The Prairie: A Tale (1827)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 163-170.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[This is the last of the five Leather-Stocking Tales in relation to plot, the third in order of composition.]

[1] Deep in the heart of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, five hundred miles beyond the Mississippi River, a group of travelers in the year 1805 pushes yet farther westward over the prairie. Called “squatters” and equipped with covered wagons, livestock, farming implements, and household furnishings, they give every appearance of being ordinary settlers except for the fact they have bypassed the fertile river bottoms for the less productive Great Plains. This group is comprised of the rough, semiliterate Ishmael and Esther Bush, now in their fifties; their numerous children, including seven grown sons; Esther’s brother, Abiram White; Ellen Wade, a niece, whose bearing bespeaks a more refined background; and Dr. Obed Bat, an eccentric naturalist. In search of a camping place for the night, they are suddenly confronted by a colossal figure who momentarily fills them with superstitious awe. It is Natty Bumppo, whose form, greatly magnified by an optical illusion, is outlined against the setting sun on the horizon. Once a hunter and scout but now reduced in his old age to trapping, Natty is almost as startled as the newcomers by the encounter. It has been months since the octogenarIan has seen white people so far beyond the settlements. [2] He leads the Bush party to a campsite which will provide for their basic needs: water, fuel, and fodder for the animals.

As he watches the camp being set up, Natty notices that one wagon is kept apart and treated with special care. When, innocently curious, he attempts to approach this vehicle and its attached tent, he is roughly pushed aside by Abiram White. At supper Natty answers the many questions about the area asked by his hosts and then takes his leave. Outside the encampment he is surprised to meet Ellen Wade walking alone. [3] Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a third person. It is Paul Hover, Ellen’s lover, who, unwelcome among the Bush party, has nevertheless followed the travelers unbeknownst to all but Ellen. A bee-hunter, Hover makes his living by gathering honey from the hives of wild bees. [4] Natty and the young couple are hardly more than introduced to each other before all three are discovered and captured by a band of mounted Tetons of the Sioux (or Dahcotah) nation.

Threatening the captives with death if they raise an alarm, the Sioux chief, Mahtoree, crawls stealthily into the Bush camp where he turns loose all of the travelers’ animals: beasts of burden, cattle, sheep, and even pigs. [5] His followers then, with great whooping, drive them out upon the open prairie. When his guard grows careless, Natty manages to cut the rope tethering the Sioux horses, and they too run wild. As the Indians pursue both their own and Ishmael Bush’s livestock, the three white captives make their escape, Ellen and Natty to return, separately, to the Bush camp and Paul Hover to his own secret hiding place nearby.

[6] A comic interlude is provided in the first appearance of Obed Bat, physician by profession but avid naturalist by avocation. He has attached himself to the household of Ishmael Bush, where his zeal for gathering specimens of flora and fauna is tolerated in order to secure his medical services. Off by himself on a collecting expedition, Dr. Bat (or Battius, as he Latinizes his name) is unaware of the Indian raid on the Bush camp. He returns before dawn the following morning with news of great zoological interest: his discovery, during the night, of a fierce prairie monster as yet unclassified by scientists. The full light of day reveals the horrendous creature to be only his own ass (referred to, pedantically, as Asinus Domesticus), one of the animals released by the Sioux. (Throughout the novel are numerous incidents and discussions in which Dr. Bat’s ostentatiously displayed scientific learning is the butt of humor. Sometimes his theoretical knowledge is compared unfavorably with Natty’s woodcraft and common sense; sometimes it is shown to be less dependable than the instincts of Natty’s dog, Hector.)

[7] Without its horses, the Bush caravan is stranded and vulnerable to attack. Natty directs the group to a small hill that is defensible against even a large force of Indians. The strong sons of Ishmael pull the heavy wagons the three miles to this new location. Again Natty reveals his curiosity about the small wagon set apart from the rest of the vehicles, and again Abiram White expresses hostility toward the old man.

[8] After this little wagon is placed atop the citadel, its contents are suddenly revealed as a young woman is seen to step from it and gaze momentarily at the plain below. Asa, the eldest Bush son, and Abiram White exchange harsh words about the unidentified female. Asa accuses his uncle of being a kidnapper, and Abiram retorts that in Kentucky rewards had been posted for the captured of Ishmael, Esther, Asa, and four of his brothers. Asa strikes Abiram, and Ishmael has to intervene to prevent further violence.

