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Literature of Mount Shasta

An Elk Hunt in the Sierras

Segment from Memorie and Rime

By Joaquin Miller, 1884

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When it was discovered that gold did not exist in great paying quantities on the head-waters of the Sacramento River, the thousands there who had overrun the land and conquered the Indians melted away. But I had been kindly treated by the Indians, partly perhaps because I was the only white boy in the country at that time, and partly maybe because I had been badly wounded in a battle against them, and was still .weak and helpless after a sort of peace was patched up, and so I went freely among them. The old chief's family was strangely kind to me..He had a very beautiful daughter. But I needed the services of a surgeon, and as the summer passed I set out for the settlements, a hundred miles down the Sacramento River to the south.

Early in the fall of 1855 I reached Shasta City, in my slow journey from Soda Springs, after the battle of Castle Rocks, and there had the services of an Italian doctor, who quite healed my wounds and set me once more on my feet. We became greatly attached, and this new friend of the Old World seemed resolved to be my friend indeed. He had a cabin and a mining claim near Shasta City, and was counted rich in gold dust. In this cabin he established me, set me to reading all sorts of books, and began to teach me Italian and Spanish. But my heart was not always in that cabin or with my books. Often and often I climbed the highest mountain looking away toward Mount Shasta to the north. Somebody was waiting.up there, I knew. I knew that two dark eyes were peering through the dense wood toward the south; two soft brown hands parting the green foliage, looking out the way that I should come, certain that I would come at last. My friend and benefactor had furnished me with a fine horse and the finest saddle that the place could furnish; besides, he had armed me like a brigand, clad me in a rich, wild fashion, and filled my purse with gold dust. Great plans he had for our future going to the Old World and resting all the years in Italy. I was not strong enough or yet quite content enough to work much, and so was often absent, riding, dreaming, planning how to get back to the north and not hurt the kind heart of my new friend. One night when I was absent thus he and his partner were both murdered in their cabin and robbed of their gold. When I returned the cabin was cold and empty.

When the spring came tripping by from the south over the chaparral hills of Shasta, leaving flowers in every footprint as he passed, I set my face for Mount Shasta, the lightest-hearted lad that ever mounted home. A hard day's ride brought me to Portuguese Flat, the last new mining camp and the nearest town to my beloved Mount Shasta. Here I found my former partner in the Soda Springs Property, Mountain Joe, and together we went up to Mount Shasta.

The Indian chief, Blackbeard, gave me a beautiful little valley, then known as Now,ow-wa, but now called by the euphonious (?) name of Squaw Valley, and I built a cabin there. As winter settled down and the snow fell deep and fast, however, the Indians all retreated down from out the spurs of Mount Shasta and took refuge on the banks of the McCloud River. I nailed up my cabin, and on snowshoes recrossed the fifteen miles of steep and stupendous mountains, and got down to winter at my old home, Soda Springs. But a new Yankee partner had got his grasp about the throat of things there, and instead of pitching him out into the snow, I determined to give it all up and set my face where I left my heart, once more, finally and forever,, with the Indians. Loaded down with arms and ammunition, one clear, frosty morning in December I climbed up the spur of Mount Shasta, which lay between me and my little valley of snow, and left the last vestige of civilization behind me. It was steep, hard climbing. Sometimes I would sink into the snow to my waist. Sometimes the snow would slide down the mountain and bear me back, half buried, to the place I had started from half an hour before. A marvel that I kept on. But there was hatred behind, there was love before elements that have built cities and founded empires. As the setting sun gilded the snowy pines with gold I stood on the lofty summit, looking down into my unpeopled world of snow.

An hour of glorious gliding, darting, shooting on my snowshoes, and I stood on the steep bluff that girt above and about my little valley. A great, strange light, like silver, enveloped the land. Across the valley, on the brow of the mountain beyond, the curved moon, new and white and bright, gleamed before me like a drawn cimeter to drive me back. Down in the valley under me busy little foxes moved and shuttle-cocked across the level sea of snow. But I heard no sound nor saw any other sign of life. The solitude, the desolation, the silence, was so vast, so actual, that I could feel it--hear it. A strange terror came upon me there. And oh, I wished how devoutly I wished I never shall forget--that I had not ventured on this mad enterprise. But I had burned my ship. It had been as impossible for me to return, tired, hungry, heartsick as I then was, as it had been for me to lay hold of the bright cold horns of the moon before me. With a sigh I tightened my belt, took up my rifle, which I had leaned against a pine, and once more shot ahead. Breaking open my cabin door, I took off my snowshoes and crept down the steep wall of.snow., and soon had a roaring fire from the sweet-smelling pine wood that lay heaped in cords against the walls. Seven days I rested there, as lone as the moon in the cold blue above. Queer days! Queer thoughts I had there then. Those days left their impression clearly, as strange creatures of another age had left their foot-prints in the plastic clay that has become now solid stone. When the mind is so void, queer thoughts get into one's head; and they come and establish themselves and stay. I had some books, and read them all through. Here I first began to write.

