May 4, 1876. Hunting wapiti on the Loup. Forest and Stream 6(13): 193. Part two: May 11, 1876. Field and Stream 6(14): 211-212.
Hunting Wapiti on the Loup.
In 1870 I closed my business in the east and came West to engage in stock-raising. Being a true lover of the chase, I felt exceedingly anxious to locate in some section abounding in game. I had hunted successfully all the minor game of the East, including deer in Michigan, and on landing at Cheyenne, and seeing the head and antlers of a large elk, I at once decided that my life would never be completely rounded until I became the possessor, by right of my rifle, of the beautiful head and horns of this species of the Cervidæ.
Being unable to suit myself of Colorado, taking all things into consideration, I retraced my steps, and finally located here. Elk, at that time, were said to be plentiful. Buffalo could be counted by the thousand, while antelope graced nearly every grassy hillock and undulating divide. I succeeded well in shooting buffalo, but the "prong-horns" gave me many a hard day's jaunt in the saddle, interspersed with creeping and crawling, to find myself reflecting, as I watched them gracefully speeding away: "Thou wert so near, and yet so far!" But at last one warm day in August, I caught a fine young buck napping, and rode home triumphant, with Antilocapra Americana lashed behind my saddle. The spell once broken I had little difficulty, having since killed many of the dark-eyed beauties. But elk, they continually evaded me. Every fall I took trips of two or three hundred miles to find them, but, as often my attempts were baffled for I found nothing but a cold trail made during the summer. Thus time passed on until last fall, October and November, 1875; then taking your editor's advice, I started in my covered wagon, with complete camping outfit for the "Middle Loup," having for a companion Geo. H., who, like myself, was most anxious to kill his first elk. The outfit necessary for pleasant and successful hunting in this country, should have in addition to the usual covered wagon and camping utensils an extra, steady-going saddle horse, accustomed to the picket-rope, and not easily frightened by the use of fire-arms. The clothing should be of heavy woolen material, and of a pale yellowish-brown. The rifle used should be breech-loading, of small bore, heavy charge and light express, or an explosive ball. Such a rifle I find has the main elements which make up a good hunting gun. It gives a flat trajectory up to three hundred yards, the outside hunting range, and is deadly enough for the largest elk. A powerful field glass will be found a most useful accessory.
The Loup is a miniature Platte, (of which it is a tributary) in very many respects, and drains with its branches much of northwestern Nebraska. The upper Middle Loup, where the most of our hunting was done, has the same broad channel and innumberable sand-bars. Its low banks and many islands are densely covered with a thick, tall growth of coarse grass, weeds, and willow brush. The country lying adjacent to this river and its main branch, the Dismal, is, to say the least, very hilly, being composed of ranges of bluffs lying parallel to the river, and succeeding each other at intervals of one or more miles as far as the eye can reach. The intervening valleys are made up of short, sharp ridges and steep-sided knolls, usually but a few yards apart. Deep canyons from the river, wind out into the various ranges, furnishing timber of several kinds, including cedar, elm, ash, boxelder, and many brush thickets. The first grows in thick dark clumps along the steep sides, and is intermixed with the latter varieties along the level floor-like bottoms of the canyons. Such grasses as are indigenous to the soil, grow sparsely on the up-lands, among which is the famous buffalo or gramme grass. The lowlands furnish a rank growth of "blue-stem," of "blue-joint," every where common in the west.
The game found in this section is "lordly elk," or wapiti (C. canadensis), black-tailed or mule deer, (C. Macrotis), white-tail deer, (C. Virginianus), prong-horn antelope, and occasionally a stray buffalo. Musquash, beaver, and otter, are found in nearly all the shallow swift-running streams. Of game birds, there is the sharp-tailed grouse, common pinnated grouse, and, in their season, all the water-fowl common to the West. The elk and black-tail deer range among the highest points of the bluffs; the former in bedding, choose some elevated spur or ridge, while the mule deer bed in "blow outs" (excavations made by elements in the loose soil) along the higher ranges, both varieties going some distance for water. The Virginia deer prefer the willow-covered islands, the reedy patches, and the many plum thickets in the immediate vicinity of the river.
On the first day from Kearney Junction, and the sixth from our starting point, we fell in with a settler, on his way home from the railroad, whom we will call Mack, and engaged his to accompany us with his mule team. Just before we reached his ranche Geo. H. shouted me to "come here if you want to see deer." On my way to him I saw not deer, but a band of elk; six female with their young, and one "monarch of the glen." Our guns were wrapped up, and before we could get them, the elk mounted a distant hill-side and passed on out of sight. We watched them as long as they were in view, particularly the stag, he being the first we had seen. I noticed well his glistening antlers, dark brown mane and legs, and his light smooth sides of gray. Leaving the teams with the settler's boy to be driven to the stables, we took our guns and a shorter route, and while on our way we jumped a large black tail doe from her bed in a "blow-out." She started off with that short stiff-legged bound peculiar to this species, but both of us being excited we missed her.
