The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and a lot of bitching.~ (old American military saying)
"Being an account of a journey to the Valley of the Yellowstone on horseback, by an English lady; and dedicated to her sister, to whom these letters were originally written."
Fort Collins, Colorado Territory, August 28th.
Dear Henrietta: This finds me in good spirits and tolerable health. Today I will leave Fort Collins and ride north into Wyoming Territory. My last night here was spent at a wretched hostelry, full of disgusting forms of insect life and drunken rowdies. The saloons and gambling hells catering to the soldiery are too numerous to count in this place and the din of voices, music, the most astonishing profanity and frequent pistol shots were sufficient to keep me awake most of the night. I am now more than ever determined to pass as little time as possible in any of the towns that lie between my destination and me. To this end I have equipped myself to travel quickly and light, and to sleep under the stars.
I was able to purchase a little Indian pony or broncho as they are called, a clever, sweet mare named Birdie, warranted sound and safe for a lady. She has a naughty trick when being saddled of blowing herself up to a very large size, so anyone not accustomed to this will find the girth slipping. But apart from that, so far we are well pleased with each other. I ride a Mexican saddle, cavalier-fashion, and my riding dress consists of a half-tailored jacket and a skirt reaching to my boot-tops over full Zouave trousers. It is my own style and I have found it to be both serviceable and decent. It occasions some comment– how unexpected to meet such prejudice in matters of dress here on the wild frontier! – which I find it best to ignore.
I have a quilt and two blankets strapped behind the saddle, a clasp knife and a canteen tied by my knee, flint and tinder in an oiled silk pouch and a candle for emergencies. Also a thick Mackinaw coat rolled and tied over the pommel. I carry crackers, cheese and tea as iron rations should mealtimes find me far from a settlement.
As I sit writing on a bench outside the Post Office, the Rockies stand like a huge wall to my left and ahead of me is an immense, arid plain that rises gently to the north in the direction of Cheyenne. It has been a dry summer and the road is thick with dust, which I will try to avoid by riding at some distance through the buffalo grass and Spanish bayonet. I am sorry to leave the magnificent scenery of Colorado behind but hope within a week to be again amidst my beloved mountains.
I have been warned to avoid Cheyenne and Laramie at all costs as these places are inhabited chiefly by the scum of civilisation, with shootings, stabbings and other affrays almost an hourly occurrence and rule of law a thing unknown. My plan is to ride north to the Laramie road where I will turn west for some hundred miles to the town of Rawlins. There I will engage a guide before striking out through the wilderness for the Valley of the Yellowstone.
The sun has been up for nearly an hour and if I hope to travel during the coolest part of the morning I must be on my way. My next letter should reach you from Rawlins when I promise I shall render a more satisfactory account of my doings.
Yours in haste, dearest sister – affectionately, Isabella.
The Sherman Ranch, Wyoming Territory, August 30th.
Dear Henrietta: Truly has the poet said, "The best laid plans gang aft agley. " Mine are considerably "agley" at this moment, due entirely to my own folly.
The day began with fair promise, bright sunshine and a snap to the air that goes to the head like wine. I cannot begin to convey to you the intoxicating freshness of this Western climate. Here, I revel in every breath I draw. There had been a much-need rainfall during the night, enough to make slow going until the road began to dry.
Birdie, my clever little pony, trotted delicately through the ruts and mud until we reached the Laramie road, where I thought it safe to risk a good gallop. Despite some initial slips, we fairly flew along for some distance before I pulled her up to a quieter pace. We had ridden for some time when she suddenly began to hobble. I could find no sign of a loose horseshoe but there was some swelling in the lower leg, and she was undeniably lame.
And so I found myself many miles from a town, afoot and leading my poor Birdie. I was prepared to spend the night out-of-doors but was spared that when a rider came into view. I was not far, he told me, from a relay station on the coaching line; run by a long-time settler named Sherman, a man of good family and what he described as a "solid citizen." My chance acquaintance would have taken me up behind him and conveyed me to the place but the offer was not attractive and I tactfully declined. He was kind enough to put me on the right road and shortly I crested a rise and saw below me the station headquarters, rough log and board buildings but sturdy and well-kept.
