Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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Tiger was able to make butter and cheese, and at a pinch cook. Our table
was now always well covered, as we had a superabundance of the finest
vegetables. The potato crop had turned out very well, and we had more
especially an extraordinary quantity of sweet potatoes, as they are
called. This is a tuber like the potato; the plant itself consists of
tendrils, which spread flat and thick over the soil, and can be easily
multiplied in spring. The shoot bears in autumn an extraordinary number
of tubers, which are employed precisely like potatoes, except that they
have a much more agreeable flavour, resembling the chestnut. A small,
most prolific bean, which we plant between the maize, and which spreads
over the whole field, had produced us a large stock, while the less
hardy vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach, and cabbage, covered the
garden all the winter through.

The winter in this region is very mild, and may fairly be termed the
pleasantest season of the year. We have no lasting rainy season,
although rain falls more frequently then than in the summer months, but
it rarely lasts longer than a day, and then the cloudless blue sky
gleams pleasantly over us again. Frost is rare and trifling; but
sometimes it sets in towards morning, and will last a whole day if
accompanied by a wind blowing down from the northern Rocky Mountains.
These Northers are usually called something terrible in the whole of
the United States, but in reality they do not at all merit this
reputation. Certainly the cold is felt much more among us than
elsewhere; because, as men accustomed to warm weather, we rarely lay in
a stock of winter clothes. The houses, too, are not calculated for cold,
as they are built very airily and lightly, and have no stoves - only
fireplaces. When the Northers blow the people fly to these fires, while
the cattle seek bottoms and dense thickets, where they conceal

I remember on a splendidly warm forenoon the sky becoming overcast from
the north, and it began to blow and rain, which caused the whole country
to be covered with ice in a short time. If such a storm assails a
traveller in his light summer dress, he is certainly in an unpleasant
position, and if he is a stranger it easily happens that he tells a
terrible story about it when he gets home. These disagreeable storms
from the north, however, are infrequent; we have perhaps six or eight in
a winter, and they rarely last longer than four-and-twenty hours, and
are then driven away by very bright warm days. The winter proper - which
may bring cold weather - does not begin till January, frequently later;
hence we have a very long delicious autumn. The days are no longer
oppressively hot, and the nights become so cool that we are glad to
snuggle under a buffalo robe or a woollen blanket. This is the season
when we recover from the exhausting continuous summer heat, and the body
regains its energy.





It was on a bright healthy morning in November that I, accompanied by
Tiger and Trusty, left the fort, and rode down the river toward the Rio
Grande Mountains. I had never made any excursions far beyond that river,
and even when hunting had rarely reached its banks, as it is enclosed on
both sides by savage rocky mountains, which neither man nor brute can
easily traverse. Tiger had formerly been several times on the other side
of the Rio Grande, and told me there was more game, and more especially
more bears there, while rich valleys ran between the mountains. Hence I
resolved to spend some weeks in those regions, and provided myself for
this tour with provisions, some buffalo robes, and a small tent, which
articles were carried by Jack, a most excellent mule. The animal
followed my horse without being led, and I may say that it could not be
kept away from it except by force. We had no trouble with it but to
saddle and load it in the morning, and take off its burden again at
night. It would certainly stop now and then at a fresh patch of grass
and snatch a few mouthfuls, but then it galloped after us again and
followed at our heels.

We rested at noon at the mountain springs, which I had not visited for
some time, and we were forced to cut an entrance into the little
thicket, as it was completely overgrown. They rewarded us on our arrival
with some fat turkeys, which were never absent there, and whose delicate
meat we enjoyed, while our horses rested from their hot march over the
open prairies. About 3 P.M. we started again, and rode in a northern
direction toward the foot of the mountains, as Tiger told me that
higher up a river ran towards the Rio Grande, with a rather broad valley
on either side, and I believed that this stream must be Turkey Creek. We
crossed the Leone toward evening at a shallow spot well known to me.
This spot, at which I had often rested, surprises the traveller coming
from the open prairie with a very pleasant scene. Bordered on both sides
by the grandest vegetation, magnolias, plane-trees, and enormous oaks
covered with the most splendid creepers, the foaming silvery stream
dashes between scattered masses of rock, with such a roar that visitors
can hardly understand each other. The atmosphere beneath these dense
masses of foliage is cool and constantly fanned by the breeze produced
by the violent motion of the current as it breaks on the rocks, and
falls over them in countless small cascades.

