With Lieutenant Pike - Edwin Sabin

Meat for the Camp


Stub stared hard. He scarcely could believe his bleared, aching eyes. Was it really true? Buffalo? Now what to do?

This was early in the third morning after leaving the main camp. For two days he and the doctor and Baroney had been hunting, hunting, from dawn to dark; ranging up and down, among the hills and draws, and wading the snow, on only one small meal. In fact, they practically had had nothing at all to eat, in forty-eight hours. Through the two nights they had tended fire and shiveringly dozed, without blankets, in the best spot they might find, where they could secure a little protection from the biting wind.

How they were going to keep on living if they discovered nothing to eat, this day, he did not know; Baroney did not know; the doctor hadn't said. But they had told the sergeant not to expect them unless with good news; the other men probably were famishing, too, and they themselves might as well starve in one place as another.

Full of aches and pains (and that was all!) they had passed a bad night, so that this morning they really had been glad to stagger up and out again, into the bleak white-gray, even though they might be starting upon only another long day of fruitless tramping.

Baroney groaned.

"Ma foi! My legs move, my head thinks, but there is nothing between. I have no stomach."

"We'll find meat to-day. Not only for ourselves but for the boys in camp, remember," encouraged the doctor. "They're likely depending on us, for we've heard no gunshots. We must separate and hunt widely."

They had trudged forth, before sun-up. They had crossed the first wooded ridge, to the next little valley.

"Stub, you follow up, along the high ground on this side," the doctor ordered. "Baroney will take the middle. I'll take the farther side. Move slowly and all together, and we'll surely start something. Head off anything that comes your way, Stub, and drive it down to us. Don't waste the load in your pistol."

"Yes, I will drive," answered Stub, patiently. He waited, shivering, until Baroney had halted in the bottom, and the doctor had toiled clear across to the other slope, and up. Then they three moved on together—one searching either flank, the third in between.

The valley was not wide. Its bottom was level and open except for the snow-covered brush; its sides were dotted with cedars and pines. Keeping near the top of his side, so as to drive anything down hill, Stub hunted faithfully, hoping, too, that he would hear the doctor or Baroney shoot. His eyes scanned every foot before and to right and left, seeking tracks. Even a rabbit would be welcomed—yet he didn't wish to spend his bullet on a rabbit.

He saw nothing to make him draw his pistol. It weighed heavily and rasped his stomach and thigh as he plodded on.

The sun was about to rise above the snowy ridges on the east. They had been hunting for an hour, at least, and had heard never a sound. Then he reached a place where his slope broke sharply into a side valley. A fellow always expected something, at such places. So he stole forward cautiously; he came to a ledge of rock, and peered down. What he saw instantly almost stopped his heart-beating, and dazed his eyes with sudden excitement.

Buffalo! Really? Yes, yes—buffalo! He was not dreaming.

It was more of a basin than a valley, in there: broadening to a snug cup protected by rim-rock, just back of the opening into the main valley, and thence tapering and climbing until it pinched out, on the ridge. A few leafless aspens (sign of water) and sprawly evergreens grew in the cup, and there was marsh grass, in weedy clumps. And the buffalo.

Two—three, lying down and comfortable, like cattle, their legs under them. The snow was well trodden; they had been in here some time.

Now what to do? He trembled, and thought his best. If he only might take the time to signal Baroney and the doctor. But even as he peered the sun flashed up, and the first beams streamed into the cup. One large bull suddenly stirred, and all at once was on his feet, swaying his shaggy head and sniffing the air. Was it the sun, or did the breeze tell him something? He may have scented the doctor, or Baroney, or Stub, or he might merely be thinking of breakfast and the day's program.

There! The second buffalo was out of bed, and imitating the first. The third seemed to be getting uneasy. Stub dared not delay, to signal. His eyes roved rapidly. He was too far, for pistol shooting. The buffalo might only start to graze—they might start to travel, warned by danger smell—and they were as likely to go one way as another. He must get down in behind them and drive them out where the doctor and Baroney would see them.

He drew back, and crouching scurried on a half circuit, to slip into the basin, above them. He struck a little ravine, leading down. All his practice at scouting with the Pawnee boys stood him in good stead, now. He moved fast but silently, darting from spot to spot, stepping with care and listening for alarm sounds; and stealing more gently as he arrived at the bottom, where the ravine ended in a cedar and a shoulder of rock.

