Two million pounds of buffalo on the hoof was thundering at me rolling in a brown live wave. The ground shook as if I were standing next to the track with a locomotive engine roaring past. Air waves were alive like the reverberation from a sonic boom. The South Dakota Custer State Park annual fall Buffalo Roundup was in full swing and I was right in the middle of the action. Well not in the middle of the action but a lot closer than the fifteen thousand spectators relegated to the public viewing areas. My friends and I had applied as wranglers on the roundup crew and had been selected as riders for this year.
With over seventy thousand acres the park is as large as the state of Rhode Island. The Black Hills National Forest is a neighbor on the north and west boundaries with Wind Cave National Park on the south. Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen blanket the northern slopes while the southern slopes are covered with gamma, buffalo and wheat grass. Mount Rushmore with the president’s heads is a short ten mile crow flight. The thirteen hundred head of the park’s buffalo are man-handled once a year. This involves forcing the buffalo into corrals made from discarded oil field pipe stem latticed eight feet high and welded into a metal cage strong enough to hold a one ton bull buffalo trying to escape.
The front end of the herd was already in the holding pens and the faint echo of heavy metal being attacked by disgruntled bulls was ringing back across the prairie. Once captured the buffalo cows would be pregnancy tested to determine if they would be kept for another calving season. Approximately three hundred head of barren cows, older bulls and some younger stock will be sorted off to be sold at auction each year to keep the buffalo numbers at a manageable level.
Where else in the world can you get a chance to actually be a wrangler for a wild herd of buffalo? Nowhere is the answer. This is a unique event in the world and this year I was a part of it. I, Mitch Tobin, a banker form Spearfish, South Dakota. In my mid-forties, this was no time to be playing cowboy even if I was raised as one.
Our group joined the other First Year Riders the previous day for orientation with the District Park Supervisor and the Core Leaders for the Red, Blue and White Teams. The orientation involved not only the riders but the grounds crew and the media chase teams. After fifty years of roundups the veterans had the roundup organized to a tee. My friends were spaced between Red Team members on the east flank between Core Team Riders, Park Riders and Core Leaders. The idea is to keep participants safe whether they are riders, workers or spectators.
The safety record is important and mixing new riders with experienced riders is one of the keys. I may have grown up on a ranch and herded cattle all my life, but wild buffalo are definitely unpredictable. They act docile and slow and sleepy until they occasionally explode. Riding and roping since I was a kid had led me to think I was ready for anything on horseback. But my leopard spotted Appaloosa horse, Dan, and I were both keyed up as the buffalo swung like a flight of birds in our direction.
Art Kennedy, an experienced rider and Core Red Team Leader, was staged between me and Laurie Saphat. Laurie gave me a nervous wave as she positioned her horse, Buttercup, in our loose line on the ridge of a hill. I wasn’t worried about any of our group as we all grew up riding and working livestock on horseback. I was more worried about a couple of the other First Year Riders. I hoped they would not do something stupid that would impact other riders like me.
Out of our group of four I would admit privately that petite Laurie was the best overall horseperson. She got horses to do things that I wouldn’t even try. Not that the rest of us were slouches, she was just exceptional. The idea was to be visible to the buffalo and move them easily toward the corrals. Frank, identifiable by his six and half foot pole frame with his bristly mop of red hair sticking out under his cowboy hat, was definitely visible several riders further along the line. Judy was out of my line of sight in a dip in the rolling grass.
Buffalo are not the only wildlife on the horizon. I see pronghorn antelope and elk being allowed to sneak back out of the line of riders. Several stocky burros are not so lucky and are caught up with the buffalo forming their own little herd within a herd. Dan was shifting nervously under me as the strange scent of buffalo rose from the dry fall grass. He was normally solid and unflappable but the excitement of the horses and riders around us was infecting us both. Most of the action is tame and the buffalo act like athletic oversized cows. As the push of the herd passes riders on the edge they fold in to add to the drag. A separate herd of pickups and four wheel drives bring up the rear. Small crews of cameramen bounce around in the pickup beds trying to film the action.
