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Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Old West Kansas
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Next morning, as the first gray darts of dawn fell against our windows, Mr. Colon lifted up a sleepy head and gazed out. Then came that quick jerk into an upright position which one assumes when startled suddenly from a drowsy state to one of intense interest. The motion caused a similar one on the part of each of us, as if a sort of jumping-jack set of string nerves ran up our backs, and a man under the cars had pulled them all simultaneously.

We were on the great earth-ocean; upon either side, until striking against the shores of the horizon, the billows of buffalo-grass rolled away. It seemed as if the Mighty Ruler had looked upon these waters when the world was young, and said to them, "Ye waves, teeming with life, be ye earth, and remain in form as now, until the planet which bears you dissolves!" And so, frozen into stillness at the instant, what were then billows of water now stretch away billows of land into what seems to the traveler infinite distance, with the same long roll lapping against and upon distant buttes that the Atlantic has today in lashing its rock-ribbed coasts; and whenever man's busy industry cleaves asunder the surface, the depths, like those of ocean, give back their monsters and rare shells. Huge saurians, locked for a thousand centuries in their vice-like prison, rise up, not as of old to bask lazily in the sun, but to gape with huge jaws at the demons of lightning and steam rushing past, and to crack the stiff backs of savans with their forty feet of tail.

To the south of us, and distant several miles, was the line, scarcely visible, of the Smoky Hill, treeless and desolate; on the north, the upper Saline, equally barren. As difficult to distinguish as two brown threads dividing a brown carpet, they might have been easily overlooked, had we not known the streams were there, and, with the aid of our glasses, sought for their ill-defined banks.

A curve in the road brought us suddenly and sharply face to face with the sun, just rising in the far-away east, and flashing its ruddy light over the vast plain around us. Its bright red rim first appeared, followed almost immediately by its round face, for all the world like a jolly old jack tar, with his broad brim coming above deck. It reminded me on the instant of our brackish friend, Captain Walrus; and in imagination I dreamily pictured, as coming after him, with the broadening daylight, a troop of Alaskans, their sleds laden with blubber.

The air was singularly clear and bracing, producing an effect upon a pair of healthy lungs like that felt on first reaching the sea-beach from a residence inland. An illusion which had followed many of us from boyhood was utterly dissipated by the early dawn in this strange land. This was not the fact that the "great American desert" of our school-days is not a desert at all, for this we had known for years; it related to those floods of flame and stifling smoke with which sensational writers of western novels are wont to sweep, as with a besom of destruction, the whole of prairie-land once at least in every story. Young America, wasting uncounted gallons of midnight oil in the perusal of peppery tales of border life, little suspects how slight the foundation upon which his favorite author has reared the whole vast superstructure of thrilling adventure.

The scene of these heart-rending narratives is usually laid in a boundless plain covered with tall grass, and the dramatis personæ are an indefinite number of buffalo and Indians, a painfully definite one of emigrants, two persons unhappy enough to possess a beautiful daughter, and a lover still more unhappy in endeavoring to acquire title, a rascally half-breed burning to prevent the latter feat, and a rare old plainsman specially brought into existence to "sarcumvent" him.

BUREAU OF ILLUSTRATION. BUFFALO_FIRE ON THE PLAINS, ACCORDING TO NOVELS.

BUREAU OF ILLUSTRATION_FIRE ON THE PLAINS, AS IT IS.

At the most critical juncture the "waving sea of grass" usually takes fire, in an unaccountable manner--perhaps from the hot condition of the combatants, or the quantities of burning love and revenge which are recklessly scattered about. Multitudes of frightened buffalo and gay gazelles make the ground shake in getting out of the way, and the flames go to licking the clouds, while the emigrants go to licking the Indians. Although the fire can not be put out, one or the other, or possibly both, of the combatants are "put out" in short order. Should the miserable parents succeed in getting their daughter safely through this peril, it is only because she is reserved for a further laceration of our feelings. The half-breed soon gets her, and the lover and rare old plainsman get on his track immediately afterward. And so on ad libitum.

We beg pardon for condensing into our sunrise reflections the material for a novel, such as has often run well through three hundred pages, and furnished with competencies half as many bill-posters. It is unpleasant to have one's traditionary heroes and heroines all knocked into pi before breakfast. It makes one crusty. Possibly, it may be their proper desert, but, if so, could be better digested after dinner.

The whole story would fail if the fire did, as novelists never like to have their heroines left out in the cold. But it is as impossible for flames as it is for human beings to exist on air alone. It is scarcely less so for them to feed, as they are supposed to do, on such scanty grass. The truth is, that what the bison, with his close-cropping teeth, is enabled to grow fat on, makes but poor material for a first-class conflagration.

The grass which covers the great plains of the Far West is more like brown moss than what its name implies. Perhaps as good an idea of it as is possible to anyone who has never seen it, may be obtained by imagining a great buffalo robe covering the ground. The hair would be about the color and nearly the length of the grass, at the season in question. In the spring the plains are fresh and green, but the grass cures rapidly on the stalk, and before the end of July is brown and ripe. It will then burn readily, but the fire is like that eating along a carpet, and by no means terrifying to either man or brute. The only occasion when it could possibly prove dangerous is when it reaches, as it sometimes does, some of the narrow valleys where the tall grass of the bottom grows; but even then, a run of a hundred yards will take one to buffalo grass and safety. This latter fact we learned from actual experience, later on our trip.

