Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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could distinctly perceive the smoke through my glass. I greeted it with
a loudly beating heart as the answer of my friends, for no one in these
dangerous regions lights a widely gleaming fire save under such
circumstances, and I was now certain I should join them again next day,
for they were safe to keep up the fire, so as to show me my course by
its smoke. I remained quietly seated under the rocks, and did not think
of sleep though I was very tired, for I did not dare return to my camp,
as the fire was certainly still burning there, and the Indians would
have seized my skins, whose absence I now severely felt. I was beginning
to chill, and as I could not await daylight on these bare heights, I
resolved to march during the night as well as I could. I crept in a
stooping posture from my seat to the nearest hollow which ran down from
the hills to the valley, and on reaching the foot of them, I walked
slowly on through the darkness.

I had been walking for about an hour, and had fallen several times,
though without hurting myself, when I heard a shot right ahead of me. It
was doubtless fired by my friends, who were seeking me in spite of the
darkness: my fatigue disappeared, and I walked with greater certainty
over the bare sloping ground. I soon heard another shot, and now could
no longer refrain from answering it. I fired, and soon after heard two
shots responding to me. It was a terribly tiring walk, for though it was
bright starlight I could not distinguish the boulders and small hollows
sufficiently to avoid them. I also got several times among prickly scrub
and swamps between the hill sides.

I was just forcing my way out of such a damp spot overgrown with thorns,
when the crack of a rifle rang from the hill side in front of me, and I
at the same time heard Tiger's hunting yell, though a long way off. I
fired again, and was again answered by two shots. I breathed freely and
hurried over the slippery rocks, and just as I came under a hill slope I
heard Tiger's shrill yell over me; I answered with all my might, and ere
long this faithful friend and the equally worthy Königstein welcomed me.
Their joy, their delight were indescribable. Trusty sprang round us as
if mad in order to display his sympathy, and I was obliged to call to
him repeatedly and order him to be quiet, ere he mastered his delight.
It was a strange meeting among these wild mountains, whose dark forms we
could now distinguish against the starlit sky, while the deepest night
lay around us. Tiger proposed to light a fire; but when I told him that
Indians had passed me and gone to the fire, he said it was better for us
to keep moving. I was too tired, however, and must rest first, so we lay
down under some large rocks where the wind did not reach us. I took
Trusty in my arms and pressed him to me to keep him warm.

In order not to fall asleep, I now told my comrades how I had fared, and
heard that Tiger had explained my disappearance to my friends precisely
in this way. At length the first gleam of coming day showed itself, and
was saluted in the valley by the voices of numerous turkeys. We leapt
up, went down to the wood, where these early birds were standing on the
trees, and brought two of them down. A fire blazed, and the breasts of
the turkeys twirled before it while we warmed ourselves at it.
Königstein had a tin pot and coffee with him, which improved our meal,
and when the sun was beginning to shine warmly we started for the camp,
from which we were about five miles distant, and where news of me was
anxiously awaited.

The joy at meeting again was great. From a distance we were welcomed
with shots: all ran to meet us, and each wanted to be the first to shake
my hand and express his joy at my rescue, as they all except Tiger had
given me up for lost. Czar raised his head and the forefoot buckled to
it, and neighed in delight at seeing me, while Trusty ran up to him and
leapt on his back. All were in the most cheerful temper, and a thousand
questions and answers flew round our camp fire.

My friends had gone in search of me on the evening when I did not return
to camp, and Tiger had found the turkey shot by me, and followed my
trail to the first stony knoll over which I pursued the wounded stag;
but from this point he had been unable to find my track, and returned to
camp when darkness set in. The next morning at daybreak he returned to
the same spot, and had gone ahead of my trail in a wide curve, in order
if possible to recognise it in crossing. Toward evening he had really
succeeded in finding first Trusty's trail and then mine in the valley
where I shot the deer on the first morning, and reached the spot where I
made my breakfast off its meat. But from this point every sign
disappeared, and any further search would be useless as night had set
in. Afterwards they lit a large fire on the nearest height, and kept it
up all night, though I had not noticed it. On the next morning Tiger
left camp at an early hour with Königstein, and told the others that
they would be back in eight days if they did not find me before. They
looked for me during the whole day, and had just collected wood on a
knoll over the river to light a signal fire, when they saw mine flashing
against the dark sky, and hurried toward me.

