Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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were wet through. Hence we grinned and bore it; killed time with eating
and smoking, and looked at our cattle, which, with hanging head and
tail, let the rain pour off them.

Thus the whole day and the next night passed, and it was not till ten
the next morning that we saw a patch of blue sky. This lasting heavy
rain proved to me clearly that we were already in a more northern
region, as in our country the showers are much heavier for the time, but
never last longer than a day. We lay up for this day too to let the
ground dry a little, and a strong cold wind which had sprung up helped
to effect this. Our cattle had good grass, we were amply supplied with
firewood, and had abundance of the best game, so that we wanted for
nothing. John and Mac went out shooting together, and killed some
turkeys and a deer, which they brought into camp on Sam. Tiger went out
alone, and returned in the evening with two deer legs and a beaver,
having surprised the latter on land while nibbling off the branches of a
fallen tree. Our supper-table was hence splendidly covered again, and we
greatly enjoyed the beaver tail, which is one of the best dishes the
West offers.

Our various skins, tents, blankets, &c., were now tolerably dry, and the
next morning we left camp and travelled northwards, towards the sides of
the mountains, and the spurs they shoot out, into the great prairies.
The sky was still covered with a few clouds, between which the sun shone
warmly and pleasantly. Two days later we altered our course again to the
west, in order not to leave the mountains, which here enclosed large
patches of grass-land. Crossing these low mountain spurs, we passed
through many extensive valleys with excellent soil, firewood, especially
oak, and abundant water, which assuredly ere long will be sought by
civilization advancing from the East. In the West the mountains now
rose higher, and raised their white peaks far above the clouds. They
were probably a hundred miles from us, and the horizon was enclosed by
mountain ranges like an amphitheatre. The mountains rose higher and
higher above each other in the strangest forms and colours, terminating
in peaks on which the heavens seemed to be supported. Tiger called them
the Sacramento mountains, which run southward nearly to Santa Fé.

One evening we reached a stream, which came down from these mountains
through a rather wide valley, which Tiger told us was an arm of the
Canadian river that falls into the Arkansas, between which and the
Kansas the territory of the Delawares is situated. When a boy, Tiger
added, he had often been hunting up this river and in these mountains
with his father, and in a few days we should reach another arm of this
river, on which his father's brother was torn to death by a grizzly
bear. On that river there was a very large iron stone, which had fallen
from heaven, and with which the god of hunting killed a Weico, who was
hunting here improperly. When we reached the river bank, we found its
water very turbid, and so swollen that we could not ride through, owing
to the furious current. Hence we unloaded, though it was still rather
early, and found ourselves on a steep bank, where the stream could not
hurt us, even if it rose higher. Tiger was of opinion that the water
would have run off by the next day, and enable us to continue our
journey, as these torrents rarely last longer than a day. John and Mac
went down the river to hunt, and Tiger went up it, while we looked after
the cattle and prepared the camp. The first two came back early with an
antelope, while Tiger was not in camp when night had settled on the
mountains. I had heard him fire twice, and we were beginning to fear
that an accident had happened to him, when he came out of the gloom into
the bright firelight with his light, scarcely-audible step, but without
any game, which was a rarity. He had fired thrice at a black bear,
followed it a long distance, but had been obliged to leave it owing to
the darkness, especially as he had hit it awkwardly, and it was strong
enough to run a long distance. The night passed undisturbed, morning
displayed a bright cloudless sky, and promised us a beautiful day; but
the river had not fallen so much as we expected, and we preferred
awaiting its fall here to going higher up and seeking a shallower spot.

The sun had scarce risen over the low hills in the east when I took my
rifle and went down the river with Trusty to try my luck in hunting. I
soon reached a low thin skirt of bushes, which covered the valley, and
through which many small rivulets wound to the river. I had not gone far
into it, when I noticed a great number of turkeys running about among
the leafless bushes. I ran up to them, frequently crossing the brook,
till I at last got within shot of an old cock, and toppled him over. I
hung the bird on a tree, close to the brook which I fancied was one of
those that came down the valley no great distance from our camp, and had
scarce gone a hundred yards beyond the brook when I saw some head of
game, which were too large for our ordinary deer and too dark-coloured,
and yet did not resemble elks.

