Second Part: Buffalo Days
“Whilst skinning the damned old stinkers, our lives they had no show,
For Indians waited to pick us off on the range of the buffalo.”
-from THE BUFFALO SKINNERS
Skinning Buffalo was no easy task. The abominable nature of my work
accounted for my feelings of dissatisfaction that first evening, when I sleepily did the figuring in my cramped ledger by the light of the flickering campfire. I had not felt so downright contemptible of work since the railroad.
Jack called the animals „big stinkers.‟ I found this unique to the lexicon of the skinner, for no shooter had to deal with their quarry at this base level. As a beast of the field, the bison gave off the same natural odor prevalent among all animals. But the stench that emitted from its carcass once the shaggy hide was peeled away was comparable to no other olfactory phenomenon I have ever experienced. It comes off the flesh in waves, and flushes the cheeks like a hot summer day, raising the bile and curling the lips. It envelops a man like a heavy blanket. The skinner wears stench and parasites like the uniform of his office.
The insects are as unavoidable as the blood and reek. They leap eagerly from the hide as you stoop to remove it, bouncing jauntily up your arms or burrowing deep into your clothing. The flies buzz in your ears and brush their wings against your lashes, and not even the trustiest bandanna will keep the fleas from seeking your nostrils. By the end of the day‟s work a skinner is a stinking, bloody mound of bug bites and flea colonies.
“Mind yer hands,” Fat Jack would warn me always. “If‟n ya get cut it‟ll hurt yer tally.”
That first day my tally was the last thing I thought of.
Fat Jack helped me skin the first three buffalo we came across. He would swiftly carve the profitable portions of meat (the tongue, hump, and hams) from the bones and
lay them out on the hide for Monday to pick up and load into the wagon. A greater amount was left on the skeleton for the buzzards.
Jack watched me do the next three, but after that it was sink or swim. Most of the time I floundered. I know for a fact that I was responsible for ruining at least seven or eight hides and mangling or splitting as many humps and tongues. Despite the filth, skinning was a skill that required a degree of finesse. A cut or torn hide was worth nothing, as was meat that looked as if it had been once through the grinder already.
Finally, in his meek way, Jack suggested I not try and butcher the animals. It meant double the work for him, but he did it without complaint.
So I set myself to concentrating on the perfection of my skinning technique.
The easiest way for me to skin one of the beasts was to enlist the aide of Othello. Monday used this method the few times he joined us in skinning, calling on one or two of his „archangels‟ for help. He warned me that it was a sketchy practice, and not very easy on the hides.
Monday began the same way Fat Jack had taught me. He cut the buffalo beneath the jaw (the first time I did this I inserted my knife too deep and pierced the jugular like a grapefruit, spraying myself in the face with warm blood), and traced a line around the jaw and down the belly all the way to the tail. Next he ripped the tough hide from the carcass down the inside of each of the four legs, unwrapping the buffalo like a box at Christmas.
The skin about the back of the neck and the ears (leaving the wooly scalp and bearded face attached) was sliced by a sickle shaped knife and the hide gradually loosened from the carcass.
Then came the final step, where Monday‟s and Fat Jack‟s methods diverged. On the first three buffalos Jack and I skinned successfully, the big Missourian taught me to use the weight of the big animal to tear its own skin off. Jack made it look easy, but when left to my own, it proved a daunting task.
Monday showed me how to attach ropes to the skin at this stage and by way of a horse, peel it cleanly off. He would hook the rope or chain to the rear axle of his wagon and the other end to the carcass, inducing the mules to peel the hide in increments.
Having no team of mules, nor the strength of the Missourian, I chose the middle ground with Othello.
The chocolate gelding proved to own a disposition ill-favored to buffalo skinning. Twice when I was sure I had the hide prepared just right, the awls ripped away, leaving ragged tears in the skin. Three times after that, Othello took it in his mischievous brain to bolt at my gentle encouragement, and tore or split the hide badly. At those times I would wind up chasing the horse with its whipping, dancing ropes taunting me all the way. Luckily for me he usually ran right to Jack or Monday, who were never out of sight.
We trailed the herd and set upon the buffalos left fallen in the wake like eager scavengers. The herd was often in sight, and the booming of the guns never left my ears.
They were magnificent looking creatures, but apparently not possessing of even the most basic instinct of self-preservation. I was amazed that they did not stampede at the sound of the guns. They were like some utopian society unfamiliar with the concept of death -at least, not with death as the white man dealt it. I had heard of buffalo breaking into a run at the sound of thunder, and the old bulls had fled at the sight of
Fuke‟s horse. If they had learned to equate the rumble of thunder and the tromp of horses with danger, why didn‟t they recognize the report of the big fifties as the same?
After too many had fallen, the remainder of the herd would trot off, only to stop nearby. Then the grisly process would start all over again. There was no sport in it. The buffalo did not run or cut suddenly to avoid the killing. They did not interpose themselves between some semblance of cover (usually because there was none), unless by accident.
War Bag knelt on a low hill and fired until he was a shadowy phantom in a fog of powder smoke. He did not need his horse. He hunted from afoot. Why were these men called runners? They did no running. To my eye, they just reclined easily on the hill, shooting almost at leisure while I toiled up to my elbows in filth. Meanwhile the buffalo fell like dim children, milling about and lowing, not having souls to grieve or the sense to run.
After I had skinned ten buffalo and was thoroughly bitter, Monday came around to collect the hides and the meat which Jack carved from the bone. He announced that he was going to go and set up camp and start staking the hides until Roam came to set up the smokehouse.
