Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 5

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Sawdust and Spangles by William Cameron Coup
The Prairie Fire

V

THE PRAIRIE FIRE

One of the most terrible and impressive experiences of my entire career came to me very shortly after I had become well settled in the circus harness. Sleep was the dragon which pursued me then with a relentless and irresistible power. There was scarcely a moment when I was not under its spell, at least to some degree. It was like a vampire that took the zest and vitality out of my very life sources and I went about almost as one walking in a dream. This condition arose from the fact that under the best of weather luck, a showman’s hours are very long. But when roads were bad and journeys long, the poor wretch attached to the old wagon show had practically no sleep at all. After a stretch of hard traveling I was for weeks like a person drugged. My mind seemed in a state of miserable torpor, while my body went about in a mechanical way and did its work. The change from a regular life, which saw me snugly in the same bed at nearly the same hour every night of the year, to the painful excesses of a circus man's hours told on me very severely and I was long in becoming acclimated.

At the painful period of which I speak my main object in life was to sleep. For this I lived, and my idea of Paradise then was a consciousness that I was in the act of falling asleep in bed with clean sheets, and that I would not be awakened until the end of eternity unless I should chance to get my sleep out before then—and this possibility seemed deliciously remote.

While I suffered more keenly than the others from the tortures of longing for sleep, all the men who had anything whatever to do with the moving of the show were under the spell of this dragon. They, however, rallied more quickly than I, when dry roads and good weather fell to our lot for any length of time.

Well, weeks "of terrible traveling, of getting lost, of fighting our way through the mire and floods, was followed by a fortnight of fair weather. My associates had "caught up" in the matter of sleep, but I was still in a half torpid state and thought only of the blessed privilege of closing my eyes for an hour or two at a stretch.

But, one morning as we started north from the small Missouri town in which we had given a very successful performance, the scene was so novel and impressive that I held out for a few minutes against the demon that was pulling my eyelids together, and really aroused to the picturesque features of the scene.

We were winding our way to the northward, our caravan being fully a mile in length and stretched out like a long serpent. The elaborate and gilded chariots, the piebald Arabian horses, the drove of shambling camels and the huge swaying elephants gave a touch of genuine oriental picturesqueness to the scene strangely out of keeping with the wild western landscape and surroundings.

On every hand the prairies were carpeted with wild flowers in the greatest variety and profusion. Their fragrance even reached me as I stretched out at full length on the top of a lumbering chariot. The almost endless vista of prairie, the serpent caravan, the gay colors and the fragrance of the flowers all combined to refresh and impress me, and to give me more cheer and courage than hours of sleep. The pleasant picture haunted me after I closed my eyes and mixed in my dreams after I dozed off into a half conscious slumber.

Later the lurch of the wagon aroused me, and I started up with a sense of unaccountable alarm. The first object which met my eyes was a jackrabbit, sitting on his haunches not more than two rods from the trail we were following. Knowing the habitual timidity of these creatures the boldness of this one surprised me greatly. He sat there with his ears cocked straight up, his nose working nervously and his heart pounding so heavily that its pulsations shook his gray sides. Not until the wagon had passed did the rabbit stir. Then he dropped upon all fours and vanished in a gray streak traveling in a line parallel with the course of the caravan and keeping only a few rods from our trail. While I was still pondering over the strange conduct of the animal I saw a "rattler" emerge from the grass into the beaten trail only a few feet in front of the "off leader" of our four-horse team. Naturally I expected to see the snake coil and strike the horse, but he did nothing of the kind—simply avoided the horse's hoofs and then slipped away into the grass beyond. What was the meaning of the strange spell which seemed suddenly to have taken possession of the wild animals and reptiles of the plain through which we were traveling? There was no escape from the conclusion that some peculiar influence had seized upon them, blunting their ordinary sense of fear and precaution. Had I been more accustomed to prairie life I would probably have realized at once the nature of the trouble; like all of the men on the wagon with me I was a rank tenderfoot.

In the course of the next ten minutes several flocks of birds passed over us, flying low but very rapidly. The grass on both sides of the trail seemed suddenly to swarm with animal life.

