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The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin

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The Land of
Little Rain by MARY AUSTIN

"The Comfortress of Unsuccess"


The Land of Little Rain
Water Trails of the Ceriso
The Scavengers
The Pocket Hunter
Shoshone Land
Jimville--A Bret Harte Town
My Neighbor's Field
The Mesa Trail
The Basket Maker
The Streets of the Mountains
Water Borders
Other Water Borders
Nurslings of the Sky
The Little Town of the Grape Vines


I confess to a great liking for the Indian fashion of name-giving:
every man known by that phrase which best expresses him to whoso
names him. Thus he may be Mighty-Hunter, or Man-Afraid-of-a-Bear,
according as he is called by friend or enemy, and Scar-Face to
those who knew him by the eye's grasp only. No other fashion, I
think, sets so well with the various natures that inhabit in us,
and if you agree with me you will understand why so few names are
written here as they appear in the geography. For if I love a lake
known by the name of the man who discovered it, which endears
itself by reason of the close-locked pines it nourishes about its
borders, you may look in my account to find it so described. But
if the Indians have been there before me, you shall have their
name, which is always beautifully fit and does not originate in the
poor human desire for perpetuity.

Nevertheless there are certain peaks, canons, and clear meadow
spaces which are above all compassing of words, and have a
certain fame as of the nobly great to whom we give no familiar
names. Guided by these you may reach my country and find or not
find, according as it lieth in you, much that is set down here.
And more. The earth is no wanton to give up all her best to every
comer, but keeps a sweet, separate intimacy for each. But if you
do not find it all as I write, think me not less dependable nor
yourself less clever. There is a sort of pretense allowed in
matters of the heart, as one should say by way of illustration,
"I know a man who . . . " and so give up his dearest experience
without betrayal. And I am in no mind to direct you to delectable
places toward which you will hold yourself less tenderly than I.
So by this fashion of naming I keep faith with the land and annex
to my own estate a very great territory to which none has a surer

The country where you may have sight and touch of that which
is written lies between the high Sierras south from Yosemite--east
and south over a very great assemblage of broken ranges beyond
Death Valley, and on illimitably into the Mojave Desert. You may
come into the borders of it from the south by a stage journey that
has the effect of involving a great lapse of time, or from the
north by rail, dropping out of the overland route at Reno. The
best of all ways is over the Sierra passes by pack and trail,
seeing and believing. But the real heart and core of the country
are not to be come at in a month's vacation. One must
summer and winter with the land and wait its occasions. Pine woods
that take two and three seasons to the ripening of cones, roots
that lie by in the sand seven years awaiting a growing rain, firs
that grow fifty years before flowering,--these do not scrape
acquaintance. But if ever you come beyond the borders as far as
the town that lies in a hill dimple at the foot of Kearsarge, never
leave it until you have knocked at the door of the brown house
under the willow-tree at the end of the village street, and there
you shall have such news of the land, of its trails and what is
astir in them, as one lover of it can give to another.


East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east
and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.

Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and
as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the
land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps,
but the Indian's is the better word. Desert is a loose term to
indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted
and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never
is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.

This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded,
blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion
painted, aspiring to the snowline. Between the hills lie high
level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow
valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with
ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows. After rains water
accumulates in the hollows of small closed valleys, and,
evaporating, leaves hard dry levels of pure desertness that get the
local name of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep and the
rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter,
rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits. A thin
crust of it lies along the marsh over the vegetating area, which
has neither beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes open to the
wind the sand drifts in hummocks about the stubby shrubs, and
between them the soil shows saline traces. The sculpture of the
hills here is more wind than water work, though the quick storms do
sometimes scar them past many a year's redeeming. In all the
Western desert edges there are essays in miniature at the famed,
terrible Grand Canon, to which, if you keep on long enough in this
country, you will come at last.

Since this is a hill country one expects to find springs, but
not to depend upon them; for when found they are often brackish and
unwholesome, or maddening, slow dribbles in a thirsty soil. Here
you find the hot sink of Death Valley, or high rolling districts
where the air has always a tang of frost. Here are the long heavy
winds and breathless calms on the tilted mesas where dust devils
dance, whirling up into a wide, pale sky. Here you have no rain
when all the earth cries for it, or quick downpours called
cloud-bursts for violence. A land of lost rivers, with little in
it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to
inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it.

This is the country of three seasons. From June on to
November it lies hot, still, and unbearable, sick with violent
unrelieving storms; then on until April, chill, quiescent, drinking
its scant rain and scanter snows; from April to the hot season
again, blossoming, radiant, and seductive. These months are only
approximate; later or earlier the rain-laden wind may drift up the
water gate of the Colorado from the Gulf, and the land sets its
seasons by the rain.

The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations to
the seasonal limitations. Their whole duty is to flower and fruit,
and they do it hardly, or with tropical luxuriance, as the rain
admits. It is recorded in the report of the Death Valley
expedition that after a year of abundant rains, on the Colorado
desert was found a specimen of Amaranthus ten feet high. A year
later the same species in the same place matured in the drought at
four inches. One hopes the land may breed like qualities in her
human offspring, not tritely to "try," but to do. Seldom does the
desert herb attain the full stature of the type. Extreme aridity
and extreme altitude have the same dwarfing effect, so that we find
in the high Sierras and in Death Valley related species in
miniature that reach a comely growth in mean temperatures.
Very fertile are the desert plants in expedients to prevent
evaporation, turning their foliage edge-wise toward the sun,
growing silky hairs, exuding viscid gum. The wind, which has a
long sweep, harries and helps them. It rolls up dunes about the
stocky stems, encompassing and protective, and above the dunes,
which may be, as with the mesquite, three times as high as a man,
the blossoming twigs flourish and bear fruit.

There are many areas in the desert where drinkable water lies
within a few feet of the surface, indicated by the mesquite and the
bunch grass (Sporobolus airoides). It is this nearness of
unimagined help that makes the tragedy of desert deaths. It is
related that the final breakdown of that hapless party that gave
Death Valley its forbidding name occurred in a locality where
shallow wells would have saved them. But how were they to know
that? Properly equipped it is possible to go safely across that
ghastly sink, yet every year it takes its toll of death, and yet
men find there sun-dried mummies, of whom no trace or recollection
is preserved. To underestimate one's thirst, to pass a given
landmark to the right or left, to find a dry spring where one
looked for running water--there is no help for any of these things.

Along springs and sunken watercourses one is surprised to find
such water-loving plants as grow widely in moist ground, but the
true desert breeds its own kind, each in its particular habitat.
The angle of the slope, the frontage of a hill, the structure
of the soil determines the plant. South-looking hills are nearly
bare, and the lower tree-line higher here by a thousand feet.
Canons running east and west will have one wall naked and one
clothed. Around dry lakes and marshes the herbage preserves a set
and orderly arrangement. Most species have well-defined areas of
growth, the best index the voiceless land can give the traveler
of his whereabouts.

If you have any doubt about it, know that the desert begins
with the creosote. This immortal shrub spreads down into Death
Valley and up to the lower timberline, odorous and medicinal as
you might guess from the name, wandlike, with shining fretted
foliage. Its vivid green is grateful to the eye in a wilderness of
gray and greenish white shrubs. In the spring it exudes a resinous
gum which the Indians of those parts know how to use with
pulverized rock for cementing arrow points to shafts. Trust
Indians not to miss any virtues of the plant world!

Nothing the desert produces expresses it better than the
unhappy growth of the tree yuccas. Tormented, thin forests of it
stalk drearily in the high mesas, particularly in that triangular
slip that fans out eastward from the meeting of the Sierras and
coastwise hills where the first swings across the southern end of
the San Joaquin Valley. The yucca bristles with bayonet-pointed
leaves, dull green, growing shaggy with age, tipped with
panicles of fetid, greenish bloom. After death, which is slow,
the ghostly hollow network of its woody skeleton, with hardly power
to rot, makes the moonlight fearful. Before the yucca has come to
flower, while yet its bloom is a creamy cone-shaped bud of the size
of a small cabbage, full of sugary sap, the Indians twist it deftly
out of its fence of daggers and roast it for their own delectation.

So it is that in those parts where man inhabits one sees young
plants of Yucca arborensis infrequently. Other yuccas,
cacti, low herbs, a thousand sorts, one finds journeying east from
the coastwise hills. There is neither poverty of soil nor species
to account for the sparseness of desert growth, but simply that
each plant requires more room. So much earth must be preempted to
extract so much moisture. The real struggle for existence, the
real brain of the plant, is underground; above there is room for
a rounded perfect growth. In Death Valley, reputed the very core
of desolation, are nearly two hundred identified species.

Above the lower tree-line, which is also the snowline, mapped
out abruptly by the sun, one finds spreading growth of pinon,
juniper, branched nearly to the ground, lilac and sage, and
scattering white pines.

There is no special preponderance of self-fertilized or
wind-fertilized plants, but everywhere the demand for and evidence
of insect life. Now where there are seeds and insects there
will be birds and small mammals and where these are, will come the
slinking, sharp-toothed kind that prey on them. Go as far as you
dare in the heart of a lonely land, you cannot go so far that life
and death are not before you. Painted lizards slip in and out of
rock crevices, and pant on the white hot sands. Birds,
hummingbirds even, nest in the cactus scrub; woodpeckers befriend
the demoniac yuccas; out of the stark, treeless waste rings the
music of the night-singing mockingbird. If it be summer and the
sun well down, there will be a burrowing owl to call. Strange,
furry, tricksy things dart across the open places, or sit
motionless in the conning towers of the creosote. The poet may
have "named all the birds without a gun," but not the fairy-footed,
ground-inhabiting, furtive, small folk of the rainless regions.
They are too many and too swift; how many you would not believe
without seeing the footprint tracings in the sand. They are nearly
all night workers, finding the days too hot and white. In
mid-desert where there are no cattle, there are no birds of
carrion, but if you go far in that direction the chances are that
you will find yourself shadowed by their tilted wings. Nothing so
large as a man can move unspied upon in that country, and they
know well how the land deals with strangers. There are hints to be
had here of the way in which a land forces new habits on its
dwellers. The quick increase of suns at the end of spring
sometimes overtakes birds in their nesting and effects a reversal
of the ordinary manner of incubation. It becomes necessary to keep
eggs cool rather than warm. One hot, stifling spring in the Little
Antelope I had occasion to pass and repass frequently the nest of
a pair of meadowlarks, located unhappily in the shelter of a very
slender weed. I never caught them sitting except near night, but
at mid-day they stood, or drooped above it, half fainting with
pitifully parted bills, between their treasure and the sun.
Sometimes both of them together with wings spread and half lifted
continued a spot of shade in a temperature that constrained me at
last in a fellow feeling to spare them a bit of canvas for
permanent shelter. There was a fence in that country shutting in
a cattle range, and along its fifteen miles of posts one could be
sure of finding a bird or two in every strip of shadow; sometimes
the sparrow and the hawk, with wings trailed and beaks parted,
drooping in the white truce of noon.

