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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 12. Crossing The Big Divide
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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 12. Crossing The Big Divide Post by :jonny_fox Category :Nonfictions Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1044

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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 12. Crossing The Big Divide

CHAPTER XII. CROSSING THE BIG DIVIDE

Our stay at Hazleton in some measure removed the charm of the first view. The people were all so miserably poor, and the hosts of howling, hungry dogs made each day more distressing. The mountains remained splendid to the last; and as we made our start I looked back upon them with undiminished pleasure.

We pitched tent at night just below the ford, and opposite another Indian village in which a most mournful medicine song was going on, timed to the beating of drums. Dogs joined with the mourning of the people with cries of almost human anguish, to which the beat of the passionless drum added solemnity, and a sort of inexorable marching rhythm. It seemed to announce pestilence and flood, and made the beautiful earth a place of hunger and despair.

I was awakened in the early dawn by a singular cry repeated again and again on the farther side of the river. It seemed the voice of a woman uttering in wailing; chant the most piercing agony of despairing love. It ceased as the sun arose and was heard no more. It was difficult to imagine such anguish in the bustle of the bright morning. It seemed as though it must have been an illusion--a dream of tragedy.

In the course of an hour's travel we came down to the sandy bottom of the river, whereon a half-dozen fine canoes were beached and waiting for us. The skilful natives set us across very easily, although it was the maddest and wildest of all the rivers we had yet seen. We crossed the main river just above the point at which the west fork enters. The horses were obliged to swim nearly half a mile, and some of them would not have reached the other shore had it not been for the Indians, who held their heads out of water from the sterns of the canoes, and so landed them safely on the bar just opposite the little village called Kispyox, which is also the Indian name of the west fork.

The trail made off up the eastern bank of this river, which was as charming as any stream ever imagined by a poet. The water was gray-green in color, swift and active. It looped away in most splendid curves, through opulent bottom lands, filled with wild roses, geranium plants, and berry blooms. Openings alternated with beautiful woodlands and grassy meadows, while over and beyond all rose the ever present mountains of the coast range, deep blue and snow-capped.

There was no strangeness in the flora--on the contrary, everything seemed familiar. Hazel bushes, poplars, pines, all growth was amazingly luxuriant. The trail was an Indian path, graceful and full of swinging curves. We had passed beyond the telegraph wire of the old trail.

Early in the afternoon we passed some five or six outfits camped on a beautiful grassy bank overlooking the river, and forming a most satisfying picture. The bells on the grazing horses were tinkling, and from sparkling fires, thin columns of smoke arose. Some of the young men were bathing, while others were washing their shirts in the sunny stream. There was a cheerful sound of whistling and rattling of tinware mingled with the sound of axes. Nothing could be more jocund, more typical, of the young men and the trail. It was one of the few pleasant camps of the long journey.

It was raining when we awoke, but before noon it cleared sufficiently to allow us to pack. We started at one, though the bushes were loaded with water, and had we not been well clothed in waterproof, we should have been drenched to the bone. We rode for four hours over a good trail, dodging wet branches in the pouring rain. It lightened at five, and we went into camp quite dry and comfortable.

We unpacked near an Indian ranch belonging to an old man and his wife, who came up at once to see us. They were good-looking, rugged old souls, like powerful Japanese. They could not speak Chinook, and we could not get much out of them. The old wife toted a monstrous big salmon up the hill to sell to us, but we had more fish than we could eat, and were forced to decline. There was a beautiful spring just back of the cabin, and the old man seemed to take pleasure in having us get our water from it. Neither did he object to our horses feeding about his house, where there was very excellent grass. It was a charming camping-place, wild flowers made the trail radiant even in the midst of rain. The wild roses grew in clumps of sprays as high as a horse's head.

Just before we determined to camp we had passed three or four outfits grouped together on the sward on the left bank of the river. As we rode by, one of the men had called to me saying: "You had better camp. It is thirty miles from here to feed." To this I had merely nodded, giving it little attention; but now as we sat around our campfire, Burton brought the matter up again: "If it is thirty miles to feed, we will have to get off early to-morrow morning and make as big a drive as we can, while the horses are fresh, and then make the latter part of the run on empty stomachs."

"Oh, I think they were just talking for our special benefit," I replied.

"No, they were in earnest. One of them came out to see me. He said he got his pointer from the mule train ahead of us. Feed is going to be very scarce, and the next run is fully thirty miles."

I insisted it could not be possible that we should go at once from the luxuriant pea-vine and bluejoint into a thirty-mile stretch of country where nothing grew. "There must be breaks in the forest where we can graze our horses."

It rained all night and in the morning it seemed as if it had settled into a week's downpour. However, we were quite comfortable with plenty of fresh salmon, and were not troubled except with the thought of the mud which would result from this rainstorm. We were falling steadily behind our schedule each day, but the horses were feeding and gaining strength--"And when we hit the trail, we will hit it hard," I said to Burton.

It was Sunday. The day was perfectly quiet and peaceful, like a rainy Sunday in the States. The old Indian below kept to his house all day, not visiting us. It is probable that he was a Catholic. The dogs came about us occasionally; strange, solemn creatures that they are, they had the persistence of hunger and the silence of burglars.

It was raining when we awoke Monday morning, but we were now restless to get under way. We could not afford to spend another day waiting in the rain. It was gloomy business in camp, and at the first sign of lightening sky we packed up and started promptly at twelve o'clock.

That ride was the sternest we had yet experienced. It was like swimming in a sea of green water. The branches sloshed us with blinding raindrops. The mud spurted under our horses' hoofs, the sky was gray and drizzled moisture, and as we rose we plunged into ever deepening forests. We left behind us all hazel bushes, alders, wild roses, and grasses. Moss was on every leaf and stump: the forest became savage, sinister and silent, not a living thing but ourselves moved or uttered voice.

