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!