Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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buffalo path into the forest, dragging Czar after me.

For about an hour I walked through the gloomy shade, cutting my way
among the numerous creepers, till I reached a stream whose banks were
quite forty feet above the water. The forest on both sides of the path
where it led down to the river was so overgrown with thorns that it was
impossible to go up or down the river side, especially with a horse; nor
would it do to stay here all night with Czar, as there was nothing for
him to eat; and in event of pursuit I could be easily tracked. Hence I
soon made up my mind, mounted Czar, hung my pistol-belt and saddle-bags
over my shoulders, took my rifle in my right hand, and forced him to
follow the path down to the stream. It was so steep that walking was
impossible, but the faithful creature, once on the steep, half slipped,
half fell into the river, as the bank was very smooth and slippery. The
waves, as he fell in, broke over the saddle-bow; but the horse at once
raised the whole of its back above the surface, and snorting and
puffing, passed the crystalline flood.

In spite of the rapid current, we reached the other side, when the path
again ran up the bluff; but had it been a few yards lower down, the
horse would never have been able to climb the steep; the bank, as it
was, was very high and precipitous, but my steed's strength was equal to
the emergency, and burying its delicate feet in the soft loose soil, it
sprang up the bank, forcing me to cling round its neck lest I should
slip off behind. I had noticed from the prairie that the forest grew
lower down the stream and gradually ended, which led me to the
conclusion that further on the banks would not be so steep, though the
river might be broader; hence I rode down the waterside, for the wood
was not so close and impenetrable as at the spot I had recently left,
for about three miles in this direction, and found a spot where the bank
was not so steep, and I could easily lead Czar to water, while at the
same time wild oats three feet in height, grew close by. Hence I
resolved to spend the night here.

I led Czar into the nearest thicket, unsaddled and hobbled him, and lit
a small fire, partly to dry my clothes, partly to make a cup of hot
coffee, for I had turned chill, and felt quite worn out. I had chosen my
bivouac so that I could see for a long distance along the road I had
come, and kept my weapons in readiness, so that I might sell my life as
dearly as possible were I pursued. The scene of horror I had witnessed
so lately, the probably frightful death of the naturalist, rose vividly
before me, and though I had accustomed myself to society again for a
very short time, I now felt very lonely, and reproached myself for
having ever consented to let Kreger ride a mule on this journey, when I
knew the great danger. That he had fallen a victim to this error there
could be no doubt; still I resolved to make certain of his fate.

Night set in; the fire had burnt low; Czar lay close to me, and I threw
myself over his neck, patting him for his pluck and fidelity: he was
very tired, and frequently gave a sigh, nor did he stir the whole night
through. I remained awake till near morning, and although I dozed now
and then, I was soon aroused by the hoot of an owl, the yell of a wolf,
or the mournful cry of a panther, and I then listened to the sound of
every falling leaf and every leaping squirrel. The night was cool too,
the ground under me rather damp, and the dew very heavy, so that I
really awaited daylight with longing. Czar, however, would not get up,
and I let him lie, for I knew that he needed rest, and I might very
possibly be obliged to trust to his powers during the day. I had drunk a
cup of coffee, and eaten a slice of venison by the time my faithful
comrade rose. I led him down to the water, and saw a number of turkeys
taking their morning draught at the river side, but dared not fire for
fear of betraying myself. It was about ten o'clock when I started down
the stream again to find a convenient ford. The forest grew thinner, the
shores flatter, and I soon found a deeply-trampled buffalo path which
conveyed me without difficulty across the river, for though it was very
wide it was quite shallow. Within half an hour I was again on the same
prairie where Czar had saved me yesterday, and where the poor botanist
had probably met his fate. I cautiously examined the whole plain with my
glass, and could not see anything except a few herds of buffalo, and a
number of deer grazing carelessly among them. I rode up the forest side
to the path, where I found my previous trail, which was crossed by later
hoofmarks, and then proceeded cautiously in the direction of the spot
where I had left my companion.

