The Boy Hunters Adventures in Search of a White Buffalo
By Captain Mayne Reid This book was written after Mayne Reid discovered that writing books in which not too many people died, and there was not too much violence, was better business than writing as he did at first. There are three boys living with their father, now just a little disabled, but an avid collector of natural-history specimens. The father says he would give almost anything for the hide of a white buffalo, and that such a beast exists cannot be disputed. The boys volunteer to get up an expedition to bring back the much-desired hide, and off they go.
This book is the story of their quest. But it is also an interesting exposition of the animals and plants that inhabit the great prairies of America. The only real fault is that we are inevitably given the Latin name of the plant or animal. I don't know why I should object to this, but I do. I don't think it sits well within speech.
Still, the story is really interesting, and I greatly enjoyed transcribing it. I am sure I will read it many more times before my days are numbered, if I can. NH
THE BOY HUNTERS ADVENTURES IN SEARCH OF A WHITE BUFFALO
BY CAPTAIN MAYNE REID
THE HOME OF THE HUNTER-NATURALIST.
Go with me to the great river Mississippi. It is the longest river in the world. A line that would measure it would just reach to the centre of the earth,—in other words, it is four thousand miles in length. Go with me to this majestic river.
I do not wish you to travel to its source; only as far up as Point Coupee, about three hundred miles from its mouth. There we shall stop for a while—a very short while—for we have a long journey to make. Our route lies to the far west—over the great prairies of Texas; and from Point Coupee we shall take our departure.
There is a village at Point Coupee—a quaint, old, French-looking village built of wood. In point of fact it is a French village; for it was one of the earliest settlements of that people, who, with the Spaniards, were the first colonists of Western America. Hence we find, to this day, French and Spanish people, with French and Spanish names and customs, all through the Mississippi valley and the regions that lie west of it.
We have not much to do with these things at present, and very little to say of Point Coupee, more than we have already said. Our subject is an odd-looking house that, many years ago, stood upon the western bank of the river, about a mile below the village. I say it stood there many years ago; but it is very likely that it is still standing, as it was a firm, well-built house, of hewn logs, carefully chinked, and plastered between the chinks with run-lime. It was roofed with cedar shingles that projected at the eaves, so as to cast off the rain, and keep the walls dry. It was what in that country is called a "double house,"— that is, a large passage ran across the middle of it, through which you might have driven a wagon loaded with hay. This passage was roofed and ceiled, like the rest of the house, and floored with strong planks. The flooring, elevated a foot above the surface of the ground, projected several feet in front of the passage, where carved uprights of cedar-wood supported a light roof, forming a porch or verandah. Around these uprights, and upon the railing that shut in the verandah, clung vines, rose-bushes, and convolvulus plants, that at certain seasons of the year were clustered over with beautiful flowers.
The house faced the river, standing, as I have said, on its western bank—on the same side with Point Coupee. In front was a lawn, some two hundred yards in length, that stretched toward the river, and ended on the low bluff forming its bank. This lawn was enclosed by high rail-fences, and variegated with clumps of shrubbery and ornamental trees. Most of them were indigenous to the country; but there were exotics as well. Among the trees you could not fail to notice the large-flowered magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), the red mulberry (Morus rubra), the pale-green leaves of the catalpa, the tall tulip-tree (liriodendron), and the shining foliage of the orange.
In contrast with the brighter frondage of these were dark cone-shaped cedars, and spire-like forms of the yew. There were date-trees and weeping willows growing upon the river bank, and drooping gracefully over its current. Other plants and trees might be distinguished—the natives of a southern clime—such as the great Mexican aloe (Agave Americana), the bayonet blades of the yucca, and the fan-like leaves of the palmetto. Beautiful birds of many varieties might be seen among the copses, or moving over the grassy sward of the lawn.
In the great hall or passage, already mentioned, a singular picture presented itself. Along the walls, on both sides, were suspended various implements of the chase, such as rifles, shot guns, pouches, flasks, hunting-knives, and, in short, every species of trap, net, or implement, that could be devised for capturing the wild denizens of the earth, air, and water. Horns of the stag and elk were fastened to the hewn logs; and upon their branching antlers hung hair-bridles, and high-peaked saddles of the Mexican or Spanish fashion. In addition to these were skins of rare birds and quadrupeds, artistically preserved by stuffing, and placed on pedestals around the wooden walls. There were glass cases, too, containing moths, butterflies, and other insects, impaled upon pins, and arranged in systematic order. In short, this hall resembled a little museum.
Were we to enter and examine the inside of the house, we should find three or four good-sized rooms, comfortably furnished, and all stocked with subjects of natural history, and implements of the chase. In one of the rooms we should see a barometer and thermometer hanging against the wall, an old clock over the mantel-piece, a sabre and pistols, and a book-case containing many choice and valuable books.
To the rear of the house we should find a small kitchen built of logs, and containing the usual culinary utensils. Still farther back we should meet with an enclosed yard, having a storehouse and stable at one end. In the stables we should find four horses, and several mules might be observed in the enclosure. A large reddish dog with long ears, and having the appearance of a hound, might be seen straying about the yard, and would not fail to attract our attention.
An observer, viewing this house from a distance, would take it for the residence of a wealthy planter; on a nearer inspection, however, it would not pass for that. There were no rows of negro cabins, no great sugar-mills, nor tobacco-warehouses, such as are always to be seen near the planter's dwelling. Nothing of the sort; nor was there any very large tract of cultivated land contiguous to the house. The dark cypress forest in the background cast its shadow almost up to the walls. Plainly it was not the dwelling of a planter. What then was it, and who were its inmates? It was the home of a Hunter-Naturalist.
THE HUNTER-NATURALIST AND HIS FAMILY.
In 1815 was fought the famous battle of Waterloo, and in the same year Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the island-rock of Saint Helena. Many French officers, who had followed the fortunes of the great adventurer, at that time emigrated to America. Most of these, as was very natural, sought the French settlements on the Mississippi, and there made their homes for life. Among them was one named Landi, who had been a colonel of chasseurs in Napoleon's army. He was by birth a Corsican; and it was through his being a friend and early acquaintance of one of the Bonaparte family that he had been induced to become an officer in the French army—for in his youth he had been fonder of science than soldiering.
While campaigning in Spain, Landi had married a Basque lady, by whom he had three children, all sons. Their mother died before the battle of Waterloo was fought; so that when Landi emigrated to America his family consisted of his three sons alone.
He first went to Saint Louis, but after a while moved down the river to Point Coupee, in Louisiana, where he purchased the house we have just described, and made it his home.
Let me tell you that he was not in any circumstances of necessity. Previous to his departure for America, he had sold his patrimonial estates in Corsica for a sum of money—enough to have enabled him to live without labour in any country, but particularly in that free land of cheap food and light taxation—the land of his adoption. He was, therefore, under no necessity of following any trade or profession in his new home—and he followed none. How then did he employ his time? I will tell you. He was an educated man. Previous to his entering the French army he had studied the natural sciences. He was a naturalist. A naturalist can find employment anywhere—can gather both instruction and amusement where others would die of ennui and idleness. Remember! there are "sermons in stones, and books in running brooks." He was not a closet naturalist either. Like the great Audubon he was fond of the outside world. He was fond of drawing his lessons from Nature herself. He combined a passion for the chase with his more delicate taste for scientific pursuits; and where could he have better placed himself to indulge in these than in the great region of the Mississippi valley, teeming with objects of interest both to the hunter and the naturalist? In my opinion, he made good choice of his home.
Well, between hunting, and fishing, and stuffing his birds, and preserving the skins of rare quadrupeds, and planting and pruning his trees, and teaching his boys, and training his dogs and horses, Landi was far from being idle. His boys, of course, assisted him in these occupations, as far as they were able. But he had another assistant— Hugot.
Who was Hugot? I shall describe Hugot for your benefit.
Hugot was a Frenchman—a very small Frenchman, indeed—not over five feet four inches in height. He was dapper and tidy—had a large aquiline nose, and, notwithstanding his limited stature, a pair of tremendous moustachios, that curved over his mouth so as almost to hide it. These gave him a somewhat fierce aspect, which, combined with his upright carriage, and brisk mechanical-like movements, told you at once what Hugot had been—a French soldier. He was, in fact, a ci-devant corporal of chasseurs. Landi had been his colonel. The rest you will easily guess. He had followed his old leader to America, and was now his man for everything. It was not often that you could see the naturalist without also seeing Hugot's great moustachios close by his elbow. It would have killed Hugot to have been separated for any length of time from his old colonel.
