At the bottom of the brassy afternoon sky an immense herd of buffalo grazed peacefully on the wind-tossed prairie grass that rolled toward the edge of the earth like a giant ocean wave.
A great bull buffalo lifted its massive head and gazed contentedly at the seemingly endless stretch of unblemished grandness. After a moment, the big head shifted toward a faint rumbling beyond the sandstone tableland.
The rumbling continued, and the great beast snorted uneasily, its round dark eyes settling on the buttes strewn across the huge yellow plains. Are the thick dark blasts of smoke rising behind them a racing prairie fire? he worried.
Now a number of feeding heads lifted and joined the big one’s stiffened gaze as the rumbling grew louder. The huffing black smoke boldly befouled the copper heavens. Calves pressed close to their mothers’ bulky, shaggy sides for safety. Young adults hoofed about, tossing their heads and snorting reckless challenges. And the aged ones, ill at ease, breathed cautioning grunts and waited faithfully on the big bull, whose heart-pounding curiosity held him fast. One ancient beast with a chipped horn and ghostly blue eyes stomped to and fro, trying to get the lead animal to hearken to the wisdom of retreat, but the goliath bison seemed rooted to the earth.
Suddenly an awesome, wood-burning monster with a boiler stack lunged out from behind the mesa, spitting darkness at the sun and roaring loudly.
Then, just as the big bull bellowed a warning to retreat, a dozen rifle barrels were thrust out the windows of the chugging steel creature. Gunfire erupted like the sound of a deadly drumroll … and several buffalo fell.
Almost as quickly as it had appeared, the locomotive was snaking its way across the sea of grass, leaving in its path a dirty sky and a sprawling sadness.
The big buffalo lay motionless a long while amidst his dead and dying companions, finally straining to sniff one last time the little purple flowers that had softened his fall. Then he seemed to give himself up to the heavens.
The October afternoon was overtaken by lengthening mesa shadows that stretched over the fallen buffalo like a giant mourning veil. And across it all, the undying wind hymned reverently, sounding like a chorus of lamenting angels.
Along the downward edge of the plateau that stood stark against a blood-red sundown sky moved the hurried gray shadows of prairie wolves. Their hungry cries blended with nature’s sorry song.
The old buffalo’s ghostly blue eyes rounded with terror as the wolves began to move toward him among the dead and the dying. He could almost feel their hot breath. He tried to lift himself up, but the pain was too intense, so he rested quietly among the scent of sweet flowers, waiting for the hungry grays to end his suffering.
A small Sioux hunting party plodded along in the blowing waves of yellow, moonlit grass. Suddenly one of the Sioux, Ten Days Walking, pulled his buffalo runner to a stop and solemnly listened. His pony jerked, but he pulled it back.
Ten Days Walking heard the sound of excited wolves, feasting. He glanced quickly at the small boy warrior who pulled his pony up beside him. It was Little Wind, his ten-year-old son, who relished being with his father more than anything else. In fact, these two Sioux were as inseparable as prairie earth and sky, their feelings running as close as the great buffalo themselves.
Little Wind continued to watch his father, his proud, tired eyes taking in—as they so often did—the horizontal smears of paint on the man’s muscled arms, lines that signified successful horse raids and noble battles won with enemy tribes. This had been the boy’s first hunt, and all the excitement had taken its toll on him. They, and the half-dozen other Indians, had been hunting buffalo for nearly a week. But Little Wind was determined to be strong like his father. He would not show his weariness by complaining.
Little Wind threw back his shoulders, followed his father’s hawk-eyed stare across the wide expanse of grass, and remembered his ailing grandfather’s wise counsel: “Each of us, my child, to be at one with manhood and dignity, must in his turn be strong. He must rise above himself … like an eagle … to the high, noble place of honor. For the best part of any of us, little one, is found in deeds that take us beyond ourselves and make of us the men we are to be.”
Ten Days Walking yelled above the rising wind and plunged his horse forward. Little Wind quickly nudged his moccasined feet into his pony’s flank and bolted after him, followed closely by the other braves who exchanged excited, curious glances.
The feeding wolves retreated reluctantly as the band of Sioux poured out of the darkness, hooting wildly and waving their spears and bows. The snarling animals seemed to dissolve in the growing darkness.
Little Wind could still hear some of them ripping and clawing and tearing at the carcasses. He slipped off his pony and walked among the carcasses. He stumbled over something in the dark … and it moved. It was the old buffalo with the cracked horn and the haunting blue eyes. Little Wind touched its deep carpet of matted fur. There was blood on his hand. It moved again! The boy jumped to his feet. “Father!” he shouted. “This old four-legged still lives!”
Ten Days Walking came to where Little Wind stood and hunkered down beside the ancient creature. He shook his head gloomily. “This one is very old, my son.” He gestured toward the deep wounds. “Its spirit anxiously awaits its journey to the green fields beyond the stars. Mother Earth offers only much pain now. Let this old four-legged be. The Great Spirit calls it home.”
