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Dipper of Copper Creek
By Jean Craighead George, John George
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1956 E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.
Rain clouds hung gray-blue and low over the ghost town of Gothic, lying two miles high in the Colorado Rockies. With no more sound than the flight of an owl, they swept over the sun-blackened cabins and loosed their burden, drenching the townsite. Although it was the end of May, the glacial valley was a bowl of snow sitting high in the second range of the Elk Mountains.
Two thousand feet below in the town of Crested Butte it was spring. The snow was gone, the flowers were nodding along the roadways. Even the mountain peaks, that stood thirteen and fourteen thousand feet high, were snowless. At those skyscraping heights the alpine sun was like a torch that burned the ice away. Nevertheless, the peaks were cold, and the icy air that surrounded them poured into the valley and held the snow there until early June.
The month of May in Gothic town would have looked like Christmas were it not for the tumbling pillows of rain clouds that were bringing the thaw to the valley of the high country.
Whispering Bill Smith was the only living man in the snow-bound ghost town. The old prospector had wintered in to run his trap line and for eight long months he had listened to no voices other than those of the trumpeting winds and the hardy Canada jays.
When the rainstorm had rolled on down the mountain, Whispering Bill slipped into his parka, picked up his ax and walked out to his woodpile. He cracked open a log with one swing, then leaned into the wind and listened for a voice from the valley—the voice of the sno-go that would soon leave Crested Butte and open the road to Gothic.
The rotary snowplow was to bring young Doug, Whispering Bill's teen-age grandson, into the high country for the summer. He was a strong boy and could help him carry down the ore from his mining claims, located high in the mountain peaks above town.
Whispering Bill was the only man alive who still carried on the work of the old ghost town. After the Civil War, when the price of silver was high, Gothic had flourished—a busy, wealthy mining town of two thousand people—people who had boasted of the visit of President Ulysses S. Grant. But when the government dropped the support of silver and went on the gold standard, western towns like Gothic, Tincup, and Leadville boarded their doors and windows. With the crash of the silver market and the exhaustion of high grade ore, the people could no longer make a living. They moved away, leaving their homes to the wolves and the grizzly bears. Now the aspens covered the remnants of the old cabins, and as each year passed another building fell beneath the pressure of the crushing snow. In all of the old townsite only a half a dozen buildings remained standing.
Whispering Bill was chopping the beams from old Jim Juddson's cabin, which had finally succumbed to the snows last March. As he chopped he thought about Jim, who had died a rich man only a few years ago. When he thought about Jim he always growled at himself for not having followed the old man up Rustler's Gulch to his hidden lode; for Bill knew it was a rich one. He couldn't say for sure how rich, but he knew that Jim took only nine or ten bags of ore down in a year, and still he lived in luxury in Pueblo during the winter.
At times, the thought of that lode made Bill so restless that he had to stop whatever he happened to be doing and go to look at the shining peak of Mt. Avery, where he suspected that the lode lay hidden.
"Jim Juddson's lode!" he whispered hoarsely now, as he swung around to face the glistening peak of Mt. Avery. "He probably rolled a big boulder into that sparkling little hole, so I couldn't find it. That would be his kind of joke. I can hear him sitting on that mountain now, laughing and laughing."
Whispering Bill shook his fist at the mountain.
"You told everybody where it was, Jim Juddson, and you told everybody different. That map you drew for me the week before you died! Why, that would be the last place in the world I'd look. That was a crazier map than the one I drew for you to my uranium strike up Dead Man's Gulch; but you went looking for it and were lost for three days! Those were the funniest three days of my life."
Whispering Bill had to sit down, he was so convulsed with laughter at the memory of Jim Juddson's futile search. The wind died down for a moment and he stopped laughing to stand up and look toward the pass. He thought he had heard the whirr of the snow-plow. But the pass was motionless and as white as winter.
Bill's face was not just lined, it was creased like a crumpled paper bag. Long ago the smoothness had been worn away by the intense alpine sun and desiccating winds. Many hundreds of lines were now carved in his face. Even Bill's eyes were weathered by the high country. The whites were red, the once brown iris, milky; only the black pupils peered bright and clear into the snowflung dome of the Rockies. The man's voice had weathered, too. It was hoarse and sometimes barely audible. He was a short man, about five feet six, but stocky and hard. His sixty years showed only in the erosion of his face and hands.
The snowplow was not coming. Whispering Bill picked up his wood and went into his cabin. As he turned the doorknob he stopped and cocked his head. He smiled pleasantly. He heard beneath frozen Copper Creek the first muffled gurgle of the spring thaw. The water from the melting peaks was eating its way downstream. He heard the rain join the mountain water somewhere behind his grove of Englemann spruce, and before his eyes, the piling torrent cut open the stream bed. The long-silent creek was suddenly bubbling and singing beside his cabin.
