Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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creek, which bordered the prairie ahead of us like a purple strip,
through large gay fields of flowers, with which the prairie is adorned.
Blue, yellow, red, and white beds, in the most varied hues, succeeded
each other, and filled the air with the sweetest and most fragrant
perfumes. Wherever the eye turned it fell on herds of deer, that were
sheltering themselves from the burning sun under isolated elms and
mosquito trees, and rose on our approach to be ready for flight. Further
on grazed many herds of migratory buffaloes, from which the prairies at
this season are never quite free, and, here and there, antelopes were
flying over the heaving sea of grass and flowers. As I rode along, my
eye was certainly rejoiced by this abundance of game, but I did not
change my direction on that account, because I was not any great
distance from the thickets in advance of the forest on Mustang Creek,
where I could approach the game with much less trouble. These wooded
intervals, which run for about a mile into the prairie, consist of dwarf
plum-trees, four feet in height, partly separate, partly in clumps,
which are closely interlaced with wild vines, but always leave small
openings between, and here and there are overshadowed by a
densely-foliaged elm. You are obliged to wind between these clumps till
you reach a broad open grassy clearing, which extends between these
thickets and the high woods on Mustang Creek.

I had hardly reached these advance woods, ere I saw a very large stag
standing in the shadow of an old elm-tree, driving away the flies with
its antlers, and feeding on the fine, sweet mosquito grass, which is
much more tender in the shade than when it is exposed to the burning
sunbeams. The beautiful creature was hardly sixty paces from me, and I
seized my rifle, which was lying across the saddle in front of me. In a
moment Czar, who was well acquainted with this movement, halted, buried
his small head in the grass, and began seeking the green young shoots
which are covered by the dry withered stalks. I shot the deer, and as I
saw that it could not go far I allowed Trusty to catch it, which always
afforded him great delight. I rode up, threw the bridle before
dismounting over the end of a long pendant branch, and then dragged the
deer into the shade to break it up, and cut off the meat I intended to
take with me. I had knelt down by the deer and just thrust in my bowie
knife, when Trusty, who was sitting not far from me, began growling, and
on my inquiring what was the matter, growled still more loudly, while
looking in the direction behind me. I knew the faithful creature so well
that I only needed to look in his large eyes to read what he wished to
tell me. They had turned red, a sure sign of his rising anger: but I
believed that wolves were at hand, which were his most deadly enemies,
because he had fared badly from their claws now and then before I could
get up to free him from his tormentors. I ordered Trusty to be quiet, as
I heeded the dangers which had beset me for years much less than I had
done at the beginning of my border-life, and bent down again over the
deer, when Trusty sprang, with furious barks, toward the quarter where
he had been looking. I quickly rose, and on turning round saw two
perfectly naked Indians, armed with guns, leap out of the tall grass
about sixty yards from me, and dash away like antelopes. My first step
was to seize my rifle, which was leaning against the tree, but the
savages took an enormous bound over one of the clumps of plum-trees, and
disappeared from sight. In a few minutes I had unfastened Czar, and
rushed after the Indians through the many windings between the
close-grown bushes. They had gained a great start, and had increased it
by leaping over clumps, which I was compelled to ride round; still I
kept them pretty constantly in sight, and reached the open prairie in
front of the creek, at the moment when the savages had crossed about
half of it. I gave Czar a slight touch of the spur, and urged him on
with the usual pat on his powerful hard neck; he leaped through the
grass as if he hardly touched the ground, and I was obliged to set my
hat tightly on my head for fear of losing it, for the pressure of the
atmosphere was so great that I could hardly breathe. The Indians ran
like deer, but the distance between us was speedily lessened, and I was
only sixty yards behind them, when they were still fifty from the
forest. I stopped my horse, leaped off, aimed with my right-hand barrel
at the savage furthest ahead, and dropped him. In the meanwhile the
other Indian reached the skirt of the wood, and sprang into the shade of
an old oak, at the moment when the bead of my rifle covered him. I fired
and saw him turn head over heels. At this moment Trusty came panting
over the prairie, who had remained behind as I had leapt over some
clumps which he was obliged to skirt; he saw the first Indian leap out
of the grass, like a hare which has been shot through the head, and his
legs seemed too slow for his growing fury; a loud shout urged him on
still more, and in a few seconds he and the savage disappeared in the
tall grass. A frightfully shrill yell, which echoed far and wide through
the forest, proved that the Indian was feeling Trusty's teeth, and the
heaving grass over them showed that it was a struggle for life or death.
Loading my rifle detained me for a few minutes at the spot whence I had
fired; then I ran up to Czar, who had strayed a little distance, and
rode to the battle-field. The contest was over; the savage was dead, and
Trusty's handsome shaggy coat was spotted with blood. He was standing
with his fore paws on his enemy, and tearing out his throat. A dog like
Trusty was invaluable to me, and for my own preservation I dared not
assuage the creature's savageness; besides, the man was dead, and it was
a matter of indifference whether the buzzards devoured his body or
Trusty tore it piece-meal. In the meanwhile I fastened the dead man's
short Mexican _escopeta_, hunting-pouch, and necklace to my saddle; then
I called Trusty off, mounted Czar, and rode back to my deer, as I did
not dare venture into the forest, where a large number of these Weicos
were very probably lying in ambush. The two had come down from the
mountains to the banks of Mustang Creek, whither the great quantity of
game of all descriptions had attracted them; on hearing my shot, they
crept up unnoticed, had got within distance of me, and in a few seconds
would doubtless have settled me, had not my faithful watcher scented
them, or remarked their movements in the grass.

