In His Own Words, the Great Author’s Youthful Condescension
BY RUDYARD KIPLING
Livingstone is a town of two thousand people, and the junction for the little side-line that takes you to the Yellowstone National Park. It lies in a fold of the prairie, and behind it is the Yellowstone River and the gate of the mountains through which the river flows. There is one street in the town, where the cowboy’s pony and the little foal of the brood-mare in the buggy rest contentedly in the blinding sunshine while the cowboy gets himself shaved at the only other barber’s shop, and swaps lies at the bar. I exhausted the town, including the saloons, in ten minutes, and got away on the rolling grass downs where I threw myself to rest. Directly under the hill I was on, swept a drove of horses in charge of two mounted men. That was a picture I shall not soon forget. A light haze of dust went up from the hoof-trodden green, scarcely veiling the unfettered deviltries of three hundred horses who very much wanted to stop and graze. ‘Yow! Yow! Yow!’ yapped the mounted men in chorus like coyotes. The column moved forward at a trot, divided as it met a hillock and scattered into fan shape all among the suburbs of Living-stone. I heard the ‘snick’ of a stock-whip, half a dozen ‘Yow, yows,’ and the mob had come together again, and, with neighing and whickering and squealing and a great deal of kicking on the part of the youngsters, rolled like a wave of brown water toward the uplands.
I was within twenty feet of the leader, a grey stallion-lord of many brood-mares all deeply concerned for the welfare of their fuzzy foals. A cream-coloured beast—I knew him at once for the bad character of the troop-broke back, taking with him some frivolous fillies. I heard the snick of the whips somewhere in the dust, and the fillies came back at a canter, very shocked and indignant. On the heels of the last rode both the stockmen—picturesque ruffians who wanted to know ‘what in hell’ I was doing there, waved their hats, and sped down the slope after their charges. When the noise of the troop had died there came a wonderful silence on all the prairie—that silence, they say, which enters into the heart of the old-time hunter and trapper and marks him off from the rest of his race.
The town disappeared in the darkness, and a very young moon showed herself over a baldheaded, snow-flecked peak. Then the Yellowstone, hidden by the water-willows, lifted up its voice and sang a little song to the mountains, and an old horse that had crept up in the dusk breathed inquiringly on the back of my neck. When I reached the hotel I found all manner of preparation under way for the 4th of July, and a drunken man with a Winchester rifle over his shoulder patrolling the sidewalk. I do not think he wanted any one. He carried the gun as other folk carry walking sticks. None the less I avoided the direct line of fire and listened to the blasphemies of miners and stockmen till far into the night. In every bar-room lay a copy of the local paper, and every copy impressed it upon the inhabitants of Livingstone that they were the best, finest, bravest, richest, and most progressive town of the most progressive nation under Heaven; even as the Tacoma and Portland papers had belauded their readers. And yet, all my purblind eyes could see was a grubby little hamlet full of men without clean collars and perfectly unable to get through one sentence unadorned by three oaths. They raise horses and minerals round and about Livingstone, but they behave as though they raised cherubims with diamonds in their wings.
