The North Loup settlement was made just after the frightful Indian massacre in Minnesota, where many of our people had lived. This North Loup settlement was the hunting, fishing and trapping ground of the Pawnees, whose reservation was about fifty miles southeast of us. The bloody and treacherous Sioux were northwest of us and continuous horse stealing, raids and warfare were carried on between the two. These Sioux on their expeditions never failed to steal the horses of white settlers nor to commit any other depredations, when there was any chance of their escape, and woe to the poor settler whom they caught away from home and unprotected.
They too, however, had real grievances against unprincipled trappers, hunters and other whites. An Indian swing in a tree top, used as a grave, and another grave, probably of a chief, on the top of a high hill, had been violated and robbed by white ghouls, and many a lone Indian had been picked off by a hunter with his new long range needle gun. An unprincipled horse dealer at Grand Island had even penetrated the Bad Lands, and had run off an entire drove of several hundred Indian ponies, and many fights were had between Indians and settlers and between the Indians and the soldiers.
It was fifty miles to the nearest railroad, and 25 miles to the nearest small camp of soldiers to the southeast, and no protection for thousands of miles to the north and west. The settlement was on its nerves all the time over Indians. Any untoward noise or light at night meant an Indian scare.
I remember during the summer of 1873, someone saw a flaming beacon light on the hills or bluffs away to the north; then they saw (or thought they saw) one, miles to the west. By noon next day scores of settlers imagined, or thought they had seen, similar ones in other directions and had heard strange noises or calls. Soon all had gathered at father’s (Eld. Oscar Babcock’s) log house, for a grand council.
Many were in favor of abandoning the new settlement for good and all. Others wanted to withdraw down the valley toward the older settlements and wait for soldiers. But to do either and leave their homes and crops would be suicidal to the new colony. When this latter course seemed likely to prevail, Eld. Babcock proposed that a sod fort be built on his farm. The clearer headed ones at once fell in with the plan.
The hot heads reluctantly acquiesced, but insisted that all other work should be entirely dropped, and that work on the new fort should commence early the next morning. But father, and these clearer headed ones, soon devised ways to postpone the building from day to day ‘till the excitement died down and it was never built. Father always thought that had they yielded to the moving plan, the new Seventh Day Society would have been irretrievably crippled if not entirely lost.
My first Indian (?) scare was the same fall. Cold weather and several light snows had come upon us, and I had no shoes and was still going barefooted. Thomas McDowall had started the first shoe shop over on the corner of Dr. Badger’s claim, and was making me a pair of boots. With my brother Art and my cousins Ernie, Evie and Laudie, we started a little after dark across the prairie to the shoe shop about half a mile away toward the hills. It was snowing again and I wanted and needed my new boots.
We were about halfway over when, through the still night air, there came a blood curdling, hair raising yell, and a quick succession of war whoops, from just over behind the hill, such as we had never heard before. It was as though ten thousand demons were gloating over some victim in their wild orgies. An Indian war dance, we were sure. To our heels, to our heels, and back we raced, wild with fright and fear. Father, too, had heard it and with Myra and little George had rushed out of doors and they were listening with drawn and anxious faces.
There came another wild and continuing yell, and howls of rage, and our fear was unspeakable. But suddenly father’s face relaxed, a twinkle showed in his (eye), and he commenced to smile as we crowded about with the smaller children clinging to him. Why this change in his demeanor? "Coyotes, only coyotes," he told us and tried to quiet our fears. We could not believe it, and even were it coyotes, there were at least ten thousand in the pack we tried to tell him, and they would soon be upon us.
Later, during the winter months, we became used to them, and their yells and howls, and learned that a half dozen coyotes on a clear night could make the noise of several hundred men, and that one coyote on a hill top, the noise of twenty five or thirty people. It seems unbelievable, but such is the fact.
My next personal scare was not due to coyotes, nor to any freak of the imagination, but was a real live, honest to goodness, Indian experience.
George Larkin needed a new house. He had outgrown the old dug out, where the first election in Valley County was held, and wanted to build a log house. The government gave the early settlers permission to cut timber in the cedar canyons, not only for their own use but to sell at Grand Island and other settlements for a little ready money or in trade for their supplies. One can scarcely tell what this meant to the new settlement in the (North) Loup valley.
Few if any of the early settlers had the money to buy lumber, and even if they had the money, it must be brought from Grand Island fifty miles away, through sand, mud and streams, and over the Chalk Hills, with no regular road and but one bridge. Sod houses were comfortable in many ways, but they had their drawbacks, and so the aristocracy of the valley sought to build log houses of oak, cottonwood and preferably cedar, and for strength, durability and beauty, the red cedar of the Loup valley vies with the famous Cedars of Lebanon.
