American Boys' Life of Theodore Roosevelt/Chapter 5
Theodore Roosevelt as a Ranchman and Hunter in the Bad Lands—Bringing down His First Buffalo—Rattlesnakes, and a Wild Goose
Theodore Roosevelt had now published his "Naval History of the War of 1812," and it had created a decidedly favorable opinion among those critics who were best able to judge of the production. It is an authoritative work, and is to-day in the library of nearly every American warship afloat, as well as in numerous government libraries in this country, as at Washington, West Point, and Annapolis, and also in leading libraries of England.
Being out of politics the young author thought of taking up his pen once more. But he was restless by nature, and the loss of his wife and his mother still weighed heavily upon him. So he took himself to the West, to where the Little Missouri River flows in winding form through what are called the Bad Lands of North Dakota.
Here, on the edge of the cattle country, Theodore Roosevelt had become possessed of two ranches, one called the Elkhorn and the other Chimney Butte. Both were located by the river, which during the dry season was hardly of any depth at all, but which during the heavy rains, or during the spring freshets, became a roaring torrent.
At one of these ranches Theodore Roosevelt settled down for the time being, to rough it in hunting and raising cattle. When the weather would not permit of his going abroad, or when the mood of the author seized him, he wrote. As a result of these experiences he has given us a delightful work called "The Hunting Trips of a Ranchman," first published in 1885, giving his adventures among the cattle and while on the hunt, sometimes alone and sometimes in company with the rude but honest cow punchers and plainsmen who surrounded him.
Mr. Roosevelt has described the ranch at which he lived for the greater part of his time as a long, low, story-high house of hewn logs, clean and neat, and with many rooms. It faced the river, and in front was a long, low veranda, where one might idle on a clear, warm day to his heart's content. Inside, the main room contained a shelf full of the owner's favorite outdoor books and the walls half-a-dozen pet pictures. Rifles and shot-guns stood handy in corners, and on pegs and deer horns hung overcoats of wolf or coon skin and gloves of otter or beaver.
That Theodore Roosevelt was a close observer of all that occurred around him is proved by his writings. With great minuteness he has described his life at the ranch home and while in the saddle, both in winter and summer, telling of his experiences while rounding up cattle and while bringing down waterfowl and larger game of various kinds. He likewise describes the trained hunters he has met at different seasons of the year, and tells of what they have done or were trying to do.
At this time his favorite horse was a steed called Manitou. But when on a round-up of cattle, many ponies were taken along, so that a fresh mount could be had at any time. It was a breezy, free life, and to it our President undoubtedly owes the rugged constitution that he possesses to-day.
His observations led him to make many investigations concerning-the smaller wild animals near his ranches and the larger beasts to be found farther off. The tales which were told to him by other ranchmen and hunters he always took "with a grain of salt," and he soon reached the conclusion that many of the so-styled mighty hunters were only such in name, and had brought down quantities of game only in years gone by when such game was plentiful and could be laid low without much trouble. Once when a man told him he had brought down a certain beast at four hundred yards, Roosevelt measured the distance and found it to be less than half that.
"You couldn't fool him on much," said one of the persons who met him about that time. "He would take precious little for granted. He wanted to know the how of everything, and he wasn't satisfied until he did know."
Regarding his own powers as a hunter at that time, Mr. Roosevelt is very modest. He says his eyesight was rather poor, and his hand not over steady, so that "drawing a bead" on anything was not easy. Yet he went into the sport with much enthusiasm, and if at times he came back at nightfall empty-handed, he did not complain, and he was almost certain to have something interesting to tell of what he had seen.
Theodore Roosevelt had been in this territory before, although not to remain any great length of time. Once he had come out to hunt buffalo, no easy thing to do, since this game was growing scarcer every day. He had a guide named Ferris, who was not particularly struck with the appearance of the pale young man, plainly dressed, whom he met at the railroad station.
"I sized him up as not being able to endure a long trip after a buffalo," said the guide, in speaking afterward of the meeting. "He was well mounted, but he looked as if he might play out before the sun went down."
