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Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Old West Kansas
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We had left the road and were now driving over the fine prairie skirting Webster's Mound, the grass being about a foot high and affording excellent cover. Taking advantage of its being matted so closely from the early frosts, the old cocks hid under the thick tufts and called for close work on the part of our dogs.

 

Back and forth across our path these intelligent animals ranged, the one fifty yards or so to our right, the other as many to our left, crossing and recrossing, with open mouths drinking in eagerly the tainted breeze. This latter was in our favor, and both dogs suddenly joined company and worked up into it, with outstretched noses pointing to game that was evidently close ahead.

The pointer crawled cautiously, like a tiger, his spotted belly sweeping the earth, and his tail, which had been lashing rapidly an instant before, gradually stiffening. He would open his mouth suddenly, drink in a quick, deep draught of air, and, closing the jaws again, hold it until obliged to take another respiration. He seemed as loath to let the scent of the chicken pass from his nostrils as a hungry newsboy is to quit the savory precincts of Delmonico's kitchen window. The setter's old bones appeared to renew their youth under the excitement, and he was as active as a retired war-horse suddenly plunged into battle.

Both dogs came simultaneously to a point--tails curved up and rigid, each body motionless as if cut in marble and one forepaw lifted. No wonder so many men are wild with a passion for hunting. Kind Providence smiles upon the legitimate sport from conception to close, and gives us a _posé_ to start with fascinating to any lover of the beautiful, whether hunter or not. But one must not pause to moralize while dogs are on the point, or he will have more philosophy than chickens.

All the party had got safely to ground and were behind the dogs, with guns ready and eyes eagerly fastened on the thick grass which concealed its treasure as completely as if it had been a thousand miles below its roots, or on the opposite side of this mundane sphere in China. Not a thing was visible within fifty yards of our noses save two dogs standing motionless, with stiffened tails and eyes fixed on, and nozzles pointed toward, a spot in the sea of brown, withered grass, not ten feet away.

The Professor took out his lens, Mr. Colon let down the hammers of his gun and cocked them again, to be sure all was right, while Sachem wore a puzzled expression as if undecided whether the attitude of the dogs indicated any thing particular or not. The grass nodded and rustled in the light wind, but not a blade moved to indicate the presence of any living thing beneath it, while the dogs remained as if petrified.

The Professor said it was very remarkable, and wondered what had better be done next. Mr. Colon thought that the dogs were tired, and we might as well get into the wagon. Another suggested at random that we should set the dogs on, and Muggs, who had probably heard the expression somewhere, cried, "Hi, boys, on bloods!" At the words the dogs made a few quick steps forward, and on the instant the grass seemed alive with feathered forms, popping into air like bobs in shuttlecock. Such a fluttering and flying I have never seen since, when a boy, I ventured into a dove cote, and was knocked over by the rush of the alarmed inmates. From under our very feet, almost brushing our faces, the beautiful pinnated grouse of the prairies left their cover, and us also.

Every gun had gone off on the instant, and we doubt if one was raised an inch higher than it happened to be when the covey started. The Professor afterward extracted some stray shot from the legs of his boots, and the setter, which was next to Muggs, gave a cry of pain for which there was evidently other cause than rheumatism, as was demonstrated by his retirement to the rear, from which he refused to budge until we all got into the wagon, and to which he invariably retreated whenever we got out.

BUREAU OF ILLUSTRATION BUFFALO. N. Y._OUR FIRST BIRD-SHOOTING.

From the midst of the birds which were soaring away, one was seen to rise suddenly a few feet above his comrades, and then fall straight as a plummet, and head first, to earth. It had caught some stray shot from the bombardment--Muggs claimed from his gun, but this statement the setter, could he have spoken, would certainly have disputed.

Semi-Colon brought in the game, which proved to be a fine male, with whiskers and full plumage, which must have made sad havoc among the hearts of the hens, when the old fellow was on annual dress parade in the spring. At that season of the year the cocks seek some knoll of the prairie, where the grass has been burnt or cut off, and strut up and down with ruffled feathers, uttering meanwhile a booming sound, which can be heard in a clear morning for miles. The flabby pink skin that at other seasons hangs in loose folds on his neck is then distended like a bagpipe, and he is a very different bird from the same individual in his Quaker gray and respectable summer and fall habits.

Ensconced again in the wagon, our party moved forward, the dogs, as before, examining the prairie. The professor was comparing the birds of the present and the past ages, when Muggs suddenly blasted his eyes and declared the beasts were at it again. And so they were, the setter making a good stand at some game in the grass, and the other dog, a short distance off, pointing his companion. During the remainder of the day we found many large flocks of birds, and fired away until two or three swelled noses testified how dirty our guns were.

"Fast shooting," said the professor, as we were on our way home, "is as bad as that too slow. Although I am no sportsman from practice, I love and have studied the principles of it. In my father's day the rule was, when a bird rose, for a hunter to take out his snuff-box, take snuff, replace the box, aim, and fire. You may find the advice yet in some works. The shot then has distance in which to spread. With close shooting they are all together, and you might as well fire a bullet. When you have given the bird time, act quickly. The first sight is the best. Again, the first moment of flight, with most birds, is very irregular, as it is upward, instead of from you."

