LESSON 5 The prairie on fire (I)
The Prairies.—Between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains there is a vast extent of grassy plains called Prairies. The soil is fertile and the vegetation luxuriant; and before their occupation by the white man the tall grass waved in the wind over the wide expense, resembling the rolling of an emerald ocean. These plains furnished food for countless herds of buffaloes, elks, antelopes, and other animals that feed on herbage. They moved continually to and fro in vast masses, as the seasons changed and the state of the pasture drove them to new fields.
Different regions of the prairies had different characters. The wide undulating plains, frequented by buffaloes and covered with grass, were called Rolling Prairies, from their general resemblance to the long, heavy swell of the ocean, when subsiding after a storm; and Dry Prairies, because they were generally destitute of water. These were the most common and extensive.
Other regions abounded in springs, and were covered with shrubs and bushes. These were called Bushy Prairies.
Lastly, there were the Alluvial or Wet Prairies, which were covered with rich verdure and gorgeous flowers, and which in the rainy season were frequently overflowed.
Sometimes a prairie was set on fire, either accidentally or by design. Such a prairie on fire was one of the most terrible things in nature. The ocean of flame rolled onward and onward before the wind, with irresistible might, devouring everything that lay in its path. Droves of wild horses, buffaloes, antelopes, rushed madly before the advancing flames, beasts of pray forgetting their enmities in the midst of the common danger. Crowds of vultures and other birds of prey followed the course of the fire, and seized upon the carcasses which the flames had not completely consumed.]
The sleep of the fugitives lasted for several hours. The trapper(1) was the first to shake off its influence, as he had been the last to court its refreshment. Rising just as the gray light of day began to brighten that portion of the studded vault(2) which rested on the eastern margin of the plain, he summoned his companions from their warm lairs, and pointed out the necessity of their being once more on the alert.
"See, Middleton!" exclaimed Inez, in a sudden burst of youthful pleasure, that caused her for a moment to forget her situation, "how lovely is that sky; surely it contains a promise of happier times!"
"It is glorious!" returned her husband. "Glorious and heavenly is that streak of vivid red; and here is a still brighter crimson. Rarely have I seen a richer rising of the sun."
"Rising of the sun!" slowly repeated the old man, lifting his tall person from his seat with a deliberate and abstracted air, while he kept his eye riveted on the changing and certainly beautiful tints that were garnishing the vault of heaven. "Rising of the sun!—I like not such risings of the sun. Ah's me! the Indians have circumvented(3) us. The prairie is on fire!"
"Oh, dreadful!" cried Middleton, catching Inez to his bosom, under the instant impression of the imminence of their danger. "There is no time to lose, old man; each instant is a day. Let us fly!"
"Whither?" demanded the trapper, motioning him, with calmness and dignity, to arrest his steps. "In this wilderness of grass and reeds, we are like a vessel in the broad lakes without a compass. A single step on the wrong course might prove the destruction of us all. It is seldom danger is so pressing that there is not time enough for reason to do its work, young officer; therefore let us await its biddings."
"For my part," said Paul Hover, looking about him with an unequivocal expression of concern, "I acknowledge that should this dry bed of weeds get fairly into flame, a bee would have to make a flight higher than common, to prevent his wings from being scorched. Therefore, old trapper, I agree with the captain, and say, Mount and run!"
"Ye are wrong—ye are wrong;—man is not a beast, to follow the gift of instinct, and to snuff up his knowledge by a taint in the air or a rumbling in the ground; but he must see, and reason, and then conclude. So, follow me a little to the left, where there is a rising in the ground whence we may make our reconnoitrings."
The old man waved his hand with authority, and led the way, without further parlance,(4) to the spot he had indicated, followed by the whole of his alarmed companions. An eye less practised than that of the trapper might have failed in discovering the gentle elevation to which he alluded, and which looked on the surface of the meadow like a growth a little taller than common.
When they reached the place, however, the stunted grass itself announced the absence of that moisture which had fed the rank weeds of most of the plain, and furnished a clew to the evidence by which he had judged of the formation of the ground hidden beneath. Here a few minutes were lost in breaking down the tops of the surrounding herbage—which, notwithstanding the advantage of their position, rose even above the heads of Middleton and Paul—and in obtaining a look-out that might command a view of the surrounding sea of fire.
The examination which his companions so instantly and so intently made, rather served to assure them of their desperate situation than to appease their fears. Huge columns of smoke were rolling up from the plain, and thickening in gloomy masses around the horizon. The red glow which gleamed upon their enormous folds, now lighted their volumes with the glare of the conflagration, now flashed to another point, as the flame beneath glided ahead, leaving all behind enveloped in awful darkness, and proclaiming louder than words the character of the imminent and rapidly approaching danger.
"This is terrible!" exclaimed Middleton, folding the trembling Inez to his heart. "At such a time as this, and in such a manner!"
"The gates of heaven are open to all who truly believe," murmured the gentle wife.
"This resignation is maddening! But we are men, and will make a struggle for our lives!—How now, my brave and spirited friend;—shall we yet mount and push across the flames; or shall we stand here, and see those we most love perish in this frightful manner without an effort?"
"I am for a swarming-time and a flight before the hive is too hot to hold us," said the bee hunter, to whom it will be at once seen that the half-distracted Middleton had addressed himself.—"Come, old trapper, you must acknowledge this is but a slow way of getting out of danger. If we tarry here much longer, it will be in the fashion that the bees lie round the straw after the hive has been smoked for its honey.(5) You may hear the fire begin to roar already; and I know by experience that when the flame once gets fairly into the prairie grass, he is no sloth that can outrun it."
"Think you," returned the old man pointing scornfully at the mazes of the dry and matted grass which environed them, "that mortal feet can outstrip the speed of fire on such a path?"
"What say you, friend doctor?" cried the bewildered Paul, turning to the naturalist with that sort of helplessness with which the strong are often apt to seek aid of the weak, when human power is baffled by the hand of a mightier Being;—"what say you? Have you no advice to give away in a case of life and death?"
The naturalist stood, tablets(6) in hand, looking at the awful spectacle with as much composure as though the conflagration had been lighted in order to solve the difficulties of some scientific problem. Aroused by the question of his companion, he turned to his equally calm though differently occupied associate, the trapper, demanding with the most provoking insensibility to the urgent nature of their situation—"Venerable hunter, you have often witnessed similar prismatic experiments(7)—"
He was rudely interrupted by Paul, who struck the tablets from his hand with a violence that betrayed the utter intellectual confusion which had overset his equanimity.(8)
For what did Inez and her husband mistake the red streak on the horizon? Who undeceived them? Whom did he suspect of firing the prairie? For what purpose? What did most of the travellers advise? Who opposed this? Where did he lead the party?