THE genius for pioneering is born in a man, just as the geneius for debate or for war. It runs in families, and is handed down from father to son. It is that strange spirit of unrest which dissatisfies some men with their civilized surroundings, and impels them toward the wilderness. There they are happy, fighting the savage, shooting the buffalo, and struggling with nature in her fiercest aspect. When the tide of emigration sets in their direction, and society assumes a somewhat settled state, these bold men give a pull at their throat bands as if suffocated, and resolutely set their faces toward the west, to seek out a location where the spice of adventure and danger gives a wild variety to life.
Such was the Carson family, of Kentucky, to whom was born, on December 24, 1809, their son Christopher, or, as he is widely known, "Kit." At this time Kentucky society began to assume a state, wild and rough, we would think, but to the Carsons dull and monotonous. Affrays with Indians happened only once in a year or two. In 1810, none of Mr. Carson's neighbors had been scalped since Kit was born. When he went out for a hunt he could no longer hope to be treed all night by a bear. All this was a bore; and it bore on his mind so that, when Kit was a year old, the family sold out their scraggy farm, said good-bye to their nearest neighbors, five miles off, and with hearts lighter than for several years, set out for what is now central Missouri. Here they found no end of exciting adventures. They and a few neighbors lived together in a rough log fort, in order to be safe from the Indians. In laying out and working their farms outside the log inclosure, it was necessary for a part of them to act as guards, posted at the extremities of the fields, to give instant warning of an approach of redskins, and signal a retreat to the fort.
Amid such scenes were passed the boyhood days of Kit Carson. When he reached the age of sixteen, his father, good man, being determined that his son should not lead such a roving life as he himself had, apprenticed Christopher to a harness-maker. But the master could make no harness strong enough to hitch the soaring spirit of Kit Carson to a trade. The restless love of freedom and appetite for adventure which belong to the father, were intensified in the son, and in 1826 he broke away from the restraint, by joining a party whose journey took them eight hundred miles across the plains, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Though young, and destitute of the necessary equipment, not even owning a gun, nor being able, by the utmost exertions as teamster and guide, to do more than earn the food he ate, his purpose was made up to be a hunter and trapper. In April, 1829, he was selected as a member of a party of forty men, under the leadership of Ewing Young, organized at Taos, New Mexico, for the double purpose of chastising a tribe of Indians, who had been on the war-path and driven a party of Young's trappers out of the country, and also for pursuing the lucrative occupation of trapping beaver. The real purpose of the expedition was carefully concealed from the Mexican authorities, and after a brisk and secret advance, they came suddenly upon the band of Navajo braves, which had massacred their friends. Preparations for the fight were quickly made on both sides. Part of the whites advanced stealthily, to lie in ambush behind some rock which lay a little to the side and nearly midway between the main combatants. Not seeing this movement, the Indians charged on the remainder of the party, and, as they came in front of the ambush, were suddenly assailed by a murderous cross-fire. Fifteen braves fell heavily from their horses, killed by the first fire; the remainder, pursued by the trappers, fled in all directions.
After this fight it was decided that the party should divide, only eighteen of them continuing to the valley of the Sacramento in California. Of this detachment Carson was a member. Learning from some friendly Indians that the country through which their path lay, and which had never before been explored by white men, was destitute, alike, of game and water, the meat of three deer was prepared to take with them, and the skins of the animals were converted into water tanks. A week was passed with this meager supply of water for eighteen men and a large number of horses. For food an old mare was killed on the fifth day and devoured with great gusto. About the seventh day they reached the dry bed of one of those singular rivers, which suddenly sink out of sight and reappear at the distance of hundreds of miles after an underground course, probably, through quicksand. The channel is usually defined on the surface, and, though dry, delicious water is easily had by scooping a hole of a few feet in the sand. After this their path lay through a beautiful country, abounding in water and forage, elk, deer, and antelope of the finest varieties. The men were elated with what seemed a good omen of the success which awaited them in their trapping.
When at last the Sacramento River was reached the men began to keep a sharp lookout for "signs" of beaver. The presence of them in great abundance caused a thrill of joy to the trappers. The significance of this word "signs" is very great as the trappers use it. The cunning beaver can seldom be seen on the bank or in the river, for he has no great means of defense when attacked, and relies on his exquisite sight and hearing to warn him of danger in time for retreat. The marks he leaves behind him, however, are to the expert eye as legible as the words on this page. The beaver's unequaled industry in felling trees, cutting twigs, peeling off the tender cuticle of the willow bushes, digging away the banks, and carrying the earth on his shovel-shaped tail to his dam, and the innumerable footprints which he leaves, are a part of these "signs." The little twig, half denuded of its bark, floating down stream, unnoticed by any but the keen-eyed trapper, reveals to him by its freshness the proximity of the prize more than the great dam, which to a greenhorn would seem a splendid indication of its builder's presence, because the dam is probably an old and abandoned one.
