Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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[Illustration: FIGHT WITH THE GRIZZLY BEARS. _p. 290._]

=Life on the Indian Frontier.=



=Life on the Indian Frontier.=


[Illustration: WL&T]









































My blockhouse was built at the foot of the mountain chain of the Rio
Grande, on the precipitous banks of the River Leone. On three sides it
was surrounded by a fourteen feet stockade of split trees standing
perpendicularly. At the two front corners of the palisade were small
turrets of the same material, whence the face of the wall could be held
under fire in the event of an attack from hostile Indians. On the south
side of the river stretched out illimitable rolling prairies, while the
northern side was covered with the densest virgin forest for many miles.
To the north and west I had no civilized neighbours at all, while to the
south and east the nearest settlement was at least 250 miles distant. My
small garrison consisted of three men, who, whenever I was absent,
defended the fort, and at other times looked after the small field and
garden as well as the cattle.

As I had exclusively undertaken to provide my colony with meat, I rarely
stayed at home, except when there was some pressing field work to be
done. Each dawn saw me leave the fort with my faithful dog Trusty, and
turn my horse either toward the boundless prairie or the mountains of
the Rio Grande.

Very often hunting kept me away from home for several days, in which
case I used to bivouac in the tall grass by the side of some prattling
stream. Such oases, though not frequent, are found here and there on the
prairies of the Far West, where the dark, lofty magnolias offer the
wearied traveller refreshment beneath their thick foliage, and the
stream at their base grants a cooling draught. One of these favourite
spots of mine lay near the mountains, about ten miles from my abode. It
was almost the only water far and wide, and here formed two ponds, whose
depths I was never able to sound, although I lowered large stones
fastened to upwards of a hundred yards of lasso. The small space between
the two ponds was overshadowed by the most splendid magnolias, peca-nut
trees, yuccas, evergreen oaks, &c., and begirt by a wall of cactuses,
aloes, and other prickly plants. I often selected this place for
hunting, because it always offered a large quantity of game of every
description, and I was certain at any time of finding near this water
hundreds of wild turkeys, which constitute a great dainty in the bill of
fare of the solitary hunter.

After a very hot spring day I had sought the ponds, as it was too late
to ride home. The night was glorious; the magnolias and large-flowered
cactuses diffused their vanilla perfume over me; myriads of fireflies
continually darted over the plain, and a gallant mocking-bird poured
forth its dulcet melody into the silent night above my head. The whole
of nature seemed to be revelling in the beauty of this night, and
thousands of insects sported round my small camp fire. It was such a
night as the elves select for their gambols, and for a long time I gazed
intently at the dark blue expanse above me. But, though the crystal
springs incessantly bubbled up to the surface, the Lurleis would not
visit me, for they have not yet strayed to America.

My dog and horse also played around me for a long time, until, quite
tired, they lay down by the fire-side, and all three of us slept till
dawn, when the gobbling of the turkeys aroused us. The morning was as
lovely as the night. To the east the flat prairie bordered the horizon
like a sea; the dark sky still glistened with the splendour of all its
jewels, while the skirt of its garment was dipped in brilliant carmine;
the night fled rapidly toward the mountains, and morn pursued it clad in
his festal robes. The sun rose like a mighty ball over the prairie, and
the heavy dew bowed the heads of the tender plants, as if they were
offering their morning thanksgiving for the refreshment which had been
granted them. I too was saturated with dew, and was obliged to hang my
deerskin suit to dry at the fire; fortunately the leather had been
smoked over a wood fire, which prevents it growing hard in drying. I
freshened up the fire, boiled some coffee, roasted the breast of a
turkey, into which I had previously rubbed pepper and salt, and finished
breakfast with Trusty, while Czar, my famous white stallion, was
greedily browzing on the damp grass, and turned his head away when I
went up to him with the bridle. I hung up the rest of the turkey, as
well as another I had shot on the previous evening, and a leg of deer
meat, in the shadow of a magnolia, as I did not know whether I might not
return to the spot that evening, saddled, and we were soon under weigh
for the mountains, where I hoped to find buffalo.

