Lascelles Wraxall.

The Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier online

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could not swallow it when I poured some into his mouth. My horse rug was
so hot that I was hardly able to sit on it, and the barrels of my rifle
almost blistered my hand. I stopped several times in the shade of an
isolated tree to draw a little breath, but this did not advance my
journey, and I could not possibly spend the night here without water.
How far I still had to ride to the next stream I did not know, but I was
aware that I might travel for days in these mountains without finding a
spring or a stream. The sun was on my left hand when I reached the end
of this plateau, but, instead of perceiving the longed-for sign of
water, a poplar tree, I saw before me almost impassable hills covered
with loose stones, that rose behind one another like sugar-loaves. I
could only reckon on an hour's daylight, and it was highly probable that
I should have to pass an unpleasant night. So far as I could see
northward, the hills were piled on each other, without offering a
prospect of water, hence I turned my horse westward, on the chance of
reaching the valley which ran along parallel with the plateau. I was
obliged to dismount, for in the hollows between the hills the torrents
had torn deep ravines in which old trees washed down were piled up and
became very dangerous to pass. The rocks over which I wearily climbed
were red hot and burnt my feet, and at the same time I suffered
intolerable thirst. I had shared the last water in my flask with Czar.
My mouth was very dry and my tongue clove to the palate. In vain I
looked from every height I reached for the longed-for sign, and wandered
up hill and down, till the sun sank behind the distant blue mountains,
and the first shadows of night spread over the land. I had passed over
several hills in this manner, when I saw a valley before me in the
twilight which I greeted with renewed hopes, but the darkness set in so
rapidly, that I was unable to continue my journey. Feeling quite knocked
up, I threw myself on the warm rocks, holding Czar by the rein, to wait
for the rising moon. The sky behind me grew more and more red; the
anxiously awaited light rose slowly about the hills, and looked down on
the deadly silence that was spread over the whole landscape.

I had rested about an hour ere it grew light enough to continue my
journey, and I soon reached the plain, where unfortunately the grass
grew very high. I was obliged to mount my horse again, for it was
impossible to walk through the grass; and though I was very sorry to do
it, I urged the poor creature on, while he continually strove, by
hanging his head and shaking his neck, to make me understand it was high
time to go to rest. I had continued my journey for two hours without
stopping, when the grass grew shorter, my horse every now and then
stepped on stones, and I saw a tree or two again. I had probably passed
the lowest part of the valley, and as I had found no water in it, there
was no prospect of doing so at a greater elevation. I was awfully tired
and sleepy, and my horse was quite as bad; I therefore unsaddled under
an elm, fastened Czar to the tree by his long lasso, and in ten minutes
I was dreaming of cool crystalline water; but for all that woke at
daybreak exhausted and feverish, and to my horror missed my horse.

I sprang up, surveyed the wide plain, and who can describe my delight
when I saw Czar's white coat shining a few hundred yards off over a
small mimosa bush, behind which he was enjoying the fresh grass in a
hollow. The knot of the lasso had come undone, and thus Czar had been
able to look about for more agreeable fodder. I led him nearer my
bivouac, and was just going to light my fire, when I saw smoke rising in
the west, about three miles from me. I quickly pocketed my flint and
steel, saddled, and rode toward the highest part of the ridge which
divided the valley in half. When I had nearly reached the top I
dismounted and crawled to the highest point, whence I surveyed the
valley, and observed an Indian camp, round which some three hundred
horses and mules were grazing. I saw through the grass that the various
families were sitting at the fires in front of their leathern tents,
with the exception of a few children that were playing about. The camp
was on the other side of a stream which wound through the valley from
the north. Though I longed so for water, I must avoid the neighbourhood
of these savages, who might prove very dangerous to me in such an
unknown and desolate country. I rode back through the valley in which I
had spent the night, and into the mountains on its eastern side; for, if
I had followed the valley to reach the river, I must have been noticed
by the Indians on my white horse. The road was tiring, as I was
frequently obliged to walk, and the heat on these barren hills soon
rendered my thirst intolerable.

