Tracks of a Rolling Stone
Henry J. Coke
Part 3 out of 6
friend. I purposely abstain from giving either his name or
his profession, for reasons which will become obvious enough
by-and-by; the outward man may be described. He stood well
over six feet in his socks; his frame and limbs were those
of a gladiator; he could crush a horseshoe in one hand; he
had a small head with a bull-neck, purely Grecian features,
thick curly hair with crisp beard and silky moustache. He so
closely resembled a marble Hercules that (as he must have a
name) we will call him Samson.
Before Fred stumbled upon him, he had spent a winter camping
out in the snows of Canada, bear and elk shooting. He was
six years or so older than either of us - I.E. about eight-
As to Fred Calthorpe, it would be difficult to find a more
'manly' man. He was unacquainted with fear. Yet his
courage, though sometimes reckless, was by no means of the
brute kind. He did not run risks unless he thought the gain
would compensate them; and no one was more capable of
weighing consequences than he. His temper was admirable, his
spirits excellent; and for any enterprise where danger and
hardship were to be encountered few men could have been
better qualified. By the end of a week these two had agreed
to accompany me across the Rocky Mountains.
Before leaving the Havana, I witnessed an event which, though
disgusting in itself, gives rise to serious reflections.
Every thoughtful reader is conversant enough with them; if,
therefore, he should find them out of place or trite, apology
is needless, as he will pass them by without the asking.
The circumstance referred to is a public execution. Mr.
Sydney Smith, the vice-consul, informed me that a criminal
was to be garrotted on the following morning; and asked me
whether I cared to look over the prison and see the man in
his cell that afternoon. We went together. The poor wretch
bore the stamp of innate brutality. His crime was the most
revolting that a human being is capable of - the violation
and murder of a mere child. When we were first admitted he
was sullen, merely glaring at us; but, hearing the warder
describe his crime, he became furiously abusive, and worked
himself into such a passion that, had he not been chained to
the wall, he would certainly have attacked us.
At half-past six next morning I went with Mr. Smith to the
Campo del Marte, the principal square. The crowd had already
assembled, and the tops of the houses were thronged with
spectators. The women, dressed as if for a bull-fight or a
ball, occupied the front seats. By squeezing and pushing we
contrived to get within eight or nine yards of the machine,
where I had not long been before the procession was seen
moving up the Passeo. A few mounted troops were in front to
clear the road; behind them came the Host, with a number of
priests and the prisoner on foot, dressed in white; a large
guard brought up the rear. The soldiers formed an open
square. The executioner, the culprit, and one priest
ascended the steps of the platform.
The garrotte is a short stout post, at the top of which is an
iron crook, just wide enough to admit the neck of a man
seated in a chair beneath it. Through the post, parallel
with the crook, is the loop of a rope, whose ends are
fastened to a bar held by the executioner. The loop, being
round the throat of the victim, is so powerfully tightened
from behind by half a turn of the bar, that an extra twist
would sever a man's head from his body.
The murderer showed no signs of fear; he quietly seated
himself, but got up again to adjust the chair and make
himself comfortable! The executioner then arranged the rope
round his neck, tied his legs and his arms, and retired
behind the post. At a word or a look from the priest the
wrench was turned. For a single instant the limbs of the
victim were convulsed, and all was over.
No exclamation, no whisper of horror escaped from the lookers
on. Such a scene was too familiar to excite any feeling but
morbid curiosity; and, had the execution taken place at the
usual spot instead of in the town, few would have given
themselves the trouble to attend it.
It is impossible to see or even to think of what is here
described without gravely meditating on its suggestions. Is
capital punishment justifiable? This is the question I
purpose to consider in the following chapter.
ALL punishments or penal remedies for crime, except capital
punishment, may be considered from two points of view:
First, as they regard Society; secondly, as they regard the
Where capital punishment is resorted to, the sole end in view
is the protection of Society. The malefactor being put to
death, there can be no thought of his amendment. And so far
as this particular criminal is concerned, Society is
henceforth in safety.
But (looking to the individual), as equal security could be
obtained by his imprisonment for life, the extreme measure of
putting him to death needs justification. This is found in
the assumption that death being the severest of all
punishments now permissible, no other penalty is so
efficacious in preventing the crime or crimes for which it is
inflicted. Is the assumption borne out by facts, or by
For facts we naturally turn to statistics. Switzerland
abolished capital punishment in 1874; but cases of
premeditated murder having largely increased during the next
five years, it was restored by Federal legislation in 1879.
Still there is nothing conclusive to be inferred from this
fact. We must seek for guidance elsewhere.
Reverting to the above assumption, we must ask: First, Is
the death punishment the severest of all evils, and to what
extent does the fear of it act as a preventive? Secondly, Is
it true that no other punishment would serve as powerfully in
preventing murder by intimidation?
Is punishment by death the most dreaded of all evils? 'This
assertion,' says Bentham, 'is true with respect to the
majority of mankind; it is not true with respect to the
greatest criminals.' It is pretty certain that a malefactor
steeped in crime, living in extreme want, misery and
apprehension, must, if he reflects at all, contemplate a
violent end as an imminent possibility. He has no better
future before him, and may easily come to look upon death
with brutal insensibility and defiance. The indifference
exhibited by the garrotted man getting up to adjust his chair
is probably common amongst criminals of his type.
Again, take such a crime as that of the Cuban's: the passion
which leads to it is the fiercest and most ungovernable which
man is subject to. Sexual jealousy also is one of the most
frequent causes of murder. So violent is this passion that
the victim of it is often quite prepared to sacrifice life
rather than forego indulgence, or allow another to supplant
him; both men and women will gloat over the murder of a
rival, and gladly accept death as its penalty, rather than
survive the possession of the desired object by another.
Further, in addition to those who yield to fits of passion,
there is a class whose criminal promptings are hereditary: a
large number of unfortunates of whom it may almost be said
that they were destined to commit crimes. 'It is unhappily a
fact,' says Mr. Francis Galton ('Inquiries into Human
Faculty'), 'that fairly distinct types of criminals breeding
true to their kind have become established.' And he gives
extraordinary examples, which fully bear out his affirmation.
We may safely say that, in a very large number of cases, the
worst crimes are perpetrated by beings for whom the death
penalty has no preventive terrors.
But it is otherwise with the majority. Death itself, apart
from punitive aspects, is a greater evil to those for whom
life has greater attractions. Besides this, the permanent
disgrace of capital punishment, the lasting injury to the
criminal's family and to all who are dear to him, must be far
more cogent incentives to self-control than the mere fear of
ceasing to live.
With the criminal and most degraded class - with those who
are actuated by violent passions and hereditary taints, the
class by which most murders are committed - the death
punishment would seem to be useless as an intimidation or an
With the majority it is more than probable that it exercises
a strong and beneficial influence. As no mere social
distinction can eradicate innate instincts, there must be a
large proportion of the majority, the better-to-do, who are
both occasionally and habitually subject to criminal
propensities, and who shall say how many of these are
restrained from the worst of crimes by fear of capital
punishment and its consequences?
On these grounds, if they be not fallacious, the retention of
capital punishment may be justified.
Secondly. Is the assumption tenable that no other penalty
makes so strong an impression or is so pre-eminently
exemplary? Bentham thus answers the question: 'It appears
to me that the contemplation of perpetual imprisonment,
accompanied with hard labour and occasional solitary
confinement, would produce a deeper impression on the minds
of persons in whom it is more eminently desirable that that
impression should be produced than even death itself. . . .
All that renders death less formidable to them renders
laborious restraint proportionably more irksome.' There is
doubtless a certain measure of truth in these remarks. But
Bentham is here speaking of the degraded class; and is it
likely that such would reflect seriously upon what they never
see and only know by hearsay? Think how feeble are their
powers of imagination and reflection, how little they would
be impressed by such additional seventies as 'occasional
solitary confinement,' the occurrence and the effects of
which would be known to no one outside the jail.
As to the 'majority,' the higher classes, the fact that men
are often imprisoned for offences - political and others -
which they are proud to suffer for, would always attenuate
the ignominy attached to 'imprisonment.' And were this the
only penalty for all crimes, for first-class misdemeanants
and for the most atrocious of criminals alike, the
distinction would not be very finely drawn by the interested;
at the most, the severest treatment as an alternative to
capital punishment would always savour of extenuating
There remain two other points of view from which the question
has to be considered: one is what may be called the
Vindictive, the other, directly opposed to it, the
Sentimental argument. The first may be dismissed with a word
or two. In civilised countries torture is for ever
abrogated; and with it, let us hope, the idea of judicial
The LEX TALIONIS - the Levitic law - 'Eye for eye, tooth for
tooth,' is befitting only for savages. Unfortunately the
Christian religion still promulgates and passionately clings
to the belief in Hell as a place or state of everlasting
torment - that is to say, of eternal torture inflicted for no
ultimate end save that of implacable vengeance. Of all the
miserable superstitions ever hatched by the brain of man
this, as indicative of its barbarous origin, is the most
degrading. As an ordinance ascribed to a Being worshipped as
just and beneficent, it is blasphemous.
The Sentimental argument, like all arguments based upon
feeling rather than reason, though not without merit, is
fraught with mischief which far outweighs it. There are
always a number of people in the world who refer to their
feelings as the highest human tribunal. When the reasoning
faculty is not very strong, the process of ratiocination
irksome, and the issue perhaps unacceptable, this course
affords a convenient solution to many a complicated problem.
It commends itself, moreover, to those who adopt it, by the
sense of chivalry which it involves. There is something
generous and noble, albeit quixotic, in siding with the weak,
even if they be in the wrong. There is something charitable
in the judgment, 'Oh! poor creature, think of his adverse
circumstances, his ignorance, his temptation. Let us be
merciful and forgiving.' In practice, however, this often
leads astray. Thus in most cases, even where premeditated
murder is proved to the hilt, the sympathy of the
sentimentalist is invariably with the murderer, to the
complete oblivion of the victim's family.
Bentham, speaking of the humanity plea, thus words its
argument: 'Attend not to the sophistries of reason, which
often deceive, but be governed by your hearts, which will
always lead you right. I reject without hesitation the
punishment you propose: it violates natural feelings, it
harrows up the susceptible mind, it is tyrannical and cruel.'
Such is the language of your sentimental orators.
'But abolish any one penal law merely because it is repugnant
to the feelings of a humane heart, and, if consistent, you
abolish the whole penal code. There is not one of its
provisions that does not, in a more or less painful degree,
wound the sensibility.'
