Gold Cache - James W. Schultz

Chapter VI

Day was breaking when I awoke. I remembered with some misgivings my promise that we should go on south to the place where Jose had said we should find gold. Jose was only the guide and scout of our little party; it was for me to say how far we should go and when we should turn back. That was a good deal of responsibility, and it weighed upon me as I joined the others before the breakfast fire.

While we ate our morning meal Jose kept urging me to go on south; and Pi'tamakan pleaded that, since we were now so near the always-summer land, we should not miss the chance to see its wonders. Bringer, on the other hand, advised us to go straight back to Fort Benton.

"That hot desert country," he said, "is alive with Apache Indians and with all sorts of other poisonous things; it's one very good place for us Northerners to keep out of." I reached for a cup and started for the creek—not to get a drink, but to be alone to think. If my Uncle Wesley knew that we had failed to find the cache, would he object to my going farther in quest of fortune? Setting aside my own inclination, I honestly tried for half an hour or more to see the situation as my uncle himself would see it if he were present. At last I made my decision and went back to the camp-fire.

"We will go on," I said to my companions.

"Well," said Bridger, "if you're bound to go on, I'm bound to help you all I can. Now, what do you want? Grub—blankets—clothes? Come over to the commissary tent and pick 'em out. Money? Say how much and I'll lend it to you."

We selected a pack saddle for our stray horse and loaded it with a gold pan, a pick and a shovel, and what few articles of clothing and bedding we needed. I gave Bridger an order on the American Fur Company for the value of those goods, and we pulled out, of the soldier camp about noon, leaving no debt behind us. Our route took us down Big Sandy Creek and then southward along the east side of Green River. There was a fair trail to a place called Brown's Hole, where some of the mountain men had once built a small fort. From there on, for many a mile, we were in a part of the country that white men had rarely, if ever, traversed.

Day after day we traveled through timber-choked bottom lands of the river and over bare, rocky ridges; yawning canons often barred our way for hours. Nowhere was there any sign of man, white or red, but game was plentiful—elk and mule deer especially. Our horses soon showed signs of becoming sore-footed, and to save them we kept wrapping their hoofs in elk hide.

Some distance above the mouth of a river that Jose called the Grand, we crossed an old trail that he said ran from Santa Fe and a smaller town named Abiquiu clear across the country to the Pacific Coast of California. He had himself made one trip over it in his youth.

Some days' travel below the mouth of Grand River we passed another stream that Jose said was the San Juan, and several days thereafter we came to the edge of a great desert. Pi'tamakan and I looked out upon it—a great waste of sand and gravel sparsely grown with sage and greasewood. For the first time we hesitated about going farther; to the very edge of the horizon there was no grass or game in sight, nor was there any sign of a water-course.

Jose laughed at our fears. "Although you cannot see it, there is water and grass and good fat meat out yonder. Let us be moving; the sun will not stop in its course for us."

Near sunset we halted at the foot of a long, flat-topped butte and made camp by a little stream in a wash fringed with cottonwood trees. There we shot a mule deer, and stopped for a day to dry some of the meat.

"Who are the people that live in this strange land?" Pi'tamakan asked, as he was cutting the venison into thin strips.

"The Navajos," Jose replied. "They are in number as many as the grass, but only a few of them are ever seen together at a time. We are here on the very northern edge of their country."

"Are they fighters—are they brave people?"

"They are great thieves; they will fight when they are many. No, they are not like the Blackfeet or the Crows or the Sioux; I never heard of a party of Navajos setting out to make war against distant tribes."

"What will they do if they discover us?" I asked.

Jose smiled "We must not let them see us."

"Ahks-ah-ki wa?" (What does it matter?) Pi'tamakan exclaimed, and snapped his fingers in contempt of all Navajos.

"Huh! You will think it matters if a lot of them get after us!" Jose answered.

He said that we must take precautions, and so we waited for night before starting on. As we trailed along over the desert a cold east wind sprang up and chilled us; we had to take our blankets from the outfit on the pack horse and wrap them about us.

"Man of the South, tell me where is this always-summer land?" Pi'tamakan exclaimed, shivering. "We seem to be going into Cold-Maker's country instead of away from it."

"Young brother, we are still a long distance away from that warm country," Jose replied. "Right here we are high up in the air. Here snow falls in winter and water freezes."

An hour or more before day we came to the edge of a deep canon, but in the darkness we could find no way to get into it. Even when the light came we could see no way of getting into the canon; naturally we were very uneasy, for we were conspicuous there on the edge of the cliff.

