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    Follow the Stories | Denver, Colorado (2010)

    Memoirs by H.S. Kilbourne


    Posted: 4.12.2010

    Sketch of buffalo heard
    A heard of migrating buffalo, sketched by H.S. Kilbourne.

    The following story is from a manuscript by Henry Sayles Kilbourne (1840-1910), who planned a book based on his experiences stationed on the American Plains as a contract surgeon with the 10th U.S. Cavalry at various times between 1862 and 1875. Kilbourne's memoir was never published, but drafts of three chapters have been preserved by his descendants, who have allowed ANTIQUES ROADSHOW to publish them for the first time here.

    In a Buffalo Stampede

    Out on the Plains one bright spring morning some years ago a young Kiowa brave rode up to my quarters, leading a war-pony saddled and bridled in Indian fashion. He asked me in the sign language to mount and ride away at one with him to an Indian Camp on the Otter, a tributary of the Salt Fork of the Red River of Texas some forty odd miles away. The emergency being pressing and my time unoccupied I obtained leave of absence and was soon in the saddle en route, galloping toward the western hills. The novel equipments, the rapid motion, my wild companion, the clear, dry and cool morning air combined to produce in me an exhilaration of spirits. I drank deep draughts of the delicious ambient air with a growing alertness of every sense, and a keen enjoyment of the freedom and wildness of the scene. My guide, clad only in waist cloth and moccasins, his long scalp lock braided with eagle's feathers, fluttering on the wind, rode bare back, without effort or fatigue, like a centaur from the frieze of the Parthenon molded in burnished copper. The horses small, wiry, and active specimens of the Comanche breed, held an even quick pace over the rolling landscape, up hill, down slope, and through long stretches of sparse Mesquit chapparal, following no visible trail through apparently sure of their course. Pushing ever onward into the boundless wilderness, familiar land marks fading out in the dim distance behind us. After hours of speedy travel we halted to water our horses in a small, clear stream crossing the route in our front. Coming up out of the narrow valley on the opposite high bank the Indian, pointing toward the West, made the Indian sign for Camp. I looked forward in the direction indicated. We had reached a point, as I reckoned the distance already covered, within a dozen miles of the Indian village. However, I could see nothing on the far horizon illuminated by an unclouded sun. Unslinging a field-glass I again looked over the Western landscape, carefully sweeping it to the horizon line, still unable to discern any sign of the yet distant encampment. Observing the lack of success on my part the Kiowa then made the signs for horse — plenty — many. Again the field-glass failed to reveal anything like a pony herd. The Indian then rode up in front, halted, and pointing fixedly made again the sign for "horses", adding after a moment's interval the sign for "white." Once more I looked marking accurately the direction of the extended arm of the guide and saw through the glass several minute, white specks faintly visible against the darker background of a remote ridge near the sky line. The Indian laughed, seeing my discovery and evident surprise at the wonderful keenness of his practical vision. An hour or so of steady riding brought us into the Camp, beyond which, on a high, long slope grazed a herd of some hundreds of ponies, the property of the Indian band, with some half dozen white ones among them. Toward these our own reeking and plucky little animals soon trotted, divested of their equipments in an instant by the dusky group gathered at the sounds of our coming. Although no novice on the prairie and accustomed to the view of distant objects, here had been shown visual powers of an acuteness so far surpassing my own as to suggest the possession of another special sense. It was the faculty of far-sight, beyond distances attempted by civilized men with unaided vision. With eyes naturally not differing essentially from my own this Indian, by constant practice from boyhood and familiarity with the multitudinous changes of form and color on the wise expanse of prairie, had exhibited the resources of nature beyond the capacities of the white men, habitually dull of vision for lack of use, or from misuse. The camp had been pitched in the vicinity of buffalo. Fresh buffalo meat hung every where about in plentiful crimson festoons, curing in the dry, preserving air of the plains — the sign that feast was in progress. An old chief tempted by the bounteous occasion and unmindful of his waning powers, had indulged in a surfeit of the game. For the reason that for three days he had refused to eat more, he had been thought ill, beyond the hope of recovery. A little of the strong medicine of the white man soon set him right again and improved his prospects for continuing the feast, to the great satisfaction of his weeping family and sorrowing friends. Declining an invitation to join in the festivities and remain until the next day, and having disposed of a substantial buffalo steak, broiled over the embers of Mesquit, and having been hospitably provided with a remount, I started, toward nightfall, with the same fellow traveller, on the return journey.

    The Indian rode with head bent forward and fixed gaze. ... Both horses swerved and were moving northward, surrounded and enveloped by the rushing living avalanche.

