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Jews in the Wild West

Chapter 8.

Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West

Author's First Buffalo Hunt—Pursuit-Perilous Situation—Mode of Attack by the Indians—Solitary and Alone—Pony killed for Food—An Ill Wind that blows Nobody any Good—Incredulity of Indian Hunters—Return to Camp—Prairies on Fire—Suffocating Smoke—Mr. Egloffstien on a Wolf Hunt—Fire Light and Moonlight—Camp surrounded by Fire—Dangerous Situation—Arrival of Colonel Fremont—Preparations to resume our Journey—Escape through the Blazing Element.


AT daylight, on the 25th October, the hunters were at breakfast. At our mess, feats of daring and gallant horsemanship were being related, while our roast was preparing. Weluchas, a most successful hunter, and as brave and daring an Indian as ever fashioned a moccasin or fired a rifle, approached me, remarking, "What for you no hunt buffalo—got buffalo pungo?" (horse.) I had, while at breakfast, almost made up my mind to go—this, however, determined me. In quick time I had my horse saddled, and, fully equipped with rifle, navy revolver, and sheath knife, was all ready for a start. On this occasion our party consisted of eight Delawares and four white men, besides myself. I rode out of camp, side by side with Weluchas, who seemed gratified that I accompanied him. The buffaloes, from having been daily hunted for several weeks, had gone South about fifteen to twenty miles, and we had to ride that distance before we saw any game.


After about three hours' gentle trotting, one of the party started a coyote, and we chased him until he disappeared in the brush. When we reached the brow of a hill, Weluchas ejaculated, in deep, low tones, "Buffalo," "big herd"—"plenty cow." I turned my eyes, and, for the first time, beheld a large herd of buffaloes occupying an extensive valley, well wooded and watered, and luxuriant with the peculiar short curled grass, called "Buffalo grass" (Lysteria Dyclotoides), on which this animal principally feeds. I gazed with delight and astonishment at the novel sight which presented itself. There must have been at least 6,000 buffaloes, including cows and calves. It was a sight well worth travelling a thousand miles to see. Some were grazing, others playfully gamboling, while the largest number were quietly reclining or sleeping on their verdant carpet, little dreaming of the danger which surrounded them, or of the murderous visitors who were about to disturb their sweet repose.


Taking the word of command from Capt. Wolff, one of the finest proportioned men I ever beheld, we kept silent, to await the direction which the herd would take when they discovered us. An old bull was stationed several hundred yards in advance of the herd, as sentinel: they invariably follow him, as leader, even into danger. He soon espied us; and suddenly, as if by magic, the whole herd was in motion. We occupied such a position that they passed within rifle shot.


At a signal, the whole party, except myself, galloped after them. I was intensely absorbed by this mighty cavalcade passing with majestic stride, as it were, in review before me. My pony, anxious for the chase, fretted and champed at the bit. I singled out what I thought a fat cow (the bulls are tough and hard, and are only hunted by the Indians for their robes-their flesh never being eaten when cows can be obtained), and in a few seconds, I was riding at full speed. It requires a very fleet horse to overtake a buffalo cow. A bull does not run quite so fast. After a chase of about two miles, I was near enough to take sight with my rifle, by stopping my pony. I fired and wounded him in the leg-reloaded, and started again at full speed, the buffalo running less swiftly. I fired again, but this time without effect. Not wishing him to get too far ahead of me, I took out my revolver, and got within pistol shot, when I discovered I had chased an old bull instead of a cow.


I fired my pistol four times at full speed, and was endeavoring to sight him again, when the bull suddenly turned upon me, within five yards of my horse. My well-trained pony instantly jumped aside. The bull, in turning, got his wounded leg in a painful position, and stopped, which gave me time and opportunity to save my life; for, with my total inexperience, I should not have been able to have mastered him. My horse jumped aside without any guiding from me, having been trained to this by the Indian from whom we purchased him. I reloaded my rifle, and took deliberate aim at a vital part. When dying, I approached the monster that had given me such a fright, when he turned his large black eyes mournfully upon me, as if upbraiding me with having wantonly and uselessly shot him down.


A Delaware Indian, in hunting buffaloes, when near enough to shoot, rests his rifle on his saddle, balances himself in his stirrup on one leg; the other is thrown over the rifle to steady it. He then leans on one side, until his eye is on a level with the object, takes a quick sight, and fires while riding at full speed, rarely missing his, mark, and seldom chasing one animal further than a mile.


