Kings in Exile - Part 1

Part 1

Kings in Exile.

by Sir Charles George Douglas Roberts.


That was what two grim old sachems of the Dacotahs had dubbed him; and though his official t.i.tle, on the lists of the Zoological Park, was "Kaiser," the new and more significant name had promptly supplanted it. The Park authorities--people of imagination and of sentiment, as must all be who would deal successfully with wild animals--had felt at once that the name aptly embodied the tragedies and the romantic memories of his all-but-vanished race. They had felt, too, that the two old braves who had been brought East to adorn a city pageant, and who had stood gazing stoically for hours at the great bull buffalo through the barrier of the steel-wire fence, were fitted, before all others, to give him a name. Between him and them there was surely a tragic bond, as they stood there islanded among the swelling tides of civilization which had already engulfed their kindreds. "Last Bull"

they had called him, as he answered their gaze with little, sullen, melancholy eyes from under his ponderous and s.h.a.ggy front. "Last Bull"--and the pa.s.sing of his race was in the name.

Here, in his fenced, protected range, with a s.p.a.ce of meadow, half a dozen clumps of sheltering trees, two hundred yards of the run of a clear, unfailing brook, and a warm shed for refuge against the winter storms, the giant buffalo ruled his little herd of three tawny cows, two yearlings, and one blundering, b.u.t.ting calf of the season.

He was a magnificent specimen of his race--surpa.s.sing, it was said, the finest bull in the Yellowstone preserves or in the guarded Canadian herd of the North. Little short of twelve feet in length, a good five foot ten in height at the tip of his humped and huge fore-shoulders, he seemed to justify the most extravagant tales of pioneer and huntsman. His hind-quarters were trim and fine-lined, built apparently for speed, smooth-haired, and of a grayish lion-color. But his fore-shoulders, mounting to an enormous hump, were of an elephantine ma.s.siveness, and clothed in a dense, curling, golden-brown growth of matted hair. His mighty head was carried low, almost to the level of his knees, on a neck of colossal strength, which was draped, together with the forelegs down to the knees, in a flowing brown mane tipped with black. His head, too, to the very muzzle, wore the same luxuriant and sombre drapery, out of which curved viciously the keen-tipped crescent of his horns. Dark, huge, and ominous, he looked curiously out of place in the secure and familiar tranquillity of his green pasture.

For a distance of perhaps fifty yards, at the back of the pasture, the range of the buffalo herd adjoined that of the moose, divided from it by that same fence of heavy steel-wire mesh, supported by iron posts, which surrounded the whole range. One sunny and tingling day in late October--such a day as makes the blood race full red through all healthy veins--a magnificent stranger was brought to the Park, and turned into the moose-range.

The newcomer was a New Brunswick bull moose, captured on the Tobique during the previous spring when the snow was deep and soft, and purchased for the Park by one of the big Eastern lumber-merchants. The moose-herd had consisted, hitherto, of four lonely cows, and the splendid bull was a prize which the Park had long been coveting. He took lordly possession, forthwith, of the submissive little herd, and led them off at once from the curious crowds about the gate to explore the wild-looking thickets at the back of the pasture. But no sooner had he fairly entered these thickets than he found his further progress barred by the steel-meshed fence. This was a bitter disappointment, for he had expected to go striding through miles of alder swamp and dark spruce woods, fleeing the hated world of men and bondage, before setting himself to get acquainted with his new followers. His high-strung temper was badly jarred. He drew off, shaking his vast antlers, and went shambling with s.p.a.cious stride down along the barrier towards the brook. The four cows, in single file, hurried after him anxiously, afraid he might be s.n.a.t.c.hed away from them.

Last Bull, standing solitary and morose on a little knoll in his pasture, caught sight of the strange, dark figure of the running moose. A spark leapt into his heavy eyes. He wheeled, pawed the sod, put his muzzle to the ground, and bellowed a sonorous challenge. The moose stopped short and stared about him, the stiff hair lifting angrily along the ridge of his ma.s.sive neck. Last Bull lowered his head and tore up the sod with his horns.

[Ill.u.s.tration: "Last Bull, standing solitary and morose on a little knoll in his pasture."]

