Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850-1887)
Old Spookses' Pass
1WE'D camped that night on Yaller Bull Flat,--
2 Thar was Possum Billy, an' Tom, an' me.
3Right smart at throwin' a lariat
4 Was them two fellers, as ever I see;
5An' for ridin' a broncho, or argyin' squar
6 With the devil roll'd up in the hide of a mule,
7Them two fellers that camp'd with me thar
8 Would hev made an' or'nary feller a fool.
9Fur argyfyin' in any way,
10 Thet hed to be argy'd with sinew an' bone,
11I never see'd fellers could argy like them;
12 But just right har I will hev to own
13Thet whar brains come in in the game of life,
14 They held the poorest keerds in the lot;
15An' when hands was shown, some other chap
16 Rak'd in the hull of the blamed old pot!
17We was short of hands, the herd was large,
18 An' watch an' watch we divided the night;
19We could hear the coyotes howl an' whine,
20 But the darned critters kept out of sight
21Of the camp-fire blazin'; an' now an' then
22 Thar cum a rustle an' sort of rush--
23A rattle a-sneakin' away from the blaze,
24 Thro' the rattlin', cracklin' grey sage bush.
25We'd chanc'd that night on a pootyish lot,
26 With a tol'ble show of tall, sweet grass--
27We was takin' Speredo's drove across
28 The Rockies, by way of "Old Spookses' Pass"--
29An' a mite of a creek went crinklin' down,
30 Like a "pocket" bust in the rocks overhead,
31Consid'able shrunk, by the summer drought,
32 To a silver streak in its gravelly bed.
33'Twas a fairish spot fur to camp a' night;
34 An' chipper I felt, tho' sort of skeer'd
35That them two cowboys with only me,
36 Couldn't boss three thousand head of a herd.
37I took the fust of the watch myself;
38 An' as the red sun down the mountains sprang,
39I roll'd a fresh quid, an' got on the back
40 Of my peart leetle chunk of a tough mustang.
41An' Possum Billy was sleepin' sound
42 Es only a cowboy knows how to sleep;
43An' Tommy's snores would hev made a old
44 Buffalo bull feel kind o' cheap.
45Wal, pard, I reckin' thar's no sech time
46 For dwind'lin' a chap in his own conceit,
47Es when them mountains an' awful stars,
48 Jest hark to the tramp of his mustang's feet.
49It 'pears to me that them solemn hills
50 Beckin' them stars so big an' calm,
51An' whisper, "Make tracks this way, my friends,
52 We've ringed in here a specimen man;
53He's here alone, so we'll take a look
54 Thro' his ganzy an' vest, an' his blood an' bone,
55An post ourselves as to whether his heart
56 Is flesh, or a rotten, made-up stone."
57An' it's often seemed, on a midnight watch,
58 When the mountains blacken'd the dry, brown sod,
59That a chap, if he shut his eyes, might grip
60 The great kind hand of his Father-God.
61I rode round the herd at a sort of walk--
62 The shadders come stealin' thick an' black;
63I'd jest got to leave tew thet thar chunk
64 Of a mustang tew keep in the proper track.
65Ever see'd a herd ring'd in at night?
66 Wal, it's sort of cur'us,-- the watchin' sky,
67The howl of coyotes a great black mass,
68 With thar an' thar the gleam of a eye
69An' the white of a horn an', now an' then,
70 An' old bull liftin' his shaggy head,
71With a beller like a broke-up thunder growl--
72 An' the summer lightnin', quick an' red,
73Twistin' an' turnin' amid the stars,
74 Silent as snakes at play in the grass,
75An' plungin' thar fangs in the bare old skulls
76 Of the mountains, frownin' above the Pass.
77An' all so still, that the leetle crick,
78 Twinklin' an' crinklin' frum stone to stone,
79Grows louder an' louder, an' fills the air
80 With a cur'us sort of a singin' tone.
81It ain't no matter wharever ye be,
82 (I'll 'low it's a cur'us sort of case)
83Whar thar's runnin' water, it's sure to speak
84 Of folks tew home an' the old home place;
85An' yer bound tew listen an' hear it talk,
86 Es yer mustang crunches the dry, bald sod;
87Fur I reckin' the hills, an' stars, an' creek
88 Are all of 'em preachers sent by God.
89An' them mountains talk tew a chap this way:
90 "Climb, if ye can, ye degenerate cuss!"
