The Matterhorn peak rises to nearly 10,000 feet in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowas. Not far from Cougar Ridge a small community of bison enjoyed autonomy and the easy life during summers and foraged for sustenance during long cold, tough winters. The burley critters had never known anything different. Oh, there were stories of the grass being greener in the vast prairie on the other side of Highway 82 but as far as young Willard Bison knew, no one had ever ventured across the dangerous barrier to investigate.
Willard nagged his father and pestered his mother about the distant Zumwalt, land of succulent bunchgrass, fescue and bluegrass. His mouth watered at the thought of gorging himself on his favorite wheatgrass.
One day the charming raptor, Rachael Hawk, rode on Willard’s back as he traversed the gulch in search of patches of fescue. They talked about life in the Wallowas. Rachael annoyed Willard with her incessant chatter about the unlimited numbers of ground squirrels and other prey roaming the eastern slopes of Zumwalt Prairie. Willard had no interest in ground squirrels. They were pesky annoyances to him. But Rachael’s mention of the grasses to be found on the high desert ignited the fires of temptation in Willard’s mind. He danced the Bison Four-Step as he dreamed of a day when he would muster the courage to see for himself.
“It’s not that far,” Rachael urged, “You could be there in a shadow shift or two.”
“Mom says stay away from there” Willard answered. “She says animals who can’t fly, fall off into deep canyons and never come out.”
“Those are old rabbit tales,” Rachael protested. “Trust me… I’ve flown over the terrain hundreds of times. Willard, old buddy, it’s no worse than crossing the Minam River and hiking up to Point Prominence,” the sleek hawk encouraged. “You do that without thinking, don’t you?”
“Yeah, of course…” Willard snorted. “But I don’t cross 82.”
“That’s just an imagined barrier… erected by some old long-gone childish bison… afraid of his own shadow… you going to stay a baby bison all your life?” Rachael taunted.
“It’s easy for you… incessantly riding the air currents above the dangers of being a heavy on uncertain terrain,” Willard protested.
“Gentle rolling hills covered with waves of grain is the only scary thing you’ll find,” Rachael added speaking to Willard’s fear.
Willard didn’t say anything.
Rachael continued, “You choose to believe that stuff based on ignorance? I’m telling you what you’ll really find.”
“Yeah, but… what the herd knows… it’s what I know.” Willard said pawing the ground nervously.
“You don’t know what you’re missing!” Rachael said with a lilt in her voice and lifting herself into the air said, “Think about it.”
Willard stood for a while looking east across Cougar Ridge. The sun was sinking behind him casting his long shadow across the parched ground in front of him. Willard had seen his reflection in pools of water. His massive shadow was impressive. Big enough to defeat fear, he thought.
Willard trotted off toward a grove of trees where his community of bison was bedding down for the night. He settled into his accustomed place and waited for sleep.
Zumwalt Prairie is what the bigs called the “high desert”. It is located in the rolling hills in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon. The prairie’s eastern extremity ends at the edge of a cliff that descended deep into Hell’s Canyon and the Snake River below. Birds fly anywhere they like in the vast spaces above the canyon floor. But the sheer, steep grades of the gorge walls make it hard for most of the animals living on the prairie and those dwelling on the river floor to mingle. Brave coyotes did it. Mountain lions and cougars did it. And from time to time adventurous rabbits and squirrels negotiated the treacherous up-and-down trails. But most of the time prairie dwellers stay in the prairie and river dwellers stay on the canyon floor.
Thousands of ground squirrels live in a catacomb of tunnels and chambers beneath the grass-thatched tuff of Zumwalt Prairie. The hardy squirrels called the remote patch of Oregon, home. Not many bigs venture to the Zumwalt. Elizabeth Squirrel, and other wildlife living in the prairie, liked it that way. Elizabeth didn’t know much about bigs. They came to the prairie from time to time to tend the cows. And when they came, squirrels stayed out of sight as much as possible. Once Elizabeth hid behind a tuft of milkweed and watched several bigs force Sally Cow and her family into large carriers and haul them away. Elizabeth knew she’d not see Sally or any other cow for several moons… until spring returned to the Zumwalt.
Elizabeth wondered what the bigs were like up close. “They must be smart,” she said to Sally Cow one day.
“Humph!” Sally snorted, “They know how to bully cows!”
For as long as Elizabeth and Sally could remember, a large wooden structure had stood on the open plains not far from the gaping canyon to the east. Grandpa Jasper Squirrel, said that long ago the bigs had built the “barn” to store food in and to protect it during icy winter storms.
Elizabeth had wanted to know why the barn was pink and Grandpa laughed and said it was pink because the bigs didn’t have enough red paint to cover the barn so they mixed the little they had with cow’s milk. He said her uncle Rex Squirrel had fallen into a pail of the pink paint. For weeks he scampered through the grass looking like a ghost. Elizabeth had laughed.
She was glad for the barn. The bigs no longer used it. Now, it served Elizabeth and her friends as a refuge during the worst heat of summer, a temporary shelter during winter storms and a convenient refuge when squirrels, caught in the open, had to make a quick get-away from a hungry eagle, owl or hawk.
Elizabeth’s friend, Sally Cow, liked the barn too, for its shade on hot summer days. Yes, she agreed with Elizabeth that the bigs were smart. That didn’t keep her from complaining about how they bullied cows… herding them here and there for no reason and driving them here and there for no reason. Well, maybe they had a reason for moving them during the freezing months of winter on the Zumwalt. Any day now the bigs would arrive with their huge haulers, gather up Sally’s community of cows and take them away. Though she didn’t like leaving her friends, Sally was glad the bigs took her and her family to warmer pastures to the south and west away from soon coming icy winds that would freeze everything in sight on the high mountain plains.
Elizabeth and Sally were mystified that bigs occasionally took several cows away from the Zumwalt and they never saw them again. They wondered what happen to the missing cows, but could never learn. Their friends didn’t know either.
Elizabeth often rode on Sally’s back when the two explored a new gully or creek bed. Sometimes Sally protected Elizabeth from hungry predators. Slater Hawk and his buddies made a game of swooping down to snatch a distracted squirrel and would fly away before the un-suspecting animal knew what had happened. From Slater’s point of view a squirrel in the open was an easy meal… but not cows. Cows were docile enough, but too heavy to carry off and their hooves and horns could be devastating.
It seemed strange to the other squirrels living in Crescent Draw that Elizabeth Squirrel and Slater Hawk were friends. But they were. Elizabeth called him Mickey or “Mick” for short.
“You need to be careful,” teacher Serious Squirrel said to the young dray of squirrels attending Scamper School. “The rule is for someone to always be a lookout. Squirrels are hawk’s favorite food. It’s in their nature. They can’t help it,” Serious concluded brushing Elizabeth with his sizable tail.
The prospect of being stalked and snatched up by a hawk was the way of the squirrel world. That thought hovered like a shadow over every squirrel’s waking minute. It was just last week Elizabeth knew that Drake Squirrel, was grabbed by a big hawk and taken away. Drake had forgotten to post a lookout. It was sadly obvious that he had become Slater’s dinner.
