Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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We had been following this path for four days, when we were compelled to
lead our horses and expose our own feet to the sharp pebbles, for all
were more or less lame and unable to carry us any farther. Jack was the
only one that underwent no change, though he placed his little feet very
cautiously on the ground. We marched from sunrise to dusk, without
meeting with grass or a drop of water. Our feet were painful, too, and
we eagerly scaled every elevation in the hope of finding consolation on
the opposite side. The sun had set, and night would long before have put
an end to our journey, had not the moon lighted us. Tiger, who had gone
on ahead, awaited us on a knoll with the cheering news that there was
excellent pasturage here for our cattle, and water probably no great
distance off. We passed through a rock-gate into a glen, where we soon
stood in high grass, and our animals greedily bit at it, while we
hobbled them, and Tiger went off with Owl to look for water. The latter
soon returned, and told us that a stream ran along the valley on the
right, after which he informed Tiger of his discovery by several shrill
yells, and we now rose from the stones among the grass, on which we had
sunk greatly fatigued, to reach the desired water. Tiger soon found us,
and he and Owl led us between huge masses of scattered rock down to the
stream, where we refreshed our cattle. A crackling fire of brushwood
soon illumined the surrounding scenery, as we found plenty of wood to
keep it up. Late at night we lay round it, and watched our cattle
enjoying the sweet grass, for we felt a reluctance to fetch them in and
tie them up. At last, however, weariness compelled us to place them in
our vicinity under Trusty's charge, so that we might rest after our

Morning showed us that we had camped in a small glen, which, being
watered by numerous springs, displayed a rich vegetation for its
elevated situation. The grass was fresh, and mingled with many juicy
plants, which our cattle seemed to be very fond of. The stream on which
we had camped had a good deal of bush on its banks, out of which grew a
few stunted trees, which by their growth, and the moss covering their
bark, clearly showed that they did not feel at home in this region. We
were very pleased to have reached this oasis, and resolved to let our
cattle rest here for at least a week, not only to enable them to regain
their strength, but also to give vegetation more time to sprout.

We made many hunting excursions, but always on foot, as we wished to
grant our cattle perfect rest, and we could get through the mountains
better in this way. We did not find the common deer here, but the elk,
whose dry flesh soon became repulsive to us. Now and then we killed an
antelope, and Tiger brought in one evening a mountain sheep, an animal
exactly like the ibex, which lives in large flocks in these mountains.
Its meat is agreeable and tender, and its skin produces first-rate
leather for clothes.

Our stock of game was again reduced to the dry flesh of an elk, when at
daybreak I cooked a bit of it for breakfast, and, after eating it,
seized my weapons and left the camp with Trusty to go in search of
better game. I followed the stream some distance, and soon reached the
bare slopes which ran down to the Arkansas: here I turned to the stream
which ran through the valley about six miles under me, and its banks
were covered with green meadows and numerous bushes. Down to it ran
bare, smooth strata of rock, between which countless gorges opened on to
the stream, which had been hollowed out by the mountain torrents in
their furious course. Between them lay, on the steep slopes, patches of
large and small rocks, often piled up on each other as if human hands
had arranged them. Little vegetation was to be seen here. A few bushes
rose from among the stones, while here and there the broken, withered
stems of torch weeds, which plant seemed the most common here, stood in
groups. Not a tree or bush offered a relief or variety to the eye gazing
over this solitude: right and left, as well as across to the mountains
on the other side, so far as I could distinguish objects, nature seemed
to be utterly dead. I looked again at the narrow, green strip which ran
like a long snake along the glistening stream, and tried to discover the
game grazing on it through my glass.

