It was a long narrow valley where the Pine Tree stood, and perhaps if you want to look for it you might find it there today. For pine trees live a long time, and this one was not very old.
The valley was quite barren. Nothing grew there but a few scrubby bushes; and, to tell you the truth, it was about as desolate a place as you can well imagine. Far up over it hung the great, snowy caps of the Rocky Mountains, where the clouds played hide and seek all day, and chased each other merrily across the snow. There was a little stream, too, that gathered itself up among the snows and came running down the side of the mountain; but for all that the valley was very dreary.
Once in a while there went a large grey rabbit, hopping among the sage bushes; but look as far as you could you would find no more inhabitants. Poor, solitary little valley, with not even a cottonwood down by the stream, and hardly enough grass to furnish three oxen with a meal!
Poor, barren little valley lying always for half the day in the shadow of those tall cliffs—burning under the summer sun, heaped high with the winter snows—lying there year after year without a friend! Yes, it had two friends, though they could do it but little good, for they were two pine trees. The one nearest the mountain, hanging quite out of reach in a cleft of the rock, was an old, gnarled tree, which had stood there for a hundred years. The other was younger, with bright green foliage, summer and winter. It curled up the ends of its branches, as if it would like to have you understand that it was a very fine, hardy fellow, even if it wasn’t as old as its father up there in the cleft of the rock.
Now the young Pine Tree grew very lonesome at times, and was glad to talk with any persons who came along, and there were few, I can tell you. Occasionally, it would look lovingly up to the father pine, and wonder if it could make him hear what it said. It would rustle its branches and shout by the hour, but the father pine heard him only once, and then the words were so mixed with falling snow that it was really impossible to say what they meant.
So the Pine Tree was very lonesome and no wonder. “I wish I knew of what good I am,” he said to the grey rabbit one day. “I wish I knew,—I wish I knew,” and he rustled his branches until they all seemed to say, “Wish I knew—wish I knew.”
“O pshaw!” said the rabbit, “I wouldn’t concern myself much about that. Someday you’ll find out.”
“But do tell me,” persisted the Pine Tree, “of what good you think I am.”
“Well,” answered the rabbit, sitting up on her hind paws and washing her face with her front ones, in order that company shouldn’t see her unless she looked trim and tidy—“well,” said the rabbit, “I can’t exactly say myself what it is. If you don’t help one, you help another—and that’s right enough, isn’t it? As for me, I take care of my family. I hop around among the sage bushes and get their breakfast and dinner and supper. I have plenty to do, I assure you, and you must really excuse me now, for I have to be off.”
“I wish I was a hare,” muttered the Pine Tree to himself, “I think I could do some good then, for I should have a family to support, but I know I can’t now.”
Then he called across to the little stream and asked the same question of him. And the stream rippled along, and danced in the sunshine, and answered him. “I go on errands for the big mountain all day. I carried one of your cones not long ago to a point of land twenty miles off, and there now is a pine tree that looks just like you. But I must run along, I am so busy. I can’t tell you of what good you are. You must wait and see.” And the little stream danced on.
“I wish I were a stream,” thought the Pine Tree. “Anything but being tied down to this spot for years. That is unfair. The rabbit can run around, and so can the stream; but I must stand still forever.”
By and by the summer passed into autumn, and the autumn into winter, and the snowflakes began to fall.
“Halloo!” said the first one, all in a flutter, as she dropped on the Pine Tree. But he shook her off, and she fell still farther down on the ground. The Pine Tree was getting very churlish and cross lately.
However, the snow didn’t stop for all that and very soon there was a white robe over all the narrow valley. The Pine Tree had no one to talk with now. The stream had covered himself in with ice and snow, and wasn’t to be seen.
The hare had to hop around very industriously to get enough for her children to eat; and the sage brushes were always low-minded fellows and couldn’t begin to keep up a ten-minutes’ conversation.
At last there came a solitary figure across the valley, making its way straight for the Pine Tree. It was a lame mule, which had been left behind from some wagon-train. He dragged himself slowly on till he reached the tree. Now the Pine, in shaking off the snow, had shaken down some cones as well, and they lay on the snow. These the mule picked up and began to eat.
“Ho ho!” said the tree, “I never knew those things were fit to eat before.”
“Didn’t you?” replied the mule. “Why I have lived on these things, as you call them, ever since I left the wagons. I am going back on the Oregon Trail, and I sha’n’t see you again. Accept my thanks for breakfast. Good-bye.”
And he moved off to the other end of the valley and disappeared among the rocks.
“Well!” exclaimed the Pine Tree. “That’s something, at all events.” And he shook down a number of cones on the snow. He was really happier than he had ever been before,—and with good reason, too.
After a while there appeared three people. They were a family,—a father, a mother, and a little child. They, too, went straight to the tree.
“We’ll stay here,” said the father, looking across at the snow-covered bed of the stream and up at the Pine Tree. He and his wife and the child had on simple clothes and possessed nothing more of any account, except a bow and arrow, and a stick with a net on the end. They had no lodge poles, and not even a dog. They were very miserable and hungry. The man threw down his things not far from the tree. Then he began to clear away the snow in a circle and to pull up the sage bushes. These he and the woman built into a round, low hut, and then they lighted a fire within it. While it was beginning to burn the man went to the stream and broke a hole in the ice. Tying a string to his arrow, he shot a fish which came up to breathe, and, after putting it on the coals, they all ate it. They never noticed the Pine Tree, though he scattered down at least a dozen more cones.
At last night came on, cold and cheerless. The wind blew through the valleys, and howled at the Pine Tree, for they were old enemies. Oh, it was a bitter night, but finally the morning broke! More snow had fallen and heaped up against the hut so that you could hardly tell that it was there. The stream had frozen tighter than before and the man could not break a hole in the ice again. The sage bushes were all hid by the drifts, and they could find none to burn.
Then they turned to the Pine Tree. How glad he was to help them! They gathered up the cones and roasted the seeds on the fire. They cut branches from the tree and burned them, and so kept up the warmth.
The Pine Tree began to find himself useful, and he told the hare so one morning when she came along. But she saw the hut, and did not stop to reply. Day after day passed by,—some bleak, some warm,—and the winter moved slowly along. The people only went from their hut to the Pine Tree now. He gave them fire and food, and the snow was their drink. He was smaller than before, for many branches were gone, but he was happier than ever.
One day the sun came out more warmly, and it seemed as if spring were near. The man broke a hole in the ice, and got more fish. The child gathered sage bushes from under the fast-melting snow and made a hotter fire to cook the food. And they did feast, and then they went away.
The Pine Tree had found out his mission. He had helped to save three lives.
In the summer there came along a band of explorers, and one, the botanist of the party, stopped beside our Pine Tree:
“This,” said he in his big words, “is the Pinus Monophyllus, otherwise known as the Bread Pine.” He looked at the deserted hut and passed his hand over his forehead. “How strange it is,” he said. “This Pine Tree must have kept a whole family from cold and starvation last winter. There are very few of us who have done as much good as that.” And when he went away, he waved his hand to the tree and was thankful that it grew there. And the Bread Pine waved his branches in return, and said to himself as he gazed after the departing band: “I will never complain again, for I have found out what a pleasant thing it is to do good, and I know now that every one in his lifetime can do a little of it.”