The Last Bison

Charles Mair

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Eight years have fled since, in the wilderness,
I drew the rein to rest my comrade there–
My supple, clean-limbed pony of the plains.
He was a runner of pure Indian blood,
Yet in his eye still gleamed the desert's fire,
And form and action both bespoke the Barb.
A wondrous creature is the Indian's horse;
Degenerate now, but from the 'Centaurs' drawn–
The apparitions which dissolved with fear
Montezuma's plumed Children of the Sun,
And throned rough Cortez in his realm of gold.

A gentle vale, with rippling aspens clad,
Yet open to the breeze, invited rest.
So there I lay, and watched the sun's fierce beams
Reverberate in wreathed ethereal flame;
Or gazed upon the leaves which buzzed o'erhead,
Like tiny wings in simulated flight.

Within the vale a lakelet, lashed with flowers,
Lay like a liquid eye among the hills,
Revealing in its depths the fulgent light
Of snowy cloud-land and cerulean skies.
And rising, falling, fading far around,
The homeless and unfurrowed prairies spread
In solitude and idleness eterne.

And all was silent save the rustling leaf,
The gadding insect, or the grebe's lone cry,
Or where Saskatchewan, with turbid moan,
Deep-sunken in the plain, his torrent poured.
Here Loneliness possessed her realm supreme,
Her prairies all about her, undeflowered,
Pulsing beneath the summer sun, and sweet
With virgin air and waters undefiled.
Inviolate still! Bright solitudes, with power
To charm the spirit-bruised, where ways are foul,
Into forgetfulness of chuckling wrong
And all the weary clangour of the world.

Yet, Sorrow, too, had here its kindred place,
As o'er my spirit swept the sense of change.
Here sympathy could sigh o'er man's decay;
For here, but yesterday, the warrior dwelt
Whose faded nation had for ages held,
In fealty to Nature, these domains.
Around me were the relics of his race:
The grassy circlets where his village stood,
Well-ruled by custom's immemorial law.
Along these slopes his happy offspring roved
In days gone by, and dusky mothers plied
Their summer tasks, or loitered in the shade.
Here the magician howled his demons up,
And here the lodge of council had its seat,
Once resonant with oratory wild.
All vanished! perished in the swelling sea
And stayless tide of an enroaching power
Whose civil fiat, man-devouring still,
Will leave, at last, no wilding on the earth
To wonder at or love!

With them had fled
The bison-breed which overflowed the plains,
And, undiminished, fed uncounted tribes.
Its vestiges were here–its wallows, paths,
And skulls and shining ribs and vertebrae:
Gray bones of monarchs from the herds, perchance,
Descended, by De Vaca first beheld,
Or Coronada, in mad quest of gold.
Here hosts had had their home; here had they roamed,
Endless and infinite–vast herds which seemed
Exhaustless as the sea. All vanished now!
Of that wild tumult not a hoof remained
To scour the countless paths where myriads trod.

Long had I lain 'twixt dreams and waking, thus,
Musing on change and mutability,
And endless evanescence, when a burst
Of sudden roaring filled the vale with sound.
Perplexed and startled, to my feet I sprang,
And in amazement from my covert gazed,
For, presently, into the valley came
A mighty bison, which, with stately tread
And gleaming eyes, descended to the shore.
Spell-bound I stood. Was this a living form,
Or but an image by the fancy drawn?
But no–he breathed! and from a wound blood flowed,
And trickled with the frothing from his lips.
Uneasily he gazed, yet saw me not,
Haply concealed; then, with a roar so loud
That all the echoes rent their valley-horns,
He stood and listened; but no voice replied!
Deeply he drank, then, lashed his quivering flanks,
And roared again, and hearkened, but no sound,
No tongue congenial answered to his call–
He was the last survivor of his clan!

Huge was his frame! the famed Burdash, so grown
To that enormous bulk whose presence filled
The very vale with awe. His shining horns
Gleamed black amidst his fell of floating hair–
His neck and shoulders, of the lion's build,

Were framed to toss the world. Now stood he there
And stared, with head uplifted, at the skies,
Slow-yielding to his deep and mortal wound.
He seemed to pour his mighty spirit out
As thus he gazed, till my own spirit burned,
And teeming fancy, charmed and overwrought
By all the wildering glamour of the scene,
Gave to that glorious attitude a voice,
And, rapt, endowed the noble beast with song.

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