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Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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and saw, to my terror, that he had serious wounds on his left shoulder,
and that the blood covered his arm and the whole of his left side. I
took his rifle, helped him off his horse, and went back with him into
the shade of the elms, while Antonio looked after the piebald. Tiger now
told us he had been riding about three miles down the stream through a
small coppice when suddenly an immense jaguar leapt at his horse's neck,
but at the same instant he buried his hunting-knife between the beast's
ribs. At this moment he slipped off his terrified rearing horse - the
jaguar buried its claws in his right shoulder, while he dealt it several
stabs, and it then fell dead. The piebald bolted down the stream as fast
as his legs would carry him over the stones, and Tiger believed that he
should never see him again when he noticed him on a bleak crag: he
shouted to him from a distance, and the faithful creature at once
hurried up to him. He then washed his own and the horse's wounds, and
returned to us, suffering great pain. He had four wounds on his
shoulder, close together, as if cut with a knife, and which ran about
four inches down his arm. The foremost was so deep that I was obliged to
sew it up. I bandaged him as well as I could, laid all the rags we
possessed in a moist state on the wound, and made him moisten them
pretty frequently in the neighbouring stream. Then I examined the poor
piebald, who had on his back four deep wounds from the jaguar's fangs,
and several injuries on the neck from the claws; still none appeared
dangerous, and though the throat swelled considerably, constant washing
soon produced an alleviation.

Owl now went up the hills in search of game, while I proceeded down the
stream with Antonio and Königstein to fetch the jaguar's hide. We
reached the scene of action, where the jaguar lay outstretched on the
bank, and the ground was trampled by the horse's hoofs; the animal had
five knife stabs near the heart, and the earth and grass around were
dyed with its blood, while we were able to follow the blood-stained
track of Tiger and the piebald down the stream. My two comrades at once
set to work removing the splendid skin, while I followed the path for
the purpose of procuring meat.

I had gone some distance without getting within shot, though I
frequently saw game, and the low position of the sun warned me to
commence my return to camp, I was following a small affluent of the
stream, which came down from the hills a little more to the south, in
order not to return by the same road I had come, when I suddenly heard
about half a mile off a roar that exactly resembled that of a lion. I
ran in the direction whence the sound came, and soon saw on the bank of
the stream two giant stags engaged in a most furious contest and
surrounded by a herd of does, and further on some large stags on the
watch, I ran up within forty yards of them unnoticed, while with their
huge antlers intertwined they butted each other, and frequently sank on
their knees. I shot the largest, which fell, and its enemy at once
buried its tines in the flanks of its overpowered foe, not suspecting
that the same rifle which had slain its opponent still held a deadly
bullet in readiness. I could easily have killed it, but preferred a
fawn, which was standing no great distance off, and killed it. I now got
up behind the rocks to reload, and the startled herd darted off to the
mountains. I went up to the stag, which had two-and-twenty tines, and
was very plump; after which I hurried to reach camp before it grew dark,
and met Owl, who had shot nothing. As we had nothing left to eat, we at
once started with Jack to fetch in the game, taking some firebrands of
pine-wood as torches. The night was dark, but the torchlight illumined
all the objects around the more distinctly in consequence. Antonio
walked in front, I followed with Trusty, and Königstein, with Jack,
formed the rear. We soon reached the stags, and loaded Jack with a large
supply of meat, with which we arrived in camp about ten o'clock. Our
hunger was great, as we had eaten nothing since morning, and we sat till
a late hour round the fire turning our spits. Tiger was much better; the
pain was reduced, and the swelling of the wounds was slight. The next
morning, however, as the bandages had not been wetted during his sleep,
his arm was very stiff, while the pain was greater, and hence I resolved
to stop where we were at least for the day.

