On the plains a prairie fire is always something to be dreaded, for
with the usual breeze, which often amounts to a gale, a fire in heavy,
dry grass is almost invariably uncontrollable and a source of terror to
the luckless traveller who happens to be in its track.
Such a fire originates most commonly from the embers of a
camp-fire–left by some careless or inexperienced traveller–blown by
a rising wind out into the adjacent dry grass or, in the spring of the
year, by fires purposely set out in the old grass by the Indians to
clear the ground for the next crop.
An essay might be written on prairie fires and the dangers from them
and on the best means of fighting them. I have now only to tell of how
one of us was caught in one.
For the next few days after Wild Bill and Captain Saunders had left us
we were all busy taking in wolf pelts. The season was fast passing, and
we yet lacked several hundred skins of the three thousand that we had
declared that we would gather before quitting.
One cold, windy day, when a gale was blowing from the northwest, Jack
started out alone and afoot–he said it was too cold and windy to
ride–to kill a few buffalo wolf baits.
Crossing the creek below the beaver dam, to look for buffalo in the
prairie beyond, he soon passed out of sight, while Tom and I busied
ourselves taking up the dried skins and baling them. We heard the
report of Jack’s carbine occasionally and knew by the direction of the
sounds that he was to windward of camp–about northwest.
After Jack had been out for some time Tom took the field-glass and
went up onto the bluff south of our camp, from which he could view the
prairie north of the creek.
He gazed long and intently through the glass in Jack’s direction and
presently started back to camp on a run.
I knew that something unusual was up. We had heard no uncommon firing
from Jack, but, on seeing Tom hurrying down the hill, my thought was:
“Indians about or Jack’s in trouble.” Dropping my work, I rushed
down into the dugout, seized both rifles, and, with a few blocks of
cartridges, ran back up onto the bank again, looking first toward Tom
and then to the timber north of us. There was no sign or sound of an
When the old man arrived, breathless from running, he noted my
preparations for war and gasped out as fast as he could catch his
“No! no Injuns! See the big smoke over the tree tops? Prairie’s all
afire out that way! Comin’ fast! I’m afraid Jack’s caught in it. I saw
him just before I noticed the fire. He was out in the bottom ’bout
midway between the timber and the lodge-pole trail, a-working on a
buffalo he’d killed, and just then I noticed a lone Injun riding along
the trail the other side of Jack; and I saw the infernal rascal halt
when he got right to windward of Jack, and dismount and squat down in
the grass; and then come a puff of smoke and the prairie was afire. And
then the Injun got on his pony and galloped along the trail a piece and
fired the grass again. And this he repeated several times. The cuss had
seen Jack and fired the grass to try to burn him up, and I’m afraid
he’s done it, for I don’t see how Jack could escape without he could
fly, for when I left the bluff the fires had all run together and were
a-coming toward Jack like a race-horse, in a wall of flames that seemed
to leap twenty feet high at times.”
“What can we do, Tom?” I asked. “Can’t we do something to help him?”
“I don’t see what we can do,” replied the old man with a look of
despair, “but you run down to the stable and clap the saddle onto
Prince, and be ready to go and look for what’s left of him soon as the
fire burns out. It’ll stop when it gets to the creek and quick as the
smoke clears away so’s you can stand it, you be ready to light out.”
I rushed to the stable and he followed me, talking as I saddled up.
“Near as I could make him out through the glass, I believe it’s that
infernal old Broken Nose that’s done this job. It looked some like him
and I noticed he climbed on and off his pony like an old man.”
I soon had Prince saddled and led him up onto the bank, where we
impatiently waited what seemed an endless time but was really only a
The fire was now roaring and crackling just beyond the strip of timber
bordering the creek. The smoke would probably have been stifling in our
camp by this time, but on striking the timber the wind had given it an
upward pitch that sent most of it above us.
The fire kept up such a roaring and rushing noise that I began to fear
that the wind might carry some of it across the creek, but as soon as
it entered the timber on the north side, where the grass was shorter, a
marked subsidence was apparent.
