In the morning we shouldered our packs again and took the trail leading to the west, and by night we had overtaken the advance party of the Jayhawkers, camped in a cañon where there was a little water, barely sufficient for their use. We inquired why they did not take the trail leading more directly west at the forks, and they said they feared it would lead them into deep snow which would be impassible. They said they considered the trail they had taken as altogether the safest one.
We met Bennett and Arcane’s teamsters, and as we expected they were already out of grub and no way to get anymore. When the party killed an ox they had humbly begged for some of the poorest parts, and thus far were alive. They came to us and very pitifully told us they were entirely out, and although an ox had been killed that day they had not been able to get a mouthful. We divided up our meat and gave them some although we did not know how long it would be before we would ourselves be in the same situation.
Thus far we had not seen anything to shoot, big or little although we kept a sharp lookout.
The whole camp was silent, and all seemed to realize their situation. Before them was a level plain which had the appearance of being so broad as to take five or six days to cross. Judging by the look from the top of the mountain as we came over, there was little to hope for in the way of water. We thought it over very seriously. All the water we could carry would be our canteens full, perhaps two drinks apiece and the poor meat had so little nourishment that we were weak and unable to endure what we once could.
We were alone, Rogers and I, in interest at any rate, even if there were other men about. For the time it really seemed as if there was very little hope for us and I have often repeated the following lines as very closely describing my own feelings at that time.
Oh hands, whose loving, gentle grasp I loosed.
When first this weary journey was begun.
If I could feel your touch as once I could.
How gladly would I wish my work undone.
During the evening, I had a talk with Capt. Asa Haines, in which he said he left a good home in Illinois, where he had everything he could wish to eat, and every necessary comfort, and even some to spare, and now he felt so nearly worn out that he had many doubts whether he could live to reach the mountains, on the other side. He was so deeply impressed that he made me promise to let his wife and family know how I found him and how he died, for he felt sure he would never see the California mines. I said I might not get through myself, but he thought we were so young and strong that we would struggle through. He said if he could only be home once more he would be content to stay. This was the general tenor of the conversation. There was no mirth, no jokes, and every one seemed to feel that he was very near the end of his life, and such a death as stood before them, choking, starving in a desert was the most dreary outlook I ever saw.
This camp of trouble, of forlorn hope, on the edge of a desert stretching out before us like a small sea, with no hope for relief except at the end of a struggle which seemed almost hopeless, is more than any pen can paint, or at all describe. The writer had tried it often. Picture to yourself, dear reader the situation and let your own imagination do the rest. It can never come up to the reality.
In the morning, as Rogers and I were about to start, several of the oldest men came to us with their addresses and wished us to forward them to their families if we ever got within the reach of mails. These men shed tears, and we did also as we parted. We turned silently away and again took up our march.
As we went down the cañon we came to one place where it was so narrow, that a man or a poor ox could barely squeeze through between the rocks, and in a few miles more reached the open level plain. When three or four miles out on the trail and not far from the hills we came to a bunch of quite tall willows. The center of the bunch had been cut out and the branches woven in so as to make a sort of corral. In the center of this was a spring of good water and some good grass growing around. This was pretty good evidence that some one had been here before. We took a good drink and filled our canteens anew, for we did not expect to get another drink for two or three days at least.
We took the trail again and hurried on as the good water made us feel quite fresh. After a few miles we began to find the bones of animals, some badly decayed and some well preserved. All the heads were those of horses, and it puzzled us to know where they came from. As we passed along we noticed the trail was on a slight up grade and somewhat crooked. If we stepped off from it the foot sank in about two inches in dirt finer than the finest flour. The bones were scattered all along, sometimes the bones of several animals together. Was it the long drive, poison water, or what? It was evident they had not been killed but had dropped along the way.