The beaver's dam a wonderful structure, is built by him to provide him with food in the winter when every thing above the water is dry and sapless. "He chooses a place favorable for obtaining food, and also where his labors will be assisted by natural formations or accidents in the river's course. Having carefully selected his location, he and his fellows set to work to fell giant trees while one party is cutting the hard wood on one side of the tree with their sharp teeth, another works on the opposite side, the incision on the side on which they want the tree to fall being made, with the skill of a true forester, much lower than the other, which is made to slant downward to the forest. By this sort of craft the largest trees are made to fall across the stream and small branches are at once woven into a close network, adapted to catching floating debris, and to receiving the earth which they throw on by the tail load. Several trees are felled in his way, till as many are down as desired. Then comes the mud-work, in which Mr. Beaver is an artist. A large gang march to the bank, load each others' tails, and swim, with their cargoes elevated above the water, to the dumping-spot, where they at once mould it to its place."
Their houses they have previously built on the banks. They consist of large and airy subterranean rooms, above the watermark. In these hoses, trappers say, they live in pairs, and much resemble human beings in the arrangement and management of their household affairs, Madame Beaver having the ruling voice in domestic and internal arrangements, while the outside work of building dams and providing food is more the especial business of Monsieur. To this end he builds his dam, the deep water preserving fresh and tender the leaves and shrubs on which his family must subsist during the winter. Some say he goes so far as to bundle up small branches of trees and willows, which he stows away in the muddy bottom of the river. Trapper yarns have it that beaver society is regularly organized, there being chiefs, some of whom roll in wealth and have troops of slaves ready to do instant service, such as bring a fresh bundle of green twigs for dinner from the river bottom.
The signs having been discovered, the trappers selected a comfortable location for their camp, and part of them started out to set traps, while the remainder kept guard and did the cooking. The trap is much like the ordinary steel trap used for catching foxes or wolves, only somewhat smaller. It is baited with a peculiar animal substance of strong scent, which draws the beaver from his hiding-place, and so excites his appetite as to induce him before long to reach in his paw, when in an instant he is a prisoner. The traps, when visited, are emptied and reset. The game is killed and skinned, the pelts dried and cured in camp, and packed in bales for loading on the mules. The Sacramento region proved to be a splendid field for operations, and great was the success.
While in camp here the party were applied to by the priest of the mission of San Rafael for help in capturing some Indians belonging to his mission, who had stolen some of his property and deserted to a hostile Indian village, which refused to give them up. Carson and a dozen companions, ready for any fun, offered their services, and attacked the Indian village, killing one-third of its population, capturing the deserters, and with them the stolen property. For this they refused all compensation, but the priest secured them a good purchaser for their furs.
One night, when unsuspicious of danger, the camp lost sixty of their horses, which were driven off by a party of redskins. Carson was ordered to pick a dozen companions, and with the remaining thirteen horses give chase. After a break-neck ride of a hundred miles toward the mountains, they suddenly came upon the savages, who were sitting around their camp-fires feasting on six of the horses, which they had killed for that purpose. Enraged beyond measure at the sight, the trappers charged the camp with a yell, killing eight savages in the twinkling of an eye, while the rest escaped. When Carson returned with all the horses except the six which had been killed, he was voted a hero. Yet he was only twenty years old, and this was his first expedition. Here it was too, that he laid the foundation of his fame as a hunter, in which regard he afterward acquired a reputation unequaled by any man in the Rocky Mountains. His companions say he was exceedingly modest, and of a refined and gentle nature, which contrasted strangely with his wild profession. He was only five feet and a half high, agile but rather slight in build, possessing a gray eye and light brown hair. He talked little, and was remarkably cautious in exposing himself, always sleeping where the glare of the camp-fire did not fall on him, and carefully loading gun and pistols before retiring.
In September the party, well laden with valuable furs, turned their faces homeward. On their way, passing through a Mexican town, the men, in true trapper style, feeling the object of the trip largely accomplished, succumbed to the seductive influence of the whisky on sale there, as well as to the winsome familiarities of the Mexican maiden. Carson, however, carefully avoided such indulgences, and exerted himself to get the party out of town.
On the day after leaving the place, while the trappers' heads were still heavy and aching from the debauch, Carson discovered a band of five hundred Indians approaching. The men were at the moment in camp. The Indians halted, made friendly signs, and in a few moments two of their number came into the trappers' camp, eyeing things with great curiosity. Shortly a few more braves sauntered in, and then still more, until enough were present to overwhelm the little band of whites if a struggle ensued. At this moment Mr. Young discovered that the Indians, instead of being unarmed, had their weapons concealed in their garments. It was evidently their intention to massacre the entire party and make off with the booty. Young whispered his discovery with blanched lips to Carson.
