We had our swim before sundown, and while we were cooking our
supper the oblique rays of light made a dazzling glare on the white
sand about us. The translucent red ball itself sank behind the
brown stretches of cornfield as we sat down to eat, and the warm
layer of air that had rested over the water and our clean sand bar
grew fresher and smelled of the rank ironweed and sunflowers
growing on the flatter shore. The river was brown and sluggish,
like any other of the half-dozen streams that water the Nebraska
corn lands. On one shore was an irregular line of bald clay bluffs
where a few scrub oaks with thick trunks and flat, twisted tops
threw light shadows on the long grass. The western shore was low
and level, with cornfields that stretched to the skyline, and all
along the water's edge were little sandy coves and beaches where
slim cottonwoods and willow saplings flickered.
The turbulence of the river in springtime discouraged milling,
and, beyond keeping the old red bridge in repair, the busy farmers
did not concern themselves with the stream; so the Sandtown boys
were left in undisputed possession. In the autumn we hunted quail
through the miles of stubble and fodder land along the flat shore,
and, after the winter skating season was over and the ice had gone
out, the spring freshets and flooded bottoms gave us our great
excitement of the year. The channel was never the same for two
successive seasons. Every spring the swollen stream undermined a
bluff to the east, or bit out a few acres of cornfield to the west
and whirled the soil away, to deposit it in spumy mud banks
somewhere else. When the water fell low in midsummer, new sand
bars were thus exposed to dry and whiten in the August sun.
Sometimes these were banked so firmly that the fury of the next
freshet failed to unseat them; the little willow seedlings emerged
triumphantly from the yellow froth, broke into spring leaf, shot up
into summer growth, and with their mesh of roots bound together the
moist sand beneath them against the batterings of another April.
Here and there a cottonwood soon glittered among them, quivering in
the low current of air that, even on breathless days when the dust
hung like smoke above the wagon road, trembled along the face of
It was on such an island, in the third summer of its yellow
green, that we built our watch fire; not in the thicket of dancing
willow wands, but on the level terrace of fine sand which had been
added that spring; a little new bit of world, beautifully ridged
with ripple marks, and strewn with the tiny skeletons of turtles
and fish, all as white and dry as if they had been expertly cured.
We had been careful not to mar the freshness of the place, although
we often swam to it on summer evenings and lay on the sand to rest.
This was our last watch fire of the year, and there were
reasons why I should remember it better than any of the others.
Next week the other boys were to file back to their old places in
the Sandtown High School, but I was to go up to the Divide to teach
my first country school in the Norwegian district. I was already
homesick at the thought of quitting the boys with whom I had always
played; of leaving the river, and going up into a windy plain that
was all windmills and cornfields and big pastures; where there was
nothing wilful or unmanageable in the landscape, no new islands,
and no chance of unfamiliar birds--such as often followed the
Other boys came and went and used the river for fishing or
skating, but we six were sworn to the spirit of the stream, and we
were friends mainly because of the river. There were the two
Hassler boys, Fritz and Otto, sons of the little German tailor.
They were the youngest of us; ragged boys of ten and twelve, with
sunburned hair, weather-stained faces, and pale blue eyes. Otto,
the elder, was the best mathematician in school, and clever
at his books, but he always dropped out in the spring term as if
the river could not get on without him. He and Fritz caught the
fat, horned catfish and sold them about the town, and they lived
so much in the water that they were as brown and sandy as the river
There was Percy Pound, a fat, freckled boy with chubby cheeks,
who took half a dozen boys' story-papers and was always being kept
in for reading detective stories behind his desk. There was Tip
Smith, destined by his freckles and red hair to be the buffoon in
all our games, though he walked like a timid little old man and had
a funny, cracked laugh. Tip worked hard in his father's grocery
store every afternoon, and swept it out before school in the
morning. Even his recreations were laborious. He collected
cigarette cards and tin tobacco-tags indefatigably, and would sit
for hours humped up over a snarling little scroll-saw which he kept
in his attic. His dearest possessions were some little pill
bottles that purported to contain grains of wheat from the Holy
Land, water from the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and earth from the
Mount of Olives. His father had bought these dull things from a
Baptist missionary who peddled them, and Tip seemed to derive great
satisfaction from their remote origin.
