Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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and glistened in the wood that covered its banks; we also saw a few
buffalo scaling the lower rocks to crop the scanty weeds that grew among
the crevices.

It was getting on for sunset, and still early enough to secure a few
marrowbones from these emigrants: hence Tiger, John, and Clifton hurried
off, Antonio following them on Jack. In a quarter of an hour we saw our
hunters emerge from the wood at the base of the rock, and approach the
buffaloes by stepping behind the stones. Light clouds of smoke rose
above their heads, and the crack of their rifles reached us, while we
saw one of the animals fall in a heap, and the others flying up the
mountain side. Next Antonio with the mule joined our comrades, who had
collected round the animal, and were busy in breaking it up. Königstein
and I had meanwhile lit a roaring fire, and Mac and Owl pulled some
trout out of the adjoining stream, so that, when we were all assembled
again in camp, we had the prospect of a glorious supper.

The next morning we finished packing our cattle at an early hour, and
were about leaving our camp, when we saw behind the rock in the valley
the smoke of many fires rising, which indicated a very large Indian
camp. We must employ the precaution of first finding out to what tribe
they belonged, and in which direction they were going: so we rode down
into the glen and concealed ourselves in the thick wood. Tiger and I
then went to the rock and climbed to the top of it, whence we could
survey the valley on the opposite side. Who can describe our surprise on
seeing at our feet a large, animated camp, with all the signs of
civilization! From the numerous gay tents pennants blew out in the fresh
breeze, and between men, horses, and mules were moving in the strangest
confusion. Here and there laggards crept out of the tents and ran off to
the stream to remove the last traces of sleep in its clear waters. Round
the fire other men, in the strangest costumes, were busied in preparing
breakfast, while others were proceeding to and from the stream with
horses and mules. Our amazement was great, and our joy knew no bounds. I
pulled out the last remnant of a pocket handkerchief, fastened it to the
end of my rifle, and then discharged both barrels, while swinging my
white flag high above my head. I saw that the attention of all the
occupants of the camp was directed to us, and many arms were raised
pointing at us. A salvo of at least fifty shots answered my greeting,
and handkerchiefs were waved in the air. We soon descended from our
observatory, and hurried back to our comrades to impart the pleasant
news to them, and we galloped along the stream, round the rock, and
toward the camp, where our little party were received with a thundering

In an instant we were surrounded by a crowd of curious persons, who
assailed us with a thousand questions. I gave Antonio and Königstein the
charge of our cattle and traps, and then went with my other friends into
camp, following the eager crowd, who led us to a large marquee in the
centre, from which a long white pennant floated. A man came to meet me
whose features seemed familiar to me at the first glance, and on whose
face I could plainly read that I produced the same impression on him. We
offered each other a hand with an inquiring glance, and after the first
few words of greeting, I recognised an old acquaintance, Lord S - - ,
whom I had last seen ten years before on the east of the continent. The
pleasure of meeting again was heightened by the most peculiar
circumstances under which it took place.

We sat down at the fire, and I described my journey to this spot, and my
plans for its continuation. A thousand questions interrupted my story,
and when we reached the present moment, we leapt back to the time of our
last meeting, and followed the course of my life up to the commencement
of the present tour. His lordship was already acquainted with some of
the details, but I had much to tell him of since the day when I bade
farewell to civilization. I then heard from him in return the story of
his life, which, though moving along a smoother surface, claimed my
entire attention. During the period he had been back to Europe, and made
a lengthened excursion to Asia; still his passion for this great,
unadulterated nature had brought him back to the mountains of the New
World, to bid them a last farewell, as more serious duties recalled him
home. He had started from Independence, in Missouri, with a large party
of friends, Europeans and Americans, and a number of voyageurs and
half-breeds, engaged for the tour, in a small steamer up the Missouri,
and then proceeded up the Yellowstone as far as the depth of water
allowed. They landed there numerous saddle and pack animals, provisions,
tents, and other traps, and had gone overland through the mountains to
the banks of the Platte, which they had followed to this point round the
Black Mountains. The whole company consisted of about eighty persons:
they had about one hundred animals with them, most of which they
purchased of Indians at the fort where they left the steamer, and had
also taken a dozen of the latter into their service.