It was scarce daylight when I took my weapons and went to pay another
visit to the rutting stags, John accompanying me. The morning was cool,
and the dew lay in heavy pearls on grass and stones, the valleys below
us were still veiled in mist, and large white clouds hung on the
hill-sides. We reached the spot where I had shot the stags, and heard
thence the roars of the animals echoing through the valleys. They were
standing, however, rather higher up the stream, as they probably
remembered my last night's visit. We pressed through the tall ferns,
from which the dew dripped upon us like rain, and reached a plateau that
hung over a dizzy precipice. Here stood the game, and nearest to us an
old stag, which had its proud antlers thrown back, its thick swollen
neck outstretched, and was roaring furiously. All around the other stags
responded from the hills, and we listened for a long time to the concert
of these jealous lovers ere we thought of hunting them. As it was the
first giant stag John had had a chance of firing at, I readily granted
him the first shot, and allowed him to stalk the stag. The majestic
animal, hit by my comrade's deadly bullet, fell on its knee in the midst
of a roar, raised its head once or twice, and then fell lifeless on the
scanty grass that covered the rock. John could not master his delight,
and ran up to the stag, by doing which he put an end to our sport here
for this morning, as all the deer flew at the sight of him. The stag had
six-and-twenty tines, and a pair of colossal antlers, whose ends were
like shovels. We broke it up, threw the paunch over the precipice, and
hoisted John's white handkerchief near it in order to keep beasts of
prey aloof.

It was still very early, the first sunbeams were just illumining the
highest points of the steep precipice on the opposite side of the abyss
on which we were standing, and the cool breeze was too refreshing for us
to think of hurrying back to camp. We followed the plateau therefore,
from which the opposite one continually retired, until the gorge widened
into a rocky glen, from which colossal masses of stone rose in wild
confusion. Far down the valley, at the point where it trended to the
east, round the opposite hill side, we distinctly noticed a path which
ran along the base of the mountains, and was probably the continuation
of the one on which we were camped. As we still heard numerous stags
roaring we advanced till we were able to look down into the valley on
the east, and follow our path for a long distance through it. We stopped
to gaze at the wondrous forms of the mountains. I took out my telescope,
looked at the path, and saw a long way off dark forms moving among the
rocks, which I soon discovered to be a large party of horse Indians. No
doubt but the path they were marching along was ours, and they would be
in our camp in less than an hour, while we had a good half hour's walk
to it. We therefore turned and hurried at full speed to join our
friends.

[Illustration]




[Illustration]

CHAPTER XXVII.

HOME AGAIN.


Tiger advised us to saddle at once, while he and Owl carefully removed
everything that could betray our recent presence here. All the logs were
carried into the stream in a deer hide, the horse excreta and scraps of
food hidden in the neighbouring bushes, and after giving our camp the
appearance as if its occupants had left it some days previously, we led
our horses over the firm stones down to the stream where I had shot the
stag on the previous evening, and then along it till we could survey our
path from a distance of about two miles from camp. Here we led our
cattle into a coppice where they were hidden from the Indians by the
bushes and rocks. Ere long the latter marched up the path. Tiger
recognised them as Apaches who were probably on the road to the eastern
trading ports of the United States, as they had their squaws and
children and large bales of hides with them. We let them pass in peace.
We then rode down the stream to the path and put our horses at a sharp
amble in the direction from which the Indians had just arrived. The path
led us round many blocks of granite into the glen, down into which we
had gazed that morning while stag hunting. John looked up at the
overhanging crag, on which his stag and pocket-handkerchief were, but
could not see it from here, and only regretted that he could not take
the antlers with him as a memento. He spoke about it several times, and
said he would willingly give ten dollars to have them. On this Owl rode
up to him and said he would procure them for him by the evening, after
which he turned off into the rocks. He shouted something to Tiger that
we did not understand and disappeared, while we soon reached the spot
where the valley turned to the east. On both sides of it rose the barren
mountains, and only an isolated yucca or mimosa grew out of the
crevices. The valley itself, here about two miles in width, was covered
with loose stones, and only from time to time did we notice on the
stream that wound through it a small clump of trees or patch of grass.
In spite of the great heat we hurried on till the sun was rather low,
and the mountain wall that closed the extremity of the valley cast a
long shadow into it. From here it trended to the south-west. The crags
that enclosed it sank, and we looked down into the valleys of the Puerco
River, between which and us lay smaller hills and mounds frequently
covered with forest. When the sun sank behind the southern pillar of the
mountain gate in front of Paso del Norté, the Diablo Mountains, we
unpacked at the first wood we reached after leaving the glen, and camped
on the bank of the stream which we had followed nearly all through it.
It was one of the numerous exquisite points we had found during our
tour, and the wonderful evening light did much to heighten its beauty.

