Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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May was flaunting in her spring garb. Although the vegetation that
surrounded us here could not be called luxuriant, it did our cattle a
deal of good. For a long time past we saw for the first time herds of
wandering buffaloes, among which we produced great destruction, as we
had long been yearning for their marrow-bones and tongues.

One morning we approached a herd which was grazing among large scattered
rocks, and we all crept up to them under cover of the latter, with the
exception of Antonio, whom we left with the horses. We lay in a long
line in the grass and behind stones, and had shot five of the animals
without being noticed, when Mac fired and got up after doing so. He had
hit the old bull he fired at badly, and the latter, slightly wounded,
charged furiously at him. At this moment Clifton jumped up not far from
Mac, fired his two bullets at the infuriated animal, and then bolted
with Mac. The buffalo dashed furiously after them, while the two
fugitives, running at full speed, threw away their rifles and lost their
hats. Fright carried them over the grass as if they had wings, between
the numerous rocks, and they had contrived by making a long detour to
get within hail of us again, when Trusty, whom I had laid on, caught up
the bull, and attacked it in the flank. A kick from its hind leg,
however, threw the dog on his back, and without stopping the savage
brute dashed after our comrades, and was only a few yards from them when
Mac slipped and fell among the rocks just as we discharged all our
rifles at his pursuer. The buffalo flew over him, followed Clifton but a
short distance, and then turned with a fearful roar on Mac, who was
trying to get up. It sprang with lowered head toward the fallen man,
when a second shower of bullets was sent at it; but it would certainly
have impaled Mac had not Trusty come up and pinned it by the snout. Our
shouts encouraged the brave dog; the buffalo rose with him on its hind
legs and fell backwards on the ground, while we ran up and honeycombed
it with pistol bullets. We now helped Mac up, who had not, as we feared,
been trampled by the buffalo, but had sprained his leg, and complained
of great pain; hence we put him on his horse, rode with him back to the
stream we had crossed shortly before, where he bathed his foot, while we
returned to the dead buffalo, and cut out the best meat, the
marrowbones, and tongues. The result of this chase afforded us great
dainties, on which we revelled for some days, as the meat kept good for
a long time in the cold temperature.





In a week we crossed the valley by short stages and again reached the
loftier mountains. One afternoon we arrived at a stream where we
resolved to pass the night, as we did not know whether we should find
water farther on. Tiger at once hastened off to look for game, and as my
comrades preferred a rest, I set out to try my luck too. I told Antonio
to follow me on Lizzy, that I might not have to carry the game myself,
and had got about a mile from camp when I noticed from a clump of oaks a
herd of deer on a grassy spot ahead of me, which looked like the
ordinary Virginia deer, but were darker-coloured. I took up a deer-call
to draw them toward me, as the spot where I was standing was too barren
for me to be able to stalk them. I posted myself near an oak, and
Antonio sat on Lizzy behind me. The herd advanced toward me on hearing
my call, and were near enough when Antonio cried to me, "Here! here!" I
fancied he was alluding to the approaching deer, and whispered that I
could see them; but he repeated his "here!" and presently added, "Look
to your right!" I turned and saw an enormous snow-white bear forty yards
from me, I tried to fire, but the bear got behind a large oak, and then
behind another, and so was a good distance off ere I could despatch a
bullet after it, which I heard enter a tree. It escaped me, as I had
left Trusty in camp, for his feet were sore from running over sharp
stones lately. The bear heard the call and hurried up, believing that
there was booty for it. It was only a variety of the common black bear.
I would gladly have secured its beautiful skin, as it is a rarity, but
it was out of my reach, and hence I returned to the deer, which after
my shot had disappeared in a distant wood. I went after them, and found
them grazing again: when I emerged from the bushes I shot a large deer,
and found to my surprise that it belonged to a genus I had never seen
before. It was of a very dark, almost black, colour, much larger than a
Virginia deer, and more lightly built, with a longer black scut. It had
cast its antlers, and the new ones had already grown to some size. We
packed the entire animal on Lizzy, and carried it to camp, where Owl
called it a mule-stag or black-tail deer, a variety not uncommon in the
lower regions of the Rocky Mountains.

