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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail. 1896.


The Wapiti, or the Round-Horned Elk

THIS stately and splendid deer, the lordliest of its kind throughout the world, is now fast vanishing. In our own neighborhood it is already almost a thing of the past. But a small band yet lingers round a great tract of prairie and Bad Lands some thirty-five miles from the ranch house.

One fall I killed a good bull out of the lot. I was hunting on horseback, and roused the elk out of a deep, narrow coulée, heavily timbered, where he was lying by himself. He went straight up the steep side directly opposite to where I stood, for I had leaped off my horse when I heard the crash of the underbrush. When on a level with me, he halted and turned half round to gaze at me across the ravine, and then I shot him.

The next season, when we were sorely in need of meat for smoking and drying, we went after these elk again. At the time most of the ponies were off on one of the round-ups, which indeed I had myself just left. However, my two hunting-horses, Manitou and Sorrel Joe, were at home. The former I rode myself, and on the latter I mounted one of my men who was a particularly good hand at finding and following game. With much difficulty we got together a scrub wagon team of four as unkempt, dejected, and vicious-looking broncos as ever stuck fast in a quicksand or balked in pulling up a steep pitch. Their driver was a crack whip, and their load light, consisting of little but the tent and the bedding; so we got out to the hunting-ground and back in safety; but as the river was high and the horses were weak, we came within an ace of being swamped at one crossing, and the country was so very rough that we were only able to get the wagon up the worst pitch by hauling from the saddle with the riding-animals.

We camped by an excellent spring of cold, clear water—not a common luxury in the Bad Lands. We pitched the tent beside it, getting enough timber from a grove of ash to make a large fire, which again is an appreciated blessing on the plains of the West, where we often need to carry along with us the wood for cooking our supper and breakfast, and sometimes actually have to dig up our fuel, making the fire of sage-brush roots, eked out with buffalo chips. Though the days were still warm, the nights were frosty. Our camp was in a deep valley, bounded by steep hills with sloping, grassy sides, one of them marked by a peculiar shelf of rock. The country for miles was of this same character, much broken, but everywhere passable for horsemen, and with the hills rounded and grassy, except now and then for a chain of red scoria buttes or an isolated sugar-loaf cone of gray and brown clay. The first day we spent in trying to find the probable locality of our game; and after beating pretty thoroughly over the smoother country, towards nightfall we found quite fresh elk tracks leading into a stretch of very rough and broken land about ten miles from camp.

We started next morning before the gray was relieved by the first faint flush of pink, and reached the broken country soon after sunrise. Here we dismounted and picketed our horses, as the ground we were to hunt through was very rough. Two or three hours passed before we came upon fresh signs of elk. Then we found the trails that two, from the size presumably cows, had made the preceding night, and started to follow them, carefully and noiselessly, my companion taking one side of the valley in which we were and I the other. The tracks led into one of the wildest and most desolate parts of the Bad Lands. It was now the heat of the day, the brazen sun shining out of a cloudless sky, and not the least breeze stirring. At the bottom of the valley, in the deep, narrow bed of the winding water-course, lay a few tepid little pools, almost dried up. Thick groves of stunted cedars stood here and there in the glen-like pockets of the high buttes, the peaks and sides of which were bare, and only their lower, terrace-like ledges thinly clad with coarse, withered grass and sprawling sage-brush; the parched hill-sides were riven by deep, twisted gorges, with brushwood in the bottoms; and the cliffs of coarse clay were cleft and seamed by sheer-sided, cañon-like gullies. In the narrow ravines, closed in by barren, sun-baked walls, the hot air stood still and sultry; the only living beings were the rattlesnakes, and of these I have never elsewhere seen so many. Some basked in the sun, stretched out at their ugly length of mottled brown and yellow; others lay half under stones or twined in the roots of the sage-brush, and looked straight at me with that strange, sullen, evil gaze, never shifting or moving, that is the property only of serpents and of certain men; while one or two coiled and rattled menacingly as I stepped near.

Yet, though we walked as quietly as we could, the game must have heard or smelt us; for after a mile’s painstaking search we came to a dense thicket in which were two beds, evidently but just left, for the twigs and bent grass-blades were still slowly rising from the ground to which the bodies of the elk had pressed them. The long, clean hoof-prints told us that the quarry had started off at a swinging trot. We followed at once, and it was wonderful to see how such large, heavy beasts had gone up the steepest hill-sides without altering their swift and easy gait, and had plunged unhesitatingly over nearly sheer cliffs down which we had to clamber with careful slowness.

