Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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grew. Tiger soon returned and told me he knew where a very old bear was
asleep. We would go and fetch it next morning; it was lying in a rock
crevice, and judging from its track it must be a sturdy fellow.

Day had scarce broken ere we quickly finished our breakfast, and in a
short time came to a spot where good grass grew; here we unsaddled,
fastened our horses to a tree, and then ascended the hill-side, which
became steeper the farther we got. Quite at the top, between the highest
peaks, Tiger went to an overhanging rock, and stopped before an opening
only a few feet wide, which ran downwards. Here he plucked a quantity of
long dry grass from between the stones, rolled it rapidly into a long,
thick, loose band, and then made me a sign to stand near the hole; he
next lit the torch and crawled on all fours with his rifle into the
rocks. I could hear only for a few minutes the sound he produced by
crawling farther into the cave, and then there was a silence again. I
stood with Trusty for some time without hearing the slightest sound;
when suddenly a stifled echo, resembling a powerful gust of wind, came
out of the crevice, and directly after, a scratching and rustling were
audible, advancing towards the orifice, till all at once a heavy black
bear appeared with a bleeding face.

I was standing only a few yards from the cave, and for the sake of Tiger
wished to let it come out entirely ere I fired, as I felt convinced that
the brute was wounded, and by firing prematurely I might turn it back on
my comrade. I pressed close to the rock, and the bear had made some
forward bounds, when I sent both bullets through it, although without
checking its pace. The bear disappeared behind the nearest rock, and at
the same moment Tiger came out of the cave all right, and ran off as
quickly as a deer after the bear. I followed, and was compelled to use
every exertion to keep Tiger in sight, when I noticed that in running he
reloaded, and suddenly sinking on one knee, fired. But he at once sprang
up again, and while reloading, sprang from stone to stone, till he knelt
once more and fired. I kept as close as I could behind him, and was
running up a rather steep incline, over large masses of stones, when I
heard Tiger's rifle crack for the third time. In a few minutes I got
round a large rock table and saw him carelessly sitting on a stone and
re-loading. When I went up to him he raised his left arm and pointed to
a heap of piled-up rocks, where to my surprise I saw the bear peeping
over one of them like a preacher in his pulpit. It had flown there,
mortally wounded, to defend itself, and showed us its bleeding terrible
range of teeth.

I quickly loaded and shot it through the head, upon which it rolled down
from its elevation. I took out my pocket-book and made a sketch of the
rocks, while Tiger skinned and broke up the bear. I did not notice the
latter retire; but when I missed him I rose and looked about for him. On
going a few paces round the rock, I saw him on his knees among the
bushes praying, while before him smoke curled up from a fire of leaves.
I quietly walked nearer, and heard him muttering to himself, while a
piece of the bear hung before him on the bush over the smoke. He soon
rose, came up to me, and when I asked him what he had been about, he
laughed cunningly, and answered that this meal of meat out of the bear's
chest was for the god of hunting; other Indians were not acquainted with
this, and hence the Delawares alone shot fat bears, while the others had
lean ones. I asked him how it was the bear had not choked him in the
cave. He said, laughingly, "Bear no love fire," and told me that he had
crept a long way into the rocks, till the cave became very spacious;
then holding his torch aloft he looked about him, and saw the bear's
eyes glittering a long way in the background. He fired at it, but his
bullet hit the beast on the cheek. The bear sprang up and rushed at him,
but he placed himself close to the rock and held out his torch, while
the bear rushed past him.

We hurried back to our horses, which took us nearly half an hour,
although we went for the most part down hill. They whinnied as we
approached, and waited impatiently to be noticed. Tiger mounted his
piebald and rode back to the bear to fetch the skin, claws, and some of
the meat, and was back in camp by noon. We merely drank coffee, packed
our animals, and laid the bear's enormous ragged skin, with the fleshy
side upwards, over Jack, who looked terrible in consequence.

