When Buffalo Ran - G. B. Grinnell

A Lie That Came True

Soon after this something strange happened.

I had a friend named Sun's Road. He was a little younger than I, perhaps eighteen or twenty years old, big enough to have a sweetheart, and there was a girl in the camp that he wished to please. He had been more than once to war and had done well, but he wanted to do still better. He was eager to do great things, to make the people talk about him and say that he was brave and always lucky. Like most other young men, he wished to become a great man.

Our camp was on the South Platte River, a big village of near two hundred lodges. All these had been made during the summer, and were new, white and clean. The camp looked nice, but now the buffalo had all gone away. None were to be found and the people were hungry. They had eaten all the food they had saved and now they were eating their dogs, and most of these were already gone.

One day two boys, each the son of a chief, were out on the prairie hunting, and each killed an antelope and took it to his father's lodge. After these had been cooked the chiefs were called together to feast. There was not enough food to allow them to call any others except the chiefs.

I heard of all this at the time, but it was a good deal later that Sun's Road told me what he had done and what happened to him about this time. He did not wish me to tell anyone about it, but it is a long time ago and those who were important people at that time are now dead, so I think no harm can be done by telling of it.

After these chiefs had eaten, they talked of the suffering of the people and tried to think what could be done to help them. After a time one of the chiefs came out of the lodge and walked through the camp crying aloud to the people, saying, "Listen, listen, you people; we will all stay in this camp." This he called out again and again as he walked around the circle, so that all might hear him.

After a time Sun's Road heard his name called, and the old man shouted: "Sun's Road, Sun's Road; the chief wishes you to go to his lodge. He wishes you to go out to look for buffalo."

Sun's Road went to the chief's lodge and when he had entered they told him where he should sit, by the door, and gave him a little piece of antelope meat to eat. After he had finished eating, the chief said to him: "We want you to-night to go across the river to the other side, and you shall go to where the pile of bones is, where we had the fight with the Pawnees. On the other side of that hill for a long distance the country is level. Look over that country and see if you can see any buffalo and come back and let us know what you have seen. If you see no buffalo do not go farther; come back from there."

The pile of bones was a breastwork of buffalo bones built on the top of a very high hill by some Pawnees who many years before had been surrounded there by men of our tribe.

Sun's Road started on his journey. When he came to the river he took off his leggings and moccasins and waded across. It was cold, for by this time it was late in the night. On the other side of the river he put on his leggings and moccasins again and walked on north, sometimes walking, and sometimes trotting for a little way. After he had walked a long distance and it was beginning to get toward morning he felt tired and thought that he would rest for a little while. He looked about for a place to lie down, and found a little bunch of brush behind a small bank, and there unbelted his robe and lay down to sleep for a little while. He had not slept long when his feet became cold and this woke him, and when he raised his head he saw that day was beginning to break. He said to himself: "I must not stay here longer. I am out looking for buffalo for people who are starving. I must not lie here," so he rose and tied up his waist and started on.

He walked on and on and at length he saw the high hill and on it the pile of bones. As he went on he came nearer and nearer, and he walked up the hill until he was close by the pile of bones. Then he stopped, for he was afraid. He was afraid that when he looked over the hill he would see nothing. He wanted to make a great man of himself, and to take back the news that he had seen buffalo, so that the people would call his name and all would say that Sun's Road was smart and was lucky. He was so afraid that he would see nothing when he looked over the hill that he stopped and stood there and thought. He said to himself: "If I shall not see anything and go back, they will all hear of it and my girl will hear of it. They will not think much of me. If I could only see plenty of buffalo, what a great man I should be!"

He went on and when he came to the top of the hill and peeped over, there down below him he saw and counted thirty bulls and a calf. He looked at them and said, "Those are bulls; they are not much, but something." He looked another way, and presently he saw one bull, and then two, and then others far off, scattered—in all five or six. He said again, "These are not many, but they will be some help to the people." A little to his right and down the hill a point of the bluff ran out a little way and this point hid a part of the country beyond, and Sun's Road walked down there just a few steps to see what was over that way. When he got there he looked out into a very pretty, level basin with a stream running through it, and said to himself: "This is a pretty place, a good place for buffalo. There ought to be a great many of them here."

