Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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The two white animals, an old bull and a cow, were right in the front.
In spite of the choking cloud of dust in which we were enfolded we kept
them in sight and at last got up to them. Tiger was some paces ahead and
first up to the buffaloes, but at the moment when he raised his long
rifle to fire the bull turned on him and the piebald gave a tremendous
start: Tiger lost his balance and would assuredly have fallen, had he
not caught hold of the mane and sprung from his rearing horse. At the
same instant the buffalo received our bullets, and dashed furiously
first after one then after the other, while being continually wounded
afresh, until it at last sank on its knee exhausted and received the
death shot from Tiger's rifle. I now rode back to those in the rear and
brought them to the dead bull, while the others skinned it. The hide was
splendid, very long haired, and shaggy, and snowy white without spots. A
white buffalo is a rarity. The savage Indians regard it with
superstitious awe, and make a sacrifice of sumach leaves ere they attack
and kill it. They set an extraordinarily high value on the hide of such
an animal, and either use it as a valuable present or sell it for a
large sum. After the bull was killed, I had the greatest difficulty in
keeping Tiger from following the herd which was out of sight in order
to take the hide of the white cow, and it was not till I assured him
that the hide of the dead one belonged to him and that I would purchase
it of him, that he remained with us. An hour later the bargain was
concluded, and my Indian perfectly contented. White deer, antelopes, and
bears are more common, but for all that are regarded as rarities.





We now reached open plains, where only here and there an isolated
musquito tree or a thickly foliaged elm offers a little shade on the
boundless glowing surface, and the sky forms the horizon all around. To
these single shady trees the deer and antelopes fly in the midday heat,
and lie down close together, so that you may be always certain to find
game under these trees, so long as their leaves are standing. At the
same season the grass is high also, and it is easy for the hunter to
creep unseen within shot, and shoot the fattest deer through the head.
Even at the time of our visit, when the leaves had fallen, these animals
frequently reposed under the scattered trees and rose as we passed,
forty or fifty in number, gazing anxiously at us. The buffalo, on the
other hand, always remains in the sunshine, and seems able to endure the
greatest heat, but also the greatest cold before all other quadrupeds.
It marks its endless marches from north to south and from south to north
by its skeletons, which bleach for many a year in the sun. Now, when the
grass was short, the whole surface in the distance had a whitish tinge,
which is produced by these bones, out of which the skulls rise like
shining dots. For about a week we rode through such land, only here and
there interrupted by small elevations, and frequently suffered with our
animals from drought. During this period we were often obliged to quench
our thirst with standing water, with which the heavy showers fill great
hollows in the prairies, and which remains in them even at the driest
season. As the inhabitants of these plains, and especially the
buffaloes, must also quench their thirst in them, and also wallow
there, we frequently found the water as thick and warm as chocolate, and
were obliged to strain it through a cloth to get rid of the hairs before
we could drink it.

After a very hot day, on which we had suffered greatly from thirst, we
suddenly saw from a knoll a large expanse of water before us, and
greeted it at the first moment with great delight. We hurried on in
order to reach this oasis as soon as possible, but surprised to see no
bushes or trees on its banks, and even more when on drawing nearer we
found far around only thin, dark grass, between which the ground shone
quite white. Tiger shouted to me that it was salt water, and neither we
nor our horses could drink it. This affected us the more deeply as we
had indulged in the hope of a hearty drink, and we silently turned again
to the west, in order to ride round the lake. Tiger laughed and said
that we should have good water, as several large streams flowed into it
from the west. This proved to be the case; for after riding about five
miles along the bank of the lake, we reached a perfectly clear,
sweet-water stream. We halted in order to refresh ourselves and our
cattle, but we were obliged, as was the case nearly the whole week, to
kindle a fire of _bois de vache_, to prepare our supper. At times, when
in passing over these prairies we found a dry musquito tree, we fastened
a few logs to our saddle, so as to have firing for the evening; but this
was too tiring, and we always hoped to come across wood, whence this
precaution was generally neglected. In such regions there were no
objects to which we could bind our horses; but this is easily managed by
cutting a long, sharp wedge out of the very firm soil, thrusting the
knot of the lasso in as far as possible and stamping in the wedge again
with the foot. As the bound animal pulls almost horizontally at the very
long lasso, while its end goes down nearly perpendicularly into the
ground, the rope offers such a resistance that it will sooner break than
be pulled out of the ground.