If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers
came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God's hands,
what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after
having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such
a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish
mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus
charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there
you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have
not done it. Men who have lived there, miners and cattlemen, will
tell you this, not so fluently, but emphatically, cursing the land
and going back to it. For one thing there is the divinest,
cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in God's world. Some day the
world will understand that, and the little oases on the windy tops
of hills will harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods.
There is promise there of great wealth in ores and earths, which is
no wealth by reason of being so far removed from water and workable
conditions, but men are bewitched by it and tempted to try the

You should hear Salty Williams tell how he used to drive
eighteen and twenty-mule teams from the borax marsh to Mojave,
ninety miles, with the trail wagon full of water barrels. Hot
days the mules would go so mad for drink that the clank of the
water bucket set them into an uproar of hideous, maimed noises, and
a tangle of harness chains, while Salty would sit on the high seat
with the sun glare heavy in his eyes, dealing out curses of
pacification in a level, uninterested voice until the clamor fell
off from sheer exhaustion. There was a line of shallow graves
along that road; they used to count on dropping a man or two of
every new gang of coolies brought out in the hot season. But
when he lost his swamper, smitten without warning at the noon halt,
Salty quit his job; he said it was "too durn hot." The swamper he
buried by the way with stones upon him to keep the coyotes from
digging him up, and seven years later I read the penciled lines on
the pine head-board, still bright and unweathered.

But before that, driving up on the Mojave stage, I met Salty
again crossing Indian Wells, his face from the high seat, tanned
and ruddy as a harvest moon, looming through the golden dust above
his eighteen mules. The land had called him.

The palpable sense of mystery in the desert air breeds fables,
chiefly of lost treasure. Somewhere within its stark borders, if
one believes report, is a hill strewn with nuggets; one seamed with
virgin silver; an old clayey water-bed where Indians scooped up
earth to make cooking pots and shaped them reeking with grains of
pure gold. Old miners drifting about the desert edges, weathered
into the semblance of the tawny hills, will tell you tales like
these convincingly. After a little sojourn in that land you will
believe them on their own account. It is a question whether it is
not better to be bitten by the little horned snake of the desert
that goes sidewise and strikes without coiling, than by the
tradition of a lost mine.

And yet--and yet--is it not perhaps to satisfy expectation
that one falls into the tragic key in writing of desertness? The
more you wish of it the more you get, and in the mean time lose
much of pleasantness. In that country which begins at the foot of
the east slope of the Sierras and spreads out by less and less
lofty hill ranges toward the Great Basin, it is possible to live
with great zest, to have red blood and delicate joys, to pass and
repass about one's daily performance an area that would make an
Atlantic seaboard State, and that with no peril, and, according to
our way of thought, no particular difficulty. At any rate, it was
not people who went into the desert merely to write it up who
invented the fabled Hassaympa, of whose waters, if any drink, they
can no more see fact as naked fact, but all radiant with the color
of romance. I, who must have drunk of it in my twice seven years'
wanderings, am assured that it is worth while.

For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives
compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the
stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night
that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people. It is hard to escape
the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to
risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and
palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not
needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they
make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie
out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the
scrub from you and howls and howls.


By the end of the dry season the water trails of the Ceriso are
worn to a white ribbon in the leaning grass, spread out faint and
fanwise toward the homes of gopher and ground rat and squirrel.
But however faint to man-sight, they are sufficiently plain to the
furred and feathered folk who travel them. Getting down to the eye
level of rat and squirrel kind, one perceives what might easily be
wide and winding roads to us if they occurred in thick plantations
of trees three times the height of a man. It needs but a slender
thread of barrenness to make a mouse trail in the forest of the
sod. To the little people the water trails are as country roads,
with scents as signboards.

It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights
from which to study trails. It is better to go up the front of
some tall hill, say the spur of Black Mountain, looking back and
down across the hollow of the Ceriso. Strange how long the soil
keeps the impression of any continuous treading, even after
grass has overgrown it. Twenty years since, a brief heyday of
mining at Black Mountain made a stage road across the Ceriso, yet
the parallel lines that are the wheel traces show from the height
dark and well defined. Afoot in the Ceriso one looks in vain for
any sign of it. So all the paths that wild creatures use going
down to the Lone Tree Spring are mapped out whitely from this
level, which is also the level of the hawks.

There is little water in the Ceriso at the best of times, and
that little brackish and smelling vilely, but by a lone juniper
where the rim of the Ceriso breaks away to the lower country, there
is a perpetual rill of fresh sweet drink in the midst of lush grass
and watercress. In the dry season there is no water else for a
man's long journey of a day. East to the foot of Black Mountain,
and north and south without counting, are the burrows of small
rodents, rat and squirrel kind. Under the sage are the shallow
forms of the jackrabbits, and in the dry banks of washes, and among
the strewn fragments of black rock, lairs of bobcat, fox, and

The coyote is your true water-witch, one who snuffs and paws,
snuffs and paws again at the smallest spot of moisture-scented
earth until he has freed the blind water from the soil. Many
water-holes are no more than this detected by the lean hobo
of the hills in localities where not even an Indian would look for

It is the opinion of many wise and busy people that the
hill-folk pass the ten-month interval between the end and renewal
of winter rains, with no drink; but your true idler, with days and
nights to spend beside the water trails, will not subscribe to it.
The trails begin, as I said, very far back in the Ceriso, faintly,
and converge in one span broad, white, hard-trodden way in the
gully of the spring. And why trails if there are no travelers in
that direction?

I have yet to find the land not scarred by the thin, far
roadways of rabbits and what not of furry folks that run in them.
Venture to look for some seldom-touched water-hole, and so long as
the trails run with your general direction make sure you are right,
but if they begin to cross yours at never so slight an angle, to
converge toward a point left or right of your objective, no matter
what the maps say, or your memory, trust them; they know.

It is very still in the Ceriso by day, so that were it not for
the evidence of those white beaten ways, it might be the desert it
looks. The sun is hot in the dry season, and the days are filled
with the glare of it. Now and again some unseen coyote signals his
pack in a long-drawn, dolorous whine that comes from no determinate
point, but nothing stirs much before mid-afternoon. It is a sign
when there begin to be hawks skimming above the sage that
the little people are going about their business.

We have fallen on a very careless usage, speaking of wild
creatures as if they were bound by some such limitation as hampers
clockwork. When we say of one and another, they are night
prowlers, it is perhaps true only as the things they feed upon are
more easily come by in the dark, and they know well how to adjust
themselves to conditions wherein food is more plentiful by day.
And their accustomed performance is very much a matter of keen eye,
keener scent, quick ear, and a better memory of sights and sounds
than man dares boast. Watch a coyote come out of his lair and cast
about in his mind where be will go for his daily killing. You
cannot very well tell what decides him, but very easily that he has
decided. He trots or breaks into short gallops, with very
perceptible pauses to look up and about at landmarks, alters his
tack a little, looking forward and back to steer his proper course.

I am persuaded that the coyotes in my valley, which is narrow and
beset with steep, sharp hills, in long passages steer by the
pinnacles of the sky-line, going with head cocked to one side to
keep to the left or right of such and such a promontory.

I have trailed a coyote often, going across country, perhaps
to where some slant-winged scavenger hanging in the air signaled
prospect of a dinner, and found his track such as a man, a
very intelligent man accustomed to a hill country, and a little
cautious, would make to the same point. Here a detour to avoid a
stretch of too little cover, there a pause on the rim of a gully to
pick the better way,--and it is usually the best way,--and making
his point with the greatest economy of effort. Since the time of
Seyavi the deer have shifted their feeding ground across the valley
at the beginning of deep snows, by way of the Black Rock, fording
the river at Charley's Butte, and making straight for the mouth of
the canon that is the easiest going to the winter pastures on
Waban. So they still cross, though whatever trail they had has
been long broken by ploughed ground; but from the mouth of Tinpah
Creek, where the deer come out of the Sierras, it is easily seen
that the creek, the point of Black Rock, and Charley's Butte are in
line with the wide bulk of shade that is the foot of Waban Pass.
And along with this the deer have learned that Charley's Butte is
almost the only possible ford, and all the shortest crossing of the
valley. It seems that the wild creatures have learned all that is
important to their way of life except the changes of the moon. I
have seen some prowling fox or coyote, surprised by its sudden
rising from behind the mountain wall, slink in its increasing glow,
watch it furtively from the cover of near-by brush, unprepared and
half uncertain of its identity until it rode clear of the
peaks, and finally make off with all the air of one caught napping
by an ancient joke. The moon in its wanderings must be a sort of
exasperation to cunning beasts, likely to spoil by untimely risings
some fore-planned mischief.

But to take the trail again; the coyotes that are astir in the
Ceriso of late afternoons, harrying the rabbits from their shallow
forms, and the hawks that sweep and swing above them, are not there
from any mechanical promptings of instinct, but because they know
of old experience that the small fry are about to take to seed
gathering and the water trails. The rabbits begin it, taking the
trail with long, light leaps, one eye and ear cocked to the hills
from whence a coyote might descend upon them at any moment.
Rabbits are a foolish people. They do not fight except with their
own kind, nor use their paws except for feet, and appear to have no
reason for existence but to furnish meals for meat-eaters. In
flight they seem to rebound from the earth of their own elasticity,
but keep a sober pace going to the spring. It is the young
watercress that tempts them and the pleasures of society, for they
seldom drink. Even in localities where there are flowing streams
they seem to prefer the moisture that collects on herbage, and
after rains may be seen rising on their haunches to drink
delicately the clear drops caught in the tops of the young sage.
But drink they must, as I have often seen them mornings and
evenings at the rill that goes by my door. Wait long enough at the
Lone Tree Spring and sooner or later they will all come in. But
here their matings are accomplished, and though they are fearful of
so little as a cloud shadow or blown leaf, they contrive to have
some playful hours. At the spring the bobcat drops down upon them
from the black rock, and the red fox picks them up returning in the
dark. By day the hawk and eagle overshadow them, and the coyote
has all times and seasons for his own.

Cattle, when there are any in the Ceriso, drink morning and
evening, spending the night on the warm last lighted slopes of
neighboring hills, stirring with the peep o' day. In these half
wild spotted steers the habits of an earlier lineage persist. It
must be long since they have made beds for themselves, but before
lying down they turn themselves round and round as dogs do. They
choose bare and stony ground, exposed fronts of westward facing
hills, and lie down in companies. Usually by the end of the summer
the cattle have been driven or gone of their own choosing to the
mountain meadows. One year a maverick yearling, strayed or
overlooked by the vaqueros, kept on until the season's end, and so
betrayed another visitor to the spring that else I might have
missed. On a certain morning the half-eaten carcass lay at the
foot of the black rock, and in moist earth by the rill of the
spring, the foot-pads of a cougar, puma, mountain lion, or
whatever the beast is rightly called. The kill must have been made
early in the evening, for it appeared that the cougar had been
twice to the spring; and since the meat-eater drinks little until
he has eaten, he must have fed and drunk, and after an interval of
lying up in the black rock, had eaten and drunk again. There was
no knowing how far he had come, but if he came again the second
night he found that the coyotes had left him very little of his

Nobody ventures to say how infrequently and at what hour the
small fry visit the spring. There are such numbers of them that if
each came once between the last of spring and the first of winter
rains, there would still be water trails. I have seen badgers
drinking about the hour when the light takes on the yellow tinge it
has from coming slantwise through the hills. They find out shallow
places, and are loath to wet their feet. Rats and chipmunks have
been observed visiting the spring as late as nine o'clock mornings.

