The Hunters' Feast, by Captain Mayne Reid.
The story starts in the city of St Louis, towards the end of the summer of some year in the nineteenth century. Reid collects together a group of six men who would pay to take part in an expedition, camping and hunting, into the prairies. They take with them a couple of paid men, professionals who would give them very necessary guidance. They all make a pact that they would each tell a round of tales around the camp fire, such stories to be amusing and instructive.
Reid himself is something of a naturalist, as we can learn from his many other books. We are given these tales just as they are told, in good English if told by an educated man, and in the dialect of the less educated ones. This latter arrangement makes the checking of the OCR transcriptions a little difficult, but never mind.
What people may find a little tedious is Reid's habit of giving the naturalists' Latin names for the various animals and plants described.
THE HUNTERS' FEAST, BY CAPTAIN MAYNE REID.
A HUNTING PARTY.
On the western bank of the Mississippi, twelve miles below the embouchure of the Missouri, stands the large town of Saint Louis, poetically known as the "Mound City." Although there are many other large towns throughout the Mississippi Valley, Saint Louis is the true metropolis of the "far west"—of that semi-civilised, ever-changing belt of territory known as the "Frontier."
Saint Louis is one of those American cities in the history of which there is something of peculiar interest. It is one of the oldest of North-American settlements, having been a French trading port at an early period.
Though not so successful as their rivals the English, there was a degree of picturesqueness about French colonisation, that, in the present day, strongly claims the attention of the American poet, novelist, and historian. Their dealings with the Indian aborigines—the facile manner in which they glided into the habits of the latter—meeting them more than half-way between civilisation and savage life—the handsome nomenclature which they have scattered freely, and which still holds over the trans-Mississippian territories—the introduction of a new race (the half blood—peculiarly French)—the heroic and adventurous character of their earliest pioneers, De Salle Marquette, Father Hennepin, etcetera—their romantic explorations and melancholy fate—all these circumstances have rendered extremely interesting the early history of the French in America. Even the Quixotism of some of their attempts at colonisation cannot fail to interest us, as at Gallipolis on the Ohio, a colony composed of expatriated people of the French court;— perruquiers, coachbuilders, tailors, modistes, and the like. Here, in the face of hostile Indians, before an acre of ground was cleared, before the slightest provision was made for their future subsistence, the first house erected was a large log structure, to serve as the salon du Lal!
Besides its French origin, Saint Louis possesses many other points of interest. It has long been the entrepot and depot of commerce with the wild tribes of prairie-land. There the trader is supplied with his stock for the Indian market—his red and green blanket—his beads and trinkets—his rifles, and powder, and lead; and there, in return, he disposes of the spoils of the prairie collected in many a far and perilous wandering. There the emigrant rests on the way to his wilderness home; and the hunter equips himself before starting forth on some new expedition.
To the traveller, Saint Louis is a place of peculiar interest. He will hear around him the language of every nation in the civilised world. He will behold faces of every hue and variety of expression. He will meet with men of every possible calling.
All this is peculiarly true in the latter part of the summer season. Then the motley population of New Orleans fly from the annual scourge of the yellow fever, and seek safety in the cities that lie farther north. Of these, Saint Louis is a favourite "city of refuge,"—the Creole element of its population being related to that kindred race in the South, and keeping up with it this annual correspondence.
In one of these streams of migration I had found my way to Saint Louis, in the autumn of 18—. The place was at the time filled with loungers, who seemed to have nothing else to do but kill time. Every hotel had its quota, and in every verandah and at the corners of the streets you might see small knots of well-dressed gentlemen trying to entertain each other, and laugh away the hours. Most of them were the annual birds of passage from New Orleans, who had fled from "yellow Jack," and were sojourning here till the cold frosty winds of November should drive that intruder from the "crescent city;" but there were many other flaneurs as well. There were travellers from Europe:—men of wealth and rank who had left behind them the luxuries of civilised society to rough it for a season in the wild West—painters in search of the picturesque— naturalists whose love of their favourite study had drawn them from their comfortable closets to search for knowledge under circumstances of extremest difficulty—and sportsmen, who, tired of chasing small game, were on their way to the great plains to take part in the noble sport of hunting the buffalo. I was myself one of the last-named fraternity.
There is no country in the world so addicted to the table d'hote as America, and that very custom soon makes idle people acquainted with each other. I was not very long in the place before I was upon terms of intimacy with a large number of these loungers, and I found several, like myself, desirous of making a hunting expedition to the prairies. This chimed in with my plans to a nicety, and I at once set about getting up the expedition. I found five others who were willing to join me.
After several conversaziones, with much discussion, we succeeded at length in "fixing" our plan. Each was to "equip" according to his own fancy, though it was necessary for each to provide himself with a riding horse or mule. After that, a general fund was to be "raised," to be appropriated to the purchase of a waggon and team, with tents, stores, and cooking utensils. A couple of professional hunters were to be engaged; men who knew the ground to be traversed, and who were to act as guides to the expedition.
About a week was consumed in making the necessary preparations, and at the end of that time, under the sunrise of a lovely morning, a small cavalcade was seen to issue from the back suburbs of Saint Louis, and, climbing the undulating slopes in its rear, head for the far-stretching wilderness of the prairies. It was our hunting expedition.
The cavalcade consisted of eight mounted men, and a waggon with its full team of six tough mules. These last were under the manege of "Jake"— a free negro, with a shining black face, a thick full mop, and a set of the best "ivories," which were almost always uncovered in a smile.
Peeping from under the tilt of the waggon might be seen another face strongly contrasting with that of Jake. This had been originally of a reddish hue, but sun-tan, and a thick sprinkling of freckles, had changed the red to golden-yellow. A shock of fiery hair surmounted this visage, which was partially concealed under a badly-battered hat. Though the face of the black expressed good-humour, it might have been called sad when brought into comparison with that of the little red man, which peeped out beside it. Upon the latter, there was an expression irresistibly comic—the expression of an actor in broad farce. One eye was continually on the wink, while the other looked knowing enough for both. A short clay-pipe, stuck jauntily between the lips, added to the comical expression of the face, which was that of Mike Lanty from Limerick. No one ever mistook the nationality of Michael.
Who were the eight cavaliers that accompanied the waggon? Six of them were gentlemen by birth and education. At least half that number were scholars. The other two laid no claim either to gentleness or scholarship—they were rude trappers—the hunters and guides of the expedition.
A word about each one of the eight, for there was not one of them without his peculiarity. First, there was an Englishman—a genuine type of his countrymen—full six feet high, well proportioned, with broad chest and shoulders, and massive limbs. Hair of a light brown, complexion florid, moustache and whiskers full and hay-coloured, but suiting well the complexion and features. The last were regular, and if not handsome, at least good humoured and noble in their expression. The owner was in reality a nobleman—a true nobleman—one of that class who, while travelling through the "States," have the good sense to carry their umbrella along, and leave their title behind them. To us he was known as Mr Thompson, and, after some time, when we had all become familiar with each other, as plain "Thompson." It was only long after, and by accident, that I became acquainted with his rank and title; some of our companions do not know it to this day, but that is of no consequence. I mention the circumstance here to aid me in illustrating the character of our travelling companion, who was "close" and modest almost to a fault.
His costume was characteristic. A "tweed" shooting jacket, of course, with eight pockets—a vest of the same material with four—tweed browsers, and a tweed cap. In the waggon was the hat-box; of strong yellow leather, with straps and padlock. This was supposed to contain the dress hat; and some of the party were merry about it. But no—Mr Thompson was a more experienced traveller than his companions thought him at first. The contents of the hat-case were sundry brushes— including one for the teeth—combs, razors, and pieces of soap. The hat had been left at Saint Louis.
But the umbrella had not. It was then under Thompson's arm, with its full proportions of whalebone and gingham. Under that umbrella he had hunted tigers in the jungles of India—under that umbrella he had chased the lion upon the plains of Africa—under that umbrella he had pursued the ostrich and the vicuna over the pampas of South America; and now under that same hemisphere of blue gingham he was about to carry terror and destruction among the wild buffaloes of the prairies.
Besides the umbrella—strictly a weapon of defence—Mr Thompson carried another, a heavy double-barrelled gun, marked "Bishop, of Bond Street," no bad weapon with a loading of buck-shot, and with this both barrels were habitually loaded.
So much for Mr Thompson, who may pass for Number 1 of the hunting party. He was mounted on a strong bay cob, with tail cut short, and English saddle, both of which objects—the short tail and the saddle— were curiosities to all of the party except Mr Thompson and myself.
Number 2 was as unlike Number 1 as two animals of the same species could possibly be. He was a Kentuckian, full six inches taller than Thompson, or indeed than any of the party. His features were marked, prominent and irregular, and this irregularity was increased by a "cheekful" of half-chewed tobacco. His complexion was dark, almost olive, and the face quite naked, without either moustache or whisker; but long straight hair, black as an Indian's, hung down to his shoulders. In fact, there was a good deal of the Indian look about him, except in his figure. That was somewhat slouched, with arms and limbs of over-length, loosely hung about it. Both, however, though not modelled after the Apollo, were evidently full of muscle and tough strength, and looked as though their owner could return the hug of a bear with interest. There was a gravity in his look, but that was not from any gravity of spirits; it was his swarth complexion that gave him this appearance, aided, no doubt, by several lines of "ambeer" proceeding from the corners of his mouth in the direction of the chin. So far from being grave, this dark Kentuckian was as gay and buoyant as any of the party. Indeed, a light and boyish spirit is a characteristic of the Kentuckian as well as of all the natives of the Mississippi Valley—at least such has been my observation.
