Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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heat, and when it is liquid enough, the latter are pressed between two
boards, till all the honey runs out, after which it is strained through
a coarse sieve into the cask.

By the time we had secured our booty it was noon, and we recovered from
our fatigue over a cup of coffee and maize cake, then we went back to
the spot we had started from and followed the swarm to the small
affluent, where we found the bees in another old plane close to the
prairie. We also robbed this tree; it was even richer than the first,
and contained layers of honey probably fifteen years old, the oldest of
which were nearly black. When we had finished this job our two casks
were full, and the bucket loaded with quite fresh comb.

Evening had arrived, and the bees had collected in a dense mass on a
branch of the felled tree. We held an open sack under them, shook them
in, and then rode back to the first tree, whose colony we also took. We
returned home with our sweet stores, emptied our sacks into two hollow
trees, and placed them on a scaffolding near the fort. The honey was
conveyed to the storeroom, and the wax melted and laid by when cold in
plates. The Indians keep their honey and bear lard in fresh deer hides,
which they slit as little as possible in skinning; they cut off the neck
and legs, sew the openings up very tightly with sinews, fill the skin,
and close the last opening in the same way, into which they thrust a
reed and squeeze the honey as they want it through the latter. The honey
keeps in this way very well, and is easier to carry on horseback than in
hand vessels. We employed the honey in every way sugar is used in the
civilized world. We sweetened our coffee and tea with, it, employed it
in cooking various dishes, in preserving fruit, such as grapes, plums,
mulberries, &c. In a word, it fully took the place of that expensive and
hardly procurable product of civilization, and could always be obtained
in such quantities that we never ran short of it. When hunting in the
neighbourhood we very often found bee trees, which we marked in order to
plunder them as we wanted.

Our table was now enriched by a fresh delicacy which we enjoyed during
the winter months: it consisted of wild ducks and geese. These birds
visited our river at this season in great numbers, and spread in flocks
over the water. The very lofty banks, the numerous sharp turns, and the
insignificant breadth of the stream rendered it extraordinarily easy to
kill heaps of these birds in a short time. I usually took with me two
guns and a man with a pack horse, who followed at some distance and
placed the dead birds on the saddle. I followed the steep river bank,
every now and then creeping down to the incline, and could then see from
one bend to the other where the birds were resting on the water. I
generally contrived to creep through the wood exactly over this spot,
without the birds perceiving me. I then whistled, while holding the
muzzle of my very large gun over the bank, and the birds in their fright
drew closer together. Then I sent a charge of shot among them, and fired
the other right among the rising flock. Then I took the other gun and
sent the contents of both barrels after the flying ducks or geese. I
frequently shot in this way twenty in one flock. The remainder generally
joined the next flock farther down the stream. Trusty and some spaniels
accompanied me on this chase and fetched the shot birds.

Most of the ducks and geese that visited us were very like the European,
though rather larger; both are very fat and well tasted, which is
probably caused by the splendid acorns they find among us. We generally
carried a whole load home, from which we merely cut the breasts, legs,
and livers, and boiled them into a jelly.

One afternoon, when Tiger had ridden off at an early hour in pursuit of
game, I took my gun to go after geese down the river, which I heard
croaking from the fort: I went out without calling a dog, and ran down
to the water; I passed the garden and the ford, where the river winds to
the north in the wood, and went into the bushes in order to approach the
geese, which I had seen about a hundred yards farther on. All at once I
heard something like the footfall of a horse echo through the forest on
the opposite side. I listened, and convinced myself that I was not
mistaken. Tiger had gone southward in the morning to Mustang Creek, and
I could not imagine how he was now returning from the north. I lay down
among the bushes, so as to keep an eye on the ford: the noise drew
nearer, till a mounted Indian appeared on a path on the opposite side,
who stopped there and looked cautiously around.

