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NATCHITOCHES is a post town and seat of justice for the parish of Natchitoches, Louisiana, and is situated on the right bank of the Red river. The houses are chiefly contained in one street, running parallel to the river; and the population I should reckon at about eight hundred. The soil in this parish is generally sterile, and covered with pine timber, except near the margin of Red river, where the greatest part of the inhabitants are settled on the alluvial banks. Some other, though comparatively small, tracts of productive soil skirt the streams. An extensive body of low ground, subject to annual submersion, extends along the Red river, which, it is said, will produce forty bushels of frogs to the acre, and alligators enough to fence it.
I stayed two days at Natchitoches, during which time I procured a horse to carry me across Texas to the seat of war. Thimblerig remained with me, and I found his conversation very amusing; for he is possessed of humour and observation, and has seen something of the world. Between whiles he would amuse himself with his thimbles, to which he appeared greatly attached, and occasionally he would pick up a few shillings from the tavern loungers. He no longer asked me to play with him, for he felt somewhat ashamed to do so, and he knew it would be no go.
I took him to task in a friendly manner, and tried to shame him out of his evil practices. I told him that it was a burlesque on human natur, that an able bodied man, possessed of his full share of good sense, should voluntarily debase himself, and be indebted for subsistence to such pitiful artifice.
"But what's to be done, Colonel?" says he. "I'm in the slough of despond, up to the very chin. A miry and slippery path to travel."
"Then hold your head up," says I, "before the slough reaches your lips."
"But what's the use?" says he; "it's utterly impossible for me to wade through; and even if I could, I should be in such a dirty plight, that it would defy all the waters in the Mississippi to wash me clean again. No," he added, in a desponding tone, "I should be like a live eel in a frying pan, Colonel, sort of out of my element, if I attempted to live like an honest man at this time o' day."
"That I deny. It is never too late to become honest," said I. "But even admit what you say to be true — that you cannot live like an honest man, you have at least the next best thing in your power, and no one can say nay to it."
"And what is that?"
"Die like a brave one. And I know not whether, in the eyes of the world, a brilliant death is not preferred to an obscure life of rectitude. Most men are remembered as they died, and not as they lived. We gaze with admiration upon the glories of the setting sun, yet scarcely bestow a passing glance upon its noonday splendour."
"You are right; but how is this to be done?"
"Accompany me to Texas. Cut aloof from your degrading habits and associates here, and in fighting for their freedom, regain your own."
He started from the table, and hastily gathering up the thimbles with which he had been playing all the time I was talking to him, he thrust them into his pocket, and after striding two or three times across the room, suddenly stopped, his leaden eye kindled, and grasping me by the hand violently, he exclaimed with an oath, "By d-d I'll be a man again. Live honestly, or die bravely. I go with you to Texas."
I said what I could to confirm him in his resolution, and finding that the idea had taken fast hold of his mind, I asked him to liquor, which he did not decline, notwithstanding the temperance habits that he boasted of; we then took a walk on the banks of the river.
The evening preceding my departure from Natchitoches, a gentleman, with a good horse and a light wagon, drove up to the tavern where I lodged. He was accompanied by a lady who carried an infant in her arms. As they alighted I recognised the gentleman to be the politician at whom I had discharged my last political speech, on hoard the boat coming down the Red river. We had let him out in our passage down, as he said he had some business to transact some distance above Natchitoches. He entered the tavern, and seemed to be rather shy of me, so I let him go, as I had no idea of firing two shots at such small game.
The gentleman had a private room, and called for supper; but the lady, who used every precaution to keep the child concealed from the view of any one, refused to eat supper, saying she was unwell. However, the gentleman made a hearty meal, and excused the woman, saying "My wife is subject to a pain in the stomach, which has deprived her of her food." Soon after supper the gentleman desired a bed to be prepared, which being done, they immediately retired to rest.
About an hour before daybreak, next morning, the repose of the whole inn was disturbed by the screams of the child. This continued for some time, and at length the landlady got up to see what it was ailed the noisy bantling. She entered the chamber without a light, and discovered the gentleman seated in the bed alone, rocking the infant in his arms, and endeavouring to quiet it by saying, "Hush, my dear — mamma will soon return again." However the child still squalled on, and the long absence of the mother rendered it necessary that something should be done to quiet it.
The landlady proposed taking up the child, to see what was the reason of its incessant cries. She approached the bed, and requested the man to give her the infant, and tell her whether it was a son or a daughter; but this question redoubled his consternation, for he was entirely ignorant which sex the child belonged to; however, with some difficulty, he made the discovery, and informed the landlady it was a son.
She immediately called for a light, which was no sooner brought than the landlady began to unfold the wrapper from the child, and exclaim, "O, what a fine big son you have got!" But on a more minute examination they found, to their great astonishment, and to the mortification and vexation of the supposed father, that the child was a mulatto.
