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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


VI
ACROSS DESERT AND PLAIN

April 17, 1849, a broken-hearted lover kissed his mother, brothers, and sisters good-by, and leaving Tom in charge of home affairs, joined in the mad rush for gold. Before departing William visited The Crozier home and extended his hand to the members of the family in token of a long farewell. Looking at him with eyes of repentance, Eliza, recalling her wilfulness at the ball, said in pathetic tones, “You’re not really going to leave us, William?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I am leaving in about an hour for San Francisco, and Ned Burns will go with me.”

As he hurriedly left the house, Eliza threw him a friendly kiss.

William Howard and Ned Burns were of the same age, each in his twenty-third year, and both were fine specimens of manhood. One was fair, with blue eyes, and the other had dark curly hair with hazel eyes. A handsome picture they made, mounted on their spirited horses, while the inhabitants crowded around, shouting and waving, as they followed the two young men to the ferry. Having boarded the boat, which was to convey them to the mainland, the lads removed their cow-boy hats and waved adieu to the people of the Island of Friendship, until they were only dark specks in the distance.

Three hundred and eighty-one miles of pleasant riding brought them to San Antonio, the great Texan battlefield, now the largest city in Texas, and referred to by many as the “City of the Sword,” for the Comanche and white man fought in that region for forty years to secure supremacy. Who does not recall “The Fall of the Alamo,” when Davy Crockett and other brave pioneers were massacred?

It was springtime, and nature rejoiced in the season of creation; naturally, these two young men, filled with the courage that goes with youth, could not but be deeply impressed with the romantic beauty of the scene. As they walked up the narrow streets of this old Mission City, they took a deep breath of the balmy air, and were glad to be alive. They met interesting characters, many of them strikingly attired; the wealthy Mexican in blue and red silk, his breast covered with silver emblems of his favorite saints; military officers in white linen and scarlet sashes; Franciscans with blue gowns and large white hats; Brothers of Mercy in white flowing robes; Indian peons wearing ancient sandals; beautiful seņoritas dressed as in the days of Cortez and Pizarro; Jewish traders; negro slaves; rancheros curvetting on their fiery steeds; Apache and Comanche, busy spying around small groups of English-speaking people, who were earnestly discussing the latest reports from the goldfields of California.

In this Old World city William J. Howard and Edward Burns were joined by several strong-looking, ambitious youths. Organizing themselves into a company, they obtained the complete equipment necessary for the long journey from San Antonio to San Francisco. Then, when everything was ready, this company of high-spirited young men, numbering forty, struck out across the plains with scarcely a thought of the hardships ahead of them. They were all well mounted, and several pack mules carried their belongings. Full of health, vigor and the joy of life, they chatted merrily as, guided only by the compass, they made their own trail.

Twelve hours of fast traveling brought them into thick forest and then into wild country where the sun beat down upon them without mercy. As they continued their journey the heat became greater, and water practically an unknown quantity. The men who chewed tobacco, it was noticed, suffered most from thirst. At night they all spread out their rubber blankets to catch the dew, and in this manner managed to survive until the Pecos River came in sight.

Howard had been appointed Captain of the company, and when they approached the Pecos he was riding a good distance ahead with three scouts. On sighting the river he gave the pre-arranged signal by blowing his bugle, and this started a mad horse-race in which every man participated, each endeavoring to he first in the cool, fresh water. The horses were as frantic as the men, and in the wild struggle that ensued while plunging down the muddy banks of the river, two men lost their guns. Men and animals alike reveled in the water of the Pecos, for many days had passed without a drop to drink, and these lusty youths had experienced their first real hardship.

On coming out of the river, however, they raised their voices with new courage, and commenced singing:

“O, California,
That’s the place for me;
I’m bound for San Francisco,
With my washbowl on my knee.”

As usual, they divided themselves into five mess-squads, and one of each party lighted a fire. It was a welcome sight—five.blazing campfires under the trees! Some of the men unpacked the provisions and laid them out on the fresh green grass, while others stirred the blazing embers and started to prepare the meal. Hardships forgotten, they were soon busy making coffee and biscuits, preparing bully beef, and roasting potatoes in the hot ashes. When everything was in readiness, with a sense of hearty enjoyment, forty ambitious young men gave vent to their feelings of hope as they eagerly indulged in their first meal on the banks of the Pecos River.