“Aren’t you afraid of being gobbled up by that hungry hawk?” Chase Squirrel asked Elizabeth one day.
“You mean, Mick?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yeah, aren’t you afraid?” Chase repeated.
“I don’t think of him as a hawk, I guess. To me he’s Mick… just Mick.”
“Well, he looks like a hawk to me… I’ll stay away when he comes around,” Chase warned.
“How about you Sally… does Mick frighten you?” Elizabeth asked moving from Sally’s shoulder onto her head between her ears.
“Nooooh, hoo, hoo,” Sally laughed softly, “Afraid? Nooooh, hoo, hoo. Mick wouldn’t hurt a bug… let alone a cow.”
“Awe, silly, he couldn’t hurt you… you’re too big,” Elizabeth said. But us squirrels… hey, he has to eat something, doesn’t he? I suppose if he got hungry enough, he’d eat anyone of us at the drop of an acorn hull.”
“Well, you can ask him… here he comes,” Sally said pointing her nose up hill and into the air.
“Not me!” Chase snapped and churning his hind legs scooted for the pink barn as fast as he could scamper.
“What’s eating him?” Mick said settling to the ground in front of Sally.
Elizabeth and Sally both laughed.
“He’s afraid you’ll eat him,” Sally said nosing the sizable hawk.
Mick laughed too, “He’s a tempting morsel… but I’ll not bother him.”
“You wouldn’t, would you? I wonder why,” Elizabeth puzzled looking at Mick’s curved beak.
“He’s your family, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, but teacher Serious warned us about you… said it’s in your nature to eat squirrels and other smaller animals… said you can’t help it… one day you’ll be hungry and gulp, I’m gone.”
“Well, you’re safe there between Sally’s horns, aren’t you? Come on down here and let’s see what happens,” Mick teased.
“You wouldn’t harm me, I know it… and I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t…” Elizabeth said, perplexed.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t you?” Sally asked, “It being your nature to eat squirrels, and all?”
“It’s a choice… Yeah, I’m tempted to gobble her up… but I choose not to. She’s my friend!” Mick said emphatically.
“Wow, wish we could get the coyotes and mountain lions to choose to be our friends,” Elizabeth said entertaining the impossible.
“That would be a big change…” Mick mused. “But I doubt it… they are always after us hawks, too.”
“I wonder, since you choose not to eat me or my family, what do you eat?”
“That’s easy. I cheat… I eat leftovers… carrion… Don’t you ever eat leftovers?”
Sally wondered if grass was leftovers.
“Hey, I just came from the canyon… You should see the river… must be a lot of rain up stream… it’s over-flowing its banks. Want to take a look?” the big bird asked fluttering his wings and joining Elizabeth on Sally’s back.
“I like the sound it makes,” Sally said beginning a gentle stroll toward the canyon.
Nancy Cummings eased her Subaru Outback to a halt 50 yards from the pink barn. She didn’t want to spook anything that might be hanging out there.
Ranchers no longer used the barn. In years gone by, during winter they used the barn to store hay for cattle and for shelter during the worst storms. In recent years ranchers moved their herds to lower altitudes during the winter months when the grasses of Zumwalt were often covered with ice and snow for long periods of time. Now, the lonely barn served as a convenient shelter for rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats and other small animals. Hawks sometimes swooped through the hayloft window in an attempt to surprise a gang of squirrels or other rodents hanging out there.
Nancy grabbed her camera and hopped out of her vehicle to inspect the barn – hoping she might get a close-up picture of a raptor resting on the rafters or finishing a meal on the dirt floor. She walked the short distance – measuring her footsteps to muffle her approach.
She brought the SLR viewfinder to her eye and peered through a shuttered window. Despite her care, the sensitive ears of the rabbits detected her approach and scooted away through a hole in the side of the barn. The telltale flap, flap of heavy wings revealed a large Swainson’s hawk which was also making its escape through the hayloft window. By spooking the rabbits, Nancy had spoiled the hawk’s hopes of getting a meal. By alerting the hawk, the rabbits had spoiled Nancy’s hope of getting a photo of the hawk. She moved quickly away from the barn thinking she might get it in early flight, but he was out of meaningful range before she could frame, focus and push the button.
She returned to her Subaru, got in and made her way north and east toward Hell’s Canyon where she hoped to be able to observe concentrations of raptors living there. Traversing the difficult terrain to get there, was made easier by a patchwork of roads and meager trails ranchers and forest service personnel had laid throughout the rugged terrain of the Wallowas. Nancy’s all-wheel-drive vehicle could have headed out in almost any direction, but the cautious researcher didn’t want to damage her Subaru. She chose to traverse the more defined roads toward the formidable canyon.
A year ago Nancy set out to investigate why raptors were so abundant here in the Wallowas, particularly, the Zumwalt. She got to know some of the ranching families of the Zumwalt prairie as she surveyed the three species of buteo hawks. Ranchers and conservationists both are dedicated to maintaining a healthy balance of interests among conservationists, ranchers and the animals that call the Wallowas home.
Nancy nursed her AWD vehicle along Buckhorn Road and onto NFD Road 780. She followed its zig-zag meanderings until it stopped at a rugged pile of rocks overlooking a dry creek bed. Buckhorn Viewpoint was not far away, but Nancy wanted to do some observing where humans where not likely to have been. She exited her vehicle, strapped on her backpack, slung her SLR over her shoulder and began the mile hike over the rugged terrain along Cook Creek bed toward Hell’s Canyon.
Her camouflage clothing, backpack and camera cover, served her purpose well. Dozens of hawks circled in the air looking for prey or simply enjoying the thermals wafting above the canyon’s rim.
About a half mile from the canyon’s rim, in the crown of a scrub pine, Nancy spotted the nest of a Ferruginous hawk. The parents were not to be seen. Nancy inched close the nest. From a rock pedestal near the tree Nancy was able to look down into the nest. There were two young hawks not yet ready to leave the nest. Nancy’s shadow caused them to open their mouths in anticipation of being fed. Nancy laughed. She was a mother and her teenage son was like that, always wanting something to eat.
Snap, snap, snap. Digital memory cards provided an unlimited number of shots. The young hawks were attractive subjects. They were in their light-phase with a similar patterning to adults, although the rufous color was a duller brown. They were lighter underneath overall and did not have the dark leg-feathering Nancy would find in adults. From the vantage point of the rock on which she stood, Nancy took dozens of pictures from every angle she could manage. Finally, she decided she had plenty of pictures for her purposes, plus she was concerned about the potential return of one or both of the parents. They are big birds and likely wouldn’t hesitate to attack what they perceived as threat to their helpless off-spring.
She continued to work her way along a ridge that followed the creek bed. Along the way she spotted and photographed a hovering Swainson’s hawk, the smallest of the buteos. This hawk was chocolate brown with a speckled breast. It had a white belly, and yellow feet. It had broad, rounded wings. Nancy could see other Swainson’s soaring high above. Their wings formed a distinct shallow “V.”