I noticed several elks, as well as a single buffalo, and had walked
about half an hour along the rocky strata, when I reached a group of
stones which attracted my attention by their remarkable and picturesque
arrangement. The lower layer consisted of three enormous rock-plates, at
least five feet thick, on which again smaller ones rested, and several
stones rose in this way, so that the edifice resembled from a distance a
pyramid, which could be seen through at several spots. I had walked to
the base of this mass of stone, and was examining its strange form,
when, on looking back to the river, I noticed three dark forms, which
were moving sideways toward me up the steep, and were scarce half a mile
from me. At the first glance I recognised in them three grizzly bears,
rapidly advancing at a sling-trot behind one another. I knew the danger
of meeting these savage brutes, and quickly measured the distance back
to camp. But I was on foot, and felt as if I had lead boots on which
bound me to the spot. It was hopeless to think of escaping; the animals
were following a course as if they wished to pass above the rocks near
which I was standing, when they must cross the recent track of myself
and Trusty, which they would indubitably follow at once.

It was pairing time, at which season all beasts of prey are more savage
and active, and hunt more from the pleasure of killing than to pacify
their hunger. The grizzly is so fast that it can catch up a buffalo or a
horse going at full speed, and its gigantic strength renders it more
enduring than any other animal. Only one chance of escape is left the
man it pursues, and that is, a tree, for this bear cannot climb. But
then there was not a tree anywhere around, and besides I could not take
Trusty up one with me, and he must be saved. I had no time for
reflection, as the peril rapidly approached. I laid my rifle on the
first layer of rock, seized Trusty round the body, hoisted him on my
shoulders, and helped him on the rock, up which he scrambled: with one
bound I was by his side, then aided him up the second and third layers,
and laid myself close to him on the uppermost blocks, where I placed my
weapons and ammunition ready to hand.

If the bears passed under my fortalice I would let them go in peace, for
in that case it was probable they would not find my track; but if they
passed above it, I must throw away no opportunity to render them
harmless as soon as possible. I peeped over the rock with my rifle, when
the three monsters were scarce fifty yards from me, proceeding to cross
my trail above me. An old she-bear slouched carelessly along in front.
Close behind her followed a gigantic, very old he-bear, and a short
distance in the rear came a rather smaller male. The old one drew up to
the she-bear and laid his right paw on her leg, but she was greatly
offended by this caress, and dealt my lord such blows with her enormous
paws that the hair flew out of him. He sprang back; she sat up, showing
her frightful teeth, and with her side turned to me, I pressed my barrel
firmly against the rock, and pointed it at the heart of the she-bear. I
fired; she crossed her paws over her face, and sank lifeless in a
second. The old bear ran up to her and laid his paws over her, but his
rival came up, and a fearful struggle began between the two monsters, in
which they rolled over and over, and tore out each other's greyish brown
wool in great masses. The old bear had the best of it, however, and sat
up, uttering frightful growls at the smaller bear. By this moment I had
reloaded and sent a bullet into the brute near the heart. With one bound
it leapt on its foe, which tried to escape it, but the old bear held it
tight in its fore-claws, and dug its monstrous teeth into the other's
back. The other bear defended itself desperately, and soon found that
the old brute's strength was giving way: it sprang on it and buried its
tusks in its chest, and standing over it tore it up with its two

I was certain of the victory, and was so careless as not to reload my
rifle, but fired my second barrel at the younger bear without concealing
myself properly behind the rock. I hit it well, but it scarce felt my
bullet ere it turned its savage head toward me, and galloped toward the
rock with an awful roar. In an instant it reached the base of my
fortress, and sprang with its fore-legs on the first layer, while it
opened, its blood-stained throat, and, with smoking breath, uttered the
most fearful sounds. At the moment when it raised itself on the rock I
held my revolver as near as I could, and fired between its small glowing
eyes: it fell back, but at once got up again, and tried still more
furiously to scale the rock, by springing with all four feet at once
upon the first stage, and raised its blood-dripping face just under me.
I had pulled out my second revolver, and held it cocked in my left hand.
I pointed both barrels at the monster's head and fired them together: it
turned over, and rolled motionless on to the ground. I looked at the two
others which still lay quiet side by side, and could scarce believe my
eyes as they gazed down on the victory which I had gained over these
three terrors of the desert. I quickly reloaded, and looked around
carefully from my fort, especially in the direction from whence the
brutes had come, for other male bears might easily follow their track. I
could see nothing to alarm me, and now sprang down from the rock with
Trusty, went cautiously up to the bears, and found them all lifeless.
They were three monstrous brutes: the old bear must have weighed at
least fifteen hundred pounds, the she-bear one thousand, and the smaller
bear eight hundred.

