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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 13. The Silent Forests Of The Dread Skeena
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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 13. The Silent Forests Of The Dread Skeena Post by :jonny_fox Category :Nonfictions Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1637

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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 13. The Silent Forests Of The Dread Skeena

CHAPTER XIII. THE SILENT FORESTS OF THE DREAD SKEENA

We were awake early and our first thought was of our horses. They were quite safe and cropping away on the dry stalks with patient diligence. We saddled up and pushed on, for food was to be had only in the valley, whose blue and white walls we could see far ahead of us. After nearly six hours' travel we came out of the forest, out into the valley of the middle fork of the Skeena, into sunlight and grass in abundance, where we camped till the following morning, giving the horses time to recuperate.

We were done with smiling valleys--that I now perceived. We were coming nearer to the sub-arctic country, grim and desolate. The view was magnificent, but the land seemed empty and silent except of mosquitoes, of which there were uncounted millions. On our right just across the river rose the white peaks of the Kisgagash Mountains. Snow was still lying in the gullies only a few rods above us.

The horses fed right royally and soon forgot the dearth of the big divide. As we were saddling up to move the following morning, several outfits came trailing down into the valley, glad as we had been of the splendid field of grass. They were led by a grizzled old American, who cursed the country with fine fervor.

"I can stand any kind of a country," said he, "except one where there's no feed. And as near's I can find out we're in fer hell's own time fer feed till we reach them prairies they tell about."

After leaving this flat, we had the Kuldo (a swift and powerful river) to cross, but we found an old Indian and a girl camped on the opposite side waiting for us. The daughter, a comely child about sixteen years of age, wore a calico dress and "store" shoes. She was a self-contained little creature, and clearly in command of the boat, and very efficient. It was no child's play to put the light canoe across such a stream, but the old man, with much shouting and under command of the girl, succeeded in crossing six times, carrying us and our baggage. As we were being put across for the last time it became necessary for some one to pull the canoe through the shallow water, and the little girl, without hesitation, leaped out regardless of new shoes, and tugged at the rope while the old man poled at the stern, and so we were landed.

As a recognition of her resolution I presented her with a dollar, which I tried to make her understand was her own, and not to be given to her father. Up to that moment she had been very shy and rather sullen, but my present seemed to change her opinion of us, and she became more genial at once. She was short and sturdy, and her little footsteps in the trail were strangely suggestive of civilization.

After leaving the river we rose sharply for about three miles. This brought us to the first notice on the trail which was signed by the road-gang, an ambiguous scrawl to the effect that feed was to be very scarce for a long, long way, and that we should feed our horses before going forward. The mystery of the sign lay in the fact that no feed was in sight, and if it referred back to the flat, then it was in the nature of an Irish bull.

There was a fork in the trail here, and another notice informed us that the trail to the right ran to the Indian village of Kuldo. Rain threatened, and as it was late and no feed promised, I determined to camp. Turning to the right down a tremendously steep path (the horses sliding on their haunches), we came to an old Indian fishing village built on a green shelf high above the roaring water of the Skeena.

The people all came rushing out to see us, curious but very hospitable. Some of the children began plucking grasses for the horses, but being unaccustomed to animals of any kind, not one would approach within reach of them. I tried, by patting Ladrone and putting his head over my shoulder, to show them how gentle he was, but they only smiled and laughed as much as to say, "Yes, that is all right for _you_, but we are afraid." They were all very good-looking, smiling folk, but poorly dressed. They seemed eager to show us where the best grass grew, demanded nothing of us, begged nothing, and did not attempt to overcharge us. There were some eight or ten families in the canyon, and their houses were wretched shacks, mere lodges of slabs with vents in the peak. So far as they could, they conformed to the ways of white men.

Here they dwell by this rushing river in the midst of a gloomy and trackless forest, far removed from any other people of any sort. They were but a handful of human souls. As they spoke little Chinook and almost no English, it was difficult to converse with them. They had lost the sign language or seemed not to use it. Their village was built here because the canyon below offered a capital place for fishing and trapping, and the principal duty of the men was to watch the salmon trap dancing far below. For the rest they hunt wild animals and sell furs to the Hudson Bay Company at Hazleton, which is their metropolis.

