The road dominates the basin, and there are few places that are distant from its access. The wounded bull comes up onto a small flat and stops about 75 yards below where we parked. He joins a little bachelor group of three other bull buffalo that are grazing there, near a frozen gutpile left over from a bull killed earlier in the week. The orange-clad hunting family is far away, brilliant dots against the snow, and slowly closing. Other trucks join us; one of the animal-rights people has given a ride to the sister of the boy who shot the bull, and the boy’s mother pulls up in another truck with Bozeman plates.
The wounded bull stands on the flat, its tongue slowly lapping at the air. With binoculars, you can see some blood splashed down the side of its head in the thick hair below the ear. Magpies whirl and chatter in a nearby clump of serviceberry, crossing to the gutpile and then back again, looking a bit frenetic in comparison to the ravens that occasionally soar by, commenting with a simple, slow croak.
The people gather. Dreadlocked volunteers from the Buffalo Field Campaign, clad in Army surplus woolens, videotape the boy and his brother and father as they labor up the snowy steep to the road, their hats off, sweating through, silent and intent. The family meets at the tailgate of their truck, and then the father and the boy begin an exaggerated and utterly unnecessary stalk down to the wounded buffalo, which is standing motionless with the other bulls. The volunteers follow, just far enough behind to avoid the appearance of hunter harassment — a green Forest Service enforcement truck has joined the long convoy along the road, the officer in wraparound sunglasses and equipped with a no-nonsense AR-15 in the gun rack.
Two other trucks pull up, a local outfitter and his passengers, just out to see the hunt, and a group of men dressed up like movie gunfighters in spotless cowboy hats and long dusters. They, it turns out, have come to shoot one of the bulls themselves, though they keep that to themselves as they stand in the road and joke with a wiry, middle-aged Field Campaigner named Canyon.
The boy lays his rifle across a backpack for a rest, and takes aim. (Mike Mease later tells me he suggested to the boy’s father that they try a heart shot, since that has been more successful in the hunts they had witnessed so far. The man, out of patience, replied with an obscenity.) The video cameras roll, and the boy shoots. The bull lurches, steps forward, and then falls, rolling over onto its side, its legs straining, relaxing, straining again.
And then I witness something that I have not seen before, in 30 years of hunting elk and deer and just about everything else, of seeing domestic cows and goats and pigs shot.
The three remaining bulls stop grazing and slowly walk over to the bull lying in the snow. They put their heads close to him and breathe out great clouds of steam. Their tails go up, not quite straight, but like a shepherd’s crook, and they make some odd grunting noises. Then they circle the downed bull. And keep on circling.
Canyon, who told me earlier that he was an "enrolled tribal member," and has not, until now, witnessed a buffalo being killed, says, "They are circling just like we do when we go into the sweatlodge, clockwise, like the world turning!"
I stand and stare, transfixed. Mike Mease comes up onto the road and tells me that that almost every one of the kills has been just like this. "A lot of times they’ll hook them with their horns to try and get them up," he says, "and they’ll circle. Somebody who was with us earlier said that elephants do this, too."
The bulls show no inclination to move off, or to resume grazing. They face the hunters and stand, tails up, as if they are made from dark stone, as if they will be there like this until the end of winter, or the end of time.
The boy’s mother comes down the road to where everyone is standing and asks if somebody can please help them haze the bulls away. She is a strong-looking woman, at home in the cold and the snow, and she is obviously upset. She has tears in her eyes. "I’m not really your stereotypical hunter," she says, uncomfortable, but clearly trying to make a connection with Field Campaigners, trying to see if such a thing is possible. It is. Canyon steps up to her and hugs her, and she hugs him back.
Below us, her son and husband begin walking toward the bulls, and the boy fires his rifle into the air. Some of the Field Campaign volunteers head down the slope to help try to move the bulls. The downed bull waves its feet, suddenly. About a minute later, the boy shoots it again, from a distance of a few feet.