After a while the Redskin crossed the ford, ascended the opposite bank,
and taking his long rifle in his right hand, he led his horse into a
thick bush about forty paces ahead of me. There he fastened it up, laid
his rifle across his left arm, and shook fresh powder into the pan from
his horn. What could the Indian intend, and to what tribe did he belong?
These questions occurred to me simultaneously with the suspicion that he
might probably have hostile designs. My gun was loaded with not very
heavy shot, but it carried as far as the Indian's rifle, though it did
not kill so certainly. I had, however, some slugs in my hunting pouch,
and while he was repriming, I, as I lay flat on the ground, pulled out
two of the largest bullets that fitted my gun. I thrust them both into
the barrels, and then slowly drew the ramrod, pressed two paper wads on
the bullets, and returned the ramrod to its place.

During this the Indian had returned his powder-horn to its place, taken
his tomahawk from the saddle and thrust it through his belt, woven
several large leafy branches of evergreen myrtle and rhododendron under
his saddle, so that they concealed the colour of his light horse, and
then, leaving the path, went in a stooping posture through the wood
toward my garden. I cautiously followed him at a distance of about one
hundred yards, bending down close to the ground, continually keeping
behind the bushes and disappearing in the grass when he stopped or made
a movement as if to look round. He seemed, however, only to keep his eye
on the garden, and bent lower the nearer he got to it. Suddenly he fell
into the tall grass between the evergreen bushes, and disappeared from
my sight. Had he heard me or seen me fall down? The point now was which
of us should see the other first. The grass in which I lay was not very
high, but green bushes hung down to the ground in front of me, too close
to be seen through by my foe, but still leaving me sufficient gaps
through which to peep, while the bushes round him were scrubby and the
grass alone concealed him. If he had seen me he would certainly not
remain lying, as he would have the worst of it.

I had raised myself sufficiently to survey his place, and after a while
noticed the grass waving a little to the left of the spot where I had
last seen him. Everything became still and motionless again, and we lay
thus for nearly a quarter of an hour, when I saw the Indian raise his
head out of the grass and look about him; he had not noticed me yet, or
else he would not have exposed himself so recklessly to my fire. He rose
slowly and glided towards the garden; he got close to the fence, which
was made of ten logs placed in a zigzag over each other, and on the
outerside were heaped up the branches of the trees from which the wood
for the palisades had been cut. I had put this up to prevent the
buffaloes and deer from forcing their way into the garden.

The Indian now stepped close to the wall of dry branches, while I lay in
the bushes about a hundred yards behind him. He stopped, looked into the
garden for a long time, and then round the wood; he then stooped and
crept under the brushwood up to the fence, seated himself crosslegged
close to the latter, and laid his rifle across one of the logs. While he
was working his way through the branches and brushwood, I crept on
all-fours nearer to him and remained behind an oak about forty yards
from him. Just as I reached the tree, I broke a thin dry branch with my
hand, and the very slight sound scarce reached the savage's ear, ere he
started round and gazed intently in my direction. I did not stir, but
held my gun firmly, with the determination that he should not leave the
spot alive.

He looked towards me for nearly a quarter of an hour, still trusting to
the sharpness of his ears, when suddenly one of my men, who was coming
down from the fort with two buckets to fill at the spring, could be
heard whistling on the other side of the garden. The Indian started
round, thrust his rifle through the fence, pointed at the spring, and
knelt down behind its long barrel. At the same instant I sprang out from
behind the oak, raised my gun, and sent the charge of the right-hand
barrel between the savage's shoulders; he leapt up, and while doing so,
I gave him the second charge, after which he fell backwards into the
brushwood. I shouted to my man who, in his alarm, was running back to
the fort, and rushed to the Indian, who was writhing in his blood and
striking around with hands and feet. My comrade hurried through the
garden, and clambering over the fence, gazed down at the shot man in
horror. I explained to him in a few words how accident had preserved his
life, as the savage had been lying in wait for him and had his rifle
pointed at him, and I then buried my knife in the heart of the quivering
savage. We took his rifle and medicine bag, fetched his horse after I
had reloaded, and took it up to the fort, where we fastened it inside
the enclosure.

