Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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had nearly entirely disappeared, only a few reeds were visible in the
crevices between the rocks. Deep yawning gorges and _cañons_ opened
between the overhanging limestone strata, round which we had to make
fatiguing circuits, while frequently we had hardly room to lead our
horses along the precipices over deep abysses. The sun was setting, and
the lofty mountain sides cast their broad shadows over the rocky depths.
It soon became dark, but we pushed on, still hoping to find a suitable
spot for camping. We had almost reached the highest point, when we saw
gigantic red granite walls rising in front of us like a fortress. They
hung a long way over us and the deep abyss, from which wildly scattered
colossal blocks, illumined by the parting sunbeams, rose, while on the
other side of the gorge the mountains were heaped up against the dark
purple evening sky. Our path was very narrow and strewn with small
pebbles, so that we were obliged to lead our horses with a short rein.

All at once Tiger shouted to me to halt, and immediately after I heard
him utter "Pah," in his Indian language. It was water he wished to
indicate, and he told me he could hear the rustling of a stream. Our
path grew rather broader, and ran into the granite masses on our left,
while on our right the slope was not so steep, and sank into the ravine
between a few large blocks of stone. We had scarce gone one hundred
yards when the road before us proved to be blocked by scattered masses
of stone, between which stunted oaks and bushes grew, while I found
myself in short grass, which Czar greedily attacked. I shouted to Tiger
that I could go no farther, and he led his piebald up to my side, who
with the never-failing Jack also went at the grass. Tiger was of opinion
that it was a famous spot, as the water was close at hand below us, and
disappeared among the rocks. He soon returned, dragging after him
several dry branches, while we broke up and lit a fire, which soon lit
up the immediate neighbourhood. The rocks on our left were deeply
excavated, and hung in large strata with broad cracks, covering a large
tract of ground, which bore at various points traces of fires which must
have been lit by Indians, who had camped here like ourselves. We
prepared our supper, but had great difficulty in putting the spits up
before the fire, as Tiger had not lit it on the grass, but under the
rocks. While we were thus employed the moon rose slowly behind the
mountains, and threw her first pale rays into our wild valley. Gradually
her light became more brilliant, and the dark masses around us emerged
in their various shapes. Tiger now leapt up, placed one of my revolvers
in his belt, took a cedar brand, and went down a narrow path between the
rocks, carrying our two large gourds by a strap over his shoulders. I
watched the ruddy dancing light of the torch which lit up at one moment
the rocks, at another the dark green foliage of the oaks; it continually
grew smaller, till it appeared in the depths below like a bright point.
It soon returned, however, and Tiger appeared between the rocks with our
bottles full of spring water, so cold and clear that my lips had not
tasted anything to equal it for a long time. He told me that below was a
small pool, into which the springs ran; buffaloes must have been
standing there a little while before, and he therefore believed that we
should be able to lead our cattle down to water by daylight. I gave
Czar a share of the refreshing draught.

We seemed to have entered the kingdom of owls, for their hoot was
audible on all sides. Tiger listened for awhile very attentively to
these sounds, but then lay down tranquillized on his buffalo hide,
saying that one of the sounds resembled the voice of a Weico; but he had
not signalled again, or he (Tiger) was mistaken. The fire was supplied
with large logs, and we then wrapped ourselves in our skins and slept
till daybreak. We blew up our fires, put on our horses' bridles, and led
them down the hill side to water, along a path on which we now
distinctly noticed fresh buffalo signs. It was a tiring road by which we
at length reached the bottom, where a small basin filled the entire
breadth of the gorge, into which a clear stream noisily poured. The
basin was washed out of the stony ground, and we led our horses into it
after a number of mocassin and rattlesnakes had taken to flight with a
menacing hiss. We then turned back to reach our camp again. Tiger led
his piebald in front, but stopped and said he felt much inclined to
climb up the opposite wall of the gorge, as it was full of crevices in
which doubtless bears were hybernating. He also said he had heard from
his people that the Delawares always shot a great number of bears at
this spot, though he had never visited it before himself. I hence took
his horse's bridle, and called Czar to follow me, while Jack completed
the party, and Trusty trotted on ahead.

