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The Prairie

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



This, the fifth and final volume of the Leather-Stocking Tales, closes the career of Natty Bumppo, variously known in the other novels as Hawk Eye, Deerslayer, Pathfinder, etc. His bravery, firmness of character, and woodland skill make him a type of the hardy pioneers that pushed westward the reign of civilization. In the present volume he is represented as a trapper of the prairies of the great West. Driven by the sound of the ax from his beloved forests, he seeks a refuge on the denuded plains that stretch to the Rocky Mountains, and passes there the closing years of his life.

IN 1804, the year after the purchase of Louisiana, when many emigrant trains moved westward in search of new homes, a train of wagons was moving slowly over the hard, unyielding soil between the La Plata and the bases of the Rocky Mountains, where the withered grass was too sour to tempt the appetites of the cattle. The party exceeded in number twenty persons of both sexes. In front marched a tall, sunburnt man, of a dull countenance and listless manner, who appeared to be the leader. His motley costume of coarse wool and leather was ornamented with a prodigal display of ill-chosen ornaments, including the trinkets of three worthless watches; his buttons were of Mexican silver coins, and his rifle and knife were banded with silver. Besides his weapons and pack, he carried a bright wood-ax on his shoulder.

A short distance in the rear marched a group of youths, very similarly attired, of sufficient resemblance to each other and to the leader to distinguish them as children of one family. But two of the women had arrived at maturity; the elder, the mother of the party, hard-featured, sallow, and wrinkled; the younger, a sprightly girl of eighteen, who appeared in dress and mien to belong to a station in society some gradations above her companions. From the foremost wagon peered several tow-headed children. The second vehicle was covered with a top of cloth so closely drawn as to conceal its contents; the rest were loaded with furniture and personal effects.

As the party journeyed on, the figure of a man suddenly appeared on a neighboring hillock. A pause was made to reconnoiter, but as the figure neither moved nor gave any evidence of hostility, the caravan went on toward him. As the leader drew near he saw a man on whom time had laid a heavy hand, his form withered but not wasted, his sinews and muscles, evidently once of great strength, shrunken but still visible. His dress was chiefly of skins, worn with the hair to the weather, and he leaned on a rifle of uncommon length, which bore marks of long service. When the party came within speaking distance, a low growl issued from the grass at the man's feet, and a tall, gaunt, toothless hound arose lazily and shook himself.

"Down, Hector, down!" said his master, in a voice a little tremulous. "What have ye to do, pup, with men who journey on their lawful callings?"

"Stranger," asked the leader, "can you tell a traveler where he may find necessaries for the night?"

"Advice is not a gift, but a debt that the old owe to the young. What would you wish to know?"

"Where I may camp for the night."

"Come with me, though I can offer little more on this hungry prairie than sweet water and good browse for your cattle."

The old man raised his heavy rifle to his shoulder and led the way over the acclivity to the adjacent bottom, where he pointed out a clear and gurgling spring.

"Ay, this may do," said the leader. "Boys, you have seen the last of the sun; be stirring."

The cattle were liberated and other preparations made for the night, while the stranger stood by, a silent but attentive observer. He noted that the closely covered wagon was rolled apart from the others by several of the men, and that a tent was erected over it, after which the wagon was drawn out. A few light pieces of furniture were put into the tent by the leader with his own hands, after which its folds were jealously arranged as if to preclude scrutiny.

The old man, who had watched this proceeding with curiosity, approached the tent with the obvious object of making a closer examination, when he was rudely drawn back.

"It's an honest regulation, friend," said the fellow, " and sometimes a safe one, that says `Mind your own business."

"Men seldom bring anything to be concealed into these deserts," said the old man, "and I had hoped no offense in examining your comforts."

"They seldom bring themselves, I reckon."

"I say again, friend, I meant no harm. I did not know but there was something behind the cloth that might bring former days to my mind."

As the old man walked meekly away, he heard the leader call aloud, "Ellen Wade!" And the young girl, who had been occupied around the fire, passed by and entered the for-bidden tent.

The trapper, as he described himself in a later conversation, stayed with the party until the first watch of the night, when he slowly wandered off. When he reached a small rise, he paused and looked back, while the hound crouched at his feet. A low growl from the dog aroused him from his musing.