Our Kentuckian was costumed just as he would have been upon a cool morning riding about the "woodland" of his own plantation, for a "planter" he was. He wore a "Jeans" frock, and over that a long-tailed overcoat of the best green blanket, with side pockets and flaps. His jeans pantaloons were stuck into a pair of heavy horse-leather pegged boots, sometimes known as "nigger" boots; but over these were "wrappers" of green baize, fastened with a string above the knees. His hat was a "broad-brimmed felt," costly enough, but somewhat crushed by being sat upon and slept in. He bestrode a tall raw-boned stood that possessed many of the characteristics of the rider; and in the same proportion that the latter overtopped his companions, so did the steed out-size all the other horses of the cavalcade. Over the shoulders of the Kentuckian were suspended, by several straps, pouch, horn, and haversack, and resting upon his toe was the butt of a heavy rifle, the muzzle of which reached to a level with his shoulder.
He was a rich Kentucky planter, and known in his native state as a great deer-hunter. Some business or pleasure had brought him to Saint Louis. It was hinted that Kentucky was becoming too thickly settled for him— deer becoming scarce, and bear hardly to be found—and that his visit to Saint Louis had something to do with seeking a new "location" where these animals were still to be met with in greater plenty. The idea of buffalo-hunting was just to his liking. The expedition would carry him through the frontier country, where he might afterwards choose his "location"—at all events the sport would repay him, and he was one of the most enthusiastic in regard to it.
He that looms up on the retrospect of my memory as Number 3 was as unlike the Kentuckian, as the latter was to Thompson. He was a disciple of Esculapius—not thin and pale, as these usually are, but fat, red, and jolly. I think he was originally a "Yankee," though his long residence in the Western States had rubbed the Yankee out of him to a great extent. At all events he had few of their characteristics about him. He was neither staid, sober, nor, what is usually alleged as a trait of the true bred Yankee, "stingy." On the contrary, our doctor was full of talk and joviality—generous to a fault. A fault, indeed; for, although many years in practice in various parts of the United States, and having earned large sums of money, at the date of our expedition we found him in Saint Louis almost without a dollar, and with no great stock of patients. The truth must be told; the doctor was of a restless disposition, and liked his glass too well. He was a singer too, a fine amateur singer, with a voice equal to Mario's. That may partly account for his failure in securing a fortune. He was a favourite with all—ladies included—and so fond of good company, that he preferred the edge of the jovial board to the bed-side of a patient.
Not from any fondness for buffalo-hunting, but rather through an attachment to some of the company, had the doctor volunteered. Indeed, he was solicited by all to make one of us—partly on account of his excellent society, and partly that his professional services might be called into requisition before our return.
The doctor still preserved his professional costume of black—somewhat russet by long wear—but this was modified by a close-fitting fur cap, and wrappers of brown cloth, which he wore around his short thick legs. He was not over-well mounted—a very spare little horse was all he had, as his funds would not stretch to a better. It was quite a quiet one, however, and carried the doctor and his "medical saddle-bags" steadily enough, though not without a good deal of spurring and whipping. The doctor's name was "Jopper"—Dr John Jopper.
A very elegant youth, with fine features, rolling black eyes, and luxuriant curled hair, was one of us. The hands were well formed and delicate; the complexion silky, and of nearly an olive tint; but the purplish-red broke through upon his cheeks, giving the earnest of health, as well as adding to the picturesque beauty of his face. The form was perfect, and full of manly expression, and the pretty sky-blue plaited pantaloons and close-fitting jacket of the same material, sat gracefully on his well-turned limbs and arms. These garments were of "cottonade," that beautiful and durable fabric peculiar to Louisiana, and so well suited to the southern climate. A costly Panama hat cast its shadow over the wavy curls and pictured cheek of this youth, and a cloak of fine broad cloth, with velvet facings, hung loosely from his shoulders. A slight moustache and imperial lent a manlier expression to his chiselled features.
This young fellow was a Creole of Louisiana—a student of one of the Jesuit Colleges of that State—and although very unlike what would be expected from such a dashing personage, he was an ardent, even passionate, lover of nature. Though still young, he was the most accomplished botanist in his State, and had already published several discoveries in the Flora of the South.
Of course the expedition was to him a delightful anticipation. It would afford the finest opportunity for prosecuting his favourite study in a new field; one as yet almost unvisited by the scientific traveller. The young Creole was known as Jules Besancon.
He was not the only naturalist of the party. Another was with us; one who had already acquired a world-wide fame; whose name was as familiar to the savans of Europe as to his own countrymen. He was already an old man, almost venerable in his aspect, but his tread was firm, and his arm still strong enough to steady his long, heavy, double-barrelled rifle. An ample coat of dark blue covered his body; his limbs were enveloped in long buttoned leggings of drab cloth, and a cap of sable surmounted his high, broad forehead. Under this his blueish grey eye glanced with a calm but clear intelligence, and a single look from it satisfied you that you were in the presence of a superior mind. Were I to give the name of this person, this would readily be acknowledged. For certain reasons I cannot do this. Suffice it to say, he was one of the most distinguished of modern zoologists, and to his love for the study we were indebted for his companionship upon our hunting expedition. He was known to us as Mr A— the "hunter-naturalist." There was no jealousy between him and the young Besancon. On the contrary, a similarity of tastes soon brought about a mutual friendship, and the Creole was observed to treat the other with marked deference and regard.
I may set myself down as Number 6 of the party. Let a short description of me suffice. I was then but a young fellow, educated somewhat better than common; fond of wild sports; not indifferent to a knowledge of nature; fond almost to folly of a good horse, and possessing one of the very best; not ill-looking in the face, and of middle stature; costumed in a light hunting-shirt of embroidered buckskin, with fringed cape and skirt; leggings of scarlet cloth, and cloth forage-cap, covering a flock of dark hair. Powder-flask and pouch of tasty patterns; belt around the waist, with hunting-knife and pistols—revolvers. A light rifle in one hand, and in the other a bridle-rein, which guided a steed of coal blackness; one that would have been celebrated in song by a troubadour of the olden time. A deep Spanish saddle of stamped leather; holsters with bearskin covers in front; a scarlet blanket, folded and strapped on the croup; lazo and haversack hanging from the "horn"—voila tout!
There are two characters still undescribed. Characters of no mean importance were they—the "guides." They were called respectively, Isaac Bradley and Mark Redwood. A brace of trappers they were, but as different from each other in personal appearance as two men could well be. Redwood was a man of large dimensions, and apparently as strong as a buffalo, while his confrere was a thin, wiry, sinewy mortal, with a tough, weasel-like look and gait. The expression of Redwood's countenance was open and manly, his eyes were grey, his hair light-coloured, and huge brown whiskers covered his cheeks. Bradley, on the other hand, was dark—his eyes small, black, and piercing—his face as hairless as an Indian's, and bronzed almost to the Indian hue, with the black hair of his head closely cropped around it.
Both these men were dressed in leather from head to foot, yet they were very differently dressed. Redwood wore the usual buckskin hunting-shirt, leggings, and moccasins, but all of full proportions and well cut, while his large 'coon-skin cap, with the plume-like tail, had an imposing appearance. Bradley's garments, on the contrary, were tight-fitting and "skimped." His hunting-shirt was without cape, and adhered so closely to his body that it appeared only an outer skin of the man himself. His leggings were pinched and tight. Shirt, leggings, and moccasins were evidently of the oldest kind, and as dirty as a cobbler's apron. A close-fitting otter cap, with a Mackinaw blanket, completed the wardrobe of Isaac Bradley. He was equipped with a pouch of greasy leather hanging by an old black strap, a small buffalo-horn suspended by a thong, and a belt of buffalo-leather, in which was stuck a strong blade, with its handle of buckhorn. His rifle was of the "tallest" kind—being full six feet in height—in fact, taller than he was, and at least four fifths of the weapon consisted of barrel. The straight narrow stock was a piece of manufacture that had proceeded from the hands of the trapper himself.
Redwood's rifle was also a long one, but of more modern build and fashion, and his equipments—pouch, powder-horn and belt—were of a more tasty design and finish.
Such were our guides, Redwood and Bradley. They were no imaginary characters these. Mark Redwood was a celebrated "mountain-man" at that time, and Isaac Bradley will be recognised by many when I give him the name and title by which he was then known,—viz. "Old Ike, the wolf-killer."
Redwood rode a strong horse of the half-hunter breed, while the "wolf-killer" was mounted upon one of the scraggiest looking quadrupeds it would be possible to imagine—an old mare "mustang."
THE CAMP AND CAMP-FIRE.
Our route was west by south. The nearest point with which we expected to fall in with the buffalo was two hundred miles distant. We might travel three hundred without seeing one, and even much farther at the present day; but a report had reached Saint Louis that the buffalo had been seen that year upon the Osage River, west of the Ozark Hills, and towards that point we steered our course. We expected in about twenty days to fall in with the game. Fancy a cavalcade of hunters making a journey of twenty days to get upon the field! The reader will, no doubt, say we were in earnest.
