Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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told by him that no more land was to be had here; hence he resolved to
go farther north and look for a farm. The restless, shy look of the man
displeased me, and hence I did not invite him to rest with me and lay in
fresh provisions, but wished him luck in his undertaking and continued
my journey. I heard afterwards that he was living twenty miles to the
north of me; that the woman he had with him was the wife of a prosperous
planter in Kentucky, whom he had murdered: they fled together and
reached the desert, where human justice could not follow them. Some
years later I saw him again near his small log hut, wretched and wasted,
and shortly after he died of an arrow wound in the chest, which an
Indian dealt him. Such persons unfortunately are always among the first
pioneers of civilization, and disturb the social relations of the

Although our changed mode of life offered many pleasant and interesting
hours, still I was unable to drive from my heart the yearning for the
old utter independence, which had almost grown a second nature.
Frequently, when I rode at an early hour through the dark woods, the
sounds of my neighbour's axe aroused me from my dreams; or, when I rode
over the wide prairies, where I was accustomed to see the endless
expanse covered with grazing herds of buffalo, I now only noticed here
and there small bands of these animals passing hurriedly and timidly as
if frightened at having strayed among the settlements. The antelope,
that ornament of the prairies, could only be seen on the most remote
heights; the deer had remained more constant to their grazing-grounds,
but they too had grown more restless and attentive to the heightened

The other side of the Rio Grande was less changed, and game will be
protected there for many years to come, by the insurmountable mountains
that surround the valleys; but it required a much greater outlay of time
to seek the game there which formerly animated the immediate vicinity of
my residence. Tiger was beginning to grow impatient, and often said to
me that the game in our vicinity had now got too many eyes and feet, and
he would go northwards to the great mountains before spring arrived. For
a long time past I had been desirous of passing through the Rocky
Mountains, but never was the yearning greater to throw myself once more
into the arms of virgin nature than at this moment, when civilization
drew me back by force into its sphere. In spite of the repeated
representations which reason and my material interests urged against
such an undertaking, I resolved to start in February for these unknown
countries. One of my men was an excellent farmer, and in every way
deserving of my entire confidence, so that I could with safety place
the management of my settlement in his hands; while one of the other
two, of the name of Königstein, insisted on accompanying me, to which I
readily assented, as he had given me a thousand proofs of his fidelity
and devotedness. With these qualities, so valuable for me, he united a
determination and courage which nothing could daunt, and I have often
seen him in the most desperate circumstances laughingly defy the danger.
John Lasar was enthusiastic when I told him of my intention; he
earnestly desired to accompany me, and begged me to procure his father's
consent. The enterprise appeared to the old gentleman rather daring, and
he made all possible objections, but he at last yielded to our
entreaties, and equipped his son with a brace of splendid revolvers,
while I supplied him with one of my double-barrelled guns. Königstein
was armed with a double rifle, but also carried in a leathern sheath
fastened to his saddle a four-barrelled gun, two pistols in his belt,
and two in his holsters.

While we were engaged in making our preparations for the great journey,
several of Lasar's friends arrived from Alabama, among them being two
young men, a Mr. MacDonald and a Mr. Clifton, who came to me with John,
and earnestly asked my leave to form the party. I was glad to have them,
as their exterior was very pleasing, and our number was still small for
a journey in which thousands of dangers and fatigues awaited us. We
worked hard at getting ready, in which John's elder sister materially
assisted us. New suits of deer-hide were made, two small tents prepared,
and a large sheet varnished to make it water-tight and thus protect our
baggage from the rain. Then biscuits were baked, coffee, salt, pepper
and sugar stamped into bladders, a small cask filled with cognac,
cartridges made, and our saddlery inspected; in short, there were a
thousand matters to attend to, and thus the last days of January found
us with all hands full of work for our expedition, while we had
appointed February 1 for the start.