There were several men standing by an enclosure where a horse-breaking was in progress. I witnessed this in Colorado Territory and had no desire to see such a brutal spectacle again. Fortunately, just as I arrived, the broncho brought the session to a close by falling through the fence with his rider, bringing part of it down with them.
One of the spectators came forward to greet me as I approached and introduced himself as the owner and proprietor. Tall, and straight as an arrow, with unwavering eyes and decision in every line of his face, Mr. Sherman is a fine-looking man of the truest Scotch type. He listened courteously to my tale of woe while the horse-breaker, a young man in Mr. Sherman's employ named Harper, examined Birdie and gave the verdict – a bowed tendon. You can imagine with what chagrin I heard this news. My hopes for reaching the Valley of the Yellowstone rest largely on my possession of a safe and reliable mount, and now I shall have to begin the search for a replacement.
It will be several weeks before my poor Birdie is able to travel, but I may be able to leave her with Mr. Sherman, who seems kindly disposed towards his stock even if he does permit his employees to ride them through fences. Mr. Sherman was at pains to assure me that such incidents are rare but that his cowboy must on occasion "top off" a horse, particularly if it is young and spirited.
It still seems terribly cruel to both mount and rider.
Your distrait sister, Isabella.
The Sherman Ranch, Wyoming Territory, August 31st.
Dear sister: I am still at the Sherman ranch and relay station, Mr. Sherman having kindly offered this hospitality upon hearing of my plans. The entire household, consisting of Mr. Sherman, his small brother Andrew, the cowboy Harper, and an older man they call "Jonesy" and who acts as a cook-factotum, rallied round to offer counsel and assistance.
As you know, maps are my passion. They have the same effect upon me a new bonnet has on another woman. Last night following an excellent supper, for which I made scones, Mr. Sherman brought out several including two or three he had drawn and I learned - in an un-hoped for piece of good fortune! - he has himself been to the Valley of the Yellowstone.
Mr. Sherman advised against going by way of Medicine Bow as the country I would have to cross consisted chiefly of a table or high plateau of barren rock, and would over-tax any horse. Harper proposed that I continue on the Laramie road as far west as Rock Springs and then follow the supply trail north to the military garrison at Camp Augur, before striking out through the mountains for the Yellowstone. I told him that if I wished to travel by road and sleep in towns I might just as well have remained in England. He suspected me of "funning" him and his conversation thereafter was rather cool.
After the others retired for the night I sounded Mr. Sherman on the feasibility of him acting as my guide, rather than trust to an unknown element in Rawlins. Regrettably he is not able at this time to leave the relay station due to pressing business matters, and he suggested rather that I engage Harper's services. I was loathe to do so, as my first impressions of that person were unfavourable, but Mr. Sherman assured me that Harper is an excellent guide and moreover has spent much time in the Yellowstone country. My host promised to speak to him the next day.
Harper was reluctant; I do not think he was aware that I was listening, for the tenor of his plaint was that I am what is known here as a greenhorn, that is to say inexperienced and ignorant, and also that I am too small and frail – my words, not his! – and he would have to assist me on and off my horse, as well as up hill and down dale, throughout the journey. His language was not polite. Despite this, Mr. Sherman was able to persuade him.
"If we survive the first couple days then I reckon there's a good chance we'll make it through the whole trip," Harper said as I came out to "shake" on the bargain. A statement I found somewhat bewildering, as I have not heard of any Indians in this vicinity. It is disappointing to have to accept this dirty-faced youth in the place of Mr. Sherman, but I take some measure of comfort in that gentleman's staunch avowal of Harper's trustworthiness.
