From Sea to Sea

Letter XXX

by Rudyard Kipling

That desolate land and lone
Where the Big Horn and Yellowstone
Roar down their mountain path.

TWICE have I written this letter from end to end. Twice have I torn it up, fearing lest those across the water should say that I had gone mad on a sudden. Now we will begin for the third time quite solemnly and soberly. I have been through the Yellowstone National Park in a buggy, in the company of an adventurous old lady from Chicago and her husband, who disapproved of scenery as being ‘ongodly.’ I fancy it scared them.

We began, as you know, with the Mammoth Hot Springs. They are only a gigantic edition of those pink and white terraces not long ago destroyed by earthquake in New Zealand. At one end of the little valley in which the hotel stands, the lime-laden springs that break from the pine-covered hillsides have formed a frozen cataract of white, lemon, and palest pink formation, through and over and in which water of the warmest bubbles and drips and trickles from pale-green lagoon to exquisitely fretted basin. The ground rings hollow as a kerosene-tin, and some day the Mammoth Hotel, guests and all, will sink into the caverns below and be turned into a stalactite. When I set foot on the first of the terraces, a tourist-trampled ramp of scabby grey stuff, I met a stream of iron-red hot water which ducked into a hole like a rabbit. Followed a gentle chuckle of laughter, and then a deep, exhausted sigh from nowhere in particular. Fifty feet above my head a jet of steam rose up and died out in the blue. It was worse than the boiling mountain at Myanoshita. The dirty white deposit gave place to lime whiter than snow; and I found a basin which some learned hotel-keeper has christened Cleopatra’s pitcher, or Mark Antony’s whisky jug, or something equally poetical. It was made of frosted silver; it was filled with water as clear as the sky. I do not know the depth of that wonder. The eye looked down beyond grottoes and caves of beryl into an abyss that communicated directly with the central fires of earth. And the pool was in pain, so that it could not refrain from talking about it; muttering and chattering and moaning. From the lips of the lime-ledges, forty feet under water, spurts of silver bubbles would fly up and break the peace of the crystal atop. Then the whole pool would shake and grow dim, and there were noises. I removed myself only to find other pools all equally unhappy, rifts in the ground, full of running, red-hot water, slippery sheets of deposit overlaid with greenish-grey hot water, and here and there pit-holes dry as a rifled tomb in India, dusty and waterless. Elsewhere the infernal waters had first boiled dead and then embalmed the pines and underwood, or the forest trees had taken heart and smothered up a blind formation with greenery, so that it was only by scraping the earth you could tell what fires had raged beneath. Yet the pines will win the battle in years to come, because Nature, who first forges all her work in her great smithies, has nearly finished this job, and is ready to temper it in the soft brown earth. The fires are dying down; the hotel is built where terraces have overflowed into flat wastes of deposit; the pines have taken possession of the high ground whence the terraces first started. Only the actual curve of the cataract stands clear, and it is guarded by soldiers who patrol it with loaded six-shooters, in order that the tourist may not bring up fence-rails and sink them in a pool, or chip the fretted tracery of the formations with a geological hammer, or, walking where the crust is too thin, foolishly cook himself.

I manœuvred round those soldiers. They were cavalry in a very slovenly uniform, dark-blue blouse, and light-blue trousers unstrapped, cut spoon-shape over the boot; cartridge belt, revolver, peaked cap, and worsted gloves—black buttons! By the mercy of Allah I opened conversation with a spectacled Scot. He had served the Queen in the Marines and a Line regiment, and the ‘go-fever’ being in his bones, had drifted to America, there to serve Uncle Sam. We sat on the edge of an extinct little pool, that under happier circumstances would have grown into a geyser,. and began to discuss things generally. To us appeared yet another soldier. No need to ask his nationality or to be told that the troop called him ‘The Henglishman.’ A Cockney was he, who had seen something of warfare in Egypt, and had taken his discharge from a Fusilier regiment not unknown to you.

‘And how do things go?’

