Hunger on the Prairie


The Sooner Magazine, June, 1930


By John Joseph Mathews


            It was an iron-bound world. There had been snow and sleet for several days. Then, the skies had cleared and the thermometer indicated twenty degrees below zero. A cold wind howled across the prairie at terrific speed, blowing stinging flakes before it for two days, then sank into a calm, cold silence.


            At night, the stars shone profusely with a twinkling brightness that accentuated the impression of a frigid desolation of whiteness. The crackling trees in the ravines sounded like rifle shots. The air was as metallic as struck steel. There was savagery and soullessness about the hills glinting in the star-light. The windmill down on the flats stood out like an object in some fevered dream of hopelessness. The yellow lights from the ranch house windows symbolized the last spark of life in a frozen world; a metabolic low point in the grip of the relentless cold. The ranch house cowering there, insignificant and alone in this desolate expanse of white at bay before the white and gleaming fangs of Nature. The knowledge that food and warmth lay behind the yellow light did not dispel these thoughts as one gazed out where hunger and death stalked over the prairie.


            During most of the short days the skies were overcast. Throughout these days the drama of survival was played ruthlessly.


            A covey of quail would feed with quick movements up the ravines; talking incessantly to each other, or calling nervously when one got separated from the rest in his energetic search for food. The instinct of banded protection and concealment were dominated by the thoughts of food. They jump up to reach the seeds at the tops of reeds, and ran quickly here and there in search. Man the enemy could stand in their mist and watch them unnoticed. Several of the weaker ones of the covey would stand with feathers puffed out and call disconsolately. One little female in particular, huddled into a ludicrous little ball of feathers, too cold and weak to keep up with the covey, would stand with one foot drawn up into her breast feathers and call piteously, while the members ran here and there from reed to reed, hopeful of possibilities. One would find a hard round thing, and peck at it energetically until it rolled down, only to find at last that it was not edible.


            As they fed upon the ravine, they would come finally to the scattered kafir-corn[1] which we had put out for them. Their tone changed, there was still the note of wonder and fear, but there was a quick happy note as well as they fell to eating. The weak little female, when she heard the happier voices, took courage and flew toward them. It was rather a feeble flight and she had trouble landing on her feet with feeble joy among her mates.


            At intervals the graceful marsh hawk hunted over the ice covered fields. He flew silently with his eye on every movement at the grass and reed roots. The little seed-eaters usually flew before him, down through the reed stems uttering chirrups of alarm. He flew low over the fence rows, thence across the fields to the heads of the ravines, whence he would sail down the ravines like relentless death. His food getting had none of the fear and agitated hopefulness of the quail, but his unhurried hunting had a calm assurance which made him appear as Fate's tool. Sometimes a prairie falcon would fly
quickly over the fields to perch on a tall jack-oak tree on the hill there to wait till some bird flew into his field of vision. He unlike the marsh hawk depended upon his swift flight to overtake his quarry. He would sit for hours just waiting.


            The prairie chickens came in flocks of fourteen or more, from the high limestone ridges. They flew across the fields with outstretched necks, their wings alternately beating and set, as they made for the far corner of the field where we had put corn for them. Sometimes a marsh hawk would come in with them, flying above and attempting to separate one of them from the flock. He usually failed as the big birds were too much for even his hunger- pitched strength.


            Back of the fields and almost at the foot of the limestone escarpment, was the torn dam of an old pond. On this prominence a coyote would stand, and gaze across the crystal emptiness. Sometimes an icy little breeze would stir the long hair on his neck, as he stood with ears erect and his pointed nose testing the air. Once he had stood thus for a long time, and he suddenly laid back his ears and wrinkled his lips slightly. Perhaps the air currents had brought a disagreeable odor to him, or perhaps an uncomforting thought had passed through his brain; a thought associated with the hunger gnawing at his belly.


            Once, a marsh hawk hunting over the prairie, near the old pond, saw him standing there and suddenly darted toward him, moved by the savage discontent in its heart; surely it was not in a playful mood when the business of life was survival? The coyote struck fiercely at it, then, as it flew off, watched with an expression of contempt, and not without hunger interest. Even the sinews and muscles of a hawk would be acceptable in this iron bound world, if in the one chance in a hundred the hawk could be caught. An idle thought really, but there were slips occasionally even in the case of such a wary marauder as the marsh hawk.


            The coyote suddenly trotted off across the prairie. He seemed to have no doubt about where he was going. Perhaps he had just remembered a long forgotten carcass. He might have thought of the feeding ground to the west of the ranch; here he might hope to find a half frozen steer. At best he could watch the weak ones, and wait patiently until the cold had claimed them.


            The rabbits grew thin and haggard. For food, they resorted to the bark of the pussy-willow and other shrubs in the garden. Their perpetual expression of stupid wonder was accentuated as they sat on the snow attempting to look like pieces of uncovered sandstone.


            There was a maze of trails through the orchard and down along the ravines, and often, one came upon scarlet blotches on the white mantle of snow. The story of the tragedy was written there in tracks and pieces of fur, as well as long parallel marks in the snow made by beating wings. Often there would be bunches of scattered feathers where a quail had been eaten.


            Tracks everywhere and stories of tragedies in the cold silence. The only voices were the muffled caw of a crow winging his way across the prairie, or the pitiful screams of a rabbit in the talons of a hawk or owl; these voices only at rare intervals, then, the silence would descend more profoundly and ominously tense than before.

[1] Kafir-corn: Sorghum seeds.