After a fatiguing climb I again reached our camp, where I hobbled the
cattle in the grass and sat down to the fire to get breakfast ready. I
had just finished and lit a pipe, when the crack of a rifle reached me
from the opposite wall, and I supposed that Tiger had shot a bear, when
a few moments later a second shot was fired, and the frightfully shrill
sound of the Indian war-whoop echoed through the gorge. There was no
doubt but that Tiger had come into collision with hostile Indians. The
yell rolled down the valley, and ere long two shots were fired in rapid
succession. I quickly threw our saddles and baggage behind large rocks,
and led the piebald some way down the slope, while Czar and Jack
followed me; then I fastened the cattle up to trees a little off the
path, and sent my hunting cry across the gorge at the full pitch of my
lungs. Tiger at once answered me. I ran down to the pond and up the
opposite wall, continually uttering my cry and receiving an answer.
Trusty went a little ahead to clear the way, and then I climbed on from
rock to rock, until another shot was fired, and I heard Tiger's yell
higher up the mountain. I carefully noticed the direction whence the
yell came, and calling Trusty to me, I ran forward rapidly, though
cautiously, between the scattered boulders.

I was standing before a small grass-covered mound when Trusty growled
and sniffed; I went up in a stooping posture, and hardly had reached the
top when I saw Tiger with his back turned to me, holding in one hand his
rifle, in the other the bleeding scalp of his murdered foe, and gazing
at the latter, who lay outstretched in the grass: without turning, he
told me that the Weico had almost sent him to his fathers, but his heart
trembled, and hence he aimed badly. Tiger had seen his enemy first, and
fired soonest, but missed, and the other had not hit him either, as he
ran. Tiger pursued him, and both reloaded while running, till the Weico
reached the spot where he now lay, and the Delaware sprang on the grass
plot a little higher up. The Weico fired and missed again, and Tiger in
response sent a bullet through his loins, though without being aware
that he had hit him. The Weico disappeared in the grass, and Tiger too,
as he fancied the other was reloading; but when he had performed the
same operation himself and saw nothing of his foe, he crept to an
adjacent rock which he mounted, and saw the other in the grass
reloading, upon which he sent a bullet through his heart and speedily
scalped him. Tiger now took his conquered foe's gun, medicine-bag,
beads, and armlets, and made me a sign to return to the horses, while
he sprang from rock to rock with the lightness of a deer.

We saddled, and soon left our camp, as Tiger said there were several
Weicos in the neighbourhood, for on the previous evening they had made
each other signs with the owl hoot. Our road ran from here close to the
precipice, and for some few hundred yards was very difficult. We were
obliged to lead the horses, and make them leap over several granite
blocks, while the grass grew to a man's height between the loose stones,
and we could not see where we stepped. Here, however, the road became
better and led us in a pretty valley through which a stream wound, while
on both sides granite walls begirt it to a height of at least three
hundred feet. Trusty was some distance ahead all the time, and was
trotting along the birch-covered bank, when he suddenly barked, and I
saw something leaping through the grass on his left. The piebald darted
past me at the same moment, and Tiger shouted "a panther." I had no
inclination, however, to join in the hunt, but merely cantered on, saw
the piebald leap several times through the bushes, and a little later
heard Tiger's rifle crack. But when I joined him he laughed, and said
that the panther had too many feet, and pointed to a thicket on the
right-hand hills, in which it had disappeared.

The valley here became very broad, and we saw, a long distance off,
three buffaloes grazing under some mosquito-trees, and, when we drew
nearer, Tiger proposed to chase them, as, in the fresh close grass,
there was no other way of getting within shot of them. Suddenly the
buffaloes noticed us and fled, but Tiger set his horse in a gallop, and
stormed after them down the valley. I was just able to see that he had
caught them up, when a small blue cloud of smoke rose before him, and I
shortly after heard the crack of his rifle. He disappeared with the
flying buffaloes on the prairie, and I followed him at a quick amble. At
the spot where I last saw my comrade, thick bushes ran along both sides
of the stream. I went into them, but was obliged to dismount in order
to pass through the thicket. Crossing the wood, I gave my hunting-cry,
which was answered close by, and, a short distance farther on, Tiger
came to meet me, and said that it was no go with the buffaloes either;
he had hit one of them clumsily, and not killed it. The piebald was in a
frightful perspiration, so Tiger turned him round and we reached the
skirt of the wood, where we sat down in the cool shade of the lofty
trees, while our cattle, freed from their loads, grazed around us.