This world grew oppressive with its unbroken clear greens, its dripping branches, its rotting trees; its snake-like roots half buried in the earth convinced me that our warning was well-born. At last we came into upper heights where no blade of grass grew, and we pushed on desperately, on and on, hour after hour. We began to suffer with the horses, being hungry and cold ourselves. We plunged into bottomless mudholes, slid down slippery slopes of slate, and leaped innumerable fallen logs of fir. The sky had no more pity than the mossy ground and the desolate forest. It was a mocking land, a land of green things, but not a blade of grass: only austere trees and noxious weeds.

During the day we met an old man so loaded down I could not tell whether he was man, woman, or beast. A sort of cap or wide cloth band went across his head, concealing his forehead. His huge pack loomed over his shoulders, and as he walked, using two paddles as canes, he seemed some anomalous four-footed beast of burden.

As he saw us he threw off his pack to rest and stood erect, a sturdy man of sixty, with short bristling hair framing a kindly resolute face. He was very light-hearted. He shook hands with me, saying, "Kla-how-ya," in answer to my, "Kla-how-ya six," which is to say, "How are you, friend?" He smiled, pointed to his pack, and said, "Hy-u skin." His season had been successful and he was going now to sell his catch. A couple of dogs just behind carried each twenty pounds on their backs. We were eating lunch, and I invited him to sit and eat. He took a seat and began to parcel out the food in two piles.

"He has a companion coming," I said to my partner. In a few moments a boy of fourteen or fifteen came up, carrying a pack that would test the strength of a powerful white man. He, too, threw off his load and at a word from the old man took a seat at the table. They shared exactly alike. It was evident that they were father and son.

A few miles farther on we met another family, two men, a woman, a boy, and six dogs, all laden in proportion. They were all handsomer than the Siwashes of the Fraser River. They came from the head-waters of the Nasse, they said. They could speak but little Chinook and no English at all. When I asked in Chinook, "How far is it to feed for our horses?" the woman looked first at our thin animals, then at us, and shook her head sorrowfully; then lifting her hands in the most dramatic gesture she half whispered, "Si-ah, si-ah!" That is to say, "Far, very far!"

Both these old people seemed very kind to their dogs, which were fat and sleek and not related to those I had seen in Hazleton. When the old man spoke to them, his voice was gentle and encouraging. At the word they all took up the line of march and went off down the hill toward the Hudson Bay store, there to remain during the summer. We pushed on, convinced by the old woman's manner that our long trail was to be a gloomy one.

Night began to settle over us at last, adding the final touches of uncertainty and horror to the gloom. We pushed on with necessary cruelty, forcing the tired horses to their utmost, searching every ravine and every slope for a feed; but only ferns and strange green poisonous plants could be seen. We were angling up the side of the great ridge which separated the west fork of the Skeena River from the middle fork. It was evident that we must cross this high divide and descend into the valley of the middle fork before we could hope to feed our horses.

However, just as darkness was beginning to come on, we came to an almost impassable slough in the trail, where a small stream descended into a little flat marsh and morass. This had been used as a camping-place by others, and we decided to camp, because to travel, even in the twilight, was dangerous to life and limb.

It was a gloomy and depressing place to spend the night. There was scarcely level ground enough to receive our camp. The wood was soggy and green. In order to reach the marsh we were forced to lead our horses one by one through a dangerous mudhole, and once through this they entered upon a quaking bog, out of which grew tufts of grass which had been gnawed to the roots by the animals which had preceded them; only a rank bottom of dead leaves of last year's growth was left for our tired horses. I was deeply anxious for fear they would crowd into the central bog in their efforts to reach the uncropped green blades which grew out of reach in the edge of the water. They were ravenous with hunger after eight hours of hard labor.

Our clothing was wet to the inner threads, and we were tired and muddy also, but our thoughts were on the horses rather than upon ourselves. We soon had a fire going and some hot supper, and by ten o'clock were stretched out in our beds for the night.

I have never in my life experienced a gloomier or more distressing camp on the trail. My bed was dry and warm, but I could not forget our tired horses grubbing about in the chilly night on that desolate marsh.

 


A CHILD OF THE SUN

Give me the sun and the sky,
The wide sky. Let it blaze with light,
Let it burn with heat--I care not.
The sun is the blood of my heart,
The wind of the plain my breath.
No woodsman am I. My eyes are set
For the wide low lines. The level rim
Of the prairie land is mine.
The semi-gloom of the pointed firs,
The sleeping darks of the mountain spruce,
Are prison and poison to such as I.
In the forest I long for the rose of the plain,
In the dark of the firs I die.

 

IN THE GRASS

O to lie in long grasses!
O to dream of the plain!
Where the west wind sings as it passes
A weird and unceasing refrain;
Where the rank grass wallows and tosses,
And the plains' ring dazzles the eye;
Where hardly a silver cloud bosses
The flashing steel arch of the sky.

To watch the gay gulls as they flutter
Like snowflakes and fall down the sky,
To swoop in the deeps of the hollows,
Where the crow's-foot tosses awry;
And gnats in the lee of the thickets
Are swirling like waltzers in glee
To the harsh, shrill creak of the crickets
And the song of the lark and the bee.

O far-off plains of my west land!
O lands of winds and the free,
Swift deer--my mist-clad plain!
From my bed in the heart of the forest,
From the clasp and the girdle of pain
Your light through my darkness passes;
To your meadows in dreaming I fly
To plunge in the deeps of your grasses,
To bask in the light of your sky!

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