The moment was critical. But in these trying moments Carson's genius never failed to equal the emergency. Quickly calling his men to his side, he ordered each man to cover a savage with his gun. Taken completely by surprise, the intruders began to retreat from the row of deadly rifles. "Leave the camp!" said Carson, in a clear-cut tone. "If you refuse, each one of us will kill our man, even if we at last are killed ourselves." The effect was electric. Death, with blood-shot eye-balls, stared them out of countenance, and with a bound the red murderers cleared the camp.
A week or two after this, the trappers ran across a band of Indians which had annoyed then on their outbound trip. The "lex talionis" of Moses and the Israelites is the only possible law for the wanderers in any wilderness. Stealing quickly upon the group of huts, the whites were upon their foes almost as soon as discovered. A noble warrior sank to rise no more at each crack of the trappers' rifles, and in a few moments the rout became complete. A very nice herd of horses and mules, the only thing of value in the village, was captured by this stroke.
That night the trappers settled down around their camp-fire for a comfortable sleep, after the day's exertion. Some mention was made about the probability of a return of the redskins, and two of the most vigilant were appointed to keep watch, one before midnight the other after. Shortly after the change of sentry at midnight, the man on watch became aware of a dark body moving in the darkness over the prairie in the direction of the camp. It was but the work of a moment to arouse the men, who, with rifles grasped and pistols cocked, were instantly on the alert. Carson slipped out to reconnoitre, and returning reported a large herd of horses driven by a few Indians, who had probably stolen them. Without any over-nice honesty, a volley of rifle-balls was directed toward the astonished Indians, who fled in great precipitation, leaving their property, the second capture of the day, to the trappers. On the following morning the best of the herd was selected for use; two of the fattest animals were killed for food, and the remainder turned loose on the prairie, to rejoice once more in the wild liberty of their sires.
In April, 1830, just a year after its departure, the expedition found itself once more among the group of huts which was dignified by the name of Taos. The proceeds of the trip were twenty-four thousand dollars, which soon found its way out again, for the trapper is like the sailor home from his voyage. It was the chief care of each man to get on a profound, inglorious, and terrible drunk, which only ended his money. On this occasion Carson yielded somewhat to the demoralizing atmosphere, but it was his first and last spree. Nature seemed to have made him a gentleman in spite of his rough surroundings. Refinement is a quality of the mind. Wealth and luxury only sharpen the outline of vulgarity. The frontier cabin of the trapper, where a woman is seldom seen, and the softening influence of children was unknown; over which the great and jagged Rockies flung the chilly shadows of an early sunset, and where the brutal savages, instead of turning toward the light of civilization, rather drew the pioneer down into their own gloom and brutality -- this frontier cabin only served to throw into bolder relief the character of the GENTLEMAN.
It was in the autumn of 1830 that Kit Carson enlisted for his second trapping expedition. He was greatly sought after for this purpose by the organizers of trapping parties. The party joined by Carson passed the winter in quarters on Salmon River, and began their real work with the season of 1831, along Snake River, on which are the famous Shoshonee Falls, more than one third higher than Niagara. Meeting another party of trappers, Carson learned that Captain Gaunt, an old mountaineer, with a small company, were ten days' journey to the south. He and four companions resolved, for a change, to join Gaunt, and after a rapid journey were cordially welcomed by him.
The time for going into winter quarters was at hand. This was always looked to with interest, as it marked a great change in the trapper's mode of life. No longer did he gallop with free rein over the flower-embroidered prairie; no longer select his spot for the evening camp-fire, and, while the game, brought down by his own expert hand, was steaming over the coals, and flinging its savory odor upon the breeze, busy himself with baiting and setting his traps at the water's edge; and after a dash in the cooling current, feast upon the tempting meal; then with his saddle for a pillow, his blanket for a bed, and the star-fretted sky for a canopy, sink to sleep, as the dying embers threw their fitful flashes more and more dimly into the surrounding forest.
All this was changed. His home, when in winter quarters, was a conical tent of dressed buffalo skins, supported on a frame-work of light poles, spread out in a circle at the bottom, and crossed near the top, where they were held by being thrust through the opening in the buffalo skins. These were sewed tightly into the shape of a cone, except one straight seam, which was fastened by a lacing to within four or five feet of the ground. The bottom of the tent was securely fastened to the ground by wooden pins. In the center of this tent, which is about eighteen feet in diameter, and fifteen feet high, he had his fire, the smoke from which, in theory, was to escape by the opening above, but in fact, filled the apartment.
