The Adventures of Captain Bonneville/Chapter 16
Misadventures of Matthieu and his party--Return to the caches at Salmon River--Battle between Nez Perces and Black
feet--Heroism of a Nez Perce woman--Enrolled among the braves.
ON the 3d of February, Matthieu, with the residue of his band, arrived in camp. He had a disastrous story to relate. After parting with Captain Bonneville in Green River Valley he had proceeded to the westward, keeping to the north of the Eutaw Mountains, a spur of the great Rocky chain. Here he experienced the most rugged travelling for his horses, and soon discovered that there was but little chance of meeting the Shoshonie bands. He now proceeded along Bear River, a stream much frequented by trappers, intending to shape his course to Salmon River to rejoin Captain Bonneville.
He was misled, however, either through the ignorance or treachery of an Indian guide, and conducted into a wild valley where he lay encamped during the autumn and the early part of the winter, nearly buried in snow and almost starved. Early in the season he detached five men, with nine horses, to proceed to the neighborhood of the Sheep Rock, on Bear River, where game was plenty, and there to procure a supply for the camp.
They had not proceeded far on their expedition when their trail was discovered by a party of nine or ten Indians, who immediately commenced a lurking pursuit, dogging them secretly for five or six days. So long as their encampments were well chosen and a proper watch maintained the wary savages kept aloof; at length, observing that they were badly encamped, in a situation where they might be approached with secrecy, the enemy crept stealthily along under cover of the river bank, preparing to burst suddenly upon their prey.
They had not advanced within striking distance, however, before they were discovered by one of the trappers. He immediately but silently gave the alarm to his companions. They all sprang upon their horses and prepared to retreat to a safe position. One of the party, however, named Jennings, doubted the correctness of the alarm, and before he mounted his horse wanted to ascertain the fact. His companions urged him to mount, but in vain; he was incredulous and obstinate. A volley of firearms by the savages dispelled his doubts, but so overpowered his nerves that he was unable to get into his saddle. His comrades, seeing his peril and confusion, generously leaped from their horses to protect him. A shot from a rifle brought him to the earth; in his agony he called upon the others not to desert him. Two of them, Le Roy and Ross, after fighting desperately, were captured by the savages; the remaining two vaulted into their saddles and saved themselves by headlong flight, being pursued for nearly thirty miles. They got safe back to Matthieu's camp, where their story inspired such dread of lurking Indians that the hunters could not be prevailed upon to undertake another foray in quest of provisions. They remained, therefore, almost starving in their camp; now and then killing an old or disabled horse for food, while the elk and the mountain sheep roamed unmolested among the surrounding mountains.
The disastrous surprisal of this hunting party is cited by Captain Bonneville to show the importance of vigilant watching and judicious encampments in the Indian country. Most of this kind of disasters to traders and trappers arise from some careless inattention to the state of their arms and ammunition, the placing of their horses at night, the position of their camping ground, and the posting of their night watches. The Indian is a vigilant and crafty foe, by no means given to hair-brained assaults; he seldom attacks when he finds his foe well prepared and on the alert. Caution is at least as efficacious a protection against him as courage.
The Indians who made this attack were at first supposed to be Blackfeet; until Captain Bonneville found subsequently, in the camp of the Bannecks, a horse, saddle, and bridle, which he recognized as having belonged to one of the hunters. The Bannecks, however, stoutly denied having taken these spoils in fight, and persisted in affirming that the outrage had been perpetrated by a Blackfoot band.
Captain Bonneville remained on Snake River nearly three weeks after the arrival of Matthieu and his party. At length his horses having recovered strength sufficient for a journey, he prepared to return to the Nez Perces, or rather to visit his caches on Salmon River; that he might take thence goods and equipments for the opening season. Accordingly, leaving sixteen men at Snake River, he set out on the 19th of February with sixteen others on his journey to the caches.
Fording the river, he proceeded to the borders of the deep snow, when he encamped under the lee of immense piles of burned rock. On the 21st he was again floundering through the snow, on the great Snake River plain, where it lay to the depth of thirty inches. It was sufficiently incrusted to bear a pedestrian, but the poor horses broke through the crust, and plunged and strained at every step. So lacerated were they by the ice that it was necessary to change the front every hundred yards, and put a different one in advance to break the way. The open prairies were swept by a piercing and biting wind from the northwest. At night, they had to task their ingenuity to provide shelter and keep from freezing. In the first place, they dug deep holes in the snow, piling it up in ramparts to windward as a protection against the blast. Beneath these they spread buffalo skins, upon which they stretched themselves in full dress, with caps, cloaks, and moccasins, and covered themselves with numerous blankets; notwithstanding all which they were often severely pinched with the cold.
On the 28th of February they arrived on the banks of Godin River. This stream emerges from the mountains opposite an eastern branch of the Malade River, running southeast, forms a deep and swift current about twenty yards wide, passing rapidly through a defile to which it gives its name, and then enters the great plain where, after meandering about forty miles, it is finally lost in the region of the Burned Rocks.
