A Hunter’s Christmas Dinner

On the evening of December 23 word was brought into camp by one of the hands, who had been looking up the mules, that he had come across the tracks of some twenty-five turkeys, within five or six miles of camp. This was indeed great news. Hope dawned upon us. We should have the fat turkey for Christmas, at all events.

At daylight the next day we started for the spot where the turkey-tracks had been seen; the snow was melted off the low ground, but still lay thick on the cedar and piñon ridges, and in patches on the bottoms.

On arriving at the place we took the trail, and soon ran it to a ridge-top, covered with piñon-trees, on the nuts of which the turkeys had been feeding. Here the tracks spread in all directions, since the turkeys had wandered about, each on his own hook, searching for nuts, and, to double the chances of finding them, we also separated, one going up, the other down, the ridge,—going, too, very carefully, for wild turkeys are the most wary of all birds, and require to be hunted with, if possible, more caution than do deer. And we knew not the moment when we might come upon our game, as it was highly probable they were close at hand; for turkeys, if unmolested, daily frequent the same range of feeding-ground, until it is exhausted of food. By and by I came to where eight of the straggling birds had come together and started off again in company. The drove had evidently separated into two or more lots, and I followed the eight turkeys for many miles and for many hours without seeing fresh sign, until at length I came to the edge of a precipitous cliff overlooking a wide part of the valley, the river flowing just below me, and a large grove of big cottonwood-trees in a bottom not far away.

Evidently I was at the place from which the turkeys had flown off the night before to go to roost. I quickly descended, and, going under the cottonwood-trees, searched in the tangle and jungle for sign of their having roosted above, and soon satisfied myself that they had done so. The next step necessary was to discover where the turkeys had alighted in the morning; but this might entail a long search, and, as it was already past noon, I sat down to rest, eat the luncheon I had provided myself with, and come to some conclusion as to which direction I had best choose to make my first cast in.

I had not proceeded far on my way again, when I came suddenly upon a “sign” that arrested my attention and raised hope in my breast,—the tracks of a big fat buck! He had crossed the river-bottom diagonally, and his trail plainly told me all about him: the great width of and the distance between his tracks proclaimed his sex and size, and their depth in the ground his weight. He had been going at an easy trot; the glaze on them was bright, their edges unbroken; not a speck of drifted dust was on them; they were as fresh as new paint. They were not an hour old.

In imagination I smelt roasted venison, and instantly started in pursuit. I followed on the tracks until within an hour of sunset, but never got even a glimpse of the deer; and by that time his trail had brought me to the bank of a stream flowing down one of the side valleys. The buck browsing here and there, but never stopping long in one place, had led me a wide circuit through and over valley and ridges. He had not seen or smelled me, however, since none of his movements showed that he had been alarmed.

The stream, at the place where the deer’s track led to it, was unusually wide, consequently slack in current, and therefore frozen over. The snow still lay on the ice, and the buck’s track, where he had crossed, looked but just made. The ice seemed firm, and I started to cross the creek. About ten feet from shore, bang through I went, waist deep, into the cold water, and broke and scrambled my way back with great difficulty, and with noise enough to frighten into a gallop any wild animal that might be within a quarter of a mile of me.

It was very disagreeable, very annoying, and very cold; and my clothes beginning to freeze on me, I started for camp at a brisk walk.

Just as the sun was going down I passed near to where the turkeys had flown off to roost. It struck me that by watching there a short time I might see them return to the same or a neighboring roost, knowing they often do so. This, however, was very cold work, my clothes being in a half-dried, half-frozen condition; and I was just going to give it up, when I heard the faint distant report of a rifle. The sound redoubled my attention, since I supposed that game was stirring.

In a few minutes I heard the quick sharp alarm call of the turkey, the unmistakable pit-pit, and saw four of them sail off from the edge of the cliff, at about sixty yards’ distance from me, into the top branches of the trees forming one of the groups in the valley below. Drawing gently back, and keeping as much as possible under cover, I made my way down into the valley, and started in the direction of the grove of trees in which the turkeys had settled.

It was getting dark, and I had gone but a short way, when, at a distance of about two hundred yards in front, a most extraordinary-looking object presented itself to my view. It looked like a haycock on legs with the handle of a pitchfork sticking out of it; it was steadily advancing through the gloom to where I stood, and arrived quite close to me before I could quite make out what it was. It proved to be my companion, with two turkeys tied together by the legs and slung over his shoulder across his rifle. The wind coming up the valley and blowing the feathers out in all directions had given the turkeys in the gloaming the extraordinary appearance that had astonished me so much. I gave a low whistle, and he joined me; I pointed to the turkeys in the trees. He dropped those he already had, hung them up out of wolf reach, and together we cautiously crept under the four roosting turkeys.

