HARD TO HIT

By Ernest Ingersoll

The spring weather we sometimes have in March reminds me, especially in the evening, of some days passed so high up in the Rocky Mountains that the summer was left down in the valley. One such spring-like evening we camped close to the timber-limit, and I made my first trip into the region above, in which no trees grow. Having left the spruce-woods quickly behind, there came some stiff climbing up ledges of broken rocks, standing, cliff-like, to bar the way to the summit. These surmounted, the way was clear, for from the northeast—the side I was on—this mountain presents a smooth grassy slope to the very top; but the western side of the range is a series of rocky precipices, seamed and shattered. This is true of many mountains in Colorado.

Just above the cliffs grew a number of dwarfed spruces, some of them with trunks six inches in diameter, yet lying flat along the ground, so that the gnarled and wind-pressed boughs were scarcely knee-high. They stood so closely together, and were so stiff, that I could not pass between them; but, on the other hand, they were strong enough to bear my weight, so that I could walk over their tops when it was inconvenient to go around.

Some small brown sparrows, of two or three species, lived there, and they were very talkative. Sharp, metallic chirps were heard, also, as the blue snow-bird flitted about, showing the white feathers on either side of its tail, in scudding from one sheltering bush to another. Doubtless, careful search would have discovered its home, snugly built of circularly laid grasses, and tucked deeply into some cozy hollow beside the root of a spruce.

My pace now became slow, for in the thin air of a place twelve thousand feet above the sea-level, climbing is exhausting work. But before long I came to the top, and stood on the verge of a crag that showed the crumbling action of water and frost. Gaping cracks seamed its face, and an enormous mass of fallen rock covered the broad slope at its foot. The very moment I arrived there, I heard a most lively squeaking going on, apparently just under the edge of the cliff or in some of the cracks. It was an odd noise, something between a bark and scream, and I could think of nothing but young hawks as the authors of it. So I set at work to find the nest, but my search was in vain, while the sharp squeaking seemed to multiply and to come from a dozen different quarters. By this time I had crawled down the rough face of the cliff, and had reached the heaps of fallen rock. There I caught a glimpse of a little head with two black eyes, like a prairie-dog's, peering out of a crevice, and I was just in time to see him open his small jaws and say "shink" —about as a rusty hinge would pronounce it. I whipped my revolver out of my belt and fired, but the little fellow dodged the bullet and was gone. Echoes rattled about among the rocks, wandered up and down the canon, and hammered away at half a dozen stone walls before ceasing entirely. But when they had died away, not another sound was to be heard. Every little rascal had hid.

So I sat down and waited. In about five minutes a tiny, timid squeak broke the stillness, then a second a trifle louder, then one away under my feet in some subterranean passage. Hardly daring to breathe, I waited and watched. Finally the chorus became as loud as before, and I caught sight of one of the singers only about ten yards away, head and shoulders out of his hole, doubtless commenting to his neighbor in no complimentary way upon the strange intruder. Slowly lifting my pistol, I pulled the trigger. I was sure he had not seen me, yet a chip of rock flying from where he had stood was my only satisfaction; he had dodged again.

I had seen enough, however, to know that the noisy colony was a community of Little Chief hares (Lagomys princeps, as they are named in the textbooks), or "conies," as the silver miners call them. They are related to the woodchucks as well as to the hare, and they live wholly at or above timber-line, burrowing among the fallen and decomposing rocks which crown the summits of all the mountains. Not every peak, by any means, harbors conies; on the contrary, they are rather uncommon, and are so difficult to shoot that their skins are rare in museums, and their ways are little known to naturalists. During the middle of the day they are asleep and quiet; but in the evening and all night when the moon shines they leave their rocky retreats and forage in the neighboring meadows, meeting the yellow-footed marmot and other neighbors. About the only enemies they have, I fancy, are the rattlesnake and weasel, excepting when a wild-cat may pounce upon one, or an owl swoop down and snatch up some rambler. In the cold season, of course, their burrows are deep in snow; but then the little fellows are taking their long winter sleep, and neither know nor care what the weather may be.

An Indian will eat a cony,—if he can catch it. He likes to use its fur, also, for braiding his locks into those long plaits which delight his soul; but the lively little rodents are pretty safe from all human foes, even one with a Colt's revolver!