CHAPTER I. EXPLORING EXPEDITIONS.

As early as a hundred and thirty-five years ago, shortly after England had acquired the Canadas, Captain Jonathan Carver, who had been an officer in the British provincial army, conceived the idea of fitting out an expedition to cross the continent between the forty-third and forty-sixth degrees of north latitude. His intention was to measure the breadth of North America at its widest part, and to find some place on the Pacific coast where his government might establish a military post to facilitate the discovery of a "northwest passage," or a line of communication between Hudson's Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

In 1774 he was joined in his proposed scheme by Mr. Richard Whitworth, a member of the British Parliament, and a man of great wealth. Their plan was to form a company of fifty or sixty men, and with them to travel up one of the forks of the Missouri River, explore the mountains, and find the source of the Oregon. They intended to sail down that stream to its mouth, erect a fort, and build vessels to enable them to continue their discoveries by sea.

Their plan was sanctioned by the English government, but the breaking out of the American Revolution defeated the bold project. This was the first attempt to explore the wilds of the interior of the continent.

Thirty years later Sir Alexander Mackenzie crossed the continent on a line which nearly marks the fifty-third degree of north latitude. Some time afterwards, when that gentleman published the memoirs of his expedition, he suggested the policy of opening intercourse between the two oceans. By this means, he argued, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained from latitude forty-eight north, to the pole, excepting in that territory held by Russia. He also prophesied that the relatively few American adventurers who had been enjoying a monopoly in trapping along the Northwest Coast would instantly disappear before a well-regulated trade.

The government of the United States was attracted by the report of the English nobleman, and the expedition of Lewis and Clarke was fitted out. They accomplished in part what had been projected by Carver and Whitworth. They learned something of the character of the region heretofore regarded as a veritable terra incognita.

On the 14th of May, 1804, the expedition of Lewis and Clarke left St. Louis, following the course of the Missouri River, and returning by the same route two years later. There were earlier explorations, far to the south, but none of them reached as high up as the Platte. Lewis and Clarke themselves merely viewed its mouth.

In 1810 a Mr. Hunt, who was employed by the Northwest Fur Company, and Mr. Donald M'Kenzie, with a number of trappers under their charge, were to make a journey to the interior of the continent, but, hampered by the opposition of the Missouri Fur Company, they were compelled to abandon the enterprise, and it was not until the beginning of 1812 that their historic journey was commenced.

On the 17th of January, while their boats landed at one of the old villages established by the original French colonists of the region then known as the Province of Louisiana, they met the celebrated Daniel Boone, who was then in his eighty-fifth year, and the next morning they were visited by John Coulter, who had been with Lewis and Clarke on their memorable expedition eight years previously.[1] Since the return of Lewis and Clarke's expedition, Coulter had made a wonderful journey on his own account. He floated down the whole length of the Missouri River in a small canoe, accomplishing the passage of three thousand miles in a month.

On the 8th of April Hunt's party came in sight of Fort Osage,[2] where they remained for three days, and were delightfully entertained by the officers of the garrison. On the 10th they again embarked and ascended the Missouri. On the 28th the party landed at the mouth of the Platte and ate their breakfast on one of the islands there. After passing the mouth of the river Platte, they camped on its banks a short distance above Papillion Creek. On the 10th of May they reached the village of the Omahas, camped in its immediate neighbourhood, and on the 15th of the same month they started for the interior of the continent. Their route lay far north of a line drawn parallel to the Platte Valley, but they entered it after travelling through the Black Hills, somewhere near the headwaters of the river from which the beautiful valley takes its name. After untold hardships and sufferings the party arrived at Astoria on the following February, having travelled a distance of thirty-five hundred miles. They had taken a circuitous route, for Astoria is only eighteen hundred miles, in a direct line, from St. Louis.

The first authentic account of an expedition through the valley of the Platte was that of Mr. Robert Stuart, in the employ of John Jacob Astor. He was detailed to carry despatches from the mouth of the Columbia to New York, informing Mr. Astor of the condition of his venture on the remote shores of the Pacific. The mission entrusted to Mr. Stuart was filled with perils, and he was selected for the dangerous duty on account of his nerve and strength. He was a young man, and although he had never crossed the Rocky Mountains, he had already given proofs, on other perilous expeditions, of his competence for the new duty. His companions were Ben Jones and John Day,[3] both Kentuckians, two Canadians, and some others who had become tired of the wild life, and had determined to go back to civilization.

They all left Astoria on the 29th of June, 1812, and reached the headwaters of the Platte, thence they travelled down the valley to its mouth, and embarked in boats for St. Louis.

When they reached the Snake River deserts, great sandy plains stretched out before them. Only occasionally were there intervales of grass, and the miserable herbage was saltweed, resembling pennyroyal. The desponding party looked in vain for some relief from the lifeless landscape. All game had apparently shunned the dreary, sun-parched waste, but hunger was now and then appeased by a few fish which they caught in the streams, or some sun-dried salmon, or a dog given to them by the kind-hearted Shoshones whose lodges they sometimes came across.

At last the party tired of this weary route. They determined to leave the banks of the barren Snake River, so, under the guidance of a Mr. Miller who had previously trapped in that region, they were conducted across the mountains and out of the country of the dreaded Blackfeet. Miller soon proved a poor guide, and again the party became bewildered among rugged hills, unknown streams, and the burned and grassless prairies.

