St. Nicholas/Volume 40/Number 1/Books and Reading





The Hunters’ Moon will still be hanging yellow in the sky when you are reading this number of St. Nicholas, so it is not yet quite time to turn away from the adventurous life of the great outdoor spaces to rooms and streets and trolley-cars, and all the confinements of civilization. Or, at least, if turn we must, since school and office call back hunter and camper and sailor to desk and bench, we may yet keep a hand stretched out to the rough grip of nature, and a backward eye on her nights of stars and days of lusty winds, ripening orchards and reaped grain, yellow woods and white-laced brown brooks running under the dark pines.

Wherever in this broad land you may have spent the summer and autumn, you have got there with comparative ease. Trains have rolled you over the vast plains or through the mountains, have brought you to the open door of the forest or the shores of lake or sea. If you went into the wilderness, you passed through sweet and flourishing farm districts and lively villages, and even though you crossed the prairies that roll up to the foot of the Rockies, you have seen the irrigated land turned green and gold with growing corn and hay.

But a little time ago, even as we human beings count time, none of this was so. There were the mountains and the plains, the forest and the wilderness, and no way of getting across them except by foot or on horseback, a perilous way, fit only for the strongest and the most daring.

Thinking of these things as my train whirled on its eastward journey, I remembered two books that tell in graphic style the story of the change—the wonderful change from the wild times of the path-finders and path-makers to the present day, with its Pullman cars flashing over the iron roads, going farther in a day than it was possible to go in a month when the wilderness was at home all over the continent.

These two books are written by men who were among the pioneers and adventurers who rode the long and dangerous trails from East to West, and who saw the whole great drama played out, helping a deal in the playing—or, rather, the fighting, for there was a considerable amount of the latter and precious little of the former in the whole big business from beginning to end.

These men are Colonel Henry Inman, U. S. A., and Colonel Cody, or “Buffalo Bill,” whom you have probably heard of before; and the books are “The Old Santa Fé Trail” and “The Old Salt Lake Trail.” The Salt Lake book has been written by the two in collaboration, while the other book is by Inman alone, with an introduction by Buffalo Bill. They are big, fat books with many illustrations, and they tell a tale as amazing and exciting as it is true. Now, as you know well that truth is stranger than fiction, you can form some notion of just how stirring these volumes are.

Here are told the great hardships, the high endeavor, the noble endurance, and the wild enchantment of that western life, a life so recently passed away that its memory is distinct in the minds of living men, and yet so utterly vanished that it seems to have belonged to another age than ours, or to be a romantic story told at twilight when the fancy plays.

Yet here are the pages written by the very men who tramped and rode the desperate miles across the continent, back and forth, meeting all the perils of the trail, and escaping hardly with more than their lives; men who saw the vast hordes of the buffalo and the tepees of the Indians disappear before the trapper, the hunter, and the grazer, and these again vanish before the farmer and the homesteader. Surely, in all the story of this world’s adventures, so much history was never before packed into so short a space of time.

It was in 1861 that the telegraph was finally stretched from ocean to ocean, putting an end to the famous Pony Express. And in 1880, that the first train of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé Railroad ran over the new rails and killed the old trails. This was the beginning of the end, the beginning of To-day, and our easy hurryings over the routes mapped out by the pioneers.

In “The Old Santa Fé Trail” we follow the tracks of Kit Carson, and many a story is told of him, and of Dick Wootin and other famous scouts and Indian fighters. There is a lot of fighting in these pages, for Indian and white disputed every step with the rifle and the scalping-knife—it was, first of all, a war-path, this way across the country.

There seems to be no end to the number of stories told in the two books. There is the Mexican War, as it affected the scouts and trappers and cavalry of the army; there is the great tale of the first wagon expedition across the Divide and the Plains, a record of amazing hardship and grim endurance, in which the few who won out were compelled to finish on foot, wagons and baggage abandoned.

