The Man that Ate the Pack Saddle

"The Man That Ate the Pack Saddle"

by Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)


From The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail

New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, 1981.

All Rights Reserved.


THE STORY OF THE MORMON TRAIL is as pat with crises as a horse opera, especially in 1856, ordeal along that thoroughfare was not climactic but serial. And so the rescuers of the Martin Company had hardly pulled away up the Sweetwater with a clinking of harness metal and a crunch of broad tires in snow-crust and a great fume of breath in the cold air before another ordeal began at Devil's Gate. If the theme of the handcart episode was the suffering of the innocent, the theme of this one was the steadfastness of the strong. Its hero, except for his Mormonism, could step into the boots of any Western hero who has been in danger, tested, suspected, and finally vindicated.

His name was Daniel W. Jones--not to be confused, though some historians do so confuse him, with the Dan Jones who looked as if he might convert all of Wales to Mormonism in the 1840's and early 1850's, and who in 1856 had come on with Franklin Richards' missionaries as far as the Platte Bridge, where he stopped to find out about a cached threshing engine, and so missed the rescue. This Dan Jones was an ex-Missouri Puke, an orphan, a harder Huckleberry Finn who from the age of eleven had made his rough way on a tough frontier. "Probably as willful a boy as ever lived," he said he had never been controlled except through kindness, "and this I did not often meet with." Like Huckleberry, rather than submit to being civilized, he had lit out for the territories: the Mexican War led him into the Southwest as a member of the Missouri Volunteers, and for some years afterward he lived among hair-trigger borderers in Texas and New Mexico.

But whether he knew it or not, he had the seed of civilization in him. Fighting, Taos Lightning, and Indian women did not fully satisfy. Helping to drive a band of sheep from Taos to California along the old Spanish Trail, he shot himself accidentally in the groin, and convalesced under the care of a Mormon family at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon, in Utah Valley. The kindness with which he was treated smote his orphan heart; he found himself hankering after the security of the Mormon confidence in the Lord. Before long he joined the Church, married a Mormon girl, and settled down. It was proper that when Brigham Young stood up in the tabernacle at October Conference in 1856 and said that men were needed to rescue handcart emigrants caught by snowstorms somewhere on the other side of South Pass, Dan Jones should volunteer. Kindness for kindness. He was a man who honored his obligations.

Two or three weeks later, 327 miles of snowy mountains to the eastward, he volunteered again, more recklessly. When there seemed no way of getting the weakest emigrants in without unloading the freight from all the Hunt and Hodgett wagons, Jones said he would be one to stay behind and guard the cached freight. With two valley boys and seventeen of the strongest teamsters from the wagon companies, he organized a little Stake of Zion in the cabins of the trader fort just above Devil's Gate, and prepared for six months of snow, cold, and isolation. They were fifty miles from Last Crossing, where some mountaineers wintered, and 215 from Fort Bridger. And they weren't exactly prepared to stay: for supplies they had a few crackers and perhaps seventy-five head of skin-and-bones cattle too broken-down to go farther. Even these they were not supposed to eat if they could help it.

Around Devil's Gate at least two hundred cattle had died of bad water or in the early storms; the trail to the east was strewn with their carcasses. The scent of death blew east toward the Platte and west toward South Pass and north and south along the Laramie Range, and wolves from miles of wild country gathered to the barbecue. Trying to fatten their scrawny heard by driving it away from the fort to better feed, Jones's outfit found themselves facing packs that even in daylight looked dangerous. Wolves cut down cattle at high noon, under the rifles of the herders; and at night the corralled heard was sure to erupt at least once in a flurry of attack and a snarl of shadows and a panickd bawling, and when the guards arrived swinging firebrands they would find another steer down, and the snowy darkness ringed with the green flare of eyes. Within a week the wolves took twenty-five head.

The winterers did what they must--killed the remaining forty or fifty cattle before the wolves could beat them to it. A teamster who had once been a London butcher dressed and hung their beef in classy style, putting aside the worst of it, along with the offal, to be used as wolf bait in case they somehow managed to get hold of some traps. In the best Mormon cooperative work-party fashion they fell upon the cabins and rechinked them, laid floors of ox yokes in some and stored the freight in them, fixed a stable for their four saddled horses, and added to their stores (keeping careful account of what they borrowed) some coffee, sugar, dried fruit, and candles that they found while making their inventory.

