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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


The Horse and the Gun Have Their Day

PERHAPS no more striking description of a landscape was ever attempted than when Mr. Roosevelt said that in the Bad Lands he always felt as if they somehow looked just as Poe’s tales and poems sound. It is with this as I said before: we sometimes forget the man of words in the man of deeds. Mr. Roosevelt’s writings occasionally suffer from a lack of patience to edit and to polish, but they are always full of vigor and directness; in other words, he is himself when he writes as when he talks; and never more so than when he writes of the great West to which I often think he belongs more than to the East where he was born. His home ranch in western North Dakota was among the Bad Lands of the Little Missouri. To grasp fully the meaning of the comparison with Poe, read this from his account of an elk-hunting trip out there:

“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 in a cloudless sky and not the least breeze stirring. At the bottom of the valley, in the deep narrow bed of the winding watercourse, 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 sagebrush; the parched hillsides were riven by deep, twisted gorges, with brushwood on the bottoms; and the cliffs of coarse clay were cleft and seamed by sheer-sided, canñon-like gullies. In the narrow ravines, closed in by barren, sun-baked walls, the hot air stood still and sultry; the only living things 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.”

Fit setting, that kind of a landscape, for a man who had come out of the sort of fight he had just been in, and lost. Many of those who had fought with him went out of the Republican party and did not return. Roosevelt had it out with the bucking bronchos on his ranch and with the grizzlies in the mountains, and came back to fight in the ranks for the man he had opposed and to go down with him to defeat. He had come to the bitter waters of which men must drink to grow to their full stature—his most ambitions defeat, that of the Mayoralty campaign of 1886, was yet to come—and, according to his sturdy way, he looked the well through and through, and drank deep.

There stands upon a shelf in my library a copy of the “Wilderness Hunter,” which he gave me when once I was going to the woods. On the fly-leaf he wrote: “May you enjoy the north woods as much as I enjoyed the great plains and the Rockies.” It was during that fall that I received the first news from him, up there in the Canadian wilderness, of the sad and terrible doings at Buffalo, when William McKinley was already in his grave. I read in that letter that had been waiting many days for our canoe to come down the lake, even though he wrote hopefully of the President’s recovery; that a shadow had fallen across his path, between him and those youthful days, through which he would never cross again the same man. He was himself going away to the woods, he wrote, with the children. The doctors had assured him all was well. There was even a note of glad relief that the dreadful suspense was over. Yet with it all there was a something, undefinable, that told me that the chase he loved so well, the free wild life of the plain, had lost one that understood them as few did; and the closing words of the preface of the book, on which the ink of his name was hardly yet dry, sounded to me like saddening prophecy:

“No one but he who has partaken thereof can understand the keen delight of hunting in lonely lands. For him is the joy of the horse well ridden and the rifle well held; for him the long days of toil and hardship, resolutely endured, and crowned at the end with triumph. In after years there shall come forever to his mind the memory of endless prairies shimmering in the bright sun; of vast snow-clad wastes lying desolate under gray skies; of the melancholy marshes; of the rush of mighty rivers; of the breath of the evergreen forest in summer; of the crooning of ice-armored pines at the touch of the winds of winter; of cataracts roaring between hoary mountain masses; of all the innumerable sights and sounds of the wilderness; of its immensity and mystery; and of the silences that brood in its still depths.”

So all things pass. To the careless youth succeeds the man of the grave responsibilities. He would not have it different, himself. But out there, there are men to-day who cannot forgive the White House for the loss of the ranch; who camp nightly about forgotten fires with their lost friend, the hunter and ranchman, Theodore Roosevelt.

When the world was young he came among them and straightway took their hearts by storm, as did they his, men “hardy and self-reliant, with bronzed, set faces and keen eyes that look all the world straight in the face without flinching.” I know how it is. You cannot help taking to them, those Western fellows, and they need not be cowboys either. The farther you go, the better you like them. My oldest son, who spent a year on a ranch, never wanted to come back. He was among Roosevelt’s men, whose talk was still of his good-fellowship in camp and on the hunting trail, his unflinching courage, his even-handed justice that arraigned the sheriff of the county as stoutly before his fellows when he failed in his duty, as it led him in the bitter winter weather on a month’s hunt down-stream through the pack-ice after cattle thieves—a story that reads like the record of an Arctic expedition. But he got the thieves, and landed them in jail, much to the wonderment of the ranchman at Killdeer Mountains, who was unable to understand why all this fuss “instead of hanging them offhand.” The vigilantes had just had a cleaning up in the cattle country, and had despatched some sixty-odd suspects, some of them, Mr. Roosevelt says, through misapprehension or carelessness. One is reminded of the apology of the captain of such a band to the widow of a victim of their “carelessness”; “Madam, the joke is on us.”