As this writer elsewhere observes: 'It is only a virtue when
justice has done its work, &c. Before this, to forgive
injuries is to invite their perpetration - is to be, not the
friend, but the enemy of society. What could wickedness
desire more than an arrangement by which offences should be
always followed by pardon?'
Sentiment is the ULTIMA RATIO FEMINARUM, and of men whose
natures are of the epicene gender. It is a luxury we must
forego in the face of the stern duties which evil compels us
There is only one other argument against capital punishment
that is worth considering.
The objection so strenuously pleaded by Dickens in his
letters to the 'Times' - viz. the brutalising effects upon
the degraded crowds which witnessed public executions - is no
longer apposite. But it may still be urged with no little
force that the extreme severity of the sentence induces all
concerned in the conviction of the accused to shirk the
responsibility. Informers, prosecutors, witnesses, judges,
and jurymen are, as a rule, liable to reluctance as to the
performance of their respective parts in the melancholy
drama.' The consequence is that 'the benefit of the doubt,'
while salving the consciences of these servants of the law,
not unfrequently turns a real criminal loose upon society;
whereas, had any other penalty than death been feasible, the
same person would have been found guilty.
Much might be said on either side, but on the whole it would
seem wisest to leave things - in this country - as they are;
and, for one, I am inclined to the belief that,
Mercy murders, pardoning those that kill.
WE were nearly six weeks in the Havana, being detained by
Lord Durham's illness. I provided myself with a capital
Spanish master, and made the most of him. This, as it turned
out, proved very useful to me in the course of my future
travels. About the middle of March we left for Charlestown
in the steamer ISABEL, and thence on to New York. On the
passage to Charlestown, we were amused one evening by the
tricks of a conjuror. I had seen the man and his wife
perform at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. She was called the
'Mysterious Lady.' The papers were full of speculations as
to the nature of the mystery. It was the town talk and
excitement of the season.
This was the trick. The lady sat in the corner of a large
room, facing the wall, with her eyes bandaged. The company
were seated as far as possible from her. Anyone was invited
to write a few words on a slip of paper, and hand it to the
man, who walked amongst the spectators. He would simply say
to the woman 'What has the gentleman (or lady) written upon
this paper?' Without hesitation she would reply correctly.
The man was always the medium. One person requested her,
through the man, to read the number on his watch, the figures
being, as they always are, very minute. The man repeated the
question: 'What is the number on this watch?' The woman,
without hesitation, gave it correctly. A friend at my side,
a young Guardsman, took a cameo ring from his finger, and
asked for a description of the figures in relief. There was
a pause. The woman was evidently perplexed. She confessed
at last that she was unable to answer. The spectators
murmured. My friend began to laugh. The conjuror's bread
was at stake, but he was equal to the occasion. He at once
explained to the company that the cameo represented 'Leeder
and the Swan in a hambigious position, which the lady didn't
profess to know nothing about.' This apology, needless to
say, completely re-established the lady's character.
Well, recognising my friend of the Egyptian Hall, I reminded
him of the incident. He remembered it perfectly; and we fell
to chatting about the wonderful success of the 'mystery,' and
about his and the lady's professional career. He had begun
life when a boy as a street acrobat, had become a street
conjuror, had married the 'mysterious lady' out of the 'saw-
dust,' as he expressed it - meaning out of a travelling
circus. After that, 'things had gone 'ard' with them. They
had exhausted their resources in every sense. One night,
lying awake, and straining their brains to devise some means
of subsistence, his wife suddenly exclaimed, 'How would it be
if we were to try so and so?' explaining the trick just
described. His answer was: 'Oh! that's too silly. They'd
see through it directly.' This was all I could get out of
him: this, and the fact that the trick, first and last, had
made them fairly comfortable for the rest of their days.
Now mark what follows, for it is the gist and moral of my
little story about this conjuror, and about two other miracle
workers whom I have to speak of presently.
Once upon a time, I was discussing with an acquaintance the
not unfamiliar question of Immortality. I professed
Agnosticism - strongly impregnated with incredulity. My
friend had no misgivings, no doubts on the subject whatever.
Absolute certainty is the prerogative of the orthodox. He
had taken University honours, and was a man of high position
at the Bar. I was curious to learn upon what grounds such an
one based his belief. His answer was: 'Upon the phenomena
of electro-biology, and the psychic phenomena of mesmerism.'
His 'first convictions were established by the manifestations
of the soul as displayed through a woman called "The
Mysterious Lady," who, &c., &c.'
When we have done with our thaumaturgist on board the ISABEL,
I will give another instance, precisely similar to this, of
the simple origin of religious beliefs.
The steamer was pretty full; and the conjuror begged me to
obtain the patronage of my noble friend and the rest of our
party for an entertainment he proposed to give that evening.
This was easily secured, and a goodly sum was raised by
dollar tickets. The sleight-of-hand was excellent. But the
special performance of the evening deserves description in
full. It was that of a whist-playing dog. Three passengers
- one of us taking a hand - played as in dummy whist, dummy's
hand being spread in a long row upon the deck of the saloon
cabin. The conjuror, as did the other passengers, walked
about behind the players, and saw all the players' hands, but
not a word was spoken. The dog played dummy's hand. When it
came to his turn he trotted backwards and forwards, smelling
each card that had been dealt to him. He sometimes
hesitated, then comically shaking his head, would leave it to
smell another. The conjuror stood behind the dog's partner,
and never went near the animal. There was no table - the
cards were thrown on the deck. They were dealt by the
players; the conjuror never touched them. When the dog's
mind was made up, he took his card in his mouth and laid it
on the others. His play was infallible. He and his partner
won the rubber with ease.
Now, to those ignorant of the solution, this must, I think,
seem inexplicable. How was collusion managed between the
animal and its master? One of the conditions insisted upon
by the master himself was silence. He certainly never broke
it. I bought the trick - must I confess it? for twenty
dollars. How transparent most things are when - seen
through! When the dog smelt at the right card, the conjuror,
who saw all four hands, and had his own in his pocket,
clicked his thumb-nail against a finger-nail. The dog alone
could hear it, and played the card accordingly.
The other story: A few years after my return to England, a
great friend called upon me, and, in an excited state,
described a SEANCE he had had with a woman who possessed the
power of 'invoking' spirits. These spirits had correctly
replied to questions, the answers to which were only known to
himself. The woman was an American. I am sorry to say I
have forgotten her name, but I think she was the first of her
tribe to visit this country. As in the case spoken of, my
friend was much affected by the results of the SEANCE. He
was a well-educated and intelligent man. Born to wealth, he
had led a somewhat wildish life in his youth. Henceforth he
became more serious, and eventually turned Roman Catholic.
He entreated me to see the woman, which I did.
I wrote to ask for an appointment. She lived in Charlotte
Street, Fitzroy Square; but on the day after the morrow she
was to change her lodgings to Queen Anne Street, where she
would receive me at 11 A.M. I was punctual to a minute, and
was shown into an ordinary furnished room. The maid informed
me that Mrs. - had not yet arrived from Charlotte Street, but
she was sure to come before long, as she had an engagement
(so she said) with a gentleman.
Nothing could have suited me better. I immediately set to
work to examine the room and the furniture with the greatest
care. I looked under and moved the sofa, tables, and
armchairs. I looked behind the curtains, under the rug, and
up the chimney. I could discover nothing. There was not the
vestige of a spirit anywhere. At last the medium entered - a
plain, middle-aged matron with nothing the least spiritual
about her. She seated herself opposite to me at the round
table in the centre of the room, and demurely asked what I
wanted. 'To communicate with the spirits,' I replied. She
did not know whether that was possible. It depended upon the
person who sought them. She would ask the spirits whether
they would confer with me. Whereupon she put the question:
'Will the spirits converse with this gentleman?' At all
events, thought I, the term 'gentleman' applies to the next
world, which is a comfort. She listened for the answer.
Presently three distinct raps on the table signified assent.
She then took from her reticule a card whereon were printed
the alphabet, and numerals up to 10. The letters were
separated by transverse lines. She gave me a pencil with
these instructions: I was to think, not utter, my question,
and then put the pencil on each of the letters in succession.
When the letters were touched which spelt the answer, the
spirits would rap, and the words could be written down.
My friend had told me this much, so I came prepared. I began
by politely begging the lady to move away from the table at
which we were seated, and take a chair in the furthest corner
of the room. She indignantly complied, asking if I suspected
her. I replied that 'all ladies were dangerous, when they
were charming,' which put us on the best of terms. I placed
my hat so as to intercept her view of my operations, and thus
Thinking the matter over beforehand, I concluded that when
the questioner, of either sex, was young, love would very
probably be the topic; the flesh, not the spirit, would be
the predominant interest. Being an ingenuous young man of
the average sort, and desperately in love with Susan, let us
say, I should naturally assist the supernatural being, if at
a loss, to understand that the one thing wanted was
information about Susan. I therefore mentally asked the
question: 'Who is the most lovely angel without wings, and
with the means of sitting down?' and proceeded to pass the
pencil over the letters, pausing nowhere. I now and then got
a doubtful rap on or under the table, - how delivered I know
not - but signifying nothing. It was clear the spirits
needed a cue. I put the pencil on the letter S, and kept it
there. I got a tentative rap. I passed at once to U. I got
a more confident rap. Then to S. Rap, rap, without
hesitation. A and N were assented to almost before I touched
them. Susan was an angel - the angel. What more logical
proof could I have of the immortality of the soul?
Mrs. - asked me whether I was satisfied. I said it was
miraculous; so much so indeed, that I could hardly believe
the miracle, until corroborated by another. Would the
spirits be kind enough to suspend this pencil in the air?
'Oh! that was nonsense. The spirits never lent themselves to
mere frivolity.' 'I beg the spirits' pardon, I am sure,'
said I. 'I have heard that they often move heavy tables. I
thought perhaps the pencil would save them trouble. Will
they move this round table up to this little one?' I had, be
it observed, when alone, moved and changed the relative
positions of both tables; and had determined to make this my
crucial test. To my astonishment, Mrs. - replied that she
could not say whether they would or not. She would ask them.
She did so, and the spirits rapped 'Yes.'
I drew my chair aside. The woman remained seated in the
corner. I watched everything. Nothing happened. After a
while, I took out my watch, and said: 'I fear the spirits do
not intend to keep their word. I have an appointment twenty
minutes hence, and can only give them ten minutes more.' She
calmly replied she had nothing to do with it. I had heard
what the spirits said. I had better wait a little longer.
Scarcely were the words out of her mouth, when the table gave
a distinct crack, as if about to start. The medium instantly
called my attention to it. I jumped out of my seat, passed
between the two tables, when of a sudden the large table
moved in the direction of the smaller one, and did not stop
till it had pushed the little one over. I make no comments.
