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Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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passing in its depths. I had scarce fired the second shot when my
comrades dashed up under arms. I quickly told them what had happened,
and we remained under arms awaiting the return of our Indians, of whom
we had as yet heard nothing. About an hour later they returned, and
Tiger at once asked why we had been firing: then he told us what had
happened to him, and that my shots had robbed them of several Blackfeet
scalps. They had crossed the river a little higher up, at a point where
it was shallow, and lay down on its banks, as they expected that the
savages would return during the night to try and get hold of our horses.
Shortly before I fired, Tiger had heard and seen the branches of a
neighbouring bush parted, but after that all became quiet again. Tiger
fancied that their number was considerable; but we had nothing more to
fear from them on this night, and could go to sleep in peace. However,
we posted sentries till daybreak, when I and Tiger examined the spot at
which I had fired. We found that my bullet had cut away a spray in the
centre of the bush, and noticed the track of an Indian, which was
distinctly marked on the bank, and Tiger recognised it as that of a
Blackfoot. Owl swam across the river and examined the opposite shore to
see whether he had landed there, but could not discover any sign, and,
pointing to the river, supposed he was sleeping under that.

We slept quietly till eight o'clock, then breakfasted, and packed our
animals, so as to continue our journey on the new plan. Tiger said that
the Blackfeet would be cheated out of a day, for they were awaiting us
farther down the Platte, and if they had not their horses with them they
could not catch us up before morning: if their number was large,
however, as he believed, they had their horses with them, and would be
camping in the thickets on the opposite side of Medicine-bow River. It
was nearly noon when we struck camp and marched up the river. The grass
was not very high, and our path slightly covered with loose stones, so
that we could keep our horses at an amble, and when the sun sank behind
the distant hills on our right, we had covered a distance of at least
twenty-five miles. After riding past a stony knoll, round which the
river described a short curve, we reached a stream flowing between deep
banks, which fell into the Platte, and was densely overgrown with
alders. The spot pleased us to spend the night at, and we were engaged
in unpacking our cattle, when suddenly a fearful yell rang behind us,
which came toward us accompanied by a dense cloud of dust. The
Blackfeet! all shouted, and seized their weapons. Tiger, however,
shouted to us to follow him, as he led his piebald through the alders
into the stream, and the next minute all the cattle were left in charge
of Antonio, who fastened them to the bushes.

We had scarce returned to the bank when a body of forty Indians dashed
up to us like a tornado; lying behind their horses' necks, and covering
their left side with their large shields, they allowed a very small
portion of their bodies to be seen. We permitted them to come within
fifty yards before we fired. The band hesitated, and we saw through the
dust several horses lying on the ground, and many of the horsemen
engaged in taking others up behind them, while the greater number
galloped back to the hill, and uttered a frightful yell. They had not
galloped far, however, when one of them, mounted on a powerful black
horse, darted to their head, and casting himself in their way, swung his
long lance before them. His horse reared in front of the flying horde,
and the thundering voice of the leader distinctly reached us through the
yelling. At the next instant the band turned back, with the warrior on
the black horse in front of them. We had reloaded, and I shouted to my
comrades to expend but one bullet, and reserve the other for shorter
range. The savages had galloped up to within about the same distance as
before, when I shouted, Fire! and aimed myself at the leader of the
band. The black horse reared and fell over with its rider, while another
horse fell dead by its side, whose rider ran with the speed of an arrow
after his comrades, who were now flying in the utmost confusion. The
rider of the black horse, however, had scarce fallen with it ere he
crept from under it, and at the same instant we saw Tiger leap out of
the willow bushes on the river bank, and, swinging his tomahawk, catch
up the Blackfoot warrior with a few leaps. The latter fell back a pace,
and threw his iron axe at Tiger with such force that, missing its mark,
it flew far out into the river. Tiger now buried his axe with lightning
speed in the chest of his recoiling foe, and both fell to the ground
like two intertwined snakes. It was the work of a few minutes, and the
yell of the flying Indians was still ringing in our ears when we dashed
up to the combatants in order to help Tiger. It was no longer necessary,
however, for he rose from off his lifeless foe, and setting his knee on
the other's bent-back neck, he passed his knife round the head and tore
off his scalp. During this time Owl had scalped the other Blackfoot, and
our Indians danced frantically round the dead men, waving the reeking
scalps and knives, while the blood poured down Tiger's back from a
gaping wound in his left shoulder. At length they concluded their dance
of victory, and then our Indians plundered their slain foes and the dead
horses. The dress of these Blackfeet is made of leather, with remarkable
taste, adorned with paintings and long fringes, porcupine quills,
shells, scalp-locks, and coloured pebbles; the leather is smoked of a
very dark hue, and gives the savages a gloomy and terrifying aspect.
Their weapons are lances, bows and arrows, tomahawks, and knives; only a
few have firearms.

