Tales of Lonely Trails by Zane Grey
Chapter IV. Tonto Basin
The hounds enjoyed a well-earned rest the next day. R.C. and I, behind Haught's back, fed them all they could eat. The old hunter had a fixed idea that dogs should be kept lean and hungry so they would run bears the better. Perhaps he was right. Only I could not withstand Old Dan and Old Tom as they limped to me, begging and whining. Yet not even sore feet and hunger could rob these grand old hounds of their dignity. For an hour that morning I sat beside them in a sunny spot.
In the afternoon Copple took me on a last deer hunt for that trip. We rode down the canyon a mile, and climbed out on the west slope. Haught had described this country as a "wolf" to travel. He used that word to designate anything particularly tough. We found the ridge covered with a dense forest, in places a matted jungle of pine saplings. These thickets were impenetrable. Heavy snows had bent the pines so that they grew at an angle. We found it necessary to skirt these thickets, and at that, sometimes had to cut our way through with our little axes. Hunting was scarcely possible under such conditions. Still we did not see any deer tracks.
Eventually we crossed this ridge, or at least the jungle part of it, and got lower down into hollows and swales full of aspens. Copple recognized country he had hunted before. We made our way up a long shallow hollow that ended in an open where lay the remains of an old log cabin, and corrals. From under a bluff bubbled a clear beautiful spring. Copple looked all around slowly, with strange expression, and at last, dismounting he knelt to drink of the spring.
"Ah-h-good!" he exclaimed, after a deep draught. "Get down an' drink. Snow water an' it never goes dry."
Indeed it was so cold it made my teeth ache, and so pure and sweet that I drank until I could hold no more. Deer and cat and bear tracks showed along the margin of clean sand. Lower down were fresh turkey tracks. A lonely spring in the woods visited by wild game! This place was singularly picturesque and beautiful. The purest drinking water is found in wild forest or on mountains. Men, cities, civilization contaminate waters that are not isolated.
Copple told me a man named Mitchell had lived in that lonely place thirty years ago. Copple, as a boy, had worked for him--had ridden wild bronchos and roped wild steers in that open, many and many a day. Something of unconscious pathos showed in Copple's eyes as he gazed around, and in his voice. We all hear the echoing footsteps of the past years! In those days Copple said the ranch was overrun by wild game, and wild horses too.
We rode on westward, to come out at length on the rim of a magnificent canyon. It was the widest and deepest and wildest gorge I had come across in this country. So deep that only a faint roar of running water reached our ears! The slopes were too steep for man, let alone a horse; and the huge cliffs and giant spruces gave it a singularly rugged appearance. We saw deer on the opposite slope. Copple led along the edge, searching for traces of an old trail where Mitchell used to drive cattle across. We did not find a trail, but we found a place where Copple said one used to be. I could see no signs of it. Here leading his horse with one hand and wielding his little axe with the other Copple started down. For my part I found going down remarkably easy. The only trouble I had was to hold on, so I would not go down like a flash. Stockings, my horse, had in a few weeks become a splendid traveler in the forest. He had learned to restrain his spirit and use his intelligence. Wherever I led he would go and that without any fear. There is something fine in constant association with an intelligent horse under such circumstances. In bad places Stockings braced his forefeet, sat on his haunches, and slid, sometimes making me jump to get out of his way. We found the canyon bed a narrow notch, darkly rich and green, full of the melody of wild birds and murmuring brook, with huge rocks all stained gold and russet, and grass as high as our knees. Frost still lingered in the dark, cool, shady retreat; and where the sun struck a narrow strip of the gorge there was warm, sweet, dry breath of the forest. But for the most part, down here all was damp, dank, cool shadow where sunshine never reached, and where the smells were of dead leaves and wet moss and ferns and black rich earth.
Impossible we found it to ascend the other slope where we had seen the deer, so we had to ride up the canyon, a matter greatly to my liking. Copple thought I was hunting with him, but really, except to follow him, I did not think of the meaning of his slow wary advance. Only a few more days had I to roam the pine-scented forest. That ride up this deep gorge was rich in sensation. Sun and sky and breeze and forest encompassed me. The wilderness was all about me; and I regretted when the canyon lost its splendid ruggedness, and became like the others I had traversed, and at last grew to be a shallow grassy ravine, with patches of gray aspens along the tiny brook.