At the time of which I am writing, a single day's journey from Saint Louis carried the traveller clear of civilised life. There were settlements beyond; but these were sparse and isolated—a few small towns or plantations upon the main watercourses—and the whole country between them was an uninhabited wilderness. We had no hope of being sheltered by a roof until our return to the mound city itself, but we had provided ourselves with a couple of tents, part of the freight of our waggon.
There are but few parts of the American wilderness where the traveller can depend upon wild game for a subsistence. Even the skilled hunter when stationary is sometimes put to his wits' end for "daily bread." Upon the "route" no great opportunity is found of killing game, which always requires time to approach it with caution. Although we passed through what appeared to be excellent cover for various species of wild animals, we reached our first camp without having ruffled either hair or feathers. In fact, neither bird nor quadruped had been seen, although almost every one of the party had been on the look out for game during most of the journey.
This was rather discouraging, and we reasoned that if such was to be our luck until we got into the buffalo-range we should have a very dull time of it. We were well provisioned, however, and we regretted the absence of game only on account of the sport. A large bag of biscuit, and one of flour, several pieces of "hung bacon," some dry ox-tongues, a stock of green coffee, sugar, and salt, were the principal and necessary stores. There were "luxuries," too, which each had provided according to his fancy, though not much of these, as every one of the party had had some time or other in his life a little experience in the way of "roughing it." Most of the loading of the waggon consisted of provender for our horses and mules.
We made full thirty miles on the first day. Our road was a good one. We passed over easy undulations, most of them covered with "black-jack." This is a species of dwarf oak, so called from the very dark colour of its wrinkled bark. It is almost worthless as a timber, being too small for most purposes. It is ornamental, however, forming copse-like groves upon the swells of the prairie, while its dark green foliage contrasts pleasantly with the lighter green of the grasses beneath its shade. The young botanist, Besancon, had least cause to complain. His time had been sufficiently pleasant during the day. New foliage fell under his observation—new flowers opened their corollas to his delighted gaze. He was aided in making his collections by the hunter-naturalist, who of course was tolerably well versed in this kindred science.
We encamped by the edge of a small creek of clear water. Our camp was laid out in due form, and everything arranged in the order we designed habitually to follow.
Every man unsaddled his own horse. There are no servants in prairie-land. Even Lanty's services extended not beyond the cuisine, and for this department he had had his training as the cook of a New Orleans trading ship. Jake had enough to do with his mules; and to have asked one of our hunter-guides to perform the task of unsaddling your horse, would have been a hazardous experiment. Menial service to a free trapper! There are no servants in prairie-land.
Our horses and mules were picketed on a piece of open ground, each having his "trail-rope," which allowed a circuit of several yards. The two tents were pitched side by side, facing the stream, and the waggon drawn up some twenty feet in the rear. In the triangle between the waggon and the tents was kindled a large fire, upon each side of which two stakes, forked at the top, were driven into the ground. A long sapling resting in the forks traversed the blaze from side to side. This was Lanty's "crane,"—the fire was his kitchen.
Let me sketch the camp more minutely, for our first camp was a type of all the others in its general features. Sometimes indeed the tents did not front the same way, when these openings were set to "oblige the wind," but they were always placed side by side in front of the waggon. They were small tents of the old-fashioned conical kind, requiring only one pole each. They were of sufficient size for our purpose, as there were only three of us to each—the guides, with Jake and Lanty, finding their lodgment under the tilt of the waggon. With their graceful shape, and snowy-white colour against the dark green foliage of the trees, they formed an agreeable contrast; and a coup d'oeil of the camp would have been no mean picture to the eye of an artist. The human figures may be arranged in the following manner.
Supper is getting ready, and Lanty is decidedly at this time the most important personage on the ground. He is stooping over the fire, with a small but long-handled frying-pan, in which he is parching the coffee. It is already browned, and Lanty stirs it about with an iron spoon. The crane carries the large coffee-kettle of sheet iron, full of water upon the boil; and a second frying-pan, larger than the first, is filled with sliced ham, ready to be placed upon the hot cinders.
Our English friend Thompson is seated upon a log, with the hat-box before him. It is open, and he has drawn out from it his stock of combs and brushes. He has already made his ablutions, and is now giving the finish to his toilet, by putting his hair, whiskers, moustache, teeth, and even his nails, in order. Your Englishman is the most comfortable traveller in the world.
The Kentuckian is differently engaged. He is upon his feet; in one hand gleams a knife with ivory handle and long shining blade. It is a "bowie," of that kind known as an "Arkansas toothpick." In the other hand you see an object about eight inches in length, of the form of a parallelogram, and of a dark brown colour. It is a "plug" of real "James's River tobacco." With his knife the Kentuckian cuts off a piece—a "chunk," as he terms it—which is immediately transferred to his mouth, and chewed to a pulp. This is his occupation for the moment.
The doctor, what of him? Doctor Jopper may be seen close to the water's edge. In his hand is a pewter flask, of the kind known as a "pocket pistol." That pistol is loaded with brandy, and Dr Jopper is just in the act of drawing part of the charge, which, with a slight admixture of cool creek water, is carried aloft and poured into a very droughty vessel. The effect, however, is instantly apparent in the lively twinkle of the doctor's round and prominent eyes.
Besancon is seated near the tent, and the old naturalist beside him. The former is busy with the new plants he has collected. A large portfolio-looking book rests upon his knees, and between its leaves he is depositing his stores in a scientific manner. His companion, who understands the business well, is kindly assisting him. Their conversation is interesting, but every one else is too busy with his affairs to listen to it just now.
The guides are lounging about the waggon. Old Ike fixes a new flint in his rifle, and Redwood, of a more mirthful disposition, is occasionally cracking a joke with Mike or the "darkey."
Jake is still busy with his mules, and I with my favourite steed, whose feet I have washed in the stream, and anointed with a little spare grease. I shall not always have the opportunity of being so kind to him, but he will need it the less, as his hoofs become more hardened by the journey.
Around the camp are strewed our saddles, bridles, blankets, weapons, and utensils. These will all be collected and stowed under cover before we go to rest. Such is a picture of our camp before supper.
When that meal is cooked, the scene somewhat changes.
The atmosphere, even at that season, was cool enough, and this, with Mike's announcement that the coffee was ready, brought all the party— guides as well—around the blazing pile of logs. Each found his own platter, knife, and cup; and, helping himself from the general stock, set to eating on his own account. Of course there were no fragments, as a strict regard to economy was one of the laws of our camp.
Notwithstanding the fatigue, always incidental to a first day's march, we enjoyed this al fresco supper exceedingly. The novelty had much to do with our enjoyment of it, and also the fine appetites which we had acquired since our luncheon at noon halt.
When supper was over, smoking followed, for there was not one of the party who was not an inveterate burner of the "noxious weed." Some chose cigars, of which we had brought a good stock, but several were pipe-smokers. The zoologist carried a meerschaum; the guides smoked out of Indian calumets of the celebrated steatite, or red claystone. Mike had his dark-looking "dudeen," and Jake his pipe of corn "cob" and cane-joint shank.
Our English friend Thompson had a store of the finest Havannahs, which he smoked with the grace peculiar to the English cigar smoker; holding his cigar impaled upon the point of his knife-blade. Kentucky also smoked cigars, but his was half buried within his mouth, slanted obliquely towards the right cheek. Besancon preferred the paper cigarette, which he made extempore, as he required them, out of a stock of loose tobacco. This is Creole fashion—now also the mode de Paris.
A song from the doctor enlivened the conversation, and certainly so melodious a human voice had never echoed near the spot. One and all agreed that the grand opera had missed a capital "first tenor" in not securing the services of our companion.
The fatigue of our long ride caused us to creep into our tents at an early hour, and rolling ourselves in our blankets we went to sleep. Of course everything had been carefully gathered in lest rain might fall in the night. The trail-ropes of our animals were looked to: we did not fear their being stolen, but horses on their first few days' journey are easily "stampeded," and will sometimes stray home again. This would have been a great misfortune, but most of us were old travellers, and every caution was observed in securing against such a result. There was no guard kept, though we knew the time would come when that would be a necessary duty.
BESANCON'S ADVENTURE IN THE SWAMPS.
The prairie traveller never sleeps after daybreak. He is usually astir before that time. He has many "chores" to perform, unknown to the ordinary traveller who rests in the roadside inn. He has to pack up his tent and bed, cook his own breakfast, and saddle his horse. All this requires time, therefore an early start is necessary.
We were on our feet before the sun had shown his disc above the black-jacks. Lanty had the start of us, and had freshened up his fire. Already the coffee-kettle was bubbling audibly, and the great frying-pan perfumed the camp with an incense more agreeable than the odours of Araby.
The raw air of the morning had brought everybody around the fire. Thompson was pruning and cleansing his nails; the Kentuckian was cutting a fresh "chunk" from his plug of "James's River;" the doctor had just returned from the stream, where he had refreshed himself by a "nip" from his pewter flask; Besancon was packing up his portfolios; the zoologist was lighting his long pipe, and the "Captain" was looking to his favourite horse, while inhaling the fragrance of an "Havannah." The guides stood with their blankets hanging from their shoulders silent and thoughtful.
