Project Canterbury

My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter VIII. The Tenderfoot and Old Pete

DURING my winter visits to the East for the purpose of raising funds for Wyoming and Idaho I frequently met young men who sought my advice about the hunting-grounds of the West. I was often able to give them suggestions which resulted in enjoyable holidays and fine sport. Twenty years ago big game was abundant in certain parts of my missionary field. Elk, deer and antelope were to be found in large "bunches" in both territories; and in the Kootenai country of northern Idaho there were still fine specimens of mountain-sheep and caribou, which even then were rapidly disappearing. It sometimes happened that my young Eastern friends were entirely without experience of the West and its ways, and so became easy prey to the fun-loving cow-puncher of the plains, or to the designing mountain-guide, who, after "fleecing" him of his money and duping him in many ways, would expose him to the ridicule of the scornful Westerner as a "tenderfoot." In a country where wit was the only passport to success, it was deemed entirely justifiable thus to take advantage of the verdancy and gullibility of the new-comer. Such lessons were considered a test of true manhood. While sometimes humiliating, they were usually wholesome, and, if taken in the proper spirit, became an initiation into that atmosphere of comradeship and good-will which was well worth the bitter experience. The critical question was, "Is this man made of the stuff that will stand the racket?" If so, his future was assured. If not, he might as well "pull up his stakes" and leave the country, for there was no place for one of his caliber. A certain young man of my acquaintance, from the city of New York, had been reading stories of the elk and caribou of northern Idaho. He had some friends who had been very successful, and not a little boastful, in killing big game in the Adirondacks, where his uncle had a summer camp. He possessed abundant means, and his ambition was to throw in the shade the achievements of these fortunate Nimrods of his acquaintance. His knowledge of hunting was entirely theoretical, having been acquired from books alone. He conceived the idea of trying his luck in the Rockies.

Arriving in Spokane, he met at the hotel some young men who found him delightful company because of his generous purse and his eagerness to gulp down all the stories, however fabulous, of the wonderful Kootenai country, where the caribou abounded. First of all, they suggested that he must supply himself with a proper outfit. A buck-skin hunting-suit, a strong army-saddle, a pair of six-shooters, a good Winchester--these things were of prime importance. The new friends went with him and helped him to select these articles, and had them expressed to Kootenai. They then told him of a celebrated guide whose services would be indispensable. His name was Tom Canfield. They said he came high, but he always found the game. He was accordingly written to and engaged, to be ready to start on a certain day. The guide was authorized to hire for the New-Yorker the best horse available, irrespective of cost. It seemed to my young friend that his plans were simply perfect. He felt that never in his life had he met such kind and accommodating people. He yearned to give them some substantial expression of his appreciation; and so, the night before he left Spokane, he invited to a champagne dinner at his hotel some eight or ten of his newly made Western comrades. It was a memorable feast, and the young Easterner was all but overwhelmed with the good wishes for his success in the woods, of which they assured him there could not be the least doubt. The next day they accompanied him to the train, and gave him three rousing cheers as the Northern Pacific pulled out of the station.

Arriving at Kootenai he found Tom, the famous guide, all ready to receive him. They were to start the following day. A sure-footed hunting-horse, well trained, had been secured for the New-Yorker; and to carry their necessary impedimenta a good, faithful pack-horse, accustomed to follow anywhere at a respectful distance, had been obtained. As for Tom's own mount, my young friend was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find that it was not a horse at all but a donkey, called Pete. But the guide assured him that he always rode Pete, and that money could not buy him; that the little beast knew the woods, and could take them infallibly to the game. They spent a busy afternoon and evening in getting all things ready for an early start. The New-Yorker made quite a sensation at the Kootenai hotel, and the natives gazed with amazement upon his style and the glory of his outfit; for Tom had heralded his coming, and the whole settlement knew that the young Easterner had "heaps" of money, and that the guide was getting a "soft snap."

The morning dawned, and, after an early breakfast, they set out. The country was newly opened up, and the thick woods grew close to the little hamlet which had been cut out of almost solid timber. The hunters struck a trail at once down a gradual incline, at the foot of which was a shallow river to be forded. When they got well into the woods the guide said:

"I reckin, mister, you hain't never been in these diggin's before, have you?"

"No, but I have been in the Adirondacks."

"Oh yes, I've heered of 'em. That's where the tenderfeet hunt. But I reckin you 'ain't never been on a reel hunt before. Now I jest want to say to you that you talk too loud. You see, it's this here way. These here wild critturs is mighty skittish, and when you git 'em right skeered-like once they keep out of sight."

