A Dakota Boyhood

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These were legitimate hunters and trappers, but there was the other kind —the pot hunters. They were hated by both the settlers and the cowboys. They hunted on the prairie with doubleboxed lumber wagons. Six or eight men walked in front of the wagons with dogs to flush the prairie chickens, which they shot by the hundreds. Within half a day the wagons were filled, the hunters having moved only five or six miles. It was a daily occurrence as they went from one locality to another.

As time passed there were more sod cabins and wood shanties put up here and there to hold claims. The most unsuccessful of these claims were tree claims. Thousands of trees were set out only to have their bark stripped and eaten during the winter by the animals.

It may have been because there were no trees that the grass was so luxuriant. The blue joint grass in particular grew so tall in late summer that it was over my head. When I went to higher ground and looked across the prairie, the view was beautiful. The wind on the grass produced billowing waves that looked like a green-blue sea; that, combined with the wonderful clouds, made an unforgettable picture.

DIAMOND DICK

I liked, always, to investigate the lake beds, and once while riding around the edge of one looking for wild ducks, muskrats, or anything interesting, I was startled by the unusual appearance of a young man who came galloping toward me. He was riding a wonderfullooking horse, but what astonished me was that he actually glittered as he rode. His saddle and bridle were decorated with silver and gold; his black velvet clothing was embroidered with intricate designs in gold; and to top it all, he had an embroidered sombrero on his head covering his shoulderlength hair, and he carried a beautiful rifle. The bright sunlight on his gold trimmings made him more dazzling than any person I had ever seen.

I suppose the glittering young man was also surprised to meet a small boy alone on the prairie. When he came up, he said: “Hulloa—what are you doing out here? Anyway, I am glad to see you. There are some ducks on the water over there and I want to get one. Would you mind holding my horse?” I looked at his gun and said: “It won’t be much good if you shoot it with that rifle.” He replied: “Oh yes, it will—if I can see it, I’ll only knock its head off.” After a good deal of maneuvering so as not to get his beautiful highheeled boots wet, he got near enough to shoot. Many ducks flew. Then he said: “Now, let me hold the ponies, and get me the duck.” I kicked off my moccasins and waded in, expecting to see a badly mutilated duck; but on the contrary, I found two shot through the head. He had got two in line and knocked both heads off with one shot. I hadn’t seen that trick before and thought it was wonderful. He didn’t seem to think that his shooting was extraordinary, but he was pleased. He put the ducks into his saddlebags, said “Thanks,” and held out his hand to shake mine. I felt something in my hand as he turned, and I let it drop. “Pick it up,” he said, “and now you can say that you shook the hand of Diamond Dick.” He jumped on his horse and galloped away before I could return the coin. It turned out to be a ten-dollar gold piece. Diamond Dick was certainly picturesque; he became a famous wild west showman.

Seeing Diamond Dick’s gun made me want one like it, but my mother thought that at the age of nine I was too young to have one so dangerous. She didn’t know I already had an old musket hidden away. Whenever I did manage to get a discarded gun, it was so old and powerful that when I fired it, it nearly knocked me over. I was very careful of a fairly good one that I got and managed to smuggle it into the house and put it under my mattress, because I wanted it near at hand. But one night, before I could remove the rifle, a visitor was given my room and the gun under the mattress made a very poor, if deep, impression. The guest thought there was something wrong and on investigation found the object. So I lost my rifle.

Uncle Gene had given me very strict instructions on how to handle a gun, and I have always been very thankful to him. He said: “When not in use, a gun should be pointed down to the earth or straight up in the air.”

A BULLFIGHT

There were many things to fear on that primitive plain—wolves, snakes, and cyclones—but my greatest fear was of a vicious bull in a herd belonging to a Bohemian family about two miles from where we lived. I had to pass near their place on my way to my Uncle Gene’s house. The bull was so ferocious that they had attached a board to his horns. It hung down below his eyes so that he couldn’t see directly toward the front. That helped, but he was clever enough to turn his head so that he could see with one eye, or toss his head and flip up the board.

I would skirt the rises whenever I saw a herd of cattle on that range, and I never dared walk in that direction. I always rode my pony. On one or two occasions the bull chased after the pony and me, but we were usually so far away when he spied us that we were able to outdistance him.

The Bohemians’ house was really just a cellar. The walls were of stone and extended about two feet above the ground. On these walls there was a gable roof, rather steep, with windows under the eaves.