From Buffalo Land
An Authentic Account of the Discoveries, Adventures, and Mishaps
of a Scientific and Sporting Party in the Wild West

By W. E. Webb
Cincinnati and Chicago: E. Hannaford & Company, 1872


[From] Chapter XIII. Uncle Sam's Buffalo Herds.

Could the venerable Uncle Samuel go up in a balloon and take a thousand miles' view of his western stock region, he would perceive that his goodly herds of bison, some millions in number, feeding between the snows of the North and the flowers of the South, were waxing fat and multiplying. This latter fact might somewhat surprise him, when he discovered around his herd a steady line of fire and heard its continual snapping. The unsophisticated old gentleman would see train after train of railroad cars rustling over the plains, every window smoking with the bombardment like the port-holes of a man-of-war. He would see Upper Missouri steamers often paddling in a river black with the crossing herds, and pouring wanton showers of bullets into their shaggy backs. To the south Indians on horseback, to the north Indians on snow shoes, would meet his astonished gaze, and around the outskirts of the vast range his white children on a variety of conveyances, and all, savage and civilized alike, thirsting for buffalo blood. That the buffalo, in spite of all this, does apparently continue to increase, shows that the old and rheumatic ones, the veteran bulls which in bands and singly circle around the inner herds of cows and calves, are the ones that most commonly fall the easy victims to the hunters. Their day has passed, and powder and ball but give the wolves their bones to pick a little earlier.

[From] Chapter XX. The Reader Joins Us in a Buffalo Chase.

We are moving out over the grand, illimitable plain again. Reader, ride with us awhile by the side of that big bison bull, which we have just stirred up from his noonday dream. You see his broad nostrils, reddish just under the dark skin at the end, and sensitive as the nose of a pointer. They have caught the air which we tainted, while passing for a moment across the breeze.

He has seen nothing, and we are still invisible, but he does not stop to look behind. "Escape for your life!" has been as plainly telegraphed from nose to brain, as it could be by eyes or mouth. We were so far off and well hidden then, that those active telltales, sound and sight, could play no part in this alarm. But the sentinel nerves of smell fled back from their post on the frontier, with the cry of "Man!" and the beast of the wilderness thinks only of flight. Powerful for defense against the rest of the animal creation, he is coward on the instant before its king.

Away he goes, right into the teeth of the wind, which he knows will tell him of any other foes ahead. Lumber along, old fellow, in your ponderous gallop, the reader and I are on your path. Our saddle girths have been tightly drawn, the holster pistols are nestled snug at hand, in their cases on either side of the saddle-horn, while across its front lies the light Henry carbine, with a shoulder-strap attaching it to our person, should we drop the gun for the pistol. Thus we ride with twenty-four shots before reloading, at the service of our trigger-finger; the carbine carries twelve, the pistols each a half-dozen.

How warm we have become. Our hearts are as high up as they can get, bumping away at the throat-valves, as if they wished to get out and see what it is that has called their reserves into action.

There is a muskish taint in the air, from the game ahead. Put in your spurs, comrade; don't spare. Get up beside him quickly as possible. Once there, the horses will easily stick. A stern chase disheartens the pursuer, encourages the pursued. Look out for that creek! See how the buffalo takes its steep bank--a plunge headlong, which sends the dust up in clouds. Now, as we check and turn into a ford, he is going up the opposite side.

Another hundred yards, and we are close beside him. The long tongue is hung out, and his head lies low down, as he plunges steadily forward, diverging ever so little as we press up opposite his fore-shoulders. That was a bad shot, my friend, barely missing your horse's head. Shooting at full gallop is like drawing straight lines while being shaken.

Some of our bullets are telling; you can hear them crack on his hide. There is a red spot now, not bigger than the point of one's finger, opposite a lung, and drops of blood trickle, with the saliva, from his jaws. Half a score of balls have been pelted into his big body, and he is bleeding internally. Now the blood comes thicker, and little clots of it drop down. He slows up-there is danger; look well to your seat!

That was a narrow escape, comrade. The bull suddenly whirled on his forefeet for a pivot, and your horse's chest, which was brushing his hind-quarters, grazed the black horns as they dipped for a plunge. The pony's swerve barely saved you both.

Now he stands sullen, glaring at us. The wounds look like little points of red paint, put deftly on his shaggy hide. They bleed inwardly, just crimsoning the brown hair at their mouths. The large eyes roll and swell with pain and fury. He is measuring our distance.

See him blow the blood from his nostrils. The drops scatter like red-hot shot around him, seeming to hiss in globules of fury, as they spatter upon the dry grass. Bladder-like bubbles sputter in ebb and flow, from the red holes over his lungs. Tiny doors, for death's messengers to have entered in at.

What a marvel of size and ferocity he looks. Only our horse's legs stand between us and disembowelment. Down drops the head into battery again, and his rush would knock us over like nine-pins, did we stay to receive it. But bison charges are short ones. Our animals spring away, and he stops. Signs of grogginess are coming on him. How he hates to feel his knees shake, straightening them out with a jerk, as we thought he was just going down.

