Swiss Family Robinson Chapter 24

Chapter 24

As we went along the avenue of fruit-trees, I was concerned to see my young plants beginning to droop, and I immediately resolved to proceed to Cape Disappointment the next morning, to cut bamboos to make props for them. It was determined we should all go, as, on our arrival at Falcon’s Nest, we discovered many other supplies wanting. The candles were failing: we must have more berries, for now my wife sewed by candlelight, while I wrote my journal. She wanted, also, some wild-fowls’ eggs to set under her hens. Jack wanted some guavas, and Francis wished for some sugar-canes. So we made a family tour of it, taking the cart, with the cow and ass, to contain our provision, and a large sailcloth, to make a tent. The weather was delightful, and we set out singing, in great spirits.

We crossed the potato and manioc plantations, and the wood of guavas, on which my boys feasted to their great satisfaction. The road was rugged, but we assisted to move the cart, and rested frequently. We stopped to see the bird colony, which greatly delighted them all, and Ernest declared they belonged to the species of Loxia gregaria, the sociable grosbeak. He pointed out to us their wonderful instinct in forming their colony in the midst of the candle-berry bushes, on which they feed. We filled two bags with these berries, and another with guavas, my wife proposing to make jelly from them.

As it was getting late, we set about putting up our tent for the night, when suddenly our ass, who had been quietly grazing near us, began to bray furiously, erected his ears, kicking right and left, and, plunging into the bamboos, disappeared. This made us very uneasy. I could not submit to lose the useful animal; and, moreover, I was afraid his agitation announced the approach of some wild beast. The dogs and I sought for any trace of it in vain; I therefore, to guard against any danger, made a large fire before our tent, which I continued to watch till midnight, when, all being still, I crept into the tent, to my bed of moss, and slept undisturbed till morning.

In the morning we thanked God for our health and safety, and then began to lament our poor donkey, which, I hoped, might have been attracted by the light of our fire, and have returned; but we saw nothing of him, and we decided that his services were so indispensable, that I should go, with one of my sons, and the two dogs, in search of him, and cross the thickets of bamboo. I chose to take Jack with me, to his great satisfaction, for Fritz and Ernest formed a better guard for their mother in a strange place. We set out, well armed, with bags of provisions on our back, and after an hour’s fruitless search among the canes, We emerged beyond them, in an extensive plain on the borders of the great bay. We saw that the ridge of rocks still extended on the right till it nearly reached the shore, when it abruptly terminated in a perpendicular precipice. A considerable river flowed into the bay here, and between the river and the rock was a narrow passage, which at high water would be overflowed. We thought it most likely that our ass had passed by this defile; and I wished to see whether these rocks merely bordered or divided the island; we therefore went forward till we met with a stream, which fell in a cascade from a mass of rocks into the river. We ascended the stream till we found a place shallow enough to cross. Here we saw the shoemarks of our ass, mingled with the footsteps of other animals, and at a distance we saw a herd of animals, but could not distinguish what they were. We ascended a little hill, and, through our telescope, saw a most beautiful and fertile country, breathing peace and repose. To our right rose the majestic chain of rocks that divided the island. On our left a succession of beautiful green hills spread to the horizon. Woods of palms and various unknown trees were scattered over the scene. The beautiful stream meandered across the valley like a silver ribbon, bordered by rushes and other aquatic plants. There was no trace of the footstep of man. The country had all the purity of its first creation; no living creatures but some beautiful birds and brilliant butterflies appeared.

But, at a distance, we saw some specks, which I concluded were the animals we had first seen, and I resolved to go nearer, in hopes our ass might have joined them. We made towards the spot, and, to shorten the road, crossed a little wood of bamboos, the stalks of which, as thick as a man’s thigh, rose to the height of thirty feet. I suspected this to be the giant reed of America, so useful for the masts of boats and canoes. I promised Jack to allow him to cut some on our return; but at present the ass was my sole care. When we had crossed the wood, we suddenly came face to face on a herd of buffaloes, not numerous certainly, but formidable in appearance. At the sight, I was absolutely petrified, and my gun useless. Fortunately the dogs were in the rear, and the animals, lifting their heads, and fixing their large eyes on us, seemed more astonished than angry we were the first men probably they had ever seen.

