FARMING AND HERDING
Our crops.--Pig killing.--First Christmas on the prairie.--Losing cattle.--Visited by Indians.--Cold weather.--Moving our house.--Building stone.--Our mule and pony.--Soap-making.--Indian corn.--Our family party gets smaller.--The blue bird.--The Prices.--Our herd.--Sleeping out of doors.--Cooking frogs.--Bad water.--Breaking up.--The prairie fire
ALTHOUGH the first year crops are never expected to be so good as those grown on older land, owing to the sods being so full of roots that it takes some time to decay, we still got in a very fair quantity of seed, more particularly of small grain-wheat, oats, and rye. Indian corn does not grow so well as these on sod land.
We had a big patch of sorghum, and that grew first-rate. The "garden truck," too, was very prolific, as of course on a small patch of land we were better able to pulverise the soil than on a whole field. Some pumpkins grew
to a tremendous size, one measuring about two feet by eighteen inches, and turning the scale at sixty-eight pounds. Melons, squashes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and hosts of other things grew without any attention, and in such quantities that we used them to feed the pigs upon.
The pigs were easily maintained through the summer; for even if corn was scarce the produce of the garden and field was soon available for them, and in addition to this there were several kinds of weeds which grew close to hand, which formed very good food for them.
There were great bushy plants called "pigweeds," which grew five or six feet high, which it was impossible for any one to pull up. We used, therefore, to cut them down with hatchets, and as they sprouted again and grew with great rapidity, we had a practically inexhaustible supply. These weeds form the usual summer food for pigs all about the country.
There was another kind very similar, called "Lamb's quarter," from the shape of its leaf, which in the spring, when young, was cooked and eaten like spinach.
In the winter we had a lively time pig
killing. Humphrey always stuck the pigs, but we all helped at the scalding and scraping off of the bristles. Big hogs we always shot first to save the trouble of holding. On one occasion Parker wished to try his hand at sticking pigs, but after one was caught and got in position, he backed out, saying that he did not like to.
We used to keep a pig in the house during the winter to cut from-a dead one. It used to hang in one corner of the room over the flour barrel, and was frozen as hard as a board. We used just to take a hatchet and cut off as much as we wanted to fry.
Time ran on, and Christmas soon came round, the first we had spent on the prairie, though not in the States-that one we had spent at Junction City.
We had a very quiet time, but managed to get up a very good spread, with a regular Christmas pudding. For the latter a special journey had been made to town for the various ingredients, all of which we obtained without much trouble, with the exception of suet. As our staple food was pork, and there were no butchers in town, we were rather in a fix, and
thought our pudding would suffer, until at last we got hold of some buffalo suet from a hunter returning from the west. Despite a few minor accidents our pudding was a great success, and we had quite a banquet with roast sucking-pig, wild ducks, and prairie fowls.
This winter was much more severe than the one we had spent in Junction City, and the cattle suffered exceedingly. Of course we had had no experience, and did not know what provision to make for the winter either with regard to shelter or food. To begin with, our corral was on the side of a hill facing the north, instead of the south, as it ought to have done, and we built no sheds, except for the horses. Then, although we had got in a good lot of hay, the cattle were just allowed to help themselves, and the consequence was that they burrowed great holes in the sides of the stack, and wasted it to a fearful extent.
We had some exceedingly cold weather and a late spring, and lost nearly half of the cattle we started with.
One day we had two Indians come in to beg, and our frozen pig took their fancy very much. We gave them quite a large piece, but it did
not seem to meet their views exactly, as one began to chop with his hand at the place he would like it cut, and to tell us in pantomimic language how many "papooses" (children) he had at home in his wigwam. One was very anxious to know if the old plated forks which we had brought from England were "siller." They took their departure after a while with their pork and some flour, and after having a good feed.
They seemed to have spread a good report of our hospitality among their brethren, for we were visited by a good many for some time, but we told them that we had nothing for them, and then they ceased to come.
The Indians which were about here were a very mongrel lot; they ha* very few of the supposed attributes of the "noble red man" of Fenimore Cooper.