But at last gradually and gracefully he sinks, doubling his legs under him, and resting on his belly. There is still no flurry, or motion of any kind denoting pain. Unconquerable to the death, he suddenly falls on his side, the limbs stiffen, and he is dead.

Twine your hands in the long beard, and in the mane. How he shames the lion, for whom he could furnish coats half a dozen times over. What switches of hair those black fetlocks would make. Was there ever another so big a bison?

Wondering over this, we lie down on the prostrate bulk, and wait for the wagon.

[From] Chapter XXI. Wanton Slaughter of Buffalo.

Another matter on which the plains appealed to us strongly, pertained to the wanton destruction of its wild cattle. During the year 1871, about fifty thousand buffalo were killed on the plains of Kansas and Colorado alone. Of this number, it will be correct to estimate that about one-third were shot for their robes, as many more for meat, and sixteen thousand or so for sport. Each buffalo could probably have furnished five hundred pounds of meat and tallow, the quantity of the latter being small. When killed for food, only the hind quarters and a small portion of the loin are saved, in all perhaps two hundred pounds. The hides of these are sacrificed, the skin being cut with the quarters, and left on them for their protection. The profits of this great slaughter would, therefore, be about 16,500 robes and 3,300,000 pounds of meat; the waste over 33,000 robes, and probably not less than 20,000,000 pounds of meat.

In this computation, the vast herds which range further north are not included. There, however, the waste is comparatively small, as the red man is in the habit of saving the greater portion of the flesh and robes. Of the above twenty million pounds of meat left to rot in the sun, and taint the air of the plains, the greater proportion would furnish sweeter and more nourishing food to the poor classes of our cities than the beef which they are able to obtain.

Let this slaughter continue for ten years, and the bison of the American continent will become extinct. The number of valuable robes and pounds of meat which would thus be lost to us and posterity, will run too far into the millions to be easily calculated. All over the plains, lying in disgusting masses of putrefaction along valley and hill, are strewn immense carcasses of wantonly slain buffalo. They line the Kansas Pacific Railroad for two hundred miles.

Following ordinary sporting parties for an hour after they have commenced smiting the borders of a herd, stop by a few of the monsters that they leave behind, in pools of blood, upon the grass; draw your hunting-knife across the fat hind-quarters, and see how the cuts reveal depths of sweet, nourishing meat, sufficient to supply two hundred starving wretches with an abundant dinner; then if your humanity does not tempt to a shot at the worse than pot-hunters in front, God's bounties have indeed been thrown away upon you.

By law, as stringent in its provisions as possible, no man should be suffered to pull trigger on a buffalo, unless he will make practical use of the robe and the meat. What would be thought of a hunter, in any of the Western States, who shot quails and chickens and left them where they fell? Every citizen, whether sportsman or not, would join in outcry against him. Another matter which the law should regulate relates to the protection of the buffalo cows until after the season when they have brought forth their young. The calf will thrive, though weaned by necessity at a very early age, and the season for shooting cows, although short, would be amply long enough to comport with the chances of future increase.

Probably the most cruel of all bison-shooting pastime, is that of firing from the cars. During certain periods in the spring and fall, when the large herds are crossing the Kansas Pacific Railroad, the trains run for a hundred miles or more among countless thousands of the shaggy monarchs of the plains. The bison has a strange and entirely unaccountable instinct or habit which leads it to attempt crossing in front of any moving object near it. It frequently happened, in the time of the old stages, that the driver had to rein up his horses until the herd which he had startled had crossed the road ahead of him. To accomplish this feat, if the object of their fright was moving rapidly, the animals would often run for miles.

When the iron-horse comes rushing into their solitudes, and snorting out his fierce alarms, the herds, though perhaps a mile away from his path, will lift their heads and gaze intently for a few moments toward the object thus approaching them with a roar which causes the earth to tremble, and enveloped in a white cloud that streams further and higher than the dust of the old stage-coach ever did; and then, having determined its course, instead of fleeing back to the distant valleys, away they go, charging across the ridge over which the iron rails lie, apparently determined to cross in front of the locomotive at all hazards. The rate per mile of passenger trains is slow upon the plains, and hence it often happens that the cars and buffalo will be side by side for a mile or two, the brutes abandoning the effort to cross only when their foe has merged entirely ahead. During these races the car-windows are opened, and numerous breech-loaders fling hundreds of bullets among the densely crowded and flying masses. Many of the poor animals fall, and more go off to die in the ravines. The train speeds on, and the scene is repeated every few miles until Buffalo Land is passed.

Another method of wanton slaughter is the stalking of the herds by men carrying needle-guns. These throw a ball double the weight of the ordinary carbine, and the shot is effective at six hundred yards. Concealed in ravines, the hunter causes terrible havoc with such weapons before the herd takes flight. We were never guilty of ambushing after those two days on the Saline, and of those occasions we were heartily ashamed ever afterward.

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