The Thundering Herd - Zane Grey - ebook

The Thundering Herd ebook

Zane Grey



In this breathless tale of bravery and battle, of white mans courage and red mans daring, Zane Grey has written one of his finest novels. The great western writer’s story of the buffalo hunters, and the passing of the great herds of buffalo. „The Thundering Herd” is the story of the buffalo and of their near extinction when hide hunters swarmed the plains killing them by the tens of thousands, and at the same time helping to eliminate the Indians by killing their food supply. Grounded in the author’s sense of western history, it shows in no uncertain terms how white men were debased by the wanton destruction of the herds.

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Liczba stron: 485

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Autumn winds had long waved the grass in the vast upland valley and the breath of the north had tinged the meandering lines of trees along the river bottoms. Gold and purple, and a flame of fire, shone brightly in the morning sunlight.

Birds and beasts of that wild open northland felt stir in them the instinct to move toward the south. The honk of wild geese floated down upon the solitudes and swift flocks of these heralds of winter sped by, sharply outlined against the blue sky.

High upon the western rampart of that valley perched an eagle, watching from his lonely crag. His telescopic eye ranged afar. Beneath him on the endless slope and boundless floor of the valley, moved a black mass, creeping with snail-like slowness toward the south. It seemed as long as the valley and as wide. It reached to the dim purple distances and disappeared there. The densest part covered the center of the valley, from which ran wide straggling arms, like rivers narrowing toward their sources in the hills. Patches of gray grass, dotted with gold, shone here and there against the black background. Always the dark moving streams and blots seemed encroaching upon these patches of grass. They spread over them and covered them. Then other open spaces appeared at different points. How slow the change! Yet there was a definite movement.

This black mass was alive. The eagle was gazing down upon leagues and leagues of buffalo. Acres of buffalo, miles of buffalo, millions of buffalo! The shaggy, irregular, ragged herd had no end. It dominated slopes, and bottomlands, and the hazy reaches beyond.

The vision of the eagle was an organ for self-preservation, not capable of appreciating the beauty and sublimity of the earth and its myriads of wild creatures. Yet with piercing eye the eagle watched from his lonely crag. Boundless void, with its moving coverlet of black, the wide space of sky keen with its cool wind–valley of leagues, with its living heritage of a million years! Wild, primitive, grand was the scene. It was eloquent of the past. The future stretched away like the dim, strange, unknown purple distances, with an intimation of tragedy. But the hour was one of natural fruition, wild life in the open, with the sun like an eye of the Creator, shining over the land. Peace, silence, solitude attended the eagle in his vigil.

Yet a brooding sadness, like an invisible mantle, lay over the valley. Was it the dreamy, drowsy spell of autumn? Was it the pervading spirit of a dying season, reluctant to face the rigor of snow and ice? The fact was that autumn lingered, and nature brooded over some mystery, some problem, some blunder. Life was sweet, strong–scented on the wind, but there was death lurking somewhere, perhaps in the purple shadow of distance to the southward. The morning was bright, golden, glorious, yet it did not wait, and night was coming. So there was more than the melancholy languor of autumn in the still air. A mighty Being seemed breathing there, invisible and infinite, all- encompassing. It kept its secret.

Suddenly the eagle plunged like a thunderbolt from his crag and shot down and down, at last to spread his closed wings, and sail slowly and majestically round and round, over an open grassy patch encircled by buffalo.

In this spot, well toward the center and front of the vast herd, appeared about to be enacted a battle between a monarch and his latest rival for supremacy.

The huge leader, shaggy, brown, ragged, was not a creature of beauty, but he was magnificent. He had twice the bulk of an ox, and stood as high as a horse. His massive head, with the long shaggy hair matted with burrs, was held low, muzzle almost to the ground, showing the big curved short horns widely separated. Eyes of dark fire blazed from beneath the shaggy locks. His great back slowly arched and his short tufted tail rose stiffly erect. A hoarse rumble issued from the cavern of his chest–a roar at the brazen effrontery of this young bull that dared to face him.

Many and many had been the battles of this old monarch. For years he had reigned, so many that he had forgotten the instinct of his youth, when he, like the rival before him, had bearded the king of the buffaloes. He had to fight again, in obedience to that law which respected only the survival of the fittest.

The bull that had challenged the king to battle was also magnificent. He too lowered his huge head, and with short prodigious strokes he pawed tufts of grass and heaps of earth up into the air. His color was a glossy seal brown and he did not have the ragged, worn appearance of the monarch. His shaggy hair hung thick and woolly from head and shoulders and knees. Great rippling muscles swelled on his flanks as he pawed and moved round his enemy. He meant to attack. He shone resplendent. He seemed the epitome of animal vigor and spirit. The bawl with which he answered the roar of the monarch rang clear and hard, like a blast. He possessed something that the old warrior had lost. He had beauty and youth.

