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Stones for Jacob’s Pillow

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

A great-uncle of mine had been a Forty Niner and accomplished his long trek with the full complement of Indian adventure, shipwreck, and wild stirring days, in quest of Sutter’s once ill-omened gold. Two generations after, I found myself turning also into the far West for the first time and thrilled greatly with anticipation, in all the pictured memory of his vivid tales. I hurried to tell him, very, certain of his interest. “And how are you going?” asked great-uncle. “Why, by train—of course.”

“What a pity!” That was all the old man said, and turned his face away from me. But how else, pray, could one go? “He is failing,” I thought, “he is losing grip with reality. Why should it be a pity, to take one’s journey decently, by train?”—And yet the dreaming sympathy of that averted look continued still to haunt me.

That Eastern-bred city, girl did go her journey, and to many years of trailing about the Bad Lands of Wyoming and the Western Slope in Colorado, close upon the heels of a mining engineer husband. Desert and mountain top, unutterable, tacit, unperturbable, came to be loved comrades of swift days. Once, without sight of any other woman, eight months passed aloof upon a mesa’s rim, overlooking three ranges, the canyon, and the very ridge-pole of the continent’s self. Then we adventured further, up into the far North, and for further years broke trail upon America’s own last frontier. There at world’s edge we digged and drank strange waters.

Out of this sharp reorientation—for neither with immunity nor impunity do we shift our skies—that time we crossed Broad Pass in winter, with dogs, before ever the Alaska Railroad was built there, remains in memory a most deeply bitten etching.

We had reached the pass and were under very Denali, “The Most High,” when we were caught in a mid-February blizzard of many days duration and imprisoned there within the moimtain’s heart, walled about under those impenetrable snows. For three days we fought to cross one treacherous rift of gulch. Snowslides blocked our way, and in one of these I was caught alone, but for my dogs, and fought out at last only after no small agony, a truly physical suspense upon that mountain wall. Archaic night tracked and tricked us, crawling infinitesimal upon those slopes. Two full weeks it took to go but ninety miles as a crow flies. But we were not flying as crows, though I was converted then and there to a sure belief in Alaska as the air-man’s continent, for only that way shall it be man-conquered.—Past, it was all, of course, a glorious adventure, et haec olim memimsse juvabit.

Years after, I was crossing that selfsame chasm of the threefold avalanche again, riding this time in all the comforts of a Pullman observation coach, by way of a high-thrown bridge suspended like a wisp of steely gossamer above the mountain gash. I was acting cicerone to a laughing crowd of half-bored congressional friends, who fondly imagined themselves to be exploring a wilderness. As the train rolled so smoothly out across that riven gulch and I looked down from this now conquered height upon the scene of our once crammed rich wayfaring, a sudden impulse came to shout and wake them, for they were missing it all! This Alaska railroad of ours had never been built from steel and wood but out of the hope and experience and the very soul-stuff of men, grappling here with the gray old gods of chaos. But these travelers rode all unseeing, like the sons of Mary, their hands unbusied.

And then my great-uncle’s phrase so long hidden in memory tumbled out of its lost cubbyhole, and I knew at last the full meaning of his pity. For these people too were “going by train,” with all that means of standard gauge, conducting, and easy gradient. Everything had been pre-surveyed for them, smoothed, prepared, arranged, and managed. The whole experience had been so carefully predigested, was now so easy to take, there was no flavor at all left to catch. The zestful conquest of the way-maker, the trail-breaker, was gone from it. “What a pity!” At last I knew swift actual kinship with that Forty Niner, who not without significance had set out on his trek from a point called Independence.

My, congressional friends had been full of a half disguised pity for me and my “wasted” Alaska years. I began to wonder if they could ever understand my new-found pity for them. Like great-uncle’s California, this Alaska had become to me something irrevocably, ineradicably mine. One comes reshaped from the passion’s weight and flaming mood of so stupendous a lover. Intimate, intense, and in a real sense unshared, the years given to the North had grown into a web of being, a pattern inwoven; for every fibre had been re-meshed to meet and endure to that challenge.