We still followed the rocky valley up till about evening, when we
reached a capital spot for our cattle, and I had dismounted to pass the
night here; but Tiger pointed to the north, where the sky was slightly
overcast, and then up the hill, where brushwood was hanging about the
loose stones, and said, "We must go higher up the stream, or else we
should sleep in the water." He now showed me that this brushwood had
been lodged among the stones by the swollen stream, and we consequently
camped higher up. For the first time during this tour our tent was put
up, and our baggage placed under it. Then we dug a deep trench round it,
and laid in an ample stock of firewood. We lit the fire under a large
rock, so that it was protected from the north wind and drove strong
pickets into the ground in order to fasten up our cattle close to the
tent. We consequently let them graze by the water side till it grew
dark, and then led them up to the camp, where we secured them. We sat
till a late hour over the fire, while all nature seemed to have gone to
rest. There was not a breath of air, and only the crackling of our fire
interrupted the silence, and lit up the great masses of rock around us.

As we were both sleepy, I went into the tent and lay down on my buffalo
robe, but Tiger lay by the fire, and we were both in the deepest sleep,
when a frightful crash startled me, and a flash of lightning illumined
my tent. I leaped up and found Tiger busied in blowing the fire. A
pitchy darkness surrounded us, so that I could not see the horses, which
were but a few yards off. Suddenly the lightning shot down the rocks,
accompanied by a deafening peal of thunder, which was quickly followed
by other peals. The storm soon rolled over the hills, and the rain fell
in torrents. Although we had blown our fire into an enormous flame, it
was put out by the rain. The flashes darted here and there, and an
uninterrupted thunder rolled along the valley, while the rustling and
plashing of a rapid stream became audible, and we soon saw beneath us
the white foamy crests of a terrible stream pouring over the banks of
the rivulet, where our horses had been peacefully grazing a few hours

We stood by our horses with our buffalo robes over our heads, turning
our back to the wind, and waited longingly for the moment when the
storm would break. It lasted, however, till shortly before daylight.

"How are we to light a fire now?" I said to Tiger, for our wood was wet,
and no hollow trees grew between the rocks around us, in which we could
look for dry wood. He laughed, however, ran a short distance, returned
with an armful of dry twigs which he had hidden there on the previous
evening under a rock, and said, "Indian more cautious than white men."
Our fire soon burnt up again, and produced a tremendous glow, before
which we hung up our buffalo robes and tent to dry. The bearskin of the
previous day not being dry yet either, we also hung it up to the fire,
and then prepared a breakfast, a meal our cattle were obliged to go
without, as the grass was completely flooded.

So soon as the wet things were dry, we started for the higher mountains
in order to find a spot where our cattle could satisfy their hunger; as
the road was very bad we progressed slowly, crossing a great number of
morning trails of panthers, leopards, and ocelots, which were deeply
trodden into the soft lime soil, and reached about noon a grassy plateau
which extended to the dark cedar woods. Here we hobbled the cattle while
we lit a fire against a withered mosquito-tree, and enjoyed the delicate
bear meat. The air was cool, and the conical mountain peaks covered with
cedars were smoking.

In the afternoon we rode toward the gloomy forests to try and find a
path through them. We certainly found a number of small tracks, but not
one old and used enough for us to trust it, so we went southward on the
plain till darkness stopped our march. We stopped for the night at a
hollow filled with rain water, and on the next morning continued our
journey along the woods till, to our great joy, we found a much trampled
buffalo track, by which we entered them. It led us down between two high
hills, and hence I was afraid lest it might be a path which, made by
animals grazing on the hill down to a stream, would terminate there. In
half-an-hour we reached some large springs which gushed out of a rock
and flowed in a south-eastern direction through a very narrow gorge
covered with bushes, dry wood, and overarching cedars. The path,
however, ran hence, to our great joy, eastward, and we dismounted, as
the cedar branches hung too near over the path.

We had almost reached the top, where only a few cedars stood before us.
Suddenly I fancied I could hear a tremendous rustling some distance off.
I cautiously ascended to the top of the hill, and saw here, about forty
yards ahead of me, three enormous condors, one of which was standing on
the ground with expanded wings, while the other two were springing round
it, and rising each time some feet from the ground. I sank on one knee,
and sent a bullet into the broad chest of the first, while the other two
fluttered their wings with a frightful yell, and soon rose high in air
above me. Just as I was going to fire the second barrel, Tiger's rifle
cracked behind me, and the eagle I was aiming at turned over in the air
and fluttered down. I turned round to the third, and fired at it as it
was soaring over the depths near us. I saw the bullet enter the soft
feathers under the belly, and it shot like a dart with outstretched
wings between the hills, where it disappeared among the dark cedars.

