LIBERTY BILL, THE BUFFALO
You’d have to know Liberty Bill to appreciate this fine beast of the prairie. You’re reading correctly. Not the Liberty Bell hanging in Philadelphia that made America possible. Not Buffalo Bill the famous wild west performer, although both had much in common. Each was a product of Iowa during the buffalo rage roaring through the prairies west of the Mississippi River during the early 1800’s.
In Liberty Township, Clarke County, Iowa, circa 1844, a certain buffalo calf was as famous as the world renown performer, Buffalo Bill, who was touring Europe and meeting the Queen of England with his crowd pleasing theatrics and tall stories of escapades in America’s wild west. Not to be outdone, the unique talents of this eccentric buffalo celebrity were published in the Clarke County Osceola Sentinel, the local newspaper. He was revered by the local population as evidenced by a thirty-five-year old, dog-eared clipping saved by Mrs. George Evans of Woodburn, Iowa, published through USGENWEB, Clarke County, Iowa.
Although hard to prove with thousands, more likely hundreds of thousands, of buffalo roaming the tall grass and deep rooted turf of the prairie, Liberty Bill of this story may have been related to the young bison John Holt trained as a “plow horse.” When the Holt family had no oxen and faced disaster with no way to prepare for crops, John improvised with a young buffalo calf he’d captured and one of his frontier-hardy steers to pull the plow that “turned the soil.” I will let you pause a moment for your imagination to be a frontiersman on a horse riding past the Holt farmstead. Right before your eyes, you’d see the anomalous spectacle of John behind the plow pulled by his truly, the deft buffalo yoked to a wary steer. Snorting displeasure and pulling on his traces, the latter was obviously deeply conflicted about his partner in labor and his own degraded station in life.
I’ll even wait while you take a second look.
For the purpose of honoring ancestral privacy of innocent descendents in the telling of a historical story laced with fiction, we will assume Liberty Bill was the property of an anonymous Jim Henry Hunt, who lived with his family as neighbors to the fearless Kilmore, adventuresome Windriff, and patriotic Bakker families. I anticipate true kin will recognize the families who inspired this story.
It may have happened like this.
While envious waggers might say his extraordinary patience was a gift, it was no gift at all—he’d come by it the hard way. From the moment he emerged from his mother’s womb after a long, difficult labor, life had been a struggle. With the slightest movement agitating his arms and legs, his breathing became difficult and his heart beat irregular—first thrashing furiously and then hardly at all. Each day, his life was a shaft of wheat floating precariously in the wind.
Surviving a difficult childbirth, Celia vowed not to lose the baby she and God had worked so hard to bring to life. Night and day, she suckled him at his first whimper and protected him when his brothers and sisters might accidentally bump his cradle or rouse him with unnecessary noise. So immersed in her mission, Celia delegated his sister, Elizabeth, to take over the running of the household.
Miraculously, by age six, Jim Henry's breathing became normal and only rarely did his heart race beyond control. After months of begging his mother, and his father’s insistence that he no longer needed her eagle eyes hawking his every move, he finally was allowed to play alone in the barn. Excused from strenuous farm labor, but not without sibling resentment towards his soft, protected life, he watched his father and older brothers struggle nearby to clear pastures from trees, stumps, and occasionally limestone outcroppings prevalent in the rolling hills of Martin County, Indiana.
Later, Chester, a German shepherd, came along, a gift to the older boys from Uncle Drury, whose bitch birthed five puppies. Celia feared the puppy would bring too much excitement for her fragile son, but acquiesced when Jim Henry calmly took on the assignment of methodically teaching the frisky Chester to sit, lay, and fetch a stick. Although belonging to Jim Henry's brothers, Chester frequently preferred lying peacefully in the barn while his companion rubbed a certain spot behind his ear. Talking back and forth as boys and dogs often do, the two of them watched the ants go about their work.
One evening late in July, his father barged into the kitchen, sweat dripping from his brow, an ear of corn covered with deadly black smut in his hand. He ranted, “Look at this. Third year corn’s ruined. We’ll starve. I tell you, Celia, we’ll starve.”
Turning away from his wife and eight children who still lived at home, and who were seated around the kitchen table anticipating supper, he sat morose, head in his hands, not responding to anyone.
Celia consoled, “Not your fault. We’ll get by somehow. Is there anything I can do?”
“Don’t see how we’re going to make it,” he muttered.
“What are others doing—their corn has smut, too.”
“Some are talking Iowa.”
“It’s unsettled. Land’s cheap. Few Indians left.”
“You thinking of moving there?”
“Dunno, will think about it.”
Jim Henry's father came to breakfast the next morning disheveled, dark circles under his eyes, and deep lines embedded from his ruddy cheeks to his mouth. He hadn’t slept.
Celia rushed to put a cup of coffee in front of him. “You all right? Heard you tossing most of the night.”
“Can’t see no other way. We’re moving to Iowa.”
With his father’s words, Jim Henry's idyllic life watching ants in the barn with Chester ended.
If felling and clearing trees were abominable to settlers, cutting through ten-foot tall blue stem buffalo grass, with tangled seven foot underground roots, to find black fertile soil was thrice as grueling. The heartiest of men succumbed in despair.
Word spread of the Hunt’s plan to move to Iowa. Their neighboring kin, the Windriff’s, whose corn suffered the same smut as the Hunt’s, were eager to join in the move to Iowa.