Nancy continued her trek toward the canyon. There were hundreds of birds flying, perching in trees or on the ground. Today was providing a bonanza of pictures.
Click, click… more shots of birds. Finally, Nancy reached the rim. The view of the cavernous canyon always took her breath away. She yearned to be a hawk and soar over the vast expanse enjoying the elevated ride above the river churning its way north far below.
Nancy’s mission was to get good pictures of hawk families and to gather pictorial evidence of life among the hawks. She felt satisfied that today’s picture taking would do both. But, there was more. The long throw of her 600mm lens brought distant panoramas of vast canyon within reach of her formidable camera’s sensor.
She returned to her car and began nosing her way south, occasionally, stopping to tramp a short distance to a remote canyon view and to enjoy the solitude and wonders of raw nature before retracing her steps to her faithful car to continue her meandering investigation of hawks in the Wallowas.
Later that morning Willard Bison was grazing on a patch of bunchgrass growing near a trickling stream. Close by on a rotting log squatted Rachael Hawk finishing her breakfast.
Willard raised his burley head to look at Rachael, “Last night I dreamed about the… plains… what do you call the lush grass the other side of 82.” he said.
“Zumwalt, the prairie is Zumwalt,” Rachael answered swallowing the last morsel of trout she had caught earlier in Willow Creek.
“You been there a lot?” the gangly bison asked.
“All the time… I fly over it, hunt in it and often visit my friend, Mickey Hawk,” Rachael said confidently.
“Flying… I don’t know what that’s like,” Willard said tossing his head toward the east. “Among us bison,” they say that, if you go through the wavy grasses, you’ll fall off world and into the sky… and you never stop falling. I wouldn’t want that.”
Rachael laughter a hearty hawk laugh and said, “That’s gotta be a myth.”
“Myth? What’s that? You mean it’s a lie?”
“ Maybe not a lie but, you know… a story that’s been told so often and for so long that you don’t know if it’s true or not,” Rachael explained.
“Well that’s what they teach us at Trout River Bison School. They wouldn’t teach us a lie, would they?”
“Probably not… at least not knowing it’s was a lie. But…” Rachael paused not sure she should go on.
“You know how you buffalo are… always stampeding.”
“Yeah, we can get going.”
“Well, suppose… a long time ago… say five hundred winters ago… Bill Bison got spooked one day… by a rabbit, say… and started running… and let’s say a bunch of dumb bison, not knowing where Bill was going, ran after him. There is this cliff over there,” Rachael said waving a wing toward the east. “Let’s say Bill charges over that cliff without looking… a bunch of your ancestors follow Bill over and you all fall and fall because the bottom is forever down. You get it? Bill and his buddies stampeded over that cliff and… walla, walla, walla… they never came back.”
“Wow, how did you know a rabbit spooked him?”
“Duh! I don’t know that it was a rabbit… I’m just saying… suppose something spooked them and a stampede got started and they ran off the cliff in to the deep canyon and never came out… wouldn’t that get a story started that would be told over and over for generations to come?”
“A story? You said a myth.”
“Myth… story… Willard, some times I wonder about you… The point is, the story’s been told and believed for so long… it’s now passed on as true from bison generation to bison generation and now, no one will cross 82.”
“I never thought of that…”
“Obviously, for a long time no buffalo has ever thought of that and now, no one has the courage to find out if it’s true or not,” Rachael paused cocking her head and eying Willard. Then she said, “Maybe you should find out… You ever think of that?
“I told you, I’ve dreamed about the grasses on the other side of 82… but I’m afraid of falling over a cliff.”
“Shissch!” Rachel gushed.
Willard continued, “Do you think… I… someone could see the grasses and not stampede over the cliff?”
“I would have thought that stampeding was a choice… but knowing about bison and talking with you, I’m not so sure…. Look, I’ll go with you, if that will help.”
“I don’t know… what would Mom say?”
“Shissch, Willard, when you going to grow up?”
“Hey, I don’t do anything without telling Mom!”
“Willard! Look at yourself… bigger than dozen boulders and you still talk like a helpless, baby bison.”
“But, I’ve always told her.”
“Willard, there comes a time when you don’t have to tell your mom or anyone… And I think that time has come. How about it? Let’s trot over to the Zumwalt… Well, you trot, I’ll ride on your rump. How is that?”
“A little way… I’ll go a little way,” Willard said nervously pawing the ground a couple of times.
“Good!” Rachael said hopping onto Willard’s back. Making her way to his huge neck, she squawked, “No! Not that way… This way,” she said extending the tip of her right wing toward the Zumwalt.
Willard climbed the creek bank and onto a plateau that spread out toward the east. In the far distance he could see a row of trees lining the trail the bigs used to guide their rolling boulders. Willard had never seen a rolling boulder up close. When bigs were seen by anyone, his herd of bison always skedaddled for the tall timber of Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Willard stopped. He turned his head to look back at buffalo country.
After a minutes pause he turned around an began walking back toward his herd, “I gotta tell Mom,” he said.
“Shissch Willard!” Rachael said swaying with the motion of Willard’s rough gate. “You’re a helpless juvenile! You want to remain an invalid all your life?”
“Juvenile… invalid… those bad?” Willard asked, stopping at the bottom of the creek bank.
“Okay, okay… let’s just mosey over and tell your mom… she won’t let you go,” Rachael said with a tone of disgust and added, “Go ahead, let the day go to waste… Let those succulent Zumwalt grasses go to waste.
Willard swayed back and forth in indecision.
“Look!” Rachael snapped, “You take you time… all week… all year if you like. I’ll be off and catch some lunch, literally. You go ahead and ask mom. That’s what a full grown bison ought to do!” she squawked, then softened her tone continued, “I’ll be back after a while and we can play Bison Shuffle or something.”
“Maybe she won’t care…” Willard said hopefully.
“Yeah, right! I’ll be back,” Rachael said taking to the air and off toward the Willow Creek.
Willard watched her go then began munching his way back toward the herd.
Sally Cow, walked, slowly traversing the steep up and down grades toward Imnaha. The trip was easy for Elizabeth, who rode on the Sally’s back. It was a snap for Mick too, who intermittently, spread his wings and hopped into the air to ride the easterly thermals before settling again on the cow’s back. The weight of a squirrel and a hawk weren’t a bother for Sally, but she wasn’t used to prolonged hikes up a 6-degree climb. Occasionally, she had to stop and rest.
Nestled in a shallow gulch they came across one of the wooden huts abandoned by the bigs a long time ago. Elizabeth scampered through the open door to investigate. She was surprised to find several squirrels huddled in a dark corner.
“You squirrels holding church?” she asked.
The frightened squirrels looked at one another in confusion. One crept forward and in hushed tones said, “Charles spotted a coyote out there.” He gestured in a northerly direction and added, “You better be careful.”