I was riding slowly along a hollow in the prairie, when a rapidly
approaching sound attracted my attention. In a few minutes a very old
buffalo, covered with foam, dashed past me, and almost at the same
moment a Comanche Indian pulled up his horse on the rising ground about
fifty yards from me. As he had his bow ready to shoot the buffalo, the
savage made his declaration of war more quickly than I, and his first
arrow passed through my game bag sling, leather jacket and waistcoat to
my right breast, while two others whizzed past my ear. To pluck out the
arrow, seize a revolver, and dig the spurs into my horse, were but one
operation; and a second later saw me within twenty yards of the Redskin,
who had turned his horse round and was seeking safety in flight. After a
chase of about two miles over awfully rough ground, where the slightest
mistake might have broken my neck, the Indian's horse began to be
winded, while Czar still held his head and tail erect. I rapidly drew
nearer, in spite of the terrible blows the Redskin dealt his horse, and
when about thirty paces behind the foe, I turned slightly to the left,
in order, if I could, to avoid wounding his horse by my shot. I raised
my revolver and fired, but at the same instant the Indian disappeared
from sight, with the exception of his left foot, with which he held on
to the saddle, while the rest of his body was suspended on the side away
from me. With the cessation of the blows, however, the speed of his
horse relaxed, and I was able to ride close up. Suddenly the Indian
regained his seat and urged on his horse with the whip; I fired and
missed again, for I aimed too high in my anxiety to spare the mustang.
We went on thus at full gallop till we reached a very broad ravine, over
which the Indian could not leap. He, therefore, dashed past my left
hand, trying at the same moment to draw an arrow from the quiver over
his left shoulder. I fired for the third time; with the shot the
Comanche sank back on his horse's croup, hung on with his feet, and went
about a hundred yards farther, when he fell motionless in the tall
grass. As he passed me, I had noticed that he was bleeding from the
right chest and mouth, and was probably already gone to the happy
hunting-grounds. I galloped after the mustang, which soon surrendered,
though with much trembling, to the pale face; I fastened its bridle to
my saddle bow, led both horses into a neighbouring thicket, and reloaded
my revolver.

I remained for about half-an-hour in my hiding-place, whence I could
survey the landscape around, but none of the Indian's comrades made
their appearance, and I, therefore, rode up to him to take his weapons.
He was dead. The bullet had passed through his chest. I took his bow,
quiver and buffalo hide, and sought for the arrows he had shot at me as
I rode back. I resolved to pass the night at the ponds, not only to rest
my animals, but also to conceal myself from the Indians who, I felt
sure, were not far off. I was not alarmed about myself, but in the
event of pursuit by superior numbers, I should have Trusty to protect,
and might easily lose the mustang again.

I reached the springs without any impediment, turned my horses out to
grass in the thicket, and rested myself in the cool shade of the trees
hanging over the ponds. A calm, starry night set in, and lighted me on
my ride home, which I reached after midnight. The mustang became one of
my best horses. It grew much stronger, as it was only four years old
when I captured it; and after being fed for awhile on maize, acquired
extraordinary powers of endurance.





The summer passed away in hunting, farm-work, building houses, and other
business, and during this period I had frequently visited the ponds. One
evening I rode to them again in order to begin hunting from that point
the next morning. If I shot buffaloes not too far from my house, I used
to ride back, and at evening drove out with a two-wheeled cart, drawn by
mules, to fetch the meat and salt it for the probable event of a siege.
As I always had an ample supply of other articles for my garrison and
cattle, and as I had plenty of water, I could resist an Indian attack
for a long time. Large herds of buffalo always appear in the
neighbourhood, so soon as the vegetation on the Rocky Mountains begins
to die out, and the cold sets in. They spread over the evergreen
prairies in bands of from five to eight hundred head, and I have often
seen at one glance ten thousand of these relics of the primeval world.
For a week past these wanderers had been moving southwards; but, though
their appearance may be so agreeable to the hunter in these parts, it
reminds him at the same time that his perils are greatly increased by
their advent. Numerous tribes of horse Indians always follow these herds
to the better pasturage and traverse the prairie in every direction, as
they depend on the buffalo exclusively for food. The warmer climate
during the winter also suits them better, as they more easily find
forage for their large troops of horses and mules.

At a late hour I reached the ponds, after supplying myself _en route_
with some fat venison. Before I lit my fire, I also shot two turkeys on
the neighbouring trees, because at this season they are a great dainty,
as they feed on the ripe oily peca-nuts. I sat till late over my small
fire, cut every now and then a slice from the meat roasting on a spit,
and bade my dog be quiet, who would not lie down, but constantly sniffed
about with his broad nose to the ground, and growling sullenly. Czar, on
the contrary, felt very jolly, had abundant food in the prairie grass,
and snorted every now and then so lustily, that the old turkeys round us
were startled from their sleep. It grew more and more quiet. Czar had
lain down by my side, and only the unpleasant jeering too-whoot of the
owl echoed through the night, and interrupted the monotonous chorus of
the hunting wolves which never ceases in these parts. Trusty, my
faithful watchman, was still sitting up with raised nose, when I sank
back on my saddle and fell asleep. The morning was breaking when I
awoke, saturated with dew; but I sprang up, shook myself, made up the
fire, put meat on the spit and coffee to boil, and then leapt into the
clear pond whose waters had so often refreshed me. After the bath I
breakfasted, and it was not till I proceeded to saddle my horse that I
noticed Trusty's great anxiety to call my attention to something. On
following him, I found a great quantity of fresh Indian sign, and saw
that a large number of horses had been grazing round the pond on the
previous day. I examined my horse gear and weapons, opened a packet of
cartridges for my double-barrelled rifle, and then rode in the direction
of the Leone. I had scarce crossed the first upland and reached the
prairie when Czar made an attempt to bolt, and looked round with a
snort. I at once noticed a swarm of Comanches about half a mile behind
me, and coming up at full speed. There was not a moment to lose in
forming a resolution - I must either fly or return to my natural fortress
at the springs. I decided on the latter course, as my enemies were
already too near for my dog to reach the thicket or the Leone before
them, for though the brave creature was remarkably powerful and
swift-footed, he could not beat good horses in a long race.