I crept nearer and convinced myself they were giant deer, which are not
uncommon in the Andes. I shot at a very large stag, which had already
shed its antlers, and it rushed upon me, but soon turned away, and I
gave it the second bullet. It went some hundred yards bleeding
profusely, so that I expected every moment to see it fall, then stopped,
and I employed the time to reload and get within eighty yards of it. I
was on the point of firing, when it dashed away and got out of sight. I
put Trusty on the trail, and followed him, crossing the brook several
times up the valley toward our camp, as I fancied. At length I saw the
stag standing under an old oak, and I succeeded in getting within shot.
I fired, and saw the bullet go home; but for all that the deer ran up a
hill on the left and disappeared. My eagerness in following the animal
was more and more aroused; I reloaded and went with Trusty after the
bleeding trail over the hill and down the other side, then through a
thicket in the valley and over another hill to a stream, where I at last
found the stag dead. It was a splendid giant deer, distinguished from
our royal harts by its size, blackish-brown coat, and proportionately
higher forelegs. I broke it up, gave Trusty his share, and it was not
till I was ready to start that I thought of my road to camp.





It was near noon, and I had generally walked fast. I looked around me,
and tried to recollect the numerous windings I had made, but soon saw it
was impossible to recall them, as I had paid no attention to them during
the chase. I now looked at my compass; I knew that the stream on which
we were camping ran down the valley from west to east, and that hence I
was on its southern side to the eastward of our camp. I must therefore
go due north to reach the stream, and then follow it in order to reach
camp. The calculation was correct, and could not fail to bring me home
soon. I therefore walked on quietly, and every now and then blazed a
tree, or laid a bush upon a rock, to be able to find the stag when we
went to fetch it. The first hour passed: at one time I walked through
thinly-wooded, narrow valleys, then over stony hills, or crossed small
streams and grassy meadows, but saw no sign of the river.

The second hour, during which I doubled my pace, passed in the same
manner, and yet I saw nothing of the river. I looked repeatedly at the
compass on my rifle stock and the one I carried in my pocket. My
calculation was correct, of that there could be no doubt; but how was it
that I had not yet reached the river? It might possibly make a small
bend northwards here; but I must strike it, as it belonged to Canadian
river, and all the waters from these mountains flow to the east. I was
certain of my matter, and laughed at myself for imagining for a moment
that I had lost my way. I marched cheerily on, especially up the hills,
as I fancied I should see the looked-for river from each of them, and
did not notice that I was exerting myself excessively. A certain
anxiety crept over me involuntarily. I hurried on the faster the deeper
the sun got behind the mountains; I ran down the hills and hurried up
them, dripping with perspiration, with a strength which only the feeling
of impending danger can arouse. My energy and presence of mind still
mastered my growing anxiety, as I hoped, felt almost convinced, that I
should soon reach the river which had disappeared in so extraordinary a
way, until at last the sun sank behind the highest peaks of the
Cordilleras, and the gloom of night spread its mantle over the earth.
Exhaustion followed long unnatural exertion so suddenly, that I sank
down on the last hill I ascended, and my strength of mind and body gave
way utterly. In a few minutes I fell into a deep sleep, and must have
lain there for five hours, as when I woke I felt on my watch that it was
midnight. I remembered everything I had hitherto done, and the last
thought which had accompanied me up to my unconsciousness startled me
out of it - the thought that I had lost my way.

When I got up, my faithful Trusty nestled up to me and licked my hands,
as if wishing to remind me that he was still with me, and I was not
quite deserted. I threw my arm round his strong neck, and pressed him
firmly to me, for at this moment he was an unspeakable comfort, and
restored my resolution and strength of will. I soon reverted to my old
rule, which I had kept for years, of always assuming the worst in
disagreeable situations, and making myself familiar with it; then a man
has nothing more to fear. I had lost myself, and must seek my road to
camp in some direction alone. I felt strong enough to do so, but must
reflect on the mode of doing it. I had sufficient powder and bullets for
my weapons; this was a precaution which I had constantly urged on my
comrades since our start, never to go out with half-filled powder-horn
or a few bullets for the sake of convenience.