This vehement action caught the eyes of the moose. At first he stared in amazement, for he had never seen any creature that looked like Last Bull. The two were only about fifty or sixty yards apart, across the little valley of the bushy swamp. As he stared, his irritation speedily overcame his amazement. The curious-looking creature over there on the knoll was defying him, was challenging him. At this time of year his blood was hot and quick for any challenge. He gave vent to a short, harsh, explosive cry, more like a grumbling bleat than a bellow, and as unlike the buffalo's challenge as could well be imagined. Then he fell to thrashing the nearest bushes violently with his antlers. This, for some reason unknown to the mere human chronicler, seemed to be taken by Last Bull as a crowning insolence.

His long, ta.s.selled tail went stiffly up into the air, and he charged wrathfully down the knoll. The moose, with his heavy-muzzled head stuck straight out scornfully before him, and his antlers laid flat along his back, strode down to the encounter with a certain deadly deliberation. He was going to fight. There was no doubt whatever on that score. But he had not quite made up his wary mind as to how he would deal with this unknown and novel adversary.

They looked not so unequally matched, these two, the monarch of the Western plains, and the monarch of the northeastern forests. Both had something of the monstrous, the uncouth, about them, as if they belonged not to this modern day, but to some prehistoric epoch when Earth moulded her children on more lavish and less graceful lines. The moose was like the buffalo in having his hind-quarters relatively slight and low, and his back sloping upwards to a hump over the immensely developed fore-shoulders. But he had much less length of body, and much less bulk, though perhaps eight or ten inches more of height at the tip of the shoulder. His hair was short, and darker than that of his s.h.a.ggy rival, being almost black except on legs and belly.

Instead of carrying his head low, like the buffalo, for feeding on the level prairies, he bore it high, being in the main a tree-feeder. But the greatest difference between the two champions was in their heads and horns. The antlers of the moose formed a huge, fantastic, flatly palmated or leaflike structure, separating into sharp p.r.o.ngs along the edges, and spreading more than four feet from tip to tip. To compare them with the short, polished crescent of the horns of Last Bull was like comparing a two-handed broadsword to a bowie-knife. And his head, instead of being short, broad, ponderous, and s.h.a.ggy, like Last Bull's, was long, close-haired, and ma.s.sively horse-faced, with a projecting upper lip heavy and grim.

Had there been no impregnable steel barrier between them, it is hard to say which would have triumphed in the end, the ponderous weight and fury of Last Bull, or the ripping p.r.o.ngs and swift wrath of the moose.

The buffalo charged down the knoll at a thundering gallop; but just before reaching the fence he checked himself violently. More than once or twice before had those elastic but impenetrable meshes given him his lesson, hurling him back with humiliating harshness when he dashed his bulk against them. He had too lively a memory of past discomfitures to risk a fresh one now in the face of this insolent foe. His matted front came against the wire with a force so cunningly moderated that he was not thrown back by the recoil. And the keen points of his horns went through the meshes with a vehemence which might indeed have done its work effectively had they come in contact with the adversary. As it was, however, they but prodded empty air.

The moose, meanwhile, had been in doubt whether to attack with his antlers, as was his manner when encountering foes of his own kind, or with his knife-edged fore-hoofs, which were the weapons he used against bears, wolves, or other alien adversaries. Finally he seemed to make up his mind that Last Bull, having horns and a most redoubtable stature, must be some kind of moose. In that case, of course, it became a question of antlers. Moreover, in his meetings with rival bulls it had never been his wont to depend upon a blind, irresistible charge,--thereby leaving it open to an alert opponent to slip aside and rip him along the flank,--but rather to fence warily for an advantage in the locking of antlers, and then bear down his foe by the fury and speed of his pushing. It so happened, therefore, that he, too, came not too violently against the barrier. Loudly his vast spread of antlers clashed upon the steel meshes; and one short, jutting low over his brow, pierced through and furrowed deeply the matted forehead of the buffalo.

As the blood streamed down over his nostrils, obscuring one eye, Last Bull quite lost his head with rage. Drawing off, he hurled himself blindly upon the barrier--only to be hurled back again with a vigor that brought him to his knees. But at the same time the moose, on the other side of the fence, got a huge surprise. Having his antlers against the barrier when Last Bull charged, he was forced back irresistibly upon his haunches, with a rudeness quite unlike anything that he had ever before experienced. His ma.s.sive neck felt as if a pine tree had fallen upon it, and he came back to the charge quite beside himself with bewilderment and rage.

[Ill.u.s.tration: "Only to be hurled back again with a vigor that brought him to his knees."]

