Sample Chapter from "The Wild Adventures of Old Bill Williams"

If you like history, you might appreciate this sample chapter from my book “The Wild Adventures of Old Bill Williams”.

Illustration by Lauren Olson

Illustration by Lauren Olson

Wandering With an Educated Man

“Whul, I spose’ it surely lets us know their hearts. They must be painted blacker than a midnight sky. No need ta’ have discussion about that,” Bill Williams drawled from atop his gray mule.

Albert Pike had to agree with the gaunt man with the pock-marked face. The human skulls staked next to the trail plainly severed as a warning for anyone entering Comanche territory. As he scanned the oppressive emptiness of the Llano Estacado, his heart skipped a beat. He had ventured out west from Boston looking for adventure. Now the bleached white bones reminded him of this land’s brutal reality. Continue forward; he may die. Return; he could be back in Taos in a week. He nevously licked chapped lips above his dark bearded chin.

“Well Mr. Williams, what would you have us do?” He asked as calmly as he could.

Bill Williams was considered a top notch mountain man though he had his peculiarities. For one, he rode in short stirrups and all hunched up with his knees up by his chin. Pike had chuckled the first time he had seen the man mounted. Like a hunchback riding a mule, he had laughed to himself. It also took a few rifle shots before he realized Williams shot plumb center every time. The way his rifle floated and danced, it was a wonder he ever hit anything, let alone dead center. Over time though, Pike came to learn that Bill Williams was as good a horseman, and a better rifle shot, than any other man he had met in his life. All peculiarities aside, Williams was indeed a master mountain man.

Williams’ face was glistening with sweat as he scanned the horizon. “If you’d like my thoughts, I’d be fer marchin’ straight in there. We can follow the trail ta’ water which ought not be far. Sides, we sorely need ta’ water the stock. Them injuns will be shore to spot us though. When that happens, we’ll be in fer a tough fight. Ain’t many injuns fight like them Comanche. Harris, what’s yer mind?”

John Harris, the booshway[1] of the outfit, surveyed the situation. “I’ve a mind ta’ keep a line[2].” Harris stated flatley. “This here outfits out fer’ beaver. If the educated man would like ta’ turn tail ya’ won’t hear no complaining from me.”

Pike’s analytical eyes surveyed the land ahead while he thought. Not only would the decision risk his life, but those of his companions as well. Add to that his growling gut after three days of luckless hunting, and he wasn’t sure he was up to the Llano. On the other hand, he had been planning this trip for over a year. Collecting the funds to make it west had not been easy. Would he simply lay down now that the going got tough?

Bill could see the man thinking. Though he himself felt at home in the dangers of mountain life, he didn’t want to miss a chance to needle the educated easterner. “Comanches’ is the injuns that run Jed Smith through few moons[3] back. If there was a coon[4] tougher than ol’ Smith I ain’t met him. You best keep it in mind.”

The words seemed to strike a personal blow to Pike. It was as if Bill Williams and the rest didn’t expect the easterner to have the necessary courage. In truth, Pike himself wasn’t sure if he possessed the courage he needed. Prior to seeing the whitened skulls he felt confident about his abilities. He had managed to travel from Boston to St. Louis without a hitch. The trip down the Santa Fe Trail had also proved easy enough. Aside from getting lost on the way to Taos, Pike and his small group had held their own the whole trip. On the other hand, all of that travel had been on relatively popular travel roads. The Llano Estacado was something different. A barren land chalk full of Comanche, rattlesnakes, and prickly pear cactus, it would test even a seasoned mountaineer. Still though, Pike wasn’t the type of man to back down from a challenge.

“C’mon John,” Bill broke Pike’s train of thought, “lets light out[5]. This poor ol’ Boston boy ain’t got the bark fer this country[6].”

Spurred on by the que, the trappers and hunters of the group nudged their mounts forward.

As the group pulled ahead, Pike’s small entourage looked to him for guidance.

“Well señor?” one of his Mexican companions spoke up, “Will we follow?”

