Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. 1885.Chapter V
The Black-Tail Deer
All deer vary greatly in size; and a small black-tail buck will be surpassed in bulk by many white-tails; but the latter never reaches the weight and height sometimes attained by the former. The same holds true of the antlers borne by the two animals; on the average those of the black-tail are the heavier, and exceptionally large antlers of this species are larger than any of the white-tail. Bucks of both kinds very often have, when full-grown, more than the normal number of ten points; sometimes these many-pronged antlers will be merely deformities, while in other instances the points are more symmetrical, and add greatly to the beauty and grandeur of the head. The venison of the black-tail is said to be inferior in quality to that of the white-tail; but I have never been able to detect much difference, though, perhaps, on the whole, the latter is slightly better.
The gaits of the two animals are widely different. The white-tail runs at a rolling gallop, striking the ground with the forward feet first, the head held forward. The black-tail, on the contrary, holds its head higher up, and progresses by a series of prodigious bounds, striking the earth with all four feet at once, the legs held nearly stiff. It seems like an extraordinary method of running; and the violent exertion tires the deer sooner than does the more easy and natural gait of the white-tail; but for a mile or so these rapidly succeeding bounds enable the black-tail to get over the ground at remarkable speed. Over rough ground, along precipitous slopes, and among the boulders of rocky cliffs, it will go with surprising rapidity and surefootedness, only surpassed by the feats of the big-horn in similar localities, and not equalled by those of any other plains game.
One of the noticeable things in western plains hunting is the different zones or bands of territory inhabited by different kinds of game. Along the alluvial land of the rivers and large creeks is found the white-tail. Back of these alluvial lands generally comes a broad tract of broken, hilly country, scantily clad with brush in some places; this is the abode of the black-tail deer. And where these hills rise highest, and where the ground is most rugged and barren, there the big-horn is found. After this hilly country is passed, in travelling away from the river, we come to the broad, level plains, the domain of the antelope. Of course the habitats of the different species overlap at the edges; and this over-lapping is most extended in the cases of the big-horn and the black-tail.
The Bad Lands are the favorite haunts of the black-tail. Here the hills are steep and rugged, cut up and crossed in every direction by canyon-like ravines and valleys, which branch out and subdivide in the most intricate and perplexing manner. Here and there are small springs, or pools, marked by the greener vegetation growing round them. Along the bottoms and sides of the ravines there are patches of scrubby undergrowth, and in many of the pockets or glens in the sides of the hills the trees grow to some little height. High buttes rise here and there, naked to the top, or else covered with stunted pines and cedars, which also grow in the deep ravines and on the edges of the sheer canyons. Such lands, where the ground is roughest, and where there is some cover, even though scattered and scanty, are the best places to find the black-tail. Naturally their pursuit needs very different qualities in the hunter from those required in the chase of the white-tail. In the latter case stealth and caution are the prime requisites; while the man who would hunt and kill the deer of the uplands has more especial need of energy, activity, and endurance, of good judgment and of skill with the rifle. Hunting the black-tail is beyond all comparison the nobler sport. Indeed, there is no kind of plains hunting, except only the chase of the big-horn, more fitted to bring out the best and hardiest of the many qualities which go to make up a good hunter.
It is still a moot question whether it is better to hunt on horseback or on foot, but the course of events is rapidly deciding it in favor of the latter method. Undoubtedly it is easier and pleasanter to hunt on horseback; and it has the advantage of covering a great deal of ground. But it is impossible to advance with such caution, and it is difficult to shoot as quickly, as when on foot; and where the deer are shy and not very plenty, the most enthusiastic must, slowly and reluctantly but surely, come to the conclusion that a large bag can only be made by the still-hunter who goes on foot. Of course, in the plains country it is not as in mountainous or thickly wooded regions, and the horse should almost always be taken as a means of conveyance to the hunting-grounds and from one point to another; but the places where game is expected should, as a rule, be hunted over on foot. This rule is by no means a general one, however. There are still many localities where the advantage of covering a great deal of ground more than counterbalances the disadvantage of being on horseback. About one third of my hunts are still made on horseback; and in almost all the others I take old Manitou to carry me to and from the grounds and to pack out any game that may be killed. A hunting-horse is of no use whatever unless he will permit a man to jump from his back and fire with the greatest rapidity; and nowhere does practice have more to do with success than in the case of jumping off a horse to shoot at game which has just been seen. The various movements take a novice a good deal of time; while an old hand will be off and firing with the most instantaneous quickness. Manitou can be left anywhere at a moment’s warning, while his rider leaps off, shoots at a deer from almost under his head, and perhaps chases the wounded animal a mile or over; and on his return the good old fellow will be grazing away, perfectly happy and contented, and not making a movement to run off or evade being caught.
One method of killing deer on horseback is very exciting. Many of the valleys or ravines extend with continual abrupt turns and windings for several miles, the brush and young trees stretching with constant breaks down the middle of the bottom, and leaving a space on each side along which a surefooted horse can gallop at speed. Two men, on swift, hardy horses, can hunt down such a ravine very successfully at evening, by each taking a side and galloping at a good speed the whole length against the wind. The patter of the unshod hoofs over the turf makes but little noise; and the turns are so numerous and abrupt, and the horses go so swiftly, that the hunters come on the deer almost before the latter are aware of their presence. If it is so late in the day that the deer have begun to move they will find the horses close up before they have a suspicion of danger, while if they are still lying in the cover the suddenness of the appearance of their foe is apt to so startle them as to make them break out and show themselves instead of keeping hid, as they would probably do if they perceived the approach from afar. One thus gets a close running shot, or if he waits a minute he will generally get a standing shot at some little distance, owing to a very characteristic habit of the black-tail. This is its custom of turning round, apparently actuated simply by curiosity, to look at the object which startled it, after it has run off a hundred and fifty yards or so. It then stands motionless for a few seconds, and offers a chance for a steady shot. If the chance is not improved, no other will offer, for as soon as the deer has ended its scrutiny it is off again, and this time will not halt till well out of danger. Owing to its singular gait, a succession of buck jumps, the black-tail is a peculiarly difficult animal to hit while on the run; and it is best to wait until it stops and turns before taking the shot, as if fired at, the report will generally so alarm it as to make it continue its course without halting to look back. Some of the finest antlers in my possession come from bucks killed by this method of hunting; and it is a most exhilarating form of sport, the horse galloping rapidly over what is often very broken ground, and the senses being continually on the alert for any sign of game. The rush and motion of the horse, and the care necessary to guide it and at the same time be in constant readiness for a shot, prevent the chase having any of the monotony that is at times inseparable from still-hunting proper.
Nevertheless, it is by still-hunting that most deer are killed, and the highest form of hunting craft is shown in the science of the skilful still-hunter. With sufficient practice any man who possesses common-sense and is both hardy and persevering can become, to a certain extent, a still-hunter. But the really good still-hunter is born rather than made; though of course in addition to possessing the gifts naturally he must also have developed them, by constant practice, to the highest point possible. One of the foremen on my ranch is a really remarkably good hunter and game shot, and another does almost as well; but the rest of us are not, and never will be, any thing very much out of the common. By dint of practice we have learned to shoot as well at game as at a target; and those of us who are fond of the sport hunt continually and so get a good deal of game at one time or another. Hunting through good localities, up wind, quietly and perseveringly, we come upon quite a number of animals; and we can kill a standing shot at a fair distance and a running shot close up, and by good luck every now and then kill far off; but to much more than is implied in the description of such modest feats we cannot pretend.