We drew back a little, prepared our arms, and endeavoured to retreat, when the dogs arrived, and, notwithstanding our efforts to restrain them, flew at the buffaloes. It was no time now to retreat; the combat was begun. The whole troop uttered the most frightful roars, beat the ground with their feet, and butted with their horns. Our brave dogs were not intimidated, but marched straight upon the enemy, and, falling on a young buffalo that had strayed before the rest, seized it by the ears. The creature began to bellow, and struggle to escape; its mother ran to its assistance, and, with her, the whole herd. At that moment, I tremble as I write it, I gave the signal to my brave Jack, who behaved with admirable coolness, and at the same moment we fired on the herd. The effect was wonderful: they paused a moment, and then, even before the smoke was dissipated, took to flight with incredible rapidity, forded the river, and were soon out of sight. My dogs still held their prize, and the mother, though wounded by our shot, tore up the ground in her fury, and was advancing on the dogs to destroy them; but I stepped forward, and discharging a pistol between the horns, put an end to her life.

We began to breathe. We had looked death in the face, a most horrible death; and thanked God for our preservation. I praised Jack for his courage and presence of mind; any fear or agitation on his part would have unnerved me, and rendered our fate certain. The dogs still held the young calf by the ears, it bellowed incessantly, and I feared they would either be injured or lose their prize. I went up to their assistance. I hardly knew how to act. I could easily have killed it; but I had a great desire to carry it off alive, and try to tame it, to replace our ass, whom I did not intend to follow farther. A happy idea struck Jack: he always carried his lasso in his pocket; he drew it out, retired a little, and flung it so dexterously that he completely wound it round the hind legs of the calf, and threw it down. I now approached; I replaced the lasso by a stronger cord, and used another to bind his fore legs loosely. Jack cried victory, and already thought how his mother and brothers would be delighted, when we presented it; but that was no easy matter. At last I thought of the method used in Italy to tame the wild bulls, and I resolved to try it, though it was a little cruel.

I began by tying to the foot of a tree the cords that held the legs; then making the dogs seize him again by the ears, I caught hold of his mouth, and with a sharp knife perforated the nostril, and quickly passed a cord through the opening. This cord was to serve as my rein, to guide the animal. The operation was successful; and, as soon as the blood ceased to flow, I took the cord, uniting the two ends, and the poor suffering creature, completely subdued, followed me without resistance.

I was unwilling to abandon the whole of the buffalo I had killed, as it is excellent meat; I therefore cut out the tongue, and some of the best parts from the loin, and covered them well with salt, of which we had taken a provision with us. I then carefully skinned the four legs, remembering that the American hunters use these skins for boots, being remarkably soft and flexible. We permitted the dogs to feast on the remainder; and while they were enjoying themselves, we washed ourselves, and sat down under a tree to rest and refresh ourselves. But the poor beasts had soon many guests at their banquet. Clouds of birds of prey came from every part; an incessant combat was kept up; no sooner was one troop of brigands satisfied, than another succeeded; and soon all that remained of the poor buffalo was the bones. I noticed amongst these ravenous birds the royal vulture, an elegant bird, remarkable for a brilliant collar of down. We could easily have killed some of these robbers, but I thought it useless to destroy for mere curiosity, and I preferred employing our time in cutting, with a small saw we had brought, some of the gigantic reeds that grew round us. We cut several of the very thick ones, which make excellent vessels when separated at the joints; but I perceived that Jack was cutting some of small dimensions, and I inquired if he was going to make a Pandean pipe, to celebrate his triumphal return with the buffalo.

“No,” said he; “I don’t recollect that Robinson Crusoe amused himself with music in his island; but I have thought of something that will be useful to mamma. I am cutting these reeds to make moulds for our candles.”

“An excellent thought, my dear boy!” said I; “and if even we break our moulds in getting out the candles, which I suspect we may, we know where they grow, and can come for more.”

We collected all our reeds in bundles, and then set out. The calf, intimidated by the dogs, and galled by the rein, went on tolerably well. We crossed the narrow pass in the rocks, and here our dogs killed a large jackal which was coming from her den in the rock. The furious animals then entered the den, followed by Jack, who saved, with difficulty, one of the young cubs, the others being immediately worried. It was a pretty little gold-coloured creature, about the size of a cat. Jack petitioned earnestly to have it to bring up; and I made him happy by granting his request.

In the mean time I had tied the calf to a low tree, which I discovered was the thorny dwarf palm, which grows quickly, and is extremely useful for fences. It bears an oblong fruit, about the size of a pigeon’s egg, from which is extracted an oil which is an excellent substitute for butter. I determined to return for some young plants of this palm to plant at Tent House.

It was almost night when we joined our family; and endless were the questions the sight of the buffalo produced, and great was the boasting of Jack the dauntless. I was compelled to lower his pride a little by an unvarnished statement, though I gave him much credit for his coolness and resolution; and, supper-time arriving, my wife had time to tell me what had passed while we had been on our expedition.

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