The Devil's Playground, A Novel of Old Montana and the Creation of Yellowstone Park



excerpts from the book

The three saddle-worn riders stopped on a raised gravel bar in a steep bend of the river and stared into the void beyond.  The valley ahead revealed a nearly vertical wall of basalt and deep snow forming an amphitheater rising two thousand feet, barring their way.  Most travelers here would have been awe struck by the pristine beauty.  But after days in the saddle of drizzle and snow showers, slogging through mud, sleeping wet and cold, these men and the main group to their rear were in no mood for scenery, no matter how beautiful.  

The sky from the west cleared in front of the travelers as the sun set over the horizon of the western peaks.  The setting sun made the last of the clouds north and east glow orange, highlighting the steep snow-covered high country facing them.  Captain W. F. Raynolds shook his head, broke the awkward silence, ‘We’ll have to find another way over.’ 

‘Some other drainage that allows passage,’ insisted Hayden, hopeful. ‘Whaddye think Mr. Bridger?  Maybe another valley further west or the Snake itself will let us over the top?’

Bridger contemplated the remarks, and turning his head, said almost under his breath, ‘Ain’t ne’er seen this much snow here . . . so late!’  In the vernacular of the fur trader he answered, ‘Usually a hoss can make his way o’er the pass yonder,’ pointing to a slot at the western edge of the amphitheater. 

‘Surely, we can find another pass,’ added Hayden.  He grumbled under his breath, ‘Goddamed army, two years on this survey to get onto that plateau.  Now, the snow’s gonna keep us out and Raynolds has a damned eclipse te get to.’

 Bridger heard him, but as was often his way gave no answer, deep in thought, his gaze locked to the side, old blue eyes intent as an eagle’s.  Seconds before, a slight movement caught the old trapper’s attention.  

Raynolds offered, ‘Well, lets get to camp . . . check the map you drew last year Gabe.’ 

Suddenly, the Captain and Hayden saw a slight twitch of movement, a dark foreboding shape against the snow in a shadowy willow break, just across the river.  ‘River’ did not quite describe the thirty-foot wide, shallow stream that at this altitude was but the beginnings of the mighty Wind. 

Hayden suggested, ‘A big buff.  Shoot him for dinner!’  In the gloom Bridger wasn’t sure what he was seeing.  The moments dragged until at last Bridger discerned the outline of two distinct figures: the body of a freshly killed cow bison crouched over by a giant of a bear. 

Bridger tightened the grip on his Hawkins. ‘That ain’t no buffler, pork-eater-that be ole Ephraim, an’ he ain’t in a palaverin’ mood.’


The other two men struggled to see in the failing light, the image becoming distinct.  The bear had ripped open the cow’s belly and was helping himself to the internal delicacies when he saw the intruders. The bear’s glare was pure malice, boring through the body of the old trapper into his soul.  Ole Gabe thought, ‘If this be the time te end it, then here is a worthy foe.’  Gabe studied the enormous blocky, blood-soaked head with a peculiar two lobed-left ear.  Gabe saw the foot-long strip of oozing intestine dangling from Ole Ephraim’s mouth.  Bridger knew that the bear was figuring whether to charge…or run.  Then Gabe felt the subtle frigid waft of cold air off the snow-covered mountains above, and all three of their mounts screamed and reared as they smelt the bear, fresh torn intestines, and blood.  Both Raynolds and Hayden were thrown to the gravel on their backsides.  Bridger barely hung on to his saddle horn with one hand and the other to his ever-present muzzleloader. 

© Robert C. Bartsch

Excerpted from The The Devil's Playground, A Novel of Old Montana and the Creation of Yellowstone Park