On the banks of this river Captain Bonneville was so fortunate as to come upon a buffalo trail. Following it up, he entered the defile, where he remained encamped for two days to allow the hunters time to kill and dry a supply of buffalo beef. In this sheltered defile the weather was moderate and grass was already sprouting more than an inch in height. There was abundance, too, of the salt weed which grows most plentiful in clayey and gravelly barrens. It resembles pennyroyal, and derives its name from a partial saltness. It is a nourishing food for the horses in the winter, but they reject it the moment the young grass affords sufficient pasturage.
On the 6th of March, having cured sufficient meat, the party resumed their march, and moved on with comparative ease, excepting where they had to make their way through snow-drifts which had been piled up by the wind.
On the 11th, a small cloud of smoke was observed rising in a deep part of the defile. An encampment was instantly formed and scouts were sent out to reconnoitre. They returned with intelligence that it was a hunting party of Flatheads, returning from the buffalo range laden with meat. Captain Bonneville joined them the next day, and persuaded them to proceed with his party a few miles below to the caches, whither he proposed also to invite the Nez Perces, whom he hoped to find somewhere in this neighborhood. In fact, on the 13th, he was rejoined by that friendly tribe who, since he separated from them on Salmon River, had likewise been out to hunt the buffalo, but had continued to be haunted and harassed by their old enemies the Blackfeet, who, as usual, had contrived to carry off many of their horses.
In the course of this hunting expedition, a small band of ten lodges separated from the main body in search of better pasturage for their horses. About the 1st of March, the scattered parties of Blackfoot banditti united to the number of three hundred fighting men, and determined upon some signal blow. Proceeding to the former camping ground of the Nez Perces, they found the lodges deserted; upon which they hid themselves among the willows and thickets, watching for some straggler who might guide them to the present "whereabout" of their intended victims. As fortune would have it Kosato, the Blackfoot renegade, was the first to pass along, accompanied by his blood-bought bride. He was on his way from the main body of hunters to the little band of ten lodges. The Blackfeet knew and marked him as he passed; he was within bowshot of their ambuscade; yet, much as they thirsted for his blood, they forbore to launch a shaft; sparing him for the moment that he might lead them to their prey. Secretly following his trail, they discovered the lodges of the unfortunate Nez Perces, and assailed them with shouts and yellings. The Nez Perces numbered only twenty men, and but nine were armed with fusees. They showed themselves, however, as brave and skilful in war as they had been mild and long-suffering in peace. Their first care was to dig holes inside of their lodges; thus ensconced they fought desperately, laying several of the enemy dead upon the ground; while they, though Some of them were wounded, lost not a single warrior.
During the heat of the battle, a woman of the Nez Perces, seeing her warrior badly wounded and unable to fight, seized his bow and arrows, and bravely and successfully defended his person, contributing to the safety of the whole party.
In another part of the field of action, a Nez Perce had crouched behind the trunk of a fallen tree, and kept up a galling fire from his covert. A Blackfoot seeing this, procured a round log, and placing it before him as he lay prostrate, rolled it forward toward the trunk of the tree behind which his enemy lay crouched. It was a moment of breathless interest; whoever first showed himself would be in danger of a shot. The Nez Perce put an end to the suspense. The moment the logs touched he Sprang upon his feet and discharged the contents of his fusee into the back of his antagonist. By this time the Blackfeet had got possession of the horses, several of their warriors lay dead on the field, and the Nez Perces, ensconced in their lodges, seemed resolved to defend themselves to the last gasp. It so happened that the chief of the Blackfeet party was a renegade from the Nez Perces; unlike Kosato, however, he had no vindictive rage against his native tribe, but was rather disposed, now he had got the booty, to spare all unnecessary effusion of blood. He held a long parley, therefore, with the besieged, and finally drew off his warriors, taking with him seventy horses. It appeared, afterward, that the bullets of the Blackfeet had been entirely expended in the course of the battle, so that they were obliged to make use of stones as substitute.
At the outset of the fight Kosato, the renegade, fought with fury rather than valor, animating the others by word as well as deed. A wound in the head from a rifle ball laid him senseless on the earth. There his body remained when the battle was over, and the victors were leading off the horses. His wife hung over him with frantic lamentations. The conquerors paused and urged her to leave the lifeless renegade, and return with them to her kindred. She refused to listen to their solicitations, and they passed on. As she sat watching the features of Kosato, and giving way to passionate grief, she thought she perceived him to breathe. She was not mistaken. The ball, which had been nearly spent before it struck him, had stunned instead of killing him. By the ministry of his faithful wife he gradually recovered, reviving to a redoubled love for her, and hatred of his tribe.
As to the female who had so bravely defended her husband, she was elevated by the tribe to a rank far above her sex, and beside other honorable distinctions, was thenceforward permitted to take a part in the war dances of the braves!