SI Vault
Edwin Shrake
December 25, 1967
This story is from Edwin Shrake's 'Blessed McGill' a forthcoming novel about a frontiersman who lived part of his life among the Indians of the Southwest a century ago. Shrake's deceptively laconic account of a buffalo hunt and its tragic aftermath reads like contemporary fiction—which it is. But it also is a meticulously researched and compelling re-creation of a little-known aspect of the American past
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December 25, 1967

The Buffalo Hunt

This story is from Edwin Shrake's 'Blessed McGill' a forthcoming novel about a frontiersman who lived part of his life among the Indians of the Southwest a century ago. Shrake's deceptively laconic account of a buffalo hunt and its tragic aftermath reads like contemporary fiction—which it is. But it also is a meticulously researched and compelling re-creation of a little-known aspect of the American past

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There are various ideas why buffaloes stood to be killed. Most said it was because buffaloes were stupid. But I say it was more than that. The smell of blood and gore profoundly disturbed them and they would carry on in a strange mourning ritual, bawling and milling and rolling their eyes until sometimes every last one of them was killed. I say all creatures are fascinated by the presence of much blood and many deaths. We get in a spell over the death stink.

At 60 dead I was working well. My shoulder was numb and the barrel was too hot to touch without gloves. The entire herd was bawling and they had their heads up and would soon run. Through the smoke and stench of black powder I glanced down at the wash and saw that the Quahadi were very restless, also, affected by the bawling and the booming and the warming of the sun as it went toward noon. Those brown boogers could smell the blood and wanted to be in on it. I have seen calm decent folks jump off trains and shoot at herds with derringers and other ridiculous weapons and then get sick if any animals died. But these Indians had no remorse. They wanted to run and yell and kill and would feel good about it. I estimated I had 10 minutes of shooting before one group or the other would break out. But my estimate was wrong.

For a moment I thought it was an echo. That blasting had been at my ear for so long that I thought my head was doing stunts. Then I realized what I was hearing was another buffalo gun. As I listened again I counted four different guns and saw smoke from the mesa behind the herd. No animals were falling, which did not surprise me. Anybody who would shoot from that mesa, upwind, and intrude on another man's stand had to be ignorant as well as greedy. But the mischief was done. The animals caught the scent of the hunters on the mesa, quit bawling and started running. Shaking their shaggy heads, they took off in an awkward, reeling gallop, amazingly fast despite the look of their stride. Hearing the rumbling and the new guns, the Quahadi heeled their ponies up from the wash and raced hollering and screaming after the buffaloes.

The herd was running to my left, lengthwise with the mesa but trying to get away from it. Puffs of smoke lay along the mesa like blossoms. I shot for the leaders in an attempt to stop the running, but the range was too great and the beasts were going too fast for my guess. By the time I could adjust, the Quahadi were too close to the herd for me to shoot again. I recognized Charlie Otter's gray pony in the lead. I saw that he and Knows Nothing and a dozen others were racing to cross in front of the herd so that the Indians would be running on either side of it. There was little space for that maneuver. A stumble would leave the warrior in front of the herd, and when a buffalo runs he does it with all his might.

I got up to go for my horse, judging that Charlie Otter and the others would make it across the flat to the far side of the herd even though it would be a very tight squeeze. That judgment was based on my opinion that the Comanches are the finest horsemen who ever lived. But I heard the booming again and turned to see the ponies of Charlie Otter and Knows Nothing tumble in front of the herd. The hunters on the mesa had shot them down. Both Quahadi rolled in the dirt and bluestem grass only seconds in front of the lead beasts. I considered another shot at the leaders but decided against it. With the single-shooting Sharps I could fire but once and even if I should get a leader at that range the others would overrun the Quahadi nevertheless. Charlie Otter and Knows Nothing were doomed for certain. I scrambled down the knoll toward where my mare was tied to a mesquite and I knew then that those four hunters on that mesa were doomed, also, and the temper I was in made me relish their demise.