On coming within sight of my deer, I saw that a dozen buzzards had
collected, some on the trees, others circling slowly in the air, and
watching with envious glances three wolves, which had already begun
greedily to share my deer. Although I hardly ever expended a bullet on
these tormentors, I was annoyed at their impudence, for though they saw
me coming, they did not interrupt their banquet. I shot one of them, a
very old red she-wolf, took the loins and legs of the deer, hung them to
my saddle, and rode home to pass the night.

My dogs inside the fort announced to the garrison the arrival of a
stranger, and they were no little surprised to see me return at so
unusual an hour. The gate was opened, and after Czar had been relieved
of his rather heavy burden, I led him once more into the grass to let
him have a good roll; and after he had been put into the stable with a
feed of Indian corn, I described the events of the day at the
supper-table. My news aroused the apprehensions of my men, for they knew
the vengeful spirit of these Weicos, and we therefore resolved to keep
watch during the night. We were still smoking and talking at midnight,
when the dogs, of which I had fourteen, began making a tremendous row.
They all ran out through the small apertures left for the purpose in the
stockade, and stood barking on the river bank at some foe on the other
side, at the spot where my maize field in the forest joined the river.
It was a pitch dark and calm night. We listened attentively, and could
distinctly hear the trampling of dry brushwood in the field. It might be
occasioned by buffalo, which had broken through the fence, and were
regaling on my maize. But these animals rarely move at night, and there
was a much greater probability of Indians being there. We gently opened
the gate. I took my large duck gun, which held sixteen pistol bullets
in each barrel, and crawled down on my stomach to the river bank, where
I lay perfectly quiet. When I arrived there, one of my dogs was yelping,
and I distinctly heard the twang of a bow-string. I noticed the quarter
very carefully; the river was only forty yards across, and the direction
was shown me still more plainly by the crackling of brushwood. I shot
one barrel there, upon which human cries and a hurried flight were
audible; then I sent the second after it, and fresh groans echoed
through the quiet forest and mingled with the roar of my two shots. I
remained lying in the grass, as I might be easily seen against the
starry sky from the other bank, which was thirty feet lower. The leaping
and running through the maize retired farther and farther toward the
wood, and scarce reached my ear, when suddenly a wild war yell resounded
in the forest, which was answered by countless wolf howls on the prairie
behind me. This was the last outbreak of fury on the part of the
Indians, of whom I never saw anything more beyond the various bloody
traces which they left in the field. We found several arrows sticking in
the river bank, whose form led me to conclude that the assailants were
Cato Indians. The damage I received from this nocturnal visit only
consisted in the trampled maize and a harmless wound which one of my
dogs had received from an arrow in the leg. The morning was spent in
following the trail of the savages to the prairie on the other side of
the forest, where a number of horses had awaited these night-wanderers
and borne them away. In the afternoon I rode again to Mustang Creek with
one of my people - to the spot where the second Indian had disappeared on
the previous day. The entrance into the wood and the roots of the old
oak were covered with blood. I sent Trusty on ahead to see whether the
road was clear, and if we could penetrate into the gloom of the forest
without danger. We cautiously followed the dog, who kept the
blood-marked trail and reached the river, on whose bank the Weico was
sleeping the last sleep. He was cold and stiff my bullet had passed
through his brown sides. The wounds were stopped with grass, and his
_escopeta_ lay ready cocked close to him. He was a very young and
handsome man, and death had chosen him a glorious resting-place under
the dark arbour of leaves. The rapid, crystalline, icy stream laved his
small, handsomely-shaped feet, and on a pillow of large ferns reposed
his head, round which his raven silky hair fell, while the mossy bed
beneath him was dyed by his blood, till it resembled the purple velvet
of a lying-in-state.