They led us to the edge of the village and showed us where the road-gang had set their tent, and we soon had a fire going in our little stove, which was the amazement and delight of a circle of men, women, and children, but they were not intrusive and asked for nothing.

Later in the evening the old man and the girl who had helped to ferry us across the Kuldo came down the hill and joined the circle of our visitors.

She smiled as we greeted her and so did the father, who assured me he was the ty-ee (boss) of the village, which he seemed to be.

After our supper we distributed some fruit among the children, and among the old women some hot coffee with sugar, which was a keen delight to them. Our desire to be friendly was deeply appreciated by these poor people, and our wish to do them good was greater than our means. The way was long before us and we could not afford to give away our supplies. How they live in winter I cannot understand; probably they go down the river to Hazleton.

I began to dread the dark green dripping firs which seemed to encompass us like some vast army. They chilled me, oppressed me. Moreover, I was lame in every joint from the toil of crossing rivers, climbing steep hills, and dragging at cinches. I had walked down every hill and in most cases on the sharp upward slopes in order to relieve Ladrone of my weight.

As we climbed back to our muddy path next day, we were filled with dark forebodings of the days to come. We climbed all day, keeping the bench high above the river. The land continued silent. It was a wilderness of firs and spruce pines. It was like a forest of bronze. Nothing but a few rose bushes and some leek-like plants rose from the mossy floor, on which the sun fell, weak and pale, in rare places. No beast or bird uttered sound save a fishing eagle swinging through the canyon above the roaring water.

In the gloom the voice of the stream became a raucous roar. On every side cold and white and pitiless the snowy peaks lifted above the serrate rim of the forest.

Life was scant here. In all the mighty spread of forest between the continental divide on the east and the coast range at the west there are few living things, and these few necessarily centre in the warm openings on the banks of the streams where the sunlight falls or in the high valleys above the firs. There are no serpents and no insects.

As we mounted day by day we crossed dozens of swift little streams cold and gray with silt. Our rate of speed was very low. One of our horses became very weak and ill, evidently poisoned, and we were forced to stop often to rest him. All the horses were weakening day by day.

Toward the middle of the third day, after crossing a stream which came from the left, the trail turned as if to leave the Skeena behind. We were mighty well pleased and climbed sharply and with great care of our horses till we reached a little meadow at the summit, very tired and disheartened, for the view showed only other peaks and endless waves of spruce and fir. We rode on under drizzling skies and dripping trees. There was little sunshine and long lines of heavily weighted gray clouds came crawling up the valley from the sea to break in cold rain over the summits.

The horses again grew hungry and weak, and it was necessary to use great care in crossing the streams. We were lame and sore with the toil of the day, and what was more depressing found ourselves once more upon the banks of the Skeena, where only an occasional bunch of bluejoint could be found. The constant strain of watching the horses and guiding them through the mud began to tell on us both. There was now no moment of ease, no hour of enjoyment. We had set ourselves grimly to the task of bringing our horses through alive. We no longer rode, we toiled in silence, leading our saddle-horses on which we had packed a part of our outfit to relieve the sick and starving packhorses.

On the fourth day we took a westward shoot from the river, and following the course of a small stream again climbed heavily up the slope. Our horses were now so weak we could only climb a few rods at a time without rest. But at last, just as night began to fall, we came upon a splendid patch of bluejoint, knee-deep and rich. It was high on the mountain side, on a slope so steep that the horses could not lie down, so steep that it was almost impossible to set our tent. We could not persuade ourselves to pass it, however, and so made the best of it. Everywhere we could see white mountains, to the south, to the west, to the east.

"Now we have left the Skeena Valley," said Burton.

"Yes, we have seen the last of the Skeena," I replied, "and I'm glad of it. I never want to see that gray-green flood again."

