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Blacktails in the Bad Lands by Bronson Rumsey


One bright, cold November day I started from a ranch on the Little Missouri, in western Dakota, with the set purpose of getting venison for the ever hungry cow-boys. They depended solely upon me for their supply of fresh meat; and as for some time I had shot nothing, I had been the subject of disparaging comment for several days, and the foreman, in particular, suggested that I should stay at home and kill a steer, and not chase all the black-tails into the next county.

So I stole off this time with an almost guilty conscience, and plunged at once into the dense brush of the river-bottom. In the thicket I startled a Virginia deer, but knew it to be one only by the waving salute of its white flag. I also passed a tree in one of the forks of which I had, at another time, found an old muzzle-loading rifle, rusted, worn, and decaying, a whole history in itself, and beyond, not two hundred yards away, an Indian's skull with a neat round hole through the crown.

The Keogh stage road crossed the river near by, and I found out that the place was the scene of the last Indian deviltry in this section. It was the old story. A man, while looking for the stage-horses, was shot; a second, hearing the report, went out to see what it meant, and was in turn killed; while a third, with perhaps a little more experience, jumped on the only horse left at the station and fled for his life, with half a dozen Indians in full cry in pursuit.

I walked on along the old trail taken by the lucky fugitive, and up out of the river-valley to a level plateau above. From the top could be seen in the distance several big buttes, and a dark pine-tree, which was to be my objective point for the day's hunt. To the right, as I stepped briskly forward, was a large washout, cut deep into the clay soil, broken and irregular, with sage-brush scattered here and there along its sides and bottom. At the head of the washout I spied some yellow long-horned Texas cattle, and gave them a wide berth. I had had some pleasing experiences of their habits, and did not care just then to be stamped flat.

To the left, a few hundred yards away, was a long valley leading to the river and far out into the prairie, wooded in patches, with small pockets at intervals along the sides, filled with low brush. Here at other times I had jumped whitetails from their daytime naps, and once had had a running shot at a large prairie-wolf. Bearing all this in mind, I veered over toward the valley, and had not gone far when I saw in the distance a black-tail buck come skipping out of it, and moving with high, long bounds, as is the way of its kind when frightened or going at speed.

These bounds, by the way, are very curious: the animal lands on all four feet at once, in such a small area that a sombrero would cover the four footprints. On a few occasions, when very badly frightened, I have seen them run level, like a race-horse; but that gait is so unusual as hardly to be considered characteristic of this deer. The deer in question, after a few long jumps, settled down into a trot, then into a walk, and finally stopped and looked about. He did not see me, however, and when he again moved off there was a man jogging quietly along in his wake.

Taking advantage of every little hollow to keep from his sight and make a spurt, I soon reduced the distance between us, and arrived at the further edge of the plateau just in time to see him disappear in some broken country. Continuing cautiously on to where I had last seen him, it became apparent that he had determined upon some definite course, for his tracks led as straight as the nature of the ground would permit to what I knew was the head of a large coulée which ran into the valley from which he had come into view.

As the soil was very hard and dry, and his tracks difficult to follow, I soon determined to leave them and cut straight for the coulée below the point toward which he had been headed, thinking it likely that he would continue his course down the coulée, at least for a short distance. I ought to be able to write that "events turned out exactly as calculated," but they did not. I ran with a fair burst of speed to the edge of the coulée, and when, after quietly watching for twenty minutes, no deer appeared, my mind went back to the foreman's remark about killing a steer.

However, it remained for me to go up to the point where it was probable the buck entered the coulée. I accordingly did so, hunting every inch of the way, and looking for sign and whatever else might turn up. I saw nothing, however, but two grouse that startled me, as they always do, but especially when my nerves are strung up as they were just then. What course the buck had taken, was now the question. Doubling back to my old conclusion that he had gone straight, I went out of the coulée, and followed on the line he had gone. At first it led over another small plateau, then it dipped down again into some more bad lands, cut up and broken with picturesque red scoria hills covered with straggling twisted cedar-trees.

About this time my ardor for this particular buck had begun to subside, and he was now anybody's game. Being somewhat tired as well, I climbed to the top of a round clay butte, sat down, and lighted a pipe. I had been smoking for about ten minutes, enjoying the mysterious scenery and thinking what course it would be best to take, when again my buck loomed up for a few seconds in the distance, and once more walked quickly out of sight. This was a great surprise and pleasure, and the pace at which I set out in pursuit would have rejoiced the heart of a messenger boy. I ran as fast as I could, stopping to peer over every rise in the land, and was soon rewarded by a most interesting sight. The buck had come upon another, fully as large if not larger than himself, and they were exchanging greetings across a small washout, each extending his nose and smelling the other. They would sniff a minute and then turn their heads about, flap their long gray ears, and wiggle their short black tails, acting as if they were old friends.

It seems a great pity to shoot such noble creatures; but unfortunately this thought rarely comes at the right time for the deer. Given, a man having killed nothing for several days, unmercifully guyed by all the cow-boys, and add to that a long and lively chase after constantly vanishing venison,—when, then, the man gets within shooting distance, it is hardly at such a time that his kindly instincts will suggest the propriety of letting the poor beasts escape.

