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Forest and prairie, or, Life on the frontier online

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exultant yells of a small party of savages, w fio sprung up
suddenly from behind different concealments and darted
toward him in a body.

The instant the Indians fired, Markhead felt a sharp
twinge in his left arm ; and glancing toward it, he per-
ceived the blood streaming through his garments, and
knew he was wounded; but finding, on trial, he could use
his arm, he gave no further heed to it, and concentrated
his every thought upon the saving of his life.

The Indians, some six or eight in number, were now
bounding forward to finish their work ; and instantly
throwing down his beaver, the trapper brought his deadly


rifle to bear on the foremost; and he was in the very act
of firing, when the latter, perceiving his danger, uttered
a short cry of surprise, and dodged behind a tree an
example which his cowardly companions took care to imi-
tate as speedily as possible.

This gave the intrepid hunter a moment to look about
him and calculate his chances of escape ; and perceiving,
on the hill to his left, an opening among the rocks, as it
might be the mouth of a cave and knowing if he gave his
foes .time to reload, they could certainly kill him where he
stood he suddenly turned, and dashed across the stream,
and up the steep acclivity ; his enemies immediately bound-
ing after, with yells of triumph, but being deterred from
venturing a too rapid pursuit by a wholesome fear of his
deadly rifle, which every now and then was steadily brought
to bear upon the nearest.

In this way Markhead reached the point at which he
had aimed, some considerable distance ahead of his pur-
suers ; and for a few moments he stood and debated with
himself whether he should secrete himself within the open-
ing, which appeared large and deep, or continue his flight
over the mountain ridge. He decided on the former, as
the readiest means of giving him immediate time for cool
and deliberate calculation ; and the next moment he disap-
peared from the sight of his yelling foesj who, fearing


his ultimate escape, now sprung up the hill more nimbly
and boldly.

The opening, as the trapper had conjectured, was the
mouth of a cave of considerable dimensions ; and was so
guarded, by winding passages among projecting rocks, as
to secure to him, from the moment of entering it, a feeling
of safety; and darting back a few paces, he ensconced
himself behind a sharp angle, and waited for his foes to
come up.

Presently he saw the Indians appear, one after another,
at the mouth of the opening, and cautiously peer into the
gloom within ; but neither seemed possessed of courage
sufficient to. lead the way to what would probably be cer-
tain death to the foremost. From where they stood, the
savages could not discern the fugitive, though^ he could
perceive them distinctly ; and it required all his self-
control to restrain his desire of firing upon them, and
trusting the rest to chance.

Soon after, the Indians withdrew from the view of the
trapper, and for a few minutes all was silence within and
without. He conjectured they were now holding a con-
sultation ; and when he thought that his very life might
depend upon the result, he could not but feel anxious to
have an end put to his suspense by an attack or retreat.

Suddenly, while he was wondering how he should get
safely out of his present " scrape," even with the loss of his


animals and furs, the mouth of the cave was darkened by
several Indians, and lightened by the flash of several
muskets, while half a dozen balls flattened themselves
against the rocks, and the reports reverberated strangely
as the sounds were thrown back from the farthest recesses
of his subterranean retreat.

Markhead was untouched by their fire, but enraged at
what he considered their audacity ; and, with a yell of
defiance, he instantly raised his own rifle and poured back
its contents. His shot, fortunately, took effect in the
breast of a warrior, who fell over, and rolled yelling down
the rugged hill, to the great chagrin and dismay of his
companions, who made haste to get beyond the reach of so
dangerous an enemy.

After this, the savages, though remaining in the vicinity,
and keeping a close watch upon the mouth of the cave, to
prevent the escape of the prisoner within, took good care
to keep out of his sight. And so the day wore away
Markhead fretting and swearing at what he termed his
ill-luck, in being " cooped up in sich an infernal hole," but
not caring to venture out in the face of almost certain

At last, toward night, he was suddenly surprised by
seeing a large pile of brush thrown down in front of the
cave, and was not slow in comprehending that his foes

intended to smoke him out, as he himself had aforetime



smoked out some wild beast. This pile was rapidly
augmented by fresh combustibles ; and in the course of an
hour it had become quite formidable the trapper sitting
and watching, and considering which might be the safest
proceeding for him to remain and let them fire it, or
attempt an escape by suddenly breaking through it.