The larger spermophiles that live near the spring and keep awake to
work all day, come and go at no particular hour, drinking
sparingly. At long intervals on half-lighted days, meadow and
field mice steal delicately along the trail. These visitors are
all too small to be watched carefully at night, but for evidence of
their frequent coming there are the trails that may be traced miles
out among the crisping grasses. On rare nights, in the places
where no grass grows between the shrubs, and the sand silvers
whitely to the moon, one sees them whisking to and fro on
innumerable errands of seed gathering, but the chief witnesses of
their presence near the spring are the elf owls. Those
burrow-haunting, speckled fluffs of greediness begin a twilight
flitting toward the spring, feeding as they go on grasshoppers,
lizards, and small, swift creatures, diving into burrows to catch
field mice asleep, battling with chipmunks at their own doors, and
getting down in great numbers toward the long juniper. Now owls do
not love water greatly on its own account. Not to my knowledge
have I caught one drinking or bathing, though on night wanderings
across the mesa they flit up from under the horse's feet along
stream borders. Their presence near the spring in great numbers
would indicate the presence of the things they feed upon. All
night the rustle and soft hooting keeps on in the neighborhood of
the spring, with seldom small shrieks of mortal agony. It is clear
day before they have all gotten back to their particular hummocks,
and if one follows cautiously, not to frighten them into some
near-by burrow, it is possible to trail them far up the slope.

The crested quail that troop in the Ceriso are the happiest
frequenters of the water trails. There is no furtiveness about
their morning drink. About the time the burrowers and all that
feed upon them are addressing themselves to sleep, great
flocks pour down the trails with that peculiar melting motion of
moving quail, twittering, shoving, and shouldering. They splatter
into the shallows, drink daintily, shake out small showers over
their perfect coats, and melt away again into the scrub, preening
and pranking, with soft contented noises.

After the quail, sparrows and ground-inhabiting birds bathe
with the utmost frankness and a great deal of splutter; and here in
the heart of noon hawks resort, sitting panting, with wings aslant,
and a truce to all hostilities because of the heat. One summer
there came a road-runner up from the lower valley, peeking and
prying, and he had never any patience with the water baths of the
sparrows. His own ablutions were performed in the clean, hopeful
dust of the chaparral; and whenever he happened on their morning
splatterings, he would depress his glossy crest, slant his shining
tail to the level of his body, until he looked most like some
bright venomous snake, daunting them with shrill abuse and feint of
battle. Then suddenly he would go tilting and balancing down the
gully in fine disdain, only to return in a day or two to make sure
the foolish bodies were still at it.

Out on the Ceriso about five miles, and wholly out of sight of
it, near where the immemorial foot trail goes up from Saline Flat
toward Black Mountain, is a water sign worth turning out of the
trail to see. It is a laid circle of stones large enough not
to be disturbed by any ordinary hap, with an opening flanked by
two parallel rows of similar stones, between which were an arrow
placed, touching the opposite rim of the circle, thus it would
point as the crow flies to the spring. It is the old, indubitable
water mark of the Shoshones. One still finds it in the desert
ranges in Salt Wells and Mesquite valleys, and along the slopes of
Waban. On the other side of Ceriso, where the black rock begins,
about a mile from the spring, is the work of an older, forgotten
people. The rock hereabout is all volcanic, fracturing with a
crystalline whitish surface, but weathered outside to furnace
blackness. Around the spring, where must have been a gathering
place of the tribes, it is scored over with strange pictures and
symbols that have no meaning to the Indians of the present day; but
out where the rock begins, there is carved into the white heart of
it a pointing arrow over the symbol for distance and a circle full
of wavy lines reading thus: "In this direction three [units of
measurement unknown] is a spring of sweet water; look for it."


Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven fence posts at the
rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat
solemnly while the white tilted travelers' vans lumbered down the
Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their
wings, or exchanged posts. The season's end in the vast dim valley
of the San Joaquin is palpitatingly hot, and the air breathes like
cotton wool. Through it all the buzzards sit on the fences and low
hummocks, with wings spread fanwise for air. There is no end to
them, and they smell to heaven. Their heads droop, and all their
communication is a rare, horrid croak.

The increase of wild creatures is in proportion to the things
they feed upon: the more carrion the more buzzards. The end of the
third successive dry year bred them beyond belief. The first year
quail mated sparingly; the second year the wild oats matured no
seed; the third, cattle died in their tracks with their heads
towards the stopped watercourses. And that year the
scavengers were as black as the plague all across the mesa and up
the treeless, tumbled hills. On clear days they betook themselves
to the upper air, where they hung motionless for hours. That year
there were vultures among them, distinguished by the white patches
under the wings. All their offensiveness notwithstanding, they
have a stately flight. They must also have what pass for good
qualities among themselves, for they are social, not to say

It is a very squalid tragedy,--that of the dying brutes and
the scavenger birds. Death by starvation is slow. The
heavy-headed, rack-boned cattle totter in the fruitless trails;
they stand for long, patient intervals; they lie down and do not
rise. There is fear in their eyes when they are first stricken,
but afterward only intolerable weariness. I suppose the dumb
creatures know nearly as much of death as do their betters, who
have only the more imagination. Their even-breathing submission
after the first agony is their tribute to its inevitableness. It
needs a nice discrimination to say which of the basket-ribbed
cattle is likest to afford the next meal, but the scavengers make
few mistakes. One stoops to the quarry and the flock follows.

Cattle once down may be days in dying. They stretch out their
necks along the ground, and roll up their slow eyes at longer
intervals. The buzzards have all the time, and no beak is dropped
or talon struck until the breath is wholly passed. It is
doubtless the economy of nature to have the scavengers by to clean
up the carrion, but a wolf at the throat would be a shorter agony
than the long stalking and sometime perchings of these loathsome
watchers. Suppose now it were a man in this long-drawn, hungrily
spied upon distress! When Timmie O'Shea was lost on Armogosa
Flats for three days without water, Long Tom Basset found him, not
by any trail, but by making straight away for the points where he
saw buzzards stooping. He could hear the beat of their wings, Tom
said, and trod on their shadows, but O'Shea was past recalling what
he thought about things after the second day. My friend Ewan told
me, among other things, when he came back from San Juan Hill, that
not all the carnage of battle turned his bowels as the sight of
slant black wings rising flockwise before the burial squad.

There are three kinds of noises buzzards make,--it is
impossible to call them notes,--raucous and elemental. There is a
short croak of alarm, and the same syllable in a modified tone to
serve all the purposes of ordinary conversation. The old birds
make a kind of throaty chuckling to their young, but if they have
any love song I have not heard it. The young yawp in the nest a
little, with more breath than noise. It is seldom one finds a
buzzard's nest, seldom that grown-ups find a nest of any sort; it
is only children to whom these things happen by right. But
by making a business of it one may come upon them in wide, quiet
canons, or on the lookouts of lonely, table-topped mountains, three
or four together, in the tops of stubby trees or on rotten cliffs
well open to the sky.

It is probable that the buzzard is gregarious, but it seems
unlikely from the small number of young noted at any time that
every female incubates each year. The young birds are easily
distinguished by their size when feeding, and high up in air by the
worn primaries of the older birds. It is when the young go out of
the nest on their first foraging that the parents, full of a crass
and simple pride, make their indescribable chucklings of gobbling,
gluttonous delight. The little ones would be amusing as they tug
and tussle, if one could forget what it is they feed upon.

One never comes any nearer to the vulture's nest or nestlings
than hearsay. They keep to the southerly Sierras, and are bold
enough, it seems, to do killing on their own account when no
carrion is at hand. They dog the shepherd from camp to camp, the
hunter home from the hill, and will even carry away offal from
under his hand.

The vulture merits respect for his bigness and for his bandit
airs, but he is a sombre bird, with none of the buzzard's frank
satisfaction in his offensiveness.

The least objectionable of the inland scavengers is the
raven, frequenter of the desert ranges, the same called locally
"carrion crow." He is handsomer and has such an air. He is nice
in his habits and is said to have likable traits. A tame one in a
Shoshone camp was the butt of much sport and enjoyed it. He could
all but talk and was another with the children, but an arrant
thief. The raven will eat most things that come his way,--eggs and
young of ground-nesting birds, seeds even, lizards and
grasshoppers, which he catches cleverly; and whatever he is about,
let a coyote trot never so softly by, the raven flaps up and after;
for whatever the coyote can pull down or nose out is meat also for
the carrion crow.

And never a coyote comes out of his lair for killing, in the
country of the carrion crows, but looks up first to see where they
may be gathering. It is a sufficient occupation for a windy
morning, on the lineless, level mesa, to watch the pair of them
eying each other furtively, with a tolerable assumption of
unconcern, but no doubt with a certain amount of good understanding
about it. Once at Red Rock, in a year of green pasture, which is
a bad time for the scavengers, we saw two buzzards, five ravens,
and a coyote feeding on the same carrion, and only the coyote
seemed ashamed of the company.

Probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild
creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind.
When the five coyotes that range the Tejon from Pasteria to
Tunawai planned a relay race to bring down an antelope strayed from
the band, beside myself to watch, an eagle swung down from Mt.
Pinos, buzzards materialized out of invisible ether, and hawks came
trooping like small boys to a street fight. Rabbits sat up in the
chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for
the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep
wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell. The hawk follows
the badger, the coyote the carrion crow, and from their aerial
stations the buzzards watch each other. What would be worth
knowing is how much of their neighbor's affairs the new generations
learn for themselves, and how much they are taught of their elders.

So wide is the range of the scavengers that it is never safe
to say, eyewitness to the contrary, that there are few or many in
such a place. Where the carrion is, there will the buzzards be
gathered together, and in three days' journey you will not sight
another one. The way up from Mojave to Red Butte is all
desertness, affording no pasture and scarcely a rill of water. In
a year of little rain in the south, flocks and herds were driven to
the number of thousands along this road to the perennial pastures
of the high ranges. It is a long, slow trail, ankle deep in bitter
dust that gets up in the slow wind and moves along the backs of the
crawling cattle. In the worst of times one in three will
pine and fall out by the way. In the defiles of Red Rock, the
sheep piled up a stinking lane; it was the sun smiting by day. To
these shambles came buzzards, vultures, and coyotes from all the
country round, so that on the Tejon, the Ceriso, and the Little
Antelope there were not scavengers enough to keep the country
clean. All that summer the dead mummified in the open or dropped
slowly back to earth in the quagmires of the bitter springs.
Meanwhile from Red Rock to Coyote Holes, and from Coyote Holes to
Haiwai the scavengers gorged and gorged.

The coyote is not a scavenger by choice, preferring his own
kill, but being on the whole a lazy dog, is apt to fall into
carrion eating because it is easier. The red fox and bobcat, a
little pressed by hunger, will eat of any other animal's kill, but
will not ordinarily touch what dies of itself, and are exceedingly
shy of food that has been man-handled.

