The Buffalo Hunter

by Larry Lefkowitz

On the keelboat going up the Missouri, Clearfield and I became friendly. Normally, I don’t think he would have been interested in me — it seemed buffalo hunters were only happy with their buffaloes for company. (I wasn’t surprised, the smell that emanated from him was enough to discourage anyone — the French crew gave him a wide berth because of it.) But the combination of the Frenchmen avoiding him, the fact that they avoided me, and the fact he didn’t like “foreigners,” soon made us companions. The nose adjusts to smells–even what I gathered was buffalo smell; and Clearfield was a valuable source of information to someone like me, in sore need of it. Sometimes he could be unnerving, as when he would suddenly pop off with his buffalo gun at some lone tree or other object that took his fancy. “Gotta keep in practice,” he explained. This practice of keeping in practice scared the pants off the Frenchmen. The first time he did it, the captain of the boat asked him to discontinue it, but he threatened him to “use you for a target if you don’t get back to runnin’ your boat instead of your mouth.”

Nobody suggested he desist after that. As a token of his friendship with me, he offered me a shot (not at the captain, at a more stationary target). I declined but he insisted, until I came close to putting a hole in the boat instead of the target (a wide tree) and put myself on the deck from the recoil of his cannon. “Ain’t you ever fired before?” he asked in amazement. When I replied, “No,” he looked at me for a long moment in that way of his, then said, “Mose, stick to tradin.” (“Mose” was either his nickname for me or his way of pronouncing “Moses,” I never did find out which.)

The Frenchmen, as I said, avoided me and I never considered them impolite, yet I noticed a new respect in their voices when they spoke to me, which I attributed to my friendship with Clearfield and his “grand fusil,” as they referred to his buffalo gun; or maybe they wanted to keep on my good side in case the need arose for someone to reason with him.

Clearfield slept wrapped in his buffalo robe as if he were on the prairie instead of the deck of a boat, and I (unfortunately) was the only one he would allow to sleep near him. “I don’t trust those Frenchies,” he explained, unaware that the aroma of that buffalo robe would discourage any proximity if the “grand fusil” didn’t. Occasionally a growling and thrashing under the robe would awaken me, and I would calm him–seemed he had nightmares about being caught in a buffalo stampede. Whenever I calmed him, he would give me a wink and say, “Much obliged, Mose, nobody else ever did as much for me.” I wasn’t surprised, seeing as buffaloes were his usual companions–and there was that noisome robe to drive off two-legged creatures. There was another odor that overcame, mixed with, or gave way (depending on amount and recentness of use) to the buffalo odor: the small of whiskey. “Whiskey, my bufffler robe, and my bufflerer (as he referred to his gun), they’re all I’ve got- but they’re a heap,” he once said to me. It was clear he prized them.

He also had difficulty, at first, understanding exactly what I was, why I could eat certain foods and not others. When I explained that I was Jewish, he said, “Heard of it, but can’t quite remember where.” After I explained further, that I was of the same stock as Moses,  and the kings David and Solomon, he said, “Gee, Mose, I didn’t know you were so well connected,” and thereafter he treated me and my food habits very respectfully. “If Solomon ate eggs, I guess they can’t be too bad–and lookit all those wives he had,” he added, nudging me in the ribs.

Clearfield’s first act upon awakening (or reviving, depending on how much liquor he had drunk the night before) was to stand (or lean on his gun), shade his eyes and squint vaguely north. The first time I observed this custom I had asked, very respectfully, what he was looking for.

“Buffler. Buffler country’s in that direction.”

“You mean, I’ll be seeing my first bison soon? (That’s what my book in its English exactness had insisted the creature was.)

“Don’t know about bison,” said Clearfield staring resolutely north, “but buffler you should be seein. Not just yet, too early, but I believe in lookin’. Sightin’ the first buffler’s a good omen, the earlier the better.”

“You seem to know a great deal about the animal.”

“Yup, ain’t a man that knows more about ’em. That’s a fact. A noble beast the buffler. And takes a noble critter to hunt him, and I’m nobler enough to do it,” he said with pride, adjusting the buffalo robe around his shoulders like it was the mantle of Charlemagne himself.

Clearfield knew everything there was to know about buffalo, and he didn’t spare me his knowledge. I learned what a goods store the creature was–and all of it wholesale. The Indians used his flesh for food, his bones for tools, ornaments and arrow heads, his horns for spoons and bowls, his ribs for knives, his hooves for rattles, his hair, twisted, for rope, tendons for thread, and sinews for bowstrings; the stomach made a bag. The skin, dressed with the hair on, provided robes; the hair removed, blankets, moccasins, leggings, and dresses. Cowskins, tanned, were used for teepees, calves’ skin for children’s robes. The tough hide of the bull’s neck made a shield capable of stopping an arrow. The hair was used to stuff cushions. Glue for fastening arrowheads and feathers came from the hooves. The tail, affixed to a stick, kept flies away. This was merely a small part of the information which Clearfield imparted to me about the buffalo. Sometimes I felt that he thought himself a buffalo, like the Mandan buffalo dancers in their dance of the buffalo which he described to me.