As we climbed out once more, this time into an open, beautiful pine forest, with little patches of green thicket, I seemed to have been drugged by the fragrance and the color and the beauty of the wild. For when Copple called low and sharp: "Hist!" I stared uncomprehendingly at him.
"Deer!" he whispered, pointing. "Get off an' smoke 'em up!"
Something shot through me--a different kind of thrill. Ahead in the open I saw gray, graceful, wild forms trotting away. Like a flash I slid off my horse and jerked out my rifle. I ran forward a few steps. The deer had halted--were gazing at us with heads up and ears high. What a wild beautiful picture! As I raised my rifle they seemed to move and vanish in the green. The hunter in me, roused at last, anathematized my miserable luck. I ran ahead another few steps, to be halted by Copple. "Buck!" he called, sharply. "Hurry!" Then, farther on in the open, out in the sunlight, I saw a noble stag, moving, trotting toward us. Keen, hard, fierce in my intensity, I aligned the sights upon his breast and fired. Straight forward and high he bounded, to fall with a heavy thud.
Copple's horse, startled by my shot, began to snort and plunge. "Good shot," yelled Copple. "He's our meat."
What possessed me I knew not, but I ran ahead of Copple. My eyes searched avidly the bush-dotted ground for my quarry. The rifle felt hot in my tight grip. All inside me was a tumult--eager, keen, wild excitement. The great pines, the green aisles leading away into the woods, the shadows under the thickets, the pine-pitch tang of the air, the loneliness of that lonely forest--all these seemed familiar, sweet, beautiful, things mine alone, things seen and smelled and felt before, things ... Then suddenly I ran right upon my deer, lying motionless, dead I thought. He appeared fairly large, with three-point antlers. I heard Copple's horse thudding the soft earth behind me, and I yelled: "I got him, Ben." That was a moment of exultation.
It ended suddenly. Something halted me. My buck, now scarcely fifteen feet from me, began to shake and struggle. He raised his head, uttering a choking gasp. I heard the flutter of blood in his throat. He raised himself on his front feet and lifted his head high, higher, until his nose pointed skyward and his antlers lay back upon his shoulders. Then a strong convulsion shook him. I heard the shuddering wrestle of his whole body. I heard the gurgle and flow of blood. Saw the smoke of fresh blood and smelled it! I saw a small red spot in his gray breast where my bullet had struck. I saw a great bloody gaping hole on his rump where the.30 Gov't expanding bullet had come out. From end to end that bullet had torn! Yet he was not dead. Straining to rise again!
I saw, felt all this in one flashing instant. And as swiftly my spirit changed. What I might have done I never knew, but most likely I would have shot him through the brain. Only a sudden action of the stag paralyzed all my force. He lowered his head. He saw me. And dying, with lungs and heart and bowels shot to shreds, he edged his stiff front feet toward me, he dragged his afterquarters, he slid, he flopped, he skittered convulsively at me. No fear in the black, distended, wild eyes!
Only hate, only terrible, wild, unquenchable spirit to live long enough to kill me! I saw it, He meant to kill me. How magnificent, how horrible this wild courage! My eyes seemed riveted upon him, as he came closer, closer. He gasped. Blood sputtered from his throat. But more terrible than agony, than imminent death was the spirit of this wild beast to slay its enemy. Inch by inch he skidded closer to me, with a convulsive quivering awful to see. No veil of the past, no scale of civilization between beast and man then! Enemies as old as the earth! I had shot him to eat, and he would kill me before he died. For me the moment was monstrous. No hunter was I then, but a man stricken by the spirit and mystery of life, by the agony and terror of death, by the awful strange sense that this stag would kill me.
But Copple galloped up, and drawing his revolver, he shot the deer through the head. It fell in a heap.
