by D. F. Bartschi
The sinister figure on the black stallion moved quietly through the river thicket. Trail stained and blackened by the drifting fly-ash of the crackling prairie fire, which seemed to stretch to the horizon in all directions. Orrin Porter Rockwell, advance scout, night guard, buffalo hunter and general security, seemed part of his big black mount as they moved forward, both alert and keenly suspicious of any movement or sound from the thicket or the distant rolling prairie. Rockwell was also keenly aware of his awesome responsibility. Following his dimly marked trail, he hoped, were the wagons, livestock, food and clothing—in fact, the entire worldly possessions of the 148 souls of the pioneering wagon-train of the Lion of the Lord, brigham young. The date was May 6th 1847, Thursday. Rockwell’s shoulders drooped slightly, ever so slightly, as he pondered his task.
The acrid smoke and fly-ash of the prairie conflagration hung low and heavy over the river bottoms, The meandering Platte was tame and quiet, and fairly shallow off to the left. The fire had burned up to the green-belt of the river’s edge, fortunately leaving a very narrow swath of green grass and willows along the water’s edge, which Rockwell calculated would feed the stock, (perhaps, meagerly), but this was not a land of plenty for either man nor beast. Rockwell was not intensely interested in camp-meat at this point since just four days ago the train had encountered their first great herd of plains buffalo—a moving sea of shaggy heads and humps spread across the endless prairie. The hunters had moved in, with Rockwell at full gallop. They had provided fresh camp-meat in ample supply. Wilderness-wise, Rockwell also knew that as the great herds moved across the burning prairie in search of browse, there would be other hunters—the plains Indian hunters. Rockwell stiffened in the saddle with renewed alertness.
Equally wilderness-wise, the black stallion’s head came up sharply, ears on the alert, eyes wide with excitement. Rockwell felt the black’s muscles tense between his knees. The stallion had caught some sound or movement off to the right and behind just a bit—horse and rider stopped short to breathe quietly and listen. Within seconds the rider caught the sound—very faintly at first; growing in volume, leaving no doubt, hoofbeats of a single animal approaching. Rockwell booted the stallion into a dense willow thicket, pulled the Navy .36 caliber colt from the depths of his coat pocket and waited. Rockwell now guessed it to be a single horseman, riding hard. He was ready, spinning the cylinder of the colt. He was not one to be caught unprepared.
His guess was right. The lathered bay gelding with his dusty rider bent forward in the saddle burst into view on the river bluff not 500 yards away, riding as if the entire Cheyenne Indian nation were on his heels. Rockwell satisfied himself there were no pursuers, slipped the colt back into his pocket and quieted the stallion with a pat on the proud arched neck. He had immediately recognized the horse and rider: twenty-one year old Datus Ensign and his bay gelding were in a hurry. Datus made no effort of concealment and was apparently locked on Rockwell’s trail. Datus was one of the younger night guards of the train and obviously a very good tracker. Rockwell again quieted the stallion and muttered under his breath, “this damn fool kid must be taught a lesson. Riding like this, full and open in Cheyenne country.” Rockwell calmed the stallion and waited. The gelding was now within 20 feet at full gallop. The stallion exploded from the thicket like a cannonball. Rockwell’s stirrup boot caught Ensign’s left foot and sent him sprawling from the saddle. Grabbing the reins of the gelding, the riderless horse came to a stop ten yards away. Datus was sure he had been bush-whacked. Steeling himself for the gunfire, he wiped the dust from his eyes as Rockwell reached down to lift him to his feet. The look of complete terror changed to exquisite ecstasy as he recognized his old friend Port. Rockwell’s first impulse was to unleash a tongue lashing that the boy would never forget. He hesitated. Why was the boy here? Why was he in such a hurry? Datus spat the river sand from his mouth, brushed his backside, caught his breath and blurted out, “Brother Brigham has lost his spyglass.”
Little other news, short of a train disaster, could have caught Rockwell with more fury. He knew the spyglass and he knew Brother Brigham’s attachment to this $40 piece of leather-bound, precision machined, telescopic tube of brass and nickel with its magic optics. Brother Brigham would be fulsomely furious, impossible to live with (much less travel) without his spyglass. Datus now pushed Rockwell’s spirits even lower, “And he wants you to come back and find it.” Rockwell immediately decided against the tongue lashing—no doubt Datus would remember this day until his dying day. They both swung into the saddles and headed their mounts back toward the train. Datus guessed he had ridden “a good thirty miles.” The sun was low on the western horizon. It would be a long night ride.
