The Enchanted Bluff by Willa Cather
We had our swim before sundown, and while we were cooking our supper the
oblique rays of light made a dazzling glare on the white sand about us.
The translucent red ball itself sank behind the brown stretches of
cornfield as we sat down to eat, and the warm layer of air that had rested
over the water and our clean sand bar grew fresher and smelled of the rank
ironweed and sunflowers growing on the flatter shore. The river was brown
and sluggish, like any other of the half-dozen streams that water the
Nebraska corn lands. On one shore was an irregular line of bald clay
bluffs where a few scrub oaks with thick trunks and flat, twisted tops
threw light shadows on the long grass. The western shore was low and
level, with cornfields that stretched to the skyline, and all along the
water's edge were little sandy coves and beaches where slim cottonwoods
and willow saplings flickered.
The turbulence of the river in springtime discouraged milling, and, beyond
keeping the old red bridge in repair, the busy farmers did not concern
themselves with the stream; so the Sandtown boys were left in undisputed
possession. In the autumn we hunted quail through the miles of stubble and
fodder land along the flat shore, and, after the winter skating season was
over and the ice had gone out, the spring freshets and flooded bottoms
gave us our great excitement of the year. The channel was never the same
for two successive seasons. Every spring the swollen stream undermined a
bluff to the east, or bit out a few acres of cornfield to the west and
whirled the soil away, to deposit it in spumy mud banks somewhere else.
When the water fell low in midsummer, new sand bars were thus exposed to
dry and whiten in the August sun. Sometimes these were banked so firmly
that the fury of the next freshet failed to unseat them; the little willow
seedlings emerged triumphantly from the yellow froth, broke into spring
leaf, shot up into summer growth, and with their mesh of roots bound
together the moist sand beneath them against the batterings of another
April. Here and there a cottonwood soon glittered among them, quivering in
the low current of air that, even on breathless days when the dust hung
like smoke above the wagon road, trembled along the face of the water.
It was on such an island, in the third summer of its yellow green, that we
built our watch fire; not in the thicket of dancing willow wands, but on
the level terrace of fine sand which had been added that spring; a little
new bit of world, beautifully ridged with ripple marks, and strewn with
the tiny skeletons of turtles and fish, all as white and dry as if they
had been expertly cured. We had been careful not to mar the freshness of
the place, although we often swam to it on summer evenings and lay on the
sand to rest.
This was our last watch fire of the year, and there were reasons why I
should remember it better than any of the others. Next week the other boys
were to file back to their old places in the Sandtown High School, but I
was to go up to the Divide to teach my first country school in the
Norwegian district. I was already homesick at the thought of quitting the
boys with whom I had always played; of leaving the river, and going up
into a windy plain that was all windmills and cornfields and big pastures;
where there was nothing wilful or unmanageable in the landscape, no new
islands, and no chance of unfamiliar birds—such as often followed
Other boys came and went and used the river for fishing or skating, but we
six were sworn to the spirit of the stream, and we were friends mainly
because of the river. There were the two Hassler boys, Fritz and Otto,
sons of the little German tailor. They were the youngest of us; ragged
boys of ten and twelve, with sunburned hair, weather-stained faces, and
pale blue eyes. Otto, the elder, was the best mathematician in school, and
clever at his books, but he always dropped out in the spring term as if
the river could not get on without him. He and Fritz caught the fat,
horned catfish and sold them about the town, and they lived so much in the
water that they were as brown and sandy as the river itself.
There was Percy Pound, a fat, freckled boy with chubby cheeks, who took
half a dozen boys' story-papers and was always being kept in for reading
detective stories behind his desk. There was Tip Smith, destined by his
freckles and red hair to be the buffoon in all our games, though he walked
like a timid little old man and had a funny, cracked laugh. Tip worked
hard in his father's grocery store every afternoon, and swept it out
before school in the morning. Even his recreations were laborious. He
collected cigarette cards and tin tobacco-tags indefatigably, and would
sit for hours humped up over a snarling little scroll-saw which he kept in
his attic. His dearest possessions were some little pill bottles that
purported to contain grains of wheat from the Holy Land, water from the
Jordan and the Dead Sea, and earth from the Mount of Olives. His father
had bought these dull things from a Baptist missionary who peddled them,
and Tip seemed to derive great satisfaction from their remote origin.
