Title: Wapiti-Running on the Plains

Periodical: The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review

Date: October 1880

Author: Dunraven, Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, Earl of, 1841-1926

More metadata


THE first time I ever saw the head of a Wapiti (Cervus canadensis) was at Chicago. I happened to be talking one day with General Sheridan, when a magnificent specimen arrived from one of the frontier forts as a present from the officer in command there. I had heard of these animals, but had looked upon them as mythological beasts. I had been so much disappointed in America in my search for large game, had heard so many rumours which turned out to be without the smallest foundation in fact, and had listened to so many stories of abundance of game which proved to be entirely illusory—the animals existing only in the vivid imagination of the story-tellers—that I had begun seriously to doubt whether any Wapiti existed on the continent. The sight, however, of the pair of horns reassured me considerably, for obviously where one Wapiti stag was to be found there was a reasonable chance of killing others, and my enthusiasm rising to fever heat on a closer inspection of the antlers, nothing would satisfy me but I must be off at once to the fort.

It would be useless to enter into any description of the journey. The comfort of the Pullman cars, the discomfort of the heat and dust, the occasional bands of buffalo, the herds of antelope, the prairie dogs, the vast droves of Texan cattle and the picturesque cattle boys that drive them, the long dreary stretches of prairie where the melancholy solitude is broken only by occasional little stations at which the train stops—are all familiar to everybody who has crossed the plains, and have been written about ad nauseam. Very curious are these small settlements, some of them consisting only of two or three mud, or rather adobe, houses, or of a few wooden shanties and a pumping-engine to supply water; others being large villages or small towns. They look as if Providence had been carrying a box of toy houses, and had dropped the lid and spilt out the contents on the earth. The houses have all come down right end uppermost, it is true, but otherwise they show no evidence of design; they are scattered about in every conceivable direction, dumped down anywhere, apparently without any particular motive or reason for being so situated. The chief peculiarity noticeable about these little settlements and their inhabitants is that on the approach of a train everybody rushes to the front of his house and rings an enormous bell. I received quite an erroneous impression from this ceremony the first time I crossed the plains. I had read somewhere that the Chinese on the occasion of an eclipse or some natural phenomenon of that kind, which they attribute to the action of a malignant being, endeavour to drive away the evil influence by ringing bells, beating gongs, and making other hideous noises; and I thought that the unsophisticated inhabitants of these frontier towns, not having become accustomed to the passage of a train, looked upon it as some huge, horrible, and dangerous beast, and sought to drive it away by employing the same means as the Chinese. I found out afterwards, however, that the object of the bell-ringing was to induce travellers to descend and partake of hash.

At one of these lonely little stations I was deposited one fine evening in the early fall just before sundown. For a few moments only the place was all alive with bustle and confusion. The train represented everything that was civilised, all the luxuries that could be carried in a train were to be found on board of it, the people were all clothed in fashionable dresses, it was like a slice cut out of one of the Eastern cities set down bodily in the midst of a perfect wilderness. In a few seconds it was gone, civilisation vanished with it, the station relapsed into its normal condition of desolation, and I found myself almost alone in the heart of the desert.

The day had been hot, and the air was resonant with the noise of crickets and cicali. The almost level prairie stretched out around me, fading away towards the east in interminable distances, while in the west the sun was just sinking behind a range of low sand-hills and bluffs. The air was still and calm, the sky perfectly cloudless, and the setting sun cast a faint delicate rosy hue over the sand and burnt sun-scorched herbage of the prairie, giving it the general tint and appearance of the Egyptian desert. It was very beautiful but somewhat melancholy, and I confess I felt rather blue and dismal as I watched the train vanishing in the distance; nor were my spirits roused by learning from the station-master that Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack had left the fort that very morning on a hunting expedition. I had counted upon one or both of those famous scouts accompanying me, for General Sheridan had with characteristic kindness written to the officer commanding at the fort, requesting him to give me any assistance in his power, and if possible to let me have the valuable services of Mr. William Cody, otherwise Buffalo Bill, the government scout at the fort; and I began to inveigh against the bad luck that had arranged that he should go out hunting the very day I arrived. However, I had to 'take it all back,' for just as I was stepping into the ambulance waggon that was waiting to take us to the fort, two horsemen appeared in sight, galloping towards us, and the stationmaster sang out, 'Say! hold on a minute, here are the very men you want, I guess.' In another minute or two they cantered up, swung themselves out of the saddle, threw their bridles over a post, caught up their rifles, and stepped on to the platform. I thought I had never seen two finer looking specimens of humanity, or two more picturesque figures. Both were tall, well-built, active-looking men, with singularly handsome features. Bill was dressed in a pair of corduroys tucked into his high boots, and a blue flannel shirt. He wore a broad-brimmed felt hat, or sombrero, and had a white handkerchief folded like a little shawl loosely fastened round his neck, to keep off the fierce rays of the afternoon sun. Jack's costume was similar, with the exception that he wore moccasins, and had his lower limbs encased in a pair of comfortably greasy deer-skin trousers, ornamented with a fringe along the seams. Round his waist was a belt supporting a revolver, two butcher knives, and a steel, and in his hand he carried his trusty rifle the 'Widow.' Jack, tall and lithe, with light brown close-cropped hair, clear laughing honest blue eyes, and a soft and winning smile, might have sat as a model for a typical modern Anglo-Saxon—if ethnologists will excuse the term. Bill was dark, with quick searching eyes, aquiline nose, and delicately cut features, and he wore his hair falling in long ringlets over his shoulders, in true Western style. As he cantered up, with his flowing locks and broad-brimmed hat, he looked like a picture of a Cavalier of olden times. Ah, well! it is years ago now since the day I first shook hands with Jack and Bill, and many changes have taken place since then. At that time neither of them had visited the States, or been anywhere east of the Mississippi: they knew scarcely more of civilization and the life of great cities than the Indians around them. Afterwards they both went East and made money. Cody has, I believe, settled down on a ranche somewhere in Wyoming, and John Omokondro, better known as Texas Jack, has gone on to other and better hunting grounds. Peace be with him; he was a good and kind friend to me, a cheery companion, as brave as a lion, as gentle as a woman, always ready for anything, always willing to work, cutting down mountains of difficulties into mole hills, always in good humour, never quarrelling—a better hunting companion than Jack was in those days, or a more reliable friend, it would be hard to find. There was nothing mean about Jack; he was—to use one of his own Western phrases—a real white man. 'Well,' says Cody, 'after the ceremony of introduction had been got through, and we had made known our wishes and aspirations, 'I guess we will both go along with you gents, if you like, and if I can get leave, and I don't know as there will be any trouble about that. You see Jack and I just started out this morning to get a load of meat, but there has been considerable of a fire down towards the forks, and scared all the game off; and as we had not got no stores with us for more than a day or two, we concluded to come right back.' 'Oh, Lord,' I said; 'the game all scared off, is it? what an infernal nuisance! it does not look a very cheerful country to ride about in without plenty of game to 'liven one up.' 'Never you mind about deer and elk,' cried Jack; 'you have no call to worry about that; we will find game enough if you can hit them; you think the prairie don't look cheerful, eh! Well it does seem kind of dismal, don't it, this time of year.' 'Ah!' he added enthusiastically, 'but you should see it in the summer, when the grass is all green, and the flowers is all ablowing, and the little birdies is a building of their nesties and boohooing around, and the deer are that fat they will scarcely trouble to get out of the way; and as to eating, they are just splendid, immense! I tell you; ain't they, Bill?' 'Yes, sir, you bet your boots they are. But come on, Jack; let's fork our ponies and skin out for the fort; we don't want to stop here all night, anyhow. Good night, gentlemen; we will see you in the morning and fix that hunt all right, I guess.' And so Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack 'fork their ponies and skin out,' while we bundle ourselves into the wagon and rattle off as fast as six seventeen hands high mules can tear to the fort, where we were most kindly and hospitably received.

Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack were as fine specimens of their race and class as could anywhere be found; and that is saying a good deal, for honest hearts and stalwart frames and handsome features are not rare among the pioneers of Western civilization. It might be supposed that these hunters, Indian trailers, cattle boys, and miners, are disagreeable people to come across. That is not the case at all. There are, of course, some rough characters, regular desperadoes, among them, and they occasionally shoot each other pretty freely in gambling quarrels and drunken sprees; but to a stranger who knows how to behave himself they are, as far as my experience goes, most civil and obliging. If a man is civil to them they will be civil to him, and if he does not interfere about their affairs they won't bother about his, unless he wants their assistance, and then they will be ready and willing to give it. The manly sense of independence, the self-respect, and that feeling of respect for others engendered by it, which so strongly characterize the American people, are as deeply marked and have as good an effect among the nomads of the West as in any other class of population. Of course if a man gives himself airs he must expect to pay for it. I remember rather an amusing instance of this. I had engaged a hunter and a guide, a first-rate man, to accompany a friend of mine. The day before they were to start the guide came to me and said, 'Now look here, Mr. Earl. I ain't agoing to back out of this bargain, because I told you I'd go; but I ain't sweet upon the job, I tell you. I never come across a chap with such a lot of side on in my life, and I don't like it. However, I said I'd go, and I'm a going; but I ain't agoing at the price I told you. I am going to charge him a dollar a day more.' And so my friend enjoyed his expedition in blissful ignorance that he was paying four shillings and twopence a day extra for 'side.'

The next morning, after paying some visits and making some preliminary arrangements for a hunt, I wandered off a little distance and sat down on the trunk of a fallen cottonwood tree, and tried to realize that I was in the middle of those prairies that, thanks to Captain Mayne Reid, had haunted my boyish dreams. I cannot say that the realization of my hopes fulfilled my expectation. I was oppressed with the vastness of the country, the stillness and the boundlessness of the plains seemed to press like a weight upon my spirits, and I was not sorry to get back into the bustle and busy life of the fort. After a while, though, when I became accustomed to the plains, the feeling of depression of spirits which was at first occasioned by the monotony and quiet colouring of everything faded away, and the limitlessness of the prairie only impressed me with a feeling of freedom, and created rather an exhilaration of spirits than otherwise.

It was difficult in those days, and I suppose it is so now in most places, to enjoy much hunting on the plains without the assistance of the military. That assistance was never withheld if it could be given; for among no class of people in any country in the world are the rites of hospitality better understood or more gracefully administered than among the officers of Uncle Sam's army. I have always found them most courteous, kind, and obliging, ready to do anything in their power to help a stranger to see something of the country or to indulge in the pleasures of a hunt. I had no great difficulty therefore in obtaining permission to attach myself to a scouting party that was to leave the fort in a short time.

The next two or three days were spent in making preparations, buying stores, &c. I thought the days interminable. I was crazy to get out on the plains and see one of these great Wapiti, and it appeared to me that everything could have been ready in half an hour's time. However, it was no use hurrying; one has to be philosophically patient and let things take their natural course. There is a regular routine to be observed in all these cases. At some places it takes you two days to fit out, at others three; sometimes you may strike a man accustomed to do things on short notice, and able to get everything ready in two or three hours. Then there are endless delays on the day of starting. Something is sure to be forgotten; girths or buckles break; perhaps one of the drivers has had a birthday, and is suffering a little from the effects of it, and cannot be induced to pull himself together and get started at all. In fact, you must make up your mind to be quite content if the first day's march consists only of a few miles, just enough to get beyond the radius of the last whiskey shop, so as to be certain of making a clear, fair-and-square move on the succeeding day.

