Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Bison Stampede
By James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)
From ‘The Prairie’

THE WARRIOR suddenly paused and bent his face aside, like one who listened with all his faculties absorbed in the act. Then turning the head of his horse, he rode to the nearest angle of the thicket, and looked intently across the bleak prairie in a direction opposite to the side on which the party stood. Returning slowly from this unaccountable, and, to his observers, startling procedure, he riveted his eyes on Inez, and paced back and forth several times with the air of one who maintained a warm struggle on some difficult point in the recesses of his own thoughts. He had drawn the reins of his impatient steed, and was seemingly about to speak when his head again sank on his chest, and he resumed his former attitude of attention. Galloping like a deer to the place of his former observations, he rode for a moment swiftly in short and rapid circles as if still uncertain of his course, and then darted away like a bird that had been fluttering around its nest before it takes a distant flight. After scouring the plain for a minute he was lost to the eye behind a swell of the land.  1
  The hounds, who had also manifested great uneasiness for some time, followed him for a little distance, and then terminated their chase by seating themselves on the ground and raising their usual low, whining, and warning howls.  2
  These movements had passed in so short a space of time that the old man, while he neglected not to note the smallest incident, had no opportunity of expressing his opinion concerning the stranger’s motives. After the Pawnee had disappeared, however, he shook his head and muttered, while he walked slowly to the angle of the thicket that the Indian had just quitted:—  3
  “There are both scents and sounds in the air, though my miserable senses are not good enough to hear the one or to catch the taint of the other.”  4
  “There is nothing to be seen,” cried Middleton, who kept close at his side. “My ears and my eyes are good, and yet I can assure you that I neither hear nor see anything.”  5
  “Your eyes are good! and you are not deaf!” returned the other, with a slight air of contempt; “no, lad, no; they may be good to see across a church, or to hear a town bell, but afore you had passed a year in these prairies you would find yourself taking a turkey for a buffalo, or conceiting fifty times that the roar of a buffalo bull was the thunder of the Lord! There is a deception of natur’ in these naked plains in which the air throws up the images like water, and then it is hard to tell the prairies from a sea. But yonder is a sign that a hunter never fails to know.”  6
  The trapper pointed to a flight of vultures that were sailing over the plain at no great distance, and apparently in the direction in which the Pawnee had riveted his eyes. At first Middleton could not distinguish the small dark objects that were dotting the dusky clouds; but as they came swiftly onward, first their forms and then their heavy waving wings became distinctly visible.  7
  “Listen!” said the trapper, when he had succeeded in making Middleton see the moving column of birds. “Now you hear the buffaloes, or bisons, as your knowing Doctor sees fit to call them; though buffaloes is their name among all the hunters of these regions. And I conclude that a hunter is a better judge of a beast and of its name,” he added, winking at the young soldier, “than any man who has turned over the leaves of a book instead of traveling over the face of the ’arth, in order to find out the natur’s of its inhabitants.”  8
  “Of their habits, I will grant you,” cried the naturalist, who rarely missed an opportunity to agitate any disputed point in his favorite studies. “That is, provided always deference is had to the proper use of definitions, and that they are contemplated with scientific eyes.”  9
  “Eyes of a mole! as if any man’s eyes were not as good for names as the eyes of any other creatur’! Who named the works of His hand? can you tell me that, with your book and college wisdom? Was it not the first man in the Garden, and is it not a plain consequence that his children inherit his gifts?”  10
  “That is certainly the Mosaic account of the event,” said the Doctor; “though your reading is by far too literal!”  11
  “My reading! nay, if you suppose that I have wasted my time in schools, you do such a wrong to my knowledge as one mortal should never lay to the door of another without sufficient reason. If I have ever craved the art of reading, it has been that I might better know the sayings of the book you name, for it is a book which speaks in every line according to human feelings, and therein according to reason.”  12
  “And do you then believe,” said the Doctor, a little provoked by the dogmatism of his stubborn adversary, and perhaps secretly too confident in his own more liberal, though scarcely as profitable attainments, “do you then believe that all these beasts were literally collected in a garden to be enrolled in the nomenclature of the first man?”  13
  “Why not? I understand your meaning; for it is not needful to live in towns to hear all the devilish devices that the conceit of man can invent to upset his own happiness. What does it prove, except indeed it may be said to prove that the garden He made was not after the miserable fashions of our times, thereby directly giving the lie to what the world calls its civilizing? No, no, the garden of the Lord was the forest then, and is the forest now, where the fruits do grow and the birds do sing, according to his own wise ordering. Now, lady, you may see the mystery of the vultures! There come the buffaloes themselves, and a noble herd it is! I warrant me that Pawnee has a troop of his people in some of the hollows nigh by; and as he has gone scampering after them, you are about to see a glorious chase. It will serve to keep the squatter and his brood under cover, and for ourselves there is little reason to fear. A Pawnee is not apt to be a malicious savage.”  14