‘Very much as you please,’ said they. ‘There’s not half the discipline here that there is in the Queen’s service—not half—nor the work either, but what there is, is rough work. Why, there’s a sergeant now with a black eye that one of our men gave him. They won’t say anything about that, of course. Our punishments? Fines mostly, and then if you carry on too much you go to the cooler—that’s the clink. Yes, Sir. Horses? Oh, they’re devils, these Montanna horses. Bronchos mostly. We don’t slick ’em up for parade—not much. And the amount of schooling that you put into one English troop-horse would be enough for a whole squadron of these creatures. You’ll meet more troopers further up the Park. Go and look at their horses and their turnouts. I fancy it’ll startle you. I’m wearing a made tie and a breastpin under my blouse? Of course I am! I can wear anything I darn please. We aren’t particular here. I shouldn’t dare come on parade—no, nor yet fatigue duty—in this condition in the Old Country; but it don’t matter here. But don’t you forget, Sir, that it’s taught me how to trust to myself, and my shooting irons. I don’t want fifty orders to move me across the Park, and catch a poacher. Yes, they poach here. Men come in with an outfit and ponies, smuggle in a gun or two, and shoot the bison. If you interfere, they shoot at you. Then you confiscate all their outfit and their ponies. We have a pound full of them now down below. There’s our Captain over yonder. Speak to him if you want to know anything special. This service isn’t a patch on the Old Country’s service; but you look, if it was worked up it would be just a Hell of a service. But these citizens despise us, and they put us on to road-mending, and such like. ’Nough to ruin any army.’

To the Captain I addressed myself after my friends had gone. They told me that a good many American officers dressed by the French army. The Captain certainly might have been mistaken for a French officer of light cavalry, and he had more than the courtesy of a Frenchman. Yes, he had read a good deal about our Indian border warfare, and had been much struck with the likeness it bore to Red Indian warfare. I had better, when I reached the next cavalry post, scattered between two big geyser basins, introduce myself to a Captain and Lieutenant. They could show me things. He himself was devoting all his time to conserving the terraces, and surreptitiously running hot water into dried-up basins that fresh pools might form. ‘I get very interested in that sort of thing. It’s not duty, but it’s what I’m put here for.’ And then he began to talk of his troop as I have heard his brethren in India talk. Such a troop! Built up carefully, and watched lovingly; ‘not a man that I’d wish to exchange, and, what’s more, I believe not a man that would wish to leave on his own account. We’re different, I believe, from the English. Your officers value the horses; we set store on the men. We train them more than we do the horses.’

Of the American trooper I will tell you more hereafter. He is not a gentleman to be trifled with.

Next dawning, entering a buggy of fragile construction, with the old people from Chicago, I embarked on my perilous career. We ran straight up a mountain till we could see, sixty miles away, the white houses of Cook City on another mountain, and the whiplash-like trail leading thereto. The live air made me drunk. If Tom, the driver, had proposed to send the mares in a bee-line to the city, I should have assented, and so would the old lady, who chewed gum and talked about her symptoms. The tub-ended rock-dog, which is but the translated prairie-dog, broke across the road under our horses’ feet, the rabbit and the chipmunk danced with fright; we heard the roar of the river, and the road went round a corner. On one side piled rock and shale, that enjoined silence for fear of a general slide-down; on the other a sheer drop, and a fool of a noisy river below. Then, apparently in the middle of the road, lest any should find driving too easy, a post of rock. Nothing beyond that save the flank of a cliff. Then my stomach departed from me, as it does when you swing, for we left the dirt, which was at least some guarantee of safety, and sailed out round the curve, and up a steep incline, on a plank-road built out from the cliff. The planks were nailed at the outer edge, and did not shift or creak very much—but enough, quite enough. That was the Golden Gate. I got my stomach back again when we trotted out on to a vast upland adorned with a lake and hills. Have you ever seen an untouched land—the face of virgin Nature? It is rather a curious, sight, because the hills are choked with timber that has never known an axe, and the storm has rent a way through this timber, so that a hundred thousand trees lie matted together in swathes; and, since each tree lies where it falls, you may behold trunk and branch returning to the earth whence they sprang—exactly as the body of man returns—each limb making its own little grave, the grass climbing above the bark, till at last there remains only the outline of a tree upon the rank undergrowth.

Then we drove under a cliff of obsidian, which is black glass, some two hundred feet high; and the road at its foot was made of black glass that crackled. This was no great matter, because half an hour before Tom had pulled up in the woods that we might sufficiently admire a mountain who stood all by himself, shaking with laughter or rage.