As already noted, he is young, only a few years past his majority, that is if I can credit Mr. Sherman. He seems younger. Of middle height, he is sharp-featured, with a large nose, Hibernian eyes and a most piratical set of eyebrows. These brows are a good bellwether, not unlike a horse's ears; I have learned that when the left one abruptly starts to raise, he is going to baulk. Taken as a whole he is not unhandsome and no doubt considers himself the very devil with the ladies.
Have no fear he will offer me insult, dear Henrietta; the two decades that separate our respective ages will be an adequate deterrence. Furthermore there is a sense of respectful courtesy towards women that is the custom of this region. I have learned that an unprotected lady might go where she likes in the West, if she behaves herself with the decorum and discretion of a gentlewoman. As you know I am not afraid of anything human and Harper is arguably that. And he does not expectorate, or at any rate not in my presence.
It is quite late and I am in need of rest. I will leave these letters with Mr. Sherman, who has promised to post them for me. When next you hear from this quarter, I shall be on the trail for the Yellowstone with my unwilling guide.
Your aff'te sister, Isabella.
Wyoming Territory, September 1st.
Dear Henrietta: Do you remember when we took your two youngest to the London zoo last year? I believe that Mr. Sherman has borrowed one of their hippopotami for my use.
Blueboy is a dapple grey, plump, pretty and placid. He is a saddle horse and Percheron cross-bred that Mr. Sherman is trying out for coaching, and he would not look out of place in a toy-shop. All that are missing are the wheels and a bit of string to pull him by. He is much too big for me and it is as well that he is docile. I had to stand on a barrel this morning to reach the stirrup, and as my feet only come half way down his sides I suspect an onlooker would derive a good deal of amusement from the sight. Certainly my guide kept his eyes on the horizon, which was not that interesting.
Once on horseback my embarrassment disappeared and we rode west. Despite Harper's misgivings, I have determined to travel to Rawlins and then turn northwest, traveling by way of the river valleys to Camp Augur, which is the best jumping-off point for the Yellowstone. Everything I require is packed on the horses but even without a mule to delay me Mr. Sherman believes that it will be almost three weeks to my destination. I have plotted the route and the timetable on a copy of Mr. Sherman's map. Should fortune favour me, I will be able to pass a week or ten days in the Yellowstone valley before the threat of inclement weather drives me back to civilisation.
Autumn is clearly here and the ground frosted over last night. Blueboy's breath puffed out like a steam engine and it was only a few degrees above freezing when we departed. Yet all was bright with that blazing sunshine, which I never saw till I came to the West, combined with an air so exhilarating, it gives me spirit enough for anything. Far off to the northwest I seemed to espy - 'though it was in all probability my imagination - a faint range of shadowy mountains, showing darkly against the sky.
The ride to Rawlins was uneventful, passing as it did through fairly settled country. Harper insisted that we stay the night at the ranch of friends, as there would be many nights to sleep rough between here and the Yellowstone, and I chose to agree for the sake of peace, and to be able to post this letter to you.
For your edification and amusement, I shall now attempt to set down some further impressions of my traveling companion.
Harper was clean, that is to say, cleaner, when we began our journey this morning and has almost managed to remain so, foreign as it appears to be to his natural proclivities. With his rough garb and the pistol he commonly wears, he looks the perfect ruffian. I assume that his initial reluctance to act as my guide has been overcome by his need of the money I offered, for he sadly wants new clothing. What has not been damaged by dirt and hard usage is too small for him. I do not exaggerate when stating that his dilapidation is complete, and although as ladies you and I should not take note of such matters, his trousers beggar description.
And alas! He is determined to quarrel with me over every least thing, for I will not change my plans to accommodate his whims. He is as peevish as a child and prickly as a hedgehog, and I cannot fathom how Mr. Sherman tolerates him. Perhaps his good points will reveal themselves upon further acquaintance, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
At least he does not chatter. Yours affectionately, Isabella.
Wyoming Territory, September 8th.
