Copyright
George Frederick Augustus Ruxton.

Life in the far West online

. (page 1 of 19)
Online LibraryGeorge Frederick Augustus RuxtonLife in the far West → online text (page 1 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


LIFE IN THE FAR WEST***


E-text prepared by Larry B. Harrison, Christian Boissonnas, and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team (http://www.pgdp.net) from page images
scanned by the Google Books Library Project (https://books.google.com)
generously made available by Internet Archive (https://archive.org)



Note:
Transcriber's note:

Text enclosed by underscores is in italics (_italics_).





LIFE IN THE FAR WEST

by

GEORGE FREDERICK RUXTON

Author of “Travels in Mexico,” &c.






William Blackwood and Sons
Edinburgh and London.
M.DCCC.XLIX.

Originally Published in Blackwood's Magazine.

John Hughes, Printer, Edinburgh.




THE LATE

GEORGE FREDERICK RUXTON.


The London newspapers of October 1848 contained the mournful tidings
of the death, at St Louis on the Mississippi, and at the early age of
twenty-eight, of Lieutenant George Frederick Ruxton, formerly of her
Majesty's 89th regiment, the author of the following sketches.

Many men, even in the most enterprising periods of our history, have
been made the subjects of elaborate biography, with far less title to
the honour than this lamented young officer. Time was not granted him
to embody in a permanent shape a tithe of his personal experiences
and strange adventures in three quarters of the globe. Considering,
indeed, the amount of physical labour he underwent, and the extent of
the fields over which his wanderings spread, it is almost surprising
he found leisure to write so much. At the early age of seventeen, Mr
Ruxton quitted Sandhurst, to learn the practical part of a soldier's
profession in the civil wars of Spain. He obtained a commission in a
squadron of lancers then attached to the division of General Diego
Leon, and was actively engaged in several of the most important
combats of the campaign. For his marked gallantry on these occasions,
he received from Queen Isabella II., the cross of the first class of
the order of St Fernando, an honour which has seldom been awarded to
one so young. On his return from Spain he found himself gazetted to a
commission in the 89th regiment; and it was whilst serving with that
distinguished corps in Canada that he first became acquainted with
the stirring scenes of Indian life, which he has since so graphically
portrayed. His eager and enthusiastic spirit soon became wearied with
the monotony of the barrack-room; and, yielding to that impulse which
in him was irresistibly developed, he resigned his commission, and
directed his steps towards the stupendous wilds, tenanted only by the
red Indian, or by the solitary American trapper.

Those familiar with Mr Ruxton's writings cannot fail to have remarked
the singular delight with which he dwells upon the recollections of
this portion of his career, and the longing which he carried with him,
to the hour of his death, for a return to those scenes of primitive
freedom. “Although liable to an accusation of barbarism,” he writes,
“I must confess that the very happiest moments of my life have been
spent in the wilderness of the Far West; and I never recall, but with
pleasure, the remembrance of my solitary camp in the Bayou Salade,
with no friend near me more faithful than my rifle, and no companions
more sociable than my good horse and mules, or the attendant cayute
which nightly serenaded us. With a plentiful supply of dry pine-logs
on the fire, and its cheerful blaze streaming far up into the sky,
illuminating the valley far and near, and exhibiting the animals,
with well-filled bellies, standing contentedly at rest over their
picket-fire, I would sit cross-legged, enjoying the genial warmth,
and, pipe in mouth, watch the blue smoke as it curled upwards,
building castles in its vapoury wreaths, and, in the fantastic shapes
it assumed, peopling the solitude with figures of those far away.
Scarcely, however, did I ever wish to change such hours of freedom for
all the luxuries of civilised life; and, unnatural and extraordinary
as it may appear, yet such is the fascination of the life of the
mountain hunter, that I believe not one instance could be adduced of
even the most polished and civilised of men, who had once tasted the
sweets of its attendant liberty, and freedom from every worldly care,
not regretting the moment when he exchanged it for the monotonous life
of the settlements, nor sighing and sighing again once more to partake
of its pleasures and allurements.”