After the disappearance of the buffalo and the thinning out of the elk, the black-tail was, and in most places it still is, the game most sought after by the hunters; I have myself shot as many of them as of all other kinds of plains game put together. But for this very reason it is fast disappearing; and bids fair to be the next animal, after the buffalo and elk, to vanish from the places that formerly knew it. The big-horn and the prong-horn are more difficult to stalk and kill, partly from their greater natural wariness, and partly from the kind of ground on which they are found. But it seems at first sight strange that the black-tail should be exterminated or driven away so much more quickly than the white-tail, when it has sharper ears and nose, is more tenacious of life, and is more wary. The main reason is to be found in the difference in the character of the haunts of the two creatures. The black-tail is found on much more open ground, where the animals can be seen farther off, where it is much easier to take advantage of the direction of the wind and to get along without noise, and where far more country can be traversed in a given time; and though the average length of the shots taken is in one case two or three times as great as in the other, yet this is more than counterbalanced by the fact that they are more often standing ones, and that there is usually much more time for aiming. Moreover, one kind of sport can be followed on horseback, while the other must be followed on foot; and then the chase of the white-tail, in addition, is by far the more tedious and patience-trying. And the black-tail are much the more easily scared or driven out of a locality by persecution or by the encroaching settlements. All these qualities combine to make it less able to hold its own against mankind than its smaller rival. It is the favorite game of the skin hunters and meat hunters, and has, in consequence, already disappeared from many places, while in others its extermination is going on at a frightfully rapid rate, owing to its being followed in season and out of season without mercy. Besides, the cattle are very fond of just the places to which it most often resorts; and wherever cattle go the cowboys ride about after them, with their ready six-shooters at their hips. They blaze away at any deer they see, of course, and in addition to now and then killing or wounding one, continually harry and disturb the poor animals. In the more remote and inaccessible districts the black-tail will long hold its own, to be one of the animals whose successful pursuit will redound most to the glory of the still-hunter; but in a very few years it will have ceased entirely to be one of the common game animals of the plains.
Its great curiosity is one of the disadvantages under which it labors in the fierce struggle for existence, compared to the white-tail. The latter, when startled, does not often stop to look round; but, as already said, the former will generally do so after having gone a few hundred feet. The first black-tail I ever killed—unfortunately killed, for the body was not found until spoiled—was obtained owing solely to this peculiarity. I had been riding up along the side of a brushy coulie, when a fine buck started out some thirty yards ahead. Although so close, my first shot, a running one, was a miss; when a couple of hundred yards off, on the very crest of the spur up which he had run, he stopped and turned partially round. Firing again from a rest, the bullet broke his hind leg far up and went into his body. Off he went on three legs, and I after him as fast as the horse could gallop. He went over the spur and down into the valley of the creek from which the coulie branched up, in very bad ground. My pony was neither fast nor surefooted, but of course in half a mile overhauled the three-legged deer, which turned short off and over the side of the hill flanking the valley. Instead of running right up on it I foolishly dismounted and began firing; after the first shot—a miss—it got behind a boulder hitherto unseen, and thence over the crest. The pony meanwhile had slipped its hind leg into the rein; when, after some time, I got it out and galloped up to the ridge, the most careful scrutiny of which my unpractised eyes were capable failed to discover a track on the dry ground, hard as granite. A day or two afterwards the place where the carcass lay was made known by the vultures, gathered together from all parts to feed upon it.
When fired at from a place of hiding, deer which have not been accustomed to the report of a gun will often appear confused and uncertain what to do. On one occasion, while hunting in the mountains, I saw an old buck with remarkably large horns, of curious and beautiful shape, more symmetrical than in most instances where the normal form is departed from. The deer was feeding in a wide, gently sloping valley, containing no cover from behind which to approach him. We were in no need of meat, but the antlers were so fine that I felt they justified the death of their bearer. After a little patient waiting, the buck walked out of the valley, and over the ridge on the other side, moving up wind; I raced after him, and crept up behind a thick growth of stunted cedars, which had started up from among some boulders. The deer was about a hundred yards off, down in the valley. Out of breath, and over-confident, I fired hastily, overshooting him. The wind blew the smoke back away from the ridge, so that he saw nothing, while the echo prevented his placing the sound. He took a couple of jumps nearer, when he stood still and was again overshot. Again he took a few jumps, and the third shot went below him; and the fourth just behind him. This was too much, and away he went. In despair I knelt down (I had been firing off-hand), took a steady aim well-forward on his body, and fired, bringing him down, but with small credit to the shot, for the bullet had gone into his hip, paralyzing his hind-quarters. The antlers are the finest pair I ever got, and form a magnificent ornament for the hall; but the shooting is hardly to be recalled with pleasure. Still, though certainly very bad, it was not quite as discreditable as the mere target shot would think. I have seen many a crack marksman at the target do quite as bad missing when out in the field, and that not once, but again and again.
Of course, in those parts of the wilderness where the black-tail are entirely unused to man, they are as easy to approach (from the leeward side) as is any and every other kind of game under like conditions. In lonely spots, to which hunters rarely or never penetrate, deer of this species will stand and look at a hunter without offering to run away till he is within fifty yards of them, if he will advance quietly. In a far-off mountain forest I have more than once shot a young buck at less than that distance as he stood motionless, gazing at me, although but little caution had been used in approaching him.
But a short experience of danger on the part of the black-tail changes all this; and where hunters are often afoot, he becomes as wild and wary as may be. Then the successful still-hunter shows that he is indeed well up in the higher forms of hunting craft. For the man who can, not once by accident, but again and again, as a regular thing, single-handed, find and kill his black-tail, has shown that he is no mere novice in his art; still-hunting the black-tail is a sport that only the skilful can follow with good results, and one which implies in the successful sportsman the presence of most of the still-hunter’s rarest attributes. All of the qualities which a still-hunter should possess are of service in the pursuit of any kind of game; but different ones will be called into especial play in hunting different kinds of animals. Thus, to be a successful hunter after any thing, a man should be patient, resolute, hardy, and with good judgment; he should have good lungs and stout muscles; he should be able to move with noiseless stealth; and he should be keen-eyed, and a first-rate marksman with the rifle. But in different kinds of shooting, the relative importance of these qualities varies greatly. In hunting white-tail deer, the two prime requisites are stealth and patience. If the quarry is a big-horn, a man needs especially to be sound in wind and limbs, and to be both hardy and resolute. Skill in the use of the long-range rifle counts for more in antelope hunting than in any other form of sport; and it is in this kind of hunting alone that good marksmanship is more important than any thing else. With dangerous game, cool and steady nerves are of the first consequence; all else comes after. Then, again, in the use of the rifle, the kind of skill—not merely the degree of skill—required to hunt different animals may vary greatly. In shooting white-tail, it is especially necessary to be a good snap shot at running game; when the distance is close, quickness is an essential. But at antelope there is plenty of time, and what is necessary is ability to judge distance, and capacity to hit a small stationary object at long range.
The different degrees of estimation in which the chase of the various kinds of plains game is held depend less upon the difficulty of capture than upon the nature of the qualities in the hunter which each particular form of hunting calls into play. A man who is hardy, resolute, and a good shot, has come nearer to realizing the ideal of a bold and free hunter than is the case with one who is merely stealthy and patient; and so, though to kill a white-tail is rather more difficult than to kill a black-tail, yet the chase of the latter is certainly the nobler form of sport, for it calls into play, and either develops or implies the presence of, much more manly qualities than does the other. Most hunters would find it nearly as difficult to watch in silence by a salt-lick throughout the night, and then to butcher with a shot-gun a white-tail, as it would be to walk on foot through rough ground from morning till evening, and to fairly approach and kill a black-tail; yet there is no comparison between the degree of credit to be attached to one feat and that to be attached to the other. Indeed, if difficulty in killing is to be taken as a criterion, a mink or even a weasel would have to stand as high up in the scale as a deer, were the animals equally plenty.
Ranged in the order of the difficulty with which they are approached and slain, plains game stand as follows: big-horn, antelope, white-tail, black-tail, elk, and buffalo. But, as regards the amount of manly sport furnished by the chase of each, the white-tail should stand at the bottom of the list, and the elk and black-tail abreast of the antelope.
Other things being equal, the length of an animal’s stay in the land, when the arch foe of all lower forms of animal life has made his appearance therein, depends upon the difficulty with which he is hunted and slain. But other influences have to be taken into account. The big-horn is shy and retiring; very few, compared to the whole number, will be killed; and yet the others vanish completely. Apparently they will not remain where they are hunted and disturbed. With antelope and white-tail this does not hold; they will cling to a place far more tenaciously, even if often harassed. The former being the more conspicuous, and living in such open ground, is apt to be more persecuted; while the white-tail, longer than any other animal, keeps its place in the land in spite of the swinish game butchers, who hunt for hides and not for sport or actual food, and who murder the gravid doe and the spotted fawn with as little hesitation as they would kill a buck of ten points. No one who is not himself a sportsman and lover of nature can realize the intense indignation with which a true hunter sees these butchers at their brutal work of slaughtering the game, in season and out, for the sake of the few dollars they are too lazy to earn in any other and more honest way.