Our road rapidly ascended from here to the higher mountains, and became
daily steeper and poorer in vegetation; still the path we followed was
very fair, so that we rather rapidly surmounted the heights, on whose
small plateaus our cattle were able to rest again. We left behind us in
a few days many mountain chains with their narrow valleys, when suddenly
the mountains before us became covered with snow, and we were soon in
the wintry landscape again. We suffered terribly from the cold, as our
clothes were not at all suited for such a temperature; and though we
wrapped ourselves in our skins we could not keep warm. I was the best
protected, as I hung my large bearskin over me, and, sitting upon it,
wrapped myself up from head to foot; but for all that I did not get warm
during the ride, and we were very glad when we reached a hollow in the
evening, where we found but little snow and a clump of fir-trees, in
which we camped, and warmed the atmosphere around us with an enormous

On the following day our road ran principally over snow-covered rocks,
but we came now and then to spots where the sun had melted it, while all
around us rose mountains which even at midsummer do not doff their
winter garment. At last, early one morning, after spending the night at
a very poor fire, we ascended a saddle, whence we looked down into a
plain, whose end in the blue misty distance was bordered by high
mountains, while on the west and east it was begirt by immense ranges,
whose lower chains ran down sharply on both sides in the most remarkable
shapes. The steepest rocks here rose precipitously over the valley, and
the white stone formed long pinnacles, round domes, globes resting on
their pillars, in a word, the strangest shapes, so that our wondering
eyes were tempted to see in them towers, castles, and monuments, while
farther on the mountain masses rose above each other with a reddish-blue
tinge, and touched the clouds with a few isolated peaks. The valley
itself, if it may be called so at this elevation, was well watered, and
from south to north glistened at the base of the western mountains the
surface of a large river, while on the right-hand side signs of water
were also visible. Except the forest of pines on the sides of the
mountains, vegetation seemed to be restricted to the vicinity of this
water, where we noticed a good deal of bush and some rather lofty trees
of the aspen and poplar kind. The greater portion of this extensive
undulating plain only displayed desolate tracts of stone and rocky
knolls. Our Indians call this mountain glen Old Park, and the river
before us the sources of the Rio Colorado, which flows through New
Mexico and California to the distant Pacific, where it falls into the
Gulf of California.

We hastened to the lower regions, and on the third day reached the
river, whose course we followed. A few days after we were surprised by
two men, as we were letting our horses graze at noon. They were beaver
trappers who had been hunting for some years in these mountains, and
paid us a visit in the hope of procuring provisions from us. We showed
them, however, that in this respect we were almost as badly off as
themselves, and that with the best will we could not meet their wishes.
They were both Canadians, of French origin, and had led this life in the
desert for many years. They were men of very slight education, with
repellant manners, and a disagreeable, very coarse appearance, so that
we were not sorry when they took their rifles and went away with a
hurried farewell.

We marched for about a week near this river, till we reached a bend,
when it suddenly trended to the west, and thence pursued its
uninterrupted course through the enormous plains. We crossed here an arm
of the river which came from the east, and followed another up stream to
the north-east. We constantly drew nearer to the mountains on the east,
and ere long the highest peak, clad in eternal snow, rose distinctly
against the blue sky before us. The Indians called this the Bighorn,
which agreed with the statement of the two trappers, of whom we had
inquired. I had been determined from the commencement of the journey to
get as high as I could up this peak, and hence steered toward it.