We got off pretty well, sent the wagons, escort, tents, and things away shortly after noon, and started ourselves a couple of hours later. It was with a feeling almost of exultation that I at last found myself riding on the boundless prairie, the tall flag-staff, and the wooden houses of the fort fading in the distance, and before me nothing but the illimitable wilderness. After a short gallop, we overtook the outfit on the banks of the Platte, an extraordinary river, which consists at all seasons, except when in full flood, of a broad band of shifting, soft, and dangerous sand, with a little water trickling about in it. It is in some places miles in breadth. There was a kind of bridge, composed of numerous holes, with a few wattles and planks and trunks of rotten trees thrown across them, the whole structure being supported on rickety trestles; but it was in such a dangerous condition that we did not attempt to cross it, but preferred to ford the river, though the bed of it was strewn with wheels, axles, and fragments of wagons, a sight not very encouraging to the traveller. However, by dint of much hard swearing we got across, travelled a few miles on the other side, and camped close to the source of a little stream. Next morning shortly after daylight two or three of us started on ahead on the route that the wagons were to follow, and an event occurred—we saw our first Wapiti. Almost immediately after leaving camp I spied two or three gigantic objects, with horns like branching trees, surveying us from a sand-hill at a little distance. I was nearly frightened to death at the sight, they looked so enormous in the dim light, and although I had absolutely seen the head of an elk at Chicago, I still had lingering doubts as to their existence. We tried to ride round them, but it was no use: they had seen the camp, and made off before we could get anywhere within range. We travelled all the rest of that day without seeing anything more: it was intensely hot, and altogether the journey was not a very pleasant one. The heat was most oppressive, although it was late in October, for there was not a breath of wind, and the treeless prairie does not afford a particle of shade of any kind; being quite a green hand on the prairies, I was afraid to wander any distance from the wagons, lest I might lose myself; and I found riding behind a wagon all day in the broiling sun on a rough-paced Broncho so tiresome that I was well pleased when the camping-place for the night hove in sight.

The country we traversed is peculiar; the soil is of light sand, and the whole region is a vast series of sand-heaps. It looks as if the ocean in a violent gale—the height of the waves being exaggerated to some fifty or a hundred feet—had suddenly been arrested, solidified, and turned into sand. There are occasional level places, low bottoms, in which the water supplied by the winter snows and rains collects and remains some time after the great heats and droughts of summer have set in. These places are covered with a rank vegetation of tall grass, in which it is sometimes very difficult to force one's way on horseback; but generally the surface of the country is sand, either devoid of vegetation or covered with patches of coarse grass; and here and there are level tracts clothed with short, succulent, curling buffalo grass. The wind has a great effect on the soft surface of the sand, and most of the hills have one side blown or scooped out, which makes the country somewhat dangerous to ride over, for one is apt, in galloping after some animal, to come suddenly upon a perpendicular cliff twenty or thirty feet high, the descent down which would result in broken bones for man and horse. The native horses are pretty well accustomed to this peculiarity of the country, and will stop suddenly, a proceeding which, though excellent and wise as regards themselves, is apt to result in the discomfiture of the rider if he is new to the plains, and to cause him to describe a graceful parabola in the air, and fall down head foremost in the soft substance of the sand beneath. It is the easiest thing in the world to lose yourself in this broken sand-heapy country, for you will lose sight of the wagons when not a hundred yards from them, and not see them until you are right on top of them again. There is of course no kind of road or track of any sort; you simply travel in the direction which you wish to go, choosing the best line of country you can find.

We camped that night on Little Sandy Creek, the south branch of the east fork of the western arm of one of the larger tributaries of the North Platte. It was on the next day's march that the first elk was killed. I was riding alone a little to the left of the wagons, much alarmed at not having them constantly in view, but still so anxious to get a shot that I ventured to keep off a little way. I had adopted by this time the manners and customs of the native hunter, which consist in going up cautiously to the crest of a sand-hill, looking over inch by inch, and occasionally going to the top of the highest point in the neighbourhood and taking a good survey round with a pair of field glasses. At last I was rewarded. Quietly craning my head over a sand ridge, I saw lying at the bottom, not more than a couple of hundred yards from me, what looked at first like a great tangled mass of dry white sticks. It turned out to be the heads of three Wapiti stags lying down close together. I managed without much difficulty to get a little nearer to them, left my horse, crawled up to the brow of the nearest ridge, got a fine shot, and fired. I hate taking a lying shot, and it would have been better in this case if I had roused the animals up; however, I fired at one as he lay, and struck him, but not fatally, and they all got up and made off. Noticing that one was wounded, I jumped on my horse and followed him. I speedily came up to him, for he was severely hit, dismounted, fired another shot, and laid him on the sand. He was not a very large stag, in fact he had a small head, but I thought him the most magnificent animal I had ever seen in my life. Fortunately for me, Buffalo Bill, who heard the shots and saw the Wapiti making off, followed them and came to my assistance, helped me to cut him up, and after taking some meat on our saddles, brought me safely and speedily back to the wagons. The river we camped on is a good-sized stream. It flows through a generally flat country, but partially composed, as I have already said, of sand-hills and steep bluffs. Its course is the most peculiar I have ever seen in any river, it twists and twines in a most miraculous manner, forming loops and figures of eight, and every kind of geometrical figure that can be made by curves. Two bends of the river will approach each other till they are separated only by a little neck of land a few yards in width, and then go away for ever so far, sweeping back again in such a manner that I should think a man in a canoe might have to travel twenty miles to accomplish a distance of perhaps two or three miles in a straight line by land.