Gradually we saw more hills, and among them forests, while a few
distant chains of mountains ran from west to east. One afternoon I was
riding with Tiger about a mile ahead of our party, in order to have a
better chance of approaching game, when we heard two shots behind us. We
looked round and saw our friends gathered in a knot on a small knoll,
and a swarm of about fifty Indians galloping round them. We gave our
horses the spurs and flew back to them, while Tiger raised a hideous
yell, in which I supported him to the best of my strength. Our friends
now fired a general salvo at the assailants, which knocked over two
horses, but their riders were immediately picked up by their comrades.
On seeing us the savages took to flight with gruesome yells. We rode up
to our companions, who had placed all the animals in the centre to
protect them. Königstein had luckily seen some horses' heads over the
crest of the next hill which aroused his suspicions, and had employed
the time in assuming a posture of defence, or else we should probably
have lost our mules. Tiger saw, from the saddles of the shot horses,
that they belonged to the Mescaleros, who are considered the most savage
tribe in the west, and would certainly not have given up their attack so
soon had they not recognised Tiger's war-whoop as that of the Delawares.
The number of Mescaleros is not large, and they are constantly at war
with many other tribes, so that they do not care to make fresh enemies
among their red brothers. This little danger, which we escaped without
loss, was not unpleasing to me, as our precautions, which had nearly
been forgotten, were aroused once more by it.

For about a week we marched through a very pleasant country, and arrived
at a rather large river, which Tiger stated to be the Brazos, and which
falls into the gulf to the eastward of the Colorado. I had seen it
before at San Felipe, and would not have recognised it, for there it
moves sluggishly through a thick-wooded bed of heavy clay, and has a
dirty red colour, while here it rolls merrily over rocks, and its
crystal surface is covered with a snow-white foam. From this point we
proceeded to the north-west, as Tiger noticed that we had gone a little
too far east, and would have much greater difficulty in crossing the
rivers than farther west, where, though the country is mountainous, the
streams nearer their sources are smaller and more frequent. The
mountains were composed of limestone, and contained exquisite little
valleys, where the vegetation was already bursting into new life. All
the softer-wooded trees were budding, and the flowers were springing up
all over the prairies. We seemed to keep equal pace with the reawakening
of the vegetable world northwards, and even to go faster than it.

On a warm day we had been riding without a halt over desolate, stony
hills, and were quite exhausted. When our tired and thirsty horses
clambered up a barren height, we suddenly looked down into a lovely
valley covered with fresh verdure, through which a broad stream wound.
The view soon enlivened horse and rider, and we merrily hurried down to
the bank of the stream. We had hardly reached it and ridden our horses
in to let them quench their thirst, when a long train of Indians
appeared on the opposite height bordering the valley and came straight
toward us. Tiger looked at them for a moment, and told us to wait here
while he rode across to see who they were. We dismounted, led our horses
together, and got our weapons in readiness. Tiger galloped through the
valley to the hill side down which the Indians were coming, and checked
his piebald at its foot. We saw him making signs from a distance to the
approaching horsemen, which were answered in the same way, and ere long
the whole party pulled up around him. They held a long consultation and
then rode toward us with Tiger at their head. They were Kickapoos out on
a hunting expedition, and had recently left their villages on the
Platte, where they have settlements like the Delawares, and their squaws
and old men grow crops and breed cattle.