This small army offered the most curious sight I ever beheld. All sorts
of dresses, from the lightly-clad savage to the most elegant gentleman
were before us. Many young swells from the Eastern luxurious cities of
this continent, as well as from those of the Old World, educated in
ballrooms, operas, and concert rooms, had followed their fancy in the
selection of their costumes, and appeared in mediæval garb, with
broad-brimmed plumed hats, jerkins with slit sleeves, leathern breeches,
tall Napoleon boots with enormous spurs, large gauntlets, and had put on
the swords of their forefathers; others had preferred the old Spanish
costume, and donned loose velvet blue or green paletots, while the hat
of an Italian brigand chief, with its red-cock's feather, covered their
long perfumed locks, and a broad white shirt-collar was turned down over
their shoulders. The open sleeves displayed the fine linen of their
shirts; wide trousers were forced into long red morocco leather boots,
on which large wheeled spurs rattled, and a brace of handsomely inlaid
pistols and a long dagger ornamented their belt. Others, again, had read
Cooper, and chosen his heroes as their model; they were dressed in
leather from head to foot, with a broad-brimmed gray hat, a long heavy
hunting-knife at their side, and leaning on an enormous rifle. They
seemed to envy me my shabby clothes, all stiff with blood, while their
dress, which had only just left the tailor's hands, had not a spot on
it. Others, again, had remained faithful to the appearance of the
gentleman of the Broadway, New York, had put on a broad-brimmed hat
instead of the "chimney-pot" of civilization, and went about the camp in
comfortable slippers, smoking fine Havannah cigars. Only one fashion had
gained the victory over the national and fancy costumes here
represented, this was the beard, which had not been troubled by a razor
for a long time.

We soon formed acquaintances among this medley of characters, and led a
life than which a better could not be found at the Palais Royal. The
most delicate wines graced our table, which was covered by artistic
cooks with the daintiest dishes; we smoked the best cigars and drank the
finest mocha. All these things so precious to us were rendered more
agreeable by the cheerful humour that prevailed all through the camp,
and was displayed in every conversation. We spent the time in firing at
a mark, in riding races, in various sports in which agility was
displayed, in card-playing and in dicing, in hunting, which sport,
however, only appeared popular with a portion, while the rest amused
themselves nearer camp. Owing to the great number of animals our new
acquaintances had with them, they had not always found sufficient forage
for them on the mountains, whence they had selected this rich pasturage,
to give them time to rest and to enjoy a little repose themselves.

I remained with my comrades four days in camp, during which time we were
favoured with the most splendid weather, and on the fifth we got ready,
after breakfast, to continue our journey and bid adieu to our friends,
who intended to spend some time here. My friend S - - had supplied us
with all the requisite stores for the pleasant continuation of our tour,
had pressed upon us many luxuries, and given us a perfectly new outfit,
so that we were now better equipped than when we began our journey. Owl
and Tiger were handsomely remembered, at which they felt very happy,
hung themselves and their horses with numerous ornaments, and never let
their looking-glasses out of their hand. S - - and several others would
have been glad to buy Tiger's piebald, and offered him about 200 dollars
for it, but he had no thought of entering into any bargain of the sort,
and he always pretended not to hear when the subject was brought up.
When we at last led our horses out of camp, S - - accompanied us with a
few of his friends, while a final farewell was given us by a salvo of
rifle shots. The gentlemen rode several miles with us, and then returned
to their friends, accompanied by our warmest thanks and heartiest wishes
for their welfare.

We were now reduced again to our own small number, but were in a very
different state from that prior to our meeting with our new friends, as
we had all our wants again supplied, and they now afforded us double
enjoyment after the lengthened privation. Our pipes again burnt
incessantly, at times we even had a cigar as a change, and at the spring
we reached, brandy was often mixed with the water we drank. We halted at
a very early hour, although we could easily have ridden for another
hour, as we were following the river; but the supper that awaited us was
too inviting for us to delay it any longer; for now once again coffee
was drunk, our meat peppered and salted and biscuit eaten with it, and
before going to bed a glass of grog swallowed; which comforts people
cannot always value at home, but which afford great enjoyment after
having been missed for so long a time.

