The Big Buffalo Roundup
People are always asking me, “Doc, what’s the most interesting case you’ve ever had to work on?” My usual answer to this not-so-easy question is that just about every problem I’ve had to deal with in my veterinary career is interesting. We veterinarians are quite lucky in that we get a double bonus with each of our patient interactions: We get to hear both the story of the pet (the patient) as well as that of the client (the pet’s owner). And believe me, its amazing the number of interesting stories I’ve heard in this business. However, if someone were to press me really hard to tell them what I thought was the most extraordinary case I’ve ever been called on to handle, it would have to be the time I had the honor to meet the late Mr. Shenandoah and to help him to round up his magnificent herd of buffalo.
That day had started out simple enough. It was in the autumn of my last year of vet school, and I was doing my first rotation through ambulatory medicine. The ambulatory medicine rotation is the segment of our veterinary training where we get to go out into the countryside to visit farms and get hands-on experience in treating large animals. While on these farm calls, we would get to do everything from helping a dairy cow deliver her baby calf to trimming the hooves of a llama; from castrating baby piglets to floating the teeth of giant draft horses. With the exception of just a couple of my big-city classmates, the two-week sessions spent doing ambulatory medicine were everyone’s favorite.
One of the big events that occurred in our upstate New York region during that autumn was the escape of a herd of buffalo from the Onondaga Indian Reservation. The giant beasts were making the headlines of the local papers every single day. Most of the stories were figments of reporters’ imaginations, and even the stories that were true were usually exaggerated for effect. The poor critters were allegedly creating traffic problems on the interstate highway that ran through the reservation, were trashing apple orchards, upsetting high school football games, and plundering Christmas tree plantations. One thing was certain, however: local non—Native American landowners were getting upset. Tempers were flaring, and it was feared that before long, one of these magnificent animals would be shot.
Rumors had been circulating around my vet school for several days that a big roundup was soon going to occur, and that our veterinary expertise would be needed when the situation demanded it. The first time I suspected that I was going to be involved was during the daily routine lunchtime briefing. The professor in charge of my rotation suddenly, just out of the blue, asked me if I knew how to fire a rifle. “Of course,” I answered, a little bit surprised by the question. “What’s going on?”
It was a strange question to ask me because I’m sure that he had to know the answer before he even asked me the question. From all of the small talk we’d had riding around the countryside on our way to farm calls, the man knew I’d been raised on a farm and that I’d also been in the military. But before I could get in another word, he told our group he had to make a quick phone call and that he’d be right back.
A few minutes later, he returned from the receptionist’s office and filled us all in on what was going on. “The buffalo have finally all been rounded up,” he said. “They’re in a small pasture about five miles from the reservation. The county sheriff has called and has asked for our help. I’ve told them we’d be right up there as soon as we could.”
He then spent the next ten minutes presenting us with the rough details of his plan. I sat there patiently and waited until everyone else finished speaking—after all, I was just a lowly student—before asking him the question foremost on my mind: “Professor, why did you ask me if I could fire rifle?” I was just a little bit nervous that I might be asked to shoot one or more of these buffalo, which I’d made up my mind to absolutely not do.
His answer brought me great relief. “Tranquilizer rifle is what I meant to say.” He then added, “Richard, would you have any problem if you had to fire from a helicopter?” I told him that would be no problem at all. After much discussion, it was decided that one intern, two senior residents, and I, would head up to the roundup and see what we could do to help.
I was assigned to ride along with a young veterinarian from South Africa, who was doing an internship in large animal medicine at my university. I’d ridden with Dr. Peter previously on several other occasions and found him quite easy to get along with. One of the things I remember most about him was that he was endlessly astounded—overwhelmed might be a better way to put it—with our rural American culture. The simple act of stopping at a rural lunchroom or diner was a major cultural event for him. One time, another classmate and I treated him at a local A&W restaurant to a chili dog with cheese and a root beer float. The encounter filled him with gustatory ecstasy. He was a good kid, and I was glad I was going to ride with him.
A second truck would be driven by the two senior residents. These guys would have the tranquilizer and the tranquilizer rifles. They would also tow a trailer with two horses and their riding gear. As the professor gave us our instructions, I could see the look of delight on Dr. Peter’s face when he heard there would be horses involved. I’m positive that visions of cowboys and buffalo and the Wild West all danced in his young, fertile mind. Likewise, in all fairness to him, I’d be lying if I told anyone that I wasn’t a little bit excited about the new adventure myself.