The tall boy was Arthur Adams. He had fine hazel eves that
were almost too reflective and sympathetic for a boy, and such a
pleasant voice that we all loved to hear him read aloud. Even when
he had to read poetry aloud at school, no one ever thought of
laughing. To be sure, he was not at school very much of the time.
He was seventeen and should have finished the High School the year
before, but he was always off somewhere with his gun. Arthur's
mother was dead, and his father, who was feverishly absorbed in
promoting schemes, wanted to send the boy away to school and get
him off his hands; but Arthur always begged off for another year
and promised to study. I remember him as a tall, brown boy with an
intelligent face, always lounging among a lot of us little fellows,
laughing at us oftener than with us, but such a soft, satisfied
laugh that we felt rather flattered when we provoked it. In
after-years people said that Arthur had been given to evil ways
as a ]ad, and it is true that we often saw him with the gambler's
sons and with old Spanish Fanny's boy, but if he learned anything
ugly in their company he never betrayed it to us. We would have
followed Arthur anywhere, and I am bound to say that he led us into
no worse places than the cattail marshes and the stubble fields.
These, then, were the boys who camped with me that summer night
upon the sand bar.
After we finished our supper we beat the willow thicket for
driftwood. By the time we had collected enough, night had fallen,
and the pungent, weedy smell from the shore increased with the
coolness. We threw ourselves down about the fire and made another
futile effort to show Percy Pound the Little Dipper. We had tried
it often before, but he could never be got past the big one.
"You see those three big stars just below the handle, with the
bright one in the middle?" said Otto Hassler; "that's Orion's belt,
and the bright one is the clasp." I crawled behind Otto's shoulder
and sighted up his arm to the star that seemed perched upon the tip
of his steady forefinger. The Hassler boys did seine-fishing at
night, and they knew a good many stars.
Percy gave up the Little Dipper and lay back on the sand, his
hands clasped under his head. "I can see the North Star," he
announced, contentedly, pointing toward it with his big toe.
"Anyone might get lost and need to know that."
We all looked up at it.
"How do you suppose Columbus felt when his compass didn't
point north any more?" Tip asked.
Otto shook his head. "My father says that there was another
North Star once, and that maybe this one won't last always. I
wonder what would happen to us down here if anything went wrong
Arthur chuckled. "I wouldn't worry, Ott. Nothing's apt to
happen to it in your time. Look at the Milky Way! There must be
lots of good dead Indians."
We lay back and looked, meditating, at the dark cover of the
world. The gurgle of the water had become heavier. We had often
noticed a mutinous, complaining note in it at night, quite
different from its cheerful daytime chuckle, and seeming like the
voice of a much deeper and more powerful stream. Our water had
always these two moods: the one of sunny complaisance, the other of
inconsolable, passionate regret.
"Queer how the stars are all in sort of diagrams," remarked
Otto. "You could do most any proposition in geometry with 'em.
They always look as if they meant something. Some folks say
everybody's fortune is all written out in the stars, don't they?"
"They believe so in the old country," Fritz affirmed.
But Arthur only laughed at him. "You're thinking of Napoleon,
Fritzey. He had a star that went out when he began to lose
battles. I guess the stars don't keep any close tally on Sandtown
We were speculating on how many times we could count a hundred
before the evening star went down behind the cornfields, when
someone cried, "There comes the moon, and it's as big as a cart
We all jumped up to greet it as it swam over the bluffs behind
us. It came up like a galleon in full sail; an enormous, barbaric
thing, red as an angry heathen god.
"When the moon came up red like that, the Aztecs used to
sacrifice their prisoners on the temple top," Percy announced.
"Go on, Perce. You got that out of Golden Days. Do you
believe that, Arthur?" I appealed.
Arthur answered, quite seriously: "Like as not. The moon was
one of their gods. When my father was in Mexico City he saw the
stone where they used to sacrifice their prisoners."
As we dropped down by the fire again some one asked whether
the Mound-Builders were older than the Aztecs. When we once got
upon the Mound-Builders we never willingly got away from them, and
we were still conjecturing when we heard a loud splash in the
"Must have been a big cat jumping," said Fritz. "They do
sometimes. They must see bugs in the dark. Look what a track the
There was a long, silvery streak on the water, and where the
current fretted over a big log it boiled up like gold pieces.
"Suppose there ever was any gold hid away in this old
river?" Fritz asked. He lay like a little brown Indian, close to
the fire, his chin on his hand and his bare feet in the air. His
brother laughed at him, but Arthur took his suggestion seriously.