Dearest Henrietta: Repose of manner is an estimable trait in a traveling companion, but not one I have ever sought in a horse. On this journey it seems that my preferences have been met but in reverse. Harper, unless asleep, is always in motion – even when sitting by the fire he is never quite still. He is forever occupied with mending some trifle or making improvements to my saddle and kit.
It goes without saying that Blueboy is a plug.
My "wild Colonial boy" and I are coming to terms. I can find no fault with his care of me, for he is conscientious and determined that no harm will befall me while I am under his protection. His manners are not those of a gentleman but he can make himself very agreeable. I would say that he is a man whom many young women could love but no sane one would marry.
I believe Harper has begun to accept me, as well. We have progressed from "ma'am" and "lady" as far as "Miz' Isabella." He has also called me Izzy, but only once.
He is teaching me some of his trailcraft – I can now build a fire almost as well as he can, and I know how to make dirty river water drinkable. I have also learned to read bear sign, to watch my back trail, and that to signal for help in the wilderness I should fire three shots from a gun. In another week perhaps I shall have taught him to make a decent pot of tea.
Harper killed a rattlesnake that he found sunning itself on the rocks this morning, and cut off the rattle for me as a souvenir - but was unable to convince me to try the meat for my breakfast.
Your loving sister, Isabella.
Wyoming Territory, September 12th.
Dear Henrietta: Today I seem to be farther away from you than on any of my other journeys. This land is utterly untamed and here are bear, deer and elk with no fear of man, who stand still and watch us as we ride past. Ahead of us the mountains are topped with snow and when we made camp Harper pointed out the summits of the Wind River Range. These peaks mark the Continental Divide and one of them is said to be the highest elevation in Wyoming Territory. They are still over fifty miles off but look much closer in the clean, clear air.
I can hear the rushing of a nearby river but there is no other sound – it is completely still and the stars make a jeweled carpet across the night sky. I wish my poor pen had the skill to describe this Western country, so different from anything I have seen. We are quite far north and it is late enough in the season that the heat is confined to a few hours over noonday, and I am thankful for my quilt as after the sun sets the nights are cold. But it is a wonderful thing to wake during the night and see the moon shining down through the pine branches, and listen to the howling of wolves in the distance. The beauty and the wild majesty of it can never be forgotten.
We have been now almost two weeks on the trail with "our gayness and our glitter all besmirched by painful marching in the rainy field". But, like Prince Hal, I can swear "by the Mass" that our hearts – mine and certainly Harper's – are in the trim. You should throw your hands up in horror, if you should see me – my riding dress is in a frightful state and the rest of my toilette is similarly shabby. But I am as merry as a grig and brown as an Indian, and as well as ever I was in my life. I am never unwell, in the mountains.
This evening I determined to have a good wash and persuaded Harper to give up the pannikin in which he makes his execrable coffee, that I might boil enough water to make me feel human again. O ye dwellers in the cities of the plains, do you ever enjoy a hot bath as much as we poor travelers do? I think not.
I took pains to bring sufficient hot water back for my guide's use. I placed the pannikin nearby and mentioned, politely, that perhaps he might want to clean himself up. He was puzzled.
"Ain't I clean now?"
It was on the tip of my tongue to say that it depended on what one calls clean. I changed the subject. You can imagine my surprise when after a while he "allowed as how maybe I've picked up a little real estate, ma'am," and he is now somewhere off in the darkness with the water and a bar of my soap. When he comes back may Heaven keep me from checking to see if he's washed behind the ears.
We should arrive at a trading post in the next day or two, so putting aside this missive until later, I remain yours aff'ly, Isabella.
P.S. He has just returned and slyly asked me if I would like to look at his ears. Cheek! I suppose I deserved that.
Camp Augur, Wyoming Territory, September 14th.
My dearest sister: We are arrived at Camp Augur, recently re-named Camp Brown to honour an officer slain in an Indian massacre. It lies at the confluence of two rivers, in the midst of a wide and verdant valley, "where every aspect pleases and only Man is vile." The post and the town consist of little more than log huts, squalid and flyblown, and there are no accommodations other than an establishment offering bad whisky, games of chance, and degraded companionship.