Where the stream has cut through the high sand-hills or bluffs the banks are of course precipitous, almost perpendicular, but as a general rule there is a margin some hundred yards or so in width between the edge of the stream and the high steep hills which form the banks of the river. Through these hills, composed of loose sand and other soft materials, winter rains have worn deep gullies, large enough to be termed cañons, precipitous valleys leading up from the river, at right angles to its general course, to the level of the plain, and from these valleys other and smaller cañons branch off in all directions, forming a labyrinth of steep precipitous gullies.

These cañons, and indeed every crack and cranny below the level of the prairie, are thickly timbered with cypress; in other words, the natural wood grows everywhere where it is not subjected to the continually recurring prairie fires which desolate the region, and wherever it is sheltered from the cutting blast of wintry winds, almost as destructive in their effects as fire. The river is fordable in most places as far as depth of water is concerned, but the bottom is very treacherous, consisting generally of soft shifting quicksand. We pitched our camp in a nice sheltered situation, not far from the head of one of the cañons leading down to the river, near enough to the stream to be able to water our horses without inconvenience, and sufficiently close to the plain to be able to get a good look out over the surrounding country without having to go too far.

It was a pleasant and convenient camp, and we should have been very comfortable if we had not suffered so much from cold at night; but unfortunately for us summer turned suddenly into winter, a violent snowstorm came on, and for a few days after it we felt the cold very severely. We had plenty of buffalo rugs and blankets, it is true, but there is a limit to the number of blankets that are useful; a dozen will not keep a man any warmer than half-a-dozen, or half-a-dozen than two or three. I do not like sleeping in great cold; it necessitates lying so still. The only chance is to get into bed, roll yourself well up in your blankets and buffalo robes while the tent is warm, see that there is no cranny or hole anywhere by which the air can penetrate, and then lie perfectly quiet. You will experience a most oppressive and inconvenient amount of heat at first, which is very difficult to put up with, for it is almost impossible to resist the desire to kick off the clothes and get cool, but the temptation must be resisted, and you must lie perfectly still—even if you boil—otherwise your chance of a comfortable night is gone. If you succeed in going to sleep, you will find, when you wake after three or four hours, that though the cold is intense your body still contains a considerable amount of calorie; you must then pull the blankets completely over your head, just leaving a little hole through which to obtain a scanty supply of fresh air, and remain in that position till you get up in the morning. It makes an enormous difference to your bodily heat having your head inside the blankets, but it is not pleasant. In the morning you will find your air-hole encrusted with a thick coating of ice, and your body by that time thoroughly cold and stiff, from lying so long in one position. However, that is one of the discomforts of hunting that has to be put up with.

We scoured the country for the first couple of days in vain, seeing nothing, not even a fresh sign. On the third afternoon we—that is, myself and a friend and Buffalo Bill—were riding along, somewhat dispirited, a little in the rear of Texas Jack, who had gone on ahead and had disappeared round a hill. Presently we caught sight of him again on a little bluff at some distance from us. He had dismounted, and was running round and round on all fours, making such extraordinary antics that I imagined he had gone suddenly insane, till Buffalo Bill explained that he was merely indicating to us in the language of the plain that there were some Wapiti in sight and pretty near. So we approached him very cautiously, and looking over the edge of the bluff saw a sight which I shall never forget—a herd of at least 120 or 130 Wapiti on the little plain below close to the edge of the river. They looked magnificent, so many of these huge deer together. There were not many good heads among them, however, the herd consisting chiefly of hinds and young stags. They were in such a position that we could not make a good stalk upon them, and as it was getting late in the afternoon we determined to try and drive them, and so, after posting Jack and my friend in two favourable positions, Buffalo Bill and I went round to try and creep as near the Wapiti as we could. I did get two or three unfavourable shots, and missed, but the other two men were more fortunate, for they shot three elk out of the herd as they ran by.

Next morning, a little before sunrise, I was awakened as usual by hearing scratch, scratch, against the canvas of my tent door. 'Come in,' I said, with a sleepy and somewhat sulky voice at being disturbed, for I could feel by the stiffened and frozen condition of the blankets about my mouth that it was a very cold morning, and I was still tolerably warm. My 'come in' was answered by the appearance of Jack's jolly cheerful face as he undid the strings that tied the tent door, and came in, rubbing his hands and stamping his feet. 'Good morning,' says Jack; 'it's about time to get up, it's a fine large morning, and going to be a great day for hunting.' 'All right, Jack, I will be up in a minute. In the meantime there is the panikin, and there is the keg.' Jack, like most prairie men, invariably introduced himself to the Sun-God with a copious libation of whiskey. To take a big drink of raw whiskey in the morning, and to touch nothing more during the rest of the day, appears to me a most extraordinary perversion of principle. However, it is a part of the manners and customs of the country, and may be adapted to that peculiar region. I have often tried to acquire the habit, but have never succeeded. It is true that to take one drink of whiskey in the morning induces modified intoxication for the whole of the day, and it is therefore an economical habit; but it makes a man so unpleasantly drunk that he is apt to become a nuisance to himself and a terror to his friends. After Jack had tossed off his tot of whiskey with the customary salutation, 'How,' to which we replied with the polite rejoinder, 'Drink hearty,' we crawled out of our blankets and began to dress ourselves; that is to say, to undress ourselves, for we slept with more clothes on than we wore in the daytime; and then, having taken our drams in the shape of coffee, and gone through the slight ceremonial that answers to the getting-up of civilized life, we turned out, watered our horses, and started, accompanied by the captain in command of the scouting party. The captain, however, had a mishap, which necessitated his returning to camp, for in crossing a stream his horse took fright, reared, and fell back in the water. The result was that on emerging from the river the gallant captain took upon himself the appearance of a knight of old clad in a complete and glittering armour of ice. In a few moments his clothes were frozen and stiff as a board, and he had to gallop home, get himself wrapped up in blankets, and the circulation restored by external friction and internal applications of hot whiskey and water.