In the discussion on where to settle, once in Iowa, one of the older Windriff boys butted in. It must have been Moses who got the brilliant idea. An antitheses of Jim Henry, he was a bulwark young man, extruding a self-centered confidence, and impulsive to the point he felt the only way to solve an argument was a good fist fight. To be fair, everyone agreed Moses was the one to depend on "to carry the water over the hill" in tough times.
As if God were speaking, he pronounced, “It’s obvious. We’ll settle at the point where trees end and prairie begins.” For two families who seldom agreed on anything, Moses’ revelation struck a harmonious accord.
Best of both worlds, they agreed. Timber for building cabins and barns, and wide, unlimited expanses of fertile soil at their bidding. They’d have a sod crop in no time.
Their vision was clear. Blue sky above, rows of cornfields below, rain-soaked to spectacular lushness with each quarter turn of the moon. A land of milk and honey. Abraham’s promised land. Heaven on earth. In their glee and enthusiasm, none thought anything existed that would stop them. God’s blessing was with them. Onward!
Far away in the tumbling hills, the great and wise Chief Manitou, supreme Indian ruler and master of life, shook his head. Had he been present, he’d have raised his spear and tapped a solemn warning on the shoulders of the exuberant men. Neither family heretofore had broken an inch of true prairie sod, the likes of which they were about to encounter.
One fine cloudless day in October—settlers always began their migratory treks on fine, cloudless autumn days after harvesting their crops—two Hunt wagons, each drawn by a pair of sturdy oxen, and a similar entourage of Windriffs began their journey. They departed at dawn leaving Martin County and its devastating corn smut behind and welcoming a new land, freshly gold from wild oats turned by summer's scorching sun. With each wagon filled to capacity with small children, farming tools, and household wares, they trudged west along numerous creeks to Terre Haute expecting to find Indian trails winding north along the Wabash River.
On the first leg of their voyage west, the wagons logged twelve miles and settled peacefully for the night.
At sunrise the following day, as the men finished their morning coffee, Jim Henry's father called for the daily drawing. Doswell Hunt, dubbed Dozey by his father, drew the longest straw making his wagon the lead for the day. By agreement, the first wagon from the previous day was delegated to the rear, not unlike a Virginia reel where by dosey-do rotation each couple had the opportunity to lead.
Having bestowed upon himself the role of Captain and taking the lead wagon position yesterday, Moses was annoyed that his wagon today was at the ass end of the line. He shouted, “Pull to the right. Take the next turn along the river.”
“Damned if I will,” shouted Dozey, one hand on his rifle, the other grasping the reins of the oxen. “Any fool knows Indians travel on Indian trails.”
Immediately offended to be called a fool and looking for a diversion from the monotony of the tedious journey, Moses, followed by the Windriff men and boys deemed old enough to fight, jumped from the wagons, some rushing forward from tending the trailing livestock. Hunt defenders eagerly joined the melee. Face to face, they raised their fists and shouted epitaphs unfit for women folk. Moses threw the first punch, barely scraping Dozey’s head.
“River route, you asshole.”
“Hell no, you idiot. You want Indians to scalp us?”
“Watch who you call an idiot.” Moses' face turned the color of a red bird’s feather. His fisted knuckles remained white, not moving an inch from Dozey’s firm stance.
“I’m looking at him,” Dozey drawled, his sharp eyes penetrating the furious face of his cousin. He made a grand spectacle of looking around, left to right before shooting a smirking arrow straight to Moses. “Don’t see no others.”
Moses drew his arm back, his arm muscles bulging, to pummel his taunting cousin into oblivion. At that moment, Dozey’s brother, Johnny, jumped Moses from behind, the force of which sent both sprawling down a ravine. A free-for-all followed.
No longer facing his nemesis, Dozey jumped back in the wagon.
Whether to follow the wider, smoother trail where they might encounter marauding Indians, or a narrower path with heavy underbrush that no wagon or Indian was likely to travel was the issue. The sense and fists of the Windriffs were to take the wider, more travelable trail; the Hunts, considered by themselves to be more civilized and courageous, stayed adamant for following the more challenging and obscure route.
Wise enough to stay on his wagon while others continued to argue, Dozey took advantage of the circumstances and deliberately turned onto a narrow path where heavily encumbered trees bent together to form arches.
The second Hunt wagon, driven by Celia, followed. An oblivious Jim Henry, sitting next to the backboard near a coop of noisy chickens, calmly rubbed Chester behind his ear, measuring with his other thumb the distance between the tall cumulous clouds that seemed to follow their progress once they got underway from Martin County.
Not far behind, the Windriff wagons, driven by their women, faithfully followed like a string of obedient sheep following a tup over a cliff. Dozey’s lead wagon disappeared into deep shadows emanating from masses of inland river trees. The men, too angry to notice, were left in high animation pursuing their arguments. Creaking wheels and shouts from wives and daughters caught their attention, forcing them to run to catch the moving train.
Moses, smarting from his unfinished business with the fisticuffs, yelled from his position at the far end of the wagons, “Give me Liberty or give me Death.”
Dozey, grinning, triumphantly swirled his whip above his head before landing a blow on the rear of the slowest ox from which the ox responded with a quickening pace. “Cousin,” he taunted, “You ain’t the man to stop me.”
“You ain’t fair, Dozey. Wait til we camp. There’s more of us.”