"What is it, pup? Speak plainer—what is it?"

The hound, apparently satisfied with his warning, laid his nose to the ground and was silent; but the trapper's keen eye detected a figure coming toward him.

"Come nigher, we are friends," he said; "none will harm you."

Encouraged by his words a woman came forward, whom he at once recognized as the girl called Ellen Wade.

"I thought I knew the whine of the hound," she said.

"I saw no dogs among the teams of your father," said the trapper.

"Father!" exclaimed the girl. "I have no father! I had nearly said no friend."

"Why then do you come where none but the strong should come?" he demanded. "I hope, young woman, if you have no father, you have at least a brother."

"Heaven forbid that any such as you have seen should be a brother of mine, or anything else near or dear to me! But do you actually live alone in this desert district, old man?"

"There are thousands of the rightful owners roving about the plains; but few of our own color. Hush, Hector, hush!" he added, as the dog gave a low and nearly inaudible growl.

"The dog scents mischief!"

The dog now looked up with a short bark, and the trapper, turning, saw a man coming from a direction opposite that of the encampment.

"It is a white man," said he, "or his step would be lighter." "Call in your dog," said a deep, manly voice. "I love a hound, and should be sorry to do him an injury."

"You may come on, friend; the hound is toothless."

The stranger sprang eagerly forward, and greeted Ellen Wade; then closely examined her companion.

"From what cloud have you fallen, my good old man?" "I am going from an encampment of travelers, over yonder swell, to my own wigwam."

"And you got this young woman to show you the way, because she knows it so well?"

"You've said enough, Paul," interrupted Ellen; "our secret will be safe with this honest old man. He is a trapper."

"Trapper! Give me your hand, father; our trades should make us acquainted. I am a bee-hunter. Now I have baited your curiosity, just move aside while I tell Ellen the rest of my story."

The old man stepped out of ear-shot and left the lovers, who for some reason dared not be seen together by any of the travelers, to talk alone. As he sat musing on the strangeness of the meeting, the old hound once more sniffed danger. After listening attentively, the trapper again approached the pair and said: "Children, we are not alone in these dreary fields; others are stirring and danger is nigh."

"Buffalo," said the young man. "A panther is driving a herd before him."

"Your ears are cheats," said the old man. "The leaps are too long for buffalo. Here they come, dead upon us."

"Come, Ellen," cried Paul, "let us make a trial for the encampment."

"Too late!" exclaimed the trapper. "I see them now, and a bloody band of accursed Sioux they are. Down into the grass —down with ye both, if you value the gift of life!"

It was indeed too late: before many minutes they were prisoners in the hands of a band of about thirty Sioux, under a noted chief named Mahtoree. Leaving them in charge of a savage named Weucha, the chief, who well understood that the presence of a woman indicated that other travelers must be near by, set out with his young men to discover them. After a long and anxious wait, a stampede of the cattle and horses of the train told the trapper of Mahtoree's success. As the frightened animals swept by, the attention of Weucha was distracted a moment. The trapper, noting this, seized the knife of the savage and with a single cut severed the thong by which the horses of the band were tethered. The animals snorted with joy and terror and ran away into the prairie in every direction. Weucha turned upon the trapper with the ferocity of a tiger, fumbling for his knife, at the same moment glancing at the flying horses. Cupidity prevailed, and leaving his charge he dashed after the horses.

"Had we not better join the party of Ishmael?" said the bee-hunter.

"No, no," cried Ellen. "Go, Paul, leave me. You, at least, must not be seen."

Several rifle-shots broke the stillness and they heard the whistle of bullets over their heads.

"This must end," said the trapper, rising. "I know not what need ye have, children, to fear those you should both love and honor, but something must be done to save your lives. Therefore I will advance."

"Who comes—friend or foe?" demanded Ishmael, as the old man approached the wagons.

"Friend; one who has lived too long to disturb the close of life with quarrels."

"But not so long as to forget the tricks of his youth," said Ishmael. " Old man, you have brought this tribe of red devils upon us, and to-morrow you will be sharing the booty."