As for myself, with every muscle and nerve at tension from an exciting chase, and mind fairly satisfied of game well earned, it would have taken more self-denial than I pretend to possess not to shoot, especially since we had been living on pork for some time. When fresh meat is plentiful in camp, it is to a real sportsman no sacrifice to let the does and fawns escape, or to shoot them merely with the deadly kodak; but on this day the shack really had to have meat—those lordly heads, too.

There is always a strong desire, when one comes upon game, to shoot at once; but it is a good plan, if possible, to rest and get one's breathing apparatus into proper shape. It is most exasperating, not to say cruel, to wound a deer and have him get away; and there is a good chance of this happening if, before your hand steadies and your head clears, you begin to open fire.

From the direction of the wind it was quite evident that the deer could not scent me, so for some moments I lay watching the animals with lively interest, and wondering what they would do next.

They were apparently satisfied with an occasional sniff at one another, but seemed at the same time to give their attention to something beyond my view. From my position on top of a small mound, or butte, where I had crawled with great caution, nothing could be seen either up or down a large washout that was between me and the deer; and I had poked my gun through a bunch of grass, and was quite prepared to shoot, when the ears, then the head and body, of a large doe, closely followed by a young buck and a yearling, came into full view.

To say that I was surprised but faintly expresses it, and for the time being all idea of shooting left me, as I watched with keenest interest the advent of the new-comers. The old doe, as if aware of her importance as the respected matron of a family, walked sedately past the two bucks without bestowing the least attention upon them, selected a grassy spot in the sun, pivoted around twice to level her bed, and quietly settled to earth, facing me. The young buck and yearling stood as if not quite decided whether to follow her example, but finally began to nibble grass and walk about. Here, indeed, was a pretty picture,—an embarrassment of riches. I thought it quite possible to get one big buck, with the chance of a good running shot at the other; and as there was no hurry, and my gun was at a dead rest for the first shot at least, I decided to shoot at the largest buck behind the ear, and then trust to occasion for whatever should follow.

Photographed from life by T. G. Ingersoll. From Forest and Stream.

I felt that excitement was again about to get the upper hand, and I aimed carefully several times before pulling trigger. At last, after a sharp report, the smoke blew directly in my face, and for a second I could see nothing distinctly; but when it cleared away, and I, having pumped a cartridge into place, was again prepared to shoot, what was my astonishment to find that the buck fired at had utterly disappeared, and that the second, far from being frightened, was still standing with his nose poked down into the washout that had been between them.

Without further speculation, I sighted for the neck of buck number two, and at the report he also disappeared; but this time I made out that he fell over forward into the washout. Everything was now afoot and moving about, so taking a quick shot at the doe, behind the shoulder, and three more at the remaining two, the last on the jump, I realized, by seeing them fall, a big day's work, and for the moment felt very proud. It was not until afterward that the feeling came up that my glory would have been quite enough without killing the last three; but then it must be remembered that we needed every pound of meat at the shack.

The two big bucks had fallen into the washout, which was about six feet deep, one directly on top of the other, and it was beyond my strength, without a horse and rope, to pull them out. As it was, I had to clean them in very uncomfortable quarters and not in the most approved manner. During November, in the northern latitudes, the sun is early to bed, and it was four o'clock and getting gray when the last deer had been cared for. At dark I washed all trace of blood from my hands and arms in the river near the shack, and strolled into the kitchen with as woebegone a countenance as I could muster. I intended to get even with the foreman.

A sardonic smile stole over his face, and a disgusted look over those of the others, as they noticed my unstained hands. I remarked to the foreman that I had shot some game. He promptly replied, "You didn't; if you had, you'd have been so proud you'd be as red as a scoria butte with deer blood, to show off. No such luck; and as long as you and that thirty-eight-caliber pop-gun go rustling around this country, I reckon we'll eat pork and be —— glad to get it."

To this I answered that if he would promise to pack in what game I had killed, and would do it, I would give him the hunting-knife that he had been trying to steal for the last week. He instantly called it a bargain, and asked how far it was to the game. I answered that it was about five miles, and that I would take him there in the morning.

So next morning we started on horseback, and I went far enough with him to point out exactly where the deer were, and leaving him, I rode over to call on a friend who had a small horse-ranch in the neighborhood. I stayed at this horse-ranch overnight, and did not get back to our ranch until the following evening about supper-time.

It leaked out that the cow-boys had fairly screamed with delight when the truth was known, and would rather have been discharged than help the foreman pack in the five deer. He did pack them, however, in good faith; and both he and the cow-punchers, now that they had fresh meat, spared me their jokes, and for several days did not try to lend me their pitching ponies.

Thus ended a most eventful hunt; and although it was unquestionably a very exceptional piece of good luck to have killed five deer neatly, still it is none the less a fact that with a thirty-eight-caliber rifle I have always done the best work. With a fifty-caliber I have shot deer in their vital parts and then had them run great distances, whereas with the smaller bullet, when properly hit, they would almost invariably double up on the spot. I can give no explanation that will help to determine why the smaller-bored rifle has always, with me, been the most efficient.

Bronson Rumsey.