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Roosting Out by Jonathan F. Kelley


In 1837, after the capture of Santa Anna, by General Samuel Houston and his little Spartan band, which event settled the war, and something like tranquillity being restored to Texas, several of us adventurers formed a small hunting party, and took to the woods, in a circuitous tour up and across the Sabine, and so into the United States, homeward bound.

There were seven men, two black boys, belonging to Dr. Clenen, one of our “voyageurs,” and eleven horses and mules, in the party; and with a tolerable fair camp equipage, plenty of ammunition, one or two “old campaigners” and three monstrous clever dogs, it was naturally supposed we should have a pleasant time. The first five days were cold, being early Spring, wet, and not very interesting; but as all of the party had seen some service, and not expecting the comforts and delicacies of civilization, they were all the better prepared to take things as they came, and by the smooth handle. The idea was to travel slow, and reach Jonesboro' or Red River, or keep on the Arkansas, and strike near Fort Smith, in twenty or thirty days. We left Houston in the morning, passed Montgomery, and kept on W. by N. between the Rio Brasos and Trinity River, the first five days, then stood off north for the head of the Sabine.

Game was very sparse, and rather shy, but falling in with some wild turkeys, and a bee tree, we laid by two days and lived like fighting cocks. The turkeys were picked off the tall trees, as they roosted after night, by rifle shots, and no game I ever fed on can exceed the rich flavor of a well-roasted, fat wild turkey. The bee tree was a crowder—a large, hollow cyprus, about sixty feet high, straight as a barber pole, and nearly seven feet in diameter at the base, and full three feet through at the first branch, forty feet up. This must have been the hive of many and many a swarm, for years past; the tree was cut down, and contained from one to three hundred gallons of honey and comb! Nor are such bee trees scarce about the head of the Sabine, Red River, &c. Bears are very fond of honey. The weather then being much improved, it was suggested that the camp should be moved a few miles off, and leave the bee tree and its great surplus contents, to the bears; and if they did come about, we should come back and have a few pops at them. The plan was feasible, and all agreed; so, removing a few gallons of the translucent delicacy, the camp was struck, and, following an old trail a few miles, we found a delightful site for recamping under some large oaks on a creek, a tributary of the Sabine river.

Some of the “boys,” as each styled the others, during the day had found “a deer lick,” about three miles above the camp, and to vary the viands a little, it was proposed that three of the boys should go up after dark, lay about, and see if a shot could be had at some of the visitors of “the lick.”

One of the old heads, and by-the-way we called him “old traps,” from the fact of his always being so ready to explain the manner and uses of all sorts of traps, and the inexhaustible adventures he had with them in the course of twenty years' experience in the far west.

Well, “old traps,” Dr. C., and myself, were the deputed committee, that night, to attend to the cases of the deer. Soon after dark we put out, and in the course of a couple of hours, after some floundering in a muddy “bottom” and through hazel brush, or chaparral, the “lick” was found, and positions taken for raking the victims. “Old traps” took a lodge in a clump of bushes. Dr. C. and I squatted on a dead tree, with a few bushes around it, and in a particularly dark spot, from the fact of some very heavy timber with wide-spreading tops standing around and nearly over us.

The ability of keeping still in a disagreeable situation, for a long time, is most desirable and necessary in the character of a hunter;—some men have a faculty for holding a fishing-rod hours at a time over a fishless tide, with wondrous ardor; and I have known men to watch deer, bear, and other game, in one position, for ten or twenty hours. Sauntering up and down in the dark, with wind and rain, and a musket in your arms for company, is not pleasant pastime; but my patience revolted at the idea of squatting on the wet log, all cramped up, three or four hours, and no deer making their appearance; Doctor and I made up our minds to arouse “old traps,” and patter back to the camp. Just as the resolution was about to be put in action, two deer, fine antlered customers, made their appearance about three hundred yards from us, out on a small plain, where their sprightly forms could just be made out as they leisurely stepped along. Getting near “old traps,” he soon convinced us that his eye was still open, although we had concluded he was fast asleep. The sharp, whip-like crack of “old traps'“ rifle brought down one of the deer, and the other, in bounds of thirty or forty feet at a spring, whisked nearly over us, and the Doctor and I fired at the flying deer as he came; neither shot took effect, and off he sped.