I mounted and moved up to the south bank of the creek, anxious to be
off on my search for Jack, but a dense cloud of smoke and flying ashes
whirled through the trees from the burnt ground for some minutes after
the fire seemed to have exhausted its fury, and, impatient as I was,
I yet had to wait before venturing to enter the burnt district. As
soon as I could endure it I crossed the creek and started, still half
blinded and choked by the flying smoke and ashes, which so obscured my
vision that I could see but a short distance ahead. The fire now was
all gone except here and there a few buffalo-chips still burning, but
the hot smoke-and-ashes-laden air was stifling.
I struck a gallop, to hurry through the worst part of the ground, and
soon began to get out into a little clearer atmosphere, and was greatly
rejoiced to see Jack coming toward me though yet some distance off. I
noticed that though he was coming with the wind he walked unsteadily,
as though nearly exhausted, stopping now and then to sit down and rest.
The air was yet so murky that he had not noticed me until I came near
him, when, staggering to his feet from an old buffalo skull he had been
sitting on, he waved his hand weakly and tried to whoop, but the effort
set him to coughing as he halted and leaned on his rifle. As I reached
him I noticed that his wolfskin overcoat that he wore at starting from
camp was missing and his other clothes were much soiled, apparently
having been wet in places, coated with adhering soot and ashes, and now
frozen by the cold wind.
“Why, Jack!” I exclaimed as I reined up and dismounted, “how in the
world did you live through the fire? And how did you get your clothes
“In the buffalo,” he answered as he again began coughing.
“In what?” I asked in perplexity. “In a buffalo?”
As he attempted to explain, still coughing, I interrupted him with:
“Never mind, Jack; don’t try to talk. I savvy. Here, let me help you on
Prince, and when we get to camp you can tell us all about it.”
Helping him on the horse, I walked alongside of him to camp, but
insisted that he should not try to talk until his lungs got clear of
the smoke and ashes he had inhaled.
When he had answered my questions as to how he had escaped the fire
and got his clothes wet by replying, “In the buffalo,” I was at first
puzzled; but gradually the explanation dawned on me. He had tried the
exploit I had read of to him and Tom the other night out of Cooper’s
On reaching camp I hurriedly told Tom of Jack’s exploit and his
condition and suggested that no questions be asked for the present. We
helped him into the dugout and put him to bed. I explained to Tom how,
as I conjectured, Jack had escaped the fire but the Irishman was not in
a condition to tell us about that, though it was with difficulty that
we kept him from trying to talk.
By the next forenoon our Irishman was able to talk without much
“Well, sir,” he began in a weak voice, “I believe it’s the closest call
I’ve had this long time, and I never want to get into such another
tight place, where breath is so scarce. I’d killed the buffalo and
begun ripping open the hide to skin it back, and just then I got a
smell of grass a-burning, and, looking up, I saw in a jiffy what a trap
I was in and no way out of it unless I could fly. Suddenly I thought of
that skame that Peck read about the other night, and in a minute I was
cutting and slashing in blood up to my shoulders.
“I ripped open the throat and cut off the windpipe and cut loose
everything around the lights inside as far as I could reach. Then I
started in behind the brisket and ripped open the belly and reached in
and got a holt of the windpipe and begun pulling the entrails back, and
all the time I was too busy to look up to see how nigh the fire was
a-getting; but I knew by the smoke thick around me and the roar of the
fire that I didn’t have any time to fool away.
“When I got the in’ards dragged out I placed my wolfskin coat over the
opening I’d made in the breast and then propped up the short ribs and
flank with me carbine so’s I could crawl in, and in I went, pulling
my carbine in after me; and none too soon, either, for the fire was
roaring around me and I could smell the wool a-burning in a second
after I’d got inside.
“And then’s when I begun to smell hell for sure! The little bit of
fresh air that was inside the buffalo soon gave way to hot smoke, and
oh, man! it was horrible! I hope I may never come so nigh suffocation
“After the fire had passed and I began to breathe again, I felt
weak and all gone, like I hadn’t strength enough to crawl out of
the carcass. I wondthered whether you would ever find my remains. I
laid there awhile and by and by I began to feel better, and then I
crawfished out backwards. After shaking myself together I says to
myself, says I, ‘Never say die, Jacky boy! You’re better than two dead
men yet, so you are!’ And picking up my carbine I made a brave stagger
for camp, but if you hadn’t met me with the horse it’s a long time I’d
‘a’ been getting here, so I would.”
