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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In the fall of 1873 I met Charlie Otter and his Quahadi at the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos near the Cap Rock. The herds had not come that far south yet, so we abruptly turned north toward the Canadian River. I was worried that hide hunters might be roaming over from Kansas, as I heard it had been a bad summer for grasshoppers and crops were ruined. But Charlie Otter believed in the Medicine Lodge Treaty of six years earlier that prohibited white hunters from coming south of the Arkansas. I figured if you had the treaty in your hands the paper would be good to wrap bullets in, but in some ways a Comanche's mind is a swamp. He can believe a dozen incredible and contradictory things before breakfast and still digest the story of creation before lunch.

We went north in a long file. The men were dressed in finery and were riding their second-best horses, saving the best for the hunt. The women rode or plodded beside the drag poles. Dogs ran up and down the procession. There was already a nip in the air. The sky toward which we marched had a gray and snowy look. The previous winter had been a hard one and another appeared to be commencing, which should have brought the buffaloes south much sooner. Since the slaughter had begun, however, the herds were even more erratic than usual. I kept my apprehensions private.

Badthing and No Nose, his woman, were with us but stayed to themselves and mostly spoke only to me. Badthing was in a sulk because Charlie Otter had brought along a shaman who was a buffalo-finding specialist and had a kit of tricks that he pulled around the fires at night when the Quahadi did their dancing and singing. Badthing told me the shaman, who had come from the Quahadi band of Quannah Parker, was a fraud. He claimed this fellow, Yellow Head, had a bag of peyote buttons that he was using to entice Charlie Otter's patronage. But as Badthing considered himself the fanciest and most mystical medicine man who ever astounded a horse Indian, I put his muttering down to jealousy.

Yellow Head made a rousing show when we crossed the north Palo Duro. He rode his hairy little paint pony through the cottonwood, willow and hackberry trees along the creek. He peered at the leaves and sniffed the wind and held his sagebrush cap up to the heavens and then clapped it to his ear as if it was a receiver box for The Sure Enough Father's personal telegraph. Badthing snorted and frowned and fiddled with his medicine bag but did not comment. Yellow Head paused at a wild plum tree as though that was a very good thing to discover. Charlie Otter rode on with his head down, mulling about something, and it took the locating of a skunk bush to get his attention. I overheard part of what Yellow Head told him about talking to the skunk bush and learning that it would be a beautiful hunt, but Charlie Otter was no more impressed than I was. Charlie Otter was an unusual man in that he was brave and fierce enough to have become a war chief but wise and old enough to be regarded in council as a civil chief as well. Like most good leaders he went along with the shaman's hojarasca but he put scouts out nevertheless. He would have made a good Jesuit.

There was no reason to doubt Yellow Head's prediction. We camped in buffalo country with great flats broken by dry washes and low knolls so that there was plenty of cover for me to shoot from. Bluestem and bear grass grew among the sage and pokeweed. Along the arroyos were a number of wallows about two feet deep and 10 feet across. During calving season in late spring, when the buffaloes were shedding their old coats, they rolled in mud or dirt in the wallows to get the flies and mosquitoes off their hides. Our camp was on the west side of an arroyo. The herd, if it came, would probably come from the northeast. That direction was upwind from us, a necessity. I have heard hunters claim a buffalo can smell a man at four miles, but I am skeptical of that figure. Two miles would seem to me more accurate.

In the evening after a dinner of dried and powdered buffalo meat mixed up with plums, pecans, apricots and fat, we finished off the last swallows of corn beer and Yellow Head proposed a buffalo dance. From the bundles that his woman hauled on his drag with his tepee and various equipment, he took half a dozen buffalo skulls, placing four of them about the camp at the four points of the compass and the other two in the middle. Pipes appeared and the air smelled of the pungent grasses and herbs that the Quahadi smoked. In a while there was considerable jollity. The musicians began thumping their buffalo-hide drums and the dancers hopped around the fire wearing buffalo skull headdresses and the men chanted a buffalo song that had no melody but a strong rhythm. A big round yellow autumn moon came out. It was the kind of moon you see nowhere except in West Texas, where there is nothing to interrupt the view, and I lay beside the fire smoking a cigar and feeling that I was very much of the earth and the Human Beings. I felt at that moment that I could, as the Indians say, hear the grass growing and smell the color changing in the mesquite. It was no good to think that the only choices the Human Beings had were to die or to become something else, so I quit thinking about it and went over to sit with Badthing and No Nose.

Badthing was in an ill humor again as he watched Yellow Head prancing in the firelight naked except for his sage cap and with his body painted in curving yellow lines like buffalo horns. No Nose was busy at the occupation she most favored when not traveling or working—chewing nits and lice out of the seams of her clothes. I tried to talk to Badthing but he had no philosophical riddles for me this night. He pulled his calico bonnet down over his head and mumbled and drew symbols in the dirt with a stick. No Nose sighed with a whistle of wind out of her exceptional nasal cavities. After a bit, I slept. I recall that the last thing I saw was that moon and it got me into sentimental notions that are all right for such a night but luckily were gone when I woke.

An hour before daylight men staggered out of their tepees yawning, scratching and belching while the women cut pegs for hides, built smokeless dung fires for the coffee I had fetched along as a gift, organized skinning and butchering parties and generally kept as occupied as they knew they had to. Near the ashes of last night's fire Yellow Head had called a meeting of Charlie Otter and several of the more responsible and prestigious warriors. Yellow Head crouched on the ground with a horned toad, spoke some tomfoolery, made a few passes in the air with a buffalo-tail medicine stick and let the toad loose. The toad ran a few feet toward the northeast, paused, got prodded by the medicine stick and ran in that same direction out of camp. Yellow Head nodded proudly. Charlie Otter looked around at his counselors, who grunted and went to prepare their bows, lances and what pistols and rifles they owned. Charlie Otter beckoned to me. I joined him at his lodge for coffee.

"The toad magic says a big herd is coming from just that side of where the sun rises," said Charlie Otter in Tex-Mex. "Yellow Head says the toad magic does not fail." Charlie Otter glanced at me. "Never mind what I think of the toad magic," he said. "My scouts have also told me there is a herd approaching. Between them and the toad and the dancing and the skulls somebody should be correct. We will find many buffaloes this morning. Now the question is how to kill them. We have discussed this matter in council and here is our decision, though of course we await your opinions with great respect and, ah, anticipation."

Briefly he went through each suggestion of the council. One warrior had wanted a surround in the old style in which the men would encircle the herd, creep close and then attack fast before the herd bolted. Another wanted to drive the herd off the bluff of an arroyo and break their legs, but that was chancy owing to the fact that the buffaloes might choose another direction for flight. Knows Nothing held out for a chase with the hunters riding beside the herd and killing with lances and short bows. That idea was rejected because it was dangerous and left the buffalo carcasses strewn over a big area, causing difficulty for the skinners and butchers. Charlie Otter's plan had been the one accepted.

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