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both spurs into Czar I flew on, past Fancy, and reached the summit to
find the stallion trotting scarce fifty yards ahead of me. Fancy was
close behind me, and I shouted to Antonio to follow me. But my cry
seemed to have poured fresh strength through the brave fugitive's veins,
for he dashed down into the valley, leaving behind the white foam with
which he was covered at every bound he made on the rocky ground. Once
again I drew nearer, and was only forty yards from him, when I saw ahead
of us a yawning _cañon_, out of which the gigantic dry arms of dead
cypresses emerged. Here the stallion must turn back and fall our prey
while ascending the hill again.

But he went straight towards the abyss - it was not possible, he could
not leap it. I remained behind him, and in my terror for the noble
creature's life, held my breath. One more bound, and he reached the
_cañon_, and with the strength of a lion, and that desperation which
only the threatened loss of liberty can arouse, he drew himself together
and leapt high in the air across the gap which was more than forty feet
wide.

I turned Czar round toward the hill, and kept my eyes away from the
fearful sight, so that I might not see the end of the tragedy; but
Antonio uttered a cry, and I heard the word "over." I looked round and
saw the stallion rising on his hind legs upon the opposite deeper bank,
and after a glance at us he trotted off quite sound down the ravine, and
disappeared behind the nearest rock.

We stopped, leapt from our horses, and looked at each other for a long
time in silence; then I solemnly vowed never to make another attempt to
deprive this princely animal of liberty. Our horses were in a very
excited condition; the water poured down them in streams, and the play
of their lungs was so violent that they tottered on their legs. We let
them draw breath a little, and then led them slowly back to the mountain
springs, where we intended to give them a rest ere we returned home. In
the afternoon we reached the spot, excessively fatigued, and found there
our comrade, who greeted us with a regretful - "that was a pity;" and had
already spread our dinner on a horse-cloth.

We stopped here till the evening, and then started for the fort, which
we reached late at night. For several days after this chase I could not
shake off the excitement which had overpowered me, and even now I feel a
cold shudder when I think of the chasm, and see the noble stallion, the
pride of the prairie, hovering over it. I had now given up once for all
all thoughts of capturing him, but I should have felt sorry had he at
once left my dangerous neighbourhood, because his presence always caused
me great pleasure, and I might have an opportunity of getting hold of
some of his offspring. I sought him in vain during my hunting
excursions the whole of the summer, and it was not till autumn, when the
vegetation probably began to fail in the mountains, that he returned, to
my great delight, to his old station; but whenever I approached him he
did not trot towards me, but always took to flight as soon as he noticed
my horse.

[Illustration]




[Illustration]

CHAPTER XII.

THE PRAIRIE FIRE.


The summer passed away amid sporting pleasures which, though they always
consist of very monotonous events and results, still do not lose their
charm for the man who feels a true passion for the chase. Otherwise how
could a veteran sportsman, who in his time has shot so many thousand
partridges, still feel a pleasure whenever he brings one down, and
always find something new, something peculiar in the fact? How much
greater and more permanent is this attraction in sports, where a
thousand dangers offer themselves to the hunter, as is the case in
hunting the larger animals of prey! I gratefully saluted every new day
as the offerer of fresh joys: disregarding difficulties and fatigue, I
constantly seized my good rifle again, and merrily followed the same
routes.

The summer was at an end, and colder nights set in. On an autumn morning
I was riding through the prairie about five miles from the fort; the
grass was very high, and had been perfectly dried up by the burning
summer sun, while the newly springing up grass grew splendidly in the
shadow of the old. I had reached a bottom which was covered with a
forest of sunflowers, which raised their golden disks high above my
head, and whose long stems were girdled with bright varied creepers. I
had not left this gleaming forest of flowers far behind when a very
large deer got up from the grass just before me, arched its back, and
then lay down again as if it had not seen me; while I noticed several
old deer lying about in the grass.