“Mose, they move like buffler, they shake their heads like buffler. Damned if they ain’t buffler.” Wrapped in his buffalo robe, he seemed to seek the strength of the buffalo, just as the buffalo dancers fastened strips of buffalo hide around their wrists and ankles that the buffalo’s strength might be theirs. He even philosophized in terms of the buffalo. Take his description of old age. “Comes a time when the bull buffler, the old king of the prairie, is challenged by young bulls eager to toss him off the roost. He has to fight ’em one at a time. Usually wins. But the fight is a hard one, and though he gives better’n he gets and kills the others, he is wore down and wounded, too, and finally dies. When you’re old, life is like that, I reckon, Mose. You fight each day till you’re worn down ‘n finally die.”

One morning when the rising sun was trying to cut its way through the gray mist, and Clearfield was trying to peer through it to sight his lucky buffalo, I saw him suddenly stiffen, throw back his head and let out a cry that sounded (as far as it can be described) like a cross between a fog horn and a sick cow, but louder than both, which brought the Frenchmen running, frightened. “Peau-rouge,” they asked fearfully.

“Buffler,” answered Clearfield disdainfully.

As the Frenchmen slunk back, relieved, Clearfield shouted after them, “Get this damn barge ashore, there’s a buffler out there and I mean to get him or my name’s not Jeramy Clearfield. Allyons!” (This was the only French I ever heard him speak).

“Get ready, Mose.”

“Get ready for what?” I asked, worried by my inclusion in whatever he had in mind.

“For the buffler hunt. Think I’d reward our friendship by not letting you be in on it. No, Mose, you’re entitled.”

I explained that I knew nothing about hunting buffalo and that I would only get in the way, etc., but Clearfield would hear none of it.

“Just stick by me and do what I tell you. I need you for luck.”

As we jumped to the bank from the boat, which had nudged itself against the bank seemingly with reluctance, but with no more than my own, Clearfield reassured me. “No need to worry, Mose, old buddy, ain’t no problem so long as the buffler don’t get wind of us.”

How could it not get wind of him? I thought, then brightened, it probably wouldn’t be susceptible to its own odor.

“Tally ho!” he yelled and loped off.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Where is what, Mose? Oh, the buffler. He’s up ahead.”

“How do you know? I don’t see anything.”

“‘Course you don’t, you’re not a buffler hunter — not yet, anyhows.”

I didn’t like the implication in this last but had no time to dwell on it, for Clearfield added, “I don’t see him either, but I can feel him.”

“Oh,” I said. “How close?”

“Just a bit–there, see him?”

I peered through the mist seeing, as through a primeval curtain, a beast not so much noble as shaggy–I had seen pictures of one in my book, but the creature hadn’t looked so ragged. He looked like a nearsighted satyr that had seen better days, beard and hair caked with grit, eyes like a wizened old man–and a smell, well, like Clearfield. No wonder Clearfield liked to think of it as noble, it was a great deal like Clearfield himself. I couldn’t understand how he could bring himself to kill it. Something of this last question must have reached him mentally because he said to me, “Kinda hate to shoot him, the buffler’s such a magnificent critter, but it’s good medicine for me. I believe like the Indian, the hunter gets the strength of the animal he kills. That’s how I explain my nobility.”

He aimed his buffalo gun and squeezed the trigger. A roar like a cannon burst forth from it, followed by a roar from Clearfield. For a moment I thought he had missed, for the beast gave no sign of being hit. Emitting not a cry–certainly nothing like that buffalo imitating sound Clearfield had bellowed–the buffalo stood motionless, a look of puzzlement on his huge bearded face, a face not unlike that of a Babylonian king. Suddenly, there burst from his mouth a torrent of blood, vying with his protruding tongue for exit, while his eyes, bloodshot and glazed with oncoming death, rolled; yet despite his mortal wound, the buffalo showed the greatest reluctance to lie down, as if he knew that once his bulk touched the earth, he would never rise again. And so he braced himself on his legs, swaying from side to side, his matted head raised, despite his growing weakness. Now came forth his bellow: rage, impotence, and perhaps fear joined together, as his head, slowly turning from side to side, looking for the cause of his pain, reached our direction. I looked away, ashamed, sickened by the purple blood spurting from his mouth and nostrils, noticed also by Clearfield who said softly, “The blood of a royal creature”. Finally, the beast was no longer able to mount his precarious stance: like a ship just before disappearing under the waves, the body’s rolling from side to side increased until, as if steadying itself for the final plunge, it remained rigid; then, as a tremor coursing through it, a gasp escaping its throat, the beast rolled over upon its side, twitched, and lay still.

I knew I had left the East behind.