The light was very bad for rifle-shooting, but our front sights were of ivory, and our birds were skyed; so drawing the best beads we could, we fired simultaneously, and with great success, two fine birds dropping dead at our feet,—the others making off.

We congratulated each other, and started for camp with four fat turkeys,—and fat indeed they were, for they had been feeding all autumn on walnuts, hickory-nuts, grapes, sweet acorns, and piñons, at—or rather I suspect without—discretion.

We had a long trudge home, the turkeys getting apparently heavier every mile. As we tramped along my companion related his day’s experience. About noon he had come upon the fresh tracks of some turkeys feeding along one of the ridges, and had followed the birds until within about three hours of sunset, when, on peeping into an open glade, he saw fourteen of them scattered over it, picking up seeds and strutting about. As the turkeys seemed to be approaching him, he lay quite still, watching them through the thicket which concealed him. Ultimately they got quite close, giving many fair opportunities to shoot one. But he was determined not to fire unless necessary, preferring to wait for an occasion to present itself enabling him to kill two at one shot,—a very rare chance to obtain. He said it was most interesting to lie there at his ease and watch the motions and movements of the birds as they fed about and spread themselves in fancied security. At last his opportunity came, and firing without a moment’s delay, he floored his birds, taking the head of the nearest clean off, and shooting the farther one through the body at the butt of his wings. This was the shot I had heard. I then told him what I had seen, and what had befallen me, and we got home quite done up, but rejoicing at our good luck.

Supper was waiting, and this meal, a blazing fire, and the pipe of peace, recruited us after our fatigues.

We had been very careful and sparing in the use of our spirits, not knowing how long it might be before we should be able to get a fresh supply, or what necessity might arise for their use; but this was considered an occasion when the flowing bowl ought to be indulged in, so grogs all round were mixed and our success celebrated. When this interesting ceremony had been concluded, my companion remarked to me, “Our luck has evidently turned, and, as gamblers always do, we ought to press our good fortune while it lasts. We have got our Christmas turkeys; no doubt the buck you followed is destined to grace our Christmas dinner. I am the man to kill it. Daylight shall see me on his track. You will behold my face no more until I return with the haunches of the big buck.” Then he turned in and I quickly followed his example. At the time I had not the remotest idea that my comrade really intended to put his threat into execution; I thought he was “gassing,” and put it down to the credit of the flowing bowl.

Next morning I awoke at my usual time,—daybreak,—got out of my blankets, arose, stirred the fire into a great blaze and turned my back to it to get a good warm. I looked for my companion,—his blankets were empty; I glanced towards the arms,—his rifle and belt were gone; I felt his blankets,—they were cold. He had consequently been gone for some time.

I made a cast round, and struck his fresh tracks going in the direction of our last day’s tramp. He had “gone for” the big buck. For my part, I was too tired to stir that day. Though then as hard as nails, and in first-rate condition and training, I was thoroughly done up and quite stiff—“played out”—with the previous day’s wetting and walking, so remained in camp, and spent the time in helping to make the plum-pudding, dress and stuff the turkeys, and in resting,—principally in resting.

Night came, but not my comrade. I was not exactly uneasy about him, for he was a first-rate hunter and mountaineer; but many are the unexpected accidents that may happen to a lone wanderer in the wilderness.

I piled the wood on the fire and sat waiting for him until near midnight. Then I began to think I was foolish to do so, and had better go to sleep. Just as I was turning in the dogs ran out, frisking and capering, into the darkness. I heard the whistle of my comrade, and he strode into the light of the camp-fire. On his back, in a sling extemporized out of the skin of the deer, were the hind-quarters of a big buck. It was not yet twelve, and though a close shave on being Christmas-day, our bill of fare was filled. Some more flowing bowl.

At breakfast the following day my companion narrated to us the story of his late hunt, as nearly as may be, in the following words:

He said, “By daylight I was where you came to grief by breaking through the ice, with this difference, that I was upon the other side of the creek, having crossed it higher up by means of a beaver dam. Being a cold trail, I pushed ahead sharply, keeping a good lookout, and in a little over two hours came to where the buck had lain down to pass the dark of the night. There being no morning moon, I knew he had not stirred before sunrise, and might, therefore, be browsing, or standing under some tree quite near; so continued my way most cautiously, never following the tracks when they crossed an open, unless obliged to do so on account of the ground being frozen hard, so that it often took me a long time to get his trail again after leaving it; but I knew, if the buck once saw or got a sniff of me, he might run ten miles without stopping.

