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Forest, Lake and Prairie
Chapter XXXII
The big hunt - Buffalo by the thousand - I kill my first buffalo - Wonderful scene.


MY friend led up the little black, who in the morning light looked more beautiful than ever. I speedily saddled him, and awaited in nervous expectancy the start.

At last the chief mounted, and in company with father and Messrs. Woolsey and Steinhauer, led the way; and from all parts of the camp riders came forth, many of them leading their runners, so as to have them as fresh as possible for the coming race.

I found myself in the centre of a group of young men, and in a little while, without any formal introduction, we were quite acquainted and friendly.

They plied me with questions about my previous life, the kind of country I had lived in, and how many people there were in "Mo-ne yang," which to them signified Older Canada. They were astonished when I said there were no buffalo there. "What did the people live on?" They were even more astonished when I explained that it was quite possible to live without buffalo. What about war? Did the people where I came from fight?

Thus we rode through prairie and woods about evenly mixed; around us multiplying evidences of the recent presence of thousands of buffalo, the country in some places smelling like a barnyard.

Then, after riding some five or six miles, we came upon a ridge which enabled us to look down and across a plain or open country, some ten by twenty miles in size, and which seemed to be literally full of buffalo.

As I looked, I asked myself, "Am I dreaming? Is this so?" I never could have realized it had I not seen it.

The whole country was a black, moving mass. The earth trembled to their tread and roar. Sometimes the clouds of dust from the dustpans as the bulls pawed the earth, rose in the air like smoke from a prairie-fire. It seemed impossible, and yet here was the fact, or rather thousands of them; for every bull and cow and calf was a reality, and so was this long line of strangely equipped Indians on either side of me, and so was I, for my horse became excited with the sight and smell of the great herds, and I found myself a living fact on a very lively steed. As our line moved down the slope, the outer fringe of buffalo fell back on the larger herds, until there seemed to be one living wall before us.

Presently the captain of the hunt gave the command, "Alight! see to your girths and arms, and make ready!"

I watched my companions, and as they did so did I. They tightened their girths, and then they began to look to their arms. Most of them had bow and quiver, and I turned to one with a gun and watched him. He rubbed his steel and pointed his flint, then took from his ball-pouch some balls, selected some of them, and put these in his mouth. I took several balls from my pouch, selected six, and put them in my mouth. These balls were heavy. (twenty-eight to the pound), "but when you are in Rome you must do as Romans do."

In a very short time our captain called, "Mount!" and we formed in one long line; and if it had been ten miles long the buffalo would have extended away beyond. If these huge animals had only known their power and estimated their numbers, our line would have been overwhelmed and trampled under foot in a very short time. Instead of this, they moved away as we advanced, increasing their speed as they went, and, following our captain, we increased ours. The horses were all excitement; the men were pale, nervous and quiet. Under foot was rough ground, and there were any number of badger holes. The possibilities were, being shot, or thrown, or gored.

Now we were at half speed, line as yet unbroken, every eye on the captain. Suddenly he held his gun in the air and shouted, "Ah-ah-how," putting strong emphasis on the last syllable, and away we went, every man for himself. Whips flew; horses tried to. Men were sitting well forward, and seemed to go ahead of their steeds. We were in the dust-cloud, eyes and ears and nose filled with it; then we were through, and here were the buffalo speeding before us. Already the fast horses were into the herd. The 8wish of an arrow, the blast of an old flint-lock, and the wounded animals jumped aside, streams of blood gushing from their nostrils and mouths, showing that they were mortally hit; others fell dead as soon as shot; others had either a fore or hind leg broken, and stood around at bay challenging another shot—and thus the carnage went on, thicker and faster as the slow-mounted hunters came up.

As for myself, I soon found that six bullets in my mouth were at any rate five too many, and I slipped the five back into my shot-pouch. Then my horse would spring over several badger holes, and my hair would lift; I fancied he would come down in another. When I neared the buffalo, I cocked my gun, and in the intensity of my excitement, and because of an extra jump of my horse, I touched the trigger and off it went, fortunately into the air, and thus I lost my shot. I felt very much mortified at this, but hoped no one would notice what I had done; in fact, all had enough to do in looking after themselves and the game before them.

To load under these conditions is no small matter—horse at full speed, greatly excited, and because of the nature of the ground, now making a plunge, now a short jump, and again a long one; and then a dead buffalo right in the way and your horse jumping over him, another struggling and rising and falling in the throes of death straight ahead of you, some winded bulls coming athwart your course, heads down and tails up, which you have been told are sure signs of a fight; and to put on the climax of difficulties, you a "tenderfoot," or, as in the Hudson's Bay country dialect, a "greenhorn."

However, after spilling a lot of powder and getting some of it in my eyes, I was loaded at last, and now I saw that the buffalo were driven from me; but just then an Indian chased a cow at an angle towards me, and I also saw that his horse was winded, and I closed in. Yet I did not like to intrude, but the friendly fellow said, "Chase her, my brother," and then I went in gladly. Again he shouted, "That is a good horse you are on. Drive him!" I touched the black with my whip and he speeded. "Drive him!" shouted my friend, "go close!" and again I struck the black, and like the wind he carried me up, and I did go close, and shot the cow. Down she dropped, and I jumped to the ground beside her, a very proud boy. Ah, thought I, just give me a chance; I will make a hunter as good as the best.

My friend came up and said, "You did well, my brother." I thought so too, and though I have killed many hundreds of buffalo since then, and often under far more difficult and trying circumstances, yet that first race and dead-shot can never be forgotten.

My new brother would fain have me take part of the meat. I told him the animal was his, but if he would give me the tongue I would be thankful. This he did, and fastening it to my saddle, I rode on to look over the field of slaughter, as also to find father and party if I could.

Ascending a hill, I could see men and women at work skinning and cutting up. In little groups they dotted the plain. The pack-horses were waiting for their loads, and the runners were feeding quietly beside them, their work for the day finished. I think I am within bounds when I say there must have been between eight hundred and a thousand buffalo slain in that run.

Many of the hunters killed four, some of them six and seven.

Hunting to kill was considered a small matter, but to kill real good animals was where the skill of the hunter came in. To select a fat one out of scores and hundreds, all on the dead run and mixing as they ran, and to keep your eye on that particular one, watch your horse, load your gun, and look out for wounded and enraged animals in your way, required both skill and nerve, and even among the Indians and mixed bloods born on the plains, there were but few who excelled.

It was late in the afternoon when I found the chief and our party, and I was heartily glad to partake of some dried meat the chief had thoughtfully brought along for the strangers' benefit.

Towards evening we were all converging in the direction of the camp and thousands of pounds of meat and many hides were being packed home by hundreds of horses.

Much of this meat would be eaten fresh, but the greater portion would be cured for future use, or for sale to the Hudson's Bay Company and traders.


 


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