[9] At the same moment, a few miles away, Paul Hover and Dr. Bat join Natty Bumppo in eating a buffalo hump, the choicest meat of the animal, which the old man has roasted. As the three talk, Dr. Bat’s abstract learning and his pedantic parade of Latin terms are shown to be ridiculously removed from the realities of life. At the conclusion of their feast, Natty hears for five minutes a creature in the brush that is undetected by either of his guests; from Hector’s behavior Natty infers that it is not a fierce beast, as Dr. Bat fears it is, but a human being. Emerging front the brush in answer to Paul Hover’s challenge is Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton.

[10] There ensues a recognition scene by means of which the novel is linked to the earlier Leather-Stocking Tales. The captain is identified as the grandson of Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro Heyward, romantic leads in The Last of the Mohicans, set more than forty years earlier in upstate New York. (It is the captain’s middle name, Uncas, which provides Natty with the first clue of Middleton’s ancestry; Natty had known the young man’s namesake, Uncas, the titular hero of The Last of the Mohicans.) This chance meeting with a descendant of his former officer prompts Natty to recount his own part in the French and Indian War and in other military operations, a reminiscence quite natural to an old man and strategic, from the author’s point of view, as a device for providing exposition both for this novel and for the series of novels which it concludes. Captain Middleton then gives the group an account of his reason for being in this remote area — a story not revealed to the reader until some time later.

[11] The men of the Bush household go hunting on this day for game with which to feed everyone at their little citadel. All return at evening except Asa. [12] Esther is concerned for her first child’s welfare, and at breakfast the next morning she demands that they search for the boy. They find Asa dead, killed by a bullet bearing Natty Bumppo’s insignia. [13] After their first anguish subsides, the family buries Asa near the place of his murder.

[14] During the absence of the other family adults, Ellen has been left to guard the children and the security of the Bush fortress. She is now called upon to carry out her command as four armed men approach: Natty, Paul Hover, Middleton, and Dr. Bat. Having shared their fragmentary information, these four have concluded that the inhabitant of the light wagon and the white tent is not the animal decoy that Bush pretends it to be but Inez Augustin Middleton, the abducted wife of Captain Middleton; they are attacking the Bush fortress to liberate Inez. Despite her love for Paul, Ellen feels committed to defend the citadel, and this she and the older Bush daughters prepare to do with loaded muskets and stone catapults. At the moment of confrontation, Inez comes forth from the white tent and appeals to both sides to avoid violence. Startled by this new presence suddenly among them — Bush had deceived his children about the occupant of the white tent — Phoebe Bush fires at Inez instead of at the attackers. Fearing Inez has been shot, Ellen abandons her command post and rushes to attend the supposedly wounded girl. During this moment of confusion, Paul and Middleton breach the defenses and enter the camp.

[15] With the reunion of Middleton and his unharmed wife, the story of their marriage and separation is revealed. Inez’s father, Don Augustin de Certavallos, a member of the Spanish gentry in Florida, had moved to Louisiana where he had remained during both its French and American ownership. There he had offered the courtesy of his hacienda to Captain Middleton, the young officer sent to command a small body of American troops in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Some time later he also gave in marriage to Middleton his only child, Inez. Immediately after the wedding ceremony, Inez had been kidnapped by Abiram, by then part of the Bush caravan. Middleton, with a handful of soldiers, had pursued these fugitives from the law and had finally overtaken them.

[16] After the capture of the citadel, Middleton, Inez, Paul, Ellen, Dr. Bat, and Natty seek refuge elsewhere. [17] As they travel across the prairie, they come upon a Pawnee chief, Hard-Heart, scouting the location of his tribe’s greatest foes, the Sioux. [18] Beginning at this point, Natty Bumppo parallels the conflicting Pawnees and Sioux with the “good” (Delaware) and “bad“(Iroquois) Indians encountered in those of the Leather-Stocking Tales set earlier in time. Before riding off on his fine horse, Hard-Heart promises the travelers asylum in the Pawnee camp, but warns them that it lies at a great distance and will not be easily reached. Middleton’s appointed place of rendezvous with his soldiers lies at an equally great distance.

[19] The travelers soon find themselves in the path of a thunderous stampede of bison. Natty manages to split the herd by rushing fearlessly at the leading bulls, and Asinus (Dr. Bat’s ass) widens the division by frightening the buffaloes with loud braying, a sound they had never heard before. The cause of the stampede is now revealed: a hunting party of Tetons. Natty goes forward to meet the Indians in order to pretend that he is alone, leaving his five companions hidden in the cover of a thicket. [20] As he talks with Mahtoree, however, he is dismayed to observe his friends advancing across the open plains, preferring to be captured by the Sioux rather than by the Bush party, which has just entered the other side of the thicket.

