Frank [pseud.], "A Night Adventure on the Plains," Juvenile Instructor, 1 Jan. 1888, 12-14.
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This one, was a huge work ox, that was lying down on the frozen road, with that sullen, stolid indifference to pain and the pangs of hunger, which characterizes, in western parlance, the "give out ox"-with hair on end, eyes dull and sunk deep in his head, denoting a so-far-goneness about our bovine friend, that he had even ceased to dream of the green fields of Iowa, from whose luxuriant grasses had been built up the giant frame, which had now lost its flesh and strength by a long tedious process of toil and starvation.
The woman continued, "Now do go, there's dears, and find him, while I'll stay here by the cart with this poor fellow."
The latter of the two men addressed said, "All right; Hunter, let's go; we'll make a fire fort and tip the cart up against this fearfully cold wind; Lizzie can sit in its shelter and watch this grim old monster, while we go and look for t'other chap—got a match Hunter?" The party addressed felt in his pockets in vain, and after a search by the speaker in his own, it was discovered the party were without means of making a fire, which after all, was no great loss as the buffalo chips, the only fuel within reach, were wet and frozen.
It was a bitter cold night in November, and the north-east wind whistled over the frozen ground and its glistening covering snow, with that keen, piercing chill, that is only known on the plains west of Laramie-the stars were shining brightly, and the sky had put on that deep intense blue, denoting the frigid temperature of the night.
The receding footsteps of the men crunching the snow beneath their tread, presently died away in the distance, and the woman was left alone, save the companionship of the gaunt, famine-stricken ox. It was a peculiar scene-the lone woman, the ox and the cart, on the limitless plain, which stretched out with its glistening coat of snow on every hand, until outlined against the horizon—the stillness unbroken—except an occasional cry of the coyote, answered by the howl of the grey wolf further in the distance.
The woman left to herself commenced to walk rapidly back and forth, knowing too well that death was in the icy breath of the pitiless wind; her short skirts, open bell-shaped sleeves, and general style of dress, excepting the tightly bound shawl over her breast, were more fitted for the domestic duties of a London home, than the rough and rugged life of the plains. Except for occasional stopping in her walk to listen for the returning footsteps of her companions, she maintained her lonely watch, her courage being equal to the fearful loneliness of her position, notwithstanding she was startled by the nearer barking of a coyote. The keen, piercing wind, with all her efforts, was surely doing its work. Presently, her steps grew less firm, and shivering with cold, she crouched down in a cramped position, behind the shelter of the cart; and had it not been for the return of the two men at this juncture from an unsuccessful search for the "t'other chap," she would, in a short time, have given way to the state of somnolency that precedes death from extreme cold.
The men, warm from exertion, found her just sinking into unconsciousness. The smaller of the two, when he discovered the condition of their partner, became greatly excited and cried, "My God, John, what will we say to her husband if we can't bring her too?" The men, with alternate scolding and beseeching tones, called on her to arouse herself for their sakes and her husband's, at the same time rubbing and chafing her limbs, with no very delicate touch, until animation was restored, and presently to their joy, she was so far recovered as to stand on her feet.
From them she learned, that their attempt to find the other better—conditioned ox, designated the "t'other chap" was a failure, and that they had determined to slaughter the one that was there before them, and make the best of it. The men prepared for the slaughter of the poor brute; poor in a double sense was the huge beast, which all this time, had shown no more signs of life than an Egyptian Sphinx, except for a small thin stream of steam that issued out on the frosty air, from his nostrils.
The instruments of death to be used, were a short-handled hatchet, its handle once broken off in the eye, had been refilled, making a poor substitute for a poll-axe and a case-knife; the latter, however, sharp and of good English steel.
Walters, the larger of the two men, was of a type of manly strength, which not discovering itself in excessive development of muscle, was of that fine physique, in which we find the greatest strength and endurance; his male companion was not possessed of much endurance or strength, while the woman physically strong, was possessed of a strong will power, and determination that overtaxed her physical endurance.
The larger man throwing aside his coat, directed the woman to lie on the back of the ox and hold on to his horn, for the purpose of warming herself and to keep the ox down, while he dispatched him with the hatchet—Hunter was also to hold one horn—planting himself in the best position for delivering his blow. The hammer head end of the hatchet, struck the forehead of the bovine with a dull, heavy thud, seemingly producing no effect whatever upon the poor beast, at least, no movement was made at this rude knocking at the door of his life.