Roam did not visit us as promised, and I saw little of him as the herd moved out of sight. I did see him ride back to camp, but he did not return.
Night finally fell. When Monday came upon me struggling, he helped me with the last of the buffalo. He was kind enough to tell me I could mark them as my own and he would not contest it.
When we were finished, he told me he had been slow cooking a couple buffalo humps, and that we would have tongue as well, and muffins baked in his Dutch oven.
The hump was as tender and as succulent a meat as I have ever tasted. The tongue lived up to its much vaunted reputation, though having seen the dead buffalo up close and the things which congregated upon its palate, I was reluctant to try it.
An additional and unexpected treat came in a pile of boiled bones that were passed around and cracked for the dark marrow. We sucked or spread this on Monday‟s corn muffins as a salty butter. The flavor was like nothing I have tasted since.
War Bag, Fuke, and Roam sat in their own semicircle with the old man in the middle, and swapped stories about the day‟s shooting. I was resentful of them. Their job seemed easy beside all that I had endured that day.
The rest of us were too exhausted to speak. We filled our mouths and said nothing. Jack fed his cat scraps from his tin plate, and Whisper caterwauled after each bit.
“Fats, why don‟t you get rid of that damn cat?” Fuke hissed across the camp for
what seemed the umpteenth time.
Something in this tasked my patience. I felt like War Bag and Fuke were lording it over the rest of us, and their dislike for the cat and Jack‟s affection toward it somehow made the quarrel mine. Whisper was a skinner-cat, one of us.
“Why don‟t you shut your mouth, Fuke?” I growled.
The gravelly tone of my tortured voice must have startled them, for they all looked at me. I was bone-tired and irritable.
“What‟s in your soup, Juniper?” Fuke asked, in a manner that perturbed me.
“Nothing,” I muttered, and chewed my meat, staring into the fire.
Twenty five cents a hide, was what I thought, again and again. Twenty five cents!
Really it was a good deal of money. But all I knew was it would be months before I saw it.
There was not much more talk around the campfire that night, aside from the shooters. I heard War Bag speak of continuing south after the meat and hides were cured, for the band we had killed were only a part of a greater body.
I only vaguely understood his words. I am sure that I was asleep before my head touched my saddle.
After breakfast, Jack spied me itching and swatting at parasites. He walked me over to a side of the camp, and instructed me to lay my filthy clothes down on a good sized anthill that he pointed out in the dirt.
“When do we get paid?” I asked War Bag.
War Bag looked over at me. He was puffing his pipe.
“Why? What d‟you intend?”
“I intend to cut out when we hit the next town,” I told him firmly, loud enough for all to hear, and I think at that moment I actually meant it. Why not, after all? I‟d left the
railroad soon enough when the work had not proved to my liking.
This statement brought a ripple of low laughter from my comrades.
Fuke shook his head as though he had known what I would do all along.
“One day of honest work and you‟re ready to take the first train back to Chicago.” He threw up his hands. “But what do you expect from a blue scissorbill fresh off his
“That‟s an easy remark coming from you, you riverbottom ass,” I shot back. “You don‟t do anything but talk. Any fool can sit on a hill all day with a rifle and kill a bunch of stupid animals. You wouldn‟t....” I stopped myself. “You couldn’t spend a day
dipped in buffalo blood if your life depended on it.”
“Juniper, you don‟t have an inkling of what the hell you‟re talking about,” said
“Why don‟t you prove it to him, Fuke?” said Roam.
He didn‟t say it in a way that said he doubted the Louisianan‟s words, but Fuke glared at Roam just the same.
“What‟re you saying?” he accused.
War Bag said to me;
“You think any one of us ain‟t willing to do your work, boy?”
I was quiet. That was exactly what I thought, but I folded my arms and said nothing.
War Bag went up to my saddle. He reached down, plucked my tally ledger out of my gear, and opened it.
He sneered at the contents and let it fall to the ground.
“You‟re a charity, fella. Ain‟t worth throwin‟ on the kip pile.”
I felt my ears color.
“I‟d just like to see him skin one day, and I‟ll shoot and we‟ll see...,” I began, my voice cracking.
But War Bag cut me off with his voice, so heavy it was like an anvil falling.
“You don‟t do no shootin‟ till you prove you can earn your keep.”
“And who decides that?” I snapped.
He stalked right up to me, and I took a step back involuntarily. I thought he was going to hit me. Instead he stopped a foot in front of me and glared into my eyes.
He looked over at Roam.
“You take Bullthrower and Fats‟ll tend you and George.”
“Whatchoo goin‟ do?” Roam asked.
“I got to contend with that mangy cat complainin‟ „cause Jack favors him,” War Bag said. “But I ain‟t got no reason to put up with this scabby little nipper.” He pointed a finger at me, and looked me in the eye. “I‟m gonna make certain sure you‟re worth the
trouble of keepin‟ around. And if you ain‟t, you can have your pay and my boot in your ass to see you to the next town.”
Then he turned away, leaving me flushed and angry.
Roam went to his saddle, took out his Spencer rifle, and handed it over to War Bag, along with a cartridge belt, which the old man buckled on.
“We‟re goin‟ south after that herd,” he announced to everyone as he drew the belt through the buckle and jerked it tight. Then he turned his eyes on me, and they were hard. “You keep up, boy.”
I turned to lay my shirt down on the ant hill as Jack had instructed.
“Got no time for that,” War Bag growled behind me. “You‟re so damn smart, you wear what you got.”
In that moment I hated him.
The Competition between War Bag and I began not more than an hour after we broke camp.