THE LIFE OF KIT CARSON,
Hunter, Trapper, Guide, Indian Agent and Colonel U.S.A.
By Edward S. Ellis.
Christopher Carson, or as he was familiarly called, Kit Carson, was a man whose real worth was understood only by those with whom he was associated or who closely studied his character. He was more than hunter, trapper, guide, Indian agent and Colonel in the United States Army. He possessed in a marked degree those mental and moral qualities which would have made him prominent in whatever pursuit or profession he engaged.
His lot was cast on the extreme western frontier, where, when but a youth, he earned the respect of the tough and frequently lawless men with whom he came in contact. Integrity, bravery, loyalty to friends, marvelous quickness in making right decisions, in crisis of danger, consummate knowledge of woodcraft, a leadership as skilful as it was daring; all these were distinguishing traits in the composition of Carson and were the foundations of the broader fame which he acquired as the friend and invaluable counselor of Fremont, the Pathfinder, in his expeditions across the Rocky Mountains.
Father Kit, as he came to be known among the Indians, risked his life scores of times for those who needed, but had no special claim upon his services. The red men were quick to learn that he always spoke with a "single tongue," and that he was their unselfish friend. He went among his hostiles when no one of his race dare follow him; he averted more than one outbreak; he secured that which is impossible to secure—justice for the Indian—and his work from the time when a mere boy he left his native Kentucky, was always well done. His memory will forever remain fragrant with those who appreciate true manhood and an unswerving devotion to the good of those among whom he lived and died.
Kit Carson's Youth—His Visit to New Mexico—Acts as Interpreter and in Various Other Employments—Joins a Party of Trappers and Engages in a Fight with Indians—Visits the Sacramento Valley.
"Kit Carson," the most famous hunter, scout and guide ever known in this country, was a native of Kentucky, the scene of the principal exploits of Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, the Wetzel brothers and other heroic pioneers whose names are identified with the history of the settlement of the West.
Christopher Carson was born in Madison county, December 24, 1809, and, while he was still an infant, his father removed to Central Missouri, which at that day was known as Upper Louisiana. It was an immense wilderness, sparsely settled and abounding with wild animals and treacherous Indians. The father of Carson, like most of the early pioneers, divided his time between cultivating the land and hunting the game in the forests. His house was made strong and was pierced with loopholes, so as to serve him in his defence against the red men that were likely to attack him and his family at any hour of the day or night. In such a school was trained the wonderful scout, hunter and guide.
No advantages in the way of a common school education were within reach of the youth situated as was Kit Carson. It is to be believed, however, that under the tutelage of his father and mother, he picked up a fair knowledge of the rudimentary branches, for his attainments in that respect were above the majority of those with whom he was associated in after life.
While a mere stripling, Kit became known as one of the most skilful rifle shots in that section of Missouri which produced some of the finest marksmen in the world. It was inevitable that he should form a passion for the woods, in which, like the great Boone, he would have been happy to wander for days and weeks at a time.
When fifteen years old, he was apprenticed to a saddler, where he stayed two years. At the end of that time, however, the confinement had become so irksome that he could stand it no longer. He left the shop and joined a company of traders, preparing to start for Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, one of the most interesting towns in the southwest. The majority of its population are of Spanish and Mexican origin and speak Spanish. It is the centre of supplies for the surrounding country, and is often a scene of great activity. It stands on a plateau, more than a mile above the sea level, with another snow capped mountain rising a mile higher. The climate is delightful and the supply of water from the springs and mountains is of the finest quality.
Santa Fe, when first visited by the Spaniards in 1542, was a populous Indian pueblo. It has been the capital of New Mexico for nearly two hundred and fifty years. The houses of the ancient town are made of adobe, one story high, and the streets are unpaved, narrow, crooked and ill looking. The inhabitants are of a low order, scarcely entitled to be ranked above the half civilized, though of late years the infusion of western life and rugged civilization has given an impetus and character to the place for which, through three centuries, it waited in vain.
The company to which young Kit Carson attached himself, was strongly armed and it made the perilous journey, across rivers, mountains and prairies, through a country infested with fierce Indians, without the loss of one of their number. This immunity was due to their vigilance and knowledge of the ways of the hostiles who, it may be said, were on all sides, from the beginning to the end of their journey.
After reaching Santa Fe, Carson left the party and went to Taos, a small station to the north of Santa Fe. There he stayed through the winter of 1826-27, at the home of a veteran pioneer, from whom he gained not only a valuable knowledge of the country and its people, but became familiar with the Spanish language—an attainment which proved invaluable to him in after years. In the spring, he joined a party which set out for Missouri, but before reaching its destination, another company of traders were met on their way to Santa Fe. Young Carson joined them, and some days later was back again in the quaint old capital of New Mexico.
The youth's engagement ended with his arrival in the town, but there was nothing indolent in the nature of Carson, who immediately engaged himself as teamster to a company about to start to El Paso, on the Rio Grande, near the frontier of New Mexico. He did not stay long before drifting back to Santa Fe, and finally to Taos, where he hired out as a cook during the following winter, but had not wrought long, when a wealthy trader, learning how well Carson understood the Spanish language, engaged him as interpreter.
This duty compelled the youth to make another long journey to El Paso and Chihuahua, the latter being the capital of the province of the same name, and another of those ancient towns whose history forms one of the most interesting features of the country. It was founded in 1691 and a quarter of a century later, when the adjoining silver mines were in full operation, had a population of 70,000, though today it has scarcely a fifth of that number.
The position of interpreter was more dignified than any yet held by Carson, and it was at his command, as long as he chose to hold it; but to one of his restless nature it soon grew monotonous and he threw it up, making his way once more to Taos. The employment most congenial to Carson's nature, and the one which he had been seeking ever since he left home, was that of hunter and trapper. The scarred veterans whom he met in the frontier and frontier posts gave him many accounts of their trapping experiences among the mountains and in the gloomy fastnesses where, while they hunted the bear, deer, beaver and other animals, the wild Indian hunted them.
Carson had been in Taos a short time only when he gained the opportunity for which he was searching. A party of trappers in the employ of Kit's old friend had just come to Taos, having been driven from their trapping grounds by the Indians. The employer set about raising a party strong enough to return to the trapping grounds, chastise the hostiles and resume business. Knowing the skill and bravery of the young Kentuckian, the gentleman made him an offer to join the party and Kit eagerly accepted it.
The Mexicans have never been particularly friendly toward their neighbors north of the Rio Grande, and at that time a very strict law was in force which forbade the issuance of any license to American citizens to trap within Mexican territory. The company which mounted their horses and rode out of Taos gave the authorities to understand that their errand was simply to chastise the red men, whereas their real purpose was to engage in trapping. With a view of misleading the officers, they took a roundabout route which delayed their arrival in the section. Nevertheless, the hunters were desirous of punishing the Indians who had taken such liberties with the small party that preceded them. On one of the tributaries of the Gila, the trappers came upon the identical band whom they attacked with such fierceness that more than a dozen were killed and the rest put to flight. The fight was a desperate one, but young as Carson was, he acquitted himself in a manner which won the warmest praise of those with him. He was unquestionably daring, skilful and sagacious, and was certain, if his life was spared, to become one of the most valuable members of the party.
Having driven the savages away, the Americans began or rather resumed their regular business of trapping. The beavers were so abundant that they met with great success. When the rodents seemed to diminish in number, the hunters shifted their quarters, pursuing their profession along the numerous streams until it was decided to divide into two parties, one of which returned to New Mexico, while the other pushed on toward the Sacramento Valley in California. Carson accompanied the latter, entering the region at that early day when no white man dreamed of the vast wealth of gold and precious metals which so crowded her soil and river beds that the wonder is the gleaming particles had not been detected many years before; but, as the reader knows, they lay quietly at rest until that eventful day in 1848, when the secret was revealed by Captain Sutter's raceway and the frantic multitudes flocked thither from the four quarters of the earth.