After all the events of the last restless days had been sufficiently
discussed, I longed for rest. I made my bed in the shade of a live oak,
covered myself with a buffalo robe, and giving my comrades directions
not to wake me under any pretext, I slept undisturbed till the sun
withdrew its last beams from the valley, and sank behind the glittering
peaks of the Andes. I felt strengthened, and after dipping my head in
the river to refresh me, I sat down with my friends and ate a hearty
supper composed of all the dainties of hunters' fare.

The next morning found us mounted at an early hour to scale the heights
on the other side of the river, whence we followed its course in the
next valley. Toward noon, however, the road became fatiguing, as we had
to climb rather large hills that jutted out from the mountain chain on
our right, and we were soon so wedged in among steep precipices that we
saw no prospect of advancing. After many attempts nothing was left us
but to turn back and recross the saddle we had last surmounted, after
which we followed the valley to the north-west. Here, too, our road was
rendered very tiring and dangerous by huge scattered masses of rock, as
we often had to lead our horses over them, and they might easily have
been injured by slipping upon them. We wound our way through, however,
without any accident, and were riding towards evening over grassy
meadows under a steep precipice, when we noticed on the top of it a herd
of about twenty buffaloes, following a path that ran over a plateau
several hundred feet above our heads. It was remarkable with what
certainty these apparently clumsy creatures followed the path which was
at times hardly a foot in breadth, close to an abyss on which a man
might have hesitated to venture.

I dismounted and aimed at an old bull which led the file, while I
shouted to my comrades to fire at the fifth head in the herd, which was
a cow that would not bear a calf this year, and hence must be very
plump, which can be easily seen by the dark glistening hair. We shot
nearly together. My buffalo made a spring forward, rose on its hind
legs, and fell over the abyss, falling on projecting rocks till it came
down to us in the valley regularly smashed. The cow, hit by many
bullets, fell on its knees, and, as if foreseeing its fate, remained in
this position for some minutes, till its strength deserting it, it lost
its balance and fell head-foremost from rock to rock down to us. Both
animals were frightfully smashed, their ribs and bones protruded from
their torn hides, and large pieces of rock had been forced into their
monstrous carcases. The other buffaloes trotted along the path till they
disappeared from sight behind a knoll. The smashed animals were
perfectly suited for our use, as we only took the best bits, and
especially the loins from the spine, cut the tongues out of the broken
jaws, and removed the marrow-bones, leaving the rest to the vultures and
buzzards which soon circled over our heads.

Towards evening we reached a small stream which wound through the
mountains to Canadian River, and offered us a very pleasant
camping-place through the fine grass on its flat banks, as well as an
abundance of dry wood.

We were lying in the twilight round our fire, when we heard a long way
up the valley the hoot of an owl, and at the same time saw a large very
white bird flying along the dark precipice. We all seized our rifles to
bring it down, when it settled on a projecting rock opposite to us.
None of us had ever seen a bird like it before. Several of my comrades
ran up nearer to it, and fired simultaneously; it swung itself in the
air, however, with a loud flapping of wings, and circled round our camp,
flying no great distance above me. I had more luck than my friends, for
I tumbled it over with a broken wing. It was a snow white owl of
extraordinary size, and with such beautiful plumage that I kept its skin
to stuff. I therefore killed it, hung it up, and on the next morning
skinned it, and prepared the skin for carriage.





