By Daniel W. Davis
They stood but five feet from each other. Custer, shoulders hunched, muscles tensed, a spring ready to unload. The buffalo, nonchalant, one weary eye trained upon the man, fur rippling in the gentle breeze that carried the summer sun across the prairie.
Between them was a body of water, insignificant and shallow. Custer could cross it in a moment; his knife was sheathed on his belt, and he could have it up and out before his heart completed another beat. The buffalo could read Custer’s eyes, his stance, his breath. Exhale for
tension. Inhale for confidence. Custer’s breaths were shallow, steady.
Somewhere, a bird called a shrill warning. Both parties ignored it. The buffalo knew. Custer, on some level, must also have known; his hand shifted from the knife, drifting closer to his pistol. One shot. Through the eye. Into the brain, dead center, over and done. That’s
how they’d trained him. That’s how he’d trained himself. One shot, steady and true.
The buffalo took a step back. Just one. But it was enough. Custer took a step forward. Somewhere within the recesses of the buffalo’s brain, a synapse was bridged, and the image of a man with a gun gained relevance. It is the cultural knowledge which few are aware they
possess, the inheritance of slaughter. The buffalo’s horns were sharp and strong, and its will was as steadfast as the soil it trod upon, but they could not match lead and cunning. It knew this, in that fundamental way that never matters until it is too late, until the victor has already allotted his spoils.
Perhaps it was in Custer’s grin. A quick flash, beneath his mustache; nothing no-ticeable, nothing that you would say gave away the moment. But it was there. Sweat on the upper lip, tongue across his teeth. Hand aching for action, body matching the direc-tion and velocity of the air current. North-northeast. A fraction of a second on the draw. Less to aim.
The buffalo turned. Custer’s shot missed—hit just behind the ear, enough to hurt, not to kill. The buffalo roared and hauled away across the prairie. Custer fired after it—five shots echoing across the landscape, matched only by the wounded bellows of the de-parting beast. When he holstered his gun, Custer was not disappointed. He was ecstatic. He stepped across the stream, knelt, picked up a clump of the buffalo’s fur that had been shed in a moment of haste. Ran it through his fingers, tickled his cheek with it. Rough, but warm.
The buffalo…the buffalo. It ran westward. Go west, young man! It traveled the length of the prairie, and then some, to the Pacific shore and across. Where it went, Custer’s pistol echoed ever afterwards. That hollow sound, vibrant and deep, capped at the end by a failed expectation. It never matched the buffalo’s roar—but it didn’t have to. The shots had been fired, and that was all that mattered, for man or beast. Six shots and the prairie was won and lost. An uneven trade, both agreed, but preferable to the alternative.
Daniel W. Davis is a graduate student born and raised in Central Illinois. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in “Necessary Fiction,” “Blue Crow Magazine,” “Spilling Ink Review,” and elsewhere. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com.