The tall boy was Arthur Adams. He had fine hazel eyes that were almost too
reflective and sympathetic for a boy, and such a pleasant voice that we
all loved to hear him read aloud. Even when he had to read poetry aloud at
school, no one ever thought of laughing. To be sure, he was not at school
very much of the time. He was seventeen and should have finished the High
School the year before, but he was always off somewhere with his gun.
Arthur's mother was dead, and his father, who was feverishly absorbed in
promoting schemes, wanted to send the boy away to school and get him off
his hands; but Arthur always begged off for another year and promised to
study. I remember him as a tall, brown boy with an intelligent face,
always lounging among a lot of us little fellows, laughing at us oftener
than with us, but such a soft, satisfied laugh that we felt rather
flattered when we provoked it. In after-years people said that Arthur had
been given to evil ways as a lad, and it is true that we often saw him
with the gambler's sons and with old Spanish Fanny's boy, but if he
learned anything ugly in their company he never betrayed it to us. We
would have followed Arthur anywhere, and I am bound to say that he led us
into no worse places than the cattail marshes and the stubble fields.
These, then, were the boys who camped with me that summer night upon the
After we finished our supper we beat the willow thicket for driftwood. By
the time we had collected enough, night had fallen, and the pungent, weedy
smell from the shore increased with the coolness. We threw ourselves down
about the fire and made another futile effort to show Percy Pound the
Little Dipper. We had tried it often before, but he could never be got
past the big one.
"You see those three big stars just below the handle, with the bright one
in the middle?" said Otto Hassler; "that's Orion's belt, and the bright
one is the clasp." I crawled behind Otto's shoulder and sighted up his arm
to the star that seemed perched upon the tip of his steady forefinger. The
Hassler boys did seine-fishing at night, and they knew a good many stars.
Percy gave up the Little Dipper and lay back on the sand, his hands
clasped under his head. "I can see the North Star," he announced,
contentedly, pointing toward it with his big toe. "Anyone might get lost
and need to know that."
We all looked up at it.
"How do you suppose Columbus felt when his compass didn't point north any
more?" Tip asked.
Otto shook his head. "My father says that there was another North Star
once, and that maybe this one won't last always. I wonder what would
happen to us down here if anything went wrong with it?"
Arthur chuckled. "I wouldn't worry, Ott. Nothing's apt to happen to it in
your time. Look at the Milky Way! There must be lots of good dead
We lay back and looked, meditating, at the dark cover of the world. The
gurgle of the water had become heavier. We had often noticed a mutinous,
complaining note in it at night, quite different from its cheerful daytime
chuckle, and seeming like the voice of a much deeper and more powerful
stream. Our water had always these two moods: the one of sunny
complaisance, the other of inconsolable, passionate regret.
"Queer how the stars are all in sort of diagrams," remarked Otto. "You
could do most any proposition in geometry with 'em. They always look as if
they meant something. Some folks say everybody's fortune is all written
out in the stars, don't they?"
"They believe so in the old country," Fritz affirmed.
But Arthur only laughed at him. "You're thinking of Napoleon, Fritzey. He
had a star that went out when he began to lose battles. I guess the stars
don't keep any close tally on Sandtown folks."
We were speculating on how many times we could count a hundred before the
evening star went down behind the cornfields, when someone cried, "There
comes the moon, and it's as big as a cart wheel!"
We all jumped up to greet it as it swam over the bluffs behind us. It came
up like a galleon in full sail; an enormous, barbaric thing, red as an
angry heathen god.
"When the moon came up red like that, the Aztecs used to sacrifice their
prisoners on the temple top," Percy announced.
"Go on, Perce. You got that out of Golden Days. Do you believe
that, Arthur?" I appealed.
Arthur answered, quite seriously: "Like as not. The moon was one of their
gods. When my father was in Mexico City he saw the stone where they used
to sacrifice their prisoners."
As we dropped down by the fire again some one asked whether the
Mound-Builders were older than the Aztecs. When we once got upon the
Mound-Builders we never willingly got away from them, and we were still
conjecturing when we heard a loud splash in the water.
"Must have been a big cat jumping," said Fritz. "They do sometimes. They
must see bugs in the dark. Look what a track the moon makes!"
There was a long, silvery streak on the water, and where the current
fretted over a big log it boiled up like gold pieces.
"Suppose there ever was any gold hid away in this old river?" Fritz
asked. He lay like a little brown Indian, close to the fire, his chin on
his hand and his bare feet in the air. His brother laughed at him, but
Arthur took his suggestion seriously.
