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A Brush With the Bison by John Mills

 

PREVIOUSLY to the introduction of Birmingham and Sheffield manufactures into the Indian market, the weapons used in war and hunting were of an exceedingly primitive kind. Instead of rifles, scalping knives, tomahawks, and two-edged lances of polished steel, the North American brave possessed but a short bow made of bone with twisted sinews for strings, and a quiver of flint-tipped arrows, with a stone hatchet, comprised his whole stand-of-arms. As a matter of course, the more destructive kinds of instruments introduced at once increased the slaughter of the game, and, from the eagerness of the traders to exchange their goods for skins, led the Indians to destroy those animals by wholesale which formerly were killed only for food and clothing for themselves. Even at certain seasons of the year, when the fur of the buffalo is in the worst possible condition, it has been known for vast herds to be exterminated merely for their tongues, which would be bartered for a few gallons of villainous whisky. The numbers still ranging over the prairies are, doubtless, very great, extending from the western frontier to the western verge of the Rocky Mountains, and from the 30th to the 55th degree of north latitude; but, as if the end was fixed for the extermination of this the principal provision of the Indian, with the Indian himself, they are rapidly becoming thinned, and in a few years it is highly probable that a buffalo, in its native state, will be as rare on the American continent as a bustard is in our own island.

It is worthy of a passing reflection to glance at the particular purposes for which the buffalo was assigned: to supply the three chief temporal wants of the Indian, as they are those of the white man—food, raiment, and lodging. The flesh affords ample provision, the skin robes for clothing, bedding, and covering to his wig-wam, while, as a further, utility, the hoofs are melted into glue to assist him in fabricating his shield, arrows, and other necessary articles for savage life. It may, therefore, be imagined that the buffalo is indispensable to the Indian's simple existence; for, whatever may have been said and written concerning schemes for his civilization, I am quite certain that, from his innate indolence, love of roving, fierce passions, and unconquerable desire for the excitement of war and hunting, nothing can be more impossible than that any such attempts should meet with a different result than positive defeat. Indeed, the American government, and various religious sects, actuated by the purest philanthropy, have dispatched agents and missionaries to the different tribes, with unflagging perseverance, in the hope of reclaiming the red man from his present degenerated condition; but to no purpose. He adopts the vices of civilization with the greatest readiness, and meets with the most accomplished tutors in the persons of the traders and trappers by whom he is surrounded; but he can not comprehend either the temporal or eternal happiness offered through the medium of Christianity. Ribald as the statement may appear, I have heard an Osage declare, with much seriousness, that "nothing could seem to him less inviting than what the pale face called heaven, and if he was to go there he should not know how to pass his time." With these unsophisticated notions, and the plain, blunt questions with which the Indiana are accustomed to examine all theological matters, it may readily be supposed that a minister of the Gospel would find considerable difficulty in obtaining many proselytes to the true faith.

In the vicinity of St. Louis I once witnessed a most ridiculous scene, wherein a camp preacher, and one of the good old school, thundered forth the evil consequences of not listening to what he was saying with reverence, and, surrounded by Indians of various tribes, the good man, mounted on a primitive rostrum seat, dealt liberally in the terrors of the church, while he offered a niggardly allowance of hope even to the best, always excepting himself. For a time the motley crowd seemed disposed to assume a becoming deportment; but when the preacher went into the particulars of the fiery ordeal, prepared alike for sinners of all ages, sizes, and complexions, a roar of laughter broke simultaneously from the lips of each, and the shouts of mirth drowning his voice, left him violently gesticulating; and, at length, waxing warmer at the reception his homily met with, he began to foam at the mouth with frantic rage, and a more distant likeness to Him who bore contumely with meekness never opened to unwilling ears and stubborn hearts.