On his return to Europe from the Far West, Mr Ruxton, animated with
a spirit as enterprising and fearless as that of Raleigh, planned
a scheme for the exploration of Central Africa, which was thus
characterised by the president of the Royal Geographical Society, in
his anniversary address for 1845:—“To my great surprise, I recently
conversed with an ardent and accomplished youth, Lieutenant Ruxton,
late of the 89th regiment, who had formed the daring project of
traversing Africa in the parallel of the southern tropic, and has
actually started for this purpose. Preparing himself by previous
excursions on foot, in North Africa and Algeria, he sailed from
Liverpool early in December last, in the Royalist, for Ichaboe. From
that spot he was to repair to Walvish Bay, where we have already
mercantile establishments. The intrepid traveller had received from
the agents of these establishments such favourable accounts of the
nations towards the interior, as also of the nature of the climate,
that he has the most sanguine hopes of being able to penetrate to the
central region, if not of traversing it to the Portuguese colonies
of Mozambique. If this be accomplished, then indeed will Lieutenant
Ruxton have acquired for himself a permanent name among British
travellers, by making us acquainted with the nature of the axis of the
great continent of which we possess the southern extremity.”

In pursuance of this hazardous scheme, Ruxton, with a single
companion, landed on the coast of Africa, a little to the south of
Ichaboe, and commenced his journey of exploration. But it seemed as
if both nature and man had combined to baffle the execution of his
design. The course of their travel lay along a desert of moving sand,
where no water was to be found, and little herbage, save a coarse
tufted grass, and twigs of the resinous myrrh. The immediate place
of their destination was Angra Peguena, on the coast, described as
a frequented station, but which in reality was deserted. One ship
only was in the offing when the travellers arrived, and, to their
inexpressible mortification, they discovered that she was outward
bound. No trace was visible of the river or streams laid down in
the maps as falling into the sea at this point, and no resource was
left to the travellers save that of retracing their steps—a labour
for which their strength was hardly adequate. But for the opportune
assistance of a body of natives, who encountered them at the very
moment when they were sinking from fatigue and thirst, Ruxton and his
companion would have been added to the long catalogue of those whose
lives have been sacrificed in the attempt to explore the interior of
that fatal country.

The jealousy of the traders, and of the missionaries settled on the
African coast, who constantly withheld or perverted that information
which was absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of the
journey, induced Ruxton to abandon the attempt for the present. He
made, however, several interesting excursions towards the interior,
and more especially in the country of the Bosjesmans.

Finding his own resources inadequate for the accomplishment of
his favourite project, Mr Ruxton, on his return to England, made
application for Government assistance. But though this demand was
not altogether refused, it having been referred to the Council of
the Royal Geographical Society, and favourably reported upon by that
body, so many delays interposed that Ruxton, in disgust, resolved
to withdraw from the scheme, and to abandon that field of African
research which he had already contemplated from its borders. He next
bent his steps to Mexico; and, fortunately, has presented to the world
his reminiscences of that country, in one of the most fascinating
volumes which, of late years, has issued from the press. It would,
however, appear that the African scheme, the darling project of his
life, had again recurred to him at a later period; for, in the course
of the present spring, before setting out on that journey which was
destined to be his last, the following expressions occur in one of his
letters:—

“My movements are uncertain, for I am trying to get up a yacht
voyage to Borneo and the Indian Archipelago; have volunteered
to Government to explore Central Africa; and the Aborigines
Protection Society wish me to go out to Canada to organise the
Indian tribes; whilst, for my own part and inclination, I wish to
go to all parts of the world at once.”

As regards the volume to which this notice serves as Preface, the
editor does not hesitate to express a very high opinion of its merits.
Written by a man untrained to literature, and whose life, from
boy-hood upwards, was passed in the field and on the road, in military
adventure and travel, its style is yet often as remarkable for graphic
terseness and vigour, as its substance every where is for great
novelty and originality. The narrative of “Life in the Far West” was
first offered for insertion in _Blackwood's Magazine_ in the spring
of 1848, when the greater portion of the manuscript was sent, and the
remainder shortly followed. During its publication in that periodical,
the wildness of the adventures related excited suspicions in certain
quarters as to their actual truth and fidelity. It may interest the
reader to know that the scenes described are pictures from life,
the results of the author's personal experience. The following are
extracts from letters addressed by him, in the course of last summer,
to the conductors of the Magazine above named:—

“I have brought out a few more softening traits in the characters
of the mountaineers—but not at the sacrifice of truth—for some of
them have their good points; which, as they are rarely allowed
to rise to the surface, must be laid hold of at once before they
sink again. Killbuck—that 'old hos' _par exemple_, was really
pretty much of a gentleman, as was La Bonté. Bill Williams,
another 'hard case,' and Rube Herring, were 'some' too.

