University of New Mexico.

New Mexico historical review (Volume 17) online

. (page 31 of 33)
Online LibraryUniversity of New MexicoNew Mexico historical review (Volume 17) → online text (page 31 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

white people, so far as I knew, in this ice-covered solitude
hundreds of miles in extent, while the only living beings
now about me were wolves.

These announced their presence and in ever increasing
numbers. Their tongues lolling, their greedy gaze fixed on
me, I could almost detect a cunning, calculating look in the
blood-shot eyes when the moment for the general attack
would be arriving.

This moment could have been the very next one. I
might be able to fire two or three shots into them, at most.
That which would follow at once was easy to guess.

My first task must be to put my firearms in good condi-
tion and to have them in readiness and instant reach. My
arsenal consisted of two shotguns, one single and the other
double-barrelled. These carried heavy charges of buckshot
with deadly effect at 150 paces off. In addition, there was
the duke's single-barrelled German rifle, with a range of
over 300 paces; a six-chambered revolver made by the
Yankee, Samuel Colt; four horse-pistols; my long-bladed
hunting knife, and a heavy axe.

With these death-dealing instruments, I felt somewhat
reassured and secure in an attack by savages, provided there
were not too many, and that I saw them first. That a
marauding band of these might pay me a visit at most any
time I knew only too well.


So far as I had been able to study the nature of those
terrible sharks of the prairie, the gray and white wolves, I
felt that I could hold them at bay unless hunger at last
might drive them to desperation. Whenever I looked out I
saw small packs of them along the creek-bottoms. They
shifted their position constantly, either only a step or two,
or trotted a dozen or more steps, eyes always turned toward
the tent, then stopping. Some of them would disappear
through the dense underbrush, then emerge on the other
side and trot up the hill-side where they would disappear.
But for those that dropped out of sight there were always
others drifting in, apparently from nowhere.

After a survey of the situation from my frail little
fortress, the leather tent, I now set about to protect myself
against the constantly increasing cold and the silently drift-
ing, sinister snow. This snow, fine as sifted flour, seemed
to find an entry in to my refuge through the tiniest open-
ings, even no larger than pin-pricks.

Soon I had built a wall of snow, packed against the
leather sides partly by tramping, partly by beating it with
my shovel. I could notice at once that the fire was burning
more lustily and that it diffused more warmth.

Next I went down to the little river and gathered a
large supply of dry wood. This I dragged over the snow
up the slope to one side of my tent-door. Last of all I
brought up two pails full of water.

Now I began to arrange the interior of my habitation.
First of all I gathered all the hides of buffalo, a large horse-
hide, and coverlets that we had brought with us when we set
out from Kansastown and laid them out with a view to com-
fort and warmth.

Then I made a little excavation directly under the hole
in the center of the tent-roof, Indian-fashion. This I made
narrow and two feet long. As the ground was frozen I was
unable to dig it more than a few inches deep. But I knew
that the fire would melt the frost in the earth so that I could
have it at any depth I wished within a day or so.

My provisions consisted of a few remnants of buffalo
meat, a little rice, some coffee and tea, and a quantity of
maize. This latter, intended for provender for the chestnut
mare that had perished in the snow several nights before,
became now a welcome addition to my larder.

Carefully I now set to work to divide these very meager
supplies into rations. I believed that help must arrive from
the Mission of the Putowatomies within a fortnight at the


latest, and accordingly the division was made in fourteen

When I had done all this I felt very tired. While work-
ing- I felt animated and almost cheerful. But no sooner than
I was inside of the tent my spirits began to sag. As soon
as I had prepared my simple evening meal over the little fire
and eaten it I made ready to pass this first night alone in the
solitude of the vast wilderness.

When you know that a fellow-being, be it only a child,
is near about, you can never feel so altogether alone. The
human voice, even when it is the plaintive cry of a little one,
has something cheery and sociable about it to make even the
wilderness endurable. But with your own voice it is differ-
ent. I made one attempt to talk to myself in the ordinary
tone of conversation. But with a shiver I ceased. My voice
had something dreadful, unnatural, unrecognizable about it
as it resounded in the narrow limits of my habitation. When
it died away it seemed as if it were a mocking, horrible echo
from a specter out of one of the corners of the tent.