I therefore turned Czar round, and flew back to the ponds. A narrow
path which I had cut on my first visit through a wall of prickly plants
led to the shady spot between the two ponds, which on the opposite side
were joined by a broad swamp, so that I had only this narrow entrance to
defend. The thicket soon received us. Czar was fastened by the bridle to
a wild grape-vine; my long holster-pistols were thrust into the front of
my hunting-shirt; the belt that held my revolvers was unbuckled, and I
was ready for the attack of the savages. Trusty, too, had put up the
stiff hair on his back, and by his growling showed that he was equally
ready to do his part in the fight. The Indians had come within a few
hundred yards, and were now circling round me with their frightful
war-yell, swinging their buffalo-hides over their heads, and trying, by
the strangest sounds and gestures, either to startle my horse or terrify
me. I do not deny that, although used to such scenes, I felt an icy
coldness down my back at the sight of these demons, and involuntarily
thought of the operation of scalping. I remained as quiet as I could,
however, and resolved not to expend a bullet in vain. The distance was
gradually reduced, and the savages came within about a hundred and fifty
yards, some even nearer. The boldest came within a hundred and twenty
yards of me, while the others shot some dozen arrows at me, some of
which wounded the sappy cactuses around me. The savages continually grew
bolder, and it was time to open the ball, for attacking is half the
battle when engaged with Indians.

I therefore aimed at the nearest man - a powerful, stout, rather elderly
savage, mounted on a very fast golden-brown stallion - and at once saw
that the bullet struck him: in his fall he pulled his horse round
towards me, and dashed past within forty yards, which enabled me to see
that the bullet had passed through his body, and he did not need a
second. About one hundred yards farther on he kissed the ground. After
the shot the band dashed off, and their yell was augmented to a roar
more like that of a wounded buffalo than human voices. They assembled
about half a mile distant, held a short consultation, and then returned
like a whirlwind towards me with renewed yells. The attack was now
seriously meant, although the sole peril I incurred was from arrows shot
close to me. I led Czar a few paces in the rear behind a
widely-spreading yucca, ordered Trusty to lie down under the cactuses,
reloaded my gun, and, being a bit of Indian myself, I disappeared among
the huge aloes in front of me, pulling my stout beaver hat over my eyes.
I allowed the tornado to come within a hundred and sixty paces, when I
raised my good rifle between the aloes, pulled the trigger, and saw
through the smoke a Redskin bound in the air, and fall among the horses'
hoofs. A dense dust concealed the band from sight, but a repetition of
the yells reached my ear, and I soon saw the savages going away from me,
whereon I gave them the contents of the second barrel, which had a good
effect in spite of the distance, as I recognised in the fresh yells
raised and the dispersion of the band. The Indians, ere long, halted a
long way off; but after awhile continued their retreat. I understood
these movements perfectly well: they wanted to give me time to leave my
hiding-place, and then ride me down on the plain. Hence I waited till
the Comanches were nearly two miles off, and watched them through my
glass as they halted from time to time, and looked round at me. I was
certain that we now had a sufficient start to reach the forest on the
Leone without risk. My rifle was reloaded, and my pistols were placed in
the holsters. I stepped out of my hiding-place and mounted my horse,
which bore me at a rapid pace towards my home. The enemy scarce noticed
my flight ere they dashed down from the heights after me like a
storm-cloud. I did not hurry, however, for fear of fatiguing Trusty; but
selected the buffalo paths corresponding with my direction, thousands of
which intersect the prairies like a net, and at the end of the first
mile felt convinced that we should reach the forest all right, which now
rose more distinctly out of the sea of grass. So it was: we dashed into
the first bushes only pursued by five Indians, where I rode behind some
dwarf chestnuts, dismounted, and prepared to receive my enemies. They
remained out of range, however, and in a short time retired again.

