Elinore P. Stewart’s “Letters of a Woman Homesteader” continued:
September 28, 1909.
Dear Mrs. Coney,—
Your second card just reached me and I am plumb glad because, although I answered your other, I was wishing I could write you, for I have had the most charming adventure.
It is the custom here for as many women as care to to go in a party over into Utah to Ashland (which is over a hundred miles away) after fruit. They usually go in September, and it takes a week to make the trip. They take wagons and camp out and of course have a good time, but, the greater part of the way, there isn’t even the semblance of a road and it is merely a semblance anywhere. They came over to invite me to join them. I was of two minds—I wanted to go, but it seemed a little risky and a big chance for discomfort, since we would have to cross the Uinta Mountains, and a snowstorm likely any time. But I didn’t like to refuse outright, so we left it to Mr. Stewart. His “Ye’re nae gang” sounded powerful final, so the ladies departed in awed silence and I assumed a martyr-like air and acted like a very much abused woman, although he did only what I wanted him to do. At last, in sheer desperation he told me the “bairn canna stand the treep,” and that was why he was so determined. I knew why, of course, but I continued to look abused lest he gets it into his head that he can boss me. After he had been reduced to the proper plane of humility and had explained and begged my pardon and had told me to consult only my own pleasure about going and coming and using his horses, only not to “expoose” the bairn, why, I forgave him and we were friends once more.
Next day all the men left for the roundup, to be gone a week. I knew I never could stand myself a whole week. In a little while the ladies came past on their way to Ashland. They were all laughing and were so happy that I really began to wish I was one of the number, but they went their way and I kept wanting to go somewhere. I got reckless and determined to do something real bad. So I went down to the barn and saddled Robin Adair, placed a pack on “Jeems McGregor,” then Jerrine and I left for a camping-out expedition.
It was nine o’clock when we started and we rode hard until about four, when I turned Robin loose, saddle and all, for I knew he would go home and some one would see him and put him into the pasture. We had gotten to where we couldn’t ride anyway, so I put Jerrine on the pack and led “Jeems” for about two hours longer; then, as I had come to a good place to camp, we stopped.
While we had at least two good hours of daylight, it gets so cold here in the evening that fire is very necessary. We had been climbing higher into the mountains all day and had reached a level tableland where the grass was luxuriant and there was plenty of wood and water. I unpacked “Jeems” and staked him out, built a roaring fire, and made our bed in an angle of a sheer wall of rock where we would be protected against the wind. Then I put some potatoes into the embers, as Baby and I are both fond of roasted potatoes. I started to a little spring to get water for my coffee when I saw a couple of jack rabbits playing, so I went back for my little shotgun. I shot one of the rabbits, so I felt very like Leather-stocking because I had killed but one when I might have gotten two. It was fat and young, and it was but the work of a moment to dress it and hang it up on a tree. Then I fried some slices of bacon, made myself a cup of coffee, and Jerrine and I sat on the ground and ate. Everything smelled and tasted so good! This air is so tonic that one gets delightfully hungry. Afterward we watered and restaked “Jeems,” I rolled some logs on to the fire, and then we sat and enjoyed the prospect.
The moon was so new that its light was very dim, but the stars were bright. Presently a long, quivering wail arose and was answered from a dozen hills. It seemed just the sound one ought to hear in such a place. When the howls ceased for a moment we could hear the subdued roar of the creek and the crooning of the wind in the pines. So we rather enjoyed the coyote chorus and were not afraid, because they don’t attack people. Presently we crept under our Navajos and, being tired, were soon asleep.
I was awakened by a pebble striking my cheek. Something prowling on the bluff above us had dislodged it and it struck me. By my Waterbury it was four o’clock, so I arose and spitted my rabbit. The logs had left a big bed of coals, but some ends were still burning and had burned in such a manner that the heat would go both under and over my rabbit. So I put plenty of bacon grease over him and hung him up to roast. Then I went back to bed. I didn’t want to start early because the air is too keen for comfort early in the morning.
