Mormon Literature Sampler:

Indian Episode of Early Days

S[cipio] A[fricanus] Kenner*

In the year of our Lord 1868, the writer was a telegraph operator in the town of Beaver. The Deseret line had been completed several months before, and the people were now getting so accustomed to it that they no longer visited the office out of curiosity, and very seldom for any other purpose, and there was a perceptible shrinkage in the consequence which formerly hedged about the youth in charge, rendering the post much less attractive than was its wont; these circumstances, in connection with the other, that money was seldom passed, that the roughness and unconventional ways of the early days were still measurably in vogue, that the business had become tedious and monotonous, while the boy himself was disposed to be active and restless, and, above all, that Salt Lake was too far away, caused him to hand in his resignation and depart. Replacing an operator in those days in out-of-the-way places was no easy matter, and, in order to be straightforward in the premises, the writer had, for about three months prior to his departure, had in training in the art of telegraphy a couple of young and capable men to take his place. These were "coached", and received practical training, the field of their practice gradually expanding until finally between them they could handle the limited business of the office very well. One of these (William Ashworth) became a regular operator and afterwards occupied a much more responsible station. All this, however, is but preliminary and incidental. The central fact is that I got out, and so much of interest as the story contains is embraced in what follows.

By engaging persistently, and at times painfully, (because of lacking skill) in the principal means of effecting exchanges in those days, I had become the proud possessor of a pony, a saddle, bridle and revolver. Having an uncle, an aunt and several cousins in the "Dixie" country who had not been seen for some time, it was decided to pay them a visit. Advice was freely given that it was a foolish thing to make such a trip alone, as the Indians were marauding and murdering at various points in Southern Utah, Sanpete and Iron counties (the latter of which would have to be passed through going to Dixie) being the principal sufferers. The line between Beaver and Iron counties is about the central part of a range of low-lying mountains running due east and west, and the lowest part of these is where the state and county road runs. This is known as the pass, and a more fitting place for an Indian attack could not have been chosen even by old Blackhawk himself. In order to take up as much of the acclivity as possible, the road is exceedingly tortuous, with little knobs or peaks continually intervening, so that in places, the path can be seen but for a short distance ahead, while on all sides are tolerably dense growths of cedar and piñon pine trees. When one is alone, it is about the lonesomest place in the world. At any point for a distance of several miles, shots could be fired at a traveler from a hundred different places and not one of the assailants be seen. But the advice given, which was almost identical with that which the old man imparted to the youth in the poem "Excelsior," to try not the pass, was received in the same way, and the journey set out upon.

Did the reader ever try anything of that kind? If so, he will of course remember that his high spirits are only maintained at a heroic altitude while surrounded by civilization; with this behind him, with a landscape presenting about the same features which it bore when the great upheaval subsided, and a solitude so profound that the smallest bird is a welcome visitation, all this before him, with dangers all the more pressing because unseen and unknown all about him, his courage is likely to subside in an inverse ratio to the progress made, so that, by the time the mid-point between the safety place behind and the safety place ahead is reached, all showy and boastful forms of self-reliance have entirely evaporated. The individual at last realizes that at any point in life, and particularly the one he happens just then to be occupying, he is a creature of circumstances with no more relative strength at one time than another; and without the protecting care of a Providence which is too often unthought of until actually needed, he is not of much consequence anyway.

The southern side of the pass is much shorter than the other; in fact, it is not to exceed a mile's span, while the other is four or five miles; so that when the apex is passed, the time spent in reaching the open country again is brief. But what availeth it to reach the open at such times? There is still nothing in sight but barrenness, flanked by ridges with dense growths of trees impenetrable for any distance to the eye, and traversed all along by gullies which are usually dry, but, by reason of rainfalls and melting snows, have been cut deep into the porous soil. The chances for attack from a concealed or an unconcealed foe were not one whit lessened despite the broader range of view, while the all-pervading solitude lent to each darkened brush and half-hidden stump an awful, soul-saddening feeling. But, as one of these mystical terrors after another dissolved in the view of closer inspection, something akin to returning boldness was experienced by reason thereof. We have all been there. After our fears are shown to be groundless, we are slower to be frightened by the same things again. This condition long enough continued would build us up to the same pinnacle of vainglorious self-sufficiency with which we set out on our expeditions in life, and from which we are at times, as in my case, so unceremoniously toppled. Then we see how it is that man continually needs admonishment, example and discipline to be kept in the straight and narrow path, and is apt to depart from it as soon as the corrective agencies are withdrawn.

