Copyright
Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

. (page 23 of 35)
Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 23 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


they killed it. For fear of the Indians they dared not light a large
fire, and the few coals had not frightened the bear, which advanced
within a few yards of them, when both fired their rifles at its head,
and laid it dead on the ground. While telling this story, Armstrong
pulled off his shirt and showed us on his sides and back a regular mass
of scars which he had received from the embraces of dying grizzlies. He
narrated so picturesquely that the matter was fully brought before the
listener: his powerful deep voice, which kept pace with the fire of his
narrative, the passionate gestures by which he accompanied his
narrative, as well as his coarse form, illumined by the fire and the
surrounding scenery, produced a remarkable and permanent impression on
me. We listened to the stories till a late hour, when fatigue at length
closed our eyes.

At the first beam of dawn we led our cattle into the grass, got
breakfast ready, and then went with Armstrong about half a mile down the
stream, where he had traps still set. We pulled up three beavers with
the bushes floating on the water, and our host remarked that now there
was only one old fellow left, who had escaped his traps several times
and would not go near them again in a hurry. On returning to camp, we
packed our animals and took leave of our kind hosts, to whom, to their
great joy, we gave a portion of our stock of coffee. We then described
to them accurately the district where we had seen the numerous beaver
lodges, and wishing them all possible luck, rode again up the mountain's
side where we had heard Armstrong shout.

For several days we followed our course without any particular
difficulties, while the country retained much the same character. The
Sacramento mountains seemed to run farther to the west, and attained
their greatest height here. We soon got among higher mountains, and
found we should have done better by going more to the east into the
prairies, for we were obliged to turn and ride a long way back, as we
could not pass through the mountains. At length, however, we reached a
river of some size, which flowed to the north-east, and resolved to
follow it until we reached lower and more accessible regions where we
could pursue our course again. We spent the night on the north side of
the river, and found, after riding a few miles down its bank, that the
valley through which it flowed constantly grew narrower and the
precipices on its sides steeper. It was still early, and the sun had
been unable to overpower the thick fog which had gathered in the valleys
during the night. It appeared, indeed, still uncertain whether it would
rise or fall, as it hung about the rocks in long, narrow strips. It was
as cold as on a damp autumn morning; the grass and bushes were as wet as
after a heavy shower, and heavy dewdrops hung on the old spider's webs
between them. We had put on our buffalo robes and guided our horses
between the many loose blocks of stone and step-like strata, while the
river constantly displayed larger and smaller cascades, some of which
were twenty feet high, and its bed continually became deeper.

We had just reached one of these falls when we noticed on the other
bank two very large grizzly bears, one of which squatted on its
hind-quarters and stared over at us. They could not hurt us, as the
stream above the fall was too rapid for them to swim across without
being carried so far that they would go over the fall, and below the
latter the banks were at least fifty feet high, and so steep that it was
impossible to climb them. Tiger, for all that, advised us not to fire at
them, as he was of opinion that they might find a spot where they could
cross to us, and then they would give us a good deal of trouble. We
therefore rode past without disturbing them, and only watched them as
they licked their paws and passed them over their clumsy heads, while
sniffing at us from time to time, and even following us a few yards
along the bank.

The gorge down which the river dashed grew deeper and our route the more
dangerous, until we suddenly came to a ravine which ran across our road
into the river bed. Our farther progress was here checked, and we were
obliged to try and make a path up it, which was effected with great
difficulty, as the stones lay wildly about. We soon reached an old very
practicable path, which, as it appeared to us, was used not only by
buffaloes, but also by Indians, and which ran north-west. Tiger was of
opinion that this was the road through these mountains to Santa Fé which
the foot Indians employed, as they avoid the prairies in order to get
out of the way of the mounted tribes, and because travelling in the tall
grass is too fatiguing for a pedestrian.