91An' the stars smile down on a man, an say,
92 "Come higher, poor critter, come up tew us!"
93An' I reckin', pard, thar is One above
94 The highest old star that a chap can see,
95An' He says, in a solid, etarnal way,
96 "Ye never can stop till ye get to ME!"
97Good fur Him, tew! fur I calculate
98 HE ain't the One to dodge an' tew shirk,
99Or waste a mite of the things He's made,
100 Or knock off till He's finished His great day's work!
101We've got to labor an' strain an' snort
102 Along thet road thet He's planned an' made;
103Don't matter a mite He's cut His line
104 Tew run over a 'tarnal tough up-grade;
105An' if some poor sinner ain't built tew hold
106 Es big a head of steam es the next,
107An' keeps slippin' an' slidin' 'way down hill,
108 Why, He don't make out thet He's awful vex'd.
109Fur He knows He made Him in thet thar way,
110 Sumwhars tew fit in His own great plan;
111An' He ain't the Bein' tew pour His wrath
112 On the head of thet slimpsy an' slippery man,
113An' He says tew the feller, "Look here, my son,
114 You're the worst hard case that ever I see,
115But be thet it takes ye a million y'ars,
116 Ye never can stop till ye git tew ME!"
117Them's my idees es I pann'd them out;
118 Don't take no stock in them creeds that say,
119Thar's a chap with horns thet's took control
120 Of the rollin' stock on thet up-grade way,
121Thet's free to tote up es ugly a log
122 Es grows in his big bush grim an' black,
123An' slyly put it across the rails,
124 Tew hist a poor critter clar off the track.
125An' when he's pooty well busted an' smashed,
126 The devil comes smilin' an' bowin' round,
127Says tew the Maker, "Guess ye don't keer
128 Tew trouble with stock thet ain't parfactly sound;
129Lemme tote him away--best ye can do--
130 Neglected, I guess, tew build him with care;
131I'll hide him in hell--better thet folks
132 Shouldn't see him laid up on the track for repair!"
133Don't take no stock in them creeds at all;
134 Ain't one of them cur'us sort of moles
135Thet think the Maker is bound to let
136 The devil git up a "corner" in souls.
137Ye think I've put up a biggish stake?
138 Wal, I'll bet fur all I'm wuth, d'ye see?
139He ain't wuth shucks thet won't dar tew lay
140 All his pile on his own idee!
141Ye bet yer boots I am safe tew win,
142 Es the chap thet's able tew smilin' smack
143The ace he's been hidin' up his sleeve
144 Kerslap on top of a feller's jack!
145Es I wus sayin', the night wus dark,
146 The lightnin' skippin' from star to star;
147Thar wa'n't no clouds but a thread of mist,
148 No sound but the coyotes yell afar,
149An' the noise of the creek as it called tew me,
150 "Pard, don't ye mind the mossy, green spot
151Whar a creek stood still fur a drowzin' spell
152 Right in the midst of the old home lot?
153Whar, right at sundown on Sabba'day,
154 Ye skinn'd yerself of yer meetin' clothes,
155An dove, like a duck, whar the water clar
156 Shone up like glass through the lily-blows?
157Yer soul wus white es yer skin them days,
158 Yer eyes es clar es the creek at rest;
159The wust idee in yer head thet time
160 Wus robbin' a bluebird's swingin' nest.
161Now ain't ye changed? declar fur it, pard;
162 Thet creek would question, it 'pears tew me,
163Ef ye looked in its waters agin tew night,
164 'Who may this old cuss of a sinner be?"'