I examined Tiger's wound, which had only cut the flesh obliquely, and
was produced by his enemy's knife; while the latter had a bullet through
his left thigh, a gaping wound in his chest, and a stab in his heart.
Tiger had run down to the willows on the river without our noticing him
after the first attack of the Blackfeet, and had thence fired at the
chief, whom he afterwards killed with his knife. "Now," he said, "we can
sleep; the Blackfeet have lost their head, and will go home and tell how
the Delawares have some more of their scalps in their tents; their
squaws will not even take their dead with them, and not let them sleep
with their fathers."

We camped close to the stream, but posted sentries all through the
night, as I feared lest we might have to oppose a nocturnal surprise.
The night, however, passed undisturbed; but we heard incessantly a
fearful yelling of wolves, which prowled round our camp, but owing to
the huge fire did not dare approach the corpses, which lay not far from
us in the grass. The next morning we quitted the spot, for which
movement the numerous wolves were watching, and they attacked the dead
Indians and horses almost before we had crossed the stream.




[Illustration]

CHAPTER XXV.

ON THE PRAIRIE.


We hastened up the river for five days, during which time we crossed a
number of small streams which fell into it. Then we reached the eastern
spurs of the Medicine Mountains, in which the river rises and pours over
the rocks in the shape of a large torrent. Here we crossed it, and
following the base of these hills in the plain, we reached on the second
evening a small stream, which flows for at least a hundred miles due
east through this broad plain, which the Indians called Lamarie, to the
Black Mountains bordering the plain, and, as Owl told us, winds through
the latter till it falls into the Northern Platte to the east of Fort
Lamarie. These mountains, which in height and shape exactly resemble the
range from which the Bighorn rises, are to the north of that snow peak.
We marched along the stream to the eastward to the Black Mountains, and
then turned up an arm of it coming from the south until it was lost in
the plain. We marched from here for a whole day without water, and were
obliged to pass the night, too, without it or fire, as the desolate
plain over which we rode showed us not a single tree. Toward evening the
next day we reached a lake, which was about three miles in
circumference, but its waters were slightly impregnated with salt:
following its banks, however, we arrived on its western side at some
clear streams of fresh water. Here we refreshed ourselves and camped,
though it was early in the afternoon, and amused ourselves with shooting
geese and swans. On the next evening we came to a similar lake, with
fresh-water streams on its western side, so that we again had a
splendid camp, and took advantage of the opportunity to bathe in the
lake.

During the next day our road again ran over a desolate, melancholy
plain, but toward evening we saw a low wood in the distance, and reached
another arm of the river which runs through the Black Mountains to Fort
Lamarie. Here we had everything we could desire, a protected camp in the
wood, and a splendid trout stream, in which we refreshed ourselves and
our horses. We shot several fat buffaloes, and a few black-tailed stags.
The wood above us sufficed to put us in good spirits, for we were very
tired of the monotonous, desolate plains over which we had been marching
for a long time. Before sunset our horses neighed, and we heard them
answered from, outside the wood. All at once there was a thundering
burst through the low bushes, and the leader of a troop of wild horses
fell in terror immediately in front of our fire, and the animals behind
him one over the other, after which they got up again in the utmost fear
and confusion and dashed out of the wood. The stallion was a splendid
iron-grey, very powerfully built and finely shaped, and we all regretted
that we were unable to take him home.

