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Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Old West Kansas
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Our trail was taking us west of north, and we expected to reach the Saline about dusk and there encamp. The same strange evenness of country surrounded us. Over its surface, smooth and firm as a race track, we could drive a wagon or gallop a horse in any direction. Even the Bedouin has no such field for cavalry practice--his footing being shifting sand, while ours was the compact buffalo grass, so short that its existence at all could scarcely have been detected a few yards away.

Sachem said he could think of no such cavalry field except that of his boyhood, when he slipped into the parlor and pranced his rocking-horse over the soft carpet; with which memory, he added, was coupled another, to the effect that while thus skirmishing on dangerous ground, his cavalry was attacked from the rear by heavy infantry and badly cut up.

Numerous buffalo trails crossed our path, running invariably north and south. This is caused by the animals feeding from one stream to another, the water courses following the dip of the country's surface from west to east. Wallows were also very numerous, and we noticed as a peculiarity of these, as well as the paths, that the grass killed by treading and rolling does not renew itself when the spots are abandoned. More than once on the Grand Prairie of Illinois I have seen these wallows, made before the knowledge of the white man, still remaining destitute of grass.

An old bull who has been rolling when the wallow is muddy, is an interesting object. The clay plastered over and tangled in his shaggy coat bakes in the sun very nearly white; and this it was, probably, that gave rise to the early traditions of white buffalo.

Wherever on our route the rock cropped out along creeks or in ravines, it was the white magnesia limestone, and so soft as to be easily cut. Further west alternate pink and white veins occur, giving the stone a very beautiful appearance. We frequently found on the rocks and in the ravines deposits of very perfect shells, apparently those of oysters. Sachem suggested that they marked the location of pre-historic restaurants--the Delmonicos of the olden time, say fifty thousand years before the Pharaohs were born. He thought it possible that some future quarry-man might blast out an oyster-knife and money pot of quaint coins.

Muggs thought this patch of our continent resembled Australia--"Not that it is as rich, you know, but there's so much of it." He even became enthusiastic enough to affirm that the land might be made profitable, "if some Hinglish sheep and 'eifers were put on it, you see."

The Professor assured us that the country around was equal to the plains of Lombardy in point of fertility, and as the soil was of great depth, and rich in the proper mineral properties, it would undoubtedly become before 1890 the great wheat-producing region of the world.

Our party fell into silence again, and, having nothing else to interest me at the moment, I resumed my study, which this episode had interrupted, of Buffalo Bill, our guide. Athletic and shrewd, he rode ahead of us with sinews of iron and eye ever on the alert, clad in a suit of buckskin. His mount was a tough roan pony which he had named Brigham and of which he seemed very fond. Nevertheless, this fondness did not prevent hard riding, and when I last saw Brigham, several months afterward, he was a very sorry-looking animal, insomuch that I concluded not to have his photograph taken as that of a model steed for Buffalo Land, as I once contemplated doing.

It was extremely fortunate for us that we had secured Cody as guide. The whole western country bordering on the plains, as we afterward learned, from sorry experience, is infested with numberless charlatans, blazing with all sorts of hunting and fighting titles, and ready at the rustle of greenbacks to act as guides through a land they know nothing about. These reprobates delight in telling thrilling tales of their escapes from Indians, and are constantly chilling the blood of their shivering party by pointing out spots where imaginary murders took place. Without compasses they would be as hopelessly lost as needleless mariners. I have my doubts if one-third of these terribly named bullies could tell, on a pinch, where the north star is. Unless they chanced to strike one of the Pacific lines which stretch across the plains, a party, under their guidance, wishing to go west would be equally liable to get among the Northern Siouxs or the Ku-Klux of Arkansas.

A thousand miles east Young America's cherished ideal of the frontier scout and guide is an eagle-eyed giant, with a horse which obeys his whistle, and breaks the neck of any Indian trying to steal him. In addition to its wonderful master, the back of this model steed is usually occupied by a rescued maiden. At risk of infringing on the copyrights of thirty-six thousand of the latest Indian stories, we have obtained from an artist on the spot an illustration of the last heroine brought in and her rescuer, the rare old plainsman.

Cody had all the frontiersman's fondness for practical jokes, and delighted in designating Mr. Colon as "Mr. Boston," as if accidentally confounding the residence with the name. In one instance, with a cry of "Come, Mr. Boston, here's a specimen!" he enticed the philanthropist into the eager pursuit of a beautiful little animal through some rank bottom grass, and brought the good man back in such a condition that we unanimously insisted on his traveling to leeward for the rest of the day.