165Thet wus the style thet thet thar creek
166 In "Old Spookses' Pass" in the Rockies, talked;
167Drowzily list'nin' I rode round the herd,
168 When all of a sudden the mustang balked,
169An' shied with a snort; I never know'd
170 Thet tough leetle critter tew show a scare
171In storm or dark; but he jest scrouch'd down,
172 With his nostrils snuffin' the damp, cool air,
173An' his flanks a-quiver. Shook up? Wal, yas
174 Guess'd we hev heaps uv tarnation fun;
175I calculated quicker'n light
176 That the herd would be off on a healthy run.
177But thar wan't a stir tew horn or hoof;
178 The herd, like a great black mist, lay spread,
179While har an' thar a grazin' bull
180 Loomed up, like a mighty "thunder head."
181I riz in my saddle an' star'd around--
182 On the mustang's neck I felt the sweat;
183Thar wus nuthin' tew see--sort of felt the har
184 Commencin' tew crawl on my scalp, ye bet!
185Felt kind of cur'us--own up I did;
186 Felt sort of dry in my mouth an' throat.
187Sez I, "Ye ain't goin' tew scare, old hoss,
188 At a prowlin' cuss of a blamed coyote?"
189But 'twan't no coyote nor prowlin' beast,
190 Nor rattle a-wrigglin' through the grass,
191Nor a lurkin' red-skin--twan't my way
192 In a game like that to sing out, "I pass!"
193But I know'd when I glimps'd the rollin' whites,
194 The sparks from the black of the mustang's eye,
195Thar wus somethin' waltzin' up thet way
196 Thet would send them critters off on the fly!
197In the night-air's tremblin,' shakin' hands
198 Felt it beatin' kerslap onto me,
199Like them waves thet chas'd thet President chap
200 Thet went on the war-trail in old Judee.
201The air wus bustin'--but silent es death;
202 An' lookin' up, in a second I seed
203The sort of sky thet allers looks down
204 On the rush an' the roar of a night stampede.
205Tearin' along the indigo sky
206 Wus a drove of clouds, snarl'd an' black;
207Scuddin' along to'ards the risin' moon,
208 Like the sweep of a darn'd hungry pack
209Of preairie wolves to'ard a bufferler,
210 The heft of the herd left out of sight;
211I dror'd my breath right hard, fur I know'd
212 We wus in fur a 'tarnal run thet night.
213Quiet? Ye bet! The mustang scrounch'd,
214 His neck stretch'd out an' his nostrils wide;
215The moonshine swept, a white river down,
216 The black of the mighty mountain's side,
217Lappin' over an' over the stuns an' brush
218 In whirls an' swirls of leapin' light,
219Makin' straight fur the herd, whar black an' still,
220 It stretch'd away to the left an' right
221On the level lot,--I tell ye, pard,
222 I know'd when it touch'd the first black hide,
223Me an' the mustang would hev a show
224 Fur a breezy bit of an' evenin' ride!
225One! it flow'd over a homely pine
226 Thet riz from a cranny, lean an' lank,
227A cleft of the mountain;--reck'nin' two,
228 It slapp'd onto an' old steer's heavin' flank,
229Es sound he slept on the skirt of the herd,
230 Dreamin' his dreams of the sweet blue grass
231On the plains below; an' afore it touched
232 The other wall of "Old Spookses' Pass"
233The herd wus up--not one at a time,
234 Thet ain't the style in a midnight run,
235They wus up an' off like es all thair minds
236 Wus roll'd in the hide of only one!
237I've fit in a battle, an' heerd the guns
238 Blasphemin' God with their devils' yell;
239Heerd the stuns of a fort like thunder crash
240 In front of the scream of a red-hot shell;
241But thet thar poundin' of iron hoofs,
242 The clatter of horns, the peltin' sweep
243Of three thousand head of a runnin' herd,
244 Made all of them noises kind of cheap.
245The Pass jest open'd its giant throat
246 An' its lips of granite, an' let a roar
247Of answerin' echoes; the mustang buck'd,
248 Then answer'd the bridle; an', pard, afore
249The twink of a fire-bug, lifted his legs
250 Over stuns an' brush, like a lopin' deer--
251A smart leetle critter! An' thar wus I
252 'Longside of the plungin' leadin' steer!