On the eighth day my door darkened, and I sprang up from my work, rifle in hand. Two Indians, brave, handsome young fellows, one my best and dearest friend in all the world, stood before me. And sad tales they told me that night as I feasted them around my great fireplace. The tribe was starving over on the McCloud. The gold-diggers had so muddied and soiled the waters the season before that the annual run of salmon had failed, the Indians had for the first time in centuries no stores of dried salmon, and they were starving to death by hundreds. And what was still more alarming, for it meant the ultimate destruction of all the Indians concerned, I was told that the natives of Pit River Valley had resolved to massacre all the settlers there. After a day's rest these two Indians, loaded with flour for the famishing tribe, set out to return. Again I was left alone, this time for nearly three weeks. The Indians returned with other young men to carry flour back to the famishing, while we who were strong and rested prepared for a grand hunt for a great band of elk which we knew wintered near the warm springs, high up on the wood slopes of Mount Shasta. Perhaps I might mention here that this cabin full of provisions had remained untouched all the time of my absence. I will say further that I believe the last Indian would have starved to death rather than have touched one crumb of bread without my permission. These Indians had never yet come in contact with any white man but myself. Such honesty I never knew as I found here. As for their valor and prowess, I can only point you to the Modoc battlefields, where the whole United States Army was held at bay so long nearly twenty years after, and pass on.

After great preparation, we struck out steeply up the mountain, and for three days wallowed through the snow in the dense, dark woods, when we struck the great elk trail. A single trail it was, and looked as if a saw-log had been drawn repeatedly through the snow. The bottom and sides of this trail were as hard and smooth as ice. Perhaps a thousand elk had passed here. They had been breaking from one thicket of maple and other kinds of brush which they feed upon at such times, and we knew they could not have gone far through this snow, which reached above their backs. We hung up our snowshoes now, and, looking to our arms, shot ahead full of delightful anticipation. At last, climbing a little hill, with clouds of steam rasing from the warm springs of that region, we looked down into a little valley of thick undergrowth, and there calmly rested the vast herd of elk. I peered through the brush into the large, clear eyes of a great stag with a head of horns like a rocking-chair. He was chewing his cud, and was not at all disconcerted. It is possible we were not yet discovered. More likely their numbers and strength gave them uncommon courage, and they were not to be easily frightened. I remember my two Indians looked at each other in surprise at their tranquillity. We lay there some time on our breasts in the snow, looking at them. The Indians observed that only the cows were fat and fit to kill. Some of the stags had somehow shed their horns, it seemed. There were no calves. So the Indians were delighted to know that there was yet another herd. We fell back, and formed our plan of attack at leisure. It was unique and desperate. We did not want one or two elk, or ten; we wanted the whole herd. Human life depended upon our prowess. A tribe was starving, and we felt a responsibility in our work. It was finally decided to go around and approach by the little stream, so that the herd would not start down it their only means of escape. It was planned to approach as closely as possible then fire with our rifles at the fattest, then burst in upon them, pistol in hand, and so, breaking their ranks, scatter them in the snow, where the Indians could rush upon them and use the bows and arrows at their backs.

Slowly and cautiously we approached up the little warm, willow-lined rivulet, and then, firing our rifles, we rushed into the corral, pistols in hand. The poor, helpless herd was on its feet in a second, all breaking out over the wall of snow, breast high on all sides. Here they wallowed and floundered in the snow, shook their heads and called helplessly to each other. They could not get on at all. And long after the last shot and the last arrow were spent I leisurely walked around and looked into the eyes of some of these fat, sleek cows as they lay there, up to their briskets, helpless in the snow. Of course the Indians had no sentiment in this matter. They wanted only to kill and secure meat for the hungry, and half an hour after the attack on the corral of elk they were quartering the meat and hanging it up in trees secure from the wolves. In this way they hung more than a hundred elk, not taking time to skin or dress them in any way. The tallow was heaped about our camp-fire, to be defended against the wolves at night. And such a lot of wolves as came that night! And such a noise, as we sat there feasting about the fire and talking of the day's splendid work. The next morning, loaded with tallow, my two young friends set out on the long, tedious journey to the starving camp on the McCloud River. They were going to bring the whole tribe, or, at least, such of them as could make the trip, and the remainder of our winter was to be spent on Mount Shasta. I was once more left alone. But as our ammunition at hand was spent, I was in great fear and in real danger of being devoured by wolves. They drew a circle around that camp and laid siege to it like an army of well-drilled soldiers. They would sit down on their haunches not twenty steps away, and look at me in the most appetizing fashion. They would lick their chops, as if to say, "We'll get you yet; it's only a question of time." And I wish to put it on record that wolves, so far as I can testify, are better behaved than the books tell you they are. They snarled a little at each other as they sat there, over a dozen deep, around me, and even snapped now and then at each other's ears; but I saw not one sign of their eating or attempting to eat each other. By day they kept quiet, and only looked at me. But it was observed that each day they came and sat down a little bit closer. Night, of course, was made to ring with their howls both far and near, and I kept up a great fire.

At last ah, relief of Lucknow!-- my brave boys came back breathless into camp. And after them for days came stringing, struggling, creeping, a long black line of weathered, starving, fellow-creatures. To see them eat! To see their hollow eyes fill and glow with gratitude! Ah, I have had some few summer days, some moments of glory, when the heart throbs full and the head tops heaven; but I have known no delight like this I knew there, and never shall. Christmas came and went, and I knew not when, for I had now in my careless happiness and full delight lost all reckoning of time. But, alas, for my dream of lasting rest and peace with these wild people of Mount Shasta! As the birds of spring began to sing a bit, and the snow to soften about our lofty camp, a messenger came stealing tiptoe over from the Pit River Valley. And lo the Indians had risen, starved and desperate, and murdered every white man there. And I knew that I should be accused of this.

 

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