While still a long way off, I saw the fearful sight before me. The sun
lit up his bloody corpse stretched out on the grass. I rode up to him,
and found that he was lying on his back, without his scalp, and covered
all over with lance and arrow wounds. None of his clothing had been left
him; the only things I found were my destroyed pistols and
double-barrelled gun, from which I removed the locks; even the
blotting-paper had been taken, though for what purpose was a mystery. I
would have gladly dragged the body to the wood and buried it, but the
distance was too great to do so without help. I therefore bade him a
silent farewell, and turned my horse to the ford where I had crossed the
river that morning.





My route led me from here through a very fine country, consisting of
undulating plateaux, covered with splendid mosquito grass, and
picturesquely broken up by post oaks; here and there a single conical
mound, whose top was covered with a thicket, rose some hundred feet from
the plain. It was still early in the evening when I neared one of these
mounds, and let my horse refresh itself in a rippling stream at its
base. The stream came straight down from the thicket on the mound, and
the spot pleased me so well, that I resolved to pass the night there. I
rode up the hill to the wood, whose tall trees chiefly consisted of holm
oaks, with a thick undergrowth of rhododendra and azaleas. A creeping
bignonia was remarkably beautiful as it clambered to the tops of the
trees and spread over them its scented blossoms like a shower of fire.
The shady green of this wood was relieved by flowers of the most varied
hues, one of which I can still remember that is rightly called "the
traveller's delight." The flowers of this plant hang in clusters two
feet long, rivalling the purest blue of the sky above them, and greet
the approaching traveller with a perfume which the fabled East could not
surpass. The sources of the stream welled up in the centre of the copse,
and were girdled by beds of flowers which, as regards colour and form,
could not have been better arranged by an artist.

Here I encamped and hobbled Czar, who mercilessly plucked many a
beautiful flower and champed it between his teeth with the tender grass.
I then took my rifle in order to see whether there was any dangerous
animal in the wood, which was about a thousand yards in diameter. I had
crept through it and met nothing except a few old does that had their
fawns hidden here, and when I stepped out on to the prairie I saw a herd
of large male antelopes grazing about a thousand yards from me. This
graceful animal, though frequent in our parts, is rarely killed by the
sportsman, for it is the most shy of animals. Great curiosity alone
brings it at times in the vicinity of the watching gun, and hence I
tried to attract the bucks grazing ahead of me. I chose a spot covered
with rather tall grass, lay down on it with my cocked rifle by my side,
but drew my ramrod out and fastened my handkerchief to it. I then
whistled so loudly that the sound reached the antelopes. All looked
round towards me at once, and I raised one foot in the air and lowered
it again a minute after. I saw that they had noticed it and were leaping
about; I then raised the pocket-handkerchief and lowered it again, upon
which the herd got in motion, led by one of the largest bucks. They came
near me in a large circle, but I continued my telegraphic motions till
the antelopes, urged by their fatal curiosity, came within shot, and
their leader fell bleeding among the flowers, giving the flying herd a
sad parting glance with its large beauteous eyes. I jumped up and fired
my second barrel after the fugitives. Clap! I heard the bullet enter the
mark, and another buck fell on the grass after a few more bounds.

Hunting is the most cruel sport to which a man can devote himself; I
repented of my second shot, for I could make no use of the animal, as a
few pounds of the meat amply satisfied my wants. The charm lay solely in
the query, "Can you hit or not?" If this doubt be removed, it is all
over with the passion, and no one would go out sporting for the
pleasure. I must naturally see where the animals were hit, for that is
the real enjoyment to know how near you have gone to the right spot, and
hence I walked up to the bucks to choose the best of the meat for my
consumption at the same time. The one first shot was the plumpest, and
carried a pair of large beautiful horns which I regretted I could not
take with me. The antelopes do not shed their horns like stags; they are
formed more like goat's horns, and annually grow further out of the
head: they are brown and bent back at the point like chamois horns. The
form of the antelope much resembles that of the deer, but it is rather
lighter on the legs and of a brighter hue; its weight does not exceed
120 lbs. The eye of this graceful creature is certainly one of the
loveliest that nature has given to any of her creatures, and I have
often turned away from the look of a dying antelope because I could not
endure the reproach that it expressed.

