With Lieutenant Pike - Edwin Sabin

Seeking the Lost River

"It's no use to march farther on this line, doctor."

Doctor Robinson answered promptly.

"I think you're right, lieutenant. We're getting nowhere, only deeper into the mountains. Men and horses are about at the end of their strength. There seems to be nothing ahead, except more cold, hunger and blind scrambling."

"The men are brave fellows," said the lieutenant. "That human beings, half fed and near naked, should be called upon to endure such marches and camps, amidst snow and zero weather, is almost more than can be expected from even soldiers. Their pay is a pittance, they don't know where they're going, they were not prepared for winter, yet I've heard not a word of complaint. When we return to the United States, the Government surely will reward them."

The lieutenant and the doctor, with Stub, were standing upon a high ridge some distance from camp. A week had passed since they all had entered the dry valley, to follow the trail north from the Arkansaw, on the search for the head of the Red River.

But instead of rounding the gap in the cliffs, the trail had led away, and away, ever northward, into the midst of the snow-caps. Presently, or after a couple of days, it had come out at the bank of another river, frozen over, forty paces wide, and flowing, as the lieutenant discovered, northeast!

That was a disappointment and a surprise. He and the doctor plainly were puzzled. The river was wrong. To be the Red River it should have flowed southeast. The lieutenant decided that this river must be the Platte River—or the beginnings of it, for the great Platte River was known to flow mainly through the plains, far north of the Pawnee country, and hundreds of miles distant.

The snowy mountains had closed around. They rose high and white and coldly silent. There appeared to be no way out, except by the back trail to the Arkansaw again, or by following this new river down-stream, but where?

The trail was continuing, up along this frozen river that wound through a series of snowy valleys between steep wooded hills. They all marched upon it. It evidently was going somewhere, perhaps to a better country, perhaps still to the head of the Red River and the circuit south for the lower regions of New Mexico. At least, the Spanish had some goal in view.

Next, they had come to a large camp, the largest yet, and only a few weeks old. But it had been an Indian camp. There were the circles where lodges—many lodges—had stood, the ashes in the center of each, and sign of fully one thousand horses.

"Utah," declared Baroney, examining a cast-off moccasin.

Stub agreed. Moccasins differed, and these were Utah moccasins, by the cut.

"Sure, then we're not follerin' the Spanish, or even the Comanches," John Sparks groaned, doubled over with rheumatism. The men all were pretty badly crippled by frost and chilblains and rheumatism, and their belts were small around their stomachs. "Weren't ye ever in this country before, boy? The Utahs had ye, once, you say."

Stub did not know.

"No remember. Big country, John. Mebbe here, mebbe somewhere."

The lieutenant and the doctor had asked him the same question; but he was as puzzled as they. He might have been hereabouts in summer; it was very different in winter. His head hurt, too. So he could not help them.

From the old camp, which seemed to have been a hunting camp, a regular village, and extended six miles long and two miles wide, covering the valley bottom, a trail led out, up stream again. In killing two buffalo (the first fresh meat since leaving the Arkansaw) another gun had burst—the third in the march. Its muzzle had got stopped with snow, and its barrel was very brittle from the frost.

John Sparks cut the burst end off, so that the gun might be used. Hugh Menaugh had no gun at all, and was marching with the lieutenant's sword and pistols.

The trail westward was not made by the Spanish. The Spanish trail (if there had been any Spanish trail) was swallowed up, in the big camp. But the trail out was better than none at all. It led through still more old camping places, where there were empty corn-cribs. There were no old corn-fields, though, and this set the men to wondering whether these Indians might not have got corn from the Spaniards, after all.

Then, on a sudden, the trail quit. It left them stranded, amidst the mountains. That had occurred this morning. The lieutenant had sent out searching parties. He then had taken the doctor and Stub, and climbed to the top of the high ridge, to spy out the country lying around.

"The men should be rewarded the same as the Lewis and Clark men will be rewarded—with money and land," now the doctor said.

"A more heroic little band never wore the United States uniform," the lieutenant declared.

The doctor laughed.

"They're not wearing that, these days, lieutenant. No one would take you and them for soldiers."

Very true. About the last trace of the blue uniforms had vanished. Only the lieutenant still had blue trousers, of thin cloth, for wearing on the march. His chief's uniform, of bright shoulder-pieces and shining buttons, he kept in a trunk, until he should meet the Spaniards or the Comanches. From his red-lined cloak he had cut a cap, and sewed fox-skin to it, for the inside; the rest of the cloak had gone into socks and mittens, for himself and Stub. On his feet were buffalo-hide moccasins, on his body a capote or blanket-coat; and up to his knees his legs were wrapped in deer-hide. He looked like a chief, nevertheless.

