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The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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fearful storm frequent in the Rocky Mountains) is coming up. We must
place our cattle in safety," he said, as he leapt up; and we all set to
work dragging our traps to the other side of the meadow, where a low
rock hung over and covered a considerable space.

After carrying across our traps, partly on our animals, partly in our
arms, we hastened to collect as large a supply of dry wood as we could,
in which an old trunk lying near the rock was of great service to us.
This was cut into several pieces, which were rolled under the stone
roof, and a fire was lit against one of them, while our horses were
quietly grazing. We had scarce completed these preparations when the sky
grew dark, and we heard a roaring and hissing, which quickly increased
with the growing obscurity. We brought our cattle under the rock and
fastened them to pickets we drove into the ground.

The cloud grew heavier and darker with each moment and rolled over the
mountain crests in a southerly direction. With the roar of the wind was
blended dull thunder, and an icy cold spread over the ground. These
were merely the announcers of the frightful hurricane, which now dashed
down from the Rocky Mountains and announced its approach with a crash
that shook the earth. The thunder was so deafening that we could not
hear each other speak, and standing silently by our trembling horses we
watched the storm drive the clouds of icy rain in almost horizontal
direction over our heads, and level the cedar-trees so that the roots
stood up instead of the crowns. The cold increased every moment, and ere
long everything was covered with a thick crust of ice, while the rain
was frozen and hurtled round us in heavy hail. The ground shook under
us, and the peals of thunder were repeated by a thousand echoes on the
sides of the mountain. Under these circumstances we could consider our
situation a fortunate one; for if we had been surprised by this storm,
we might easily have fallen victims to it, or at least we must have lost
our animals, which no human strength could have mastered in the icy
rain. Though pressed closely round the fire and wrapped in our buffalo
robes, we shivered from cold. The storm howled till late in the evening,
at which time, though dense rain fell, the wind had sunk, and by nine
o'clock the clouds broke too. A dead, frozen landscape surrounded us;
the moon's bright light shone down into our frozen gully as into a
palace of glass, and wherever we looked we saw transparent masses of
ice, while the reflection of our fire glittered in brilliant colours on
the crystals of ice near us. Not a breath of air stirred, and had it not
been for the numbing cold and the glistening ice around to prove the
reality of this fearful scene, we might easily have been tempted to
regard it as a dream.

Our cattle, too, felt the cold greatly and trembled all over. We covered
them with all the blankets we could spare, and I took special care of
Czar, whom I fastened up as near the fire as I could. We made a
tremendous blaze in order to render the cold to some extent endurable.
One of us was obliged in turn to watch at the fire during the night,
while the others lay round it and stretched out their feet to it.
Morning arrived, and with it we welcomed the sun which appeared over the
mountains in the blue sky. Everything glittered and shone around, as if
the world were covered with a sheet of glass and brilliants; the grass
plot was hidden by a layer of transparent pieces of ice, which
brilliantly reflected the sunbeams; every bush, every shrub glittered
with the hues of the rainbow, and the ice almost blinded our eyes. The
sunbeams gradually rendered the cold more endurable. We crept out from
under our rock and tried to warm ourselves by jumping. We were compelled
to leave our horses tied up, as the grass was covered with ice, even
where there was no drift. We could not go up to the spring which bubbled
up in a gorge below the destroyed cedar-wood, because the path leading
down to it was too smooth and slippery; hence we filled our pots with
hailstones and thus procured water for our breakfast. The ice
disappeared again as quickly as it had fallen on the unusual ground; it
was only where the hail had drifted in large layers that the masses of
ice lay for a longer period.