No explanation to me is conceivable. I simply narrate what
happened as accurately as I am able.
One other case deserves to be added to the above. I have
connected both of the foregoing with religious persuasions.
The SEANCE I am about to speak of was for the express purpose
of bringing a brokenhearted and widowed mother into
communication with the soul of her only son - a young artist
of genius whom I had known, and who had died about a year
before. The occasion was, of course, a solemn one. The
interest of it was enhanced by the presence of the great
apostle of Spiritualism - Sir William Crookes. The medium
was Miss Kate Fox, again an American. The SEANCE took place
in the house of a very old friend of mine, the late Dr.
George Bird. He had spiritualistic tendencies, but was
supremely honest and single-minded; utterly incapable of
connivance with deception of any kind. As far as I know, the
medium had never been in the room before. The company
present were Dr. Bird's intimate friend Sir William Crookes -
future President of the Royal Society - Miss Bird, Dr. Bird's
daughter, and her husband - Mr. Ionides - and Mrs. -, the
mother of the young artist. The room, a large one, was
darkened; the last light being extinguished after we had
taken our places round the dining-table. We were strenuously
enjoined to hold one another's hands. Unless we did so the
SEANCE would fail.
Before entering the room, I secretly arranged with Mr.
Ionides, who shared my scepticism, that we should sit side by
side; and so each have one hand free. It is not necessary to
relate what passed between the unhappy mother and the medium,
suffice it to say that she put questions to her son; and the
medium interpreted the rappings which came in reply. These,
I believe, were all the poor lady could wish for. To the
rest of us, the astounding events of the SEANCE were the dim
lights, accompanied by faint sounds of an accordion, which
floated about the room over our heads. And now comes, to me,
the strangest part of the whole performance. All the while I
kept my right arm extended under the table, moving my hand to
and fro. Presently it touched something. I make a grab, and
caught, but could not hold for an instant, another hand. It
was on the side away from Mr. Ionides. I said nothing,
except to him, and the SEANCE was immediately broken up.
It may be thought by some that this narration is a biassed
one. But those acquainted with the charlatanry in these days
of what is called 'Christian Science,' and know the extent to
which crass ignorance and predisposed credulity can be duped
by childish delusions, may have some 'idea how acute was the
spirit-rapping epidemic some forty or fifty years ago. 'At
this moment,' writes Froude, in 'Fraser's Magazine,' 1863,
'we are beset with reports of conversations with spirits, of
tables miraculously lifted, of hands projecting out of the
world of shadows into this mortal life. An unusually able,
accomplished person, accustomed to deal with common-sense
facts, a celebrated political economist, and notorious for
business-like habits, assured this writer that a certain
mesmerist, who was my informer's intimate friend, had raised
a dead girl to life.' Can we wonder that miracles are still
believed in? Ah! no. The need, the dire need, of them
remains, and will remain with us for ever.
WE must move on; we have a long and rough journey before us.
Durham had old friends in New York, Fred Calthorpe had
letters to Colonel Fremont, who was then a candidate for the
Presidency, and who had discovered the South Pass; and Mr.
Ellice had given me a letter to John Jacob Astor - THE
American millionaire of that day. We were thus well provided
with introductions; and nothing could exceed the kindness and
hospitality of our American friends.
But time was precious. It was already mid May, and we had
everything to get - wagons, horses, men, mules, and
provisions. So that we were anxious not to waste a day, but
hurry on to St. Louis as fast as we could. Durham was too
ill to go with us. Phoca had never intended to do so. Fred,
Samson, and I, took leave of our companions, and travelling
via the Hudson to Albany, Buffalo, down Lake Erie, and across
to Chicago, we reached St. Louis in about eight days. As a
single illustration of what this meant before railroads,
Samson and I, having to stop a day at Chicago, hired a buggy
and drove into the neighbouring woods, or wilderness, to hunt
for wild turkeys.
Our outfit, the whole of which we got at St. Louis, consisted
of two heavy wagons, nine mules, and eight horses. We hired
eight men, on the nominal understanding that they were to go
with us as far as the Rocky Mountains on a hunting
expedition. In reality all seven of them, before joining us,
had separately decided to go to California.
Having published in 1852 an account of our journey, entitled
'A Ride over the Rocky Mountains,' I shall not repeat the
story, but merely give a summary of the undertaking, with a
few of the more striking incidents to show what travelling
across unknown America entailed fifty or sixty years ago.
A steamer took us up the Missouri to Omaha. Here we
disembarked on the confines of occupied territory. From near
this point, where the Platte river empties into the Missouri,
to the mouth of the Columbia, on the Pacific - which we
ultimately reached - is at least 1,500 miles as the crow
flies; for us (as we had to follow watercourses and avoid
impassable ridges) it was very much more. Some five-and-
forty miles from our starting-place we passed a small village
called Savannah. Between it and Vancouver there was not a
single white man's abode, with the exception of three trading
stations - mere mud buildings - Fort Laramie, Fort Hall, and
The vast prairies on this side of the Rocky Mountains were
grazed by herds of countless bison, wapiti, antelope, and
deer of various species. These were hunted by moving tribes
of Indians - Pawnees, Omahaws, Cheyennes, Ponkaws, Sioux, &c.
On the Pacific side of the great range, a due west course -
which ours was as near as we could keep it - lay across a
huge rocky desert of volcanic debris, where hardly any
vegetation was to be met with, save artemisia - a species of
wormwood - scanty blades of gramma grass, and occasional
osiers by river-banks. The rivers themselves often ran
through canons or gulches, so deep that one might travel for
days within a hundred feet of water yet perish (some of our
animals did so) for the want of a drop to drink. Game was
here very scarce - a few antelope, wolves, and abundance of
rattlesnakes, were nearly the only living things we saw. The
Indians were mainly fishers of the Shoshone - or Great Snake
River - tribe, feeding mostly on salmon, which they speared
with marvellous dexterity; and Root-diggers, who live upon
wild roots. When hard put to it, however, in winter, the
latter miserable creatures certainly, if not the former,
devoured their own children. There was no map of the
country. It was entirely unexplored; in fact, Bancroft the
American historian, in his description of the Indian tribes,
quotes my account of the Root-diggers; which shows how little
was known of this region up to this date. I carried a small
compass fastened round my neck. That and the stars (we
travelled by night when in the vicinity of Indians) were my
only guides for hundreds of dreary miles.
Such then was the task we had set ourselves to grapple with.
As with life itself, nothing but the magic powers of youth
and ignorance could have cajoled us to face it with heedless
confidence and eager zest. These conditions given, with
health - the one essential of all enjoyment - added, the
first escape from civilised restraint, the first survey of
primordial nature as seen in the boundless expanse of the
open prairie, the habitat of wild men and wild animals, -
exhilarate one with emotions akin to the schoolboy's rapture
in the playground, and the thoughtful man's contemplation of
the stars. Freedom and change, space and the possibilities
of the unknown, these are constant elements of our day-
dreams; now and then actual life dangles visions of them
before our eyes, alas! only to teach us that the aspirations
which they inspire are, for the most part, illusory.
Brief indeed, in our case, were the pleasures of novelty.
For the first few days the business was a continuous picnic
for all hands. It was a pleasure to be obliged to help to
set up the tents, to cut wood, to fetch water, to harness the
mules, and work exactly as the paid men worked. The equality
in this respect - that everything each wanted done had to be
done with his own hands - was perfect; and never, from first
to last, even when starvation left me bare strength to lift
the saddle on to my horse, did I regret the necessity, or
desire to be dependent on another man. But the bloom soon
wore off the plum; and the pleasure consisted not in doing
but in resting when the work was done.
For the reason already stated, a sample only of the daily
labour will be given. It may be as well first to bestow a
few words upon the men; for, in the long run, our fellow
beings are the powerful factors, for good or ill, in all our
We had two ordinary mule-drivers - Potter and Morris, a
little acrobat out of a travelling circus, a METIF or half-
breed Indian named Jim, two French Canadians - Nelson and
Louis (the latter spoke French only); Jacob, a Pennsylvanian
auctioneer whose language was a mixture of Dutch, Yankee, and
German; and (after we reached Fort Laramie) another Nelson -
'William' as I shall call him - who offered his services
gratis if we would allow him to go with us to California.
Jacob the Dutch Yankee was the most intelligent and the most
useful of the lot, and was unanimously elected cook for the
party. The Canadian Nelson was a hard-working good young
fellow, with a passionate temper. Louis was a hunter by
profession, Gallic to the tip of his moustache - fond of
slapping his breast and telling of the mighty deeds of NOUS
AUTRES EN HAUT. Jim, the half-breed was Indian by nature -
idle, silent, treacherous, but a crafty hunter. William
deserves special mention, not from any idiosyncrasy of the
man, but because he was concerned soon after he joined us in
the most disastrous of my adventures throughout the
To look at, William Nelson might have sat for the portrait of
Leatherstocking. He was a tall gaunt man who had spent his
youth bringing rafts of timber down the Wabash river, from
Fort Wayne to Maumee, in Ohio. For the last six years (he
was three-and-thirty) he had been trapping musk rats and
beaver, and dealing in pelts generally. At the time of our
meeting he was engaged to a Miss Mary something - the
daughter of an English immigrant, who would not consent to
the marriage until William was better off. He was now bound
for California, where he hoped to make the required fortune.
The poor fellow was very sentimental about his Mary; but,
despite his weatherbeaten face, hardy-looking frame, and his
'longue carabine,' he was scarcely the hero which, no doubt,
Miss Mary took him for.
Yes, the novelty soon wore off. We had necessaries enough to
last to California. We also had enough unnecessaries to
bring us to grief in a couple of weeks. Our wagons were
loaded to the roof. And seeing there was no road nor so much
as a track, that there were frequent swamps and small rivers
to be crossed, that our Comanche mules were wilder than the
Indians who had owned them, it may easily be believed that
our rate of progress did not average more than six or seven
miles a day; sometimes it took from dawn to dusk to cross a
stream by ferrying our packages, and emptied wagons, on such
rafts as could be extemporised. Before the end of a
fortnight, both wagons were shattered, wheels smashed, and
axles irreparable. The men, who were as refractory as the
other animals, helped themselves to provisions, tobacco and
whisky, at their own sweet will, and treated our
remonstrances with resentment and contempt.