It was a dreary trail at best, and these evidences of death did not help to brighten it in the least. We wondered often where it led to and what new things would be our experience. After walking fast all day we came to quite an elevation, where we could stand and look in all directions. The low black range where we left the Jayhawkers was in sight, and this spur of the great snowy mountains extended a long way to the south, and seemed to get lower and lower, finally ending in low rocky buttes, a hundred miles away. Some may think this distance very far to see, but those who have ever seen the clear atmosphere of that region will bear me out in these magnificent distances. Generally a mountain or other object seen at a distance would be three or four times as far off as one would judge at first sight, so deceptive are appearances there. The broad south end of the great mountain which we first saw the next morning after we left the wagons, was now plain in sight, and peak after peak extending away to the north, all of them white with snow. Standing thus out in the plain we could see the breadth of the mountain east and west, and it seemed as though it must have been nearly a hundred miles. The south end was very abrupt and sank as one into a great plain in which we stood, twenty miles from the mountain’s base.
To the northwest we could see a clay lake, or at least that was what we called it, and a line of low hills seemed to be an extension of the mountain in a direction swinging around to the south to enclose this thirsty, barren plain before us, which was bounded by mountains or hills on these sides. To the south this range seemed to get higher, and we could see some snow capped mountains to the south of our westerly course. The low mountains as those seen in the northwest direction is the same place now crossed by the Southern Pacific Railroad, and known as the Tehachipi pass, the noted loop, in which the railroad crosses itself, being on the west slope and Ft. Tejon being on the same range a little further south where the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Coast Range join. The first mountain bearing snow, south of our course was probably what is known as Wilson’s peak, and the high mountains still farther south, the San Bernardino mountains. There were no names there known to us nor did we know anything of the topography of the country except that we supposed a range of mountains was all that separated us from California.
We were yet in the desert, and if we kept our due west course, we must cross some of the snow before us which if steep gave us some doubts whether we could get through or not.
We did not know exactly what the people left behind would do if we were gone longer than we intended, but if they started on it was quite plain to us they would be lost, and as seven days had already passed we were in serious trouble for fear we could not complete the trip in the time allotted to us. We surveyed the plain and mountains to learn its situation and then started, on following our trail. As we went on we seemed to be coming to lower ground, and near our road stood a tree of a kind we had not seen before. The trunk was about six or eight inches through and six or eight feet high with arms at the top quite as large as the body, and at the end of the arms a bunch of long, stiff bayonet shaped leaves.
It was a brave little tree to live in such a barren country. As we walked on these trees were more plenty and some were much larger than the first. As we came to the lowest part of the valley there seemed to be little faint water ways running around little clouds of stunted shrubs, but there was no signs that very much water ever run in them. We thought that these were the outlet of the big sandy lake which might get full of water and overflow through these channels after some great storm.
As this low ground was quite wide we lost our trail in crossing it, and we separated as we went along, looking to find it again, till nearly dark when we looked for a camping place. Fortunately we found a little pond of rain water, and some of our strange trees that were dead gave us good material for a fire, so that we were very comfortable indeed, having both drink and fire.
Starting on again our course was now ascending slightly, and we came across more and more of the trees, and larger ones than at first. We saw some that seemed to have broken down with their own weight. The bayonet shaped leaves seemed to fall off when old and the stalk looked so much like an old overgrown cabbage stump that we name them “Cabbage trees,” but afterward learned they were a species of Yucca. We were much worried at loosing our trail and felt that it would be quite unsafe to try to cross the mountain without finding it again, so we separated, Rogers going northwest, and I southwest, agreeing to swing round so as to meet again about noon, but when we met, neither of us had found a trail, and we were still about 10 miles from the foothills. Rogers said he had heard some of the people say that the trail leading from Salt Lake to Los Angeles crossed such a mountain in a low pass, with very high mountains on each side, and he supposed that the high mountain to the south must be the one where the trail crossed, but as this would take us fully fifty miles south of our course as we supposed it was we hesitated about going there, and concluded we would try the lowest place in the mountain first, and if we failed we could then go and try Roger’s route, more to the south.
So we pushed on, still keeping a distance apart to look out for the trail, and before night, in the rolling hills, we saw here and there faint traces of it, which grew plainer as we went along, and about sundown we reached some water holes and from some old skulls of oxen lying around the ground showing that it had at some previous time been a camping ground. We found some good large sage brush which made a pretty good fire, and if we could have had a little fresh meat to roast we thought we were in a good position for supper. But that poor meat was pretty dry food. However it kept us alive, and we curled up together and slept, for the night was cool, and we had to make the little blanket do its best. We thought we ought to find a little game, but we had not seen any to shoot since we started.