And so, after loading up, we drove off ; not into the sunset, but northward toward the reservation. It was a perfect afternoon for a ride. The two residents drove in front of us pulling the horse trailer, and Dr. Peter and I followed. Being familiar with the area, I knew it would take us an hour or so to drive up to the reservation, so I just kicked back to enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was! The day could not have been more perfect. All the farmers up and down the valley were out taking full advantage of the nice weather to get in the their harvests, everywhere there were black-and-white Holstein dairy cows out in the pastures contently grazing on the last of the season’s green grass, and the fall foliage was at its peak of perfection. More than one time, I happened to look over toward Dr. Peter. Without him having to say a single word, I could tell by the wide-eyed look on his face that he, too, was marveling at the magnificence of the moment.
About an hour and a half later (we’d made a quick stop for coffee), we arrived at one of the local firehouses that had been set up as the command post for the big roundup. The parking lot was filled to capacity with sheriffs’ cars, state police cruisers, ambulances, and TV network communications vans; the whole thing looked like a war zone. We were thanked for showing up and then given directions to the field where the buffalo were being temporarily confined.
When we arrived at the pasture, the first thing I noticed was the large number of pickup trucks and horse trailers. Somehow or other, the word had gotten out that there was going to be a roundup, and there had to be fifty or more horses with their riders. What made it even more interesting was that these riders were of every persuasion and skill level you could imagine, from silver-spurred, city-slicker, Wyatt Earp wanna-bes, all the way up to professional, uniformed, mounted law enforcement officers. There even appeared to be a couple of genuine cowboys in the lot.
Dr. Peter and I, after surveying and analyzing the whole situation, decided to walk down to the corral and actually get a close-up look at the buffalo. They were a small group of about twenty adult animals along with four or five calves. All of them were lying down in the warm afternoon sun, peacefully chewing their cud and resting. Standing off by themselves were two Native American—looking men eating bologna sandwiches. My first thought was that they were the animals’ owners.
Because I was curious, I walked up to them and stood next to them for a couple of minutes and just looked at the buffalo. One of the men was younger looking, quite stout, who had on a worn-out, black straw cowboy hat, a red-checkered flannel work shirt, a big turquoise belt buckle, and a new-looking pair of blue jeans. The other man was shorter in height. His long, straight, charcoal gray hair made him look quite a bit older; his face was weathered and tanned; he reminded me of a picture I’d once seen of an old biblical patriarch. He wore a white T-shirt, worn blue jeans, and had on a brown pair of cowboy boots. I was later told that these two men were father and son. After standing there for a couple of seconds, I turned to the two of them and said hello. The father turned toward me, and after he finished chewing and swallowing his mouthful of sandwich, he nodded his head and replied, “Afternoon, son,” and then he turned back to look at the buffalo.
After a couple more minutes I again broke the silence. “These guys belong to you?” I asked. Without looking away from the herd, the older man answered, “Yup.”
Not wanting to disturb their obviously deep concentration any further, I waited a couple of minutes before expressing to them a couple of my own thoughts on the whole situation. “Ya know, sir, my wife and I have a herd of beef cows. Occasionally, the little darlings misbehave and break out of their pasture. When that happens, all my wife has to do is get a bucket of grain, walk out onto the field, and they’ll usually follow her home.” As I pointed to the giant critters in front of us, I asked, “Do you think it might just work the same with these guys?”
Both men turned and stared at me with a look of profound disbelief on their faces. A slight feeling of foreboding suddenly came over me as I stood there wondering what I’d just said wrong. As I write these words today and think back to that exact moment, it’s my humble opinion that if the older man had been a little younger and perhaps less worldly and experienced in the weaknesses of his fellow humans, he might just have snapped back at me with a scathing reply, maybe something to the effect of: “Young man, are you mentally impaired in some way? Don’t you know that these buffalo are wild animals who could, if they put their minds to it, crush you like a bug?” Or even worse, he might have just flat out told me what a moron he thought I was.
