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Coursing the Prongbuck by Theodore Roosevelt


The prongbuck is the most characteristic and distinctive of American game animals. Zoölogically speaking, its position is unique. It is the only hollow-horned ruminant which sheds its horns. We speak of it as an antelope, and it does of course represent on our prairies the antelopes of the Old World, and is a distant relative of theirs; but it stands apart from all other horned animals. Its position in the natural world is almost as lonely as that of the giraffe.

The chase of the prongbuck has always been to me very attractive, but especially so when carried on by coursing it with greyhounds. Any man who has lived much in the cow-country, and has wandered about a good deal over the great plains, is of course familiar with this gallant little beast, and has probably had to rely upon it very frequently for a supply of fresh meat. On my ranch it has always been the animal which yielded us most of the fresh meat we had in the spring and summer. Of course at such times we killed only bucks, and even these only when we positively needed the flesh.

In all its ways and habits the prongbuck differs as much from deer and elk as from goat and sheep. Now that the buffalo has gone, it is the only game really at home on the wide plains. It is a striking-looking little creature, with its big bulging eyes, single-pronged horns, and the sharply contrasted coloration of its coat; this coat, by the way, being composed of curiously coarse and brittle hair. In marked contrast to deer, antelope never seek to elude observation; all they care for is to be able to see themselves. As they have good noses and wonderful eyes, and as they live by preference where there is little or no cover, shots at them are usually obtained only at far longer range than is the case with other game; and yet, as they are easily seen, and often stand looking at the hunter just barely within very long rifle-range, they are always tempting their pursuer to the expenditure of cartridges. More shots are wasted at antelope than at any other game. They would be even harder to secure were it not that they are subject to fits of panic, folly, or excessive curiosity, which occasionally put them fairly at the mercy of the rifle-bearing hunter.

Prongbucks are very fast runners indeed, even faster than deer. They vary greatly in speed, however, precisely as is the case with deer; in fact, I think that the average hunter makes altogether too little account of this individual variation among different animals of the same kind. Under the same conditions different deer and antelope vary in speed and wariness, exactly as bears and cougars vary in cunning and ferocity. When in perfect condition a full-grown buck antelope, from its strength and size, is faster and more enduring than an old doe; but a fat buck, before the rut has begun, will often be pulled down by a couple of good greyhounds much more speedily than a flying yearling or two-year-old doe. Under favorable circumstances, when the antelope was jumped near by, I have seen one overhauled and seized by a single first-class greyhound; and, on the other hand, I have more than once seen a pronghorn run away from a whole pack of just as good dogs. With a fair start, and on good ground, a thoroughbred horse, even though handicapped by the weight of a rider, will run down an antelope; but this is a feat which should rarely be attempted, because such a race, even when carried to a successful issue, is productive of the utmost distress to the steed.

Ordinary horses will sometimes run down an antelope which is slower than the average. I had on my ranch an under-sized old Indian pony named White Eye, which, when it was fairly roused, showed a remarkable turn of speed, and had great endurance. One morning on the round-up, when for some reason we did not work the cattle, I actually ran down an antelope in fair chase on this old pony. It was a nursing doe, and I came over the crest of a hill, between forty and fifty yards away from it. As it wheeled to start back, the old cayuse pricked up his ears with great interest, and the minute I gave him a sign was after it like a shot. Whether, being a cow-pony, he started to run it just as if it were a calf or a yearling trying to break out of the herd, or whether he was overcome by dim reminiscences of buffalo-hunting in his Indian youth, I know not. At any rate, after the doe he went, and in a minute or two I found I was drawing up to it. I had a revolver, but of course did not wish to kill her, and so got my rope ready to try to take her alive. She ran frantically, but the old pony, bending level to the ground, kept up his racing lope and closed right in beside her. As I came up she fairly bleated. An expert with the rope would have captured her with the utmost ease; but I missed, sending the coil across her shoulders. She again gave an agonized bleat, or bark, and wheeled around like a shot. The cow-pony stopped almost, but not quite, as fast, and she got a slight start, and it was some little time before I overhauled her again. When I did I repeated the performance, and this time when she wheeled she succeeded in getting on some ground where I could not follow, and I was thrown out.