They stayed here two days, spending the daylight hours in hunting and fishing. A Congregational minister was a popular member of the company, and he was fortunate enough to catch a catfish weighing forty pounds. This delicacy was enjoyed by the members of his particular mess, while thirty-two men did not get a taste of it. It being Sunday, he was called upon to preach a sermon, and when he had finished, one of the unlucky thirty-two—Phil Herbert—solemnly asked a blessing, ending it with the words: “Forty pounds of catfish, and not a bite to eat.”

In the evening the fires were again lighted, and under the oak-trees they spun yarns and told stories until every man was tired out. As the camp quieted down and the last story was told, a deep silence prevailed, for there was no breeze to disturb the foliage. The guard, lying in the green grass, was alert to the slightest sounds of the night. Moonlight beautified the whole landscape, transforming the dark laurels into a grove of golden foliage.

This rest at the Pecos was much appreciated, for it gave the men renewed energy to continue their journey.

For the next one hundred miles the country was quite fertile and water plentiful. Hickory, pecan, and poison-oak trees grew in wild profusion along the trail. The forest was inhabited by the wildcat, wolf, mink, raccoon, lynx, deer, and occasionally a bear would prowl near the train. All day long, vultures swung lazily in great circles above them, watching, as each man knew, for the luckless straggler who might falter and drop on the trail. Sometimes an Indian would come upon them; but he was always friendly. As the party wended their way through this wooded country, the men became scattered in their game-hunting activities. In this particular section of the country there were many wild bulls, it being the custom of the Mexicans to kill only the cows and preserve the males for bull-fights. Without warning, one of the ferocious creatures rushed out of a bush, knocked Burns off his horse, and made a dash for Howard, who shot him through the head.

Three days later, when the men came together again, Captain May was missing, and Howard volunteered to look for him. On the second day of the search he found him in an exhausted condition, for on his way back to camp he had lost his direction and had traveled aimlessly round and round. This man carried a well-filled money-belt, and as he had implicit confidence in Captain Howard, he gave him his home address, telling him to send his belongings there should he not survive the journey.

Again they entered the desert and were obliged to travel many hours without water; but now, accustomed to hardships, the travelers were much more able to withstand them. Day after day they plodded on, diverted even in their weariest hours by the ever-changing shades and lights of the desert. The monotonous expanse of sand was broken only by the crimson, pink, and purple flowers of the cactus, and as the sun poured down its all-consuming heat, their thirst often became almost intolerable. It was a hard, monotonous ride, but they had one never-failing source of interest—the constant expectation of attacks by Indians or wild beasts—some adventure such as they had read about in books.

Up to this point it had been demonstrated that mules could withstand heat and hardship much better than thoroughbred horses. With this in mind, and the knowledge that a hard trip was in front of them, on arrival at the next resting place, a trading-post on the Rio Grande, they exchanged their mounts for saddle-mules. Here the country was mountainous and the valleys fruitful; wild turkeys and other kinds of game were found in large numbers. All the men were in need of a good rest and plenty of nourishing food, so they unanimously agreed to stay fourteen days in this enchanting spot. Living luxuriously on turkey, vegetables and pure spring water, the health of even the weakest member was again up to its normal standard before they resumed their long march.

Leaving the Rio Grande, they crossed over at El Paso into New Mexico, and for the next five hundred miles no difficulty was experienced in obtaining good food and fresh water. After seventeen days of pleasant traveling they arrived at the Colorado River—in Arizona. This river was very wide and had a tremendous current, so the men fully realized the danger that lurked in the white water. Quickly building eight rafts to carry their belongings, they cast lots to decide who should swim and who should pilot the rafts across into California.

One of the men whose lot it was to swim became very much excited, shouting, “I can not swim, I can not swim!” Young Howard, on hearing his cry, said, “All right; you get on the raft, and I will swim in your place.”

When he jumped into the water, his mules entered with him. The strong current began drawing them toward the dangerous rapids, but William wisely kept to the right and managed to clear the danger point. In spite of their extensive experience, many of the men misjudged the treacherous whirlpools, and the crossing developed into a case of “each man for himself.” Three rafts were caught in the swirling waters, causing the death of one man and several mules. One of the ill-fated rafts contained Howard’s clothes and entire outfit.