I cut off the best lumps of game and went back to the dark shade, in
which Czar greeted me with a whinny of delight, and rested on my
horse-rug, refreshed by the delicious perfumes of hyacinths, jonquils,
daffodils, and narcissuses, that surrounded me. The night was warm, and
I required no fire after I had finished supper. I slept splendidly, with
Czar at my side, and the sun was high when I awoke, to find my horse
browzing on the grass within reach of his tether. I washed Czar clean,
which I never neglected when I had the chance, and rode out of my arbour
down the side of the hill, whence I could survey the country before me
for many miles.

A glorious picture was spread out. The sun was not very high yet, so
that the shadows over the landscape were rather long, and the light mist
gave the distance that reddish-blue tone which renders a landscape with
a rich bold foreground so exquisite. I remained for some time at the
spot, examining the road to the hills whither I was going, but which
were still too far for me to reach them on this day. Up to these blue
mountains the ground appeared to be much the same as I had ridden over
yesterday; rich in arable land, supplied with the most luxuriant
pastures and abundance of wood, and watered by magnificent streams. This
earthly paradise awaited men to raise the unlimited treasures which it
promised to bestow so bountifully. It was a saddening thought, that
these boundless plains were entirely uninhabited, for the nomadic
hordes of savages cannot be called such. From where I stood to the north
pole, with the exception of a few trading ports of the fur companies, no
white man had yet erected his cabin. Westward the enormous regions were
unpopulated almost to the Pacific, and even eastward the distance to the
first settlement was so great that I felt very solitary, and for the
first time was overpowered by a sort of yearning for the social life
which I had left in vexation. Still these feelings took no deep root in
my breast; they were soon driven away by the joys of hunting, which can
only be found in their full extent far away from the civilized world.

For two days I wandered through these gardens of nature without being
checked by any material obstacle. On the third day I reached the
mountains, and at evening found myself at the height where the limestone
leaves off and the red granite begins. To my surprise I saw a splendid
spring flowing from a narrow fissure in the granite, with sufficient
grass growing near it to give Czar his supper and breakfast. I stopped
here for the night, and had a glorious view from this stony height. The
misty blue outlines of the Rocky Mountains were only just visible;
between them and myself I looked down on the most fertile valleys, which
were begirt by lofty mountains. The precipice behind me was overgrown
with splendid cactuses, which were just opening their cups after sunset,
and diffusing their fragrance. The moon had risen; it illumined the
large snow-white clustering flowers of the yucca which grew in the rock
fissures, and spread over the whole scene a silvery light, which, though
inferior to that of the day in brightness, was far superior to it in

It was a rather cool night, so that from time to time I made up my fire
with the dry wood of old mimosas, the only tree that finds nourishment
on these stony heights. Many of these grew round my fire, which when it
flared up, displayed the beautiful pink flowers with which these trees
are literally covered, so that the delicate pendulous leaves can scarce
be distinguished. Rarely did a sound disturb the surrounding silence;
now and then the yelp of a white wolf reached my ear through the cold
damp fog from the valley below me, or the hoot of an owl was repeated by
the echoes among the rocks.

Day awoke me from a refreshing sleep as the sun was gilding the summits
of the mountains that emerged from the sea of fog at my feet, round
which the large eagles were circling. Greatly invigorated, I bade adieu
to my pleasant resting-place, and led Czar over the rocks to the nearest
valley, which soon received us under its shady trees. I traversed the
valley for about two hours in a northern direction, following the course
of a clear stream which ran through, with a thousand windings, like a
mighty snake, and was framed in on both sides by thick bushes and old
overgrown trees.