On a far hill behind a protective fence are the spectators. Many of them have been lined up since early morning waiting for a taste of pre-industrial times when buffalo herds numbered the millions. The buffalo don’t disappoint as they flow over the grass carpet like a shadow from an overhead cloud. Fifteen thousand people from all over the world enjoy the morning with us. Shared experience like this is the basis for world brotherhood. It is a spiritual time for many.
Not everyone agrees with this. My friend John Many Hawks is put off by the buffalo round up saying it commercializes what is a Native American tradition of food gathering. He is normally a very level headed thoughtful person but something about the annual buffalo round up gets under his skin. I encouraged him to apply with the rest of us and he gave some excuse about his law practice being too busy. How John could tell the work load was going to be heavy four months ahead of time when the applications were due is a little tough to swallow. He didn’t want to participate and that is okay. John, Frank and I do a lot of things together and I was sorry John was missing this majestic scene.
Thoughts of to my missing friend had taken my eyes away from the flow of animals in front of me. A quick shout from Art Kennedy brought me back to focus. A look at Art showed him bunching his horse with the start of a sudden launch toward the herd. I tried to follow his angle of direction as he took off toward the thundering buffalo. I didn’t immediately see the issue thinking one of the First Year Riders to brake rank and move in closer to the herd.
What I finally saw was a group of four people on foot spreading out in a line from a small copse of trees. The group were all dressed in traditional Native American garb with feather war bonnets, painted faces, breast plates and leather leggings. For them to suddenly appear in the middle of the buffalo herd they must have hidden in the trees during the dark. A group this conspicuous couldn’t have walked from the spectator viewing area without being noticed.
Art was already at the edge of the herd well down from me. He started moving with the herd but angling across the stream with the apparent intention of ending up at the group of four. Moving inside a galloping herd of a thousand buffalo is absolutely against the rules the District Park Supervisor and Core Leaders laid out during our intake session the previous afternoon. At first I thought Art was going down to take the four in hand but when he pulled up short of them and swung his horse facing the oncoming herd I realized what he was doing. Art was putting his horse, an animal buffalo normally try to avoid, between the oncoming herd and the four on foot. He was trying to make sure the walkers didn’t get hurt. The group apparently wanted some interaction with the buffalo and spread out behind Art and started moving forward where he couldn’t cover all of them at once.
I was already prodding Dan to do the same maneuver but Laurie was ahead of me. As I reached the edge of the herd and swung Dan to start cutting at an angle Laurie was already pulling up beside Art helping to spread the buffalo around the group. Dan was a handful to keep angling through the herd. He sensibly wanted no part of one ton critters with horns galloping with single-minded determination. I had to agree with him. My adrenaline was pumping through my body like crazy as the bawling din increased in the center of the herd along with the dust being raised from thousands of hoofs pounding the earth.
I didn’t want to think what all those sharp hooves could do to me if I lost my seat and went down. Dan was apparently thinking about what those horns could do to him as he jumped and side stepped while galloping through the melee. The noise that was distant thunder from the hill side was totally different once you were part of the moving mass. It was overpowering along with the odor of those many shaggy beasts.
I kept trying to move to my left and thread through the herd but ended up coming out slightly behind the four Native Americans on foot. There was a calm spot behind Art, Laurie and the Native Americans created by Art and Laurie acting as a wedge to the oncoming herd. As I turned Dan around to face the buffalo I recognized the end of the herd was in sight. So far all of our group was surviving. I moved up on the far side of Art from Laurie and held Dan to shed that shoulder of the moving mass. Dan didn’t like it any better than I did as he shifted sideways to move himself away from all those horns streaming past a foot from his shoulder.