They left the strip of rugged Bad Lands and went on into the smoother country beyond, luckily passing quite close to where our horses were picketed. We thought it likely that they would halt in some heavily timbered coulées six or seven miles off; and as there was no need of hurry, we took lunch and then began following them up—an easy feat, as their hoofs had sunk deep into the soft soil, the prints of the dew-claws showing now and then. At first we rode, but soon dismounted, and led our horses.

We found the elk almost as soon as we struck the border of the ground we had marked as their probable halting-place. Our horses were unshod, and made but little noise; and coming to a wide, long coulée filled with tall trees and brushwood, we as usual separated, I going down one side and my companion the other. When nearly half-way down he suddenly whistled sharply, and I of course at once stood still, with my rifle at the ready. Nothing moved, and I glanced at him. He had squatted down and was gazing earnestly over into the dense laurel on my side of the coulée. In a minute he shouted that he saw a red patch in the brush which he thought must be the elk, and that it was right between him and myself. Elk will sometimes lie as closely as rabbits, even when not in very good cover; still I was a little surprised at these not breaking out when they heard human voices. However, there they staid; and I waited several minutes in vain for them to move. From where I stood it was impossible to see them, and I was fearful that they might go off down the valley and so offer me a very poor shot. Meanwhile, Manitou, who is not an emotional horse, and is moreover blessed with a large appetite, was feeding greedily, rattling his bridle-chains at every mouthful; and I thought that he would act as a guard to keep the elk where they were until I shifted my position. So I slipped back, and ran swiftly round the head of the coulée to where my companion was still sitting. He pointed me out the patch of red in the bushes, not sixty yards distant, and I fired into it without delay, by good luck breaking the neck of a cow elk, when immediately another one rose up from beside it and made off. I had five shots at her as she ascended the hill-side and the gentle slope beyond; and two of my bullets struck her close together in the flank, ranging forward—a very fatal shot. She was evidently mortally hit, and just as she reached the top of the divide she stopped, reeled, and fell over, dead.

We were much pleased with our luck, as it secured us an ample stock of needed fresh meat; and the two elk lay very handily, so that on the following day we were able to stop for them with the wagon on our way homeward, putting them in bodily, and leaving only the entrails for the vultures that were already soaring in great circles over the carcasses.

Much the finest elk antlers I ever got, as a trophy of my own rifle, were from a mighty bull that I killed far to the west of my ranch, in the eastern chains of the Rockies. I shot him early one morning, while still-hunting through the open glades of a great pine forest, where the frosty dew was still heavy on the grass. We had listened to him and his fellows challenging each other all night long. Near by the call of the bulls in the rutting season—their “whistling,” as the frontiersmen term it—sounds harsh and grating; but heard in the depths of their own mountain fastnesses, ringing through the frosty night, and echoing across the ravines and under the silent archways of the pines, it has a grand, musical beauty of its own that makes it, to me, one of the most attractive sounds in nature.

At this season the bulls fight most desperately, and their combats are far more often attended with fatal results than is the case with deer. In the grove back of my ranch house, when we first took possession, we found the skulls of two elk with interlocked antlers; one was a royal, the other had fourteen points. Theirs had been a duel to the death.

In hunting, whether on the prairie or in the deep woods, a man ought to pay great heed to his surroundings, so as not to get lost. To an old hand, getting lost is not so very serious; because, if he has his rifle and some matches, and does not lose his head, the worst that can happen to him is having to suffer some temporary discomfort. But a novice is in imminent danger of losing his wits, and therefore his life. To a man totally unaccustomed to it the sense of utter loneliness is absolutely appalling: the feeling of being lost in the wilderness seems to drive him into a state of panic terror that is frightful to behold, and that in the end renders him bereft of reason. When he realizes that he is lost he often will begin to travel very fast, and finally run until he falls exhausted—only to rise again and repeat the process when he has recovered his strength. If not found in three or four days, he is very apt to become crazy; he will then flee from the rescuers, and must be pursued and captured as if he were a wild animal.

Since 1884, when I went to the Big Horn Mountains, I have killed no grizzlies. There are some still left in our neighborhood, but they are very shy, and live in such inaccessible places, that, though I have twice devoted several days solely to hunting them, I was unsuccessful each time. A year ago, however, two cowboys found a bear in the open, and after the expenditure of a great number of cartridges killed it with their revolvers, the bear charging gamely to the last.

But this feat sinks into insignificance when compared with the deed of General W. H. Jackson, of Bellemeade, Tennessee, who is probably the only man living who ever, single-handed, killed a grizzly bear with a cavalry saber. It was many years ago, when he was a young officer in the United States service. He was with a column of eight companies of mounted infantry under the command of Colonel Andrew Porter, when by accident a bear was roused and lumbered off in front of them. Putting spurs to his thoroughbred, he followed the bear, and killed it with the saber, in sight of the whole command.