Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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two hundred feet. On the river banks cypresses stand side by side for
miles, so close together that there is hardly room for a man to pass
between them. The black walnut, the tulip tree, the peca-nut, several
sorts of elms, the mulberry, maples, ashes, planes, poplars, &c., press
against each other, and wherever death makes a gap and restores one of
these giant trees to the earth, young shoots start up from its dust in
the opening through which the blue sky is visible, and soon fill up the
room. Countless varieties of smaller trees flourish in this gloom, and
force their way between the colossi of vegetation, for instance, the
wild cherry, wild plum, a small chestnut, and several species of nut
trees; beneath these the bushes and cactuses spread with an incredible
variety, and relieve the gloom with their magnificently coloured
perfumed flowers, which seem to maintain an eternal rivalry with the
blossoms of the llianas swinging from tree to tree in the airy height.
Finally, the earth itself, beneath the darkest bushes, is covered with a
dense carpet of delicate plants, which, although hidden from every
sunbeam, are not the less worthy of being sought by the fervent admirer
of the masterpieces of nature; they gleam like subterranean fires in the
shade, and diffuse their perfume far around in this palace of foliage.

The queen of the whole virgin forest, however, is the magnolia. It
raises its haughty head one hundred and fifty feet above a silver grey,
smooth trunk, spreads its branches regularly far around, and is so
closely covered with its broad, dark green, smooth and shining leaves,
that its branches are rarely illumined by a sunbeam. Among this dark
mass of foliage, which is unchanged throughout the year, it puts forth
in spring its large snow-white roses, with orange petals, in such
profusion that you can hardly see whether white or green is the
fundamental colour. Far around it spreads a perfume of vanilla which is
so strong that it is dangerous to sleep under the tree unless a breeze
be blowing. The flowers last a long time, and as the pearls fall one by
one on the ground, their place is taken by a bunch of berries, redder
and more fiery than any colour on an artist's palette. They gleam far
and wide through the majestic forest like candelabra in a cathedral.

Our path ran with a hundred windings through the solemn silence; it
seemed as if every living creature that had sought this sanctuary, or
fled from the heated plain, were silently revelling in its beauty and
gratefully reposing in its coolness; not a bird or insect could be
heard, not even the sound of a falling leaf interrupted the
tranquillity, and only the footfalls of our animals and the snorting of
Czar echoed through the forest. Too soon for us, too soon for our
horses, we reached the end of our path, where it entered the prairie on
the other side, after we had walked the greater part of the distance,
because the crossing creepers frequently compelled us to bow our heads
under them, as the makers of the path did, for we saw their brown shaggy
hair floating in all directions. We followed the path into the prairie,
which begins about two miles from the forest. On either side of the path
deer sprang out of the bushes, and flocks of turkeys darted backwards
and forwards with long, quick steps in front of us. The former I left
undisturbed, but I shot one old fat turkey-cock, and hung it on the
saddle behind me.

The sun was rather low when we rode through the wide prairie, and we
could only advance slowly because the grass at many spots came up to my
horse's back; our cattle were very worn, and poor Lizzy panted painfully
under her harness, while the perspiration poured from her in streams.
The sun was setting when we reached a small affluent of the Leone, where
I knew of a good camping place, at which I determined to spend the
night. We unloaded our animals, which I soon completed, as I merely
undid the belly-band, pulled saddle and all over Czar's croupe, removed
the bit, and then gave him a few taps on his damp back, as a sign that
he could go wherever he pleased. My companion was much longer in
removing all the articles of his household from Lizzy's back; and when
he had finished she was a gruesome sight. White foam and dust had matted
her long hair, her ears hung down and almost touched the ground, and her
generally melancholy face was rendered still more so by the bushes
waving over it. I really felt sorry for the poor wretch, and bluntly
told Mr. Kreger that I would not ride a step farther with him unless he
left the buffalo hide here. He was also convinced by his Lizzy's
wretched appearance, that she could not carry this weight for long, and
we agreed, that I should tan the hide of the first deer I shot, and let
him use it. Lizzy was led into the grass and tied to a bush, and we
arranged our bivouac for the night. Kreger fetched dry wood and water. I
lit the fire, set coffee to boil, spitted strips of the turkey breast
and liver, rubbed the meat in with pepper and salt, and put it to roast.
Then I laid my horse-rug on the grass, with the saddle, holsters, and
saddle-bag on it, hung the bridle and lasso on a branch, and took my
seat in front of the fire on my tiger skin, while watching the
naturalist, who was making a thousand arrangements, as if we were going
to remain at least a month here.