“Hurrah! for the old boy!” shouted the Doctor, as we all bustled up to where the deer lay kicking and plunging in his death throes. “By Jove, 'traps,' you've put a ball clean through his head!”

“Yes, sir,” said traps; “I ollers fix game that way, myself.”

“Except when you fix them with the traps, eh?” said I.

“'Zactly,” said traps. “But now, boys,” he continued loading up his rifle, “now let's snatch off the creature's hide, quarter it, and travel back to the camp, for we ain't gwoine to have any more deer to-night.”

This was soon accomplished. Trap seized the hind quarters and hide, and travelled; Doctor and I brought up the rear with the rest of the meat and fat.

To avoid the muddy “bottom,” in going back, we concluded to take a little round-about way, and relieved one another by taking “spells” at carrying the rifles and the meat. We jogged along, chatting away, for some time, when it occurred to us that we were getting very near the camp, or ought to be, for we had walked long and fast enough.

Doctor was trudging on ahead with the meat; I was behind some twenty yards with both rifles; we were passing through some thin timber which skirted a little prairie, out on which we could see quite distinctly; Doctor made a sudden halt—

“Hollo! by Jove, what's that?”

“What? eh? where?” said I, bustling up to the Doctor, who made free to drop the meat, wheeled about, snatched his rifle out of my fists and broke!

“A grizzly bear coming, by thunder!”

Upon that hint there were two gentlemen seen hurrying themselves somewhat, I reckon, on the back track. Doctor was what you might call a fast trotter, but when he broke into a full gallop the odds against me were dreadful! I was fairly distanced, and when perfectly blowed out stopped to pull the briars out of my torn trowsers, scratched face and dishevelled locks, listen to the enemy, and ascertain where the Doctor had got to. No sound broke the reigning stillness, save the sonorous “coo-hoot” of an owl. My rifle was empty, and a search satisfied me that my caps were not to be found. My own cap had also disappeared in the fright, and I was in a bad way for defence, and completely at a dead loss as to the bearings of the camp.

“Well,” thinks I, “it's no particular use crying over spilt milk—it's no use to move when there is no idea existing of bettering one's self, so here I'll roost until daylight, unless Doctor comes back to hunt me up!” I judged it was not far from 2 o'clock, A. M., and believed it possible that our venison might only whet a grizzly bear's appetite to follow up the pursuit and gormandize me!—A proper site for a roost was the next matter of importance, and a scrubby oak with a thick top, close by, offered an inviting elevation to lodge.

A long, long time seemed the coming day; and the sharp air of its approach, and heavy dew, made “perching” in a crotch very fatiguing “pastime.”

When light began to dawn, sliding down I took an observation that convinced me, according to Indian signs, that Doctor and I had gone South too far to hit the camp, and, to the best of my reckoning, the old bee tree was not far out of my way, and that I now struck for.

About noon, and a lovely day it was, I discovered the bee tree, made a dinner on honey, which was scattered about considerably, giving evidence of its having been visited by our rugged Russian friends.

And now, feeling anxious to see human faces, and not linger about a spot where troublesome customers might abound, I made tracks for the camp, which was reached about sundown, and where I found, to my regret, the Doctor had not come in yet.

“Old Traps” had returned all safe enough, and had been prophesying “the boys” were lost, and would not soon be found again. However, the old fellow put away his deer skin, which he had been cleaning, &c., to give me a feed of the deer, a few remnants yet remaining, and from my exercise and fasting, never was a rude meal more luxurious. Two of the party, with one of the black boys, and a mule, had been out since noon in quest of us, and about midnight they returned with the Doctor, who congratulated me on what he had estimated as an escape. So did I. We all concluded it was a DEER hunt! Though we “had a time” at the bee tree, next night, that made us about square.


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