As Lord Harold would later tell it, that day, that particular day, changed the lives of a lot of people forever. Not in Topeka I mean, but out on the plains, eighty miles southwest of town.
* * *
Harold wasn't a real Lord, of course. His father had been a poor yeoman father who'd died a slow death trying to raise potatoes on five acres of rocky soil in the south of York. But on Harold's long voyage to America, back in the spring of 1829, Harold had heard his companions in steerage say something over and over again - In America, even the poorest man can become a King.
Upon his arrival, not wanting to endure the pressure of such a high position, Harold had pronounced himself a mere Lord. And why not? It was not against the law here to call oneself a Lord, and he rather liked it. Indeed, the name stuck from the very first time he had used it.
But that was a long time ago.
Today, he awoke to a beautiful blue sky. Though Autumn was well upon the prairie, the day was unusually warm. A brisk but pleasant breeze rustled across the village from the west. Tepee doors and smoke vents were quickly flung wide to air the dank quarters within.
To the woman Gray Dove, the warm air and thawed ground presented an opportunity, plainly the last of the year, to dig herbs for her medicine bag. Strapping a large basket to her back, she headed out of camp unnoticed.
Women, children and even warriors gathered in small groups to exchange stories in the warm sunshine. A festive atmosphere prevailed. A few began to chant and beat drums.
Amid the celebration, a young boy who'd left camp at dawn to retrieve a stray horse, came riding in hard, shouting as loudly as he could and waving his arms frantically. When he hit the center of the village he dismounted in a single bound, so excited he could barely speak. His friends laughed, pounding him on his back and pushing him to and fro. "What is it?" they teased. "A bird? A ghost? Speak up little boy. Speak up!"
When he was finally able to suck a lungful of air, he pointed due west and uttered a single word.
Impossible! they thought. Buffalo have never been here this time of year. And never so near the camp. Was this a joke? Should they take a stick to him?
And then a cry went up from a single brave, soon to be taken up by other tribesmen. For out on the horizon, not two miles distant, they could see the brown blur of thousands of shaggy beasts. What's more, they could smell them.
Everyone in the village leapt to frantic activity now. Braves ran for the pony herd to catch their favorite mounts, boys scurried to tepees to fetch their fathers' guns and bows, women and girls yanked open leather bags to find their knives and scrapers.
The ground, previously frozen and covered with a light snow, was now a mixture of melt-water and mud. Sliding and lurching in the brown ooze, many slipped and fell flat on their backs, only to arise laughing at themselves. More than a few moccasins remained stuck in the ground. Even the most stoic of warriors frolicked like children, shoving others off balance and tossing balls of mud at their friends.
Amid this revelry, Lord Harold stood outside of his tepee, smoking his pipe and enjoying the bombastic sight. His hunting pony being lame, he had no intention of going out to the herd. But his young wife, Blue Flower, suddenly appeared at his side, thrusting his Hawken rifle and powder horn into his hands.
"You go too," she commanded. "It is important that you go too, if only to help."
He realized she was right, and paused only to gather his belt knife and hunting bag. Maybe in the confusion of the chase, he could take a wayward calf.
In the midst of this jostling, few people noticed the thin black cloud stretching low across the western horizon, from the direction in which the herd had come. Dark banks of dust were a routine sight near buffalo herds, being churned up by the thousands of brawny hooves. No one stopped to contemplate, however, that in mid-Autumn . . . there is no dust on the plains.
As Harold sprinted through the village to join the hunt, he too was caught up in the merriment. A teenage girl named Cold Spring (who loved to flirt despite the fact that she was already pledged to a young brave) thrust a wooden pole under his feet as he passed, tripping him face down in the muck.
"By God girl," he yelled in mock anger, scraping mud from his face. "In a few years that brave of yers will be full grown and teach you good! You'll see!" She giggled coquettishly and ran away.
One of the last men to leave the village, Harold was followed in turn by a throng of young boys, all of whom had been sternly ordered to stay behind. Despite this insubordination, the women watched with glee, many beaming with pride at the intrepidness of their little sons. Had the women been white, though, they may have been reminded of the tale of the Pied Piper.