All game animals rely upon both eyes, ears, and nose to warn them of the approach of danger; but the amount of reliance placed on each sense varies greatly in different species. Those found out on the plains pay very little attention to what they hear; indeed, in the open they can hardly be approached near enough to make of much account any ordinary amount of noise caused by the stalker, especially as the latter is walking over little but grass and soft earth. The buffalo, whose shaggy frontlet of hair falls over his eyes and prevents his seeing at any great distance, depends mainly upon his exquisite sense of smell. The antelope, on the other hand, depends almost entirely on his great, bulging eyes, and very little on his nose. His sight is many times as good as that of deer, both species of which, as well as elk, rely both upon sight and hearing, but most of all upon their sense of smell, for their safety. The big-horn has almost as keen eyesight as an antelope, while his ears and nose are as sensitive to sound and scent as are those of an elk.
Black-tail, like other members of the deer family, do not pay much attention to an object which is not moving. A hunter who is standing motionless or squatting down is not likely to receive attention, while a big-horn or prong-horn would probably see him and take the alarm at once; and if the black-tail is frightened and running he will run almost over a man standing in plain sight, without paying any heed to him, if the latter does not move. But the very slightest movement at once attracts a deer’s attention, and deer are not subject to the panics that at times overtake other kinds of game. The black-tail has much curiosity, which often proves fatal to it; but which with it is after all by no means the ungovernable passion that it is with antelope. The white-tail and the big-horn are neither over-afflicted with morbid curiosity, nor subject to panics or fits of stupidity; and both these animals, as well as the black-tail, seem to care very little for the death of the leader of the band, going their own ways with small regard for the fate of the chief, while elk will huddle together in a confused group, and remain almost motionless when their leader is struck down. Antelope and more especially elk are subject to perfect panics of unreasoning terror, during which they will often put themselves completely in the power of the hunter; while buffalo will frequently show a downright stupidity almost unequalled.
The black-tail suffers from no such peculiarities. His eyes are good; his nose and ears excellent. He is ever alert and wary; his only failing is his occasional over-curiosity; and his pursuit taxes to the utmost the skill and resources of the still-hunter.
By all means the best coverings for the feet when still-hunting are moccasins, as with them a man can go noiselessly through ground where hobnailed boots would clatter like the hoofs of a horse; but in hunting in winter over the icy buttes and cliffs it is best to have stout shoes, with nails in the soles, and if the main work is done on horseback it is best to wear high boots, as they keep the trousers down. Indeed in the Bad Lands boots have other advantages, for rattlesnakes abound, and against these they afford perfect protection—unless a man should happen to stumble on a snake while crawling along on all fours. But moccasins are beyond all comparison the best footgear for hunting. In very cold weather a fur cap which can be pulled down over the ears is a necessity; but at other times a brimmed felt hat offers better protection against both sun and rain. The clothes should be of some neutral tint—buckskin is on this account excellent—and very strong.
The still-hunter should be well acquainted with, at any rate, certain of the habits of his quarry. There are seasons when the black-tail is found in bands; such is apt to be the case when the rutting time is over. At this period, too, the deer wander far and wide, making what may almost be called a migration; and in rutting time the bucks follow the does at speed for miles at a stretch. But except at these seasons each individual black-tail has a certain limited tract of country to which he confines himself unless disturbed or driven away, not, of course, keeping in the same spot all the time, but working round among a particular set of ravines and coulies, where the feed is good, and where water can be obtained without going too far out of the immediate neighborhood.
Throughout the plains country the black-tail lives in the broken ground, seldom coming down to the alluvial bottoms or out on the open prairies and plateaus. But he is found all through this broken ground. Sometimes it is rolling in character with rounded hills and gentle valleys, dotted here and there with groves of trees; or the hills may rise into high chains, covered with an open pine forest, sending off long spurs and divided by deep valleys and basins. Such places are favorite resorts of this deer; but it is as plentiful in the Bad Lands proper. There are tracts of these which are in part or wholly of volcanic origin; then the hills are called scoria buttes. They are high and very steep, but with rounded tops and edges, and are covered, as is the ground round about, with scoriac boulders. Bushes, and sometimes a few cedar, grow among them, and though they would seem to be most unlikely places for deer, yet black-tail are very fond of them, and are very apt to be found among them. Often in the cold fall mornings they will lie out among the boulders, on the steep side of such a scoria butte, sunning themselves, far from any cover except a growth of brushwood in the bottom of the dry creeks or coulies. The grass on top of and between these scoria buttes is often very nutritious, and cattle are also fond of it. The higher buttes are choice haunts of the mountain sheep.
Nineteen twentieths of the Bad Lands, however, owe their origin not to volcanic action but to erosion and to the peculiar weathering forces always at work in the dry climate of the plains. Geologically the land is for the most part composed of a set of parallel, perfectly horizontal strata, of clay, marl, or sandstone, which, being of different degrees of hardness, offer some more and some less resistance to the action of the weather. The table-lands, peaks, cliffs, and jagged ridges are caused solely by the rains and torrents cutting away the land into channels, which at first are merely wash-outs, and at last grow into deep canyons, winding valleys, and narrow ravines or basins. The sides of these cuts are at first perpendicular, exposing to view the various bands of soil, perhaps of a dozen different colors; the hardest bands resist the action of the weather best and form narrow ledges stretching along the face of the cliff. Peaks of the most fantastic shape are formed in this manner; and where a ridge is worn away on each side its crest may be as sharp as a knife blade, but all notched and jagged. The peaks and ridges vary in height from a few feet to several hundred; the sides of the buttes are generally worn down in places so as to be steeply sloping instead of perpendicular. The long wash-outs and the canyons and canyon-like valleys stretch and branch out in every direction; the dryness of the atmosphere, the extremes of intense heat and bitter cold, and the occasional furious rain-storms keep the edges and angles sharp and jagged, and pile up boulders and masses of loose detritus at the foot of the cliffs and great lonely crags. Sometimes the valleys are quite broad, with steep sides and with numerous pockets, separated by spurs jutting out into the bottom from the lateral ridges. Other ravines or clefts taper down to a ditch, a foot or so wide, from which the banks rise at an angle of sixty degrees to the tops of the enclosing ridges.
The faces of the terraced cliffs and sheer crags are bare of all but the scantiest vegetation, and where the Bad Lands are most rugged and broken the big-horn is the only game found. But in most places the tops of the buttes, the sides of the slopes, and the bottoms of the valleys are more or less thickly covered with the nutritious grass which is the favorite food of the black-tail.
Of course, the Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth. If the weathering forces have not been very active, the ground will look, from a little distance, almost like a level plain, but on approaching nearer, it will be seen to be crossed by straight-sided gullies and canyons, miles in length, cutting across the land in every direction and rendering it almost impassable for horsemen or wagon-teams. If the forces at work have been more intense, the walls between the different gullies have been cut down to thin edges, or broken through, leaving isolated peaks of strange shape, while the hollows have been channelled out deeper and deeper; such places show the extreme and most characteristic Bad Lands formation. When the weathering has gone on further, the angles are rounded off, grass begins to grow, bushes and patches of small trees sprout up, water is found in places, and the still very rugged country becomes the favorite abode of the black-tail.
During the daytime, these deer lie quietly in their beds, which are sometimes in the brush and among the matted bushes in the bottoms of the small branching coulies, or heads of the crooked ravines. More often they will be found in the thickets of stunted cedars clothing the brinks of the canyons or the precipitous slopes of the great chasms into which the ground is cleft and rent; or else among the groves of gnarled pines on the sides of the buttes, and in the basins and pockets between the spurs. If the country is not much hunted over, a buck or old doe will often take its mid-day rest out in the open, lying down among the long grass or shrubbery on one of the bare benches at the head of a ravine, at the edge of the dense brush with which its bottom and sides are covered. In such a case, a position is always chosen from which a look-out can be kept all around; and the moment any suspicious object is seen, the deer slips off into the thicket below him. Perhaps the favorite resting-places are the rounded edges of the gorges, just before the sides of the latter break sheer off. Here the deer lies, usually among a few straggling pines or cedars, on the very edge of the straight side-wall of the canyon, with a steep-shelving slope above him, so that he cannot be seen from the summit; and in such places it is next to impossible to get at him. If lying on a cedar-grown spur or ridge-point, the still-hunter has a better chance, for the evergreen needles with which the ground is covered enable a man to walk noiselessly, and, by stooping or going on all fours, he can keep under the branches. But it is at all times hard and unsatisfactory work to find and successfully still-hunt a deer that is enjoying its day rest. Generally, the only result is to find the warm, fresh bed from which the deer has just sneaked off, the blades of grass still slowly rising, after the hasty departure of the weight that has flattened them down; or else, if in dense cover, the hunter suddenly hears a scramble, a couple of crashing bounds through the twigs and dead limbs, and gets a momentary glimpse of a dark outline vanishing into the thicket as the sole reward of his labor. Almost the only way to successfully still-hunt a deer in the middle of the day, is to find its trail and follow it up to the resting-places, and such a feat needs an expert tracker and a noiseless and most skilful stalker.
