Alfred Lambourne, An Old Sketch-Book (1892).
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This old sketch-book—well, well! How vividly it brings back those days—days gone this twenty years; yes, this quarter of a century! How unexpectedly we sometimes come upon the past—turn it up, as it were, from the mould of time, as with the plow one might bring to light from out the earth, some lost and forgotten things. This book, with its buckskin covers, revivifies dead hours; or, if not exactly that, brings them back in memory as reminders of times and conditions passed away forever. The book received hard treatment in those days gone by, before it lay here so long gathering dust and cobwebs about it. It never was petted and taken care of, but was made to rough it in this world, so to speak, and be treated with little consideration—made to withstand the brunt of many a hard encounter. Nor could its owner have done otherwise with it and had he so desired. Master and book were companions on a rough journey.
Inside and out it shows its hard usage; the leaves and the cover all tell tales. This buskin was drenched many a time by the thunder-storms of Nebraska and Wyoming. Between these sheets of variously-toned gray paper, close to the binding, are little waves of red, gritty stuff—contributions, some windy day, from the sand-hills of the Platte Valley, or of the Big Sandy Creek (the poetic Glistening Gravel Water of the Indians), or from the "Three Crossings," perhaps, or the weary bit of road leading over into Ash Hollow. One end of the book has been submerged in water, a reminiscene, no doubt, of the fording of either the Platte, the Sweetwater, the Laramie or the Green River. O, there are all sorts of emotions revived by this book; they crowd upon me thick and fast! These crisp, gray leaves of sage—they got into it, I believe, one cool September night, at Quaking Ask [Asp] Hollow, when great bonfires were blazing, and the red tongues of flame lit up groups of dancers—the ox-punchers performing strange antics—a wild dancing, supposed to be under the patronage of Terpsichore; a something between that of our modern ball-room and the Apache Ghost Dance.
Yes, this book is a souvenir, old, battered, dusty, of what an ox-team trip across the plains and over the Rockies was twenty-five years ago.
Turning the leaves the journey all comes back to me—the long, long plodding of seemingly endless days—days that were sometimes wearisome, sometimes pleasurable and not without incidents of all kinds, ranging from those that were happy and mirthful to others that were tragically sad; incidents of all of a past, never to be repeated even in this western country.
The sketches are roughly made, a number of them at least. There was little time to loiter by the way. Sometimes a hasty outline was filled in when the camp was made, or an impression was dashed in of a morning or evening, or perhaps at noon-day. Once in a while there is a subject carefully finished, telling of an early camp or of a half-day rest. Some are in black and white merely, others in color.
Yet they will serve their purpose, all of them, slight or elaborated. The scenes portrayed seem once more before me, and not only those in the book but others also, that for want of time or other cause were left unscketched. The twelve hundred miles, nay, the fifteen, considering the circuitous route which we followed, lying between the banks of the Missouri and the Great Salt Lake Valley, pass before my eyes like a moving panorama. Prairies, hills, streams, mountains, cañons follow each other in swift succession, shown by the light of calm or stormy rise or set of sun, or gloomed by storm-clouds, or silvered by the midnight moon.
The first sketch shows a Nebraska landscape (near the Missouri River), with a prairie fire sweeping across it. It is a very different scene from what the place would present to-day. The great whirling mass of smoke, driven before the wind, the principal feature of the sketch over shadows with its darkness of far-stretching landscape of rolling hills, clumps of trees, and a winding stream. The stream is a small one, probably of the Blue Creek, or it may be the Vermilion, or the Shell, perhaps; which I have forgotten. Not a sign of life is discernible in all these scene; it was then the Far West. Now the whole region is covered with farms and farmhouses, and the smoke which arises is from the chimneys of prosperous homes. The sketch shows a wilderness; the actual scene is now typical of a flourishing state.
So much is the change that has been wrought by the twenty-five years!
What a delightful change it was to one city-bred to mingle in the freedom of camp life such as we enjoyed near that spot, and to pass his days under the blue canopy of heaven! There was nothing very beautiful certainly, in the scenery bordering the "Mad Water," but it was wild and sylvan at the time, and before us lay those months of travel. And then the mysteries to be unraveled in the management of cattle, the meals prepared and eaten around the camp-fire, the horseback riding over hill and dale, and the hunting for game, beast or fowl, lifted the comer from the crowded streets into a new world! At least it was the beginning of a new life to many, this "taking the winds and sunshine into their veins," and getting "close to Nature's heart."