By this time, however, the keepers and Park attendants were arriving on the scene, armed with pitchforks and other unpleasant executors of authority. Snorting, and bellowing, and grunting, the monstrous duellists were forced apart; and Last Bull, who had been taught something of man's dominance, was driven off to his stable and imprisoned. He was not let out again for two whole days. And by that time another fence, parallel with the first and some five or six feet distant from it, had been run up between his range and that of the moose. Over this impa.s.sable zone of neutrality, for a few days, the two rivals flung insult and futile defiance, till suddenly, becoming tired of it all, they seemed to agree to ignore each other's existence.

After this, Last Bull's sullenness of temper appeared to grow upon him. He was fond of drawing apart from the little herd, and taking up his solitary post on the knoll, where he would stand for an hour at a time motionless except for the switching of his long tail, and staring steadily westward as if he knew where the great past of his race had lain. In that direction a dense grove of chestnuts, maples, and oaks bounded the range, cutting off the view of the city roofs, the roar of the city traffic. Beyond the city were mountains and wide waters which he could not see; but beyond the waters and the mountains stretched the green, illimitable plains--which perhaps (who knows?) in some faint vision inherited from the ancestors whose myriads had possessed them, his sombre eyes, in some strange way, _could_ see.

Among the keepers and attendants generally it was said, with anxious regret, that perhaps Last Bull was "going bad." But the head-keeper, Payne, himself a son of the plains, repudiated the idea. _He_ declared sympathetically that the great bull was merely homesick, pining for the wind-swept levels of the open country (G.o.d's country, Payne called it!) which his imprisoned hoofs had never trodden.

Be this as it may, the fact could not be gainsaid that Last Bull was growing more and more morose. The spectators, strolling along the wide walk which skirted the front of his range, seemed to irritate him, and sometimes, when a group had gathered to admire him, he would turn his low-hung head and answer their staring eyes with a kind of heavy fury, as if he burned to break forth upon them and seek vengeance for incalculable wrongs. This smouldering indignation against humanity extended equally, if not more violently, to all creatures who appeared to him as servants or allies of humanity. The dogs whom he sometimes saw pa.s.sing, held in leash by their masters or mistresses, made him paw the earth scornfully if he happened to be near the fence. The patient horses who pulled the road-roller or the noisy lawn-mower made his eyes redden savagely. And he hated with peculiar zest the roguish little trick elephant, Bong, who would sometimes, his inquisitive trunk swinging from side to side, go lurching lazily by with a load of squealing children on his back.

Bong, who was a favored character, amiable and trustworthy, was allowed the freedom of the Park in the early morning, before visitors began to arrive who might be alarmed at seeing an elephant at large.

He was addicted to minding his own business, and never paid the slightest attention to any occupants of cage or enclosure. He was quite unaware of the hostility which he had aroused in the perverse and brooding heart of Last Bull.

One crisp morning in late November, when all the gra.s.s in the Park had been blackened by frost, and the pools were edged with silver rims of ice, and mists were white and saffron about the scarce-risen sun, and that autumn thrill was in the air which gives one such an appet.i.te, Bong chanced to be strolling past the front of Last Bull's range. He did not see Last Bull, who was nothing to him. But, being just as hungry as he ought to be on so stimulating a morning, he did see, and note with interest, some bundles of fresh hay on the other side of the fence.

Now, Bong was no thief. But hay had always seemed to him a free largess, like gra.s.s and water, and this looked like very good hay. So clear a conscience had he on the subject that he never thought of glancing around to see if any of the attendants were looking.

Innocently he lurched up to the fence, reached his lithe trunk through, gathered a neat wisp of the hay, and stuffed it happily into his curious, narrow, pointed mouth. Yes, he had not been mistaken. It was good hay. With great satisfaction he reached in for another mouthful.

Last Bull, as it happened, was standing close by, but a little to one side. He had been ignoring, so far, his morning ration. He was not hungry. And, moreover, he rather disapproved of the hay because it had the hostile man-smell strong upon it. Nevertheless, he recognized it very clearly as his property, to be eaten when he should feel inclined to eat it. His wrath, then, was only equalled by his amazement when he saw the little elephant's presumptuous gray trunk reach in and coolly help itself. For a moment he forgot to do anything whatever about it.

But when, a few seconds later, that long, curling trunk of Bong's insinuated itself again and appropriated another bundle of the now precious hay, the outraged owner bestirred himself. With a curt roar, that was more of a cough or a grunt than a bellow, he lunged forward and strove to pin the intruding trunk to the ground.

