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Extract from 'My Reminiscences as a Cowboy'

My thanks are extended to Edgar M. Ross for his permission to reproduce this copyrighted text.


My most dangerous experience on the trail came about this time, when I was too green to realize the position, and if I found my way out of the trail, it was more by good luck than anything else.

I got up one morning before daybreak, threw some buffalo chips on the fire, swung the coffee-pot across and made myself a steaming hot cup. I was five miles from the trail, experience having taught me that such a course made it easy to find my way back.

This morning I rode for a couple of hours without coming across buffalo "signs"; that is to say, fresh dung. I was hunting for the pot, and the "signs" all seemed weeks old, so I determined to keep straight on again for another hour or two, with the hope of better fortune. The next two hours were barren, so I set my teeth obstinately, and rode on.

At length, I came across a small herd. The prairie here changed its character; it had been almost perfectly flat; it lay now in long rolls, like the waves of the Pacific after a heavy storm. Mounting one ridge I saw a little knot of buffalo below me in the valley, an old bull and two or three young ones, ten or twelve cows, and two or three calves. Blue Dick knew the game as well as I did, and as soon as I loosed my reins she set off at full gallop; we ran up to the buffalo on the next slope, and I shot one of the young cows. It took me a very short time to cut out the best portions and wrap them up, more or less neatly, in the hide. In half-an-hour I had secured perhaps a hundred pounds on the front of my saddle. I had some dried beef and biscuit with me for dinner, and I decided to give my mare a rest. I was very nearly making up my mind to camp just where I was; but I thought it safer to get on the top of the ridge. It was well for me, as it turned out, that I had sense enough to take this simple precaution. I lay down on the top of the roll, after picketing Blue Dick eight or ten yards away. She went for the grass as if she were hungry, and, lying on my back, I watched the cloud islands stream across the blue till I almost fell asleep.

Suddenly, I noticed that Blue Dick was not grazing; she had her head in the air. At once, I got on my feet and looked, too; but could see nothing. In a moment I had sprung on her back, and, holding on by her mane, stood straight up. I was just in time to see a black spot disappearing over the further ridge. I jumped down again, infinitely excited and a little perplexed. What was it? I wondered. Was it an Indian? Of course, I knew I was on dangerous ground. A moment's reflection taught me, too, that good horse as Blue Dick was, she was not very much superior in speed to Indian ponies when she carried a hundred-weight of buffalo meat as well as her rider, and she had come that morning at least thirty miles from the camp. In a moment I had got the saddle on her back again, and began making my way along the ridge outward.

I may have gone for half-an-hour at a slow lope, when two figures showed themselves on the sky line right in front of me, I naturally drew up. They were Indians all right, that I could see. I made up my mind to head northwards and as I loped into the valley I turned at an acute angle to my former course, but as I rose on the next slope there were three figures now in front, and I should have to bend again towards the north if I wished to avoid running right into them. I would not do this. I swung my horse round, and headed as far south as I had previously been traveling north of the direct eastward line; but I had not loped for ten minutes before three or four more shadowy figures appeared on the sky line in front of me. I pulled up to think. My retreat to the trail was cut off. What did it mean? Why didn't they attack? There were at least seven or eight of them. Would it be better to drop the meat and try to race round them, or should I go straight at them? It seemed to me silly to lose the meat before I was compelled. Suddenly it occurred to me that the Indians had tried to head me northward. That was the way, therefore, I had better not go. As they were in front of me, between me and the trail, that was the way to go. Should I go slap-bang at them, or should I try to ride round them? I set myself to weigh the chances.

I was a bad shot. I had already discovered that my eyes were nothing like as good even as the average. Because of that I always had a pair of glasses with me; but the glasses did not help me in shooting, and my shooting at anything above three hundred yards was like Indian shooting, not very dangerous. That was where the Western American beat the Indian; most Western boys were very good shots indeed at seven or eight hundred, or even a thousand yards, whereas the Indians were no good at all till they got within a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards. Their early practice with the bow-and-arrow still hampered them. It suddenly struck me that if these Indians always showed themselves a thousand or twelve hundred yards away, they kept at that distance probably because they were afraid of my rifle. I grinned to myself. I could barely see them without my glasses, and I stood no chance whatever of hitting them. Still, I thought, the fear may do as well as the reality, and I knew the boys would be wretchedly disappointed and ill-tempered if I came in without meat, so I resolved first to try the bold way, the usual cowboy way, making up my mind that if that did not succeed I would cut the meat loose and gallop for it.

Accordingly I began to lope right towards the Indians; down one slope I went, and they disappeared, and I rose on the opposite slope, my heart in my mouth, expecting to hear their rifles every moment. But I did not even see them till I got right to the top of the slope. There they were, on the next ridge, the seven of them together now, but still half-a-mile in front of me. The distance between us had shrunk. It took a moment's resolution to make up my mind to ride straight again at them. I took out my Winchester, looked to the cartridges, and then went at a lope down the hill into the valley, and at a much slower lope up the opposite hill, keeping my eyes open. But when I got to the top the ruse had been carried out; the Indians were on the next slope, but still a little nearer. I clinched my teeth, and went on. When I reached the top of the next ridge there were no Indians to be seen. I at once drew up, and though I knew that using my eye-glasses would betray my weakness, I made up my mind to use them. I must find out what the savages were up to. I put my hand in my pocket for the glasses, when again I began to watch my horse. Blue Dick had cocked her ears, and was facing a little northward. They were surely at some trick; I must see.