In half an hour breakfast was over, the tents and utensils were restored to the waggon, the horses were brought in and saddled, the mules "hitched up," and the expedition once more on its way.
This day we made not quite so good a journey. The roads were heavier, the country more thickly timbered, and the ground more hilly. We had several small streams to ford, and this retarded our progress. Twenty miles was the extent of our journey.
We encamped again without any of us having killed or seen game. Although we had beaten the bushes on both sides of our course, nothing bigger than the red-bird (scarlet tanager, Pyranga rubra), a screaming jay, or an occasional flight of finches, gratified our sight.
We reached our camp somewhat disappointed. Even old Ike and Redwood came into camp without game, alleging also that they had not met with the sign of a living quadruped.
Our second camp was also on the bank of a small stream. Shortly after our arrival on the ground, Thompson started out afoot, taking with him his gun. He had noticed a tract of marsh at no great distance off. He thought it promised well for snipe.
He had not been long gone, when two reports echoed back, and then shortly after another and another. He had found something to empty his gun at.
Presently we saw him returning with a brace and a half of birds that looked very much like large snipe. So he thought them, but that question was set at rest by the zoologist, who pronounced them at once to be the American "Curlew" of Wilson (Numenius longirostris). Curlew or snipe, they were soon divested of the feathery coat, and placed in Lanty's frying-pan. Excellent eating they proved, having only the fault that there was not enough of them.
These birds formed the topic of our after-supper conversation, and then it generalised to the different species of wading birds of America, and at length that singular creature, the "ibis," became the theme. This came round by Besancon remarking that a species of ibis was brought by the Indians to the markets of New Orleans, and sold there under the name of "Spanish Curlew." This was the white ibis (Tantalus albas), which the zoologist stated was found in plenty along the whole southern coast of the United States. There were two other species, he said, natives of the warm parts of North America, the "wood-ibis" (Tantalus loculator), which more nearly resembles the sacred ibis of Egypt, and the beautiful "sacred ibis" (Tantalus ruber), which last is rarer than the others.
Our venerable companion, who had the ornithology of America, if I may use the expression, at his fingers' ends, imparted many curious details of the habits of these rare birds. All listened with interest to his statements—even the hunter-guides, for with all their apparent rudeness of demeanour, there was a dash of the naturalist in these fellows.
When the zoologist became silent, the young Creole took up the conversation. Talking of the ibis, he said, reminded him of an adventure he had met with while in pursuit of these birds among the swamps of his native state. He would relate it to us. Of course we were rejoiced at the proposal. We were just the audience for an "adventure," and after rolling a fresh cigarette, the botanist began his narration.
"During one of my college vacations I made a botanical excursion to the south-western part of Louisiana. Before leaving home I had promised a dear friend to bring him the skins of such rare birds as were known to frequent the swampy region I was about to traverse, but he was especially desirous I should obtain for him some specimens of the red ibis, which he intended to have 'mounted.' I gave my word that no opportunity should be lost of obtaining these birds, and I was very anxious to make good my promise.
"The southern part of the State of Louisiana is one vast labyrinth of swamps, bayous, and lagoons. The bayous are sluggish streams that glide sleepily along, sometimes running one way, and sometimes the very opposite, according to the season of the year. Many of them are outlets of the Mississippi, which begins to shed off its waters more than 300 miles from its mouth. These bayous are deep, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, with islets in their midst. They and their contiguous swamps are the great habitat of the alligator and the fresh-water shark—the gar. Numerous species of water and wading fowl fly over them, and plunge through their dark tide. Here you may see the red flamingo, the egret, the trumpeter-swan, the blue heron, the wild goose, the crane, the snake-bird, the pelican, and the ibis; you may likewise see the osprey, and the white-headed eagle robbing him of his prey. Both swamps and bayous produce abundantly fish, reptile, and insect, and are, consequently, the favourite resort of hundreds of birds which prey upon these creatures. In some places, their waters form a complete net-work over the country, which you may traverse with a small boat in almost any direction; indeed, this is the means by which many settlements communicate with each other. As you approach southward towards the Gulf, you get clear of the timber; and within some fifty miles of the sea, there is not a tree to be seen.
"In the first day or two that I was out, I had succeeded in getting all the specimens I wanted, with the exception of the ibis. This shy creature avoided me; in fact I had only seen one or two in my excursions, and these at a great distance. I still, however, had hopes of finding them before my return to my friend.
"About the third or fourth day I set out from a small settlement on the edge of one of the larger bayous. I had no other company than my gun. I was even unattended by a dog, as my favourite spaniel had the day before been bitten by an alligator while swimming across the bayou, and I was compelled to leave him at the settlement. Of course the object of my excursion was a search after new flora, but I had become by this time very desirous of getting the rare ibis, and I was determined half to neglect my botanising for that purpose. I went of course in a boat, a light skiff, such as is commonly used by the inhabitants of these parts.
"Occasionally using the paddles, I allowed myself to float some four or live miles down the main bayou; but as the birds I was in search of did not appear, I struck into a 'branch,' and sculled myself up-stream. This carried me through a solitary region, with marshes stretching as far as the eye could see, covered with tall reeds. There was no habitation, nor aught that betokened the presence of man. It was just possible that I was the first human being who had ever found a motive for propelling a boat through the dark waters of this solitary stream.
"As I advanced, I fell in with game; and I succeeded in bagging several, both of the great wood-ibis and the white species. I also shot a fine white-headed eagle (Falco leucocephalus), which came soaring over my boat, unconscious of danger. But the bird which I most wanted seemed that which could not be obtained. I wanted the scarlet ibis.
"I think I had rowed some three miles up-stream, and was about to take in my oars and leave my boat to float back again, when I perceived that, a little farther up, the bayou widened. Curiosity prompted me to continue; and after pulling a few hundred strokes, I found myself at the end of an oblong lake, a mile or so in length. It was deep, dark, marshy around the shores, and full of alligators. I saw their ugly forms and long serrated backs, as they floated about in all parts of it, hungrily hunting for fish and eating one another; but all this was nothing new, for I had witnessed similar scenes during the whole of my excursion. What drew my attention most, was a small islet near the middle of the lake, upon one end of which stood a row of upright forms of a bright scarlet colour. These red creatures were the very objects I was in search of. They might be flamingoes: I could not tell at that distance. So much the better, if I could only succeed in getting a shot at them; but these creatures are even more wary than the ibis; and as the islet was low, and altogether without cover, it was not likely they would allow me to come within range: nevertheless, I was determined to make the attempt. I rowed up the lake, occasionally turning my head to see if the game had taken the alarm. The sun was hot and dazzling; and as the bright scarlet was magnified by refraction, I fancied for a long time they were flamingoes. This fancy was dissipated as I drew near. The outlines of the bills, like the blade of a sabre, convinced me they were the ibis; besides, I now saw that they were less than three feet in height, while the flamingoes stand five. There were a dozen of them in all. These were balancing themselves, as is their usual habit, on one leg, apparently asleep, or buried in deep thought. They were on the upper extremity of the islet, while I was approaching it from below. It was not above sixty yards across; and could I only reach the point nearest me, I knew my gun would throw shot to kill at that distance. I feared the stroke of the sculls would start them, and I pulled slowly and cautiously. Perhaps the great heat—for it was as hot a day as I can remember—had rendered them torpid or lazy. Whether or not, they sat still until the cut-water of my skiff touched the bank of the islet. I drew my gun up cautiously, took aim, and fired both barrels almost simultaneously. When the smoke cleared out of my eyes, I saw that all the birds had flown off except one, that lay stretched out by the edge of the water.
"Gun in hand, I leaped out of the boat, and ran across the islet to bag my game. This occupied but a few minutes; and I was turning to go back to the skiff, when, to my consternation, I saw it out upon the lake, and rapidly floating downward!
"In my haste I had left it unfastened, and the bayou current had carried it off. It was still but a hundred yards distant, but it might as well have been a hundred miles, for at that time I could not swim a stroke.
"My first impulse was to rush down to the lake, and after the boat. This impulse was checked on arriving at the water's edge, which I saw at a glance was fathoms in depth. Quick reflection told me that the boat was gone—irrecoverably gone!
"I did not at first comprehend the full peril of my situation; nor will you, gentlemen. I was on an islet, in a lake, only half a mile from its shores—alone, it is true, and without a boat; but what of that? Many a man had been so before, with not an idea of danger.
"These were first thoughts, natural enough; but they rapidly gave place to others of a far different character. When I gazed after my boat, now beyond recovery—when I looked around, and saw that the lake lay in the middle of an interminable swamp, the shores of which, even could I have reached them, did not seem to promise me footing—when I reflected that, being unable to swim, I could not reach them—that upon the islet there was neither tree, nor log, nor bush; not a stick out of which I might make a raft—I say, when I reflected upon all these things, there arose in my mind a feeling of well-defined and absolute horror.
"It is true I was only in a lake, a mile or so in width; but so far as the peril and helplessness of my situation were concerned, I might as well have been upon a rock in the middle of the Atlantic. I knew that there was no settlement within miles—miles of pathless swamp. I knew that no one could either see or hear me—no one was at all likely to come near the lake; indeed, I felt satisfied that my faithless boat was the first keel that had ever cut its waters. The very tameness of the birds wheeling round my head was evidence of this. I felt satisfied, too, that without some one to help me, I should never go out from that lake: I must die on the islet, or drown in attempting to leave it!