Heroic measures were exigent. The wagons were broken up and
converted into pack saddles. Both tents, masses of
provisions, 100 lbs. of lead for bullets, kegs of powder,
warm clothing, mackintoshes, waterproof sheeting, tarpaulins,
medicine chest, and bags of sugar, were flung aside to waste
their sweetness on the desert soil. Not one of us had ever
packed a saddle before; and certainly not one of the mules
had ever carried, or to all appearances, ever meant to carry,
a pack. It was a fight between man and beast every day -
twice a day indeed, for we halted to rest and feed, and had
to unpack and repack our remaining impedimenta in payment for
Let me cite a page from my diary. It is a fair specimen of
scores of similar entries.
'JUNE 24TH. - My morning watch. Up at 1 A.M. Roused the men
at 3.30. Off at 7.30. Rained hard all day. Packs slipped
or kicked off eighteen times before halt. Men grumbling.
Nelson and Jim both too ill to work. When adjusting pack,
Nelson and Louis had a desperate quarrel. Nelson drew his
knife and nearly stabbed Louis. I snatched a pistol out of
my holster, and threatened to shoot Nelson unless he shut up.
Fred, of course, laughed obstreperously at the notion of my
committing murder, which spoilt the dramatic effect.
'Oh! these devils of mules! After repacking, they rolled,
they kicked and bucked, they screamed and bit, as though we
were all in Hell, and didn't know it. It took four men to
pack each one; and the moment their heads were loosed, away
they went into the river, over the hills, and across country
as hard as they could lay legs to ground. It was a cheerful
sight! - the flour and biscuit stuff swimming about in the
stream, the hams in a ditch full of mud, the trailed pots and
pans bumping and rattling on the ground until they were as
shapeless as old wide-awakes. And, worst of all, the pack-
saddles, which had delayed us a week to make - nothing now
but a bundle of splinters.
'25TH. - What a night! A fearful storm broke over us. All
round was like a lake. Fred and I sat, back to back, perched
on a flour bag till daylight, with no covering but our
shooting jackets, our feet in a pool, and bodies streaming
like cascades. Repeated lightning seemed to strike the
ground within a few yards of us. The animals, wild with
terror, stampeded in all directions. In the morning, lo and
behold! Samson on his back in the water, insensibly drunk.
At first I thought he was dead; but he was only dead drunk.
We can't move till he can, unless we bequeath him to the
wolves, which are plentiful. This is the third time he has
served us the same trick. I took the liberty to ram my heel
through the whisky keg (we have kept a small one for
emergencies) and put it empty under his head for a pillow.'
There were plenty of days and nights to match these, but
there were worse in store for us.
One evening, travelling along the North Platte river, before
reaching Laramie, we overtook a Mormon family on their way to
Salt Lake city. They had a light covered wagon with hardly
anything in it but a small supply of flour and bacon. It was
drawn by four oxen and two cows. Four milch cows were
driven. The man's name was Blazzard - a Yorkshireman from
the Wolds, whose speech was that of Learoyd. He had only his
wife and a very pretty daughter of sixteen or seventeen with
him. We asked him how he became a Mormon. He answered:
'From conviction,' and entreated us to be baptized in the
true faith at his hands. The offer was tempting, for the
pretty little milkmaid might have become one of one's wives
on the spot. In truth the sweet nymph urged conversion more
persuasively than her papa - though with what views who shall
say? The old farmer's acquaintance with the Bible was
remarkable. He quoted it at every sentence, and was eloquent
upon the subject of the meaning and the origin of the word
'Bible.' He assured us the name was given to the Holy Book
from the circumstance of its contents having passed a synod
of prophets, just as an Act of Parliament passes the House of
Commons - BY BILL. Hence its title. It was this historical
fact that guaranteed the authenticity of the sacred volume.
There are various reasons for believing - this is one of
The next day, being Sunday, was spent in sleep. In the
afternoon I helped the Yorkshire lassie to herd her cattle,
which had strayed a long distance amongst the rank herbage by
the banks of the Platte. The heat was intense, well over 120
in the sun; and the mosquitos rose in clouds at every step in
the wet grass. It was an easy job for me, on my little grey,
to gallop after the cows and drive them home, (it would have
been a wearisome one for her,) and she was very grateful, and
played Dorothea to my Hermann. None of our party wore any
upper clothing except a flannel shirt; I had cut off the
sleeves of mine at the elbow. This was better for rough
work, but the broiling sun had raised big blisters on my arms
and throat which were very painful. When we got back to
camp, Dorothea laved the burns for me with cool milk. Ah!
she was very pretty; and, what 'blackguard' Heine, as
Carlyle dubs him, would have called 'naive schmutzig.' When
we parted next morning I thought with a sigh that before the
autumn was over, she would be in the seraglio of Mr. Brigham
Young; who, Artemus Ward used to say, was 'the most married
man he ever knew.'
SPORT had been the final cause of my trip to America - sport
and the love of adventure. As the bison - buffalo, as they
are called - are now extinct, except in preserved districts,
a few words about them as they then were may interest game
hunters of the present day.
No description could convey an adequate conception of the
numbers in which they congregated. The admirable
illustrations in Catlin's great work on the North American
Indians, afford the best idea to those who have never seen
the wonderful sight itself. The districts they frequented
were vast sandy uplands sparsely covered with the tufty
buffalo or gramma grass. These regions were always within
reach of the water-courses; to which morning and evening the
herds descended by paths, after the manner of sheep or cattle
in a pasture. Never shall I forget the first time I
witnessed the extraordinary event of the evening drink.
Seeing the black masses galloping down towards the river, by
the banks of which our party were travelling, we halted some
hundred yards short of the tracks. To have been caught
amongst the animals would have been destruction; for, do what
they would to get out of one's way, the weight of the
thousands pushing on would have crushed anything that impeded
them. On the occasion I refer to we approached to within
safe distance, and fired into them till the ammunition in our
pouches was expended.
As examples of our sporting exploits, three days taken almost
at random will suffice. The season was so far advanced that,
unless we were to winter at Fort Laramie, it was necessary to
keep going. It was therefore agreed that whoever left the
line of march - that is, the vicinity of the North Platte -
for the purpose of hunting should take his chance of catching
up the rest of the party, who were to push on as speedily as
possible. On two of the days which I am about to record this
rule nearly brought me into trouble. I quote from my
'Left camp to hunt by self. Got a shot at some deer lying in
long grass on banks of a stream. While stalking, I could
hardly see or breathe for mosquitos; they were in my eyes,
nose, and mouth. Steady aim was impossible; and, to my
disgust, I missed the easiest of shots. The neck and flanks
of my little grey are as red as if painted. He is weak from
loss of blood. Fred's head is now so swollen he cannot wear
his hard hat; his eyes are bunged up, and his face is comic
to look at. Several deer and antelopes; but ground too
level, and game too wild to let one near. Hardly caring what
direction I took, followed outskirts of large wood, four or
five miles away from the river. Saw a good many summer
lodges; but knew, by the quantity of game, that the Indians
had deserted them. In the afternoon came suddenly upon deer;
and singling out one of the youngest fawns, tried to run it
down. The country being very rough, I found it hard work to
keep between it and the wood. First, my hat blew off; then a
pistol jumped out of the holster; but I was too near to give
up, - meaning to return for these things afterwards. Two or
three times I ran right over the fawn, which bleated in the
most piteous manner, but always escaped the death-blow from
the grey's hoofs. By degrees we edged nearer to the thicket,
when the fawn darted down the side of a bluff, and was lost
in the long grass and brushwood, I followed at full speed;
but, unable to arrest the impetus of the horse, we dashed
headlong into the thick scrub, and were both thrown with
violence to the ground. I was none the worse; but the poor
beast had badly hurt his shoulder, and for the time was dead
'For an hour at least I hunted, for my pistol. It was much
more to me than my hat. It was a huge horse pistol, that
threw an ounce ball of exactly the calibre of my double
rifle. I had shot several buffaloes with it, by riding close
to them in a chase; and when in danger of Indians I loaded it
with slugs. At last I found it. It was getting late; and I
didn't rightly know where I was. I made for the low country.
But as we camped last night at least two miles from the
river, on account of the swamps, the difficulty was to find
the tracks. The poor little grey and I hunted for it in
vain. The wet ground was too wet, the dry ground too hard,
to show the tracks in the now imperfect light.
'The situation was a disagreeable one: it might be two or
three days before I again fell in with my friends. I had not
touched food since the early morning, and was rather done.
To return to the high ground was to give up for the night;
but that meant another day behind the cavalcade, with
diminished chance of overtaking it. Through the dusk I saw
what I fancied was something moving on a mound ahead of me
which arose out of the surrounding swamp. I spurred on, but
only to find the putrid carcase of a buffalo, with a wolf
supping on it. The brute was gorged, and looked as sleek as
"die schone Frau Giermund"; but, unlike Isegrim's spouse, she
was free to escape, for she wasn't worth a bullet. I was so
famished, that I examined the carcase with the hope of
finding a cut that would last for a day or two; my nose
wouldn't have it. I plodded on, the water up to the saddle-
girths. The mosquitos swarmed in millions, and the poor
little grey could hardly get one leg before the other. I,
too, was so feverish that, ignorant of bacteria, I filled my
round hat with the filthy stagnant water, and drank it at a
'At last I made for higher ground. It was too dark to hunt
for tracks, so I began to look out for a level bed. Suddenly
my beast, who jogged along with his nose to the ground, gave
a loud neigh. We had struck the trail. I threw the reins on
his neck, and left matters to his superior instincts. In
less than half an hour the joyful light of a camp fire
gladdened my eyes. Fred told me he had halted as soon as he
was able, not on my account only, but because he, too, had
had a severe fall, and was suffering great pain from a
Here is an ordinary example of buffalo shooting:
'JULY 2ND. - Fresh meat much wanted. With Jim the half-breed
to the hills. No sooner on high ground than we sighted game.
As far as eye could reach, right away to the horizon, the
plain was black with buffaloes, a truly astonishing sight.
Jim was used to it. I stopped to spy them with amazement.
The nearest were not more than half a mile off, so we
picketed our horses under the sky line; and choosing the
hollows, walked on till crawling became expedient. As is
their wont, the outsiders were posted on bluffs or knolls in
a commanding position; these were old bulls. To my
inexperience, our chance of getting a shot seemed small; for
we had to cross the dipping ground under the brow whereon the
sentinels were lying. Three extra difficulties beset us -
the prairie dogs (a marmot, so called from its dog-like bark
when disturbed) were all round us, and bolted into their
holes like rabbits directly they saw us coming; two big grey
wolves, the regular camp followers of a herd, were prowling
about in a direct line between us and the bulls; lastly, the
cows, though up and feeding, were inconveniently out of
reach. (The meat of the young cow is much preferred to that
of the bull.) Jim, however, was confident. I followed my
leader to a wink. The only instruction I didn't like when we
started crawling on the hot sand was "Look out for
'The wolves stopped, examined us suspiciously, then quietly
trotted off. What with this and the alarm of the prairie
dogs, an old bull, a patriarch of the tribe, jumped up and
walked with majestic paces to the top of the knoll. We lay
flat on our faces, till he, satisfied with the result of his
scrutiny, resumed his recumbent posture; but with his head
turned straight towards us. Jim, to my surprise, stealthily
crawled on. In another minute or two we had gained a point
whence we could see through the grass without being seen.
