CHAPTER ONE: The Last Mammoth
Grandfather stood like an eagle on the steep bank overlooking the giant, shaggy mammoth. The beast snorted and thrashed its head and tusks about as it struggled for freedom from the thick, gooey muck that held its legs as tree trunks rooted to the bottom of the marsh. In all his sixteen years, the boy known fondly by his family as Turtle-Who-Fights, had never seen such a magnificent animal. This was the first mammoth the band of hunters had encountered since the time before Turtle’s birth. His father had been killed by such a mammoth during a hunt far to the north along the shores of this same marsh.
The troop of fifteen hunters, together with their women, children, and an odd assortment of dogs and belongings tracked the beast for several days along the shores of the Black Island Marsh (in more arid times, to become known as the Black Rock Desert). Finally, they had forced it into the thick mud where it was hopelessly stuck. Elders of the group claimed this old rogue was the last mammoth left in the region, perhaps the last member of his species in existence.
Excitement began to fill the hearts of the people as they gathered along the shore to decide what to do with the prize now that it seemed they may actually have a chance to kill the animal and share the wealth a mammoth could provide. As a hunting group, they were ill prepared to tackle an animal of such size and strength. Shamans of the group marveled at the strength of the mammoth’s spirit. The mere size of such a beast called for all the courage their bravest hunters could muster. Their sharpened wooden sticks and pouches full of selected rocks for throwing at small game were no match for a mammoth.
As darkness began to fall, it became more and more evident that the animal had weakened and seemed to struggle less each hour to become free of the mud. The front legs and feet of the beast had cut a steep vertical bank in the soft soil at the edge of the marsh, making it impossible for him to step out of the hole he was in. Every movement the mammoth made seemed to sink him deeper into his trap. Grandfather posted a guard at the bank by the beast and called the remainder of the people together by the campfire to discuss the final attack on the shaggy monster. All the hunters agreed they must kill the animal rather than allow it to die of starvation in the muddy grave. It would be too much of an indignity to allow the spirit of the animal to die trapped in such a manner without a fight to the death.
There were other reasons expounded for killing the creature rather than letting it die naturally. Some of the hunters believed the meat of an animal turned bad if it died a natural death, without the blood draining effect of spears or darts. Grandfather had his own reason for wanting to kill the beast. He proclaimed his belief that this mammoth trapped here was the son of the very mammoth that killed his own son, Ouray, the father of Turtle-Who-Fights, so many years before.
Turtle’s grandfather was named Mauwee. He was one of the most respected shamans of the group. He gathered the hunting party close around the fire and spoke to the tired hunters. They had great respect for the wise old man, and they listened intently to his words. He said, “You are about to witness a very special event in the story of our people. For many years we have hunted the buffalo, the bighorn sheep and the antelope. Occasionally, we have had the good fortune to kill a mammoth. Any year we can kill a mammoth is a good year. Our survival of the winter is assured if we are lucky enough to kill a mammoth. For many years, we have seen no mammoth. Suddenly, we discover this one as we make our way south toward our winter resting area. It is a good omen. You must know, however, that this will likely be the last mammoth you will ever see. When we kill this mammoth tomorrow, there will never be another mammoth kill. Remember this hunt well. You will talk of it for years to come with your sons and grandsons. Your women will ask you to repeat the story of the last mammoth. Part of the spirit of this great beast will be with all of us for as long as we live. I call you here to ask you to respect the spirit of the mammoth. Even though we must take him for our winter survival, we must always respect his spirit. Remember, too, that it would be a waste for us not to take him. He cannot reproduce, since there are no others of his kind. He would just wander around until he died anyway. Tomorrow we will have our mammoth.”
With those things said to his fellow hunters, Mauwee began preparing for the kill. He called for his pouch, which contained many prized possessions, reminders of his many adventures. There was powerful medicine in some of the things he carried with him. He reached in and pulled out a large, curious looking blade, or point, made of a beautifully colored and polished stone. The blade was as long and somewhat wider than a person’s thumb. It had a deep groove about halfway up from the base along each side. It was sharpened like a knife down each edge. Mauwee called it his mammoth blade.
The old man was small of stature, and he had a deformed spine, but he worked quickly and deliberately to construct the weapon for the kill. Despite two previously broken fingers on his right hand, he was able to craft a lance using the Clovis point and a fire hardened stick of greasewood he had selected from a bundle the hunters always carried with them. He used a stone grooving tool to carve a notch in the stick and carefully shaped the notch to receive the fluted stone point. The exactness of the carving and shaping finally allowed the stone point to match up perfectly with the sturdy spear handle. The fire hardened wood of the shaft slid neatly into the grooves of the fluted sides of the blade. This allowed the point to be reinforced from breaking as it was thrust into the thick hide of a mammoth.
The final step in the manufacture of the weapon was to secure the blade and shaft together with strips of deer sinew. To keep the sinew from becoming wet and allowing the point to become loose, Mauwee took a lump of pine pitch from his pouch full of wonderful and magical things, and heated it over the fire to apply to the sinew bindings. He explained that if this were not done, the blood from the wound would quickly wet and stretch the sinew and allow the point to come off.
Fatigue from the efforts of the hunt, and weakness from skimpy rations for several days, caused the hunters to retire early for a much needed rest. Despite the fatigue, sleep was restless that night due to anticipation of the events to come and the occasional snorts and groaning of the entrapped pachyderm.