My readers will naturally ask why some thirty Indians allowed a single
hunter to emerge from his hiding-place, and why they did not compel him
to surrender by a short siege? The Comanches are horse Indians, who can
only effect anything when mounted, and hence never continue a pursuit
into a thicket. They never undertake any martial exploit by night; and,
moreover, the Indian, when he goes into action, has very different ideas
from a white man; for while the latter always thinks he will be the last
to fall, every Redskin believes that he will be the first to be hit. At
the same time, these tribes set a far higher value on the life of one of
their warriors than we white men do, and they often told me that we
pale-faces grew out of the ground like mushrooms, while it took them
eighteen years to produce a warrior. The tribes are not large; they
consist of only one hundred and fifty to three hundred men; they have
their chief and are quite independent of the other clans, although
belonging to the same nations. The Comanches, for instance, reckon
thirty thousand souls, spread over the whole of the Far West. In
consequence of the many sanguinary wars which the different tribes wage
together, it is frequently of great consequence to a clan, whether it
counts ten men more or less, and hence the anxiety felt by the savages
about the life of their warriors. The Northern Indians have assumed many
of the habits of the white men, and are advancing gradually towards
civilization; they nearly all carry fire-arms, wear clothes, till the
ground, and their squaws, children, and old men, live in villages
together. Our Southern Indians are all at the lowest stage of
civilization, are generally cannibals, have no home, follow the buffalo,
on whose flesh they live, and have assumed none of our customs. At times
they may get hold of a horse-cloth or a bit, which they have taken from
a hunter or stolen from a border settlement, but in other respects they
are children of nature; they go about almost naked, and only carry
weapons of their own manufacture. Their long lance is a very dangerous
weapon, owing to the skill with which they use it; and the same is the
case with their bows, from which they discharge arrows at a distance of
fifty yards, with such accuracy and force, as to pierce the largest
buffalo. The lasso (a plaited rope of leather) is another weapon which
they employ with extraordinary skill; they throw the noose at one end
over the head of an enemy, then gallop off in the opposite direction,
and drag their captive to death. There are but very few foot Indians in
the South; they generally live in the mountains, as they are always at
war with the horse savages, and would be at a disadvantage on the
plains; but they are by far the most dangerous denizens of these parts,
as the most of them are supplied with fire-arms, and try to overpower
their enemy treacherously at night. The Weicos form the chief tribe of
these foot Indians, and are pursued both by the mounted Redskins and the
white borderers like the most dangerous of wild beasts: on their account
I have often spent the night without fire, and have been startled from
my sleep by the whoot of the owl, which they imitate admirably, as a
distant signal to one another. In the conduct of the horse Indians there
is something open and chivalrous, and I never hated them for chasing me;
we contended for the possession of the land, which they certainly held
first, but which nature assuredly created for a better object than that
a few wild hordes should use it for their hunting and war forages. It
always seemed to me an honourable contest between civilization and
savageness when I was attacked by these steppe-horsemen, and I never
felt that blood-thirsty hatred which beset me when I noticed the Weicos
and Tonkaways creeping about like vipers. I more than once all but fell
victim to their cunning, and it is always a pleasant memory that I
frequently punished them severely for it.




As I mentioned, my fort stood on the south side of the Leone river, and
in front of it lay one of the richest and most fertile prairies, which
ran to the bank of Mustang Creek, a small stream running parallel to the
Leone, beneath the shade of lofty peca-nut trees, magnolias, cypresses,
and oaks, to join the Rio Grande. The prairie between the Leone and this
stream was about five miles broad; and often, when I had spent the day
at home, I rode off to pass the night there, in order to shoot at
daybreak as much game as my horse could comfortably carry, and be back
to breakfast. I had found, in a coppice close to the stream, a small
grassy clearing, where Czar was always comfortable. Around it stood
colossal primæval oaks and magnolias, in whose shade many varieties of
evergreen bushes, such as myrtle, laurel, and rhododendron, formed an
impenetrable thicket, as they were intertwined with pendant llianas and
vines the thickness of my body. In this thicket I had built a sort of
hut of buffalo hides, in which I hid away a frying-pan, an old axe, and
a coffee-pot. At this spot I passed many a hot summer night, for I found
there a cool, quiet bed, which the sun never reached, for myself and my
faithful companions, and ran no risk of being betrayed by my camp-fire
and disturbed by the Indians.

After one of these hot days, I rode Czar out of the fort, and Trusty,
released from the chain, sprang joyfully at my horse's head, delighted
at getting into the open country again, and the prospect of fresh deer
or buffalo kidneys. We went slowly toward the thickly-wooded bank of the

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 1 of 35)