"Some of the Spaniards thought there was gold up here somewhere. Seven
cities chuck full of gold, they had it, and Coronado and his men came up
to hunt it. The Spaniards were all over this country once."
Percy looked interested. "Was that before the Mormons went through?"
We all laughed at this.
"Long enough before. Before the Pilgrim Fathers, Perce. Maybe they came
along this very river. They always followed the watercourses."
"I wonder where this river really does begin?" Tip mused. That was an old
and a favorite mystery which the map did not clearly explain. On the map
the little black line stopped somewhere in western Kansas; but since
rivers generally rose in mountains, it was only reasonable to suppose that
ours came from the Rockies. Its destination, we knew, was the Missouri,
and the Hassler boys always maintained that we could embark at Sandtown in
floodtime, follow our noses, and eventually arrive at New Orleans. Now
they took up their old argument. "If us boys had grit enough to try it, it
wouldn't take no time to get to Kansas City and St. Joe."
We began to talk about the places we wanted to go to. The Hassler boys
wanted to see the stockyards in Kansas City, and Percy wanted to see a big
store in Chicago. Arthur was interlocutor and did not betray himself.
"Now it's your turn, Tip."
Tip rolled over on his elbow and poked the fire, and his eyes looked shyly
out of his queer, tight little face. "My place is awful far away. My Uncle
Bill told me about it."
Tip's Uncle Bill was a wanderer, bitten with mining fever, who had drifted
into Sandtown with a broken arm, and when it was well had drifted out
"Where is it?"
"Aw, it's down in New Mexico somewheres. There aren't no railroads or
anything. You have to go on mules, and you run out of water before you get
there and have to drink canned tomatoes."
"Well, go on, kid. What's it like when you do get there?"
Tip sat up and excitedly began his story.
"There's a big red rock there that goes right up out of the sand for about
nine hundred feet. The country's flat all around it, and this here rock
goes up all by itself, like a monument. They call it the Enchanted Bluff
down there, because no white man has ever been on top of it. The sides are
smooth rock, and straight up, like a wall. The Indians say that hundreds
of years ago, before the Spaniards came, there was a village away up there
in the air. The tribe that lived there had some sort of steps, made out of
wood and bark, bung down over the face of the bluff, and the braves went
down to hunt and carried water up in big jars swung on their backs. They
kept a big supply of water and dried meat up there, and never went down
except to hunt. They were a peaceful tribe that made cloth and pottery,
and they went up there to get out of the wars. You see, they could pick
off any war party that tried to get up their little steps. The Indians say
they were a handsome people, and they had some sort of queer religion.
Uncle Bill thinks they were Cliff-Dwellers who had got into trouble and
left home. They weren't fighters, anyhow.
"One time the braves were down hunting and an awful storm came up—a
kind of waterspout—and when they got back to their rock they found
their little staircase had been all broken to pieces, and only a few steps
were left hanging away up in the air. While they were camped at the foot
of the rock, wondering what to do, a war party from the north came along
and massacred 'em to a man, with all the old folks and women looking on
from the rock. Then the war party went on south and left the village to
get down the best way they could. Of course they never got down. They
starved to death up there, and when the war party came back on their way
north, they could hear the children crying from the edge of the bluff
where they had crawled out, but they didn't see a sign of a grown Indian,
and nobody has ever been up there since."
We exclaimed at this dolorous legend and sat up.
"There couldn't have been many people up there," Percy demurred. "How big
is the top, Tip?"
"Oh, pretty big. Big enough so that the rock doesn't look nearly as tall
as it is. The top's bigger than the base. The bluff is sort of worn away
for several hundred feet up. That's one reason it's so hard to climb."
I asked how the Indians got up, in the first place.
"Nobody knows how they got up or when. A hunting party came along once and
saw that there was a town up there, and that was all."
Otto rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. "Of course there must be some
way to get up there. Couldn't people get a rope over someway and pull a
Tip's little eyes were shining with excitement. "I know a way. Me and
Uncle Bill talked it over. There's a kind of rocket that would take a rope
over—lifesavers use 'em—and then you could hoist a rope ladder
and peg it down at the bottom and make it tight with guy ropes on the
other side. I'm going to climb that there bluff, and I've got it all
Fritz asked what he expected to find when he got up there.