We had lit our fire under the dark foliage of the oaks and thus
illumined the surrounding scenery, when Trusty rose from my side, walked
a few paces toward the pass and began growling. I called him to me
coaxingly and bad him lie down by my side, and at this moment we heard
the sound of a horse rapidly approaching us from the valley. We knew it
was Owl, but for all that every one seized his rifle and awaited the
arrival. Our friend soon rode up to the fire, took the enormous antlers
with the entire head of the stag off his horse, silently laid them and
the handkerchief before John, led his horse into the grass, and lay down
on his buffalo robe near the fire without saying a word. I asked him
whether he had seen anything of Indians, upon which he stated that he
had left his horse in the glen and gone up alone to the stag: after
cutting off its head and taking the handkerchief he went to our camping
place and ascended the nearest hill whence he could have an outlook.
The whole party of Indians were quietly camping on the spot, and at
least a dozen columns of smoke were rising from it.

We cut the antlers off the head and put them with the skull bone to dry
at the fire, and then got supper ready, while Owl turned the stag's
tongue on a spit. In the morning the familiar notes of awakening turkeys
aroused us again once more. After a long time we cheerily seized our
rifles and hurried down the stream toward them to the spot where large
peccan-nut trees enthralled them by the rich crop of nuts. We behaved
most unmercifully to these dainty birds, and when we returned to camp
had a perfect hill of them lying before us. We set to work roasting and
frying, in which we were greatly aided by the extraordinary quantity of
delicate fat which these birds have in autumn. The remaining turkeys
were cleaned, rubbed with salt, and wild pepper, which is very common in
the woods at this season, and packed on the mules; we then continued our
journey down through the hills to the long looked for valley of the
Puerco.

Our road was very fatiguing, and we were frequently obliged to dismount
and lead our horses down the steep slopes; at the same time the path was
covered with small sharp stones, which rendered going down hill still
more wearisome to the cattle, and it often ran over loose blocks of
stone, where they ran a great risk of breaking their legs. Still all
went well, and toward evening we rode out between the last hills into
the fresh verdure of the Puerco valley, and camped on the stream whose
course we had been following for some days, and which here ran as a
small river to the Puerco. We preferred riding down the valley along the
hills, in order to keep out of the way of the wandering Indians who
generally marched up and down the river, and whose number was large,
especially now, as all the tribes of the Comanches and their relatives
were _en route_ for the great council at the sources of this river.
Then, again, we could calculate on finding more game on this side of the
extensive valley, and had only one disadvantage, that we must at times
go without water. Nature everywhere showed us that we were approaching
home: the prairie was again ornamented with the gorgeous flora which had
so often delighted us there; the sky above us was darker, and, in the
distance, more hazy than in the north, and a warmer life seemed to be
stirring in everything. Still the vegetation, especially that of the
woods, did not bear the peculiar southern character which is so striking
at our home. We started very early, rode till far into the evening, and
rested, when we could manage it, at noon in some shadow, for the heat
was most oppressive from eleven till three. Moreover, we were in the
moon's first quarter, which lighted us a little when the sunshine had
departed, and enabled us to employ the cool of the evening on these
smooth plains in pushing on.