When we arrived the scene was enlivened by silver herons and flamingos,
some soaring high in air, others standing on the dry rocks jutting out
of the water, and forming a striking contrast with their white and green
plumage against the dark green background. We cautiously guided our
horses between the rocks, while Jack followed close behind, and the
birds raised a hoarse croak of surprise over our heads. The primeval
forest on the other side of the stream is broad, and day had yielded the
supremacy to night, as we moved along the buffalo path which was only at
intervals illumined by the moon. I knew here nearly every step, and we
reached the prairie all right, when we remounted, and half an hour later
reached the equally familiar sources of a stream which falls into the
Leone a little lower down.

It was a favourite spot of mine, where we took the load off our animals.
A cheerful fire soon blazed and threw its light upon them, while they
lay in the young grass around us. The moon had not set when we had
finished supper and fell into a refreshing sleep. The eastern sky was
already tinged with red, when I woke and saw several spits with meat
already put before the fire. The horses were grazing round our camp,
but I missed Tiger, whose weapons lay on his buffalo hide. I went a
little way round the bushes, and saw him on the open prairie on his
knees with folded hands and uplifted face, awaiting the appearance of
the sun, in order to offer his adoration to it. I heard him speaking
softly to himself as it sent its first beams towards us, and he
continued his prayer till it had fully risen above the horizon; then he
rose, and with a pleasant smile came back to his seat at the fire. He
then produced his small mirror and box of vermilion, laid the former on
his crossed knees and painted his face, as he supposed, very grandly;
then he arranged his splendid hair with a comb I had given him, rubbed
it with bear's grease and tied it up with strips of red leather.

During breakfast Tiger told me about his last tour in the Rocky
Mountains; of the mountains covered with eternal snow; the beautiful
valleys containing famous pasturage; his fight with a desperate grizzly
bear, which he killed, &c., and accompanied his words with the most
animated gestures. It is a peculiarity of Indians to enliven their
remarks with signs and gestures which render it easy to understand what
they say; and Tiger, in spite of his knowledge of English, had retained
the sign language, which had grown habitual to him. I remarked that I
felt a great inclination to take a trip there in the next spring, and he
was delighted at the prospect of being allowed to accompany me.

It was late when we started, and continued our journey in a northern
direction. The prairies here grew narrower; the woods closer connected,
and the country more uneven. Although we kept as far as we could from
the mountains on our left, we crossed small streams, which either came
down from the mountains and went to form the larger streams, with which
they flowed through the hills to the Rio Grande, or which had their
sources in the eastern plateaus, and pursued the same course. The
country was picturesque; the small prairies, beset by clusters of bushes
and clumps of trees of the most varying shapes, were covered with juicy
fresh grass and a quite new flora; here and there huge blocks rose out
of it, in whose crevices grew large yuccas and mimosas of different
sorts, cactuses and aloes, which represented the southern world of
plants; on the left the hills rose over each other in terraces, and
indicated the course of the large river.

We had ridden the whole morning and not fired a shot at game, although
we had seen a good deal. Our fresh meat was quite finished, and I was
just saying to Tiger that it would soon be time to shoot something as
the dinner hour was at hand, when I saw turkeys running in a small
scrubby patch ahead of us, and made Trusty a sign to follow them. In an
instant he put them up, but as a dense forest rose just before us, they
all but one entered its impenetrable foliage. The latter, an old cock,
rose straight in the air, and settled on the top of a very tall cypress
which grew on the skirt of the forest, and whose roots were washed by a
small spring. It waved backwards and forwards on the thin branch, as if
challenging the hunter who would dare to fire at it, while Trusty leapt
up at it and barked loudly. Tiger looked at me laughingly, pointed
upwards, and asked, "What do you think?" I gave him a nod to try his
luck. He sprang from the piebald, took a long aim, fired, and the cock
did not stir, but continued to oscillate and look down at Trusty. I felt
an itch to try my skill. I sprang from my horse, raised my rifle, and
with the detonation the haughty bird opened its wings for the last time,
fell like a ball and smote the ground heavily. Tiger laughed, and said
that he would have brought it down too, if it had not swung so on the
bough. It is a curious fact that the Indians armed with rifles, and even
the Americans, never think of firing when the object is moving at all
quickly, although they have so many opportunities of practising it. The
chief motive may lie in the very long and heavy guns they carry, which
cannot be moved so rapidly and lightly as our rifles.

