In A Trapper’s Bivouac

“The door of the room we had been talking in shut of its own accord. We stooped, and he touched a spring in the wall, a trap-door flew open, showing a flight of steps. He went first, cautioning me not to slip on the dark stairs; but I shouted not to mind me, but thanked him for telling me, though.

“We went down and down, until I began to think the old cuss was going to get me safe too, so I sung out — ‘Hello! which way; we must be mighty nigh under Wah-to-yah, we’ve been going on so long?’

“‘Yes,’ said he, much astonished; ‘we’re just under the Twins. Why, turn and twist you ever so much, you do not lose your reckoning.’

“‘Not by a long chalk! This child had his bringing-up at Wapakonnetta, and that’s a fact.’

“From the bottom we went on in a dampish sort of a passage, gloomily lit up with one candle. The grease was running down the block that had an auger-hole bored in it for a candlestick, and the long snuff to the end was red, and the blaze clung to it as if it hated to part company, and turned black, and smoked at the point in mourning. The cold chills shook me, and the old gentleman kept so still, the echoes of my feet rolled back so solemn and hollow, I wanted liquor mighty bad — mighty bad!

Comanche Painting

Comanche Painting

“There was a noise smothered-like, and some poor fellow would cry out worse than Comanche a-charging. A door opened, and the old gentleman touching me on the back, I went in and he followed. It flew to, and though I turned right around, to look for a sign to escape, if the place got too hot, I couldn’t find it.

“‘What now, are you dissatisfied?’

“‘Oh, no! I was just looking to see what sort of a lodge you have.’

“‘I understand you perfectly, sir; be not afraid.’

“My eyes were blinded in the light, but rubbing them, I saw two big snakes coming at me, their yellow and blood-shot eyes shining awfully, and their big red tongues darting backwards and forwards, like a panther’s paw when he slaps it on a deer, and their jaws wide open, showing long, slim, white fangs. On my right four ugly animals jumped at me, and rattled their chains — I swear their heads were bigger than a buffalo’s in summer. The snakes hissed and showed their teeth, and lashed their tails, and the dogs howled and growled and charged, and the light from the furnace flashed out brighter and brighter; and above me, and around me, a hundred devils yelled and laughed and swore and spit, and snapped their bony fingers in my face, and leaped up to the ceiling into the black, long spider-webs, and rode on the spiders which were bigger than a powder-horn, and jumped onto my head. Then they all formed in line, and marched and hooted and yelled; and when the snakes joined the procession, the devils leaped on their backs and rode. Then some smaller ones rocked up and down on springing boards, and when the snakes came opposite, darted way up in the air and dived down their mouths, screeching like so many Pawnee Indians for scalps. When the snakes was in front of us, the little devils came to the end of the snakes’ tongues, laughing and dancing, and singing like idiots. Then the big dogs jumped clean over us, growling louder than a cavayard of a grizzly bear, and the devils, holding on to their tails, flopped over my head, screaming — ‘We’ve got you — we’ve got you at last!’

“I couldn’t stand it no longer, and shutting my eyes, I yelled right out and groaned.

“‘Be not alarmed,’ and my friend drew his fingers along my head and back, and pulled a little narrow black flask from his pocket, with — ‘Here, take some of this.’

“I swallowed a few drops. It tasted sweetish and bitterish — I don’t exactly know how, but as soon as it was down, I jumped up five times and yelled ‘Out of the way, you little ones, and let me ride’; and after running alongside, and climbing up his slimy scales, I got straddle of a big snake, who turned his head round, blowing his hot, sickening breath in my face. I waved my old wool hat, and kicking him into a fast run, sung out to the little devils to get up behind, and off we started, screeching, ‘Hurrah for Hell!’ The old gentleman rolled over and bent himself double with laughing, till he pretty nigh choked. We kept going faster and faster till I got on to my feet, although the scales was mighty slippery, and danced Injun, and whooped louder than them all.