Of course Hugot accompanied his master in all his hunting expeditions. So, too, did the boys, as soon as they were able to sit upon a horse. On these occasions the house would be shut up, for there was no housekeeper nor any other domestic about the establishment. It would remain thus for days, sometimes for weeks together—for the naturalist with his party often made distant excursions into the surrounding forests. They would return laden with spoils—skins of birds and beasts, plants, and rare geological specimens. Then whole days would be spent in the arrangement of these new acquisitions. Thus did Landi and his family pass their time.
Hugot was cook, valet, groom, butler, and errand boy. I have already stated that no other domestic, male or female, lived in the house: Hugot, therefore, was chambermaid as well. His manifold occupations, however, were not so difficult to fulfil as might at first appear. The Colonel was a man of simple habits. He had learned these when a soldier, and he brought up his sons to live like himself. He ate plain food, drank only water, and slept upon a camp-bed with a buffalo-robe and a blanket. A laundress in Point Coupee kept the linen clean; and Hugot was not near so busy with house affairs as you might suppose. He made daily journeys to the village—to the market, and the post-office, from which he often brought letters, many of them with large seals, and the arms of a prince upon them! Sometimes, too, after a steamer had called at the landing, parcels arrived containing books—scientific books they were—or curious instruments. Notwithstanding all this, there was nothing mysterious about the life of the hunter-naturalist. He was no misanthrope. He often visited the village, and would gossip with old hunters and others who lived there. The villagers knew him as the "old Colonel," and respected him. They only wondered at his tastes as a naturalist, which to them seemed strange. They wondered, too, how he managed to keep house without a maid-servant. But the Colonel did not trouble his head about their conjectures. He only laughed at their curious inquiries, and remained on as good terms as ever. His boys, too, as they grew up became great favourites with all. They were the best shots of their age, could ride a horse with any, could swim the Mississippi, paddle a canoe, fling a lasso, or spear a catfish, as though they had been full-grown men. They were, in fact, boy-men; and as such were regarded by the simple villagers, who instinctively felt the superiority which education and training had given to these youths over their own uneducated minds. The boys, notwithstanding these advantages, were affable with the villagers; hence the respect in which they were universally held.
None of his neighbours ever visited the Colonel, except on matters of business. Indeed he had no visitors of any sort, if we except one or two of his former military associates, who lived at New Orleans, and came up to his house about once a-year to talk over old times, and taste his venison. On such occasions "Napoleon le Grand" was of course the main subject of conversation. Like all old soldiers of the Empire, Landi worshipped Napoleon; but there was one of the Bonaparte family for whom the naturalist entertained a still higher feeling of regard, amounting in fact to sincere friendship. This was Charles Lucien, prince of Musignano.
Not all the Bonapartes have been bad. Some of the members of that remarkable family have given evidence to the world that they were the possessors of noble virtue. The quiet researches of the Prince of Musignano as a student of natural history, may be looked upon as so many conquests in the kingdom of Nature; and though they have been eclipsed by the more brilliant and sanguinary triumphs of the Emperor, yet do they far more entitle him to the gratitude and respect of men. He was the true hero of the hunter-naturalist Landi.
For many years did Colonel Landi lead the life we have described. An event at length happened that was near proving fatal to him. He had been wounded in the leg during his campaigns in the Peninsula. A fall from his horse reopened this wound, and amputation became necessary. This saved his life, but he could no longer partake of the amusements of the chase, although still able to indulge in the more delicate pursuits of the naturalist. With his wooden leg he was able to hobble about the house and lawn, prune the trees, and attend to his pets that had grown to be quite numerous, while Hugot at all times followed him about like his shadow. The boys, however, went abroad on hunting expeditions, and collected specimens as formerly; and the life of all went on pretty much as usual.
Thus it was when I first became acquainted with the naturalist, his man Hugot, and his three sons—the Boy Hunters, the heroes of our little book.
Young reader, permit me to introduce you to a more intimate acquaintance with them. I fancy you will like them—all three—and be happy for some time in their society.
THE PRINCE'S LETTER.
It is a lovely morning in Spring as we approach their dwelling. We enter the lawn by a side-gate. We need not go into the house, for there is no one within doors. The weather is too fine for that, but they are all at home notwithstanding. They are in the lawn in front, and the verandah.
They are differently occupied. The Colonel himself is engaged feeding his pets. Hugot is helping him, and carries the basket containing their food.
You would call the Colonel a fine-looking man. His hair is as white as bleached flax. So, too, are his moustaches. He wears no beard. His face is cleanly shaved, showing a complexion bronzed and somewhat ruddy. The expression of his countenance is mild, though firm. He is much thinner than he has been in his time, on account of the amputation of his leg, which often produces this effect. His dress is simple. A jacket of yellow nankeen, a striped cotton shirt, with loose cottonade trousers of bright sky colour. A Panama hat, with very broad brim, shades his eyes from the sun, and his shirt is open at the throat, for the day is warm. Thus is the Colonel attired. Hugot is dressed after a somewhat similar fashion; but the material of his jacket and trousers is coarser, and his hat is of the common palmetto leaf.
Look at Basil, the oldest of the boys. He is at work fixing some straps to a hunting-saddle, that lies on the grass beside him. Basil is exactly seventeen years of age. He is a fine-looking lad, though not what you might call handsome. His face has a courageous expression, and his form betokens strength. His hair is straight, and black as jet. He is more like an Italian than either of his brothers. He is, in fact, the son of his father—a true Corsican. Basil is a "mighty hunter." He is more fond of the chase than of aught else. He loves hunting for itself, and delights in its dangers. He has got beyond the age of bird-catching and squirrel shooting. His ambition is not now to be satisfied with anything less exciting than a panther, bear, or buffalo hunt.
How very unlike him is Lucien, the second in age! Unlike in almost everything. Lucien is delicately formed, with a light complexion and very fair hair. He is more like what his mother was, for she was fair-haired and blonde, as are many of her people—the Basques. Lucien is passionately fond of books and study. He is busy with a book just now in the verandah. He is a student of natural history in general, but botany and geology are his favourite sciences, and he has made considerable progress in both. He accompanies Basil on all hunting expeditions; but, in the midst of the most exciting chase, Lucien would leap down from his horse if a rare plant or flower, or an odd-looking rock, was to fall under his eye. Lucien talks but little—not half so much as most boys—but although habitually silent he possesses a rare good sense; and when he offers his advice upon any question, it is usually received with respect by the others. Such is the secret influence of intellect and education.
Next and last, we have Francois, a quick-witted, curly-haired urchin— merry to madness—cheerful at all times—changeable in his tastes and likings—versatile in talents—in short, more of a Frenchman than any of them. Francois is a great bird-catcher. He is at this moment engaged in repairing his nets; and his double-barrel shot gun, which he has just finished cleaning, rests beside him. Francois is a favourite with everybody, but a great pest to Hugot, upon whom he plays numerous tricks.
While the naturalist and his family were thus engaged, a loud booming noise was heard at some distance off, down the river. It somewhat resembled the regular firing of great guns, though the explosions sounded softer and more hollow.
"A steamboat!" cried Francois, whose ear first caught the sounds.
"Yes," muttered Basil, "from New Orleans, I expect, and bound to Saint Louis."
"No, brother," said Lucien, quietly raising himself from his book. "She is an Ohio boat."
"How can you tell that, Luce?" inquired Francois.
"From the sound of her 'scape, of course. I can distinguish the boat. She is the 'Buck-eye'—mail-boat for Cincinnati."
In a short time the white cloud of steam was seen ascending over the trees; and then the huge vessel came "bulging" around a bend of the river, cleaving the brown current as she went. She was soon opposite the lawn; and, sure enough, proved to be what Lucien had said she was— the mail-steamer "Buck-eye." This was a triumph for Lucien, although he bore it with characteristic modesty.
The boat had not passed many minutes, when the loud screeching of her steam was heard in the direction of Point Coupee. They could tell from this that she was putting in at the landing.
"Hugot!" cried the Colonel, "their may be something for us. Go and see."
Without waiting for further orders, Hugot started on his errand. He was a brisk walker, Hugot; and was back again in a trice. He brought with him a letter of goodly size and appearance.
"From Prince Lucien!" cried Francois, who was sure to have the first word in everything. "It is from the Prince, papa; I know the seal."
