Home -> Miscellaneous Books -> Reminiscences of a Pioneer -> Chapter 5 - Taking Revenge on Marauding Snakes

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Chapter V.

Taking Revenge on Marauding Snakes.

On reaching the east side of the mountains, it became necessary to travel in the night, at least through the open country between the Deschutes and Bridge Creek. The Snake Indians were raiding the country, and encumbered as we were with a small pack train, and with only a small company, we deemed that plan safest. During the day a careful guard was kept out and no fires lit. We thus passed safely through the dangerous country to Bridge Creek. We arrived there in the morning and finding quite a company from the Dalles, concluded to "lay by" a day or two and rest our animals.

About 3 o'clock that evening we saw a horseman coming, and riding as if his life were at stake. Coming up, the horseman proved to be Jim Clark, who informed us that the Indians would be upon us in a few minutes and that they had killed his brother-in-law, George Masterson, a lad of 18 years. Horses were at once rounded up and preparations made for defense. While the horses were being driven in, Clark related the circumstances, which left a doubt in our minds as to the fate of young Masterson. Accordingly, and as quickly as possible, every man that could be spared from camp saddled his horse and started back with Clark, either to save the boy or avenge his death.

The circumstances, as related by Clark, were that he and the boy had left the house, afterwards known as the "Burnt Ranch" for a load of fire wood. The house was located on the John Day River about a mile below the mouth of Bridge Creek. Opposite the house the river makes a sudden bend around the point of a high mountain, where the action of water and erosion of time had washed away the base of the mountain leaving a precipitous cliff, hundreds of feet high. Under this cliff a great amount of drift wood has been deposited, and here Jim Clark went for his fire wood. The high bank of the river next the house, which was 600 yards away, had been cut down so as to give an easy grade for loaded wagons. Clark said for the first time they had left their rifles and other arms at the house, immunity from attack rendering them careless.

While loading the wagon they happened to look towards the house, which was in plain view, and saw it in flames. They could also see the Indians around the house. Now the only means of escape was crossing the river, the way they had come. The mountains rose hundreds of feet perpendicularly at their backs, rendering escape impossible in that direction. Hastily cutting the harness from the horses they mounted, and Clark, who was a cool headed man in danger, and brave as a lion withal, told the boy to follow him. As they plunged into the ford they saw a number of Indians lined upon the opposite bank. But it was the only alternative, and the Indians thinking the two men were charging them, ran back out of sight. As they emerged from the river, which here was a shallow ripple, and started up the cut in the bank, the Indians discovered they were unarmed and attempted to close in on them. However, Clark and the boy had reached the top of the bank, and turning their horses up the river towards the mouth of Bridge Creek, sped for dear life.

As soon as they had passed beyond the reach of the bullets and arrows of the savages, Clark tried to persuade the boy to hold up and save his horse. The boy, however, was thoroughly frightened and drove his horse to the top of his speed. Clark, meanwhile, had looked back and saw the Indians mounting, and now began a race, on one side for life, on the other for scalps. The race was prolonged scarcely two miles when young Masterson's horse began to fail. He was then a quarter of a mile ahead of Clark, who, nursing his horse, kept just beyond reach of the bullets. Gradually the gap between Clark and the boy narrowed, and slowly the Indians began to gain. At last Clark rode up beside the boy whose horse was thoroughly spent. He remained beside him until an Indian, riding a black horse, Clark said, ran up within twenty feet of him. The boy saw him raise his gun, and throwing himself from his horse with the exclamation, "O, Lord," was lost to view in the dust. The Indian was at least fifty yards ahead of the others and did not stop to kill the boy, probably leaving him for those behind. Sure of Clark, he kept on, his black and savage heart leaping with joy in anticipation of torturing him.

After tolling the Indian some little distance and coming to a turn in the road, Clark let his horse out and did not slacken his speed until our camp was reached.

As may be well imagined, we did not spare our horses on the return, Clark having been provided with a fresh animal. But it was six or seven miles back to where Masterson left his horse. When we arrived there the search began. But failing to find the body, the awful possibility began to dawn upon us that he had been captured alive. Clark was wild. Had he found the dead body of the boy, it would have been nothing compared to the thought of his capture alive and death at the stake. A search now began for the trail of the Indians, as they had evidently left before our approach. But while this was going on, some of the men found the boy under a bank, shielded from sight by over-hanging earth and matted roots. When pulled out he was more dead than alive, his long bath in the water rendering him practically helpless.

When sufficiently revived, he told us that when he threw himself from his horse, he leaped into the brush, and coming to the creek, a small stream, ran down until he saw the overhanging bank. He said several times the Indians in their search for him were within a few feet of him.

After finding of young Masterson, we returned to camp. Clark had lost a great deal of property, besides that which had been consumed in his burned home. He was positive the party did not comprise more than fifteen or twenty warriors. He begged us to help him recover his property, or to at least get revenge. Accordingly Perry Maupin, John Atterbury, myself and three others, whose names I cannot now recall, volunteered for the undertaking, making seven in all.