We gladly followed it, for the road through the rocks was more
impassable than ever; it ran up hill rather sharply toward the highest
mountain saddles. The nearer we advanced to them the better and more
passable the path became, and our horses scaled these high hills at a
good pace, and at times had an opportunity of drawing breath on small
plateaus. The sky was perfectly cloudless and the sun warm, so that we
welcomed the light north wind. Eastward the low hills lay at our feet in
the extreme distance, between which we could watch the various mountain
torrents for a long way, while here and there the rich green of the
fresh turf peeped out between the red masses. On our left, the mountains
were piled on each other in the strangest forms until their glistening
ice-peaks rose into the azure sky. Our path frequently wound along the
precipices, where it could be seen for a long distance like a white
stripe, and it did not seem possible to pass along it; but when we
reached the spot our horses stepped lightly over it, and we found that
it looked worse than it really was.

Thus, toward evening, when the sun was sinking behind the mountains, we
saw our path suddenly disappear behind an abrupt precipice, and expected
a dangerous bit. When we arrived there we considered it really better to
dismount and lead our horses. The path constantly grew narrower under
the precipice, and the abyss beneath us steeper and deeper at every
step. We advanced as it was no longer possible to turn back, and with
each foot our situation became more serious. We wound round the face of
the rock and looked down into a dizzy ravine, whose bottom was already
hidden by the gloom. The path was only a few feet wide, and at many
places washed away by the rain. Tiger, with his piebald, was ahead of
me, and was leading his horse by a long bridle; all at once he cried to
me, "Take care," and I saw his horse step down and then spring up again.
The rain had excavated the path here to some depth, and by its side the
rocks went down sheer. Without hesitation, I seized the end of the
bridle, quickly crossed the dangerous spot, and Czar did the same
gallantly. Königstein followed me, and then one after the other till the
mules at length came up. Jack was ahead; he went cautiously up and down,
and I saw the basket on his left side graze the precipice; still he got
across safely. Lizzy followed at his heels; but Sam swerved when he
arrived at the spot, made a leap to get across, struck his basket
against the precipice, and was hurled out into the abyss, down which he
fell with all four feet in the air. A general "Ah!" was the sole sound
that passed our lips, for we were not yet out of danger ourselves. Ere
long, however, the path grew broader, and ran over a grassy plateau,
whence we could look back at the dangerous point and into the dark
abyss. Had we arrived from this side, not one of us would have dared to
lead his horse over it, and we should have been obliged to ride round a
long way.

The loss of Sam was serious to us, for he carried our coffee, spirits,
several buffalo robes and articles of clothing. A little coffee was
still packed on Jack, as we had opened a fresh bladder that very
morning, and that animal carried all the articles for daily consumption.
Still the matter could not be helped, and we regarded the loss as a very
fortunate one, as we might just as easily have lost one of our horses,
which would have been far more serious. We unpacked, as the sun had set
and we did not know what roads we might still find. We had grass for our
hungry cattle, and water for ourselves we carried with us. We made a
small fire of _bois de vache_, to which Tiger presently brought a few
twigs of mimosa, so that we were able to cook our supper; then we
supplied our friends whose bedding had fallen into the abyss with such
blankets and hides as we could spare. The night was very cold, and we
missed a good wood fire terribly. We rolled ourselves tighter in our
blankets and skins, but could not keep warm, and were glad when daylight
came and we could make our blood circulate by moving about. All of us,
except Antonio, hurried off to look for firewood, in search of which we
had to go some distance; still the movement did us good, and each
brought an armful of wood back, so that we soon had a good fire at which
to warm our benumbed hands.

It was very early when we rode off with our buffalo robes over our
shoulders: we pulled the large woollen blankets that hung over the
saddle across our lap, so as to keep our knees warm, and throwing the
bridle on the horse's neck, we put our hands in our jacket-pockets. The
whole landscape looked as if sugared, the grass and bushes sparkled in
the sunbeams with their coating of hoar frost, and the rocks completed
the wintry scene by the cold blue tinge they had in the shade. This
picture, however, passed away very rapidly, and in an hour the rime was
hardly to be seen even at the shadiest spots. Our path continually ran
upwards, and went up and down from one mountain saddle to another. We
saw several bears climbing up the rocks, for in these remote regions
they are not very particular as to the mode of going home, and came
across a herd of antelopes, some of which we shot. About noon we reached
a hollow between two ranges of hills, where we found fresh grass and a
stream whose banks were covered with low bushes.

