James Fenimore Cooper.

The prairie : a tale (Volume 1) online

. (page 1 of 19)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe prairie : a tale (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


PSIt-lfc



$ ;






THE PRAIRIE;



IL



BY THE AUTHOR OF THE "PIONEERS AND THE
LAST OF THE MOHICANS."



Mark his condition and the event ; then
Tell me if this be a brother. Tempest,



IN TWO VOLUMES.
VOL. I.



CAREY, LEA & CAREY CHESNUT-STREET.
1827.



Eastern District of Pennsylvania, to wit:
********* BE IT REMEMBERED, That on the seventh
I T Q # day of February, in the fifty-first year of the Indepen-
| L '-^'* dence of the United States of America, A. D. 1827,
********* jj. C. CAREY & I. LEA, of the said district, have
deposited in this office, the title of a book, the right whereof
they claim as proprietors, in the words following, to wit:
The Prairie ; a Tale, by the author of the " Pioneers" and the " Last of ths
"Mohicans." Mark his condition and the event, then

Tell me if this be a brother. Tempest. In 2 Vols.

In conformity to the act of the Congress of the United States,
entitled, " An Act for the encouragement of learning, by se
curing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors and
proprietors ofsuch copies, during the times therein mentioned."
And also to the Act, entitled, " An Act supplementary to an
Act, entitled, ' An Act for the encouragement of learning, by
securing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors
and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein men
tioned,' and extending the benefits thereof to the arts of de
signing, engraving, and etching historical and other prints."
D. CALDWELL, Clerk of the

Eastern District of Pennsylvania.



PREFACE.



THE manner in which the writer of this
book came into possession of most of its
materials, is mentioned in the work itself.
Any well bred reader will readily conceive
that there may exist a thousand reasons,
why he should not reveal any more of his
private sources of information. He will
only say, on his own responsibility, that
the portions of the tale for which no
authorities are given, are quite as true as
those which are not destitute of this
peculiar advantage, and that all may be
believed alike.



viii PREFACE.

There is, however, to be found in the
following pages an occasional departure
from strict historical veracity, which it
may be well to mention. In the endless
confusion of names, customs, opinions,
and languages, which exists among the
trib'es of the west, the Author has paid
much more attention to sound and con
venience than to literal truth. He has
uniformly called the Great Spirit, for
instance, the Wahcondah, though he was
not ignorant that there were different
names for that Being among the nations
he has introduced. So, in other matters
he has rather adhered to simplicity,
than sought to make his narrative strict
ly correct at the expense of all order and
clearness. It was enough for his purpose
that the picture should possess the gen
eral features of the original : in the shad
ing, attitude, and disposition of the



PREFACE. ix

figures, a little liberty has been taken.
Even this brief explanation would have
been spared, did not the Author know
that there is a certain class of learned
Thebans who are just as fit to read a
work of the imagination, as they are
qualified to write one,

It may be necessary to meet much
graver and less easily explained objec
tions, hi the minds of a far higher class
of readers. The introduction of one and
the same character, as a principal ac
tor in no less than three books, and
the selection of a comparative desert,
which is aided by no historical recollec
tions, and embellished by few or no poet
ical associations, for the scene of a
legend, in these times of perilous adven
ture in works of this description, may
need more vindication. If the first objec
tion can be removed, the latter must fall



x PREFACE.

of course, as it would become the duty
of a faithful chronicler to follow his hero
wherever he might choose to go.

It is quite probable that the narrator
of these simple events has deceived him
self as to the importance they may have
in the eyes of other people. But he has
seen, or thought he has seen, something
sufficiently instructive and touching in
the life of a veteran of the forest, who,
having commenced his career near the
Atlantic, had been driven by the increas
ing and unparalleled advance of popula
tion, to seek a final refuge against soci
ety in the broad and tenantless plains of
the west, to induce him to hazard the
experiment of publication. That the
changes which might have driven a man
so constituted to such an expedient have
actually occurred within a single life, is a
matter of undeniable history; that they



PREFACE, xi

did produce such an effect on the Scout
of the Mohicans, the Leatherstocking of
the Pioneers, and the Trapper of the
Prairie, rests on an authority no less im
posing than those veritable pages, from
which the reader shall no longer be de
tained, if he still be disposed to peruse
them, after this frank avowal of the pov
erty of their contents.