Then Mickey hopped onto the window ledge. At first the small dray of squirrels didn’t notice the hawk perched above them. Sally stuck her nose through the window joining Mick. Her sizable head caused Mick to lose his balance and flutter to the dusty floor in front of the squirrels.
The sight of a hawk in their midst caused the frightened squirrels to scatter out the hut door, across a bare spot in the grass and into holes in the ground.
“Some day I’ll come back and tell them about you,” Elizabeth laughed and added, “Obviously. They don’t know the Mickey Hawk I know.”
“I don’t blame them,” Mick chuckled, “I am getting hungry… I may have to leave you two and make a trip into Hell’s Canyon for a snack.”
The three friends left the hut and continued their journey.
It was late morning when they arrived at the abyss. Far below the Snake River meandered along the canyon floor on its way north to eventually join another river and on to the Pacific Ocean. None of the Zumwalt crowd had ever seen anything beyond Zumwalt, but their friend, Rusty Eagle, had told them about many rivers gathering water on their way to a gigantic ocean far to the west.
Several miles in the hazy distance, stretched the ragged, eroded eastern walls of the canyon. In the quiet stillness the adventurers could hear the sound of gushing water. The fall sun warmed the hikers. Wild buckwheat and lime green Indian Paintbrush grew in patches along the edge of the cliff. The hardy flowers struggled to make a final splendid display before ice, snow and freezing winds would shrivel life and carpet them until their reawakening in spring.
For a long while Sally stood looking at the vast gorge before her. She’d never ventured this far away from the barn before. She felt exhilarated, yet uneasy at the same time. Elizabeth crouched on Sally’s head between her ears. Mickey rested on her rump. The three friends remained silent for a long spell as if in prayer or meditation.
By now everyone was getting hungry. Elizabeth and Mickey could always find a morsel to satiate their hunger, but for Sally the lush grasses of the prairie were two hours walk back down the mountain.
“I’m off to the river to catch a taste of something. I’ll be back,” Mickey said lifting himself from Sally’s back. He flapped briskly gaining altitude before plunging toward the churning river on the canyon floor.
“Paintbrush petals sound good to me… you like paintbrush?” Elizabeth asked scurrying down Sally’s shoulder, onto the ground and off toward a tuft of paintbrush growing at the cliff’s edge.
“If I have to eat flowers, I prefer buckwheat,” Sally answered scanning the foliage for the colorful flower. She spotted what looked like a clump of buckwheat a short distance away. She began making her way toward the meal. In this remote area there were no trails. The ground was rough and uneven. Sally carefully picked her way among the large rocks toward her lunch. Her long tongue reached out in an attempt to snag a cluster of blossoms hanging on the plant. She couldn’t quite reach it… she leaned forward to get a bit closer. In doing so, the loose rocks beneath her feet gave way. She lost her balance and fell over the cliff and down several feet onto a ledge… a small plateau, beyond which was open space and the canyon floor hundreds of feet below. She emitted a mournful bellow thinking that surely she was on her way to certain death.
“Sally!” Elizabeth cried fearing the worst.
Sally lay on her side facing the abyss with her feet hanging stiff over the edge. For a long while… it seemed like forever… she couldn’t move. A white-hot fear seized her mind and froze every muscle in her body. She had the terrifying feeling that if even one muscle let go, she would plunge to her death. Her heart beat rapidly.
“Sally!” Elizabeth shouted again, “You alright?” she asked scampering down the bank to join Sally on the ledge.
“I don’t know,” Sally whispered, “I can’t move.”
“Oh no!” Elizabeth moaned, “You broke something?”
“I don’t know… I can’t move,” Sally repeated.
“Just stay there for awhile… I’ll think of something,” Elizabeth said scanning the bank for a way out. She climbed the short distance back up to safety and crouched down so she could think and access the situation.
Sally moaned in fear. Her head lay on the ground facing the abyss. She began to tremble. She thought, that if she closed her eyes, it might be better. By closing her eyes she avoided the sight of open space and begin to gain confidence that the ground was beneath her and that she might survive after all.
Mick returned to the lookout point to find Sally in her terrible predicament. He hovered over her taking in what had happened. He fluttered onto the ledge beside Sally’s head thinking that he might at least comfort her.
“Oh, no… leave me alone for a little while,” Sally cried softly, “I need the world to be still for a while.”
Mick took flight and settled beside Elizabeth on the rim just above Sally.
“What will we do?” Elizabeth whispered.
“I don’t know,” Mick answered softly, “Just be quiet and still and wait for her…”
Elizabeth nodded. The squirrel and the hawk sat side by side anxiously waiting for their friend to recover from her fright.
The sun was sinking toward the horizon. Sally kept her eyes closed. Her thoughts were coming clearer. She decided that if she could roll over and face the cliff wall, she would feel safer and might be able to get to her feet. After that she would decide what she needed to do to get to a safe place and return to the Zumwalt. The warmth of that thought gave her courage to try. She kept her eyes closed, took a deep breath, pulled her front legs then her hind legs to her body. She was relieved that she could finally move. She took another deep breath, tensed her muscles and with a sudden swinging effort rolled over to face the wall. She was relieved that she hadn’t plunged off the precipice and into the abyss below.
“Good for you!” Mick yelled.
“Way to go!” Elizabeth called.
Now, Sally must get to her feet. The ledge was narrow, but wide enough for her to stand. She steeled her nerves. She lifted her rear up with her hind legs, and then her front legs. She was trembling. She leaned against the cliff wall to steady herself. She opened her eyes. Another blast of fear shot through her. A few feet in front of her the piece of ground on which she stood ended. She turned her head. Behind her, the bit of earth slanted up but narrowed at the top to almost nothing.
“I don’t think I can do it,” she said sadly.
“Don’t give up,” Mick said, “I’ll go for help.”
“Help?” Sally cried, “What would that be?”
“You’ll see,” Mick said hopping into the air and off to the west. He had no idea what help he could bring or where he would get it. But he had to do something for his friend, Sally Cow.
Rachael had flown to a stream where she’d snatched a sizable trout from the cool water. Now, she sat on a boulder at water’s edge enjoying the final bites.
Life was good for her in the vast stretches of the Wallowa Mountains. Food was plentiful and accessible. Vast numbers of Ferruginous hawks, like herself, lived throughout the area. She had many friends among them. She liked visiting Mickey Hawk who hung out in the Zumwalt. They often hunted together and from time to time would catch thermal winds rising from the canyon and soaring high into the clear, fresh air above the Wallowas.
For the most part she and her friends had learned to avoid humans and to escape the clutches of wolves and coyotes, who were constantly on the prowl for food. They preyed on all sorts of small animals often competing with raptors for squirrels and rabbits. Hawks themselves were targets for hungry wolves and coyotes. Large raptors were difficult for them to catch and subdue but a hawk was no match.
