A Short Story
Gail Anderson
Copyright © 1999, All Rights Reserved

The Indians called it the Land of the Crying Waters. On an ever blowing, drought prone landscape east of the Shining Mountains, near a high bluff on the plains, the Children of the Earth gathered for a special feast in honor of their Mother and the bountiful gifts she provided them. From a distance, the bluff looked black as Earth's richest soil. Approaching closer, the blackness gave way to dark brown, living highlights of texture, and slowly the silhouettes of thousands of bison rose from the grasses. Some thirty warriors waited below the bluff, ten above it, and the wise men listened for the whispers of Mother Earth. "Not yet," she would tell them, and they would wait. Sometimes hours would pass, sometimes moments, but her soft voice always rose on the wind. "Now, my children. Now is the time," she would say, and the wise men signaled, and the ten warriors whooped and waved their arms and cried out to the great plain of beasts.

Startled and confused, the huge animals raised their heads and then bolted. Nearly all of them fled from the screaming hunters. Only a few ran toward the cliff, enough to shake the ground with their thundering hooves. Heavy clouds of dust boiled from the land, and finally Earth dropped from beneath the herd. Silence reigned as the great animals fell a hundred fifty feet to the valley floor, and then the warriors in the valley heard thuds and bones breaking and piercing cries. The warriors ran to mercifully kill the beasts that survived the fall. They thanked the bison for giving their bodies to sustain and nourish the people, thanked Mother Earth for her beneficence, and then signaled the rest of the tribe to harvest and feast on the success of the hunt.

The Indians left with hides and winter meat, and Mother Earth called to the Children of the Land and the Children of the Sky. "It is time, my children," she whispered on the wind. And the buzzards and the wolves and the coyotes and the insects joined in the sacred feast. And the spirits of the dead buffalo blessed each as they came, and each as they left, fat and pregnant from the richness of Earth. From death came new lives until only the sun-bleached bones remained. The little stream at the bottom of the bluff wept blood-red tears of joy and sadness. The Indians called it the Land of the Crying Waters.

The early frontiersmen heard the water in the stream chugging and gurgling through the piled bones and skulls at the bottom of the bluff. They changed the name to the Land of the Chugging Water. "Chugging," they said, must have been what the Indians meant.

And when the white settlers who followed them built a small settlement on the land, the name changed again, and the town of Chugwater, Wyoming, was hardly a speck on the highway map. A branch of the great Eisenhower Interstate Highway System passed through the edge of town, and at the highway exit a small hotel went up, sporting a bright red neon sign which read "The Buffalo Lodge." Inside the lobby, a tall rock fireplace warmed and welcomed visitors weary from highway travel, and the swimming pool offered guests and Chugwater's children a place to laugh and frolic in the warm summer sun. The restaurant gave townspeople their first opportunity to eat out on Friday nights, and for the first time, young students had a place to dine prior to the high school prom.

In the fall of its first year, the lodge hung a magnificent mounted buffalo head in the restaurant. The western motif of the lodge proudly displayed the wildness and wonder of frontier history. But as the winter winds picked up across the Wyoming prairies, they carried the very spirits of the dead buffalo from the bluff.

At first, diners in the restaurant complained that the hanging buffalo head was growling at them while they ate. Waitresses passed the complaints on to the manager, who, having never heard the buffalo sounds, responded only with raised eyebrows. The owner of the lodge was informed, but when he came to investigate, the buffalo was quiet.

Winter's fury was in full force by December. Gusty winds raced over the wide, flat prairies, and a new waitress was working when the wind slowly shifted to the northwest. It was two o'clock in the afternoon and the restaurant was empty. The hanging buffalo head stared at her with big, dark eyes. At first she thought she heard the wind outside, but soon she realized the low howling came from the buffalo. Slowly, it grew louder. The bison's eyes took on a frantic, wild look.

"Holy Mother of God," she whispered. Cautiously, she backed out of the restaurant, then bolted for the front desk. "It's true!" she screamed, so frightened she could hardly breathe. "The place is haunted! The buffalo is growling!"

And that was the last day she worked for The Buffalo Lodge. She wouldn't come back, she said, for all the money in Chugwater.