I had a long conversation with the chief, in which Tiger played the
interpreter, told him the purpose of our journey, invited him to visit
me on the Leone next winter, and asked him how far it was to the next
water. He assured me that we should come to good water and grass before
the sun sank behind the mountains, and so we parted, very glad to get
away from the fellows, whose appearance was anything but satisfactory.
The party consisted of about eighty men, twenty squaws, and a number of
small children. The first were dressed in deer-hide breech-clouts, and
had round the body a leathern belt, through which a very long and broad
strip of coarse red cloth was passed, whose two ends were pulled through
between the legs and fastened into the belt behind. In addition, several
of them had deerskin coats, others calico coats, but the majority merely
wore a buffalo robe over their bare shoulders, and nearly all were armed
with rifles. The squaws wore a short leathern petticoat round their
loins, and a buffalo robe on their shoulders, while those who had
infants carried them fastened to a board upon their backs. They had
already unpacked their horses and prepared their camp to halt here, as
we rode away from them over the hills, and Tiger came up to me, saying,
"Kickapoo no good - two tongues." I had heard before that these Indians
were false, spiteful, and hostile to white men, and only the advantage
they derive from being on friendly terms with the United States induces
them not to appear publicly as their enemies.

We quickly advanced, and reached at a rather early hour a valley in
which we found grass and water, and chose our camp at a spot where the
stream ran close under a precipice, while on this side was a small copse
in which we could fasten our cattle at night. It was an almost circular
kettle enclosed by steep limestone walls, which had an opening only on
one side, through which the bright stream flowed. The sun was sinking
behind the lofty gray rocks and dyeing the dark blue sky with a glowing
tint which no artist would venture to reproduce on his canvas. About
midnight Trusty aroused us by his loud savage bark: he was at the
opening of the valley and would not lie down again, but we could not
discover his motive, as it was quite dark. Tiger fancied, however,
that the Kickapoos were trying to steal some of our horses. When day
broke and cast its first faint light over the gray walls of the valley,
I awoke and saw at the entrance a herd of deer apparently browsing down
the stream. As it was still rather dark I hoped to be able to approach
them behind the few leafless bushes that grew on the bank, as crawling
through the dewy grass was too fatiguing a job to be rewarded by a deer,
especially as we still had a supply of game.

[Illustration: OCELOTS HUNTING IN COUPLES. _p. 243._]

I crept down the stream, and had got within shot, when I made a forward
leap in order to reach a rather thick bush, from which I could fire more
conveniently. At the same instant the deer started apart in terror, and
I saw that an ocelot had leaped on the back of one of them, which laid
back its broad antlers and galloped down the stream, while a second cat
followed it with long high bounds. Two of the terrified deer darted past
me, but I did not fire, as I felt an interest in watching the hunt of
the two beasts of prey, which I followed as quickly as I could out of
the valley. The deer ran about a mile down the stream, then reared and
fell over backwards, when the second cat also sprang on it, and hung on
its neck.

The deer collected its last strength and tried to rise on its hind legs,
but sank exhausted and sent its plaintive cries echoing through the
mountains. I crept, unseen by the beasts of prey, within thirty yards of
the scene of battle, and shot the first, while I missed the second, as
it bolted, but sent Trusty after it, and soon heard him at bay lower
down the stream. I soon reloaded and hurried after Trusty, who was
barking round a small oak in which the ocelot had sought shelter. I shot
it down and dragged it up to the other, which was lying by the dead
deer. All were up in our camp, as they had heard my shots, and John and
Königstein hurried toward me to see what I had killed. My clothes were
as wet as if I had been in the river, and I turned myself before our
fire while the others went out with Jack to bring in the game. Higher
north I did not come across these small leopards, while farther south
they are very frequent.

For several days longer our road ran through mountains, which were
bordered by savage precipices and crossed by grassy valleys; then we
rode for some days across open, boundless prairies, and again reached
low ranges of hills, between which we crossed the southern arm of Red
River, which divides Texas from Arkansas and falls into the Mississippi
in Arkansas, after flowing a distance of nearly one thousand miles.
There it is of a dirty red, and muddy, and moves sluggishly between
lofty poplars and planes which overshadow its flat banks, while the long
gray grass hangs down from thence to the surface of the water and
literally covers the trees. This moss hangs from every branch in
creepers twenty feet long, and conceals the swampy soil in which those
fearful monsters, the alligators, lie by thousands and await in their
pestiferous lair the unhappy victims whom accident leads to them. Here
and there a half-decayed blockhouse peeps out from under these weeping
banners, and as everything there offers the picture of rapid desolation,
you see in this house, where so many families have died out one after
the other, the pale, yellow wasted faces of the new-comers peering out,
like candidates for death, till it becomes too late to escape from this
pestilential abode.