Here we rested to recover breath. Meanwhile, three or four
young cows fed to within sixty or seventy yards of us.
Unluckily we both selected the same animal, and both fired at
the same moment. Off went the lot helter skelter, all save
the old bull, who roared out his rage and trotted up close to
our hiding place.
'"Look out for a bolt," whispered Jim, "but don't show
yourself nohow till I tell you."
'For a minute or two the suspense was exciting. One hardly
dared to breathe. But his majesty saw us not, and turned
again to his wives. We instantly reloaded; and the startled
herd, which had only moved a few yards, gave us the chance of
a second shot. The first cow had fallen dead almost where
she stood. The second we found at the foot of the hill, also
with two bullet wounds behind the shoulder. The tongues,
humps, and tender loins, with some other choice morsels, were
soon cut off and packed, and we returned to camp with a grand
supply of beef for Jacob's larder.
AT the risk of being tedious, I will tell of one more day's
buffalo hunting, to show the vicissitudes of this kind of
sport. Before doing so we will glance at another important
feature of prairie life, a camp of Sioux Indians.
One evening, after halting on the banks of the Platte, we
heard distant sounds of tomtoms on the other side of the
river. Jim, the half-breed, and Louis differed as to the
tribe, and hence the friendliness or hostility, of our
neighbours. Louis advised saddling up and putting the night
between us; he regaled us to boot with a few blood-curdling
tales of Indian tortures, and of NOUS AUTRES EN HAUT. Jim
treated these with scorn, and declared he knew by the 'tunes'
(!) that the pow-wow was Sioux. Just now, he asserted, the
Sioux were friendly, and this 'village' was on its way to
Fort Laramie to barter 'robes' (buffalo skins) for blankets
and ammunition. He was quite willing to go over and talk to
them if we had no objection.
Fred, ever ready for adventure, would have joined him in a
minute; but the river, which was running strong, was full of
nasty currents, and his injured knee disabled him from
swimming. No one else seemed tempted; so, following Jim's
example, I stripped to my flannel shirt and moccasins, and
crossed the river, which was easier to get into than out of,
and soon reached the 'village.' Jim was right, - they were
Sioux, and friendly. They offered us a pipe of kinik (the
dried bark of the red willow), and jabbered away with their
kinsman, who seemed almost more at home with them than with
Seeing one of their 'braves' with three fresh scalps at his
belt, I asked for the history of them. In Sioux gutturals
the story was a long one. Jim's translation amounted to
this: The scalps were 'lifted' from two Crows and a Ponkaw.
The Crows, it appeared, were the Sioux' natural enemies
'anyhow,' for they occasionally hunted on each other's
ranges. But the Ponkaw, whom he would not otherwise have
injured, was casually met by him on a horse which the Sioux
recognised for a white man's. Upon being questioned how he
came by it, the Ponkaw simply replied that it was his own.
Whereupon the Sioux called him a liar; and proved it by
sending an arrow through his body.
I didn't quite see it. But then, strictly speaking, I am no
collector of scalps. To preserve my own, I kept the hair on
it as short as a tooth-brush.
Before we left, our hosts fed us on raw buffalo meat. This,
cut in slices, and dried crisp in the sun, is excellent.
Their lodges were very comfortable, most of them large enough
to hold a dozen people. The ground inside was covered with
buffalo robes; and the sewn skins, spread tight upon the
converging poles, formed a tent stout enough to defy all
weathers. In winter the lodge can be entirely closed; and
when a fire is kindled in the centre, the smoke escaping at a
small hole where the poles join, the snugness is complete.
At the entrance of one of these lodges I watched a squaw and
her child prepare a meal. When the fuel was collected, a fat
puppy, playing with the child, was seized by the squaw, and
knocked on the throat - not head - with a stick. The puppy
was then returned, kicking, to the tender mercies of the
infant; who exerted its small might to add to the animal's
miseries, while the mother fed the fire and filled a kettle
for the stew. The puppy, much more alive than dead, was held
by the hind leg over the flames as long as the squaw's
fingers could stand them. She then let it fall on the
embers, where it struggled and squealed horribly, and would
have wriggled off, but for the little savage, who took good
care to provide for the satisfactory singeing of its
Considering the length of its lineage, how remarkably hale
and well preserved is our own barbarity!
We may now take our last look at the buffaloes, for we shall
see them no more. Again I quote my journal:
'JULY 5TH. - Men sulky because they have nothing to eat but
rancid ham, and biscuit dust which has been so often soaked
that it is mouldy and sour. They are a dainty lot! Samson
and I left camp early with the hopes of getting meat. While
he was shooting prairie dogs his horse made off, and cost me
nearly an hour's riding to catch. Then, accidentally letting
go of my mustang, he too escaped; and I had to run him down
with the other. Towards evening, spied a small band of
buffaloes, which we approached by leading our horses up a
hollow. They got our wind, however, and were gone before we
were aware of it. They were all young, and so fast, it took
a twenty minutes' gallop to come up with them. Samson's
horse put his foot in a hole, and the cropper they both got
gave the band a long start, as it became a stern chase, and
no heading off.
'At length I managed to separate one from the herd by firing
my pistol into the "brown," and then devoted my efforts to
him alone. Once or twice he turned and glared savagely
through his mane. When quite isolated he pulled up short, so
did I. We were about sixty yards apart. I flung the reins
upon the neck of the mustang, who was too blown to stir, and
handling my rifle, waited for the bull to move so that I
might see something more than the great shaggy front, which
screened his body. But he stood his ground, tossing up the
sand with his hoofs. Presently, instead of turning tail, he
put his head down, and bellowing with rage, came at me as
hard as he could tear. I had but a moment for decision, - to
dig spurs into the mustang, or risk the shot. I chose the
latter; paused till I was sure of his neck, and fired when he
was almost under me. In an instant I was sent flying; and
the mustang was on his back with all four legs in the air.
'The bull was probably as much astonished as we were. His
charge had carried him about thirty yards, at most, beyond
us. There he now stood; facing me, pawing the ground and
snorting as before. Badly wounded I knew him to be, - that
was the worst of it; especially as my rifle, with its
remaining loaded barrel, lay right between us. To hesitate
for a second only, was to lose the game. There was no time
to think of bruises; I crawled, eyes on him, straight for my
weapon: got it - it was already cocked, and the stock
unbroken - raised my knee for a rest. We were only twenty
yards apart (the shot meant death for one of the two), and
just catching a glimpse of his shoulder-blade, I pulled. I
could hear the thud of the heavy bullet, and - what was
sweeter music - the ugh! of the fatal groan. The beast
dropped on his knees, and a gush of blood spurted from his
'But the wild devil of a mustang? that was my first thought
now. Whenever one dismounted, it was necessary to loosen his
long lariat, and let it trail on the ground. Without this
there was no chance of catching him. I saw at once what had
happened: by the greatest good fortune, at the last moment,
he must have made an instinctive start, which probably saved
his life, and mine too. The bull's horns had just missed his
entrails and my leg, - we were broadside on to the charge, -
and had caught him in the thigh, below the hip. There was a
big hole, and he was bleeding plentifully. For all that, he
wouldn't let me catch him. He could go faster on three legs
than I on two.
'It was getting dark, I had not touched food since starting,
nor had I wetted my lips. My thirst was now intolerable.
The travelling rule, about keeping on, was an ugly incubus.
Samson would go his own ways - he had sense enough for that -
but how, when, where, was I to quench my thirst? Oh! for the
tip of Lazarus' finger - or for choice, a bottle of Bass - to
cool my tongue! Then too, whither would the mustang stray in
the night if I rested or fell asleep? Again and again I
tried to stalk him by the starlight. Twice I got hold of his
tail, but he broke away. If I drove him down to the river
banks the chance of catching him would be no better, and I
should lose the dry ground to rest on.
'It was about as unpleasant a night as I had yet passed.
Every now and then I sat down, and dropped off to sleep from
sheer exhaustion. Every time this happened I dreamed of
sparkling drinks; then woke with a start to a lively sense of
the reality, and anxious searches for the mustang.
'Directly the day dawned I drove the animal, now very stiff,
straight down for the Platte. He wanted water fully as much
as his master; and when we sighted it he needed no more
driving. Such a hurry was he in that, in his rush for the
river, he got bogged in the muddy swamp at its edge. I
seized my chance, and had him fast in a minute. We both
plunged into the stream; I, clothes and all, and drank, and
drank, and drank.'
That evening I caught up the cavalcade.
How curious it is to look back upon such experiences from a
different stage of life's journey! How would it have fared
with me had my rifle exploded with the fall? it was knocked
out of my hands at full cock. How if the stock had been
broken? It had been thrown at least ten yards. How if the
horn had entered my thigh instead of the horse's? How if I
had fractured a limb, or had been stunned, or the bull had
charged again while I was creeping up to him? Any one, or
more than one, of these contingencies were more likely to
happen than not. But nothing did happen, save - the best.
Not a thought of the kind ever crossed my mind, either at the
time or afterwards. Yet I was not a thoughtless man, only an
average man. Nine Englishmen out of ten with a love of sport
- as most Englishmen are - would have done, and have felt,
just as I did. I was bruised and still; but so one is after
a run with hounds. I had had many a nastier fall hunting in
Derbyshire. The worst that could happen did not happen; but
the worst never - well, so rarely does. One might shoot
oneself instead of the pigeon, or be caught picking forbidden
fruit. Narrow escapes are as good as broad ones. The truth
is, when we are young, and active, and healthy, whatever
happens, of the pleasant or lucky kind, we accept as a matter
Ah! youth! youth! If we only knew when we were well off,
when we were happy, when we possessed all that this world has
to give! If we but knew that love is only a matter of course
so long as youth and its bounteous train is ours, we might
perhaps make the most of it, and give up looking for -
something better. But what then? Give up the 'something
better'? Give up pursuit, - the effort that makes us strong?
'Give up the sweets of hope'? No! 'tis better as it is,
perhaps. The kitten plays with its tail, and the nightingale
sings; but they think no more of happiness than the rose-bud
of its beauty. May be happiness comes not of too much
knowing, or too much thinking either.