But no, after a couple of seconds, the look on his old and tired face changed from that of disbelief to one of loving and patient understanding; he knew I was just a simple pilgrim trying to find my way in this enormous world where there is always so, so much to know. He smiled and said, “No, son, that trick doesn’t work with buffalo, they’re not as docile as cattle are.” He then turned back to watching his buffalo and finishing his bologna sandwich.
I could see he was in deep thought, so I didn’t bother him again. I just stood there watching him as he watched his animals. As a matter of fact, everyone, from the cops to the cowboys, all just stood there, waiting for something to happen. Every now and again, a horse would snort or an impatient grumbling would arise from one of the onlookers, but mostly, everyone just waited. And waited. And waited.
Suddenly, without any warning, the old man turned to his son and spoke some words that I didn’t understand. He then turned back to his resting buffalo and firmly spoke some more words that I, again, didn’t understand. As soon as he finished, he turned to me and everyone standing in our vicinity and shouted, “They’re ready to go home. Please, folks, I want you all to give them lots of room.” He and his son then walked over to the pasture gate, cleared a wide path in the crowd, and waited for his animals to rouse.
It wasn’t long before one enormous male buffalo sprang to his feet. As he stood, he violently shook off the stiffness in his limbs and back, and with the calm assurance of being the big boss, he then started walking around his herd mates, getting them up and ready for their big journey back home.
When they were all standing, the old man spoke to them one more time in his mysterious language. I imagined what he said to them was something like, “Have a safe journey, you guys,” or perhaps, “Come on, you guys, go straight home and please, please, please don’t stop to eat any Christmas trees on the way.” He then opened the gate, and out they thundered. The critters quickly made their way onto the dirt road, turned left, and headed west toward their reservation home.
By the time I got to the road myself, all I could see was dust and bouncing buffalo butts; these guys were moving! And about this same time, like they’d been waiting their whole lives to do so, all of the yippee-ki-yi, whoop-de-do, cowboy wanna-bes mounted their anxious horses and went chasing down the road after them. Right on these yahoos’ tails were police cruisers, network news vans, and about a hundred screaming cars and pickup trucks. You just had to wonder what was going on in all of these folks’ heads.
Before I go any further, in the hope of not sounding too self-righteous about the whole situation, I must make two sad confessions: The first (and I’m slightly embarrassed to say this) is that my two resident colleagues—who should have known better—mounted their horses and joined this episode of mass stupidity. Secondly, I, too, ran along in hot pursuit. But only for about ten seconds, because even though I’d not had all that much experience in my life with chasing buffalo (I’d actually had none), it didn’t take me long to realize that running after these giant creatures, either on horse or by foot, was a pretty asinine thing to do. And so I stopped and said to myself, “Richard, what in the heck are you doing? You might just as well wait here till everyone gets back.”
So I did. But as I stood there alone by the side of the road, catching my breath—with all expectations of having a thrilling helicopter ride now just a distant memory—and wondering how the heck I’d ended up on this dirt road in the middle of the boonies in the first place (even Dr. Peter had disappeared in the mass of humanity), this old, rusted-out, yellowish Toyota pickup truck pulled up alongside me. In the cab were the father and son who I’d had the short conversation with moments earlier. The son, who was driving, hollered out the window, “Wanna go for a ride with us?”
Having nothing better to do, I said, “Sure,” and then I hopped into the back of the truck. In a second, we were off. The son then followed the chaotic mass for about a half-mile. At this point, the big roundup bore sharply to the right in order to circle around the base of a large mountain. To my surprise—along with a slight bit of uneasiness—the son, rather than continuing to follow the pack, instead drove straight ahead onto another dirt road. This road (it was more like a cowpath) zigged and zagged up and up and up and finally brought us to the very top of the hill, where we then parked in the middle of a field of corn stubble.
What a beautiful view we all had from the top of this mountain; I mean, it was like you could see the whole of the countryside around us. As a general rule, I’m not one to ponder such things at any length, but the glory of it all was overwhelming. We got out of the truck, and after a couple of minutes of taking it all in, we located the drama of the big buffalo roundup as it continued to play itself out down in the valley below.
