My Buffaloes

Posted on February 13, 2015


Twelve years old, independent and accustomed to roam the bristly riverbanks on my own, I succumbed to the temptation offered by the North Platte River’s depleted summertime flow to wade through the slow current, curious to know what lay beyond the thick growth of cat­tails on the other side. A murky slough half-obscured by slender young cotton­woods fed into the river—a likely place for muskrats, I thought, deciding to explore further. A rustling in the trees brought me up short and I stopped, then detected a range calf splashing through the turgid water.

It was an odd-looking beast, spin­dly-legged, with hunched, misshapen shoulders and thin hind quarters. I’d heard my dad and his friends describe domestic animals reverting to ruder origins after several generations and I approached cautiously, aware that where calves exist, calves’ parents also can be found.

Suddenly noting my presence, the calf backed through the water, its head lowered and one hoof flailing the weeds. It seemed unable to decide whether I were friend or foe and made half-a-dozen halting attempts to lunge forward, then pulled away and with an awkward, lolloping effort scrambled up the bank and lumbered away, stopping twice to shake its hunched shoulders before disappearing into a tangle of brush.

I shrugged, amused but not sur­prised—until a movement in the brush further away caught my attention. Warily I backed away, surveying the scrabbly terrain between me and the river in case I needed to make a run for safety. Slowly a form emerged—bovine, huge, shaggy, with ominously curved horns and ponderously hunched shoul­ders. I’d ever seen a cow or bull like it except…

I almost fainted, then quickly shook myself back to my senses. The bovine—the buffalo!—lowered its head and scratched at the turf with one ragged hoof. I was farm boy enough to know not to run from wild animals or vicious dogs but to retreat slowly and not give them occasion to pursue or attack but I was so mesmerized by this dark, brooding countenance I couldn’t move. This huge beast continued to hoof the ground, snorting through thick black nostrils, then slowly, with what seemed like ponderous effort, it turned and shoved its way back through the undergrowth close to where the calf had disappeared.

I hesitated, won­dering if I really had seen what I thought I’d seen. Buffaloes! I repeated to myself, Real live buffaloes! As I moved away, staying on higher ground in order to avoid mush­ing through swampy slough mud, I re-examined the place I’d seen the beasts and detected other movements, other shapes, and realized that I’d stumbled upon a small herd of adults and calves.

Twice after I left them I turned to make sure that there weren’t really hundreds of them ready to stampede across the countryside as they had done less than a century before. I imagined being a mountain man penetrating the sloughs to become the first whiteexplorer to discover this wild herd. And being a boy forced to make his way alone across the prairie, seeking shelter with the buffaloes to avoid a band of avenging Sioux. Even when I slipped fording the shallow river I imagined grabbing a bull buffalo’s fur and riding him through rapids to escape hostile arrows.

Nevertheless I managed to con­tain the thrill of my discovery—and its stimulation of my imagination—to assume an air of nonchalance when I tested a farmer I passed on my way back to town.

“You think there might still be buffa­loes roaming around here?”

“Not a chance. If there was, some-body’d kill ‘em. Or take ‘em to a zoo.”

His reaction was no different from those I got from teachers, friends and parents the follow­ing week. (Had I told any of them outright that I’d seen a herd of buf­faloes they wouldn’t have believed me. Nor could I have blamed them; my imagination often transformed the carp I caught into rod-bending salmon and the little crop dusters from the airport in Scottsbluff into dangerous MIG jets.) But as soon as I could get away I set out on another sojourn across the river.

Just before noon I approached the place I’d seen the buffaloes. Supersti­tiously I crossed my fingers: In theweek or ten days that had passed since my first expedition I had begun to doubt that I really had seen the shaggy beasts.

I needn’t have worried. The buffa­loes were upriver a few hundred yards from where I’d first spotted them. I counted fifteen in the herd, including three calves. They stared sullenly, the bulls shifting position to watch me, their shaggy heads lowered and their thin forelegs rest­lessly splashing water and mud. I took up a position in the shade to watch them. Where had they come from? How had they managed to live this long without being discovered?

If the answers my imagination chose were more exotic than analytical, my obser­vations as I returned to watch them week after week were solid and practical. The buffaloes, I discov­ered, were docile animals. Unlike cattle, they did not drift apart as they fed, nor did they leave the network of sloughs to graze in open pasture.

Gradually they seemed to accept my presence, much as they accepted the startled movements of jack rabbits bounding through the patches of Indian paintbrush and wild asters that dotted the solid ground among the sloughs’ meandering channels. Gradually I learned to distinguish one from another and gave them names. The calves, inparticular, were easy to identify. One was much smaller than the other two, and one of the larger ones had only a nub of a horn on one side of its wide head. Whenever I could I brought them things to eat—hard apples that had fall­en prematurely from our backyard tree, hay or straw that I’d picked up along the roadside before fording the river, watermelon and cantaloupe rinds.