These beasts are often found on the Rocky Mountains, where they are very
numerous, as the hunters do not care to pursue them. Everybody is glad
to get out of their way, and only uses weapons against them when he is
attacked, or can fire at them from a place of safety, such as a boat on
a river, when the bears are on land, or from a stout tree. The Indians
also only fight them in self-defence, and hence their claws are
considered the greatest mark of honour with which they can adorn
themselves. The value of a grizzly stands in no proportion to the danger
the hunter incurs in pursuing it, for its hide is too heavy, and its
hair not so fine as that of the black bear: it never becomes so fat as
the latter, and its flesh is not so delicate. Hence people are glad to
avoid it, and the hunter willingly surrenders his booty to it, when on
following the bloody track of a head of game he runs a risk of being
caught up by the grizzly. This animal does not know what fear is, and
once irritated it will fight and hit as long as it is able. I know
instances in which a grizzly had some thirty bullets in its body ere it
was killed; but if hit at the right spot, it falls as easily as any
other animal. The she-bear gives birth, from November to January, to two
or four cubs, which soon follow it on its forays, and are trained to
hunt, which speedily develops the savage, cruel qualities of the young
monsters. It hunts both in the mountains and on the prairies: in the
former it lays in wait for the game, and darts down from the rocks on
its unhappy victim, while on the latter it will chase its terrified
quarry for miles, and mercilessly rend it when captured; for instance,
it seizes buffaloes, horses, wild cattle, &c., at full gallop by the
hocks, tears out the sinews, and in a second renders them incapable of
flying farther. When caught quite young and trained, these animals
become very tame, but they must never be trusted, as any negligence may
cost one's life, and I knew several instances on the frontier of men
being torn by such tamed bears, or at least losing an arm or a leg.

I had had enough sport for to-day, and fled from the battle-field, as I
was fearful of the advance of other foes. I went straight to camp, and
was saluted by a hurrah! as my early return indicated a successful hunt.
I had the two mules got ready, and invited the Indians and John to go
with me. They all wanted to know what I had killed, but I merely told
them that I had killed a heap of game, as they would soon see. We made a
hurried dinner, and then started with the mules. We soon reached the
slope, and rode quickly down to the river, during which I constantly saw
my rock fort, but it was too far to notice my quarry. My comrades
believed that the game lay on the river, and kept their eyes turned
towards the latter, while I led them a little to the west of my rock, to
keep them from seeing the bears as long as I could. When we were in a
right line with them, I turned aside, and we suddenly caught sight of
them. The amazement and surprise of the Indians were very great, and
were expressed by the most extraordinary outbreaks. They danced as if
stung by a tarantula, swinging their rifles over their heads, round the
dead bears, and imitated their roar in a remarkable manner. At one
moment they crept close to the ground up to the animals, then ran past
them with fierce yells, or leapt over them, swinging their guns with
wild shouts of delight. After they had finished this dance of triumph,
they sat down on the old bear, sharpened their knives on small stones
they took out of their medicine-bag, and wished to cut off its claws. I
told them, however, that I wished to keep this skin with the claws on,
but the two others were at their disposal; with which they were
perfectly satisfied. We skinned the largest bear, and cut out the best
meat and the fat, which we intended to take with us. We took the paws
and fat of the other two, after the Indians had appropriated the claws.
I pulled all the tusks out of the three heads, and we now packed the
mules to convey our booty to camp. As we intended to remain a few days
here, I asked the Indians if they would dress the large skin for me, to
which they readily assented; for this purpose they split the head with
an axe, and took out the brains.

We rejoined our comrades before sunset, who were also very pleased at my
success. We at once took some of the bears'-grease we had brought, and
fastened it with strips of hide round the hoofs of our cattle, as this
fat refreshes the horn, and deprives it of the brittleness which is the
principal cause of its breaking when marching over stony ground. My
bearskin was staked out on the grass, and we all set to work with our
knives scraping off the flesh and fat, after which the brains were
rubbed in and the skin rolled up. We then laid heavy stones on it and
hurried to supper, which we greatly enjoyed after our powerful exercise
during the day.

