When we’re enjoying ourselves in the Bitterroot Mountains, preoccupied with the moment, it’s easy to forget that many people preceded us into these mountains. What follows, a fictional account, may serve as a reminder. Though based on historical facts, this story was born and grew in my imagination.
When hiking and climbing in the mountains and wilderness close to my home, the history of the surrounding area churns uncontrollably through my mind. Stories like the one which follows are often the result.
Some may find this article unrelated to what is usually seen on the Bitterroot Mountain blog. However, it could be that some may find this piece, which I’m posting only because it has historical significance to the area where I hike and climb, a momentary diversion from the standard “fact-filled” posting. And who knows, if there proves to be a general acceptance for this type of post, at some point I may follow it with another.
Come on, Maude,” he said. “Quit actin’ like an ol’ nag. Yer 14, for god sake, not a hundred.”
Arthur gently tugged the lead to move his old white mare the last few hundred yards up the ridge-crest below the continental divide. He couldn’t figure out why Maude was being so stubborn.
Maude was a good old girl, the best pack horse Arthur Woods ever had. Although small she was sturdy and patient when Arthur tried to make her take paths that were just too dangerous for a horse. She understood he’d eventually come to his senses and let her find her own way. He always did. She only had to stand her ground. This time though, the trail hadn’t been dangerous, though there’d been bad footing in places. They’d been climbing steadily for several hours toward a spot on the Continental Divide a few miles south of Lost Trail Pass. Now Maude was just plain tired.
Looking up, Arthur saw his mutt, Buster, about 50 feet up the ridge. Facing east, Buster had stopped and was looking back over his shoulder, slowly wagged his tail, as if to say, “You are so slow.”
Buster was about two years old. He’d been nothing but a stray pup down in Darby, Montana, when Arthur had ended his season of prospecting, mid-September 1921, a couple of years back. Black with brown markings and puppy-soft fur, Arthur had instantly taken to the outgoing little mutt. They’d hit it off and, in spite of the fact the dog was going to mean carrying extra food whenever he was prospecting, Arthur couldn’t resist keeping him.
Arthur had never been sorry. Not only was Buster good company, he was a ready-made furnace on cold nights in the wilderness. The problem with that was, at 85 pounds, he always wanted to snuggle, even when it was hot. But Arthur forgave him. How could he not?
It turned out Buster was really smart. Arthur still couldn’t figure out how he managed it, but Buster was always catching rabbits, big old snowshoe hares. It happened most often when they were camped in one place for more than a few days, as if it took a while for Buster to find the little rascals. But once he did, well, they didn’t stand a chance. So for the last two seasons, Arthur had rabbit to eat, something that’d never been part of his diet while prospecting.
And that wasn’t all. Sometimes when Arthur was hard at work digging or panning for gold, concentrating the way he did, not paying attention to anything else, Buster would come close and whine quietly while staring intently into the woods. Arthur soon discovered it usually happened when his dog was watching deer steal through the trees nearby. He’d quickly learned to keep his rifle close at hand while he worked. He’d saved a lot of time the last two summers by being able to get meat without going hunting.
When he and Maude caught up, Arthur reached down to scratch the dog’s ears.
“Yer a good boy, ain’t ya Buster. I’s damn lucky the day we met.”
Buster jumped up, put his paws on Arthur’s chest, and licked his face.
“Oh, think maybe you’re lucky, too. Huh? Even kiss a smelly ol’ man.”
He hugged Buster and ruffled his fur while the dog stood tall with his front paws on the prospector’s chest, wagging his tail furiously and slobbering on the old man’s neck.
“ ‘Member when that huge goddamn bear came into camp couple months back, and me nowhere near ma gun? I tell ya right now, that big boy scared me half to death. Thought I was a goner for sure. Hell, if’n it weren’t for you nipping at ‘m and makin’ all that racket ‘til he ran off, he’d a kilt me fer sure. No, Buster. I’m the lucky one. Ya done saved ma life, sure as hell.”
Arthur gave Buster a final hug then pushed him away and said, “Go on ‘n git down. We got us a couple more miles yet.”