The true Spell of the Yukon is, I believe (as was also that other imperative call of the Oregon or the Santa Fe Trail) just this uttermost unvicarious response to the challenge of alchemic and prepotent reagents. Having made such transmutation, one could well afford to renounce other conquest. Great-uncle’s regret was that those for whom he cared should miss that fine crisp flavor with which the uniquely experienced event registers against the palate. Our pity, that so many will deny themselves the grain and texture of adventuring, until even the capacity to imagine it is lost, except in far-off terms of aversion or of wonder.

Once, in the old West of the cattle ranges, I was riding across country alone, looking for semi-mythical “government corners.” It was a desolate land of little rain, a land of red-baked clay mesa, sharp cut coulee, and powder dry river bed which could flood bank-high with black and oily spume of cloud-burst, on occasion, and meanwhile carried on all its concealed sub-flow beneath a treacherous drifting surface of seeming dryish sand. I had been warned of this, and knew its reality as well as one can know the thing one has been merely told of—which is not at all.

I was riding a “locoed” horse, a good-enough animal for most purposes, nine days out of ten, but given to those periodic fits of equine insanity which seize unfortunate beasts who have once eaten of the “crazy weed.” After a long morning’s ride across miles of open range covered only with thin yellowed herbage, seeing only occasional, ribby, lowing, unwatered cattle, I reached a dry and steep-banked river course and rode down along it, searching for some crossing place where cattle tracks went “both in and out,” as I had been warned. After about a mile of scouting, I did find such a place and attempted to put my mount down the rather slick approach to it. But the animal refused to budge, for by a most unhappy chance this moment he was struck by one of his crazy seizures. Though all, both above and below this crossing, was dangerous footing, just here it was safe enough—as evidence of many a Hereford split-toe showed in the gummed banks on either side and all the way between, and as local cattle men familiar with the range assured me later. So it was no instinct of horse sense but sheer ornery “loco” which was causing the present hitch. I was in a hurry and impatient, for already the long morning was gone and I must surely be back before dark or the men in camp would worry. I fought the now crazed animal with spur and rawhide, for there was no time or occasion for sweet reasonableness, upon that slippery bank.

But without any apparent warning the wild horse under me seized the bit in teeth and with one wrenching maddened lunge, started to bolt upstream, running close to the ragged bank. I was just beginning to win some small control again when, with maniac frenzy, the animal leaped sheer over the five-foot bank and in the first wild plunge was sunk body-deep in the gulping quicksands below. Even as I still sat the saddle there, stunned by the sudden fall, I felt my feet touched by the soft up-creeping sands and both felt and saw the beast under me sink down with slow and awful inevitableness, into the gaping under-river’s maw. And it was only then I realized that I too was caught there—was being pulled beneath by that unhasting sureness.

This was “The Quick”—a hideous name—the last dumb terror of the Mauvaises Terres.

A matter of split seconds, then, to snatch both feet from the quick-sinking “taps” and climb and stand upon the saddle. The bank above (and I thanked God for my un-womanish height) came just to my armpits, and one tenacious sage brush of Providence grew precariously upon that rim, just within reach. The prospector’s pick must be loosened now, with scared fingers and in haste, for the saddle skirts were touching slime and the horse’s head lay extended upon the darkly dampish sands. As far out as I could reach I dug the heavy pick into the dry powdery soil above, and with the other hand caught at the gnarly sage. We had fallen directly under the bank so that there was no lateral pull but only a direct upward lift. If I could—to chin myself.

A strange chinning, so often done in college gymnasium, in pride of body and pride of spirit. How far, now, the friendly shelter of that group, and where now any pride of flesh? For the spirit, God have pity on it. The poor frightened thing mumbles its gibbering prayer there, struggling to updraw that dangling heft of body to the safe rim. The tiny brush of sage must hold, the blunt pick must not slip in the thin soil. Inching, hanging, slipping, now waist-high hung upon the cracked dry edge. 0 bank, be kind to me! 0 Mother Earth, be strong for me! Hold, hold!— God’s mercy—free!

. . . What are tears for, but cleansing of such fear’s poison? But the blindness of desert sun burns them swiftly away, the blistering ache of scorching earth wakens sense to the sure pain of living once again.

