Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/February 1887/Views of Life in the Crazy Mountains

974967Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 February 1887 — Views of Life in the Crazy Mountains1887E. D. W. Hatch


By Mrs. E. D. W. HATCH.

SOME months ago, looking in the direction of the foot-hills, I saw a "jack-rabbit" making its long leaps toward its home, white as the snow around it; but for its sudden springs in the air, it would hardly have been distinguished from the earth's covering.

By a curious provision of Nature, this animal, much larger than the common rabbit, changes its color in cold weather, in common with some others, and with some classes of birds. This is not the case with animals that hibernate, or slumber through the winter, as the bears. The change of color seems to act as a safeguard to protect the animals from their natural enemies. The coyote likewise becomes nearly white in winter, or very light colored. The antelope is also much lighter in these northern latitudes in winter. A white deer was killed in Yellowstone Park last December; this absence of color was probably due to a freak of Nature. The jack-rabbit often retains color in its ears when the rest of its body is entirly white. A smaller species of rabbit, commonly called the "cotton-tail," does not change. Besides the animals already mentioned as having this property, five or six species are similarly peculiar—the ermine, weasel, and hare; the latter somewhat differing from the jack-rabbit. Of the feathered creation the ptarmigan, a species of grouse, shifts its summer clothing for light feathers in the winter. Wolves have been uncommonly plentiful during the last season; why, when there are so many more hunters, is hard to say, unless it is that their larder is better supplied by so much additional stock being in the Territory. The strategy of these wolves is remarkable. That they have, in common with many other animals, some method of communicating with each other, and laying plans, is evident. Many a band of horses loses largely by their wounding and carrying off young colts. A young colt, however, is rather a stupid, staring sort of an animal—not blessed with ordinary animal presence of mind, or obedient enough nature, to heed maternal warnings and escape with the rest of the flying band when the wolves attack them. These ferocious animals will hang around a lot of cows, and making selection of one, two, or three of them, will go in front of the cow, and by fierce attack seek to separate her from her calf and distract her attention, while others sneak behind and disable or kill the calf. If the cow is a good fighter and drives them away from the wounded calf, they bide their time until she is obliged to go for a drink or food, and then have a feast upon veal. Their method of chasing the antelope shows that they understand well the habits of different animals. An antelope when running takes a circle of two or three miles, and then returns to the starting-point. So the wolves combine and establish relays (as it were) on this circle: the first leaders running the frightened animals half a mile, perhaps, they drop out and the next relay does the same, and thus by relays they worry the antelope until it falls exhausted; they then give a peculiar cry or bark, a summons which calls the pack together to the feast. It is a fine sight to look upon a number of antelopes running freely across the hills, now out of sight in a hollow, then leaping, heads up, over the ridge, showing enjoyment in every motion. Often, when one is out riding, they will run parallel to the road, or the carriage, a long way. They are not wise animals, and often fall victims to their curiosity. A red rag on a stick thrust in the ground, or some other small object attracts them: they stop to look, get closer to investigate, and are thus brought within gunshot of the wily hunter lying in ambush who prepared the decoy. There was a time, on the ranch, when we were subject to the depredations of some animal carrying destruction among the sheep after they were put up for the night in one of the corrals near the bills. This corral, in which one of the "bands" was inclosed, was about four miles from the house, the herder in charge having a cabin close by. The dogs did not make the usual disturbance, but seemed completely cowed when the robber was about. This sign, as well as some others, seemed to indicate that the foe was a mountain-lion. The creature kept carefully out of sight, but managed to raid at night, with much destruction; so the owners and herders in turn mounted guard at night, armed. The wary creature did not approach the inclosure while it was thus guarded, but it was evident he was near, though never seeming to come by the same path twice, and watching the guard. One of the men left his post at daylight, but before sunrise the enemy seized the advantage and killed a sheep for his breakfast. Another morning the herder having been on guard, went in for his morning meal, thinking all safe. Hearing a suspicious sound he sprang to the door, and opened it, but too late, as the form of a beast disappeared in the brush. After a little time a light snow fell, and an endeavor was made to track the unknown. Following up the mountain-side at length, upon a hill, in rather a secluded, rocky place, commanding a good lookout, the beast's lair seemed to be found, but he was not at home. Poisoned meat was several times placed conveniently for him, but, though it seemed sometimes to have been carried away, it was plain he did not taste it, as he still did his own slaughtering when there was opportunity, and the shots fired into the brush never hit him. At length, however, he must have been tempted, and poison beginning its work, Mr. Lion made his last leap into the corral, killed two sheep, and died by their side. The men placed him in a wagon and brought him to the house for exhibition. He measured nine feet from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, and had a catshaped head and ears, tremendous paws, and a dull-yellow color. It is said the mountain-lions of the Black Hills are striped with white, particularly on the face, but this was not the case with the one of which I write, the only one I have ever seen. It seems a misnomer to call this creature a lion, even with the prefix mountain. He does not have a den, but "lies around" wherever he can make himself comfortable, sometimes living chiefly in an abandoned "wichey-up," a deserted shanty in the brush, among the rocks, or in a "coolie," and always on the watch. It is said they will not attack a person unless cornered, but I think one who trusted this certificate of character might have cause to repent. Stealthy animals with such characteristics are not to be trusted. Our lion, set up by a taxidermist, was one of the attractions of the park last summer, and is probably one of the largest specimens of his race. Sheep-owners have much to contend with in this part of the country, and wild animals seem to have ways of their own, with a ready adaptation of habits of mischief to circumstances. The home corral outside the yard fence, and but a little way from the house, contained at one time some two thousand sheep. There was a fence around it, as well as about the house. Temporarily a few valuable sheep were placed at night in the yard. The bears came down at night, like the Assyrians of old, but instead of going to the outside corral, which was far the handiest for them, they boldly under cover of the darkness, came into the yard. The dogs gave the alarm, waking every one on the place, but, before the men could get out, the bears had killed seven sheep, and it seemed in pure wantonness mangled others so that they afterward died. It was rather an uncommon thing for these animals to venture so near a house.

