An hour before daybreak one Christmas morning in the Cherokee Strip, six hundred horses were under saddle awaiting the dawn. It was a clear, frosty morning that bespoke an equally clear day for the wolf rodeo. Every cow-camp within striking distance of the Walnut Grove, on the Salt Fork of the Cimarron, was a scene of activity, taxing to the utmost its hospitality to man and horse. There had been a hearty response to the invitation to attend the circle drive-hunt of this well-known shelter of several bands of gray wolves. The cowmen had suffered so severely in time past from this enemy of cattle that the Cherokee Strip Cattle Association had that year offered a bounty of twenty dollars for wolf scalps.
The lay of the land was extremely favorable. The Walnut Grove was a thickety covert on the north first bottom of the Cimarron, and possibly two miles wide by three long. Across the river, and extending several miles above and below this grove, was the salt plain--an alkali desert which no wild animal, ruminant or carnivorous, would attempt to cross, instinct having warned it of its danger. At the termination of the grove proper, down the river or to the eastward, was a sand dune bottom of several miles, covered by wild plum brush, terminating in a perfect horseshoe a thousand acres in extent, the entrance of which was about a mile wide. After passing the grove, this plum-brush country could be covered by men on horseback, though the chaparral undergrowth of the grove made the use of horses impracticable. The Cimarron River, which surrounds this horseshoe on all sides but the entrance, was probably two hundred yards wide at an average winter stage, deep enough to swim a horse, and cold and rolling.
Across the river, opposite this horseshoe, was a cut-bank twenty feet high in places, with only an occasional cattle trail leading down to the water. This cut-bank formed the second bottom on that side, and the alkaline plain--the first bottom--ended a mile or more up the river. It was an ideal situation for a drive-hunt, and legend, corroborated by evidences, said that the Cherokees, when they used this outlet as a hunting-ground after their enforced emigration from Georgia, had held numerous circle hunts over the same ground after buffalo, deer, and elk.
The rendezvous was to be at ten o'clock on Encampment Butte, a plateau overlooking the entire hunting-field and visible for miles. An hour before the appointed time the clans began to gather. All the camps within twenty-five miles, and which were entertaining participants of the hunt, put in a prompt appearance. Word was received early that morning that a contingent from the Eagle Chief would be there, and begged that the start be delayed till their arrival. A number of old cowmen were present, and to them was delegated the duty of appointing the officers of the day. Bill Miller, a foreman on the Coldwater Pool, an adjoining range, was appointed as first captain. There were also several captains over divisions, and an acting captain placed over every ten men, who would be held accountable for any disorder allowed along the line under his special charge.
The question of forbidding the promiscuous carrying of firearms met with decided opposition. There was an element of danger, it was true, but to deprive any of the boys of arms on what promised an exciting day's sport was contrary to their creed and occupation; besides, their judicious use would be an essential and valuable assistance. To deny one the right and permit another, would have been to divide their forces against a common enemy; so in the interests of harmony it was finally concluded to assign an acting captain over every ten men. "I'll be perfectly responsible for any of my men," said Reese, a red-headed Welsh cowman from over on Black Bear. "Let's just turn our wild selves loose, and those wolves won't stand any more show than a coon in a bear dance."
"It would be fine satisfaction to be shot by a responsible man like you or any of your outfit," replied Hollycott, superintendent of the "LX." "I hope another Christmas Day to help eat a plum pudding on the banks of the Dee, and I don't want to be carrying any of your stray lead in my carcass either. Did you hear me?"
"Yes; we're going to have egg-nog at our camp to-night. Come down."
The boys were being told off in squads of ten, when a suppressed shout of welcome arose, as a cavalcade of horsemen was sighted coming over the divide several miles distant. Before the men were allotted and their captains appointed, the last expected squad had arrived, their horses frosty and sweaty. They were all well known west end Strippers, numbering fifty-four men and having ridden from the Eagle Chief, thirty-five miles, starting two hours before daybreak.