Very clean and handsome, quite belying his relationship in
appearance, is Clark's crow, that scavenger and plunderer of
mountain camps. It is permissible to call him by his common name,
"Camp Robber:" he has earned it. Not content with refuse, he pecks
open meal sacks, filches whole potatoes, is a gormand for bacon,
drills holes in packing cases, and is daunted by nothing short of
tin. All the while he does not neglect to vituperate the chipmunks
and sparrows that whisk off crumbs of comfort from under the
camper's feet. The Camp Robber's gray coat, black and white barred
wings, and slender bill, with certain tricks of perching, accuse
him of attempts to pass himself off among woodpeckers; but his
behavior is all crow. He frequents the higher pine belts, and has
a noisy strident call like a jay's, and how clean he and the
frisk-tailed chipmunks keep the camp! No crumb or paring or bit of
eggshell goes amiss.

High as the camp may be, so it is not above timberline, it is
not too high for the coyote, the bobcat, or the wolf. It is the
complaint of the ordinary camper that the woods are too still,
depleted of wild life. But what dead body of wild thing, or
neglected game untouched by its kind, do you find? And put out
offal away from camp over night, and look next day at the foot
tracks where it lay.

Man is a great blunderer going about in the woods, and there
is no other except the bear makes so much noise. Being so well
warned beforehand, it is a very stupid animal, or a very bold one,
that cannot keep safely hid. The cunningest hunter is hunted in
turn, and what he leaves of his kill is meat for some other. That
is the economy of nature, but with it all there is not sufficient
account taken of the works of man. There is no scavenger that eats
tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the
forest floor.


I remember very well when I first met him. Walking in the evening
glow to spy the marriages of the white gilias, I sniffed the
unmistakable odor of burning sage. It is a smell that carries far
and indicates usually the nearness of a campoodie, but on the level
mesa nothing taller showed than Diana's sage. Over the tops of it,
beginning to dusk under a young white moon, trailed a wavering
ghost of smoke, and at the end of it I came upon the Pocket Hunter
making a dry camp in the friendly scrub. He sat tailorwise in the
sand, with his coffee-pot on the coals, his supper ready to hand in
the frying-pan, and himself in a mood for talk. His pack burros in
hobbles strayed off to hunt for a wetter mouthful than the sage
afforded, and gave him no concern.

We came upon him often after that, threading the windy passes,
or by water-holes in the desert hills, and got to know much of his
way of life. He was a small, bowed man, with a face and manner
and speech of no character at all, as if he had that faculty of
small hunted things of taking on the protective color of his
surroundings. His clothes were of no fashion that I could
remember, except that they bore liberal markings of pot black, and
he had a curious fashion of going about with his mouth open, which
gave him a vacant look until you came near enough to perceive him
busy about an endless hummed, wordless tune. He traveled far and
took a long time to it, but the simplicity of his kitchen
arrangements was elemental. A pot for beans, a coffee-pot, a
frying-pan, a tin to mix bread in--he fed the burros in this when
there was need--with these he had been half round our western world
and back. He explained to me very early in our acquaintance what
was good to take to the hills for food: nothing sticky, for that
"dirtied the pots;" nothing with "juice" to it, for that would not
pack to advantage; and nothing likely to ferment. He used no gun,
but he would set snares by the water-holes for quail and doves, and
in the trout country he carried a line. Burros he kept, one or two
according to his pack, for this chief excellence, that they would
eat potato parings and firewood. He had owned a horse in the
foothill country, but when he came to the desert with no forage but
mesquite, he found himself under the necessity of picking the beans
from the briers, a labor that drove him to the use of pack animals
to whom thorns were a relish.

I suppose no man becomes a pocket hunter by first intention.
He must be born with the faculty, and along comes the occasion,
like the tap on the test tube that induces crystallization. My
friend had been several things of no moment until he struck a
thousand-dollar pocket in the Lee District and came into his
vocation. A pocket, you must know, is a small body of rich ore
occurring by itself, or in a vein of poorer stuff. Nearly every
mineral ledge contains such, if only one has the luck to hit upon
them without too much labor. The sensible thing for a man to do
who has found a good pocket is to buy himself into business and
keep away from the hills. The logical thing is to set out looking
for another one. My friend the Pocket Hunter had been looking
twenty years. His working outfit was a shovel, a pick, a gold pan
which he kept cleaner than his plate, and a pocket magnifier. When
he came to a watercourse he would pan out the gravel of its bed for
"colors," and under the glass determine if they had come from far
or near, and so spying he would work up the stream until he found
where the drift of the gold-bearing outcrop fanned out into the
creek; then up the side of the canon till he came to the proper
vein. I think he said the best indication of small pockets was an
iron stain, but I could never get the run of miner's talk enough to
feel instructed for pocket hunting. He had another method in the
waterless hills, where he would work in and out of blind
gullies and all windings of the manifold strata that appeared not
to have cooled since they had been heaved up. His itinerary began
with the east slope of the Sierras of the Snows, where that range
swings across to meet the coast hills, and all up that slope to the
Truckee River country, where the long cold forbade his progress
north. Then he worked back down one or another of the nearly
parallel ranges that lie out desertward, and so down to the sink of
the Mojave River, burrowing to oblivion in the sand,--a big
mysterious land, a lonely, inhospitable land, beautiful, terrible.
But he came to no harm in it; the land tolerated him as it might a
gopher or a badger. Of all its inhabitants it has the least
concern for man.

There are many strange sorts of humans bred in a mining
country, each sort despising the queernesses of the other, but of
them all I found the Pocket Hunter most acceptable for his clean,
companionable talk. There was more color to his reminiscences than

the faded sandy old miners "kyoteing," that is, tunneling like a
coyote (kyote in the vernacular) in the core of a lonesome hill.
Such a one has found, perhaps, a body of tolerable ore in a poor
lead,--remember that I can never be depended on to get the terms
right,--and followed it into the heart of country rock to no
profit, hoping, burrowing, and hoping. These men go harmlessly mad
in time, believing themselves just behind the wall of
fortune--most likable and simple men, for whom it is well to do any
kindly thing that occurs to you except lend them money. I have
known "grub stakers" too, those persuasive sinners to whom you make
allowances of flour and pork and coffee in consideration of the
ledges they are about to find; but none of these proved so much
worth while as the Pocket Hunter. He wanted nothing of you and
maintained a cheerful preference for his own way of life. It was
an excellent way if you had the constitution for it. The Pocket
Hunter had gotten to that point where he knew no bad weather, and
all places were equally happy so long as they were out of doors.
I do not know just how long it takes to become saturated with the
elements so that one takes no account of them. Myself can never
get past the glow and exhilaration of a storm, the wrestle of long
dust-heavy winds, the play of live thunder on the rocks, nor past
the keen fret of fatigue when the storm outlasts physical
endurance. But prospectors and Indians get a kind of a weather
shell that remains on the body until death.

The Pocket Hunter had seen destruction by the violence of
nature and the violence of men, and felt himself in the grip of an
All-wisdom that killed men or spared them as seemed for their good;
but of death by sickness he knew nothing except that he believed he
should never suffer it. He had been in Grape-vine Canon the year
of storms that changed the whole front of the mountain. All
day he had come down under the wing of the storm, hoping to win
past it, but finding it traveling with him until night. It kept on
after that, he supposed, a steady downpour, but could not with
certainty say, being securely deep in sleep. But the weather
instinct does not sleep. In the night the heavens behind the hill
dissolved in rain, and the roar of the storm was borne in and mixed
with his dreaming, so that it moved him, still asleep, to get up
and out of the path of it. What finally woke him was the crash of
pine logs as they went down before the unbridled flood, and the
swirl of foam that lashed him where he clung in the tangle of scrub
while the wall of water went by. It went on against the cabin of
Bill Gerry and laid Bill stripped and broken on a sand bar at the
mouth of the Grape-vine, seven miles away. There, when the sun was
up and the wrath of the rain spent, the Pocket Hunter found and
buried him; but he never laid his own escape at any door but the
unintelligible favor of the Powers.

The journeyings of the Pocket Hunter led him often into that
mysterious country beyond Hot Creek where a hidden force works
mischief, mole-like, under the crust of the earth. Whatever agency
is at work in that neighborhood, and it is popularly supposed to be
the devil, it changes means and direction without time or season.
It creeps up whole hillsides with insidious heat, unguessed
until one notes the pine woods dying at the top, and having
scorched out a good block of timber returns to steam and spout in
caked, forgotten crevices of years before. It will break up
sometimes blue-hot and bubbling, in the midst of a clear creek, or
make a sucking, scalding quicksand at the ford. These outbreaks
had the kind of morbid interest for the Pocket Hunter that a house
of unsavory reputation has in a respectable neighborhood, but I
always found the accounts he brought me more interesting than his
explanations, which were compounded of fag ends of miner's talk and
superstition. He was a perfect gossip of the woods, this Pocket
Hunter, and when I could get him away from "leads" and "strikes"
and "contacts," full of fascinating small talk about the ebb and
flood of creeks, the pinon crop on Black Mountain, and the wolves
of Mesquite Valley. I suppose he never knew how much he depended
for the necessary sense of home and companionship on the beasts and
trees, meeting and finding them in their wonted places,--the bear
that used to come down Pine Creek in the spring, pawing out trout
from the shelters of sod banks, the juniper at Lone Tree Spring,
and the quail at Paddy Jack's.

There is a place on Waban, south of White Mountain, where
flat, wind-tilted cedars make low tents and coves of shade and
shelter, where the wild sheep winter in the snow. Woodcutters and
prospectors had brought me word of that, but the Pocket
Hunter was accessory to the fact. About the opening of winter,
when one looks for sudden big storms, he had attempted a crossing
by the nearest path, beginning the ascent at noon. It grew cold,
the snow came on thick and blinding, and wiped out the trail in a
white smudge; the storm drift blew in and cut off landmarks, the
early dark obscured the rising drifts. According to the Pocket
Hunter's account, he knew where he was, but couldn't exactly say.
Three days before he had been in the west arm of Death Valley on a
short water allowance, ankle-deep in shifty sand; now he was on the
rise of Waban, knee-deep in sodden snow, and in both cases he did
the only allowable thing--he walked on. That is the only thing to
do in a snowstorm in any case. It might have been the creature
instinct, which in his way of life had room to grow, that led him
to the cedar shelter; at any rate he found it about four hours
after dark, and heard the heavy breathing of the flock. He said
that if he thought at all at this juncture he must have thought
that he had stumbled on a storm-belated shepherd with his silly
sheep; but in fact he took no note of anything but the warmth of
packed fleeces, and snuggled in between them dead with sleep. If
the flock stirred in the night he stirred drowsily to keep close
and let the storm go by. That was all until morning woke him
shining on a white world. Then the very soul of him shook
to see the wild sheep of God stand up about him, nodding their
great horns beneath the cedar roof, looking out on the wonder of
the snow. They had moved a little away from him with the coming of
the light, but paid him no more heed. The light broadened and
the white pavilions of the snow swam in the heavenly blueness of
the sea from which they rose. The cloud drift scattered and broke
billowing in the canons. The leader stamped lightly on the litter
to put the flock in motion, suddenly they took the drifts in those
long light leaps that are nearest to flight, down and away on the
slopes of Waban. Think of that to happen to a Pocket Hunter! But
though he had fallen on many a wished-for hap, he was curiously
inapt at getting the truth about beasts in general. He believed in
the venom of toads, and charms for snake bites, and--for this I
could never forgive him--had all the miner's prejudices against my
friend the coyote. Thief, sneak, and son of a thief were the
friendliest words he had for this little gray dog of the

Of course with so much seeking he came occasionally upon
pockets of more or less value, otherwise he could not have kept up
his way of life; but he had as much luck in missing great ledges as
in finding small ones. He had been all over the Tonopah country,
and brought away float without happening upon anything that gave
promise of what that district was to become in a few years.
He claimed to have chipped bits off the very outcrop of the
California Rand, without finding it worth while to bring away, but
none of these things put him out of countenance.