Before I had arrived at any conclusions regarding the peculiar actions of the prairie creatures the captive animals in the darkened cages began to show signs of unusual restlessness. The lions and tigers began a strange moaning unlike their ordinary roars and growls. From the monkey cages came plaintive, half-human cries. These sounds were taken up by all the animals big and little. The elephants trumpeted, the camels screamed, and every animal took part in the weird chorus, which rapidly increased in volume. Then the air seemed to take on a hazy appearance, particularly in the direction from which we had come.

Finally the truth dawned upon me—the prairie was on fire! By turning backward and straining my eyes I fancied I could make out a cloud of smoke far in the rear of the caravan. In a few moments this dim vision became clear and tangible. I told my fears to the driver, who laughed at me for my pains. Then I caught sight of a man on horseback on the crest of rise in the prairie. He was riding towards us as fast as his horse could carry him. Passing us like a whirlwind, he shouted: "Whip up, man! The prairie's on fire! Move for the river straight ahead!" In a second he was gone, shouting the same word to every startled driver he passed. His approach had been noted by the boss, who was at the head of the entire procession. That grand marshal of the day, for that was substantially his position, came riding back to meet the courier. Instantly, on learning the tidings, he wheeled about and rode like the wind for the chariot in the lead, drawn by six splendid horses white as milk.

Sharp orders emphasized by a liberal sprinkling of profanity were sufficient to impress the driver of the magnificent leaders with the awful gravity of the situation and with the fact that he must set the pace for the remainder of the caravan. It might be thought that the greatest drag on the speed of the terrified procession would have been the camels and elephants. So thought the boss, but no sooner did the driver of the elephants get into position on the back of old Romeo and give that knowing creature an idea of what was expected, than he saw his mistake.

The way in which both the elephants and camels swung themselves over the ground was a revelation to all who saw them. Which was the more pitiful and terrifying, the trumpeting of the elephants or the squealing of the camels, was difficult to tell.

As the awful scroll of the fire rolled closer upon us the ungainly bodies of the camels and elephants swayed from one side to the other until they seemed fairly to vibrate.

"Where is the river? Are we nearing the stream? Can we make the water?" These were the questions in the mind of every person in that long wagon train. Sometimes they were yelled from one driver to another, but the only answer was to lay the lash harder on the backs of the poor horses pulling the heavy wagons and chariots—leaping and straining like so many modern fire department animals responding to an alarm. It was a genuine chariot race—in which the stake was life and the fine death by flames. Nearly every vehicle was drawn by either four or six horses, and the scene was one of the grandest and most terrible that human eye ever looked upon.

Suddenly I saw the boss put his horse into its highest speed, leading on ahead of the six whites. Then he leaped from the saddle, struck a match to the grass, remounted and rode back a short distance. As each team approached he ordered: "Wait till the flames spread a little and then break through the line of the back fire I've started and form a circle."

The grass which he had fired was considerably shorter than the general growth of the prairies; then, the fire it made had not acquired the volume, intensity and sweep of that hurricane of flame from which we were fleeing. One after another of the teams reared, pitched and plunged, only to find that the back fire had gone under their feet leaving them inside a charred, blackened circle fringed with flame.

No sound I have ever heard approached in abject terror the awful symphony of roars, growls, screams, wails and screeches that went up from the maddened beasts in that caravan as the great sky-reaching cylinder of flame and smoke rolled down upon us and was met barely forty rods away by the rapidly spreading line of our own back fire.

Just as we were wondering if our next breath would be flame or air, the leaders of the white chariot horses leaped into the air like rockets. Instantly the whole six stallions became absolutely crazed with fear and made a plunge directly for the oncoming storm of fire and smoke. On toward the furnace of fire they ran, the driver tugging with might and main on the reins.

"Jump!" yelled the boss. And jump the driver did. He was not a second too soon, for an instant later the white charioteers had disappeared under the great red and black barrel that was rolling upon us. Then came a moment which was a dizzy blank to most of us, I guess. The fearful strain of the long race, the moments of awful suspense after the charred ground had been reached—it was enough to have dethroned the reason of every man and woman in the charmed circle! Small wonder that a few fainted dead away and the rest of us were stunned into momentary confusion.