We noticed about a mile to our left at the spot where the stream ran out
of a precipitous and very narrow gorge, eight buffaloes quietly grazing,
and resolved to hunt them. We left our cattle under Antonio's charge and
crept toward the animals. Here my comrades hid themselves in a dry bush
overgrown with raspberry creepers that stood nearly at the centre of the
opening, and Tiger and I crept up to the buffaloes, which were standing
at the highest point of the ravine: we reached some bushes not more than
ten yards from the animals without their perceiving us, and lay down on
the ground in the midst of them. We had each selected a buffalo, when
they stared into our bush with tails erect, as they had probably scented
us; we fired together, and at the same moment there was a trampling over
us as if a cavalry regiment were charging. I jumped up and fired again
at the flying monsters, which now had to run the gauntlet of my
comrades' guns. One dropped close to them and a second fell a little
farther on, while the rest galloped down the stream. Tiger sprang up too
and cut off a buffalo near our bush, which he said was the one I had
shot: his had fled with the others. For my part, I had not seen it, for
the powder smoke still hung over my rifle, when the brutes charged over
us, and we might consider ourselves fortunate that they had not trampled
us with their huge feet. We skinned one of them in order to use the skin
as a substitute for the one we had lost, although an untanned buffalo
hide is a very clumsy thing to carry on pack-animals.

We laid in a stock of the best meat, took all the marrow-bones and
tongues, and then followed a very decent path, which here left the main
road and went down the stream eastward. After a little while the path
trended more to the northern hills, where we saw the smoke of numerous
fires rising farther to the north. Tiger said it was lucky we had chosen
this road, as on the other we should have ridden right into an Indian
camp.

For two days we followed our path and crossed various streams which
flowed more to the south, till the low hills became more scattered and
the glens between them wider. The vegetation was springing up here, and
the good pasturage induced us to grant our cattle some days' rest, as
they had been on short commons lately. We selected a very pretty
camping-place, where a small stream ran under a precipice and was
covered on one side with scrub and a few leafy trees, while on the north
and east a rich prairie opened out, and to the west the forest became
thicker. We had abundance of game of every description, and many a head
bled to death around us, merely for the sake of the fascination which
hunting exerts. All had left camp in turn to hunt except Clifton and
myself, and the latter asked leave on the second morning to try his
luck. It was a fine day and I proposed to accompany him, but stipulated
that we should ride. Clifton was delighted, and quickly saddled his
iron-grey, a horse of remarkable value, who up to the present had been
the least fatigued of all our cattle by the journey.

We rode away from camp and received from our laughing comrades a
seasonable hint to take care and not lose ourselves. We rode up the
stream, from which a thick wood soon separated us, on whose skirt we had
followed the prairie. We had ridden for about an hour, when we noticed a
little distance off some wild cattle proceeding toward the wood. Clifton
was very eager to kill one of these animals, but I warned him to be
most cautious, and reminded him that this was a most dangerous hunt. We
rode slowly to the skirt of the wood and reached the spot where the herd
had entered it, when Clifton pulled up under a young oak, wound his
horse's bridle round a branch, and ran off with his rifle and knelt
behind a large plane tree. He had done this almost before I knew what he
was about. I rode a few paces farther and saw a large bull grazing with
its head turned towards us, but at the same moment Clifton fired. The
bullet was hardly out of the rifle ere the bull rushed at him with
lowered head, and Clifton, throwing away his gun, took to flight. He
reached a young tree and swarmed up it, while the savage brute dashed
under his swinging legs and charged the iron-grey, which attempted in
vain to tear away its bridle from the branch. In an instant the bull
drove its head under the poor horse, and with its monstrous horns tore
its entrails out. The horse fell to the ground with a fearful piercing
cry, and at the same moment I sent a bullet through the bull's shoulder;
it turned and followed me furiously into the prairie, where I fled
before it in a wide circle. It became exhausted, stopped, and uttered a
furious roar, while hurling up the turf with his horns and stamping on
the ground with its feet. I turned Czar a little to the right, kept
Trusty back, and sent my second bullet between the bull's shoulders,
upon which it sank on one knee and soon rolled over.

