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bushes, in order to survey the plain ere I entrusted myself to it, and
because I was undecided whether I would not bivouac here. I had advanced
to the furthermost bushes, which were brightly illumined by the western
sun, and I found the prairie was populated by a few deer and buffaloes,
whose evident watchfulness and restlessness I could not ascribe to my
appearance. I looked down the wood to the rocks, and to my terror, saw
close under them on the prairie a war-party of about a hundred and fifty
Indians, who were riding towards the forest one behind the other. I
sprang in front of my horse, in order to cover its bright chest, and
hurriedly raised my telescope. They were Lepans. I knew them by their
plumed lances, gaily-decorated shields, and fine horses; for these
Indians are the best mounted and most warlike on the western steppes. I
stood as if petrified, for fear lest they might see a movement on my
part, while I held Czar by the rein. They had not yet seen me, for they
rode past, and drew close to the wood: a few yards farther and they
would have been out of sight, and the danger momentarily passed.
Suddenly, however, the whole party halted, and pointed toward me. I had
been seen, there could be no doubt of the fact; for I noticed through my
glass that they were holding their hands over their eyes to have a
better look at me. There was not a mile between us; my horse had been
travelling all day. The wood was very narrow, and the path leading
through it very broad. I was aware of the courage of these Lepans, and
saw no salvation save in the endurance of my horse. With one leap I was
on his back; threw away the flesh and darted into the wood, with the
whole band of savages after me like a whirlwind. The river made a number
of bends, which I was compelled to follow. The Indians' horses were
extremely swift; this was the first time I had ever known any horses
keep up with mine. But I had not yet called on Czar: I now drove the
spurs into him and let go the reins. I flew round the next corner, and
then round the next, ere the Indians reached the first, which was a good
mile behind. At this moment I saw that the river bank was covered for
the next half mile with loose pebbles. I turned Czar round, and leapt
him down the eight-foot bank into the river, whose bottom, composed, of
soft sand and shallow water, he reached without injury. I then galloped
up the stream in the direction I had just come, covered by the tall
bank, and the wood between it and the prairie, calculating that the
Indians would not miss my track among the loose stones, but would gallop
through them to the next angle of the wood, which would give me a grand
start. I remained at a gallop for about a hundred yards, so that the
water met over my head, until I reached a deeper spot, where Czar was
obliged to swim for a short distance. At this moment I heard the savage
horde dash past, and the war yell of these unchained demons echoing
through the forest! Probably the short extent of deep water saved me,
for at this spot only a few thin bushes grew on the bank, and though the
savages were some distance off, they would infallibly have noticed the
water being dashed up by Czar. I again reached a firm bottom, and
followed the stream as quickly as I could; while the yells of the
Indians were audible a long way behind me.

I was beginning to feel more secure, when my progress was impeded by
large masses of rock, between which the shallow water rippled. I leapt
on one of these blocks, and gave Czar a gentle pull to follow me: he
sprang up, clambered across, and reached without injury a good sandy
bottom on the other side. I hurried down the stream - partly swimming,
partly climbing - till I saw the lofty rocks on my right through the
forest, and hence knew that I was below the spot where the Lepans had
halted when they first sighted me. I still followed the stream, although
the water came up to my horse's girths; but it suddenly made a curve,
and ran close past the rocks, at a spot where they opened like a narrow
gateway, leaving a passage for a rivulet that flowed from the interior.
The entrance through the granite walls was not more than thirty feet
wide, and the gorge about a hundred feet deep, beyond which was a
beautiful little valley enclosed by the rocks, about a mile in length,
through which the stream rippled.