It had grown dark. Supper was over. We fetched our animals and took them
to water. Lizzy was hobbled in the grass near our camp, and Czar lay
down behind a bush, but kept his head up for a long time, as if looking
for somebody. It was Trusty, his playmate, that he missed; nor did I
feel altogether comfortable under my rug. I dreamed nearly the whole
night of Indians, and continually woke, when I made up the fire and lay
down again with my rifle on my arm. The botanist, on the contrary, slept
like a top, packed up in his buffalo hide, with his head on an open
bundle of blotting paper; at the same time he snored nearly the whole
night, which did not help to improve my rest. Before daybreak Czar got
up, shook himself, and walked up to Lizzy, who still lay half dead in
the grass, as if to wish her good morning. I roused my companion. We led
the cattle to water, and while I got breakfast I advised Mr. Kreger to
make some botanical researches, which he did. He came back with such an
armful of plants, that I told him I thought he had better not take more
than one specimen of each, as otherwise, by the end of our journey,
Lizzy would be unable to carry the load. He laid the plants in the
blotting-paper, bound his bundles, and ere we started, I rolled up the
buffalo hide with the hair outwards, and thrust it between two branches
of a thickly-leaved tree, where it would remain until our return.





We had a good day's journey to our next bivouac, and I was acquainted
with the country so far. We rode rather sharply in spite of the tall
grass, and at mid-day reached another small affluent of the Leone, where
we granted ourselves and our cattle a few hours' rest. During this time
I went down to the river side and shot a large deer, whose hide I
conveyed to our resting-place, along with some of the meat and the
skull. After scraping the skin quite clean, I split the skull, took out
the brains, made them into a thin paste with water, smeared the skin on
the inside with this, and then rolled it up tight and gave it to Mr.
Kreger to carry, promising to get it ready for use next day. Brains
dress skins famously, and this is the way in which the Indians prepare
them. After lying in this state for four-and-twenty hours, they are
washed clean, hung up in the shade, and, while damp, pulled over the
sharp edge of a plank or the back of a bowie knife till they are quite
dry, which makes the skin as smooth and soft as velvet. In order to
prevent a skin prepared in this way from turning hard when exposed to
the wet, it is spread over a hole in the ground in which rotten wood is
kindled, and it is smoked on both sides till it becomes quite yellow. My
botanist employed the halt in exposing the plants plucked in the morning
to the sun, while he collected fresh ones. The greatest heat was past,
and it was about 3 p.m. when we set out again. The country here became
more broken, the prairies were not so extensive, and here and there were
covered with clumps of trees and bushes. The grass was not so tall as on
the flat prairies, which considerably accelerated the pace of our
cattle. Lizzy especially seemed to feel the difference between yesterday
and to-day, and trotted lightly and cheerfully by the side of Czar, who
on such tours always ambled, a pace which is very pleasant for the
rider, does not tire the horse, and gets over the ground wonderfully
quick. This pace is natural to barbs. I knew my Czar's sire, who was one
of six stallions presented by the Emperor of Morocco to Taylor, the
President of the United States.

At nightfall we reached Turkey Creek, as I had christened it from the
great number of those birds I found here. It was still light enough to
choose a good spot for our bivouac, where we were near water; we were
tolerably hidden, and had very good grass for our cattle. This evening,
however, Czar was hobbled, that is to say, a short line round his neck
was hooked to a padded ring he always wore on his near forefoot, so that
he was obliged to keep his head to the ground or his foot in the air,
and hence could only walk. This was an invention of my own, suggested by
the fear of losing my horse, and when fastened in this way, he could not
be unexpectedly scared and driven off. I prefer it to binding the two
feet, for this often lames a horse, and to tying it up with a lasso,
because the horse can easily entangle its feet in the latter and be
seriously injured. In this manner I could leap from my horse in the most
dangerous neighbourhood, and renders it in an instant incapable of