“The scene where La Bonté joins the Chase family is so far true,
that he did make a sudden appearance; but, in reality, a day
before the Indian attack. The Chases (and I wish I had not given
the proper name[1]) did start for the Platte alone, and were
stampedoed upon the waters of the Platte.

“The Mexican fandango _is true to the letter_. It does seem
difficult to understand how they contrived to keep their
knives out of the hump-ribs of the mountaineers; but how
can you account for the fact, that, the other day, 4000 Mexicans,
with 13 pieces of artillery, behind strong entrenchments and
two lines of parapets, were routed by 900 raw Missourians; 300
killed, as many more wounded, all their artillery captured, as
well as several hundred prisoners; and that not one American was
killed in the affair? _This is positive fact._

“I myself, with three trappers, cleared a fandango at Taos, armed
only with bowie-knives—some score Mexicans, at least, being in
the room.

“With regard to the incidents of Indian attacks, starvation,
cannibalism, &c., I have invented not one out of my own head.
They are all matters of history in the mountains; but I have, no
doubt, jumbled the _dramatis personæ_ one with another, and may
have committed anachronisms in the order of their occurrence.”

Again he wrote as follows:—

“I think it would be as well to correct a misapprehension as to
the truth or fiction of the paper. It is no _fiction_. There is
no incident in it which has not actually occurred, nor one
character who is not well known in the Rocky Mountains, with
the exception of two whose names are changed—the originals of
these being, however, equally well known with the others.”

His last letter, written just before his departure from England, a few
weeks previously to his death, will hardly be read by any one who ever
knew the writer, without a tear of sympathy for the sad fate of this
fine young man, dying miserably in a strange land, before he had well
commenced the hazardous journey whose excitement and dangers he so
joyously anticipated:—

“As you say, human nature can't go on feeding on civilised
fixings in this 'big village;' and this child has felt like
going West for many a month, being half froze for buffler meat
and mountain doins. My route takes me _viâ_ New York, the Lakes,
and St Louis, to Fort Leavenworth, or Independence on the Indian
frontier. Thence packing my 'possibles' on a mule, and mounting a
buffalo horse (Panchito, if he is alive), I strike the
Santa Fé trail to the Arkansa, away up that river to the
mountains, winter in the Bayou Salade, where Killbuck and La
Bonté joined the Yutes, cross the mountains next spring to
Great Salt Lake—and that's far enough to look forward to—always
supposing my hair is not lifted by Comanche or Pawnee on the
scalping route of the Coon Creeks and Pawnee Fork.”

Poor fellow! he spoke lightly, in the buoyancy of youth and a
confident spirit, of the fate he little thought to meet, but which
too surely overtook him—not indeed by Indian blade, but by the no
less deadly stroke of disease. Another motive, besides that love of
rambling and adventure, which, once conceived and indulged, is so
difficult to eradicate, impelled him across the Atlantic. He had for
some time been out of health at intervals, and he thought the air
of his beloved prairies would be efficacious to work a cure. In a
letter to a friend, in the month of May last, he thus referred to the
probable origin of the evil:—

“I have been confined to my room for many days, from the
effects of an accident I met with in
the Rocky Mountains, having been spilt from the bare back of a
mule, and falling on the sharp picket of an Indian lodge on the
small of my back. I fear I injured my spine, for I have never
felt altogether the thing since, and shortly after I saw you,
the symptoms became rather ugly. However, I am now getting round
again.”

His medical advisers shared his opinion that he had sustained internal
injury from this ugly fall; and it is not improbable that it was
the remote, but real cause of his dissolution. From whatsoever this
ensued, it will be a source of deep and lasting regret to all who
ever enjoyed opportunities of appreciating the high and sterling
qualities of George Frederick Ruxton. Few men, so prepossessing on
first acquaintance, gained so much by being better known. With great
natural abilities and the most dauntless bravery, he united a modesty
and gentleness peculiarly pleasing. Had he lived, and resisted his
friends' repeated solicitations to abandon a roving life, and settle
down in England, there can be little doubt that he would have made
his name eminent on the list of those daring and persevering men,
whose travels in distant and dangerous lands have accumulated for
England, and for the world, so rich a store of scientific and general
information. And, although the few words it has been thought right
and becoming here to devote to his memory, will doubtless be more
particularly welcome to his personal friends, we are persuaded that
none will peruse without interest this brief tribute to the merits of
a gallant soldier, and accomplished English gentleman.