We left our camp at a rather early hour, and soon found below it
numerous signs of beaver trees, a foot and a half in diameter, lay with
a great number of smaller ones along the banks of the stream, and
farther in the wood we saw trees glistening whose bark had been peeled
off several feet above the ground. Any one unacquainted with these
animals and their habits would surely have believed that new settlers
had been busy here, and cut down wood for their block houses. The
splinters lay in heaps round the bitten-through trees, as if we had been
in a carpenter's shop, and many of the felled trees had been stripped of
their branches. These most interesting animals generally settle on the
smaller streams and brooks, and their families at first consist of but
few members. On such a stream they cautiously select a spot where
several tall soft-wooded trees, such as poplars, aspens, ashes, maples,
&c. stand on both sides of it, then proceed together to one of the
trunks, stand on their hind legs, and follow each other slowly round it,
tearing out of the tree at each bite great bits of wood, as if they had
been hewn out with an axe. They cut away more wood on the side of the
tree turned to the river than on the opposite side, so that it becomes
overbalanced and falls over into the water. Thus they fell one tree
after the other across the stream, nibble off the branches, and carry
other bits of wood between and under these trunks down to the river bed,
while they fill up the interstices with twigs. After this is finished,
they fetch on their broad flat tails mud and earth from the bank, and
plaster the wooden dam, till it becomes so tight that the water rises
before it, and overflows on both sides frequently for miles.

In this lake, produced by their art, the beavers build their houses,
which are generally of three storeys, though at times of four. They are
round and pointed like a sugar-loaf, are about twenty feet in diameter
at the bottom of the water; the floors are about two feet high, and
separated by a flooring, in the centre of which is a round hole, by
means of which they go up and down the house. The only entrance is at
the bottom of the water, and generally only the highest floor emerges
from the water, so that the latter is always dry. The creatures build
their house of branches three feet in length, which they bind together
with twigs and earth, and make the walls nearly a foot thick. They thus
build one floor over the other, each higher one being smaller, till the
highest one terminates in a point. They line the interior with grass and
moss, so that it affords them and their young a dry, warm abode in

[Illustration: BEAVERS BUILDING A DAM. _p. 268._]

The females give birth at the end of May, or beginning of June, to from
two to six young, which are brought up in the colony and remain there;
on the other hand, they never admit a strange beaver, and fight
sanguinary battles with it, if it tries to force its way into their
settlement. In proportion as the family increases, more houses are
built, and I have often seen lodges in which a dozen houses peeped out
of the water. The beavers, however, do not fell the trees solely to
build their houses, but also to procure food from the tender bark of the
thinner branches. They convey these branches in autumn, cut in lengths,
to their houses, and pile up a large supply in the lower rooms, on which
they live in winter. They go on land at this season, too, and for this
purpose keep holes open, in the ice on the banks of their ponds, and I
have also found their track in the snow; but as a rule, they remain at
home at that season. If the family grow too numerous for the space and
the food to be found in the vicinity, several members of it emigrate and
establish a new lodge close by: frequently an old beaver colony will
contain a hundred. The beaver is one of the most cautious and timid
animals in creation, and it is very difficult to get at it on land and
kill it with firearms; on the other hand, it is wonderfully easy to
capture in traps, and in this way an entire colony can be extirpated to
the last one in a very short period.

The male beaver carries in two bladders the _castoreum officinale_, a
very powerfully-scented, oily fluid, which the hunter collects in a
bottle and mixes with spirits, partly to keep it from putrefying, but
principally to impart to it another odour, by which the beaver is
induced to believe that it emanates from a stranger. In this bottle the
hunter thrusts a twig, the point of which he moistens with its contents,
then thrusts the other end of it into the bank of the beaver pond, so
that the point projects over the water at a spot where it is not very
deep. Exactly under this twig he places in the water his heavy iron
trap, to which he fastens, by a long thong, a very large bush, which he
throws on the bank. So soon as a beaver raises its nose on the surface
of the pond, it smells the castoreum on the twig, swims up to convince
itself whether it emanates from a stranger, and while going on land
steps on the trap, which closes and catches its forefeet. It darts away
with the trap into deep water, and wrestles furiously with the torturing
iron, for which reason a beaver thus captured is never found to have
sound teeth - till, quite exhausted, it tries to rise to the surface to
breathe. The trap, however, keeps it down, and the prisoner is drowned
in its own element. The next morning the hunter sees the bush floating
over the spot where the beaver is lying, and pulls it up with the trap.
The beaver hunters who visit these western deserts often take some
dozens of traps with them, so that when they arrive at a colony, it is
speedily destroyed, on which occasion they also capture in the same way
the otters living there.