We rode for a long time, keeping a general direction down stream, but on the high ground on the banks of the river, without seeing anything or a sign of anything.

About noon I at last caught a glimpse of some objects a long way off, on the side of a steep bluff. It is very hard to take a good view of a distant object in a cold winter's day from the top of an exposed hill, with the wind blowing through and through one, and one's eyes watering and one's benumbed hands shaking the glasses in a most inconvenient manner. And we were unable for some time to determine the nature of the animals, but at length made out that they were elk, and not what we feared at first they might be, Indians. As soon as we had made the joyful discovery we mounted our horses, and galloped off, making a long circuit down wind, so as to come upon the game from the proper direction. Jack's instinct as a hunter stood us in good stead on this occasion. He brought us round beautifully to the exact spot where the deer lay, which was an exceedingly difficult thing to do, considering that when we first saw them, they were four or five miles off, and were lying on a sand-hill exactly like hundreds and thousands of other sand-hills that surrounded us in every direction. There was not even the slightest landmark to point out the position of the elk, and having once got on our horses we never saw them till Jack brought us within a few hundred yards of the herd.

I had no idea where we were, when Jack said, 'Now be mighty careful going up this hill, and keep your eyes skinned: we ought to be able to see elk from the top.' Accordingly we rode our horses up inch by inch, stooping down on their necks whenever we moved, and halting every two or three steps, and gradually raising our heads, so as to be sure of catching sight of the game before they saw us. When we discovered the deer, we found they were lying on the opposite hill side, out of shot, and we had to make another détour in order to get closer up; and finally, having reached a place from whence we expected to be within easy range, we dismounted, gave our horses in charge to two soldiers who had accompanied us, and prepared to make a start on foot. It was not pleasant ground for crawling, covered as it was in patches with dwarf cacti, horrible little vegetable nuisances about the size of a cricket ball, covered with spikes that penetrate through moccasins into the soles of your feet, and fill your hands and knees till they look like pincushions. They go in easily enough, but being barbed at the end, they won't come out again. They are a great trouble to dogs. I had a colley with me that became so disgusted with these cacti, that if he found himself among patches of them, he would howl and yell with terror before he was hurt at all. They are very detrimental also to the human hunter, but of course it is better to be covered with prickles as is the fretful porcupine than to miss a chance at a big stag; and so, in spite of cacti, we crawled on our hands and knees, and after a while flat upon our waistcoats, till we got to the crest of the hill, and there found ourselves within two hundred yards of the game. We could not tell how large the herd was, for not more than twenty Wapiti were in sight. Having mutually settled what we were to do, in a few hurried whispers, we selected each man his deer, fired all together, and loaded and fired again as fast as we could. Wapiti are so stupid that when they do not get your wind, or see you, they will bunch up together and stand, poor things, some little time in a state of complete terror, uncertain which way to run or what to do, and we got several shots into them before they started, and when at length they did set off they went in such a direction that we were able to cut them off again by running across at an angle. We did so, and, making another careful stalk upon them, found them all gathered together, looking about in all directions, and quite bewildered at being unable to see or smell the danger to which they were exposed. Signalling our horses to come up, we got three or four more shots at the elk before they made up their minds to start, and when at last they did get under way, we rushed to meet the horses, threw ourselves into the saddle, and started full gallop after them.

Fortune again befriended us, for the deer ran around a steep bluff, and, by taking the other side of the hill, we succeeded in cutting them off again, and rode in right on the top of the herd, yelling and shouting to frighten them. In running Wapiti on horseback, the great thing is to get among them suddenly at great speed, and to scare them as much as possible. If you succeed in doing that, they get winded, and with a good horse you will be able to keep up with them for some little distance; but if you let them get started gradually at their own pace, you have no more chance of coming up with them than with the man in the moon. However, this time we charged in among the herd, and kept up with them a long way. What became of the others I don't know, for I was too fully occupied with myself to take any notice of them. I rode in upon fifty or sixty of the huge beasts, kept my horse galloping right along with them, and loaded and fired as fast as I could, occasionally rolling over a deer. Presently, I singled out a big stag, the best I could see, and devoted myself to him. With the usual cowardice of his sex, he thrust himself in among the hinds, and I had great difficulty in getting at him at all. Finally, I got a good broadside shot at him, but missed, for it is not an easy thing to hit a deer at full gallop with your own horse at full gallop also; in fact it is about as hard a thing to do as a man can attempt in the way of shooting, particularly as, owing to the peculiarly dangerous nature of the ground, a man has to keep his eyes open, and cannot devote his entire attention to the animal he is pursuing, or even to his own horse. However, I stuck to my deer, though he doubled and turned in all directions, and at last by a lucky shot rolled him over like a rabbit, a fact which I announced by a yell which I should think must have been heard in settlements.