The sun dipped low behind the rising bank of snow-
clouds sending its last beams across the illimitable snow
fields that seemed to sound the signal for a weird concert,
no longer strange, to be sure. But now, with my brave com-
panion and leader gone, the howling resounded doubly

A whole horde of prairie wolves formed the chorus, a
quarter of a mile away. Their ki-eye was ear-piercing, now
sounding like the gibber of ghouls, now like the laughter of
madmen released. To their long drawn-out treble there
were soon added the deep notes of the great, shaggy wolves.

For minutes this eery baying would cease. Anon a
leader raised his penetrating cry again, when immediately
the whole choir fell in in wild discord. And the howling
stormwind bore these savage notes far out upon the solitary

In the slough, where nothing was left of the dead horses
but the brightly polished bones and of harnesses and hal-
ters only the iron-rings there now ensued a furious battle.
The wails that came from the smaller combatants, the
prairie wolves, were borne to me on the air like messengers
announcing the death-throes of the victims that had incau-
tiously ventured too near their monstrous cousins who with
their huge jaws set with teeth sharp as steel shears would
rend them hors de combat with a single slash.

As long as it was light I peered out of the darkness of


my tightly-closed tent in an endeavor to count the great
horde that had collected about the bones in the slough, but at
last I had to give up the attempt. It was a childish diversion,
I must admit. But it distracted my mind from gloomy
thoughts for a brief space. A moment only and sleep over-
powered me. The thousand conflicting emotions of the day
and my frenzied haste to make everything ready for some
degree of liveableness had brought on a terrible fatigue,
bodily and mental.

Just as the sun had risen above the crest of the eastern
hills I woke up. Hunger was gnawing at my vitals. "One
night has gone by," I thought to myself as I cut a notch in
one of the tent-poles. "If only the other thirteen would pass
as safely ! Or better, if the people I am expecting to deliver
me could come much, much sooner !"

It must have been somewhere between the twenty-sixth
and twenty-eighth of November, and according to this reck-
oning I expected that I would spend Christmas at the Mis-
sion. I was far from suspecting at that moment how far I
was wrong in my reckoning.

Could I have just then been able to foresee the unut-
terable sufferings, the horrors that I was destined to endure,
I doubt not that I would have ended it all with a bullet !

The day went by slowly, gloomily. I passed some time
dragging more firewood to the tent-door to insure myself
of an abundant supply against the contingency that even so
short a walk might become impossible during a long-con-
tinued blinding snowstorm.

To my utter horror I now noticed that a paralyzing
weakness had gone into my feet and knees, so that I was
reeling like a drunken person as I tried to walk along. If
this became aggravated, if it did not abate, I could see myself
slowly freezing and starving to death.

In a sorrowful mood I was sitting in front of my tent.
My eyes were absently watching as the seething, boiling
water in the little kettle was tossing the kernels of maize
upward and sucking them back again in a mad whirl.

I had just stuffed my little clay pipe with dry willow
leaves mixed with a little tea and was blowing the acrid
smoke away from my nostrils when I saw several horsemen
approach from the north. They were driving some horses
ahead of them loaded with heavy packs.

Prepared for all eventualities I awaited their coming


calmly and motionless. I soon recognized them to be In-
dians who were returning from a beaver-hunt, in haste to
reach their settlements on the Kansas. Therefore I knew
that I would have nothing to fear from them.

When they had come within rifle-range one of them
advanced toward me. Arrived at the tent he addressed me
in fairly good English. Immediately he dispelled any sus-
picions I might have felt when he told me that he was a
Delaware. Soon he was sitting at my side by the fire in the
little habitation, while his companions, a set of wild-looking
young fellows, were making themselves comfortable by a fire
they had built outside of the tent.

Long and earnestly the older man talked to me, in an
attempt to persuade me to leave all my belongings as well
as those of my chief, the duke, to the wolves and roving
Indian bands and to go with him to their wigwam on the

"The wolves," he warned, "will draw closely and ever
more closely about you. They will leave you no rest, neither
by day nor by night. And if they delay in their purpose of
devouring you, then the Pawnees who rove over this region
will plunder and afterwards scalp you."