Lizzy was again picketed, and we kept a watchful eye on the animals
during the two hours they were grazing; for I had nearly reached the end
of my _terra cognita_ and the border of regions which had never yet been
visited by Pale-faces. Ere we went to sleep, the logs were covered with
ashes, the cattle fastened to trees close to us, and we lay down to rest
after supper, but I could not sleep so soundly as when I had Trusty by
my side; the slightest sound disturbed me, and it was always a long time
ere I fell asleep again. About midnight I started up and fancied I had
been dreaming about a storm; I looked up and saw that all the stars had
disappeared; at the same moment the surrounding landscape was lit up by
a flash of lightning, and a violent thunder-clap rolled down the valley.
I sprang up, blew the fire into a flame, laid wood on it, and woke the
snoring naturalist, who asked, in great alarm, about the cause of being
disturbed. I advised him to do as I did, then broke off an armfull of
bushes, laid them in a heap, put my pistols and bags on it with the
saddle over them, covered them with the horse-rug, and laid the jaguar
skin over all; after which I helped Kreger to put his traps in safety,
in which he greatly missed the buffalo hide.

While we were occupied with these preparations, the thunder rolled
almost uninterruptedly, and the incessant flashes kept the tall trees
brilliantly illumined. From the north we heard a sound like a distant
waterfall, and the turmoil soon rose to the mournful howling of the
tempest which is only to be heard in these regions. I was well
acquainted with the approaching spirit of the storm, for I had often met
it; hence I went up to Czar, put on his head-gear and threw the bridle
over my shoulder, giving Kreger a hint to do the same with Lizzy. But he
had quite lost his head, and ran first to his heap of traps and then to
the mule, when the storm burst over our heads in all its fury, and made
the primæval trees crack in their very roots. It swept the earth and
carried away with it an avalanche of dust, leaves, and branches; our
fire stretched out long tongues of flame over the ground, and sent its
sparks whirling through the coal-black night into the gloomy wood. The
groans of the hurricane were blended with the deafening peals of
thunder, which at every second made the earth tremble under our feet,
and I had the greatest difficulty in making Kreger understand that he
should come to me. I had selected a young white oak, whose branches were
interlaced with creepers, to shelter myself and Czar, and had got out of
the way of two lofty planes which were singing their death plaint.

The fury of the storm still increased; blast followed blast crash
followed crash; the crowns of the two planes bent more and more, and
with a shock resembling an earthquake, they suddenly fell across our
fire, which scattered in all directions like a bursting shell, and
hurled logs and brands over our heads. Czar started back, and in his
terror would have broken half-a-dozen lassos, had I not been prepared
for this, and followed him with the bridle, while Lizzy dragged my
companion, who would not loose the lasso, for a long distance through
the grass.

The first drops of rain now fell, and I knew that the greatest fury of
the storm had passed. I led Czar back under the oak, held my rifle with
the hammer down under my armpit, shouted to Kreger to follow me, and
stood as erect under my broad-brimmed hat as I could. The rain fell in
torrents, so that in a few minutes we had not a dry thread on us; a
stream flowed between our feet, and the storm chilled us to the marrow.
We stood silent, like herons; and though it was so dark that we could
not see each other, we were contented at being still alive, and having
our horses with us. It rained nearly till morning, which was never more
heartily greeted than by us two; and, ere long, a clear blue sky cheered
us. The greatest difficulty was to light the fire again. My traps had
remained perfectly dry, as they were protected by the bushes underneath,
and the storm had been unable to touch them; I had the means of making
fire, but dry wood was not so easy to procure: still I succeeded in
getting some out of a hollow old oak, and the botanist's blotting-paper
helped to kindle the flame. It was scarce blazing ere we laid arms-full
of dead wood from the fallen trees upon it, and soon produced such a
heat that it dried us in a very short time. Kreger's traps had become
rather wet, but the damage could be easily repaired; and we did not the
less enjoy our breakfast on that account. The sun came out with its
warming, cheering beams, and lit up the ruin which the storm had created
during the night, while a calm glad smile on the face of surrounding
nature seemed to contradict the possibility of it being capable of any
such wild passion.