The stream wound out of the forest close by. I had gone to it to fill my
bottle, when I noticed a number of bees on the bank, which, however, did
not fly into the wood, but into the prairie before us. I called up
Tiger, who seated himself by my side, and we accurately observed their
course by the compass, and saw that they all flew to an old plane-tree
which grew in the grass about a thousand yards from us. We went up to
the tree, and found that the bees went to a very large bough, which had
an opening at the top. We fetched our weapons and axes, and brought out
our cattle under the plane, where I also ordered Trusty to lie down.
Then we went up to the tree, whose stem was at least eight feet in
diameter, threw a lasso over the lowest branch, clambered up it, and
went to the branch containing the bees. It was at least a foot and
a-half in thickness, and we had to work with our small axes for nearly
an hour before it gave way, and fell with a crash to the ground, whereon
the startled bees rose like a pillar of smoke, and swarmed off toward
the forest. We soon went down the lasso, and began eating the clear
honey which flowed out of the broken branch. We ate, and took pieces of
the largest combs to our camp, where we laid them in the shade.

Europeans will be surprised, and ask how it is possible to take the
honey from the irritated bees without being stung to death. The bees in
this country, however, are not so spiteful as in the Old World: it is
only when you are near a filled bee-tree, and strike at the bees with a
branch or a cloth, that you are attacked and pursued by them; but if you
go quickly up to the honey, and are careful not to touch any bees, you
are never stung. The honey of these wild bees is far sweeter and more
toothsome than that in England: it is very spicy, but at times so
impregnated with pepper, that much of it cannot be eaten. I have often
felled bee-trees whose honey was so clear that it could not be
distinguished from a glass of water put by its side. If you are near
home when you cut down a bee-tree, you drive the creatures, which have
collected close by in a swarm round their queen, into a bag, take them
home, and shake them out into a hollowed tree, nail a board at top and
bottom, cut a hole in the lower board, and place it above-ground at a
spot protected from the north wind. The bees at once set to work,
continuing it winter and summer, and in a short time the hive is filled
with honey and wax. We only regretted that we had no vessel in which we
could take a supply of this exquisite honey with us.

We had eaten heartily of it when we set out about 3 P.M. and continued
our journey down the stream. The sun was sinking behind the mountains on
our left, when we again struck the stream which we had left in pursuing
a northern course, and resolved to pass the night here. The valley was
narrow to the west and to the east; the prairie rose towards the
mountains, and some old oaks grew on it. We had unsaddled, hobbled our
horses, and lit a fire, when Tiger took his rifle and went towards the
western hills to see whether he could procure any fresh game, as our
stock was entirely exhausted. The sun had set, the time hung heavy at
the fire, so I rose, took my rifle, and walked slowly down the stream,
while Trusty ran ahead in the scrub. I had hardly gone a hundred yards
when I noticed that the stream turned to the west a little lower down,
and its banks were covered with rocks. Suddenly there was a crash in the
scrub ahead of me, and I heard a loud wail which filled me with terror,
for I knew the sound but too well - it was the wail of a jaguar cub,
which Trusty held in his teeth. I ran up and saw him shaking one, while
another was escaping in the bushes. As I knew exactly what would
happen, I looked around, with my cocked rifle in my hand, and saw the
mother coming down with terrible bounds from the oak clumps higher up.
There was not a tree near, and I must await it in the open. Trusty
placed himself close to my side, and with every hair bristling he
uttered his most savage bass notes through his gnashing teeth. The only
thing now was to hit, or else Trusty at least was lost, and myself too
very probably. Forty paces from me the infuriated brute crouched,
displaying its fangs and lashing its sides with its long spotted tail.
When I shot, the beast turned over, but then flew towards me with a
fresh spring. I shot again, and it rolled on the ground. The ball had
broken its spine, and, unable to move its hind-quarters, the raging
brute rolled and roared, and dug its mighty claws into the grass, which
it dyed with its blood. It was now harmless, and I regretted that I had
not my sketch-book with me to draw it in its paroxysm of fury. It was a
majestic animal, and the splendid golden yellow of its coat, with its
black and white spots, was heightened by the dark red of the blood which
streamed from its back and chest. Lying on the ground with its
hind-quarters, it stood erect on its mighty fore-legs, and with its
thick round neck slightly bent down, it raised its savage open jaws
towards me, while the large, yellow, catlike eyes flashed. At the same
time the brute made the valley ring with the most fearful roars uttered
at intervals. So soon as I approached it it sprang towards me, and
dragged its hind-quarters along on the grass, while showing its terrible
claws. I went up close to it, and fired a revolver bullet through its
head, whereon it fell lifeless.