"He who ventures far into the prairie must abide by the ways of its owners. The savages held me a prisoner while they stole into your camp."

"How is it, stranger? There were three of you just now, or there is no virtue in moonlight."

"If you had seen so many black-looking evil ones on the heels of your cattle, my friend, it would have been easy to fancy them a thousand."

"There'll come a time, stranger, when justice will be done. There are few men living who can say they ever struck a blow that they did not get one as hard in return from Ishmael Bush."

"Then has Ishmael Bush followed the instinct of the beasts rather than the principle which ought to belong to his kind," answered the stubborn trapper.

The old man did not compose himself to sleep until he had assured himself that Ellen Wade had returned. The next morning Ishmael Bush, left thus in the prairie without an animal to move his wagons, said:

"Come, trapper, let us not waste words on fooleries. You have tarried long in this clearing. Now I ask your opinion, face to face: if you had the lead in my business, what would you do?"

The trapper hesitated, as if reluctant to give advice, and then replied:

"Three long miles from this spot is a place where a stand might be made for days and weeks together, if hearts and hands were ready to engage in the bloody work."

After a few more inquiries, Ishmael set about his work without delay. The loaded vehicles, now without horses or cattle, were to be drawn by hand across the prairie to the place indicated by the trapper, and no time was to be lost. The old man stood leaning on his rifle while preparations were going on, the hound at his feet, a silent but attentive observer. He was especially interested in the movements of Ishmael and his assistant, called Abiram White, when they ran the little wagon under the tent, which had stood apart from the rest, and arranged its folds so as to conceal its contents. When Ishmael observed his scrutinizing gaze, he said surlily:

"Stranger, I did believe this prying into the concerns of others was the business of women in the settlements, and not the manner in which men, who are used to live where each has room for himself, deal with the secrets of their neighbors. To what sheriff do you calculate to sell your news?"

"I hold little discourse except with one—the Judge of all," returned the old man, pointing upward. Little does He need knowledge from my hands, and but little will your wish to keep any secret from Him profit you, even in this desert."

Ishmael Bush found the place suggested by the trapper, a high rock rising above the plain, with difficult approaches, and established his family there.

Several weeks later the old trapper, Paul Hover the bee-hunter, and Dr. Obed Battins were seated around a .fire beside a little run, a few miles from Ishmael's stronghold, discussing a buffalo's hump. The doctor, a naturalist who had come into the wilds with Ishmael, had been absent when the cattle were stampeded, and had therefore saved the ass on which he rode. When his guest had appeased his hunger, the trapper asked abruptly:

"Can you tell me, friend, what the traveler carries under the white cloth he guards so carefully?"

"You've heard of it?" exclaimed the other.

"No, I've heard nothing; but I have seen the cloth, and had like to have been bitten for wishing to know what it covered."

"I pined greatly to know the contents of the tent; and some ten days since, Ishmael, pitying my state, imparted the fact that the vehicle contained a beast which he is carrying into the prairies as a decoy, by which he hopes to entrap others of the same genus, or perhaps species."

Paul listened to the doctor in profound silence, but when he had finished, shook his head and asked:

"Harkee, friend, do you think a girl like Ellen Wade would become the companion of a wild beast?"

"It seems to me," the trapper calmly observed, "that there is something dark and hidden in this matter. The traveler likes none to look into the tent; and I have proof that the wagon does not carry the cage of a beast, else old Hector would long since have told me of it."

"Do you pretend to oppose a dog to a man, instinct to reason?" exclaimed the doctor.

"Listen! Do you hear something move in the brake? The dog hears it, and knows what it is. Do you?"

"It exceeds the limits of my knowledge," replied the doctor. "It is a man!" exclaimed the trapper, rising. "It's a man, if I'm a judge of the creatur's ways."

Paul Hover sprang to his feet and threw forward his rifle, crying:

"Come forward, if a friend!"

