Gateway to the Classics: Fur Trappers of the Old West by A. M. Anderson
Fur Trappers of the Old West by  A. M. Anderson


Beaver Traps and War Bonnets

T HE SWEETWATER RIVER, in what is now the state of Wyoming, is a lovely mountain stream. Some old-timers say the river was given its name because a pack mule lost its load of sugar in the stream. Others say early trappers gave the river its name for another reason. In the surrounding country the waters of the little creeks and streams were too salty to drink. But here the water coming down from the mountains was fresh and clear. Thirsty men drank long and deep and called the water "sweet."

Provot and his trappers were no exception. Their trip across the sagelands had been. difficult. They were glad to reach the Sweetwater. They made camp on the north bank of the river at the base of a giant boulder.

The boulder rose almost straight up from the level plain and covered more than twenty-five acres of ground. At its tallest point it was about two hundred feet high. The great rock was to become known as "Independence Rock," one of the most famous landmarks in the West. Trappers, and later the Oregon-bound settlers, carved their names on its sheer walls of granite. Most of the thousands of names are now gone. But the old rock, a faithful scout, still marks the trail up the beautiful Sweetwater.

Jim lost no time in climbing the boulder. At the top he glanced down at the trappers' camp. Then he looked out across the valley. Far to the right a mountain range rose to the blue, cloudless sky. The range was not very high nor was it an important one. But it was the one Jim had been waiting to see. It was the first, the beginning of the mighty Rocky Mountains.

Jim felt a sudden rush of joy swell within him. "The Rockies," he cried aloud. "The Rocky Mountains!" Without realizing it he held out his arms for a minute as though to pull the mountains closer.

While Jim stood looking at the faraway range, a flash of light in the east attracted his attention. The flash was followed by another. Then, from a point nearer the trappers' camp, three quick flashes shot across the sky.

"Indians," Jim said to himself, "and they are using mirrors to flash their signals. But where are they?"

Not a sign could he see. The Sweetwater was peaceful and quiet. In the distance a herd of buffalo moved slowly over one of the many buffalo paths which crossed and recrossed the fertile valley. The river, bordered by cottonwoods and willows, sparkled in the bright, early morning sunshine.

Jim brought his rifle to his shoulder. At the same instant a flock of birds flew up from the willows on the river's edge. Chattering and scolding the birds circled the willows and in noisy flight winged their way eastward.

"So that's where the Indians are hiding," Jim said, firing a shot into the air. "The sudden flight of birds is always a good sign that they have been disturbed."

He glanced down at the camp. His warning shot had sent the men racing for their rifles. He saw Provot motion to a group of men and they ran to guard the hobbled horses.

"Wasaka," Jim thought. Quickly he turned and, running back to a narrow path, slipped from the top of the boulder down to a lower ridge. Hurrying as fast as he could, he scrambled down the rock. Then tucking his gun under an arm he dashed toward the camp.

"Jim, what is it?" called Provot.


"Where? How many?"

"East of our camp," replied Jim. "I don't know how many. I saw their mirror flash-signals and the sudden flight of a flock of birds."

"Two very good signs if you know Indians and birds," said Provot. "That was quick thinking on your part, Jim. Now get over there with the men."

"I'd like to see if Wasaka is all right."

"Well, be quick about it."

Jim ran to where the horses were hobbled. He saw Wasaka and called softly to him. At the sound of Jim's voice Wasaka whinnied. Jim pushed his way through the herd to his horse and removed the hobbles.

"Why are you doing that?" asked a guard.

"If the Indians get us I want Wasaka to have a chance to escape," answered Jim. He put the hobbles in his pocket and stood for a minute talking to his horse.

"Say, Jim," the guard questioned, "you know we may be attacked any minute, don't you?"

Jim nodded, but in the same gentle manner continued to talk to Wasaka. "Now, when the Indians come," he was saying, "don't pay any attention to their war whoops and bright feathers. Remember you're not an Indian horse anymore. You are mine. Do you understand? No more war bonnets for you, old fellow, only beaver traps from now on. That's right. Now, steady Wasaka. I'll be back."

Jim returned to the camp. As he took his place in line with the trappers, Provot said, "I've told the men not to fire until I give the order. I don't want to start a fight but if this is a war party, we're ready."

The minutes dragged by.

"I guess it is a false alarm," said a man.

One of Jim's greenhorns standing next to him lowered his gun. "What do you think, Jim?"

"I don't know, but I'm not guessing about anything," answered Jim. "Keep your gun ready to fire."

The greenhorn started to raise his gun. He was too late. A feathered arrow aimed at his heart found its mark. The boy threw up his arms, staggered forward and fell dead.

A war whoop rang out. Over the top of a low hill raced a hundred screaming redskins. Arrows whizzed through the air.


"All right, men," shouted Provot. The figure of a brave was directly in his gun sights. "Let 'em have it."

Twenty-four rifles blazed. Twenty-four Indians pitched forward on their ponies and fell either dead or wounded. Their riderless ponies sped away.

Again twenty-four guns barked. More riderless ponies streaked across the valley. The wild charge of the Indians was broken and they withdrew.

"They'll be back," said Provot reloading his gun. "Are you all right, men?" he asked as he glanced quickly from one trapper to another.

The men nodded but made no other reply. Tight-lipped and grim they waited for another attack. They kept their guns trained on the yelling braves.

The Indian fight lasted all morning. The braves charged several times. Each time the deadly fire of the trappers' guns forced them to retreat. Then, at last, they carried their dead and wounded from the field and fled.

