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The Last Herd

From: The Last Of The Plainsmen

Over gray No-Man's-Land stole down the shadows of night. The undulating
prairie shaded dark to the western horizon, rimmed with a fading streak
of light. Tall figures, silhouetted sharply against the last golden
glow of sunset, marked the rounded crest of a grassy knoll.

"Wild hunter!" cried a voice in sullen rage, "buffalo or no, we halt
here. Did Adams and I hire to cross the Staked Plains? Two weeks in
No-Man's-Land, and now we're facing the sand! We've one keg of water,
yet you want to keep on. Why, man, you're crazy! You didn't tell us you
wanted buffalo alive. And here you've got us looking death in the eye!"

In the grim silence that ensued the two men unhitched the team from the
long, light wagon, while the buffalo hunter staked out his wiry,
lithe-limbed racehorses. Soon a fluttering blaze threw a circle of
light, which shone on the agitated face of Rude and Adams, and the
cold, iron-set visage of their brawny leader.

"It's this way," began Jones, in slow, cool voice; "I engaged you
fellows, and you promised to stick by me. We've had no luck. But I've
finally found sign--old sign, I'll admit the buffalo I'm looking
for--the last herd on the plains. For two years I've been hunting this
herd. So have other hunters. Millions of buffalo have been killed and
left to rot. Soon this herd will be gone, and then the only buffalo in
the world will be those I have given ten years of the hardest work in
capturing. This is the last herd, I say, and my last chance to capture
a calf or two. Do you imagine I'd quit? You fellows go back if you
want, but I keep on."

"We can't go back. We're lost. We'll have to go with you. But, man,
thirst is not the only risk we run. This is Comanche country. And if
that herd is in here the Indians have it spotted."

"That worries me some," replied the plainsman, "but we'll keep on it."

They slept. The night wind swished the grasses; dark storm clouds
blotted out the northern stars; the prairie wolves mourned dismally.

Day broke cold, wan, threatening, under a leaden sky. The hunters
traveled thirty miles by noon, and halted in a hollow where a stream
flowed in wet season. Cottonwood trees were bursting into green;
thickets of prickly thorn, dense and matted, showed bright spring buds.

"What is it?" suddenly whispered Rude.

The plainsman lay in strained posture, his ear against the ground.

"Hide the wagon and horses in the clump of cottonwoods," he ordered,
tersely. Springing to his feet, he ran to the top of the knoll above
the hollow, where he again placed his ear to the ground.

Jones's practiced ear had detected the quavering rumble of far-away,
thundering hoofs. He searched the wide waste of plain with his powerful
glass. To the southwest, miles distant, a cloud of dust mushroomed
skyward. "Not buffalo," he muttered, "maybe wild horses." He watched
and waited. The yellow cloud rolled forward, enlarging, spreading out,
and drove before it a darkly indistinct, moving mass. As soon as he had
one good look at this he ran back to his comrades.

"Stampede! Wild horses! Indians! Look to your rifles and hide!"

Wordless and pale, the men examined their Sharps, and made ready to
follow Jones. He slipped into the thorny brake and, flat on his
stomach, wormed his way like a snake far into the thickly interlaced
web of branches. Rude and Adams crawled after him. Words were
superfluous. Quiet, breathless, with beating hearts, the hunters
pressed close to the dry grass. A long, low, steady rumble filled the
air, and increased in volume till it became a roar. Moments, endless
moments, passed. The roar filled out like a flood slowly released from
its confines to sweep down with the sound of doom. The ground began to
tremble and quake: the light faded; the smell of dust pervaded the
thicket, then a continuous streaming roar, deafening as persistent roll
of thunder, pervaded the hiding place. The stampeding horses had split
round the hollow. The roar lessened. Swiftly as a departing snow-squall
rushing on through the pines, the thunderous thud and tramp of hoofs
died away.

The trained horses hidden in the cottonwoods never stirred. "Lie low!
lie low!" breathed the plainsman to his companions.