Tiger had cut off his eagle's head by the time I ran up to mine, and
found under it an antelope, which the brave bird had just killed, and
which had only lost its eyes and tongue. Its body was but slightly
ripped up, but the whole back was covered with blood, which flowed from
countless small holes produced by the eight-inch long claws of these
rulers of the air. Tiger was beside himself for delight, for the wing
and tail-feathers of these birds are the greatest ornaments an Indian
knows, and he will readily give his best horse for them. He wears them
on the band which confines his hair, and the claws, sewn on a strap,
form a necklace. I told him I intended to skin mine, and take it home to
stuff; but he was of opinion that he must fetch the feathers of the
third condor, which had fallen into the valley, and he at once
disappeared. I did not consider it possible to get down there, and
utterly so to find the eagle, for I had watched it fly at least a mile.
I at once set to work skinning my bird, and had not finished when Trusty
growled, and Tiger really soon ran up with the spoils of the other bird.

These condors rarely come down into the lower hills; they live
exclusively on the highest points of the Andes, which no human foot
treads, and from the lower lands can only be seen as black dots on the
blue sky. The last night's storm must have surprised these wanderers in
their eyrie, and carried them before it, till they sought shelter in
these mountains. Starving from their involuntary journey, they wished to
taste the delicate game of these countries, which are not situated so
near the clouds, when our bullets cut off their return home. The condor
I first shot was by far the largest, and probably the mother of the
other two, which she was training to plunder; while, on the division of
the spoil, she reserved the right of taking her share first. The
outstretched wings of this bird measured from end to end very nearly
fifteen feet.

It was noon when we mounted our horses and rode down the stony incline.
We moved along around the hills again, and seemed hardly to leave the
spot, for we frequently rode for half an hour, and then suddenly found
ourselves again in front of an old withered tree, or a rock emerging
from the cedars which we had seen before. We rode without interruption
until the sun hid itself behind the highest peaks, and cast long shadows
over the hills glistening in the evening light. The sunny spots on the
mountains constantly grew smaller, until at length only a single cone
stood up as if gilt above the dark country. We had not yet seen a trace
of the Rio Grande, and we must still be a good distance from it, for
from the highest points we crossed we could see nothing as far as the
horizon, except the same conical hills covered with gloomy foliage.

We halted in one of the countless hollows of these stony mountains
where rain-water had collected, and decent grass grew on a small open
space, took the burdens off our very wearied horses, and soon lay on our
skins near the fire. A very large dry cedar trunk rose with its upper
half out of the coppice. We lit our fire against its side, so that it
soon began to smoulder and gave out a great heat. During the night we
scarce needed to look at it, and in the morning found small flames still
playing round the half-burnt tree. A strong breeze was blowing when we
crawled out from under our buffalo robes. We threw plenty of wood on the
burning trunk, and felt very comfortable in the warmth. While our cattle
were eating their scanty breakfast, we roasted bear and antelope meat,
and drank in coffee the health of the condors that had supplied us with
the game. Ere long, however, we mounted, in order to bid farewell the
sooner to these inhospitable forests, and see once more the frontiers of
my home - the Rio Grande.

