The Buffalo Harvest
by Frank H. Mayer with Charles B. Roth
THE CROP WAS THERE WAITING
At the close of any war there are bound to be thousands of young
men who find peacetime pursuits too dull for their adventure-stirred
lives. Maybe that was truer after the Civil War than at any other
time. I know how I felt. I was restive. I wanted out. Fortunately for
us then we had what you don't have now: we had a frontier to conquer.
It was a very good substitute for war.
And on this frontier, old mountain men who drifted in and kept
brass rails and cuspidors of crude saloons in high polish, told us
there were literally millions of buffalo. They didn't belong to
anybody. If you could kill them, what they brought was yours. They
were walking gold pieces, the old timers said, and a young fellow who
had guts and gumption could make his fortune.
I have since learned that there never was a buffalo on the
American continent. It didn't matter to me in 1872 that the animal I
pursued was not a buffalo, but a bison. It was all one. He walked. He
had a hide. The hide was worth money. I was young, 22. I could shoot.
I liked to hunt. I needed adventure. Here was it. Wouldn't you have
done the same thing if you had been in my place?
For the record, let me make the distinction between the buffalo
and the bison clear, not that it matters too much but just for the
record, you know. A bison is defined as "a large, shaggy-maned oxlike
animal, having short hair and heavy strong front legs." A buffalo is
an African stag or the tame water buffalo of India. I know it's
splitting hairs to make an issue of this, but maybe it will keep some
of the purists in their place if I admit I know the difference.
I didn't then. All I knew was that there were millions of wild
animals loose on the plains and I needed money.
No one has ever decided just how many buffalo there were roaming
the ranges, because no one could ever know. I have seen estimates
that put it as many as 20,000,000. That may be too high. Later on I
will quote you statistics of the number killed. All I or any of the
other young buffalo hunters knew is that there were a lot of buffalo,
and they were ours for the skinning.
Don't get the idea, though, that because there were so many
buffalo hunting and killing them was easy. They were dumb brutes and
wary and inclined to go off in wild stampedes if frightened. Almost
anything could start a stampede. I have seen an old cow, placidly
grazing, suddenly take it into her head that she was afraid of
something. She would start to run. Immediately several thousand other
buffalo would be running with her -- they didn't know why; they
didn't know where.
Early hunters used to run the buffalo down on horseback, following
the example of the Indian, who always hunted that way. It was fun.
But it wasn't profitable. Then some unnamed genius discovered the
professional way to harvest the buffalo. The first method was called
the "running method," the professional way was styled the "stand
method" -- and I think the nomenclature describes the two very well.
We professionals didn't run buffalo at all, but we called
ourselves buffalo runners, never hunters. And we based our success on
one little item of buffalo lore. We based it really on the
overwhelming stupidity of the buffalo, unquestionably the stupidest
game animal in the world. Nature provided the buffalo with almost no
protective equipment. His eyesight was poor. His hearing was not much
better. And his scent was faulty. He had the disposition, to quote
Robert Louis Stevenson, in describing a dog he once owned, of "a tame
sheep." He would not or could not fight, and all the pictures you see
of a buffalo turning on the hunter are pure bunk. All he could do, as
I told you a little while ago, was run.
Along with defenselessness the buffalo had a peculiar herd
instinct that made it easy, for a man who knew how, to harvest him.
Do you remember reading about buffalo herds millions strong, moving
in a solid mass, and stopping trains and wagons? Of course the herd,
this vast mass of animals, would be under the leadership of a grand
old buffalo bull, who would trot serenely at its head, issuing orders
and demanding instant and complete obedience. Isn't that about the
picture as you have it in your mind?
Get it out of there fast, because the fact is that no buffalo herd
I ever saw numbered over two hundred animals, and most of them were
very much smaller. Most of the herds would run from three to sixty
animals, with an average of around fifteen.
In these small herds the buffalo traveled and fed, scattered over
the plains, but each one separate and apart from the other herds.
Whenever they stampeded they did come together and charged as one
vast, solid herd. But when the fright passed they'd separate into
their peculiar small herd formation.
Do keep these small herds in mind: they were important to us in
our hunting; in fact formed the basis of our attack.
Let me tell you how. At the head of each of these little herds
would be its leader. But the leader wasn't a courageous, old bull,
ready and willing to whip the universe. It wasn't a bull at all. It
was a cow, a sagacious old cow who by the power of her intellect had
made herself a leader. Buffalo society, you see, was a matriarchy,
and the cow was queen. Wherever she went, the others, including the
big bulls who should have known better than follow a woman, went.
When she stampeded, they stampeded. When she got into trouble, they
didn't know what to do.
And our job as runners was to get her into trouble as soon as we
could. Then the rest was easy. But I am getting ahead of myself and
will presently tell you how we used the old cow and the small herds
to their undoing.
The buffalo was indigenous to the plains region of the West, and
there were two main herds, the northern and the southern. There
wasn't a strict line of demarcation between them, and they frequently
overlapped, but within broad general limits, the northern herd
remained up north and the southern herd stuck pretty well to the
If you will look at a map of the Western half of the United
States, I can point out the buffalo ranges. They are covered today by
the two Dakotas and Montana and northern Wyoming, where the northern
herd ranged, and by Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, parts of Texas,
Colorado, and southern Wyoming, for the southern herd.
The buffalo was a migratory animal with a small orbit. He merely
followed the feed, "follored the feed," as the runners, who were not
purists or English majors, used to put it, and you would find the
herds usually along the beds of Western streams -- the Brazos, Red,
Powder, Republican, and other rivers.
Buffalo running as a business got started around 1870; I got into
it in 1872, when the rampage was at its height. The whole Western
country went buffalo-wild. It was like a gold rush or a uranium rush.
Men left jobs, businesses, wives and children, and future prospects
to get into buffalo running. They sold whatever they had and put the
money into outfits, wagons, camp equipment, rifles and ammunition. I
needn't talk. I did it myself. And why not? There were uncounted
millions of the beasts -- hundreds of millions, we forced ourselves
to believe. Their hides were worth $2 to $3 each, which was a lot of
money in 1872. And all we had to do was take these hides from their
wearers. It was a harvest. We were the harvesters.
Most of us were Western men and, as I have suggested, veterans of
the Civil War, at loose ends, wanting adventure, feeling the
discomfort of claustrophobia at being cooped up in houses and towns
after adventure in war. And most of us were young. I, for instance,
was hardly more than a kid, but in those days on the frontier men
matured early, and I felt myself very much of a man in 1872. Some of
the runners were older men, some of them mountain men who had watched
the beaver peter out but wanted to make a fast dollar wherever they
In the beginning these older runners, with their more mature
judgment and experience, made the better showing. They had the
know-how. But in time we youngsters learned the ropes, and did all
I DECIDE TO JOIN THE MOB
Yes, I was just 22, but I had had a world of outdoor experience, and
I was crazy about guns as most boys of 22 in those days were. And I
could shoot with the best of them. And I was more restless, after
serving in the Civil War as a bugler because I was too young to
fight, than most of the others. And I had nothing to look forward to
in civilization. I didn't know exactly what I wanted, and the chances
are I got into the buffalo running business quite by accident.
I was hanging around Dodge (Dodge City, Kansas), like Micawber,
waiting for something to turn up. It did, in the form of two older
men. To me then they seemed ancient, but chances are both were around
35. One was named Bob McRae, the other Alex Vimy. They took an
interest in me, but I was already interested in them, because they
seemed to typify ideal citizens to me, rugged outdoorsmen to whom
nothing of the arcana of the outdoors was secret.
Let me describe them, because I think they may be typical of men
on the frontier of that day. McRae first. He was of Scotch descent,
born in America. He was medium-sized, with blue-gray eyes, brown
hair. He was an all-around shot, roper, killer, cook and skinner. He
had punched cows, dealt faro. He ran away from a nagging wife to the
quietude of the buffalo ranges. At least he claimed it was quiet in
Vimy had a blackish-red complexion, blue-black hair, jet black
eyes. He was a French-Indian breed, born in Canada, a typical
voyageur. He was the best knife and tomahawk thrower in the whole
southwest, but only a fair shot. Vimy knifed a lumber jack in a
squabble over a girl and had to take it on the run. He had one of his
rival's ears with him as a pocket-piece. He was a God-send at your
shoulder in time of crisis.
These two and I became fast friends, and I had the grace, years
later, to place them side by side in a Waco cemetary (Catholic,
although McRae was a rank Presbyterian). Bob wanted to sleep in
Texas, and Vimy wanted to be where Bob was.
But I was telling you how I got into the Buffalo business.
I'd been listening to old fellows around saloons in San Antonio
and elsewhere, and was all afire with the idea of being a real
buffalo hunter. I mentioned it to McRae.
"I've been on one hunt," I told him, "and I liked it."
"Get many buff?"
"I got one."
"How much did it cost you to get him?" McRae asked.
"Oh, I don't know-maybe $25."
"Know how much the skin's worth?"
"I'll tell you -- $3. You're making money fast, son, aren't you?"
I remember my first buff. I was shooting a borrowed .50-70 Sharps
carbine, Army issue, about as bad a gun as you could ask for. I hired
a guide and a wagon outfit, and was off. We hadn't traveled very far
till I spotted my first victim -- an old bull crawling out of a
wallow where he'd been taking his mud bath. I stalked to within 200
yards, aimed at the butt of his neck as he stood broadside, fired.
Down he went. It was as simple as that. And easy. Adventurous? No
more than shooting a beef critter in the barnyard. And in my years of
hunting I never found a particle more adventure in killing buffalo
than on that first morning on the Red River, in what is now Oklahoma.
Part of my guide's business was to skin the kill. I told him to
get busy while I sat back and smoked and admired myself. He was more
adept with excuses than with a skinning-knife, and it took him half a
day to pelt that old bull. I was out of money, after paying for the
outfit, so for three weeks I lived off the flesh of that tough old
buff. Do you wonder I never again touched a piece of buffalo meat
unless forced by starvation to do so?
Now Bob McRae was talking to me, discussing the fine points of the
"Never tell anybody you are a buffalo hunter," said he. "That
brands you as a tenderfoot. Refer to yourself as a buffalo runner."
"Why a runner? We don't run buffalo the way you kill them," I
"Must be because we have to do a hell of a lot of running across
the plains to find them," said Bob. "Do you want to go out on a trip
with Alex and me?"
Did I? Did I?
"When do we start?" I said.
"Pretty soon now, kid. We'll show you how it's done."
I went. I saw how it was done. My nestors were experts.
On that trip we skinned out 198 hides and sold them for $3 each.
Bob generously insisted that I take my share of the boodle, one-fifth
of the total. It looked like easy money. We had brush with Comanches
-- nobody hurt -- and I came back to town with enthusiasm for buffalo
running. In a Philadelphia bank I had $2,000. I sent for it. A few
months later I was out on the plains with my own outfit.
I wasn't the only young fellow with that idea: I have already told
you how crazy the Western half of the country went over the buffalo
rush. Don't ask me how many runners were out after the muddy, dusty
hides of the poor buffalo. I have heard it was as many as 20,000, but
I believe that estimate to be high. I would rather put it around
10,000, counting everybody, the hunters, the skinners, drivers,
cooks, and flunkies.
