THE MOVE ON TO THE PRAIRIE
Our shanty.--Baking bread.--A wild cat.--A revolver accident.--Our shanty is built on the wrong land.--Moving.--The house built.--The furniture.--Breaking prairie.--Parker's cellar.--Planting beans.--Skunks.--A dark night.--Animals, insects, and reptiles.--Duck keeping.--Jack's geese.--My Pig
ON the I8th of February, I871, having hired a couple of waggons, we moved up on the prairie with all our luggage, and boards to build our house with. On arriving at our destination, seven miles from town, the large boxes were piled up, and the boards laid slanting from the top to the ground for a roof, and thus we made a very comfortable shanty. It was certainly none too large, though, for six of us (Humphrey having rejoined us at Junction), and it was so low that no one could stand upright in it at the highest part. However, with the exception of the cook, we did
not spend much time indoors-there was no door, though. We had an iron stove for cooking in one corner, with the flue running through the top, which once set fire to the building; but as we had plenty of water handy we were able to extinguish it before it did much damage. We were very well off for provisions, having a good supply of bacon, biscuits, eggs, cheese, coffee, sugar, flour, rice, etc. The cook, Harry Parker, made his first attempt at bread-baking before we had been here many days, but was not over successful. The bread was baked in a great iron pan, and was as hard as a well-done brick, and about as digestible. The outside could not be cut with a knife, we were obliged to use a hatchet to make any impression. However, a few more trials soon improved the baking. For fuel we had to go about a mile down a little creek "~ jay-hawking." There were some small trees growing which we chopped down and dragged up to the shanty on wheelbarrows, not having any horses as yet. On one of these excursions Walter Woods shot a wild cat, and was fortunate in getting away without injury, as it
attacks man when provoked. An old settler, who saw the brute afterwards, said that he would not like to tackle one with a gun only; he would want a good knife or an axe to finish him with. But Walter saw some animal's eyes glaring at him from some bushes, and blazed away, shooting the creature dead. It was then brought home in triumph on the barrow, and after being duly admired was skinned and buried. It was a good-sized animal, about twice the size of a large domestic cat, or larger Its fur was very nice and thick, and made a couple of good caps.
While living in this mansion we had our first sight of a prairie fire, but as it was on high ground, where the grass was not rank, and there was very little wind, it was not particularly fierce. While living here we almost had an accident. We had amongst our collection an old pepper-box revolver, a stupid thing, with six barrels the full length of the machine, and not six chambers and one long barrel as usual. Well, this old thing was loaded, and some of the party, who had been practising shooting at a shingle target, were standing about trying
to make the pepper-box go off, but it would not. They snapped and snapped, but without effect, until presently I took it up and pulled the trigger; it hung there for an instant, and then gave such a kick as to almost knock me over, and the bullets went flying just over the heads of my friends. All six chambers went off at once for some inscrutable reason, but fortunately no one was hurt.
The country around had all been surveyed by Government previous to our settling, and divided into square miles,-sections, they are called,-marked with a stone set in the ground. They may then be cut up easily into the required lots-viz., eighty acres for an ordinary settler, and one hundred and sixty X for any man who has been a soldier in the Federal Army. When we began to look around us, we found that our goods were all dropped upon land belonging to Parker instead of to my father, and as the house was to be built upon land belonging to the latter, all the boards, etc., had to be moved about half a mile upon the wheelbarrows. As we had a stream to cross on the way it was no easy task, but with one to push the barrow
and another in front with a rope, we managed very well, getting stuck; in the mud a few times, though, when it took all the available hands to pull the vehicle out.
We had been, up to this time, favoured with remarkably mild weather; in fact, it was so warm, that on the Eighth of February, the day following our arrival on the prairie, we went and bathed in a stream a little way from the shanty. In after years I never saw it warm enough to do that with any comfort before May, and I verily believe that had we had. such weather as we experienced in following winters, that we should have all been frozen to death in our shanty. Of course we had a few cold snaps. For instance, after the house was completed, with the exception of the roof and we had moved in, we awoke one morning with eighteen inches of snow on the top of our blankets, but there was no very hard frost with it.
It may seem rather a funny thing to do, to go into a house before the roof is on; but you see, as we built the house we robbed the boards which formed the top of the box shanty, so that we were bound to sleep without a roof in any case.