We could not have chosen a better spot than this for our mid-day rest,
as our horses found the best grass, the clearest spring water flowed
close past us, and the virgin forest offered us its cool shade. We
therefore quickly unsaddled, hobbled our horses, and set to work cooking
the turkey. We unwillingly left this pleasant spot a few hours later,
and were obliged to ride a couple of miles up the forest before we found
a buffalo path wide enough for us to pass through. For about an hour we
rode through the leafy labyrinth, ere we reached the open plain again on
the other side. Here Tiger rode up to me again, and talking and jesting,
we kept our horses at a brisk amble, while Jack trotted after us.

Suddenly I heard a "hugh!" from Tiger's lips, and pointing to the ground
before us he stopped and said that the buffalo dung on the path was
quite fresh and the animals must be in the vicinity. He galloped on and
we soon reached a narrow wood, which ran through the prairie in nearly
the same direction we were following, and through whose centre ran a
small stream. We had scarcely reached this wood ere Tiger leapt from his
horse, pointed to the ground before us, then pointed to his ears, and
made a motion with his hands as if breaking a stick. He sprang away with
the lightness of an antelope, scarce touching the ground with his toes,
and never treading on a branch, which might produce a sound; then he
suddenly stopped, lowered his head slightly and listened for some
minutes. After which he shot ahead again at such a pace that I could
hardly keep up with him. He presently lay down on the ground and made me
a sign with his hand that the buffaloes were entering the water just
under us, and were going across to the prairie. In a few minutes he
leapt up again, signed to me to follow him, and flew down the wood,
through the stream, and up the other bank, where we arrived behind the
last bush on the prairie, just as the buffaloes had only gone a few
yards along it, and two of them were standing on the other side of the
bush and staring intently at us.

We both had our rifles raised and I gave Tiger a nod to fire first. I
kept the sight between the eyes of the buffalo, standing on the right,
and as the flame poured from Tiger's gun, I fired and ran round the bush
to be able to use the other barrel; but it was unnecessary, for the two
gigantic animals were rolling on the ground at the last gasp. Tiger's
buffalo was shot through the heart, and the bullet had smashed the skull
of mine. We hurried to our horses and packed the best bits of our ample
booty on faithful Jack's back.

The sun was not very high above the mountains, but it was too early to
spend the night here. Our cattle had rested a little, and so we merely
allowed them to drink, filled our own bottles, and rode merrily on in a
northern course. Tiger was remarkably colloquial on this evening, and
the time slipped away and we scarce noticed that the night had spread
its dark wings over the road, which now wound between conical barren
hills. I remarked to my comrade that we should have a hard camp, which
he denied, and moving his hand across a long chain of hills in front of
us, he said that we should sleep softly on the other side of it. While
saying this he laid his cheek on his hand and closed his eyes.

It was late when we reached this chain of hills. The mountain side was
very steep; although we selected the lowest spot to cross, we were
obliged to dismount and lead our horses. Our foothold grew more and more
uncertain on the loose pebbles, and our horses, too, were obliged to
exert themselves in clambering over the many large stones with which the
ravine was covered.

While we were clambering on in this way, Trusty suddenly growled,
trotted a few yards past us with bristling hair, and then barked into
the depths behind us. Tiger said a jaguar was following us, and put his
rifle under his arm. We at length reached the top, where we let our
animals breathe, and looked back for a long time at the valley behind
us, but could see nothing of our pursuer, although Trusty continued to
growl. We marched along the top, which soon sloped down and allowed us a
glance at the valley on the other side. The slope was not so steep as
the one by which we ascended. The valley before us looked gloomy with
its black shadows, and its depths were covered with a white strip of
fog, while the opposite mountain side, illumined by the moon, glistened
with indistinct bluish tones.

