Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. 1885.Chapter III
The Grouse of the Northern Cattle Plains
I am far from decrying the shot-gun. It is always pleasant as a change from the rifle, and in the Eastern States it is almost the only fire-arm which we now have a chance to use. But out in the cattle country it is the rifle that is always carried by the ranchman who cares for sport. Large game is still that which is sought after, and most of the birds killed are either simply slaughtered for the pot, or else shot for the sake of variety, while really after deer or antelope; though every now and then I have taken a day with the shot-gun after nothing else but prairie fowl.
The sharp-tailed prairie fowl is much the most plentiful of the feathered game to be found on the northern cattle plains, where it replaces the common prairie chicken so abundant on the prairies to the east and southeast of the range of our birds. In habits it is much like the latter, being one of the grouse which keep to the open, treeless tracts, though it is far less averse to timber than is its nearest relative, and often is found among the cotton-wood trees and thick brush which fringe the streams. I have never noticed that its habits when pursued differ much from those of the common prairie chicken, though it is perhaps a little more shy, and is certainly much more apt to light on a tree like the ruffed grouse. It is, however, essentially a bird of the wilds, and it is a curious fact that it seems to retreat before civilization, continually moving westward as the wheat fields advance, while its place is taken by the common form, which seems to keep pace with the settlement of the country. Like the latter bird, and unlike the ruffed grouse and blue grouse, which have white meat, its flesh is dark, and it is very good eating from about the middle of August to the middle of November, after which it is a little tough.
As already said, the ranchmen do not often make a regular hunt after these grouse. This is partly because most of them look with something akin to contempt upon any fire-arm but the rifle or revolver, and partly because it is next to impossible to keep hunting-dogs very long on the plains. The only way to check in any degree the ravages of the wolves is by the most liberal use of strychnine, and the offal of any game killed by a cattle-man is pretty sure to be poisoned before being left, while the “wolfer,” or professional wolf-killer strews his bait everywhere. It thus comes about that any dog who is in the habit of going any distance from the house is almost sure to run across and eat some of the poisoned meat, the effect of which is certain death. The only time I have ever shot sharp-tailed prairie fowl over dogs was during a trip to the eastward with my brother, which will be described further on. Out on the plains I have occasionally taken a morning with the shot-gun after them, but more often have either simply butchered them for the pot, when out of meat, or else have killed a few with the rifle when I happened to come across them while after deer or antelope.
Occasions frequently arise, in living a more or less wild life, when a man has to show his skill in shifting for himself; when, for instance, he has to go out and make a foray upon the grouse, neither for sport, nor yet for a change of diet, but actually for food. Under such circumstances he of course pays no regard to the rules of sport which would govern his conduct on other occasions. If a man’s dinner for several consecutive days depends upon a single shot, he is a fool if he does not take every advantage he can. I remember, for instance, one time when we were travelling along the valley of the Powder River, and got entirely out of fresh meat, owing to my making a succession of ludicrously bad misses at deer. Having had my faith in my capacity to kill any thing whatever with the rifle a good deal shaken, I started off one morning on horseback with the shot-gun. Until nearly noon I saw nothing; then, while riding through a barren-looking bottom, I happened to spy some prairie fowl squatting close to the ground underneath a sage-brush. It was some minutes before I could make out what they were, they kept so low and so quiet, and their color harmonized so well with their surroundings. Finally I was convinced that they were grouse, and rode my horse slowly by them. When opposite, I reined him in and fired, killing the whole bunch of five birds. Another time at the ranch our supply of fresh meat gave out entirely, and I sallied forth with the ranch gun, intent, not on sport, but on slaughter. It was late fall, and as I rode along in the dawn (for the sun was not up) a small pack of prairie fowl passed over my head and lit on a dead tree that stood out some little distance from a grove of cotton-woods. They paid little attention to me, but they are so shy at that season that I did not dare to try to approach them on foot, but let the horse jog on at the regular cow-pony gait—a kind of single-foot pace, between a walk and a trot,—and as I passed by fired into the tree and killed four birds. Now, of course I would not have dreamed of taking either of these shots had I been out purely for sport, and neither needed any more skill than would be shown in killing hens in a barn-yard; but, after all, when one is hunting for one’s dinner he takes an interest in his success which he would otherwise lack, and on both occasions I felt a most unsportsman-like glee when I found how many I had potted.
The habits of this prairie fowl vary greatly at different seasons of the year. It is found pretty much everywhere within moderate distance of water, for it does not frequent the perfectly dry wastes where we find the great sage cock. But it is equally at home on the level prairie and among the steep hills of the Bad Lands. When on the ground it has rather a comical look, for it stands very high on its legs, carries its sharp little tail cocked up like a wren’s, and when startled stretches its neck out straight; altogether it gives one the impression of being a very angular bird. Of course it crouches, and moves about when feeding, like any other grouse.
One of the strangest, and to me one of the most attractive, sounds of the prairie is the hollow booming made by the cocks in spring. Before the snow has left the ground they begin, and at the break of morning their deep resonant calls sound from far and near, for in still weather they can be heard at an immense distance. I hardly know how to describe the call; indeed it cannot be described in words. It has a hollow, vibrant sound like that of some wind instrument, and would hardly be recognized as a bird note at all. I have heard it at evening, but more often shortly after dawn; and I have often stopped and listened to it for many minutes, for it is as strange and weird a form of natural music as any I know. At the time of the year when they utter these notes the cocks gather together in certain places and hold dancing rings, posturing and strutting about as they face and pass each other.
