In the latter stages of the Summer and Autumn of 1873, my employment with the Commission saw me to following on behind the waggon train, which was itself following the astrological imperative of an agreed though imaginary line on a very real and sometimes difﬁcult terrain. Whereas the main party was obliged to proceed as though laying rail, I was able to drift a bit more, somewhat like the dust that rose in large plumes behind the carts….
Journeying out and back from Wood End, I was in the land of the buffalo. Indian hunters I met told me about them as well as they could, given our mutually foreign tongues. One band of Indians I encountered had killed about 800 buffalo in three days, generally with steel pointed arrows which sticking in the ﬂesh stopped the animal very effectively and were a great saving of ammunition. Even those Indians possessing good riﬂes were armed also with bow and arrow for the chase.
Every hole containing water was poached up by the thirsty beasts and they had created well worn paths in every direction. Buffalo are very fond of rolling over and over in the dust and the whole plain was dotted with their wallowing spots, the sod broken in a circular patch and the area ﬁlled with dry powdery dust from constant use. A buffalo wallowing in one of them raises such a cloud as to altogether obscure himself, and it has a most singular effect when he suddenly stands up and becomes revealed. The appearance of the animal was altogether nightmarish and weird; it looked like a survivor of a bygone age or a reviviﬁed Tertiary monster. The head is densely matted with black hair, among which short horns stand up, and sports a long beard. The hinder quarters and hind legs seem to dwindle rapidly away, as though so much bulk had gone into the front end that the rear arrived too late. The animals I saw were beginning to show a short thick growth of fur, a good winter coat already looking immensely thick and strong.
The animals stalked slowly along in lines one after another, or fed in little herds. Often they lay down in groups in precisely the attitude assumed by a cow. When disturbed, they broke into a strange lumbering run, but withal made good time, and twirling their little pig-like tails could give a horse a good chase as it sought to get abreast of them. Their bellow has a hoarse hollow metallic sound and strikes a peculiarly eerie effect when heard coming across the prairie after dark.
While I was in Wood End, for a day and a night we were engaged ﬁghting a prairie ﬁre which threatened to burn up the depot. Several days earlier, it transpired, while I was still out of the Depot, some men from one of the ﬁnal surveying parties about eighty miles West had made a ﬁre for cooking and a gust of wind carried it among the grass and in a minute they had to run for it and leave their hard-earned wood pile to its fate. We were camped near the place at the time, so we were kept in a state of anxiety all night. The wind fortunately began to take the ﬁre eastward and left us safe. It seemed to be travelling at a rate of twenty miles a day and it made itself evident to the South long after departing. As it travelled away, we made our way into Wood End. Then towards evening the wind changed to the southwest and the reﬂection in the sky became very bright. A guard was put on, and by the time I turned in, about twelve o’clock, the smell of smoke was quite palpable. In less than half an hour I was called up and found volumes of smoke drifting past through which the moon looked quite red. The wind was transporting lots of ashes as well as smoke, and the whole southern sky was in a glare.
The camp, fortunately, was on a peninsular around which a moatlike stream wound on all sides but one. It seemed likely that, though the brook was fringed with bushes and small trees ﬁlled with dead leaves, the ﬁre would not cross it in dangerous volume. Dr. Burgess, the Commission physician, was the only ofﬁcer in camp at the time so we consulted in harmony as to the best plan of defense. All attention was given to the narrow neck of the peninsular which was grassy and had a fringe of bushes on each side. The men set to work and cut out a clear space in the bushes and drenched a broad track with water from the creek. A number of old oat sacks and such were tied to sticks to form “beaties” and a row of buckets ﬁlled with water placed along the line to wet them in. The ﬁre very soon appeared over the crest of the valley and beating it out ﬁrst in one direction and then in another occupied us until about halfpast three. I turned in for the second time at about four, all immediate danger seeming to be past. Then between seven and eight another alarm was raised, the ﬁre having crossed the stream and coming down now from the North side. All hands turned out again and worked the greater part of Sunday morning getting this too put out. We took breakfast around eleven and no one seemed disposed for any physical activity the rest of the day.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Beneath My Feet by Phil Jenkins. Copyright © 2007 by Phil Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Emblem Editions, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.