Throb of hoofs again became audible, not loud and madly pounding as
those that had passed, but low, muffled, rhythmic. Jones's sharp eye,
through a peephole in the thicket, saw a cream-colored mustang bob over
the knoll, carrying an Indian. Another and another, then a swiftly
following, close-packed throng appeared. Bright red feathers and white
gleamed; weapons glinted; gaunt, bronzed savage leaned forward on racy,
slender mustangs.

The plainsman shrank closer to the ground. "Apache!" he exclaimed to
himself, and gripped his rifle. The band galloped down to the hollow,
and slowing up, piled single file over the bank. The leader, a short,
squat chief, plunged into the brake not twenty yards from the hidden
men. Jones recognized the cream mustang; he knew the somber, sinister,
broad face. It belonged to the Red Chief of the Apaches.

"Geronimo!" murmured the plainsman through his teeth.

Well for the Apache that no falcon savage eye discovered aught strange
in the little hollow! One look at the sand of the stream bed would have
cost him his life. But the Indians crossed the thicket too far up; they
cantered up the slope and disappeared. The hoof-beats softened and

"Gone?" whispered Rude.

"Gone. But wait," whispered Jones. He knew the savage nature, and he
knew how to wait. After a long time, he cautiously crawled out of the
thicket and searched the surroundings with a plainsman's eye. He
climbed the slope and saw the clouds of dust, the near one small, the
far one large, which told him all he needed to know.

"Comanches?" queried Adams, with a quaver in his voice. He was new to
the plains.

"Likely," said Jones, who thought it best not to tell all he knew. Then
he added to himself: "We've no time to lose. There's water back here
somewhere. The Indians have spotted the buffalo, and were running the
horses away from the water."

The three got under way again, proceeding carefully, so as not to raise
the dust, and headed due southwest. Scantier and scantier grew the
grass; the hollows were washes of sand; steely gray dunes, like long,
flat, ocean swells, ribbed the prairie. The gray day declined. Late
into the purple night they traveled, then camped without fire.

In the gray morning Jones climbed a high ride and scanned the
southwest. Low dun-colored sandhills waved from him down and down, in
slow, deceptive descent. A solitary and remote waste reached out into
gray infinitude. A pale lake, gray as the rest of that gray expanse,
glimmered in the distance.

"Mirage!" he muttered, focusing his glass, which only magnified all
under the dead gray, steely sky. "Water must be somewhere; but can that
be it? It's too pale and elusive to be real. No life--a blasted, staked
plain! Hello!"

A thin, black, wavering line of wild fowl, moving in beautiful, rapid
flight, crossed the line of his vision. "Geese flying north, and low.
There's water here," he said. He followed the flock with his glass, saw
them circle over the lake, and vanish in the gray sheen.

"It's water." He hurried back to camp. His haggard and worn companions
scorned his discovery. Adams siding with Rude, who knew the plains,
said: "Mirage! the lure of the desert!" Yet dominated by a force too
powerful for them to resist, they followed the buffalo-hunter. All day
the gleaming lake beckoned them onward, and seemed to recede. All day
the drab clouds scudded before the cold north wind. In the gray
twilight, the lake suddenly lay before them, as if it had opened at
their feet. The men rejoiced, the horses lifted their noses and sniffed
the damp air.

The whinnies of the horses, the clank of harness, and splash of water,
the whirl of ducks did not blur out of Jones's keen ear a sound that
made him jump. It was the thump of hoofs, in a familiar beat, beat,
beat. He saw a shadow moving up a ridge. Soon, outlined black against
the yet light sky, a lone buffalo cow stood like a statue. A moment she
held toward the lake, studying the danger, then went out of sight over
the ridge.