On reaching dry land, the young Captain gazed at the tremendous volume of water, as it rushed by, regardless of human obstacles, and thanked God with a full heart for preserving his life. His undressed condition aroused the sympathy of his companions, who, when they learned that all his worldly goods had disappeared, fitted him out with some of their own garments. It was necessary to stay here for a few days and replenish the food supply, which had been completely exhausted by loss of rafts.

The remaining mules would now have to carry extraordinarily heavy loads; some one would have to walk, and after much discussion William started out alone, expecting the men to catch tip with him. He traveled all day in the scorching heat, and when evening came he decided to tarry on all night. When his emergency rations had vanished, and he found himself thirsty, hungry and footsore, he thought of his mother and home, where he knew there was bread enough and to spare. Through the long night the oppressive silence was broken only by the howling of a stray coyote, and occasionally a large cactus-bush would rise up before him like a grave-yard ghost.

The rising sun of the second day found him still on the trail. As the blazing orb rose higher in the sky, its overwhelming heat beat down upon him, until in his exhausted condition he became dazed, and every fibre of his aching body cried out for rest and refreshment. The romance of the desert faded away completely. As he stood there alone, the blistering sands beneath his feet, the one predominating thought in the great physical and mental struggle within him was, Water! Water! Water! Suddenly descrying something a long way off that looked like a mule, his spirits rose, and he walked a few hundred yards off the trail in the hope of finding relief. On reaching the object, however, it proved to be the skeleton of a donkey with some straw between its bleached jaws.

His water and food-supply had been sufficient only for the first hundred and fifty miles; therefore he had to walk sixty miles without food or water before reaching a spring. No words can express his joy and relief when he finally staggered to the spring; unfortunately, however, he drank so much water that he foundered and became unconscious. Regaining consciousness, yet feeling very ill and utterly exhausted, he sat beside the spring and gazed at the flaming red sky and mountains in the distance. His spirit still unbroken, he wondered why his companions had not overtaken him. Had they decided to stay longer at the Colorado River, or had they missed him entirely? Fearing that either might be the case, and realizing the impossibility of surviving without food much longer, he decided to resume the journey, trusting that the others would soon overtake him. He felt extremely weak—ready at any moment to fall on the trail; however, life was dear to him, so his indomitable will power led him on. Dragging his aching body many miles farther in that desperate condition, he finally reached the outskirts of what is to-day the beautiful city of Los Angeles.

Crawling up to the door of an adobe house, he fell in a heap on the steps, and recovered consciousness to find himself in a clean little bed with a kind-looking man bending over him. The man’s name was Rollins; he possessed a generous nature, gave Howard plenty of good food, and nursed him back to health and strength.

In about fourteen days he was well enough to walk about, and when Mr. Rollins heard of his loss at the Colorado River, he gave him some money to buy clothes. To accomplish this, William had to walk twelve miles into the town of Los Angeles, which consisted of tent-stores, a few wooden structures, and two good adobe houses owned by the Pico brothers. These were Spanish homes of simple structure with large verandas.

At the store he met five men from the Eastern States; they had come by water, and on hearing that William J. Howard had crossed the plains from Texas, concluded he must be a good guide, so asked him to take them to San Francisco. They supplied him with a mule, on which he rode back to the home of his friend Rollins, and after thanking him for his kindness, informed him of his decision to join five men from the East who were bound for San Francisco.

Howard’s new friends were all mounted on good mules, and the party started with a full equipment for the city of the Golden Gate. The journey proved both pleasant and interesting, for they traversed the coast trail at the best time of the year. On the way they kept their larder stocked by hunting and fishing, cooking their meals under the trees, where the air was keen with the fragrance of bay and pine.

The route that Captain Howard had taken across the desert and plains was not nearly as dangerous as the majority of immigrant trails. Traveling in the South, as he did, at the most satisfactory time of the year, he did not experience the Indian attacks and extremes of cold that befell the Donner party, whose story has been called the “Iliad of the Plains.” It is true that he suffered, but men never learn except through suffering, and the hardships experienced by him in the desert, in a way, prepared him for the rough life that was to be his lot at the mines.



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