LIFE IN THE FAR WEST.




CHAPTER I.


Away to the head waters of the Platte, where several small streams
run into the south fork of that river, and head in the broken ridges
of the “Divide” which separates the valleys of the Platte and
Arkansa, were camped a band of trappers on a creek called Bijou. It
was the month of October, when the early frosts of the coming winter
had crisped and dyed with sober brown the leaves of the cherry and
quaking ash belting the brooks; and the ridges and peaks of the Rocky
Mountains were already covered with a glittering mantle of snow,
sparkling in the still powerful rays of the autumn sun.

The camp had all the appearance of permanency; for not only did it
comprise one or two unusually comfortable shanties, but the numerous
stages on which huge stripes of buffalo meat were hanging in process
of cure, showed that the party had settled themselves here in order to
lay in a store of provisions, or, as it is termed in the language of
the mountains, “to make meat.” Round the camp fed twelve or fifteen
mules and horses, their fore-legs confined by hobbles of raw hide;
and, guarding these animals, two men paced backwards and forwards,
driving in the stragglers, ascending ever and anon the bluffs which
overhung the river, and leaning on their long rifles, whilst they
swept with their eyes the surrounding prairie. Three or four fires
burned in the encampment, at some of which Indian women carefully
tended sundry steaming pots; whilst round one, which was in the
centre of it, four or five stalwart hunters, clad in buckskin, sat
cross-legged, pipe in mouth.

They were a trapping party from the north fork of Platte, on their
way to wintering-ground in the more southern valley of the Arkansa;
some, indeed, meditating a more extended trip, even to the distant
settlements of New Mexico, the paradise of mountaineers. The elder of
the company was a tall gaunt man, with a face browned by twenty years'
exposure to the extreme climate of the mountains; his long black hair,
as yet scarcely tinged with grey, hanging almost to his shoulders, but
his cheeks and chin clean shaven, after the fashion of the mountain
men. His dress was the usual hunting-frock of buckskin, with long
fringes down the seams, with pantaloons similarly ornamented, and
moccasins of Indian make. Whilst his companions puffed their pipes in
silence, he narrated a few of his former experiences of western life;
and whilst the buffalo “hump-ribs” and “tender loin” are singing away
in the pot, preparing for the hunters' supper, we will note down the
yarn as it spins from his lips, giving it in the language spoken in
the “far west:”—

“'Twas about 'calf-time,' maybe a little later, and not a hunderd year
ago, by a long chalk, that the biggest kind of rendezvous was held
'to' Independence, a mighty handsome little location away up on old
Missoura. A pretty smart lot of boys was camp'd thar, about a quarter
from the town, and the way the whisky flowed that time was 'some'
now, _I_ can tell you. Thar was old Sam Owins—him as got 'rubbed
out'[2] by the Spaniards at Sacramenty, or Chihuahuy, this hos doesn't
know which, but he 'went under'[3] any how. Well, Sam had his train
along, ready to hitch up for the Mexican country—twenty thunderin big
Pittsburg waggons; and the way _his_ Santa Fé boys took in the liquor
beat all—eh, Bill?”

“_Well_, it did.”

“Bill Bent—his boys camped the other side the trail, and they was all
mountain men, wagh!—and Bill Williams, and Bill Tharpe (the Pawnees
took his hair on Pawnee Fork last spring): three Bills, and them
three's all 'gone under.' Surely Hatcher went out that time; and
wasn't Bill Garey along, too? Didn't him and Chabonard sit in camp for
twenty hours at a deck of Euker? Them was Bent's Indian traders up on
Arkansa. Poor Bill Bent! them Spaniards made meat of him. He lost his
topknot to Taos. A 'clever' man was Bill Bent as _I_ ever know'd trade
a robe or 'throw' a bufler in his tracks. Old St Vrain could knock the
hind-sight off him though, when it came to shootin, and old silver
heels spoke true, she did: 'plum-center' she was, eh?”

“_Well_, she wasn't nothin else.”