Rachael’s skills at avoiding wolves freed her to live life pretty much the way she wanted to and she enjoyed it to the fullest. It saddened her that Willard Bison didn’t have the same sense of freedom. He and his herd confined themselves to a narrow patch of wilderness west of 82 and the country town of Cove and Route 203 to the west.
Rachael’s hawk friends wondered how and why she was friends with a buffalo, of all things… an eagle or meadow lark, maybe… even a sparrow… but for a hawk to be friends with a huge buffalo had them, well, ‘buffaloed.’ If they showed real interest in knowing, she told them about an incident, when she was much younger. Willard had helped her escape certain death from a pack of wolves. One of them had her left wing in his mouth and others were ready to move in for the kill, when Willard charged onto into the opening and threatened to stomp the wolves with his hooves and batter them with his massive head.
Rachael hopped to water’s edge took a refreshing drink from the crystal clear water and then lifted herself into the air and returned to find Willard pacing back and forth in the dry creek bed.
“Hey, what took you so long?” Willard asked impatiently.
“I thought by now you were securely tied to mama’s apron strings,” Rachael teased.
“Apron strings, what’s that?”
“Never mind, you want to play Bison Shuffle?”
“No, I’ve been waiting for you. I want to go see the Zumwalt.”
“Hey… Mom said it was okay?”
“I didn’t ask,” Willard puffed.
“Well, good for you, Master Bison,” Rachael cheered, “Let’s go,” she urged flapping onto Willard’s back.
Willard trotted toward the line of trees with Rachael bouncing on his rump. When they got close, Willard stopped. Rachael could sense that he was tensing up. She was afraid he would loose his nerve and want to turn back. To make matters worse, a rolling boulder came moving along the trail kicking up dust.
“Woo,” Willard yelled, “What’s that?” He began to tremble.
“It’s a happiness,” Rachael answered, “nothing to worry about. In an eye blink, it’ll be gone.”
“What’s happy about it?” Willard asked.
“Just is,” Rachael answered reassuring Willard. “We’re going to cross the trail… don’t worry… just do as I say and we’ll be happy too… got it?”
“Alright, go ahead… it’s up to you… I’m along for the ride,” Rachael said digging a claw into Willard’s rump.
“Here we go,” Willard said starting a slow trot toward the 82.
Rachael was relieved when they found themselves on the eastern side of 82 and moving into the lush grass covered planes of the beautiful Zumwalt.
“Hey, get a taste of this,” Willard said taking a mouthful of wheatgrass.
“I’ll pass… you go ahead. There’s Idaho fescue out there,” Rachael said urging Willard deeper into the prairie. She was afraid that if another rolling boulder came along, Willard would bolt and dash back to the securities of Willow Creek.
Willard followed Rachael’s urging, gradually eating himself further into the inviting prairie lying before them. He appeared to be lost in the reverie of his new discovery, when he stumbled over an isolated rock hidden in the grass.
“Wait a minute,” Willard snorted jerking his head up to survey the situation, “Where’s the canyon… is that the canyon?” he asked.
“No… the canyon is a long way from here. This is the Zumwalt I’ve been telling you about… the luscious grasses of the Zumwalt… the falling stories are myths.”
“Oh jumping gophers, wait until I tell Mom… hey, look at that… there’s a hawk coming,” Willard observed looking east.
Rachael followed Willard’s gaze. Yes, it was Ferruginous hawk… It was Rachael’s friend, Mickey Hawk. Within seconds Mickey landed in front of Willard and Rachael. He was gasping for breath.
“Hey, Mick… surprise… What’s up… what’s your hurry…?“
“No time to talk!” Mickey gasped. “Sally Cow fell over the edge of the canyon rim….”
“Falling into the canyon!” Willard cried, “Mom was right… I shouldn’t have…”
Before he could finish Mickey interrupted, “No time, we’ve got to find help… a squirrel and a hawk can’t do it. She needs something big to pull her up… something big… “
“You mean something big like Willard?” Rachael asked.
“Yeah… like a bison… will you come try?” Mickey pleaded.
“Go to the canyon rim!” Willard shuddered, “Oh Mama.”
“Remember, it’s not a stampede… stampede is a choice. You don’t have to stampede,” Rachael encouraged. “Let’s go see…”
“It easy for you to say… with that birdie body and fluffy, puffy wings…” Willard protested, “I weigh a ton.”
“We’ll keep you from falling, won’t we Mickey?”
Mickey gave Rachael a look of disbelief, “We will?” then recovering added, “Yeah, sure… sure we will… but, let’s get going. I’ll fly ahead and tell them you’re coming.”
“Where do we find her?” Rachael asked.
“She’s at Hat View Point,” Mick said rapidly flapping his wings and streaking west toward the endangered cow and her squirrel friend.
“Okay Willard, let’s get going…” Rachael commanded agitating Willard’s back with her talons.
“I won’t go to the edge… I’ve never been anywhere away from Willow Creek… I can’t go to the edge.”
“Yes, you can! You are a great bison,” Rachael encouraged, “… the great bison. You just didn’t know it. Now, is the time to know it…” Rachael paused to measure her persuasiveness.
“You think?” Willard waffled,” then added, “No, I can’t!”
“You can save Sally… you don’t know her… but she’s like…” Rachael struggled for the right word, “She’s like your mom.”
Willard stiffened, “Like Mom?”
“Yes, like Mom and… what’s your sister’s name?”
“Wafer?” Willard crooned.
“Wafer Bison?” Rachael exclaimed… then recovered. “Yes, Sally is like Wafer too. You, will save Mom Sally.”
“I’ll try… but I’m scared,” Willard confided.
“So was General Bill Bison before rescuing the deer from the Grande Snake Rapids.”
“I don’t see how… but… let’s go,” Willard said stamping the ground.
“How fast can you run? Not as fast as I can fly, I’ll bet.”
“Oh yeah, you ever see a bison stampede?” Willard challenged digging his hind legs into the turf and shooting east toward Hat View Point and the languishing cow.
Nancy had taken a last photo of Hell’s Canyon from the cliffs above Cook Creek and was about to trek back to her car, when from the south an enormous bald eagle appeared. When he saw her, he abruptly changed directions and began flying directly at her at a troubling speed.
She ducked and put her hands above her head to avoid being hit. The huge bird stopped in the air above her head flapping its wings ferociously and making a squawking sound. She concluded that she must be near the eagle’s nest. She scrambled across the rocks and ran toward her auto. Before getting in, she looked back. The eagle had followed her and was now hovering over her. She quickly got into the Subaru, closed the windows, started the motor and began to negotiate the primitive trail back toward Route 83 and Joseph.
To her surprise the eagle followed her, flying just above and in front of her windshield, then, he dropped to the driver’s side window and began flying along side her. Then, he darted away to the east and then, back to her car. He repeated these movements over and over again as she inched her all-wheel-drive along the rutty service road.
Nancy wondered why the eagle was stalking her. She was now a considerable distance from the canyon’s edge where she thought there must be an eagle’s nest. It was as if the eagle was trying to tell her something.