I impatiently waited for Tiger to obtain an explanation from him, as I
feared lest the shot man might be a Delaware. The evening came and Tiger
was not back yet. A thousand suppositions, a thousand suspicions
involuntarily crossed my mind. Could Tiger be a traitor? could the
Delawares have broken their long-tried friendship with the white men?
We drove our cattle in earlier than usual, rode them down to water,
laid our weapons ready to hand, and prepared to oppose any possible
attack. I went to the eastern turret and gazed over the wide prairie,
when I suddenly noticed far on the horizon a black point that seemed
strange to me. I looked through my glass, and to my great delight
recognised the large white spots of Tiger's piebald.

I now felt lighter at heart, ran down and waited for him at the gate. At
length he rode up to me from the last hollow, loaded with deer and bear
meat, and the hide of a small bear, leapt from his horse and heartily
shook my hand. I told him what had happened, and he listened most
attentively. His eyebrows were contracted and his usually pleasant eyes
flashed savagely. He said nothing but "kitchi kattuh," made me a sign to
enter the fort, and when we reached the dining-room where the dead man's
hunting-bag lay, he cried, "Kitchi," placed two fingers of his right
hand before his mouth, so that they seemed to be emerging from it, and
repeated "Kitchi," _i.e._ two tongues. He then led me out of the fort,
when he stopped, and said to me that the false kitchi had laid watch for
him in the garden and intended to take his life, so that the Delawares
might fancy we had killed him and take their revenge on us. It had
indeed gradually grown a custom in the fort that Tiger, when he was at
home, fetched fresh water from the spring before supper, and his
supposition appeared to be well founded; still the unexpected appearance
of one of my men seemed to have turned the kitchi from his original
purpose, because he was on the point of sending the bullet intended for
Tiger through the chest of the latter.

We now helped to hang up the meat brought in by Tiger, and sat down to
supper, when the occurrence naturally became the sole subject of
conversation, and was regarded from every side. We agreed to bury the
Indian, and I went, accompanied by Antonio and Tiger, with a spade and a
cedar-wood torch, through the garden to the dead man. Tiger drew him out
of the brushwood, took off his beads, armlets, and leathern breech
clout, and then dragged him with Antonio's help nearer the river, where
we dug a deep hole and buried the corpse.

We soon forgot this incident, and went on with our winter avocations as
before. We slightly enlarged our field, which was a fatiguing job, as it
lay in the wood, and the bushes grew very close together there. These
and the smaller trees were cut down and piled up round the larger ones,
after the latter had been out into the wood. After they had dried for a
week, they were kindled, which dried the bark of the large trunks, and
thus killed the tree. We then set to work with a heavy plough to turn up
the ground: this operation is always performed twice or thrice through
the winter, before the seed is put in the ground in spring. It may be
asked why we did not lay out our field in the prairie, as we should thus
have saved this labour? The reason is that the prairie soil is
remarkably difficult to plough, because it consists of a black hard
earth, in which the delicate young plants have unusually large roots, as
hard as glass. I afterwards cultivated land of this sort, and at the
first breaking up had six or eight draught cattle fastened to the
plough. Then again, this land, owing to its hardness, produces scarce no
crop in the first year, in the second a very poor one, in third a
moderate one, and not till the fourth a full crop. It is always much
more difficult to cultivate than the forest land, as the heavy rains in
the winter season always more or less restore its firmness, while the
forest soil bears prolifically in the first year.

In the garden we had plenty of work too; the potatoes were laid in beds,
in order to grow the tap roots, which are cut off in spring and planted
out in the field. Then the tobacco beds were put in order, from which
the young plants were transplanted in February. The same plant produces
among us three or even four crops, as we always leave a young shoot to
grow, when the leaves are ripe enough to cut. Then there were vegetables
to sow, vines to prune, fruit-trees to graft; in short, we had our hands
full, and I only went with Tiger away from the fort to hunt bears,
whose fat we were obliged to collect at this time, as it is not nearly
so abundant at other seasons.