The next morning we left the river and went south, and for the whole day
without finding water. The sun sank behind the hills, and nowhere was
there a tree or a sign of water; the grass, too, was bad, but our cattle
were very weary, and we too longed for rest. We made a poor fire of
_bois de vache_ and small bushes, large enough to cook our supper, then
we put up our tents and secured our traps under the tarpaulin on a bed
of stones, for the sky was overcast and led to expectation of rain. At
nightfall it began to blow and rain, and went on the whole night till
daybreak, when the clouds gathered together again, and hanging on the
base of the mountains displayed the snow peaks brilliantly illumined by
the sun. We quickly started, and marched from this disagreeable spot,
looking for pleasanter signs ahead. At length, toward noon, wood rose
again from the barren surface. We drove our animals into a quicker
pace, and in a few hours were resting again on a river fringed by trees,
upon glorious grass, which our starving cattle eagerly devoured. It was
still very early, and we all felt inclined to go hunting, as the rain
had refreshed the country, and the verdure of the forest and the meadow
does the eyesight good. A few preferred fishing in the neighbouring
stream; several went up the river to hunt, while I went down it,
accompanied by Trusty only. I had gone about a couple of miles along the
skirt of the wood when I saw something moving on the prairie behind some
very low bushes. I crept cautiously up to the last bush, and before me
stood, at about the distance of a hundred and twenty yards, a herd of
some forty large and old giant stags. The beautiful animals - the pride
of the animal world - stood in a long line before me, with their faces
turned to me, and raised their powerful antlers like a forest of horns.
It was a sight whose beauty only a sportsman can estimate. I lay for
some minutes lost in contemplation, but when I raised my knee and rifle
the whole herd turned and galloped past me. I had long had my eye on the
largest stag, for its antlers rose far above the others with their broad
lines. I aimed behind the shoulder and fired, heard the bullet
distinctly go home, and saw, that though it was bleeding profusely, it
kept up with the others. The next largest stag, being just behind this
one, I fired the second barrel at it, heard the thud of the bullet
again, and saw that it was mortally wounded; but it too remained in
line, and I watched the stags till they disappeared a long way off in a
hollow.

I loaded, and on reaching the spot where the stags were hit, Trusty at
once put his nose to the blood trail and stopped, looking up at me. I
made him a sign that it was all right, and when he had gone a little
distance he went off slightly to the right, took up the trail of the
second stag, and then again pointed with his nose to the ground, while
looking at me inquiringly. I again urged him on, and he went first to
one trail, then to the other, till I was able to look down into the
valley, where I saw the two stags lying dead, hardly ten yards apart. I
hastened up to them, and counted, on the antlers of the largest,
eight-and-thirty tines, and on the smaller one six-and-twenty; the
length of the two antlers was between five and six feet, and their
weight between thirty and forty pounds. The antlers of this stag only
differ from those of our stag through their size and the greater number
of tines: the great difference between them is in the weight, as the
giant stag is often double the size of ours. Both animals, it seemed,
had died nearly at the same moment, for they lay side by side with their
heads stretched out, as they had been running. After looking at them for
awhile in delight, I broke them up, gave Trusty his share, cut out a
couple of grinders as a recollection, and then went back to camp, when
my comrades were equally pleased at the result of my sport. The other
hunters had also been fortunate, and had killed a fat buffalo, while the
anglers had pulled a number of large fish out of the river. Owl went
with Antonio and Königstein to my stags, in order to fetch their skins
and meat, and I requested them to bring me the antlers of the largest
one, as I wished, were it possible, to carry them home. Though we liked
the place so much, we left it again next morning, abundantly supplied
with the best game, and Jack trotted after us with the enormous antlers
on the top of his packages.