After recovering from my fright, and the intense excitement incidental to the chase, other sensations of a different character, although not less disagreeable, immediately filled my mind. I discovered that I was entirely alone, in an uninhabited, wild country, with not a human being in sight. I had chased my bull at least five miles. My companions had taken a different direction, nor was a single buffalo to be seen. My mind was fully alive to the perils of my situation. I had left my pocket compass in camp, and I did not know in what direction to look for it. I mounted my horse and walked to the top of a hill to see if I could find any traces of the party. I discovered looming in the distance, Smoky Hills some twenty miles off. My mind was in a slight degree relieved, although I was almost as ignorant of my geographical position as I was before. I did not despair, but unsaddling my horse, I gave him an hour's rest; the grass was fresh, and he appeared totally unconcerned at my situation.


Poor fellow! Little did I think that day, as he carried me, so full of life and high spirit, that in a few weeks he would be reduced to a mere skeleton, and that I should be obliged, in order to save my own life on the mountains of snow, to partake of his flesh. I shed tears when they shot him down, and I never think of his generous, willing qualities, but I lament the stern necessity that left his bones bleaching on the mountains.


I re-saddled my pony, and turned his head in the direction of Smoky Hills, fervently hoping to fall in with some of our party; nor was I disappointed, for after riding about an hour, I discovered to the left of my course a horse without a rider. As I approached it, I recognized the animal, and in a little while I saw its owner, my friend Weluchas, walking slowly, with his eyes intently fixed on the ground. He told me he was looking for his tomahawk pipe, which he had dropped while hunting. I joyfully assisted him in finding it, after a persevering search of an hour. He had been at least an hour on the spot before I came up. To this lucky circumstance I attributed my arrival in camp that night, for when we resumed our journey, he took a course some six points variation from the one I was travelling. On our way we fell in with Capt. Wolff and another Delaware, who were busily engaged cutting up a fine fat cow. I was soon at work, but I gave up after an ineffectual attempt to cut the liver, which is very delicate eating, my knowledge of human anatomy not being of any service to me in dissecting buffaloes.


While journeying campwards I related to the party my adventure with the old bull. I, of course, finished it by stating I had slain him. Capt. Wolff looked at me with a most quizzical and incredulous smile, and emphatically remarked, in his broken English, "Carvalho no kill buffalo." I insisted that I had left him dead on the field. At this the whole party laughed at me. I felt annoyed, but soon found it was no use to contend with them. Weluchas, who was really my friend, and to whom I had rendered several services, such as bleeding him and curing him of fever, could not believe the statement I had made. Capt. Wolff, seeing me look offended, said, in these exact word's : —"When Capt. Wolff kill buffalo, he cut out the tongue. Indian shoot buffalo, bring home tongue. Carvalho no bring buffalo tongue; he no kill buffalo." This was powerful argument, and the inference perfectly logical; and I soon changed the subject. Gentle reader, do you think I was equal to cutting out, by the roots, a tongue from the head of an old buffalo bull, after telling you that I did not succeed in getting out the liver of a young cow, after the animal was opened? Surely I was not; but even if I had been, the alarming situation I found myself in, at the time he fell, prevented me from attempting it, if I even had known it was the hunters' rule to do so.


My messmates, to whom I related my adventure, had not the slightest idea that I had lost my way in the chase. I came into camp with the rest of the party, that night, about seven o'clock, tired and hungry. After eating a hearty supper, I wrapped myself up in my blankets and was soon asleep, dreaming of the disputed honors I had gathered in my maiden hunt after a buffalo bull.


Oct. 30. —During the day, the sun was completely obscured by low, dark clouds; a most disagreeable and suffocating smoke filled the atmosphere.

We were still encamped on the Saline fork of the Kansas River, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Col. Fremont, who had not yet returned from St. Louis. His continued absence alarmed us for his safety, and the circumstance that the prairies were on fire for several days past, in the direction through which he had to pass to reach us, added to our anxiety.

Night came on, and the dark clouds which overhung us like an immense pall, now assumed a horrible, lurid glare, all along the horizon. As far as the eye could reach a belt of fire was visible. We were on the prairie, between Kansas River on one side, Solomon's Fork on another, Salt Creek on the third, and a large belt of woods about four miles from camp on the fourth. We were thus completely hemmed in, and comparatively secure from danger.

Our animals had been grazing near this belt of woods, the day before, and when they were driven into camp at night, one of the mules was missing. At daylight a number of our Delawares, Mr. Egloffstien, our topographical engineer, and myself, sallied out in search of it.

After looking through the woods for an hour, we discovered our mule lying dead, with his lariat drawn close around his neck. It had become loose, and, trailing along the ground, got entangled with the branches of an old tree, where in his endeavors to extricate himself he was strangled.

We were attracted to the spot by the howling of wolves, and we found that he had been partially devoured by them. Our engineer, who wanted a wolfskin for a saddle-cloth, determined to remain to kill one of them.