Heavy fires, a few days before, had run over the country, consuming everything combustible which lay in its way, and for forty miles up Mud Creek Valley there was hardly grass enough on which to picket our teams. On reaching our destination we found that the fire had been there before us, and burned the country for miles with the exception of a few deep canyons. It was late in the day when we arrived and we drove our teams into a steep-sided canyon, dark with cedars growing on the level bed, and up the almost perpendicular sides. Making a huge fire of the dry cedar, we cooked our evening meal of meat and potatoes, which, with good bread, butter, and coffee, we relished thoroughly. Later in the night the wind began to howl, the weather turned quite cold, and not long after drops began to strike the canvas cover of our wagon. Then they came thicker and thicker, and on peering out in the morning, we found it snowing furiously. The storm continued until noon, the wind piling the "beautiful" (?) into drifts two feet deep, and this on the 25th of October. As soon as it abated we took our guns, Mack and I going one way, and Geo. H. on horseback, another. After some difficulty in ascending to the uplands we proceeded to another canyon, which lay three hundred yards or more to the left of our camp. It was covered with grass, tangled thickets, and scattering groves of elm and ash, which had escaped the fire.
The snow flakes were still falling when we reached the bank, and on looking closely over we saw the unmistakable head and ears of a mule deer feeding, and below us nearly two hundred feet. Stepping quickly back out of sight and taking a circuit we entered the canyon without trouble. Mack being no hunter, I took the initiative and succeeded by careful stalking in getting within forty paces of the buck, while he ate at his leisure, nipping the soft green leaves of the wild snow drop which grows here luxuriantly. He had just secured a dainty little mouthful when on raising his head he discovered me with rifle to may shoulder, and that was the last vision, poor fellow, that he ever had, for my Sharp's bullet killed him instantly. Gazalloching him we snaked him over the snow to a place where we could scale the sides of the canyon. Grasping each horn we pulled and tugged, and in a few minutes we reached the top and were soon in camp; which we had hardly reached before H. came galloping in, and nearly offended me by taking no notice of my fine young buck.
But in a few minutes it came out in this wise: "Boys! Harness up the mules for I've killed the biggest buck elk on the range!" The announcement nearly took away our breath. We shook hands and "yelled like the yell of an Iroquois," and came near, like Dickens' two jolly tars, "pommeling each other's heads" in our joy. After the congratulations were over, we went two miles from camp to bring in the dead stag, and on our way H. "fought the battle o'er." He said that he found a herd of seventy-five or more feeding in a deep canyon; creeping within a hundred steps he selected a male with the finest antlers and shot; the herd scampered away, leaving his elk struggling on his side, which soon regained his feet and walked slowly away and laid down, not, however, until H. had put two more balls into him. Thinking him nearly dead, H. approached him, when the elk "rose to explain," and "made for him," in a "manner quite shocking to see," H. said he thought a proper regard for personal safety required instant flight, and so he climbed a steep bank with the agility of a monkey, and from this stand-point, brought him to a full stop with a bullet from his 44 Wesson.
Mack's little mules hauled the huge fellow on the snow up and over the bluffs to our canyon. That night there was a sight worth seeing in our camp. The deep, steep-sided canyon, dark with its scattering cedars; the white-covered wagons, drawn closely together near at hand; the tent with the camp-fire crackling before the open door, on which was cooking our bountiful supper, the familiar faces of our four-footed friends, the horses and mules, as they contentedly munched their corn close by, casting many a wonderful look at the great antlered monarch of the prairies as he lay in the fire light. My black-tailed buck which we had placed beside it for the purpose of comparison, the bright fire shining over all, and on the happy interested countenances of the group as we listened to the recital of the day's adventures and triumphs, the while far above in the narrow opening the stars twinkled and blazed as it seemed for our particular cheer.
The day following I shot two more male deer, and with this exception we, killed else but time, while in that camp. Giving Mack the greater portion of the meat to carry home to his little ones. We broke camp, crossed the main divide between Mud Creek and the Middle Loup, and drove down to the town of New Helena, on the latter stream, one hundred miles from the railroad.
At New Helena we stopped a few days to recruit our horses and prepare the heads of our games for mounting. Here we met a friend, Mr. Mathews, and through him we formed the acquaintance of Mr. James H. Ross, whose hospitality we enjoyed, and whom we induced to accompany and guide us on our trip to the Dismal River, twenty-five miles above.