" But I'll let the cusses do it," he muttered, at length ;
" for I can break through arterward as well as now, and
night'll soon be here to kiver me as I run."

Had the savages thought of this plan and acted upon it
sooner, the history of the trapper might have ended with
that eventful day for an escape in daylight would have
been almost impossible ; but fortunately for him, they did
not set fire to the combustibles till the forest had begun to
grow dusky with the advancing shadows of night. The
materials they had collected being old, dry brush, ignited
like so much tinder ; and in a minute after the application
of the match, the whole pile was a crackling and roaring
flame the heat and smoke at once penetrating far back
into the cavern, and soon rendering it an untenable

Seeing the time had come for him to make another
desperate effort for his life, Markhead secured his powder-
horn in his bosom, wrapped the skirt of his hunting-frock
around the lock of his rifle, grasped his knife firmly, drew
in his breath for a start, and, concentrating his whole will


upon his single purpose, suddenly bounded forth, directly
through the scorching flames.

So sudden was his exit from the cavern, that the
Indians, though looking for the event to take place, and
standing prepared to fire at and fall upon him with their
knives and tomahawks, did not even get their guns to bear
till he was half way down the dangerous declivity ; and
then they discharged their muskets almost at random, and
set yelling after him with a degree of uncertainty and
confusion that gave him an additional advantage.

On reaching the bank of the stream, Markhead turned
quickly down it, darted into a favoring thicket, thence into
the water, and threw himself flat down close up under the
overhanging foliage. Here he quietly remained, favored
by the fast gathering shades of night, till his enemies, who
believed he was still in flight, had run yelling past in fierce
pursuit ; and then, as they gradually grew more distant,
he started up and ran in an opposite direction.

An hour later he had reached in safety the spot where
he had deposited his pelts. Gathering up as many as he
could carry, he next sought and found his horse, mounted
him, and escaped leaving his mules, traps, and camp
utensils as the spoil of his foes.

Three days after this, he boldly revisited the spot, and
found the remainder of his furs ; but all the rest of his
property had been discovered and taken away by the


savages. At this Markhead sought relief to his feelings,
by what in Western parlance would be termed "some
pretty tall swearing;" but concluded at last to make the
best of what he possessed, and set off to the nearest station
to get a new outfit.

That same season, notwithstanding all his misfortunes,
Markhead might have been found trapping along the
different streams, in the vicinity of his losses and thrilling
adventures ; and when he repaired to the " rendezvous,"
in the following autumn, no single trapper could out-count
him in peltries, or out-talk him in exploits.

But this man of daring finally met a terrible fate. At
the fearful uprising of the treacherous Mexicans, in the
Yalley of Taos, at the time of the massacre of Governor
Bent and other Americans, Markhead, and a companion
named Harwood, who had gone thither to exchange' some
peltries for whiskey, were captured by the blood-thirsty
mob, and shot down like dogs.

So perished, in the full vigor of manhood, one of the
very bravest, boldest, and most reckless of that hardy and
daring little band known as the Trappers of the Far West.

" WE Doctors sometimes meet with strange adventures,"
once said to me a distinguished physician, with whom I
was on terms of intimacy.

"I have often thought," I replied, "that the secret his-
tory of some of your profession, if written out in detail,
would make a work of thrilling interest."

" I do not know that I exactly agree with you in regard
to detail," rejoined my friend ; " for we medical men, like
every one else, meet with a great deal that is common
place, and therefore not worthy of being recorded; but
grant us the privilege of you novelists, to select our.
characters and scenes, and work them into a kind of plot,
with a view to a striking denouement, and I doubt not
many of us could give you a romance in real life, com-
prising only what we have seen, which would equal, if not
surpass, any thing you ever met in the way of fiction. By-
the-by, I believe I never told you of the most strange and
romantic adventure of my life ?"

" You never told me of any of your adventures, Doctor,"
21* (245)


I replied ; " but if you have a story to tell, you will find
me an eager listener."

" Yery well, then, as I have a few minutes to spare, I
will tell you one more wildly romantic, more incredibly
remarkable, if I may so speak, than you probably ever
found in a work of fiction."