Seeing Ishmael and his sons on foot and at a distance from their base, the Sioux decide to plunder the Bush camp. As the Indians pursue that purpose, followed by volleys of bullets from Bush rifles, Natty and the two young couples escape on Sioux horses. [21-22] They soon overtake Dr. Bat, who had been allowed to flee on Asinus after Natty had persuaded the Indians that the white medicine man was possessed of potent supernatural powers.

[23] In an effort to recapture or destroy the fugitives, the Tetons now set the prairie grass afire. After Natty saves the group from the flames by the well-known device of a backfire, they continue their flight. Among the charred prairie grass and brush they find the burned carcass of a horse and nearby the remains of a bison. When Paul and Natty lift the scorched hide of the beast, an Indian springs forth. [24] It is, once again, the Pawnee chief, Hard-Heart. Unable to guide his terrified horse away from the inferno, Hard-Heart had saved his own life by crawling beneath the fresh hide of a buffalo. Still scouting the Sioux location, Hard-Heart has unhappy news for the fugitives: the Sioux and the Bushes have resolved their differences and have joined forces in pursuit of Natty and his companions. Hard-Heart informs them, however, that he had earlier dispatched an order back to his village to send him a force of Pawnee braves. In the continuing chase, the pursued, despite their various stratagems, are all finally captured by their pursuers.

[25] Bush now demands of the Sioux the return of his property and the custody of the white prisoners. When he receives only the former, he moves a mile away, with his wagons and livestock, and there sets up his own temporary camp. Hard-Heart, who has in his time killed eighteen Sioux warriors, is led to a stake, there to be tortured to death. As the Sioux council members smoke their pipes and discuss the fate of their victim, Natty promises Hard-Heart to go to the Pawnee village, tell of the chief’s death, secure there a sleek colt, and, returning, slaughter it on his grave so that he may ride comfortably in the Happy Hunting Ground.

[26] The torture is delayed by a scene of domestic pathos. Mahtoree, impassioned by the beauty of the white women, wants Inez and Ellen to live henceforth in his tent, where they are presently held as prisoners. His youngest and most favored Indian wife, Tachechana (Skipping Fawn), pleads with him not to take these strangers as wives. When Mahtoree persists in his desire for them, Tachechana removes all of her jewelry and fine outer garments, places her infant son at the feet of Inez and Ellen, falls abject in the dust, and refuses to move. [27-28] Again the torture is about to commence; again it is delayed, this time by an ancient chief who bears so many battle scars that he is known not by an Indian name but by an honorific given him by the French, Le Balafré (The Scarred Man). Exercising an old Indian privilege, he claims Hard-Heart as a son, one who will support him in his final years. Although such adoption would save his life, Hard-Heart, after paying his respects to La Balafré, chooses to die as a Pawnee rather than live as a Sioux. As the torture is once again about to begin, Weucha, dastardly foil to the villainous but dignified Mahtoree, aims a tomahawk at Hard-Heart. Seizing the weapon, the Pawnee brains its owner with it, and then, having immobilized the spectators in mute astonishment, dashes to the nearby river and plunges into its waters. The timely arrival of Pawnee horsemen prevents his recapture.

[29] As the superior force of Sioux engages the better-armed, better-mounted group of Pawnees, Mahtoree gives orders to an aged chief to issue knives to the older women of the band so that they may kill the bound prisoners, Hover, Middleton, and Bat. Natty cuts the rawhide thongs binding Hover and Middleton, but the circulation has not yet been restored to their limbs when the armed squaws advance upon them. The fortuitous braying of Asinus scatters the hags in fear, and the captives now prepare to defend themselves. At this critical point, another force enters the conflict. Ishmael Bush and his sons return, recapture the momentarily freed white prisoners, and carry them off to their own encampment.

[30] Before the general conflict between Tetons and Pawnees begins, their leaders engage in single conflict on a low island in the middle of the river. Mounted and bearing lances and shields among their other equipment, they have some of the appearance of medieval knights representing their respective armies. When, after a protracted fight, Mahtoree is killed, his warriors fall upon the smaller Pawnee force. The Sioux are winning the battle until Ishmael deserts his recent allies and decimates their ranks with the deadly fire of Kentucky rifles. In the massacre that ensues, only a few of the Sioux escape with their lives.

