Jules Coffey and the Jacks - Snake Fight - Indian Fight - October 29, 1864 - Sam Dion - The Indian Baby - Camp Shuman - The "Simple Instance" - 53-mile Ride - The Snow-storm - The Mormon Train - The Black-tailed Dear - Sergeant Lippincott - Stephenson and the Wolf - Venison - Arrival at Lodgepole
On this visit to Laramie was the last I ever heard or saw of Jules Coffey. As stated before, Jules had a great deal of superstition about holding jacks while playing cards. He thought they were his lucky card. Happening in the back room of the sutler store where an almost continuous game of poker was going on, I saw Jules betting ferociously upon a poker hand. He said he would never lay it down, but he finally did. It consisted of three jacks, and Jules was beaten. His superstition had, in the language of the place, "busted him."
There were a couple of civilians in the employ of the Government, or who had dropped in the post some time before, who were gathering snakes for the Smithsonian Institution. There was a great deal said about the great quantity of snakes that could be found around in the rocky ledges of that country. A great many stories were told about the Indians eating them, and about the scientific way of capturing them. It seems that the Indian women would go out and hunt for them, but had to be very careful in capturing the snake so that the snake would not bite itself, and poison its own meat. The Indian women with a long forked stick would try to pin the snake down close to its head so that it could not bite itself. The trappers said that a rattlesnake was good to eat, and worth catching, providing it did not bite itself. One evening one of these men in the snake business asked me to go around and look at some snakes he had in a box. He had got a musket-box which was made long, to hold a musket, but was not of very much interior capacity, and was heavily built. On one of these boxes they had fixed a heavy double glass top, and the snakes had been fastened in so that it wasn't expected that they could be fed or taken care of. The man said the snakes didn't need it. In this box were coiled, one at each end, two monstrous rattlesnakes, each one as long as the musket-box, and they were there motionless, looking at each other. The next day I was called to go and see the box again. The two snakes had coiled themselves around each other like strands of a rope from head to tail, except that the heads and necks were free. These were bent around looking at each other, and formed a picture not unlike the medical symbol of a caduceus. Just before I left Fort Laramie I was called again to look into the box. One of the snakes was dead, and the other was coiled loosely up in the end of the box, drooping as if hardly alive. The whole thing left me a most ghastly memory; one had strangled and killed the other.
While at Laramie on this trip a beef was killed, and the Indian women came and carried off all of the entrails. There was one sight which attracted my attention: an old Indian woman with two or three children around her was feeding them the raw stuff. She took the smaller entrails, stripped out their contents and cut them up into mouthfuls, then punctured the gall-duct, and, dipping the point of the knife into it, put a drop of gall onto each mouthful as if it were Worcestershire sauce. It was raw, with a flavor of the bitter. The children seemed to enjoy it very much; it was Charlotte Russe for them. I was told that the Indians ate up all of the entrails of the beeves that were killed there at Laramie, at least during the time when there were many Indians at the squaw camp. I should have considered this revolting if it had not been for the happy, cheerful way in which the little Indians devoured this stuff, and shouted for more. And the old Indian woman seemed to be proud and happy to feed the little creatures so well.
During my comments upon this in a talk with Bridger, he said: "It's all right. They like it, and it's all right. I have cleaned up that kind of stuff and eaten it myself, when I had to. The Injuns haven't got the same kind of tasting apparatus we have; their 'taster' is different from a white man's. Now, here is a band of Injuns that want to go off on a horse-stealing expedition, each one of them riding a spare pony. They whistle up their dogs, and start off. The dogs can keep up with the horses, and when they camp, the horses can eat grass, and the Injuns eat the dogs. That is the reason they don't have to have any commissary wagons. They don't have to have any corn for their horses, nor any bacon and hard-tack, and that is the reason that they can always run away from our people, and we never can chase them down on one of these raids, and catch them, unless we can travel like they do. They will swap horses every hour or so, and ride all the time. If they did not have women and children to look after, they would never be caught. But when you go to chasing them with their women and children, the women and children die off pretty fast, and after a while you come up with them; they are at your mercy."
Bridger also said that the Indians believed that like parts of the animal nourished like parts of the man, hence they ate all there was of the animal. When any organ of an Indian was sick he would eat the corresponding organs of animals and game for a cure. He told many revolting stories concerning this belief.*
[*NOTE: Since the foregoing was set in type an article has appeared concerning Bridger, in a Kansas City newspaper, which I will copy as an appendix hereto.]
