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The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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received handsome presents: I, too, gave him numerous trifles for his
fidelity and devotedness, and he went off, accompanied by Tiger,
promising to pay me a visit very shortly.




[Illustration]

CHAPTER XXIX.

THE SILVER MINE.


It was now the busiest time in the fields. The storms had blown down a
great number of huge dried trunks standing in the fields, which had to
be cut up and rolled away, which business was one of our hardest jobs.
Moreover, I had the field enlarged, fenced in a very large extent of
land, part prairie part forest, where I could turn my mares and colts
out, and on rainy days had wood felled to let it dry, and afterwards
employ it for building purposes. Axe and plough were equally active on
the Mustang, and on many smaller streams in the vicinity, where
civilization had set its foot. Thus whole patches of forest disappeared
before man's busy hand, and the soil was robbed of its natural
protection: the roots were turned up to be burnt or rot, and the earth
was thus forced to receive and generate seeds foreign to it. The
prairies, which a few years back had only been traversed by the desert
animals, were now inhabited by herds of tame domestic creatures attached
to a home, and the traveller's ear in these regions was no longer
startled by hearing the unexpected sound of a cattle bell.

But nature will not allow laws to be prescribed to her without taking
vengeance, or have changes made in her domestic arrangements forcibly by
human hands. With the felling of forests and the turning up of the soil
she sends diseases which check her insulter in the work he has begun,
and punish him for his audacious inroads. It usually takes half a
century ere nature is appeased and ceases to contend in this way with
the mortals who trouble her; at least in Continental North America the
diseases produced in this way usually increase for thirty years, and
decrease for so long a period, until they entirely cease. This is the
case with the interior, but not in the cities, where other relations
occur in proportion with their expansion. At my settlement there had
been for many years no malady, save those caused by external injuries;
but now one or the other frequently complained of ague, bilious fever,
flux, &c., and we often cursed the time when we saw the first white face
settle amid our solitudes. At Lasar's matters were proportionately
worse, for a hundred negroes would be down at the same time. For my part
I had as yet been spared, while all my companions had been ill.

It was a very hot day when I rode to the nearest town, as usual only
provided with a blanket, and during the nights lay by my fire in the
open air with it pulled over me. I remained several days in town, and
during the period felt a never-before-known ailing, and a reduction of
my strength. My business being ended, I rode off about noon to reach the
next house, whose inhabitants were friends of mine. I arrived there
about an hour before sundown, but found the family in a great state of
disorder, as the head of it had just died of a violent attack of fever.
Although I felt very unwell, I did not like to be troublesome to the
family, and rode on after a short halt. My illness increased with every
quarter of an hour; at one moment I shook with cold, at another I felt
as if I were being burned alive, and my head ached as if it would burst.
I rode on, although I could hardly sit my horse, and at last tottered in
the saddle, quite incapable of thinking; at the same time an
indescribable burning thirst tortured me, and my tongue seemed to cleave
to my roof, while I had a singing in my ears, as if there were thousands
of grasshoppers inside my head.

It was nearly dark when I reached the middle of a very wide plain, that
was covered with fine, very white sand, and in which the horse at every
step sank above the hocks. I could no longer remain in the saddle;
dismounted; sat down on the red-hot sand, fell back, and became
perfectly unconscious: presently I fell into a profound sleep, from
which I did not wake till the next morning. I looked around in surprise,
and it was some time ere I could remember what had brought me here. I
jumped up, and Trusty the faithful leapt barking around me, but I did
not see Czar. My feet would hardly carry me, and my head was as heavy as
if I had lead inside it. I looked for my horse's track, dragged myself
along it, and to my great consolation saw the faithful creature in a
hollow, nibbling some cactuses, and saddled and bridled as I had left
him on the previous evening. I got on to his back with difficulty, and
turned him in the direction of home. Thirst now began to grow
unendurable. The sun burst forth, and poured its burning beams upon me
with such fury, that I fancied I should never be able to reach a pool,
about five-and-twenty miles distant, which contained the only water in
the neighbourhood. This pond was at last the only thought of which I was
capable; at the same time my head threatened to burst, and the fever
shook me mercilessly. My horse walked along the familiar path through
the heat, and bore me, when the sun was vertical, down a sand-hill to
the edge of the pond, where I sank powerless, and crawled to the water
in order to moisten my burning lips. But it was no water, but a thick,
dark red mud, which was nearly boiling, and in which buffaloes had been
wallowing very shortly before. No matter, I lay with my mouth over the
thick fluid, and swallowed as much of it as I could. It was really a
comfort, for the dryness of my throat was removed; but my helplessness
was so great that I could not resolve to leave the spot, though I lay
exposed to the burning sun on the hot sand, and was only a short
distance from shady trees.