Several trappers were wounded, but the young greenhorn was the only man killed. Jim and the two other greenhorns who had trapped with him buried their friend in the shade of a cottonwood.

Provot praised the men guarding the horses. All during the attack the men had kept the animals under control. It was no easy job. The wild war whoops, the shouts of the trappers, and the rifle fire had made the horses half-crazed with fear.

Only Wasaka had stood quietly. When the fight was over Wasaka wandered off to graze. At Jim's whistle, however, the horse came galloping to him.

The trappers remained in camp the rest of the day. But in the early morning they were on their way up the Sweetwater.

Jim as usual was well in advance of the party. He met a band of friendly Crow Indians and stopped to talk to the chief about the South Pass. The chief only grunted in answer to Jim's many questions.

But Jim was not discouraged. That night in camp he said to Provot, "I still think we can find the pass. We can —"

"Forget the pass, Jim," interrupted Provot.

"But suppose we should find it. What would you do then?"

"Do!" exclaimed the captain. "I'd head for the Green River Valley. The streams are so full of beaver you don't need to bother to set your traps. You just wade out into the water and catch them. But we can't hope to locate the pass. We know so little about it."

"We know the pass is somewhere in the Crow country and that it doesn't look like a mountain pass. That helps a little."

"Well, I'm not going to get excited about it," replied Provot. "That is, not until I see the water in a stream flowing westward. When I see that, then I'll know we have discovered the pass."

"It would be proof," said Jim. "All the streams this side of the Rockies flow eastward and the streams on the western side of the Rockies flow west to the Pacific."

"That's right," Provot stretched and yawned. "It's getting late," he added. "Let's roll in."

Trapping as they went, the men traveled up the river valley. It was beautiful with the bright colors of autumn. To Jim it was exciting for, just ahead, the Rocky Mountains blocked the western end of the valley.

He studied the surrounding country. "If I could only find a break in the mountains," he said to himself, "it might lead us to the pass." But nowhere in the range around him could he see a break. Nor did the valley, with its winding little river, give any hint of the pass.

Ahead, as far as he could see, the sand dunes and low sagebrush-covered hills rolled westward. The land rose gently—ever so gently up the foothills of the Rockies.

Jim rode back and reported to Provot. "Captain," he said, "the country ahead of us doesn't look like good trapping grounds. It looks more like a long, wide, treeless valley. But if we go on we may come to some beaver streams."

"We haven't much choice," replied Provot. "I'm for going on."

The men agreed.

Three days later, however, most of the men changed their minds when a blinding snowstorm kept the party in camp all day. They wanted to turn back.

"It's useless to go any farther," one said.

"We haven't enough food," spoke up another.

"We have only melted snow for water," said a third.

"I know all about it," said Provot. "Where do you think I've been the last three days?" He stepped closer to the sagebrush campfire and held out his hands to warm them over the flames. "It's cold." He shivered a little.

"It's getting colder all the time," said the first man. "And all we have is sagebrush, the poorest fuel in the West, for campfires. It burns too quickly and it's too hot and then you freeze."

Provot looked at Jim. "What do you think about turning back?" he asked.

"If I were in your place I would not turn back," answered Jim.

"Why not?" questioned the men.

"If we go back to the Sweetwater, a country we already know, we will never find the pass," answered Jim. "But if we go on we still have a chance to find it. I know the trip is difficult. I'm as cold and as hungry as you are. But let's go on—at least for a few more days."

The men were silent. At last one said, "I suppose you're right, Jim."

"Of course he is," spoke up Provot. "I have said that I would not waste our time looking for the pass, but I was wrong. If we are lucky enough to find the pass, the credit belongs to Jim."

Although it was still snowing in the morning the worst of the storm was over. The men broke camp and were on their way westward.

Long, weary miles stretched on ahead of them. They had but little food and the cold nights added to their hardships. But the men pressed on.

Jim rode alone watching, waiting for some sign of the pass. During the days the sun was warm and it melted the snow. The water flowed in little streams in the snowbanks along the trail. The water was ever flowing eastward, but Jim was not discouraged.

Then, one day Jim pulled Wasaka to a quick stop. He stared at the little stream of melted snow. The water was flowing westward! Unable to believe his eyes Jim slipped from the saddle and knelt beside the gully. How long he knelt there he was never quite sure.

"What's the matter?" Provot's voice brought Jim to his feet. He tried to call an answer but could not speak.

"What is it?" asked Provot as he halted his horse beside Jim and dismounted. "You're white as a sheet. Are you sick?"

"No, Captain," answered Jim. "I just can't believe it, that's all."

"Believe what?"

"Do you remember when we left the Sweetwater I reported to you that the country beyond looked like a long, wide, treeless valley?"

Provot nodded.

"I was wrong. It wasn't a valley, Captain. It was the beginning of the South Pass."

"The South Pass!"

"Yes, and now we're on the very top of it," said Jim. "Look, the water is flowing west."

Provot dropped to a knee beside the little stream. For a long minute he remained motionless. "You're right," he said in a low voice. Then throwing his hat into the air, he shouted, "You did it, Jim! You did it! This is the South Pass!"

1. How did Jim know where the Indians were hiding?

2. Could the Indians use their mirrors to flash signals at night? When did they use mirrors?

3. Why did Jim remove Wasaka's hobbles?

4. What sign did Jim look for when he was trying to find South Pass?

5. Why did the men want to turn back?

6. What did Jim tell them?

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