No more famous plainsman ever lived upon the Wyoming prairies than Uncle Job Witherspoon: a veteran of many an Indian battle: of several tussles with grizzly bears; and of frequent brushes with desperadoes and bad men who had taken to the hills in order to escape jail.
Born about 1830, the old fellow was still hale and hearty in the year 1898, when he was piloting a number of young men through the intricacies of the Rocky Mountains; a region which he had lived in for many years.
“Well, youngsters,” said the veteran trapper to the party of young fellows who were upon an amateur hunting excursion, “when you’ve toted traps and peltries, and fit Injuns as long as I have, you’ll sartainly have considerable more experience than you have now.”
The old fellow was sitting with his back against a tree trunk, near the Grosventre River, and before him, in a semi-circle, lay five young men. All looked up at him eagerly, for they were in a country which had once been peopled by hostile redskins. It was now safe, for the savage tribesmen were upon reservations. Still, the air of romance lay over the beautiful land and added a zest to their expedition, which would have been absent had they been in a more unhistoric country.
“Ha! Ha! boys!” continued Uncle Job. “You think that you’ll have a mighty nice time out on the trapping grounds, and I ain’t going to say as how you won’t. But, take my word for it, ye’ll wish yourselves back in th’ settlements many a time afore you’ll get there. What with fighting and hiding from Injuns and them pesky grizzlies, and livin’ sometimes fer weeks together on nothin’ but pine cones an’ such trash as luck happened to throw in my way to keep body an’ soul together, my time used to be anything but ’specially agreeable, until I got used to it. Then I found it barely endurable. It’s a hard life, anyway, boys!”
“My, my, Uncle Job,” said one of the youngsters, “why, then, do you go back to the plains?”
The trapper laughed.
“Well, there, boys, yer have me, anyhow,” he answered. “Ter be right down honest with yer, I likes it. It’s a fact, as sure as dry prairie grass will burn, and I wouldn’t live a whole month in Saint Lewy (St. Louis) fer all th’ money there if I could not be allowed to spend th’ balance of my time in th’ mountain country. I’m used to it, youngsters, and city air is rank poison to me; besides, I’d spoil fer th’ want of a fight with some of th’ red varmints of Blackfeet, Pawnees, and Poncas; for, my boys, that’s the best part of the life on th’ plains. And now,” continued the old trapper, “I’ll tell yer about a fight, and a long battle it was, too, which I had with a party of them cowardly Black feet over on the Sweet-water River. It was something over twenty years ago, and one fall when I was trapping on the headwaters of the Columbia.”
The boys drew closer and gazed at the old fellow with wide open eyes.
“We had about a dozen greenhorns at our post, just like yourselves. We were only a few months from the settlements and these fellows hadn’t yet got toughened to the kind of a life we had to lead. Some of ’em was about dyin’ with th’ ager, and we hadn’t a dose of medicine, or even a blessed drop of spirits to save ’em with. So, as I knew every inch of th’ country from th’ Pacific to Saint Lewy, I was ordered by th’ head trader of th’ post to go to Fort Laramie and bring back a supply of calomel, Queen Anne powders, an’ sich truck fer our sick men.”
“You had your nerve with you,” interrupted one of the boys.
“Always had plenty of that,” continued Uncle Job. “The distance was about six hundred miles over the mountains. We had come to the western side of the range the spring before, by way of the Sweet-water Valley Pass, and I concluded to take that route again toward Laramie.
“Wall, things went well with me for some time. After I got over the main ridge I kept along the south side of th’ Wind River Mountain and stopped one day on th’ Green River, in order to make me a new pair of moccasins. The rough travelling over th’ hills had worn mine out and left me barefoot. While I was stitching away at my shoes I remembered a cache [a supply of provisions hidden or stowed away until it should be convenient to remove them] which a party of us had made the spring before about a day’s travel out of my regular route. It was on the North Branch of the Sweet-water River. We had started from the head of the Platte on our way to the Columbia, with a small drove of pack-mules loaded with provisions for the new post, and when on the South Branch one of th’ creeturs give out and we had to cache the cargo. It was a package of jerked venison and a sack of flour, with a small bag of rice for th’ sick, when we had ’em, and a five gallon keg of hard cider. It is a common practice with us trappers to cache our provisions when we know they will be safe for some future journey that way.
“Wall, as I worked at my moccasins, all at once I got to be mighty thirsty, and a vision of that five gallon keg of delicious cider began to come into my head. Says I to myself, says I: ‘Job, wouldn’t you like to have a little taste of that sweet beverage, ’specially when nobody at the post would be either any wiser or any poorer for it?’ I reckoned that I would. So I finished sewing up my buckskin, an’ started next morning, bright an’ early, for the cache. Now, as I told yew all, it was one day’s journey from my route, and it would take me another day to put me on the right course again. That, you know, would use up two days that I certainly ought to give to my sick comrades at the post. But I argued this way to myself: ‘Now, I’m pesky thirsty fer a drink of that sweet cider. I’m actually feelin’ bad fer th’ want uv it. If I gratify my natural longing I’ll certainly feel better arter it, and I can then tread out so much faster that I shall more’n make up for th’ lost time.’ And that’s the way that I reconciled it to my conscience.