“About eleven o’clock I sighted him. I was peeping cautiously out of a thicket, at whose edge I had just arrived, into a large park-like glade, and saw him under a big white-oak-tree, eating the acorns. There was no cover between me and where the buck stood, so I could not risk trying to get nearer to him except by making a long detour, and the nearest edge of the timber I was in was too far off him to risk a shot from. There was, therefore, nothing for it but to sit down and wait until he pleased to move on or lie down, and so give me a chance to get nearer. Being hungry, I utilized the time by eating my luncheon, and then fell to smoking. Well, he kept me there over an hour, and then started off in a straight line in a trot. As he took a bee-line for the river, I knew what he was after: he was going to take his ‘little drink.’ I, too, should have liked to indulge in a little drink, to wash down my luncheon.

“As soon as the buck was well under way I started at the double, on a parallel course, hoping to get a shot at him in the river’s bottom. I crossed the open ground of a valley in a bend that was above and out of sight of the course he was taking, got into the cover along the river’s bank, and followed it down, but saw nothing of him. By and by I came to where the buck had drunk. He had there crossed the river and gone straight on at a long easy trot towards the Sierra Vérde.

“Should he intend going up the mountain my chance of seeing him again that day was over; if he was going to feed in the piñon ridges, then careful stalking and the avoidance of all mistakes would make him my meat. I could not afford to lose time by going to a beaver dam to cross, so at once peeled and waded over.

“After going about two miles, the buck’s tracks showed he had subsided into a walk, and then almost immediately turned, to my great satisfaction, into the piñon-ridge country, in which, after about an hour’s careful stalking, I sighted him again. He was strolling along, feeding; but it was getting pretty well on towards sunset before I was able to approach close enough to him to care to fire a shot, for I had taken so much trouble that I was determined to incur no risk I could avoid, but have patience until I had a certainty of killing him in his tracks. At last he stopped to browse in a little open, oval table-land, on the summit of a cedar ridge.

“The ridge-top was nowhere over a hundred yards across, and was surrounded with a thick fringe of dwarf cedars. Peeping through one of these dwarf cedars, I could see the deer’s broad fat quarters about forty yards in front of me. The buck was slowly walking from where I stood concealed. I put my cap in a fork of the cedar, laid my rifle-barrel on it, brought its stock to my shoulder, and bleated like a doe.

“The big buck stopped, turned his body half round, his head wholly so, and looked straight towards me with his head down.

“I drew a careful bead between his eyes, and dropped him—stone-dead!

“I ran up to bleed him, feeling quite relieved and glad at so successful a termination of ten hours’ difficult hunting. I had not noticed it while engrossed by the interest of pursuit, but now found I was very hungry, and so lit a fire at once, that there might be roasting-coals ready by the time I had skinned my deer.

“I was soon enjoying a jolly rib-roast, making a tremendous meal, and recruiting myself for the tramp of from twelve to fifteen miles lying between me and the camp.”

So, after all, we had our Christmas dinner according to programme, and a capital one it was, too.

The turkeys were à merveille, the venison delicious; for the big buck—he was nearly as big as a Mexican burro-deer—was very fat indeed. It is only the man who has eaten really fat wild venison who knows what good venison really is. The kidneys were completely covered with tallow, and my companion assured us that the buck cut nearly an inch of fat on the brisket. The quarters had been hung out to freeze all night, and were thawed in melted snow-water before being cooked, and so were quite tender.

The plum-pudding was over a foot in diameter; we could hardly pull it out of the pot. It was as good as possible, and followed by a bowl of punch, our punch-bowl being for the nonce a tin bucket; not to mince matters, it was our horses’ watering-bucket, which, though not elegant, was capacious, and the only utensil we had capable of holding the amount of punch the occasion called for.

No holly grew in the country, but the bright red berries of the Indian arrow-wood and of the bearberry-bush made beautiful substitutes, and there were more evergreens in sight than entire Christendom could have made use of, so our camp was profusely and gayly decorated. Altogether the day was well and duly celebrated, and it is marked with a white stone in the calendar of my memory.


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