The black-tail prefers to live in the neighborhood of water, where he can get it every twenty-four hours; but he is perfectly willing to drink only every other day, if, as is often the case, he happens to be in a very dry locality. Nor does he stay long in the water or near it, like the white-tail, but moves off as soon as he is no longer thirsty. On moonlight nights he feeds a good deal of the time, and before dawn he is always on foot for his breakfast; the hours around daybreak are those in which most of his grazing is done. By the time the sun has been up an hour he is on his way homeward, grazing as he goes; and he will often stay for some little time longer, if there has been no disturbance from man or other foes, feeding among the scattered scrub cedars skirting the thicket in which he intends to make his bed for the day. Having once made his bed he crouches very close in it, and is difficult to put up during the heat of the day; but as the afternoon wears on he becomes more restless, and will break from his bed and bound off at much smaller provocation, while if the place is lonely he will wander out into the open hours before sunset. If, however, he is in much danger of being molested, he will keep close to his hiding-place until nearly nightfall, when he ventures out to feed. Owing to the lateness of his evening appearance in localities where there is much hunting, it is a safer plan to follow him in the early morning, being on the ground and ready to start out by the time the first streak of dawn appears. Often I have lost deer when riding home in the evening, because the dusk had deepened so that it was impossible to distinguish clearly enough to shoot.
One day one of my cowboys and myself were returning from an unsuccessful hunt, about nightfall, and were still several miles from the river, when a couple of yearling black-tails jumped up in the bed of the dry creek down which we were riding. Our horses though stout and swift were not well trained; and the instant we were off their backs they trotted off. No sooner were we on the ground and trying to sight the deer, one of which was cantering slowly off among the bushes, than we found we could not catch the bead sights of our rifles, the outlines of the animals seeming vague, and shadowy, and confounding themselves with the banks and dull green sage bushes behind them. Certainly six or eight shots were fired, we doing our best to aim, but without any effect; and when we gave it up and turned to look for our horses we were annoyed to see the latter trotting off down the valley half a mile away. We went after at a round pace; but darkness closed in before we had gained at all on them. There was nothing left to do but to walk on down the valley to the bottoms, and then to wade the river; as the latter was quite high, we had to take off our clothes, and it is very uncomfortable to feel one’s way across a river at night, in bare feet, with the gun and the bundle of clothes held high over head. However, when across the river and half a mile from home, we ran into our horses—a piece of good luck, as otherwise we should have had to spend the next day in looking for them.
Almost the only way in which it is possible to aim after dark is to get the object against the horizon, toward the light. One of the finest bucks I ever killed was shot in this way. It was some little time after the sun had set, and I was hurrying home, riding down along a winding creek at a gallop. The middle of the bottom was covered with brush, while the steep, grassy, rounded hills on each side sent off spurs into the valley, the part between every two spurs making a deep pocket. The horse’s feet were unshod and he made very little noise, coming down against the wind. While passing a deep pocket I heard from within it a snort and stamping of feet, the well-known sounds made by a startled deer. Pulling up short I jumped off the horse—it was Manitou,—who instantly began feeding with perfect indifference to what he probably regarded as an irrational freak of his master; and, aiming as well as I could in the gathering dusk, held the rifle well ahead of a shadowy gray object which was scudding along the base of the hill towards the mouth of the pocket. The ball struck in front of and turned the deer, which then started obliquely up the hill. A second shot missed it; and I then (here comes in the good of having a repeater) knelt down and pointed the rifle against the sky line, at the place where the deer seemed likely to top the bluff. Immediately afterwards the buck appeared, making the last jump with a great effort which landed him square on the edge, as sharply outlined as a silhouette against the fading western light. My rifle bead was just above him; pulling it down I fired, as the buck paused for a second to recover himself from his last great bound, and with a crash the mighty antlered beast came rolling down the hill, the bullet having broken his back behind the shoulders, afterwards going out through his chest.
At times a little caution must be used in approaching a wounded buck, for if it is not disabled it may be a rather formidable antagonist. In my own experience I have never known a wounded buck to do more than make a pass with his horns, or, in plunging when the knife enters his throat, to strike with his forefeet. But one of my men was regularly charged by a great buck, which he had wounded, and which was brought to bay on the ice by a dog. It seemed to realize that the dog was not the main antagonist, and knocking him over charged straight past him at the man, and as the latter had in his haste not reloaded his rifle, he might have been seriously injured had it not been for the dog, a very strong and plucky one, which caught the buck by the hock and threw him. The buck got up and again came straight at his foe, uttering a kind of grunting bleat, and it was not till after quite a scuffle that the man, by the help of the dog, got him down and thrust the knife in his throat. Twice I have known hounds to be killed by bucks which they had brought to bay in the rutting season. One of these bucks was a savage old fellow with great thick neck and sharp-pointed antlers. He came to bay in a stream, under a bank thickly matted with willows which grew down into the water, guarding his rear and flanks, while there was a small pool in his front across which the hounds had to swim. Backing in among the willows he rushed out at every dog that came near, striking it under water with his forefeet, and then again retreating to his fortress. In this way he kept the whole pack off, and so injured one hound that he had to be killed. Indeed, a full-grown buck with antlers would be a match for a wolf, unless surprised, and could not improbably beat off a cougar if he received the latter’s spring fairly on his prong points.
Bucks fight fiercely among themselves during the rutting season. At that time the black-tail, unlike the white-tail, is found in bands, somewhat like those of the elk, but much smaller, and the bucks of each band keep up an incessant warfare. A weak buck promptly gets out of the way if charged by a large one; but when two of equal strength come together the battle is well fought. Instances occasionally occur, of a pair of these duellists getting their horns firmly interlocked and thus perishing; but these instances are much rarer, owing to the shape of the antlers, than with the white-tail, of which species I have in my own experience come across two or three sets of skulls held together by their interlacing antlers, the bearers of which had doubtless died owing to their inability to break away from each other.
A black-tail buck is one of the most noble-looking of all deer. His branching and symmetrically curved antlers are set on a small head, carried with beautiful poise by the proud, massive neck. The body seems almost too heavy for the slender legs, and yet the latter bear it as if they were rods of springing steel. Every movement is full of alert, fiery life and grace, and he steps as lightly as though he hardly trod the earth. The large, sensitive ears are thrown forward to catch the slightest sound; and in the buck they are not too conspicuous, though they are the only parts of his frame which to any eye can be said to take away from his beauty. They give the doe a somewhat mulish look; at a distance, the head of a doe peering out from among twigs looks like a great black V. To me, however, even in the case of the doe, they seem to set off and strengthen by contrast the delicate, finely-moulded look of the head. Owing to these ears the species is called in the books the Mule Deer, and every now and then a plainsman will speak of it by this title. But all plainsmen know it generally, and ninety-nine out of a hundred know it only, as the Black-tail Deer; and as this is the title by which it is known among all who hunt it or live near it, it should certainly be called by the same name in the books.