From our high vantage point, we could watch the buffalo and their entire escort plow their way through fields, forests, creeks, and roadways. First, they’d run this way and then that way, and then back this way and then that way again; it looked to me like they were all hopelessly lost. Although at first, I said nothing to my new friends, I was a little worried that the law enforcement officers were soon going to lose their patience with these lumbering beasts and might just begin shooting them.
When I finally got up enough nerve to mention my concerns to the old man and his son, neither said a word. It seemed as if they were, again, in deep thought, and I don’t think they heard me; so I said no more and just stood there and waited. After a couple more minutes of this silence, the strangest thing began to happen. As a matter of fact, it was so amazing that if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would never, in a million years, have believed it.
The old man, again in a language I didn’t understand, started speaking in a half-chanting, half-talking voice. As soon as he spoke, his herd of buffalo, way down in the valley below, stopped moving. It was unbelievable! It was like an invisible giant hand had appeared before them, telling them to stop. Then, after giving his animals a few minutes to catch their breath, the old man, in English this time, said, “OK, my children, just relax. Take it easy and don’t be afraid. I’m up here on the hill watching you. When you’re ready, just start walking in the direction of the setting sun.” And they did! “OK, now turn left around that fence.”
As he spoke, the herd responded to his every word. After each set of commands, the father and son discussed with each other what would be the best route for the herd to follow. These directions would then be relayed by the father to their buffalo. I just stood there in awe. They continued to guide the buffalo for about fifteen minutes until they were at last out of sight around the back of another mountain. The father’s final direction to them was that they turn neither right nor left but just keep moving straight ahead. He finished by telling them he’d meet them all at the other side of the mountain.
No sooner had he finished speaking than, in a flash, we were back in the old Toyota and barreling down the hill. When we reached the bottom, rather than turning in the direction the buffalo had been traveling, we circled in the other direction around the base of the mountain.
After driving several miles, we turned right onto a blacktopped valley road. After a couple of miles, the son slowed the old pickup down to a crawl. As we drove along, the old man, from the passenger seat, stared with all his might into the thick woods lining the right side of the road. Without warning, he hollered across the cab to his son, “Stop here; this is where they’re gonna come down.” And so the son stopped, backed up about twenty feet, and pulled the truck off to the side of the road.
We then all got out and walked over to where the father decided the buffalo were going to appear. Again, I was a little confused. The thick brush and trees at the spot where he thought the buffalo were going to come down the mountain looked to me like the same thick trees and brush that we’d seen lining the road for the past mile. Quite perplexed, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Sir, this all looks the same to me; I mean, there’s no trail, no pathway, no nothing! How do you know they’re going to come down the mountain at this exact spot?”
The old man again just looked at me and smiled. He had in his countenance that same look of compassionate understanding he’d shown me earlier back at the corral; again, he knew I was just a pilgrim. He said, “Son, the reason I know this is the spot is because it’s where I told them to come out.” And that was that, and I said no more.
After a few more minutes of strategy planning between the old man and his son, the father turned to me and asked whether I’d be interested in helping them. Without a second of hesitation, I told him it would be my honor to do so. The slight smile on his face told me he was pleased by my willingness to help. “Good,” he said, “let’s go then,” and we all set out walking about a quarter-mile farther down the road. When we reached the spot he felt was just right (and again, it looked no different to me from any other spot) he turned to me and said, “OK, son, I want you to stand right here.”
Being an agreeable kind of guy, I said, “No problem, sir. What do you think’s going to happen?”
Pointing back up the road to where we had left the truck, he said, “When the buffalo come out of the woods up there, my son and I will tell them to head down the road toward you.” He then pointed his arm westward up the steep hill to my right. “When they come running down the road and get close to where you’re standing, I want you to point in that direction and tell them that’s where they have to go.”
It was a couple of seconds before the initial shock of what he just said had passed, and I could finally speak. “Sir,” I said, the concern in my voice probably obvious, “let me make sure I have this straight. You want me to stand here in the middle of the road, as a herd of scared, tired, and confused buffalo race toward me. Then, as they get close to me, you want me to point and tell them to turn and go that way up the hill? If you don’t mind me asking, how can I be sure they’ll listen to what I say and not trample me to death?”
He looked at me as I looked back at him, and with the calmness and assurance of someone who has lived a long life, he said, “Son, don’t worry. When they come down from the hill up the road there where I’ll be standing, I’ll make sure to tell them to do exactly what you say.” With that, having no more to say, he and his son walked back up the road to their pickup.