Her vehicle crawled up the crest of another hill, when she saw the strangest sight she’d ever seen. A young adult buffalo with a ferruginous hawk riding on his back was charging along the ridge of a mountain toward the Hell’s Canyon. The sight was unusual for two reasons: she’d never seen a buffalo in the Zumwalt Prairie. As far as she knew buffalo living in the Wallowa’s never crossed 82. They confined themselves to the Eagle Cap Wilderness area. And more astonishing she’d never seen a hawk riding on the back of a buffalo.
This was a day for adventure. An eagle was at her side harassing her and before her a crazy buffalo with a bird jockey was galloping toward Hell’s Canyon as if it were a fire engine headed for a fire.
The buffalo was off in the distance now. The stalking eagle left her and began following it. She decided she would head east and follow them to see what the excitement was all about. The terrain was steep, rocky and difficult. She’d equipped her Outback with off road chassis protection. Nevertheless it was difficult.
She lost sight of the buffalo, the hawk and the stalking eagle. She wondered if she would see them again. But, she continued to pick her way toward Hell’s Canyon along the 1200-foot ridge west of and above the Imnaha River. A spectacular viewpoint was not far away. She’d been in this area many times before enjoying the expansive view of the Imnaha Rapids gushing into the Snake River and training her binoculars on wonderful arrays of raptors that inhabit that part of the Wallowas.
Even if she didn’t find the buffalo circus, she could scan the sky and foliage for birds, a little bonus side trip she thought. When she finished, she would return to Joseph.
Elizabeth tried her best to think of ways to comfort Sally. But nothing she could say eased the devastating fear clouding Sally’s mind and draining the strength from her legs. She sunk again to her belly and leaned against the side of the cliff -her face turned away from the open space.
“What can the tiny body like mine do make any difference?” Elizabeth thought. She answered her own question, “Nothing.” Nevertheless, she stayed near Sally’s head and kept reminding her that Mick had gone for help and would surely return soon, and all would return to normal.
Suddenly, there was a thundering sound of hoof beats approaching, which just as quickly, stopped. Then, came the fluttering sound of wings. It was Mickey Hawk, Rachael Hawk and Rusty Eagle. Whatever was thundering was not to be seen. The birds all settled on scrub pine branches clinging to the canyon walls near Sally’s narrow bed.
“I’m back, Sally! We’re back!” Mick shouted, “I’m back and Rachael and Rusty Eagle are here, Isn’t that great? You okay?”
Sally tried to move her head to see Mick, but the paralyzing fear prevented her from turning her head away from the canyon wall. All she could say was, “baww, bawww.”
Elizabeth Squirrel scooted up the bank to be near the birds, “I knew you’d bring help… that’s what I’ve been telling Sally,” she said and added, “You’ll figure a way to get her out, won’t you Rusty.”
“We’ll give it our best…” Rusty said projecting a positive tone, “I tried to get a big to come help but couldn’t get it to understand. Rachael brought help though, didn’t you Rachael?”
“Yeah, Rachael talked Willard into coming,” Mick said. He turned and shouted, “Hey Willard, come have a look.”
“Oh boy… you’d better let me handle this!” Rachael cautioned, “He’s a little shy… never been to Zumwalt before… never been to the edge before.”
Elizabeth, Mick and Rusty watched Rachael flit into the air and glide the 50-feet to Willard – who stood frozen in place.
“What we came for is just over the edge… you want to have a look?” Rachael asked softly.
“You lied,” Willard accused. “The world does fall away! Look at that!” Willard said his voice trembling.
“No, I didn’t lie…” Rachael retorted, “You haven’t stampeded over the edge, have you?”
“Not yet,” Willard hedged.
“And you’re not going to… Your mom would be so proud of you!” Rachael boasted, “Come over here and see Sally…”
“Awe…” Willard bellowed.
“Poor Willard,” Sally managed to say.
Sally’s voice brought Willard to attention. There was something quite different, but Sally did sound something like his mother. His mother always said “poor Willard,” when he was scared. With Rachael sitting on his back, Willard minced the few feet to the canyon’s edge and gingerly peered over. What he saw startled him. There before him was gaping canyon big enough to swallow everything in sight and a cow close to and crouched against the mountain wall.
He’d seen cows before, but never this close. In the buffalo herd, it was commonplace to view cows as not quite animals… they were puny weaklings compared to most buffalo and looked timid and anemic. They lived east from Eagle Cap Wilderness and the elder buffalo in his herd saw no reason for it to be otherwise. Old Mealy Buffalo often said, “It’s better for buffalo to stay with buffalo and for cows to stay with cows.”
Crouched with his hooves dug in at the edge of an abyss Willard was sure he’d gone too far. His insecure self bellowed at him to back away from the gaping precipice and to stampede back down the mountain ridge, across the prairie, across Route 82 and to the safety of his herd. But the wonder of seeing something so splendid for the first time, momentarily, arrested his urge to flee. And it was in that moment of vacillation that his eyes met Sally’s. Her eyes were soft wells of innocent sweetness bulging and distorted by the heart stopping terror she was experiencing. That bewildered him. A tribal voice within him said, “Cows aren’t our kind, they’re not worth knowing, let alone saving.” But there was another voice coming from Sally’s eyes. It pleaded, “I want to live, please help me.”
Sally lay crouched helpless on the narrow shelf. Her heart pounded and she gasped for breath. There didn’t seem to be enough air to sustain her. Fear that she would black out any second gripped her and she would tumble from the precarious shelf and plunge to her death on the rocks below. She tried to slow her breathing and calm her pounding heart by clinging desperately to the hope that somehow she could get up the steep embankment to safety.
Now, she became aware that an ugly buffalo was looking over the rim of the cliff was just above her. “He’s jeering,” she thought.
“Stay away from buffalos!” Hefty Bull had warned the cows in his herd ever since Sally could remember. “They’re not like us… it’s better that they stay with their own kind and that we stay with ours,” the big bull had said, “They’re malicious. They will charge at you without warning. You never know when bunches of them will break into a stampede. When they do, get out of the way!”
Suddenly, Sally became aware that the buffalo’s eyes were fixed on hers.
In the buffalo’s eye Sally saw dark pools of guarded insecurity and naïve inexperience, not the hostility she’d been led to believe was always there. Fear froze her voice or she might have tried to say something to the big animal.
Willard shifted his weight. Doing so, knocked a small rock off the cliff. It landed next to Sally. She emitted a soft whimper. Willard wished he could call that rock back. “The cow must be worth something,” he thought. “She has friends and they’re my friends too.” Willard didn’t understand why, but a click of the switch in his heart made him want to help Sally. He raised his massive head swinging it from side to side.
“What do I do?” he asked.
The others all cheered. Then, they looked one another each waiting for the other to state the plan. But no one had any idea of how the big, strong buffalo could rescue Sally from her dire situation.
