In the lower corner of the mighty state of Wyoming is a town named after one of the most noted of the trappers of the West—Jim Bridger—who not only fought Indians but also traded and trapped in many an unexplored portion of the once unknown regions near the Rocky Mountains.
Fort Bridger—a strong stockade near by—received its name from this famous plainsman, who hailed from Illinois, and who was not only of humble, but also of somewhat unrespectable parentage. Young Jim ran away, when quite young, in order to escape the hard usage which was his lot at home. On the border he soon made his mark, for he was not only a great rifle shot but also a man of unusual strength and agility.
One day the scout was in a block-house, with a number of other frontiersmen who had recently been attacked by a band of Blackfoot warriors. These were encamped at no great distance, and a truce had been declared whereby neither side should molest the other. Jim Bridger wandered into the camp of the red men, and walked down the main street, looking, with an interested eye, at their tepees, their squaws, and the little papooses.
“Ugh! Ugh!” grunted some young bucks. “Paleface he look like pig. Ugh! Ugh! He no fight. He run away.”
Bridger grew crimson, but said nothing.
“Paleface waddle like duck,” continued one of the Blackfeet. “Paleface have nose like black dog.”
This was too much for the usually calm and collected Jim Bridger. Spinning upon his heel he rushed up to the nearest redskin, hit him a blow between the eyes and sent him reeling to the ground. Immediately the whole camp was in an uproar. The trapper was surrounded by a yelling, screeching mob of savages—was made a prisoner—and was carried, struggling, to a lodge upon the outskirts of the village. Then the Indians gathered in a dense throng in order to decide upon the fate of their captive.
There was much discussion as to what was to be done with the scout. Some were for a light punishment, as the trappers in the block-house were numerous, and their rifles were accurate shooters when held by the steady hands of the frontiersmen. “No! No!” shouted many others. “He should be carried to the mountains and there tortured. He has struck one of our braves. The paleface must suffer death!”
Three older chiefs listened to all of this wild talk and then gave their decision.
“The Paleface shall suffer death and torture! Let some of the young men go to his lodge and bring him to us.”
With a wild whoop, a number of the youthful warriors rushed to the tepee in which they had shoved the trapper, stoutly bound with deer thongs. As they threw open the flap which hung over the doorway surprise and dismay marked their features, for the bird had flown. All were chagrined and angered at the loss of their quarry. Whooping savagely, they dashed back to their companions, many of whom favored an immediate attack upon the block-house; but the counsel of the older chiefs prevailed.
“The paleface warriors have sticks which shoot very straight,” said they. “We must go away, or they may attack us.”
Packing up their goods, and loading their travois, they fled to the mountains.
But how had the daring plainsman escaped? Hush! It was a dusky-hued maiden who had set him free, and love will always find a way.
Jim Bridger, in fact, had met a young Indian girl in the village who had returned the sudden affection of the young trapper with much interest. With sadness and dismay she watched his capture, and, when she saw him thrown into the lodge, at first she determined to run to the block-house in order to notify his comrades of his predicament. She knew that they would then demand his release, but, fearing an attack in which some of her relatives would be killed and her lover would be doubtless assassinated, she decided to say nothing to the trappers. Instead, she determined to set him free by her own hand. While the savages wrangled over what was to be his fate she determined to creep to his tent, cut the deer thongs, and point out the way to freedom.
Two sentinels watched the lodge where Jim Bridger lay, and, as the Indian maid approached, one of them moved towards her. She stooped almost to the earth, darted behind a neighboring tepee, and crept stealthily towards the rear of the tent. As luck would have it, there was no sentinel at this point, and she cut a long slit in the buffalo-skin curtain. Bridger was lying upon a robe endeavoring to snap his bonds, and as he saw her uttered an exclamation of surprise. At this, the girl clapped one hand over his mouth. With the other she cut the raw-hide thongs, and beckoned to him to follow her.
The scout wormed his way out of the side of the tent, crept upon all fours to a safe distance, then rose and faced the Indian maiden.