The nest is generally placed in a tuft of grass or under a sage-brush in the open, but occasionally in the brush wood near a stream. The chicks are pretty little balls of mottled brown and yellow down. The mother takes great care of them, leading them generally into some patch of brushwood, but often keeping them out in the deep grass. Frequently when out among the cattle I have ridden my horse almost over a hen with a brood of chicks. The little chicks first attempt to run off in single file; if discovered they scatter and squat down under clods of earth or tufts of grass. Holding one in my hand near my pocket it scuttled into it like a flash. The mother, when she sees her brood discovered, tumbles about through the grass as if wounded, in the effort to decoy the foe after her. If she is successful in this, she takes a series of short flights, keeping just out of reach of her pursuer, and when the latter has been lured far enough from the chicks the hen rises and flies off at a humming speed.
By the middle of August the young are well enough grown to shoot, and are then most delicious eating. Different coveys at this time vary greatly in their behavior if surprised feeding in the open. Sometimes they will not permit of a very close approach, and will fly off after one or two have been shot; while again they will show perfect indifference to the approach of man, and will allow the latter to knock off the heads of five or six with his rifle before the rest take the alarm and fly off. They now go more or less all over the open ground, but are especially fond of frequenting the long grass in the bottoms of the coulies and ravines and the dense brush along the edges of the creeks and in the valleys; there they will invariably be found at mid-day, and will lie till they are almost trodden on before rising.
Late in the month of August one year we had been close-herding a small bunch of young cattle on a bottom about a mile square, walled in by bluffs, and with, as an inlet, a long, dry creek running back many miles into the Bad Lands, where it branched out into innumerable smaller creeks and coulies. We wished to get the cattle accustomed to the locality, for animals are more apt to stray when first brought on new ground than at any later period; so each night we “bedded” them on the level bottom—that is, gathering them together on the plain, one of us would ride slowly and quietly round and round the herd, heading off and turning back into it all beasts that tried to stray off, but carefully avoiding disturbing them or making any unusual noise; and by degrees they would all lie down, close together. This “bedding down” is always done when travelling with a large herd, when, of course, it needs several cowboys to do it; and in such cases some of the cowboys keep guard all the time, walking their horses round the herd, and singing and calling to the cattle all night long. The cattle seem to like to hear the human voice, and it tends to keep them quiet and free from panic. Often when camping near some great cattle outfit I have lain awake at night for an hour or over listening to the wild, not unmusical, calls of the cowboys as they rode round the half-slumbering steers. In the clear, still night air the calls can be heard for a mile and more, and I like to listen to them as they come through the darkness, half mellowed by the distance, for they are one of the characteristic sounds of plains life. Texan steers often give considerable trouble before they can be bedded, and are prone to stampede, especially in a thunder-storm. But with the little herd we were at this time guarding there was no difficulty whatever, the animals being grade short-horns of Eastern origin. After seeing them quiet we would leave them for the night, again riding out early in the morning.
On every occasion when we thus rode out in the morning we saw great numbers of prairie fowl feeding in the open plain in small flocks, each evidently composed of a hen and her grown brood. They would often be right round the cattle, and went indifferently among the sage-brush or out on the short prairie grass. They flew into the bottom from some distance off about daybreak, fed for a couple of hours, and soon after sunrise again took wing and flew up along the course of the dry creek mentioned above. While on the bottom they were generally quite shy, not permitting any thing like a close approach before taking wing. Their habit of crowing or clucking while flying off is very noticeable; it is, by the way, a most strongly characteristic trait of this species. I have been especially struck by it when shooting in Minnesota, where both the sharp-tail and the common prairie fowl are found; the contrast between the noisiness of one bird and the quiet of the other was very marked. If one of us approached a covey on horseback the birds would, if they thought they were unobserved, squat down close to the ground; more often they would stand very erect, and walk off. If we came too close to one it would utter a loud kuk-kuk-kuk, and be off, at every few strokes of its wings repeating the sound—a kind of crowing cluck. This is the note they utter when alarmed, or when calling to one another. When a flock are together and undisturbed they keep up a sociable garrulous cackling.
Every morning by the time the sun had been up a little while the grouse had all gone from the bottom, but later in the day while riding along the creek among the cattle we often stumbled upon little flocks. We fired at them with our revolvers whenever we were close enough, but the amount we got in this way was very limited, and as we were rather stinted for fresh meat, the cattle taking up so much of our time as to prevent our going after deer, I made up my mind to devote a morning to hunting up the creeks and coulies for grouse, with the shot-gun.
Accordingly the next morning I started, just about the time the last of the flocks were flying away from their feeding-ground on the bottom. I trudged along on foot, not wanting to be bothered by a horse. The air was fresh and cool, though the cloudless sky boded a hot noon. As I walked by the cattle they stopped grazing and looked curiously at me, for they were unused to seeing any man not on horseback. But they did not offer to molest me; Texan or even northern steers bred on the more remote ranges will often follow and threaten a foot-man for miles. While passing among the cattle it was amusing to see the actions of the little cow buntings. They were very familiar little birds, lighting on the backs of the beasts, and keeping fluttering round their heads as they walked through the grass, hopping up into the air all the time. At first I could not make out what they were doing; but on watching them closely saw that they were catching the grasshoppers and moths which flew into the air to avoid the cattle’s hoofs. They are as tame with horsemen; while riding through a patch of tall grass a flock of buntings will often keep circling within a couple of yards of the horse’s head, seizing the insects as they fly up before him.
