[Notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Tejas Legends unit. Story source: When the Storm God Rides: Tejas and Other Indian Legends retold by Florence Stratton and illustrated by Berniece Burrough (1936).
Old Woolly Bird's Sacrifice
After a cold, windy spring in the days when the call of the wild turkey and the whoop of the Indian still sounded in the woods, a drought began. For almost a year a blazing sun, whose fires were cooled by no rain-filled cloud, baked the rich soil of the prairie country where an Indian village was standing. Hot days stretched into months. The prairie grasses shrivelled and died. Streams and ponds gazed into the fiery sun day after day until they dried up and left only their hard, dry beds to show where they had been. The earth was burned into powder which the hot winds blew into the sky in choking red clouds.
Drought, thirst, and hunger came among the Indians of the village where old Woolly Bird lived. Though the hunters of the tribe kept to the trails from dawn to dark they found no game, for the deer and the turkey and the bear had fled from the nearby woods where the Indians hunted. Birds kept away from the waterless prairie. Roots had died in the earth, and the berries had failed to appear on their vines.
The Indians had to leave the prairie or die of starvation and thirst. They decided to leave their homes. As his people were making their plans to leave the village Woolly Bird, the oldest of them all, stood feebly leaning on his stick. His old heart was heavy with sadness. He was weak. He could do nothing for himself. While the other men and the women toiled, making ready for the journey that was to begin tomorrow, Woolly Bird could do nothing but tremble and murmur and stare through watery eyes like an old grandmother.
They were preparing to take him along with them, Woolly Bird knew. They would share with him the little dried meat and the acorns they had left. The children and the women would have to give him food they need. When the tribe was ready to leave the next day they would put him with the weaker women and small children upon a drag made of young saplings pulled along by strong squaws. All this made old Woolly Bird full of sadness. He was useless to his people, and he was eating their food and letting them take care of him. No Indian who had once been a strong man and a great hunter of buffalo liked to be a burden to his people in his old age. Death was better, Woolly Bird decided.
That night, when a dry blood-red moon was riding high above the hot prairie and gazing down upon the sleeping Indians, Woolly Bird rose from his bed and stole out of the village like a crippled ghost. He went as far as his feeble legs would take him and at last he fell down and dragged himself through the dust into the shadows of a dead thorn bush. The old man turned on his back and murmured his thanks to the Great Spirit. No more would Woolly Bird be a burden to his people. When tomorrow came, and they prepared to leave, there would be o crippled Woolly Bird to care for and feed, no whimpering Woolly Bird to be nursed like a papoose. Without him they would travel faster and their food would last longer. Woolly Bird turned his face to the moon and smiled with the pale smile of a man who has won a battle with himself. He was a man again.
But Woolly Bird's people did not leave him. When the next day came they found him gone from his bed, and they set out to look for him. Under the thorn bush on the prairie they found him at last, covered with dust and lying on his back, looking up at the sky.
"Come with us, Woolly Bird," said the chief, raising up the old man's head. "The tribe will not forsake its brave men. You have proved yourself brave. Get up and come back with us." They raised him and carried him back to the village.
It was not long after the prairie Indians reached their kinsmen who lived in the forests that the drought blew its burning breath even upon the country that lay beneath the trees. Springs dried up. Creeks no longer ran in the dry beds. Fish and frogs buried themselves or died and turned to white bones on the hot, baked earth where the creeks and ponds had been. Birds flew from the dying trees, and there was no more food for the hungry Indians. Again they must pull up their wigwams and flee from the country which was turning to dust and ashes beneath the sun. Again must they find a new home, and this time, they decided, it would be along the Gulf coast, far from where they were. There was the great blue water, and its fish, and the white birds flying in the clouds that brought rain from the sea. Once more the Indians prepared to break camp.
As they worked to make the drags on which would be carried the weaker women and children and old people of the tribes Woolly Bird hobbled around to all the wigwams where lived old people like himself. With each of these old people he talked in a low voice, and what they talked about none of the others knew.
The Indians had fallen asleep the night before they were to begin their long journey to the gulf when from their wigwams silently crept the old grandfathers and grandmothers as Woolly Bird awakened them. Softly they took down their little white wigwams and folded them across their bent shoulders. With Woolly Bird they slipped out of the village. They made no sound but that of their tired breathing as they crept through the leafless bushes, over the dusty, dead grass and across the dry creek bottoms. For a long time these old Indians walked, with hardly a whisper among themselves. There was something they must do, and they could afford to waste none of their feeble strength in talk.
At last Woolly Bird led them down a steep hill and far into a grove of dead, rotting cypress trees whose bare limbs gleamed like bones in the faint starlight. Bravely they followed their leader as he pushed through thickets of brown, dry reeds and over fallen limbs. Now they had come to the center of the cypress grove.
"Here is where we stop," said Woolly Bird, dropping his wigwam at his feet. "Here is our camp, Old Ones Not Afraid to Die. Our people will never find us tomorrow. We will trouble them no more. Let us make our camp here. Here will the Great Spirit come to us and take us up to the sky to be once again with our fathers."
In the shadows of the lost place where no bird sang, no frog lived to grunt at the moon, and no living thing grew amid the dead reeds and the rotten limbs, the old people helped one another set up their little white wigwams. Then they lay down to wait.
But the Great Spirit did not bring death to them. Because they were brave, and because they were willing to die to keep from troubling their tribesmen the Great Spirit loved them. He sent down to the still grove a great whirlwind. It ripped out the dead cypress trees as it roared through the grove, and in the holes where the trees had stood now sprang up tall living trees with silvery trunks and tops heavy with dark, shining leaves. And this whirlwind found the old Indians. It whirled their white wigwams about their bodies and then it lifted them in their wrappings high up among the boughs of the strange new trees.
There they remained. The Great Spirit turned them into the buds of a noble tree that is now called the magnolia. In the spring these buds open to form lovely flowers whose creamy white petals were the white wigwams of the old Indians, and whose brown centers were the Indians themselves. When the petals are ready to fall, bright red beads, laid there by the Great Spirit, appear around the necks of the brown centers of the flower. Then the beads drop to earth and there take root, for they are the seeds of the magnolia. The Great Spirit wants the tree always to live to tell the story of unselfishness.