Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

The next day's life began, as did the previous one, before sunrise, and while breakfast was cooking, we followed the Mexicans down to examine their baits. The ground around the carcasses was flecked with forms which, in the early light, looked like sleeping sheep. A half-dozen or more wolves, which were still feeding, scampered away at our approach. From the number of animals lying around, we at first supposed most of them simply gorged, but the rapid, satisfied jabbering of the Mexicans quickly convinced us that the strychnine had been doing its work more effectually than we had given it credit for.

Twenty-three dead wolves were found, and the even two dozen was made up by a large specimen of the gray variety--or timber-wolf, as it is called in contradistinction from the cayote--who was exceedingly sick, and went rolling about in vain efforts to get out of the way.

Before proceeding to skin the dead wolves, the Mexicans captured this old fellow and haltered him, by carbine straps, to the horns of one of the buffalo carcasses, near which he sat on his haunches, with eyes yellow from rage and fright. Just to stir him up, we tossed him a piece of bone; he caught it between his long fangs with a click that made our nerves twitch. Man never appreciates the wonderful command that God gave him over the other animals until away from his fellows, and surrounded by the wild beasts of the solitudes, in all their native fierceness. Here were a few mortals of us encompassed by wolves, in sufficient numbers and power to annihilate our party, and yet one solitary man walking toward them would have put the whole brute multitude to flight.

Although we wondered, at the time, that so many wolves were gathered from a single baiting, we soon learned that this success was by no means unusual. At Grinnel Station, where a corporal's guard was stationed, we afterward saw over forty dead wolves, and most of them of the gray variety, stacked up, like cord-wood, as the result of one night's poisoning by the soldiers.

The remainder of this day was devoted to stalking, and resulted in our obtaining a sufficiency of robes and meat to justify us in sending the two Mexican wagons back with them to Hays. Our two captives, the buffalo calf and wolf, went also. The history of that shipment merits brief chronicling.

The robes went to St. Louis, to a man who advertised a patent way of curing such skins, "warranted as good as Indian tan." Some months afterward they were returned to Topeka, duly finished, and I find in the official note-book the following entry. "Robes received to-day. Resolution, by the company, to learn what the law would consider 'Indian tan,' in a suit for damages." They had been shaved so thin that the roots of the hair stuck out on the inside, while the patent liquid in which they had been soaked gave forth an odor which would have been wonderful for its permanency, if it had not been still more wonderful for its offensiveness.

Of the meat, a portion went to our friends, and the balance to Fulton Market, New York. In the first quarter, it carried dyspepsia and disgust, and was so tough that the recipients, with the utmost effort, could not find a tender regret for our danger in obtaining it; while our New York consignee wrote that the first morning's steaks "finished the market," and very nearly finished his customers. He found it impossible, even by the Fulton Market method of subtraction, to get three hundred dollars' worth of express charges out of half that amount of sales, and suggested a discontinuance of shipments. The buffalo calf died on the cars, which probably saved somebody's bones from being broken in celebration of his maturity. The gray wolf got safely to the State of New York, but escaping soon after, a county hunt became necessary, to save the sheep from total extinction. One farmer, in his ire, even went so far as to threaten us with a suit for violating the law, and importing a pauper and disreputable character into the State.

Our experience may be useful to future hunters, to all of whom we would say, unless solely to find amusement, never kill old bulls. Cows and calves are generally juicy and tender, but not so the veterans; they, after death, butt around among one's digestive organs with a ferocity which makes the liver ache. Being most easily obtained, bull beef is generally all that is sent to market, and thus many a patriarchal bison, dead, accomplishes more in retaliation for his sudden taking-off than the Fates ever permitted him to do in lusty life.

A few days more were spent in our Silver Creek camp, and we then folded our tents and took a westward course, with the purpose of examining, not only the remoter regions of Kansas, but also the Colorado portion of the plains. The new town of Sheridan, fourteen miles east of the State line, and nine from Fort Wallace, was our objective point.

"Gentlemen," said the Professor, as we packed and adjusted our things in the wagons, "we are now to climb for a hundred miles directly up the roof of the Rocky Mountain water-shed, its long rivers and rich valleys forming the gutters, or spouts, to carry off the surplus water."

Sachem, who dreaded these lectures almost as much as he did crinoline, interposed with some of his usual badinage; but among irreverent classes of Sophomores and Freshmen, the Professor had learnt to answer only such questions as were relevant, and to pass all others by unheeded. For this reason such interruptions never broke the thread of his discourse, and but temporarily checked its unwinding. In a few minutes, however, the wagons started, and our expedition began crawling up the slope of the Professor's metaphorical roof, and thereupon our worthy leader's discourse was brought to a graceful conclusion.