We repeatedly changed our camping ground, partly to get fresh grass for
our cattle, partly to have a new stock of dry wood at hand; and thus
went farther down the stream. We stopped here nearly a fortnight, by
which time our horses were quite restored, my large skin dressed, and we
bade good-bye to the glen which had given us such a kind reception. We
followed the path again which had brought us here, and in a few hours
reached the Arkansas, on which we found excellent pasture. In the
afternoon we crossed it and rode up its northern bank, till evening put
an end to our march, and we camped in a wood, which was already adorned
with young foliage. The next morning we discovered close by, to our
great delight, a bee tree, out of which the warm morning sun had
already drawn the busy artisans. It was an old plane several feet in
diameter. We soon attacked it with our axes, and ere an hour had passed
it crashed to the ground, and the hollow burst open filled with most
delicious honey. We had a glorious feed, and a man must, like us, have
been for awhile put on simple fare in order to appreciate the pleasure
which such a variation produces. Unluckily we had no vessels in which to
carry off much of it; still we packed a large stock of comb in
deer-skins, and carried it with us for some days, but the comb soon ran
and dirtied our baggage, so that we were obliged to leave it behind.

We had ridden up the river for two days, when we reached an arm of it
coming from the north, up which we proceeded for a day, and met with no
special difficulties. One path ran through a pretty glen, on the right
side of which the mountains gradually rose, and stretched out their
peaks far in the distance, while on our left the river-bank was overhung
by colossal precipices, over which the mountain chain rose steeply with
its snow-covered pinnacles. On the fourth morning, however, our bank
became very rocky, and we rapidly ascended toward the mountains. We
spent several nights without fire or water, and even during the day the
latter, as well as grass, was very scarce. My large bear-skin, which Owl
had made very soft, was of great service to me with its long close hair,
as it was large enough to wrap three of us in, for the nights were
chilly, and my comrades complained greatly of cold. We here crossed the
highest point we had yet reached, and the snow peaks did not appear to
be very far from us; still we found sufficient grass for our cattle in
the gullies between the mountains.

We halted for a day at one of these grassy spots, and I went with Tiger
early from camp to procure meat, when a flock of mountain sheep drew us
farther into the mountains. We had fired several bullets at them to no
effect, and followed them in growing excitement from one rock to another
until, some hours later, we reached a plateau which was shrouded in
fog. Our sheep flew over this and disappeared in the mist. We stood
amazed at this phenomenon, whose cause we could not explain, for it was
a clear, bright morning, and the hills around shone in the brightest
sunshine. We went up to the plain, and found to our surprise that the
mist covering it came from hot springs, which rose to the surface in
immense numbers, the highest with a jet of about three feet. The
plateau, which was about a mile in diameter, was quite covered with
these springs, which produced a great calcareous deposit. This lime
formed a rim round each spring, over which the water poured and
collected into a rivulet, which ran down the eastern slope under a thick
cloud of steam. We could drink the hot water, though we could not hold
our finger in it for a minute. We walked between these hot springs, on
which the sun produced the most brilliant rainbows, to the eastern side,
where the water flowed away, and reached it bathed in perspiration, for
the steam was very hot, and we were constantly enfolded in it. We could
watch the course of the stream far through the mountains, for steam
continually rose above it. The water had a slightly saline taste, and
was very like weak chicken-broth. There is no doubt but that these
springs are mineral water, which probably in a hundred years, or a
shorter period, will prove most valuable to suffering humanity. At the
spot to which a flock of mountain sheep led me and an Indian there will
then rise palaces, and gaily dressed ladies and gentlemen will drive
out, and the time when only naked savages and a few adventurers admired
these beauties of nature will be forgotten. But whether it will be so
beautiful there then is questionable; for it is this very untouched
nature which is so charming, with its mosses and weeds on the bare rock,
its bushes growing out of the crevices, its clumps of trees, and its
solitary gigantic pines, behind which are the distant blue ranges. All
these pictures will be altered by human hands, but as a rule not
improved. Before we proceeded after the game, I carved my name and the
date of the year in a large upright rock, and we looked back frequently
from the mountains at this strange scene.