"A friend and I hope a Christian," returned a voice from the thicket as the speaker made his appearance. He wore a forage-cap of blue cloth, with a soiled gold tassel falling amid a mass of curling black hair. Under his dark-green hunting-shirt with yellow fringes were visible the collar and lapels of a jacket of cloth similar to that of his cap. His legs were protected by buckskin leggings, and his feet by moccasins. Across his shoulder was thrown a short military rifle, and he wore in a red-silk sash a straight dirk and a pair of pistols. On his back he bore a knapsack, marked with the initials U. S.

The newcomer was welcomed to a place beside the fire and to a portion of the feast. When he had appeased his hunger, he satisfied the curiosity of his new companions by displaying a commission creating Duncan Uncas Middleton a captain of artillery in the service of the United States.

"Uncas!" exclaimed the old trapper. "Tell me, lad, by what name is your father known?"

"He was an officer of the States in the War of the Revolution, and of my own name. My mother's brother was Duncan Uncas Heyward."

"Still Uncas," said the old man, trembling with eagerness. "And his father?"

"The same without the Uncas."

"I knowed it!" shouted the trapper. "Tell me, is he living?"

"He died full of days and honors. He was an officer of the King, but when the war between the crown and the colonies took place, he fought on the side of liberty."

"Come, sit ye down beside me, lad, and tell me about your gran'ther."

It turned out that Middleton was a grandson of the trapper's old friend, and knew all about his early history, and his association with Uncas or the Great Serpent, when acting as a scout for the English army. The soldier could scarcely believe that the old but still active man beside him was the one of whom he had heard in the family traditions, but he was finally convinced that there was no mistake.

"I have now a dog, not far from this, who is come of a hound belonging to that scout, and of the stock he always used himself."

"Hector!" said the old man, struggling to conquer his emotions. "Do ye hear that, pup! your kin and blood are in the prairies!"

" But why do I find you, venerable friend of my parents, in these wastes, so far from comfort and safety?"

"I have come into these plains to escape the sound of the ax. Are you of the party that the States have sent into their new purchase to look after their bargain?"

"I am not. I come on a private adventure."

Meanwhile Ishmael Bush and his party had become domiciled in the rocky fortress which the trapper had recommended. At nightfall, after a day of hunting, Ishmael and his followers returned laden with spoil; but Asa was missing. As savages were abroad, his coming was eagerly watched for during the night, but in vain; and in the morning a party set out in search of him. After a long search, the dead body of Asa was found in a copse with the ground around it saturated with blood and marked with signs of a deadly struggle.

"He has been shot in the open and come here for a cover," said Abiram. "The boy has been set upon by savages and has fou't like a hero until they mastered his strength and drew him to the bushes."

On examination, it was found that a rifle-bullet had passed through the body from behind, coming out through the breast. The bullet was found still sticking in his clothing. Ishmael took it and examined it closely. "There's no mistake," he said. "It is from the pouch of that accursed trapper. He has a mark in his mold, and here you see it plainly—six little holes."

"I'll swear to it," cried Abiram. "He showed me the private mark himself."

While the search for Asa was going on, the party of the trapper, including Paul Hover the bee-hunter, Middleton, and Doctor Boffins, had made a descent on the stronghold of Ishmael, which had been left in charge of Ellen, and captured it. To explain this move, it is necessary to say that Captain Middleton had come into the wilderness in search of his wife, who, he had every reason to believe, had been abducted by Ishmael and Abiram White in hope of obtaining a heavy ransom. Middleton, sent out by the government to take possession of its newly acquired territory, had met his fate in the person of Dona Inez, daughter of Don Augustin de Certavallos, a Spanish grandee who had removed from the Floridas into Louisiana on inheriting a rich succession. On the evening of their marriage, his wife had left him to pay a promised visit to her old nurse, promising to return in an hour. Middleton waited impatiently an hour and a half and then hastened to the cottage of the nurse, to learn that his bride had left some time before to return to her father's house. He hurried back, to hear that she had not been seen. Inquiries the next morning brought no news of her; and as day succeeded day without tidings, she was finally given up by her kindred for lost.

But Middleton, who entertained a secret hope that he should yet find her, never abandoned inquiries; and when at last he was rewarded by hearing, from a drunken candidate for the guard-house, that his wife had been abducted by one Abiram White, who, in company with his wife's brother and seven sons, had gone none knew whither, he determined to pursue the scoundrels to the end of the world if necessary.