Every land has its ways. They have theirs out there, and if they are sometimes a trifle hasty, life bowls along with them at a pace we do not easily catch up with. On his recent trip across the continent, the President was greeted in a distant State by one of his old men, temporarily out of his latitude. He explained that he had had “a difficulty”; he had “sat into a poker game with a gentleman stranger,” who raised a row. He used awful language, and he, the speaker, shot him down. He had to.

“And did the stranger draw?” asked the President, who had been listening gravely.

“He did not have time, sir.”

The affair with the sheriff sounds as though it were a chapter of Mulberry Street in his later years. It was the outcome of the struggle to put law and order in the place of the rude lynch justice of the frontier. There was reason to believe that the sheriff leaned toward the outlaws. Men talked of it in bar-rooms; the cattle-thieves escaped. A meeting was called of ranch-owners, the neighbors for half a hundred miles around, and in the meeting Mr. Roosevelt rose and confronted the sheriff squarely with the charges. He looked straight at him through his gold-rimmed eye-glasses, himself unarmed, while from the other’s pockets stuck out the handles of two big six-shooters, and told him without mincing words that they believed the charges to be true and that he had forfeited their confidence and good will. A score of grave frontiersmen sat silently expectant of the reply. None came. The man made no defense. But he was not without sympathizers, and his reputation would have made most men think twice before bearding him as Roosevelt did. I asked him once why he did it.

“There was no other way,” he said, “and it had exactly the effect we desired. I do not think I was in any danger. I was unarmed, and if he had shot me down he knew he could not have escaped swift retribution. Besides, I was right, and he knew it!”

How often since have I heard him weigh, with the most careful scrutiny of every argument for and against, some matter to be decided in the public interest, and wind up with the brisk “There is no other way, and it is right; we will do it;” and heard his critics, who had given the matter no attention or the most superficial, and were taking no risks, cry out about snap judgments, while Roosevelt calmly went ahead and brought us through.

Whether it was over this cattle matter or some other local concern that his misunderstanding with the Marquis de Mores arose, of which there have been so many versions, I have forgotten. It does not matter. In the nature of things it would have come sooner or later, on some pretext or another. The two were neighbors, their ranches being some ten or fifteen miles apart. The Marquis was a gallant but exaggerated Frenchman, with odd feudal notions still clinging in his brain. He took it into his head to be offended by something Roosevelt was reported to have said, before he had yet met him, and wrote him a curt note telling him what he had heard and that “there was a way for gentlemen to settle their differences,” to which he invited his attention. Mr. Roosevelt promptly replied that he had heard a lie; that he, the Marquis, had no business to believe it true upon such evidence, and that he would follow his note in person within the hour. He despatched the letter to Medora, where the Marquis was, by one of his men, and, true to his word, started himself immediately after. Before he came in sight of the little cow-town he was met by a courier traveling in haste from the Marquis with a gentleman’s apology and a cordial invitation to dine with him in town. And that was all there was of the sensational “duel” with the French nobleman.

How small this world is, to be sure, that we make so much of! It was only yesterday that a woman whom I had never seen spoke to me on a Third Avenue street-car and told me that she had been in the house of the Marquis de Mores at that very time. She was a Mrs. Price, a nurse, she told me. Of course she knew Roosevelt. “The cowboys loved him,” she said, and added: “Poor Marquis, he was a nice gentleman, but he was not so level-headed a man as Mr. Roosevelt.”