Tom was talking almost in a whisper, and with intense earnestness. The New-Yorker was duly impressed for the moment.

"Now you was a-axin' me awhile ago," said Tom, "when we would be apt to run up agin any game. Almost any time. They feed right up close to that there hotel. You see this is a brand-new clearin', and the game 'ain't hardly found out that we're here."

"But," said the young man in a loud and excited voice, "do you think we will see a caribou?"

"For God's sake, man, don't talk so loud. You'll drive 'em all away. Sure, we'll see a caribou. Didn't I tell you that this here jack, old Pete, will find 'em? Now lemme tell you 'bout old Pete. He looks honery, and he's a jackass, and he 'ain't got no style, but I tell you he gits there all the same. It 'pears like he kin smell game a mile off, and he's got a eye on him like a eagle. It ain't no use for you nor me to bother our heads about findin' the game. Old Pete 'll do that for us, and he'll do it a heap sight better nor you nor me. Then, you see, I've got him trained. When he spots a deer he draps right down on his knees jest once. That means a buck. When he draps twice, that means a bull elk. He don't take no notice of does nor cows. When he draps three times, then look out as sure as hell for a caribou."

This was very startling to the new hunter, and he looked at the guide incredulously.

"Look here, Tom. What are you trying to give me?"

"Sh!" motioning with his hand, "not so loud, for God's sake. Take it cool, stranger. I'm givin' you straight goods 'bout old Pete. He's built jest that way, and if you'll only be still, you 11 see him perform by-and-by."

Presently they came to the river. While the stream was shallow, yet the water in the deepest place came up to the horse's belly. The New-Yorker noticed with some amusement and interest that, instead of simply drawing up his feet out of reach of the water, the guide extended his legs, without bending them, directly in front and almost horizontally; but he explained this to himself by reflecting that old Pete was short of stature, and such unusual posture became, therefore, necessary. Crossing the river, Tom motioned to my friend, and said, almost in a whisper:

"Now, no more talkin', stranger. The deer will be comin' down here to git a drink, and old Pete is likely to spot one and drap on his knees any time."

Bearing a little to the right, they followed a trail through some beautiful pine timber. Glancing back, the Easterner saw the faithful pack-horse following at a respectful distance. Suddenly Tom stopped and said:

"Now, when you see old Pete drap on his knees, don't say nothin', but git off your horse, and throw the bridle-rein and follow close behind me."

Stealthily they proceeded through the silent forest. Without warning old Pete dropped on his knees. Dismounting, Tom beckoned to the young man to come nearer.

"Great Scott!" exclaimed the tenderfoot, in an awed voice, "I must have that donkey. He dropped just once, didn't he? Does that mean a buck?"

"You bet your life it does."

"Where is he?" said the tenderfoot.

"Now you got me. Old Pete can't tell where he is. He ain't no Bible jackass. He can't talk. But you bet he sees him all right. It's up to us to locate him. Hush talkin' now, and follow me." Peering through the timber, he whispered: "There he is. See him? Gosh, he's a dandy! Jest come here and look down my rifle, and I'll show him to you."

"Oh yes, I see him," said the young man. "I see him, and he's a beauty."

"Now," whispered Tom, "jest crawl up behind this here big pine, and take rest and let him have it good. Aim a little low, right behind the shoulder. He's standin' jest right for you."

Bang! went the rifle of the tenderfoot, and the deer made a graceful bound, evidently unscathed, and disappeared.

"Too bad! You shot clean over him. Well, never mind. There's more where he come from. But hain't you got the buck ague? You're kind o' tremblin'. You have to take it mighty cool."

The tenderfoot was greatly excited, and, despite his guide's protest, would talk too loud.

"But, Tom, what will you take for the donkey? I must have him for the Adirondacks."

"Oh, he ain't for sale. He's my fortune. Be quiet, my friend. These woods is full of deer."

Mounting again, they followed up the trail. In his tumultuous excitement and eagerness for the fray it seemed a long time to the tenderfoot before old Pete dropped. But just as the trail curved to the left Pete again came down.

"I see him," said Tom. "No wonder old Pete drapped. Come this way. Any fool could hit that buck."

Sure enough, there on a little knoll not fifty yards away, stood a fine deer, his antlers proudly aloft. The tenderfoot took deliberate aim, and the buck dropped. The young hunter's pent-up emotions could no longer be suppressed. He yelled, threw his cow-boy hat in the air, and jumped up and down, crying:

"Hurrah for old Pete! Hurrah for old Pete!" He rushed to the donkey, patted him on the head, laughed and yelled again. "Tom, what will you take for him? I've got the money, and just must have him."