Minutes later, they reached the Continental Divide. Arthur stopped to let Maude rest, gave her a few pats on the neck and scratched her nose.
“Easy goin’ from here on, ol’ girl. Hard part’s done.”
Arthur looked back down the way they’d come, along the crest of the ridge that lead from Pierce Creek up to the Continental Divide, a little less than 2,000 feet of climbing in a little over 2 miles. It’d been especially tough on Maude, passing through thick woods and a few small areas of talus. But, it was the shortest way up from his summer camp.
“You’re a great gal, Maude. Feller couldn’t ask fer a better pack horse ‘n you, and I’s down right sorry it’s so hard climbin’ that ridge. It won’t be long now ‘til some a the best grass in these-here parts.”
He took the lead off her halter, looped it a couple times, and tied it on her pack saddle. She was good horse and always followed him, unless she believed the way too dangerous. Then she balked until he let her have her head so she could pick her own way while he followed. He shook his head and wondered why he ever bothered with a lead. Her path always turned out better than any he could have picked, and a hell-of-a lot safer, too.
“Come on, darlin’. Let’s get a move on,” he said softly, and patted her neck one more time before turning to walk north along the divide with his hands stuffed in his pockets, head down and deep in thought.
Buster woofed a few times then bounded forward. Arthur followed with Maude bringing up the rear.
Walking, Arthur reminisced about the previous year.
He’d spent most of that summer of 1922, prospecting along Camp Creek off the North Fork of the Salmon River down in Idaho. There’d been better eating than any previous year. Buster had supplied an uncountable number of rabbits and pointed out the easy deer to shoot. The abundant grass near the camp had been good for Maude and Arthur always shared his food with his dog. Come to think of it, maybe Buster liked his meat cooked better than raw and that was why he brought his catches to Arthur instead of wolfing them right down.
Arthur had been prospecting most of his adult life. It was a hard life and had made him look much older than his 46 years. Thin and grizzled with big hands, he usually dressed in what most considered old rags. When out looking for gold, he didn’t bother much with keeping clean other than to wash his hands, face, and the back of his neck at the beginning and end of every day. Most town folks looked down on the man with dirt ground into his work-roughened skin and treated him like some sort of smelly lower life form that should be avoided. Arthur didn’t mind. He didn’t much like town folk anyway. He was one tough old bird.
The problem with that summer of 1922 had been the pickings were slim. No matter how hard he worked, Arthur wasn’t finding much gold. He’d panned everywhere he thought looked promising – there just wasn’t much to show for it. Sure, he’d found a few nuggets and a bit of dust every once in a while, but it wasn’t enough to get him through the winter, let alone pay for the next year’s grubstake.
In early September he’d finally given up, realizing he’d need to extend his credit at the general store to make it through another year. He hated the whole idea, but winter was quickly chasing the sun southward and he was almost out of supplies. Depressed, he headed north toward Darby, where he spent his winters.
Unlike most folks, Arthur no longer used Lost Trail Pass to get over the mountains; there were too many other travelers, mostly long strings of pack mules carrying supplies in and out of the Bitterroot Valley. Besides, several years back he’d found a better way up a ridge that led from Pierce Creek to the Continental Divide. Once he’d climbed the ridge, he followed the divide north to Gibbons Pass, then down past Sula, and on to Darby. It was a path that suited him – fewer people and less traveled. He was a loner and his own man.
From Camp Creek, it took several days to reach Pierce Creek. As they approached the mouth of the creek, Arthur saw the meadow of good grass for Maude where he generally pitched camp. While Buster went after an unsuspecting rabbit nibbling at the edge of the meadow, Arthur removed the pack and pack saddle from Maude. He knew the trail along Pierce Creek might be rough in a few places and could slow the next day’s travel. There hadn’t been much deadfall when he’d come down in the ridge during spring, but the summer storms could have changed all that. He figured they might as well be rested before going on.