While we thus journeyed, and, in traditional traveler's style, mused and pondered, Shamus came running back to say that we were wanted in front. "Such a goin' on in the ravine beyant as bates a witch's dance all holly!" We saw that the forward wagons had halted and the men were peering cautiously over the edge of the highland into the valley of Silver Creek, which stream wound along below, entirely out of sight until one came directly upon it. In this lonely land, the pages of whose history Time had so often turned with bloody fingers, an event slight as even this was startling. That hollow in the plain before us seemed to yawn, as if awaking in sleepy horrors, and we noticed a general tightening of reins and rattling of spurs. This maneuver was executed to prevent our horses running away again and thus rendering us incapable of supporting our advanced guard. If savages were around, our provisions must be protected, and we at once dismounted and scattered among the teams in such a way as to offer the most successful defense.

Our fears were groundless. In a few moments Cody came galloping back on Brigham, and said briefly that we should lose a fine lesson in natural history unless we hurried to the front. Truth compels me to say that we did not hanker after a close acquaintance with Lo on the rampage; yet we did earnestly desire to improve every opportunity of studying the other inhabitants of the plains, and a few moments accordingly found our whole party peering over the edge of the bluff into the valley below.

THE WILD DENIZENS OF THE PLAINS.

There, on a patch of bottom grass, half a dozen elk were feeding; a short distance away, a small herd of wild horses drank from the brook; while in a ravine immediately in front of us, three cayotes were attempting to capture a jackass-rabbit. What a wealth of animal life this valley had opened to us. From our own level the table-lands stretched away in all directions until striking its grassy waves against the horizon, with not a shrub, tree, or beast to relieve the clearly-cut outlines. Casting our eyes upward, the bright blue sky, clear of every vestige of clouds, arched down until resting on our prairie floor, and not even a bird soared in the air to charm the profound space with the eloquence of life. Casting our eyes downward, the earth was all astir with the activity of its brute creation.

Before we could make any effort at capture, the elk and horses winded us and fled away toward the opposite ridges, where stalking them would have been exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Leading the mustangs was a large black stallion, which kept its position by pacing while the others ran. Buffalo Bill said this was an escaped American horse which had fled to solitude with the rider's blood upon his saddle. We noted the statement as one for future elucidation at our camp-fire. The rabbit chase in the ravine continued, and we watched it unseen for several minutes. The wolves were endeavoring to surround their victim, and cut in ahead of it whenever he attempted to get out of the ravine. Although such odds were against him, the rabbit had thus far succeeded by superior speed and quick dodging in evading his enemies; but escape was hopeless, as he was hemmed in and becoming exhausted. These tireless wolves, cowardly creatures though they are, might worry to death an elephant. A few shots terminated this scene, driving off the wolves, but killing the rabbit for whose protection they were fired. The Professor remarked that this was like a lawyer's rescue. He sometimes frightens away the persecutors, but the charges generally kill the client.

For the benefit of those of my readers who have never seen a member of that unfortunate rabbit family which has been christened by such a humiliating given name, I would state that the species is remarkable for its very long ears, and very long legs. If the reader, being a married man, desires a pictorial representation of this animal, let him draw a donkey a foot high on the wall, and if his wife does not interrupt by drawing a broomstick, he may be satisfied that his work is well done, and a life-size jackass-rabbit will stand out before him.

A mile from the scene of this adventure Silver Creek joined the Saline, and at the junction it was determined to make our camp. We descended among heavy "brakes," staying our loaded wagons with ropes from behind. Immense quarries of the soft, white limestone rose from the valley's bed to the level of the plains above, and the rains of centuries had fashioned out pillars and arches, giving them the appearance of ancient ruins staring down upon us. Mr. Colon picked up a fine moss agate and the Professor a Kansas diamond. Under the surface of the former were several figures of bushes and trees, outlined as distinctly as the images one sees blown into glass. The diamond was as large as a hazel nut and as clear as a drop of pure water, so that, notwithstanding its size, ordinary print could be easily read through it. Had it possessed a hardness corresponding with its beauty, the Professor could have enriched with it half a dozen scientific institutions. Such stones now command a fair market value among travelers, and are generally mounted in rich settings as souvenirs of their trips.

A picturesque group of some half-dozen oaks offered a good camping spot, and around it the wagons were placed for the night in a half-circle, the ends of the crescent resting each side of us upon the creek. The rule of the plains is, "In time of peace prepare for war."