The physical vigor for which he had longed and labored had come to him in full measure now, and with it the confidence that comes of being prepared to defend one’s rights. The bully and the brawler knew well enough that they had small chance against such an equipment, and kept out of the way. In all Mr. Roosevelt’s life on the frontier, sometimes in unfamiliar towns keyed up to mischief, he was molested but once, and then by a drunken rowdy who took him for a tenderfoot and with a curse bade him treat, at the point of his two revolvers, enforcing the invitation with a little exhibition of “gun-play,” while a roomful of men looked stolidly on. Roosevelt was a stranger in the town and had no friends there. He got up apparently to yield to the inevitable, practicing over mentally the while a famous left-hander that had done execution in the old Harvard days. The next instant the bully crashed against the wall and measured his length on the floor. His pistols went off harmlessly in the air. He opened his eyes to find the “four-eyed tenderfoot” standing over him, bristling with fight, while the crowd nodded calmly, “Served him right.” He surrendered then and there and gave up his guns, while Mr. Roosevelt went to bed unmolested. Such things carry far on the plains. No one was ever after that heard to express a wish to fill this tenderfoot “full of holes,” even though he did wear gold spectacles and fringed angora “chaps” when on a hunt.

And now that I have made use of my privilege to put things in as I think of them, let me say that brawling was no part of his life in the West. I thought of it first partly because of some good people who imagine that there was nothing else on the frontier; partly because it was a test the frontier life put to a man, always does, that he shall not be afraid, seeing that in the last instance upon his personal fearlessness depends his fitness to exist where at any moment that alone may preserve his life and the lives of others. There was room in plenty for that quality in the real business that brought him West, the quest of adventure. It was the dream of the man with the horse and the gun that was at last being realized. There was yet a frontier; there were unknown wilds. The very country on the Little Missouri where he built his log house was almost untrodden to the north of him. Deer lay in the brush in the open glade where the house stood, and once he shot one from his door. The fencing in of cattle lands had not begun. The buffalo grazed yet in scattered bands in the mountain recesses far from beaten trails; the last great herd on the plains had been slaughtered, but five years later Mr. Roosevelt tracked an old bull and his family of cows and calves in the wilderness on the Wisdom River near where Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana come together. He trailed them all day and at last came upon them in a glade shut in by dark pines. As he gazed upon the huge, shaggy beasts, behind which towered the mountains, their crests crimsoned by the sinking sun, there mingled with the excitement of the hunter a “half-melancholy feeling at the thought that they were the last remnant of a doomed and nearly vanished race.” It did not prevent him, however, from eating the grilled meat of the old bull that night at the camp-fire, with a hungry hunter’s relish. The great head of the mighty beast hangs over the fire-place at Sagamore Hill, an object of shuddering awe to the little ones. None of them will in their day ever bring home such a trophy from the hunt.

I looked past it into the room where the piano stands, the other day, and saw two of them there, Ethel giving Archie, with the bewitching bangs and the bare brown boyish legs, his music lesson. One groping foot—for the lesson would n’t come—dangled within reach of the ugliest grizzly’s head a distorted fancy could conceive of. I know it, for I stumble over it regularly when I come there, until I have got it charted for that particular trip. The skin to which it is attached is one Mr. Roosevelt sets great store by. It is a memento of the most thrilling moment of his life, when he was hunting alone in the foothills of the Rockies. He had made his camp “by the side of a small, noisy brook with crystal water,” and had strolled off with his rifle to see if he could pick up a grouse for supper, when he came upon the grizzly and wounded it. It took refuge in a laurel thicket, where Roosevelt laid siege to it. While he was cautiously skirting the edge, peering in, in the gathering dusk, the bear suddenly came out on the hillside: “Scarlet strings of froth hung from his lips; his eyes burned like embers in the gloom.”

Roosevelt fired, and the bullet shattered the point of the grizzly’s heart. “Instantly the great bear turned with a harsh roar of fury and challenge, blowing the bloody foam from his mouth, so that I saw the gleam of his white fangs; and then he charged straight at me, crashing and bounding through the laurel bushes, so that it was hard to aim. I waited until he came to a fallen tree, raking him as he topped it with a ball which entered his chest and went through the cavity of his body, but he neither swerved nor flinched, and at the moment I did not know that I had struck him. He came steadily on, and in another second was almost upon me. I fired for his forehead, but my bullet went low, entering his open mouth, smashing his lower jaw, and going into his neck. I leaped to one side almost as I pulled the trigger, and through the hanging smoke the first thing I saw was his paw as he made a vicious side blow at me. The rush of his charge carried him past. As he struck, he lurched forward, leaving a pool of bright blood where his muzzle hit the ground; but he recovered himself, and made two or three jumps onwards, while I hurriedly jammed a couple of cartridges into the magazine—my rifle holding only four, all of which I had fired. Then he tried to pull up, but as he did so his muscles seemed suddenly to give way, his head drooped, and he rolled over and over like a shot rabbit. Each of my first three bullets had inflicted a mortal wound.”