I rode up the rivulet; on both sides of which the most exquisite
flowers grew. Among them I specially noticed a sort of tiger lily, not
only through the brilliancy of its hues, but the masses that covered the
banks, so that the ravine seemed to be strewn with live coals. Sitting
down on a rock at the entrance, I listened, but did not hear a sound of
my pursuers. The rippling of the stream alone interrupted the silence,
and only at intervals did the shrill cry of the white-headed eagle rise
above it. That the Lepans had overridden my trail was certain; but it
was equally certain that they would ride back when they noticed their
error, and find my track; for my horse, in leaping into the stream, had
left distinct marks on the bank, and its track might also be followed in
the sandy bed. Moreover the banks were splashed with water, and that was
sufficient to show an Indian the road I had followed. Hence it was
certain that the savages could follow me, but doubtful whether they
would do it, as they might be sure that I should get under cover, when
my firearms would be very dangerous, and they would be unable to
surprise me. Hence it was far more likely - supposing that they attached
so much value to a white man's scalp or the possession of a fine horse,
as to interrupt the war-trail for some days - that they would guard the
prairies on both sides of the forest, as it was almost impossible for a
horseman to ride through the latter.

While I was thus weighing my situation I inspected my firearms, which
had got slightly wet; put on fresh caps, and was taking a look at my
water-tight powder-flask, when a yell echoed through the wood from the
east. I knew its meaning perfectly well: the Lepans had found my trail,
and were assembling for a consultation. At this sound all prospect of an
amicable arrangement departed, and I was determined, in the event of an
attack, on defending myself here, as in case of need I could always
escape down the stream.

All became silent again; evening spread her veil over the earth; the
silver herons and flamingoes uttered their hoarse cry as they flew
homewards; and the owl announced the setting in of night. The outlines
of the trees and rocks continually grew more indistinct, and it was time
to fetch up Czar, who was nibbling the tender grass along the stream. I
secured him with the lasso to a very large stone behind the rock on
which I was sitting, and threw before him an armful of grass and weeds,
which I picked. In the event of an attack from the river, he was
tolerably protected behind this rock, and he was close at hand if I
wanted to mount in a hurry. Though I regretted having to leave him
saddled through, the night, I only took the pistols out of the holsters
and laid by them by my side.

Suddenly a loud, long, lasting yell was raised, which, however, seemed
much farther off, and to come from the prairie on the south side of the
forest. Probably, the Lepans had found my trail through the prairie, but
it was a satisfactory sign to me that they had not attempted to follow
me along the river bed. In all other directions my hiding-place was
unassailable, unless there was a second entrance into the valley in my
rear, as was probable. It had already grown so dark, that I could not
distinguish my white horse from the rocks, although the stars shone
brilliantly above me. Before it was quite dark I sat down by the side of
Czar, to prevent him lying down. I grew very sleepy, but the yell of the
Indians still sounded too loudly in my ears for me to indulge in repose.
I tried to keep awake by smoking, which helped for a while; but smoking
in perfect darkness is no enjoyment; hence I soon grew tired of it, and
tried to keep awake by walking up and down. Czar, too, was tired of
standing; he stamped impatiently with his fore-feet, and tried the
strength of the lasso by tugging at it. At length, nature claimed her
dues, and I could not possibly keep awake any longer: I took off Czar's
load, laid it in the darkness against the stone to which he was secured,
spread out my rug, and lay down on it with my rifle on my arm. Czar was
not long in following my example, and tried as usual to have a roll
before going to sleep, which might have injured me or the saddle in the
darkness; hence I pressed his head to the ground, and we were both, ere
long, as soundly asleep as the rocks around us.

Day was scarce breaking when I started up and looked around me with a
disagreeable feeling of self-reproach: for how easily could an Indian
have crept up and done to me while asleep what all the whole tribe could
not effect while I was awake! Czar lay motionless, and I did not disturb
him, for it might easily happen that his strength alone could bear me
away in safety. I went out of the gorge and brought in some dry wood,
lit a fire and made coffee, being obliged to breakfast on my biscuits
and salt tongue, for the dainty lumps of pork I had cut yesterday had
probably served a wolf for supper. While I was breakfasting, my faithful
steed raised his head and rested it on my knee, that I might remove the
bridle which I had left on during the night. I did so; hobbled him out
in the grass, and then sat down again at my small fire, where I could
see along the river and up the valley behind me, whose steep granite
walls were just beginning to be illumined by the rising sun. In the
valley itself the fog still lay like a white veil, and only a few tall
trees raised their crowns above it. The stream by which I was sitting
was all aglow with its tiger lilies, with which the dazzling white of my
horse grazing among them formed a beautiful contrast. The mist in the
valley was dissipated, and revealed the rich vegetation which grew there
apart from the world. I remembered the fairy tales of childhood, - the
enchanted Princes and sleeping Princesses, the Palace of Glass, and the
Magic Valley, - and had they not been narrated before this continent was
known to Europeans, I should have believed that the fables had their
origin in this valley. I was very curious to learn whether there was
another entrance besides the one I commanded; for if not, it was very
possible that my hiding-place was unknown to the Indians, as the steep
hills around did not reveal that they concealed such a fairylike kingdom
in their interior.

