Isabella Bird Meets Mountain Jim

by Steve Hartshorne on February 16, 2008

Here’s a passage from “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” by Isabella Bird, who traveled through Colorado in 1873.
“…we entered a long gulch with broad swellings of grass belted with pines.

“A very pretty mare, hobbled, was feeding; a collie dog barked at us, and among the scrub, not far from the track, there was a rude, black log cabin, as rough as it could be to be a shelter at all, with smoke coming out of the roof and window.

“We diverged toward it; it mattered not that it was the home, or rather den, of a notorious ‘ruffian’ and ‘desperado.’ One of my companions had disappeared hours before; the remaining one was a town-bred youth. I longed to talk to some one who loved the mountains.

“I called the hut a a den – it looked like the den of a wild beast. The big dog lay outside it in a threatening attitude and growled. The mud roof was covered with lynx, beaver, and other furs laid out to dry, beaver paws were pinned out on the logs, a part of the carcass of a deer hung at one end of the cabin, a skinned beaver lay in front of a heap of peltry just within the door, and antlers of deer, old horseshoes, and offal [guts] of many animals lay about the den.”

Can’t you just tell that romance is in the air?

“Roused by the growling of the dog,” she continues, “his owner came out, a broad, thickset man, about middle height, with an old cap on his head, and wearing a grey hunting suit, much the worse for wear (almost falling to pieces, in fact), a digger’s head scarf knotted around his waist, a knife in his belt, and a ‘bosom friend,’ a revolver, sticking out of the breast pocket of his coat; his feet, which were very small, were bare, except for some dilapidated moccasins made of horse hide. The marvel was how his clothing hung together, and on him. The scarf round his waist must have had something to do with it.

“His face was remarkable. He is a man about forty-five, and must have been strikingly handsome. He has large grey-blue eyes, deeply set, with well-marked eyebrows, a handsome aquiline nose, and a very handsome mouth. His face was smooth shaven except for a dense mustache and imperial. Tawny hair, in thin uncared-for curls, fell from under his hunter’s cap and over his collar.

“One eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of his face repulsive, while the other might have been modeled in marble…”

Mountain Jim brings her a drink of water in a battered tin “apologizing for not having anything more presentable.” They chat. She asks about some beaver paws and he presents them to her.

Apropos of the wild animals of the region, he told me that the loss of his eye was owing to a recent encounter with a grizzly bear, which, after giving him a death hug, tearing him all over, breaking his arm and scratching out his eye, had left him for dead.

“As we rode away, for the sun was sinking, he said, courteously, ‘You are not an American. I know from your voice that you are a countrywoman of mine. I hope you will allow me the pleasure of calling on you.’”

Guess what? She does.

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