Jones spurred his horse up the ascent, which was rather long and steep,
but he mounted the summit in time to see the cow join eight huge,
shaggy buffalo. The hunter reined in his horse, and standing high in
his stirrups, held his hat at arms' length over his head. So he
thrilled to a moment he had sought for two years. The last herd of
American bison was near at hand. The cow would not venture far from the
main herd; the eight stragglers were the old broken-down bulls that had
been expelled, at this season, from the herd by younger and more
vigorous bulls. The old monarchs saw the hunter at the same time his
eyes were gladdened by sight of them, and lumbered away after the cow,
to disappear in the gathering darkness. Frightened buffalo always make
straight for their fellows; and this knowledge contented Jones to
return to the lake, well satisfied that the herd would not be far away
in the morning, within easy striking distance by daylight.

At dark the storm which had threatened for days, broke in a fury of
rain, sleet and hail. The hunters stretched a piece of canvas over the
wheels of the north side of the wagon, and wet and shivering, crawled
under it to their blankets. During the night the storm raged with
unabated strength.

Dawn, forbidding and raw, lightened to the whistle of the sleety gusts.
Fire was out of the question. Chary of weight, the hunters had carried
no wood, and the buffalo chips they used for fuel were lumps of ice.
Grumbling, Adams and Rude ate a cold breakfast, while Jones, munching a
biscuit, faced the biting blast from the crest of the ridge. The middle
of the plain below held a ragged, circular mass, as still as stone. It
was the buffalo herd, with every shaggy head to the storm. So they
would stand, never budging from their tracks, till the blizzard of
sleet was over.

Jones, though eager and impatient, restrained himself, for it was
unwise to begin operations in the storm. There was nothing to do but
wait. Ill fared the hunters that day. Food had to be eaten uncooked.
The long hours dragged by with the little group huddled under icy
blankets. When darkness fell, the sleet changed to drizzling rain. This
blew over at midnight, and a colder wind, penetrating to the very
marrow of the sleepless men, made their condition worse. In the after
part of the night, the wolves howled mournfully.

With a gray, misty light appearing in the east, Jones threw off his
stiff, ice-incased blanket, and crawled out. A gaunt gray wolf, the
color of the day and the sand and the lake, sneaked away, looking back.
While moving and threshing about to warm his frozen blood, Jones
munched another biscuit. Five men crawled from under the wagon, and
made an unfruitful search for the whisky. Fearing it, Jones had thrown
the bottle away. The men cursed. The patient horses drooped sadly, and
shivered in the lee of the improvised tent. Jones kicked the inch-thick
casing of ice from his saddle. Kentuck, his racer, had been spared on
the whole trip for this day's work. The thoroughbred was cold, but as
Jones threw the saddle over him, he showed that he knew the chase
ahead, and was eager to be off. At last, after repeated efforts with
his benumbed fingers, Jones got the girths tight. He tied a bunch of
soft cords to the saddle and mounted.

"Follow as fast as you can," he called to his surly men. "The buffs
will run north against the wind. This is the right direction for us;
we'll soon leave the sand. Stick to my trail and come a-humming."

From the ridge he met the red sun, rising bright, and a keen
northeasterly wind that lashed like a whip. As he had anticipated, his
quarry had moved northward. Kentuck let out into a swinging stride,
which in an hour had the loping herd in sight. Every jump now took him
upon higher ground, where the sand failed, and the grass grew thicker
and began to bend under the wind.

In the teeth of the nipping gale Jones slipped close upon the herd
without alarming even a cow. More than a hundred little reddish-black
calves leisurely loped in the rear. Kentuck, keen to his work, crept on
like a wolf, and the hunter's great fist clenched the coiled lasso.
Before him expanded a boundless plain. A situation long cherished and
dreamed of had become a reality. Kentuck, fresh and strong, was good
for all day. Jones gloated over the little red bulls and heifers, as a
miser gloats over gold and jewels. Never before had he caught more than
two in one day, and often it had taken days to capture one. This was
the last herd, this the last opportunity toward perpetuating a grand
race of beasts. And with born instinct he saw ahead the day of his life.

