Saved by A Fiddle by Sir Lascelles Wraxall

AMONG the most rapacious and dangerous animals of North America, is the wolf, commonly called the coyote (pronounced ky-o-te) in some of the Southern and Western States. The wolves—far more numerous in the United States than in Europe—are, perhaps, more horrible in aspect than those of the old world. Along desert paths, on the prairies or in the woods, the wolf, the ghoul of the animal race, presents itself to the traveller, with its slavering jaws and flashing eyes, uttering a growl, which is the usual sign of cowardice blended with impudence. “The coyote,” says a recent writer, “is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless.”

The fiddler on the hut roof, with the coyotes below

As the night advanced, the old negro felt the cold pierce his stiffened limbs.

It is very difficult to catch coyotes in a trap, but they are frequently hunted down  with horses and dogs. Their coat is of a dull reddish color, mixed with gray and white hairs. Such is their ordinary condition, but like other animals they display varieties. Their bushy tail, black at the tip, is nearly as long as one third of their body. They resemble the dogs which one sees in the Indian wigwams, and which are certainly descended from this species. They are found in the regions between the Mississippi and the Pacific, and in Southern Mexico. They travel in packs like jackals, and pursue deer, buffaloes, and other animals which they hope to master. They do not venture to attack buffaloes in herds, but they follow the latter in large packs, watching till a laggard—a young calf or an old bull, for instance—may fall out; then they dart upon it and tear it to pieces. They accompany parties of sportsmen or travellers, prowl round deserted camps, and devour the fragments they find there. At times they will enter a camp during the night, and seize lumps of meat on which the emigrants calculated for their morning meal. These robberies sometimes exasperate the victims, and, growing less saving of their powder and shot, they pursue them till they have rubbed out the mess-number of several.

This breed of wolves is the most numerous of all the carnivora in North America, and it is for this reason that the coyotes often suffer from hunger. Then, but only then, they eat corn, roots, and vegetables—in short, anything that will save them from death by starvation.

The coyote is ignorant of any feeling of sympathy, and for this reason inspires none. Here is an anecdote, however, which proves that this quadruped thief of the wood is capable of feeling a certain degree of sensibility of the nerves, at any rate, if not of the heart. This story was told me under canvas, while we were hunting with the Pawnee Indians.

During the first period of the colonization of Kentucky, the coyotes were so numerous in the prairie to the south of that state, that the inhabitants did not dare to leave their houses unless armed to the teeth. The women and children were strictly confined in-doors. The coyotes by which the country was infested belonged to the herd whose coat is dark gray, a very numerous species in the northern district, in the heart of the dense forests and unexplored mountains of the Green River.

The village of Henderson, situated at the left bank of the Ohio, near its confluence with Green River, was the spot most frequented by these depredators.

The pigs, calves, and sheep of the planters paid a heavy tax to these voracious animals. Several times in the depth of winter, when the snow covered the ground, and the flocks were kept in the stalls, the starving coyotes attacked human beings; and more than one belated farmer, returning home at night, found himself surrounded by a raging pack, from whose teeth he had great difficulty in defending himself.

Among the many startling adventures I have heard narrated, not one made a greater impression on me than that of which Richard, the old negro fiddler, was the hero, and which I will tell you.

Richard was what is called a “good old good-for-nothing darky.” The whole district allowed that he had no other merit beyond that of sawing the fiddle; and this merit, which is not one in our own eyes, was highly valued, however, by all the colored people, and even by the whites who lived for a distance of forty miles round. One thing is certain—that no festival could be held without Fiddler Dick being invited to it.

Marriages, christenings, parties prolonged till dawn, which are called “break-downs” in the United States, could not  take place without the aid of his fiddle; and though the negro minstrel was old, and a good deal of his black wool was absent from the place where the wool ought to grow, still Richard was no less welcome wherever he presented himself, with his instrument wrapped up in a ragged old handkerchief under his arm, and a knotted stick in his hand.

Old Richard was the property of one of the Hendersons, a member of the family that gave its name to this Kentucky county and village. His master had a liking for him, owing to his obedient and original character, and the slave, instead of tilling the soil, was at liberty to do whatever he thought proper. No one raised any objection to this tolerance, for Richard, whom his master was used to call a necessary evil, had before all the talent of keeping the negroes of the plantation in good humor by means of his fiddle.

Richard, who understood all the importance of his exalted functions, knew nothing but his duty, and was remarkably punctual whenever those who honored him with their confidence let him know that his services were required. In this respect the merest trifle irritated him, and any vexation or disturbance rendered him ferocious.