Northward from us, and distant perhaps fifty yards, rippled the clear waters of the Saline, which was then at a low stage. High above it was the table-land of the plains, and the edge of this, as far as we could trace it, was dotted with the dark forms of countless buffalo. So distant as to appear diminutive, their moving seemed like crawling, and the back-ground of light grass gave them much the appearance of bees upon a board. They were crowding up to the very edge of the valley of the Saline, from whence, as we were told, they extended back to the Solomon, thence to the Republican, and at intervals all the way northward to the remote regions of the Upper Missouri.

Could the venerable Uncle Samuel go up in a balloon and take a thousand miles' view of his western stock region, he would perceive that his goodly herds of bison, some millions in number, feeding between the snows of the North and the flowers of the South, were waxing fat and multiplying. This latter fact might somewhat surprise him, when he discovered around his herd a steady line of fire and heard its continual snapping. The unsophisticated old gentleman would see train after train of railroad cars rustling over the plains, every window smoking with the bombardment like the port-holes of a man-of-war. He would see Upper Missouri steamers often paddling in a river black with the crossing herds, and pouring wanton showers of bullets into their shaggy backs. To the south Indians on horseback, to the north Indians on snow shoes, would meet his astonished gaze, and around the outskirts of the vast range his white children on a variety of conveyances, and all, savage and civilized alike, thirsting for buffalo blood. That the buffalo, in spite of all this, does apparently continue to increase, shows that the old and rheumatic ones, the veteran bulls which in bands and singly circle around the inner herds of cows and calves, are the ones that most commonly fall the easy victims to the hunters. Their day has passed, and powder and ball but give the wolves their bones to pick a little earlier.

Such were the thoughts that revolved in my mind while sitting upon one of the wagons, and dividing my attention between the tent pitching going on under the trees and the shaggy thousands which, feeding against the horizon, seemed to grow larger as the sun went down behind them and they stood out in deepening relief in the long autumn twilight. These solitudes made me think of Du Chaillu on the African deserts when night set in, and I wondered if the brute denizens there could be more interesting than those which surrounded us. Had a lion roared, I doubt whether it would have struck me as unnatural, although it might have induced a speedy change of base. It begets a peculiar feeling in one's mind, I thought, when the lower brutes surround him and his fellow-creature alone is absent. Animal organizations are every-where, blood throbbing and limbs moving, and yet the world is as solitary to him as if the planet had been sent whirling into space and no living being upon it except himself. A handkerchief, a hat, any thing which his brother man may have worn, yields more of companionship than all the life around him.

And now, through the trees, we saw several of our men running with their weapons in hand, and immediately afterward heard the rapid reports of their revolvers and rifles from the creek just below, followed by the fluttering, noisy exit of turkeys from among the trees. Some flew away, but most of them were running, and, in their fright, passed directly among the wagons. One old gobbler, with a fine glossy tuft hanging at his breast, had a hard time of it in running the gauntlet of our camp-followers, narrrowly escaping death by a frying pan hurled from the vigorous grasp of Shamus.

This class of our game birds is noted the continent over for its wildness and cunning, these qualities furnishing old hunters with material for numberless yarns, as they gather around the camp-fires and weave their fancies into connected sequence. Thus it has become a matter of veritable history that knowing gobblers sometimes examine the tracks that hunters have left to see which way they are going.

On Silver Creek the turkeys were very tame, and before it became too dark for shooting our party had killed twelve. Muggs and Sachem had combined their forces and devoted their joint attention to one of them sitting stupidly on a limb, where it received a bombardment of five minutes' duration before coming down. Our Briton explained that "the bird was unable to fly away, you see, because I 'it 'im at my first shot." To this statement Sachem stoutly demurred upon two grounds: First, that Muggs' gun had gone off prematurely, the time in question, and barely missed one of his English shoes; and, second, that the turkey showed but one bullet mark, and that wound was necessarily fatal, as it had carried away most of the head! A compromise was finally effected, and we were much edified by seeing the two coming into camp with the bird between them, sharing mutually its honors.

Great numbers of turkeys seemed to inhabit the creek, all along which we heard them, at dark, flying up to their roosts. This induced a number of our party to visit a large oak scarcely a hundred yards from camp, which one of our men had marked as a favorite resort. Proceeding with the utmost caution, under the dim shadows of approaching night, we presently stood beneath the roost. Clearly defined between us and the sky were the limbs, and clustering thickly over them, like apples left in fall upon a leafless tree, we could descry large black balls, indicating to our hunger-stimulated imaginations as many prospective turkey roasts. For this special occasion our only two shot guns had been brought forth from the cases, the remainder of the party being furnished with Spencer and Henry rifles.