With that many men after him, the buffalo didn't really have a
chance, and just a few years were enough to decimate the herds.
I'm often asked now what my feeling is toward myself that I helped
wipe out a noble American animal by being a sort of juvenile
delinquent with a high-power rifle. I always am frank in answering. I
always say I am neither proud nor ashamed. At the time it seemed a
proper thing to do. Looked at from a distance, however, I'm not so
sure. The slaughter was perhaps a shameless, needless thing. But it
was also an inevitable thing, an historical necessity.
What I mean by that is this: the buffalo served his mission,
fulfilled his destiny in the history of the Indian, by furnishing him
everything he needed -- food, clothing, a home, traditions, even a
theology. But the buffalo didn't fit in so well with the white man's
encroaching civilization -- he didn't fit at all, in fact. He could
not be controlled or domesticated. He couldn't be corralled behind
wire fences. He was a misfit. So he had to go.
And there was another reason, not so commonly known. You will
understand it better when I tell you that the buffalo was hunted and
killed with the connivance, yes, the cooperation, of the Government
itself. That this will be denied I have little doubt. As I put my
words down I weigh them.
Don't understand that any official action was taken in Washington
and directives sent out to kill all the buff on the plains. Nothing
like that happened. What did happen was that army officers in charge
of plains operations encouraged the slaughter of buffalo in every
possible way. Part of this encouragement was of a practical nature
that we runners appreciated. It consisted of ammunition, free
ammunition, all you could use, all you wanted, more than you needed.
All you had to do to get it was apply at any frontier army post and
say you were short of ammunition, and plenty would be given you. I
received thousands of rounds this way. It was in .45-70 caliber, but
we broke it up, remelted the lead, and some runners used government
powder. I didn't. I was a stickler for the best, and used imported
English powder which I will be describing to you in a little while. I
had no trouble trading my government powder for things I wanted --
tobacco, bacon, flour, and other things.
Maybe you are wondering at the theory behind this. Let me tell
you. I think I won't: I will let a high ranking officer in the plains
service do it for me. One afternoon I was visiting this man in his
quarters. The object of my visit you have guessed: free ammunition. I
got it. Afterward we smoked and talked. He said to me:
"Mayer, there's no two ways about it: either the buffalo or the
Indian must go. Only when the Indian becomes absolutely dependent on
us for his every need, will we be able to handle him. He's too
independent with the buffalo. But if we kill the buffalo we conquer
the Indian. It seems a more humane thing to kill the buffalo than the
Indian, so the buffalo must go," he concluded.
It wasn't long after I got into the game that I began to realize
that the end for the buffalo was in sight. I resolved to get my
share. I went into the business right. I invested every cent I owned
in an outfit. I have no apologies for my participation in the
slaughter. I hope that answers the question.
LEARNING THE ROPES
I was in the buffalo business all right but I soon discovered I had a
good deal to learn about how it had to be conducted to be profitable.
The harvest was ready but there was one harvester who wasn't ready
for it. His name was Frank Mayer. I had had just enough training
under McRae and Vimy to think I knew it all, a belief which speedily
vanished when I was out on my own. But now it was sink or swim, and I
had to teach myself how to run buffalo at a profit, which is what I
wanted, profit. Nothing else counted. I already knew it wouldn't be
It was fun to run after buffalo on a swift, spirited horse, and
you could kill them that way, too, and it wasn't hard. A buffalo with
its short legs and ponderous body, could run only two-thirds as fast
as a good horse. You could give him a quarter-mile start and catch
him before your horse had to call on its second wind. But it was
hazardous. The prairie was honey-combed with prairie dog holes, and
once your horse stepped into one of those and you were thrown and the
thundering herd passed over you, you looked as if you had been run
through a printing press running a page made up of quotation marks.
Once I remember seeing Bob McRae, chasing buff on horseback just
for the hell of it, being thrown when his horse stumbled in a dog
hole. Superb horseman, quick thinker in an emergency, Bob, while in
midair, did the most spectacular thing I ever saw on the buffalo
ranges. He threw himself onto the back of a nearby buffalo cow and
rode her, bucking and jumping, very blithely to the edge of the
stampeding herd. There he slid off quite nonchalantly and caught his
horse, none the worse for what could have been a fatal experience.
Not all buffalo chasers were so lucky. A good many lost their lives.
So I gave up chasing buffalo on horseback as a bad gamble. I did
occasionally run them that way and shoot them with a pistol, but that
was always when I wanted to show off and be a hero in somebody's
The Indians didn't have any other way to get their meat supply.
You see pictures of them driving arrows from their short bows into
the ribs of buffalo, but usually an Indian on horseback preferred the
lance to the arrow. His method was to run alongside his victim and
jab a long-bladed lance into it just back of the ribs. One jab would
never bring down a heavy buffalo, so he kept right after it, jab,
jab, jab, until the poor critter toppled from loss of blood and cuts
to his vital organs. But I was no Indian. I was a business man. And I
had to learn a business man's way of harvesting the buffalo crop.
It always amused me at the inefficiency of some of the buffalo
runners, who hunted on horseback, at the strange weapons they thought
adequate to kill tough old buff. These weapons ranged all the way
from cap and ball percussion revolvers to carbines and rifles of
divers sorts, most of them single shot fusils. A few did affect
repeating rifles or carbines, the majority of which were Spencer
cabines and old gun-metal receiver Henry rifles, both rim fire. The
Spencer was the more effective. It was .56 caliber and carried seven
cartridges. Later on in the heel of the game quite a number of .44-40
'73 Model Winchesters came in, but they lacked the
knock-down-and-drag-out qualities necessary for buffalo work. I have
seen one full magazine (16 shots) expended on the final bagging of
only five buffalo, and that, too, fired by a man who knew his
business. Shooting from the back of a running horse was always
uncertain. I wanted none of it. I wanted efficiency. That was my
German nature to demand that.
As I told you earlier, some unknown genius of observation gave all
of us runners our cue to killing buffalo. He probably made his
discovery by accident. His discovery was simply this: if you wounded
the leader, didn't kill her outright, the rest of her herd, whether
it was three or thirty, would gather around her and stupidly "mill"
-- which means poke her with their horns, strike at her with their
hooves, and just generally lose their heads when they smelled her
blood. When they were milling they didn't think of anything else.
Buffalo, as I have indicated, were not notorious for their ability to
think clearly on any subject. Now they were completely bewildered.
And all you had to do, as a runner, was pick them off one by one,
making sure you made a dropping kill at every shot, until you wiped
out the entire herd. Then you went to another and repeated the
process. Do you see anything sporting about that? It was sheer
murder. Yet that is the way we did it, we brave and glorious runners,
who swaggered into frontier shipping towns and made boardwalks ring
with the sound of our leather heels and the tinkle of our spurs.
I have worked hundreds of stands, as we called them, by this
method, without losing a single animal I wanted. Now and then,
though, when I crawled too close, to within 200 yards or less, I
failed. Then the heavy report of my heavy Sharps would wake up the
survivors and they would scamper over the plains. I wasn't very
religious in my remarks when that occurred.
When a runner had worked his herd, he went on to the second, then
onto the third, fourth, or as many as he figured his crew could skin
out. The number of animals a runner could take at a stand varied. My
largest was 59. But Billy Dixon, a famous runner, once took 120 hides
without moving his rest sticks. A colonel I knew on the ranges told
me of counting 112 carcasses within a space and took 54 hides with 54
cartridges. I didn't do quite so well with my run of 59: I used 62
cartridges. I never was a Bob McRae.
We never killed all the buff we could, but only as many as our
skinners could handle. Every outfit had its quota, which was
determined by the ambition and the number of skinners. My regular
quota was twenty-five a day, but on days when my crew weren't tired,
I sometimes would run this up to 50 or even 60. But there I stopped,
no matter how plentiful the buff were. Killing more than we could use
would waste buff, which wasn't important; it also would waste
ammunition, which was.
The thing we had to have, we runners, we business men with rifles,
was one-shot kills. And you had to learn the knack of that. When you
consider that a full-grown buffalo would weigh almost a ton and was
as hard to kill as a Kodiak bear, you will realize what a job it was.
Dropping kills we termed these one-shotters.
I was amused, maybe, disgusted, certainly, a few years ago when I
read in the Denver Post of a debacle which took place in the Denver
Mountain Parks, where the city has kept a herd of buffalo for may
years. The herd outgrew its pasture, and the city decided to kill
eight animals to feed the poor on Christmas. Here is what happened:
"It required fifteen shots to kill one buffalo, from the modern
high-power rifles used by the hunters -- .35 Remington, .30-30, and
.30-'06," the report in the paper said.
"In another case two, five, and ten shots were needed. Only one
single-shot death was chalked up. The execution was witnessed by
Mayor George Begole, and once during the afternoon, when several
shots were required for a death, he suggested:
"'Get an Indian!'"
Yes, an Indian or an old time plains buffalo runner, because we
had to do better or we were bankrupt. At the low prices we got for
hides we couldn't affort to miss; and naturally I didn't do so very
Of course not every shot made was a dropping kill; depended on
where you hit. But nine in ten dropped instantly or within a space of
one hundred feet. I had the habit of holding on the neck, and when
hit there they dropped as if pole-axed. With the bullet's more than a
ton in foot pounds energy at the muzzle, they generally dropped when
fairly hit at almost any old distance.
I could give you hundreds of confirmatory instances, but shall
confine myself to two: Once, in a burst of sheer bragadoccio, I bet
Bill Tilghman (noted runner and peace officer) that I could kill a
buffalo as far away as I could distinctly quarter his head with the
cross hairs of my telescope sight. We hunted a whole day to find one.
When we discovered him, I could only faintly outline the cross hairs
on his whole body. That made him, by careful reckoning, a full half
mile away. My first shot was in the upper edge of his paunch; it
knocked him down as if he had been hit by a locomotive. When he got
up again, I held more carefully and landed in his neck, just ahead of
the shoulder. He went down kerplunk and stayed there. Bill paid: a
three-gallon keg of "Three Roses."
Again, on the Staked Plains (Llano Estacada) in Texas, I stood off
a band of young Comanche bucks. I opened fire at long range with my
.40-90 to discourage their coming too close. In three shots at a
distance afterward paced by my skinners at 759 yards, I got one buck
and two horses. I distinctly saw the buck topple off his pony, and we
found the two horses dead.
I reckon these incidents will show you the kind of shooting we had
to do. Most of our shots were at 300 yards or beyond. At 300 yards we
had to be able to shoot all day long and score one hundred per cent
results. We had to do this to come out even. I once took 269 hides
with 300 cartridges. This was business. We had no time to experiment
Of course we had to have the right rifles, because no rifleman is
ever a whit better than the rifle he's shooting. And the rifles used
on the buffalo ranges were as motley as the men who used them.
Remember that the killing began only some five years after the close
of the Civil War and army rifles were in preponderant evidence all
over the buffalo ranges. They weren't satisfactory for the simple
reason that they weren't accurate.
Something more was demanded, and I have noticed that whenever
anything is demanded quickly it is supplied. And this was true of
buffalo rifles, which rapidly simmered down to two kinds, three,
really, although the third came along too late to make much of a stir
among the runners. It was the Ballard; quite satisfactory in accuracy
and energy but because it had an ineffective and exasperating ejector
it had you always in trouble; I owned one; I discarded it for
everything but target use.