Early March found us closing up our affairs at the camp, preparatory to
starting back to the settlements. We had succeeded in taking a few more
than our three thousand wolfskins; and in addition to these we would
have nearly a wagonful of bales of the dressed buffalo robes and other
skins we had traded for with To hausen’s people, together with the
beaver, otter, antelope, and other pelts we had taken in our camp.
We had hauled all our baled wolfskins over to Fort Larned and stored
them there as fast as they accumulated, but retained in camp for the
last load our otter and beaver skins and the peltries we had gotten
from the Indians; for we thought it best not to bring these latter
under the notice of Weisselbaum, for fear he should make trouble for us
for encroaching on his Indian trade.
As a prospective buyer he had kept close watch of our wolfskins, as
we stored them, and was anxious to buy our whole catch; but we had
stood him off, saying that we thought we could do better with them in
Leavenworth. We had heard that Kitchen’s freighting train from New
Mexico was on the road, going in empty, and would pass Fort Larned in
a few days, and had decided that if we could not get Weisselbaum up to
our figures, we would ship them in that way.
After an early dinner, Tom and Jack had started for the fort with the
mule team, taking a partial load of the last of our wolfskins–a half
dozen bales–and some camp plunder.
I do not think that my comrades were as much alarmed as I was at the
thought of the hostiles dropping in on us. They seemed to be borrowing
no trouble on that account and, for fear of being ridiculed by them for
my cowardly fears, I had kept my thoughts on this subject to myself.
On this day we had all seemed unusually jolly; even Tom’s grim features
occasionally relaxed into a pleasant smile at some sally from our wild
Irishman. Our spirits were high, for we had grown tired of buffalo
hunting and wolf skinning, with all the attendant hardships and
excitements, and were now eager to get back into “God’s country” with
our profitable cargo of skins, to reap the reward of our winter’s hard
As I stood looking after Tom and Jack as they drove away, I thought:
“To-morrow they’ll be back, and the next morning we’ll load up the last
of our camp outfit and will soon be beyond the reach of Satank and his
While still standing on top of our dugout watching the receding wagon
a growl from Found, at my feet, caused me to look down at him; and
following the direction of his look, down the ravine toward the timber,
I saw an Indian boy afoot stealthily approaching, every now and then
casting furtive glances behind him as though fearful that he might be
seen by some one in the timber. I at once recognized the boy as one of
To hausen’s sons and, quieting the dog, awaited his approach. Following
a path skirting the edge of the water in the ravine, when he had
reached the platform between our dugouts, he again looked cautiously
about and beckoned me to come down where he stood.
When I neared him he said in his broken English:
“To hausen, my fadder, he say tell you, ‘look out! Satank comin’!'”
And then asked, looking anxiously into my face:
“Yes, but where? When?” I hastened to ask excitedly.
“Kin savvy señor,” replied the boy, “that all To hausen, he say, that
all; ‘look out, Satank comin’!’ Pretty _pronto_, I ‘speck. Now I mus’
vamose. Satank he see me here, he kill me.”
And quickly turning he sneaked down the ravine till he reached the
brush and disappeared.
To say that I was alarmed at the sudden shock to my recent feeling of
confidence is to put it mildly; but I realized that there was no time
to waste in idle regrets at the unfortunate turn of affairs. I felt
almost helpless and could not decide what to do to prepare for the
Rushing into the dugout I seized my carbine and, going again up onto
the dirt roof, I fired several shots in the hope that possibly the
sound might reach my companions, who were still in sight, slowly
climbing the hill about two miles away. It was no use–the wind was
blowing from them to me, and they moved steadily on, evidently not
I was hesitating whether to jump on Prince, ride after them and hurry
them back to prepare for a probable call from the hostiles when a surly
growl and bark from Found drew my attention another way, and I was
almost frightened out of my wits to see two mounted Indians coming, one
behind the other in single file, along the trail leading from the ford
below the beaver dam.