The country here became again intersected by low ranges of hills, which
crossed the plain from east to west; their heights were long and barren,
but the large valleys between them ornamented with small prairies and
woods, in the latter of which we frequently found springs. The variety
was a relief to our eyes, and offered us many a fine prospect, with the
mountains approaching each other. Isolated masses of rock again rose out
of these valleys, and before us in the far South were visible loftier
ranges, some of them branching off from the Medicine Mountains, others
from the Black Mountains. The colouring of these landscapes in the west
of the continent is much warmer and more hazy than in the Eastern
States, or in the countries of Old Europe. The distances, although
transparent and extraordinarily distinct, float in a delicate
reddish-blue tinge, in front of which the deep dark shadows and flashing
lights produced by the glowing sun stand out the more powerfully. The
shadows which the clouds throw on the landscape are also, like the
latter, dyed with carmine and cobalt, and not, as in England, black and
white, the mere sight of which produces a shudder. The streams reflect
on their surface the dark ultramarine of the heavens, and the rich green
of the woods and prairies loses through its countless tints and rich
flora its wearisome monotony.

With every hour the beauty of the country increased, and the animal
world became more animated. Countless wild horses of the most varying
colours flew at our approach over the green hills, large herds of
dark-haired buffalo galloped awkwardly over the wide stretches of grass,
and from the stony heights the light-footed antelopes gazed down
curiously at us. Up hill, down hill, we jolted in the saddles of our
ambling steeds, when, on a calm warm evening toward sunset, we rode down
from a grassy knoll to a stream, which was closely overhung with alder
bushes, and separated the base of the hill from a wide prairie, round
which it wound with numerous meanderings. Tiger was riding about forty
yards ahead, and had just disappeared with his piebald in a patch of
scrub, when he dashed out of the other side of it with a loud cry and an
enormous grizzly bear after him. We galloped through the stream after
him, while his rapid horse bounded over the grass toward us, and gained
a slight advance on the grizzly. All our rifles were fired at the
monster, and turning away from Tiger it came toward us with long leaps,
and pursued John with an awful roar; once again our rifles cracked
behind it, but the bullets did not check its clumsy but yet rapid
course. John turned his mare again toward us, and had hardly joined our
ranks when we fired a salvo from our revolvers at the maddened bear,
and galloping after it, kept up our fire. Königstein, on the
cream-colour, was the nearest to it on the left, and gave the bear a
shot at short range, when the latter turned on him and smashed his
broad, wooden stirrup into a thousand chips between its savage teeth.
Königstein, however, had pulled his foot out and flew with his horse to
our side. Again we sent a hailstorm of bullets into the broad back of
the infuriated animal, upon which it sank on its hind-quarters, as a
bullet had smashed its spine. Its fury and the roars it uttered were
fearful, and turning in a circle on its monstrous forepaws it covered a
large space around it with its blood, which streamed from its shaggy
carcass.

I shouted to my friends not to fire, as I saw Tiger had dismounted and
was hastily loading his rifle, and I wished to grant him the pleasure of
killing the bear. He fired his bullet into its head, and then cut off
its claws with great satisfaction. We took the paws, tongue, and liver
of the huge animal, while Tiger rode back to the stream, and thence
shouted to us to join him. We rode up, and found in the water a two-year
old, very handsome chestnut horse, which the bear had captured on the
prairie, and, as the trampled grass showed us, had dragged to the
stream, in order to enjoy its meal without being disturbed. I took the
tusks of the slain animal, and with the new matter for conversation
which this fight gave us, we shortened the road to our camp, which lay
in an exquisite hollow on the south side of lofty crags, under which a
clear torrent rolled over loose stones that glistened like gold. They
contained a substance which really resembled this metal, so that they
shone through the water hurrying over them like lumps of pure gold. Some
stately palms, maples, and oaks overshadowed our camp, and served as a
cool retreat for the countless songsters that saluted us with their
evening hymn.

It is incomprehensible why the belief prevails throughout Europe that
American birds are very brilliantly plumaged, but cannot sing, while
most certainly there are sweeter songsters and more varieties of them on
this continent than in Europe. A single bird is wanting, the
nightingale, but it is compensated a thousandfold by the mocking bird.
All other classes of birds are represented, though with different and
finer plumage. The belief may arise from the fact that emigrants from
Europe land in the large eastern cities, and in their walks in their
vicinity see no birds, from the circumstance that boys there of ten
years old run about with guns and kill every bird that shows itself: and
then again, these persons only seek the shade of the trees and bushes
during the heat of the day, when all birds silently hide themselves from
the burning sun. If they went out in the morning, however, when nature
is awakening, they would hear quite as good singers as in their old
home.