While at Fort Laramie Lieutenant Williams was constantly engaged in taking affidavits of enlisted men and citizens as to some facts concerning which I never found out. Williams was very secretive. Rumor had it that there had been some misconduct on the part of quartermasters and commissaries at the post, and that Williams, as Provost Marshal of the district, had made up his mind to investigate. He swore all of the witnesses, when he got through, never to divulge what they had testified to until called upon by the court; so it was not very easy to know what he was at, although Williams about a year afterward incidentally remarked that his trip up to Fort Laramie resulted in the cashiering of several officers. I had a very pleasant visit again with Colonel Collins of the Eleventh Ohio Cavalry, and he again expressed his wish to lose me out on the desert prairie with nothing but a little salt and see how I would get along. This was one of his favorite remarks.
There came word at the post that an empty Mormon train with quite a lot of extra men, and seventeen wagons drawn by mules, was coming down, bound for Omaha, to load up with goods to be brought back in the spring. These Mormons traveled through the Indian country more safely than if they had been Indians themselves. I suggested that as the Mormon train was traveling light, they be impressed into service, and that I be permitted to load them near Court House Rock with pine timber for building purposes at Julesburg. This seemed to meet approval, and Colonel Collins took it up over the telegraph with General Mitchell, commanding at Fort Kearney, who approved the plan. The train came along; we equipped it with axes, a few picks and shovels to make roads with, a small supply of provisions, and passing through Fort Laramie it went on down the road. I expected to overtake them on the route, which I did at Mud Springs. Lieutenant Williams wanted to start October 29th in the afternoon, and so we went on down with him ten miles to Bordeaux Ranch and camped there, so as to get a good start the next morning. At Bordeaux Ranch I met with a frontiersman whom I had heard considerable of, and whom I had met once before, by the name of Sam Dion. He was one of the pioneer Frenchmen of the period, a jolly, royal, generous fellow who cared for nothing particularly, was happy everywhere, and whom the very fact of existence filled with exuberance and joy. He gave me a beautiful Indian-tanned beaver-skin, one of the largest and prettiest I ever had seen. A beaver-skin has two classes of hair. One is a coarse hair which sheds water, and the other is a fine hair which is intended for warmth. Dion had a way of taking a sharp razor, running it over a beaver-skin, and cutting out the coarse hair without at all injuring the fine hair, so that the skin which he gave me was as beautiful a piece of fur as I ever saw. I afterwards made it into a collar and cape for my big blue military overcoat, and wore it all through the service and long afterward. At Bordeaux we met Captain Shuman and First Sergeant George Marsh, going up to Fort Laramie for supplies with a small escort. I was glad to meet "Shad-blow" again, and we sat up talking over the invasion of Arkansas.
There rode with us from Fort Laramie an officer of the Eleventh Ohio, whose name I will not here mention, as he afterwards rose to considerable distinction in civil life. He had been stationed at Fort Laramie, and had been ordered to Leavenworth. Coming on down to Bordeaux Ranch he every once in a while took a nip from his canteen, and said that he felt bad, and hated to go from Fort Laramie and hated to stay there; that he had received a very excellent detail from the general commanding the department, and was going away from Fort Laramie, never to see it again. He went on in a somewhat melancholy strain all the way down, and took but little observation of the scenery on the route. After we had got down to Bordeaux Ranch, and had supper, he took me one side and told me his story. He said: "I came away from Fort Laramie and I did not act right. I have got an Indian baby up in that squaw camp, and I have got to go back and tell the baby's mother that I am never going to see her again, and it is going to raise Cain. I dreaded it, and I was too cowardly to go and tell her before I left. Now I will never see her again, nor will I ever see the baby again. I am going to get onto my horse and ride back there, and then I will be here in the morning ready to go on with you down the road." I told him that he was taking a good deal of a chance to be riding at night along that road, not knowing whom he would meet, and he said that he did not care; that he could get back there to Fort Laramie, kiss the baby good-by, and be on hand in the morning. He quickly saddled up, and off he went through the darkness as swift as his horse could carry him. The next morning when we were ready to start he turned up all right, and we went on down. I asked him if he had much trouble on the trip, and he said that he had a whole lot of it. He said it was a heart-breaking sort of thing, but that it was now over; that he had made up his mind to it, and he would never be back again, and that the whole thing was now ended. He kept taking nips from his canteen all day, but never became talkative or effusive, and although I was with him off and on for quite a while after that, he never again referred to the circumstance.