We resolved to remain here till the next day, because both our horses
and ourselves required rest. My comrades wished to obtain permission to
go out hunting, as Tiger had already done so without asking my leave,
for he paid little heed to our laws. John Lasar and Mac, as we called
MacDonnell for the sake of shortness, went off in different directions.
The former followed the spring which joined a stream about a mile from
us, whose banks were covered with a dense undergrowth, while Mac went
north into the hills. The rest of us remained in camp. Shortly before
sunset Mac returned, told us he had shot a large deer and two turkeys
close at hand, put a pack-saddle on Sam, and went with Antonio to fetch
the game. He had scarce left ere Tiger came in and triumphantly informed
us that he had killed a big bear in its lair, and we must go and fetch
it in the morning, for it was dark when Mac and Antonio returned with
the game, and John had not turned up yet, which rendered us rather
anxious. Still I had heard him fire several times, so he could not be
far off; but I was afraid that an accident had happened to him, as it
was now getting on for nine o'clock. We repeatedly fired our guns, and
though it was so late, Tiger went down the stream and raised his hunting
yell, but received no reply. At night it was impossible to follow his
trail, so we lay down to sleep; but at daybreak we swallowed our
breakfast and prepared to go in search of John. I took Tiger and Mac
with me, and told Antonio to follow us on Jack. Trusty trotted ahead,
and we had not gone many hundred yards from camp when John came riding
down between the hills. We were very anxious to learn what had caused
him to spend the night away, and he now told us that he had got among a
herd of peccaris in the wood, and after shooting one of these animals,
was compelled to seek shelter in a tree which they invested. Although he
shot several of them, they did not retreat, and hence he was obliged to
wait for daybreak. Of course, he had passed the night in the cold,
shelterless, and was now very anxious for rest. He rolled himself in his
buffalo robe, while I, with Tiger, Antonio, and Mac, left camp in order
to fetch the bear. We took Jack and Lizzy with us to carry ropes and an
axe.

We ascended the hills on the east for about half an hour, till Tiger
went round a lofty rock and showed us a small round opening about six
feet above the spot where we were standing. Tiger crept into the hole
with a lasso to noose the bear's throat. He soon came out again, and we
all three tried, but in vain, to drag it out with the rope. We harnessed
Jack in front and Tiger crept in again to the bear to push: now matters
went better, and the black monster soon appeared in the opening, and
rolled down the little slope to us. Jack and Lizzy, startled at the
sudden apparition, leapt on one side, but were soon pacified, and we
began skinning and breaking up the animal. I was anxious to have a look
at the interior of its abode, and crawled into the entrance, which was
at first very narrow, but then widened, and at length became two walls
leaning together at the top, but about eight feet apart at the bottom.
The floor of the cave was covered with cedar branches, on which the bear
reposed. I lighted a wax-taper, and was thus enabled to examine the cave
narrowly. Tiger had crept up to the bear with a lighted wisp of grass in
his hand, shot it in the left eye, and killed it on the spot.

We packed the best of the meat and fat, as well as the skin, on our
mules, and returned to camp, where we arrived at about ten o'clock. We
packed up, and were under way again by two P.M., following Tiger, who
led us through the mountain passes, which here became much steeper. We
rode nearly the whole day up hill, and only at intervals came to small
table-lands, on which our cattle rested for a while. Trees grew rarer;
here and there a small clump of cedars rose from a gorge, or an isolated
group of prickly yuccas decorated the rocks, and at times a mimosa hung
over our path from a crevice. A plant, whose three feet long narrow
leaves grew out of the rock in tufts, and are used by the Indians for
plaiting baskets and mats, was very common here: in the spring it has a
whitish yellow flower, which grows on a stalk nearly six feet high, and
through its graceful form is a real ornament to the landscape.

After a tiring ride the sun began to decline and illumined the red bare
granite mountains that now rose before us, and which we could still have
reached; but, as we found grass and water here, and our cattle longed
for rest, we halted and made our camp. We were all hungry and tired, and
hence enjoyed the capital bear meat, and stretched ourselves before the
fire in our buffalo robes, where we awaited the morning without any
disturbance. Refreshed, and strengthened, we gazed down from our
elevation at the dense clouds which filled the valleys below us, while
the dark sky in the east over the mountains continually became redder,
until all at once the sun appeared like a burning ball over the distant
misty blue range of hills. It shot a few golden red beams over the
awakening earth, and quickly rising poured its fiery stream of light
over the world. From the sea of mist beneath us the sharp howling of the
jaguars reached us, and we saw a long train of rapid antelopes, probably
flying before these beasts of prey, darting over a hill that emerged
from it. We had soon finished breakfast, and the mist in the valleys had
not entirely dispersed, when we guided our horses up the hill of granite
before us. The air was so cool that we buttoned up our jackets, and
pulled over our laps the part of our saddle-cloths hanging over the
holsters.