"Well, I'll be blowed if that don't beat all," exclaimed Walters.
"Oh, take the sharp edge to it man, and cut your way through," said Hunter, with a slight Scotch accent.
No sooner said than done, and the huge brute got up on his feet slowly and deliberately; the woman and Hunter falling from his moving frame as it rose in the air. So insensible to pain had the brute become, that it took this stinging blow on the very center of the nerve forces, to awaken any degree of pain. Standing still right where he rose, he looked as though about to chew his cud, for all the damage done by the blows; but many days had elapsed, since he had indulged in the pastime of a contented, and well-conditioned stomach.
Hunter asked to try his hand. Walters gave him the hatchet and Hunter hammered away on the thick mat of hair protecting the skull, the only effect produced by the last and most effective blow was to cause the ox to walk on, and towards them a few paces. Several times was this performance repeated, until they had thought of abandoning their attempt; but at last Waters with a well-directed blow brought the ox down on his knees; the whole party then by a united effort, pushed him over on his side, when Walters by dint of great exertion succeeded in cutting his throat.
By this time the excitement and labor were wearing upon Hunter and the woman; the latter was directed by Walters to put her hands and arms into the belly of the ox to keep herself warm, while himself and Hunter proceeded to take off the hide, dividing the labor, and taking their place by the side of the woman in turn, to thaw the frozen blood from their hands in the warm intestines of the ox. After great labor, the task was accomplished, and the carcass was divided up, into not very choice cuts to be sure, but into convenient pieces and loaded on the cart, at which all worked with a will.
"Do you think we can take it all," asked Walters.
"Oh, yes," returned the woman.
"But the head," said Walters.
"We can't leave the head," said Hunter.
"The feet," suggested Lizzie.
"Oh, it won't do to leave the feet," quickly returned the Scot; so all was loaded up.
Wiping the blood from his feet on the hide, as he put on his coat, "Now," said Walters, "let's off for camp, just as fast as we can, or the captain will discover our absence;" and getting in between the shafts of the cart, with his companions one on either side, away they went, amid a howling chorus of coyotes and wolves, who had scented the blood and were closing in from every side, for their repast.
"It won't do to go in by the road," said Hunter, "so let's take a cut across, and avoid the bend we made last night;" so pulling and staining at their load they proceeded on their way thinking that the few inches of frozen snow, which readily bore up the empty cart, would prove such a detriment to their passage now retuning with the load.
"It aint far to camp, is it?" presently broke out the woman after a long silence.
"No," returned Hunter, but Walters knew it certainly must be a long three miles' steady pull, before they reached their tent, but said nothing, for he noticed the failing strength and unsteady gait of his male companion, and did not wish to discourage him. As they trudged in silence, the load wearing on their strength by breaking through the crust of the snow at every few steps, and after proceeding about a mile and a half, Hunter brought the cart to a full stop, by stumbling and falling on the snow, declaring he was tired to death, and could go no further.
The woman plead in vain for him to try again, and Walters threatened and plead in turns. At last said Walters, "Now come Hunter, be a man, get up; I'll throw off the head to lighten the load," and suiting the action to the word, off went the heavy head on the snow, scattering crimson spots on its white, glistening surface; at this, the canny Scot seemed to take umbrage, at such work, and getting on his feet, said if he could get inside the shafts, that he might lean on the cross piece connecting the ends of the shafts, the thought he might go on a little further. Taking fresh courage, they again bent to their task, and proceeded for another mile, when the woman, overcome with fatigue, lack of food and sleep, slipped and declared she could not take another step and fell exhausted upon the snow.
The scene of this adventure on the dreary and desolate plains, was situated about two hundred miles west of Laramie, and the party were members of the last hand-cart company, that crossed in the year 1856; pressed by the pangs of hunger, they had at the suggestion of Brother Walters, stolen out from the camp for the purpose of securing some beef, by slaughtering an ox unyoked from its mate, which had fallen and died in the earlier part of the afternoon; but failing to find the one for whom they had such especial regard, they, as already told, butchered the last ox that had "give out" later on; and were now returning to camp, from which they had stolen forth, contrary to rule and order, pressed into this adventure, by the desire to relieve the hunger of themselves, and the balance of the members of their tent; from a source other than the now meagre supply issued them from the commissary department of the company.