They went about hunting and fishing, and trying to beg, borrow, or steal all they could, doing anything so as to live without working. If there were any deer in the neighbourhood, they were sure to get them, as they would follow them for days.
I spoke of frozen pork in the house just now.
The winter there is about cold enough to "freeze the hair off an Arctic dog," as the saying goes. It was a matter of no small difficulty to write a letter to the old country in the winter, as the ink was frozen a solid lump, and had to be kept on the stove while in use. While sitting round the red-hot stove at breakfast, one's coffee would freeze in a very short time if placed on the table a few feet from the fire.
If by chance we left our tin pail full of water when we went to bed, we could hear it popping away during the night like a pistol, as it expanded with the frost, and in the morning the water would have changed into a solid block of ice.
Hot water thrown into the air out of doors would come down as hail. During weather like this we had to be mighty careful how we handled iron or steel; for the frost in an axe or hammer would cause it to cling to a damp hand.
Once Humphrey was driving in some nails in the stable, and thoughtlessly put some in his mouth. He was obliged to go to the house and get some hot water before he could
remove them. If he had attempted to pull them out the skin and flesh would have come too.
What a treat it was to sit down and milk a cow in such weather! It was as much as the milk was worth. We never kept more than one in milk through the winter, and not always that, so that butter was rather scarce, unless we had enough salted down.
It was quite a matter of discussion, too, as to who should get up and light the fire, as no one liked to turn out first on a cold morning. There was a sort of general watching and waiting all round to see if some one else would not make a start. Our blankets were a sight in the morning. A person's form would be outlined in hoar frost, and around the head the clothes were frequently frozen quite hard, where the breath had come through; for it was almost impossible to keep one's head from under the cover.
Our house being only of boards, it was not very warm, for the wind would come whistling through like a knife; but we managed to improve it after a while, putting dry earth in between the two boards-the outer feather edge and the inside match-boards-for a few
feet up all round, and by degrees we papered nearly all the walls with pictures from the English illustrated papers, which were sent to us by friends at home in the old country.
Cooking was about the nicest occupation in winter, especially as most of our food was fried; we lived principally on fried pork and flapjacks,-the latter a kind of pancake,- varied occasionally with Johnny cake and fried mush, both made from Indian corn meal.
Wood-chopping was about the best out-of-door work to get on to, as one could manage to keep warm at that. I do not know quite what the thermometer stood at during the coldest weather, as ours got broken, but 1 saw it once in town showing thirty degrees below zero, or sixty-two degrees of frost,-Fahrenheit,-but I have no doubt that it was colder than that sometimes up on the open prairie where we lived. I have often known a pond to freeze over sufficiently in one night to bear any number of persons or cattle on it. But our springs never froze over; the water came out of the warm earth, and would run for a few yards down the stream before freezing. They sometimes, in a storm, were completely
hidden by drifts. when it was a fine treat to have to find them, going probing about with a pole, and sometimes finding ourselves going through the crust of snow up to our boot-tops in the water which we were trying to find. We were bound to keep them open both for ourselves and the cattle. After one heavy fall that we had, we boys had some fine fun in the drifts. There was a slight thaw, and then the hard frost again, so that the snow was pretty well bound together, and we carved in a big drift a regular cave or house with several partitions, and a roof over all-which lasted nearly all winter.
When once the winter begins in earnest there are very few changes for four or five months. The poor cattle and other stock suffer a great deal from the cold. Cows are often seen with their ears and tails frozen off, and dogs and cats the same, while the combs and feet of poultry get rather badly used up, too. The pigs seem to be able to take care of themselves pretty well.
Our house was built on the side of a hill facing the north, and as just across the ravine there was another hill, the view was rather
contracted, although we could look down the ravine a good distance to the head of Davis' Creek. After a while, therefore, we began to get tired of the position, and so moved the house to the top of the hill at the back of us.