Before us the mountains illumined by the morning sun rose ever higher
and higher, while the valleys between them were wooded and seemed to
contain a great many evergreen oaks. Our path ran at a rather great
height along precipices, and it was not till noon that we crossed a
ridge, where a valley ran across before us, and we were compelled to go
down to it. This valley, which was not more than three miles broad,
surprised us by its peculiarly beautiful appearance: it was literally
covered with rocks of the most gigantic size, which lay near and on each
other, as if rained down from the sky. In some places these were so
piled up that at a distance they resembled castles with their turrets
and keeps. Between these red masses of stone groups of live oaks
emerged, and here and there small ponds could be seen glistening.

We had for a long time been enjoying this strange scene, and were on the
point of going down to the rocky valley, when a loud yelling and barking
was heard on our right beneath us, which rang through the valley, as if
raised by a thousand animals. It rapidly drew nearer, and on looking in
the direction of the sound we saw, at the foot of the precipice on which
we were standing, a foam-covered old buffalo dash past with a pack of
about fifty white wolves at its heels. The old fellow seemed very tired,
and with flying mane raised its weary feet in its gallop, spurred on by
the yells of its bloodthirsty pursuers. It soon disappeared with its
tormentors round the rock, and far into the valley we heard the wild
chase; but certainly the hunted brute eventually fell a prey to the
furious band. It is only at this season that the white wolves collect in
large packs, when they make very daring attacks on the largest animals,
and even man, and many a western hunter has before this fallen their
victim.

We rode down into the valley, following a very deeply-trodden buffalo
path, which ran between the blocks of granite, some of which were as
tall as a house, and at noon reached a small stream in its centre, which
ran westward. Its water was clear, like all the small streams in the
west, and was thronged with fish and turtle. Mac and Clifton soon threw
their lines in and fetched out the fish as quickly as the hook fell.
They had pulled out several cat and buffalo fish weighing twenty pounds
apiece, when Mac hooked a very large turtle, and was afraid lest it
might break his line. John, who was known as a good fisherman, ran to
his help, took the rod from Mac, but slipped, as the turtle gave a sharp
tug, down the steep bank, and sank up to his head in the clear waters.
He was an excellent swimmer, like all Americans, at once came up and
darted after the rod, which was hurriedly following the stream; we threw
him a lasso and pulled him and it out. Then we let down a lasso, which
Antonio managed to put over the turtle, and we dragged it ashore. It
weighed some thirty pounds, and afforded us a first-rate dinner with the
fish.

Our horses had here excellent grazing grounds, which are much larger
than they had appeared to us from the mountains, and as we did not wish
to hasten our journey and reach the north too soon, where the vegetation
was still dead, we resolved to rest here for a few days. Still, as the
stream might perhaps swell rapidly, we thought it better to pass it and
camp higher up. It was about fifty yards wide, and rather rapid, and the
buffalo path on which we were went down into it at such a pitch that it
was difficult to convey our traps across. Tiger and I consequently went
up the stream in search of a spot easier of access. We had hardly gone a
mile between the rocks, when we saw four large elks grazing on a meadow,
which did not notice us. We were obliged to make a lengthened ascent to
get to windward, and after a fatiguing clamber up and round the stones,
we at length reached a large rock about eighty yards from them. We
marked the animals we would fire at, and pulled triggers almost
simultaneously. Tiger's elk fell dead, but mine got up and went off with
my second bullet which I gave it, though it was in a very bad case. I
sent Trusty after it, and heard him bark once, and then become silent.
The distance at which I had heard him was too far for me to run the risk
of seeking him, and hence I sounded a couple of notes on my hunting horn
to recall Trusty. While we broke up the elk the faithful dog came in,
bearing the signs of victory on his blood-stained coat; we followed him
to the elk, which he had captured, and found it dead with its throat
torn out.