Fortunately, the cooler nights of the season had killed off mosquitoes and most other bothersome insects. But that particular night stayed quite warm. Buster supplied a couple of rabbits and Arthur cooked up a mess of biscuits for supper. The two of them ate while Maude wandered the meadow munching grass. In the dwindling light of evening, distant coyotes called to one another. A soft breeze made a pleasant sound blowing through the nearby trees and over the meadow. Life was good. So, in spite of the summer’s bad luck at prospecting, Arthur slept very well that night.
Before first light, a fine mist had formed in the cool air over the creeks and the low-lying meadows along the banks. A few birds began to stir when a male robin sang his wakeup song into the predawn stillness.
Always the first to awake, Buster stood, arched his back, yawned, and began sniffing around the perimeter of the meadow, looking for a spot to hike his leg.
A few minutes later Arthur awoke, well rested for the first time in days. Crawling from his bedroll he stretched his arms upward and took a deep breath of the moist morning air. He pulled on his boots and walked through the dew-covered grass toward the edge of the meadow away from the creek. He felt good.
While he stood taking a piss, he considered climbing a different ridge, one farther up Pierce Creek from the one he normally used. He remembered that old Indian, Short Bear, telling him a few years back that it was the best way up to the divide. Right then, while emptying his bladder, he decided that since his summer hadn’t been worth a damn doing the same old thing, he might as well try something different. He’d discover for himself if that old Nez Perce knew what he was talking about. He turned back toward camp to brew up a cup of coffee, eat the leftover biscuits and a piece of hardtack, and then get his day started.
The morning was still when young Buster walked northeast beside Pierce Creek. Arthur was content to let him take the lead. He could rely on his dog to find a good path and avoid the thickest tangles of brush and shrubs. Maude followed along behind, carrying their load of supplies. It was one of those days when Arthur decided she didn’t need a lead and Maude was happy. Maybe a good night’s sleep had made Arthur a little smarter that day.
They made good time and soon reached the base of the ridge Arthur usually took to reach the divide. But, having already made up his mind, Arthur barely gave it a glance as they passed. Short Bear had said the best ridge was than a half mile farther up and was on the left, past another fork in the creek, beginning just where the creek forked for the third time. Arthur began watching for it.
As they neared, Arthur realized he’d been looking directly at Short Bear’s ridge for some time. It was obvious. When he studied the ridge more closely, he saw a small clearing on the crest, just a hundred or so yards up from the creek. Knowing there’d likely be plenty of time for them to reach Darby before the snow began flying, Arthur decided to take it easy that day. They’d camp in that little clearing so Maude could get more rest before climbing to the divide the following morning.
Before he could coax Maude those few yards up the ridge, Buster began digging furiously under the roots of an upturned tree. Arthur went to find out what his dog was after. He could see the tree had grown right next to the creek and fallen when the creek finally undercut its roots. Rather than fall into the creek, the tree had fallen away from it and, as it fell, pulled up gravel from the streambed, some of which was stuck among the roots. He couldn’t tell right off why Buster was so madly excavating but determined it wasn’t that important.
Arthur shrugged, figuring he’d let the dog have his fun. Calling Maude, he walked uphill toward the small clearing. She followed with no more coaxing.
Once he’d finishing unpacking Maude and removing the Decker Pack Saddle, he dug out his panning equipment and returned to the creek, leaving his mare munching the abundant grass where he planned to make camp. He arrived to find his dog had dug a sizable hole under the roots of the fallen tree. Amazingly Arthur thought he saw a little color in the mound Buster had excavated, so scooped a couple hands full of the gravel into his pan.
Kneeling by the stream, he dipped the pan in the water and began carefully swirling it. Two pea-sized nuggets and nearly a teaspoon of dust remained when he’d finished. Surprised, but believing that was all he’d be likely to find given his recent bad luck, Arthur scooped more of the dog-excavated material into the pan and washed it. Remarkably there was even more gold the second time. He shook his head, thinking maybe it was all a dream. Arthur grabbed a couple of hands full from another part of Buster’s still-growing pile and tried again. Over a tablespoon of gold dust!
Sitting back on his heels, he realized that if this continued, it would make the year’s efforts worth while. A few days of working this spot and he’d be able to pay off his credit at the general store and have plenty left for the next year’s grubstake. And if things went really well, the winter to come could be lived in relative luxury.