Czar at once drooped his head as I raised the rifle to my shoulder. I
shot the deer, but a little too far behind. It darted ahead, and Trusty
looked up at me so imploringly, while showing the tip of his blood-red
tongue, that I could not refuse him leave to follow the deer. I gave him
a sign, and he shot through the grass along the blood-stained track. I
loaded my rifle, while keeping my eye on the deer, which disappeared no
great distance off in a small clump of low elms. I had just put on the
cap when I heard Trusty's deep bass. I felt certain it was not the deer
he was barking at, for he would have made but slight ceremony in that
case, so I gave Czar his head, and in a few minutes reached the thicket.

I leapt down, ran in a stooping posture under the pendant elms, and saw
Trusty lying on the ground defending himself with widely opened jaws
against a tremendous panther, which was leaping over him, and every time
it came down lacerated the dog's back with its tremendous hind claws.
Trusty recognised the superiority of this savage foe, but defended
himself as well as he could. But he hardly saw me arrive ere he leapt up
with one bound, pinned the panther by the throat, and wrestled with it,
while the latter dug its terrible fore claws into either side of his
collar.

At the first moment I could not fire for fear of hitting the dog. The
panther saw me, and tried to get away, but Trusty clung to it like a
burr. The animal now turned, and my bullet passed through its heart and
laid it lifeless. Trusty was terribly maltreated, and the wounds on his
back were of the width of a finger, and I believe that his strong collar
had alone saved his life. I sewed up his wounds, washed them with water,
and then broke up the deer. Then I stripped the panther, and packed the
game on both sides of my saddle, laid the skin over it, and placed
Trusty on the top of all. I told him that he must lie quiet, and started
homewards, leading Czar by the bridle. Trusty cut the most absurd face,
but for all that did not stir, and after he had ridden a few hundred
yards he helped me with his hind legs, when he slipped a little on one
side, and I believe he would not have fallen off at a gallop. It was a
week ere I could draw the threads out of the wound, and during that
period Leo had to accompany me when hunting. At the end of a fortnight
my faithful comrade had so far recovered that he was able to accompany
me on short trips.

About this time I was riding, when the sun was rather low, up the river
to the bank of a small stream, which joined the Leone a few miles above
the fort, and slowly wound between its level banks through the prairie.
It was here and there covered with bushes and groups of trees, while
every now and then its bed widened and formed small pools. On this
stream there were always a great many turkeys, and indeed the banks were
visited by game of every description at all seasons. I rode down the
quiet bright stream, and on coming out of a thicket on to a small
clearing bordered at the other end by tall pecan-trees, I saw a flock of
turkeys stealing away from me among the bushes on the bank. I ordered
Trusty on, who had his nose already to the ground sniffing; he was among
the fugitives like the wind; they ran, noisily and loudly pursued by
Trusty, and settled on the trees. I rode close up to the wood, for so
long as the turkeys see the dog springing about under them they are
terrified, and look timidly at their pursuer, stretching out their long
neck in all directions instead of flying away. I dismounted, shot an old
cock on a tree growing close to the water, and saw it flutter down. I
then turned with the other barrel to a second, which was standing on an
oak farther in the thicket, and fetched it down also. I now looked round
and missed Trusty. I had no reply to my shout, and the agitation in the
pond aroused a fear that he had leapt in, and that an alligator, for
such are always concealed in the deeper water of these streams, had
seized and dragged him down.

I waited a good half-hour, it grew dark, and yet no sign of poor Trusty.
Beside myself with grief at this irreparable loss I hung the turkey on
the saddle, and mounted my horse, as longer waiting would be of no use.
At this moment I suddenly saw Trusty at the head of the wood, lying down
to rest by the side of the gigantic cock turkey. My delight knew no
bounds. I galloped up the stream, dashed through it, and found my
favourite on the other bank. I leapt from my horse and took him in my
arms, whereon he gave vent to his joy by a widely echoing howl, and
lashed his tail. I hung the turkey, which weighed over twenty pounds,
and which he had carried Lord knows how far, to my saddle, and the
faithful dog leaped up to my horse and barked in the utmost delight as
we proceeded homeward.

We were busily engaged for a week in making some machinery on the river
by which to employ the water power in turning a mill to grind the maize.
A raft was fastened to the bank. A roller was placed on it, from one end
of which a rather large wheel hung down into the water, while the mill
was fastened to the other, whose hopper we enlarged so that we might not
have to put in maize so frequently. It worked famously, and we all
rejoiced at a successful operation which saved us a fatiguing job.