I have done a good deal of coursing with greyhounds at one time or another, but always with scratch packs. The average frontiersman seems to have an inveterate and rooted objection to a dog with pure blood. If he gets a greyhound, his first thought is to cross it with something else, whether a bull mastiff, or a setter, or a foxhound. There are a few men who keep leashes of greyhounds of pure blood, bred and trained to antelope-coursing, and who do their coursing scientifically, carrying the dogs out to the hunting-grounds in wagons and exercising every care in the sport; but these men are rare. The average man who dwells where antelope are sufficiently abundant to make coursing a success, simply follows the pursuit at odd moments, with whatever long-legged dogs he and his neighbors happen to have; and his methods of coursing are apt to be as rough as his outfit. My own coursing has been precisely of this character. At different times I have had on my ranch one or two high-class greyhounds and Scotch deer-hounds, with which we have coursed deer and antelope, as well as jack-rabbits, foxes, and coyotes; and we have usually had with them one or two ordinary hounds, and various half-bred dogs. I must add, however, that some of the latter were very good. I can recall in particular one fawn-colored beast, a cross between a greyhound and a foxhound, which ran nearly as fast as the former, though it occasionally yelped in shrill tones. It could also trail well, and was thoroughly game; on one occasion it ran down and killed a coyote single-handed.

On going out with these dogs, I rarely chose a day when I was actually in need of fresh meat. If this was the case, I usually went alone with the rifle; but if one or two other men were at the ranch, and we wanted a morning's fun, we would often summon the dogs, mount our horses, and go trooping out to the antelope-ground. As there was a good deer-country between the ranch bottom and the plains where we found the prongbuck, it not infrequently happened that we had a chase after black-tail or white-tail on the way. Moreover, when we got out to the ground, before sighting antelope, it frequently happened that the dogs would jump a jack-rabbit or a fox, and away the whole set would go after it, streaking through the short grass, sometimes catching their prey in a few hundred yards, and sometimes having to run a mile or so. In consequence, by the time we reached the regular hunting-ground, the dogs were apt to have lost a good deal of their freshness. We would get them in behind the horses and creep cautiously along, trying to find some solitary prongbuck in a suitable place, where we could bring up the dogs from behind a hillock, and give them a fair start after it. Usually we failed to get the dogs near enough for a good start; and in most cases their chases after unwounded prongbuck resulted in the quarry running clean away from them. Thus the odds were greatly against them; but, on the other hand, we helped them wherever possible with the rifle. We often rode well scattered out, and if one of us put up an antelope, or had a chance at one when driven by the dogs, he would always fire, and the pack were saved from the ill effects of total discouragement by so often getting these wounded beasts. It was astonishing to see how fast an antelope with a broken leg could run. If such a beast had a good start, and especially if the dogs were tired, it would often lead them a hard chase, and the dogs would be utterly exhausted after it had been killed; so that we would have to let them lie where they were for a long time before trying to lead them down to some stream-bed. If possible, we carried water for them in canteens.

There were red-letter days, however, in which our dogs fairly ran down and killed antelope,—days when the weather was cool, and when it happened that we got our dogs out to the ground without their being tired by previous runs, and found our quarry soon, and in favorable places for slipping the hounds. I remember one such chase in particular. We had at the time a mixed pack, in which there was only one dog of my own, the others being contributed from various sources. It included two greyhounds, a rough-coated deerhound, a foxhound, and the fawn-colored crossbred mentioned above.

We rode out in the early morning, the dogs trotting behind us; and, coming to a low tract of rolling hills, just at the edge of the great prairie, we separated and rode over the crest of the nearest ridge. Just as we topped it, a fine buck leaped up from a hollow a hundred yards off, and turned to look at us for a moment. All the dogs were instantly spinning toward him down the grassy slope. He apparently saw those at the right, and, turning, raced away from us in a diagonal line, so that the left-hand greyhound, which ran cunningly and tried to cut him off, was very soon almost alongside. He saw her, however,—she was a very fast bitch,—just in time, and, wheeling, altered his course to the right. As he reached the edge of the prairie, this alteration nearly brought him in contact with the crossbred, which had obtained a rather poor start, on the extreme right of the line. Around went the buck again, evidently panic-struck and puzzled to the last degree, and started straight off across the prairie, the dogs literally at his heels, and we, urging our horses with whip and spur, but a couple of hundred yards behind. For half a mile the pace was tremendous, when one of the greyhounds made a spring at his ear, but, failing to make good his hold, was thrown off. However, it halted the buck for a moment, and made him turn quarter round, and in a second the deerhound had seized him by the flank and thrown him, and all the dogs piled on top, never allowing him to rise.

Later in the day we again put up a buck not far off. At first it went slowly, and the dogs hauled up on it; but when they got pretty close, it seemed to see them, and letting itself out, went clean away from them almost without effort.

Once or twice we came upon bands of antelope, and the hounds would immediately take after them. I was always rather sorry for this, however, because the frightened animals, as is generally the case when beasts are in a herd, seemed to impede one another, and the chase usually ended by the dogs seizing a doe, for it was of course impossible to direct them to any particular beast.

It will be seen that with us coursing was a homely sport. Nevertheless we had very good fun, and I shall always have enjoyable memories of the rapid gallops across the prairie, on the trail of a flying prongbuck.

Theodore Roosevelt.