[Illustration: AFTER A DAY'S SPORT. _p. 81._]

It was about nine o'clock when, after washing and saddling Czar, I rode
off to examine the secrets of the wonderful valley. I looked around at
the lofty walls of granite, but could not notice any other connexion
with the external world but the one through which I had come. The
valley, about a mile in diameter, was covered with a most luxuriant crop
of young grass and a number of clumps of trees and bushes, through which
the rivulet wound. It struck me as curious that I saw no game on such
rich pasturage, for, excepting a flock of turkeys, I had put up nothing,
although I had reached the centre. The turkeys were very shy, and ran
off when I dismounted to shoot one; but just as I was going to mount
again, an old cock came running up, and my bullet put a speedy end to
his existence. The report had hardly begun to echo through the rocks,
ere a swarm of aquatic birds of all sizes rose right in front of me like
flies in the sunshine; but, as I remained quietly seated on the grass,
reloading my rifle, they soon settled down again. I walked through the
bushes, and noticed a large pond with flat banks covered with all sorts
of gaily plumaged birds, among which herons and flamingoes occupied a
prominent place. The banks were literally covered with these birds, some
of which were standing sentry on one leg, while others were up to their
knees in the water and engaged in catching frogs. When I stepped out of
the bushes all the birds rose again, a portion seated themselves with
loud croaks on the nearest trees, while the rest rose in the air, and
proceeded in various directions to less disturbed regions. It now
appeared as if all the inhabitants of the valley had left it, and I was
not sorry at having secured a good meal, for my stomach was beginning to
complain about neglect. I hung the turkey on my saddle and rode to the
pond, whose banks were so trampled by the birds that not a single blade
of grass grew on them, but I noticed a great number of jaguar tracks,
some old, others quite recent. The animals to which these tracks
belonged must consequently live in the valley, as they would not
climb over the rocks and had not passed my night quarters. It was now
clear to me why this splendid pasture was so deserted and only visited
by birds, while hundreds of buffaloes and deer would have found abundant
food. I rode nearly round the valley, with a revolver in my hand, as I
expected at any moment to meet the landlord; but I did not see him, and
not a living creature remained in the valley but the few turkeys which
had probably strayed thither. I rode back to my bivouac, as it was
midday, and both myself and Czar felt hungry, and prepared a part of the
turkey for dinner, while Czar had a hearty feed of grass. When we had
finished our meal, I tied him up close to me under the overhanging rocks
where the sun did not fall on us. I threw wood on the fire, and lay down
to sleep to make up for the last night's lost rest. The sun was hardly
illumining the tops of the eastern mountains of the valley when I awoke
invigorated, and led my horse out into the grass again.

[Illustration]




[Illustration]

CHAPTER IX.

HOMEWARD BOUND.


I had already made up my mind to spend the night here, so I got about my
supper at an early hour, and soon carried a good stock of wood to my
camp with which to keep up my fire during the night. I slept undisturbed
till daybreak, took a refreshing bath in the cold stream while my
breakfast was getting ready; then rode Czar into a deep spot, washed him
thoroughly, and was soon ready to leave this mysterious but so pleasant
spot, with the resolution to visit it again sooner or later.