Despite the proverbial timidity attributed to geniuses, old Dick displayed a touch of the hyena whenever, at any of the negro festivals presided over by him, anything or anybody offended etiquette or the proprieties. As for Dick, he never forgot himself in the slightest degree, and whenever he was called upon to undertake the duties he performed so well, he had never once kept the company waiting. And yet one day—poor Dick! The following narrative will show that it was not by his own fault that he arrived too late at his appointment.

A wedding of colored people was about to come off on a plantation about six miles from the one where the fiddler lived. In order that the feast might be perfect, old Dick had been invited, and he was unanimously appointed master of the ceremonies. It was during the winter; the cold was excessive, and the snow, which had fallen incessantly for three days, covered the ground to a depth of several feet.

While all Mr. Henderson’s negroes, with their master’s previous permission, hastened to the spot where pleasure called them, the ebony Apollo was arranging his toilet with peculiar delight. A white shirt, a collar as immoderately long in front as it was high in the neck,—so that Dick’s head resembled a block of coal in a sheet of white paper,—a blue coat with gilt buttons, and long tails that reached to his heels,—a present from his master,—a red silk cravat fringed at the ends, a green waistcoat ornamented with an orange patch at the spot where the watch-pocket formerly was, boots which had seen their best days, and a wide-awake hat,—such was the elegant and excessively fashionable attire of Dick, the old black fiddler, who, when dressed in these rags, believed himself as handsome as Adonis.

After taking a parting glance at the piece of looking-glass held by three nails on the wall of his bedroom, and favoring himself with a smile that expressed a personal satisfaction, Richard took his fiddle under his arm and set out.

The moon was shining over his head, the stars sparkled—to use the fiddler’s picturesque expression—like “gilt nails driven into the ceiling of the firmament by an audacious upholsterer.” No sound could be heard, save the crackling of the snow beneath Richard’s feet, as he put them down with the heaviness of old age. The road he had to follow was very narrow; its complicated windings passed  through a dense forest which the axe had not yet assailed, and whose depths were still as entirely unknown as at the period when the Redskins were the sole owners of the territory. This track could only be followed by a pedestrian; no cart road existed for several miles round.

The profound solitude of this road must infallibly produce its effect—that of fear or apprehension—on a being belonging to the human race; but at this moment the old man was so deeply plunged in thought that nothing could make him forget the anxiety he felt at not arriving in time at the place where he was expected. He doubled his pace as he thought of the furious glances that would be bestowed on him by those whose joys his absence retarded, and he regretted the time he had spent in giving an extra polish to his coat buttons and in pulling up the two splendid points of his shirt collar.

While thinking of the reproaches that menaced him, old Dick looked up, and the moon shining above his head proved to him that he was even more behindhand than he had supposed. His legs then began moving like the wheels of a locomotive, so as to keep him constantly ahead of certain black shadows which seemed to be following his every footstep on the forest path.

They were coyotes, horrible coyotes, that cast these shadows, and from time to time gave a snarl of covetousness or impatience; but old Dick paid no attention to them. Ere long, however, he was obliged to devote his entire attention to what was going on behind him. He had walked half the distance, and already saw through the forest arcades the clearing which he must cross to reach the spot where he was expected. The angry barks of the wolves had increased during the last quarter of an hour, and the sound of their paws making the snow crackle inspired the old man with an indescribable terror. The number of animals seemed momentarily to be augmented; it resembled an ant-heap seen through the magnifying-glass of a gigantic microscope.

Wolves, in all parts of the world, look twice before attacking a man; they study the ground, and wait for the propitious moment. This was what was now happening, very fortunately for old Dick, who was more and more perceiving the greatness of the danger, and doubled his speed in proportion as his pursuers grew more daring, brushed past his legs with gnashing teeth, and joyously strove to get ahead of each other. Dick was thoroughly acquainted with the habits of his enemies, and hence carefully avoided running; that would have been giving the signal of attack, for coyotes only rush on persons who are frightened.

The only chance of salvation left him was to prolong this dangerous walk to the skirt of the forest. There he hoped the coyotes, as they do not dare venture into an open plain, would leave him and allow him to continue his walk at peace. He also remembered that in the centre of the clearing there was a deserted cabin, and the thought of reaching this refuge restored him a portion of his courage.

The daring of the coyotes increased with each moment, and the hapless negro could not look around without seeing bright eyes moving in all directions, like the phosphorescent fireflies in summer. One after the other the quadrupeds tried their teeth on old Dick’s thin legs, and as he had dropped his stick he had recourse to his fiddle to keep his foes aloof. At the first blow he dealt the springs produced a sound which had the immediate effect of putting to flight the coyotes, which were surprised by this unusual music.