For four days we continued our westward journey, the soft grass carpet beneath us ever stretching away to the horizon in its tiresome sameness, its figures of buffalo and antelope, big antlered elk and skulking wolves woven more beautifully upon its brown ground than in the rug-work of the looms. How I loved to sit upon such rugs, when a child, and gaze at the strange figures, as they were lit up by the flashing fire-light! Memory recalled one very impracticable reindeer, which used to lie just in front of a maiden aunt's chair, representing a Brussels manufacturer's idea of the animal. His horns were longer than his head, body and tail combined, and the spring he was making, when transfixed by the loom, brought his nose so close to the ground, that my older boyhood calculated the immense antlers would certainly have tipped him over had he not been held back by the threads.

But to return to the plains. We examined highlands and lowlands for poor soil, but found none. What we had once expected to see a bed of sand, if ever we saw it at all, turned up under the spade a rich dark loam, in depth and character fully equal to an Illinois prairie. Together with those other legends, localized drought and grasshoppers, the American desert, when revealed by the head-light of civilization, had taken to itself the wings of a myth, and fled away. There was a great sameness in the climate, as well as the scenery. Day followed day, with its sunshine and its winds, the latter being decidedly the most disagreeable feature of the entire trip.

Various episodes marked our journey from Silver Creek to Sheridan. A few only of the more noteworthy incidents can be transferred to these pages. They will suffice, however, as specimens of our adventures, and help the reader, I trust, to a better acquaintance with the free, wild life of the West.

The second day after leaving Silver Creek, we suddenly encountered another specialty of the plains, the "Wild Huntress." So often has this personage and her male counterpart danced, with big letters and a bowie-knife, across yellow covers, that we met the "original Jacobs" of the tribe gleefully. She came to us in a cloud of buffalo, with black eyes glittering like a snake's, and coarse and uncombed hair that tangled itself in the wind, and streamed and twisted behind her like writhing vipers. A black riding habit flowed out in the strong breeze, its train snapping like a loose sail, and a black mustang fled from her Indian lash--the dark wild horse, a fit carrier for such somber outfit.

She was introduced to us by the bison herd, which came thundering across our front, with this strange figure pressing its flank and darting hither and thither from one outskirt of the flying multitude to the other. The reins lay loose on the neck of her mustang, which entered into the fierce chase like a bloodhound, doubling and twisting on its course with an agility that was wonderful.

One hand of the huntress held out a holster revolver, which she fired occasionally, but with uncertain aim, one of the bullets indeed whistling our way. The chase constituted the excitement that she sought, and the pistol was little more than a spur to urge it on.

"That's Ann, poor P--'s wife," said our guide. "Crazy since the Indians killed her husband. He was a contractor on the railroad; his camp used to be just above Hays. She lives in the old 'dug-out' on the line yet, and spends half her time chasing buffalo. She never kills none, but that isn't what she is after. She wants to be moving, and just as wild as she can; it sort o' relieves her mind."

The huntress had seen our outfit, and rode toward us. The face was a very plain one, with a vacant yet anxious expression, and the tightly-drawn skin seeming scarcely to cover the jaw-bones. She halted before us, and commenced conversation at once.

"Good day, gentlemen."

"Good day, madam."

"She always tells her story to every body," muttered the guide in a low voice.

"Have you seen any Cheyennes hereabouts, gentlemen? I sighted a party this morning, and you ought to have seen them run. Raven Dick, here, put his best foot foremost, but they shook him out of sight in a ravine. Haven't any thing better to do, friends, and so I'm riding down some buffalo."

We could easily understand why superstitious savages should run when a maniac female of such dismal aspect flitted along their trail.

"Out from Hays, sirs?" she continued, after a pause. "I left there yesterday. Dick and I camped last night. We must be home when the men come in from work this eve. Up, Rave!" and she struck the mustang a cruel blow, from which he jumped with quivering muscles, only to be violently curbed. For the first time she had just noticed our guide, and sat for an instant with her wild eyes eating a way to his heart. Then she turned again to us.

"Sirs, you must aid me. Some say the Cheyennes killed my husband, and others there be who think Abe there did it. More shame to me who has to tell it, but the two had a fight about a woman, some months gone. It was just after pay-day, and husband was drunk; otherwise he'd never have bothered his head about any girl but the one he married.

"There were blows and black eyes, and being a rough man's quarrel, it ended with hand-shaking. My man came home, and we sat by the fire that night, and I took no notice that he'd been wrong, but spoke of our old home in Ohio, and asked him wouldn't he go back there when the contract was finished. And he put his hand on mine, and says: 'Sis, if the cuts and fills on the next mile work to profit, we'll go home.' Just then there came a hiss from the door at our backs, and husband turned sharp and quick. There was a knot-hole in the planks, and its round black mouth, gaping from out in the night at us, had spit the sound into our ears. Husband he rose and went to the door, and fell back dying, with an arrow in his breast. Some said it was a Cheyenne, and others said Abe did it. There were lots of Indian bows in camp, and Cheyennes don't kill for the love of it, but only to steal. I'm going to ask them, if I can catch them, did they do it, and if not, I know who did. I've a bow, Abe, and an arrow too, and I hope his blood isn't on your hands."