In here the men passed their days and nights, except when they went out to attend to their horses. Early in the winter the snow fell to the depth of six feet, and removed not till the spring. Water for the shaggy Indian ponies had to be obtained from the river through a chopped hole in the ice. These hardy beasts had no shelter except such as was afforded by an overhanging rock, and some forest trees. To obtain food for them was a serious task. It had to be done by cutting down cottonwood trees, and gathering the bark and branches for fodder. But the ponies stood it as well as the men, who thought themselves comfortable and happy in their warm buffalo tent. Here they slept and smoked, told stories and cooked meals, dressed their skins, or ornamented their saddles.
Not a small part of their time did they spend over that magic annihilator of time and surroundings -- a pack of cards! The man who held the ace of trumps never failed to be regarded as a marvelously lucky fellow, and the fellow with two bowers and a queen, as little short of a hero! We may smile at these little details of the trapper's life, but it is more fitting that a tear should fall, for these are the men, some of whom are known to world-wide fame, as the hero of this chapter, but many of whom are unknown to history, and will be nameless for evermore - these are the men, "who," as reads our title-page, "by their valor and war-craft, beat back the savages from the borders of civilization, and gave the American forests to the plow and the sickle." All honor, then, to the brave pioneer, the fruit of whose toils and triumphs he beheld from afar off, while we alone have lived to enter into the land of promise!"
One cold January night, some Crow Indians succeeded in stealing nine horses from the camp. A dozen men, with Carson, of course, at their head, started in pursuit. At the end of forty miles their horses, weak from insufficient food, made a halt necessary, and they turned into a clump of woods. Here they unexpectedly found their enemies. Making fast their horses, and examining their guns, Carson directed the men to make a detour, so as to approach the savages from the direction in which they least expected danger -- that in which they traveled. To get close enough to reconnoiter, it was necessary to perform a large part of this journey crawling through the deep snow on hands and knees. In this way they were able to discover two rude forts, in which a large force were performing the war-dance. The nine horses were tied outside.
To insure success the trappers, in spite of the bitter cold, lay concealed till the dance ended, and the last sleepy redskin snored solemnly in the darkness. Carson then slipped forward, cut the halters, and by means of snowballs drove the horses away without noise. Having secured them, a division of opinion was found as to whether they should make an attack. Carson and two others strongly urged it, as otherwise they would be pursued, and probably have to fight anyhow under less unfavorable circumstances. The advice of Carson was followed, and they again neared the sleeping foe. A dog in the camp barked, and the warriors, springing to their feet, became marks for the deadly rifles of the pioneers. Those who survived the first fire hurriedly ran to the fort. A desperate sortie was repulsed with the loss of several more. At daybreak the pioneers withdrew, mounted their horses, and by night rejoined their comrades at quarters on the Arkansas River.
In the spring they cached their furs, and broke camp. Three weeks later, while on the South Platte, Carson and one companion were sent by Captain Gaunt in pursuit of two men who had deserted the party. Suspecting their design, Kit made for the furs in cache at the old camp. Three hundred pounds, belonging equally to the entire party, were missing, and the deserters, probably killed by the Indians, were never heard of afterward. Failing to recover the furs, Carson and his companion felt that a return to Gaunt's party was unwise and impracticable. They therefore repaired the old log fortification which had surrounded their buffalo tent the winter before, and, without venturing out of it much, managed to keep well supplied with game. Here the two men lived for a month, one of them always on guard, anxiously looking for relief, which came at last. Gaunt had entirely given them up, fearing that they had attempted to return to him and had been killed by the Indians of the region, who were on the war-path.
The journey to rejoin the main body of Gaunt's party proved exceedingly dangerous, even for the band of twenty-one veteran trappers. On several occasions a stampede occurred, by which they lost a horse or two. The stampede is accomplished by the Indians turning loose some wild horses, which are trained to dash at full speed through the camp of the white men. All the picketed horses, being greatly excited, attempt to follow, more or less succeeding in breaking loose, and rushing with their wild companions into an Indian lair, much as greenies fall a prey to the seductive wiles of the confidence man.