[31] On the following day, each of the prisoners is tried before a rude frontier court presided over by Ishmael Bush. His own conflicts with the law and his frequently stated abhorrence of legal procedures make Ishmael’s new role an ironic one. He releases Inez and Middleton, as well as Ellen and Paul, to go their respective ways as they wish. Ellen, grateful for Ishmael’s care since she had become an orphan, says she chooses to depart with Paul but only if she can do so with her uncle’s blessing. This blessing is bestowed. Tachechana and Le Balafré he declares to be Hard-Heart’s prisoners and thus beyond his jurisdiction. Dr. Bat is also released, but Natty Bumppo is detained and accused of the murder of Asa. Natty describes in detail the fight he had seen between Asa and Abiram White after White had shot his nephew in the back. Paul and Dr. Bat had also gone with Natty to give what medical care they could to Asa, but the boy was dead. Abiram’s guilty behavior and attempt to flee condemn him of the murder as much as does Natty’s testimony. Natty is released, and Abiram White is captured and bound. As unsympathetic a character as Ishmael Bush is in other respects, he has throughout these proceedings acted with a true sense of justice, dealing fairly both with his foes and with those close to him. With the trials now at an end, all but the members of the Bush family take their leave and depart in the direction of the Pawnee territory.

[32] The Bush caravan now reverses its direction and heads back eastward toward more fertile land. At their first stop, Ishmael and Esther discuss their painful responsibility to punish the murderer of their firstborn child. Although Abiram is her brother, Esther agrees that he must die for his crime. Thinking at first that he should be shot, as Asa was, they finally arrive at a less bloody method of execution. They place the culprit on a narrow shelf of rock, several feet above the ground, beneath a dead willow tree. A rope around his neck is tied to a branch above his head. As long as he does not move, he will live; when he slips from the rock ledge, he will, in effect, hang himself. Although his arms are bound to his body at the elbows, his forearms are left free to hold a section of the Bible which Esther gives him to read during his last moments. “I forgive you my wrongs and leave you to your God,” says Ishmael in parting.

Proceeding a mile farther eastward, the Bushes make camp for the night. In the west wind that rises with the moon that evening, Ishmael and Esther hear a long shriek and know that it is Abiram’s death cry. The two return to the place of Abiram’s execution and, after a brief prayer, give the corpse a proper burial.

[33] After a brief rest at Hard-Heart’s Pawnee village, the six whites (joined now by several of Middleton’s soldiers) start downstream by boat toward the towns along the Mississippi River. Once out of sight of the village, however, Natty requests that he be landed on the riverbank again. Having lived so long in nature, he cannot spend his final days within the confines of the settlements. Paul Hover and Captain Middleton both offer him comfortable homes if he will go with them, but these offers he declines with courtesy and gratitude. He will accept nothing for his many services to the group except the gift or the loan of Middleton’s pup as a comfort to himself and to Hector, neither of whom can live much longer. He sends with the travelers four pelts to be traded for traps which are to be sent to him in care of the Pawnee village. Then, after saying farewell and wishing Godspeed to each of his new friends, Natty pushes the boat back into the current of the river.

[34] Natty returns to the Pawnee village to live with his adopted son, Hard-Heart. In the autumn of the following year, Captain Middleton visits the upper Missouri to carry out a government assignment. He is accompanied by Paul Hover and a small body of cavalry. From the point on that river nearest to the Pawnee village, they travel by horseback to renew their friendship with Natty and Hard-Heart. They arrive on the very day of Natty’s death and find the whole Pawnee tribe assembled there to honor the old man in his final moments. With Hector (dead but carefully stuffed and preserved) between his feet, the trapper sits, facing the setting sun, in a large, rudely made reclining chair. After recognizing Middleton, and after making known his last wishes, Natty seems to lapse into unconsciousness. Suddenly, however, the old man jumps to his feet and shouts “Here!” responding to a call that only he can hear. His last word is uttered with his last breath, and the trapper is dead before friendly hands lower him again into his chair. After a brief eulogy by the equally old Le Balafré, the mourners disperse. Natty becomes in time a legend among the Plains Indians, and all visitors to the area are shown the simple stone (provided by Middleton) which marks the grave of a wise and just white man.

Don Augustin de Certevallos, Le Balafré, Dr. Obed Bat, Bohrecheena, Nathaniel Bumppo, Abner Bush, Asa Bush, Enoch Bush, Esther Bush, Hetty Bush, Ishmael Bush, Jesse Bush, Phoebe Bush, Hard-Heart, Paul Hover, Father Ignatius, Inesella, Mahhah, Mahtoree, Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton, Inez Augustin Middleton, Swooping Eagle, Tachechana, Tetao, Ellen Wade, Weucha, Abiram White.