We were now on the verge of the upper prairies, no longer enameled with flowers and flowering plants, but covered with a short, coarse, herbage called "buffalo grass," on which the buffalo loves to feed. These hunting grounds are far easier to ride over, from being free of vines and entangling shrubs which interlace each other in impenetrable masses, although the yawning clefts, made by the water courses, the wallows caused by the buffaloes forming baths for themselves by ripping the earth open with their heads in soft, oozy spots, and the burrowing of that sharp and watchful little animal the prairie dog, cause both horse and horseman to run considerable risk when taking a spin over the flat. Hill and dale, bluff and level, the landscape broke upon the eye in one of those infinite and fruitful wastes, which strikes the mind with awe at its grand and boundless scale.

The serious object of the expedition was now on the eve of being realized, and the land of promise being gained, every preparation had been made the succeeding morning for a regular buffalo hunt. In addition to my rifle and pistols, I carried a long lance with the shaft made of the toughest ash. This weapon I found rather unwieldy and awkward, and saw how different it looked in the hands of my companions; but Hawkeye insisted that it was indispensable, an I could not attempt the use of bow and arrow.

Stripped of all superfluous garments, and fully equipped for the expedition, my companions mounted their horses, with their lassos uncoiled and trailing upon the ground, as invariably is the rule in war or hunting, for the purpose of facilitating the re-capture of the animal should an unlucky separation take place between the rider and his saddle. Alike eager for the sport, both horses and men seemed to be moved by a desire to let no "impotent delay" stand between them and the consummation of their hopes, and, as we moved forward to give chase to the herds which were known to be in the vicinity, I thought that a finer set of Osage hunters, albeit the last of the race, never, perhaps, drew a bowstring or couched a lance. Indeed, nothing can be conceived handsomer than they looked, as, with their bronzed chests and finely-developed limbs exposed, they sat upon their plunging horses like statues of faultless mould. A few had decorated their bits and bridles with blue and scarlet tassels, and not the least of the most gayly-decked was my retainer Hawkeye's, who appeared disposed to be equally conspicuous in field, or tent, or lady's bower.

It was now that I rued the luckless mishap which cost me Sunnyside, and learned—alas! not for the first time—the true value of lessons taught by experience. For knowing how much depends upon their horses, in expeditions of this kind, the Indians take the greatest care in running no unnecessary risks with them, although when in the ardor of the chase they ride like demons, and reck little of danger to life and limb.

As my wild colt had successfully given me the slip at the moment of anticipating his services in carrying me "to buffalo," I was fain to depend still upon Nigger, who, Hawkeye swore by the shades of his fathers, would outstrip the best of the herd, "if I only drove my spurs well in and held them there." Certes, this was a fair specimen of Indian treatment to the horse, more particularly should his master be in possession of the white man's instruments of torture and control. Delighted with making an exhibition of his horsemanship, and totally regardless of the maddening effects of bit and spurs, the Indian is never at rest with them, but keeps both at work with relentless rigor and perseverance. Among the red man's virtues, humanity to the brute creation, or indeed to those of his own kind, can not be classed with an approach to truth.

Without evincing any emotions of deep chagrin, Adonis was left behind to guard such goods, chattels, and provisions as would have proved useless to have been carried forward, and as it was expected that we should be enabled to return to the encampment before night-fall, he was directed to hold all things in readiness, and more especially to withstand temptation in keeping his mouth from the bung of my nearly exhausted whisky-keg. In an extended line, or by the familiar description of Indian file, we began this march as usual just at ruddy daybreak, and were not far advanced on the great prairie stretching before us like a vast and limitless ocean, when Blackwolf, who headed the force, reined in his dark iron-gray steed with a sudden jerk which sent him nearly upon his haunches. In an instant all was commotion. Arrows were drawn from their quivers, bow-strings tried and thrummed, lances poised, and every eye directed to the spot on which the chief fixed his earnest and flashing gaze.

Not two miles distant, and grazing in fancied security on a piece of table land as level as a bowling-green, a large herd of buffalo was descried, looking at the distance like so many black specks on the waste. Some I could perceive were lying down, and the scene altogether may be compared, without violence to the imagination, to what the tourist may witness by the aid of railways, within a few hours of the metropolis, in a canter across Dartmoor or Exmoor, and where no dread exists of Pawnees and Camanches.