California—Sufferings of the Hunters—The Mission of San Gabriel—The Hudson Bay Trappers—Characteristics of Carson—He Leads the Party which Captures an Indian Village and Secures some Criminals.
California, one of the most magnificent regions of the earth, with its amazing mineral wealth, its rich soil and "glorious climate," has its belts of sterility and desolation, where the bones of many a traveller and animal lie bleaching in the sun, just as they fell years ago, when the wretched victim sank down and perished for want of food and water.
The hunting party to which Carson was attached numbered eighteen, and they entered one of those forbidding wastes, where they suffered intensely. All their skill in the use of the rifle was of no avail, when there was no game to shoot and it was not long before they were forced to live on horse flesh to escape starvation. This, however, was not so trying as might be supposed, provided it did not last until the entire party were dismounted.
Fortunately, in their straits, they encountered a party of Mohave Indians, who sold them enough food to remove all danger. These Indians form a part of the Yuma nation of the Pima family, and now make their home on the Mohave and Colorado rivers in Arizona. They are tall, well formed, warlike and industrious cultivators of the soil. Had they chosen to attack the hunters, it would have gone ill with the whites, but the latter showed commendable prudence which might have served as a model to the hundreds who came after them, when they gained the good will of the red men.
Extricating themselves from the dangerous stretch of country, the trappers turned westward until they reached the mission of San Gabriel, one of those extensive establishments formed by the Roman Catholic clergy a hundred years ago. There were over a score, San Diego being the oldest. Each mission had its priests, a few Spanish or Mexican soldiers, and scores, hundreds and sometimes thousands of Indian converts who received a scant support and some religious instruction.
The Mission of San Gabriel was by no means the largest in California, and yet at the time of Carson's visit it owned 70,000 head of cattle, 200 horses, 3,000 mares, hundreds of mules, oxen and sheep, while the vineyards produced 600 barrels of wine every year.
Those old sovereigns of the soil dispensed hospitality without stint to all who knocked at their gates. When the trappers caught sight of the Mission, as they rode out from the wilderness, they knew what awaited them in the way of entertainment. They were treated right royally, but remained only one day.
Not far away they reached another Mission of less extent than the former, but, without halt, they pressed steadily forward toward the Sacramento River. The character of the section changed altogether. It was exceedingly fertile and game was so abundant that they feasted to their heart's content. When fully rested, they proceeded to the San Joaquin river down which they began trapping.
While thus employed, they were surprised to discover signs of another trapping party near them. They wondered where they came from and it did not take them long to learn that their neighbors were a company of trappers belonging to the Hudson Bay Company—that enormous corporation, founded two centuries before, whose agents and employees tramp over British America, far to the northward of the frozen circle, and until a recent date hunted through Oregon.
The two parties were rivals in business, but they showed excellent sense by meeting on good terms and treating each other as friends. They trapped near each other until they came to the Sacramento once more, when they parted company. The Hudson Bay trappers started for the Columbia River, while the one to which Carson was attached went into camp where they were for the rest of the summer. With the approach of warm weather the trapping season ended and they devoted themselves to hunting and making ready for cold weather.
It will be borne in mind that Kit Carson was still a youth, not having reached his majority. He was of short, compact stature, no more than five feet, six inches tall, with light brown hair, gray eyes, large head, high forehead, broad shoulders, full chest, strong and possessing remarkable activity. Even at that early age, he had impressed the veteran hunters and trappers around him as one possessing such remarkable abilities, that, if his life was spared, he was certain to become a man of mark. If we should attempt to specify the particular excellencies in which he surpassed those around him, it would be said that while Carson was one of the most fearless men who lived, yet he possessed splendid judgment. He seemed to know instinctively what could be accomplished by himself and friends in positions of extreme peril, and he saw on the moment precisely how to do that which often was impossible to others.
His knowledge of woodcraft and the peculiarities of the savage tribes around him was as perfect as it could be. He was a matchless hunter, and no man could handle a rifle with greater skill. The wilderness, the mountains, the Indians, the wild animals—these constituted the sphere in which nature intended Kit Carson should move and serve his fellow men as no one before or after him has done.
Added to these extraordinary qualifications, was the crowning one of all—modesty. Alas, how often transcendent merit is made repelling by overweening conceit. Kit Carson would have given his life before he would have travelled through the eastern cities, with his long hair dangling about his shoulders, his clothing bristling with pistols and knives, while he strutted on the mimic stage as a representative of the untamed civilization of the great west.
Carson was a superior hunter when a boy in Missouri, and the experience gained among the experienced hunters and trappers, soon caused him to become noted by those who had fought red men, trapped beaver and shot grizzly bears before he was born. And yet it could not have been that alone: it must have been his superior mental capacity which caused those heroes of a hundred perils to turn instinctively to him for counsel and guidance in situations of extreme peril. Among them all was no one with such masterful resources in that respect as he.
While the trappers were encamped at this place, a messenger visited them from the Mission of San Rafael, with a request that they would help chastise a party of Indians, who, after committing some outrages at the Mission, had fled to an Indian village. When a demand was made for the surrender of the refugees, the villagers not only refused to give them up, but attacked the party and drove them off. Appreciating the importance of upholding their authority, the priests sent to the trappers for assistance in bringing the guilty ones and their friends to terms.
As soon as the request was made known, Carson and eleven of his companions volunteered to help their visitors. Thus reinforced, the company from the Mission set out again for the Indian village.
Nothing can attest more strongly the skill and bravery of Kit Carson, than the fact that he was at once selected to lead the party on its dangerous errand. While he was as modest as a woman and with a voice as gentle and persuasive, he could not be ignorant of his own capacities, and he assumed charge without any pretense of unfitness.
It is easy to understand the great care required in this expedition, for the warriors in the village, having beaten off their assailants, naturally looked for their return with reinforcements, and, in order to insure success, it was necessary that the attack should be a surprise.
Having brought his men quite close to the village unperceived, Kit gave the signal and the whole company swept through the place like a cyclone. There were a few minutes of terrific fighting, during which a score of warriors were killed, and then the entire village was captured. Carson as the leader of the assailants, demanded the surrender of the offenders against the Mission. Not daring to disobey such a summons, they were delivered up to the authorities, and Carson, seeing nothing more to do for his friends, returned with his companions to camp and resumed hunting and their preparations for cold weather.
The Trapper's Life—Indian Horse Thieves—Carson's Skilful Pursuit and Surprise of the Savages—Arrival at Los Angeles—Trouble with the Authorities—A Singular Escape.
The trappers being in the heart of the Indian country, with hostile on every hand, were cautious in all their movements. When one of the grizzled hunters in the depths of the wilderness fired his gun at some deer, antelope or bear, he hastily reloaded his rifle, listening meanwhile for sounds of the stealthy footprints of his enemy. He knew not when the treacherous shot would be sent from behind the rock or clump of bushes, but he had learned long before, that, when he penetrated the western wilds and followed the calling of trapper, he took his life in his hands and he was ready to "go under," whenever the fate so decreed.
The most flagrant crime on the frontier is horse stealing. He who shoots one of his fellow men has a chance of escaping punishment almost as good as that afforded in civilized communities, but if he steals a horse and is caught, his case is hopeless. It may be said that the value of the animal to the hunter or trapper is beyond all calculation, and, inasmuch as the red man is equally appreciative, Carson always warned his friends to be on the watch against the dusky thieves. Sentinels were on guard while others slept, but the very calamity against which they thus sought to protect themselves overtook them.
One dark night a number of Indians stole by the sentinels and before their presence was discovered, drove off the major part of the horses. In the morning, when the alarming truth became known, the employer of the trappers asked Carson to take twelve of the men and do his utmost to recover those that were stolen. Carson assented at once, and, in his quiet, self possessed fashion, collected his comrades who were speedily in the saddle and galloping along the trail of the thieves.