The valley through which the creek ran was quite wide, bordered by low buttes. After a heavy rainfall the water rushes through the at other times dry bed in a foaming torrent, and it thus cuts it down into a canyon-like shape, making it a deep, winding, narrow ditch, with steep sides. Along the edges of this ditch were dense patches, often quite large, of rose-bushes, bullberry bushes, ash, and wild cherry, making almost impenetrable thickets, generally not over breast high. In the bottom of the valley, along the edges of the stream bed, the grass was long and coarse, entirely different from the short fine bunch grass a little farther back, the favorite food of the cattle.
Almost as soon as I had entered the creek, in walking through a small patch of brush I put up an old cock, as strong a flyer as the general run of October birds. Off he went, with a whirr, clucking and crowing; I held the little 16-bore fully two feet ahead of him, pulled the trigger, and down he came into the bushes. The sharp-tails fly strongly and steadily, springing into the air when they rise, and then going off in a straight line, alternately sailing and giving a succession of rapid wing-beats. Sometimes they will sail a long distance with set wings before alighting, and when they are passing overhead with their wings outstretched each of the separate wing feathers can be seen, rigid and distinct.
Picking up and pocketing my bird I walked on, and on turning round a shoulder of the bluffs saw a pair of sharp-tails sitting sunning themselves on the top of a bullberry bush. As soon as they saw me they flew off a short distance and lit in the bed of the creek. Rightly judging that there were more birds than those I had seen I began to beat with great care the patches of brush and long grass on both sides of the creek, and soon was rewarded by some very pretty shooting. The covey was a large one, composed of two or three broods of young prairie fowl, and I struck on the exact place, a slight hollow filled with low brush and tall grass, where they were lying. They lay very close, and my first notice of their presence was given by one that I almost trod on, which rose from fairly between my feet. A young grouse at this season offers an easy shot, and he was dropped without difficulty. At the report two others rose and I got one. When I had barely reloaded the rest began to get up, singly or two or three at a time, rising straight up to clear the edge of the hollow, and making beautiful marks; when the last one had been put up I had down seven birds, of which I picked up six, not being able to find the other. A little farther on I put up and shot a single grouse, which fell into a patch of briars I could not penetrate. Then for some time I saw nothing, although beating carefully through every likely-looking place. One patch of grass, but a few feet across, I walked directly through without rousing any thing; happening to look back when I had gone some fifty yards, I was surprised to see a dozen heads and necks stretched up, and eying me most inquisitively; their owners were sharp-tails, a covey of which I had almost walked over without their making a sign. I strode back; but at my first step they all stood up straight, with their absurd little tails held up in the air, and at the next step away they went, flying off a quarter of a mile and then scattering in the brushy hollows where a coulie headed up into the buttes. (Grouse at this season hardly ever light in a tree.) I marked them down carefully and tramped all through the place, yet I only succeeded in putting up two, of which I got one and missed the other with both barrels. After that I walked across the heads of the coulies, but saw nothing except in a small swale of high grass, where there was a little covey of five, of which I got two with a right and left. It was now very hot, and I made for a spring which I knew ran out of a cliff a mile or two off. There I stayed till long after the shadows began to lengthen, when I started homeward. For some miles I saw nothing, but as the evening came on the grouse began to stir. A small party flew over my head, and though I missed them with both barrels, either because I miscalculated the distance or for some other reason, yet I marked them down very well, and when I put them up again got two. Three times afterward I came across coveys, either flying or walking out from the edges of the brushes, and I got one bird out of each, reaching home just after sunset with fifteen sharp-tails strung over my back. Of course working after grouse on an August day in this manner, without a dog, is very tiring, and no great bag can be made without a pointer or setter.
In September the sharp-tails begin to come out from the brushy coulies and creek bottoms, and to wander out among the short grass of the ravines and over the open prairie. They are at first not very shy, and in the early part of the month I have once or twice had good sport with them. Once I took a companion in the buck-board, and drove during the course of the day twenty or twenty-five miles along the edge of the rolling prairie, crossing the creeks, and skirting the wooded basins where the Bad Lands began. We came across quite a number of coveys, which in almost all cases waited for us to come up, and as the birds did not rise all together, I got three or four shots at each covey, and came home with ten and a half couple.
A little later the birds become shy and acquire their full strength of wing. They now wander far out on the prairie, and hardly ever make any effort to squat down and conceal themselves in the marvellous way which they have earlier in the season, but, on the contrary, trust to their vigilance and their powers of flight for their safety. On bare ground it is now impossible to get anywhere near them, but if they are among sage-brush or in other low cover they afford fine sport to a good shot, with a close-shooting, strong-hitting gun. I remember one evening, while coming over with a wagon team from the head waters of O’Fallon Creek, across the Big Sandy, when it became a matter of a good deal of interest for us to kill something, as otherwise we would have had very little to eat. We had camped near a succession of small pools, containing one or two teal, which I shot; but a teal is a small bird when placed before three hungry men. Sharp-tails, however, were quite numerous, having come in from round about, as evening came on, to drink. They were in superb condition, stout and heavy, with clean, bright plumage, but very shy; and they rose so far off and flew so strongly and swiftly that a good many cartridges were spent before four of the plump, white-bellied birds were brought back to the wagon in my pockets.
Later than this they sometimes unite into great packs, containing hundreds of individuals, and then show a strong preference for the timbered ravines and the dense woods and underbrush of the river bottoms, the upper branches of the trees being their favorite resting-places. On very cold mornings, when they are feeling numb and chilled, a man can sometimes get very close up to them, but as a rule they are very wild, and the few I have killed at this season of the year have been shot with the rifle, either from a tree or when standing out on the bare hillsides, at a considerable distance. They offer very pretty marks for target practice with the rifle, and it needs a good shot to hit one at eighty or a hundred yards.