But we had scarcely recovered the use of our faculties when the wag of the circus broke the long strain of the flight and escape by the remark: "I reckon there's been more genuine praying done in circus circles in the last hour than since Noah let the elephants out of the Ark!" The truthfulness of the remark hit home to every one in the whole group. Probably there was not a choicer collection of "unbelievers" on the face of the civilized earth than our company contained yet only a few moments before every man, woman and child had been praying for dear life—some fairly shouting their supplications, others kneeling quietly in the wagons, and still others mumbling their petitions as they helped to hold the horses in check or performed some other imperative duty. But there was not a single individual in the whole wagon train who had not, under the awful pressure of the trial through which we passed, put up some kind of a petition to the Almighty for deliverance from the devouring flames.

One of the first things we did, when the burning ground became cool enough, after the tornado of fire had swept around our little oasis of burned ground and passed on towards the river, was to go out and look for the remains of the chariot and the six white stallions. We had not far to go before we came to a heap of wheel tires and other ironwork from the big vehicle. A little beyond it were the blackened remains of the splendid horses which had dashed into an unnecessary death. These animals had been the pride of the show, and there was scarcely a man connected with the equestrian department of the circus who did not deeply lament the loss of the noble creatures. As for myself, I could hardly keep back the tears, for my fondness for the beautiful, intelligent horses amounted to a passion.

Slowly we made our way to the river. On the other bank were gathered the inhabitants of the prairies who had been fortunate enough to reach this refuge. They had immediately extinguished the fires started on the far side of the river by the sparks which the wind carried across the stream. Some of them were almost raving with grief over the fate which they firmly believed had overtaken their relatives and friends, while others put their whole energies into caring for all who needed help—thus forgetting their own distress and afflictions in ministering to others.

A CHANCE MEETING WITH A GREAT MAN

After relating one of the most stirring and tragic episodes of my life as a showman, my thought turns instinctively to the other extreme—to an experience quite as typical of the wandering existence of the pioneer showman of the old wagon days. I refer to a chance meeting with one of the greatest men who helped to make the history of the United States, a splendid, picturesque giant of the pioneer type whose life was an unbroken romance. It may be asked, What has this kind of thing to do with circus life? I answer: Everything! Much of the success which I have achieved in this peculiar field of effort I owe to the contact with men of large capacity with whom I chanced to "fall in," as it were, while on the road. These meetings were as bread to my mind. They made the bright spots in my life, and, from the very beginning of my career, gave me the inspiration which helped me to see things in a larger way, to persevere in the face of all obstacles and to take advantage of every opportunity. Of the hundreds of experiences in this line, no other approached in romantic interest that which came to me very early in my southwestern tour.

I was then a young man and was traveling in Louisiana. I put up at a hotel in a rather small town, where hotels were as rare as other evidences of civilization. I had just gone to my room on the night succeeding my arrival when I was honored with a call from the landlord.

"Mr. Coup," he said, "there'll be another feller up to bunk with you in a few minutes. You'd better wait up and arrange with him about the side of the bed you are to sleep on. If he walks in and finds you sleepin' on his side, there might be a coolness spring up between you."

At that time I was a stranger to southern customs, and their manner of doing things struck me as being a trifle irregular. However, I offered no objection. It has always been a rule with me to maintain the silence which is said to be golden when I am among strangers in a strange land. I afterwards discovered that it was customary for this landlord to put as many as three in one bed when he happened to be cramped for room. In about ten minutes my bedfellow came up. He was an elderly man with eyes which seemed to pierce one.

His bedroom candle lighted up a face which I have never since been able to eradicate from my memory. It was one of the most interesting faces it has ever been my good fortune to gaze upon. When he smiled, I was somehow irresistibly drawn towards him. It was the saddest, tenderest, sweetest smile that I have ever seen upon a man's face. He spoke to me kindly as he placed his candle upon the little table, then drew his chair up close beside me in front of the open, wood fire. Twenty minutes afterward I could have sworn that I had known the man all my life. He was a brilliant talker; and his stock of knowledge regarding men and affairs of that day seemed to be inexhaustible.