Probably because they were my dis­covery—my secret— I found them inter­esting to watch. In reality they did very little except scratch themselves on tree trunks or any other sharp objects they could find protrud­ing from the slough banks. In crashing through the under­brush they often would break a sap­ling, then rub on the stub until it glistened like polished glass. Their tails were in constant motion, mostly because by late summer their patchy fur hung in ragtag shreds from their bodies and no longer protected them from the hordes of mosquitoes that hovered above them everywhere they went.

The calves were more entertaining. They would chase each other, lowering their heads and butting, or splash into the slough and roll in the mud. One day while I was watching, the small­est one, trying to evade the other two, plunged into deeper water and flailingbawling sank into the goo. The two other calves milled around it, echoing its stricken cries while trying to avoid getting mired themselves. I ran towards them, intending to help, but they turned and stomped the mud as though they might charge.

I hesitated, not wanting to make the situation worse than it was, then I saw one of the adult buffaloes lum­ber towards the bawling calf. It eased into the slough one ponderous step at a time, its bearded jaw scraping the murky surface, and butted the calf, forcing it to stop its scrambled bawling. Slowly, submerging its head and shoving it between the calf’s back legs, it pushed upwards. The wildly flailing calf regained its footage and scrambled out of the mire while the adult, snorting and thrust­ing its huge head from side to side to get the water and mud out of its mouth and nose, backed slowly out of the slough, pausing with each step as it sought firm footing.

The foundered calf seemed to learn from its experience. No longer did it romp unheedingly into the mucky water but seemed first to test its footing as the adult buffalo had done.

Of the three calves the one with the nubby horn was the most friendly. Sometimes when I would approach it, it would romp towards me as though fak­ing an attack. But when I’d run towards it, it would back away and turn and detour around me. When I tried to coax it closer with something to eat it, would twist and shuffle and dig at the groundwith its hooves but never would let me get close enough to touch it.

That there were only three calves in the little herd and eleven or twelve adults puzzled me, although I knew that subsistence had to be difficult and many things could happen to an imma­ture animal. No longer were there any wolves in southeastern Wyoming and no other animals were large enough or strong enough to successfully attack the buffaloes. Except for men with guns, they had no natural enemies. However I knew that diseases could wipe out animal populations. One year I’d seen Old Man Root’s pasture littered with the carcasses of bloated sheep, and everyone in the county had been warned about some plague that jack rabbits could pass on to domestic animals.

One Sunday, just after a return to school had started to limit my expeditions across the river, I chased a pair of ugly vultures off a long stretch of high ground between two shallow, flooded slough channels and discovered the carcass of what appeared to be a buffalo calf. One front leg seemed to have been broken, either from birth or a fall, and its skull was pressed into the stickery turf as though it had been trying to seek comfort there. At first I thought it might have been the remains of one of the three calves I’d befriended, but then I realized that it was much smaller than any of them. Probably it had died shortly after it had been born, I decided.

I paused for a while by the carcass, considering whether or not to try tobury it and put a marker stone over the grave, but I had no shovel or any other digging instrument with me and I couldn’t find any stones large enough to build even a temporary monument. Saddened, I said a little goodbye and trundled off to look for my live animal friends.

My curiosity about my little herd nudged me to try to find out more about buffaloes, especially those that once roamed southeastern Wyoming. In a couple of books that I found in Tor­rington’s little Carnegie Library, I came across references to various small herds that had turned up in isolated parts of the West, including southern Canada, Montana and Sonora, Mexico. In addi­tion, ranchers here and there had cor­ralled a few cows and bulls and even tried to interbreed them with domestic cattle.

I left Wyoming when I was thir­teen and lost contact with most of the people I’d known in Torrington. To my knowledge, nobody that either I or my parents knew had seen or knew anything about my buffaloes. But years later, when I was managing editor of western history magazines, I came across an account describing several small herds that grazed Bureau of Land Management acreages in the hills west of Chugwater during the Great Depression. Another account described a touring Wild West show breaking upon its way to Casper and releasing all of its animals, including “buffaloes, horses and cowboys” but it gave no indica­tion where any of the three might have gone.

I’m reasonably sure that my buffaloes continued to live among those interconnected sloughs until after I left Wyoming. I remember thinking about them—perhaps even praying for them—during the fierce winter bliz­zards that swept across the plains. I could picture them huddled together enduring the wild and cold and patient­ly waiting for better tomorrows—as buffaloes had done for millenia before my little herd had come into existence.

Thirty-some years after those boy­hood jaunts I detoured from a trip to Denver and stopped in Torrington. Having an afternoon free, I decided to rediscover the slough where my buf­faloes had made their home. But the terrain seemed to have changed, the old landmarks had disappeared. No longer could I find the place I’d forded the river. From a distance I detected a stand of cottonwoods that might have been those that I’d visited so often as a boy, and for a minute or two I thought I sensed a strange animal presence and I told myself—and the boy I’d been— that of course there still were buffaloes there.

Like me, my little herd had sur­vived

Weber, The Contemporary West, Fall 2014

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