My box was full of lucifers, and I had also flint, steel, and punk. I
carried bandages and a housewife, as well as a little bottle of old
brandy in my knapsack, and a rather large gourd at my side, I was fully
equipped to make this tour, which, honestly speaking, was now beginning
to appear interesting to me, and I laughingly thought of the friend of
my childhood's years, "Robinson Crusoe," who at that day sowed the first
seed of my later irresistible desire for such a life. I was soon
decided, and regained my entire calmness. I sprang up, and went
cautiously down hill to reach the valley, in which on the previous
evening I had looked in vain for the river. The darkness and the rocky
sloping route made my walk very difficult; but still I reached my
destination at the end of an hour, and entered a very narrow valley, in
which I soon found enough dry wood under the trees to light a fire. I
had turned cold, and the warmth it spread around me did me good. Close
by I found a fallen tree, to which I carried the burning logs, in order
to produce a longer lasting fire to throw out more heat; then I piled up
a heap of bushes and brushwood, laid myself on it, with my bag under my
head, and after drinking some brandy and water, fell asleep as soundly
as if I had been in my bed on the Leone.

The sun was high in the heavens when I awoke, I felt as strong as usual,
and lit a fire for breakfast, drank some more water from my gourd, and
went northwards in good spirits. I thought of the possibility that this
river might not be the one named by Tiger, and might lose itself in a
subterranean bed; but, extraordinary to tell, I did not for a moment
reflect that it could run due north parallel with mine; my only idea
was, that it perhaps made a great bend. I had been walking near an hour,
and had crossed several stony hills, when I looked down into a narrow
gorge, in which alders and poplars grew, leading to the supposition of
water, and on going down I noticed an old animal quietly grazing. I
crawled very cautiously nearer to it, for now I seriously needed some
meat, and on looking up from a deep ditch excavated by the rain, I saw a
small deer by the side of the old one, which was staring at me over the
bushes, I fired and saw the deer dart among the bushes, but knew that
it bore death in its heart. The old animal dashed close past me, but I
did not fire as I was certain of securing the deer and did not care to
waste a bullet unnecessarily.

I reloaded, went back to the bloody trail, and found the deer dead about
thirty yards ahead. I broke it up, skinned it, and placed the rump and
bits of the liver before the fire which I lit, while Trusty had the
kidneys and then amused himself with the shoulder blades. I stretched
the skin out before the fire, as I intended to take it with me to sleep
on. I enjoyed my breakfast, to which I ate but little of the salt I
carried in my bag in a bladder in case of need. Trusty had also eaten
heartily and pacified his hunger. I cut some good lumps off the deer's
back, filled my flask with fresh water, and set out once more, still
hoping to reach the river. I walked up hill and down, having on my left
the lofty mountain ranges, and in front of me a sea of rocks whose end I
could not see. I was accustomed to such scenes of solitude, still I now
greatly felt what a difference there is in looking down from the back of
a stout horse on the desert and having to cross the enormous tracks on
foot. The only anxiety that oppressed me was the agony my comrades must
be feeling about me, as they would naturally suppose that some accident
had happened to me. I knew they would not quit these mountains till they
were certain of my fate, and I listened continually for signal shots. I
dared not fire them for fear of expending my ammunition, and it would
have been unnecessary, as they would certainly not neglect this method
of showing me the road to them.

The day passed without my hearing the echo of a shot, and the sun was
rather low when I reached a small stream whose banks were both rather
thickly covered with wood. I resolved to spend the night here, as I had
wood and water, and was protected from the weather, which had got up
rather fiercely since the afternoon, I looked for a suitable spot,
carried wood to a fallen tree, and was about to light my fire, when I
looked up at the hill before me and felt a desire to take a look from
it at the valley beyond to see whether the long looked-for river was
there. It was still early, the sun had not yet set, and though I was
tolerably tired I set out. I walked up a steep gorge into which several
narrow passes opened on both sides; it was covered with several large
masses of rock and loose stones, and the nearer I got to the top the
narrower it grew, and the steeper were the precipices enclosing it.