"Some of the Spaniards thought there was gold up here somewhere.
Seven cities chuck full of gold, they had it, and Coronado and his
men came up to hunt it. The Spaniards were all over this country
Percy looked interested. "Was that before the Mormons went
We all laughed at this.
"Long enough before. Before the Pilgrim Fathers, Perce. Maybe
they came along this very river. They always followed the
"I wonder where this river really does begin?" Tip mused.
That was an old and a favorite mystery which the map did not
clearly explain. On the map the little black line stopped
somewhere in western Kansas; but since rivers generally rose in
mountains, it was only reasonable to suppose that ours came from
the Rockies. Its destination, we knew, was the Missouri, and the
Hassler boys always maintained that we could embark at Sandtown in
floodtime, follow our noses, and eventually arrive at New Orleans.
Now they took up their old argument. "If us boys had grit enough
to try it, it wouldn't take no time to get to Kansas City and St.
We began to talk about the places we wanted to go to. The
Hassler boys wanted to see the stockyards in Kansas City, and Percy
wanted to see a big store in Chicago. Arthur was interlocutor and
did not betray himself.
"Now it's your turn, Tip."
Tip rolled over on his elbow and poked the fire, and his eyes
looked shyly out of his queer, tight little face. "My place is
awful far away. My Uncle Bill told me about it."
Tip's Uncle Bill was a wanderer, bitten with mining fever, who
had drifted into Sandtown with a broken arm, and when it was well
had drifted out again.
"Where is it?"
"Aw, it's down in New Mexico somewheres. There aren't no
railroads or anything. You have to go on mules, and you run out of
water before you get there and have to drink canned tomatoes."
"Well, go on, kid. What's it like when you do get there?"
Tip sat up and excitedly began his story.
"There's a big red rock there that goes right up out of the
sand for about nine hundred feet. The country's flat all around
it, and this here rock goes up all by itself, like a monument.
They call it the Enchanted Bluff down there, because no white man
has ever been on top of it. The sides are smooth rock, and
straight up, like a wall. The Indians say that hundreds of years
ago, before the Spaniards came, there was a village away up there
in the air. The tribe that lived there had some sort of steps,
made out of wood and bark, bung down over the face of the bluff,
and the braves went down to hunt and carried water up in big jars
swung on their backs. They kept a big supply of water and dried
meat up there, and never went down except to hunt. They were a
peaceful tribe that made cloth and pottery, and they went up there
to get out of the wars. You see, they could pick off any war party
that tried to get up their little steps. The Indians say they were
a handsome people, and they had some sort of queer religion. Uncle
Bill thinks they were Cliff-Dwellers who had got into trouble and
left home. They weren't fighters, anyhow.
"One time the braves were down hunting and an awful storm came
up--a kind of waterspout--and when they got back to their rock they
found their little staircase had been all broken to pieces, and
only a few steps were left hanging away up in the air. While they
were camped at the foot of the rock, wondering what to do, a
war party from the north came along and massacred 'em to a man,
with all the old folks and women looking on from the rock. Then
the war party went on south and left the village to get down the
best way they could. Of course they never got down. They starved
to death up there, and when the war party came back on their way
north, they could hear the children crying from the edge of the
bluff where they had crawled out, but they didn't see a sign of a
grown Indian, and nobody has ever been up there since."
We exclaimed at this dolorous legend and sat up.
"There couldn't have been many people up there," Percy demurred.
"How big is the top, Tip?"
"Oh, pretty big. Big enough so that the rock doesn't look
nearly as tall as it is. The top's bigger than the base. The
bluff is sort of worn away for several hundred feet up. That's one
reason it's so hard to climb."
I asked how the Indians got up, in the first place.
"Nobody knows how they got up or when. A hunting party came
along once and saw that there was a town up there, and that was
Otto rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. "Of course there
must be some way to get up there. Couldn't people get a rope over
someway and pull a ladder up?"
Tip's little eyes were shining with excitement. "I know a
way. Me and Uncle Bill talked it over. There's a kind of rocket
that would take a rope over--lifesavers use 'em--and then you could
hoist a rope ladder and peg it down at the bottom and make it tight
with guy ropes on the other side. I'm going to climb that there
bluff, and I've got it all planned out."
Fritz asked what he expected to find when he got up there.
