Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden




A Tenderfoot in the West

"Well, I reckon I'll take a chance with you, old Four Eyes!"

This was the salutation given the young, pale-looking Easterner by a husky ranchman in Dakota.

Roosevelt, seized with an impulse which he had felt ever since his younger brother Elliot had returned home with tales of a big-game hunt in the West, had now "obeyed that impulse."

One morning in September at the unearthly hour of three he had gotten off a Northern Pacific train at a station called Little Missouri. It was a forlorn-looking place with half-a-dozen saloons, a store or two, a few houses which were not much more than shanties, and a hotel known by the imposing name of Pyramid Park. Roosevelt made his way to this hostelry and pounded lustily on the door until admitted by the drowsy proprietor, who grumblingly fixed up the "dude" for the rest of the night.

The next morning the "dude" began to look around and to make inquiries. He wanted to stop out there awhile and do some hunting, he averred. The proprietor and a few husky cow-boys who chanced to be in town looked him over and grinned at each other. Here was a typical tenderfoot from the East. They promptly christened him "Four Eyes," from the ever-present glasses.

At last a ranchman named Joe Ferris came along and agreed to "take a chance." He informed Roosevelt that he was employed with an outfit at Chimney Butte Ranch, some six or seven miles up the Little Missouri.

"If the other fellers like you and you can git along with them, it's all right with me!" he remarked naively.

Roosevelt, too, was willing to take a chance (he always was, for that matter!), so he mounted a horse and went along with Ferris.

Chimney Butte Ranch proved to be a log house with one room, which served as kitchen, dining-room, and bedroom. Outside was a corral for the horses, and a chicken run. All around stretched a wild, desolate-looking country called the Bad Lands. The other occupants of the shanty were Sylvane Ferris, brother of Joe, and their partner, Bill Merrifield.

They greeted the newcomer briefly but not unkindly—the etiquette of the plains is not formal—and as he sat down to his first meal with them, they quietly sized him up. The first impressions were mutually agreeable, although the ranchmen had a lingering suspicion that Four Eyes might be chasing out there to escape justice back East.

Joe Ferris agreed to go on a buffalo hunt with Roosevelt, though privately doubting whether the tenderfoot could hit anything. They rode over to a neighboring ranch—that is, it was only forty miles away—owned by a Scotchman, Gregor Lang. Here they made their headquarters, for buffalo were reported plentiful in that region.

As luck would have it, the weather turned in bad, with a thin, driving rain. Out on the plains, with no hills or trees to break it, such a rain is anything but comfortable. Joe Ferris was willing to wait for clearer skies; but Roosevelt had come out there to hunt buffalo, and hunt he did. Every morning they would sally forth on horseback, rifles across their saddle-bows, looking for the buffalo which always seemed to be out of reach. Every night they would return soaking wet. The guide would roll himself up by the fire in a buffalo robe and soon snore deeply. He was tired out and he admitted it. But the tenderfoot seemingly took a new lease of life after supper and sat up two or three hours longer talking with Lang, who, like Bill Sewall back East, he found a congenial spirit.

At last, after they had been there about a week, the wind changed anti the rain ceased.

"Now," said Roosevelt determinedly, "we ought to find that buffalo."

Thanks to the clear day, they soon came upon fresh bison tracks, and followed three of the lumbering beasts all day long, but at a distance. Just at sunset they came upon a bull in an arroyo, or dried watercourse, and both hunters fired. The bull was evidently wounded, but dashed past so close to Roosevelt's horse that it shied, nearly unseating him. His rifle was knocked against his forehead, cutting a gash that brought blood into his eyes.

The maddened bull then charged Ferris's horse, got past him, and went floundering off across the prairie.

There was nothing to do but dismount and picket. Roosevelt's slight wound had to be attended to, so that he could see at all. The horses were tired out, and night was descending. They ate their supper, then fastened the horses' ropes to the saddles, placed the saddles upon the ground to serve as pillows, and soon fell asleep.

In the middle of the night a rude jerk of the "pillows" from under their heads awakened Roosevelt and his guide with a start. They sat up with the one thought, "Indians," going through their heads. The marauding Crees and Dakotahs were still using the Bad Lands as their hunting ground.

However, it was not Indians this time, but wolves which had frightened their horses, causing them to dash off. Fortunately the wolves were soon frightened away, the horses recaptured, and the hunters lay down again. During the night a fine, cold rain began to fall, and by morning their blankets were soggy masses.