"Quiet, Francois! quiet!" said his father, reprovingly; at the same time hobbling into the verandah, and calling for his spectacles.
The letter was soon opened, and perused.
"Hugot!" cried the Colonel, after he had finished reading it.
Hugot made no reply, but threw himself in front of his master, with his hand raised to his eyebrows a la militaire.
"Hugot, you must go to Saint Louis."
"Bien, mon Colonel!"
"You must start by the first boat."
"Tres-bien, mon Colonel!"
"You must procure for me the skin of a white buffalo."
"That will not be difficult, monsieur."
"More difficult than you imagine, I fear."
"With money, monsieur?"
"Ay, even with money, Hugot. Look you! It is a skin I want—not a robe—but a perfect skin with the head, feet, and all complete, and fit for stuffing."
"Ah! mon Colonel! that is different."
"Ah! you may say so. I fear it will be difficult, indeed," soliloquised the Colonel, with a thoughtful air. "I very much doubt whether we can get it at all; but it must be had, cost what it may—ay, cost what it may."
"I will do my best, Colonel."
"Try at every fur-store in Saint Louis,—inquire among the hunters and trappers—you know where to find them. If these fail you, put an advertisement in the newspapers—advertise both in English and French. Go to Monsieur Choteau—anywhere. Spare no expense, but get me the skin."
"Restez tranquille, mon Colonel; I shall do all that."
"Make ready, then, to start. There may be a steamer going up before night. Hush! I hear one this very moment. It may be a Saint Louis boat."
All stood for a moment silent and listening. The 'scape of another boat coming up the river could be heard plain enough.
"It is a Saint Louis boat," said Lucien. "It is the 'Belle of the West.'"
Lucien, who had a quick talent in that way, could tell, by the sound of their steam-pipe, almost every boat that plied upon the Mississippi. In half-an-hour the steamer hove in sight, and it was seen that he had again guessed correctly. It was a Saint Louis boat, and the "Belle of the West," too!
Hugot had not many preparations to make; and before the boat had arrived opposite to the house, he had arranged everything—received some further instructions, with a purse of money, from his master—and was off to Point Coupee, to meet the steamer at the landing.
GOING ON A GREAT HUNT.
It was full three weeks before Hugot returned. They were a long three weeks to the old Colonel,—who was troubled with apprehensions that Hugot would not succeed in his errand. He had written in reply to the letter of Prince Bonaparte. He had written promising to procure—if possible—a white buffalo-skin—for this was what the Prince's letter was about;—and not for half what he was worth would the Colonel have failed to accomplish this object. No wonder, then, he was impatient and uneasy during Hugot's absence.
Hugot returned at length, after night. The Colonel did not wait until he entered the house, but met him at the door, candle in hand. He need not have put any question, as Hugot's face answered that question before it was asked. The moment the light fell upon it, any one could have told that Hugot had come back without the skin. He looked quite crest-fallen; and his great moustachios appeared bleached and drooping.
"You have not got it?" interrogated the Colonel, in a faltering voice.
"No, Colonel," muttered Hugot, in reply.
"You tried everywhere?"
"You advertised in the papers?"
"In all the papers, monsieur."
"You offered a high price?"
"I did. It was to no purpose. I could not have procured a white buffalo's skin if I had offered ten times as much. I could not have got it for a thousand dollars."
"I would give five thousand!"
"It would have been all the same, monsieur. It is not to be had in Saint Louis."
"What says Monsieur Choteau?"
"That there is but little chance of finding what you want. A man, he says, may travel all over the prairies without meeting with a white buffalo. The Indians prize them beyond anything, and never let one escape when they chance to fall in with it. I found two or three among the fur packs of the traders; but they were not what you desire, monsieur. They were robes; and even for them a large sum was asked."
"They would be of no use. It is wanted for a different purpose—for a great museum. Ah! I fear I cannot obtain it. If not to be had in Saint Louis, where else?"
"Where else, papa?" interrupted Francois, who, with his brothers, had stood listening to the above dialogue. "Where else, but on the prairies?"
"On the prairies!" mechanically echoed his father.
"Yes, papa. Send Basil, and Lucien, and myself. We'll find you a white buffalo, I warrant you."
"Hurrah, Francois!" cried Basil; "you're right, brother. I was going to propose the same myself."
"No, no, my lads; you've heard what Monsieur Choteau says. You need not think of such a thing. It cannot be had. And I have written to the Prince, too. I have as good as promised him!"
As the old Colonel uttered these words, his countenance and gestures expressed disappointment and chagrin.
Lucien, who had observed this with a feeling of pain, now interposed.
"Papa," he said, "it is true that Monsieur Choteau has great experience in the fur-trade; but the facts do not correspond with what he has stated,"—(Lucien, you will observe, was a keen reasoner). "Hugot has seen two or three of these skins in Saint Louis. Some one must have found the animals to which these belonged. Moreover, I have heard, as Monsieur Choteau asserts, that they are highly prized by the Indian chiefs, who wear them as robes; and that they are often seen among the tribes. This, then, proves that there are white buffaloes upon the prairies; and why should we not happen upon them as well as others? I say with Francois and Basil, let us go in search of them."
"Come in, my lads; come in!" said their father, evidently pleased, and to some extent comforted, with the proposal of his boys. "Come in to the house—we can talk over it better when we have had our suppers."
And so saying, the old Colonel hobbled back into the house followed by his three boys; while Hugot, looking very jaded and feeling very hungry, brought up the rear.
During the supper, and after it, the subject was discussed in all its bearings. The father was more than half inclined to consent to the proposal of his sons from the first; while they, but particularly Basil and Francois, were enthusiastic in proving its practicability. I need hardly tell you the result. The Colonel at length gave his consent—the expedition was agreed upon.
The naturalist was greatly influenced by the desire he felt to gratify his friend the Prince. He was influenced, too, by another feeling. He felt secretly pleased at the bold and enterprising character thus exhibited in his children, and he was not the man to throw cold water upon any enterprise they might design. Indeed, he often boasted to his neighbours and friends how he had trained them up to be men, calling them his "boy-men," and his "jeunes chasseurs." And truly had he trained them to a complete self-reliance, as far as lay in his power. He had taught them to ride, to swim, to dive deep rivers, to fling the lasso, to climb tall trees, and scale steep cliffs, to bring down birds upon the wing, or beasts upon the run, with the arrow and the unerring rifle. He had trained them to sleep in the open air—in the dark forest—on the unsheltered prairie—along the white snow-wreath— anywhere—with but a blanket or a buffalo-robe for their beds. He had taught them to live upon the simplest food; and the knowledge of practical botany which he had imparted to them—more particularly to Lucien—would enable them, in case of need, to draw sustenance from plants and trees, from roots and fruits—to find resources where ignorant men might starve. They knew how to kindle a fire without either flint, steel, or detonating powder. They could discover their direction without a compass—from the rocks, and the trees, and the signs of the heavens; and, in addition to all, they had been taught, as far as was then known, the geography of that vast wilderness that stretched from their own home to the far shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The Colonel knew that he might safely trust them upon the prairies; and, in truth, it was with a feeling of pride, rather than anxiety, that he consented to the expedition. But there was still another motive that influenced him—perhaps the most powerful of all. He was inspired by the pride of the naturalist. He thought of the triumph he would obtain by sending such a rare contribution to the great museum of Europe. If ever, my young reader, you should become a naturalist, you will comprehend how strong this feeling may be; and with our hunter-naturalist it was so.
At first he proposed that Hugot should accompany them. This the boys would not hear of, and all three stoutly opposed it. They could not think of taking Hugot—their father would require Hugot at home—Hugot would be of no use to them, they said. They would do as well, if not better, without him.
The truth was, that these ambitious young hunters did not wish to be robbed of any part of the credit of their enterprise—which they knew would be the case if Hugot were to accompany them. Not that Hugot was by any means a noted hunter—quite the contrary—nor a warrior neither, notwithstanding he had been a chasseur a cheval, and wore such fierce moustachios. All this his old Colonel knew very well; and therefore did not much insist upon sending Hugot with them.
Hugot's talents shone best in another sphere of action—in the cuisine. There Hugot was at home, for he could compound an omelette, fricassee a chicken, or dress a canard aux olives, with Monsieur Soyer himself. But Hugot—although for many years he had accompanied his old and young masters in the chase—had no taste whatever for hunting. He had a wholesome dread of bears and panthers, and as to Indians ... Ha! Indians!
