Dreams don’t always come true. Some simply fade away with time; others actually materialize but afford little satisfaction. Rare it is to have dreams, even a single dream evidence itself in reality and have that reality produce far more than was ever imagined during those hours, perhaps years of fantasy. But upon awaking that first morning to the howl of coyotes, the buffeting of prairie wind in the smoke flaps of a tipi and the gentle nickering of horses ready for their ration of corn, I knew this was going to be one of those rarities.
This adventure had its genesis several years back when I began seriously researching a hunt for the American bison. A real hunt, the way it was done in the 1870s. I wanted this opportunity to be as wild as was reasonably possible, with those shaggy beasts free to roam about at will. I wanted a hunt minus the trappings of modernity. A hunt that would see again the puff of black-powder smoke spewing from the bore of a Sharps rifle. A hunt with sturdy, reliable mounts tied to brush in a distant wash and out of sight. I wanted it the old way. With that in mind, I contacted Lee Hawes of Hawes Ranch Outfitters (www.HawesRanchOutfitters) in Ford, Kansas. I had to wait my turn so to speak, for Lee tends to stay booked. But October 2010 had an opening and six of us reserved the camp.
Lee’s setup was basic: three dugouts, one for cooking/eating; a pair of tipis; a wall tent for the staff; a range tent for Lee. But all these afforded shelter from the wind and chill, and the accommodations were likely less austere than those of the old-days hunters who followed herds of bison so immense that these created undulating waves of black across the prairie. It was perfect, more perfect than my year-long dreams had conjured up.
After gear was sorted and stored at various venues in camp, we all headed to the range to check rifles. Shots were from 100 to 250 yards, with steel gongs and buffalo silhouettes scattered about. There was even a ¾-size buffalo set at 500 yards, but that one was of no consequence for hunting. The 100-yard gong was sufficient. And time still remained for one hunter to try a stalk. Fred Nazary won the toss.
Fred and guide Cody Hawes set out horseback over the horizon, while the others of us took time to rest at camp. Fred carried an original Remington Rolling Block action rebarreled in a half round/half octagon configuration and chambered to the .45, 2.1″ – now commonly known as the .45-70. His load was a charge of 5744 smokeless beneath a 500-grain flat nose Montana Precision Swaging bullet. Just before light failed that first day, Fred took his buffalo, a spike bull with rather impressive horns and a rich, thick hide. Fred’s success set the stage for the remainder of the hunt.
With all other hunters having collected their bison by noon of the final day, I was the last to mount up and cradle a Sharps across the saddle. My Sharps, a .45, 2.1″, is a true jewel. I had it built a few years back by C. Sharps in Big Timber, Montana, and it has become my favorite rifle of all time. I was determined to use it with the loads for which it was originally designed, so I cast a collection of 1-30 bullets and sorted them by weight. The most common among that collection weighed 527 grains, and it was these that I loaded ahead of 62 grains of Goex FFg black powder and a .60 wad. The load is most impressive, with tiny clusters showing up on paper at 100 yards from the bench.
Cody Hawes and I found the herd on a high, open table as the sun began its gentle descent to the west. We made several attempts to close the distance, but not even our most judicious crawling and slithering produced adequate purchase of yards in that vast real estate. The last approach before darkness chased us to camp was an old trick attributed to Native Americans and some of the early buffalo hunters. We would release one horse and allow him to wander off, unsaddle the other, and walk behind him in a diagonal route toward the herd. It worked. Within 10 minutes or so we had shortened the gap to 100 yards.
Cody told me to sit and get the cross sticks ready. He would then sit beside me and release his horse. The plan was perfect, and as Cody’s mount bounded away, the herd milled about. Now we simply waited for an opening through which I can thread that big slug without endangering any other animals in the herd. That happened within a half hour and the bull was down.
As the herd moved off, Cody and I cautiously approached my bull. The prairie wind pushed those long hairs of his head and mane from side to side. Even in this posture he was magnificent. Tears filled my eyes, and I could do little more than join that wind in stroking the bull’s coat and offer a quiet prayer of thanksgiving. A dream had been realized.