"By the way," I said, after we had talked well into the night, "I see Gen. Sam Houston is billed to speak here to-morrow night. I shall certainly go to hear him." He glanced up at me quickly.

"Are you an admirer of him?" he asked. "I will answer that question by saying both yes and no," I replied. "I greatly admire him for his sturdy independence, his political ability, and his apparent hatred for all shams. But there seems to be another side to his character which I do not admire. The manner in which he deserted his Cherokee wife after he had left the nation and returned to civilization, I regard as wholly contemptible. Do you know him?"

"I have seen him," he replied, quietly, smiling the sad smile which had before struck me so forcibly.

"Well, don't you agree with me?" I asked.

"Before I reply to that question I would like to tell you a little story," my roommate replied, and it seemed to me that his voice trembled a little.

"I once knew a man who held a prominent office in the State of Tennessee. He was a young man then—not older than yourself, and with just as quick a tongue when it came to condemning all sorts of wrong and injustice. His position gave him admission to the best social circles, and he wooed and married a beautiful girl. On his part it was wholly a love match. He worshiped her as he had never before worshiped anything on earth. For a time he was happy—after the manner of men who place their entire lives in the hands of one woman. By and by he noticed that his beautiful young wife was growing dejected and unhappy. Often, when he spoke to her in terms of endearment when they were alone, she would burst into tears, tear herself out of his arms and escape from the room. On one of these occasions he followed her to her room and insisted upon an explanation. At first she refused, but finally yielded, telling him a story which crushed him to the very dust. She said she had never loved him, but had been persuaded by friends to marry him on account of his position. She told him more than that. She told him that long before the marriage occurred she had loved another man.

"That night the husband left his home and his high official position and disappeared. Shaving the hair from his head and tearing the broadcloth garments into shreds, he donned the scanty apparel of the savage and became a member of the Cherokee nation. The members of the tribe treated him with the greatest consideration and respect, and he became a sort of oracle among them. In time he married an Indian maiden, thereby widening the breach between himself and the past. After a number of years had passed, however, he grew weary of savagery and his mind often reverted to the life which had been his before his great trouble came upon him. Finally he bade his wife and her untutored friends a temporary farewell and drifted into Texas. Here he soon rose to recognition, and in a comparatively brief space of time once more held an important official position. But he had not deserted his Indian wife. On several occasions he returned to the tribe to see her and tried to induce her to return with him to civilization. But the poor, untutored Indian squaw was a thousand times nobler than the beautiful society woman who had ruined his life in early manhood. She loved him passionately, but positively refused to accede to his requests. 'I would only disgrace you,' she said. 'I am not fit to go out into your world.' Finally the husband returned without her—very much against his wishes, remember—and a few months later word reached him that his Indian wife was dead. She had loved him too well to accompany him into his changed life for fear of disgracing him, and had loved him too well to wish to live without him. She was found, said the messenger, at the bottom of a cliff, and the manner of her death was only too apparent. The white wife represented what is popularly called the highest type of civilization and social culture—the poor Indian girl what is best known by the name of savagery. That, young man, is how General Houston came to desert his Indian bride."

I had been deeply interested in the old man's story, and when he had finished I thought that his keen eyes were filled with tears as he sat gazing into the dying embers of our fire. I hastened to assure him that I was glad to be set right regarding General Houston's character. "I shall listen to his speech with renewed interest to-morrow night," I said. "You must have known him well?"

"Yes," was the reply, "I have seen a good deal of him. But, my young friend, don't let your enthusiasm run away with your discretion. General Houston has his faults like the rest of the world—plenty of them."

"By the way," I said, as we pushed back our chairs and prepared for bed, "I believe you have omitted telling me your name. I have spent such a pleasant evening that I would really like to know to whom I am indebted for it."

"Ah," he said, with the same smile, "I believe I did omit that little formality. My name is Sam Houston."

We did not quarrel regarding the side of the bed he was to occupy. General Houston could have had both sides had he expressed a wish for them.