We got Will Hopkins and his six yoke of oxen and another neighbour to come and help us. We smoothed the hill a little, pulling up the stones which cropped out, and cut down the little sumac bushes, and then, having prepared several small wooden rollers, we hitched a log-chain around the edifice and started the bullocks. Of course the progress was rather slow, as the rollers had to be kept carried to the front, but still we sailed along in safety, Parker remaining inside the whole time cooking the dinner. The new position was a decided improvement as regards the view, but, if possible, it was rather more bleak in the wintertime, perched up on top of the hill.
We commanded a most extensive view of the prairie, and before I left we could see about seven houses, although at the time of moving there were none in sight. The country is now settling up very fast.We had splendid stone about our place,
which was quarried without much difficulty, and was easily worked up. There was also plenty of flat surface rock, which was most useful for rough walls for stables or cowsheds, and from the sides of the ravines great blocks of limestone, mostly about three feet thick, cropped out. This could be split up into convenient sizes, and faced up to any degree of smoothness for house-building.
Near at hand, by digging a little way, we came upon soap-stone, but it was in small flaky pieces, and of no use except for filling in rough walls. It was quite soft, almost like cheese, and could be cut with a knife, or bitten through with the teeth. There was a spot a mile or so north of us though, where it was to be found in large blocks in the side of a hill, and this we utilised a bit. It was remarkably soft when first quarried, but when exposed to the air became almost as hard as flint. At one time we were going to make a chimney pot of it, as it was so easy to work, and had got it squared up and hollowed out a good bit, when for some reason it was laid by for a few weeks. Upon going to finish the job we found that it had got so hard that our tools
would scarcely touch it, so we used it for a pig-trough, and cut out a new chimney pot while the stone was soft and fresh. We had to put a stone pot to the chimney, because our iron stove-pipe had set fire to the house once, and it had a narrow escape of being destroyed.
Amongst our various animals we had a queer couple-a mule that no one could ride, and a pony that no one could work. The mule was a splendid thing to pull, but there was only about one man in the country who could ride him. My father bought him to work in harness, and he worked first-rate; hitch him to anything, and he would pull his heart out, or something had to go. His former owner was a tremendous Swede, and he could manage to stick on his back somehow; I think his legs were about long enough to tie in a knot round the mule. I never knew any one else who could sit it out.
He lent him to a neighbour once to ride to town. They started all right, but somehow, after going a very short distance, the man came back leading the mule, and "guessed he'd walk." After we had him Humphrey and Jack both tried to ride him, but although
they could usually keep a pretty firm seat, they could not stick to that mule.
The pony was the exact reverse of this. He was an Indian pony, captured by the soldiers during a skirmish, and had a great gap in his withers from a sabre cut.
He was one of the nicest riding ponies I ever sat on; he could lope along all day with an easy motion about
like a rocking-chair. He was very useful for driving cattle, as he would grab at them with his teeth to hurry them on, and a movement of the body was enough to turn him in any direction, almost without using the bridle.
But put him in harness, and then stand back! for there's going to be a smash-up. His eye glances out an evil fire, his nostrils dilate, his ears are thrown back, and in a second he bolts. He will not stop till he gets free from all incumbrances, or gets into such a position that he can go no more. One day we were going to hitch him to the waggon with the mule, but before they were fastened to it-simply harnessed and connected together with the pole-yoke-away he started. He dragged the mule along until he got excited too, and together they rushed into a wire fence. That stopped them, and if that was not a mix up I never saw one. They both went down amid the ruins of the fence, where they kicked, and struggled, and plunged until we thought we should never extricate them.
But at last we got them out, and found them not so much hurt as we expected, though the pony had a nasty cut in his leg, and the
harness was pretty badly used. One had rolled over the other, so that when at last we got them on to their feet the pony was where the mule ought to be, and vice versa.
Another time we were going to give them a trial, and had hitched the pony to the waggon, and were bringing up the mule to him, when he started off, broke loose from Jack who was holding him, and rushed away down the hill with the waggon behind him. Of course the pole was almost on the ground, but not quite low enough to catch in anything, and so away he dashed, colliding with the pig-sty, and only just missing the house; and was at length brought to a standstill by rushing into the stream at the bottom of the ravine, where he stuck fast, the pole breaking off short in the mud. After that we only used him for riding.
