PIONEER HISTORY OF KANSAS
by Adolph Roenigk
THE HUNTER HUNTED
Old Frontiersman Tells of Scrap with an Elk, and a Lively
Footrace with Mounted Indians.
During the time when the great Santa Fe trail was at the height of its usefulness as a thoroughfare, there was more or less branching out from the main track by parties either seeking a shorter cut, or simply roving and hunting. The wild, free life of the plains, if it was a triffle dangerous, had a fascination few could resist once they were initiated into its glorious, soul-stirring terrors.
The Santa Fe trail was broad, plain, and well marked; caravans in either direction passed daily; campfires sparkled along the roadside at night like the watch posts of an army. On either side were alluring stretches of mysterious lands, teeming with noble game and beset with dangers and opportunities for adventure that lured young blood to frequent deviations from the beaten track. Sometimes those who dashed away on an aimless foray never returned, or if they did, with the loss of all but their lives. Never was a practical short cut found, for the great trail was admirably located through this savage region and could hardly have been improved upon, in fact the survey for the railroad that supplanted the ox team and the stage, followed quite closely the original path, finding it nearly met all the requirements of an ideal thoroughfare.
An old frontiersman, whose name was not written down at the time and was consequently forgotten, told the writer of one or two exciting experiences he had while with a hunting party which left the trail after passing Great Bend and struck southwest toward the Cimarron River, at that a most unsafe direction because of the vast stretch of unprotected country beset by thieving Indians.
There were twenty-three in the party, well mounted and well armed, the greater part being men well accustomed to the dangers surrounding them, but a few, including my informant, were on their first extended trip through the Indian and buffalo country. He was at that time about twenty-five years of age, lithe and strong, having the usual optimistic courage of youth, and boy like, heedless of danger because unconscious of its presence.
The party hunted leisurely in a southwest direction for two or three days with indifferent success; they had not met with more than a dozen buffalo in all, the main herds having drifted farther south. On the morning of the fifth day they were about in the north part of Kiowa County and as one of the men had been through this part of the country before and said he knew of several creeks affording good camping grounds (evidently the head tributaries of Medicine Lodge Creek) they pressed on in that direction. Shortly before noon as they came over a piece of rising ground, a sight to thrill the blood of any hunter met their eyes. Two or three small creek valleys ahead were literally swarming with buffalo, feeding leisurely southward. The party halted and the plan of attack on the great heard was given out by the captain. However carefully planned, the attack failed, for before the party got within rifle range, the buffaloes became alarmed and rumbled away in a black mass of horned heads and pounding hoofs. Away went the outfit in pursuit, but my informant being rather poorly mounted, his horse a fractious broncho, he was soon left behind, and as the mass of stampeded bison and their pursuers disappeared over some low ridges, he pulled up in disgust and looked about for a possible stray from the fleeing herd. He saw no buffalo, but away to the west was a mass of something grey, giving occasional flashes of light like the gleam of polished metal. Spurring in their direction he found the objects to be an immense herd of elk, which were, he stoutly asserted, fully ten thousand in number.
The elk were unaware of the buffalo stampede that had just taken place, as they were on a creek and were proceeding slowly toward the south. Without any thought except to get as near to the animals as he could and kill some of them if possible the young hunter dashed in their direction, and to his astonishment, the elk, instead of setting off, stood motionless until he was within two hundred yards. At that distance he fired into their midst and brought one to the earth. In an instant the rest were off with a fearful rattling of horns and a roar of hoofs beating the solid turf. What now occurred I will let the frontiersman relate in his own words.
Note: About the year 1867 a vast herd of elk was seen north of the Smoky Hill River between the towns of Ellsworth and Wilson on what is called the Wilson Flats, that, reliable witnesses affirm, covered several thousand acres of land and must have numbered far in excess of ten thousand. They were moving south, and their horns, as they tossed them in walking, formed a good imitation of chopped sea.
Sure of my game, I rode up to the fallen elk, excepting to cut off the best meat and pack it on my horse, but he surprised me by jumping up and making for the creek a few rods away. It was an immense bull with antlers of enormous size. My horse was very nervous and would not stand steady for a saddle shot so I dismounted and just as the elk entered a patch of marshy ground covered with swamp grass and willows I gave him what I thought was a finishing shot, but he only gave a coarse grunt and plunged deeper into the willows. I was after him in a moment and caught sight of him standing almost concealed by tall grass and willows. As I crept nearer for a careful shot the bull suddenly turned and dashed toward me with a snort of rage. I retreated rapidly to the solid ground with the intention of getting to my horse, but to my dismay he was nowhere in sight. There was no time to spare; the elk was so close I thought I could feel his horns fanning my coat tails. To face him was impossible. I made for the willows with all speed, but as I gained the marsh, a tangle of grass jerked my rifle from my hands. Without stopping to hunt for it I plunged deeper into the slough with the elk crashing and tearing after me. When in the very center of the marsh he lost my trail, but kept on wallowing around in search of me as though his temper was considerably up. It was my first experience with an infuriated wild animal and it taught me how desperate is their temper when aroused. My position was not a pleasant one, for there was no telling how long the brute would keep me treed, and he might even succeed in bringing the fight to close quarters.