With startled alacrity Bong withdrew his trunk, but just in time to save it from being mangled. For an instant he stood with the member held high in air, bewildered by what seemed to him such a gratuitous attack. Then his twinkling little eyes began to blaze, and he trumpeted shrilly with anger. The next moment, reaching over the fence, he brought down the trunk on Last Bull's hump with such a terrible flail-like blow that the great buffalo stumbled forward upon his knees.

He was up again in an instant and hurling himself madly against the inexorable steel which separated him from his foe. Bong hesitated for a second, then, reaching over the fence once more, clutched Last Bull maliciously around the base of his horns and tried to twist his neck.

This enterprise, however, was too much even for the elephant's t.i.tanic powers, for Last Bull's greatest strength lay in the muscles of his ponderous and corded neck. Raving and bellowing, he plunged this way and that, striving in vain to wrench himself free from that incomprehensible, snake-like thing which had fastened upon him. Bong, trumpeting savagely, braced himself with widespread pillars of legs, and between them it seemed that the steel fence must go down under such cataclysmic shocks as it was suffering. But the noisy violence of the battle presently brought its own ending. An amused but angry squad of attendants came up and stopped it, and Bong, who seemed plainly the aggressor, was hustled off to his stall in deep disgrace.

Last Bull was humiliated. In this encounter things had happened which he could in no way comprehend; and though, beyond an aching in neck and shoulders, he felt none the worse physically, he had nevertheless a sense of having been worsted, of having been treated with ignominy, in spite of the fact that it was his foe, and not he, who had retired from the field. For several days he wore a subdued air and kept about meekly with his docile cows. Then his old, bitter moodiness rea.s.serted itself, and he resumed his solitary broodings on the crest of the knoll.

When the winter storms came on, it had been Last Bull's custom to let himself be housed luxuriously at nightfall, with the rest of the herd, in the warm and ample buffalo-shed. But this winter he made such difficulty about going in that at last Payne decreed that he should have his own way and stay out. "It will do him no harm, and may cool his peppery blood some!" had been the keeper's decision. So the door was left open, and Last Bull entered or refrained, according to his whim. It was noticed, however,--and this struck a chord of answering sympathy in the plainsman's imaginative temperament,--that, though on ordinary nights he might come in and stay with the herd under shelter, on nights of driving storm, if the tempest blew from the west or northwest, Last Bull was sure to be out on the naked knoll to face it.

When the fine sleet or stinging rain drove past him, filling his nostrils with their cold, drenching his matted mane, and lashing his narrowed eyes, what visions swept through his troubled, half-comprehending brain, no one may know. But Payne, with understanding born of sympathy and a common native soil, catching sight of his dark bulk under the dark of the low sky, was wont to declare that _he_ knew. He would say that Last Bull's eyes discerned, black under the hurricane, but lit strangely with the flash of keen horns and rolling eyes and frothed nostrils, the endless and innumerable droves of the buffalo, with the plains wolf skulking on their flanks, pa.s.sing, pa.s.sing, southward into the final dark. In the roar of the wind, declared Payne, Last Bull, out there in the night, listened to the trampling of all those vanished droves. And though the other keepers insisted to each other, quite privately, that their chief talked a lot of nonsense about "that there mean-tempered old buffalo," they nevertheless came gradually to look upon Last Bull with a kind of awe, and to regard his surly whims as privileged.

It chanced that winter that men were driving a railway tunnel beneath a corner of the Park. The tunnel ran for a short distance under the front of Last Bull's range, and pa.s.sed close by the picturesque cottage occupied by Payne and two of his a.s.sistants. At this point the level of the Park was low, and the sh.e.l.l of earth was thin above the tunnel roof.

There came a Sunday afternoon, after days of rain and penetrating January thaw, when sun and air combined to cheat the earth with an illusion of spring. The buds and the mould breathed of April, and gay crowds flocked to the Park, to make the most of winter's temporary repulse. Just when things were at their gayest, with children's voices clamoring everywhere like starlings, and Bong, the little elephant, swinging good-naturedly up the broad white track with all the load he had room for on his back, there came an ominous jar and rumble, like the first of an earthquake, which ran along the front of Last Bull's range.