“All at once the old gentleman stopped laughing, pulled his spectacles down on his nose, and said, ‘Mr. Hatcher, we had better go now,’ and then he spoke something I couldn’t make out, and all the animals stood still; I slid off, and the little hell-cats, a-pinching my ears and pulling my beard, went off squealing. Then they all formed in a half moon before us — the snakes on their tails, with heads way up to the black cobwebbed roof, the dogs reared on their hind feet, and the little devils hanging everywhere. Then they all roared, and hissed, and screeched several times, and wheeling off, disappeared just as the lights went out, leaving us in the dark.

“‘Mr. Hatcher,’ said the old gentleman again, moving off, ‘you will please amuse yourself until I return’; but seeing me look wild, said, ‘You have seen too much of me to feel alarmed for your own safety. Take this imp for your guide, and if he is impertinent, put him through; and for fear the exhibitions may overcome your nerves, imbibe of this cordial,’ which I did, and everything danced before my eyes, and I wasn’t a bit scared.

Trappers' Campfire by Currier & Ives

Trappers’ Campfire by Currier & Ives

“I started for a red light that came through the crack of a door, and stumbled over a three-legged chair, as I pitched my last cigar-stump to one of the dogs chained to the wall, who caught it in his mouth. When the door was opened by my guide, I saw a big blaze like a prairie fire, red and gloomy; and big black smoke was curling and twisting and spreading, and the flames a-licking the walls, going up to a point, and breaking into a wide blaze, with white and green ends. There was bells a-tolling, and chains a-clinking, and mad howls and screams; but the old gentleman’s medicine made me feel as independent as a trapper with his animals feeding around him, two pack of beaver in camp, with traps sot for more.

“Close to the hot place was a lot of merry devils laughing and shouting, with an old pack of greasy cards — it reminded me of them we used to play with at the Rendezvous — shuffling them to the time of the Devil’s Dream, and Money Musk; then they’d deal in slow time, with the Dead March in Saul, whistling as solemn as medicine-men. Then they broke out sudden with Paddy O’Rafferty, which made this hoss move about in his moccasins so lively that one of them that was playing looked up and said, ‘Mr. Hatcher, won’t you take a hand? Make way, boys, for the gentleman.’

“Down I got amongst them, but stepped on one little fellow’s tail, who had been leading the Irish jig. He hollered till I got off it, ‘Owch! but it’s on my tail ye are!’

“‘Pardon,’ said I, ‘but you are an Irishman!’

“‘No, indeed! I’m a hell-imp, he! he! who-oop! I’m a hell-imp,’ and he laughed and pulled my beard, and screeched till the rest threatened to choke him if he didn’t stop.

“‘What’s trumps?’ said I, ‘and whose deal?’

“‘Here’s my place,’ said one, ‘I’m tired of playing; take a horn,’ handing me a black bottle; ‘the game’s poker, and it’s your next deal — there’s a bigger game of poker on hand’; and picking up an iron rod heating in the fire, he punched a miserable fellow behind the bars, who cussed him and ran away into the blaze out of his reach.

“I thought I was great at poker by the way I gathered in the beaver-skins at the Rendezvous, but here the slick devils beat me without half trying. When they’d slap down a bully pair, they’d screech and laugh worse than trappers on a spree.

“Says one, ‘Mr. Hatcher, I reckon you’re a hoss at poker away in your country, but you can’t shine down here — you ain’t nowhere. That fellow looking at us through the bars was a preacher up in the world. When we first got him, he was all-fired hot and thirsty. We would dip our fingers in water, and let it run in his mouth, to get him to teach us the best tricks — he’s a trump; he would stand and stamp the hot coals, and dance up and down while he told his experience. Whoop-ee! how he would laugh! He has delivered two long sermons of a Sunday, and played poker at night of five-cent antes, with the deacons, for the money bagged that day; and when he was in debt he exhorted the congregation to give more for the poor heathen in a foreign land, a-dying and losing their souls for the want of a little money to send them a gospel preacher — that the poor heathen would be damned to eternal fire if they didn’t make up the dough. The gentleman that showed you around — old Sate, we call him — had his eyes on the preacher for a long time. When we got him, we had a barrel of liquor and carried him around on our shoulders, until tired of the fun, and threw him in the furnace yonder. We call him “Poke,” for that was his favorite game. Oh, Poke,’ shouted my friend, ‘come here; here’s a gentleman who wants to see you — we’ll give you five drops of water, and that’s more than your old skin’s worth.’