We did all the work ourselves, having a carpenter's bench and plenty of tools, and made quite a comfortable little house. Certainly it was not very large, having only one room, fourteen feet by twelve, with an attic above, but it was large enough, especially in cold weather, and in hot weather we lived out of doors mostly. The attic was reached by a series of holes cut in the wall for hands and feet, which led to a trap-door in the ceiling, so that no room was lost by having a flight of stairs.
For a table we used the carpenter's bench, and for beds we had the large boxes ranged round the room, which also, when the blankets were rolled up, served us as seats.
Almost in the centre of the room stood the cooking stove with an iron pipe through the end of the house, so that with a row of drawers and shelves for the crockery, our room was pretty full of furniture. After the house was completed we had to set to work to improve the land in all ways, and horses and oxen were bought to plough with. Our first purchase was a yoke of oxen
They were not long from Texas, and not more than half broken in, and were a funny couple. To begin with, they did not at all match in colour, nor were they much alike in other respects. We called them "Broad" and "Pretty"-queer names for oxen you will say. Broad was about as fat as a slate and Pretty-well, he was not named according to his looks anyhow, nor was his temper of the best description. He was a most vicious and obstinate old brute. Broad was a decent old chap, but awfully lazy, and would let us ride on his back, being too lazy to trouble about the matter; he could easily have fetched us off with his tremendous horns.
These animals were often a fearful bother to yoke up, as you might get one in, and dodge around with the other for half an hour before getting him under the yoke. When properly broken the oxen should walk up when called. I guess we did not improve them, for we did not know much about bullocks. I know once Walter was driving them, and when he wanted them to stop he shouted out "Whoa!" and at the same time hit them with a big stick. Whether they were
supposed to go on or to stop, would, I am sure, have puzzled wiser creatures than the oxen.
They were mostly used for ploughing, and mighty hard work it is, too, the first ploughing, or "breaking," as it is called; as of course the land that has been growing grass for centuries is one mass of roots, and the plough goes pop! pop! pop! cutting through them, sometimes coming to a dead stop at some extra thick bunch of roots. Every now and then the share has to be sharpened with a big file. It is very hard work for the animals, too, if they have much to do. For a small plough with a twelve-inch share, two oxen or three horses are generally used; but a good deal of breaking is done with a large plough of about twenty or twenty-four inch share, and from three to six yoke of oxen. Of course everybody does not own these things, and considerable business is done in breaking prairie by the acre. After we had broken a considerable piece of land the various crops were put in. These consisted principally of Indian corn, spring wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, sorghum, or sugar
cane, and a good number of different seeds in a patch of ground appropriated to garden uses. After this was all done fences had to be built to protect the crops from stray cattle and horses. Vast herds, belonging to people living miles away perhaps, wandered about at their own sweet will, and as we had very good spring water on our land it was rather a favourite pasture ground. Since that time, however, a herd law has been passed, so that no cattle are allowed to go about without a herder to keep them out of mischief during six months- viz., May to November. Fences are, therefore, no longer necessary, but still almost every one is trying to grow an osage-orange hedge. This is a prickly shrub that grows very rapidly, and bears a good deal of resemblance to an orange tree, including the fruit, though that is not edible.
We bought several head of cattle soon after settling, and as they were mostly cows with young calves, there was no difficulty in keeping them-at home; all we had to do was to fasten the calves up. The oxen and horses when not at work were picketed out on the prairie by a long rope and
a stake driven in the ground, until they were accustomed to the place. The land where we had settled was very undulating, being on the head of a creek; and to an inexperienced eye all the little valleys or ravines, as they are called, were strangely alike, being only distinguishable one from another by a few bushes, or some large stones, or perhaps a little stream. For some time, then, it was hardly advisable to go far from the house without a compass. I know on one occasion my father and I started to walk to Junction City, which lay to the north-west of us some seventeen miles, but the country being divided into sections, we thought it better to go straight west at first until we should strike a creek about six miles away, and then turn to the north, and follow it until it fell into the Smoky River. Well, we started all right, and proceeded for a few miles as we thought in a westerly direction, but as the sun was overclouded, we presently looked at the compass? and found, to our astonishment, that we were travelling as fast as we could just south-east. We altered our course at once, and after some time struck Clarke's creek,
from whence it was an easy matter to find our way to Junction. As my father had some business at the bank, he hurried forward and left me to follow. When nearing the town, while passing along the railroad track, I captured a wild duck. It was sitting still, and I threw a big stone at it and broke its wing. As I did. not then know how to wring its neck, I carried it along to the Empire Hotel, where we were to put up, and there asked the proprietor to do it for me. This he did with a vengeance, for he took the unfortunate bird by the head, and swung it round and round till the neck broke, and the body flew across the room, scattering blood and feathers in all directions. The proprietor did not seem very well pleased with the mess he had made, and kicked the dead duck out in the snow; but I could not see that it mattered much, as the floor was always pretty wet with tobacco juice.