"Say, I reckin you never shot much big game, did you? They ain't no more deer in these diggin's now. You've jest raised hell with 'em, stranger. We might as well cross the divide and take a bite of grub down by the North Fork where there's water. We'll let our critturs feed and rest, and then we'll cross the river for elk and caribou."

Before leaving the buck, Tom had cut off the fine head, jerked the quarters and hung them up, and tied to his saddle a piece of venison for supper.

"We'll get these when we come back to-morrow," he said.

"Do you think these horns will be safe here, Tom? I wouldn't lose them for my right hand."

"Oh yes, I know these here woods, every inch o' 'em. I could come to this here tree blindfold."

After the lunch by the river-bank, which both enjoyed, the tenderfoot handed Tom a fine cigar as he saw him about to light his old pipe. The three "critturs" were still feeding, for the grass in the river-bottom was long and tender. The saddles and pack had been removed, and men and beasts were refreshed. It must have been about two o'clock before they started to cross the North Fork. Over their noonday snack the tenderfoot had plied Tom with endless questions, and again tried to buy old Pete "for the Adirondacks." But the guide had steadily refused to entertain any proposition of the kind. He had, however, told the tenderfoot that, in all likelihood, there would be no more game that day.

"You see, it's this way: the caribou in this here mountain feed higher up, and we won't strike 'em till to-morrow morning. Still, you can't never be sure 'bout these here woods. Old Pete may drap any time, so don't talk, and make jest as little racket as you kin help. I reckin it's goin' to be a bull elk next time. They ain't no caribou this low down. Mum's the word now, stranger. These is fine woods, and old Pete is a feelin' scrumptious."

The trail was growing more and more indistinct, and frequently the hunters encountered fallen timber, and had to pick their way with care.

"Partner," said Tom, "this is a great elk country we're comin' to now. If I ain't mightily fooled, from the way old Pete is actin' he is gettin' ready for a bull. Don't do no loud talkin'. The wind is blowin' our way, and that's in our favor, for it beats all how them elk can sniff a human."

Not a word passed between the men for a period that seemed almost interminable to the untrained and effusive tenderfoot. Emerging from the dense forest, they suddenly came into a sort of green meadow-like opening, where the sun could have fair play. Tom pointed to a bare, dusty place, and said, in a low voice:

"See that waller. They've been there to-day. I'll stake my scalp on it."

Passing quietly through the opening, they again entered the woods, and there were more fallen logs to climb over. The standing timber was not quite so thick, and at times one could see quite a distance up the divide. The stillness was almost oppressive to the tenderfoot, who kept his gaze fastened on old Pete. Suddenly the donkey stopped and went down on his knees twice. The tenderfoot was close behind, and Tom, dismounting, turned and motioned to him. He promptly got down, threw the bridle-rein over his horse's head, and, Winchester in hand, he noiselessly approached on tiptoe.

"Do you see him?" he whispered.

"Wait a minute, partner," said Tom, as he strained his eyes through the trees. "Yes, one, two, three. Golly! There's a big bunch on 'em, with a whoppin' old bull in the lead. Come here, and I can show 'em to you. Dead easy! And they 'ain't saw us, neither. They're comin' this way. You'd better drap down behind this big tree and be all ready. Now, don't shoot till you've got a dead cinch. You take the big bull in the lead. I'll bring down one of them follerin'."

They had left the horses in a thick underbrush where they were hidden from sight. When the herd came within fairly short range both men fired. Tom brought down his bull, but the leader staggered, fell, and, rising again, disappeared.

"Oh, partner, you've got him all right. You've got him. They hardly ever fall dead in their tracks. Sometimes when you hit 'em right in the heart them big bulls will run a mile, but yourn ain't a-goin' to run no mile. I bet we'll find him stretched out on the ground not fur from here."

True to Tom's prophecy, it was not long before they found the dead bull. The tenderfoot was wild with joy, and his gratitude to old Pete was unbounded. "I tell you, Tom, he's a good one. What a sensation he would make in the Adirondacks! Now, look here, Tom, what will you take for him?"

