Theodore Roosevelt (18581919). Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. 1885.
CHAPTER II WATERFOWL
NE cool afternoon in the early fall, while sitting on the veranda of the ranch-house, we heard a long way off the ha-ha-honk, ha-honk, of a gang of wild geese; and shortly afterward they came in sight, in a V-shaped line, flying low and heavily toward the south, along the course of the stream. They went by within a hundred yards of the house, and we watched them for some minutes as they flew up the valley, for they were so low in the air that it seemed certain that they would soon alight; and light they did when they were less than a mile past us. As the ground was flat and without much cover where they had settled, I took the rifle instead of a shot-gun and hurried after them on foot. Wild geese are very watchful and wary, and as I came toward the place where I thought they were I crept along with as much caution as if the game had been a deer. At last, peering through a thick clump of bullberry bushes I saw them. They were clustered on a high sandbar in the middle of the river, which here ran in a very wide bed between low banks. The only way to get at them was to crawl along the river-bed, which was partly dry, using the patches of rushes and the sand hillocks and drift-wood to shield myself from their view. As it was already late and the sun was just sinking, I hastily retreated a few paces, dropped over the bank, and began to creep along on my hands and knees through the sand and gravel. Such work is always tiresome, and it is especially so when done against time. I kept in line with a great log washed up on the shore, which was some seventy-five yards from the geese. On reaching it and looking over I was annoyed to find that in the fading light I could not distinguish the birds clearly enough to shoot, as the dark river bank was behind them. I crawled quickly back a few yards, and went off a good bit to the left into a hollow. Peeping over the edge I could now see the geese, gathered into a clump with their necks held straight out, sharply outlined against the horizon; the sand flats stretching out on either side, while the sky above was barred with gray and faint crimson. I fired into the thickest of the bunch, and as the rest flew off, with discordant clamor, ran forward and picked up my victim, a fat young wild goose (or Canada goose), the body badly torn by the bullet.
On two other occasions I have killed geese with the rifle. Once while out riding along the river bottoms, just at dawn, my attention was drawn to a splashing and low cackling in the stream, where the water deepened in a wide bend, which swept round a low bluff. Leaving my horse where he was, I walked off towards the edge of the stream, and lying on the brink of the bank looked over into the water of the bend. Only a faint streak of light was visible in the east, so that objects on the water could hardly be made out; and the little wreaths of mist that rose from the river made the difficulty even greater. The birds were some distance above me, where the water made a long straight stretch through a sandy level. I could not see them, but could plainly hear their low murmuring and splashing, and once one of them, as I judged by the sound, stood up on end and flapped its wings vigorously. Pretty soon a light puff of wind blew the thin mist aside, and I caught a glimpse of them; as I had supposed, they were wild geese, five of them, swimming slowly, or rather resting on the water, and being drifted down with the current. The fog closed over them again, but it was growing light very rapidly, and in a short time I knew they would be in the still water of the bend just below me, so I rose on my elbows and held my rifle ready at the poise. In a few minutes, before the sun was above the horizon, but when there was plenty of light by which to shoot, another eddy in the wind blew away the vapor and showed the five geese in a cluster, some thirty yards off. I fired at once, and one of the geese, kicking and flapping frantically, fell over, its neck half cut from the body, while the others, with laborious effort, got under way. Before they could get their heavy bodies fairly off the water and out of range, I had taken three more shots, but missed. Waiting till the dead goose drifted into shore, I picked it up and tied it on the saddle of my horse to carry home to the ranch. Being young and fat it was excellent eating.