As soon as I had done for him, I took off after the rest of the herd, or rather the largest portion of the herd, for the main body of deer had broken up into several parties, and followed a little bunch of perhaps twenty or thirty, loading and firing, loading and firing, and every now and then bowling over a Wapiti. I went on till my rifle fell from my hands through sheer exhaustion, and stuck in the sand, muzzle downwards. That of course stopped my wild career. Then I got off my horse, which was completely blown and stood with his legs wide apart, his nostrils quivering, his flanks heaving, pouring with sweat, and loosened his girths. I felt pretty much the same condition, for it is hard work running elk on horseback; so, having first extracted my rifle from its position in the sand, I led my horse slowly up to the top of a sand-hill, turned his head to the fresh vivifying wind, and sat down. I had not the remotest idea of where I was, how long I had been running the elk, how many I had killed, or anything else; the excitement I had been in for the last half-hour or so was so great, that I felt quite bewildered, and scarcely knew what had happened. It was natural that I should not know where I was, for the oldest hand will get turned round after running even buffalo on the prairie; and elk are much worse than buffalo, for the latter will generally run tolerably straight, but the former go in circles, and double, and turn back on their tracks, and go in any direction it suits them. I was utterly and completely lost as far as finding my way back to camp was concerned, and I began all at once to feel a sense of dismalness creep over me. A sudden reaction set in after the great excitement I had enjoyed. Only a few seconds before I had been careering at full gallop over the prairie, shouting from sheer exuberance of spirits, every nerve in a state of intense excitation, the blood coursing madly through every artery and vein, every muscle and sinew strained to the uttermost, bestriding an animal in an equal state of excitement, and pursuing a herd of flying creatures, all instinct with life and violent movement. In a second it was all gone. Like a flash the scene changed. The Wapiti disappeared as if by magic. There was not a living creature of any kind to be seen, and the oppressive silence was unbroken by the faintest sound. I looked all around the horizon; not a sign of life; everything seemed dull, dead, quiet, unutterably sad and melancholy. The change was very strange, the revulsion of feeling very violent and not agreeable. I experienced a most extraordinary feeling of loneliness, and so having stopped a few minutes to let my horse get his wind, and to recover my faculties a little, I got on my exhausted steed, cleaned the sand out of my rifle, slowly rode to the top of the highest sand-hill in the neighbourhood, and there sat down again to look about me. I daresay the reader will ask, 'Why did you not take your back track, and so find your way?' I should have tried that of course in time, but it is not an easy matter to follow one's footmarks when the whole country is ploughed up and tracked over with the feet of flying animals, and I had in all probability been describing curves, crossing my trail many times; so I sat me down on the top of my sand-hill and waited.

After what seemed to me an intolerable time, probably nearly half-an-hour, I saw, in the distance, a little black spot crawling up a high sand-hill and remaining stationary at the top, and by the aid of my glass I made out a man and a horse. The man and horse remained where they were; I also did not stir; and in a few minutes more I had the pleasure of seeing in another direction another man and horse climbing to the top of a sand-hill. I felt sure they were my friends, for we had always settled among ourselves that if we got separated in running elk or buffalo, or anything, each man should get to the top of the highest point he could find, wait there some little time, and in this way we should be sure to get together again; and so after fixing well in my eye the position of the first man I had seen, I got on my horse and started in that direction. After a bit, I rode up another high sand-hill to take an observation, and finding my friend still in the same place, continued my way towards him. In about an hour we had all got together again, and after briefly giving each other an account of our success, we struck out for the end of the track where I had left my stag, and took the trail back. Such a scene of slaughter I had never viewed before; for two or three miles the dead elk lay thick upon the ground; it was like a small battlefield; a case of prairie murder, as the captain said. By Jove, how we did work that afternoon, gralloching the deer! It was dark by the time we had got through our task, and with bent and aching backs and blunted knives had returned to camp, about the dirtiest, most blood-stained, hungriest, happiest, most contented, and most disreputable-looking crowd to be found anywhere in the great territories of the West. I shall never participate in such a day's sport as that again. It was wonderful, because it partook of the double nature of stalking and running on horseback, for we had our stalk first, and killed five or six Wapiti on foot, and then we had our run and killed a lot more. The next two days we were busily engaged in cutting up the meat with axes and taking it into camp, for it must not be supposed that an ounce of all that meat was wasted; we hauled every bit of it out to the fort, where the demand for fresh venison greatly exceeded our supply.