I got off the horse, pretended to be busied with the meat, and used my glasses behind the horse's withers. I saw two Indians lying down, and I realized that probably the rest were spread out taking advantage of any inequality of ground, and getting closer to my line of retreat, so that either my horse or myself would probably be hit by one of the last four or five men if I held on my straight eastward course. The plan was quite clear; three would always be riding to intercept me, while four took potshots at me. It was quite clear that I had either to fire and kill the first Indian, or else I had to get rid of some of the meat and gallop round them. I decided upon trying the shot first. I sighted the rifle for a thousand yards, and took another look through my glasses at the nearest Indian. It was as I had guessed. He was lying own behind his pony, watching me, preparing to shoot, indeed. I took careful sight at him, resting my rifle on the horse, and fired. We fired almost together - and I missed! I saw the smoke still in the air above him. He half rose, and then lay down again. I told myself there was no time to be lost. I stuffed the glasses in my pocket, cut loose the parcel of meat, taking about fifteen pounds with me, left the rest on the ground, swept the whole of the ridges as far as I could see afield and picked out four of the brutes all in a sort of line of dots reaching towards my course.

I got on Blue Dick again, and loped down the hill. As soon as I got into the valley I pulled her to the southward, and rode for all she was worth. By the time I crossed the next ridge four of the Indians in front of me had mounted and were riding to cross me. The rest were out of sight, but were no doubt riding to cut me off later if I succeeded in rounding the first lot. Down into the valley and up on to the ridge again, and the four were nearer. Down into the valley again, urging Blue Dick to her uttermost. As we raced up the slope and over the ridge I saw I could round them. But the others? Two ridges more, or three, I swung to the south; then pulled, north-east, calling on Blue Dick to do her best. A couple of miles more in the long, sweeping gallop, and there they were all spread out on my left, the foremost three a thousand yards away; Blue Dick could go nearly two feet to their one, and when I had fairly galloped round them, and got about twelve hundred yards in front of the foremost I suddenly pulled the horse up, jumped off, and had a shot at the nearest rider; it was a mere snapshot. The rifle was still sighted for a thousand yards.

Blue Dick was puffing, and I was a little out of breath and much excited. Yet, as luck would have it, I happened to hold straight, for the foremost Indian pony came down with his rider, heels over head. The rest rode up to him and pulled up, the foremost disentangled himself from his pony, and they stood in a group. As I moved again they all fired, but when I put up my rifle to fire at them they scattered like birds. I saw they had a wholesome respect for my powers of shooting on the one chance shot.

I kept Blue Dick at a steady lope, and two or three hours later I caught sight of the wagons. Blue Dick had had a hard day, and I rubbed her dry and saw her roll before I did anything else. Then after being chaffed for bringing back so little meat, I told the whole story to Charlie and Reece, but it was Bent who found the probable explanation of my escape.

"I ought to have warned you," he said, "but you did just right. It was lucky for you you hit the first time when the Indian was lying down."

"I don't think I did," I said, "I saw the Indian quite plainly afterwards. He was all right."

"Yes," said Bent, "but if you had missed the whole lot he'd have been on top of that pony, coming for you mighty quick. You hit the pony, I reckon, and so the Indian lay tight." (It struck me that I had seen eight Indians at first.) "Still, if you ain't able," continued Bent, "to hit an Indian and his pony at a thousand yards, you surely have no business to go away from the trail by yourself. If they had known you were such a bad shot they'd a' got you sure. But never ride away from them if they show themselves, else they'll put you in a tight place mighty quick."

It gave me a new thrill, for if that Indian had come for me at once I should have had to gallop parallel with the trail for many a mile before I should have been able to swing around clear, if indeed I ever could have done it. I had had a narrower escape than I guessed even then. Six years later, on almost the same ground, some of the same tribe of Indians, by showing themselves here and there on the skyline, drove a small surveying party of seven Americans into a sort of canyon, without any outlet, except the way they had entered it. The Indians blocked that, and then sat around the cliffs and picked the Americans off at their leisure. Their bodies were found, all seven of them, horribly, mutilated, with hundreds of empty cartridges about them. They had fought for a long while in vain, probably had not killed an Indian, whereas if they had held on their way in the first place, the Indians would have kept at a safe distance.

That one day's experience taught me that safety on the prairie was simply a question of shooting, so I began to practice every morning. At first at four hundred yards (guessing the distance) and then at five hundred, at six, at seven and so on. As the weeks passed my shooting improved. I began to judge distances better. I could use my glasses to pick out objects and then shoot them with considerable accuracy. But since I could never improve my eyes, I could never become a really good shot, and so in time lost interest in the practice.

The careless enjoyment of the hunting had left me. I never went after buffalo again without remembering that my shots might bring Indians upon me; that instead of being the hunter, I might become the hunted. Not only that but I would be at a disadvantage, for bad shots as the Indians were, one chance shot was all that was needed to do the business. If Blue Dick had been touched by a chance bullet that day I should have been killed thirty miles away from the boys or the trail. You don't forget escapes of that sort in a hurry and I resolved never to get caught like that again.