  Every eye was now drawn to the striking spectacle that succeeded. Even the timid Inez hastened to the side of Middleton to gaze at the sight, and Paul summoned Ellen from her culinary labors to become a witness of the lively scene.  15
  Throughout the whole of those moving events which it has been our duty to record, the prairies had lain in the majesty of perfect solitude. The heavens had been blackened with the passage of the migratory birds, it is true; but the dogs of the party and the ass of the Doctor were the only quadrupeds that had enlivened the broad surface of the waste beneath. There was now a sudden exhibition of animal life which changed the scene, as it were by magic, to the very opposite extreme.  16
  A few enormous bison bulls were first observed scouring along the most distant roll of the prairie, and then succeeded long files of single beasts, which in their turns were followed by a dark mass of bodies, until the dun-colored herbage of the plain was entirely lost in the deeper hue of their shaggy coats. The herd, as the column spread and thickened, was like the endless flocks of the smaller birds whose extended flanks are so often seen to heave up out of the abyss of the heavens, until they appear as countless as the leaves in those forests over which they wing their endless flight. Clouds of dust shot up in little columns from the centre of the mass, as some animal, more furious than the rest, plowed the plain with his horns; and from time to time a deep hollow bellowing was borne along on the wind, as if a thousand throats vented their plaints in a discordant murmuring.  17
  A long and musing silence reigned in the party as they gazed on this spectacle of wild and peculiar grandeur. It was at length broken by the trapper, who, having been long accustomed to similar sights, felt less of its influence, or rather felt it in a less thrilling and absorbing manner, than those to whom the scene was more novel.  18
  “There go ten thousand oxen in one drove, without keeper or master, except Him who made them and gave them these open plains for their pasture! Ay, it is here that man may see the proofs of his wantonness and folly! Can the proudest governor in all the States go into his fields and slaughter a nobler bullock than is here offered to the meanest hand; and when he has gotten his sirloin or his steak, can he eat it with as good a relish as he who has sweetened his food with wholesome toil, and earned it according to the law of natur’, by honestly mastering that which the Lord hath put before him?”  19
  “If the prairie platter is smoking with a buffalo’s hump, I answer no,” interrupted the luxurious bee-hunter.  20
  “Ay, boy, you have tasted, and you feel the genuine reasoning of the thing! But the herd is heading a little this-away, and it behooves us to make ready for their visit. If we hide ourselves altogether, the horned brutes will break through the place and trample us beneath their feet like so many creeping worms; so we will just put the weak ones apart, and take post, as becomes men and hunters, in the van.”  21
  As there was but little time to make the necessary arrangements, the whole party set about them in good earnest. Inez and Ellen were placed in the edge of the thicket on the side furthest from the approaching herd. Asinus was posted in the centre, in consideration of his nerves; and then the old man with his three male companions divided themselves in such a manner as they thought would enable them to turn the head of the rushing column, should it chance to approach too nigh their position. By the vacillating movements of some fifty or a hundred bulls that led the advance, it remained questionable for many moments what course they intended to pursue. But a tremendous and painful roar which came from behind the cloud of dust that rose in the centre of the herd, and which was horridly answered by the screams of the carrion-birds that were greedily sailing directly above the flying drove, appeared to give a new impulse to their flight and at once to remove every symptom of indecision. As if glad to seek the smallest signs of the forest, the whole of the affrighted herd became steady in its direction, rushing in a straight line toward the little cover of bushes which has already been so often named.  22
  The appearance of danger was now in reality of a character to try the stoutest nerves. The flanks of the dark moving mass were advanced in such a manner as to make a concave line of the front; and every fierce eye that was glaring from the shaggy wilderness of hair in which the entire heads of the males were enveloped, was riveted with mad anxiety on the thicket. It seemed as if each beast strove to outstrip his neighbor in gaining this desired cover; and as thousands in the rear pressed blindly on those in front, there was the appearance of an imminent risk that the leaders of the herd would be precipitated on the concealed party, in which case the destruction of every one of them was certain. Each of our adventurers felt the danger of his situation in a manner peculiar to his individual character and circumstances.  23