    A crescent moon in the West declining over the Camp as we left it, shed a faint light on our darksome way, sinking out of sight as we crossed the rivulet where we got the first glimpse of the village in the morning ride. A clear, starlit sky permitted good speed, but we drew rein often over rough country, though our tough, sure-footed beasts, seldom stumbled, or needed the hand of a careful rider. To the north on our left, rose the low canes of the Witchutaw Mountains dimly outlined in the gloom. Far away to the right we had seen during the day, the fringes of low clumps of live oaks and peach trees, marking the gathering sources of the Cache, taking their southerly course to join the waters of the Red. The region was alive with game. Antelope, disturbed by our coming, rose from leafy coverts, scurrying ghost-like across our path. Now and then the heavier tread of an elk struck the ear who, roused from his thicket and stamping an alarm betook himself to flight. To these familiar night sounds and flittings the horses paid scant attention. Once they pricked their ears, shying suddenly, in crossing a defile, at which my Indian laughed, and said: pony - him - no like - bear. And we could hear the shambling foot falls of bruin as he shuffled away, his long, flat feet, snapping the dry twigs in his hasty retreat. Coming out on smoother rising ground, we took up a faster pace, being now well advanced on the way. The cool evening breeze beat refreshingly against our faces, warmed by active exercise.

    The darkling landscape parted and closed with quick alternations of shades, as we hastened along through the night. Suddenly my guide pulled his horse back upon his haunches, and, quickly dismounting, put his ear to the ground, then rising stood erect and still, facing the breeze. Then he turned and said excitedly: buffalo - plenty - come - come - come! I also listened but heard nothing save the sighing of the night wind and the far cry of a coyote, shrilly calling in the shadows and stillness of the wilderness. The Indian remounted and we pushed on again, expectant, but seeing no sign. Presently a vague tremor became sensible, whether in the air, or earth seemed to me indistinguishable, but growing every moment in volume and distinctness it came up on the South Wind now more sensibly, like the distant sound of the sea on a rock bound shore. We held on our course with added speed as the situation now flashed upon me. The annual migration of the buffalo had begun. We were crossing the front of one of the enormous herds which periodically sweep over the plains like a hurricane from the tropics. Perturbed as the restless sea, at this season, by the powerful instinct of migration, the desire for instant departure spread like a contagion among the multitudes of restless beasts, urging them to blind and tumultuous northward flight. Our position became every instant more hazardous. Should we be overtaken and enveloped by the furious throng in the darkness, to make way through it would be impossible. The horrible fate of being trampled to death under pitiless hoofs seemed awaiting us. Our lives depended upon the speed and endurance of our horses and the chance of passing the front of the approaching herds. The air grew thick with dust as we sped along. The murmurous sound deepened into a steady roar, like the thunder of falling waters. I spurred forward toward my flying guide, relying upon his sure instincts and actions in the critical moment now near at hand. We were fortunately well mounted on choice war ponies, the best of their hardy race, but the rapid pace was telling on their strength and mettle. The Indian rode with head bent forward and fixed gaze, as though trying to pierce the gloom with the sharpness of his vision, when, with a quick decision, he suddenly raised high his left arm a signal to slow the pace, then swept it sharply to the left. Obedient to the prairie sign both horses swerved and were moving northward, surrounded and enveloped by the rushing living avalanche. With arm still extended the Kiowa signed to me to ride in close. The situation had changed in a twinkling. All about us galloped the shaggy beasts, their huge form undulating in the darkness like the black waters of a storm swept sea, parting and opening in our rear, at the scent of us, and again closing in on our front as they passed. Foul dust blinded and choked us. Swarms of gnats and flies drawn along in the swirl and rush of the moving thousands stung and buzzed into eyes, ears and nostrils. The heat and vapor of the laboring mass of animal life, oppressed and deadened our senses. The confusion and tumult became appalling in the darkness. But our case was not yet hopeless. We now moved with the buffalo, instead of against them. The ready maneuver of the Indian had enabled us to seize the only chance to escape. The ground soon seemed to be slightly rising in our front and yet unbroken. We slowed our dripping horses to a lope, to ease them, though still staunch and unterrified by the rushing throng about us. Soon, on either side we heard the buffalo falling and struggling in the arroyos, now beginning to channel the prairie, parallel to our course. Warned by these sounds of disaster the guide veered to avoid these hidden pitfalls. To stumble and fall into them meant instant destruction under thousands of trampling hoofs. I knew that the arroyos must lead to the hills. How long this perilous ride lasted, I cannot tell. In such crises minutes seem like hours. Once among the hills, I thought, should we live to reach them, there was hope for deliverance. The hoarse cries and hot breath of the sweating and surging animals around us were maddening and still unabated. The horses trembled with impending exhaustion, stumbling among the loose stones now impeding the way and adding a new peril to the wild chase. The