“You mean more idiots. We’ll give you a fight, the likes of which you ain’t seen before.” Aiming to the sky, Dozey fired off his rifle, ruffling a flock of crows in the trees. Black, fluttering wings dispersed skyward wanting no part of the invading strangers.
Jim Henry heard his father chuckle under his breath, “Now, Dozey, you oughtta not treat your cousin that way.” His laugh turned to a guffaw. “He might get his feathers riled.”
Continuing around a curve in the trail, the advance of the wagons closed the matter, at least temporarily, from further discussion.
The heavy underbrush and overhanging trees required the heartiest of men and boys to switch from tending the herd of cows, pigs, and mares with foals, to cutting and clearing the trail ahead. Every backbone and hand was needed. All able men and boys were accounted for except Jim Henry who everybody long ago judged fit but too damn much of a mama's boy to do a man’s work.
“Jim Henry?” His father demanded, his patience gone, his irritation evident, his voice belching fire. “Where is that boy? Don’t he know his butt’s needed with the herd?”
Dozey pointed to the rear of his wagon. “Ridin’ like he was goin’ to church.”
“Ain’t church I have in mind. He’ll either tend stock or pray he has an ass to sit on when I get through with him.” His father cupped his hands and yelled louder, “Jim Henry, get yourself out here.”
Jim Henry heard the threats, but never argued, least of all with his hot-tempered father. Without answering, he roused Chester to follow, and slid from the back of Dozey’s wagon. On his way to the rear of the train, he gathered branches to swat any straying animal. Like-minded to the ambling cows and free spirited as the mares with their foals, he was content to be away from the cursing tempers and rowdy bustle of the wagons. Walking calmly among his charges, he stroked necks and patted rumps encouraging the herd to move forward. An aura of calmness permeated the woods. Birds sang and squirrels stood on their haunches watching them pass. He knew it would take two days to reach Danville, the jumping off place between the familiarity of the Indiana Territory and the wilderness known only as “the west.”
Danville was typical of a small town that had sprung from a few fur trading shacks and teepees to a crossroads with a general store, saloon, and stables.
Jim Henry, fetching prairie grass to the animals, heard his father speak to his brother euphorically as if he had found a great mother lode. “Moses won’t like it, but I think we ought to hitch up with those wagons down there. Clerk in the store says they’re going to Iowa. With their numbers, we’ll be safer.”
“Pa, you can’t be serious," Dozey protested. "Those wagons are Quakers. You don’t expect us to mix with war dodgers.”
“And why not? Cowards in war, maybe, but Indians don’t bother them. Don’t have to mix, just follow.”
“What makes you think they’ll want us behind them? You talked to any of them? They ain’t friendly to outsiders, you know.”
“Hell. Ain’t asking. It’s a free land.”
“Moses’ll think we’ve lost our minds. I agree.” He saw the ruddy face of his father turn the color of gray stone and knew the futility of arguing when his father’s mind was made up.
Subdued, Dozey asked, “Who’s telling Moses?”
Jim Henry threw down his armful of grass and stared at a group of wagons gathered at the bottom of the hill. He counted twenty which had formed a circular barrier around a mix of cows, oxen, riding horses, and hogs. He didn’t know what to make of the “Quakers” as Dozey called them.
Each wagon seemed to have its place. No one was idle. Tended by women and girls donned in gray dresses, white aprons and prayer caps, their fires sent billows of smoke aloft. Older girls stirred giant kettles hanging on iron crossbars across the flames. Girls his age carried babies in their arms, while mothers rushed back and forth between wagons and fires. Bearded men and boys no older than he, looked alike: tall black hats, collarless shirts, suspenders, and black trousers tucked into high, laced boots. Stern men inspected the wagon wheels and the feet of their oxen while barking orders to boys who scurried to find firewood and prairie hay. None argued nor appeared to carry fire arms. Quietly amused, Jim Henry found himself reminded of the ants he’d watched in the barn at home.
At dawn, the Quaker contingent organized their wagons, straightened the staging area back to nature's orderliness, and pulled methodically onto a trail heading opposite the rising sun. The Windriffs and Hunts, likewise, readied themselves to move forward. Dozey waited until the Quaker wagons advanced a hundred yards and then spread his arm wide motioning the remaining three wagons to fall in behind.
Crossing Illinois land of the famed Lewis and Clarke’s expedition, they found the country wild and thinly settled with Indians. Deer abounded plentifully as did quail, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, and wolves.
There was very little improvement on the few scattered farms: log cabins with no stable or any out buildings and only three or four acres of cleared land. It was in an untouched state, much like the Indiana Territory had been when his father and grandfather led settlers a generation ago to the edge of the frontier. It crossed Jim Henry's mind that each new generation seemed compelled to repeat their forefathers.
An advantage Jim Henry's father hadn’t mentioned was that following a larger train meant the Quakers were the ones who cleared the trail of fallen trees and brush, as well as determined which of the frequent sloughs near the creeks to cross and which to skirt around.
Sometimes the sight of cattails warned them of sloughs ahead, but more frequently than they wished, they mired in gumbo and were forced to take axes and chop sticky swamp clay from the wheels before proceeding. Very little sod had been turned on the land they crossed.
Ostracized by his brothers who didn’t think he was tough enough to wrangle stray cattle, Jim Henry walked ahead reporting back to Dozey whenever Quaker wagons did something different. On the second day of his new duties, he noticed the same Quaker boy lingered behind their livestock to make sure no strays straggled behind.