We marched, thus without halting for about a week along the hills,
during which the mountain chains on the west of the Puerco constantly
drew nearer to us and contracted the valley. We had followed our course
one whole morning without finding water, till about two o'clock p.m.,
when the heat became unendurable, and we looked out ahead for some
shadow in which we could rest for a few hours. At length we caught sight
of a clump of trees, and to our indescribable joy we saw distinctly that
they were poplars which retained their fresh foliage, an infallible sign
that there was water near; for such trees often stand in pools, and when
the water dries up their leaves turn yellow and fall off. We urged our
cattle on in order to reach the trees as speedily as possible, for now
that we might expect shadow, and probably water, we felt the sun's heat
doubly. On these plains objects are seen so clearly and distinctly for
incredible distances, that you often deceive yourself, and such was the
case with these poplars; we constantly believed that we must reach them
in a quarter of an hour, and yet hours passed ere we really arrived. We
hastened into the thick shade of the old trees, and I can scarce
describe the cheerful feeling that possessed us all on seeing close to
them, instead of a pool of muddy slime, two ponds of the clearest,
freshest spring water, one of which the poplars overshadowed with their
long branches. The cattle were quickly unloaded, and rolling themselves
on the grass they dried their wet backs, while we, reclining on the
turf, inhaled the cooler air. The pools, like the mountain-springs near
my house, had no visible connexion with any other water, but for all
that retained their freshness, though almost constantly exposed to the
burning sun.

We lay without stirring, so as to avoid any movement which might have
impeded our rapid cooling: not a breath of air stirred, the
easily-agitated leaves of the poplars hung motionless from the long
stalks, while over the water lay that quivering dazzling glow which
announces the highest degree of heat. The insect world alone seemed to
revel in this heat, and filled the air with an uninterrupted monotonous
buzz, like that which a patient hears in his fever dreams. Near me there
rose from the roots of an old poplar a chameleon, which probably found
it too warm. This wondrous lizard glistened and sparkled with a thousand
hues, puffed up the large orange-coloured bladder under its chin, and
displayed every tint, as if illumined by a variegated light in its
inside: it sat motionless, with widely-opened mouth, fixing its large
golden eyes on me, as if asking whether I would leave it the cool spot
it so enjoyed? I lay with my head on the roots of a poplar quite still,
so as to be able to gaze at the beautiful creature for as long a time as
possible; then my eyes turned from it to the ponds whose surface
dazzlingly reflected the sunlight, but quickly returned to the blessed
shade which we and our cattle were enjoying.

I accidentally looked again toward the sparkling water and noticed a
trunk of a tree in the middle of it, which I had not seen a few moments
previously. What could have raised it from the bottom of the pond to the
surface? I sat up a little and saw a second and a third emerge by its
side: I did not stir, but continued to gaze, and in ten minutes the
pools were covered with old wood. I cried in a low voice to Tiger to
look, but he had scarce done so ere he laughed, and said they were
alligators enjoying the sunshine. The surface of both pools was
literally covered with these monsters, mostly of a large size. I cried
to my comrades to take their rifles, quietly aim at their heads, and
fire when I gave the signal. I did so; our guns exploded simultaneously,
and the water spirted up furiously, and bedewed the grass for a long way
round. Only two of the monsters remained in sight, shooting backwards
and forwards in the water, and beating their tails so furiously that the
spray dashed over us. At this moment Antonio came up with a lasso, and
in an instant threw the noose over one of the furious creatures. We all
ran with the end of the rope over the grass, and dragged the alligator
on land, when it snapped savagely around with its fearful jaws, and
lashed its tail. We now set to work with pistols, and ere long its head
had so many holes in it that it could not move its dangerous jaws. Its
comrade was still swimming quietly on the top of the water, so we
fetched it out too on to the grass, when it behaved as furiously as the
first, but we soon put an end to its fun. They were two gigantic
animals, nearly sixteen feet long, and their throats were armed with
rows of terrible teeth, some of which we all took as a memento.

It is a riddle to me how the creatures got here, for the nearest stream
was many miles away, while they never quit the banks of the water in
which they live, and are as awkward as tortoises ashore, so that a land
journey was impossible. But even assuming that one of the creatures had
strayed and reached this spot after a long wandering, it could not be
assumed that hundreds of them had emigrated together to a spot so
distant from their element. Another question presented itself which was
more easy to answer, however, and which was settled before our
departure - on what such large creatures lived here? They were supplied
by the unfortunate inhabitants of this country, who came many miles to
this spot in order to quench their burning thirst at these glorious
springs, and strengthen their wearied limbs, during which they were
dragged under by the watchful monsters, and torn to pieces by thousands
of teeth. I am convinced that even a buffalo, in spite of its gigantic
strength, would be overpowered and killed by these monsters, if,
fatigued by a long journey over the prairie, it ran into their ponds to
cool itself.