The worst of killing so much game in a short time is that it brings one's hunt to a premature end. We had got all the meat we could carry, and there was nothing for us to do but hitch up our teams and drive back to settlements. Two or three days after our return, the fort had a narrow escape of being burned up in the night by a prairie fire of unusual magnitude. The fire originated a long way off, down on the Republican river, but there was a stiff breeze blowing at the time, and it travelled with most amazing swiftness towards us. While it was still miles and miles away, the whole sky was lit up with a fierce lurid glare, and as it soon became evident that it was coming in our direction, energetic measures were at once taken to fight the foe. All the troops, consisting, if I remember right, of eight companies of infantry and two or three troops of cavalry, were ordered out, and every other able-bodied man in the fort was requisitioned. The fire bore down upon us from the south with awful speed and overwhelming power. It was terrifying but grand to see it coming. The country to the south is very hilly, with long valleys leading down towards the fort. The fire would work its way comparatively slowly up a hill, and then pausing as it were for a moment on the brink, would be caught by the wind and hurled down the slope with a roar that could be heard miles away. It poured down the valleys with a rush, tossing a spray of flames twenty or thirty feet high into the air, like as if a vast pent-up flood of molten metal had suddenly burst its barriers and spread over the plain. No living creature that walks the earth, however fleet of foot, could have escaped the fierce onslaught of those flames. The approach of the fire was not uniform and regular, but was affected by every change and flaw of wind; sometimes it would move slowly, with a loud crackling noise like that made by a bundle of dry sticks burning; then it would come tearing on in leaps and bounds, devouring the earth and roaring like a huge furnace. Occasionally a great body of fire advanced steadily in one direction for some time, till checked by some change of wind, it would die down altogether, or move on in some other course; but, in spite of occasional deflections of this kind, the general drift of the fire was straight towards us, and it soon became painfully evident that unless the enemy could be checked or turned aside the fort was doomed. Fire is an awful foe, but the men met it gallantly—advancing in line, commanded by their officers, as if moving against a living enemy, only instead of being armed with sabre and rifle, they carried water-buckets and blankets. As soon as they got as near as the intense heat would allow them, they set to work burning broad strips of grass before the advancing flames. It is of course impossible to cope with the fire itself, no creature could stand near it for a moment and live; the only way to deal with it is to burn the ground in front of the object you want to save, so that when the fire comes down to the burned and bare place it shall be forced, from want of fuel, to turn aside. That sounds simple enough, but in the case I am thinking of it was difficult and dangerous work. The grass was very high, dry as tinder, and with a strong gale blowing it was no easy matter to keep in check the flames that were lit on purpose. The men had to keep on firing the grass and beating down the flames with blankets, and firing it further on and beating it down again, until a strip of burned ground, so broad that it could not be overleaped by the flames, was interposed between the fire and the fort. It is hard to imagine anything more hellish than that scene. The heat was intense, the sky glowed lurid, red with the reflection of the flames, the fire poured down towards us as if it would devour everything in its way, and between us and the flames, standing out clear and distinct against the intense bright light, was the fighting line, wild-looking figures waving coats and blankets as they furiously beat the flames, men rushing to and fro and mounted officers galloping up and down the rank. After some hours' incessant hard work, they beat the fire, thrust it on one side, and saved the fort; but it was a very, very narrow escape, for the flames passed awfully close to the hay-yard, where a whole winter's supply of forage was stacked. A few yards nearer, and the hay must have ignited, and if that had once caught fire, nothing could have saved the stables and all the other buildings in the place. There was no actual danger to life, for the barrack square of hard bare earth was sufficiently large to have afforded shelter and safety to all the human beings in the fort; but the horses would probably have perished, and the stores, and barracks, and officers' quarters, and in fact the whole settlement, would have been burned to ashes. The fire travelled some 200 miles that night, destroyed a lot of cattle, leaped over two or three good-sized streams, and was finally arrested in its devastating course by a large river.

We remained some time in that country, made several expeditions from the fort, had many little adventures, and enjoyed much good sport, but never again had such a run after Wapiti as that which I have endeavoured to describe. Circumstances must be very favourable to ensure a good run after elk: the ground must be tolerably hard, or else there is no chance whatever, and you must be able to get near enough to the game unseen to enable you to burst in upon them at the first spurt, otherwise you will never get up with them at all. I remember once chasing a wounded stag nearly all day along with a friend who was hunting with me and a government scout. It was most ludicrous: we got within about 300 yards of him, and do what we would we could get no nearer. We followed in this way for hours, till our horses were completely blown, and eventually killed him, because the deer himself became exhausted through loss of blood, just as our horses were giving out. The scout had got within a hundred yards or so, and was just pulling up his completely played-out horse, when the deer stood still for a moment, which gave the man time to slip out of the saddle and finish him with a lucky shot. He was a fine stag, with a good pair of horns. A nice chase he gave us, and a nice job we had to get back to camp that night. We were completely lost, had been running round and round, up and down, in and out, for hours, and it was more by good luck than good management that we hit upon the river and got safe home.

The prairie is the place to go if you want to make a big bag, but for true sport commend me to the forest and the hills. To me at least there is infinitely more charm in stalking Wapiti among the mountains, in the magnificent scenery to be found there, than in running them on the plains. The plains, although they give one a sense of freedom and a certain exaltation from their immensity, yet are dismal and melancholy, and running elk, although intensely exciting, is scarcely a legitimate and sportsmanlike way of hunting such a noble beast. But in the mountains, stalking elk, picking out a good stag and creeping up to him, is as fine a sport as can be obtained anywhere in the world; in fact, it is like deerstalking in Scotland, with everything in grand proportions, mountains many thousand feet in height instead of hills of a few hundred, and a magnificent animal weighing 600 or 800 pounds instead of a comparatively small deer which would not turn the scale at twenty stone.

Wapiti used to be, and I suppose still are, plentiful in all the mountainous regions of the Western Territories. They were very numerous formerly in that portion of Colorado with which I am best acquainted, namely Estes Park and the mountains and valleys surrounding it; but now that the Park is settled up their visits are comparatively rare. The flat country used to be full of them in autumn, they would run among the cattle, and apparently take little notice of them; but chasing them with hounds has made them very shy, and now they do not often come down except in winter, when deep snow upon the range compels them to seek pasturage on the lower grounds. Still, there are even now plenty of them in the neighbourhood, and Wapiti can always be found with a little trouble at any season of the year.

