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AFTER toiling for more than an hour to get my mustang upon his feet again, I gave it up as a bad job, as little Van did when he attempted to raise himself to the moon by the waistband of his breeches. Night was fast closing in, and as I began to think that I had had just about sport enough for one day, I might as well look around for a place of shelter for the night, and take a fresh start in the morning, by which time I was in hopes my horse would be recruited. Near the margin of the river a large tree had been blown down, and I thought of making my lair in its top, and approached it for that purpose. While beating among the branches I heard a low growl, as much as to say, "Stranger, the apartments are already taken." Looking about to see what sort of a bedfellow I was likely to have, I discovered, not more than five or six paces from me, an enormous Mexican cougar eyeing me as an epicure surveys the table before he selects his dish, for I have no doubt the cougar looked upon me as the subject of a future supper. Rays of light darted from his large eyes, he showed his teeth like a negro in hysterics, and he was crouching on his haunches, ready for a spring; all of which convinced me that unless I was pretty quick upon the trigger, posterity would know little of the termination of my eventful career, and it would be far less glorious and useful than I intend to make it.
One glance satisfied me that there was no time to be lost, as Pat thought when falling from a church steeple, and exclaimed, "This would be mighty pleasant, now, if it would only last," — but there was no retreat, either for me or the cougar, so I levelled my Betsey, and blazed away. The report was followed by a furious growl, (which is sometimes the case in Congress,) and the next moment, when I expected to find the tarnal critter struggling with death, I beheld him shaking his head as if nothing more than a bee had stung him. The ball had struck him on the forehead, and glanced off, doing no other injury than stunning him for an instant, and tearing off the skin, which tended to infuriate him the more. The cougar wasn't long in making up his mind what to do, nor was I neither; but he would have it all his own way, and vetoed my motion to back out. I had not retreated three steps before he sprang at me like a steamboat; I stepped aside, and as he lit upon the ground I struck him violently with the barrel of my rifle, but he didn't mind that, but wheeled round and made at me again. The gun was now of no use, so I threw it away, and drew my hunting knife, for I knew we should come to close quarters before the fight would be over.
This time he succeeded in fastening on my left arm, and was just beginning to amuse himself by tearing the flesh off with his fangs, when I ripped my knife into his side, and he let go his hold much to my satisfaction.
He wheeled about and came at me with increased fury, occasioned by the smarting of his wounds. I now tried to blind him, knowing that if I succeeded he would become an easy prey; so as he approached me I watched my opportunity, and aimed a blow at his eyes with my knife, but unfortunately it struck him on the nose, and he paid no other attention to it than by a shake of the head and a low growl. He pressed me close, and as I was stepping backward my foot tripped in a vine, and I fell to the ground. He was down upon me like a nighthawk upon a June bug. He seized hold of the outer part of my right thigh, which afforded him considerable amusement; the hinder part of his body was toward my face; I grasped his tail with my left hand, and tickled his ribs with my hunting knife, which I held in my right. Still, the critter wouldn't let go his hold; and as I found that he would lacerate my leg dreadfully unless he was speedily shaken off, I tried to hurl him down the bank into the river, for our scuffle had already brought us to the edge of the bank. I stuck my knife into his side, and summoned all my strength to throw him over. He resisted, was desperate heavy; but at last I got him so far down the declivity that he lost his balance, and he rolled over and over until he landed on the margin of the river; but in his fall he dragged me along with him. Fortunately I fell uppermost, and his neck presented a fair mark for my hunting knife. Without allowing myself time even to draw breath, I aimed one desperate blow at his neck, and the knife entered his gullet up to the handle, and reached his heart. He struggled for a few moments, and died. I have had many fights with bears, but that was mere child's play; this was the first fight ever I had with a cougar, and I hope it may be the last.
I now returned to the tree top to see if any one else would dispute my lodging; but now I could take peaceable and quiet possession. I parted some of the branches, and cut away others to make a bed in the opening; I then gathered a quantity of moss, which hung in festoons from the trees, which I spread on the litter, and over this I spread my horse blanket; and I had as comfortable a bed as a weary man need ask for. I now took another look at my mustang, and from all appearances he would not live until morning. I ate some of the cakes that little Kate of Nacogdoches had made for me, and then carried my saddle into my tree top, and threw myself down upon my bed, with no very pleasant reflections at the prospect before me.
