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Singing Cliffs

From: The Last Of The Plainsmen

Old Tom had rolled two hundred yards down the canyon, leaving a red
trail and bits of fur behind him. When I had clambered down to the
steep slide where he had lodged, Sounder and Jude had just decided he
was no longer worth biting, and were wagging their tails. Frank was
shaking his head, and Jones, standing above the lion, lasso in hand,
wore a disconsolate face.

"How I wish I had got the rope on him!"

"I reckon we'd be gatherin' up the pieces of you if you had," said
Frank, dryly.

We skinned the old king on the rocky slope of his mighty throne, and
then, beginning to feel the effects of severe exertion, we cut across
the slope for the foot of the break. Once there, we gazed up in
disarray. That break resembled a walk of life--how easy to slip down,
how hard to climb! Even Frank, inured as he was to strenuous toil,
began to swear and wipe his sweaty brow before we had made one-tenth of
the ascent. It was particularly exasperating, not to mention the danger
of it, to work a few feet up a slide, and then feel it start to move.
We had to climb in single file, which jeopardized the safety of those
behind the leader. Sometimes we were all sliding at once, like boys on
a pond, with the difference that we were in danger. Frank forged ahead,
turning to yell now and then for us to dodge a cracking stone. Faithful
old Jude could not get up in some places, so laying aside my rifle, I
carried her, and returned for the weapon. It became necessary,
presently, to hide behind cliff projections to escape the avalanches
started by Frank, and to wait till he had surmounted the break. Jones
gave out completely several times, saying the exertion affected his
heart. What with my rifle, my camera and Jude, I could offer him no
assistance, and was really in need of that myself. When it seemed as if
one more step would kill us, we reached the rim, and fell panting with
labored chests and dripping skins. We could not speak. Jones had worn a
pair of ordinary shoes without thick soles and nails, and it seemed
well to speak of them in the past tense. They were split into ribbons
and hung on by the laces. His feet were cut and bruised.

On the way back to camp, we encountered Moze and Don coming out of the
break where we had started Sounder on the trail. The paws of both
hounds were yellow with dust, which proved they had been down under the
rim wall. Jones doubted not in the least that they had chased a lion.

Upon examination, this break proved to be one of the two which Clarke
used for trails to his wild horse corral in the canyon. According to
him, the distance separating them was five miles by the rim wall, and
less than half that in a straight line. Therefore, we made for the
point of the forest where it ended abruptly in the scrub oak. We got
into camp, a fatigued lot of men, horses and dogs. Jones appeared
particularly happy, and his first move, after dismounting, was to
stretch out the lion skin and measure it.

"Ten feet, three inches and a half!" he sang out.

"Shore it do beat hell!" exclaimed Jim in tones nearer to excitement
than any I had ever heard him use.

"Old Tom beats, by two inches, any cougar I ever saw," continued Jones.
"He must have weighed more than three hundred. We'll set about curing
the hide. Jim, stretch it well on a tree, and we'll take a hand in
peeling off the fat."

All of the party worked on the cougar skin that afternoon. The gristle
at the base of the neck, where it met the shoulders, was so tough and
thick we could not scrape it thin. Jones said this particular spot was
so well protected because in fighting, cougars were most likely to bite
and claw there. For that matter, the whole skin was tough, tougher than
leather; and when it dried, it pulled all the horseshoe nails out of
the pine tree upon which we had it stretched.

About time for the sun to set, I strolled along the rim wall to look
into the canyon. I was beginning to feel something of its character and
had growing impressions. Dark purple smoke veiled the clefts deep down
between the mesas. I walked along to where points of cliff ran out like
capes and peninsulas, all seamed, cracked, wrinkled, scarred and yellow
with age, with shattered, toppling ruins of rocks ready at a touch to
go thundering down. I could not resist the temptation to crawl out to
the farthest point, even though I shuddered over the yard-wide ridges;
and when once seated on a bare promontory, two hundred feet from the
regular rim wall, I felt isolated, marooned.

The sun, a liquid red globe, had just touched its under side to the
pink cliffs of Utah, and fired a crimson flood of light over the
wonderful mountains, plateaus, escarpments, mesas, domes and turrets or
the gorge. The rim wall of Powell's Plateau was a thin streak of fire;
the timber above like grass of gold; and the long slopes below shaded
from bright to dark. Point Sublime, bold and bare, ran out toward the
plateau, jealously reaching for the sun. Bass's Tomb peeped over the
Saddle. The Temple of Vishnu lay bathed in vapory shading clouds, and
the Shinumo Altar shone with rays of glory.