I lay as I was, and had but one thought that the sun must kill me here,
but still I could not muster up the courage to go away. At length,
toward evening, when the sun was lower, the terrible fever gave way a
little. I crept slowly into the shade, and soon was asleep under the
tree. It was quite dark when I awoke, and though very faint, my head was
clearer. I went up to Czar, who had been grazing by my side all this
time, got into the saddle, and continued my journey, on which the
pleasant light of the new moon lit me, and the cool evening breeze
refreshed me. I rode till ten o'clock, when I reached the Lynx Spring,
which I had christened after one of those animals that I had found dead
here many years ago, and whose water was the best for miles around. I
was quickly off Czar's back among the roots of the magnolia, beneath
which the spring bubbled up, and I drank as if I should never be
satisfied. I had a biscuit and a paper of coarse sugar about me. This
was my supper and I washed it down with the pure fluid. I felt much
refreshed, drew many a deep breath in the powerful breeze, and gazed at
the patches of light around me which were thrown by the moon through the
dense foliage, and through the violent motion of the leaves trembled and
continually altered their shape. It was a very dangerous spot, as this
water was the only spring for miles round, and wandering Indians often
select it as their destination after travelling for a day through the
desolate, waterless sand-plains; but I would not have ridden away even
if I had been compelled to defend myself against a whole tribe. I had a
few good cigars about me and lit one, which I smoked leaning against a
tree, and, as I fancied, inhaling fresh strength at every breath.

It was about midnight when I set out to reach a camping-place at which I
should not be so threatened as at the present one, and after filling my
gourd with water I rode away, faintly lighted by the waning moon. I knew
the road thoroughly, and the outline of the trees was sufficient to
enable me to keep my course. I could, if my horse went at any pace,
reach within an hour a well-known camping-place at which I had passed
many a night, and which lay but a little way off my route. It certainly
had no water, but excellent grass for my horse, and hence various sorts
of game could generally be found there. The main point was, that it lay
some distance from the principal Indian path and was tolerably
concealed, so that a fire could be lighted there without any great risk
of being seen from a distance. It soon became very dark after the moon
had sunk behind the hills in front of me, and I was obliged to yield the
reins to Czar, and leave it to him to find the road, while I sent Trusty
on a little way ahead to make certain there was no danger. Every now and
then, however, I saw by familiar clumps of trees or knolls that I was
still on the right track, and I approached my destination rather
quickly, considering the circumstances. The country through which I rode
consisted more or less of sandy hills, covered with isolated black oaks,
without any scrub, under which grew a very tall grass, disliked by
cattle, which had now entirely decayed. So far as I could judge in the
darkness, I was no longer any great distance from my camping-place, for
I saw in a hollow on my left a wood running along my route, and which I
knew to be a swampy patch, in which all the rain-water of the
neighbourhood collected. On my saddle hung several new tin cups and a
coffee-pot of the same material, which rattled at every movement of my
horse and thus produced a ringing sound which could be heard for some
distance. I dismounted and twined dry grass between them to keep them
quiet.