We pressed on, uphill and downhill, at one moment riding, at another
leading our horses, and frequently impeded by wide torrents and broad
ravines. About noon we had a prospect of a deep rocky valley, on whose
sides no cedars were to be seen, and greeted it as the bed of the
long-looked-for river. The mountains sank, our path ran in a straighter
line towards the valley, and in little more than an hour we were riding
in a long broad gully through the rocks which bordered it. The familiar
river lay before us, a little deeper than we swam through it a little
while previously; but, to our sorrow, the rocks on the opposite side, as
far as we could see, were so steep that it was impossible for our cattle
to climb up them. Nor was it possible to ride down the river, owing to
the boulders and masses of drift-wood which covered the whole bank, and
hence nothing remained but to ride back and seek a passage to the south
among the mountains. Our cattle certainly shook their heads when we
turned them back into the gully, but Tiger laughed and said that we
should still sleep this night across the river. On reaching the summit
we at once selected the nearest hollow, and turned to the south,
following the river. It was a fatiguing journey through loose stones,
fallen trees, and at times dense cedar woods, but for all that we
progressed better than I had feared, and at the end of an hour we saw at
an angle of the river that another large stream flowing from the
eastward, fell into it, which seemed to me to be the Leone. We were
obliged to go higher up the hills here on account of numerous obstacles,
and lost sight of the river for awhile; still the sun had a good hour
before setting when we entered a broad buffalo path which led down in a
straight line to the river. I soon recognised on this road objects I had
seen before, and was now certain that the eastern river was the river of
my home.

So we found it to be when we rode down the Rio Grande, and unsaddled our
horses there. We consulted in what way we should get across, and agreed
to make a raft again. We soon had a couple of cedar logs fastened
together, a heap of brushwood laid on them and our baggage on the top,
and lastly we covered it all with the large bearskin, and secured it all
round with straps. Tiger left his rifle behind and rode into the stream,
which was not very deep here. He held the end of the lasso fastened to
the raft in his right hand, and thus dragged it along. When he had gone
across about a third of the river his horse was obliged to swim. The
current pulled him down stream, and he was compelled to follow with his
horse. He was now in the strongest current, and I noticed that he had
great difficulty in keeping on his horse, when he suddenly fell off it,
but kept the line between his teeth and worked his way into dead water.
He soon reached the other bank and gave a loud yell, while his faithless
piebald had turned back in the middle of the river and trotted up to me,
shaking himself. Tiger secured the raft, ran a little way up the bank,
and swam across to me with incredible speed. We now mounted our horses
and swam across, Jack saluting his native land with a song of joy.

The sun was setting as we trotted up the Leone in order to reach a
camping place in the hills, where I had rested many a night undisturbed,
and to which I knew the road perfectly. It soon became dark, but the
stars were shining. We could see enough not to lose our way, and hurried
forward wrapped in our buffalo robes, for the wind blew hard, and we had
become chilly in crossing the river.

When near our destination, we were riding slowly up the last ascent,
when Tiger uttered his familiar expression of surprise, "Hugh," and
turning round pointed behind him, to the Rio Grande. I looked back and
saw a column of flame rising on the hills on the opposite side, which
rapidly spread southward. The flames covered the whole hill, and the
brilliantly illumined smoke clouds rolled away over them. The fiery
waves poured savagely and uninterruptedly from hill to hill, checked
their speed but for a short time in the deep valleys, and then darted
with heightened fury up the next hill, devouring everything that came in
their way. The cedar woods were on fire, and probably our last night's
camp fire was the cause of it. The violent wind had doubtless blown the
ashes of the burning trunk into the coppice and assailed the surrounding
cedars; ere long the whole southern horizon was a sea of fire, out of
which here and there isolated hills, spared by the flames, rose like
black islands. We lay till late at night by our small camp fire, and
watched the terribly-beautiful scene, regretting our incautiousness or
neglect, which had entailed such fearful destruction. How many thousand
animals had found a martyr's death on that night, and how probable it
was that Indians resting there had been devoured by the flames! After
lying silently for a long time looking across, Tiger uttered the words,
"Poor Indians, sleep warm," accompanied by a deep sigh.

It was not till morning that fatigue overpowered us, and we fell back on
our saddles. We awoke when the sun was pouring its golden light over the
world, and brilliantly illumined the gloomy scene of desolation. The
bare, black burned lime hills rose there above each other, wrapped
themselves in black smoke-clouds, and seemed to accuse us to awakening
nature as the cause of the disaster. It was really a disagreeable
reproach cast at me by those hills, and we soon set out, in order to
escape the sad sight, and refresh our eyes as soon as possible by a view
of our cheerful home.

