Jake decided he would head directly to the Grand River, which was not much farther than a couple of miles. The river bottoms were moderately wooded and the waters of the Grand attracted a variety of game. The bottoms near the Devine homestead were unsettled and the grassy bottomland still teemed with game.
Jake turned northwest and set a casual gait. Rufe didn’t run far in front of him, as he usually did, but seemed content to stay close to his left leg. However, he seemed able to keep up with the ambling pace and though he showed signs of pain in his hips and a distinct limp, his behavior reflected his delight at being with Jake. The pristine land was aflame with wildflowers, cardinal and cone flowers nodding their bright heads in the gentle breeze. The bluestem and buffalo grass was nearly to Jake’s knees and the balmy breeze sent rolling waves across the undulating plain, reminding Jake of the white tops he had seen on the Missouri when his father took him to Independence.
The sky held the puffy white clouds of spring and summer and had lost the cold, slate-gray look of winter. Two red-tail hawks rode the warm rising air and cut lazy circles in the azure blue spring sky. The soft breeze touched Jake’s face like a lover’s caress and carried the heady perfume of the awakening earth. Occasionally, he could hear the hawks scream a distant "skree, skree" as they rode the thermals and watched the grassy plain for ground squirrels, mice and voles. Jake glanced into the sun-bright sky and immediately picked up the light underwing color of the male red-tail. He often wondered how it would feel to ride the wind like a hawk and what the land looked like from their vantage point hundreds of feet above the prairie.
The gentle, mild breeze that blew across the grass and the occasional buffalo berry or chinkapin oak made a sighing noise. To Jake, it sounded like a muted, distant whisper, just low enough that one couldn’t make out the words. Jake cocked his head and the wind seemed to murmur to him of primeval things, of secrets the earth had held for untold millennia, tantalizing, but not quite comprehensible.
Jake had always had an affinity for the rolling grasslands and wooded bottomlands of western Missouri. This was the only place he could really remember and since he had reached adolescence, he had mainly hunted alone. Once Jake became reasonably proficient at hunting, his
father quit accompanying him on hunting excursions and spent his time plowing the homestead or, more often, riding the old Mexican mule to the nearest saloon or revival meeting.
It was only a mile or so from the cabin to the gentle bluffs that marked the flood plain of the Grand River. Jake stopped on the edge of the slope that led to the bottoms and surveyed the cottonwoods, willows and occasional burr oak that flourished along the stream banks. He didn’t see any movement, except for a black turkey vulture sitting in a dead cottonwood snag. He glanced at Rufe, who had immediately lain down at his feet; the dog seemed uncommonly tired and lethargic. After carefully surveying the wooded valley, Jake checked his long rifle and, whistling at Rufe, began his descent to the river along a low ridge.
He hadn’t gone fifty yards when he thought he detected movement out of the corner of his eye in the low gully to his left. He quickly sat on a little rise and studied the brushy ravine below him. The silence was almost stifling, and his ears rang with the effort to hear the faint whisper of the movement of a twig. Even the breeze seemed to have died, and the air hung still and oppressive around him.
Rufe’s long, droopy ears were raised and gave his face a comical, framed look. The dog’s attention was locked on something in the ravine, but nothing stirred. Jake was nervous that Rufe would throw his head back and give forth a long rolling bawl, for which his kind was famous, but the hound stood stiff and quivering, his eyes fixed on a spot about one hundred yards away.
Jake’s straining eyes again detected a slight movement among the willows. What appeared to be a tree branch moved slightly, but there was not the slightest breath of a breeze. Focusing on the spot, Jake’s eyes finally detected the outline of a little whitetail buck standing in the thick willows and brambles in the bottom of the hollow. The buck was alert, and his ears were facing directly toward Jake and Rufe, like an old man’s ear trumpet. Jake knew that the buck had either heard him or picked up his alien scent and was poised to flee into the cottonwoods along the river. Slowly, he raised the long rifle and fixed the bead of the front site on the buck’s neck.
He eased the hammer back, hoping that the buck would not hear the barely audible click of the trigger notch engaging the hammer. He set the rear trigger, took a deep breath and maintained the sight picture. Gently, he applied pressure with his index finger to the hair trigger and, as always, he was surprised by the report of the rifle. Through the blue haze of black powder smoke, he saw the buck throw its head up, stumble and fall. Instinctively, he knew it was a good shot and the buck would not move from where it fell.
Despite his previous lethargy, Rufe leaped to his feet and ran down the long ridge to where the buck lay, with Jake following at a more sedate pace. The dog, in his excitement to get to the deer, broke into a loping run and suddenly folded up like a wing-shot duck and hit the ground in a cloud of dust. Jake heard the dog’s piteous yelps and ran to his side. Rufe was struggling to rise but couldn’t, and blood was streaming out of his nostrils.