Their pastimes were hunting for buffalo, which was generally unproductive, and shooting at wolves, which netted them greater results. Shortly their crackers and fruit gave out and they were down to beef alone; their salt gave out and they ate their leathery beef unsalted. A day or two before Christmas two Mormons, Eph Hanks And Feramorz Little, a nephew of Brigham Young's, came eastward with the valley mail and a letter of advice from Brother Brigham. He said among other things that they had better ration their flour (they had never had any) to make it last until spring, and he gave them permission to kill an occasional ox rather than run large risks hunting in Crow country. But Feramorz Little had a piece of more practical advice. Looking around just before he and Hanks took off for the Platte bridge, he suggested they ought to take good care of the hides of the slaughtered cattle. They might come in handy.

A few days later the Missouri mail came in from the east, switched from coach to packmules at Devil's Gate, went on until it ran into a massive blizzard on South Pass, barely made it back to Devil's Gate again, and finally dribbled back to the Platte bridge to winter at a lower altitude, leaving a passenger, Joseph Heywood, behind them. Heywood ten years ago had been one of the trustees left behind in abandoned Nauvoo, later he had been Salt Lake City's first postmaster, now he was going out as United States Marshal for Utah. He saw no reason to go back to the Platte bridge, for Dan Jones had recently beaten his way back there only to find the mountain men flourless and living on game alone. All Jones had got was some wolf traps.

They baited none of those traps. Twenty-one men eating nothing but meat can chew their way through forty skinny carcasses in a very short time. All the beef they had thought edible was shortly used up, and now they began on the wolf bait, so stringy that it satisfied their hunger not at all and nourished them little more. Then that too was gone, and after an unwilling interval they boiled a hide. It provided a gagging, gluey broth and strips of sheet rubber, both of which made them sick. While they redoubled their efforts to find game, they lived on coffee, but after a while coffee lost its power to satisfy, and one man threw a fit from drinking too much of it. East and west, the empty miles of the trail were snowed over without a track. It was still only early January.

One kind of script, at this point, calls for them to draw straws to see which should first be killed and eaten, but the Mormons, whatever their other capabilities, never showed any talent for cannibalism. Instead they did something totally unacceptable in a horse opera. They knelt in meeting and prayed for the Lord to direct them. He directed them back to the hides.

These lay back outside the cabins, half snowed-over, frozen as stiff as crumpled sheet metal. Reluctantly they scalded and scraped the hair off another one and cut it up and boiled it until it was soft enough to be chewed. It still had a lot of unpleasant glue in it, but they got it down this time; it stuck to them, Dan Jones said, somewhat longer than they desired. So Jones asked the Lord for further directions, and the Lord passed on His favorite recipe for boiled hide. Scalding seemed to give hide a bad taste. Scorch and scrape it, therefore, to get the hair off. Then parboil for one hour in plenty of water, throwing away the water and glue. Then wash and scrape again, rinsing often in cold water. Then boil to a jelly and allow to cool. Serve with a sprinkling of sugar.

It was a lot of trouble, but then they had plenty of time, and their interest in experiment had been aroused by three days of fasting. They asked the Lord to bless their stomachs and adapt them to this food, and then they fell upon the hide and devoured it. For six weeks they ate virtually nothing else. No one, Jones reported, got the gout.

But then came a day toward the middle of February--the monthly fast day, appropriately enough, for they still kept fast days--when it became clear that something ugly had begun to come among them. Some were secretly cutting meat off the unclean carcasses of cattle that had died months before and that had lain to close to the fort for the wolves to get. Some were casting looks at the offal in the butcher shop, and at the frozen wolf carcasses, nearly a hundred of them, stacked in the yard. In such a winter, only the wolves were fat; they could see yellow slabs of fat among the muscle. But Dan Jones did not favor using unclean flesh. Eat those wolves, and what next? Man-meat, Mormon-meat. He allowed that they were on the Lord's business and that the Lord would provide clean food if they would purify their hearts. In their re-united and refreshed state of mind, and as a climax to a fast day that had no foreseeable morning, they hauled all the cattle guts and the old frozen cattle carcasses and all the skinned wolves down to the Sweetwater, cut a hole in the ice and dumped them in. then they went back and washed out their storehouse and "presented it before the Lord, clean but empty." Lord's move.