Night came on and the horses struck a brisk stride on the backward trail. The riders buttoned against the spring chill of the plains. Rockwell was already at work in reconstructing the events of the previous few days. As they rode through the night, Datus explained how at the noon stop, Erastus Snow had been assigned to ride herd on a dozen head of young oxen. In a moment of inattention, the stock had wandered off the trail and had fallen in with the march of the great buffalo herd. Once intermingled there would have been no chance of recovery. All mounted men of the train, including Brother Young himself, quickly joined in the race across the prairie to get the valuable young animals back into the train. Datus also recounted with some detail the scathing “scotch blessing” Brother Brigham had heaped on the bowed head of subdued Erastus for his negligence. It was not until mid-afternoon that Brigham had noticed the spyglass missing from his saddle-bag.
Rockwell was somewhat relieved to learn that the loss had occurred during the wild chase that day instead of during the buffalo hunt of four days before. At least his search could now be restricted to eight or ten square miles of prairie—a foot-long piece of brass tube lost in the vastness of ten square miles of prairie. His assignment would not be easy, but then, Rockwell was not accustomed to easy assignments. The two riders urged their mounts onward through the silent night. There was a bright moon. It had been a long day and was going to be much longer for Orrin Porter Rockwell.
The dying embers of the bivouacked train came into sight. The night guard
challenged them at the outer circle: “Rockwell and Ensign” and the guard waved them in. Even though the hour was late, Rockwell observed three of the wagon covers glowed from the inside candle light. Humiliated Erastus Snow was not sleeping, studious William Clayton was recording (Clayton was always recording) and Brigham Young was pondering his problems. Rockwell approached the Young wagon with trepidation. Brother Brigham could be vitriolic at times and Rockwell felt this just might be one of those times.
Young threw back the flap and curtly asked the weary Rockwell to enter. Brother Brigham quickly entered into a detailed description of the time and place of his loss. “Call Brother Clayton,” he said. “He has mapped the trail and probably can show you the exact spot where we chased after the oxen.” Clayton was called from his writing and gave Rockwell a brief but thorough rundown on the location. Rockwell remembered the place. He rubbed down the stallion, panned out a small portion of the meager grain supply, bolted a spartan meal and climbed back into the saddle. By riding through the remainder of the night he could be near the loss site by daybreak. It would indeed be a long, long night.
The black stallion strode out with vigor. Rockwell settled deep in the creaking saddle and hoped for the best. Daybreak and sunrise found the two drinking from the small stream which Rockwell, with Clayton’s map, had determined [to be] near the chase site. The deep tracks of the running oxen and the galloping horsemen were clear in some places and completely obliterated in others, unmistakably, by the recent passing of another great herd of plains buffalo. Rockwell’s hopes crumbled. If Brother Brigham’s glass had escaped the cloven hooves of that great herd it would indeed be a miracle. This was now May 7th. He had been in the saddle most of the past 24 hours. The sun was warm on his back. He suppressed the urge to ride to the shade of the river cottonwoods and catch some sleep. He must find the glass.
Crisscrossing the plains, always keeping sight of his own trails, the day wore on. He let the stallion drink sparingly from a small stream, splashed and gurgled his own face in the water to keep awake and rode on and on. The May sun made its arch and dropped toward the western horizon. Rockwell and his mount were now little more than animated machines. He wondered if he could really see the glass if he passed directly over it. He rubbed the dust and sweat from his eyes, turned the stallion and caught a glimpse of some object unfamiliar in the plains landscape. Off to the right and 30 feet away, cradled gently, yet securely in the forks of a sturdy clump of buck-brush was Brother Brigham’s spyglass; the low rays of the sun glistening from the polished brass and nickel. Rockwell eased himself out of the saddle, wiped the dust from the glass, wrapped it in his bandanna and slipped it into his saddlebag. A miracle, indeed.
Dawn was just highlighting the eastern horizon, the camp was coming to life. Erastus Snow, still chafing, was staring blankly at the wagon flap. William Clayton was again at his writing. Brother Brigham was sitting on the wagon tongue keeping a vigilant eye on the trail to the east. His faith in Rockwell was unshakeable—the scout should be showing any minute. The May sun topped the horizon and the long rays chased the prairie chill from the encircled camp. The night guard herded the draft animals into the circle in preparation for the day’s march. Suddenly a shout went up, “a rider approaching from the east.”
Brigham strode briskly out to the outer fringe of the camp. Yes, no mistake, it was Port. The black stallion’s stride had slackened just a bit, the proud head was lowered ever so slightly, the black hooves dragging a bit of dust with each step, moving slowly but deliberately. Slouched in the saddle, still wrapped from the night chill, drawn, bone-weary, travel-stained and racked with exhaustion was Orrin Porter Rockwell. Instinctively the gathering teamsters already knew the results of the search. A great cheer went up. Port swung down stiff-legged and heavy from the saddle, pulled out the $40 piece of brass and nickel, cleared the trail dust from his throat and passed the object of his 36 hours in the saddle over to Brigham Young. “Here is your spyglass, Brother Brigham.”