I now hurried to Clifton, who was standing with tears in his eyes over
his dead horse and repenting his want of caution, but too late. Mourning
over this sad loss, we went back to camp on foot and there aroused great
sorrow by describing our misfortune. We consulted as to what was now to
be done, and there was no choice left but for Clifton to ride the mule,
Lizzy, while we divided her load between Jack and Antonio's mare. We
sent to the scene of the accident to fetch Clifton's saddle and some
meat from the bull, and remained all day in camp in sorrowful mood.




[Illustration]

CHAPTER XXIII.

THE GRIZZLY BEARS.


The next morning we followed the river for some hours, and then entered
a path which ran northward through a lateral valley. We had done a good
day's march, and were busy preparing supper in a small wood at a spring,
when Trusty began barking, and we heard the sound of horses. We all ran
to our horses and brought them together, while we got our weapons in
readiness, when Tiger leapt out of the bushes and shouted some words we
did not understand, to which no answer was given, though the sound of
the horses' hoofs ceased. Tiger hurried back, shouted to us to fasten up
our horses in the thicket, which was effected in a moment, and then post
ourselves round it behind the trees, as he believed that they were
hostile Indians. All at once a single voice was heard not far from us,
whose language was equally incomprehensible to us, but which Tiger at
once replied to; and springing up behind his tree, he uttered his
hunting yell. He ran in the direction where we had heard the voice, and
shouted to me they were friends, Delawares. Our joy was great, for our
position would not have been a favourable one if we had been attacked
here by a superior force: it was dark, and our thicket was commanded by
thick scrub and trees, so that our cattle at any rate would have been
exposed to bullets or arrows from a close distance. Tiger now came up to
our fire with an Indian, whom we soon joined, and he introduced to us
his friend, the Chief of a Delaware tribe, whom he called Young Bear.
Several of his men soon joined us, most of whom spoke English, and all
were very friendly to us. They seemed all to have known for a long time
that Tiger was living with us. Every one questioned him and appeared
satisfied with his answers. The chief remained at our fire, while his
people went to camp close at hand. He told us they had just left their
settlement, and were going to the Southern prairies, where the most
buffaloes were, but intended to march down the mountains to kill bears
and lay in a stock of grease and skins. Farther east there were a great
many Indians on the prairie, and we should do better in not leaving the
hills entirely, although no tribe would venture openly to attack us so
long as Tiger remained with us. He stopped to supper, and then returned
to his camp.

The next morning we visited the Delawares, and were pleased at the
cordiality with which they welcomed us. There were about forty warriors,
about half as many squaws, and a heap of children. They had at least a
hundred horses and mules with them, some of which were remarkably
handsome. Clifton requested me to ask Young Bear whether he could supply
him with a good horse, as his people appeared to have more than they
required. The chief spoke to them on the subject, and ere long several
came up with horses, which I advised Clifton, however, to decline, as
they were not good; for I was aware they would produce their worst
horses first. After we had inspected and declined a number of horses, a
young Indian came up with a black horse, which was really handsome. It
was a powerful, finely-proportioned animal, and showed in all points its
noble breed. The price he asked was two hundred dollars, upon which I
offered him thirty, and after a long chaffering we agreed on fifty,
which Clifton paid. He was delighted with his purchase, and had long
reason to be satisfied, for the horse turned out most useful and
excellent in every respect.

We breakfasted, Young Bear sharing the meal with us, and were busily
preparing for a start, when the chief came to me and said that one of
his men was inclined to go with us, and it would be better for us to
have him with us; he had often been on the Rocky Mountains, and was
acquainted with the tribes living there, while Tiger was only a young
man. I was very pleased at the offer, which seemed to me to be made
chiefly on Tiger's account. I told the chief I should be very glad, and
we would pay the man for his services; he had better ask him what he
expected. The Indian, a powerful man, between thirty and forty years of
age, now came forward, and we agreed that we should pay him five dollars
for every month he spent with us, till we returned home. He was very
pleased, fetched his horse, and joined our party. We stopped at the camp
of our friends, bade them a hearty farewell, and marched northward,
animated by fresh courage.

