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Old Times in the Black Hills by Roger D. Williams

 

In the spring of '75 I found myself one of a party of six occupying a rude but strongly fortified stockade on French Creek, in the Black Hills, almost under the shadow of Calamity Peak, and not far from where Custer City was afterward built.

I had left Denver the previous fall, quite a tenderfoot, and, like Lord Lovel of milk-white steed fame, wanting "strange countries for to see," I determined to join a party that I heard was outfitting at Cheyenne to go into the Black Hills upon a hunting and prospecting tour, under the guidance of old California Joe, one of the most noted scouts and hunters in the West. At this time the presence of gold in the Black Hills was hardly known, and the country; being an Indian reservation, had not even been explored by white men, or surveyed by the government. The plans of the party in question suited my ideas exactly, and I soon found myself on the back of a "cayuse," followed by a good stout packhorse, equipped for a journey of several months, en route to Cheyenne, probably one hundred miles due north. After two days of hard riding I reached Cheyenne, and found that the party had started two days before, intending to cross the Platte River at Fort Laramie, another hundred miles north. Undaunted, I pushed on without delay, not even stopping to take a shot at any of the numerous bands of antelope that continually crossed my path. I reached the post the second day, only to learn from a "bull-whacker"—I dared not disclose my purpose to the officers—that the party I was looking for had been turned back by the troops as trespassers on Indian territory, and were supposed to have gone in the direction of Fort Fetterman. Though somewhat disheartened, I lost no time in following them, and soon rode into their camp, after dark, in a blinding snow-storm.

My welcome was anything but cordial. They regarded my story that I, a tenderfoot, had ridden through from Denver in four days to join them as suspicious, and believed, as I afterward ascertained, that I had been sent out from the post to spy upon their movements. As I rode into camp I noticed they were just finishing supper. During the argument that followed my arrival and proposition to join them, I observed a large, powerfully built man, dressed in buckskin, seated apart from the rest. He was eating the meat from a section of ribs he had scraped out from among the coals and ashes. He took no part in the conversation until, in answer to a question, I stated that I was a Kentuckian. At this he rose and settled the matter by saying that if I was a Kentuckian he would vouch for my honesty of purpose, and that I would stand fire in the scrimmages that we were certain to have with the Sioux. This was California Joe, who for years had been chief of scouts with General Custer. He afterward informed me that he was from near Danville, Kentucky, that his name was Mose Milner, and that he had gone West in the forties. I mention this from the fact that I have since read an account referring to him as one of the most noted characters in the West, whose life was surrounded by mystery, as he always refused to tell his real name or whence he came.

After waiting a couple of days for the river to fall, we forded just above the junction of the Laramie and the Platte. I came very near losing my packhorse and entire outfit, one horse being drowned in the treacherous quicksands in spite of our strenuous efforts to rescue him. At the end of a two weeks' journey through the best game country I ever hunted in, we entered the Black Hills proper, through Red Cañon, the place where the Metz party and many prospectors en route to the new Eldorado were afterward killed by the Indians. Old Joe had several opportunities to verify his good opinion of my ability to stand fire, as we were attacked by roving bands of Sioux at Alkali Springs, Hat Creek, and Red Cañon. Our first action was to erect a couple of log cabins and surround them with a strong stockade, with a bastion at each corner. We spent the entire winter here, feeling secure of our ability to stand off any bands of Indians that might attempt to dislodge us. We were utterly oblivious of the fact that the Indians had reported our presence, and that the government had sent out troops from both Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies to bring us in; one command, under Lieutenant Mix, returning after several weeks' unsuccessful search with a large percentage of the men suffering from frozen extremities.

In the early part of the winter game was plentiful; it was a perfect hunter's paradise, it being necessary only to sit in the stockade gate and shoot deer coming down to water. We frequently had eight or ten carcasses swung to our corner-poles, and did not deign to eat other than the choice pieces, throwing the remainder over the stockade walls to attract wolves at night. These we shot for their pelts. In the early spring the Indians coming in for "tepee" poles burned the country for miles around us, and quite a little jaunt became necessary to find game. We generally took turn about at supplying the table with meat, and it eventually proved anything but a sinecure.

On one such hunt I met with a rather curious misadventure. It being my turn to replenish the larder, which, by the way, had for several weeks contained absolutely nothing but meat,—not even coffee,—I placed a rawhide hackamore and a pack on "Coffee," an extra bronco I had bought, filled my pouch with a good supply of jerked bear-meat, and calling two of the dogs,—Kentuck, a greyhound, and Maida, a deerhound,—I struck out just as the sun was peeping over the hills. I decided to go to the foot-hills in the direction of Buffalo Gap, in the hope of finding antelope in some of the valleys. Noon found me near Point of Rocks and still tramping, "Coffee" trailing leisurely along, at times dropping entirely out of sight while looking for unburned grass, then whinnying and scampering after me full tilt, like a boy just out from school. I had seen several deer and a couple of sheep, but none within range.