We had been instructed each to select our bird, and fire at the word to be given by the guide. How loud and sharp the clicking of the locks sounded, in the stillness of that jungle on the plains, as six barrels pointed upward, but their aim made all unsteady by the thumping of as many palpitating hearts. Then, in a low tone, came the words--and they seemed hoarsely loud in the painful silence around us--"Ready! Take careful aim!" "Hold!" cried the Professor, in a sudden outburst of enthusiasm; "Gentlemen, you see above us thirty fine specimens of that noblest of all American birds, the turkey. Wisely has it been said that, instead of the eagle, the turkey should have been our National"--"Fire!" cried the guide, in an agony, as the Professor, having dropped his gun, was rising to his feet, and the turkeys, alarmed by his eloquence, were preparing for flight.

And fire we did. A half dozen tongues of flame shot upward, and the roar of our unmasked battery reverberated over the solitude. The rustling and fluttering among the tree tops was terrific, and showers of twigs and bark rained down upon us. Every one of us knew that his shot had told, yet for some reason, perhaps owing to the superior cunning of the birds, none fell at our feet. Before regaining the wagon, however, we found fluttering on our path a fine fat one with a shattered second joint. It was claimed by Sachem, on the ground that in his aiming he had made legs a speciality, not wishing to injure the breasts.

Later in the season, when the birds had become much wilder, I often shot them, both running and flying. They are very hard to kill, and a sorely wounded one will often astonish the hunter by running long distances, or hiding where it seems impossible. The fall through the air, or sudden stop from full speed when running, are alike exciting spectacles. And the big body, with red throat and dark plume, luscious even to look at, is fit game to excite the pride of any sportsman.

The modes of hunting the wild turkey are numerous. Mounted on a swift pony it is not difficult to run one down, as may be done in half an hour, the birds, when pushed, seeking the open prairie and its ravines at once. On foot, with a dog, they can easily be started from cover, and generally rise with a tremendous commotion among the bushes, when they may be brought down with coarse shot. Another method of turkey shooting, and one that became quite a favorite of mine, was to steal out from camp in the gray of early morning--so early that only the tops of the trees were visible against the sky--provided with a rifle and shot gun both. When the birds have once been hunted, extreme caution is necessary to get within seventy yards of them. Upon a high bough, in the gloom, the old gobbler appears twice his real size, looking as long as a rail. Try the rifle first, and, two chances out of three, there is a miss. Then, as the great wings spread suddenly, like dark sails against the sky, and the big body, launched from the bough, shakes the tree top as if a wind was passing through it, catch your shot gun, and fire. In the dim light, and at long distance, it takes a quick and true eye to call from the ground that welcome resound which tells of game fallen.

Under the big oaks, meanwhile, our camp fire burned brightly, and Shamus was developing the mysteries of his art. Roast turkey and broiled antelope tempt the pampered appetites of dyspeptic city men, but here in the wilderness, their fresh juices, hissing from beds of glowing coals, filled the air with a fragrance that to us was sweeter than roses. Tired enough, after an all day's ride, and hungry as bears from twelve hours fasting, we sucked in the odors of the cooking meat, as a sort of aërial soup, while the Dobeen stood an aproned king of grease and turkey, with basting spoon for scepter, and with it kept motioning back the hungry hordes that skirmished along his borders.

Two mess chests had been placed a few feet apart, with the tail-boards of our wagons connecting them, and over this was spread a linen table cloth, white plates, clean napkins, and bright knives, with salt, pepper, and butter. All were in their accustomed places. This our first meal on the plains looked more like an aristocratic picnic than a supper in the territory of the buffaloes. But the picture was too bright to last, and ere many days neither napkins nor cloth could have been made available as flags of truce.

It is one of those threadbare truisms, adorning all hunting stories of every age and clime, that hunger is the best seasoning. We had an excess of it on hand just then, and would willingly have shared it with the dyspeptic, bald headed young men of Fifth Avenue. The turkey we found fat and very rich in flavor, and the antelope steaks more delicate than venison. Condensed milk supplied well the place of the usual lacteal, and was an improvement on the city article, inasmuch as we knew exactly what quantity and quality of water went into it. We were obliged to economize, however, respecting this part of our supplies. The following entry in our log-book, by Sachem, under date of the day preceding this, will explain the reason: "Two cans of milk stolen, probably by the Cheyennes. Consider the article more reliable for families than city stump-tail, requiring neither milking or feeding, and never kicking the bucket, or causing infants to do so. Had no idea that a taste of it would develop such a talent for hooking."

 

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