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A Buffalo Story by George S. Anderson

 

 The Master of the Herd.
Photographed from life. From Forest and Stream.

 

On the last day of September, 1871, I joined my regiment, then in camp near Fort Hays, Kansas. At that time the different troops of the regiment had not been assigned to their winter quarters. My own was on its way north from Texas, where it had been stationed since the close of the war. I was extremely anxious to learn what its destination was, for I had never killed any of the large game of the country; in fact, had never fired a rifle except at a target. Should my troop be ordered to Fort Riley, or Fort Harker, east of Fort Hays, or to Fort Dodge, south of Hays, I feared that my chance of meeting with large game would be doubtful. To my great delight, however, I found that my assignment was to Fort Lyon, situated on the northern bank of the Arkansas River in eastern Colorado.

On October 12 about 10 a. m., we broke camp and took up our line of march for the west, following the old Smoky Hill stage-route. The autumn thus far had been very mild. The great migration of the buffalo to their winter range in Texas had not yet begun, and I had some lingering doubts as to whether we might not reach our destination before the head of their column would cross our road. We had gone only about ten miles from camp, however, when I espied a solitary old bull, and instantly I was all excitement, to the great amusement of my companions. Taking an orderly from the ranks, I put spurs to my horse, and was soon in hot pursuit of this decrepit outcast. This was sport new both to my horse and myself. We were both excited and equally timid. At a range of fifty yards, or more, I emptied my revolver at the poor, tottering, old body, and a chance shot hit him and brought him to bay. It was now his turn to take up the chase. With some difficulty I recharged my weapon, and one or two more shots brought my first buffalo to earth. He was old and lean and mangy, and yet I was loath to allow one pound of his flesh to be wasted, and wanted to carry it all back to camp. The orderly said, with a cynical smile, "Lieutenant, he ain't no good to eat, but you might take his tongue." His smile was changed to smothered laughter when he saw me attempting to carve up the corners of the animal's mouth in order to take the tongue out between the teeth. He dismounted, and with a single cut beneath the under jaw showed me how to take out the tongue properly.

As evening came on, small groups of buffalo were seen dotting the plain. At sunrise we saw hundreds where the night before there had been only dozens. From this point on to Fort Wallace, we were never out of sight of these nomads of the "Great American Desert." From the higher points of our route, when the horizon was distant from ten to twenty miles, hundreds of thousands were visible at the same instant. They were not bunched together as cattle are, in droves, but were spread out with great regularity over the entire face of the land.

On the third day of our march, a severe snow-storm set in, accompanied by a fierce north wind—a genuine "norther." This night we were compelled to leave the road and go to the Smoky Hill River for water. We made our camp at the mouth of a small ravine that led down to the stream through the bluffs, which there form its banks. Millions of buffalo were driven before the storm, and, being prevented by the high banks of the river from crossing either above or below this point, were huddled together in a dense mass which threatened to overwhelm our little command. By placing our camp a little to one side of this living tide, and under the friendly shelter of the bluff, we passed the night in security, while the countless horde kept up its ceaseless tramp.

For six days we continued our way through this enormous herd, during the last three of which it was in constant motion across our path. I am safe in calling this a single herd, and it is impossible to approximate the millions that composed it. At times they pressed before us in such numbers as to delay the progress of our column, and often a belligerent bull would lower and shake his shaggy head at us as we passed him a few feet distant. Of course our fare was principally buffalo meat during this trip, and killing them soon ceased to be a sport.

The next year—the winter of '72 and '73—this herd, during its southward migration, extended as far west as Fort Lyon, or some seventy miles farther west than its route of previous years. It was probably driven to this course by the extension westward of settlements in Kansas and Nebraska. This was the last great migration of the southern herd of buffalo. Millions and millions were killed this season, and their hides and tongues shipped east over the Union Pacific, Kansas Pacific, and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé railroads, and this leads me to the short story I have to tell.

The winter had been especially severe. The entire country north of the Arkansas valley was deeply covered with snow, while the valley itself was comparatively open. The quarters in which I lived faced the south. The yard in the rear of my house was inclosed by a board fence about seven feet high, and a wide gate afforded means for entrance.

One night, in the late winter, or early spring, the region was visited by one of those terrific storms for which this section is so justly celebrated. The wind blew with a violence such as I had never before experienced, the air was filled with drifting snow, and the temperature was in the neighborhood of zero.

About the break of dawn I was awakened by my servant, who said to me: "Lieutenant, the wind blew your back gate open last night, and a buffalo has come in and taken refuge under the shelter of the fence."

It was only necessary for me to raise myself in bed and look out of the window, which was at its foot, to verify this fact. I directed that my gun and a few cartridges should be brought me, and while my servant held up the window, I, still lying in bed, gave this solitary old bull a broadside at fifty yards range. At the salutation, he started out through the gate, and before I could reload, was out of sight behind the fence, so I rolled over to resume my morning's nap.

Two or three hours later, word was brought me that I had killed the buffalo, and that his body was lying about two hundred yards back on the plain. I went out to him and took his tongue as my reward. Investigation showed that I had shot him through the lungs, and that he had been able to go thus far before succumbing to his mortal wound.

Poor, miserable, old tramp! He had evidently been driven out of the herd to die, having become a useless member of its society, and in killing him I spared him a few days of further suffering, and scored a record of buffalo-killing rarely or never paralleled.

George S. Anderson.