The sun was just gilding the hilltops when we arose. Everything, even the barrenness, was beautiful. We have had frosts, and the quaking aspens were a trembling field of gold as far up the stream as we could see. We were ‘way up above them and could look far across the valley. We could see the silvery gold of the willows, the russet and bronze of the currants, and patches of cheerful green showed where the pines were. The splendor was relieved by a background of sober gray-green hills, but even on them gay streaks and patches of yellow showed where rabbit-brush grew. We washed our faces at the spring,—the grasses that grew around the edge and dipped into the water were loaded with ice,—our rabbit was done to a turn, so I made some delicious coffee, Jerrine got herself a can of water, and we breakfasted. Shortly afterwards we started again. We didn’t know where we were going, but we were on our way.
That day was more toilsome than the last, but a very happy one. The meadowlarks kept singing like they were glad to see us. But we were still climbing and soon got beyond the larks and sage chickens and up into the timber, where there are lots of grouse. We stopped to noon by a little lake, where I got two small squirrels and a string of trout. We had some trout for dinner and salted the rest with the squirrels in an empty can for future use. I was anxious to get a grouse and kept close watch, but was never quick enough. Our progress was now slower and more difficult, because in places we could scarcely get through the forest. Fallen trees were everywhere and we had to avoid the branches, which was powerful hard to do. Besides, it was quite dusky among the trees long before night, but it was all so grand and awe-inspiring. Occasionally there was an opening through which we could see the snowy peaks, seemingly just beyond us, toward which we were headed. But when you get among such grandeur you get to feel how little you are and how foolish is human endeavor, except that which reunites us with the mighty force called God. I was plumb uncomfortable, because all my own efforts have always been just to make the best of everything and to take things as they come.
At last we came to an open side of the mountain where the trees were scattered. We were facing south and east, and the mountain we were on sheered away in a dangerous slant. Beyond us still greater wooded mountains blocked the way, and in the cañon between night had already fallen. I began to get scary. I could only think of bears and catamounts, so, as it was five o’clock, we decided to camp. The trees were immense. The lower branches came clear to the ground and grew so dense that any tree afforded a splendid shelter from the weather, but I was nervous and wanted one that would protect us against any possible attack. At last we found one growing in a crevice of what seemed to be a sheer wall of rock. Nothing could reach us on two sides, and in front two large trees had fallen so that I could make a log heap which would give us warmth and make us safe. So with rising spirits I unpacked and prepared for the night. I soon had a roaring fire up against the logs and, cutting away a few branches, let the heat into as snug a bedroom as any one could wish. The pine needles made as soft a carpet as the wealthiest could afford. Springs abound in the mountains, so water was plenty. I staked “Jeems” quite near so that the firelight would frighten away any wild thing that tried to harm him. Grass was very plentiful, so when he was made “comfy” I made our bed and fried our trout. The branches had torn off the bag in which I had my bread, so it was lost in the forest, but who needs bread when they have good, mealy potatoes? In a short time we were eating like Lent was just over. We lost all the glory of the sunset except what we got by reflection, being on the side of the mountain we were, with the dense woods between. Big sullen clouds kept drifting over and a wind got lost in the trees that kept them rocking and groaning in a horrid way. But we were just as cozy as we could be and rest was as good as anything.
I wish you could once sleep on the kind of bed we enjoyed that night. It was both soft and firm, with the clean, spicy smell of the pine. The heat from our big fire came in and we were warm as toast. It was so good to stretch out and rest. I kept thinking how superior I was since I dared to take such an outing when so many poor women down in Denver were bent on making their twenty cents per hour in order that they could spare a quarter to go to the “show.” I went to sleep with a powerfully self-satisfied feeling, but I awoke to realize that pride goeth before a fall.
I could hardly remember where I was when I awoke, and I could almost hear the silence. Not a tree moaned, not a branch seemed to stir. I arose and my head came in violent contact with a snag that was not there when I went to bed. I thought either I must have grown taller or the tree shorter during the night. As soon as I peered out, the mystery was explained.
Such a snowstorm I never saw! The snow had pressed the branches down lower, hence my bumped head. Our fire was burning merrily and the heat kept the snow from in front. I scrambled out and poked up the fire; then, as it was only five o’clock, I went back to bed. And then I began to think how many kinds of idiot I was. Here I was thirty or forty miles from home, in the mountains where no one goes in the winter and where I knew the snow got to be ten or fifteen feet deep. But I could never see the good of moping, so I got up and got breakfast while Baby put her shoes on. We had our squirrels and more baked potatoes and I had delicious black coffee.