We were ready to start at a tolerably early hour, but an obstacle
offered itself which threatened to take us far out of our course. The
usually insignificant stream had swollen into such a rapid torrent, and
spread so far over its banks, that we could not hope to cross it. I
could not forgive myself the oversight of not crossing the stream over
night, which is an established rule with travellers and hunters in this
country, for the waters often rise fifteen to twenty feet in a few
hours, and the hunter who incautiously bivouacs on the bank runs the
risk of being so begirt by the swelling tide as to be unable to escape
its fury. Not only men are exposed to this, but also the quadruped
denizens of these parts, and I repeatedly saw drowned buffaloes and
stags being carried away by such swollen rivers. However, as a rule, the
inundation only lasts a few hours, because the small streams have but a
short course, and are only swollen by the mountain torrents.

I had no intention to stop here, and preferred riding up the stream in
order to try and find a ford where we could cross without danger. We
rode for a good two hours along the bank. The trees continually grew
scantier, and the road more difficult through scattered boulders and
rocks. Between these, huge ferns sprang up, and with the fallen trees,
frequently blocked the way, so that we had to make a long circuit to
fetch the river again. At length we reached a spot where the stream was
more contracted, and an old cypress lay across it, which had been
probably levelled by some storm. I went across the trunk, cut a long
bough and sounded the ground on the opposite bank; it rose at a steep
pitch from the water, and was firm, so that I had no doubt but that our
animals could easily clamber up it. I took the packages off Czar,
carried them across, then fastened the lasso to my horse's bridle ring,
and crossed the stream with it, shouting to him to follow me. The bank
on his side was rather steep, which fact he had discovered by feeling
with his fore feet, but he leaped with all four feet into the stream,
bounded up the other bank, and set to work on the grass, which had been
freshened by the last night's rain. Kreger followed my example, but
Lizzy would not venture the leap; I therefore went across, suddenly
seized her hind quarters, and pushed her into the stream, which she
entered headforemost, but soon reached the other side uninjured.

We loaded again, and rode down the stream opposite the spot where we had
spent the night. It was mid-day by this time, and though the heat was
not oppressive, our animals required a rest. We dined, and mounted again
at about two o'clock. From this point the country was quite strange to
me, and it was necessary to make sure of the direction in which we
proceeded. I compared the compass let into my rifle-butt with the one I
had in my pocket, and we rode at a quick pace toward the north-west.

All traces of the rain disappeared about four miles from our last
bivouac, and hence the hurricane had been limited to the course of
Turkey Creek. This is often found to be the case. Such storms at times
are not more than a mile in breadth, but dash with equal fury for
thousands of miles over hill and valley, so that nothing remains
standing which does not bow to the ground before them.

The country again became flat, but very pleasant for ourselves and our
horses. The prairies are frequently covered for miles with post oaks,
that is to say, oaks growing so close together, that their foliage is
interlaced, and hardly allows the sun a peep at the ground, covered with
fine short grass. Large and small clumps of trees of this sort are
scattered over these grassy plateaux, and give the country an appearance
as if human hands had been active here years agone, and these are the
remaining and border lines of former grounds and gardens. Riding under
this roof of foliage is extremely pleasant: you are not checked by any
obstacle, or diverted from your course, and the horses move lightly and
quickly over the short grass. It was at the same time a fine day, the
wind blew freshly, and hence we resolved to ride late, as we were in the
moon's first quarter, which promised us light for some time after
sundown. About six in the evening we crossed another small stream,
which probably also flows into the Rio Grande, where we could have spent
the night very comfortably; but we only filled our gourds, let our
steeds take a hearty drink, and rode on, as we could at all events pass
the night now without water. At about nine o'clock we reached, with
pleasant conversation, the end of the post-oaks, through whose middle a
clear stream wound. We greeted it gladly; for it is always disagreeable
to camp without water near at hand. Our animals were soon unpacked, a
small fire was lit in the thickest bushes, and at about eleven o'clock
we lay down, with Czar and Lizzy by our side, hoping for a better night
than the last. We slept gloriously, and awoke the next morning
invigorated and in the best spirits.