About mid-day, as I was following one of these windings, I suddenly
found myself a few paces from a camp of Cato Indians, and a general
"ugh" reached my ear, as the men, about thirty in number, sprang up, and
we gazed at each other in surprise, watching for a signal of peace or
war. My presence of mind did not desert me; and knowing that these
savages, when they have their wives and children with them, prefer a
peaceful understanding, I waved a good morning to them with a pleasant
smile, and rode, holding my rifle and watching every movement of the
men, to the next bend in the river, while the savages looked after me
with open mouth, as if petrified. When I had got round a curve and was
protected by the bushes, my first idea was to give Czar the spur and
gallop away, but this would only have been a challenge to the Indians to
pursue me; hence I made him amble, as well as he could manage it in the
tall grass, and hastened to get out of this unpleasant company. It was
highly probable that the savages would follow me, if only to get hold of
my fine horse; hence I was obliged to calculate my next steps. I had but
the choice of two ways - either to throw out the savages by riding in
the water and on stony ground, where they could not follow my trail, and
then concealing myself at some easily defended spot - or else to ride
quickly away from them so far that they could not follow me on their
wretched horses. The former was difficult and dubious, as the Indian's
eye surpasses the nose of the best pointer, and hence I chose the other,
trusting to my horse's speed.

I cut off a slice of the antelope's leg, which was hanging on my saddle,
about enough for supper, and left the rest behind, not to give my horse
any unnecessary weight; then I set Czar at a sharp trot where the grass
was dry, and when I reached barren ground made him amble - a pace at
which he could do his mile in three minutes when put to it, though he
took eight minutes when not hurried, and could go on for hours without a
rest. I followed the course of the water, and at the end of some hours
reached a gorge where the river ran through perpendicular rocks, and
where my horse had scarce room to pass. I could see the water for nearly
two miles ahead; the current was wilder and swifter here, and on looking
down at its surface I noticed several spots where the water rippled and
foamed as it ran over rocks and stones. On both sides of the pass the
granite walls rose many hundred feet, so that it was impossible to scale
them; and though, farther to the right and left, buffalo paths ran up
them, the Indians must be well aware of this fact, and were probably
lying in ambush for me there, as they must have noticed from my course
that I was quite a stranger to the country. There was only one choice
for me, and I quickly made up my mind. I put my holsters over my
shoulder, placed in them those articles which must not be wetted, and
guided Czar into the river, in which he floated down with me at a
tremendous pace past the rock walls. I was not at all afraid about
swimming him for an hour; the sole danger of the undertaking consisted
in the large masses of rock over which the stream broke, and against
which we ran in less than ten minutes. The river bed was here rather
wider, and hence fortunately the stream not so violent, or else we
should probably both have found a watery grave. Czar raised himself by
his forefeet on the rock, which was not covered by more than a foot of
water, but his hind-quarters sank as he did so, for he found no bottom,
and the waves dashed over my saddle. The current had turned us against
the rock, when I pressed Czar with my thighs, and with a frightful
effort he worked his way along to the end of the rock, where I felt that
he had a footing, though it only consisted of a few boulders. I was
compelled to cross this dam, as I could not go back, and the uncertain
ground threatened every moment to bury us between its rocks. My horse,
first slipping off the smooth stones, and then leaping up again,
struggled in vain to find a footing in the rapid stream, and I saw that
any hesitation would be certain destruction. I therefore dug both spurs
into the flanks of my brave steed; he leaped desperately out of the
foaming waves, sprang on the rocks before us, and scrambled over them
into the river on the other side, where he sank up to the nostrils, and
the waves met over my head. My alarm lest Czar had injured himself was
alleviated by his speedy return to the surface, and as he blew the water
from his nostrils we followed the stream to a wall of rock, where I
noticed that the water was calm at the right hand end. I steered for
this point, and we swam unimpeded through this channel into the deep
water till the valley opened again before us, and my brave horse trod on
the sand. I led him into the grass, examined him carefully, and found
that he was slightly grazed on the near foreleg and the knee, but this
caused me no apprehension. I let him rest in the shade for half an hour,
as he was greatly excited, gave him all the white sugar I had brought
expressly for him, and which was now wet, and then continued my journey
along the river, as the grass, which must have been burnt here late in
winter, and the fresh grown crop had not yet sprung up, did not impede
Czar's speed.

