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THE PRAIRIE FIRE
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER (1789-1851) was the founder of American romance, and for this reason is often called the American Scott. His stories of the Indians were widely read, though they are far from being accurate studies of Indian character.
NOTE. This selection is taken from "The Prairie," one of the "Leatherstocking Tales." These books give an account of the career of Natty Bumpo, or Leatherstocking, a famous character in American fiction. He is the old man in the story; Middleton and his wife Inez, together with the bee hunter Paul Hover and a young woman named Ellen Wade, 10 are crossing the prairie under his guidance. Leatherstocking, once a farfamed scout and guide, has become a trapper. "The art of taking God's creatures in net or trap," he says, "is one that needs more cunning than manhood; and yet I am brought to practice it in my age."
"See," exclaimed Inez, in a sudden burst of youthful 15 pleasure, "how lovely is that sky; surely it contains a promise of happier times!"
"It is glorious!" returned her husband.
I seen a richer rising of the sun.'
Rising of the sun!" slowly repeated the old man, 20 lifting his tall person from its 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. The prairie is on fire!"
"God in heaven protect us!" cried Middleton. "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 5 wilderness of grass and reeds you 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 10 await its biddings."
"For my own part," said Paul Hover, looking about him with concern, "I acknowledge that should this dry bed of weeds get fairly in a flame, a bee would have to make a flight higher than common to prevent his wings 15 from scorching. 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 sound; but he 20 must see and reason, and then conclude. So follow me a little to the left, where there is a rise in the ground, whence we may make our reconnoiterings."
The old man waved his hand with authority, and led the way to the spot he had indicated, followed by his 25 alarmed companions. An eye less practiced 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 mois5 ture which had fed the rank weeds of most of the plain, and furnished a clue 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, and in obtaining a lookout 10 that might command a view of the surrounding sea of fire. The frightful prospect added nothing to the hopes of those who had so fearful a stake in the result. Although the day was beginning to dawn, the vivid colors of the sky continued to deepen, as if the fierce element were 15 bent on an an impious rivalry of the light of the sun. Bright flashes of flame shot up here and there along the margin of the waste, like the nimble coruscations of the North, but far more angry and threatening in their color and changes. The anxiety on the rigid features of the 20 trapper sensibly deepened, as he leisurely traced these evidences of a conflagration, which spread in a broad belt about their place of refuge, until he had encircled the whole horizon.
"Let us mount and ride!" cried Middleton; "is life 25 not worth a struggle?"
"Of what use of what use are your stout hearts, when the element of the Lord is to be conquered? Look about
friends; the wreath of smoke that is rising plainly says that there is no outlet from the spot, without crossing a belt of fire. Look for yourselves, my men; look for yourselves; if you can find a single opening, I will engage 5 to follow."
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 10 and thickening in gloomy masses around the horizon. The red glow which gleamed upon their enormous folds, now lighting their volumes with the glare of the conflagration and now flashing to another point as the flame beneath glided ahead, leaving all behind enveloped in 15 awful darkness, proclaimed louder than words the character of the imminent and approaching danger.
"This is terrible," exclaimed Middleton, folding the trembling Inez to his heart. But we are men, and will make a struggle for our lives! How now, my brave and 20 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 25 will be at once seen that Middleton addressed himself. "Come, old trapper, you must acknowledge this is but a slow way of getting out of danger. You may hear the