Every man had to take his turn in standing guard, and the first night that it fell to young Wooton was at Little Cow Creek, in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. Nothing had occurred thus far during the trip to imperil the safety of the caravan, nor was any attack by the Indians looked for.
Wooton’s post comprehended the whole length of one side of the corral, and his instructions were to shoot anything he saw moving outside of the line of mules farthest from the wagons. The young sentry was very vigilant. He did not feel at all sleepy but eagerly watched for something that might possibly come within the prescribed distance, though not really expecting such a contingency.
About two o’clock he heard a slight noise and saw something moving about, some 60-70 yards from where he was lying on the ground, to which he had dropped the moment the strange sound reached his ears. Of course, his first thoughts were of Indians, and the more he peered through the darkness at the slowly moving object, the more convinced he was that it must be a blood-thirsty warrior.
He rose to his feet and blazed away, the shot rousing everybody, and all came rushing with their guns to learn what the matter was.
Wooton told the wagon-master that he had seen what he supposed was an Indian trying to slip up to the mules, and that he had killed him. Some of the men crept very circumspectly to the spot where the supposed dead Indian was lying, while young Wooton remained at his post eagerly waiting for their report. Presently he heard a voice cry out: “I’ll be d—d ef he hain’t killed ‘Old Jack!”‘ “Old Jack” was one of the lead mules of one of the wagons. He had torn up his picket-pin and strayed outside of the lines, with the result that the faithful brute met his death at the hands of the sentry. Wooton declared that he was not to be blamed; for the animal had disobeyed orders, while he had strictly observed them!
At Pawnee Fork, a few days later, the caravan had a genuine tussle with the Comanche. It was a bright moonlight night, and about 200 of the mounted Indians attacked them. It was a rare thing for Indians to begin a raid after dark, but they swept down on the unsuspecting teamsters, yelling like a host of demons. They were armed with bows and arrows generally, though a few of them had fusees (a fire-lock musket with an immense bore).
They received a warm greeting, although they were not expected, the guard noticing the Indians in time to prevent a stampede of the animals, which evidently was the sole purpose for which they came, as they did not attempt to break through the corral to get at the wagons. It was the mules they were after. They charged among the men, vainly endeavoring to frighten the animals and make them break loose, discharging showers of arrows as they rode by. The camp was too hot for them, however, defended as it was by old teamsters who had made the dangerous passage of the plains many times before, and were up to all the Indian tactics. They failed to get a single mule, but paid for their temerity by leaving three of their party dead, just where they had been tumbled off their horses, not even having time to carry the bodies off, as they usually do. Kit Carson, ten years before, when on his first journey, met with the same adventure while on post at Pawnee Rock, Kansas.
Wooton passed sometime during the early days of his career at Bent’s Fort, Colorado in 1836-37. He was a great favorite with both of the proprietors, and with them went to several Indian villages, where he learned the art of trading with the Indians.
The winters of the years mentioned were noted for the incursions of the Pawnee into the region of the fort. They always pretended friendship for the whites, when any of them were inside of its sacred precincts, but their whole manner changed when they by some stroke of fortune caught a trapper or hunter alone on the prairie or in the foothills; he was a dead man sure, and his scalp was soon dangling at the belt of his cowardly assassins. Hardly a day passed without witnessing some poor fellow running for the fort with a band of the red devils after him; frequently he escaped the keen edge of their scalping-knife, but every once in a while a man was killed. At one time, two herders who were with their animals within fifty yards of the fort, going out to the grazing ground, were killed and every hoof of stock run off.
A party from the fort, comprising only eight men, among whom was young Wooton, made up for lost time with the Indians, at the crossing of Pawnee Fork, the same place where he had had his first fight. The men had set out from the fort for the purpose of meeting a small caravan of wagons from the East, loaded with supplies for Bent’s Fort. It happened that a band of s16 Pawnee warriors were watching for the arrival of the train, too. Wooton’s party were well mounted, while the Pawnees were on foot, and although the Indians were two to one, the advantage was decidedly in favor of the whites.
The Indians were armed with bows and arrows only, and while it was an easy matter for the whites to keep out of the way of the shower of missiles which the Indians commenced to hurl at them, the latter became an easy prey to the unerring rifles of their assailants, who killed 13 out of the 16 in a very short time. The remaining three took leave of their comrades at the beginning of the conflict and abandoning their arms rushed up to the caravan, which was just appearing over a small divide, and gave themselves up. The Indian custom was observed in their case, although it was rarely that any prisoners were taken in these conflicts on the Santa Fe Trail. Another curious custom was also followed. When the party encamped they were well fed, and the next morning supplied with rations enough to last them until they could reach one of their villages, and sent off to tell their head chief what had become of the rest of his warriors.
As he expected, the Ute followed on his trail and came up with his little party on a prairie where there was not the slightest chance to ambush or hide. They had to fight, because they could not help it, but resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible, as the Ute outnumbered them twenty to one; Wooton having only eight men with him, including the Shawnee.
The pack-animals, of which they had a great many, loaded with the goods intended for the Indians, were corralled in a circle, inside of which the men hurried themselves and awaited the first assault of the foe. In a few moments, the Ute began to circle around the trappers and open fire. The trappers promptly responded, and they made every shot count; for all of the men, not even excepting the Shawnee, were experts with the rifle. They did not mind the arrows which the Ute showered upon them, as few, if any, reached to where they stood. The Indians had a few guns, but they were of the poorest quality and they did not know how to handle them then as they learned to do later, so their bullets were almost as harmless as their arrows.