The third goose I killed with the rifle was of a different kind. I had been out after antelopes, starting before there was any light in the heavens, and pushing straight out towards the rolling prairie. After two or three hours, when the sun was well up, I neared where a creek ran in a broad, shallow valley. I had seen no game, and before coming up to the crest of the divide beyond which lay the creek bottom, I dismounted and crawled up to it, so as to see if any animal had come down to drink. Field glasses are almost always carried while hunting on the plains, as the distances at which one can see game are so enormous. On looking over the crest with the glasses the valley of the creek for about a mile was stretched before me. At my feet the low hills came closer together than in other places, and shelved abruptly down to the bed of the valley, where there was a small grove of box-alders and cotton-woods. The beavers had, in times gone by, built a large dam at this place across the creek, which must have produced a great back-flow and made a regular little lake in the times of freshets. But the dam was now broken, and the beavers, or most of them, gone, and in the place of the lake was a long green meadow. Glancing towards this my eye was at once caught by a row of white objects stretched straight across it, and another look showed me that they were snow-geese. They were feeding, and were moving abreast of one another slowly down the length of the meadow towards the end nearest me, where the patch of small trees and brushwood lay. A goose is not as big game as an antelope; still I had never shot a snow-goose, and we needed fresh meat, so I slipped back over the crest and ran down to the bed of the creek, round a turn of the hill, where the geese were out of sight. The creek was not an entirely dry one, but there was no depth of water in it except in certain deep holes; elsewhere it was a muddy ditch with steep sides, difficult to cross on horseback because of the quicksands. I walked up to the trees without any special care, as they screened me from view, and looked cautiously out from behind them. The geese were acting just as our tame geese act in feeding on a common, moving along with their necks stretched out before them, nibbling and jerking at the grass as they tore it up by mouthfuls. They were very watchful, and one or the other of them had its head straight in the air looking sharply round all the time. Geese will not come near any cover in which foes may be lurking if they can help it, and so I feared that they would turn before coming near enough to the brush to give me a good shot. I therefore dropped into the bed of the creek, which wound tortuously along the side of the meadow, and crept on all fours along one of its banks until I came to where it made a loop out towards the middle of the bottom. Here there was a tuft of tall grass, which served as a good cover, and I stood upright, dropping my hat, and looking through between the blades. The geese, still in a row, with several yards' interval between each one and his neighbor, were only sixty or seventy yards off, still feeding towards me. They came along quite slowly, and the ones nearest, with habitual suspicion, edged away from the scattered tufts of grass and weeds which marked the brink of the creek. I tried to get two in line, but could not. There was one gander much larger than any other bird in the lot, though not the closest to me; as he went by just opposite my hiding-place, he stopped still, broadside to me, and I aimed just at the root of the neckfor he was near enough for any one firing a rifle from a rest to hit him about where he pleased. Away flew the others, and in a few minutes I was riding along with the white gander dangling behind my saddle.
The beaver meadows spoken of above are not common, but, until within the last two or three years, beavers themselves were very plentiful, and there are still a good many left. Although only settled for so short a period, the land has been known to hunters for half a century, and throughout that time it has at intervals been trapped over by whites or half-breeds. If fur was high and the Indians peaceful quite a number of trappers would come in, for the Little Missouri Bad Lands were always famous both for fur and game; then if fur went down, or an Indian war broke out, or if the beaver got pretty well thinned out, the place would be forsaken and the animals would go unmolested for perhaps a dozen years, when the process would be repeated. But the incoming of the settlers and the driving out of the Indians have left the ground clear for the trappers to work over unintermittently, and the extinction of the beaver throughout the plains country is a question of but a short time. Excepting an occasional otter or mink, or a few musk-rats, it is the only fur-bearing animal followed by the western plains trapper; and its large size and the marked peculiarities of its habits, together with the accessibility of its haunts on the plains, as compared with its haunts in the deep woods and mountains, render its pursuit and capture comparatively easy. We have trapped (or occasionally shot) on the ranch during the past three years several score beaver; the fur is paler and less valuable than in the forest animal. Those that live in the river do not build dams all across it, but merely extending up some distance against the current, so as to make a deep pool or eddy, beside which are the burrows and houses. It would seem to be a simple feat to break into a beaver house, but in reality it needs no little toil with both spade and axe, for the house has very thick roof and walls, made of clay and tough branches, twisted together into a perfect mat, which, when frozen, can withstand any thing but the sharpest and best of tools. At evening beaver often come out to swim, and by waiting on the bank perfectly quietly for an hour or so a close shot can frequently be obtained.
