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George Bird Grinnell

On a Buffalo Horse

I had lived twelve winters when I did something which made my mother and all my relations glad; for which they all praised me, and which first caused my name to be called aloud through the camp.

It was the fall of the year, and the leaves were dropping from the trees. Long ago the grass had grown yellow; and now sometimes when we awoke in the morning it was white with frost; little places in the river bottom, where water had stood in the springtime, and which were still wet, were frozen in the morning; and all the quiet waters had over them a thin skin of clear ice. Great flocks of water birds were passing overhead, flying to the south; and many of them stopped in the streams, resting and feeding. There were ducks of many sorts, and the larger geese, and the great white birds with black tips to their wings, and long yellow bills; and the cranes that fly over, far up in the sky, looking like spots, but whose loud callings are heard plainly as they pass along. Often we saw flocks of these walking on the prairie, feeding on the grasshoppers; and sometimes they all stopped feeding and stuck up their heads, and then began to dance together, almost as people dance.

We boys used to travel far up and down the bottom, trying to creep up to the edge of the bank, or to the puddles of water, where the different birds sat, to get close enough to kill them with our arrows. It was not easy to do this, for generally the birds saw us before we could get near enough; and then, often, even if we had the chance to shoot, we missed, and the birds flew away, and we had to wade out and get back our arrows.

One day I had gone with my friend a long way up the river, and we had tried several times to kill ducks, but had always missed them. We had come to a place where the point of a hill ran down close to the river, on our side, and as we rounded the point of this hill, suddenly we saw close before us three cranes, standing on the hillside; two of them were gray and further off, but one quite near to us was still red, by which we knew that it was a young one. I was ahead of my friend, and as soon as I saw the cranes I drew my arrow to its head, and shot at the young one, which spread its wings and flew a few yards, and then came down, lying on the hillside, with its wings stretched wide, for the arrow had passed through its body. I rushed upon it and seized it, while the old cranes flew away. Then I was glad, for this was the largest bird that I had ever killed; and you know that the crane is a wise bird, and people do not often kill one.

After my friend and I had talked about it, I picked up the bird and put it on my back, holding the neck in one hand, and letting the legs drag on the ground behind me; and so we returned to camp. When we reached the village some of the children saw us coming, and knew me, and ran ahead to my mother's lodge, and told her that her boy was coming, carrying a great bird; and she and my sisters came out of the lodge and looked at me. I must have looked strange, for the crane's wings were partly spread, and hung down on either side of me; and when I had nearly come to the lodge, my mother called out: "What is the great bird that is coming to our lodge? I am afraid of it," and then she and the children ran in the door. Then they came out again, and when I reached the lodge, all looked at the bird, and said how big it was, and how fine, and that it must be shown to my uncle before it was cooked. They sent word to him, asking him to come to the lodge, and soon he did so, and when he saw what I had killed, he was glad, and told me that I had done well, and that I was lucky to have killed a crane. "There are many grown men," said he, "who have never killed a crane; and you have done well. I wish to have this known."

He called out in a loud voice, and asked Bellowing Cow, a poor old woman, to come to the lodge and see what his son had done; and he sent one of the boys back to his lodge, telling him to bring a certain horse. Soon the boy returned, leading a pony; and when Bellowing Cow had come, my uncle handed her the rope that was about the pony's neck, and told her to look at this bird that his son had killed.

"We have had good luck," he said; "my son has killed this wise bird; he is going to be a good hunter, and will kill much meat. In the time to come, after he has grown to be a man, his lodge will never lack food. His women will always have plenty of robes to dress."

Then Bellowing Cow mounted her horse and rode around the village, singing a song, in which she told how lucky I had been; that I had killed a crane, a bird that many grown men had not killed; and that I was going to be a good hunter, and always fortunate in killing food. My uncle did not give the bird to Bellowing Cow; he kept it, and told my mother to cook it; and he said to her: "Save for me the wing bones of this bird, and give them to me, in order that I may make from them two war whistles, which my son may carry when he has grown old enough to go to war against his enemies."

I was proud of what had happened, and it made me feel big to listen to this poor old woman as she rode through the village singing her song.