With the arrival of this detachment, Miller gave his orders for the day. Tom Cave was given two hundred men and sent to the upper end of the grove, where they were to dismount, form in a half circle skirmish-line covering the width of the thicket, and commence the drive down the river. Their saddle horses were to be cut into two bunches and driven down on either side of the grove, and to be in readiness for the men when they emerged from the chaparral, four of the oldest men being detailed as horse wranglers. Reese was sent with a hundred and fifty men to left flank the grove, deploying his men as far back as the second bottom, and close his line as the drive moved forward. Billy Edwards was sent with twenty picked men down the river five miles to the old beef ford at the ripples. His instructions were to cross and scatter his men from the ending of the salt plain to the horseshoe, and to concentrate them around it at the termination of the drive. He was allowed the best ropers and a number of shotguns, to be stationed at the cattle trails leading down to the water at the river's bend. The remainder, about two hundred and fifty men under Lynch, formed a long scattering line from the left entrance of the horseshoe, extending back until it met the advancing line of Reese's pickets.
With the river on one side and this cordon of foot and horsemen on the other, it seemed that nothing could possibly escape. The location of the quarry was almost assured. This chaparral had been the breeding refuge of wolves ever since the Cimarron was a cattle country. Every rider on that range for the past ten years knew it to be the rendezvous of El Lobo, while the ravages of his nightly raids were in evidence for forty miles in every direction. It was a common sight, early in the morning during the winter months, to see twenty and upward in a band, leisurely returning to their retreat, logy and insolent after a night's raid. To make doubly sure that they would be at home to callers, the promoters of this drive gathered a number of worthless lump-jawed cattle two days in advance, and driving them to the edge of the grove, shot one occasionally along its borders, thus, to be hoped, spreading the last feast of the wolves.
* * * * *
By half past ten, Encampment Butte was deserted with the exception of a few old cowmen, two ladies, wife and sister of a popular cowman, and the captain, who from this point of vantage surveyed the field with a glass. Usually a languid and indifferent man, Miller had so set his heart on making this drive a success that this morning he appeared alert and aggressive as he rode forward and back across the plateau of the Butte. The dull, heavy reports of several shotguns caused him to wheel his horse and cover the beef ford with his glass, and a moment later Edwards and his squad were seen with the naked eye to scale the bank and strike up the river at a gallop. It was known that the ford was saddle-skirt deep, and some few of the men were strangers to it; but with that passed safely he felt easier, though his blood coursed quicker. It lacked but a few minutes to eleven, and Cave and his detachment of beaters were due to move on the stroke of the hour. They had been given one hundred rounds of six-shooter ammunition to the man and were expected to use it. Edwards and his cavalcade were approaching the horseshoe, the cordon seemed perfect, though scattering, when the first faint sound of the beaters was heard, and the next moment the barking of two hundred six-shooters was reechoing up and down the valley of the Salt Fork.
The drive-hunt was on; the long yell passed from the upper end of the grove to the mouth of the horseshoe and back, punctuated with an occasional shot by irrepressibles. The mounts of the day were the pick of over five thousand cow-horses, and corn-fed for winter use, in the pink of condition and as impatient for the coming fray as their riders.
Everything was moving like clockwork. Miller forsook the Butte and rode to the upper end of the grove; the beaters were making slow but steady progress, while the saddled loose horses would be at hand for their riders without any loss of time. Before the beaters were one third over the ground, a buck and doe came out about halfway down the grove, sighted the horsemen, and turned back for shelter. Once more the long yell went down the line. Game had been sighted. When about one half the grove had been beat, a flock of wild turkeys came out at the lower end, and taking flight, sailed over the line. Pandemonium broke out. Good resolutions of an hour's existence were converted into paving material in the excitement of the moment, as every carbine or six-shooter in or out of range rained its leaden hail at the flying covey. One fine bird was accidentally winged, and half a dozen men broke from the line to run it down, one of whom was Reese himself. The line was not dangerously broken nor did harm result, and on their return Miller was present and addressed this query to Reese: "Who is the captain of this flank line?"
"He'll weigh twenty pounds," said Reese, ignoring the question and holding the gobbler up for inspection.
"If you were a vealy tow-headed kid, I'd have something to say to you, but you're old enough to be my father, and that silences me. But try and remember that this is a wolf hunt, and that there are enough wolves in that brush this minute to kill ten thousand dollars' worth of cattle this winter and spring, and some of them will be your own. That turkey might eat a few grasshoppers, but you're cowman enough to know that a wolf just loves to kill a cow while she's calving."
This lecture was interrupted by a long cheer coming up the line from below, and Miller galloped away to ascertain its cause. He met Lynch coming up, who reported that several wolves had been sighted, while at the lower end of the line some of the boys had been trying their guns up and down the river to see how far they would carry. What caused the recent shouting was only a few fool cowboys spurting their horses in short races. He further expressed the opinion that the line would hold, and at the close with the cordon thickened, everything would be forced into the pocket. Miller rode back down the line with him until he met a man from his own camp, and the two changing horses, he hurried back to oversee personally the mounting of the beaters when the grove had been passed.