It was decided that we should head the herd, and endeavor to drive them back toward the encampment, in order to save as little time and trouble as possible in getting the meat and skins to that quarter. In prosecuting this scheme we had to make a wide circle from the direct course, and, indeed, it would have been impossible to approach them in any other way, as we were down the wind, and their powers of scent, like those given to the denizens of the wild in general, are of the most acute order.

"You know, major," observed Hawkeye, as he turned our horses considerably to the left, for for the purpose of covering our circumventing manœuvre under the screen of two lines of bluffs running parallel with each other, "You know, major," repeated he, with a sly twinkle of satire in his snake-like eyes, "for all de Britishers dat come here say you know to every thing, dat buffalo smell Indian mile off. No see far; but smell—Hah! no saying how far buffalo smell."

Taking every precaution to prevent an exercise of these powers upon the force now approaching their precincts, our head and front of the party, Blackwolf led us, with consummate generalship, close to the rear of the unsuspecting animals, and we were upon them without a single head being disturbed. At first, as we gave ourselves to view from behind the bluffs, a few of the nearest jerked up their heads, and after a stare, remarkable for its brevity, erected their tufted tails over their backs and moved off not rapidly, but evidently preparing for a bolt. This example was soon followed by several others; but as the main body, consisting of upward of a hundred, still remained undisturbed, the signal for attack was reserved, as the first object in buffalo-hunting appears to be precisely that in our own glorious fox-hunting—to get on good terms with the chase. Cautiously, and restraining the ardent and fierce spirit of our horses to keep within the compass of control, we still slowly advanced in a double line, while many of the animals knowing, like an old seasoned English hunter when he catches a glimpse of the pack at the meet, the fun in preparation, pulled with might and main and almost defied the stalwart tug upon their jaws.

The pickets having been driven in, I noticed an animal of striking appearance surrounded by a knot of others, suddenly throw up his head, and elevating his tail simultaneously with his pericranium, wheel suddenly in an opposite direction and gallop away, doubtlessly, as fast as his legs and hoofs would carry him.

This praiseworthy precedent of self-preservation was immediately adopted by the entire family, and the patriarch, leading the way, found ready followers at a pace corresponding with his own.

It was a moment of the most thrilling excitement of my life, as with a swoop the Indians dashed ahead, and with halter and rein dangling free, to see their horses strain their utmost powers to outstrip the fugitives, and bring them within reach of bow and lance. Nigger, I may confidently state, did his best without the aid of Hawkeye's cruel suggestion, although in a very short distance, it was conclusively obvious that he could not long live the pace we were going at. The pony, however, rattled away with his ears thrown back like a racehorse, at his final effort, and we were within a few score yards at the moment of Blackwolf's bearing close to the right side of the nearest buffalo, and drawing his bow at the moment of passing, buried the arrow to the feather. In an instant the horse wheeled to avoid the thrust which the wounded buffalo often makes; but Blackwolf's victim was stricken in a vital part, and he rolled over struggling and bleeding in the throes of deadly agony. Right and left the Indians scoured the plain in hot pursuit of the doomed and frightened animals, and never halting in the chase, but rushing from one to another as the huge beasts shouldered along in their ungainly gallop down the valleys and over the bluffs, and across huge gaping rents in the prairie, caused by the winter torrents, brought them to the ground like skittles from well-directed hands.

There appeared to be no chance for me to flesh my maiden lance, and I began to despair of adding a single head to the number slain, when I caught sight of a solitary fugitive stealing away through a stony ravine much to the left of the line which the rest had taken, and from his action I concluded that he had met with a wound which materially interfered with his speed. With an unequivocal disposition to refuse taking any other course than the one he was pursuing, Nigger began to wrestle for the mastership, and being encumbered with my lance I had some little difficulty in pricking him toward the point where the buffalo, alone in his flight, was using his best energies to escape. The pointed iron, however, prevailed, and the plucky little horse, seeing the animal scramble over a conical shaped hillock in the distance, settled himself again in his best pace, and carried me forward in winning style.