A few years ago Estes Park was a hunter's paradise. Not only were all the wild beasts of the continent plentiful, but the streams also were alive with trout, as for the matter of that they are still; and we often devoted a day to fishing, by the way of varying our sport and obtaining a little change of diet. In summer there was nothing peculiar about the method of fishing; we used artificial flies, or live grasshoppers, and caught multitudes of trout, for they generally took the fly so well that I never remember finding myself in the position of the gentleman who was heard complaining to a friend that he had been 'slinging a five and twenty cent bug,¹ with a twenty foot pole, all day, and had not had nary a bite; 'and on the rare occasions on which they did not rise freely at the artificial insect, you were pretty sure to get them with a live 'hopper.' There is another advantage also in using the last-mentioned bait, namely, that it insures a double amount of sport and labour, for catching grasshoppers is a great deal harder work than hooking trout. But in winter we had to fish through holes in the ice, and that is a somewhat peculiar proceeding. The first time I ever fished trout through the ice was in the Park. Three of us started off one fine bright winter's morning, and rode about ten or twelve miles up the main creek, to a place near some beaver dams, where trout was said to be plentiful, carrying with us an axe, a sack, some twine and hooks, a bit of raw pork, and of course our rifles. Having dismounted, tied up my horse, and selected what I thought was a likely-looking spot, I set to work to cut through the ice, while my companions rode some way further up the stream.

I cut and chopped and got pretty warm, for it is no joke cutting through two feet of solid ice, and, after some labour, struck down upon an almost dry gravel bed. I repeated the same operation the second time to my great disgust; but on the third attempt the axe went suddenly through into deep water. Let me advise any of my readers who propose fishing through the ice by way of cooling their youthful ardour in the winter, to be careful how they set to work. The proper way is to chop a square hole, taking pains to cut down very evenly; the improper way is to do as I did the first time—cut carelessly, get down deeper on one side of the square than on the other, suddenly strike the axe through, and get the hole full of water, while yet there are several inches of ice to be cut through. If anyone will try chopping ice in a hole two feet deep and full of water, he will discover that the splashing, though graceful to look at, is not comfortable to feel in cold weather. Fishing through the ice is chilly and depressing work. I mean such fishing as I am thinking of when you are exposed to all the keen airs of heaven, a solitary shivering mortal out all alone in the wilderness. Of course if two young persons go out fishing for Tommy-cods, as they occasionally do on the St. Lawrence, through a hole in the ice, with a nice little hut built over it, and a nice little stove inside, why things are quite different.

I cannot say that fishing through the ice under ordinary circumstances is very exciting sport, but there is something comical about it, and it affords a certain amount of innocent enjoyment. When I rejoined my pals that evening, I could not forbear laughing at the peculiar appearance of the winter trout-fisher as represented by a staid, respectable member of society, who looked as if he ought to be engaged in some learned or scientific pursuit or dressed in good broadcloth, and poring over his books in some well-filled library. His costume was remarkable. His feet were protected by voluminous moccasins stuffed with many woolen socks; his legs encased in dingy and somewhat greasy corduroys; his body in an ancient, blood-stained, weather-beaten jacket, with two or three pieces of old sacking or gunny bags hung on the shoulders, and strapped round the waist to keep off the wind; an ordinary deerstalking cap, with pieces filched from a buffalo robe sewn on the ear-flaps, pulled over the brows and tied under the chin, and a long and tattered woollen muffler wound round and round the neck, allowed little of the fisherman's face to be seen, except a nose, purple with cold, from which hung a little icicle, and a pair of eyes gazing intently at the hole in the ice over which he stooped. Patiently he crouched over his fishing hole, occasionally stirring up the water to keep it from freezing, holding in his hand a fishing-rod in the shape of a stick about a foot long, from which depended a piece of thick twine attached to a hook armed with the eye of a deceased trout as a bait. At intervals he would twitch out a fish, pull him violently off the hook—a man cannot employ much delicacy of manipulation when his hands are encased in thick fingerless mittens—and throw him on a heap of his forerunners in misfortune, where he speedily froze solid in the very act of protesting by vigorous contortions against his cruel fate. We caught, I should be ashamed to say how many dozen trout on that occasion. I know we had the best part of a sack full, but as to the exact size of the sack I propose to retain a strict reserve, lest I should be accused of taking a mean advantage of that noble little fish the trout.

On the way home we shot a mountain sheep. We came suddenly and unexpectedly upon three of them, started our host of the Ranche Griff Evan's huge hound Plunk after them, jumped off our horses, and put out up the mountain on foot after the dog. What a pace those sheep went up that mountain, and what a pace old Plunk went up after them, and what a ludicrously long way behind we were left! It made one quite ashamed of being a man to see the manner in which the sheep and the dog got away up the mountain and out of sight before we had panted and perspired up a few hundred feet. We might have saved ourselves the trouble of climbing, for presently down came one of the sheep, followed closely by Plunk and preceded by a small avalanche of rattling gravel and bounding stones, in such a hurry that he as nearly as possible ran between the legs of one of the sportsmen. The animal passed literally within two yards of him with such startling effect that he had no time to do anything but fire his rifle off in the air in a kind of vague and general way. Plunk stuck to the sheep gallantly, and pressed him so hard that he went to bay in the bed of the river, at a place where the water rushes foaming down a steep descent among a mass of huge boulders, and there he met his fate. The mere word 'mountain sheep' evokes such recollections of the emotions I felt on being first introduced to that strange animal, that I will endeavour to relieve my mind by trying to jot down in a future article some reminiscences of sheep.


¹ The Americans have retained the original meaning of the word 'bug,' and apply it to various insects: for instance, a daddy-long-legs, fire-fly, or lady-bird would be called a straddle bug, a lightning bug, or a lady bug. The peculiar reptile which has monopolized the term among us is distinguished in the States by prefixing the name of that article of furniture in which he loves to lurk, and where his presence murders sweet repose.

Note 1: The Earl of Dunraven was Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl (1841-1926). [back]