At a touch, Kentuck closed in, and the buffalo, seeing him, stampeded
into the heaving roll so well known to the hunter. Racing on the right
flank of the herd, Jones selected a tawny heifer and shot the lariat
after her. It fell true, but being stiff and kinky from the sleet,
failed to tighten, and the quick calf leaped through the loop to

Undismayed the pursuer quickly recovered his rope. Again he whirled and
sent the loop. Again it circled true, and failed to close; again the
agile heifer bounded through it. Jones whipped the air with the
stubborn rope. To lose a chance like that was worse than boy's work.

The third whirl, running a smaller loop, tightened the coil round the
frightened calf just back of its ears. A pull on the bridle brought
Kentuck to a halt in his tracks, and the baby buffalo rolled over and
over in the grass. Jones bounced from his seat and jerked loose a
couple of the soft cords. In a twinkling; his big knee crushed down on
the calf, and his big hands bound it helpless.

Kentuck neighed. Jones saw his black ears go up. Danger threatened. For
a moment the hunter's blood turned chill, not from fear, for he never
felt fear, but because he thought the Indians were returning to ruin
his work. His eye swept the plain. Only the gray forms of wolves
flitted through the grass, here, there, all about him. Wolves! They
were as fatal to his enterprise as savages. A trooping pack of prairie
wolves had fallen in with the herd and hung close on the trail, trying
to cut a calf away from its mother. The gray brutes boldly trotted to
within a few yards of him, and slyly looked at him, with pale, fiery
eyes. They had already scented his captive. Precious time flew by; the
situation, critical and baffling, had never before been met by him.
There lay his little calf tied fast, and to the north ran many others,
some of which he must--he would have. To think quickly had meant the
solving of many a plainsman's problem. Should he stay with his prize to
save it, or leave it to be devoured?

"Ha! you old gray devils!" he yelled, shaking his fist at the wolves.
"I know a trick or two." Slipping his hat between the legs of the calf,
he fastened it securely. This done, he vaulted on Kentuck, and was off
with never a backward glance. Certain it was that the wolves would not
touch anything, alive or dead, that bore the scent of a human being.

The bison scoured away a long half-mile in the lead, sailing northward
like a cloud-shadow over the plain. Kentuck, mettlesome, over-eager,
would have run himself out in short order, but the wary hunter, strong
to restrain as well as impel, with the long day in his mind, kept the
steed in his easy stride, which, springy and stretching, overhauled the
herd in the course of several miles.

A dash, a swirl, a shock, a leap, horse and hunter working in perfect
accord, and a fine big calf, bellowing lustily, struggled desperately
for freedom under the remorseless knee. The big hands toyed with him;
and then, secure in the double knots, the calf lay still, sticking out
his tongue and rolling his eyes, with the coat of the hunter tucked
under his bonds to keep away the wolves.

The race had but begun; the horse had but warmed to his work; the
hunter had but tasted of sweet triumph. Another hopeful of a buffalo
mother, negligent in danger, truant from his brothers, stumbled and
fell in the enmeshing loop. The hunter's vest, slipped over the calf's
neck, served as danger signal to the wolves. Before the lumbering
buffalo missed their loss, another red and black baby kicked helplessly
on the grass and sent up vain, weak calls, and at last lay still, with
the hunter's boot tied to his cords.

Four! Jones counted them aloud, add in his mind, and kept on. Fast,
hard work, covering upward of fifteen miles, had begun to tell on herd,
horse and man, and all slowed down to the call for strength. The fifth
time Jones closed in on his game, he encountered different
circumstances such as called forth his cunning.

The herd had opened up; the mothers had fallen back to the rear; the
calves hung almost out of sight under the shaggy sides of protectors.
To try them out Jones darted close and threw his lasso. It struck a
cow. With activity incredible in such a huge beast, she lunged at him.
Kentuck, expecting just such a move, wheeled to safety. This duel,
ineffectual on both sides, kept up for a while, and all the time, man
and herd were jogging rapidly to the north.