But though so grand and striking an object when startled, or when excited, whether by curiosity or fear, love or hate, a black-tail is nevertheless often very hard to make out when standing motionless among the trees and brushwood, or when lying down among the boulders. A raw hand at hunting has no idea how hard it is to see a deer when at rest. The color of the hair is gray, almost the same tint as that of the leafless branches and tree trunks; for of course the hunting season is at its height only when the leaves have fallen. A deer standing motionless looks black or gray, according as the sunlight strikes it; but always looks exactly the same color as the trees around it. It generally stands or lies near some tree trunks; and the eye may pass over it once or twice without recognizing its real nature. In the brush it is still more difficult, and there a deer’s form is often absolutely indistinguishable from the surroundings, as one peers through the mass of interlacing limbs and twigs. Once an old hunter and myself in walking along the ridge of a scoria butte passed by without seeing them, three black-tail lying among the scattered boulders of volcanic rock on the hillside, not fifty yards from us. After a little practical experience a would-be hunter learns not to expect deer always, or even generally, to appear as they do when near by or suddenly startled; but on the contrary to keep a sharp look-out on every dull-looking red or yellow patch he sees in a thicket, and to closely examine any grayish-looking object observed on the hillsides, for it is just such small patches or obscure-looking objects which are apt, if incautiously approached, to suddenly take to themselves legs, and go bounding off at a rate which takes them out of danger before the astonished tyro has really waked up to the fact that they are deer. The first lesson to be learned in still-hunting is the knowledge of how to tell what objects are and what are not deer; and to learn it is by no means as easy a task as those who have never tried it would think.
When he has learned to see a deer, the novice then has to learn to hit it, and this again is not the easy feat it seems. That he can do well with a shot-gun proves very little as to a man’s skill with the rifle, for the latter carries but one bullet, and can therefore hit in but one place, while with a shot-gun, if you hold a foot off your mark you will be nearly as apt to hit as if you held plumb centre. Nor does mere practice at a mark avail, though excellent in its way; for a deer is never seen at a fixed and ascertained distance, nor is its outline often clearly and sharply defined as with a target. Even if a man keeps cool—and for the first shot or two he will probably be flurried—he may miss an absurdly easy shot by not taking pains. I remember on one occasion missing two shots in succession where it seemed really impossible for a man to help hitting. I was out hunting on horseback with one of my men, and on loping round the corner of a brushy valley came suddenly in sight of a buck with certainly more than a dozen points on his great spreading antlers. I jumped off my horse instantly, and fired as he stood facing me not over forty yards off; fired, as I supposed, perfectly coolly, though without dropping on my knee as I should have done. The shot must have gone high, for the buck bounded away unharmed, heedless of a second ball; and immediately his place was taken by another, somewhat smaller, who sprang out of a thicket into almost the identical place where the big buck had stood. Again I fired and missed; again the buck ran off, and was shot at and missed while running—all four shots being taken within fifty yards. I clambered on to the horse without looking at my companion, but too conscious of his smothered disfavor; after riding a few hundred yards, he said with forced politeness and a vague desire to offer some cheap consolation, that he supposed I had done my best; to which I responded with asperity that I ’d be damned if I had; and we finished our journey homeward in silence. A man is likely to overshoot at any distance; but at from twenty-five to seventy-five yards he is certain to do so if he is at all careless.
Moreover, besides not missing, a man must learn to hit his deer in the right place; the first two or three times he shoots he will probably see the whole deer in the rifle sights, instead of just the particular spot he wishes to strike; that is, he will aim in a general way at the deer’s whole body—which will probably result in a wound not disabling the animal in the least for the time, although ensuring its finally dying a lingering and painful death. The most instantaneously fatal places are the brain and any part of the spinal column; but these offer such small marks that it is usually only by accident they are hit. The mark at any part of which one can fire with safety is a patch about eight inches or a foot square, including the shoulder-blades, lungs, and heart. A kidney-shot is very fatal; but a black-tail will go all day with a bullet through its entrails, and in cold weather I have known one to run several miles with a portion of its entrails sticking out of a wound and frozen solid. To break both shoulders by a shot as the deer stands sideways to the hunter, brings the buck down in its tracks; but perhaps the best place at which to aim is the point in the body right behind the shoulder-blade. On receiving a bullet in this spot the deer will plunge forward for a jump or two, and then go some fifty yards in a labored gallop; will then stop, sway unsteadily on its legs for a second, and pitch forward on its side. When the hunter comes up he will find his quarry stone dead. If the deer stands facing the hunter it offers only a narrow mark, but either a throat or chest shot will be fatal.
Good shooting is especially necessary after black-tail, because it is so very tenacious of life; much more so than the white-tail, or, in proportion to its bulk, than the elk. For this reason it is of the utmost importance to give an immediately fatal or disabling wound, or the game will almost certainly be lost. It is wonderful to see how far and how fast a seemingly crippled deer will go. Of course, a properly trained dog would be of the greatest use in tracking and bringing to bay wounded black-tail; but, unless properly trained to come in to heel, a dog is worse than useless; and, anyhow, it will be hard to keep one, as long as the wolf-hunters strew the ground so plentifully with poisoned bait. We have had several hunting dogs on our ranch at different times; generally wirehaired deer-hounds, fox-hounds, or greyhounds, by no means absolutely pure in blood; but they all, sooner or later, succumbed to the effects of eating poisoned meat. Some of them were quite good hunting dogs, the rough deer-hounds being perhaps the best at following and tackling a wounded buck. They were all very eager for the sport, and when in the morning we started out on a hunt the dogs were apparently more interested than the men; but their judgement did not equal their zeal, and lack of training made them on the whole more bother than advantage.
But much more than good shooting is necessary before a man can be called a good hunter. Indians, for example, get a great deal of game, but they are in most cases very bad shots. Once, while going up the Clear Fork of the Powder, in Northern Wyoming, one of my men, an excellent hunter, and myself rode into a large camp of Cheyennes; and after a while started a shooting-match with some of them. We had several trials of skill with the rifle, and, a good deal to my astonishment, I found that most of the Indians (quite successful hunters, to judge by the quantity of smoked venison lying round) were very bad shots indeed. None of them came anywhere near the hunter who was with me; nor, indeed, to myself. An Indian gets his game by his patience, his stealth, and his tireless perseverance; and a white to be really successful in still-hunting must learn to copy some of the Indian’s traits.
While the game butchers, the skin hunters, and their like, work such brutal slaughter among the plains animals that these will soon be either totally extinct or so thinned out as to cease being prominent features of plains life yet, on the other hand, the nature of the country debars them from following certain murderous and unsportsman-like forms of hunting much in vogue in other quarters of our land. There is no deep water into which a deer can be driven by hounds, and then shot at arm’s-length from a boat, as is the fashion with some of the city sportsmen who infest the Adirondack forests during the hunting season; nor is the winter snow ever deep enough to form a crust over which a man can go on snow-shoes, and after running down a deer, which plunges as if in a quagmire, knock the poor, worn-out brute on the head with an axe. Fire-hunting is never tried in the cattle country; it would be far more likely to result in the death of a steer or pony than in the death of a deer, if attempted on foot with a torch, as is done in some of the Southern States; while the streams are not suited to the floating or jacking with a lantern in the bow of the canoe, as practised in the Adirondacks. Floating and fire-hunting, though by no means to be classed among the nobler kinds of sport, yet have a certain fascination of their own, not so much for the sake of the actual hunting, as for the novelty of being out in the wilderness at night; and the noiselessness absolutely necessary to insure success often enables the sportsman to catch curious glimpses of the night life of the different kinds of wild animals.
If it were not for the wolf poison, the plains country would be peculiarly fitted for hunting with hounds; and, if properly carried on, there is no manlier form of sport. It does not imply in the man who follows it the skill that distinguishes the successful still-hunter, but it has a dash and excitement all its own, if the hunter follows the hounds on horseback. But, as carried on in the Adirondacks and in the Eastern and Southern mountains generally, hounding deer is not worthy of much regard. There the hunter is stationed at a runaway over which deer will probably pass, and has nothing to do but sit still for a number of weary hours and perhaps put a charge of buckshot into a deer running by but a few yards off. If a rifle instead of a shot-gun is used, a certain amount of skill is necessary, for then it is hard to hit a deer running, no matter how close up; but even with this weapon all the sportsman has to do is to shoot well; he need not show knowledge of a single detail of hunting craft, nor need he have any trait of mind or body such as he must possess to follow most other kinds of the chase.