Mr Larkin’s team had been stolen some time before by a noted outlaw band. So he arranged to go ahead on foot and cut his logs, and in about a week, my uncle H(eman) A. Babcock and myself were to drive up with two teams and haul the logs down for him. Mr. Larkin was one of the best hunters in the settlement, and had found a new canyon, about fifty miles up the river and about 30 miles above the farthest settler, filled with the very finest cedar trees. So, taking his two guns, a rifle and a shotgun, his ammunition, a blanket, an ax, a butcher knife, a little flour, a skillet, some salt and matches, he started on foot to find and cut his logs. Like most hunters he could walk with such a load all day with a long and well remembered stride.
At the appointed time, uncle Heman and I, a boy of 14, started with our two good teams and the running gears of our wagons, carrying our grub boxes, blankets, guns, lariet ropes and other acouterments tied and strapped onto the back axles and hounds of our wagons, we sitting on top. We camped at noon, at the last dugout in the settlement, but no one had occupied it for many weeks. Beyond, there were no more settlers, and not a sign of civilization, only bare prairie. As we went further up the valley, even green grass disappeared and we could see nothing but ashes for our horses to eat except close to the river.
Upon reaching the mouth of the canyon, we left the valley and drove up it for several miles. We reached the Larkin camp a little before dark and
found that he had his logs cut, trimmed and piled ready for hauling, but we could not well camp for the night since there there was no grass nor water for the horses. So, although we had already driven over fifty miles and were very tired and hungry, we loaded up and drove down the canyon to the valley and on to the low river bottom where we found a little green grass and could get water, and camped under the high banks of the second bench, picketing our horses.
I never was so hungry in my life. Mr. Larkin had shot a deer and a young elk and had jerked the meat which he had cut in strips. For a part (of the meat) he had dug a narrow trench in the ground, built a fire in it, raked out the ashes, put in his strips of venison and then covering it all over, had allowed it to cure. The other part he had likewise cut into strips and hung up high in the trees, curing it in the air. As we started down the canyon with our loads, he gave us each chunks of this dried or jerked venison, which we sliced and ate. I thought I had never tasted anything so good in my life, and I have ever since remembered that jerked venison as the best meal I ever ate. One who has never tasted dried venison, jerked and cured in this manner, cannot appreciate its juicy and fine flavor. After making camp, we built a fire, ate our further supper of bread and more venison, spread our blankets upon the ground, and being very tired and weary, were soon sound asleep.
I don’t know when it was that I woke up in the night. Everything was still, so still it seemed uncanny. Even the horses had finished cropping the witch grass and were also quiet. But I had suddenly wakened and had a strange feeling that something special had roused me. I lay there for what seemed half an hour wondering about it, when I noticed one of the others moving and we soon discovered that we had all awakened in the same way and at about the same time.
We lay there a while longer, discussing the strange occurrence, when there was gradually borne in on our consciousness a faint rythmic throbbing of the earth. This throbbing gradually became heavier and soon we began to hear, as well as feel, a faint beat, beat, beat, like the hoofs of a galloping horse. We put our ears to the bare ground and then to the wagon wheel, and listened. The sound grew gradually louder and nearer, beat, beat, beat, ‘till we felt sure that it was either wild elk or horses.
They were coming from the direction of the settlement. What could it be? There were no settlers nearer than our own, thirty to fifty miles away. No soldiers were known to be in that part of the country. We soon concluded that this must be a band of Sioux Indians returning from a hunt or from a raid on the settlement. Would they discover us? Would our horses whinney or keep still? Would the Indians attack us? There we were, two men and a boy, alone, and many miles from the nearest settlement, with a band of Indians between us and the settlement, bearing down upon us.
The very least they would do would be to run off our horses, but that was more than enough. We got our guns ready, crouching under our wagons, and prepared to defend ourselves and our horses if necessary. The Indians seemed to be coming directly at us, but there was nothing more we could do. There was no timber we could hide in. To get on our heavy farm horses and try to ride away would be suicidal in the bright starlight.
Finally, we saw a faint blot down the valley that resolved into dots, that grew into forms, while the steady thud, thud, thud, became louder and closer until they were almost on us. We held our breath for fear the horses would whinney to their passing brothers on the bank above. The whole band swept by so close that we could almost count them, could see the starllight glint on their rifles, could hear their voices and almost see their eyes.
Had their course been only a few rods closer to the river they must have noticed the black bulk of our wagons and our horses below the bank. Some instinct of danger must have kept the horses quiet and not a whinney or noise escaped them. Soon the band had swept by and finally disappeared in the west. So we lay down again and listened to the thud, thud, thud, fade into a beat, beat, beat, and that into a throb, throb, throb, ‘till silence reigned again.
We found it hard to sleep again that night. We reached home next day and soon Mr. Larkin’s fine log house replaced his little old dug-out. The dug-out fell into disuse and disappeared, and so what might have been one of the landmarks of the county went "down into the vile dust from whence it sprung, unwept, unhonored," but not entirely "unsung" and our Indian fright becomes only another pleasant memory. But nevertheless our danger had been real and our escape and safe return home a great relief at the time.