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- The Prairie - 30/87 -
unworthy of his manhood. The reluctant Abiram was compelled to yield, and Ishmael made a new disposition for the defence of the place; which was admitted, by every one, to be all-important to their security and comfort.
He offered the post of commandant to Dr. Battius, who, however, peremptorily and somewhat haughtily declined the doubtful honour; exchanging looks of intelligence with Ellen, as he did so. In this dilemma the squatter was obliged to constitute the girl herself castellan; taking care, however, in deputing this important trust, to omit no words of caution and instruction. When this preliminary point was settled, the young men proceeded to arrange certain means of defence, and signals of alarm, that were adapted to the weakness and character of the garrison. Several masses of rock were drawn to the edge of the upper level, and so placed as to leave it at the discretion of the feeble Ellen and her associates, to cast them or not, as they might choose, on the heads of any invaders, who would, of necessity, be obliged to mount the eminence by the difficult and narrow passage already so often mentioned. In addition to this formidable obstruction, the barriers were strengthened and rendered nearly impassable. Smaller missiles, that might be hurled even by the hands of the younger children, but which would prove, from the elevation of the place, exceedingly dangerous, were provided in profusion. A pile of dried leaves and splinters were placed, as a beacon, on the upper rock, and then, even in the jealous judgment of the squatter, the post was deemed competent to maintain a creditable siege.
The moment the rock was thought to be in a state of sufficient security, the party who composed what might be called the sortie, sallied forth on their anxious expedition. The advance was led by Esther in person, who, attired in a dress half masculine, and bearing a weapon like the rest, seemed no unfit leader for the group of wildly clad frontiermen, that followed in her rear.
"Now, Abiram;" cried the Amazon, in a voice that was cracked and harsh, for the simple reason of being used too often on a strained and unnatural key, "now, Abiram, run with your nose low; show yourself a hound of the true breed, and do some credit to your training. You it was that saw the prints of the Indian moccasin, and it behoves you, to let others be as wise as yourself. Come; come to the front, man; and give us a bold lead."
The brother, who appeared at all times to stand in awe of his sister's authority, complied; though it was with a reluctance so evident, as to excite sneers, even among the unobservant and indolent sons of the squatter. Ishmael, himself, moved among his tall children, like one who expected nothing from the search, and who was indifferent alike to its success or failure. In this manner the party proceeded until their distant fortress had sunk so low, as to present an object no larger nor more distinct than a hazy point, on the margin of the prairie. Hitherto their progress had been silent and somewhat rapid, for as swell after swell was mounted and passed, without varying, or discovering a living object to enliven the monotony of the view, even the tongue of Esther was hushed in increasing anxiety. Here, however, Ishmael chose to pause, and casting the butt of his rifle from his shoulder to the ground, he observed--
"This is enough. Buffaloe signs, and deer signs, ar' plenty; but where ar' thy Indian footsteps, Abiram?"
"Still farther west," returned the other, pointing in the direction he named. "This was the spot where I struck the tracks of the buck; it was after I took the deer, that I fell upon the Teton trail."
"And a bloody piece of work you made of it, man," cried the squatter, pointing tauntily to the soiled garments of his kinsman, and then directing the attention of the spectators to his own, by the way of a triumphant contrast. "Here have I cut the throats of two lively does, and a scampering fawn, without spot or stain; while you, blundering dog as you ar', have made as much work for Eester and her girls, as though butchering was your regular calling. Come, boys; it is enough. I am too old not to know the signs of the frontiers; no Indian has been here since the last fall of water. Follow me; and I will make a turn that shall give us at least the beef of a fallow cow for our trouble."
"Follow me!" echoed Esther, stepping undauntedly forward. "I am leader to-day, and I will be followed. Who so proper, let me know, as a mother, to head a search for her own lost child?"
Ishmael regarded his intractable mate with a smile of indulgent pity. Observing that she had already struck out a path for herself, different both from that of Abiram and the one he had seen fit to choose, and being unwilling to draw the cord of authority too tight, just at that moment, he submitted to her will. But Dr. Battius, who had hitherto been a silent and thoughtful attendant on the woman, now saw fit to raise his feeble voice in the way of remonstrance.
"I agree with thy partner in life, worthy and gentle Mrs. Bush," he said, "in believing that some ignis fatuus of the imagination has deceived Abiram, in the signs or symptoms of which he has spoken."
"Symptoms, yourself!" interrupted the termagant. "This is no time for bookish words, nor is this a place to stop and swallow medicines. If you are a-leg-weary, say so, as a plain-speaking man should; then seat yourself on the prairie, like a hound that is foot-sore, and take your natural rest."
