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Love In The Park
A tiny, ailing, middle-aged Victorian lady and an alcoholic, one-eyed mountain man are a couple far too unlikely for fiction. But just such a pair met, and fell in love, and suffered in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1873. Isabella Lucy Bird, our improbable heroine, became a prolific and popular travel writer as well as an intrepid tourist, and her journeys resulted in many books, some of which are still being reprinted. This story of her Colorado romance is from A Gallery of Dudes, to be published soon by Little, Brown.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
From that day to this, no one, man or woman, has duplicated her feat. She herself seemed to think nothing of it; she was too busy observing Colorado—its ranching, mining, towns, people. She had published things before and she felt that her letters to Henrietta might contain material for travel books. She observed the scene, and also she considered her heart’s yearning for Jim Nugent. “It takes peace away,” she wrote Henrietta. She wondered if she could be a good wife to a man, after forty-two years of independence. When, in the soft twilight of November 15, she came to Jim’s cabin in Muggins Gulch, no light shone through the chinks and all was silent. She was disappointed, and she was relieved also. Perhaps he had gone off and she would not have to make a decision. But:
Soon I heard the welcome sound of a barking dog.… Calling “Ring” at a venture, the noble dog’s large paws and grand head were in a moment on my saddle, and he greeted me with all those inarticulate but perfectly comprehensible noises with which dogs welcome their human friends. Of the two men on horses who accompanied him, one was his master, as I knew by the musical voice and grace of manner. … Jim leant on my horse and said, “I’m so happy to have met you, so very happy. God bless you.” And his poor disfigured face literally beamed with nice kindly feelings … and sending the [other man] and fur-laden horse on to his cabin, he turned with me to Evans’s.
The next eight days were days of anguish for both of them, the bitter-sweet anguish of middle-aged people perceiving what might have been and knowing nothing can be done about it. On Monday, Jim took her riding across the Big Thompson to see the Black Canyon beaver dams, “his mood as dark as the sky overhead.” She wrote of the ride later, laying it on a bit thick perhaps, to thrill Henrietta:
He was quite silent, struck his horse often, started off on a furious gallop, and then throwing his mare on her haunches close to me, said, “You’re the first man or woman who’s treated me like a human being for many years.”… Then came a terrible revelation that as soon as I had gone away he had discovered he was attached to me and it was killing him. It began on Longs Peak, he said. I was terrified. It made me shake all over and even cry. He is a man whom any woman might love, but who no sane woman would marry. Nor did he ask me to marry him, he knew enough for that. … He has a squatter’s claim, and forty head of cattle, and is a successful trapper besides, but envy and vindictiveness are raging within him. He gets money, goes to Denver, and spends large sums in the maddest dissipation, making himself a terror. … Of course I can’t give details. A less ungovernable nature would never have said a word but his dark proud fierce soul all came out then. … He stopped his horse and said, “Now you see a man who has made a devil of himself! Lost! Lost! Lost! I believe in God. I’ve given Him no choice but to put me with the devil and his angels. I’m afraid to die. You’ve stirred the better nature in me too late. … Don’t speak to me of repentance and reformation. I can’t reform.”… My heart dissolved for pity for him and his dark lost self-ruined life. He is so lovable and fascinating yet so terrible. I told him I could not speak to him, I was so nervous, and he said if I could not speak to him he would not see me again. He would go and camp out on the Snowy Range till I was gone.
On Tuesday, a tragicomic war of love’s frustration began. Jim, pale, haggard and more than a little drunk, called for her late in the afternoon, “but it was a dismal and depressing ride. Jim’s manner was courteous but freezing.” He coughed constantly, the implication being that it was all her fault. He repeated that he was off to the Snowy Range. That night Isabella dreamed “that as we were sitting by the fire Mr. Nugent came in with his revolver in his hand and shot me. But there is no such peril. I wonder if he really will stay up on the range?”
Jim kept her wondering all through Wednesday and Thursday. She busied herself with preparations to leave Estes for good. She washed her hair, made drawers out of a nightgown, and sat in the middle of her cabin “without nearly all my clothes,” mending everything. But she had to unburden herself to Henrietta:
If only it were not for Jim. It is so sad to think of him and no more to see his Arab mare tied in front of the house. It was very wrong of him to speak as he did. He should have let me go without the sorrow of knowing this. Thus again that hideous whiskey fiend crossed my path. You would like him so. He is so quick, like a needle, a thoroughly cultured Irishman … such an agreeable facility of speech. I cannot but think of poor Mr. Wilson on Hawaii and his quiet, undemonstrative, unannoying ways and compare him with this dark, tempestuous, terrible character, wondering how it is that the last is so fascinating.
On Friday, November 21, Griff Evans’s last two lingering dudes told Isabella that they had seen Jim (still coughing and with “an awfully ugly fit on him”) returning to his cabin by the lower ford of the Big Thompson. His use of the lower ford meant that he had avoided passing her cabin. This, she decided, was the end. She would deliver her last word to him herself. She wrote the icy phrases in her small spidery hand: