The Adventures of Captain Bonneville/Chapter 17
Opening of the caches--Detachments of Cerre and Hodgkiss Salmon River Mountains--Superstition of an Indian trapper--
Godin's River--Preparations for trapping--An alarm--An interruption--A rival band--Phenomena of Snake River Plain
Vast clefts and chasms--Ingulfed streams--Sublime scenery--A grand buffalo hunt.
CAPTAIN BONNEVILLE found his caches perfectly secure, and having secretly opened them he selected such articles as were necessary to equip the free trappers and to supply the inconsiderable trade with the Indians, after which he closed them again. The free trappers, being newly rigged out and supplied, were in high spirits, and swaggered gayly about the camp. To compensate all hands for past sufferings, and to give a cheerful spur to further operations, Captain Bonneville now gave the men what, in frontier phrase, is termed "a regular blow-out." It was a day of uncouth gambols and frolics and rude feasting. The Indians joined in the sports and games, and all was mirth and good-fellowship.
It was now the middle of March, and Captain Bonneville made preparations to open the spring campaign. He had pitched upon Malade River for his main trapping ground for the season. This is a stream which rises among the great bed of mountains north of the Lava Plain, and after a winding course falls into Snake River. Previous to his departure the captain dispatched Mr. Cerre, with a few men, to visit the Indian villages and purchase horses; he furnished his clerk, Mr. Hodgkiss, also, with a small stock of goods, to keep up a trade with the Indians during the spring, for such peltries as they might collect, appointing the caches on Salmon River as the point of rendezvous, where they were to rejoin him on the 15th of June following.
This done he set out for Malade River, with a band of twenty-eight men composed of hired and free trappers and Indian hunters, together with eight squaws. Their route lay up along the right fork of Salmon River, as it passes through the deep defile of the mountains. They travelled very slowly, not above five miles a day, for many of the horses were so weak that they faltered and staggered as they walked. Pasturage, however, was now growing plentiful. There was abundance of fresh grass, which in some places had attained such height as to wave in the wind. The native flocks of the wilderness, the mountain sheep, as they are called by the trappers, were continually to be seen upon the hills between which they passed, and a good supply of mutton was provided by the hunters, as they were advancing toward a region of scarcity.
In the course of his journey Captain Bonneville had occasion to remark an instance of the many notions, and almost superstitions, which prevail among the Indians, and among some of the white men, with respect to the sagacity of the beaver. The Indian hunters of his party were in the habit of exploring all the streams along which they passed, in search of "beaver lodges," and occasionally set their traps with some success. One of them, however, though an experienced and skilful trapper, was invariably unsuccessful. Astonished and mortified at such unusual bad luck, he at length conceived the idea that there was some odor about his person of which the beaver got scent and retreated at his approach. He immediately set about a thorough purification. Making a rude sweating-house on the banks of the river, he would shut himself up until in a reeking perspiration, and then suddenly emerging, would plunge into the river. A number of these sweatings and plungings having, as he supposed, rendered his person perfectly "inodorous," he resumed his trapping with renovated hope.
About the beginning of April they encamped upon Godin's River, where they found the swamp full of "musk-rat houses." Here, therefore, Captain Bonneville determined to remain a few days and make his first regular attempt at trapping. That his maiden campaign might open with spirit, he promised the Indians and free trappers an extra price for every musk-rat they should take. All now set to work for the next day's sport. The utmost animation and gayety prevailed throughout the camp. Everything looked auspicious for their spring campaign. The abundance of musk-rats in the swamp was but an earnest of the nobler game they were to find when they should reach the Malade River, and have a capital beaver country all to themselves, where they might trap at their leisure without molestation.
In the midst of their gayety a hunter came galloping into the camp, shouting, or rather yelling, "A trail! a trail!--lodge poles! lodge poles!"
These were words full of meaning to a trapper's ear. They intimated that there was some band in the neighborhood, and probably a hunting party, as they had lodge poles for an encampment. The hunter came up and told his story. He had discovered a fresh trail, in which the traces made by the dragging of lodge poles were distinctly visible. The buffalo, too, had just been driven out of the neighborhood, which showed that the hunters had already been on the range.
The gayety of the camp was at an end; all preparations for musk-rat trapping were suspended, and all hands sallied forth to examine the trail. Their worst fears were soon confirmed. Infallible signs showed the unknown party in the advance to be white men; doubtless, some rival band of trappers! Here was competition when least expected; and that too by a party already in the advance, who were driving the game before them. Captain Bonneville had now a taste of the sudden transitions to which a trapper's life is subject. The buoyant confidence in an uninterrupted hunt was at an end; every countenance lowered with gloom and disappointment.
Captain Bonneville immediately dispatched two spies to overtake the rival party, and endeavor to learn their plans; in the meantime, he turned his back upon the swamp and its musk-rat houses and followed on at "long camps", which in trapper's language is equivalent to long stages. On the 6th of April he met his spies returning. They had kept on the trail like hounds until they overtook the party at the south end of Godin's defile. Here they found them comfortably encamped: twenty-two prime trappers, all well appointed, with excellent horses in capital condition led by Milton Sublette, and an able coadjutor named Jarvie, and in full march for the Malade hunting ground. This was stunning news. The Malade River was the only trapping ground within reach; but to have to compete there with veteran trappers, perfectly at home among the mountains, and admirably mounted, while they were so poorly provided with horses and trappers, and had but one man in their party acquainted with the country-it was out of the question.