It was once in roving weather, when we found him shifting pack
on a steep trail, that I observed certain of his belongings done up
in green canvas bags, the veritable "green bag" of English novels.
It seemed so incongruous a reminder in this untenanted West that I
dropped down beside the trail overlooking the vast dim valley, to
hear about the green canvas. He had gotten it, he said, in London
years before, and that was the first I had known of his having been
abroad. It was after one of his "big strikes" that he had made the
Grand Tour, and had brought nothing away from it but the green
canvas bags, which he conceived would fit his needs, and an
ambition. This last was nothing less than to strike it rich and
set himself up among the eminently bourgeois of London. It seemed
that the situation of the wealthy English middle class, with just
enough gentility above to aspire to, and sufficient smaller fry to
bully and patronize, appealed to his imagination, though of course
he did not put it so crudely as that.

It was no news to me then, two or three years after, to learn
that he had taken ten thousand dollars from an abandoned claim,
just the sort of luck to have pleased him, and gone to London to
spend it. The land seemed not to miss him any more than it
had minded him, but I missed him and could not forget the trick of
expecting him in least likely situations. Therefore it was with a
pricking sense of the familiar that I followed a twilight trail of
smoke, a year or two later, to the swale of a dripping spring, and
came upon a man by the fire with a coffee-pot and frying-pan. I
was not surprised to find it was the Pocket Hunter. No man can be
stronger than his destiny.


It is true I have been in Shoshone Land, but before that, long
before, I had seen it through the eyes of Winnenap' in a rosy mist
of reminiscence, and must always see it with a sense of intimacy in
the light that never was. Sitting on the golden slope at the
campoodie, looking across the Bitter Lake to the purple tops of
Mutarango, the medicine-man drew up its happy places one by one,
like little blessed islands in a sea of talk. For he was born a
Shoshone, was Winnenap'; and though his name, his wife, his
children, and his tribal relations were of the Paiutes, his
thoughts turned homesickly toward Shoshone Land. Once a Shoshone
always a Shoshone. Winnenap' lived gingerly among the Paiutes and
in his heart despised them. But he could speak a tolerable English
when he would, and he always would if it were of Shoshone Land.

He had come into the keeping of the Paiutes as a hostage for
the long peace which the authority of the whites made
interminable, and, though there was now no order in the tribe, nor
any power that could have lawfully restrained him, kept on in the
old usage, to save his honor and the word of his vanished kin. He
had seen his children's children in the borders of the Paiutes, but
loved best his own miles of sand and rainbow-painted hills.
Professedly he had not seen them since the beginning of his
hostage; but every year about the end of the rains and before the
strength of the sun had come upon us from the south, the
medicine-man went apart on the mountains to gather herbs, and when
he came again I knew by the new fortitude of his countenance and
the new color of his reminiscences that he had been alone and
unspied upon in Shoshone Land.

To reach that country from the campoodie, one goes south and
south, within hearing of the lip-lip-lapping of the great tideless
lake, and south by east over a high rolling district, miles and
miles of sage and nothing else. So one comes to the country of the
painted hills,--old red cones of craters, wasteful beds of mineral
earths, hot, acrid springs, and steam jets issuing from a leprous
soil. After the hills the black rock, after the craters the spewed
lava, ash strewn, of incredible thickness, and full of sharp,
winding rifts. There are picture writings carved deep in the face
of the cliffs to mark the way for those who do not know it. On the
very edge of the black rock the earth falls away in a wide
sweeping hollow, which is Shoshone Land.

South the land rises in very blue hills, blue because thickly
wooded with ceanothus and manzanita, the haunt of deer and the
border of the Shoshones. Eastward the land goes very far by broken
ranges, narrow valleys of pure desertness, and huge mesas uplifted
to the sky-line, east and east, and no man knows the end of it.

It is the country of the bighorn, the wapiti, and the wolf,
nesting place of buzzards, land of cloud-nourished trees and wild
things that live without drink. Above all, it is the land of the
creosote and the mesquite. The mesquite is God's best thought in
all this desertness. It grows in the open, is thorny, stocky,
close grown, and iron-rooted. Long winds move in the draughty
valleys, blown sand fills and fills about the lower branches,
piling pyramidal dunes, from the top of which the mesquite twigs
flourish greenly. Fifteen or twenty feet under the drift, where it
seems no rain could penetrate, the main trunk grows, attaining
often a yard's thickness, resistant as oak. In Shoshone Land one
digs for large timber; that is in the southerly, sandy exposures.
Higher on the table-topped ranges low trees of juniper and pinon
stand each apart, rounded and spreading heaps of greenness.
Between them, but each to itself in smooth clear spaces, tufts of
tall feathered grass.

This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is
room enough and time enough. Trees grow to consummate domes; every
plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly
in crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long
enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a
use for everything that grows in these borders.

The manner of the country makes the usage of life there, and
the land will not be lived in except in its own fashion. The
Shoshones live like their trees, with great spaces between, and in
pairs and in family groups they set up wattled huts by the
infrequent springs. More wickiups than two make a very great
number. Their shelters are lightly built, for they travel much and
far, following where deer feed and seeds ripen, but they are not
more lonely than other creatures that inhabit there.

The year's round is somewhat in this fashion. After the pinon
harvest the clans foregather on a warm southward slope for the
annual adjustment of tribal difficulties and the medicine dance,
for marriage and mourning and vengeance, and the exchange of
serviceable information; if, for example, the deer have shifted
their feeding ground, if the wild sheep have come back to Waban, or
certain springs run full or dry. Here the Shoshones winter
flockwise, weaving baskets and hunting big game driven down from
the country of the deep snow. And this brief intercourse is all
the use they have of their kind, for now there are no wars,
and many of their ancient crafts have fallen into disuse. The
solitariness of the life breeds in the men, as in the plants, a
certain well-roundedness and sufficiency to its own ends. Any
Shoshone family has in itself the man-seed, power to multiply and
replenish, potentialities for food and clothing and shelter, for
healing and beautifying.

When the rain is over and gone they are stirred by the
instinct of those that journeyed eastward from Eden, and go up each
with his mate and young brood, like birds to old nesting places.
The beginning of spring in Shoshone Land--oh the soft wonder of
it!--is a mistiness as of incense smoke, a veil of greenness over
the whitish stubby shrubs, a web of color on the silver sanded
soil. No counting covers the multitude of rayed blossoms that
break suddenly underfoot in the brief season of the winter rains,
with silky furred or prickly viscid foliage, or no foliage at all.
They are morning and evening bloomers chiefly, and strong seeders.
Years of scant rains they lie shut and safe in the winnowed sands,
so that some species appear to be extinct. Years of long storms
they break so thickly into bloom that no horse treads without
crushing them. These years the gullies of the hills are rank with
fern and a great tangle of climbing vines.

Just as the mesa twilights have their vocal note in the
love call of the burrowing owl, so the desert spring is voiced by
the mourning doves. Welcome and sweet they sound in the smoky
mornings before breeding time, and where they frequent in any great
numbers water is confidently looked for. Still by the springs one
finds the cunning brush shelters from which the Shoshones shot
arrows at them when the doves came to drink.

Now as to these same Shoshones there are some who claim that
they have no right to the name, which belongs to a more northerly
tribe; but that is the word they will be called by, and there is no
greater offense than to call an Indian out of his name. According
to their traditions and all proper evidence, they were a great
people occupying far north and east of their present bounds, driven
thence by the Paiutes. Between the two tribes is the residuum of
old hostilities.

Winnenap', whose memory ran to the time when the boundary of
the Paiute country was a dead-line to Shoshones, told me once how
himself and another lad, in an unforgotten spring, discovered a
nesting place of buzzards a bit of a way beyond the borders. And
they two burned to rob those nests. Oh, for no purpose at all
except as boys rob nests immemorially, for the fun of it, to have
and handle and show to other lads as an exceeding treasure, and
afterwards discard. So, not quite meaning to, but breathless with
daring, they crept up a gully, across a sage brush flat and
through a waste of boulders, to the rugged pines where their sharp
eyes had made out the buzzards settling.

The medicine-man told me, always with a quaking relish at this
point, that while they, grown bold by success, were still in the
tree, they sighted a Paiute hunting party crossing between them and
their own land. That was mid-morning, and all day on into the dark
the boys crept and crawled and slid, from boulder to bush, and bush
to boulder, in cactus scrub and on naked sand, always in a sweat of
fear, until the dust caked in the nostrils and the breath sobbed in
the body, around and away many a mile until they came to their own
land again. And all the time Winnenap' carried those buzzard's
eggs in the slack of his single buckskin garment! Young Shoshones
are like young quail, knowing without teaching about feeding and
hiding, and learning what civilized children never learn, to be
still and to keep on being still, at the first hint of danger or

As for food, that appears to be chiefly a matter of being
willing. Desert Indians all eat chuckwallas, big black and white
lizards that have delicate white flesh savored like chicken. Both
the Shoshones and the coyotes are fond of the flesh of Gopherus
agassizii, the turtle that by feeding on buds, going without
drink, and burrowing in the sand through the winter, contrives to
live a known period of twenty-five years. It seems that
most seeds are foodful in the arid regions, most berries edible,
and many shrubs good for firewood with the sap in them. The
mesquite bean, whether the screw or straight pod, pounded to a
meal, boiled to a kind of mush, and dried in cakes, sulphur-colored
and needing an axe to cut it, is an excellent food for long
journeys. Fermented in water with wild honey and the honeycomb, it
makes a pleasant, mildly intoxicating drink.

Next to spring, the best time to visit Shoshone Land is when
the deer-star hangs low and white like a torch over the morning
hills. Go up past Winnedumah and down Saline and up again to the
rim of Mesquite Valley. Take no tent, but if you will, have an
Indian build you a wickiup, willows planted in a circle, drawn over
to an arch, and bound cunningly with withes, all the leaves on, and
chinks to count the stars through. But there was never any but
Winnenap' who could tell and make it worth telling about Shoshone

And Winnenap' will not any more. He died, as do most
medicine-men of the Paiutes.

Where the lot falls when the campoodie chooses a medicine-man
there it rests. It is an honor a man seldom seeks but must wear,
an honor with a condition. When three patients die under his
ministrations, the medicine-man must yield his life and his office.