After reloading, I went back to camp to wait for Tiger, whom I had also
heard firing. It was dark when I heard him coming, and saw his brown
elastic form coming through the bushes. Over his right shoulder hung two
deer legs, and the stripped-off meat of the back was thrown across the
barrel of his long rifle, which rested on his left shoulder. He threw
down his load, lay on his stomach on the river bank, and quenched his
thirst. Then he returned to the fire, and said that I had been shooting
too, and intimated by three fingers the number of shots I had fired. I
answered him that my deer was lying down the stream, but we would sup
first and then fetch it.

We now attacked the excellent venison and enjoyed a hearty supper, when
I gave Tiger a sign to follow me. I led him to the jaguar, and he
uttered a loud cry when he saw it lying on the grass with the cub by its
side. The moon lit us while we stripped off its splendid skin, which was
larger than the one we had obtained a few days previously. We took the
cub to camp, as Tiger told me its flesh was a great dainty; then he
stripped and paunched it, and hung it up to a tree. We then stretched
out the large hide, put it in front of the fire, and slept quietly and
undisturbed till morning.

I was very curious about the new dish which I was to taste for
breakfast. The very white meat of the young jaguar, which was about the
size of an ordinary shepherd's colley, looked very tempting, and I put
some pieces of it before the fire, while Tiger made his breakfast
entirely of it. I tasted it when it browned, and it was very nice,
though it had a musky flavour which prevented me from eating much of it.
Hence I applied once more to the deer meat, which I liked better, and
concluded my meal with the rest of the honeycomb which I had carried on
Jack, wrapped in large magnolia leaves and a piece of deer hide. Tiger
revelled in his meat, and on saddling packed up the rest for supper.

On this day we followed the stream, which flowed for about five miles
westward, but then suddenly turned round a tall hill to the east, and
probably fell into the Rio Grande. Here we left it, however, and rode up
a small stream which joined it and came from the west. We followed the
narrow valley through which it ran and found there a rather broad,
though at times stony road. It was bordered on both sides by granitic
hills, and ran rather steeply up to the heights, where it expanded into
a table-land. This plateau lay on the top of the mountains which we had
seen to the west when riding up, and I resolved to follow it in that
direction, so as if possible to reach the declivity on the other side
before night surprised us, as the barrenness of these lofty plateaus
recalled unpleasant reminiscences. This plateau was about fifteen miles
in breadth, and in the afternoon we reached its western side, where an
endless plain stretched out at our feet, bounded in the remote distance
by very lofty mountains, a few spurs of which ran out into the valley.
The valley was thickly covered with grass, and, as it seemed to me, well
watered and wooded. From our stand-point it must be at least one hundred
and fifty miles broad, and to the south we could not see its
termination. The plain, as far as we could survey it, was covered with
herds of buffalo, while nearer to us deer and wild horses were grazing.
How many thousands of men could easily find a living here, while in old
Europe law-suits are carried on for years about an acre of land, and yet
I was the only white man whose eye had rested on the inexhaustible
treasures which nature had stored up here. Still the time will come when
the plough will cross this beautiful plain in all directions; the smoke
will rise from the hearths of prosperous planters; the church bells will
summon the neighbours to church, and "hell in harness" (as the Americans
call the locomotive) will snort and whistle through their valley.