One morning I resolved to go to Mustang Creek, and choose a suitable
spot where I could build a carriage bridge across it, as I frequently
had meat to fetch from the prairies on the other side, and I also
intended to make, by degrees, a passable road to the settlements. I rode
away at an early hour, accompanied by Trusty, but at some distance from
home I noticed that Milo, an old bear-finder, was running after me,
which was a bore, as the good old dog, if he by chance hit on a fresh
trail, would be sure to follow it, and I had not intended to hunt bears
on this day. The dog was much too slow and deaf, and I only gave him
food for the many faithful services he had rendered me: I did not care
to ride back, and hence called him closer up to my horse, and continued
my journey.

I soon reached the river and was busy examining the banks, when suddenly
old Milo gave tongue, and had run too far into the bushes for me to
check him. I was sorry, for if the old fellow had a row with a bear by
himself, it would be all over with him. I heard his bark going farther
and farther, and though I felt grieved, I was obliged to leave him to
his fate. After a while I fancied that I heard him continually barking
at the same spot. I listened, and it seemed more than probable that he
had attacked a bear. I must hurry to his assistance, so I rode as far as
I could into the bushes, tied up my horse, and forced my way through the

I soon leaped through the last bushes, and to my surprise saw Milo
sitting in front of an old cypress and barking up at it. I examined the
gigantic trunk, and clearly saw on its bark the traces of a bear which
had climbed up it. In the first fork the tree was hollow from top to
bottom, and I did not doubt for a moment but that Bruin was having his
winter sleep in it. To cut down the tree was a heavy task, as it was
above eight feet in diameter, and then, too, it stood among a number of
other giants, against which it might easily lean in falling, when we
should not be able to get at its occupant. I tapped round the tree to
see whether it was hollow far down, but I could not settle the point
satisfactorily, as I had no axe with which to hit hard enough.

I quickly formed my resolution, caught up Milo, carried him away from
the trail, and hastened to my horse, which speedily bore me home. Tiger
was at the river washing deer hides, when I arrived on the bank and
informed him of my discovery: he quickly packed up his skins, ran to his
tent, and hurried to the prairie to fetch the piebald. In less than half
an hour we were _en route_ for the bear, accompanied by Antonio and one
of the colonists armed with axes, while Jack followed us with a large
pack saddle, and Trusty leaped ahead of us. We soon reached the river,
led our horses some distance down it, and tied them up in the thicket;
then we went to the cypress in which our sleeper was. We examined it and
found it quite sound for over eight feet from the ground, but from that
point hollow, and more so on the western side.

We soon raised a framework of thin branches round the tree, on which one
of us was raised by turns, and cut an opening in the trunk at the spot
where the hollow began. While one was engaged in this way, the others
brought up dry wood, which we piled up against the opening like a
bonfire. We then lit it, and ere long the flames crept up the stem, and
the dried bark fell off with a cracking sound into the fire. We arranged
ourselves round the tree at some distance in such a way that we could
cover it pretty well from all sides, and expected every moment to see
the bear quit its winter quarters. We had been standing there, however,
for above an hour, and the gentleman did not make his appearance, though
the smoke was rising from the hollow. The bear probably lay below the
hole, and the smoke passed over it without annoying it.

All at once I saw sparks flying out of the tree, which proved that it
was beginning to catch fire inside. I shouted to the others to look out,
and just after I heard a crash, and with it appeared the black form of a
very old bear between the first branches. The fright and embarrassment
of my gentleman were extraordinary, when he looked down into the fire
under him, and moved backwards and forwards undecided what path to
choose. I had told my men not to fire so long as the bear was over the
fire, but to let it advance on the long branches far enough not to fall
into the flames, which would have deprived us of its splendid skin.

Master Bear had by this time selected a very stout branch and crept
cautiously along it, looking down first on this side and then on that at
the flames, and was on the point of making itself into a ball to have a
drop, when I fired at it, and in falling it clutched the branch with its
claws in order to drag itself up again. At the same moment, however,
four more bullets flew through it, and it came down with an enormous
blow. I ran up with a revolver, and shot it through the head, whereupon
it became quiet. It was one of the finest bears we had killed during
this year, and gave us a large quantity of fat and a splendid skin. We
broke it up, packed on Jack as much as he could carry, and distributed
the rest among our horses. We then went home heavily laden, and sat till
late in the kitchen, busied in melting down the grease, after enjoying
some roast bear ribs for supper.