An old and homely backwoods maxim is to refrain from "hollering" till you are out of the woods, and this is deserving of a much wider application than it has received. When we think the crisis passed, we are sometimes just upon the verge of it. Thinking all obstacles are overcome, we care not for the greatest of all which may be lying in wait for us. It was so with me on the occasion spoken of. My perplexed fancy had become so relaxed that I was mentally ridiculing myself for being so easily shaken, when from a ravine to the south, I saw a cloud of dust arising and spreading. The first impulse was naturally one of curiosity, this being succeeded at once by something a little more disturbing to the nervous system. Was the appearance caused by a band of sheep or cattle, or was the dust raised by a draft of air caused by the shape of the fissure? Like the cloud no bigger than a man's hand, of which we have read, this one grew apace and came nearer. My heart beat with greatly increased rapidity for a moment, and then seemed to suspend operations altogether, as from the jaws of the defile, half a mile off, emerged, with a dash, a band of mounted Indians! The poverty of the English language, even to a master of it, would be strikingly shown, were he to attempt to place in words a full showing of the things thought, the feelings felt, and the nothingness done by the writer of these lines at that time! And even in the midst of this orgie of desperation, when reason was measurably suspended, there at once ensued as one of the contradictions with which the psychical sometimes confronts the physiological existence, a greater degree of judgment than ordinarily obtains. In such cases, especially when the means of doing so are at hand, the first impulse is to seek safety in flight, but that would have been as fatal a thing to do as to have placed myself in battle array and begun firing upon the Indians. The wisdom which the supreme court is supposed to have at all times, comes to the humblest of people, as a flash of superior intelligence, sometimes, and so it was then. "Distilled almost to jelly with the act of fear," as Shakespeare writes it, I was yet impelled to assume a boldness which nature, for some reason or other, had neglected to place among my physical effects. The band were upon me in an instant, gibbering, jangling and discordant; they baited in front of me, instead of surrounding me, as I expected they would do, and seeing that I was (apparently) as cool as a cucumber, they went to "sizing me up" in Indian style before saying anything. This didn't take long, and then one who seemed to be the leader said:

"Where oo go?"

With a mighty effort I said with seeming tranquility—

"Oh, just below here, to see the folks."

"Huh! Where oo live?"

"Oh, just back here in Beaver."

"Huh! You fight'em Injin?"

"No, never fight any Indians at all."

"Huh! You 'Mo'mon?'"

"You bet your life!"

They all looked me over carefully once more, and then, after a little chattering among themselves, passed me by and sped along in the direction they were going when the interview began. I made the pony jog along indifferently until the savages were well out of sight, and the whole situation changed. I had never ridden much on a horse, lately not at all, and would gladly under ordinary circumstances have dismounted and walked awhile, but not now. If the poor animal had made his pace equal to the mighty dash of a limited express train, had he been the modern Bucephalus with a speed many times multiplied, if he had been a Pegasus in real life able to fly as well as run, he would at such a time have seemed a huge, crippled snail, half asleep. He must have made at least twelve miles an hour, but oh, how stationary the landmarks on either side of the road did seem! And how very tired I was, yet how splendidly was the weariness kept in subjection! What a luxury would have been a walk of a mile or so!

At this point, a little moralizing is permissible. Almost every event in life, beyond the common, furnishes materials for this, and, if our philosophy would only enable us to find it out, much real profit might be realized from apparently unprofitable and seemingly unfortunate incidents. The greatest of lawgivers and protectors has admonished us not to despise the small things of life; the fact that the giant oak grows from the tiny acorn, and the mighty ocean maintains its bulk by trickling tributaries, shows in some measure the wisdom and justice of the admonition. Now, had I been a "plumed knight," a "whiskered pandoor" or a "fierce hussar," the chances are decidedly that I would have been taken into captivity or sent beyond the reach thereof, and my little property have been converted to the use of the "noble scions of the forest," without due process of law. But it seems that even they have some appreciation of the fitness of things. Being a noncombatant, very young, correspondingly tender, and without the slightest trace of aggressiveness or resistance, the red men concluded that the "game would not be worth the candle," and as each of them had a horse and equipment worth a good deal more than mine, they didn't care to burden themselves with the latter, especially as the animal was tired, hungry and thin, and his trappings were old, uncertain, and far from gaudy.