We turned to the east to follow up the rim of the canon, but presently a short side canon barred our way, and we had to make a detour round it of more than a mile. When we again came to the edge of the big canon fortune seemed to favor us; right there was a dim trail that zigzagged down from shelf to shelf as far as we could see. We all went down to the first shelf, and then Jose called a halt while he made certain that the horses could follow the trail to the bottom. When he returned to us he said that, although the trail was very steep, there was only one very risky place on it, where the path ran for about a dozen paces along a narrow ledge. He thought that we ought to risk the descent.

Jose went first, leading his horse; I followed with mine; the pack animal came right behind; and Pi'tamakan, leading his horse, brought up the rear. Upon coming to the dangerous place, about a third of the way down, we stopped and rearranged the load on the pack-horse, piling it high instead of low and wide, as it had been. There was now ample room for the horse all the way along the ledge, and so, not thinking much of possible danger, we started on. On the outer side of the trail I looked straight down two or three hundred feet to the bottom of the canon, but my only thought was of what a fine camp we should have there beside the swift little stream that leaped among the rocks.

I had no sooner crossed the ledge with my horse than Pi'tamakan shouted, "Nu-zuah!" and the pack animal gave a scream of terror. I turned just in time to see the animal hurtling off into space, and with it went part of the ledge that I had crossed only a few seconds before.

For a moment or two none of us spoke; we could only stare at one another and at the wide gap that separated Pi'tamakan from Jose and me. For a space of more than fifteen feet there was nothing except a straight wall; the blackened, water-stained face of the rock showed how slightly that part of the ledge had been attached to the main wall.

Jose was the first of us to realize the seriousness of our situation. "You must remain right where you are until I come back for you, or make signs to you which way to go!" he cried to Pi'tamakan in a voice that plainly showed his uneasiness.

Jose and I were not long in getting to the bottom of the canon. Near the foot of the cliff we found the body of the pack-horse; our belongings were partly buried under the fragments of the fallen ledge. Jose told me to dig them out and repack them on my horse while he tried to find a way for Pi'tamakan to come down into the canon. Mounting his horse, he rode away upstream, and was soon out of sight behind a thick patch of willows.

I found it no small task to clear the mass of rock away from our pack. The blankets, dry meat, extra clothing, and reserve supply of powder and ball were in good shape, and so, too, was the gold pan; but search as I would, I could find neither the pick nor the shovel that had been bound on top of the pack.

After half an hour Jose returned and reported that he had found a good trail. Standing on the bank of the stream he signaled to Pi'tamakan in the sign language:

"I have found a way. Go cautiously up to the top of the cliff; if you see no enemy, ride along the edge. I will signal to you when you come to the trail."

We watched Pi'tamakan ascend to the top of the cliff. He presently signaled that no one was in sight, and we started up the canon. I went on foot and led my animal, which now carried our outfit. After making camp somewhere above, we were to return and search again for the mining tools; for, as Jose said, we could not shovel gravel with our hands.

Sometimes riding and sometimes leading his horse, Pi'tamakan kept fairly abreast with us. We had traveled more than a mile from the scene of the accident when Jose pointed to the place where the trail crossed the canon, still a quarter of a mile farther on. From the rim on the north—Pi'tamakan's side—it came down a long, sloping point at the mouth of a tributary wash; on the south side it wound up to the top along a succession of shelves. I had just remarked that we had better conceal ourselves for the day in thick brush some distance from it, when boom went Pi'tamakan's rifle. We heard some distance ahead of us a sharp scream of pain, shouts, and then a gunshot.

The suddenness of it all brought us up short, with every nerve in our bodies tingling. Owing to the thorn brush, which studded the bottom of the canon, we could not see more than fifty yards ahead; but Pi'tamakan, up on the rim, hastily re-loading his rifle, was in plain sight. He fired again, and then, dropping his gun, said to us in signs, "Men ahead of you. Retreating. Unless I sign you to stop, go to trail, climb to top on far side, and stand watch there while I cross to you."

"Yes," Jose answered. "Yes, we understand; we go."

With that we started on. Pi'tamakan mounted his horse and set out at a good pace along the edge of the cliff. Once he dismounted, knelt, and, after taking careful aim, fired another shot down into the canon. We heard no answering reports.

At last we arrived at the trail without having had a single glimpse of the enemy. Pi'tamakan was already at the point where the trail started down the long slope, and he signaled to us that he would stand there while we climbed the trail on the south side. We started immediately up the steep path, and never stopped until we reached the top. As soon as we got our breath and cleared our eyes of perspiration, we moved on a few yards to a place where we could get a clear view of the canon. In a fringe of cottonwoods under us were three huts made of earth, and smudges of smoke rose from at least two more farther up.