"Don't ever go close to a crippled deer," admonished my comrade, as he leaped off his horse. "I saw a fellow once that was near killed by a buck he'd taken for dead.... Strange the way this buck half stood up. Reckon he meant bad, but he was all in. You hit him plumb center."
"Yes, Ben, it was--strange," I replied, soberly. I caught Copple's keen dark glance studying me. "When you open him up--see what my bullet did, will you?"
"All right. Help me hang him to a snag here," returned Copple, as he untied his lasso.
When we got the deer strung up I went off into the woods, and sat on a log, and contended with a queer sort of sickness until it passed away. But it left a state of mind that I knew would require me to probe into myself, and try to understand once and for all time this bloodthirsy tendency of man to kill. It would force me to try to analyze the psychology of hunting. Upon my return to Copple I found he had the buck ready to load upon his horse. His hands were bright red. He was wiping his hunting-knife on a bunch of green pine needles.
"That 150-grain soft-nose bullet is some executioner," he declared, forcefully. "Your bullet mushroomed just after it went into his breast. It tore his lung to pieces, cut open his heart, made a mess of kidneys an' paunch, an' broke his spine.... An' look at this hole where it came out!"
I helped Copple heave the load on his saddle and tie it securely, and I got my hands red at the job, but I did not really look at the buck again. And upon our way back to camp I rode in the lead all the way. We reached camp before sunset, where I had to endure the felicitations of R.C. and my comrades, all of whom were delighted that at last I had gotten a buck. Takahashi smiled all over his broad brown face. "My goodnish! I awful glad! Nice fat deer!"
That night I lay awake a long time, and though aware of the moan of the wind in the pines and the tinkle of the brook, and the melancholy hoot of an owl, and later the still, sad, black silence of the midnight hours, I really had no pleasure in them. My mind was active.
Boys are inherently cruel. The games they play, at least those they invent, instinctively partake of some element of brute nature. They chase, they capture, they imprison, they torture, and they kill. No secret rendezvous of a boy's pirate gang ever failed to be soaked with imaginary blood! And what group of boys have not played at being pirates? The Indian games are worse--scalping, with red-hot cinders thrown upon the bleeding head, and the terrible running of the gauntlet, and burning at the stake.
What youngster has not made wooden knives to spill the blood of his pretended enemies? Little girls play with dolls, and with toy houses, and all the implements of making a home; but sweet and dear as the little angels are they love a boy's game, and if they can through some lucky accident participate in one it is to scream and shudder and fight, indeed like the females of the species. No break here between these little mothers of doll-babies and the bloody mothers of the French Revolution, or of dusky, naked, barbarian children of a primitive day!
Boys love the chase. And that chase depends upon environment. For want of wild game they will harry a poor miserable tom-cat with sticks and stones. I belonged once to a gang of young ruffians who chased the neighbor's chickens, killed them with clubs, and cooked them in tin cans, over a hidden fire. Boys love nothing so much as to chase a squirrel or a frightened little chipmunk back and forth along a rail fence. They brandish their sticks, run and yell, dart to and fro, like young Indians. They rob bird's nests, steal the eggs, pierce them and blow them. They capture the young birds, and are not above killing the parents that fly frantically to the rescue. I knew of boys who ground captured birds to death on a grindstone. Who has not seen a boy fling stones at a helpless hop-toad?
As boys grow older to the age of reading they select, or at least love best, those stories of bloodshed and violence. Stevenson wrote that boys read for some element of the brute instinct in them. His two wonderful books Treasure Island and Kidnapped are full of fight and the killing of men. Robinson Crusoe is the only great boy's book I ever read that did not owe its charm to fighting. But still did not old Crusoe fight to live on his lonely island? And this wonderful tale is full of hunting, and has at the end the battle with cannibals.