The surrounding buffalo did not appear concerned over this impending battle. They were aware of it, for they would raise their shaggy heads from the grass and gaze a moment at the king and his jealous aspirant. Then they would return to their feeding. It was noticeable, however, that the circle did not narrow; if anything, it gradually widened.

The king did not wait for his foe to begin the struggle. He charged. His dash was incredibly fast for so heavy a beast and his momentum tremendous. Square against the lowered head of the young bull he struck. The shock sent forth a sodden crash. The bull staggered under the impact. His whole bulk shook. Then he was lifted, head up, forefeet off the ground, higher, and with grinding clash of horns he was hurled heavily upon his back.

Under the great force of that charge the old monarch went to his knees, and the advantage which might have been his was lost. He heaved in his rage.

Nimbly the young bull rolled over and bounded to his feet, unhurt. Nature had by this time developed him to a perfect resisting force. His front was all bone, covered by matted hair. Swifter than a horse, as quick as a cat, he launched his bulk at his antagonist, and hit him with a shock no less terrific than the one that had opened the battle. But the old warrior received it as if he had been a great oak rooted in the earth.

Then with heads pounding and horns grinding, these beasts, relentless as nature itself, settled down to the wonderful and incredible battle of buffalo bulls. Bent and bowed, always head to head, they performed prodigious feats of ramming and butting, and endeavoring to give each other a fatal thrust with horn.

But under that heavy mat of wool was skin over an inch thick and tougher than hardened leather. These bulls were made to fight. They had extraordinary lung capacity and very large nostrils. Their endurance was as remarkable as their physical structure.

In a cloud of dust they plowed up the prairie, driving the grazing buffalo back and forth, and covering acres of ground in their struggle. The crash of heads and rattle of horns gradually diminished in vigor of sound, indicating that the speed and strength of the rivals were wearing down. Not so their ferocity and courage! It was a battle to death or complete vanquishment. In time the dust cloud blew away on the wind, and then the bulls could be seen in action less strenuous but still savage.

The old monarch was near the end of his last battle. His race was run. Torn and dirt-covered and bloody, he backed before the onslaughts of his foe. His lungs, like great bellows, sent out gasps that were as well utterances of defeat. He could not withstand the relentless young bull. Age must go down. He was pushed to his knees and almost bowled over. Recovering, he wearily fronted that huge battering black head, and then was shoved to his haunches. Again, narrowly, he escaped the following lunge. That was the moment of defeat. He was beaten. The instinct for life took the place of the instinct for supremacy. Backward, step by step, he went, always facing the bellowing young conqueror. There came intervals when he was free of that lowered battering head; and during the last of these he sheered away among the stragglers of the herd, leaving the field to the victor. The old monarch had retired to the ranks and there was a new leader of the herd.

The eagle soared back to his lonely perch, there to clutch the crag with his talons and sweep the valley with crystal eye.

Out to the front of the black mass of buffalo a whirlwind twisted up a column of dust. Funnel-shaped it rose, yellow and spreading, into the air, while it raced across the valley. That, or something as natural, stirred a movement in the fore-ranks of buffalo. All at once the leaders broke into a run, heading south. The movement, and the growing pound of their hoofs, ran through the herd as swiftly as a current. Then, magically and wondrously, the whole immense mass moved as if one spirit, one mind, dominated it. The throbbing pound of hoofs suddenly increased to a roar. Dust began to rise and blow back, like low clouds of yellow smoke, over the acres, and then the miles of bobbing black backs. The vast herd seemed to become a sea in swift and accelerating action.

Soon a rising pall of dust shrouded the thousands of buffalo, running under what seemed an obscure curtain. The volume of sound had swelled from rhythmic pound and beat to a mighty and appalling roar. Only the battlements of the upper air, assailed in storm by the ripping of lightning, could send back such thunder as now rose from the shaking earth. But this was one long continuous roll. The movement of buffalo in unison resembled a tidal wave and the sound was that of an avalanche. The ground trembled under the thundering herd.

The eagle perched motionless on his crag, indifferent to the rolling chaos beneath him. The valley-wide cloud of dust floated low down. Time passed. Halfway to the zenith rose the sun. Then gradually the tremor of the earth and the roar of hoofs diminished, rolled, and died away. The herd had passed. On his lofty perch the eagle slept, and the valley cleared of dust and movement. Solitude, loneliness, and silence reigned at the solemn noontide.

It was spring of an era many years after the lone eagle had watched the buffalo herd.

An upland prairie country rolled and waved down from snow-capped Rocky Mountains to spread out into the immense eastern void. Over the bleached white grass had come a faint tinge of green. The warm sun had begun its renewal of the covering of the earth. A flock of wild geese, late on their annual pilgrimage, winged swift flight toward the northland. On the ridges elk grazed, and down in the hollows, where murmuring streams rushed, clouded with the blue color of melted snow, deer nibbled at the new tender shoots of grass.