“Dearest,” said he, “you have saved my life, and Jim Bridger never forgets the kindness of such a one as you. You shall be my wife.”
The Blackfoot maiden blushed, and answered that whether there was peace or war between her people and his, she would meet him in a certain grove of pine trees, at the base of a distant mountain peak, after two full moons. She counselled him how to avoid the sentinels, how to elude any pursuers by darting through a certain canyon, and then, as he pressed her to his heart, their lips met. A moment more and she had torn herself away, and had vanished down the steep cliffs upon which they had clambered.
The scout did not tell his comrades how he had escaped, for he feared that they would laugh at him. And as the days passed by his brother trappers noticed that he was cutting notches in a stick in order to mark the time elapsing before some important event. At length the stick was almost filled with little triangular marks, and Bridger, saddling his horse, led another by a long lariat, and set off for a certain towering peak in the mountains. His companions little guessed what was his real destination. Five days elapsed before they again laid eyes upon him, but all were startled and much surprised to see him ride into the camp, one brilliant morning, with a dusky, Indian maiden by his side. A broad smile was upon his face, while the bride looked radiantly happy. As they rode up, the joyous trappers gave three times three for Mr. and Mrs. Jim Bridger.
From now on the pioneer had an adventurous career, and, although away from his home for months at a time, was always devoted to his Blackfoot bride, although he often had passages at arms with her kinsmen. Not long after his marriage he was in the Medicine Bow Mountains, with a party of trappers, when they were surrounded by hundreds of the Blackfeet. Crying to them to surrender, the savage warriors circled about upon their ponies, screeching like so many devils, for they were sure that they had the white men cornered. It looked dark for the adventurous trappers.
“We must fight desperately, men,” cried out the gallant Jim. “And must make our way towards the mountains near the Yellowstone. There we can stand these pesky varmints off from behind the boulders. But now we must break through their circle. Are you all ready? Then—come on.”
The trappers cheered as Bridger led a charge against the wild riders of the plains, who scattered before the resolute attack. By alternately fighting and retreating, the frontiersmen gradually made their way towards the distant hills, and—although a few were badly wounded—at length they reached the protection of some giant boulders which afforded them excellent protection against the bullets and arrows of the red men. Seeing that it was now impossible to get them, the savages fired a parting volley and retired. The last shot proved to be an unlucky one for Jim Bridger’s best friend—a man named Milton Sublette—as a ball from an Indian rifle struck him in the ankle and tore through both flesh and bone.
Stanching the flow of blood as best they could, the trappers carried their wounded companion away with them upon a Mackinaw blanket, slung between two of the pack-animals. His leg was amputated with the aid of a beaver knife hacked into a saw, and in spite of the fact that they possessed no chloroform, ether, or other anesthetic, the patient bore everything with stoical indifference. His life was saved, and—strange as it may seem—upon his arrival at Saint Louis he submitted to a second operation in order to obtain a better-looking stump, and was back again in his old haunts within six months: trapping, fishing, and travelling with as much joy in living as before. Such was the spirit and energy of these old men of the mountains.
Bridger was later engaged in piloting emigrant trains across the prairie, in the vicinity of the Republican River, where Sandy Forsyth had his great battle with Roman Nose some years later. With him was a scout called Jim Beckwith, who has left the following account of a tight, little brush which was indulged in by two bands of Sioux and Pawnee warriors, just after the trappers had driven away a force of about fifty Pawnees who had attempted to run off their horses.
“I seen that the Pawnees would soon be after us again,” said the gallant Beckwith, “and I knowed that the Sioux would do the same thing. So I saw that we’d have about a thousand redskins after us, and we wouldn’t be a taste for them. I seen that this wouldn’t do, so I says to Jim Bridger, says I, ‘Jim, what are we goin’ ter do?’ ‘Give it up,’ said Jim, says he, ‘Fight till the reds down us, I reckon, and then turn up our toes like men.’ All this time—bless your soul—them pilgrims what we wuz a-guidin’, wuz in the wagons cryin’. It wuz awful.