Jones could not let well enough alone; he acknowledged this even as he
swore he must have five. Emboldened by his marvelous luck, and yielding
headlong to the passion within, he threw caution to the winds. A lame
old cow with a red calf caught his eye; in he spurred his willing horse
and slung his rope. It stung the haunch of the mother. The mad grunt
she vented was no quicker than the velocity with which she plunged and
reared. Jones had but time to swing his leg over the saddle when the
hoofs beat down. Kentuck rolled on the plain, flinging his rider from
him. The infuriated buffalo lowered her head for the fatal charge on
the horse, when the plainsman, jerking out his heavy Colts, shot her
dead in her tracks.

Kentuck got to his feet unhurt, and stood his ground, quivering but
ready, showing his steadfast courage. He showed more, for his ears lay
back, and his eyes had the gleam of the animal that strikes back.

The calf ran round its mother. Jones lassoed it, and tied it down,
being compelled to cut a piece from his lasso, as the cords on the
saddle had given out. He left his other boot with baby number five. The
still heaving, smoking body of the victim called forth the stern,
intrepid hunter's pity for a moment. Spill of blood he had not wanted.
But he had not been able to avoid it; and mounting again with
close-shut jaw and smoldering eye, he galloped to the north.

Kentuck snorted; the pursuing wolves shied off in the grass; the pale
sun began to slant westward. The cold iron stirrups froze and cut the
hunter's bootless feet.

When once more he came hounding the buffalo, they were considerably
winded. Short-tufted tails, raised stiffly, gave warning. Snorts, like
puffs of escaping steam, and deep grunts from cavernous chests evinced
anger and impatience that might, at any moment, bring the herd to a
defiant stand.

He whizzed the shortened noose over the head of a calf that was
laboring painfully to keep up, and had slipped down, when a mighty
grunt told him of peril. Never looking to see whence it came, he sprang
into the saddle. Fiery Kentuck jumped into action, then hauled up with
a shock that almost threw himself and rider. The lasso, fast to the
horse, and its loop end round the calf, had caused the sudden check.

A maddened cow bore down on Kentuck. The gallant horse straightened in
a jump, but dragging the calf pulled him in a circle, and in another
moment he was running round and round the howling, kicking pivot. Then
ensued a terrible race, with horse and bison describing a twenty-foot
circle. Bang! Bang! The hunter fired two shots, and heard the spats of
the bullets. But they only augmented the frenzy of the beast. Faster
Kentuck flew, snorting in terror; closer drew the dusty, bouncing
pursuer; the calf spun like a top; the lasso strung tighter than wire.
Jones strained to loosen the fastening, but in vain. He swore at his
carelessness in dropping his knife by the last calf he had tied. He
thought of shooting the rope, yet dared not risk the shot. A hollow
sound turned him again, with the Colts leveled. Bang! Dust flew from
the ground beyond the bison.

The two charges left in the gun were all that stood between him and
eternity. With a desperate display of strength Jones threw his weight
in a backward pull, and hauled Kentuck up. Then he leaned far back in
the saddle, and shoved the Colts out beyond the horse's flank. Down
went the broad head, with its black, glistening horns. Bang! She slid
forward with a crash, plowing the ground with hoofs and nose--spouted
blood, uttered a hoarse cry, kicked and died.

Kentuck, for once completely terrorized, reared and plunged from the
cow, dragging the calf. Stern command and iron arm forced him to a
standstill. The calf, nearly strangled, recovered when the noose was
slipped, and moaned a feeble protest against life and captivity. The
remainder of Jones's lasso went to bind number six, and one of his
socks went to serve as reminder to the persistent wolves.

"Six! On! On! Kentuck! On!" Weakening, but unconscious of it, with
bloody hands and feet, without lasso, and with only one charge in his
revolver, hatless, coatless, vestless, bootless, the wild hunter urged
on the noble horse. The herd had gained miles in the interval of the
fight. Game to the backbone, Kentuck lengthened out to overhaul it, and
slowly the rolling gap lessened and lessened. A long hour thumped away,
with the rumble growing nearer.

Once again the lagging calves dotted the grassy plain before the
hunter. He dashed beside a burly calf, grasped its tail, stopped his
horse, and jumped. The calf went down with him, and did not come up.
The knotted, blood-stained hands, like claws of steel, bound the hind
legs close and fast with a leathern belt, and left between them a torn
and bloody sock.