I was weary, and soon fell asleep, and did not awake until daybreak the next day. I felt somewhat stiff and sore from the wounds I had received in the conflict with the cougar; but I considered myself as having made a lucky escape. I looked over the bank, and as I saw the carcass of the cougar lying there, I thought that it was an even chance that we had not exchanged conditions; and I felt grateful that the fight had ended as it did. I now went to look after my mustang, fully expecting to find him as dead as the cougar; but what was my astonishment to find that he had disappeared without leaving trace of hair or hide of him. I first supposed that some beasts of prey had consumed the poor critter; but then they wouldn't have eaten his bones; and he had vanished as effectually as the deposites, without leaving any mark of the course they had taken. This bothered me amazing; I couldn't figure it out by any rule that I had ever heard of, so I concluded to think no more about it.
I felt a craving for something to eat, and looking around for some game, I saw a flock of geese on the shore of the river. I shot a fine fat gander, and soon stripped him of his feathers; and gathering some light wood, I kindled a fire, run a long stick through my goose, for a spit, and put it down to roast, supported by two sticks with prongs. I had a desire for some coffee; and having a tin cup with me, I poured the paper of ground coffee that I had received from the Bee hunter into it, and made a strong cup, which was very refreshing. Off of my goose and biscuit I made a hearty meal, and was preparing to depart, without clearing up the breakfast things, or knowing which direction to pursue, when I was somewhat taken aback by another of the wild scenes of the west. I heard a sound like the trampling of many horses, and I, thought to be sure the mustangs or buffalos were coming upon me again; but on raising my head I beheld in the distance about fifty mounted Cumanches, with their spears glittering in the morning sun, dashing toward the spot where I stood at full speed. As the column advanced it divided, according to their usual practice, into two semicircles, and in an instant I was surrounded. Quicker than thought I sprang to my rifle, but as my hand grasped it, I felt that resistance against so many would be of as little use as pumping for thunder in dry weather.
The chief was for making love to my beautiful Betsey, but I clung fast to her, and assuming an air of composure, I demanded whether their nation was at war with the Americans. "No," was the reply. "Do you like the Americans?" "Yes, they are our friends." "Where do you get your spear heads, your rifles, your blankets, and your knives from?" "Get them from our friends, the Americans." "Well, do you think if you were passing through their nation, as I am passing through yours, they would attempt to rob you of your property?" "No, they would feed me, and protect me; and the Cumanche will do the same by his white brother."
I now asked him what it was had directed him to the spot where I was, and he told me, that they had seen the smoke from a great distance, and had come to see the cause of it. He inquired what had brought me there alone; and I told him that I had come to hunt, and that my mustang had become exhausted, and though I thought he was about to die, that he had escaped from me; at which the chief gave a low chuckling laugh, and said it was all a trick of the mustang, which is the most wily and. cunning of all animals. But he said that as I was a brave hunter he would furnish me with another; he gave orders, and a fine young horse was immediately brought forward.
When the party approached there were three old squaws at their head, who made a noise with their mouths, and served as trumpeters. I now told the chief that, as I now had a horse, I would go for my saddle, which was in the place where I had slept. As I approached the spot I discovered one of the squaws devouring the remains of my roasted goose, but my saddle and bridle were nowhere to be found. Almost in despair of seeing them again, I observed, in a thicket at a little distance, one of the trumpeters kicking and belabouring her horse to make him move off, while the sagacious beast would not move a step from the troop. I followed her, and, thanks to her restive mustang, secured my property, which the chief made her restore to me. Some of the warriors had by this time discovered the body of the cougar, and had already commenced skinning it; and seeing how many stabs were about it, I related to the chief the desperate struggle I had had; he said, "Brave hunter, brave man," and wished me to be adopted into his tribe, but I respectfully declined the honour. He then offered to see me on my way; and I asked him to accompany me to the Colorado river, if he was going in that direction, which he agreed to do. I put my saddle on my fresh horse, mounted, and we darted off, at a rate not much slower than I had rode the day previous with the wild herd, the old squaws at the head of the troop braying like young jackasses the whole way.