Beaver are often found in the creeks, not only in those which always contain running water, but also in the dry ones. Here they build dams clean across, making ponds which always contain water, even if the rest of the bed is almost dry; and I have often been surprised to find fresh traces of beaver in a pond but a few feet across, a mile away from any other body of water. On one occasion I was deer-hunting in a rough, broken country, which was little more than a tangle of ravines and clefts, with very steep sides rising into sharp hills. The sides of the ravines were quite densely overgrown with underbrush and young trees, and through one or two of them ran, or rather trickled, small streams, but an inch or two in depth, and often less. Directly across one of these ravines, at its narrowest and steepest part, the beaver had built an immense, massive dam, completely stopping the course of a little brooklet. The dam was certainly eight feet high, and strong enough and broad enough to cross on horseback; and it had turned back the stream until a large pond, almost a little lake, had been formed by it. This was miles from any other body of water, but, judging from the traces of their work, it had once held a large colony of beavers; when I saw it they had all been trapped out, and the pond had been deserted for a year and over. Though clumsy on dry ground, and fearing much to be caught upon it, yet beaver can make, if necessary, quite long overland journeys, and that at a speed with which it will give a man trouble to keep up.
As there are few fish in the plains streams, otters are naturally not at all common, though occasionally we get one. Musk-rats are quite plenty in all the pools of water. Sometimes a little pool out on the prairie will show along its edges numerous traces of animal life; for, though of small extent, and a long distance from other water, it may be the home of beavers and musk-rats, the breeding-place of different kinds of ducks, and the drinking-place for the denizens of the dry country roundabouts, such as wolves, antelopes, and badgers.
Although the plains country is in most places very dry, yet there are here and there patches of prairie land where the reverse is true. One such is some thirty miles distant from my ranch. The ground is gently rolling, in some places almost level, and is crossed by two or three sluggish, winding creeks, with many branches, always holding water, and swelling out into small pools and lakelets wherever there is a hollow. The prairie round about is wet, at times almost marshy, especially at the borders of the great reedy slews. These pools and slews are favorite breeding-places for water-fowl, especially for mallard, and a good bag can be made at them in the fall, both among the young flappers (as tender and delicious birds for the table as any I know), and among the flights of wild duck that make the region a stopping-place on their southern migration. In these small pools, with little cover round the edges, the poor flappers are at a great disadvantage; we never shoot them unless we really need them for the table. But quite often, in August or September, if near the place, I have gone down to visit one or two of the pools, and have brought home half a dozen flappers, killed with the rifle if I had been out after large game, or with the revolver if I had merely been among the cattle,each duck, in the latter case, representing the expenditure of a vast number of cartridges.
Later in the fall, when the young ducks are grown and the flocks are coming in from the north, fair shooting may be had by lying in the rushes on the edge of some large pond, and waiting for the evening flight of the birds; or else by taking a station on some spot of low ground across which the ducks fly in passing from one sheet of water to another. Frequently quite a bag of mallard, widgeon, and pintail can be made in this manner, although nowhere in the Bad Lands is there any such duck-shooting as is found farther east. Ducks are not very easy to kill, or even to hit, when they fly past. My duck-gun, the No. 10 choke-bore, is a very strong and close shooting piece, and such a one is needed when the strong-flying birds are at any distance; but the very fact of its shooting so close makes it necessary that the aim should be very true; and as a consequence my shooting at ducks has varied from bad to indifferent, and my bags have been always small.