We descended the hill, and in an hour reached the grassy damp bottom,
where we remounted and shortly after pulled up on the bank of a large
river whose other side was bordered by a thick wood. Here we unloaded
our cattle and soon sank into the most tranquil sleep, leaving to
faithful Trusty the care of our safety. His powerful voice soon awoke
us, however, and made us clutch our rifles. We called him back, stirred
up our fire, and as we could see nothing of a foe, we fell asleep again.
The faithful dog awoke us again several times, but when morning broke,
he lay rolled up by the fire, and was fetching up the rest he had lost
in the night.

We were up at an early hour, and Tiger found in the dewy grass not far
from our camp the trail of a very large jaguar, which had prowled round
it during the night and disquieted Trusty. We bathed in the deep clear
river, then breakfasted and set out again. The river flowed westward
through a rather wide vale, bounded on the north by a wood, on our side
by rich prairies, while a range of bald conical shaped lime hills ran
along either side. Judging from its distance from the Leone, this river
could only be Turkey Creek, on whose banks I had spent that stormy night
with the unhappy botanist. We followed its windings westward for several
hours, crossing a number of small streams which came down from the
ravines. The valley was here considerably broader than at the spot where
we passed the night, but in front of us the hills approached each other
again; then the river turned a little westward and afforded a prospect
between the rocks of the western cedar-grown banks of the Rio Grande.

The prairie over which we rode led us to the banks of this large river,
which runs at a depth of at least fifty feet between the widest masses
of rock. At this time it contained very little water, as it does not
begin to swell to any extent till January, and we at once made
preparations to cross it. We selected from the quantity of dry
driftwood, with which the steep bank was covered, pieces of light
cedar-wood, bound them together as a small raft, and anchored it to a
great tree trunk on the bank. We laid our provisions, saddle-bags, and
clothes upon it, and Tiger leapt in the very rapid stream, holding the
loose end of the lasso between his teeth, and swam to an island covered
with willows, which lay about fifty yards from our bank. When he had
swam so far as to haul the lasso taut, I thrust the raft off, and it
rapidly followed the current behind Tiger, who, however, guided it to
this island and landed about two hundred yards lower down. Then he went
to the end of the island, dragging the raft after him, and pulled it
into the calmer water on the other side. Then he threw the lasso over
his shoulders, and easily pulled the raft to the other bank, where he
fastened it to some heavy driftwood. He was soon back by my side. I hung
my holsters over my shoulders, took rifle in hand, and we flew on our
horses down the stream obliquely till we reached the island, which we
soon crossed and guided our horses into the quieter water on the other
side. We landed on the western bank of the river at the moment when
Jack, who had reached the island, uttered a frightful bray of delight,
while looking over at the horses: then he cautiously entered the river
again, and soon trotted up to his comrades, who enjoyed the scanty grass
that grew on the bank while we were dressing.

As it was noon, and high time to eat something, we lit a fire a little
higher up the hills under a leafy plane, and prepared our meal, while I
reclined on my buffalo robe and gazed in delight at the wildly romantic
scene that was expanded before me. The very deep river bed, cut in
limestone strata, is very wide higher up, so that the river, when
swollen in spring by the mountain torrents, quite fills it up, and
attains a width of half a mile. On both sides of the bed rise grey
masses of rock in the wildest shapes, leaving yawning ravines between
them, through which the torrents flow to the river. The mountains on the
eastern side are generally bare, and bushes only grow in these narrow
valleys, out of which a solitary cypress here and there raises its crown
to heaven: the western heights, on the contrary, are covered with dense
cedar woods, whose dark lustreless foliage, added to the grey steep
precipices, imparts a saddening and gloomy aspect to the scenery. In
face of us, however, opened between a lofty rock gate the pleasant
valley of Turkey Creek, through which we had come. Foaming and roaring,
it leaps over gigantic strata of stone into the deep bed of the Rio
Grande; while on its south side, far up the valley, the prairie glistens
with its fresh verdure, and on the north the dark shadows of a colossal
virgin forest run along the mountain range.

