Anticipation hung thick in the air. Energy buzzed to the point where it was almost tangible between both man and beast. A group of weather-worn buckskin clad men sat aboard nervous ponies well-aware of the rising excitement. Their mounts pranced anxiously just below the crest of a ridge, tossing their heads in impatience. The eyes of the men fixed intently ahead on a sentry concealed near the ridgeline. Grass danced lazily about the hidden man, revealing to the hunters the wind had remained in their favor. Perhaps fortune would fall to their favor on this day?
Just on the other side of the ridge, a small group of bison were meandering across the valley floor, unaware they were being watched. As with all life in this part of the country, the movements of the buffalo were slow, deliberate, and dictated by a sense of time that had already eroded as you moved further east. Their heads would drop to the ground as they snatched a bit of the short stiff prairie grass they had given their name to. Once a mouthful was procured, they would snap their heads to attention and gaze about the grassland. This was no doubt a habit gained from millennia in a constant dance with prairie predators who lurking about. Ever so slowly, the wary but unsuspecting herd crossed in front of the waiting ambush.
As the bison moved closer their fate was sealed. The lookout slowly crept away on knees and elbows, moving silently toward the group. Reaching a point beneath the skyline where he could no longer be discovered by his prey, he popped up and scurried back to his party.
“Check yer’ powder boys,” he whispered as he approached the group “We’ll be dinin on buffler tanight.” The flash of his eyes and a mustached smirk told the men everything was going according to plan. The trap was set, and now it was to be sprung. As the lookout swung aboard his mount, the surrounding horsemen made the final inspection of their gear. Rifles were inspected, priming powder examined, pistols were secured. It was only a matter of time now. A brief look among the group signaled all were ready. Moccasined heels thump sharply into the ponies ribs. The hunt was on.
Sensing the building excitement the horses themselves tossed their heads and pranced nimbly onward. Energized by the electricity in the air, the horses pushed against the steel bits in their mouths. As with water released from the dam, soon the horses and men began building speed as they approached the ridgeline. Soft hoofs beat louder, and louder, until the rumbling sound resembled a slow rolling thunder often heard on this windswept prairie. The fragile control of the riders was quickly crumbling. Gaining speed, and with blood running hot in their veins, they had hit the point of no return. The tension finally burst as one man let out a war whoop that would have scared the fletching off a blackfoot arrow. “AAAAYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEE!” The weathered calvary gave their ponies their heads and the rush was on.
Pounding hoofs took the men over the hill just in time to see the buffalo bolting across the flat meadow below. Horses dug hard after the fleeing beasts and like a flash raced down the hill in pursuit. Ears pinned and nostrils flared as the the horses ran for all they were worth. Determination shone from their eyes, as if they too were chasing down tonight’s sustenance. Try as they might, the buffalo herd had been caught flat footed, and the mountain calvary was bearing down hard upon them.
As the ponies gained on the fleeing herd, each man balanced deftly atop their steed. It wasn’t common practice to go running buffalo like this, but the men had been caught up in the thrill of the moment. Soon they were right in the midst of the confused beasts. Ponies, men, and buffalo, all wil hot blood running through their veins sped across the prairie. Dust mixed with the air and somewhere another war cry burst from an energized rider. Without warning a shot rang out, then another, and another. One big bull stumbled near the fringe of the herd and dove face first to a stop. As he fell still a giant cloud of dust rose up around him and several cows tried to dodge the fallen patriarch. Another bull met a similar fate and keeled over, piling up into an old fallen log.
The climax of the fallen bulls let the steam out of the hunting party. They reined in their horses, and drew to a stop. Beneath each man, the chest of their horse expanded and contracted as they consumed huge breaths of air. White foam had formed in the corners of their mouths from their exertion, but slowly they were regaining their sense of balance. As the riders regained control of their mounts, they wheeled back toward the fallen buffalo.
“Haha!” one man shouted. “Bufflers down!”
“Tobbins and Miller, took em down!” exclaimed another.
