Desert Everywhere

The range we had been traveling nearly parallel with seemed to come to an end here where this snow peak stood, and immediately north and south of this peak there seemed to be a lower pass. The continuous range north was too low to hold snow. In the morning I concluded to go to the summit of that pass and with my glass have an extensive view. Two other boys started with me, and as we moved along the snow line we saw tracks of our runaway Indian in the snow, passing over a low ridge. As we went on up hill our boys began to fall behind, and long before night I could see nothing of them. The ground was quite soft, and I saw many tracks of Indians which put me on my guard. I reached the summit and as the shade of its mountain began to make it a little dark, I built a fire of sage brush, ate my grub, and when it was fairly dark, renewed the fire and passed on a mile, where in a small ravine with banks two feet high I lay down sheltered from the wind and slept till morning. I did this to beat the Indian in his own cunning.

Next morning I reached the summit about nine o’clock, and had the grandest view I ever saw. I could see north and south almost forever. The surrounding region seemed lower, but much of it black, mountainous and barren. On the west the snow peak shut out the view in that direction. To the south the mountains seemed to descend for more than twenty miles, and near the base, perhaps ten miles away, were several smokes, apparently from camp fires, and as I could see no animals or camp wagons anywhere I presumed them to be Indians. A few miles to the north and east of where I stood, and somewhat higher, was the roughest piece of ground I ever saw. It stood in sharp peaks and was of many colors, some of them so red that the mountain looked red hot, I imagined it to be a true volcanic point, and had never been so near one before, and the most wonderful picture of grand desolation one could ever see.

Toward the north I could see the desert the Jayhawkers and their comrades had under taken to cross, and if their journey was as troublesome as ours and very much longer, they might by this time be all dead of thirst. I remained on this summit an hour or so bringing my glass to bear on all points within my view, and scanning closely for everything that might help us or prove an obstacle to our progress. The more I looked the more I satisfied myself that we were yet a long way from California and the serious question of our ever living to get there presented itself to me as I tramped along down the grade to camp. I put down at least another month of heavy weary travel before we could hope to make the land of gold, and our stock of strength and provisions were both pretty small for so great a tax upon them. I thought so little about anything else that the Indians might have captured me easily, for I jogged along without a thought of them. I thought of the bounteous stock of bread and beans upon my father’s table, to say nothing about all the other good things, and here was I, the oldest son, away out in the center of the Great American Desert, with an empty stomach and a dry and parched throat, and clothes fast wearing out with constant wear. And perhaps I had not yet seen the worst of it. I might be forced to see men, and the women and children of our party, choke and die, powerless to help them. It was a darker, gloomier day than I had ever known could be, and alone I wept aloud, for I believed I could see the future, and the results were bitter to contemplate. I hope no reader of this history may ever be placed in a position to be thus tried for I am not ashamed to say that I have a weak point to show under such circumstances. It is not in my power to tell how much I suffered in my lonely trips, lasting sometimes days and nights that I might give the best advice to those of my party. I believed that I could escape at any time myself, but all must be brought through or perish, and with this all I knew I must not discourage the others. I could tell them the truth, but I must keep my worst apprehensions to myself lest they loose heart and hope and faith needlessly.

I reached the camp on the third day where I found the boys who went part way with me and whom I had out-walked. I related to the whole camp what I had seen, and when all was told it appeared that the route from the mountains westerly was the only route that could be taken, they told me of a discovery they had made of a pile of squashes probably raised upon the place, and sufficient in number so that every person could have one. I did not approve of this for we had no title to this produce, and might be depriving the rightful owner of the means of life. I told them not only was it wrong to rob them of their food, but they could easily revenge themselves on us by shooting our cattle, or scalp us, by gathering a company of their own people together. They had no experience with red men and were slow to see the results I spoke of as possible.

During my absence an ox had been killed, for some were nearly out of provisions, and flesh was the only means to prevent starvation. The meat was distributed amongst the entire camp, with the understanding that when it became necessary to kill another it should be divided in the same way. Some one of the wagons would have to be left for lack of animals to draw it. Our animals were so poor that one would not last long as food. No fat could be found on the entire carcass, and the marrow of the great bones was a thick liquid, streaked with blood resembling corruption.