When the Quaker wagons stopped to survey a particular slough, which to Jim Henry appeared the size of a small lake, the Quaker boy sat on a downed, crosswise tree, whittling a stick to a point. Jim Henry saw the boy was not disturbed by his presence and took it upon himself to call, “Halloo.”
The Quaker boy silently tipped his hat in acknowledgement, but didn’t move away. A smaller boy with similarities that marked him a member of the same family, joined the boy on the log and pointed to Jim Henry.
Near enough to be heard, Jim Henry called, “What’s ahead?”
“Slough. A big one,” answered the older boy warily glancing at his visitor. He lowered his head and continued whittling, the chips swirling like fluttering leaves to the ground.
The younger boy shouted, “Who’re thee? Why ye following us?”
"Name's Jim Henry Hunt. Going the same place you are.”
Suspicious of the circumspect answer, the older boy asked, “and where be that?”
“Where in Iowa?”
Jim Henry shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know. Where in Iowa are you headed?”
The boy put down his knife. “Don’t know.” He picked up his freshly pointed stick and laughed. “Cephas Ellis here. And that snoop is my brother Hiram.”
“Mind if I sit?”
Cephas shifted to make room. “It’s God’s log. Ain’t mine to say.”
Jim Henry asked, “Who are those people you’re traveling with?”
“Mostly Friends from Farmers Greenfield meetinghouse up north,” Cephas answered. “Ma has a wagon and we’re with Uncle Isaac.”
“Where’s your Pa?”
“Ain’t got one.”
“Died three years ago. Ma’s new husband don’t want us and we don’t want him.”
An awkward silence ensued with Cephas clamming up, and Jim Henry sorry he’d asked.
Suddenly, Cephas’s face brightened. “Do thee go rattlesnake hunting?”
“Never have. Do you?”
“Yea, sloughs are full of dens. Counted thirty rattlers in the last one. Went around them, but can’t this time. Swamp’s bigger, but Uncle says we have to go through.”
Before Jim Henry could ask more questions about snakes, gunshots erupted from the Quaker wagons.
“Over here,” someone called.
Twenty minutes passed riveted with a constant barrage of yells and gunfire.
Stunned, Jim Henry asked, “Why are they shooting? Indians?”
“No, not Indians,” Cephas’s voice was condescending as if the answer was evident as a bump on the nose. “Like I told thee. Rattlesnakes. Can’t move forward until we get them all.” He turned nonchalantly to his brother, “Come on Hiram, gotta go. Uncle will want us to pick them up.”
“Wait,” Jim Henry called. Only cows heard him. Cephas and his brother had disappeared into the herd.
Jim Henry's father gave a scurrilous eye to Moses. “Don’t you know anything? Indians don’t attack at night.”
“Then they’re hiding in the trees. Wait til morning.”
The trees looked ominous and Moses swore he saw Quaker shadows scouting the perimeter of their wagons. A cougar screamed, wolves howled. Children cried. Heavy waifs of smoke from the night fires of Quaker wagons streamed back to their wagons. Assisted by dark clouds hiding the moon, the night was fearsome and alive.
Jim Henry sensed phantom Indians were still lodged in Moses’ stubborn head in spite of evidence to the contrary. His cousin insisted, “You can believe what you want, but no one’s sleeping over there tonight. I tell you, we’re sitting ducks for an attack.”
His father’s confidence that Moses was blowing hot air wavered. “Dozey, go over and talk to their wagon captain. Tell him we’ll help fight when the Indians attack tomorrow.”
“Not me. They haven’t said aye, yes or no to us. You ain’t using common sense. They ain’t armed for Indians. Against Penn’s religion. They got to eat. Got to hunt.”
“Wrong. You heard the shots,” Moses argued. “They’re armed for an ambush.”
Despite his usual reticence to enter into an argument, Jim Henry couldn’t remain quiet any longer. Disgusted with the talk of Indians, he said with as much distain he could muster, “I already told you they were shooting rattlesnakes.”
Both camps quieted as the moon reemerged from the dissipating clouds and moved to its early morning position in the star-studded sky. A few scant hours later, the morning drill of fires, breakfast, and hitching completed, the Quakers moved out, slowly approaching the slough one wagon at a time. At the far side of the swamp, men on horses with ropes tied to the wagons and anchored around the trees, pulled to keep the heavy wagons from bottoming out and filling with backwater.
Mounting horses, Moses and Dozey crossed the swamp and prepared to do the same when it came time for the Hunt and Windriff wagons to cross.
While waiting, Cephas and Jim Henry found each other near a towering pile of mutilated snakes, the number being the point of mutual curiosity.
“How many do you think were shot?” Jim Henry asked, his admiration for his new friend growing.
“Don’t know. Counted easily 365 when I picked them up. Thee count them, if thee wish.”
With a perceptible intake of breath, he rushed to tell his mother. The snake dens had been in their path, no more than three hundred feet from the edge of their campsite.
To say the remainder of the trip to Iowa was uneventful would ignore the daily grind of keeping the wagons moving, grazing cattle, hunting small game, gathering brush and dried wood for stoking up fires at night, and settling arguments. Women busied themselves preparing food and keeping small children entertained. Few had time to knit or sew. Jim Henry's mother bantered that she wouldn't know what to do if there weren't at least one scrape, cough, or fever a day.
After a long discussion, with Moses claiming to differ, Jim Henry's father announced that tomorrow they would cross the Mississippi River into Iowa Territory. This knowledge came after Jim Henry told his father Cephas' uncle had said so.