One morning Carson took a trio of companions to cross a range and look for beaver. Their outward path was by a precipitous way directly across the mountains. But in the afternoon as they turned home a longer walk was found more practicable for the descent. As they were leisurely riding back to the camp there suddenly appeared in their path, directly in front of them, four powerful and splendidly mounted Indians, decked out in fantastic plumes and gayly colored paint, indicating unmistakably that they were on the war-path. The emergency demanded an immediate decision as to the best course to pursue. In all likelihood these warriors were only the advance guard of a large war party ambushed behind the rocks. To advance was dangerous, yet to retreat was to be pursued and almost certainly overtaken and killed. The three other men turned to Carson, who without a word dug his spurs deep into the sides of his mustang, and, closely followed by the others, dashed at full speed upon the astonished braves. In a moment sixty splendid warriors were discovered in ambush near the trail. Thick and fast flew their bullets. Kit and his three friends, throwing themselves as much as possible to the other side of their horses, dashed on without returning a shot. They were running the gauntlet. In three minutes they would either be safe or silent forever.
At one point the copper-faced devils were within sixty feet of them. But in their surprise at the boldness of the trappers, their aim was unsteady, and in a few moments Carson had reached the camp, alive and unhurt. Two of his companions had received severe wounds, and on the following day, when the march was resumed, it was necessary to take two poles, let the ends rest on two trusty horses, and swing a buffalo robe in the center as a litter for the wounded men.
When they reached Gaunt the hunt for beaver was found to be unsuccessful, and the ill luck continued. Tried of going empty-handed, Kit Carson resolved to strike out and try it alone. Two companions volunteered to join him, in spite of the greatly increased danger of trapping with such a small party. After several months of great success, attained by the superior skill of Carson, they returned to Taos, and disposed of their furs at advantageous prices.
The humdrum life in the mud huts of Taos was dull enough for poor Kit, with his fierce love of adventure, and thrusting away all notion of settling down after his two years of absence, he soon arranged to join a trading party. They had been out some weeks when they met another party of traders, commanded by Mr. Robidaux. Right gladly did they grasp each other's hands and interchange stories of their luck. The snow began to fall soon after the meeting, and the men took the hint to go into winter quarters. For the purposes of companionship and security the two parties arranged to encamp together.
Again Carson began that wonderful life in the buffalo lodge of which we have spoken. Again, as the storm raged without, the men lay around the fire in their warm but wind-shaken tent, and with many a yarn and jest drowned out the dreary roar of the tempest. On these occasions Carson was much less of a talker than the other fellows. He joined heartily in the laugh, but except when the talk took a practical turn, as to what would have been the safest way to deal with the redskins on some occasion, or how a trapper who was lost, and without a gun, might manage, he rarely spoke. It was rather his forte to furnish the theme of conversation by some daring exploit of his own.
Among Mr. Robidaux's company was a keen and shrewd California Indian, who was valued for his skill rather than esteemed for his trustworthiness. One morning six of the finest horses, worth two hundred dollars apiece, were missing, and this fellow as well. Illy able to thus lose the entire profits of his expedition, Robidaux asked Carson to attempt a reprisal. Kit, though prudent when only his own interests were at stake, shrank from no danger to help a friend. To help him on his perilous mission Carson determined to select a first class brave from a village of friendly Utahs near by. His choice was soon made. And the Utah seemed proud of the honor. Both were splendidly mounted, and quickly striking the trail of the flying thief, they dashed on their errand of vengeance. No man could follow a trail or read its characteristics more rapidly than Kit Carson, although still the youngest man of his party, being yet only twenty-three years old -- "the boy," as the old trappers affectionately called him.
Hardly for a moment was the rein drawn for the first hundred miles, and Kit felt confident of overtaking the treacherous rascal within two or three days. After a few hours' halt the first night, they were preparing to start again when, when Carson's companion affirmed that his horse had broken down and he could go no farther. That the noble animal was sick was evident, but Kit strongly suspected that it had been purposely made so. Should he turn back? The savage he pursued was an experienced and dangerous fighter, armed to the teeth, and no doubt desperate. Thinking only of his friend, the heroic fellow left his companion, and flew along the trail alone. Alone in the wilderness! Around him stretched the illimitable plains, bounded, to the eye, only by the gloomy Rockies, which from afar could be seen in eternal and majestic repose. Not a sound broke the stillness of the morning but for the rapid thud, thud of his horse's hooves as they rose and fell in the snowy trail, with the regularity of a machine. Sometimes a thought of the brave mother whom he had left years before in the little Missouri clearing would force itself upward as his gallant steed bore him on to what might be death.
He had left his companion about thirty miles to the rear when he discovered the chase. The pace of pursuer and pursued became terrific. A spectator seeing those two figures, wondering at the singular sight, would have seen the one behind gradually gaining on the other. Seeing this, the Indian began to make for some rocks behind which he could fire at his pursuer as he approached, and reload without exposure. The plan was good. It had almost succeeded. But behind him was the Hero of the Rockies. Without pausing an instant in his tremendous career, Carson unslung his rifle, and with the aim that never missed, shot his enemy through the heart, just as he turned behind the cover. At the same instant the other's gun went off, but in a wild direction. When Carson returned to the winter camp with the stolen horses he was greeted with a cheer. Not alone in that camp was the exploit talked over on many an evening; but borne in some mysterious manner through the wilderness, the story of the deed was the favorite theme around a hundred camp fires.