Our road led us around the base of the mountain; There were many large rocks in our way, some as large as houses, but we wound around among them in a very crooked way and managed to get along. The feet of the oxen became so sore that we made moccasins for them from the hide of the ox that was killed, and with this protection they got along very well. Our trains now consisted of seven wagons. Bennett had two; Arcane two; Earhart Bros. one. Culverwell, Fish and others one; and there was one other, the owners of which I have forgotten. The second night we had a fair camp with water and pretty fair grass and brush for the oxen. We were not very far from the snow line and this had some effect on the country. When Bennett retired that night he put on a camp kettle of the fresh beef and so arranged the fire that it would cook slowly and be done by daylight for breakfast. After an hour or so Mr. Bennett went out to replenish the fire and see how the cooking was coming on, and when I went to put more water in the kettle, he found that to his disappointment, the most of the meat was gone. I was rolled up in my blanket under his wagon and awoke when he came to the fire and saw him stand and look around as if to fasten the crime on the right party if possible, but soon he came to me, and in a whisper said: “Did you see anyone around the fire after we went to bed?” I assured him I did not, and then he told me some one had taken his meat. “Do you think,” said he “that any one is so near out of food as to be starving?” “I know the meat is poor, and who ever took it must be nearly starving.” After a whispered conversation we went to bed, but we both rose at daylight and, as we sat by the fire, kept watch of those who got up and came around. We thought we knew the right man, but were not sure, and could not imagine what might happen if stealing grub should begin and continue. It is a sort of unwritten law that in parties such as ours, he who steals provisions forfeits his life. We knew we must keep watch and if the offense was repeated the guilty one might be compelled to suffer. Bennett watched closely and for a few days I kept closely with the wagons for fear there might be trouble. It was really the most critical point in our experience. After three or four days all hope of detecting the criminal had passed, and all danger was over out of any difficulty.

One night we had a fair camp, as we were close to the base of the snow butte, and found a hole of clear or what seemed to be living water. There were a few minnows in it not much more than an inch long. This was among a big pile of rocks, and around these the oxen found some grass.

There now appeared to be a pass away to the south as a sort of outlet to the great plain which lay to the north of us, but immediately west and across the desert waste, extending to the foot of a low black range of mountains, through which there seemed to be no pass, the distant snowy peak lay still farther on, with Martin’s pass over it still a long way off though we had been steering toward it for a month. Now as we were compelled to go west this impassable barrier was in our way and if no pass could be found in it we would be compelled to go south and make no progress in a westerly direction.

Our trail was now descending to the bottom of what seemed to be the narrowest part of the plain, the same one the Jayhawkers had started across, further north, ten days before. When we reached the lowest part of this valley we came to a running stream, and, as dead grass could be seen in the bed where the water ran very slowly, I concluded it only had water in it after hard rains in the mountains, perhaps a hundred miles, to the north. This water was not pure; it had a bitter taste, and no doubt in dry weather was a rank poison. Those who partook of it were affected about as if they had taken a big dose of salts.

A short distance above this we found the trail of the Jayhawkers going west, and thus we knew they had got safely across the great plain and then turned southward. I hurried along their trail for several miles and looked the country over with field glass becoming fully satisfied we should find no water till we reached the summit, of the next range, and then fearing the party had not taken the precaution to bring along some water I went back to them and found they had none. I told them they would not see a drop for the next forty miles, and they unloaded the lightest wagon and drove back with everything they had which would hold water, to get a good supply.

I turned back again on the Jayhawker’s road, and followed it so rapidly that well toward night I was pretty near the summit, where a pass through this rocky range had been found and on this mountain not a tree a shrub or spear of grass could be found–desolation beyond conception. I carried my gun along every day, but for the want of a chance to kill any game a single load would remain in my gun for a month. Very seldom a rabbit could be seen, but not a bird of any kind, not even a hawk buzzard or crow made their appearance here.

When near the steep part of the mountain, I found a dead ox the Jayhawkers had left, as no camp could be made here for lack of water and grass, the meat could not be saved. I found the body of the animal badly shrunken, but in condition, as far as putrefaction was concerned, as perfect as when alive. A big gash had been cut in the ham clear to the bone and the sun had dried the flesh in this. I was so awful hungry that I took my sheath knife and cut a big steak which I devoured as I walked along, without cooking or salt. Some may say they would starve before eating such meat, but if they have ever experienced hunger till it begins to draw down the life itself, they will find the impulse of self preservation something not to be controlled by mere reason. It is an instinct that takes possession of one in spite of himself.

I went down a narrow, dark cañon high on both sides and perpendicular, and quite so in many places. In one of the perpendicular portions it seemed to be a varigated clay formation, and a little water seeped down its face. Here the Indians had made a clay bowl and fastened it to the wall so that it would collect and retain about a quart of water, and I had a good drink of water, the first one since leaving the running stream. Near here I staid all night, for fear of Indians who I firmly believe would have taken my scalp had a good opportunity offered. I slept without a fire, and my supply of meat just obtained drove hunger away.

