Hidden treasures show sadness on the prairie

I have long loved hunting the rolling prairies of far western Kansas. Stalking high-racked mule deer amid steep canyons or crawling through yucca to sneak up on sharp-eyed pronghorns are as good as it gets for Kansas big game hunting for me.

Weathered natural stones, and a few crude crosses recently placed, are all that mark the final resting place of this family cemetery in a very remote section of Gove County prairie.

And I have shot thousands of photographic frames of glorious sunrises and sunsets, stunning rock formations and a wide variety of wildlife ranging from prairie dogs and prairie rattlers to great-horned owls and lesser prairie chickens.

But at least once a trip I stumble across something that takes me back to times past, and it makes me realize how good we have it in times present.

In the middle of the roughly 24,000 contiguous acres we hunt is an old stone house, with remnants of a roof. We’ve guessed they used a nearby box canyon as a corral, and a tiny spring as their source of water. It had to be at least an day’s ride towards any sliver of civilization.

Once on a four-hour stalk on a 28-inch mule deer buck for Jerrod, we crawled upon the skeleton of a stone foundation maybe 20′by 20′. Probably the remains of an old homestead, I wondered what stories the stones could tell…like of the pride the people felt when they finally owned land, and the fears they must have felt come drought or hard winters. I wondered how long they’d stayed, where they’d come from, and what made them leave.

And several sites on the ranch show an odd stone sticking up from the prairie in places they wouldn’t naturally be. They’re tombstones, marking the final resting place of unnamed people who probably breathed their last nearby. In this land where the Cheyenne battle the calvary nearby, and the Butterfield Stage passed between rock formations, I’ve wondered about the causes of their demise.

Last week we passed a crudely fenced tiny cemetery not far from a crumbling homestead. It was obvious the graves were originally only marked by simple local stone stuck in the ground. Within the past few years someone, possibly a descendant, had made simple, wooden crosses and placed them by the weathered stones. Basic black, hand-lettering did its best to pay tribute to the dead.

One four-year-old child was identified by name, and had lived from 1902-1906. Another said something like “25-year-old female” with several guesses to her possible last name. A couple of ¬†graves carried no crosses. Someone had stuck a few plastic plowers by each grave, their colors as faded as the memory of those beneath the ground.

Stopping the hunt and standing amid the graves for a few minutes, I contemplated what it was like in those early days, to watch a child dying with no hope for getting them medical help, and what it must have been like to awaken the morning after you’ve buried a spouse, and head into another day of dawn to dark chores.

Suddenly, not getting a deer that day didn’t seem that big of deal