We broke this one up too, and then returned to the river to find a
convenient passage. About a mile farther on we came to a buffalo path,
so deeply trodden in the bank that it led with a lower pitch to the
water, while on the other side the bank was low and the stream shallow;
we therefore hurried back to camp, and marched up the river with our
baggage. Tiger, Königstein, and Antonio rode off with two mules to fetch
the game, and rejoin us at the indicated spot on the river. On reaching
the latter we at once prepared to cross, and on this occasion our boat
was used for the first time. We unpacked it, laid it on the grass and
expanded it, after which we carried it to the river, and secured it with
a lasso to the bank. It floated splendidly, and was packed with those
articles which must not get wet. Ere long our comrades came in with the
game, of which they had only taken the best joints. Antonio laid down
his weapons and saddle-bags, and rode into the river with the cord in
his hand, which was fastened to the coracle. He got across all right,
but the water was too shallow to bring the boat close to bank, and he
had nothing to which he could fasten it in the stream, but Tiger soon
helped by jumping into the river, swimming across, and carrying the
articles severally on land; then he brought back the coracle to us, as
there were several more articles which must be protected from the wet,
and because he also wanted to cross the river with a cargo.

We packed our boat again, and Tiger laid his long rifle on the top,
though we dissuaded him from doing so. He swam off, and had reached the
middle of the river, when the rifle lost its balance through a pull at
the lasso, and sank in the river before Tiger could catch it. He seemed,
however, to care but little about the accident, for he laughed heartily
and swam quietly across to Antonio, who held the boat while the Indian
carried its contents on land. When it was unloaded, it lay light as a
feather on the water, and was pulled up and fastened to the bank. The
young savage now leaped into the river again, dived like a stone at the
middle of it, and came up a few seconds later with his rifle in his
right hand, while he swam with the left. He mounted his piebald, and we
all followed him into the stream, holding our weapons above our heads,
and reached the other bank all right. When in camp on an elevation a
short distance from the bank, Tiger lit a fire, and laid his rifle
barrel in the ashes until the damp powder in it exploded and drove out
the bullet, after which he ran down with it to the river, and cooled it
in the water.

For three days we rested our horses here, and amused ourselves with
fishing and hunting, for which the valley afforded every opportunity, as
all sorts of game swarmed and the covered ground enabled the hunter to
approach it. At night the whole valley seemed at times to be alive; the
tramping of flying buffaloes rang on our ears, which were close to the
ground, and the yells of hunting wolves could be distinctly heard: now
and then the terrible roar of the jaguar rang through the damp moonlit
night, and often so close to camp, that we leaped up and seized our
rifles, while Trusty replied with furious barking. The couguar or
maneless American lion (panther), which is very frequent here, often
raised its plaintive cry; while the hoarse, dull growl of the bear
echoed through the rocks. Countless owls floated spectrally, with
lengthened flapping of their wings, over this nocturnal landscape, or
glided like a breath over our camp. Although we were frequently roused
from sleep by this night life of the animal world, it never disturbed us
for long, for so soon as we convinced ourselves that there was no danger
for us, we fell asleep again. During our stay we killed a great quantity
of game, of which we only used the tidbits, and thus behaved no better
than all these four-footed beasts of prey, whose behaviour is after all
far more chivalrous than ours.

On the morning we had appointed for our departure I was awakened by the
yell of a jaguar. I sprang up, and heard it again at no great distance
from our camp. Our fire was rather low, and hence it had ventured rather
nearer to us, and our cattle had probably aroused its appetite for
blood. I made Tiger a sign to go with me, took my rifle and crawled with
Trusty at my heels in the direction whence I had heard the jaguar. The
grass was very damp, so that we could creep on without making the
slightest noise. We stopped and listened. I fancied I had heard the
puffing sound I had previously noticed with these animals, and which, I
believe, is produced by their blowing out the dew which impedes their
organs of scent. I heard it again, and not very far off, when suddenly
the sharp snapping yelp was raised close before us, I hurried up some
rocks, and saw the huge creature standing on a small clearing about
thirty yards from me. The grass on which it was standing was still
rather dark, and only the highest haulms displayed heavy drops of dew,
while the breaking dawn was reflected in the brute's smooth
yellow-black spotted body. I had fallen on one knee on the grass, when
the royal brute again raised its half-open throat and uttered its
murderous cry, accompanied by a blast of its hot breath, which rose like
a strip of mist in the cold breeze. It stood motionless. I rested my arm
that held the rifle on my knee, and everything was so still that I could
distinctly hear my heart beat. I now fired, and with an awful roar the
brute first rose straight in the air, then turned over and writhed in
the grass. I had shot it near the heart, and in a few minutes it was
quite dead. Tiger was greatly delighted with the splendid skin, which he
stripped off the brute with extraordinary skill, and left the huge claws
on it.