Harper would not suffer me to remain there, and for this and other reasons I suspect his knowledge of such places is extensive and appalling. Fortunately we also found near the fort a trading post run by a respectable couple some three years out from the East, where I arranged for lodging.
The Thompsons are very civil and Mrs. Thompson a good manager. She asked, with great interest, who the gentleman was with me and upon hearing his name exclaimed, "Never! That boy?"
Some of the army men here know Harper from his earlier journeys to the Yellowstone, she told me, and added that she could not credit the stories assigned to him. Her husband was alarmed that I should have trusted myself to a person of such blemished reputation. I assured them of his propriety but they would not be convinced. A desperado, Mr. Thompson called him in the usage of this country. A desperate man.
Of course I defended him, dear Henrietta. But although I have formed a sincere regard for my companion, I do not mistake him for a pattern-card of virtue. He is kind, generous, and whole-hearted - yet, sadly, the right principles are not strong in him and his inclination to wildness is so marked, that I tremble for his fate should he not find some good friend to stand by him. I will end this letter now as Mrs. Thompson has asked if she might invite some of the officers' wives to call upon me. There is so little variety to the life they lead, and visitors are so rare, that I must consent. Fortunately my kind hostess has offered me a more suitable garment than my trail costume, else I would be too embarrassed to go into society.
Fondly yours, Isabella.
Camp Augur, Wyoming Territory, September 16th.
Dear Henrietta: I had expected to be on the trail by now but Harper is in the guardhouse and I am greatly disappointed in him. While I was visiting with the ladies, that young man betook himself to the place of ill-repute previously mentioned and during the course of the evening allowed himself to be chivvied into fisticuffs with some of the troopers there.
I was summoned yesterday morning by the adjutant to the post commander's office where Harper and three of his opponents, much the worse for wear, were assembled. He sported a black eye and divers contusions but thankfully he appeared to be sober, a commendable circumstance given his night's frolic. The sergeant of the guard, a pleasant-seeming Ulsterman, offered his opinion for the defence that Harper had not been drunk, merely "in good fighting thrim." From all accounts it was an epic conflict and the commandant has informed me that my companion will remain incarcerated until our departure, as he does not care to risk another such incident.
The villain who owns the drinking den was there to demand remuneration for the damage to his furnishings, as well. I was permitted to speak with Harper after I paid his fine, and before he was taken back into custody. All he chose to tell me was that someone called him a Johnny Reb and then matters "got kind of interestin', Miz' Isabella."
I don't know how I am going to face the Thompsons.
Postscript,September17th. Writing you in haste so that I may post these letters before departing. Harper has spoken with one of the Payute Indians who camp near here and informs me that an early winter is predicted. If we hope to make it to the Yellowstone before snowfall, we must hurry.
The Wind River Valley, Wyoming Territory, September 19th.
Dearest sister: I am so forlorn this evening that for all my years and sense, I might easily give way to tears. My hopes of seeing the Yellowstone country have been utterly dashed. We are turning back.
We took our leave of the Thompsons on a brisk, clear morning, that worthy couple eyeing Harper with distrust and taking me aside to assure me that I was welcome to stay, as they are convinced he means to murder me. The day was fine and our progress excellent, up the valley towards the mountain passes we must cross to reach the Valley of the Yellowstone, and my spirits rose as I thought of seeing at last the canyons, the lakes, and the geysers written of by Mr. Langford and other travelers. Harper, too, had related to me some of his experiences there, and described the Valley filled on a winter's day with rising columns of steam from the many hundreds of geysers and boiling springs. Last night we camped near the home of Harper's friend the Payute. I was presented to him, a noble-looking lad in fine buckskins, who treated us hospitably and promised every assistance should we require it. He gave us a piece of venison for our dinner and I went to sleep dreaming of the Yellowstone.