Dick, an observer naturally and by necessity, then began strumming his fiddle with his fingers; and the carnivorous animals at once manifested fresh marks  of surprise, as if a charge of shot had tickled their ribs. This fortunate diversion, repeated several times, brought Dick to the skirt of the forest, and taking advantage of a favorable moment, he darted on, still striking the strings, and going in the direction of the hut.

The coyotes halted for a moment, with their tails between their legs, looking at their prey flying before them; but ere long their ravenous instinct gained the upper hand, and with a unanimous bark they all rushed in pursuit of the unfortunate negro. Had the wolves caught up to old Dick in this moment of fury, he might have appealed in vain to his fiddle. By running he had destroyed the charm, and the coyotes would not have stopped to listen to him even had he played like Orpheus in the olden times, or Ole Bull in ours.

Fortunately, the old man reached the cabin at the moment when the coyotes were at his heels. With a hand rendered doubly vigorous by the imminence of the danger, he shut the door of the protecting cabin, and secured it with a beam he found within reach. Then he hoisted himself, not without sundry lacerations of his garments, on the ruined roof, the beams of which alone remained, supported on blocks of wood at the four corners of the walls.

Old Dick found himself comparatively out of danger; but the coyotes displayed a fury which threatened to become terrible. Several of them had entered the cabin, and conjointly with those outside they leaped at the legs of the minstrel, whom rapid movements and repeated kicks scarce protected from numerous bites.

Old Dick, in spite of his agony, had not forgotten his fiddle, which had saved his life in the forest. Seizing his bow with a firm hand, he drew from the instrument a shrill note, which overpowered the deafening barks of the coyotes, and silenced them as if by enchantment. This silence henceforth continued, only interrupted by the hysterical sounds which the fiddle produced under the fear-stiffened fingers of the old negro performer.

This inharmonious music could not satisfy the starving animals for long, and from the efforts which they soon made to reach their prey, old Dick comprehended that noise was not sufficient to enchant the wolves. They dashed forward more furiously than ever to escalade the wall. He considered himself lost, especially when he noticed, scarce half a yard from his trembling legs, the enormous head of a coyote, whose large, open eyes seemed to flash fire and gleam.

“The Lord ha’ mussy on all!” he cried; “I am an eaten man!”

And without knowing what he was about, he let his trembling fingers stray over the fiddle, and began playing the famous air of “Yankee Doodle.” It was the chant of the swan singing its requiem in the hour of death.

But suddenly—O, miracle of harmony!—a calm set in round the negro minstrel. Orpheus was no fable: the animals obeyed this new enchantment; and when Dick, on recovering from his terror, was unable to understand what was going on around him, he saw himself surrounded by an audience a hundred fold more attentive to the charms of music than any which had hitherto admired his execution. This was so true that so soon as his bow ceased moving, the coyotes dashed forward to renew the battle.

Dick now knew what his means of preservation were. He must play the fiddle till some help arrived. Ere long, yielding to the fascination of the art, the musician completely forgot the danger he incurred. Indulging all the fancies of his imagination, he gave his four-footed audience a concert in which he surpassed himself.  Never had he played with more taste, soul, and expression. Hence he forgot, in the intoxication of his triumph, the wedding and the brilliant company, the whiskey-punch and supper smoking hot on the board, that awaited him no great distance off.

But alas! every medal has its reverse in this world, and all days of pleasure have their to-morrow of woe. As the night advanced, the old negro felt the cold pierce his stiffened limbs. In vain did he try to rest; if the bow left the fiddle strings, the coyotes rushed against the walls of the cabin; if, on the contrary, he continued to wander along the paths of harmony, these dilettanti of a novel sort squatted down on their hams, with their tails stretched out on the snow, ears pricked up, tongues hanging from their half-opened jaws, and they followed, with a regular movement of the head and body, all the notes produced by old Dick’s fiddle.

While this fantastic scene, illumined by the moonbeams, was taking place in the clearing, the negroes, who were awaiting their comrade to begin the fun, were growing sadly impatient, and did not know what to think of the delay of their musician, who was usually most punctual. At last six of them, tired of waiting, left the house to make a voyage of discovery; and on reaching the cabin, on the top of which Dick was perched, they noticed some thirty coyotes in the position I have described. The old player was still continuing his involuntary concert, with his eyes fixed on his deadly foes.

At the moment when the six negroes raised a simultaneous shout, the whole band of coyotes thought it high time to bolt. In a twinkling they disappeared, and the fiddler, frozen and numbed, fell fainting into the arms of his rescuers. His woolly hair, which, in spite of his great age, was perfectly black at the time when he performed his toilet, had turned white in the space of two hours.