Next in the book is a quick rubbing—in of the O'Fallen's Bluffs. The sky and the river, the slow-flowing Platte, are responsive to a golden sunset. The light radiates from behind the huge, square bluffs which throw a shadow across the foreground. The main interest in the sketch, however, from our present standpoint, is in the train of wagons winding along the dusty road, a bit of road characteristic of much of the journey across the plains. The Pacific Railway now passes in sight of the spot from which this sketch was taken.
How dearly did we learn to love the Platte, even if the way was dreary ofttimes beside the shallow stream! Usually the thin strip of foliage along its edge was the only green in all the landscape round. What joy to plunge into the cooling water after a hot day's toil! From the time we first discerned it, yellowed in the close of a July day and overhung by cottonwood trees, until we bid the stream adieu, at Red Rocks, within sight of Laramie Peak, it seemed as a friend. To the Overland traveler of to-day it is almost unknown.
Day after day we trudged beside the stream. The days grew into weeks, the weeks became a month, and still the cattle, freed from the yoke, hastened to slake their thirst at its edge. During that month we ate, I fairly believe, that peck of dirt, if sand may be classed as dirt, which every man is said to eat in his lifetime. We met Spotted Tail, the famous Sioux chief, and his band of five hundred braves, upon the river's bank; and one day, too, whilst bathing in the stream, I struck my foot against what proved to be, upon examination, a huge stone battle-axe, which might have belonged to some remote chief of that warrior's ancestry.
"These are the gardens of the Desert, these
The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
For which the speech of England has no name -
The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
Takes in the encircling vastness Lo! They stretch
In airy undulations far away,
As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell
Stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed
And motionless forever."
So Bryant sang in transport, and truly, so did our hearts swell at the wondrous sight.
"The great heavens
Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love,—
A nearer vault, and of tender blue,
Than that which bends above our eastern hills."
Beautiful at noon-day, but more lovely still, when, rising and falling before the morning wind, the grasses nodded with wavy motion; or, when o'er the horizon's shadowy edge the board sun fell, his light resting iridescent in the plumes of tall prairie grass and turning into spots of vivid fire the red tops of the painted cups.
Here are two famous objects—famous at least in those days—not far apart and following each other in the book—the Court House and the Chimney Rock. Well I remember the day we sighted the latter—a pale blue shaft above the prairie, seen through the western opening of our noon corral, and wavy through the haze that arose from the heated ground. It seemed to us that the slow-going oxen would never reach it, or, rather, the point in the road opposite for the emigrant trail passed several miles to the northward of the bluffs of which the Chimney is a part. The sketch is from a farther point—the bank of Lawrence Creek, from whose tall rushes a string of wild ducks are taking their flight, and the train is seen coming toward us, the wagons mere white specks on the purple rim of distance.
"Scott's Bluffs" make a very different picture from the O'Fallen's. The sedimentary heights of the former, with their strong resemblance to walls and towers, are rosy with the light of the rising sun. In a little valley in the middle distance is the train corralled, the steel-blue smoke of the camp-fires rising in almost straight columns into the air. The foreground is covered with sunflowers, a buffalo skull among them.
Ah! here is a sad, dark sketch— "Left by the Roadside." The tall, rank growth and a low head-board are black against the sky in which lingers yet a red flush of twilight. Two or three stars shed their paly rays from afar, and one feels that the silence is unbroken by even the faintest sigh of wind. But certainly there will come one soon, a long, shivering sigh, almost a moan-like sound, as the wind creeps stealthily across the wild, and gently stirs the prairie grass and flowers.