"I accord in the opinion," the naturalist calmly replied, complying literally with the opinion of the deriding Esther, by taking his seat, very coolly, by the side of an indigenous shrub; the examination of which he commenced, on the instant, in order that science might not loose any of its just and important dues. "I honour your excellent advice, Mistress Esther, as you may perceive. Go thou in quest of thy offspring; while I tarry here, in pursuit of that which is better; viz. an insight into the arcana of Nature's volume."
The woman answered with a hollow, unnatural, and scornful laugh, and even her heavy sons, as they slowly passed the seat of the already abstracted naturalist, did not disdain to manifest their contempt in smiles. In a few minutes the train mounted the nearest eminence, and, as it turned the rounded acclivity, the Doctor was left to pursue his profitable investigations in entire solitude.
Another half-hour passed, during which Esther continued to advance, on her seemingly fruitless search. Her pauses, however, were becoming frequent, and her looks wandering and uncertain, when footsteps were heard clattering through the bottom, and at the next instant a buck was seen to bound up the ascent, and to dart from before their eyes, in the direction of the naturalist. So sudden and unlooked for had been the passage of the animal, and so much had he been favoured by the shape of the ground, that before any one of the foresters had time to bring his rifle to his shoulder, it was already beyond the range of a bullet.
"Look out for the wolf!" shouted Abner, shaking his head in vexation, at being a single moment too late. "A wolf's skin will be no bad gift in a winter's night; ay, yonder the hungry devil comes!"
"Hold!" cried Ishmael, knocking up the levelled weapon of his too eager son. "'Tis not a wolf; but a hound of thorough blood and bottom. Ha! we have hunters nigh: there ar' two of them!"
He was still speaking, when the animals in question came leaping on the track of the deer, striving with noble ardour to outdo each other. One was an aged dog, whose strength seemed to be sustained purely by generous emulation, and the other a pup, that gambolled even while he pressed most warmly on the chase. They both ran, however, with clean and powerful leaps, carrying their noses high, like animals of the most keen and subtle scent. They had passed; and in another minute they would have been running open-mouthed with the deer in view, had not the younger dog suddenly bounded from the course, and uttered a cry of surprise. His aged companion stopped also, and returned panting and exhausted to the place, where the other was whirling around in swift, and apparently in mad evolutions, circling the spot in his own footsteps, and continuing his outcry, in a short, snappish barking. But, when the elder hound had reached the spot, he seated himself, and lifting his nose high into the air, he raised a long, loud, and wailing howl.
"It must be a strong scent," said Abner, who had been, with the rest of the family, an admiring observer of the movements of the dogs, "that can break off two such creatur's so suddenly from their trail."
"Murder them!" cried Abiram; "I'll swear to the old hound; 'tis the dog of the trapper, whom we now know to be our mortal enemy."
Though the brother of Esther gave so hostile advice, he appeared in no way ready to put it in execution himself. The surprise, which had taken possession of the whole party, exhibited itself in his own vacant wondering stare, as strongly as in any of the admiring visages by whom he was surrounded. His denunciation, therefore, notwithstanding its dire import, was disregarded; and the dogs were left to obey the impulses of their mysterious instinct, without let or hinderance.
It was long before any of the spectators broke the silence; but the squatter, at length, so far recollected his authority, as to take on himself the right to control the movements of his children.
"Come away, boys; come away, and leave the hounds to sing their tunes for their own amusement," Ishmael said, in his coldest manner. "I scorn to take the life of a beast, because its master has pitched himself too nigh my clearing; come away, boys, come away; we have enough of our own work before us, without turning aside to do that of the whole neighbourhood."
"Come not away!" cried Esther, in tones that sounded like the admonitions of some sibyl. "I say, come not away, my children. There is a meaning and a warning in this; and as I am a woman and a mother, will I know the truth of it all!"
So saying, the awakened wife brandished her weapon, with an air that was not without its wild and secret influence, and led the way towards the spot where the dogs still remained, filling the air with their long-drawn and piteous complaints. The whole party followed in her steps, some too indolent to oppose, others obedient to her will, and all more or less excited by the uncommon character of the scene.
"Tell me, you Abner--Abiram--Ishmael!" the woman cried, standing over a spot where the earth was trampled and beaten, and plainly sprinkled with blood; "tell me, you who ar' hunters! what sort of animal has here met his death?--Speak!--Ye ar' men, and used to the signs of the plains; is it the blood of wolf or panther?"
"A buffaloe--and a noble and powerful creatur' has it been!" returned the squatter, who looked down calmly on the fatal signs which so strangely affected his wife. "Here are the marks of the spot where he has struck his hoofs into the earth, in the death-struggle; and yonder
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