Pi'tamakan now signaled to us, "Watch. I start." "Come," we answered back.

Mounting his horse, he rode down the dangerous trail at a breakneck pace. He reached the bottom of the canon safely, however, and then, waving his rifle at us, turned sharply off to the right.

"He made a kill with one of his shots," said Jose, "and now he goes to take the scalp. We are in for trouble."

"There it comes now," said I, and pointed at a dozen or more men who were riding down the canon at full speed.

When the men were near the huts, a woman sprang from the brush into the open, halted them, and pointed first at the trail that Pi'tamakan had descended and then at us.

"We must warn Pi'tamakan, and anyhow we may as well begin the dance," said Jose. "Shoot, now, and shoot your straightest."

The party was a long way from us,—five or six hundred yards,—but the riders were all closely grouped in front of the woman and so offered a big, compact mark. We fired almost simultaneously; one of the horses reared straight up on its hind legs and fell over backward with its rider.

The party scattered and disappeared in the cottonwoods. As we were reloading, five of the Indians rode back up the canon and soon vanished round the bend whence they had come. It was evident that they had gone for reinforcements, and that probably a party of them would soon appear on the desert.

Presently we heard the clatter of rocks, and Pi'tamakan rode up the trail. Attached to his belt was a scalp with a long braid and a shorter one to which was fastened a large silver disk. He also had a necklace made of nine large stamped disks of silver, separated by twice as many round beads.

"Brother, I count coup!" he cried, with his eyes blazing. "Again have I killed one of the enemy."

"Yes, yes, we see, we know," Jose replied impatiently. "Now, then, hurry! You take one of these sacks of balls and a blanket and I'll take the other sack and a blanket. Maybe we shall have to throw them away soon, but we'll pack them as far as we can."

In another moment we were off. Again the gray and lifeless desert stretched away before us for miles and miles, to some flat-topped, cliff-sided buttes. Jose thought that the one that was farthest to the west might possibly be the butte upon which was perched the Hopi pueblo of Oraibi.

"If it is Oraibi, we shall find true welcome," he said.

We jogged along at a trot all the morning without seeing any sign of the enemy. Shortly after noon we came to another canon, which was not so deep or so wide as the one we had passed; a small stream with well-grassed shores trickled through it. We took turns watching on top of the cliffs, while the others went down, drank, and cared for the horses.

It was not until late in the day that Jose, who was standing watch, reported that about twenty-five Navajos had come in sight to the north on our trail. We could not understand why they had been so long in coming; had they been Sioux or Crows, or any other tribe of the North, we should have had a fight with them hours before.

When we got out of the canon the party was still five or six miles behind us and, by the way they rode, seemed in no hurry to overtake us. We had managed to get short naps in the canon and now felt quite fresh, as did the horses. They broke into a lope without much urging, and away we went toward the still-distant, sharp-ended butte where we hoped to find shelter.

Upon seeing us start away from the canon, the Navajos came on faster, but it was soon evident that they did not intend soon to overtake us. When we went at a lope, so did they; when our horses trotted or drew down to a walk, so did theirs. Never before had we seen an enemy act in such manner.

Presently they crossed the canon, and still the distance between us neither increased nor diminished. As night came on, their steady pursuit of us got on our nerves. There would be no moon until ten or eleven o'clock, and even the light of that would be dim.

"Listen!" I said. "It is plain enough what that party behind us intend to do. As soon as it is dark they will circle on ahead, leave their horses and lie in wait for us. That is how they intend to get our scalps."

"A party of Assiniboins once tried that trick on some of us Company men when we were trapping down Milk River," Jose said, "and I'll show you now how we fooled them. Come, whip up your horses."

Several miles ahead we could see a big, wide stretch of the desert that was as level and bare as a floor. Jose led us out to the middle of it and ordered us to unsaddle as quickly as possible. Then under his directions we threw one after another of the three horses, and "hog-tied" each so that it could not get up. The animals lay close together in a triangle. Slashing the dry earth with knives and shoveling and pushing it with hands and gun-stocks, we heaped up a ridge about two feet high round the horses.

By the time we had thrown up those breastworks the sun had set and the Navajos had come to the edge of the sage and greasewood growth about half a mile away. There they remained as the darkness gradually came on.

