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Text - "The Boy Hunters" Mayne Reid


During the supper, and after it, the subject was discussed in all its bearings. The father was more than half inclined to consent to the proposal of his sons from the first; while they, but particularly Basil and Francois, were enthusiastic in proving its practicability. I need hardly tell you the result. The Colonel at length gave his consent-the expedition was agreed upon. The naturalist was greatly influenced by the desire he felt to gratify his friend the Prince. He was influenced, too, by another feeling. He felt secretly pleased at the bold and enterprising character thus exhibited in his children, and he was not the man to throw cold water upon any enterprise they might design. Indeed, he often boasted to his neighbours and friends how he had trained them up to be men, calling them his "boy-men," and his "jeunes chasseurs." And truly had he trained them to a complete self-reliance, as far as lay in his power. He had taught them to ride, to swim, to dive deep rivers, to fling the lasso, to climb tall trees, and scale steep cliffs, to bring down birds upon the wing, or beasts upon the run, with the arrow and the unerring rifle. He had trained them to sleep in the open air-in the dark forest-on the unsheltered prairie-along the white snow-wreath- anywhere-with but a blanket or a buffalo-robe for their beds. He had taught them to live upon the simplest food; and the knowledge of practical botany which he had imparted to them-more particularly to Lucien-would enable them, in case of need, to draw sustenance from plants and trees, from roots and fruits-to find resources where ignorant men might starve. They knew how to kindle a fire without either flint, steel, or detonating powder. They could discover their direction without a compass-from the rocks, and the trees, and the signs of the heavens; and, in addition to all, they had been taught, as far as was then known, the geography of that vast wilderness that stretched from their own home to the far shores of the Pacific Ocean. The Colonel knew that he might safely trust them upon the prairies; and, in truth, it was with a feeling of pride, rather than anxiety, that he consented to the expedition. But there was still another motive that influenced him-perhaps the most powerful of all. He was inspired by the pride of the naturalist. He thought of the triumph he would obtain by sending such a rare contribution to the great museum of Europe. If ever, my young reader, you should become a naturalist, you will comprehend how strong this feeling may be; and with our hunter-naturalist it was so. At first he proposed that Hugot should accompany them. This the boys would not hear of, and all three stoutly opposed it. They could not think of taking Hugot-their father would require Hugot at home-Hugot would be of no use to them, they said. They would do as well, if not better, without him. The truth was, that these ambitious young hunters did not wish to be robbed of any part of the credit of their enterprise-which they knew would be the case if Hugot were to accompany them. Not that Hugot was by any means a noted hunter-quite the contrary-nor a warrior neither, notwithstanding he had been a chasseur a cheval, and wore such fierce moustachios. All this his old Colonel knew very well; and therefore did not much insist upon sending Hugot with them. Hugot's talents shone best in another sphere of action-in the cuisine. There Hugot was at home, for he could compound an omelette, fricassee a chicken, or dress a canard aux olives, with Monsieur Soyer himself. But Hugot-although for many years he had accompanied his old and young masters in the chase-had no taste whatever for hunting. He had a wholesome dread of bears and panthers, and as to Indians ... Ha! Indians! Now you will wonder, my young friend, when you come to think of these Indians-when you come to consider that fifty warlike nations of them live and roam over the prairies-many of them sworn foes to white men, killing the latter wherever they may meet them, as you would a mad dog or a poisonous spider,-I say, when you consider these things, you will wonder that this old French or Corsican father should consent to let his sons go upon so dangerous an expedition. It seems unnatural, does it not? In fact, quite improbable, when we come to reflect that the Colonel dearly loved his three sons, almost as dearly as his own life. And yet one would say, he could hardly have found a readier plan to get rid of them, than thus to send them forth among savages. Upon what, then, did he rely for their safety? On their age? No. He knew the Indians better than that. He knew very well that their age would not be cared for, should they chance to fall in with any of the tribes hostile to the whites. It is true, that the savages might not scalp them on this account-being boys,-but they would be very certain to carry them into a captivity from which they might never return. Or did their father anticipate that the excursion should extend no farther than the country of some friendly tribe? He entertained no such idea. Had this been their plan, their errand would have been likely to prove fruitless. In a country of that sort they would have seen but little of the buffalo; for it is well-known that the buffaloes are only found in plenty upon those parts of the prairies termed "war grounds"-that is, where several tribes go to hunt, who are at war with each other. In fact, that is the reason why these animals are more numerous there than elsewhere, as the hunters are fewer, on account of the danger they incur of coming into collision with each other. In a territory which is exclusively in possession of any particular tribe, the buffaloes are soon killed or run off by incessant hunting. It is a fact, therefore, well-known among prairie-hunters, that wherever buffaloes are plenty there is plenty of danger as well, though the converse of this is not always true. On the neutral or "war grounds" of the Indians, you may meet with a friendly tribe one day, and on the next, or even within the next hour, you may fall in with a band of savages who will scalp you on sight. Now, the father of our three boy hunters knew all this, as well as I know it. How then are we to account for his apparently unnatural conduct, in permitting them to risk their lives in such an enterprise? It would be quite unaccountable indeed were it not that there was a mystery connected with it, which I shall explain to you hereafter. All I can tell you now is, that when the three were mounted and about to start, the Colonel hobbled up; and, drawing from his pocket a small leathern bag or case ornamented with stained porcupine quills, he handed it to Basil, saying as he did so: "Take good care of it, Basil-you know its use-never let it part from you-your lives may depend upon it. God be with you, my brave boys. Adieu!" Basil took the case, passed the string over his shoulders, pushed the bag under the breast of his hunting-shirt, pressed his father's hand, and putting the spur to his horse rode briskly off. Lucien saluted his father with a kiss, waved his hand gracefully to Hugot, and followed. Francois remained a moment behind the rest-rode up to Hugot-caught hold of his great moustache, gave it a twitch that caused the ex-chasseur to grin again; and then, with a loud yell of laughter, wheeled his pony, and galloped after his brothers. The Colonel and Hugot stood for some moments watching them. When the boy hunters had reached the edge of the woods, all three reined up, turned in their saddles, and, taking off their hats, uttered a parting cheer. The Colonel and Hugot cheered in return.

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