Reese, after the captain's reproof, turned his trophy over to some of the men, and was bringing his line down and closing up with the forward movement of the drive. On Miller's return, no fault could be found, as the line was condensed to about a mile in length, while the beaters on the points were just beginning to emerge from the chaparral and anxious for their horses. Once clear of the grove, the beaters halted, maintaining their line, while from either end the horse wranglers were distributing to them their mounts. Again secure in their saddles, the long yell circled through the plum thickets and reechoed down the line, and the drive moved forward at a quicker pace. "If you have any doubts about hell," said Cave to Miller, as the latter rode by, "just take a little pasear through that thicket once and you'll come out a defender of the faith."
The buck and doe came out within sight of the line once more, lower down opposite the sand dunes, and again turned back, and a half hour later all ears were strained listening to the rapid shooting from the farther bank of the river. Rebuffed in their several attempts to force the line, they had taken to the water and were swimming the river. From several sand dunes their landing on the opposite bank near the ending of the salt plain could be distinctly seen. As they came out of the river, half a dozen six-shooters were paying them a salute in lead; but the excitability of the horses made aim uncertain, and they rounded the cut-bank at the upper end and escaped.
While the deer were making their escape, a band of antelope were sighted sunning themselves amongst the sand dunes a mile below; attracted by the shooting, they were standing at attention. Now when an antelope scents danger, he has an unreasonable and unexplainable desire to reach high ground, where he can observe and be observed--at a distance. Once this conclusion has been reached, he allows nothing to stop him, not even recently built wire fences or man himself, and like the cat despises water except for drinking purposes. So when this band of antelope decided to adjourn their siesta from the warm, sunny slope of a sand dune, they made an effort and did break the cordon, but not without a protest.
As they came out of the sand dunes, heading straight for the line, all semblance of control was lost in the men. Nothing daunted by the yelling that greeted the antelope, once they came within range fifty men were shooting at them without bringing one to grass. With guns empty they loosened their ropes and met them. A dozen men made casts, and Juan Mesa, a Mexican from the Eagle Chief, lassoed a fine buck, while "Pard" Sevenoaks, from the J+H, fastened to the smallest one in the band. He was so disgusted with his catch that he dismounted, ear-marked the kid, and let it go. Mesa had made his cast with so large a loop that one fore leg of the antelope had gone through, and it was struggling so desperately that he was compelled to tie the rope in a hard knot to the pommel of his saddle. His horse was a wheeler on the rope, so Juan dismounted to pet his buck. While he held on to the rope assisting his horse, an Eagle Chief man slipped up and cut the rope through the knot, and the next moment a Mexican was burning the grass, calling on saints and others to come and help him turn the antelope loose. When the rope had burned its way through his gloved hands, he looked at them in astonishment, saying, "That was one bravo buck. How come thees rope untie?" But there was none to explain, and an antelope was dragging thirty-five feet of rope in a frantic endeavor to overtake his band.
The line had been closing gradually until at this juncture it had been condensed to about five miles, or a horseman to every fifty feet. Wolves had been sighted numerous times running from covert to covert, but few had shown themselves to the flank line, being contented with such shelter as the scraggy plum brush afforded. Whenever the beaters would rout or sight a wolf, the yelling would continue up and down the line for several minutes. Cave and his well-formed circle of beaters were making good time; Reese on the left flank was closing and moving forward, while the line under Lynch was as impatient as it was hilarious. Miller made the circle every half hour or so; and had only to mention it to pick any horse he wanted from the entire line for a change.
By one o'clock the drive had closed to the entrance of the pocket, and within a mile and a half of the termination. There was yet enough cover to hide the quarry, though the extreme point of this horseshoe was a sand bar with no shelter except driftwood trees. Edwards and his squad were at their post across the river, in plain view of the advancing line. Suddenly they were seen to dismount and lie down on the brink of the cut-bank. A few minutes later chaos broke out along the line, when a band of possibly twenty wolves left their cover and appeared on the sand bar. A few rifle shots rang out from the opposite bank, when they skurried back to cover.
Shooting was now becoming dangerous. In the line was a horseman every ten or twelve feet. All the captains rode up and down begging the men to cease shooting entirely. This only had a temporary effect, for shortly the last bit of cover was passed, and there within four hundred yards on the bar was a snarling, snapping band of gray wolves.