We crossed the Leone about noon, at the same pretty spot as when we
began our journey, and soon saw the pleasant mountain springs on our
right. Our cattle also knew that we were going home, and increased their
pace. At length we reached the hill where the first view of the fort
could be obtained, and joyfully greeted its grey wooden walls. It was
still early when we rode up to my settlement from the adjoining valley,
and two shots of rejoicing welcomed us from the western turret of the
fort, to which we responded by firing our rifles. Everything was in the
old state, the garrison healthy, and the cattle in excellent condition;
the only change that had occurred was, that one of my mares had enriched
me with a young Czar, that several calves had been dropped, and some
dozen little pigs more were running about the fort.





I felt very comfortable in my pretty house, and Tiger informed me with
great satisfaction that no one had been in his tent during our absence,
in accordance with a promise I gave him when we set out. For some days
we hardly left the fort, but enjoyed a rest. Tiger tanned the skins we
had brought home. I stuffed my condor, at which my young friend was
greatly amazed, and firmly declared that I restored the bird to life.
After this we rolled cigars, made new clothes, repaired our saddles and
bridles, and employed ourselves with the thousand domestic jobs which
gather even during a short absence. But after we had attended to the
chief matters, several wants became visible which we could only satisfy
on the prairie. Thus, among others, our substitute for sugar, honey, was
expended, and at the supper table we resolved on going out on this hunt
the next morning, if it was fine.

The morning dawned bright and calm, and both conditions are required for
a winter bee hunt, as at this season the bees only work in warm weather,
and their course cannot be watched when the wind is blowing hard. We got
ready immediately after breakfast, Tiger and I, armed as usual, but
Antonio and one of my colonists provided with heavy sharp axes and
buckets, while Jack carried two empty casks, a copper kettle, large
wooden spoons, and a tin funnel. Thus we trotted over the spangled
prairie across to Mustang Creek, crossed it and its thick wood by a
broad buffalo path, and then rode down the prairie to a fork formed by
the forest on an affluent of the Mustang, joining that on the latter

Here we halted, stuck a long pole, on which a small tin frying-pan was
fastened, into the ground, lit dry touchwood in it, and laid on the top
a piece of comb in which some honey remained. Not far from this we put
up another pole with a paper smeared with honey upon it. The smoke of
the boiling wax and honey serves the bees cruising over the prairie as a
guide to the paper, and soon the busy gatherers arrive from all the
bee-trees in the neighbourhood, load themselves as heavily as they can,
and then go straight home in a direct line. The hunter now observes in
which direction the greatest number of the insects swarm, because this
leads him to expect a richer tree as well as a shorter distance to go.
When he has decided on his route, he follows the swarm with his bait as
far as he can see it, then puts up the pole again and waits till they
settle, or the honey ones move and then fly home. Thus he follows the
industrious insects, till by their restless activity they show him the
spot where their treasures, collected during many years, are concealed,
and he then disturbs the colony with cruel hand, robs it of its
laboriously gathered stores, kills thousands of the colonists, and
drives the rest away homeless.

We, for our part, behaved no better, except that we had brought sacks in
which to carry the shelterless bees home, and give them an abode. A very
large swarm went toward the Leone and another to the affluent on the
left. We decided for the former, however, and in less than half an hour
found ourselves in front of a gigantic maple that grew on the skirt of
the forest, in whose long trunk, between the lowest branches, the
orifice of the tree was completely covered with the insects. We hobbled
our horses some distance from the tree, lit a fire near it, and two of
us set to work with the axes to cut it down. Tiger and I had the first
turn, and when we were tired the two others took our place, till we thus
working in turn made the proud tree fall with its whole weight on the
grass, where its splinters flew a long way around.

Each of us seized a firebrand and ran with buckets, spoons, and knives
to the cracked part of the trunk, where the honey was exposed while the
bees circled high above us in the air in a dense swarm. The firebrands
were laid on the ground near the honey, old damp wood was laid on them
to increase the smoke, and we hurriedly cut out the comb, and poured the
liquid honey into a bucket which we emptied into the kettle which was
slightly warmed by the fire. Honey runs from the cells with a gentle

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 15 of 35)