The horse must be pulled out! Two long split bridle reins lay extended on the dark sands, as thrown there in the flight up from that pit. With a spur dropped at the end of a neck-scarf, the coal pick swung from the other hand, the woman lay upon the bank and angled precariously for those reins and at last caught one up; then tried, in hysterical misdirected passion, to tug that lost and buried thing to action. — Then the rein broke short, and quite as suddenly, it snapped me to my senses, for I knew at last one might as futilely pull at the undertow of Death’s own river. I got to my feet and started downstream. Somewhere in all that emptiness must be a ranch house. It would be near the river brim—somewhere. I dog-trotted, for there was need of haste. But the sun rode meridian, the red hills danced in the delirious heat, and a sway-backed horizon swung to the broken rhythm of my heavy feet.

. . . They told me later it was “only four miles.” They also said that when they first had seen the running khaki-alkali woman, they had thought her crazy; and when they saw the blood-spots on her face, the puffed tight blistered eyes, they thought her “pretty far gone.” They, said too that three men and unnumbered cattle had been sucked into the quick of that River; and the fingers of one poor lad, when they found him, were worn bare of all flesh, to the bone, where he had clawed in frenzy at the imminent sands.

It had been long minutes before I could tell with any coherence of the lost horse, or describe the location accurately, and much longer before a team could be hitched, men gathered and a rescue attempted. It was two hours before the friendly ranch hands would let me return, to see where they had cut the bank, had run a planking down it, and were now slipping stout ropes under the numb and inert animal, about whose body they had trenched. Finally they dragged it out upon firm earth, like the carcass it so very nearly was. The dead-in-life was whipped and stung to struggling consciousness, to tottering erectness, and at last led running till the blood flowed free again and the brute beast breathed and moved in normal fashion, although still wild-eyed and panting. Against their kindly, protests (“He ain’t no fitten horse to ride, no time. Best letten we-all put a bullet through his cracked skull.”) I rode slowly campward through the mystery of purple mesa shadow and the black velvet of an enshrouding night, a-revel in their cool texture after the double agony of that day’s hot sun-blind and disintegrating panic. In the midst of the hills I met with all the men from camp, spread out to search for me—a very worried group and strangely glad, it seemed, to find me there.

Although at times, and times again, for many long years thereafter, I woke at midnights to the clutching horror of that dream, the cutting corrosion of the memory slowly passed, sublimated at last: like some keen lead-ethyl poisoned emanation which, should men employ it skilfully, becomes a subtle source of power. Out of this alchemy, I know, came strength, for never thereafter did I fear to ride alone upon the desert places, on any quest. Once having been submerged in that Stygian river and new arisen from it, some Achillean immunity had been caught, for which go grateful thanks to a foreseeing goddess mother.

Fear is assuredly the world-old destroyer of life’s integer. It is the ancestral delusion by whose effective conquest all civilized advance will measure. But we are so unwilling to name this dreaded something, and give instead soft-sounding synonym as though to tame this brute by magic of a childish misnomer—not daring to face the reality. By any name, it’s not a pretty thing. And yet even most grizzled Fear himself, catching you cornered where you must lay hold upon him squarely, will not let you go without a blessing. Black though the night which covers you, with morning you will know that you have wrestled with an angel there; and many a thigh-stricken Jacob of us raises his mute Peniel to commemorate such heaven-sent contact, after long night alone upon an empty moor.

Now Jacob is, I know, a much demoded personage; but for myself I’d pass the shrine of many a more untarnished one to reverence this time-battered saint. Jacob, that twisted, tough-gnarled, dogged, all-competent, successful, hell-raising old sheepman of the bad lands and the desert water-holes, who was a plain person dwelling in tents and who, like our own cattle barons of the West, inherited the land wherein he was a stranger. His foxship turned sharp ethic corners, on occasion, and would serve the Lord but on a strict percentage basis only.

Yet this man had so much of sheer genius to pluck a blessing from out the hard material of experience, that when caught alone between camp-sites, without even the comfort of a rolled saddle-blanket to slip under his stiffish neck, he used the very stones of the place wherein he tarried for a pillow, and could meet a tardy dawn with new big ideas, fresh reverence for the face of God, and strengthened grip upon himself, all snatched from the starry solitude of desert night. And like any good Wyoming sheep-herder, he would build there his monumental stone pile to mark that bounding of his vision. The joint of Jacob’s thigh may have been crooked, but even the great, the mighty, the terrible God of Genesis had no fault to find with the set of Jacob’s spine!