We returned home by another route, buying some cows on the way. Soon after the house was finished Parker set to work to dig a cellar in the side of a hill near by. I don't know exactly what he in
tended to make of it, but he commenced very enthusiastically, and soon made a bit of a show. Presently, though, he struck rock, and his progress was not so fast, and it really took him several weeks off and on before he got it to look much like a cellar. By this time the sun was scorching hot, and as he was working with nothing on his back but a thin shirt, and once not even that, his back became so burned that it was a mass of blisters, and for a fortnight he could do nothing. He never finished his undertaking, and ever since, although it has half fallen in, the big hole has been known as "Parker's Cellar."
I am afraid that we boys at first looked upon life on the prairie as being all fun and adventure, and could hardly see it in its right light; hence when we got some real work to do we were apt to shirk it, as being hardly what we had expected. Quite early in the spring after we had got some land broken, we were sent to plant about a bushel of haricot beans in one part of the field. We were not to plant a piece of land of any particular size, but to keep on planting until all the beans were used up. We started all right, putting in two or
three beans every foot or so all along the furrow, but soon got tired of it, and so finding that we were using up the beans but slowly we began planting them a handful at a time. In this way we soon finished our task, but when the beans began to grow and came up a dozen times too thick, that let the cat out of the bag, and didn't we catch it hot then! We hadn't calculated on that.
Upon first settling we were greatly troubled with skunks, which used to kill our fowls and steal our eggs. Our first acquaintance was made in this way. One day there was a great commotion among the chickens, and upon my looking under a small corn-crib to see what was the cause, a skunk snapped at my nose. Fortunately for me, though, he did not reach it, so I made for the house, and called Humphrey, who came and shot him with 'his revolver Jack and I then dragged it out and skinned it, but the stench was so awful, that after having salted the pelt and nailed it to the side of the house, we could stand it no longer, and had to take it down and bury it. Those who have never seen, or rather smelled, a skunk can form no idea of the power of the perfume.
The smell is quite unique, but has a flavour of onions about it, but its pungency nothing can describe.
I have myself seen dogs after attacking one go away coughing and gasping for breath; in fact, it has to be a mighty good dog to tackle one.
One day we found a skunk in the milk-house, but were fortunately able to shoot him quite dead before he had time to guard himself with his noxious defence, otherwise I don't know what we should have done with the house.
As we had several cows, and consequently plenty of milk and butter, we had made a very nice cool house by digging out a spring and lining it with flat stones. The clear cold water ran over the floor, and a few stones we left a little higher to step on. A roof was made, and the whole covered with earth, thus making a beautifully cool place, which we should have been sorry to have had spoiled. Walter Woods once rode over a skunk in the dark on horseback, and for months the smell of the saddle was almost unbearable. The only way to get rid of the smell from clothing, etc., is to bury it; water is no good at all.
There is a little story of the skunk as follows:-Sambo (a slave) had been whipped for stealing his master's onions. One day he appeared with a skunk in his arms, "Massa," said he, "here's de chap what steal de onions! Whew! Smell him bref!"
After we had been settled a while we purchased a waggon and a team of horses, and so occasionally went to town, and also hauled wood from our land.
On one of our journeys we had a fine spill. We were returning with a big load of wood piled up on the waggon frame, and were proceeding along very quietly, when the whole thing collapsed. Humphrey and I were sitting up on the top of the load, and were suddenly deposited on the grass, much to our surprise. For a while we could not make out the cause, until we found that the linch-pin which connects the two parts of a waggon together had jumped out. Thus the horses went on with the two front wheels, and left the two hind wheels standing still, and of course down went the whole load. Fortunately we were neither of us hurt, and after a little delay we rigged the waggon up again and proceeded on our journey.
One stormy, wet night during the early spring my father and Humphrey were very late returning from town in the waggon, and got lost. It was so dreadfully dark that Walter, who had gone out to look for a cow, had got lost too, and as Harry Parker was away somewhere, we two boys were left alone in the house. Well, we got our supper ready, and waited about for some few hours after dark,-and it was pitch dark, too,-and then, feeling rather anxious, we lighted a lantern, and took it to the top of the hill behind the house.