Owing to this I had not gone out much, and we were all longing for good
fresh meat. As there were a good many buffaloes in the very
neighbourhood, I resolved to hunt them on the morning after our mill was
finished, as one of my men had seen large herds during the day on the
prairie across the river. The morning arrived, but with it sprang up a
very violent westerly wind, and a few light straggling clouds proved
that it would not sink in such a hurry. In doubt whether to ride out or
wait another day, my men persuaded me to the former course, as the chase
would probably be soon over. Hence I rode off, but left Trusty at home,
as on these prairies the dry grass was extraordinarily high and it would
tire him too much to force his way through it, especially if we had to
go quickly. I was soon across in the wood where, though the wind did not
meet me, still it shook the tall trees so terribly that the dry wood
constantly whizzed round my head. I reached the prairie on the other
side of the forest, and saw several herds of buffalo in the distance.

Binding my hat firmly under my chin, I rode through the tall grass in a
northern direction toward them. The storm grew more violent, and laid
the grass so flat on the ground that I could not think of putting my
horse beyond a walk in any other direction than with the wind, as, when
the wind is blowing fiercely all game is usually more cautious than in
calm weather, as it has to make up by the sight for what it loses in
smell. The buffaloes noticed me and my horse, which was brilliantly
illumined with the sun, a long distance off, and took to flight. I
turned toward another herd, but with the same result, and saw at last
that in this way I should not get within shot. After several hours of
useless exertion I turned to the east, toward a spot on which some
scattered oaks grew. Here I fancied it would be easier to approach the
game.

The distance to the first tree-covered hill was about five miles, and I
saw through my glass at the elevations behind a great number of
buffaloes, which, however, seemed to be in a strange state of
excitement. My horse found it hard walking owing to the dry grass, in
which Czar was compelled to part the sharp tangled stalks at every step.
I looked constantly toward the highland, and remarked, while the storm
howled past my ears, that the sky was growing obscured and that the
sunshine was not so bright as it had been a few moments previously. I
looked around me, the heavens appeared to be veiled by a grey mist, and
grew darker behind me, and on the edge of the prairie were perfectly
black. I felt a cold shudder, for I knew the fearful element which had
become allied with the storm, and would roar over the plain scattering
ruin around. The prairie was on fire. It is true that I could not yet
see the fire, but the black smoke clouds rose higher and higher on the
horizon, and the storm soon bore them past me over the last blue patch
of sky. Only one chance of escape remained. I must reach a knoll where
the grass was shorter, and without reflecting I gave Czar the spurs and
his head, and flew in rivalry of the storm-wind over the grassy plains
before me.

I looked round; the whole black expanse behind me was gloomy and obscure
as if night were setting in, and beneath the dark rising smoke-clouds
the deep red glowing flames stretched out their long forks and cast
their fearful light over the outlines of the cloudy columns of smoke.
The whole plain seemed to grow alive. Far as eye could see, it was
covered with flying herds of the denizens of the desert, whose black
forms were surrounded by a fiery halo as they pressed over the plain. It
was like the picture of the last judgment, which my fancy had frequently
depicted.

Czar ran with long leaps through the tall grass, looking neither to the
right nor left. With every moment it grew darker around me, and the
reflection of the spreading sea of flame more and more tinged my horse's
snow-white neck. It was not his ordinary strength that urged the horse
to reach the knoll, but the force which desperation imparts to men and
animals, but soon wears them out and ends in utter exhaustion. The sharp
spurs and the thunder behind him urged my horse constantly on at a mad
speed, but I felt his bound gradually lose its lightness and force.

