By Jeffrey Stuart Kerr
Some say that if Mirabeau Lamar hadn’t shot the buffalo he wouldn’t have become president. Others maintain that the incident never happened. Both are nonsense: the one because a man of Lamar’s talents requires no parlor tricks to gain high position, the other because I was there and saw the thing for myself.
That day began so many years ago with the usual breakfast of cold beef and hot coffee. We sat crammed together on crude benches around what passed for a table in Jake Harrell’s cabin. Jake called it a table, but the rest of us recognized it as a salvaged wagon bed balanced upon a pair of saw horses. We dared not set our coffee mugs upon this weathered relic, so uneven had the numerous dents and gaps in the warped oak boards rendered its surface. “It’s a table as fine as any you’ll dine on out here in the wilderness,” insisted Jake. “Besides, how many woodshops did you pass on your way here?”
The answer to that question was none. Jake’s was one of only four or five houses in all of Waterloo, a meager unincorporated village squatting on the muddy north bank of the upper Colorado River. They really weren’t houses either, just the usual drab rectangular log pens thrown up by Texas settlers in those days. Jake had constructed two such pens side by side with a dogtrot in between. One pen provided sleeping quarters for him, his wife, Mary, and his passel of children; the other served as living room, dining room, kitchen, and, as Jake described it, “bawdy house.” “Me and Mary couldn’t hardly touch each other before I added that bedroom,” he said proudly. “Now we can squirrel ourselves away over there whenever we want. Yes, sir, the best thing I ever did was add that room.”
Nine of us crowded around the table as Mary hurried to keep our coffee fresh. Jake, Mirabeau, and I occupied one side. Willis Avery, James Rice, and two men whose names I have forgotten sat opposite us. Young Dan Hornsby and his brother Malcolm squeezed in at either end. A scent of sweat mixed with horse dung drifted through the air as we ate. Though the dawn had barely broken, damp warmth already permeated the room.
“Damn, it’s hot,” said Avery.
“Watch your mouth, Avery,” said Rice. “Jake’s wife is standing right there.”
“If Willis wants to run his damned mouth, it’s all right with me,” Mary said.
Everybody but Mirabeau laughed. And, since he was the nation’s vice president, his silence weighed heavier than the heat; the laughter quickly died.
The door to the cabin suddenly burst open. Several men spilled their coffee, while Dan Hornsby nearly fell off his stool. “God Almighty, son,” Jake hollered at the small boy standing in the doorway. “Is the devil on your heels?”
“Pa! Pa!” the boy shouted. “Buffalo! Thousands of ’em!”
We rushed outside to find that the boy spoke truthfully. Beyond the woods enclosing the settlement black splotches dotted the normally verdant grassland stretching toward the horizon. Clouds of dust rose as gray patches into the sky. A low, soft rumbling echoed against the distant hills as tens of thousands of the great beasts lumbered by. They splashed mindlessly across the Colorado, churning that stream into a sea of mud. A sudden breeze carrying their stench had me longing for the less offensive odor of the cabin interior.
“Come on, boys!” Rice said enthusiastically. “Grab your pistols and let’s have at ’em!”
“Pistols?” I asked in surprise.
“Yeah, pistols,” Dan Hornsby answered. “It’s more sporting than rifles.”
“I have no pistols,” I said. But no one cared about my armaments, so I ran to the pen and hastily readied my horse. I fetched my rifle from the house, checked its load, and leapt into the saddle. “Let’s go, Spirit,” I cried, and the wind whipped my face.
We raced away from the river up a muddy ravine into the nearest herd. Two or three men fired pistols, for everyone save me seemed to be so armed. A beast twitched but did not fall. Others already lay dead. When I squeezed the trigger on my rifle the blast almost knocked me from the saddle. As I slowed to regain my balance Mirabeau raced past, spraying me with grass and mud. He pulled a pistol from his belt.