The Last Buffalo
“Mama, pass the salt, please.”
Mabel looked up and squinted her eyes at her daughter. “Don’t need no salt.”
“Just a little…for the taters.”
The salt was passed and Marthey sprinkled it on her potatoes and then surreptitiously seasoned the meat. The quickness of the process made her spill some on the table and her mother was quick to pick up on it.
“Throw some of that over your shoulder, girl.”
Marthey tossed a pinch over her right shoulder to appease her mother. Appeasement was one of Marthey’s specialties. She was forty-three-years-old and had never lived anywhere but home. Her mundane dreams swirled around her like water around a drain, sinking into the dirt of St. Francis County. They stayed in the earth, rotting like Lazarus in the tomb, waiting for a voice to call them into the light of day. She heard that voice one afternoon on the radio, and the story was in the paper the next day. She kept the paper folded inside of her dress for three days and now she cleared her throat and said, timidly, “Mama, I am thinking of taking a trip.”
Mabel’s fork stopped in mid-air. “Trip? What kind of trip?”
Marthey spread the paper out and pushed it toward her mother pointing at an article.
“See here, mama. It says there’s only one wild buffalo left in all of Nebraska. The other’s have been hunted and killed and this one carries on out on the prairie.”
Mabel glanced at the article and continued eating. “What’s a wild beast like that got to do with me?”
“Oh, nothing,” Marthey answered. “I just thought…I mean, I was hoping, I would surely like to see him, mama. Out on that prairie.”
Mabel shook her head. “Plumb foolish. You always been foolish. No man would have such a adle-minded slip of a girl.”
Marthey’s eyes turned to the tablecloth, lingering on the coffee stain that she could never get out.
“How you fixin’ to pay for such a trip?”
“I got money saved from my cannin’ and washin’.”
“Plumb foolish,” Mabel repeated, shaking her head.
Marthey packed one dress in her tiny suitcase, put on her white gloves and closed the door behind her. Dust covered her patent black shoes as she made her way down the dirt road to the bus station. The Nebraska cornfields furled around her, a great waving sea of complacency. Marthey’s hands shook as she paid for the ticket from a black leather change purse. She held the ticket in her gloved hand, the first thing that had ever truly belonged to her alone.
“Goin’ on a trip, Miss Marthey?” asked the man at the counter.
Marthey had never been out of her hometown. Swallowing nervously, she nodded and waited for the bus with the farmers and the salesmen. The bus exhaled a long gasp when it stopped and she followed the other passengers inside. She found a seat by a window and stared as the bus clawed its way from the Platte River Valley where the haze and humidity lay heavy on the land, thick like meringue. She watched as the waving corn fields became rounded mounds of grass land, bubbling up, in all colors of tan, and wheat and fawn. Cows dotted the mounds and then even the cows were swallowed up by the vast prairie grasses.
The bus continued west, and windows were opened to let in every whisper of wind. Marthey’s dress stuck to the perspiration on her breasts and back and she loosened her collar, to catch a slight breeze. The dust was choking as it blew through the windows, across the tops of the farmer’s hats, clinging to the ladies’ head scarves, coating her teeth and filling her nostrils.
The sun glared off the distant badlands and Marthey could feel the end of the prairie in the harshness of the wind, in the dryness of the air that baked the earth, roasting the grasses until they smelled like bread, morphing the earth itself into mysterious and odd shapes. Her stomach growled and she reached into her satchel and pulled out a boiled egg. A murmur traveled through the bus.
“The driver says the buffalo is coming up,” she heard a man whisper to his wife.
Her heart beat with excitement as she peeled the egg, carefully saving each bit of shell into a napkin.
“Do you see it?” a voice called.
“Nah, nothing yet,” came the reply.
The anticipation rose as the prairie thinned. “Maybe we won’t see it,” a small woman said with an edge of disappointment.
“I hear he likes the road. We’ll see him alright.”
Still holding the shells, Marthey reached into her satchel and pulled out a salt shaker.
“I think I see him,” the driver informed the passengers.
Marthey was salting her egg when the statement was made, and in her excitement, she spilled a little. She bent to the floor to pick it up and toss it over her shoulder and in the process spilled the eggshells. Her hands shook as she quickly tried to pick them back up. She carefully folded them back into the napkin and buried them deep within her satchel.
“Would you look at that,” a voice cried in amazement.
Marthey’s head shot up. She stared out the window, but saw nothing but the end of the prairie and the start of the badlands.
“They say a buffalo can run up to twenty miles an hour,” a farmer told his wife watching an object fleeing from the bus, a distant line of dust racing across the prairie.
“But where do you think he’s going in such a hurry?” the wife wondered.
The farmer shook his head. “He’s got no place to go.”
Marthey bit into the boiled egg. It tasted dried and old.