"I am all attention."

" Twenty-five years ago," pursued the Doctor, "I entered

the medical college at F as a student. I was then

quite young, inexperienced, and inclined to be timid and
sentimental ; and well do I remember the horror I expe-
rienced, when one of the senior students, under pretence
of showing me the beauties of the institution, suddenly
thrust me into the dissecting-room, among several dead
bodies, and closed the door upon me ; nor do I forget how
my screeches of terror, and prayers for release from that
awful place, made me the laughing-stock of my older

" Ridicule is a hard thing to bear : the coward becomes
brave to escape it, and the brave man fears it more than he
would a belching cannon. I suffered from it till I could
stand no more ; and wrought up to a pitch of desperation,
I demanded to know what I might do to redeem my
character, and gain an honorable footing among my fellow-

" ' I will tell you,' said one, his eyes sparkling with mis-


chief; 'if you will go, at the midnight hour, and dig up
a subject, and take it to your room, and remain alone with
it till morning, we will let you off, and never say another
word about your womanly fright.'

" I shuddered. It was a fearful alternative ; but it
seemed less terrible to suffer all the horrors that might be
concentrated into a single night, than to bear, day after
day, the jeers of my companions.

" ' Where shall I go ? and when ?' was my timid inquiry ;
and the very thought of such an adventure made my blood
run cold.

" ' To the Eastern Cemetery, to-night, at twelve o'clock,*
replied my tormentor, fixing his keen, black eyes upon me,
and allowing his thin lips to curl with a smile of contempt.
' But what is the use of asking such a coward as you to
perform such a manly feat ?' he added, deridingly.

" His words stung me to the quick ; and without further
reflection, and scarcely aware of what I was saying, I
rejoined, boldly :

"I am no coward, sir, as I will prove to you, by per-
forming what you call a manly feat.'

" 'You will go r he asked, quickly.

"'I will.'

" ' Bravely said, my lad I' he rejoined, in a tone of
approval, and exchanging his expression of contempt for
one of surprise and admiration. 'Do this, Morris, and


the first man that insults you afterward makes an enemy
of me!'

" Again I felt a cold shudder pass through my frame, at
the thought of what was before me ; but I had accepted
his challenge in the presence of many witnesses for this
conversation occurred as we were leaving the hall, after
listening to an evening lecture and I was resolved to
make my word good, should it even cost me my life : in
fact, I knew I could not do otherwise now, without the
risk of being driven in disgrace from the college.

"I should here observe, that in those days there were
few professional resurrectionists ; and it was absolutely
necessary to have subjects for dissection, the unpleasant
business of procuring them devolved upon the students ;
who, in consequence, watched every funeral eagerly, and
calculated the chances of cheating the sexton of his charge
and the grave of its victim.

" There had been a funeral, that day, of a poor orphan
girl, who had been followed to the grave by very few
friends : and this was considered a favorable chance for the
party whose turn it was to procure the next subject, as
the graves of the poor and friendless were never watched
with the same keen vigilance as those of the rich and
influential. Still, it was no trifling risk to attempt to
exhume the bodies of the poorest and humblest for not
unfrequently persons were found on the watch even over


these ; and only the year before, one student, while at his
midnight work, had been mortally wounded by a rifle ball ;
and another, a month or two subsequently, had been ren-
dered a cripple for life by the same means

"All this was explained to me by a party of six or eight,
who accompanied me to my room which was in a build-
ing belonging to the college, and rented by apartments to
such of the students as preferred bachelor's hall to regular
boarding ; and they took care to add several terrifying
stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, by way of calming my
excited nerves, just as I have before now observed old
women stand around a weak, feverish patient, and croak
out their experience in seeing awful sufferings and fatal
terminations of just such maladies as the one with which
their helpless victim was then afflicted.

" ' Is it expected that I shall go alone ?' I inquired, in a
tone that trembled in spite of me, while my knees almost
knocked together, and I felt as if my very lips were

" ' Well, no,' replied Benson, my most dreaded tor-
mentor ; ' it would be hardly fair to send you alone, for
one individual could not succeed in getting the body from
the grave quick enough ; and you, a mere youth, without
experience, would be sure to fail altogether. No, we will
go with you, some three or four of us, and help you dig
up the corpse ; but then you must take it on your back,


bring it up to your room here, and spend the night alone
with it !'