But though the shot-gun is generally of no use late in the season, yet last December I had a good afternoon’s sport with it. There was a light snow falling, and having been in the house all the morning, I determined to take a stroll out in the afternoon with the shot-gun. A couple of miles from the house was a cedar canyon; that is, a canyon one of whose sides was densely wooded with gnarled, stunted evergreens. This had been a favorite resort for the sharp-tails for some time, and it was especially likely that they would go to it during a storm, as it afforded fine shelter, and also food. The buttes bounding it on the side where the trees were, rose to a sharp crest, which extended along with occasional interruptions for over a mile, and by walking along near this and occasionally looking out over it, I judged I would get up close to the grouse, while the falling snow and the wind would deaden the report of the gun, and not let it scare all the prairie fowl out of the canyon at the first fire. It came out as I had planned and expected. I clambered up to the crest near the mouth of the gorge, braced myself firmly, and looked over the top. At once a dozen sharp-tails, who had perched in the cedar tops almost at my feet, took wing, crossed over the canyon, and as they rose all in a bunch to clear the opposite wall I fired both barrels into the brown, and two of the birds dropped down to the bottom of the ravine. They fell on the snow-covered open ground where I could easily find them again, and as it would have been a great and useless labor to have gone down for them, I left them where they were and walked on along the crest. Before I had gone a hundred yards I had put up another sharp-tail from a cedar and killed him in fine style as he sailed off below me. The snow and bad weather seemed to make the prairie fowl disinclined to move. There must have been a good many score of them scattered in bunches among the cedars, and as I walked along I put up a covey or a single bird every two or three hundred yards. They were always started when I was close up to them, and the nature of the place made them offer excellent shots as they went off, while when killed they dropped down on the snow-covered canyon bottom where they could be easily recovered on my walk home. When the sharp-tails had once left the canyon they scattered among the broken buttes. I tried to creep up to one or two, but they were fully as wild and watchful as deer, and would not let me come within a hundred yards of them; so I turned back, climbed down into the canyon, and walked homeward through it, picking up nine birds on the way, the result of a little over an hour’s shooting. Most of them were dead outright; and the two or three who had been only wounded were easily followed by the tracks they made in the tell-tale snow.
Most of the prairie fowl I have killed, however, have not been obtained in the course of a day or an afternoon regularly spent after them for the sake of the sport, but have simply been shot with whatever weapon came handy, because we actually needed them for immediate use. On more than one occasion I would have gone supperless or dinnerless had it not been for some of these grouse; and one such instance I will give.
One November, about the middle of the month, we had driven in a beef herd (which we wished to ship to the cattle yards), round the old cantonment building, in which a few years ago troops had been stationed to guard against Indian outbreaks. Having taken care of the beef herd, I determined to visit a little bunch of cattle which was some thirty-five miles down the river, under the care of one of my men—a grizzled old fellow, born in Maine, whose career had been varied to an extent only possible in America, he having successively followed the occupations of seaman, druggist, clerk, buffalo hunter, and cowboy.
I intended to start about noon, but there was so much business to settle that it was an hour and a half afterwards before I put spurs to the smart little cow-pony and loped briskly down the valley. It was a sharp day, the mercury well down towards zero; and the pony, fresh and untired, and impatient of standing in the cold, went along at a good rate; but darkness sets in so early at this season that I had not gone many miles before I began to fear that I would not reach the shack by nightfall. The well-beaten trail followed along the bottoms for some distance and then branched out into the Bad Lands, leading up and down through the ravines and over the ridge crests of some very rough and broken country, and crossing a great level plateau, over which the wind blew savagely, sweeping the powdery snow clean off of the bent blades of short, brown grass. After making a wide circle of some twelve miles the trail again came back to the Little Missouri, and led along the bottoms between the rows of high bluffs, continually crossing and recrossing the river. These crossings were difficult and disagreeable for the horse, as they always are when the ice is not quite heavy enough to bear. The water had not frozen until two or three days before, and the cold snap had not yet lasted long enough to make the ice solid, besides which it was covered with about half an inch of light snow that had fallen, concealing all bad-looking places. The ice after bearing the cautiously stepping pony for a few yards would suddenly break and let him down to the bottom, and he would then have to plunge and paw his way through to the opposite shore. Often it is almost impossible to make a pony attempt the crossing under such circumstances; and I have seen ponies which had to be knocked down and pulled across glare ice on their sides. If the horse slips and falls it is a serious matter to the rider; for a wetting in such cold weather, with a long horseback journey to make, is no joke.
I was still several miles from the hut I was striving to reach when the sun set; and for some time previous the valley had been in partial darkness, though the tops of the sombre bluffs around were still lit up. The pony loped steadily on along the trail, which could be dimly made out by the starlight. I hurried the willing little fellow all I could without distressing him, for though I knew the road pretty well, yet I doubted if I could find it easily in perfect darkness; and the clouds were gathering overhead with a rapidity which showed that the starlight would last but a short while. The light snow rendered the hoof beats of my horse muffled and indistinct; and almost the only sound that broke the silence was the long-drawn, melancholy howling of a wolf, a quarter of a mile off. When we came to the last crossing the pony was stopped and watered; and we splashed through over a rapid where the ice had formed only a thin crust. On the opposite side was a large patch of cotton-woods thickly grown up with underbrush, the whole about half a mile square. In this was the cowboy’s shack, but as it was now pitch dark I was unable to find it until I rode clean through to the cow-corral, which was out in the open on the other side. Here I dismounted, groped around till I found the path, and then easily followed it to the shack.