When lads grow up they become hunters, almost without exception, at least in spirit if not in deed. Early days and environment decide whether or not a man becomes a hunter. In all my life I have met only two grown men who did not care to go prowling and hunting in the woods with a gun. An exception proves a great deal, but all the same most men, whether they have a chance or not, love to hunt. Hunters, therefore, there are of many degrees. Hunters of the lowly cotton-tail and the woodland squirrel; hunters of quail, woodcock, and grouse; hunters of wild ducks and geese; hunters of foxes--the red-coated English and the homespun clad American; hunters--which is a kinder name for trappers--of beaver, marten, otter, mink, all the furred animals; hunters of deer, cat, wolf, bear, antelope, elk, moose, caribou; hunters of the barren lands where the ice is king and where there are polar bears, white foxes, musk-ox, walrus. Hunters of different animals of different countries. African hunters for lion, rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo, eland, hartebeest, giraffe, and a hundred species made known to all the world by such classical sportsmen as Selous, Roosevelt, Stewart Edward White.
But they are all hunters and their game is the deadly chase in the open or the wild. There are hunters who hate action, who hate to walk and climb and toil and wear themselves out to get a shot. Such men are hunters still, but still not men! There are hunters who have game driven up to them. I heard a story told by an officer whom I believe. In the early days of the war he found himself somewhere on the border between Austria and Germany. He was invited to a hunt by personages of high degree. They motored to a sequestered palace in the forest, and next day motored to a shooting-lodge. At daylight he was called, and taken to the edge of a forest and stationed in an open glade. His stand was an upholstered divan placed high in the forks of a tree. His guide told him that pretty soon a doe would come out of the forest. But he was not to shoot it. In fifteen minutes a lame buck would come out. But he was not to shoot that one either. In ten more minutes another buck would come out, and this third deer he was to kill. My informant told me this was all very seriously meant. The gun given him was large enough in calibre to kill an elephant. He walked up the steps to the comfortable divan and settled himself to await events. The doe trotted out exactly on schedule time. So did the lame buck. They came from the woods and were not frightened. The third deer, a large buck, was a few moments late--three minutes to be exact. According to instructions the American killed this buck--a matter that took some nerve he said, for the buck walked out like a cow. That night a big supper was given in the guest's honor. He had to eat certain parts of the buck he had killed, and drink flagons of wine. This kind of hunting must be peculiarly German or Austrian, and illustrates the peculiar hunting ways of men.
A celebrated bear hunter and guide of the northwest told me that for twenty years he had been taking eastern ministers--preachers of the gospel--on hunting trips into the wild. He assured me that of all the bloody murderers--waders in gore, as he expressed it--these teachers of the gospel were the worst. The moment they got out into the wild they wanted to kill, kill, kill. He averred their natures seemed utterly to change.
In reading the books of hunters and in listening to their talks at Camp-fire Club dinners I have always been struck with the expression of what these hunters felt, what they thought they got out of hunting. The change from city to the open wilderness; the difference between noise, tumult, dirt, foul air, and the silence, the quiet, the cleanness and purity; the sweet breath of God's country as so many called it; the beauty of forest and mountain; the wildness of ridge and valley; the wonder of wild animals in their native haunts; and the zest, the joy, the excitement, the magnificent thrill of the stalk and the chase. No one of them ever dwelt upon the kill! It was mentioned, as a result, an end, a consummation. How strange that hunters believed these were the attractions of the chase! They felt them, to be sure, in some degree, or they would not remember them. But they never realized that these sensations were only incidental to hunting.
Men take long rides, hundreds and thousands of miles, to hunt. They endure hardships, live in camps with absolute joy. They stalk through the forest, climb the craggy peaks, labor as giants in the building of the pyramids, all with a tight clutch on a deadly rifle. They are keen, intent, strained, quiveringly eager all with a tight clutch on a deadly rifle. If hunters think while on a stalk--which matter I doubt considerably--they think about the lay of the land, or the aspect of it, of the habits and possibilities of their quarry, of their labor and chances, and particularly of the vague unrealized sense of comfort, pleasure, satisfaction in the moment. Tight muscles, alert eyes, stealthy steps, stalk and run and crawl and climb, breathlessness, a hot close-pressed chest, thrill on thrill, and sheer bursting riot of nerve and vein--these are the ordinary sensations and actions of a hunter. No ascent too lofty--no descent too perilous for him then, if he is a man as well as a hunter!