The wretched man, having no excuse to offer, immediately divulged the whole matter without reserve. He stated, that he had fell in with her on the road to Natchitoches the day before, and had offered her a seat in his vehicle. Soon perceiving that she possessed an uncommon degree of assurance, induced him to propose that they should pass as man and wife, to which she readily assented. No doubt she had left her own home in order to rid herself of the stigma which she had brought on herself by her lewd conduct; and at midnight she had eloped from the bed, leaving the infant to the paternal care of her pretended husband.
Immediate search was made for the mother of the child, but in vain. And, as the song says, "Single misfortunes ne'er come alone," to his great consternation and grief, she had taken his horse, and left the poor politician destitute of every thing except a fine yellow boy, but of a widely different description from those which Benton put in circulation.
By this time all the lodgers in the tavern had got up and dressed themselves, from curiosity to know the occasion of the disturbance. I descended to the street in front of the inn. The stars were faintly glimmering in the heavens, and the first beams of the morning sun were struggling through the dim clouds that skirted the eastern horizon. I thought myself alone in the street, when the hush of morning was suddenly broken by a clear, joyful, and musical voice, which sang, as near as I could catch it, the following serap of a song: —
"O, what is the time of the merry round year
That is fittest and sweetest for love?
Ere sucks the bee, ere buds the tree;
And primroses by two, by three,
Faintly shine in the path of the lonely deer,
Like the few stars of twilight above."
I turned towards the spot whence the sounds proceeded, and discovered a tall figure leaning against the sign post. His eyes were fixed on the streaks of light in the east; his mind was absorbed, and he was clearly unconscious of any one being near him. He continued his song in so full and clear a tone, that the street re-echoed —
"When the blackbird and thrush, at early dawn,
Prelude from leafy spray
Amid dewy scents and blandishments,
Like a choir attuning their instruments,
Ere the curtain of nature aside be drawn
For the concert the livelong day."
now drew nigh enough to see him distinctly. He was a young man, not
more than twenty-two. His figure was light and graceful, at the same
time that it indicated strength and activity. He was dressed in a
hunting shirt, which was made with uncommon neatness, and ornamented
tastily with fringe. He held a highly finished rifle in his right
hand, and a hunting pouch, covered with Indian ornaments, was slung
across his shoulders. His clean shirt collar was open, secured only
by a black riband around his neck. His boots were polished, without a
soil upon them; and on his head was a neat fur cap, tossed on in a
manner which said, "I don't care a d—n," just as plainly
as any cap could speak it. I thought it must be some popinjay of a
lark, until I took a look at his countenance. It was handsome,
bright, and manly. There was no mistake in that face. From the eyes
down to his breast he was sunburnt as dark as mahogany, while the
upper part of his high forehead was as white and polished as marble.
Thick clusters of black hair curled from under his cap. I passed on,
unperceived, and he continued his song: —
"In the green spring-tide, all tender and bright,
When the sun sheds a kindlier gleam
O'er velvet bank, that sweet flowers prank,
That have fresh dews and sunbeams drank
Softest, and most chaste, as enchanted light
In the visions of maiden's dream."
The poor politician, whose misfortunes had roused up the inmates of the tavern at such an unusual hour, now returned from the stable, where he had been in search of his horse and his woman; but they were both among the missing. He held a whip in his hand, and about a dozen men followed him, some from curiosity to see the result of the adventure, and others from better feelings. As he drew nigh to the front of the tavern, chafing with mortification at both his shame and his loss, his rage increasing to a flame as his windy exclamations became louder and louder, he chanced to espy the fantastic personage I have just described, still leaning against the sign post, carelessly humming his song, but in a lower tone, as he perceived he was not alone.
The irritated politician no sooner saw the stranger against the sign post, whose self satisfied air was in striking contrast with the excited feelings of the other, than he paused for a moment, appeared to recognise him; then coming up in a blustering manner, and assuming a threatening attitude, he exclaimed fiercely —
"You're an infernal scoundrel — do you hear? an infernal scoundrel, sir!"
"I do, but it's news to me," replied the other, quietly.
"News, you scoundrel! do you call it news?"
"You needn't think to carry it off so quietly. I say, you're an infernal scoundrel, and I'll prove it."
"I beg you will not; I shouldn't like to be proved a scoundrel," replied the other, smiling with most provoking indifference.
"No, I dare say you wouldn't. But answer me directly — did you, or did you not say, in presence of certain ladies of my acquaintance, that I was a mere — "
"Calf? O, no, sir; the truth is not to be spoken at all times."
"The truth ! Do you presume to call me a calf, sir?"
"O, no, sir; I call you nothing," replied the stranger, just as cool and as pleasant as a morning in spring.
"It's well you do; for if you had presumed to call me
"A man, I should have been grossly mistaken."
"Do you mean to say, I am not a man, sir?"