Once I made an unusually successful right and left, however. In late summer and early fall large flocks of both green-winged and blue-winged teal are often seen both on the ponds and on the river, flying up and down the latter. On one occasion while out with the wagon we halted for the mid-day meal on the bank of the river. Travelling across the plains in company with a wagon, especially if making a long trip, as we were then doing, is both tiresome and monotonous. The scenery through the places where the wagon must go is everywhere much the same, and the pace is very slow. At lunch-time I was glad to get off the horse, which had been plodding along at a walk for hours, and stretch my muscles; and, noticing a bunch of teal fly past and round a bend in the river, I seized the chance for a little diversion, and taking my double-barrel, followed them on foot. The banks were five or six feet high, edged with a thick growth of cotton-wood saplings; so the chance to creep up was very good. On getting round the bend I poked my head through the bushes, and saw that the little bunch I was after had joined a great flock of teal, which was on a sand bar in the middle of the stream. They were all huddled together, some standing on the bar, and others in the water right by it, and I aimed for the thickest part of the flock. At the report they sprang into the air, and I leaped to my feet to give them the second barrel, when, from under the bank right beneath me, two shoveller or spoon-bill ducks rose, with great quacking, and, as they were right in line, I took them instead, knocking both over. When I had fished out the two shovellers, I waded over to the sand bar and picked up eleven teal, making thirteen ducks with the two barrels.
On one occasion my brother and myself made a short wagon trip in the level, fertile, farming country, whose western edge lies many miles to the east of the Bad Lands around my ranch. There the land was already partially settled by farmers, and we had one or two days' quite fair duck-shooting. It was a rolling country of mixed prairie land and rounded hills, with small groves of trees and numerous little lakes in the hollows. The surface of the natural prairie was broken in places by great wheat fields, and when we were there the grain was gathered in sheaves and stacks among the stubble. At night-time we either put up at the house of some settler, or, if there were none round, camped out.
One night we had gone into camp among the dense timber fringing a small river, which wound through the prairie in a deep narrow bed with steep banks. Until people have actually camped out themselves it is difficult for them to realize how much work there is in making or breaking camp. But it is very quickly done if every man has his duties assigned to him and starts about doing them at once. In choosing camp there are three essentials to be looked towood, water, and grass. The last is found everywhere in the eastern prairie land, where we were on our duck-shooting trip, but in many places on the great dry plains farther west, it is either very scanty or altogether lacking; and I have at times been forced to travel half a score miles farther than I wished to get feed for the horses. Water, again, is a commodity not by any means to be found everywhere on the plains. If the country is known and the journeys timed aright, water can easily be had, at least at the night camps, for on a pinch a wagon can be pushed along thirty miles or so at a stretch, giving the tough ponies merely a couple of hours' rest and feed at mid-day; but in going through an unknown country it has been my misfortune on more than one occasion to make a dry campthat is, one without any water either for men or horses, and such camps are most uncomfortable. The thirst seems to be most annoying just after sundown; after one has gotten to sleep and the air has become cool, he is not troubled much by it again until within two or three hours of noon next day, when the chances are that he will have reached water, for of course by that time he will have made a desperate push to get to it. When found, it is more than likely to be bad, being either from a bitter alkaline pool, or from a hole in a creek, so muddy that it can only be called liquid by courtesy. On the great plains wood is even scarcer, and at least half the time the only material from which to make a fire will be buffalo chips and sage brush; the long roots of the latter if dug up make a very hot blaze. Of course when wood is so scarce the fire is a small one, used merely to cook by, and is not kept up after the cooking is over.
When a place with grass, wood, and water is found, the wagon is driven up to the windward side of where the beds are to be laid, and the horses are unhitched, watered, and turned out to graze freely until bedtime, when a certain number of them are picketed or hobbled. If danger from white or red horse-thieves is feared, a guard is kept over them all night. The ground is cleared of stones and cacti where the beds are to be placed, and the blankets and robes spread. Generally we have no tent, and the wagon-cover is spread over all to keep out rain. Meanwhile some one gathers the wood and starts a fire. The coffee-pot is set among the coals, and the frying-pan with bacon and whatever game has been shot is placed on top. Like Eastern backwoodsmen, all plainsmen fry about every thing they can get hold of to cook; for my own use I always have a broiler carried along in the wagon. One evening in every three or four is employed in baking bread in the Dutch oven; if there is no time for this, biscuits are made in the frying-pan. The food carried along is very simple, consisting of bacon, flour, coffee, sugar, baking-powder, and salt; for all else we depend on our guns. On a long trip every old hand carries a water-proof canvas bag, containing his few spare clothes and necessaries; on a short trip a little oilskin one, for the toothbrush, soap, towel, etc., will do.