Here I came upon some cottontail rabbits, the first and only ones I ever saw in that part of the country. They were not frightened by my presence, evidently never having been disturbed by man. I tried a shot at one very near me, and as I was using 107 grains of powder, entirely overshot him. Although the smoke of the gun reached him, he did not budge an inch; a second shot literally scattered him to the winds. The dogs, returning at this point, quickly despatched several.

Leaving "Coffee" in the valley, I decided to give up antelope and take my chances on deer and sheep on the mountain-side. When about winded from my exertions, I dropped upon a fallen pine, somewhat disgusted with my ill luck. Presently I heard the distinct bark of a deer very close to me. Peering cautiously from behind a huge granite boulder that obstructed my view ahead, my heart beat faster in an incipient buck-fever, for not sixty yards from me, on a small plateau, stood a big buck, while at his feet lay a doe. His head was slightly turned toward me, his nostrils were quivering and distended, and he looked as if prepared to bound away. He was evidently alarmed by the noise of the dogs I had left in the cañon, which were now making their way up the steep sides of the mountain. He seemed utterly oblivious of my presence; and there was a look of proud defiance in his eye that gave him a most noble, majestic appearance as he stood impatiently striking the hard ground with his fore foot. I had long been anxious to kill two deer with one shot, a feat I had twice seen accomplished by others, so I paused a minute with rifle at full cock, hoping the doe would arise alongside of him. I had not long to wait; his note of warning aroused her, and she jumped to her feet.

Taking a quick aim just back of his shoulder, I fired. As soon as the smoke cleared from in front of my eyes, I saw him still standing erect; he shook his antlers, paused a moment, then rearing to his full height he pitched forward upon his head, apparently stone dead. Forgetting in the excitement of the moment to take a second shot at the doe, which was now bounding off seemingly uninjured, I ran exultingly forward to the buck, dropping my rifle on the edge of the plateau as I reached for my hunting-knife to cut his throat. To my amazement he bounded to his feet and made straight at me, meeting my advance with a charge as sudden as it was unexpected. His onslaught was irresistible, and striking me squarely, he sent me whirling heels over head, fortunately landing me near my rifle, for in reaching for my knife I discovered it was missing. Scrambling to my feet, I arose with my rifle in my hand, and not a minute too soon, for the now thoroughly enraged buck was upon me, with eyes gleaming like coals of fire. I clubbed my gun and struck at his lowered head, hitting the bur of his antlers; and the rifle flew out of my hands, broken in two at the grip. I grasped him by the antlers, and the tussle we then had would have been an interesting and thrilling one to a spectator. I myself would have much preferred the rôle of spectator to that of participant, but unfortunately I had no choice in the matter.

The dogs, now coming up, fortunately divided his attention. Kentuck promptly seized him by the ear and hung on bravely, notwithstanding the sharp hoofs of the buck were cutting him frightfully at each stroke of his deadly fore feet; Maida, in the mean time, was unable to secure a hold that would assist us. In my efforts to hold his head down I slipped and fell, and buck, dogs, and myself mingled in a confused heap. As I fell I lost my hold on the antlers and scrambled for my mutilated rifle; but before I found whether it could be used or not, the buck lunged forward, falling with Kentuck beneath him. It was his last effort; he was dead. Completely winded from my continued and violent exertions in the light air,—being almost up to timber-line,—I sank upon the ground, and could not refrain from smiling at the forlorn appearance we presented.

Blowing like porpoises, their tongues lolling out, covered with blood from their own and the buck's wounds, the dogs lay extended at full length. An examination revealed that Kentuck's mouth was split almost to his ears, and there was a hole in his abdomen from which his entrails protruded, besides several minor cuts. Maida was more bloody than hurt, having lost several patches of skin, and hair enough to pad a saddle. As for myself, my antelope-skin shirt and overalls were ripped and bloody, one sole was torn from my heavy hunting-boots, elbows and knees were skinned by the sharp ledges of slate and loose quartz scattered about, and I had a badly cut lip and several loose teeth. I considered my greatest injury the damage to my rifle. It was one that I had made to order by Freund, of Denver, being a 45-caliber, heavy octagon barrel, Springfield needle-gun movement, with set triggers and curled maple pistol-grip stock. I considered this the best all-round sporting-rifle I had ever owned. I was three hundred miles from a gunsmith, virtually unarmed, and carrying my life in my hand.

An examination of the dead buck proved him indeed a grand specimen. He had eight points to each antler, and their condition and his numerous scars proved conclusively that he had ever been willing to defend his title as monarch of the woods. I never would have believed that any deer could attain so large a size, and though I have hunted them from Arizona to Montana, I have never seen his equal either as to size or condition. This fact determined me to carry him into camp whole; in fact, I had no other alternative, being without a knife. I found the task of cutting his throat with sharp pieces of slate a tedious one indeed, and I had a terrible time getting the carcass on "Coffee," who, although the best packhorse I ever saw, had never overcome his horror of a dead animal, and did not even relish the rabbits I had strapped on him at noon. It may seem a simple thing, but I found loading that buck without assistance one of the hardest tasks I ever undertook, and more than once was on the point of giving it up. However, my desire to substantiate my claim of having bagged the largest deer of any of the party sharpened my wits. Snubbing "Coffee's" nose up tight against a tree growing at the base of a ledge on to which I had succeeded in dragging and rolling the carcass, I blindfolded him with my hunting-shirt, and then managed to roll the buck on the pack from the ledge.

