They survived—some of them just barely. And nobody knows what would have happened if Don Rich had run out of bullets.
It was the last day of the three-day trip to Superior Game Ranch in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Former Janesville resident Edwin Catacutan was posing with his kill—a Russian boar.
Catacutan's daughter Amya, 11, was taking his picture. Four others from the hunting party gathered around. They had acted as drivers for the hunt and were not carrying rifles.
Amya's photo shows Catacutan smiling proudly as he poses with the fierce-looking boar, seconds before the attack.
Eight to 12 Asian water buffalo appeared behind the hunters. They had seen the animals earlier in perfectly peaceful encounters. Something was different this time. The herd approached.
"We knew we were going to be attacked. It was weird," said Tony Heller of Janesville.
The hunters were in a clearing, 100 yards from any woods, defenseless, Heller said.
"We started screaming at them, but that didn't help," Heller said.
"That's when I saw the buffalo put his head down and stomp the ground a couple times, and I said, 'Oh, s—-, we're in trouble.'" Catacutan recalled.
That's where his memory fades.
The buffalo cow charged.
"Edwin went to cover Amya, and the buffalo hit him, and it buried his head right in the ground," said group leader Don Rich, a Janesville taxidermist and experienced hunter.
"I grabbed my kid and covered her up, and the water buffalo started mauling me," Catacutan said.
Amya somehow got out from under the 1,500-pound beast—as massive as a Holstein dairy cow—and ran.
"The buffalo turned on the girl," Rich recalled. "Everyone is screaming, 'Shoot it!' And no one had gun except my daughter and I."
Catacutan's rifle had gotten trampled into the snow. He was limp on the ground.
Rich said the hunters became rodeo clowns, desperately trying to distract the cow.
Rich had been celebrating his daughter Katie's first boar about 200 yards away. The pair were walking to Catacutan's group to congratulate them. They were about 50 yards away when they saw the initial attack.
The enraged buffalo caught up to Amya, butting her into the air. Rich watched through the crosshairs of his rifle sight. He couldn't fire for fear of hitting Amya.
"She went flying like Supergirl, kind of parallel to the ground," Rich said.
She covered her head as the buffalo stomped on her.
Katie, 19, who has experience with farm animals, ran toward the buffalo, trying to scare it off. Rich, fearful, called for her to come back. He got between Amya and the herd, and the guide came running, telling him the buffalo had to be put down.
Rich was carrying his .270-caliber rifle, which does not pack the punch that a hunter would want for a beast that size.
"I would never, ever in my life use it on a buffalo," Rich said.
Even with a bigger gun, it can take a half dozen shots to bring down a water buffalo.
The cow put her head down again and pawed the ground. Rich didn't want to give it another chance to charge. At 30 yards, he fired.
"I shot, and thank God she turned broadside," Rich said, because it allowed for the kill shot.
"After the first shot, it all became natural, or instinct," Rich said.
The first shot went into her chest. The second hit the spine in the upper shoulders, a shot calculated to drop her. It did.
Rich figures it was only 30 seconds from when the cow first attacked the Catacutans to the moment it hit the ground.
Rich at first thought Amya was dead, but the hooves hit Amya's leg and back and just missed her ribs.
"I was so relieved" she was alive, Rich said.
The rest of the buffalo encircled the dead cow, their heads facing her, nudging her, Heller said.
"And then they looked at us again, and we made a beeline for the woods. It was unbelievable."
Three men helped Catacutan to his feet and took him to the woods. Amya was up but limping and probably in shock, Rich said.
"It was terrifying. It's something I'd never want to experience again without a gun," Heller said.
The herd followed the group, and a bull looked threatening. The guide told Rich to shoot the bull, too, if he had to. That's when he realized he had loaded only two shells into the rifle that morning.
Rich had shells in his pocket. He scrambled to reload but didn't have to shoot.
Rich said he hasn't gone with only two shells loaded in 30 years of hunting, but that was Katie's day to hunt, so he hadn't planned to shoot.
"If it would have taken three (shots to stop the buffalo), someone else could've gotten hurt," Rich said.
In the woods, Catacutan was still in a daze. He called for Amya in a blood-curdling cry, Rich said. Amya was distraught.
"She cried for an hour. We just tried to console her," Heller said.
Heller remembers the imprint of a hoof on Amya's back. Her father said her injuries appear to be only bruises, mostly on her legs.
Layers of bulky winter clothing probably helped, Catacutan said.
Rich said the emotions hit him after everyone was safe and he called his wife.
"I broke down. I was pretty emotional," Rich said. "But everyone lived. That was the thing."
The ambulance took up to an hour to reach the remote ranch. Catacutan declined a trip to the hospital. He didn't call his wife because she would have caught the first plane, he said.
Friends helped the still-dazed Catacutan pose with Rich and the dead buffalo. He does not remember doing that.
The game farm owner was upset and apologetic, saying nothing like that had ever happened. He let Rich keep his kill, no charge.
"I am definitely mounting that head," Rich said.
Three weeks later, the left side of Catacutan's face is numb. He's being treated for a blood clot and headaches, and his shoulder is "messed up."
"I hear some bells ringing I when I wake up in morning. My ear hurts. Smells and noises bother me sometimes," he said.
He's hoping the symptoms clear up, and he's thankful to be alive.
Catacutan said the group had prayed for protection before the trip.
"Somebody was looking after us," he said. "That's for sure."
The hunters can only speculate on the reason for the attack. The game farm owner said the cow had lost her calf recently, and maybe when she saw the hunters over the boar, she thought it was her calf.
Catacutan knows from his native Philippines that if a buffalo charges, the herd is likely to follow. He believes Rich saved lives.
Rich shrugs off a suggestion he was a hero.
"I was just the right guy in the right place, or something like that. I felt my experience helped me a bit in downing that animal."
The hunters are still dealing with the experience. Some told Catacutan they are having trouble sleeping.
Rich said a bear once tried to climb into his tree stand, and he's been in the Africa jungle at night with leopards prowling, but he never saw anything like this.
"I've never been freaked out like it was up there," Rich said.
The memory haunts Amya, too, her father said.
"She says, 'I never want to see any water buffalo or animal with long horns again," he said.
"She laughs about it, but she's just petrified, for sure."
Still, she is determined to become a hunter.
"Amya said she wants to go back up there, believe it or not," Rich said. "So we'll do it again but definitely show more caution."
Rich will mount Catacutan's boar.
It will always remind him of his brush with death.