But the other two, ah, those were rifles if ever the term could be
properly applied. They were the Remington and the Sharps. I think
it's safe to say that eighty per cent of the buffalo killed were with
either a Remington or a Sharps rifle. For their time and place, they
There was little choice between them. Both were made in various
calibers from .40 to .50, with varying cartridges to meet personal
preferences. They were made in various weights, barrel lengths,
sights, degrees of twist, and depth of rifling, with right or left
drifts made to special order. Mostly, however, they were offered in
regular "stock" dimensions -- barrels from 30 to 34 inches in length,
weights from 10 to 16 pounds in the Sharps and from 8 to 12 pounds in
the Remingtons. Both were furnished either with single triggers or
with the preferable double set triggers of two separate types of
The Sharps was made in .40 and .45 caliber as regular stock. The
cartridge length was stamped on the breech, thus: .40-1 1/2 in.,
.40-2 1/2 in., .40-3 1/4 in. Sharps favored the straight shell, but
made some for bottle-necked as well in .40 and .45 calibers, and also
for the Remington .44-77 and .44-90. These would be stamped .40-90 B.
The Remingtons which the runners favored were nearly all of them
for bottle-necked cartridges, and the two favorite calibers were
.44-77 and .44-90. But you could order any caliber and any kind of
cartridge you wanted; anything to please a customer was the rule of
the Remington and Sharps companies.
The rifling of these pieces ran variously from four to six
thousandths of an inch, but when paper patched bullets were employed
it was shallower, seldom exceeding two-and-a half thousandths. In all
Sharps rifles, above the .40-50 calibers the twist was uniformly one
in sixteen inches. Quite often some crank like myself would have one
specially built with quicker or slower twist, but these were always
furnished against the earnest protests of the makers, who,
incidentally, knew their business better than we faddists. I had
thrown away a good many hard-earned dollars before I was freed of the
delusion that I knew more about rifle-making than Christian Sharps.
We loaded our own ammunition; had to; factory-loaded stuff cost
too much, was, besides, too hard to get when you were away off on the
buffalo range. After my first season I chose my powder with
meticulous care. Two leading brands of American powder were Dupont
and Hazard, both good enough except they burned hot, dry, and cakey
in the barrels, making cleaning a more or less unsatisfactory
Then I accidentally got a one-pound canister each of Curtis &
Harvey's and Pigou, Laurence & Wilks FG grained powder, made in
England, both of which burned so decidely moister and seemingly
developed so much greater energy that I used them continually
thereafter. I bought English powder from Tyron of Philadelphia. It
cost 50 per cent more than American powder, but it was worth it.
We had some wild and woolly ideas about how to clean our rifle
barrels, I remember. We first drenched them with cold water,
succeeded by a dosage of urine, which was well shaken up and allowed
to circumnavigate the bore. I suppose the slight ammonical content of
this homely but efficient solvent did the trick. We followed this
with a thorough drenching of hot water, and wiped the bore dry and
finished it off with a rag saturated with graphited tallow. If not
cleaned before firing, the rifle shot a few inches higher for the
first shot. We generally wiped out clean before firing: cartridges
were too expensive to take any chances.
It's common for modern riflemen to look down their noses at these
old rifles of ours, dub them "smokesticks" and believe no accuracy is
possible without a military type rifle and modern smokeless powder
ammunition. I guess it doesn't do them any harm to believe in fairy
tales, but let me tell you something: no rifles made could match
these old Remingtons and Sharps we runners used.
Prove it? Sure. Why not? With carefully handloaded ammunition and
perfectly adjusted telescope sights, we could make full possibles at
any range from fifty to 500 yards. We could do it in the face of
heavy wind, straight on, fishtail, or full cross currents. At
distances above 500 and up to 1,000 yards, the .45-120-550 Sharps
with patched bullets is absolutely unsurpassed by any weapon known to
man. In these performances there are never any unaccountables with
Sharps: the rifleman knows why the missles went wrong and can
instantly call them. Can this be done with any modern so-called
"super-gun"? It cannot.
I have seen the .45-120-550 Sharps lay down 200 buffalo with just
200 shots, most of them at distances ranging from 300 to 600 yards.
Is there any modern rifle, even the magnums, which could do that?
Show it to me if you find it, will you?
Shooting at such long ranges, we, naturally, had to use telescope
sights, and set triggers, which to me are a "must" for good rifle
shooting. My own were so delicate that you could set the rifle off
almost by a breath. The 'scopes we used then were so powerful no
shooter could use one without rest sticks -20-and even 30-power,
against the 2 1/2-, 4-, and 5-power telescopes in use now.
The use of rest sticks is forgotten now, but we runners couldn't
have operated without them. You see pictures of buffalo runners prone
while shooting their game, but that would have been fatal to your
chances. Let me tell you why. A heavy rifle fired so close to the
ground reverberates and causes more sound than one fired higher above
it. So if you were prone while firing you would soon frighten your
game away. We used rest sticks which put us about thirty inches above
the ground: we either sat while we fired or fired from a kneeling
The sticks were a simple device; merely two pieces of hard wood,
bolted together so as to provide a crotch in which you put the heavy
barrel of your rifle. We didn't use sling straps which made you feel
you were shooting from a straight-jacket, but merely rested the
barrel, held the barrel and sticks steady with the left hand, which
made shooting almost like using a bench rest.
When I went out on my first expedition with McRae and Vimy, McRae
said to me: "Frank, have you got a poison vial?"
"Poison vial?" I repeated. "Never even heard of one. What's its
"To save your scalp."
"To save my scalp?"
And then McRae explained the poison vial or tube, which he
invented and which became common with runners on all ranges. One day
he came upon the body of a teamster, who had been stripped, scalped
while alive, his privates cut off and stuck into his mouth and
fastened there with a sinew cord. Fat pine splinters had been stuck
into his flesh from ankles to chin until he resembled a hedgehog.
These were ignited at his feet, causing an upward slow flame which
literally roasted him alive. His body had been fastened to a dead
tree trunk with his own chains.
"No Indian will scalp a dead man," McRae explained. "And wouldn't
you rather have a quick painless death from poison than a tortured
lingering death like that teamster? Always carry this," handing me a
device made by sticking a .40 caliber shell inside a .45 caliber. I
took them apart. Inside the .40 caliber shell was a very thin glass
tube, like a test tube, filled with a whitish powder.
"Hydrocyanic acid," McRae explained. "If Indians seem fit to
capture you, bite hard on the tube. It's sure medicine against
scalping and torture."
Thereafter I carried my tube religiously. I never had to "bite the
white," as we used to put it, but I know of two instances of runners
who did. Their bodies had not been mutilated or even scalped after
I was catching onto the ropes, fast, it seemed.
I still had a lot to learn, though, and one of the most important
things I had to learn was how you found buffalo to shoot.
You would think with so many million buffalo on the loose that you
could cast about in any direction and find some. But that wasn't
true. Drive over the states that comprised the range. Distances are
far; it was a big country. And the buffalo were always on the move.
So we had to ride far and hard to spot them, and often we would go
for days and see not more than a handful of the beasts. There was no
freemasonry on the ranges at all: it was every man for himself. And
if a runner discovered a nice bunch of buff, he didn't advertise the
fact. He cleaned 'em out as fast as he could, before some other
runner moved in on him.
There were no such things as established boundaries of operations.
Where we found the buff we were monarchs of all we could survey --
and kill. It was a generally established rule that no man should butt
in on a herd that was being worked by its first locator. Violation of
these ethics was likely to lead to shooting at something else than
buffaloes, but it didn't, usually, go that far. Usually a warning to
the interloper was enough to send him elsewhere. I became pretty good
at warning others off my private preserves.
I came to learn that skinning was a dirty, disagreeable,
laborious, uninspiring job. I didn't, naturally, do any skinning. I
was the hunter, the killer, and skinning was for skinners. But I felt
sorry for the poor fellows, out in the hot sun, fighting flies, and
wrestling with a 150-pound wet buffalo hide. But it was their part in
the game. There was once a lazy skinner who tried to find an easy way
to skin a buff; a commendable idea. He drove a heavy iron picket-pin
through the animal's head, anchoring it to the ground. Then he
hitched a team to the hide near the neck and simply yanked the hide
off. This worked-sometimes. And sometimes it didn't. It often tore
the hide in two. We tried it for a couple of days in our outfit, and
then I told my boys that henceforth we were going to hand-skin every
buff we killed, and we did. Careful skinning is one reason why I
always commanded top prices for my hides.
Caring for hides was simple. All we did was to peg them out, flesh
side up, around camp. In a few days they dried, and then we rolled
them lengthwise in lots of ten, tied them into a bale, loaded twenty
to thirty-five bales, weighing anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 pounds,
into our big wagon, and drove to market.
And marketing was no problem. Buyers at every frontier offered
cash for hides, which were in demand in "the States" for a wide
variety of purposes -- blankets, sleigh and buggy robes, coats, heavy
leather, and God knows what else. I sold mine wherever I happened to
be, in Dodge, Denver, Laramie City. Because of the care I gave my
hides, I always commanded premium prices. During my years on the
range, I had no trouble, because buyers trusted me and I them.
During the latter years of buffalo running there was a market for
meat as well as hides, and often buyers would take the whole animal
with hide left on. Buyers would pay up to four cents a pound for
meat, but the price was usually two and a-half cents. Buffalo tongues
were in demand toward the tail end of the business also. Smoked and
packed in large barrels they brought up to 25 cents apiece. I
remember I sold one lot for fifty cents; an agent for the Carlton
Club of London bought them. He paid me $500 for 1,000 tongues.
All these things about the buffalo business I learned piece-meal,
mostly from McRae and Vimy but from other runners also, because I was
always willing to listen to counsel from whatever source. I hunted
with most of the big chiefs of the business, and then one day I
judged I was about ready to strike out on my own. I tell you that was
a big day in my life, when I mounted the driver's seat of my high
wagon, and headed my twelve-mule team out toward the vast expanse of
plains, where there were the million or more buffalo I hoped to
OUT ON MY OWN
That $2,000 I had in a Philadelphia bank just about paid for my
outfit, and left me strapped. Little did I care. I'd make it up the
first month, I kept telling myself, the very first month. A buffalo
outfit was simple, and I could have made mine simpler but I wanted to
do things up brown. All you needed was horses or mules, wagons, camp
equipment, and firearms, and you were in business.
I bought two wagons in St. Joseph, Missouri. The big one, drawn by
twelve mules, we used in hauling hides; the small one, drawn by six
mules, was our camp wagon. Both were equipped with nine-inch tread
flat iron wheels and steel boxes or bed of 1/8-inch steel. I remember
what I paid for the big wagon -- $650. I remember what I paid for the
small one -- $400. I already had a couple of good saddle horses,
which I went to much pains to train. I taught them to lie flat while
I was shooting at game, so as to avoid detection by roving Indians.
