Chapter XXV. The Results of a Buffalo Hunt
 

The brief stop made by Dave and Barringford had allowed Henry to increase his lead until now he was almost out of sight of those behind him. The prairie was growing rougher, and soon the buffaloes reached a small creek, bordered in spots with trees and brushwood. Into the creek they plunged boldly and scrambled up the opposite bank. Henry came after them, and now another level stretch of prairie was encountered at least a mile across and several times that in length.

The buffaloes were gradually turning to the northward once more, and by keeping straight for them Henry cut off much of the distance he would otherwise have been compelled to cover. He soon saw that they had changed their course because of a river they were afraid to swim, for it was shallow and the mud on the bottom was sticky and treacherous.

"They certainly know what they are doing," thought the young hunter. "Go along, Buzzy! We must catch them somehow!"

Buzzy heard the words and leaped forward in a fresh effort. As he did this Henry looked behind him, and was surprised to learn that both Dave and Barringford were nowhere in sight.

"Can they have given up the chase?" he asked himself. It was possible, but not at all probable. "Perhaps they had more trouble with that fallen buffalo than they expected," he thought.

At last Henry saw that the animals ahead of him were beginning to slacken their speed. The leader still kept on with three or four others, but the rest were dropping further and further behind. One in particular, quite a big beast, too, lagged more than any of them, and Henry soon spotted this for his own.

"I'll have you yet, old fellow," he told himself, and looked to see if the priming of his gun was still as it should be.

Once more the buffaloes made a turn to the westward, following the bank of the river just mentioned. The beast Henry had picked out was a dozen or more rods to the rear, and this distance was increasing rapidly. Evidently his wind had given out. Suddenly he stopped short, whirled around, and made straight for the young hunter!

Henry was not taken greatly by surprise, and had been on the lookout for such a trick. As the buffalo came closer he pulled the hammer of his gun. To his chagrin the weapon refused to go off, acting exactly as it had done when he was after the big elk.

"What luck!" he muttered, and then had to pull his horse to one side. The animal was now nervous, and in a twinkling it balked and sent Henry flying headlong to the ground! Then, without waiting to note what was happening, the horse set off on a run whence it had come.

To face an angry buffalo had been bad enough while on horseback, but on foot it was doubly perilous. For the instant after he picked himself up Henry knew not what to do. Then, in sheer desperation, he raised his rifle once more and pulled the trigger as before.

The weapon now spoke up and the bullet hit the bison (for such the American buffalo really is) fairly and squarely between the eyes. Down went the beast as if struck with a heavy club. But the skull was thick and the shot was by no means fatal.

As soon as the gun was empty Henry retreated. He knew better than to use his pistol until it became absolutely necessary to do so. With all possible speed he reloaded the larger weapon.

The young hunter was just fixing the priming and looking to the flint when the bison came up with a snort and charged as before. There was blood trickling down his face and he presented a truly ferocious sight. Henry waited until the beast was but a few paces away, then aimed for the right eye once more and fired.

This time both gun and aim did not disappoint him. The bullet passed into the very brain of the buffalo, and he pitched over with a thud that could be heard for a long distance. Once or twice he pawed the prairie grass, but that was all.

Henry did not examine his prize at once. A glance convinced him that he had nothing more to fear in that direction, and then he looked for the other buffaloes. All were out of sight. He reloaded his gun and then began to search for his horse.

To his chagrin the steed was also among the missing, nor could he catch sight of the animal anywhere, try his best. Then he looked for Dave and Barringford. They had not come up, and where they were there was no telling.

He was alone on the broad prairie with the dead buffalo. More than this, the chase had occupied considerable time, and he saw with some alarm that both night and a storm were coming up. Already in the west dark clouds were beginning to crawl up toward the orb of day. In a few minutes more the sun was obscured, and the bright stretches of the prairie took on a somber tone.

"Well, I'm certainly in a pickle," he thought. "I wonder where that horse went to, and how long it will be before Dave and Sam come up?"

Had there been a tree handy, Henry would have mounted it to take observations. But not even a hillock was near, and he had to content himself with remaining on the level, using his eyes to the utmost.

"If they don't come soon, I suppose I'll have to spend the night here," he mused. "That won't be very pleasant, especially if any wolves happen to be around."

Hoping every minute that Dave and Barringford would appear, Henry examined the dead buffalo. The prize was a big one, and it must be admitted that the young hunter was much elated as he surveyed it.

"For a first buffalo, I'm sure that isn't so bad," he thought. "The folks at home will be surprised when they hear about it."

Swiftly the storm came closer, and presently the scattering drops of rain came down, followed by a steady shower. With nothing to protect him, he was soon wet to the skin.