How perfectly different, however, the river appears here! Clear as
crystal to the bottom, it dances from rock to rock; refreshes as it
darts past the luxuriant ferns and the thousand-hued flowers with its
waves, and displays to the visitor its living wealth, as well as the
vegetable world on its bed, in the most brilliant hues. The purest,
lightest breeze sports over its high banks and drives the diseases,
which are the curse of South-Eastern America, out of the paradise which
lies beneath the haughty cypresses, pecan nut-trees, planes, maples, and
colossal oak-trees that border it. How is it possible that men can be
terrified by the dangers of the West, and patiently expose themselves to
a certain, slow, awful decay in those poisoned forests, where Death
inexorably swings his scythe all the year round?

The Rocky Mountains now rose in the west, and glistened with their snowy
peaks, while around us the plants announced spring by their bursting
buds. We drew nearer to them, although in this way our route became far
more fatiguing than farther eastward, where the wide prairies extend to
the north. But Tiger employed this precaution in order to get out of the
way of the great Indian hordes pursuing the buffalo, who do not find in
these mountains sufficient food for their troops of horses and mules,
and cannot hunt the buffaloes there so well as on the prairie. Hence our
journey was continued more slowly; but at this season we could reckon on
water, and the small valleys offered our few cattle abundance of food.
The mountains constantly afforded us more game than we needed for our
support, and we could approach it with greater ease than on the

We had been winding for some days through wildly romantic mountain
gorges, and our eyes were involuntarily fixed on the distant reddish
mountains which rose in the north toward the transparent sky. We had
left many a charming valley, turbulent current, and precipice behind,
when at about noon one day we were stopped by a deep ravine, through
which noisily dashed one of those mountain torrents which escape from
the snows of the Andes and make their long course through the valleys to
the Gulf of Mexico. Here we could not think of riding through, for the
precipices on either side were at least fifty feet deep, while the width
of the cavern was several hundred paces. We rode up the ravine and got
among such rocks and loose stones that we were forced to dismount, and
with the greatest difficulty reached a plateau where the banks of the
stream were not so tall and steep, and we were able to remount. A few
flat rocks were scattered over the bank where we were, while the
opposite one rose steeply, and was covered with thick scrub and low

I was riding with Tiger ahead of our party when, on turning a rock, we
saw a very plump bear leap from the bank through the shallow but foaming
stream, and disappear in a coppice opposite. It was too quick to enable
us to fire, and when we reached the spot where we first saw it, we found
a large elk lying behind some thick prickly bushes, which was still
warm, and hence must have been recently killed. One leg was torn up, but
the rest was in good condition, and we halted to await our friends and
put the game on the mules. When I was about to dismount, Tiger remarked
that the bear would return to the elk in the evening, and as we should
soon be obliged to camp, owing to the growing darkness, we could hunt

Our friends came up and we marched about a mile farther, where we found
excellent grass in a gorge on the left of the river. We unsaddled,
hobbled our cattle, and prepared supper, although it was rather early.
The question then was who of us should go after the bear, and as all
wished to do so we agreed that the dice should decide. The lot fell on
myself, Clifton, and Königstein, and without delay we took our weapons
and walked down the stream to the spot where the elk lay. We advanced
cautiously, as the bear might already be at its quarry, and as we
noticed nothing of it we selected our posts no great distance from the
elk. I was at the centre, behind a large rock, Königstein lay on my
right near the stream in the dry grass behind some bushes, and Clifton
was on my left, covered by a fallen dead tree.