I was not far from the hill in front of me; once more the spurs and my
shrill hunting-cry, and I flew up the knoll, and hobbled my trembling,
snorting horse on the bare table-land, which was covered with pebbles
and thin patches of grass. I ran back to the tall grass with a lucifer
in my hand, lit it, and in an instant the flames rose, struggling wildly
against the storm, and darted round my hill, till they joined on its
eastern side, and dashed along like an avalanche with the howling storm.
I now looked back for the first time, holding my brave horse by the
bridle, at the fearfully animated plain, and watched the dark living
forms hurrying past on either side of the knoll. The whole animal world
seemed assembled here, and to be exerting their last strength in
escaping a death by fire. On both sides beneath me thundered past in
wild confusion herd after herd - buffaloes, horses, deer, and antelopes
were pressed together, and between them rushed bears, tigers, panthers,
and wolves, one after the other, with their faces averted from the glow,
which the storm blew with a thick black cloud of ashes over the land.
Dark, black night now encompassed me; only a pale reddish glare gleamed
through the dense ashes; while the hurricane developed its highest fury,
and blended its howling with the hollow, earth-shaking thunder of the
flying masses of animals below me.

The sea of fire was scarce half a mile from me, when the ashes passed
over my head, and granted me a full look at it. The flames right and
left, far as eye could see, lay obliquely over the ground and stretched
out their quivering tongues for at least fifty feet over the grass. They
darted forward with frightful rapidity, and caught up countless animals
flying before them, whose wearied limbs could no longer carry them along
quickly enough. Three old buffaloes collected their last strength to
reach my knoll, but at the foot of it the flames closed over them, I saw
them rear, fall back, and disappear. The heat was stifling; I and my
horse, - who, trembling all over, yielded to his fate - turned our backs
to it, and the stream of fire passed us on both sides, crackling and
hissing.

Gradually daylight returned, and the sky became blue over my head.
Thousands of large and small predaceous birds followed the flames, and
fell now and then in them. On all sides lay the black carcases of the
countless victims which this prairie fire had destroyed, and many
animals struggling with death were rolling in their agony on the plain.
Czar and I were completely covered with ashes. I now mounted my horse to
get away as quickly as possible from this scene of destruction and
death, and reach the green forests of the Leone by the straightest line.
I rode down to the three buffaloes, two of which were not dead and
strove to rise, but fell back powerless on the earth. It was a fearful
sight offered by these burned monsters, and their frightened snapping
for air and blind rolling of their heads induced me to put an end to the
pain of the poor tortured creatures. I put a bullet through each of
their flat foreheads, and after reloading, I rode in a southern
direction towards the Leone.

I saw many animals still wrestling with death on both sides of the road,
and might have expended the whole of my ammunition in trying to help
them out of their agony. Most of the burnt animals were buffaloes and
deer, but I also saw a bear and a horse and a number of wolves lying
lifeless on the ground.

My road over the black, bare, burnt fields of desolation was tiring, and
my horse was so worn out that I frequently dismounted and led him:
although the wind was no longer so violent, it brought with it a
quantity of fine ashes, and rendered both seeing and breathing
difficult. I frequently came across birds of prey, whose wings only
displayed the bare quills, the feathers being burnt off: they sate
helpless and wretched on the ground, and tried in vain to rise into the
air when I approached them. These birds regularly follow the prairie
fires in large numbers, in order to eat its countless small four-footed
denizens, after the fire has passed over them, and either rendered them
helpless or killed them. They looked at me in terror with their large
rolling eyes, spread out the quills of their wings, and uttered a
complaining cry. I went past them as I could not help them.

About a mile from the wood on the Leone I saw, to my great surprise, on
my right hand a very large deer and a horse walking together across the
plain to the wood. They tottered along slowly side by side, and seemed
not to notice me at all. I rode up to them: I fancied they had been
blinded by the fire, but it was not so; for they now stopped and gazed
at me with their bright eyes, as if imploring me not to prevent them
from reaching the wood. Both were slightly scorched, though the horse
had lost mane and tail: they appeared to have suffered more from
excessive exertion, and to be yearning for the water of the Leone. I
could easily have killed the deer, but I pitied the creature, and
besides did not care to eat its hunted flesh or put a further load on
Czar. Hence I quitted the poor creatures, and reached the wood, which is
not very broad here; and soon after the river, where Czar refreshed
himself for a long time in the cool waters.

