Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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in these streams, as we see them swarm round the bait, and the latter
can be dropped before the fish you wish to catch. The neighbourhood of
our camp was enlivened by game of every description; on the slopes of
the neighbouring Black Mountains we found mountain sheep and
black-tailed stags; in the forests between them and the Platte the
majestic giant stag was preparing for the rutting season, and with
swollen neck whetting the numerous tines of its splendid antlers on the
trees. The prairies near us brought to us the elegant Virginian stag and
the swift, black-eyed antelope, while the buffalo incessantly passed in
all directions: not far from our camp we also found a warren of those
interesting little creatures, which are falsely called prairie dogs, as
they do not belong to this family, but to that of the badger.

We went out and shot some dozen of these dogs, as they afford a nice
dish for a change. They live in burrows under ground, which they throw
up like the rabbits, and a hundred of them are frequently found close
together. They are very shy, but easy to shoot, as, if you lie down for
a little while in the grass, they come out of their holes and give a
snapping cry, which has been falsely called barking by some naturalists.
They are badgers, about fifteen inches in length, which only live on
vegetables, carry a large winter stock into their subterranean houses,
and form very numerous families. They frequently quit a place without
any visible reason, and wander a long distance over hill and dale in
order to seek a new home.

Our horses and pack-cattle were recruited, and we too had recovered from
the fatigue of our journey over the last mountains; hence we set out
again, and casting many a parting glance at the Bighorn, we followed the
Platte in an eastern direction, till at noon we reached a well-trodden
path which runs from Fort St. Brain on the southern arm of this river
down to the Missouri. We crossed it, and proceeded more to the
south-west, in order to escape the numerous Indian hordes going up and
down this path. A few days after we crossed the hills we had seen from
our last camp, and the sky now rested before us on the interminable
horizon of the prairie.

For nearly a week we marched over this green plain with scarce any
change in the scene. It was, however, undulating, the flora in the grass
gay and varied, and a few trees afforded us shade and firewood morning
and evening to prepare our meals. At length hills rose on the horizon,
and we soon saw again the darker verdure of forests, which received us
into their shady gloom towards evening. In this tour we were so broiled
by the sun that we entered the wood with delight, and at once resolved
to rest a few days here, if, as we anticipated, there was water at hand.
We hurried along a buffalo path into the depths of the forest, and soon
heard to our delight the rustling of a neighbouring river, whose banks
we speedily reached, and it proved to be a rapidly flowing stream
overhung by tall ferns. Owl told us it was one of the numerous sources
of the Kansas, which runs eastward to the Missouri. "Here let us build
tabernacles," we cried in one voice, but followed the path across the
stream to the skirt of the wood, which was no great distance off. We
unloaded our cattle in a small clearing off our path, lit a fire, and
really built tabernacles, as we made a roof of bushes between several
young oaks, which kept off every sunbeam, and in whose immediate
vicinity were trees enough to tie up our cattle every night.

After a long ride over the open prairies of Western America the comfort
of a spot like this is very great and almost indescribable. The eyes are
refreshed by the rich green, after the continued view of the horizon,
which is rendered still more painful by the quivering sunshine of these
plains. The breeze under the trees is most refreshing, while on the
prairie it is dry and oppressively hot: we felt very jolly and
comfortable in our hut, roamed about the neighbourhood, which was very
rich in game; went along the streams and caught magnificent trout, or
destroyed colonies of bees and plundered their rich stores of honey. To
the south small prairies continually alternated with narrow patches of
wood, through which the streams that spring up in them run under cover
to join the Kansas.

After resting our cattle for some days, I went out one morning after
breakfast to hunt and have a nearer view of the country round. I rode in
a southern direction, followed by Trusty, and in going off, said to my
comrades that if I lost my way, I would follow the course of one of
these streams till it joined the river; then I would wait till they came
to me, in which they could not fail, as we knew that all these small
streams joined.