“Wall, I reached the South Branch in th’ middle of the afternoon, and going down the stream a little ways from where I struck it, I found the cave where we had cached our provisions. It was a pretty large one, too. I crawled into the narrow mouth of it and drew my rifle in arter me; and, as soon as my eyes got kinder used tew th’ dim light, right up there in the corner I found everything all right. There was that jolly little red keg of cider, and it seemed to actually laugh all over at the sight of an old friend. And well it might, for it had been shut up there in the dark for more’n six months with nothing but the flour, the rice, and the dried meat to keep it company.
“I pulled out my sharp-pointed bowie knife and tapped the head of th’ cider barrel in no time. But just as I raised the little fellow to get a taste of him I heard the tramping of horses’ feet outside, and the howlin’ of twenty or thirty infernal Blackfeet. Gee Whillikins! I had ter drop th’ keg before a bit of th’ amber liquid had wet my thirsty lips. Well was it that I did so, for in that moment the entrance of the place was darkened by a rascally Injun who had been fool enough to follow me. Boys! I was plum skeered!
“What was I to do? I raised my rifle and fired at Mr. Redskin, who dropped dead upon the ground, uttering a wild war-whoop as he fell. His comrades crept into the mouth of the cave, seized him by the feet, and gave a terrible yell when they found that he’d been wiped out of existence. While they were tugging away at the old fellow I busied myself in reloading my rifle in order to get ready for the next visitor. Although th’ pesky redskins kept up a terrible hullabaloo they didn’t attempt to crawl into the cave any more.
“Thinks I, ‘Now’s your time, old boy, if you ever hope to have any refreshment.’ So, raising the little cask of cider, I took a good, long, glorious drink. I tell you, boys, that was delicious, for my throat was all parched and dry from alkali dust. It braced me right up and I’d hardly had it down my throat when I felt that I was a host in myself and could handle, single-handed, all of the Blackfeet west of the Mississippi.
“Arter a few moments three or four rifles were cautiously poked into the hole, and were fired at random into the cave toward me. I ducked to one side, and let ’em peg away. They were only using up their ammunition, an’ th’ sooner they got rid of that the better it was for me.
“Next they sent a shower of arrows through the opening, but with no better effect than with their bullets. In the meanwhile I had found a little hole through the rocks just large enough for the barrel of my gun, and, watching a good chance, when the varmints were thick about the mouth, I took good aim and popped away at them. By the Jumping Jingoes! boys, but I sent half an ounce of lead through the bodies of no less than three of them at once. At this th’ Injuns fell back, yelling vengeance, an’ I took another refreshing pull at th’ cider. ‘For,’ says I to myself, ‘Job, now it’s your treat, and here’s to as good luck the next shot.’ But th’ varmints didn’t try th’ shooting game any more, as they found that this was a game which I could play as well as they, themselves. Boys! I held all the trump cards! They kept losing their hands, while I continued to hold my own.
“Arter they had been quiet fer a considerable time I poked my head out of the cave and peeped down the stream, where I could see the cowardly wolves gathering armsful of dry sticks and grass, which I at once knew that they intended to bring up to the cavern and smoke me out. I hadn’t thought of this before, and, thinks I, the rascals have got me now, sure. I can fight Injuns so long as my ammunition holds out, but when it comes to a fire and smoke I ain’t a match nohow for them fellers, shut up as I be in these here limestone rocks.
“Presently th’ savages came back again to th’ mouth of th’ cave in such a direction that I couldn’t bring old Kill-Deer to bear upon ’em, and piling up their combustibles they set fire to ’em. The wind happened to be blowing directly into th’ cave, and, in a few moments, a nasty smudge began to suffocate me. I had to crawl farther and farther into the place as the smoke followed me; and I could hear the Injuns pilin’ on the grass and wood all the time. They found that they couldn’t get me out by any other means, and were now endeavorin’ to choke me to death by their horrid smoke. Fortunately, as I shrank away from it, I saw a little streak of daylight ahead of me. It was a crevice in the rock through which the rays of the setting sun were streaming, as much as to say: ‘Be of good heart, Job; they cannot smoke you out as long as you choose to breathe through this nice little air hole.’
“I ran to the crevice, and laid down, breathing the pure air, and laughing at the redskins, who were yelling and dancing for joy at the cute trick they thought that they were playing upon me. Luck was certainly with me, boys, for through the crevice that admitted the light and the air I discovered a nice little stream trickling away, while a tiny pool of fresh water had formed upon the floor of the cavern. Now, thought I, if I only had the provisions with me, I could last until the Injuns got tired and had to go away. So, holding my breath, I crawled back again into the smoke, and catching hold of the little keg of cider in one hand, and a package of jerked meat in the other, I went back to my breathing-hole and had a comfortable supper. The red fiends outside were screeching and yelling like mad men.
“Arter I had satisfied my hunger, and had taken another pull at the delicious apple juice, I laid down for a nap, for I knew that the Injuns wouldn’t trouble me while they kept up their smoke.