Finally they arrived on the banks of a river, on which their guide assured them he had trapped, and to which they gave the name of Miller, but it was really the Bear River which flows into Great Salt Lake. They continued along its banks for three days, subsisting very precariously on fish.

They soon discovered that they were in a dangerous region. One evening, having camped rather early in the afternoon, they took their fishing-tackle and prepared to fish for their supper. When they returned to their camp, they were surprised to see a number of savages prowling round. They proved to be Crows, whose chief was a giant, very dark, and looked the rogue that they found him to be.

He ordered some of his warriors to return to their camp, near by, and bring buffalo meat for the starving white men. Notwithstanding the apparent kindness of this herculean chief, there was something about him that filled the white men with distrust. Gradually the number of his warriors increased until there were over a score of them in camp. They began to be inquisitive and troublesome, and the whites felt great concern for their horses, each man keeping a close watch upon the movements of the Indians.

As no unpleasant demonstrations had been made by the savages, and as the party had bought all the buffalo meat they had brought, Mr. Stuart began to make preparations in the morning for his departure. The savages, however, were for further dealings with their newly found pale friends, and above everything else they wanted gunpowder, for which they offered to trade horses. Mr. Stuart declined to accommodate them. At this they became more impudent, and demanded the powder, but were again refused.

The gigantic chief now stepped forward with an important air, and slapping himself upon the breast, he gave the men to understand that he was a chief of great power. He said that it was customary for great chiefs to exchange presents when they met. He therefore requested Mr. Stuart to dismount and give him the horse he was riding. Mr. Stuart valued the animal very highly, so he shook his head at the demand of the savage. Upon this the Indian walked up, and taking hold of Mr. Stuart, began to push him backward and forward in his saddle, as if to impress upon him that he was in his power.

Mr. Stuart preserved his temper and again shook his head negatively. The chief then seized the bridle, gave it a jerk that scared the horse, and nearly brought Mr. Stuart to the ground. Mr. Stuart immediately drew his pistol and presented it at the head of the impudent savage. Instantly his bullying ended, and he dodged behind the horse to get away from the intended shot. As the rest of the Crow warriors were looking on at the movement of their chief, Mr. Stuart ordered his men to level their rifles at them, but not to fire. Upon this demonstration the whole band incontinently fled, and were soon out of sight.

The chief, finding himself alone, with true savage dissimulation began to laugh, and pretended the whole affair was intended only as a joke. Mr. Stuart did not relish this kind of joking, but it would not do to provoke a quarrel; so he joined the chief in his laugh with the best grace he could affect, and to pacify the savage for his failure to procure the horse, gave him some powder, and they parted professedly the best of friends.

It was discovered, after the savage had cleared out, that they had managed to steal nearly all the cooking utensils of the party.

To avoid meeting the savages again, Mr. Stuart changed his route farther to the north, leaving Bear River, and following a large branch of that stream which came down from the mountains. After marching twenty-five miles from the scene of their meeting with the Crows, they camped, and that night hobbled all their animals. They preserved a strict guard, and every man slept with his rifle on his arm, as they suspected the savages might attempt to stampede their horses.

Next day their course continued northward, and soon their trail began to ascend the hills, from the top of which they had an extended view of the surrounding country. Not the sign of an Indian was to be seen, but they did not feel secure and kept a very vigilant watch upon every ravine and defile as they approached it. Making twenty-one miles that day, they encamped on the bank of another stream still running north. While there an alarm of Indians was given, and instantly every man was on his feet with rifle ready to sell his life only at the greatest cost. Indians there were, but they proved to be three miserable Snakes, who were no sooner informed that a band of Crows were in the neighbourhood, than they ran off in great trepidation.

Six days afterward they encamped on the margin of Mud River, nearly a hundred and fifty miles from where they had met the impudent Crows. Now the party began to believe themselves beyond the possibility of any further trouble from them, and foolishly relaxed their usual vigilance. The next morning they were up at the first streak of day, and began to prepare their breakfast, when suddenly the cry of "Indians! Indians! to arms! to arms!" sounded through the camp.

In a few moments a mounted Crow came riding past the camp, holding in his hand a red flag, which he waved in a furious manner, as he halted on the top of a small divide. Immediately a most diabolical yell broke forth from the opposite side of the camp where the horses were picketed, and a band of paint-bedaubed savages came rushing to where they were feeding. In a moment the animals took fright and dashed towards the flag-bearer, who vigorously kicked the flanks of his pony, and loped off, followed by the stampeded animals which were hurried on by the increasing yells of the retreating savages.

When the alarm was first given, Mr. Stuart's men seized their rifles and tried to cut off the Indians who were after their horses, but their attention was suddenly attracted by the yells in the opposite direction. The savages, as they supposed, intended to make a raid on their camp equipage, and they all turned to save it. But when the horses had been secured the reserve party of savages dashed by the camp, whooping and yelling in triumph, and the very last one of them was the gigantic chief who had tried to joke with Mr. Stuart. As he passed the latter, he checked up his animal, raised himself in the saddle, shouted some insults, and rode on.

The rifle of one of the men, Ben Jones, was instantly levelled at the chief, and he was just about to pull the trigger, when Mr. Stuart exclaimed, "Not for your life! not for your life, you will bring destruction upon us all!"

