In A Trapper’s Bivouac

 

Returning to Camp, 1880

By Henry Inman and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, 1898

The majority of old-time trappers and scouts always had an inexhaustible fund of anecdote and adventure. Stories were often told at night when the day’s duty of making the round of the traps was done, the beaver skinned, and the pelts hung up to cure. Their simple supper disposed, and being comfortably seated around their fire of blazing logs, each one of them indulged, as a preliminary, in his favorite manner of smoking. Some adhered to the traditional clay pipe, others, more fastidious, used nothing less expensive than a meerschaum. Many, however, were satisfied with a simple cigarette with its covering of corn husk. This was Kit Carson’s usual method of smoking, and he was an inveterate partaker of the weed. Frequently there was no real tobacco to be found in the camp; either its occupants had exhausted their supply, or the traders had failed to bring enough at the last rendezvous to go round.

Then they were compelled to resort to the substitutes of the Indians. Among some tribes the bark of the red willow, dried and bruised, was used; others, particularly the mountain savages, smoked the genuine kin-nik-i-nick, a little evergreen vine growing on the tops of the highest elevations, and known as larb.

It was a rare treat to come across one of those solitary camps when out on a prolonged hunt, for the visitor was certain of a cordial welcome, and everything the generous men had was freely at your service. The crowning pleasure came at night when stories were told under the silvery pines, with troops of stars overhead, around a glowing campfire, until the lateness of the hour warned all that it was time to roll up in their robes if they intended to court sleep.

Let the reader, in fancy, accompany us to some thunder-splintered cañon of the great rock-ribbed Continental Divide, and when the shadows of the night come walking along the mountains, seek one of these sequestered camps, take our place in the magic circle, and listen to wondrous tales as they are passed around. There is nothing to disturb the magnificent silence save an occasional soughing of the fitful breeze in the tops of the towering pines, or the gentle babbling of some tiny rivulet as its water soothingly flows over the rounded pebbles in its bed. There is a charm in the environment of such a spot that will photograph its picture on the memory as the gem of all the varied experiences of a checkered life.

One of the best raconteurs was Old Hatcher, as he was known throughout the mountains. He was a famous trapper of the late ’40s. Hatcher was thoroughly Western in all his gestures, moods, and dialect. He had a fund of stories of an amusing, and often of a marvelous cast. It was never any trouble to persuade him to relate some of the scenes in his wayward, ever-changing life; particularly if you warmed him up with a good-sized bottle of whiskey, of which he was inordinately fond.

When telling a story he invariably kept his pipe in his mouth, using his hands to cut from a solid plug of Missouri tobacco, whenever his pipe showed signs of exhaustion. He also fixed his eyes on some imaginary object in the blaze of the fire, and his countenance indicated a concentration of thought as if to call back from the shadowy past the coming tale, the more attractive, perhaps, by its extreme improbability.

He declared that he once visited the realms of Pluto, and no one ever succeeded in disabusing his mind of the illusion.

The story is here presented just as he used to tell it, but divested of much of its dialect, so hard to read, and much more difficult to write:

Bent's Fort, Colorado by Kathy Weiser.

Bent’s Fort, Colorado by Kathy Weiser.

“Well!” beginning with a vigorous pull at his pipe. “I had been down to Bent’s Fort to get some powder, lead, and a few things I needed at the beginning of the buffalo season. I remained there for some time waiting for a caravan to come from the States which was to bring the goods I wanted. Things were wonderfully high; it took a beaver-skin for a plug of tobacco, three for a cup of powder, and other knick-knacks in proportion. Jim Finch, an old trapper that went under by the Utes near the Sangre de Cristo Pass, a few years ago, had told me there was lots of beaver on the Purgatoire. Nobody knew it; all thought the creeks had been cleaned out of the varmints.

So down I goes to the cañon, and sot my traps. I was all alone by myself, and I’ll be darned if ten Injuns didn’t come a screeching right after me. I cached. I did, and the darned red devils made for the open prairie with my animals. I tell you, I was mad, but I kept hid for more than an hour. Suddenly I heard a tramping in the bushes, and in breaks my little gray mule. Thinks I them ‘Rapahoes ain’t smart; so tied her to grass. But the Injuns had scared the beaver so, I stay in my camp, eating my lariat. Then I began to get kind o’ wolfish and squeamish; something was gnawing and pulling at my inwards, like a wolf in a trap. Just then an idea struck me, that I had been there before trading liquor with the Ute.