That afternoon a visitor dropped in; for a moment it looked as if he might be bringing the clean supper they aspired to. But he turned out to be an Indian as empty-handed and hungry as they, and instead of getting anything from him they had to offer him their last piece of boiled rawhide. He took it gratefully, indicating by signs that he'd eaten it plenty of times before. Nobody was able to talk to him except in signs. Jones tried him on Spanish and Ute, and concluded he was a Snake. He did not offhand appear to be a messenger of Providence.

Then they heard a noise outside, and hushed. Human voices. "Here comes our supper!" Yelled Joseph Heywood, and led the rush to the door. The McGraw mail coach, making a second try to get through, was stuck in the snow. The noise they had heard was a French Canadian swearing at the mules, a music that needed no interpreter. Jesse Jones, the mail carrier, was glad to see them, for down at the Platte bridge they had concluded that the whole Devil's Gate crowd must by now be dead. But he was astonished at how happy they seemed to see him, and inquired the cause of their excessive friendliness. Because you are bringing us our supper according to the Lord's promise, they told him, and would not take no for an answer. Almost his entire stock of provisions, calculated to last to Fort Bridger, went into the pot, and the twenty-six of them left just enough for a skimpy breakfast.

Nothing in such a basic western plot as this is wasted. The French driver knew Shoshone, and could talk to the Indian, who said that his band was camped a day upriver, out of meat and hungry, but that he thought he could find game if some of them would come along to protect him from the Crows. The mail outfit, now without provisions to go on, had no choice but to lie over to see if the Indian could prove his brag. He did. He took ten men out and brought them back after dark with their mules laden with buffalo meat.

When they left, the mail carriers took Heywood along. That left only twenty men at Devil's Gate, but twenty were adequate to clean the cupboard. By March 4 it was bare again, and really bare this time. They had eaten up all the stray scraps of hide, all the worn-out moccasins, all the rawhide tires off abandoned handcarts and rawhide wrappings off wagon tongues, even a chunk of buffalo hide that had been used for months as a door mat. Now they took inventory and found nothing edible in the whole place except a set of harness (dubious) and a rawhide pack saddle (sporting).

In the snow, which was from eighteen inches to three feet deep, hunting on foot was an exhausting grind, for they wallowed, were easily spotted by the game, and as often as not missed out of sheer nervousness or exhaustion when they did get a shot at something. The wolves had killed three of their four saddle ponies. Jones judged that none of the men, unless possibly himself, was strong enough to make a desperation dash to the Platte bridge to see if there might be help there. He was just about to try what would have been a very desperate chance indeed when the Lord intervened again. This time His messengers were the Danite Bill Hickman, later notorious as a strong-arm man and self-confessed murderer second only to Porter Rockwell, and several companions. They were bringing through the first installment of mail for Brigham Young's new Y. X. Express, which had obtained a contract to carry the mail between Salt Lake City and Independence. The Devil's Gate boys had just put the pack saddle on to simmer, but seeing meat on the express men's pack mules, they took it out of the pot and consented to drink buffalo broth instead. Hickman and the other express men were a long time getting over that dinner they saw on the fire. For years they called Dan Jones the man that ate the pack saddle. He always denied it, but admitted that if they hadn't arrived just when they did he might have been talked into taking a wing or a leg.

