Killing buffalo – circa 1875. A group of men hunting buffalo from the top of a railroad train. (photo by MPI/Getty images)
The great bull the Cheyenne called Pó’otoéné, Gray Face, heard the hiss, the clang and roar, smelled the wood fire on the wind. He jerked his head up from the tough grass that grew at the entrance to the once-quiet cut where his herd had sheltered last year.
He was used to the incursion of young bulls, full of themselves and greedy for his ésevone. For ten years had sent each one off to try some other bull, some other herd, some other piece of his plains.
It was when he noticed the approaching beast, biggest and fastest hotóá’e he’d ever seen, that he himself roared and pushed his herd out of the cut into the open range. Behind him, the shrill steam whistle screamed as it would for any track-blocking herd of Herefords back in Illinois. But to Pó’otoéné, it meant as little as a man in a wool suit braving his way close to whisper, “Get off the tracks, please.” No, this roar sounded more war cry than warning.
His herd clear of the cut, Pó’otoéné turned toward the approaching Kansas Pacific locomotive. He pawed at the prairie grass and stood in defiant defense of his own.That is until the .50 caliber bullet entered his great heart and the legend that had endured a dozen winters, three arrows, one musket ball and countless challengers to his primacy, fell amid a yellow cloud of dust and a great gasp of blood.
From his position atop one of the first rail cars, Clyde Beene lowered his Sharps rifle and hooted in harmony with the still-screaming steam whistle.
“Hoo-wee, boys, you see that old sumbitch go down? Now this is what I call huntin’.”
After the War Between the States, a great migration of Euro-Americans crossed the Mississippi and spread west, pushing so much of what was native to the land aside, human and otherwise, often with little regard to any consequences. One example of this was the annihilation of the great bison herds of the northern and southern Great Plains. At some point, it became not only a profitable business to kill the buffs, but also sport for eastern hunters. This story is a meeting of all those dynamics.
© Joseph Hesch