It was a difficult matter to restrain Ben, when the target could be so easily pierced, and he begged, "Oh, Mr. Stuart, only let me have one crack at the infernal rascal, and you may keep all the pay that is due me."

"By heavens, if you fire, I will blow your brains out!" exclaimed Mr. Stuart.

By that time the chief was far beyond rifle range, and the whole daring band of savages, with all the horses, were passing out of sight over the hills, their red flag still waving and the valley echoing to their yells and demoniacal laughter.

The unhorsed travellers were dismayed at the situation in which they found themselves. A long journey was still before them, over rocky mountains and wind-swept plains, which they must now painfully traverse on foot, carrying on their backs everything necessary for their subsistence.

They selected from their camp equipage such articles as were absolutely necessary for their journey, and those things which they could not carry were cached. It required a whole day to make ready for their wearisome march. Next morning they were up at the break of day. They had set a beaver-trap in the river the night before, and rejoiced to find that they had caught one of the animals, which served as a meal for the whole party.

On his way back with the prize, the man who had gone for it, casually looking up at a cliff several hundred feet high, saw what he thought were a couple of wolves looking down upon him. Paying no attention to them, he walked on toward camp, when happening to look back, he still saw the watchful eyes peering over the edge of the precipice. It now flashed upon him that they might not be wolves at all, but Indian spies.

On reaching camp he called the attention of Stuart and his companions to what he had observed, and at first they too entertained the idea that they were wolves, but soon satisfied themselves that they were savages. If their surmises were true, the party was satisfied that the whereabouts of their caches were known, and determined that their contents should not fall into the hands of the savages. So they were opened, and everything the men could not carry away was either burned or thrown into the river.

On account of this delay they were not able to leave the place until about ten o'clock. They marched along the bank of the river, and made but eighteen miles in two days, when they were obliged to stop and build two rafts with which to cross the stream. Discovering that their rafts were very strong and able to withstand the roughness of the current, instead of crossing, they floated on down the river.

For three days they kept on, staying only to camp on land at night. On the evening of the third day, as they approached a little island, much to their joy they discovered a herd of elk. A hunter who was put on shore wounded one, which immediately took to the water, but being too weak to stem the current it was overtaken and drawn ashore.

As a storm was brewing, they camped on the bank where they had drawn up the elk. They remained there all the next day, protecting themselves as best they could from the rain, hail, and snow, which fell heavily. Now they employed themselves by drying a part of the meat they had secured; and when cutting up the carcass of the animal, they discovered it had been shot at by hunters not more than a week previously, as an arrow-head and a musket-ball were still in the wounds. Under other circumstances such a matter would have been regarded as trivial, but as they knew the Snake Indians had no guns, the presence of the bullet indicated that the elk could not have been wounded by one of them. They were aware that they were on the edge of the Blackfeet country, and as these savages were supplied with firearms, it was surmised that some of that hostile tribe must have been lately in the neighbourhood. This idea ended the peace of mind they had enjoyed while they were floating down the river.

For three more days they stuck to their rafts and drifted slowly down the stream, until they had reached a point which in their judgment was about a hundred miles from where they embarked.

The lofty mountains having now dwindled to mere hills, they landed and prepared to continue their journey on foot. They spent a day making moccasins, packing their meat in bundles of twenty pounds for each man to carry, then leaving the river they marched toward the northeast. It was a slow, wearisome tramp, as a part of the way lay through the bottoms covered with cottonwood and willows, and over rough hills and rocky prairies. Some antelope came within rifle range, but they dared not fire, fearing the report would betray them to the Blackfeet.

That day they came upon the trail of a horse, and in the evening halted on the bank of a small stream which had evidently been an Indian camping-place about three weeks ago.

In the morning when ready to leave, they again saw the Indian trail, which after a while separated in every direction, showing that the band had broken up into small hunting-parties. In all probability the savages were still somewhere in the vicinity, so it behooved the white men to move with the greatest caution. The utmost vigilance was exercised, but not a sign was seen, and at night they camped in a deep ravine which concealed them from the level of the surrounding country.

The next morning at daylight the march was resumed, but before they came out of the ravine on to the level prairie a council was held as to the best course to pursue. It was deemed prudent to make a bee-line across the mountains, over which the trail would be very rugged and difficult, but more secure. One of the party named M'Lellan, a bull-headed, impatient Scotchman, who had been rendered more so by the condition of his feet which were terribly swollen and sore, swore he had rather face all the Blackfeet in the country than attempt the tedious journey over the mountains. As the others did not agree with his opinion, they all began to climb the hills, the younger men trying to see who would reach the top of the divide first. M'Lellan, who was double the age of some of his companions, began to fall in the rear for want of breath. It was his turn that day to carry the old beaver-trap, and finding himself so far behind the others, he suddenly stopped and declared he would carry it no farther, at the same time throwing it as far down the hill as he could. He was then offered a package of dried meat in its place, but this in his rage he threw upon the ground, asserting that those might carry it who wanted it; he could secure all the food he wanted with his rifle. Then turning off from the party he walked along the base of the mountain, letting those, he said, climb rocks who were afraid to face Indians. Mr. Stuart and all his companions attempted to impress him with the rashness of his conduct, but M'Lellan was deaf to every remonstrance and kept on the way he had determined to go.

