CLOUDS OF ORANGE and white butterflies floated lazily on a gentle breeze, and the fragrance of chokecherry blossoms filled the air. The plainsman scrambled out of an arroyo, where he’d left his horse tied, and cautiously worked his way up a grassy knoll. Crawling the last few feet on his hands and knees, he stretched out flat, hugging the earth, and slowly eased his head over the crest of the hill. He lay motionless, scanning the distant prairie as a wisp of wind brought with it the pungent buffalo smell. He filled his lungs with it, savoring that moist gaminess, full of fresh droppings and sweaty fur. But he waited, as a great cat would wait, unhurried and calm, absorbing everything about him before he began the stalk.
As he always did, he felt himself the intruder here, looking upon something no mortal was meant to see. About these still, windswept plains there was an awesome quality, almost as though some wild and brutally magnificent force had taken earth and solitude and fashioned it into something visible, yet beyond the ken of man. A vast expanse of emptiness, raging with dust devils and blizzards, where man must forever walk as an alien. A hostile land that mocked his passage, waiting with eternal patience to claim the bones of those who violated its harsh serenity.
And however long he roamed these plains, he was still the intruder, an outsider with no sense of kinship for the forces which mocked him. As though—should he wander here forever—he would merely come full circle. Alone, a creature in a land of creatures, yet somehow apart. Which left nothing but the moment, and the predatory instinct that had brought him here. The kill.
Before him the plains were spotted with small, scattered herds of buffalo. At a distance it appeared to be a shaggy carpet of muddy brown stretching to the horizon. But-up close the herds took form, and from the hilltop, individual buffalo assumed shape, even character. A hundred yards beyond the hill, two ponderous bulls were holding a staring contest. Their bloodshot eyes rolled furiously as they tossed great chunks of earth over their backs, and their guttural roar signaled the onset of a bloody duel. Suddenly their heads lowered and they thundered toward one another, narrow flanks heaving, legs churning. The impact as they butted heads shook the earth and drove both antagonists to their knees. Stunned, yet all the more enraged, they lunged. erect in an instant, locking horns as their massive shoulders bunched with power. The muscles on their flanks swelled like veined ropes; sharp hooves strained and dug for footing; froth hung from their mouths in long glutinous strings; and their tongues lolled out as the brutal struggle sapped their lungs. Then, with a savage heave, one bull flung his adversary aside and ripped a bloody gash across his shoulder. The gored bull gave ground, retreating slowly at first, then broke into headlong flight as his opponent speared him in the rump.
The victor pawed the dusty earth, bellowing a triumphant roar, and like some stately lord on parade, struck a grand pose for the cows. He had fought and won, and while he might fight dozens of such battles during the rutting season, for the moment he stood unchallenged.
The plainsman eased over the top of the knoll while the herd was still distracted by the struggle. Slithering down the forward slope on his belly, he took cover behind a soapweed as the vanquished bull disappeared across the prairie. The bush made a perfect blind; after unstrapping his shell pouch, he set a ramrod and a canteen on the ground close at hand. Then he set up the shooting sticks and laid his Sharps over the fork. He was ready.
Alert, but in no great hurry, he began a painstaking search for the leader. Every herd had a leader, generally an old cow. Shrewder than the bulls—perhaps more suspicious—they made the best sentries. What he sought was a cow that seemed unusually watchful, on guard, testing the wind for signs of danger. Until a man dropped the leader, his chances of getting a stand were practically nil. After a long, careful scrutiny, he finally spotted her. And what a cunning old bitch! Hidden back in the middle of the herd, holding herself still and vigilant, and peering straight at him, trying to raise a scent.
Grunting softly, he eared back the hammer and laid the sights behind her shoulder, centered on the lungs. The Sharps roared and a steamy gout of blood spurted from the cow’s nose. She wobbled unsteadily under the wallop of the big fifty slug, then lurched backward and keeled over. A nearby cow spooked, sniffing the fallen leader, and bawled nervously as she wheeled away. Cursing, he yanked the trigger guard down, clawed out the spent shell, and rammed in a fresh load. As he snapped the lever shut, the cow was gathering speed, ready to break into a terrified run. Thumbing the hammer back, he swung the barrel in a smooth arc, leading her with the sights. When the rifle cracked the cow simply collapsed in mid-stride, plowing a deep furrow in the earth with her nose. Alarmed now, several cows gathered around, and their calves began to bawl. The old bull wandered over, snorting at the scent of blood, and started pawing the ground.
But the herd didn’t run. Bewildered, hooking at one another with their horns, they simply milled around in confusion for a while. Some of them pawed the dirt and butted the warm carcasses, trying to goad the dead cows onto their feet, yet slowly, without apparent concern, the others went back to chewing their cuds or cropping grass.
He had his stand.
Loading and firing in a steady rhythm, working smoothly now, he began killing the skittish ones. Carcasses dotted the feeding ground, as each new report of the Sharps brought another crashing thud on the prairie below. Still the herd didn’t stampede—looking on with the detached calm of spectators at a shooting match—seemingly undisturbed by the thrashing bodies and the sickly-sweet stench of blood. It was a drama of pathos and tragedy he had seen unfold a hundred times over in the last three years. Insensible to the slaughter around them, the dim-witted beasts had concern for nothing save the patch of graze directly under their noses. Eerie as it seemed, the instinct for survival had been blunted by the more immediate need deep within their bellies.
After every fifth shot he sloshed water down the rifle barrel to keep it from overheating. Then he swabbed it out, hurriedly reloaded, and returned to the killing. Yet he was steady and deliberate, somehow methodical, placing every shot with precise care. This was something he did well—took pride in—managed swiftly and cleanly, without waste or undue suffering. A craftsman no less than a predator, but skilled at his trade.
A master of death and dying, and staying alive.