canyon, swung his head slowly to and fro as though thinking deeply of something a hundred miles away. He was a young bear with a shiny new coat of summer fur. He had just had a bath in the stream where ice water gushed from beneath a snowbank.

The marmot gave a second whistle, carrying less fear. Apparently the slow-moving, sleepy bear meant no harm. For half an hour the marmot watched alertly, then slid down beneath the bowlders and started eating. From time to time he sat stiffly erect, peering suspiciously at the intruder. But since the bear made no overt move, he continued his feeding as though he were too hungry to wait until his uninvited guest departed.

At length the bear rolled over on his back with all four feet in the air. The marmot surveyed the performance for a few seconds, then went on feeding, gradually grazing out beyond the shelter of the rock beneath which he had his den. The bear “paid him no mind,” apparently asleep in the sunshine. Slowly the marmot fed away from the rock, the farther he ventured the more luxuriant his feast, for the grass was eaten off short around his dooryard. For an hour I watched every move of that silent drama, trying to guess the outcome, wondering if the bear were really asleep. All at once the little gourmand whistled reassuringly: “All right, it’s a friend.”

The marmot was not more surprised than myself at what happened next. The bear lay perhaps a hundred feet from the marmot’s home, and the marmot had fed perhaps forty feet from it a distance he could quickly cover if the visitor showed unfriendly symptoms.

But there were no symptoms. It was all over so quickly that I was left dazed and breathless. There was a small bowlder about four feet high in the midst of a tiny hayfield where the marmot fed. The unsuspecting whistler fed into the little field, passed behind the rock, and was out of sight for just a second. At that instant the bear came to life, leaped to his feet and dashed toward the den beneath the rock, cutting off the marmot’s retreat.

Too late the quarry saw the bear. It made a frantic dash for home and shelter, its fat body working desperately, its short legs flying. Ten feet from the den the bear flattened the marmot with a single quick slap of his paw. Then he sat down to eat his dinner. His acting had been perfect; he had fooled me as well as the marmot.