In 1839 Kit Carson and Hobbs were trapping with a party on the Arkansas River, not far from Bent’s Fort. Among the trappers was a green Irishman, named O’Neil, who was quite anxious to become proficient in hunting, and it was not long before he received his first lesson. Every man who went out of camp after game was expected to bring in “meat” of some kind. O’Neil said that he would agree to the terms, and was ready one evening to start out on his first hunt alone. He picked up his rifle and stalked after a small herd of buffalo in plain sight on the prairie not more than five or six hundred yards from camp.
All the trappers who were not engaged in setting their traps or cooking supper were watching O’Neil. Presently they heard the report of his rifle, and shortly after he came running into camp, bareheaded, without his gun, and with a buffalo bull close upon his heels; both going at full speed, and the Irishman shouting like a madman, “Here we come, by jabers. Stop us! For the love of God, stop us!”
Just as they came in among the tents, with the bull not more than six feet in the rear of O’Neil, who was frightened out of his wits and puffing like a locomotive, his foot caught in a tent-rope, and over he went into a puddle of water head foremost, and in his fall capsized several camp-kettles, some of which contained the trappers’ supper. But, the buffalo did not escape so easily; for Hobbs and Kit Carson jumped for their rifles, and dropped the animal before he had done any further damage.
The whole outfit laughed heartily at O’Neil when he got up out of the water, for a party of old trappers would show no mercy to any of their companions who met with a mishap of that character; but as he stood there with dripping clothes and face covered with mud, his mother-wit came to his relief and he declared he had accomplished the hunter’s task: “For sure,” said he, “haven’t I fetched the mate into camp? and there was no bargain whether it should be dead or alive!”
Upon Kit’s asking O’Neil where his gun was,
“Sure,” said he, “that’s more than I can tell you.”
Next morning Carson and Hobbs took up O’Neil’s tracks and the buffalos’, and after hunting an hour or so found the Irishman’s rifle, though he had little use for it afterward, as he preferred to cook and help around camp rather than expose his precious life fighting buffalo.
A great herd of buffalos on the plains in the early days, when one could approach near enough without disturbing it to quietly watch its organization and the apparent discipline which its leaders seemed to exact, was a very curious sight. Among the striking features of the spectacle was the apparently uniform manner in which the immense mass of shaggy animals moved; there was constancy of action indicating a degree of intelligence to be found only in the most intelligent of the brute creation.
Frequently the single herd was broken up into many smaller ones, that traveled relatively close together, each led by an independent master. Perhaps a few rods only marked the dividing-line between them, but it was always unmistakably plain, and each moved synchronously in the direction in which all were going.
The leadership of a herd was attained only by hard struggles for the place; once reached, however, the victor was immediately recognized, and kept his authority until some new aspirant overcame him, or he became superannuated and was driven out of the herd to meet his inevitable fate, a prey to those ghouls of the desert, the gray wolves.
In the event of a stampede, every animal of the separate, yet consolidated, herds rushed off together, as if they had all gone mad at once; for the buffalo, like the Texas steer, mule, or domestic horse, stampedes on the slightest provocation; frequently without any assignable cause. The simplest affair, sometimes, will start the whole herd; a prairie-dog barking at the entrance to his burrow, a shadow of one of themselves or that of a passing cloud, is sufficient to make them run for miles as if a real and dangerous enemy were at their heels.
Like an army, a herd of buffalo put out vedettes to give the alarm in case anything beyond the ordinary occurred. These sentinels were always to be seen in groups of four, five, or even six, at some distance from the main body.
When they perceived something approaching that the herd should beware of or get away from, they started on a run directly for the centre of the great mass of their peacefully grazing congeners.
Meanwhile, the young bulls were on duty as sentinels on the edge of the main herd watching the vedettes; the moment the latter made for the centre, the former raised their heads, and in the peculiar manner of their species gazed all around and sniffed the air as if they could smell both the direction and source of the impending danger. Should there be something which their instinct told them to guard against, the leader took his position in front, the cows and calves crowded in the centre, while the rest of the males gathered on the flanks and in the rear, indicating a gallantry that might be emulated at times by the genus homo.
Generally buffalo went to their drinking-places but once a day, and that late in the afternoon. Then they ambled along, following each other in single file, which accounts for the many trails on the plains, always ending at some stream or lake. They frequently traveled twenty or thirty miles for water, so the trails leading to it were often worn to the depth of a foot or more.
That curious depression so frequently seen on the Great Plains, called a buffalo-wallow, is caused in this wise: The huge animals paw and lick the salty, alkaline earth, and when once the sod is broken the loose dirt drifts away under the constant action of the wind. Then, year after year, through more pawing, licking, rolling, and wallowing by the animals, the wind wafts more of the soil away, and soon there is a considerable hole in the prairie.
Many an old trapper and hunter’s life has been saved by following a buffalo-trail when he was suffering from thirst. The buffalo-wallows retain usually a great quantity of water, and they have often saved the lives of whole companies of cavalry, both men and horses.
There was, however, a stranger and more wonderful spectacle to be seen every recurring spring during the reign of the buffalo, soon after the grass had started. There were circles trodden bare on the plains, thousands, yes, millions of them, which the early travelers, who did not divine their cause, called fairy-rings. From the first of April until the middle of May was the wet season; you could depend upon its recurrence almost as certainly as on the sun and moon rising at their proper time.