Usually these hunters go quite alone into the desert with a horse that
carries the traps, some buffalo hides, salt, gunpowder, and bullets,
and lead thus, several hundred of miles away from civilization, a most
dangerous and fatiguing life for two or three years. At night they set
their traps, and in the morning take out the captured animals, whose
skins they dry before the fire, while their flesh serves them as food.
When they have cleared out the spot, they pack up the skins, conceal
them in caves, under rocks, and in hollow trees, and go farther with
their traps. In winter, when the hunt is not very productive, they build
huts of skins, or seek a cave in the rocks, in which they find a shelter
from the harsh climate, and hunt other varieties of game, while they
keep their horse alive on a stock of dried grass, collected in autumn,
weeds, or poplar bark. At the end of some years, during which such a
hunter has collected a large stock of skins, he proceeds to the nearest
settlement, fetches pack animals thence, takes a sufficient number of
men into his service, and proceeds to his hunting-grounds, in order to
carry to market the produce of his lengthened labour. It is often the
case that such a hunter receives from three to four thousand pounds for
the skins collected during this period, but still more frequently he
pays for his daring with his scalp and his life. The Indians themselves
do not kill beavers, but regard the trappers as the pioneers of the
white men, who eventually advance farther into their hunting-grounds,
and take from them one piece of land after the other, by which they are
daily driven farther back, and come into hostile collision with one
another. Hence the trappers are hated by all the Indians, and pursued by
them whenever they are seen. Only the great concealment and difficult
approach to the regions where they hunt, and the great caution with
which they manage to hide their abode from the eyes of the Indians,
render it possible for them to lead this life for years, and constantly
deceive the savages, when they accidentally acquire a knowledge of their
presence. It is incredible what acuteness and skill such iron characters
develope, and we must feel surprised that a single one of these
adventurers ever sees his home again, I have lain for whole nights at
the little fires of these people, and listened to their stories - how
they became familiar with this life in their earliest youth, and
returned to it when grey-haired, although able to live comfortably on
their savings in the civilized world. As the seafarer dies on the water,
the desert becomes the element of this hunter; and he rarely closes his
eyes elsewhere - with the rifle on his arm.

The sign of beaver lodges which we saw was so fresh and numerous that
probably no one had as yet appeared here with traps: the stream spread
far over its bank and formed a very large pool, from whose surface a
number of houses peeped out; but we could see nothing of the mysterious
denizens of the settlement. We were compelled to ride close under the
precipice on our right, where our cattle were up to their knees in
water, in order to cross the inundation, while below the dams the stream
remained in its narrow bed.

We reached Canadian River, which, however, here trended so to the east
that we took the first opportunity of crossing the hills that bordered
it and pursuing our course toward the north. On the other side of them,
which we reached about noon, we came to another small stream, on whose
banks we saw a number of peeled trees, and also found here a beaver
lodge. We rode through the stream, and had left it about a mile behind
us, when we suddenly heard a shout in our rear, and saw a man, who had
stationed himself on an isolated rock, and was making signs to us. Tiger
told me he was a beaver trapper. We rode back to bid this son of the
desert good day and hear whether we could be of any service to him. When
we drew nearer, the tall dark form disappeared from the rocks, and a man
stepped from the thicket on our left, with a long rifle in his hand, and
came up to us with the question - "Where from, strangers?" He was above
six feet high, thin, but muscular, with extraordinarily broad shoulders,
a dark bronzed face and neck, a long grey beard, and a haughty
demeanour; his small, light-blue eyes flashed with great resolution
under his thick black brows, while a pleasant smile softened the
impression which his glance might have produced on a stranger. His
exterior revealed at the first glance that he had endured a good deal in
his time, that he had often defied fate, and that nothing could easily
happen to him which would throw him out of gear and make his resolution
totter. Deer-hide tight trowsers, shoes of the same material, and a
jacket of the same composed his dress, and a scarlet woollen shirt,
unbuttoned, allowed his bronzed chest to be seen. A beaver-skin cap
proved that it was made by the wearer, and the same was the case with
the hunting-bag he carried over his shoulder.