THE PRAIRIE.



CHAPTER I.

* I pray thec, shepherd, if that love, or gold
Can in this desert place buy entertainment,
Bring us where we may rest ourselves and feed."

j2* you like it.

MUCH was said and written, at the time, concerning
the policy of adding the vast regions of Louisiana, to
the, already, immense and but half-tenanted territo
ries of the United States. As the warmth of contro
versy, however, subsided, and personal considerations
gave place to more liberal views, the wisdom of the
measure began to be, generally, conceded. It soon
became apparent to the meanest capacity, that, while
nature had placed a barrier of desert to the extension
of our population in the west, the measure had made
us the masters of a belt of fertile country, which, in
the revolutions of the day, might have become the
property of a rival nation. It gave us the sole com
mand of the great thoroughfare of the interior, and
placed the countless tribes of savages, who lay along
our borders, entirely, within our control ; it recon
ciled conflicting rights, and quieted national distrusts ;
it opened a thousand avenues to the inland trade, and
to the waters of the Pacific ; and, if ever time or ne
cessity should require a peaceful division of this vast
empire, it assures us of a neighbour that would pos
sess our language, our religion, our institutions, and
it is also to be hoped, our sense of political justice.

Although the purchase was made inl 803, the spring
of the succeeding year was permitted to open, before
the official prudence of the Spaniard, who held the
province for his European master, admitted the au
thority, or even of the entrance, of its new proprie-
VOL. I. B



14 THE PRAIRIE.

tors. But the forms of the transfer were no sooner
completed, and the new government acknowledged,
than swarms of that restless people, which is ever
found hovering on the skirts of American society,
plunged into the thickets that fringed the right bank
of the Mississippi, with the same careless hardihood,
as had, already, sustained so many of them in their
toilsome progress from the atlantic states, to the east
ern shores of the " father of rivers."

Time was necessary to blend the numerous and
affluent colonists of the lower province with their
new compatriots ; but the sparser and more humble
population, above, was almost immediately swallow
ed in the vortex which attended -the tide of instant
emigration. The inroad^from the east was a new and
sudden out-breaking of a people, who had endured a
momentary restraint, after having been rendered,
nearly, resistless by success. The toils and hazards
of former undertakings were forgotten, as these end
less and unexplored regions, with all their fancied as
well as real advantages, were laid open to their enter
prise. The consequences were such as might easily
have been anticipated, from so tempting an offering,
placed, as it was before the eyes of a race long train
ed in adventure and nurtured in difficulties.

'Thousands of the elders, of what were then called
the New States, broke up from the enjoyment of their
hard earned indulgencies, and were to be seen leading
long files of descendants, born and reared in the for
ests of Ohio and Kentucky, deeper into the land, in
quest of that which might be termed, without the aid
of poetry, their natural and more congenial atmos
phere. The distinguished and resolute forester who
first penetrated the wilds of the latter state, was of
the number. This adventurous and venerable patri
arch was now seen making his last remove ; placing
the " endless river" between him and the multitude,
his own success had drawn around him, and seeking



THE PRAIRIE. 15

for the renewal of enjoyments which were rendered
worthless in his eyes, when trammelled by the forms
of human institutions.

In the pursuit of adventures, such as these, men
are ordinarily governed by their previous habits or
deluded by their secret wishes. A few, led by the
phantoms of hope, and, ambitious of sudden afflu
ence, sought the mines of the virgin territory ; but,
by far the greater portion of the emigrants were sat
isfied to establish themselves along the margins of the
larger water-courses, content with the rich returns
that the generous, alluvial, bottoms of the rivers never
fail to bestow on the most desultory industry. In this
manner were communities formed with magical ra
pidity ; and most of those who witnessed the purchase
of the empty empire, have lived to see already a pop
ulous and sovereign state, parcelled from its inhabit
ants, and received into the bosom of the national con
federacy, on terms of political equality.