“He came close, and though his face was poor, and all scratched, and his hair singed mighty nigh off, make meat of this hoss, if it wasn’t old Cormon, that used to preach in the Wapakonnetta settlement! Many a time he’s made my hair stand on end when he preached about the other world. He came closer, and I could see the chains tied on his wrists, where they had worn to the bone. He looked a darned sight worse than if the Comanches had scalped him.

“‘Hello! old coon,’ said I, ‘we’re both in that awful place you talked so much about; but I ain’t so bad off as you yet. This young gentleman,’ pointing to the devil who told me of his doings — ‘this gentleman has been telling me how you took the money you made us throw in on Sunday.’

“‘Yes,’ said he, ‘if I had only acted as I told others to do, I would not have been scorching here for ever and ever — water! water! John, my son, for my sake, a little water.’

“Just then a little rascal stuck a hot iron into him, and off he ran in the flames, ‘cacheing’ on the cool side of a big chunk of fire, a-looking at us for water; but I cared no more for him than the Pawnee whose scalp was tucked in my belt for stealing my horses on Coon Creek; and I said:

“‘This hoss doesn’t care a cuss for you; you’re a sneaking hypocrite; you deserve all you’ve got and more too — and look here, old boy, it’s me that says so.’

“I strayed off a piece, pretending to get cool, but this hoss began to get scared, and that’s a fact; for the devils carried Cormon until they got tired of him, and, said I to myself, ‘Ain’t they been doing me the same way? I’ll cache, I will.’

Trappers

Trappers

“Well, now, I felt sort of queer, so I saunter along kind o’ slowly, until I saw an open place in the rock, not minding the imps who was drinking away like trappers on a bust. It was so dark there, I felt my way mighty still, for I was afraid they’d be after me. I got almost to a streak of light when there was such a rumpus in the cave that gave me the trembles. Doors was slamming, dogs growling and rattling their chains and all the devils a-screaming. They come a-charging; the snakes was hissing sharp and wiry; the beasts howled long and mournful, and thunder rolled up overhead, and the imps were yelling and screeching like they were mad.

“It was time to break for timber, sure, and I run as if a wounded buffalo was raising my shirt with his horns. The place was damp, and in the narrow rock, lizards and vipers and copperheads jumped out at me and climbed on my legs, but I stamped and shook them off. Owls, too, flopped their wings in my face and hooted at me, and fire blazed out and lit the place up, and brimstone smoke came nigh choking me. Looking back, the whole cavayard of hell was coming; nothing but devils on devils filled the hole!

“I threw down my hat to run faster, and then jerked off my old blanket, but still they was gaining on me. I made one jump clean out of my moccasins. The big snake in front was getting closer and closer, with his head drew back to strike; then a hell-dog run up nearly alongside, panting and blowing with the slobber running out of his mouth, and a lot of devils hanging on to him, who was a-cussing me and screeching. I strained every joint, but it was no use, they still gained — not fast — but gaining. I jumped and swore, and leaned down, and flung out my hands, but the dogs were nearer every time, and the horrid yelling and hissing way back grew louder and louder. At last, a prayer mother used to make me say, I hadn’t thought of for twenty years, came right before me as clear as a powder-horn. I kept running and saying it, and the darned devils held back a little. I gained some on them. I stopped repeating it, to get my breath when the foremost dog made a lunge at me — I had forgotten it.