Our road down to the plain, though not very steep, was fatiguing and
wearisome, as the hill-side was here and there cut up by broad
_cañons_, which we were compelled to ride round. As we were going down
one of these ravines, one of the beautiful leopard-cats, so frequent in
these mountains, sprang out of the loose stones not far from us. I sent
Trusty after it down the ravine, and ere long he began barking. We
hurried on as quickly as we could, and on looking down I saw the
beautifully-spotted creature crouching on an isolated rock, while
Trusty was leaping round it and barking. It was too far to fire with a
certainty of killing, for though Trusty was quite as strong, he might
easily be so injured as to be unfitted for the fatigue of our tour.
Hence I dismounted, and crept near the stone on which the leopard-cat
lay. I went up high enough to see it, and sent a bullet through its
head. The rock was too high for me to climb up it and fetch the beast
down, so I was obliged to wait till Trusty arrived. I raised him on to
the rock, and he pulled the creature down. Then I returned to our
cattle, while Tiger stripped the cat and brought me the skin.

These handsomely-marked animals are most dangerous to game: they kill,
even when quite full, merely for the sake of the blood, and never miss
an opportunity to capture their quarry. They creep with incredible skill
and certainty, as well as indefatigable patience, up to the game, on
which they leap with lightning speed, and do not let it go till it has
given them its blood. When wounded or beset, they attack their pursuer
with great fury and determination, and many an Indian, under such
circumstances, has been severely injured by them. They generally live
and hunt in couples, and prefer rocky regions to the plains, but also
come down to the woods, where they leap down from the trees on the game,
and bite it to death in the neck. Tiger shot two more of these animals
before we reached the plain, which took place in the afternoon, and we
camped on a stream at an early hour.





For about a week we traversed this extensive plain, first northward,
following the base of the hills we had crossed, and then westward,
towards the more western ranges. Everywhere we found the richest soil,
and water in abundance, as well as game of every description, and many
wild horses. We lived like fighting cocks, always had the best buffalo
meat, as many deer as we wanted, and also killed several antelopes. In a
narrow patch of wood Trusty aroused a one-year-old bear from its winter
sleep, which it was enjoying under some old fallen trees, and drove it
out into the prairie. We followed it, and Trusty pinned it to the spot
by a few bites in its breeches. I was just going to fire when Tiger
cried to me not to do so, sprang from his horse, and ran towards the
bear, laughing and leaping, with his long knife drawn. Trusty leaped,
barking, in front of the irritated animal, which showed its teeth
savagely, and kept him off with its forepaws, while Tiger crept behind
it, and - worthy of his name - leapt past the bear, digging his knife into
its side. The bear made a blow at him, but too late; and Trusty attacked
it on the other flank. Tiger soon passed again behind the bear, and
buried his knife between its ribs; and thus the two fought till the bear
fell breathless, and Tiger stabbed it to the heart. He was not a little
proud of his grand exploit, laughed, and said that he had killed an old
bear in the same way once, but had unfortunately lost his good dog. I
was obliged to promise him a son of Trusty, to whom he henceforth
especially gave his friendship. The bear weighed some hundred pounds,
and supplied us with excellent meat, in addition to its skin. We packed
a good lot of it on honest Jack, and improved our meal with it that
evening at the foot of the Rio Grande mountains.

Here the limestone rocks ran down to the plain, and on the distant
heights we could again notice dark masses of cedar forests which had so
impeded our progress. From this point our road became fatiguing and at
times dangerous, as the whole country consisted of rent limestone
mountains, through whose gorges and crevices we had to wind our way. In
the fear of being possibly obliged to camp without water, we followed a
rivulet up stream into these mountains: though we frequently had to
leave it, we still kept as close to it as we could; about noon we
reached a plateau which was entirely covered with petrified wood, of
which thick branches and even trunks lay scattered about. It was
apparently cedar wood, and I took several fine specimens of it as
souvenirs. In the evening we again reached our stream, and though it was
still early, and the grass not particularly good, we unsaddled, and
arranged our camp. While I was thus occupied, Tiger took his rifle and
soon disappeared among the rocks, which were scattered about in enormous
blocks on our left, while on the right they were several hundred feet
high, and displayed numerous rifts, out of which a tree here and there

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 14 of 35)