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   Chapter 2 IN PURSUIT OF A HERD

Scouting with Kit Carson By Everett T. Tomlinson Characters: 11587

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Queek! Queek!" called Jean. "At once! Immediately!"

Whether or not it was the call of his excited companion that influenced Reuben, his pony was quickly bridled, and almost at the same time both men leaped upon the backs of their horses. In spite of the weariness of both men and beasts, in a brief time all were alike highly excited. The great rumbling mass was steadily approaching and the horses also were aware of the peril that threatened.

In Reuben's heart there was a thought that if he and his companion should fire at the buffaloes the course of the mighty herd might be diverted. Perhaps even the direction in which they were moving would be turned and they would then avoid the camp. The young trapper had heard many stories of men and horses that had been trampled beneath the feet of a frantic herd of buffaloes.

As the huge animals came nearer and a mighty bull was seen acting as an advance guard, Reuben glanced quickly at Jean to see whether or not he shared in his alarm. Nothing apparently would be able to stand in the way of the rush of the oncoming horde. It was a sight unlike any that Reuben ever had seen.

On, and still on, dashed the animals, moving almost as if the swaying mass was one huge creature. Neither Reuben nor Jean had as yet advanced from the camp, but both were waiting with loaded rifles, unable to discover just what the exact course of the fleeing herd was to be.

"How many are there?" inquired Reuben in a low voice.

"About seven hundred."

Reuben whistled, but made no further response. Two minutes elapsed without any change in the direction in which the buffaloes were going. Then Jean said quickly, "I shall go to one side. It ees good for you to wait. When you shoot you must hit a cow, that ees the only meat that one can eat. Il trouverait à tondre sur un oeuf."

Whenever Jean fell into the use of his native language Reuben was aware that his excitement was almost beyond control. What the words meant he had no conception, but an instant later he saw Jean dashing directly toward the approaching herd. His horse now apparently was as excited as its rider. The weariness of the long journey of the day was forgotten or ignored.

Without any definite plan, Reuben departed from the camp, moving in accordance with Jean's advice toward the rear of the animals. The great mass was now less than a half-mile distant, and as the two hunters separated and approached the herd, Reuben saw that they had come within three hundred yards before the presence of the two riders was discovered. Then there was a sudden agitation in the huge body. The band apparently wavered for a moment, and some of the bulls galloped to and fro along the borders of the herd, betraying the fact that the presence of enemies had been discovered.

The progress of the trappers, however, was not stayed. Riding steadily forward, they drew nearer the buffaloes. To Reuben the interest of the chase had now become so intense that all other things were ignored.

Suddenly the movements of the dense mass were changed. The body swerved in a semicircle and apparently was in swift flight for the foothills. Within a few seconds the entire herd had joined in the flight, a guard of bulls as usual bringing up the rear. Frequently some of them stopped, and faced about as if they intended to test the strength or learn the purpose of the men on horseback. In every case, however, the huge animals speedily turned and once more dashed after the band, only to stop again and gaze at the horsemen. Indeed, as the minutes passed, Reuben was persuaded that the animals were minded to stand and fight.

Whatever may have been the impulse, however, as the hunters increased the pace at which they were riding the confusion in the herd became more manifest. The buffaloes were moving over the ground now with increasing swiftness, while the rumbling and roaring became steadily louder as the speed increased.

Reuben, who had followed directions and was making for the rear of the herd, now lost sight of his companion. He had a momentary glimpse of Jean when he was about thirty yards from the border of the herd, dashing into its midst. He heard the loud shout of the Frenchman, "A beau jeu beau retour!" but as he did not understand any of the words he was ignorant of Jean's purpose. He saw the mass give way, and a half-dozen or more of the bulls, that were less fleet than the cows, turned to face the approaching hunter. Several of them, however, were thrown to the earth by the mass of maddened animals and rolled over and over upon the ground, hardly to be distinguished from the clouds of dust that now were settling all about them.

Aware that Jean's plan was, if possible, to separate one animal and pursue it until he had approached its side and then aim directly at its heart, Reuben became so interested that for a brief time he almost forgot the task which had been assigned him.

Recalled in a few moments, however, and aware that Jean no longer was to be seen, he shouted to his horse to increase its speed and soon was swiftly moving toward the rear. He saw one cow slightly separated from the mass, and in a moment he was pursuing her as swiftly as the wolves had followed the buffalo calf a little while before.

Steadily the young trapper gained upon his victim until at last his horse was alongside the animal he was seeking. Partly rising in his stirrups Reuben, when only a yard separated him from the buffalo, fired. The animal fell headlong at the discharge of the rifle, and then Reuben checked his horse and looked about him for his companion. Not far away he discovered Jean tying his horse to the head of a cow, which he was preparing to cut up.