"These reflections rolled rapidly over my startled soul. The facts were clear, the hypothesis definite, the sequence certain; there was no ambiguity, no supposititious hinge upon which I could hang a hope; no, not one. I could not even expect that I should be missed and sought for; there was no one to search for me. The simple habitans of the village I had left knew me not—I was a stranger among them: they only knew me as a stranger, and fancied me a strange individual; one who made lonely excursions, and brought home hunches of weeds, with birds, insects, and reptiles, which they had never before seen, although gathered at their own doors. My absence, besides, would be nothing new to them, even though it lasted for days: I had often been absent before, a week at a time. There was no hope of my being missed.
"I have said that these reflections came and passed quickly. In less than a minute, my affrighted soul was in full possession of them, and almost yielded itself to despair. I shouted, but rather involuntarily than with any hope that I should be heard; I shouted loudly and fiercely: my answer—the echoes of my own voice, the shriek of the osprey, and the maniac laugh of the white-headed eagle.
"I ceased to shout, threw my gun to the earth, and tottered down beside it. I can imagine the feelings of a man shut up in a gloomy prison— they are not pleasant. I have been lost upon the wild prairie—the land sea—without bush, break, or star to guide me—that was worse. There you look around; you see nothing; you hear nothing: you are alone with God, and you tremble in his presence; your senses swim; your brain reels; you are afraid of yourself; you are afraid of your own mind. Deserted by everything else, you dread lest it, too, may forsake you. There is horror in this—it is very horrible—it is hard to bear; but I have borne it all, and would bear it again twenty times over rather than endure once more the first hour I spent on that lonely islet in that lonely lake. Your prison may be dark and silent, but you feel that you are not utterly alone; beings like yourself are near, though they be your jailers. Lost on the prairie, you are alone; but you are free. In the islet, I felt that I was alone; that I was not free: in the islet I experienced the feelings of the prairie and the prison combined.
"I lay in a state of stupor—almost unconscious; how long I know not, but many hours I am certain; I knew this by the sun—it was going down when I awoke, if I may so term the recovery of my stricken senses. I was aroused by a strange circumstance: I was surrounded by dark objects of hideous shape and hue—reptiles they were. They had been before my eyes for some time, but I had not seen them. I had only a sort of dreamy consciousness of their presence; but I heard them at length: my ear was in better tune, and the strange noises they uttered reached my intellect. It sounded like the blowing of great bellows, with now and then a note harsher and louder, like the roaring of a bull. This startled me, and I looked up and bent my eyes upon the objects: they were forms of the crocodilidae, the giant lizards—they were alligators.
"Huge ones they were, many of them; and many were they in number—a hundred at least were crawling over the islet, before, behind, and on all sides around me. Their long gaunt jaws and channelled snouts projected forward so as almost to touch my body; and their eyes, usually leaden, seemed now to glare.
"Impelled by this new danger, I sprang to my feet, when, recognising the upright form of man, the reptiles scuttled off, and plunging hurriedly into the lake; hid their hideous bodies under the water.
"The incident in some measure revived me. I saw that I was not alone; there was company even in the crocodiles. I gradually became more myself; and began to reflect with some degree of coolness on the circumstances that surrounded me. My eyes wandered over the islet; every inch of it came under my glance; every object upon it was scrutinised—the moulted feathers of wildfowl, the pieces of mud, the fresh-water mussels (unios) strewed upon its beach—all were examined. Still the barren answer—no means of escape.
"The islet was but the head of a sand-bar, formed by the eddy, perhaps gathered together within the year. It was bare of herbage, with the exception of a few tufts of grass. There was neither tree nor bush upon it: not a stick. A raft indeed! There was not wood enough to make a raft that would have floated a frog. The idea of a raft was but briefly entertained; such a thought had certainly crossed my mind, but a single glance round the islet dispelled it before it had taken shape.
"I paced my prison from end to end; from side to side I walked it over. I tried the water's depth; on all sides I sounded it, wading recklessly in; everywhere it deepened rapidly as I advanced. Three lengths of myself from the islet's edge, and I was up to the neck. The huge reptiles swam around, snorting and blowing; they were bolder in this element. I could not have waded safely ashore, even had the water been shallow. To swim it—no—even though I swam like a duck, they would have closed upon and quartered me before I could have made a dozen strokes. Horrified by their demonstrations, I hurried back upon dry ground, and paced the islet with dripping garments.
"I continued walking until night, which gathered around me dark and dismal. With night came new voices—the hideous voices of the nocturnal swamp; the qua-qua of the night-heron, the screech of the swamp-owl, the cry of the bittern, the cl-l-uk of the great water-toad, the tinkling of the bell-frog, and the chirp of the savanna-cricket—all fell upon my ear. Sounds still harsher and more, hideous were heard around me—the plashing of the alligator, and the roaring of his voice; these reminded me that I must not go to sleep. To sleep! I durst not have slept for a single instant. Even when I lay for a few minutes motionless, the dark reptiles came crawling round me—so close that I could have put forth my hand and touched them.
"At intervals, I sprang to my feet, shouted, swept my gun around, and chased them back to the water, into which they betook themselves with a sullen plunge, but with little semblance of fear. At each fresh demonstration on my part they showed less alarm, until I could no longer drive them either with shouts or threatening gestures. They only retreated a few feet, forming an irregular circle round me.
"Thus hemmed in, I became frightened in turn. I loaded my gun and fired; I killed none. They are impervious to a bullet, except in the eye, or under the forearm. It was too dark to aim at these parts; and my shots glanced harmlessly from the pyramidal scales of their bodies. The loud report, however, and the blaze frightened them, and they fled, to return again after a long interval. I was asleep when they returned; I had gone to sleep in spite of my efforts to keep awake. I was startled by the touch of something cold; and half-stilled by the strong musky odour that filled the air. I threw out my arms; my fingers rested upon an object slippery and clammy: it was one of these monsters—one of gigantic size. He had crawled close alongside me, and was preparing to make his attack; as I saw that he was bent in the form of a bow, and I knew that these creatures assume that attitude when about to strike their victim. I was just in time to spring aside, and avoid the stroke of his powerful tail, that the next moment swept the ground where I had lain. Again I fired, and he with the rest once more retreated to the lake.
"All thoughts of going to sleep were at an end. Not that I felt wakeful; on the contrary, wearied with my day's exertion—for I had had a long pull under a hot tropical sun—I could have lain down upon the earth, in the mud, anywhere, and slept in an instant. Nothing but the dread certainty of my peril kept me awake. Once again before morning, I was compelled to battle with the hideous reptiles, and chase them away with a shot from my gun.
"Morning came at length, but with it no change in my perilous position. The light only showed me my island prison, but revealed no way of escape from it. Indeed, the change could not be called for the better, for the fervid rays of an almost vertical sun poured down upon me until my skin blistered. I was already speckled by the bites of a thousand swamp-flies and mosquitoes, that all night long had preyed upon me. There was not a cloud in the heavens to shade me; and the sunbeams smote the surface of the dead bayou with a double intensity.
"Towards evening, I began to hunger; no wonder at that: I had not eaten since leaving the village settlement. To assuage thirst, I drank the water of the lake, turbid and slimy as it was. I drank it in large quantities, for it was hot, and only moistened my palate without quenching the craving of my appetite. Of water there was enough; I had more to fear from want of food.
"What could I eat? The ibis. But how to cook it? There was nothing wherewith to make a fire—not a stick. No matter for that. Cooking is a modern invention, a luxury for pampered palates. I divested the ibis of its brilliant plumage, and ate it raw. I spoiled my specimen, but at the time there was little thought of that: there was not much of the naturalist left in me. I anathematised the hour I had ever promised to procure the bird. I wished my friend up to his neck in a swamp.
"The ibis did not weigh above three pounds, bones and all. It served me for a second meal, a breakfast; but at this dejeuner sans fourchette I picked the bones.
"What next? starve? No—not yet. In the battles I had had with the alligators during the second night, one of them had received a shot that proved mortal. The hideous carcass of the reptile lay dead upon the beach. I need not starve; I could eat that. Such were my reflections. I must hunger, though, before I could bring myself to touch the musky morsel.
"Two more days' fasting conquered my squeamishness. I drew out my knife, cut a steak from the alligator's tail, and ate it—not the one I had first killed, but a second; the other was now putrid, rapidly decomposing under the hot sun: its odour filled the islet.
"The stench had grown intolerable. There was not a breath of air stirring, otherwise I might have shunned it by keeping to windward. The whole atmosphere of the islet, as well as a large circle around it, was impregnated with the fearful effluvium. I could bear it no longer. With the aid of my gun, I pushed the half-decomposed carcass into the lake; perhaps the current might carry it away. It did: I had the gratification to see it float off.
"This circumstance led me into a train of reflections. Why did the body of the alligator float? It was swollen—inflated with gases. Ha!
"An idea shot suddenly through my mind—one of those brilliant ideas, the children of necessity. I thought of the floating alligator, of its intestines—what if I inflated them? Yes, yes! buoys and bladders, floats and life-preservers! that was the thought. I would open the alligators, make a buoy of their intestines, and that would bear me from the islet!
