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Heroines of the Rocky Mountains - Page 3

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"At first we imagined the parent, whether male or female, had thus roughly buried the child -- a consolatory assumption which Augur-eye soon destroyed. Scraping away the sand partially hiding the dead boy, he placed his finger on a deep cleft in the skull, which told at once its own miserable tale. This discovery clearly proved that the old guide was correct in his readings, that the savages were following up the trail of the survivors. A man who had escaped and just joined us, appeared so utterly terror-stricken at this discovery, that it was with difficulty he could be supported on his horse by the strong troopers who rode beside him. We tarried not for additional signs, but pushed on with all possible haste. The trail was rough, stony, and over a ledge of basaltic rocks, rendering progression not only tedious but difficult and dangerous; a false step of the horse, and the result might have proved fatal to the rider. The guide spurs on his Indian mustang, that like a goat scrambles over the craggy track; for a moment or two he disappears, being hidden by a jutting rock; we hear him yell a sort of 'war-whoop,' awakening the echoes in the encircling hills; reckless of falling, we too spur on, dash round the splintered point, and slide rather than canter down a shelving bank, to reach a second sand-beach, over which the guide is galloping and shouting. We can see the fluttering garments of a girl, who is running with all her might towards the pine trees; she  disappears amongst the thick foliage of the underbrush ere the guide can come up to her, but leaping from off his horse, he follows her closely, and notes the spot wherein she has hidden herself amidst a tangle of creeping vines and maple bushes. He awaited our coming, and, motioning us to surround the place of concealment quickly, remained still as a statue whilst we arranged our little detachment so as to preclude any chance of an escape. Then gliding noiselessly as a reptile through the bushes, he was soon hidden. It appeared a long time, although not more than a few minutes had elapsed from our losing sight of him, until a shrill cry told us something was discovered. Dashing into the midst of the underbrush, a strange scene presented itself. The hardy troopers seemed spell-bound, neither was I the less astonished.

 

"Huddled closely together, and partially covered with branches, crouched two women and the little girl whose flight had led to this unlooked-for discovery. In a state barely removed from that of nudity, the unhappy trio strove to hide themselves from the many staring eyes which were fixed upon them, not for the purpose of gratifying an indecent curiosity, but simply because no one had for the moment realized the condition in which the unfortunates were placed.

 

Soon, however, the fact was evident to the soldiers that the women were nearly unclad, and all honor to their rugged goodness, they stripped off their thick topcoats, and throwing them to the trembling females, turned every one away and receded into the bush. It was enough that the faces of the men were white which had presented themselves so unexpectedly. The destitute fugitives, assured that the savages had not again discovered them, hastily wrapped themselves in the coats of the soldiers, and, rushing out from their lair, knelt down, and clasping their arms round my knees, poured out thanks to the Almighty for their deliverance with a fervency and earnestness terrible to witness. I saw, on looking round me, streaming drops trickling over the sunburnt faces of many of the men, whose iron natures it was not easy to disturb under ordinary circumstances.

 

"It was soon explained to the fugitives that they were safe, and as every hour's delay was a dangerous waste of time, the rescued women and child were as carefully clad in the garments of the men as circumstances permitted, and placed on horses, with a hunter riding on either side to support them. Thus reinforced, the cavalcade, headed by Augur-eye, moved slowly back to the place where we had left the pack-train encamped, with all the necessary supplies. I lingered behind to examine the place wherein the women had concealed themselves. The boughs of the vine-maple, together with other slender shrubs constituting the underbrush, had been rudely woven together, forming, at best, but a very inefficient shelter from the wind, which swept in freezing currents through the valley. Had it rained, they must soon have been drenched, or if snow had fallen heavily, the 'wickey' house and its occupants soon would have been buried. How had they existed? This was a question I was somewhat puzzled to answer.

 

"On looking round I observed a man's coat, pushed away under some branches, and on the few smoldering embers by which the women had been sitting when the child rushed in and told of our coming, was a small tin pot with a cover on it, the only utensil visible. Whilst occupied in making the discoveries I was sickened by a noisome stench, which proceeded from the dead body of a man, carefully hidden by branches, grass, and moss, a short distance from the little cage of twisted boughs. Gazing on the dead man a suspicion too revolting to mention suddenly flashed upon me. Turning away saddened and horror-stricken, I returned to the cage and removed the cover from the saucepan, the contents of which confirmed my worst fears. Hastily quitting the fearful scene, the like of which I trust never to witness again, I mounted my horse and galloped after the party, by this time some distance ahead.

 

 

 

"Two men and the guide were desired to find the spot where the scouting parties were to meet each other, and to bring them with all speed to the mule camp. It was nearly dark when we reached our destination, the sky looked black and lowering, the wind appeared to be increasing in force, and small particles of half-frozen rain drove smartly against our faces, telling in pretty plain language of the coming snowfall.

