“I hate every Indian that I ever saw and would just as lief take a shot at one as eat!”
So spoke a raw-boned trapper, with a tangled mat of brown hair hanging across his shoulders, and, as he said this, he gazed vindictively toward some Indian warriors who were riding slowly past the wagon-train with which the plainsman was travelling. His comrades looked at him and laughed, for this was the favorite theme of Bill Williams, familiarly known as “Old Bill,” although this was a term of endearment and not because of his years, for he was as young as any of them.
The Indians rode on, and from their own glances, which they threw at the gaunt and ungainly trapper, it was plainly evident that they fully reciprocated the feeling which the plainsman held for them. “Ugh! He one bad man!” a gaudy warrior was heard to remark.
“Old Bill” Williams was born in Tennessee, his father being one of the Virginian pioneers who crossed the Blue Ridge and settled in the state when it was swarming with Indians,—all eager to have the land for themselves alone—and not willing to allow the whites to get possession of it without a severe struggle. His son grew up in surroundings of savagery and warfare. He took part in many of the Ohio campaigns against the red men in that state, and was invariably used as a scout, for his knowledge of woodcraft was excellent. After the red men were partially subdued, he moved further west to the Rockies, where his scouting habits still clung to him. He would often be absent for many weeks upon his solitary expeditions, and would as frequently return with scalps as with the furs of wild animals.
The Crows and the Blackfeet were continually at war with each other, with the advantage upon the side of the latter, for the Crows were more cowardly than their war-like enemies. They had the advantage, however, of having a white renegade to lead them. His name was Rose: formerly one of the land pirates who lived near and upon the treacherous waters of the Mississippi. This desperate man taught the redskins how to fight like the whites and continually advised them in their councils of war, so that they often defeated the Blackfeet in their sanguinary encounters.
One day “Old Bill” Williams was off on a scout with Bill Gordon, and, becoming separated from him, was endeavoring to reach camp by water, so as to leave no trail for the eye of some lurking Blackfoot warrior. He was therefore floating down stream on a log. As he reached a shallow part of the creek the muddied water and footprints upon the bank showed where a big grizzly had just gone by.
“By Gravy,” said the scout to himself, “here’s the chance to make a hundred dollars from that old fellow’s hide. I’m after him.”
Wading to the shore, he started off through the brush, and followed Bruin with his head down, for the bushes kept slapping him in the eyes. As he was thus proceeding, he suddenly debouched from the brush into a cleared space. Before him was no grizzly, but a band of ten Blackfoot warriors. They stopped in amazement, and so did Williams, who said in loud tones: “Gee-hos-i-phat!”
The Indians, on the other hand, set up a loud yelping, and, seeing them preparing to fire, “Old Bill” raised his trusty flint-lock, pulled the trigger, and knocked over a big, fine-looking savage who had on the war-bonnet of a chieftain. Not stopping to make closer acquaintance, the wiry Bill then dashed into a neighboring canyon. As he glanced over his shoulder he saw that only four of the Blackfeet were coming after him.
The scout raced along for about a quarter of a mile; then, seeing that the redskins were far behind, stopped in order to load his rifle. He had just rammed home a ball when the Blackfeet began to draw near, so he dropped behind the stump of a moss-grown tree and waited for them to come on. They approached quite hurriedly, gazing at the ground for tracks, and eagerly pointing out the traces of the trapper’s footprints. When they came within good range “Old Bill” pressed the trigger and a Blackfoot brave fell to the earth, shot through the heart.
“I reckon that this will stop ’em fer er minute er two,” said the man of the plains as he continued his flight up the canyon. He raced ahead for about a half a mile, then halted again in order to load his gun.
The Indians were soon upon him, but they had learned caution, and spread out on either side of him, in order to get in his rear. “Old Bill” was not to be caught napping, and ran like a deer still further up the divide. He was much swifter of foot than the red men, and soon left them far behind. The scout sat down upon a fallen tree trunk, and said to himself:
“Now, I’ll back track like a grizzly, and will get another shot at these painted hyenas.”
Suiting the action to the words, he put on a furious burst of speed for about a half a mile, then doubled back for about two hundred yards. To the right was some fallen timber, and into this the trapper skipped like a molly cotton-tail. “Ah ha!” said he. “I think this will get ’em!”
In a few moments the red warriors hastened by on the run: one of them about a hundred yards astern of the rest. As he came opposite the hiding-place of the scout, “Old Bill” leaped into view, and knocking him down with a well directed bullet, seized his victim’s gun just as another started to come back to where he was standing. This one was dispatched by the Blackfoot rifle, and “Old Bill” had the satisfaction of seeing the fourth (and last) savage run up the canyon in terror, screaming:
“The Great Spirit is with him! The Great Spirit is with him!”
As he disappeared a broad smile came to the face of the trapper, while he wiped the beads of perspiration from his brow.
“By Crickets!” said he. “A tight squeeze, Bill. A tight squeeze!”
I regret to state that the old fellow scalped the dead redskins, for he was apparently as much of an Indian as were his enemies. He also took the precaution to plunge into a mountain stream which gurgled and rushed down a side of the canyon. He followed the water until he reached the mouth of the canyon, then, as he heard voices, dashed into a crevasse in the rocks. A number of Blackfeet soon went by.
“Where has the old wolf gone?” he heard one of them ask. “He runs like a rabbit.”
“You are right,” said another, “but he has an eye like a hawk, and can hold the shooting-stick without flinching. Go carefully! Go carefully! He may be hidden near by!”