It may strike the reader that an offhand statement like the foregoing relates to a proceeding of no special difficulty or peril. A party of brave white men were pursuing a company of Indian horse thieves and the chances of escape and capture were about equal. Thus the matter presents itself to the ordinary spectator, whereas the truth was far different.
In the first place, the savages, being as well mounted as their pursuers, were sure to maintain a swift pace, so long as they believed any danger threatened. They would keep a keen watch of the back trail and would be quick to detect the approach of enemies. If pressed hard, they would act as the Apaches and Comanches do, when they find the United States troops at their heels—break up in so many small parties that it is impossible to follow them.
First of all, therefore, Carson had two achievements before him—and the accomplishment of either seemed to render the other impossible: he must travel at a faster rate than the thieves, and, at the same time keep them in ignorance of his pursuit. It is on such occasions that a man's woodcraft and knowledge of the country serve him so well. Many a time, during the career of Kit Carson, did he outwit the red men and white criminals, not by galloping along with his eye upon their footprints, but by reasoning out with unerring skill, the destination or refuge which the criminals had in mind. Having settled that all important question, he aimed at the same point and frequently reached it first. Thus it came about that often the fugitive, while hurrying along and glancing furtively behind him, suddenly found himself face to face with his pursuer, whose acquaintance with the country enabled him to find the shorter route.
It took Carson only a few minutes to satisfy himself that the criminals were heading for the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but, inasmuch as they were following a direct course, he could only take their trail. Where there were so many animals in flight, it was impossible to hide their tracks and the thieves made no attempt to do so. They struck the horses into a sweeping gallop, which with a few interruptions they maintained until they were a hundred miles from the camp of the white men and among the fastnesses of the Sierras.
Then it was the red men made a careful survey of the trail behind them. The black penetrating eyes scanned the country with a piercing keenness which it would seem shut out all possibility of concealment. Nowhere could they detect the faint smoke climbing toward the sky from among the trees nor could they gain sight of the line of horsemen winding around the rocks in the distance. Nothing resembling a human being was visible. Surely they were warranted in believing themselves perfectly secure.
Such being their conclusion, they prepared for a great feast. Six of the stolen horses were killed and the red men became as ardent hipophagi as was the club of advanced Parisians a short time ago. The roasted meat tasted as fine to them as though it was the choicest slices from the bison or deer, and they ate and frolicked like so many children let loose for a holiday.
But in the midst of their feast was heard a series of frightful yells and whoops. The appalled Indians had scarcely time to turn their eyes when a dozen horsemen, that seemed to have risen from the very ground, thundered down upon them. Carson and his men had overtaken the thieves and they now swept down upon them with resistless fury. The fight was as short as it was fierce. The red men fell on the right and left, and those who escaped the wrath of the trappers, scattered and ran as if a hundred bomb shells were exploding around them. Every horse stolen (except the six killed for the feast) were recovered and Carson took them back to camp without the loss of a man.
The hunters stayed until early autumn, when their employer decided to go to New Mexico. The journey led for a great portion of the way through a country over which they had travelled, and which therefore was familiar to them. After halting a brief while at the Mission of San Fernando, they arrived at Los Angeles, which like the rest of the country as the reader knows, belonged to Mexico. As it was apparent that the horsemen were hunters and trappers, the authorities demanded their written license to pursue their calling in Mexican territory. Such was the law and the officials were warranted in making the demand, but it need not be said that the party were compelled to admit they had nothing of the kind in their possession.
The authorities thereupon determined to arrest the hunters, but knowing their desperate nature, hesitated as to the safe means of doing so. They finally hit upon a rather ingenious, though unfair means of disarming the white men: they began giving them "fire water" to drink, refusing to accept pay therefor. Those who lead lives of hardship and peril are generally fond of such indulgence, and, though the trappers could not fail to understand the purpose of the Mexicans, and though they knew the disastrous consequences of giving away to temptation, they yielded and took in their mouths the enemy which stole away their brains.
The employer became alarmed and saw that something must be done at once or everything would be lost. Carson had been too wise to fall into the snare, and he turned to him.
"Take three of the soberest men," said he, "and the loose animals and camp equipage and push out of the place. I will join you as soon as I can, but you mustn't linger for me. If I fail to join you, hasten to New Mexico and make known that I and the rest of my men have been massacred."
These instructions were definite and they showed the gravity of the situation. Carson did as directed, while the employer gave his attention to the rest of the men. It was high time that he did so, for they were fast succumbing to their appetites. Despite the indignant protests and efforts of the employer they would have undoubtedly fallen victims but for an unlooked for occurrence.
One of the trappers who was so much under the influence of liquor as to become reckless, fired upon and slightly wounded a native of the place. The act threw the Mexicans into a panic of terror, and they fled from the presence of the dreaded Americans who seemed eager for any sanguinary deed.
The employer was wise enough to take advantage of the occurrence and he succeeded, after much labor, in getting his half intoxicated men together and out of the place. The horses were forced to their utmost and the same night they overtook Carson and his anxious companions. All danger from that source was ended.
An Alarming Visit—Carson's Resources—On the Colorado and Gila—Capturing a Herd of Horses and Mules—The Raiders—Turning the Tables—Caching their Peltries—Return to Santa Fe—Carson Goes upon a Second Trapping Expedition—Hunting with an Old Mountaineer—A Visit from Crow Indians.
A week or more later, the trappers again reached the Colorado River. They had traveled at a leisurely pace and once more they went into camp, where they were familiar with the country. Men leading such lives as they, were accustomed to all kinds of surprises, but it may be doubted whether the trappers were more amazed in all their existence than when five hundred Indian warriors made their appearance and with signs of friendship overran the camp before they could be prevented or checked.
The hunters did not know what to make of the proceeding, and looked to Carson for advice. He had already discovered that the situation was one of the gravest danger. Despite the professions of friendship, Kit saw that each warrior had his weapons under his dress, where he hoped they were not noticed by the whites. Still worse, most of the hunters were absent visiting their traps, only Kit and a few of his companions being in camp. The occasion was where it was necessary to decide at once what to do and then to do it without flinching.
Among the red men was one who spoke Spanish and to him Carson addressed himself:
"You must leave the camp at once; if you don't do so without a minute's delay, we shall attack you and each of us is sure to kill one warrior if not more."
These brave words accompanied by such determination of manner were in such contrast to the usual course of the cowardly Mexicans that the Indians were taken all aback. They could not suspect the earnestness of the short, sturdy framed leader, nor could they doubt that though the Indians would be sure to overwhelm the little band, yet they would have to pay dearly for the privilege. It took them but a few minutes to conclude the price was altogether too high and they drew off without making a hostile demonstration against the brave Carson and his men.
The trappers worked their way down the Colorado until they arrived at tidewater, when they moved to the Gila, along which they trapped until they reached the mouth of the San Pedro. They were in sore need of horses with which to transport their furs and peltries, that had become numerous and bulky. While in this neighborhood, they discovered a large herd of horses and mules in the possession of a few Indians. According to the morality of the border this property was legitimate prey, but in point of fact when the trappers determined to take the animals from the aborigines, they became thieves and robbers. However, it is not to be hoped that a single member of the company felt the slightest twinge of conscience when he rode at full speed, yelling to the highest bent, and helped scatter the terrified red men to the winds. The entire herd fell into the hands of the whites, and, congratulating themselves on their good fortune, they kindled a huge fire and encamped for the night.
Most of the men had lain down with the intention of sleeping until morning, and Kit sat looking in the fire, when his trained ear caught a peculiar sound. At first, it seemed to be the faint roll of distant thunder, but he knew it was not. He listened carefully and was able to tell the direction whence came the singular noise, but remained uncertain as to its cause. Then, as he had done many a time, he leaned over and pressed his ear to the solid earth. Immediately the rumbling became more distinct and he recognized what it meant: it was the tramp of numerous hoofs galloping forward.
Carson and several of his men stole noiselessly out to reconnaissance and found a half dozen warriors hurrying along a drove of more than a hundred horses. They had been on a raid among the Mexican settlements in Sonora and were now returning home with their plunder.
