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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 XII. A Month in the Woods

IT had long been a cherished hope that I might spend at least a month in quest of deer, elk, and bear. From the stage-coach and trails over the mountains I had occasionally caught glimpses of fine specimens of big game, and I knew of several localities where they could with a little effort be found.

The Hon. Edward Ivinson, of Laramie, one of my good laymen, and a warm personal friend, had again and again implored me to spend the month of September in the woods as his guest. At last my opportunity came, and the party was made up. My brother, the Rev. Robert Talbot, of Kansas. City, was invited to join us, making in all a company of six, besides the guide, packers, and men to look after the camp. Nothing that could minister to our comfort and convenience was omitted by our generous host. He was an experienced hunter, and knew exactly what was needed on such an outing. An abundance of choice groceries, canned goods, and tobacco was laid in, and, while we were all men of temperate habits, care was taken to be prepared for such an accident as a snake-bite or other emergency. To carry our necessary outfit to the foothills where we were to pack our horses and enter the forest, a good strong covered wagon was taken along. It was a ride of about a hundred and twenty-five miles from Laramie across the plains before we reached the mountains of Routt County, Colorado, our objective point. But as we were all well mounted on fast broncos, that meant only one night's camping on the way. The weather during the entire month was almost perfect. We started on the 30th of August so as to reach the hunting-grounds in time to avail ourselves of the provisions of the game law, which set us free September 1st. Before we set out it was distinctly understood and agreed to between us that we should not divert our attention from the big game by any little side sports, such as shooting grouse or trout-fishing. My brother rather regretted this contract, as his imagination had been set on fire by the accounts I had from time to time given him of the Rockies as the fisherman's paradise; but as it was the earnest suggestion of our host we proposed to abide by it loyally, no matter how great the temptation.

We broke camp early on the morning of August 31st, for our famous guide, Jim Miller, was to meet us late that afternoon at a place agreed upon, and conduct us to a gulch where we were to remain a week or two. We were all delighted to meet Jim; for while some of us had never seen him, his reputation was so well established that we felt a certain curiosity to encounter the hero of so many successful hunts. He was much in demand by hunting-parties, and in order to secure his services one had to make a contract with him at least a year in advance. Like all experts, he came high, and could command his own price. While a very quiet and honest man, it was known that he was without fear, and in ridding the country of cattle and horse thieves he had slain a number of men. On several occasions he had fallen into the clutches of the law, and had narrowly escaped conviction at one time for murder in the first degree. But the jury had cleared him on the theory that the killing had been in self-defence. His chief glory was that he knew where the big game ranged, and especially was he familiar with the habitat of the grizzlies.

In the particular mountain where we were to spend a month, it was currently reported that there was a famous old bruin who was the terror of the forest. Now and then he would make a descent on some ranch at the foot of the mountain and play havoc in one night with a herd of cattle. He was known by the name of "Old Mose," and tradition had it that on more than one occasion a hunter armed cap-à-pie had met him face to face and had fled in terror at his very appearance without firing a shot. Jim greatly aroused our enthusiasm for the fray by telling us he had recently seen what were undoubtedly Old Mose's footprints, and he thought it not unlikely we should succeed in getting a shot at him.

The guide conducted us in a few hours to the secluded spot he had chosen for our camp. It would be impossible to imagine a wilder and in some respects a more beautiful situation. It was near the edge of a mountain-stream, and one could hear distinctly the music of the rushing water as it flung itself over rocks and bowlders on its way down the mountain-side. An abundance of long grass furnished excellent feed for our horses, while on every hand fallen timber supplied material for our camp-fires. We all went to work with a hearty good-will to put the camp in order. Some of us helped to pitch the tents, others to carry logs and prepare for a big fire, for already the cool, crisp air of the mountains made us realize how important a part in the good cheer a rousing blaze would play. Meanwhile, our jovial cook, a colored man, began to get in order his culinary department, and it was not long before the fragrant odors of bacon and corn-bread stimulated still more our appetites which the long ride over the mountain-trail had made keen enough. Who can describe the perfect relish of that first meal in the woods? One could not fail to enjoy such a spread as was set before us, for not only was the food excellent, but the environment was so complete.

Then we lighted our pipes around the camp-fire, and plied Jim with endless questions as to when he thought we should meet Old Mose, and just where we should aim, and whether we should get any deer or elk on the morrow. Then came the big yarns which regaled our ears from our host down, until my tenderfoot brother from the effete East was wild with excitement. Long before our big camp-fire had died down, some of us began to crawl into our tents, for the order had gone forth that at break of day we must get our coffee and bacon and set out for game. We had no doubt at all from all we could hear that we should find deer and elk, but of course, our piece de resistance was the bear. Jim did not disguise from us his opinion that it might be a week or more before we could capture a grizzly.

