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An essay by Stewart Edward White

On How To Go About It

Title:     On How To Go About It
Author: Stewart Edward White [More Titles by White]

One truth you must learn to accept, believe as a tenet of your faith, and act upon always. It is that your entire welfare depends on the condition of your horses. They must, as a consequence, receive always your first consideration. As long as they have rest and food, you are sure of getting along; as soon as they fail, you are reduced to difficulties. So absolute is this truth that it has passed into an idiom. When a Westerner wants to tell you that he lacks a thing, he informs you he is "afoot" for it. "Give me a fill for my pipe," he begs; "I'm plumb afoot for tobacco."

Consequently you think last of your own comfort. In casting about for a place to spend the night, you look out for good feed. That assured, all else is of slight importance; you make the best of whatever camping facilities may happen to be attached. If necessary you will sleep on granite or in a marsh, walk a mile for firewood or water, if only your animals are well provided for. And on the trail you often will work twice as hard as they merely to save them a little. In whatever I may tell you regarding practical expedients, keep this always in mind.

As to the little details of your daily routine in the mountains, many are worth setting down, however trivial they may seem. They mark the difference between the greenhorn and the old-timer; but, more important, they mark also the difference between the right and the wrong, the efficient and the inefficient ways of doing things.

In the morning the cook for the day is the first man afoot, usually about half past four. He blows on his fingers, casts malevolent glances at the sleepers, finally builds his fire and starts his meal. Then he takes fiendish delight in kicking out the others. They do not run with glad shouts to plunge into the nearest pool, as most camping fiction would have us believe. Not they. The glad shout and nearest pool can wait until noon when the sun is warm. They, too, blow on their fingers and curse the cook for getting them up so early. All eat breakfast and feel better.

Now the cook smokes in lordly ease. One of the other men washes the dishes, while his companion goes forth to drive in the horses. Washing dishes is bad enough, but fumbling with frozen fingers at stubborn hobble-buckles is worse. At camp the horses are caught, and each is tied near his own saddle and pack.

The saddle-horses are attended to first. Thus they are available for business in case some of the others should make trouble. You will see that your saddle-blankets are perfectly smooth, and so laid that the edges are to the front where they are least likely to roll under or wrinkle. After the saddle is in place, lift it slightly and loosen the blanket along the back bone so it will not draw down tight under the weight of the rider. Next hang your rifle-scabbard under your left leg. It should be slanted along the horse's side at such an angle that neither will the muzzle interfere with the animal's hind leg, nor the butt with your bridle-hand. This angle must be determined by experiment. The loop in front should be attached to the scabbard, so it can be hung over the horn; that behind to the saddle, so the muzzle can be thrust through it. When you come to try this method, you will appreciate its handiness. Besides the rifle, you will carry also your rope, camera, and a sweater or waistcoat for changes in temperature. In your saddle bags are pipe and tobacco, perhaps a chunk of bread, your note-book, and the map--if there is any. Thus your saddle-horse is outfitted. Do not forget your collapsible rubber cup. About your waist you will wear your cartridge-belt with six-shooter and sheath-knife. I use a forty-five caliber belt. By threading a buck skin thong in and out through some of the cartridge loops, their size is sufficiently reduced to hold also the 30-40 rifle cartridges. Thus I carry ammunition for both revolver and rifle in the one belt. The belt should not be buckled tight about your waist, but should hang well down on the hip. This is for two reasons. In the first place, it does not drag so heavily at your anatomy, and falls naturally into position when you are mounted. In the second place, you can jerk your gun out more easily from a loose-hanging holster. Let your knife-sheath be so deep as almost to cover the handle, and the knife of the very best steel procurable. I like a thin blade. If you are a student of animal anatomy, you can skin and quarter a deer with nothing heavier than a pocket-knife.

When you come to saddle the pack-horses, you must exercise even greater care in getting the saddle-blankets smooth and the saddle in place. There is some give and take to a rider; but a pack carries "dead," and gives the poor animal the full handicap of its weight at all times. A rider dismounts in bad or steep places; a pack stays on until the morning's journey is ended. See to it, then, that it is on right.