Turtle-Who-Fights was enthralled by the discussions at the campfire. He tried to imagine the thoughts that must be going through the mind of his grandfather. Was he being motivated by revenge for the death of Turtle’s father? Was he more concerned about the bounty the taking of the mammoth would bring to the people? Was he unsure of his ability to lead the group through a successful attack against the animal after his own son had been killed in a similar attempt? Turtle was also deeply moved by the admonition Mauwee had given the group to always remember the spirit of the mammoth. All these things were of interest to Turtle. He was trying to learn all he could from the old shaman. Turtle’s ambition in life was to become a shaman as his grandfather had done.
Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, Turtle’s cousin, Yori, summoned Turtle to relieve him to guard the mammoth from predators and to warn of any increased efforts by the animal to escape. The boy took his post on the steep bank above the mammoth. The beast remained fairly calm during Turtle’s watch. He could see the glow of the polished ivory tusks forming a full curl on either side of the massive head in the pale moonlight. The animal had a peculiar musky smell Turtle had never experienced before on any other animal. Occasionally, the beast became restless, and the intense, beady eyes stared at Turtle through the darkness, while off in the distance the mournful yapping of a coyote broke the silence. Turtle-Who-Fights felt a sense of sorrow at the thought of the beast being killed, and that this was the last specimen of his species in existence. The young man’s sorrow faded when he was reminded of the horrible death his father had suffered under the feet of another mammoth just days before Turtle-Who-Fights was born.
As dawn began to break over the Great Basin, the sounds of the awakening clan could be heard preparing for the busy day ahead. The evening fire was rekindled and a healthy ration of dried rabbit meat and berry cakes was passed out to everyone to strengthen their bodies for the task to come.
Mauwee, being the shaman of hunting the larger animals for the group, selected a party of six hunters to attack and kill the mammoth. Turtle had thought that due to his youth and relative inexperience, he would never be selected for such an important mission. He was both pleased and surprised when Grandfather appointed him to assist in the attack and to carry the weapon of death for him.
The plan of attack was simple. Four hunters including two uncles of Turtle-Who-Fights and their sons would attack one side of the mammoth as a distraction. Grandfather and Turtle would then approach the other side and deliver the killing wound. Grandfather had thought this out carefully to avoid the mistakes made before. Turtle’s father was crushed to death beneath the feet of a similar mammoth as he had attempted to spear it. The hunters wanted no casualties on this hunt.
In the orange light of the sunrise, the distraction team approached the mammoth. Suddenly, a huge flock of trumpeter swans burst forth from their evening roost in the tules, and their sonorous cries echoed up and down the banks of the marsh. This commotion brought forth a massive uplifting of waterfowl of all kinds, frightened from their resting places by the warning cries of the swans. As the clatter of the birds began to diminish, the hunters slid down the steep bank to the shore of the marsh and approached the rudely awakened mammoth while wading waist deep in the chilly water. The beast raised its massive head and hairy trunk, snorting and struggling against the mud that held its legs. The distracters moved toward the back of the animal so it had to turn its head far to the side to watch as they jabbed their spears into the side of his rib cage. The sharpened and fire hardened wooden sticks were useless to puncture the thick, hairy hide. Nonetheless, the distraction worked as planned. The mammoth used all his remaining energy to trumpet and scold his tormentors.
Grandfather and Turtle quickly and silently slid into the waist deep water and approached the opposite side of their quarry. With the head turned and a leg slightly uplifted, the exposed rib cage nearest the heart was exposed. While the animal scolded the distraction team, the proud young hunter named Turtle-Who-Fights handed his grandfather the prepared lance with the sharpened mammoth point.
The sinewy old man took the lance and made his final approach to kill the beast. Grandfather took the last few steps toward the animal with the lance raised high, poised for action. In an instant the best, most carefully thought out plans were rendered useless, when the old hunter stepped into one of the deep holes in the mud created by the feet of the mammoth, while it floundered at the shore of the marsh. Mauwee lost his footing and sank into the hole, dropping the lance in his desperate attempt to keep his balance.
Young Turtle instantly sprang into action, sensing the hopelessness of the situation. He lunged out through the muddy water and retrieved the floating lance while Mauwee struggled to pull himself from the muddy hole. It was Turtle who then thrust the lance deep into the heart of the mammoth with all his weight behind the lunge. Turtle quickly grabbed his grandfather’s arm and pulled him from the muddy hole just as the enormous shaggy head and tusks spun around to their side. The shaft of the lance was broken off as if it were a dried bulrush stem.
There was just one final outburst of energy, then the mighty animal shuddered and began to slump in a quivering death pose. At that instant, the Pleistocene had truly come to an end in the Great Basin with the demise of this creature, its most recognized symbol.
Grandfather and Turtle fell back in the cold, muddy water. They sat there momentarily as the animal died. A pulsating stream of blood from the wound around the broken shaft revealed the thrust at the heart had been accurate. One would think that only a person who had previously cut the heart from a mammoth could have made such a precise kill. As the two men sat in the reddening water, Grandfather and Turtle embraced and the old man whispered to him, “Now the death of your father is avenged. For better or for worse, we have removed these animals from our land, and from our earth, forever. Your spirit was stronger than the spirit of the mammoth. You have proven to me that your spirit is stronger than even my own. I want you, my grandson, to assume the spirit of the mammoth and the bravery of Ouray, your fallen father.”