The deer, which was lying twenty paces away, was immediately forgotten as Jake rushed to where Rufe lay. Rufe was lying on his side, struggling to rise and yelping piteously. In desperation, Jake ran his hand along the dog’s muzzle. Jake’s touch did nothing to calm the pain and fear that consumed the hound. In desperation, Jake looked around wildly for something that might comfort the dog. Seeing nothing, he dropped on one knee and gently stroked Rufe’s back and flanks. Jake was frantic but nothing he did seemed to relieve Rufe’s obvious intense pain and fear. He kept struggling to rise and a fine mist of frothy blood came from his nose and mouth.
In his despair, Jake thought of the innumerable times when his father, seized by the spirit, would fall to his knees and clasping his hands to his breast, he would implore God to plant the seed of righteousness in his wayward son, or asked that some sinful neighbor might be struck dumb for his transgressions.
Watching his father revel in self-obsessed prayer had soured Jake on the idea of communing with divinity. Now, with Rufe writhing in convulsions and obviously near death, desperation drove him to open his heart to whatever power might save the dog. He really didn’t know how to throw himself at the mercy of a God, which he had been taught was a vengeful being and probably did not concern himself with smelly, slobbering old hounds.
Jake desperately tried to remember if there was any established protocol for prayer and, unable to recall any, he mimicked the antics of the revival preachers and his father. Standing and looking intently skyward, he threw his arms back and lifting his voice to a shrill falsetto, he shrieked into the spring sky, "Oh Lord my God, hear your humble servant, Jake, and grant me those things that I ask in religiousness. Bless your humble servant, Rufe, with health and strength and with your holy spirit, cast out this affliction, which seeks to keep your worthy follower Rufe from obeying your commandments." Jake never stopped to consider how ridiculous his words sounded, but he continued to spew out the expressions he associated with prayer.
As he spoke to the mysterious divine being, Jake heard or sensed that he was not alone. He turned with a jerk, and in the same movement, brought the rifle to his chest. Then, he
remembered that he had not recharged the long rifle and he was essentially unarmed. Standing fifty feet away were the three Indians he had met by the spring creek. The old man again raised his hand, palm out, in the universal sign of peace. He said something in Osage to the young woman, who turned to Jake and said, "He want to know if you are performing ceremony to honor spirit of deer you killed."
Jake was shocked by the surreal appearance of the Indians and stood for what seemed minutes, staring at the trio in wide-eyed amazement. The woman again spoke, "He wonders if you’re performing a rite to honor the spirit of the deer you killed," she repeated. Jake’s feverish mind frantically searched the woman’s words for meaning, and he finally realized she wanted to know if he was praying for the soul of the dead deer.
Jake looked into the woman’s oval face and finally stammered, "No, I’m prayin’ for my dog Rufe. I think he’s dyin’!"
As if they had not noticed the yelping, bleeding dog, all three Indians turned in unison and looked at Rufe. The old man held up his palms facing Rufe with the thumbs splayed out and said something guttural in Osage. Almost instantly, the dog seemed to relax and the pitiful crying died in his throat. The old man looked at the woman and again said something in his native tongue.
She turned to Jake and with softness in her dark eyes she said, "He say for every birth a death is owed and we all must someday go back to Wakonda." Jake glanced at Rufe. Though the dog no longer yelped in pain, he was still bleeding frothy blood from his mouth and nose, and his eyes had taken on a filmy, dreamy look that Jake did not like.
There was something in the demeanor of the old man that told Jake he understood what was happening and if anyone could help Rufe, it was this old man. Jake looked again into the dark, almond eyes of the woman and pleaded, "Please tell ’im to help Rufe. I knows we all must die, but not now, I need him." The woman turned to the old man and spoke for what seemed a long time, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes.
After speaking to the old man, she turned back to Jake and said, "He is a holy man; he has completed the vision quest. He knows the ways of the Wakonda, above and below, the Earth and the Sky. He say he will try to speak to Wakonda and learn the wishes of the spirit of Earth and Sky."
The old man squatted on the ground by Rufe and reached into a buckskin bag that was decorated with ornate designs made of dyed porcupine quills. He removed a carved, brown stone pipe with a long stem, a pouch of aromatic, tobacco-like substance and an eagle wing feather. The old man began to chant in a singsong cadence and slowly filled, tamped and lit the pipe. He lifted his eyes toward the sky and continued to chant in a rhythmic tempo. His eyes took on a faraway look and seemed fixed on some distant object in the sky. As the blue smoke swirled upward like a rising mist, he fanned it with the feather, causing it to form little eddies and swirls as it rose on the warm air.