Setting out from Mr. Ross', one bright morning, we followed the only trail visible, and a dim one it was, made by a party of government surveyors during the summer, up the Middle Loup to the Dismal. We often saw white-tail deer feeding on the river bottoms, but as they espied our wagon they would dash away with long high bounds to some willow-covered island. Coyotes would perch themselves on some lonely prominence, take a long look, then "silently steal away" in their peculiar sneaking manner. On the sand bars, and flying up and down the river were flocks of wild geese. Ducks of various kinds paddled about in the still water, seeming to care little for our presence. Covies of sharp tail grouse would break the solitude with the thunder of their wings as they rose from their hiding places in the tall grass, making the silence which followed seem almost oppressive.
Reaching the mouth of the Dismal we passed up the stream, about a day's drive, through a country still more dismally dismal. Lonely and desolate it lay, as if never before disturbed by the foot of man. Those lines from the "Ancient Mariner" recurred to me continually;
Just as the sun was passing from sight behind the high sandy bluffs we drove down to a bend in the river and pitched our tent in a small grove of trees at the foot of the bluff, and close to the shallow, swift-running stream, its low banks being here thickly grassed to the water's edge. On every hand well-worn elk paths and deer trails led back into the hills. Rising early on the morning of Nov. 5th we found the wind in the northwest, bringing clouds of mist, dimming but not obscuring the landscape. Notwithstanding this we arranged that H. and myself should make a detour through the bluffs, while Mr. Rose should hunt above and in the vicinity of the river. Setting out we led our horses over the many ups and downs until we reached the first range of bluffs. When near the summit I took a long survey of the brown grassy valley which stretched before me, and far away on the second range, I saw through the mist two objects which, with the aid of my glass, I decided to be either deer or elk feeding. Leading our horses behind the hill, and driving the picket pins into the loose soil with our heels, we left them to crop the withered herbage while we went forward to take a closer inspection. Keeping out of sight behind ridges we reached the low ground where I once more tried my glass, and how my pulses thumped when I "made assurance doubly sure," and found them to be indeed what I long had sought-elk. One stood on a sharp peak of the chain watchfully scanning the country in search of lurking danger, while his mate fed below on the steep hillside. I could well see that they were both large stags, having fully developed antlers.
While observing with my glass the numerous deep ravines putting out from the range, and trying to decide which to take and how to reach them, the look-out joined his mate, and soon after both laid down. Always choosing good cover, and often plucking the dry grass and tossing it into the air to make sure that we did not give them the wind. Creeping on "all-fours" behind low ridges, and worming ourselves on our stomachs over the more exposed places we reached the ridge on which they were lying. I expected every moment to find myself foiled by jumping a mule deer, as their fresh tracks, made in play that morning were all about, and the many "blow-outs" afforded them their favorite bedding places.
H.'s ambition having been gratified, he here left me to go forward alone. With the aid of grass roots, and by pushing the toes of my boots into the soft sandy soil, I raised myself, inch by inch, until I could see much of the body of one, and the head and antlers of the other, though they were at too great a distance to risk a shot.
Turning to the right, behind a low ridge, I selected a small grassy knoll which lay between me and the quarry. On reaching it, I parted the grass and peered through with my heart thudding industriously, and saw the first elk scarcely twenty yards distant, his body out of sight behind a low bank with only the tips of his horns visible. The other was a little farther removed, and I had only a back view of his head. As I could obtain no better position, I found I must risk a shot from this point. With the intention of calming myself, and to still the rapid heart-throbs, I lay quiet and looked at my game. I counted the prongs on each horn-five fully developed and unbroken points to each beam. The points whitened as if by use, battered perhaps, the beams and other parts of a rich, dark brown. Drawing my hunting hat tightly down, and with extra cartridges in hand, I summoned my energies for the struggle, and slowly rose to a fair view. The click in setting the triggers of my .40 calibre Sharps caused him to swing his head with its wide-branching antlers slowly around, giving me a side view of his glistening eye. Taking a quick aim just below his optic, I fired. The 90 grains of Orange sounded weak! my shoulder did not even feel the usual recoil. On to my feet just in time to see him struggle for an instant on his side, then spring up, and with one great bound disappear over the "break" and out of sight to bee seen no more until himself and mate appeared on a distant hillside, where they halted, threw up their magnificent heads and looked back, then taking their long swinging trot were soon out of sight.
Seldom have I felt more despondent, and as H. and myself went for the horses to follow the trail, I felt as if I were doomed to go home without my antlers. H. added to my chagrin, if that were possible, by chiding me for being over cautious. The mist had by this time cleared away, and the sun shone forth brightly as we reached their trail in the mellow sand, and traced them nearly three miles, often finding pools of blood and stained grass. On mounting a range of bluffs H. saw a black-tail deer in its bed, and never having shot one, I loaned him my rifle to try the buck, while I held his horse. On his way to the deer he saw the elk lying down on a distant ridge. Returning without frightening the deer, we again picketed our horses, and using every precaution we succeeded in getting within easy distance where h. again left me to try my fortune alone.