Each horse should have assigned him a definite and, as nearly as possible, unvarying pack. Thus you will not have to search everywhere for the things you need.

For example, in our own case, Lily was known as the cook-horse. She carried all the kitchen utensils, the fire-irons, the axe, and matches. In addition her alforjas contained a number of little bags in which were small quantities for immediate use of all the different sorts of provisions we had with us. When we made camp we unpacked her near the best place for a fire, and everything was ready for the cook. Jenny was a sort of supply store, for she transported the main stock of the provisions of which Lily's little bags contained samples. Dinkey helped out Jenny, and in addition--since she took such good care of her pack--was intrusted with the fishing-rods, the shot-gun, the medicine-bag, small miscellaneous duffle, and whatever deer or bear meat we happened to have. Buckshot's pack consisted of things not often used, such as all the ammunition, the horse-shoeing outfit, repair-kit, and the like. It was rarely disturbed at all.

These various things were all stowed away in the kyacks or alforjas which hung on either side. They had to be very accurately balanced. The least difference in weight caused one side to sag, and that in turn chafed the saddle-tree against the animal's withers.

So far, so good. Next comes the affair of the top packs. Lay your duffle-bags across the middle of the saddle. Spread the blankets and quilts as evenly as possible. Cover all with the canvas tarpaulin suitably folded. Everything is now ready for the pack-rope.

The first thing anybody asks you when it is discovered that you know a little something of pack-trains is, "Do you throw the Diamond Hitch?" Now the Diamond is a pretty hitch and a firm one, but it is by no means the fetish some people make of it. They would have you believe that it represents the height of the packer's art; and once having mastered it, they use it religiously for every weight, shape, and size of pack. The truth of the matter is that the style of hitch should be varied according to the use to which it is to be put.

The Diamond is good because it holds firmly, is a great flattener, and is especially adapted to the securing of square boxes. It is celebrated because it is pretty and rather difficult to learn. Also it possesses the advantage for single-handed packing that it can be thrown slack throughout and then tightened, and that the last pull tightens the whole hitch. However, for ordinary purposes, with a quiet horse and a comparatively soft pack, the common Square Hitch holds well enough and is quickly made. For a load of small articles and heavy alforjas there is nothing like the Lone Packer. It too is a bit hard to learn. Chiefly is it valuable because the last pulls draw the alforjas away from the horse's sides, thus preventing their chafing him. Of the many hitches that remain, you need learn, to complete your list for all practical purposes, only the Bucking Hitch. It is complicated, and takes time and patience to throw, but it is warranted to hold your deck-load through the most violent storms bronco ingenuity can stir up.

These four will be enough. Learn to throw them, and take pains always to throw them good and tight. A loose pack is the best expedient the enemy of your soul could possibly devise. It always turns or comes to pieces on the edge of things; and then you will spend the rest of the morning trailing a wildly bucking horse by the burst and scattered articles of camp duffle. It is furthermore your exhilarating task, after you have caught him, to take stock, and spend most of the afternoon looking for what your first search passed by. Wes and I once hunted two hours for as large an object as a Dutch oven. After which you can repack. This time you will snug things down. You should have done so in the beginning.

Next, the lead-ropes are made fast to the top of the packs. There is here to be learned a certain knot. In case of trouble you can reach from your saddle and jerk the whole thing free by a single pull on a loose end.

All is now ready. You take a last look around to see that nothing has been left. One of the horsemen starts on ahead. The pack-horses swing in behind. We soon accustomed ours to recognize the whistling of "Boots and Saddles" as a signal for the advance. Another horseman brings up the rear. The day's journey has begun.