Now you will wonder, my young friend, when you come to think of these Indians—when you come to consider that fifty warlike nations of them live and roam over the prairies—many of them sworn foes to white men, killing the latter wherever they may meet them, as you would a mad dog or a poisonous spider,—I say, when you consider these things, you will wonder that this old French or Corsican father should consent to let his sons go upon so dangerous an expedition. It seems unnatural, does it not? In fact, quite improbable, when we come to reflect that the Colonel dearly loved his three sons, almost as dearly as his own life. And yet one would say, he could hardly have found a readier plan to get rid of them, than thus to send them forth among savages. Upon what, then, did he rely for their safety? On their age? No. He knew the Indians better than that. He knew very well that their age would not be cared for, should they chance to fall in with any of the tribes hostile to the whites. It is true, that the savages might not scalp them on this account—being boys,—but they would be very certain to carry them into a captivity from which they might never return. Or did their father anticipate that the excursion should extend no farther than the country of some friendly tribe? He entertained no such idea. Had this been their plan, their errand would have been likely to prove fruitless. In a country of that sort they would have seen but little of the buffalo; for it is well-known that the buffaloes are only found in plenty upon those parts of the prairies termed "war grounds"—that is, where several tribes go to hunt, who are at war with each other. In fact, that is the reason why these animals are more numerous there than elsewhere, as the hunters are fewer, on account of the danger they incur of coming into collision with each other. In a territory which is exclusively in possession of any particular tribe, the buffaloes are soon killed or run off by incessant hunting. It is a fact, therefore, well-known among prairie-hunters, that wherever buffaloes are plenty there is plenty of danger as well, though the converse of this is not always true. On the neutral or "war grounds" of the Indians, you may meet with a friendly tribe one day, and on the next, or even within the next hour, you may fall in with a band of savages who will scalp you on sight.
Now, the father of our three boy hunters knew all this, as well as I know it. How then are we to account for his apparently unnatural conduct, in permitting them to risk their lives in such an enterprise? It would be quite unaccountable indeed were it not that there was a mystery connected with it, which I shall explain to you hereafter. All I can tell you now is, that when the three were mounted and about to start, the Colonel hobbled up; and, drawing from his pocket a small leathern bag or case ornamented with stained porcupine quills, he handed it to Basil, saying as he did so: "Take good care of it, Basil—you know its use—never let it part from you—your lives may depend upon it. God be with you, my brave boys. Adieu!" Basil took the case, passed the string over his shoulders, pushed the bag under the breast of his hunting-shirt, pressed his father's hand, and putting the spur to his horse rode briskly off. Lucien saluted his father with a kiss, waved his hand gracefully to Hugot, and followed. Francois remained a moment behind the rest—rode up to Hugot—caught hold of his great moustache, gave it a twitch that caused the ex-chasseur to grin again; and then, with a loud yell of laughter, wheeled his pony, and galloped after his brothers.
The Colonel and Hugot stood for some moments watching them. When the boy hunters had reached the edge of the woods, all three reined up, turned in their saddles, and, taking off their hats, uttered a parting cheer. The Colonel and Hugot cheered in return. When the noise had subsided, the voice of Francois was heard shouting back,—
"Fear not, papa! we'll bring you the white buffalo!"
THE CAMP OF THE BOY HUNTERS.
Our young adventurers turned their faces westward, and were soon riding under the shadows of majestic woods. At this time there were few white settlements west of the Mississippi river. The small towns upon its banks, with here and there a settler's "clearing" or a squatter's cabin, were the only signs of civilisation to be met with. A single day's ride in a westerly direction would carry the traveller clear of all these, and launch him at once into the labyrinth of swamps and woods, that stretched away for hundreds of miles before him. It is true, there were some scattered settlements upon the bayous farther west, but most of the country between them was a wilderness.
In an hour or so our travellers had ridden clear of the settlements that surrounded Point Coupee, and were following the forest "trails," rarely travelled except by roving Indians, or the white hunters of the border country. The boys knew them well. They had often passed that way on former hunting expeditions.
I shall not detail too minutely the events that occurred along their line of march. This would tire you, and take up too much space. I shall take you at once to their first encampment, where they had halted for the night.
It was in a small glade or opening, such as are often met with in the forests west of the Mississippi. There was about an acre of clear ground, covered with grass and flowers, among which helianthus and blue lupines were conspicuous. Tall trees grew all around; and you could tell from their leaves that these trees were of different kinds. You might have told that from their trunks as well, for these were unlike each other. Some were smooth, while upon others the bark was cracked, and crisped outward in large scales a foot or more in length. The beautiful tulip-tree (liriodendron) was easily distinguished by its straight column-like trunks, out of which are sawed those great planks of white poplar you may have seen, for that is the name by which it is known among carpenters and builders. The name of tulip-tree comes from its flowers, which in size and shape very much resemble tulips, and are of a greenish-yellow colour tinged with orange. It was the characteristic tree around the glade. There were many others, though; and most conspicuous, with its large wax-like leaves and blossoms, was the magnolia grandiflora. The lofty sugar-maple (acer saccharinum) was seen, and lower down the leafy buck-eye (aesculus flava) with its pretty orange-flowers, and the shell-bark hickory—the juglans alba of the botanists. Huge creeping plants stretched from tree to tree, or ran slanting upward; and on one side of the glade you might observe the thick cane-reeds (arundo gigantea), growing like tall grass. The forest on the other side was more open; no doubt, because some former fire had burned down the underwood in that direction. The fan-like leaves of palmettos and yuccas growing all around, gave a southern and tropical aspect to the scene.
The young hunters had halted nearly two hours before sunset, in order to give time to prepare their night-camp. About half-an-hour after their halt, the little glade presented a picture somewhat as follows:—Near its edge stood a small canvas tent, like a white cone or pyramid. The fly, or opening, was thrown back, for the evening was fine, and there was no one inside. A little to one side of the tent lay three saddles upon the grass. They were of the Mexican fashion, with high pommel and cantle, a "horn" in front, with a staple and ring firmly fastened in the wood of the tree. There were several thongs of leather fastened to other rings behind the cantle; but the stirrups were steel ones, and not those clumsy blocks of wood which so much disfigure the Mexican saddle. Beside the saddles was an odd-looking object. It resembled a gigantic book, partly open, and set upon the opened edges. It was a pack-saddle, also of Mexican fashion, and in that country called an "alpareja." It had a strong leathern girth, with a breech-strap to keep it from running forward upon the shoulders of the animal that might wear it. At a short distance from the saddles, several blankets—red and green ones—with a bear-skin and a couple of buffalo-robes, were lying upon the grass; and on a branch overhead hung whips, bridles, water-gourds, and spurs. Against the trunk of a tulip-tree, that towered over the tent, rested three guns. Two of them were rifles, of which one was much longer than the other: the third piece was a double-barrelled shot gun. Bullet-pouches and powder-horns hung from the muzzles of all three, their straps being suspended from the projecting ends of the rammers.
On the opposite or leeward side of the tent a fire was burning. It had not been long kindled, and crackled as it blazed. You could easily have told the strong red flame to be that of the shell-bark hickory—the best firewood—though dry sticks of some lighter wood had been used to kindle it. On each side of the fire a forked stick was stuck into the ground, with the forks at the top; and on these rested a fresh cut sapling, placed horizontally to serve as a crane. A two-gallon camp-kettle of sheet-iron was suspended upon it and over the fire, and the water in the kettle was just beginning to boil. Other utensils were strewed around. There was a frying-pan, some tin cups, several small packages containing flour, dried meat, and coffee; a coffee-pot of strong tin, a small spade, and a light axe, with its curved hickory shaft.
These were the inanimate objects of the picture. Now for the animate.
First, then, were our heroes, the three Boy Hunters—Basil, Lucien, Francois. Basil was engaged by the tent, driving in the pins; Lucien was attending to the fire which he has just kindled; while Francois was making the feathers fly out of a brace of wild pigeons he had shot on the way. No two of the three were dressed alike. Basil was all buckskin—except the cap, which was made from the skin of a raccoon, with the ringed-tail hanging over his shoulders like a drooping plume. He wore a hunting-shirt with fringed cape, handsomely ornamented with beads. A belt fastened it around his waist, from which was suspended his hunting-knife and sheath, with a small holster, out of which peeped the shining butt of a pistol. He wore deerskin leggings fringed down the seams, and mocassins upon his feet. His dress was just that of a backwoods' hunter, except that his cotton under-garments looked finer and cleaner, and altogether his hunting-shirt was more tastefully embroidered than is common among professional hunters.
