On the return of spring, Bridger again led his brigade all through the Yellowstone
country, to the streams on the north side of the Missouri, to the head-waters of that
river; and finally rendezvoused on the north fork of the Yellowstone, near Yellowstone
Lake. Though the amount of furs taken on the spring hunt was considerable, it was by
no means equal to former years. The fact was becoming apparent that the beaver was
being rapidly exterminated.
However there was beaver enough in camp to furnish the means for the usual
profligacy. Horse-racing, betting, gambling, drinking, were freely indulged in. In the
midst of this "fun," there appeared at the rendezvous Mr. Gray, now accompanied by
Mrs. Gray and six other missionary ladies and gentlemen. Here also were two
gentlemen from the Methodist mission on the Wallamet, who were returning to the
States. Captain Stuart was still traveling with the Fur Company, and was also present
with his party; besides which a Hudson's Bay trader named Ematinger was encamped
near by. As if actuated to extraordinary displays by the unusual number of visitors,
especially the four ladies, both trappers and Indians conducted themselves like the
mad-caps they were. The Shawnees and Delawares danced their great war-dance
before the tents of the missionaries; and Joe Meek, not to be outdone, arrayed himself
in a suit of armor belonging to Captain Stuart and strutted about the encampment; then
mounting his horse played the part of an ancient knight, with a good deal of eclat.
Meek had not abstained from the alcohol kettle, but had offered it and partaken of it
rather more freely than usual; so that when rendezvous was broken up, the St. Louis
Company gone to the Popo Agie, and the American Company going to Wind River, he
found that his wife, a Nez Perce who had succeeded Umentucken in his affections, had
taken offence, or a fit of homesickness, which was synonymous, and departed with the
party of Ematinger and the missionaries, intending to visit her people at Walla-Walla.
This desertion wounded Meek's feelings; for he prided himself on his courtesy to the
sex, and did not like to think that he had not behaved handsomely. All the more was he
vexed with himself because his spouse had carried with her a pretty and sprightly baby-daughter,
of whom the father was fond and proud, and who had been christened Helen
Mar, after one of the heroines of Miss Porter's Scottish Chiefs --a book much
in the mountains, as it has been elsewhere.
Therefore at the first camp of the American Company, Meek resolved to turn his back on the company, and go after the mother and daughter. Obtaining a fresh kettle of alcohol, to keep up his spirits, he left camp, returning toward the scene of the late rendezvous. But in the effort to keep up his spirits he had drank too much alcohol, and the result was that on the next morning he found himself alone on the Wind River Mountain, with his horses and pack mules, and very sick indeed. Taking a little more alcohol to brace up his nerves, he started on again, passing around the mountain on to the Sweetwater; thence to the Sandy, and thence across a country without water for seventy-five miles, to Green River, where the camp of Ematinger was overtaken.
The heat was excessive; and the absence of water made the journey across the arid
plain between Sandy and Green Rivers one of great suffering to the traveler and his
animals; and the more so as the frequent references to the alcohol kettle only
increased the thirst-fever instead of allaying it. But Meek was not alone in suffering.
About half way across the scorching plain he discovered a solitary woman's figure
standing in the trail, and two riding horses near her, whose drooping heads expressed
their dejection. On coming up with this strange group, Meek found the woman to be one
of the missionary ladies, a Mrs. Smith, and that her husband was lying on the ground,
dying, as the poor sufferer believed himself, for water.
Mrs. Smith made a weeping appeal to Meek for water for her dying husband; and truly
the poor woman's situation was a pitiable one. Behind camp, with no protection from
the perils of the desert and wilderness--only a terrible care instead--the necessity of
trying to save her husband's life. As no water was to be had, alcohol was offered to the
famishing man, who, however, could not be aroused from his stupor of wretchedness.
Seeing that death really awaited the unlucky missionary unless something could be
done to cause him to exert himself, Meek commenced at once, and with unction, to
abuse the man for his unmanliness. His style, though not very refined, was certainly
"You're a d- d pretty fellow to be lying on the ground here, lolling your tongue out of
your mouth, and trying to die. Die, if you want to, and to h--l with you; You'll never be
missed. Here's your wife, who you are keeping standing here in the hot sun; why don't
she die ? She's got more pluck than a white-livered chap like you. But I'm not going
leave her waiting here for you to die. Thar's a band of Indians behind on the trail, and
I've been riding like h--l to keep out of their way. If you want to stay here and be
scalped, you can stay; Mrs. Smith is going with me. Come, madam," continued Meek,
leading up her horse, " let me help you to mount, for we must get out of this cursed
country as fast as possible."
Poor Mrs. Smith did not wish to leave her husband; nor did she relish the notion of
staying to be scalped. Despair tugged at her heart-strings. She would have sunk to the
ground in a passion of tears, but Meek was too much in earnest to permit precious time
to be thus wasted. "Get on your horse," said he rather roughly. "You can't save your
husband by staying here, crying. It is better that one should die than two; and he seems
to be a worthless dog anyway. Let the Indians have him."
Almost lifting her upon the horse, Meek tore the distracted woman away from her
husband, who had yet strength enough to gasp out an entreaty not to be left.
"You can follow us if you choose," said the apparently merciless trapper, "or you can stay where you are. Mrs. Smith can find plenty of better men than you. Come, madam! " and he gave the horse a stroke with his riding whip which started him into a rapid pace.
The unhappy wife, whose conscience reproached her for leaving her husband to die
alone, looked back, and saw him raising his head to gaze after them. Her grief broke
out afresh, and she would have gone back even then to remain with him: but Meek was
firm, and again started up her horse. Before they were quite out of sight, Meek turned
in his saddle, and beheld the dying man sitting up. "Hurrah;" said he: " he's all right. He
will overtake us in a little while: " and as he predicted, in little over an hour Smith came
riding up, not more than half dead by this time. The party got into camp on Green River,
about eleven o'clock that night, and Mrs. Smith having told the story of her adventures
with the unknown trapper who had so nearly kidnaped her, the laugh and the cheer
went round among the company. "That's Meek," said Ematinger, "you may rely on that.
