Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie and Other Poems

by Isabella Valancy Crawford





We’d camp’d that night on Yaller Bull Flat—
    Thar was Possum Billy, an’ Tom, an’ me.
Right smart at throwin’ a lariat
    Was them two fellers, as ever I see;
An’ for ridin’ a broncho, or argyin’ squar
    With the devil roll’d up in the hide of a mule,
Them two fellers that camp’d with me thar
    Would hev made an’ or’nary feller a fool.


Fur argyfyin’ in any way,
    That hed to be argy’d with sinew an’ bone,
I never see’d fellers could argy like them;
    But just right har I will hev to own
Thet whar brains come in in the game of life,
    They held the poorest keerds in the lot;
An’ when hands was shown, some other chap
    Rak’d in the hull of the blam’d old pot! [Page 1]


We was short of hands, the herd was large,
    An’ watch an’ watch we divided the night;
We could hear the coyotes howl an’ whine,
    But the darn’d critters kept out of sight
Of the camp-fire blazin’; an’ now an’ then
    Thar come a rustle an’ sort of rush,
A rattle a-sneakin’ away from the blaze,
    Thro’ the rattlin’, cracklin’ grey sage bush.


We’d chanc’d that night on a pootyish lot,
    Witn a tol’ble show of tall, sweet grass—
We was takin’ Speredo’s drove across
    The Rockies, by way of “Old Spookses’ Pass”—
An’ a mite of a creek went crinklin’ down,
    Like a “pocket” bust in the rocks overhead,
Consid’able shrunk, by the summer drought,
    To a silver streak in its gravelly bed.


’Twas a fairish spot fur to camp a’ night;
    An’ chipper I felt, tho’ sort of skeer’d
That them two cowboys with only me,
    Couldn’t boss three thousand head of a herd.
I took the fust of the watch myself;
    An’ as the red sun down the mountains sprang,
I roll’d a fresh quid, an’ got on the back
    Of my peart leetle chunk of a tough mustang. [Page 2]


An’ Possum Billy was sleepin’ sound,
    Es only a cowboy knows how to sleep;
An’ Tommy’s snores would hev made a old
    Buffalo bull feel kind o’ cheap.
Wal, pard, I reckin’ thar’s no sech time
    For dwind’lin’ a chap in his own conceit,
Es when them mountains an’ awful stars,
    Jest hark to the tramp of his mustang’s feet.


It ’pears to me that them solemn hills
    Beckin’ them stars so big an’ calm,
An’ whisper, “Make tracks this way, my friends,
    We’ve ring’d in here a specimen man;
He’s here alone, so we’ll take a look
    Thro’ his ganzy an’ vest, an’ his blood an’ bone,
An post ourselves as to whether his heart
    Is flesh, or a rotten, made-up stone!”


An’ it’s often seemed, on a midnight watch,
    When the mountains blacken’d the dry, brown sod,
That a chap, if he shut his eyes, might grip
    The great kind hand of his Father-God.
I rode round the herd at a sort of walk—
    The shadders come stealin’ thick an’ black;
I’d jest got to leave tew that thar chunk
    Of a mustang tew keep in the proper track. [Page 3]


Ever see’d a herd ring’d in at night?
    Wal, it’s sort of cur’us,—the watchin’ sky,
The howl of coyotes—a great black mass,
    With thar an’ thar the gleam of a eye
An’ the white of a horn—an’, now an’ then,
    An’ old bull liftin’ his shaggy head,
With a beller like a broke-up thunder growl—
    An’ the summer lightnin’, quick an’ red,


Twistin’ an’ turnin’ amid the stars,
    Silent as snakes at play in the grass,
An’ plungin’ thar fangs in the bare old skulls
    Of the mountains, frownin’ above the Pass.
An’ all so still, that the leetle creek,
    Twinklin’ an crinklin’ from stone to stone,
Grows louder an’ louder, an’ fills the air
    With a cur’us sort of a singin’ tone.
It ain’t no matter wharever ye be,
    (I’ll ’low it’s a cur’us sort of case)
Whar thar’s runnin’ water, it’s sure to speak
    Of folks tew home an’ the old home place;


An’ yer bound tew listen an’ hear it talk,
    Es yer mustang crunches the dry, bald sod;
Fur I reckin’ the hills, an’ stars, an’ creek
    Are all of ’em preachers sent by God. [Page 4]
An’ them mountains talk tew a chap this way:
    “Climb, if ye can, ye degenerate cuss!”
An’ the stars smile down on a man, an say,
    “Come higher, poor critter, come up tew us!”