Tom laughed, and made no reply. After securing the heads of the bulls, and as much meat as they could conveniently hang up for safe keeping until it was possible for Tom to come back for it, they moved on. The day had been a strenuous one for the New-Yorker, and now that the exhilaration was over, he realized for the first time that he was tired. A buck and a bull in one day was better luck by far than Tom had led him to expect, and as the sun was setting he welcomed the suggestion of the guide that they go into camp for the night. A cosey, sheltered spot was found near the river, and they soon had a cheerful camp-fire and a good dinner of savory venison and coffee, for Tom was an excellent cook. The New-Yorker thought he had never enjoyed a meal with keener relish. That night, as he crawled under his blankets, a strange sense of satisfaction possessed him, and as he fell asleep he was saying to himself: "If only I could take old Pete to the Adirondacks!"

A bright and early start was made next morning. It had been decided that, if the caribou could be secured early in the day, they would get back to Kootenai that evening. Tom felt somewhat doubtful, but was not without hope. It must have been nearly eight o'clock, and after they had been ascending the mountain circuitously for more than two hours, that Tom said:

"Now, partner, if old Pete don't skeer up a caribou in these here woods we're comin' to, it will be the first time he's ever gone back on me. Keep close to me, and don't talk."

Slowly and as noiselessly as possible they picked their way along. Elated as the tenderfoot was at having killed a deer and an elk, yet to fail in bringing down a caribou would have been the keenest disappointment. Tom also fully realized that a caribou was the real object of the hunt. Hence, there was a sort of tension of feeling and interest that was evident in his movements. Not one word had passed between the men for some time, when, to his great delight, the New-Yorker saw old Pete drop three times on his knees. He looked eagerly ahead to see if he could catch a glimpse of his first caribou; but in vain. He then turned appealingly to his guide.

"Wait a minute," said Tom. "I know old Pete seen him all right, but the brush is mighty thick here." He searched the distant bushes for some time. At last he whispered: "There! There he is.

He's walkin' along as if he owned a gold-mine, and he's a dandy."

The tenderfoot had caught a glimpse of him, and had levelled his Winchester. The caribou was just behind a cluster of small pines, and evidently had not scented the hunters.

"Take your time, partner. Get a good bead on him."

At the first shot the caribou fell upon his knees, but quickly recovered himself and started to run.

"Let him have it again," said Tom.

The second shot brought him down. An instant later the proud New-Yorker was standing triumphant over his prostrate bulk. No words can describe the scene. There was no longer need of restraint, and my young friend abandoned himself to the wild intoxication of the supreme moment of his life.

"Well, Tom, what a time we have had! Now I can go back East and die happy. I've got him. I've got him. Dear old Pete! I owe it all to you," and he threw himself upon the donkey's neck and embraced him.

It was necessary to strap the head of the caribou behind the saddle of the New-Yorker, for the other two heads would be all that the pack-horse could carry. When they started back down the mountain-side one could have heard the voice of the victorious hunter a long way off. By this time his desire to possess old Pete as his own had become his master passion. He renewed again his offer, and pleaded with Tom. Finally, the guide said:

"You seem kind o' stuck on this here mule. I never 'lowed to sell old Pete, but bein' as it's you, and you got your heart so sot on him, maybe we can trade after all. 'Ceptin' for his huntin', old Pete ain't worth no big pile of money. He's small, and he's honery lookin', but you see what he kin do, and he's all the livin' I've got. Many's the dollar he's made for me."

"Well, Tom, what's your price for him?"

"I never sot no price on him. He didn't cost me no great pile, but, as I was sayin', he's all I've got. Could you afford to give me three hundred dollars for him?"

"Yes, I'll take him, and take him quick. That's a bargain. Get off and let me ride him. Here's two one-hundred-dollar bills and a draft on New York for a hundred dollars more."

The two men dismounted. The exchange was made and the money paid over. And now the New-Yorker's cup of happiness was full to overflowing. There was still a long ride before them, after the other heads had been picked up, and Tom had blazed a few trees leading to the places where the meat had been left. At noontime they stopped a little while, and made a meal on the canned goods and crackers and cheese of which Tom had laid in a large supply. The trail was shady, and the faithful beasts of burden, with their heads turned towards home, made better time than usual. The sun was just sinking in the West when they reached the little river near the settlement of Kootenai, whence they started. The tenderfoot, astride old Pete, plunged in first, Tom and the pack-horse following close behind. When they got well into the river the New-Yorker, in keeping his feet clear of the stream, raised his heels and touched the donkey in the flanks. True to his training, as soon as he felt the pressure there, old Pete dropped upon his knees, half submerging his rider.

"Great Scott! Tom, what in thunder does he see now?" cried the frightened tenderfoot.

"I can't tell you," complacently replied the guide, "unless he sees a sucker." Then to the donkey: "Get up from there, old Pete. Don't you know you're on your way to the Adirondacks?"

Project Canterbury