If you know Wyoming, you know twenty old timers who could sit for Jacob’s spiritual portrait: “supplanters” who have through lonely unaided struggle become “God’s fighters.” They pitch their tents upon the high mount; they accept no gift from any man but will split even with a half brother, in good grace, if there be necessary occasion; they keep their spoken word with strictest scrupulosity, though it will pay to watch that wording well! In the day the drought consumes them and the frost by night; but angels of the Lord will meet with them familiarly upon the trail; and caught out between water-holes, alone and at night, they will see visions and achieve self-conquests which in time make them unconquerable princes in that land, “having power with God”—and with Washington!

It may be that I love Jacob because I love his country so—the width of the range, the treeless empty stretch of the sheep-lands blazing under the sun, pitiless in the wind, mysteriously peopled by night with the desert’s whispering. For anyone who treks far in Jacob’s country learns more sympathy with primitive night-fear, in a few hours spent alone upon the prairie, than years of laboratory work with the psychologists could teach.

We were moving a survey camp in Wyoming from one location to another. I say “we” for I was carrying a stadia rod that summer and although I was one woman in a party of five men, I felt that I was doing a man’s job. To balance a fourteen-foot stadia rod weighing several pounds, on your shoulder all day or braced under your arm, while riding a western cayuse that may. be moved to buck at any moment should the waving ends of that rod hit either of his ends—or at sight of an unexpected coiled rattler; to carry on your saddle, in addition to your necessary self, one canteen, one nosebag full of oats, one pair saddle bags filled with notes, maps, and lunch—one coal pick for opening and measuring seams and one slicker which flops in the constant wind; to swim your horse across swift, flood-swollen rivers, climb perpendicular mesas, and feel yourself meanwhile bronzing indelibly under unclouded sun, from which there is no escape and which would register 115 ° in the shade if there were any—but there isn’t; to uphold the minority reputation of a sometimes maligned sex and not whimper or quit or let on that you are scared stiff—seemed almost a job. At least I was feeling very cocksure about it. And just then some farsighted angel registrar, looking down from his divine book-keeping, no doubt sniffed the unwholesome savour of this mortal conceit—distasteful to the nose of Heaven.

“Ho, ho!” he snorted, summoning a mischievous cherub “buttons,” “that female is overdue on her lessons. See that she gets a stiff one this time, will you?”

That day, half way of our camp moving, we were caught in one of those swift, terrific, devastating Bad Land rains, which swept the treeless ungrassed slopes in slanted sheets and turned the dry baked face of the mesas into slime, the coulee bottoms into giant glue pots. After it had passed, all the saddle horses were hitched or roped to the two wagons, and even then we could not budge them. The gumbo rolled up on the wheels in great masses until it hit the wagon-box and fell off in clots and clods, only to rise again with the next painful revolution.

At last, nearing sundown upon a wind-swept open divide, all fourteen horses of the outfit were hitched to the mess-wagon alone, in one final effort to move it, at least, to the future camp a few miles distant. I stayed curled up in the remaining wagon, with collie dog for company, to guard the goods and wait the men’s return. It was still light when they left, but desperately tired of body after the long day’s strain, I slept. Then suddenly awoke to a black and empty world, hollow as a bowl of teak but filled now with a shuddering cry that cracked it to the rim and seemed to spill beyond into eternity. The collie dog sleeping at my feet rose swiftly and snarled back to it. I could feel him stiffen and bristle under my arms as I clutched at him in the bottom of that black pool. Then it came again, that cry, and hideously closer now. — The wolves.

I knew that sound bitter well. We had been hearing it of nights for weeks and our horses had stampeded to it. And each new dawn as we had ridden out to work upon the hills, the sight of mutilated hamstrung yearlings or sometimes a dying mangled colt had been our morning news-sheet of the dark night’s doing. But I had been tented close then, in the camp’s friendly shelter, with five stout fighting men to keep me from harm and a husband to laugh at my tenderfoot fears.

“Wolves don’t bother people, when there are a thousand juicy young beeves out on the hills.”