Deer-hunting on horseback is something widely different. Even if the hunters carry rifles and themselves kill the deer, using the dogs merely to drive it out of the brush, they must be bold and skilful horsemen, and must show good judgment in riding to cut off the quarry, so as to be able to get a shot at it. This is the common American method of hunting the deer in those places where it is followed with horse and hound; but it is also coursed with greyhounds in certain spots where the lay of the land permits this form of sport, and in many districts, even where ordinary hounds are used, the riders go unarmed and merely follow the pack till the deer is bayed and pulled down. All kinds of hunting on horseback—and most hunting on horseback is done with hounds—tend to bring out the best and manliest qualities in the men who follow them, and they should be encouraged in every way. Long after the rifleman, as well as the game he hunts, shall have vanished from the plains, the cattle country will afford fine sport in coursing hares; and both wolves and deer could be followed and killed with packs of properly-trained hounds, and such sport would be even more exciting than still-hunting with the rifle. It is on the great plains lying west of the Missouri that riding to hounds will in the end receive its fullest development as a national pastime.
But at present, for the reasons already stated, it is almost unknown in the cattle country; and the ranchman who loves sport must try still-hunting—and by still-hunting is meant pretty much every kind of chase where a single man, unaided by a dog, and almost always on foot, outgenerals a deer and kills it with the rifle. To do this successfully, unless deer are very plenty and tame, implies a certain knowledge of the country, and a good knowledge of the habits of the game. The hunter must keep a sharp look-out for deer sign; for, though a man soon gets to have a general knowledge of the kind of places in which deer are likely to be, yet he will also find that they are either very capricious, or else that no man has more than a partial understanding of their tastes and likings; for many spots apparently just suited to them will be almost uninhabited, while in others they will be found where it would hardly occur to any one to suspect their presence. Any cause may temporarily drive deer out of a given locality. Still-hunting, especially, is sure to send many away, while rendering the others extremely wild and shy, and where deer have become used to being pursued in only one way, it is often an excellent plan to try some entirely different method.
A certain knowledge of how to track deer is very useful. To become a really skilful tracker is most difficult; and there are some kinds of ground, where, for instance, it is very hard and dry, or frozen solid, on which almost any man will be at fault. But any one with a little practice can learn to do a certain amount of tracking. On snow, of course, it is very easy; but on the other hand it is also peculiarly difficult to avoid being seen by the deer when the ground is white. After deer have been frightened once or twice, or have even merely been disturbed by man, they get the habit of keeping a watch back on their trail; and when snow has fallen, a man is such a conspicuous object deer see him a long way off, and even the tamest become wild. A deer will often, before lying down, take a half circle back to one side and make its bed a few yards from its trail, where it can, itself unseen, watch any person tracing it up. A man tracking in snow needs to pay very little heed to the footprints, which can be followed without effort, but requires to keep up the closest scrutiny over the ground ahead of him, and on either side of the trail.
In the early morning when there is a heavy dew the footprints will be as plain as possible in the grass, and can then be followed readily; and in any place where the ground is at all damp they will usually be plain enough to be made out without difficulty. When the ground is hard or dry the work is very much less easy, and soon becomes so difficult as not to be worth while following up. Indeed, at all times, even in the snow, tracks are chiefly of use to show the probable locality in which a deer may be found; and the still-hunter instead of laboriously walking along a trail will do far better to merely follow it until, from its freshness and direction, he feels confident that the deer is in some particular space of ground, and then hunt through it, guiding himself by his knowledge of the deer’s habits and by the character of the land. Tracks are of most use in showing whether deer are plenty or scarce, whether they have been in the place recently or not. Generally, signs of deer are infinitely more plentiful than the animals themselves—although in regions where tracking is especially difficult deer are often jumped without any sign having been seen at all. Usually, however, the rule is the reverse, and as deer are likely to make any quantity of tracks the beginner is apt, judging purely from the sign, greatly to over-estimate their number. Another mistake of the beginner is to look for the deer during the daytime in the places where their tracks were made in the morning, when their day beds will probably be a long distance off. In the night-time deer will lie down almost anywhere, but during the day they go some distance from their feeding- or watering-places, as already explained.
If deer are at all plenty—and if scarce only a master in the art can succeed at still-hunting—it is best not to try to follow the tracks at all, but merely to hunt carefully through any ground which from its looks seems likely to contain the animals. Of course the hunting must be done either against or across the wind, and the greatest care must be taken to avoid making a noise. Moccasins should be worn, and not a twig should be trodden on, nor should the dress be allowed to catch in a brush. Especial caution should be used in going over a ridge or crest; no man should ever let his whole body appear at once, but should first carefully peep over, not letting his rifle barrel come into view, and closely inspect every place in sight in which a deer could possibly stand or lie, always remembering that a deer is when still a most difficult animal to see, and that it will be completely hidden in cover which would apparently hardly hold a rabbit. The rifle should be carried habitually so that the sun will not glance upon it. Advantage must be taken, in walking, of all cover, so that the hunter will not be a conspicuous object at any distance. The heads of a series of brushy ravines should always be crossed; and a narrow, winding valley, with patches of bushes and young trees down through the middle, is always a likely place. Caution should never for a moment be forgotten, especially in the morning or evening, the times when a hunter will get nine tenths of his shots; for it is just then, when moving and feeding, that deer are most watchful. One will never browse for more than a minute or two without raising its head and peering about for any possible foe, the great, sensitive ears thrown forward to catch the slightest sound. But while using such caution it is also well to remember that as much ground should be crossed as possible; other things being equal, the number of shots obtained will correspond to the amount of country covered. And of course a man should be on the hunting ground—not starting for the hunting ground—by the time there is enough light by which to shoot.
Deer are in season for hunting from August first to January first. August is really too early to get full enjoyment out of the sport. The bucks, though fat and good eating, are still in the velvet; and neither does nor fawns should be killed, as many of the latter are in the spotted coat. Besides it is very hot in the middle of the day, though pleasant walking in the early morning and late evening, and with cool nights. December is apt to be too cold, although with many fine days. The true time for the chase of the black-tail is in the three fall months. Then the air is fresh and bracing, and a man feels as if he could walk or ride all day long without tiring. In the bright fall weather the country no longer keeps its ordinary look of parched desolation, and the landscape loses its sameness at the touch of the frost. Where every thing before had been gray or dull green there are now patches of russet red and bright yellow. The clumps of ash, wild plum-trees, and rose-bushes in the heads and bottoms of the sloping valleys become spots of color that glow among the stretches of brown and withered grass; the young cotton-woods, growing on the points of land round which flow the rivers and streams, change to a delicate green or yellow, on which the eye rests with pleasure after having so long seen only the dull drab of the prairies. Often there will be days of bitter cold, when a man who sleeps out in the open feels the need of warm furs; but still more often there will be days and days of sunny weather, not cold enough to bring discomfort, but yet so cool that the blood leaps briskly through a man’s veins and makes him feel that to be out and walking over the hills is a pleasure in itself, even were he not in hopes of any moment seeing the sun glint on the horns and hide of some mighty buck, as it rises to face the intruder. On days such as these, mere life is enjoyment; and on days such as these, the life of a hunter is at its pleasantest and best.
Many black-tail are sometimes killed in a day. I have never made big bags myself, for I rarely hunt except for a fine head or when we need meat, and if it can be avoided do not shoot at fawns or does; so the greatest number I have ever killed in a day was three. This was late one November, on an occasion when our larder was running low. My foreman and I, upon discovering this fact, determined to make a trip next day back in the broken country, away from the river, where black-tail were almost sure to be found.
We breakfasted hours before sunrise, and then mounted our horses and rode up the river bottom. The bright prairie moon was at the full, and was sunk in the west till it hung like a globe of white fire over the long row of jagged bluffs that rose from across the river, while its beams brought into fantastic relief the peaks and crests of the buttes upon our left. The valley of the river itself was in partial darkness, and the stiff, twisted branches of the sage-brush seemed to take on uncanny shapes as they stood in the hollows. The cold was stinging, and we let our willing horses gallop with loose reins, their hoofs ringing on the frozen ground. After going up a mile or two along the course of the river we turned off to follow the bed of a large dry creek. At its mouth was a great space of ground much cut up by the hoofs of the cattle, which was in summer overflowed and almost a morass; but now the frost-bound earth was like wrinkled iron beneath the horses’ feet. Behind us the westering moon sank down out of sight; and with no light but that of the stars, we let our horses thread their own way up the creek bottom. When we had gone a couple of miles from the river the sky in front of our faces took on a faint grayish tinge, the forerunner of dawn. Every now and then we passed by bunches of cattle, lying down or standing huddled together in the patches of brush or under the lee of some shelving bank or other wind-break; and as the eastern heavens grew brighter, a dark form suddenly appeared against the sky-line, on the crest of a bluff directly ahead of us. Another and another came up beside it. A glance told us that it was a troop of ponies, which stood motionless, like so many silhouettes, their outstretched necks and long tails vividly outlined against the light behind them. All in the valley was yet dark when we reached the place where the creek began to split up and branch out into the various arms and ravines from which it headed. We galloped smartly over the divide into a set of coulies and valleys which ran into a different creek, and selected a grassy place where there was good feed to leave the horses. My companion picketed his; Manitou needed no picketing.
