The Plight of the Buffalo

This was also the calving period of the buffalo, as they, unlike our domestic cattle, only rutted during a single month; consequently, the cows all calved during a certain time; this was the wet month, and as there were a great many gray wolves that roamed singly and in immense packs over the whole prairie region, the bulls, in their regular beats, kept guard over the cows while in the act of parturition, and drove the wolves away, walking in a ring around the females at a short distance, and thus forming the curious circles.

In every herd at each recurring season there were always ambitious young bulls that came to their majority, so to speak, and these were ever ready to test their claims for the leadership, so that it may be safely stated that a month rarely passed without a bloody battle between them for the supremacy; though, strangely enough, the struggle scarcely ever resulted in the death of either combatant.

Perhaps there is no animal in which maternal love is so wonderfully developed as the buffalo cow; she is as dangerous with a calf by her side as a she-grizzly with cubs, as all old mountaineers know.

The buffalo bull that has outlived his usefulness is one of the most pitiable objects in the whole range of natural history. Old age has probably been decided in the economy of buffalo life as the unpardonable sin. Abandoned to his fate, he may be discovered, in his dreary isolation, near some stream or lake, where it does not tax him too severely to find good grass; for he is now feeble, and exertion an impossibility. In this new stage of his existence he seems to have completely lost his courage. Frightened at his own shadow, or the rustling of a leaf, he is the very incarnation of nervousness and suspicion. Gregarious in his habits from birth, solitude, foreign to his whole nature, has changed him into a new creature; and his inherent terror of the most trivial things is intensified to such a degree that if a man were compelled to undergo such constant alarm, it would probably drive him insane in less than a week. Nobody ever saw one of these miserable and helplessly forlorn creatures dying a natural death, or ever heard of such an occurrence. The cowardly coyote and the gray wolf had already marked him for their own; and they rarely missed their calculations.

Riding suddenly to the top of a divide once with a party of friends in 1866, we saw standing below us in the valley an old buffalo bull, the very picture of despair. Surrounding him were seven gray wolves in the act of challenging him to mortal combat. The poor beast, undoubtedly realizing the utter hopelessness of his situation, had determined to die game. His great shaggy head, filled with burrs, was lowered to the ground as he confronted his would-be executioners; his tongue, black and parched, lolled out of his mouth, and he gave utterance at intervals to a suppressed roar.

Buffalo Bulls in a Wallow, Louis Kurz, 1911.

Buffalo Bulls in a Wallow, Louis Kurz, 1911.

The wolves were sitting on their haunches in a semi-circle immediately in front of the tortured beast, and every time that the fear-stricken buffalo would give vent to his hoarsely modulated groan, the wolves howled in concert in most mournful cadence.

After contemplating his antagonists for a few moments, the bull made a dash at the nearest wolf, tumbling him howling over the silent prairie; but while this diversion was going on in front, the remainder of the pack started for his hind legs, to hamstring him. Upon this the poor brute turned to the point of attack only to receive a repetition of it in the same vulnerable place by the wolves, who had as quickly turned also and fastened themselves on his heels again. His hind quarters now streamed with blood and he began to show signs of great physical weakness. He did not dare to lie down; that would have been instantly fatal. By this time he had killed three of the wolves or so maimed them that they were entirely out of the fight.

At this juncture the suffering animal was mercifully shot, and the wolves allowed to batten on his thin and tough carcass.

Often there are serious results growing out of a stampede, either by mules or a herd of buffalo. A portion of the Fifth United States Infantry had a narrow escape from a buffalo stampede on the Old Trail, in the early summer of 1866. General George A. Sykes, who commanded the Division of Regulars in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, was ordered to join his regiment, stationed in New Mexico, and was conducting a body of recruits, with their complement of officers, to fill up the decimated ranks of the army stationed at the various military posts, in far-off Greaser Land.

The command numbered nearly eight hundred, including the subaltern officers. These recruits, or the majority of them at least, were recruits in name only; they had seen service in many a hard campaign of the Rebellion.

Some, of course, were beardless youths just out of their teens, full of that martial ardor which induced so many young men of the nation to follow the drum on the remote plains and in the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains, where the wily savages still held almost undisputed sway, and were a constant menace to the pioneer settlers.

One morning, when the command had just settled itself in careless repose on the short grass of the apparently interminable prairie at the first halt of the day’s march, a short distance beyond Fort Larned, a strange noise, like the low muttering of thunder below the horizon, greeted the ears of the little army.

All were startled by the ominous sound, unlike anything they had heard before on their dreary tour. The general ordered his scouts out to learn the cause; could it be Indians? Every eye was strained for something out of the ordinary. Even the horses of the officers and the mules of the supply-train were infected by something that seemed impending; they grew restless, stamped the earth, and vainly essayed to stampede, but were prevented by their hobbles and picket-pins.

Presently one of the scouts returned from over the divide, and reported to the general that an immense herd of buffalo was tearing down toward the Trail, and from the great clouds of dust they raised, which obscured the horizon, there must have been ten thousand of them. The roar wafted to the command, and which seemed so mysterious, was made by their hoofs as they rattled over the dry prairie.

The sound increased in volume rapidly, and soon a black, surging mass was discovered bearing right down on the Trail. Behind it could be seen a cavalcade of about five hundred Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa, who had maddened the shaggy brutes, hoping to capture the train without an attack by forcing the frightened animals to overrun the command.

Luckily, something caused the herd to open before it reached the foot of the divide, and it passed in two masses, leaving the command between, not two hundred feet from either division of the infuriated beasts.

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