None of their windfalls lasted them long. Having eaten their way clean through the rawhide, they had to live from day to day, but as the winter wore away and the trail began to open, windfalls became more frequent. Some of the mountain men from the Platte bridge made their way with some beef to sell, and took their pay in calico from one of the freight boxes. Their hunting went better, too, because Hickman had left them two mules. Moreover, the Snakes and the Bannocks came down in small hunting parties from the Wind River country, and with the help of a wordbook he got from the French Canadian mail driver, Jones was able to make deals with them for meat. Their first uneasiness about the Indians, at least about the Shoshones, disappeared. In fact, from then until the end of his life Dan Jones liked and valued Indians, the only people other than Mormons who had shown him kindness. These Ishmaels were full of the helpfulness of mutual starvation. It was probably they who passed the word down to the Platte bridge that the Devil's Gate boys were hungry, and so brought the mountain men with their load of beef. Indians and Mormons drank a lot of coffee and thin belly-filling soup and ate a lot of thistle roots together, and as March thawed off into April and the snowline crept up the hills and the game began working into higher country, the Indians brought in meat that they offered not so much in the spirit of trade as in the spirit of brotherhood. To Jones, old Chief Toquatah seem to feel toward the Mormon boys "something like a mother with a lot of hungry children."

Travel loosened along the trail as the weather warmed. The second installment of the Y. X. Express passed eastward, leaving them a little flour, salt, and bacon. The first biscuits they had eaten in months choked them. Then a yoke of good oxen, one wearing a big bell that had probably kept the wolves off, wandered into the fort from somewhere and were promptly corralled as beef insurance. Just as promptly, they got loose and wandered off again, taking security with them. Jones and Ben Hampton pursued them on mules, but at sunset, after thirty hard miles, had not caught up. After dark they went on, feeling out the tracks in the snow, until they were stopped by a gulch full of snow that, only half frozen, would not support the weight of the mules.

They were deep in Crow country, the stars were glitters of eyes, the night set in to freeze hard. Even if there had been sagebrush for a fire, they would not have dared light one, and they had not come prepared with robes for a night out. Lying on the frozen ground, they chattered and shattered and hugged one another like lovers until, after some hours, they judged that the snow-bridge had frozen hard enough to let them cross. Then, trying to get up, they barely could. Their jaws were locked, their hands were tongs, their legs were sticks. They bumped into one another, fell down, couldn't hang onto the saddles to saddle up. It was so ridiculous that they had to laugh, and laughing, began bumping one another around, and bumping, stirred up enough life to get the saddles screwed down and go on. Forty-five miles from home they caught up with the runaway oxen, still so fresh that they took the back-trail at a trot.

Along in the afternoon, Ben Hampton's mule gave out so that thereafter they had to take turns walking, whipping along the cripple and the unspeakable and inexhaustible oxen. Long before they reached it, they could see Independence Rock, and off beyond it Castle Gate and the Rattlesnake Range, all of it in somber elephant-color streaked with crevices of snow. Just past sundown, the distances would have been blue and cold. Even when the belly is full, the heart is low enough at that time of a winter's day. But Jones and Hampton had not eaten since breakfast the day before, had ridden and walked a good eighty-five miles since then, had slept, if you could call it that, without covering on the frozen ground. Their hearts would have been low indeed. And then, beatitude. Smoke above the traders' cabins at the foot of Independence Rock, and as they pulled up bleary-eyed and groggy, the smell of roasting meat. Their stomachs rose up in them and grinned like wolves. Supper here, an hour or two of rest, and the remaining six miles to Devil's Gate might be faced.

Supper was offered them, even urged upon them. By all the free-masonry of the mountains they were welcome. But these were Mormon frontiersman, and the scripts are often wrong for them. They discovered that the four men they found at Independence Rock were stragglers harder up then themselves. They had come famishing into Devil's Gate the night before, one of their number with his feet frozen so badly that he might lose them: he lay gritting his teeth now from a blanket on the floor. The meat the men were cooking had been given them by the Mormons at Devil's Gate; it was all they had to get them to the Platte bridge. They had forty-four miles to go, and they had been all day making the six miles from Devil's Gate.

Maybe Jones, being who he was, would have refused to take the meat out of their mouths even if he had not been a Mormon. But it is legitimate to believe that his faith in the Lord, Who had already rescued them several times that winter, gave him the strength to say, Oh no thank you, they weren't hungry, they'd just warm up a little and be getting on back home. They clamped their teeth to keep from howling, and swallowed the juices surging up into their mouths, and turned out into the icy blue dark again. On the way the worn-out mule, for some reason that only the Lord could have answered, chose to run away, and had to be chased nearly a mile.

