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Chapter 17

OUT TO CIVILIZATION


It was still raining in the morning. The skies were gray and sodden and the air was moist. We stood round the camp-fire and ate our fried ham, hot coffee, and biscuits. It was then that the Head, prompted by sympathy, fed his horse the rain-soaked biscuit, the apple, the two lumps of sugar, and the raw egg.

Yet, in spite of the weather, we were jubilant. The pack-train had come through without the loss of a single horse. Again the impossible had become possible. And that day was to see us out of the mountains and in peaceful green valleys, where the horses could eat their fill.

The sun came out as we started. Had it not been for the horses, we should have been entirely happy. But sympathy for them had become an obsession. We rode slowly to save them; we walked when we could. It was strange to go through that green wonderland and find not a leaf the horses could eat. It was all moss, ferns, and evergreens.

From the semi-arid lands east of the Cascades to the rank vegetation of the Pacific side was an extraordinary change. Trees grew to enormous sizes. In addition to the great cedars, there were hemlocks fifteen and eighteen feet in circumference. Only the strong trees survive in these valleys, and by that ruthless selection of nature weak young saplings die early. So we found cedar, hemlock, lodge-pole pine, white and Douglas fir, cottonwood, white pine, spruce, and alder of enormous size.

The brake ferns were the most common, often growing ten feet tall. We counted five varieties of ferns growing in profusion, among them brake ferns, sword-ferns, and maidenhair, most beautiful and luxuriant. The maidenhair fern grew in masses, covering dead trunks of trees and making solid walls of delicate green beside the trail.

"Silent Lawrie" knew them all. He knew every tiniest flower and plant that thrust its head above the leaf-mould. He saw them all, too. Peanuts, his horse, made his own way now, and the naturalist sat a trifle sideways in his saddle and showed me his discoveries.

I am no naturalist, so I rode behind him, notebook in hand, and I made a list something like this. If there are any errors they are not the naturalist's, but mine, because, although I have written a great deal on a horse's back, I am not proof against the accident of Whiskers stirring a yellow-jackets' nest on the trail, or of Buddy stumbling, weary beast that he was, over a root on the path.

This is my list: red-stemmed dogwood; bunchberries, in blossom on the higher reaches, in bloom below; service-berries, salmon-berries; skunk-cabbage, beloved by bears, and the roots of which the Indians roast and eat; above four thousand feet, white rhododendrons, and, above four thousand five hundred feet, heather; hellebore also in the high places; thimble-berries and red elderberries, tag-alder, red honeysuckle, long stretches of willows in the creek-bottoms; vining maples, too, and yew trees, the wood of which the Indians use for making bows.

Around Cloudy Pass we found the red monkey-flower. In different places there was the wild parsnip; the ginger-plant, with its heart-shaped leaf and blossom, buried in the leaf-mould, its crushed leaves redolent of ginger; masses of yellow violets, twinflowers, ox-eye daisies, and sweet-in-death, which is sold on the streets in the West as we sell sweet lavender. There were buttercups, purple asters, bluebells, goat's-beard, columbines, Mariposa lilies, bird's-bill, trillium, devil's-club, wild white heliotrope, brick-leaved spirea, wintergreen, everlasting.

And there are still others, where Buddy collided with the yellow-jacket, that I find I cannot read at all.

Something lifted for me that day as Buddy and I led off down that fat, green valley, with the pass farther and farther behind--a weight off my spirit, a deadly fear of accident, not to myself but to the Family, which had obsessed me for the last few days. But now I could twist in my saddle and see them all, ruddy and sound and happy, whistling as they rode. And I knew that it was all right. It had been good for them and good for me. It is always good to do a difficult thing. And no one has ever fought a mountain and won who is not the better for it. The mountains are not for the weak or the craven, or the feeble of mind or body.

We went on, to the distant tinkle of the bell on the lead-horse of the pack-train.

It was that day that "Silent Lawrie" spoke I remember, because he had said so little before, and because what he said was so well worth remembering.

"Why can't all this sort of thing be put into music?" he asked. "It is music. Think of it, the drama of it all!"

Then he went on, and this is what "Silent Lawrie" wants to have written. I pass it on to the world, and surely it can be done. It starts at dawn, with the dew, and the whistling of the packers as they go after the horses. Then come the bells of the horses as they come in, the smoke of the camp-fire, the first sunlight on the mountains, the saddling and packing. And all the time the packers are whistling.

Then the pack starts out on the trail, the bells of the leaders jingling, the rattle and crunch of buckles and saddle-leather, the click of the horses' feet against the rocks, the swish as they ford a singing stream. The wind is in the trees and birds are chirping. Then comes the long, hard day, the forest, the first sight of snow-covered peaks, the final effort, and camp.

After that, there is the thrush's evening song, the afterglow, the camp-fire, and the stars. And over all is the quiet of the night, and the faint bells of grazing horses, like the silver ringing of the bell at a mass.

I wish I could do it.

At noon that day in the Skagit Valley, we found our first civilization, a camp where a man was cutting cedar blocks for shingles. He looked absolutely astounded when our long procession drew in around his shanty. He meant only one thing to us; he meant oats. If he had oats, we were saved. If he had no oats, it meant again long hours of traveling with our hungry horses.

He had a bag of oats. But he was not inclined, at first, to dispose of them, and, as a matter of fact, he did not sell them to us at all. When we finally got them from him, it was only on our promise to send back more oats. Money was of no use to him there in the wilderness; but oats meant everything.

Thirty-one horses we drove into that little bit of a clearing under the cedar trees, perhaps a hundred feet by thirty. Such wild excitement as prevailed among the horses when the distribution of oats began, such plaintive whinnying and restless stirring! But I think they behaved much better than human beings would have under the same circumstances. And at last each was being fed--such a pathetically small amount, too, hardly more than a handful apiece, it seemed. In his eagerness, the Little Boy's horse breathed in some oats, and for a time it looked as though he would cough himself to death.

The wood-cutter's wife was there. We were the one excitement in her long months of isolation. I can still see her rather pathetic face as she showed me the lace she was making, the one hundred and one ways in which she tried to fill her lonely hours.

All through the world there are such women, shut away from their kind, staying loyally with the man they have chosen through days of aching isolation. That woman had children. She could not take them into the wilderness with her, so they were in a town, and she was here in the forest, making things for them and fretting about them and longing for them. There was something tragic in her face as she watched us mount to go on.

We were to reach Marblemont that day and there to leave our horses. After they had rested and recovered, Dan Devore was to take them back over the range again, while we went on to civilization and a railroad.

We promised the wood-cutter to send the oats back with the outfit; and when we sent them, we sent at the same time some magazines to that lonely wife and mother on the Skagit.

Late in the afternoon, we emerged from the forest. It was like coming from a darkened room into the light. One moment we were in the aisles of that great green cathedral, the next there was an open road and the sunlight and houses. We prodded the horses with our heels and raced down the road. Surprised inhabitants came out and stared. We waved to them; we loved them; we loved houses and dogs and cows and apple trees. But most of all we loved level places.

We were in time, too, for the railroad strike had not yet taken place.

As Bob got off his horse, he sang again that little ditty with which, during the most strenuous hours of the trip, we had become familiar:--

"Oh, a sailor's life is bold and free, He lives upon the bright blue sea: He has to work like h--, of course, But he doesn't have to ride on a darned old horse."


THE END.

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Mary Roberts Rinehart

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