I rode up to the stranger and replied - "From the Leone on the Rio
Grande," and offered him my hand, which he shook heartily. "Are you a
trapper? and where from?" I asked him. "From Missouri; my name - Ben
Armstrong - has been known for the last forty years in the Rocky
Mountains, and I have now been back for a year from the old State." He
invited us to go to his camp and spend the night with him, as he longed
to hear something about events in the old States. We accepted his
invitation, and followed him along a narrow path through the bushes and
rocks to a spot some hundred yards above the pond, where we dismounted
in front of some thick scrub, and passed through it with our host. We
stepped on to a cleared spot, from which the axe had removed the bushes,
at whose northern end heavy masses of rock rose above each other, and
hanging over at a height of thirty feet, covered a large space. Over the
whole place a number of dried beaver skins was suspended from the
branches, as well as the hide of a grizzly, and many others of deer and
antelopes. Under the rocks lay several bundles of beaver skins, while
one of them drawn up near the fire seemed to have served our host as a

Antonio and Königstein went down to the pond with our horses, where
there was excellent grass, and watched over them in turn with my other
comrades. I saw a track of a horse leading to our host's abode, and
asked him whose it was, to which he replied that on this trip, for the
first time in his life, he had taken a partner, a young Kentuckian of
the name of Gray, who was at present out hunting on horseback, to get
some venison, as they were sick of beaver meat. The next day, he said,
they intended to leave their camp, as they had trapped all the beavers
round, otherwise he would not have been so incautious as to lead so many
horses to his hiding-place and thus betray it to passing Indians. He
always led his own horse through the scrub up the stream, and let it
graze on the opposite side, so that its track might not lead to his

Our host now filled a cup from a small cask of whisky three of which lay
under the rocks, and, as he told us, constituted his sole luxury. He
loaded an extra mule with them when he started, but it had been killed
some months previously by a couguar, as it had got loose at night. He
readily offered us his favourite liquid and a cup of fresh spring water,
and after taking a hearty pull himself he put six beaver tails in front
of the fire, and we put all our coffeepots with them, and unpacked our
small stock of biscuit, while we set the remaining marrow-bones from
yesterday to roast.

The sun had not set when our friendly host's partner arrived with his
horse, loaded with deer meat. He was greatly surprised at finding so
large a party, and very pleased to have an opportunity of hearing news
from the States, even though it was not of the freshest. He was young
and tall, with a healthy, merry face, brown eyes, pleasant mouth, a
commencing beard, and long, dark brown curls hanging over his shoulders.
His tight-fitting leathern dress was made with more coquettishness than
Armstrong's, and displayed his handsome person, while a broad-brimmed
black beaver hat slightly pulled over one ear, imparted to his whole
appearance something resolute and determined.

Our cattle were now brought up and fastened to the withered trees in the
open space - then we lay down on our skins round the fire and enjoyed
the beaver tails, while our hosts paid special attention to our biscuits
and coffee, which were a rarity for them. After supper Armstrong sent
the whisky-cup round again, then pipes were lighted, and we first
answered the thousand questions asked us about the state of affairs at
home, and which principally referred to politics. When this subject was
exhausted, Armstrong spoke and told us the principal events of his life
since he last bade farewell to civilization, his various bloodthirsty
fights with the Indians, the dangers they had often escaped with
difficulty, and the fatigues and unpleasantnesses they endured, among
which he mentioned the hailstorm, which had also annoyed us. He told us
of successful hunts with the traps, and promised to show us the next
morning the last beaver to be found in these parts.

Then he told us how the ex-owner of the monstrous bearskin, which hung
behind us on a tree, had paid a visit one evening to their camp, and how

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 22 of 35)