I turned his kind and generous offer down and tried to
convince him that within two weeks at the latest people with
horses were sure to arrive from the Catholic Mission, in
which event I would be able not only to salvage my belong-
ings, but also to go in a little wagon. In my present weak
state, and crippled as I was, it would be utterly impossible to
make the journey on horseback, and much less on foot.

"The help you expect," spoke the kindly Delaware, "can-
not reach you. The palefaces will not come. They will not
risk their good horses and their lives to ride against the
terrible storms from the Missouri to this place for any cause,
even to save your life, which, as they believe, in spite of the
most urgent pleas from your friends, is already past saving.

"But I note well that the word of a paleface prevails
against the counsels of the savage. You have the choice.
May you not delude yourself in false hopes !"

I persisted in my resolution, and I had cause to repent
it often and most bitterly.

At parting this noble fellow gave me a haunch of veni-
son from a deer which he had slain that morning. Then he
pressed my hand mutely and pursued his way in a south-
easterly direction without looking back again toward my
tent and disappeared with his followers behind the near hills.
I was alone once more.


It is not possible to describe my sufferings during the
several days that followed. I was lamed to such a degree
that I had to creep back and forth on my hands and knees in
order to fetch water from the creek and to drag wood in
small bundles from the timber by a rope fastened about
my waist. My head was whirling from the least effort. I
was reeling like a man out of his senses. I was beginning to
lose my memory. I was unable to reason. My faculty to
think grew blurred. My mind was wandering toward utter
darkness. Worry and the terrible cold may have been the

The stormking was now constantly shrieking and howl-
ing across the barren waste and treatened to bury me alive.
During the nights I did not dare to close my eyes ; for the
wolves, maddened by hunger, were growing hourly bolder
and more ravenous. Relentlessly their circle drew more
tightly about my little refuge. I would listen to the crunch-
ing of their footsteps on the snow as they were scurrying
and leaping about, snarling and gnashing their formidable

In terrible suspense I harkened to every noise, waiting
for the moment when the first should attempt to rend the
tent opening.

That moment arrived and I quickly fired at random,
right through the thin tent walls out into the black night.
Terrified, they scampered off, to repeat their assault a few
hours later with the same tenacity.

During the day, when these brutes that shun the light
would not dare to draw near, I was able to rest. But, oh,
what kind of rest this was! Among the litter that sur-
rounded me in the small space, like chaos itself, I had dis-
covered a small vial of laudanum. This and a box of quinine
were now the only drugs that were left from the store we
had brought with us from civilization.

By means of a strong draught of this liquid which I
had swallowed after finishing my all too scant breakfast, I
managed to fall into a dead slumber.

Gayly-colored pictures now danced about me in sweet-
est dreamland. I was now quite insensible to the cold, to
hunger, to the torturing pains that had racked me waking and
sleeping. I was relieved of all physical discomforts. I was
deliriously happy.

But as I awakened to naked reality once more, all the
terrors and agonies came back, it seemed, a hundred-fold
greater than before.


There I lay, my limbs all stiff and paralyzed. The few
pieces of clothing which the Pawnees had left me sufficed no
longer to protect me from the cold whenever I ventured out-
side of the tent. A buffalo-hide thrown over my shoulders
was all that I could find to shelter me.

Nine days I had suffered and endured in this manner.
Nine notches I had now made into the tentpole, one on each
morning at awakening, when it was only by the most tortur-
ing efforts that I was able to drag myself as far as the wood-
pile just outside the tent-door to bring in barely enough wood
necessary for the life-giving fire.

Moodily, gloomily, I meditated over my hard lot. Deliv-
erance by ordinary means seemed no longer to be hoped for.
Without having arrived at any decision, without caring for
any consequences, I again reached for the laudanum flask
and drew it to my lips. I drank in the soothing liquid in
long draughts. I almost emptied the vial. Then a stupor
shut out all the horrors of body and mind.

How long I may have lain there I do not remember.
But it was black night when I awoke. The storm was raging
and straining at the tentpoles, almost drowning the howls of
the wolves. An unbearable thirst was torturing me. My
feet and lower limbs had become numb from cold.