We had again reached a valley which runs between the Rocky Mountains,
and is called New Park. The mountains on both sides drew very closely
together here, and at some spots hardly left space for the river to
pass, which was swollen by numerous torrents, and already had a rather
powerful current. It was still only a torrent, however, which dashed
over large rocks, and hurried along foaming and roaring between the
hills. The mountains on our right hand are called by the Indians the
"Medicine Mountains." Our road here was often very fatiguing, and was
rendered smooth and slippery by several violent showers; so that we were
often obliged to dismount and lead our horses on the descents, for fear
of them falling.

One evening we reached a rather lofty point, where we found a little
grass and a few live oaks; the river rustled below us, scarce a mile
distant, through the rocks, and received there a spring which ran from a
small coppice near us. We had been awakened on the previous night by a
sudden shower, and as our traps had been lying about us uncovered, many
of them were wet through before we could get them under shelter in the
darkness. As the sky was also overcast this evening, we thought it
advisable to put up our small tents. After supper we gathered our traps
together under the tarpaulin, on which we laid large stones, and then
crept into our tents, after wishing each other good-night. The night was
calm and warm, so that when Königstein lay down by my side, and fastened
up the opening of our tent which faced to the north, I got up and opened
it again, as it was oppressively hot in our confined space. Our
conversation was but short, our tongues grew heavy; the rustling of the
neighbouring stream was blended with the sound of our broken sentences,
and a deep sleep carried us into the land of dreams.

An icy-damp breeze awoke me suddenly, and when I started out of my sleep
the storm drove the cold rain through the entrance of the tent into my
face, and violently shook its sides. I roused Königstein, and was about
to jump up, when a violent blast raised the tent above us, and carried
it off into the darkness, while streams of rain lashed us. All my
companions shared the same fate, and ran about in the darkness seeking
their blankets, hats, and articles of clothing. At the same time we
heard the sound of flying horses, probably ours, which, startled by the
flapping of our tents, had torn themselves loose. We ran to the spot
where we had secured them, and only found Czar and John's mare, but no
sign of the others except the broken lassoes. In the darkness I had
thrown my large bearskin over me, and concealed my weapons under it. So
I remained with Czar, turning my back to the storm, and bade him be
quiet, while I saw the others running back and forwards like shadows.

The storm grew more furious still, and the powerful tornado seemed
desirous of carrying away with it everything that did not bend before
it. I leant my shoulder against a young oak in order to keep on my feet,
but the tree often bent so low as to touch the ground with its foliage.
My comrades had disappeared - at least I could not notice them anywhere,
for the darkness was so dense that I could not see a yard before me. It
was impossible to call to each other, as you could not even hear your
own voice. At the same time the rain still poured down in almost a
horizontal direction, and formed a stream round my feet. There was
lightning in the north, but neither thunder nor lightning had approached
us, until suddenly the eastern mountains were lit up by brilliant
flashes, which displayed their white peaks, and the ground trembled
beneath a tremendous clap of thunder. For more than an hour the
lightning did not cease for longer than a few seconds, and the thunder
roared uninterruptedly between the hills. But at last the storm moved up
the valley and left an impenetrable darkness behind. We gradually came
together again, and would assuredly have laughed at each other had this
been the time for it, for we were wet to the skin, stood in the cold
night breeze upon saturated, bottomless ground, and what was worst of
all, most of our cattle had bolted. It was simply impossible to light a
fire, so we made no attempt to do so, as we could not seek dry materials
in the darkness. Nothing was left us but to wait quietly till day
arrived, which on this occasion seemed to delay terribly.