In a few hours I had crossed several of these streams, and had ridden
out of a wood into a small prairie glade, when suddenly a horse Indian
darted toward me with a furious yell from a thicket of tall oaks and
swung his bow over his head, while his long lance hung on his right arm.
It was too late to dismount and make use of my rifle. I quickly drew my
revolver, put Czar at a gallop, and flew towards the Indian, turning my
horse to the left, as he on his right side could make less use of his
bow than I could of my revolver. However, he soon perceived my object,
guided his chestnut to get on my left hand, and we galloped on in the
same direction some distance out of shot. Suddenly, however, he turned
and dashed toward me with his bow raised over the head of his rapid
steed. I too had urged Czar to his full speed, and when we were about
sixty yards apart, I fired. I had not expected to hit, still it was
possible, and I had five shots left in my weapon. The savage's horse
leaped on one side, stumbled and fell forward on its chest. A few blows
of the whip forced it to make a last effort, but it then sank lifeless
under its rider, who disappeared like lightning in the not very high
grass behind it.

At the moment when I saw his horse fall, I turned mine away and pulled
up about one hundred yards distant. The horse lay with its back turned
to me, and the Indian was concealed behind its belly. I took out my
telescope to try and get a better sight of my enemy, but it was of no
use, he had disappeared. All at once I saw an arrow shoot up behind the
horse and fly toward me in a large curve, but I easily pulled Czar out
of its way and it sank harmless by my side with its point in the grass.
While the Indian was firing the arrow I distinctly saw his hands holding
the bow projecting above the horse's belly. I leapt from Czar's back,
threw the bridle over his shoulder, and fired with my rifle at the
horse's back. I heard the thud of the bullet, but the savage did not
show himself. I reloaded both rifle and revolver and walked at the same
distance round the dead horse till I got to the side on which its
hind-quarters lay. I could now look under its belly and saw the Indian
creep under the animal's chest and roll himself up behind it in a ball:
still the surface by which he was hidden was now too small to cover him
entirely, and I could distinguish the upper part of his body. I fired
again and noticed a quick convulsive movement on the part of the foe,
but only at the moment of firing. I had recourse to my glass once more,
and saw that his head was now under the horse's chest, but his legs lay
behind its neck, and he was peeping at me between its forelegs. I
reloaded, and now having become much calmer, I aimed again at my mark; I
fired and at once saw the savage throw up his legs, then try to rise but
fall back again. I drew closer to him and watched him through the glass,
as he had got a little way from the horse. He did not stir and lay on
his back, but he was an Indian, and such a man a white man must not
trust even in death. I fired again and heard my bullet go home, but he
remained motionless. After reloading, I walked with cocked rifle nearer
and found that life had left him, and that he had my second bullet in
his right hip, the third in his head over the right ear, and the last in
his chest, while I found one bullet in the horse's chest and another in
its back. He was a man of about thirty years of age, tall and powerfully
built, of a very dark colour and with sharply marked features; his
remarkably long hair hung wildly round his head, with two eagle plumes
thrust into the topknot, while his neck was decorated with a necklace of
bears' claws, and his arms with brass rings. The lower part of his face
and the eyelids ruddled with vermilion, and his forehead and cheeks
painted black, gave him a terrific, uncomfortable aspect, which was
heightened by the dazzlingly white teeth visible between his drawn-back
lips. I only gazed for a few minutes at the corpse, took his bow and
quiver of arrows, hung them on my horse and speedily beat a retreat, as
the comrades of the dead man were certainly not far off, and might very
easily be on the road to the spot, guided by my shots. I rode back on my
trail and soon reached camp, when I told my friends what had happened.