Indian noted the signs of danger ready for another diversion. As the stones became larger and more thickly strewn, the slope quickly changed to abruptness. We were climbing the foothills, invisible, yet near at hand. Shouting and wildly waving his arms the Kiowa stooped in the saddle and seizing my bridle he sprang forward and to the right. The now tiring beasts, their tongues lolling and sides heaving with the efforts of the ascent gave way before the charge, terrified anew by his outcries and mad gestures, and, as they parted we clambered breathlessly up the steep side of a hill, looming up dimly out of the night. We somehow reached its summit, where I fell exhausted and nearly senseless from my saddle. I was 'ere long aroused by the growing clamor. The stampede was breaking up among the foothills of the Witchita Mountains. Bulls bellowed in exhausted and impotent rage. Cows called hoarsely and clamorously for their young, which answered not and came not. The air reverberated with the cries of countless creatures, disposed, weary and panting among the hills and valleys, here seamed and word with their innumerable trails, leading on to the far North. A mist, born of the mountains, hung in the sky. The air grew c hill and searching to my aching limbs. The Indian, alert, unwearied and unclad, had slipped the saddle from the horses now resting and hungrily cropping the bunchgrass from the hillside. The guide gathered a bunch of chips, I produced some matches and lighted a smouldering [sic] fire over which we bent Indian fashion and were warmed and rested. The hills yet resounded with the echoed calling of the stragglers of the herds, the young and old, the wounded and maimed in the struggle, toiled painfully a long the difficult trail, abandoned by their kind. All else had passed. The way was now open again. Consumed with a feverish thirst, I made ready to leave our hill of refuge, in search of the nearest water. The mist cloud had deepened and fallen like a pall, shutting out the view of all surrounding, not a star appeared and all sense of direction in us had been lost. I told the Indian that we must find water, and, assenting without hesitation, he saddled and we were soon descending the hill in a direction different from that of our sudden approach. The numerous trails wound about among the hills, a net work of intricate paths, some deeply cut by the sharp hoofs of the passing herds, other channeled by successive rain falls into impassable chasms, and still others heavy with the dust of the latest passage. These we followed, or crossed, in bewildering succession, gradually making progress away from them into the open and level prairie. Curious to know by what instinct my guide had threaded the labyrinth and found his way, I asked: "Do you see the way?" He said "yes". I asked again, incredulous, "Do you see the way with your eyes?" He said, "no". Here then was a new mystery. "How then," I asked, "do you find the way?" He said, "I feel it". "With your hands, or feet?" "No". "How then?" "I cannot tell. The road is plain to me. The prairie is my home. I know it well." What sure and subtile sense was this? Something per haps akin to the homing instinct of the carrier pigeon, leading him unerringly over unknown wastes, back to his distant nest. Or that of the wild-bee, taking his arrowy flight returning to his forest home. The pride of race is surprised and humbled by the thought, that with all his boasted progress the white man has lost, or left behind a faculty so wondrous, yet retained by savages and lower creatures. In the midst of these musings the horses sniffed the night breeze and quickened their pace, whereat the Kiowa laughed again and said: pony - see- water; and there, sure enough, a little further on, we found it, a bubbling spring breaking out of the heart of the prairie. Beside it we made a cheerful blaze with twigs of dry Mesquit, and, leaving the horses to the care of their trail ropes, making, pillows of our saddles, we stretched out before the fire and slept, uncovered save by the sky, until the East began to glow and to shed the light of returning day over the now familiar landscape. The Kiowa rose with the first slanting sunbeams and shook himself, like a wild bird settling his plumage, looked keenly about him and then uttered the longest speech of this eventful journey. He said, speaking the Comanche tongue, the court language of the southern prairies: "Comanche - two - squaw - one - pony - six - here - yesterday - camp - go away - yesterday.

    I saw only some foot-prints leading down to the water edge, and a few charred sticks. Hereabout were tongues speaking plainly to him having wisdom to understand, but dumb to others, wise only in their own conceit. A plunge into the pool below the spring, completed my morning toilet. Refreshed and rejoicing we now faced the rising sun and galloped away in the crisp morning air, leaving behind all traces of our exciting adventure, save the vigorous appetite for a white man's breakfast. Arrived at my frontier cottage, I persuaded my bronzed, statuesque companion to submit to the discomforts of a bath and a blanket, out of regard to the prejudices of all in the vicinity. To this he reluctantly consented, stimulated by the odors wafted from my kitchen fire. All being arranged, we sat down to the work of restoration after the labor of the night. The astonished cook saw her larder disappear before the combined attack of the white and red men. And, if before the feast any doubt existed as to which is the superior race, after the board had been cleared, the weight of the argument lay with the noble red man.

    Read the Kilbourne manuscripts in full here:
    "In a Buffalo Stampede" »
    "The Buffalo Killing of the Palefaces" »
    "The Arrest of the Kiowa Chiefs" »


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