I had just passed one of these narrow gorges on my right and was
approaching a second, when I noticed an opposite pass on my left. I
cautiously crept along the rock to be able to have a peep into this
pass, and see whether there was any game in it, and was only a few yards
from the angle of the wall, when suddenly a small bear, which I took for
a one-year-old black bear, though it looked different, sprang from the
pass on my right and hastened up the opposite one. As I said, it
appeared to me rather smaller than a one-year-old black bear, but there
was no time for reflection, and its skin might be of great service to
me. I raised my rifle, fired, and saw the bear roll over the stones like
a ball, uttering plaintive cries like those of a child; at the same
instant the hasty bounds of a heavy animal reached my ears
simultaneously with an awful roar. It became dark at the angle of the
precipice before me, and the upright gigantic form of a grizzly bear
appeared only a few paces from me. I fell back a step in horror,
involuntarily stretched out my rifle to keep the bear off, and at the
same moment saw Trusty fly past me under its belly. The rifle
exploded - a fearful blow hurled me back several yards against the
precipice - my eyes flashed fire - I lost my senses and fell.

I must have lain here about half an hour, and on opening my eyes again
felt that my forehead was wet and cold. I saw that Trusty was standing
over me with his honest face and licking me. I got up and sprang on one
side in horror, for close to me lay the shaggy body of the bear, with
widely opened throat, from which a stream of black, curdled blood ran
under me. It was a she bear whose three months' old cub I had shot, and
she had wished to avenge its death. My guardian angel had saved me, for
my bullet, which entered its throat and passed through the skull, had
killed the bear on the spot. In its fall it had torn the rifle from my
hand, and forced me back so violently that I had struck my head against
the rock, and the pain deprived me of consciousness. As on so many
previous occasions, an invisible hand had again saved me from a terrible
danger, whose extent I could appreciate now that I saw the monster lying
before me. I stood motionless reflecting on my position, when the hoot
of a passing owl reminded me that night had set in. While reloading, I
remembered that this was the pairing time of the bears, and that very
possibly male bears would be following the female, and hence this was
the most dangerous spot I could select. I went up to the cub, threw it
on my back, and hurried down the gorge to my camping place, where I at
once made a blaze, the safest and only way of protecting oneself against
the four-footed denizens of these regions. I now saw for the first time
that brave Trusty was covered with blood, and had three severe wounds on
his back, dealt him by the bear. Two of them I at once sewed up and
washed them repeatedly with the clear cold water by which I was camped.
I then skinned the cub, put a sufficient quantity of its tender fat meat
to roast at the fire, made a bed of brushwood, and after supper I rolled
myself in the shaggy, fresh bear-hide upon my deer-skin, and fell into
my usual sound sleep.

I had not been sleeping long when Trusty barked sharply several times,
and I sat up and seized my rifle. A frightful howling of wolves rang
from the heights through the valleys, and between it a hollow roar
resembling that which the bear raised when she attacked me. The night
was very dark, and the fire, which had burnt down, solely lit up the
nearest spots, while I could only distinguish the outlines of some
evergreen holly-trees around me standing out against the clear star-lit
sky. I quickly threw some small wood in front of the glowing trunk and
blew up the flame. At this moment I heard something dash away close by,
and directly after, at the foot of the ravine, renewed howls and roars,
while Trusty stood close by my side growling. I carried some heavy logs
to the fire, rolled myself again in my warm skin, and fell asleep,
though I only allowed one ear to sleep, as Tiger said. The howling
lasted the whole night. I looked after my fire every now and then, and
was waked by the dawn without having had my sleep any further disturbed.
After breakfast, I hung the two skins on my back, and followed the
valley for about three miles ere I crossed the heights to the north, as
I wished to avoid the spot where the bear lay, upon which the wolves and
bears had held a grand feast during the past night. On reaching the
saddle of the mountain, the idea occurred to me for the first time that
the lost river must necessarily flow to the north, and I was amazed at
myself for not thinking of this sooner. Hence I marched due west, and
saw about noon a chain of hills whose direction lay northward, which
animated me with fresh hope of finding my comrades again. At the foot of
these hills, from which spurs stretched out eastward like ribs, the
valleys were thickly wooded, and displayed generally a richer vegetation
than the small gulleys in which I had hitherto been marching. With much
difficulty and toil I reached the mountain chain in a few hours,
exhausted and starving; but the longing to learn whether I should find
at its top a pleasanter change in my prospects did not let me rest. I
selected the least steep spot, and climbed up over loose boulders which
constantly rolled away under me and brought me down. I had only one hand
at my service to hold on to the few mimosa bushes or to pull myself up,
for I carried my rifle in the other, and would sooner have injured
myself than it.

