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AN hour or two elapsed before the Bee hunter recovered his usual spirits, after parting from his kind little Kate of Nacogdoches. The conjurer rallied him good humouredly, and had become quite a different man from what he was on the west side of the Sabine. He sat erect in his saddle, stuck his large white Vicksburger conceitedly on his bushy head, carried his rifle with as much ease and grace as if he had been used to the weapon, and altogether he assumed an air of impudence and independence which showed that he had now a soul above thimbles. The Bee hunter at length recovered his spirits, and commenced talking very pleasantly, for the matters he related were for the most part new to me.
My companions, by way of beguiling the tediousness of our journey, repeatedly played tricks upon each other, which were taken in good part. One of them I will relate. We had observed that the Bee hunter always disappeared on stopping at a house, running iii to talk with the inhabitants and ingratiate himself with the women, leaving us to take care of the horses. On reaching our stopping place at night he left us as usual, and while we were rubbing down our mustangs, and hobbling them, a negro boy came out of the house with orders from our companion within to see to his horse. Thimblerig, who possessed a good share of roguish ingenuity, after some inquiries about the gentleman in the house, how he looked and what he was doing, told the boy, in rather a low voice, that he had better not come nearer to him than was necessary, for it was possible he might hurt him, though still he didn't think he would. The boy asked why he need be afraid of him. He replied, he did not certainly know that there was any reason — he hoped there was none — but the man had been bitten by a mad dog, and it was rather uncertain whether he was not growing mad himself. Still, he would not alarm the boy, but cautioned him not to be afraid, for there might be no danger, though there was something rather strange in the conduct of his poor friend. This was enough for the boy; he was almost afraid to touch the horse of such a man; and when, a moment afterward, our companion came out of the house, he slunk away behind the horse, and though he was in a great hurry to get him unsaddled, kept his eyes fixed steadily on the owner, closely watching his motions.
"Take off that bridle," exclaimed the impatient Bee hunter, in a stern voice: and the black boy sprung off, and darted away as fast as his feet could carry him, much to the vexation and surprise of our companion, who ran after him a little distance, but could in no way account for his singular and provoking conduct. When we entered the house things appeared a great deal more strange; for the negro had rushed hastily into the midst of the family, and in his terrified state communicated the alarming tale, that the gentleman had been bitten by a mad dog. He, unconscious all the time of the trick that was playing off, endeavoured, as usual, to render himself as agreeable as possible, especially to the females with whom he had already formed a partial acquaintance. We could see that they looked on him with apprehension, and retreated whenever he approached them. One of them took an opportunity to inquire of Thimblerig the truth of the charge; and his answer confirmed their fears, and redoubled their caution; though, after confessing with apparent candour, that his friend had been bitten, he stated that there was no certainty of evil consequences, and it was a thing which of course could not be mentioned to the sufferer.
As bed time approached the mistress of the house expressed her fears, lest trouble should arise in the night; for the house, according to custom, contained but two rooms, and was not built for security. She therefore urged us to sleep between him and the door, and by no means to let him pass us. It so happened, however, that he chose to sleep next the door, and it was with great difficulty that we could keep their fears within bounds. The ill-disguised alarm of the whole family was not less a source of merriment to him who had been the cause, than of surprise and wonder to the subject of it. Whatever member of the household he approached promptly withdrew, and as for the negro, whenever he was spoken to by him, he would jump and roll his eyes. In the morning, when we were about to depart, we commissioned our belied companion to pay our bill; but as he approached the hostess she fled from him, and shut the door in his face. "I want to pay our bill," said he. "O! if you will only leave the house," cried she, in terror, "you are welcome to your lodging."
The jest, however, did not end here. The Bee hunter found out the trick that had been played upon him, and determined to retaliate. As we were about mounting, the conjurer's big white. Vicksburger was unaccountably missing, and nowhere to be found. He was not altogether pleased with the liberty that had been taken with him, and after searching some time in vain, he tied a handkerchief around his head, sprung upon his horse, and rode off with more gravity than usual. We had rode about two miles, the Bee hunter bantering the other with a story of his hat lying in pawn at the house we had left, and urged upon him to return and redeem it; but finding Thimblerig out of humour, and resolved not to return, he began to repent of his jest, and offered to go back and bring it, on condition that the past should be forgotten, and there should be no more retaliation. The other consented to the terms, so lighting a cigar with his sun glass, he set off at a rapid rate on his return. He had not been gone long before I presented Thimblerig with his hat, for I had seen the Bee hunter conceal it, and had secretly brought it along with me. It was some time before our absent friend overtook us, having frightened all the family away by his sudden return, and searched the whole house without success. When he perceived the object of his ride upon the bead of the conjurer, and recollected the promise by which he had bound himself not to have any more jesting, he could only exclaim, "Well, it's hard, but it's fair." We all laughed heartily, and good humour was once again restored.