The tops of the hills were growing rosy, but the sun was not yet above the horizon when we started off, with our rifles on our shoulders, walking in cautious silence, for we were in good ground and might at any moment see a deer. Above us was a plateau of some size, breaking off sharply at the rim into a surrounding stretch of very rough and rugged country. It sent off low spurs with notched crests into the valleys round about, and its edges were indented with steep ravines and half-circular basins, their sides covered with clusters of gnarled and wind-beaten cedars, often gathered into groves of some size. The ground was so broken as to give excellent cover under which a man could approach game unseen; there were plenty of fresh signs of deer; and we were confident we should soon get a shot. Keeping at the bottom of the gullies, so as to be ourselves inconspicuous, we walked noiselessly on, cautiously examining every pocket or turn before we rounded the corner, and looking with special care along the edges of the patches of brush.
At last, just as the sun had risen, we came out by the mouth of a deep ravine or hollow, cut in the flank of the plateau, with steep, cedar-clad sides; and on the crest of a jutting spur, not more than thirty yards from where I stood, was a black-tail doe, half facing me. I was in the shadow, and for a moment she could not make me out, and stood motionless with her head turned toward me and her great ears thrown forward. Dropping on my knee, I held the rifle a little back of her shoulder—too far back, as it proved, as she stood quartering and not broadside to me. No fairer chance could ever fall to the lot of a hunter; but, to my intense chagrin, she bounded off at the report as if unhurt, disappearing instantly. My companion had now come up, and we ran up a rise of ground, and crouched down beside a great block of sandstone, in a position from which we overlooked the whole ravine or hollow. After some minutes of quiet watchfulness, we heard a twig snap—the air was so still we could hear any thing—some rods up the ravine, but below us; and immediately afterward a buck stole out of the cedars. Both of us fired at once, and with a convulsive spring he rolled over backward, one bullet having gone through his neck, and the other—probably mine—having broken a hind leg. Immediately afterward, another buck broke from the upper edge of the cover, near the top of the plateau, and, though I took a hurried shot at him, bounded over the crest, and was lost to sight.
We now determined to go down into the ravine and look for the doe, and as there was a good deal of snow in the bottom and under the trees, we knew we could soon tell if she were wounded. After a little search we found her track, and walking along it a few yards, came upon some drops and then a splash of blood. There being no need to hurry, we first dressed the dead buck—a fine, fat fellow, but with small, misshapen horns,—and then took up the trail of the wounded doe. Here, however, I again committed an error, and paid too much heed to the trail and too little to the country round about; and while following it with my eyes down on the ground in a place where it was faint, the doe got up some distance ahead and to one side of me, and bounded off round a corner of the ravine. The bed where she had lain was not very bloody, but from the fact of her having stopped so soon, I was sure she was badly wounded. However, after she got out of the snow the ground was as hard as flint, and it was impossible to track her; the valley soon took a turn, and branched into a tangle of coulies and ravines. I deemed it probable that she would not go up hill, but would run down the course of the main valley; but as it was so uncertain, we thought it would pay us best to look for a new deer.
Our luck, however, seemed—very deservedly—to have ended. We tramped on, as swiftly as was compatible with quiet, for hour after hour; beating through the valleys against the wind, and crossing the brushy heads of the ravines, sometimes close together, and sometimes keeping about a hundred yards apart, according to the nature of the ground. When we had searched all through the country round the head of the creek, into which we had come down, we walked over to the next, and went over it with equal care and patience. The morning was now well advanced, and we had to change our method of hunting. It was no longer likely that we should find the deer feeding or in the open, and instead we looked for places where they might be expected to bed, following any trails that led into thick patches of brush or young trees, one of us then hunting through the patch while the other kept watch without. Doubtless we must have passed close to more than one deer, and doubtless others heard us and skulked off through the thick cover; but, although we saw plenty of signs, we saw neither hoof nor hair of living thing. It is under such circumstances that a still-hunter needs to show resolution, and to persevere until his luck turns—this being a euphemistic way of saying, until he ceases to commit the various blunders which alarm the deer and make them get out of the way. Plenty of good shots become disgusted if they do not see a deer early in the morning, and go home; still more, if they do not see one in two or three days. Others will go on hunting, but become careless, stumble and step on dried sticks, and let their eyes fall to the ground. It is a good test of a man’s resolution to see if, at the end of a long and unsuccessful tramp after deer, he moves just as carefully, and keeps just as sharp a look-out as he did at the beginning. If he does this, and exercises a little common-sense—in still-hunting, as in every thing else, common-sense is the most necessary of qualities,—he may be sure that his reward will come some day; and when it does come, he feels a gratification that only his fellow-sportsmen can understand.
We lunched at the foot of a great clay butte, where there was a bed of snow. Fall or winter hunting in the Bad Lands has one great advantage: the hunter is not annoyed by thirst as he is almost sure to be if walking for long hours under the blazing summer sun. If he gets very thirsty, a mouthful or two of snow from some hollow will moisten his lips and throat; and anyhow thirstiness is largely a mere matter of habit. For lunch, the best thing a hunter can carry is dried or smoked venison, with not too much salt in it. It is much better than bread, and not nearly so dry; and it is easier to carry, as a couple of pieces can be thrust into the bosom of the hunting-shirt or the pocket, or in fact anywhere; and for keeping up a man’s strength there is nothing that comes up to it.
After lunch we hunted until the shadows began to lengthen out, when we went back to our horses. The buck was packed behind good old Manitou, who can carry any amount of weight at a smart pace, and does not care at all if a strap breaks and he finds his load dangling about his feet, an event that reduces most horses to a state of frantic terror. As soon as loaded we rode down the valley into which the doe had disappeared in the morning, one taking each side and looking into every possible lurking place. The odds were all against our finding any trace of her; but a hunter soon learns that he must take advantage of every chance, however slight. This time we were rewarded for our care; for after riding about a mile our attention was attracted by a white patch in a clump of low briars. On getting off and looking in it proved to be the white rump of the doe, which lay stretched out inside, stark and stiff. The ball had gone in too far aft and had come out on the opposite side near her hip, making a mortal wound, but one which allowed her to run over a mile before dying. It was little more than an accident that we in the end got her; and my so nearly missing at such short range was due purely to carelessness and bad judgment. I had killed too many deer to be at all nervous over them, and was as cool with a buck as with a rabbit; but as she was so close I made the common mistake of being too much in a hurry, and did not wait to see that she was standing quartering to me and that consequently I should aim at the point of the shoulder. As a result the deer was nearly lost.
Neither of my shots had so far done me much credit; but at any rate I had learned where the error lay, and this is going a long way toward correcting it. I kept wishing that I could get another chance to see if I had not profited by my lessons; and before we reached home my wish was gratified. We were loping down a grassy valley, dotted with clumps of brush, the wind blowing strong in our faces, and deadening the noise made by the hoofs on the grass. As we passed by a piece of broken ground a yearling black-tail buck jumped into view and cantered away. I was off Manitou’s back in an instant. The buck was moving slowly, and was evidently soon going to stop and look round, so I dropped on one knee, with my rifle half raised, and waited. When about sixty yards off he halted and turned sideways to me, offering a beautiful broadside shot. I aimed at the spot just behind the shoulder and felt I had him. At the report he went off, but with short, weak bounds, and I knew he would not go far; nor did he, but stopped short, swayed unsteadily about, and went over on his side, dead, the bullet clean through his body.
Each of us already had a deer behind his saddle, so we could not take the last buck along with us. Accordingly we dressed him, and hung him up by the heels to a branch of a tree, piling the brush around as if building a slight pen or trap, to keep off the coyotes; who, anyhow, are not apt to harm game that is hanging up, their caution seeming to make them fear that it will not be safe to do so. In such cold weather a deer hung up in this way will keep an indefinite length of time; and the carcass was all right when a week or two afterwards we sent out the buck-board to bring it back.