They went on up the canyon, and not long afterwards a wailing and screeching came from their direction, showing that they had discovered their dead.
“This is no place for me,” mused the old scout. “I must get away quickly.”
Darting up a neighboring gully, he had just stowed himself away in a fissure of the rocky wall when he heard the Blackfeet returning. They were carrying their dead companions and were wailing dismally. “Old Bill” knew that there would be small chance for him should he fall into their clutches. The cold shivers ran up and down his spine as he contemplated such a happening.
For two days the trapper remained in the canyon. He was afraid to venture forth, because the Blackfeet were undoubtedly near by, and he knew that, once they again saw him, it would be all up with “Old Bill.” He had a tough, dried piece of buffalo meat with him, which kept up his strength, although he suffered terribly from thirst during the day, for he was afraid to venture to the stream until nightfall. Far off, in the valley, he could hear the death chant of the red men.
Three days passed and “Old Bill” was feeling faint from lack of food. Climbing the wall of the canyon, behind his place of refuge, he saw the Blackfeet far below him in the valley. They were moving camp. Hurrah! Their tepee poles were coming down and they were walking away. They gradually faded from view. Again Hurrah! The old scout was smiling now.
Luck was still with him, for he shot an antelope soon afterwards, cooked the stringy meat and felt stronger. Then he rolled a stout log loose from some fallen timber, pushed it into the river and paddled down stream upon this flimsy boat.
“I reckon I’ll dodge the redskins, now,” he said to himself. “A feller walkin’ leaves too good er trail.”
No savage eye detected him in his journey upon this log, and, about a week later, he arrived, smiling, at a frontier trading post. “Old Bill” was royally welcomed by his brother trappers, who slapped him on the back, drank his health, not once, but twenty times, and gave him a new rifle which they had just captured from some half-breeds.
“Old Bill” took this with good humor, for it was all in the day’s work of a scout upon the frontier. In a week he left upon another excursion into the wilds, and alone, for he was like a “solitary,” or buffalo bull, who roams the prairie away from the rest of the herd. He preferred to be without associates in his work. “Two men,” said he, “leave a broader trail than one, and there are many Indians in the country. Two men make more noise. I go alone.”
“He was a great hunter,” said an old Indian. “He was a great trapper—took many beaver—and a great warrior, for his belt was full of scalps. But he have no friend: no squaw. Always by himself. He like the eagle in the heavens, or the panther in the mountains. He one strange man.”
Yes, “Old Bill” was a strange man, but he lived his life upon the frontier for many years without a mishap, although his body bore the marks of many an encounter. Silent and taciturn, those who were associated with him knew only of his deeds by the fresh scalps at his girdle, the notches upon the stock of his gun, and the scars upon the exposed portion of his body. His traps yielded him a small living, and with this he seemed to be content.
The trapper lived to be an old man. Although in innumerable skirmishes and hand-to-hand encounters with the Blackfeet, Crows, Sioux, and other wild riders of the plains, he came off scot free until he met a band of Blackfeet when trapping near the headwaters of the Missouri River. Here he was surrounded by twenty or thirty braves, but, by skillfully climbing his pony down the shelving sides of a canyon, made his escape. They found his tracks, however, and followed him like a pack of hounds after a fox.
“Old Bill” still was lithe and active, although sixty years, and more, of age. Again and again he hid himself, and, with two or three shots, laid out as many of the advancing redskins. He was fortunate in being able to keep away from the vindictive warriors for four full days, although wounded twice: an arrow point in his thigh and a bullet through the fleshy part of his leg. Finally, he reached a series of canyons near the Yellowstone, where numerous streams made it possible for him to leave little trace of his trail, and great boulders of rock hid his retreating form. The red men here gave up the chase, for their quarry defied both fatigue and wounds.
“The Great Spirit is still with the Lone Wolf,” said they. “We will let him go, for here he can kill many of us before we can reach him.”
It was November. A bleak wind blew gusts of snow across the sandy plain as the red warriors retreated. “Old Bill” continued on his way into the advancing storm. The white flakes now covered the earth. A bitter wind assailed him, and great piles of drifting snow whirled and eddied about his gaunt and emaciated form. Dismounting under the side of a projecting cliff, he made a fire by means of rubbing two dried sticks together, ate some biltong, which he fortunately had stowed away in a saddle-bag, and lay down to rest. His poor, shivering pony cropped the dry bunches of grass in silent misery.
Two weeks later a party of trappers were crossing the stream near the place where the old fellow had lain down, and saw a pony nibbling the bark from a cottonwood tree. He was gaunt, famished, and his ribs were fairly sticking through his flesh. They rode up to him and were much distressed to see the form of a man lying beneath the white mantle of newly fallen snow. They brushed this away and found “Old Bill;” his grizzled head bent forward upon his breast, and his clothing stained with the wounds which had sapped his very life-blood. He had gone to the Great Beyond.
With tears in their eyes the trappers hollowed out a grave for the lone refugee. Here they buried him, and finding his faithful steed unwilling to leave the place where he had carried his master, shot the emaciated animal. They placed both in the same grave, and over their forms erected a huge pile of stones, not only to mark the last resting-place of “Old Bill,” but also to keep the wolves and coyotes from digging up the remains.
Thus, in a wild canyon perished the aged solitary, and in the peace and quiet of that wilderness in which he loved to wander, hovers the spirit of the lonely man of the plains. His last resting-place well suited the career of “Old Bill:” trapper, scout, and fearless adventurer among the savage men, wild beasts, and inhospitable wastes of the then unpeopled West.