With a last glance over his shoulder, Harold thought it curious that one ancient warrior, He Who Stalks, was as far from jubilant as an Arapaho could be. Barely noticed by the others, he sat outside his tepee on his best blanket, chanting, his face painted white with fat and crushed chalk.
The braves, on horseback now, closed the distance from camp to the herd in minutes. Indeed, the distance had grown ever shorter as the herd had drifted eastward.
The herd itself was massive, tens of thousands of buffalo in a single throng. They seemed confused, though, oddly disorganized, leaderless. Some stood totally still, staring back at the western horizon. Some galloped wildly in random directions, occasionally slamming into their companions. And others bobbed their heads violently, bellowing prehistoric calls.
To the hunters, a disorderly mass themselves, this odd behavior was tantalizing. Confused animals meant easy prey, and the thought of fresh fatty meat after weeks of dried jerky pushed the men to the brink of frenzy.
One by one, they peeled right or left of the great herd, riding at full gallop with weapons held high. One by one they selected easy, drifting targets who seemed oblivious to their presence. And one by they slew the great animals, sinking arrows into their brown sides up to the fletchings or firing large bore guns into their chests at point blank range.
Unseen in this tumult, during a space of perhaps ten minutes, the dark hue from the west came upon them without a sound, capping the clear blue sky with a low ceiling of roiling black slate. Heavy winds followed, swirling like warm ocean currents.
Huffing and puffing from his long run, Harold arrived at the edge of this odd circus. There, he stood transfixed for a full minute, taking in the entire scene as one great image. It reminded him instantly of the paintings he'd once viewed in London, huge renaissance depictions of mythical battles among gods, men, nature and beasts.
Though he glanced up at the strange black sky, he was incapable of assessing it. For as with the other men, he was caught up in the wonderful blood frenzy of the moment - the immediacy of it . . . the purity of it. The children who'd followed were caught up as well, screeching little war cries and scampering in all directions.
Harold, eager now to kill, planted himself in a sitting position on a small mound of grass. He wished he'd remembered to bring his shooting stick to help steady the heavy iron barrel, but the range would be short and he knew he could manage.
No sooner had he settled than a yearling calf came trotting out of the ragged edge of the herd. Straight towards him she came, and his heart skipped a beat waiting for her to stop. At the last possible instant she did, lurching sideways as if to escape to the south.
Amid the bellows and grunts of the massive herd, and the whoops and shouts of the warriors, Harold's gun fired with an ear-splitting crash. Down came the huge calf, rolling sideways, her legs churning the air as if still in flight.
Harold cheered, shaking his fist in triumph. He rose instantly to ram fresh powder and ball down the muzzle of his gun.
And in that brief instant . . . the world seemed to tip over.
Just to the west of the herd, at its rearward edge, the churning black ceiling tilted to one side, pouring a little stream of inky clouds to the ground as if from a pitcher. The stream did not splash though. Rather, it seemed to float there for a moment, suspended in mid-air. Ever so gently then, it kissed the earth and formed a misshapen column. Within seconds it became a lop-sided funnel, twisting violently from top to bottom.
"My God," were the only words to escape his lips before a wave of icy wind crashed into him, knocking him to the ground.
And then it was upon them. It was upon them all.
The huge tornado plunged eastward, plowing straight into the herd. With the indifference of a madman, it murdered them by the thousands, crushing some to pulp, hurling some for miles, and lifting others to great heights before dropping them to their deaths.
Harold rolled forward onto his knees, knowing that he had to move. Deafening sounds pounded his ear drums . . . the chug-chug-chug of the twisting storm, the bellows and cries of the tortured bovines, and now the shouts and screams of the People.
He tried to take in great gulps of air before running, but the huge vacuum of the twister seemed to suck the very breath out of him. Scores of the great animals thundered past, and fearing death beneath their hooves, he could wait no longer.
Reaching blindly for his rifle, he lurched to his feet and ran, head down, knees pumping, as fast as he could, in the straightest line he could muster. And though he didn't know it, his course was south, the same direction in which the calf had attempted to flee and, as it turned out, the only path to safety.
On and on he ran, staring down at the brown prairie as it passed beneath him, his fifty year old lungs heaving and burning. Twice he was knocked to the ground by the heads or shoulders of panicked buffalo, and yet each time he rolled with the impact and returned to his feet. With them and along side of them he ran, flowing among their tons of flesh as they gently turned southwest.
