What Happens When a Cowboy Meets a Buffalo on the Prairie?
This story is based on a real life experience that happened during a wild Buffalo roundup in South Dakota.
Every year Custer State Park holds one of these events, and the public is welcome to watch.
This story provides a more personal view of something that could happen during the activities to any cowboy who rides that day.
The autumn wind sent a chill across the golden plains causing leaves to whip wildly and skitter across the frosty ground. He bent his back against it and hunkered close to the saddle he was carrying. Thirty degrees was cold for a Florida boy, but it was early. The day would warm as the sun rose, and by noon, he’d be sweating.
He had come to this glorious 73,000 acre state park ostensibly to work as a volunteer, but his real goal was to take part in the annual wild buffalo roundup that would be held in October. It would be the highlight of his summer, and maybe of his life. Being part of the roundup would create memories to warm his older years, and he was going to need good memories. He was not old yet, but he knew his day was coming.
Custer State Park had the second largest wild buffalo herd in the country. In the summer, the behemoths ranged widely and dined endlessly on the succulent grasses that grew along the rolling hills. In the warmer months, members of the herd mated there, had their babies there, cavorted there and rolled contentedly in the mud wallows that dotted the range.
Now winter was coming and, as in past years, the herd had almost doubled in size. There would not be enough food to sustain all of them. To help them survive, the park workers had to gather the animals, cull them and inoculate their babies. Hard decisions would be made as to which animals and how many would have to go to auction.
The roundup and the subsequent auction were popular and well publicized events. People came from across the country to take part or observe. It was their chance to experience a bit of the old west and feel the excitement and romance of it.
Of course, the buffalo had no idea that for many of them, this would be their last summer. They didn’t know which of them would be checked, medicated and turned loose or which would be sold on the auction block in November. It was all up to the bosses.
The old bulls always were first on the block because they could no longer breed. In fact, they were no longer even an active part of the herd. Every year at mid season the oldest among them would simply wander away from the others and live what remained of their lives in solitude. It was almost as if they knew instinctively that their days were over, and that they no longer belonged.
This was a hard thing for an animal that was born with one of the strongest herding instincts in nature. From the day they left the herd, the old bulls never again united, not even with each other. They had lived their lives and now it was time to make room in the herd for the young. It was nature’s way.
At the auction, people would buy the old, sick or weak animals, for their hides and skulls. The finer, sturdier buffalo would be sold as breeders. The remainder would be sold and then slaughtered for their meat.
Buffalo meat had become a valuable commodity in recent years. It was low in fat and cholesterol and was also quite delicious. Buffalo steaks, roasts, sausages, burgers and salami were greatly sought after, and buyers knew the park was one of the few places where they could buy what they needed to stock their businesses.
In past years, the buffalo herds had almost been extinguished, so the culling had to be done carefully. It was a delicate balancing act. The park needed to earn as much money as possible from the auction, but it could only sell a limited number of animals to avoid depleting the herd too much. Thus, supplies were limited and their costs were high.
The money earned at the annual auctions was used to sustain the remaining members of the herd during the long, frigid South Dakota winters. Without it, food and medical care would be scarce, and many of the buffalo would die.
Even though he understood this, the Florida cowboy couldn’t keep himself from feeling sorry for those who were about to be slaughtered, especially the old ones. After all, he wasn’t exactly a young bull himself anymore! He understood about separating himself from the herd…he was here, wasn’t he?
One Man's Dream
He was in mid life now, old enough to start feeling his age, but young enough still to seek adventure. This particular adventure would be one that many dreamed of but few could ever have. It was a chance to ride across the plains with a thundering herd of buffalo; to smell their sweat and be deafened by the roar of their pounding hooves, to feel their body heat and share their wild fear. This is what he had come for, and his long summer of waiting was over.
His old Ford pickup groaned under the weight of the bulky saddle as it clattered onto the metal floorboards. The sun was rising now. The morning was fresh and quiet. The cloudless sky was a crystalline blue and the golden hues of autumn stood out boldly against it. He breathed in deeply and sighed. He could smell the excitement of the coming day.