On the second evening we reached the outer hills, and resolved to take
our cattle as far as was safe regarding food for them, and then continue
our journey afoot. It was the second half of June, the weather splendid,
and the heat at times oppressive by day, while the nights remained
extraordinarily cold. The farther we advanced in the mountains the
scantier food became for our cattle, but on that account they were all
the safer during our absence from an attack of hostile Indians, who
rarely venture so far into the mountains. On the third day, after
crossing a considerable chain of mountains, we reached a small glen,
which, on the east side, was enclosed by precipices, and on the
south-west offered an open view of the mountains of Old Park. It was
covered with good grass, amply supplied with pine-wood, and watered by a
beautiful stream, which forced its way through the ravine by which we
had entered. This spot exactly satisfied our purpose, as it was remote
from regular paths, protected against possible storms, and could be
easily defended. Hence we formed our camp here, conveyed our traps under
overarching rocks, where they were protected against storm and rain, and
hunted for some days in the neighbourhood, in order to provide those who
remained behind with food for some time. I had selected Tiger to
accompany me, and wished only to take one other of my comrades with me,
while the other four remained in camp, I proposed that John, Mac, and
Clifton should draw lots as to who should accompany me; but the two
latter gave way in favour of John, who gratefully accepted.

On the morning of our departure I rolled up my large bearskin and sewed
straps to it, in order to be able to carry it on my back; John and Tiger
did the same with buffalo hides, and ere long all our preparations for a
start were completed. We urged on our comrades the greatest caution, and
then said good-bye in the hope of finding them all right on our return.

We walked bravely up the mountains, from one chain to the other, Tiger
being ahead and Trusty behind. Sometimes we came to paths along which we
went pleasantly; at others, we crept on hands and feet up the steep
granitic strata, and with every hour we had a more extensive view to the
west. On the first day we covered a considerable distance, at least
five-and-twenty miles. We saw an incredible number of mountain sheep,
which, at our appearance, flew up the precipices and gazed down at us in
amazement. Tiger shot a large ram, and we each took a lump of the flesh
with us, while we left the rest to Trusty. Toward evening we came to a
stream, and though it was still early we halted, as we found plenty of
scrub in the vicinity with which to light a fire and roast our meat. It
was an exquisite spot where we camped; beneath our feet we recognised
quite distinctly the white rock towers which border Old Park, and
between which our friends were encamped. We gazed at the immense
mountain valley below us and the windings of the stream through it; we
noticed on its western side the mountain chains that ran up to it, and
saw clearly where the water forced its way through them, taking a
south-western course. Still these mountains formed the border line of
our view, as we were not yet high enough to be able to see over them.
The air was pure and clear, but it soon became very cold, and so soon as
the sun sank behind the mountains we rolled ourselves up in our hides.
We had collected a large stock of wood in order to be able to make a
blaze quickly, but determined to keep it up all night; but we had
forgotten our fatigue, which soon made us fall asleep, and we did not
wake till daybreak.

Dawn aroused us, and animated the extensive landscape around us, whose
glens were covered by a thick damp fog, while a fresh breeze blew round
the heights. We soon finished breakfast, and when the sun shone on the
first peaks of the western mountains we were again ascending the
mountain in the direction of our object. After filling our gourd-bottles
afresh, we went the whole day indefatigably up the steeps, through
desolate rock strata, almost entirely denuded of vegetation, between
which, with the exception of a few clumps of fir, only grasses, reeds,
and torch-weeds sprang up. We very frequently came to water, which
indubitably had its source in the snow melting on the peaks. Toward
evening we reached a plateau, which seemed to separate the higher
regions from the lower, and extended up and down the mountains, with but
slight breaks, as far as we could see. It was at least three miles in
breadth, and offered us a free prospect of the mountain saddle and its
isolated peaks, of which the Bighorn rose far above the others. All
these peaks were covered with a bluish coat of ice, and shone and
glistened so in the sun, that it hurt the eyes to look at them for any
length of time, while the hollows displayed the pure white of the snow.
A number of snowy peaks stood in a large circle around us, among which
two enormous domes rose to the sky, the northernmost being the highest,
and bearing the name of the Bighorn. On its northern side it is a
perfect precipice, while on the south it forms several steep terraces,
while the lower peak bears to some degree a resemblance to a truncated

We soon recognised the impossibility of reaching these icy heights,
still it appeared to us feasible to scale the back of the mountain
farther to the north, as we noticed there in a deep gap which ran
almost to the summit isolated spots free from snow.