Faced with a leadership dilemma, Pike was unsure. The men were all weather beaten and hungry. The country behind had already sapped much of their strength, but the road ahead looked even worse. Although his mind was telling him to turn back, his heart was leading him forward. Add to that the stinging words of Bill Williams and Pike was beginning to make up his mind. He took one more look at the pile of skulls. Some were nearly unblemished while others showed severe fractures. He realized they were the only remains of men who had attempted the same endeavor. Was the danger worth the adventure?

Without breaking his stare from the bones Pike swallowed hard. “We came here to explore these desolate lands and I aim to do just that. Anyone who wants to turn back will not be considered a coward by any other. The road ahead will be dangerous, and streams of beaver may be your only reward.”

His dark eyes broke their trance and looked to the men. He met their gaze and tried to exude the confidence he lacked on the inside. “Those that follow cannot be guaranteed anything besides hunger, thirst, and the threat of death. Follow if you will.”

With that, he kicked his sleek black horse into a trot to catch up with the trapping party.

 XXXXX

            That night the entire brigade made camp near a small pond filled from a recent rain. They had not eaten in several days and men were beginning to weaken. As a result Harris gave the order to have an old mare killed. As the trappers went to the task, Pike had to look away. In his educated mind these mountain men had gone too far. They had entirely renounced the values of their civilized countrymen for this barbaric existence. No self-respecting hunter ought to be humiliated by eating his own horse, Harris thought to himself. He had heard stories of these men reverting to the practice in times of starvation, but had not expected in on this trip. His stomach may have been empty, but just the thought of horse meat made it churn.

            After a few minutes over the fire the lean meat was well-roasted and the men all began to partake.

            Williams hollered out to Pike, “C’mon schoolboy. Ya better get while the gettins’ good.”

            “No thank you,” came the reply. “I do not relish in the meat of a domesticated beast.”

            He could see Williams begin to smile, and he hated him for it. “Whul, hoss’ meat may be tough, but it’s shore enough tougher when there ain’t any.”

            Pike turned away. The confidence of Williams was beginning to wear on him. Williams was a seasoned mountain man, likely the best there was. The biggest problem was that he knew it too. Ever since they had left he had been needled by the man. If it wasn’t in tests of horsemanship, then it was in tests of the hunt. Once, Williams had even bet him $100 in a shooting contest. $100! Add to that the constant lack of respect, and Pike didn’t know how much longer he could stand the man.

            “I appreciate the offer,” he politely stated, “but I’ll decline at the present moment.”

            “Suit yerself,” Williams responded between a mouthful of mare meat.

            Over the course of the next few hours the trappers picked the bones clean. Afterwards they all sat around lazily smoking their pipes near the campfire. It didn’t take long for the men to begin spinning yarns[7] of days gone by. As each man told his tales of bravery, marksmanship, and courage, they appeared to grow in unbelievability as the evening progressed. Pike was unsure of when the transition took place, but eventually he realized none of the stories were true at all. Eventually the talk turned back to their current situation.

            “Them injuns will be wandering fer shore. Best post a few guards ta’ keep a lookout,” Harris stated while leaned back against his saddle. “Comanche won’t take kindly to our trespass.”

            With that he appeared to have made his mind up, “Moss, why don’t you an’ young Taylor get yer shootin irons an’ take first watch. Next up will be school boy an’ yer’ Mexicans. Williams an’ myself can mange from there. Any man has a mind ta’ set up an watch, can shore enough do so. Other than that, best catch some sleep if ya’ can.”

            Pike’s eyes widened and his breath stopped when he heard his name called. Night duty? The midnight shift? The thought itself struck fear into his chest. Pike had sort of believed he would be allowed to ease into his watchmen duties. As it was, he and his men were called upon to watch this very evening.

Sleep came in short fits for Pike early in the night. After what seemed like mere minutes, he was called from his blanket to take his turn. Rising gingerly from his prairie bed, he grabbed his flintlock rifle and nudged his partner Miguel. The two walked to the edge of the fire light and scanned the dark prairie beyond.