Take the Brazilian hunter of the jungle. He is solitary. He is sufficient to himself. He is a survival of the fittest. The number of his tribe are few. Nature sees to that. But he must eat, and therefore he hunts. He spears fish and he kills birds and beasts with a blow-gun. He hunts to live. But the manner of his action, though more skilful, is the same as any hunter's. Likewise his sensations, perhaps more vivid because hunting for him is a matter of life or death. Take the Gaucho of Patagonia--the silent lonely Indian hunter of the Pampas. He hunts with a bola, a thin thong or string at each end of which is a heavy leather-covered ball of stone or iron. This the Gaucho hurls through the air at the neck or legs of his quarry. The balls fly round--the thong binds tight--it is a deadly weapon. The user of it rides and stalks and sees and throws and feels the same as any other hunter. Time and place, weapon and game have little to do with any differences in hunters.
Up to this 1919 hunting trip in the wilds I had always marveled at the fact that naturalists and biologists hate sportsmen. Not hunters like the Yellow Knife Indians, or the snake-eating Bushmen of Australia, or the Terra-del-Fuegians, or even the native country rabbit-hunters--but the so-called sportsmen. Naturalists and biologists have simply learned the truth why men hunt, and that when it is done in the name of sport, or for sensation, it is a degenerate business. Stevenson wrote beautiful words about "the hunter home from the hill," but so far as I can find out he never killed anything himself. He was concerned with the romance of the thought, with alliteration, and the singular charm of the truth--sunset and the end of the day, the hunter's plod down the hill to the cottage, to the home where wife and children awaited him. Indeed it is a beautiful truth, and not altogether in the past, for there are still farmers and pioneers.
Hunting is a savage primordial instinct inherited from our ancestors. It goes back through all the ages of man, and farther still--to the age when man was not man, but hairy ape, or some other beast from which we are descended. To kill is in the very marrow of our bones. If man after he developed into human state had taken to vegetable diet--which he never did take--he yet would have inherited the flesh-eating instincts of his animal forebears. And no instinct is ever wholly eradicated. But man was a meat eater. By brute strength, by sagacity, by endurance he killed in order to get the means of subsistence. If he did not kill he starved. And it is a matter of record, even down to modern times, that man has existed by cannibalism.
The cave-man stalked from his hole under a cliff, boldly forth with his huge club or stone mace. Perhaps he stole his neighbor's woman, but if so he had more reason to hunt than before--he had to feed her as well as himself. This cave-man, savagely descended, savagely surrounded, must have had to hunt all the daylight hours and surely had to fight to kill his food, or to keep it after he killed it. Long, long ages was the being called cave-man in developing; more long ages he lived on the earth, in that dim dark mystic past; and just as long were his descendants growing into another and higher type of barbarian. But they and their children and grandchildren, and all their successive, innumerable, and varying descendants had to hunt meat and eat meat to live.
The brain of barbarian man was small, as shown by the size and shape of his skull, but there is no reason to believe its construction and use were any different from the use of other organs--the eye to see with--the ear to hear with--the palate to taste with. Whatever the brain of primitive man was it held at birth unlimited and innumerable instincts like those of its progenitors; and round and smooth in babyhood, as it was, it surely gathered its sensations, one after another in separate and habitual channels, until when manhood arrived it had its convolutions, its folds and wrinkles. And if instinct and tendency were born in the brain how truly must they be a part of bone, tissue, blood.
We cannot escape our inheritance. Civilization is merely a veneer, a thin-skinned polish over the savage and crude nature. Fear, anger, lust, the three great primal instincts are restrained, but they live powerfully in the breast of man. Self preservation is the first law of human life, and is included in fear. Fear of death is the first instinct. Then if for thousands, perhaps millions of years, man had to hunt because of his fear of death, had to kill meat to survive--consider the ineradicable and permanent nature of the instinct.
The secret now of the instinctive joy and thrill and wildness of the chase lies clear.