We always used American horses because they were bigger, stronger,
more dependable than the mustangs or Indian ponies which the Indians
used because they didn't have anything better. A good buffalo horse,
though, was worth real money on the range, anywhere from $250 to
No use to describe camp equipment. We took along the usual things,
bedrolls, tents, cooking utensils. All cost a lot of money, more than
they would today, even with our inflationary spiral. Remember this
was on the buffalo ranges, where over 10,000 men were bidding against
one another for the necessities of the life they had chosen for
themselves. We paid the price and liked it. But it left me broke.
I'll linger on the rifles I chose, however, because these were
much more important than the bed I slept in or the kind of stove over
which I cooked my bacon and coffee.
As I have told you, I lived among rifles all my life, and shot
everything from a flintlock to the most modern rifles of the day. And
I listened intently to the arguments that went on over the campfires
about the respective merits of the Remington and the Sharps. Both had
fierce partisans and often during the arguments it would seem these
runners would start proving the superiority of their choice by using
them on other runners, they were so perfervid in defence of their
And both had points in their favor, and both Remington and Sharps
had expert men using them. McRae, for instance, was a Remington man;
.44-90 was his caliber. Dixon was a Sharps man. So it went, every man
to his choice, every man willing to fight for his choice if he had
to. So here I was, having to make a decision.
I decided to throw in with Christian Sharps and be what was called
a Sharps man. There were certain features about the rifles made by
this genius of Bridgeport, Connecticut, that I didn't find in the
Remington. So I bought my first Sharps rifle. It was a .40-90-420, as
sweet as a piece of ordnance as you would ever see.
In those days (1871-1875) rifles were expensive, for they would
cost you from $100 to $150, not including the necessary telescope
sight. So a man would think twice before deciding on the rifle he
wanted. I know I did. I would stay awake at night asking myself which
would it be, a Remington or a Sharps? And I'd wake up in the morning
asking myself the same question. There was so little to choose
between them that either choice would have been the right one. What
decided me was two things in favor of the Sharps: it used a straight
cartridge, which was less likely to swell and become distorted after
being fired a dozen times; the Sharps had the stronger action and was
more dependable, I thought, in a pinch. With the Remington you opened
the breech by pulling back on an ear on the breech block on top; you
opened the good old Sharps by yanking down on the big trigger-guard,
just as you use a modern lever action rifle.
I never regretted my choice of a Sharps, and McRae and other
Remington men never regretted their choice either, so everybody was
Let me tell you about the first Sharps of mine.
I bought it second-hand from Colonel Richard Irving Dodge (there
was a man!). Sportsman, military leader, expert rifleman, skilled
hunter, gentleman -- to me Colonel Dodge will always typify
everything fine in American manhood. Besides, he had several Sharps
rifles, I had none, so I set out to convince him we ought to share
the wealth a little bit. It wasn't easy. The rifle I set my eyes on
was practically new, a .40-90-420, as I have told you. It was a
beautiful piece, with its imported walnut stock and forearm, and its
shiny blue 32-inch barrel. At $125 I considered it a bargain. This
Sharps weighed 12 pounds. On the barrel I mounted a full-length
one-inch tube telescope, made by A. Vollmer of Jena, Germany.
Originally the 'scope, a 20-power, came with plain crosshairs. These
I supplemented with upper and lower stadia hairs, set so they would
cover a vertical space of thirty inches at 200 yards.
I was proud of that first Sharps of mine, which I still own,
incidentally; and when I took it out and levelled it at my first
buffalo, or bison, I was prouder still. I found I could kill the
toughest bull that ever followed the trail to the water hole, and do
it with one well-placed slug. At first it used a 320-grain bullet,
but I experimented with one a hundred grains heavier, and thereafter
used the 420-grain projectile. It killed quicker. In making this
change I didn't sacrifice anything in velocity, because by then I had
begun to use the English powder I have told you about, and it added
10 to 30 percent efficiency to my shooting.
After a year or two, having plenty of buffalo dollars in my jeans,
I talked myself into believing that I needed an extra rifle in
reserve -- so I bought two. One was a .40-70-320 -- a light little
gun for deer and antelope but too impotent for buff. The other was
another .40-90-420. Both used bottle-necked cartridges; don't ask me
how I fell for that sort of thing after vowing I was off bottle-necks
for life. I paid $100 for the .40-70, $115 for the .40-90 -- current
prices then. Prices on Sharps declined rapidly after the buffalo
years, and I saw $40, and $50 -- identical with the guns I paid $100
and $125 for a couple of years earlier. I never liked either of these
guns, because the bottle-necked cartridges began giving me trouble.
I don't know how well you know riflemen or gun nuts, as we are
rightly called. We are a dissatisfied segment of humanity, always
seeking something better than we have. I was no exception. Here I
was, with a battery of fine rifles, one in particular, the Col. Dodge
Sharps, that would kill anything that walked on the American
continent, including Indians, of which my Sharps had killed a few.
And I should have been satisfied, nay, happy. But I was dissatisfied,
unhappy, frustrated. And do you know the reason? Christian Sharps had
announced that he had brought out a new rifle, a rifle to end all
rifles, the greatest of all Sharps. And I simply had to have one.
It was stamped on the receiver "Sharps Old Reliable," and it was a
.45 caliber, described as .45-120-550 -- which means the bore was
45/1000 in diameter, the powder load was 120 grains, and the lead
slug it propelled weighed 550 grains. That would be something, I told
myself; yes, that would be! And I knew when I read about it the first
time, my life would be blighted until I owned one. So I bought one.
I rationalized a good deal over it, telling myself that I needed
more shock (which I didn't), more killing power (I had no trouble
with my .40-90-420 on that score), and more range (but my .40-90 did
all right by itself). So I didn't need the bigger gun at all, and
that may be the reason why I bought one -- I didn't need it. Actually
there wasn't too much difference between the two in shock, range, or
accuracy. But it was a new rifle, and I had to have one.
I was never sorry for a minute that I bought it, because this
rifle, the "Old Reliable" Sharps, which was quickly dubbed the
"Sharps Buffalo," became unquestionably the best, the deadliest rifle
ever made in America. Now don't go calling me an old fogey and
telling me I am living in the past. I'm not. I know all American
rifles from the flitlocks of Revolutionary times to the moderns of
mid-century America, and I tell you if my life depended on one shot
from one rifle and I could take my choice, I'd rather have my old
"Sharps Buff" in my hands than any other gun. Does that convince you?
Only 2,000 of these rifles were made, because they came in right
at the heel of the buffalo days and the market evaporated almost
overnight and Christian Sharps had nothing to do but destroy his jigs
and turn his hand to other rifles; the market for the big boy was
done. Of the 2,000 that were made, how many exist today? I own mine.
I have seen, of late years, three or four others. I know many
riflemen, collectors, who have never laid eyes on one.
There was a price barrier, too, that kept the rifle from enjoying
dime-store popularity. I paid for mine exactly $237.60, which in 1875
was a small fortune to tie up in two pieces of walnut, a heavy piece
of octagonal steel with a hole down the middle, and a big side hammer
that could be cocked in the coldest weather with mittens on. The
rifle weighed 16 pounds, so it wasn't anything for a frail woman to
carry too many times up and down stairs. Mine was equipped with
double triggers, essential for me in doing decent shooting, and a
20-power Vollmer 'scope identical to the one on my .40-90.
On paper these old rifles don't show up so well when set alongside
modern rifles, but when you are shooting game as we did you aren't
computing on paper-you are counting hides. And I never found anything
more deadly than the .40-120-550....
I know that a rifle with only 1,400 feet of velocity sounds very
archaic when set alongside the moderns with their 3,000-foot
velocity; one American rifle has over 4,000 feet velocity. But I
can't imagine having to shoot a buffalo fifteen times with one of my
Sharps to make him stay down. Once was enough. They carried
authority, these old Sharps.
These Sharps used paper-patched bullets, made to my
specifications, one part tin to sixteen parts lead; none of this
hard-nose, steel-covered foolishness you have today. The
sixteen-to-one formula gave us just enough hardness to penetrate and
enough lead softness to mushroom. We didn't have much paper on the
buffalo ranges, so we had to find a substitute for our patches. I
used antelope buckskin, pulled and stretched real thin. It worked
fine. I loaded my own cartridges, not because I liked to, because
loading was a tedious job after a day in the hot sun on the range: I
did it because it was cheaper. Factory ammunition cost 25 cents a
round, but we could hand-load for half that, so we handloaded.
As I have told you, I wasn't particular where I hunted, just so
there were plenty of buffalo. That is the reason I wandered over all
the ranges, except the far northern one, and there was no telling
where I would show up. It didn't matter. It was a peripatetic life,
full of hazard, full of hot dirty work, because killing is never
pleasant or easy, but I was young, I had no ties, and I didn't mind
being on the go.
Over the years I worked up a small, tidy little organization,
never over five men. Some runners had trouble keeping skinners,
drivers, cooks, and other necessary employees. But I never did. It
was because I divided share and share alike with my men, whereas some
runners took half, and divided the other half among the men. I would
deduct expenses, and then we split the rest equally among ourselves,
into four parts, or five, or however many there were in the crew. So
we never had any trouble with strikes or absenteeisms.
Every day went about the same. Long before daylight I'd be up and
have breakfast, then set out alone on my horse to work the herd. I
had scouted ahead, so I knew approximately where the buff would be.
Before it got light enough to shoot I could see the dim outlines of
the animals, which would be quietly cropping grass or lying down. I
would maneuver to get them into a gully if I could. Then I would set
my sticks at least 300 yards away, seeking some kind of protection
from which to shoot -- soapweeds, a buffalo wallow to hide in, tall
As soon as dawn came and I could see clearly through my telescope
sight, I would start in. But before I fired my first round, I would
coolly estimate how many animals my skinners, usually two or three of
them, could care for that day. That many cartridges, plus four or
five extras, just in case, I withdrew from my belt and spread out in
front of me in the grass. When they were used up, I quit. My favorite
holds were neck and heart, and whenever I hit a buffalo in those
places I didn't have to inquire whether he was down for good.
The extra cartridges? They had two purposes, one of far more
importance than the other. There was always a chance I would miss,
but I didn't very often. Still, I could, you know. But mostly they
were my "good medicine" cartridges for any Indians that wanted to
dispute my right on their domain. I needed to use them a couple of
times; when I come to describe the incidents that kept our life from
being too boring, I shall tell you about those times.
As soon as I had made my quota for the day, I would get my horse
to his feet, mount, and report to the boys. Then they would hitch up,
and we would move camp to the scene of the kill. While the skinners
grumblingly went to work skinning and fighting the ubiquitous flies,
I rested and smoked. Touch a skinning-knife? Not on your life! We had
caste on the buffalo ranges, and I wouldn't put a skinning-knife in
my hand. I was exalted, a runner, not a skinner.
Harder than actual shooting was finding buff to shoot, and that
was my job also. I'd have to scout at the end of the day to find
where the next day's shooting would take me. And it sometimes took me
miles from camp.
The buffalo lived on a peculiar grass that carpeted the plains,
called to this day buffalo grass. The plow has treated the grass as
ruthlessly as the Sharps did the buff, and you will travel over many
a Western mile before you will find a decent stand of it left. In the
Spring the buff would begin working northward, to escape the hot
Southern plains Summers. They would migrate till early Fall, then
turn tail and go southward to escape the rigors of a Northern winter.