But was he dead? For there suddenly issued forth a roar exactly like that Clearfield had made. Then I realized it came not from the buffalo, but from Clearfield. His cry of triumph, followed by as little war dance. I was afraid that the sound would bring every buffalo within ten miles, but nothing seemed to be stirring in the quiet morning, except for Clearfield. Winded, or tired, or finished, he stopped dancing and got to work with his knife on the beast.

“We can’t take the time to lug the buffler back, we’d need the Frenchies and they’d expect us to share. Serve ’em right, this bull meat is tough. Indians only hunt bulls for robes–cows the thing, but if tain’t any, bull’ll have to do. This old man must’ve taken off from the herd, his harem days over, makin the lone journey before the end. We’ll take the best, the tongue and the liver.” And he proceeded to do so, not before cutting a piece of liver and eating it, exclaiming how tasty it was, much to my disgust. Which he didn’t notice, he was so happy. “Lungs, brain, bone marrow and parts of the intestines are also good eatin raw,” he said with enthusiasm. “Indians favor the brain as a delicacy. They bash the forehead with a tomahawk to get at the brains. That’s why you come across so many of those buffler skulls with holes in ’em  on the Plains. Indians been eatin. Next buffler you can shoot, if you want, Mose.”

I nodded my thanks, fearful that any voiced thanks would lack conviction.

An uneasy peace reigned aboard ship. Clearfield’s ancient English blood couldn’t abide Frenchmen; the Norman Conquest likely still rankled deep down. The Frenchmen’s joy subsided as their desires increased, which was a cause of satisfaction to Clearfield. In addition, he managed to kill a second buffalo. I was not present, having taken a splinter in my heel from the deck. It was healing yet luckily not enough to allow me to shoot my first buffalo. “I’m mighty sorry, Mose, I just can’t take you along limpin like that. In case of a buffler charge you wouldn’t be quick enough. I know I promised you a buffler. I’ll get this one for you.”

Now it was Clearfield’s turn to soar. As long as he was nibbling on that buffalo’s liver, he was happy as a matchmaker at his clients’ wedding. I would have been fine except for the buffalo roars that came from him whenever the mood struck him, which panicked our crew, as he well knew.

A few days later Clearfield examined my heel.

“Yup,” he said nodding. “You’re ready.”

“Ready for what?” I asked, worried.

“Why, Mose, for your buffler. I promised you and Jeramy Clearfield doesn’t forget a promise, leastwise if’n it concerns buffler.”

“Oh.”

I couldn’t very well refuse. Buffalo, as you by now know, were everything for Clearfield. He once said to me when we had gotten morbidly onto the subject of ways of dying, that when the time came for him to go, he hoped it would be under the thundering hooves of a buffalo stampede. This didn’t quite square with his nightmares, yet perhaps it did in a way I couldn’t understand. Such an end was fine for him, but I preferred a less dramatic passing. I must have been subdued as we left the boat behind us or maybe it was my turning to look back and his seeing my expression of fearing that I wouldn’t tread its decks again (a high phrase but the fear of death magnifies the appeal of even such a poor anchorage as that jaded vessel), for he nudged me. “Don’t worry, Mose, old sure shot here (he meant his buffalo gun, not himself) won’t miss. And for a descendant of King David, why it’ll be like shootin’ fish in a barrel.”

I gave him a close look but he was serious. I felt more like Daniel about to enter the lion’s den than David the buffalo dispatcher. I mumbled something about that being a heap of centuries ago, and he fell on the ground, feet a-thrashing in the air with the humor of it. Clearfield didn’t laugh much, but when he did he went all out.

The country was flat, the sky wider and clearer than I had ever seen it. I was a bug on a mile-wide tabletop. I would have felt an unbounded exhilaration were it not bounded by the uneasiness about my role as hunter. A role Clearfield took pains to nurse along, to my discomfort. “Mose, the first try of a ‘greenhorn’ to kill a buffler nigh always fails, so don’t you feel bad if you don’t bring it off. Still, you have me for a teacher, somethin other ‘greenhorns’ are lackin. The trouble is your ‘greenhorn’ is overwhelmed by the buffler. He sees standin in front of him a mountain of flesh measurin five feet high from the top of his hump to the brisket, so he thinks by plantin his ball smack in the middle, he’ll hit the vitals. T’aint so. A clean shot should strike the buffler half a hand’s breath above the brisket, behind the shoulder. But you never can know about a buffler for sure — he’s a tough critter to bring down. I once shot one straight through the heart and he ran more than a half mile before he fell. Nope, a buffler is more than human –“

Clearfield had stopped suddenly. “Hold it,” he said softly. I stopped, unhappy. He must have sighted a buffalo, I reasoned. But he had sighted something else, something that saved me once more from having to kill my first buffalo. “Sioux,” he said quietly. Two men, chests naked, feathers in their hair, rested on horses, watching us.

Clearfield raised his gun and pointed it to the sky and fired.

“Don’t threaten them,” I begged.

“That’s the peace sign, Mose.”

Larry Lefkowitz is the author of Laughing into the Fourth dimension: 25 Humorous Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories.

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