The sun was near the hills, we had satisfied our hunger with turkey
breasts and venison, and were ready to leave this pleasant spot, when
Königstein slit up an alligator with his hunting knife and drew out of
the belly of one some deer feet, and then out of the other the leg of a
turkey. We would gladly have extirpated the whole nest of disgusting
monsters, but not one of them was now visible, and the evening sun
played as cheerily on the surface of the water, as if no horrors and
dangers were concealed beneath it. We watered our horses once again and
then trotted on in order to cover a good bit of ground, for the nearer
we got to our home, the greater grew our longing for it and all the
friends whom we had left there.

We continued our journey for about a week, and crossed a number of small
streams, which ran into the Puerco, till one noon we reached another
rivulet, on whose shady bank we resolved to rest. From this point we
surveyed in the south a large forest which ran across our road from the
eastern mountains to the Puerco, while we saw above it distant ranges of
mountains running in the same direction, which we saluted as the San
Saba Mountains. These were the only ranges that separated us from home,
and full of desire of them as old friends, we saddled toward evening,
and at midnight entered the forest, which we had seen before us ever
since our midday halt. The moon had hitherto distinctly shown us the
buffalo paths, but here her rule was at an end, and only now and then
did a ray fall through the lofty masses of foliage which now roofed us
over. We stopped on a very trampled path, which we could not follow,
however, through the forest, for even if our cattle kept the road, the
creepers hanging over it rendered our progress difficult. Our cattle
were very thirsty, and as we had no doubt of finding water in the forest
depths, we resolved to try and reach it. We dismounted, gathered dry
grass, out of which Owl and Tiger twisted torches, one of which we lit,
and then pressed on, leading our horses. We had not gone more than one
hundred yards into the forest when Tiger cried that he was at the river,
and shortly after we led our thirsty horses down the bank and refreshed
them in the cool stream: we filled our gourds and returned by the same
road to the prairie, where we fastened up our cattle in the grass and
lit our fire. As the horses were very hungry we did not drive them out
of the grass, but set a sentry over them who was relieved every half
hour. At daybreak we shot turkeys in the wood for breakfast, bathed in
the adjoining river, and then fetched up the sleep we had lost in the
night.

We stopped here till about 3 P.M., and then continued our journey
southward. As the banks of the stream were very steep here, we were
delayed a little till we had all our baggage across, but then rode for
two hours without a halt through the glorious shade of the forest, in
whose gloom only now and then a bright yellow patch was lit up by the
inquisitive sunbeams. We felt here as much at home as on the Leone or
the Mustang, and the conversation throughout the whole day turned upon
home and our friends there, for nature all around offered pictures of
those regions. The trunks of the trees here rose again side by side;
from their lofty branches llianas covered with gayest hues swung across,
and under the evergreen bushes the flowers displayed their brightest
colours. The parrots with their lustrous plumages hung high above us on
the branches head downward, and innumerable bright red cardinals flew
like live coals through the dark foliage. Here a proud stag with mighty
antlers peered out from a cozy glade, and there a timid antelope fled
with its two fawns behind it through the thicket. When we rode through
the last clumps and reached the prairie on the other side of the wood,
the sunbeams were falling on it obliquely, and we did not miss the
delightful shade so much as we should have done had we exposed ourselves
to the sun a few hours earlier. We rode sharply, and at about 9 P.M.
unsaddled at the foot of the San Saba Mountains, and camped on a torrent
that ran down thence to the Puerco.

The next morning we followed the stream to the river, and about noon
reached the principal Indian path that led from these valleys over the
San Saba Mountains, and greatly facilitated our passage over them. On
the third morning we looked down on the hills near our home, on which we
camped the same evening. The next day we reached Turkey Creek at sunset,
and would assuredly not have camped, but ridden home without resting had



Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 30 of 35)