And oh, the hundreds of anecdotes of bear- and beaver-trapping, deer- and buffalo-shooting! It was the ruthless slaughter of the buffalo that first aroused the hatred of the Sioux, or Dakotas, which was the real name of the nation. These Sioux, with the Comanches, became the terror of the whites, and left a trail of blood behind them as they were slowly driven back. The Pawnees were troublesome too, but, on the whole, more friendly. There is one story Buffalo Bill tells of a Pawnee baby who was adopted by a Pony Express rider, known by the name of Whipsaw, which reveals the devotion of an Indian to his friend. Whipsaw had rescued the three-year-old child from a wicked-looking old Sioux warrior who had stolen him from his own people, and after that the boy would have nothing to do with the redskins; in fact, he hated them, and never lost a chance to do them harm.

In the end, the little boy, who was called Little Cayuse, saved not only Whipsaw, but several other Express riders from murder by the Sioux. It is a good yarn, as you ’ll find out in reading it.

The picture Buffalo Bill gives of these riders is a wonderful one. The service was so dangerous that few men were willing to undertake it, and of these scarcely one escaped quite unhurt. The lightning speed at which they rode, the loneliness, the heat, cold, and drought they suffered, are thrilling to read of. At any moment, as they fled along, an enemy might rise up, a shot whistle past—not always past! Then, after the mail-bags were tossed to the waiting rider at the next post, who immediately started at full gallop, the drop into a sleep of utter exhaustion, rolled in a blanket on the floor of the cabin.


There are, especially in “The Old Salt Lake Trail,” a number of Indian legends and beliefs, and much concerning their customs, both in their tribal life, and when they came into contact with the intruding white men. Tales, too, that were told at night by the old scouts and trappers as they sat smoking round the fire. One of the most famous of these men was known as “Old Hatcher,” and we hear one of his stories as he sits “under the silvery pines, with the troops of stars overhead,” one of a group of buckskin-clad men, speaking in his western dialect, with telling gestures, his pipe always in his mouth, and his eyes fixed, with a far-away look, on some glowing spot in the fire as though he were seeing the scenes and adventures he described.

There is a good deal told of General Sherman, and of the great task of building the Union Pa-cific. With the last spike driven in that road, the Salt Lake Trail followed the Santa Fé out of existence.

Buffalo Bill tells many of his own adventures as a scout for the United States Army, and anecdotes of the many officers he met in that capacity.


Another wonderful story is that of the creation of the Overland Stage Route. The coaches were huge, swinging affairs, drawn by six horses or mules, the finest to be had, and these were usually driven at a gallop over the rough trails and breakneck descents. They went as fast as a hundred miles a day, the horses being changed every ten miles at the roadside houses. The drivers of these stages were men of character and of a dare-devil bravery. Adventure was the order of the day, and not a driver among them but had his score and more to relate. Hold-ups were common, for the stages went almost as heavily loaded with gold as with passengers, on many of their trips. What rides they must have been! The towering mountains, the wild cañion road between the pine-covered slopes, the beautiful horses going at full tilt, with the heavy coach swaying behind them, its little group of travelers on top, the driver swinging his long whip, the conductor, who was responsible for the mail, looking out, gun in hand—then, suddenly, two or three mounted desperadoes barring the route!

Many a rough joke these wild men played, and many a harrowing deed is recorded of them and of their enemies. Many a foolhardy risk they took, and many an act of gentleness and kindness is “chalked up” to them. They were much like children, simple and natural, taking things as they came, and loving adventure like boys. The life they lived has no place in our civilization, but it was fine and manly for all its faults. Without men of their caliber we should scarcely have subdued the West, turning the wilderness into the granary of the world, and opening the golden mountains for their wealth. Thanks to them, peace has come now, and the wild miles are sweet and smiling.

If you want a true notion of how America grew to be what she is, and desire to see at first-hand the men, or some of them, who had a hand in this growth, you cannot do better than read these two books. As for interest and excitement, you won’t fail to find plenty. But the fact that the stories are thrilling does not make them the less true, which is one of the comforts of life. It is history—but it is adventure too! It is as valuable as it is thrilling. The settling of the West had many phases, but here we get the beginning of them all, “that first fine, careless rapture” we never can recapture, and which belongs to youth, to first times, and the beginnings of things, and is usually lost in what follows.

Perhaps, while you read in the dark November evenings, the wind will shriek in the windows, rattling the blinds, until it seems to you that you hear the war-cry of the Sioux and the clatter of horses’ feet. Snuggle down more closely by the fire, and turn the pages. It is only fancy now—but fifty years ago...!