As they felt they were now in a dangerous neighbourhood, and did not dare to fire a rifle, they were compelled to depend upon the old beaver-trap for their subsistence. The stream on which they were encamped was filled with beaver sign, and the redoubtable Ben Jones set out at daybreak with the hope of catching one of the sleek fur animals. While making his way through a bunch of willows he heard a crashing sound to his right, and looking in that direction, saw a huge grizzly bear coming toward him with a terrible snort. The Kentuckian was afraid of neither man nor beast, and drawing up his rifle, let fly. The bear was wounded, but instead of rushing upon his foe as is usually the case with a wounded grizzly, he ran back into the thicket and thus escaped.

They were compelled to remain some days at this camp, and as the beaver-trap failed to supply them with food, it became absolutely necessary to take the chances of discovery by the Indians, in order to live, and Ben Jones was permitted to make a tour with his rifle some distance from the camp, defying both bears and Blackfeet. He had not been absent more than two hours when he came upon a herd of elk and killed five of them. When he reported his good news, the party immediately moved their camp to the carcasses, about six miles distant.

After marching a few days more, hunger again returned, the keenest of their sufferings. The small amount of bear and elk meat which they had been able to carry in addition to their other equipage lasted but a short time, and in their anxiety to get ahead they had little time to hunt. As scarcely any game crossed their trail, they lived for three days upon nothing but a small duck and a few miserable fish. They saw numbers of antelope, but they were very wild and they succeeded in killing only one. It was poor in flesh and very small, but they lived on it for several days.

After a while they came across the trail of the obstinate M'Lellan, who was still ahead of them, and had encamped the night before on the very stream where they now were. They saw the embers of the fire by which he had slept, and remains of a wolf of which he had eaten. He had evidently fared better than themselves at this encampment, for they had not a mouthful to eat. The next day, about noon, they arrived at the prairies where the headwaters of the stream appeared to form, and where they expected to find buffalo in abundance. Not even a superannuated bull was to be seen; the whole region was deserted. They kept on for several miles farther, following the bank of the stream and eagerly looking for beaver sign. Upon finding some they camped, and Ben Jones set his trap. They were hardly settled in camp when they perceived a large column of smoke rising in the clear air some distance to the southwest. They regarded it joyously, for they hoped it might be an Indian camp where they could get something to eat, as their pangs of hunger had now overcome their dread of the terrible Blackfeet.

Le Clerc, one of the Canadians, was instantly despatched by Mr. Stuart to reconnoitre; and the travellers sat up till a late hour, watching and listening for his return, hoping he might bring them food. Midnight arrived, but Le Clerc did not make his appearance, and they lay down once more supperless to sleep, hoping that their old beaver-trap might furnish them with a breakfast.

At daybreak they hastened, eager and famishing, to the trap, but found in it only the forepaw of a beaver, the sight of which tantalized their hunger and added to their dejection. They resumed their journey with flagging spirits, but had not gone far when they perceived Le Clerc approaching at a distance. They hastened to meet him, in hope of tidings of good cheer. He had nothing to give them but news of that strange wanderer, M'Lellan. The smoke had arisen from his encampment which took fire while he was fishing at some little distance from it. Le Clerc found him in a forlorn condition. His fishing had been unsuccessful, and during twelve days that he had been wandering alone through the savage mountains he had found scarcely anything to eat. He had been ill, sick at heart, and still had pressed forward; but now his strength and his stubbornness were exhausted. He expressed his satisfaction that Mr. Stuart and his party were near, and said he would wait at his camp for their arrival, hoping they would give him something to eat, for without food he declared he should not be able to go much farther.

When the party reached the place they found the poor fellow lying on a bunch of withered grass, wasted to a skeleton, and so feeble that he could scarcely raise his head or speak. The presence of his old comrades seemed to revive him; but they had no food to give him, for they themselves were almost starving. They urged him to rise and accompany them, but he shook his head. It was all in vain, he said; there was no prospect of their getting speedy relief, and without it he would perish by the way; he might as well, therefore, stay and die where he was. At length, after much persuasion, they got him upon his legs; his rifle and other effects were shared among them, and he was cheered and aided forward. In this way they proceeded for seventeen miles, over a level plain of sand, until, seeing a few antelopes in the distance, they camped on the margin of a small stream. All now, that were capable of the exertion, turned out to hunt for a meal. Their efforts were fruitless, and after dark they returned to their camp famished almost to desperation.

As they were preparing for the third time to lie down to sleep without a mouthful of food, Le Clerc, one of the Canadians, gaunt and wild with hunger, approached Mr. Stuart with his gun in his hand. It was all in vain, he said, to attempt to proceed any farther without food. They had a barren plain before them, three or four days' journey in extent, on which nothing was to be procured. They must all perish before they could get to the end of it. It was better, therefore, that one should die to save the rest. He proposed, therefore, that they should cast lots, adding, as an inducement for Mr. Stuart to assent to the proposition, that he, as leader of the party, should be exempted.

Mr. Stuart shuddered at the horrible proposition, and endeavoured to reason with the man, but his words were unavailing. At length, snatching up his rifle, he threatened to shoot him on the spot if he persisted. The famished wretch dropped on his knees, begged pardon in the most abject terms, and promised never again to offend him with such a suggestion.

Quiet being restored to the forlorn encampment, each one sought repose. Mr. Stuart, however, was so exhausted by the agitation of the past scene, acting upon his emaciated frame, that he could scarcely crawl to his miserable bed, where, notwithstanding his fatigues, he passed a sleepless night, reflecting upon their dreary situation and the desperate prospect before them.