Creeping along the ridge on which they were lying I reached a favorable point from which to shoot. Reaching carefully forward my rifle, and resting the muzzle on a tussock of grass, with hammer drawn back, and heel-plate to my shoulder I slowly raised myself to find my wounded stag with his back toward me as usual. I could see his body dimly outlined through the grass, and I aimed well forward hoping to strike his backbone. Using my rifle without the set I commenced a steady pull. As it cocked the elk sprang to his feet and "took to his heels." Running to where I last saw them I looked over; yes, there he was standing head down on a hillside, his mate having gone on alone. Dropping quickly to the ground I tried to shoot, but my nerves were so unstrung that I could not have hit an elephant at ten steps, and before I could steady myself he fell, and running to him I found life extinct. With the perspiration streaming from every pore, I leaned on my rifle to rest and admire my prize as he lay stretched out on the brown withered grass. I grasped his antlers, turned his head, and straightened his brown flossy mane, and could hardly make myself believe that I had at last shot an elk. H. joined me, and we ripped him up to his dark bearded throat, removed his entrails, and tied a coat to his horns to keep the wolves away, intending to bring him in the next day. His antlers were of medium size; the foot-stalks and tines were long and symmetrical, every antler perfect and mating well with its fellows.
The next day while we ere going with team and wagon to bring in the dead stag, Mr. Ross saw a large band of elk across a divide a mile or more from our stopping place. Turning our team to the wagon we started in pursuit. Taking their trail across the valley; and from the high range of hills succeeding it we could see them far ahead still moving and closely together, not unlike our domestic sheep. When we were about giving up the chase we saw another herd of about seventy-five lying down on a spur to our left. So, turning our attention to this band, and making a long stalk, we were so fortunate as to get within easy rifle range. They were scattered along the hillside singly and in groups, and were mostly cows and calves, though I saw a number of males, having horns of various degrees of development. One, I noticed, had long sabre-like antlers destitute of prongs; a few had short beams and brow antlers, while some old monarchs carried full heads.
While lying to get our breath a lordly stag with five points to each beam, rose to his feet, stretched himself lazily, and turned his gray side toward us. I was to shoot the stag and H. and Ross were to shoot does; through some mistake H. fired before Ross and I could get our positions. The herd sprang up at the shot, huddled close together, and ran at a furious pace over the ridge; though not until Ross had fired a random shot. I could not shoot, lying down, with my game speeding away at such a rate, and in attempting to gain my feet, I slipped, to rise just as the last stag, with his long horns laid over his back, was showing us his clean-shaped heels. Following the flying herd we found a wounded cow standing in the shadow of a steep bank. Almost simultaneously the sharp crack of our rifles rang out, and she fell literally riddled. Ross' random shot had wounded her. Returning to the wagon we loaded the game, and reached camp in good season. We hunted out a few days more, during which time Ross killed a Virginia doe near the river, and H. a mule buck in the hills. The mule deer will, at times, stand and blankly stare while sot at, and if not hit trot off a few steps and turn, giving the hunter another chance. One evening H. had sixteen shots, on different occasions, at mule deer, which acted in this manner: He was then using a carbine having a curved trajectory and a twenty-pound trigger-pull, which I suppose was the reason of his getting only one of the three at which he shot.
On the last day of our hunt we came in early, and long before the shadows crept over the valley we were busy preparing for the homeward journey. One by one the stars shone out, and the full moon rose in the east throwing her silvery light over the great hills and winding river, as we began our supper. Broiling great slices of savory venison, and with steaming potatoes, warm biscuit and coffee, we ate our evening meal in the open front of the white-walled tent, made light and warm by the fire before it. The flames cast long shadows over our game, which were stretched out in full view on the short, thick grass-the antlered stag, the glossy-coated cow, and the symmetrical deer. Our horses came to the canvas-covered wagon, and with low neigh looked wistfully in upon us, asking for their evening feed. Across the narrow valley rose one above another the serrated hills, while nearer, through the trees, came the glimmer of the river, whose low ripplings came to us "like a voice in the night." Several years ago a herd of five hundred Texan cattle stampeded during a storm, and their owner was never able to gather them. They retreated as settlers encroached, and those which have not been killed roam over this country. We saw fresh traces of them while here, but none of the cattle. On our return journey, when near the mouth of the Dismal, we saw a herd of twenty-five wild horses feeding on the bottom, and as they saw us they trotted up to within 300 yards, with heads erect. Then wheeling they galloped slowly away. They were of medium size and mostly bays, and hardly came up to my expectations.
We were gone from home just a month. Hunting less than two weeks we killed three elk, four mule, and one Virginia deer, besides some smaller game. The antlers attracted much attention and comment as we passed through the many towns which lay on our homeward route. And so terminates our hunt-our dreams were realized, and our hopes merged into full fruition.