They were on the opposite side of the ravine–the stable side–so I
moved down onto the platform between the dugouts, where I would have a
better position, still hoping that they would turn out to be some of To
hausen’s people; but a thrill of something akin to horror ran through
me on looking closely at the foremost Indian when he had reached the
top of the bank a few feet from me, for I recognized the sinister
countenance of Satank.
To let him know that I recognized him and understood his probable
feelings toward me, I swung my carbine into a threatening position and
called out, “Halt!” at the same time making the sign to him to stop
where he was.
He halted at the command, as did the other Indian in the rear, and,
while keeping a close watch on both to see that they drew no gun on me,
I demanded in a defiant tone:
“Halloo, Satank, what do you want here?”
Satank made no reply, but motioned his companion to his side.
I recognized the man as a half-breed, called Mexican Joe, who had
sometimes been used as an interpreter at Fort Wise. Joe was evidently
to act as interpreter now.
In my defiant attitude and speech I was assuming much more
self-confidence than I really felt; but I wished to impress them that I
distrusted them, understood their intentions, and was prepared to stand
them off or fight. However, neither of the savages made any threatening
movement–the time was not ripe for declaring war–they had evidently
come on a reconnoitring expedition.
As soon as the interpreter had moved up to him Satank spoke a few words
to Mexican Joe, who asked in broken English:
“Where your pardners? Other mans? Where wagon?”
“Gone down to To hausen’s camp,” I said.
“He say, ‘Maybe so you lie,'” said Joe, making the sign of the forked
tongue; then continued, “Any mans in casa–house?” nodding toward the
“Yes,” I replied.
Apparently wishing to see the inside of our house–or to get the drop
on me in some way–after a few more words between them, Joe said:
“He say: ‘White man come to Kiowa’s camp Kiowa feed him. Satank he
hungry. Want to go in casa, eat with white man–be good amigos.'”
“Food all gone. Pardners gone with wagon to bring some buffalo meat.
Tell him to come again when pardners get back. I’ll give him plenty to
Of course, Satank did not believe this, and I did not care. I wished
to stand him off, for I was determined that he should get no closer
inspection of our situation than he already had. I felt sure that he
had a party of his warriors close about–probably in hiding in the
timber–and that he had come on a spying tour.
Satank evidently recognized me as one of the actors in an episode that
took place at Fort Wise when I was in the service, and asked a number
of questions about it. To all these I replied by denying any knowledge
of the event. The interpreter said, however:
“He say: ‘You can’t fool him. He know you.'”
I was in dread all the time that they might lift their eyes to the
upland prairie in the direction of Fort Larned, where our white-covered
wagon was still in plain view; but a little swell of the prairie hid it
After exchanging a few more words in their own language, Joe turned to
me and said:
“Adios, good-by, señor. We go–vamose.”
Backing away a few steps, they turned off around the butt of our
haystack, and made for the crossing of the ravine just above our
dugouts. Here they examined the ground closely, evidently looking for
fresh tracks of our wagon and mules to see which way they had gone.
As soon as they crossed the ravine I returned to my station on the
dirt roof of our dugout where I could watch their movements. When they
reached the higher ground and our Fort Larned trail the fresh tracks of
the team gave them their clew. Pointing to the fresh signs, Satank’s
eyes followed the course of the trail until he caught sight of the
wagon in the distance, just as it seemed to reach the crest of the high
prairie about three miles away. With an excited exclamation he pointed
out his discovery to his companion, and then mounting rode off at a
I conjectured that Satank would either pursue the wagon or bring his
men to attack my position–probably both. In either case it was of
the utmost importance that I warn my comrades, which now seemed an
impossibility; and while fretting at my helplessness I looked down at
Found, at my feet, and the inspiration came.
“Good!” I shouted, “I’ll send the dog!”