A stout buck-board is very useful on a ranch, where men are continually taking short trips on which they do not wish to be encumbered by the heavy ranch wagon. Pack ponies are always a nuisance, though of course an inevitable one in making journeys through mountains or forests. But on the plains a buck-board is far more handy. The blankets and provisions can be loaded upon it, and it can then be given a definite course to travel or point to reach; and meanwhile the hunters, without having their horses tired by carrying heavy packs, can strike off and hunt wherever they wish. There is little or no difficulty in going over the prairie; but it needs a skilful plainsman, as well as a good teamster, to take a wagon through the Bad Lands. There are but two courses to follow. One is to go along the bottoms of the valleys; the other is to go along the tops of the divides. The latter is generally the best; for each valley usually has at its bottom a deep winding ditch with perpendicular banks, which wanders first to one side and then to the other, and has to be crossed again and again, while a little way from it begin the gullies and gulches which come down from the side hills. It is no easy matter to tell which is the main divide, as it curves and twists about, and is all the time splitting up into lesser ones, which merely separate two branches of the same creek. If the teamster does not know the lay of the land he will be likely to find himself in a cul-de-sac, from which he can only escape by going back a mile or two and striking out afresh. In very difficult country the horsemen must be on hand to help the team pull up the steep places. Many horses that will not pull a pound in harness will haul for all there is in them from the saddle; Manitou is a case in point. Often obstacles will be encountered across which it is simply impossible for any team to drag a loaded or even an empty wagon. Such are steep canyons, or muddy-bottomed streams with sheer banks, especially if the latter have rotten edges. The horses must then be crossed first and the wagon dragged over afterward by the aid of long ropes. Often it may be needful to build a kind of rude bridge or causeway on which to get the animals over; and if the canyon is very deep the wagon may have to be taken in pieces, let down one side, and hauled up the other. An immense amount of labor may be required to get over a very trifling distance. Pack animals, however, can go almost anywhere that a man can.
Although still-hunting on foot, as described above, is on the whole the best way to get deer, yet there are many places where from the nature of the land the sport can be followed quite as well on horseback, than which there is no more pleasant kind of hunting. The best shot I ever made in my life—a shot into which, however, I am afraid the element of chance entered much more largely than the element of skill—was made while hunting black-tail on horseback.
We were at that time making quite a long trip with the wagon, and were going up the fork of a plains river in Western Montana. As we were out of food, those two of our number who usually undertook to keep the camp supplied with game determined to make a hunt off back of the river after black-tail; for though there were some white-tail in the more densely timbered river bottoms, we had been unable to get any. It was arranged that the wagon should go on a few miles, and then halt for the night, as it was already the middle of the afternoon when we started out. The country resembled in character other parts of the cattle plains, but it was absolutely bare of trees except along the bed of the river. The rolling hills sloped steeply off into long valleys and deep ravines. They were sparsely covered with coarse grass, and also with an irregular growth of tall sage-brush, which in some places gathered into dense thickets. A beginner would have thought the country entirely too barren of cover to hold deer, but a very little experience teaches one that deer will be found in thickets of such short and sparse growth that it seems as if they could hide nothing; and, what is more, that they will often skulk round in such thickets without being discovered. And a black-tail is a bold, free animal, liking to go out in comparatively open country, where he must trust to his own powers, and not to any concealment, to protect him from danger.
Where the hilly country joined the alluvial river bottom, it broke short off into steep bluffs, up which none but a Western pony could have climbed. It is really wonderful to see what places a pony can get over, and the indifference with which it regards tumbles. In getting up from the bottom we went into a wash-out, and then led our ponies along a clay ledge, from which we turned off and went straight up a very steep sandy bluff. My companion was ahead; just as he turned off the ledge, and as I was right underneath him, his horse, in plunging to try to get up the sand bluff, overbalanced itself, and, after standing erect on its hind legs for a second, came over backward. The second’s pause while it stood bolt upright, gave me time to make a frantic leap out of the way with my pony, which scrambled after me, and we both clung with hands and hoofs to the side of the bank, while the other horse took two as complete somersaults as I ever saw, and landed with a crash at the bottom of the wash-out, feet uppermost. I thought it was done for, but not a bit. After a moment or two it struggled to its legs, shook itself, and looked round in rather a shamefaced way, apparently not in the least the worse for the fall. We now got my pony up to the top by vigorous pulling, and then went down for the other, which at first strongly objected to making another trial, but, after much coaxing and a good deal of abuse, took a start and went up without trouble.
For some time after reaching the top of the bluffs we rode along without seeing any thing. When it was possible, we kept one on each side of a creek, avoiding the tops of the ridges, because while on them a horseman can be seen at a very long distance, and going with particular caution whenever we went round a spur or came up over a crest. The country stretched away like an endless, billowy sea of dull-brown soil and barren sage-brush, the valleys making long parallel furrows, and every thing having a look of dreary sameness. At length, as we came out on a rounded ridge, three black-tail bucks started up from a lot of sage-brush some two hundred yards away and below us, and made off down hill. It was a very long shot, especially to try running, but, as game seemed scarce and cartridges were plenty, I leaped off the horse, and, kneeling, fired. The bullet went low, striking in line at the feet of the hindmost. I held very high next time, making a wild shot above and ahead of them, which had the effect of turning them, and they went off round a shoulder of a bluff, being by this time down in the valley. Having plenty of time I elevated the sights (a thing I hardly ever do) to four hundred yards and waited for their reappearance. Meanwhile they had evidently gotten over their fright, for pretty soon one walked out from the other side of the bluff, and came to a standstill, broadside toward me. He was too far off for me to see his horns. As I was raising the rifle another stepped out and began to walk towards the first. I thought I might as well have as much of a target as possible to shoot at, and waited for the second buck to come out farther, which he did immediately and stood still just alongside of the first. I aimed above his shoulders and pulled the trigger. Over went the two bucks! And when I rushed down to where they lay I found I had pulled a little to one side, and the bullet had broken the backs of both. While my companion was dressing them I went back and paced off the distance. It was just four hundred and thirty-one long paces; over four hundred yards. Both were large bucks and very fat, with the velvet hanging in shreds from their antlers, for it was late in August. The day was waning and we had a long ride back to the wagon, each with a buck behind his saddle. When we came back to the river valley it was pitch dark, and it was rather ticklish work for our heavily laden horses to pick their way down the steep bluffs and over the rapid stream; nor were we sorry when we saw ahead under a bluff the gleam of the camp fire, as it was reflected back from the canvas-topped prairie schooner, that for the time being represented home to us.
This was much the best shot I ever made; and it is just such a shot as any one will occasionally make if he takes a good many chances and fires often at ranges where the odds are greatly against his hitting. I suppose I had fired a dozen times at animals four or five hundred yards off, and now, by the doctrine of chances, I happened to hit; but I would have been very foolish if I had thought for a moment that I had learned how to hit at over four hundred yards. I have yet to see the hunter who can hit with any regularity at that distance, when he has to judge it for himself; though I have seen plenty who could make such a long range hit now and then. And I have noticed that such a hunter, in talking over his experience, was certain soon to forget the numerous misses he made, and to say, and even to actually think, that his occasional hits represented his average shooting.
One of the finest black-tail bucks I ever shot was killed while lying out in a rather unusual place. I was hunting mountain-sheep, in a stretch of very high and broken country, and about mid-day, crept cautiously up to the edge of a great gorge, whose sheer walls went straight down several hundred feet. Peeping over the brink of the chasm I saw a buck, lying out on a ledge so narrow as to barely hold him, right on the face of the cliff wall opposite, some distance below, and about seventy yards diagonally across from me. He lay with his legs half stretched out, and his head turned so as to give me an exact centre-shot at his forehead; the bullet going in between his eyes, so that his legs hardly so much as twitched when he received it. It was toilsome and almost dangerous work climbing out to where he lay; I have never known any other individual, even of this bold and adventurous species of deer, to take its noonday siesta in a place so barren of all cover and so difficult of access even to the most sure-footed climber. This buck was as fat as a prize sheep, and heavier than any other I have ever killed; while his antlers also were, with two exceptions, the best I ever got.