W E WERE threading our slow way along the narrow divide of the Wallowa Mountains that runs between the branches of the Snake River. Our guide was a former "camp-tender," one who carries provisions to the sheep-herders in the mountains. As we were stopping a moment to breathe our horses and to look down upon the head springs of Big Sheep and Salt Lick Creeks on one side, and the narrow ribbon of the Imnaha on the other, this guide and our mammal-collector rode on ahead. An hour later I saw them round the breast of a peak far along on the trail and disappear. That night they brought into camp a "cony," or pika, or little chief hare.
The year before, this camp-tender, in passing a certain rock-slide among the high peaks of the pass, had heard and seen a peculiar little animal about the size and shape of a small guinea-pig, whistling among the broken rock. He had never seen the little creature before,—had never heard of it. It was to this slide that he now took our naturalist, in the hope of showing him the mountain guinea-pig, and, sure enough, they brought one back with them, and showed me my first "cony," one of the rarest of American mammals.
But I was broken-hearted. That I should have been so near and missed it! For we had descended to Aneroid Lake to camp that night, and there were no cony slides below us on the trail.
While the men were busy about camp the next morning, I slipped off alone on foot, and, following the trail, got back about ten o'clock to the rock-slide where they had killed the cony.
A wilder, barrener, more desolate land of crags and peaks I never beheld. Eternal silence seemed to wrap it round. The slide was of broken pieces of rock, just as if the bricks from an immense chimney had cracked off and rolled down into the valley of the roof. Stunted vegetation grew around, with scraggly wild grass and a few snow-line flowers, for this was on the snow-line, several melting banks glistening in the morning sun about me.
I crept round the sharp slope of the peak and down to the edge of the rock-slide. "Any living thing in that long heap of broken rock!" I said to myself incredulously. That barren, blasted pile of splintered peaks the home of an animal? Why, I was on the top of the world! A great dark hawk was wheeling over toward Eagle Cap Mountain in the distance; far below me flapped a band of ravens; and down, down, immeasurably far down, glistened the small winding waters of the Imnaha; while all about me were the peaks, lonely, solitary, mighty, terrible! Such bleakness and desolation!
But here, they told me, they had shot the cony. I could not believe it. Why should any animal live away up here on the roof of the world? For several feet each side of the steep, piled-up rock grew spears of thin, wiry grass about six inches high, and a few stunted flowers,—pussy's-paws, alpine phlox, and beardtongue, all of them flat to the sand,—and farther down the sides of the ravine were low, twisted pines,—mere prostrate mats of trees that had crept in narrow ascending tongues, up and up, until they could hang on no longer to the bare alpine slopes. But here above the stunted pines, here in the slide rock, where only mosses and a few flat plants could live,—plants that blossom in the snow,—dwell the conies.
I sat down on the edge of the slide, feeling that I had had my labor for my pains. We had been climbing these peaks in the hope of seeing one of the last small bands of mountain sheep that made these fastnesses their home. But, much as I wished to see a wild mountain sheep among the crags, I wished more to see the little cony among the rocks. "As for the stork," says the Bible, "the fir trees are her house. The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies." I had always wondered about those conies—what they looked like and how they lived among the rocks.
I knew that these little conies here in the slide (if indeed they could be here) were not those of the mountain-peaks of Palestine. What of that! The very rocks might be different in kind from the rocks of Nebo or Lebanon; but peaks are peaks, and rocks are rocks, and the strange little "rabbits" that dwell in their broken slides are all conies to me. The cony of the Bible is the little hyrax, a relative of the elephant.
I sat for a while watching. Was this the place? I must make sure before I settled down to waiting, for when in all my life again might I have this chance?
Out in the middle of the slide was a pile of rocks with an uneven look about them, as if they had been heaped up there by other hands than those that hurled them from the peak. Going quietly out, I examined them closely, and found the perfect print of a little bloody paw on one of them.
This was the right place. Here was where they had shot the specimen brought into camp. I got back to my seat, ready now to wait, even while I knew that I was holding back the camp from its day's march.
Perhaps I had been watching for half an hour, when from somewhere, in the rock-slide surely, though I could not tell, there sounded a shrill bleating whistle, not unlike the whistles of the ground squirrels and marmots that I had heard all through the mountains, yet more tremulous and not so piercing.
I waited. Presently a little gray form crept over a stone, stopped and whistled, then disappeared. It was my cony!
If you can think of Molly Cottontail turned into the shape of a guinea-pig about eight inches long, with positively no tail at all, and with big round broad ears, and with all four legs of equal length so that the creature walks instead of hopping,—if you can imagine such a rabbit,—you will get a pretty clear picture of the cony, or pika, or "little chief hare."
