Thursday, November 21, 2013

First Hunt

I would like to share with you a short story that was written several years ago.  Enjoy!

First Hunt

Heads to the ground, noses to the wind, a small band of buffalo cropped the autumn-bronzed prairie grass as they slowly made their way up a gentle slope.  Spotted Calf crawled behind the buffalo, heedless of the rough ground scraping against his bare chest.  Armed with a bow, four arrows, a flint knife hanging from a leather thong around his neck, and all the strength contained in his fourteen year old arms, the young Indian was deep into the hunt.  An antelope skin draped over his back rendered him nearly invisible against the landscape as he crept closer to his prey.

His was a sacred quest, for this was his first hunt alone.  If successful, Spotted Calf would become a man.  Success would bring honor to his people and the warriors would welcome him into their ranks as they sat at council.  Failure meant disgrace, and it would be better to die alone than return home without meat.  His life would mean nothing then.  Men would ignore him and women would make him fetch their water and haul their firewood, cuffing his ears if he tarried along the way.  That was a fate no man could endure.  He could not fail. Death was preferable.

Slowly and silently he stalked the buffalo, patiently working his way close enough to risk a killing shot.  The first shot was crucial; the arrow had to hit a vital organ.  The lungs were good, the heart was better.  A second shot was unlikely.  The arrow’s flight would stampede the herd, and Spotted Calf would have to travel far for the chance to try again.  But if the arrow flew true, the wounded animal would weaken and would not have strength for a long run. 

Spotted Calf brushed aside all thoughts of failure as he focused on the buffalo. Mentally, he located the best spot to loose his bow.  So far, things were going well. The shaggy beasts remained unaware of his presence.  The air was crisp and the dry prairie grass crackled slightly under his belly.  He raised his head and snuffed the air.  A breeze blew steadily from the north, carrying the pleasant smell of freshly cropped grass along with the pungent odor of unwashed buffalo and their fresh droppings.  Another scent rode the wind as well; the first hint of bitter snows that would soon come to cover the prairie.  Now was the time for Spotted Calf and his family to make their way southward to the tree lined valleys.  It would be good to have fresh meat for the journey.

The lead animal was an old bull, made wise and wary by many winters.  He snorted to clear his nostrils and tested the air for any scent of an enemy.  He stopped at the edge of an old wallow.  A roll in the dust would rid his skin of ticks and fleas, and leave behind a layer of dirt that would protect his matted hide from the biting flies that threatened to drive him mad.

Three cows made up his harem and a single yearling calf completed the small herd.  Spotted Calf briefly wondered why the animals hadn’t joined the main band for the yearly migration south.  The migration was so vast that the entire sky filled with dust and the earth trembled from the force of their hooves as they passed by.  Surely there was room in the main herd for a few more animals.

But these five remained, perhaps because the old bull knew he would lose the last of his wives to a younger male if he came anywhere near the main herd.  Spotted Calf decided the Great Spirit allowed them to stay behind, giving him the chance to prove his worth as a hunter.

A boy’s first hunt was far more than going out to get meat for the tribe.  That was important, of course, for the people would not survive without meat.  But to the Lakota, buffalo were sacred animals, given by the Great Spirit to sustain life.  The large, shaggy beasts provided more than food.  Their skins provided clothing and coverings for the lodges; even their sinews were used for stitching and to join the flint points to the arrow’s shaft.  In turn, the Lakota implored the Great Spirit to prosper the buffalo, which were so plentiful it took three full days for the herd to pass in their annual migration.

In the manner of his tribe, Spotted Calf’s father prepared the boy for this day.  To sharpen his senses, he had eaten no meat for two weeks, and had fasted for the last two days.  To purge his body of all human scent, he entered the sacred lodge where a hot fire burned and heated rocks were splashed with water from a tightly woven willow basket.  Steam filled the lodge and sweat ran down his back as the shaman chanted and beat a quiet rhythm on a drum.  Tufts of buffalo grass mingled with sage were loosely knotted and placed into the fire.  The aromatic smoke permeated the steamy lodge, infusing the hut with the distinctive aroma of herbs.  To complete the cleansing, Spotted Calf rubbed the plants over every inch of his body.  When he emerged from the bath, a swim in a nearby stream ensured that very little scent remained to identify him as a Lakota Sioux, Human Being of the plains.