  Middleton wavered. At times he felt inclined to rush through the bushes, and seizing Inez, attempt to fly. Then recollecting the impossibility of outstripping the furious speed of an alarmed bison, he felt for his arms, determined to make head against the countless drove. The faculties of Dr. Battius were quickly wrought up to the very summit of mental delusion. The dark forms of the herd lost their distinctness, and then the naturalist began to fancy he beheld a wild collection of all the creatures of the world rushing upon him in a body, as if to revenge the various injuries which, in the course of a life of indefatigable labor in behalf of the natural sciences, he had inflicted on their several genera. The paralysis it occasioned in his system was like the effect of the incubus. Equally unable to fly or to advance, he stood riveted to the spot, until the infatuation became so complete that the worthy naturalist was beginning, by a desperate effort of scientific resolution, even to class the different specimens. On the other hand, Paul shouted, and called on Ellen to come and assist him in shouting, but his voice was lost in the bellowings and trampling of the herd. Furious, and yet strangely excited by the obstinacy of the brutes and the wildness of the sight, and nearly maddened by sympathy and a species of unconscious apprehension in which the claims of nature were singularly mingled with concern for his mistress, he nearly split his throat in exhorting his aged friend to interfere.  24
  “Come forth, old trapper,” he shouted, “with your prairie inventions! or we shall be all smothered under a mountain of buffalo humps!”  25
  The old man, who had stood all this while leaning on his rifle and regarding the movements of the herd with a steady eye, now deemed it time to strike his blow. Leveling his piece at the foremost bull, with an agility that would have done credit to his youth, he fired. The animal received the bullet on the matted hair between his horns, and fell to his knees; but shaking his head he instantly arose, the very shock seeming to increase his exertions. There was now no longer time to hesitate. Throwing down his rifle, the trapper stretched forth his arms, and advanced from the cover with naked hands directly towards the rushing column of the beasts.  26
  The figure of a man, when sustained by the firmness and steadiness that intellect can only impart, rarely fails of commanding respect from all the inferior animals of the creation. The leading bulls recoiled, and for a single instant there was a sudden stop to their speed, a dense mass of bodies rolling up in front until hundreds were seen floundering and tumbling on the plain. Then came another of those hollow bellowings from the rear, and set the herd again in motion. The head of the column, however, divided, the immovable form of the trapper cutting it as it were into two gliding streams of life. Middleton and Paul instantly profited by his example, and extended the feeble barrier by a similar exhibition of their own persons.  27
  For a few moments the new impulse given to the animals in front served to protect the thicket. But as the body of the herd pressed more and more upon the open line of its defenders, and the dust thickened so as to obscure their persons, there was at each instant a renewed danger of the beasts breaking through. It became necessary for the trapper and his companions to become still more and more alert; and they were gradually yielding before the headlong multitude, when a furious bull darted by Middleton so near as to brush his person, and at the next instant swept through the thicket with the velocity of the wind.  28
  “Close, and die for the ground,” shouted the old man, “or a thousand of the devils will be at his heels!”  29
  All their efforts would have proved fruitless however against the living torrent, had not Asinus, whose domains had just been so rudely entered, lifted his voice in the midst of the uproar. The most sturdy and furious of the bulls trembled at the alarming and unknown cry, and then each individual brute was seen madly pressing from that very thicket which the moment before he had endeavored to reach, with the eagerness with which the murderer seeks the sanctuary.  30
  As the stream divided the place became clear; the two dark columns moving obliquely from the copse, to unite again at the distance of a mile, on its opposite side. The instant the old man saw the sudden effect which the voice of Asinus had produced, he coolly commenced reloading his rifle, indulging at the same time in a heartfelt fit of his silent and peculiar merriment.  31
  “There they go, like dogs with so many half-filled shot-pouches dangling at their tails, and no fear of their breaking their order; for what the brutes in the rear didn’t hear with their own ears, they’ll conceit they did: besides, if they change their minds, it may be no hard matter to get the jack to sing the rest of his tune!”  32
  “The ass has spoken, but Balaam is silent!” cried the bee-hunter, catching his breath after a repeated burst of noisy mirth, that might possibly have added to the panic of the buffaloes by its vociferation. “The man is as completely dumfounded as if a swarm of young bees had settled on the end of his tongue, and he not willing to speak for fear of their answer.”  33
  “How now, friend,” continued the trapper, addressing the still motionless and entranced naturalist; “how now, friend; are you, who make your livelihood by booking the names and natur’s of the beasts of the fields and the fowls of the air, frightened at a herd of scampering buffaloes? Though perhaps you are ready to dispute my right to call them by a word that is in the mouth of every hunter and trader on the frontier!”  34
  The old man was however mistaken in supposing he could excite the benumbed faculties of the Doctor by provoking a discussion. From that time henceforth he was never known, except on one occasion, to utter a word that indicated either the species or the genus of the animal. He obstinately refused the nutritious food of the whole ox family; and even to the present hour, now that he is established in all the scientific dignity and security of a savant in one of the maritime towns, he turns his back with a shudder on those delicious and unrivaled viands that are so often seen at the suppers of the craft, and which are unequaled by anything that is served under the same name at the boasted chop-houses of London or at the most renowned of the Parisian restaurants.  35

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