Below the uplands, where the plain began, herds of buffalo dotted the patches and streaked the monotony of the gray vastness. Leagues and leagues it spread, always darker for the increase of buffalo, until all was a dense black that merged into the haze of distance.

A river wended its curving way out across the plains, and in a wooded bend an Indian encampment showed its white tepees, and red blankets, and columns of blue smoke lazily rising.

Hidden in the brush along the river half-naked red men lay in wait for the buffalo to come down to drink. These hunters did not need to sally forth for their game. They had only to wait and choose the meat and the hide that best served them for their simple needs. They did not kill more than they could use.

Along the river bank, far as eye could see, the shaggy monsters trooped down to drink. Bulls and cows and calves came in endless procession. In some places, where the bank was steep, the thirsty buffalo behind pushed the row ahead into the water, whence rose a splashing mêlée. The tawny calves, still too young to shed their coats and turn the seal brown of their mothers, bawled lustily as they were shoved into the river.

Near the encampment of the Indians, where trees and brush lined the shore, the buffalo were more wary. They liked the open. But stragglers came along, and the choicest of these fell prey to the deadly arrows of the red men. A shaggy young bull, sleek and brown, superb in his approaching maturity, passed within range of the chieftain of that hunting clan. He rose from his covert, a lean, dark Indian, tall and powerful of build, with intense face and piercing eyes turned toward his quarry. He bent a bow few Indians could have drawn. He bent it till the flint head of the arrow touched his left hand. Then he released the arrow. Like a glint of light it flashed and, striking the bull behind the shoulder, buried half its length there. The animal grunted. He made no violent movements. He walked back as he had come, only more and more slowly. The chief followed him out to the edge of the timber. There other buffalo coming in saw both Indian and wounded bull, but they only swerved aside. The bull halted, and heaving heavily, he plunged to his knees, and then rolled over on his side.

After the hunters came the squaws, with their crude flint and bone implements, to skin the buffalo and cut up the meat and pack it to the encampment.

There the chief repaired to rest on his buffalo hide under a tree, and to think the thoughts and dream the dreams of the warrior. Beyond the white-peaked mountain range lived enemies of his, red men of a hated tribe. Other than remembrance of them he had no concern. His red gods could not tell him of the future. The paleface, who was to drive him and his people into the fastnesses of the arid hills, was unknown and undreamed of. Into his lofty serene mind no thought flashed of a vanishing of the buffalo while yet his descendants lived. The buffalo were as many as the sands of the river bottoms. They had always been; they would always be. The buffalo existed to furnish food, raiment, shelter for the red man.

So the chief rested in his camp, watching beaver at work on the river bank, as tame as were the buffalo. Like these animals, he and his tribe were happy and self-sufficient. Only infrequent battles with other tribes marred the serenity of their lives. Always the endless herds were to be found, to the south or the north. This chief worshiped the sun, loved his people and the wild, lonely land he believed was his; and if there was in his tribe a brave who was liar or coward or thief, or a squaw who broke the law, death was his or her portion.

A straggling band of white men wearily rode and tramped across the great plains centuries before that wonderful level prairie was to be divided into the Western states of America.

These white travelers were the Spanish explorers under the command of the intrepid Coronado. It was a large band. Many of them rode horses– Arabian horses of the purest breed, from which the Western mustang was descended. But most of them walked, wearing queer apparel and armor not suitable to such arduous travel. They carried strange weapons.

Hardy, indomitable, and enduring, this first band of white men to penetrate the great plains and the deserts of the South and West, recorded for history something of their marvelous adventures and terrible experiences and strange sights.

Many hundreds of leagues they traveled, according to their historian, Castaneda, over tremendous plains and reaches of sand, stark and level, and so barren of trees and stones that they erected heaps of the ox dung they found, so that they could be guided back by the way they had come. They lost horses and men.

All the way across these great plains of grass and sand the Spaniards encountered herds of crooked-back oxen, as many as there were sheep in Spain. But they saw no people with the crooked-back cattle. These weary and lost travelers, almost starved, found in the oxen succor they so grievously needed. Meat gave them strength and courage to go on through obstacles none save crusaders could have overcome. Sometimes in this strange country it rained great showers of hailstones as big as oranges; and these storms caused many tears and injuries.

Castaneda wrote:

These oxen are the bigness and color of our bulls… They have a great bunch of hair on their fore shoulders, and more on their fore part than their hinder part, and it is like wool. They have a horse-mane upon their backbone, and much hair, and very long from their knees downward. They have great tufts of hair hanging down their foreheads, and it seemeth they have beards because of the great store of hair hanging down at their chins and throats. The males have very large tails, and a great knob or flock at the end, so that in some respects they resemble the lion, and in some others the camel. They push with their horns; they run; they overtake and kill a horse when they are in their rage and anger. The horses fled from them, either because of their deformed shape, or else because they had never before seen them. Finally it is a foul and fierce beast of countenance and form of body.

Coronado and Castaneda, with their band of unquenchable spirits, were the first white people to see the American buffalo.

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