We then shouted as loud as we could, and waved our lamp in the hope that it might guide some of our friends home should they be in sight, but we heard no reply. Unfortunately, almost as we got to the top of the hill, our lamp blew out, though we heard afterwards that those in the waggon had just seen a glimmer of it. We were then in a little danger of losing ourselves, it was so terribly dark; but knowing the lay of the land very well, and being on our bare feet, we managed to keep our track all right. As we could do nothing else, we turned into bed after shouting a bit more, and in another couple of hours all our friends turned up.
It appeared that my father came to the conclusion that they were not going right, and declared to Humphrey, who was driving, that they were going round and round. This Humphrey indignantly denied, so to prove it, my father got out and stood still in the dark, while Humphrey described a complete circle, and declared that he had been going straight all the time.
After this conclusive evidence they unhitched the horses from the waggon, and getting on their backs allowed them to go as they chose, and were brought straight home.
On the way they stumbled over Walter, who had laid down on the wet grass under an umbrella to pass the night, within a few hundred yards of the house. In the morning they went to look for the waggon, and found it all safe, and could see by the tracks that they had described several circles. I believe that this will happen to any one walking in absolute darkness or with eyes shut.
We used to come across some queer things sometimes when we boys were wandering about. One day Jack and I found a great
turtle, about two feet across, in a pond, but we did not know what to do with him, till presently a neighbour,-for we had some after a while,-who had to come down to haul water from our spring, came along, and he soon fetched him out and took him home to make soup.
Once when we were at work hoeing the Indian corn, our dog began making a great noise, and upon our going to see what was the matter, we found him very busy with a big badger, although not daring to attack it, as it was a large animal, and displayed a good set of teeth. After ho]ding a council of war we set to ourselves, and the dog and I engaged his attention in front with divers false attacks, I brandishing a hoe very defiantly.
This gave Tack an opportunity to make a detour, and attack in the rear. On the way he procured a big fence rail, and getting in position, he brought it down with all his strength on the brute, and as he-perhaps more forcibly than elegantly-expressed it, "knocked the stuffing out of him."
Tortoises were very common. I had one for a pet, and made him quite tame, so that I
could open his mouth and put my finger inside without him biting. I used to amuse myself by getting him to draw a little sledge that I made. I bored two small holes in the shell at the back and put in some wire loops, and hitched him to the sledge with string. FIe used then to pull a little load of wood or anything else I put upon it. In the autumn he ran away to go torpid for the winter, as their manner
is, but I found him again next spring, and of course recognised him by his wires.
I also had another queer" critter" for a pet. It was a sort of lizard, quite harmless, but decidedly ferocious in appearance. It was commonly called a "horned toad," though
why I do not know; for although it had plenty of horns, it hadn't much toad about it.
We had also a good many queer things in the way of insects. There was one called the "Devil's darning needle," a long narrow thing about like a twig of wood; another, who always seemed to be in an attitude of prayer, with his front legs held up like arms supplicating; then there was a thing just like a leaf, so that one could scarcely believe there was life in it; and then there were
great over-grown grasshoppers, which seemed almost too fat to hop, with queer sorts of swords behind them.
In the evening we could hear some great insects drumming away very noisily, something like the rattlesnake's rattle, which we took it to be for some time; but we found that it proceeded from a creature like a tremendous
blowfly or blue-bottle, but of brilliant colours. There was also the "Katy-did," an insect that keeps on making a noise which, with a little imagination, can be made into" Katy-did, Katy-did!"
Among other insects apparently indigenous to the soil were regular bed bugs, which were to be found in the woods, and, together with sheepticks, would drop from the trees on to the unwary traveller. The bugs seemed to prefer the black walnut trees more particularly, and were often found on fence posts and rails under the bark. The Colorado beetle, about which there was such a scare in England a few years since, was always to be found with us, but seldom did much damage, though sometimes present in large quantities. There was another kind of potato bug which did much more harm-a long slate-coloured insect. These we used to try and get rid of as much as we possibly could. They were generally to be found on the top of the haulm, and so we walked along with a pail and brushed the bugs in with a stick, and afterwards scalded them.
An insect much more dreaded than either, though not on account of the potato, was the
chinch-bug, a little black thing about the size of a big flea, but which sometimes infested the Indian corn, and sucked all the juice out of it, so that it withered and died. Owing to their small size one could not do much to check them.