With sure instinct, Bong turned tail and fled with his young charges away across the gra.s.sland. The crowds, hardly knowing what they fled from, with screams and cries and blanched faces, followed the elephant's example. A moment later and, with a m.u.f.fled crash, all along the front of the range, the earth sank into the tunnel, carrying with it half a dozen panels of Last Bull's hated fence.

Almost in a moment the panic of the crowd subsided. Every one realized just what had happened. Moreover, thanks to Bong's timely alarm, every one had got out of the way in good season. All fear of earthquake being removed, the crowd flocked back eagerly to stare down into the wrecked tunnel, which formed now a sort of gaping, chaotic ditch, with sides at some points precipitous and at others brokenly sloping. The throng was noisy with excited interest and with relief at having escaped so cleanly. The break had run just beneath one corner of the keepers' cottage, tearing away a portion of the foundation and wrenching the structure slightly aside without overthrowing it. Payne, who had been in the midst of his Sunday toilet, came out upon his twisted porch, half undressed and with a shaving-brush covered with lather in his hand. He gave one look at the damage which had been wrought, then plunged indoors again to throw his clothes on, at the same time sounding the hurry call for the attendants in other quarters of the Park.

Last Bull, who had been standing on his knoll, with his back to the throngs, had wheeled in astonishment at the heavy sound of the cave-in. For a few minutes he had stared sullenly, not grasping the situation. Then very slowly it dawned on him that his prison walls had fallen. Yes, surely, there at last lay his way to freedom, his path to the great open s.p.a.ces for which he dumbly and vaguely hungered. With stately deliberation he marched down from his knoll to investigate.

But presently another idea came into his slow mind. He saw the clamorous crowds flocking back and ranging themselves along the edge of the chasm. These were his enemies. They were coming to balk him. A terrible madness surged through all his veins. He bellowed savage warning and came thundering down the field, nose to earth, dark, mountainous, irresistible.

The crowd yelled and shrank back. "He can't get across!" shouted some.

But others cried: "He can! He's coming! Save yourselves!" And with shrieks they scattered wildly across the open, making for the kiosks, the pavilions, the trees, anything that seemed to promise hiding or shelter from that onrushing doom.

At the edge of the chasm--at this point forming not an actual drop, but a broken slide--Last Bull hardly paused. He plunged down, rolled over in the debris, struggled to his feet again instantly, and went ploughing and snorting up the opposite steep. As his colossal front, matted with mud, loomed up over the brink, his little eyes rolling and flaming, and the froth flying from his red nostrils, he formed a very nightmare of horror to those fugitives who dared to look behind them.

Surmounting the brink, he paused. There were so many enemies, he knew not which to pursue first. But straight ahead, in the very middle of the open, and far from any shelter, he saw a huddled group of children and nurses fleeing impotently and aimlessly. Shrill cries came from the cl.u.s.ter, which danced with colors, scarlet and yellow and blue and vivid pink. To the mad buffalo, these were the most conspicuous and the loudest of his foes, and therefore the most dangerous. With a bellow he flung his tail straight in the air, and charged after them.

An appalling hush fell, for a few heart-beats, all over the field.

Then from different quarters appeared uniformed attendants, racing and shouting frantically to divert the bull's attention. From fleeing groups black-coated men leapt forth, armed only with their walking-sticks, and rushed desperately to defend the flock of children, who now, in the extremity of their terror, were tumbling as they ran. Some of the nurses were fleeing far in front, while others, the faithful ones, with eyes starting from their heads, grabbed up their little charges and struggled on under the burden.

Already Last Bull was halfway across the s.p.a.ce which divided him from his foes. The ground shook under his ponderous gallop. At this moment Payne reappeared on the broken porch.

One glance showed him that no one was near enough to intervene. With a face stern and sorrowful he lifted the deadly .405 Winchester which he had brought out with him. The spot he covered was just behind Last Bull's mighty shoulder.

The smokeless powder spoke with a small, venomous report, unlike the black powder's noisy reverberation. Last Bull stumbled. But recovering himself instantly, he rushed on. He was hurt, and he felt it was those fleeing foes who had done it. A shade of perplexity darkened Payne's face. He fired again. This time his aim was true. The heavy expanding bullet tore straight through bone and muscle and heart, and Last Bull lurched forward upon his head, ploughing up the turf for yards. As his mad eyes softened and filmed, he saw once more, perhaps,--or so the heavy-hearted keeper who had slain him would have us believe,--the shadowy plains unrolling under the wild sky, and the hosts of his vanished kindred drifting past into the dark.