The horses were very uncomfortable and often thumped the ground with their heads in vain efforts to get up. Lying in between them, we looked out in three directions over the breastworks

After an hour Jose loosened the tie strings of the saddles, removed the blankets, and passed one to Pi'tamakan and one to me, for we had begun to feel cold. At last the moon came up through the clouds, but its light revealed nothing of the Navajos, and we lay in our blankets through the long night without catching a glimpse of the enemy.

When the gray light of day finally came we were able to distinguish some animals at the edge of the sage and greasewood north of us, where we had seen the Navajos in the gathering darkness a good many hours before. A little later we made out that they were horses, but there were only five of them. On seeing that we snatched the hobbles off our animals and helped them struggle to their feet. While saddling them we saw the owners of the five horses rise out of the brush and prepare to move.

Our animals were so very stiff from their long night on the ground that they walked as if their legs were sticks. The five Navajos came steadily on a half-mile or so in our rear. What had become of their companions? We decided that they had gone on during the night and that they would be waiting for us at the first canon or water-course that lay in our path. After some talk we decided to keep straight toward the distant butte, and take our chance of getting rid of the Indians when the time came for action. Hungry, thirsty, and sleepy, we urged on our worn horses.

An hour after sunrise we came in sight of a black, wide, snakelike gash in the desert, which plainly marked the course of a canon.

"Brothers," Jose cried, pointing toward the gash, "somewhere along the edge of these cliffs the rest of the enemy await us!"

"And we have to get into the canon or die from thirst," I added.

"I see how we can get into it and out of it, and go our way so long as the horses can carry us!" Pi'tamakan exclaimed. "Notice that over there the canon turns sharply south, makes a big half-circle, and then turns again to the east. Well, we will ride slowly toward the beginning of that long bend, and the Navajos in the canon will, of course, make for the same spot to head us off. We will ride very slowly and give them plenty of time to reach that point; then when we get close to it we will turn sharp off to the east and cross the canon on the other side of the bend, long before the Indians can ride round that big half-circle. But first of all, we have to wipe out those five men on our trail."

"No, now is not the time to attack the five," Jose objected. "We should tire our horses so much that they couldn’t make the second run to cut across the neck of the big bend."

Pi'tamakan agreed that we could turn on our trailers when we changed our course near the canon, and we started to work out the rest of his plan. On we went at a very slow pace toward the beginning of the big bend; and now for the first time the Navajos behind us began little by little to lessen our lead. Their actions convinced us that the rest of the party were certainly lying in wait for us at the canon. We were equally certain that our one chance of escape was to entice the enemy to the beginning of the big bend, and then cut across it while they were traversing the several miles of its half-circle.

We had almost reached the canon before Jose gave the word to turn. For a moment the five Navajos behind us paused, and then to our surprise, instead of running away, showed fight. That pleased us, since it would soon end what had promised otherwise to be a long, hard chase. We advanced toward them with right good heart; and when Pi'tamakan raised his voice in the Blackfoot war song, Jose and I were not slow in taking it up.

"Now! Off your horses and take the man with the gun!" Jose commanded, when we were about two hundred yards from the Navajos.

Down we sprang, took quick aim and fired. The man we fired at was just bringing his gun into position; it went off with a bang as he pitched head-first to the ground. Thinking that they could use their bows before we could reload, the other four came straight on. At the right time we suddenly drew our revolvers and, before they fired a single arrow, dropped another man and the horse of a third. That was enough for the two remaining riders; they fled pell-mell.

Pi'tamakan was the first one of us to get his rifle reloaded, and within two minutes he had killed the Indian whose horse we had shot. Ten minutes later Jose and I were at the eastern end of the big bend, looking for a place where we might get into the canon, and Pi'tamakan was hurrying to catch up with us after taking the scalps of the Navajos.

The canon was steep where we struck it, but less than a half mile farther on we found the place where the other party of Navajos had descended. We were soon at the bottom of the canon, bathing our faces in the cool water of the creek. We dared not drink all we wanted or allow the horses to take their fill.

As we were pulling and whipping the stubborn animals away from the creek, the two Navajos who had fled from us appeared on the cliffs above and, looking up the canon, began to wave their blankets. Without wasting any time we rode off down it. We must get out on the desert before the enemy overtook us, for if they once surrounded us in the canon we were lost.

The view down the canon was not promising; indeed, it was quite the contrary. As far as we could see, the wall on either side rose almost straight up from the bottom. The two Navajos above were keeping pace with us and waving their blankets more frantically than ever. We had no time to take a shot at them.