253A low-set critter, not much account
254 For heft or looks, but one of them sort
255Thet kin fetch a herd at his darn'd heels
256 With a toss of his horns or a mite of a snort,
257Fur a fight or a run; an' thar wus I,
258 Pressin' clus to the steel of his heavin' flank,
259An' cussin' an' shoutin'--while overhead
260 The moon in the black clouds tremblin' sank,
261Like a bufferler overtook by the wolves
262 An' pull'd tew the ground by the scuddin' pack.
263The herd rush'd on with a din an' crash,
264 Dim es a shadder, vast an' black;
265Couldn't tell ef a hide wus black or white,
266 But from the dim surges a-roarin' by
267Bust long red flashes--the flamin' light
268 From some old steer's furious an' scareful eye.
269Thet pass in the Rockies fairly roar'd;
270 An sudden' es winkin' came the bang
271An rattle of thunder. Tew see the grit
272 Of thet peart little chunk of a tough mustang!
273Not a buck nor a shy!--he gev a snort
274 Thet shook the foam on his steamin' hide,
275An' leap'd along. Wal, pard, ye bet
276 I'd a healthy show fur a lively ride.
277An' them cowboys slept in the leetle camp,
278 Calm es three kids in a truckle bed;
279Declar the crash wus enough tew put
280 Life in the dust of the sleepin' dead!
281The thunder kept droppin' its awful shells,
282 One at a minute, on mountain an' rock:
283The pass with its stone lips thunder'd back;
284 An' the rush an' roar an' whirlin' shock
285Of the runnin' herd wus fit tew bust
286 A tenderfoot's heart hed he chanc'd along;
287But I jest let out of my lungs an' throat
288 A rippin' old verse of a herdsman's song,
289An' sidl'd the mustang closer up,
290 'Longside of the leader, an' hit him flat
291On his steamin' flank with a lightsome stroke
292 Of the end of my limber lariat;
293He never swerv'd, an' we thunder'd on,
294 Black in the blackness, red in the red
295Of the lightnin' blazin' with ev'ry clap
296 That bust from the black guns overhead!
297The mustang wus shod, an' the lightnin' bit
298 At his iron shoes each step he run,
299Then plung'd in the yearth--we rode in flame,
300 Fur the flashes roll'd inter only one,
301Same es the bellers made one big roar;
302 Yet thro' the whirl of din an' flame
303I sung an' shouted, an' call'd the steer
304 I sidl'd agin by his own front name,
305An' struck his side with my fist an' foot--
306 'Twas jest like hittin' a rushin' stone,
307An' he thunder'd ahead--I couldn't boss
308 The critter a mossel, I'm free tew own.
309The sweat come a-pourin' down my beard;
310 Ef ye wonder wharfor, jest ye spread
311Yerself fur a ride with a runnin' herd,
312 A yawnin' gulch half a mile ahead.
313Three hundred foot from its grinnin' lips
314 Tew the roarin' stream on its stones below.
315Once more I hurl'd the mustang up
316 Agin the side of the cuss call'd Joe;
317'Twan't a mite of use--he riz his heels
318 Up in the air, like a scuddin' colt;
319The herd mass'd closer, an' hurl'd down
320 The roarin' Pass, like a thunderbolt.
321I couldn't rein off--seem'd swept along
322 In the rush an' roar an' thunderin' crash;
323The lightnin' struck at the runnin' herd
324 With a crack like the stroke of a cowboy's lash.
325Thar! I could see it;--I tell ye, pard,
326 Things seem'd whittl'd down sort of fine--
327We wusn't five hundred feet from the gulch,
328 With its mean little fringe of scrubby pine.
329What could stop us? I grit my teeth;
330 Think I pray'd,--ain't sartin of thet;
331When, whizzin' an' singin', thar came the rush
332 Right past my face of a lariat!
333"Bully fur you, old pard!" I roar'd,
334 Es it whizz'd roun' the leader's steamin' chest,
335An' I wheel'd the mustang fur all he was wuth
336 Kerslap on the side uv the old steer's breast.
337He gev a snort, an' I see him swerve--
338 I foller'd his shoulder clus an' tight;
339Another swerve, an' the herd begun
340 To swing around--Shouts I, "All right
341"Ye've fetch'd 'em now!" The mustang gave
342 A small, leettle whinny. I felt him flinch.
343Sez I, "Ye ain't goin' tew weaken now,
344 Old feller, an' me in this darn'd pinch?"
345"No," sez he, with his small, prickin' ears,
346 Plain es a human could speak; an' me--
347I turn'd my head tew glimpse ef I could,
348 Who might the chap with the lariat be.
349Wal, pard, I weaken'd--ye bet yer life!
