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The Last Buffalo

"Now, boys, is our time for fun." That's what the hoity-toity artist said when he saw a herd of buffalo Comstock, the rancher, had spotted along the Republican River.

Albert Bierstadt was on his way back from California when he and the newspaper man traveling with him stopped at the Oak Grove Ranch and decided to try his hand--not at hunting buffalo but painting them. Comstock and his men armed themselves with rifles; Bierstadt packed brushes.

He wanted an angry bull, he said, "so mad that he'll bellow and tear up the ground," Bierstadt told Comstock.

That kind of rage would take some doing, Comstock thought, but he aimed to please the famous artist. He put Bierstadt and that easel of his up on a knoll high enough to see prairie Comstock was proud of, the land where he'd chosen to live.

Comstock said he and his son and a neighbor named Eubanks would create the scene Bierstadt wanted. He’d pick out a bull and wound him, and then get him hot-blooded.

All these years later, this whole business sounds beastly and wasteful; but it is, after all, 170 years later. Besides, this whole thing was being done in the cause of Art.

Eubanks shouldered his rifle from a draw near Bierstadt, should the beast decide not to sit still for the portrait. Once that bull was fierce, Comstock figured to steer him out toward that knoll where he'd attain eternal life as art. And it worked.

The buffalo spit and bellowed as predicted, and charged Comstock, who was aboard a horse so expert he could circle the bloody animal and still aim him toward the artist.

But the story goes that Comstock played it just a bit too close and got himself beside the buffalo where that bull couldn't see him. Just like that, that huge animal raised his shaggy head like a dying king and looked straight up the rise at the artist Alfred Bierstadt, then started pawing and snorting.

Bierstadt took off running faster than he ever thought he was able, and that insane bull made short work of the easel, then took off after the artist.

No one can prove this, but what Comstock claimed was that Bierstadt ran so fast his swallow-tail coat flowed out behind him so straight and hard the whole gang could have played a couple hands of euchre right there on the table that fancy coat became.

Finally, with that bull right there taking aim at that artist's behind, Eubanks’ rifle cracked and that animal fell in his tracks. For years, Comstock told people that the artist Alfred Bierstadt fell over, wiped out but saved from "a fearful death."

And that's the end of the Oak Creek Ranch part. But there's more.

In 1998, the U. S. Postal Service created commemorative stamps to celebrate American art. One featured a massive painting wide as the prairie by none other than Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo. You may have seen the stamp.

And there's more. In 1897, that famous Bierstadt painting was put up for sale at the Chicago Exposition. It sold—now hold your breath--for $75,000.

You really ought to see it. No, it’s not Comstock riding the majestic white horse; it's something like a half-naked cigar-store Indian deliberately chosen and outfitted to make rich Easterner art buyers drool.

And if you get a chance to look close sometime, you'll see the landscape's not the prairie either. Siouxland has Spirit Mound, but otherwise nothing close to mountains like those in the background.

Now any art teacher will tell you that Albert Bierstadt knew how to paint sprawling American landscapes, and he also knew how to sell what he committed to canvas.

And what about Comstock, the rancher, you ask--that man never forgot the story, and was more than happy to tell it, the whole truth, right up to his grave. Well, maybe not the whole truth, either, you know?

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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