"My map says different," Moses argued. "We have at least another day before we get to the low banks of the Mississippi."
"Do what you want, but the Hunts are crossing with the Quakers," his father countered. "Quakers know what they're doing. They don't lie."
Faced with a difficult forging, the two groups joined in a mutual effort to assist all the wagons across the perilous river. Working hand in hand, the differences between Jim Henry's father and Isaac Ellis became unimportant. He soon addressed his counterpart, Brother Isaac. Anyone looking for Jim Henry found him with Cephas. The boys were inseparable.
After two days of the most strenuous labor any had endured, the successful wagons gathered on the west side of the Mississippi, each man collapsing from exhaustion. None wanted to ever cross the river again.
Cephas took up whittling with Jim Henry sitting with him watching the wagons reassemble. Cephas was jubilant. "We're in Iowa."
"Can't tell by me. Ain't seeing no difference. Land, trees, and sky look the same."
"Guess I won't see you after tomorrow," Cephas said quietly, pretending not to notice the catch in his voice.
Engulfed with the sad reality of their journey together ended, Jim Henry solemnly agreed. "Probably not ever. At Skunk Creek, you're going east, we're going west."
Clarke County, Iowa. 1844.
A number of years later, Jim Henry and Moses settled old scores amicably and married Kilmore sisters, Eva and Zina. He and Eva struck out on their own settling on Otter Creek; by design, a sizeable distance from his father’s home place. Unlike his brothers, who lived near his father, he fended for himself—built a cabin and open-sided barn, raised livestock, and cleared a small portion of his forty acres.
Over the summer, by trading his labor with neighbors, he accumulated two milk cows and three hogs, but no oxen. A dower of three steers had been given to them by the Kilmore’s when he and Eva married. By his own brute force pulling a single plow blade, he'd managed to clear a two-acre corn patch and a small garden to satisfy Eva. His sod crop of corn had been meager, but he and Eva cut prairie grass with scythes for winter feeding and stacked it in tall mounds next to the open side of the barn.
When an unusually warm fall threatened to turn into a nasty winter, they agreed to sacrifice one shoat to provide meat until the snow banks melted and Jim Henry could hunt in earnest for wild turkeys, quail, and small game.
Having lived in Iowa, first on his father’s home place and now on his own, he thought he was accustomed to harsh winters. But this winter was a bear, worse than any previous one in memory with non-relenting blizzards, frigid weather, and high, ice-crusted snow banks. Water froze in a matter of minutes both outside and inside the cabin.
From the first day of December, their farm was snowed in leaving Jim Henry and Eva evenings for quiet contemplation, sharing of memories, and marveling the quick way night comes in the winter. Life took over and time trapped inside their cabin dragged on in a monotonous pattern. After supper, Jim Henry sat before the fire, smoked his pipe, and watched Eva mend shirts and socks.
So much had happened since they first came to Iowa. He remembered the Quaker wagons, Cephas Ellis and the snakes, and the emptiness for their lost friendship when the Quakers turned east to Jefferson County while they continued west to Clarke County. For the short time they'd known each other, they found much in common—a fondness for watching nature, a certain calmness within themselves, and a total dislike for arguments.
Jim Henry puffed short spurts of smoke from his pipe, his eyes reflecting a glaze back in time filled with memories. During the last three weeks of their trek to lower Iowa, he and Cephas had been soul mates although they often said nothing. Neither minded silence.
In quiet times when he seemed distant and lost in thought, he'd told Eva since striking out on his own, he'd felt the aloneness of his childhood when he and Chester had watched ants in the barn. He missed having a close friend.
“Eva, you didn’t know him, but I hope our paths cross with Cephas and his brother some day. They were Quakers, but we were great friends.”
Jim Henry recovered his aplomb. “At least we don’t worry about our Windriff cousins.” He paused picturing a certain memory, then chuckled. "After Moses argued it was his turn to take the lead, he drove his wagon into the slough without unloading one speck of the heavy gear.”
“Slough? What are you talking about?”
“The one with the rattlesnakes. You remember,” he gently remonstrated, “told you a million times about them.”
Catching up with Jim Henry's story which indeed she’d heard many times, she nodded at her grinning husband. “Why are you amused?”
“Providence, Eva. Providence. Their wagon tipped and took on smelly brackish water and would have sunk in the mire had not the Quakers come to their rescue with horses and ropes." Sobering at the thought of the disaster that could have happened, he sucked on his pipe pondering his thoughts but withholding his smile. "In spite of their good will, Moses huffed off and refused to thank them or admit he’d needed their help.”
“What happened to the Windriffs?”
“Wasn’t long before the Windriff women complained about the harshness of the land. They were scared."
Eva lifted her brow indicating her question hadn't been answered.
"Oh, sorry. Moses was never far from his rifle. He convinced them Indians would attack at any time."
"It was impossible for him to believe otherwise." Jim Henry continued, "I remember thinking I would explode if I heard one more time Moses complaining, "Now if we were in Indiana . . .."
Although he’d been sorry for the hard feelings, Jim Henry didn’t blame his father this time when his temper got the best of him. He remembered clearly his demand when they readied their wagons to cross the Mississippi, “If you don’t want to come with us to Iowa, go home.”
Jim Henry interrupted himself, lifted an ember and paused to relight his pipe. He inhaled through the stem. The ember showed no glow.
