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A Rustlers Conscience.

The Living Age, December 11, 1897; The Living Age Company, Boston

by Charles M. Skinner

Skinner published collections of myths, legends and folklore found inside the United States and across the world. - Wikipedia

            People who go through the Yellowstone country nowaday know little of what that trip meant before the time of the railroad. Four of us made the journey: the Parson, Old Silurian, the Unsalted, and the Tramp; in other words, a city clergyman, a professor of geology, a young collegian, and myself. There was but an apology for a road, and we had to get down and pull logs out of the way to get through. At one point we had no road but a river-bed, and followed it through a cañon. At night we camped wherever there was tent room, and the frost nipped our toes through our blankets. "Toot," our factotum, and "Al," his brother, keeper, also, of the Coyote saloon in Bozeman, were famous hunters, fishermen, and cooks, steady drivers, astonishing drinkers, and they liked to use bad language and relate unseemly narratives in order to see the clergyman and the professor wince. They claimed to have committed many sins, but they never worried over them. It was different with a "rustler" we met out there.

            After some days of heat and freezing nights, some jolting and climbing and struggling, such marvelling at hot springs and geysers, some swimming to erase from our backs the dents of rocks that had been our beds, and daily tussles with mosquitoes, it was like entering the land of Beulah to descend to Yellowstone Lake, one of the loveliest sheets of water in the world, and to pitch our tent on the soft sward near its shore. Dinner eaten, we trudged off to Natural Bridge, near the lake's western edge,—a dike of travertine that had been pierced and worn in long. past centuries by a stream, and that is wide enough for a person to walk upon, from one side of the ravine to the other. The passage is only ten yards long, or thereabout, but there is a drop of nearly a hundred feet to the bottom, if one makes a misstep, which he need not do. We were lounging near the arch on the northern side, when a tap of hoofs and creak of leather made us look up. A horseman had arrived on the southern brink of the chasm, and evidently wanted to cross. The meeting of men in a wilderness is always excuse for a display of interest and confidence.    "Hi there!" shouted the new arrival. "Is there any way to get over to your side?”

            "Yes, that bridge is safe, if you look out for the hole in the middle of it." So he came trotting on, driving a herd of about twenty ponies before him, and having drawn rein as he reached us, we had a bit of talk together. Like many of the frontiersmen he was restrained and quiet: browned and furrowed so by sun and wind, that he looked, at first glance, older than he was, for he was at the verge of forty; an easy rider, rough in dress, bearded, long-haired, unkempt; and he had a doubtful, questioning look in his eyes. The usual revolver flapped in its case on his thigh, a knife was in its sheath, a rifle lay across his saddle, and from his belt hung a stick marked with eighteen or twenty notches, "one notch for each day he had been out," he said. The ponies of his herd were small, rough-coated, not blooded stock by any means, and were led by a red horse with a bell. There were a couple of colts. I noticed with surprise that two of the horses were loaded with Indian camp equipage, such as does not often form a white man's outfit. A tent of dressed buckskin decorated with Indian pictures was strapped to the back of one of the ponies. The man told us that he had just come from Colorado, was going to Montana to sell his horses, and wanted to know where he could find pasturage and water. We directed him to the grassy opening two or three miles distant, where we had pitched our own camp, and on returning, afoot, we found that he had picketed his horses a few hundred yards from us, and was preparing to spend the night there.

            When our supper was ready we halloed to him an invitation to come over and help eat it, for a man who went long distances in the West usually enjoyed little variety in his bill of fare, and we fancied that our fresh trout and our flapjacks with maple syrup would give an agreeable surprise to his stomach. He accepted (what traveller would not?) and fell to his work with a good appetite. After the meal he lit his pipe, dropped wearily on the earth before the fire, and smoked for some minutes, seeming to take comfort in our cheery talk, but offering few remarks of his own, and replying with hardly more than monosyllables to our inquiries. When his pipe was out he arose and left us abruptly, striding across the meadow in the direction of his horses.

            Toot, who had watched him as he disappeared in the twilight, said in a low voice, "There's something wrong with that rustler. What's he doing with the Injun outfit? And did you notice them ponies? That's pretty healthy talk to give a man about driving such stock as that all the way from Colorado to sell in Montana. Ain't it? Them's Injun ponies, and you bet he's played it low on an Injun somewhere to get 'em. That's liable to make trouble in this park."