“Wall, I jest made up my mind, sir, that I didn’t intend tew give my heart tew no Injun jest then, so I callates about whar th’ two parties of red devils would meet. When we got thar, we drove over a raise in th’ plain and jes’ waited fur ’em. In about two hours I seen th’ dust raisin’ in th’ East in er gret, big cloud. ‘Them’s Pawnees,’ says I, ‘by th’ tarnal prophet.’ Then I looked intew th’ West, and thar th’ dust wuz raisin’, too. ‘Them’s Sioux,’ says I, ‘an’ th’ Devil take ’em. I hev seen pleasanter sights.’ Wall, after waitin’ some time th’ Injuns seen each other, an’ of all th’ cussed yellin’ you ever heard, it wuz thar. I jes’ laid back an’ laughed, while Bridger done some tall chucklin’ too, when them two bands got together. It was lively times, yew bet.
“Th’ Injuns didn’t have many guns in them days, but you kin jest rest assured that they used their arrers fur what wuz in ’em. Thar they went circlin’ aroun’ each other, bendin’ under their hosses’ necks, an’ lettin’ th’ arrers fly. At one time th’ air wuz near so full uv arrers thet it made a cloud, shettin’ out th’ sun. Their ponies got stuck full uv ’em. Their dogs wuz full uv ’em, an’ every Injun in th’ gang had er lot uv ’em stickin’ inter him. I seed a big, fat feller ridin’ off with two uv ’em stickin’ into th’ seat uv his buckskins, an’ it reminded me so uv er big pincushion, thet I near died uv laughin’. Then they begun tew run. They run this way, an’ they run that, and—by Gravy—I believe thet some uv them Injuns be still runnin’ from one another. By Gum, they wuz so busy fightin’ each other, thet they left us plum alone.”
This was certainly a laughable incident, but a bit later occurred another episode which was not quite so amusing for the daring and adventurous Jim Bridger.
About six months after the fight upon the Republican, with five companions, the trapper was travelling near the Platte River. The plainsmen were in search of buffalo and had seen a fair sized herd when a band of Sioux Indians appeared upon one of the rolling bluffs. The trappers sought cover, for they expected an attack, and they were not far from being wrong, for the red men immediately made after them; circled about them upon their ponies, and fired their rifles at long range.
“Dig a trench with your knives,” shouted Bridger. “These fellows are out for our blood and they are going to come pretty near getting us. Move over near that water hole so that they can’t make us die of thirst, and we’ll see who can last the longest.”
Scrambling to their knees, the plainsmen quickly threw up a barricade near the water hole, and, hobbling their ponies behind them, began to take careful aim at the Sioux—one of whom was soon sent to the Happy Hunting Grounds. This enraged the remainder, and wild, blood-curdling yells echoed across the prairie as they drew nearer, hoping to make a rush and annihilate the five white trappers.
“Get ready, boys!” again shouted Bridger. “They’re going to rush us!”
All prepared for the advance by laying out additional ammunition and placing long hunting-knives near at hand. In a few moments the Sioux came on, whipping their ponies to their utmost speed, and yelping madly.
A ringing volley knocked over four of the leaders, but still on they came. Another shot sent a fifth chieftain to the Great Beyond, and, as the trappers reloaded, the Sioux seemed to lose heart. They swerved aside from the breastwork, offering excellent targets to the plainsmen, and, with a dull thud, still another red warrior fell from his galloping pinto. Two of the trappers, meanwhile, were wounded by bullets, while an arrow stuck into the coat sleeve of Jim Bridger, himself.
Now retiring beyond range, the redskins kept up a perpetual fusillade with rifles and with arrows. The trappers held their fire, threw up still higher entrenchments, and waited for the next onslaught, but this did not come. Instead, the Sioux lighted the long, dry prairie grass, and a sheet of flame and smoke curled surely and steadily towards the band of plainsmen, for the wind was blowing directly upon them. What were they to do now?