As I stood there alone along the side of another country back road, I found myself, for the second time that day, wondering what in the heck I was doing. Somehow or other, through no great effort of my own, I was now even more out in the boonies than I was before. Additionally, I was now stuck with the job of potentially having to play traffic cop for a herd of charging buffalo. To make matters worse—at least in my own frenzied little mind—there was no one (just in case something went wrong), except the old man and his son, who knew where I was. So, again, not quite knowing what else to do, I did nothing.
Time passed very slowly on that country road; fifteen minutes slipped by, then a half hour, then one hour, and then two. Once in a while, from way up on the mountain to my left, I could hear the occasional shout or scream of one of the Wild West yahoos harassing those poor and tired buffalo. In my mind’s eye, I imagined seeing one or more of those same ignorant greenhorns being trampled and eviscerated by those same frustrated buffalo.
But after some time, the distant hollers were eventually drowned out by a state police helicopter. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but all I could think of was that some poor slob was probably getting air evacuated out because of some senseless injury. And all the while as I waited, I practiced with myself exactly what I was going to tell the buffalo. Although I wouldn’t admit it to myself at the time, I was also rehearsing in my mind (just in case) what I would do if these charging buffalo didn’t listen to me when I told them to turn.
After two hours had passed, I saw another small pickup truck stop by the old man and his son. The driver, a lady, after talking with them for a short time, handed something to the father. She then drove down to where I was posted. The woman turned out to be the old man’s daughter-in-law, and she was bringing me a much-welcome bologna and cheese sandwich and a can of Coke. After handing them to me, she kindly filled me in on what was happening.
From what she’d heard on the CB radio and police scanner, it turned out that the helicopter that I had seen flying around over the top of the mountain was not keeping an eye on the buffalo or evacuating wounded, but rather it was there to help out the cowboys themselves. It so happened that in their excitement of the big chase, the good old boys had gotten themselves lost. The helicopter had been called in to help the mighty warriors find their way back to their pickups. I couldn’t resist the smile that came onto my face when she told me this.
I then asked her where the buffalo were. She said she wasn’t sure because, according to the scanner, they’d disappeared into the woods about a half hour ago and could no longer be spotted from the air. After spending a couple more minutes talking about the weather, the buffalo, and how I liked vet school, she turned her truck around and drove back up the road from where she had come.
It wasn’t five minutes later, just as I was taking the last bite of my sandwich, that I saw the old man and his son quickly move from the side of the road, where they’d been standing next to their pickup truck, to the center. A quick second later, the old man started waving his arms up and down, making sure he had my attention. I waved back, and he then hollered down to me, “Here they come! Get ready!”
No sooner did he finish talking than from out of the woods and onto the center of the road scrambled the large male leader of the pack. He spun around several times like he was confused, and then just stood there, pawing the asphalt with his massive left front foot. In about another ten seconds, the entire herd was out of the woods and standing on the road next to him. After a few more seconds of trying to get their bearings, they grouped up and began moving in my direction. It was now going to be up to me to stand my ground and direct these mad, confused, and homesick critters back toward their reservation.
And I have to admit that I was scared poopless. “Richard,” I said to myself, “what in the heck [heck was not the word I used] are you doing? Don’t you know these guys can kill you? Run! Get out of the way!” But I didn’t move. Somehow, somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my terrified little brain, I’d decided that I had absolute confidence in the instructions and advice of the old man. So I just stood there, like the Rock of Gibraltar, as the beasts thundered toward me.
When the lead bull got about thirty feet away from where I was standing, I pointed with both hands toward the right. At the same time, in a fearless though somewhat shaky voice, I shouted, “Go that way, you guys; your daddy wants you to go up that there hill.” Then I closed my eyes and waited for the impact.
But the impact never came. I opened my eyes for a second, and there was the leader, stopped in front of me, just looking at me; it was like he wanted me to tell him again just what to do. When I look back at that fateful moment on that lonely country back road, what amazes me the most is that once he and I made eye contact, I felt not one bit of fear. As that magnificent creature stood there, steam gushing forth from his gigantic flared nostrils, so exhausted from the journey that he could barely stand, all I could feel for him was overwhelming compassion. Also sadness; sadness for the way his kind had been mercilessly slaughtered to near extinction in the last century at the hands of men like those now pathetically lost up on the hilltop.
