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Chapter 7

THE SECOND DAY ON THE FLATHEAD


In a way, this is a fairy-story. Because a good fairy had been busy during our absence. Days before, at the ranger's cabin, unknown to most of us, an order had gone down to civilization for food. During all those days under Starvation Ridge, food had been on the way by pack-horse--food and an extra cook.

So we went up to camp, expecting more canned salmon and fried trout and little else, and beheld--

A festive board set with candles--the board, however, in this case is figurative; it was the ground covered with a tarpaulin--fried chicken, fresh green beans, real bread, jam, potatoes, cheese, cake, candy, cigars, and cigarettes. And--champagne!

That champagne had traveled a hundred miles on horseback. It had been cooled in the icy water of the river. We drank it out of tin cups. We toasted each other. We toasted the Flathead flowing just beside us. We toasted the full moon rising over the Kootenais. We toasted the good fairy. The candles burned low in their sockets--this, also, is figurative; they were stuck on pieces of wood. With due formality I was presented with a birthday gift, a fishing-reel purchased by the Big and the Middle and the Little Boy.

Of all the birthdays that I can remember--and I remember quite a few--this one was the most wonderful. Over mountain-tops, glowing deep pink as they rose above masses of white clouds, came slowly a great yellow moon. It turned the Flathead beside us to golden glory, and transformed the evergreen thickets into fairy glades of light and shadow. Flickering candles inside the tents made them glow in luminous triangles against their background of forest.

Behind us, in the valley lands at the foot of the Rockies, the horses rested and grazed, and eased their tired backs. The men lay out in the open and looked at the stars. The air was fragrant with pine and balsam. Night creatures called and answered.

And, at last, we went to our tents and slept. For the morning was a new day, and I had not got all my story.

That first day's run of the river we got fifty trout, ranging from one half-pound to four pounds. We should have caught more, but they could not keep up with the boat. We caught, also, the most terrific sunburn that I have ever known anything about. We had thought that we were thoroughly leathered, but we had not passed the primary stage, apparently. In vain I dosed my face with cold-cream and talcum powder, and with a liquid warranted to restore the bloom of youth to an aged skin (mine, however, is not aged).

My journal for the second day starts something like this:--

Cold and gray. Stood in the water fifteen minutes in hip-boots for a moving picture. River looks savage.

Of that second day, one beautiful picture stands out with distinctness.

The river is lovely; it winds and twists through deep forests with always that marvelous background of purple mountains capped with snow. Here and there, at long intervals, would come a quiet half-mile where, although the current was incredibly swift, there were, at least, no rocks. It was on coming round one of these bends that we saw, out from shore and drinking quietly, a deer. He was incredulous at first, and then uncertain whether to be frightened or not. He threw his head up and watched us, and then, turning, leaped up the bank and into the forest.

Except for fish, there was surprisingly little life to be seen. Bald eagles sat by the river, as intent on their fishing as we were on ours. Wild ducks paddled painfully up against the current. Kingfishers fished in quiet pools. But the real interest of the river, its real life, lay in its fish. What piscine tragedies it conceals, with those murderous, greedy, and powerful assassins, the bull-trout, pursuing fish, as I have seen them, almost into the landing-net! What joyous interludes where, in a sunny shallow, tiny baby trout played tag while we sat and watched them!

The danger of the river is not all in the current. There are quicksands along the Flathead, sands underlain with water, apparently secure but reaching up clutching hands to the unwary. Our noonday luncheon, taken along the shore, was always on some safe and gravelly bank or tiny island.

Our second camp on the Flathead was less fortunate than the first. Always, in such an outfit as ours, the first responsibility is the horses. Camp must be made within reach of grazing-grounds for them, and in these mountain and forest regions this is almost always a difficult matter. Here and there are meadows where horses may eat their fill; but, generally, pasture must be hunted. Often, long after we were settled for the night, our horses were still ranging far, hunting for grass.

So, on this second night, we made an uncomfortable camp for the sake of the horses, a camp on a steep bluff sloping into the water in a dead forest. It had been the intention, as the river was comparatively quiet here, to swim the animals across and graze them on the other side. But, although generally a horse can swim when put to it, we discovered too late that several horses in our string could not swim at all. In the attempt to get them across, one horse with a rider was almost drowned. So we gave that up, and they were driven back five miles into the country to pasture.

There is something ominous and most depressing about a burnt forest. There is no life, nothing green. It is a ghost-forest, filled with tall tree skeletons and the mouldering bones of those that have fallen, and draped with dry gray moss that swings in the wind. Moving through such a forest is almost impossible. Fallen and rotten trees, black and charred stumps cover every foot of ground. It required two hours' work with an axe to clear a path that I might get to the little ridge on which my tent was placed. The day had been gray, and, to add to our discomfort, there was a soft, fine rain. The Middle Boy had developed an inflamed knee and was badly crippled. Sitting in the drizzle beside the camp-fire, I heated water in a tin pail and applied hot compresses consisting of woolen socks.

It was all in the game. Eggs tasted none the worse for being fried in a skillet into which the rain was pattering. Skins were weather-proof, if clothes were not. And heavy tarpaulins on the ground protected our bedding from dampness.

The outfit, coming down by trail, had passed a small store in a clearing. They had bought a whole cheese weighing eleven pounds, a difficult thing to transport on horseback, a wooden pail containing nineteen pounds of chocolate chips, and six dozen eggs--our first eggs in many days.

In the shop, while making the purchase, the Head had pulled out a box of cigarettes. The woman who kept the little store had never seen machine-made cigarettes before, and examined them with the greatest interest. For in that country every man is his own cigarette-maker. The Middle Boy later reported with wide eyes that at her elbow she kept a loaded revolver lying, in plain view. She is alone a great deal of the time there in the wilderness, and probably she has many strange visitors.

It was at the shop that a terrible discovery was made. We had been in the wilderness on the east side and then on the west side of the park for four weeks. And days in the woods are much alike. No one had had a calendar. The discovery was that we had celebrated my birthday on the wrong day!

That night, in the dead forest, we gathered round the camp-fire. I made hot compresses. The packers and guides told stories of the West, and we matched them with ones of the East. From across the river, above the roaring, we could hear the sharp stroke of the axe as branches were being cut for our beds. There was nothing living, nothing green about us where we sat.

I am aware that the camp-fire is considered one of the things about which the camper should rave. My own experience of camp-fires is that they come too late in the day to be more than a warming-time before going to bed. We were generally too tired to talk. A little desultory conversation, a cigarette or two, an outline of the next day's work, and all were off to bed. Yet, in that evergreen forest, our fires were always rarely beautiful. The boughs burned with a crackling white flame, and when we threw on needles, they burst into stars and sailed far up into the night. As the glare died down, each of us took his hot stone from its bed of ashes and, carrying it carefully, retired with it.


Mary Roberts Rinehart

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