“I looked around for sign, and hurrah for the mountains if I didn’t find the cache! And now if I didn’t kiss the rock that I had pecked with my butcher-knife to mark the place, I’m ungrateful. Maybe the gravel wasn’t scratched up from that place, and to me as would have given all my traps for some Taos lightning, just rolled in the delicious fluid.

“I was weaker than a goat in the spring, but when the Taos was opened, I fell back and let it run in. In four swallows I concluded to pull up stakes for the headwaters of the Purgatoire for meat. So I roped old Blue, tied on my traps, and left.

“It used to be the best place in the mountains for meat, but nothing was in sight. Things looked mighty strange, and I wanted to make the back track; but, says I, here I am, and I don’t turn, surely.

“The bushes were all scorched and curly and the cedar was like fire had been put to it. The big, brown rocks was covered with black smoke, and the little drink in the bottom of the cañon was dried up. I was now most under the old twin peaks of ‘Wa-te-yah’; the cold snow on top looking mighty cool and refreshing.

“Something was wrong; I must be shoving backward, I thought, and that before long, or I’d go under, so I jerked the rein, but I’ll be dog-goned, and it’s true as there’s meat running, Blue kept going forward. I laid back and cussed and kicked till I saw blood, certain. Then I put out my hand for my knife to kill the beast, but the ‘Green River’ wouldn’t come. I tell you some invisible spirit had a paw there, and it’s me that says it, ‘bad medicine’ it was, that trapping time.

“Loosing my pistol, the one I traded at Big Horn, the time I lost my Ute wife, and priming my rifle, I swore to keep right on; for after staying ten years in these mountains, to be fooled this way wasn’t the game for me no how.

Old Trapper

“Well, we, I say, ‘we,’ for Blue was some — as good as a man any day; I could talk to her, and she’d turn her head as if she understood me. Mules are knowing critters — next to human. At a sharp corner, Blue snorted, and turned her head, but couldn’t go back. There, in front, was a level cañon with walls of black and brown and gray stone, and stumps of burned piñon hung down ready to fall onto us; and, as we passed, the rocks and trees shook and grated and croaked. All at once Blue tucked her tail, backed her ears, bowed her neck, and squealed right out, a-rearing on her hind legs, a-pawing, and snickering. This hoss didn’t see the cute of them notions; he was for examining, so I goes to jump off and lam the fool; but I was stuck tight as if there was tar on the saddle. I took my gun, that there iron, my rifle, and pops Blue over the head, but she squealed and dodged, all the time pawing; but it wasn’t no use, and I says, ‘you didn’t cost more than two blankets when you was traded from the Utes, and two blankets ain’t worth more than two beaver-skins at Bent’s Fort, which comes to two dollars a pair, you consarned ugly pictur — darn you, anyhow!’ Just then I heard a laughing. I looks up, and two black critters — they wasn’t human, sure, for they had black tails and red coats — Indian cloth, cloth like that traded to the Indians, edged with white, shiny stuff, and brass buttons.

“They come forward and made two low bows. I felt for my scalp-knife, for I thought they was approaching to take me, but I couldn’t use it — they was so darned polite.

“One of the devils said, with a grin and bow, ‘Good-morning, Mr. Hatcher!’

“‘H — — !’ says I, ‘how do you know me? I swear this hoss never saw you before.’

“‘Oh, we’ve expected you a long time,’ said the other, ‘and we are quite happy to see you — we’ve known you ever since your arrival in the mountains.’

“I was getting sort of scared. I wanted a drop of Taos mighty bad, but the bottle was gone, and I looked at them in astonishment and said — ‘The devil!’

“‘Hush!’ screamed one, ‘you must not say that here — keep still, you will see him presently.’

“I felt streaked, and a cold sweat broke out all over me. I tried to say my prayers, as I used to at home when they made me turn in at night — “‘Now I lay me.’

“Pshaw! I’m off again, I can’t say it; but if this child could have got off his animal, he’d took hair and gone down the trail for Purgatoire.

“All this time the long-tailed devils was leading my animal, and me top of her, the biggest fool dug out, up the same cañon. The rocks on the sides was pecked smooth as a beaver-skin, ribbed with the grain, and the ground was covered with bits of cedar, like a cavayard of mules had been nipping and scattering them about. Overhead it was roofed, leastwise it was dark in here, and only a little light come through the holes in the rock. I thought I knew where we was, and eeched awfully to talk, but I sot still and didn’t ask any questions.