"Some people are born great, others achieve greatness, and others still have greatness thrust upon them." There should be added to this that sometimes the greatness fits and sometimes it doesn't. Now and then, it is a means of protection or exemption from consequences by reason of the respect or awe which it inspires; but occasionally, it is a lightning rod which deflects the destroying fluid from the path it would otherwise pursue, and brings the whole volume upon itself. It may not be destroyed by the visitation, neither is it benefited, and anything in the world is much safer when bolts of lightning give it the go-by and pounce upon something else. We find that the loftiest trees in a grove, the highest poles in a town, and the tallest man in a group, if all are possessed of equal attractiveness, will nearly every time be the recipient of the electric fluid when it descends upon their immediate locality. "Death loves a shining mark," but its agents in the shape of aerial electricity, and hostile red men, are not so particular about the shining, if the object only has some other qualifications, chief among which is prominence. Lacking that, there is sometimes (but not always) safety. There was in my case, and for a few hours at least, I would not have traded stations with the Prince of Wales, the President of the United States, nor even the conductor of any street car on which I have ever traveled, and nothing could emphasize the desperateness of the situation more than that. All these thoughts, and a good many more, occurred to me as I sped along, the mental exercises being interspersed with occasional glances over my shoulder and urging the faithful beast to still greater effort. Of course, I realized that the Indians I had encountered were not all there were in the country, and one interview like the last one, in the course of a day, or a lifetime for that matter, was quite ample. But there was no further interruption. After a long, needful rest at Paragoonah, the "great moral ride," as it has been called, was resumed, and Parowan reached in safety. This town is and was generally a quiet, pastoral place, not increasing much in population, nor at all given to indulgence in the spectacular or the sensational, but it was different on this occasion. The Indian situation was acting like an effervescing agency, and everybody was visible, and all were active, a condition of things which increased rather than diminished as time went along. The red men were stealing stock continually, and were ready to fight whenever opposition appeared. Military preparations, on as large a scale as the means at hand would admit of, were being made, and the day after my arrival as strong a detachment as was considered proper (the safety of the town as well as effective operations in the field being duly regarded) went out under experienced leaders, all mounted, of course. Not being, by this time, in so much of a hurry as when I left Beaver, it was thought advisable to lay over for a while. At such times and in such places, all hands must "stand in," and generally they do so with alacrity if not with cheerfulness. To me was assigned a position as one of the night guard, the duties being to take a post a little beyond the outer fringe of houses, keep a sharp lookout for suspicious indications, and give the alarm if necessary. There were several of us out at a time, and we were stationed two or three hundred yards apart. There had been fighting a few miles away, during the afternoon, the shots being distinctly heard in the town, and the necessity for the most extreme vigilance was realized by all. Nobody but the children slept. In front of my post, about fifty yards away, was a dense growth of scrub oak, or some similar vegetation, and a good-sized army, by exercising caution, could have approached near enough for effective operations without being seen or heard. This circumstance had a very stimulating, agreeable effect upon me, and occasionally, as the ragged fleeting clouds passed from the face of the moon and left her smiling as brightly and beautifully as though in ignorance of what was going on below, it occurred to me how pleasant it would be to be translated all at once to her peaceful, Indianless realm!

Occasionally, a slight noise from the thicket would dispel all musings and imaginings, and was the means of accomplishing what I was afraid would take place by other agencies the raising of my hair. And, as on the day previous, these figments of the fancy were hurriedly, abruptly, excruciatingly crystalized into a hard, concrete realization. There was a sound this time! No mistake about it--would, oh would that there were! Another, and nearer, its awful realness impinging upon my sense of hearing with a forceful, fateful thud! I did not reach for my revolver, because it had never been out of my hand for an instant, a kind of false security being felt by reason of its presence. There was another noise--a footstep, unmistakably, and close to the margin of the thicket. It was time to prepare for action. One step more, and, in accordance with instructions, I called out with as much distinctness and vehemence as circumstances would permit—

"Who's there?"

No reply.

Again: "Who's there?"

Dread silence, most awful, prevailed. On the next putting of that terrible question, with no reply following, I was to shoot in the direction of the noise and then act as judgment (or the total suspension thereof) suggested. The fateful words were about to find expression when the thicket parted, and there emerged into the open a cow!

The moon smiled (apparently), the scurrying clouds pursued their aimless, flecky way, the light breezes chanted amid the tangled shrubbery a miserere for the dying day, the kine trudged unmolested to her lair, and "left the world to darkness and to me."

*Scipio Africanus Kenner (1852-1913) was born in Missouri, crossed the plains with his parents in 1860, but was not baptized a member of the Church until 1865. He became a journeyman printer with the Deseret News, later holding at one time or another almost every job associated with that paper from typesetter to editor. He subsequently became a telegraph operator in Utah and Nevada, a member of the Bar, city attorney, county attorney, Church attorney and assistant United States attorney. He held public office as a justice of the peace and state legislator and gained public attention as an orator and author of wit and eloquence. Besides his numerous editorials and articles, he published several books, including The Practical Politician and Utah As It Is. This account was published in the 1901 Improvement Era.

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