Soap-making was one of our occasional jobs, and was by no means a nice one. The soap is made in the following manner. All the wood ashes are saved from the stove (taking care, however, that there are no walnut wood ashes amongst them, or they will spoil the lot), and put in a dry wooden hopper.
When this gets full, and the soap-boiling day is near at hand, water is poured on the ashes and allowed to soak through gradually to the bottom, where the now dark-brown liquid is caught in a trough, and drained into a large pot or bucket. This is the lye or potash, and it is boiled down with all kinds of fat, bacon rinds, etc., which have also been saved up by degrees for-this purpose. After several hours' boiling this combination forms a slippery, slimy mass-soft soap. It is usually kept in this condition ready for various uses- washing, scrubbing, or scouring.
The addition of a little salt in the boiling transforms it into hard soap of a dirty-grey colour.
During this, our second spring, the land being more suitable for it, we planted a great quantity of Indian corn. It is planted in "hills," three or four seeds in each, about four feet each way. For marking the places where the corn is to be planted, after the land is ploughed and harrowed, a sort of sledge with four or five runners is drawn over the field, which marks grooves at the required distance apart. It is then driven across at
right angles, and at the intersection of the grooves the corn is planted, either by hand and covered with a hoe, or else with a small machine. In a short time it is out of the ground, and, growing very rapidly, is soon ready for "cultivating." This consists of going over it twice at right angles with a horse-hoe or "cultivator," cutting up the weeds, and throwing the earth up to the roots.
"Cultivating" is rather pleasant work, not quite so heavy as ploughing, and requires a little skill to avoid injuring the growing corn. It always amuses me to contrast the method of ploughing in England with that practised in the States. In the old country it appears to be usual to take three horses, one behind another, a small boy with a big whip to drive them! and a man to do the ploughing. Now in America a boy can run the whole thing. The reins are round his neck, the whip is fastened by a thong to his hand, the ploughs are made lighter, the three horses are worked abreast, and a great saving of labour is the result. I have ploughed acre after acre in this way from when I was twelve years old.
A good lot of corn is cut as soon as it
is nearly ripe, and shocked for cattle food in winter, and makes first-rate fodder. Corn shocking is done in the following way. Having settled where the shock shall be, which is usually about every twelfth hill, you take two stalks at opposite angles of a square of four hills, and bend them down and bind them together securely. Then you take the other two stalks, and bind them together and round the first two. This forms a kind of cross rack, against which the other stalks may be placed when cut. Those first cut are stood in the angles almost upright, and others placed around, gradually sloping outwards until a regular cone is formed, which will require a very strong wind to blow over, and a very heavy rain to wet through. The outer stalks get discoloured, but those inside keep a nice green colour, and are much relished by the cattle in the winter, when the husking has been done.
Walter Woods, the printer, left us this spring, and obtained a good situation at Lawrence, a town on the eastern borders of the State. He stayed there awhile, and afterwards went to Colorado, and made considerable money at his
business. While out in the Rockies he met his brother, who was on the way back from Australia, and so returned with him to England. Some few months later Parker left our happy family, and having heard of Walter's success in the printing line, he went into a printing once down south, though quite ignorant of the work. He stayed there some time, and then we heard that he had joined a Government surveying party, but as his sight was very bad he had to give it up. After trying several trades he eventually settled down to the printing in a newspaper office, and the last I heard of him was that he was the Editor of the Arkansas Gazette.
Parker was a very enthusiastic sportsman, but his shortsightedness was rather a drawback to his success in this branch. Once he went with Humphrey to shoot some wild ducks that were in the pond, and when the ducks rose and Humphrey shot at them, Parker shot at the pond. At one time he was very busy collecting birds for a friend in town, and we boys finding a piece of blue paper, thought that we would help swell the collection. We arranged the paper among the grass by the stream, and went to the house and told Parker
that there was a splendid blue bird outside. He came out with his gun and carefully drew near while we boys kept in the rear, so as not to frighten the bird, all the time laughing fit to split.