We soon found sheep again, but they fled on our approach to the most
inaccessible rocks, where they leaped with wondrous strength and
certainty from one pinnacle to another, and sometimes after a desperate
leap reached a peak on which they had scarce room for their four feet.
In such cases they looked round for a few minutes in their airy
position, and then flew with equal strength across to the nearest
precipice, frequently over dizzy abysses whose bottom was concealed by
mist. After a long, tiring, and unsuccessful stalking we scaled a
height, and saw below us a flock of these animals standing on a slope
over which they could not leap. We had cut off their retreat, and did
not consider it possible that they could find their way across the
scattered peaks to a lateral valley, which was about twenty feet broad
and about fifty long. We would not fire at them where they stood, as
they would have fallen over the precipice, and we could not have got at
them; hence we showed ourselves and shouted, on the supposition that
they would dash up hill and pass us. But they no sooner saw us than an
old ram leaped with an enormous bound on to a projecting stone, and
thence to a second, till he reached the gorge on our right, and darted
up it. We ran up to the gorge, and I toppled the ram over with a bullet.
The other animals followed it leap by leap, and all reached the other
side of the gorge, excepting one ram, which jumped short and fell
backwards into it. We looked after it, and I felt certain that it would
be killed and become our prey; but it fell on the monstrous horns which
nature has given these animals as a protection in such dangers, turned
over, and leaped with the lightest bounds up the gorge, where both Tiger
and I missed it. We reached the dead ram by a long circuit, paunched it,
loaded ourselves with the best meat and the handsome skin, and returned
to camp. About a mile farther on we shot down another large sheep from a
rock, and sent Owl out to bring it in.

The mountain sheep, as I said, bears a great likeness to the ibex. The
ram has enormous curved horns, with the points turned slightly outwards,
as thick as one's arm close to the head, and surrounded with rings. Its
hair is more like that of a goat than a sheep, of a brownish gray
colour, and with a dense coat of underwool. The female has also horns,
but they are smaller, and not turned outwards at the point. They bear
two lambs, which, while still very small, follow them on their dangerous
paths in the mountains. At night the mountain sheep descend to the
lowlands, and are there easily killed by the hunters who lay in wait for
them, while following them day by day in the mountains is most
fatiguing, dangerous, and generally unsuccessful. The skins of these
animals are greatly sought by the Indians to make clothes of, as they
furnish a handsome, soft leather; their meat is fat and agreeable. They
live in large flocks, and may be seen by day in the Rocky Mountains
standing about the highest peaks, at spots which it appears impossible
for a quadruped to reach.

We had no lack of game, but saw to our great regret our supply of salt
running out, for the greater part of it was lost with unlucky Sam. Our
clothes, too, were beginning to get defective, especially our linen, as
we had lost our changes on the same occasion. We mended our shirts as
well as we could, and cut off from the tails to repair the damage higher
up; but for all that they were speedily wearing out. Our stock of
tobacco was all but expended, but this article was the easiest to
supply, as the leaves of the wild sumach represent it very well. We were
provided with the essentials, however, especially powder and ball, as
these were distributed among the animals, and we had enough to last us a
year. A great privation was impended over us when our salt was consumed,
and we so restricted its use that it would last for some months, in the
hopes of obtaining a fresh supply at one of the forts of the fur
companies, which are in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains. Our good
spirits did not desert us, however, but enabled us to endure all the
fatigues of this mountain tour. We passed two nights on fields of snow,
where we could hardly find sufficient firing to prepare our supper.

At length our route descended to lower hills, and we reached at their
base a plain, which, as it seemed was enclosed by even loftier
mountains, whose saddles still bore the signs of winter, while on the
streams in this elevated valley, which our Indians called Salade Park,

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 24 of 35)