We had a good wind, and if the bear returned we should have it under our
guns, and it would hardly be able to escape. We sat without moving: the
sun sank behind the mountains and scarce illumined the heights, while
around us the gloom was already gathering; there was not a breath of
air, and only the buzzing and chirruping of insects and the rustling of
the stream disturbed the silence. Trusty, who had hitherto been lying at
my feet, raised his head, looked at the thicket opposite and then up to
me. I shook my finger at him not to growl, which he quite understood,
and thrust his head down on the ground. Directly after I heard a
cracking in the thicket, which soon became more distinct. At length the
bear burst out of the scrub and came down a small path to the stream. We
had agreed not to fire until it reached the elk on this side. It stopped
for a few minutes in the water to drink, then leapt from stone to stone
up the bank, and walked slowly toward the elk. The bear had scarce
reached the prickly bush ere we fired simultaneously, and it rolled
over, but got up again and leapt into the water. Clifton and Königstein
sent two bullets after it, which, however, did not seem to hurt it much,
for it dashed ahead to the other bank. Königstein at once leapt,
revolver in hand, into the stream after the bear, and was standing
between it and me, when he put a bullet into its leg at a short
distance. The bear, noticing its pursuer, turned and went toward him
with a hoarse roar, while Königstein, still standing in the water, put a
second bullet into its chest. I ran up and fired my rifle bullet into
the left breast of the furious animal, while Clifton gave it another in
the belly from his long pistol. The bear fell into the water but a few
yards from Königstein, who, seeing it rise on its fore paws, shot it
through the head with his revolver. Though the water was shallow, it was
so rapid that it would have carried the bear away, so we both threw away
our weapons, leapt into the stream to Königstein, and dragged the beast
on land. Here we let it lie, reloaded, and returned to camp, where our
comrades were, greatly pleased at the lucky result of our hunt. We
waited till the moon had risen, then took two mules, and I proceeded
with Tiger and John to our quarry, in order to fetch its skin and the
best meat.

It was late when we got back to camp, still our appetite had been
excited again, and instead of going to sleep, we sat joking round the
fire, each with some spitted bear-meat before him. The coffee-pot also
went the round, and the steaming pipe accompanied us to our buffalo
hides, on which we lay conversing for some time. Clifton insisted that
he ought to be rewarded handsomely by Königstein for saving his life by
the pistol-shot, while the latter tried to prove to him that he had
aimed too low to hit the bear's heart, and hence, as a punishment, ought
to have its paw stuck on his hat. The answers, however, gradually became
rarer, and we soon were all fast asleep. Excellent health, and a
consciousness of strength, of which the polished world is ignorant, are
the blessed companions of such a natural life; and no awful nightmare,
no frightful dreams, such as visit the silken beds of civilization,
venture to approach the hard couch of our Western hunters.

I was awakened by the cold about an hour before daylight; sprang up,
poked the fire, which was nearly burnt out, wrapped myself in my buffalo
robe, and fell asleep again soundly, till my comrades shouted to me that
the coffee was ready. The whole neighbourhood was covered with a thick
white rime, and though the frost was not heavy, we felt it severely. Our
large fire, however, soon dispelled the cold, and we lay very cozily
round it eating our breakfast. We soon mounted, crossed the stream
without difficulty, and followed a buffalo-path up the hills. Our
journey during the last day had been fatiguing for the horses, and, in
spite of the long distance we had ridden, we had advanced but little
northwards, so we gladly followed an easterly course, which brought us
nearer the great prairies. From here we also noticed that the highest
mountain peaks were a little farther to the west, and consequently off
our track.

The sky became overcast, and in the afternoon it began raining, so that
we were obliged to put our buffalo robes over us, and at night pitched
our small tents to protect us from the heavy, incessant rain. Tiger,
though, refused to crawl into the tent, but collected a great heap of
brushwood near the fire, laid his saddle-cloth on it, sat down a-top,
with his knees drawn up to his chin, and pulled his buffalo-hide with
the hairy side out over him, tucking it under him, so that he looked
like a huge hairy ball. During the night we were frequently obliged to
feed the fire to keep it burning, and in the morning we saw no sign
that the clouds were about to break. We could hardly distinguish the
nearest peaks, and round our camp rivulets had formed that conveyed the
rain to the valley. We could not think of starting, as all our traps

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 20 of 35)