On the evening in question our camping-ground was an excellent one; we had no trouble about any thing, except that we had to bring water to the horses in pails, for the banks were too steep and rotten to get them down to the river. The beds were made under a great elm, and in a short time the fire was roaring in front of them, while the tender grouse were being roasted on pointed sticks. One of the pleasantest times of camping out is the period immediately after supper, when the hunters lie in the blaze of the fire-light, talking over what they have done during the day and making their plans for the morrow. And how soundly a man who has worked hard sleeps in the open, none but he who has tried it knows.
Before we had risen in the morning, when the blackness of the night had barely changed to gray, we were roused by the whistle of wings, as a flock of ducks flew by along the course of the stream, and lit in the water just above the camp. Some kinds of ducks in lighting strike the water with their tails first, and skitter along the surface for a few feet before settling down. Lying in our blankets we could plainly hear all the motions: first of all, the whistlewhistle of their wings; then a long-drawn splash-h-hplump; and then a low, conversational quacking. It was too dark to shoot, but we got up and ready, and strolled down along the brink of the river opposite where we could hear them; and as soon as we could see we gave them four barrels and picked up half a dozen scaup-ducks. Breakfast was not yet ready, and we took a turn out on the prairie before coming back to the wagon. In a small pool, down in a hollow, were a couple of little dipper ducks or buffle-heads; they rose slowly against the wind, and offered such fair marks that it was out of the question to miss them.
The evening before we had lain among the reeds near a marshy lake and had killed quite a number of ducks, mostly widgeon and teal; and this morning we intended to try shooting among the cornfields. By sunrise we were a good distance off, on a high ridge, across which we had noticed that the ducks flew in crossing from one set of lakes to another. The flight had already begun, and our arrival scared off the birds for the time being; but in a little while, after we had hidden among the sheaves, stacking the straw up around us, the ducks began to come back, either flying over in their passage from the water, or else intending to light and feed. They were for the most part mallards, which are the commonest of the Western ducks, and the only species customarily killed in this kind of shooting. They are especially fond of the corn, of which there was a small patch in the grain field. To this flocks came again and again, and fast though they flew we got many before they left the place, scared by the shooting. Those that were merely passing from one point to another flew low, and among them we shot a couple of gadwall, and also knocked over a red-head from a little bunch that went by, their squat, chunky forms giving them a very different look from the longer, lighter-built mallard. The mallards that came to feed flew high in the air, wheeling round in gradually lowering circles when they had reached the spot where they intended to light. In shooting in the grain fields there is usually plenty of time to aim, a snap shot being from the nature of the sport exceptional. Care must be taken to lie quiet until the ducks are near enough; shots are most often lost through shooting too soon. Heavy guns with heavy loads are necessary, for the ducks are generally killed at long range; and both from this circumstance as well as from the rapidity of their flight, it is imperative to hold well ahead of the bird fired at. It has one advantage over shooting in a marsh, and that is that a wounded bird which drops is of course hardly ever lost. Corn-fed mallards are most delicious eating; they rank on a par with teal and red-head, and second only to the canvas-backa bird, by the way, of which I have never killed but one or two individuals in the West.
In going out of this field we got a shot at a gang of wild geese. We saw them a long way off, coming straight toward us in a head and tail line. Down we dropped, flat on our faces, remaining perfectly still without even looking up (for wild geese are quick to catch the slightest motion) until the sound of the heavy wing strokes and the honking seemed directly overhead. Then we rose on our knees and fired all four barrels, into which we had slipped buckshot cartridges. They were away up in the air, much beyond an ordinary gunshot; and we looked regretfully after them as they flew off. Pretty soon one lagged a little behind; his wings beat slower; suddenly his long neck dropped, and he came down like a stone, one of the buckshot having gone clean through his breast.