We awoke nearly paralysed from cold and to six inches of new snow. Harper sought out the Payute who warned us that this was not what the white men call the "squaw winter," a short period of bad weather before the Indian summer begins. There will be snow from now until the spring, or so he prophesied. Oh, Henrietta - we are still three days' hazardous ride from our destination, quite possibly more in this weather, and once we did arrive, what then? There are no towns there, only scattered cabins of hunters and trappers with whom I could not hope to pass the winter. Harper feels my disappointment keenly, and has apologised many times 'though this is by no means his fault. I should have started my journey at least a fortnight earlier, if not more. I can blame no one but myself.
I will send this note with the Payute boy to Camp Augur. Although I intend to write you from the trail, we shall undoubtedly be back at the Sherman Ranch before I can post any more letters.
Your heartsick and weary Isabella.
Fremont Canyon, Wyoming Territory, October 1st.
Dearest sister: For days we have met no living thing in this endless wilderness of snow.
There was never anything so glorious even in England, the mountain ranges shadowed with every shade of blue until the summits, which stand snow-capped against a sky even more blue. The colours at sunset are marvelously rich and deep, shading from orange into rose-lavender and then a dusky violet. Harper arranged our route that we might pass near Fremont Canyon, where the Platte River has cut deeply into the earth and the walls rise in places over one hundred feet high, showing the strata of centuries. It does not reconcile me to the loss of the Yellowstone but it is one of the most striking places I have ever seen.
The cold here is dry and I do not feel it until the sun sets; but after dark it is bitter and we camp early and wake, shivering, in the freezing air. Shortly after we left the canyon we spied smoke rising from the chimney of a rude structure tucked in between two hills. Eager to avail ourselves of this shelter, we urged our tired horses on. The cabin was larger than it first appeared, a substantial main structure added on to here and there, and a corral and a barn of sorts. As we approached, Harper suddenly drew back and offered his opinion, in a worried tone, that we should ride on. It was too late; a man in a pony-hide waistcoat had come to the door of the cabin and was beckoning to us. He greeted Harper by name and bade us welcome.
The place was full of smoke and an unspeakable smell, and there were a good half-dozen men of unprepossessing appearance clustered inside by the fire. Knives and other weapons were much in evidence. That my presence astonished them, there was no doubt, and dark looks were cast in our direction. Harper gripped my arm and advised me in a whisper to hold my tongue and let him speak. It was plain to see these were rough characters and I gladly let my companion take the lead.
We were offered a dinner of beef and potatoes and coffee, and one of the men begged my pardon for their being so ill-prepared to treat "a lady." This statement gave me some hope that our stay would be uneventful, and when another man cleared out a sort of store-room at one end with some sacks of straw for my use as a sleeping chamber, I almost could convince myself that Harper's suspicions were without foundation. I was swiftly disabused of this fancy when bottles of dubious appearance were produced and handed round amongst the company, as a preliminary to a game of cards.
It was during the game that the man in the pony-hide waistcoat entered and accused one of his comrades of having used his lariat without leave to drag firewood back to the cabin, the accused replying that he wished the devil could drag the man in the pony-hide waistcoat to perdition. The first man having reflected on the second man's parentage, the card game merged into battle under cover of which Harper took me discreetly away to my waiting bed. I will be glad to leave this place. Harper has been uneasy since our arrival and I have learned to trust him.
Your sleepy but undaunted sister, Isabella.
Somewhere in Wyoming Territory, October 2nd.
My dear Henrietta: I am writing this letter in a brush lean-to somewhere to the north of Medicine Bow. I have a candle stuck to my saddle in its own grease and I confess that I am not entirely sure where we are. It is snowing, and Harper is lying asleep by a small fire with the flakes beginning to coat his blankets. We have passed a long and weary day, riding without respite either for the horses or ourselves, and although I have the utmost confidence in my companion I am too unsettled to sleep.