I had just remounted my horse and was riding up a hill, when suddenly
bright flames sprang up not far behind the latter and illumined the
whole country around. In terror I stopped my horse, and saw in a few
minutes that not only on the right of the hill the flames rose to the
branches of the surrounding oaks, but that the fire was spreading with
extraordinary fury on my right and in my rear. There was only one
opening in this circle of fire on my right, near the swamp. I turned
Czar round and galloped through the low oaks and tall grass toward the
valley, in which I was obliged to trust to the safe foothold of my
horse, as I could not see a sign of a path. The wind luckily was not
very violent, or else I could not have escaped; as it was, I reached the
wood before the fire darted down into the bottom behind me. I stood
here on moist ground, between green bushes which the flames could not
reach, and saw that they had fired the oaks and converted each of them
into a fiery pyramid. The whole country ahead of me was now a mass of
fire, whose tongues rose over fifty feet, in which the flames of the
trees could be recognised by their dark red hue, while above them the
ruddy clouds of smoke rose to the sky. Ere long, however, the burning
oaks stood alone like pillars of fire on the denuded knolls, and the
sparks flew out of them with a terrible roaring and crackling. I stood
before this fire till day broke and showed me the black skeletons of the
still burning trees, and the dark smoke-clouds rising above them. Ere
long, only small flames crept round the bare trunks. I mounted my horse
to get away from this scene of conflagration and rode up the wood, being
obliged frequently to draw nearer to the burning trees to escape the
swampy ground, until at last I was compelled to pass through the fire,
owing to the impassable nature of the ground. The smoke, the black ash,
and the heat were almost unendurable, and frequently heavy branches fell
close to me. I rode as sharply as I could, and in an hour reached an
open burnt clearing, where I was once more able to draw fresh breath.
The fire had undoubtedly been lit simultaneously at different points for
the purpose of burning me by the Indians, but none of them had ventured
on to the prairie leading down to the bottom, as I could see over it,
and if a fire had been lit there, I could have detected the culprits.

I hurried along in the refreshing morning breeze, and arrived about noon
at a stream, on whose bank I turned into the adjoining wood, and granted
my horse and myself a rest. On the road I had shot a turkey, which
pacified my hunger and Trusty's, and I strengthened myself by a sound
sleep, from which I did not awake till evening. During the whole day I
had felt tolerably well, but looked with terror for the next, as I must
expect that my fever would return every second day, so I rode till a
rather late hour in order to reach a camp where I was tolerably certain
I could pass the day without disturbance. Before I rode off, I dug up
some roots of the tulip-tree and chewed them, swallowing the juice, till
I reached camp. These roots are one of the best remedies against fever
which nature offers in these regions. I slept till the sun disturbed me,
and woke with aching head and weary limbs. I took Czar to graze, and
then lay down on my blankets, after placing my gourd full of fresh water
by my side. The attack of fever was not very violent: about 2 P.M. I was
able to continue my journey, and slept that night on an affluent of the
Mustang. The next morning I mounted at an early hour, in order to reach
the Fort as soon as possible, and made Czar step out, as I felt very
well.

[Illustration: TRUSTY AND THE ALLIGATOR. _p. 402._]

About ten o'clock I rode through a prairie which ran down to the
Mustang, which here an insignificant stream, flowed between high banks
over loose pebbles, and was only deep at isolated spots. The prairie was
covered with clumps of tall cactus and sunflowers, and I was riding
between some of them when a large stag got up before me and stopped a
little way ahead. I turned Czar half round and shot the stag, which
fell, but got up again and ran off to the Mustang. As I saw that it was
very sick, I sent Trusty after it, who soon disappeared with it in a
thicket, and I had scarcely reloaded when I heard his hoarse bark and
recognised by its tone that he was occupied with something else than the
stag. I went up the wood as fast as Czar could carry me, leapt off and
ran through the bushes to the bank where I heard Trusty's voice. A
mortal terror assailed me on seeing Trusty in shallow water near a deep
spot, with his left hind leg in the jaw of an alligator, whose skull he
was smashing with his teeth, though this did not make it open its
clenched teeth. I sprang at one bound into the river, in order to
prevent the horrible brute from reaching deep water, to which it was
retreating and was only a few feet from it. I sprang on the beast's
back, held it between my knees tightly, and lifted it into the shallow
water while it lashed its tail madly. I now pulled out a revolver,
held it against the hinge of the jawbone, and fired one bullet after the
other till the bones were splintered and the lower jaw fell off,
liberating Trusty from his arrest. I examined him and found that his leg
bone was not injured, though the flesh had suffered severely: at the
same time he was losing much blood and appeared to be enduring great
pain. The stag lay close to the scene of contest, so I drew it ashore
and cut off the haunches; then I fetched Czar, bound one of them on
either side of the saddle, packed a lot of bushes on the lot and spread
my blanket over them, on which I raised Trusty, after I had bound up his
wounds as well as I could with wet pocket handkerchiefs. I reached home
in the afternoon, and at once made a decoction of the roots of the tulip
and pomegranate and willow bark, in order to check the fever, which it
soon effected, combined with a strict regimen.