Before us the valley wound between partly wooded low hills, behind which
the higher base now rose. For several days we marched along this valley,
till on one afternoon we looked down from a hill on the blue crystalline
waters of the southern Platte, which coming down from the Medicine
hills, rustled through the valley at our feet. The river was large even
here, and shot with the speed that characterizes the streams in this
country, and with many windings between its wood-clad banks. Before us,
where the river described a sharp curve, the banks were stony on both
sides, and seemed from time immemorial to have been used by the
inhabitants of these countries as a ford. At this moment, when probably
for the first time the eyes of white men rested on this ford, a
countless herd of buffaloes was occupied in crossing. They were coming
southward from the mountains, and pressed shoulder to shoulder in dense
masses to water in the river, while others came down the hills in a
black line. The roars of these thirsty wanderers filled the air and rang
through the hills in a thousand echoes. They dashed by hundreds
impetuously from the high bank into the deep, rapid stream, on either
side of the ford, and drifted with it into the dark overarching wood.
We stopped for a long time gazing down at this scene and awaiting the
end of the herd, whose head had disappeared some time previously in the
valley on our left, while dense masses still continued to pour down
without a check from the hills to the water. At length, at the end of an
hour, only a few laggards came, after at least five thousand buffaloes
had crossed the river, and yet the number of these animals is said to be
quite insignificant compared with what it was twenty years ago. Who
knows whether fifty years hence they will exist anywhere but in natural
history? We were obliged to let the wanderers pass, as we also wanted to
cross the river, though in the opposite direction, and we should have
run a risk of the whole herd marching over us, had we got in their way.
We now rode down into the river; but, although so great a number of huge
animals had passed through it, the water was as clear and bright as if a
stone had never been stirred on its bottom. We watered our cattle, and
followed the path by which the buffaloes had found their way to this
ford, on the supposition that they had rendered it quite passable, and
that they had come from the southern prairies to which we were bound.

[Illustration: BUFFALOES CROSSING A RIVER. _p. 333._]

We had scaled the first hill, when we saw about two miles off a few
buffaloes trotting towards us, which had probably lagged behind, and now
wanted to catch up the herd. We rode about thirty yards off the path, to
a spot where we were covered by rocks and commanded the sloping path
down to the water. Ere long we heard the heavy trot of the approaching
animals on the stony ground, and presently several cows, and behind them
a fat old bull came past us. We all fired together, and the old bull
rolled over and over down the slope, and lay dead at the bottom. We took
as usual its tongue, marrowbones, and loins, and left the rest to those
that came after us.

We could not have found a finer road through these hills: broad and
trodden smooth, it wound along the crags, so that we were often able to
advance at a quick amble. It frequently ran over dizzy precipices,
whence we surveyed the pleasant valleys, whose dark shadow seemed to
invite us, while the hot sun and its reflection from the bare rocks over
which we were marching, was hardly rendered endurable by the fresh
breeze blowing up here. We crossed a number of small streams, which came
down from the western hills, and all flowed to the Platte, until at the
end of a week we again reached the latter river, at the point where a
large affluent, coming from the Bighorn, joined it. We appeared to be
here on the last slopes of the enormous mountains, over which the
snowpeak was visible in all its splendour as a farewell salutation. It
rose higher above its smaller comrades, and glistened like the purest
silver in the blue sky, while the edge of the mountains displayed no
snow, and seemed like a thin strip of fog above the nearer hills.
Eastward we noticed on the horizon of the extensive plains only low
ranges of hills, while to the north the Black Mountains raised their
mighty crests and a few snow-clad peaks.

We crossed this southern arm of the Platte, and camped on the other side
of it, in order to grant our cattle a few days' rest there, where the
most splendid grass and a cool thick wood covered its bank. The bright
streams offered us the most glorious fish, which can be almost selected



Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 27 of 35)