But this was different. The dog’s odor, the dog’s alternate growl and whimper, were evidently attracting them closer. There were two, and they circled near to that strange heap of alien smells upon that wasted hillside, crying their comment and their challenge. The dog in my arms now struggled to be free and leap to them in a frenzy of defiance and defence of me—now cringed against his clay-foot human god in mute acknowledgment of useless guardianship. His quivering body shook to mine and my own heart raced more fast in terror as I felt the fluttering panic of that other. I dared not speak to quiet him, nor did I dare cry out. And to what purpose? The unseen sky and the benighted hills alone covered us. I peered strainingly out into that black pit but only, ears had answer, and when I shut my eyes again I saw upon their inner screen the far-too-well remembered picture of freshly flesh-torn cattle.

I have heard men say that eternity cannot be sensed. I do not believe that, for I can myself remember an eternity; and at some indescribable point within it, I know I touched the naked starkness of unmitigated fear. It was the absolute and primitive child’s fear of peopled dark and not that complex born-of-doing fear which may spring out of action. Surely here was the ancient matrix of terror’s self, in which our demonology is cast; a thing of beastly Grendel body only, which no pliant weapon of the mind can turn.

Sometime in eternity, fashioned somehow from the very marrow and substance of that horrid jettison of self, dragged with unpityjng wrench from a beforetime unplumbed depth, there came to birth a quivering new form of reality. Strong Jacob was a man and his night struggle on the moor left pictured in his mind a wrestling. Because I was a woman, terror was introvert and must be torn in birth before a blessing came with dawn. But when a smear of streaked gray began to smudge the rim of that dark pit, I knew at last fear’s self could never be fear’s self again. Shrunk in the scald of that dark shrinking, this newly won material could not ever play me false but was for use now, of a tried dimension.

A Pioneer and a limping Prince of Israel; a mad horse and a wolf heard in the night: these are the pictures drawn in the memory primer, the a-b-c-d of my slow schooling, the small but stony griefs of childish Bethel building.

Is that the sum of all this sewing of the gipsy shoes of happiness—only to learn to fear the fear of Fear, above Fear’s self? Surely an ignoble word to harp on, “Fear”: a word not used by nice people, any more than is the short and ugly Saxon place-name of fear’s physical indwelling, “usually in the plural: not in polite use.” Ladies do not mention Fear, and gentlemen should have no acquaintance with him. Ah, yes—and full two parts of me could hold with that fine old tradition, but that third is tough contemporary pioneer, kinswoman to kinsmen who once crossed the smoky ridges down into blue-grass”valleys to the Westward. In that trek to the land behind the ranges we have known the close uncomforting companionship of Fear; Fear’s fear has cast too deeply his long shadow on far trails for us to say with truth, “I do not know him.”

What shame should any human know to look Fear in the eye and call him his true name? To see and conquer the fear of Fear is so basic a thing, it has become today one common ground of meeting for the most scriptural fundamentalist, the advanced behaviorist or psychoanalyst; for all three find themselves to be of Jacob’s direct lineage, able to build a heaven’s ladder only out of dreams from stony pillows. The Watsonian pays his tribute to the adversities of environment, the Freudian tests his man by fight or flight reaction, and Scripture’s self lays down a godly fear to be the basis of all wisdom.

No matter what good company we may gather on the highroad, all the dark passes, the deep canyons, the most treacherous quicksands, must be traversed single file. The difficult trails, the agonizing heights of birthing and of earthing, the sharp and knife-edge divides which lie in between and turn the course of human lives into new valleys of experience, all these are of necessity too narrow for two, walking abreast, and yet to go upon such a journey may not be a matter of our will or choice. In preparation we seem to have only the personally acquired wisdom of earthy wayfaring; the sole permitted luggage a stripped spirit may carry, the only burden ghostly shoulders can pack, is the small parcel of our winning from all the greedy years.

If there be quicksands on that lonely trek—well, we have met those once before, unholpen. Shall we climb steep snow-prisoned slopes, where avalanche hangs trigger poised? We have known such and come unscathed from under them. Or must we ride there with the wild unearthly horsemen, on pale maddened beasts, into more far strange borderlands? Why should we fear such venturing, when we have long since carried in our spirit the terrible deep mark of that fear’s overcoming? And should the gaunt tongue-dripping wolf of Dante’s vision close hound us in the murk and sable way, that terror too our naked soul has made familiar, nor shall it shake us.


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