350 Thar wan't a human in sight around,
351But right in front of me come the beat
352 Of a hoss's hoofs on the tremblin' ground--
353Steddy an' heavy--a slingin' lope;
354 A hefty critter with biggish bones
355Might make jest sich--could hear the hoofs
356 Es they struck on the rattlin', rollin' stones--
357The jingle of bit--an' clar an' shrill
358 A whistle es ever left cowboy's lip,
359An' cuttin' the air, the long, fine hiss
360 Of the whirlin' lash of a cowboy's whip.
361I crowded the mustang back, ontil
362 He riz on his haunches--an' I sed,
363"In the Maker's name, who may ye be?"
364 Sez a vice, "Old feller, jest ride ahead!"
365"All right!" sez I, an' I shook the rein.
366 "Ye've turn'd the herd in a hansum style--
367Whoever ye be, I'll not back down!"
368 An' I didn't, neither--ye bet yer pile!
369Clus on the heels of that unseen hoss,
370 I rode on the side of the turnin' herd,
371An' once in a while I answer'd back
372 A shout or a whistle or cheerin' word--
373From lips no lightnin' was strong tew show.
374 'Twas sort of scareful, that midnight ride;
375But we'd got our backs tew the gulch--fur that
376 I'd hev foller'd a curiouser sort of guide!
377Twas kind of scareful tew watch the herd,
378 Es the plungin' leaders squirm'd an' shrank--
379Es I heerd the flick of the unseen lash
380 Hiss on the side of a steamin' flank.
381Guess the feller was smart at the work!
382 We work'd them leaders round, ontil
383They overtook the tail of the herd,
384 An' the hull of the crowd begun tew "mill."
385Round spun the herd in a great black wheel,
386 Slower an' slower--ye've seen beneath
387A biggish torrent a whirlpool spin,
388 Its waters black es the face of Death?
389'Pear'd sort of like that the "millin'" herd.
390 We kept by the leaders--HIM and me,
391Neck by neck, an' he sung a tune,
392 About a young gal, nam'd Betsey Lee!
393Jine in the chorus? Wal, yes, I did.
394 He sung like a regilar mockin' bird,
395An' us cowboys allus sing out ef tew calm
396 The scare, ef we can, of a runnin' herd.
397Slower an' slower wheel'd round the "mill";
398 The maddest old steer of a leader slow'd;
399Slower an' slower sounded the hoofs
400 Of the hoss that HIM in front of me rode.
401Fainter an' fainter grow'd that thar song
402 Of Betsey Lee an' her har of gold;
403Fainter an' fainter grew the sound
404 Of the unseen hoofs on the tore-up mold.
405The leadin' steer, that cuss of a Joe
406 Stopp'd an' shook off the foam an' the sweat,
407With a stamp an a beller--the run was done,
408 Wus glad of it, tew, yer free tew bet!
409The herd slow'd up--an' stood in a mass
410 Of blackness lit by the lightnin's eye;
411An' the mustang cower'd es something swept
412 Clus to his wet flank in passin' by.
413"Good night tew ye, Pard!" "Good night," sez I,
414 Strainin' my sight on the empty air;
415The har riz rustlin' up on my head,
416 Now that I hed time tew scare.
417The mustang flinch'd till his saddle girth
418 Scrap'd on the dust of the tremblin' ground--
419There cum a laugh--the crack of a whip,
420 A whine like the cry of a well pleas'd hound,
421The noise of a hoss thet rear'd an' sprang
422 At the touch of a spur--then all was still;
423But the sound of the thunder dyin' down
424 On the stony breast of the nighest hill!
425The herd went back to its rest an' feed,
426 Es quiet a crowd es ever wore hide;
427An' them boys in camp never heerd a lisp
428 Of the thunder an' crash of that run an' ride.
429An' I'll never forget, while a wild cat claws,
430 Or a cow loves a nibble of sweet blue grass,
431The cur'us pardner that rode with me
432 In the night stampede in "Old Spookses Pass!"
1] Yellow Bull Flat and Old Spookses' Pass are made-up place names in the Rocky Mountains, the Canadian part of North America's greatest mountain range, which bestrides Alberta and British Columbia. A flat (e.g., Old Crow Flats) is a high plateau; a pass (e.g., Yellowhead Pass) is a relatively low way crossing a mountain range from one side to another. A spook, of course, is a ghost, and the cowboy's tale concerns what would later be called "a ghost rider in the sky."