After a couple of seconds of staring into the eye of the beast, the reality of the situation returned to me, and, not knowing what else to do, I continued pointing toward the hill to the right and once more said, “Your daddy told me to tell you all to please go this way.” The lead bull, apparently understanding what I’d just said, shook his head, snorted the most god-awful sound you’d ever want to hear, and then turned to his left. Without a moment of hesitation, he charged headlong through the bushes lining the road and continued running up the mountain through the trees. The herd immediately followed his lead, and in about a minute, they were out of sight. Needless to say, I was quite relieved.
After the last buffalo had left the road, I saw the old man and his son get in their pickup and drive down the road toward me. They parked along the road next to where the animals had just disappeared. The father quickly got out of the truck and then began studying the trail. I watched him silently as he did so. After about a minute, he hollered into the passenger-side window to his son, “OK, I’ll see ya up top.” The son then drove away.
Without giving me a chance to answer either yes or no, the father told me to follow him. And, again, not knowing what else to do, I did. Up and up the hill we ran, through black raspberry bushes and thorn apples, up the buffalo’s trail through the woods. It had to have been nearly a mile straight up. I had all I could do to keep up with the old man; he climbed the rocks, scrambled over fallen trees, and jumped across small ravines like he was a young white-tailed deer. It was incredible.
When we reached the top of the hill, we came upon a section of barbed wire fence that was the boundary for the buffalo’s pasture. It was here that we discovered the reason why the critters had originally escaped. Some creep had purposely cut all of the wires. This didn’t go over well with the old man. “Why do they gotta do this to us all of the time?” he lamented over and over, “Why don’t they just leave us alone?”
He and I then spent the next several minutes attempting a temporary repair of the fence. As the old man tried his best to attach the cut ends of the strands of barbed wire together, I searched about for some large branches that could be placed in front of the hole until a permanent repair could be made. When he was satisfied the repair was enough to hold his buffalo in for a while, we started walking across the huge pasture to where his son would be waiting for us.
And as we walked, he and I talked all about his beloved buffalo. He told me the history of the herd and how important they were to the traditions of his people. Knowing I was a beef farmer as well as a veterinarian (I’d told him over and over again that I was only still just a veterinary student, but it didn’t seem to matter to him), we talked about some of the medical aspects of his herd as well. He expressed to me his concern that about only half of his females had managed to give birth during the previous couple of calving seasons. Likewise, he was worried that the calves that had been born earlier in the spring were not growing as well as he felt they should.
I had some ideas and opinions on what might be the cause of his problems, and he was anxious to hear every word I had to say. As a matter of fact, he was so eager to hear what I had to say, he suggested that maybe we stop and sit for a couple of minutes. I told him it would be my pleasure. (I was actually quite glad to get the opportunity to rest.) Ahead of us about another hundred yards was a little knoll, upon the very top of which was a huge, ancient oak tree. He suggested we sit down there. I said OK.
When we got to the knoll, we sat down with our backs leaning against the giant tree. From that spot, you could see down across the pasture toward the buffalo’s home corral and hay barn. Farther off in the distance was another valley; even farther off yet were more mountains. All I could think of as we first sat down was how beautiful the view was; it was like all of the world was stretched out in front of me. After giving ourselves a couple of minutes to take it all in, we resumed our conversation.
The thoughts I had regarding his low birth rates and the poor growth of his calves centered mainly around genetics and nutrition. I suggested the possibility that, due to the relatively small number of buffalo in the world, it was possible that the male that he was using for breeding might be too closely related to his cows. This would lead to an increase in birth defects. I also recommended that he supplement the herd with vitamins and minerals. I pointed out to him that even though his animals were well fed with pasture grass and hay, the soils in our area had been farmed for so long that most were deficient in some very critical trace elements and minerals. Without these important nutritional ingredients in their diets, it would be difficult to maintain good reproductive health and optimal growth.