“Tell me more.” Eva prompted, biting off between her teeth a final thread from her darned sock. She replaced the needle in its cushion and set her sewing aside.
Jim Henry patiently repositioned the ember further into the bowl of his pipe and inhaled deeper with no better result. Returning to his thoughts, he responded, “They did.”
With his pipe stubbornly unlit, Jim Henry changed his mind about smoking and emptied the bowl of tobacco ash in the fireplace. Undressing to his long johns, he pulled a buffalo robe over him making room for Eva to join him. “I’m freezing. Too cold for stories tonight.”
From his memories of long ago, what he realized he hadn't forgotten were the struggles that ensued between his father and him--he for recognition of his worthiness, his father for control. Now as an adult, buried deep in nature's frozen earth, he knew that although their differences would always keep them apart, he was ready to forgive and forget. He reached his arm around Eva and whispered, "Ain't nothing going to stop us. We'll make it."
Each morning Jim Henry fought through new snow to chip ice in the troughs and pitch prairie hay for his stock. Every night he shoveled corn, only a scoop or two, into the trough and put out hay. His bin of shucked corn was almost empty. If storms continued, he wondered what he would do when he had no more. His father’s dire warning came back like a cloudburst of rain: Without corn, humans and stock starve. He felt helpless. Worse, nature made it impossible to gather seed pods and acorns buried under the snow for hog mash.
One particularly icy night, he found one of his steers the Kilmore’s had given him missing. The gate was ajar and tracks led from the barn to the snow-covered stubble cornfield. Grabbing an axe and rope, Jim Henry followed the tracks to the edge of the field, and beyond the three fence posts still visible above the wind-blown drifts, he saw a young buffalo calf snarled neck deep and thrashing with no hope of freeing himself. A few feet away, his wayward steer struggled to stay atop the drift. With the glare of snow and ice shimmering from the backs of the animals, he almost missed seeing them. Plaintive calls from the frozen animals caught his attention.
Taking his axe, Jim Henry cut a path through the drift and lassoed one end of the rope to the buffalo calf and the other end to his steer. He placed himself in the middle position of the rope, pulled forward, and called to his steer, “Joey, come on, boy.”
Recognizing the calm voice that brought him to the barn each night, Joey edged forward tromping deep footprints in the snow.
“Come on, Joey,” he begged softly. “Just a little more. You can bring your friend.”
Joey took two steps and halted when the bison pulled back with a rebellious cry that sounded as if a volcano had traveled from his rump, through his stomach, to his throat. Jim Henry, holding his temper in check, continued to coax the steer, pulling gently on the rope. Finally, Joey proceeded slowly following Jim Henry through the cut in the bank of snow. The bison followed, first hesitantly, then lock step with Joey.
Back in the barn, Jim Henry put his steer in the same stall with the other two steers and reached to move the bison into the newly vacated space. The bison balked, jerked his head, and plunged his body forward missing by inches his unwanted tormenter. Temporarily frozen in shock, Jim Henry's legs numbed, his shoulders shook in fear. Almost feeling the gore, he wiped his brow. His heart's palpitations told him, "Close call. Should've known better."
The berserk bison bellowed and stomped his feet, head down, the hair on his spine rigidly barbed, his back arched to repeat his charge.
Joey sounded an answering call.
The bison paused, deterred for only a moment, before butting his head forward. Sensing immediate danger of a second nasty gore, Jim Henry jumped quickly to the top of the stall. The bison hit the side with such force, Jim Henry toppled into the next stall.
Joey called, this time unmistakably yearning for his new friend. Once again the bison stopped.
“Okay, Joey,” Jim Henry said picking himself up and opening the stall gate with his foot. “Who’s your friend? Come on, boy, guess there’s room for the two of you.”
“What are you talking about?” Eva scolded, a lantern in hand. “Was worried what took you so long. I was on my way to find you.”
“That steer you insisted naming Joey was missing and when I found him, he was tangled up with a bison calf in a snow drift. The steer wouldn’t come without the bison, and when I got them to the barn, the bison wouldn’t calm down until I put Joey with him. Did you ever hear anything so strange?”
“A bison in a stall? Aren’t they too wild for that?”
“Eva, he’s as big as the steer, but only a calf. Not sure how he got into our field. With five foot drifts, I guess he could’ve walked right over the fence.”
Eva nodded. “Makes sense with snow covering their forage, buffalo would drift closer to us. But a cow wouldn’t leave her calf. No mother would. You thinking the calf was lost or worse, his mother killed?”
Jim Henry lowered his head, his eyes wincing at the thought, and nodded sadly. “Wolves howl both day and night. Winter’s a killer. Everything wild is hungry.”
The following day, Jim Henry paced the floor, looking out the window every hour hoping the blizzard had eased. "If it isn't new snow, it's the damn wind blowing drifts over where I shoveled yesterday." He had tried to worry quietly to not upset Eva, but he had seen the bottom of the corn bin and counted the days until it would be empty. He continued to pace.
"Can't you find something to do besides worry? I know it seems futile to try to keep a path open to the barn." She touched his shoulder, "Think of spring, by March, this’ll be over.”
“That’s only part of the point. Two acres won’t be enough. Have to find some way to plow more prairie.” He rubbed his back and groaned. “I can't do it myself without oxen.”
“Talk to the Bakkers, maybe Jake will loan you his oxen for a week.”
“Ain’t likely. Has his own plowing to do. They got the same snow we did."