The sun was now approaching the distant mountains in the west, the sky
gradually turned red and at last stretched out over them like a stream
of fire, from which their ice-clad peaks stood out like gleaming flames,
the whole boundless landscape around us was suffused with a warm red
light, and the peaks in the east had changed their brilliant white into
a dark transparent carmine. We stood in silent admiration and saw the
last beams of the glowing sun disappear behind the mountains; ere long
the gloom of nightfall spread over the earth. The eastern sky was
covered with the nocturnal dark purple blue, and the still illumined
snow peaks alone looked down on us, like the last gleam of departing
day. An icy cold wind reminded us that it was time to look for a
resting-place, and without long consideration we went toward the
mountains and reached a group of scattered rocks, between which we found
a species of moss and dry hard grass, which offered us a softer couch
than the bare stones.

We were not quite asleep, when the fearfully plaintive tone of some
animal which was probably bidding farewell to life in the claws of a
grizzly bear rang through the mountains; still this did not prevent us
from falling into the soundest sleep, and trusting our safety to the
faithful dog. The rising sun saw us again _en route_ over very difficult
ground. The ravines which we always followed in order to skirt the
precipices, were at times so full of large blocks that we could not jump
from one to the other without danger, while the rock strata we were
compelled to climb were often too high for us to lift ourselves upon
them. Hence we were obliged to make numerous circuits and could not
advance so rapidly as the distance would have allowed. About noon we
were scaling a height when suddenly a mighty condor spread out its
enormous wings with a loud yell, and rose from a rock with a great
effort, and we saw a mountain sheep hanging in its claws. It swung
itself on to the nearest peak and sat down there, looking over at us
with extended wings and croaking hoarsely. We raised our rifles almost
simultaneously and the eagle sank lifeless on its quarry. Tiger climbed
up and threw both down to us. The sheep was a one year old ewe and
welcome to us as delicate food: while Tiger appropriated the eagle's
feathers and claws, we cut the flesh from the sheep and rubbed salt into
it, after giving it a hearty beating, for thus when our stock of roast
meat was expended, we should be able to fall back on raw meat, as we had
no fire materials.

We continued our journey and soon reached snow, which only remained,
however, on the north side. The air became very cold, which rendered
breathing difficult, and we could not walk fast. Evening surprised us
completely surrounded by snow, and we had to go a long distance ere we
found under southern precipices a spot where the sun had melted it away.
Here we slept and my comrades woke me several times and asked whether I
was not frozen - they could not close an eye, while I was tolerably warm.
They shook me again before daybreak and we continued our journey,
pulling our skins tightly round us. The snow was frozen very hard and
had generally a rough surface, so that we passed easily over it. Our
long sticks, which we frequently sharpened, here served us in good
stead, as at doubtful spots we felt with them whether the snow would
bear us, and no doubt we frequently crossed deep places, into which we
might easily have sunk.

At eleven in the forenoon we at last scaled the highest point after
excessive toil and stood on a wide snow field, which sloped down on the
east to a hollow, behind which other snow mountains rose, and in the
extreme distance the sky formed the background. To the south rose the
white peaks of our saddle, above which extended the two mighty crests of
the Bighorn. The bluish cold colour of these enormous snow domes
contrasted with the warm reddish tint of the mountains and the sunlit
landscape below them, and the icy peaks dazzled our eyes when we looked
up at them. Before us in the west stretched out a scene which I cannot
find words to describe faithfully. To the right and left on the sides
of the snowy mountains which formed a semicircle we saw a sea of hills
and rocks in the most eccentric shape; above them rose to an immense
height the various peaks vividly illumined by the sun, and between them
lay the dark shadows of the mighty glens, which were enclosed by
precipices. Only rarely did the living green of foliage peep out of the
desolate scene, which was slightly enlivened by the more frequent clumps
of pines, and the straying glance gladly rested on the isolated patches
of grass, whose fresh juicy green imparted a warmth to the landscape. At
our feet we gazed at the depths, till our eyes rested on the snow-white
wondrous outline of the precipices which surrounded Old Park on this
side, and we followed the silvery ribbon of water that wound through it.
Old Park lay like a narrow glen before us, lost in the mist and often
crossed by ranges that connected the eastern and western ranges. Far
away in the misty distance, above the mountain chain that borders Old
Park on the west, our eyes rested on the enormous plains which sink from
the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, and in the extreme distance their
outlines became blended with the sky. They seemed to be crossed by but
few ranges; to the south-west we could distinguish lower chains of
hills, while in the west and north-west a long dark cloud was visible,
which indicated to us the snowy mountains or maritime Alps of
California. So far as we could see, this country appeared to us but
slightly wooded and not very well watered. The course of the Rio
Colorado was alone marked by lower ranges of hills and the hue of the