The glass cliff overlooks a lake where the beavers built a dam about a mile and a half long in a zigzag line, as their necessities prompted. Then came the Government and strictly preserved them, and, as you shall learn later on, they be damn impudent beasts. The old lady had hardly explained the natural history of beavers before we climbed some hills—it really didn’t matter in that climate, because we could have scaled the stars—and (this mattered very much indeed) shot down a desperate, dusty slope, brakes shrieking on the wheels, the mares clicking among unseen rocks, the dust dense as a fog, and a wall of trees on either side. ‘How do the heavy four-horse coaches take it, Tom?’ I asked, remembering that some twenty-three souls had gone that way half an hour before. ‘Take it at the run!’ said Tom, spitting out the dust. Of course there was a sharp curve, and a bridge at the bottom, but luckily nothing met us, and we came to a wooden shanty called an hotel, in time for a crazy tiffin served by very gorgeous handmaids with very pink cheeks. When health fails in other and more exciting pursuits, a season as ‘help’ in one of the Yellowstone hotels will restore the frailest constitution.

Then by companies after tiffin we walked chattering to the uplands of Hell. They call it the Norris Geyser Basin on Earth. It was as though the tide of desolation had gone out, but would presently return, across innumerable acres of dazzling white geyser formation. There were no terraces here, but all other horrors. Not ten yards from the road a blast of steam shot up roaring every few seconds, a mud volcano spat filth to Heaven, streams of hot water rumbled under foot, plunged through the dead pines in steaming cataracts and died on a waste of white where green-grey, blackyellow, and pink pools roared, shouted, bubbled, or hissed as their wicked fancies prompted. By the look of the eye the place should have been frozen over. By the feel of the feet it was warm. I ventured out among the pools, carefully following tracks, but one unwary foot began to sink, a squirt of water followed, and having no desire to descend quick into Tophet I returned to the shore where the mud and the sulphur and the nameless fat ooze-vegetation of Lethe lay. But the very road rang as though built over a gulf; and besides, how was I to tell when the raving blast of steam would find its vent insufficient and blow the whole affair into Nirvana? There was a potent stench of stale eggs everywhere, and crystals of sulphur crumbled under the foot, and the glare of the sun on the white stuff was blinding. Sitting under a bank, to me appeared a young trooper—ex-Cape Mounted Rifles, this man: the real American seems to object to his army-mounted on a horse half-maddened by the noise and steam and smell. He carried only the six-shooter and cartridge-belt. On service the Springfield carbine (which is clumsy) and a cartridge-belt slung diagonally complete equipment. The sword is no earthly use for Border warfare and, except at state parades, is never worn. The saddle is the M‘Clellan tree over a four-folded blanket. Sweat-leathers you must pay for yourself. And the beauty of the tree is that it necessitates first very careful girthing and a thorough knowledge of tricks with the blanket to suit the varying conditions of the horse—a broncho will bloat in a night. if he can get at a bellyful—and, secondly, even more careful riding to prevent galling. Crupper and breast-band do not seem to be used,—but they are casual about their accoutrements,—and the bit is the single, jaw-breaking curb which American war-pictures show us. That young man was very handsome, and the grey service hat—most like the under half of a seedy terai—shaded his strong face admirably as his horse backed and shivered and sidled and plunged all over the road, and he lectured from his saddle, one foot out of the heavy-hooded stirrup, one hand on the sweating neck. ‘He’s not used to the Park, this brute, and he’s a confirmed bolter on parade; but we understand each other.’ Whoosh! went the steamblast down the road with a dry roar. Round spun the troop horse prepared to bolt, and, his momentum being suddenly checked, reared till I thought he would fall back on his rider. ‘Oh no; we’ve settled that little matter when I was breaking him,’ said Centaur. ‘He used to try to fall back on me. Isn’t he a devil? I think you’d laugh to see the way our regiments are horsed. Sometimes a big Montana beast like mine has a thirteen-two broncho pony for neighbour, and it’s annoying if you’re used to better things. And oh, how you have to ride your mount! It’s necessary; but I can tell you at the end of a long day’s march, when you’d give all the world to ride like a sack, it isn’t sweet to get extra drill for slouching. When we’re turned out, we’re turned out for anything—not a fifteen-mile trot, but for the use and behoof of all the Northern States. I’ve been in Arizona. A trooper there who had been in India told me that Arizona was like Afghanistan. There’s nothing under Heaven there except horned toads and rattlesnakes—and Indians. Our trouble is that we only deal with Indians and they don’t teach us much, and of course the citizens look down on us and all that. As a matter of fact, I suppose we’re really only mounted infantry, but remember we’re the best mounted infantry in the world.’ And the horse danced a fandango in proof.