" It was some relief to me to find I was to have com-
pany during the first part of my awful undertaking ; but
still I felt far from agreeable, I assure you ; and chancing
to look into a mirror, as the time drew near for setting
out, I fairly started at beholding the ghastly object I saw
reflected therein.

" ' Come, boys,' said Benson, who was always, by general
consent, the leader of whatever frolic, expedition, or under-
taking he was to have a hand in : ' Come, boys, it is time
to be on the move. A glorious night for us !' he added,
throwing up the window, and letting in a fierce gust of
wind and rain : ' the very d 1 himself would hardly ven-
ture out in such a storm !'

" He lit a dark-lantern, threw on his long, heavy cloak,
took up a spade, and led the way down stairs; and the
rest of us, three besides my timid self, threw on our cloaks
also, took each a spade, and followed him.

"We took a roundabout course, to avoid being seen
by any citizen that might chance to be stirring ; and in
something less than half-an-hour we reached the cemetery,
scaled the wall without difficulty, and stealthily searched
for the grave, till we found it, in the pitchy darkness the
wind and rain sweeping past us with dismal howls and


moans, that to me, trembling with terror, seemed to be
the unearthly wailings of the spirits of the damned.

" ' Here we are,' whispered Benson to me, as we at
length stopped at a mound of fresh earth, over which one
of our party had stumbled. ' Come, feel round, Morris,
and strike in your spade, and let us see if you will make
as good a hand at exhuming a dead body as you will some
day at killing a living one with physic.'

"I did as directed, trembling in every limb; but
the first spade-full I threw up, I started back with a
yell of horror, that, on any other but a howling, stormy
night, would have betrayed us. It appeared to me as if
I had thrust my spade into a buried lake of fire for the
soft dirt was all aglow like living coals ; and as I had
fancied the moanings of the storm the wailings of tor-
mented spirits, I now fancied I had uncovered a small
portion of the Bottomless Pit itself.

" 'Fool r hissed Benson, grasping my arm with the gripe
of a vice, as I stood leaning on my spade for support, my
very teeth chattering with terror ; ' another yell like that,
and I'll make a subject of you ! Are you not ashamed of
yourself, to be scared out of your wits, if you ever had any,
by a little phosphorescent earth ? Don't you know it is
often found in graveyards ?'

" His explanation re-assured me ; though I was now too
weak, from my late fright to be of any assistance to the


party; who all fell to with a will, secretly laughing at me,
and soon reached the coffin. Splitting the lid with a
hatchet, which had been brought for the purpose, they
quickly lifted out the corpse ; and then Benson and another
of the party taking hold of it, one at the head and the
other at the feet, they hurried it away, bidding me follow,
and leaving the others to fill up the grave, that it might
not be suspected the body had been exhumed.

" Having got the corpse safely over the wall of the
cemetery, Benson now called upon me to perform my part
of the horrible business.

" ' Here, you quaking simpleton,' he said ; ' I want you
to take this on your back, and make the best of your way
to your room, and remain alone with it all night ! If you
do this bravely, we will claim you as one of us to-morrow,
and the first man that dares to say a word against your
courage after that, shall find a foe in me. But, hark you !
if you make any blunder on the way, and lose our prize, it
will be better for you to quit this town before I set eyes
on you again ! Do you understand me ?'

" ' Y-ye-ye-yes !' I stammered, with chattering teeth.

" 'Are you ready?'

" ' Y-ye-ye-yes,' I gasped.

" ' Well, come here, where are you ?'

" All this time it was so dark that I could see nothing
but a faint line of white, which I knew to be the shroud


of the corpse ; but I felt carefully round till 1 got hold of
Benson, who told me to take off my cloak ; and then rear-
ing the cold dead body up against my back, he began
fixing its cold arms about my neck bidding me take
hold of them, and draw them well over, and keep them
concealed, and be sure and not let go of them, on any
consideration whatever, as I valued my life.

" Oh ! the torturing horror I experienced, .as I mechani-
cally followed his directions ! Tongue could not de-
scribe it !