We left Bordeaux ranch at six o'clock on the morning of October 30, 1864, and rode forty-three miles to Camp Shuman, now called "Camp Mitchell," near Scott's Bluffs, as before stated. Captain Shuman had named it after General Mitchell. We all slept on the dirt floor in the headquarters room at Camp Mitchell that night. Lieutenant Williams never drank anything. He was one of the few officers I ever saw who were total abstainers. He and I slept under the same blanket on the floor. The room was about fifteen feet square, and Lieutenant Boyd, who was the Second Lieutenant, slept on the floor near us. Captain Shuman, as stated, had gone to Fort Laramie. Lieutenant Ellsworth commanded the post, and Lieutenant Boyd the company. This was a technical arrangement. There must always be a post commander although there is only a company present at the post, so that Lieutenant Boyd commanded all the men at the post as "Company Commander," and Lieutenant Ellsworth commanded all the men at the post as "Post Commander." While we were lying on the floor Boyd every once in a while got up and went to the corner of the room. We ascertained in a little while that he was going into Captain Shuman's box of "St. Croix Rum Punch." After a while Boyd got gloriously drunk, all by his lone self. He never offered us anything, but just filled up. Finally he got us up and wanted to tell us a "simple instance." What he meant was "a simple incident," but he was so full that he could not get his words straight, and he would pull at us and at the blankets over us and have us listen to his "simple instance." His "simple instance" was how he and Captain Shuman had recently had a fight, and he had "knocked Captain Shuman just twenty feet." It was not an inch more or less. He had measured and it was just even twenty feet; and after he had told it all over and we had dropped off into a doze he would wake us up again to relate this "simple instance," and tell it all over again. By one o'clock in the morning Lieutenant Williams got a little bit tired of the "simple instance," and finally Boyd dropped off to sleep. The next morning Lieutenant Williams took some affidavits at the post, and among others the affidavit of Lieutenant Boyd about his "simple instance," and the result was that Boyd got dismissed from service for striking a superior officer and for drunkenness, and my old acquaintance "Shad-blow" got to be Second Lieutenant.
The ride of forty-three miles the day before had very much quieted down our horses; in the morning a storm came up, and the wind, blowing from the northeast, began to beat the snow into our faces. It was a very unpleasant day, and after a while it became positively distressing. Williams crept into the ambulance, and in its secure shelter ordered the driver to whip up, and then ordered me to keep up with the escort. The result was that we made fifty-three miles that day against the storm, and the men and horses were nearly used up.
At Mud Springs, on the evening of October 31, 1864, we found the Mormon train camped, together with eight wagons drawn by nineteen yoke of oxen belonging to Alexander Noble, who had come down a little while before with an escort, having hauled some stuff up to Fort Laramie. Noble's wagons were in bad condition, and so were his oxen. I pressed them all in; two of the Mormon wagons had to be loaded up with blankets and stuff which the train was carrying, and one of Noble's wagons was too weak to hold up a load of logs. It had snowed and hailed all day, the wind was blowing hard, skits of snow were coming all night, and the weather was growing colder. On the morning of November 1st we made a road and got the wagons and stock several miles up to where the trees were, and as we had plenty of help we cut the trees as long as the wagons could hold them, loaded them up as far as we dared, then put the wagon-boxes and all on top of the load of logs, tied down or chained them on, and let the wagons start down to Mud Springs. We cut only small, straight trees that were easily handled. No sign of Indians was seen anywhere. On November 2, 1864, we finished the loading of the wagons and sent them all, except a weak one, on down to Mud Springs. My squad of men was camped up on the north side of Lawrence's Fork, in a very nice little grove that stood about forty feet above the stream and formed a sort of shelf, above which, back of us, rose the high ragged edges of the plateau. It was a beautiful little camping-place, and was up three or four miles above Court House Rock. All this time it had been snowing. And as the snow fell upon the plateau the wind blew it down onto our camp, and it began to get deeper and deeper. We had run out of provisions and had borrowed some from the Mormon train, that really did not have much to spare; we had divided with the men on Noble's train because they had only enough to get them to Julesburg. The result was that we were short of provisions all around.