My road led into the river again, on whose rippled surface the night
mist rolled along with the current. But on further reflection I saw how
many obstacles now stood in my way. The current was very powerful, and
the waves broke against my horse's strong chest; the bottom, covered
with loose boulders, rendered its footsteps unsteady, and constantly put
it in danger of falling. At length I reached the bed of rocks which
blocked the entire breadth of the river, over which Czar had clambered
with such agility: it now seemed to me purely impossible that a horse
could achieve such a feat, although the marks of his shoes proved to me
the contrary, I would not venture, however, to make my horse leap it
again, but took my axe out of its sheath, entered the water, which was
shallow here, and cut away the creepers and bushes hanging over the
bank, and thus formed a much better path beneath them over a very few
large but flat stones. I led Czar across, and then slowly walked on,
constantly thrusting on one side the vines hanging with a length of
fifty feet over the water, in order to force myself through them.

After great exertions I at length reached the buffalo path by which I
had crossed the river on the previous day but one, and followed it again
to the skirt of the wood, but this time with greater caution. I left
Czar behind in the thick bushes and crept out alone to the edge of the
prairie, and examined the latter carefully with my glass. The grassy
expanse before me, far as I could see, was covered with countless
buffaloes and numerous deer, which were grazing quietly and carelessly,
and I recognised at a great distance a large troop of wild horses, which
must consist of several hundred. These were the surest signs that no
Indian had shown himself on this day upon the plain, so I returned to my
horse, and pursued my journey northward through this prairie.

In about an hour I drew near the horses, which were giving vent to their
playfulness by rearing, kicking, and galloping about. I rode along a
hollow under the hill, in order to get as near them as I could, in which
I perfectly succeeded as the wind was favourable. I rode to within a
short distance of them under the hill on which they were standing, when
Czar scented them, suddenly raised his head, and expressed his delight
at the friendly meeting by a loud snort. In an instant the troop dashed
up to greet the stranger. It was led by a coal black very powerful
stallion, whose mane, some five feet in length, flew wildly round his
broad neck. The thunder of their hoofs rolled along like a tempest
toward me, till we faced each other at a distance of about twenty paces.
The black stallion fell as if struck by lightning, and the nearest
horses fell upon him in the wildest confusion, while Czar gave them to
understand by a friendly whinny, that there was really no reason for
such fear. It was a wondrously beautiful sight, when these noble
powerful animals rose again and flew over the grassy sea, like smoke
before the blast, the black with wildly flying mane, flashing eyes, and
scarlet nostrils at their head. I looked after them for a long time, and
regretted that I could not risk leading a captured horse home, as I
could have easily thrown my lasso over the stallion. It is undoubtedly
one of the most exquisite sights to watch closely a troop of perfectly
wild horses in a state of excitement, especially on the western steppes,
where every breed is represented. These horses are originally descended
from those of the old Spaniards, who established a great number of
military colonies in these parts, each consisting of several hundred
men. These settlements, whose remains may still be found here and there,
were established in the richest districts, and, when necessary, strongly
fortified; maize was planted there, and silver, copper, and lead mines
opened.

I found in this country numerous relics of the old Spanish times; more
especially well-preserved dams in the rivers and water-courses, led
through large plantations which are now overgrown with grass. These were
employed to irrigate the country during a protracted drought, and thus
always secure an abundant harvest, which was a matter of great
importance to the settlers, as they were many hundred miles from
civilized Mexico, and thus it was impossible to obtain provisions
thence. The people were entirely left to themselves, produced their own
food, had a great quantity of cattle, and bred many horses and mules.
Even at that day, when these colonies were flourishing, it might now and
then occur that some of their horses bolted, and lived and propagated in
the glorious climate and on the rich prairies without the aid of man. At
a later date, however, more warlike Indian hordes poured from the north
over the south, which was inhabited by tribes held in subjection by the
invaders, and destroyed these remote Spanish outposts whose garrisons
they cut down and scalped. From this date, in all probability, came the
numerous troops of wild horses, now spread over the whole of Western
America; for the numerous horses of the military colonists were set at
liberty, and even at the present day the old Spanish horse, with its
long fine mane, small head, long neck, and hanging long tail can be
recognised. Since, however, eastern civilization has been advancing
toward the west, these troops have become crossed with all possible
breeds and not of the worst sort, for the men who risked their lives on
the border always spend their last farthing in taking a good horse with
them, in whose speed and bottom they could trust when they came in
contact with the savage Indian hordes.