The temptation was one which Carson and his companions could not resist. They sent a volley from their rifles among the thieves, which threw them into such a panic that they dashed off at full speed without giving the least thought to their valuable property. The latter as a matter of course was taken charge of by the trappers, who were glad of the opportunity to chastise the cowardly marauders.
Under the circumstances, however, the animals were of little value to the hunters, who had all they needed. It was beyond their power to return them to their owners, but the best were selected, several of the plumpest killed and cured, and the rest turned loose to go whither they chose.
The trappers continued up the Gila until near the copper mines of New Mexico, where they found a party of white men trading with the Indians. The peltries were cached and placed in charge of their friends, while Carson and his companions continued on until they reached Santa Fe. There their employer bought a license to trade with the Indians who lived near the copper mines. Then they went back and procuring their furs, returned once more to Santa Fe, where they were sold for more than twenty thousand dollars. This being equitably divided among the hunters, furnished each a goodly sum. Like so many sailors just ashore from a long voyage, most of the trappers went on a prolonged carousal, which caused their money to melt like snow in the sun. When their pockets were empty, they had aching heads, weak frames and only the memory of their feverish pleasures.
Kit Carson did not go through this trial unscathed. He drank and spreed with the rest, but he awoke to the folly and madness of his course sooner than they and the sad lesson learned at the time lasted him through life. The baneful habit was not fastened upon him, and he not only acquired the mastery over self, but was able more than once to save others from falling into the whirlpool which has swept unnumbered multitudes to wretchedness and death.
Carson found little in the way of congenial employment until the fall of the year, when he joined a second trapping expedition. The first had won him such a reputation for sagacity, daring and skill, that his services were always in demand, and those who were forming such enterprises sought him out among the very first.
The new party was in charge of an experienced mountaineer, who told Kit his intention was to trap along the principal streams of the Rocky Mountains. He was well acquainted with the region and was confident that the expedition would not only be enjoyable and thrilling in the highest degree, but would prove profitable to all.
The party travelled northward until they reached the Platte River where the business began. They moved from stream to stream, as necessity demanded, shooting such game as they needed, exchanging shots with the watchful red men, who killed four of the trappers while hunting bison, and steadily adding to their stock of furs until the close of the season in the spring of 1831. Learning that an old mountaineer, named Captain Gaunt, had spent the winter at Laramie River and was then at New Park, Kit Carson and four of his friends set out to join him. It was a long and perilous journey, but they made it in safety and the Captain gave them glad welcome. They hunted together for many months following until the Captain went to Taos to sell his peltries. On his return, operations were resumed until the weather became so cold they were forced into winter quarters.
The winter proved very severe. The snow was so deep that only by cutting down numerous cottonwoods and using the bark and twigs for fodder were the animals saved from starvation. Fortunately, they had laid in a good stock of bison meat so that the trappers themselves underwent no suffering for food. In fact, they found little to do except to pass the time in idleness. With abundant food, plenty of tobacco and the means of engaging in certain games, they whiled away the long winter days and evenings until the signs of spring appeared.
But while the winds were moaning around their hut, in which they made their home, and the snow rattled like fine sand against the logs, they were taught again that no weather is severe enough to keep the wily red man within his wigwam. A party of Crow Indians discovered the camp of the trappers and one tempestuous night made them a stealthy visit. They departed during the darkness, and, when they went away, took with them nine of the very best horses of the hunters—a loss too serious to be borne without using every recourse to prevent it.
Kit Carson's Decision—A Hot Pursuit an and Unexpected Discovery—Weary Waiting—A Snow Balling Party—A Daring Attack—Brilliant Exploit.
Instinctively every one turned to Carson to learn what he had to advise and yet each was certain what he would say.
"It'll never do, boys, to let them steal our horses in that style," he remarked in his quiet fashion, compressing his lips and shaking his head, while his eyes flashed with a dangerous light.
All knew what his words and manner meant, and in a twinkling the thirteen men were in their saddles, and, with their gallant leader at their head, galloped forth off in pursuit.
It would be supposed where the ground was covered with snow to such a depth, that it was the easiest matter imaginable to follow the trail, and yet Kit and his companions found it one of the most difficult tasks they had ever undertaken. Hundreds of bison had repeatedly crossed the tracks since they were made and less experienced eyes than those of the trappers would have given over the search in despair.
But no one thought of turning back, and the pursuit was pushed unflaggingly for fully forty miles. Not the first glimpse had been obtained of the Indians, and the horses that had been pushed so hard finally gave out. They were in poor condition, and, when the company came to a halt, showed such exhaustion that it was evident they could not be forced much further. It was decided, therefore, to go into camp. Accordingly, they turned the heads of their panting animals toward a piece of woods a short distance away.
Before the shelter was reached, the trappers were astonished to observe a column of smoke rising above the trees. They looked in each others' faces with a smile of gratification: inasmuch as the trail led into the grove and it was evident a camp fire was burning there, it followed that they were close to the thieves whom they had followed such a long distance.
The discovery infused new warmth into the blood of the hunters, who were fairly atremble with eagerness to attack the unsuspecting Indians.
But all were too experienced in the ways of the wilderness to allow their impatience to betray them into any indiscretion. They deemed it necessary their assault should be a surprise and they, therefore, withdrew to a secluded place in the woods and waited for night.
This was trying to a painful degree. The weather which had been bitterly cold during the day, grew still colder, until the animals shivered as if with the ague. They were carefully tied where the trees partly sheltered them from the cutting wind and the hunters made sure their arms were ready. Then, when the sun went down and darkness crept over the snowy landscape, the men moved around so as to approach the camp from the direction opposite to that from which the Indians would naturally look for pursuit.
When close enough to catch sight of the flames among the trees, the hunters sank on their knees and crept noiselessly forward until able to gain a full view of the dusky thieves. They were surprised at what they saw. The savages had thrown some logs and stones together so as to make a couple of rude forts and had divided themselves into two parties. It was characteristic of them that they were holding a dance and feast in honor of the brilliant style in which they had outwitted the trappers forty miles away.
The scene was quite interesting, especially when our friends plainly saw their stolen animals tied near one of the forts. The sight of their property was anything but soothing to the wrathful trappers, who were resolved not to go back to their own camp without taking the horses along.
But the Crows were strong in numbers, well armed and ready to fight on the briefest notice. It would have been an act of the greatest rashness to charge upon their camp, while they were excited to an unusual degree by the rejoicing in which all took a hilarious part. The whites decided to wait several hours longer until most of their enemies would be unconscious in slumber.
All this time the weather was growing colder, and, toughened as the trappers had become by years of exposure, they suffered greatly. They dare not move about to keep up the circulation of their blood, for the slightest noise was liable to attract the suspicion of some of the Crows who might be prowling through the grove. More than once Carson feared his limbs were freezing, but he held out like the genuine hero he was, and his companions were all worthy of him.
At last the dance was over and the tired warriors wrapped their blankets around their forms and stretched out to rest. Their manner showed they had no thought that a foe was anywhere in the neighborhood. Although such men sleep lightly, they do not remain long awake when courting sleep, and in a brief while all were unconscious except the sentinels on duty. Even they were so confident that nothing threatened, that they became less vigilant than usual.
"Sh! now is the time," whispered the youthful leader. They had decided long before upon their plan of action, so that no time was now lost in consultation. Kit and five of his men began slowly creeping toward their horses. This was anything but a pleasant occupation, for the snow, it will be remembered, was deep on the ground; but such veterans cared nothing for a trifle like that, and they speedily reached their animals.
Such an attempt is always a dangerous one, for the horse of the Indian or white hunter often proves his most skilful sentinel. He is able to detect the stealthy approach of a scout, long before the straining ear of his master can catch the slightest sound. If the beasts should become frightened by the shadowy figures crawling over the snow, they would be likely to alarm the camp; but Carson and his companions managed it so well that there was not a single neigh or stamp of a hoof.