As a boy, he had dreamed of being a cowboy, of riding fence, branding livestock and driving cattle. However, he had tucked those dreams into the back of his heart when he left the family farm and moved into the city.
The things of childhood had to be packed away. He was an adult now. He had to be practical, had to earn a living, had to build a secure future. So, when he finished his college work, he became an accountant. It was a career with a future.
For awhile, he actually believed that he could be happy playing with figures and burying himself in paperwork. However he knew this kind of life would never work for him. The dreams from his childhood were too strong. Although he had buried them, he had never forgotten them. Deep down, he was still a cowboy.
He would watch John Wayne and Audie Murphy as they flew across the western plains on their sleek stallions seeking justice for the little guy and making the world a better place. He read Louis L’Amour novels and constantly thought about life in the old west. He had a need to taste that life, to be part of it somehow. It was an itch that he just could not scratch, no matter how hard he tried.
And so, one day he quit. Just like that. He threw some things into his old pickup and drove himself across the country to Custer State Park where he signed on as a volunteer.
He had heard about the roundup, and knew that as a park worker he would be able to participate. He wanted to hear the snorting of the buffalo, wipe their snot off his chaps and feel the reverberation of their pounding hooves.
His plan was simple. Work hard. Make friends. Play on the local ball team. Offer to help people on weekends with their ranch work. Let people know you’re responsible and likeable. Somebody will loan you a horse and saddle so that you can ride in the roundup.
It took all summer, but it worked. The saddle now lying in the bed of his truck was no more his than the Appaloosa he’d be riding today, but it didn’t matter. He had a saddle; he had a horse to ride, and today was going to be the day he became a real cowboy.
The Roundup Begins
Dust swirled around the truck as he skidded into the parking area by the corrals. Workers, cowboys and visitors of all descriptions were milling around, sipping hot coffee out of steaming mugs and swapping stories. There were city cowboys in fancy leather and shiny boots, and real cowboys with faded jeans who carried worn saddles. He had never seen so many colors and styles of cowboy hats, boots, vests and chaps. Horses snorted steam from their wet nostrils and stamped nervously at the ground. Park trucks, jeeps and helicopters sat at the ready.
The air was tight with anticipation, but before long all movement stopped. Nobody spoke. It was oddly quiet. A trail boss had climbed into the bed of a pickup truck and was spouting directions.
The cowboys would be rounding up 1500 head of buffalo today. There would be five groups, all of whom would come at the scattered herds from behind. Each group would have some pickups to jump into in the event riders lost their seating. “If you lose your horse, get up off the ground. Find a safe spot until a pickup or another rider can help you. This is a dangerous business, and buffalo do not sidestep obstacles like horses do.”
The Florida cowboy’s group was assigned to the herd that had been seen on the wildlife loop. Horses and vehicles headed slowly towards their entry area. Three hundred buffalo were waiting for them just over the third ridge. All were lying down and cooling their bellies on the soft morning grasses.
The workers formed a long, silent line. Anticipation tightened in the cowboy’s throat, and his legs ached from pressing too hard into the sides of his leather saddle. He was almost hyperventilating with excitement.
He heard no command, but as if by magic, everyone along the line started moving forward at the same time.
The buffalo saw this and became restless. A few began to stand up and look around nervously. Soon the entire herd was afoot. They sensed trouble and began to move forward slowly, like cattle heading for the barn.
The line of cowboys followed quietly behind, and he thought “Is this it? This is nothing like I thought it was going to be!” These beasts aren’t even walking fast, let alone running!”
He was disappointed, saddened even, to feel that his dream could have been so wrong. “Were they actually going to walk these animals all the way to the corrals?”
Not hardly. One of the cowboys snapped his whip against the cold sky, then another and another. Everybody started hooting and hollering. The herd was racing down the south side of the ridge, horses were running and foaming at the mouth, pickups were spitting pebbles and dust. The game was on!