"Gnad, gnad, gnad, chee chee chee, beeer!" a gray and black bird called from one of the spruce trees. Whisky, the Canada jay, who had spent the lonely winter with Bill, flicked his long tail and flew down to the woodpile.
Whispering Bill chucked his load of wood into the woodbox beside the stove and picked up a sourdough pancake that was left from his breakfast. He pitched it through the door to the bird. Whisky picked it up in his bill, winged off, dropped it and caught it with his feet. He carried it back to the spruce grove and devoured it with loud squawking noises.
Bill shut his door slowly, looking at Mt. Avery in the closing frame. His fortune lay there, and he liked to keep his eye on it from time to time during the day. Bill didn't trust the mountain. It might fall and plunge his latest claim into some obscure cirque. Furthermore he was sure the ghost of old Jim Juddson was sitting up there, waiting to blow the mountain top off if Bill discovered his lode.
"He'd do it if he could," he told the stove as he filled it with wood. The stove was old, but still handsome, with its shining brass curlie-wurlies as bright as the day they had been forged. "She looks pretty, and she burns pretty," Bill said of his antique. In a few minutes the teakettle that sat upon it hummed and boiled.
In the winter the stove had been the only source of heat. The cabin was insulated with gingham, paste and old newspapers that dated back sixty years. All together they had kept Bill quite comfortable in temperatures of fifty below zero.
In the far corner of the cabin was the bed, piled high with down comforters, and above it a shelf on which his boots stood. A table covered with worn oilcloth, a rocking chair, and two dynamite boxes for dining chairs, made up the rest of the furniture. A shelf of ore decorated the north wall, the south wall was shelved and stacked with supplies. A ladder staircase led to a low attic where a single bed, also piled with comforters, was ready for Doug.
Whispering Bill had turned his back to the stove to warm the seat of his pants when he heard the Canada jay at the window. The bird was scolding for more food. The people of the high country call the Canada jay, "whisky-jack" or "camp robber," and so Bill called this fellow who came to fill his lonely hours, "Mister Whisky." His mate, "Mrs. Whisky," was shy and never came closer than the spruce grove.
Bill took a piece of toast from the breadbox and opened the door. The wind plastered his clothes to his body as he threw the toast into the snow and shouted, "Go on, Whisky, you old camp robber, you! Rustle up your own grub."
The bird flicked his wings together and soared toward the food. He broke his descent with a forward scoop of his wings and alighted on the bread. He carried it, as always, into the spruce tree and broke off large morsels with his beak. As he did, other pieces shattered to the ground, but he was too intent upon devouring what he had to notice the loss.
Mister Whisky was a versatile and intelligent bird. He enjoyed the proximity of people, more for their generosity than their company. He was an opportunist and sought out prospectors, campers and fishermen for a free handout. If he amused them for their kindness, it was incidental and not necessarily part of the bargain. He had one bird in mind—Mister Whisky. He was a rumpled-looking bird, his feathers bent and twisted. They never lay smoothly against his body, for they were dense and loose—insulation against the below zero weather. His head was white, but for a black band behind his eyes, which lent authenticity to his nickname "camp robber."
Whisky gulped the toast and was about to seek out his "resting" limb where he just sat after a heavy meal, when he saw a deer mouse gingerly crossing the snow beneath his eating tree. It was sniffing its way towards the fallen bits of toast. Whisky was stuffed, but he did not want anything else to eat his food, and he dived at the mouse to frighten it away. The mouse ran into the aspen thicket and Whisky jumped onto one of the larger pieces of bread. He carried it up Copper Creek to his resting perch and stood with it in his bill. He did not want to swallow it, so he poked it in a crotch a few steps up the limb. He fluffed his feathers, settled his feet and relaxed. The thought of the nearby food, however, worried him. Something might find it. He sidled to the crotch, pecked out the bread and swallowed it. It stuck in his throat, and he shifted his head three or four times before the food worked far enough down for him to be comfortable.
Feeling that a drink might help him, he nibbled at a patch of snow wedged between the limb and the branch of the tree. This was not enough. He flew to the edge of Copper Creek. He hopped to a shallow puddle and drank until the bread slid on down. Now he had the curiosity to cock his head and look at the material upon which he stood. It was a big dark slab of Niobrara limestone, the first bare rock of spring. Whisky ran all around it as if it were a long lost friend whose shape he had forgotten. He found a shallow waterfilled pothole and waded in to take a bath.
Long, long ago the limestone had been deposited in a warm salty sea where the first birds swam in pursuit of fish; now, millions of years later, the Canada jay took a bath in it, thousands of feet above the level of the ocean where it began.
After bathing, Whisky preened beside his bath hole until his feathers were loose and dry.
There was a thundering roar up the stream from him, as an ice jam gave way at the cascades. Chunks of ice and tons of water roared down the narrow stream bed. Whisky leaped to his wings and flapped into a spruce just before the deluge swept over his rock.
"Gnad! beeeer!" he screamed at the exploding creek.