A waning crescent moon hung brightly overhead in the cloudless black sky. Stars powdered the emptiness above, countless in number. The open sky was one aspect of western life Pike had grown quite fond of. With soft moon light casting itself across the short grass, the land itself seemed to transform into something different. Something that was both frightening and beautiful in the same moment. Before long the beauty of the landscape had him lost in thought. He drifted back to his aristocratic upbringing on the east coast and to his Harvard days. Although he had done well for himself, he never felt content to stay in the confines of civilization. His heart yearned for unexplored lands and to experience the fullness of life. What awaited for him after this western adventure he was unsure, but he felt good about the prospects.

After several hours, and a few brief scares by sulking coyotes, he was relieved by the next shift. When he returned to his blanket, his drowsiness could not overpower the stabbing pain in his stomach. He had never been hungry like this in all his life, and the prospect of eating the next day wasn’t looking good. Fortunately, he thought, they had found good water for the stock and themselves. Eventually, his fatigue overcame the gnawing in his stomach and he was able to nod off and catch a few minutes rest.

The next day found the party traveling east across the expansive Llano under a burning sun. Shimmering waves of heat were the only movement Pike could detect as far as he could see. As the sun climbed high he thought he saw a spring in the distance. As they neared closer his hopes grew, until they approached almost on top of it and he realized it was only a mirage.

By the end of the day they had traveled nearly 20 miles and had not passed a water source nor kicked up a living animal the entire day. His throat was parched, and his skin was dry from the hot wind blowing. Where were the endless herds of buffalo? Where is the clear flowing water? Pike thought to himself. In reality, he had never set foot on a landscape so monotonous and void of life as the Staked Plains.

They set up a dry camp that night, and Pike’s hunger was really wearing on him. After four days of not eating, his strength was simply sapped. Just unsaddling his horse tested the strength of his feeble muscles. With nothing to cook, most men turned in early that night, though a few stayed up late spinning yarns and smoking pipes. Pike was looking forward to a night without watch duties and a good night's rest. To his irritation, the howling void in his stomach kept him from finding any deep sleep at all. Surely we’ll find something to eat tomorrow, he thought.

 XXXXX

            The next day brought more of the same. At this point, Pike’s enthusiasm for the plains was gone. He had seen the open spaces and the starry skies. He had met the storied mountain men and ridden a fine horse. He had even done some successful hunting. But now he was ready to eat, and he vowed himself he would no matter what was roasting over the campfire.

            Fortunately they found water about mid-afternoon. Although the watering hole wasn’t much, both man and beast swallowed greedily. Cracked throats and swollen tongues found the relief they had been searching for. All were content to enjoy the rejuvenating feeling the water brought. Even with the blistering sun hovering overhead, Pike felt inclined to rest as he laid down on the sandy shores.

The decision was made to have another mare killed. Upon hearing the order Pike sighed hard and closed his eyes. All along he knew this moment was coming. In his mind the west was full of bison roaming the plains and deer bedded in the river bottoms. Some believed there were over 30 million bison on the plains at that time. 30 million was a number hard to even imagine. The truth was although animals were plentiful, there was much empty country between them. That was proving especially true on the Staked Plains.

“Get that fire goin’!” Pike heard the shout rise up from the men doing the butchering.

Pike looked around and didn’t see a tree anywhere in sight. He also hadn’t noticed the prolific buffalo and horse chips they had been using for fuel. I wonder what they’ll burn, he wondered to himself.

Before long they had a small blaze going and were throwing on bits of grass and weeds to keep it alive. The men were bickering back and forth though, and the situation didn’t look good. Pike ambled over to survey the situation. His growling gut seemed to protest his steps the entire way.

As he approached he could see the problem. There wasn’t enough fuel to get the fire blazing. They had just enough to keep in alive. A few men had thrown strips of meat onto the fire with little luck. The flames just weren’t hot enough to give it a good cooking. Even so, the hungry mountaineers weren’t slowing down. They sliced the fresh meat thin and did their best to give it a quick roasting before they gobbled down the nearly raw meat.