At length the new light gleamed over the hills, and we could soon
distinguish objects around. We had a melancholy prospect: here lay a wet
buffalo robe, a blanket, or a leathern jacket; there some hats were half
buried in the mud; farther on we saw one of our tents hanging on an oak;
wherever we looked, storm and rain had left traces of their destruction.
A joyous surprise was prepared for us with the return of light: we saw
honest Jack grazing higher up the valley, and Königstein's cream-colour
following him. Tiger and Owl soon set out to seek the other horses,
which would be easily found if no accident had happened to them, and
there were no thick woods in this valley to hide them from us. We
fetched up Jack and the cream-colour, and while the Indians followed the
trail of the horses, we sought under the stones dry grass and roots with
which to light a fire, which caused us great difficulty, and only
succeeded after several failures. Then we put up sticks round it in
order to dry our traps, and finally looked up those which had been blown
away. The articles under the tarpaulin had remained quite dry, as the
water ran through the brushwood on which we had laid them, while the
heavy stones kept the cover down. In time we got everything in order
again, and about noon we saw our Indians coming down the valley and
driving our animals before them, which they had found a long way in the
mountains in two parties. During the whole day we were occupied in
repairing damages. The tents had to be mended, the broken lassoes
reknotted, the saddles and bridles cleaned from mud and dirt - in short,
the whole day was spent in getting ready to start again. The next
morning, however, we mounted again, and no one could notice that our
equipment had suffered severely.

Since our leave-taking from Lord S - - and his friends about ten days
had passed, during which we never went far from the Platte River, as the
impassable precipices of the mountains on both sides ran down almost
close to the river. At last the latter opened, the mountains on our left
trended to the west, and before us was spread out an extensive and hilly
tract, which, offered rather decent pasturage for these rough regions. I
intended to follow the river generally to the large prairies on the east
of the Rocky Mountains, in order to visit Fort Lamarie, and then proceed
homewards across the open plains to the south.

It was a warm afternoon when we cut off a large bend which the river
described, and riding over a grassy plain got several miles away from
it. The sun shone hotly on our backs, the horses walked with drooping
heads through the tall grass, and we jolted silently in our saddles,
every now and then putting straight the embroidered blankets on which we
sat, as folds in them become disagreeable in hot weather. I was riding
on the left wing of our cavalcade, and had turned to Trusty, who was
stalking behind Czar with hanging tail, when, on looking across the
prairie, I fancied I saw about half a mile off two human forms conceal
themselves in the grass. Without checking my horse, I called Tiger up,
and imparted to him what I fancied I had seen. He advised me not to look
round, as he was riding on my right hand, and, without exciting
suspicion, while talking to me, could keep in sight the entire plain on
our left. We had been riding on for a long time when Tiger suddenly
pulled round his piebald and galloped across the prairie, in the
direction where I believed I had seen the men. We stopped to look after
him and watched him ride through the grass, but presently turn his horse
toward us. He told me they were probably Blackfoot Indians, who were
following S - - 's trail, in order to steal some horses from his party.
Close to the spot where he had seen one of them was a reed-covered pool,
and hence it was useless to seek him, as he would have concealed himself
in it. However, he was of opinion that we must be on our guard here, so
that they might not get hold of any of our horses, for these Indians had
eyes in the darkness, and could walk more softly than sleep.

During the following night, we again encamped on the river, and fastened
our horses near camp, where Trusty mounted guard over them. He appeared
extremely restless, got up several times, went growling round our camp,
and barked frequently; but our rest was not otherwise disturbed. Early
the next morning, as we were folding up our furs, Tiger returned to the
fire saturated with dew. He had gone over the neighbourhood and said
there was a number of Blackfeet close by; the dog had prevented them
from approaching our camp at night; but they could not be an entire
tribe, or else they would have ventured an attack by day. He had found
several tracks going round our camp at some distance. Tiger told us that
the Blackfeet live farther north, and only come so low down for purposes
of plunder; but here they had to be on their guard against the Utahs,
Sioux, Pawnees, Sacs, and Foxes, who occupied this country and lived at
war with them. The Blackfeet are pursued by nearly all the other Indian
tribes when they venture south, and in former years, when they prowled
about the present state of Missouri, they were hunted by the first
settlers there like wild beasts. The power of these Indians is very
considerable, and their number is probably the largest of all the
numerous tribes of natives. They live between the sources of the
Missouri and Yellow-stone River, tolerate no other tribe there, and are
warlike and cruel to their conquered foes. The Crows, their neighbours,
are much fewer in number, but for all that oppose them in the field and
wage the most sanguinary wars with them. Neither nation, however, dares
to cross the Yellow-stone, without being pursued by the Indians living
on the opposite side; they only do so when they have a prospect of
committing a robbery without any great risk, or capturing a few scalps
from their enemies.