“Well, boys, I tell you that I had a pretty good night’s rest, considerin’ that I had tew keep one eye open. In the morning, after the smoke had settled, I sat quietly at the side of the opening, expectin’ Mr. Injun to creep through arter my scalp. They thought that I had given up the ghost, and were all ready to make a speedy end of me. But they had reckoned without their host, for no sooner did a Blackfoot show his head than pop! a little slug of lead from Mister Kill-Deer made him remember that I was still breathing.
“Them Injuns, I reckon, thought that they had holed Old Nick himself, for they was plum surprised when they heard the bark of my trusty old rifle. When they saw another of their number fall, they even forgot to yell. They found that smoke couldn’t kill the old man, and so they tried another plan. Their game was to starve me out. But here, boys, I held the trump cards again. The fact was, they hadn’t the least idea that the cave had been used as a cache; and when they saw me take to it they thought that I had discovered them and was hiding away from them there. The old boys didn’t realize that I had a store of good things piled up and ready for use.
“I could understand their gibberish well enough to learn that they had determined to stand guard over me until I should be forced to yield to starvation, at least. But I had fully two months’ provisions in the cave and that would hold out for some time. I determined, therefore, to pass the time as agreeably as possible.
“I could hear that parties of Injuns rode away from the place every morning, and others came to take their place. They stood guard over me by turns. At length, after four days, when they supposed that I was about starved out to such a degree that I was no longer dangerous to approach, a redskin poked his head into the opening and began to crawl cautiously into the cave. I was waiting for the fellow.
“Boys! I made a spring like a panther. It was his life or mine, and my long knife did the work. Presently another followed, and him I served as I had the first one. Arter about a half an hour another Injun put his head down into the hole and called to his comrades. At this moment, I leveled my rifle at him and let him have it. That morning, my friends, I had wiped out three more of my persecutors.
“They did not trouble me any for some days. I think it must have been nigh onter a week, when, making sure that I was dead from starvation, another attempt was made to enter the cavern. I kept at a distance until two of them had come in, when I sprang upon them, and with old Kill-Deer and my knife, made a finish of them also.
“Boys, th’ Injuns was now plum skeered. They were sure that they had none but the Evil One to deal with. In fact I blackened my face and looked out of the cave at one fellow who had ventured near. He gave an awful cry and ran away, howling. About an hour afterwards, filling the air with their yells of disappointed vengeance, the whole outfit mounted their mustangs, and I could hear them riding away down the banks of the river.
“’O-o-o-e-e! O-o-o-e-e!’ they wailed; and, boys, I sure did do some tall chuckling.
“Arter a while I felt sure that the coast was clear of th’ red vermin. So I ventured into th’ open air, and, mounting upon the top of a river bank, I could see them spurring away across the prairie as if the Evil Spirit were arter them. Boys! I had been pent up in that dark hole for more than three weeks, as near as I could guess; so the strong light of the sun nearly blinded me at first. Arter a while I got used to it. I tell you what, boys! If this green earth and th’ blue skies ever looked beautiful to my eyes, they did on that blessed morning when I crept outen that living grave, for yer must remember that there wuz dead Blackfeet all around me.”
“But, Uncle Job,” interrupted one of his hearers. “How did your sick men at the post get along without the medicine?”
The old trapper looked sad.
“Poorly! Poorly!” said he. “Two of them had died before I returned. They waited for ten days for me to come back, and, finding that I didn’t, they sent another man to Fort Laramie for the medicine. The others were saved.
“Arter an absence of about a month I reached the post again. As I didn’t want to acknowledge that I had turned out of my way merely for the sake of a taste of some excellent cider while my comrades were suffering for the want of what I had been sent for, I said nothing about it, beyond the fact that I had been a prisoner among the Injuns and had managed to make my escape arter a hard fight.
“Some months arterwards, when a party of us were trappin’ out on th’ Medicine Bow Range, we concluded that we would make a visit to our cache. We rode long and hard to reach there. Finally we came in sight of the cave, and I recognized the place where I had had a desperate battle for my life. We entered the cavern and found it just as I had left it, with the exception that the dead Blackfeet warriors had been removed. The sack of flour and bag of rice were just as the other party had cached them, and—not greatly to my surprise—the gallant little cask of cider had disappeared. The dried venison had also vanished.”
The old trapper smiled benignly upon his listeners. “The fact is, boys,” said he, “although I had a pretty onlikely time of it with them cussed Blackfeet I felt so awful ashamed of th’ hull affair that I didn’t let on a single word about it. Th’ truth is, I wuz plum angry with myself fer gettin’ caught in that ar cave simply because I hankered after some sparkling cider.”
At this all the boys burst into loud laughter, and the old trapper retired to the fire in order to broil some antelope steaks for supper.
“Fellers, he’s the real thing,” said one. “Too bad that those good days aren’t with us now, for then, we, too, might have some adventures of our own.”
But the old times of roving Blackfeet, and desperate battles for life and for liberty, had long passed away.