In the morning I started down the cañon which descended rapidly and had a bed of sharp, volcanic, broken rock. I could sometimes see an Indian track, and kept a sharp lookout at every turn, for fear of revenge on account of the store of squashes which had been taken. I felt I was in constant danger, but could do nothing else but go on and keep eyes open trusting to circumstances to get out of any sudden emergency that might arise.

As I recollect this was Christmas day and about dusk I came upon the camp of one man with his wife and family, the Rev. J.W. Brier, Mrs. Brier and two sons. I inquired for others of his party and he told me they were somewhere ahead. When I arrived at his camp I found the reverend gentleman very cooly delivering a lecture to his boys on education. It seemed very strange to me to hear a solemn discourse on the benefits of early education when, it seemed to me, starvation was staring us all in the face, and the barren desolation all around gave small promise of the need of any education higher than the natural impulses of nature. None of us knew exactly where we were, nor when the journey would be ended, nor when substantial relief would come. Provisions were wasting away, and some had been reduced to the last alternative of subsisting on the oxen alone. I slept by the fire that night, without a blanket, as I had done on many nights before and after they hitched up and drove on in the morning I searched the camp carefully, finding some bacon rinds they had thrown away. As I chewed these and could taste the rich grease they contained, I thought they were the sweetest morsels I ever tasted.

Here on the north side of the cañon were some rolling hills and some small weak springs, the water of which when gathered together made a small stream which ran a few yards down the cañon before it lost itself in the rocks and sand. On the side there stood what seemed to be one half of a butte, with the perpendicular face toward the cañon. Away on the summit of the butte I saw an Indian, so far away he looked no taller than my finger, and when he went out of sight I knew pretty well he was the very fellow who grew the squashes. I thought it might be he, at any rate.

I now turned back to meet the teams and found them seven or eight miles up the cañon, and although it was a down grade the oxen were barely able to walk slowly with their loads which were light, as wagons were almost empty except the women and children. When night came on it seemed to be cloudy and we could hear the cries of the wild geese passing east. We regarded this as a very good sign and no doubt Owen’s Lake, which we expected to pass on this route, was not very far off. Around in those small hills and damp places was some coarse grass and other growths, but those who had gone before devoured the best, so our oxen had a hard time to get anything to eat.

Next morning I shouldered my gun and followed down the cañon keeping the wagon road, and when half a mile down, at the sink of the sickly stream, I killed a wild goose. This had undoubtedly been attracted here the night before by the light of our camp fire. When I got near the lower end of the cañon, there was a cliff on the north or right hand side which was perpendicular or perhaps a little overhanging, and at the base a cave which had the appearance of being continuously occupied by Indians. As I went on down I saw a very strange looking track upon the ground. There were hand and foot prints as if a human being had crawled upon all fours. As this track reached the valley where the sand had been clean swept by the wind, the tracks became more plain, and the sand had been blown into small hills not over three or four feet high. I followed the track till it led to the top of one of these small hills where a small well-like hole had been dug and in this excavation was a kind of Indian mummy curled up like a dog. He was not dead for I could see him move as he breathed, but his skin looked very much like the surface of a well dried venison ham. I should think by his looks he must be 200 or 300 years old, indeed he might be Adam’s brother and not look any older than he did. He was evidently crippled. A climate which would preserve for many days or weeks the carcass of an ox so that an eatable round stake could be cut from it, might perhaps preserve a live man for a longer period than would be believed.

I took a good long look at the wild creature and during all the time he never moved a muscle, though he must have known some one was in the well looking down at him. He was probably practicing on one of the directions for a successful political career looking wise and saying nothing. At any rate he was not going to let his talk get him into any trouble. He probably had a friend around somewhere who supplied his wants. I now left him and went farther out into the lowest part of the valley. I could look to the north for fifty miles and it seemed to rise gradually in that direction. To the south the view was equally extended, and down that way a lake could be seen. The valley was here quite narrow, and the lofty snow-capped peak we had tried so hard to reach for the past two months now stood before me. Its east side was almost perpendicular and seemed to reach the sky, and the snow was drifting over it, while here the day sun was shining uncomfortably hot. I believe this mountain was really miles from its base to its summit, and that nothing could climb it on the eastern side except a bird and the only bird I had seen for two months was the goose I shot. I looked every day for some sort of game but had not seen any.