That was hunting of the kind that calls for a stout heart. When I think of it, there comes to me by contrast the echo of the laugh we had, when he lay with his Rough-Riders at Montauk Point, over my one unlucky experience with a “silver-tip.” I have a letter yet, dated Camp Wikoff, Montauk, September 9, 1898, in which he has scribbled after the business on hand, an added note: “Good luck on your hunt! Death to grizzly-bear cubs.” I can hear his laugh now. I am not a mighty hunter, but I know a bear when I see it—at least so I thought—and when, wandering in the forest primeval, far from camp, with only a fowling-piece, I beheld a movement in the top of a big pine, I had no difficulty in making out a bearcub there with the last rays of the sun silvering the tip of its brief tail—a “silver-tip” then; and likewise my knowledge of the world in general, if not of wood-craft, told me that where the cub was the mamma bear would not be far away. It was therefore, I insist, proof of fearless courage that I deliberately shot down the cub with one of my two No. 12 cartridges, even if I made great haste to pick it up and carry it away before Madam Bruin should appear. It is all right to be bold, but when it comes to maddened she-bears— I made a wild grab for my cub, and had my hand impaled upon a hundred porcupine quills. It was that kind of a cub. It is well enough to laugh, but it took me a little while before I could join in, with all those quills sticking in my fist, just like so many barbed fish-hooks.

I remember we shot together once at the range, and that I made nearly as good a score as he. It was in the beginning of our acquaintance, when I had been staying at Sagamore Hill and the question was put by Mrs. Roosevelt at the breakfast-table whether I would rather go driving with her or “go with Theodore on the range.” And I remember the perfidious smile with which he repeated the question, as if he should be so glad to have me go driving when he really wanted to try the new rifle on the range. He cannot dissemble worth a cent, and Mrs. Roosevelt laughed and sent us away, to my great relief; for going driving with her is a privilege one might well be proud of, and I—well, we had looked at the rifle together the night before. Really, it is no use for me to try, either.

But about the score; that was shooting at a target. Hitting a running animal is a different story, as I know to my sorrow. Though Mr. Roosevelt is near-sighted and wears glasses, and though his hand, he says himself, is none too steady, yet he has acquired a very formidable reputation as a hunter, and this, he adds with characteristic touch, because he has “hunted very perseveringly, and by much practice has learned to shoot about as well at a wild animal as at a target.” It is the story of everything he undertook: his opportunities were in nothing unusually great, except in his marvelous mastery over his own mind, his rare faculty of concentration; sometimes he was at a clear disadvantage, as in the matter of physical strength and promise at the outset; yet he won by sheer perseverance. He has killed in his day every kind of large game to be found on the North American continent.

The “horse and the gun” were having their day. And while he hunted, with the instinct of the naturalist, who lets nothing escape that can contribute to our knowledge of the world about us, he made notes of the habits and habitats of the game he hunted. His hunting-books have been extensively quoted by the scientific periodicals. Which brings to my mind another Presidential sportsman who occasionally makes notes of his exploits with the rod. He will forgive me for telling of it, for never did man draw a clearer picture of himself than did Mr. Cleveland when over the dinner-table in a friend’s house he told the story of the egg the neighbor’s hen laid in his yard. We had been discussing the way of conscience—whether it was born in men, or whether it grew, and he supported his belief that it was born with the child by telling of how when he was a little chap the hen made the mistake aforesaid.

“I could n’t have been over five or six at most,” said Mr. Cleveland, “but I remember the awful row I made until they brought back that egg to the side of the fence where it belonged.”