Rather to my annoyance the cowboy was away, having run out of provisions, as I afterwards learned; and of course he had left nothing to eat behind him. The tough little pony was, according to custom, turned loose to shift for himself; and I went into the low, windowless hut, which was less than twelve feet square. In one end was a great chimney-place, and it took but a short time to start a roaring fire, which speedily made the hut warm and comfortable. Then I went down to the river with an axe and a pail, and got some water; I had carried a paper of tea in my pocket, and the tea-kettle was soon simmering away. I should have liked something to eat, but as I did not have it, the hot tea did not prove such a bad substitute for a cold and tired man.
Next morning I sallied out at break of day with the rifle, for I was pretty hungry. As soon as I stepped from the hut I could hear the prairie fowl crowing and calling to one another from the tall trees. There were many score—many hundreds would perhaps be more accurate—scattered through the wood. Evidently they had been attracted by the good cover and by the thick growth of choke-cherries and wild plums. As the dawn brightened the sharp-tails kept up incessantly their hoarse clucking, and small parties began to fly down from their roosts to the berry bushes. While perched up among the bare limbs of the trees, sharply outlined against the sky, they were very conspicuous. Generally they crouched close down, with the head drawn in to the body and the feathers ruffled, but when alarmed or restless they stood up straight with their necks stretched out, looking very awkward. Later in the day they would have been wild and hard to approach, but I kept out of their sight, and sometimes got two or three shots at the same bird before it flew off. They offered beautiful marks, and I could generally get a rest for my rifle, while in the gray morning, before sunrise, I was not very conspicuous myself, and could get up close beneath where they were; so I did not have much trouble in killing five, almost all of them shot very nearly where the neck joins the body, one having the head fairly cut off. Salt, like tea, I had carried with me, and it was not long before two of the birds, plucked and cleaned, were split open and roasting before the fire. And to me they seemed most delicious food, although even in November the sharp-tails, while keeping their game flavor, have begun to be dry and tough, most unlike the tender and juicy young of August and September.
The best day’s work I ever did after sharp-tails was in the course of the wagon trip, already mentioned, which my brother and I made through the fertile farming country to the eastward. We had stopped over night with a Norwegian settler who had taken and adapted to a farmhouse an old log trading-post of one of the fur companies, lying in the timber which fringed a river, and so stoutly built as to have successfully withstood the assaults of time. We were travelling in a light covered wagon, in which we could drive anywhere over the prairie. Our dogs would have made an Eastern sportsman blush, for when roughing it in the West we have to put up with any kind of mongrel makeshift, and the best dog gets pretty well battered after a season or two. I never had a better duck retriever than a little yellow cur, with hardly a trace of hunting blood in his veins. On this occasion we had a stiff-jointed old pointer with a stub tail, and a wild young setter pup, tireless and ranging very free (a Western dog on the prairies should cover five times the ground necessary for an Eastern one to get over), but very imperfectly trained.
Half of the secret of success on a shooting trip lies in getting up early and working all day; and this at least we had learned, for we were off as soon as there was light enough by which to drive. The ground, of course, was absolutely fenceless, houses being many miles apart. Through the prairie, with its tall grass, in which the sharp-tails lay at night and during the day, were scattered great grain fields, their feeding-grounds in the morning and evening. Our plan was to drive from one field to another, getting out at each and letting the dogs hunt it over. The birds were in small coveys and lay fairly well to the dogs, though they rose much farther off from us in the grain fields than they did later in the day when we flushed them from the tall grass of the prairie (I call it tall grass in contradistinction to the short bunch grass of the cattle plains to the westward). Old stub-tail, though slow, was very staunch and careful, never flushing a bird, while the puppy, from pure heedlessness, and with the best intentions, would sometimes bounce into the midst of a covey before he knew of their presence. On the other hand, he covered twice the ground that the pointer did. The actual killing the birds was a good deal like quail shooting in the East, except that it was easier, the marks being so much larger. When we came to a field we would beat through it a hundred yards apart, the dogs ranging in long diagonals. When either the setter or the pointer came to a stand, the other generally backed him. If the covey was near enough, both of us, otherwise, whichever was closest, walked cautiously up. The grouse generally flushed before we came up to the dog, rising all together, so as to give only a right and left.
When the morning was well advanced the grouse left the stubble fields and flew into the adjoining prairie. We marked down several coveys into one spot, where the ground was rolling and there were here and there a few bushes in the hollows. Carefully hunting over this, we found two or three coveys and had excellent sport out of each. The sharp-tails in these places lay very close, and we had to walk them up, when they rose one at a time, and thus allowed us shot after shot; whereas, as already said, earlier in the day we merely got a quick right and left at each covey. At least half the time we were shooting in our rubber overcoats, as the weather was cloudy and there were frequent flurries of rain.
We rested a couple of hours at noon for lunch, and the afternoon’s sport was simply a repetition of the morning’s, except that we had but one dog to work with; for shortly after mid-day the stub-tail pointer, for his sins, encountered a skunk, with which he waged prompt and valiant battle—thereby rendering himself, for the balance of the time, wholly useless as a servant and highly offensive as a companion.
The setter pup did well, ranging very freely, but naturally got tired and careless, flushing his birds half the time; and we had to stop when we still had a good hour of daylight left. Nevertheless we had in our wagon, when we came in at night, a hundred and five grouse, of which sixty-two had fallen to my brother’s gun, and forty-three to mine. We would have done much better with more serviceable dogs; besides, I was suffering all day long from a most acute colic, which was any thing but a help to good shooting.
