Chapter 6 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

Grouse and Other Small Game—The Scotchman and the Skunk—Caught in a Hailstorm on the Prairie—Bringing down Black-tail Deer

It cannot be said that Theodore Roosevelt's venture as a ranchman was a very successful one, and it is doubtful if he expected to make much money out of it. He lost nothing in a financial way, and there is no doubt but that the experience was of great benefit to him. In this semi-wilderness he met all sorts and conditions of men, and grew to know them thoroughly. In the past his dealings had been almost entirely with people of large cities and towns, and with men of learning and large business affairs; here he fell in with the wildest kind of cowboys and frontiersmen. Some he soon found were not fit to be associated with, but the majority proved as honest and hard-working fellows as could be met with anywhere. Many of these loved the young "boss" from the start, and when, years later, the war with Spain broke out, and there was a call to arms, not a few of them insisted upon joining the Rough Riders just to be near Theodore Roosevelt once more.

Around the ranches owned by Theodore Roosevelt there were more or less grouse of the sharp-tailed variety. As this sort of game made excellent eating, ranchmen and regular hunters did not hesitate to bring them down at every opportunity.

One afternoon Theodore Roosevelt left his ranch to visit the shack of one of his herders, about thirty-five miles down the river. It was a cold, clear day, and he was finely mounted on a well-trained pony. He writes that he was after grouse, hoping to get quite a number of them.

He had trusted to reach the shack long before sundown, but the way was bad, over bottoms covered with thin ice and snow, and soon darkness came on, leaving him practically lost in the cottonwoods that lined the watercourse.

What to do the young ranchman did not know, and it is safe to say that he wished himself heartily out of the difficulty. It was so dark he could not see three yards ahead of him, and it was only by the merest accident that he struck the shack at last, and then he found it empty, for the herder had gone off elsewhere on business.

So far Roosevelt had seen no game, so he was without food, and what made matters worse, the larder of the shack proved to be empty. All he had with him was a little package of tea.

It was a dismal outlook truly, and especially on such a cold night. But firewood was at hand, and after turning his pony loose to shift for itself, the future President of our country started up housekeeping for himself by lighting a fire, bringing in some water from under the ice of the river, and brewing himself a good, strong cup of tea! It was not a very nourishing meal, but it was all he had, and soon after that he went to sleep, trusting for better luck in the morning.

He was up almost before daybreak, and my young readers can rest assured that by that time his appetite was decidedly keen. Listening intently, he could hear the grouse drumming in the woods close by.

"I must have some of them, and that directly," he told himself, and rifle in hand lost no time in making his way to the woods. By keeping out of sight behind the brushwood he managed to get quite close to the game, and so brought down one after another until he had five. Such success was a great satisfaction to him, and returning to the shack he fixed himself a breakfast of broiled sharptails, to which he did full justice.

It was not all play at the ranches, and sometimes Theodore Roosevelt went out with his men to round up the cattle and help "cut out" what was his own. This was hard work, for frequently the cattle did not want to be separated from the beasts belonging to another ranchman. More than once an angry cow or a bull would charge, and then there would be a lively scramble on pony-back or on foot to get out of the way. Sometimes, too, the cattle would wander off and get lost, and then a long and hard hunt would be necessary in order to find them again.

But there was fun as well as hard work, and Mr. Roosevelt has told one story about a skunk that is sure to be remembered. He says that skunks were very numerous, and that they were more feared than larger animals by the cowboys because the bite was sure to bring on hydrophobia.

One night a number of the cowboys and Mr. Roosevelt were sleeping in a hut. A skunk came along, and after a time worked its way into the hut. It got among the pots and pans and made a noise which quickly awoke a Scotchman named Sandy.

Thinking something was wrong, Sandy struck a light, and seeing the eyes of the skunk, fired. But his aim was bad, and the animal fled.

"What were you firing at?" asked half a dozen of the other cowboys.

The Scotchman explained, and, satisfied that it had been a skunk, the others told him he had better leave the animal alone or there would be trouble.

Nobody thought the skunk would come back, but it did, and again Sandy heard it among the pots and pans. This was too much for his Scotch blood, and taking aim once more, he fired and gave the skunk a mortal wound. At once the hut was filled with a powerful odor that made all the inmates rush for the open air.

"Now see what you have done!" cried several, indignantly.

"Hoot mon!" answered the Scotchman, holding his nose tightly, "A didna ken 'twould cause sec' a tragedee!"

And after that we may be sure that Sandy let skunks severely alone.

Hunting in the summer time, or when the weather was but moderately cold, was well enough, but hunting in the dead of winter was quite a different thing. Then the thermometer would frequently drop to thirty and forty degrees below zero, and there would be a cutting "norther" fit to freeze the very marrow in one's bones. Seldom was there much snow, but when it came, it caused a veritable blizzard, during which neither man nor beast felt like stirring out.

It was during such weather that Theodore Roosevelt once had the tip of his nose and one cheek frozen—something that caused him not a little pain and trouble for a long time afterward.

It was in those dreary days that the logs were piled high in the broad fireplace of the ranch home, and Theodore Roosevelt spent his days in reading and studying, in writing letters to his friends and relatives, and in penning some of the hunting sketches that have won him literary fame.

One day, early in the winter, Theodore Roosevelt and his foreman went out to see if they could not bring in two white-tail deer which had been seen in the vicinity of the ranch the day before. One of the deer, a large buck, had been shot in the ankle by the foreman, so the beginning of the trail was easy to follow. The buck and his mate had gone into a thicket, and it was likely that there the pair had spent the night.