As I spoke to this gentle old man, I witnessed, for the very first time in my veterinary career, the phenomenon that I would experience with nearly every client I would interact with for as long as I was to practice medicine: I realized at that moment that my clients, from now on, would be listening to and hanging upon every single word coming out of my mouth and that I might actually do some good in this world. I have to admit that at the time, this revelation made me a little bit scared and nervous.
And so it went. For about ten minutes, the old man asked me questions, and I answered them to the best of my ability. After we were finished, and just as I was getting a little restless to begin heading down toward the barns where the son would probably be waiting for us, the herd ambled over to a small man-made pond located about forty feet off to our right. There, now calm and content at being back home after their adventures, they drank at the water’s edge. When they’d all drunk their fill, they started to walk away. All of them that is, except two baby calves.
As we sat there watching, the two little buffalo jumped into the shallow pond up to their knees and began to splash around and frolic in the muddy water. One would jump up, bring his head down through the water, and shower his herd mate. The other critter, in turn, would get excited, shake his head, dance up and down, bellowing out a happy little buffalo noise, and then splash his buddy in return. It was quite a charming sight.
During this time, I happened to look over at the father and saw in his countenance the look of a man who was at peace with the world. And as I watched him watching these two glorious young creatures romping around like they hadn’t a care in the universe, he must have sensed me looking at him, because he turned toward me. As he smiled one of the biggest smiles I’d ever seen, he pointed to his two playful buffalo calves and said, “Son, have you ever seen anything more beautiful that?”
I turned back toward the direction he was pointing and saw exactly what he meant. Farther beyond the buffalo, the afternoon sun hovered just above the infinite horizon in a brilliant, baby-blue sky. The mid-autumn foliage on the distant hills glowed as if on fire with red and orange and golden and crimson-colored leaves. And as I sat with that holy man on the top of that mountain under that magnificent old oak tree, I had to agree with what he said to me: It was indeed the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen in my life.
I turned toward the old man and saw that he was now looking at me. I was so overwhelmed, I couldn’t speak. I felt like I’d been given a sacred look at the world as seen by the first man in the first garden; a revelation of the world before man’s fall from grace; a vision of what the world could be if we all would just give it a chance. He nodded his head slightly as if he knew precisely what I had just witnessed.
We stayed for a couple of minutes more at that hallowed spot, and then we started back down the pasture toward the barns. Waiting there was the old man’s son. And as I looked toward the highway, just outside the compound gate was a county sheriff’s cruiser. After the old man and I climbed over the fence, the son said the deputy was waiting for me.
Apparently, my partner had reported me missing, and a large manhunt had been organized to try to find me. Because it was getting late, I had to make my good-byes with the father and son a little briefer than I’d wanted to. The old man thanked me for my help, both in capturing the buffalo and for my advice with regards to their health care. We shook hands, and because the deputy wasn’t allowed to enter onto the reservation property, I walked through the gate to the waiting police car, hopped in, and we drove away.
As I was riding with the deputy back to his headquarters where Dr. Peter was waiting, he asked me how I’d ever managed to end up on the reservation. I then told him all that had happened to me that day. He was quite surprised to hear it because most non-Onondagas were rarely allowed to enter the reservation.
He then asked me if I knew who the elderly gentleman was who I’d spent the afternoon with. I told him I didn’t. The deputy explained that the old man was Chief Leon Shenandoah, the leader not only of the Onondagas, but the head man of the entire Iroquois Confederacy. “The Chief has traveled all over the world and has met presidents and kings!” he concluded, admiration in his voice.
I sat there stunned. I had just met this great man, and I hadn’t even known it. Later on, as Dr. Peter and I were driving back to the vet college, more than once I laughed to myself as I recalled him standing there eating his bologna sandwich. I remembered thinking to myself as I rode with Chief Shenandoah and his son in their little Toyota pickup, that when he spoke on the CB radio, the people on the other end kept referring to him as “The Big Kahuna.”
When I was back in class a few days later, I mentioned the whole adventure to a Native-American classmate of mine, Eaglefeather. He was especially interested in the vision like scene I described to him as Chief Shenandoah and I were sitting under the tree in the buffalos’ pasture.
Eaglefeather then told me that the chief was the one who had given me this special insight, probably as a thank-you for my help, and that I should consider myself truly blessed.
And Eaglefeather was right. I was truly blessed.
Myself and Chief Shennandoah and his buffalo