At daylight the next morning they were up and on their way; they had nothing to detain them, no breakfast to prepare, and to linger was to perish. They proceeded, however, but slowly, for all were faint and weak. Here and there they passed the skulls and bones of buffaloes. This showed that these animals must have been hunted there during the past season, and the sight of the bones served only to mock their misery. After travelling about nine miles along the plain, they ascended a range of hills, and had scarcely gone two miles farther, when, to their great joy, they discovered a superannuated buffalo bull which had been driven from some herd and had been hunted and harassed through the mountains. They all stretched themselves out to encompass and make sure of this solitary animal, for their lives depended on their success. After considerable trouble and infinite anxiety, they at length succeeded in killing him. He was instantly flayed and cut up, and so ravenous were they that they devoured some of the flesh raw.

When they had rested they proceeded, and after crossing a mountain ridge, and traversing a plain, they waded one of the branches of the Spanish River. On ascending its bank, they met about a hundred and thirty Indians of the Snake tribe. They were friendly in their demeanour, and conducted the starving trappers to their village, which was about three miles distant. It consisted of about forty lodges, constructed principally of pine branches. The Snakes, like most of their nation, were very poor. The marauding Crows, in their late excursion through the country, had picked this unlucky band to the bone, carrying off their horses, several of their squaws, and most of their effects. In spite of their poverty, they were hospitable in the extreme, and made the hungry strangers welcome to their cabins. A few trinkets procured from them a supply of buffalo meat, together with leather for moccasins, of which the party were greatly in need. The most valuable prize obtained from them, however, was a horse. It was a sorry old animal in truth, and it was the only one which remained to the poor fellows, after the fell swoop of the Crows. They were prevailed upon to part with it to their guests for a pistol, an axe, a knife, and a few other trifling articles.

By sunrise on the following morning, the travellers had loaded their old horse with buffalo meat, sufficient for five days' provisions, and, taking leave of their poor but hospitable friends, set forth in somewhat better spirits, though the increasing cold weather and the sight of the snowy mountains which they had yet to traverse were enough to chill their very hearts. The country along the branch of the river as far as they could see was perfectly level, bounded by ranges of lofty mountains, both east and west. They proceeded about three miles south, where they came again upon the large trail of the Crow Indians, which they had crossed four days previously. It was made, no doubt, by the same marauding band which had plundered the Snakes; and which, according to the account of the latter, was now camped on a stream to the eastward. The trail kept on to the southeast, and was so well beaten by horse and foot that they supposed at least a hundred lodges had passed along it. As it formed, therefore, a convenient highway, and ran in a proper direction, they turned into it, and determined to keep it as long as safety would permit, as the Crow encampment must be some distance off, and it was not likely those savages would return upon their steps. They travelled forward, all that day, in the track of their dangerous predecessors, which led them across mountain streams, and along ridges, through narrow valleys, all tending generally to the southeast. The wind blew cold from the northeast, with occasional flurries of snow, which made them camp early, on the sheltered banks of a brook. In the evening the two Canadians, Vallee and Le Clerc, killed a young buffalo bull which was in good condition and afforded them an excellent supply of fresh beef. They loaded their spits, therefore, and filled their camp kettle with meat, and while the wind whistled and the snow whirled around them, they huddled round a rousing fire, basked in its warmth, and comforted both soul and body with a hearty and invigorating meal. No enjoyments have greater zest than these, snatched in the very midst of difficulty and danger; and it is probable the poor wayworn and weather-beaten travellers relished these creature comforts the more highly on account of the surrounding desolation and the dangerous proximity of the Crows.

The snow which had fallen in the night made it late in the morning before the party loaded their solitary packhorse, and resumed their march. They had not gone far before the trail of the Crows, which they were following, changed its direction, and bore to the north of east. They had already begun to feel themselves on dangerous ground, in travelling it, as they might be descried by scouts or spies of that race of Ishmaelites, whose predatory life required them to be constantly on the alert. On seeing the trail turn so much to the north, therefore, they abandoned it, and kept on their course to the southeast for eighteen miles, through a beautiful undulating country, having the main chain of mountains on the left, and a considerable elevated ridge on the right.

That evening they encamped on the banks of a small stream, in the open prairie. The northeast wind was keen and cutting, and as they had nothing but a scanty growth of sage-brush wherewith to make a fire, they wrapped themselves in their blankets at an early hour. In the course of the evening M'Lellan, who had now regained his strength, killed a buffalo, but it was some distance from the camp, and they postponed supplying themselves from its carcass until morning.

The next day the cold continued, accompanied by snow. They set forward on their bleak and toilsome way, keeping to the northeast, toward the lofty summit of a mountain which it was necessary for them to cross. Before they reached its base they passed another large trail, a little to the right of a point of the mountain. This they supposed to have been made by another band of Crows.

The severity of the weather compelled them to encamp at the end of fifteen miles on the skirts of the mountain, where they found sufficient dry aspen trees to supply them with fire, but they sought in vain about the neighbourhood for a spring or rill of water. The next day, on arriving at the foot of the mountain, the travellers found water oozing out of the earth, and resembling, in look and taste, that of the Missouri. Here they encamped for the night, and supped sumptuously upon their mountain mutton, which they found in good condition.