The incidents and scenes which are connected with
our present legend, occurred in the earliest periods
of the enterprises which have led to so great and so
speedy a result

The harvest of the first year of our possession had
long been passed, and the fading foliage of a few scat
tering trees was, already, beginning to exhibit the hues
and tints of autumn, when a train of wagons issued
from the bed of a dry rivulet, to pursue its course
across the undulating surface, of what, in the language
of the country of which we write, is calfed a " rolling
prairie." The vehicles, loaded with household goods
and implements of husbandry, the few straggling sheep
and black cattle that were herded in the rear, and the
rugged appearance and careless mien of the sturdy
men who loitered at the sides of the lingering teams,
united to announce a band of emigrants seeking for
the Elderado of their desires. Contrary to the usual
practice of the men of their caste, this party had left



16 THE PRAIRIE.

the fertile bottoms of the low country, and had found
its way, by means only known to such adventurers,
across glen and torrent, over deep morasses and arid
wastes, to a point far beyond the usual limits of civil
ized habitations. In their front were stretched those
broad plains, which extend, with so little diversity of
character, to the bases of the Rocky Mountains ; and
many long and dreary miles in their rear, foamed the
swift and turbid waters of La Platte.

The appearance of such a train, in that bleak and
solitary place, was rendered the more remarkable by
the fact, that the surrounding country offered so little,
that was tempting to the cupidity of speculation, and,
if possible, still less that was flattering to tine hopes
of an ordinary settler of new lands.

The meagre herbage of the prairie, promised
nothing, in favour of a hard and unyielding soil, over
which the wheels of the vehicles rattled as lightly as
though they travelled on a beaten road ; neither wag
ons nor beasts making any deeper impression, than to
mark that bruised and withered grass, which the cat
tle plucked, from time to time, and as often rejected,
as food too sour, for even their hunger to render
palatable.

Whatever might be the final destination of these
adventurers, or the secret causes of their apparent
security in so remote and unprotected a situation,
there was no visible sign of uneasiness or alarm be
trayed in the countenance or the deportment of any
among them. Including both sexes, and every age,
the number of the party exceeded twenty.

At some little distance in front of the whole, maT.h-
ed the individual, who, both by his position and air,
appeared to be the leader of the band. He was a
tall, sun-burnt, man, past the middle age, whose dull
countenance and listless manner denoted any other
emotion than that of compunction for the past or
anxiety for the future. His frame appeared loose and



THE PRAIRIE. 17

flexible ; but it was vast, and in reality of prodigious
power. It was, only at moments, however, as some
slight impediment opposed itself to his loitering pro
gress, that his person, which, in its ordinary gait seem
ed so lounging and nerveless, displayed any of those
energies, which lay latent in his system, like the slum
bering and unwieldy, but terrible, strength of the ele
phant The inferior lineaments of his countenance
were coarse, extended and vacant ; while the supe
rior, or those nobler parts which are thought to affect
the intellectual being, were low, receding and mearu

The dress of this individual was a mixture of the
coarsest vestments of a husbandman with the leathern
garments, that fashion as well as use, had in some de
gree rendered necessary to one engaged in his present
pursuits. There was, however, a singular and wild
display of prodigal and ill judged ornaments, blend
ed with his motley attire. In place of the usual deer
skin belt, he wore around his body a tarnished silken
sash of the most gaudy colours ; the buck-horn haft
of his knife was profusely decorated with plates of
silver ; the martin's fur of his cap was of a fineness
and shadowing that a queen might covet ; the buttons
of his rude and soiled blanket-coat were of the glit
tering coinage of Mexico ; the stock of his rifle was
of beautiful mahogany, riveted and banded with the
same precious metal, and the trinkets of no less than
three worthless watches dangled from different parts
of his person. In addition to the pack and the rifle
which were slung at his back, together with the well
filled, and carefully guarded pouch and horn, he had
carelessly cast a keen and bright wood-axe across his
shoulder, sustaining the weight of the whole with as
much apparent ease, as though he moved, unfettered
in his limbs, and free from the smallest incumbrance.