Besides the sharp-tail there is but one kind of grouse found in the northern cattle plains. This is the sage cock, a bird the size of a young turkey, and, next to the Old World capercailzie or cock of the woods, the largest of the grouse family. It is a handsome bird with a long pointed tail and black belly, and is a very characteristic form of the regions which it inhabits.
It is peculiarly a desert grouse, for though sometimes found in the grassy prairies and on the open river bottoms, it seems really to prefer the dry arid wastes where the withered-looking sage-brush and the spiney cactus are almost the only plants to be found, and where the few pools of water are so bitterly alkaline as to be nearly undrinkable. It is pre-eminently the grouse of the plains, and, unlike all of its relatives, is never found near trees; indeed no trees grow in its haunts.
As is the case with the two species of prairie fowl the cocks of this great bird become very noisy in the early spring. If a man happens at that season to be out in the dry plains which are frequented by the sage fowl he will hear in the morning, before sunrise, the deep, sonorous booming of the cocks, as they challenge one another or call to their mates. This call is uttered in a hollow, bass tone, and can be heard a long distance in still weather; it is difficult to follow up, for it has a very ventriloquial effect.
Unlike the sharp-tail the habits and haunts of the sage fowl are throughout the year the same, except that it grows shyer as the season advances, and occasionally wanders a little farther than formerly from its birthplace. It is only found where the tough, scraggly wild sage abounds, and it feeds for most of the year solely on sage leaves, varying this diet in August and September by quantities of grasshoppers. Curiously enough it does not possess any gizzard, such as most gallinaceous birds have, but has in its place a membranous stomach, suited to the digestion of its peculiar food.
The little chicks follow their mother as soon as hatched, and she generally keeps them in the midst of some patch of sage-brush so dense as to be almost impenetrable to man or beast. The little fellows skulk and dodge through the crooked stems so cleverly that it is almost impossible to catch them. Early in August, when the brood is well grown, the mother leads them out, and during the next two months they are more often found out on the grassy prairies than is the case at any other season. They do not form into packs like the prairie fowl as winter comes on, two broods at the outside occasionally coming together; and they then again retire to the more waste parts of the plains, living purely on sage leaves, and keeping closely to the best-sheltered hollows until the spring-time.
In the early part of the season the young, and indeed their parents also, are tame and unsuspicious to the very verge of stupidity, and at this time are often known by the name of “fool-hens” among the frontiers-men. They grow shyer as the season advances, and after the first of October are difficult to approach, but even then are rarely as wild as the sharp-tails.
It is commonly believed that the flesh of the sage fowl is uneatable, but this is very far from being the truth, and, on the contrary, it is excellent eating in August and September, when grasshoppers constitute their chief food, and, if the birds are drawn as soon as shot, is generally perfectly palatable at other seasons of the year. The first time I happened to find this out was on the course of a trip taken with one of my foremen as a companion through the arid plains to the westward of the Little Missouri. We had been gone for two or three days and camped by a mud hole, which was almost dry, what water it still held being almost as thick as treacle. Our luxuries being limited, I bethought me of a sage cock which I had shot during the day and had hung to the saddle. I had drawn it as soon as it was picked up, and I made up my mind to try how it tasted. A good deal to our surprise, the meat, though dark and coarse-grained, proved perfectly well flavored, and was quite as good as wild-goose, which it much resembled. Some young sage fowl, shot shortly afterward, proved tender and juicy, and tasted quite as well as sharp-tails. All of these birds had their crops crammed with grasshoppers, and doubtless the nature of their food had much to do with their proving so good for the table. An old bird, which had fed on nothing but sage, and was not drawn when shot, would, beyond question, be very poor eating. Like the spruce grouse and the two kinds of prairie fowl, but unlike the ruffed grouse and blue grouse, the sage fowl has dark meat.
In walking and running on the ground, sage fowl act much like common hens, and can skulk through the sagebrush so fast that it is often difficult to make them take wing. When surprised they will sometimes squat flat down with their heads on the ground, when it is very difficult to make them out, as their upper parts harmonize curiously in color with the surroundings. I have never known of their being shot over a dog, and, indeed, the country where they are found is so dry and difficult that no dog would be able to do any work in it.
When flushed, they rise with a loud whirring, laboring heavily, often clucking hoarsely; when they get fairly under way they move along in a strong, steady flight, sailing most of the time, but giving, every now and then, a succession of powerful wing-beats, and their course is usually sustained for a mile or over before they light. They are very easy marks, but require hard hitting to bring them down, for they are very tenacious of life. On one occasion I came upon a flock and shot an old cock through the body with the rifle. He fell over, fluttering and kicking, and I shot a young one before the rest of the flock rose. To my astonishment the old cock recovered himself and made off after them, actually flying for half a mile before he dropped. When I found him he was quite dead, the ball having gone clean through him. It was a good deal as if a man had run a mile with a large grapeshot through his body.
Most of the sage fowl I have killed have been shot with the rifle when I happened to run across a covey while out riding, and wished to take two or three of them back for dinner. Only once did I ever make a trip with the shot-gun for the sole purpose of a day’s sport with these birds.