The tail end of the herd surprisingly held many of the larger bulls. They were experienced in previous round ups and didn’t want anything to do with the corrals and handling. The big bulls were lagging behind and occasionally trying to turn back to escape capture. I was constantly having to move Dan forward and out as the two Native Americans between Art and I kept walking forward. Thankfully they weren’t running forward but they kept a slow measured advance. In my head I finally had time to curse the idiots that were forcing me, Art and Laurie to endanger ourselves. Now I could add Frank to the mix as he had come off the hill and joined our rider group on the far side protecting Laurie’s flank. The thought hit me hard that Judy was probably trying to do the same thing. Damn! I hoped she could see we had it somewhat under control and stays out of the herd.
My hopes took a dive as I saw Judy put her horse on the outside of Dan helping to spread the remaining buffalo to the side of the Native American directly behind her. Whoever it was in the war bonnet seemed to step up his pace as he tried to out flank Judy and her horse to put himself directly in front of the oncoming bulls. Judy pushed her horse further toward the buffalo and I was right behind her. What was the idiot doing? Was he trying to get run down?
The last of the herd was coming abreast of us and I thought we had made it through without injury to the riders or the group on foot. The tail end of the herd was being pushed by a row of pickups many of them with cameramen in the pickup bed. As the herd moved in closer to the corrals the riders on the sides filled in between the pickups bringing up the drag. The last few bulls were almost even with Judy and me when the pickup closest to us honked its horn repeatedly. Over the noise of the herd I heard someone from the pickup hollering, “Give us some action. Get out from behind those cowboys.”
The instructions we received from the previous night’s training had warned against being on foot in the herd. The District Park Supervisor stressed the chase pickups and film crews were to be unobtrusive and not invade on the atmosphere of the round up. So now Judy and I were sandwiched between a demanding film crew, a Native American on foot and some grumpy bull buffalo. Now that the immediate reaction of fear and adrenaline were running their course I was moving to anger. Anger at the idiots on foot trying to get stomped and the film crew wanting to film it. I moved Dan to protect the walker behind us from the final bull with the speech forming in my mind for chewing both groups out.
The last bull was huge and overheated from the effort of the run. Snot was dripping from his nose as he stopped between the chase pickup and Dan. This was not a good sign. The chase pickup chose this moment to lay on the horn again. Dan and I naturally turned our attention to the pickup. I was all set to let these idiots have a piece of my mind. The bull had enough and dropped his head and charged.
You have no idea how fast a two thousand pound buffalo can move. Dan and I had been around a lot of cattle and had been charged by many bulls and ornery cows. They had never touched us. Not one of them moved as fast as this bull did. Dan tried to side step but bumped into Judy’s horse. It happened so fast that the bull rammed Dan’s rib cage before I could move my leg out of the way.
As Dan stumbled from the blow he pushed Judy and her mount to the side spinning us sideways. I remember thinking I was glad Judy was shielded from the direct attack. The bull was not content with the damage to Dan and swept past aiming for his next target – the person on foot behind us. As I struggled to keep my seat, Judy and I watched as the bearded monster charged the Native American. There was nothing I or Judy could do to protect the walker. It looked like a certain massacre about to happen.
The Native American stood his ground not moving as the huge bull came at him. I assumed he was frozen in fear. The bull lowered his head again just as he neared the hapless walker readying his huge neck muscle to lay the idiot out and trample him under foot. Just a micro second before the massive head butted him the Native American leapt into the air placing his foot on the top of the bull’s huge head. The bull flipped his head up trying to reach his target lifting the Native American like a trampoline. The Native American sailed over the rest of the bull landing on his feet just a few feet from Dan and me.
To keep the bull from swinging back to hurt anyone Laurie charged in on Buttercup to place herself between the bull and us. The bull swung around angry that he had missed his target and ready to take on anyone or anything in his way. Laurie and her horse were the closest things at hand. The bull lowered his head and bellered shaking his head back and forth in frustration while slinging snot from his nose. Once more the bull lowered his head to charge. Laurie kept Buttercup in place to protect Dan and me. We were both dazed and Dan was moving slow – too slow to get out of the way. If Laurie stayed there she was going to get a dose of the same thing meted out to Dan.