Our new comrade, whose name was White Owl, was a very quiet,
good-tempered, and sensible man, who in a short time gained the goodwill
of all; he helped us in everything, and appeared anxious to supplant
Tiger in our favour by his activity and valuable services. He was at the
same time a first-rate hunter and good shot. So that he rarely returned
to camp from hunting without game.

In a few days we reached open prairies; the mountains to the west seemed
here much farther off, and resembled blue clouds. These were the
mountain chains in which Santa Fé lies, and whence annually enormous
sums of silver are sent to Mexico; on the eastern side they are bordered
by rich boundless prairies, while their western slopes are washed by the
Rio Grande. On these plains we found vegetation more advanced, and
though the fresh grass was not enamelled by such a varied flora as the
prairies on the Leone at this season, still we saw around us several
pretty flowers, which offered an agreeable variety to the eye. Small
knolls and bushes, as well as clumps of trees, frequently broke the dead
level and saved the eye from resting on an indistinct horizon. At the
same time these plains were enlivened by an extraordinary number of
buffaloes, large herds of wild horses, antelopes, and deer; so that at
every moment the hunter's straying eye rested on something to interest
him. We marched for eight days due north, during which time we crossed
many rivers flowing to the east, and came across hunting-Indian tribes
repeatedly. One night we camped with a party of Shawnees, whose chief
was called Greengrass, and who behaved in the most friendly manner to
us. He promised to visit us next winter, and made us a present of
several beautifully dressed deer-skins, as he thought we should soon
want them. In addition we met Osages, Creeks, Choctaws, and a small
tribe of Pawnees: the latter displayed unfriendly intentions, but as we
treated them sternly and resolutely, they soon quitted us. Tiger shouted
to them on parting that we could see their scalps at night as well, and
so they had better keep away from us. The Pawnees are the most warlike
tribe among the Northern Indians, are splendid riders, have first-rate
horses, and live between the Platte and Missouri rivers; in proportion
to the other northern tribes, they are armed with but few firearms, but
use the lance and lasso with remarkable skill.

At the sources of the northern arm of Canadian River we crossed the
path, which runs from Santa Fé to Fort Bent, on the Arkansas, and thence
to Fort Leavenworth, on the Missouri, and a few days after crossed
another road, running from Independence, on the Missouri, _viâ_ Taos in
New Mexico, to St. Francisco and Saint Fé. The country here became very
hilly; the vegetation had scarce sprouted, and the nights were cold. Our
cattle were badly off here, for grass was scanty, the roads very stony
and covered with loose boulders of red granite, which hurt their bare
feet, and they also suffered severely at night from the cold. We now
began to feel the loss of our coffee, which lay buried between the
mountains with Sam, and we equally missed on these cold nights the
brandy which had shared the same fate. In a few days, however, we shook
off these habits, and our meals did not taste the worse without these
articles of luxury.

We proceeded west-north-west, in order to enter the real Rocky
Mountains, and see the Spanish peaks, the highest in this range, which
lie to the south of the Arkansas, from which river we were now no great
distance. The weather favoured us; it was warm in the day, and the young
grass was sprouting in the valleys. During these days we generally
ascended and crossed a number of small streams that flowed from these
mountains to the Arkansas, and always found good provender for our
cattle on their banks. The mountains in the west continually rose, and
the snow-clad Spanish peaks, of which three were much higher than the
rest, stood out more and more distinctly against the blue sky. We
reached a mountain saddle, and on its plateau, a rather frequented path,
which appeared to have been originally made by buffaloes, though we
noticed old horse-tracks upon it. As it trended to the north, we
followed it, as it must certainly lead to the banks of the Arkansas. The
path became very fatiguing for our cattle, as it was covered with flinty
boulders, some of which had very sharp edges, and injured the hoofs. At
the same time we found but little food for them on this bleak elevation,
and noticed with sorrow that they were losing both flesh and strength.



Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 23 of 35)