We had a long distance to make that day, and after leaving the grain fields travelled pretty steadily, only getting out of the wagon once or twice after prairie chickens. At lunch time we halted near a group of small ponds and reedy sloughs. In these were quite a number of teal and wood-duck, which were lying singly, in pairs, or small bunches, on the edges of the reeds, or where there were thick clusters of lily pads; and we had half an hour's good sport in "jumping" these little ducks, moving cautiously along the margin of the reeds, keeping as much as possible concealed from view, and shooting four teal and a wood-duck, as, frightened at our near approach, they sprang into the air and made off. Late in the evening, while we were passing over a narrow neck of land that divided two small lakes, with reedy shores, from each other, a large flock of the usually shy pintail duck passed over us at close range, and we killed two from the wagon, making in all a bag of twenty-one and a half couple of water-fowl during the day, two thirds falling to my brother's gun. Of course this is a very small bag indeed compared to those made in the Chesapeake, or in Wisconsin and the Mississippi valley; but the day was so perfect, and there were so many varieties of shooting, that I question if any bag, no matter how large, ever gave much more pleasure to the successful sportsman than did our forty-three ducks to us.
Though ducks fly so fast, and need such good shooting to kill them, yet their rate of speed, as compared to that of other birds, is not so great as is commonly supposed. Hawks, for instance, are faster. Once, on the prairie, I saw a mallard singled out of a flock, fairly overtaken, and struck down, by a large, light-colored hawk, which I supposed to be a lanner, or at any rate one of the long-winged falcons; and I saw a duck hawk, on the coast of Long Island, perform a similar feat with the swift-flying long-tailed duckthe old squaw, or sou'-sou'-southerly, of the baymen. A more curious instance was related to me by a friend. He was out along a river, shooting ducks as they flew by him, and had noticed a bald eagle perched on the top of a dead tree some distance from him. While looking at it a little bunch of teal flew swiftly by, and to his astonishment the eagle made after them. The little ducks went along like bullets, their wings working so fast that they whistled; flop, flop came the great eagle after them, with labored-looking flight; and yet he actually gained so rapidly on his seemingly fleeter quarry that he was almost up to them when opposite my friend. Then the five teal went down headlong into the water, diving like so many shot. The eagle kept hovering over the spot, thrusting with its claws at each little duck as it came up; but he was unsuccessful, all of the teal eventually getting into the reeds, where they were safe. In the East, by the way, I have seen the same trick of hovering over the water where a flock of ducks had disappeared, performed by a Cooper's hawk. He had stooped at some nearly grown flappers of the black duck; they all went under water, and he remained just above, grasping at any one that appeared, and forcing them to go under without getting a chance to breathe. Soon he had singled out one, which kept down a shorter and shorter time at each dive; it soon grew exhausted, was a little too slow in taking a dive, and was grasped in the claws of its foe.
In duck-shooting where there are reeds, grass and water-lilies the cripples should be killed at once, even at the cost of burning some additional powder, many kinds of waterfowl being very expert at diving. Others, as widgeon, shoveller, and teal, do not dive, merely trying to hide in some hole in the bank; and these are generally birds that fall to the touch of shot much more easily than is the case with their tougher relatives.
There are two or three species of birds tolerably common over the plains which we do not often regularly hunt, but which are occasionally shot for the table. These are the curlew, the upland or grass plover, and the golden plover. All three kinds belong to the family of what are called wading birds; but with us it is rare to see any one of them near water.
The curlew is the most conspicuous; indeed its loud, incessant clamor, its erect carriage, and the intense curiosity which possesses it, and which makes it come up to circle around any strange object, all combine to make it in springtime one of the most conspicuous features of plains life. At that time curlews are seen in pairs or small parties, keeping to the prairies and grassy uplands. They are never silent, and their discordant noise can be heard half a mile off. Whenever they discover a wagon or a man on horseback, they fly toward him, though usually taking good care to keep out of gunshot. They then fly over and round the object, calling all the time, and sometimes going off to one side, where they will light and run rapidly through the grass; and in this manner they will sometimes accompany a hunter or traveller for miles, scaring off all game. By the end of July or August they have reared their young; they then go in small flocks, are comparatively silent, and are very good eating. I have never made a practice of shooting them, though I have fired at them sometimes with the rifle, and in this way have now and then killed one; twice I have hit them on the wing with this weapon, while they were soaring slowly about above me, occasionally passing pretty near.