At Devil's Gate the worried brethren had been keeping a kettle full of meat and dumplings hot all day. Long after dark Jones and Hampton came in, sat down on a pile of wolf skins by the fire, accepted the plates that were handed them, and began to eat. They ate unhurriedly until nearly daylight, when the pot, which had contained rations for seven hearty eaters, was finally empty. Then they belched and rolled over and slept, to awake next day without a stiffness or a pain. But one thing they attended to immediately: rather than risk having to chase those independent and wandering oxen again, they made them into sudden beef, thus assuring themselves of meat to take them through to good hunting weather.

A little later, when a bunch of corn fed Valley Mormons came through setting up and stocking stations for the Y. X. Express, and said too loudly that they thought the Devil's Gate boys had been badly used and brought to a pitiable state, Dan Jones proposed an Indian wrestle of rawhide versus corn, and pulled the stakes of the strongest of them, just to teach them not to waste their pity.

One fact not normally stressed by the official histories of Mormonism is that the City of Zion, however millennial it might look from Wales or the black counties of England, was sometimes disappointing to converts who had torn up their lives by the roots to go there. Instead of the City of Enoch, paved with jasper and pearl and stones of fair colors, it was a ten-year-old adobe town in a desert valley; and to eyes made unhappy by that realization, even Brigham Young might look sometimes less like a prophet of God and more like a local tyrant consolidating his power over a gullible people and growing personally rich by their labors. The Profit, the Gentiles called him behind closed doors, and with the growing rumors of blood atonement and holy murder and the growing crisis with the United States territorial officials, the names they called him, and he them, grew brisker than that. Great expectations and gentle piety, brought to the valley, could crash against a reality that was often bleak and hard; the more the Church consolidated its power in the valley, the more that power came into conflict both with the temptations of California gold and with the external control that the United States, through territorial appointees who were sometimes the sweepings of the political caucus rooms, attempted to impose. It was inevitable that there should be numerous apostasies, that some who had barely made it to Utah should take the first opportunity to get out, either on to California or back over the trail to the States.

Some of these apostates were tough--it took nerve to defy Brother Brigham in the 1850's. For the purposes of our horse opera, which is seen through the eyes of Dan Jones, they may be designated the Bad Guys, though in the eye of impartial history they were often men of honor and some of them ended up as victims, rubbed out by Port Rockwell, Bill Hickman, Hosea Stout, or other fanatical Danites. But now, for this purpose, Bad Guys, to be treated with stiff-legged suspicion by any good Saint.

So around the first of May twenty well-armed Mormons came in from Salt Lake to reinforce Devil's Gate, saying that forty or fifty apostates under Tom Williams were on the trail, and would shortly be demanding a lot of the freight cached there, though many had refused to pay the Church trading company on the grounds that their goods had never been brought through. These men shortly appeared, and camped on the Sweetwater above the fort. To some who presented receipts and orders, Jones released freight from the storehouse; others who had no orders or whose orders looked forged he turned down. His refusal brought on a big dramatic scene, with Tom Williams and his apostates riding up in force and the forty Mormons taking cover behind cabins and posting themselves at portholes.

This whole scene goes like pure horse opera, and just possibly is. The apostate bully shouts his demand at the cabin, the camera pans first over his hard-faced henchmen and then over the faces of the defenders sweating behind their barricades. Then the door opens and the hero walks out alone into the open yard, in as orthodox a walk-down as ever Gary Cooper made. Williams demands, Jones refuses. Williams asks his men if they elect to take their stuff by force, the sound camera brings us their short, sharp, raw-meat growl. There is the moment of quiet while the mouth tastes metal and the held breath may let go any minute to the sound of gunfire. At the breaking end of that silence the hero says he wants to say one thing. His voice, not loud, carries even to the rear rank of horsemen, but his words are addressed to Tom Williams. In the pauses of his speech we can hear the tender rattle of young cottonwood leaves and the soft roar of the Sweetwater pouring its spring flood through Devil's Gate.