Trapper

Trapper

“Presently we were stopped by a dead wall. No opening anywhere. When the devils turned from me, I jerked my head around quick, but there was no place to get out — the wall had growed up behind us too. I was mad, and I wasn’t mad neither; for I expected the time had come for this child to go under. So I let my head fall on my breast, and I pulled the wool hat over my eyes, and thought for the last of the beaver I had trapped, and the buffalo as had taken my lead pills in their livers, and the poker and euchre I’d played at the Rendezvous at Bent’s Fort. I felt comfortable as eating fat cow to think I hadn’t cheated anyone.

“All at once the cañon got bright as day. I looked up, and there was a room with lights and people talking and laughing, and fiddles screeching. Dad, and the preacher at home when I was a boy told me the fiddle was the devil’s invention; I believe it now.

“The little fellow as had hold of my animal squeaked out — ‘Get off your mule, Mr. Hatcher!’

“‘Get off!’ said I, for I was mad as a bull pricked with Comanche lances, for his disturbing me. ‘Get off? I have been trying to, ever since I came into this infernal hole.’

“‘You can do so now. Be quick, for the company is waiting,’ says he, pert-like.

“They all stopped talking and were looking right at me. I felt riled. ‘Darn your company. I’ve got to lose my scalp anyhow, and no difference to me — but to oblige you’ — so I slid off as easy as if I had never been stuck.

“A hunchback boy, with little gray eyes in his head, took old Blue away. I might never see her again, and I shouted — ‘Poor Blue! Good-by, Blue!’

“The young devil snickered; I turned around mighty stern — ‘Stop your laughing, you hell-cat — if I am alone, I can take you,’ and I grabbed for my knife to wade into his liver; but it was gone — gun, bullet-pouch, and pistol, like mules in a stampede.

“I stepped forward with a big fellow, with hair frizzled out like an old buffalo just before shedding time; and the people jawing worse than a cavayard of paroquets, stopped, while frizzly shouted: — “‘Mr. Hatcher, formerly of Wapakonnetta, latterly of the Rocky Mountains.’

“Well, there I stood. Things were mighty strange, and every darned n***er of them looked so pleased like. To show them manners, I said, ‘How are you?’ and I went to bow, but chaw my last tobacco if I could, my breeches were so tight — the heat way back in the cañon had shrunk them. They were too polite to notice it, and I felt for my knife to rip the dog-goned things, but recollecting the scalp-taker was stolen, I straightens up and bowed my head. A kind-looking, smallish old gentleman, with a black coat and breeches, and a bright, cute face, and gold spectacles, walks up and pressed my hand softly.

“‘How do you do, my dear friend? I have long expected you. You cannot imagine the pleasure it gives me to meet you at home. I have watched your peregrinations in the busy, tiresome world with much interest. Sit down, sit down; take a chair,’ and he handed me one.

“I squared myself on it, but if a ten-pronged buck wasn’t done sucking when I last sot on a chair, and I squirmed awhile, uneasy as a gun-shot coyote; then I jumps up and tells the old gentleman them sort of fixings didn’t suit this beaver, he prefers the floor. I sets cross-legged like in camp, as easy as eating meat. I reached for my pipe — a fellow so used to it — but the devils in the cañon had cached that too.

Trappers and Hunters

Trappers and Hunters

“‘You wish to smoke, Mr. Hatcher? — we will have cigars. Here!’ he called to an imp near him, ‘some cigars.’

“They was brought in on a waiter, about the size of my bullet-pouch. I empties them into my hat, for good cigars ain’t to be picked up on the prairie every day, but looking at the old man, I saw something was wrong. To be polite, I ought to have taken but one.

“‘I beg pardon,’ says I, scratching my scalp, ‘this hoss didn’t think — he’s been so long in the mountains he’s forgot civilized doings,’ and I shoved the hat to him.

“‘Never mind,’ says he, waving his hand and smiling faintly, ‘get others,’ speaking to the boy alongside of him.

“The old gentleman took one and touched his finger to the end of my cigar — it smoked as if fire had been sot to it.

“‘Waugh! the devil!’ screams I, darting back.

“‘The same!’ chimed in he, biting off the little end of his, and bowing, and spitting it out, ‘the same, sir.’

“‘The same! what?’

“‘Why — the devil.’
“‘H–l! this ain’t the hollow tree for this coon — I’ll be making medicine,’ so I offers my cigar to the sky and to the earth, like an Injun.

“‘You must not do that here — out upon such superstition,’ says he, sharp-like.

“‘Why?’

“‘Don’t ask so many questions — come with me,’ rising to his feet, and walking off slow and blowing his cigar-smoke over his shoulder in a long line, and I gets alongside of him. ‘I want to show you my establishment — you did not expect to find this down here, eh?’