We stood silently before this painfully-beautiful picture, and even
Trusty seemed to feel that this was no longer an object for wild
passion, for he lay down quietly in the grass. Death had reconciled us:
the dice had fallen in my favour, and if they had been against me, I
should not have found such an exquisite grave: my bones would have been
bleached for years by the sun on the open prairie, and greeted with
shouts of joy by passing Indians. Feelings which are rarely carried into
these solitudes, and still more rarely retained there, gained the
mastery over me. I could not leave this noble creation of nature to the
wolves and buzzards. We therefore fastened a heavy stone round his feet,
and another round his neck, and gently let him down into the clear
water, where he found his last solitary resting-place between two large
rocks. Taking his few traps, more as a reminiscence than as a booty, we
returned to our horses, which we had left in the first thicket. They
greeted us with their friendly neighing and impatient stamping while
still a long distance off, and away we galloped over the open prairie,
up hill and down hill, after a flying herd of buffalo, at one moment
leaping across broad watercourses, at another over aged trees uprooted
by storms, until several of these primæval monsters had kissed the
blood-stained ground. Our melancholy thoughts had been dispersed by the
light prairie breeze, and, merry and independent, like the vultures in
the blue sky overhead, we returned heavily laden to our fort, whose
inhabitants, down to the dogs, gave us a most hearty welcome.




It is scarce possible to form an idea of the abundance of game with
which the country near me was blessed in those days. It really seemed to
be augmented with every year of my residence, for which I may account by
the fact that the several vagabond hordes of Indians - who prefer the
flesh of deer, antelopes, and turkey to that of buffaloes, whose
enormous mass they cannot devour at once, while the smaller descriptions
of game could be killed in the forests and coppices, without revealing
themselves to the enemy on the wide prairie - that these Indians, I say,
more or less avoided my neighbourhood, while, for my part, I had greatly
reduced the number of wild beasts, especially of the larger sort. I
consumed a great quantity of meat in my household, owing to the number
of dogs I kept, but I really procured it as if only amusing myself.
There were certainly days on which I shot nothing. At times I did not
get sight of a buffalo for a week, or the prairie grass was burnt down
to the roots, which rendered it extremely difficult to stalk the game,
while just at this period, when the first green shoots spring up, the
animals principally visit the open plains, whence they can see their
pursuers for a long distance. For all that, though we had generally a
superabundance of meat, and too often behaved with unpardonable
extravagance, I have frequently killed five or six buffaloes, each
weighing from a thousand to fifteen hundred pounds, in one chase,
lasting perhaps half-an-hour, and then merely carried off their tongues
and marrow-bones. Often, too, I have shot one or two bears, weighing
from five to eight hundred pounds, and only taken home their paws and a
few ribs, because the distance was too great to burden my horse with a
large supply of meat. I could always supply our stock in the vicinity of
my fort, although at times we were compelled to put up with turkeys, or
fish and turtle, with which our river literally swarmed.