Turning up my eyes, there was the old gentleman looking at me, and keeping alongside without walking. His face wasn’t more than two feet off, and his eyes was fixed steady, and calm and devilish. I screamed right out. I shut my eyes, but he was there still. I howled and spit, and hit at it, but couldn’t get his darned face away. A dog caught hold of my shirt with his fangs, and two devils, jumping on me, caught me by the throat, a-trying to choke me. While I was pulling them off, I fell down, with about thirty-five of the infernal things and the dogs and the slimy snakes on top of me, a-mashing and tearing me. I bit pieces out of them, and bit again, and scratched and gouged. When I was ‘most give out, I heard the Pawnee scalp-yell, and use my rifle for a poking stick, if in didn’t charge a party of the best boys in the mountains. They slayed the devils right and left, and set them running like goats, but this hoss was so weak fighting he fainted away. When I come to, I was on the Purgatoire, just where I found the liquor, and some trappers was slapping their ‘whats’ in my face to bring me to. All around where I was laying, the grass was pulled up, and the ground dug with my knife, and the bottle, cached when I traded with the Utes, was smashed to flinders against a tree.

“‘Why, what on earth, Hatcher, have you been doing here? You was kicking and tearing around, and yelling as if your scalp was taken. We don’t understand these hifalootin notions.’
“‘The devils of hell was after me,’ said I, mighty gruff. ‘This hoss has seen more of them than he ever wants to see again.’

“They tried to get me out of the notion, but I swear, and I’ll stick to it, I saw a heap more of the all-fired place than I want to again. If it ain’t a fact, I don’t know fat cow from poor bull.”
Hatcher always ended his yarn with this declaration, and you could never make him believe that he had had only a touch of delirium tremens.

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1907

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1907

This story is related by Colonel W. F. Cody:

In 1864 two military expeditions were sent into the northwest country to disperse any hostile gatherings of Indians, one expedition starting from Fort Lincoln on the Missouri River under command of General George A. Custer. It was on this expedition that Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, a discovery which finally led up to the great Sioux war of 1876, when he lost his life in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The other expedition started from Rawlins on the Union Pacific Railway to go north into the Big Horn Basin in the Big Horn Mountain country. This expedition was commanded by Colonel Anson Mills. I was chief scout and guide of the expedition.

One day, when we were on the Great Divide of the Big Horn Mountains, the command had stopped to let the pack-train close up.

While we were resting there, quite a number of officers and myself were talking to Colonel Mills, when we noticed, coming from the direction in which we were going, a solitary horseman about three miles distant.

He was coming from the ridge of the mountains. The colonel asked me if I had any scouts out in that direction, and I told him I had not. We naturally supposed that it was an Indian. He kept drawing nearer and nearer to us, until we made out it was a white man, and as he came on I recognized him to be California Joe.

When he got within hailing distance, I sung out, “Hello, Joe,” and he answered, “Hello, Bill.” I said: “Where in the world are you going to, out in this country?” (We were then about 500 miles from any part of civilization.) He said he was just out for a morning ride. I introduced him to the colonel and officers, who had all heard and read of him, for he had been made famous in Custer’s Life on the Plains. He was a tall man, about six feet three inches in his moccasins, with reddish-gray hair and whiskers, very thin, nothing but bone, sinew, and muscle. He was riding an old cayuse pony, with an old saddle, a very old bridle, and a pair of elk-skin hobbles attached to his saddle, to which also hung a piece of elk meat. He carried an old Hawkins rifle. He had an old shabby army hat on, and a ragged blue army overcoat, a buckskin shirt, and a pair of dilapidated greasy buckskin pants that reached only a little below his knees, having shrunk in the wet; he also wore a pair of old army government boots with the soles worn off. That was his make-up.

Colonel Anson Mills

Colonel Anson Mills

I remember the colonel asking him if he had been very successful in life. He pointed to the old cayuse pony, his gun, and his clothes, and replied, “This is seventy years’ gathering.” Colonel Mills then asked him if he would have anything to eat; he said he had plenty to eat, all he wanted was tobacco. Tobacco was very scarce in the command, but they rounded him up sufficient to do him that day. When invited to go with us, he said he was not particular where he went, he would just as soon go one way as the other; he remained with us several days, in fact, he stayed the entire trip.

He was of great assistance to me, as he knew the country thoroughly. He was a fine mountain guide, but I could seldom find him when I most needed him, as he was generally back with the column, telling frontier stories and yarns to the soldiers for a chew of tobacco.