For two days they kept on in an eastwardly direction, against wintry blasts and occasional storms. They suffered, also, from scarcity of water, having frequently to use melted snow; this, with the want of pasturage, reduced their old packhorse sadly. They saw many tracks of buffalo, and some few bulls, which, however, got the wind of them and scampered off.

On the 26th of October, they changed their course to the northeast, toward a wooded ravine in a mountain. At a small distance from its base, to their great joy, they discovered an abundant stream, running between willowed banks. Here they halted for the night. Ben Jones having luckily trapped a beaver and killed two buffalo bulls, they remained there the next day, feasting, reposing, and allowing their jaded horse to rest from his labours.[4]

Pursuing the course of this stream for about twenty miles, they came to where it forced a passage through a range of hills, covered with cedars, into an extensive low country, affording excellent pasturage to numerous herds of buffalo. Here they killed three cows, which were the first they had been able to get, having heretofore had to content themselves with bull-beef, which at this season of the year is very poor. The hump meat and tongues afforded them a repast fit for an epicure.

It was now late in the season and they were convinced it would be suicidal to continue their journey on foot, as still many hundred miles lay before them to the Missouri River. The absorbing question now was where to choose a suitable wintering place; they happened the next day to come upon a bend of the river which appeared to be just the spot they were seeking. Here was a beautiful low point of land, covered by cottonwood, and surrounded by a thick growth of willow, which yielded both shelter and fuel, as well as material for building. The river swept by in a strong current about a hundred and fifty yards wide. To the southeast were mountains of moderate height, the nearest about two miles off, but the whole chain ranging to the east, south, and southwest, as far as the eye could reach. Their summits were crowned with extensive tracts of pitch-pine, checkered with small patches of the quivering aspen. Lower down were thick forests of firs and red cedars, growing out in many places from the very fissures of the rocks. The mountains were broken and precipitous, with huge bluffs protruding from among the forests. Their rocky recesses and beetling cliffs afforded retreats to innumerable flocks of the bighorn, while their woody summits and ravines abounded with bears and black-tailed deer. These, with the numerous herds of buffalo that ranged the lower grounds along the river, promised the travellers abundant cheer in their winter quarters.

On the 2d of November, they pitched their camp for the winter on the woody point, and their first thought was to obtain a supply of provisions. Ben Jones and the two Canadians accordingly sallied forth, accompanied by two other members of the party, leaving but one to watch the camp. Their hunting was uncommonly successful. In the course of two days they killed thirty-two buffaloes, and collected their meat on the margin of a small brook, about a mile distant. Fortunately the river was frozen over, so that the meat was easily transported to the encampment. On a succeeding day a herd of buffalo came trampling through the woody bottom on the river banks, and fifteen more were killed.

It was soon discovered, however, that there was game of a more dangerous nature in their neighbourhood. On one occasion Mr. Crooks wandered about a mile from camp, and had ascended a small hill commanding a view of the river; he was without his rifle, a rare circumstance, for in these wild regions, where one may at any moment meet a wild animal or a hostile Indian, it is customary never to stir out from the camp unarmed. The hill where he stood overlooked the spot where the killing of the buffalo had taken place. As he was gazing around, his eye was caught by an object below, moving directly toward him. To his dismay he discovered it to be a she grizzly with two cubs. There was no tree at hand into which he could climb, and to run would only be to invite pursuit, as he would soon be overtaken. He threw himself on the ground, therefore, and lay motionless, watching the movements of the animal with intense anxiety. It continued to advance until at the foot of the hill, where it turned, and made into the woods, having probably gorged itself with buffalo flesh. Mr. Crooks made all possible haste back to camp, rejoicing at his escape, and determined never to stir out again without his rifle. A few days afterwards a grizzly bear was shot at a short distance from camp by Mr. Miller.

As the slaughter of so many buffaloes had provided the party with beef for the winter, even if they met with no further supply, they now set to work with heart and hand to build a comfortable shelter. In a little while the woody promontory rang with the unwonted sound of the axe. Some of its lofty trees were laid low, and by the second evening the cabin was complete. It was eight feet wide, and eighteen feet long. The walls were six feet high, and the whole was covered with buffalo-skins. The fireplace was in the centre, and the smoke found its way out by a hole in the roof.

The hunters were next sent out to procure deerskins for garments, moccasins, and other purposes. They made the mountains echo with their rifles, and, in the course of two days' hunting, killed twenty-eight bighorn and black-tailed deer.

The party now revelled in abundance. After all they had suffered from hunger, cold, fatigue, and watchfulness; after all their perils from treacherous and savage men, they exulted in the snugness and security of their isolated cabin, hidden, as they thought, even from the prying eyes of Indian scouts, and stored with creature comforts. They looked forward to a winter of peace and quietness; of roasting, broiling, and boiling, feasting upon venison, mountain mutton, bear's meat, marrow-bones, buffalo humps, and other hunters' dainties; of dozing and reposing around their fire, gossiping over past dangers and adventures, telling long hunting stories - until spring should return; when they would make canoes of buffalo-skins, and float down the river.

From such halcyon dreams they were startled one morning, at daybreak, by a savage yell, and jumped for their rifles. The yell was repeated by two or three voices. Cautiously peeping out, they beheld, to their dismay, several Indian warriors among the trees, all armed and painted in warlike style, evidently bent on some hostile purpose.