‘ My faith!’ said I, looking at the dusty blouse, grey hat, soiled leather accoutrements, and whalebone poise of the wearer. ‘If they are all like you, you are.’

‘ Thanks, whoever you may be. Of course if we were turned into a lawn-tennis court and told to resist, say, your heavy cavalry, we’d be ridden off the face of the earth if we couldn’t get away. We have neither the weight nor the drill for a charge. My horse, for instance, by English standards, is half-broken, and like all the others, he bolts when we’re in line. But cavalry charge against cavalry charge doesn’t happen often, and if it did, well—all our men know that up to a hundred yards they are absolutely safe behind this old thing.’ He patted his revolver pouch. ‘Absolutely safe from any shooting of yours. What man do you think would dare to use a pistol at even thirty yards, if his life depended on it? Not one of your men. They can’t shoot. We can. You’ll hear about that down the Park—further up.’

Then he added, courteously: ‘Just now it seems that the English supply all the men to the American Army. That’s what makes them so good perhaps.’ And with mutual expressions of good-will we parted—he to an outlying patrol fifteen miles away, I to my buggy and the old lady, who, regarding the horrors of the fire-holes, could only say, ‘Good Lord!’ at thirty-second intervals. Her husband talked about ‘dreffel waste of steam-power,’ and we went on in the clear, crisp afternoon, speculating as to the formation of geysers.

‘What I say,’ shrieked the old lady apropos of matters theological, ‘and what I say more, after having seen all that, is that the Lord has ordained a Hell for such as disbelieve His gracious works.’

Nota bene.—Tom had profanely cursed the near mare for stumbling. He looked straight in front of him and said no word, but the left corner of his left eye flickered in my direction.

‘ And if,’ continued the old lady, ‘if we find a thing so dreffel as all that steam and sulphur allowed on the face of the earth, mustn’t we believe that there is something ten thousand times more terrible below prepared untoe our destruction?’

Some people have a wonderful knack of extracting comfort from things. I am ashamed to say I agreed ostentatiously with the old lady. She developed the personal view of the matter.

Now I shall be able to say something to Anna Fincher about her way of living. Shan’t I, Blake?’ This to her husband.

‘Yes,’ said he, speaking slowly after a heavy tiffin. ‘But the girl’s a good girl’; and they fell to arguing as to whether the luckless Anna Fincher really stood in need of lectures edged with Hell fire (she went to dances, I believe), while I got out and walked in the dust alongside of Tom.

‘I drive blame cur’ous kinder folk through this place,’ said he. ‘Blame cur’ous. ’Seems a pity that they should ha’ come so far just to liken Norris Basin to Hell. ’Guess Chicago would ha’ served ’em, speaking in comparison, jest as good.’

We curved the hill and entered a forest of spruce, the path serpentining between the treeboles, the wheels running silent on immemorial mould. There was nothing alive in the forest save ourselves. Only a river was speaking angrily somewhere to the right. For miles we drove till Tom bade us alight and look at certain falls. Wherefore we stepped out of that forest and nearly fell down a cliff which guarded a tumbled river and returned demanding fresh miracles. If the water had run uphill, we should perhaps have taken more notice of it; but ’twas only a waterfall, and I really forget whether the water was warm or cold. There is a stream here called Firehole River. It is fed by the overflow from the various geysers and basins,—a warm and deadly river wherein no fish breed. I think we crossed it a few dozen times in the course of a day.

Then the sun began to sink, and there was a taste of frost about, and we went swiftly from the forest into the open, dashed across a branch of the Firehole River and found a wood shanty, even rougher than the last, at which, after a forty-mile drive, we were to dine and sleep. Half a mile from this place stood, on the banks of the Firehole River, a ‘beaver-lodge,’ and there were rumours of bears and other cheerful monsters in the woods on the hill at the back of the building.