FORT LARAMIE was a military station and trading post
combined. It was a stone building in what they called a
'compound' or open space, enclosed by a palisade. When we
arrived there, it was occupied by a troop of mounted riflemen
under canvas, outside the compound. The officers lived in
the fort; and as we had letters to the Colonel - Somner - and
to the Captain - Rhete, they were very kind and very useful
We pitched our camp by the Laramie river, four miles from the
fort. Nearer than that there was not a blade of grass. The
cavalry horses and military mules needed all there was at
hand. Some of the mules we were allowed to buy, or exchange
for our own. We accordingly added six fresh ones to our
cavalcade, and parted with two horses; which gave us a total
of fifteen mules and six horses. Government provisions were
not to be had, so that we could not replenish our now
impoverished stock. This was a serious matter, as will be
seen before long. Nor was the evil lessened by my being laid
up with a touch of fever - the effect, no doubt, of those
drenches of stagnant water. The regimental doctor was
absent. I could not be taken into the fort. And, as we had
no tent, and had thrown away almost everything but the
clothes we wore, I had to rough it and take my chance. Some
relics of our medicine chest, together with a tough
constitution, pulled me through. But I was much weakened,
and by no means fit for the work before us. Fred did his
best to persuade me from going further. He confessed that he
was utterly sick of the expedition; that his injured knee
prevented him from hunting, or from being of any use in
packing and camp work; that the men were a set of ruffians
who did just as they chose - they grumbled at the hardships,
yet helped themselves to the stores without restraint; that
we had the Rocky Mountains yet to cross; after that, the
country was unknown. Colonel Somner had strongly advised us
to turn back. Forty of his men had tried two months ago to
carry despatches to the regiment's headquarters in Oregon.
Only five had got through; the rest had been killed and
scalped. Finally, that we had something like 1,200 miles to
go, and were already in the middle of August. It would be
folly, obstinacy, madness, to attempt it. He would stop and
hunt where we were, as long as I liked; or he would go back
with me. He would hire fresh good men, and buy new horses;
and, now that we knew the country, we could get to St. Louis
before the end of September, and' - . There was no reasonable
answer to be made. I simply told him I had thought it over,
and had decided to go on. Like the plucky fellow and staunch
friend that he was, he merely shrugged his shoulders, and
quietly said, 'Very well. So be it.'
Before leaving Fort Laramie a singular incident occurred,
which must seem so improbable, that its narration may be
taken for fiction. It was, however, a fact. There was
plenty of game near our camping ground; and though the
weather was very hot, one of the party usually took the
trouble to bring in something to keep the pot supplied. The
sage hens, the buffalo or elk meat were handed over to Jacob,
who made a stew with bacon and rice, enough for the evening
meal and the morrow's breakfast. After supper, when everyone
had filled his stomach, the large kettle, covered with its
lid, was taken off the fire, and this allowed to burn itself
For four or five mornings running the kettle was found nearly
empty, and all hands had to put up with a cup of coffee and
mouldy biscuit dust. There was a good deal of
unparliamentary language. Everyone accused everyone else of
filthy greediness. It was disgusting that after eating all
he could, a man hadn't the decency to wait till the morning.
The pot had been full for supper, and, as every man could
see, it was never half emptied - enough was always left for
breakfast. A resolution was accordingly passed that each
should take his turn of an hour's watch at night, till the
glutton was caught in the act.
My hour happened to be from 11 to 12 P.M. I strongly
suspected the thief to be an Indian, and loaded my big pistol
with slugs on the chance. It was a clear moonlight night. I
propped myself comfortably with a bag of hams; and concealed
myself as well as I could in a bush of artemisia, which was
very thick all round. I had not long been on the look-out
when a large grey wolf prowled slowly out of the bushes. The
night was bright as day; but every one of the men was sound
asleep in a circle round the remains of the camp fire. The
wolf passed between them, hesitating as it almost touched a
covering blanket. Step by step it crept up to the kettle,
took the handle of the lid between its jaws, lifted it off,
placed it noiselessly on the ground, and devoured the savoury
I could not fire, because of the men. I dared not move, lest
I should disturb the robber. I was even afraid the click of
cocking the pistol would startle him and prevent my getting a
quiet shot. But patience was rewarded. When satiated, the
brute retired as stealthily as he had advanced; and as he
passed within seven or eight yards of me I let him have it.
Great was my disappointment to see him scamper off. How was
it possible I could have missed him? I must have fired over
his back. The men jumped to their feet and clutched their
rifles; but, though astonished at my story, were soon at rest
again. After this the kettle was never robbed. Four days
later we were annoyed with such a stench that it was a
question of shifting our quarters. In hunting for the
nuisance amongst the thicket of wormwood, the dead wolf was
discovered not twenty yards from our centre.
The reader would not thank me for an account of the
monotonous drudgery, the hardships, the quarrellings, which
grew worse from day to day after we left Fort Laramie. Fred
and I were about the only two who were on speaking terms; we
clung to each other, as a sort of forlorn security against
coming disasters. Gradually it was dawning on me that, under
the existing circumstances, the fulfilment of my hopes would
be (as Fred had predicted) an impossibility; and that to
persist in the attempt to realise them was to court
destruction. As yet, I said nothing of this to him. Perhaps
I was ashamed to. Perhaps I secretly acknowledged to myself
that he had been wiser than I, and that my stubbornness was
responsible for the life itself of every one of the party.
Doubtless thoughts akin to these must often have haunted the
mind of my companion; but he never murmured; only uttered a
hasty objurgation when troubles reached a climax, and
invariably ended with a burst of cheery laughter which only
the sulkiest could resist. It was after a day of severe
trials he proposed that we should go off by ourselves for a
couple of nights in search of game, of which we were much in
need. The men were easily persuaded to halt and rest.
Samson had become a sort of nonentity. Dysentery had
terribly reduced his strength, and with it such intelligence
as he could boast of. We started at daybreak, right glad to
be alone together and away from the penal servitude to which
we were condemned. We made for the Sweetwater, not very far
from the foot of the South Pass, where antelope and black-
tailed deer abounded. We failed, however, to get near them -
stalk after stalk miscarried.
Disappointed and tired, we were looking out for some snug
little hollow where we could light a fire without its being
seen by the Indians, when, just as we found what we wanted,
an antelope trotted up to a brow to inspect us. I had a
fairly good shot at him and missed. This disheartened us
both. Meat was the one thing we now sorely needed to save
the rapidly diminishing supply of hams. Fred said nothing,
but I saw by his look how this trifling accident helped to
depress him. I was ready to cry with vexation. My rifle was
my pride, the stag of my life - my ALTER EGO. It was never
out of my hands; every day I practised at prairie dogs, at
sage hens, at a mark even if there was no game. A few days
before we got to Laramie I had killed, right and left, two
wild ducks, the second on the wing; and now, when so much
depended on it, I could not hit a thing as big as a donkey.
The fact is, I was the worse for illness. I had constant
returns of fever, with bad shivering fits, which did not
improve the steadiness of one's hand. However, we managed to
get a supper. While we were examining the spot where the
antelope had stood, a leveret jumped up, and I knocked him
over with my remaining barrel. We fried him in the one tin
plate we had brought with us, and thought it the most
delicious dish we had had for weeks.
As we lay side by side, smoke curling peacefully from our
pipes, we chatted far into the night, of other days - of
Cambridge, of our college friends, of London, of the opera,
of balls, of women - the last a fruitful subject - and of the
future. I was vastly amused at his sudden outburst as some
start of one of the horses picketed close to us reminded us
of the actual present. 'If ever I get out of this d-d mess,'
he exclaimed, 'I'll never go anywhere without my own French
cook.' He kept his word, to the end of his life, I believe.
It was a delightful repose, a complete forgetting, for a
night at any rate, of all impending care. Each was cheered
and strengthened for the work to come. The spirit of
enterprise, the love of adventure restored for the moment,
believed itself a match for come what would. The very
animals seemed invigorated by the rest and the abundance of
rich grass spreading as far as we could see. The morning was
bright and cool. A delicious bath in the Sweetwater, a
breakfast on fried ham and coffee, and once more in our
saddles on the way back to camp, we felt (or fancied that we
felt) prepared for anything.
That is just what we were not. Samson and the men, meeting
with no game where we had left them, had moved on that
afternoon in search of better hunting grounds. The result
was that when we overtook them, we found five mules up to
their necks in a muddy creek. The packs were sunk to the
bottom, and the animals nearly drowned or strangled. Fred
and I rushed to the rescue. At once we cut the ropes which
tied them together; and, setting the men to pull at tails or
heads, succeeded at last in extricating them.
Our new-born vigour was nipped in the bud. We were all
drenched to the skin. Two packs containing the miserable
remains of our wardrobe, Fred's and mine, were lost. The
catastrophe produced a good deal of bad language and bad
blood. Translated into English it came to this: 'They had
trusted to us, taking it for granted we knew what we were
about. What business had we to "boss" the party if we were
as ignorant as the mules? We had guaranteed to lead them
through to California [!] and had brought them into this
"almighty fix" to slave like niggers and to starve.' There
was just truth enough in the Jeremiad to make it sting. It
would not have been prudent, nay, not very safe, to return
curse for curse. But the breaking point was reached at last.
That night I, for one, had not much sleep. I was soaked from
head to foot, and had not a dry rag for a change. Alternate
fits of fever and rigor would alone have kept me awake; but
renewed ponderings upon the situation and confirmed
convictions of the peremptory necessity of breaking up the
party, forced me to the conclusion that this was the right,
the only, course to adopt.
For another twenty-four hours I brooded over my plans. Two
main difficulties confronted me: the announcement to the
men, who might mutiny; and the parting with Fred, which I
dreaded far the most of the two. Would he not think it
treacherous to cast him off after the sacrifices he had made
for me? Implicitly we were as good as pledged to stand by
each other to the last gasp. Was it not mean and dastardly
to run away from the battle because it was dangerous to fight
it out? Had friendship no claims superior to personal
safety? Was not my decision prompted by sheer selfishness?
Could anything be said in its defence?
Yes; sentiment must yield to reason. To go on was certain
death for all. It was not too late to return, for those who
wished it. And when I had demonstrated, as I could easily
do, the impossibility of continuance, each one could decide
for himself. The men were as reckless as they were ignorant.
However they might execrate us, we were still their natural
leaders: their blame, indeed, implied they felt it. No
sentimental argument could obscure this truth, and this
conviction was decisive.
