Buffalo Dreams
by Sean Laughney

First Night: It's morning and I'm restless being in the house. There are only a few buffalo grazing in the distant:

It was still quite cold in early March. In fact, when I finally got out that morning I could view my breath as it crystallized and blew back into my face. Snow can fall quietly at night, sometimes even muffling the sounds of the predator and prey that normally keep me up. This is O.K., because I really don't want to know what's going on outside during the night. So, all that white outside my window was a welcome sight that day. I stood with my coffee, watching the few buffalo out on the plains. I was pretty sure they couldn't see me through the window. Other than the grazing buffalo, the snow looked untouched and pure. I felt the urge to go out and tramp through it before someone else ruined it all. That's when I pulled on a pair of boots and decided to walk down to the frozen river bottom.

Second Night: I'm walking. I'm mostly looking down into the snow as I walk. The fur edges of the parka's hood create a frame around everything. I can hear myself breathing and the crunch crunch crunch of my steps through the snow:

The snow fall was only a few inches, but enough to push down what was left of the short blue grass below. It's easy for the buffalo to push the snow aside to get at the morsels underneath. They looked up (showing me their snow covered noses) as I walked, their big brown eyes not changing expression. I'm no threat. The light snow made a pattern of rolling waves heading out forever. It looked like the large quilted down comforter that I fluff over my bed. As I walked, I could see the snow was not as untouched as it looked from the window. Critters, large and small, had crossed the plains all night, doing whatever it is they do while I try to sleep. I am able to identify (with tolerable accuracy) the tracks of many animals common to this area, but couldn't venture any guesses that morning. The tracks were only patterns of dents meandering in all directions. The best I could do was organize them by number and size. Most were already several hours old.

Third Night: I'm standing at the frozen river bottom:

There is a small clearing where the river is only 75 yards wide. Solid ice still covered the river at this point providing an easy crossing to the opposite bank. There is a 4 foot embankment on the other side, on top of which a grove of cottonwood trees grows.

I was looking at those trees when I heard the most terrific screech and thunk from beyond. After that, quiet again. Then, without warning, one - two - three buffalo appeared from the grove, down the small embankment and, quickly, across the ice towards me. I fell to the ground, so startled, and moved behind a large boulder to my left. What the hell? That ice must be pretty thick. Soon, five more buffalo followed onto the ice, their eyes wide and wild. Then I clearly heard wolves from in the cottonwoods, but couldn't see them. The first three buffalo were safely across and making their way up onto the plains behind me when one from the second group fell straight through the ice at mid-river. He disappeared instantly, the water running rapidly 12 to 15 feet deep at that point. Another followed through the ice, but this time in (what appeared to be) slow motion. How strange to have these thousand pound beasts be here one moment and gone the next. The ice doesn't open up again for a mile down river. The remaining buffalo gathered calmly behind me. Did they notice the disappearance of their two friends, mates, siblings, parents? If they cared, it was in some silent-but-strong buffalo way that wasn't very apparent to me. Buffalo aren't very demonstrative.

Fourth Night: It's early Spring and I'm about 12 miles down river. There are still some great chunks of ice floating by:

There is a bend in the river where I found the twisted remains of hundreds of buffalo that fell through the ice. All of them rumpled together as if attracted to this single spot. Their matted brown fur melted together and bleeding into one unclear image. They no longer had eyes and it was difficult to see a feature that allowed me to pick out individual, discreet animals. Many wolves live near by and they appeared fat with thick coats. The wolves don't move away easily and are not concerned with my presence. I'd cross the river and pass on the opposite bank but the current was too strong and the water far too cold. The Indians believe that a great spirit within the buffalo can be transferred so as to live on, but I'm not sure. Looking at the buffalo and the wolves, I am convinced that this life is not a rehearsal for another, better life. So, I step carefully over the flat slippery stones.

Published May 7, 1997
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