Filled with the spirit of the chase, Reuben decided that he would t

ry to secure another cow. As he swiftly advanced he heard a shout from Jean, "Le co?t en ?te le go?t!" Still he did not understand what was said, and in his determination to secure another victim he did not heed the call, and soon was engaged in the mad pursuit of the flying herd.

Whether or not it was due to the weariness of the horse he was riding, or to the increased speed of the buffaloes, Reuben never knew, but at all events he was compelled to continue the pursuit for a long distance. Unaware of the passing time and unmindful of the fact that the sun now was disappearing below the western horizon, intent solely upon securing another buffalo, Reuben still followed in the chase. A thick cloud of dust filled his mouth and eyes and at times nearly smothered him. There were moments, too, when the herd was not to be seen, so concealed was it by the cloud which the hundreds of feet had stirred up in the desert.

He was aware also that the buffaloes were crowding more closely together, and the body was so compact that he was beginning to question whether or not he would be able to force an entrance and cut off any of the animals from the others. The dull and confused murmuring at times was as distinctly heard as was the noise of the many feet. Many times before Reuben had seen herds of buffaloes in the distance, but this had been the first time he had joined in a chase.

Jean had told him often of his own experiences in buffalo hunting, and in his own peculiar way had declared that "Indians and the buffalo provide the poetry and life of the prairie."

Whenever a discovery of a herd had been made Jean had insisted upon hunting alone. Even now Reuben could picture the excited Frenchman shouting to his horse, "Avance donc!" and cracking his whip to urge the fleet animal into its best paces. Often Reuben had shared in the feast that had followed, enjoying the tongues and steaks which his companion insisted were the only choice bits of meat that the buffalo provided. While these pieces were being roasted on sticks held over the fire, Reuben in a measure had been content because of the feast that was promised. Now, he himself was a buffalo hunter and already had secured one victim.

Unaware how far he was leaving his companion behind him, and ignorant of the direction in which he was moving as he followed the herd, Reuben still maintained the pursuit. He was unaware also of another change in the course of the animals. He had ridden near to the border of the terrified mass, but for some reason had been unable to penetrate it, or to separate one from the others.

As the herd swung to the right, Reuben found that he was being crowded by the animals, that apparently either were unaware of his presence or ignored their peril. He was ignorant of the fact that the herd was passing over dangerous ground. Many times in his long rides across the plains Reuben had passed through a prairie-dog village. The sight of the little creatures sitting erect upon their haunches, watching the approaching stranger on horseback, had become so common that he had given slight heed to the little animals. Nor had he once thought of them as a source of danger.

Still the flight and the pursuit were maintained. Several times the horse which Reuben was riding stumbled and nearly fell, but every time the pony was able to regain its foothold and dashed forward with undiminished speed.

Reuben was now aware that the animal he was riding was breathing heavily and doubtless was feeling the effect of its swift pace after the long ride of the day. As soon as he had secured the cow he desired-for now the young trapper had selected the animal which he intended to shoot-he decided that he would give his horse a long rest before he returned to the camp.

Suddenly one of the forefeet of his horse sank into a hole which the prairie-dogs had made. Glancing about him, Reuben saw that he was in the midst of a village of the little animals. With an effort he maintained his seat in the saddle, for he was an expert horseman, and an ordinary fall had little peril for him. This time, however, his horse was unable to regain its foothold. It stumbled and staggered several steps, and then with a groan sank to the ground.

As it fell, Reuben slipped from its back and leaped lightly to the ground. Advancing to the head of his horse, he seized the bridle and attempted to lift the animal to its feet. It was unable to rise, and a brief examination convinced the young trapper that the fall had broken its leg.

The thunder of the flying herd now sounded farther away. In the dim light Reuben saw that the buffaloes were still running swiftly and were headed for a valley or defile among the hills not far distant. Once there, doubtless they would be secure from attack.

His own predicament, however, was too appalling to enable Reuben long to think of the fleeing herd. He was miles distant from his companion, his horse had fallen with a broken leg, and night was upon him, while his perils doubtless would be greatly increased before morning came. For a moment the heart of the young hunter was heavy. A groan of his faithful pony recalled him to the necessity of action. There was no hope of restoring the suffering brute, and, advancing to its head, without hesitating a moment, Reuben fired at the heart of the panting, suffering animal. With scarcely a quiver the horse became still.

His own problem, however, was still unsolved, as Reuben now was fully aware. The cloud of dust in part had disappeared in the dim light. He looked all about him, but not a trace of Jean or the camp was he able to discover. He was alone on the trackless plains and by no means certain of the direction in which he had come or of the way in which he should go.

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