At first he could see none, but he kept on looking and at last far off, just specks, he saw a few—a very few, perhaps ten or fifteen—cows.

For a long time he stood there trying to think what he should tell the chiefs when he went back to the camp. He said to himself: "If I go back and tell them just what I have seen it will be nothing to tell. Now, I want people to think that I am a great man, and I am going to tell them a lie. Yes, I shall have to tell them a lie. I shall tell them that when I looked over the hill I saw those thirty bulls with one calf, but beyond I saw many buffalo—hundreds. I know it is a lie, but I shall have to tell it." Then he turned about and went back.

He traveled fast, walking and trotting, and sometimes running, for he wished to reach the camp before night. It was late in the afternoon when he came to the river, waded across and reached the camp. He went into his father's lodge and sat down. His father was at work making a whetstone. He looked up at his son, and said, "Ha, you have returned," and he turned to his wife and said, "Give our son something to eat." His mother was cooking a little dog, the last one they had, and she gave Sun's Road a piece of it and he ate. Then he took off his moccasins, went over to his bed and lay down, covered himself, and went to sleep. He did not speak, and he made no report to the chiefs. Some children were playing in the lodge, and making a little noise, and his father spoke to them, saying, "Go out, you will wake my son; he is tired and has gone to sleep." Sun's Road slept only for a short time, for the lie that he was going to tell troubled him. Pretty soon he heard one of the old chiefs coming—old Double Head. He could hear him coming, coughing and groaning and clearing his throat, and he knew who it was by the sound. The chief entered the lodge and sat down, and said to Sun's Road's father, "Has your son returned?" The father replied, "Yes, he is asleep." He filled the pipe and Double Head smoked. Sun's Road lay still. In a few moments he heard another old man coming towards the lodge grunting. He knew who it was—White Cow. He came in, sat down, asked the same question that Double Head had asked, and smoked.

White Cow called to Sun's Road, "Nephew, get up now and tell us what you saw; we are starving."

Sun's Road rolled over, pulled the robe from his head, raised himself on his elbow and said: "I went to the hill of the pile of bones, and on the other side of the hill right over beyond the bones I saw thirty bulls and a calf. Just beyond them, as I looked over, I saw many buffalo."

The old men stood up and went out. Soon he heard them crying out through the camp so that all the people should hear: "Sun's Road has come in. On the other side of the pile of bones he saw thirty bulls and a calf, and just below this he saw many buffalo. Gather in your horses. Get them up. Women, sharpen your knives. Men, whet your arrow points. Tie up your horses, and early in the morning we will go after buffalo. The camp will stay here. All will go on horseback."

Sun's Road was frightened when he heard this, but it was now too late to be sorry for what he had done. Next morning just at break of day, before it was light, all the people were out. The old crier was still shouting out, "Saddle your horses; make ready to start, men, women and all."

Soon all were saddled, and they crossed the river and went on. The chiefs rode first and everyone was behind them. No one rode ahead of them. They went pretty fast, for all were eager to get to the buffalo.

Pretty soon they came in sight of the pile of bones. Sun's Road could hear the old chiefs talking and saying to each other, "There are the bones; soon we will be there at the buffalo." All the time he kept thinking of the lie that he had told, and remembering that there were only a few buffalo, while he had said that there were many. He did not know what he should do.

When they reached the foot of the hill close to the bones, the chiefs stopped and everyone behind them stopped. All the chiefs got off their horses and sat down in a row and filled the pipe and began to smoke. Soon Sun's Road heard one of them call out: "Sun's Road, Sun's Road, go up to the pile of bones and see if you can see your buffalo now. Let us know if they are there." Then Sun's Road was still more frightened. When he first heard his name called, his heart seemed to stop and then it began to beat so fast that it almost choked him. He did not know what to do. He did not move.