The buffalo growled and howled and cried intermittently. Time after time the owner was informed. Time after time he drove the forty-five miles from his home in Cheyenne to investigate. Each time he arrived, the buffalo fell silent. And then, on a cold, windy night in January, too tired to drive home, he decided to stay at the lodge.

He was a skeptical man, a doctor of physics who readily dismissed the mere mention of supernatural things. Though patient through all the ghost stories concerning the mounted buffalo, he rose to action only when the reported growling had cost him a staff member. This night he sat in the restaurant, eyeing the buffalo. Its brown glass eyes and black leathery nose mimicked the energies of life. You scare away any more of my staff or customers and I'll throw you in the dump myself. He took a sip of coffee. The dead buffalo stared back at him. "The highway patrol just called," said the hotel manager as she walked to his table. "They're expecting blizzard conditions on the highway tonight."

He liked the young manager. Jewels Ramirez was full of energy and infectious enthusiasm. She captivated the guests with her bright disposition, and her natural inclination toward hospitality was a boon to his business. To her, the new lodge was like a young rose just beginning to bloom. During the grand opening, she even brought her own Native American artwork to the lodge, and then charmed the guests with interpretations and Indian stories she had heard from her grandfather. Presently, she was staring at the physicist with a helplessness in her eyes.

"What?" he prompted.

She shifted slightly. "If there's a highway closure tonight because of the storm, we'll be full. Maybe more than full. And you're using up one of our rooms."

He laughed. "You want to trade me for a paying customer!" He shook his head at the irony. Being the owner of a lodge didn't give him a guaranteed room. "Okay, go ahead. If I have to, I'll roll out a sleeping bag in the lobby."

He saw her face flush with satisfaction. That was when they heard a low growl from the buffalo head. They both looked up.

"Oh, no!" said Jewels. "We could have more than a hundred people tonight! We can't have the buffalo growling at them!" She flipped her hair back. "It's his ancestors, you know. From the bluff. Where the Indians ran the bison off the cliff every year. Like, he's crying and growling because his ancestors have been forgotten. We have to remember them if he is ever to rest peacefully." She knit her brows together in thought. "I think if we write his story and hang it on the wall, he'll stay quiet, for the night at least."

The physicist's first inclination was to scoff at her, but presently her hypothesis was as good as any other. "You do that," he managed to say before his attention shifted entirely to the buffalo sounds. Visions of bison plunging to their death knocked futilely on the door of his disciplined mind. Bushes outside the window struggled against the wind. Curious overtones gave perception to whooping Indians and injured beasts. He stood from the table and walked slowly around the restaurant to scrutinize the odd sound, and noticed a pattern. His attention was drawn to the ceiling.

"I'm going to check on something," he said as he walked to the lobby.

Jewels followed him, but when he headed for the front door, she opted to stay inside where it was warm.

He walked to the equipment shed behind the covered pool and carried a big ladder to the west wall of the building. In the log siding he found a small gap that hadn't been caulked. Knowing the construction behind the siding, he reasoned that the wind could be blowing into the gap and whistling through the building wrap. If the wind was strong enough, and if it came from the right direction, the wrap would vibrate like a trumpet player's lips against a mouthpiece. The sound, he thought, had been coming from the ceiling above the buffalo head. He smiled at the way the world works -- with the idea that the wind gave voice to the buffalo head; and the buffalo head gave meaning to the sound of the wind. He walked to the shed to get caulking.

A half hour later the gap had been filled, and the ladder put away. He walked into the hotel lobby and stopped just inside the door, shivering from the lingering effect of the wind. From behind the front desk, Jewels greeted him with wide, curious eyes. "Did you find anything?" she asked, her brows raised, an expression of excitement glowing from her.

"Well," he said with all the truth he could muster, "The buffalo cries when the wind comes straight in from the bluff."

Just what she thought from the very beginning: the spirits of the buffalo coming straight from the bluff. And so Jewels wrote the story about the Land of the Crying Waters and posted it proudly beneath the buffalo head. She stepped back, momentarily admiring the great beast, then nodded and walked away happily. She returned to her desk, picked up a pen, and started her emergency list. Hot chocolate. Firewood. Extra blankets.

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