“My breeches was all-fired stiff with the heat in the cañon, and my friend, seeing it, said, ‘Your breeches are tight; allow me to place my hand on them.’

“He rubbed his fingers up and down once, and by beaver, they got as soft as when I traded them from the Pi-Utes on the Gila.

“I now felt as brave as a buffalo in the spring. The old man was so clever, and I walked alongside of him like an old acquaintance. We soon stopped before a stone door, and it opened without touching.

“‘Here’s damp powder, and no fire to dry it,’ shouts I, stopping.

“‘What’s the matter; do you not wish to perambulate through my possessions?’

“‘This hoss doesn’t savey what the human for perambulate is, but I’ll walk plum to the hottest fire in your settlement, if that’s all you mean.’

Brown's Hole cabin

Brown’s Hole cabin

“The place was hot, and smelt of brimstone; but the darned screeching took me. I walks up to the other end of the lodge, and steal my mule, if there wasn’t Jake Beloo, as trapped with me to Brown’s Hole! A lot of hell-cats was a-pulling at his ears, and a-jumping on his shoulders, and swinging themselves to the ground by his long hair. Some was running hot irons into him, but when we came up they went off in a corner, laughing and talking like wildcats’ gibberish on a cold night.

“Poor Jake! he came to the bar, looking like a sick buffalo in the eye. The bones stuck through his skin, and his hair was matted and long, all over, just like a blind bull, and white blisters spotted him. ‘Hatch, old fellow! you here too? — how are you?’ says he, in a faint-like voice, staggering and catching on to the bar for support — ‘I’m sorry to see you here; what did you do?’ He raised his eyes to the old man standing behind me, who gave him such a look, he went howling and foaming at the mouth to the fur end of the den and fell down, rolling over the damp stones. The devils, who was chuckling by a furnace where was irons a-heating, approached easy, and run one into his back. I jumped at them and hollered, ‘You owdacious little hell-pups, let him alone; if my scalp-taker was here, I’d make buzzard feed of your meat, and parfleche of your dog-skins,’ but they squeaked out, to ‘go to the devil.’

“‘Waugh!’ says I, ‘if I ain’t pretty close to his lodge, I’m a n***er!’

“The old gentleman speaks up, ‘Take care of yourself, Mr. Hatcher,’ in a mighty soft kind voice, and he smiled so calm and devilish — it nigh froze me. I thought if the ground would open with an earthquake, and take me in, I’d be much obliged anyhow. Thinks I, ‘You saint-for-saken, infernal hell-chief, how I’d like to stick my knife in your withered old bread-basket.’

“‘Ah! my dear fellow, no use trying — that’s a decided impossibility.’ I jumped ten feet. I swear a medicine-man couldn’t a-heard me, for my lips didn’t move, and how he knew is more than this hoss can tell.

“‘I see your nervous equilibrium is destroyed; come with me.’

“At the other side the old gentleman told me to reach down for a brass knob. I thought a trick was going to be played on me, and I dodged.

“‘Do not be afraid; turn it when you pull; steady; there, that’s it.’ It came, and a door shut of itself.

“‘Mighty good hinges!’ said I, ‘don’t make any noise, and go shut without slamming and cussing them.’

“‘Yes — yes! some of my own importation. No, they were never made here.’

Old trapper

Old trapper

“It was dark at first, but whenever the other door opened, there was too much light. In another room there was a table in the middle, with two bottles, and little glasses like them in St. Louis at the drink-houses, only prettier. A soft, thick carpet was on the floor, and a square glass lamp hung from the ceiling. I sat cross-legged on the floor, and he on a sofa, his feet cocked on a chair, and his tail coiled under him, comfortable as traders in a lodge. He hollered something, I couldn’t make out, and in comes two black crook-shanked devils with a round bench and a glass with cigars in it. They vamosed, and the old coon, inviting me to take a cigar, helps himself, and reared his head back, while I sorter lays on the floor, and we smoked and talked.

“‘But have we not been sitting long enough? Take a fresh cigar, and we will walk. That was Purgatory where your quondam friend, Jake Beloo, is. He will remain there awhile longer, and, if you desire it can go, though it cost much exertion to entice him here, and then only after he had drunk hard.’

“‘I wish you would, sir. Jake was as good a companion as ever trapped beaver, or gnawed poor bull in the spring, and he treated his Indian wife as if she was a white woman.’

“‘For your sake I will; we may see others of our acquaintance before leaving this,’ says he, sorter queer-like, as if to mean, no doubt of it.

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