The sun had just risen over the horizon when we mounted and rode over
the plain, after taking, with the help of the compass, the nearest
direction to the forest rising in the blue distance above the wide
prairie. According to my calculation, it was about ten miles off. The
prairie was very flat, and only a few mosquito trees grew on it here and
there, which sufficed to estimate distances, for that is a difficult job
without such marks. I told Kreger it would be better for us to push on,
now the road was good, for a feeling of anxiety involuntarily oppressed
me on this broad plain, where we could be so easily observed from the
woods that formed a semicircle round it. I spoke to Czar every now and
then, and we had nearly reached the middle of the prairie when my horse
gave a start, and tried to break into a gallop. I attempted to pacify
him, but he soon began snorting, and could not be held in.

I had examined the prairie on either side of us, and when I looked
behind, to my horror I saw a band of Indians coming after us at full
speed, in front of a cloud of dust. My next glance was at the forest
ahead of us, to calculate how far it still was, and then my eyes fell in
terror on the mule at my side. The band of Indians consisted of at least
a hundred, and hence must belong to a powerful tribe, possessing the
best horses and weapons. I turned deadly cold when I looked at Kreger,
who as yet had no idea of our peril, and was carelessly whistling. I
made the utmost efforts to remain quiet, or at least to appear so, in
order not to terrify my companion, and begged him to urge on his mule,
while I loosed the rein of my snorting steed, and allowed it to make a
few forward bounds. Whether Kreger noticed a change in my countenance or
voice I do not know, but he looked round, and noticing the approaching
savages, with the ejaculation, "Great heavens, Indians!" he drove his
enormous spurs into his mule's flanks, and pulled his bridle so tight,
that the excessively sharp bit lacerated the wretched Lizzy's mouth,
Kreger had turned deadly pale. He looked wildly around him, and showered
blows with his whip on Lizzy's hind-quarters. At his first movements I
foresaw what would happen, and tried to make him understand that if he
let go the reins Lizzy would be sure to follow Czar, and we should be
able to reach the forest, where the Indians could not hurt us. He did
not hear - he did not see. A picture of horror, he stared fixedly before
him, and Lizzy, putting her head between her legs, began kicking out
behind. The danger grew every minute, for the yell of the cannibal
horde, borne on the breeze, was already echoing in our ears. I rode up
to Kreger and tried to drag the reins out of his hand; but it was of no
use; no prayers, no remonstrances, reached his ear. It was almost
impossible for me to hold Czar in any longer, for at one moment he
reared, at another bounded onward.

The Indians during this time had drawn so near that I could hear their
several voices, and distinguish the bright colours with which their
faces were painted. Our life was in the greatest danger. My horse was
terribly excited, and any slip on its part would infallibly entail my
death. Once more I shouted to Kreger to be reasonable, and let go the
reins, but he did not hear me. Minutes pressed. I let Czar go, and flew
like the wind away from the hapless man, who was left to his fate, and
my staying longer would be of no avail. I quieted my horse, and looked
back at my unfortunate companion. The horde was now close behind him; in
a second a dense cloud of dust surrounded him and the savages, while a
yell of triumph, whose cause I could guess only too well, reached my
ears. I pressed closer to Czar, patted his neck, and away we flew like
light. I looked round again; a dense mob of Redskins was after me, and
by their inhuman yells they gave me to understand that I was to be their
victim also.

The distance between us, however, had been increased. I drew a fresh
breath, and my passion soon dispelled my feelings of pity and its sister
fear. The forest rose rapidly before me, and my safety only depended on
this question: Was there a stream on this side the wood? Firmly resolved
even in that event to force Czar in, I clung closer to him with my knees
and gave him a cheery chirrup. Like a swan he flew over the grass
towards the woods, whose single trees I already distinguished. There was
no river on this side, and I soon reached the dense foliage, and led
Czar snorting and champing in, while my pursuers, now few in number,
stopped a long way from me on the prairie. I took out my handkerchief
and waved it at them to annoy them, for I would but too gladly have
avenged my unhappy comrade; but they turned round, and I went along the

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 4 of 35)