An’ I reckin’, pard, thar is One above
    The highest old star that a chap can see,
An’ He says, in a solid, etarnal way,
    “Ye never can stop till ye get to ME!”
Good fur Him, tew! fur I calculate
    He ain’t the One to dodge an’ tew shirk,
Or waste a mite of the things He’s made,
    Or knock off till He’s finished His great Day’s work!


We’ve got to labor an’ strain an’ snort
    Along thet road thet He’s planned an’ made;
Don’t matter a mite He’s cut His line
    Tew run over a ’tarnal, tough up-grade;
An’ if some poor sinner ain’t built tew hold
    Es big a head of steam es the next,
An’ keeps slippin’ an’ slidin’ ‘way down hill,
    Why, He don’t make out that He’s awful vex’d.


Fur He knows He made Him in that thar way,
    Somewhars tew fit in His own great plan;
An’ He ain’t the Bein’ tew pour His wrath
    On the head of thet slimpsy an’ slippery man, [Page 5]
An’ He says tew the feller, “Look here, my son,
    You’re the worst hard case that ever I see,
But be thet it takes ye a million y’ars,
    Ye never can stop till ye git tew ME!”


Them’s my idees es I pann’d them out;
    on’t take no stock in them creeds that say,
Thar’s a chap with horns thet’s took control
    Of the rollin’ stock on thet up-grade way,
Thet’s free to tote up es ugly a log
    Es grows in his big bush grim an’ black,
An’ slyly put it across the rails,
    Tew hist a poor critter clar off the track.


An’ when he’s pooty well busted an’ smash’d,
    The devil comes smilin’ an’ bowin’ round,
Says tew the Maker, “Guess ye don’t keer
    Tew trouble with stock thet ain’t parfactly sound;
Lemme tote him away—best ye can do—
    Neglected, I guess, tew build him with care;
I’ll hide him in hell—better thet folks
    Shouldn’t see him laid up on the track for repair!”


Don’t take no stock in them creeds at all;
    Ain’t one of them cur’us sort of moles
Thet think the Maker is bound to let
    The devil git up a “corner” in souls. [Page 6]
Ye think I’ve put up a biggish stake?
    Wal, I’ll bet fur all I’m wuth, d’ye see?
He ain’t wuth shucks thet won’t dar tew lay
    All his pile on his own idee!


Ye bet yer boots I am safe tew win,
    Es the chap thet’s able tew smilin’ smack
The ace he’s been hidin’ up his sleeve
    Kerslap on top of a feller’s jack!
Es I wus sayin’, the night wus dark,
    The lightnin’ skippin’ from star to star;
Thar wa’n’t no clouds but a thread of mist,
    No sound but the coyotes yell afar,


An’ the noise of the creek as it called tew me,
    “Pard, don’t ye mind the mossy, green spot
Whar a creek stood still fur a drowzin’ spell
    Right in the midst of the old home lot?
Whar, right at sundown on Sabba’day,
    Ye skinn’d yerself of yer meetin’ clothes,
An dove, like a duck, whar the water clar
    Shone up like glass through the lily-blows?


“Yer soul wus white es yer skin them days,
    Yer eyes es clar es the creek at rest;
The wust idee in yer head thet time
    Wus robbin’ a bluebird’s swingin’ nest. [Page 7]
Now ain’t ye changed? declar fur it, pard;
    Thet creek would question, it ’pears tew me,
Ef ye looked in its waters agin tew night,
    ‘Who may this old cuss of a sinner be?’”


Thet wus the style thet thet thar creek
    In “Old Spookses’ Pass,” in the Rockies, talked;
Drowzily list’nin’ I rode round the herd,
    When all of a sudden the mustang balked,
An’ shied with a snort; I never know’d
    Thet tough leetle critter tew show a scare
In storm or dark; but he jest scrouch’d down,
    With his nostrils snuffin’ the damp, cool air,


An’ his flanks a-quiver. Shook up? Wal, yes
    Guess’d we hev heaps of tarnation fun;
I calculated quicker’n light
    That the herd would be off on a healthy run.
But thar warn’t a stir tew horn or hoof;
    The herd, like a great black mist, lay spread,
While har an’ thar a grazin’ bull
    Loom’d up, like a mighty “thunder head.”