Cane brakes are common in some parts of Texas. Our way led us through one of considerable extent. The frequent passage of men and horses had kept open a narrow path not wide enough for two mustangs to pass with convenience. The reeds, the same as are used in the northern states as fishing rods, had grown to the height of about twenty feet, and were so slender, that having no support directly over the path, they drooped a little inward, and intermingled their tops, forming a complete covering overhead. We rode about a quarter of a mile along this singular arched avenue with the view of the sky completely shut out. The Bee hunter told me that the largest brake is that which lines the banks of Caney Creek, and is seventy miles in length, with scarcely a tree to be seen the whole distance. The reeds are eaten by cattle and horses in the winter when the prairies yield little or no other food.
When we came out of the brake we saw three black wolves jogging like dogs ahead of us, but at too great a distance to reach them with a rifle. Wild turkeys and deer repeatedly crossed our path, and we saw several droves of wild horses pasturing in the prairies. These sights awakened the ruling passion strong within me, and I longed to have a hunt upon a large scale; for though I had killed many bears and deers in my time, I had never brought down a buffalo in all my life, and so I told my friends; but they tried to dissuade me from it, by telling me that I would certainly lose my way, and perhaps perish; for though it appeared as a cultivated garden to the eye, it was still a wilderness. I said little more on the subject until we crossed the Trinidad river, but every mile we travelled I found the temptation grow stronger and stronger.
The night after we crossed the river we fortunately found shelter in the house of a poor woman, who had little but the barest necessaries to offer us. While we were securing our horses for the night we beheld two men approaching the house on foot. They were both armed with rifles and hunting knives, and though I have been accustomed to the sight of men who have not stepped far over the line of civilization, I must say these were just about the roughest samples I had seen anywhere. One was a man of about fifty years old, tall and rawboned. He was dressed in a sailor's round jacket, with a tarpaulin on his head. His whiskers nearly covered his face; his hair was coal black and long, and there was a deep scar across his forehead, and another on the back of his right hand. His companion, who was considerably younger, was bareheaded, and clad in a deer skin dress made after our fashion. Though he was not much darker than the old man, I perceived that he was an Indian. They spoke friendly to the Bee hunter, for they both knew him, and said they were on their way to join the Texian forces, at that time near the San Antonio river. Though they had started without horses, they reckoned they would come across a couple before they went much farther. The right of ownership to horse flesh is not much regarded in Texas, for those that have been taken from the wild droves are soon after turned out to graze on the prairies, the owner having first branded them with his mark, and hobbled them by tying their fore feet together, which will enable another to capture them just as readily as himself.
The old woman set about preparing our supper, and apologized for the homely fare, which consisted of bacon and fried onions, when the Indian went to a bag and produced a number of eggs of wild fowls, and a brace of fat rabbits, which were speedily dressed, and we made as good a meal as a hungry man need wish to set down to. The old man spoke very little; but the Indian, who had lived much among the whites, was talkative, and manifested much impatience to arrive at the army. The first opportunity that occurred I inquired of the Bee hunter who our new friends were, and he told me that the old man had been for many years a pirate with the famous Lafitte, and that the Indian was a hunter belonging to a settler near Galveston Bay. I had seen enough of land rats at Washington, but this was the first time that I was ever in company with a water rat to my knowledge; however, baiting that black spot on his escutcheon, he was a well behaved and inoffensive man. Vice does not appear so shocking when we are familiar with the perpetrator of it.
Thimblerig was for taking airs upon himself after learning who our companions were, and protested to me, that he would not sit down at the same table with a man who had outraged the laws in such a manner; for it was due to society that honest men should discountenance such unprincipled characters, and much more to the same effect; when the old man speedily dissipated the gambler's indignant feelings by calmly saying, "Stranger, you had better take a seat at the table, I think," at the same time drawing a long hunting knife from his belt, and laying it on the table. "I think you had better take some supper with us," he added, in a mild tone, but fixing his eye sternly upon Thimblerig. The conjurer first eyed the knife, and then the fierce whiskers of the pirate, and, unlike some politicians, he wasn't long in making up his mind what course to pursue, but he determined to vote as the pirate voted, and said, "I second that motion, stranger," at the same time seating himself on the bench beside me. The old man then commenced cutting up the meat, for which purpose he had drawn his hunting knife, though the gambler had thought it was for a different purpose; and being relieved from his fears, every thing passed off quite sociable.