Nancy inched her vehicle over the rough terrain moving ever closer to the edge of the canyon. Finally, she determined that it was too dangerous to take her vehicle any further. If she were going to see what had happened to the stampeding bison and his jockey, she’d have to exit the car and hike the couple hundred yards or so to canyon’s edge.
As always she carried her camera. This time she also took her backpack.
A hundred yards from the canyon’s edge she spotted the buffalo peering over the rim at something below. Near the buffalo perched an eagle and two hawks. A squirrel rested on rock near by.
She paused for a moment deciding what she should do. There was nothing to fear from the two birds or the squirrel, but she wasn’t sure about the buffalo. She’d heard that they can charge a human being, or other animal for that matter, without warning. She began tip-toeing her way toward the animals. She didn’t want to spook them.
She decided she ought to make some noise to alert them of her presence and to see what they would do. She made a whistling sound a mocking bird might make. The squirrel wheeled on the rock and froze in her alert mode. The eagle flopped his wings a couple of times. One hawk remained perched on a limb of the scrub pine. All were looking in her direction.
The bison turned his head to see what the others were looking at. He backed away from the edge of the cliff a few steps and turned around to face the intruder.
Nancy was glad he didn’t seem to be afraid of her nor did he appear to want to attack her.
Nancy moved several steps toward the animals and birds. They made no threatening move toward her and to her surprise they didn’t withdraw. Instead they started talking to one another.
“It’s the big I tried to signal a while ago.” Rusty said waving his wing.
“Oh… by my shaggy mane … I’m going back to Eagle Cap,” Willard cried making a step away from the rim and in a direction that would avoid the big.
“You don’t have to,” Rachael said, “It doesn’t have a fire-spitting stick.”
“Yeah, if it threatened we’ll get in its face, huh, Rusty,” Mickey added.
“It may be the help we’ve been looking for,” Rusty said, “If we can get it to come see Sally… bigs can do things we can’t do.”
“We can do things bigs can’t do,” Elizabeth protested.
“Let’s not waste time on little stuff. Let’s let it know that we’re not afraid,” Rusty coached.
“I am afraid,” Willard admitted.
“But you don’t have to show it,” Rachael said, “Remember General Wild Bill Bison.”
“Yeah, well, if it comes any closer, I’m gone,” Willard cautioned, “Wild Bill Bison or not.”
Sally’s friends, all assumed non-threatening stances and waited to see what the big would do.
Elizabeth scooted to the rim and called to Sally, “Sally, there’s a big not far away.”
Nancy watched the animals and birds conversing with one another. Though she had no proof, she always suspected that they talk with one another all the time. Nancy wished she could speak squirrel or hawk or eagle or buffalo. Nevertheless, she thought that speaking to them couldn’t hurt.
“It’s okay,” she began. She took two small steps in their direction. “I’m just wondering what you are all doing here…?” She took three more steps, “Hawks and eagles eat squirrels. Don’t you know?” She stepped two more paces toward the cluster of animals and birds. “And eagles sometimes eat hawks… wow… and a bison hanging out with all you… let’s get serious.” Nancy raised her camera, framed the tableau and pushed the shutter. The buffalo move a few stumbling steps away from the viewing point and away from Nancy. Nancy wasn’t certain whether he was uneasy with her approach or didn’t want to stand in her way.
The squirrel and the two hawks kept scampering and fluttering to the edge of the rim and peering over only to dash away some distance giving her room to advance. The bison just stood there watching. It seemed clear to her by now that the animals and birds were, not only not afraid of her, but they wanted her to come closer look over and see what was disconcerting them.
“Let’s have a look,” she said aloud to herself and walked toward the rim avoiding sudden moves and keeping a cautious eye on the bison. She reached the edge and looked down not knowing what to expect. Of course, there was the vast open expanse of Hell’s Canyon. But there a few feet down, was Sally hugging the wall helplessly looking up for some sign of hope.
“Oh dear,” Nancy gasped, “you poor thing.” And turning to face Rusty, who sat heavily on a nearby spindly tree branch, she said, “Eagle, that’s what you were trying to tell me earlier, wasn’t it?”
Rusty and the others didn’t understand the words coming from the big, but the universal language of gesture, told him that the big grasped the situation and would, maybe, try to save Sally.
“It knows now…” Rusty said to the others and hopping into the air flapped his wings and glided down to settle in front of Sally. “The big will know what to do,” he said to her.
“What can it do?” Mickey Hawk asked settling beside Rusty, “It’s not large enough.”
“It stands like a stick,” Elizabeth Squirrel said joining the eagle and hawk on the ledge in front of Sally, “What can a stick do?”
“The big’s not much bigger than you, Rusty,” Rachael said joining the congregation of concerned friends.
“Hey, how about me?” Willard called seeing Rachael disappear from view. He wanted to go have a look but the big stood between him and the edge. “I’m here,” he called.
“Be calm… Willard. Everyone be calm,” Rusty called… “Sally doesn’t need to hear doubt right now… just stay calm.”
Sally took momentary comfort in having her friends show concern for her, but she saw no solution to her plight. She tried to keep her thoughts from entering the dark corners of her mind where hopelessness dwells. If her friends and the big couldn’t get her onto the rim, she would either starve or fall to her death on the rocks below. She wanted to say something to her friends, but the sounds stuck in her terrified throat.
Nancy was touched with the concern the animals and birds showed for the cow. The situation looked pretty hopeless to her. The cow weighs at least 400 pounds, she thought, I’d risk falling carrying 25-pounds let along trying to haul a heavy cow up that steep trail… It was a trail. If there was a handrail, the cow could make her way up the incline… How silly!… of course there is no handrail. What else could she do? She could drive the roads and find a rancher who could come help…. But even rancher wouldn’t be able to get the necessary equipment to this location in the mountains. If she got her rope, she could fashion a harness, work her way down the incline secure the harness around the cow’s rump and sides keeping her from falling as she made her way along the ledge and onto the rim.
She always carried lots of equipment in her car for all kinds of emergencies, and she was happy now that it included a long strong rope – one long enough and strong enough to create a protecting sling for bring the cow up. She wished she could get her car close enough to use as a wench.
Just then, the bison emitted another bellowing sound and said something to his friends below. Nancy turned to look at him. He was a fine specimen… although not fully grown, he was huge and obviously strong… strong enough to lift the cow from her ledge, if he had arms but of course, he didn’t have arms.
“My rope – it could be the bison’s arms,” Nancy thought. She wondered if the bison would cooperate with her if she had everything she needed to make a harness.
“I’ll be back!” she said to the bison, “I’ll be back, cow,” she called over her shoulder and headed back to her car.
“The big is leaving,” Willard called approaching the rim’s edge just above Sally and the others.
Sally moaned. The flicker of hope she’d entertained with the arrival of the big went out with Willard’s words.
“We don’t know she won’t be back,” Rusty said offering encouragement to Sally.
“Why would she? She can’t do any more than we can,” Willard concluded.
“I’ll go after her… see if I can bring her back,” Rusty said slipping off the ledge into the air and away toward Nancy’s car.