Carson seemed to bear a charmed life. As on a previous occasion, he had left the main party and with three picked companions, had undertaken a separate expedition. One night the little party had made their evening halt. They had been without meat for some days. Kit picked up his rifle and started out to look around. About a mile from the camp he was elated with the sight of some magnificent elk. Gaining the cover of some low, scraggy pine trees, he succeeded, by great care, in getting within gunshot of the prize. Without dwelling on his aim, he sped a bullet after the largest and fattest buck in the herd, and with one bound the noble creature fell dead with a fearful wound through his heart and lungs.
Scarcely had the echoing ring of the shot died away, when Carson heard a terrific roar coming directly from the woods behind him. Turning instantly to discover its source, Carson saw two immense grizzly bears bounding towards him, their eyes blazing with anger, their teeth glistening with rage and hunger, their forearms hung with huge bony claws with which to tear and mangle his flesh. Flinging down his empty rifle, for which he would have given worlds, if the little leaden bullet in the heart of the elk had never left its barrel, he fairly flew over the ground in his race for the nearest tree. It was a goal for which life was the stake. He had just grasped a limb and swung upward as the infuriated beasts brushed its truck. It would be but a moment, however, till they would commence to climb the tree, an art in which they would succeed quite as well as Kit. Providentially, a bear has a tender nose. With his glittering hunting knife Carson hacked off a serviceable little club. When Messrs. Bruin began to ascend the trunk, in order to secure the evening meal, into which their imagination had already transformed poor Kit, they received the compliment of smart raps on their lovely noses. With a mingled roar of rage and pain they quickly descended, only, as the agony wore off, to renew their ambitious toil.
This drama of the gentleman Bruin ascending, getting their snouts tickled, and letting go in their dreadful anguish, held the boards for several hours. They felt greatly injured. First, Carson had beaten them in the race, and they were conscience-smitten over a life of previous indulgence in the pleasure of the table, which had impaired their condition as racers. Then he had beaten them at their own pet game of climbing trees, and finally his undue familiarity with their noses was offensive. Again and again they tried to tear him out of the tree; again and again he drew the claret with his club. At last, in their disappointment and grief they sat down and had a regular cry, after which they gloomily slunk off into the forest, at a little time after which our hero felt safe in descending from his roost. It was well into the night when he reached his alarmed companions. The story had to take the place of a supper. Long before morning the body of the noble elk had become the prey of the ignoble wolves.
In July Carson, for the first time, attended the summer rendezvous on Green River, at which all the traders and trappers out in the mountains met for purposes of trade and barter. Not a trader's pack was opened until all the parties known to be in the mountains had arrived. The lodges were struck in convenient spots, and around the roaring camp-fires the lonely trapper passed the happiest part of the year. The rendezvous was a sort of a fair. There were annually gathered together two or three hundred white men, and not a few Indians. It was the time for the exchange of yarns and experiences, for gambling, and horse trading, for quarrels and fights, as well as for barter.
Among the crowd was a swaggering, bullying Frenchman, named Shunan, who had whipped two under his size in one day, and boasted that he "could lick all the Americans in the mountains." He had rather cowed the men, and as no one else seemed disposed to stop his insults, Carson quietly determined to make it his own affair. Stepping up to the bully, who was twice his size, he said, in the presence of a crowd, "Shunan, there are a dozen men here who can whip you. Keep your mouth shut, or I will be under the necessity of killing you." According to the trapper code, both men went hurriedly to their lodges, and, mounting their horses, prepared to fight. The crowd embraced every one on the ground. Shunan had his rifle; Carson, in the hurry, had picked up only a single-barreled horse pistol. The two men rode rapidly toward each other, until their horses' heads almost touched. Suddenly reining up, Carson said, "Are you looking for me?" "No," was the lying answer of the man, as he lifted his rifle to shoot. But, before he could fire, Carson had lodged a ball in Shunan's right forearm, disabling his antagonist and saving himself.
Such is the code of the frontier. Where men have no law they become legislators themselves; where they have no judge, or jury, or executioner, they quickly fill all these functions themselves. Such is the demand of the mind for law and judgement, and such are its resources when thrown upon itself. These things are right. They are the beginnings of the mighty struggle for law, a struggle which, in proportion to its success, means the crushing out of barbarism, cruelty, violence, and injustice, and the uplifting of civilization and order, humanity and righteousness.