On the last day of January there was a grand review in front of the
fort, where we appeared fully equipped for a start in order to inspect
everything and discover anything that might still be wanting. An
invention of mine caused us great amusement. It was a transportable boat
to convey our traps across large rivers, consisting of a large round
very firmly sewn piece of linen, resembling an open umbrella put on its
point. The edge was covered by a very broad leather, in which was a
drawing cord. The linen was thickly covered with linseed varnish and
hence quite waterproof. When in use, eight stout sticks were laid
crossways, with the ends thrust into the edge of the linen, so that they
expanded it and drew the running cord tight. We expanded it, carried it
to the Leone, placed Antonio in it, and Tiger swam through the river on
his piebald and dragged the vessel after him to the other bank and back
again, while Antonio was not touched by a single drop of wet. After the
sticks had been taken out the linen was rolled up, and formed a small
bale, which was packed with other articles on the mule. I had seen
something similar among the Indians, who take for this purpose a fresh
buffalo hide and stretch out in a similar way with staves. Our equipment
was hence as perfect as it could be for a journey on which the traps can
only be carried on mules, and the second of February was appointed for
the start, while we would take leave of the Lasars on the first.

Pleased and full of enthusiasm about our enterprise we spent the day,
and on saying good-bye in the evening Lasar promised to accompany us
with his family and spend the first night of our camp life with us. The
next morning found us busied at an early hour in arranging our baggage
and dividing it among our cattle. Czar displayed his full beauty and
strength, and expressed by loud neighing his delight at starting this
time with so large a party. Königstein saddled the cream-colour for
himself, who also looked the picture of strength, and proudly raised his
long black tail over his croup. Tiger's piebald impatiently stamped with
his forefeet, and responded with a neigh to every mark of joy from Czar
and the cream-colour. Antonio saddled for himself the iron-grey mare,
and decorated its bridle and saddle with gay ribbons and strips of
leather. Honest Jack was loaded with provisions and other effects, which
were placed in two baskets, while our tent was laid atop, and the whole
covered with the waterproof linen. Trusty was still chained up and
attentively watched our movements, but knew already that he was going to
accompany me, as I frequently spoke to him and had put him on his new
broad collar.

We had almost completed our preparations when we saw a long train of
riders coming from Mustang River over the prairie, led by a gentleman on
a powerful dapple-grey, and a lady on a black horse. They were our
friends from the Mustang; at their head rode old Mr. Lasar on a fine
Virginian thoroughbred, and by his side pranced a coal-black stallion,
who did honour to his pure Andulasian descent from his muzzle to the tip
of his flying tail, and proud of the load he carried on his back, bowed
his strength before the delicate hand, which guided him by a dazzlingly
white bridle. Julia, Lasar's eldest daughter, was the mistress of this
splendid animal. Her tall graceful form, her brilliant black locks
falling under her tall hat, her dark eyes overshadowed by long lashes,
and the long white feather which waved in her hat, reminded me of her
noble ancestry in the days of Ferdinand and Isabella. Behind them rode
John Lasar by his mother's side on a chestnut mare of pure Arab blood,
then came the youngest daughter and the youngest son, MacDonnell and
Clifton, several neighbours from the Mustang, and lastly loaded
pack-horses with a number of mules. The caravan came over the last
height to the Fort, and was joyfully welcomed by us. A cup carved out of
a buffalo horn, filled with Sauterne, was handed to the guests on
horseback, and then also emptied by us to the toast of a pleasant
journey and fortunate return, and we at once took leave of home for an
indefinite period.

The end of our journey, as we had temporarily arranged, was the highest
yet known point on the Rocky Mountains, the Bighorn, which is situated
in the 42° of latitude, and to which we had a distance of about eight
hundred miles to ride. Our road ran eastward from the mountains and did
not ascend the Rio Grande, along whose bank is the road through the
several old Spanish forts, which begins at El Paso del Norté and passes
through Santa Fé to Taos. If it is borne in mind that the entire
distance had hardly ever been trodden by white men, and that
consequently no settlement existed there; that no other roads led
through the Rocky Mountains and almost impenetrable forests except
buffalo paths; that our journey would be made through the
hunting-grounds of the most savage and hostile cannibal hordes - it will
be felt that the moment of parting was an earnest one. The charm,
however, which dangers, privations, and difficulties possess for
man - the thought that entirely new scenes of nature, a whole new world
was about to be presented to us, rendered the leave-taking light. And so
we turned our horses away from home toward these unknown regions.