In the cool, crisp quiet of the evening I sought that river, and found a pile of newly gnawed sticks and twigs. The beaver works with the cold-chisel, and a few clean strokes suffice to level a four-inch bole. Across the water on the far bank glimmered, with the ghastly white of peeled dead timber, the beaver-lodge—a mass of dishevelled branches. The inhabitants had dammed the stream lower down and spread it into a nice little lake. The question was would they come out for their walk before it got too dark to see. They came—blessings on their blunt muzzles, they came—as shadows come, drifting down the stream, stirring neither foot nor tail. There were three of them. One went down to investigate the state of the dam; the other two began to look for supper. There is only one thing more startling than the noiselessness of a tiger in the jungle, and that is the noiselessness of a beaver in the water. The straining ear could catch no sound whatever till they began to eat the thick green river-scudge that they call beaver grass. I, bowed among the logs, held my breath and stared with all my eyes. They were not ten yards from me, and they would have eaten their dinner in peace so long as I had kept absolutely still. They were dear and desirable beasts, and I was just preparing to creep a step nearer when that wicked old lady from Chicago clattered down the bank, an umbrella in her hand, shrieking: ‘Beavers, beavers! young man, whurr are those beavers? Good Lord! what was that now?’

The solitary watcher might have heard a pistol shot ring through the air. I wish it had killed the old lady, but it was only the beaver giving warning of danger with the slap of his tail on the water. It was exactly like the ‘phink’ of a pistol fired with damp powder. Then there were no more beavers—not a whisker-end. The lodge, however, was there, and a beast lower than any beaver began to throw stones at it because the old lady from Chicago said: ‘P’raps, if you rattle them up they’ll come out. I do so want to see a beaver.’

Yet it cheers me to think I have seen the beaver in his wilds. Never will I go to the Zoo. That even, after supper—’twere flattery to call it dinner—a Captain and a Subaltern of the cavalry post appeared at the hotel. These were the officers of whom the Mammoth Springs Captain had spoken. The Lieutenant had read everything that he could lay hands on about the Indian army, especially our cavalry arrangements, and was very full of a scheme for raising the riding Red Indians—it is not every noble savage that will make a trooper—into frontier levies—a sort of Khyber guard. ‘Only,’ as he said ruefully, ‘there is no frontier these days, and all our Indian wars are nearly over. Those beautiful beasts will die out, and nobody will ever know what splendid cavalry they can make.’

The Captain told stories of Border warfare—of ambush, firing on the rear-guard, heat that split the skull better than any tomahawk, cold that wrinkled the very liver, night-stampedes of baggage-mules, raiding of cattle, and hopeless stern-chases into inhospitable hills, when the cavalry knew that they were not only being outpaced but outspied. Then he spoke of one fair charge when a tribe gave battle in the open and the troopers rode in swordless, firing right and left with their revolvers and—it was excessively uncomfy for that tribe. And I spoke of what men had told me of huntings in Burma, of hill-climbing in the Black Mountain affair, and so forth.

‘Exactly!’ said the Captain. ‘Nobody knows and nobody cares. What does it matter to the Down-Easter who Wrap-up-his-Tail was?’

‘And what does the fat Briton know or care about Boh Hla-Oo?’ said I. Then both together: ‘Depend upon it, my dear Sir, the army in both Anglo-Saxon countries is a mischievously underestimated institution, and it’s a pleasure to meet a man who,’ etc., etc. And we nodded triangularly in all good-will, and swore eternal friendship. The Lieutenant made a statement which rather amazed me. He said that, on account of the scarcity of business, many American officers were to be found getting practical instruction from little troubles among the South American Republics. When the need broke out they would return. ‘There is so little for us to do, and the Republic has a trick of making us hedge and ditch for our pay. A little road-making on service is not a bad thing, but continuous navvying is enough to knock the heart out of any army.’

I agreed, and we sat up till two in the morning swapping the lies of East and West. As that glorious chief Man-afraid-of-Pink-Rats once said to the Agent on the Reservation: ‘’Melican officer good man. Heap good man. Drink me. Drink he. Drink me. Drink he. Drink he. Me blind. Heap good man!’