I riz in my saddle an’ star’d around—
    On the mustang’s neck I felt the sweat;
Thar wus nuthin’ tew see—sort of felt the har
    Commencin’ tew crawl on my scalp, ye bet! [Page 8]
Felt kind of cur’us—own up I did;
    Felt sort of dry in my mouth an’ throat.
Sez I, “Ye ain’t goin’ tew scare, old hoss,
    At a prowlin’ cuss of a blamed coyote?”


But ’twan’t no coyote nor prowlin’ beast,
    Nor rattle a-wrigglin’ through the grass,
Nor a lurkin’ red-skin—’twan’t my way
    In a game like that to sing out, “I pass!”
But I know’d when I glimps’d the rollin’ whites,
    The sparks from the black of the mustang’s eye,
Thar wus somethin’ waltzin’ up thet way
    Thet would send them critters off on the fly!


In the night-air’s tremblin’, shakin’ hands
    Felt it beatin’ kerslap onto me,
Like them waves thet chas’d thet President chap
    Thet went on the war-trail in old Judee.
The air wus bustin’—but silent es death;
    An’ lookin’ up, in a second I seed
The sort of sky thet allers looks down
    On the rush an’ the roar of a night stampede.


Tearin’ along the indigo sky
    Wus a drove of clouds, snarl’d an’ black;
Scuddin’ along to’ards the risin’ moon,
    Like the sweep of a darn’d hungry pack [Page 9]
Of preairie wolves to’ard a bufferler,
    The heft of the herd, left out of sight;
I dror’d my breath right hard, fur I know’d
    We wus in fur a ’tarnal run thet night.


Quiet? Ye bet! The mustang scrounch’d,
    His neck stretch’d out an’ his nostrils wide;
The moonshine swept, a white river down,
    The black of the mighty mountain’s side,
Lappin’ over an’ over the stuns an’ brush
    In whirls an’ swirls of leapin’ light,
Makin’ straight fur the herd, whar black an’ still,
    It stretch’d away to the left an’ right


On the level lot;—I I tell ye, pard,
    I know’d when it touch’d the first black hide,
Me an’ the mustang would hev a show
    Fur a breezy bit of an’ evenin’ ride!
One! it flow’d over a homely pine
    Thet riz from a cranny, lean an’ lank,
A cleft of the mountain;—reckinin’ two,
    It slapp’d onto an’ old steer’s heavin’ flank,


Es sound he slept on the skirt of the herd,
    Dreamin’ his dreams of the sweet blue grass
On the plains below; an’ afore it touched
    The other wall of “Old Spookses’ Pass” [Page 10]
The herd wus up!—not one at a time,
    Thet ain’t the style in a midnight run,—
They wus up an’ off like es all thair minds
    Wus roll’d in the hide of only one!


I’ve fit in a battle, an’ heerd the guns
    Blasphemin’ God with their devils’ yell;
Heerd the stuns of a fort like thunder crash
    In front of the scream of a red-hot shell;
But thet thar poundin’ of iron hoofs,
    The clatter of horns, the peltin’ sweep
Of three thousand head of a runnin’ herd,
    Made all of them noises kind of cheap.


The Pass jest open’d its giant throat
    An’ its lips of granite, an’ let a roar
Of answerin’ echoes; the mustang buck’d,
    Then answer’d the bridle; an’, pard, afore
The twink of a fire-bug, lifted his legs
    Over stuns an’ brush, like a lopin’ deer—
A smart leetle critter! An’ thar wus I
    ’Longside of the plungin’ leadin’ steer!