He roused me very early this morning, several hours before daybreak, urging me in low tones to gather my things and come with him as quietly as I might. He looked so grave that I obeyed without question. Outside both horses stood, saddled and at the ready. Harper handed me up and then led the way on foot, softly as an Indian, until we were some distance from the cabin and he felt it safe to relate this story to me.
During the night, he said, he chanced to overhear a conversation between two of our villainous hosts that made him believe they meant to commit a criminal act against my person. I assure you, Henrietta, that it is rare for even the most lawless of Westerners to offer harm to a woman. These must truly have been men abandoned to all decency.
My companion gave me to understand that they knew him because he, too, was once such an outcast, which statement I sharply refuted. I consider myself an excellent judge of character, and despite what had transpired at Camp Augur I knew that Harper could never have fallen that low. And so I told him.
"There are things about me, Miz' Isabella, that you prob'ly don't want to know," was his reply.
I was touched by this admission of his unfortunate history and hastened to assure him whatever he might have been and whatever he might have done long ago, did not concern me. Clearly he wished to tell me more but I stopped him, saying that it was not the time nor the place. I did not add that Mr. Sherman's endorsement was proof enough that Harper's bandit ways were in the past.
The snow and the route chosen have hampered our progress and he is still wary of followers, but for my sake not his. I know better by now than to think him a man who would run from trouble. I believe he would fight to the bitter end for me, if necessary, but I have no desire to put this to the test.
I was able to persuade him that I am fit to stand the first watch and will wake him in an hour or so. I pray God for a favourable end to this adventure and hope that my letter will, at some point, reach you.
Your affectionate sister, Isabella.
The Sherman Ranch, Wyoming Territory, October 4th.
My dearest Henrietta: I write you now at the close of the two longest days of my life.
We rose before dawn, as Harper was anxious to again put as many miles as possible between us and any nefarious pursuit. The snow had stopped and we rode through the reddening morning across slopes covered with new snowfall that crunched under the horses' hooves. We were descending the side of a ravine when Harper's horse, normally so cat-like and sure-footed, slipped and I watched in horror as it rolled over him twice while struggling to rise. I was off Blueboy in an instant and rushed to his aid, but was not able to rouse him for several fearful minutes.
When he came to he was dizzy and sick, and 'though the snow had cushioned his fall he had clearly been badly hurt. I told him that we would go no further and made camp, hoping at the least to make him comfortable whilst I ascertained the extent of the damage. Some of his ribs were bruised and possibly broken and I strapped them up with strips torn from my quilt. His leg also was badly bruised but by far the worst of it, was the blow he received to his head. I would not permit him to try to stand and it was a measure of his injuries that I prevailed, small as I am - he was not strong enough to defy me 'though he wished to do so and railed against me for stopping him.
I got him to take some tea, a drink he normally despises, and just before he fell into slumber he informed me that I was "all right, ma'am." I hope you will not laugh when you read this, Henrietta– for a Western man that is high praise, indeed.
Such a gentle outlaw! He takes such pains for everyone but himself and in his care of me has shown a chivalry and tender-heartedness rare in most men but especially so in one who has known only the roughest of associations. He once told me that before "fetching up" at the Sherman Ranch he had never had anything, as he put it, "to tie to." As I watched over him that night I felt more pity than I ever have before for any human creature.
In the morning I saddled the horses and packed up our kit. Harper would have helped me but I scolded him so vigorously that he did not insist. I examined him again and he proclaimed his readiness for travel, but the lines of pain in his face gave the lie to his words. Soon after we started it became apparent that he could not stay in the saddle unassisted. Fearing that he might fall and sustain further injury, I took him up behind me on Blueboy who – a blessing on Mr. Sherman's canniness! - was more than capable of carrying the two of us. At Harper's bidding I cut a leather strap from my saddle and bound his hands loosely in front of me. If he became drowsy and started to slip, he said, the pulling of the strap against his wrists would wake him.