Tiger was out hunting and not yet returned. I ordered a rapid start, had
the horses packed and everything ready to be off. We had scarce
completed our preparations when Tiger, bathed in perspiration, came back
along my track, and said he had heard my shots, followed their
direction, and found the Indian and his horse. He was a Pawnee, whose
tribe was certainly close at hand, and when his companions missed him
they would seek him and easily find us too, in which case we should run
a great danger, as they were brave men. He quickly packed his horse, and
in a few minutes we left camp. Tiger rode ahead into the stream, and we
followed him, riding singly down the water, which offered us no
obstacles beyond here and there a fallen tree, as it ran over pebbles,
was nowhere deep, and had flat banks. Evening arrived, and the sun was
already low on the western horizon. We marched almost constantly in the
stream till we found on its right bank a wide plain covered with
pebbles, when we turned off to the south at a right angle. We reached on
the other side of the plain a similar stream, which was also
overshadowed by trees, entered a thicket and dismounted to let our
horses graze without unsaddling them, and to await nightfall. The moon
was already up, and though her light did not brilliantly illumine the
country, it was sufficiently strong to enable us to distinguish objects
at a slight distance. We then left our hiding-place, marched out of the
thicket into the prairie, and urged our horses on at a quick pace.
Without interruption, we hurried on through the silence of the night,
which was only disturbed by the howling of the countless wolves and the
roar of the buffaloes we put up, until shortly before daybreak the moon
withdrew her light from us and the darkness did not allow us to advance.
We sat down on the damp grass round our cattle and waited till the first
new light appeared on the eastern horizon, then we remounted and hurried
on toward a distant strip of wood which rose before us on the prairie.
The sun was standing high in the heavens when we reached it and led our
wearied animals to a stream. Here we unsaddled and let them graze,
hobbled, in a small glade, while we prepared breakfast at a small fire.

We were very tired and after the meal could hardly keep awake. We posted
sentries in turn to watch the plain behind us, and kept lively by
smoking and telling stories. Our cattle wanted sleep more than grass,
and we were sorry at being obliged to saddle them after a short rest,
but Tiger and Owl insisted on our going on, as we were certainly pursued
by the Pawnees, and could only escape them by keeping the start we had
on them. It was hardly noon when we started again and spurred our horses
on toward the southern prairie. They only moved because they felt the
sharp steel in their sides, and we were obliged to lead the mules by
lassos and appoint a man to drive them, as they refused to follow. The
heat was oppressive, there was not a breath of air, and the plants on
the plain we crossed hung their leaves in exhaustion, an incessant
buzzing of the insects in the grass filled the motionless air, and a
trembling dazzling light lay on the wide expanse around us. The sweat
ran in streams from our cattle, and was mixed with the blood which the
countless musquitos sucked from their coat, so that under their belly
their colour could not be distinguished. But not noticing their
sufferings or fatigue, we urged them on and looked back at the distant
horizon to see whether our pursuers appeared on it, till the sun sank
and in the distance a wood rose, which crossed the prairie to the east
like a mist. Tiger said that we should be safe there; this was the wood
running along the Arkansas, and the horses of the Pawnees could not go
so far without a rest. The sun mercifully withdrew its beams, and the
moon's cool light showed us our road, when we expended the last strength
of our cattle and so reached the forest.

We had ridden for over fifty hours since yesterday morning, a greater
part of the distance without any path, through rather tall grass and
over stony soil. On the whole route we had been exposed to the burning
sun, and only once had been able to cool our fevered lips at a stream.
For our cattle, it is true, we had more frequently found water, though
only standing rain, which collects in large hollows on the prairie, but
at this season is more mud than water; at the same time it is almost
boiled by the sun, and if it can keep a man alive it does not refresh
him. We as well as our cattle were utterly exhausted to such a degree
that we would incur any danger for a few hours' rest. We rode into the
wood and followed a buffalo path, but had not ridden far when Tiger, who
was ahead, stopped, saying he had lost the path and could go no farther.
The foliage over us was so thick that only here and there the moon's
pale light stole through it, and only a few leaves and small spots on
the branches glistened like silver in the obscurity. We turned our
horses in all directions seeking the path, but after going a few yards
were continually stopped by the hanging creepers. Tiger now leapt from
his horse and sought in the darkness dry grass, which he twisted into a
torch and came to me to light it. It soon spread a light around, and
while I held it up Tiger collected a larger stock of dry grass and made
a thicker torch, which we lit, and soon found an issue from this
impenetrable thicket.