The next night and the day after were, from a moral point of
view, the most trying perhaps, of the whole journey. We had
halted on a wide, open plain. Due west of us in the far
distance rose the snowy peaks of the mountains. And the
prairie on that side terminated in bluffs, rising gradually
to higher spurs of the range. When the packs were thrown
off, and the men had turned, as usual, to help themselves to
supper, I drew Fred aside and imparted my resolution to him.
He listened to it calmly - much more so than I had expected.
Yet it was easy to see by his unusual seriousness that he
fully weighed the gravity of the purpose. All he said at the
time was, 'Let us talk it over after the men are asleep.'
We did so. We placed our saddles side by side - they were
our regular pillows - and, covering ourselves with the same
blanket, well out of ear-shot, discussed the proposition from
every practical aspect. He now combated my scheme, as I
always supposed he would, by laying stress upon our bond of
friendship. This was met on my part by the arguments already
set forth. He then proposed an amendment, which almost upset
my decision. 'It is true,' he admitted, 'that we cannot get
through as we are going now; the provisions will not hold out
another month, and it is useless to attempt to control the
men. But there are two ways out of the difficulty: we can
reach Salt Lake City and winter there; or, if you are bent on
going to California, why shouldn't we take Jacob and Nelson
(the Canadian), pay off the rest of the brutes, and travel
together, - us four?'
Whether 'das ewig Wirkende' that shapes our ends be
beneficent or malignant is not easy to tell, till after the
event. Certain it is that sometimes we seem impelled by
latent forces stronger than ourselves - if by self be meant
one's will. We cannot give a reason for all we do; the
infinite chain of cause and effect, which has had no
beginning and will have no end, is part of the reckoning, -
with this, finite minds can never grapple.
It was destined (my stubbornness was none of my making) that
I should remain obdurate. Fred's last resource was an
attempt to persuade me (he really believed: I, too, thought
it likely) that the men would show fight, annex beasts and
provisions, and leave us to shift for ourselves. There were
six of them, armed as we were, to us three, or rather us two,
for Samson was a negligible quantity. 'We shall see,' said
I; and by degrees we dropped asleep.
BEFORE the first streak of dawn I was up and off to hunt for
the horses and mules, which were now allowed to roam in
search of feed. On my return, the men were afoot, taking it
easy as usual. Some artemisia bushes were ablaze for the
morning's coffee. No one but Fred had a suspicion of the
coming crisis. I waited till each one had lighted his pipe;
then quietly requested the lot to gather the provision packs
together, as it was desirable to take stock, and make some
estimate of demand and supply. Nothing loth, the men obeyed.
'Now,' said I, 'turn all the hams out of their bags, and let
us see how long they will last.' When done: 'What!' I
exclaimed, with well - feigned dismay, 'that's not all,
surely? There are not enough here to last a fortnight.
Where are the rest? No more? Why, we shall starve.' The
men's faces fell; but never a murmur, nor a sound. 'Turn out
the biscuit bags. Here, spread these empty ham sacks, and
pour the biscuit on to them. Don't lose any of the dust. We
shall want every crumb, mouldy or not.' The gloomy faces
grew gloomier. What's to be done?' Silence. 'The first
thing, as I think all will agree, is to divide what is left
into nine equal shares - that's our number now - and let each
one take his ninth part, to do what he likes with. You
yourselves shall portion out the shares, and then draw lots
This presentation of the inevitable compelled submission.
The whole, amounting to twelve light mule packs (it had been
fifteen fairly heavy ones after our purchases at Fort
Laramie), was still a goodly bulk to look at. The nine
peddling dividends, when seen singly, were not quite what the
shareholders had anticipated.
Why were they still silent? Why did they not rebel, and
visit their wrath upon the directors? Because they knew in
their hearts that we had again and again predicted the
catastrophe. They knew we had warned them scores and scores
of times of the consequences of their wilful and reckless
improvidence. They were stupefied, aghast, at the ruin they
had brought upon themselves. To turn upon us, to murder us,
and divide our three portions between them, would have been
suicidal. In the first place, our situation was as desperate
as theirs. We should fight for our lives; and it was not
certain, in fact it was improbable, that either Jacob or
William would side against us. Without our aid - they had
not a compass among them - they were helpless. The instinct
of self-preservation bade them trust to our good will.
So far, then, the game was won. Almost humbly they asked
what we advised them to do. The answer was prompt and
decisive: 'Get back to Fort Laramie as fast as you can.'
'But how? Were they to walk? They couldn't carry their
packs.' 'Certainly not; we were English gentlemen, and would
behave as such. Each man should have his own mule; each,
into the bargain, should receive his pay according to
agreement.' They were agreeably surprised. I then very
strongly counselled them not to travel together. Past
experience proved how dangerous this must be. To avoid the
temptation, even the chance, of this happening, the surest
and safest plan would be for each party to start separately,
and not leave till the last was out of sight. For my part I
had resolved to go alone.
It was a melancholy day for everyone. And to fill the cup of
wretchedness to overflowing, the rain, beginning with a
drizzle, ended with a downpour. Consultations took place
between men who had not spoken to one another for weeks.
Fred offered to go on, at all events to Salt Lake City, if
Nelson the Canadian and Jacob would go with him. Both
eagerly closed with the offer. They would be so much nearer
to the 'diggings,' and were, moreover, fond of their leader.
Louis would go back to Fort Laramie. Potter and Morris would
cross the mountains, and strike south for the Mormon city if
their provisions and mules threatened to give out. William
would try his luck alone in the same way. And there remained
no one but Samson, undecided and unprovided for. The strong
weak man sat on the ground in the steady rain, smoking pipe
after pipe; watching first the preparations, then the
departures, one after the other, at intervals of an hour or
so. First the singles, then the pair; then, late in the
afternoon, Fred and his two henchmen.
It is needless to depict our separation. I do not think
either expected ever to see the other again. Yet we parted
after the manner of trueborn Britons, as if we should meet
again in a day or two. 'Well, good-bye, old fellow. Good
luck. What a beastly day, isn't it?' But emotions are only
partially suppressed by subduing their expression. The
hearts of both were full.
I watched the gradual disappearance of my dear friend, and
thought with a sigh of my loss in Jacob and Nelson, the two
best men of the band. It was a comfort to reflect that they
had joined Fred. Jacob especially was full of resource;
Nelson of energy and determination. And the courage and cool
judgment of Fred, and his presence of mind in emergencies,
were all pledges for the safety of the trio.
As they vanished behind a distant bluff, I turned to the
sodden wreck of the deserted camp, and began actively to pack
my mules. Samson seemed paralysed by imbecility.
'What had I better do?' he presently asked, gazing with dull
eyes at his two mules and two horses.
'I don't care what you do. It is nothing to me. You had
better pack your mules before it is dark, or you may lose
'I may as well go with you, I think. I don't care much about
going back to Laramie.'
He looked miserable. I was so. I had held out under a long
and heavy strain. Parting with Fred had, for the moment,
staggered my resolution. I was sick at heart. The thought
of packing two mules twice a day, single-handed, weakened as
I was by illness, appalled me. And though ashamed of the
perversity which had led me to fling away the better and
accept the worse, I yielded.
'Very well then. Make haste. Get your traps together. I'll
look after the horses.'
It took more than an hour before the four mules were ready.
Like a fool, I left Samson to tie the led horses in a string,
while I did the same with the mules. He started, leading the
horses. I followed with the mule train some minutes later.
Our troubles soon began. The two spare horses were nearly as
wild as the mules. I had not got far when I discerned
through the rain a kicking and plunging and general
entanglement of the lot ahead of me. Samson had fastened the
horses together with slip knots; and they were all doing
their best to strangle one another and themselves. To leave
the mules was dangerous, yet two men were required to release
the maddened horses. At last the labour was accomplished;
and once more the van pushed on with distinct instructions as
to the line of march, it being now nearly dark. The mules
had naturally vanished in the gloom; and by the time I was
again in my saddle, Samson was - I knew not where. On and on
I travelled, far into the night. But failing to overtake my
companion, and taking for granted that he had missed his way,
I halted when I reached a stream, threw off the packs, let
the animals loose, rolled myself in my blanket, and shut my
eyes upon a trying day.
Nothing happens but the unexpected. Daylight woke me.
Samson, still in his rugs, was but a couple of hundred yards
further up the stream. In the afternoon of the third day we
fell in with William. He had cut himself a long willow wand
and was fishing for trout, of which he had caught several in
the upper reaches of the Sweetwater. He threw down his rod,
hastened to welcome our arrival, and at once begged leave to
join us. He was already sick of solitude. He had come
across Potter and Morris, who had left him that morning.
They had been visited by wolves in the night, (I too had been
awakened by their howlings,) and poor William did not relish
the thought of the mountains alone, with his one little white
mule - which he called 'Cream.' He promised to do his utmost
to help with the packing, and 'not cost us a cent.' I did
not tell him how my heart yearned towards him, and how
miserably my courage had oozed away since we parted, but made
a favour of his request, and granted it. The gain, so long
as it lasted, was incalculable.
The summit of the South Pass is between 8000 and 9000 feet
above the level of the Gulf of Mexico. The Pass itself is
many miles broad, undulating on the surface, but not
abruptly. The peaks of the Wind River Chain, immediately to
the north, are covered with snow; and as we gradually got
into the misty atmosphere we felt the cold severely. The
lariats - made of raw hide - became rods of ice; and the poor
animals, whose backs were masses of festering raws, suffered
terribly from exposure. It was interesting to come upon
proofs of the 'divide' within a mile of the most elevated
point in the pass. From the Hudson to this spot, all waters
had flowed eastward; now suddenly every little rivulet was
making for the Pacific.
The descent is as gradual as the rise. On the first day of
it we lost two animals, a mule and Samson's spare horse. The
latter, never equal to the heavy weight of its owner, could
go no further; and the dreadful state of the mule's back
rendered packing a brutality. Morris and Potter, who passed
us a few days later, told us they had seen the horse dead,
and partially eaten by wolves; the mule they had shot to put
it out of its misery.
In due course we reached Fort Hall, a trading post of the
Hudson's Bay Company, some 200 miles to the north-west of the
South Pass. Sir George Simpson, Chairman of that Company,
had given me letters, which ensured the assistance of its
servants. It was indeed a rest and a luxury to spend a
couple of idle days here, and revive one's dim recollection
of fresh eggs and milk. But we were already in September.
Our animals were in a deplorable condition; and with the
exception of a little flour, a small supply of dried meat,
and a horse for Samson, Mr. Grant, the trader, had nothing to
sell us. He told us, moreover, that before we reached Fort
Boise, their next station, 300 miles further on, we had to
traverse a great rocky desert, where we might travel four-
and-twenty hours after leaving water, before we met with it
again. There was nothing for it but to press onwards. It
was too late now to cross the Sierra Nevada range, which lay
between us and California; and with the miserable equipment
left to us, it was all we could hope to do to reach Oregon
before the passage of the Blue Mountains was blocked by the
Mr. Grant's warnings were verified to the foot of the letter.