But the disaster on the flat was not the one I expected. Halfway down the knoll I stopped to look again. Charlie Otter had crawled behind the corpse of his pony and by firing with his old pistol at powder-burn range had dropped a big bull about four feet from him. Charlie Otter cuddled against the belly of his horse until they seemed one beast. Sending up a thundering noise and boiling dust, the charging herd split at the fallen bull and flowed around Charlie Otter's dead pony. He disappeared in the dust. I looked for Knows Nothing. He had fallen too far from his pony to get back and had lost his short bow. The herd swept toward him. He crouched to await them. He looked as if he was singing his death song and preparing to use his fists against the buffaloes that now pounded onto and across him. In the great fog of dust he went out of sight.

In a moment he reappeared. Fantastic horseman that he was, Knows Nothing had grabbed a buffalo's mane, swung up under the neck of the beast and was riding on the hump with one fist full of hair and the other hand waving joyously in the air. I should not have been so surprised. I had seen him do the same thing as a game with horses. His problem was far from over, for he was vanishing toward the plains in the front rank of more than 300 hysterical stompeding buffaloes. But there was more to think about now than Knows Nothing's predicament.

One virtue of the Comanches and most other Indians of the Southwest is their reluctance to leave a fallen comrade who shows the smallest sign of life. The wounded man has a right—the Apaches call it nah-welh-koht kah-el-kek—to decide his own fate and if he thinks his situation is hopeless he can demand to be abandoned. But there was no leisure for such speculation in this instance. The fastest horsemen had already overridden the far edge of the herd before they knew Charlie Otter and Knows Nothing were down. The others, however, saw them fall and began at once to unloose arrows toward the leading buffaloes, although it was like trying to stop a flash flood by throwing sticks into the water. Two warriors peeled off and rode to pick up Charlie Otter and Knows Nothing. Picking up a prone man at a full gallop is a common talent for a horse Indian, but in this case Charlie Otter and Knows Nothing were hustling for themselves and the others never did reach them. Both of the rescuing warriors—whom I did not identify at the distance—were sideways to the herd and riding hard toward their comrades when the buffaloes hit them. I saw one pony flung into the air, come down on the close-packed backs of the herd and then bounce along, kicking and mortally injured. Neither warrior did I see.

The Quahadi formed prongs on either side of the herd and proceeded with the hunt. Some were using short, thick lances and some were shooting metal-tipped dogwood arrows with their short bows reinforced with deer sinew for power. The bowmen aimed their arrows behind the short ribs, hoping the shafts would drive forward and down into the lungs or heart, and they rode in so close to the beasts that they often could yank out and reuse arrows that did not penetrate far enough. The lancers used both hands on their weapons, thrusting deep as the wounded animals tried to turn and gore them. Some Quahadi were shooting pistols and three or four had carbines, since a single-shot weapon was no good for that type of action. As they rode they tried to kill paths into the center of the herd where the cows, calves and yearlings were running, as those provided the choicest meats. I could see Quahadi heads bobbing amidst the herd and beasts fell and bawled in the dust. Eventually the Quahadi would work their way out of the herd, unless the herd happened to stompede off a bluff or into an arroyo, in which event the Quahadi in the middle were bound to go along.

As I ran toward my horse I had forgotten about the hunters on the mesa. The dust was thick on the flat in the wake of the herd, but I could see something moving. It was Charlie Otter, standing up, slapping the dust off himself, feeling his bones. Then he went down again. I heard booming from the mesa. The intruders up there were shooting at Charlie Otter. Maybe they were shooting at anything that moved, hoping to get themselves a buffalo by luck. Regardless of their intention, that was no way for a fellow to conduct himself. There was another movement in the dust and I heard hoofs and knew someone had ridden out for Charlie Otter. When I got down to my horse Charlie Otter came in on the back of another warrior's pony. His face and body were covered with dust, blood and bruises and his mood was no better than you might suppose.

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