Jim Henry bundled up, buttoning his heavy coat and pulling down the flaps of his cap to cover his ears. He squeezed his large hands into gloves, the tips worn through exposing his fingers to the bitter cold. "Time to shovel again. Cows to milk.”
Eva stood by the door ready to push it shut once Jim Henry braved the gusty wind to leave. “Don’t worry, you’ll think of something. You always do.”
Entering the barn, he found the buffalo calf was up to old tricks. He bellowed, charged the gate, and reared back with his hind legs daring Jim Henry to come closer. It was obvious, only the presence of Joey kept him from tearing the stall apart. “You ungrateful son-of-a-gun, I ought to put you out in the cold and see what you think then.”
Joey called. The buffalo calf stopped kicking but defiantly shook his head back and forth. Jim Henry stepped out of the way and pondered his new challenge, studying the calf from all directions. With edgy nervousness, he began to observe what was in the calf's mind and what tormented his soul. The buffalo was a hell of a lot bigger than the ants in his father’s barn, but since it was too early to do anything in the fields, he decided to tame the buffalo to behave in the stall and not go into a frenzy when he came each morning.
Forced to carry on a conversation with himself, he missed Chester. First of all, the buffalo needed a name.
Bill, came to mind. Short and sweet. A liberated buffalo. Damn shitter doesn’t warrant a family name and certainly no relative, even Moses, would want to be associated with such a beast.
He continued musing his options, focusing on regaining his patience with animals. “Okay, Bill it is. Joey and Bill.” He reached over and rubbed Joey’s flank. “That all right with you, Joey?”
He dipped into the bin and pulled out an ear of corn, shelling off a few kernels. Joey nuzzled the palm of his hand for the corn. “See, Bill, Joey’s a gentleman.”
He shelled a few more kernels and took a step towards Bill. The buffalo shook violently and butted against the side of the stall, his hind legs splayed like a bronco.
“Whoa! No call for that.” Jim Henry backed away, jumping quickly to the top of the stall. "More time you need, is it?"
“Okay, Bill, don’t have enough corn for you anyway. Have it your way.” He was about to stalk away when he looked into the buffalo’s terrified eyes. “Why, Bill, you ain’t mean, you’re scared.”
Bill edged over to Joey and rubbed his nose between Joey’s hind legs. Jim Henry laughed, “He ain’t got nothing for you. Shoulda known. You’re a baby who wants his mama.”
He continued to sit a safe distance from Bill. After ten minutes, when Bill seemed calmer, he inched over closer humming a tune that had no words. With visible tremors, Bill took notice, snorted, but didn’t move. Another ten minutes, inches closer, Jim Henry kept up his humming and soothing banter. “Atta boy. Ain’t no one’s gonna hurt you.” When he was within reach, he leaned over to touch the buffalo on his neck. Manifesting his terror, Bill jerked, arching his back.
“Okay, okay. Ain’t ready yet. Enough for today.”
After repeating the first day for two more days, Bill let Jim Henry touch his neck as long as he didn’t lean too close from his sitting position on the stall. On the fourth day, Jim Henry slid to the floor and stood motionless, purposely not touching the buffalo. He watched Bill’s every muscle in order to leap out of the way should Bill decide to give a deadly kick with his hind legs. Suspicious and wary, Bill watched, but chose not to butt or kick.
“Good boy, tomorrow we’ll try hay.”
Anxious to see what Bill would do when offered hay, Jim Henry was disappointed. Bill turned his head ignoring him and the hay. Quietly watching Bill twitch, he feared the buffalo's wild instincts would erupt at any moment. With muscles rippling over his flanks, Bill snorted, his tail switching back and forth like a cat eying a mouse.
Jim Henry turned his attention to Joey who occupied himself eating hay. Moments later, Bill edged over, lowered his head and took a first bite of Joey’s hay. They made grunting noises together. Jim Henry thought the two of them were conspiring at his expense.
Not willing to give up the challenge he'd set for himself, he took a few kernels of corn and first let Joey nuzzle his hand. Next he took a few more kernels and tempted Bill. The buffalo didn't respond. Jim Henry raised the stakes—he put three kernels of corn on the top lip of the trough within reach of Bill and stood off to the side. Bill watched but did nothing.
Disgusted with his stubborn buffalo, Jim Henry bent to pitch more hay to Joey. After tossing the hay, he glanced to the trough. The three kernels were missing. Joey faced the opposite direction proving himself innocent. Upon looking squarely at Bill, Jim Henry saw the buffalo’s jaw moving up and down, unmistakably chewing the kernels.
“You sneak. You ornery sneak.”
When Jim Henry gently slapped his approval on Bill's rear flank, the subdued Bill bent his head as if expecting more corn on the trough. Instead, Jim Henry pitched him hay and left the steer and the buffalo standing side by side eating amicably as if a team of horses.
On the way out, he stumbled over a useless yoke he’d bartered from Jake Bakker, picked it up, slung it on a peg out of the way, and hurried to the cabin to tell Eva that Bill had eaten corn and hay in the stall.
Jim Henry spent the remainder of February going to the barn, giving both Joey and Bill meager portions of corn and forks of hay. He made note of Bill's daily progress, and pondered what else he could do to tame his buffalo. He walked between them, rubbed their necks, and slapped their flanks in a friendly manner when he needed them to move.