Great were our sufferings, and almost worse were those of the
poor animals, from the want of water. Then, too, unlike the
desert of Sahara, where the pebbly sand affords a solid
footing, the soil here is the calcined powder of volcanic
debris, so fine that every step in it is up to one's ankles;
while clouds of it rose, choking the nostrils, and covering
one from head to heel. Here is a passage from my journal:
'Road rocky in places, but generally deep in the finest
floury sand. A strong and biting wind blew dead in our
teeth, smothering us in dust, which filled every pore.
William presented such a ludicrous appearance that Samson and
I went into fits over it. An old felt hat, fastened on by a
red cotton handkerchief, tied under his chin, partly hid his
lantern-jawed visage; this, naturally of a dolorous cast, was
screwed into wrinkled contortions by its efforts to resist
the piercing gale. The dust, as white as flour, had settled
thick upon him, the extremity of his nasal organ being the
only rosy spot left; its pearly drops lodged upon a chin
almost as prominent. His shoulders were shrugged to a level
with his head, and his long legs dangled from the back of
little "Cream" till they nearly touched the ground.'
We laughed at him, it is true, but he was so good-natured, so
patient, so simple-minded, and, now and then, when he and I
were alone, so sentimental and confidential about Mary, and
the fortune he meant to bring her back, that I had a sort of
maternal liking for him; and even a vicarious affection for
Mary herself, the colour of whose eyes and hair - nay, whose
weight avoirdupois - I was now accurately acquainted with.
No, the honest fellow had not quite the grit of a
One night, when we had halted after dark, he went down to a
gully (we were not then in the desert) to look for water for
our tea. Samson, armed with the hatchet, was chopping wood.
I stayed to arrange the packs, and spread the blankets.
Suddenly I heard a voice from the bottom of the ravine,
crying out, 'Bring the guns for God's sake! Make haste!
Bring the guns!' I rushed about in the dark, tumbling over
the saddles, but could nowhere lay my hands on a rifle.
Still the cry was for 'Guns!' My own, a muzzle-loader, was
discharged, but a rifle none the less. Snatching up this,
and one of my pistols, which, by the way, had fallen into the
river a few hours before, I shouted for Samson, and ran
headlong to the rescue. Before I got to the bottom of the
hill I heard groans, which sounded like the last of poor
William. I holloaed to know where he was, and was answered
in a voice that discovered nothing worse than terror.
It appeared that he had met a grizzly bear drinking at the
very spot where he was about to fill his can; that he had
bolted, and the bear had pursued him; but that he had
'cobbled the bar with rocks,' had hit it in the eye, or nose,
he was not sure which, and thus narrowly escaped with his
life. I could not help laughing at his story, though an
examination of the place next morning so far verified it,
that his footprints and the bear's were clearly intermingled
on the muddy shore of the stream. To make up for his fright,
he was extremely courageous when restored by tea and a pipe.
'If we would follow the trail with him, he'd go right slick
in for her anyhow. If his rifle didn't shoot plum, he'd a
bowie as 'ud rise her hide, and no mistake. He'd be darn'd
if he didn't make meat of that bar in the morning.'
WE were now steering by compass. Our course was nearly
north-west. This we kept, as well as the formation of the
country and the watercourses would permit. After striking
the great Shoshone, or Snake River, which eventually becomes
the Columbia, we had to follow its banks in a southerly
direction. These are often supported by basaltic columns
several hundred feet in height. Where that was the case,
though close to water, we suffered most from want of it. And
cold as were the nights - it was the middle of September -
the sun was intensely hot. Every day, every mile, we were
hoping for a change - not merely for access to the water, but
that we might again pursue our westerly course. The scenery
was sometimes very striking. The river hereabouts varies
from one hundred to nearly three hundred yards in width;
sometimes rushing through narrow gorges, sometimes descending
in continuous rapids, sometimes spread out in smooth shallow
reaches. It was for one of these that we were in search, for
only at such points was the river passable.
It was night-time when we came to one of the great falls. We
were able here to get at water; and having halted through the
day, on account of the heat, kept on while our animals were
refreshed. We had to ascend the banks again, and wind along
the brink of the precipice. From this the view was
magnificent. The moon shone brightly upon the dancing waves
hundreds of feet below us, and upon the rapids which extended
as far as we could see. The deep shade of the high cliffs
contrasted in its impenetrable darkness with the brilliancy
of the silvery foam. The vast plain which we overlooked,
fading in the soft light, rose gradually into a low range of
distant hills. The incessant roar of the rapids, and the
desert stillness of all else around, though they lulled one's
senses, yet awed one with a feeling of insignificance and
impotence in the presence of such ruthless force, amid such
serene and cold indifference. Unbidden, the consciousness
was there, that for some of us the coming struggle with those
mighty waters was fraught with life or death.
At last we came upon a broad stretch of the river which
seemed to offer the possibilities we sought for. Rather late
in the afternoon we decided to cross here, notwithstanding
William's strong reluctance to make the venture. Part of his
unwillingness was, I knew, due to apprehension, part to his
love of fishing. Ever since we came down upon the Snake
River we had seen quantities of salmon. He persisted in the
belief that they were to be caught with the rod. The day
before, all three of us had waded into the river, and flogged
it patiently for a couple of hours, while heavy fish were
tumbling about above and below us. We caught plenty of
trout, but never pricked a salmon. Here the broad reach was
alive with them, and William begged hard to stop for the
afternoon and pursue the gentle sport. It was not to be.
The tactics were as usual. Samson led the way, holding the
lariat to which the two spare horses were attached. In
crossing streams the mules would always follow the horses.
They were accordingly let loose, and left to do so. William
and I brought up the rear, driving before us any mule that
lagged. My journal records the sequel:
'At about equal distances from each other and the main land
were two small islands. The first of these we reached
without trouble. The second was also gained; but the packs
were wetted, the current being exceedingly rapid. The space
remaining to be forded was at least two hundred yards; and
the stream so strong that I was obliged to turn my mare's
head up it to prevent her being carried off her legs. While
thus resting, William with difficulty, - the water being over
his knees, - sidled up to me. He wanted to know if I still
meant to cross. For all answer, I laughed at him. In truth
I had not the smallest misgiving. Strong as was the current,
the smooth rocky bottom gave a good foothold to the animals;
and, judging by the great width of the river, there was no
reason to suppose that its shallowness would not continue.
'We paused for a few minutes to observe Samson, who was now
within forty or fifty yards of the opposite bank; and, as I
concluded, past all danger. Suddenly, to the astonishment of
both of us, he and his horse and the led animals disappeared
under water; the next instant they were struggling and
swimming for the bank. Tied together as they were, there was
a deal of snorting and plunging; and Samson (with his
habitual ingenuity) had fastened the lariat either to himself
or his saddle; so that he was several times dragged under
before they all got to the bank in safety.
'These events were watched by William with intense anxiety.
With a pitiable look of terror he assured me he could not
swim a yard; it was useless for him to try to cross; he would
turn back, and find his way to Salt Lake City.
'"But," I remonstrated, "if you turn back, you will certainly
starve; everything we possess is over there with the mules;
your blanket, even your rifle, are with the packs. It is
impossible to get the mules back again. Give little Cream
her head, sit still in your saddle, and she'll carry you
through that bit of deep water with ease."
'"I can live by fishing," he plaintively answered. He still
held his long rod, and the incongruity of it added to the
pathos of his despair. I reminded him of a bad river we had
before crossed, and how his mule had swum it safely with him
on her back. I promised to keep close to him, and help him
if need were, though I was confident if he left everything to
Cream there would be no danger. "Well, if he must, he must.
But, if anything happened to him, would I write and tell
Mary? I knew her address; leastways, if I didn't, it was in
his bag on the brown mule. And tell her I done my best."
'The water was so clear one could see every crack in the rock
beneath. Fortunately, I took the precaution to strip to my
shirt; fastened everything, even my socks, to the saddle;
then advanced cautiously ahead of William to the brink of the
chasm. We were, in fact, upon the edge of a precipice. One
could see to an inch where the gulf began. As my mare
stepped into it I slipped off my saddle; when she rose I laid
hold of her tail, and in two or three minutes should have
been safe ashore.
'Looking back to see how it had fared with William, I at once
perceived his danger. He had clasped his mule tightly round
the neck with his arms, and round the body with his long
legs. She was plunging violently to get rid of her load.
Already the pair were forty or fifty yards below me.
Instantly I turned and swam to his assistance. The struggles
of the mule rendered it dangerous to get at him. When I did
so he was partially dazed; his hold was relaxed. Dragging
him away from the hoofs of the animal, I begged him to put
his hands on my shoulders or hips. He was past any effort of
the kind. I do not think he heard me even. He seemed hardly
conscious of anything. His long wet hair plastered over the
face concealed his features. Beyond stretching out his arms,
like an infant imploring help, he made no effort to save
'I seized him firmly by the collar, - unfortunately, with my
right hand, leaving only my left to stem the torrent. But
how to keep his face out of the water? At every stroke I was
losing strength; we were being swept away, for him, to
hopeless death. At length I touched bottom, got both hands
under his head, and held it above the surface. He still
breathed, still puffed the hair from his lips. There was
still a hope, if I could but maintain my footing. But, alas!
each instant I was losing ground - each instant I was driven
back, foot by foot, towards the gulf. The water, at first
only up to my chest, was now up to my shoulders, now up to my
neck. My strength was gone. My arms ached till they could
bear no more. They sank involuntarily. William glided from
my hands. He fell like lead till his back lay stretched upon
the rock. His arms were spread out, so that his body formed
a cross. I paddled above it in the clear, smooth water,
gazing at his familiar face, till two or three large bubbles
burst upon the surface; then, hardly knowing what I was
doing, floated mechanically from the trapper's grave.
. . . . . . .
'My turn was now to come. At first, the right, or western,
bank being within sixty or seventy yards, being also my
proper goal, I struck out for it with mere eagerness to land
as soon as possible. The attempt proved unsuccessful. Very
well, then, I would take it quietly - not try to cross
direct, but swim on gently, keeping my head that way. By
degrees I got within twenty yards of the bank, was counting
joyfully on the rest which a few more strokes would bring me,
when - wsh - came a current, and swept me right into the
middle of the stream again.
'I began to be alarmed. I must get out of this somehow or
another; better on the wrong side than not at all. So I let
myself go, and made for the shore we had started from.
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