Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

October 2, 1873. Forest and Stream 1(8): 116.

Elk Hunting in Nebraska.

To the sportsman, as well as to the enthusiast in the beauties of nature-and what true sportsman is not the latter as well-the country west of the Missouri river presents attractions of the most inviting description. The broad plains of Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado, the lofty peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and the rugged Sierras of California offer the former every inducement in the shape of "fur, fin, and feather," while to the lover of natural scenery they unfold a panorama unequalled for grandeur and varied beauty by anything in the world. The locality to which I desire to call your attention presents, however, little to attract those who cross the Plains simply as sight-seers. But to the votaries of rifle and shot-gun it is a very paradise. Fifty miles to the southward flows the Republican river, the banks of which are still the feeding ground of countless numbers of buffaloes and the hunting ground of the brave Pawnee, the treacherous Sioux, and many other smaller tribes of Indians. Fifty miles to the northward lies the Loup Fork, once the undisputed home of the Pawnee, and now a sort of debatable ground between the Reservation and that of their deadly enemies, The Sioux. On the banks of this river browses the mighty Elk, (Cervus canadensis). A little further to the west among the sand hills feed the watchful antelope. Beaver and otter are in every stream. The open prairie furnished chickens, (Cupidonia cupido), sharp tailed grouse (Pediacetes phasianellus), and upland plover (Acticurus bartramius), while the river bottoms teem with quail (Ortyz virginianus), and occasionally we find a drove of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallipova), deer, both black tail (C. columbianus) and Virginia, (C. virginianus) abound both in the rivers and along the creeks. In short, whether you carry your rifle or shot-gun, or both, you will find work enough to do. Starting at a point on the Central Pacific Railroad, about one hundred and fifty miles west of Omaha, a party of three, we pulled out on the afternoon of the last day of August, on a march toward the Loup. A bad Indian country is that along the Loup Fork, for upon its banks lies the trail which the Sioux follow on their horse-stealing expeditions to the Pawnee village. We were not without apprehensions that we might encounter some small band who would try to run off our horses; but we wanted game more than we feared the Indians, and therefore we decided to take the risk.

Jack Robinson, our teamster, an excellent and amusing fellow, sat in the wagon containing our provisions and bedding, behind his rattling team of sorrels, that trotted along at a pace that promised well for a speedy arrival at the hunting ground. Lute-my guide, philosopher, and friend, ah, how shall I describe you? what fitting words can I find to convey an idea of your genial spirit, your kind hear and generous disposition? We are old friend, Lute and I; together we have hunted buffalo on the Republican, and antelope on the sand hills; have shot wild turkeys on the Beaver, and been chased by a rascally band of Minnecoujas, between that stream and the Republicans, and now we are going to hunt elk on the Loup.

He has said to me: "I can promise to give you, at least, a shot at the elk, but I don't know whether you'll kill or not. They're pretty good game. Not many men around here can say that they've killed an elk." My spirits fall at this, for I have dreamed of elk for weeks and fear a miss.

We traveled about twenty miles the first day and camped on a small creek where we found wood and water. A little fried bacon, some biscuits hastily cooked, and a cup of coffee constituted our first meal in camp, and after smoking a quiet pipe we lie down by the fire. Lute's last observation is, "We'll have game to-morrow night, boys." My heart gives a throb, and I secretly pray that I might be the one to kill it.

We started with the sun the next morning and had a long day's march. Lute and myself hunted through the ravines, while the wagon kept on the divide. We saw no game except three deer, which jumped up about seventy-five yards from Lute. Shooting from his horse he touched one of them in the hind leg, but not seriously, as we watched it for a long distance and though it fell behind the others it kept up a gait we knew would carry it away from our ponies, fast though they were.

We had traveled all day, and were hot and tired when we came to a creek where there was good camping ground. The sun was only about two hours above the western horizon, and we decided to camp as soon as a place could be found where we could get the horses down to the water. In looking for such a place Lute rode toward the top of a little ridge to get a wider view. Suddenly I saw him bend down over the neck of his horse and wheeling round gallop toward us. "There they are, boys," he cried, "elk, about twenty of them." In a moment we were all excitement, and were hastily following his hurried directions. The horses were unhitched and unsaddled, and picketed out. Fire arms and knives were examined, and we descended into the bed of the creek, whence the elk had just emerged about a half mile further up. But who can describe the labor of our advance on that band of elk? Not I, indeed I can only say that the bed of the creek was full of water and very miry, that the sides were nearly perpendicular, and were almost everywhere covered with a thick growth of nettles, briers, and creeping plants; where bare they were wet and very slippery; that the sun was blazing down as only a Nebraska sun can blaze, and that we ran ahead when we could, and fell ahead when we couldn't run. Fortunately there was no wind; I say fortunately, for the elk's sense of smell is so acute, that it is more to be feared by the hunter than its power of vision.