I tried to kick Dan in the ribs to get him to move faster and move us out of harm’s way so Laurie didn’t have to put herself at risk. But my leg burst into a flame of pain when I tried to nudge him. Just as the bull started his move to attack Laurie, Art Kennedy burst between them on his big black horse. At the same time he shot past the bull’s front he reached down with his quirt and smacked the bull on the nose. The bull was so surprised he didn’t finish his charge but stopped and shook his head. Then the bull slowly turned away and trotted after the tail end of the herd.
By now I was overcome with fear about how much injury Dan had sustained and leapt to the ground to give him a look. I landed on the damaged leg and shuddered as it took my weight. The leg collapsed under me and I hit the ground rolling over to try and put my weight on the other side. A one ton buffalo ramming you in the leg is not a recommendation for health of limb. The pain enveloped my whole consciousness, blocking out where I was and what was going on around me. I think of myself as cowboy tough but I was not thinking up some droll saying to make light of the situation. I have been dumped from horses many times and landed awkwardly and hard. This was different. It felt like the time I was dumped from a bull during a rodeo and spent time in a hospital. My head started to clear enough for me to think about Dan. If I felt this bad what did he feel like? His ribs had taken the brunt of that head charge.
As I tried to rise up to look for Dan the pain forced me to gasp and lay back down. With my head resting on the ground I turned it to the side and found out this rodeo wasn’t over. I realized the pickup with the film crew was headed right for me. The driver was apparently concentrating on the action with the bull and was not watching for me on the ground. The front tire of the pickup was on a collision course with my head! I started to yell to get the driver’s attention and at the same time squirmed on the ground to try and roll out of the way. My head was telling me I was moving too slowly and that it was going to be crushed. The truck didn’t care as it kept rolling forward the tire so close I could see it pressing the grass down as it rolled relentlessly at me. I expected the engine note to drop off and the brakes to slam on. If anything the engine was revving up so the pickup could catch up to the action. As I attempted to shrink my neck into my shoulders like a turtle to avoid the tire someone grabbed me by my belt and my injured leg and heaved me backwards. The tire bumped the crown of my head as it rolled over the grass where I was laying a split second ago.
Once again I gave into the pain shooting up from my injured leg. With no immediate threat to my life I squeezed my eyes shut seeing red burst throughout my skull. It took several minutes of gasping for air and calming myself before I registered voices asking me frantic questions. “Mitch. Mitch. Are you all right?” Judy’s voice sounded unusually high and fast. I tried forcing my eyes open and between more grimaces saw her leaning over me.
Behind her was another person with a voice belonging to my friend John. “Mitch, are you going to be okay?” But that wasn’t possible unless I was really out of it. I was injured and at Custer State Park and John didn’t come along on this trip. Then I heard his voice again, “Don’t try to get up. Lay there and let us check you over.” That sounded like John but the voice was coming from the Native American in the war bonnet and leather leggings. I was losing it for sure.
Judy said, “Mitch, John is right. Don’t try to move. Lay still until we can see how badly you are hurt.” Now Judy was joining in on my hallucination. I tried to sit up ignoring the advice and immediately discovered that was not a good idea. Judy raised her voice and changed her tone from frightened caring to bossing orders. “Lay down! This is no time to act like the macho cowboy. Got it?” Judy may only be a little gal but her red hair matched her fire when times required it.
I closed my eyes and tried to regroup mentally. The pain in my leg was subsiding by lying still to reduce movement was good advice. Now if I could figure out a logical reason for the Native American with the war bonnet to have John’s voice I might not think I was in la la land. But Judy had said, “John is right.” So it must be John.