Lucien's dress was of a sky-blue colour. It consisted of a half-blouse, half-hunting-shirt, of strong cottonade, with trousers of the same material. He had laced buskins on his feet, and a broad-brimmed Panama hat on his head. Lucien's dress was somewhat more civilised in its appearance than that of his elder brother. Like him though he had a leather belt, with a sheath and knife on one side; and, instead of a pistol, a small tomahawk on the other. Not that Lucien had set out with the intention of tomahawking anybody. No; he carried his little hatchet for cracking rocks, not skulls. Lucien's was a geological tomahawk.
Francois was still in roundabout jacket with trousers. He wore leggings over his trousers, and mocassins upon his feet, with a cloth cap set jauntily over his luxuriant curls. He, too, was belted with hunting-knife and sheath, and a very small pistol hung upon his left thigh.
Out near the middle of the glade were three horses picketed on lasso-ropes, so that they might not interfere with each other whilst browsing. They were very different in appearance. One was a large brown-black horse—a half-Arab—evidently endowed with great strength and spirit. That was Basil's horse, and deservedly a favourite. His name was "Black Hawk"—so called after the famous chief of the Sacs and Foxes, who was a friend of the old Colonel, and who had once entertained the latter when on a visit to these Indians. The second horse was a very plain one, a bay, of the kind known as "cot." He was a modest, sober animal, with nothing either of the hunter or warrior in his looks; but sleek withal, and in good condition, like a well-fed citizen. Hence his name, which was "Le Bourgeois." Of course he was ridden by the quiet Lucien. The third horse might have been termed a pony—if size be considered—as he was by far the smallest of the three. He was a horse, however, both in shape and character—one of that small but fiery breed taken by the Spanish conquerors to the New World, and now known throughout the western country as "mustangs." As I shall have reason to say more of these beautiful creatures by and by, I shall only state here, that the one in question was spotted like a pard, and answered to the name "Le Chat" (the cat)—particularly when Francois called him, for he was Francois' horse.
A little apart from the horses was another animal, of a dirty slate colour, with some white marks along the back and shoulders. That was a true-bred Mexican mule, wiry and wicked as any of its race. It was a she-mule, and was called Jeanette. Jeanette was tethered beyond kicking distance of the horses; for between her and the mustang there existed no friendly feeling. Jeanette was the owner of the odd-looking saddle—the pack. Jeanette's duty was to carry the tent, the provisions, the implements, and utensils.
But one other living object might be noticed in the glade—the dog "Marengo." From his size and colour—which was tawny red—you might have mistaken him for a panther—a cougar. His long black muzzle and broad hanging ears gave him quite a different appearance, however; and told you that he was a hound. He was, in fact, a blood-hound, with the cross of a mastiff—a powerful animal. He was crouching near Francois, watching for the offal of the birds.
Now, young reader, you have before you a "night-camp" of the Boy hunters.
A FOX-SQUIRREL IN A FIX.
Francois soon finished dressing his pigeons, and plunged them into the boiling-water. A piece of dried meat was added, and then some salt and pepper, drawn from the store-bag, for it was the intention of Francois to make pigeon-soup. He next proceeded to beat up a little flour with water, in order to give consistency to the soup.
"What a pity," said he, "we have no vegetables!"
"Hold!" cried Lucien, who overheard him. "There appears to be a variety of green stuff in this neighbourhood. Let me see what can be done."
So saying, Lucien walked about the glade with his eyes bent upon the ground. He seemed to find nothing among the grass and herbs that would do; and presently he strayed off among trees, towards the banks of a little stream that ran close by. In a few minutes he was seen returning with both his hands full of vegetables. He made no remark, but flung them down before Francois. There were two species—one that resembled a small turnip, and, in fact, was the Indian turnip (psoralea esculenta), while the other was the wild onion found in many parts of America.
"Ha!" cried Francois, who at once recognised them, "what luck! pomme-blanche, and wild onions too, as I live! Now I shall make a soup worth tasting."
And he proceeded with great glee to cut up the vegetables, and fling them into the steaming kettle.
In a short while the meat and pigeons were boiled, and the soup was ready. The kettle was taken from the crane; and the three brothers, seating themselves on the grass, filled their tin cups, and set to eating. They had brought a supply of hard bread to last for a few days. When that should give out, they would draw upon their bag of flour; and when this, too, should be exhausted, it was their intention to go without bread altogether, as they had often done on like excursions before.
While thus enjoying their pigeon-soup and picking the bones of the plump birds, the attention of all three was suddenly arrested by a movement near one side of the glade. They had just caught a glimpse of something that looked like a flash of yellow light shooting up in a straight direction from the ground.
All three guessed what it was—the lightning passage of a squirrel up the trunk of a tree; and there was the animal itself, clinging flat against the bark, having paused a moment—as is usual with squirrels— before making another rush upward.
"Oh!" cried Lucien, in a suppressed voice, "it is a fox-squirrel, and such a beauty! See! it is marked like a tortoise-shell cat! Papa would give twenty dollars for such a skin."
"He shall have it for far less," rejoined Francois, stealing towards his gun.
"Stop, Francois!" said Lucien. "Let Basil try it with his rifle—he is a surer shot than you."
"Very well," replied Francois; "but if he should miss, it's no harm for me to be ready."
Basil had already risen, and was silently making for the guns. On reaching them, he took the long rifle, and turned in the direction of the game. At the same moment Francois armed himself with his double-barrel.
The tree up which the squirrel had run was what is termed a "dead-wood." It was a decaying tulip-tree—scathed by lightning or storm—and stood somewhat apart from the others, out in the open ground. There was little else standing but the naked trunks, which rose like a column to the height of sixty feet. The branches had all been swept away by the wind, with one exception; and this was a long limb that stretched diagonally upward from the top of the trunk. The limb, although crooked and forking in several places, was not very thick. It was without twigs or leaves, being of course, like the tree itself, dead.
Whilst Basil and Francois were preparing their guns, the squirrel had made a second rush to the top of this limb; where it sat itself down in a fork, and appeared to contemplate the setting sun. No better mark could have been desired for a shot, provided they could get near enough; and that they were likely to do, for the little animal did not appear to regard the presence either of them or their horses—thus showing that it had never been hunted. With its bushy tail erect, and spread like a fan, it sat upon its haunches, appearing to enjoy the warm beams that came from the west.
The boys moved softly around the glade, Basil going foremost. When within range, as he thought, he raised his rifle, levelled it, and was about to pull trigger, when the squirrel, that up to this moment had not noticed him, gave a sudden start, dropped its tail, and ran down the limb as if terrified. It did not stop until it had reached the main trunk. There it halted, a foot or two from the head, and lay flat against the bark.
What could have alarmed it? Not the boys, for it had not minded them before; moreover, it still kept upon their side of the tree, offering as fair a mark as ever. Had it feared them it would, as all squirrels do, have hidden from them behind the trunk. But no, it was not afraid of them; for, as it lay horizontally along the bark, its head was turned upward, and showed, by a peculiar motion, that it dreaded some enemy from above. And this was the fact, for high up and directly over the tree, a large bird of prey was seen circling in the air.
"Hold!" whispered Lucien, laying his hand upon Basil's arm—"hold, brother! it is the red-tailed hawk. See, he is going to swoop down. Let us watch him."
Basil lowered his rifle, and all three stood waiting. A leafy branch was over their heads, so that the bird did not see them, or, intent upon striking his prey, did not care for their presence at the moment.
Lucien had scarcely spoken, when the hawk, that had hitherto been sailing with his broad wings expanded, suddenly narrowed his tail, drew in his wings, and came down with a loud "whish-sh-sh!" He dropped almost perpendicularly, grazing the squirrel so closely, that all three looked for it in his talons as he flew off again. Not so, however. The squirrel had been upon his guard; and, as the hawk swooped down, had doubled around the tree with the quickness of a flash of lightning. By the guidance of his rudder-like tail the hawk soon turned, and flew round to that side of the tree on which the squirrel had now settled. A few strokes of his powerful wings soon enabled him to reach the proper elevation; and again he swooped downward at his intended victim. The squirrel avoided him as before, and came back on the other side of the trunk. Again the hawk doubled, rose, darted downward at his prey, missed it, and swept on. A fourth attempt met with like success, and the bird once more flew back into the air, but still kept circling over the tree.