Miller changed countenance as he regarded them. "We are in trouble," said he, "these are some of the rascally Arapahoes that robbed me last year." Not a word was uttered by the rest of the party; they silently slung their powder-horns, ball-pouches, and prepared themselves for battle. M'Lellan, who had taken his gun to pieces the evening before, put it together in all haste. He proposed that they should break out the clay from between the logs, so as to be able to fire upon the enemy.

"Not yet," replied Stuart; "it will not do to show fear or distrust; we must first hold a parley. Some one must go out and meet them as a friend."

Who was to undertake the task? It was full of peril, as the envoy might be shot down at the threshold.

"The leader of a party," said Miller, "always takes the advance."

"Good!" replied Stuart; "I am ready." He immediately went forth; one of the Canadians followed him; the rest of the party remained in garrison, to keep the savages in check.

Stuart advanced, holding his rifle in one hand and extending the other to the savage who appeared to be the chief. The latter stepped forward and took it; his men followed his example, and all shook hands with Stuart, in token of friendship. They now explained their errand. They were a war-party of Arapahoe braves. Their village lay on a stream several days' journey to the eastward. It had been attacked and ravaged during their absence by a band of Crows, who had carried off several of their women and most of their horses. They were in quest of vengeance. For sixteen days they had been tracking the Crows about the mountains, but had not yet come upon them. In the meantime they had met with scarcely any game, and were half famished. About two days previously they had heard the report of firearms among the mountains, and on searching in the direction of the sound, had come to a place where a deer had been killed. They had followed the trail and it had brought them to the cabin.

Mr. Stuart now invited the chief and another, who appeared to be his lieutenant, into the cabin, but made signs that no one else was to enter. The rest halted at the door and others came straggling up, until the whole party, to the number of twenty-three, were gathered in front. They were armed with bows and arrows, tomahawks, scalping-knives, and a few had guns. All were painted and dressed for war, having a savage and fierce appearance. Mr. Miller recognized among them some of the very fellows who had robbed him the preceding year, and put his comrades on their guard. Every man stood ready to resist the first act of hostility, but the savages conducted themselves peaceably, and showed none of that swaggering arrogance which a war-party is apt to assume.

On entering the cabin, the chief and his lieutenant cast a wistful look at the rafters, hung with venison and buffalo meat. Mr. Stuart made a merit of necessity, and invited them to help themselves. They did not wait to be pressed. The beams were soon eased of their burden; venison and beef were passed out to the crew before the door, and a scene of gormandizing commenced which few can imagine who have not witnessed the gastronomical powers of an Indian after an interval of fasting. This was kept up throughout the day; they paused now and then, it is true, for a brief interval, but only to renew the charge with fresh ardour. The chief and the lieutenant surpassed all the rest in the vigour and perseverance of their attacks; as if, from their station, they were bound to signalize themselves in all onslaughts. Mr. Stuart kept them well supplied with choice bits, for it was his policy to overfeed them, and keep them from leaving the cabin, where they served as hostages for the good conduct of their followers. Once only in the course of the day did the chief sally forth. Mr. Stuart and one of the men accompanied him, armed with their rifles, but without betraying any distrust. He soon returned, and renewed his attack upon the larder. In a word, he and his worthy coadjutor, the lieutenant, ate until they were both stupefied.

Toward evening the Indians made their preparations for the night according to the practice of war-parties. Those outside of the cabin threw up two breastworks, into which they retired at a tolerably early hour, and slept like overfed hounds. As to the chief and his lieutenant, they slept inside, and in the course of the night they got up two or three times to eat. The travellers took turns, one at a time, to mount guard until morning. Scarcely had the day dawned when the gormandizing was renewed by the whole band, and carried on with surprising vigour until ten o'clock, when all prepared to depart. They had still six days' journey to make, they said, before they could come up with the Crows, who, they understood, were encamped on a river to the north. Their way lay through a hungry country where there was no game; they would, moreover, have but little time to hunt; they therefore craved a small supply of provisions for the journey. Mr. Stuart again, invited them to help themselves. They did so with keen forethought, taking the choicest parts of the meat, and leaving the late plenteous larder almost bare. Their next request was for a supply of ammunition. They had guns, but no powder and ball. They promised to pay magnificently out of the spoils of their foray. "We are poor now," said they, "and are obliged to go on foot, but we shall soon come back laden with booty, and all mounted on horseback, with scalps hanging at our bridles. We will then give each of you a horse to keep you from being tired on your journey."

"Well," said Mr. Stuart, "when you bring the horses, you shall have the ammunition, but not before." The Indians saw by his determined tone that all further entreaty would be unavailing, so they desisted, with a good-humoured laugh, and went off exceedingly well freighted, both within and without, promising to be back again in the course of a fortnight.

No sooner were they out of hearing than the luckless travellers held another council. The security of their cabin was at an end, and with it all their dreams of a quiet and cosey winter. They were between two fires. On one side were their old enemies, the Crows; on the other side, the Arapahoes, no less dangerous freebooters. As to the moderation of this war-party, they considered it assumed, to put them off their guard against some more favourable opportunity for a surprisal. It was determined, therefore, not to await their return, but to abandon with all speed this dangerous neighbourhood.