Willard suggested, “Sally, you should just get up and walk to the top, that’s what I think.”
“Willard, sometimes you talk too much,” Rachael scolded, “Rusty will find out… He’ll know what to do.”
“Yeah, let’s wait for Rusty,” Elizabeth said scurrying up the bank to see if she could spot Rusty.
Nancy had only gone to her car for the rope. Now, all she needed was the muscle to make it work. She had in mind to fashion a crude harness for the cow on one end of the rope, wrap the other end of the rope around the sizable pine tree 10 feet from the edge. Then, she would pull with all her might to take the slack out of the rope, tie it off and, finally, she would encourage the cow to get up try to walk up the narrow ramp to safety.
Rusty had followed the big to the car and back. He settled back on the ledge next to Sally and the others.
“The big has something in mind. She came back. She brought a rope with her.”
Sally emitted a soft cry.
Rachael, Mickey flew up to see. Elizabeth scampered up the bank to join the others.
“It’s worth a try,” Nancy said to the creatures knowing they had little idea what she was saying. She pantomimed the action she was about to take. She tied one end of the rope to the pine tree, gathered the rope harness end and made her way to the edge. She tossed the harness down. It landed with a thump next to Sally’s face. The sound caused Sally to jump, nearly sending her over the edge.
“I’m sorry, little cow,” Nancy said. She wrapped the slack rope around her waist, and began repelling herself down the bank to Sally’s side. She reached out to the shaking cow… petted her between the ears and rubbed her side.
The other animals made their way to spots where they could watch the big’s action. Willard had been taught to be fearful of bigs. And up until now, he was uneasy about this big. Now, it was different.
Nancy gently worked the rope harness around the cow’s side and rump. When she felt certain that the rope would do the job she grabbed the rope falling down the bank and began pulling herself back up and over the rim. Willard followed the big as she made her way to the pine tree, untied the rope and began pulling the rope as hard as she could pull so it would keep Sally from falling over the edge when the time came for her to do her part.
Suddenly Nancy stopped pulling. Beside her, now, stood a strong bison, who no longer was afraid of her. If only she could communicate with him enough to get him to let her fashion a harness on this end of the rope and put it on him. With care he could pull Sally to safety.
She loosened the rope and turned to Willard – holding it out as if it were a peace offering. Willard was confused. He’d wanted to help the big pull on the rope, but didn’t understand why she wanted to tie him up… He backed away prepared to run, if necessary.
Rusty flapped his wings twice and glided to Willard. “The big wants you to help,” Rusty said, “She isn’t going to bind you.”
Mickey joined Rusty in his effort to persuade Willard to assist Nancy. “Hey, Willard, you’re strong enough by yourself to save Sally,” Mickey encouraged.
“Yes, and brave enough too,” Rachael agreed, “like Wild Bill Bison… Let her use your strength.”
Willard quit moving away. Nancy gingerly approached him. She let him smell the rope and touch it with his nose. Moments later Nancy had placed her makeshift harness around Willard’s massive shoulders and coaxed him to face away from the rim of the canyon. She looked to the animals to see if they were ready for the big pull… the risky effort to get Sally to safety. If the rope harness failed Sally would fall….
Nancy wanted Sally to know what was coming and what she had to do… but didn’t know how to tell her.
“Sally!” Rusty called, “Willard is going to pull on the rope… it will keep you from falling. All you have to do is go with the rope.”
Sally mooed a soft moo and struggled to her feet. The snugness of the rope felt good.
Nancy patted Willard’s shoulder. She moved in front of him turned to face him and began backing away motioning him to follow.
Slowly, Willard began moving forward. The rope whipped up tufts of dust as it became taught. He kept moving.
Rusty, Mickey, Elizabeth and Rachael watched as Sally carefully began inching her way along the narrow, ascending ledge.
The sun was low in the western sky when Sally set her four hooves on the solid ground near the canyon rim. She was shaking but managed to stagger 20 feet from the rim before weakly sinking to the ground.
Rusty cried his strongest eagle screech in celebration. The two hawks yelled at the top of their lungs. Elizabeth couldn’t compete in volume but she made up for it in doing a vigorous squirrel dance.
When Willard was free from his saving harness, he did the Bison Shuffle.
“You’re quite a group,” Nancy said collecting her belongings. “Two Ferruginous hawks, an American bald eagle, a ground squirrel and a cow. If only we humans could learn to help each other as much as you friends do, the world would be a better place.”
“Thanks Willard,” Sally said when she’d stopped trembling, “and thanks Elizabeth, Rachael, Mickey and Rusty.” She walked over to Nancy and nuzzled her side.
“You’re welcome” Nancy said stroking the Sally’s nose and then, walking to Willard and slapping his shoulders said, ”You and Willard had better get away from the canyon. You’re way out of your element.”
Nancy coiled her rope and began retracing her steps over the terrain to her car, started it and began the bouncy trip back.
The sun was nearing the western horizon.
Rusty eyed his friends, said good-bye and took to the air headed for Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest and home. It would take him a couple of suns to get there. On his way he would stop to see other friends.
On their way back across the Zumwalt toward the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Mikey rode on Sally’s back, Rachael rode on Willard’s rump and Elizabeth scampered along side.
“You oughta come with me to Eagle Cap,” Willard said to Sally when they entered the smooth grasses of the Zumwalt.
“You sure? Bison don’t like cows.” Sally answered.
“I do, and Mom will when I tell her that all those tales we’ve heard about cows are not true, “Willard said.
“Well, I can’t anyway,” Sally said, “Any day now the bigs will be coming to the prairie to load us cows into haulers and cart us away for the winter.”
“You don’t have to be penned like cattle. Come with me and you can roam free like buffalo, if you have the courage.”
“Free… “ Sally crooned.
“You don’t have to go with them… Come with me… the bigs won’t come to Eagle Cap looking for cows.”
“You should talk about courage, Willard,” Rachel said. Remember when you were afraid of your own shadow?”
“Don’t say that!” Sally said, “Willard was brave enough to leave Eagle Cap. He was there to help save my life… that’s brave.”
“What would you eat?” Elizabeth asked, “In winter the grass gets covered with ice and there’d be nothing for you to eat.”
“Ha,” Willard snapped, “How do you think we bison survive?”
“I never thought about that,” Elizabeth said, “Squirrels store acorns, birds have fish… how do you survive?”
“We’re smart… we break up the ice with our hooves. Beneath the ice is always plenty to eat,” Willard bragged.
“I never thought about doing that,” Sally said, “You are smart… I’d like to meet your mom… I will next summer … but this time I’ll go with my herd and tell them about bison… at least some are nice… and about how smart they are… getting food in the Zumwalt even in winter.”
Sally, Elizabeth and Mickey headed for the pink barn to spend the night. They said goodbye to Willard and Rachael, who made their way over the prairie, across 82 and into Eagle Cap. Rachael rode on his rump coaching him on what to say to mom.
Morris Pike ©2012