We followed the river to the spot where the Medicine-bow River falls
into it, and Tiger and Owl made an excursion along its banks, and
brought in the news that some forty Blackfeet had crossed the river,
probably expecting that we would follow the Platte farther up to the
Black Mountains, to watch for us and attack us in the narrow passes.
They told us these enemies would not leave us till we had passed that
region, and we must constantly keep a watchful eye on them. We camped on
this side of the Medicine-bow River, and talked over our further tour
over the camp fire, and Owl was of opinion that we should do better by
following the course of this river and effecting our retreat through
Lamarie plains, between the Medicine and Black Mountains, as on this
route we should be less troubled by Indians than on the great Eastern
Prairies, and, with the exception of buffaloes and wild horses, might
expect to find much more game there. We heard Tiger, who was of the same
opinion, and soon agreed to follow this road.

We fished in the river till it grew quite dark, and had just put supper
on the fire, when Tiger and Owl took their rifles, and, after telling us
to keep a bright look-out for the Blackfeet, went up the river, and soon
disappeared. I ordered Königstein to mount guard at the end of the small
wood in which we had camped, at the spot where it joined the Platte, and
promised to relieve him in an hour. We thus changed sentries until about
eleven o'clock, when I relieved John. It was not very dark, although the
moon was not shining, and sitting on the ground I could not only see
across the Platte, but distinguish objects in the grass for some
distance. Trusty lay by my side, with his head resting on his crossed
paws; suddenly, however, he raised his nose, and I heard his low growl,
which I stopped by a wave of my hand. He kept his nose turned
obstinately up stream, in which direction I also kept my eyes fixed on
the grass. I felt with the hand I had laid on Trusty that his attention
was growing greater, for he began trembling all over, which he did when
he was forced to master his growing excitement.

Still I could not distinguish anything that appeared to me strange. The
grass in front of me was not tall, and there were but few patches of
scrub. All at once I fancied that a bush, about fifty yards from me, had
moved, but it might be imagination, as I had been gazing at it so
intently. A profound silence brooded over the landscape, which was only
interrupted by the continuous monotonous rustling of the river. In our
camp no voice was audible, and the bright fire, which had lit up the
surrounding trees and bushes, had burned down, and only indicated its
position by a glimmering light. When I took my post half an hour
previously Owl and Tiger had not returned, and since then I had not
heard them arrive. The air was very damp and cold, and the grass around
me felt quite wet. I now fancied I could be certain that the bush had
moved: I rose a little and looked at it more sharply; it moved again,
and a dark object, in the shape of a large stone, slowly rose out of the
grass. Now I could entertain no doubt it was a living creature: but what
could it be? That was a matter of indifference to me, so long as it was
not either Tiger or Owl, and they would not approach our camp so
cautiously and suspiciously. It could be none but a Blackfoot. I rose on
one knee, cautiously lifted my rifle, and aimed as well as I could for
the darkness, at the object whose indistinct outline now covered nearly
the whole bush.

Bang! the flame flashed from the rifle, and a hollow plump into the
river followed a few seconds later, before the smoke had risen on the
damp atmosphere. I looked at the dark, shining surface of the water, and
noticed that large circles surrounded a black spot, and were moving with
it toward the middle of the stream. I fired my second barrel at it: I
clearly saw through the gloom that the motion of the water became very
violent at the moment, but then it was all over, and the next minute the
current flowed on as usual, and nothing on its surface revealed what was

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 26 of 35)