"Seven! On! Old Faithfull! We MUST have another! the last! This is your

The blood that flecked the hunter was not all his own.

The sun slanted westwardly toward the purpling horizon; the grassy
plain gleamed like a ruffled sea of glass; the gray wolves loped on.

When next the hunter came within sight of the herd, over a wavy ridge,
changes in its shape and movement met his gaze. The calves were almost
done; they could run no more; their mothers faced the south, and
trotted slowly to and fro; the bulls were grunting, herding, piling
close. It looked as if the herd meant to stand and fight.

This mattered little to the hunter who had captured seven calves since
dawn. The first limping calf he reached tried to elude the grasping
hand and failed. Kentuck had been trained to wheel to the right or
left, in whichever way his rider leaned; and as Jones bent over and
caught an upraised tail, the horse turned to strike the calf with both
front hoofs. The calf rolled; the horse plunged down; the rider sped
beyond to the dust. Though the calf was tired, he still could bellow,
and he filled the air with robust bawls.

Jones all at once saw twenty or more buffalo dash in at him with fast,
twinkling, short legs. With the thought of it, he was in the air to the
saddle. As the black, round mounds charged from every direction,
Kentuck let out with all there was left in him. He leaped and whirled,
pitched and swerved, in a roaring, clashing, dusty melee. Beating hoofs
threw the turf, flying tails whipped the air, and everywhere were
dusky, sharp-pointed heads, tossing low. Kentuck squeezed out
unscathed. The mob of bison, bristling, turned to lumber after the main
herd. Jones seized his opportunity and rode after them, yelling with
all his might. He drove them so hard that soon the little fellows
lagged paces behind. Only one or two old cows straggled with the calves.

Then wheeling Kentuck, he cut between the herd and a calf, and rode it
down. Bewildered, the tously little bull bellowed in great affright.
The hunter seized the stiff tail, and calling to his horse, leaped off.
But his strength was far spent and the buffalo, larger than his
fellows, threshed about and jerked in terror. Jones threw it again and
again. But it struggled up, never once ceasing its loud demands for
help. Finally the hunter tripped it up and fell upon it with his knees.

Above the rumble of retreating hoofs, Jones heard the familiar short,
quick, jarring pound on the turf. Kentuck neighed his alarm and raced
to the right. Bearing down on the hunter, hurtling through the air, was
a giant furry mass, instinct with fierce life and power--a buffalo cow
robbed of her young.

With his senses almost numb, barely able to pull and raise the Colt,
the plainsman willed to live, and to keep his captive. His leveled arm
wavered like a leaf in a storm.

Bang! Fire, smoke, a shock, a jarring crash, and silence!

The calf stirred beneath him. He put out a hand to touch a warm, furry
coat. The mother had fallen beside him. Lifting a heavy hoof, he laid
it over the neck of the calf to serve as additional weight. He lay
still and listened. The rumble of the herd died away in the distance.

The evening waned. Still the hunter lay quiet. From time to time the
calf struggled and bellowed. Lank, gray wolves appeared on all sides;
they prowled about with hungry howls, and shoved black-tipped noses
through the grass. The sun sank, and the sky paled to opal blue. A star
shone out, then another, and another. Over the prairie slanted the
first dark shadow of night.

Suddenly the hunter laid his ear to the ground, and listened. Faint
beats, like throbs of a pulsing heart, shuddered from the soft turf.
Stronger they grew, till the hunter raised his head. Dark forms
approached; voices broke the silence; the creaking of a wagon scared
away the wolves.

"This way!" shouted the hunter weakly.

"Ha! here he is. Hurt?" cried Rude, vaulting the wheel.

"Tie up this calf. How many--did you find?" The voice grew fainter.

"Seven--alive, and in good shape, and all your clothes."

But the last words fell on unconscious ears.

Next: The Trail

Previous: The Range

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