So foul a sky clears not without a storm.
In the mean time the industrious and irreclaimable hours continued their labours. The sun, which had been struggling through such masses of vapour throughout the day, fell slowly in a streak of clear sky, and thence sunk gloriously into the gloomy wastes, as he is wont to settle into the waters of the ocean. The vast herds which had been grazing among the wild pastures of the prairies, gradually disappeared, and the endless flocks of aquatic birds, that were pursuing their customary annual journey from the virgin lakes of the north towards the gulf of Mexico, ceased to fan that air, which had now become loaded with dew and vapour. In short, the shadows of night fell upon the rock, adding the mantle of darkness to the other dreary accompaniments of the place.
As the light began to fail, Esther collected her younger children at her side, and placing herself on a projecting point of her insulated fortress, she sat patiently awaiting the return of the hunters. Ellen Wade was at no great distance, seeming to keep a little aloof from the anxious circle, as if willing to mark the distinction which existed in their characters.
"Your uncle is, and always will be, a dull calculator, Nell," observed the mother, after a long pause in a conversation that had turned on the labours of the day; "a lazy hand at figures and foreknowledge is that said Ishmael Bush! Here he sat lolloping about the rock from light till noon, doing nothing but scheme--scheme--scheme--with seven as noble boys at his elbows as woman ever gave to man; and what's the upshot? why, night is setting in, and his needful work not yet ended."
"It is not prudent, certainly, aunt," Ellen replied, with a vacancy in her air, that proved how little she knew what she was saying; "and it is setting a very bad example to his sons."
"Hoity, toity, girl! who has reared you up as a judge over your elders, ay, and your betters, too! I should like to see the man on the whole frontier, who sets a more honest example to his children than this same Ishmael Bush! Show me, if you can, Miss Fault-finder, but not fault-mender, a set of boys who will, on occasion, sooner chop a piece of logging and dress it for the crop, than my own children; though I say it myself, who, perhaps, should be silent; or a cradler that knows better how to lead a gang of hands through a field of wheat, leaving a cleaner stubble in his track, than my own good man! Then, as a father, he is as generous as a lord; for his sons have only to name the spot where they would like to pitch, and he gives 'em a deed of the plantation, and no charge for papers is ever made!"
As the wife of the squatter concluded, she raised a hollow, taunting laugh, that was echoed from the mouths of several juvenile imitators, whom she was training to a life as shiftless and lawless as her own; but which, notwithstanding its uncertainty, was not without its secret charms.
"Holloa! old Eester;" shouted the well-known voice of her husband, from the plain beneath; "ar' you keeping your junkets, while we are finding you in venison and buffaloe beef? Come down--come down, old girl, with all your young; and lend us a hand to carry up the meat;-- why, what a frolic you ar' in, woman! Come down, come down, for the boys are at hand, and we have work here for double your number."
Ishmael might have spared his lungs more than a moiety of the effort they were compelled to make in order that he should be heard. He had hardly uttered the name of his wife, before the whole of the crouching circle rose in a body, and tumbling over each other, they precipitated themselves down the dangerous passes of the rock with ungovernable impatience. Esther followed the young fry with a more measured gait; nor did Ellen deem it wise, or rather discreet, to remain behind. Consequently, the whole were soon assembled at the base of the citadel, on the open plain.
Here the squatter was found, staggering under the weight of a fine fat buck, attended by one or two of his younger sons. Ahiram quickly appeared, and before many minutes had elapsed, most of the hunters dropped in, singly and in pairs, each man bringing with him some fruits of his prowess in the field.
"The plain is free from red-skins, to-night at least," said Ishmael, after the bustle of reception had a little subsided; "for I have scoured the prairie for many long miles, on my own feet, and I call myself a judge of the print of an Indian moccasin. So, old woman, you can give us a few steaks of the venison, and then we will sleep on the day's work."
"I'll not swear there are no savages near us," said Abiram. "I, too, know something of the trail of a red-skin; and, unless my eyes have lost some of their sight, I would swear, boldly, that there ar' Indians at hand. But wait till Asa comes in. He pass'd the spot where I found the marks, and the boy knows something of such matters too."
"Ay, the boy knows too much of many things," returned Ishmael, gloomily. "It will be better for him when he thinks he knows less. But what matters it, Hetty, if all the Sioux tribes, west of the big river, are within a mile of us; they will find it no easy matter to scale this rock, in the teeth of ten bold men."
"Call 'em twelve at once, Ishmael; call 'em twelve!" cried his termagant assistant. "For if your moth-gathering, bug-hunting friend, can be counted a man, I beg you will set me down as two. I will not turn my back to him, with the rifle or the shot-gun; and for courage! --the yearling heifer, that them skulking devils the Tetons stole, was the biggest coward among us all, and after her came your drivelling Doctor. Ah! Ishmael, you rarely attempt a regular trade but you come out the loser; and this man, I reckon, is the hardest bargain among them all! Would you think it, the fellow ordered me a blister around my mouth, because I complained of a pain in the foot?"
"It is a pity, Eester," the husband coolly answered, "that you did not take it; I reckon it would have done considerable good. But, boys, if it should turn out as Ahiram thinks, that there are Indians near us, we may have to scamper up the rock, and lose our suppers after all; therefore we will make sure of the game, and talk over the performances of the Doctor when we have nothing better to do."
The hint was taken; and in a few minutes, the exposed situation in which the family was collected, was exchanged for the more secure elevation of the rock. Here Esther busied herself, working and scolding with equal industry, until the repast was prepared; when she summoned her husband to his meal in a voice as sonorous as that with which the Imam reminds the Faithful of a more important duty.
When each had assumed his proper and customary place around the smoking viands, the squatter set the example by beginning to partake of a delicious venison steak, prepared like the hump of the bison, with a skill that rather increased than concealed its natural properties. A painter would gladly have seized the moment, to transfer the wild and characteristic scene to the canvass.
The reader will remember that the citadel of Ishmael stood insulated, lofty, ragged, and nearly inaccessible. A bright flashing fire that was burning on the centre of its summit, and around which the busy group was clustered, lent it the appearance of some tall Pharos placed in the centre of the deserts, to light such adventurers as wandered through their broad wastes. The flashing flame gleamed from one sun- burnt countenance to another, exhibiting every variety of expression, from the juvenile simplicity of the children, mingled as it was with a shade of the wildness peculiar to their semi-barbarous lives, to the dull and immovable apathy that dwelt on the features of the squatter, when unexcited. Occasionally a gust of wind would fan the embers; and, as a brighter light shot upwards, the little solitary tent was seen as it were suspended in the gloom of the upper air. All beyond was enveloped, as usual at that hour, in an impenetrable body of darkness.
"It is unaccountable that Asa should choose to be out of the way at such a time as this," Esther pettishly observed. "When all is finished and to rights, we shall have the boy coming up, grumbling for his meal, and hungry as a bear after his winter's nap. His stomach is as true as the best clock in Kentucky, and seldom wants winding up to tell the time, whether of day or night. A desperate eater is Asa, when a-hungered by a little work!"