Presently he fired, and rushed forward and secured-the piece of blue paper. He did not seem to enjoy the joke half so much as we did. Perhaps we ought to have been a little more considerate. But we were boys, and could not help having some fun with him. One day, he mistook a horse for a cow at a very short distance-he was so very shortsighted.
Walter Woods' land was taken by an old man named Price, and a queer old stick he was, too. He brought with him his wife, and two sons, Nathaniel and George. His other son, "Dan'l," he had left "back at the Bluffs." (Council Bluffs in Iowa, from whence they had emigrated.) The old man was an awful braggart, and the whole family were as ignorant as savages, George being the only one who could read or write a little bit. The old man was never tired of telling us how once he was out in the forest cutting wood, and he saw a "painter" (panther) up a tree just in the act
of springing on him. As the beast came flying through the air down on him, he stepped back with axe uplifted, and as the "painter" reached the earth, with one fell swoop he cut his head clean off. This tale we had on an average once a week. The family lived in a "dug-out" just across the ravine facing our house, and were as poor as church mice, having no stock, horses, or tools. Still they managed to rub along somehow by working among the neighbours, and getting their land ploughed for them in return.
Their dug-out was a wretched place to live in, as such places usually are. A hole is dug in the side of a hill, a few forked posts are put in the corners, poles are laid in the forks, brush and straw are put on the poles, the earth dug out of the hole is thrown over the straw as thick as will keep out rain, and with a door in front and a chimney cut in the bank, the house is ready for occupation. They are warm enough in the winter, but are miserably dirty, as there is no floor but the earth, and the walls are of the same material; besides which dirt is liable to shake down through the roof Still such are the only kind of houses that can be
built by poor emigrants on the prairie, who have no money to spare for boards, and many live in them for a year or two.
Very often on a winter morning Jack and I would go over to have a talk, and the old lady always wanted to play a game of cards directly she had washed the "brekster dishes." Sevenup, euchre, and poker were the usual games.
While the "brekster dishes" were being washed the old man would probably to on about his "painter," or would have us remember that his "ineeshals" were E. B. P.-Edward Bates Price, which there was little danger of us forgetting, as he seemed to take a peculiar pride in his three names. Interspersed with this edifying information we would have reminiscences of "Dan'l" and the "Bluffs," which seemed to comprise the whole of his subjects of discourse.
They were a funny old couple, and afforded us a good deal of amusement. The old man was a very tall, dried-up specimen, never to be seen without a quid of tobacco in his cheek, while the old lady was very short and very stout, and fond of a pipe. The Prices did not stay very long on their land, but traded it off to a
newcomer, and went back to "Dan'l" and the "Bluffs."
Another winter passed over us, and having had some dear experience, we were able to take better care of our cattle this year.
Although it was very cold during this winter, we had some heavy falls of snow. One night before they left the Prices got snowed up entirely in their dug-out.
Being rather low, the edifice was completely covered with snow, so that nothing but a mound was visible. They had considerable trouble to get out, for the door opened outwards, and the drift was so deep and packed so tight that they could not push the door open at all. They therefore had to cut the hinges,-they consisted simply of old bits of leather,-and taking the door inside they burrowed their way out.
During this long, cold snap, the roads being impassable, we ran out of firewood. We could not get down to our timber patch, and could not even get down the creek to do a little "jay-hawking." We were obliged to burn our fence posts and rails. Plenty of people who had no fences used Indian corn for fuel.
Our house being moved, we also moved our corral over to the south side of the hill, and we built a good stone wall on three sides of it; with a roofed shed all along, and thus kept nearly all our cattle through the winter. In the spring a herd law was passed, and so we boys got up a herd. There were forty head of cattle of our own, and we took in our neighbours' cattle at a quarter of a dollar a month per head, and thus mustered quite a respectable number.