Tiger led the file, and at once commenced his duties as guide. I
followed by the side of Julia Lasar, whose proud steed appeared to be
jealous of Czar, then came the other friends in pairs, till our
pack-horses completed the train. Trusty bounded before us and expressed
by barking his delight at the large party, which was a novelty to him. A
little way below the Fort we crossed the river, where each watered his
horse, and then proceeded towards the wood on the opposite side along a
narrow buffalo path. I cut away the creepers and vines hanging over the
path, in which Tiger helped me, for this was the first time it had been
ridden by white ladies. On reaching the prairie on the other side of the
wood, where the grass was still very short and offered no impediment to
our horses, we rode in frequently varying groups, galloped from one to
the other, tried the speed of our horses, and shortened the length of
the road by jokes and laughter.

We had chosen Turkey Creek as our halting-place, and rode at a quick
pace in order to reach our camping-ground by daylight. At noon we made a
short halt at an affluent of the Leone, to give our ladies time to dine,
and at the same time allow our horses to graze. During this short delay
the buffalo-horn, filled with wine, was passed round, and was
accompanied by singing and merriment. No one appeared to reflect that
the next morning would bring a parting more or less hard for us all, but
all yielded to their gay humour without a check. At about one o'clock we
held the ladies' stirrups - helped them on their horses again, and ere
long the whole party were moving northward. The short rest had done the
cattle good, and they hastened in a quick amble across the prairie,
which was already beginning to be adorned with its spring beauty. The
breeze was fresh, the sky clear and diaphanous, and everything around
seemed to be powerfully cheered by the splendid weather. Snorting and
neighing, our horses pranced after Tiger's flying piebald, and right and
left amazed deer, and at a greater distance rapid antelopes leaped up.

While riding through a narrow coppice, we suddenly saw before us, at no
great distance, a herd of grazing buffaloes, who for a moment gazed at
us in astonishment, and did not appear to have formed a decision as to
whether they should bolt or stand an attack. A loud hunting shout ran
along our ranks, and I saw on all sides pistols and revolvers being torn
from the belts. In vain did I strive to master the enthusiasm of my
comrades, and hold them back by the observation that we were heavily
loaded, were not hunting, but commencing a long journey, in which we
must spare the strength of our horses. Away the cavalry flew after the
piebald. I could hardly hold back my impetuous steed by the side of Miss
Julia's black, whom the very sharp bit alone prevented from bolting,
till the lady uttered a wish to follow the chase, as these were the
first buffaloes she had seen. Her younger sister joined her, and thus
only Lasar and his wife, the negroes and pack animals, remained behind.

On flew the noble black stallion, guided by the steady hand of his young
mistress, from whose hat the white feather floated, while the ends of
the long red scarf tied round her riding habit fluttered behind her. I
held Czar in a little, so as not to excite the black horse too much,
while Julia's sister's pony followed us at some distance, and behind it
honest heavily-loaded Jack came panting, whom the negroes had been
unable to keep in the ranks of the pack cattle. We were soon close to
the flying herd, whose thundering hoofs drowned the sound of my
comrades' pistols. We dashed past an enormous buffalo, which had sunk
seriously wounded with its hind quarters on the ground, and standing on
its huge fore-legs was holding its broad shaggy head towards us.
Immediately after we saw another quit the ranks in front of us, and dash
after John, who was flying before it on his fast mare. I shouted to
Julia to check her horse, in which she succeeded after some efforts, and
we now rode up to the wounded buffalo, which, with head down, was
preparing for action. We stopped about fifty yards from it, when John,
who saw that I had raised my rifle, shouted to me not to fire, as he
wished to kill the animal himself. He fired, and the buffalo rolled over
in a crashing fall. Our comrades also collected in the distance round
one of the animals, which, being wounded, stood at bay, and was soon
killed. Then they rode back with shouts of triumph, and stopped with us
till Mr. and Mrs. Lasar came up. The ladies were delighted with the
savage, though splendid scene, and confessed that hunting possessed an
attraction which might easily render a man passionately fond of it. We
left the negroes behind with a few pack animals, to take the hides and
best meat from the killed buffaloes, then ordered them to follow our
trail, and rode on to the camping-ground on Turkey Creek, which we
reached at sunset.