We soon reached a small arm of the Arkansas, on whose fresh, cool water
we and our cattle fell insanely. We now lit a fire, though there was no
grass for the cattle near at hand, as the small, open spot on the bank
of the rushing stream was surrounded by a dense wall of forest. At this
moment, however, rest was more necessary than food, and our cattle had
scarce been freed from their load when they all sank on the ground and
fell into a deep sleep; we did the same, and, after drinking several
draughts, fell back on our saddles and forgot that we still stood a risk
of being caught up by the Pawnees. We had collected our fire into a
small pile, so that it only coaled, and spread no light over the crests
of the tall trees, which might possibly have been noticed from the
prairie. We slept without moving a limb till the turkeys in our
neighbourhood awoke us, and, though Tiger and Owl protested most
strongly against it, we shot four of the birds, resolved to defend
ourselves to the best of our ability if the shots betrayed us to our

Tiger now mounted his piebald, rode through the river, and soon
disappeared in the forest on the other bank, where he sought pasture for
our cattle. In half an hour he returned and told us that between this
wood and the Arkansas there was a fine prairie, on which we should find
excellent grass for them. We followed him across the river and out of
the wood to a small glade, which was overshadowed by close-growing
trees. Here we camped and prepared breakfast, while our cattle greedily
browsed on the fresh, dewy grass. We rested here till the sun cast the
shadow of the forest far across the prairie; then we set out again and
rode to the Arkansas, which here rolls its foaming waters between low
banks. We reached the opposite forest and rode into its cool shade
before sunset, so that the last beams still lighted us as we marched
over the next prairie and hurried to a low scrub, from whose centre
several tremendously tall poplars rose and announced water near their

The sun had just set when we came to a stream running toward the
Arkansas, and covered on this side with bushes, while on the other the
most splendid grass hung over its crystalline waters. We watered our
cattle and then rode down stream on the other side, as the pasturage
seemed more luxuriant lower down. In a few minutes we reached a small
cascade, where the stream fell over rocks about ten feet, and below this
fall formed a deep basin, whose bottom was also composed of stone slabs,
and on one side was overhung by rock strata about twenty feet in height,
which covered a considerable space near the basin, whose bottom and
sides also consisted of bare stone. We camped on the top of this
overhanging ledge, as a number of medlar-trees grew there, to which we
could fasten our horses at night round the camp, and at the same time
the richest grass grew all around. We unsaddled, hobbled the horses in
the grass, lit a fire, and put the supper before it, and then went to
bathe in the basin under the rock. After we had cooled and refreshed
ourselves we supped and then prepared our resting-place; but John took
his weapons and skins and said he would sleep on the stream under the
crag, as it was much cooler and pleasanter there, and he should not feel
the heavy dew so much as in the grass. We wished him pleasant dreams and
shouted to him not to let himself be devoured by a bear.

We had fastened up our horses, and had fallen into a deep sleep, when
the sharp crack of a rifle aroused us, and we all leapt up, arms in
hand. At the same moment a second shot was fired below us on the water.
We were only a few yards from the edge of the crack, and on hurrying
there saw an enormous panther slowly walking among the low bushes on the
opposite bank, and looking over at us. We showered bullets upon it, and
induced it to hasten its pace till it disappeared like a shadow in the
mist. Now John ran up to us with his baggage, and told us he had
accidentally waked up. He fancied he heard a growling; rose on his arm,
and recognised the moonlit shape of a panther walking towards him
hesitatingly, with lashing tail, round the basin. He quickly seized his
rifle - fired one barrel at it, and gave it the second in the water, into
which it leapt. Providence had aroused him, for before we could have
hurried to his help from above the brute would probably have killed him,
and we might very easily have known nothing of it till we found our
comrade's lacerated body on the next morning. However, we soon forgot
this incident, and slept till dawn woke us and showed us the grass
around wet as if from a shower, while a thick fog brooded over the flat
country. We led our horses out to graze, put our breakfast to cook, and
then I went with John and Tiger, accompanied by Trusty, to the spot on
the opposite bank, where the panther had been standing when we fired at
it. We found here a quantity of hair, and soon after blood, which
increased with every step, and presently came to a spot where the jaguar
had halted and covered a large space with its blood. We went about a
hundred yards farther when Trusty stopped, looked round at me, and then
into the bushes with his tail erect. I called him to me, and crept
cautiously to the spot, when I saw the panther lying under the roots of
an old poplar, with its head turned towards me, and showing its teeth. I
shot it through the skull, and Owl took off its fine coat to prepare it
for John, who wished to preserve it in memory of the danger to which he
had been exposed during this night.





