Saturday, 18th. Morning found us on the east side of a mountain not far from its base but there were no signs of water; the lost oxen not having come up, I, in company with another young man, went in search of them while the company went on, promising to stop as soon as they found water. I went back about 10 miles, but found nothing of their trail–-the sun was in a melting mood–-the young man became discouraged and in spite of all my entreaties returned to the company.
The young man who went with John Bidwell to search for the oxen was “Cheyenne” Dawson. Under the hot summer sun he gave up, saying that there were plenty of cattle in California. Which was true, but Bidwell had to go on — without his oxen and their packs he had nothing. It is a testament to Bidwell’s character that he carried on alone, determined to find the oxen, even after his friend had given up and turned back.
Water in the company was in very short supply. Before they left on their search they were each given about a half cup (4 oz.) of water. This was all they had until the next day.
About an hour after [Dawson departed] I found the trail of the oxen which bore directly north. After pursuing it some distance, I discovered fresh moccasin tracks upon the trail, and there began to be high grass, which made me mistrust the Indians had got the oxen. But my horse was good and my rifle ready, and I knew the Indians in these parts to be very timid, for they were generally seen in the attitude of flight. But what made me most anxious to find the oxen was the prospect of our wanting them for beef. We had already killed 4 oxen and there were but 13 remaining, including the lost ones, and the Co. was now killing an ox every two or three days.
Having followed the trail about 10 miles directly north, to my great delight I found the oxen. I was soon in motion for the Company, but not being able to overtake them, was obliged to stop about dark. I passed the night rather uncomfortably, having neither fire nor blanket. I knew Indians to be plenty from number signs, and even where I slept, the ground had been dug up that very day for roots. The plains here were almost barren, the hills covered with cedar.
In his 1877 Dictation, Bidwell tells this story again. For those of you interested in firearms, he says that he had “a flintlock rifle and a pair of dragoon pistols also flintlocked.” Before leaving Missouri, he had asked old trappers what kind of weapons to take, and was told to have nothing to do with “those new-fangled things called caps” because if they got wet they were useless, whereas you could always pick up a replacement flint.
Here is a nice little video from the Bureau of Land Management on how to load and fire a flintlock rifle.