The beginning of the wondrous transformation, the dropping of the day's
curtain, was for me a rare and perfect moment. As the golden splendor
of sunset sought out a peak or mesa or escarpment, I gave it a name to
suit my fancy; and as flushing, fading, its glory changed, sometimes I
rechristened it. Jupiter's Chariot, brazen wheeled, stood ready to roll
into the clouds. Semiramis's Bed, all gold, shone from a tower of
Babylon. Castor and Pollux clasped hands over a Stygian river. The Spur
of Doom, a mountain shaft as red as hell, and inaccessible,
insurmountable, lured with strange light. Dusk, a bold, black dome, was
shrouded by the shadow of a giant mesa. The Star of Bethlehem glittered
from the brow of Point Sublime. The Wraith, fleecy, feathered curtain
of mist, floated down among the ruins of castles and palaces, like the
ghost of a goddess. Vales of Twilight, dim, dark ravines, mystic homes
of specters, led into the awful Valley of the Shadow, clothed in purple

Suddenly, as the first puff of the night wind fanned my cheek, a
strange, sweet, low moaning and sighing came to my ears. I almost
thought I was in a dream. But the canyon, now blood-red, was there in
overwhelming reality, a profound, solemn, gloomy thing, but real. The
wind blew stronger, and then I was to a sad, sweet song, which lulled
as the wind lulled. I realized at once that the sound was caused by the
wind blowing into the peculiar formations of the cliffs. It changed,
softened, shaded, mellowed, but it was always sad. It rose from low,
tremulous, sweetly quavering sighs, to a sound like the last woeful,
despairing wail of a woman. It was the song of the sea sirens and the
music of the waves; it had the soft sough of the night wind in the
trees, and the haunting moan of lost spirits.

With reluctance I turned my back to the gorgeously changing spectacle
of the canyon and crawled in to the rim wall. At the narrow neck of
stone I peered over to look down into misty blue nothingness.

That night Jones told stories of frightened hunters, and assuaged my
mortification by saying "buck-fever" was pardonable after the danger
had passed, and especially so in my case, because of the great size and
fame of Old Tom.

"The worst case of buck-fever I ever saw was on a buffalo hunt I had
with a fellow named Williams," went on Jones. "I was one of the scouts
leading a wagon-train west on the old Santa Fe trail. This fellow said
he was a big hunter, and wanted to kill buffalo, so I took him out. I
saw a herd making over the prairie for a hollow where a brook ran, and
by hard work, got in ahead of them. I picked out a position just below
the edge of the bank, and we lay quiet, waiting. From the direction of
the buffalo, I calculated we'd be just about right to get a shot at no
very long range. As it was, I suddenly heard thumps on the ground, and
cautiously raising my head, saw a huge buffalo bull just over us, not
fifteen feet up the bank. I whispered to Williams: 'For God's sake,
don't shoot, don't move!' The bull's little fiery eyes snapped, and he
reared. I thought we were goners, for when a bull comes down on
anything with his forefeet, it's done for. But he slowly settled back,
perhaps doubtful. Then, as another buffalo came to the edge of the
bank, luckily a little way from us, the bull turned broadside,
presenting a splendid target. Then I whispered to Williams: 'Now's your
chance. Shoot!' I waited for the shot, but none came. Looking at
Williams, I saw he was white and trembling. Big drops of sweat stood
out on his brow his teeth chattered, and his hands shook. He had
forgotten he carried a rifle."

"That reminds me," said Frank. "They tell a story over at Kanab on a
Dutchman named Schmitt. He was very fond of huntin', an' I guess had
pretty good success after deer an' small game. One winter he was out in
the Pink Cliffs with a Mormon named Shoonover, an' they run into a
lammin' big grizzly track, fresh an' wet. They trailed him to a clump
of chaparral, an' on goin' clear round it, found no tracks leadin' out.
Shoonover said Schmitt commenced to sweat. They went back to the place
where the trail led in, an' there they were, great big silver tip
tracks, bigger'n hoss-tracks, so fresh thet water was oozin' out of
'em. Schmitt said: 'Zake, you go in und ged him. I hef took sick right

Happy as we were over the chase of Old Tom, and our prospects for
Sounder, Jude and Moze had seen a lion in a tree--we sought our
blankets early. I lay watching the bright stars, and listening to the
roar of the wind in the pines. At intervals it lulled to a whisper, and
then swelled to a roar, and then died away. Far off in the forest a
coyote barked once. Time and time again, as I was gradually sinking
into slumber, the sudden roar of the wind startled me. I imagined it
was the crash of rolling, weathered stone, and I saw again that huge
outspread flying lion above me.