By the time this was accomplished, the sun was sinking behind the mountain. Returning slowly to the valley, no course was left me but to camp for the night, for I was at least fifteen miles from the stockade. I may have been a fit subject for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but "Coffee" spent that night in the embrace of a "diamond hitch," holding the buck securely on his back. After making a hearty supper off the bear-meat, and dressing the wounds of the dogs,—which, by the way, healed rapidly, considering their terrible nature and the fact that I had nothing but bear's-grease to dress them with,—I hobbled "Coffee," and, being thoroughly exhausted, rolled myself up in a buffalo-robe, and was soon fast asleep: only to be awakened in a few hours by the nasty yelping of the wretched coyotes. Though there were probably less than a half-dozen of them, it sounded as though the whole canine race was present. I did not dare make a fire large enough to run them off. When I had finally come to the conclusion that the best thing I could do was to grin and bear it, the shrill cry of a mountain-lion aroused the dogs and also put to flight the coyotes, and I spent the remainder of the night in comparative peace and quietness.

Kentuck's cold nose coming in contact with my neck, in his efforts to share my robe, aroused me about daylight; and, not waiting for an extensive toilet and dainty breakfast, I broke camp and set out for home. Ten o'clock found me crossing Slate Creek, a few miles from the stockade. Looking down the creek, I saw a doe feeding at the mouth of a small gulch several hundred yards away, and quickly led "Coffee" and the dogs out of sight, with the intention of stalking her, forgetting at the moment the condition of my rifle. Just then I saw her start, look down the creek, toss her tail up, and dart into the bushes. Wondering what could have so startled her, I cautiously crept from out the coulée by which I was approaching her, and to my surprise saw, a couple of hundred yards still further down the creek, an Indian on foot. He crossed fearlessly, almost carelessly, and walked up on to a high point of ground jutting out into the valley or creek bottom he had just crossed. After a swift glance up and down the creek he turned, parted the bushes in front of him, and disappeared. I readily recognized him even at that distance as an Ogallala Sioux. After waiting probably ten minutes to assure myself there were no others with him, knowing it was seldom if ever they are seen alone on foot, I proceeded down the creek, intending to learn if he was heading in the direction of the stockade.

When just at the identical spot where I had last seen the Indian, an unearthly screech sounded in the chaparral a few feet in front of me, followed instantly by the bang of a gun, and I felt a blow on my side which nearly turned me around. What thoughts chased themselves through my excited imagination as I felt that terrible bullet plowing its way through my vitals will never be told. Then, as visions of the whole Sioux tribe dancing around my scalpless body vanished, I realized the truth. A disturbed sand-hill crane, that had alighted there during my detour, had screeched almost in my ear, and my stockless rifle, which I was carrying at full cock, had been discharged, nearly fracturing my ribs by the recoil. I felt truly thankful that California Joe was not present, for if my hair did not actually stand on end, I certainly had all the sensations of this once experienced never to be forgotten feeling.

With a sigh of relief I went back to "Coffee" and the dogs, and after cinching up the former until he looked like a wasp, and arranging the compress on Kentuck, I struck out for French Creek at a trot that hustled both the crippled dogs and overloaded "Coffee" to keep up with. Upon coming down into French Creek valley, about two miles above the stockade, another and greater surprise awaited me; for there I found encamped a party of prospectors, arrived from Fort Fetterman. As I had not for months set eyes upon any white man except my own immediate party, this was a treat as pleasant as it was unexpected. The fact that "Coffee" boldly deserted me here did not deter me from staying to dinner, especially when I saw they had both coffee and flapjacks,—delicacies that I had not reveled in for some weeks past. After spending an hour with them, I started down the creek, leaving poor Kentuck thoroughly exhausted from loss of blood, and unable to walk another step. To the astonishment of the boys, I walked into the stockade with a piece of bacon swinging in one hand and a sack of flour on my back. I doubt if they would have been more surprised had I walked in with General Grant and Queen Victoria on either arm.

"Coffee" had made a bee-line for home, anxious to be relieved of a load he had carried continuously for almost twenty-four hours. As I was so long in following him, they were beginning to feel alarmed at the continued absence of "Blue Grass,"—a name given me by Joe, and one that clung to me throughout my stay in the Black Hills.

That night we went up to the new camp and sat around a blazing log-heap, listening to the news from "the States" until long after midnight. Kentuck we swung in a blanket, taking turn about carrying him home, and it was many weeks before he was again in condition to accompany me on a hunt.

Roger D. Williams.