At last I climbed the last patch, bathed in perspiration and red-hot,
and words fail to describe the joyous surprise which befel me, on seeing
before me the wooded vale and river, which I had been seeking so long in
vain. In the first joy of my heart I forgot that it was still very
uncertain whether I should find my comrades there, and that my existence
might depend on a charge more or less in my possession. I fired my rifle
and listened attentively to its echo as it rolled away along the
mountains. I halted for a long time awaiting an answer, but to no
effect. I looked long up the river with my excellent telescope to try
and discover smoke, but also without success. Far and wide the rocky
landscape lay before me, with no other sign of life than that of the
buzzards circling round the heights. I had been resting for about half
an hour and cooling myself in the fresh breeze, when I seized my rifle
and proceeded down to the valley, which I reached in a much shorter
time. I went up it to the foot of the hills, where I had fewer obstacles
to contend with than in the wood that covered the river banks, till the
declining sun as well as hunger and fatigue warned me to select my camp.

I had gone a considerable distance when the sun stood over the distant
hills, for I had walked on without resting, and had no rocks to scale. I
turned off to a spring in the wood, and threw off my skins on the first
bushes I came to, as they fatigued me too much, though their weight was
not great. My fire was soon lighted at the roots of a stump, a stock of
wood collected, my meal made, and supper eaten, which consisted of the
remainder of the bear meat. Before I entered the wood, I had looked up
to the hills above me, and reflected whether at nightfall I should light
a fire there, which would certainly be seen a long way down the river. I
might possibly give my friends a hint of my whereabouts, but equally
well betray my halting-place to hostile Indians, who, if any were in the
neighbourhood, would see something unusual in it. But then again it was
an easy matter to hide myself from them, and as I was without a horse,
seek a refuge which could easily be defended. I resolved to carry out my
design, took my weapons and went up the hills, whose summit I reached at
nightfall. I then collected fallen branches and brushwood round an old
stone piled them up to a great height, and the fire quickly darted up
crackling and roaring. I carried up a great number of logs from the
trees lying around and threw them on the fire, which reminded me of the
bonfires we used to light at home when I was a boy. When I thought the
pile of wood large enough to last at least an hour I left the hill and
went to the nearest knoll, where I sat down near some rocks and lit a
pipe, which enjoyment I only allowed myself morning and night in order
to make my tobacco last as long as possible, as the leaves of the
sumach, which are a good substitute for tobacco, were not to be had. I
had been sitting there for about half an hour when Trusty got up,
uttered an almost inaudible growl, and gazed at the slope under my feet.
I pressed his head to the ground, laying myself on the top of him, and
distinctly heard beneath me light human voices and some footsteps, which
went under the precipice to the hill on whose top my fire was burning.
What had I better do? Should I call out? They might be my friends, but
if they were strange Indians, I should expose myself to unnecessary
danger; if they were my friends, on reaching the fire, they would
certainly make themselves known by their voices or by firing. I remained
perfectly quiet and gazed steadfastly at my fire. After a while I saw a
dark object moving before it, then another and another, and I was soon
able to see clearly through my telescope that the men moving round it
wore no hats. They were consequently Indians, and I was very glad I had
not betrayed myself.

All at once I saw a long way off to the south-west a light which rapidly
grew larger, and in spite of the great distance so increased that I

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 21 of 35)