Wounds do not count; broken bones and bullet holes the Indian can
understand, but measles, pneumonia, and smallpox are
witchcraft. Winnenap' was medicine-man for fifteen years. Besides
considerable skill in healing herbs, he used his prerogatives
cunningly. It is permitted the medicine-man to decline the case
when the patient has had treatment from any other, say the white
doctor, whom many of the younger generation consult. Or, if before
having seen the patient, he can definitely refer his disorder to
some supernatural cause wholly out of the medicine-man's
jurisdiction, say to the spite of an evil spirit going about in the
form of a coyote, and states the case convincingly, he may avoid
the penalty. But this must not be pushed too far. All else
failing, he can hide. Winnenap' did this the time of the measles
epidemic. Returning from his yearly herb gathering, he heard of it
at Black Rock, and turning aside, he was not to be found, nor did
he return to his own place until the disease had spent itself, and
half the children of the campoodie were in their shallow graves
with beads sprinkled over them.

It is possible the tale of Winnenap''s patients had not been
strictly kept. There had not been a medicine-man killed in the
valley for twelve years, and for that the perpetrators had been
severely punished by the whites. The winter of the Big Snow an
epidemic of pneumonia carried off the Indians with scarcely a
warning; from the lake northward to the lava flats they died in the
sweathouses, and under the hands of the medicine-men. Even
the drugs of the white physician had no power.

After two weeks of this plague the Paiutes drew to council to
consider the remissness of their medicine-men. They were sore with
grief and afraid for themselves; as a result of the council, one in
every campoodie was sentenced to the ancient penalty. But
schooling and native shrewdness had raised up in the younger men an
unfaith in old usages, so judgment halted between sentence and
execution. At Three Pines the government teacher brought out
influential whites to threaten and cajole the stubborn tribes. At
Tunawai the conservatives sent into Nevada for that pacific old
humbug, Johnson Sides, most notable of Paiute orators, to harangue
his people. Citizens of the towns turned out with food and
comforts, and so after a season the trouble passed.

But here at Maverick there was no school, no oratory, and no
alleviation. One third of the campoodie died, and the rest killed
the medicine-men. Winnenap' expected it, and for days walked and
sat a little apart from his family that he might meet it as became
a Shoshone, no doubt suffering the agony of dread deferred. When
finally three men came and sat at his fire without greeting he knew
his time. He turned a little from them, dropped his chin upon his
knees, and looked out over Shoshone Land, breathing evenly. The
women went into the wickiup and covered their heads with
their blankets.

So much has the Indian lost of savageness by merely desisting
from killing, that the executioners braved themselves to their work
by drinking and a show of quarrelsomeness. In the end a sharp
hatchet-stroke discharged the duty of the campoodie. Afterward his
women buried him, and a warm wind coming out of the south, the
force of the disease was broken, and even they acquiesced in the
wisdom of the tribe. That summer they told me all except the names
of the Three.

Since it appears that we make our own heaven here, no doubt we
shall have a hand in the heaven of hereafter; and I know what
Winnenap''s will be like: worth going to if one has leave to live
in it according to his liking. It will be tawny gold underfoot,
walled up with jacinth and jasper, ribbed with chalcedony, and yet
no hymnbook heaven, but the free air and free spaces of Shoshone



When Mr. Harte found himself with a fresh palette and his
particular local color fading from the West, he did what he
considered the only safe thing, and carried his young impression
away to be worked out untroubled by any newer fact. He should have
gone to Jimville. There he would have found cast up on the
ore-ribbed hills the bleached timbers of more tales, and better

You could not think of Jimville as anything more than a
survival, like the herb-eating, bony-cased old tortoise that pokes
cheerfully about those borders some thousands of years beyond his
proper epoch. Not that Jimville is old, but it has an atmosphere
favorable to the type of a half century back, if not
"forty-niners," of that breed. It is said of Jimville that getting
away from it is such a piece of work that it encourages permanence
in the population; the fact is that most have been drawn there by
some real likeness or liking. Not however that I would deny the
difficulty of getting into or out of that cove of reminder,
I who have made the journey so many times at great pains of a poor
body. Any way you go at it, Jimville is about three days from
anywhere in particular. North or south, after the railroad there
is a stage journey of such interminable monotony as induces
forgetfulness of all previous states of existence.

The road to Jimville is the happy hunting ground of old
stage-coaches bought up from superseded routes the West over,
rocking, lumbering, wide vehicles far gone in the odor of romance,
coaches that Vasquez has held up, from whose high seats express
messengers have shot or been shot as their luck held. This is to
comfort you when the driver stops to rummage for wire to mend a
failing bolt. There is enough of this sort of thing to quite
prepare you to believe what the driver insists, namely, that all
that country and Jimville are held together by wire.

First on the way to Jimville you cross a lonely open land,
with a hint in the sky of things going on under the horizon, a
palpitant, white, hot land where the wheels gird at the sand and
the midday heaven shuts it in breathlessly like a tent. So in
still weather; and when the wind blows there is occupation enough
for the passengers, shifting seats to hold down the windward side
of the wagging coach. This is a mere trifle. The Jimville stage
is built for five passengers, but when you have seven, with
four trunks, several parcels, three sacks of grain, the mail and
express, you begin to understand that proverb about the road which
has been reported to you. In time you learn to engage the high
seat beside the driver, where you get good air and the best
company. Beyond the desert rise the lava flats, scoriae strewn;
sharp-cutting walls of narrow canons; league-wide, frozen puddles
of black rock, intolerable and forbidding. Beyond the lava the
mouths that spewed it out, ragged-lipped, ruined craters
shouldering to the cloud-line, mostly of red earth, as red as a red
heifer. These have some comforting of shrubs and grass. You get
the very spirit of the meaning of that country when you see Little
Pete feeding his sheep in the red, choked maw of an old vent,--a
kind of silly pastoral gentleness that glozes over an elemental
violence. Beyond the craters rise worn, auriferous hills of a
quiet sort, tumbled together; a valley full of mists; whitish green
scrub; and bright, small, panting lizards; then Jimville.

The town looks to have spilled out of Squaw Gulch, and that,
in fact, is the sequence of its growth. It began around the Bully
Boy and Theresa group of mines midway up Squaw Gulch, spreading
down to the smelter at the mouth of the ravine. The freight wagons
dumped their loads as near to the mill as the slope allowed, and
Jimville grew in between. Above the Gulch begins a pine
wood with sparsely grown thickets of lilac, azalea, and odorous
blossoming shrubs.

Squaw Gulch is a very sharp, steep, ragged-walled ravine, and
that part of Jimville which is built in it has only one street,--in
summer paved with bone-white cobbles, in the wet months a frothy
yellow flood. All between the ore dumps and solitary small cabins,
pieced out with tin cans and packing cases, run footpaths drawing
down to the Silver Dollar saloon. When Jimville was having the
time of its life the Silver Dollar had those same coins let into
the bar top for a border, but the proprietor pried them out when
the glory departed. There are three hundred inhabitants in
Jimville and four bars, though you are not to argue anything from

Hear now how Jimville came by its name. Jim Calkins
discovered the Bully Boy, Jim Baker located the Theresa. When Jim
Jenkins opened an eating-house in his tent he chalked up on the
flap, "Best meals in Jimville, $1.00," and the name stuck.

There was more human interest in the origin of Squaw Gulch,
though it tickled no humor. It was Dimmick's squaw from Aurora
way. If Dimmick had been anything except New Englander he would
have called her a mahala, but that would not have bettered his
behavior. Dimmick made a strike, went East, and the squaw who had
been to him as his wife took to drink. That was the bald
way of stating it in the Aurora country. The milk of human
kindness, like some wine, must not be uncorked too much in speech
lest it lose savor. This is what they did. The woman would have
returned to her own people, being far gone with child, but the
drink worked her bane. By the river of this ravine her pains
overtook her. There Jim Calkins, prospecting, found her dying with
a three days' babe nozzling at her breast. Jim heartened her for
the end, buried her, and walked back to Poso, eighteen miles, the
child poking in the folds of his denim shirt with small mewing
noises, and won support for it from the rough-handed folks of that
place. Then he came back to Squaw Gulch, so named from that day,
and discovered the Bully Boy. Jim humbly regarded this piece of
luck as interposed for his reward, and I for one believed him. If
it had been in mediaeval times you would have had a legend or a
ballad. Bret Harte would have given you a tale. You see in me a
mere recorder, for I know what is best for you; you shall blow out
this bubble from your own breath.

You could never get into any proper relation to Jimville
unless you could slough off and swallow your acquired prejudices as
a lizard does his skin. Once wanting some womanly attentions, the
stage-driver assured me I might have them at the Nine-Mile House
from the lady barkeeper. The phrase tickled all my
after-dinner-coffee sense of humor into an anticipation of Poker
Flat. The stage-driver proved himself really right, though
you are not to suppose from this that Jimville had no conventions
and no caste. They work out these things in the personal equation
largely. Almost every latitude of behavior is allowed a good
fellow, one no liar, a free spender, and a backer of his friends'
quarrels. You are respected in as much ground as you can shoot
over, in as many pretensions as you can make good.

That probably explains Mr. Fanshawe, the gentlemanly faro
dealer of those parts, built for the role of Oakhurst, going
white-shirted and frock-coated in a community of overalls; and
persuading you that whatever shifts and tricks of the game were
laid to his deal, he could not practice them on a person of your
penetration. But he does. By his own account and the evidence of
his manners he had been bred for a clergyman, and he certainly has
gifts for the part. You find him always in possession of your
point of view, and with an evident though not obtrusive desire to
stand well with you. For an account of his killings, for his way
with women and the way of women with him, I refer you to Brown of
Calaveras and some others of that stripe. His improprieties had a
certain sanction of long standing not accorded to the gay ladies
who wore Mr. Fanshawe's favors. There were perhaps too many of
them. On the whole, the point of the moral distinctions of
Jimville appears to be a point of honor, with an absence of
humorous appreciation that strangers mistake for dullness. At
Jimville they see behavior as history and judge it by facts,
untroubled by invention and the dramatic sense. You glimpse a
crude equity in their dealings with Wilkins, who had shot a man at
Lone Tree, fairly, in an open quarrel. Rumor of it reached
Jimville before Wilkins rested there in flight. I saw Wilkins, all
Jimville saw him; in fact, he came into the Silver Dollar when we
were holding a church fair and bought a pink silk pincushion. I
have often wondered what became of it. Some of us shook hands with
him, not because we did not know, but because we had not been
officially notified, and there were those present who knew how it
was themselves. When the sheriff arrived Wilkins had moved on, and
Jimville organized a posse and brought him back, because the
sheriff was a Jimville man and we had to stand by him.

I said we had the church fair at the Silver Dollar. We had
most things there, dances, town meetings, and the kinetoscope
exhibition of the Passion Play. The Silver Dollar had been built
when the borders of Jimville spread from Minton to the red hill the
Defiance twisted through. "Side-Winder" Smith scrubbed the floor
for us and moved the bar to the back room. The fair was designed
for the support of the circuit rider who preached to the few that
would hear, and buried us all in turn. He was the symbol of
Jimville's respectability, although he was of a sect that
held dancing among the cardinal sins. The management took no
chances on offending the minister; at 11.30 they tendered him the
receipts of the evening in the chairman's hat, as a delicate
intimation that the fair was closed. The company filed out of the
front door and around to the back. Then the dance began formally
with no feelings hurt. These were the sort of courtesies, common
enough in Jimville, that brought tears of delicate inner laughter.