Our eyes were fixed for a long time on this grand landscape, and we
found it difficult to bid it a last farewell; but the cold warned us to
start, so that night might not surprise us on these inhospitable
heights, on which we did not see a sign of a living creature. It was one
o'clock: we once more bade adieu to the cold, desolate spot, which had
afforded us this enchanting prospect, and then hastened to our last
night's camping-place, where we arrived with frozen beards. We passed a
very cold night here, for the wind had got up, and we felt very happy
when we left the snow behind us on the following day. At noon we rested
and pacified our hunger with the remainder of the raw flesh, which the
condor had provided for us; then we continued our journey, and reached
before evening the foot of a hill, where we found water and sufficient
scrub to prepare a supper of a fat ram which we had killed on the road.

On the next day we joined our comrades again all right, found them in
the best spirits, and our cattle rested and strong. Before the camp they
had erected a number of small scaffolds of sticks, on which meat cut in
strips was being smoked over fires, and a very large and a small
bear-skin hung on the rocks proved the nature of the meat which was
drying. Owl had shot close by an old she-bear and one of her cubs, whose
meat our comrades were now drying for the purpose of taking with them.
This was very welcome, for when a little bear-meat is roasted with dry
venison, the latter becomes dainty and fat. We heartily enjoyed the
tender meat of the young bear, which weighed some sixty pounds, and the
fire which we had so missed for some nights. Unfortunately our salt was
now out, and the same with our tobacco, while we could not expect to
find in these mountains any sumach leaves which we could smoke. In a
word, we were out of everything, except ammunition, for our clothes
literally consisted only of deer-hide, and we merely carried with us the
remains of our linen to use as bandages in the case of a wound. Still we
were in good spirits and healthy as bears, and comforted ourselves with
the thought that in a few months we should obtain supplies at one of the
forts to the east of the Rocky Mountains.

We started on the morning after our return to camp, and went back
through Old Park and up an arm of the Colorado. We followed its windings
across the hills to the point where as a mountain torrent it formed the
most exquisite cascades in falling over the rocks. We halted a long way
up it, and though we were once compelled to quit it through the
impassable nature of its banks, we sought to reach it again soon, as its
crystalline waters contained delicious trout, some weighing twelve
pounds, abundance of game grazed on its banks, and the latter always
afforded us plenty of wood for our camp fires. Moreover, it continually
formed the prettiest bathing-places, in which we refreshed ourselves
morning and evening. At last, however, we were compelled to say good-bye
to this pleasant friend, as it broke up into several small streams, and
we ere long reached the highest point of the hill-range, which we had
scarce crossed, however, ere we found on its northern side an exactly
similar stream, which, instead of flowing southward to join the Pacific,
runs due north and in a great curve round the black mountains on the
North Platte river, and then through Missouri and Mississippi to the
Gulf of Mexico. We greeted this stream with great joy, as it afforded us
the same comforts as the one we had just left, and followed its course
down to the spurs of the mountain chain, which we reached on the second
evening, and found in its valleys a rich vegetation for these regions,
which seemed, however, to be confined to the vicinity of water. The
hill-side, on which we camped, was covered with oaks and pines, through
which our torrent wound down to the valley in front of us, which we
could survey from our elevated post. The hills gradually descended into
it, and in its centre rose a conical lofty rock, whose pinnacles had
exactly the shape of a ruined castle. Our stream wound round this rock,

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 25 of 35)