I kept as still as the stones. Presently the plaintive, bleating whistle sounded from nowhere again—behind me, beyond me, up the slide or down, I could not tell. The rocks were rough, rusty chunks two or three feet long, piled helter-skelter without form or order, so that any one spot in the slide looked precisely like every other spot. I could not tell just the piece the cony had crossed, once my eyes were off of it, nor into which of the cracks he had disappeared. I could only sit still and wait till I caught him moving, so completely did his color blend with the rusty brown tone of the slide.
All the while the shrill, piteous call kept coming from anywhere in the slide. But it was not the call of several voices, not a colony whistling at once. The conies live in colonies, but, judging from the single small haycock which they had curing in the sun, I think there could not have been more than two or three pairs of them in this particular slide. Possibly there was only the single pair, one of which had been shot, for presently, when my eyes grew sharp enough to pick the little creature out against the rocks, I found that one was doing all the calling, and that for some reason he was greatly disturbed.
Now he would stop on a slab and whistle, then dive into some long passage under the stones, to reappear several feet or yards away. Here he would pause to listen, and, hearing nothing, would call again, waiting for an answer to his tremulous cry which did not come.
Under and over the stones, up and down the slide, now close to me, now on the extreme opposite edge of the pile he traveled, nervously, anxiously looking for something—for some one, I truly think; and my heart smote me when I thought it might be for the dead mate whose little bare foot-pads had left the bloody print upon the rock.
Up and down, in and out, he ran, calling, calling, calling, but getting no answer back. He was the only one that showed himself, the only live one I have ever seen, but this one I followed, as he went searching and crying over the steep rock-slide, with my eye and with the field-glasses, until long past noon—with a whole camp down the cañon looking for me!
But they must know where to look. Let them climb out of the cañon, back to the top of the world to the cony slide, if they could not wait for me.
Higher up than the mountain sheep or the goat can live, where only the burrowing pocket gopher and rare field mice are ever found, dwells the cony. This particular slide was on one of the minor peaks,—loftier ones towered all about,—nor do I know just how high it was, but the cony dwells above the tree-line, up in the Arctic-Alpine Zone, in a world of perpetual snow, from ten to fourteen thousand feet above the sea.
By perpetual snow I mean that the snow-banks never melt in the shadowed ravines and on the bare north slopes. Here, where I was watching, the rock-slide lay open to the sun, the scanty grass was green beyond the gully, and the squat alpine flowers were in bloom, the saxifrage and a solitary aster (April and September together!) blossoming in the edges of the snow just as fast as the melting banks allowed them to lift their heads. But any day the wind might come down from the north, keen and thick and white about the summits, and leave the flowers and the cony slide covered deep beneath a drift.
Spring, summer, and autumn are all one season, all crowded together—a kind of peak piercing for a few short weeks the long, bleak, unbroken land of winter here on the roof of the world.
But during this brief period the thin grass springs up, and the conies cut and cure it, enough of it to last them from the falling of the September snows until the drifts are once more melted and their rock-slide warms in another summer's sun.
For the cony does not hibernate. He stays awake down in his catacombs. Think of being buried alive in pitch-black night with snow twenty-five feet thick above you for nine out of twelve months of the year! Yet here they are away up on the sides of the wildest summits, living their lives, keeping their houses, rearing their children, visiting back and forth through their subways for all this long winter, protected by the drifts which lie so deep that they keep out the cold.
As I looked about me I could not see grass enough to feed a pair of conies for a winter. Right near me was one of their little haycocks, nearly cured and ready for storing in their barns beneath the rocks; but this would not last long. It was already early August and what haying they had to do must be done quickly or winter would catch them hungry.
They cut the grass that grows in the vicinity of the slide, and cock it until it is cured, then they carry it all below against the coming of the cold; and naturalists who have observed them describe with what hurry and excitement the colony falls to taking in the hay when bad weather threatens to spoil it.
Hardy little farmers! Bold small folk! Why climb for a home with your tiny, bare-soled feet above the aerie of the eagle and the cave of the soaring condor of the Sierras? Why not descend to the warm valleys, where winter, indeed, comes, but cannot linger?—or farther down where the grass is always green, with never a need to cut and cure a winter's hay?
I do not know why—nor why upon the tossing waves the little petrel makes her bed; nor why, beneath the waves, "down to the dark, to the utter dark" on
"The great gray level plains of ooze,"
the "blind white sea-snakes" make their home; nor why
at the north, in the fearful, far-off, frozen north,
the little lemmings dwell; nor why, nor why. But as I
sat there above the clouds, listening to the plaintive,
trembling whistle of the little cony, and
hoping his mate was not dead, and wondering why he
stayed here in the barren peak, and how he must fare in
the black, bitter winter, I said over to myself the
lines of Kipling for an
"And God who clears the grounding berg
And steers the grinding floe,
He hears the cry of the little kit-fox
And the lemming on the snow."