Bear-meat formed an important item in our larder - or, more correctly
speaking, bear's-grease - which was of service in a great many ways. We
employed it to fry our food, for which buffalo or deer fat was not so
good; we used it to burn in our lamps, to rub all our leather with, and
keep it supple; we drank it as a medicine - in a word, it answered a
thousand demands in our small household. This is the sole fatty
substance, an immoderate use of which does not turn the stomach or
entail any serious consequences. The transport of this article, though,
was at times rather difficult, especially on a warm day; as this fat
easily becomes liquid, and will even melt in the hunter's hand while he
is paunching a bear. This is chiefly the case with the stomach fat,
which is the finest and best; that on the back and the rest of the body,
which at the fatting season is a good six inches thick, is harder and
requires to be melted over a slow fire before it can be used in lamps.

These animals were very numerous in my neighbourhood. In spring and
summer they visited the woods, where with their cubs they regaled upon
wild plums, grapes, honey, and young game of all sorts, and at times
played the deuce in my maize-field. In autumn the rich crop of
peca-nuts, walnuts, acorns, chestnuts, and similar fruits, kept them in
our forests; and in winter they sought rocky ravines and caves, where
they hybernated. Very many took up their quarters in old hollow trees,
so that at this season I had hardly any difficulty in finding a bear in
my neighbourhood. Trusty was a first-rate hand at this, for he found a
track, and kept to it as long as I pleased; and at the same time
possessed the great advantage that he never required a leash, never went
farther than I ordered him, and never followed game without my
permission. When a bear rose before me it rarely got fifty paces away,
unless it was in thorny bushes, where the dog could not escape its
attack; for, so soon as the bear bolted, Trusty dug his teeth so
furiously into its legs, and slipped away with such agility, that the
bear soon gave up all attempts at flight, and stood at bay. It was
laughable to see the trouble the bear was in when I came up; how it
danced round Trusty, and with the most ridiculous _entrechats_ upbraided
his impudence; while Trusty continually sprang away, lay down before
Bruin, and made the woods ring with his bass voice. Frequently, however,
the honest dog incurred great peril during this sport, and his life more
than once depended on my opportune arrival.

In this way I followed one warm autumn day a remarkably broad bear trail
on the mountains of the Rio Grande. Trusty halting fifty yards ahead of
me, showed me that it stopped at a small torrent, where the bear had
watered on the previous night. I dismounted, examined the trail
carefully, and saw that it was made by a very old fat bear; it was in
the fatting season, when the bear frequently interrupts its sleep and
pays a nocturnal visit to the water. At this season these animals are
very clumsy and slow, and cannot run far, as they soon grow scant of
breath; they soon stop, and can be easily killed by the hunter - always
supposing that he can trust to his dog and horse, for any mistake might
expose the rider to great danger. I ordered Trusty to follow the trail;
it ran for some distance up the ravine, then went up the bare hill-side,
which was covered with loose boulders and large masses of rock, into the
valley on the opposite side, in the middle of which was a broad but very
swampy pool, girdled by thick thorny bushes. Trusty halted in front of
this thicket, looked round to me, and then again at the bushes, while
wagging his long tail. I knew the meaning of this signal, and that the
bear was not far off. I ordered the dog on, and drew a revolver from my
belt; feeling assured that the bear would soon leave the underwood and
seek safety in flight. Trusty disappeared in the bushes, and his
powerful bark soon resounded through the narrow valley. It was an
impossibility for me to ride through the thicket, hence I galloped to
the end of the coppice, and saw there the bear going at a rapid pace up
the opposite steep hill, with Trusty close at its heels. I tried to
cross the swamp, but Czar retreated with a snort, as if to show me the
danger of the enterprise. By this time Trusty had caught up to the bear
at the top of the hill, and furiously attacked it in the rear. The bear
darted round with extraordinary agility, and was within an ace of
seizing Trusty, but after making a few springs at the dog, it continued
its hurried flight, and disappeared with Trusty over the hill-top. I had
ridden farther up the water when I heard my dog baying; I drove the
spurs into my horse, and with one immense leap, we were both in the
middle of the swamp up to the girths; then, with an indescribable
effort, Czar gave three tremendous leaps, which sent black mud flying
round us, and reached the opposite firm ground with his fore feet, while
his hind quarters sunk in the quivering morass; with one spring I was
over his head, when I sank in up to the knees, and after several
tremendous exertions, the noble fellow sprang ashore, trembling all
over. Trusty's barking, as if for help, continually reached me as I
galloped up the steep hill-side; I arrived on the summit at the moment
when the bear sprang at Trusty, and buried him beneath its enormous
weight. My alarm for the faithful dog - my best friend in these
solitudes, made me urge Czar on; he bounded like a cat over the
remaining rocks, and I saw Trusty slip out from under the bear in some
miraculous way, and attack it again on the flank. I halted about ten
paces from the scene of action, held my rifle between the little red
fiery eyes of the bright black monster, and laid it lifeless on the bare
rocks. The greatest peril for dogs is at the moment when the bear is
shot, for they are apt to attack it as it falls, and get crushed in its
last convulsive throes. I leapt off Czar, who was greatly excited by the
sharp ride, went up to Trusty, who was venting his fury on Bruin's
throat, examined him, and found that he had received three very serious
wounds, two on the back and one over the left shoulderblade, which were
bleeding profusely, though in his fury he did not seem to notice them. I
took my case from the holster and sewed up his wounds, during which
operation he lay very patiently before me, and looked at me with his
large eyes, as if asking whether this were necessary. Then I took off my
jacket and set to work on the bear, stripped it, and put the hide as
well as a hundred pounds' weight of the flesh on Czar's back. If my
readers will bear in mind that the sun was shining on my back furiously,
and that I was on a bare blazing rock, they will understand that I was
worn out, and longed for a cool resting-place. The bear weighed at least
800 lbs., and it requires a great effort to turn such an animal over.