Early the following morning we compensated the old woman for the trouble she had been at, and we mounted our horses and pursued our journey, our new friends following on foot, but promising to arrive at the Alamo as soon as we should. About noon we stopped to refresh our horses beneath a cluster of trees that stood in the open prairie, and I again spoke of my longing for a buffalo hunt. We were all seated on the grass, and they strived hard to dissuade me from the folly of allowing a ruling passion to lead me into such imminent danger and difficulty as I must necessarily encounter. All this time, while they were running down my weakness, as they called it, Thimblerig was amusing himself with his eternal thimbles and pea upon the crown of his big white hat. I could not refrain from laughing outright to see with what gravity and apparent interest he slipped the pea from one thimble to another while in the midst of a desert. Man is a queer animal, and Colonel Dick Johnson is disposed to make him even queerer than Dame Nature originally intended.
The Bee hunter told me, that if I was determined to leave them, he had in his bag a paper of ground coffee, and biscuit, which little Kate of Nacogdoches had desired him to carry for my use, which he handed to me, and proposed drinking her health, saying that she was one of the kindest and purest of God's creatures. We drank her health, and wished him all happiness when she should be his own, which time he looked forward to with impatience. He still continued to dissuade me from leaving them, and all the time he was talking his eyes were wandering above, when suddenly he stopped, sprang to his feet, looked around for a moment, then leaped on his mustang, and without saying a word, started off like mad, and scoured along the prairie. We watched him, gradually diminishing in size, until he seemed no larger than a rat, and finally disappeared in the distance. I was amazed, and thought to be sure the man was crazy; and Thimblerig, who continued his game, responded that he was unquestionably out of his head.
Shortly after the Bee hunter had disappeared we heard a noise something like the rumbling of distant thunder. The sky was clear, there were no signs of a storm, and we concluded it could not proceed from that cause. On turning to the west we saw an immense cloud of dust in the distance, but could perceive no object distinctly, and still the roaring continued. "What can all this mean?" said I. "Burn my old shoes if I know," said the conjurer, gathering up his thimbles, and at the same time cocking his large Vicksburger fiercely on his head. We continued looking in the direction whence the sound proceeded, the cloud of dust became thicker and thicker, and the roaring more distinct — much louder than was ever heard in the White House at Washington.
We at first thought it was a tornado, but whatever it was, it was coming directly toward the spot where we stood. Our mustangs had ceased to graze, and cocked up their ears in evident alarm. We ran and caught them, took off the hobbles, and rode into the grove of trees; still the noise grew louder and louder. We had scarcely got under the shelter of the grove before the object approached near enough for us to ascertain what it was. It was a herd of buffalo, at least four or five hundred in number, dashing along as swift as the wind, and roaring as if so many devils had broke loose. They passed near the grove, and, if we had not taken shelter there, we should have been in great danger of being trampled to death. My poor little mustang shook worse than a politician about to be turned out of office, as the drove came sweeping by. At their head, apart from the rest, was a black bull, who appeared to be their leader; he came roaring along, his tail straight an end, and at times tossing up the earth with his horns. I never felt such a desire to have a crack at any thing in all my life. He drew nigh the place where I was standing; I raised my beautiful Betsey to my shoulder, took deliberate aim, blazed away, and he roared, and suddenly stopped. Those that were near him did so likewise, and the concussion occasioned by the impetus of those in the rear was such, that it was a miracle that some of them did not break their legs or necks. The black bull stood for a few moments pawing the ground after he was shot, then darted off around the cluster of trees, and made for the uplands of the prairies. The whole herd followed, sweeping by like a tornado, and I do say, I never witnessed a more beautiful sight to the eye of a hunter in all my life.
Bear hunting is no more to be compared to it than Colonel Benton is to Henry Clay. I watched them for a few moments, then clapped spurs to my mustang and followed in their wake, leaving Thimblerig behind me.
I followed on the trail of the herd for at least two hours, by which time the moving mass appeared like a small cloud in the distant horizon. Still, I followed, my whole mind absorbed by the excitement of the chase, until the object was entirely lost in the distance. I now paused to allow my mustang to breathe, who did not altogether fancy the rapidity of my movements, and to consider which course I would have to take to regain the path I had abandoned. I might have retraced my steps by following the trail of the buffalos, but it has always been my principle to go ahead, and so I turned to the west and pushed forward.
I had not rode more than an hour before I found that I was as completely bewildered as "the Government" was when he entered upon an examination of the post office accounts. I looked around, and there was, as far as the eye could reach, spread before me a country apparently in the highest state of cultivation. Extended fields, beautiful and productive, groves of trees cleared from the under-wood, and whose margins were as regular as if the art and taste of man had been employed upon them. But there was no other evidence that the sound of the axe, or the voice of man, had ever here disturbed the solitude of nature. My eyes would have cheated my senses into the belief that I was in an earthly paradise, but my fears told me that I was in a wilderness.