"At length, having adjusted the corpse so that I might
bear it off with comparative ease, he threw my long, black
cloak over it, and over my arms, and fastened it with a
cord about my neck, and then inquired :

" 'Now, Morris, do you think you can find the way to
your room V

" ' I-I-do do-don't know,' I gasped, feeling as if I
should sink to the earth at the first step.

" ' Well, you cannot lose your way, if you go straight
ahead,' he replied. 'Keep in the middle of this street or
road, and it will take you to College Green, and then you
are all right. Come, push on, before your burden grows
too heavy ; the distance is only a good half mile !'

" I set forward, with trembling nerves, expecting to
sink to the ground at every step ; but gradually my terror,

instead of weakening, gave me strength ; and I was soon



on the run splashing through mud and water with the
storm howling about me in fury, and the cold corpse, as I
fancied, clinging to me like a hideous vampire.

" How I reached my room, I do not know but prob-
ably by a sort of instinct; for I only remember of my
brain being in a wild, feverish whirl, with ghostly phan-
toms all about me, as one sometimes sees them in a dys-
peptic dream.

" But reach my room I did, with my dead burden on my
back ; and I was afterwards told that I made wonderful
time ; for Benson and his fellow-student, fearing the loss
of their subject which, on account of the difficulty of
getting bodies, was very valuable followed close behind
me, and were obliged to run at the top of their speed to
keep me within hailing distance.

"The first I remember distinctly, after getting to my
room, was the finding myself awake in bed, with a dim
consciousness of something horrible having happened
though what, for some minutes, I could not for the life of
me recollect. Gradually, however, the truth dawned upon
me ; and then I felt a cold perspiration start from every
pore, at the thought that perhaps I was occupying a room
alone with a corpse. The room was not dark ; there were
a few embers in the grate, which threw out a ruddy light ;
and fearfully raising my head, I glanced quickly and
timidly around.


" And there there, on the floor, against the right hand
wall, but a few feet from me there, sure enough, lay the
cold, still corpse, robed in its white shroud, with a gleam
of firelight resting upon its ghastly face, which to my
excited fancy seemed to move. Did it move ? I was
gazing upon it, thrilled and fascinated with an indiscrib-
able terror, when, as sure as I see you now, I saw the lids
of its eyes unclose, and saw its breast heave, and heard a
low, stifled moan.

" ' Great God !' I shrieked, and fell back in a swoon.

" How long I lay unconscious I do not know ; but when
I came to myself again, it is a marvel to me, that, in my
excited state, I did not lose my senses altogether, and
become the tenant of a mad-house ; for there right before
me standing up in its white shroud with its eyes wide
open and staring upon me, and its features thin, hollow
and death-hued was the corpse I had brought from the

"'In God's name, a vaunt !' I gasped. 'Go back to
your grave, and rest in peace ! I will never disturb you
again !'

" The large, hollow eyes looked more wildly upon me
the head moved the lips parted and a voice, in a some-
what sepulchral tone, said :

" ' Where am I ? Where am I ? Who are you ? Which
world am I in ? Am I living or dead ?'


" ' You were dead,' I gasped, sitting up in bed, and
feeling as if my brain would burst with a pressure of
unspeakable horror; 'you were dead and buried, and I
was one of the guilty wretches who this night disturbed
you in your peaceful rest. But go back, poor ghost, in
Heaven's name I and no mortal power shall ever induce
me to come nigh you again 1 '

" 'Oh ! I feel faint ! ' said the corpse, gradually sinking
down upon the floor, with a groan. ' Where am I ? Oh !
where am I ?'

" ' Great God !' I shouted, as the startling truth sud-
denly flashed upon me ; ' perhaps this poor girl was
buried alive, and is now living !'

" I bounded from the bed and grasped a hand of the
prostrate body. It was not warm but it was not cold.
I put my trembling fingers upon the pulse. Did it beat ?
or was it the pulse in my fingers ? I thrust my hand upon
the heart. It was warm there was life there. The
breast heaved ; she breathed ; but the eyes were now
closed, and the features had the look of death. Still it
was a living body or else I myself was insane.

" I sprung to the door, tore it open, and shouted for

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Online LibraryEmerson BennettForest and prairie, or, Life on the frontier → online text (page 13 of 22)