"It's a wonder old foxy doesn't take to another tree," muttered Francois; "one with branches enough to shelter him, or to his own tree where his hole is. There he would be safe."
"That's exactly what he wishes to do," replied Lucien. "But see! his enemy is directly over him. There's no tree near enough, and if he attempted to run along the open ground, the hawk would be down upon him like a shot. You saw how suddenly he dropped before?"
This was, in fact, the situation in which the squirrel was. It was evident he regarded the trees at some distance with a wistful and anxious look; for, although he had succeeded so far in baffling his enemy, he still appeared to suffer from suspense and fear.
As soon as the hawk had risen a dozen yards or so above the tree, he again commenced wheeling in circles, uttering a strange cry as he flew. It was not a scream—as is often heard with these birds—but a cry of different import, as if a call to some comrade. It was so in fact, for in a moment it was answered from a distant part of the woods; and the next moment, another hawk—red-tailed like himself, but much larger—was seen soaring upwards. This was evidently his mate—for the female of these birds is always much larger than the males. The two soon came together, and wheeled above the tree, crossing each other's orbit, and looking downward. The squirrel now appeared doubly terrified—for he well knew their intent. He began to run around the trunk, looking outward at intervals, as though he intended to leap off and take to the thick woods.
The hawks did not allow him long time to make up his mind. The smaller one swooped first, but missed the squirrel as before, driving him around the trunk. There the frightened creature had scarcely halted, when the great hen-hawk came at him with a whistling rush, and sent him back to the other side. The male bird had by this time turned and now darted with such suddenness and precision, that the squirrel, unable to pass round the tree again, sprang off into the air. Guided by his broad tail the hawk followed, and before the squirrel could reach the ground, the bird was seen to strike. Then with a loud scream he rose into the air, with the squirrel struggling in his talons.
His triumph was a short one. The crack of a shot gun was heard from behind, and both hawk and squirrel fell heavily to the earth. Another crack followed, almost instantaneously, and his mate, the great hen-hawk, came tumbling down with a broken wing, and fluttered over the grass, screaming like a cat. She was soon silenced by a stroke from the butt of Francois' gun—both barrels of which were now empty—for it was Francois that had done the business for the red-tails.
What was most singular of all, the squirrel was not killed either by the shot or the fall. On the contrary, as Lucien was deliberately stooping to pick it up—congratulating himself all the while upon his prize—it suddenly made a spring, shook itself clear of the claws of the dead hawk; and, streaking off into the woods, ran up a tall tree. All three followed as fast as they could run; but on reaching the tree—an oak five feet thick—they saw, to their mortification, the squirrel's hole about fifty feet from the ground, which, of course, brought that squirrel hunt to its termination.
FRANCOIS GETS AN UGLY FALL.
The next encampment of our hunters was upon the Bayou Crocodile. This, like all the bayous of Louisiana, is a sluggish stream, and here and there expands itself into large ponds or lakes. It is called Bayou Crocodile from the great number of alligators that infest its waters, though in this respect it differs but little from the other rivers of Louisiana.
The spot chosen for the camp was an open space upon the bank, at a point where the bayou widened into a small lake. The situation commanded a view of the shores of this lake all round—and a singular view that was. Giant trees rose over the water—live oaks and cypresses—and from their spreading branches the Spanish moss hung trailing down like long streamers of silver thread. This gave the upper part of the woods a somewhat hoary appearance, and would have rendered the scene rather a melancholy one, had it not been for the more brilliant foliage that relieved it. Here and there a green magnolia glistened in the sun, with its broad white flowers, each of them as large as a dining-plate. Underneath grew the thick cane (arundo gigantea), its tall pale-green reeds standing parallel to each other, and ending in lance-shaped blades, like stalks of giant wheat before its ears have shot. Over this again rose the grey limbs of the tupeloo-tree (nyssa aquatica), with light leaves and thin foliage. The beautiful palmetto (chamaerops) lifted its fan-like branches, as if to screen the earth from the hot sun that poured down upon it, and here and there its singular shapes were shadowed in the water. From tree to tree huge parasites stretched like cables—vines, and lianas, and various species of convolvulus. Some of these were covered with thick foliage, while others exhibited a surface of splendid flowers. The scarlet cups of the trumpet-vine (bignonia), the white starlike blossoms of the cypress-creeper, and the pink flowers of the wild althea or cotton-rose (hibiscus grandiflora), all blended their colours, inviting the large painted butterflies and ruby-throated humming birds that played among their silken corollas. As if in contrast with these bright spots in the landscape, there were others that looked dark and gloomy. You could see through long vistas in the forest, where the trees grew out of green slimy water. Here there was no underwood, either of cane or palmettoes. The black trunks of the cypresses rose branchless for nearly an hundred feet, and from their spreading limbs drooped the grey weeping moss. Huge "knees" could be distinguished shooting up like cones or trees that had been broken off leaving their broken trunks in the ground. Sometimes a huge creeper, a foot or more in diameter, stretched across these gloomy aisles, as though a monster serpent were passing from tree to tree.
The lake was alive with alligators. These could be seen basking along the low banks, or crawling away into the dark and shadowy swamp. Some were floating gently on the surface of the stream, their long crests and notched backs protruding above the water. When not in motion these hideous creatures resembled dead logs of wood; and most of them were lying quiet—partly from their natural disinclination to move about, and partly waiting for their prey. Those that basked upon the banks held their jaws expanded, that at intervals were heard to close with a loud snap. These were amusing themselves by catching the flies, that, attracted by the musky odour, flew around their hideous jaws, and lit upon their slimy tongues. Some were fishing in the stream, and at intervals the stroke of their tails upon the water could be heard at the distance of half a mile or more. Their croaking resounded through the woods somewhat like the noise made by bull-frogs, but loud and terrible as the bellowing of bulls. A horrid appearance they presented; but our hunters were accustomed to the sight, and had no fear of these animals.
There were other objects around the lake more pleasing to contemplate. On a distant point stood a troop of flamingoes, drawn up in order like a company of soldiers, their scarlet plumage shining in the sun. Near them was a flock of whooping-cranes—each as tall as a full-grown man— at intervals uttering their loud trumpet notes. The great egret, too, was there, with its snowy plumage and orange bill; the delicately-formed Louisiana heron, with droves of sand-hill cranes, appearing in the distance like flocks of white sheep.
Pelicans, with their pouched throats and scythe-like bills, stood in melancholy attitudes, and beside them were the white and scarlet ibis, and the purple gallinule. Roseate spoonbills waded through the shallows, striking their odd-shaped beaks at the crabs and cray-fish; and upon projecting limbs of trees perched the black darter, his long snake-like neck stretched eagerly over the water. In the air a flock of buzzard vultures were wheeling lazily about, and a pair of ospreys hung over the lake, now and then swooping down upon their finny prey.
Such was the scene around the camp of the boy hunters, a scene often to be witnessed among the wilderness-swamps of Louisiana.
The tent was set near the bank of the bayou, where the ground was dry and high. The spot was open—only a few scattered palmettos growing over it—and the animals were picketed upon the grass near by. There was venison for supper. Basil's unerring rifle had brought down a doe, just as they were about to halt; and Basil was an accomplished butcher of such-like game. The doe was soon skinned, and the choice pieces cut out—enough to serve for supper and breakfast upon the following morning. The haunches were hung on a limb, to be carried along, as the next day's hunt might not turn out so successful. There was still enough left to make a splendid supper for Marengo, and that hungry animal took full advantage of the occasion. He knew that in an excursion like the present it was not every day that a fat doe turned up; or when it did, that such a portion of its carcass was likely to fall to his share.
It was still early, wanting full two hours of sunset, when the hunters finished their supper—dinner it should rather be called—as, with the exception of some dry mouthfuls at their noon halt, they had not eaten since breakfast.
When the meal was over, Basil again looked to repairing the harness of the mule—that had got out of order on the march—while Lucien drew out his note-book and pencil, and, sitting down upon a buffalo-robe, commenced entering his observations for the day. Francois having no employment, resolved upon creeping around the edge of the bayou, to have a shot at the flamingoes, if he should be lucky enough to get near them. This he knew would be no easy matter, but he had made up his mind to try it; and, having told his brothers of his intention, he shouldered his gun and went off.
He was soon out of sight, having passed into some thick timber that grew along the edge of the water, through which there was a plain trail made by deer and other wild animals. He kept along this trail, sheltering himself behind the trees, so that the flamingoes, that were several hundred yards farther down the bayou, might not see him as he approached.