A short distance in the rear of this man, came a
groupe of youths very similarly attired, and bearing
sufficient resemblance to each other, and to their lead-
B 2



18 THE PRAIRIE.

er, to distinguish them as the children of one family.
Though the youngest of their number could not much
have passed the period, that, in the nicer judgment
of the law is called the age of discretion, he had prov
ed himself so far worthy of his progenitors as to have
reared already his aspiring person to the standard
height of his race. There were one or two others,
of different mould, whose descriptions must however
he referred to the regular course of the narrative,

Of the females, there were but two who had ar
rived at womanhood ; though several white-headed,
olive-skin'd faces were peering out of the foremost
wagon of the train, with eyes of lively curiosity and
characteristic animation. The elder of the two
adults, was the sallow and wrinkled mother of most of
the party, and the younger was a sprightly, active,
girl, of eighteen, who in figure, dress and mien seem
ed to belong to a station in society several gradations
above that of any one of her visible associates. The
second vehicle was covered with a top of cloth so
tightly drawn, as to conceal its contents, with the
nicest care. The remaining wagons, were loaded,
with nothing more valuable than such rude furni
ture and other personal effects, as might be supposed
to belong to one, ready at any moment, to change his
abode, without reference to season or distance.

Perhaps there was little in this train, or in the ap
pearance of its proprietors^at is not daily to be en
countered on the highway^ of our changeable and
moving country. But the solitary and peculiar scene
ry in which it was so unexpectedly exhibited, gave to
the party a marked character of wildness and adven
ture.

In the little vallies, which, in the regular formation
of the land, occurred at every mile of their progress,
the view was bounded, on two of the sides, by the
gradual and low elevations, which give name to that
description of prairie, we have mentioned ; while on



THE PRAIRIE. 19

the others, the meagre prospect ran off in long, narrow,
barren perspectives, but slightly relieved by a pitiful



of coarse, though, somewhat, luxuriant vegeta
tion. From the summits of the swells, the eye be
came fatigued with the sameness and chilling dreari
ness of the landscape. The earth was not unlike the
Ocean, whea its restless waters are heaving heavily
after the agitation and fury of the tempest have begun
to lessen. There was the same waving and regular
surface, the same absence of foreign objects, and the
same boundless extent to the view. Indeed so very
striking was the resemblance between the water and
the land, that, however much the geologist might
sneer at so simple a theory, it would have been diffi
cult for a poet not to have felt, that the formation of
the one had been produced by the subsiding domin
ion of the other. Here and there a tall tree rose out
of the bottoms, stretching its naked branches abroad,
like some solitary vessel ; and, to strengthen the de
lusion, far in the utmost distance, appeared two or
three rounded thickets, looming in the misty horizon
like islands resting on the bosom of the waters. li
is unnecessary to warn the practised reader, that the
sameness of the surface, and 4he low stands of the
spectators exaggerated the distances; but still, as swell
appeared after swell, and island succeeded island,
there was a disheartening assurance that long, and
seemingly interminable, tracts of territory must be
passed, before the wishes of the humblest agricultu
rist could be realized.

Still, the leader of the emigrants steadily pursued
his way, with no other guide than the sun, turning hig
back resolutely on the abodes of civilization, and
plunging, at each step, more deeply if not irretrieva
bly, into the haunts of the barbarous and savage oc
cupants of the country. As the day drew nigher to
a close, however, his mind, which was, perhaps, inca
pable of maturing any connected system of fore-



20 THE PRAIRIE.

thought beyond that which related to the interests of
the present moment, became, in some slight degree,
troubled with the care of providing for the wants of
the coming hours of darkness.

On reaching the crest of a swell that was a little
higher than the usual elevations, he lingered a min
ute, and cast a half curious eye, on either hand, in
quest of those well known signs, which might indicate
a place, where the three grand requisites of, water,
fuel and fodder were to be obtained in conjunction.

It would seem that his search was fruitless ; for af
ter a few moments of indolent and listless examina
tion, he suffered his huge frame, to descend the gentle
declivity, in the same sluggish manner that an over
fatted beast would have yielded to the downward
pressure.