Silently rising to their feet, they cut the halters which held the horses fast, and then, withdrawing a slight distance, began throwing snowballs at them. These feathery missiles fell among and struck against them, until, to escape the mimic bombardment they moved out the wood altogether, where they were taken charge by the others who were waiting. All this was accomplished without attracting the attention of a single Indian.
Having met with such success, common prudence and sense suggested that the trappers should make all haste to their own comfortable quarters, so many long miles away; but they had scarcely joined each other when they fell into an earnest discussion as to what the next step should be.
Some were in favor of withdrawing with the least possible delay, but Kit Carson and a couple of daring spirits were bent on going back and punishing the thieves who had given them so much trouble. As they could not be argued out of their purpose, the others, as a matter of course, agreed to give them their aid.
Three of the trappers were sent to take the recaptured animals to where the saddle horses were secured while the others advanced directly upon the Indian camp. They moved cautiously as was their custom and were almost upon the Crows, when one of their dogs gave notice of danger by a vigorous barking. On the instant, the warriors leaped to their feet and the fight opened. So many of the Indians were shot down and the advantage was so strongly against them, that the survivors hastily ran into the nearest fort, from which they returned the fire of their assailants. The latter, however, had stationed themselves behind trees, where they were safe against the whistling bullets, and in their attack they threw away very few shots indeed.
It began growing light in the east, and, as soon as the Crows discovered how few composed the besieging force, they in turn became the assailants, and rushed out of their fort with their frightful war whoops, but they were met by such a destructive fire that they scurried back again.
The second attack of the savages was so furious that the trappers were forced to fall back, but the reserve, as it may be called, speedily joined them, and once more drove the Indians into their fort. Several of the whites had been wounded though not dangerously, and both parties having had enough of fighting, the battle ended.
The British and American Trapper—Hunting on the Laramie—The Deserters—The Vain Pursuit—Arrival of Friends—The Return Journey—The Night Alarm—The Attack Upon the Camp—Pursuit and Recovery of Horses.
A half century ago the vast region beyond the Rocky Mountains was comparatively unknown and unexplored. Its general features of course were understood, but the interior was like the central portion of Australia or Africa. Clarke and Lewis made their famous expedition to Oregon during the early days of the century, and helped to turn general attention in that direction. Its growth and development since then is one of the wonders of the age.
But there was one class (if the word may be used), who never hesitated to penetrate the wildest and most dangerous recesses of the far West and Northwest: those were the hunters and trappers. As we have already stated, the employees of the venerable and all embracing Hudson Bay Company ranged over British America and through Oregon, to which vast territory they possessed the clear legal right, besides which they and the trappers of the American Fur Company frequently trespassed on each others reserves, and not infrequently came in bloody collision with each other.
Far to the northward, the Indian drove his birch canoe across the silent Athabasca and Great Bear Lakes, on his way with his peltries to the distant factory or post of the Company; along the frozen shores of the lone Mackenzie (the only American river flowing into the Arctic Ocean), the trapper glided on his snow shoes, or with his sturdy dogs and sleigh, fought his way over the snowy wastes of Prince Rupert's Land; the brigades in their boats rounded the curves of the Saskatchewan, keeping time with their paddles to their own cheery songs; their camp fires were kindled in the land of the Assiniboine and they set their traps in the wildest recesses of the Rocky Mountains where the whirling snow storms almost carried them off their feet; but north of the dividing line, the hunters had little if anything to fear from the red men. Though they encountered in the loneliest and most desolate distant regions, they generally met and separated as friends. Among the perils of the trapper's life in British America was not reckoned that from the hostile natives.
It was far different within our own territory. Those who left our frontier States and pushed westward, and those who penetrated northward and eastward from the Mexican country, knew they were invading the hunting grounds of the fiercest Indians on the American continent. We have already told enough to show the intense hostility of the red men; between them and the hunters and trappers raged a war that never ceased or slackened, except when policy held it for a time in check.
The little group of horsemen, who rode out from Independence or Westport, or who took steamer at St. Louis up the Missouri, often came back with several of their number missing. Up among the mountains, they had gone out to visit their traps and had never come back to camp. The lurking Blackfoot, or Sioux, or Crow, had aimed all too well, and, as he bounded whooping away, he swung aloft the scalp of his victim whose trapping days were ended forever.
After recovering their horses from the band of Crows, Carson and his companions returned to camp, where they remained until spring, when they cached their furs and made their way to the Laramie River on another hunting expedition. While thus employed, a couple of the men deserted taking several of the best animals. Kit Carson and a single companion were sent in pursuit, the rascals having a good day's start. A desperate fight was sure to follow a meeting between the parties, for Carson would never forgive such treachery, and the deserters were not the ones to permit themselves to be despoiled of their booty without doing their utmost to prevent it.
It was suspected that they were on their way to the place where the beaver had been cached; and disregarding the trail, therefore Carson made all haste thither. It need not be said that he lost no time on the road, but when he reached their old camp, he found the deserters had preceded him. They had stolen several thousand dollars worth of furs and departed.
Carson was more anxious than ever to overtake the scoundrels. He and his companion made diligent search, but failed utterly to find them. They were never seen or heard of again, and Carson was convinced they had fallen victims to the Indians who in turn made off with the stolen peltries.
It will be borne in mind that Kit and his friend were several hundred miles from the main body of hunters, and in one of the most dangerous countries they had ever visited. So dangerous, indeed, did they consider an attempt to return to them, that they decided not to make it, but to stay in the old camp. Inasmuch as it would be impossible to keep their presence from the knowledge of the Indians, they threw up some rude fortifications and never relaxed their vigilance. When Carson wrapped his blanket around him, and lay down to rest, he knew his companion was on guard and would not slumber. It was the same with his friend, their watchfulness undoubtedly preventing the attack which scarcely could have failed to be effectual.
It was needful now and then that one of them should venture out to procure game, but that was so plentiful that he was never compelled to go far, and he used such extreme care that he was not even so much as fired upon.
Thus the time passed, until at the end of several weeks, the hunters were surprised and delighted by the arrival of more than a dozen men on their way with a complete outfit to join the main body. Carson and his friend were glad enough to go with them and the long journey was begun. They had not gone far, when they exchanged shots with hostiles and there were almost daily skirmishes with them. By sunset they had travelled a long distance, and went into camp, feeling certain that though Indians had not shown themselves, they were in the vicinity. To prevent a stampede of their animals, the long ropes around their necks were fastened to stakes driven deep into the earth. This arrangement allowed them to graze over sufficient ground and opposed an almost insuperable obstacle to the success of the dusky thieves prowling around.
It was yet early in the evening when one of the dogs belonging to the camp began barking. A score of causes might have caused this but Carson believed the incitement in that instance was the one most dreaded. Several men were added to the guard and the rest lay down, too uneasy to gain much slumber, however.
The trappers were right in their suspicion that savages were near but they could not have failed to note what precautions had been taken by the whites against surprise and they withdrew without molesting them. The party were in a beaver country, and Carson and three of his men went up the stream some distance to learn whether it was worth their while to set the traps.
They had not been gone long when a party of Indians, who were probably awaiting such an opportunity, charged upon the camp and drove off all the loose horses. Four of the hunters instantly saddled the swiftest of those remaining and started in hot pursuit. So hot indeed was the pursuit that they speedily came up with the marauders and opened a running fight. One of the hunters was badly wounded, while a warrior was shot from his horse pitching headlong to the earth with a screech of agony. The remaining ones were pressed so hard that they were glad enough to abandon the property which came back to the rightful owners, probably before an animal was able to comprehend what had taken place.
The promptness and daring of the hunters had prevented a serious loss, and though one of their number was severely hurt, his wound was not mortal. It may be said that he suffered much but fully recovered in time. Men with such iron constitutions and rugged frames rallied from injuries that would have swept off those accustomed to less stirring lives.