It was midday when I with a firm resolution to ride to the water, cost
what it might, guided my horse down a ravine, and suddenly saw before me
the fresh verdure of plants which only grow at very damp spots, under a
heap of dry piled-up trees, among which a number of turkeys were
running; I forgot the Indians and the risk, shot two old gobblers, and
threw myself between the tall ferns, over the cold springs that welled
up among them, in order to quench my fearful thirst. I lay for nearly
half-an-hour, ate a bit of biscuit, and as I could not fully quench my
thirst, continually applied to the spring. This was one of the most
glorious meals I ever enjoyed, and I believe that I would sooner have
defended myself against a whole tribe of Indians than leave this spot
unsatisfied. The shade here was not sufficient, however, and hence I
went a little lower down the stream with Czar and my two turkeys, where
I found a cooler resting-place under a group of elms and oaks. After
this hunger began to be felt, for, with the exception of a small slice
of antelope and a little biscuit, I had eaten nothing since the
preceding morning. I set to work on one of the turkeys, and spitted such
a quantity of the meat, fat and lean, that I was obliged to laugh at
myself. The exterior of the meat hardly began to get roasted ere I cut
it away. In the meanwhile, the coffee was getting ready and I concluded
my repast; after which I found great difficulty in keeping my eyes open.
I fetched Czar, who had also enjoyed himself, and fastened him to a
tree, took my rifle in my arms, and in a few minutes was fast asleep,
forgetting all the dangers that surrounded me.





At about five o'clock I was awakened by the sun, whose oblique beams
were able to reach me through the trees. I felt refreshed and strong,
made Czar get up, saddled, and followed the stream, which led me to the
river I had seen in the morning. I approached the valley cautiously when
I rode out of the mountain gorge, and carefully surveyed it with my
glass, without finding a trace of the Indians anywhere. It was very
important for me to know whether they had gone up or down the river; the
latter was the more probable, because most of the buffalo herds I had
seen lately were going southward, and the savages, as a rule, follow
these animals. As the banks of the river were not high, I rode into it,
watered my horse, and without any difficulty reached the other side,
when I was soon on the path of the Indians, who had gone south, as I
expected. I rode up this trail northwards, in order, if possible, to
reach before sunset some stream coming from the mountains, as I would
not pass the night where I was, for it appeared to be a pass greatly
used by Indians, so that I ran greater danger here of meeting fresh
hordes than I did among the hills. I rode very quickly, and at sunset
turned into a narrow valley, bordered on either side by very lofty
precipices. For about two miles I followed the torrent which wound
through loose blocks of granite, and frequently could scarce get through
the tall ferns and reedy plants which grew between the wildly scattered
boulders. The gorge gradually became narrower and the granite walls
steeper, and in the twilight I saw the end of it no great distance from

I had dismounted and was going with Czar round a block of granite,
when a large stag dashed past me from the end of the gorge, hardly fifty
yards off, and I distinctly saw another darker-coloured animal bounding
after it through the tall grass. In an instant the flying stag, with its
broad antlers thrown back, was twenty yards from me, and bounded over a
rock close by, while at the same moment a panther of enormous size
covered the track of the deer with its gigantic paws. It had scarce
touched the ground, however, ere the bullet from my rifle crashed
through its shoulder-blade, and the crack, echoing through the gorge,
thundered in its ears. The panther ran its head into the grass, while
its hind quarters flew up in the air, but at the next instant it rose
furiously in the grass, showing its dazzlingly white teeth and
stretching out its claws to leap on me. I held my rifle firmly to my
shoulder, and as the animal rose, fired at the white stripe under the
throat. The bullet passed through its breast, and rising on its hind
legs it turned a somersault and died with a furious kick. It was very
old, and had probably inhabited this tempting spot for many years, to
surprise the game that came here to drink at the spring, and enjoy the
fresh green pasturage. Eight feet long from the snout to the tail, the
prince of the valley lay stretched out before me, and round it the bones
of its victims were bleaching in the grass. I found above a dozen skulls
of deer and antelopes, all of which had a hole an inch wide in the top.
In addition to them, the skeletons of two buffaloes and an elk, and
countless bones of other animals glistened in the grass. I went up to
Czar who, probably recognising his foe, had run some hundred yards down
the valley, and was looking after me with his head up. I led him up to
the slain panther, but it needed much persuasion ere he would draw quite
close to this arch foe of his race. After making Czar stand by the
panther awhile, which I dragged about to remove his natural fear of the
creature, I led him to the end of the ravine where the ground was
covered with young tender grass, unsaddled him, and laid my traps under
the evergreen oaks, in order to prepare my camp.