Pike watched anxiously. He looked over and once again saw Bill Williams pocked face, this time with a mouthful of meat. When their eyes met, he saw Bill’s eyes flash and a small grin appear on his lips. Without a word he stepped over to the carcass and cut off a long strip of haunch meat. Returning to the fire, he dropped it on the dancing flames. While it was still cooking Williams briefly looked up. His red hair looked wild and unkempt from beneath his black hat and mischief was in his eyes. Pike knew he was up to something, and he had a good idea what it was.

Shortly thereafter he withdrew the bloody meat from the fire. He then announced to the crowd, “Everyone, listen close!”

The crowd stopped their mingling and looked toward the lean man.

“This here hoss meat is fer’ our good friend Schoolboy!”

A wave of chuckles passed through the crowd. Pike looked down and felt a bit ashamed, for he knew what was coming next.

“Now, ya’ll remember a few days back when Schoolboy declined ta’ eat the last hoss we ate. Something about never eatin’ a beast.” He was smiling broadly as Pike looked up, his mouth half full of meat, and blood running down his whiskers. He sure is enjoying this, Pike thought to himself.

“Whul, here we sit. Out on the Llano, with wild injuns roaming about, and I know Mr. Schoolboy has as empty a meat bag[8] as he ever has. It jist so happens, we got ourselves another fresh hoss killed fer’ meat. It’s jist a might sorry the fire ain’t quite up ta’ the task of cookin’ it though. At this point though, I reckon’ you’ll eat jist about anything won’t ya’ Schoolboy?”

Bill wasn’t hiding the twinkle in his eyes one bit. Pike knew he would eat the meat, and he felt embarrassed how he had acted earlier. It was true that on these plains a man had to take what he could get. As he looked around, he realized none of these men were particularly enjoying the meat. Rather, they were just doing what they had to do in order to stay alive. Life in the west was hard. The realization hit him smack in the head. A man who would survive couldn’t afford to bring in too many taboos.

Pike nodded at Bill and extended his hand.

Williams pulled back. “What’s that? Didn’t hear ya,” he said mockingly.

“I’d like to have that slice of meat if I can Bill,” Pike said flatley.

“Ooooooh! You’d like ta’ try some hoss meat. Whul let me hand ya’ this here piece I cooked special fer the occasion’.”

He handed him the warm meat. He could see blood dripping off it onto the ground. Without a second thought he bit down and tore off as big a hunk as he could. As he chewed, it felt like a wildcat was caught in his stomach as it turned. Nevertheless, he chewed the meat and somewhat enjoyed the slightly sweet flavor. Then he swallowed it gone and forced his gut to accept it. He then shortly wolfed down the remaining bit he had. Although food lacked the instant rejuvenating power of the water, he knew his strength would return.

“What do ya’ say Schoolboy?” Williams grinned as he asked.

“A little tough,” Pike smiled right back, “but tougher when their ain’t any.”

Vocabulary:

 [1] Leader of a group of mountain men.

[2] Keep going straight.

[3] Most Native tribes measured years in full moon cycles. Mountain men adopted many Native customs while in the west.

[4] Friendly term mountain men called each other.

[5] Let’s travel.

[6] If an individual had courage they were said “to have the bark on.”

[7] stories

[8] Human stomach

The preceding is a dramatization of an actual trip taken by Albert Pike and Bill Williams. Albert Pike noted Williams to be peculiar, but a top-rate mountain man. It was the journal Pike kept along this journey that gives historians perhaps the best glimpse at Bill Williams and his mannerisms. During their journey the group would endure hunger, thirst, kill buffalo, have close encounters with the Comanche, and eventually find their way back to Taos. Although they didn’t find the wealth they were searching for, the adventure was one Pike always remembered. Later in life Pike would go on to garner notoriety as a Freemason, attorney, soldier, and poet. Some would come to recognize him as a prophet as well.

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