The snow kept falling and kept drifting all during the day of the 1st and 2nd, and all of the wagons had been loaded and got down to Mud Springs except one, and I determined that I would stay in camp over-night where I was, because there was plenty of wood for fires and we on horseback would overtake the train in the morning. Along in the evening of the 2nd the snow came furiously. We already had a couple of feet of it, and had dug paths around our little camp from the ground of shelter-tents to the fire. But during the night the snow fell so furiously that we got up and kept clearing the ground so as not to be entirely buried. The horse-feed and shovels were in the weak wagon then in camp with us. The snow fell on the plateau and the wind swept it all over onto the ravine, so that we were not contending with the snow that fell from above us, but with all the snow that fell upon the plateau for miles. The horses were tied to the trees, and they kept tramping the snow under them until they stood two or three feet above the ground. In the morning the snow around us was from ten to twenty feet deep. On the wind-swept plateau there was hardly any. Along about nine o'clock in the morning it cleared off cold. We dug out with shovels the places where the horses were standing and where our tents were and where our camp-fires were. We did not see any good way of getting out of camp. It was entirely a new experience for all of us, and we debated what to do. The snow all around us was deeper than a man on horseback was high. The worst of it was our shortage of provisions. While we were there undetermined what to do, Corporal Lippincott saw, up on the edge of the plateau, off about a mile, a black-tailed deer standing on a point and looking down into the valley; probably looking for water. It seemed to be absolutely necessary that we should get that deer. I had a fine target rifle, Smith & Wesson, caliber .44, which I always carried as if it were a carbine. There were several good shots in our party, but Corporal Lippincott was as good as any, and claimed the right to go after the deer because he had first seen it. The deer seemed to stand motionless for quite a while, and then it would disappear and then it would come up again to the edge of the rim of the plateau, The snow was rather hard and sleety, and Lippincott floundered through it slowly and patiently. We all stayed in camp and watched what his success would be. Up along the edge of the declivity of the plateau the snow was shallower, and Lippincott after going from the back part of our camp up towards the plateau floundered out of the deepest snow and got into snow that was about four feet deep. He then slowly progressed up until we saw him stop. The deer, if it was the same one, came up to the edge again, standing motionless for a few minutes, when, crack went the rifle, and the deer sprang tumbling over the crest and down into the snow below. This must have taken place about ten o'clock in the morning. We all started out to get the deer into camp, using shovels and lariat-ropes; we got the deer into camp along about four o'clock p. m. While out on this trip bringing in the deer, Sheldon, one of the men of the party, saw an antelope come up to the edge of the bluff between us and the camp, and while the antelope was looking with curiosity at the strange scene going on, Sheldon killed the antelope, and we succeeded in getting that also into camp. We built rousing pine-log fires and ate roasted deer and antelope, and we parched corn from the horsefeed. Roasted antelope hearts are fine.
We had felled some large trees, and the brush part of them stuck up in places above the snow along near which our roads had been dug out. As the snow was over we went to uncovering places so that we could get around and give our horses places to stand. W melted snow for water because we could not get down to the river; the snow was too deep. Both men and horses had suffered a good deal from cold and snow. We cut pine boughs and piled them up pretty well, and over them made our puptents, which were the only tents we had and which we carried on our saddles. But we had great fires burning, and did not suffer any more than we could help. During the night, about one or two o'clock in the morning, I heard a noise and some shouting, and jumped up with great anxiety; it proved to be a strange scene. One of the men, a brave little fellow by the name of Stephenson, who was afterwards made corporal, was in a fight with a big gray wolf; and a strange fight it was. The wolf had a trap on one of its hind legs. Where it got the trap we of course never could be able to tell, unless it had been set out by some of the detail camp at Mud Springs. It was profitable to set out traps and to poison wolves, and this was one of the occupations at every frontier post. The wolf with this trap on was unable to catch game, and was hungry. Being attracted by the fire and smell of meat at our camp, it had crawled through the snow and had got hold of the hide of the black-tailed deer, which Corporal Lippincott had thrown over the pine brush right on the edge of our clearing. The wolf when I got there was muttering and growling and pulling on that hide, and Stephenson was holding onto the other end of the hide, trying to scare the wolf off and pull the hide away from him. Stephenson had his carbine in his right hand and tried to shoot, but the cartridge would not go off. He snapped it twice at the wolf, and just as I came up Stephenson with more bravery than good judgment went after the wolf with his carbine as a club. He struck the wolf over the head and stunned it, and bent the barrel of his carbine at almost a right angle. All of the boys were up and saw the blow with the carbine; one of the boys then put an end to the wolf with a revolver. Thereupon Stephenson skinned the wolf. It was as interesting a little encounter as I ever saw. Of course if the wolf had not had a big trap on its hind leg it would not have lost its life as it did. But it was very hungry, and was weak with hunger, and with running through the deep snow trying to catch game.
The next morning we had nothing for breakfast but venison and antelope. We each ate a hearty breakfast of it and cooked pieces to take along with us, and going up towards the bluffs upon the path we had already made, we circumnavigated along and got up onto the plateau, and finally got into territory where the snow was not deep, and arrived at Mud Springs; but we had to leave the wagon because we could not take it with us, and in fact we were very glad to get out of the place as well as we did. It took us until noon to go the short distance that it was to Mud Springs.
On arrival at Mud Springs I found a telegram directing me to wait on my way home at Lodgepole, where a reconnoissance for an exploring expedition had been sent to look for Indians up Lodgepole, and who would be back about the time I got there. The log wagons had well strung out, and were en route for Julesburg over the ridge; the snow was blown from the road. After dinner we started and crossed Jules Stretch, and arrived in the evening at the crossing of Lodgepole and went into camp to await the appearance of the reconnoitering party that had gone up Lodgepole. We passed en route the log train as we crossed over the Stretch.