[Illustration: FACE TO FACE. _p. 67._]

As the darkness had greatly increased I ran back to the panther,
fastened the lasso round its neck, and dragged it to my camping-place,
intending to skin it in the morning. I lit the fire, prepared supper,
and lay down on my horse-rug, every now and then turning the spit or
piling up the sticks round the coffee pot. The fire flared brightly, and
produced a peculiarly beautiful illumination on the thick foliage of the
oaks and the projecting shadow of the high reddish rocks, whose fissures
and crevices appeared all the blacker in consequence. The russet moon
was still low on the very dark sky, it peered into the ravine from the
east, and did not spread sufficient light to overpower my fire.

While I was observing this pretty scene I noticed a light spot under the
rock which was lit up by the fire. I took it at first for a buffalo
skull, but drew a brand from the fire and crept under the low-branched
oaks to make certain what it was. I held the brand over it, and saw a
human skull grinning at me out of the damp dark background, and carried
it to the fire. From its shape it was the skull of a Weico with a low
forehead, and strong thick high back part: judging from the fine,
slightly worn teeth it must have belonged to quite a young man, who
probably fancied he had found a safe resting-place here, and carelessly
yielding to sleep had fallen a victim to the panther, for the marks of
teeth were quite distinct upon it. I kept up the fire during the whole
night, which did not disturb my rest, as I had grown into the habit of
waking up every hour to see all was right and going to sleep again. If
it can be managed, as was the case here, the hunter chooses a large
fallen tree, and makes his fire close against it with small wood, so
that the trunk may catch. This smoulders during the whole of the night,
and the fire can easily be made to blaze at any time by throwing on
brushwood. The night passed without the slightest disturbance, and at
dawn I skinned my panther, which had a great number of scars,
principally arrow and lance wounds, as it seemed. After cleaning the
skin from all fleshy particles, I spread it out to dry at the fire,
while I bathed and swallowed my breakfast. I sought all round the
bivouac for weapons or other articles belonging to the dead man, but
found none, and as the sun was already high I set out on my wanderings

Just as I reached the entrance of the gorge I saw a herd of seven
buffalo bulls grazing. In a second I leaped off Czar and ran from stone
to stone, till I got within ten yards of the shaggy monsters, from which
I was only separated by a large rock. I crept under this on the ground,
till I had the buffaloes before me; the nearest one stood motionless,
with its broad, hairy forehead turned toward me, and I aimed at the
centre of it, although I had often tried in vain to kill a buffalo by a
shot through the head. This time, however, the bullet did its work, and
the other bulls fled round the rock toward the valley. As the fat
buffalo would supply me with food for several days, I fetched my horse,
took the axe hanging from the saddle, and set to work cutting out the
sirloin, while Czar grazed by my side and now and then licked up the
blood. It is very difficult for a novice to cut up a buffalo, for the
hide is remarkably hard and elastic, and sits very close to the flesh,
while any attempt to turn the carcase about is hopeless. We may fairly
say that a novice in these countries, if what the practitioners call a
"greenhorn," would starve with a dead buffalo, if he had not some one to
show him how to cut pieces off it. I thrust my sharp bowie knife between
the ribs close behind the shoulder blade, ran it up along the spine and
down again to the chest, then in the same way separated the two last
ribs from the spine, and made a cut under the belly to the end of the
first cut. I then hacked the ribs with the axe, lifted the entire side
up, which broke the hacked ribs, and thus opened the interior of the
animal, like lifting a trap door. The entrails were removed without much
difficulty, and the two enormous loins under the spine cut out. I
removed a piece of the hide from the hump, in order to secure a part of
the streaky meat; cut out the tongue between the jaws, as I could not
think of opening the mouth, took two marrow bones, and left the
remaining 1400 lbs. of meat for the wolves and buzzards. All these
dainties were hung about my saddle, for the hotter the sun shines on
them the less does the meat putrefy. With a parting glance at the
ravine, I again struck the Indian trail, which I followed northwards up
the river.