About three hours after starting we saw a drove of mustangs quietly pasturing in the prairie at a distance. One of the Indians immediately got his lasso ready, which was a long rope made of hide plaited like whip cord, with an iron ring at one end, through which the rope was passed so as to form a noose; and thus prepared, he darted ahead of the troop to make a capture. They allowed him to approach pretty nigh, he all the time flourishing his lasso; but before he got within reaching distance, they started off at a brisk canter, made two or three wide circuits around him, as if they would spy-out what he was after; then abruptly changed their course, and disappeared.
One mustang out of all the drove remained standing quietly; the Indian made up to him, threw the lasso, but the mustang dodged his head between his fore legs, and escaped the noose, but did not attempt to escape. The Indian then rode up to him, and the horse very patiently submitted while he put a bridle on him, and secured him. When I approached, I immediately recognised in the captive the pestilent little animal that had shammed sickness and escaped from me the day before; and when he caught my eye he cast down his head and looked rather sheepish, as if he were sensible and ashamed of the dirty trick he had played me. I expressed my astonishment to the Indian chief at the mustang's allowing himself to be captured without an effort to escape; and he told me, that they are generally hurled to the ground with such violence when first taken with the lasso, that they remember it ever after, and that the sight of it will subdue them to submission, though they may have run wild for years. Just so with an office holder, who, being kicked out, turns patriot — shake a commission at him, and the fire of his patriotism usually escapes in smoke.
We travelled all day, and toward evening we came across a small drove of buffalos; and it was a beautiful sight to behold with what skill the Indians hunted down this noble game. There are no horsemen who ride more gracefully than the Cumanches; and they sit so closely, and hold such absolute control over the horse, that he seems to be part of their own person. I had the good fortune to bring down a young heifer, and as it was the only beef that we killed, the chief again complimented me as being a brave hunter; and while they were preparing the heifer for our supper I related to him many of my hunting exploits, at which he manifested pleasure and much astonishment for an Indian. He again urged upon me to become one of the tribe.
We made a hearty supper, hobbled our mustangs, which we turned into the prairie to graze, and then encamped for the night. I awoke about two hours before daybreak, and looking over the tract of country through which we had travelled, the sky was as bright and clear as if the sun had already risen. I watched it for some time without being able to account for it, and asked my friend, the chief, to explain, who told me that the prairie was on fire, and that it must have caught when we cooked our dinner. I have seen hundreds of acres of mountain timber on fire in my time, but this is the first time that I ever saw a prairie burning.
Nothing of interest occurred until we reached the Colorado, and were following the river to the place where it crosses the road to Bexar, which place the Indians promised to conduct me to. We saw a light column of smoke ascending in the clear sky, and hastened toward it. It proceeded from a small cluster of trees near the river. When we came within five hundred yards of it, the warriors extended their line around the object, and the chief and myself cautiously approached it. When we came within eyeshot, what was my astonishment to discover a solitary man seated on the ground near the fire, so intent upon some pursuit that he did not perceive our approach. We drew nigh to him, and still he was unconscious of our approach. It was poor Thimblerig practising his game of thimbles upon the crown of his white Vicksburger. This is what I call the ruling passion most amazing strong. The chief shouted the war whoop, and suddenly the warriors came rushing in from all quarters, preceded by the old squaw trumpeters squalling like mad. The conjurer sprang to his feet, and was ready to sink into the earth when he beheld the ferocious looking fellows that surrounded him. I stepped up, took him by the hand, and quieted his fears. I told the chief that he was a friend of mine, and I was very glad to have found him, for I was afraid that he had perished. I now thanked him for his kindness in guiding me over the prairies, and gave him a large Bowie knife, which he said he would keep for the sake of the brave hunter. The whole squadron then wheeled off; and I saw them no more. I have met with many polite men in my time, but no one who possessed in a greater degree what may be called true spontaneous politeness than this Cumanche chief, always excepting Philip Hone, Esq., of New York, whom I look upon as the politest man I ever did see; for when he asked me to take a drink at his own side-board he turned his back upon me, that I mightn't be ashamed to fill as much as I wanted. That was what I call doing the fair thing.