That was Grover Cleveland, sure enough. My own conscience suffered twinges he knew not of during the recital, for I also had an egg to my account, but on the other side of the ledger, though it was never laid. I remembered well the half of an idle forenoon I spent, when I was nearer fifteen than five, treacherously trying to decoy my neighbor’s hen across the fence to lay her egg in my yard. The doorknob I polished a most alluring white and hid in some hay for a nest-egg, and the trail of corn I made—they all rose up and spurned me. Who says the world is not getting better? Look upon this picture and upon that. No one would ever think of making me President. And when I thought of Mr. Roosevelt’s probable action with the hen cackling on his side of the fence, who can doubt that he would return the egg with a stern reprimand to its owner not to lead his neighbor into temptation again? Mr. Cleveland might have registered the weight of the egg before returning it; the fisherman would not be denied. Mr. Roosevelt, had the hen been a wild fowl, would have taken note of its plumage and its futile habit of hiding its nest from mankind, even righteous mankind.

A cat may look at a king. One may have a joke even with a President. I know they won’t mind. They are two men alike in the best there is in man, sturdy, courageous, splendid types of American manhood, however they differ. And though they do differ, Cleveland gave Roosevelt his strongest backing in the civil service fight, while the younger man holds the ex-President, even though his political opponent, in the real regard in which one true man holds another. And I who write this have had the good luck to vote for them both. The Republic is all right.

But I was speaking just now of the western land he loved; whether in the spring, when “the flowers are out and a man may gallop for miles at a stretch with his horse’s hoofs sinking at every stride into the carpet of prairie roses,… and where even in the waste places the cactuses are blooming,… their mass of splendid crimson flowers glowing against the sides of the gray buttes like a splash of flame”; when “the thickets and groves about the ranch house are loud with bird music from before dawn till long after sunrise and all through the night”; or in the hot noontide hours of midsummer, when the parched land lies shimmering in the sunlight and “from the upper branches of the cottonwoods comes every now and then the soft, melancholy cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seems far away and expresses more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief. The other birds are still.… Now and then the black shadow of a wheeling vulture falls on the sun-scorched ground; the cattle that have strung down in long files from the hills lie quietly on the sandbars.” Whether in the bright moonlight that “turns the gray buttes into glimmering silver, the higher cliffs standing out in weird grotesqueness while the deep gorges slumber in the black shadows, the echoing hoof-beats of the horses and the steady metallic clank of the steel bridle-chains the only sounds”; or when the gales that blow out of the north have wrapped the earth in a mantle of death; when “in the still, merciless, terrible cold… all the land is like granite; the great rivers stand in their beds as if turned to frosted steel. In the long nights there is no sound to break the lifeless silence. Under the ceaseless, shifting play of the Northern Lights the snow-clad plains stretch out into dead and endless wastes of glimmering white.”

So he saw it, and so he loved it; loved it when the work was hard and dangerous; when on the ranchman’s occasional holiday he lay stretched before the blazing log-fire reading Shakespeare to the cowboys and eliciting the patronizing comment from one who followed broncho-busting as a trade, that “that ’ere feller Shakespeare saveyed human nature some.” Loved the land and loved its people, as they loved him, a man among men. He has drawn a picture of them in his “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail,” from which I have quoted, that will stand as a monument to them in the days that are to come when they shall be no more. In that day we will value, too, the book, as a marvelous picture of a vanished day.

“To appreciate properly his fine, manly qualities, the wild rough-rider of the plains should be seen in his own home. There he passes his days; there he does his life-work; there, when he meets death, he faces it as he faces many other evils, with quiet, uncomplaining fortitude. Brave, hospitable, hardy and adventurous, he is the grim pioneer of our race; he prepares the way for the civilization from before whose face he must himself disappear. Hard and dangerous though his existence is, it has yet a wild attraction that strongly draws to it his bold, free spirit. He lives in the lonely land where mighty rivers twist in long reaches between the barren bluffs; where the prairies stretch out into billowy plains of waving grass, girt only by the blue horizon—plains across whose endless breadth he can steer his course for days and weeks, and see neither man to speak to nor hill to break the level; where the glory and the burning splendor of the sunsets kindle the blue vault of heaven and the level brown earth till they merge together in an ocean of flaming fire.”

Working there, resting there, growing there, in that wonderland under the spell of which these words of his were written, there came to him, unheralded, the trumpet call to another life, to duty. Over the camp-fire he read in a newspaper sent on from New York that by a convention of independent citizens he had been chosen as their standard-bearer in the fight for the mayoralty, then impending. They needed a leader. And that night he hung up the rifle, packed his trunk, and, bidding his life on the plains good-by, started for the East.