The reunion of Middleton and his wife, whom the reader will now recognize as the wild animal Ishmael had guarded so secretly and carefully in the covered wagon, was a happy one; but it was soon cut short by the trapper, who insisted on moving on at once.

"There's no time for words," he said. "The squatter and his brood are within a mile or two of this spot."

Paul would not go without Ellen; and so Ellen, leaving behind the children of the squatter to care for themselves, accompanied the party. The sagacity of the trapper, amounting almost to instinct, led him to follow the little stream, as it placed the hill between them and the squatter's party and led them to a small thicket of cottonwood and vines, which stretched westward nearly a mile. As they came to this spot the old hound began a low piteous whining.

"Ay, pup, ay," said the old man. "I know the spot." "This is where the body of the dead man lay," said Middle-ton.

"The very same. Advance, friend bee-hunter, and ex-amine, while I keep the dogs quiet."

But Paul declined, asserting that while he did not fear any living man, he was averse to meddling with dead men's bones. The doctor announced that he was willing to make the search; but he had advanced only a few steps, when he backed out again, with his eyes fixed and staring, and exclaiming: "It is a basilisk!"

"What is't? what is't?" asked the trapper. "Lord, lord, what a humbling thing is fear! Show me the creatur'."

The trapper advanced, with his rifle thrown forward, and saw a pair of dark, glaring, and moving eyeballs.

"Your reptile is a scouter," he muttered, "or I'm no judge of Indian deviltries!" Then, looking to the priming of his rifle, he deliberately presented his piece, saying:

"Now, friend, I am all for peace, or all for war, as you say. Well, if it is not a man, there can be no harm in firing into a bunch of leaves."

The muzzle of his rifle fell and he took a steady aim, when a tall Indian sprang from under a bed of leaves, and stood upright, with the exclamation "Wagh!"

The old trapper recognized him as a Pawnee-Loup; and it finally turned out that he was Hard-Heart, the chief of the tribe, who was out on a scout in search of his enemies the Sioux. His horse, a splendid animal, with mane and tail braided with silver balls, was concealed near by. After a brief and amicable colloquy with the trapper, he sprang into his splendid Spanish saddle and disappeared over the hill.

Event now followed event with rapidity. The party escaped a stampede of buffaloes, and fell into the hands of Mahtoree's band, who were pursuing the animals; and on escaping from the Sioux, were saved from a prairie-fire through the skill of the trapper. They again fell in with Hard-Heart, who had saved himself from the fire by hiding under a wet buffalo-hide, and were enabled by him to cross the river. But scarcely had they reached what they hoped was a place of safety, when they were once more surrounded and captured by Mahtoree and his band, with whom were Ishmael and his family. Mahtoree had cast covetous eyes on the two women and, determined to possess them, had made an agreement with the squatter to return his horses and cattle in exchange for Inez and Ellen. Hard-Heart, the young chief of the Pawnees, who had been captured with the rest, was about to be subjected to torture when he escaped, crossed the river and joined his followers, a band of mounted warriors who were in search of him. Mounting a led horse and arming himself, he challenged Mahtoree to single combat and slew him. In the general battle that followed the Sioux were defeated and scattered, and their prisoners forgotten.

Meanwhile, Ishmael, taking advantage of the fight, seized and bound Middleton, Paul, and the trapper, and placing the women on horses, started for his encampment. On the following morning he held a sort of court in the open plain, Hard-Heart being the only one of the victorious Pawnees present. The squatter first examined Middleton and Paul Hover and exonerated them; but held the old trapper, accusing him of the murder of Asa. The trapper, however, proved conclusively his innocence of the deed, of which he had been a witness, and pointed out Abiram as the culprit.

"He lies! he lies!" shrieked Abiram. "I did no murder; I gave but blow for blow."

"It is enough," said Ishmael in an awful voice. "Let the old man go. Boys, bind the brother of your mother in his place."

Middleton and Inez, Paul and Ellen, the trapper, and Dr. Battins, took a short and silent leave of the squatter, and followed the victorious Hard-Heart to the Pawnee village, where the Captain found his company of artillerymen awaiting him.



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