"Say, are you the Jonah, or am I?" asked Ferris, looking reproachfully at "Four Eyes."

The other only grinned.

"We'll get that buffalo yet!" he remarked hopefully.

The guide stared at him. This was a new species of tenderfoot, he decided.

All that day they hunted in the rain, but did not come up with their wounded bison. The rain had obliterated the tracks. Once Roosevelt's pony stepped into a gopher hole and pitched his rider over his head. Again the horse got mired in a quicksand and the two men had to tug and haul to get him back to dry land.

They made their way back to Lang's ranch pretty well tuckered out, as Ferris expressed it, but Roosevelt could still grin, and vowed that he had had the time of his life. He had fallen in love with the Bad Lands despite the week of rain and hardship. And despite its name, he saw that the country had many attractive aspects. It was wild, free and un trammeled, just the reverse of over-civilized New York.

"Well, how do you like it by now?" asked the Scotchman that night, with a quizzical smile.

"Bully!" replied Roosevelt. "Say, Lang, I've been thinking about staking out a claim and running a string of cows out here. How much would it set me back?"

He was using the "lingo" of the country.

"Well," said the Scotchman cautiously, "I reckon it would hurt the looks of forty or fifty thousand dollars."

"All cash down?"

"Nope. Ten thousand dollars would do the trick of starting you."

"Suits me," said Roosevelt. "If you'll be my foreman, I'll start right in!"

Roosevelt had been there only ten days and had never met these men before. But, as Bill Sewall said, he was never "over-cautious."

Lang, however, was already tied up with another outfit. He suggested that Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris might be interested. The two others were sent for, and the upshot of the matter was that Roosevelt placed a check for fourteen thousand dollars in their hands with instructions to stake out a claim and buy as large a herd as the money would cover.

The next day his hunting luck turned, and he shot and killed his first buffalo.

He returned East strengthened in body and spirit, for his work as a legislator was not yet ended, leaving his two associates to stock up the new ranch at Chimney Butte. It was to prove a refuge for him when he retired from his first essay in political life.

When he went back West, he was resolved to "make good." He knew that the rough-and-ready Westerners would respect a man only who could ride well, hit hard, and shoot straight. He had been accustomed to horse-back riding for many years, and while he never rode with the easy, careless grace of a cowboy, he sat in his saddle firmly. He now learned to throw a rope, to brand cattle, to ride with the herd at night,—in a word, he entered into every detail of ranch life.

One little incident, among several, will serve to show how he finally "made good."

One night he was forced to put up at a shabby little hotel, where, just as he entered, a "bad man" was showing off. He had fired two shots through the face of the clock on the wall above the bar, and still flourished his smoking weapon. As he caught sight of the tenderfoot, he grinned broadly.

"Oh, here's 'Four Eyes'!" he shouted. "Step up, gentlemen, all of you. Good old 'Four Eyes' is going to set us up to the drinks."

Roosevelt grinned back at the bully, as though it were only a joke, and went on his way to the back room. The other, however, was not to be shaken off so easily. He followed after him, with foul and abusive language, and pointing his six-shooter ordered him "to step up and buy the drinks for the crowd, and be quick about it!"

"Well, if I must, I must, I suppose," said the victim resignedly, and made as if to obey.

The bully waited with a triumphant leer, but Roosevelt noted in a flash that his feet were planted close together. As he himself passed the fellow on the way to the bar, Roosevelt's right fist shot out, followed by his left. He remembered old John Long's boxing lessons. The blows caught the gunman full on the jaw and he went down like a sheep. In falling his head struck on the corner of the bar, knocking him senseless. The crowd had to pick him up and put him to bed.

Roosevelt spent a somewhat anxious night, he later confessed. He fully expected the bully to be waiting for him outside the next morning with that handy pistol. But he was agreeably disappointed. The other fellow had "folded his tent like the Arab, and as silently stole away."

Roosevelt comments amusedly that the name "Four Eyes" seemed to pursue him everywhere. These keen-eyed cowboys seemed to think that a man with defective vision must be "yellow," until it was proven different. It always took him a few days to break into a strange outfit, when, he adds, "By this time I would have been accepted as one of the outfit and all strangeness would have passed off, the attitude of my fellow cowpunchers being one of friendly forgiveness, even towards my spectacles."