 

Warm tea, a good substantial meal, and suitable clothes, which had been sent in case of need by the officers' wives stationed at the 'Post,' worked wonders in the way of restoring bodily weakness; but the shock to the mental system time alone could alleviate. I cannot say I slept much during the night. Anxiety lest we might be snowed in, and a fate almost as terrible as that from which we had rescued the poor women, should be the lot of all, sat upon me like a nightmare. More than this, the secret I had discovered seemed to pall every sense and sicken me to the heart, and throughout the silent hours of the dismal darkness I passed in review the ghostly pageant of the fight and all its horrors, the escape of the unhappy survivors, the finding of the murdered boy and starving women, and more than all--the secret I had rather even now draw a veil over, and leave to the imagination."

 

Indian Warriors

Indian Warriors

Image available for photo prints & editorial downloads HERE.

A fugitive woman in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains is indeed an object of pity; but when she boldly faces the dangers that surround her in such a position, and succeeds by her courage, endurance, and ingenuity in holding her own, and finally extricating herself from the perils by which she is environed, she may fairly challenge our admiration. Such a woman was Miss Janette Riker, who proved how strong is the spirit of self-reliance which animates the daughters of the border under circumstances calculated to daunt and depress the stoutest heart.

 

The Riker family, consisting of Mr. Riker, his two sons, and his daughter Janette, passed through the Dakota country in 1849, and late in September had penetrated to the heart of the mountains in the territory now known as Montana. Before pursuing their journey from this point to their destination in Oregon, they encamped for three days in a well-grassed valley for the purpose of resting their cattle, and adding to their stock of provisions a few buffalo-humps and tongues.

 

Successful buffalo hunt,

Successful buffalo hunt,

 

On the second day after their arrival at this spot, the father and his two sons set out on their buffalo hunt with the expectation of returning before nightfall. But the sun set and darkness came without bringing them back to the lonely girl, who in sleepless anxiety awaited their return all night seated beneath the white top of the Conestoga wagon. At early dawn she started on their trail, which she followed for several miles to a deep gorge where she lost all trace of the wanderers, and was after a long and unavailing search compelled in the utmost grief and distraction of mind, to return to the camp.

 

For a week she spent her whole time in seeking to find some trace of her missing kinsmen, but without success. As the lonely maiden gazed at the mighty walls which frowned upon her and barred her egress east and west from her prison-house, hope died away in her heart, and she prayed for speedy death. This mood was but momentary; the love of life soon asserted its power, and she cast about her for some means whereby she could either extricate herself from her perilous situation, or at least prolong her existence.

 

To attempt to find her way over the mountains seemed to her impossible. Her only course was to provide a shelter against the winter, and stay where she was until discovered by some passing hunters, or by Indians, whom she feared less than an existence spent in such solitude and surrounded by so many dangers.

 

Axes and spades among the farming implements in the wagon supplied her with the necessary tools, and by dint of assiduous labor, to which her frame had long been accustomed, she contrived to build, in a few weeks, a rude hut of poles and small logs. Stuffing the interstices with dried grass, and banking up the earth around it, she threw over it the wagon-top, which she fastened firmly to stakes driven in the ground, and thus provided a shelter tolerably rain-tight and weather-proof.

Thither she conveyed the stoves and other contents of the wagon. The oxen, straying through the valley, fattened themselves on the sweet grass until the snow fell; she then slaughtered and flayed the fattest one, and cutting up the carcass, packed it away for winter's use. Dry logs and limbs of trees, brought together and chopped up with infinite labor, sufficed to keep her in fuel. Although for nearly three months she was almost completely buried in the snow, she managed to keep alive and reasonably comfortable by making an orifice for the smoke to escape, and digging out fuel from the drift which covered her wood-pile. Her situation was truly forlorn, but still preferable to the risk of being devoured by wolves or mountain lions, which, attracted by the smell of the slaughtered ox, had begun to prowl around her shelter before the great snow fall, but were now unable to reach her beneath the snowy bulwarks. She suffered more, however, from the effect of the spring thaw which flooded her hut with water and forced her to shift her quarters to the wagon, which she covered with the cotton top, after removing thither her blankets and provisions. The valley was overflowed by the melting of the snows, and for two weeks she was unable to build a fire, subsisting on uncooked Indian meal and raw beef, which she had salted early in the winter.

Late in April, she was found in the last stages of exhaustion, by a party of Indians, who kindly relieved her wants and carried her across the mountains with her household goods, and left her at the Walla Walla station. This act on the part of the savages, who were a wild and hostile tribe, was due to their admiration for the hardihood of the "young white woman," who had maintained herself through the rigors of the winter and early spring in that awful solitude--a feat which, they said, none of their own women would have dared perform. The fate of her father and brothers was never ascertained, though it was conjectured that they had either lost their way or had fallen from a precipice.

Miss Riker afterwards married, and, as a pioneer wife, found a sphere of usefulness for which her high qualities of character admirably fitted her.

 

 

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