Jake was fascinated by the figure of the old man, squatting on the ground, his head wreathed in blue smoke. He couldn’t help but compare the quiet dignity of the hunched figure to the pompous ranting of the revival preachers. The old man’s eyes became milky and cloudy, like the eyes of a blind man, and his face became an impenetrable mask. He continued to chant for what seemed an hour, but in reality was only ten minutes or less. Eventually, the old man’s eyes cleared as if a film was stripped from their surface like skimming scum from a stagnant pond and the faraway look on his face gradually faded.
He grunted and glanced at Rufe with a look of genuine affection. He looked at the young woman and again spoke in Osage. As Jake listened to the old man speak in his native tongue, he was somehow reminded of the tinkling of flowing water, or the gentle murmur of the wind blowing through the bluestem grass. After the old man spoke to the woman for some time, she turned to Jake and said, "He say the dog will live for a time. He say dog is your brother and you are young, you having a bad time and need friend."
The old man turned and looked at the dead whitetail buck. He furrowed his brow and, glancing at Jake, he said something to the woman. She seemed to consider what the old man said, and finally, she turned to Jake and said, "He say that the deer is also your brother. He say, Wakonda not angry when brother deer is killed for food, but must honor the spirit of deer." Jake’s face betrayed his bewilderment and the woman explained. "All animals are our brothers. The Wakonda gave them a spirit, like our spirit. He knows we must sometimes kill animals for food and skins, but when we do this we must thank the spirit of the dead animal for what it gives us." Jake looked at the girl with puzzlement and she continued, "I’ll show you." The girl stepped to the carcass of the buck and taking an old Green River knife out of a buckskin scabbard on her hip she opened the abdominal cavity and deftly removed the still-steaming liver.
Jake watched in amazement and queasiness as she raised the organ above her head and faced the east. She lifted her eyes to the sky and murmured something in Osage. She turned and repeated the strange ritual three more times for each point of the compass. When she had finished, she sank her teeth into the warm liver and ripped off a steaming chunk, which she chewed briefly then swallowed with gusto.
Turning to Jake, she held the raw liver out to him in an unmistakable gesture, inviting him to repeat the ritual. Jake took the liver and mimicked the actions of the girl, holding the liver to the four directions of the wind. Not knowing what to say, he looked at the girl, but she merely shrugged. Jake tentatively took a small bite of the liver and found that it had a pleasing texture and was surprisingly mild in taste.
Having completed the ritual, he turned back toward the woman, to find that all three Indians had left and were already disappearing over the lip of the bluff. Staring after them, Jake glimpsed a bony piebald pony hitched to a travois. Jake turned to where Rufe lay and found the dog sitting on his haunches, happily panting, his tongue dripping water like a leaf in a downpour. Rufe showed no sign of his previous convulsions, except for a little crust of dried blood around his nose and mouth. Jake bent and put his cheek against Rufe’s ear and ran his hand over the hound’s domed head. He received an enthusiastic swipe across his face with an amazingly wet tongue for his efforts.
Jake bent over the deer and began the task of gutting, skinning and cutting the carcass into manageable portions. He had performed this task hundreds of times and his fingers flew skillfully about the task of stripping the hide from the underlying connective tissue. The task was so familiar that his mind was free to wander, and he thought about what the old Indian had said about all life being sacred. Never again, he decided, would he kill anything without thinking of this moment and weighing the need for food with the responsibility of taking a life. Somehow the thought that all creatures were basically his kin or brothers, as the old man had put it, did not seem at all alien to his thinking. In fact, it seemed much more abnormal to consider other living things as "pests" or as living targets.
He remembered innumerable times when he had watched his father and other homesteaders shoot dozens of ducks or passenger pigeons in a killing frenzy, just to watch them fold and fall from the sky in a puff of feathers. His father had taken him on some of the wolf and coyote extermination hunts that the homesteaders periodically organized on the pretense that the
predators were threatening their livestock or even their lives. During these slaughters, a line of men would advance across the prairie and shoot anything that they flushed from hiding. They never made any connection between the decline of the predators and the rise in number of destructive mice, rabbits, rats and other pests.
When he finished his task, Jake tied the meat and hide from the deer into a neat package and slung it over his shoulders. He knew that his father, if he were home, would be happy with tender young venison. Glancing at the sun, he was happy to notice that it was still relatively high in the western sky, so he had plenty of time to get home before his father demanded his supper. He turned and whistled to Rufe, who bounded to his feet, like a puppy, eager to be off. Jake turned his face toward home and set off in a ground-covering pace that only the young and robust know. All seemed right with the world, but nearly twelve hundred miles to the east, events were taking place that would drastically alter his life, for good and evil.