As I reached the lower part of the valley I walked over what seemed to be boulders of various sizes, and as I stepped from one to another the tops were covered with dirt and they grew larger as I went along. I could see behind them and they looked clear like ice, but on closer inspection proved to be immense blocks of rock salt while the water which stood at their bases was the strongest brine. After this discovery I took my way back to the road made by the Jayhawkers and found it quite level, but sandy. Following this I came to a campfire soon after dark at which E. Doty and mess were camped. As I was better acquainted I camped with them. They said the water there was brackish and I soon found out the same thing for myself. It was a poor camp; no grass, poor water and scattering, bitter sage brush for food for the cattle. It would not do to wait long here, and so they hurried on.

I inquired of them about Martin’s Pass, as they were now quite near it, and they said it was no pass at all, only the mountain was a little lower than the one holding the snow. No wagon could get over it, and the party had made up their minds to go on foot, and were actually burning their wagons as fuel with which to dry the meat of some of the oxen which they had killed. They selected those which were weakest and least likely to stand the journey, and by drying it the food was much concentrated. They were to divide the provisions equally and it was agreed thereafter every one must lookout for himself and not expect any help from anyone. If he used up his own provisions, he had no right to expect anyone else to divide with him. Rice, tea and coffee were measured out by the spoonful and the small amount of flour and bacon which remained was divided out as evenly as possible. Everything was to be left behind but blankets and provisions for the men were too weak to carry heavy packs and the oxen could not be relied on as beasts of burden and it was thought best not to load them so as to needlessly break them down.

When these fellows started out they were full of spirit, and the frolic and fun along the Platte river was something worth laughing at but now they were very melancholy and talked in the lowest kind of low spirits. One fellow said he knew this was the Creator’s dumping place where he had left the worthless dregs after making a world, and the devil had scraped these together a little. Another said this must be the very place where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, and the pillar been broken up and spread around the country. He said if a man was to die he would never decay on account of the salt. Thus the talk went on, and it seemed as if there were not bad words enough in the language to properly express their contempt and bad opinion of such a country as this. They treated me to some of their meat, a little better than mine, and before daylight in the morning I was headed back on the trail to report the bad news I had learned of the Jayhawkers.

About noon I met two of our camp companions with packs on their backs following the wagon trail, and we stopped and had a short talk. They were oldish men perhaps 50 years old, one a Mr. Fish of Indiana and another named Gould. They said they could perhaps do as well on foot as to follow the slow ox teams, but when I told them what those ahead of them were doing, and how they must go, they did not seem to be entirely satisfied, as what they had on their backs would need to be replenished, and no such chance could be expected. They had an idea that the end of the journey was not as far off as I predicted. Mr. Fish had a long nicely made, whiplash wound around his waist, and when I asked him why he carried such a useless thing, which he could not eat, he said perhaps he could trade it off for something to eat. After we had set on a sand hill and talked for awhile, we rose and shook each other by the hand, and bade each other good bye with quivering lips. There was with me a sort of expression I could not repel that I should never see the middle aged men again.

As my road was now out and away from the mountains, and level, I had no fear of being surprised by enemies, so walked on with eyes downcast, thinking over the situation, and wondering what would be the final outcome. If I were alone, with no one to expect me to help them, I would be out before any other man, but with women and children in the party, to go and leave them would be to pile everlasting infamy on my head. The thought almost made me crazy but I thought it would be better to stay and die with them, bravely struggling to escape than to forsake them in their weakness.

It was almost night before I reached our camp, and sitting around our little fire I told, in the most easy way I could the unfavorable news of the party in advance. They seemed to look to me as a guide and adviser, I presume because I took much pains to inform myself on every point and my judgment was accepted with very little opposing opinion, they moved as I thought best. During my absence from camp for the two days the Indians had shot arrows into three of our oxen, and one still had an arrow in his side forward of the hip which was a dangerous place. To be sure and save him for ourselves we killed him. Some were a little afraid to eat the meat thinking perhaps the arrow might be poisoned, but I agreed that they wanted meat themselves and would not do that. I told them if they got a shot themselves it would be very likely to be a poisoned arrow and they must take the most instant measures to cut it out before it went into the blood. So we ventured to dry the meat and take it with us.

Now I said to the whole camp “You can see how you have displeased the red men, taking their little squashes, and when we get into a place that suits them for that purpose, they may meet us with a superior force and massacre us, not only for revenge but to get our oxen and clothing.” I told them we must ever be on guard against a surprise, as the chances were greatly against us.

We pulled the arrows out of the other oxen, and they seemed to sustain no great injury from the wounds. This little faint stream where we camped has since been named as Furnace Creek and is still known as such. It was named in 1862 by some prospectors who built what was called an air furnace on a small scale to reduce some ore found near by, which they supposed to contain silver, but I believe it turned out to be lead and too far from transportations to be available.

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