The Last BuffaloThe hunters were having a wonderful time. The herds had been vast and the shooting good. They feasted on buffalo tongue and skinned out the best of the animals, leaving it to Caleb to tan them. Caleb got stuck with most of the scut work around camp, but this time it was of necessity. The man—really, more of a half-grown boy—was the only one who could tan a hide properly.
Caleb watched the other hunters while he went about his work. They were getting drunk, as usual. Carruthers was the leader, and he liked his drink. He wasn’t even really a hunter. He called himself an archaeologist, but what Caleb thought was that he was just an adventurer, and one who thought himself better than most other people.
They’d chase away the herds, noisy as they were. That wouldn’t break Caleb’s heart. There was a good chance they’d bring the Indians down on them, too. Most of them, like Carruthers and his best pal Jones, thought they were more than a match for a few Indians. Others thought that the Indians had been fully tamed in this region.
Tamed. Caleb snorted, not that anyone heard him. Starved, more like. But while hunger could make the fighters less able, it certainly didn’t make them any less angry. Caleb thought that pretty soon the hunters would be shut up for good.
Caleb was a half-breed, the despised offspring of a white trapper and a Lakota woman, which was why the hunters treated him like dirt. Never mind that his parents had been faithful to one another, and had known more about living on this land than these Great White Hunters would ever learn. Caleb was of mixed blood, and so was deserving of contempt. Carruthers was the worst. He called Caleb “boy” and ordered him to bring tea. Caleb poured coffee and made sure to spill some on the leader.
Caleb staked out the last hide, and began scraping it as he’d learned from both his mother and father. The early trappers in this area had had more in common with the Indians than with most of the whites who were coming into the country now. They had trapped too many beaver, because they were greedy, but at least they knew how to preserve the skins, and they ate as much as they could of any animals that were edible.
Caleb had to admit that these hunters also ate as much as they could. But even twenty big, loud men couldn’t make a dent in the meat of 50 or 100 buffalo in a single night, and they had been killing at that rate for a week. They were supposed to be doing it for the hides, which were valuable enough back east. But no one could save and tan that many hides, and when they went wild with the killing most of the animals were left on the ground untouched.
Only Caleb had noticed that many of the abandoned carcasses were butchered out overnight. Somewhere nearby a Sioux camp was smoking and drying meat in unheard-of quantities, and still they couldn’t save a tenth of what had been killed.
When he was done with the final hide, Caleb slipped off into the darkness. Carruthers was calling for him, to come do some camp chore or other, but the boy was finished. He picked up a pair of the fully-tanned hides, as much as he could carry, and disappeared into the night.
The hides helped ensure his welcome at the Indian camp. The news he brought did more, as did the rifle he hadn’t set aside when he picked up the heavy buffalo robes.
“They are drinking heavily,” he told the men. “Tonight would be a good night to stop the killing of the buffalo.” He indicated the well-tanned hides he had brought. “There are dozens more of these, and rifles, and coffee.”
The Indians didn’t seem to care about the coffee. That was a white man’s taste that Caleb had learned from his father, before that wandering man had wandered into the path of a buffalo stampede. It was his father’s death that had made Caleb join the buffalo hunters. Killing the animals had seemed like the way to avenge the old trapper, but Caleb had learned the hard way that revenge is seldom sweet, and never when taken on an animal. Now he felt only a soul-sickness at the thought of their butchery.
He had unleashed these men on the herds. Caleb, to his shame, had guided the hunters to the buffalo when they might otherwise have wandered in the grasslands until they died of starvation, never more than a few miles from abundant game. The white men were not hunters, but only killers. They couldn’t find their prey.
Now Caleb would set the balance right once more. Caleb led the Sioux warriors back through the darkness to where twenty drunken men lay carelessly asleep about the dying embers of a fire, surrounded by hundreds of dead buffalo.
Caleb heard the wolves howling, as they did every night. Wolves liked to kill their own meat, but they weren’t stupid enough to pass up a fresh corpse.
Tonight they’d have a new kind of meat, he thought, and shuddered.
He took a deep breath and led the others into the camp. These men had killed their last buffalo.
So had Caleb.
|Of course, they aren't buffalo at all. They're bison. Buffalo don't live in the Western Hemisphere.|