Rushing down into the cabin I seized a piece of paper and hastily wrote
_Look out for Satank and his gang! They are after you! I am O. K.,
Quickly tying this slip to Found’s collar and taking down an old cap of
Tom’s from which to give the dog the scent, I hurried back on top of
the dugout. I spoke to the dog and then pointed to the covered wagon,
still plainly visible, and for fear he did not see it I lifted him up
in my arms, pointed again to the far-off wagon, repeating the names,
The intelligent creature looked up into my face, as I set him down, and
then at the wagon, barked and wagged his tail vigorously as though he
thought he understood me. I then pointed again to the wagon, held Tom’s
old cap to his nose, and said, “_Go to Tom_,” motioning with my hand
toward the wagon.
Found looked carefully all around, as though to see if there were any
Indians about, and then instead of following the wagon tracks, as I
supposed he would, he started down into the bottom of the ravine, the
head of which led toward the wagon; and after going a few rods,
stopped and looked inquiringly back at me, as if to ask: “Am I right?”
[Illustration: “Go to Tom.”]
“Yes, yes,” I answered impatiently as I motioned him away, “go to Tom!
go to Tom!”
The dog seemed now fully to comprehend my wishes, and lit out up the
ravine on a lively run, now and then disappearing from my view for a
moment in the sinuosities of the gulch.
I turned to go down into the cabin to get the field-glass, the better
to watch the progress of the dog, and in doing so I instinctively cast
my glance in the direction of the point of timber where Satank and Joe
had entered a few moments before, and there saw a party of mounted
Indians hurrying out of the woods and starting across the prairie after
The Kiowas were about as near the wagon as Found, and it seemed that
it would be a close race between the dog and Indians as to which would
reach the team first. With the field-glass I watched the advance of
Indians and dog with excited anxiety. The pursuers and my messenger had
entered broken ground between the creek valley and the upland, and I
could catch only occasional glimpses of them. To get a better view I
climbed up on the derrick, where we usually hung our fresh meat, which
gave me a few feet more of elevation. I tried to count the Indians as
they started in pursuit of the wagon and made out that they numbered
I had watched first Found and then the Kiowas through the glass until
the dog had proceeded so far that he had passed out of sight on the
upland, still running; and the Indians could only be seen at intervals;
but I could not tell which was nearer the wagon. The Indians were
approaching it from the right and rear, while Found would be coming
from nearly behind. Tom and Jack, I knew, would be sitting on the seat
in the wagon, under cover of the sheet, unsuspicious of danger; the
rattling of the wagon would drown any noise of the galloping Indians;
and their first intimation of the presence of the Kiowas–unless Found
reached them in time–would be a volley of bullets and arrows as the
redskins surrounded them.
I focused my glass steadily on the white wagon cover, knowing that
the halting or turning of the team would indicate that my messenger
or the pursuers had reached them. If Found got there first the team
would stop; Tom and Jack would discover the Indians and then quickly
jump out, unhook the mules and tie them to the wheels of the wagon; and
then I would hear the reports of their rifles first. If the Indians got
there first and surprised my comrades I would probably hear the reports
of the Kiowas’ rifles before the wagon stopped, and the frightened
mules would then start on a run.
Riveting my gaze on the wagon, I was presently gratified to notice it
halt, and a moment later the two familiar reports of Sharp’s carbines
assured me that they, Tom and Jack, had got my warning and had fired
the first shots.
“Good!” I shouted when I heard their rifles. “Ten to one an Indian
saddle or two was emptied by those shots!”
Then a straggling rattle of firearms, with now and then the report of
a Sharp’s, indicated that the fight was on. The bobbing up and down of
the heads of galloping Indians passing between me and the wagon showed
that the redskins were circling around the team; and as they passed
to right and left of the wagon they seemed to be keeping a respectful
The firing slackened. Just then some mounted men and animals
came running in my direction, and as they came near enough to be
distinguishable through the glass I made out that the two team mules
had gotten away from Tom and Jack, after being unhitched from the
wagon, and were now making for camp, chased by a number of Kiowas. The
Indians soon caught the mules and led them back.
The firing had now nearly ceased. Of the wagon I could only see the
white cover. The Indians seemed to have formed a circle around my
comrades and were probably waiting for night to enable them to crawl up
near enough to make their rifles effective. This they could do in the
darkness, and by digging rifle-pits at close range around the wagon
they would have Tom and Jack under a circle of rifle fire by daylight.