The only hope that now remained was that the snow, which still lay deep among the mountains of Godin's River and blocked up the usual pass to the Malade country, might detain the other party until Captain Bonneville's horses should get once more into good condition in their present ample pasturage.
The rival parties now encamped together, not out of companionship, but to keep an eye upon each other. Day after day passed by without any possibility of getting to the Malade country. Sublette and Jarvie endeavored to force their way across the mountain; but the snows lay so deep as to oblige them to turn back. In the meantime the captain's horses were daily gaining strength, and their hoofs improving, which had been worn and battered by mountain service. The captain, also was increasing his stock of provisions; so that the delay was all in his favor.
To any one who merely contemplates a map of the country this difficulty of getting from Godin to Malade River will appear inexplicable, as the intervening mountains terminate in the great Snake River plain, so that, apparently, it would be perfectly easy to proceed round their bases.
Here, however, occur some of the striking phenomena of this wild and sublime region. The great lower plain which extends to the feet of these mountains is broken up near their bases into crests, and ridges resembling the surges of the ocean breaking on a rocky shore.
In a line with the mountains the plain is gashed with numerous and dangerous chasms, from four to ten feet wide, and of great depth. Captain Bonneville attempted to sound some of these openings, but without any satisfactory result. A stone dropped into one of them reverberated against the sides for apparently a very great depth, and, by its sound, indicated the same kind of substance with the surface, as long as the strokes could be heard. The horse, instinctively sagacious in avoiding danger, shrinks back in alarm from the least of these chasms, pricking up his ears, snorting and pawing, until permitted to turn away.
We have been told by a person well acquainted with the country that it is sometimes necessary to travel fifty and sixty miles to get round one of these tremendous ravines. Considerable streams, like that of Godin's River, that run with a bold, free current, lose themselves in this plain; some of them end in swamps, others suddenly disappear, finding, no doubt, subterranean outlets.
Opposite to these chasms Snake River makes two desperate leaps over precipices, at a short distance from each other; one twenty, the other forty feet in height.
The volcanic plain in question forms an area of about sixty miles in diameter, where nothing meets the eye but a desolate and awful waste; where no grass grows nor water runs, and where nothing is to be seen but lava. Ranges of mountains skirt this plain, and, in Captain Bonneville's opinion, were formerly connected, until rent asunder by some convulsion of nature. Far to the east the Three Tetons lift their heads sublimely, and dominate this wide sea of lava--one of the most striking features of a wilderness where everything seems on a scale of stern and simple grandeur.
We look forward with impatience for some able geologist to explore this sublime but almost unknown region.
It was not until the 25th of April that the two parties of trappers broke up their encampments, and undertook to cross over the southwest end of the mountain by a pass explored by their scouts. From various points of the mountain they commanded boundless prospects of the lava plain, stretching away in cold and gloomy barrenness as far as the eye could reach. On the evening of the 26th they reached the plain west of the mountain, watered by the Malade, the Boisee, and other streams, which comprised the contemplated trapping-ground.
The country about the Boisee (or Woody) River is extolled by Captain Bonneville as the most enchanting he had seen in the Far West, presenting the mingled grandeur and beauty of mountain and plain, of bright running streams and vast grassy meadows waving to the breeze.
We shall not follow the captain throughout his trapping campaign, which lasted until the beginning of June, nor detail all the manoeuvres of the rival trapping parties and their various schemes to outwit and out-trap each other. Suffice it to say that, after having visited and camped about various streams with varying success, Captain Bonneville set forward early in June for the appointed rendezvous at the caches. On the way, he treated his party to a grand buffalo hunt. The scouts had re ported numerous herds in a plain beyond an intervening height. There was an immediate halt; the fleetest horses were forthwith mounted and the party advanced to the summit of the hill. Hence they beheld the great plain below; absolutely swarming with buffalo. Captain Bonneville now appointed the place where he would encamp; and toward which the hunters were to drive the game. He cautioned the latter to advance slowly, reserving the strength and speed of the horses until within a moderate distance of the herds. Twenty-two horsemen descended cautiously into the plain, conformably to these directions. "It was a beautiful sight," says the captain, "to see the runners, as they are called, advancing in column, at a slow trot, until within two hundred and fifty yards of the outskirts of the herd, then dashing on at full speed until lost in the immense multitude of buffaloes scouring the plain in every direction." All was now tumult and wild confusion. In the meantime Captain Bonneville and the residue of the party moved on to the appointed camping ground; thither the most expert runners succeeded in driving numbers of buffalo, which were killed hard by the camp, and the flesh transported thither without difficulty. In a little while the whole camp looked like one great slaughter-house; the carcasses were skilfully cut up, great fires were made, scaffolds erected for drying and jerking beef, and an ample provision was made for future subsistence. On the 15th of June, the precise day appointed for the rendezvous, Captain Bonneville and his party arrived safely at the caches.
Here he was joined by the other detachments of his main party, all in good health and spirits. The caches were again opened, supplies of various kinds taken out, and a liberal allowance of aqua vitae distributed throughout the camp, to celebrate with proper conviviality this merry meeting.