I pushed along, following the sun, for I had no compass to guide me, and there was no other path than that which my mustang made. Indeed, if I had found a beaten track, I should have been almost afraid to have followed it; for my friend the Bee hunter had told me, that once, when he had been lost in the prairies, he had accidentally struck into his own path, and had travelled around and around for a whole day before he discovered his error. This I thought was a poor way of going ahead; so I determined to make for the first large stream, and.. follow its course.
I had travelled several hours without seeing the trace of a human being, and even game was almost as scarce as Benton's mint drops, except just about election time, and I began to wish that I had followed the advice of my companions. I was a good deal bothered to account for the abrupt manner in which the Bee hunter had absconded; and I felt concerned for the poor thimble conjurer, who was left alone, and altogether unaccustomed to the difficulties that he would have to encounter. While my mind was occupied with these unpleasant reflections, I was suddenly startled by another novelty quite as great as that I have just described.
I had just emerged from a beautiful grove of trees, and was entering upon an extended prairie, which looked like the luxuriant meadows of a thrifty farmer; and as if nothing should be wanting to complete the delusion, but a short distance before me, there was a drove of about one hundred beautiful horses quietly pasturing. It required some effort to convince my mind that man had no agency in this. But when I looked around, and fully realized it all, I thought of him who had preached to me in the wilds of the Arkansas, and involuntarily exclaimed, "God, what hast thou not done for man, and yet how little he does for thee! Not even repays thee with gratitude!"
I entered upon the prairie. The mustangs no sooner espied me than they raised their heads, whinnied, and began coursing around me in an extended circle, which gradually became smaller and smaller, until they closely surrounded me. My little rascally mustang enjoyed the sport, and felt disposed to renew his acquaintance with his wild companions; first turning his head to one, then to another, playfully biting the neck of this one, rubbing noses with that one, and kicking up his heels at a third. I began to feel rather uncomfortable, and plied the spur pretty briskly to get out of the mess, but he was as obstinate as the cc old Roman" himself, who will be neither led nor driven. I kicked, and he kicked, but fortunately he became tired first, and he made one start, intending to escape from the annoyance if possible. As I had an annoyance to escape from likewise, I beat the devil's tattoo on his ribs, that he might have some music to dance to, and we went ahead right merrily, the whole drove following in our wake, head up, and tail and mane streaming. My little critter, who was both blood and bottom, seemed delighted at being at the head of the heap; and having once got fairly started, I wish I may be shot if I did not find it impossible to stop him. He kept along, tossing his head proudly, and occasionally neighing, as much as to say, "Come on, my hearties, you see I ha'n't forgot our old amusement yet." And they did come on with a vengeance, clatter, clatter, clatter, as if so many fiends had broke loose. The prairie lay extended before me as far as the eye could reach, and I began to think that there would be no end to the race.
My little animal was full of fire and mettle, as it was the first bit of genuine sport that he had had for some time, he appeared determined to make the most of it. He kept the lead for full half an hour, frequently neighing as if in triumph and derision. I thought of John Gilpin's celebrated ride, but that was child's play to this. The proverb says, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong," and so it proved in the present instance. My mustang was obliged to carry weight, while his competitors were as free as nature had made them. A beautiful bay, who had trod close upon my heels the whole way, now came side by side with my mustang, and we had it hip and thigh for about ten minutes, in such style as would have delighted the heart of a true lover of the turf. I now felt an interest in the race myself, and for the credit of my bit of blood, determined to win if it was at all in the nature of things. I plied the lash and spur, and the little critter took it quite kindly, and tossed his head, and neighed, as much as to say, "Colonel, I know what you're after—Go ahead!" — and he cut dirt in beautiful style, I tell you.
This could not last for ever. At length my competitor darted ahead, somewhat the same way that Adam Huntsman served me last election, except that there was no gouging, and my little fellow was compelled to clatter after his tail, like a needy politician after an office holder when he wants his influence, and which my mustang found it quite as difficult to reach. He hung on like grim death for some time longer, but at last his ambition began to flag and having lost ground, others seemed to think that he was not the mighty critter he was cracked up to be, no how, and they tried to out-trip him also. A second shot ahead, and kicked his heels in derision as he passed us, then a third, a fourth, and so on, and even the scrubbiest little rascal in the whole drove was disposed to have a fling at their broken down leader. A true picture of politicians and their truckling followers, thought I. We now followed among the last of the drove until we came to the banks of the Navasola river. The foremost leaped from the margin into the rushing stream, the others, politician like, followed him, though he would lead them to destruction; but my wearied animal fell on the banks, completely exhausted with fatigue. It was a beautiful sight to see them stemming the torrent, ascend the opposite bank, and scour over the plain, having been refreshed by the water. I relieved my wearied animal from the saddle, and employed what means were in my power to restore him.