"Bones, maybe, or the ruins of their town, or pottery, or some of their
idols. There might be 'most anything up there. Anyhow, I want to see."
"Sure nobody else has been up there, Tip?" Arthur asked.
"Dead sure. Hardly anybody ever goes down there. Some hunters tried to cut
steps in the rock once, but they didn't get higher than a man can reach.
The Bluff's all red granite, and Uncle Bill thinks it's a boulder the
glaciers left. It's a queer place, anyhow. Nothing but cactus and desert
for hundreds of miles, and yet right under the Bluff there's good water
and plenty of grass. That's why the bison used to go down there."
Suddenly we heard a scream above our fire, and jumped up to see a dark,
slim bird floating southward far above us—a whooping crane, we knew
by her cry and her long neck. We ran to the edge of the island, hoping we
might see her alight, but she wavered southward along the rivercourse
until we lost her. The Hassler boys declared that by the look of the
heavens it must be after midnight, so we threw more wood on our fire, put
on our jackets, and curled down in the warm sand. Several of us pretended
to doze, but I fancy we were really thinking about Tip's Bluff and the
extinct people. Over in the wood the ring doves were calling mournfully to
one another, and once we heard a dog bark, far away. "Somebody getting
into old Tommy's melon patch," Fritz murmured sleepily, but nobody
answered him. By and by Percy spoke out of the shadows.
"Say, Tip, when you go down there will you take me with you?"
"Suppose one of us beats you down there, Tip?"
"Whoever gets to the Bluff first has got to promise to tell the rest of us
exactly what he finds," remarked one of the Hassler boys, and to this we
all readily assented.
Somewhat reassured, I dropped off to sleep. I must have dreamed about a
race for the Bluff, for I awoke in a kind of fear that other people were
getting ahead of me and that I was losing my chance. I sat up in my damp
clothes and looked at the other boys, who lay tumbled in uneasy attitudes
about the dead fire. It was still dark, but the sky was blue with the last
wonderful azure of night. The stars glistened like crystal globes, and
trembled as if they shone through a depth of clear water. Even as I
watched, they began to pale and the sky brightened. Day came suddenly,
almost instantaneously. I turned for another look at the blue night, and
it was gone. Everywhere the birds began to call, and all manner of little
insects began to chirp and hop about in the willows. A breeze sprang up
from the west and brought the heavy smell of ripened corn. The boys rolled
over and shook themselves. We stripped and plunged into the river just as
the sun came up over the windy bluffs.
When I came home to Sandtown at Christmas time, we skated out to our
island and talked over the whole project of the Enchanted Bluff, renewing
our resolution to find it.
Although that was twenty years ago, none of us have ever climbed the
Enchanted Bluff. Percy Pound is a stockbroker in Kansas City and will go
nowhere that his red touring car cannot carry him. Otto Hassler went on
the railroad and lost his foot braking; after which he and Fritz succeeded
their father as the town tailors.
Arthur sat about the sleepy little town all his life—he died before
he was twenty-five. The last time I saw him, when I was home on one of my
college vacations, he was sitting in a steamer chair under a cottonwood
tree in the little yard behind one of the two Sandtown saloons. He was
very untidy and his hand was not steady, but when he rose, unabashed, to
greet me, his eyes were as clear and warm as ever. When I had talked with
him for an hour and heard him laugh again, I wondered how it was that when
Nature had taken such pains with a man, from his hands to the arch of his
long foot, she had ever lost him in Sandtown. He joked about Tip Smith's
Bluff, and declared he was going down there just as soon as the weather
got cooler; he thought the Grand Canyon might be worth while, too.
I was perfectly sure when I left him that he would never get beyond the
high plank fence and the comfortable shade of the cottonwood. And, indeed,
it was under that very tree that he died one summer morning.
Tip Smith still talks about going to New Mexico. He married a slatternly,
unthrifty country girl, has been much tied to a perambulator, and has
grown stooped and grey from irregular meals and broken sleep. But the
worst of his difficulties are now over, and he has, as he says, come into
easy water. When I was last in Sandtown I walked home with him late one
moonlight night, after he had balanced his cash and shut up his store. We
took the long way around and sat down on the schoolhouse steps, and
between us we quite revived the romance of the lone red rock and the
extinct people. Tip insists that he still means to go down there, but he
thinks now he will wait until his boy Bert is old enough to go with him.
Bert has been let into the story, and thinks of nothing but the Enchanted