Countless in numbers were those silent witnesses of death by the way. The mounds were to be seen in all imaginable places. Each day we passed them, singly or in groups; and sometimes, nay, often, one of our own company was left behind to swell the number. By the banks of streams, on grassy hillocks, in the sands, beneath groves of trees, or among piles of rock, the graves were dug. We left the new mounds to be beaten upon by the tempests, scorched by the sun, or for beauty to gather about it as it had many of the older ones. Sometimes when we camped the old graves would be directly alongside the wagons. I recall sitting by one that was thickly covered with grass and without a head-board, while I ate my evening meal, and of sleeping alongside it at night. One remains in my mind as a very soothing little picture—a child's grave, screened around with a thicket of wild rose bushes that leaned lovingly over it, the mound itself overgrown with moss. I fancied that the parents of that child, were they living, would like to have seen how daintily nature had decked the last bed of their loved one.
How painful were the circumstances attending the first burial in our train. A woman died one evening (we were about ten days out), just as the moon had risen above the prairie, and swift the tiding sped through the camp. Next morning (it was the Sabbath) she was buried—laid to rest on a low, grassy hill near by. Never can I forget the grief of her children as she was lowered into the ground. Stakes were placed in a network over the body to keep away the robber wolves. A hymn was sung accompanied by the plaintive wailing of a clarionet.
The first death made a sad impression on the company, but after a while the burials became so frequent that they lost considerable of their saddening power; or, rather, we refused to retain the sadness, throwing it off in sheer self-defense.
The outline which follows brings up a different train of thoughts—"Camp Material abandoned after an attack by Indians." The ground is littered with all sorts of indescribable things. Panic is evident in the reckless tossing away of every kind of article, anything to lighten the loads, so that the fear-struck emigrants could hurry forward. This was the train immediately preceding us, and a couple of days later we passed one of those prairie letters—an ox shoulder-blade—on which was written, —
"Captain ------- train passed here
August 14th, 18--.
90 head of cattle driven away by the Indians.
Great scare in camp."
Apropos of alarms from the Indians there is a rapidly executed subject (from memory next day) that recalls a night of peril and sorrow. It was on the western slope of the Black Hills. There were five wagons of us and we were belated from the general train. We were the last five in the right wing and the right wing was the latter part of the train that night, so, practically, we were alone. There was a dead woman in one of the wagons, and to hear the weeping and sobbing of her little children, in the dark besides the corpse, was heart-chilling. The poor husband trudged along on foot, hurrying his single yoke of foot-sore cattle. Still we were far behind; liable at any moment to be cut off by the prowling Sioux. That was a night to remember!
Here are two scenes among the Black Hills themselves, one a very suggestive sketch, taken among rocks, timber-clad bluffs and ragged peaks. The wagons are coming down a steep declivity into the dry bed of a torrent. It appears that they must topple over, end over end, so abrupt the descent. Wild clouds are coming over the peaks, threatening a stormy night, the consternation of the emigrant by wagon train.
And a stormy night it turned out to be! Wildly the lightnings glared, their lurid tongues licking the earth beside us. The road was deluged in the downpour of water; and what with the crash of thunder, the sudden bursts of light and the wild dash of rain the poor cattle were panic-stricken. We could hardly make them face the storm. And yet their sagacity was better than ours. Several times we would have driven them over the edge of a precipice had not their keener senses warned them back. We would have shuddered, so our Captain afterwards told us, could we have seen where our wagon tracks were made that night.
Those night-drives were among our most trying experiences upon the overland journey. Usually they resulted from the drying of some stream where we expected to make the evening camp, and the consequent necessity of moving forward. Our worst drive of this kind was to reach the La Prelle River after leaving Fort Laramie.
The second sketch in the Black Hills is in the same locality as the first, and shows the evening of the day following the storm. Winding like a serpent over the hills is the train. In the middle distance is a valley partly obscured by mists and beyond it stands Laramie Peak, purple against the sunset clouds and sky.
Three subjects that follow are by the Sweetwater River, that interesting stream. In one we see the Rattle-Snake Hills all dim in the summer haze and far, far, away westward across the level plains. In another the Devil's Gate is reflected in a still pool of water, and the final one shows the Rock Independence, a landmark eagerly looked for by all who made the journey.
How lonely those places must be now, lonelier than in those days when at times there was a passing emigrant train at least.
"The Night Guard" is suggestive. His was a duty in which anxiety, danger and trust were combined. The picket on duty as the front of war was scarcely less important than he. In those days of lawlessness from red men and white, constant vigil had to be kept. Alone with his thoughts the night-guard had ample time to recall dangers and episodes gone through, and to meditate upon those that yet lay in the path.