The valley constantly grew wider, and trended to the west. I left it at
about 6 P.M., and followed a stream which ran from the north. Going
along it till nightfall, I reached its source in the mountains, and was
at least forty miles from the Indians, when I unsaddled Czar, and
hobbled him in the soft grass. I felt quite secure here, for I was no
longer frightened about pursuit by the Catos, and it was not probable
that accident would lead other Indians here at so late an hour, when
they never march except for some special reason. My bivouac was in the
only coppice far and wide, in which the springs bubbled up at the foot
of a very tall cypress. All around me was a glorious meadow, and,
further north, rose barren rocks, on which only a mimosa, a yucca, and
varieties of brambles and cactus grew. Czar was tired, and soon came to
me, holding up his hobbled leg, begging me to set him at liberty; and
when I had thrown the lasso over his neck, he stretched his delicate
limbs on the grass. I too fell back on my saddle, and slept so soundly
till morning, that I did not once look after the fire, and on waking did
not find a spark among the ashes. It was soon lighted again and
breakfast prepared, before which I had a bathe in the spring. Then I lit
a pipe, washed Czar all over, and left the well-head, going toward the
mountains in the north.

The road was so steep and fatiguing that I dismounted; still, I seemed
to be on a path at times trodden by buffaloes, which was continued when
I reached the top, where a wide tableland covered with rich vegetation
was expanded before me. This plain, only interrupted by a few hillocks,
was about twenty miles in diameter: it was covered with very high grass
and small patches of mosquito trees, elms, dwarf oaks, and yuccas. The
ground was quite black and very rich, and this earth was in some places
fifteen feet deep, as I could see by the numerous channels cut by rain
storms. I did not see a trace of spring water. This country is entirely
dependent on the rains, which are frequent in these mountains, as well
as the peculiar nature of the soil, which long resists evaporation of
the humidity. On all sides I saw herds of grazing buffalo, but, though
my mouth watered for a slice of hump and a marrow bone, I did not like
to distress my horse, or go too far away from him while stalking. More
antelopes were feeding here together than I had ever seen, and the same
was the case with deer. I rode quietly on through the tall grass,
resolved only to shoot some animal I could ride up to, and succeeded in
doing so toward evening, when I saw something dark moving in the grass,
which I recognised as a black wolf. In a second I was off Czar's back,
as I should be very glad of such a skin, and was just about to fire,
when I saw, on the other side of a ditch I had not observed in the tall
grass, a very large bear running away. Owing to the high plants, I could
not fire, and, forgetting my former resolution, I leapt on Czar's back,
and flew after the fat fellow. His road led through a number of low
mosquito trees, so that I was obliged to bend down over my horse's neck
to escape being caught in the branches. I was close to the bear, but it
coursed so rapidly under the branches, that I could not give it a shot
from my revolver. At length we emerged from the trees, and I flew a few
yards after the bear, when suddenly Czar made such a leap to the right,
that I must have been thrown, had it not been for the heavy holsters
that kept me on. I turned the horse round again, and then noticed that
the bear had disappeared in a gap before me; and on drawing near, I
found a _cañon_, going down a hundred feet sheer, and about twenty feet
wide at this part. It was a gully washed out by the rain, which I had
not observed owing to the tall grass. I dismounted, and walked to the
spot where the bear had disappeared: saw that the bushes had been
uprooted about thirty feet lower down, but could not discover a trace of
the bear. What I had been told by old hunters now appeared to me
probable - that a bear will, in a case of need, put its head between its
legs, and roll like a ball from some height, without hurting itself;
which can be explained by the remarkable elasticity of its bones, and
the thickness of the fat over its body, I owed it solely to the agility
of my horse, that I had not followed the bear down the precipice, and I
willingly resigned the delicate ribs which, in imagination, I had seen
roasting at my camp fire.

I continued my journey over the grassy plateau. The sun poured its last
vertical beams on the dry soil, which was intersected by deep cracks a
foot in breadth. This bursting of the ground during great heat is very
common on plateaux where the earth is very rich, and often endangers the
rider, as the fissures, being covered by the long grass, are difficult
to detect. There was not a breath of air; my horse became very warm, and
looked in vain for water in the deep dry ditches. I also pined for a
fresh draught, for the water in my pouch had become quite warm, and Czar

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 5 of 35)