Though these illnesses may usually be checked so easily, their frequent
return affects the body greatly, and makes it more and more susceptible
to injurious climates and atmospheric influences, so that the slightest
change is often sufficient to bring back the fever. Still, all the
diseases produced in these regions by an alteration in the surface of
the ground are less dangerous than in any other part of the United
States, which may be chiefly ascribed to the free unimpeded motion of
the air, and the fact of no large swamps or standing waters existing
here.

Tiger returned, after accompanying his friend to the Puerco River,
whence the latter travelled on alone to Santa Fé, at which place he had
promised to meet his friends about this time. My young Indian friend now
complained very often that I allowed him to ride out hunting alone,
which was most disagreeable to him, as I did not permit him to take
Trusty, who was of such great value in the bear hunts, which are
principally carried on at this season. I had certainly placed Leo, an
excellent dog, at his service, but he was only half the value of Trusty.
One evening Tiger returned from hunting, and told me that he knew where
a very large bear was sleeping, but it would be difficult to get at it,
as it was living in an old cypress that grew in the middle of the river
and was too large to fell. He described the spot to me, and I at once
recognised the tree. We talked about the matter at supper, and resolved
to make an attempt to get hold of the sleeper on the next day.

On the following morning we put our weapons, axes, and dinner in the
canoe and floated down the river in it. It was carried along by the
current like a dart, so that we were obliged to steer very carefully
between the numerous rocks. In an hour we stopped at the cypress, which
was nearly six feet in diameter. We cut down some saplings on the bank,
conveyed them to one side of the tree, and fastened them together so as
to form a raft on which we could stand; we then placed the canoe on the
other side of the tree, and set to work with our axes felling it. In
addition to Tiger and myself, Königstein and Antonio had come, so that
one of us was always able to rest. About noon we had got some distance
through the tree, and as we had heard nothing of the bear, we began
greatly to doubt whether it was in it; but Tiger insisted, in spite of
our laughter and chaff, that it was sleeping there. We dined, drank the
health of the occupant of the tree, and then set to work again. In a few
hours the supports of the tree became so weak that it was time to take
precautions lest it should fall on us. We had hewn it on the side of the
raft, toward which it naturally hung, and we now all proceeded to our
canoe and held ourselves in readiness to push off at any moment. We gave
the tree a few more cuts, and ere long we heard the first sound of
cracking in its wood. We were certain that it could only fall over the
raft, and the only danger was that it might slip backwards from the
stump, in which case we might easily be sunk. A couple more blows and
the lofty crown of the cypress bent more over the raft, one more stroke
and it groaned and cracked at its base: we pushed off, and with a
frightful crash it fell into the river and splashed up the water so high
that we were completely wet through, while the splinters and broken
branches flew in all directions. We involuntarily held our heads down
into the boat, which was raised a great height by the waves; but after
the first oscillation, we all burst into a hearty laugh and mockingly
asked Tiger, "Where is our bear?" At the same moment, however, the bear
leapt out of the middle of the splinters covering the surface of the
river, and while the water poured down and prevented it from seeing, it
laid its huge fore-paws on the floating pieces of wood and sought a
support, by means of which it could lift itself out of the disagreeable
element. "The bear!" everybody shouted, and we seized our rifles and
fired at it. At the moment when it reached the stern of our boat and was
trying to get into it by means of its paws, Königstein ran at the brute
with his sharp axe and buried it deep in the skull of the enormous
animal, and then drove into its carcase the bent iron point of the
boat-hook to prevent it from sinking. We pulled quickly ashore, where we
hauled in our quarry with lassos.

