The pronghorn antelope is found only on America's Great Plains. It is estimated that there were about 40 million of them at the beginning of the 19th century. The mature buck weighs from 100 to 130 pounds and the female from 75 to 100 pounds. The male develops large pronged horns which average about 12 inches and are shed each year. The pronghorn antelope is extremely fast, with a top speed of about 60 miles per hour, and can easily outrun any other animal that tries to catch it. The Native Americans hunted the pronghorn. So also did white settlers and by the end of the 19th century they were in danger of being hunted to extinction. As a result of protective legislation there are about one million pronghorns alive today.
There have been a great many antelope near the post of late, and we have been on ever so many hunts for them. The greyhounds have not been with us, however, for following the hounds when chasing those fleet animals not only requires the fastest kind of a horse and very good riding, but is exceedingly dangerous to both horse and rider because of the many prairie-dog holes, which are terrible death traps. And besides, the dogs invariably get their feet full of cactus needles, which cause much suffering for days.
So we have been flagging the antelope, that is, taking a shameful advantage of their wonderful curiosity, and enticing them within rifle range. On these hunts I usually hold the horses of the three officers and my own, and so far they have not given me much trouble, for each one is a troop-trained animal.
The antelope are shy and wary little creatures, and possess an abnormal sense of smell that makes it absolutely necessary for hunters to move cautiously to leeward the instant they discover them. It is always an easy matter to find a little hill that will partly screen them - the country is so rolling - as they creep and crawl to position, ever mindful of the dreadful cactus. When they reach the highest point the flag is put up, and this is usually made on the spot, of a red silk handkerchief, one corner run through the rammer of a Springfield rifle. Then everyone lies down flat on the ground, resting on his elbows, with rifle in position for firing.
Antelope always graze against the wind, and even a novice can tell when they discover the flag, for they instantly stop feeding, and the entire band will whirl around to face it, with big round ears standing straight up, and in this way they will remain a second or two, constantly sniffing the air. Failing to discover anything dangerous, they will take a few steps forward, perhaps run around a little, giving quick tossings of the head, and sniffing with almost every breath, but whatever they do the stop is always in the same position - facing the flag, the strange object they cannot understand. Often they will approach very slowly, making frequent halts after little runs, and give many tossings of the head as if they were actually coquetting with death itself! Waiting for them to come within range of the rifle requires great patience, for the approach is always more or less slow, and frequently just as they are at the right distance and the finger is on the trigger, off the whole band will streak, looking like horizontal bars of brown and white! I am always so glad when they do this, for it seems so wicked to kill such graceful creatures. It is very seldom that I watch the approach, but when I do happen to see them come up, the temptation to do something to frighten them away from those murderous guns is almost irresistible.
Antelope and buffalo steaks were the main article on our bill-of-fare for weeks, and no tonic was needed to give zest for the food; our appetites were a marvel. Eliza soon discovered that cooking over a camp fire was far different from cooking on a stove or range, but all hands assisted her. I remember that she had the cream all ready for the churn as we drove into the South Fork of the Platte, and while we were fording the grand old stream she wen on with her work, and made several pounds of butter. We found no trouble in crossing the Platte, the only danger being quicksand. The stream being wide, we had to stop the wagon now and then to give our oxen a few moments' rest.