At about ten o'clock we were ready to start, and rode through a narrow
gorge toward the hill ahead of us, which soon brought us to a wide
plateau, on which we and our horses were greatly troubled by the sun, as
the breeze was very slight. For several days we proceeded without any
great difficulty through the mountains, which constantly surprised us
both on the heights and in the valleys with the most beautiful
landscapes, the wildest rocks, cascades, uprooted trees piled on each
other; and then again the pleasantest and most peaceful valleys, in
which we every moment expected to see the smoking chimneys of a
settlement or a slowly turning mill-wheel. The mountains now grew much
more impracticable, their sides steeper and the valleys narrower; our
paths frequently led us from our course, wound round the precipices, and
at times trended due south; so that during a day's ride we only advanced
a few miles to the north. We reached a small river, which wound through
the rocks from the north-east, and which Tiger told us was the Rio
Colorado, which flowed in a great curve through these mountains and
Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. We had great difficulty in passing its
steep banks, and spent half a day ere we found a spot where we could
ride through it. On its banks we found enormous cypresses and live oaks,
and a generally rich vegetation for these regions, and above all,
musquito grass, which was of incalculable advantage for our cattle.

We had hardly scaled the heights on the opposite side and were riding
through a narrow path between two not very steep slopes, when we heard
the barking of a hunting dog rapidly advancing towards us. I leaped from
my horse and at the same moment there appeared on the left-hand
precipice a flying antelope and at some distance behind it a black and
white spotted dog, which only barked faintly at intervals. The buck was
very fast and took enormous leaps over the loose boulders, and when it
passed within a hundred yards of us a shower of bullets was sent after
it. It turned a somersault and rolled down the precipice to our feet,
when we cut it up and divided the game among our mules. The dog,
however, halted on the rock with hanging tail, and looked at us for a
while thoughtfully, then turned and slowly made back tracks. Tiger said
it was an Indian's dog, but not thoroughbred, as the latter never bark
(I do not know whether they cannot, but I never heard them bark). As we
rode along we looked for the dog's master, but did not catch sight of
him.

The farther we went from the river the less steep the mountains' sides
became, and the valleys widened again. On the following day we crossed
two other rivers, which were also arms of the Colorado, and went down
toward the northern spurs of the San Saba mountains. The mountain chains
here ran severally over larger surfaces, on which a great many hills
rose, but they had nearly all already donned the garb of the prairies;
they were covered with a red grass that is rather hard, but does not die
in winter, while in the lowlands grew the fine hair-like musquito grass.
Numerous patches of postoak crossed this country, and here and there the
hills were covered with thick leaf wood. The streams, begirt by fine
forests, all ran eastward, and were all full of fish, and the
crystalline water which so greatly distinguishes Western America from
all other countries. We found here again large troops of wild horses,
though we had seen none on the mountains, and enormous quantities of
game of all sorts. The prairie more especially was covered with
buffaloes as far as we could see. We were constantly supplied with the
finest meat which we shot in passing, without stopping any length of
time or tiring our horses.

One afternoon, however, we noticed among a herd of buffaloes two white
ones which excited our cupidity, and we resolved to hunt them. We left
Antonio and Königstein behind with the mules, laid aside our superfluous
baggage and slowly approached the buffaloes. They were standing on a
knoll on the prairie, and allowed us to ride rather close up ere they
took to flight. We galloped after them and were soon in their ranks,
which gave way as we pressed in, and spread on both sides with such
roaring and snorting as deafened the thundering noise of their hoofs.



Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 19 of 35)