This was after having observed that there were several small flocks of sage fowl at home on a great plateau or high plain, crossed by several dry creeks, which was about eight miles from the cow-camp where I was staying; and I concluded that I would devote a day to their pursuit. Accordingly, one morning I started out on horseback with my double-barrel 10-bore and a supply of cartridges loaded with No. 4 shot; one of my cowboys went with me carrying a rifle so as to be ready if we ran across any antelope. Our horses were fresh, and the only way to find the birds was to cover as much ground as possible; so as soon as we reached the plateau we loped across it in parallel lines till we struck one of the creeks, when we went up it, one on each side, at a good gait, and then crossed over to another, where we repeated the operation. It was nearly noon when, while going up the third creek, we ran into a covey of about fifteen sage fowl—a much larger covey than ordinary. They were down in the bottom of the creek, which here exhibited a formation very common on the plains. Although now perfectly dry, every series of heavy rainfalls changed it into a foaming torrent, which flowed down the valley in sharp curves, eating away the land into perpendicular banks on the outside of each curve. Thus a series of small bottoms was formed, each fronted by a semicircular bluff, highest in the middle, and rising perfectly sheer and straight. At the foot of these bluffs, which varied from six to thirty feet in height, was the bed of the stream. In many of these creeks there will be a growth of small trees by the stream bed, where it runs under the bluffs, and perhaps pools of water will be found in such places even in times of drought. But on the creek where we found the sage fowl there were neither trees nor water, and the little bottoms were only covered with stunted sage-brush. Dismounting and leaving my horse with the cowboy I walked down to the edge of the bottom, which was not more than thirty or forty yards across. The covey retreated into the brush, some of the birds crouching flat down, while the others walked or ran off among the bushes. They were pretty tame, and rose one at a time as I walked on. They had to rise over the low, semicircular bluff in front of them, and, it being still early in the season, they labored heavily as they left the ground. I fired just as they topped the bluff, and as they were so close and large, and were going so slowly, I was able to knock over eight birds, hardly moving from my place during the entire time. On our way back we ran into another covey, a much smaller one, on the side of another creek; of these I got a couple; and I got another out of still a third covey, which we found out in the open, but of which the birds all rose and made off together. We carried eleven birds back, most of them young and tender, and all of them good eating.
In shooting grouse we sometimes run across rabbits. There are two kinds of these. One is the little cotton-tail, almost precisely similar in appearance to the common gray rabbit of the Eastern woods. It abounds in all the patches of dense cover along the river bottoms and in the larger creeks, and can be quite easily shot at all times, but especially when there is any snow on the ground. It is eatable but hardly ever killed except to poison and throw out as bait for the wolves.
The other kind is the great jack rabbit. This is a characteristic animal of the plains; quite as much so as the antelope or prairie dog. It is not very abundant, but is found everywhere over the open ground, both on the prairie or those river bottoms which are not wooded, and in the more open valleys and along the gentle slopes of the Bad Lands. Sometimes it keeps to the patches of sage-brush, and in such cases will lie close to the ground when approached; but more often it is found in the short grass where there is no cover at all to speak of, and relies upon its speed for its safety. It is a comical-looking beast with its huge ears and long legs, and runs very fast, with a curious lop-sided gait, as if it was off its balance. After running a couple of hundred yards it will generally stop and sit up erect on its haunches to look round and see if it is pursued. In winter it turns snow-white except that the tips of the ears remain black. The flesh is dry, and I have never eaten it unless I could get nothing else.
Jack-rabbits are not plentiful enough nor valuable enough to warrant a man’s making a hunting trip solely for their sakes; and the few that I have shot have been killed with the rifle while out after other game. They offer beautiful marks for target practice when they sit upon their haunches. But though hardly worth powder they afford excellent sport when coursed with greyhounds, being very fleet, and when closely pressed able to double so quickly that the dogs shoot by them. For reasons already given, however, it is difficult to keep sporting dogs on the plains, though doubtless in the future coursing with greyhounds will become a recognized Western sport.
This finishes the account of the small game of the northern cattle country. The wild turkey is not found with us; but it is an abundant bird farther south, and eagerly followed by the ranchmen in whose neighborhood it exists. And as it is easily the king of all game birds, and as its pursuit is a peculiarly American form of sport, some account of how it is hunted in the southern plains country may be worth reading. The following is an extract from a letter written to me by my brother, in December, 1875, while he was in Texas, containing an account of some of his turkey-hunting experience in that State. The portion relating how the birds are coursed with greyhounds is especially markworthy; it reminds one of the method of killing the great bustard with gaze-hounds, as described in English sporting books of two centuries back.
“Here, some hundred miles south and west of Fort McKavett, are the largest turkey roosts in the world. This beautiful fertile valley, through which the deep, silent stream of the Llano flows, is densely wooded with grand old pecan trees along its banks; as are those of its minor tributaries which come boiling down from off the immense upland water-shed of the staked plains, cutting the sides of the ‘divide’ into narrow canyons. The journey to this sportsman’s paradise was over the long-rolling plains of Western Texas. Hour after hour through the day’s travel we would drop into the trough of some great plains-wave only to toil on up to the crest of the next, and be met by an endless vista of boundless, billowy-looking prairie. We were following the old Fort Terret trail, its ruts cut so deep in the prairie soil by the heavy supply wagons that these ten years have not healed the scars in the earth’s face. At last, after journeying for leagues through the stunted live oaks, we saw from the top of one of the larger divides a dark bluish line against the horizon,—the color of distant leafless trees,—and knew that it meant we should soon open out the valley. Another hour brought us over the last divide, and then our hunting grounds lay before and below us. All along through the unbroken natural fields the black-tail and prong-horn abound, and feast to their hearts’ content all the winter through on the white, luscious, and nutritious mesquite grass. Through the valley with its flashing silver stream ran the dark line of the famous pecan-tree forests—the nightly resting-place of that king of game birds, the wild turkey. It would sound like romancing to tell of the endless number and variety of the waterfowl upon the river; while the multitude of game fish inhabiting the waters make the days spent on the river with the rod rival in excitement and good sport the nights passed gun in hand among the trees in the roosts. Of course, as we are purely out on a turkey shoot, during the day no louder sport is permitted than whipping the stream, or taking the greyhounds well back on the plains away from the river to course antelope, jack-rabbit, or maybe even some fine old gobbler himself.