Jack being older than I, and consequently more useful on the farm, the herding business generally fell to my lot. It was not particularly easy work; up at four o'clock in the morning to bring the horses in from the prairie, clean and saddle my pony, "Barney;" help milk a dozen cows; and then get through breakfast, to be ready to let the cattle out of the corral by seven o'clock. Then came the long hot day, often to be seated in the saddle the whole time, twelve hours or more, checking the restless brutes from straying; but at last the sun would work round to the west, and sink beneath the horizon, which was the signal for returning for the night to the corral; Then
the same performances were gone through again, the milling and the picketing out, and after that came supper, by which time it was rather dark and late, and I was ready to go to bed to prepare for the next day's round.
In the summer time, of which I am now speaking, the nights were not always of the pleasantest, for although generally cool and fresh after a hot day, the mosquitoes were enough to drive a man mad. As they were as bad, or perhaps worse in the house, we generally preferred to sleep out of doors-some in the waggon-bed, and some on the ground beneath.
We were frequently disturbed, though, during the night by thunderstorms, and would have to gather up our traps and rush for the house near by without a light, save for the vivid flashes of lightning, and would then have to arrange ourselves again to sleep on the floor for the remainder of the night. Still it was so much pleasanter out of doors that we tried it every night, unless it was too decidedly threatening. If we ever slept indoors the door was left open without fear of intruders, except it might be stray pigs. There was not the least danger to be sus-
pected in leaving the door open at night. Such a thing as a robber entering is never thought of, and the door could not be locked if wanted, as it simply fastened by a latch. Honesty is, I think, one of the leading features which must strike a stranger fresh from the old country where tramps abound. Why, out here one takes his mowing machine out on the prairie to cut hay, and at night unhitches the team, leaving the machine out all night with his oil can, spanners, and tools, without the slightest risk. The axe is left sticking in the log in the woods, together with maul and wedges, as is the same with other tools about the farm, and I never heard of any one losing things thus exposed.
We had lightning almost every night during the summer, but usually so far away as not to deter us from making our beds out of doors. One fearfully hot, sultry night, when we had thought it too stormy-looking to try it, we had a fine treat.
Some eggs had been brought in in the evening and laid upon the crockery shelves as usual, and in the middle of the night one, doubtless a nest-egg, brought in by mistake
burst with a report like a pistol and a smell like-well, it was about "bad enough to knock a nigger down." For awhile we could not make out whatever was the matter until a light was struck and the cause explained. The remainder of the night was passed out of doors despite the threatened storm.
The herding life was dreadfully monotonous. The romance of riding about all day soon wears off if one has six months of it at a stretch in all weathers, rain, blow, or shine, Sunday or weekdays. Occasionally for days together I never saw a soul while out with the herd. Sometimes; however, I had a companion in one of the Quinn boys, who had two cows to attend to, and brought them to my herd and helped me. In the hot summer months, before the grass was dried up much, the cattle were not much trouble, but were glad, after feeding, to get in the shade of a few trees that grew on a small creek where I often herded.
Sometimes they would stand in the water for hours together, and we boys were able to go in swimming, or to catch fish or frogs, or craw-fish, which we cooked on a forked stick
over a little fire, and thus made a welcome addition (frogs as well) to our cold dinner. I know that many people look upon frogs as dreadful things to eat, but I can recommend them as being very palatable. The legs are the only parts eaten, and when skinned and cooked closely resemble the best parts of a young fowl.
One day we had a big hunt after a bullfrog. We found him in a large pond and gave chase; of course he dived, but had to come to the surface every now and then, and presently came up quite close to where I was watching, and I gave him a blow with the butt-end of my stock-whip which killed him. We found him to be fifteen inches long from head to foot, and his legs formed a good meal.
As the weather grew hotter and drier the water began to get scarce, until at last, big ponds in which the water had been deep enough to swim a horse, became so dry that we were able to catch the big fish therein with our hands, and the water was so thick and nasty that it was not fit for the cattle to drink. Nevertheless, the sun being so fearfully hot, we boys were fain to drink this dirty cattle
bestirred water. One would say to the other, "I'll drink some if you will," and "Right you are" would be the reply. I wonder we did not get awfully ill. There was a nice fresh spring about a mile away, but too small to be of any use to the cattle, and occasionally one of us would gallop up there, drink all he could himself, and fill our dinner pail for the other. It was too risky though to do this often, as the cattle were so liable to stray, and we could not drive them up near the spring, as it was close to an unprotected cornfield. .