Having righted matters, so far as possible, the trappers picketed their horses and awaited the return of Carson and his companions. They were much disturbed by fears for their safety, as in truth they had good cause to be.
An Unexpected Meeting—The Ambush—A Daring and Perilous Ride—Return to Camp—Disappointments—The Beaver.
Meanwhile the Indians made it exceedingly lively for Kit Carson and his three companions.
The latter had heard so much of the abundance of beavers in a certain section that they determined to visit it and make a thorough exploration. To do this, it was necessary to ride over a lofty Rocky Mountain peak or take many hours to pass around it. Very naturally they concluded to "cut across lots," confident of their ability to take care of themselves, no matter what danger threatened.
The ascent proved very exhausting to men and animals, for the trappers did not compel the weary beasts to bear them up the steep slope where it tired them to force their own way. They rested many times, but finally accomplished the ascent and passed over into the valley beyond. There, disappointment awaited them. The most careful search failed to show the first sign of a beaver and they had their labor for their pains. The toil of climbing the mountain peak was so severe that the hunters concluded to take the longer route home. Their steeds had been pushed so hard, that they were permitted to set their own pace on the return. This naturally enough was a deliberate walk, while their riders talked, laughed, jested and occasionally made some remark on the magnificent scenery by which they were surrounded. There was no call for haste, and they knew nothing of what had taken place in camp after their departure; otherwise, they might have felt more impatience to rejoin their friends.
All at once, the hunters descried four Indian warriors in the path in front. They were splendidly mounted, their hair ornamented with stained eagle feathers, their ugly countenances daubed with yellow, black and crimson paint, and they were fully armed. Their appearance showed they were on the war path.
Such undoubtedly being the case, a sight of the braves was a challenge to the hunters who accepted it without a second's hesitation.
Pausing not a moment to consult on their plan of action, Kit and his companions spurred their horses to a dead run, with the purpose of bringing them within range of their rifles, but the steeds of the dusky foes were fleet of foot and they sped away like the wind.
The pursuit was a furious one, until the flying fugitives shot by a hill, when more than fifty warriors similarly mounted and accoutred, dashed out to intercept the enthusiastic hunters. Just then it dawned upon Kit and his companions that the whole proceeding was a trap arranged by the Indians into which he and his friends had dashed at headlong speed.
It was in such crises that Kit Carson displayed his marvelous resources and lightning-like perception of the best course to adopt. The discovery of the ambush would have thrown almost any company of men, no matter how brave into a panic, or at least into temporary confusion which would have been equally disastrous. Most probably they would have reined up or wheeled about and fled in the opposite direction. The whole band would have dashed in pursuit and the running fight between four men and more than twelve times their number, every one of whom it is fair to presume was thoroughly familiar with the country, could have resulted in but one way. Skilled and daring as were Carson and his comrades, they could not accomplish the impossible, as they would have had to do in order to escape the yelling band behind them.
Kit was slightly in advance of the others, and he did not check his animal in the least. On the contrary, he urged him to his utmost, and the four sped straight ahead on a dead run, seemingly as if they meant to charge the entire war party.
Such, however, was not their intention: they shied off as much as they could, and, throwing themselves forward and over the side of their horses, ran the terrible gauntlet. No one of the trappers fired a shot, for if dismounted by the bullets of their enemies, each wished to have his loaded rifle in hand, with which to make his last defense.
The very audacity of the movement amazed the Indians. By the time they comprehended what the white men were doing, they were thundering in front of them. Then the warriors opened fire, and the bullets whistled about the horses and riders, who kept their steeds to the highest bent and finally passed beyond danger—their escape one of the most extraordinary on record.
The Indians did not pursue the hunters, two of whom had been struck by their bullets, and Carson and his friends drew their horses down to a more moderate pace. The great scout admitted that he was never more utterly deceived and entrapped by the red man in all his life. But he saw in the occurrence a deeper significance than appeared on the surface. The ambush into which he and his friends had been led was only a part of the campaign against the entire party, who, weakened by the absence of Carson and his companions were likely to fall victims to such a large band of warriors. Trembling with fear for their comrades, they again forced their animals to a high speed and lost no time in making their way back to camp. They found everything in good shape, much to their relief, and were not at all surprised to learn of the visit that had been made by the savages during the absence of Kit and his companions.
The wounds of the two trappers who were shot while running the fiery gauntlet, were found to be of such a serious nature that the party had not gone far when they were obliged to go into camp again. One of them especially, was in such a bad way that it was found necessary to carry him on a litter until the main camp was reached. There he was allowed to rest and everything possible was done to make him comfortable. When he had fully recovered, the entire company headed for Old Park, once famous on account of the immense numbers of beavers found there. Disappointment, however, awaited them, for other trappers had preceded them, and made such thorough work that it was useless for the last arrivals to unload and set their traps.
The party visited other sections but in every instance they appeared to be "a day too late for the fair;" the beaver runs had been worked so thoroughly by others that it was useless for them to expect success.
The beaver, as the reader probably knows, aside from its great value in producing fur and perfume, possesses a most wonderful instinct. They live in communities and prefer to build their houses by small clear rivers and creeks or close to springs. Sometimes they are found on the banks of lakes.
The dams which they construct with the skill of a professional civil engineer, are built for the purpose of making sure of a full supply of water at all times and seasons. These dams are composed of stones, mud and tree branches, the base being ten or twelve feet in thickness sloping gradually upward to the summit.
In building their dams, the beaver does not thrust the ends of the stakes into the bed of the river, but lays them down horizontally, holding them in place by piling mud and stones upon them. The logs which compose the dams are mostly from six to eight inches in diameter, though some have been found nearly two feet through. The enormous number of such logs used may be imagined perhaps, when the ponderous character of the dams is remembered, and when it is stated that some of them are more than an eighth of a mile wide. Every log, after being gnawed off the proper length, is stripped of its bark which is stored away for use as food during the winter.
The lodges of the beavers are composed principally of mud, moss and branches, circular in shape, the space within being seven feet in width and about half as high. The walls are so thick that on the outside the corresponding dimensions are nearly three times as great as within. The roof is finished off with a thick layer of mud, laid on with wonderful smoothness and renewed every year. The severe frosts of winter freeze the lodge into such a solid structure that the beaver is safe against the wolverine, which is unable to break through the wall, resembling the adobe structures found in Mexico and the Southwest. Even the trapper who attempts to demolish one of the structures finds it tiresome labor, even with the help of iron implements.
The beavers excavate a ditch around their lodges too deep to be frozen. Into this opens all their dwellings, the door being far below the surface, so that free ingress and egress are secured.
The half dozen beavers occupying a lodge arrange their beds against the wall, each separate from the other, while the centre of the chamber is unoccupied. During summer they secure their stock of food by gnawing down hundreds of trees, the trunks or limbs of which are sunk and fastened in some peculiar manner to the bottom of the stream. During the winter when the beaver feels hungry, he dives down, brings up one of the logs, drags it to a suitable spot and nibbles off the bark.
It is impossible fully to understand how this remarkable animal does its work, for as it never toils in the day time, it is out of the power of any one to watch its method.
The peculiar odoriferous substance, secreted in two glandular sacs near the root of the tail, is "castoreum," more generally known as "bark stone" among the trappers. The odor is powerful and is so attractive to the animals themselves, that the trapper has only to smear some of it near the trap which is hidden under water. Any beaver which catches the scent, is sure to hasten to the spot and is almost certain to be caught in the trap.
Carson and two Companions set out on a Trapping Expedition of Their Own—They Meet With Great Success—Is Engaged by Captain Lee—Carson's Pursuit of an Indian Thief.
Kit Carson finally grew tired of wandering over the country without gaining sight of a beaver. He proposed to two of his companions that they start on a private expedition of their own. They were as disgusted as he and eagerly agreed to the proposition.
The employers of the men commended the enterprise of the little company and gave them their best wishes. Cordial farewells were exchanged all around, and Kit and his comrades left the camp on their perilous errand.