Necessity is the mother of invention. Quick as a flash, Jim Bridger leaped across the embankment, touched the grass off immediately in front of them, and burnt off quite a small alley-way before the roaring crackling flames came to their place of refuge. The force of the flames thus spent itself before the embankment was reached, and the wily savages renewed their whooping and yelling. Again they charged, but again they were driven off; while night closed over both besieger and besieged, bringing a lull to the unequal battle.
Next day the fight was renewed, and all five of the trappers were wounded. Towards evening it was decided that one of the party should creep through the lines and bring aid from a camp of fifty trappers, who were some miles down the river. The choice fell upon Jim Bridger, and it found him ready to undertake the hazardous expedition. At twelve o’clock he crawled over the side of the little fortification and wormed his way towards the fringe of red warriors who lay about them in a circle.
The scout kept on as quietly as he could and crawled for fully two hundred yards before he saw, or heard, anything of the redskins. Then he got to his feet (as he considered himself through their lines) and prepared to run. But before him was an Indian pony, its master sound asleep by its side. The horse had been feeding in a deep ravine, and—suddenly scenting the trapper—gave a snort which roused its master. The Sioux warrior gazed stupidly at the frontiersman.
But Bridger did not take long to make up his mind what to do. He dashed towards the Indian, intending to strangle him before he could give the alarm. The redskin uttered a loud whoop, and his companions immediately ran in his direction. The scout realized that nothing was now to be gained by silence, and, pulling out his pistol, shot the red man dead. Then, leaping upon his mustang, he urged him upon the gallop. The Sioux were all around him on their pintos, but he had the good fortune to be upon one of their fastest horses, which seemed to outdistance any of the pursuers.
It was a hot chase. The red men fired again and again at the fleeing trapper but they could not hit him. His mustang leaped over the deep crevasses, dodged badger and prairie-dog holes, and brought him safely to the camp of his companions by two o’clock in the afternoon. The Sioux had given up the chase, and, little suspecting that other trappers were camped near by, had returned to the siege of the four, hoping now to make one sudden rush and gain their scalps. Their blood was up, for twenty-five of their number had fallen before the accurate fire of the besieged.
“Come at once!” cried the panting Bridger, as he reached the camp of the plainsmen. “If you do not hurry, my four companions will all be massacred by the red men. To horse! To horse!”
It did not take the trappers long to catch their ponies and jump into their saddles.
“Show us where your friends are!” cried they, “and we’ll fix th’ redskins before another sun.”
Bridger turned and piloted the band of plainsmen back to the place where he had left his beleaguered companions. They went on the run, but, making a wide détour in order to gain the sand-hills in the rear of the besiegers, waited until morning. Then they heard rifle shots in the distance and knew that the battle was on again.
Creeping towards the sound of firing, they soon saw the Sioux preparing for a final charge upon the valorous four, and opened upon them. They had clustered together for a rush, and this weltering volley fairly took the heart out of those of small courage. Many fell dead,—the rest made all haste to get out of range,—while the four trappers in the embankment came running towards their deliverers like wild men. With yells of joy they hugged the burly form of Jim Bridger, to whose nerve and courage they owed their lives.
The scout and plainsman soon moved from the upper waters of the Missouri—after the fur trade had ceased to be prosperous—and founded a trading post in the southwestern part of the State of Wyoming—named Fort Bridger. Here he dealt in skins, furs, and peltries, accumulating a large amount of property, as the Fort was a stopping-place for all the emigrant trains bound for Salt Lake City and for California. He remained true to his Blackfoot wife, and several half-breed children made life merry in the long, low log-hut which the scout had erected as his abode. The famous plainsman lived to a ripe, old age—like most of the early trappers—and was ever ready to tell of his battle with the Sioux, when he rescued his four companions from their clutches. This was the most thrilling of all his many adventures upon the frontier.