I was a good hour's ride from the shade of the Leone, and only half that
distance to the mountain springs I have already described. I therefore
selected the latter, although they took me rather farther from home. I
walked, although I made Czar carry my jacket, weapons, and pouch, and
reached my destination in the afternoon, with my two faithful companions
at my heels. Czar had a hearty meal after I had bathed him in the pond,
and poor Trusty, whose wounds had dried in the sun, and pained him
terribly, felt comfortable in the cool grass, and did not disturb the
linen rag which I moistened every now and then. Nor did I forget myself;
I rested, bathed, and after awhile enjoyed the liver and tongue of the
old vagabond, until the evening breeze had cooled the air, and I reached
home partly on foot, partly on horseback.

Nature seems to have selected the buffalo before all varieties of game
for the purpose of bringing to the door of the man who first dares to
carry civilization into the desert, abundant food for him and his during
the first years, so that he may have time to complete the works
connected with his settlement, and have no trouble in procuring
provisions. When this time is passed, nature withdraws this liberal
support from him; in the course of a few years he must go a long
distance to obtain this food as a dainty, which he grew quite tired of
in the early years, for the buffalo is not frightened by the pioneer's
solitary house and field, but as soon as several appear, the animals
depart and are only seen as stragglers.

The woolly hides of the buffaloes supply the new-comer in the desert
with the most splendid and comfortable beds. When laid over the roof
they protect his unfinished house from rain and storm; he uses their
leather for saddles, boot-soles, making ropes of all sorts, traces, &c.;
its meat, one of the most luxurious sorts that nature offers man, seems
to be given to the borderer as a compensation for the countless
privations and thousand dangers to which he subjects himself. Buffalo's
marrow is a great delicacy, and very strengthening. The fat can be used
in many ways, and the horns converted into drinking cups, powder flasks,
&c.; in a word, the whole of the buffalo is turned to account in the
settler's housekeeping.

These animals are hunted in several ways. With an enduring, well-trained
horse, you ride up to them and shoot them with pistols or a rifle, for a
horse accustomed to this chase always keeps a short distance from the
buffalo, and requires no guidance with the reins; but this mode of
hunting can only be employed on the plains, for in the mountainous
regions the buffalo has a great advantage in its sure footing over a
horse that has to carry a rider. In such regions, and in wooded
districts, you stalk the animals, which is not difficult, and if you
keep yourself concealed you may kill several with ease, as they are not
startled by the mere report of a rifle. On the prairies, too, where the
grass is rather high, you can creep up to them through it, and if it be

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 2 of 35)