The buffalo in his stride is a most singular looking animal, pitching to and fro in heavy lumbering fashion, and yet gets over the ground much faster than he appears. From the thickness of his forehand he is any thing but speedy on rising ground; but on a level, or descent, he can play a merry bat. He is, however, no match for a horse under any circumstances, and under-sized as Nigger was, and notwithstanding the distance lost at the start, I have no doubt, had he not been crippled, but that we should have come up with the patriarch in a run of somewhat longer duration.

As it was we were, in nautical phraseology, coming up with the chase hand over hand, and after floundering through a spongy bottom, in which were several wallows of some dozen feet in diameter made by the buffaloes, I found myself near enough to try the effect of lead, and dropping my lance to trail along the ground by a thong attached to my wrist, for I was not expert enough to handle both it and my rifle, as an Indian would have done without inconvenience, I brought the barrels to bear and gave the contents of both just as Nigger's nose was on a level with the haunch of one of the largest and blackest bulls that ever ranged over a western plain.

With due regard for the preservation of himself, and possibly his rider, Nigger made an abrupt curve, and sheering off, almost at a right angle, avoided an ugly, vicious thrust, which the bull might have made much more effective than my brace of bullets, had not the sagacity of the pony taught him to avoid it. Upon reining in my gallant and discreet little steed, and turning his head again toward the buffalo, I saw that he was standing still, and giving as bold a front as was ever offered to an enemy. Coming to a corresponding attitude, I deliberately reloaded my rifle, and approached him with the greatest caution; for whether he intended to wait my second attack, or plunge forward and send me and Nigger skimming to some unknown corner of the earth, appeared a matter of doubt not quite made up. After a few brief moments for reconnoitring, I urged Nigger to advance to within less than thirty paces of where the bull stood glaring at us, with his curling mane and beard sweeping below his knees, and his distended jaws dropping foam, scarlet dyed with blood. Nothing, indeed, can be imagined more ferocious than the wounded animal looked, fixing the peculiar white balls and black iris of his eyes upon us, under his shaggy frontlet, with the expression of the devil in a mood far from funny. Thinking it expedient to bring the contest to a conclusion without further waste of time, I essayed a manœuvre in order to obtain a sight at a more vulnerable part of my victim's carcass than that which, as I had been given to understand by Hawkeye, his head presented. But, as the baited grimalkin turns to the worrying cur, so did the bull turn exactly with my movements, ever presenting his head, and nothing but his head. This proving exceedingly wearisome, and quickly exhausting the slender stock of patience with which nature supplied me at my birth, I resolved to try what a shot would do in the centre of his forehead, and steadying Nigger for a moment, snapped my left barrel at him, when with the crack down he dropped, and spurring forward in the belief that I had given him his coup-de-grace, I was not a little surprised to see him again stagger to his feet, ready to receive me on his two short black horns, curved in the best possible shape for the ripping business.

Perceiving, however, that notwithstanding the last bullet had only flattened on his os frontis, he was fast sinking from the internal hemorrhage caused by the two first, which brought him to a check, I determined to expend no more valuable ammunition upon him, but inflict a final thrust or two of cold steel. Reslinging my rifle across my shoulders, I for the first time couched a lance for a deadly object, and rode at the bull's flank; but he was too quick for me, and turned as if upon a pivot. Round and round we went, Nigger, with pricked ears and nimble limbs, keeping a steady look upon the buffalo's movements, and far from liking the loud snorts of mingled rage and pain which he momentarily sent forth as we whirled about him. But the attempts of the enemy to foil our purpose grew gradually weaker, and at length, failing to twist with his former adroitness, I plunged the head of the lance to the shaft in his body, and as I plucked it out, the crimson current of his life poured forth, and falling upon his knees, he rolled over dead without a struggle.

Dismounting from Nigger, who steamed and reeked, probably from the combined effects of fear and exertion, I commenced a close inspection of my victim, and found that an arrow had passed into the fleshy part of the near thigh, not far from the hock, and, breaking within a few inches of the barbed point, left it buried there. The beast was certainly a noble specimen of the wild bull of the prairie, and might, from his huge size, patriarchal beard, and luxuriant mane, which almost imbedded his head, ears, and horns, have roved many successive years as the chieftain of his clan. But in a luckless hour the Osage hunters espied his whereabouts, and within a short half hour of the discovery, not a single head lived, not a remnant was left.