His example was silently followed by those who
succeeded him, though not until the young men had
manifested much more of interest, if not of concern
in the brief inquiry, which each, in his turn, made on
gaining the same look-out It was now evident by
the tardy movements both of beasts and men, that the
time of necessary rest, was not far distant The mat
ted grass of the lower land, presented obstacles which
fatigue began to render formidable, and the whip was
becoming necessary to urge the lingering teams to
their labour. At this moment, when, with the excep
tion of the principal individual, a general lassitude
was getting the mastery of the travellers, and every
eye was cast, by a sort of common impulse, wistfully
forward, the whole party was brought to a halt, by a
spectacle, as sudden as it was unexpected.

The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest
wave of the prairie leaving the usual, rich and glow
ing, train on its track. In the centre of this flood of
fiery light, a human form appeared, drawn against the
gilded background, as distinctly, and, seemingly as
palpable, as though it would come within the grasp



THE PRAIRIE. 21

of any extended hand. The figure was colossal ; the
attitude musing and melancholy, and the situation di
rectly in the route of the travellers. But imbedded,
as it was, in its setting of garish light, it was impossi
ble to distinguish more concerning its proportions or
character.

The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous
and powerful. The man in front of the emigrants
came to a stand, and remained gazing at the mysteri
ous object, with a dull interest, that soon quickened
into a species of superstitious awe. His sons, so soon
as the first emotions of surprise had a little abated,
drew, slowly, around him, and, as they who governed
the teams, gradually, followed their example, the
whole party was soon condensed in one, silent, and
wondering groupe. Notwithstanding the impression
of a supernatural agency was very general among the
travellers, the ticking of gun-locks was heard, and one
or two of the bolder of the youths cast their rifles
forward, in guarded readiness for any service.

u Send the boys off to the right," exclaimed the
resolute wife and mother, in a sharp, dissonant voice,
" I warrant me, Asa, or Abner will give some account
of the creatur 1"

" It may be well enough, to try the rifle," mutter
ed a dull looking man, whose features both in outline
and expression, bore no small resemblance, to the
first speaker, and who loosened the stock of his piece
and brought it dexterously to the front, while deliv
ering this decided opinion ; " the Pawnee Loups are
said to be hunting by hundreds in the plains ; if so,
they'll never miss a single man from their tribe."

"Stay!" exclaimed a soft toned, but fearfully
slarmed female voice, which was easily to be traced
to the trembling lips of the younger of the two wo
men ; " we are not all, together ; it may be a friend !"

"Who is scouting, now?" demanded the father,
scanning, at the same time, the cluster of his stout



22' THE PRAIRIE.

sons, with a displeased and sullen eye. " Put by the
piece, put by the piece ;" he continued, diverting the
other's aim, with the finger of a giant, and with the
air of one it might be dangerous to deny. " My job
is not yet ended ; let us finish the little that remains,
in peace."

The man, who had manifested so hostile an inten
tion, appeared to understand the other's allusion, and
suffered himself to be diverted from his object The
sons turned their inquiring looks, on the girl, who
had so eagerly spoken, to require an explanation ;
but, as if content with the respite she had obtained
for the stranger, she had already sunk back, in her
seat, and now chose to affect a maidenly silence.

In the mean time, the hues of the heavens had
often changed. In place of the brightness, which
had dazzled the eye, a gray and more sober light had
succeeded, and as the setting lost its brilliancy, the
proportions of the fanciful form became less exag
gerated, and finally quite distinct. Ashamed to hesi
tate, now, that the truth was no longer doubtful, the
leader of the party resumed his journey, using the

Erecaution, as he ascended the slight acclivity, to re-
iase his own rifle from the strap, and to cast it into
a situation more convenient for sudden use.

There was little apparent necessity, however, for
such watchfulness. From the moment when it had
thus unaccountably appeared, as it were, between the
heavens and the earth, the stranger's figure had
neither moved nor given the smallest evidence of
hostility. Had he harboured any such evil intention,
the individual who now came plainly into view, seem
ed but little qualified to execute them.

A frame that had endured the hardships of more
than eighty seasons was not qualified to awaken ap
prehension, in the breast of one as powerful as the
emigrant. Notwithstanding his years, and his look
of emaciation if not of suffering, there was that about



THE PRAIRIE. 23

this solitary being, however, which said that time,
and not disease, had laid his hand too heavily on him.
His form, had withered, but it was not wasted. The
sinews and muscles, which had once denoted great


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe prairie : a tale (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 19)