They were always on the go, and wherever they went you would find
Mayer following them, destroying them, and trying to make a fortune
while doing it.
We hunted along the courses of the streams, and my hunting
peregrinations took me along nine rivers: the Brazos, the Red, the
Cimarron, the Canadian, the Arkansas, the Solomon, the Republican,
the Platte, and the Niobrara. Study the course of these rivers today,
if you will, and you will find them lined with names of prosperous,
thriving, modern cities and towns. But not in those days. Then there
were occasional little towns, but mostly it was vast ocean of buffalo
grass, with only buffalo, antelope, and infrequent camps of plains
We didn't know it then, and if we did we wouldn't have cared, but
we runners were opening the way for the cattleman with his free range
and vast herds, later for the nester, and later still for drive-ins,
hamburger palaces, women's clubs, and parity farm prices.
Now and then we'd bump into other runners, but we runners were a
peculiar bunch and resented any encroachments on our staked-out
territory. So there wasn't too much friendliness when we did meet,
except in town, where no trade secrets would be spilled. Still, I
managed to stay on friendly terms with most of the runners. We all
had practically the same experiences, and when I tell you what
happened to me, you will know what happened to the others who had the
chance to be on the ranges when there was something else on them
besides farm mortgages.
I FIND THE LIFE HARD, THE PAY SMALL
Thus far I haven't said a word about the money I made as a buffalo
runner. I suppose maybe the reason is that I am reluctant to admit
that the I didn't make a fortune. I just got by. And I want to be as
frank in discussing the economics of my life as a buffalo runner as
the rifles we used or the methods we followed.
When I went into the business, I sat down and figured that I was
indeed one of fortune's children. Just think! There were 20,000,000
buffalo, each worth at least $3 -- $60,000,000. At the very outside
cartridges cost 25 cents each, so every time I fired one I got my
investment back twelve times over. I could kill a hundred a day, $300
gross, or counting everything, $200 net profit a day. And $200 times
thirty, would be, let me see, $200 times thirty -- that would be
$6,000 a month -- or three times what was paid, it seems to me, the
President of the United States, and a hundred times what a man with a
good job in the '70's could be expected to earn. Was I not lucky that
I discovered this quick and easy way to fortune? I thought I was. I
had dreams of opulence in a short time, and what if the life was
hard, the hazards present all the time? The end was worth whatever it
cost. I would buy a big house, wear a silk stove-pipe hat, marry a
beautiful girl, and rear a large family of stalwart sons, not one of
whom would ever have to touch a rifle or drink out of a polluted
Oh, those were fine dreams! But they never did seem to materialize
exactly. Always something coming up, some damned thing that took all
the profit away. One time, because of a long rainy spell, about a
fourth of the hides would spoil while drying. Or I would go into a
new country and find it completely shot out, as frequently happened.
Now and then, in spite of my care and skill as a stalker, the buff
would spook mysteriously, and all I would get for my pains was a
horseback ride back to camp. And sometimes... well, there was always
I suppose hunters have to be like gold prospectors, though, always
thinking that tomorrow would be better. Most men had more sense than
I. They tried it for one season or two, and then got wise, and quit.
I was one of those stubborn Dutchmen who didn't know when he was
licked. I stayed on. I really think I was a runner, off and on, for
ten years; at running exclusively for six, which makes me the
marathon dunce of the buffalo ranges. But always there was that dream
that next season, yes, next season in an entirely new place, I'd
recoup my losses, and make that fickle jade Fortune stand and deliver
what I had coming to me.
Not that I actually lost money, you understand; just that I didn't
make what I thought I should make. In a little while, when I adjust
my glasses and go over some old account books, I'll tell you exactly
what my take was during my best years on the range. And it will
astonish you that it was so small, for the work I did, the skill I
employed, the dreams I wasted.
The hell of it was that presently -- within a year or a year and
a-half after I got into the business -- we hit what I now know is
called diminishing returns. We called it a scarcity of buff. It was.
The more he was hunted and hounded the wilder the buffalo became, and
with, say, 5,000 rifles a day levelled at him, it wasn't long until
there was very little him, or her, left to shoot. So we had to spend
more and more time in the wagons exploring one range after another.
We didn't have Geiger counters or scout airplanes or even a
dependable communications to tell us where we might find buff. We did
it the hard way, riding miles and miles and miles in a stiff Mexican
saddle over the uncharted plains, looking into every gulley and
prowling around every stream bed, on the off chance that we would
find a "sleeper" herd -- this is to say, a herd that some other
runner had overlooked.
All this took time, days of time, and expenses went on, even if
the barrel of my rifle was cold for weeks on end. And my dreams of
fortune -- they grew dimmer and dimmer as the months went by. But I
stuck. I was no quitter. But I was fast becoming a bankrupt, I'll
My first two years (1872-1873) I did right well, considering the
value of the dollar in those days. My account books show that my
share for the two years-that is to say, the net-was right around
$6,000. I didn't make as much the first year ($2,900) as the second,
when I turned in a profit of $3,100. This was on hides alone. My
third year, however (1874), was my big year on the range; after that
I slid down to nothingness. By that time I had gone into the smoked
tongue, specimen bull heads, and meat business as side issues. I know
exactly what I grossed and netted this year... [$5,435] was my gross;
my net came to $3,124 -- and that was my big year on the buffalo
ranges. Let some other men tell you about earning $50,000, $60,000 a
year -- I am telling the truth.
So you see our running was not all cream. I wouldn't do the same
amount of hard work, take the same chances again for any man's
$50,000. I couldn't if I wanted to -- and I don't want to. On my
first two years, deducting interest on investment, overhead, and so
forth, I barely came out even; I think my net for the two years was
around $2,800. And a little over $100 a month is mighty poor pay for
the financial and physical output, not counting liability to disease
and violent death!
When I finally sold out and quit, I had less than $5,000 on
deposit, to show for nine years of hard work and sweat. Of course I
blew in at least that much, or more, in the various ways a young fool
can always find if he looks for them. And I looked a heap, with both
eyes wide open.
I am quite confident that I was among the highest rewarded five
men on the range. I have since talked to a dozen of the runners I
knew and one and all remarked, "Well, you got more out of it than any
feller I know of."
So I am quite safe in my surmise that a good high average of all
the runners engaged was less than $1,000 per year net. All fantastic
tales of "enormous" profits in the game were simply the distorted
visions of some magazine writer who wouldn't know buffler meat from
domesticated bull rump.
It is only fair to say that had I been able to save and sell all
the meat of the animals killed in 1874, I would have netted about
$5,000 more than I actually did. But much meat spoiled unavoidably
and the market wasn't as active as it should have been. Besides, it
entailed too much time as well as work in preparing the meat and in
hauling it into the railroad. In my last full year on the range, I
sold less than $2,000 worth of hides, but realized over $4,000 for
meat alone. But overhead was so great that I could not find my heart
any longer in the game, so I quit.
There was one particular phenomenon that kept us in hopes and many
of us going. It was sort of like a brass ring you try for on a
merry-go-round. It was a hide of such peculiar softness and beauty
that it resembled silk; hence the name we runners gave these hides,
"silks." They had long, silky hair. But don't ask me what caused it,
because I don't know, and I never talked to anyone else who could
explain it. I suppose the scientific explanation is that they were
what is referred to in genetics as sports; variations that just
happen, no one knows why or how. And we runners didn't stop to
inquire. We knew -- and this was sufficient for our simple and
practible purposes -- that whenever we got our hands on a silk, we
had a hide worth five to ten times what the ordinary hide was worth.
And that warmed our hard, cold hearts. I sold may silks for as much
as $50. But they were rare: in processing I don't know how many
buffalo hides, my own and those killed by other runners, I come
across only about ninety silks, maybe about one in 500 or 1,000. We
always held the silks out and sold them separately. As I recollect
it, I sold about twenty at the high figure of $50.
We sold our hides rolled, not folded, and, as I have already told
you, in bales of ten. I sold them where I could, which was wherever I
happened to be at the moment. Later on, buyers came to our hunting
camp and bought them "F.O.B. Camp," so to speak, which made it easier
for us because we didn't have any hauling to do.
Mostly my choice of markets was Dodge City and Denver. I also sold
many hides to Wells-Fargo on consignment. Wells-Fargo agents I found
to be square shooters, and I realized my best prices while dealing
with them. It not only saved us time and trouble to consign, but we
could also get advances -- that is, we runners who were accorded a
certain degree of responsibility could. I was once advanced $1,500 by
one of the Wells-Fargo boys against my guarantee I would turn in to
him my season's kill. He paid me an additional $2,300 or so when I
finally showed up at the end of the season.
Selling was no problem but it got to be tougher and tougher as the
years went on to get something to sell, and when I got out of it
altogether I didn't have the big house on the hill, or the silk
stovepipe hat, or the stalwart sons; couldn't even afford to have
that beautiful girl wife I dreamed so much about. The fact is that I
earned little more than the average office worker of the day would
have earned. But I wouldn't have changed places with any of these
gentry for the world. If I didn't get rich at the business, I was
rich in adventures, some of which stir me when I think of them to
this very day.
BUT ADVENTURES RELIEVE THE MONOTONY
When I reflect on what I've been telling about my years on the
buffalo ranges, I realize that I've made the life sound rather drab
and monotonous. And so it was. But there were stirring and exciting
and dangerous incidents, just enough of them, to keep it uncertain
and exciting -- and these incidents added the leaven we needed to
keep going. We had the usual run of frontier storms, cloudbursts,
floods, lightnings, droughts, grasshopper infestations, dog days, and
other natural phenomena. But of these I won't speak. But let me
recount some of the incidents I was involved in that were in the
This could mean only Indian incidents, never white bad men
experiences. No runner I ever heard of was ever highjacked out of a
single hide or held up by a bandit. Those white bad men knew enough
not to try; knew us runners to be the saltiest goddam men on the
Western frontier; knew if they started anything all they'd get for
their trouble was a 550-grain slug in their bellies, a diet no bad
man ever fancied. So they gave us wide berth.
But the Indians, no. Them we had with us all the time, annoying
us, trying to bushwhack us, generally making nuisances of themselves.
And I don't blame them for their resistance. They sensed, if they
weren't smart enough to know, and mostly they were, that we were
taking away their birthright and that with every boom of a buffalo
rifle their tenure on their homeland became weakened and that
eventually they would have no homeland and no buffalo. So they did
what you and I would do if our existence were jeopardized: they
fought. They fought with everything they had, in every way they knew.
They fought by stealth. They fought openly. They murdered if they had
a chance. They stole whenever they could.
They created the incidents in our lives. There are hundreds of
these that I do not like to recall and they had better not be told.
The lines of our lives in the '70's were brutally hard and
unfortunate happenings were not uncommon. I realize that some people
like to wallow in blood and that they expect gory recitations from
anyone who talks of the Old West. They are going to be disappointed
in me: I never killed except from sheer necessity in self-defense,
and telling about even these killings distresses me today. Not that I
am sorry for anything I ever did: I would do it over again if similar
occasions demanded it, and I would not lose any sleep in consequence.
But I will give you a sampling of the adventures which kept our
life from being too monotonous.
