It was the buffalo that almost got me killed. Goodness knows those athletic, prehistoric beasts chased me and my horse enough times over the years with evil intent, but it wasn’t their horns which came closest to finishing me at the end of the day. The trouble came when, as a last resort, I hired a plane to go in search of our missing herd.
In the early days of the ranch we worked on a financial shoestring and even though I had bought the place for a pittance by today’s standards, it was proving very hard to pay the bills. One source of income was our buffalo herd which was worth quite a bit in those days. At one time we had about 40 of them, a significant part of our liquid assets which we could hardly afford to lose. To me these magnificent animals personify the old West far more than the cowboy, a recent arrival whose glory days were very short and are already history. Vast herds of buffalo estimated at 60 million or more used to roam the area and they were by far the most dominant animal in the ecosystem.
They provided the main food for Indians and wolves alike. Well meaning environmentalists who want to restore this country to its pre Lewis and Clark days tend to conveniently forget this key factor. Buffalo hides, heads and meat were worth quite a bit. I always thought that buffalo steak, or almost any cut for that matter, was about the best kind of meat I had ever eaten. Certainly the buffalo were worth more to us at the time than cattle would have been although they posed a problem with our guests because they were so belligerent and dangerous. Their placid appearance 90% of the time hides a volatile temper which can explode without warning.
These animals can run fast and turn on a dime. They cause more accidents than the bears in Yellowstone Park, one of the few places where there is still a significant wild herd.Buffalo are not easy to keep behind fences and can break through almost anything with little respect for barbed wire or electric charges. The fact that we are adjacent to the sparsely populated, mainly unfenced 2 million acre Wind River Indian Reservation on one side and the 6 million acre Greater Yellowstone ecosystem on the other did not make it any easier to keep track of them when they broke out. Again and again we had to go out on horseback, track them and bring them back. Once they got out on the Indian Reservation one or two were often missing.
Once in early July 1975 our herd flat disappeared. We put in many miles looking for them and trying to track them. One trouble was that buffalo tracks were hard to distinguish from cattle tracks and there were quite a few cattle around at that time of year. I was getting desperate and decided that the only way to find them was to hire a plane and go looking from the air. We arranged a charter from a pilot in Riverton and he and I took off from our old airstrip to make wider and wider circles around the ranch in an attempt to find them in a Cessna 172. We kept circling with no luck until we were over 10 miles out and finally we spotted them in a kind of crater at the foot of Black Mountain. They were grazing happily in a clearing surrounded by thick forest at about 10,000 ft.
We would not have found them on horseback unless we had ridden nearly on top of them. I found they sought spots like that where they could not be seen from far away. Happily we turned around and headed for the ranch. On the way back we spotted my daughter and one of our other wranglers riding along an old wagon track on open sagebrush flats looking for the buffalo. I suggested to the pilot that we signal them to go on back to the ranch as it was too far to go on after them that afternoon and I wanted to return the next morning. The pilot looked out and said, “Awe hell, I’ll do better than that”. With which he swept around and made a nice landing on the old wagon track which ran pretty straight for over half a mile. After talking with my daughter, we turned the plane around by picking up the tail and started back up the track for a takeoff.
I was not happy because we were at over 9,000 ft. on one of the hottest days of the year with an almost imperceptible tail wind. Not much lift. Still the guy was obviously a pretty good pilot and should have known what he was doing. We raced along the old wagon track with the engine wide open and very soon we could see it turning ahead and a gorge beyond. Just before the turn he leaned back on the stick and up we went, but only about 40 ft. before we stalled.
There was that horrible noise of the stall warning and we were coming down. Happily the pilot thought to cut off the ignition and for a few hundred feet we kind of slalomed around some boulders before the front wheels got hung up on a rock and we flipped over on the roof. We slid along a ways on the roof before coming to a complete stop. After the grinding noise of the crash the sudden silence seemed bizarre. There I was hanging upside down in my safety belt. The cab was completely full of dust making me choke and I couldn’t see. I called to the pilot and the red headed French girl who was staying at the ranch and had insisted on coming. A shout of, “Are you alright”, brought utter silence in response.
In a panic I hastened to undo my safety belt and kick open the badly warped door to climb out. When I turned around and stuck my head into the door to shout at them they both replied that they were OK. I never knew why they didn’t respond immediately as neither had had a blow on the head. Anyhow we were super lucky. The French lady had a bruise around her thigh because being in the back seat she had been thrown farther and harder when the plane flipped over than the pilot and I in the front. My sun glasses also got smashed and the plane was a total write off.
Grateful to be alive and unhurt we faced the necessity of getting back to the ranch seven miles away. There were only two horses and five people. Red head, pilot and I started to walk. Red head was wearing sandals which were not ideal for walking seven miles in rough terrain and ended up with terrible blisters as well as bruised thighs, but she was very game and had absolutely no complaints. Hats off! It wasn’t the kind of day most people seek on vacation although there was definitely some excitement.
In the morning after a hurried breakfast we threw together some sandwiches and seven or eight of us headed out after the buffalo. We made the 12 miles well before noon. Realizing that the buffalo had been harassed and were probably wild as hell, I circled around through the spruce forest to approach them on the side away from the ranch which was a good move because when we came out of the woods they took off in the other direction like a covey of quail. We raced them trying not to lose sight in one of the wildest rides of my life. There were logs to jump and we had to hug the horses’ necks going under overhanging branches. It was all we could do to stay within sight and hearing of the herd.
It must have been much like this that the Indians ran down buffalo to lance them with their spears. What a fantastic feat on horseback that must have been to ram a lance up behind a galloping buffalo’s rib cage and go on up several feet into the heart to bring a ton of powerful animal to the ground. I have often reflected on the sudden flowering of Plains Indian culture with the acquisition of the horse. In a few short years they were transformed from the meager existence of hunter gatherers with only dogs to help with transport to a far more affluent society where meat was available in comparative abundance and horses could carry the baggage. For a little over a century that amazingly picturesque and proud society flourished only to succumb as suddenly to a totally ignominious collapse. Our own culture of the automobile is not yet quite as old and one wonders if it will outlast it by much.
Indians or not we were riding hard and broke out of the woods almost half a mile behind the herd, but we could see the cloud of dust they were raising and it was headed toward the ranch, thank God. In open country we could make better time and after a few miles the buffalo slowed down and we moved in closer. I thought it was best not to excite them more than necessary so we kept a good distance as long as they were moving in the right direction. We passed the twisted carcass of the plane beside the wagon track and kept on toward the ranch mile after mile. The buffalo stopped to graze a bit from time to time so we did not hurry them and besides our horses had already had a good workout and could use a little rest. It was good and hot and we were all sweating; horses and riders alike, but things were going well. The buffalo walked right along into their pasture as though they were glad to be home; their wander lust satisfied for the time being. Now I look back on those days with nostalgia. It was a hard struggle then, but there were many glorious, exciting times and it was a wonderful life style. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.