The rib bones on his scraggly animals showed lack of feed, but so far he’d managed to keep them alive. The last day of February brought the long awaited break: snow melted, weather cleared, and underneath, green shoots sprouted on the awakening prairie. Soon his stock could be let out to pasture.
“When you putting them out?” Eva asked. “Scratched the ground near the henhouse. Below, it's still frozen. Need a few more days of sunshine. Do you suppose Bill will run off once he’s free of the barn?”
“Been worrying me. Tomorrow will tell. He’s wild, could do most anything. Hope he doesn't leave. I’d miss him.”
Eve commiserated. “After the hours you’ve spent with him, I’d think indeed you’d miss him.”
At dawn, Jim Henry went to the barn not knowing whether this would be the last time he’d find Bill and Joey waiting. He was dismayed. He'd let himself become emotional over the fate of the bison. Looking beyond the pasture to the wide prairie he envisioned herds of buffalo waiting to bring one of their own back into their fold. His heart wasn’t in it, but he finished milking and slowly opened the gate for the cows to parade single file into the pasture. The two steers followed with Joey and Bill the last to leave. Joey broke into a run, leaving a confused Bill undecided and lingering like a child waiting permission from his mother. Jim Henry could tell Bill had developed a hankering for hand-fed hay and corn and was bewildered to be on his own.
On one hand he wanted to watch to see what Bill did, but on the other, he didn’t want to see Bill run away. Miserable, he turned his back to the pasture and forced himself to grab his shovel. “Got stalls to muck.”
After Jim Henry finished, he headed to the house for his usual coffee, hot biscuits, and elderberry jam. Eva stood at the kitchen door pointing to the pasture. Spread throughout the small field were his cows and steers, and in the middle Bill grazed showing every semblance of being at home.
Eva laughed. “Seems like Bill adopted us.” She picked up a second pail of potatoes she’d saved in the cave for planting and followed Jim Henry into the kitchen. Spread across the table were cut potato pieces with at least one eye showing. A crock of soaking peas and a dirt-filled wood box of sprouted cabbage plants covered the chairs leaving Jim Henry no place to sit.
Leaning against the wall, he knew what Eva was about to say, and before she had a chance to ask, he said, “I’ll plow your garden first.” Pains shot through his back just thinking about it. He muttered under his breath, “Damn, we need oxen so bad I can taste it.” He reached for the rasp from the shelf above the stove and forced a smile. “Garden’s right after I sharpen the blade.”
Contrary to the slow moving days when they were snowed in, this day rushed by like spring run-off in the creek. It was dusk when he finally called the cattle back to the barn. He shoveled the last of the corn into the trough. As if framed in a mirror, Joey and Bill stood side by side under the yoke hanging on the wall. Unplanned, Jim Henry's mind didn’t know what his hands were doing—he lifted the yoke down from its peg and placed it over the necks of the steer and the buffalo. Neither animal moved while he squirmed to the front and firmly latched the yoke. He picked up the lead traces and yelled, “Hie.”
To his amazement, Joey and Bill moved in tandem from the stall to the opened gate leading past the haystack to the pasture. With Jim Henry trailing behind holding the long traces, cracking the straps right and left, the team responded and circled the haystack before being led back to their stall.
“I’ll be damned,” was all he could say.
For those who wonder whatever happened to Bill, it is a tragic story. Once introduced to corn, the tamed wild beast became hopelessly addicted, much like an old, red-eyed sot dependent on his bottle of barley mash. He couldn't help himself. After a day of plowing, he eagerly ate his corn and pushed Joey out of the way for his. Corn stored in the back of a wagon wasn't safe—he shook the wagon and pushed at the ears until enough fell to the ground. Jim Henry knew even if his buffalo died, if he were to put out corn, it would be gone. Bill's guiding angel would find a way.
Bill ate more than the three steers. Jim Henry complained to Eva, "Calf's a glutton and will eat us all the way to the poor house."
After his team mastered the skill of plowing forward in a straight row, Jim Henry felt more than compensated for Bill's hungry appetite. He enjoyed the stares of passer-bys and told Bill's story over and over to his kin and anyone else who'd listen.
Two years later a new neighbor settled in. Then trouble started.
Bill discovered the neighbor's corn field next to Jim Henry's pasture. It didn't take long for him to figure out how to butt against the fence and knock through an opening. Like all addictions, he sought more and more corn until the neighbor no longer remained quiet. The neighbor, suffering from large amounts of stolen corn, was livid. The unstoppable Bill had to be stopped.
The neighbor loaded his rifle and stomped over to Jim Henry to carry out his intended business. Jim Henry pleaded for Bill’s life and promised he’d fix the fence and hobble Bill in the barn. He made restitution for the damaged corn and assured his neighbor the buffalo would no longer be at liberty to wander when and where he pleased.
A week later nearing dusk, the neighbor spotted a large dark shadow pass through his fence stomping down stalks and taking ear after ear of corn. A hobble hung loose from his left hind leg, the right leg free. Raw nails protruded from torn fence rails. There was no chance the intruder was a bear, raccoon, feral hog, or other animal. He shot one warning bullet in the air and yelled. The tamed dark figure didn’t look up from his feast. The furious neighbor, finding no mitigating circumstances to forestall action, raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired.
The liberty bell around Bill’s neck rang for the last time. The zing of the rifle bullet ended his life.
Prominently affixed over the top of the barn door hangs a worn leather collar with a bell that rings in the wind in memory of a unique beast of burden. Cut in wood nailed below the collar is a marker, “BILL.”