DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE
The first part of that adventurous day was quiet. We moved sedately along on an overgrown trail, mountain walls so close on each side that the valley lay in shadow. I rode next to Dan Devore that day, and on the trail he stopped his horse and showed me the place where Hughie McKeever was found.
Dan Devore and Hughie McKeever went out one November to go up to Horseshoe Basin. Dan left before the heaviest snows came, leaving McKeever alone. When McKeever had not appeared by February, Dan went in for him. His cabin was empty.
He had kept a diary up to the 24th of December, when it stopped abruptly. There were a few marten skins in the cabin, and his outfit. That was all. In some cottonwoods, not far from the camp, they found his hatchet and his bag hanging to a tree.
It looked for a time, as though the mystery of Hughie McKeever's disappearance would be one of the unsolved tragedies of the mountains. But a trapper, whose route took him along Thunder Creek that spring, noticed that his dog made a side trip each time, away from the trail. At last he investigated, and found the body of Hughie McKeever. He had probably been caught in a snow-slide, for his leg was broken below the knee. Unable to walk, he had put his snowshoes on his hands and, dragging the broken leg, had crawled six miles through the snow and ice of the mountain winter. When he was found, he was only a mile and a half from his cabin and safety.
There are many other tragedies of that valley. There was a man who went up Bridge Creek to see a claim he had located there. He was to be out four days. But in ten days he had not appeared, which was not surprising, for there was twenty-five feet of snow, and when the snow had frozen so that rescuers could travel over the crust, they went up after him. He was lying in one of the bunks of his cabin with a mattress over him, frozen to death.
So, Dan said, they covered him in the snow with a mattress, and went back in the spring to bury him.
Every winter, in those mountain valleys, men who cannot get their outfits out before the snow shoot their horses or cut their throats rather than let them freeze or starve to death. It is a grim country, the Cascade country. One man shot nine in this very valley last winter.
Our naturalist had been caught the winter before in the first snowstorm of the season. He was from daylight until eight o'clock at night making two miles of trail. He had to break it, foot by foot, for the horses.
As we rode up the gorge toward the pass, it was evident, from the amount of snow in the mountains, that stories had not been exaggerated. The packers looked dubious. Even if we could make the climb to Doubtful Lake, it seemed impossible that we could get farther. But the monotony of the long ride was broken that afternoon by our first sight, as a party, of a bear.
It came out on a ledge of the mountain, perhaps three hundred yards away, and proceeded, with great deliberation, to walk across a rock-slide. It paid no attention whatever to us and to the wild excitement which followed its discovery. Instantly, the three junior Rineharts were off their horses, and our artillery attack was being prepared. At the first shot, the pack-ponies went crazy. They lunged and jumped, and even Buddy showed signs of strain, leaping what I imagine to be some eleven feet in the air and coming back on four rigid knees. Followed such a peppering of that cliff as it had never had before. Little clouds of rock-dust rose above the bear, in front of him, behind him, and below him. He stopped, mildly astonished, and looked around. More noise, more bucking on the trail, more dust. The bear walked on a trifle faster.
It had been arranged that the first bear was to be left for the juniors. So the packers and the rest of the party watched and advised.
But, as I have related elsewhere in this narrative, there were no casualties. The bear, as far as I know, is living to-day, an honored member of his community, and still telling how he survived the great war. At last he disappeared into a cave, and we went on without so much as a single skin to decorate a college room.
We went on.
What odds and ends of knowledge we picked up on those long days in the saddle! That if lightning strikes a pine even lightly, it kills, but that a fir will ordinarily survive; that mountain miles are measured air-line, so that twenty-five miles may really be forty, and that, even then, they are calculated on the level, so that one is credited with only the base of the triangle while he is laboriously climbing up its hypotenuse. I am personally acquainted with the hypotenuses of a good many mountains, and there is no use trying to pretend that they are bases. They are not.
Then we learned that the purpose of the National Forests is not to preserve timber but to conserve it. The idea is to sell and reseed. About twenty-five per cent of the timber we saw was yellow pine. But most of the timber we saw on the east side of the Cascades will be safe for some time. I wouldn't undertake to carry out, from most of that region, enough pine-needles to make a sofa-cushion. It is quite enough to get oneself out.
Up to now it had been hard going, but not impossible. Now we were to do the impossible.
It is a curious thing about mountains, but they have a hideous tendency to fall down. Whole cliff-faces, a mile or so high, are suddenly seized with a wandering disposition. Leaving the old folks at home and sliding down into the valleys, they come awful croppers and sustain about eleven million compound comminuted fractures.
These family breaks are known as rock-slides.
Now to travel twenty feet over a rock-slide is to twist an ankle, bruise a shin-bone, utterly discourage a horse, and sour the most amiable disposition.
There is no flat side to these wandering rocks. With the diabolical ingenuity that nature can show when she goes wrong, they lie edge up. Do you remember the little mermaid who wished to lose her tail and gain legs so she could follow the prince? And how her penalty was that every step was like walking on the edges of swords? That is a mountain rock-slide, but I do not recall that the little mermaid had to drag a frightened and slipping horse, which stepped on her now and then. Or wear riding-boots. Or stop every now and then to be photographed, and try to persuade her horse to stop also. Or keep looking up to see if another family jar threatened. Or look around to see if any of the party or the pack was rolling down over the spareribs of that ghastly skeleton. No; the little mermaid's problem was a simple and uncomplicated one.
We were climbing, too. Only one thing kept us going. The narrow valley twisted, and around each cliff-face we expected the end--either death or solid ground. But not so, or, at least, not for some hours. Riding-boots peeled like a sunburnt face; stones dislodged and rolled down; the sun beat down in early September fury, and still we went on.
Only three miles it was, but it was as bad a three miles as I have ever covered. Then--the naturalist turned and smiled.
"Now we are all right," he said. "We start to climb soon!"