One of the first buffalo that came to this ranch was a scrawny orphan with a crooked horn. He couldn’t have weighed over forty pounds and no one was betting that he would even survive, let alone thrive. The twisted horn is what gave him his name, Curly Bill, and it wasn’t long into that first tough winter that the little urchin began to win our hearts. He was a bit of an ugly duckling and several buffalo managers more knowledgeable than I took one look at him and advised me not to make him herd bull. They said this with a chuckle and meant that Curly Bill should not be allowed to breed. They judged his genes detrimental to my buffalo herd and urged me to buy some “quality bulls” to improve my herd.
I suppose when searching for traits such as size, color, or tractability it is possible to look at an animal and have a notion of what its offspring will look or act like. But I’ve never understood how stockmen (half of whom do not believe in evolution) are confident in their ability to look at an animal and determine how well it is suited to handle a Great Plains winter, and so how well qualified it is to carry its genes on to the next generation.
Lucky for Curly, my herd was so small that culling was not a high priority. He made it through that first winter and grew into a gangly teenager and two years later, like most teenagers, he had only one thing on his mind. He took a shine to the girls and, as is the way with buffalo, took a terrible beating from the older bulls. But the fact that he lost every mating battle I ever saw him enter into was not so much the point as the fact that he was in many battles. I told everyone to wait until he grew up. He was just practicing until his turn to pass his genes on came around.
He was just coming into his prime when, last October, we finished fencing the wilderness area where we planned to pasture the herd during the winter. It was a bit of an experiment to run three hundred head of buffalo on that roadless rectangle nearly seven miles on a side. We weren’t sure how they would do with absolutely no human care, no open water, no way to even check on them until the snows melted in April. I thought the buffalo would loose weight and that perhaps the weakest few might die. But I had faith in those genes that, before human intervention, the species had honed to do just what we were asking them to do. What I was less confident about was whether or not we would be able to get the herd back onto our private land when the annual spring deadline for their removal came. Because it was a wilderness area, no motorized vehicles could be used in the roundup. I certainly wasn’t going looking for buffalo in 21,000 acres on foot, and herding buffalo on horseback is tricky. If an animal doesn’t want to go, you can’t make him.
During the winter we would occasionally catch sight of the herd on the high tableland on the other side of the river. I would scan the groups with binoculars trying to check on their condition. It was impossible to tell much from that distance, but by January I was pretty sure of one thing. Curly Bill was not with the herd. That, in itself, was not totally surprising. It is common for older bulls to go off by themselves to store and conserve energy for the breeding season that will begin in late July. But although Curly had always aspired to being a main breeder he had never grown into the role. By March, with still no sign of Curly, I feared he had become what those early stockmen had said he would become: a casualty of winter, a genetic dead end.
As the weather warmed into April and we were able to get out on horseback we occasionally located the main herd and found them healthy indeed. I had never seen buffalo come out of a winter in such good condition. Of course the winter had culled any weaklings but the coats of those buffalo we found on those first spring rides were already shedding and there was no sign of ribs. There was also no sign of Curly Bill.
We brought the buffalo herd out a week before the deadline because they showed themselves on a convenient ridgeline and we seized the opportunity. There had been a great deal of anxiety about whether we would succeed in getting the buffalo out in time and as we shut the gate behind them, everyone was smiling and chuckling to themselves. But some of that behavior was to cover the sense of loss we all felt. Curly Bill was not with the herd. When someone finally got up the nerve to mention his absence I forced a laugh and said he was probably still out there, waiting for breeding season. But I didn’t believe it.
It was almost June when we started getting reports from ranchers moving cattle through the government land that they’d seen a buffalo. Though we all hoped it was Curly, it was more likely another buffalo that had been left behind. Even more likely, it was just a rumor – the beginning of a rural legend of the “Lone Buffalo”.
But when a friend stopped by to give me a ride in his new Cessna I couldn’t help directing him out to where the sightings had allegedly taken place. We flew and talked about the new airplane and didn’t pay a lot of attention to the rough country below. As he turned and banked my eyes only occasionally noticed the ridges below and the cedars that dotted them. Then one of those cedars became a buffalo. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, “turn this thing around!”
I couldn’t believe it. There on the lip of a bowl of the roughest country on the permit stood Curly Billy. But it was not the Curly Bill that had come to me years before as an orphan. It was not even the lanky Curly Bill that had ambled out onto the National Grasslands eight months before. A little time in the ecosystem you were bred to live in does wonders. This was a big damned buffalo. This could have been the model for the nickel!
The next morning we were horseback and heading for that remote bowl of twisted draws that no one visits. It is an area that will forever be known as Curly Bill Ville and it is about an hour and a half ride from the ranch. We found tracks as soon as we found the spot and followed them into the abyss where Curly had obviously spent the winter. The range was pristine with a perfect mix of old grass and new, vigorous shoots. Judging by the warren of trails it was clear that Curly knew his way around. The horses puffed and strained to follow his route until we came to a section of badlands and the terrain became too steep and eroded. When it was certain that the horse could go no more I looked up and there, not fifty feet away was Curly Bill. My God! He’d gained three hundred pounds. His coat was completely shed out and his thick mane and pantaloons hung four inches longer than the sleek hair on his sides and rump. But he looked down at me with the same small thoughtful eyes I had known since he was a calf. “You old son-of-a-bitch,” I said. “Get on out of there.” But he didn’t move. “Now don’t be this way,” I said as I slid off my horse. “You’re trespassing on government land. Get on home.” Curly wasn’t impressed with my argument. He WAS home.
Curly had always been the tamest buffalo on the place. I’d herded him on foot hundreds of times and I figured I do it again. If I could just get him out of that tough spot maybe we could haze him to the herd with the horses. So I started up the crumbling slope in hot pursuit. It was flatter up on top and sprinkled with cedar trees. Curly stood a few yards away. “Heeya,” I said and waved my arms. Curly looked at me and jogged ahead about thirty feet. But when I moved right to make him go left and out to where the horse could get at him, he stopped and turned to look at me like he’d done so often in the past. We were only fifteen feet apart. “Go on!” I said. But Curly wasn’t going. I waved my hands and his tail came up in an unmistakable sign of buffalo ill will.
I couldn’t believe it. Where was the scruffy little calf I raised with such tenderness? He swung his head and before I knew it I was running about as fast as cowboy boots can carry a man. He seemed to enjoy this and about the time I dove into a cedar bush he was spronking along behind like a twenty-two hundred pound mule deer.
Needless to say, we didn’t get him in that day. Or the next, or the next. In fact, it became almost impossible to find him. He must have heard us coming and retreated back in to Curly Bill Ville. Eventually we gave up. But ten days ago, just a few weeks before the onset of the buffalo breeding season a huge black animal came down out of the hills, crossed the Cheyenne River, and stood at the gate that separated him form the herd. We let him in like an old milk cow and a hundred calves and yearling ran to him with great interest. They seemed to be fascinated by the cool and sauntering monster that was twice as big as any of their mothers. Everyone on the ranch breathed a sign of relief, except perhaps a few of those “quality bulls” I’d bought to improve my herd.