I cannot tell you how much this alarmed me. Should he fall, I knew I must leave him and go for help, and in that time he might perish from the cold. Perhaps he divined my thoughts, for he spoke up stoutly. "I'll make it home, ma'am. You just watch me." The mere thought of the Sherman Ranch seemed to lift his spirits, and he insisted that I must take him there and not attempt to seek out any other shelter. I had to agree, for I was thoroughly lost and finding the ranch was doubtless our best hope of survival.
We were still several miles away when the wind changed quarter, sweeping down on us from the northwest, and it began to snow again. In a short while the trail ahead was hidden. Harper raised his hands and tapped the side of my face. "Let the horses have their heads and keep the wind on your left cheek," he advised, and I noted that the slurring of his speech had worsened. We struggled on, the cold continually intensifying, and I concentrated every ounce of strength on holding myself and my burden in the saddle.
It was a terrible journey. I was exhausted, and giddy with fear, and only the thought of keeping my young friend alive drove me onward. My hair, my feet, and my hands were nigh frozen and I prayed, dear sister, as I have never prayed before. Harper roused himself to pull weakly against the strap around his wrists, swearing at me to leave him and go on alone. I was a fool, "without a lick of sense, d*** you!" and words even more atrocious. I would have wept but my eyelashes were stiff with ice.
Darkness fell and the storm had not eased, and I did not know how much longer the horses would be able to go on. I could barely see Blueboy's ears and Harper's horse was invisible 'though I could sense him plodding along beside us. Our fates rested with these faithful creatures and we could only trust that they would find their way to the stable.
Suddenly a dog's bark rang out through the gloom. A line of fencing, almost hidden by the snow, appeared and up ahead the faint gleam of a lantern showed the way to a familiar looking porch and dooryard. The windows were alight – I shouted but the wind blew my feeble cry away into the night. I could not dismount without tumbling Harper into the snow, but remembering the signal he taught me I took the pistol from his holster and fired three shots in the air. The door was flung wide and the household rushed out to meet us.
So it was that I brought my poor desperado home. He was immediately borne away to a hot drink and heated blankets and such medical care as his anxious friends could provide. Later Mr. Sherman showed me the thermometer, which was marked at sixteen degrees below zero.
The Sherman Ranch, Wyoming Territory, October 8th.
Dear Henrietta: You are no doubt surprised to learn that I am still Mr. Sherman's guest, but the roads have been bad and I was persuaded not to attempt the trip to Cheyenne or Denver in this weather. With the elasticity of youth in his favour, Harper is recovering rapidly and Mr. Sherman and Jonesy have a struggle compelling him to remain in bed. Whatever influence I held over him on the trail has vanished and - for better or for worse - he is almost his customary recalcitrant self again.
It is touching to see the concern everyone here has for him. Mr. Sherman is so different in so many ways, but he is more than Harper's employer; I know in my heart that he is the "good friend" I had hoped for my wild Colonial boy. Such a thing is possible, in the easy democracy of the West.
My sweet little Birdie is nearly well, and I have presented her to Harper. She would fetch a very good price, I think, but he announced that he intends to keep her – in the event I should ever return to the Sherman Ranch and need a horse "warranted sound and safe for a lady, Miz' Isabella."
Postscript, October 10th. I passed a wakeful night. It is now dawn and I am watching the scarlet and gold of a Western winter sunrise steal softly across the hills. This is a difficult country to love; yet I love it. Today will be my last day with these men whom I have learned to trust, and, yes, to admire. I shall hear no more "tall tales" told to the crackle of a campfire, and have no more chance meetings on lonely trails with Indians, bandits or prairie wolves. Nor will I break my fast on bread and cheese and scalding tea in the keen, pure air of a wild mountain stronghold. Tomorrow I must bid farewell to Wyoming and travel sadly back to the tame and dismal East.
Thus endeth my adventure. You will see me home in England before the New Year, Henrietta – when I can recount to you such things as could not safely be told in these letters.
Your affectionate sister, Isabella.
Thanks to Gail and Dee for keeping me honest.