Antonio ran back to the Fort and fetched our cart with two mules, with
which he joined us before sunset. With the help of the animals we pulled
first the bear and then the canoe on land, rolled the former into the
cart, then raised the canoe on the back of it, where we secured it, and
so drove back to the Fort, with the stern of our boat trailing along the
grass. The bear gave us a large quantity of splendid fat, and its smoked
flesh long supplied our table.

We and our friends on the Mustang now rarely visited the districts lying
beyond the distance of a day's journey, as our domestic duties kept us
more or less constantly at our settlements; but we became all the better
acquainted with our immediate neighbourhood, and on our hunting
excursions learnt every path and locality. I had found but a few miles
from us the traces of an old Spanish settlement, and the remains of a
forge, whence I concluded that the precious metals had been found here,
and that they still existed in the vicinity. Old Lasar was a man of most
enterprising spirit, and as he had more working power at his command
than he could employ profitably on his cultivated ground, he always
desired some other speculation by which he could derive greater profit
from his slaves. A silver or gold mine was always one of his favourite
schemes, and he quickly turned the conversation to the subject,
expressing an opinion that the mountains near us certainly contained the
precious metals. He came to me one day greatly excited, and told me with
great mystery that an Indian had been to him and told him under a
promise of the profoundest secrecy, that he knew a spot where the old
Spaniards worked silver mines, and offered to show it to him if he would
promise to hold his tongue as to whom he obtained his information from,
as the Indians would certainly kill him if they discovered that he had
revealed the spot. Lasar stated that he had told the Indian to return in
eight days, when he would ride with him, and reward him if he really
pointed out the silver mine. The old gentleman then begged me to join
him on this excursion, on which he only intended to take his son John. I
promised to do so, and when the appointed day arrived, I rode over to
Lasar's, accompanied by Trusty, and found the Indian there, whom I took
for a Mescalero, though he stated himself to be a Shawnee.

We left Lasar's settlement at noon, rode west toward the Rio Grande, and
crossed the hills on that river by a path which I had not known before.
We passed the night on the banks of this river, and on the next morning
proceeded into the hills in a south-west direction. The path, to the
great comfort of our horses, wound along the hill-sides without crossing
any steep ascents, and our Indian guide appeared quite at home here, for
he often left the main path and followed scarce visible tracks, which
always brought us back sooner or later to the main path, while we had
escaped a steep hill or a thick cedar coppice. We found here, too,
though many miles farther south, traces of the forest fire which Tiger
and I had occasioned against our will, and many bare knolls rose
between the cedar woods which had been robbed on that occasion of their
leafy covering. We passed the third night on the western slopes of these
hills, and on the next day reached their spurs, whence we looked down on
a very extensive plain, which appeared to be excellently watered, and
displayed a rich tropical vegetation in its summer garb. Although these
plants, which belong to the real tropical region, especially the
varieties of the palm, do not attain such luxuriance and such gigantic
size as they do farther south, they still grow in these protected
valleys very powerfully, and surprise the traveller by their foreign but
agreeable appearance. We marched through the valley, and camped for the
night at the foot of the hills bordering it on the west, not far from
which spot was said to be the ancient mine to which the Indian promised
to lead us on the following morning.

It was one of those mild southern spring nights when man feels beneath
the star-enamelled vault of heaven that he is nowhere better in health
or stronger than in the open air. The odour of the flowers had sunk upon
the earth with the motionless air, and the glistening insect world
sparkled and flashed like streams of diamonds from the dark shade of the
evergreen shiny foliage. Lying round our small camp-fire, we were soon
lulled to sleep by the feathered songsters of the night, among which the
mocking-bird appealing to its mate was the most remarkable, and we
negligently allowed the last flames to die out; but at a late hour we
were startled by the roar of a jaguar close to us, and on awaking we
recognised the sound of flying horses. We ran to our cattle, and only



Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 33 of 35)