“When, after our journey, we reached the brink of the canyon, to drop down into the valley, pass over the lowlands, and settle ourselves comfortably in camp under the shadow of the old stockade fort by the river, was a matter of but a few hours. There we waited for the afternoon shadows to lengthen and the evening to come, when off we went up the stream for five or six miles to a spot where some mighty forest monarchs with huge, bare, spreading limbs had caught the eye of one of our sporting scouts in the afternoon. Leaving our horses half a mile from the place, we walked silently along the river bank through the jungle to the roosting trees, where we scattered, and each man secreted himself as best he could in the underbrush, or in a hollow stump, or in the reeds of the river itself. The sun was setting, and over the hills and from the lowlands came the echoes of the familiar gobble, gobble, gobble, as each strutting, foolishly proud cock headed his admiring family for the roost, after their day’s feeding on the uplands. Soon, as I lay close and hushed in my hiding-place, sounds like the clinking of silver, followed by what seemed like a breath of the wind rushing through the trees, struck my ears. I hardly dared breathe, for the sounds were made by the snapping of a gobbler’s quills and his rustling feathers; and immediately a magnificent old bird, swelling and clucking, bullying his wives and abusing his weaker children to the last, trod majestically down to the water’s edge, and, after taking his evening drink, winged his way to his favorite bough above, where he was joined, one by one, by his family and relations and friends, who came by tens and dozens from the surrounding country. Soon in the rapidly darkening twilight the superb old pecan trees looked as if they were bending under a heavy crop of the most odd-shaped and lively kind of fruit. The air was filled with the peevish pi-ou! pi-ou! of the sleepy birds. Gradually the noisy fluttering subsided, and the last faint unsettled peep even was hushed. Dead silence reigned, and we waited and watched. The moon climbed up, and in an another hour, as we looked through the tree-tops, we could make out against the light background of the sky, almost as clearly as by day, the sleeping victims of our guns and rifles. A low soft whistle was passed along from man to man; and the signal given, how different the scene became! A deafening report suddenly rang out into the silent night, a flash of light belched from the gun muzzle, and a heavy thud followed as twenty pounds of turkey struck the ground. In our silent moccasins we flitted about under the roost, and report after report on all sides told how good the sport was and how excellent the chance that the boys at McKavett would have plenty of turkeys at their Christmas dinner. The turkeys were so surprised by the sudden noise, so entirely unprepared for the visit of the sportsman to their secluded retreat, that they did not know what to make of it, often remaining stupidly on their branch after a companion five feet off had been shot down. With the last bird shot or flown away ended our evening’s sport. All the dead birds were gathered together and strapped in bunches by our saddles and on the pack-mules. It does not take many pecan- and grass-fed turkeys to make a load, and back we trotted to camp, the steel hoofs striking into the prairie soil with a merry ring of triumph over the night’s work. The hour was nearly midnight when we sat down to the delicately browned turkey steaks in the mess tent, and realized that we had enjoyed the delights of one of the best sports in Texas—turkey-shooting in the roosts.
“Early in the afternoon following the night’s sport we left the fort mounted on fine three-quarter Kentucky thorough-breds, and taking the eleven greyhounds, struck off six or eight miles into the plains. Then spreading into line we alternated dogs and horses, and keeping a general direction, beat up the small oak clumps, grass clusters, or mesquite jungles as we went along. Soon, with a loud whirr of wings, three or four turkeys rose out of the grass ahead, started up by one of the greyhounds; the rest of the party closed in from all sides; dogs and men choosing each the bird they marked as theirs. The turkey, after towering a bit, with wings set struck off at a pace like a bullet, and with eyes fixed upwards the hounds coursed after him. It was whip and spur for a mile as hard as horse, man, and hound could make the pace. The turkey at last came down nearer and nearer the ground, its small wings refusing to bear the weight of the heavy body. Finally, down he came and began running; then the hounds closed in on him and forced him up again as is always the case. The second flight was not a strong one, and soon he was skimming ten or even a less number of feet from the ground. Now came the sport of it all; the hounds were bunched and running like a pack behind him. Suddenly old ‘Grimbeard,’ in the heart of the pack, thought it was time for the supreme effort; with a rush he went to the front, and as a mighty spring carried him up in the air, he snapped his clean, cruel fangs under the brave old gobbler, who by a great effort rose just out of reach. One after another in the next twenty-five yards each hound made his trial and failed. At last the old hound again made his rush, sprang up a wonderful height into the air, and cut the bird down as with a knife.
“The first flight of a turkey when being coursed is rarely more than a mile, and the second about half as long. After that, if it gets up at all again, it is for very short flights so near the ground that it is soon cut down by any hound. The astonishing springs a greyhound who is an old hand at turkey coursing will make are a constant source of surprise and wonder to those fond of the sport. A turkey, after coming down from his first flight, will really perform the feat which fable attributes to the ostrich; that is, will run its head into a clump of bushes and stand motionless as if, since it cannot see its foes, it were itself equally invisible. During the day turkeys are scattered all over the plains, and it is no unusual thing to get in one afternoon’s ride eight or ten of them.”