At 2 P.M. I crossed the river, as it trended to the west, and followed a
beautiful valley, for some hours, to the north-east, where I did not
notice a single trace of horses or Indians, while the path I had
hitherto been following seemed to be exclusively made by nomadic
savages. The valley I now traversed rose gradually with the stream, and
seemed to form a plateau in the distance. It was covered with splendid
mosquito grass, which is only the case with the richest soil. This grass
never grows very high, but is very fine, and hangs in tresses like hair.
Horses are excessively fond of it, and grow fat on it in a very short
time. So far as I could see, the valley was covered with game of every
description, among which I noticed several moose deer, the first I had
seen on this tour. These animals are only found separately so far south,
while they form herds farther north, especially in the southern Rocky
Mountains. It is a deer of enormous size, reaching the weight of seven
or eight hundred pounds, the antlers spread very wide, and often weigh
as much as forty pounds. The flesh is not very toothsome, being hard and
fibrous, and is not eaten by the hunter when he can get any better. The
animal is not difficult to kill, for it is not very fast, and can be
caught up by a good horse; the Indians throw a lasso over it, and then
kill it with lances. For the time I was amply supplied with meat, and
hence felt no great longing for these animals, but let them graze at
peace. Like the other game here they were very familiar, and allowed me
to ride within shot, which was a further proof that this valley was
rarely visited by Indians. The country was well covered with stately
elms, poplars, mosquito trees, and mimosas (I call the last tree thus to
distinguish it from the mosquito tree, which is also a mimosa). Of
course, such specimens as grew on the Leone were not to be found here.
This valley will certainly in time be visited by settlers, for though
poor in wood, no better ground can be desired by cattle breeders.

At about six in the morning I reached a spot where two streams joined,
and I could not make sure of water further up the valley. Hence I
followed the eastern arm, and reached at sunset the hills bordering the
valley, between which I bivouacked, as I had everything I required. For
several days I continued to follow a northern course. The character of
the soil varied as before; the mountains had the same shape, were bare
at top, and covered with loose stones, between which a few low cactuses,
aloes, and torch weeds grew. I also rode over a good deal of tableland,
but got away from it as soon as I could, for through the entire want of
water the ground here grows very hot, and you are thoroughly roasted.

I found the grass on the prairie not very high, which made it easier
going for my horse, but more difficult for me to approach the game,
which appeared remarkably shy and restless. My stock of meat was
exhausted, and I ate my biscuit and salt tongue as rarely as possible,
so as to have food by me in case of need. I dared not ride down the
buffalo, as my white horse could be easily distinguished from the
uplands, and I must spare his strength. Nor did I care to go far from
Czar afoot, as a single foot Indian might easily be hidden in the grass,
and reach him more quickly than I could. Hence I deferred my chase till
I reached the woods that rose ahead of me.

I rode over the rolling prairie till, on emerging from a hollow, I saw
three very plump old deer grazing not far from me behind a few low
mosquito bushes. I sprang off Czar, hobbled him, and crawled on my
stomach through the grass towards the deer, dragging my rifle after me.
Although I had got within shot, I wished to advance a few more yards in
order to reach a hollow where I should be able to kneel and fire. On
reaching it I pulled my rifle after me, and was just about to fire when
a monstrous rattlesnake glided away from under my hand. I sprang up in
terror, watched it darting through the grass with head erect, and away
fled my deer over the prairie, and I had had all my trouble for nothing.