Into the tumbling, roaring waterway came a small gray bird, the color and the sleekness of the Niobrara limestone. He skimmed the grinding ice floes and flew through the bursting sprays as if the stream had created him, and were reluctant to release him to the sky. The bird alighted on the rock that Whisky had just deserted. He ran up and down the stone with the rise and fall of the stream, dipping and dipping and dipping at the end of each run.
Then he went back where he seemed to have sprung from, the lashing white waters of the opening creek.
Whisky cocked his head. The bird was gone. A block of ice rumbled over the spot where he had disappeared.
Up he came; bobbed in to shore on a swell, and stood on the limestone rock, dry and tidy. The wave that deposited the fragile bird swirled back into the stream bed.
Cinclus, the water ouzel, had arrived on his breeding grounds. He had followed the spring break-up from Crested Butte to the waterfall at the lower end of Gothic Valley. Here he had waited with other water ouzels, or dipper birds, for the thaw to open the cascades of the high country.
After the rainstorm Cinclus departed, flying over the snow-filled lower regions of the creek as swiftly as if a hawk were chasing him. As he passed Bill's cabin he heard the thunder that announced the release of Judd Falls and he came into the gorge just as the stream collapsed and opened.
Cinclus stood in the icy spray and dipped. He burst into song, as melodious and beautiful as the song of the mocking bird that might be heard in the deep southern regions of the continent. But the song of Cinclus was heard by none, for he sang to the accompaniment of the pounding waters of the mountains.
He sang effortlessly. Whisky, sitting ten feet away, heard one glorious note. The rest of the melody was drowned in a roaring gush of water that was carrying an enormous ice floe down the stream bed.
Across the narrow gorge a weasel slipped over a spruce root and grinned brightly at the water ouzel.
"Dek, ek, ek!" the alarm note of the dipper carried above the loudest din of the stream, and Whisky jumped to a higher limb, then checked to see what enemy was abroad.
He saw the long-tailed weasel ripple over the root and slide like a gold shadow along the water's edge. Whisky pushed off from his resting place and went banging through the grove, screaming as if his end had come. Other birds heard him and either took up the alarm or froze fearfully on their perches.
Cinclus had already flown to a rock in the cascades of Richard's Rapids. Here he was secure from any weasel and he went on with his singing, but the roar of the water was so thunderous that he could not even hear himself.
Whisky, having alerted the entire spruce grove, went back to find the weasel and give a step by step report of her doings. He thoroughly enjoyed the courageous assignment he had given himself.
"Gnad! gnad!" he pronounced at the foot of Richard's Rapids.
"Gnad!" he screamed at the edge of Bill's clearing.
"Gnad, gnad, gnad!" he screeched in desperation above the slushy yard.
Whispering Bill looked out his smudgy window to see what mortal enemy Whisky was announcing. He smiled as he saw the quick graceful weasel slip under the woodpile. He called, "Well, Molly, where have you been? I haven't seen you for two or three weeks. The mice are eating my marten furs and I need you badly." She heard him.
The weasel popped up between the logs on the top of the woodpile. She smelled for him, but could not locate him specifically. The entire cabin smelled like him. She rippled down the logs, bouncing and gliding until she could get under the footing of the cabin. It was as if she had understood Bill.
Whispering Bill looked away from the weasel and glanced down the valley. The eastern side of the gulch had melted free of snow, but the western side was still white. He rubbed the windowpane harder and peered across the valley, for he thought he saw the snowplow at the bend in the road. The window was still too dirty for him to see clearly and he stepped to his door. He shouted aloud as he saw a white geyser of snow shooting into the wind.
The plow pushed through the last deep drift and moved slowly over the bridge that crossed Copper Creek.
Young Doug jumped off the sno-go before it had stopped. Leaping the slushy drifts he bolted toward the cabin. Bill was overjoyed at the sight of the boy, but with the characteristic reserve of the mountain man, said quietly, "Just kinda thought you might get through today."
Tom, who was running the big diesel plow, stopped the machine and climbed down. He walked over to shake Bill's hand and said, "I've got some supplies for you. John sent them up from the store. He said to tell you your horse is down in the flats below the last drift fence."
Bill nodded. Tom continued.
"The ranger is coming up in a day or so and he said he'd bring him up for you."
Bill nodded once more, then turned away from Tom to look at the grandson who was to be his summer companion. The boy was one of six grandsons and it was not until this minute that he was sure which one Doug was. The boy's father had been killed in an accident in the coal mines. That had been two years before the anthracite mines in Crested Butte closed down and left it another Colorado ghost town.
As the grandsons finished high school they went to work in Gunnison to help their mother support the younger children. Doug was one of the younger members of the family. Bill was not sure where he stood in the family line-up, but he was sure he was a fine lad. After all, he wanted to mine ore.
Excerpted from Dipper of Copper Creek by Jean Craighead George, John George. Copyright © 1956 E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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