What he did at this time showed some things about my uncle. It showed that he liked me; it showed that he was proud of what I had done; and it showed, too, that he was a person of good heart, since he called to see what I had done a poor old woman who had nothing, and gave her a horse. It would have been as easy for him to have called some chief or rich man who had plenty of horses, and then sometime this chief or rich man would have given him a horse for some favor done him.

I had killed the crane with a pointed arrow, of which I had three, though in my hunting for little birds I still used blunt arrows. My uncle had made me another bow, which was almost as large as a man's bow; and I was practicing with it always, trying to make my right arm strong, to bend it, so that it might send the arrow with full force.

The next summer, when the tribe had started off to look for buffalo, I spoke one night to my uncle, as he was sitting alone in his lodge, and said to him: "Father, is it not now time for me to try to kill buffalo? I am getting now to be a big boy, and I think big enough to hunt. I should like to have your opinion about this." For a time he sat smoking and considering, and then he said: "Son, I think it is time you should begin to hunt; you are now old enough to do some of the things that men do. I have watched you, and I have seen that you know how to use the bow. The next time that we run buffalo, you shall come with me, and we will see what we can do. You shall ride one of my buffalo horses, and you shall overtake the buffalo, and then we shall see whether you are strong enough to drive the arrow far into the animal."

It was not long after this that buffalo were found, and when the tribe went out to make the surround, my uncle told me to ride one of his horses, and to keep close to him. As we were going toward the place where the surround was to be made, he said to me: "Now, to-day we will try to catch calves, and you shall see whether you can kill one. You may remember this, that if you shoot an arrow into the calf, and blood begins to come from its mouth, it will soon die, you need not shoot at it again, but may go on to overtake another, and kill it. Then, perhaps, after a little while you can chase big buffalo. One thing you must remember. If you are running buffalo, do not be afraid of them. Ride your horse close up to the buffalo, as close as you can, and then let fly the arrow with all your force. If the buffalo turns to fight, your horse will take you away from it; but, above all things, do not be afraid; you will not kill buffalo if you are afraid to get close to them."

We rode on, and before the surround was made we could see the yellow calves bunched up at one side of the herd. My uncle pointed them out to me, and said, "Now, when the herd starts, try to get among those calves, and remember all that I have told you."

At length the soldiers gave the word for the charge, and we all rushed toward the buffalo. They turned to run, and a great dust rose in the air. That day there were many men on fast horses, but my uncle's horse was faster than all; and because I was little and light, he ran through the big buffalo, and was soon close to the calves. When he was running through the buffalo I was frightened, for they seemed so big, and they crowded so on each other, and their horns rattled as they knocked together, as the herd parted and pushed away on either side, letting me pass through it.

In only a short time I was running close to a yellow calf. It ran very fast, and for a little while I could not overtake it; but then it seemed to go slower, and my horse drew up close to it. I shot an arrow and missed it, and then another, and did not miss; the arrow went deep into it, just before the short ribs, and a moment afterward I could see blood coming from the calf's mouth; and I ran on to get another. I did kill another, and then stopped and got down. The herd had passed, and I began to butcher the last calf; and before I had finished my uncle rode up to me and said, "Well, son, did you kill anything?" I told him that I had killed two calves; and we went back and looked for the other. He helped me to butcher, and we put the meat and skins of both calves on my horse and then returned to the camp.

When we reached there, my uncle stood in front of the lodge, and called out with a loud voice, saying: "This day my son has chased buffalo, and has killed two calves. I have given one of my best horses to Red Fox." This he called out several times, and at the same time he sent a young man to his lodge, telling him to bring a certain good horse, which he named. Before very long the young man came with the horse, and about the same time the old man Red Fox, who was poor and lame, and without relations, was seen limping toward the lodge, coughing as he came.

In his young days Red Fox had been a brave and had done many good things, but he had been shot in the thigh, in battle, and his leg had never healed, so that he could not go to war. After that, his wife and then his children one by one had died, or been killed in battle, and now he had nothing of his own, but lived in the lodge with friends—people who were kind to him. After Red Fox had mounted his horse, and had ridden off about the circle of the lodges, singing a song, in which he told what I had done, and how my uncle was proud of my success, and of how good his heart was toward poor people, so that when he made gifts he gave them to persons who had nothing, and not to people who were rich and happy, my uncle turned about and went into the lodge. He told the young man who had brought the horse to go out and call a number of his friends, and older people, to come that night to his lodge, to feast with him.