Dobeen begged leave to inform our "honors" that in Ireland, after a bird rose, the rule was, instead of taking snuff, to take off the boots before firing. The professor thought that such a habit related to outrunning the gamekeeper, and was intended to procure distance for the poacher rather than the bird.

Sachem stated that he had known a slow hunter once. He was a revolutionary veteran, used a revolutionary musket, and believed in revolutionary powder. He refused to do any thing different from what his fathers did, and abhorred double-barreled shotguns and percussion-caps as inventions of the devil. It was constantly, "General Washington did this," and "Our army did that," and his old head shook sadly at the innovations Young America was making. His ghost, with the revolutionary musket on its shoulder, had since been known to chase hunters, with breech-loaders, who were caught on his favorite ground after dark. "Old 1776" was great on wing-shooting, and could be seen at almost any time hobbling over the moor, firing away at snipe and water-fowl. He was one of those slow, deliberate cases, always taking snuff after the bird rose. There would be a glitter of fluttering wings as the game shot into air. Down would come the long musket, out would come the snuff-box, and the old soldier would go through the present, make ready, take snuff, take aim, and fire, all as coolly as if on parade. The old musket often hung fire from five to ten seconds, and the premonitory flash could be seen as the shaky flint clattered down on the pan. The veteran always patiently covered the bird until the charge got out. The recoil was tremendous, and the old man often went down before the bird; but such positions, he asserted, were taken voluntarily, as ones of rest. Some said that the gun had been known to kick him again after he was down.

Sachem's narration was here cut short by the dogs again pointing. This was followed by the usual bombardment, which over, the bag showed the magnificent aggregate of two chickens for the entire day's sport.

The prairie-chicken is now extinct in many of the Western States where it was once well known. Usually, during the first few years of settlement, it increases rapidly, and is often a nuisance to pioneer farmers. Perhaps, when the latter first settle in a country, a few covies may be seen; under the favorable influences of wheat and corn-fields, the dozens increase to thousands and cover the land. But with denser settlement come more guns, and, what is a far more destructive agent, trained dogs also. Under the first order of things, the farmer, with his musket, might kill enough for the home table. With double-barreled gun and keen-scented pointer, the sportsman and pot-hunter think nothing of fifty or sixty birds for a day's work. It seems almost impossible, under such a combination, for a covey to escape total annihilation.

We may suppose a couple of fair shots hunting over a dog in August, when the chickens lie close, and the year's broods are in their most delicate condition for the table. The pointer makes a stand before a fine covey hidden in the thick grass before him. The ready guns ask no delay, and, at the word, he flushes the chickens immediately under his nose. Each hunter takes those which rise before him, or on his side, and if four or less left cover at the first alarm, that number of gray-speckled forms the next moment are down in the grass, not to leave it again. If more rose, they are "marked," which means that their place of alighting is carefully noted, and, as the chicken has but a short flight, this task is easy. Meanwhile, the guns have been reloaded, the dog flushes others of the hiding birds, and so the sport goes on. The birds that get away are "marked down," and again found and flushed by the dog. Without this useful animal the chickens would multiply, despite any number of hunters. I have often seen covies go down in the grass but a few hundred yards away, yet have tramped through the spot dozens of times without raising a single bird. In twenty years this delicious game will probably be as much a thing of the past as is the Dodo of the Isle de France. At the period of our visit they were already gathering into their fall flocks, which sometimes number a hundred or more. In these they remain until St. Valentine recommends a separation. During the colder weather of winter they seek the protection of the timber, and may be seen of mornings on the trees and fences. They never roost there, however, but pass the night hidden in the adjacent grass.

The prairie-chicken's admirers are numerous, other animals beside man being willing to dine on its plump breast. We had an illustration of this in our first day's shooting. Sometimes when we fired, the report would attract to our vicinity wandering hawks, and we found that either instinct or previous experience teaches these fierce hunters of the air that in the vicinity of their fellow-hunter, man, wounded birds may be found. One wounded chicken, which fell near us, was seized by a hawk immediately.

As we passed one or two fields, indications of gophers appeared, their small mounds of earth covering the ground. In some counties these animals formerly destroyed crops to such an extent that the celebrated "Gopher Act" was passed. This gave a bounty of two dollars for each scalp, and under it many farms yielded more to the acre than ever before or since. One of these animals which we secured resembled in size and shape the Norway rat, and, in the softness and color of its coat, was not unlike a mole. The oddest thing was its earth-pouches--two open sacks, one on either side of its head, and capable of containing each a tablespoonful or more. These the gopher employs, in his subterranean researches, for the same purpose that his enemy, man, does a wheelbarrow. Packing them with dirt, the little fellow trudges gayly to the surface, and there cleverly dumps his load.

We reached town again, well pleased with our day's ride, and over our evening pipes discussed the results. Muggs thought our shot were too small. Sachem thought the birds were.

Colon was delighted with the new State, but believed that wing-shooting was not his _forte_. He would be more apt to hit a bird on the wing if he could only catch it roosting somewhere.

Gripe, at the other end of the room, was piling Republican doctrines upon a bearded Democratic heathen from the Western border.

 

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