Arthur, Maude, and Buster remained in that camp, partway up the ridge, for nine more days while Arthur continued panning. He discovered that, not only was there gold in the hole that Buster had dug, but he could pan gold from almost any spot in the creek.
Arthur snapped out of his reverie and returned to the present. He saw they’d reached the point where the old ridge he used to climb joined the divide. He looked west and judged the sun would set in about four hours. It was less than a mile to the place he wanted to spend the night. There was plenty of time.
He looked back at Maude. She seemed to be doing fine, only a little tired. Buster, of course, was bursting with energy. But then he should be, being barely more than a pup.
“Hold on there, Buster,” he called, and continued walking. “We’s a comin’.”
Arthur thought it funny that all those years he’d worked so hard prospecting for gold, barely making it year-to-year, he’d dreamed of hitting it big, finding the Bonanza. Now, here he was at the end of a single season, heading to Darby with two bags of gold, bursting with a mixture of nuggets and dust. What seemed so amusing to Arthur was it wasn’t him who actually found the mother lode. Nope, it’d been Buster! And it wouldn’t have happened at all if he and Buster hadn’t hit off so well almost a year earlier.
He laughed aloud. “Who’d a thunk it? I’s nice to a little ol’ pup, an’ he ends up handin’ me ma dream.” he said to himself. “Jus’ goes to show ya.”
Suddenly he grimaced and grabbed his right side. There it was again, that sharp pain in his gut. It’d begun a few weeks earlier and been happening every few of days. He’d ignored it at first, but as the pain grew more intense with each occurrence, it became more worrisome. But, ever-the-optimist, he decided it was nothing more than overwork. He’d been panning furiously for the last month, trying to gather every possible bit of gold before winter chased him out of the wilderness.
“Yeah. Jus’ overwork,” he mumbled to himself. Still, he worried and knew he should see a doctor.
“Damn sawbones. They’ll be a wantin’ ma money,” he muttered.
While he stood, bent over in a sudden sweat, Maude approached and nuzzled his neck. Straightening, Arthur wiped the now-cold sweat from his forehead with a bit of old rag he kept in his back pocket.
“I’s all right girl,” he said, and scratched her muzzle and straightening to his full height. “Don’t ya worry none. I’ll be fine.”
He began walking. Maude followed dutifully.
A few hours later with his stomach pleasantly full, Arthur sat by the dying embers of his cook fire, petting Buster and watching the sun set south of Saddle Mountain. Maude grazed nearby. His pain was long forgotten.
Arthur’s trip from Gibbons Pass to Darby was anything but cheerful. There’d been a steady drizzle every day and the weather had gradually turned colder. The last couple mornings had seen a hard frost, and to Arthur, who just couldn’t seem to get dry, it felt bone-chilling. By the time he reached the south edge of town, all he could think about was a hot bath and spending hours sitting by a warm woodstove.
He was walking north on Main Street with Buster and Maude, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, when he spied his long-time friend, Sheriff Ward, standing on the porch of his office, holding his hat in one hand and scratching his head with the other.
“Bill,” he yelled. “How ya doin’?”
“Arthur, ya ol’ coot. Wondered when you’d be a comin’ in.”
The two friends shook hands, then hugged and pounded each other on the back.
Bill was the town sheriff and had been for years. He was a big man, not fat just big, and strong as an ox. He and his wife were among the few town’s folk who didn’t look down on Arthur. What had begun as an acquaintance had developed over the years into true friendship.
“Yer lookin’ kinda cold there,” Bill said, holding Arthur at arm’s length and looking him up and down. “Come in an’ set a spell by the stove.”
“Jus’ a minute there, Bill,” Arthur said. “First help me with these here bags.”
Arthur untied his two bags of gold from Maude’s pack saddle. He handed the first to Bill, who held its 35 pounds in his giant paw like it was a feather. Arthur picked up the other. They carried the bags into the Sheriff’s Office followed quickly by Buster who made a beeline for the warm stove where he promptly flopped on the floor. Arthur kicked the door shut.
Bill hefted the bag he was carrying, testing its weight, then placed it onto the desk and asked, “What in tarnation you got in here?”