From Livingstone the National Park train follows the Yellowstone River through the gate of the mountains and over arid volcanic country. A stranger in the cars saw me look at the ideal troutstream below the windows and murmured softly: ‘Lie off at Yankee Jim’s if you want good fishing.’ They halted the train at the head of a narrow valley, and I leaped literally into the arms of Yankee Jim, sole owner of a log hut, an indefinite amount of hay-ground, and constructor of twenty seven miles of waggon-road over which he held toll-right. There was the hut, the river fifty yards away, and the polished line of metals that disappeared round a bluff. That was all. The railway added the finishing touch to the already complete loneliness of the place. Yankee Jim was a picturesque old man with a talent for yarns that Ananias might have envied. It seemed to me, presumptuous in my ignorance, that I might hold my own with the old-timer if I judiciously painted up a few lies gathered in the course of my wanderings. Yankee Jim saw every one of my tales and went fifty better on the spot. He dealt in bears and Indians—never less than twenty of each; had known the Yellowstone country for years, and bore upon his body marks of Indian arrows; and his eyes had seen a squaw of the Crow Indians burned alive at the stake. He said she screamed considerable. In one point did he speak the truth—as regarded the merits of that particular reach of the Yellowstone. He said it was alive with trout. It was. I fished it from noon till twilight, and the fish bit at the brown hook as though never a fat trout-fly had fallen on the water. From pebbly reaches, quivering in the heat-haze where the foot caught on stumps cut four-square by the chiseltooth of the beaver; past the fringe of the waterwillow crowded with the breeding trout-fly and alive with toads and water-snakes; over the drifted timber to the grateful shadow of big trees that darkened the holes where the fattest fish lay, I worked for seven hours. The mountain flanks on either side of the valley gave back the heat as the desert gives it, and the dry sand by the railway track, where I found a rattle-snake, was hot-iron to the touch. But the trout did not care for the heat. They breasted the boiling river for my fly and they got it. I simply dare not give my bag. At the fortieth trout I gave up counting, and I had reached the fortieth in less than two hours. They were small fish—not one over two pounds—but they fought like small tigers, and I lost three flies before I could understand their methods of escape. Ye gods! That was fishing, though it peeled the skin from my nose in strips.
At twilight Yankee Jim bore me off, protesting, to supper in the hut. The fish had prepared me for any surprise, wherefore when Yankee Jim introduced me to a young woman of five-and-twenty, with eyes like the deep-fringed eyes of the gazelle, and ‘on the neck the small head buoyant, like a bell-flower in its bed,’ I said nothing. It was all in the day’s events. She was California-raised, the wife of a man who owned a stock-farm ‘up the river a little ways,’ and, with her husband, tenant of Yankee Jim’s shanty. I know she wore list slippers and did not wear stays; but I know also that she was beautiful by any standard of beauty, and that the trout she cooked were fit for a king’s supper. And after supper strange men loafed up in the dim delicious twilight, with the little news of the day—how a heifer had ‘gone strayed’ from Nicholson’s; how the widow at Grant’s Fork wouldn’t part with a little hayland nohow, though ‘she an’ her big brothers can’t manage more than ha-af their land now. She’s so darned proud.’ Diana of the Crossways entertained them in queenly wise, and her husband and Yankee Jim bade them sit right down and make themselves at home. Then did Yankee Jim uncurl his choicest lies on Indian warfare aforetime; then did the whisky-flask circle round the little crowd; then did Diana’s husband ‘low that he was quite handy with the lariat, but had seen men rope a steer by any foot or horn indicated; then did Diana unburden herself about her neighbours. The nearest house was three miles away, ‘but the women aren’t nice, neighbourly folk. They talk so. They haven’t got anything else to do seemingly. If a woman goes to a dance and has a good time, they talk, and if she wears a silk dress, they want to know how jest ranchin’ folks—folk on a ranche—come by such things; and they make mischief down all the lands here from Gardiner City way back up to Livingstone. They’re mostly Montanna raised, and they haven’t been nowheres. Ah, how they talk!’ Were things like this, demanded Diana, in the big world outside, whence I had come? Yes, I said, things were very much the same all over the world, and I thought of a far-away station in India where new dresses and the having of good times at dances raised cackle more grammatical perhaps, but no less venomous than the gossip of the ‘Montanna-raised’ folk on the ranches of the Yellowstone.
Next morn I fished again and listened to Diana telling the story of her life. I forget what she told me, but I am distinctly aware that she had royal eyes and a mouth that the daughter of a hundred earls might have envied—so small and so delicately cut it was. ‘An’ you come back an’ see us again,’ said the simple-minded folk. ‘Come back an’ we’ll show you how to catch six-pound trout at the head of the cañon.’
From Sea to Sea, by Rudyard Kipling, who at the age of 26 arrived in Livingston, Montana, July 3, 1889, traveling from his native England to India.