Before I start with adventures among the Indians, or Indios, as we
runners called them, to prove we were students of Spanish, let me
tell you about the two buffalo stampedes I was in, because those were
incidents, if I ever knew the meaning of the word.
The first one wasn't so bad, but the second...
One day I was riding down a draw in Western Kansas, dozing in the
saddle. I woke with a start when my horse bolted and I heard the roar
that could mean only one thing: buffalo stampede. I was right in the
midst of it, with my horse gone crazy with fright. He wanted to run,
so I let him; it was the only way to save him and me. I spurred him
on, and we ran among a brown sea of heaving backs. I imagine there
were 5,000 buff in that melee. I began outrunning them one by one,
and edging toward the left, where I could see the farther side of the
stampeding herd. By taking an oblique course, I was presently on the
fringe of the herd, and once clear I wheeled sharply to the left, and
was out of it for good. Then I rode to the top of the hill,
dismounted, and enjoyed the spectacle of the stampede from a safe
vantage point. It wasn't too exciting, but it would have been if my
horse had stepped into a dog hole or lost his footing.
That was the first stampede I was in. The second... I lose sleep
over it to this day when I think of what a narrow squeak we had that
Sunday morning when our camp was overrun. The way it happened was
this. Our camp was on the North Canadian. The month was August, 1873,
but I have forgotten the exact date. It isn't important. Only I know
it was on a Sunday because we were all present.
I had just finished reloading a batch of hulls, and was thinking
of going out and getting as antelope for camp meat, when I heard a
low rumbling like distant thunder. As it was a clear cloudless day I
knew it couldn't be thunder. I was lying flat on my back when I first
heard it. When I got to my feet the sound was not perceptible. None
of the outfit sitting or walking about were aware of it. You know
sound is better heard when your ear is close to the ground; that is,
sounds orginating on the surface of the earth. Well, out in the open
one soon gets cognizant of many things that escape the casual
observer. Knowing intuitively what it was, I jumped to my feet
yelling: "Buffalo stampede! Coming straight this way! Turn the wagons
broadside and get your rifles -- quick!"
The others gaped in surprise; they hadn't heard anything; but they
were used to obeying orders without question. They hustled pronto!
We had barely gotten fixed for them when the noise became clear to
all. I directed my men to positions from which they could fire
between the wagon wheels. Every man put his shells into his hat,
where he could reach them fast.
"Concentrate your fire on a certain point, a single point. Maybe
we can split the herd so it will pass on both sides of the wagons," I
Our mules and saddle horses were, fortunately, at graze in a
grassy basin about a mile away.
As it chanced, old Bob McRae was visiting us in camp that day to
get a shot of corn whiskey, so there were six of us to do the
splitting: cook-driver, three skinners, Bob, and I. Really we were
the equal of eight, because Bob was past master in everything
pertaining to buffler and the most self-contained man and best shot
on buffalo in the world.
By my order, we reserved fire until the vanguard was within about
400 yards. Bob and I were stationed on the extreme ends of our
spread. Our cook Augustin and a skinner named Antoine were in the
middle. The other two skinners were in between, so we had a solid
phalanx of six good men and true. Bob was carrying a .56-56 repeating
carbine; I had my .45-120 Sharps; the other four had .50-70 needle
The herd came on in an exceedingly solid front and for a few
seconds I had a qualmish feeling in my stomach. But a buffalo went
down at my first shot and another at Bob's, and with the roar of the
four .50-70's there was a heap of them piled up at one spot. Over
this the rear guard tumbled and sprawled until it looked as if it
were raining buffalo. The herd began to split up at the first volley,
scampering away diagonally from that heap obstacle. We kept right on
firing as rapidly as we could, always at the objective point, until
at last they split completely, going off in two directions and
missing our wagons by a wide margin.
I had fired eleven shots, and Bob emptied two magazines of eight
shells each, and the other four had fired twenty-two shots among
them. So there were 48 shots fired during a period of about five
minutes actual shooting time. When we counted noses there were
thirty-seven dead and crippled buffalo, out of which (almost
incredibly, for, as I have told you, they were rare) there were five
It was five minutes of high life, and I am glad I lived them. But
I never wanted a repeat on them, I'll tell you.
The menace from Indians was prevalent all the time. What could you
expect with Apaches and Comanches in the south; Sioux, Crows, and
Blackfeet in the north; with Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and minor tribes
too numerous to mention around us most of the time? it was not a
continuous jamboree, of course, but we had to be on our guard all the
time. Everybody, white, red, yellow, or breed, carried chips on their
shoulders and the chips were frequently being knocked off.
Pawnees were the only Indians who were "good." Some of the others
pretended to be friendly, but if you let detached groups of younger
braves get close enough for practical petting, you had a surprise
coming. You sure had! Indians were always ready to take advantage of
you. I made it a rule to keep them at a comfortable distance.
That a considerable number of runners were done in by the Indians
there is no doubt. We'd find them, scalped, of course, sprawled out
on the prairie, their clothing gone, their rifles stolen. Mostly the
Indians killed for loot, rather than to protect their homes, although
they were vociferous in giving that as their motive for fighting the
whites. There were no James Fenimore Cooper "Uncas" types among the
Indians of the region I hunted over, and, just between you and me, I
doubt if there ever was such an animal among the "noble Redman."
I am loath to talk of encounters with the Indians, the poor
cusses, because they were always so distasteful to me, but I will
recall a few.
One day while hunting on the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado in
Texas, I had just downed my quota and was arising to go to my horse
when I saw a spurt of dirt fly from the ground just above my right
ear. Almost simultaneously I felt a blow on the arm of my hunting
shirt and on looking down saw an arrow buried to the barb still
clinging to my sleeve. As I threw a shell into the breech of my
Sharps I saw two Indians streaking it away toward a little clump of
trees where three ponies were tied. Knowing that I had them at my
mercy when afoot, I killed all three of the ponies where they stood.
It was a little clump of trees, not more than ten or a dozen. It
stood in thick brush. After waiting awhile I made the "friends" sign
and rode my horse in the "come to me" circle. For a short time
nothing happened. Then knowing I was in plain sight and in good
seeing light, I repeated the signs, then tapped my rifle
suggestively. I inspected the brush through my scope, and made out
three forms. Growing impatient, I fired just close enough to the head
of one that I saw him involuntarily duck at the whistle of the
Again I made the "friends" sign and impressively reloaded the old
Sharps. At that, one of them rose and walked out in the open, shortly
followed by another, sign signing "friends." The other lay hidden
until another bullet sent a little too close for comfort brought him
reluctantly out. To my great surprise it was a white man!
Waving in the direction of my camp, about a mile away, I signalled
for them to go there. I kept them beyond arrow range but in easy
rifle shot and herded them into camp to the surprise of the outfit. I
ordered them tied up.
The two bucks were young Poncas, the white man was a mean-looking
cuss who kept his head hanging down. The Poncas said they had, at the
suggestion of the white fellow, just tried to scare me away from the
kill. They hadn't intended to kill me, they said, just scare me away.
The white man refused to talk.
The skinners were for killing them out of hand and I had
difficulty in restraining them. But they all joyfully aquiesced in a
plan I suggested instead:
We had the Poncas strip the white cuss stark naked and tie him to
a wagon wheel. Then, with our blacksnake whips, I ordered them to
thresh him good. They did so. That dirty renegade squealed like a
jackrabbit! We untied him at length, pointed toward the Ponca
reservation, and told them all to "Vamos, pronto!" It took them just
about two minutes to put three hundred yards between them and us.
Just for good measure, I fired a couple of shots that threw gravel
over them as they topped the hill. I think they must still be
running! The reservation was about sixty miles away and I don't know
if they made it, and even to this day don't much care.
I recollect one more fracas that was more serious and not so
one-sided. In the Summer of '76 I was treking westward from the
Rosebud (in Montana) in company with "Deadshot Charlie," a locally
famous army scout, and a time-expired soldier named Tim Foley.
Charlie and myself were carrying Remington .44-90's; Foley had his
The third day out we passed a rather deep buffalo wallow situated
in the middle of wide basin among encircling low hills.
"Looks like a good place in which to stand off an Indian attack,"
I remarked, not having anything else interesting to say!
The basin in its lowest center contained a small pool. There was
neither brush nor timber on the encircling hill slopes: the vista
from earth to sky was practically bare, which afforded good visuality
for gun fire. We were on horseback, with one led pack animal,
traveling light, as hostile Sioux were reported out in force.
We were on the highlands on the west of the basin when, looking
backward, I saw a dense cloud of dust rising from the prairie. It
didn't look like buffalo dust to me.
"Look, Charlie," I said. "What do you make of that?"
"Injuns," he said; "plenty Injuns. Let's get back to that wallow."
The Indians were about two miles away and the terrain ahead was
not favorable, so we got back to that wallow fast. We dismounted,
threw and hogtied our horses and lay, as flat as possible, awaiting
developments. Typical situation, you know; men in a waterhole, rifles
in front of them, Indians advancing; just about the way you'd see it
in that Frederic Remington picture called "The Water Hole." As a
matter of fact, I described our Rosebud scrap to Remington, when I
met him in the '90's, and it could very well be that he got his
inspiration for the water hole picture from my account.
But on that blistering hot Montana day I wasn't thinking of
inspiring anybody; only of saving my topknot. We took positions on
the deepest sides of the wallow pit. I in the center, Foley on the
right, Charley on the left. We had plenty of ammunition, but I
advised against useless waste.
"Don't throw shots away," I said. "Wait till they come within
certain range, then don't miss."
We took off our coats, rested our rifle barrels on them, and
waited. For quite a while the Sioux merely circled the hilltops,
shouting insults and occasionally firing a few futile shots, which
fell short. They evidently realized we weren't tenderfeet but
seasoned oldtimers, who were likely to sell out dearly. They went
into a huddle. Suddenly three or four horsemen from both north and
east came dashing toward us, shaking their lances.
"They're thinking to draw our fire and test us out," I opined.
"Yeah," Charley answered.
"Let's wait till we're sure," I suggested.
Charley grinned, shifted the cud to the other side of his mouth.
Foley was trembling all over.
The Indians apparently thought we were short of ammunition. They
huddled again. Then they came forward in a body, streaming down the
"This is it, boys," I said; "this time they're really coming at
us! Hold your fire till they're closer."
No answer to these remarks. But I heard a curious chattering and
mumbling to my right. I looked at Foley. He was shaking like a
wind-tossed leaf, and the rifle in his hands was swishing from side
to side like a pleased dog's tail. He was talking to his rifle. I
heard him say:
"Hold still, you bastard, hold still!"
Was Foley a coward? Not so's you could notice it. All he required,
as one of Kipling's characters remarked, was "to be shooted over a
little." Foley was there with the goods in the moment of crisis! But
that moment of crisis never came.
As we rose to our knees, the whole mass of charging reds swept off
sidewise in a circle, dashing back again to the hilltops. We were a
bit too cool and unexcited to please them. They consulted some more.
Then one of them, a bit over-brave, swept downwards toward us with
only a trio of accompanying reckless souls behind him. Having by this
time gotten bored by the monotony of the thing, I rose to my knees
and covered that leading brave. Although he was full 800 yards away,
he whirled instantly, throwing himself alongside his horse on the
side away from me and was circling back to the hills when I fired.