After I had eaten I felt more hopeful. I knew Mr. Stewart would hunt for me if he knew I was lost. It was true, he wouldn’t know which way to start, but I determined to rig up “Jeems” and turn him loose, for I knew he would go home and that he would leave a trail so that I could be found. I hated to do so, for I knew I should always have to be powerfully humble afterwards. Anyway it was still snowing, great, heavy flakes; they looked as large as dollars. I didn’t want to start “Jeems” until the snow stopped because I wanted him to leave a clear trail. I had sixteen loads for my gun and I reasoned that I could likely kill enough food to last twice that many days by being careful what I shot at. It just kept snowing, so at last I decided to take a little hunt and provide for the day. I left Jerrine happy with the towel rolled into a baby, and went along the brow of the mountain for almost a mile, but the snow fell so thickly that I couldn’t see far. Then I happened to look down into the cañon that lay east of us and saw smoke. I looked toward it a long time, but could make out nothing but smoke, but presently I heard a dog bark and I knew I was near a camp of some kind. I resolved to join them, so went back to break my own camp.
At last everything was ready and Jerrine and I both mounted. Of all the times! If you think there is much comfort, or even security, in riding a pack-horse in a snowstorm over mountains where there is no road, you are plumb wrong. Every once in a while a tree would unload its snow down our backs. “Jeems” kept stumbling and threatening to break our necks. At last we got down the mountain-side, where new danger confronted us,—we might lose sight of the smoke or ride into a bog. But at last, after what seemed hours, we came into a “clearing” with a small log house and, what is rare in Wyoming, a fireplace. Three or four hounds set up their deep baying, and I knew by the chimney and the hounds that it was the home of a Southerner. A little old man came bustling out, chewing his tobacco so fast, and almost frantic about his suspenders, which it seemed he couldn’t get adjusted.
As I rode up, he said, “Whither, friend?” I said “Hither.” Then he asked, “Air you spying around for one of them dinged game wardens arter that deer I killed yisteddy?” I told him I had never even seen a game warden and that I didn’t know he had killed a deer. “Wall,” he said, “air you spying around arter that gold mine I diskivered over on the west side of Baldy?” But after a while I convinced him that I was no more nor less than a foolish woman lost in the snow. Then he said, “Light, stranger, and look at your saddle.” So I “lit” and looked, and then I asked him what part of the South he was from. He answered, “Yell County, by gum! The best place in the United States, or in the world, either.” That was my introduction to Zebulon Pike Parker.
Only two “Johnny Rebs” could have enjoyed each other’s company as Zebulon Pike and myself did. He was so small and so old, but so cheerful and so sprightly, and a real Southerner! He had a big, open fireplace with backlogs and andirons. How I enjoyed it all! How we feasted on some of the deer killed “yisteddy,” and real corn-pone baked in a skillet down on the hearth. He was so full of happy recollections and had a few that were not so happy! He is, in some way, a kinsman of Pike of Pike’s Peak fame, and he came west “jist arter the wah” on some expedition and “jist stayed.” He told me about his home life back in Yell County, and I feel that I know all the “young uns.”
There was George Henry, his only brother; and there were Phœbe and “Mothie,” whose real name is Martha; and poor little Mary Ann, whose death was described so feelingly that no one could keep back the tears. Lastly there was little Mandy, the baby and his favorite, but who, I am afraid, was a selfish little beast since she had to have her prunellas when all the rest of the “young uns” had to wear shoes that old Uncle Buck made out of rawhide. But then “her eyes were blue as morning-glories and her hair was jist like corn-silk, so yaller and fluffy.” Bless his simple, honest heart! His own eyes are blue and kind, and his poor, thin little shoulders are so round that they almost meet in front. How he loved to talk of his boyhood days! I can almost see his father and George Henry as they marched away to the “wah” together, and the poor little mother’s despair as she waited day after day for some word, that never came.
Poor little Mary Ann was drowned in the bayou, where she was trying to get water-lilies. She had wanted a white dress all her life and so, when she was dead, they took down the white cross-bar curtains and Mother made the little shroud by the light of a tallow dip. But, being made by hand, it took all the next day, too, so that they buried her by moonlight down back of the orchard under the big elm where the children had always had their swing. And they lined and covered her grave with big, fragrant water-lilies. As they lowered the poor little home-made coffin into the grave the mockingbirds began to sing and they sang all that dewy, moonlight night. Then little Mandy’s wedding to Judge Carter’s son Jim was described. She wore a “cream-colored poplin with a red rose throwed up in it,” and the lace that was on Grandma’s wedding dress. There were bowers of sweet Southern roses and honeysuckle and wistaria. Don’t you know she was a dainty bride?