What a wild land we were in! A few puffs of a locomotive had transferred us from civilization to solitude itself. This was the "great American desert" which so caught our boyish eyes, in the days of our school geography and the long ago. A mysterious land with its wonderful record of savages and scouts, battles and hunts. We had a vague idea then that a sphynx and half a score of pyramids were located somewhere upon it, the sand covering its whole surface, when not engaged in some sort of simoon performance above. No trains of camels, with wonderful patience and marvelous internal reservoirs of water, dragged their weary way along, it was true; yet that animal's first cousin, the American mule, was there in numbers, as hardy and as useful as the other. Many an eastern mother, in the days of the gold fever, took down her boys discarded atlas, and finding the space on the continent marked "Great American Desert," followed with tearful eyes the course of the emigrant trains, and tried to fix the spot where the dear bones of her first-born lay bleaching.

As a people, we are better acquainted with the wastes of Egypt than with some parts of our own land. The plains have been considered the abode of hunger, thirst, and violence, and most of our party expected to meet these geniuses on the threshold of their domain, and, while Shamus should fight the first two with his skillet and camp-kettles to war against the third with rifle and hunting-knife.

But in the scene around us there was nothing terrifying in the least degree. The sun had risen with a clear highway before him, and no clouds to entangle his chariot wheels. He was mellow at this early hour, and scattered down his light and warmth liberally. Wherever the soil was turned up by the track, we discovered it to be strong and deep, and capable of producing abundant crops of resin weeds and sunflowers, which with farmers is a written certificate, in the "language of flowers," of good character.

We thundered through many thriving cities of prairie dogs, the inhabitants of which seemed all out of doors, and engaged in tail-bearing from house to house. The principal occupations of this animal appears to be two; first, barking like a squirrel, and second, jerking the caudal appendage, which operations synchronize with remarkable exactitude. One single cord seems to operate both extremities of the little body at once. It could no more open its mouth without twitching its tail, than a single-thread Jack could bow its head without lifting its legs. Those nearest would look pertly at us for a moment, and then dive head foremost into their holes. The tail would hardly disappear before the head would take its place and, peering out, scrutinize us with twinkling eyes, and chatter away in concert with its neighbors, with an effect which reminded me of a forest of monkeys suddenly disturbed.

Sachem declared that they must all be females, for no sooner had one been frightened into the house than it poked its head out again to see what was the matter. "That sex would risk life at any time to know what was up."

The professor, with a more practical turn, told us some of the quaint little animal's habits. "Why it is called a dog," said he, "I do not know. Neither in bark, form, or life, is there any resemblance. It is carnivorous, herbivorous, and abstemious from water, requiring no other fluids than those obtained by eating roots. Its villages are often far removed from water, and when tamed it never seems to desire the latter, though it may acquire a taste for milk. It partakes of meats and vegetables with apparently equal relish. It is easily captured by pouring two or three buckets of water down the hole, when it emerges looking somewhat like a half-drowned rat. The prairie dog is the head of the original 'happy family.' It was formerly affirmed, even in works of natural history, that a miniature evidence of the millennium existed in the home of this little animal. There the rattlesnake, the owl, and the dog were supposed to lie down together, and such is still the general belief. It was known that the bird and the reptile lived in these villages with the dog, and science set them down as honored guests, instead of robbers and murderers, as they really are."

On our trip we frequently killed snakes in these villages which were distended with dogs recently swallowed. The owls feed on the younger members of the household, and the old dogs, except when lingering for love of their young, are not long in abandoning a habitation when snakes and owls take possession of it. The latter having two votes, and the owner but one (female suffrage not being acknowledged among the brutes), it is a "happy family," on democratic principles of the strictest sort.

We have also repeatedly noticed the dogs busily engaged in filling up a hole quite to the mouth with dirt, and have been led to believe that in this manner they occasionally revenge themselves upon their enemies, perhaps when the latter are gorged with tender puppies, by burying them alive. An old scout once told us that this filling up process occurred whenever one of their community was dead in his house, but as the statement was only conjectural, we prefer the other theory.

While we were this day steaming through one village an incident occurred showing that these animals have yet another active enemy. Startled by the cars, the dogs were scampering in all directions, when a powerful chicken-hawk shot down among them with such wonderful rapidity of flight that his shadow, which fell like that from a flying fragment of cloud, scarcely seemed to reach the earth before him. Some hundreds of the little brown fellows were running for dear life, and plunging wildly into their holes without any manifestations of their usual curiosity. The hawk's shadow fell on one fat, burgher-like dog, perhaps the mayor of the town, and in an instant the robber of the air was over him and the talons fastened in his back. Then the bird of prey beat heavily with its pinions, rising a few feet, but, finding the prize too heavy, came down. He was evidently frightened at the noise of the cars and we hoped the prisoner would escape. But the bird, clutching firmly for an instant the animal in its talons, drew back his head to give force to the blow, and down clashed the hooked beak into one of the victim's eyes. A sharp pull, and the eyeball was plucked out. Back went the beak a second time, and the remaining eye was torn from its socket, and the sightless body was then left squirming on the ground, while the hawk flew hastily away a short distance, evidently to return when we had passed on. It was pitiful to see the dog raise up on its haunches and for an instant sit facing us with its empty sockets, then make two or three short runs to find a path, in its sudden darkness, to some hole of refuge, but fruitlessly, of course.

A few days afterward, at Hays City, we witnessed an affair in which the air-pirate got worsted. While sitting before the office of the village doctor, a powerful hawk pounced upon his favorite kitten, which lay asleep on the grass, and started off with it. The two had reached an elevation of fifty feet, when puss recovered from her surprise and went to work for liberty. She had always been especially addicted to dining on birds, and the sensation of being carried off by one excited the feline mind to astonishment and wrath. Twisting herself like a weasel her claws came uppermost, and to our straining gaze there was a sight presented very much as if a feather-bed had been ripped open. The surprised hawk had evidently received new light on the subject; it let go on the instant, and went off with the appearance of a badly plucked goose, while the cat came safely to earth and sought the nearest way home.

 

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