The upper edge of the basin was just around that corner. He planned to step out, into sight. The buffalo would run in the other direction, and the doctor or Baroney might be able to head them, and kill one at least; then follow and maybe kill more.

But first he drew his big pistol, on the slim chance of a sure shot, himself. Gradually he thrust his head beyond the cedar and the rock shoulder—and jerked back in a jiffy. A fourth buffalo was standing there almost within touch!

Stub's heart beat furiously, and he sank trembling, to think. He must look again; and he did, as gradually as a timid prairie-dog emerging from its burrow.

Wah! It was a cow, turned broadside to him, half dozing as she bathed in the sunshine.

Now he must steady down, and slide out a little farther, for a sure shot. He huddled back, once more to take breath. He examined his flint, and opened the pan, to stir the caked powder of the priming. Then with both hands he cocked the heavy hammer—click-click! The noise frightened him, and he hoped that it had not frightened the cow. Then he extended the pistol in front of him, and began to follow it by worming on, inch by inch, around the low-branching cedar.

Hoorah! The cow was still there, but she had heard or smelled. Maybe she had heard the click-click. She had not moved;; only, her head was up, and she was gazing with her head turned in the direction of the other buffalo.

He'd better shoot as quickly as possible. Another inch, and another, he squirmed, for right position. Now! She was about fifteen paces—not so near as he had thought, but this was the best that he might do with any safety. So he leveled the long-barreled dragoon pistol, again with both hands; held breath until the muzzle seemed to be pointing directly in line with a spot just behind her fore shoulder—and while it slightly wavered there, he pressed the trigger.

Bang! The pistol wellnigh jumped from his hands; a cloud of smoke had belched—and dimly seen through the smoke, by his watering eyes, the cow had given a great leap and had vanished.

She had run the other way, down the basin. Up Stub leaped, and ran, too. The basin seemed to be still echoing with the report, but he heard the thud and clatter of hoofs, also, and a fear that he had missed her made his heart sick.

He panted into full sight of the little basin just in time to see a half score—no, a dozen or more of the burly animals pelting through for the other end, to gain the open of the main valley. He'd had no idea that so many were in here. They'd been hidden from him, the most of them—lying in cosy beds where he'd not happened to look.

Away they went, jostling and stringing out, bolting blindly. One, the last in the flight, loped painfully—fell farther and farther behind. It was his cow! He had hit her, and hit her hard. Hoorah! He darted for the spot where she had stood. He trailed her for a few steps, and the trampled snow was blotched red. Blood! Hoorah! He ran on, down through the basin, to see her again. Now Baroney or the doctor might get her, because she would grow weak.

He wondered if they had heard him shoot. The basin was empty, all the buffalo had charged on into the valley—that was what he had wished them to do, and maybe he had killed one and signaled, besides. He hoped that the doctor would not be angry. Now if the buffalo only turned down toward Baroney !

Hark! Another shot! Somebody out there had fired—Whang! He ran faster—to the mouth of the basin—into sight of the main valley—and again, hoorah!

The fleeing buffalo had blundered against Baroney. He had been not far outside; he had shot one—it was down, in the snow; not the cow, either, for the cow was down, too there were the two black spots, motionless, and the little herd were streaming across the valley, for the other slope, with Baroney lumbering after—and yonder, on the slope, the doctor was plunging toward the bottom, to get in a shot also.

Could he do it? Yes! He ran quartering, stumbling and lunging; the leading buffalo sensed him, swerved, they all swerved; he knelt and aimed and fired, quickly—around wheeled the buffalo, again alarmed, and came pelting back for Stub's side, as if to escape through their basin—but one lagged, wavered, halted, and suddenly collapsed. That made three!

The remainder of the herd were coming straight for Stub. He had no load for his pistol; he could only dance and wave his arms and yell, to stop them. This he did. Once more they tacked; Baroney had lain flat, hoping; foolish things, they tacked almost for him—wait—wait—aha! His gun puffed smoke, the report echoed dully, a buffalo had jumped high and stiff-legged and Baroney was after him, loading on the run. Down pitched the buffalo. That made four!

The doctor was running again, but the rest of the buffalo got away, up the valley. All right; they had left plenty of meat. Hoorah!

Stub hastened forward, wild with joy. The doctor was coming. They met Baroney, where two carcasses—a bull and Stub's cow—were lying close together.

"Hurrah!" cheered the doctor.