Arthur put his bag beside the other, craned his neck to look in the back room and asked, “Got anybody locked up back there?”
“No. Been downright quiet here lately. Why?”
“I gotta be careful, see. These here bags is full a gold, ‘bout 70 pounds of it I ‘spect”
Bill’s jaw dropped and he fell into his chair behind the desk with a thump. “Wha..?
“Yup. I did it, Bill. I hit the bonanza.”
Arthur grinned, watching his best friend’s expression. “What ya think about them apples?”
I , I don’t know what ta say. Most folks in these here parts figure there ain’t much gold in them mountains. But by god, you proved ‘em wrong there.”
Bill’s face broke into a smile. “Great, Arthur. Jus’ goddamn great!”
Arthur’s grin grew even bigger now that he had his friend’s approval. Somehow that made his find even better.
“Let’s git these in yer safe, Bill, ‘n I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Sure, but don’t you wanna git a room and a hot bath first?”
“If’n you got some good hot coffee, the rest kin wait.”
“Hell! Where’s ma manners?” Bill jumped from his chair and poured out two mugs of steaming coffee. “‘Course I got coffee. Here ya go.”
Arthur moved his chair close to the warm stove and hunched over the tin mug of coffee he held in both hands. Slowly he told the story of how he hadn’t really been the one to find the bonanza, Buster had. When he heard his name, Buster came to Arthur for a few pets and a scratch behind the ears before lying back down by the woodstove. His tail thumped on the floor a few times and he dozed off again.
It took a while, but Arthur told Bill all about his claim, including the fact that he hadn’t registered it yet. And although he didn’t relate the exact location where he panned the gold, he did describe the general location.
“Bill, next spring will ya go out with me so’s I kin stake a claim?” he asked. “I kin show ya ‘xactly where it is. I needs a witness I kin trust, see. Yer my friend and I knows I kin trust ya.”
“Well ‘course,” Bill answered. “I’d be glad ta go. Get me outta town fer a while.”
“That’s settled then,” Arthur said and slapped his hands on his knees. He stood and handed Bill his empty coffee mug. “Kin I leave ma gold in yer safe ‘til I get it to the assayer’s? Right now I gotta get me a room and a good hot bath.”
“Sure, sure, long as ya want.”
“Come on, Buster. Let’s go get us a bath,” Arthur said. Smiling he walked out the door.
A week later, Arthur was again sitting in the Sheriff’s Office talking to his friend.
“Bill, I gotta go to Billings. Ya know ma sister lives there cause her husband works fer the mine?”
“Well, I been having this pain in ma gut for a while now, ‘bout a month I reckon, and it’s been a gittin’ worse. I hear they got ‘em some good sawbones in Billings and I think I better go.”
“I thought ya looked kinda peeked, but I didn’t wanna say nothin’.”
“I thought it’d go away but it ain’t. Would ya look after Maude fer me whilst I’m gone? ‘Course I’d pay ya.”
“Sure would, but ya don’t gotta pay nothin’. Yer knows that. I kin jus’ put her in with ma own horses.”
“Yeah, I know, but Maude’s special. She’s the best damn horse a feller could ever ask fer. I want her treated special, ya know. I’ll be takin’ most of ma gold with me, but I’ll leave ‘bout a quarter a one of them sacks here so’s ya kin take extra special good care of Maude.”
“Damn, Arthur. That’d be enough ta take care of a horse fer a hundred years. Ya don’t need ta leave that much.”
“Yeah, but I don’t rightly know when I’ll be back. What with this pain and all.”
“Ya shouldn’t leave all that much, but if you want, then it’s fine by me,” Bill shrugged. “I promise ya Maude will get the best care a horse ever got.
“When ya leavin’?”
“In the morning, I ‘spect. Sent a telegraph to ma sister, see. So she’s ‘spectin’ me pretty soon. I put off seein’ a doc long enough. I gotta get this here thing took care of.”
While they stood beside the train waiting to board, Bill and Arthur shook hands and slapped each other on the back more than once. Though they’d generally only spent winters together, being as it was the only time Arthur came to town, they’d developed a deep friendship over the years.