"I didn't do it, Ann. I don't shoot no man in the dark," replied our hostler guide, with a sullen defiance, which among that class stands equally well for innocence or guilt. We looked at the two, as they sat for an instant facing each other. The picture was a weird one--a wildcat, fronting the object of its chase, but undecided whether to spring or not. We felt that the dark maniac had been hovering around us, and that this meeting was not altogether accidental. Her disordered brain was yet undecided in which direction vengeance lay, and, like a tigress, she was watching and waiting.

Our policy developed, on the instant, into a non-committal and a safe one. As she wheeled her horse, and left us without a word, we remarked to our guide that crazy folks were often suspicious of their best friends.

"That's so," he replied, and rode off to urge on the wagons. We shrank from the idea of living with a murderer, and acquitted him of the crime on the spot.

We are moving out over the grand, illimitable plain again. Reader, ride with us awhile by the side of that big bison bull, which we have just stirred up from his noonday dream. You see his broad nostrils, reddish just under the dark skin at the end, and sensitive as the nose of a pointer. They have caught the air which we tainted, while passing for a moment across the breeze.

ONE OF OUR SPECIMENS._BUREAU OF ILLUSTRATION. BUFFALO. N. Y.

He has seen nothing, and we are still invisible, but he does not stop to look behind. "Escape for your life!" has been as plainly telegraphed from nose to brain, as it could be by eyes or mouth. We were so far off and well hidden then, that those active tell-tales, sound and sight, could play no part in this alarm. But the sentinel nerves of smell fled back from their post on the frontier, with the cry of "Man!" and the beast of the wilderness thinks only of flight. Powerful for defense against the rest of the animal creation, he is coward on the instant before its king.

Away he goes, right into the teeth of the wind, which he knows will tell him of any other foes ahead. Lumber along, old fellow, in your ponderous gallop,--the reader and I are on your path. Our saddle girths have been tightly drawn, the holster pistols are nestled snug at hand, in their cases on either side of the saddle-horn, while across its front lies the light Henry carbine, with a shoulder-strap attaching it to our person, should we drop the gun for the pistol. Thus we ride with twenty-four shots before reloading, at the service of our trigger-finger; the carbine carries twelve, the pistols each a half-dozen.

How warm we have become. Our hearts are as high up as they can get, bumping away at the throat-valves, as if they wished to get out and see what it is that has called their reserves into action.

There is a muskish taint in the air, from the game ahead. Put in your spurs, comrade; don't spare. Get up beside him quickly as possible. Once there, the horses will easily stick. A stern chase disheartens the pursuer, encourages the pursued. Look out for that creek! See how the buffalo takes its steep bank--a plunge headlong, which sends the dust up in clouds. Now, as we check and turn into a ford, he is going up the opposite side.

Another hundred yards, and we are close beside him. The long tongue is hung out, and his head lies low down, as he plunges steadily forward, diverging ever so little as we press up opposite his fore-shoulders. That was a bad shot, my friend, barely missing your horse's head. Shooting at full gallop is like drawing straight lines while being shaken.

Some of our bullets are telling; you can hear them crack on his hide. There is a red spot now, not bigger than the point of one's finger, opposite a lung, and drops of blood trickle, with the saliva, from his jaws. Half a score of balls have been pelted into his big body, and he is bleeding internally. Now the blood comes thicker, and little clots of it drop down. He slows up--there is danger; look well to your seat!

That was a narrow escape, comrade. The bull suddenly whirled on his forefeet for a pivot, and your horse's chest, which was brushing his hind-quarters, grazed the black horns as they dipped for a plunge. The pony's swerve barely saved you both.

Now he stands sullen, glaring at us. The wounds look like little points of red paint, put deftly on his shaggy hide. They bleed inwardly, just crimsoning the brown hair at their mouths. The large eyes roll and swell with pain and fury. He is measuring our distance.

See him blow the blood from his nostrils. The drops scatter like red-hot shot around him, seeming to hiss in globules of fury, as they spatter upon the dry grass. Bladder-like bubbles sputter in ebb and flow, from the red holes over his lungs. Tiny doors, for death's messengers to have entered in at.

What a marvel of size and ferocity he looks. Only our horse's legs stand between us and disembowelment. Down drops the head into battery again, and his rush would knock us over like nine-pins, did we stay to receive it. But bison charges are short ones. Our animals spring away, and he stops. Signs of grogginess are coming on him. How he hates to feel his knees shake, straightening them out with a jerk, as we thought he was just going down.

But at last gradually and gracefully he sinks, doubling his legs under him, and resting on his belly. There is still no flurry, or motion of any kind denoting pain. Unconquerable to the death, he suddenly falls on his side, the limbs stiffen, and he is dead.

Twine your hands in the long beard, and in the mane. How he shames the lion, for whom he could furnish coats half a dozen times over. What switches of hair those black fetlocks would make. Was there ever another so big a bison?

Wondering over this, we lie down on the prostrate bulk, and wait for the wagon.