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An essay by Stewart Edward White

On Tenderfeet

Title:     On Tenderfeet
Author: Stewart Edward White [More Titles by White]

The tenderfoot is a queer beast. He makes more trouble than ants at a picnic, more work than a trespassing goat; he never sees anything, knows where anything is, remembers accurately your instructions, follows them if remembered, or is able to handle without awkwardness his large and pathetic hands and feet; he is always lost, always falling off or into things, always in difficulties; his articles of necessity are constantly being burned up or washed away or mislaid; he looks at you beamingly through great innocent eyes in the most chuckle-headed of manners; he exasperates you to within an inch of explosion,--and yet you love him.

I am referring now to the real tenderfoot, the fellow who cannot learn, who is incapable ever of adjusting himself to the demands of the wild life. Sometimes a man is merely green, inexperienced. But give him a chance and he soon picks up the game. That is your greenhorn, not your tenderfoot. Down near Monache meadows we came across an individual leading an old pack-mare up the trail. The first thing, he asked us to tell him where he was. We did so. Then we noticed that he carried his gun muzzle-up in his hip-pocket, which seemed to be a nice way to shoot a hole in your hand, but a poor way to make your weapon accessible. He unpacked near us, and promptly turned the mare into a bog-hole because it looked green. Then he stood around the rest of the evening and talked deprecating talk of a garrulous nature.

"Which way did you come?" asked Wes.

The stranger gave us a hazy account of misnamed canons, by which we gathered that he had come directly over the rough divide below us.

"But if you wanted to get to Monache, why didn't you go around to the eastward through that pass, there, and save yourself all the climb? It must have been pretty rough through there."

"Yes, perhaps so," he hesitated. "Still--I got lots of time--I can take all summer, if I want to--and I'd rather stick to a straight line--then you know where you ARE--if you get off the straight line, you're likely to get lost, you know."

We knew well enough what ailed him, of course. He was a tenderfoot, of the sort that always, to its dying day, unhobbles its horses before putting their halters on. Yet that man for thirty-two years had lived almost constantly in the wild countries. He had traveled more miles with a pack-train than we shall ever dream of traveling, and hardly could we mention a famous camp of the last quarter century that he had not blundered into. Moreover he proved by the indirections of his misinformation that he had really been there and was not making ghost stories in order to impress us. Yet if the Lord spares him thirty-two years more, at the end of that time he will probably still be carrying his gun upside down, turning his horse into a bog-hole, and blundering through the country by main strength and awkwardness. He was a beautiful type of the tenderfoot.

The redeeming point of the tenderfoot is his humbleness of spirit and his extreme good nature. He exasperates you with his fool performances to the point of dancing cursing wild crying rage, and then accepts your--well, reproofs--so meekly that you come off the boil as though some one had removed you from the fire, and you feel like a low-browed thug.

Suppose your particular tenderfoot to be named Algernon. Suppose him to have packed his horse loosely--they always do--so that the pack has slipped, the horse has bucked over three square miles of assorted mountains, and the rest of the train is scattered over identically that area. You have run your saddle-horse to a lather heading the outfit. You have sworn and dodged and scrambled and yelled, even fired your six-shooter, to turn them and bunch them. In the mean time Algernon has either sat his horse like a park policeman in his leisure hours, or has ambled directly into your path of pursuit on an average of five times a minute. Then the trouble dies from the landscape and the baby bewilderment from his eyes. You slip from your winded horse and address Algernon with elaborate courtesy.

"My dear fellow," you remark, "did you not see that the thing for you to do was to head them down by the bottom of that little gulch there? Don't you really think ANYBODY would have seen it? What in hades do you think I wanted to run my horse all through those boulders for? Do you think I want to get him lame 'way up here in the hills? I don't mind telling a man a thing once, but to tell it to him fifty-eight times and then have it do no good-- Have you the faintest recollection of my instructing you to turn the bight OVER instead of UNDER when you throw that pack-hitch? If you'd remember that, we shouldn't have had all this trouble."

"You didn't tell me to head them by the little gulch," babbles Algernon.