Annually nearly all the western prairies are burnt by the Indians,
towards spring: when they leave the south and go north to hunt they fire
the old grass, so that when they return in autumn they may find on these
extensive plains fresh food for their large troops of horses and mules.
They have, however, I fancy, another motive. If these plains were not
singed with fire, a perfectly different vegetation would arise on them
within a few years. Trees and bushes would rapidly grow up and convert
the prairies into an impenetrable chapparal or forest, which would be
very troublesome to the horse Indians, in their hunts and journeyings.
In this way, however, fire destroys every growth but that of grass. If a
sapling springs up in spring from seed borne thither by the wind or by
animals, it is burnt down in autumn. Prairie fires are generally
dangerous neither to men nor beasts, as the fire, with an ordinary wind,
advances very slowly, and over a limited region. If you arrive at very
tall grass where the fire would kill, you have always time to get away
from it; and when the grass is not unusually high, you can always find a
spot to leap over the flames. If the storm is accompanied by rain the
grass does not burn at all, hence, only a hurricane with a clear sky, as
is not rare among us in autumn, produces in alliance with the fire such
destruction among the occupants of the steppe.

It was evening when I reached home, tired and without booty. My people
had seen, by the smoke which covered the sky over them, that the prairie
was on fire, and they were very anxious about me on account of the
violent storm. I soon sought my bed, and slept till the sun rose. Czar
would not get up when I went into his stall; while my other horses and
mules, with the exception of Fancy and the cream-colour, who stood in
the large enclosure round the fort, had been grazing for some time
outside, fastened to their long lassos. I made Czar rise, led him down
to the river, where I gave him a good swim, and then led him back to the
rich grass, where, however, he soon lay down again in the shade of an
elm.

The day was fine and perfectly calm, and as we had no fresh meat, I
determined to procure some, without tiring myself excessively. The
prairie hens had already collected in large coveys, and I had lately
seen very many of these pretty birds in the neighbourhood of the fort.
Hence I resolved to try my fortune with them; saddled the cream-colour,
took my shot gun, and rode out with Tony, a spaniel.

These hens are very like our heath-powts in size, shape, and manner of
life, save that they have golden red plumage, and the cocks are
ornamented with a yellow and black collar, like the golden pheasant.
They are extraordinarily shy, and fly off in a straight line when
approached. If you follow them they sit closer, and after being put up a
few times, they settle down separately in the tall grass, where they
hide themselves till the dog puts them up with its nose.

I had not ridden very far when a covey of about fifty got up before my
dog, and settled again about half a mile farther on the prairie. I rode
up to them, leapt from my horse, followed the dog, and again the covey
got up at a long distance. I fired both barrels among them, but was too
far off to hurt them much with my rather small shot; they flew some
distance, and I saw them settle on a mosquito-tree, so I reloaded and
rode slowly towards it, when the dog stood; I leapt off, went up to it,
and ordered it on: the hens rose, and I brought down seven of them with
my two barrels, while I looked after the rest, and saw them settle
separately not far from me. I now hobbled my horse and sought the hens
concealed in the grass, and in half an hour shot some twenty of them.

This sport affords much pleasure through the ease with which it is
performed, and the very delicate game most amply rewards the sportsman
for the slight trouble. I was home again by noon, when we had some of
the birds for dinner; a number of the others were hung up in the dairy
to keep fresh, while the rest were cut in pieces, boiled in water with
laurel leaves, spice, and isinglass, vinegar poured over them, and the
whole set to cool in a large earthenware pot, in which the liquid soon
becomes a jelly. Game preserved in this way remains for several weeks
good and tasty.

[Illustration]




[Illustration]

CHAPTER XIII.

THE DELAWARE INDIAN.


One day after dinner, when we had drunk coffee, my sentry shouted that a
party of Indians were coming up the river, and I perceived through my
telescope that they must belong to one of the civilized tribes, as they
were not armed with lances, and bows and arrows, but with firearms, and
wore clothes, if we may call them such, consisting of leathern breeches
and jackets, and a coloured handkerchief wound round the head like a
turban. There were ten Indians, who halted at the great gate of the
palisade which enclosed my fort, in a large semicircle, with both its



Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 11 of 35)