There were several kinds of large spiders, some with bodies as large as hazel-nuts, and legs two or three inches long, of a brilliant velvety black, with gold or red spots. They were exceedingly repulsive, and I should think that a bite would be dangerous. They used to stretch their nets right across paths, in the trees, or long grass, several feet wide. We amused ourselves by snapping at them with our cattle whips.
Centipedes and scorpions were occasionally found, but I never heard of any one getting hurt by them.
Sometimes, when bathing, we boys used to get stung by a peculiar kind of caterpillar that was to be found upon the bushes lining the pond. For a long time we could not make out what was the matter, when brushing by the bushes it seemed almost as if the leaves stung us; but, upon further examination, we
found that there were little hairy caterpillars on the bushes that, when touched, stung us rather sharply. The after effect was about like a mosquito bite.
Of beetles there was an infinite variety, some of them of most brilliant hues. Mosquitoes, too, abounded, and proved exceedingly troublesome, both to ourselves and the cattle.
The latter were worried a good deal by big black flies,-fat things an inch or more long,- which used to settle along the backs of the cattle out of reach of their tails, and deposit eggs under their
skin. Here they remained till spring, when they had changed to great grubs or chrysalises, and we boys used to go among the cattle and squeeze them out with our
thumbs. This is so universal an occurrence that prices of skins are usually quoted in two ways--ordinary, and free from grubs.
Besides the noisy insects, the bull-frogs and the small frogs kept up a continual roar or croaking, so that music was not unknown on the prairie. The bull-frogs were tremendous creatures, measuring from nose to toes a foot to eighteen inches; their roar can he heard a mile or more. Fortunately they were not very numerous, but the small frogs were in every pond in myriads, but by degrees they got thinned out around us by our ducks.
In very wet weather the toads used to croak; at night, and they were so plentiful in places as to be almost deafening. Snakes I will speak of presently; but besides these we had a great variety of lizards, and even chameleons. It was very funny to see these latter change their colour. We would see one perhaps of a green or violet colour, sitting on a big rock, and would throw a stone at him, when in an instant he was almost invisible, having changed to a dull grey like the rock. Besides all these things there were a good
many wolves about us for some time, as our first attempts at duck-keeping well proved. Ducks are rather silly birds, and will not go into a house at night like hens, but prefer to take their repose either on the water or else on the banks. Hence they fall an easy prey to the coyotes, as the small prairie wolves are called. We bought a few ducks when we first moved up, and after losing most of them built a small sod house, and by careful attention managed to keep them for some time, driving them in every evening. But one night a stray pig broke the door down, and they were all carried away, save one old drake. We had the pleasure of seeing a wolf disappear over the hill in the morning, with the last duck on his shoulder. However, the pig kindly left us eighteen eggs, and by rare good luck we hatched them all under hens, and so got a good start again, much to the old drake's satisfaction. It was very amusing to see the fuss he made with the young ones.
Besides the coyotes, which we could hear barking almost every night, there were a few grey wolves in the neighbourhood, but both
are getting scarce now, as they are hunted a good deal. An arrangement is made, that on a certain day all the young men for some miles around shall start from the outer edge of a large tract of country and ride towards an agreed centre, driving in any wolves they may come across. By the time all the horsemen are in sight of one another they may perhaps have six or eight wolves surrounded, which are then shot and killed.
The grey wolves are considered rather dangerous, but rarely attack a man unless in company, and goaded by hunger to desperation. The coyotes are arrant cowards.
Besides our ducks Jack had three geese, but was not verysuccessful with them; for one was carried off by a wolf, the old gander was killed by a stray dog, and the other stupid old goose took to sitting, and there she " sot and sot " till she died-literally of starvation, despite all our efforts to make her feed. Thus ended Jack's speculation.
I was equally fortunate with my live stock. I had a little pig given me, and a very fine pig it grew; it was so long and so thin
that we called it " the greyhound." It was a very intelligent animal though, and was a good one at a fence; in fact, it was impossible to keep it in a pen at all, and really became so knowing, that if upon finding it in the garden we called the dogs, it would immediately rush away and jump back into the pen before a dog had time to get it by the ear. After a while, when it had got pretty big, or rather long and tall, my father proposed to make pork of it, though more with the idea of getting rid of the mischievous thing than anything else, and so I traded him away, with a little to boot, for a heifer calf. The latter grew till she was two years old, and then laid down and died, and thus stopped my cattle-raising.