"I did not lose a moment's time; I was full of energy: hope had given me new life. My gun was loaded—a huge crocodile that swam near the shore received the shot in his eye. I dragged him on the beach; with my knife I laid open his entrails. Few they were, but enough for my purpose. A plume-quill from the wing of the ibis served me for a blow-pipe. I saw the bladder-like skin expand, until I was surrounded by objects like great sausages. Those were tied together, and fastened to my body, and then, with a plunge, I entered the waters of the lake, and floated downward. I had tied on my life-preservers in such a way that I sat in the water in an upright position, holding my gun with both hands. This I intended to have, used as a club in case I should be attacked by the alligators; but I had chosen the hot hour of noon, when these creatures lie in a half-torpid state, and to my joy I was not molested.
"Half an hour's drifting with the current carried me to the end of the lake, and I found myself at the debouchure of the bayou. Here, to my great delight, I saw my boat in the swamp, where it had been caught and held fast by the sedge. A few minutes more, and I had swung myself over the gunwale, and was sculling with eager strokes down the smooth waters of the bayou.
"Of course my adventure was ended, and I reached the settlement in safety, but without the object of my excursion. I was enabled, however, to procure it some days after, and had the gratification of being able to keep my promise to my friend."
Besancon's adventure had interested all of us; the old hunter-naturalist seemed delighted with it. No doubt it revived within him the memories of many a perilous incident in his own life.
It was evident that in the circle of the camp-fire there was more than one pair of lips ready to narrate some similar adventure, but the hour was late, and all agreed it would be better to go to rest. On to-morrow night, some other would take their turn; and, in fact, a regular agreement was entered into that each one of the party who had at any period of his life been the hero or participator in any hunting adventure should narrate the same for the entertainment of the others. This would bring out a regular "round of stories by the camp-fire," and would enable us to kill the many long evenings we had to pass before coming up with the buffalo. The conditions were, that the stories should exclusively relate to birds or animals—in fact, any hunted game belonging to the fauna of the American Continent: furthermore, that each should contribute his quota of information about whatever animal should chance to be the subject of the narration—about its habits, its geographical range; in short, its general natural history, as well as the various modes of hunting it, practised in different places by different people. This, it was alleged, would render our camp conversation instructive as well as entertaining.
The idea originated with the old hunter-naturalist, who very wisely reasoned that among so many gentlemen of large hunting experience he might collect new facts for his favourite science—for to just such men, and not to the closet-dreamer, is natural history indebted for its most interesting chapters. Of course every one of us, guides and all, warmly applauded the proposal, for there was no one among us averse to receiving a little knowledge of so entertaining a character. No doubt to the naturalist himself we should be indebted for most part of it; and his mode of communicating was so pleasant, that even the rude trappers listened to him with wonder and attention. They saw that he was no "greenhorn" either in woodcraft or prairie knowledge, and that was a sufficient claim to their consideration.
There is no character less esteemed by the regular "mountain-man" than a "greenhorn,"—that is, one who is new to the ways of their wilderness life.
With the design of an early start, we once more crept into our several quarters, and went to sleep.
After an early breakfast we lit our pipes and cigars, and took to the road. The sun was very bright, and in less than two hours after starting we were sweltering under a heat almost tropical. It was one of those autumn days peculiar to America, where even a high latitude seems to be no protection against the sun, and his beams fall upon one with as much fervour as they would under the line itself. The first part of our journey was through open woods of black-jack, whose stunted forms afforded no shade, but only shut off the breeze which might otherwise have fanned us.
While fording a shallow stream, the doctor's scraggy, ill-tempered horse took a fit of kicking quite frantical. For some time it seemed likely that either the doctor himself, or his saddle-bags, would be deposited in the bottom of the creek, but after a severe spell of whipping and kicking on the part of the rider, the animal moved on again. What had set it dancing? That was the question. It had the disposition to be "frisky," but usually appeared to be lacking in strength. The buzz of a horse-fly sounding in our ears explained all. It was one of those large insects—the "horse-bug,"—peculiar to the Mississippi country, and usually found near watercourses. They are more terrible to horses than a fierce dog would be. I have known horses gallop away from them as if pursued by a beast of prey.
There is a belief among western people that these insects are propagated by the horses themselves; that is, that the eggs of the female are deposited upon the grass, so that the horses may swallow them; that incubation goes on within the stomach of the animal, and that the chrysalis is afterwards voided. I have met with others who believed in a still stranger theory; that the insect itself actually sought, and found, a passage into the stomach of the horse, some said by passing down his throat, others by boring a hole through his abdomen; and that in such cases the horse usually sickened, and was in danger of dying!
After the doctor's mustang had returned to proper behaviour, these odd theories became the subject of discussion. The Kentuckian believed in them—the Englishman doubted them—the hunter-naturalist could not endorse them—and Besancon ignored them entirely.
Shortly after the incident we entered the bottom lands of a considerable stream. These were heavily-timbered, and the shadow of the great forest trees afforded us a pleasant relief from the hot sun. Our guides told us we had several miles of such woods to pass through, and we were glad of the information. We noticed that most of the trees were beech, and their smooth straight trunks rose like columns around us.
The beech (Fagus sylvatica) is one of the most beautiful of American forest trees. Unlike most of the others, its bark is smooth, without fissures, and often of a silvery hue. Large beech-trees standing by the path, or near a cross road, are often seen covered with names, initials, and dates. Even the Indian often takes advantage of the bark of a beech-tree to signalise his presence to his friends, or commemorate some savage exploit. Indeed, the beautiful column-like trunk seems to invite the knife, and many a souvenir is carved upon it by the loitering wayfarer. It does not, however, invite the axe of the settler. On the contrary, the beechen woods often remain untouched, while others fall around them—partly because these trees are not usually the indices of the richest soil, but more from the fact that clearing a piece of beech forest is no easy matter. The green logs do not burn so readily as those of the oak, the elm, the maple, or poplar, and hence the necessity of "rolling" them off the ground to be cleared—a serious thing where labour is scarce and dear.
We were riding silently along, when all at once our ears were assailed by a strange noise. It resembled the clapping of a thousand pairs of hands, followed by a whistling sound, as if a strong wind had set suddenly in among the trees. We all knew well enough what it meant, and the simultaneous cry of "pigeons," was followed by half a dozen simultaneous cracks from the guns of the party, and several bluish birds fell to the ground. We had stumbled upon a feeding-place of the passenger-pigeon (Columba migratoria).
Our route was immediately abandoned, and in a few minutes we were in the thick of the flock, cracking away at them both with shot-gun and rifle. It was not so easy, however, to bring them down in any considerable numbers. In following them up we soon strayed from each other, until our party was completely scattered, and nearly two hours elapsed before we got back to the road. Our game-bag, however, made a fine show, and about forty brace were deposited in the waggon. With the anticipation of roast pigeon and "pot-pie," we rode on more cheerily to our night-camp. All along the route the pigeons were seen, and occasionally large flocks whirled over our heads under the canopy of the trees. Satiated with the sport, and not caring to waste our ammunition, we did not heed them farther.
In order to give Lanty due time for the duties of the cuisine, we halted a little earlier than usual. Our day's march had been a short one, but the excitement and sport of the pigeon-hunt repaid us for the loss of time. Our dinner-supper—for it was a combination of both—was the dish known in America as "pot-pie," in which the principal ingredients were the pigeons, some soft flour paste, with a few slices of bacon to give it a flavour. Properly speaking, the "pot-pie" is not a pie, but a stew. Ours was excellent, and as our appetites wore in a similar condition, a goodly quantity was used up in appeasing them.
Of course the conversation of the evening was the "wild pigeon of America," and the following facts regarding its natural history— although many of them are by no means new—may prove interesting to the reader, as they did to those who listened to the relation of them around our camp-fire.
The "passenger" is less in size than the house pigeon. In the air it looks not unlike the kite, wanting the forked or "swallow" tail. That of the pigeon is cuneiform. Its colour is best described by calling it a nearly uniform slate. In the male the colours are deeper, and the neck-feathers present the same changeable hues of green, gold, and purple-crimson, generally observed in birds of this species. It is only in the woods, and when freshly caught or killed, that these brilliant tints can be seen to perfection. They fade in captivity, and immediately after the bird has been shot. They seem to form part of its life and liberty, and disappear when it is robbed of either. I have often thrust the wild pigeon, freshly killed, into my game-bag, glittering like an opal. I have drawn it forth a few hours after of a dull leaden hue, and altogether unlike the same bird.
As with all birds of this tribe, the female is inferior to the male, both in size and plumage. The eye is less vivid. In the male it is of the most brilliant fiery orange, inclosed in a well-defined circle of red. The eye is in truth its finest feature, and never fails to strike the beholder with admiration.
The most singular fact in the natural history of the "passenger," is their countless numbers. Audubon saw a flock that contained "one billion one hundred and sixteen millions of birds!" Wilson counted, or rather computed, another flock of "two thousand two hundred and thirty millions!" These numbers seem incredible. I have no doubt of their truth. I have no doubt that they are under rather than over the numbers actually seen by both these naturalists, for both made most liberal allowances in their calculations.
Where do these immense flocks come from?