2] Possum: opossum
3] lariat: light rope with noose thrown by cowboys to lasso animals.
4] fellers: guys, fellows
5] broncho: unbroken, uncontrollable wild horse or mustang
5-6] arguing head-to-head with, i.e., a broncho's opposite, a stubborn, unmovable mule
7] thar: there
8] hev: have
9] Fur: for
10] Thet hed: that had
12] har: here
14] keerds: cards
16] hull: whole
19] coyotes: small wolves
20] darned critters: damned (polite) creatures
24] sage bush: hoary underscrub smelling like sage
25] pootyish lot: prettyish place
26] tol'ble: tolerable, decent
27] Speredo's drove: moving herd (cf. 206) owned by Speredo.
29] mite of a: little
34] chipper: in good spirits, cheerful
37] fust: first
39] quid: mouthful of chewing tobacco, a cud
40] peart leetle: pert little--the overused modern "cute" might serve for "peart"
42] Es: as
45] Wal, pard: well, partner
48] Jest hark; just listen
54] ganzy: unknown, perhaps "shirt"?
55] post ourselves: find out
62] shadders: shadows
63-64] he had to leave it to that there ("leave tew thet thar") mustang to find the path
66] cur'us: curious, strange
71] beller: bellow
82] I'll 'low: I'll allow, admit
85] yer: you're
90] cuss: fellow, guy (low)
104] 'tarnal: eternal
112] slimpsy: weak, "slim-flimsy"
117] pann'd: sifted (as gold nuggets from a stream's gravel)
119] chap with horns: the devil
121] tote up: carry up
124] hist: hoist
125] pooty: pretty
136] git up a "corner": monopolize
139] wuth shucks: worth nothing ("shucks"=husks)
144] Kerslap: onomatopoeic, "firmly" (cf. 198, 336)
jack: the playing card
153] Sabba'day: Sabbath-day, Sunday
154] yer meeting clothes: "your Sunday best," clothes suitable for a church meeting
156] lily-blows: lily-blossoms
159] wust: worst
169] shied: made shy, started back (in fear)
174] uv tarnation fun: of damned fun
181] riz: rose
183] sort of: the modern colloquial adverb
187] Sez: says
190] rattle: rattlesnake
191] red-skin: slang for native Amerindian
193] rollin' whites: of the eyes (turning up in fear)
199-00] Pharoah's armies drowned in the Red Sea after following Moses and the Israelites through the gap that opened up for them and the waters closed again (Exodus 14: 26-30)
202] seed: saw (cf. 362)
203] allers: always
207] Scuddin': moving fast and low
211] dror'd: drew
217] stuns: stones
237] fit: fought
249] twink of a fire-bug: the twinkling of a fire-fly
258] clus: close
259] cussin': swearing
271] grit: courage, toughness, shown by "grinding" your teeth (cf. 329)
273] Not a buck nor a shy: he didn't kick or back off
274] a healthy show: the mustang?
278] truckle bed: a bed that can be rolled or wheeled away
286] tenderfoot: city dweller
292] limber: flexible
297] shod: he had "iron shoes" on (298)
299] yearth: earth
300] inter: into
308] mossel: a bit, a "morsel"
312] gulch: ravine
330] sartin: certain
333] Bully fur you: "good for you"
352] hoss's: horse's
357] bit: the part of the harness passing through the mouth of the horse
362] riz: rose
366] hansum: handsome
368] pile: stake, money
392] Betsey Lee: unidentified popular song about a girl with golden hair (402)
393] Jine: join
404] mold: ground
408] yer free tew bet: you can bet on that
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services,
University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: Isabella Valancy Crawford, "Old Spookses' Pass," "Malcolm's Katie" and other Poems (Toronto: James Bain and Son, 1884): 1-19. PR 4518 C17 O5 1884 Canadiana (Victoria College Library)
First publication date:
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1997.
Recent editing: 4:2002/2/17
Rhyme: abcbdefe (and varies)
Other poems by Isabella Valancy Crawford