This is just the utterly fool reply that upsets your artificial and elaborate courtesy. You probably foam at the mouth, and dance on your hat, and shriek wild imploring imprecations to the astonished hills. This is not because you have an unfortunate disposition, but because Algernon has been doing precisely the same thing for two months.

"Listen to him!" you howl. "Didn't tell him! Why you gangle-legged bug-eyed soft-handed pop-eared tenderfoot, you! there are some things you never THINK of telling a man. I never told you to open your mouth to spit, either. If you had a hired man at five dollars a year who was so all-around hopelessly thick-headed and incompetent as you are, you'd fire him to-morrow morning."

Then Algernon looks truly sorry, and doesn't answer back as he ought to in order to give occasion for the relief of a really soul-satisfying scrap, and utters the soft answer humbly. So your wrath is turned and there remain only the dregs which taste like some of Algernon's cooking.

It is rather good fun to relieve the bitterness of the heart. Let me tell you a few more tales of the tenderfoot, premising always that I love him, and when at home seek him out to smoke pipes at his fireside, to yarn over the trail, to wonder how much rancor he cherishes against the maniacs who declaimed against him, and by way of compensation to build up in the mind of his sweetheart, his wife, or his mother a fearful and wonderful reputation for him as the Terror of the Trail. These tales are selected from many, mere samples of a varied experience. They occurred here, there, and everywhere, and at various times. Let no one try to lay them at the door of our Tenderfoot merely because such is his title in this narrative. We called him that by way of distinction.

Once upon a time some of us were engaged in climbing a mountain rising some five thousand feet above our starting-place. As we toiled along, one of the pack-horses became impatient and pushed ahead. We did not mind that, especially, as long as she stayed in sight, but in a little while the trail was closed in by brush and timber.

"Algernon," said we, "just push on and get ahead of that mare, will you?"

Algernon disappeared. We continued to climb. The trail was steep and rather bad. The labor was strenuous, and we checked off each thousand feet with thankfulness. As we saw nothing further of Algernon, we naturally concluded he had headed the mare and was continuing on the trail. Then through a little opening we saw him riding cheerfully along without a care to occupy his mind. Just for luck we hailed him.

"Hi there, Algernon! Did you find her?"

"Haven't seen her yet."

"Well, you'd better push on a little faster. She may leave the trail at the summit."

Then one of us, endowed by heaven with a keen intuitive instinct for tenderfeet,--no one could have a knowledge of them, they are too unexpected,--had an inspiration.

"I suppose there are tracks on the trail ahead of you?" he called.

We stared at each other, then at the trail. Only one horse had preceded us,--that of the tenderfoot. But of course Algernon was nevertheless due for his chuckle-headed reply.

"I haven't looked," said he.

That raised the storm conventional to such an occasion.

"What in the name of seventeen little dicky-birds did you think you were up to!" we howled. "Were you going to ride ahead until dark in the childlike faith that that mare might show up somewhere? Here's a nice state of affairs. The trail is all tracked up now with our horses, and heaven knows whether she's left tracks where she turned off. It may be rocky there."

We tied the animals savagely, and started back on foot. It would be criminal to ask our saddle-horses to repeat that climb. Algernon we ordered to stay with them.

"And don't stir from them no matter what happens, or you'll get lost," we commanded out of the wisdom of long experience.

We climbed down the four thousand odd feet, and then back again, leading the mare. She had turned off not forty rods from where Algernon had taken up her pursuit.

Your Algernon never does get down to little details like tracks--his scheme of life is much too magnificent. To be sure he would not know fresh tracks from old if he should see them; so it is probably quite as well. In the morning he goes out after the horses. The bunch he finds easily enough, but one is missing. What would you do about it? You would naturally walk in a circle around the bunch until you crossed the track of the truant leading away from it, wouldn't you? If you made a wide enough circle you would inevitably cross that track, wouldn't you? provided the horse started out with the bunch in the first place. Then you would follow the track, catch the horse, and bring him back. Is this Algernon's procedure? Not any. "Ha!" says he, "old Brownie is missing. I will hunt him up." Then he maunders off into the scenery, trusting to high heaven that he is going to blunder against Brownie as a prominent feature of the landscape. After a couple of hours you probably saddle up Brownie and go out to find the tenderfoot.