Soon old Standing Water, another chief, called out sharply, "Sun's Road, go to the pile of bones and see if you can see those buffalo; come back and tell us what you see."

Then Sun's Road started and rode up towards the pile of bones. Just as he did so a raven flew over him and began to call "Ca, Ca, Ca." He kept riding on, his heart beating fast, but as he rode he held up his hands to the raven and prayed, "Ah, raven, take pity on me and fetch the buffalo." He held his hands up higher and prayed to the Great Power, "O He amma wihio, you are the one who made the buffalo; take pity on me; you know what I need." Then he rode up to the top of the hill.

The moment his head got to where he could see over the hill, he looked and there he saw thirty bulls and the calf. They had hardly moved at all. Then he went on a step or two further, so that he could see beyond them, and the place that he had seen the day before was just full of buffalo. Again he held up his hands to the sky and said: "O raven, O He amma wihio, you have made my words true. The lie that I told you have made come true."

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He turned and rode down the hill towards the chiefs. Before he had reached them, one of them called to him to come right to the middle of the line where they were sitting, and when he had come near, they told him to get off his horse and lead it off to one side and then to come back to the middle of the line. They sent a young man to bring a buffalo chip and he brought one and put it down on the ground before the old chief Standing Water, and then went away. The chief placed it on the ground in front of him, about the length of his arm distant from his knees. Then he filled a pipe. Sun's Road still stood out in front of the line, in sight of all the people. He was still badly frightened, for he did not know what they were going to do. He was young, and did not know the ceremonies.

When the pipe was filled, the old chief lighted it and pointed the stem to the east, to the south, to the west and to the north, then up to the sky, and then down to the ground. Then he rested the bowl of the pipe on the buffalo chip and said, "Sun's Road, come here." When he had come close, the chief said, "Take hold of this pipe and draw on it five times." The old man held the pipe, and so did Sun's Road, until he had drawn five times on the pipe. Then the chief said, "Now do you hold the pipe," and Sun's Road held it while the old man took his hands away, and he said: "Sun's Road, pass your hands all down the stem and over the pipe, and then rub your hands over your face and head, and over your arms and body and legs. Then hand me the pipe." Sun's Road did as he was bade. Then the old man put his hand on the buffalo chip and said to Sun's Road, "Did you see bulls?"

And Sun's Road answered, "I saw them."

The old man pulled in the chip a little way toward himself.

"Did you see cows?"

"I saw them."

The chief moved the chip a little further toward himself.

"Did you see two-year-olds?"

"I saw them."

Standing Water moved the chip a little further toward himself.

"Did you see yearlings?"

"I saw them."

"Did you see small calves?"

"I saw them."

After each answer the chip was moved nearer the chief, and when all the questions had been answered it was close to his body. Then Standing Water lifted up his hands toward the sky and thanked He amma wihio for all his goodness to the people.

Standing Water cleaned out the pipe, emptied the ashes on the chip in four piles and left them there. He put his pipe in its sheath and said to the people: "Now, let none of you people go around toward the left and pass in front of this chip—between it and the camp. Back off and all go around behind it, on the side toward the buffalo. If you should pass in front of it that might make the buffalo all go away." All the people went around it, as they had been told to do.

The chiefs mounted and all rode up on the ridge and all saw the buffalo. The chiefs said: "Now here we will divide into two parties; let half go to the right and half to the left. The chiefs will go straight down from here. Let one party go around below the buffalo, and the other party on the upper side. When you get to your places let all make the charge at the same time."

Sun's Road watched where his girl was riding, and when he saw that she went to the right he went that way too, and she saw him on his fine horse. They charged down on the buffalo and he rode close to a fat cow and killed it.

The people killed plenty of buffalo and took much meat back to the camp and ate, and all were happy.

A day or two afterward someone who was out saw the buffalo quite close and coming toward the river. They went out and chased them and again killed plenty. Two or three days later the buffalo began to come down to the river and then to cross the river and to feed in the hills about the camp. The people stayed in this camp for a long time and killed many buffalo and made plenty of robes.