Two months after the braking up of the rendezvous, Carson's party suffered the usual theft of their horses by Indians, and as inevitably Kit and a dozen men started out in pursuit. On overtaking them the redskins made signs of friendship, and protested their innocent intentions. Each party laid down their arms, and marched to a point midway between, for a conference. The trappers stated promptly that "peace talk" must be preceded by the surrender of their horses. With much evasion, the Indians' chief offered to return five of the poorest horses, as all he could do. On hearing this, the trappers broke and ran for their guns. Kit and a man named Markhead, being in the lead, on the return, selected the two advance Indians for adversaries. Carson was about to fire at his man, when he suddenly saw Markhead examining the lock of his gun, while his foe had a rifle leveled at him. True to his nature, Carson fired at Markhead's adversary, killing him, thus saving Markhead, but at imminent risk to himself. His own adversary took advantage of his opportunity to fire, but inflicted only a dangerous wound on Carson's shoulder. As their leader fell, several of the trappers sprang forward to bear him bleeding from the field.
As darkness came on, the fighting ceased, and the men gathered in their camp. The cold was intense, but no fire could be lighted, as it would reveal their whereabouts to the savages. Disheartened by the misfortune of Carson, whose life-blood ebbed in crimson tide upon the spotless snow, they determined to retreat, and for the first time in his life Carson returned to his command without the horses of which he had gone in search.
The fall hunt, this year, was unsuccessful, and Carson's party divided on Snake River, Kit's company of five men started to Fort Hall. The country through which they traveled was barren, and their provisions were soon exhausted. For days they subsisted on a root which they found in small quantities. At last this disappeared. Then they bled their mules and drank the blood. This weakened the animals till it could be carried no further. The horrors of starvation confronted them. When they went supperless to sleep, the famished men in their dreams beheld the greatest abundance of game and food, but could not partake of it. Now the sleeper would behold a herd of elk; just as he had almost come within gun-shot, the animals would mockingly bound away. Now, hungered from a long hunt, he sat by the fire watching the steaming mess in the camp kettle, when, just as it was ready for his watering mouth, the kettle turned over, and its savory contents were lost. Now he was putting to his mouth a rear bit of buffalo liver, when the cry of "Indians" made him jump for his gun, and snatched him away from the untasted morsel.
In their extremity, a band of impoverished but friendly Indians were met, who, without any hope of recompense, divided their own too meager supplies with the famished whites, and by this kind help from the poorest of the poor, Carson was enabled to conduct his party to the hospitable fort. Here the exhausted men recuperated rapidly, and in two weeks were eager to ascertain the truth of the stories of wonderful buffalo herds two hundred miles to the northeast, which were heard by them in their enforced inactivity.
Every thing being in readiness, Carson and his men started out from their haven of safety, and two days brought them in sight of what the novice would at first view have thought a distant forest, but from which, at a great distance, could be heard a dull and thunderous roar. A nearer approach revealed a bellowing multitude of buffalo, so great that that no man could number them., in every part of the vast herd were going on deadly combats between rival beasts. Over the combatants rose a dense cloud of dust, through which could be caught glimpses of the bloody conflict. Without delaying to watch the wonderful sight, the trappers rapidly skirted the herds, and directed their course toward a narrow valley or ravine, in which were to be had timber for the poles on which to dry the meat, and water for the horses. Long before day they were up, and a part of them had commenced driving one of the detached herds toward this valley. The stupid but timid buffalo headed for the fatal trap at a full gallop.
Meanwhile the other men had carefully posted themselves at the other outlets of the valley. In a little while the "surround" was complete. Then with a yell each man dashed in and closed on the game. Desperately did the powerful creatures dash from side to side in frantic effort to escape. Some, in fact, broke through the corral, but in spite of this the slaughter was immense. Many of the buffalo, bewildered by the attacks on every side, almost stood still in the agony of their terror, and waited for their executioner. In less than ten minutes fifty of them had fallen to rise no more. Poles were then planted in the ground and strung with ropes of hide, on which the strips of meat were hung for curing in the sun. When sufficiently dried it was packed in bales. When all their horses were loaded, the slow march back to the fort was begun.
Unknown to the trappers, their train had a constant escort from their sworn enemies, the Blackfeet Indians. No attack was made, however. At the fort the horses were placed in a fenced inclosure for protection, and a sentry placed on watch. One night the fellow on guard, perhaps a little the worse for liquor, saw two men approach the bars, let them down, and deliberately commence driving every horse out into the prairie. It never occurred to Mr. Guard that the Indians would come except in force, and his intelligent mind never doubted that the two men were his comrades, who had orders to take the horses outside for better pasturage. Thanking his lucky stars for the relief, he said nothing to his industrious friends, but curled down in a fence corner and went to sleep. In the morning it was found that the Blackfeet had, without firing a gun or losing a brave, run off every horse and mule belonging to the fort, and left the enraged trappers without an animal on which to make pursuit. It came near terminating even more seriously for poor Simmonds, the sentry. Several of the trappers in their rage threatened to kill him, and, by way of emphasis, put a few rifle shots through his fur hat as it rested on his own precious head.
