Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ancient Buffalo Hunt

This is one of twenty stories from an unpublished work, "Goodnight Wyoming--Bedtime Stories for Adults and Children alike." It is a tail from long ago--
It’s a Great Day to Hunt Buffalo

Runs-With-Fire and Small Bear stood warming themselves over the cooking fire alternately rubbing their hands together and then rubbing their chest and arms. It was cold outside, but not as cold as it had been just a few days ago. Neither spoke as they watched the smoke figures dance in the tipi and then escape through the hole in the center of the lodge.

The two, friends since their youth, and now the best hunters of their people had spent the early morning scouting for sign of a return of the great herds. By instinct they knew that as the days grew longer it would soon be time to jump the Buffalo. Small Bear and Runs-With-Fire now talked trying to decide who in their tribe they should take to help them lead the big spring hunt. A large hunt in the spring and another one in the fall kept the people alive, and choosing the right people could decide weather the tribe lives or dies. This spring hunt would be the most important in their lifetime as the starving time (winter) had come early and many in the tribe were ill or weak from lack of food. Several days had passed and Runs-With-Fire and Small Bear knew it was time.

The two stood stoically at the Tipi opening, enjoying the warm morning sun, and greeting the five hunter-warriors they had selected be hunt leaders. Each of the five were chosen because they had proved themselves and each had a special skill, like White Weasel, selected for his cunning and stealth and Wind-At-Night selected because of his superior vision and hearing. Although it was an honor to be chosen each knew it was a time for great seriousness and careful planning. All of this made the selection of the sixteen-year-old Smiling Dog a mystery to the others because he seemed to be always joking and laughing but they would admit that he could throw his hunting spear farther and more accurately than any one else in the tribe.

This was a time long before the whites had come to the west and a time when the British still ruled America. This was a time when the natives of western America ranged free without horses, living season-to-season and year-to-year. This was a time when these seven men, none more than thirty yeas of age held the lives of their four hundred fellow tribe members in their hands. This was a time when life was hard, life was easy, life was sure and life was unsure. This was a time when the American Indian reigned supreme in his part of the world, the American West.
After three hours of smoking, offering prayers, burning the sweet grass and much planning for the upcoming hunt the council of seven was ready. Each of the seven picked two or three warriors to help with their part of the hunt, the rest of the tribe would wait nearby until they could hear the awful chunking sound as the buffalo hit the canyon bottom. When the sound came they would hurry to the area and begin the tedious skinning and butchering of the dozens of animals. The hunt plan was simple, the same as the ancients had used, run the buffalo off the cliff, kill the cripples, and collect the meat. The council could only hope that the kill would be that easy.

As the buffalo ranged ever closer to the jump sight the council and their helpers worked feverishly to repair the rock wall that would help turn the shaggy beasts into the cliff and into a six months supply of food for the tribe. No member of the tribe could remember the original building of the wall; it was so long ago that none of their stories or songs told of it. The tribal elders simply said it was built before “the sun brought light and warmth to the people."

The jump sight had not been used in many years because the people always let the wind and rain and the seasons scrub the area clean of all scent and color related to a kill. Now the time was right and the buffalo were close. This night all of the tribe would sing and dance the buffalo dance around the fire tomorrow would be a good day!

A dreary gray March morning arrived but it didn’t dampen the spirit of the council because today was the day, Buffalo jump day. Their camp was nearly an hour’s walk from the jump sight and the warriors left well before the first sight of light in the sky. They walked by instinct in complete silence until Wind-at-Night stopped them with a barely audible shee, shee. Wind-At-Night could smell the great heard as it had moved closer to their camp and farther from the jump sight. Runs-With-Fire and Small Bear looked at each other and smiled, the buffalo were not where they had expected but it still would be a good day because they had prayed and danced around the fire last night and the buffalo were waiting.

In a matter of a few short minutes White Weasel let out the low cry of a morning dove telling the others that he and his three helpers were in place, just behind the herd. They were crawling now within a few feet draped in wolf skins with the buffalo completely ignored them. When the spear from Smiling Dog landed almost silently beside them Gray Antelope and Old Tree lit their torches and the torches of the four warriors with them from the hot coals they carried in a hollow buffalo leg bone. The buffalo started to snort and move away startled as much by the men as by the fire. But it was too late. White Weasel and his followers were on their feet wildly swinging the wolf hides in the air and screaming pushing the herd forward. The prairie was being lit on fire beside the hairy beasts and the buffalo were now starting to move away from the fire and away from the wild wolf men but the rock wall blocked the other side. Panicking the buffalo stampeded over the cliff to what they thought was freedom and in some strange way it was.

The old people sang as they skinned and butchered the pile of buffalo flesh, assuring themselves health, wealth and shelter for many moons.

It was a great day!

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