Thimblerig was delighted at meeting me again, but it was some time before he recovered sufficiently from the cold sweat into which the sudden appearance of the Indians had thrown him to recount his adventures to me. He said that he felt rather down-hearted when he found himself abandoned both by the Bee hunter and myself, and he knew not which course to pursue; but after thinking about the matter for two hours, he had made up his mind to retrace the road we had travelled over, and had mounted his mustang for that purpose, when he spied the Bee hunter laden with honey. The mystery of his abrupt departure was now fully accounted for; he had spied a solitary bee shaping its course to its hive, and at the moment he couldn't control the ruling passion, but followed the bee without reflecting for a moment upon the difficulties and dangers that his thoughtlessness might occasion his friends.
I now asked him what had become of the Bee hunter, and he said that he had gone out in pursuit of game for their supper, and he expected that he would return shortly, as he had been absent at least an hour. While we were still speaking our friend appeared, bending under the weight of a wild turkey. He manifested great joy at meeting with me so unexpectedly; and desiring the conjurer to pluck the feathers off the bird, which he cheerfully undertook, for he said he had been accustomed to plucking pigeons, we set about preparing our supper.
The position we occupied was directly on the route leading to Bexar, and at the crossings of the Colorado. We were about to commence our supper, for the turkey was done in beautiful style, when the sound of a horse neighing startled us. We looked over the prairie, and beheld two men approaching on horseback, and both armed with rifles and knives. The Bee hunter said that it was time for us to be on our guard, for we should meet, perhaps, more enemies than friends as soon as we crossed the river, and the new-comers were making directly for the spot we occupied; but, as they were only two, it occasioned no uneasiness.
As they drew nigh we recognised the strangers; they turned out to be the old pirate and the Indian hunter who had lodged with us a few nights before. We hailed them, and on seeing us they alighted and asked permission to join our party, which we gladly agreed to, as our journey was becoming rather more perilous every mile we advanced. They partook of our turkey, and as they had some small cakes of bread, which they threw into the general stock, we made a hearty supper; and, after a battle song from the Bee hunter, we prepared to rest for the night.
Early next morning we crossed the river, and pushed forward for the fortress of Alamo. The old pirate was still as taciturn as ever, but his companion was talkative and in good spirits. I asked him where he had procured their mustangs, and he said that he had found them hobbled in Burnet's Grant just at a time that he felt very tired; and as he believed that no one would lay claim to them at Bexar, he couldn't resist mounting one, and persuading his friend to mount the other.
Nothing of interest occurred until we came within about twenty miles of San Antonio. We were in the open prairie, and beheld a band of about fifteen or twenty armed men approaching us at full speed. "Look out for squalls," said the old pirate, who had not spoken for an hour; "they are a scouting party of Mexicans." "And are three or four times our number," said Thimblerig. "No matter," replied the old man; "they are convicts, jail birds, and cowardly ruffians, no doubt, who would tremble at a loud word as much as a mustang at the sight of the lasso. — Let us spread ourselves, dismount, and trust to our arms."
We followed his orders, and stood beside our horses, which served to protect our persons, and we awaited the approach of the enemy. When they perceived this movement of ours, they checked their speed, appeared to consult together for a few minutes, then spread their line, and came within rifle shot of us. The leader called out to us in Spanish, but as I did not understand him, I asked the old man what it was, who said he called upon us to surrender.
"There will be a brush with those blackguards," continued the pirate. "Now each of you single out your man for the first fire, and they are greater fools than I take them for if they give us a chance at a second. — Colonel, as you are a good shot, just settle the business for that talking fellow with the 1 red feather; he's worth any three of the party."
"Surrender, or we fire," shouted the fellow with the red feather in Spanish.
"Fire, and be d—d," returned the pirate, at the top of his voice, in plain English.
And sure enough they took his advice, for the next minute we were saluted with a discharge of musketry, the report of which was so loud that we were convinced they all had fired. Before the smoke had cleared away we had each selected our man, fired, and I never did see such a scattering among their ranks as followed. We beheld several mustangs running wild without their riders over the prairie, and the balance of the company were already retreating at a more rapid gait than they approached. We hastily mounted, and commenced pursuit, which we kept up until we beheld the independent flag flying from the battlements of the fortress of Alamo, our place of destination. The fugitives succeeded in evading our pursuit, and we rode up to the gates of the fortress, announced to the sentinel who we were, and the gates were thrown open; and we entered amid shouts of welcome bestowed upon us by the patriots.