After they had come, and all had eaten, and while the pipe was being smoked, my uncle said: "Friends, I have called you to eat with me, because this day my son has killed two calves. He has done well, and I can see that he will be a good man. His lodge will not be poor for meat nor will his wife lack skins to tan, or hides for lodge skins. We have had good luck, and to-day my heart is glad; and it is for this reason that I have asked you to come and hear what my son has done, in order that you may be pleased, as I am pleased."

When he had finished speaking, Double Runner, an old man, whose hair was white, stood up on his feet and spoke, and said that I had done well. He spoke good words of my uncle because he had a kind heart and was generous, and liked to make people happy. He spoke also of my father, and said that it was bad for the tribe when the enemy killed him; but, nevertheless, he had died fighting, as a brave man would wish to die.


I killed many a buffalo and my mother dressed the hides.

From that time on, so long as the buffalo were seen, I went out with the men of the camp. Sometimes I went alone, or with companions of my own age, and we tried to kill calves, but more than once I went with my uncle. The second time I rode with him he said to me that I had killed calves, and now I must try to kill big buffalo. I remembered what he had said about riding close to the buffalo, but I was afraid to do this, and yet I was ashamed to tell him that I was afraid. When the surround was made, my uncle and I were soon among the buffalo. I was riding my uncle's fast buffalo horse. My uncle rode on my right hand, and when we charged down and got among the buffalo we soon passed through the bulls and then drew up slowly on the cows, and those younger animals whose horns were yet straight. I thought we were going to pass on through these, and kill calves, but suddenly my uncle crowded his horse up close to me, and, pointing to a young bull, signed to me to shoot it. I did not want to, but my uncle kept crowding his horse more and more on me, and pushing me close to the bull. I was afraid of it; I thought that perhaps it would turn its head toward me and frighten my horse, and my horse could not get away because of my uncle's horse, and then my horse, and perhaps I, myself, would be killed; but there was not much time to think about it. I felt that I was not strong enough to kill a buffalo; I did not want to try; but all the time my uncle was signing to me, "Shoot, shoot." There was no way for me to escape, and I drew the arrow and shot into the buffalo. The point hit the animal between the ribs, and went in deep, yet not to the feathers. When I shot, my uncle sheered off, and I followed him; and in a moment, looking back, I saw that the blood was coming from the bull's nose and mouth; and then I knew that I had killed it. In a few moments it fell, and I went back to it. Then truly I thought that I had done something great, and I felt glad that I had killed a big buffalo. I forgot that a little while before I had been frightened, and had wanted to get away without shooting. I forgot that, except for my uncle, I should not have made this lucky shot. I felt as if I had done something, and something that was very smart and great. You see, I was only a boy.

This feeling did not last very long; after a little I remembered that except for my uncle I should have still been afraid of big buffalo, and should not have dared to go near enough to kill one, but should have been content to kill calves. My mind was still big for what I had done, and I felt thankful to my uncle for making me do it. I wanted to pass my hands over him—to express my gratitude to him—for all his kindness to me. No father could have done more for me than he had done, and always did.

That night when we came back to the camp my horse was carrying a great pile of meat; and when I stopped in front of the lodge, I called out to my mother to come and take my horse, and take the meat from it; for so my uncle had told me to do. "Now," he said, "you have become a man; you are able to hunt, and to kill food, and you must act as a man acts."

When my mother came out of the lodge she was astonished; she could hardly believe that it was I who had killed this buffalo. Nevertheless, she took the rope from me, and began to take the meat from the horse; and I went into the lodge and lay down on the bed by the fire to rest, for this too was what my uncle had told me to do.

The next time the camp made a surround, I rode alone, and this time I did not do so well. It is true that I killed a cow, but also I shot another animal, which carried away three of my arrows. It was afterward killed by a man a long way off, and the next day he gave me back my arrows, which he had taken from the cow. I felt ashamed of this, but, nevertheless, I kept on, and before the hunt was over I killed many buffalo, and my mother dressed the hides.