With an almost superhuman effort I managed to blow
a few tiny live coals into a blaze. When I had started a
crackling fire, I began to eat handful after handful of snow.
But no sooner was my thirst slaked to a bearable degree
than the pangs of hunger reappeared.

Like one gone stark mad, I reached for the raw buffalo-
meat and began to rend and devour it with wolfish greed,
hard-frozen though it was. Never had anything passed my
lips that tasted so delicious.

With no regard for the future, I now roasted piece after
piece over the red coals. In my ungovernable greed I had
devoured no less than three days' rations !

Toward morning, to my glad surprise, I felt quite free
from the incubus that had oppressed me through that eter-
nity of nights and days. The torturing illness had vanished
as if by magic, and it was sweet to be alive. Yes, life was
fair, was rapturously fair even though the surroundings
were not any more hopeful than before.

Leaning on my rifle for a support, I strolled about for
a little while. The movement filled me with exquisite pleas-
ure, like Burgundy wine.


In a few days I had recovered so far that I was able
to walk up a slope back of the tent so that my eyes could
rove again over the landscape. It was by no means less
dreary. Yet it no longer depressed and terrified me as it
had done before.

But in proportion as my strength returned, so did my
slender supply of provisions grow ever more alarmingly
small. I now bent all my willpower to think of means
whereby I might be able to increase my food supply. My hope
for news or help from the Mission I had by this time aban-
doned completely. Once and for all, I resigned myself to the
hard alternative, to stay out the entire winter where I was.
At first, to be sure, it was a bitter thought. But gradually
dark despair softened into submission to the inevitable, and
from this submission came a spirit of peace and calm.

Until now I had steadfastly refrained from taking
recourse to flesh from wolves. In the end, hunger hunger
like mine which few mortals have been doomed to suffer
does easily dispel nausea, and it did not cost me a hard
struggle, even the first time, to chew on the tough, stringy,
sinewy meat, which had no particle of fat on it, and which
was not unlike a piece of sole-leather with respect to taste-

Now when I had finished my first meal of wolf -meat, I
had to admit to myself that it had turned out quite contrary
to my apprehensions. I had as much as I could wish for, for
the first time since we crossed the La Platte southeast of
Kearney, six weeks before. For six weeks I had had insuf-
ficient nourishment, at first, two meagre meals a day, and
since our encampment on Sandy Creek, only one.

For days, meat and boiled maize had been my sole
diet. Now the maize was also gone, and my supply of salt
was almost exhausted. Perhaps I dreaded the time when
there was no longer any salt more than I had the petering
put of all the other food supplies together. It is easy to
imagine my relief, even downright joy, when I found that
wolf -meat was actually palatable and delectable. Now there
was no longer any occasion for worry that death from slow
starvation was to be my lot. It was an easy thing to slay a
wolf each day and pick only the best parts of the carcass,
then to scatter the rest far and wide over the snow. The
latter would serve as bait as long as there were wolves, and
these would last indefinitely unless they all should finally
succumb to hunger, too.

There was an abundant supply of powder, lead, and


ignition caps. For this I felt profoundly grateful to the
superior judgment of the duke whom I was inclined to criti-
cize when he purchased such enormous quantities the day
before we departed from Kansastown.

All I needed to do now was to raise the little flap at the
right of the tent door. The small opening was large enough
for a full view over the banks of the stream below. When
the first of the wolves appeared, on the approach of twilight,
I was already lying in wait with my gun ready on the instant.
The first slinking brute to emerge from the bushes was
doomed to fall a victim to my trusty rifle.

Since the setting out from Kansastown, I had practiced
unremittingly in the use of the several kinds of firearms we
were carrying. The target might be wild life of any kind
or motionless objects. My mentor, a crack shot himself with
both pistol and long range weapons, gave me no peace from
daylight till dark. I had to shoot from the moving wagon,
from the saddle, from a position flat on the ground, or kneel-
ing or standing.

We had two long-range rifles of a most modern type
that could deal death at three hundred paces, quite an im-
provement over the American rifles of that day which could
not be relied on for the killing of big game at a distance
greater than two hundred paces.