I assisted him to ascend a high tree immediately over the body of the mule, untied the lariat, and attaching his rifle to one end of it, pulled it up to him.

The rest of the party returned to camp. About four o'clock in the afternoon, he being still out, I roasted some buffalo meat and went to seek him. I found him still on the tree, quietly awaiting an opportunity to kill his wolf.

A heroic example of perseverance on an eminence smiling at disappointment.

Mr. Egloffstien declined to come down; I told him of the dangers to which he was exposed, and entreated him to return to camp. Finding him determined to remain, I sent him up his supper, and returned to camp, expecting him to return at sundown.

About this time the prairie was on fire just beyond the belt of woods through which Col. Fremont had to pass.

Becoming alarmed for Mr. Egloffstien, several of us went to bring him in. We found him half-way to camp, dragging by the lariat the dead body of an immense wolf which he had shot. We assisted him on with his booty as well as we could.

My "guard" came on at two o'clock. I laid down to take a three hours' rest. When I went on "duty," the scene that presented itself was sublime. A breeze had sprung up, which dissipated the smoke to windward. The full moon was shining brightly, and the piles of clouds which surrounded her, presented magnificent studies of "light and shadow," which "Claude Lorraine" so loved to paint.

The fire had reached the belt of woods, and seemingly had burnt over the tree our friend had been seated in all day.

The fire on the north side had burned up to the water's edge, and had there stopped.

The whole horizon now seemed bounded by fire.

Our Delawares by this time had picketed all the animals near the creek we were encamped on, and had safely carried the baggage of the camp down the banks near the water. When day dawned, the magnificent woods which had sheltered our animals, appeared a forest of black scathed trunks.

The fire gradually increased, yet we dared not change our ground; first, because we saw no point where there was not more danger, and, secondly, if we moved away, "Solomon," the Indian chief, who after conducting us to the camp ground we now occupied, had returned to guide Col. Fremont, would not know exactly where to find us again.

We thus continued gazing appalled at the devouring element which threatened to overwhelm us.

After breakfast, one of our Delawares gave a loud whoop, and pointing to the open space beyond, in the direction of Solomon's Fork, where to our great joy, we saw Col. Fremont on horseback, followed by "an immense man," on "an immense mule," (who afterwards proved to be our good and kind-hearted Doctor Ober;) Col. Fremont's "cook," and the Indian "Solomon," galloping through the blazing element in the direction of our camp.

Instantly and impulsively, we all discharged our rifles in a volley.

Our tents were not struck, yet we wanted to make a signal for their guidance. We all reloaded, and when they were very near, we fired a salute.

Our men and Indians immediately surrounded Col. Fremont making kind inquiries after his health.

No father who had been absent from his children, could have been received with more enthusiasm and more real joy.

To reach us he had to travel over many miles of country which had been on fire. The Indian trail which led to our camp from "Solomon's Fork," had become obliterated, rendering it difficult and arduous to follow; but the keen sense of the Indian directed him under all difficulties directly to the spot where he had left us.

During the balance of the day, the camp was put in travelling order.

With the arrival of Col. Fremont, our commissariat had received considerable additions of provisions, more, in fact, than he had any good reason to suppose we had consumed during his absence.

The reverse was exactly the truth. The provisions intended for our journey had been lavishly expended, and surreptitiously purloined.

Twice it became necessary to send to Fort Riley to procure supplies.

The season had advanced, and it became imperatively necessary to continue onwards—we should have plenty of game until we got to Bent's Fort, where there always were kept large supplies of provisions, and where Col. Fremont intended to refit and replenish.

At midnight, the fire crossed the Kansas River. I was in a great state of excitement. I mounted my horse and rode out in the direction of the Kansas, to see if the fire had actually crossed; I suppose I must have advanced within half a mile, before I discovered that the prairie was on fire on this side of it. I turned round, and galloped as I thought, in the direction of camp, but I could not descry it. I continued onwards; but as there were woods all around Salt Creek, I had lost my landmarks, and was in a terrible quandary. I however reached Salt Creek, and with great difficulty returned to camp, after an absence of three hours.

At daylight, our animals were all packed, the camp raised, and all the men in their saddles. Our only escape was through the blazing grass; we dashed into it, Col. Fremont at the head, his officers following, while the rest of the party were driving up the baggage animals. The distance we rode through the fire, could not have been more than one hundred feet, the grass which quickly ignites, as quickly consumes, leaving only black ashes in the rear.

We passed through the fiery ordeal unscathed; made that day over fifteen miles, and camped for the night on the dry bed of a creek, beyond the reach of the devouring element.

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