On this occasion, as on innumerable other ones, Carson showed most excellent judgment. His scheme was to keep entirely to the streams never once venturing upon the plains. Several advantages were likely to flow from this course. During the summer season the mountain Indians generally placed their women and children in charge of the old men and a few warriors and came down from their retreats to engage in hunting bison or in marching on the war path. Occasionally they are at peace with the Indians of the plains, which was a bad thing for the Mexican settlements, for they left a track of desolation among them.
Few of the trappers ventured far into the mountains, where game was abundant, so that Carson was confident of finding plenty of beavers. In this he was not mistaken. The fur bearing animals seemed to be overrunning the country, while the Indians acted not only as if unaware of the fact but as if entirely ignorant of the little party of visitors, who, making hay while the sun shines, were not long in finding themselves with as large a supply as they could carry home.
This was the ordeal more to be dreaded than all the others. While on their way to the beaver runs, they had nothing to do beyond taking care of themselves; but now their valuable peltries were liable to be captured by the Indians, who could compel their abandonment by pressing the owners hard.
But extreme and altogether unexpected good fortune attended them, and they reached Taos, without receiving a scratch or losing a fur. They found on arriving at that quaint town, that there was great demand for peltries and prices were correspondingly high. They sold out their stock for a very liberal price, and Kit's friend, despite his advice, went on a carousal which soon squandered all their hard earned wages. Kit himself, however, had not lost the lesson he learned under somewhat similar circumstances, and he laid away his funds, against the proverbial rainy day.
By this time the character of Carson was fairly formed. He was resolute, self reliant, sober, thoughtful, cool headed, wonderfully quick to grasp all the points of a situation, chivalrous, agile as a panther, a perfect master of woodcraft, and withal, charmingly modest.
While Carson was in Taos, waiting for some favorable opening to present itself, he met Captain Lee, formerly of the United States Army, but who was then a member of the firm of Bent and St. Vrain, engaged for so many years in furnishing supplies to those who visited the mountains and plains. Captain Lee at that time was thus employed and knowing the value of a man like Carson, he made him so liberal an offer that he accepted it on the spot.
In the Autumn of 1832, with a train of mules loaded with such goods as were needed by trappers, Captain Lee, Carson and a number of men started northward to find their purchasers. They followed the well worn mule path leading from New Mexico to California and which had been known for years as the "Old Spanish Trail."
They reached White River without mishap, and made their way down it until Green River was forded, when they struck across the country to Winty River, where they came upon a party of twenty hunters, who were engaged in trading and trapping as opportunity offered. They affiliated at once, for there is something in the presence of a common danger which draws men closely together.
The weather became very cold and snow began to fall. It was decided, therefore, to go into winter quarters near the mouth of Winty River. There they erected skin lodges, such as are used by many tribes of American Indians, and were content to wait the coming of spring.
The skill and address of Carson seemed to create a call for his services, no matter where he happened to be, and it was not long before he became involved in a most remarkable adventure.
Among the employees of the other party, was a shrewd civilized Indian, who was held in high regard by the whites on account of his native keenness, and who stood well in the confidence of his employer; but one day he disappeared, simultaneously with several of the very best horses. The circumstances were such that there could be no doubt the two occurrences were inseparably connected.
The loss was too serious to be borne, and the angered leader of the other company (though he had not the least claim upon young Carson), appealed to him to help him to recover his property. Carson said he was perfectly willing, provided Captain Lee would give his consent, and as the Captain was more willing to help his friend, he directed Carson to do as he saw fit.
The matchless hunter made sure his weapons were in the best order, and, mounting one of the fleetest horses in camp, he waved a merry farewell to his friends and galloped off. He had not ridden far when he turned off toward an Indian village, whose people were on friendly terms with the hunters, and, riding directly among the red men, whose lingo he understood, he asked for one of their bravest warriors to join him in hunting down a California Indian that had run off with their best horses.
Such a request coming from any other hunter would have received little notice; but those dusky barbarians not only knew Carson by name, but looked upon him as the greatest white warrior they had ever seen. He could have secured a score of braves had he wanted them, but he desired only one—a sinewy, daring fellow whom he knew could be relied on in any emergency. This Indian required no more time than Carson himself to make ready, and, shortly after Kit's arrival in the village, he rode forth again with his faithful friend at his elbow.
It was impossible for the thief to conceal the trail of the stolen horses and he made no attempt to do so. A slight examination showed the pursuers that it led down the Green River, the general course being such that Carson was confident the thief was making for California—a long distance away.
As the fugitive was well mounted and all his horses were fleet, and as he must have been quite certain he would be pursued, he lost no time on the road. The trail showed he was going at a full gallop, and, under the most favorable circumstances, the chase was sure to be a long one.
A Hot Pursuit—An Unexpected Calamity—Carson Continues the Chase Alone—The Result.
Everything now depended on speed. Not only was the dusky thief pushing his animals to the utmost, but Kit Carson knew he would give them little rest night or day. He was familiar with the route to California and the pursuit would be no child's play.
There could be no doubt, however, of the destination of the redskin, and Carson and his brave warrior were equally persistent with their horses. The ground flew beneath their hoofs. Across the stretch of prairie, along the bank of the rushing streams, around the rocks, over mountains, through torrents, they forced their way, with no thought of turning back or checking the speed of their animals. Occasionally the bright eyes of the pursuers glanced at the ground in front, when the displaced gravel or the indentation in the soft earth showed they had not lost the trail.
In this headlong fashion the friends galloped forward until they had placed a full hundred miles behind them. They were a long distance from home and camp, but in spite of the speed of the fugitive, Carson was confident they had gained considerably upon him. If everything went well, they ought to catch sight of him on the morrow. At this juncture, when the prospect was so encouraging, an unlooked for calamity occurred.
Carson's steed stood the great strain admirably, but the one bestrode by the Indian succumbed. He suddenly slackened his pace, staggered and trembled so violently, that, when the warrior leaped from his back, he saw he was fearfully ill. If he did not die, he would not recover for hours and even then could not be forced hard.
Carson contemplated the situation with dismay. He had not counted on anything like this, and the help of the Indian was beyond all price to him. He was unusually strong, active and experienced, and would not hesitate to attack any person single handed.
Seeing the condition of the exhausted steed, Kit proposed to his dusky companion that he should abandon him and continue the pursuit on foot, but the brave shook his head. He was equal to the exploit of running ten or twenty miles at a high pace, but a great deal more was likely to be required and he needed all his powers when the shock of the battle should come. He not only refused to continue the chase, but, knowing the character of the thief, tried to dissuade Carson from going further. They had certainly done all that could be asked of them and no one could find fault if, in the face of such difficulty, they should withdraw and return to their friends.
"No," said Carson, "I have set out to recover those horses and nothing shall turn me back. I am sorry to lose you, but it can't be helped; so good bye and good luck attend you."
And putting spurs to his steed, he dashed over the trail with compressed lips and flashing eye, determined on running down the fugitive if he had to follow him to the bank of the Pacific itself. This single act of the famous mountaineer shows his character in its true light.
In the first place, it must be remembered that Kit Carson was a man of slight figure and was never noted for his strength. Many of his companions were much more powerful, though none was so quick and active in his movements. His wonderful success lay in his coolness, agility, skill and bravery, which never "overleaped itself." As we have stated, he was below the medium stature, and never could have attained a tithe of his renown, had his muscular strength formed a necessary part of his requirements.
On the other hand, the Indian thief whom he was pursuing, was exceptionally powerful, athletic and one of the most desperate men on the whole frontier. He cared nothing for Carson, nor for any single member of the company he had left. He would expect pursuit and would be on the watch for it. Whenever he caught sight of those who were seeking him, he would not abandon the horses and flee. Far from it: he would stand his ground, and if his booty should be wrested from him the men who did it would be compelled to the fiercest kind of fight. He would not run from the attack of two or three persons: much less from one of the most insignificant men in the entire company.