The sudden surge took him by surprise, and when his horse bolted forward in a wild frenzy to be with the others, he lost his stirrups momentarily and was almost thrown to the ground. He didn’t expect this, and it took him a few minutes to get his bearings. He had to move fast now or he’d be left behind.
By now the buffalo were ripping along at full throttle in their quest to escape their tormenters. The dust of the chase had blinded him temporarily, but his horse, ears back and mane whipping, was already flying across the prairie in the heat of the moment. He saw what he needed to do and was fully into it.
His adrenaline had spiked so high that it took a minute for him to realize that the herd had turned and was now coming right at him. A minute ago he had been chasing three hundred buffalo. Now they were chasing him!
He saw a wide draw about fifty feet to his left and reined his horse towards it. The two of them slid across the pebbles and slipped into it just as the herd roared by. He was safe.
No, he wasn’t! The herd had turned again. Now they had come down into the draw and were racing towards him full bore. They were too close. He had to get out.
He kicked wildly at the horse’s flanks, but the sides of the draw were steep and slippery with pebbles. The horse was as frantic to escape as he was. It no longer wanted extra weight on its back, so it used the side of the draw to scrape him off its back.
The horse had managed to pull itself up out of the draw to safety, but the cowboy was still in it. He had no time to escape. Instead, he pressed himself tightly against an indentation in the side wall of the draw and prayed the herd would pass him by.
There was dust, and heat, and snorting and the incessant pounding of hooves. It seemed to last an eternity. Then, there was only silence. The Florida cowboy was alone and badly shaken, but he was uninjured, alive and the herd was gone. His legs gave out, and he fell to the ground.
When he came to, he was warm. He could hear his horse grazing above the draw. At least he wouldn’t have to walk back to the corrals!
Once he got his footing, he was able to climb out of the draw. His plan was to get on his horse and head back to the corrals. It turned out, however, that it wasn’t his horse that he had heard earlier. It was one of the old bachelor bulls, and it was now standing less than twenty feet away from him.
The bull buffalo breathed heavily. It swayed slowly back and forth as it eyed him. Its head was down, and it was pawing at the earth beneath its massive girth. This buffalo was old and had to weigh at least two thousand pounds. The cowboy would never be able to outrun it, and there was no place to hide.
The only chance the cowboy had was to avoid eye contact and stand perfectly still. The thought of dying violently by a goring from the horns of this huge beast was terrifying, but there were no choices. He was clearly at the mercy of the old bull.
Just as the cowboy had become separated from his fellows, the bull had become separated from his herd. Just as the bosses decided which of the buffalo lived or died, so this buffalo would be deciding the cowboy’s fate on this warm South Dakota afternoon?
The two of them stood there in the hot sun, one curious, the other terrified, for what seemed a very long time. Neither seemed to know what to do. All was silent except for the deep grunting breaths of the old bull and the buzzing of the flies that played on his huge, hairy back.
Then, almost imperceptibly, the Buffalo turned. The smell of the sweet grasses that lay at his feet had attracted his attention. It was hot, this game was getting boring, and he was hungry. He had made his decision: the cowboy would live.
As the buffalo began to amble off, the cowboy inched backwards slowly, one step at a time. He finally reached his horse which had watched the entire scene from a small stand of trees fifty yards to the west.
The cowboy’s eyes never left the old bull. He was afraid it would change its mind, turn and charge him. Buffalo, after all, were unpredictable.
It never happened.
Before long, the cowboy was back in his saddle and safe. However, now he was the one who had to make a decision. This bull should have been rounded up with the rest of the herd. It was the cowboy’s job to see that this happened. He’d have to go for help to do it, but the question was, should he?
For some unknown reason, the old bull had spared his life. Did he not owe the animal a debt of gratitude for saving him?
The cowboy sat and watched the old bull for a long time. He was the embodiment of the old west, the stuff of western sagas. His kind had almost been extinguished by the greed and stupidity of man, but here he was: still living wild and free on the western plains; a survivor.
The cowboy took one last look, and then turned his horse toward the corrals. He had branding to do.
Would you like to be involved in a wild buffalo roundup?
© 2016 Dreamworker