But in this the guide was mistaken. Roosevelt proved that he could ride as well as anybody. The first night out found the hunters about thirty miles from any settlement. They went into camp on the open prairie, tethering their horses with ropes fastened to their saddles, which they used as pillows.
All went well for an hour or two, when the improvised pillow was jerked from beneath Theodore Roosevelt's head, and he heard his horse bounding away in the distance.
"Wolves!" cried the guide. "They have frightened our horses!"
So it proved; and the hunters lost no time in reaching for their firearms. But the wolves kept their distance, and soon Theodore Roosevelt was running after the horses, which, after a good deal of trouble, he secured and brought back. After that the guide no longer looked on him as a "tenderfoot."
"A tenderfoot," said he, "would have been scared to death. But Teddy Roosevelt was as cool as a cucumber through it all—as if the happening wasn't in the least out of the ordinary."
For several days the hunters remained on the prairie looking for buffalo, but without success. They were on the point of turning back when the guide noticed that the horses were growing uneasy.
"Some big game at hand," he announced. "Come on to yonder washout and see if I am not right."
With great caution the hunters advanced to the washout the guide had mentioned. Dismounting, they crept forward in the shelter of the brushwood, and there, true enough, resting at his ease was a great buffalo bull.
"Hit him where the patch of red shows on his side," whispered the guide, and Roosevelt nodded to show that he understood. With care and coolness he took aim and fired, and the buffalo bull leaped up and staggered forward with the blood streaming from his mouth and nose.
"Shall I give him another?" was the question asked, but before it could be answered the buffalo bull gave a plunge and fell dead.
Rattlesnakes are rather unpleasant reptiles to deal with, and Theodore Roosevelt has shown his bravery by the way in which he speaks of them in his accounts of outdoor life. He says to a man wearing alligator boots there is little danger, for the fang of the reptile cannot go through the leather, and the snake rarely strikes as high as one's knee. But he had at least one experience with a rattlesnake not readily forgotten.
He was out on a hunt for antelope. The sage-brush in which he was concealing himself was so low that he had to crawl along flat on his breast, pushing himself forward with hands and feet as best he could.
He was almost on the antelope when he heard a warning whirr close at his side, and glancing hastily in that direction, saw the reptile but a few feet away, coiled up and ready to attack.
It was a thrilling and critical moment, and had the young hunter leaped up he might have been dangerously if not fatally struck. But by instinct he backed away silently and moved off in another direction through the brush. The rattlesnake did not follow, although it kept its piercing eyes on the hunter as long as possible. After the antelope stalk was over, Roosevelt came back to the spot, made a careful search, and, watching his chance, fired on the rattlesnake, killing it instantly.
In those days Theodore Roosevelt met Colonel William Cody, commonly known as "Buffalo Bill," and many other celebrated characters of the West. He never grew tired of listening to the stories these old trappers, hunters, scouts, and plainsmen had to tell, and some of these stories he afterward put into print, and they have made excellent reading.
During many of his hunting expeditions at that time Theodore Roosevelt was accompanied by his foreman, a good shot and all-round ranchman named Merrifield. Merrifield had been in the West but five years, but the life fitted him exactly, and in him Roosevelt the ranchman and hunter found a companion exactly to his liking, fearless and self-reliant to the last degree.
As perhaps most of my young readers know, wild geese are generally brought down with a shot-gun, but in the Bad Lands it was not unusual to bring them down with a rifle, provided the hunter was quick and accurate enough in his aim. One morning, just before dawn, Theodore Roosevelt was riding along the edge of a creek when he heard a cackling that he knew must come from some geese, and he determined if possible to lay one low.
It was easy work to dismount and crawl to the edge of the creek. But a fog lay over the water, and he could see the geese but indistinctly. Leaving the creek bank, he ran silently to where the watercourse made a turn and then crawled forward in the brush. Soon the fog lifted once more, and he saw the geese resting on the water close to the bend. He fired quickly and brought down the largest of the flock, while the others lost no time in disappearing. It was a good fat goose and made excellent eating.