Every time I moved I could hear him come crashing in my direction, which kept me changing positions pretty often. His wide antlers kept him from running through the grass and willows as fast as I could and I was able to keep out of his way, but I saw that the small patch would soon be wallowed down and I would have to fight the brute with my knife. Pretty soon I worked my way around to the side I had come in on and saw my rifle lying just out of the water. I grabbed it up and turned to look for my elk. He had lost my trail for a minute and stood about a hundred feet away with head up and gleaming eyes searching for me. I took careful aim and gave him a ball between the eyes that settled the question of who was boss of that willow patch.
Now that my enemy was dead I looked about for my horse. He had vamosed completely, leaving me in a decidedly
bad fix. I knew the direction the buffaloes and my comrades had taken and struck out bravely to follow them. In the course of two or three miles I crossed their trail, marked here and there by blood, as though they had overtaken and wounded some of the buffalo. There were two wagons with the outfit for carrying our camp equippage and supplies. When I came upon the track of these wagons I was sure I would soon see the camp, it being now about four oclock. But my troubles for the day were not over, in fact hardly commenced. As I left the creek valley where I had the adventure with the elk I came upon higher land overlooking the next stream, and upon this slope I saw what I took to be our party, busily engaged in skinning and cutting up several.
I started toward them but stopped short when something about their movements did not look just right. They seemed to be very numerous; when I realized what they were they seemed altogether too numerous. They were Indians--already I felt a loosening of my scalp. Now my situation was one of the greatest danger; the hunters and the wagons had gone on some hours ahead. If I had been missed, would they hunt for me? The redskin devils were between me and my friends; perhaps they had had a battle and were now scalping the dead white men.
The distance was too great for me to see clearly, but I certainly didnt want the distance to be any less. There looked to be fully a hundred of the Indians with a pony or two for each one. While the whole crowd was busy with the buffalo skinning, or taking off scalps, as the case might be, I crawfished back to the creek and took down stream, keeping out of sight behind banks and small timber that grew in some places. I figured that this creek must join another some distance down, and on this one I might find our camp; anyhow it would not do for me to remain long in the place I was. I had made two or three miles down stream when I came to a steep bluff and ventured to climb to the top of this for a look around. What did I see but the whole bunch of Indians--and it looked like there were a thousand of them--coming down the valley directly behind me. It would not do for me to return to the creek, for they would be sure to see me, so I ran down the hill and made good time south. In half an hours rapid traveling I came in sight of another creek, where to my joy I saw our camp already located, and not over three miles away.
I was too tired to drag one foot after the other, but all at once I saw something that put new springs in my legs; it was two Indians coming toward me on their short-legged ponies. I did not know whether these Indians were hostile or not; all Indians were more or less hostile to the white man in those days if they had him at a disadvantage, but I didnt wait to investigate the matter but just laid out to see what I could do in the running line. For the first time in my life I understood the story of the army officer and the Irish soldier who was running from the battle. When the captain asked the soldier why he was running, he answered, Because I cant fly, be gob. Well, I did the next thing to flying. I ran like a dog after a rabbit, or rather, like a rabbit with a dog after him. You know the red villains didnt get me or I wouldnt be telling you about it forty years after the race, but the way I ran was all that saved me. I was out of sight of camp the most of the time; anyway the boys were too busy with their load of fresh buffalo meat to look out for me.
Part of this race was over some rough ground but I only touched here and there; some of my jumps must have been all of thirty feet. I got a regular sweat scald out of that run, a genuine Turkish bath; a few days afterward I shed my skin like a snake. For the first mile I believe I held them about an even race, then they began to gain on me rapidly. I thought I was running as fast as ever, but they crept up on me until only three hundred yards lay between us. All this time I had held to my rifle and I now turned and gave them a shot, for luck. One of the horses went down and the Indian pitched over his head to the ground. I didnt spend any time waiting for the next move but struck the fast gait again. Pretty soon I looked back, and here they came, both on one horse and yelling like two mad tomcats. One had a spear about a rod long which he kept waving as though motioning me to stop. Once in a while an arrow whizzed by me and one struck the barrel of my rifle as I carried it in my hand. It made a loud kling, jarring my hand so I nearly let the rifle fall. The camp was now in sight but more than a mile away, so I turned on them again and brought down the other horse with a broken leg. The Indians tried to make him keep up anyway and the animal actually did run a few rods on three legs, carrying the two savages, but they jumped to the ground and took after me on foot.
Note: The location must have been west or northwest of the present site of Belvidere, on the Englewood branch of the Santa Fe Railroad.