Stealing through the forest or along the mountain slope, eyes roving, ears sensitive to all vibrations of the air, nose as keen as that of a hound, hands tight on a deadly rifle, we unconsciously go back. We go back to the primitive, to the savage state of man. Therein lies the joy. How sweet, vague, unreal those sensations of strange familiarity with wild places we know we never saw before! But a million years before that hour a hairy ancestor of ours felt the same way in the same kind of a place, and in us that instinct survives. That is the secret of the wonderful strange charm of wild places, of the barren rocks of the desert wilderness, of the great-walled lonely canyons. Something now in our blood, in our bones once danced in men who lived then in similar places. And lived by hunting!
The child is father to the man. In the light of this instinct how easy to understand his boyish cruelty. He is true to nature. Unlimited and infinite in his imagination when he hunts--whether with his toys or with real weapons. If he flings a stone and kills a toad he is instinctively killing meat for his home in the cave. How little difference between the lad and the man! For a man the most poignantly exciting, the most thrillingly wild is the chase when he is weaponless, when he runs and kills his quarry with a club. Here we have the essence of the matter. The hunter is proudest of his achievement in which he has not had the help of deadly weapons. Unconsciously he will brag and glow over that conquest wherein lay greatest peril to him--when he had nothing but his naked hands. What a hot gush of blood bursts over him! He goes back to his barbarian state when a man only felt. The savage lived in his sensations. He saw, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, but seldom thought. The earthy, the elemental of eye and ear and skin surrounded him. When the man goes into the wilderness to change into a hunter that surviving kinship with the savage revives in his being, and all unconsciously dominates him with driving passion. Passion it is because for long he has been restrained in the public haunts of men. His real nature has been hidden. The hunting of game inhibits his thoughts. He feels only. He forgets himself. He sees the track, he hears the stealthy step, he smells the wild scent; and his blood dances with the dance of the ages. Then he is a killer. Then the ages roll back. Then he is brother to the savage. Then all unconsciously he lives the chase, the fight, the death-dealing moment as they were lived by all his ancestors down through the misty past.
What then should be the attitude of a thoughtful man toward this liberation of an instinct--that is to say, toward the game or sport or habit of hunting to kill? Not easily could I decide this for myself. After all life is a battle. Eternally we are compelled to fight. If we do not fight, if we do not keep our bodies strong, supple, healthy, soon we succumb to some germ or other that gets a hold in our blood or lungs and fights for its life, its species, until it kills us. Fight therefore is absolutely necessary to long life, and Alas! eventually that fight must be lost. The savages, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks all worshipped physical prowess in man. Manhood, strength--the symbols of fight! To be physically strong and well a man must work hard, with frequent intervals of change of exercise, and he must eat meat. I am not a great meat eater, but I doubt if I could do much physical labor or any brain work on a vegetable diet. Therefore I hold it fair and manly to go once a year to the wilderness to hunt. Let that hunt be clean hard toil, as hard as I can stand! Perhaps nature created the lower animals for the use of man. If I had been the creator I think I would have made it possible for the so-called higher animal man to live on air.
Somewhere I read a strange remarkable story about monkeys and priests in the jungle of India. An old order of priests had from time out of mind sent two of their comrades into the jungle to live with the monkeys, to tame them, feed them, study them, love them. And these priests told an incredible story, yet one that haunted with its possibilities of truth. After a long term of years in which one certain priest had lived with the monkeys and they had learned truly he meant them no harm and only loved them, at rare moments an old monkey would come to him and weep and weep in the most terrible and tragic manner. This monkey wanted to tell something, but could not speak. But the priest knew that the monkey was trying to tell him how once the monkey people had been human like him. Only they had retrograded in the strange scale of evolution. And the terrible weeping was for loss--loss of physical stature, of speech, perhaps of soul.
What a profound and stunning idea! Does evolution work backward? Could nature in its relentless inscrutable design for the unattainable perfection have developed man only to start him backward toward the dim ages whence he sprang? Who knows! But every man can love wild animals. Every man can study and try to understand the intelligence of his horse, the loyalty of his dog. And every hunter can hunt less with his instinct, and more with an understanding of his needs, and a consideration for the beasts only the creator knows.