Baroney capered—" Hoozah! Hoozah!"

"Four! One to me, two to you—that's good. And what about this other? Who killed her?"

"The boy. Oui! I think he killed her, with that pistol," Baroney jabbered. "I hear one shot—hang! I do not know where. Then the buffalo come running out. And before I can shoot, I see this cow tumble down, and die. She has a hole in her—a bullet hole."

"Did you shoot her, Stub? With your pistol?" Stub nodded.

"First I see three. Down on bottom. They act scared. I go to drive them out. She very close. I shoot her. She run, all run, I run. Then I hear shooting. Baroney get one, you get one, Baroney get 'nother. Now lots of meat. Hoorah!"

"The meat! The meat!" cried Baroney, as if reminded of great hunger. Down he plumped, digging furiously with his knife and tearing with his fingers. He wrested out a strip of bloody flesh and began to chew it and suck it.

Stub, seeing red, likewise fell to. All of a sudden he could not wait longer.

"Here, doctor "And Baroney, his beard stained wolfish, passed him a piece.

But the doctor straightened up.

"That's enough. I must carry the news to the men. You two stay here and butcher what you can till horses come from the camp. It may be a matter of life or death for those other fellows. We ought to get this meat to them without delay."

And he was away, walking fast and running down through the valley, for the river beyond and the main party somewhere along it.

"He's one fine man," gasped Baroney, gazing after. "We think only of our stomach, he thinks of those others."

They worked hard, cutting and hacking and hauling before the carcasses got cold and the hides stiff. With Baroney's hatchet they cracked a marrow-bone apiece, so as to scoop out the fatty pith.

Presently the sun was high and warming. Two men were coming afoot up the valley. They brought no horses

"Miller and Mountjoy, hein?" Baroney said, eyeing them as they drew nearer. "Where is the lieutenant, I want to know?"

Terry Miller and John Mountjoy they were; and they staggered and stumbled in their haste at sight of the meat.

"Did you lose the lieutenant? What?"

"No. He's gone on for camp, with the doctor. He sent us in here to eat. Give us some meat, quick."

"Nothing but one turkey and a hare for the three of us, these four days past," panted Terry, as he and John sucked and gobbled. "And in the last two days nothing at all."

"Go far?" Stub queried, eager to know.

"Away up, twenty-five miles or two camps above where the rest o' you left us. Up to where the river petered out to a brook betwixt the mountains. Then we turned back and traveled day and night with our clothes froze stiff on us, and our stomachs clean empty, to ketch the main camp. The cap'n was worrying more about the other men than himself."

"And sure, when we met the doctor, by chance, with news of this meat, the little cap'n told us to come in and eat, but he wouldn't. He went on—him and the doctor—hungry as he was, to find the camp below," mumbled John. "They'll send hosses. How many did you kill? Four?"

"Four," assured Baroney. "Stub one, the doctor one, I myself had the fortune to kill two. Stub, he found them; but it was the good God who put them there, waiting for us."

"I suppose we might have a bit of a fire, and eat like Christians, whilst waiting?" Terry proposed wistfully.

"The marrow is strong; we must not get sick," Baroney wisely counseled. "Let us butcher, and be ready for the horses; and to-morrow we will all have a big Christmas dinner."

"To-morrow Christmas?" exclaimed John. "Right you are! Hooray for Christmas!"

They cheered for Christmas; and with aching brain Stub puzzled over the new word.

Toward the last of their butchering Corporal Jerry Jackson and Hugh Menaugh arrived with two horses. The camp was famished, the lieutenant and the doctor had toiled in, and now everybody there was waiting for the buffalo meat. The camp had been out of food for two days.

"I told the doctor that the boy an' his pistol would fetch him luck," Hugh declared. "An' it surely did. Faith, a fine little hunter you be, Stub, me lad."

They loaded the horses, at full speed, and made for the starving camp. It was a joyous place. John Sparks had come in with more good news—he had discovered another buffalo herd and had killed four, himself! Men and horses were out, to get the meat.

Now with eight buffalo on hand, Christmas Eve was to be celebrated to-night, and Christmas Day to-morrow. They were American feasts—feasts for the Spanish and French and all white people, too, the doctor and Sergeant Bill said. Stub had heard the names before, somewhere; perhaps from the French traders. But he quit thinking and bothering. He was an American, they were his feasts now; Lieutenant Pike looked happy, and that was enough.