The horse went down in a cloud of dust. The accompanying braves
dashed to the bold one's rescue, catching him by one hand and one
foot and retreating post haste to the hilltops. Just as they joined
their fellows I heard Charley's rifle crack on my left and saw an
Indian tumble limply from his horse. The next instant the hilltops
were deserted; not a red in sight.
We stayed in the wallow till nightfall, then made an undisturbed
getaway. We called it the battle of "Two Shot Wallow."
I've noticed this, that Indians can dish it out when odds are in
their favor but can't take it worth a continental when evenly matched
or over-matched. They lack the white man's guts when the going is
tough. That is why I never was too much afraid of an Indian affray. I
knew I had the psychological advantage. Add to that the better rifles
we had, and the odds were always with us.
One adventure I had early in my running years will always remain
in my memory. It could have been my closest shave. It was a trick by
the plains Indians, and I'll tell you about it This time I was with
McRae's outfit, and it was twilight, and I was bored with campfire
talk, and decided I'd take a walk over the hill to the east. Our
horses were grazing unhobbled in a little hollow a couple of hundred
yards away: we aimed to close-herd them without any staking, as we
had come far that day and they were tired.
I was just returning to camp when I thought I saw some low moving
objects topping a hill rise beyond the horses. I had Mac's rifle
along with a good 'scope, 10-power. I crawled to another hilltop,
took a look through the 'scope. I made out two objects. The first was
half a dozen bucks, crawling like snakes to a vantage point that
would command our camp. The other was three bucks busily engaged in
lashing a big quantity of grass and dry brush on the back of a
miserable pony, just the other side of the hill, out of sight of our
camp. At the time I didn't understand the pony business; but I knew
that the crawling bucks were up to no good. I crawled down the hill,
hotfooted it to camp, told McRae what I'd seen.
He was hep to the whole game.
"That's a fire pony," he explained. "They're going to set fire to
the pony's load, when it's dark enough, and drive it into our horse
herd and stampede the whole bunch; then they'll pick off what they
can of us. We'll fool the sonsabitches."
We had only about half an hour left to make arrangements; it would
be dark that soon. We were seven. At Mac's command, six of us
disposed ourselves carelessly about the camp fire, just as though we
were oblivious to the presence of reds. The wrangler, a wiry little
Texan named Symnes, who was wise to deals like this, just as
carelessly walked up to the herd. Once hidden out of sight, he
quickly double-hobbled the whole bunch (twelve) in less time than I
deemed it possible.
"They'll light the pony up on the other side of that little rise,
so as to keep us from seeing him," McRae explained. "They'll drive
him into us horseback. Let them get him just on top where you can see
him good." He turned to me and said: "Your job, Mayer, is to get that
pony. Stop him sure! Understand."
"We'll take care of the rest. But get that pony," McRae repeated.
I crawled to the place which I figured would be closest to where
the pony would be driven over the top of the hill and waited. It was
less than an hour, I learned later, but that wait was like a
six-month-long winter to me. At last I saw a little flicker down in
the hollow. It grew brighter. Then suddenly it lashed up into a
six-foot flame, and I heard a terrified squeal from the frightened
beast, accompanied by yells and hoof beats. Here they came!
The flame lit up the hill rise enough for me to see that the pony
would pass me within twenty feet. I wished I had not been so
ambitious: twenty yards farther back would have suited me better! But
I had no time for retreat. I had a double-barrelled shotgun, loaded
with buckshot. I cocked both hammers. As the pony approached, I rose
to my knee and gave it to him in the neck. I whirled and fired the
other barrel at two of the drivers who were lined up right.
Blinded by the flash in the darkness, I could not see what
execution I had done to those two bucks. I emptied my old .45
cap-and-ball revolver in the direction of some clattering hooves I
heard. Then came the cracks of the outfit's rifles, so fast it seemed
a hundred men were down there firing. They had waited till they could
catch the retreating Indians between them and the skyline, less than
a hundred yards away.
I was lying doggo with my empty guns, trying to find a hole into
which to crawl and then drag it in after me. I saw someone coming
toward me. I got up, grasped the shotgun by the barrels, thinking to
use it as a club. Then came a welcom -- oh, such a welcome yell:
"You all right, pardner?" it said.
It was McRae!
"I'm just fine, Bob, just fine. And thank you, Bob."
We couldn't survey the battle-ground till next morning, and when
we did we found three Comanches dead. We were not troubled again on
It was exciting while it lasted but, as I say, Indians are no
match for white men who know their business, and no man ever knew his
better than Bob McRae, "Brazos Bob," as we affectionately called him.
I think I'll just tell you about Falling Star and then we will let
the Indians rest for a while and get back to the buffalo. But I must
tell you about Falling Star.
He was a Brule Sioux "Medicine Man" named ah-ne-go-mika ("Falling
Star" or, more literally, "He Who Makes Stars Fall.")
Next to Medicine Arrow, he was the most dangerous Indian in his
part of the world. His stunt was magic, by whose aid, so he claimed,
he was able to catch, harmlessly, in his mouth any white man's
bullets fired at him. For a -- as usual -- "small" compensation, say,
five ponies, he would sell his charms to any warrior who wished to be
immune in his fights with the damned buffalo runners. His customers
were many. And you can imagine how dangerously great his influence
was over his red brothers. Colonel Dodge was so apprehensive about
his ultimately getting up a general uprising among all the plains
tribes, that he once told me he would "pay munificently" (his very
words) for Star's scalp.
It was this cute old devil's grandstand play to get up on a high
hill, somewhere out of range, slap his thighs derisively toward the
entrenched whites. Some hot head was always sure to waste a shell on
him. When the gun cracked Falling Star would jump into the air, open
his mouth, and, when he hit ground again, he would with much ceremony
spit the bullet out into his open hand and pass it around for the
admiring dupes. The bullet, of course, was in his mouth the whole
time; generally all of considerable size.
Well, one day the magic failed him when a 550 grain Sharps slug
took him just above the navel at a range he deemed impossible. You
see, he had never before exposed himself to any but short-range guns,
like the Spencer carbine. He bit off more bullet than he could chew.
When I went up to him, I saw that he had the smallest, longest,
slimmest fingers I ever saw on a human being of his size. He was fat
as a hog, weighing, I should judge, around 250 pounds. The 550 grain
bullet took out three of his vertebra with it, the hole in his back
being big enough to put three of your fingers in.
I took two things from his carcass: a copper ring he always
claimed enabled him to cause stars to fall and a little buckskin bag
in which he carried his "medicine"; a collection of aromatic herbs
that Indians feel will bring them good luck.
This is just a sampling of the kind of incidents and adventures
that kept our life from becoming too monotonous. Mostly it was
monotonous, as the life of a soldier is always monotonous: hundreds
of hours of waiting for an hour or so of excitement. During our spare
time we would hang around camp, bathe in fairly clean buffalo
wallows, reload ammunition, and talk.
Now and then came a blazing hour of excitement, and it gave us
something new to talk about for days. Danger you came in time to
laugh at, because if you knew your business, kept your head about
you, it wasn't danger: it was just annoyance, like fighting the
myriad of flies that infested the camp or keeping coyotes away from
the meat supply. I can honestly say that I was never afraid of an
Indian in my whole life on the frontier, because I thought no Indian
ever born was man enough to take my scalp. And none ever was. The top
of my head is pretty bald, but that's from dandruff, not a scalping
WE KILL THE GOLDEN GOOSE
One Sunday mornng when I was in camp cutting my own hair, a man rode
up on a buckskin gelding. He was typical of his day, tall, slender,
grim and determined in visage; he had about him what is called "the
look of eagles." I recognized him: he was Charley Jones, from around
Garden City. Jones had been a successful runner for several seasons.
Then he got disgusted with the slaughter, wrapped his Sharps rifle
around one of the wheels of his wagon, and vowed he'd never again set
a trigger on a buffer. And he never did.
"Mayer," he began after the usual amenities and a stiff drink of
corn whiskey, "Mayer, you and the other runners are a passel of
dam'fools the way you are wiping out the buffalo. Don't you realize
that in just a few years there won't be a dam' buff left in the
I pooh-poohed at this kind of talk.
"Jones, you're clear off on the wrong side of the horse," I told
him. "Why, there are as many buffalo now as there ever were. There
are hundreds of millions of them."
"Are you getting as many as you used to?"
"Well, no. But that's my fault. I am hunting in the wrong place."
"Where's the right place?" Jones persisted.
"Damned if I know, but we are about to take off and find it
tomorrow," I told him.
"You'll never find it," said he. "Because it just don't exist any
longer. Unless we're mighty careful there won't even be a specimen to
keep in a zoo."
And with that he rode away. I thought, of course, he was loco, and
told my boys about it. We did have a deep conference that day,
though, and decided that there were, indeed, fewer buffalo than there
used to be, but still plenty to keep us going until we were old men
whose hands shook so badly they couldn't hold a rifle steady enough
to hit one.
But this fellow Jones. He was in earnest about fearing the
destruction of the buffalo. He couldn't make any of us runners do
more about his pronouncements than laugh at them, but it didn't deter
him. When he saw, as he did in a very few months, that the complete
obliteration of the buffalo was imminent, what did he do but catch,
with his own rope and hands, seven, I think it was, buffalo calves,
which he took to his ranch and hand-raised. And these little calves
were all that was left of the millions of buffalo when we runners got
through with them; and they constitute the breeding-stock from which
every buffalo in the world comes. Because of his deed, Jones became
known as Buffalo Jones, and will go down in history as an important,
if minor, personality of the frontier of the West. He was smarter
than the rest of us. I admit it now. I wouldn't admit it on that
Sunday in camp.
But I soon found out how wrong I was.
I found it out every day when I went out scouting for something to
shoot. A couple of years before it was nothing to see 5,000, 10,000
buff in a day's ride. Now if I saw 50 I was lucky. Presently all I
saw was rotting red carcasses or bleaching white bones. We had killed
the golden goose.
During my runner's years I, quite naturally, wasn't interested in
overall figures on total number killed, shipped, and so forth. I was
a runner, not a statistician. But if I'd had sense enough in those
days I could have realized in a few minutes' time that the game was
on the way out. I couldn't have done anything about it, but I could
have foreseen that my future was rather dim as a buffalo runner.
Completely accurate figures will likely never be compiled, but
here are some authentic ones from the Southwest Historical Society
which will show how thoroughly we killed the golden goose.
Dodge City, Kansas, was known as the buffalo city, and more hides
were shipped from there than from anywhere else. The shipments
started in earnest in 1871, but figures for that year are missing.
During the winter of 1872-1873, one firm alone out of Dodge City
shipped 200,000 hides. During the same year the same firm handled
1,617,000 pounds of buffalo meat, and $2,500,000 worth of buffalo
bones. Now, that was big business in a small frontier town; and
remember Dodge, although largest handler of buffalo hides and meat,
was only one of a dozen cities that were on rails and shipping
But notice how swiftly the traffic dropped. The buffalo years were
only seven, 1871 to 1878. The last big shipment was in 1878. It
consisted of 40,000 hides, only a fifth of the number handled by the
same firm from the same railhead seven years before. After that there
weren't enough buffalo left to make handling profitable, so agents
shut up their offices and got into some other racket, usually cattle,
for fast on the heels of the buffalo came the cattle drives. Again
Dodge assumed importance, took on a leading role.
