Old Spookses' Pass

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)
11I never see'd fellers could argy like them;
13Thet whar brains come in in the game of life,
15An' when hands was shown, some other chap
17We was short of hands, the herd was large,
18     An' watch an' watch we divided the night;
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,
28     The Rockies, by way of "Old Spookses' Pass"--
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;
35That them two cowboys with only me,
36     Couldn't boss three thousand head of a herd.
38     An' as the red sun down the mountains sprang,
41An' Possum Billy was sleepin' sound
43An' Tommy's snores would hev made a old
44     Buffalo bull feel kind o' cheap.
46     For dwind'lin' a chap in his own conceit,
47Es when them mountains an' awful stars,
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
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--
64     Of a mustang tew keep in the proper track.
65Ever see'd a herd ring'd in at night?
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,
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,
83Whar thar's runnin' water, it's sure to speak
84     Of folks tew home an' the old home place;
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:
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
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
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!"
118     Don't take no stock in them creeds that say,
120     Of the rollin' stock on thet up-grade way,
122     Es grows in his big bush grim an' black,
123An' slyly put it across the rails,
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
137Ye think I've put up a biggish stake?
138     Wal, I'll bet fur all I'm wuth, d'ye see?
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
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?
155An dove, like a duck, whar the water clar
157Yer soul wus white es yer skin them days,
158     Yer eyes es clar es the creek at rest;
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,
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
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."
182     On the mustang's neck I felt the sweat;
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.
188     At a prowlin' cuss of a blamed coyote?"
189But 'twan't no coyote nor prowlin' beast,
192     In a game like that to sing out, "I pass!"
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,
200     Thet went on the war-trail in old Judee.
201The air wus bustin'--but silent es death;
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;
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;
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,
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!
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
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,
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
272     Of thet peart little chunk of a tough mustang!
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,
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
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
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!
298     At his iron shoes each step he run,
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
309The sweat come a-pourin' down my beard;
310     Ef ye wonder wharfor, jest ye spread
311Yerself fur a ride with a runnin' herd,
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;
331When, whizzin' an' singin', thar came the rush
332     Right past my face of a lariat!
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
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--
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
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.
367Whoever ye be, I'll not back down!"
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,
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
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,
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." Back to Line
2] Possum: opossum Back to Line
3] lariat: light rope with noose thrown by cowboys to lasso animals. Back to Line
4] fellers: guys, fellows Back to Line
5] broncho: unbroken, uncontrollable wild horse or mustang Back to Line
6] arguing head-to-head with, i.e., a broncho's opposite, a stubborn, unmovable mule Back to Line
7] thar: there Back to Line
8] hev: have
or'nary: ordinary Back to Line
9] Fur: for Back to Line
10] Thet hed: that had Back to Line
12] har: here
own: admit Back to Line
14] keerds: cards Back to Line
16] hull: whole Back to Line
19] coyotes: small wolves Back to Line
20] darned critters: damned (polite) creatures Back to Line
24] sage bush: hoary underscrub smelling like sage Back to Line
25] pootyish lot: prettyish place Back to Line
26] tol'ble: tolerable, decent Back to Line
27] Speredo's drove: moving herd (cf. 206) owned by Speredo. Back to Line
29] mite of a: little Back to Line
34] chipper: in good spirits, cheerful Back to Line
37] fust: first Back to Line
39] quid: mouthful of chewing tobacco, a cud Back to Line
40] peart leetle: pert little--the overused modern "cute" might serve for "peart" Back to Line
42] Es: as Back to Line
45] Wal, pard: well, partner
sech: such Back to Line
48] Jest hark; just listen Back to Line
54] ganzy: unknown, perhaps "shirt"? Back to Line
55] post ourselves: find out Back to Line
62] shadders: shadows Back to Line
63] he had to leave it to that there ("leave tew thet thar") mustang to find the path Back to Line
66] cur'us: curious, strange Back to Line
71] beller: bellow Back to Line
82] I'll 'low: I'll allow, admit Back to Line
85] yer: you're Back to Line
90] cuss: fellow, guy (low) Back to Line
104] 'tarnal: eternal
up-grade: slope Back to Line
112] slimpsy: weak, "slim-flimsy" Back to Line
117] pann'd: sifted (as gold nuggets from a stream's gravel) Back to Line
119] chap with horns: the devil Back to Line
121] tote up: carry up Back to Line
124] hist: hoist Back to Line
125] pooty: pretty Back to Line
136] git up a "corner": monopolize Back to Line
139] wuth shucks: worth nothing ("shucks"=husks) Back to Line
144] Kerslap: onomatopoeic, "firmly" (cf. 198, 336)
jack: the playing card Back to Line
153] Sabba'day: Sabbath-day, Sunday Back to Line
154] yer meeting clothes: "your Sunday best," clothes suitable for a church meeting Back to Line
156] lily-blows: lily-blossoms Back to Line
159] wust: worst Back to Line
169] shied: made shy, started back (in fear) Back to Line
174] uv tarnation fun: of damned fun Back to Line
181] riz: rose Back to Line
183] sort of: the modern colloquial adverb Back to Line
187] Sez: says Back to Line
190] rattle: rattlesnake Back to Line
191] red-skin: slang for native Amerindian Back to Line
193] rollin' whites: of the eyes (turning up in fear) Back to Line
199] 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)
Judee: Judea Back to Line
202] seed: saw (cf. 362) Back to Line
203] allers: always Back to Line
207] Scuddin': moving fast and low Back to Line
211] dror'd: drew Back to Line
217] stuns: stones Back to Line
237] fit: fought Back to Line
249] twink of a fire-bug: the twinkling of a fire-fly Back to Line
258] clus: close Back to Line
259] cussin': swearing Back to Line
271] grit: courage, toughness, shown by "grinding" your teeth (cf. 329) Back to Line
273] Not a buck nor a shy: he didn't kick or back off Back to Line
274] a healthy show: the mustang? Back to Line
278] truckle bed: a bed that can be rolled or wheeled away Back to Line
286] tenderfoot: city dweller Back to Line
292] limber: flexible Back to Line
297] shod: he had "iron shoes" on (298) Back to Line
299] yearth: earth Back to Line
300] inter: into Back to Line
308] mossel: a bit, a "morsel" Back to Line
312] gulch: ravine Back to Line
330] sartin: certain Back to Line
333] Bully fur you: "good for you" Back to Line
352] hoss's: horse's Back to Line
357] bit: the part of the harness passing through the mouth of the horse Back to Line
362] riz: rose
sed: saw Back to Line
366] hansum: handsome Back to Line
368] pile: stake, money Back to Line
392] Betsey Lee: unidentified popular song about a girl with golden hair (402) Back to Line
393] Jine: join Back to Line
404] mold: ground Back to Line
408] yer free tew bet: you can bet on that Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1997.