He has a horrifying facility in losing himself. Nothing is more cheering than to arise from a hard-earned couch of ease for the purpose of trailing an Algernon or so through the gathering dusk to the spot where he has managed to find something--a very real despair of ever getting back to food and warmth. Nothing is more irritating then than his gratitude.

I traveled once in the Black Hills with such a tenderfoot. We were off from the base of supplies for a ten days' trip with only a saddle-horse apiece. This was near first principles, as our total provisions consisted of two pounds of oatmeal, some tea, and sugar. Among other things we climbed Mt. Harney. The trail, after we left the horses, was as plain as a strip of Brussels carpet, but somehow or another that tenderfoot managed to get off it. I hunted him up. We gained the top, watched the sunset, and started down. The tenderfoot, I thought, was fairly at my coat-tails, but when I turned to speak to him he had gone; he must have turned off at one of the numerous little openings in the brush. I sat down to wait. By and by, away down the west slope of the mountain, I heard a shot, and a faint, a very faint, despairing yell. I, also, shot and yelled. After various signals of the sort, it became evident that the tenderfoot was approaching. In a moment he tore by at full speed, his hat off, his eye wild, his six-shooter popping at every jump. He passed within six feet of me, and never saw me. Subsequently I left him on the prairie, with accurate and simple instructions.

"There's the mountain range. You simply keep that to your left and ride eight hours. Then you'll see Rapid City. You simply CAN'T get lost. Those hills stick out like a sore thumb."

Two days later he drifted into Rapid City, having wandered off somewhere to the east. How he had done it I can never guess. That is his secret.

The tenderfoot is always in hard luck. Apparently, too, by all tests of analysis it is nothing but luck, pure chance, misfortune. And yet the very persistence of it in his case, where another escapes, perhaps indicates that much of what we call good luck is in reality unconscious skill in the arrangement of those elements which go to make up events. A persistently unlucky man is perhaps sometimes to be pitied, but more often to be booted. That philosophy will be cryingly unjust about once in ten.

But lucky or unlucky, the tenderfoot is human. Ordinarily that doesn't occur to you. He is a malevolent engine of destruction--quite as impersonal as heat or cold or lack of water. He is an unfortunate article of personal belonging requiring much looking after to keep in order. He is a credulous and convenient response to practical jokes, huge tales, misinformation. He is a laudable object of attrition for the development of your character. But somehow, in the woods, he is not as other men, and so you do not come to feel yourself in close human relations to him.

But Algernon is real, nevertheless. He has feelings, even if you do not respect them. He has his little enjoyments, even though he does rarely contemplate anything but the horn of his saddle.

"Algernon," you cry, "for heaven's sake stick that saddle of yours in a glass case and glut yourself with the sight of its ravishing beauties next WINTER. For the present do gaze on the mountains. That's what you came for."

No use.

He has, doubtless, a full range of all the appreciative emotions, though from his actions you'd never suspect it. Most human of all, he possesses his little vanities.

Algernon always overdoes the equipment question. If it is bird-shooting, he accumulates leggings and canvas caps and belts and dog-whistles and things until he looks like a picture from a department-store catalogue. In the cow country he wears Stetson hats, snake bands, red handkerchiefs, six-shooters, chaps, and huge spurs that do not match his face. If it is yachting, he has a chronometer with a gong in the cabin of a five-ton sailboat, possesses a nickle-plated machine to register the heel of his craft, sports a brass-bound yachting-cap and all the regalia. This is merely amusing. But I never could understand his insane desire to get sunburned. A man will get sunburned fast enough; he could not help it if he would. Algernon usually starts out from town without a hat. Then he dares not take off his sweater for a week lest it carry away his entire face. I have seen men with deep sores on their shoulders caused by nothing but excessive burning in the sun. This, too, is merely amusing. It means quite simply that Algernon realizes his inner deficiencies and wants to make up for them by the outward seeming. Be kind to him, for he has been raised a pet.

The tenderfoot is lovable--mysterious in how he does it--and awfully unexpected.

[The end]
Stewart Edward White's essay: On Tenderfeet