I awoke sometime later to find Moze had sought the warmth of my side,
and he lay so near my arm that I reached out and covered him with an
end of the blanket I used to break the wind. It was very cold and the
time must have been very late, for the wind had died down, and I heard
not a tinkle from the hobbled horses. The absence of the cowbell music
gave me a sense of loneliness, for without it the silence of the great
forest was a thing to be felt.

This oppressiveness, however, was broken by a far-distant cry, unlike
any sound I had ever heard. Not sure of myself, I freed my ears from
the blanketed hood and listened. It came again, a wild cry, that made
me think first of a lost child, and then of the mourning wolf of the
north. It must have been a long distance off in the forest. An interval
of some moments passed, then it pealed out again, nearer this time, and
so human that it startled me. Moze raised his head and growled low in
his throat and sniffed the keen air.

"Jones, Jones," I called, reaching over to touch the old hunter.

He awoke at once, with the clear-headedness of the light sleeper.

"I heard the cry of some beast," I said, "And it was so weird, so
strange. I want to know what it was."

Such a long silence ensued that I began to despair of hearing the cry
again, when, with a suddenness which straightened the hair on my head,
a wailing shriek, exactly like a despairing woman might give in death
agony, split the night silence. It seemed right on us.

"Cougar! Cougar! Cougar!" exclaimed Jones.

"What's up?" queried Frank, awakened by the dogs.

Their howling roused the rest of the party, and no doubt scared the
cougar, for his womanish screech was not repeated. Then Jones got up
and gatherered his blankets in a roll.

"Where you oozin' for now?" asked Frank, sleepily.

"I think that cougar just came up over the rim on a scouting hunt, and
I'm going to go down to the head of the trail and stay there till
morning. If he returns that way, I'll put him up a tree."

With this, he unchained Sounder and Don, and stalked off under the
trees, looking like an Indian. Once the deep bay of Sounder rang out;
Jones's sharp command followed, and then the familiar silence
encompassed the forest and was broken no more.

When I awoke all was gray, except toward the canyon, where the little
bit of sky I saw through the pines glowed a delicate pink. I crawled
out on the instant, got into my boots and coat, and kicked the
smoldering fire. Jim heard me, and said:

"Shore you're up early."

"I'm going to see the sunrise from the north rim of the Grand Canon," I
said, and knew when I spoke that very few men, out of all the millions
of travelers, had ever seen this, probably the most surpassingly
beautiful pageant in the world. At most, only a few geologists,
scientists, perhaps an artist or two, and horse wranglers, hunters and
prospectors have ever reached the rim on the north side; and these men,
crossing from Bright Angel or Mystic Spring trails on the south rim,
seldom or never get beyond Powell's Plateau.

The frost cracked under my boots like frail ice, and the bluebells
peeped wanly from the white. When I reached the head of Clarke's trail
it was just daylight; and there, under a pine, I found Jones rolled in
his blankets, with Sounder and Moze asleep beside him. I turned without
disturbing him, and went along the edge of the forest, but back a
little distance from the rim wall.

I saw deer off in the woods, and tarrying, watched them throw up
graceful heads, and look and listen. The soft pink glow through the
pines deepened to rose, and suddenly I caught a point of red fire. Then
I hurried to the place I had named Singing Cliffs, and keeping my eyes
fast on the stone beneath me, trawled out to the very farthest point,
drew a long, breath, and looked eastward.

The awfulness of sudden death and the glory of heaven stunned me! The
thing that had been mystery at twilight, lay clear, pure, open in the
rosy hue of dawn. Out of the gates of the morning poured a light which
glorified the palaces and pyramids, purged and purified the afternoon's
inscrutable clefts, swept away the shadows of the mesas, and bathed
that broad, deep world of mighty mountains, stately spars of rock,
sculptured cathedrals and alabaster terraces in an artist's dream of
color. A pearl from heaven had burst, flinging its heart of fire into
this chasm. A stream of opal flowed out of the sun, to touch each peak,
mesa, dome, parapet, temple and tower, cliff and cleft into the
new-born life of another day.