Getting off at daybreak we struck the trail of the Indians and followed as fast as the nature of the country would permit. In places the trail was very dim, and this occasioned considerable delay, but just about sunset the camp of the savages was located. As night was now upon us, it was deemed best to await until daylight to make the attack. We were satisfied they would remain until morning, probably feasting on some of the stolen stock. They were camped on the west branch of Trout Creek about one mile above the forks. Their position was two hundred yards from the creek at a spring, and surrounded by a few scattering willows and quaking asps. On every side was open ground, with a high, bald mountain on the north side, and presenting a splendid opportunity for attack. The location of the camp also indicated that they felt secure from pursuit. Everything being settled, both as to the manner of approach and point of attack, we withdrew and awaited the coming of morning. Unsaddling our horses and picketing them, a portion lay down in an effort to get some sleep, the others standing guard.

At 3 o'clock we saddled our horses and by taking a circuitous route were enabled to approach the camp from the southwest side, and by following a slight depression in the ground reached a point within 150 yards of where the savages rested in fancied security. To prevent the possibility of arousing them by any accidental noise, we had dismounted some distance back, and carefully led our horses by the head, lest a stumble or neigh might discover us to the enemy. It was yet dark when we reached a spot opposite the camp, and standing at our horses' heads, impatiently awaited the dawn. Streaks of light soon began shooting through the eastern sky, but it seemed an eternity before we could see well enough to shoot. Any one who has ever experienced waiting under similar circumstances will appreciate our impatience and the slow passage of time.

But daylight came at last, and swinging into our saddles, we formed in line and slowly, cautiously advanced. As our heads rose above the slight elevation that had obscured the camp, our revolvers in hand, we spurred our horses into a run and began yelling like furies. Scarcely had we done so when several Indians sprang up and rushed towards us with hands up and calling at the top of their voices:

"Warm Springs! Warm Springs! Wascos, Wascos!"

They were calling in jargon, and recognizing them as friendly Indians, and not Snakes and therefore enemies, both Jim Clark and Perry Maupin called out, "For God's sake, boys, don't shoot!" We halted among them without firing a shot. They then related to us their story. They were camped at the place hunting when the Snakes came upon them about 1 o'clock the previous evening. A skirmish had taken place, but without serious consequences on either side, when the Snakes made overtures for peace, saying they did not want to fight them, that they were only enemies of the white man. They proposed, in order to settle the terms of peace, that the two chiefs, Polina, or as some give the name, Penina, chief of the Snakes, and Queapama, chief of the Warm Springs and Wascos, should meet half way alone and unarmed.

All the Warm Springs earnestly opposed the meeting, feeling certain that treachery was meditated. But Queapama believed otherwise, and the two chiefs, in sight of their people, went out to the meeting. Scarcely had Queapama reached the Snake chief when he was treacherously murdered by a concealed assassin. Burning for revenge, the Warm Springs renewed the fight, when the Snakes drew off and were seen no more.

They now volunteered to go with us in pursuit of the Snakes, who, they declared, could not be many hours ahead. The Snakes, they argued, could be easily overtaken as they were practically in their own country and would travel leisurely. We knew the two tribes were traditional enemies and the presence of their dead chief was evidence that their friendship for us could be relied upon. The Warm Springs, however, held the Snakes in great dread and never ventured far into their country. The present camp was on neutral territory, and was the main hunting grounds of the former tribe. Polina was especially dreaded, and was believed by the Warm Springs to be bullet-proof. Many told of having shot him in the middle of the forehead, but that the bullet dropped down without injuring him. But may-be-so the white man had "good medicine" and could kill him. Although with such superstitious dread we did not value the aid of the Warm Springs very highly, yet we knew them to be good trailers and skillful scouts, hence their company was accepted, the more readily as we would soon enter the pine timber of the McKay mountains.

Accordingly, after filling our "cantenas" with dried venison from the camp of our allies, we again took the trail. Our horses were fresh and as the Warm Springs were such splendid trailers we made good progress, especially after entering the pine timber. The Indians acted also as scouts, skirting each side of the trail and keeping well in advance. No effort had here been made by the Snakes to cover their tracks, and we followed at a rapid pace. The trail led up the west branch of Trout creek and in a southerly direction. We had not gone more than four miles when we came to the camp of the night before. Their fires were still burning, showing their utter contempt for the Warm Springs. We followed up Trout creek to its head and passed through a low gap on to the head of McKay creek, which flows in a southwesterly direction to its junction with Crooked river. Just after passing the divide one on the scouts dropped back and informed us that the enemy was not far ahead. They said the grass cut by the hoofs of their ponies was as fresh as when growing. It was not thought advisable to overtake them in the timber until they had gone into camp. We therefore sent word ahead to proceed with great caution, and to keep well back from the trail. Proceeding now with the steathliness of a cat creeping upon a bird, the scouts kept well behind the ridges and only occasionally venturing to peep over a ridge or point into the creek bottom down which the Snakes were traveling.