Though rattlesnakes are so numerous in these regions the sudden
announcement of their vicinity through the movement of the rattles is a
most unpleasant surprise, which never failed to produce a painful
impression on my nerves. The whole south-west of America is troubled
with these and other snakes, but accidents through their poisonous bite
are rare. In spring and autumn, when the heat is not great, the bite of
a rattlesnake rarely kills, and only in cases when a large artery is
injured. If that be not the case, it only produces a soft swelling,
which soon disappears again, only leaving a want of sensitiveness for a
few days. In summer, however, when the heat attains its acmé, such a
bite is more dangerous, and curatives cannot be employed too quickly.
Cutting out to the seat of the wound without a moment's loss of time is
the most certain remedy. Salammoniac, which has so often been
recommended, is not of the slightest use; but sometimes a cure is
effected by rubbing the wound with oil or lard, or by a poultice of the
leaves of the large burr, which is so often entangled in the hair of
domestic animals. The most infallible specific, however, is a bulb known
to all the borderers by the name of "Seneca root." It has a leek-green
leaf a foot long with a few brown spots. It is chewed into a pulp, which
is laid on the wound and a small portion of the juice is swallowed; ere
long the pain is reduced, the fever disappears, and the swelling ceases.
This bulb may be carried about for years without losing its virtue.
Moreover, all these snakes shun man, and it is only when they are
startled by his sudden approach that they dart at the limb nearest to
them. The rattlesnake rarely exceeds eight to ten feet in length, but
the royal variety is somewhat larger, much more poisonous, and marked
with the most brilliant colours. Other poisonous snakes found in our
parts are the brown and black moccassin, which lives both on land and in
the water, and the copperhead, a small but very venomous snake. When I
settled on the Leone, these snakes were so numerous that after sunset I
did not dare let my horse walk along a buffalo path, because they used
to come out and cool themselves there. But as my swine increased in
number, they gradually disappeared, for the former are exceedingly fond
of eating them, and are not hurt by their bite.

I was very much annoyed: sent some strong language after the snake, and
returned to my horse, who had been taking advantage of his rest in the
long grass. I took off his hobble, and rode toward the forest, which
seemed inviting me to enter its friendly shade. It was midday when I
reached the wood, thirsting for a fresh drink. I hung my hat on the
saddle, and greedily inhaled the cool breeze that blew through the
majestic trees, and then followed on foot a buffalo path, which wound
between the bushes. It led me to a clear stream, which poured over loose
masses of stone, between rather high banks. I let Czar glide down, for
the path was very steep; watered him, and made him leap up the other
bank: then I filled my gourd, and quenched my thirst with the cold

I was just going to remount, when I heard the sound of a herd of
peccaries or Mexican swine coming toward me, probably in search of
water. As the undergrowth was not very dense on the side of the stream,
I was able to see them coming for some distance. There were about twenty
old pigs, with a lot of sucklings; they ran very slowly, and I had time
to pick out a fat boar. I shot it; sprang on my horse at once, and, as I
expected, found the whole herd dash furiously after me. I had room
before me, and dashed through them into the forest. They did not follow
me, and I granted them time to bid adieu to their fallen comrade, while
I led Czar into the wild oats which grew luxuriantly here. In a quarter
of an hour I rode back to my game. The herd had retired; and I at once
cut away the musk gland which the boar had on its back, of the size of
an egg: for if I had allowed it to grow cold it would have been
impossible to eat the meat, owing to the powerful musky taste. The boar
weighed about fifty pounds; I cut off the best joints, and took one of
the tusks as a souvenir, on account of its remarkable length. The
peccari is very frequently met in the western mountains of America, and
often in herds of a hundred head. It has a handsome, silver-grey,
long-haired skin, an enormous head for its size with tremendous tusks,
and is remarkable for its extraordinary courage. If disturbed, it will
attack a man as soon as a horse or a tiger, and is very dangerous
through its agility, strength, and tusks five inches long. I have known
a hunter to be attacked by a herd, and forced to take shelter up a tree,
where he remained the whole night till the herd retired.

I rode for about two miles along the skirt of the next forest I came to
without finding a buffalo path; and yet the forest was so densely
overgrown with thorns and brambles that I could not enter it without a
path. At length I found one, which had been probably trodden for
centuries by millions of buffaloes. I followed it into the wood, and
soon reached a small river, whose steep banks were about eight feet
high. Here I refreshed my horse and myself, and followed the path on the
opposite side, where the forest grew clearer, and I soon caught a
glimpse of the prairie. The bushes and a few isolated trees ran for some
distance out into the prairie. I dismounted and led my horse to the last

Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 6 of 35)