Abbildungen der Seite
[graphic][ocr errors][graphic][ocr errors][merged small]

oughly excited. For an instant they pause irresolutely, then make two or three hesitating steps in advance, snuffing as they go. Again the flag is lowered. They turn to each other, and seem to be holding a parley. Their inevitable conclusion is that they will pursue their reconnoissance, and see what strange bird that is fluttering above the grass. When the flag is once more lifted, they advance again, and finally, unless the wind shifts, or the recumbent hunter finds his patience ebbing, come up almost within pistol-shot of his ambush. Crack goes his rifle; and he must be a poor shot indeed if one of the beautiful quarries before him does not turn a summerset and tumble headlong. I have known a single rifle-ball do the business for two antelopes, where they stood in range. If now the hunter does not discover himself, one at least of the remaining antelopes is often easily bagged. The survivors dart away for a moment from the side of their fallen comrade, but do not go far, often return, and nearly always stand still, to satisfy their own curiosity, within easy rifle-shot of the hunter. But unless he actually needs the meat at once, or can avail himself of it before it spoils, the thorough-going hunter of the Plains is too chivalrous and merciful (to say nothing of economy, in a country where game is as plenty as at creation) to slaughter a beautiful animal for which, despite his own rough exterior, he has a true, even poetical, admiration. I never found a hunter on the Plains (I am not including boy-tourists and foreign emigrants) who would not blush to emulate Gordon Cummings.

About six miles south of the spot where we encountered our first antelope, we saw our first buffaloes. John Gilbert, the wariest hunter of the whole party, rode alongside of our buggy, and quietly pointed to eight or ten scattered black dots on a divide, nearly three miles away, to our right. Our glasses revealed their character; and I should be almost ashamed to let an old hunter know what a fever of enthusiasm that far-off glance communicated to my blood. It was such a strange jumble of feeling to remember operas, National Academy pictures, and the crowd on Broadway, so close on the heels of these grand old giants, who own the monarchy of the Continent's freest wilderness. I felt as happy as a green boy, and trembled all over. Buffaloes — indubitable buffaloes—feeding on that vast, sunny, fenceless mead, in as matter-of-fact and bovine a manner as any New England farmer's cows on one of Coleman's or Shattuck's elm-dotted pasture-lots. They were too far away to take any notice of us, and proved to be only the outposts of the herd,—the extreme advance of venerable bulls, pushed across the Republican to reconnoifre.

Just after we saw the buffaloes, I had a remarkable instance of John Gilbert's delicate Indian training as a guide. We had been steering all the morning, since we left the Blue, by the points of compass, but following the main divides for the sake of a good track as closely as we could without inconvenient aberration from the ford on the Republican, for which we had been making. The ground now began rising before us, and we came to a place where the divide forked. We had not yet seen the Republican, nor the timber which marked its first bottom. It became a question to us which way we should turn, east or west, as nothing more entirely without landmarks than the Plains out of sight of timber can well be imagined.

John Gilbert was called upon to decide, while the party halted. He rode about in the tall grass for a few moments without any particular appearance of scrutiny, and finally remarked,—

"We'll keep to the eastward, I reckon. Some fellow 's gone wrong hereabouts lately. I wonder who it could be. Hunger, when you were coming along the road, did you pass a big covered wagon and a small ambulance, — a four-mule team hitched to one, and a span o' horses on t'other?"

Hunger hadn't, but Thompson had seen such an "outfit" camped near his station the day before.

"Well, that's it: it's come on down and turned off in the wrong d'rection, just hereabouts."

"Wiafs It?" asked the uninitiated, " and where is it? There's nothing to be seen of that kind."

"O yes, there is," replied John, positively. "I've just found the tracks. Here's one set o' narrow wheels, with eight big hoof-marks between 'em; and a sorter mixed up with that is a set of broad wheels, with sixteen small hoofs in between them, a comin' after one another. One 's the ambulance and horses. T'other 's the wagon and the mules. Then, just a little divided from them, and turnin' easterly, is the old track our wagon made when we come down a shootin' from the ranche, ten days ago. So easterly 's our way; and the other fellows '11 get lost, I reckon."

To satisfy my curiosity, I jumped down from the buggy, pushed the high grass away, and among its matted roots discovered something like the marks he described. From the height where he sat on horseback, they were as invisible to any ordinary eye as if they had been at the bottom of the sea; and when • I did discover them, they would have been as illegible

to my understanding for any pathfinding purposes as if they were cuneiform inscriptions on a slab from Nineveh. Still, every word John Gilbert said was afterward substantiated; and how good reason I personally had to thank my stars that those "fellows" did go astray, as well as who they were, and other matters concerning them, will all plainly appear before the close of this chapter. For the present, I refer to our quandary only as a remarkable illustration of the intuitional sixth sense acquired by a man like Gilbert, in protracted frontier experience. It must be remembered that since the ranch-wagon had passed down to the Republican, " ten days ago," the tremendous rain-storm, through which we came to Comstock's, had beaten the prairie hard enough to obliterate any vestige of travel on an ordinary road.

We kept to the easterly, following John Gilbert's lead, passed the rise in the divide of which I have spoken, and came to the brink of a lofty bluff, from the base of which a broad plain extended two miles to the now clearly visible cotton-wood fringe along the Republican. We were compelled to ride along the edge for nearly three miles further, before we found a draw running back into the divide with sides sufficiently gradual to permit our descent to the river's first bottom. But none of the time demanded by this detour was thrown away. The view from the brink was one of the loveliest in nature. Broad level sunshine flooded the green plain below us, and drifting cloud-shadows brought out the contour of the lofty bluffs, which alternately projected into and receded from the plain on the river's further side. Here and there the fringing cotton-woods broke away, and let up to us pure blue glimpses of the river, itself reflect

« ZurückWeiter »