Tears glowed in Little Wind’s big dark eyes. “No, Father,” he humbly objected.
Ten Days Walking looked surprised. “Do you think you know more than your father about such things?”
Little Wind could not swallow his feelings, so he meekly answered, “Was it not you, Father, who said that a man should not limit his compassion to one of his own kind?”
The Big Sioux warrior put his hand on the boy’s small shoulder and spoke softly but firmly. “Would it not be more compassionate to give this old one back to the Great Spirit? There is so little life left in him. And he suffers so.”
After a silence, Ten Days Walking drew his large bone-handled skinning knife and prepared to end the animal’s misery. But Little Wind placed his hand on his father’s arm and pleaded, “Grandfather suffers. He is very old. There is little life left in him too. But do you not go to the high mountains to pray for him every day?”
Ten Days Walking stared deeply at his small son, his dusky eyes misting with heartfelt admiration. The boy seemed suddenly far beyond his years. Little Wind’s three-day fast and sacrifice on the hilltop to purify himself in order to become fit for God’s use before leaving on the hunt now showed itself in the boy’s touching wisdom and uncommon humanity. “Such kindness,” Ten Days Walking uttered, “will one day return itself upon you, my son, whether this old four-legged brother lives or dies. And this is because of the goodness of your heart.”
Ten Days Walking instructed six of his braves to load the old buffalo onto a travois and secure it with rawhide thongs. After all had been taken from the field of death that could be carried, the party of Sioux rode off under a predawn sky. They glanced back sadly at the leavings of meat that could not be toted, but offered it up to their hungry brothers, the wolves, that crept back on the shadows of the hunters’ disappearance.
Little Wind was barely aware of the grand welcome he and his father and the other braves received two days later upon their return to the village. Nor was he aware of the fires that were lit or the prayers of gratitude that were chanted in the smoke of sacred pipes, nor even of the many buffalo paunches (stomach linings) that boiled welcome broth on that cold autumn night. He was much too busy assisting the village holy man work medicine over the old buffalo. They were all quartered in a kind of earthen lodge constructed in the manner of a dome-shaped sweathouse. Here healing vapors could work upon the afflictions of the huge beast.
All the next day Little Wind remained inside the lodge with the old buffalo. His mother, Laughing Water, periodically sent his little sister, Night Fawn, to the earthen lodge with servings of broth, pemmican, and jerky.
Ten Days Walking emerged from a purification lodge when the sun had all but completed its journey across the sky. He had entered the lodge early that morning to bathe in the smoke of sweet grass in order to cleanse himself of the evil that his growing bitterness toward his white brothers had implanted in his heart and mind. He removed a wreath of sage from his head, brushed a veil of sweat from his eyes, and peered through the windy haze of evening fires toward the earthen lodge.
The wind swept across the wintering landscape and moaned about the little hut like a dying thing, pulling at the buffalo hide door and splintering the fragile patch of light inside. Such a long, uncertain vigil for a boy so small, thought Ten Days Walking. He moved off through a maze of huge meat drying racks, taking time out of his concerns to smile at a group of playing children. He paused to better secure a rawhide rope about a pony that was picketed to pegs outside his tepee; then before disappearing inside, he looked back toward the earthen lodge in the icy blast. His heart welled up with a matchless love and reverence and a hope that the Great Spirit would either let death soon take its course or let a small boy’s prayers be answered.
Little Wind’s sore red eyes watched with fixed interest as the medicine man drew a hot coal from the fire with a small forked stick, lit a twisted piece of grass, and cleansed his hands in the smoke. He then applied healing herbs to the buffalo’s wounds.
Little Wind’s eyes followed the smoke from the fire as it lifted through the hole in the top of the lodge toward the land of the Sky People above, and somewhere within that smoke a boy’s continuing prayer ascended with it, a plea that the Great One would consider one of his lesser but noble creations and sustain its life.
The holy man rose to go, then he paused and regarded the boy. “Our work is done, small one. What is left to be done is the Great Spirit’s to do.”
Little Wind pulled his blanket up about him and put another piece of wood on the smoldering fire. The flames licked higher and burned back the edges of night. He would not leave the old buffalo—not yet. He would stay a little longer. Just a little longer.
The boy brushed his hand gently across the massive bulk that slowly rose and fell, his exhausted gaze settling on the shadows that danced giddily on the walls like memories, memories that rose and fell like the sides of the old buffalo and stole him away …
He had been only five the night his people shuffled their feet around the big village fire, making happy shadows that stomped about in the great circle under the moon. Merrily they chanted their thanks to the Great One beyond the stars for the coming of his little sister, Night Fawn, to Mother Earth.
The kindly fire and the remembrance of happy chantings disrupted his stubborn vigil, and he rested his head on the old buffalo’s soft, warm side. He listened for a long moment to the steady throb of its great heart, beating like a distant drum in the land of the Sky People beyond the wind and the night and an old four-legged’s earthly pain.
(To be continued.)