He had not been out of sight more than five minutes, when Basil and Lucien were startled by the report of a gun, and then another following quickly after. They knew it was Francois' fowling-piece; but what had he fired at? It could not have been the flamingoes, as he had not had time to get within range of them. Besides, the birds, where they had been sitting on the far shore, were visible from the camp; and all of them, affrighted by the reports, were now seen winging their way over the tops of the trees. No, it could not have been at the flamingoes Francois had fired. What then? This was the question which Basil and Lucien put to each other, not without some feelings of anxiety. Perhaps, thought they, Francois has sprung a deer, or trampled up a flock of turkeys? So the brothers were fain to conjecture; but their conjectures were soon ended by Francois himself, who was heard far off through the woods, shouting in a fearful manner.
Basil and Lucien seized their rifles, and ran forward to find him; but before they could reach the piece of timber, Francois was seen coming up the trail between the trees, and running as if for his life! In front of him an object appeared, like a dead log, lying directly across the path. It could not be that, for it was in motion. It was a living animal—an alligator!
It was one, too, of the largest dimensions—nearly twenty feet in length, and lay right across the path. Basil and Lucien saw it the moment they got opposite the opening. They saw, too, it was not that which was putting Francois to his speed, for he was running directly upon it. Something behind him occupied all his thoughts, and he did not see the alligator at all; for, although his brothers shouted to warn him, he ran on; and, stumbling over the hideous body of the reptile, fell flat upon his face—his gun pitching forward out of his hands as he fell. He was not hurt, however, but, scrambling to his feet again, continued his race, shouting, as he emerged half breathless out of the bushes, "A bear! a bear!"
Basil and Lucien, making ready their pieces, looked along the trail. There, sure enough, was a bear coming up as fast as he could gallop. It was at him Francois had fired. The small shot had only served to irritate him; and, seeing such a puny antagonist as Francois, he had given chase.
At first they all thought of taking to their heels, and seeking safety by mounting their horses; but the bear had got too near, and one or other might be caught before they could reach the horses and loose them. They resolved, therefore, to make a stand. Basil, who had been at the killing of a black bear before now, was not so much afraid of the encounter; so he and Lucien held their rifles in readiness to give Bruin a warm reception.
The latter came lumbering on, until he had reached the place where the alligator lay. The reptile had turned itself half round, and was now standing on its short legs, lengthwise along the path, puffing like a pair of blacksmith's bellows. The bear, intent upon his pursuit of Francois, did not see it until he had stumbled right upon its body; and then, uttering a loud snort, he leaped to one side. This gave the alligator the very opportunity he would have sought; and the next moment his powerful tail was lashed with such force against the bear, that the ribs of the latter were heard to crack under the blow.
The bear—who would otherwise have left the alligator to himself—became so infuriated at this unprovoked assault, that he turned and sprang upon his new enemy, seizing him round the body in a firm hug. Both struggled over the ground, the one growling and snorting, while the other uttered a sound like the routing of a bull.
How long the conflict would have lasted, and which would have proved victor had they been left to themselves, is not known; for Basil and Lucien both fired, wounding the bear. This caused him to relax his hug, and he now seemed anxious to get off; but the reptile had seized one of his feet in his powerful jaws and thus held him fast, all the while crawling and dragging him down to the water. The bear was evidently aware of the intention of his antagonist, and uttered loud and pitiful moanings, at times screaming like a hog under the knife of the butcher. It was all to no purpose. His unrelenting enemy gained the bank; and dragging him along, plunged into the deep water. Both went down together—completely disappearing from the eyes of the spectators—and although the boys watched for nearly an hour, neither beast nor reptile were seen to rise again to the surface. The bear no doubt had been drowned at once, and the alligator, after having suffocated him, had hidden his carcass in the mud, or dragged it along the bottom to some other part of the bayou—there to make a meal of it at his leisure.
The boys now returned to their tent, impressed with curious feelings by the scene they had just witnessed. They lay down upon the grass, and entered into a conversation, of which bears and alligators formed the subjects. The latter, however, with their singular and revolting habits, came in for the greater share of their talk. Many odd stories in relation to them were known to all, even to the little Francois; and Basil being an old hunter among the swamps and bayous, was acquainted with many of the habits of these animals. But Basil was not much of an observer; and he had only noticed such peculiarities as, from time to time, were forced upon his attention by the incidents of the chase. Lucien, however, had more closely observed their habits, and had also studied them from books. He was, therefore, well acquainted with all that is known to the naturalist concerning these animals; and at the request of his brothers he consented to while away the twilight hours, by imparting to them such information about them as he himself possessed.
"The alligator," began he, "belongs to the order Sauria, or lizards. This order is again divided into several families, one of which is termed Crocodilida, or crocodiles; and the family of crocodiles is subdivided into three genera, each of which has several species."
"How many species in all?" demanded Basil.
"There are not more than a dozen varieties of the whole crocodile family—at least, there are not more known to naturalists."
"Then I was thinking why there should be all this division and subdivision into orders, families, genera, and species, for a dozen varieties of the same animal, and these all so like each other in shape and habits—are they not so?"
"They are," answered Lucien, "very similar in their characteristics."
"Then, why so much classing of them? It appears to me to be quite useless."
"The object of this classing is to make the study of their natural history more easy and simple. But you are right, brother, in the present case; it appears quite useless, and only renders the thing more complex, and obscure. Where there are many varieties or species of a family or order of animals, and where these species differ widely from each other in appearance and habits, then such minute classifications become necessary to assist one's memory; but I say again, brother, you are quite right as to the present case. There is no need for the numerous divisions and subdivisions which have been made of the crocodile family."
"Who made them, then?" asked Francois.
"Who!" exclaimed Lucien, with some warmth; "who but closet- naturalists, old mummy-hunters of museums! Bah! it makes one angry."
As Lucien said this, his usually mild countenance exhibited an expression of mingled indignation and contempt.
"What is there in it to make one angry?" inquired Basil, looking up at his brother with some astonishment.
"Why, to think," answered Lucien, "that these same closet-naturalists should have built themselves up great names by sitting in their easy chairs measuring, and adding up, and classing into dry catalogues, objects which they knew very little about; and that little they obtained from the observations of others—true naturalists—men like the great Wilson—men who toiled, and travelled, and exposed themselves to countless dangers and fatigues for the purpose of collecting and observing; and then for these men to have the fruits of their labours filched from them, and descanted upon in dry arithmetical terms by these same catalogue-makers.—Bah!"
"Stay, brother; Wilson was not robbed of the fruits of his labours! He became famous."
"Yes, and he died from the struggles and hardships that made him so. It reminds me of the fabled song of the swan, brother. He told his beautiful tale, and died. Ah! Poor Wilson, he was a true naturalist."
"His name will live for ever."
"Ay, that it will, when many of the philosophic naturalists, now so much talked of, shall be forgotten, or only remembered to have their quaint theories laughed at, and their fabulous descriptions turned into ridicule. Fortunately for Wilson, he was too poor and too humble to attract their patronage until his book was published. Fortunately for him he knew no great Linneus or Count Buffon, else the vast stores which he had been at so much pains to collect would have been given to the world under another name. Look at Bartram."
"Bartram!" exclaimed Francois; "why, I never heard the name, Luce."
"Nor I," added Basil.
"There it is, you see. Few know his name; and yet this same John Bartram, a farmer of Pennsylvania, who lived an hundred years ago, did more to spread, not only a knowledge of American plants, but the plants themselves, than any one who has lived since. Most of the great gardens of England—Kew among the rest—are indebted to this indefatigable botanist for their American flora; and there were few of the naturalists of that time—Linneus not excepted—that were not largely indebted to him for their facts and their fame. They took his plants and specimens—collected by arduous, toilsome, and perilous journeyings— they put names to them—noble and kingly names—for king-sycophants most of them were, these same naturalists—they described them as they call it—such descriptions, indeed! and then adopted them as their own discoveries. And what did they give John Bartram in return for all his trouble? Why, the English king gave him 50 pounds to enable him to travel over thousands of miles of wilderness in search of rare plants, many of which on reaching England were worth hundreds of pounds each! This was all the poor botanist had for enriching the gardens of Kew, and sending over the first magnolias and tulip-trees that ever blossomed in England! What did the scientific naturalists do for him? They stole his histories and descriptions, and published them under their own names. Now, brothers, what think you of it? Is it not enough to spoil one's temper when one reflects upon such injustice?"