Men who now count their wealth by the hundreds of thousands, some by the millions, can recall their vain striving while poor and on night-guard to get a faint glimpse of what Fortune had in store for them on the Westward Ho!
"A Buffalo Herd." The prairies, the mountains, a buffalo herd; in the order named, perhaps, these were the three things the emigrant to the west in those days thought of first in connection with the journey before him. Irving, in his Bonneville, early drew attention to the appearance of a buffalo herd when seen at a distance— "they resemble a grove of low, thick-set trees." Such is the fact. On a distant hillside one might mistake a buffalo herd for clustered scrub oaks. Ash Hollow was once a favorite resort for the new scarce animal. A travelers tells of seeing there a herd which could not have numbered less than fifty thousand. The headlong charge of a herd of frightened buffaloes was an exciting spectacle. Maddened with fear the stupid creatures rushed blindly on. Woe to the small party of emigrants that happened to be in their track.
And not less dangerous or exciting was a stampede of cattle. Helter-skelter, as blind as their wild fellows, the oxen would speed over the plain. No longer the patient, submissive beasts whose pace seemed so slow to our eager desires, but full of fury, recklessly dashing they cared not where. A stampede of yoked cattle was one of our most lively episodes.
Here is a wide gap in the locale of sketches—a reminder of the Mountain fever. What a gloriously majestic outline the peaks of the Wind River Mountains make, and especially from this spot—the High Springs, in the South Pass! What a delightsome days they were, too, as we moved slowly forward through that broad highway, with those towering mountains seeming to gaze down upon us all the while! And how joyfully we burst into song,—
Golden sunbeams smile."
And what time of gaiety followed after each day's journey, when the evening meal was o'er and the sweet-toned clarionet assembled all in the open corral, and the young men and women, and the older ones, too, danced the hours away, forgetful in the merriment of the time of the fatigues that were past and those that were to come. These hours atoned for those that had been sad.
That clarionet, what an important part it held! It voiced the general feeling of the train. Its notes sounded merrily at the first moment of starting on the banks of the Missouri; they sounded mournfully as each one who fell by the way was laid to rest. I seem to hear it once again as when we reached the Chimney Rock, the half-way house as it was sometimes called, when all gave themselves up to unbounded jollity, and as it awoke us for the last start, near our journey's end. Its remembered strains seem to bring back the scent of prairie flowers and the homely sage.
But this reviewing has grown lengthy, and now we are nearing the end. Here is the ford of the Green River, not, however, where the railway crosses it at the present day, but farther north, up the stream, where on its banks are groups of Cottonwood trees and thickets of wild raspberry and rose, and the air is aromatic with wild thyme. It is a stirring scene, for the water was deep and swift and the fording not accomplished without danger. A half-day's rest on the west bank makes Green River remembered with pleasure.
Echo Canon [Canyon] brings us within the borders of Utah. Clear shone the September sun, as our long train would slowly under the conglomerate cliffs; slowly, for half the cattle were foot-sore and all way-weary. Several hours were consumed in passing through the defile, and night was falling ere the mouth of the canon [canyon] was reached and camp-fires were lit. Later the full moon illuminated the fantastic scene.
Who of all those that traversed Echo Canon [Canyon] with an ox-team will forget the shouting, the cracking of whips, the wild halloas, that resounded along the line, or the echoes, all confused by the multitude of sounds, and passing through each other like the concentric rings on a still pond when we thrown in a handful of pebbles, flying from cliff to cliff and away up in the shaggy ravines and seeming to come back at last from the sky
"O, hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying;
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying."
No wonder the place recalls Tennyson's song, but it must be told, there were none of "the horns of Elfland faintly blowing" about the wild hilarity of sounds that were sent back from the cliffs that day.
The last sketch in the book is a glimpse of the valley—the haven of rest. Not one in our company of hundreds but felt their hearts swell with joy as the sight of fields and orchards, in which hung ripened fruit, burst upon their eyes. Danger and fatigues were all forgotten. The stubborn, interminable miles were conquered; the journey was at an end.