The wild pigeons breed in all parts of America. Their breeding-places are found as far north as the Hudson's Bay, and they have been seen in the southern forests of Louisiana and Texas. The nests are built upon high trees, and resemble immense rookeries. In Kentucky, one of their breeding-places was forty miles in length, by several in breadth! One hundred nests will often be found upon a single tree, and in each nest there is but one "squab." The eggs are pure white, like those of the common kind, and, like them, they breed several times during the year, but principally when food is plenty. They establish themselves in great "roosts," sometimes for years together, to which each night they return from their distant excursions—hundreds of miles, perhaps; for this is but a short fly for travellers who can pass over a mile in a single minute, and some of whom have even strayed across the Atlantic to England! They, however, as I myself have observed, remain in the same woods where they have been feeding for several days together. I have also noticed that they prefer roosting in the low underwood, even when tall trees are close at hand. If near water, or hanging over a stream, the place is still more to their liking; and in the morning they may be seen alighting on the bank to drink, before taking to their daily occupation.
The great "roosts" and breeding-places are favourite resorts for numerous birds of prey. The small vultures (Cathartes aura and Atratus), or, as they are called in the west, "turkey buzzard," and "carrion crow," do not confine themselves to carrion alone. They are fond of live "squabs," which they drag out of their nests at pleasure. Numerous hawks and kites prey upon them; and even the great white-headed eagle (Falco leucocephalus) may be seen soaring above, and occasionally swooping down for a dainty morsel. On the ground beneath move enemies of a different kind, both biped and quadruped. Fowlers with their guns and long poles; farmers with waggons to carry off the dead birds; and even droves of hogs to devour them. Trees fall under the axe, and huge branches break down by the weight of the birds themselves, killing numbers in their descent. Torches are used—for it is usually a night scene, after the return of the birds from feeding,— pots of burning sulphur, and other engines of destruction. A noisy scene it is. The clapping of a million pair of wings, like the roaring of thunder; the shots; the shouts; men hoarsely calling to each other; women and children screaming their delight; the barking of dogs; the neighing of horses; the "crashes" of breaking branches; and the "chuck" of the woodman's axe, all mingled together.
When the men—saturated with slaughter, and white with ordure—have retired beyond the borders of the roost to rest themselves for the night, their ground is occupied by the prowling wolf and the fox; the racoon and the cougar; the lynx and the great black bear.
With so many enemies, one would think that the "passengers" would soon be exterminated. Not so. They are too prolific for that. Indeed, were it not for these enemies, they themselves would perish for want of food. Fancy what it takes to feed them! The flock seen by Wilson would require eighteen million bushels of grain every day!—and it, most likely, was only one of many such that at the time were traversing the vast continent of America. Upon what do they feed? it will be asked. Upon the fruits of the great forest—upon the acorns, the nuts of the beech, upon buck-wheat, and Indian corn; upon many species of berries, such as the huckleberry (whortleberry), the hackberry (Celtis crassifolia), and the fruit of the holly. In the northern regions, where these are scarce, the berries of the juniper tree (Juniperus communis) form the principal food. On the other hand, among the southern plantations, they devour greedily the rice, as well as the nuts of the chestnut-tree and several species of oaks. But their staple food is the beech-nut, or "mast," as it is called. Of this the pigeons are fond, and fortunately it exists in great plenty. In the forests of Western America there are vast tracts covered almost entirely with the beech-tree.
As already stated, these beechen forests of America remain almost intact, and so long as they shower down their millions of bushels of "mast," so long will the passenger-pigeons flutter in countless numbers amidst their branches.
Their migration is semi-annual; but unlike most other migratory birds, it is far from being regular. Their flight is, in fact, not a periodical migration, but a sort of nomadic existence—food being the object which keeps them in motion and directs their course. The scarcity in one part determines their movement to another. When there is more than the usual fall of snow in the northern regions, vast flocks make their appearance in the middle States, as in Ohio and Kentucky. This may in some measure account for the overcrowded "roosts" which have been occasionally seen, but which are by no means common. You may live in the west for many years without witnessing a scene such as those described by Wilson and Audubon, though once or twice every year you may see pigeons enough to astonish you.
It must not be imagined that the wild pigeons of America are so "tame" as they have been sometimes represented. That is their character only while young at the breeding-places, or at the great roosts when confused by crowding upon each other, and mystified by torch-light.
Far different are they when wandering through the open woods in search of food. It is then both difficult to approach and hard to kill them. Odd birds you may easily reach; you may see them perched upon the branches on all sides of you, and within shot-range; but the thick of the flock, somehow or other, always keeps from one to two hundred yards off. The sportsman cannot bring himself to fire at single birds. No. There is a tree near at hand literally black with pigeons. Its branches creak under the weight. What a fine havoc he will make if he can but get near enough! But that is the difficulty; there is no cover, and he must approach as he best can without it. He continues to advance; the birds sit silent, watching his movements. He treads lightly and with caution; he inwardly anathematises the dead leaves and twigs that make a loud rustling under his feet. The birds appear restless; several stretch out their necks as if to spring off.
At length he deems himself fairly within range, and raises his gun to take aim; but this is a signal for the shy game, and before he can draw trigger they are off to another tree!
Some stragglers still remain; and at them he levels his piece and fires. The shot is a random one; for our sportsman, having failed to "cover" the flock, has become irritated and careless, and in all such cases the pigeons fly off with the loss of a few feathers.
The gun is reloaded, and our amateur hunter, seeing the thick flock upon another tree, again endeavours to approach it, but with like success.
HUNT WITH A HOWITZER.
When the conversation about the haunts and habits of these birds began to flag, some one called for a "pigeon story." Who could tell a pigeon story? To our surprise the doctor volunteered one, and all gathered around to listen.
"Yes, gentlemen," began the doctor, "I have a pigeon adventure, which occurred to me some years ago. I was then living in Cincinnati, following my respectable calling, when I had the good fortune to set a broken leg for one Colonel P—, a wealthy planter, who lived upon the bank of the river some sixty miles from the city. I made a handsome set of if, and won the colonel's friendship for ever. Shortly after, I was invited to his house, to be present at a great pigeon-hunt which was to come off in the fall. The colonel's plantation stood among beech woods, and he had therefore an annual visitation of the pigeons, and could tell almost to a day when they would appear. The hunt he had arranged for the gratification of his numerous friends.
"As you all know, gentlemen, sixty miles in our western travel is a mere bagatelle; and tired of pills and prescriptions, I flung myself into a boat, and in a few hours arrived at the colonel's stately home. A word or two about this stately home and its proprietor.
"Colonel P— was a splendid specimen of the backwoods' gentleman—you will admit there are gentlemen in the backwoods." (Here the doctor glanced good-humouredly, first at our English friend Thompson, and then at the Kentuckian, both of whom answered him with a laugh.) "His house was the type of a backwoods mansion; a wooden structure, both walls and roof. No matter. It has distributed as much hospitality in its time as many a marble palace; that was one of its backwoods' characteristics. It stood, and I hope still stands, upon the north bank of the Ohio—that beautiful stream—'La belle riviere,' as the French colonists, and before their time the Indians, used to call it. It was in the midst of the woods, though around it were a thousand acres of 'clearing,' where you might distinguish fields of golden wheat, and groves of shining maize plants waving aloft their yellow-flower tassels. You might note, too, the broad green leaf of the Nicotian 'weed,' or the bursting pod of the snow-white cotton. In the garden you might observe the sweet potato, the common one, the refreshing tomato, the huge water-melon, cantelopes, and musk melons, with many other delicious vegetables. You could see pods of red and green pepper growing upon trailing plants; and beside them several species of peas and beans—all valuable for the colonel's cuisine. There was an orchard, too, of several acres in extent. It was filled with fruit-trees, the finest peaches in the world, and the finest apples—the Newton pippins. Besides, there were luscious pears and plums, and upon the espaliers, vines bearing bushels of sweet grapes. If Colonel P— lived in the woods, it cannot be said that he was surrounded by a desert.
"There were several substantial log-houses near the main building or mansion. They were the stable—and good horses there were in that stable; the cow-house, for milk cattle; the barn, to hold the wheat and maize-corn; the smoke-house, for curing bacon; a large building for the dry tobacco; a cotton-gin, with its shed of clap-boards; bins for the husk fodder, and several smaller structures. In one corner you saw a low-walled erection that reminded you of a kennel, and the rich music that from time to time issued from its apertures would convince you that it was a kennel. If you had peeped into it, you would have seen a dozen of as fine stag-hounds as ever lifted a trail. The colonel was somewhat partial to these pets, for he was a 'mighty hunter.' You might see a number of young colts in an adjoining lot; a pet deer, a buffalo-calf, that had been brought from the far prairies, pea-fowl, guinea-hens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and the usual proportion of common fowls. Rail-fences zigzagged off in all directions towards the edge of the woods. Huge trees, dead and divested of their leaves, stood up in the cleared fields. Turkey buzzards and carrion, crows might be seen perched upon their grey naked limbs; upon their summit you might observe the great rough-legged falcon; and above all, cutting sharply against the blue sky, the fork-tailed kite sailing gently about."
Here the doctor's auditory interrupted him with a murmur of applause. The doctor was in fine spirits, and in a poetical mood. He continued.
"Such, gentlemen, was the sort of place I had come to visit; and I saw at a glance that I could spend a few days there pleasantly enough—even without the additional attractions of a pigeon-hunt.