I sat there for a long time and knew that every second the scene
changed, yet I could not tell how. I knew I sat high over a hole of
broken, splintered, barren mountains; I knew I could see a hundred
miles of the length of it, and eighteen miles of the width of it, and a
mile of the depth of it, and the shafts and rays of rose light on a
million glancing, many-hued surfaces at once; but that knowledge was no
help to me. I repeated a lot of meaningless superlatives to myself, and
I found words inadequate and superfluous. The spectacle was too elusive
and too great. It was life and death, heaven and hell.

I tried to call up former favorite views of mountain and sea, so as to
compare them with this; but the memory pictures refused to come, even
with my eyes closed. Then I returned to camp, with unsettled, troubled
mind, and was silent, wondering at the strange feeling burning within

Jones talked about our visitor of the night before, and said the trail
near where he had slept showed only one cougar track, and that led down
into the canyon. It had surely been made, he thought, by the beast we
had heard. Jones signified his intention of chaining several of the
hounds for the next few nights at the head of this trail; so if the
cougar came up, they would scent him and let us know. From which it was
evident that to chase a lion bound into the canyon and one bound out
were two different things.

The day passed lazily, with all of us resting on the warm, fragrant
pine-needle beds, or mending a rent in a coat, or working on some camp
task impossible of commission on exciting days.

About four o'clock, I took my little rifle and walked off through the
woods in the direction of the carcass where I had seen the gray wolf.
Thinking it best to make a wide detour, so as to face the wind, I
circled till I felt the breeze was favorable to my enterprise, and then
cautiously approached the hollow were the dead horse lay. Indian
fashion, I slipped from tree to tree, a mode of forest travel not
without its fascination and effectiveness, till I reached the height of
a knoll beyond which I made sure was my objective point. On peeping out
from behind the last pine, I found I had calculated pretty well, for
there was the hollow, the big windfall, with its round, starfish-shaped
roots exposed to the bright sun, and near that, the carcass. Sure
enough, pulling hard at it, was the gray-white wolf I recognized as my

But he presented an exceedingly difficult shot. Backing down the ridge,
I ran a little way to come up behind another tree, from which I soon
shifted to a fallen pine. Over this I peeped, to get a splendid view of
the wolf. He had stopped tugging at the horse, and stood with his nose
in the air. Surely he could not have scented me, for the wind was
strong from him to me; neither could he have heard my soft footfalls on
the pine needles; nevertheless, he was suspicious. Loth to spoil the
picture he made, I risked a chance, and waited. Besides, though I
prided myself on being able to take a fair aim, I had no great hope
that I could hit him at such a distance. Presently he returned to his
feeding, but not for long. Soon he raised his long, fine-pointed head,
and trotted away a few yards, stopped to sniff again, then went back to
his gruesome work.

At this juncture, I noiselessly projected my rifle barrel over the log.
I had not, however, gotten the sights in line with him, when he trotted
away reluctantly, and ascended the knoll on his side of the hollow. I
lost him, and had just begun sourly to call myself a mollycoddle
hunter, when he reappeared. He halted in an open glade, on the very
crest of the knoll, and stood still as a statue wolf, a white,
inspiriting target, against a dark green background. I could not stifle
a rush of feeling, for I was a lover of the beautiful first, and a
hunter secondly; but I steadied down as the front sight moved into the
notch through which I saw the black and white of his shoulder.

Spang! How the little Remington sang! I watched closely, ready to send
five more missiles after the gray beast. He jumped spasmodically, in a

half-curve, high in the air, with loosely hanging head, then dropped in
a heap. I yelled like a boy, ran down the hill, up the other side of
the hollow, to find him stretched out dead, a small hole in his
shoulder where the bullet had entered, a great one where it had come

The job I made of skinning him lacked some hundred degrees the
perfection of my shot, but I accomplished it, and returned to camp in

"Shore I knowed you'd plunk him," said Jim very much pleased. "I shot
one the other day same way, when he was feedin' off a dead horse. Now
thet's a fine skin. Shore you cut through once or twice. But he's only
half lofer, the other half in plain coyote. Thet accounts fer his
feedin' on dead meat."