Knowing there was scant danger of a prairie fire during a storm, Henry took out his hunting-knife and cut up a small portion of the buffalo. Then he dug out the dry grass from under the game, lit his tinder-box, and started up a fire, feeding it both with grass and with some buffalo fat. The latter made quite a heavy smoke, and he hoped that this would attract the attention of the others.

But when fully an hour had gone by, Henry grew both hungry and uneasy. "Something serious must have happened," he mused. "They wouldn't leave me like this."

He set up a yell, using the utmost power of his strong lungs for that purpose. Only the patter of the rain answered him.

Crouching over the tiny fire, he cooked himself a bit of the buffalo meat and ate it. Then he walked over to the river and procured a drink. On every side he could see nothing but the prairie, with the stream running through it like a huge serpent. Close to the water's edge were a few bushes, and some of these he pulled up with ease, with which to replenish the fire.

To tell the truth, Henry felt very lonely. Often had he been out in the forest at night, but the present experience was new to him. Had there been some rocks at hand, or a single tree, he might have made himself feel at home, but this immense stretch of flat land, water-soaked and becoming fast wrapped in the darkness of night, was truly depressing.

"Give me the woods every time, for an outing," he said to himself. "But, now I am here, I reckon I've got to make the best of it."

Returning to the river, he pulled up what was left of the bushes. These he did not put on the fire, but propped up against the broad back of the buffalo, forming a little shelter, into which he crawled in an endeavor to protect himself from the rain. Night was now on him, and he felt certain that he would have to remain in the spot until morning.

"One thing is certain, I'll never forget this buffalo hunt," he murmured as he turned in. "It's not proving as much fun as I thought it would be."

For a good two hours Henry crouched in the little shelter, trying his best to go to sleep. The rain continued to come down, but fortunately it was not cold, so he suffered but little discomfort on that account. At last his head fell forward on his breast and he became oblivious to all around him.

Towards one o'clock in the morning the rain ceased and a brisk wind came up from the southwest. As the stars began to show themselves, the wind carried to the keen nostrils of several wolves the scent of the buffalo carcass. The wolves were hungry, and with little yelps of satisfaction they trotted off toward where the game lay.

It did not take the beasts long to get within a dozen yards of the dead buffalo. Several were about to leap forward to plunge their fangs into the cut flesh, when they made the discovery that a human being was present. At once a howling of dismay arose on the night air.

The howl awoke Henry with a start. For the moment he could not imagine what had awakened him, but, with the true instinct of the hunter, he reached for his gun and also felt to see if his hunting knife was where it should be.

"Wolves," he told himself, and set up a sudden yell. At the sound of his voice the beasts retreated into the darkness and began to yelp violently. They were much disappointed, for they had expected to have a rare feast on the big carcass lying before them.

"I'll have to stir up that fire, that's certain," thought the young hunter, and he made haste to use his tinder-box. But grass and bushes were too wet to ignite, and in a few minutes he had to give up the idea.

In the meantime the wolves had ranged themselves in a semicircle before him, continuing to howl as dismally as ever. One especially large beast came a little forward, showing his fangs viciously.

"Get back there!" cried Henry, and the leader of the wolves retreated for the moment. But then he came closer than ever, and the others followed.

Picking up one of the bushes, Henry threw it at the pack and all set up a wild yelping. Away they sped into the darkness, and he fancied they were gone. But this did not last. They came back howling with additional loudness, and drew closer and closer, until it looked as if the largest would certainly leap for the young hunter's throat.

Henry waited no longer, but, raising his musket, fired at the leader of the wolves. With a snarl the beast sprang into the air and whirled over and over in his death agonies. The struggle carried him further away from where Henry stood, and without loss of time the youth reloaded his weapon, so that he might be prepared for another attack.

The sudden fall of the leader disconcerted the other wolves for the time being, and it was fully five minutes before they came forward as before. Henry half expected them to eat the dead wolf, but they did not touch the body.

"Reckon they mean business," thought the young hunter, setting his teeth hard. "They want either the buffalo or me! And they shan't have either--if I can help it!"

He yelled once more at the beasts, but this time they merely halted, showing that the sound of his voice did not alarm them as it had previously done. Then, like a flash, one leaped for Henry's throat.

Crack! went the rifle again, and this wolf also fell, shot through the throat. The wound was serious, but not fatal, and with gleaming teeth and eyes that blazed with fury the beast gathered himself for another spring. On he came, but Henry knew enough to leap to one side. Not wishing to use his pistol, excepting as a last resort, he drew his hunting-knife, and, watching his chance, plunged it into the wolf's shoulder. Down went the beast, and a second stroke of the blade finished the creature.

Scarcely was the second wolf down when all the others appeared to come forward in a bunch. Bang! went Henry's pistol, and a third wolf was struck in the breast. Then the youth caught up a bush and whirled it into the beasts' faces. But some got behind him, and one snapped at his hunting-shirt and another at his leather leggings. It looked as if in another minute he would be down and killed.