Lasar's spacious marquee was quickly put up, and the long pennants
hoisted over it: in front of this tent a large fire was lit, and buffalo
hides spread round it, on which the ladies reclined. We attended to the
horses, carried our baggage to other fires at which we intended to spend
the night, and then gradually collected in front of Lasar's tent, where
the coffee was already boiling and various kettles for supper were
standing in the ashes. The negroes too soon rode up with heavily-loaded
cattle, and each of us put some of the meat on a spit in front of the
fire, or laid a marrow-bone to roast. The night was magnificent, not a
breath of air stirred the dark leaves of the primæval evergreen live
oaks, which spread out their long horizontal branches over our heads.
Between them the moon, in its first quarter, spread its silvery light
over us, and the sky was covered with twinkling stars. In the dark
distance we could hear the notes of nocturnal birds of passage, which
proved to us, by their northward flight, that the winter there could no
longer be very severe; till these notes were lost in the rustling of the
adjacent stream, which filled up every pause in our animated

We sat for a long time round the brightly-burning fire, till the ladies
retired inside the tent, and we proceeded to our several fires and
wrapped ourselves in our buffalo robes. Trusty alone still sat with his
nose in the air when my eyes closed, and it was his voice woke me, when
one of Lasar's negroes rose. I also leaped up, led Czar - though he felt
no particular inclination to rise - into the grass; took my rifle, and
went to the river, where I could hear the gobbling of the turkeys. It
was still too dark to shoot with certainty, when I got under the lofty
pecan-nut trees which stood on its banks. On their highest branches the
birds were sitting and saluting the dawn. I listened to them for a long
time ere I raised my rifle, and sent a bullet through one of them. It
fell from branch to branch, and startled the others, which flew off
noisily, while the hundreds standing on the trees around, timidly thrust
out their long necks, but would not leave their night quarters.

The cock had fallen into the river, and was flapping its wings
violently in the quiet waters, so I cut a stick with a hook in order
to pull it in. I had scarce secured it, ere a platoon fire burst forth
all round me from my comrades' rifles, whom my shot had aroused from
sleep, and now ran up to take part in the morning's sport. They
produced a terrible slaughter among the poor foolish birds, and each of
them carried at least two to camp. I went down the river a little way,
however, to have a bathe. When I returned all were busy and seeking by
occupation to avoid beginning a conversation which must necessarily
hinge on the approaching leave-taking. The ladies helped in getting
breakfast ready, the young men packed up their traps, the negroes
struck the tent and rolled it up, and old Mr. Lasar went from one to
the other offering his advice. At length nothing more was left but to
eat breakfast, saddle the horses, and say good-bye. We silently
collected round the large fire; coffee was swallowed, and with it many
a tear, which involuntarily ran from the eyes. No one ate properly.
Even Tiger thoughtfully scraped a bone with his knife, solely by this
employment to make the heavy time pass more quickly. At last feelings
could no longer be overpowered - hearts found a vent in tears, words,
and sobs; and without further delay we exchanged assurances and signs
of affection and friendship. When all were mounted, we turned our
horses toward the river, waving a farewell to our friends as long as we
could see them.

We soon passed through the wood on to the prairie, which ran along its
north side, and halted to have a last inspection of our small corps. I,
who had been elected captain, now assumed my duties, as from this moment
our journey really began. I examined how the goods were divided among
the mules, of which animals two others accompanied us besides Jack, Sam
and Lizzy, whom John Lasar had supplied; for it is important on such a
journey to take the greatest care that the animals are not galled by the
saddles or baggage. The best protection against this is a thick blanket
of woven horsehair, which is laid on the animal's back under the saddle;
the hair, through its elasticity, always offers a passage for the air,
and hence avoids the great amount of heat produced by woollen cloths.