The grass plover is found in the same places as the curlew, and like it breeds with us. Its flesh is just as good, and it has somewhat the same habits; but is less wary, noisy, and inquisitive. The golden plover is only found during the migrations, when large flocks may sometimes be seen. They are delicious eating; the only ones I have ever shot have been killed with the little ranch gun, when riding round the ranch, or travelling from one point to another.
Like the grouse, and other ground-nesting birds, the curlews and plovers during breeding-time have for their chief foes the coyotes, badgers, skunks, and other flesh-eating prowlers; and as all these are greatly thinned off by the cattle-men, with their fire-arms and their infinitely more deadly poison, the partial and light settlement of the country that accompanies the cattle industry has had the effect of making all these birds more plentiful than before; and most unlike the large game, game birds bid fair to increase in numbers during the next few years.
The skunks are a nuisance in more ways than one. They are stupid, familiar beasts, with a great predilection for visiting camps, and the shacks or huts of the settlers, to pick up any scraps of meat that may be lying round. I have time and again known a skunk to actually spend several hours of the night in perseveringly digging a hole underneath the logs of a hut, so as to get inside among the inmates. The animal then hunts about among them, and of course no one will willingly molest it; and it has often been known to deliberately settle down upon and begin to eat one of the sleepers. The strange and terrible thing about these attacks is that in certain districts and at certain times the bite of the skunk is surely fatal, producing hydrophobia; and many cowmen, soldiers, and hunters have annually died from this cause. There is no wild beast in the West, no matter what its size and ferocity, so dreaded by old plainsmen as this seemingly harmless little beast.
I remember one rather ludicrous incident connected with a skunk. A number of us, among whom was a huge, happy-go-lucky Scotchman, who went by the name of Sandy, were sleeping in a hut, when a skunk burrowed under the logs and got in. Hearing it moving about among the tin pans Sandy struck a light, was much taken by the familiarity of the pretty black and white little animal, and, as it seemed in his eyes a curiosity, took a shot at it with his revolver. He missed; the skunk, for a wonder, retired promptly without taking any notice of the attack; and the rest of the alarmed sleepers, when informed of the cause of the shot, cursed the Scotchman up hill and down dale for having so nearly brought dire confusion on them all. The latter took the abuse very philosophically, merely remarking: "I 'm glad a did na kill him mysel'; he seemed such a dacent wee beastie." The sequel proved that neither the skunk nor Sandy had learned any wisdom by the encounter, for half an hour later the "dacent wee beastie" came back, and this time Sandy fired at him with fatal effect. Of course the result was a frantic rush of all hands from the hut, Sandy exclaiming with late but sincere repentance: "A did na ken 'st wad cause such a tragadee."
Besides curlew and plover there are at times, especially during the migrations, a number of species of other waders to be found along the streams and pools in the cattle region. Yellowlegs, yelper, willet, marlin, dough bird, stilt, and avocet are often common, but they do not begin to be as plentiful as they are in the more fertile lands to the eastward, and the ranchmen never shoot at them or follow them as game birds.
A more curious bird than any of these is the plains plover, which avoids the water and seems to prefer the barren plateaus and almost desert-like reaches of sage-brush and alkali. Plains plovers are pretty birds, and not at all shy. In fall they are fat and good eating, but they are not plentiful enough to be worth going after. Sometimes they are to be seen in the most seemingly unlikely places for a wader to be. Last spring one pair nested in a broken piece of Bad Lands near my ranch, where the ground is riven and twisted into abrupt, steep crests and deep canyons. The soil is seemingly wholly unfitted to support bird life, as it is almost bare of vegetation, being covered with fossil plants, shells, fishes, etc.all of which objects, by the way, the frontiersman, who is much given to broad generalization, groups together under the startling title of "stone clams."