The husband of Sister Brown being disabled by frozen feet, she with characteristic British pluck, had volunteered to go in his place, therefore, the anxiety of the men for the safety of their brother's wife.
Daybreak was fast approaching as the greater part of the night had been consumed in the slaughter of the ox, owing to the poor tools used in the work. The cold had rather increased than abated, the wind had died away, and the cold was now intense; Walters became alarmed lest the scheme which he had planned, should end in sad tragedy, by the death of Sister Brown; the Scot's fears easily aroused, were increased by the anxiety he saw depicted in the countenance of his friend.
Sister Brown could not be induced to rise from the ground; entreaty and pleading were in vain, for she was speedily relapsing into the same inanimate state, from which they had once before revived her. Fear of the threatened calamity, seemed to lend new strength to the Scot, who after a renewed effort to persuade her to rouse herself, seized her in his arms, and lifted her between the shafts, then with the aid of his companion, half supporting, half dragging the woman between them, they toiled laboriously down the incline, which they presently recognized led to the hollow selected for their camp. Arriving in sight of camp, Sister Brown was made to understand that camp was just a little ahead; the news revived her and breaking out into tears and hysterical sobbing, she soon recovered herself at the thought of rejoining her husband again. And there away down in the hollow before them, appeared an encampment of several rows of tents, but the presence of so small a number of wagons for the transportation of the large number of souls, which in all probability the numerous tents sheltered, seemed inconsistent. The scene reminded one of the encampment of the children of Israel in the wilderness as represented in the old prints. On a closer view the handcarts of these modern children of Israel, were seen standing hard by the tent doors, whose light skeleton forms had borne the bedding and provision of the sleeping host.
Yes, children of Israel, were the sleeping inhabitants of these tents, or at least they were animated by the same spirit as those children of old, to hazard their lives, and brave the dangers of the terrible plains with their trust in the God of Abraham, in obedience to His call to "come out of her my people." They were there, with this trust and faith, together with their reliance on their own strong physical endurance they had been sustained thus far, in a journey unparalleled in the history of the past. Men, soldiers, inured to fatigue, have made marches, doing battle against their foes and exposed to the blasts and storms of Winter, as were these people of whom I write; but in this camp, the babe and tender child were sleeping by their mother's side, who, unacquainted with hardships, had left their homes in good old England to accompany their husbands, in a journey to the Zion of their hopes and dreams; and they would again face the cruel, bleak winds on the day now dawning, upheld by a spirit of religious enthusiasm, whose strength and power had not once failed them in their battle with their stern and forbidding surroundings.
It is true many of their weaker companions had died by the way and their graves dotted the path that these had trod, but the song and vigorous bodies of these Anglo-Saxons, did them good service in their battle for life with the cruel, biting blasts of the western plains, notwithstanding their supplies had run so short as to cause the captain to reduce the rations one-fourth, for several days prior to the date of which I am writing.
Arriving at the camp-fire, where an anxious watch had been maintained all night by the husband of Mrs. Brown and the wife of Brother Walters, our friend Hunter, staggered like a drunken man with exhaustion, but was revived by the administration of some hot broth, of which our party of the night adventure partook freely; and then learned that shortly after their leaving camp, the captain had ordered the surviving mate to the ox, whose frozen remains were yet on the hand cart of the three adventures, to be slaughtered for the use of the camp, and from whose flesh had been compounded the hot broth which they were enjoying with an appetite, sharpened by cold, labor and something akin to famine.
While unloading the meat into their tent, it caught the eye of an officious member of the camp, who at once reported to the captain his discovery; and before the meat could be distributed by our adventures among their friends, the greater part was seized by the captain's order, taken to head-quarters, and distributed under his direction.
Thus was the labor and exposure to the excessive cold, nearly terminating in the death of two of the party, resultant in very little benefit to our heroes and heroine; but if the narrative of their adventure shall be the cause of fastening upon the minds of my readers the conviction of the moral force of the gospel, that has impelled men and women, by the spirit of the gathering to leave the homes of their kindred, and the graves of their ancestors, to cross the wilds of America in search of the liberty to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, the story is not told in vain; nor is the part of the active participators without avail to others, while they themselves with thankful hearts rejoice in the blessings the gospel with its trials had brought to them.