So occupied and engrossed had I been with my own sport, that I had taken no interest in what was going on with my companions; but upon making a sweep of the horizon, I perceived a few in sight, scattered here and there, evidently occupied with the carcasses of the slain. Climbing again into the saddle, I rode to the nearest, and found Firefly busily engaged in stripping a skin from a cow, and as it smoked from his bloody fingers, I must own, a slight nausea affected the regions of my stomach. Hot, naked, and fierce from excitement, the savage was tearing away at his butchering task, and I was glad to turn aside from the gory and sickening sight.

The rest, he informed me, I should find similarly employed with himself, as the whole herd was killed, and seven had fallen to his bow. He boasted of having used but a single arrow to each head; but I subsequently found this was not quite in accordance with the truth, although the first three had fallen as he described, at the first shot, and his quiver proved that many shafts had not been thrown away.

Upon leaving Firefly at his truly dirty work, I put Nigger to a gentle canter, and soon passed several carcasses of the buffaloes stretched on the greensward, where they had fallen dead, or been disabled by the arrow, and subsequently lanced by the hunters who swept in the trail of the bowmen.

Like flies collecting around carrion, so do the birds and beasts of prey hover and slink toward a scene of carnage on the prairie from every quarter, and with marvelous powers discover the spot where their feast is prepared. In incredible numbers ravens, buzzards, crows, and others of the same large family now wheeled screaming most discordantly in the air, and packs of wolves appeared, howling with impatience for the banquet. The appearance of these animals in the distance is that of a flock of sheep, being generally perfectly white; but among some dozen or fifteen occupying a bluff in the course I was taking, and howling a most dismal chorus, I perceived a jet black member, whose skin I felt desirous of possessing. It is not, however, an easy task to get on close terms with a wolf, unless gorging himself, when so reluctant is he to quit his meal, that, craven-hearted as he is, he can scarcely be driven from it; but turning Nigger's head away from them, as if I intended in no way to interrupt the assembly, I suddenly brought him in an opposite direction, upon getting on a line with the yelling crew, and, spurring hard, sent them scampering at their best speed. It was a long, raking shot, but covering the knight of the sable hue, I pulled, and dropped him with a shot through the spine. He grinned most horribly, and snapped his teeth together like the rattle of castanets, as I rode up close to his side, and gave him his quietus with a pistol.

There being an insurmountable difficulty in my marking the spot where he fell, as neither tree nor bush was to be seen by which it was to be retraced, I considered it advisable to make sure of my booty by carrying it with me, and as I was not expert in flaying, I was compelled to lift the carcass, and, bearing it before me across the pony's shoulders, commenced a piece of diversion for my red-skinned friends, which lasted as long as I was with them.

Seeing a group of hunters coming toward me, I advanced to meet them, and among the foremost I distinguished the bold Hawkeye, who carried a large bale of hides in front of him, and in the same manner that I was conveying my treasure.

"Has major killed buff'lo?" inquired he; but before I could return any answer he saw the quality of my prize, and bursting into a roar of laughter, exclaimed, "Major's meat! Ha! ha! ha! Major's meat! Nice roast, major, but berry lean!"

The rest also were moved with equal mirth at the trouble I had taken of bagging a wolf, and I was twitted immensely by my facetious critics, who, had they been seen rolling on their horses, making the welkin ring with shouts of laughter, would have given a practical denial of the solemn character assigned to them by the writers of fictions for the subscribers of circulating libraries. Notwithstanding the explanation given, I was frequently reminded of the great care I bestowed upon the carcass of the black wolf, it being alleged that my intention was to eat the most savory parts, only for the discovery of the error that he did not come under the head of "game."

Their good-humor, however, but added to my own; and a balm to my vanity, supposing it stood in need of any such soothing influence, was offered in the unanimous decision, that the skin I had taken that day was the best of the herd.