At last we were within three hundred yards of the place where the game was supposed to be, and it behooved us to move cautiously. Lute carefully ascended the bank and looked about him. For a long time he gave no sign, but at length I saw him lower his head and creep rapidly toward us. "They are moving," he whispered, "feeding along towards the bluffs; we must hurry." As fast as possible we hastened up the creek, and soon, after another look by our leader, turned up a ravine. The utmost caution was now necessary. We crawled along, not on our hands and knees, but flat on our faces for some distance. Lute first, myself next and jack last. Presently we turned and commenced to ascend the side of the ravine, and as we neared the ridge Lute stopped and motioned me up beside him. "They're just over the ridge, crawl up and take the first shot." I feebly resisted, but he reiterated the order, and I complied. On reaching the top I cautiously raised my head, and there within a hundred yards of me I saw the ears of an old cow elk. The sight was almost too much for me, and I sank back for a moment. Then steadying my nerves by a violent effort, I raised my old Sharpe. Carefully with finger on trigger, I full-cocked it, and sighted where Lute had told me to, about eight inches behind the fore shoulder and low down. For a moment I could not hold well on her, for the flies troubled her and she kept moving, but at last she stood still and I pulled. The smoke hid her from me, and I sprang forward just as Lute ran by men, to get a shot at the herd as they fled. In a moment I was at his side, and we stopped just about where my cow had stood when I fired. The elk were running briskly off about half a mile away; none of them seemed to be wounded, and I could see nothing of the one at which I had fired. At that moment I felt particularly small. Suddenly Lute shouted, "There she is," and following the direction of his glance, I saw a movement in the short prairie grass. We rushed to the spot, and there lay the cow, kicking in her death agony. My ball had passed through her heart, and she had run about fifty yards before falling. That was for me the supreme moment. As I stood over her, all the trouble and annoyance of the trip; all the worries and cares of every day life were forgotten, and I was absorbed in the proud contemplation of the graceful creature lying before me.

Lute was cordial in his congratulations. "I knew that you hit her," he said, "for I crawled up behind you and saw that you held steady as a rock."

After bleeding and butchering our game we started for camp. It was now almost dark, for it had taken us quite two hours to reach the place where we then were. Striking off over the prairie we arrived at our camp in about fifteen minutes, and after a delightful supper spent an hour or two talking over the incidents of the day, and listening to Lute's stories of hunts and Indian fights.

'Twere a pleasant task to narrate to you a score of his tales. To tell you of battles with the Sioux on the Missouri, and with the Arrapahoes in Kansas; of how Frank, Lute's brother, killed Tall Bull on the Loup, and how, on another occasion, with one white man and seven Pawnees he fought for five hours against one hundred and fifty Sioux under old Turkey Leg, and finally drove them off. But lack of space forbids, and I must hasten to the end of my tale.

Early next morning we were afoot, and before night the flesh of the elk, neatly stripped from the ones, was in process of being jerked. For five days we hunted with most satisfactory results. Elk were found and killed on several occasions. Finally, forced to it by "the terror by night," viz., mosquitoes, we turned our faces homeward. On the last day but one of our return march we camped early and rode out to take a last look for game. As we descended the slope of a high bluff Lute's eye, which was constantly roving the horizon, caught sight of some moving objects just appearing over the top of another bluff a few hundred yards off. Crouching low in our saddles we galloped down into the ravine, and, leaving our horses, ascended the next ridge, whence the elk could be seen feeding slowly toward us. We had only to wait until they came within shot. Very deliberately they advanced. The leaders, two fine bulls, stopping very now and then to look, smell, or listen, and then boldly stepping forward, as if to encourage the more timid females and young. Had we waited I am confident that they would have come up within ten yards of us. It would have been little else than murder, however, to have shot them so near, and I was glad to see Lute look round at us and signal us to be ready, while they were still more that a hundred yards distant. The three rifles cracked almost simultaneously, but to our chagrin, only one animal fell. It was Lute's ball. Jack and I had fired too hastily, and had missed. As the herd swept round the hill, in full flight, we fired again, but with no better result. A third shot from Jack as they were ascending the bluffs brought down a large bull, and as they were about to disappear I raised my two hundred and fifty yard sight and carefully fired at a large cow which ran a little behind the other. As I lowered my rifle I saw her stagger, and then, turning off to one side, move down a ravine on three legs. Running back to the horses I spring into the saddle and urged forward my pony with whip and spur. I was soon within sight of the cow, which, although on three legs, ran very fast, and I had ridden nearly two miles before I got close enough to shoot from the saddle with any certainty of killing. At last, however, I fired while on a run and brought her down, but it took another shot to finish her. It was an exciting chase, and I did not realize until I passed over the ground on my return what a mad gallop it had been. I had ridden through sloughs so miry that on reaching them again I was fain to pick out a better crossing; had descended on a full run the sides of cañons so steep that I know preferred leading my horse up to riding him, and had given the little animal such a breather as would have been thoroughly exhausted an American horse.

We had now plenty of work on hand. The heads and skins were prepared for mounting, the meat jerked, and with a wagon heavily loaded we started for the railroad.

Thus ended my hunt of 1873. Successful and eminently satisfactory in all respects I can only hope for as pleasant a one next year.

Ornis [pseud: George Bird Grinnell.].