“Tobbins!” another voice rang out in jest, “least you coulda dropped one o’ them fat cows, besides these two hare old bulls.”
The man named Tobbins paid this banter no mind as he approached the closer of the fallen beasts. Near the bull, Tobbins dismounted and dropped his rein. Making meat strikes a chord buried inside the soul of a wild man, and the man they called Tobbins was no different. Confident, and proud of his marksmanship while aboard his galloping mount, he reached to his back and drew his hunting knife. Skinning and butchering wouldn’t take long with the extra hands about. As this party was on the move, they would likely ditch the carcass with all but the meat they could eat and carry along. It was simply the way of these nomadic white men.
Within a step of the downed buff, with a smile on his face Tobbins raised his hands and called out boastfully, “McEllroy you pilgrim! You an this hare buffler look like you came from the same kin!”
Just then, and without warning the buffalo at the man’s feet burst back into life. The ball had not punctured any vital organs, only ricocheting off the spinal cord and temporarily paralyzing the old warrior. With the dexterity and speed belied by his great strength the bull was on his feet in an instant. A fire of revenge and anger flared in his black eyes, and he looked for his assailant.
Tobbin’s eye’s widened and fear gripped his features. He too reacted with an instinctive quickness, fleeing back to his mount. An old wounded bull such as this could easily tear a man to pieces. His moccasined feet sprang quickly with each step drawing closer to his now alert horse. Tobbins ran like he had never ran before as he knew his life depended on it. Hazarding a quick glance over his shoulder he saw his saving grace. In his rage, the bull had targeted the tree stump he had fallen upon and took his fury out on it. It was just then the bull had spotted his fleeing adversary, and immediately changed course. His sharp hooves beat into the ground as he lowered his head to attack. Tobbins tried to mount his horse, but the startled animal sidestepped the foresaken man and left him afoot. The end of Tobbins was fast approaching and sunlight glinted off the horns of the charging beast.
The quick turn of events had caught the other men of the hunting party unprepared. As their mounts wheeled from the crazed bull, the hunters simply held on and tried to maintain the advantage of staying mounted with a wounded and ferocious bull on the fight. One man though, the seasoned hunter named McEllroy, had been ready. He had not discharged his rifle in the earlier foray. Primed and ready, he kicked his mount with great haste toward the frenzy. With his long hair blowing in the wind, he was Tobbin’s last chance of survival and he knew it.
Riding hard, he cleared Tobbin’s mount and had one chance. The bull was within feet of the stranded Tobbin’s and moving fast. McEllroy brought the familiar stock of his .54 caliber Pennsylvania rifle to his face. Steady nerves combined with the haste of the situation came together as the hunter zeroed in all of his concentration in an instant. Focusing quickly on a spot in the center of the great beast’s head, McEllroy instinctively pulled the trigger. The rifle boomed, and a cloud of smoke momentarily obscured his view.
Once the smoke cleared McEllroy looked, and to his satisfaction, the bull lay dead within a breath of his companion’s feet. Blood ran red from its mouth and nostrils, and was also seeping forth from a small hole in his head. Fortunately for the hard breathing Tobbins, life had left the old bull as quickly as it had reappeared only moments before. One moment longer and there likely would have been two dying creatures on the prairie sands.
On shaky knees Tobbins wide eyes shifted slowly toward the mounted McEllroy. Both men realized how unlikely the shot had been. Not only had McEllroy been able to hit a dead bull’s-eye on a charging buffalo from horse back, but the fact the ball had even penetrated the skull was improbable. Fortunately for Tobbins, luck had been with him on this day.
The eyes of the two grizzled hunters met. Relief and gratitude were certainly apparent in Tobbin’s eyes. No words were necessary in these parts. The look alone was enough to pass between them. For just a moment they let the gravity of the situation sink in.
Then, to break the silence, McEllroy leaned forward in his saddle. “Pilgram, eh?” He spat in the dirt as he turned his horse. “Waugh!”
Hey there Pilgrim, if you enjoyed this story you might like another short story based on an Alfred Jacob Miller painting; The Lost Greenhorn.