When I had convinced myself that everything was in order, I called my
party's attention to the fact that strict obedience to my regulations
was indispensably necessary for our common safety. Tiger was entrusted
with the guidance, and always rode about a hundred yards ahead, while
one of us formed the rear-guard by the mules. I had with Tiger a long
consultation as to the route we should follow, and while I proposed to
keep more to the north-west, he insisted on a due north direction. I was
of opinion that the lowest passage to the north would be found at the
spot where the Rio Grande mountains sloped down to the east and joined
the San Saba mountains; while, on the other hand, Tiger asserted that
the mountain chain could be passed most easily due north, near the
sources of the Rio Colorado. It is remarkable with what certainty the
Indians know the nature and course of mountains and rivers, as well as
the climatic circumstances of the country, and judge distances. The
sense of locality is marvellously developed among the savages. Without
being able to explain why it is so, the savage will indicate in an
instant - without any examination of trees, rocks, &c. - the exact
direction of the point he wishes to reach. Animals, and especially
horses and mules, obey the same instinct. Frequently, when I have been
hunting buffaloes in all directions over the prairie, and evening warned
me about returning home, I have been in doubt as to the direction in
which the Fort lay. I certainly knew that, for instance, I was on the
north side of the Leone, and hence must ride southwards; but I could not
determine whether I ought to proceed farther east or west, and an
incorrect course might easily bring me to the river miles above or below
the Fort. The horizon was bounded by the sky, as if I were at sea, and
not a hill or forest reminded me of any familiar point. In such cases I
laid the bridle on my horse's neck, let him graze for awhile, and then
told him to go on, though without touching the bridle. The horse,
missing the usual guidance, looked around him for a few minutes with
upraised head, and then went in a straight line homewards. Remembering
this, I followed Tiger's advice and went due north.

The weather was glorious, and the sun poured down its cheering beams
upon us from a clear sky. With jokes and anecdotes, our hearts filled
with expectation of the marvels that lay before us, we trotted after the
quick-footed piebald, who appeared as pleased as his master to leave the
civilization of the pale faces behind him. It is true that the grassy
plains over which we rode were not spangled with flower-beds of every
hue as in spring or autumn; but for all that the illimitable
bright-green expanse did our sight good, while we were greeted by a few
budding flowers. Even though the coppices, rising every now and then
from the prairie, were not clothed in the luxuriant dark foliage of
other seasons, still they did not display that picture of utter death,
which the traveller finds during winter in the forests of northern
climes. The soil of the forests is at this season covered with wild
oats, growing to a height of four feet. The scrub consists principally
of evergreen bushes; above it rise many varieties of trees of moderate
height, which never entirely lose their glistening leaves, and these
again are crowned by the different families of the magnolia, which do
not lose their ornament either. Evergreen creepers climb to the highest
branches, and hang down from the airy height in long streamers, which
serve as a plaything to the slightest breath of air.

Four fine days we passed over these extensive plains, from whose lap
higher and steeper hills gradually rise, until the latter form into a
chain and impart to the landscape the character of mountainous scenery.
We were among the spurs of the San Saba mountains, which do not run so
far south here as they do farther west, and everywhere found water for
ourselves and provender for our cattle. But now the stone-covered hills
gradually became higher and the valleys narrower; we frequently crossed
large ranges of table-land, on which the mosquito grass grows scantily;
and as this is the only sort that remains green in winter, we could not
let any opportunity slip to feed our cattle when we came across good
pasturage. We need not be so anxious about water, as nearly all the
valleys between these mountains are supplied with it in winter.





We had been going for several days through the mountains with
considerable difficulty, when one afternoon we reached a splendid
pasturage, where we resolved to let our cattle rest. It was at the same
time warm. We had doffed our leathern jackets and felt very comfortable
when we found thick cedar wood on the western side of this meadow and
were able to rest in its shade. We had scarce lit our fire to prepare
dinner, when Tiger sprang up, pointed to the north, where several small
clouds were rising, and then laid his ear on the ground. "A hurricane (a

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 18 of 35)