The course of Carson illustrated another marked feature of his character—that of loyalty to his friends and resolution in carrying through any task he undertook. Where scarcely one man in a multitude would have pushed forward, he advanced without hesitation. He deliberately resolved to attack a fierce criminal who was as fully armed as he, as daring and perfect in his knowledge of woodcraft, and much his superior in strength.
Carson had proven the mettle of his steed, and he now showed him no mercy. The trail indicated he was gaining rapidly and he was anxious to force matters to an issue before night. Among the horses the Indian was running off were one or two whose endurance was less than the others. Their tardiness moderated the pace of the rest, and thus gave Kit a chance of lessening the distance between him and the fugitive.
At the end of the ten miles he scanned the ground in front, but nothing was seen of the thief or his horses; but the hoof prints were fresh and the scout knew he was closer to him than at any time since the chase began. The flanks of his steed shone with perspiration and froth, but it would not do to lag now. The lips were compressed and the gray eye flashed fire as before.
Ten more miles were speedily thrown behind him, and he knew he was not far from the dusky desperado, who doubtless was continually glancing backward in quest of pursuers; but the keen vision which swept around every portion of the visible horizon, discovered no sign of the thief.
Carson anticipated some attempt on the part of the fugitive to confuse pursuit and he, therefore, watched the hoof prints more closely than ever. The eagle eye continually glanced from the ground to the country in front, and then to the right and left. Nothing escaped his vision, but when his foamy steed had thundered over another ten miles the fugitive was still beyond sight.
"He can't be far off," was the thought of Carson, "I'm bound to overtake him before long."
At that moment, he caught sight of the Indian galloping leisurely forward, amid the stolen horses. The cunning savage, as the scout had suspected, was constantly on the alert, and detected Carson the same moment that he himself was discovered. Quick as a flash, he leaped from the back of his horses and started on a swift run for a clump of trees between him and his pursuer. The latter understood his purpose on the instant. If the Indian could secure the shelter of the grove, he would have his enemy at his mercy; for not only would he be able to protect his body, while loading and firing, but Carson himself, being in an open space, would be without the slightest protection against his deadly aim.
Carson cocked his rifle and driving his spurs into the flanks of his high spirited steed, charged at full speed for the same shelter. Whoever should reach it first would be the master.
The Indian had much less distance to run, and was as fleet of foot as a deer. He bounded forward with such tremendous strides, that while the horseman was still some distance away, he plunged in among the trees; but for the last few seconds the foes had approached each other at a terrific pace, a result that was not only inevitable, but desirable, to the pursuer.
The very second the savage arrived on the margin of the grove, he made a leap for the nearest tree from behind which he meant to shoot his enemy; but in the very act of doing so, he was smitten by his bullet. Without checking his animal in the slightest, Carson had aimed and fired.
The death screech of the savage rang out, as he leaped in the air and tumbled prostrate to the earth, killed by the shot that was unerring in its accuracy. The Indian himself was so near firing his gun, that his piece was also discharged, the ball whizzing harmlessly above the head of his pursuer. A couple of seconds delay on the part of Carson must have proved fatal to him, for the savage was a good marksman, and was standing still, with such a brief space intervening, that he could not have missed. It is hard to conceive of any escape more narrow than that of the daring mountaineer.
Carson Returns with the Recovered Property—Journey to Snake River—Starts on a Trapping Expedition with Three Companions—Carson's Stirring Adventure with Two Grizzly Bears.
Carson gathered the horses together and set out on his return. The distance was considerable and he was compelled to encamp more than once on the road, while he was continually exposed to attack from Indians, but with that remarkable skill and foresight which distinguished him when a boy, he reached home without the slightest mishap and turned over the recovered animals to their owner. Some days later, several trappers entered camp with the statement that a large body of hunters were on Snake River, a fortnight's journey distant. Captain Lee at once set out with his men and found the company who gave them a warm welcome. They purchased all the supplies Captain Lee had for sale, and then, as Carson's engagement with the Captain was ended, he attached himself to the other body. He remained, however, only a few weeks, for he saw there were so many that they could never take enough peltries to bring much money to the individual members. He decided to do as he had done before—arrange an expedition of his own. He had but to make known his intentions, when he had more applicants than he could accept. He selected three, who it is needless to say had no superiors in the whole party. The little company then turned the heads of their horses toward Laramie River.
At that day, the section abounded with beaver, and although the summer is not the time when their fur is in the best condition, the party trapped on the stream and its tributaries until cold weather set in. They met with far greater success than could have come to them had they stayed with the principal company of trappers. But they had no wish to spend the winter alone in the mountains and gathering their stock together, they set out to rejoin their old companions.
One day, after they had gone into camp, Carson, leaving his horse in charge of his friends, set out on foot to hunt some game for their evening meal. They had seen no signs of Indians, though they never forgot to be on their guard against them. Game was not very abundant and Carson was obliged to go a long ways before he caught sight of some elk grazing on the side of a hill. Well aware of the difficulty of getting within gunshot of the timid animals, the hunter advanced by a circuitous course toward a clump of trees, which would give him the needed shelter; but while creeping toward the point he had fixed upon as the one from which to fire, the creatures scented danger and began moving off. This compelled him to fire at long range, but he was successful and brought down the finest of the group.
The smoke was curling upward from the rifle of Carson, when he was startled by a tremendous crashing beside him, and, turning his head, he saw two enormous grizzly bears making for him at full speed. They were infuriated at this invasion of their home, and were evidently resolved on teaching the hunter better manners by making their supper upon him.
Carson had no time to reload his gun: had it been given him he would have made short work of one of the brutes at least, but as it was, he was deprived of even that privilege. Fortunate indeed would he be if he could escape their fury.
The grizzly bear is the most dreaded animal found on this continent. He does not seem to feel the slightest fear of the hunter, no matter whether armed or not, and, while other beasts are disposed to give man a wide berth, old "Ephraim," as the frontiersmen call him, always seems eager to attack him. His tenacity of life is extraordinary. Unless pierced in the head or heart, he will continue his struggles after a dozen or score of rifle balls have been buried in his body. So terrible is the grizzly bear, that an Indian can be given no higher honor than the privilege of wearing a necklace made from his claws—that distinction being permitted only to those who have slain one of the animals in single handed combat.
No one understood the nature of these beasts better than Kit Carson and he knew that if either of the animals once got his claws upon him, there would not be the faintest chance of escape. The only thing therefore that could be done was to run.
There were not wanting men who were fleeter of foot than Carson, but few could have overtaken him when he made for the trees on which all his hopes depended. Like the blockade runner, closely pursued by the man of war, he threw overboard all the cargo that could impede his speed. His long, heavy rifle was flung aside, and the short legs of the trapper doubled under him with amazing quickness as he strove as never before to reach the grove.
Fortunately the latter was not far off, and, though the fierce beasts gained rapidly upon him, Carson arrived among the timber a few steps in advance. He had no time even to select the tree, else he would have chosen a different one, but making a flying leap, he grasped the lowermost limb and swung upward, at the moment the foremost grizzly was beneath him. So close in truth was his pursuer that the hunter distinctly felt the sweeping blow of his paw aimed at the leg which whisked beyond his reach just in the nick of time.
But the danger was not over by any means. The enthusiastic style in which the bears entered into the proceedings proved they did not mean that any trifles should stop them. They were able to climb the tree which supported Carson, and he did not lose sight of the fact. Whipping out his hunting knife, he hurriedly cut off a short thick branch and trimmed it into a shape that would have made a most excellent shillelagh for a native of the Green Isle.
He had hardly done so, when the heads of the bruins were thrust upward almost against his feet. Carson grasped the club with both hands and raising it above his shoulders brought it down with all his might upon the nose of the foremost. The brute sniffed with pain, threw up his head and drew back a few inches—just enough to place the other nose in front. At that instant, a resounding whack landed on the rubber snout and the second bear must have felt a twinge all through his body.