This was my first Indian fight and if I had known their style of fighting as well as learned it later I would have stood them a fight to a finish right there; as it was I took another shot at them on the run. One of them gave a loud howl, so I knew he was either hit or very badly scared. The whole band of redskins was now coming across the prairie half a mile away. Some of the men had seen the race and came dashing to my rescue. My two pursuers turned back and I got to camp in safety where everything was organized for a big fight.
The whole band now rode up but kept a respectful distance as our pickets were already out with guns drawn up. After making a couple of dashes to see if we could be stamppeded the Indians halted and made signs they wanted a talk. Five were allowed to come into our camp. They were all puffed up with indignation because one of our young men--meaning me --Heap kill um good ponies, shoot good Injun, break him arm--much bad, ending up with savage looks in my direction.
Our captain, who was an old Indian fighter and used to the red man and his tricks, was equal to all of this. He replied through an interpreter in the same style of speech used by the Indians that, no good Indian chases his white brother, and yells and shoots arrows to frighten him so he would run faster. The white brother was young--he was not a good runner--the Indians ponies were too fast for him, the Indians arrows come too plenty about his legs. He wanted his red brother to wait a while for he was tired--but the good Indian had no pity for his poor, tired white brother, so the young man had to shoot his red brothers horses so he might have a fair race. The young white brave was very angry--it would be well for the Indian to look out for him--he was hungry for a red mans scalp to dangle at his belt so he might claim a white squaw for his lodge--his comrades were very angry--they were making medicine for war--it would be hard to quiet them.
As the interpreter translated this cautious speech of our captain, with many grunts and signs, the angry look on the chiefs face began to melt into grins. The Indian is not entirely without humor. They began to see into the joke, and as the joke was on them they tried to laugh it off, and proposed that we all camp together.
Our captain wouldnt agree to this, but told the chief since his braves had skinned and cut up a dozen buffalo, he considered
that they had got enough for one day and had better go farther down the creek for a camping place.
The five still hung about where the camp cook was setting out our supper. Part of our boys gathered around and began to eat while the rest stood guard. The Indian is always hungry and when not invited to eat, will help himself anyway. The whole five began taking things from the table, which was a canvas spread on the ground. The chief reached over the shoulder of one of the men as he squatted by the canvas and took a big chunk of meat. This was more than he could stand for and grabbing a tin cup of hot coffee he threw it into the Indians face. It was sure a hot dose for Mr. Indian. I think he must have been badly scalded. He yelled like a wildcat in a hornets nest and the whole five made for their horses. The Indians were buzzing like a swarm of bees. Ten or a dozen started toward us, making signs, but we warned them off. They then began to let arrows and a few shots, but they must have only had four or five guns. We returned the fire and several redskins tumbled to the ground. After this reception the band drew away to a position about half mile away.
Our captain was as wise as he was cool. He gave orders to get ready for a quick move of our camp. The place we were in had a little hill faced with scant timber, close by. It would never do to remain there; the hill and the trees gave the Indians too much shelter in creeping up to our camp.
We moved down the creek about a mile where there was plenty of water and the creek bottom was wide enough for a fair battlefield. Here we made ready for a desperate fight. The Indians outnumbered us five to one; night was coming on. We could see their preparations for battle. They hung around until dark, then moved slowly off; finally we saw fires about a mile away. One of our men was an old scout. He volunteered to creep out and spy their camp. It was midnight when he returned. He reported all the Indians were in camp; some asleep and some roasting and eating buffalo meat. He was eager to make a surprise attack on the Indian camp but our captain would not agree; he had too many tenderfeet in his crowd. Some of these fellows were scared almost out of their senses. When the Indians left fly their arrows after the row over the hot coffee, one of the young men began to cry, Oh, what will my wife do now? An old stage driver turned around and snorted, To--with your wife; the question is what will you do now?
Our captain made a little speech to the men after the scout came back. He said it was his opinion the Indians would not trouble us any more. They had no guns and would not risk an open fight with a party so well armed. He told every man to think he was good for ten Indians and if we were attacked, to keep cool and shoot to kill. He was right in his opinion of the Indians intentions; they left their camp at daylight and we saw no more of them. My horse never showed up. I think the Indians caught him soon after he left me scrapping with the elk.
From what I afterwards learned about Indians from seeing them every day, and fighting them often, I figured that the band knew when our party first struck the creeks and were waiting to catch us in camp without any pickets, but when they saw me they thought they had struck a spy and tried mighty hard to catch me before I could alarm the camp. When I put up such a good race their plan fell through and that little brush after the big talk showed them that we were bad medicine. Our party was well armed and well mounted, and good for several times their number of bow-and-arrow Indians. That was the greatest chase I ever had in my life. If I hadnt been young and active they would have gotten me sure. The next day my legs were swelled up as big as churns. I was of no account for a week--had to ride in the wagons most of the time.
Well, that was a wild looking country then. Sometimes I think the buffalo and Indians had ought to been let alone; there was plenty of good land in the United States without that. We took it away from the Indian and gave it back to him, then took it away from him again, and he got many a white mans scalp for it while the trade was going on.