The sheep-dogs deserve more than a passing mention. Their intelligence and quick apprehension of what is required of them, and faithful performance of duty, are wonderful; without them, the working force for sheep would require to be more than doubled. They appreciate kind treatment, and take to heart scolding and abuse. No surly or cross man to the dogs should be allowed among sheep. A foreman of a sheep-ranch told me that, in sending out a new man, he assigned an old dog to him, thinking, if the man did not know his duty, the dog did. He charged the would-be herder to be kind to the dog, and said, "He will not stay with you if you are not." In two days the dog was at home again. The foreman visited the man, taking another dog, and said to him: "You were cross to the old dog, and I told you he would not stand it; you can't get along without a dog." "I was not cross to the dog; but, confound him, he would not even let me swear at the sheep!"

When spring approaches we are reminded that even here, in the rocky hills and desert-lands of sage-brush, cactus, and alkali-springs, Nature is not sparing of her gifts, and these arid hills and plains show forth many floral beauties.

Among them is one that claims universal admiration when seen in flower, belonging to the primrose family, said to be named for its discoverer, Lewis the explorer, Lewisnia, growing wild in the sand and gravel of the rocky ledges of the foot-hills, mostly on the southern side. The leaves are coarse, radical, and from four to eight inches long. The root stretches several feet, fleshy and red, with two or three side or lateral roots. It may be that this plant is the same as that mentioned in a report to the United States Agricultural Department among the "Food-products of the North American Indians in California," called in the report Lewesia rediviva, and by the Indians "spatulum." The root of this plant is described as large and spindle-shaped, its inner part white and farinaceous; and the report continues: "It abounds in concentrated nutriment, a single ounce of the dried article being sufficient for a meal. It is worthy of cultivation." Perhaps, being cultivated, it might take rank with the potato. It has rare floral beauty; the buds spring from the crown of the root, the leaves of the plant spreading around flat on the ground; the buds grow nearly upright, from one to two inches in length. If you watch them about sundown, you can see the buds slowly expand, and soon open into a pure white flower, four- and five-petaled, rose-scented, containing long stamens and pistils covered with pollen. The flower expanding near nightfall, such a pure and delicate white, changes gradually next morning, as the sun comes up, to a light rose-pink, afterward becoming a deep pink; and the old blossom then closes, lies down, and falls off. Although these plants are found in the poorest of dry soil and rocky ledges, where they would seem to get no moisture, or very little, yet a lady friend who successfully transplanted them, says: "We planted them in the garden, bottom-land, along a creek, and there they grew larger and more beautiful, flowering freely until frost. On one plant of two years' growth I counted twenty or more buds." They have many seeds; seed-pod four-celled, about an inch long, fleshy at base and tapering up.

The absence of wild fruit or nut-bearing trees and shrubs is a noticeable drawback, but perhaps is not at all remarkable, the lands requiring irrigation for fruit or produce.

As far as the writer's observation extends, there is but one good fruit growing here: that is the red raspberry, in the mountains; large, hardy, and more finely flavored than the choice raspberries in the States. I have been told of the buffalo-berry, but it can not be plenty or very choice, from accounts.

On the creeks there is a good gooseberry, and in low grounds the black-or choke-cherry; of these, native jellies are made; but ye highly favored, abundant-fruit people, can you imagine choke-cherries a luxury? Yea, verily, to us in desert-lands they are.