In short order I was surrounded by my usual crew of friends – Frank and Laurie, John and Greta and of course Judy. I was now propped up against the wheel of an ambulance. The Roundup crew thought of everything. Apparently out of all those riders, helpers, pickup crews and spectators I was the only one injured. I demanded to be propped up against the side so I could look at Dan. I made Frank walk him around while Laurie looked him over. She knew almost as much about a horse as most veterinarians and more than some. Frank patted Dan on the side of the neck and said, “I think Dan seems all right. He appears to be in better shape than you.”
I snapped back at him, “It wouldn’t take a lot to be in better shape than I feel right now.” The medics made another attempt to get me in the ambulance. I shook them off and said, “You said you don’t think the leg is broken. So I can’t see what good it will do to haul me to a hospital.” Since I refused to load in the ambulance the medics made me sign a release and they left to go hunt up some better paying fare. Art Kennedy and Laurie went off on their horses to check on the end of the round up and check for stragglers.
Judy was fussing over me – telling me to lie still and not move. The dull throbbing in my leg was getting serious and my temper was running short. Being embarrassed as the only rider to be injured wasn’t helping my attitude any either. Frank flagged down one of the chase pickups and commandeered them into hauling me back to my vehicle and trailer. I was not able to mount Dan by myself so Judy was riding behind the pickup and leading Dan. Frank was on his horse following along also. As John helped me into the pickup bed so I could lay down on the short trip I barked at him, “This is all your fault.”
John looked at me in surprise and said, “My fault? How is this my fault? I had a nice organized protest put together with a film crew so we could send it out on YouTube and you screwed up the whole thing.”
My mouth dropped down as I gaped at John. “Laurie and I kept your sorry ass from being run down by a bull buffalo. I will take that as my fault – saving your ass.” John was upset by my response and was ready to chew my butt right back. Before he could get started I cut him off with, “What the hell are you doing here anyway? I asked you to apply for the ride with me and you said you were too busy. Too busy with what? Planning your little protest?” The sarcasm in my voice wasn’t helping tone things down.
John raised his voice in anger. The first time I ever heard him do that. “And if I had told you what I was doing, you would have tried to talk me out of it.” Now it was John’s turn to cut me off before I could answer. “You would have told the District Park Supervisor or the Ride Leaders. Well I was not about to be stopped from making my statement because you don’t see my point of view. What you call my ‘little protest’ is important to me. It is important to all the western plains Native Americans. The buffalo in this park are part of our heritage. The roundup makes a mockery of our traditions. Somebody has to stand up and let America know that it is not okay to do that. And as far as saving my ass I was waiting for just that type of bull so my friends in the pickup could video it all. You saw me jump right over him. I should have known when you got accepted as a rider for the Roundup that you would screw up my protest.”
If my jaw was dropped down before, it was hanging almost on the ground now. I spluttered back at him, “You --- planned to jump a buffalo? You planned to do what --- a protest? And I screwed it up?” My short temper went off. “You dumb son of a bitch. I am banged up, Dan is injured and my ride is ruined because you are doing something illegal. And I’m the bad guy. You can put that where the sun doesn’t shine.” I hollered to the pickup driver. “Get me out of here. I can’t stand the company.”
As the pickup lurched forward I glared at John as he glared back. The pickup topped a hill and as I went down the other side I watched John being surrounded by State Park employees. I think he was receiving some of that attention he wanted but maybe not quite the way he had envisioned.
The ride back to my outfit was over some rough prairie. The pickup bounced and shook and with every bump my leg screamed at me. My anger at John helped me ignore the pain. When we got to my pickup I was surprised that I was able to climb down from the pickup bed by myself. I just didn’t put any weight on the injured leg. It was embarrassing to sit while Judy and Frank unsaddled the horses and put the tack in the trailer. We decided to load Dan at the back so we could unload him first if we decided to stop at a veterinarian. My leg throbbed and I was ready to get moving so we could get home but nobody knew where Laurie was. My new horse trailer had a small bed over the gooseneck hitch. With the painkillers from the medics of the ambulance crew kicking in I climbed onto the mattress to relax and wait.