All this was little enough, for day and night wear in cold and storm. The doctor had less. To be sure, he had made himself a fur cap, of rabbit skin, and a deer-hide coat and mittens—but buckskin, without much under it, is cold stuff, as everybody knows. His trousers were torn so that they showed his own skin. His feet were clad in socks cut from a piece of blanket, and in the hide moccasins which did not fit and had to be tied on with thongs.

The men, and Stub, had been put to all kinds of shifts. Some wore coats cut, like the doctor's socks, from the gray, threadbare army blankets—and socks to match. Some wore coats of leather—poorly tanned hides that they had saved. Some wore even leather trousers like leggins. All wore buffalo hide moccasins, but not a one had a hat or cap. Their long hair protected their heads, and their faces were covered with shaggy, bristling beards—except Tom Dougherty, whose beard was only a stubble in patches. The other men poked a great deal of fun at young Tom.

As for Stub, his beautiful robe had long ago been turned into moccasins and leggins; and he tried to be comfortable in these, and a shirt from a left-over piece of John Sparks' gray blanket, and socks and mittens from the lieutenant's red-lined cloak. He did not need a cap.

Of course, the blankets and hides that had been used were needed for coverings, at night; but in such cold weather it was almost impossible to strip other hides and dress them. They were like boards, especially the buffalo hides. And deer were scarce.

From the high ridge where he and the lieutenant and the doctor stood the view was wide and wonderful, although not cheering. Mountains, mountains, mountains, their sides and tips shining white with snow, their bases, where seen, dark with wooded hills, the pine branches heavily laden by winter.

Far in the east and the southeast the mountains seemed to form a line with every gap stopped.

"Isn't that our Grand Peak, away yonder?" asked the doctor, pointing. "If so, I judge it's a hundred miles, as the bird flies."

"And unreachable from here, except by a bird, sir. We're shut off from it, completely. Besides, our road does not lie in that direction. Our duty as explorers demand that we do not give up so easily." And the lieutenant turned his glasses, so as to sweep the north and the northwest.

On the north were lofty hills, pine covered, breaking the nearer view; and snow mountains grouped behind them. The frozen river, marked by willows, stretched onward, in crooked bed, through the valley, now broad, now narrowed, into the northwest, soon to be closed upon by the hills and mountains there.

In all the great expanse nothing moved; even the other exploring parties were out of sight. It was a dead country.

The lieutenant shrugged his shoulders.

"Not very promising, eh?" the doctor queried anxiously.

"It does not promise success. Our course up this river should be abandoned. We are constantly making farther and farther northward, separated from the Red River by the mountains; game is getting less, the trail is unreliable, and we shall depend upon it no longer."

He gazed southward. The hills rose to mountains here also. He used his spy-glass intently. He handed it to the doctor.

"You'll see a great white mountain range, appearing through a gap almost directly south."

"Yes, sir. A thundering way off."

"It seems to be the end of a long chain extending westward from it. That chain, I believe, is the divide draining on this side into the Platte, on the other side into the Red River. We're on the wrong side. We should march southwest, to cross the nearer portion of the chain, and eventually come out upon the head of the Red River. At all events, well try it, while we can. But our march through here has not been wasted, for our Country. We can lay down on our map the sources of the Platte, which no one has supposed to be located at such a distance from the plains."

They all took another look, scanning the region south and southwest. With his own eyes Stub might descry the landmark of the Great White Mountains. The air was very clear, the sun rested just right, and through the gap there the tops of the mountains, sharp cut and triangular, stood out plainly amidst the other, lesser peaks. That called for a long, long journey.

They went back to camp. The other parties came in, and reported nothing but an old Indian camp, farther up. They had seen no game.

"An' what nixt, then, I wonder?" Pat Smith remarked, at the fire. "Do we kape goin', wid no end. Sure, the Red River can't lay hereabouts. We'll be nearer comin' to Canady."

"No keep going," Stub proudly announced. "The cap'n say turn 'round, for south. Big ridge there; big white mountains; Red River other side."

"South'ard? Hooray! That's a good word. It puts heart into us; hey, lads? We'll be gettin' out o' this trap where even the Injuns don't dare bide in winter, an' we'll be findin' the Red River, after all."

Stub's news cheered the men greatly. It took only a little to encourage them.