Both Basil and Francois signified their assent.
"It is to such men as Hearne, and Bartram, and Wilson, that we are indebted for all we know of natural history—at least, all that is worth knowing. What to us is the dry knowledge of scientific classifications? For my part, I believe that the authors of them have obscured rather than simplified the knowledge of natural history. Take an example. There is one before our eyes. You see those long streamers hanging down from the live oaks?"
"Yes, yes," replied Francois; "the Spanish moss."
"Yes, Spanish moss, as we call it here, or old-man's-beard moss, as they name it in other parts. It is no moss, however, but a regular flowering plant, although a strange one. Now, according to these philosophic naturalists, that long, stringy, silvery creeper, that looks very like an old man's beard, is of the same family of plants as the pineapple!"
"Ha! ha! ha!" roared Francois; "Spanish moss the same as a pineapple plant! Why, they are no more like than my hat is to the steeple of a church."
"They are unlike," continued Lucien, "in every respect—in appearance, in properties, and uses; and yet, were you to consult the dry books of the closet-naturalists, you would learn that this Spanish moss (Tillandsia) was of a certain family of plants, and a few particulars of that sort, and that is all you would learn about it. Now what is the value of such a knowledge? What is it to compare with a knowledge of the appearance, the structure, and character of the plant—of its properties and the ends for which nature designed it—of its uses to the birds and beasts around—of its uses to man—how it makes his mattress to sleep on, stuffs his sofas, and saddles, and chairs equal to the best horse-hair, and would even feed his horse in case of a pinch? In my opinion, these are the facts worth knowing; and who are the men who publish such facts to the world? Not your closet-naturalists, I fancy."
"True, very true, brother; but let us not vex ourselves about such things; go on, and tell us what you know of the crocodiles."
"Well, then," said Lucien, returning to his natural tone and manner, "as I have already said, the crocodiles are divided into three genera—crocodiles, gavials, and alligators. It is Baron Cuvier who has made this distinction; and he rests it more upon the shape of the head and the set of the teeth, than upon any real difference in the appearance or habits of these animals. The crocodiles have long, pointed, narrow snouts, and a large tooth in each side of the lower jaw, which, when the mouth shuts, passes into a groove in the upper. 'These are the true crocodiles,' says Monsieur Cuvier. The gavials have also long, pointed, narrow, roundish snouts, but their teeth are nearly equal-sized and even. The alligators, on the contrary, have broad pike-shaped noses, with teeth very unequal, and one large one on each side of the lower jaw, that, when the mouth shuts, passes—not into a groove as with the crocodile—but, into a hole or socket in the upper jaw. These are Monsieur Cuvier's distinctions; which he takes a world of pains to point out and prove. He might, in my opinion, have spared himself the trouble, as there are so few varieties of the animal in existence, that they might have been treated of with greater simplicity as so many species of the genus 'crocodile.'
"Of the true crocodiles there are five species known. Four of these are found in the rivers of Africa, while the fifth is an inhabitant of the West Indies and South America. The gavial is found in Asia— particularly in the Ganges and other Indian rivers, and is the crocodile of those parts. The alligator belongs to America, where it is distributed extensively both in North and South America. In the Spanish parts it is called 'caiman,' and there are two species well-known, viz the spectacled caiman of Guiana, and the alligator of the Mississippi. No doubt, when the great rivers of South America have been properly explored, it will come to light, that there are other varieties than these. I have heard of a species that inhabits the Lake Valencia in Venezuela, and which differs from both the American species mentioned. It is smaller than either, and is much sought after by the Indians for its flesh, which these people eat, and of which they are particularly fond. It is probable, too, that new species of crocodiles may yet be found in Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean.
"Now I think it is a well-ascertained fact, that all these varieties of the crocodile family have pretty much the same habits,—differing only where such difference might be expected by reason of climate, food, or other circumstances. What I shall tell you of the alligator, then, will apply in a general way to all his scaly cousins. You know his colour,— dusky-brown above, and dirty yellowish-white underneath. You know that he is covered all over with scales, and you see that on his back these scales rise into protuberances like little pyramids, and that a row of them along the upper edge of his tail give it a notched, saw-like appearance. You notice that the tail is flattened vertically, and not like the tail of the beaver, which is compressed horizontally. You observe that the legs are short and very muscular—that there are five toes on the fore-feet, slightly webbed or palmated, and four on the hind-feet much longer and much more webbed. You notice that his head is somewhat like that of a pike, that the nostrils are near the end of the snout, the eyes prominent, and the opening of the ears just behind them. His eyes have dark pupils, with a lemon-coloured iris; and the pupils are not round, as in the eye of a man, but of an oval shape, something like those of a goat.
"All these things you may observe by looking at an alligator. But there are some things about the structure of the animal which are peculiar, and which may not strike you so readily. You observe that his jaws open far back—even beyond the ears—where they are hinged or articulated into each other. Now this is a peculiar formation, and the effect is, that when the alligator opens his mouth, his neck becomes somewhat bent upwards, giving him the appearance of having moved the upper instead of the under jaw."
"Why I have often heard that that was so," remarked Francois.
"Many have thought so, and said so, since the time of Herodotus, who first propagated this absurd idea. It is not the fact, however. It is the lower jaw that moves, as in other vertebrated animals; but the appearance I have described leads to the mistake that has been made by careless observers. There is another point worth speaking of. The opening of the alligator's ear is guarded by a pair of lips, which he closes the moment he goes under water. His nostrils, too, are protected by valves, which he can also close at will. There is also a peculiarity about his vertebrae. These are so jointed to each other, that he cannot turn without describing a circle with his body. He can move his head but slightly to one side or the other; and this is a fortunate circumstance, if not for him, at least for his enemies. Were he able to turn short round, or twist himself about, as serpents do, he would be a most dangerous creature to encounter. As it is, the great length of his body, combined with the shortness of his legs and the impossibility of his getting round quickly, renders him an easy antagonist on land, provided you keep out of reach of his great jaws, and beyond the sweep of his powerful tail. This last is his true weapon of offence or defence; and as it is not restrained by any vertebrae, he can use it with such effect as to knock the breath out of a man with one single flap. Many of the habits of the alligator are known to you. How the female lays eggs as big as those of a goose, and buries them in the sand, where they are hatched by the heat of the sun. Sometimes she cannot find a sandbank to suit her purpose. She then raises a circular platform of mud mixed with grass and sticks. Upon this she deposits a layer of eggs, and covers them over with several inches of mud and grass. She then lays a fresh tier of eggs, covering these also with mud, and so on until she has laid her whole hatching, which often amounts to nearly two hundred eggs, of a dirty greenish-white colour. In the end she covers all up with mud, plastering it with her tail until it assumes the appearance of a mud oven or beaver-house. All these pains she takes to protect her eggs from raccoons and turtles, as well as vultures and other birds, that are very fond of them. She haunts near the spot while the eggs are hatching, so as to keep off these enemies. When the young are out, her first care is to get them to the water out of the way of such dangers. This seems to be their first instinct, too; for no sooner are they free from the shell than they are seen scuttling off in that direction, or following their mother, many of them having climbed upon her back and shoulders."
"But, brother," interrupted Francois, "is it true that the old males eat their own young?"
"Horrible though it be, it is perfectly true, Francois. I myself have seen it."
"And I," said Basil, "several times."
"The first care of the mother is to get them to the water, where she can better conceal them from their unnatural parent; but, notwithstanding all her precautions, many of them fall victims, both to the old alligators, and the larger tortoises, and birds. As soon as the young ones have learned a little sense, if I may so speak, they elude their monster fathers and uncles, as they are nimbler in their movements, and can keep out of reach of their great jaws and tails. I have often seen the small alligators riding upon the backs of the larger ones, knowing that the latter could not reach them in that situation."
"They appear to eat anything that comes in their way," remarked Francois.
"They are not very particular as to that. Fish is their favourite food, I believe, but they will eat any land animal they can kill; and it is believed they prefer it in a state of putrefaction. That is a doubtful point. They have been known to kill large animals in the water, and leave them at the bottom for several days; but this may have happened because they were not hungry at the time, and were merely keeping them until they should get an appetite. The process of digestion with them, as with all reptiles, is very slow; hence they do not require such quantities of food as the warm-blooded animals—mammals and birds. For instance, they bury themselves in the mud, and lie asleep during the whole winter without any food."