From these border settlements, where the horses are necessarily turned
out to graze on the prairie, some frequently escaped, as they are
constantly surrounded by the wild horses. And every horse that has once
got among such a troop, bids an eternal farewell to captivity. Hence we
find among these animals the pure Arab blood, we recognise the clumsy
English cart horse, the pony, the thorough-bred, and the racer. In
short, there is such a display of every breed as no horse-fair in the
world is able to show. I especially noticed an enormous number of greys,
piebalds, and black horses among the troops; and that the differences of
colour are far more frequent among them than with trained horses. They
possess great speed for a short distance; for, on a lengthened race,
owing to their grass feeding, they cannot keep up with a horse fed on
corn, and hence they are often hunted down and captured by men mounted
on the latter. For this purpose, the lasso is employed, whose noose is
thrown over the horse's neck. So soon as the wild horse's neck is
squeezed it falls quivering on the ground, and the captor finds time to
place a halter or leathern thong round its neck. The noose is then
slightly loosened, and a trial is made whether it will follow the rider
by the halter. If it resists, the operation is repeated as often as is
necessary to make the animal understand that it must yield to captivity.
As a rule it follows soon; and can be easily tamed, especially when it
is not too old. If these horses are fed on maize for awhile, they grow
very strong and enduring. The fillies are the easiest to capture and
tame. You need only chase a manada for some miles, and the fillies fall
exhausted and do not rise again, and if they are raised on their legs
after recovery, they will immediately follow the ridden horse, as their
mares have disappeared with the troop.

These animals become as tame as dogs, and are of great value to the
borderer, as it costs nothing to rear them, and they can be put to any
work. For all that the wild horse is greatly detested in the vicinity of
a settlement, and many a noble brute has died there with a bullet in its
heart. The borderer cannot shut up his horses and mules in stables. They
must seek the food which nature offers them in such profusion, and hence
they have the gate of liberty always open; but they do not fly, because
they do not know what liberty is. But scarce do they see a troop of
their wild comrades dash past, ere they dart off too, never again to bow
their neck to the plough or the bit. They in such cases become the
wildest of the troop, and can always be recognised at its head. My black
stallion, whose wildly flowing mane I followed for a long distance over
the prairie, had, however, never yet bent his neck beneath the yoke of
man, for it displayed too fully the pride and strength which nature
imparts to liberty alone on its black curly forehead: these animals had
never seen the low roof, the simple palisade of a frontier house, and no
fugitive thence had ever complained to them about the fate he had
endured.

Czar was beside himself that he was not allowed to join in the race, and
tried for a long time to check the speed of the fugitives by his snorts;
he danced, threw his croupe from one side to the other, and furiously
tore at the bit, but it was all of no use, and serfdom still lay on his
broad neck, even though with rosy bonds.

The sun was rather low on the horizon when I found myself about five
miles from what seemed to be a very large forest, behind which rose the
mountains which I had noticed a few days previously in the azure
distance when I took my first glance at this valley. I leapt from my
horse, hobbled it, and crawled through the grass after two very old
stags, one of which was quietly grazing behind a fallen mosquito tree,
while the other, as if it had noticed something, thrust its thick neck
over the stump in my direction. I had left my hat with Czar in order to
attract less attention, and the sun shone hotly on my head; but what
will not a hunter readily endure if it enables him to draw nearer the
game? At length there were about one hundred yards between us, and I had
reached a small patch of flowering jalap trees which covered me. I
raised myself on one arm, and fired, aiming at the head. I saw that the
deer was hit close to the heart: it ran about fifty paces with its
comrade, and then fell dead.

After reloading, I rode up to the deer and laid in some days' supply of
meat, hung it on the saddle, and continued my journey to the forest,
which I entered about sunset by a very broad open buffalo path. I was



Online LibraryLascelles WraxallThe Backwoodsman; Or, Life on the Indian Frontier → online text (page 7 of 35)