Our route ran from here through the most pleasing and rich countries,
crossed by numerous streams running eastward. Generally this country had
the character of the prairie; it was undulating, and covered with fine
grass; the hills and woods on the streams gave it variety, so that the
wearied eye did not stray over interminable plains, seeking in vain for
a resting-place. Prairies alternated with coppices and patches of forest
oak, and here and there an isolated hill rose, which gave the country
greater diversity. The grass, though rather tall, was fresh and juicy,
and hence did not greatly impede our horses, while it rendered it easy
for us to stalk game, large quantities of which we found here. We had
been marching for nearly a month through this pleasant region to the
South, and had crossed the Red Arm as well as several other affluents of
the Arkansas, when one evening we reached the Saline. It was fringed
with forests, which were much thicker and richer than those farther to
the North, and offered us splendid wild plums as refreshment when we
rode through.

We crossed the river, and went through the wood on its south side, and
had just unsaddled our horses and picketed them in the prairie, when
suddenly several hundred horse Indians came round the nearest angle in
the wood, and halted a few yards from us, while we gazed at each other
in amazement. At the head of them rode a single Indian, with a smoking
piece of wood, who at the sight of us gave a piercing yell. We saw that
great excitement was produced in the ranks of the caravan, and that the
men collected in the fore ground, while the squaws and children hurried
to the rear, and hastily drew back the numerous pack animals. We, too,
ran at full speed to our horses, and were removing them to the bushes,
when Tiger shouted to me that they were Comanches. The name at once
tranquillized me, and I told him I believed they would do nothing
hostile to us when they heard my name. He went towards the savages, and
shouted my name to them, upon which they raised loud cries, and an old
man, on a large mule, trotted towards us, in whom I recognised my friend
Pahajuka. He was followed by his squaw, and both testified their joy at
seeing me. The whole band was now coming towards us, when Pahajuka
checked them in a loud voice and with commanding gestures. They turned
away, and disappeared again soon after round the angle of the wood. He
told me his people were impudent, and would rob us if he did not keep
them away, and for that reason he had ordered them to camp lower down
the river. Both the old folks dismounted, and sat down on their buffalo
robes, while Antonio lighted a fire before them. I sat down with them,
and gave them a couple of cigars. We prepared our supper, which my
savage friends shared and enjoyed, and the squaw gave full vent to her
eloquence. She told me they were going to the sources of the Puerco on
the western side of the Sacramento Mountains, where a great council of
all the Comanche tribes was about to be held. They invited me to go
there, but I declined, as in spite of the friendship of these two, I did
not care to trust myself among so many savages.

[Illustration: THE INDIAN CAMP. _p. 346._]

Gradually several men, with their squaws and children, crept up and
camped curiously round our fire. Their number quickly increased, more
and more of them crawled through the bushes and sat down around us, till
it appeared that the whole tribe was collected. They pressed round our
baggage, and I was obliged to call to Antonio and K√ґnigstein to keep a
sharp eye on it, as I saw they were beginning to examine it. Suddenly
old Pahajuka leapt up, and in a furious voice shouted some words we
did not understand to the intruders, upon which the whole band
disappeared again in the bushes, except a very pretty girl of about
sixteen, whom the chief introduced to me as his granddaughter. She was a
nice creature, gracefully formed, with a remarkably pretty head, from
which a great mass of glossy black hair floated loosely over her
shoulders. Her finely-chiselled, slightly aquiline, nose, her small
mouth with its pearly teeth, and the modest, shy glance of her large
black eyes, would have rendered her a perfect beauty had her skin been
white, but even with her dark complexion she was handsome, and her
appearance produced an extremely pleasant impression. The leathern
petticoat which hung from her hips was finished with considerable taste

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 28 of 35)