A low-set critter, not much account
    For heft or looks, but one of them sort
Thet kin fetch a herd at his darn’d heels
    With a toss of his horns or a mite of a snort, [Page 11]
Fur a fight or a run; an’ thar wus I,
    Pressin’ clus to the steel of his heavin’ flank,
An’ cussin’ an’ shoutin’—while overhead
    The moon in the black clouds tremblin’ sank,


Like a bufferler overtook by the wolves
    An’ pull’d tew the ground by the scuddin’ pack.
The herd rush’d on with a din an’ crash,
    Dim es a shadder, vast an’ black;
Couldn’t tell ef a hide wus black or white,
    But from the dim surges a roarin’ by
Bust long red flashes—the flamin’ light
    From some old steer’s furious an’ scareful eye.


Thet pass in the Rockies fairly roar’d;
    An sudden’ es winkin’ came the bang
An rattle of thunder. Tew see the grit
    Of thet peart little chunk of a tough mustang!
Not a buck nor a shy!—he gev a snort
    Thet shook the foam on his steamin’ hide,
An’ leap’d along.—Wal, pard, ye bet
    I’d a healthy show fur a lively ride.


An’ them cowboys slept in the leetle camp,
    Calm es three kids in a truckle bed;
Declar the crash wus enough tew put
    Life in the dust of the sleepin’ dead! [Page 12]
The thunder kept droppin’ its awful shells,
    One at a minute, on mountain an’ rock:
The pass with its stone lips thunder’d back;
    An’ the rush an’roar an’ whirlin’ shock
Of the runnin’ herd wus fit tew bust
    A tenderfoot’s heart hed he chanc’d along;
But I jest let out of my lungs an’ throat
    A rippin’ old verse of a herdsman’s song,


An’ sidl’d the mustang closer up,
    ’Longside of the leader, an’ hit him flat
On his steamin’ flank with a lightsome stroke
    Of the end of my limber lariat;
He never swerv’d, an’ we thunder’d on,
    Black in the blackness, red in the red
Of the lightnin’ blazin’ with ev’ry clap
    That bust from the black guns overhead!


The mustang wus shod, an’ the lightnin’ bit
    At his iron shoes each step he run,
Then plung’d in the yearth—we rode in flame,
    Fur the flashes roll’d inter only one,
Same es the bellers made one big roar;
    Yet thro’ the whirl of din an’ flame
I sung an’ shouted, an’ call’d the steer
    I sidl’d agin by his own front name, [Page 13]


An’ struck his side with my fist an’ foot—
    ’Twas jest like hittin’ a rushin’ stone,
An’ he thunder’d ahead—I couldn’t boss
    The critter a mossel, I’m free tew own.
The sweat come a-pourin’ down my beard;
    Ef ye wonder wharfor, jest ye spread
Yerself fur a ride with a runnin’ herd,
    A yawnin’ gulch half a mile ahead.


Three hundred foot from its grinnin’ lips
    Tew the roarin’ stream on its stones below.
Once more I hurl’d the mustang up
    Agin the side of the cuss call’d Joe;
’Twan’t a mite of use—he riz his heels
    Up in the air, like a scuddin’ colt;
The herd mass’d closer, an’ hurl’d down
    The roarin’ Pass, like a thunderbolt.


I couldn’t rein off—seem’d swept along
    In the rush an’ roar an’ thunderin’ crash;
The lightnin’ struck at the runnin’ herd
    With a crack like the stroke of a cowboy’s lash.
Thar! I could see it; I tell ye, pard,
    Things seem’d whittl’d down sort of fine—
We wusn’t five hundred feet from the gulch,
    With its mean little fringe of scrubby pine. [Page 14]


What could stop us? I grit my teeth;
    Think I pray’d—ain’t sartin of thet;
When, whizzin’ an’ singin’, thar came the rush
    Right past my face of a lariat!
“Bully fur you, old pard!” I roar’d,
    Es it whizz’d roun’ the leader’s steamin’ chest,
An’ I wheel’d the mustang fur all he was wuth
    Kerslap on the side of the old steer’s breast.


He gev a snort, an’ I see him swerve—
    I foller’d his shoulder clus an’ tight;
Another swerve, an’ the herd begun
    To swing around.—Shouts I, “All right
“Ye’ve fetch’d ’em now!” The mustang gave
    A small, leettle whinney. I felt him flinch.
Sez I, “Ye ain’t goin’ tew weaken now,
    Old feller, an’ me in this darn’d pinch?”