"That depends on circumstances."
"What circumstances?" demanded the other, fiercely.
"If I should be called as an evidence in a court of justice, I should be bound to speak the truth."
"And you would say, I was not a man, hey? Do you see this cowskin?"
"Yes; and I have seen it with surprise ever since you came up," replied the stranger, calmly, at the same time handing me his rifle, to take care of.
"With surprise!" exclaimed the politician who saw that his antagonist had voluntarily disarmed himself ; — "Why, did you suppose I was such a coward, that I dare not use the article when I thought it was demanded?"
"Shall I tell you what I thought?"
"Do — if you dare."
"I thought to myself, what use has a calf for a cowskin?" He turned to me, and said, "I had forgot, Colonel — shall I trouble you to take care of this also?" Saying which he drew a long hunting knife from his belt, and placed it in my hand. He then resumed his careless attitude against the sign post.
"You distinctly call me a calf, then?"
"If you insist upon it, you may."
"You hear, gentlemen," said he, speaking to the bystanders — "Do you hear the insult? — What shall I do with the scoundrel?"
"Dress him, dress him!" exclaimed twenty voices, with shouts and laughter.
"That I'll do at once!" Then turning to the stranger, he cried out fiercely, "Come one step this way, you rascal, and I'll flog you within an inch of your life."
"I've no occasion."
"You're a coward."
"Not on your word."
"I'll prove it by flogging you out of your skin."
"I doubt it."
"I am a liar then — am I?"
"Just as you please."
"Do you hear that, gentlemen?"
"Ay, we hear," was the unanimous response. "You can't avoid dressing him now."
"O, heavens! grant me patience!! I shall fly out of my skin."
"It will be so much the better for your pocket; calf skins are in good demand."
"I shall burst."
"Not here in the street, I beg of you. It would be disgusting."
"Gentlemen, can I any longer avoid flogging him?"
"Not if you are able," was the reply. "Go at him."
Thus provoked, thus stirred up, and enraged, the fierce politician went like lightning at his provoking antagonist. But before he could strike a blow he found himself disarmed of his cowskin, and lying on his back under the spout of a neighbouring pump, whither the young man had carried him to cool his rage; and before he could recover from his astonishment at such unexpected handling, he was as wet as a thrice drowned rat, from the cataracts of water which his laughing antagonist had liberally pumped upon him, His courage, by this time, had fairly oozed out; and he declared, as he arose and went dripping away from the pump, that he would never again trust to quiet appearances; and that the devil himself might, the next time, undertake to cowskin such a cucumber blooded scoundrel for him. The bystanders laughed heartily. The politician now went in pursuit of his horse and his woman, taking his yellow boy with him; and the landlady declared that he richly deserved what he had got, even if he had been guilty of no other offence than the dirty imposition he had practised on her.
The stranger now came to me, and calling me by name, asked for his rifle and knife, which I returned to him. I expressed some astonishment at being known to him, and he said that he had heard of my being in the village, and had sought me out for the purpose of accompanying me to Texas. He. told, me that he was a bee hunter; that he had travelled pretty much over that country in the way of his business, and that I would find him of considerable use in navigating through the ocean of prairies.
He told me that honey trees are abundant in Texas, and that honey of an excellent quality, and in any quantity, may be obtained from them. There are persons who have a peculiar tact in coursing the bee, and thus discovering their deposites of the luscious food. This employment is not a mere pastime, but is profitable. The wax alone, thus obtained, is a valuable article of commerce in Mexico, and commands a high price. It is much used in churches, where some of the candles made use of are as long as a man's arm. It often happens that the hunters throw away the honey, and save only the wax.
"It is a curious fact," said the bee hunter, "in the natural history of the bee, that it is never found in a wild country, but always precedes civilization, forming a kind of advance guard between the white man and the savage. The Indians, at least, are perfectly convinced of this fact, for it is a common remark among them, when they observe these insects — 'there come the white men.' "
Thimblerig came up, and the bee hunter spoke to him, calling him by name, for he had met with him in New Orleans. I told him that the conjurer had determined to accompany me also, at which he seemed well pleased, and encouraged the poor fellow to adhere to that resolution; for he would be a man among men in Texas, and no one would be very particular in inquiring about his fortunes in the states. If once there, he might boldly stand up and feed out of the same rack with the best.
I asked him what was his cause of quarrel with the politician, and he told me that he had met him a few weeks before down at Baton Rouge, where the fellow was going the big figure; and that he had exposed him to some ladies, which completely cut his comb, and he took wing; that this was the first time they had met since, and being determined to have his revenge, he had attacked him without first calculating consequences.
With the assistance of our new friend, who was a generous, pleasant fellow, we procured a horse and rifle for Thimblerig; and we started for Nacogdoches, which is about one hundred and twenty miles west of Natchitoches, under the guidance of the bee hunter.