Here are some other figures confirming the Dodge City figure I
In 1872, figures show that 1,491,489 buffalo were killed. In 1873,
the high year, the figure given is 1,508,568. Now note this: in 1874,
the total is only 158,583 -- the buffalo was decimated in just one
year. Tragic picture, don't you think?
If you want to add the total killed during those three years you
will see it comes to 3,158,730. But the Indians was getting his
share, too, and Indian kills are set down by men who study records
carefully enough to be listened to and believed, at 405,000 a year,
or 1,215,000 in the three-year period.
Add the Indian crop to the white runners' crop and you will have a
total kill for years 1872, 1873, and 1874 of 4,373,730 animals; in
three years' time. No one can say how many were killed during the
seven-year period the buffalo harvest lasted, but it must have been
well over five million and might even have been close to six. Who
I once, some years ago, sought a definite answer to that question
by consulting railroads, because all the buffalo shipped from the
ranges went by rail, and I figured if anyone would have the correct
answer it would be the roads themselves. Everywhere I went I got the
rather naive answer that the railroads couldn't answer my question,
because they kept no records! Since when did railroads stop keeping
The Santa Fe got the lion's share of the business, and about a
third of the hides went out over the Santa Fe. But the Santa Fe
didn't keep records either, I was told!
What happens whenever the law of diminishing returns sets to work,
increased efficiency, happened on the buffalo ranges. I know when I
started in we were wasteful. We shot only cows. Their fur was softer;
their skins were thinner; they were more in demand. If we killed a
bull or two and we killed more than one or two just for the devil of
it, we didn't bother to skin him; just left him lay for the wolves
and coyotes to come along and do our job for us. Later on, we were
glad to kill bulls, calves, anything.
We were wasteful of hides, too, and I have figures showing how we
got over that and increased our efficiency in handling. In 1872, for
instance, every hide that reached market represented three or four
buffalo killed. The others were wasted by improper handling, rotting
on the ground, and similar shiftlessnesses. The next year we began to
tighten up a little: for every hide reaching railhead two buffalo
gave their only lives. And in 1874, each hide represented the death
of one and a-fourth buffalo. Yes, we became efficient, economical
when we had nothing to be efficient or economical about. Our
efficiency came too late. We learned our profession, but had no
chance to practice it, which is always a tragedy.
One by one we runners put up our buffalo rifles, sold them, gave
them away, or kept them for other hunting, and left the ranges. And
there settled over them a vast quiet, punctuated at night by the
snarls and howls of prairie wolves as they prowled through the
carrion and found living very good. Not a living thing, aside from
these wolves and coyotes stirred.
The buffalo was gone.
It was as if by prearrangement or signal the way the runners left the
ranges, once the buffalo days were done. Hardly waiting to say
goodbye, they hitched up, headed for the most part eastward to other
careers. Many stayed, however, took up 160-acre homesteads on the
very ground where they had run buffalo, and became staid and solid
citizens. Some went back to the cities whence they came, their lust
for adventure surfeited.
I was luckier than most: I had a girl waiting for me in Denver,
whom I married, and a career waiting for me in Colorado, which I
immediately followed. The training I had had on the buffalo ranges
came to help me in my new endeavor. I became a market hunter for the
Leadville market. Leadville started in earnest to boom in 1879 and
there was no cattle industry to feed the hungry miners. I became the
town's meat industry, and thousands of pounds of deer, elk, mountain
sheep, and antelope I brought in in my wagons. Here I was more
successful financially than on the buff. But that, as Mr. Kipling was
wont to say, is another story. And I am not quite through with the
story of the buffalo.
Millions of pounds of buffalo meat, carrion now, was piled up on
the ranges, and the stench was so great that at a mile away from a
stand you could smell it and be forced to hold your nose. Only the
coyotes and wolves didn't seem to mind. To them it was a field day,
all the rotten meat you wanted to eat without the necessity of
hunting it and running it down. What could be finer, from a coyote's
point view? And no danger from man either, because no men were
around. That is not for a while.
But presently the ranges which had rung with the boom, boom, boom
of the heavy buffalo rifles and the beats of millions of buffalo
hooves, soon heard another sound. It was the hoofbeats of the horses
which brought the next wave of invaders to the buffalo ranges.
These were the wolfers.
They didn't mind the stench either, or they got used to it, as
they plied their nefarious trade, of poisoning the coyotes and wolves
that came to the buffalo carcasses to feast. They would poison
methodically every carcass in a radius of two or three miles; as much
as they could conveniently handle. They used strychnnine, and the
poor beasts, not used to man or his ways, would eat, would die in
great agony. But the wolfer didn't care how they died, just so long
as he got their hides, worth a dollar or two at the time. Several
hundred men eked out a living being wolfers, but they were a mean,
ugly, cheap breed of drunkards mostly, and they didn't add to the
beauty of the buffalo ranges any more than we did when we scattered
the corpses of the buffalo where we did.
Then another grotesque wave of men came on the heels of the
wolfers, men about as ugly and mean as the wolfers themselves. They
were the boners. They picked up the bones, shipped them east, where
they were ground up and used, for the most part, in the process of
refining sugar, although many, of course, were used for fertilizer.
A year after the Santa Fe reached Dodge City, a strange old man
appeared with a two-horse team.
"What's you business?" someone asked him.
"Buffalo bones," he said, that and no more, as he headed his team
toward the buffalo range.
Everybody laughed at him. They dubbed him "Buffalo Bones," and
laughed every time they saw him, strangely hunched up on the high
seat of his wagon, the box of which glistened with the sundried bones
of the buffalo. He was a worker, that old fellow, and presently he
was hiring other teamsters to help him with this -- the last-phase of
the buffalo harvest. All told he shipped 3,000 carloads of bones -
-and on them made a very tidy fortune, and laughed last at those who
had had so much fun laughing at him.
After that civilization moved in fast. Buffalo grass was plowed
under, and wheat, and oats, and barley, and corn, and sod houses, and
school houses, and grange halls began appearing where once buffalo
roamed at will. Now when you visit the old range, you will be lucky
if you find any evidence whatsoever of the life I have been
describing for you. If you can find some ground which hasn't been
plowed, however, you will here and there notice some declivities of
varying size and depth. These will be buffalo wallos, where buffalo
used to twist and turn and dig out deep places with their tall humps,
as they sought to drive off flies or get the satisfaction which only
a buffalo could understand. And going toward the streams, in some of
these unsullied fields, you will find dim but deep paths. These are
the buffalo trails, and if your imagination is working try to picture
these tall, stately, dignified, but still stupid animals, going
methodically to the stream to quench their thirst.
It's fair to ask if the slaughter was justified or if it could
have been otherwise? I don't think it could have been. I think the
slaughter of the buffalo would be what moderns would call an
historical necessity. It just had to come.
You see, the buffalo had almost no power of adjustment. He was
what he was, and he couldn't change to suit his environment, so when
the environment changed, he was absolutely unable to meet change. So
he had to perish. A good many men tried to make the buffalo of some
earthly use to civilization. Buffalo Jones, for example, spent
thousands of dollars crossing buffalo with domestic cattle, producing
a breed he called catalo. But, alas, the catalo was a failure from
the start. He couldn't be herded, he couldn't be domesticated, he
could not be trusted, and his meat was coarse and stringy. It has
been years since I have heard of anyone trying to make something of
the buffalo. So behold him today, a curiosity behind a high wire
fence in the zoo and multiplying so rapidly that if you want one you
can get him virtually for nothing.
Maybe we runners served our purpose in helping abolish the
buffalo; maybe it was our ruthless harvesting of him which telescoped
the control of the Indian by a decade or maybe more. Or maybe I am
just rationalizing. Maybe we were just a greedy lot who wanted to get
ours, and to hell with posterity, the buffalo, and anyone else, just
so we kept our scalps on and our money pouches filled. I think maybe
that is the way it was.
OUT OF IT FOR GOOD
I wasn't sorry when I headed my wagons westward toward the Rockies
and what I was sure would be the good life it promised to be. I
didn't have my million, but I still had youth, and strength, and
ambition, and experience by now, so I thought I could cope with
almost any situation. And I was going home to a girl who had decided
she wanted me for her husband. And I was singing when my wagons left
Dodge for Denver. It was a wonderful feeling, one I read in Joseph
Conrad years later described as "that silly, beautiful, charming
youth," and so it was.
My plans went according to Hoyle. I married. I went into market
hunting, and here I got hold of some of the dollars that eluded me in
the buffalo business. The fact is that, hunting deer, antelope, elk,
mountain sheep, and bear for the mining camp markets of Colorado, I
earned more, in 1880, than during any two years on the buffalo
ranges. And the work was three or four times as easy and pleasant.
For one thing I got better prices for the meat I delivered to the
camps than I ever got from buffalo. Game was plentiful. When I wasn't
hunting I was guiding sportsmen, and I liked that.
But the lure of the buffalo still held me, and now and then I'd
sashay back to the ranges for a little go at the buffalo again. This
time it was mostly as an enterpriser. I hired others to do the
hunting and gathering of bones. Yes, I was a bone man for a year. I
furnished wagons, grub, teams, and the like but no rifles or
ammunition or strong backs, which were required to life heavy buffalo
skeletons and load them into wagons that were taller than the tallest
man. I paid 50 per cent commission, and made a few thousand dollars
of what to me was easy money after what I'd been through on the
For the sake of the record, I want to show you how little I had
when I got out of the business. My wagons and outfit were paid for, I
had a couple of thousand dollars in the bank, but that is all. But I
was surcharged with memories that have gone with me during the whole
of my long life; memories that I wouldn't swap now for the big house,
the stovepipe hat, and a seat in Congress, as if I had ever yearned
for one of those. I was one of the lucky ones. And on top of all
that, two friendships with two of the grandest individuals I ever
knew -- McRae and Vimy. It was my grace to maintain close friendship
with these two men for many years after our active association
together. Both were long-lived. They died within a few months of each
other, which is the way both wanted it. They were the Damon and
Phythias of the frontier, and the three of us must have been the
There was one more chapter in my life as a buffalo runner,
however. My last buffalo. There had to be a first, and there had to
be a last. I have already told you about my first, how I shot a tough
old bull and thus contracted buffalo fever. Well, my last victim was
likewise a tough old bull. It was up on the Musselshell in Wyoming. I
was up there hunting elk when I topped a draw and saw him, strayed
from the herd. He was a pitiful object, old, decrepit, and sick.
Already coyotes were around him, licking their chops in anticipation
of the feed which would come, once he dropped, which he was sure to
do very shortly. I saved him the trouble. I set the trigger on my old
.40-90, aimed at his neck. It was just like old times, to have a
buffalo in the stadia hairs, and maybe my heart leaped a little bit.
I touched the delicate trigger, and the gun roared. He fell. He never
knew what struck him.
Nearby was a herd of twelve fine cows, all of which I could have
easily killed. But I didn't even shoot one. My buffalo days were
over. I had harvested the last of the crop.