At times there were slight domestic annoyances. A pig or a calf was torn
by the wolves, a few hen's nests plundered by the racoons, a dog killed
by the snakes, or a horse ran a thorn into its foot. However, up to the
present we had preserved our health, we knew naught of sorrow, and the
thousand passions which civilized life entails, and which become the
source of endless suffering, were entirely lulled to sleep among us. On
the other hand we were deprived of many enjoyments which social life
affords, but at the same time had countless pleasures, which must be
given up there. The hardest thing to me was that I could not obtain
books without great trouble and expense, while events in the civilized
world were more or less unknown to me. At times I received a packet of
old newspapers, whose fragments, however, only helped to render my
confusion worse confounded. To tell the truth, I was beginning to yearn
for a nearer connexion with the world and a little more society.

One morning the dogs barked in an unusual manner, and one of my men ran
up to me and told me that one of my buffalo calves, which I had captured
in the last summer, and of which I possessed eight, had leapt into the
river, because the dogs were tormenting it. I ran down to the river, and
after considerable exertions we succeeded in getting the animal out,
uninjured, but very fatigued. These calves were remarkably tame, more so
than those of our cows, and never went far from the fort. In spite of
their terrible appearance they were very comical; all had names to which
they answered, and caused us much fun. I intended to train them for
working, and to breed a mixed race with my cattle, which, however, only
offers an advantage in meat and size, as the buffaloes yield much less
and worse milk than our domestic kind. It is not possible to produce a
breed between our tame cow and the buffalo, as the cow cannot give birth
to the calf owing to the hump on the shoulders, and almost always is
killed by it; but the opposite breed flourishes and is capable of
further procreation. Buffalo oxen are excellent for work, as they grow
very tame and possess enormous strength; the only fault is that when
they are thirsty, no power on earth can restrain them from satisfying
their thirst. I knew a planter on the Rio Grande, who employed a couple
of these animals, that ran away once with a heavy cart to the river, and
dashed over its steep bank to satisfy their thirst, but he got them out
again all right.

Just as we were taking the saved buffalo up to the fort, the sentry came
to me and announced that five white men were riding down the river, upon
which I went to the turret and saw that the new arrivals were three
white men, a negro and a mulatto. About half an hour later the strangers
rode up to the fort and dismounted at the gate, while the coloured men
took their horses and unsaddled them. A fine looking man of nearly sixty
years of age advanced to me, shook my hand and introduced himself to me
as a Mr. Lasar, from Alabama, one of his young companions as his son
John, and the other as his cousin Henry, of the same name. The old
gentleman had something most elegant and attractive about his
appearance, which evidenced lengthened intercourse with the higher
social circles; over his high bronzed forehead shone his still thick
though silvery hair, while long black eyebrows overshadowed his light
blue eyes, and his fresh complexion seemed to protest against his white
hair. Though fully six feet high he carried himself with the strength of
a man of thirty, and his bright merry eyes proved that his mind was
still youthful. He was an old Spaniard, had settled when a young man in
Alabama, and though the blue eyes contradicted his origin, it was
manifested in all the rest of his countenance. His son John was shorter
and lighter built, with black curling hair and very dark, but pleasant
eyes, a nice looking youth of seventeen, and cousin Henry a young man of
twenty odd, of middle height and narrow between the shoulders, showed by
his auburn hair and grey eyes, that his blood was mixed.

I conducted the strangers to the parlour and set before them a
breakfast, among the dishes being one of duck's breast in jelly. The old
gentleman was greatly surprised, and said that he had not expected to
find anything at my house beyond very good game and roasted marrow
bones. When I treated them to French wine and cigars, and they surveyed
the ornaments of my room, they expressed the utmost surprise at the
amount of comfort they found, and John said that I had everything
precisely as his father intended to have it when he settled here. The
old gentleman now informed me of his intention to come into my
neighbourhood and requested my advice and aid. He had a cotton
plantation in Alabama, but the number of his negroes had increased so
considerably that he could not employ them all on his estate, and must

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 16 of 35)