To one used to pleasure-riding the affair seems almost too deliberate. The leader plods steadily, stopping from time to time to rest on the steep slopes. The others string out in a leisurely procession. It does no good to hurry. The horses will of their own accord stay in sight of one another, and constant nagging to keep the rear closed up only worries them without accomplishing any valuable result. In going uphill especially, let the train take its time. Each animal is likely to have his own ideas about when and where to rest. If he does, respect them. See to it merely that there is no prolonged yielding to the temptation of meadow feed, and no careless or malicious straying off the trail. A minute's difference in the time of arrival does not count. Remember that the horses are doing hard and continuous work on a grass diet.

The day's distance will not seem to amount to much in actual miles, especially if, like most Californians, you are accustomed on a fresh horse to make an occasional sixty or seventy between suns; but it ought to suffice. There is a lot to be seen and enjoyed in a mountain mile. Through the high country two miles an hour is a fair average rate of speed, so you can readily calculate that fifteen make a pretty long day. You will be afoot a good share of the time. If you were out from home for only a few hours' jaunt, undoubtedly you would ride your horse over places where in an extended trip you will prefer to lead him. It is always a question of saving your animals.

About ten o'clock you must begin to figure on water. No horse will drink in the cool of the morning, and so, when the sun gets well up, he will be thirsty. Arrange it.

As to the method of travel, you can either stop at noon or push straight on through. We usually arose about half past four; got under way by seven; and then rode continuously until ready to make the next camp. In the high country this meant until two or three in the afternoon, by which time both we and the horses were pretty hungry. But when we did make camp, the horses had until the following morning to get rested and to graze, while we had all the remainder of the afternoon to fish, hunt, or loaf. Sometimes, however, it was more expedient to make a lunch-camp at noon. Then we allowed an hour for grazing, and about half an hour to pack and unpack. It meant steady work for ourselves. To unpack, turn out the horses, cook, wash dishes, saddle up seven animals, and repack, kept us very busy. There remained not much leisure to enjoy the scenery. It freshened the horses, however, which was the main point. I should say the first method was the better for ordinary journeys; and the latter for those times when, to reach good feed, a forced march becomes necessary.

On reaching the night's stopping-place, the cook for the day unpacks the cook-horse and at once sets about the preparation of dinner. The other two attend to the animals. And no matter how tired you are, or how hungry you may be, you must take time to bathe their backs with cold water; to stake the picket-animal where it will at once get good feed and not tangle its rope in bushes, roots, or stumps; to hobble the others; and to bell those inclined to wander. After this is done, it is well, for the peace and well-being of the party, to take food.

A smoke establishes you in the final and normal attitude of good humor. Each man spreads his tarpaulin where he has claimed his bed. Said claim is indicated by his hat thrown down where he wishes to sleep. It is a mark of pre-emption which every one is bound to respect. Lay out your saddle-blankets, cover them with your quilt, place the sleeping-blanket on top, and fold over the tarpaulin to cover the whole. At the head deposit your duffle-bag. Thus are you assured of a pleasant night.

About dusk you straggle in with trout or game. The camp-keeper lays aside his mending or his repairing or his note-book, and stirs up the cooking-fire. The smell of broiling and frying and boiling arises in the air. By the dancing flame of the campfire you eat your third dinner for the day--in the mountains all meals are dinners, and formidable ones at that. The curtain of blackness draws down close. Through it shine stars, loom mountains cold and mist-like in the moon. You tell stories. You smoke pipes. After a time the pleasant chill creeps down from the eternal snows. Some one throws another handful of pine-cones on the fire. Sleepily you prepare for bed. The pine-cones flare up, throwing their light in your eyes. You turn over and wrap the soft woolen blanket close about your chin. You wink drowsily and at once you are asleep. Along late in the night you awaken to find your nose as cold as a dog's. You open one eye. A few coals mark where the fire has been. The mist mountains have drawn nearer, they seem to bend over you in silent contemplation. The moon is sailing high in the heavens.

With a sigh you draw the canvas tarpaulin over your head. Instantly it is morning.

[The end]
Stewart Edward White's essay: On How To Go About It