            We were inclined to jest at the suspicions of our guide, though he had lived on the frontier from childhood, and had a quick opinion that was often surprisingly right,—a result of trained observation or instinct. As we sat an the earth, gazing into the blaze, listening to the voice of the wind in the pines and the chiming and patting of big and little waves on the beach, another fire, flickered at a distance; two prospectors, travelling southward, had stopped there for the night. While getting their supper this happened: The rustler, who should have been asleep in his blanket, suddenly appeared before the younger of the men with a knife pointed at his breast, and in a menacing tone demanded, "What did you tell those people" (indicating us) "that I killed that Indian down at the lake for?"

            The one addressed looked quietly along the knife-blade, then, with a quick movement, whipped his pistol from its sheath and levelled it between the man's eyes.

            "Put that thing back," he said. And I the rustler put it back.

            "Now," continued the prospector, "what do you mean by coming here and talking in that style? We've just come in and haven't seen the people yonder."

            "I mean," retorted the rustler, "that you've been over there, you've seen them, and you told them it was me that killed the Indian they found by the lake."

            "Never knew they had found an Indian by the lake."

            "Well, they did, and I'd like to know why they can't let me alone about it. Why are people always pointing at me and talking about me, and saying I did it?"

            The prospector stared in surprise. "I don't know," said he, "unless you did."

            The rustler stamped his foot, tossed his arms, then walked away, while the prospectors, with surprise still on their faces, came over to us to inquire what manner of man he was with whom they had held this interview. We did not know.

            On the second morning after this incident three of us set off afoot on the trail that leads by way of Mount Washburn and Tower Falls to Mammoth Hot Springs, leaving our guides to take the wagon by the alleged road to this latter point, through the geyser district. We had not been two hours on the march before the sound of horses was heard behind us, and we stood aside to let them .pass. A herd of Indian ponies emerged from the shrubbery, and behind them rode the rustler. A noble forest lifting around us, the cañon of the Yellowstone yawning at our right, its terrors half veiled in wondrous color, sweet air, pure sky, and cheery sun made a joyous harmony, and with it the glum, suspicious figure of the rider was out of key. At sight of us he pulled up sharply. "I want to go to Gardiner," he said.

            "That's where we are going," one of us replied.

            "Will this trail take me there?"

            "Yes; but if you will turn back and go the other way, taking the first turn to the right, you'll find a road. This is nothing but a trail."

            He was silent for a moment, then said, as one who was half in sorrow, half in bitterness, "You're all against me, and you're trying to get me wrong on this, but I can find the trail in spite of you,—I can find it." And without further word he struck his horse and bounded on, the ponies scampering before him. A wearisome yet magnificent walk of two days and a half, through wilderness and over mountain-top, brought us back to Mammoth Hot Springs just as Toot drove in with our team, and, clambering into the wagon-seats, we resumed our ride. How and where we passed him I do not know, but during a halt soon after the rustler came up from behind, and clattered by with his ponies for the third time.

            "Bozeman?" he cried, pointing northward.

            "Yes," we answered.

            The old doubt came into his face. "I'll find it in spite of you," he repeated. And he galloped away, each horse marking his course by puffs of dust that drifted up from the sage brush like a volley smoke. Our guide watched the retreating figure curiously. Then he remarked, with nonchalance, "That fellow's still got the Injun on his mind. He's doing his best to get his neck stretched by the time he gets back among folks."

            The man's deed was self-proclaimed. In quarrel, possibly, but as likely with intent, he had killed an Indian, taken his effects and hurried from the scene of his crime, perhaps to avoid pursuit, perhaps to avoid himself. Alone in the wilderness day after day, he had brooded on his act until it was named to him in the whisper of leaves and gurgle of waters, written on mountain snows, painted in the sunset, re-enacted in moving shadows of the forest; when he met his fellowmen again nature had told them of it; so, man and nature he suspected. The brand of Cain was stamped upon his heart; with his own unwitting hand he bared his breast and showed it to us. I never saw him after. Was our guide's prophecy fulfilled, I wonder?

From " With Feet to the Earth." By Charles M. Skinner. J. B. Lippincott Company, Publishers. Price $1.25.