The interval of comfort and repose which the party had enjoyed in their cabin rendered the renewal of their fatigues intolerable for the first two or three days. The snow lay deep, and was slightly frozen on the surface, but not sufficiently to bear their weight. Their feet became sore by breaking through the crust, and their limbs weary by floundering on without a firm foothold. So exhausted and dispirited were they, that they began to think it would be better to remain and run the risk of being killed by the Indians, than to drag on thus painfully, with the probability of perishing by the way. Their miserable horse fared no better than themselves, having for the first day or two no other forage than the ends of willow twigs, and the bark of the cottonwood tree.

They all, however, appeared to gain patience and hardihood as they proceeded, and for fourteen days kept steadily on, making a distance of about three hundred miles.

During the last three days of their fortnight's travel, however, the face of the country changed. The timber gradually diminished, until they could scarcely find fuel sufficient for culinary purposes. The game grew more and more scanty, and finally none was to be seen but a few miserable broken-down buffalo bulls, not worth killing. The snow lay fifteen inches deep, and made the travelling grievously painful and toilsome. At length they came to an immense plain, where no vestige of timber was to be seen, not a single quadruped to enliven the desolate landscape. Here, then, their hearts failed them, and they held another consultation. The width of the river, which was nearly a mile, its extreme shallowness, the frequency of quicksands, and various other characteristics, had at length made them sensible of their errors with respect to it, and they now came to the correct conclusion that they were on the banks of the Platte. What were they to do? Pursue its course to the Missouri? To go on at this season of the year seemed dangerous in the extreme. There was no prospect of obtaining either food or fuel. The country was destitute of trees, and though there might be driftwood along the river, it lay too deep beneath the snow for them to find it.

The weather was threatening a change, and a snow-storm on these boundless wastes might prove as fatal as a whirlwind of sand on an Arabian desert. After much deliberation, it was at length determined to retrace their last three days' journey of seventy-seven miles, to a place where they had seen a sheltering growth of forest-trees, and where there was an abundance of game. Here they would once more set up their winter quarters, and await the opening of navigation to launch themselves in canoes.

Accordingly, on the 27th of December they faced about, retraced their steps, and on the 30th regained the part of the river in question.

They encamped on the margin of the river, in a grove where there were trees large enough for canoes. Here they put up a shed for immediate shelter, and at once proceeded to erect a cabin. New Year's Day dawned when but one wall of their cabin was completed; the genial and jovial day, however, was not permitted to pass uncelebrated, even by this weather-beaten crew of wanderers. All work was suspended, except that of roasting and boiling. The choicest of the buffalo meat, with tongues, humps, and marrow-bones, were devoured in quantities that would have astonished any one who has not lived among hunters and Indians. As an extra regale, having nothing to smoke, they cut up an old tobacco pouch, still redolent with the potent herb, and smoked it in honour of the day. Thus for a time, in present revelry, however uncouth, they forgot all past troubles and anxieties about the future, and their forlorn shelter echoed with the sound of gayety.

The next day they resumed their labours, and by the sixth of the month the cabin was complete. They soon killed abundance of buffalo, and again laid in a stock of winter provisions.

The party was more fortunate in this its second cantonment. The winter passed away without any Indian visitors; and the game continued to be plentiful in the neighbourhood. They felled two large trees, and shaped them into canoes, and, as the spring opened, and a thaw of several days melted the ice in the river, they made every preparation for embarking. On the 8th of March they launched forth in their canoes, but soon found that the river had not depth sufficient even for such slender barks. It expanded into a wide, but extremely shallow stream, with many sandbars, and occasionally various channels. They got one of their canoes a few miles down it, with extreme difficulty, sometimes wading, and dragging it over the shoals. At last they had to abandon the attempt, and to resume their journey on foot, aided by their faithful old packhorse, which had recruited strength during the winter.

The weather delayed them for several days, having suddenly become more rigorous than it had been at any time during the winter; but on the 20th of March they were again on their journey.

In two days they arrived at the vast naked prairie, the wintry aspect of which had caused them in December to pause and turn back. It was now clothed with the early verdure of spring, and plentifully stocked with game. Still, when obliged to bivouac on its bare surface, without any covering, by a scanty fire of buffalo-chips, they found the night-blasts piercingly cold. On one occasion a herd of buffalo having strayed near their evening camp, they killed three of them merely for their hides, wherewith to make a shelter for the night.

They journeyed on for about a hundred miles, and the first landmark by which they were able to conjecture their position with any degree of confidence was an island about seventy miles in length, which they presumed to be Le Grande Isle.[5] They now knew that they were not a very great distance from the Missouri River, if their presumption was correct. They went on, therefore, with renewed hope, and on the evening of the third day met an Otoe Indian, who informed them they were but a short distance from the Missouri. He also told them of the war that had been progressing between the United States and England. This was news to them indeed, for during that whole period they had been beyond the possibility of learning anything of civilized affairs.

The Indian conducted them to his village, where they were delighted to meet two white trappers recently arrived from St. Louis. A bargain was now made with one of them, who agreed to furnish them with a canoe and provisions for the voyage, in exchange for their venerable traveller, the old horse. In a few days they started and arrived at Fort Osage, where they were again received hospitably by the officers of the garrison, and where they enjoyed that luxury, bread, which they had not tasted for over a year. Re-embarking, they arrived in St. Louis on the 30th of April, without experiencing any further adventure worthy of note.[6]