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- The Great Salt Lake Trail - 4/86 -


After a while they came across the trail of the obstinate M'Lellan, who was still ahead of them, and had encamped the night before on the very stream where they now were. They saw the embers of the fire by which he had slept, and remains of a wolf of which he had eaten. He had evidently fared better than themselves at this encampment, for they had not a mouthful to eat. The next day, about noon, they arrived at the prairies where the headwaters of the stream appeared to form, and where they expected to find buffalo in abundance. Not even a superannuated bull was to be seen; the whole region was deserted. They kept on for several miles farther, following the bank of the stream and eagerly looking for beaver sign. Upon finding some they camped, and Ben Jones set his trap. They were hardly settled in camp when they perceived a large column of smoke rising in the clear air some distance to the southwest. They regarded it joyously, for they hoped it might be an Indian camp where they could get something to eat, as their pangs of hunger had now overcome their dread of the terrible Blackfeet.

Le Clerc, one of the Canadians, was instantly despatched by Mr. Stuart to reconnoitre; and the travellers sat up till a late hour, watching and listening for his return, hoping he might bring them food. Midnight arrived, but Le Clerc did not make his appearance, and they lay down once more supperless to sleep, hoping that their old beaver-trap might furnish them with a breakfast.

At daybreak they hastened, eager and famishing, to the trap, but found in it only the forepaw of a beaver, the sight of which tantalized their hunger and added to their dejection. They resumed their journey with flagging spirits, but had not gone far when they perceived Le Clerc approaching at a distance. They hastened to meet him, in hope of tidings of good cheer. He had nothing to give them but news of that strange wanderer, M'Lellan. The smoke had arisen from his encampment which took fire while he was fishing at some little distance from it. Le Clerc found him in a forlorn condition. His fishing had been unsuccessful, and during twelve days that he had been wandering alone through the savage mountains he had found scarcely anything to eat. He had been ill, sick at heart, and still had pressed forward; but now his strength and his stubbornness were exhausted. He expressed his satisfaction that Mr. Stuart and his party were near, and said he would wait at his camp for their arrival, hoping they would give him something to eat, for without food he declared he should not be able to go much farther.

When the party reached the place they found the poor fellow lying on a bunch of withered grass, wasted to a skeleton, and so feeble that he could scarcely raise his head or speak. The presence of his old comrades seemed to revive him; but they had no food to give him, for they themselves were almost starving. They urged him to rise and accompany them, but he shook his head. It was all in vain, he said; there was no prospect of their getting speedy relief, and without it he would perish by the way; he might as well, therefore, stay and die where he was. At length, after much persuasion, they got him upon his legs; his rifle and other effects were shared among them, and he was cheered and aided forward. In this way they proceeded for seventeen miles, over a level plain of sand, until, seeing a few antelopes in the distance, they camped on the margin of a small stream. All now, that were capable of the exertion, turned out to hunt for a meal. Their efforts were fruitless, and after dark they returned to their camp famished almost to desperation.

As they were preparing for the third time to lie down to sleep without a mouthful of food, Le Clerc, one of the Canadians, gaunt and wild with hunger, approached Mr. Stuart with his gun in his hand. It was all in vain, he said, to attempt to proceed any farther without food. They had a barren plain before them, three or four days' journey in extent, on which nothing was to be procured. They must all perish before they could get to the end of it. It was better, therefore, that one should die to save the rest. He proposed, therefore, that they should cast lots, adding, as an inducement for Mr. Stuart to assent to the proposition, that he, as leader of the party, should be exempted.

Mr. Stuart shuddered at the horrible proposition, and endeavoured to reason with the man, but his words were unavailing. At length, snatching up his rifle, he threatened to shoot him on the spot if he persisted. The famished wretch dropped on his knees, begged pardon in the most abject terms, and promised never again to offend him with such a suggestion.

Quiet being restored to the forlorn encampment, each one sought repose. Mr. Stuart, however, was so exhausted by the agitation of the past scene, acting upon his emaciated frame, that he could scarcely crawl to his miserable bed, where, notwithstanding his fatigues, he passed a sleepless night, reflecting upon their dreary situation and the desperate prospect before them.

At daylight the next morning they were up and on their way; they had nothing to detain them, no breakfast to prepare, and to linger was to perish. They proceeded, however, but slowly, for all were faint and weak. Here and there they passed the skulls and bones of buffaloes. This showed that these animals must have been hunted there during the past season, and the sight of the bones served only to mock their misery. After travelling about nine miles along the plain, they ascended a range of hills, and had scarcely gone two miles farther, when, to their great joy, they discovered a superannuated buffalo bull which had been driven from some herd and had been hunted and harassed through the mountains. They all stretched themselves out to encompass and make sure of this solitary animal, for their lives depended on their success. After considerable trouble and infinite anxiety, they at length succeeded in killing him. He was instantly flayed and cut up, and so ravenous were they that they devoured some of the flesh raw.