And then, he was free. Free from the band of terrified beasts. Free from the killing path of the storm. Dodging heavily to his left he headed into what looked like open field and ran the last hundred yards that remained in his battered legs. There he collapsed, rolling onto his back and coughing wet phlegm. The ground rumbled heavily beneath him as more animals pounded past. But he was out of their stream, out of their panic-stricken route.
A minute passed before he rose to a sitting position, and he was surprised to find that he still clutched the rifle in his left hand. Frigid wind blew hard against him, stinging him with freezing rain.
And though the sky was still dark with clouds, he could yet see the destructive funnel to the east, see it at a mile's distance.
And what he saw there rendered him senseless.
The great bulk of the brown herd was still stampeding eastward, over a rise and towards the village beyond. Twisting and twirling among it was the black tornado, lifting everything before it in a massive churning arc.
And in that sickening moment, Harold could see, could actually see, the great bodies of the buffalo and horses floating high above the ground, their legs swingy wildly, their heads twisting back at odd angles. And interspersed among them, the tan-clad bodies of the hunters and boys, their limbs outstretched and flapping, their colorful blankets twirling like leaves.
He tried to look away, but found could not, for he knew what was next to come.
To the thumping roar and screams amidst the storm were now added the rending and flapping of half a hundred tepees being ripped from their frames and sucked high into the funnel. A forest of lodge poles shot skyward as if launched from great machines, clattering and snapping among the detritus.
And with them, the frail human figures of women and children . . . more and more of them.
Harold thrust his head downward and covered his eyes with his hands. He'd seen enough. He could look no more.
Sitting alone in the driving rain, he wept.
Several hours passed before Harold stirred again. The rain had stopped but the entire sky remained a foggy gray. He could have risen earlier, started the walk back sooner, and yet he could find neither the strength nor courage to do it.
Finally, coaxed solely by that most vexing human instinct "to know," he was on his feet again.
In a dreamlike state, he trudged slowly back towards the site of the cataclysm. At first he saw nothing but the brown grass and the gentle roll of the plains. He deluded himself into believing that maybe, just maybe, his fears had been exaggerated. Many had been injured, of course, a few killed, well certainly, but even now his family and friends were awaiting him at the village with hot food and dry blankets. A cheer would go up as he and others returned.
Onward he walked.
At the top of the next rise, he paused. This is where it had all begun.
The path of the tornado was easy to find and easier to follow. A hundred yards wide and almost a foot deep, it meandered eastward like a muddy river for miles, from the point where it had touched down, through the trampled ground of the herd, and out to the village beyond.
As mind-numbing as the path was, the path was not what would cause him to falter and collapse on shaking knees. It was what he saw next.
For when he topped the next rise and looked eastward . . . the dead littered the prairie for as far as the eye could see.
Buffalo by the thousands, mixed with scores of spotted ponies and deerskin-clad figures, lay twisted in hideous poses, forming irregular patterns and mounds on each side of the great path. Plainly the vast bulk of the animals and people had tried to escape in the same direction, running due east towards the village rather than north or south. But it had caught them . . . and it had savaged them, unto death.
Returning to his feet, tears streaming down his face, Harold staggered forward, afraid to stop, but afraid to look, for fear of being stricken by insanity. And as he walked, a few hundred stray buffalo stood dazed on the horizons, bellowing high sad calls, with hopes of finding their mates and calves. Occasionally, miraculously, one would answer with a forlorn moan or bleat and stagger to rejoin them.
Of live ponies, there were none. More sensitive than buffalo and more sensible than humans, those who had foreseen the onslaught had simply run in any direction possible, and were probably running still.
A hundred yards short of the village, Harold suddenly realized . . . that there was no village. Not anymore. The path of death ran right through the middle of it.
Every tepee and lodge was gone, the ground trampled deeply by thousands of hooves. Here and there, sheets of hide flapped wildly in the wind, held in place by stray ropes or broken poles. Cookware, beadwork and a hundred other trappings of camp life were scattered everywhere. Slabs of smoked meat and jerky, meant to last the winter, lay soggy and stinking in the mud.
Large circles of dark bare ground, some surrounded by short wooden stakes or remnants of trampled floor hides, formed the only reminder of the village that once stood. Navigating among these, Harold found the site where his own tepee had been.