We took leave of these banks for a short period, and marched up a steep
ravine to the dark shade of the cedar woods, which soon offered us their
agreeable coolness. The mountains here were of a conical shape, and so
closely overgrown with not very tall cedars, that we were compelled to
dismount on our buffalo path - although it had been used by the Indians
on their expeditions for centuries - in order to get along at all. Never
in my life did I grow so tired of a road; it seemed as if we rode round
every hill, and after we had ridden for an hour and had a prospect
eastward for a second, the wild rocky valley of the Rio Grande lay at
our feet just as if we had but just left it. But a perfectly new and
beautiful flora rewarded me for the monotonous, slow ride; in these
shadows grew a number of exquisite plants, whose seeds I collected to
transfer them to my home.

We had been marching for three hours through these woods, when the
country became clearer, the mountains formed into large masses, and the
valleys between grew wider. It was twilight, and we had, as I thought,
surmounted the last short but steep rise, when Czar suddenly darted
back, and a jaguar appeared about thirty yards ahead, gazed at me for a
moment, lay down flat on the grass, and drew up its hind legs for a
spring. This did not take an instant; and I had pointed my rifle over
the neck of my rearing steed at my enemy, when it made its first leap.
At this moment I fired, but heard simultaneously the crack of another
rifle behind me. Czar turned round at my shot, and almost leapt on
Tiger, who was standing behind me on foot, and then darted down the
hill. I shouted to him to stop my horse, and saw the jaguar appear on
the top of the steep. I sent my second bullet through its chest, and it
rolled down toward me in the most awful fury. I called Trusty to me, and
fired a couple of revolver shots into the gigantic body of my foe, which
ere long gave up the ghost with savage convulsions. My first bullet had
passed through its left side; but Tiger's had seriously hurt the spine
behind the left shoulder. Tiger's shot had certainly gained the victory,
as it robbed the brute of its springing power, and it caused him great
delight when I acknowledged his victory, and surrendered to him the fine
large skin, which I bought of him on the same evening for a number of
trifles to be delivered when we returned home.

It was rather dark when I lit a large fire, and we set to work stripping
off the fine spotted skin of the royal beast. As it was very uncertain
whether we should find water, we unsaddled, hobbled the cattle, and put
on the coffee water to boil. We soon had the jaguar's huge skin off, and
hung it stretched on young cedar branches, on a tree close to the fire
to dry. Then we prepared supper, drank coffee, and ere long were asleep
near our horses, while Trusty patrolled round camp.

A splendid morning awoke us from our dreams and displayed to us the wild
but beautiful scenery we had noticed on the previous evening. We had
camped at the entrance of a plateau, bordered on the east by the
cedar-clad hills sloping down to the Rio Grande, while on the west a
chain of large mountains ran northward. The plateau was abundantly
covered with grass, but its surface did not display the same monotony as
those lying to the east of the Rio Grande; it was covered with patches
of wood, and here and there huge masses of rock arose. We marched
northward, and as the mountains to the west appeared to us too
difficult, we soon crossed a splendid small stream where we watered our
horses and filled our flasks. For three days we followed its course
through this park; at times over fresh green prairies, at others through
thick woods or _cañons_. We met a great many antelopes and deer, but
only saw a few buffaloes at a great distance. Among others Tiger pointed
out to me a buffalo on the western mountain side, and said it was lying
on the ground. After repeated search I managed to discover a small black
dot in the direction indicated, and when I called my glass to my help I
really saw an old solitary buffalo lying there among the rocks, and was
astonished at the extraordinary sight of my young Indian friend.





On the third evening we approached the western mountain chain, which
bordered the northern end of the plain we were crossing. Our road slowly
rose, while we steered toward a gap in the mountains, where we hoped to
find an available path. For an hour our path was steep and vegetation

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 13 of 35)