A part of the time that evening we spent in picking the thorns of devil's-club out of our hands. This strange plant I had not seen before, and do not care to see it again. In plunging through the mudholes we spasmodically clutched these spiny things. Ladrone nipped steadily at the bunch of leaves which grew at the top of the twisted stalk. Again we plunged down into the cold green forest, following a stream whose current ran to the northeast. This brought us once again to the bank of the dreaded Skeena. The trail was "punishing," and the horses plunged and lunged all day through the mud, over logs, stones, and roots. Our nerves quivered with the torture of piloting our mistrusted desperate horses through these awful pitfalls. We were still in the region of ferns and devil's-club.

We allowed no feed to escape us. At any hour of the day, whenever we found a bunch of grass, no matter if it were not bigger than a broom, we stopped for the horses to graze it and so we kept them on their feet.

At five o'clock in the afternoon we climbed to a low, marshy lake where an Indian hunter was camped. He said we would find feed on another lake some miles up, and we pushed on, wallowing through mud and water of innumerable streams, each moment in danger of leaving a horse behind. I walked nearly all day, for it was torture to me as well as to Ladrone to ride him over such a trail. Three of our horses now showed signs of poisoning, two of them walked with a sprawling action of the fore legs, their eyes big and glassy. One was too weak to carry anything more than his pack-saddle, and our going had a sort of sullen desperation in it. Our camps were on the muddy ground, without comfort or convenience.

Next morning, as I swung into the saddle and started at the head of my train, Ladrone threw out his nose with a sharp indrawn squeal of pain. At first I paid little attention to it, but it came again--and then I noticed a weakness in his limbs. I dismounted and examined him carefully. He, too, was poisoned and attacked by spasms. It was a sorrowful thing to see my proud gray reduced to this condition. His eyes were dilated and glassy and his joints were weak. We could not stop, we could not wait, we must push on to feed and open ground; and so leading him carefully I resumed our slow march.

But at last, just when it seemed as though we could not go any farther with our suffering animals, we came out of the poisonous forest upon a broad grassy bottom where a stream was flowing to the northwest. We raised a shout of joy, for it seemed this must be a branch of the Nasse. If so, we were surely out of the clutches of the Skeena. This bottom was the first dry and level ground we had seen since leaving the west fork, and the sun shone. "Old man, the worst of our trail is over," I shouted to my partner. "The land looks more open to the north. We're coming to that plateau they told us of."

Oh, how sweet, fine, and sunny the short dry grass seemed to us after our long toilsome stay in the sub-aqueous gloom of the Skeena forests! We seemed about to return to the birds and the flowers.

Ladrone was very ill, but I fed him some salt mixed with lard, and after a doze in the sun he began to nibble grass with the others, and at last stretched out on the warm dry sward to let the glorious sun soak into his blood. It was a joyous thing to us to see the faithful ones revelling in the healing sunlight, their stomachs filled at last with sweet rich forage. We were dirty, ragged, and lame, and our hands were calloused and seamed with dirt, but we were strong and hearty.

We were high in the mountains here. Those little marshy lakes and slow streams showed that we were on a divide, and to our minds could be no other than the head-waters of the Nasse, which has a watershed of its own to the sea. We believed the worst of our trip to be over.

 

THE FAITHFUL BRONCOS

They go to certain death--to freeze,
To grope their way through blinding snow,
To starve beneath the northern trees--
Their curse on us who made them go!
They trust and we betray the trust;
They humbly look to us for keep.
The rifle crumbles them to dust,
And we--have hardly grace to weep
As they line up to die.



THE WHISTLING MARMOT

On mountains cold and bold and high,
Where only golden eagles fly,
He builds his home against the sky.

Above the clouds he sits and whines,
The morning sun about him shines;
Rivers loop below in shining lines.

No wolf or cat may find him there,
That winged corsair of the air,
The eagle, is his only care.

He sees the pink snows slide away,
He sees his little ones at play,
And peace fills out each summer day.

In winter, safe within his nest,
He eats his winter store with zest,
And takes his young ones to his breast.

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