This little trick of their friends was not forgotten, when, the following spring, a strong body of the trappers found themselves in proximity to the chief village of the nation. Kit Carson and a friend or two, after a careful reconnoiter, reported that there were signs of a hurried removal to be seen. Every heart in the company beat high with the excitement of approaching revenge, the darkest passion of human nature. Forty-three picked men, under the command of Carson, were detailed for the fight; the remaining fifty-five were to guard the valuable stores of the party, and advance slowly as a reserve. With a wild yell the trappers charged the village, killing a dozen braves in an instant. But the Indians were the children of a noble tribe, strong, skillful, and well equipped. They quickly rallied, and commenced a bloody struggle, which lasted over three hours, an unusual time for Indian warfare. Every man was concealed behind trees, rocks, or whatever could afford protection. Sometimes the same rock would afford cover for an Indian and a trapper. Neither could leave the place without being killed. For an hour the two men would seek to kill each other. At last, in a moment of negligence or unskillfulness, one of them would bite the dust.
The trappers retained the advantage gained at the outset until the prolonged combat began to exhaust their ammunition. The sagacious redskins at once divined the cause of the slackened fire, and charged their foes. The hand to hand engagement is the one in which individual skill and heroism develops its noblest examples. The trappers, by the use of their reddened knives and smoking pistols, again and again drove back their assailants, but at last were driven to a stubborn retreat. In executing this movement, the horse of a mountaineer named Cotton, who was at the extreme right of battle, stumbled and fell, pinning his rider to the earth. Carson's keen eye, which incessantly swept the entire field, perceived the accident at the same time that a half dozen dusky warriors bounded forward to scalp the unfortunate man. Springing from his horse, with a rallying cry to his now scattered men, Carson ran toward his friend, and, taking aim as he ran, shot the foremost savage down. The trappers now came running from all directions at their commander's call, and the remaining five braves started for cover. Only two of them ever reached it. Cotton, with a little help, extracted himself from the painful situation in which his accident left him.
Seing [sic] that Cotton was all right, Carson turned to look for his horse, and found that he had run away. It was no time or place to remain on foot. The savages might overtake him at any moment. Ready for any emergency, Kit mounted behind one of his comrades, and in this position waited till his runaway horse could be recaptured. When the reserve came up with its precious supplies of ammunition, the trappers prepared to make a final and crushing attack on the Indians. This last struggle resulted in the disastrous defeat of the tribe, and so broke its power and spirit that for years the trappers and hunters pursued their occupation without molestation from the humbled Blackfeet.
At the summer rendezvous Kit arranged to join a couple of traders who had planned an expedition into the Navajoe country. This tribe had attained a sort of red man's civilization, a thing which is perfectly possible. All civilizations are not alike. The Chinese civilization is the oldest on the globe, yet among the lower classes a rat is a great dainty at the dinner table; from twelve to twenty persons of all ages and either sex sleep huddled together in a single small room; a few cents constitute a day's wages. India has her cities and commerce; her religions older far than Christianity; her temples of marble, ivory, and gold, the architecture of which is unequaled on the globe; but in India are found fanatics who have held their right arms upward for twenty years, until the joints have become solid bone, covered with shriveled parchment, and the extended members can not be lowered. There is, too, a civilization in Russia, a civilization of fashion, aristocracy, and wealth, of colleges, of railroads, of libraries, and palaces. In Russia it was that her ruler employed the idle laborers in constructing, at untold cost, a magnificent winter palace made entirely of ice, and destined to melt away as the summer sun flung his radiance across its crystal towers; and it was the czar of all the Russias who by the stroke of his pen peacefully emancipated twenty million serfs. Yet in this same country, where the body is free, the mind is in chains. Torture and the executioner's ax paralyze not merely the tongue but the intellect as well. Worse than these penalties are those by which wise and good men, valuable members of society, are sent to the terrible mines of Siberia. There in the darkness alike of day and night they spend the remainder of their lives. College professors, scientists, and editors, treated worse than the blackest felons, toil on in these fearful abodes of torture, losing eyesight, hair, teeth, strength, intelligence, until at last they drop their fetters and leap into the skeleton arms of death. Yet Russia is civilized.
Retyped and reformatted by Ray and Kathy Leigh
The History of Kit Carson
Created October 25, 2001
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