- Historic Sites
A Ride For Life In A Buffalo Herd
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
While wrapped in the wonderful prospect before us, the guide quietly remarked, “We must have one of those fellows for supper.” This broke the spell and brought a practical question directly before us. The guide was mounted on a large mule, January by name, which had a long army record for nearly everything except buffalo hunting. Lieutenant Pope was on a tall cavalry horse, a new recruit that was gazing timidly on a herd of buffalo for the first time. My steed was a fleet Indian pony known as Pawnee, said to have been stolen from that tribe by a Sioux warrior, and well trained for the hunt by his former owners. He had proved his mettle in the two expeditions I had ridden him and in several chases I had given the buffalo then encountered. It was therefore at once decided that I must provide for our supper, and shifting my fossil treasures into the guide’s saddle bags, and tightening the cinch of my pony and my own cartridge belt, I was soon ready for the fray. My hunting weapons consisted of a cavalry carbine and a pair of navy revolvers, not too many for an Indian country, and I hoped soon to bring down a young buffalo that would give our camp the wished-for meal. I rode slowly down toward the herd, avoiding a few old bulls outside the main body, so as not to disturb them. The wind was in my favor, and I soon was near the herd. Selecting my animal, I promptly gave chase, hoping to get in my shot before the herd started, which I knew would soon be the case. The animal selected, a young cow, proved especially fleet, and it was some minutes before I was alongside, ready to shoot, in the exact manner my first guide, Buffalo Bill, had taught me long before. While the chase was still going on, I had heard one or two shots behind me in the distance, and concluded that my comrades were firing at some straggling animal, but I had no time to look around, as my pony, knowing what was wanted, made a direct chase for the buffalo selected, and soon carried me where a shot from my carbine brought the animal to the ground. I then had a chance to look back.
To my amazement, I saw that the main herd, alarmed by the shots … had started and was moving rapidly southward. I saw also what I had not before surmised; that in my eagerness, I had pushed well into the herd without noticing it, and as the great mass of animals in the rear started, they began to lap around me, and I would soon be enclosed in the rapidly moving throng, liable at any moment to be trampled to death if my pony should fail me. My only chance of escape was evidently to keep moving with the buffalo and press towards the edge of the herd, and thinking thus to cut my way out, I began shooting at the animals nearest to me, to open the way. Each shot gave me some gain, as those near pushed away, and when one went down, others stumbled over him. The whole mighty herd was now at full speed, the earth seemed fairly to shake under the moving mass, which with tongues out, the flaming eyes and nostrils, were hurrying onward, pressed by those behind, up the broad valley, which narrowed as it approached the higher land in the distance. My horse was greatly excited by his surroundings, and at first seemed to think I wanted some particular animal, and was thus inclined to make chase after it, but he soon came to understand the serious problem before him, and acted accordingly.
A new danger suddenly confronted me. The prairie bottom had hitherto been so even that my only thought was of the buffalo around me and the danger of being overwhelmed by them if my pony could not keep up the race. The new terror was a large prairie dog village, extending for half a mile or more up the valley. As the herd dashed into it, some of the animals stepped into the deep burrows, and near where I was riding I saw quite a number come to earth and now and then a comrade from behind fall over them. My trained buffalo horse here showed his wonderful sagacity. While running at full speed along with the herd, he kept his head down, and whenever a dangerous dog hole was in his path, he either stepped short or leaped over it and thus brought me through this new danger in safety. The race had now been kept up for several miles, and my carbine ammunition was nearly exhausted; while my pony, after his long day’s work and rapid run, showed unmistakable signs of fatigue. My only hope was that he could hold out until we reached rougher ground, where the herd might divide. This came sooner than I expected.
As the valley narrowed, the side ravines came closer together at the bottom, and our course soon led us among them. The smaller gullies were leaped with ease by the buffalo close around me, and my pony held his own with the best of them. As the ravines became deeper, longer leaps were necessary, and my brave steed refused none of them. Soon the ravines became too wide for a single leap, and the buffalo plunged into them and scrambled up the opposite bank. My pony did the same, and several times I could have touched with my extended hands the buffalo on either side of me as we clambered together up the yielding sides of the narrow canyons we were crossing. This was hard work for all, and the buffalo showed the greater signs of fatigue, but no intentions of stopping in their mad career, except those that were disabled and went down in the fierce struggle to keep out of the way of those behind them.