About 3 o'clock they came back and announced that the Snakes had gone into camp about a mile or such a matter ahead. A council was now held to discuss the advisability of attacking them at once or waiting until morning. The Warm Springs were eager for an immediate attack. The camp was located in the edge of an open glade, presenting a splendid opportunity for a close approach. We naturally looked to Jim Clark as our leader and adviser, he being older and far more experienced than any of our party, unless it was our allies. Clark finally advised an immediate attack. "We are getting into the Snake territory, they might move again tonight and we would be compelled to go further on," and, he declared, "we might bite off more than we can chew." That settled the matter, and our allies were in high glee.

It was arranged that a portion of the Warm Spring should approach from the west, keeping well behind the hill, and at the moment of attack should stampede their horses, while we were to make a detour and approach at the point of timber nearest the camp.

After separating we turned to the left through the thick timber, keeping well behind the ridge until we were about opposite the camp. Here we dismounted and tied our horses in a thicket of firs. Silently, almost as shadows, we moved up the ridge and crossing over the crest began the descent through the woods, the moccasined feet of our dusky allies falling noiselessly upon the pine quills. We almost held our breath, lest the least noise, the accidental breaking of a twig, should startle the enemy. Though this was to be my first real Indian fight, I felt no fear and not so much excitement as when stalking my first buck. As we neared the edge of the wood and were almost prepared for the rush, the Indians on the other side raised the yell. Led on by their eagerness they had come into view of the camp and seeing they were discovered raised the war-whoop and made for the herd. The Snakes sprang to their weapons and started to save their horses. Concealment being now useless we burst out of the wood and opened fire. As we did so the savages turned down the creek and fled toward the nearest shelter. I remember dropping upon my left knee, and taking deliberate aim at a big fellow, fired. At the crack of the rifle he sprang into the air and fell, and I then knew I had made one "good siwash." Springing to my feet I drew my revolver, a Colt's navy, and kept with the crowd in a running fight until the Snakes reached the shelter of the woods. To have followed further would have been madness, notwithstanding they were thoroughly frightened and running, as one of the Warm Springs expressed it, "like klanacks" (black-tailed deer).

Jim Clark now called a halt. To follow further would result in some of us getting killed, as the Snakes would then have the advantage. Reloading our rifles we returned to count the result of our victory. We found four dead Indians, including one that had had his leg broken by a rifle ball and had been dispatched by our allies, who now proceeded to scalp the dead according to the usages and traditions of their race. It was a gory spectacle, and when they generously offered to divide the bloody trophies, we politely declined, saying the scalps belonged to them, as they had lost their great chief by the treachery of the dead Indians. The operation of lifting the scalp was a simple one. A knife was run around the head just above the ears and the skin peeled off. That was the first I ever saw, and I had no desire to see the operation repeated. Some of those that escaped must have been wounded, but we had no means of knowing the number of these.

The expedition had been partially successful, but keen regret was felt, not alone by our party, but by our allies, that old Polina had escaped. He was the scourge of the whites in all southeastern Oregon, and while he lived there could be no such thing as peace. He was reserved, however, for the rifle of Howard Maupin, father of the youth who was with us and was kneeling by my side when I fired at the fleeing savages. But that will be reserved for a future chapter. Besides killing four Indians we had captured a number of ponies and some of the stolen stock belonging to the whites. The ponies we gave to our friends, the Warm Springs, besides a captured gun. After destroying everything of value that we could not carry with us, including some camp effects, we returned to our horses and started back. We parted with our friends at their camp of the night before, who lost no time after their arrival there in packing up and, taking their dead chief with them, making haste to reach the reservation as soon as possible.

After bidding them adieu, we traveled on our return until daylight when we stopped, unsaddled our horses and picketed them to graze and rest for a couple of hours. Saddling up again we pushed on to Bridge Creek, where we arrived towards evening. We had been in the saddle now, with slight intermissions, for more than forty-eight hours, and rest and sleep were a most welcome boon. Our horses, too, were nearly spent, and here we remained to rest and recruit.

We remained at Bridge Creek several days, recruiting our horses and resting from the fatigues of our recent severe and trying expedition. In reading my simple narrative some may say we were taking desperate chances in following an enemy, outnumbering us several times, into his own country. That is true in a sense. But we had adopted his own tactics, and depended on a surprise. Had we come out in the open and shown ourselves, we would probably have fared badly in such an unequal contest. Secrecy, therefore, was our only safe course, and that required both skill and caution. We knew the Indians would be off their guard, that they would never dream of pursuit, and when surprised would scatter like a covey of quail. Another object was to come to close quarters as quickly as possible, so as to use our revolvers when the rifles had been emptied. Howard Maupin, an old Indian fighter, and father of the youth who accompanied us, once remarked that in "close quarters an Indian can't hit the side of a barn." I understood this when, years after in the first battle in the lava beds with the Modocs, I asked General Wheaton to signal to Colonel Bernard to cease firing and I would charge with the volunteers. We had them hemmed between two lines, with an intervening space of not more than 150 yards. He refused, saying we had lost too many men and the country would not justify the sacrifice of human life. We had fought them all day, and had suffered severely, and finally retreated under cover of darkness. It cost nearly three hundred men to close the Modoc war, including the life of the gallant General Canby. I believed then - I know now we could have whipped them in twenty minutes with the loss of less than a dozen men.

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