“The Greasers[4] payed for Bent's scalp, they tell me. Old St Vrain
went out of Santa Fé with a company of mountain men, and the way they
made 'em sing out was 'slick as shootin'. He 'counted a coup,' did
St Vrain. He throwed a Pueblo as had on poor Bent's shirt. I guess
he tickled that niggur's hump-ribs. Fort William[5] aint the lodge
it was, an' never will be agin, now he's gone under; but St Vrain's
'pretty much of a gentleman,' too; if he aint, I'll be dog-gone, eh,
Bill?”

“He is _so-o_.”

“Chavez had his waggons along. He was only a Spaniard any how, and
some of his teamsters put a ball into him his next trip, and made a
raise of _his_ dollars, wagh! Uncle Sam hung 'em for it, I heard, but
can't b'lieve it, nohow. If them Spaniards wasn't born for shootin',
why was beaver made? You was with us that spree, Jemmy?”

“No _sirre-e_; I went out when Spiers lost his animals on Cimmaron: a
hunderd and forty mules and oxen was froze that night, wagh!”

“Surely Black Harris was thar; and the darndest liar was Black
Harris—for lies tumbled out of his mouth like boudins out of a
bufler's stomach. He was the child as saw the putrefied forest in the
Black Hills. Black Harris come in from Laramie; he'd been trapping
three year an' more on Platte and the 'other side;' and, when he got
into Liberty, he fixed himself right off like a Saint Louiy dandy.
Well, he sat to dinner one day in the tavern, and a lady says to him:—

“'Well, Mister Harris, I hear you're a great travler.'

“'Travler, marm,' says Black Harris, 'this niggur's no travler; I ar'
a trapper, marm, a mountain-man, wagh!'

“'Well, Mister Harris, trappers are great travlers, and you goes over
a sight of ground in your perishinations, I'll be bound to say.'

“'A sight, marm, this coon's gone over, if that's the way your 'stick
floats.'[6] I've trapped beaver on Platte and Arkansa, and away up on
Missoura and Yaller Stone; I've trapped on Columbia, on Lewis Fork,
and Green River; I've trapped, marm, on Grand River and the Heely
(Gila). I've fout the 'Blackfoot' (and d——d bad Injuns they ar); I've
'raised the hair'[7] of more _than one_ Apach, and made a Rapaho
'come' afore now; I've trapped in heav'n, in airth, and h—; and scalp
my old head, marm, but I've seen a putrefied forest.'

“'La, Mister Harris, a what?'

“'A putrefied forest, marm, as sure as my rifle's got hind-sights,
and _she_ shoots center. I was out on the Black Hills, Bill Sublette
knows the time—the year it rained fire—and every body knows when that
was. If thar wasn't cold doins about that time, this child wouldn't
say so. The snow was about fifty foot deep, and the bufler lay dead
on the ground like bees after a beein'; not whar we was tho', for
_thar_ was no bufler, and no meat, and me and my band had been livin'
on our mocassins (leastwise the parflesh[8]), for six weeks; and poor
doins that feedin' is, marm, as you'll never know. One day we crossed
a 'cañon' and over a 'divide,' and got into a peraira, whar was green
grass, and green trees, and green leaves on the trees, and birds
singing in the green leaves, and this in Febrary, wagh! Our animals
was like to die when they see the green grass, and we all sung out,
'hurraw for summer doins.'

“'Hyar goes for meat,' says I, and I jest ups old Ginger at one of
them singing birds, and down come the crittur elegant; its darned head
spinning away from the body, but never stops singing, and when I takes
up the meat, I finds it stone, wagh! 'Hyar's damp powder and no fire
to dry it,' I says, quite skeared.

“'Fire be dogged,' says old Rube. 'Hyar's a hos as 'll make fire
come;' and with that he takes his axe and lets drive at a cotton
wood. Schr-u-k—goes the axe agin the tree, and out comes a bit of the
blade as big as my hand. We looks at the animals, and thar they stood
shaking over the grass, which I'm dog-gone if it wasn't stone, too.
Young Sublette comes up, and he'd been clerking down to the fort on
Platte, so he know'd something. He looks and looks, and scrapes the
trees with his butcher knife, and snaps the grass like pipe stems, and
breaks the leaves a-snappin' like Californy shells.'

“'What's all this, boy?' I asks.

“'Putrefactions,' says he, looking smart, 'putrefactions, or I'm a
niggur.'

“'La, Mister Harris,' says the lady, 'putrefactions! why, did the
leaves, and the trees, and the grass smell badly?'


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryGeorge Frederick Augustus RuxtonLife in the far West → online text (page 1 of 19)