"We have been here all winter eating poor beef and raw hide to take care of these goods," Jones says. "We have had but little fun, and would just as soon have some now as not; in fact would like a little row. If you think you can take the fort, just try it. But I don't think you can take me to commence with; and the first one that offers any violence to me is a dead man. Now I dare you to go past me towards the fort."

Tom Williams was an uncle by marriage of Dan Jones's wife, and he knew what he was up against. After a minute he said, "For your family's sake I will spare you, for I think you d----d fool enough to die before you would give up the goods." And turned away, buffaloed.

That is how Dan Jones reports the episode. A man as steady, dependable, and brave as anyone between the Missouri and the Great Salt Lake sounds here as if he were quoting a dime novel. Nevertheless we should not let the falsity of the tone lead us to doubt the essential probability of the story. Whatever the expansions in Dan Jones's rhetoric, and whatever the justice of his cause as against that of the man wanting their freight, he may very well have walked out alone before fifty armed men and backed Tom Williams down. He was man enough.

Jones's heroics took care of the Bad Guys, but the Honest Citizens, unable to tell a Lone Ranger from a rustler, began giving Dan trouble as soon as he got back to Salt Lake City in the early summer. People whose goods had got lost on the desperate trail, people who may even have thrown their own goods away to lighten the wagon, now began to say that Jones had probably stolen them. They were full of the self-righteousness of the Reformation, which put neighbor to spying on neighbor and made everybody's sins everybody else's business; they had a normal Mormon suspicion of a man who had joined the Church only recently, and who came from Missouri at that; and they were truly Mormon in having a stern sense of property. They made so much talk that Jones went to Brigham Young and got from him the sort of security clearance called a "recommend." But even that did not suffice. Eventually his accusers brought Dan up before the High Council for theft.

They should have known better. Dan was good at these walk-downs and face-downs, and unjust accusations could not unravel his sense of humor. Among the charges brought against him was one which said that he must have doctored the accounts he turned in to Brigham, in which he had charged up the keep of twenty men all winter at seventy-five cents a week. He was obviously a liar in presenting so ridiculously small a bill, and therefore must be a liar in his account of what had happened to the freight. So Dan itemized the winter's expenses for them: forty head of cattle already dying, on whose meat and hides they lived for two months--no charge because they should have been paid for eating them; game on occasion--no charge; two weeks of thistle roots--no charge; one week of wild garlic bulbs--no charge; three days of minnows caught in a dip net, fish too small to clean and rather bitter to taste--no charge; several meals of roasted prickly pear lobes--no charge; quite a few days of nothing but water--no charge. What brought the costs to seventy-five cents a week per person was some meat bought from the Indians and eaten without salt, some beef bought from the mountain men from the Platte bridge and paid for in calico; and some soap, candles, and coffee taken from the stored freight.

Like the Bad Guys, the Honest Citizens backed down. Brother Brigham lit into them and was about to pronounce one of his more vigorous anathemas when Jones interrupted. He said he could bear the accusations better than they or anyone else could bear Brigham's curse. So instead he received Brigham's blessing and the assurance that if he had set fire to the whole caboodle at Devil's Gate, and ridden off by the light of it, Brigham would not have found fault. Brigham's recommend said the same thing. It ended, "The men who find fault with the labors of Brother Jones the past winter, we wish their names sent to this office, and when the Lord presents an opportunity we will try them and see if they will do any better."

But Brigham did not, as he had intended, send Jones back to manage the Y. X. Express station now established at Devil's Gate. He said he guessed Dan had had about enough of Devil's Gate for any one man. And anyway, by that time it was midsummer, and by midsummer all of the stations ambitiously projected to give the Saints substantial control of the trail from the Missouri to the mountains would have seemed precarious. A few, particularly those at Fort Bridger, at Deer Creek, and at Genoa, a Mormon colony deliberately planted on the Loup Fork as a permanent way station on the model of Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah, were already well established, along with others of a more tentative kind. But all would have been rendered dubious by the word that Porter Rockwell and some other riders brought to the anniversary picnic in Big Cottonwood Canyon on July 24. The word was that Utah's long festering quarrel with the United States had finally provoked President Buchanan to order an army of 2,500 men to march on Salt Lake City and bring the rebellious Mormons to obedience.

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