His mother had prepared an antelope skin to cover him on his hunt.  Buffalo had weak eyes; they relied on the strength of their nostrils to alert them to danger.  If by chance they were to spot the boy, the antelope hide would assure them there was nothing to fear.

Spotted Calf carried four arrows which were a gift from his grandfather.  “The heads on these arrows were carved by my father,” Grandfather explained, “and I used them on my first hunt.  The women removed the points from the meat I brought home and saved them for me.  Now it is time to pass them to you.  May the Great Spirit give you the eye of the eagle, the strength of the bear, and the cunning of the wolf.”

And the Great Spirit led him across miles of open prairie to the knoll where the buffalo grazed and grunted.  Soon it would be time to loose his bow.  A cloud of dust rose from the wallow where the old bull rolled and snorted.  Contented, the cows grazed; they would not move without their leader and the bull was not yet finished with his bath.  Spotted Calf took advantage of the opportunity and slowly closed the gap between them.

Now he was ready.  With steady hands he removed the bow from his shoulder and fitted an arrow to the string.  Which animal should he take?  The old bull would bring much glory to the hunter, and Spotted Calf could easily sink an arrow into his unprotected abdomen as the bull rolled in the wallow.  He slowly rose to a crouch and aimed his arrow at the old bull’s heart.

But the tribe needed meat, and the old bull would prove to be as tough to eat as the antelope hide that concealed Spotted Calf’s form in the deep grass.  Surely the yearling calf would make a far better feast than the iron hard bull.  Spotted Calf hesitated, choosing between glory and the needs of his people.  The moment of hesitation nearly cost him his life.

A lone gray wolf, lean and spare, leapt from the cover of the deep grass.  With a growl resonating from the pit of a belly long empty, the wolf launched himself at Spotted Calf’s throat.

Just as he loosed his arrow, the corner of the lad’s eye caught movement.  Turning to confront his attacker, he instinctively raised his left arm to defend his throat and felt the wolf’s fangs sink into his forearm.  The enraged wolf clamped down on his arm until tooth met bone, then clenched his jaws in a grip of death.

The flight of the arrow and the sound of the wolf’s first growl stampeded the herd, but Spotted Calf did not notice.  Locked in desperate battle, he punched and kicked and shook the wolf to no avail.  It was nearly too late before he remembered the knife that hung from his neck.

Clutching the wooden hilt, he stabbed at the wolf but the cord that hung around his neck was too short and he could not land a killing blow.  The eyes of the wolf were narrowed into yellow slits that watched for another chance at the boy’s throat.  Spotted Calf strained at the thong that held the knife but it was well made and would not break.  He began to slip the leather loop over his head in an effort to free the blade.

The wolf struck again.  The animal loosed his grip on the boy’s arm and made another lunge for his throat.  The attack brought the wolf inside the limited range of Spotted Calf’s knife.  Catching the wolf in mid-leap, he thrust the blade into its neck.  Howling, the wolf dropped to the ground, turned, and sprang again.  The force of the leap knocked the boy down.

The boy landed on his back, but the wolf was once again in range of the small flint blade, and Spotted Calf raised the knife and held it tight.  The wolf’s momentum carried him toward the boy’s throat, but the blade caught the wolf’s abdomen and ripped open his empty stomach.  The boy rolled and the wolf missed his throat by inches.

This wound was fatal to the wolf.  With entrails spilling from the cut in his belly, the wolf tried to run but collapsed a few steps away from Spotted Calf.  Dazed, the boy rose to totter on unsteady feet.  Blood flowed from the gashes on his arm, and Spotted Calf used the knife to slice strips of bandage from the antelope hide.  He cut the thong from his neck and used the cord to bind the leather to his arm.  He hoped the makeshift bandage would hold until he could get back to his people.