My naturalist host and my scientific friend both remarked somewhat
grumpily that I seemed to get the best of all the good things. I might
have retaliated that I certainly had gotten the worst of all the bad
jokes; but, being generously happy over my prize, merely remarked: "If
you want fame or wealth or wolves, go out and hunt for them."

Five o'clock supper left a good margin of day, in which my thoughts
reverted to the canyon. I watched the purple shadows stealing out of
their caverns and rolling up about the base of the mesas. Jones came
over to where I stood, and I persuaded him to walk with me along the
rim wall. Twilight had stealthily advanced when we reached the Singing
Cliffs, and we did not go out upon my promontory, but chose a more
comfortable one nearer the wall.

The night breeze had not sprung up yet, so the music of the cliffs was

"You cannot accept the theory of erosion to account for this chasm?" I
asked my companion, referring to a former conversation.

"I can for this part of it. But what stumps me is the mountain range
three thousand feet high, crossing the desert and the canyon just above
where we crossed the river. How did the river cut through that without
the help of a split or earthquake?"

"I'll admit that is a poser to me as well as to you. But I suppose
Wallace could explain it as erosion. He claims this whole western
country was once under water, except the tips of the Sierra Nevada
mountains. There came an uplift of the earth's crust, and the great
inland sea began to run out, presumably by way of the Colorado. In so
doing it cut out the upper canyon, this gorge eighteen miles wide. Then
came a second uplift, giving the river a much greater impetus toward
the sea, which cut out the second, or marble canyon. Now as to the
mountain range crossing the canyon at right angles. It must have come
with the second uplift. If so, did it dam the river back into another
inland sea, and then wear down into that red perpendicular gorge we
remember so well? Or was there a great break in the fold of granite,
which let the river continue on its way? Or was there, at that
particular point, a softer stone, like this limestone here, which
erodes easily?"

"You must ask somebody wiser than I."

"Well, let's not perplex our minds with its origin. It is, and that's
enough for any mind. Ah! listen! Now you will hear my Singing Cliffs."

From out of the darkening shadows murmurs rose on the softly rising
wind. This strange music had a depressing influence; but it did not
fill the heart with sorrow, only touched it lightly. And when, with the
dying breeze, the song died away, it left the lonely crags lonelier for
its death.

The last rosy gleam faded from the tip of Point Sublime; and as if that
were a signal, in all the clefts and canyons below, purple, shadowy
clouds marshaled their forces and began to sweep upon the battlements,
to swing colossal wings into amphitheaters where gods might have
warred, slowly to enclose the magical sentinels. Night intervened, and
a moving, changing, silent chaos pulsated under the bright stars.

"How infinite all this is! How impossible to understand!" I exclaimed.

"To me it is very simple," replied my comrade. "The world is strange.
But this canyon--why, we can see it all! I can't make out why people
fuss so over it. I only feel peace. It's only bold and beautiful,
serene and silent."

With the words of this quiet old plainsman, my sentimental passion
shrank to the true appreciation of the scene. Self passed out to the
recurring, soft strains of cliff song. I had been reveling in a species
of indulgence, imagining I was a great lover of nature, building
poetical illusions over storm-beaten peaks. The truth, told by one who
had lived fifty years in the solitudes, among the rugged mountains,
under the dark trees, and by the sides of the lonely streams, was the
simple interpretation of a spirit in harmony with the bold, the
beautiful, the serene, the silent.

He meant the Grand Canyon was only a mood of nature, a bold promise, a
beautiful record. He meant that mountains had sifted away in its dust,
yet the canyon was young. Man was nothing, so let him be humble. This
cataclysm of the earth, this playground of a river was not inscrutable;
it was only inevitable--as inevitable as nature herself. Millions of
years in the bygone ages it had lain serene under a half moon; it would
bask silent under a rayless sun, in the onward edge of time.

It taught simplicity, serenity, peace. The eye that saw only the
strife, the war, the decay, the ruin, or only the glory and the
tragedy, saw not all the truth. It spoke simply, though its words were
grand: "My spirit is the Spirit of Time, of Eternity, of God. Man is
little, vain, vaunting. Listen. To-morrow he shall be gone. Peace!

Next: All Heroes But One

Previous: Old Tom

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