There were others besides Mr. Fanshawe who had walked out of
Mr. Harte's demesne to Jimville and wore names that smacked of the
soil,--"Alkali Bill," "Pike" Wilson, "Three Finger," and "Mono
Jim;" fierce, shy, profane, sun-dried derelicts of the windy hills,
who each owned, or had owned, a mine and was wishful to own one
again. They laid up on the worn benches of the Silver Dollar or
the Same Old Luck like beached vessels, and their talk ran on
endlessly of "strike" and "contact" and "mother lode," and worked
around to fights and hold-ups, villainy, haunts, and the hoodoo of
the Minietta, told austerely without imagination.

Do not suppose I am going to repeat it all; you who want these
things written up from the point of view of people who do not do
them every day would get no savor in their speech.

Says Three Finger, relating the history of the
Mariposa, "I took it off'n Tom Beatty, cheap, after his brother
Bill was shot."

Says Jim Jenkins, "What was the matter of him?"

"Who? Bill? Abe Johnson shot him; he was fooling around
Johnson's wife, an' Tom sold me the mine dirt cheap."

"Why didn't he work it himself?"

"Him? Oh, he was laying for Abe and calculated to have to
leave the country pretty quick."

"Huh!" says Jim Jenkins, and the tale flows smoothly on.

Yearly the spring fret floats the loose population of Jimville
out into the desolate waste hot lands, guiding by the peaks and a
few rarely touched water-holes, always, always with the golden
hope. They develop prospects and grow rich, develop others and
grow poor but never embittered. Say the hills, It is all one,
there is gold enough, time enough, and men enough to come after
you. And at Jimville they understand the language of the hills.

Jimville does not know a great deal about the crust of the
earth, it prefers a "hunch." That is an intimation from the gods
that if you go over a brown back of the hills, by a dripping
spring, up Coso way, you will find what is worth while. I have
never heard that the failure of any particular hunch disproved the
principle. Somehow the rawness of the land favors the sense of
personal relation to the supernatural. There is not much
intervention of crops, cities, clothes, and manners between you and
the organizing forces to cut off communication. All this begets in
Jimville a state that passes explanation unless you will accept an
explanation that passes belief. Along with killing and
drunkenness, coveting of women, charity, simplicity, there is a
certain indifference, blankness, emptiness if you will, of all
vaporings, no bubbling of the pot,--it wants the German to coin
a word for that,--no bread-envy, no brother-fervor. Western
writers have not sensed it yet; they smack the savor of lawlessness
too much upon their tongues, but you have these to witness it is
not mean-spiritedness. It is pure Greek in that it represents the
courage to sheer off what is not worth while. Beyond that it
endures without sniveling, renounces without self-pity, fears no
death, rates itself not too great in the scheme of things; so do
beasts, so did St. Jerome in the desert, so also in the elder day
did gods. Life, its performance, cessation, is no new thing to
gape and wonder at.

Here you have the repose of the perfectly accepted instinct
which includes passion and death in its perquisites. I suppose
that the end of all our hammering and yawping will be something
like the point of view of Jimville. The only difference will be in
the decorations.


It is one of those places God must have meant for a field from all
time, lying very level at the foot of the slope that crowds up
against Kearsarge, falling slightly toward the town. North and
south it is fenced by low old glacial ridges, boulder strewn and
untenable. Eastward it butts on orchard closes and the village
gardens, brimming over into them by wild brier and creeping grass.
The village street, with its double row of unlike houses, breaks
off abruptly at the edge of the field in a footpath that goes up
the streamside, beyond it, to the source of waters.

The field is not greatly esteemed of the town, not being put
to the plough nor affording firewood, but breeding all manner of
wild seeds that go down in the irrigating ditches to come up as
weeds in the gardens and grass plots. But when I had no more than
seen it in the charm of its spring smiling, I knew I should have no
peace until I had bought ground and built me a house beside
it, with a little wicket to go in and out at all hours, as
afterward came about.

Edswick, Roeder, Connor, and Ruffin owned the field before it
fell to my neighbor. But before that the Paiutes, mesne lords of
the soil, made a campoodie by the rill of Pine Creek; and after,
contesting the soil with them, cattle-men, who found its foodful
pastures greatly to their advantage; and bands of blethering flocks
shepherded by wild, hairy men of little speech, who attested their
rights to the feeding ground with their long staves upon each
other's skulls. Edswick homesteaded the field about the time the
wild tide of mining life was roaring and rioting up Kearsarge, and
where the village now stands built a stone hut, with loopholes to
make good his claim against cattlemen or Indians. But Edswick died
and Roeder became master of the field. Roeder owned cattle on a
thousand hills, and made it a recruiting ground for his bellowing
herds before beginning the long drive to market across a shifty
desert. He kept the field fifteen years, and afterward falling
into difficulties, put it out as security against certain sums.
Connor, who held the securities, was cleverer than Roeder and not
so busy. The money fell due the winter of the Big Snow, when all
the trails were forty feet under drifts, and Roeder was away in San
Francisco selling his cattle. At the set time Connor took the law
by the forelock and was adjudged possession of the field. Eighteen
days later Roeder arrived on snowshoes, both feet frozen,
and the money in his pack. In the long suit at law ensuing, the
field fell to Ruffin, that clever one-armed lawyer with the tongue
to wile a bird out of the bush, Connor's counsel, and was sold by
him to my neighbor, whom from envying his possession I call Naboth.

Curiously, all this human occupancy of greed and mischief left
no mark on the field, but the Indians did, and the unthinking
sheep. Round its corners children pick up chipped arrow points of
obsidian, scattered through it are kitchen middens and pits of old
sweat-houses. By the south corner, where the campoodie stood, is
a single shrub of "hoopee" (Lycium andersonii), maintaining
itself hardly among alien shrubs, and near by, three low rakish
trees of hackberry, so far from home that no prying of mine has
been able to find another in any canon east or west. But the
berries of both were food for the Paiutes, eagerly sought and
traded for as far south as Shoshone Land. By the fork of the creek
where the shepherds camp is a single clump of mesquite of the
variety called "screw bean." The seed must have shaken there from
some sheep's coat, for this is not the habitat of mesquite, and
except for other single shrubs at sheep camps, none grows freely
for a hundred and fifty miles south or east.

Naboth has put a fence about the best of the field, but
neither the Indians nor the shepherds can quite forego it.
They make camp and build their wattled huts about the borders of
it, and no doubt they have some sense of home in its familiar

As I have said, it is a low-lying field, between the mesa and
the town, with no hillocks in it, but a gentle swale where the
waste water of the creek goes down to certain farms, and the
hackberry-trees, of which the tallest might be three times the
height of a man, are the tallest things in it. A mile up from the
water gate that turns the creek into supply pipes for the town,
begins a row of long-leaved pines, threading the watercourse to the
foot of Kearsarge. These are the pines that puzzle the local
botanist, not easily determined, and unrelated to other conifers of
the Sierra slope; the same pines of which the Indians relate a
legend mixed of brotherliness and the retribution of God. Once the
pines possessed the field, as the worn stumps of them along the
streamside show, and it would seem their secret purpose to regain
their old footing. Now and then some seedling escapes the
devastating sheep a rod or two down-stream. Since I came to live
by the field one of these has tiptoed above the gully of the creek,
beckoning the procession from the hills, as if in fact they would
make back toward that skyward-pointing finger of granite on the
opposite range, from which, according to the legend, when they were
bad Indians and it a great chief, they ran away. This year
the summer floods brought the round, brown, fruitful cones to my
very door, and I look, if I live long enough, to see them come up
greenly in my neighbor's field.

It is interesting to watch this retaking of old ground by the
wild plants, banished by human use. Since Naboth drew his fence
about the field and restricted it to a few wild-eyed steers,
halting between the hills and the shambles, many old habitues of
the field have come back to their haunts. The willow and brown
birch, long ago cut off by the Indians for wattles, have come back
to the streamside, slender and virginal in their spring greenness,
and leaving long stretches of the brown water open to the sky. In
stony places where no grass grows, wild olives sprawl;
close-twigged, blue-gray patches in winter, more translucent
greenish gold in spring than any aureole. Along with willow and
birch and brier, the clematis, that shyest plant of water borders,
slips down season by season to within a hundred yards of the
village street. Convinced after three years that it would come no
nearer, we spent time fruitlessly pulling up roots to plant in the
garden. All this while, when no coaxing or care prevailed upon any
transplanted slip to grow, one was coming up silently outside the
fence near the wicket, coiling so secretly in the rabbit-brush that
its presence was never suspected until it flowered delicately along
its twining length. The horehound comes through the fence
and under it, shouldering the pickets off the railings; the brier
rose mines under the horehound; and no care, though I own I am not
a close weeder, keeps the small pale moons of the primrose from
rising to the night moth under my apple-trees. The first summer in
the new place, a clump of cypripediums came up by the irrigating
ditch at the bottom of the lawn. But the clematis will not come
inside, nor the wild almond.

I have forgotten to find out, though I meant to, whether the
wild almond grew in that country where Moses kept the flocks of his
father-in-law, but if so one can account for the burning bush. It
comes upon one with a flame-burst as of revelation; little hard red
buds on leafless twigs, swelling unnoticeably, then one, two, or
three strong suns, and from tip to tip one soft fiery glow,
whispering with bees as a singing flame. A twig of finger size
will be furred to the thickness of one's wrist by pink five-petaled
bloom, so close that only the blunt-faced wild bees find their way
in it. In this latitude late frosts cut off the hope of fruit too
often for the wild almond to multiply greatly, but the spiny,
tap-rooted shrubs are resistant to most plant evils.

It is not easy always to be attentive to the maturing of wild
fruit. Plants are so unobtrusive in their material processes, and
always at the significant moment some other bloom has reached its
perfect hour. One can never fix the precise moment when the
rosy tint the field has from the wild almond passes into the
inspiring blue of lupines. One notices here and there a spike of
bloom, and a day later the whole field royal and ruffling lightly
to the wind. Part of the charm of the lupine is the continual stir
of its plumes to airs not suspected otherwhere. Go and stand by
any crown of bloom and the tall stalks do but rock a little as for
drowsiness, but look off across the field, and on the stillest days
there is always a trepidation in the purple patches.

From midsummer until frost the prevailing note of the field is
clear gold, passing into the rusty tone of bigelovia going into a
decline, a succession of color schemes more admirably managed than
the transformation scene at the theatre. Under my window a colony
of cleome made a soft web of bloom that drew me every morning for
a long still time; and one day I discovered that I was looking into
a rare fretwork of fawn and straw colored twigs from which both
bloom and leaf had gone, and I could not say if it had been for a
matter of weeks or days. The time to plant cucumbers and set out
cabbages may be set down in the almanac, but never seed-time nor
blossom in Naboth's field.