If we had a shower we generally hid our clothes under a big rock, and then jumped into the pond to keep dry. We sometimes found it necessary, while in the water, to turn the cattle, and would then jump on the pony, just as we were, and rush away after them, yelling and popping the whip. A passer-by would have thought it a funny sight, no doubt, to see a boy in a state of nature rushing about on horseback. But we were not troubled with passers-by. It was very peculiar to feel the apparent warmth of the water in the pond during rain. It seemed several degrees warmer than the air or the rain falling.
Sometimes on Sundays the Quinn boys used to come down to where I was herding, and bring their dinners, and, together with my brother Jack, we had a regular picnic, fishing, swimming, eating wild grapes, etc.; but I was more frequently alone, as young Dick Quinn did not always care to come so far with his two cows, for sometimes I was away over north, as I liked to change the feeding-ground.
As the season passed on the grass became very dead and dry, and the herd was very hard to keep together; it was as much as one could do by keeping the pony on the move the whole time. By November, which was the time to break up the herd, the weather was cold and wet, and I was mighty glad to stop. Several times it rained the whole day, so that I was so wet that the water filled my boots, when I happened to be wearing such luxuries, and ran over the tops as I sat in the saddle.
One day I borrowed my father's macintosh, but in galloping about I split it right up the back, so that when it rained I just had to get wet through, but I am pleased to say that I never suffered any ill effects.
After all the cattle had been sent to their
respective owners for the winter, a prairie fire came along and pretty nearly wiped us out. It did so much damage that we had to send our own cattle away. It was a nice warm, bright day early in December, and I had the cattle in the corn-stalks to pick up any stray ears that had been left, and to eat the fodder, as the dry maize stalks are called.
Presently I became aware that there was a prairie fire sweeping down on us from the north. I did not feel at all afraid, as we considered our place to be safe from such attacks, as our house and sheds, etc., were built on land lying between two streams, north and south, which met in the west, while the land to the east was in cultivation.
However, as there was a very strong north wind blowing, the fire leaped the stream on the north side where the grass grew high, and was amongst us in two seconds. A rush was made for the stables to cut the horses loose, and then all hands were required to protect the house, which was in imminent danger, owing to the wood pile having caught fire.
Fortunately, by pulling the pile down, and hurling the blazing logs away, and aided by
a good supply of water which was at hand, we were able to save the house from destruction. Our great straw stack was burned though, and nearly all our hay, together with a quantity of wheat which lay in a crib, besides the cattle corral, and a quantity of fencing, so that we had no place in which to keep the cattle, and nothing on which to feed them. We drove them to a neighbour's corral that night, and then made arrangements with a man on Thomas' Creek to keep them through the winter on payment of one-fourth of the number that survived. This plan is frequently adopted, as of course it is more to the interest of the man to look after them well. As we had forty head, he would have ten in the spring for his trouble, but several died, amongst the number the heifer of which I spoke as being my own personal property.
We certainly had very bad luck with our cattle, several getting drowned, or otherwise killed by accident at various times. One old cow I remember in particular; "Old Bones" we called her. She went into a miry place in the early spring to get some nice, green, tender grass, her hind feet being
on solid ground. Well, her front feet were in the mud, and they just sunk lower and lower, and her nose went into and under the water, and sank deeper and deeper, and there she stuck, and could not help herself, but just drowned as she stood. We did not find her until too late.
Another cow, a fine one, called "Granny," was picketed out, and got mixed up with the rope and strangled herself.
It was not an infrequent job to have to draw a cow out of the mud, especially in the spring, when they were weak after the long, cold winter. A rope was fastened round their horns or neck, and a team of horses hitched to it. Unfortunately they did not always recover, and then there was a skinning operation to be performed. I must confess that this latter was a job to which I was rather partial, though to some ideas not a pleasant occupation.
There is a good deal of attention and not a little skill required to get a hide off without cutting it, and I used to flatter myself that I could do it very cleanly.