“No,” sez he, with his small, prickin’ ears,
    Plain es a human could speak; an’ me—
I turn’d my head tew glimpse ef I could,
    Who might the chap with the lariat be.
Wal, Pard, I weaken’d—ye bet yer life!
    Thar wasn’t a human in sight around,
But right in front of me come the beat
    Of a hoss’s hoofs on the tremblin’ ground— [Page 15]


Steddy an’ heavy—a slingin’ lope;
    A hefty critter with biggish bones
Might make jest sich—could hear the hoofs
    Es they struck on the rattlin’, rollin’ stones—
The jingle of bit—an’ clar an’ shrill
    A whistle es ever left cowboy’s lip,
An’ cuttin’ the air, the long, fine hiss
    Of the whirlin’ lash of a cowboy’s whip.


I crowded the mustang back, ontil
    He riz on his haunches—an’ I sed,
“In the Maker’s name, who may ye be?”
    Sez a vice, “Old feller, jest ride ahead!”
“All right!” sez I, an’ I shook the rein.
    “Ye’ve turn’d the herd in a hansum style—
Whoever ye be, I’ll not back down!”
    An’ I didn’t, neither,—ye bet yer pile!


Clus on the heels of that unseen hoss,
    I rode on the side of the turnin’ herd,
An’ once in a while I answer’d back
    A shout or a whistle or cheerin’ word—
From lips no lightnin’ was strong tew show.
    ’Twas sort of scareful, that midnight ride;
But we’d got our backs tew the gulch—fur that
    I’d hev foller’d a curiouser sort of guide! [Page 16]


’Twas kind of scareful tew watch the herd,
    Es the plungin’ leaders squirm’d an’ shrank—
Es I heerd the flick of the unseen lash
    Hiss on the side of a steamin’ flank.
Guess the feller was smart at the work!
    We work’d them leaders round, ontil
They overtook the tail of the herd,
    An’ the hull of the crowd begun tew “mill.”


Round spun the herd in a great black wheel,
    Slower an’ slower—ye’ve seen beneath
A biggish torrent a whirlpool spin,
    Its waters black es the face of Death?
’Pear’d sort of like that the “millin’” herd
    We kept by the leaders—HIM and me,
Neck by neck, an’ he sung a tune,
    About a young gal, nam’d Betsey Lee!


Jine in the chorus? Wal, yas, I did.
    He sung like a regilar mockin’ bird.
An’ us cowboys allus sing out ef tew calm
    The scare, ef we can, of a runnin’ herd.
Slower an’ slower wheel’d round the “mill”;
    The maddest old steer of a leader slow’d;
Slower an’ slower sounded the hoofs
    Of the hoss that HIM in front of me rode. [Page 17]


Fainter an’ fainter grow’d that thar song
    Of Betsey Lee an’ her har of gold;
Fainter an’ fainter grew the sound
    Of the unseen hoofs on the tore-up mold.
The leadin’ steer, that cuss of a Joe
    Stopp’d an shook off the foam an’ the sweat,
With a stamp and a beller—the run was done,
    Wus glad of it, tew, yer free tew bet!


The herd slow’d up—an’ stood in a mass
    Of blackness, lit by the lightnin’s eye;
An’ the mustang cower’d es something swept
    Clus to his wet flank in passin’ by.
“Good night tew ye, Pard!” “Good night,” sez I,
    Strainin’ my sight on the empty air;
The har riz rustlin’ up on my head,
    Now that I hed time tew scare.


The mustang flinch’d till his saddle girth
    Scrap’d on the dust of the tremblin’ ground—
There cum a laugh—the crack of a whip,
    A whine like the cry of a well pleas’d hound,
The noise of a hoss thet rear’d an’ sprang
    At the touch of a spur—then all was still;
But the sound of the thunder dyin’ down
    On the stony breast of the nighest hill! [Page 18]


The herd went back to its rest an’ feed,
    Es quiet a crowd es ever wore hide;
An’ them boys in camp never heerd a lisp
    Of the thunder an’ crash of that run an’ ride.
An’ I’ll never forget, while a wild cat claws,
    Or a cow loves a nibble of sweet blue grass,
The cur’us pardner that rode with me
    In the night stampede in “Old Spookses Pass!” [Page 19]