He's just the one to kidnap a woman in that way." When Mrs. Smith fully realized the
service rendered, she was abundantly grateful, and profuse were the thanks which our
trapper received, even from the much-abused husband, who was now thoroughly alive
again. Meek failed to persuade his wife to return with him. She was homesick for her
people, and would go to them. But instead of turning back, he kept on with Ematinger's
camp as far as Fort Hall, which post was then in charge of Courtenay Walker.
While the camp was at Soda Springs, Meek observed the missionary ladies baking
bread in a tin reflector before a fire. Bread was a luxury unknown to the mountainman,--and as a
sudden recollection of his boyhood, and the days of bread-and-butter
came over him, his mouth began to water. Almost against his will he continued to hang
round the missionary camp, thinking about the bread. At length one of the Nez Perces,
named James, whom the missionary had taught to sing, at their request struck up a
hymn, which he sang in a very creditable manner. As a reward of his pious proficiency,
one of the ladies gave James a biscuit. A bright thought struck our longing hero's brain.
"Go back," said he to James, "and sing another hymn; and when the ladies give you
another biscuit, bring it to me." And in this manner, he obtained a taste of the coveted
luxury, bread--of which, during nine years in the mountains he had not eaten.
At Fort Hall, Meek parted company with the missionaries, and with his wife and child.
As the little black-eyed daughter took her departure in company with this new element
in savage life,--the missionary society,--her father could have had no premonition of
the fate to which the admixture of the savage and the religious elements was step by
step consigning her.
After remaining a few days at the fort, Meek, who found some of his old comrades at
this place, went trapping with them up the Portneuf, and soon made up a pack of one
hundred and fifty beaver-skins. These, on returning to the fort, he delivered to Jo.
Walker, one of the American Company's traders at that time, and took Walker's receipt
for them. He then, with Mansfield and Wilkins, set out about the first of September for
the Flathead country, where Wilkins had a wife. In their company was an old Flathead
woman, who wished to return to her people, and took this opportunity.
The weather was still extremely warm. It had been a season of great drought, and the
streams were nearly all entirely dried up. The first night out, the horses, eight in
number, strayed off in search of water, and were lost. Now commenced a day of fearful
sufferings. No water had been found since leaving the fort. The loss of the horses
made it necessary for the company to separate to look for them; Mansfield and Wilkins
going in one direction, Meek and the old Flathead woman in another. The little
coolness and moisture which night had imparted to the atmosphere was quickly
dissipated by the unchecked rays of the pitiless sun shining on a dry and barren plain,
with not a vestige of verdure anywhere in sight. On and on went the old Flathead
woman, keeping always in the advance, and on and on followed Meek, anxiously
scanning the horizon for a chance sight of the horses. Higher and higher mounted the
sun, the temperature increasing in intensity until the great plain palpitated with radiated
heat, and the horizon flickered almost like a flame where the burning heavens met the
burning earth. Meek had been drinking a good deal of rum at the fort, which
circumstance did not lessen the terrible consuming thirst that was torturing him.
Noon came, and passed, arid still the heat and the suffering increased, the fever and
craving of hunger being now added to that of thirst. On and on, through the whole of
that long scorching afternoon, trotted the old Flathead woman in the peculiar traveling
gait of the Indian and the mountaineer, Meek following at a little distance, and going
mad, as he thought, for a little water. And mad he probably was, as famine sometimes
makes its victims. When night at last closed in, he laid down to die, as the missionary
Smith had done before. But he did not remember Smith: he only thought of water, and
heard it running, and fancied the old woman was lapping it like a wolf. Then he rose to
follow her and find it; it was always just ahead, and the woman was howling to him to
show him the trail.
Thus the night passed, and in the cool of the early morning he experienced a little
relief. He was really following his guide, who as on the day before was trotting on
ahead. Then the thought possessed him to overtake and kill her, hoping from her
shriveled body to obtain a morsel of food, and drop of moisture. But his strength was
failing, and his guide so far ahead that he gave up the thought as involving too great
exertion, continuing to follow her in a helpless and hopeless kind of way.
At last! There was no mistake this time: he heard running water, and the old woman
was lapping it like a wolf. With a shriek of joy he ran and fell on his face in the water,
which was not more than one foot in depth, nor the stream more than fifteen feet wide.
But it had a white pebbly bottom; and the water was clear, if not very cool. It was
something to thank God for, which the none too religious trapper acknowledged by a
fervent " Thank God! "
For a long time he lay in the water, swallowing it, and by thrusting his finger down his
throat vomiting it up again, to prevent surfeit, his whole body taking in the welcome
moisture at all its million pores. The fever abated, a feeling of health returned, and the
late perishing man was restored to life and comparative happiness. The stream proved
to be Godin's Fork, and here Meek and his faithful old guide rested until evening, in the
shade of some willows, where their good fortune was completed by the appearance of
Mansfield and Wilkins with the horses. The following morning the men found and killed
a fat buffalo cow, whereby all their wants were supplied, and good feeling restored in
the little camp.
From Godin's Fork they crossed over to Salmon River, and presently struck the Nez
Perce trail which leads from that river over into the Beaver-head country, on the
Beaver-head or Jefferson Fork of the Missouri, where there was a Flathead and Nez
Perce village, on or about the present site of Virginia City, in Montana.
Not stopping long here, Meek and his companions went on to the Madison Fork with the Indian village, and to the shores of Missouri Lake, joining in the fall hunt for buffalo.