In the morning the trail led us toward the snow, and as we went along, a brave old crow surprised us by lighting on a bush near the trail, and we surprised him by killing him with a charge of shot. “Here’s your fresh meat,” said Rogers as he put it into his knapsack to cook for supper, and marched on. As we approached the summit we could see, on the high mountains south of us, some trees, and when we came near the highest part of our road there were some juniper trees near it, which was very encouraging. We crossed over several miles of hard snow, but it moistened up our moccassins and made them soft and uncomfortable. After we had turned down the western slope we killed a small hawk. “Here’s your meat” said I, as the poor thin fellow was stowed away for future grub, to cook with the crow.
When we got out of the snow we had lost the trail again but the hills on the sides were covered with large brush, and on a higher part of the mountain south, were some big trees, and we began to think the country would change for the better pretty soon. We followed down the ravine for many miles, and when this came out into a larger one, we were greatly pleased at the prospect, for down the latter came a beautiful little running brook of clear pure water, singing as it danced over the stones, a happy song and telling us to drink and drink again, and you may be sure we did drink, for it had been months and months since we had had such water, pure, sweet, free from the terrible alkali and stagnant taste that had been in almost every drop we had seen. Rogers leveled his shot gun at some birds and killed a beautiful one with a top knot on his head, and colors bright all down his neck. It was a California quail. We said birds always lived where human beings did, and we had great hopes born to us of a better land. I told John that if the folks were only there now I could kill game enough for them.
We dressed our three birds and got them boiling in the camp kettle, and while they were cooking talked over the outlook which was so flattering that our tongues got loose and we rattled away in strange contrast to the ominous silence of a week ago. While eating our stew of crow and hawk, we could see willows alders and big sage brush around and we had noticed what seemed to be cottonwoods farther down the cañon, and green trees on the slope of the mountain. We were sure we were on the edge of the promised land and were quite light hearted, till we began to tell of plans to get the good people out who were waiting for us beside the little spring in the desert. We talked of going back at once, but our meat was too near gone, and we must take them something to encourage them a little and make them strong for the fearful trip. As to these birds–the quail was as superb a morsel as ever a man did eat; the hawk was pretty fair and quite good eating; but that abominable crow! His flesh was about as black as his feathers and full of tough and bony sinews. We concluded we did not want any more of that kind of bird, and ever since that day, when I have heard people talk of “eating crow” as a bitter pill, I think I know all about it from experience.
There seemed to be no other way for us but to push on in the morning and try to obtain some relief for the poor women and children and then get back to them as fast as ever we could, so we shouldered our packs and went on down the cañon as fast as we could. We came soon to evergreen oaks and tall cottonwoods, and the creek bottom widened out to two hundred yards. There were trees on the south side and the brush kept getting larger and larger. There was a trail down this cañon, but as it passed under fallen trees we knew it could not have been the same one we had been following on the other side of the summit, and when we discovered a bear track in a soft place we knew very well it was not a trail intended for human beings, and we might be ordered out almost any moment.
On the high bold grassy point about four hundred yards we saw two horses that held their heads aloft and gave a snort, then galloped away out of sight. About 10 o’clock I felt a sudden pain in my left knee, keen and sharp, and as we went along it kept growing worse. I had to stop often to rest, and it was quite plain that if this increased or continued I was sure enough disabled, and would be kept from helping those whom we had left. Nerved with the idea we must get help to them, and that right soon, I hobbled along as well as I could, but soon had to say to Rogers that he had better go on ahead and get help and let me come on as best I could, for every moment of delay was a danger of death to our party who trusted us to get them help. Rogers refused to do this, he said he would stay with me and see me out, and that he could not do much alone, and had better wait till I got better. So we worked along through the tangled brush, being many times compelled to wade the stream to get along, and this made our moccasins soft and very uncomfortable to wear. I endured the pain all day, and we must have advanced quite a little distance in spite of my lameness, but I was glad when night came and we camped in the dark brushy cañon, having a big fire which made me quite comfortable all night, though it was quite cold, and we had to keep close together so as to use the blanket. I felt a little better in the morning and after eating some of our poor dried meat, which was about as poor as crow, and I don’t know but a little worse, we continued on our way.