His plan of campaign was this: first of all he would kill an elk, or let our host, Mr. Ivinson, who was to accompany him, kill it. Then, having secured the quarters for meat and the head and horns for glory, they would let the carcass lie where it fell to attract the bear. In two or three days the bear would begin to realize that some meat was waiting for them, and the dead elk would be the rendezvous for the hunters. Meanwhile he reminded us that there were several inviting patches of wild cherries, of which the bear are very fond, and if we approached these warily there was a prospect of getting a shot. Finally, failing in these two methods, there was left, as a last resort, the traps. Four of these were to be set in different directions remote from each other. Secured to the trunk of a tree about six feet from the ground, a chunk of elk meat was to be tied. At the foot of the tree the trap was to be set, and leaves and twigs so strewn over it that Mr. Bruin should never suspect its presence. Lest he might not find the fragrant morsel hanging just beyond his reach, it was arranged that pieces of elk-meat at the end of ropes tied to the horns of our saddles should be dragged circuitously through the woods, bringing up the trail in each case to the tree where the trap was set and the bait hung. Moreover, here and there on these trails a small piece of elk meat was to be dropped, so as to encourage Mr. Bruin in his nightly excursions. When some one suggested that trapping was hardly sportsmanlike, Jim remarked:

"But, Mr. Ivinson, the bear are very scarce these days, and you say this is the bishop's hunt, and he must have a bear. Then let us take no chances."

Early the next morning we started out to see what we could find. My brother's cup of joy was filled to overflowing by the great good luck of being the first to bring down a magnificent buck with fine antlers, which now adorn his study. The venison thus secured was a grateful change from bacon, and our cook knew just how to prepare it. True to his prophecy, that day Jim led Mr. Ivinson into a herd of elk, and our host killed an enormous bull, whose horns measured five feet across, and whose colossal bulk furnished enough meat for both camp and bear-traps for days to come. That night we were all very happy. Several of us had seen both deer and elk, and had had the satisfaction of at least trying to bring one down. Then our good host, who most deserved it, had laid low a great bull, and secured his head; and last, but not least, the tenderfoot parson had ceased to be a tenderfoot, and won his spurs by dropping the first buck.

While the elk meat was ripening we put in the next day hunting for big game. My brother and I surprised a large black bear in a choke-cherry patch, but he saw us first, and disappeared in the bushes. Though we could track him for some distance through the quaking-asps, we never overtook him. The exhilaration of the chase reminded us of the school-boy debate: "Resolved, that there is more pleasure in the anticipation than in the realization." But neither of us was quite ready to vote in the affirmative of that proposition.

It was the custom of the hunting-party to divide into three groups of two each. Generally our host took Jim with him, and, as a result, brought down some game almost every day, and kept the camp supplied. It must be admitted that Mr. Ivinson was the best shot among us, and therefore his success was by no means entirely due to the presence of the guide, though occasionally Jim would be assigned to some one else, and that lucky man was pretty sure to come home victorious.

Near the close of the first week one of our party, Judge Gramm, killed a large black bear near the spot where my brother and I had seen and chased one. Probably it was the same bear.

During the next week Mr. Ivinson had the good fortune to shoot a big cinnamon bear. Meanwhile, we were killing deer and elk in abundance. But as the game began to be more scarce and hard to find, we concluded to move and pitch camp a few miles farther in the forest. There again we set and bated our traps, which had thus far caught us nothing. We had only secured two bear, and felt determined to get more. After the traps were set we agreed that all of the four should be visited before breakfast each morning. It happened that one day it fell to my lot to visit with Mr. Grow a trap set deep down in a thickly wooded canon. It was fully two and a half miles from the camp. As we drew near we heard a thunderous roar, the unmistakable growl and muttering of a wild beast infuriated. We knew we had caught a bear, and that he was maddened by his captivity. He had been caught by a hind foot as he was jumping for the elk-meat, and the trap was chained to a movable log. This was in order to prevent him from tearing his foot off and escaping. A dead pull was thus avoided, and he could haul the log some distance until it caught on some obstruction, when by retracing his steps he could carry it in another direction. When we first caught sight of him he was quite a distance away and moving over a considerable space of ground. My companion warned me to be cautious and not get too near. It had been agreed that I should do the shooting, and the first shot proved sufficient. He was a very large, silver-tipped grizzly, and his skin, with several others, has been one of my trophies ever since.

It is astonishing how rapidly time passes under the spell of such intoxicating sport. Before we realized it three weeks of our four had gone. We had been fairly successful, and had had a royal time. One day about noon my brother and I were seated on a bowlder in the midst of a beautiful stream eating our luncheon. We had just about finished, and were lighting our pipes, when at our feet we suddenly saw any number of fine mountain-trout. They did not seem to be afraid of us, and some of them were unusually large, measuring a foot or more. My brother, who had never caught a trout, was greatly excited.