One day I rode back from the advance guard to ask the colonel how far he wanted to go before camping, and while I was riding along talking to him, we noticed that the advance guard had stopped and were standing in a circle, evidently looking at something very intently. They were so interested that they did not come to their senses until the colonel and myself rode in among them. Then they immediately moved forward, leaving the colonel and myself to see what they had been investigating. It was a lone grave in the desolate mountains, and whoever had been buried there evidently had friends, because the spot was nicely covered with stones to prevent the wolves from digging up the corpse.

We were looking at this grave when old Joe rode up, and as he stopped he threw down his hat on the pile of rocks and said, “At last.”

The colonel said, “Joe, do you know anything about the history of this grave?”

Joe replied — “Well I should think I did.”

The colonel then asked him to tell us about it.

Joe said: — “In 1816” — we didn’t stop to think how far back 1816 was — “I had been to Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River with a company of fur traders, and had been trapping in that country for two or three years, and by that time the party had made up their minds they would start back to the States, across the mountains. They were headed for the Missouri River, and when they got there, they intended to build a boat and float down to St. Louis. As they were coming across the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains, had reached the eastern slope, and were coming down one of the tributaries of the Stinking Water, someone of the party discovered what he thought to be gold nuggets in the bed of the stream. The water was clear. Every man went down to the water prospecting. The stream was so full of gold nuggets that they all jumped off their horses, leaving them packed as they were, and commenced throwing gold nuggets out on the banks.

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1872

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1872

“They abandoned everything they had with them, provisions and all, excepting their rifles, and prepared to load the gold.

“Then they started for the Missouri River again, and when they reached the spot where this grave was, a man was taken suddenly ill, died in a very few minutes, and they buried him there.”

Old Joe gave a sly wink, as much as to say, “We buried the money with the man.”

At this time quite a number of officers gathered around where the advance of the command had halted, and there may have been thirty or forty soldiers listening to this story; there were some who took it to be one of Joe’s lies that he usually told for tobacco.

The colonel ordered the bugler to sound “forward.” The command moved on and within five or six miles went into camp. But every man who had listened to Joe’s story of this grave, feeling that there was some $100,000 buried in it, gave it a look as they passed by.

We moved on and went into camp. Joe was messing with me, and after we had supper he said, “Bill, would you like to see a little fun tonight?” I said, “Yes, tonight for fun or anything else.” He said, “As soon as it gets dark you follow me.” I said, “You bet I will follow you,” thinking all the time that he was going back to dig this fellow up.

As soon as it was dark he started and motioned me to follow him, but, instead of going back on the trail, he went in the direction that we intended to go in the morning. Thinks I to myself, “That is good medicine, we won’t go directly back on the trail but follow another.”

I asked him if we did not want to take a pick and shovel with us, and he said, “What for?” I said, “We will need it.” He said, “No, we won’t need it; you come on.”

When we got outside the camp he commenced to turn around to the left, getting back on our trail. I said, “This is all right.” He was now going back toward the grave. We went about a mile on the trail and he said, “Sit down here.” I said, “Don’t we want to go on?” He said, “What for?” I said, “To dig that fellow up and get the money.” He said, “The money be damned; I never saw the bloomin’ grave before,” or something like that. I was disappointed. He said, “Wait a few minutes until after ‘taps,’ and you will see that camp empty itself.”

Mountain Man

Mountain Man

Presently here they came, scouts, soldiers, and packers by the dozen sneaking through the brush and hurrying back on the trail. Old Joe laid down behind this boulder and just rolled with laughter to see them going to dig up the grave.

The next morning the boys told me that they dug up the grave and found some bones; they dug up a quarter of an acre of ground and never got the color of a piece of gold; then they “tumbled.”

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2018.

Notes and Authors: This article was excerpted from the book, The Great Salt Lake Trail, written by Colonel Henry Inman and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and first published in 1898. Inman was an officer in the U.S. Army and an author dealing with subjects of the Western plains. Buffalo Bill was a buffalo hunter, scout, and showman. The article that appears on these pages is not verbatim as it has been edited for easier reading.

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