The line was halted. The unlooked-for question now arose how to make the kill safe and effective. It would be impossible to shoot from the opposite bank without endangering the line of men and horses. Finally a small number of rifles were advanced on the extreme left flank to within two hundred yards of the quarry, where they opened fire at an angle from the watchers on the opposite bank. They proved poor marksmen, overshooting, and only succeeded in wounding a few and forcing several to take to the water, so that it became necessary to recall the men to the line.
These men were now ordered to dismount and lie down, as the opposite side would take a hand when the swimming wolves came within range of shotguns and carbines, to say nothing of six-shooters. The current carried the swimming ones down the river, but every man was in readiness to give them a welcome. The fusillade which greeted them was like a skirmish-line in action, but the most effective execution was with buckshot as they came staggering and water-soaked out of the water. Before the shooting across the river had ceased, a yell of alarm surged through the line, and the next moment every man was climbing into his saddle and bringing his arms into position for action. No earthly power could have controlled the men, for coming at the line less than two hundred yards distant was the corralled band of wolves under the leadership of a monster dog wolf, evidently a leader of some band, and every gun within range opened on them. By the time they had lessened the intervening distance by one half, the entire band deserted their leader and retreated, but unmindful of consequences he rushed forward at the line. Every gun was belching fire and lead at him, while tufts of fur floating in the air told that several shots were effective. Wounded he met the horsemen, striking right and left in splendid savage ferocity. The horses snorted and shrank from him, and several suffered from his ugly thrusts. An occasional effective shot was placed, but every time he forced his way through the cordon he was confronted by a second line. A successful cast of a rope finally checked his course; and as the roper wheeled his mount to drag him to death, he made his last final rush at the horse, and, springing at the flank, fastened his fangs into a stirrup fender, when a well-directed shot by the roper silenced him safely at last.
During the excitement, there were enough cool heads to maintain the line, so that none escaped. The supreme question now was to make the kill with safety, and the line was ransacked for volunteers who could shoot a rifle with some little accuracy. About a dozen were secured, who again advanced on the extreme right flank to within a hundred and fifty yards, and dismounting, flattened themselves out and opened on the skurrying wolves. It was afterward attributed to the glaring of the sun on the white sand, which made their marksmanship so shamefully poor, but results were very unsatisfactory. They were recalled, and it was decided to send in four shotguns and try the effect of buckshot from horseback. This move was disastrous, though final.
They were ordinary double-barreled shotguns, and reloading was slow in an emergency. Many of the wolves were wounded and had sought such cover as the driftwood afforded. The experiment had barely begun, when a wounded wolf sprang out from behind an old root, and fastened upon the neck of one of the horses before the rider could defend himself, and the next moment horse and rider were floundering on the ground. To a man, the line broke to the rescue, while the horses of the two lady spectators were carried into the melee in the excitement. The dogs of war were loosed. Hell popped. The smoke of six hundred guns arose in clouds. There were wolves swimming the river and wolves trotting around amongst the horses, wounded and bewildered. Ropes swished through the smoke, tying wounded wolves to be dragged to death or trampled under hoof. Men dismounted and clubbed them with shotguns and carbines,--anything to administer death. Horses were powder-burnt and cried with fear, or neighed exultingly. There was an old man or two who had sense enough to secure the horses of the ladies and lead them out of immediate danger. Several wolves made their escape, and squads of horsemen were burying cruel rowels in heaving flanks in an endeavor to overtake and either rope or shoot the fleeing animals.
Disordered things as well as ordered ones have an end, and when sanity returned to the mob an inventory was taken of the drive-hunt. By actual count, the lifeless carcases of twenty-six wolves graced the sand bar, with several precincts to hear from. The promoters of the hunt thanked the men for their assistance, assuring them that the bounty money would be used to perfect arrangements, so that in other years a banquet would crown future hunts. Before the hunt dispersed, Edwards and his squad returned to the brink of the cut-bank, and when hailed as to results, he replied, "Why, we only got seven, but they are all muy docil. We're going to peel them and will meet you at the ford."
"Who gets the turkey?" some one asked.
"The question is out of order," replied Reese. "The property is not present, because I sent him home by my cook an hour ago. If any of you have any interest in that gobbler, I'll invite you to go home with me and help to eat him, for my camp is the only one in the Strip that will have turkey and egg-nog to-night."