"We'll have our own trouble finding the tracks again," said the foreman. And so it proved; for during the night some cattle and other animals had passed in and out of the thicket, which covered a large extent of territory.

At last the hunters hit upon the right trail, and the foreman went ahead, leaving Roosevelt to keep somewhat toward the outside of the cover. Both were wide-awake and on the alert, and presently the foreman announced that he had found the spot where the wounded buck had passed the night.

"He is not very far from here," said the foreman, and hardly had he said this than Theodore Roosevelt heard a cracking of fallen twigs and a breaking of the brush and lower limbs of the trees as the buck rushed through the thicket. He ran with all speed in the direction and took station behind a large tree.

Only a few seconds passed, and then the buck showed his head and antlers among the brushwood. He was gazing ahead anxiously, no doubt trying to decide if it would be safe to leap into the open and run up the trail. Then he turned his gaze directly toward where Theodore Roosevelt was crouching, rifle in hand.

Another instant and it would have been too late. But just as the buck's head was turned and he sniffed the air suspiciously, the young ranchman pulled the trigger.

"He turned his head sharply toward me as I raised the rifle," says Mr. Roosevelt, in writing of this adventure, "and the bullet went fairly into his throat, just under the jaw, breaking his neck, and bringing him down in his tracks with hardly a kick."

The buck proved to be an extra fine one, and the two hunters lost no time in dressing the game and taking it to the ranch. Not wishing to go back for their horses, the two dragged the game over the snow, each taking hold of an antler for that purpose. It was intensely cold, so that each of the hunters had to drag first with one hand and then with the other for fear of having his fingers frozen.

This was one of the times when the young ranchman and hunter was successful in his quest. But Mr. Roosevelt has not hesitated to tell of the many times he has gone out on the hunt only to return empty-handed and glad enough to get back to a warm shelter and where he was sure of a good meal.

"Ranching and hunting was no bed of roses," some one who knew him at that time has said. "Many a time he came back utterly fagged out and not a thing to show for his labor. But he never complained, and on the contrary could generally tell a pretty good story about something he had seen or had taken note of. In the summer he would examine the nests of birds and waterfowl with great care, and I have seen him with a horned frog before him, studying every point of the creature."

Once while on the prairie the young ranchman was caught in a heavy hailstorm. He was out with a number of others, when, with scarcely any warning, the sky began to grow dark, and the wind came up in fitful gusts.

"We must get out of this, and quick too," said a companion. And all pushed onward as fast as they could. But soon the heavy fall of hail overtook them, and they were glad enough to seek even the slight shelter of a deep washout, where men and horses huddled close together for protection. The hailstones came down as large as marbles, causing the horses to jump around in a fashion that was particularly dangerous to themselves and to their owners. The time was August, yet the air grew very cold, and when the storm was over, some cattle were found completely benumbed. A few had been killed, and there had likewise been great slaughter among a flock of lambs that had been driven into the Bad Lands the year previous.

Mr. Roosevelt tells us that the greatest number of black-tailed deer he ever killed in one day was three. He is a true sportsman in this respect and does not kill for the mere sake of killing. Those who go out just to slaughter all they possibly can are not sportsmen, but butchers. To be sure, a hunter may have to play the butcher at times, when the meat is needed, but not otherwise.

On the occasion when the three black-tails were laid low the young ranchman and his foreman started on the hunt very early in the morning, when the bright moon was still in the sky. It was late in November and stinging cold, so they allowed their horses to take their own pace, which was far from slow.

The course of the hunters was up the bed of a dry creek, along which they passed the still sleeping cattle and also a drove of ponies. Then they reached a spot where they left their own steeds, and, rifles in hand, hurried silently toward a great plateau which lay some distance before them. Signs of deer could be seen on every hand, and both were certain that the day's outing would prove a grand success.

Theodore Roosevelt had separated from his companion when of a sudden he caught sight of a beautiful doe. It was a fair shot, and dropping on one knee he took aim and fired. But to his intense chagrin the doe bounded off and disappeared in the brushwood.

"Hit anything?" sang out the foreman.

"I am afraid not," was the answer.

"Never mind; better luck next time." And then both sank down behind a rock where they could get a good view of a hollow ahead of them.

They had been behind the rock but a short time when they heard a cracking of twigs, and a fine black-tail buck came cautiously into view. Both fired, and the buck rolled over, never to rise again. Then another deer came into view and both fired again, but the game was not struck and lost no time in disappearing.

"Never mind; one isn't so bad," said Theodore Roosevelt, and his companion agreed with him.

The hunters now decided to go forward into the hollow and look for the doe Theodore Roosevelt had missed. This was done, and soon the foreman pointed to some drops and splashes of blood.

"Must have hit her, after all," said the foreman. "We can take our time about following her up. We'll be sure to get her sooner or later."

But locating the wounded doe proved not so easy, after all. The trail was followed for some time, but was lost on the hard ground higher up; and at last the two hunters agreed to look for new game. They had lunch, and then started out nearly as fresh as before when suddenly the foreman called out:—

"There's your game all right!"

He pointed to a clump of bushes, and running forward, both saw the doe stretched out, stiff and cold. She had been mortally wounded, after all, much to both hunters' gratification.

So far the hunting had been on foot, but now the hunters took again to their steeds. Mr. Roosevelt says he was wishing for just one more shot, to see if he could not do better than before, when his wish was gratified. Just ahead a yearling black-tail buck leaped into view and cantered away. After the buck went both hunters, but Theodore Roosevelt was in the lead, and this time determined to make no miss or poor shot. He waited until the buck turned its side to him, then fired with especial care. The game staggered on, then fell. The bullet had gone clean through its body, and in a few seconds it breathed its last.