"Oh," said he, "what a shame we made that foolish contract not to catch any fish. What would I not give to land some of these speckled beauties!"

Then it occurred to me that in an old pocket-book, which I always carried with me, I might find a hook. I hastily examined it, and lo! there were two hooks and one line, but no flies. But the banks of the stream were alive with grasshoppers, and it was not long before we had rigged up two willow poles. In less than an hour we had landed two long strings of as splendid specimens of trout as were ever caught. Thus far our consciences had not greatly disturbed our peace of mind. But when we had caught so many that it seemed positively wrong to take out any more, my brother said:

"Now what shall we do with them?"

"Do with them!" I replied. "I am going to take them into camp and have a mess for supper."

"Well," said my brother, "you are the bishop of this flock, and they cannot be very severe with you for this one offence. But what will Mr. Ivinson say?"

"My opinion is," I answered, "that Mr. Ivinson is just about as tired of wild meat as the rest of us. I'll risk all the consequences."

I shall never forget the moment when we rode into camp, each of us holding up as heavy a string of trout as we could comfortably display. There was, of course, for the sake of consistency, a little protest and some surprise expressed by our host that his bishop should be the first to violate the agreement. But I soon secured my old friend's gracious absolution, and I observed that no one relished more than he the delicious fish we had for supper.

Now comes a curious and interesting revelation. When once our companions had tasted trout, and realized that we were in a fisherman's paradise, nothing could restrain them, and whereas no one was supposed to have brought any fishing-tackle, the fact was soon made manifest that every member of the party, save the two unsophisticated parsons, had come with rod and line and full equipment for fishing! The next morning we let our guide rest, and the camp was turned into a fishing-party. Never in my life have I seen such an abundance of trout. We all concluded that we were the first fishermen that ever invaded that virgin forest and cast a line in that part of the Snake River.

My official duties made it necessary to say goodbye to my friends a few days before the camp broke up, and, accompanied by my brother, to ride back to Laramie. We again made the hundred and twenty-five miles and more in two days, for we had a pair of tough and hardy little broncos. The only incident of our homeward journey worth recording was our experience at a road-station called "Damn-fino." Here we were served with a mysterious, nondescript sort of hash which was curiously suggestive of the name of the place. We were so hungry that we ate the weird concoction without asking any questions, though with a terrible suspicion which was subsequently more than justified. About half an hour after dinner an unmistakable odor almost drove us from the place. We asked a little boy, a member of the family, why they did not get rid of such unpleasant neighbors.

"Do you mean them skunks?" queried the lad. "Oh, we couldn't get along without them there. We feed 'em to the fool tenderfoot tourists what don't know the difference 'tween a wood-pussy and a sage-chicken."

My brother rushed from the room, and cannot even yet speak of the episode without emotion.

We reached Laramie about eight o'clock on the evening of the second day. My family were in Kansas City, but two young clergymen were sleeping in our house and looking after the premises. When we tried the front door we found ourselves locked out. This was not surprising, as no one was expecting us for several days. I remembered that one of the front-door keys had been left with a neighbor, so I stepped across the street and got it. Entering the house, we went straight to the dining-room, and, turning on the electric lights, proceeded to search the pantry and cellar for something to cat and drink, for we were very hungry. We did not stop to make any change in our apparel, but sat right down just as we were to enjoy the luxury of the first meal at home after a month in the woods.

It so happened that within the last few days Laramie had been terrorized by burglars. They had entered a number of houses, and their depredations were creating wide-spread apprehension. When the two young clergymen, returning from a call, drew near the episcopal residence, and saw the lights, they went quietly to the dining-room windows and looked in. There they beheld two rough-looking men, whose appearance thoroughly confirmed their suspicions. Our beards of a month's growth and our hunting-clothes made us entirely unrecognizable. Immediately one of the young men hastened down to the police station while the other kept watch. In a few moments the house was surrounded by armed men. At a given signal one of the clergymen rattled the front door, believing the burglars had entered through the kitchen and would be peppered with shot as they tried to escape by that way. They were surprised to hear hilarious voices within, and, on making a second attempt to frighten the burglars, to recognize my own voice as I cried: "Who's there? Come in."

Even when the parsons saw us face to face they declared that nothing but our voices could have saved us, so completely had we been transformed in appearance by our month in the woods. The next day as we went down street to be photographed, our best friends passed us without any sign of recognition or suspicion as to our identity.

I may add in closing that we never captured Old Mose, and I suppose we ought to congratulate ourselves that Old Mose did not capture us.

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