What would he tell them when he arrived at camp?  Unless forced by the most extreme circumstances, the Lakota would not eat wolf.  Perhaps the dead animal would explain why he did not come home with meat.  Perhaps they would forgive his negligence and let him try again.

Weakened by hunger and loss of blood and staggering under the weight of the wolf, Spotted Calf stumbled his way back to the village.  The trek, which took only a couple of hours that morning, now seemed to take an eternity.  The autumn sun was casting long shadows as he approached the outskirts of the camp.  Guided by the smell of cooking fires and barking dogs, his feet made their way to the center of the village where he collapsed as the world went black.

In the morning, he woke in the familiar confines of his tipi.  His mother was softly humming an ancient tune as she prepared food for her injured son.  Spotted Calf could smell the aroma of boiling herbs and wild onions rising from the broth his mother had made.

Spotted Calf partially rose, supporting his shoulders with his good arm.  “Drink this,” his mother gently urged, “and when you are strong enough you will face the council.”

Spotted Calf knew what waited for him at the council.  He had failed in his first hunt, and his fate was certain.  He was glad his mother had turned back to her cooking; she did not see the bitter tears that formed in the corner of his eyes.  Spotted Calf turned his face to the wall to hide his shame.

His mother continued to nourish him with the broth.  It was not long before he was able to eat a little meat.  Bit by bit, Spotted Calf could feel his strength returning.  Near sundown, his father entered the tipi.

“Son, it is time,” he announced, “the council has gathered.  They want to hear of your hunt.”

Spotted Calf rose from his bed and accompanied his father to the place of meeting.  Though not a word was spoken, he noticed the questioning glances of the women as he made his way through the village.  The elders and warriors of the tribe were gathered in a circle at the center of the village.  Spotted Calf was ushered to a place inside the circle.

Chief Tall Bear was the first to speak.  “Our son, when you returned to the village from your hunt, you could not speak for yourself, so Flying Eagle and Leaping Antelope walked your path to learn your story.”

Flying Eagle, with his hands more eloquent than his words, continued, “We followed your steps and found the place where you found the buffalo.  We followed where you crept behind the herd and prepared your bow, and we saw where the wolf crouched in hiding.  We saw the blood on the grass where you battled the wolf, and we found the calf you shot with your arrow.”  Flying Eagle sat down.

Spotted Calf’s father glanced proudly at his son.  “The broth your mother prepared for you was made from the meat of that calf,” he said. “The rest was divided amongst the tribe as law requires.”

Chief Tall Bear spoke again.  “Spotted Calf left our village as a boy, but returned as a man, proven in hunt; proven in battle.  Hear me, all people.  He is worthy to join the ranks of the warriors; he is worthy of his place in the council.  From this day forward, he is no longer known as Spotted Calf.  As of now and for all time, he will be known as Gray Wolf, hunter of the plains, warrior of the Lakota.”

Gray Wolf’s father spoke.  “Here is the skin of the wolf which attacked without mercy.  You will wear this in honor, my son.  Like the wolf, you are fierce in battle and loyal to your people.”  His father draped the skin so the scalp covered the top of Gray Wolf’s head.   “And here are the teeth of your brother, the wolf,” he added.  “With these, I will make a necklace for you to wear in remembrance of your great fight.”

Gray Wolf’s grandfather came to him and said, “Here is the bow and the three arrows which you left on the prairie.  Here is the fourth arrowhead, the one which pierced the heart of the yearling buffalo.  Your eye was keen, my son, and your aim was true.”

Chief Tall Bear concluded the ceremony.  “May your courage be an inspiration to us all.  We live in a world where the hunter, at any moment, may become the hunted.”

A drumbeat started and the chanting song began.  One by one, the warriors rose to dance.  Gray Wolf was the last to rise.  Somehow, the throbbing in his arm faded as he joined in.  He could not help but notice the admiring glances from the maidens as they watched the warriors dance.

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