Bill was worried about Arthur and thought he looked poorly. But he figured the docs in Billing would soon set him right. Still, you never know.
Buster stood beside Arthur and wagged his tail. He woofed a couple of times at nothing in particular, as far as the men could tell. He just seemed happy.
“All aboard,” the conductor finally yelled.
“Well, Bill. I gotta git,” Arthur said. “You take good care of Maude now, ya hear?”
“Don’t you worry none. That old gal will be livin’ the high life ‘til ya get back.”
“Yeah, well I can’t help it. I loves her and that’s all there is to that.”
“I promise, Arthur. I’ll see she gets better care than ma wife,” he grinned. “Now don’t you go a tellin’ her I said that.”
They both laughed.
“Come on, Buster. Let’s us get a movin’ and git on this noisy ol’ train.”
Bill watched Buster bound up the steps of the car in front of Arthur who was dressed in his new store-bought duds. Through the car’s windows he watched Arthur amble along the aisle until he found just the seat he wanted. Buster jumped up beside him and immediately proceeded to put nose prints on the glass.
The train’s whistle blew and the engine began belching even more steam. Bill waved. He could see Buster barking and Arthur grinning as the train gathered speed and left station.
Bill received a couple of letters from Arthur that winter of 1923-24, but the news hadn’t been good. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Arthur got progressively worse, had trouble eating, and lost weight.
In the spring of 1924, Bill received a telegram. Arthur was dead. They’d buried him in the Billings cemetery.
Bill was heartbroken. Even though the two hadn’t spent lots of time together, he always looked forward to winter when Arthur would come to town. They didn’t do much other than drink coffee, often containing a little whiskey, and tell each other stories. But Bill considered Arthur his best friend and sure as hell missed him.
During December of 1924, Bill received a letter from Arthur’s sister. She told him that Buster had taken a liking to her son, and that was good. But he still seemed to miss Arthur, and when her son was in school or off playing with friends, Buster just lay around the house and moped. She figured she’d be coming to Darby that summer and would be bringing Buster along. She wondered if maybe Bill would be interested in keeping him.
Bill responded immediately that he sure would. He missed Arthur, too, so he and Buster could keep each other company.
Arthur’s sister did arrive in Darby early in the summer of 1925, and brought Buster along for Bill to keep. Buster acted really happy to see Bill, or maybe it was just his being back in familiar surroundings. Either way, he sure seemed happy.
Arthur’s sister also brought a sack containing 20 pounds of gold. She told Bill it was Arthur’s wish that he have it. When she handed it over, he burst into tears. She put her arms around the grizzly bear of a man, patted his back, and told him Arthur said Bill was the best friend he ever had. Bill just sobbed.
Well now, it turned out Arthur’s sister spent that summer and many others with Bill Ward and his wife, searching for the spot where Arthur panned his gold. They never did find it. And later, when they were all too old and frail to look any longer, Bill’s grandson continued the hunt. He looked into the early 1960s then gave up.
And Maude? Bill used most of the gold Arthur had left him to buy a better pasture for the old white mare. He had a nice barn built, which she shared with a couple of Bill’s horses he put there to keep her company. He never scrimped when it came to Maude and spent time with her every day for the remainder of her life. When the Wards and Arthur’s sister searched for the lost bonanza, Maude went along, but she never had to carry a pack or saddle again. And she was never on a lead, but went at her own pace. Bill remembered Arthur’s stories of how smart Maude was, so on dangerous ground, she was the one who led the other horses and mules. She died during her twenty-third winter and was buried in her new pasture.
Buster lived out his days with Bill. The two were inseparable and went everywhere together. Buster went along on the searches and Bill kind of hoped Buster would show them the gold. It never happened, but Bill still loved that dog and would do anything for him. Even though Buster was a big dog, Bill was a very big man and often let Buster sit on his lap for hours.
Buster died when he was 11 years old. Bill buried him beside Maude. Left with nothing of his best friend but memories, he stood over the graves and cried like a baby.
© Michael Hoyt, 2008-2015. All rights reserved.