When they had rested they proceeded, and after crossing a mountain ridge, and traversing a plain, they waded one of the branches of the Spanish River. On ascending its bank, they met about a hundred and thirty Indians of the Snake tribe. They were friendly in their demeanour, and conducted the starving trappers to their village, which was about three miles distant. It consisted of about forty lodges, constructed principally of pine branches. The Snakes, like most of their nation, were very poor. The marauding Crows, in their late excursion through the country, had picked this unlucky band to the bone, carrying off their horses, several of their squaws, and most of their effects. In spite of their poverty, they were hospitable in the extreme, and made the hungry strangers welcome to their cabins. A few trinkets procured from them a supply of buffalo meat, together with leather for moccasins, of which the party were greatly in need. The most valuable prize obtained from them, however, was a horse. It was a sorry old animal in truth, and it was the only one which remained to the poor fellows, after the fell swoop of the Crows. They were prevailed upon to part with it to their guests for a pistol, an axe, a knife, and a few other trifling articles.

By sunrise on the following morning, the travellers had loaded their old horse with buffalo meat, sufficient for five days' provisions, and, taking leave of their poor but hospitable friends, set forth in somewhat better spirits, though the increasing cold weather and the sight of the snowy mountains which they had yet to traverse were enough to chill their very hearts. The country along the branch of the river as far as they could see was perfectly level, bounded by ranges of lofty mountains, both east and west. They proceeded about three miles south, where they came again upon the large trail of the Crow Indians, which they had crossed four days previously. It was made, no doubt, by the same marauding band which had plundered the Snakes; and which, according to the account of the latter, was now camped on a stream to the eastward. The trail kept on to the southeast, and was so well beaten by horse and foot that they supposed at least a hundred lodges had passed along it. As it formed, therefore, a convenient highway, and ran in a proper direction, they turned into it, and determined to keep it as long as safety would permit, as the Crow encampment must be some distance off, and it was not likely those savages would return upon their steps. They travelled forward, all that day, in the track of their dangerous predecessors, which led them across mountain streams, and along ridges, through narrow valleys, all tending generally to the southeast. The wind blew cold from the northeast, with occasional flurries of snow, which made them camp early, on the sheltered banks of a brook. In the evening the two Canadians, Vallee and Le Clerc, killed a young buffalo bull which was in good condition and afforded them an excellent supply of fresh beef. They loaded their spits, therefore, and filled their camp kettle with meat, and while the wind whistled and the snow whirled around them, they huddled round a rousing fire, basked in its warmth, and comforted both soul and body with a hearty and invigorating meal. No enjoyments have greater zest than these, snatched in the very midst of difficulty and danger; and it is probable the poor wayworn and weather-beaten travellers relished these creature comforts the more highly on account of the surrounding desolation and the dangerous proximity of the Crows.

The snow which had fallen in the night made it late in the morning before the party loaded their solitary packhorse, and resumed their march. They had not gone far before the trail of the Crows, which they were following, changed its direction, and bore to the north of east. They had already begun to feel themselves on dangerous ground, in travelling it, as they might be descried by scouts or spies of that race of Ishmaelites, whose predatory life required them to be constantly on the alert. On seeing the trail turn so much to the north, therefore, they abandoned it, and kept on their course to the southeast for eighteen miles, through a beautiful undulating country, having the main chain of mountains on the left, and a considerable elevated ridge on the right.

That evening they encamped on the banks of a small stream, in the open prairie. The northeast wind was keen and cutting, and as they had nothing but a scanty growth of sage-brush wherewith to make a fire, they wrapped themselves in their blankets at an early hour. In the course of the evening M'Lellan, who had now regained his strength, killed a buffalo, but it was some distance from the camp, and they postponed supplying themselves from its carcass until morning.

The next day the cold continued, accompanied by snow. They set forward on their bleak and toilsome way, keeping to the northeast, toward the lofty summit of a mountain which it was necessary for them to cross. Before they reached its base they passed another large trail, a little to the right of a point of the mountain. This they supposed to have been made by another band of Crows.

The severity of the weather compelled them to encamp at the end of fifteen miles on the skirts of the mountain, where they found sufficient dry aspen trees to supply them with fire, but they sought in vain about the neighbourhood for a spring or rill of water. The next day, on arriving at the foot of the mountain, the travellers found water oozing out of the earth, and resembling, in look and taste, that of the Missouri. Here they encamped for the night, and supped sumptuously upon their mountain mutton, which they found in good condition.

For two days they kept on in an eastwardly direction, against wintry


The Great Salt Lake Trail - 4/86

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