Peaceful Hart Ranch
From: Good Indian
It was somewhere in the seventies when old Peaceful Hart woke to a
realization that gold-hunting and lumbago do not take kindly to one
another, and the fact that his pipe and dim-eyed meditation appealed to
him more keenly than did his prospector's pick and shovel and pan seemed
to imply that he was growing old. He was a silent man, by occupation
and by nature, so he said nothing about it; but, like the wild things
of prairie and wood, instinctively began preparing for the winter of his
life. Where he had lately been washing tentatively the sand along Snake
River, he built a ranch. His prospector's tools he used in digging
ditches to irrigate his new-made meadows, and his mining days he lived
over again only in halting recital to his sons when they clamored for
details of the old days when Indians were not mere untidy neighbors to
be gossiped with and fed, but enemies to be fought, upon occasion.
They felt that fate had cheated them--did those five sons; for they had
been born a few years too late for the fun. Not one of them would ever
have earned the title of "Peaceful," as had his father. Nature had
played a joke upon old Peaceful Hart; for he, the mildest-mannered
man who ever helped to tame the West when it really needed taming, had
somehow fathered five riotous young males to whom fight meant fun--and
the fiercer, the funnier.
He used to suck at his old, straight-stemmed pipe and regard them with a
bewildered curiosity sometimes; but he never tried to put his puzzlement
into speech. The nearest he ever came to elucidation, perhaps, was when
he turned from them and let his pale-blue eyes dwell speculatively
upon the face of his wife, Phoebe. Clearly he considered that she was
responsible for their dispositions.
The house stood cuddled against a rocky bluff so high it dwarfed the
whole ranch to pygmy size when one gazed down from the rim, and so steep
that one wondered how the huge, gray bowlders managed to perch upon
its side instead of rolling down and crushing the buildings to dust and
fragments. Strangers used to keep a wary eye upon that bluff, as if
they never felt quite safe from its menace. Coyotes skulked there, and
tarantulas and "bobcats" and snakes. Once an outlaw hid there for days,
within sight and hearing of the house, and stole bread from Phoebe's
pantry at night--but that is a story in itself.
A great spring gurgled out from under a huge bowlder just behind the
house, and over it Peaceful had built a stone milk house, where Phoebe
spent long hours in cool retirement on churning day, and where one went
to beg good things to eat and to drink. There was fruit cake always
hidden away in stone jars, and cheese, and buttermilk, and cream.
Peaceful Hart must have had a streak of poetry somewhere hidden away in
his silent soul. He built a pond against the bluff; hollowed it out from
the sand he had once washed for traces of gold, and let the big spring
fill it full and seek an outlet at the far end, where it slid away under
a little stone bridge. He planted the pond with rainbow trout, and on
the margin a rampart of Lombardy poplars, which grew and grew until they
threatened to reach up and tear ragged holes in the drifting clouds.
Their slender shadows lay, like gigantic fingers, far up the bluff when
the sun sank low in the afternoon.
Behind them grew a small jungle of trees-catalpa and locust among
them--a jungle which surrounded the house, and in summer hid it from
With the spring creek whispering through the grove and away to where it
was defiled by trampling hoofs in the corrals and pastures beyond, and
with the roses which Phoebe Hart kept abloom until the frosts came, and
the bees, and humming--birds which somehow found their way across the
parched sagebrush plains and foregathered there, Peaceful Hart's ranch
betrayed his secret longing for girls, as if he had unconsciously
planned it for the daughters he had been denied.
It was an ideal place for hammocks and romance--a place where dainty
maidens might dream their way to womanhood. And Peaceful Hart, when all
was done, grew old watching five full-blooded boys clicking their
heels unromantically together as they roosted upon the porch, and threw
cigarette stubs at the water lilies while they wrangled amiably over the
merits of their mounts; saw them drag their blankets out into the broody
dusk of the grove when the nights were hot, and heard their muffled
swearing under their "tarps" because of the mosquitoes which kept the
night air twanging like a stricken harp string with their song.
They liked the place well enough. There were plenty of shady places
to lie and smoke in when the mercury went sizzling up its tiny tube.
Sometimes, when there was a dance, they would choose the best of
Phoebe's roses to decorate their horses' bridles; and perhaps their
hatbands, also. Peaceful would then suck harder than ever at his pipe,
and his faded blue eyes would wander pathetically about the little
paradise of his making, as if he wondered whether, after all, it had
been worth while.
A tight picket fence, built in three unswerving lines from the post
planted solidly in a cairn of rocks against a bowlder on the eastern rim
of the pond, to the road which cut straight through the ranch, down that
to the farthest tree of the grove, then back to the bluff again, shut in
that tribute to the sentimental side of Peaceful's nature. Outside the
fence dwelt sturdier, Western realities.
Once the gate swung shut upon the grove one blinked in the garish
sunlight of the plains. There began the real ranch world. There was the
pile of sagebrush fuel, all twisted and gray, pungent as a bottle
of spilled liniment, where braided, blanketed bucks were sometimes
prevailed upon to labor desultorily with an ax in hope of being rewarded
with fruit new-gathered from the orchard or a place at Phoebe's long
table in the great kitchen.
There was the stone blacksmith shop, where the boys sweated over the
nice adjustment of shoes upon the feet of fighting, wild-eyed horses,
which afterward would furnish a spectacle of unseemly behavior under the
Farther away were the long stable, the corrals where broncho-taming was
simply so much work to be performed, hayfields, an orchard or two, then
rocks and sand and sage which grayed the earth to the very skyline.
A glint of slithering green showed where the Snake hugged the bluff a
mile away, and a brown trail, ankle-deep in dust, stretched straight out
to the west, and then lost itself unexpectedly behind a sharp, jutting
point of rocks where the bluff had thrust out a rugged finger into the
By devious turnings and breath-taking climbs, the trail finally reached
the top at the only point for miles, where it was possible for a
horseman to pass up or down.
Then began the desert, a great stretch of unlovely sage and lava rock
and sand for mile upon mile, to where the distant mountain ridges
reached out and halted peremptorily the ugly sweep of it. The railroad
gashed it boldly, after the manner of the iron trail of modern industry;
but the trails of the desert dwellers wound through it diffidently,
avoiding the rough crest of lava rock where they might, dodging the
most aggressive sagebrush and dipping tentatively into hollows, seeking
always the easiest way to reach some remote settlement or ranch.
Of the men who followed those trails, not one of them but could have
ridden straight to the Peaceful Hart ranch in black darkness; and there
were few, indeed, white men or Indians, who could have ridden there at
midnight and not been sure of blankets and a welcome to sweeten their
sleep. Such was the Peaceful Hart Ranch, conjured from the sage and the
sand in the valley of the Snake.
Next: Good Indian
Previous: As It Turned Out