At last it came out that he had not heard from home since he left it. “Don’t you ever write?” I asked. “No, I am not an eddicated man, although I started to school. Yes’m, I started along of the rest, but they told me it was a Yankee teacher and I was ‘fraid, so when I got most to the schoolhouse I hid in the bushes with my spelling-book, so that is all the learning I ever got. But my mother was an eddicated woman, yes’m, she could both read and write. I have the Bible she give me yit. Yes’m, you jist wait and I’ll show you.” After some rummaging in a box he came back with a small leather-bound Bible with print so small it was hard to read. After turning to the record of births and deaths he handed it to me, his wrinkled old face shining with pride as he said, “There, my mother wrote that with her own hand.” I took the book and after a little deciphered that “Zebulon Pike Parker was born Feb. 10, 1830,” written in the stiff, difficult style of long ago and written with pokeberry ink. He said his mother used to read about some “old feller that was jist covered with biles,” so I read Job to him, and he was full of surprise they didn’t “git some cherry bark and some sasparilly and bile it good and gin it to him.”
He had a side room to his cabin, which was his bedroom; so that night he spread down a buffalo robe and two bearskins before the fire for Jerrine and me. After making sure there were no moths in them, I spread blankets over them and put a sleepy, happy little girl to bed, for he had insisted on making molasses candy for her because they happened to be born on the same day of the month. And then he played the fiddle until almost one o’clock. He played all the simple, sweet, old-time pieces, in rather a squeaky, jerky way, I am afraid, but the music suited the time and the place.
Next morning he called me early and when I went out I saw such a beautiful sunrise, well worth the effort of coming to see. I had thought his cabin in a cañon, but the snow had deceived me, for a few steps from the door the mountains seemed to drop down suddenly for several hundred feet and the first of the snow peaks seemed to lie right at our feet. Around its base is a great swamp, in which the swamp pines grow very thickly and from which a vapor was rising that got about halfway up the snow peak all around. Fancy to yourself a big jewel-box of dark green velvet lined with silver chiffon, the snow peak lying like an immense opal in its center and over all the amber light of a new day. That is what it looked most like.
Well, we next went to the corral, where I was surprised to find about thirty head of sheep. Some of them looked like they should have been sold ten years before. “Don’t you ever sell any of your sheep?” I asked. “No’m. There was a feller come here once and wanted to buy some of my wethers, but I wouldn’t sell any because I didn’t need any money.” Then he went from animal to animal, caressing each and talking to them, calling them each by name. He milked his one cow, fed his two little mules, and then we went back to the house to cook breakfast. We had delicious venison steak, smoking hot, and hoe-cakes and the “bestest” coffee, and honey.
After breakfast we set out for home. Our pack transferred to one of the little mules, we rode “Jeems,” and Mr. Parker rode the other mule. He took us another way, down cañon after cañon, so that we were able to ride all the time and could make better speed. We came down out of the snow and camped within twelve miles of home in an old, deserted ranch house. We had grouse and sage chicken for supper. I was so anxious to get home that I could hardly sleep, but at last I did and was only awakened by the odor of coffee, and barely had time to wash before Zebulon Pike called breakfast. Afterwards we fixed “Jeems’s” pack so that I could still ride, for Zebulon Pike was very anxious to get back to his “critters.”
Poor, lonely, childlike little man! He tried to tell me how glad he had been to entertain me. “Why,” he said, “I was plumb glad to see you and right sorry to have you go. Why, I would jist as soon talk to you as to a nigger. Yes’m, I would. It has been almost as good as talking to old Aunt Dilsey.” If a Yankee had said the same to me I would have demanded instant apology, but I know how the Southern heart longs for the dear, kindly old “niggers,” so I came on homeward, thankful for the first time that I can’t talk correctly.
I got home at twelve and found, to my joy, that none of the men had returned, so I am safe from their superiority for a while, at least.
With many apologies for this outrageous letter, I am