My teacher was not satisfied with any performance
that was less than perfection. He would grow almost insult-
ing in his impatience when I took a long aim. I had to learn
to find the range in distance, on level ground and on hilly,
at a wink of the eye. "Faster ! Faster !" was his constant
command. When I tarried a second, he would shoot and
spoil my chance.

He had a way with him that was irresistible. He suc-
ceeded in changing my naturally sluggish, leisurely habits
of action until they became tense and automatic. A glance at
the object and a touch at the trigger became a simultaneous
act. An American invention called the hair-trigger added
immensely to the accuracy of the aim, as this required only
the slightest touch of the forefinger to fire.

It was usually necessary to use all haste to reach my
victim. For I soon learned that these animals were canni-
bals. They would devour their own comrades as unhesitat-
ingly as the kill of other animals. Often I would slay a big
brute at a distance of two or three hundred paces. Then
there would ensue a ferocious battle. In the twinkling of
the eye, the carcass, still palpitating, would be torn in a


dozen bits. In fifteen minutes only the clean-gnawed white
bones were left scattered on the ground.

I had the foresight to lay up a store of flesh sufficient to
last a number of days. This froze solidly in a short time
and thawed only when placed in a kettle of boiling water or
when held on a forked stick over the fire. For there were
days at a time when the snow blew over the plains with such
an intensity that it was impossible to see a dozen paces be-
yond my eyrie. At such times the cold within my little
refuge was as intense a few feet away from the hearth-fire
as out in the open.

Slowly the days passed, and infinitely more slowly the
nights. But my rambles extended farther out from day to
day. My spirits had risen once more so that I was singing
or whistling while I walked or when I was busy gathering
wood, or carrying water, or preparing my simple meal. This
had the effect of driving away gloom and nostalgia and
worse things. For I had caught myself repeatedly in cer-
tain queer aberrations which gave me not a little cause for

And so I had cut the twenty-sixth notch on the tent-
pole, my improvised calendar. As usual, after my early
supper, I had thrown my buffalo-robe about my shoulders
and fastened it tightly around my waist with a belt. Then I
took my rifle under my arm and followed the beaten trail to
the top of the nearby hill. The snowstorm of the previous
night had wiped out my tracks so that the trail was only an
indistinct line, and the walk over the snow crust that broke
as soon as my weight would come down on it became terribly
fatiguing. But I persisted in going on to the crest.

The sun was within an hour of setting. Its rays fell
obliquely over the endless snow surface of the wilderness.
Not the lightest breeze was astir. The exertion had warmed
me up despite the biting cold so that my buffalo fur felt
uncomfortable. My breath had formed tiny, milk-white
pearls on the black fur that almost hid my face.

Arrived on the hill-top, I now scanned the horizon in all
directions as had been my habit from the first. To my terror
I noticed a pair of human forms that were coming out of
the north and directly toward my camp. I say in terror, for
the sight of a human being had grown to be so unusual that
I was far from feeling glad over this that I considered in
advance as a decidedly unwelcome intrusion. A queer fore-
boding seemed to tell me that there was something about
these two arrivals foreshadowing evil.


Since they were at first almost indistinguishable shapes,
I was uncertain whether they were mounted or afoot. But
since they were coming from a region whence only Pawnees
were likely to come, it seemed to me that I must form a plan
of action without a moment's delay. Undoubtedly they had
seen me, perhaps even before I had discovered them. There-
fore I must ascertain their intentions. I asked myself at
once what the duke would do under the circumstances. For
we had often discussed various kinds of eventualities and
how we might face them.

I was convinced that he would advise me not to await
their coming in the tent. I must be prepared for anything
of a hostile nature. If their intentions were evil they should
purchase my scalp at a good price.

There was perhaps a scant hour's respite in which I
must get ready for them. For if they had reached the spot
where I had discovered them they would be able to survey my
little domain and hold me there indefinitely.

So, without delay, I hastened back to my tent and gath-
ered up all my firearms and ammunition. I put, before car-

Online LibraryUniversity of New MexicoNew Mexico historical review (Volume 17) → online text (page 31 of 33)