Remarkably, Blue Flower lay there on her back, untrampled, resting, and smiling at him. Her face was profoundly beautiful. A tent stake jutted skyward through the center of her chest.
Harold collapsed next to his young wife, hugging her for an hour or more, though he knew she was gone.
And as the sun dropped lower in the west, Harold decided that he was content to die here, beside his young wife. He reached over to clutch a dirty buffalo robe, pulled it over them like a great death shroud, and fell into a deep deep sleep.
Not more than an hour had passed before he was yanked from the depths of sweet darkness by the sound of a crying child. A little girl stood there, sobbing and shaking.
Rain Sky. That was here name. Daughter of Running Wolf and Green Tree, neither to be seen, ever again.
Harold lay still for a time, hoping she would go away. He had an appointment with death, after all, and he was fully at peace with it.
But there she remained, crying and shaking. A crumpled doll dangled from one hand, and at times she would clutch it to her breast and sing.
He was fully awake now and found he couldn't just ignore her. "Goddammit child," he snapped, "can't you let a man just lie down and die?"
She didn't answer, but shuffled over to the robe, plopped down, and grasped his hand. So cold was her skin, that he marveled she was still alive.
"Okay, Rain Sky . . . okay," he murmured in Arapaho. "We'll go on for awhile longer."
Peeling off his hunting jacket, he draped it around her shoulders. It hung to the ground like a great tawny dress. Kneeling before her, he pulled the front ties together and fastened them taut. She stopped crying instantly and stared blankly into his eyes.
"Fire," she said, and began to suck her thumb.
Harold shook his head. The girl was thinking clearer than he. Without fire, they wouldn't live through the night.
He tried to get her to stay put on the robe, but she wouldn't have it. She toddled along behind him wherever he went.
Good lodge poles were of great value on the plains, and only a fool would burn one. But in looking from left to right, and from right to left, he quickly surmised that there were hundreds of poles about, and no lodges still standing. Who could complain?
In the midst of the wreckage, he found two large poles and grabbed each by its end. Dragging them back to his campsite, he stopped now and again to rest. Without need for instruction, Rain Sky followed, towing a long stick with one hand and gripping her doll in the other.
Now back at his tepee site, Harold paused. Blue Flower was still there beneath the curly brown robe and he felt the spirit of her and the others about him. "Not here," he said to himself. "Not among the dead."
With that, he turned and plodded south, out of the village. Rain Sky followed close behind. At a quarter mile's distance, he found a small dip in the ground with a low hill on its westward side, shielding it from the wind. Here they dropped their wood and walked back to the village for more.
An hour later they sat on wool blankets before a roaring fire, wrapped in a piece of tent hide. Eight poles, arranged like spokes in a wheel, met in the center over the makeshift fire-pit. As the ends of the poles burned throughout the night, he could push the lengths inward to feed the flames. Sparks climbed high in the air with the column of smoke, a sure sign of fuel being wasted . . . the kind of fire only a greenhorn would make. He didn't care. He liked the sight of it. He relished its heat.
Long strips of meat, cut straight from a calf and dangling on spits, sizzled and popped over the fire. When these were done, he cut small steaming pieces and shared them with the girl. He was amazed at the quantity she ate. After a time, she fell asleep on his knee.
He was thirsty, but there would be nothing to drink until daylight when he could draw fresh water from a nearby creek. They couldn't risk drinking filthy water in the dark.
The sun was fully down now, and Harold and Rain Sky slumbered together under the hide, the fire crackling warmly before them.
Sometime after midnight, Harold Atherton, Lord of the Plains, dreamt of voices, voices in the Arapaho tongue. Low, murmuring and comforting, he could not make out the words. Drifting slowly towards consciousness, he saw blanket-wrapped figures huddled on the opposite side of the fire. Someone, Gray Dove perhaps, knelt beside him and draped a heavy robe across his shoulders, much warmer than the tent hide that had covered him before.
And then he realized, understood, that he and Rain Sky were not alone. At least some of the others had escaped and were returning even now in ones and twos. His large fire, a beacon visible for miles across the dark landscape, was calling the survivors home. He started to speak, but exhaustion took him again, and he returned to his sleep until dawn.