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III. THE PRAIRIE
NOWHERE, not even at sea, does a man feel more lonely than when riding over the far-reaching, seemingly neverending plains; and after a man has lived a little while on or near them, their very vastness and loneliness and their melancholy monotony have a strong fascination for him. The landscape seems always the same, and after the traveler has plodded on for miles and miles he gets to feel as if the distance was indeed boundless. As far as the eye can see there is no break; either the prairie stretches out into perfectly level flats, or else there are gentle, rolling slopes, whose crests mark the divides between the drainage systems of the different creeks; and when one of these is ascended, immediately another precisely like it takes its place in the distance, and so roll succeeds roll in a succession as interminable as that of the waves of the ocean. Although he can see so far, yet all objects on the outermost verge of the horizon, even though within the ken of his vision, look unreal and strange. A mile off one can see, through the strange shimmering haze, the shadowy white outlines of something which looms vaguely up till it looks as large as the canvas-top of a prairie wagon; but as the horseman comes nearer it shrinks and dwindles and takes clearer form, until at last it changes into the ghastly staring skull of some mighty buffalo, long dead and gone to join the rest of his vanished race.
When the grassy prairies are left and the traveler enters a region of alkali desert and sage-brush, the look of
the country becomes even more grim and forbidding. In places the alkali forms a white frost on the ground that glances in the sunlight like the surface of a frozen lake; the dusty little sage-brush, stunted and dried up, sprawls over the parched ground, from which it can hardly extract the small amount of nourishment necessary for even its weazened life; the spiny cactus alone seems to be really in its true home. Yet even in such places antelope will be found, as alert and as abounding with vivacious life as elsewhere. Owing to the magnifying and distorting power of the clear, dry plains air, every object, no matter what its shape or color or apparent distance, needs the closest examination. A magpie sitting on a white skull, or a couple of ravens, will look, a quarter of a mile off, like some curious beast; and time and again a raw hunter will try to stalk a lump of clay or a burnt stick.1
I AM writing this on an upturned water-keg, by our canvas-covered wagon, while the men are making tea, and the solemn old ponies are grazing roundabout me. I am going to trust it to the tender mercies of a stray cowboy whom we have just met, and who may or may not post it when he gets to "Powderville," a delectable log hamlet some seventy miles north of us.
We left the Little Missouri a week ago, and have been traveling steadily some twenty or thirty miles a day ever since, through a desolate, barren-looking and yet
1 From Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. Copyright, 1885. G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, publishers.
picturesque country, part of the time rolling prairie and part of the time broken, jagged Bad Lands. We have fared sumptuously, as I have shot a number of prairie chickens, sage hens and ducks, and a couple of fine bucks besides missing several of the latter that I ought to have killed.
Every morning we get up at dawn, and start off by six o'clock or thereabouts, Merrifield and I riding off among the hills or ravines after game, while the battered "prairie schooner," with the two spare ponies led behind, is driven slowly along by old Lebo, who is a perfect character. He is a weazened, wiry old fellow, very garrulous, brought up on the frontier, and a man who is never put out or disconcerted by any possible combination of accidents. Of course we have had the usual incidents of prairie travel happen to us. One day we rode through a driving rainstorm, at one time developing into a regular hurricane of hail and wind, which nearly upset the wagon, drove the ponies almost frantic, and forced us to huddle into a gully for protection. The rain lasted all night, and we all slept in the wagon, pretty wet and not very comfortable. Another time a sharp gale of wind or rain struck us in the middle of the night, as we were lying out in the open (we have no tent), and we shivered under our wet blankets till morning. We go into camp a little before sunset, tethering two or three of the horses, and letting the others range. One night we camped in a most beautiful natural park; it was a large, grassy hill, studded thickly with small, pine-crowned chalk buttes, with very steep sides, worn into the most outlandish and fantastic shapes. All that night the wolves kept
up a weird concert around our camp - they are most harmless beasts.1
IV. THE CALL OF THE BULL-ELK
OUR tent was pitched in a grove of yellow pine, by a brook in the bottom of a valley. On either hand rose the mountains, covered with spruce forest. It was in September, and the first snow had just fallen.
The day before we had walked long and hard; and during the night I slept the heavy sleep of the weary. Early in the morning, just as the east began to grow gray, I waked; and as I did so, the sounds that smote on my ear, caused me to sit up and throw off the warm blankets. Bull-elk were challenging among the mountains on both sides of the valley, a little way from us, their notes echoing like the calling of silver bugles. Groping about in the dark, I drew on my trousers, an extra pair of thick socks, and my moccasins, donned a warm jacket, found my fur cap and gloves, and stole out of the tent with my rifle.
The air was very cold; the stars were beginning to pale in the dawn; on the ground the snow glimmered white, and lay in feathery masses on the branches of the balsams and young pines. The air rang with the challenges of many wapiti; their incessant calling came pealing down through the still, snow-laden woods. First one bull challenged; then another answered; then another and
1 Letter to Anna Roosevelt, dated Upper Waters of the Powder River (Montana), August 24, 1884. From Roosevelt in the Bad Lands, by Hermann Hagedorn. Copyright, 1921. Houghton Mifflin Company, publishers. By courtesy of Mrs. W. S. Cowles.
another. Two herds were approaching one another from opposite sides of the valley, a short distance above our camp; and the master bulls were roaring defiance as they mustered their harems.
I walked stealthily up the valley, until I felt that I was nearly between the two herds; and then stood motionless under a tall pine. The ground was quite open at this point, the pines, though large, being scattered; the little brook ran with a strangled murmur between its rows of willows and alders, for the ice along its edges nearly skimmed its breadth. The stars paled rapidly, the gray dawn brightened, and in the sky overhead faint rose-colored streaks were turning blood-red. What little wind there was breathed in my face and kept me from discovery.
I made up my mind, from the sound of the challenging, now very near me, that one bull on my right was advancing towards a rival on my left, who was answering every call. Soon the former approached so near that I could hear him crack the branches, and beat the bushes with his horns; and I slipped quietly from tree to tree, so as to meet him when he came out into the more open woodland. Day broke, and crimson gleams played across the snow-clad mountains beyond.
At last, just as the sun flamed red above the hill-tops, I heard the roar of the wapiti's challenge not fifty yards away; and I cocked and half raised my rifle, and stood motionless. In a moment more, the belt of spruces in front of me swayed and opened, and the lordly bull stepped out. He bore his massive antlers aloft; the snow lay thick on his mane; he snuffed the air and stamped on the ground as he walked. As I drew a bead, the motion