"On my arrival I found the party assembled. It consisted of a score and a half of ladies and gentlemen, nearly all young people. The pigeons had not yet made their appearance, but were looked for every hour. The woods had assumed the gorgeous tints of autumn, that loveliest of seasons in the 'far west.' Already the ripe nuts and berries were scattered profusely over the earth offering their annual banquet to God's wild creatures. The 'mast' of the beech-tree, of which the wild pigeon is so fond, was showering down among the dead leaves. It was the very season at which the birds were accustomed to visit the beechen woods that girdled the colonel's plantation. They would no doubt soon appear. With this expectation everything was made ready; each of the gentlemen was provided with a fowling-piece, or rifle if he preferred it; and even some of the ladies insisted upon being armed.
"To render the sport more exciting, our host had established certain regulations. They were as follows:—The gentlemen were divided into two parties, of equal numbers. These were to go in opposite directions, the ladies upon the first day of the hunt accompanying whichever they chose. Upon all succeeding days, however, the case would be different. The ladies were to accompany that party which upon the day previous had bagged the greatest number of birds. The victorious gentlemen, moreover, were endowed with other privileges, which lasted throughout the evening; such as the choice of partners for the dinner-table and the dance.
"I need not tell you, gentlemen, that in these conditions existed powerful motives for exertion. The colonel's guests were the elite of western society. Most of the gentlemen were young men or bachelors; and among the ladies there were belles; three or four of them rich and beautiful. On my arrival I could perceive signs of incipient flirtations. Attachments had already arisen; and by many it would have been esteemed anything but pleasant to be separated in the manner prescribed. A strong esprit du corps was thus established; and, by the time the pigeons arrived, both parties had determined to do their utmost. In fact, I have never known so strong a feeling of rivalry to exist between two parties of amateur sportsmen.
"The pigeons at length arrived. It was a bright sunny morning, and yet the atmosphere was darkened, as the vast flock, a mile in breadth by several in length, passed across the canopy. The sound of their wings resembled a strong wind whistling among tree-tops, or through the rigging of a ship. We saw that they hovered over the woods, and settled among the tall beeches.
"The beginning of the hunt was announced, and we set forth, each party taking the direction allotted to it. With each went a number of ladies, and even some of these were armed with light fowling-pieces, determined that the party of their choice should be the victorious one. After a short ride, we found ourselves fairly 'in the woods,' and in the presence of the birds, and then the cracking commenced.
"In our party we had eight guns, exclusive of the small fowling-pieces (two of those), with which a brace of our heroines were armed, and which, truth compels me to confess, were less dangerous to the pigeons than to ourselves. Some of our guns were double-barrelled shot-guns, others were rifles. You will wonder at rifles being used in such a sport, and yet it is a fact that the gentlemen who carried rifles managed to do more execution than those who were armed with the other species. This arose from the circumstance that they were contented to aim at single birds, and, being good shots, they were almost sure to bring these down. The woods were filled with straggling pigeons. Odd birds were always within rifle range; and thus, instead of wasting their time in endeavouring to approach the great flocks, our riflemen did nothing but load and fire. In this way they soon counted their game by dozens.
"Early in the evening, the pigeons, having filled their crops with the mast, disappeared. They flew off to some distant 'roost.' This of course concluded our sport for the day. We got together and counted our numbers. We had 640 birds. We returned home full of hope; we felt certain that we had won for that day. Our antagonists had arrived before us. They showed us 736 dead pigeons. We were beaten.
"I really cannot explain the chagrin which this defeat occasioned to most of our party. They felt humiliated in the eyes of the ladies, whose company they were to lose on the morrow. To some there was extreme bitterness in the idea; for, as I have already stated, attachments had sprung up, and jealous thoughts were naturally their concomitants. It was quite tantalising, as we parted next morning, to see the galaxy of lovely women ride off with our antagonists, while we sought the woods in the opposite direction, dispirited and in silence.
"We went, however, determined to do our best, and win the ladies for the morrow. A council was held, and each imparted his advice and encouragement; and then we all set to work with shot-gun and rifle.
"On this day an incident occurred that aided our 'count' materially. As you know, gentlemen, the wild pigeons, while feeding, sometimes cover the ground so thickly that they crowd upon each other. They all advance in the same direction, those behind continually rising up and fluttering to the front, so that the surface presents a series of undulations like sea-waves. Frequently the birds alight upon each other's backs, for want of room upon the ground, and a confused mass of winged creatures is seen rolling through the woods. At such times, if the sportsman can only 'head' the flock, he is sure of a good shot. Almost every pellet tells, and dozens may be brought down at a single discharge.
"In my progress through the woods, I had got separated from my companions, when I observed an immense flock approaching me after the manner described. I saw from their plumage that they were young birds, and therefore not likely to be easily alarmed. I drew my horse (I was mounted) behind a tree, and awaited their approach. This I did more from curiosity than any other motive, as, unfortunately I carried a rifle, and could only have killed one or two at the best. The crowd came 'swirling' forward, and when they were within some ten or fifteen paces distant, I fired into their midst. To my surprise, the flock did not take flight, but continued to advance as before, until they were almost among the horse's feet. I could stand it no longer. I drove the spurs deeply, and galloped into their midst, striking right and left as they fluttered up round me. Of course they were soon off; but of those that had been trodden upon by my horse, and others I had knocked down, I counted no less than twenty-seven! Proud of my exploit, I gathered the birds into my bag, and rode in search of my companions.
"Our party on this day numbered over 800 head killed; but, to our surprise and chagrin, our antagonists had beaten us by more than a hundred!
"The gentlemen of 'ours' were wretched. The belles were monopolised by our antagonists; we were scouted, and debarred every privilege.
"It was not to be endured; something must be done. What was to be done? counselled we. If fair means will not answer, we must try the opposite. It was evident that our antagonists were better shots than we.
"The colonel, too, was one of them, and he was sure to kill every time he pulled trigger. The odds were against us; some plan must be devised; some ruse must be adopted, and the idea of one had been passing through my mind during the whole of that day. It was this:—I had noticed, what has been just remarked, that, although the pigeons will not allow the sportsman to come within range of a fowling-piece, yet at a distance of little over a hundred yards they neither fear man nor beast. At that distance they sit unconcerned, thousands of them upon a single tree. It struck me that a gun large enough to throw shot among them would be certain of killing hundreds at each discharge; but where was such a gun to be had? As I reflected thus, 'mountain howitzers' came into my mind. I remembered the small mountain howitzers I had seen at Covington. One of these loaded with shot would be the very weapon. I knew there was a battery of them at the Barracks. I knew that a friend of mine commanded the battery. By steamer, should one pass, it was but a few hours to Covington. I proposed sending for a 'mountain howitzer.'
"I need hardly say that my proposal was hailed with a universal welcome on the part of my companions; and without dropping a hint to the other party, it was at once resolved that the design should be carried into execution. It was carried into execution. An 'up-river' boat chanced to pass in the nick of time. A messenger was forthwith, despatched to Covington, and before twelve o'clock upon the following day another boat on her down trip brought the howitzer, and we had it secretly landed and conveyed to a place in the woods previously agreed upon. My friend, Captain C—, had sent a 'live corporal' along with it, and we had no difficulty in its management.
"As I had anticipated, it answered our purpose as though it had been made for it. Every shot brought down a shower of dead birds, and after one discharge alone the number obtained was 123! At night our 'game-bag' counted over three thousand birds! We were sure of the ladies for the morrow.
"Before returning home to our certain triumph, however, there were some considerations. To-morrow we should have the ladies in our company; some of the fair creatures would be as good as sure to 'split' upon the howitzer. What was to be done to prevent this?
"We eight had sworn to be staunch to each other. We had taken every precaution; we had only used our 'great gun' when far off, so that its report might not reach the ears of our antagonists; but how about to-morrow? Could we trust our fair companions with a secret? Decidedly not. This was the unanimous conclusion. A new idea now came to our aid. We saw that we might dispense with the howitzer, and still manage to out-count our opponents. We would make a depository of birds in a safe place. There was a squatter's house near by: that would do. So we took the squatter into our council, and left some 1500 birds in his charge, the remainder being deemed sufficient for that day. From the 1500 thus left, we might each day take a few hundred to make up our game-bag just enough to out-number the other party. We did not send home the corporal and his howitzer. We might require him again; so we quartered him upon the squatter.
"On returning home, we found that our opponents had also made a 'big day's work of it;' but they were beaten by hundreds. The ladies were ours!
"And we kept them until the end of the hunt, to the no little mortification of the gentlemen in the 'minority:' to their surprise, as well; for most of them being crack-shots, and several of us not at all so, they could not comprehend why they were every day beaten so outrageously. We had hundreds to spare, and barrels of the birds were cured for winter use.
"Another thing quite puzzled our opponents, as well as many good people in the neighbourhood. That was the loud reports that had been heard in the woods. Some argued they were thunder, while others declared they must have proceeded from an earthquake. This last seemed the more probable, as the events I am narrating occurred but a few years after the great earthquake in the Mississippi Valley, and people's minds were prepared for such a thing.
"I need not tell you how the knowing ones enjoyed the laugh for several days, and it was not until the colonel's reunion was about to break up, that our secret was let out, to the no small chagrin of our opponents, but to the infinite amusement of our host himself, who, although one of the defeated party, often narrates to his friends the story of the 'Hunt with a Howitzer.'"