Certain winged and mailed denizens of the field seem to reach
their heyday along with the plants they most affect. In June the
leaning towers of the white milkweed are jeweled over with
red and gold beetles, climbing dizzily. This is that milkweed from
whose stems the Indians flayed fibre to make snares for small game,
but what use the beetles put it to except for a displaying ground
for their gay coats, I could never discover. The white butterfly
crop comes on with the bigelovia bloom, and on warm mornings makes
an airy twinkling all across the field. In September young linnets
grow out of the rabbit-brush in the night. All the nests
discoverable in the neighboring orchards will not account for the
numbers of them. Somewhere, by the same secret process by which
the field matures a million more seeds than it needs, it is
maturing red-hooded linnets for their devouring. All the purlieus
of bigelovia and artemisia are noisy with them for a month.
Suddenly as they come as suddenly go the fly-by-nights, that pitch
and toss on dusky barred wings above the field of summer twilights.

Never one of these nighthawks will you see after linnet time,
though the hurtle of their wings makes a pleasant sound across the
dusk in their season.

For two summers a great red-tailed hawk has visited the field
every afternoon between three and four o'clock, swooping and
soaring with the airs of a gentleman adventurer. What he finds
there is chiefly conjectured, so secretive are the little people of
Naboth's field. Only when leaves fall and the light is low and
slant, one sees the long clean flanks of the jackrabbits,
leaping like small deer, and of late afternoons little cotton-tails
scamper in the runways. But the most one sees of the burrowers,
gophers, and mice is the fresh earthwork of their newly opened
doors, or the pitiful small shreds the butcher-bird hangs on spiny

It is a still field, this of my neighbor's, though so busy,
and admirably compounded for variety and pleasantness,--a little
sand, a little loam, a grassy plot, a stony rise or two, a full
brown stream, a little touch of humanness, a footpath trodden out
by moccasins. Naboth expects to make town lots of it and his
fortune in one and the same day; but when I take the trail to talk
with old Seyavi at the campoodie, it occurs to me that though the
field may serve a good turn in those days it will hardly be
happier. No, certainly not happier.


The mesa trail begins in the campoodie at the corner of Naboth's
field, though one may drop into it from the wood road toward the
canon, or from any of the cattle paths that go up along the
streamside; a clean, pale, smooth-trodden way between spiny shrubs,
comfortably wide for a horse or an Indian. It begins, I say, at
the campoodie, and goes on toward the twilight hills and the
borders of Shoshone Land. It strikes diagonally across the foot of
the hill-slope from the field until it reaches the larkspur level,
and holds south along the front of Oppapago, having the high
ranges to the right and the foothills and the great Bitter Lake
below it on the left. The mesa holds very level here, cut across
at intervals by the deep washes of dwindling streams, and its
treeless spaces uncramp the soul.

Mesa trails were meant to be traveled on horseback, at the
jigging coyote trot that only western-bred horses learn
successfully. A foot-pace carries one too slowly past the
units in a decorative scheme that is on a scale with the country
round for bigness. It takes days' journeys to give a note of
variety to the country of the social shrubs. These chiefly clothe
the benches and eastern foot-slopes of the Sierras,--great spreads
of artemisia, coleogyne, and spinosa, suffering no other
woody stemmed thing in their purlieus; this by election apparently,
with no elbowing; and the several shrubs have each their clientele
of flowering herbs. It would be worth knowing how much the
devastating sheep have had to do with driving the tender plants to
the shelter of the prickle-bushes. It might have begun earlier, in
the time Seyavi of the campoodie tells of, when antelope ran on the
mesa like sheep for numbers, but scarcely any foot-high herb rears
itself except from the midst of some stout twigged shrub; larkspur
in the coleogyne, and for every spinosa the purpling coils
of phacelia. In the shrub shelter, in the season, flock the little
stemless things whose blossom time is as short as a marriage song.
The larkspurs make the best showing, being tall and sweet, swaying
a little above the shrubbery, scattering pollen dust which Navajo
brides gather to fill their marriage baskets. This were an easier
task than to find two of them of a shade. Larkspurs in the botany
are blue, but if you were to slip rein to the stub of some black
sage and set about proving it you would be still at it by the hour
when the white gilias set their pale disks to the westering
sun. This is the gilia the children call "evening snow," and it is
no use trying to improve on children's names for wild flowers.

From the height of a horse you look down to clean spaces in a
shifty yellow soil, bare to the eye as a newly sanded floor. Then
as soon as ever the hill shadows begin to swell out from the
sidelong ranges, come little flakes of whiteness fluttering at the
edge of the sand. By dusk there are tiny drifts in the lee of
every strong shrub, rosy-tipped corollas as riotous in the sliding
mesa wind as if they were real flakes shaken out of a cloud, not
sprung from the ground on wiry three-inch stems. They keep awake
all night, and all the air is heavy and musky sweet because of

Farther south on the trail there will be poppies meeting ankle
deep, and singly, peacock-painted bubbles of calochortus blown out
at the tops of tall stems. But before the season is in tune for
the gayer blossoms the best display of color is in the lupin wash.
There is always a lupin wash somewhere on the mesa trail,--a broad,
shallow, cobble-paved sink of vanished waters, where the hummocks
of Lupinus ornatus run a delicate gamut from silvery green
of spring to silvery white of winter foliage. They look in fullest
leaf, except for color, most like the huddled huts of the
campoodie, and the largest of them might be a man's length in
diameter. In their season, which is after the gilias are at
their best, and before the larkspurs are ripe for pollen gathering,
every terminal whorl of the lupin sends up its blossom stalk, not
holding any constant blue, but paling and purpling to guide the
friendly bee to virginal honey sips, or away from the perfected and
depleted flower. The length of the blossom stalk conforms to the
rounded contour of the plant, and of these there will be a million
moving indescribably in the airy current that flows down the swale
of the wash.

There is always a little wind on the mesa, a sliding current
of cooler air going down the face of the mountain of its own
momentum, but not to disturb the silence of great space. Passing
the wide mouths of canons, one gets the effect of whatever is doing
in them, openly or behind a screen of cloud,--thunder of falls,
wind in the pine leaves, or rush and roar of rain. The rumor of
tumult grows and dies in passing, as from open doors gaping on a
village street, but does not impinge on the effect of solitariness.

In quiet weather mesa days have no parallel for stillness, but the
night silence breaks into certain mellow or poignant notes. Late
afternoons the burrowing owls may be seen blinking at the doors of
their hummocks with perhaps four or five elfish nestlings arow, and
by twilight begin a soft whoo-oo-ing, rounder, sweeter, more
incessant in mating time. It is not possible to disassociate the
call of the burrowing owl from the late slant light of the
mesa. If the fine vibrations which are the golden-violet glow of
spring twilights were to tremble into sound, it would be just that
mellow double note breaking along the blossom-tops. While the glow
holds one sees the thistle-down flights and pouncings after prey,
and on into the dark hears their soft pus-ssh! clearing out
of the trail ahead. Maybe the pinpoint shriek of field mouse or
kangaroo rat that pricks the wakeful pauses of the night is
extorted by these mellow-voiced plunderers, though it is just as
like to be the work of the red fox on his twenty-mile

Both the red fox and the coyote are free of the night hours,
and both killers for the pure love of slaughter. The fox is no
great talker, but the coyote goes garrulously through the dark in
twenty keys at once, gossip, warning, and abuse. They are light
treaders, the split-feet, so that the solitary camper sees their
eyes about him in the dark sometimes, and hears the soft intake of
breath when no leaf has stirred and no twig snapped underfoot. The
coyote is your real lord of the mesa, and so he makes sure you are
armed with no long black instrument to spit your teeth into his
vitals at a thousand yards, is both bold and curious. Not so bold,
however, as the badger and not so much of a curmudgeon. This
short-legged meat-eater loves half lights and lowering days, has
no friends, no enemies, and disowns his offspring. Very
likely if he knew how hawk and crow dog him for dinners, he would
resent it. But the badger is not very well contrived for looking
up or far to either side. Dull afternoons he may be met nosing a
trail hot-foot to the home of ground rat or squirrel, and is with
difficulty persuaded to give the right of way. The badger is a
pot-hunter and no sportsman. Once at the hill, he dives for the
central chamber, his sharp-clawed, splayey feet splashing up the
sand like a bather in the surf. He is a swift trailer, but not so
swift or secretive but some small sailing hawk or lazy crow,
perhaps one or two of each, has spied upon him and come drifting
down the wind to the killing.

No burrower is so unwise as not to have several exits from his
dwelling under protecting shrubs. When the badger goes down, as
many of the furry people as are not caught napping come up by the
back doors, and the hawks make short work of them. I suspect that
the crows get nothing but the gratification of curiosity and the
pickings of some secret store of seeds unearthed by the badger.
Once the excavation begins they walk about expectantly, but the
little gray hawks beat slow circles about the doors of exit, and
are wiser in their generation, though they do not look it.

There are always solitary hawks sailing above the mesa, and
where some blue tower of silence lifts out of the neighboring
range, an eagle hanging dizzily, and always buzzards high up in the
thin, translucent air making a merry-go-round. Between the
coyote and the birds of carrion the mesa is kept clear of miserable

The wind, too, is a besom over the treeless spaces, whisking
new sand over the litter of the scant-leaved shrubs, and the little
doorways of the burrowers are as trim as city fronts. It takes man
to leave unsightly scars on the face of the earth. Here on the
mesa the abandoned campoodies of the Paiutes are spots of
desolation long after the wattles of the huts have warped in the
brush heaps. The campoodies are near the watercourses, but never
in the swale of the stream. The Paiute seeks rising ground,
depending on air and sun for purification of his dwelling, and when
it becomes wholly untenable, moves.

A campoodie at noontime, when there is no smoke rising and no
stir of life, resembles nothing so much as a collection of
prodigious wasps' nests. The huts are squat and brown and
chimneyless, facing east, and the inhabitants have the faculty of
quail for making themselves scarce in the underbrush at the
approach of strangers. But they are really not often at home
during midday, only the blind and incompetent left to keep the
camp. These are working hours, and all across the mesa one sees
the women whisking seeds of chia into their spoon-shaped
baskets, these emptied again into the huge conical carriers,
supported on the shoulders by a leather band about the forehead.

Mornings and late afternoons one meets the men singly and
afoot on unguessable errands, or riding shaggy, browbeaten ponies,
with game slung across the saddle-bows. This might be deer or even
antelope, rabbits, or, very far south towards Shoshone Land,

There are myriads of lizards on the mesa, little gray darts,
or larger salmon-sided ones that may be found swallowing their
skins in the safety of a prickle-bush in early spring. Now and
then a palm's breadth of the trail gathers itself together and
scurries off with a little rustle under the brush, to resolve
itself into sand again. This is pure witchcraft. If you succeed
in catching it in transit, it loses its power and becomes a flat,
horned, toad-like creature, horrid-looking and harmless, of the
color of the soil; and the curio dealer will give you two bits for
it, to stuff.
Men have their season on the mesa as much as plants and
four-footed things, and one is not like to meet them out of their
time. For example, at the time of rodeos, which is perhaps
April, one meets free riding vaqueros who need no trails and can
find cattle where to the layman no cattle exist. As early as

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