"Bones, maybe, or the ruins of their town, or pottery, or some
of their idols. There might be 'most anything up there. Anyhow,
I want to see."
"Sure nobody else has been up there, Tip?" Arthur asked.
"Dead sure. Hardly anybody ever goes down there. Some hunters
tried to cut steps in the rock once, but they didn't get higher
than a man can reach. The Bluff's all red granite, and Uncle Bill
thinks it's a boulder the glaciers left. It's a queer place,
anyhow. Nothing but cactus and desert for hundreds of miles, and
yet right under the Bluff there's good water and plenty of grass.
That's why the bison used to go down there."
Suddenly we heard a scream above our fire, and jumped up to
see a dark, slim bird floating southward far above us--a whooping
crane, we knew by her cry and her long neck. We ran to the edge of
the island, hoping we might see her alight, but she wavered
southward along the rivercourse until we lost her. The Hassler
boys declared that by the look of the heavens it must be after
midnight, so we threw more wood on our fire, put on our jackets,
and curled down in the warm sand. Several of us pretended to doze,
but I fancy we were really thinking about Tip's Bluff and the
extinct people. Over in the wood the ring doves were calling
mournfully to one another, and once we heard a dog bark, far away.
"Somebody getting into old Tommy's melon patch," Fritz murmured
sleepily, but nobody answered him. By and by Percy spoke out of
"Say, Tip, when you go down there will you take me with you?"
"Suppose one of us beats you down there, Tip?"
"Whoever gets to the Bluff first has got to promise to tell
the rest of us exactly what he finds," remarked one of the Hassler
boys, and to this we all readily assented.
Somewhat reassured, I dropped off to sleep. I must have
dreamed about a race for the Bluff, for I awoke in a kind of fear
that other people were getting ahead of me and that I was losing my
chance. I sat up in my damp clothes and looked at the other boys,
who lay tumbled in uneasy attitudes about the dead fire. It was
still dark, but the sky was blue with the last wonderful azure of
night. The stars glistened like crystal globes, and trembled as if
they shone through a depth of clear water. Even as I watched, they
began to pale and the sky brightened. Day came suddenly, almost
instantaneously. I turned for another look at the blue
night, and it was gone. Everywhere the birds began to call, and
all manner of little insects began to chirp and hop about in the
willows. A breeze sprang up from the west and brought the heavy
smell of ripened corn. The boys rolled over and shook themselves.
We stripped and plunged into the river just as the sun came up over
the windy bluffs.
When I came home to Sandtown at Christmas time, we skated out
to our island and talked over the whole project of the Enchanted
Bluff, renewing our resolution to find it.
Although that was twenty years ago, none of us have ever
climbed the Enchanted Bluff. Percy Pound is a stockbroker in
Kansas City and will go nowhere that his red touring car cannot
carry him. Otto Hassler went on the railroad and lost his foot
braking; after which he and Fritz succeeded their father as the
Arthur sat about the sleepy little town all his life--he died
before he was twenty-five. The last time I saw him, when I was
home on one of my college vacations, he was sitting in a steamer
chair under a cottonwood tree in the little yard behind one of the
two Sandtown saloons. He was very untidy and his hand was not
steady, but when he rose, unabashed, to greet me, his eyes were as
clear and warm as ever. When I had talked with him for an hour and
heard him laugh again, I wondered how it was that when Nature had
taken such pains with a man, from his hands to the arch of his long
foot, she had ever lost him in Sandtown. He joked about Tip
Smith's Bluff, and declared he was going down there just as soon as
the weather got cooler; he thought the Grand Canyon might be worth
I was perfectly sure when I left him that he would never get
beyond the high plank fence and the comfortable shade of the
cottonwood. And, indeed, it was under that very tree that he died
one summer morning.
Tip Smith still talks about going to New Mexico. He married
a slatternly, unthrifty country girl, has been much tied to a
perambulator, and has grown stooped and grey from irregular
meals and broken sleep. But the worst of his difficulties are now
over, and he has, as he says, come into easy water. When I was
last in Sandtown I walked home with him late one moonlight night,
after he had balanced his cash and shut up his store. We took the
long way around and sat down on the schoolhouse steps, and between
us we quite revived the romance of the lone red rock and the
extinct people. Tip insists that he still means to go down there,
but he thinks now he will wait until his boy Bert is old enough to
go with him. Bert has been let into the story, and thinks of
nothing but the Enchanted Bluff.