So when Dave Heider discovered Miracle on his morning rounds on Aug. 20, 1994, he thought the light was playing tricks on him. Buffalo calves are normally cinnamon, turning darker as they grow. This one was white.
"She's our little miracle," Heider's wife, Val, said, and so the calf was named.
The local newspaper ran a story. Shortly thereafter, the first pilgrims arrived, a group of American Indians sent as scouts to check the authenticity of the white buffalo calf.
The Heiders watched in amazement as they removed their shoes, a mark of respect before walking on sacred ground. They prayed before Miracle and pinned web-shaped dream-catchers to her gate.
A short time later the Heiders received a phone call from chief medicine man Floyd Hand of the Sioux nation in Pine Ridge, S.D.
"Do not sell the sacred white buffalo calf," he warned. "You have been chosen to be her guardians."
Then Hand made a chilling prediction. Miracle's father would die within days.
Two days later Marvin, the Heider's prized bull, died suddenly from an obstruction in his stomach.
Since then, the Heiders knew Miracle would be with them for the rest of her life.
"It hasn't been easy," Val says with a sigh.
"It sure hasn't," Dave growls.
More than 250,000 pilgrims have flocked to Heider's farm to see her. They come from around the world: American Indians and tourists, rock stars and farmers, priests and politicians. They bring food and gifts, beadwork, tobacco, Teddy bears, sweetgrass, babies and prayers and tears. The Dalai Lama visited; so did the governor.
To them this buffalo is sacred. In her first year, she changed color four times: black, red, yellow and brown, as described in Native American legend, the same legend that holds that when the buffalo turns white again, world peace will ensue.
The Heiders have turned down offers from theme parks and tribes. Rock singer Ted Nugent wanted to buy her. So did Ted Turner. David Letterman wanted to fly her to New York to appear on his late night show.
"Miracle doesn't travel," Val politely told the television folks. "People travel to see her People say they feel an energy coming from her pasture."
Some worry about all that energy. Hand, the Sioux medicine man, believes things must change, he says, if the prophecy of peace is to be fulfilled. If Miracle dies prematurely, it will mean Armageddon.
In particular Hand objects to the selling of trinkets buffalo earrings and socks and T-shirts at a little gift shop on the farm.
Hand says he wept with Miracle when he visited the farm last summer.
Around the same time, the Heiders noticed that Miracle was losing weght, becoming listless. She stopped eating. She started limping.
Veterinarian Tom Williams discovered an abscess in her right hind foot. If the infection had spread, it could have killed her.
"Any other buffalo would have been freezer meat," Dave Heider said. "But Miracle had to be saved."
After the surgery, Val Heider noticed the shaved patch on Miracle's neck, where Williams had inserted the needle. The hairs on the patch were white.
The fact that Miracle has changed color four times reinforces her apocalyptic status for pilgrims. They believe that if she survives to old age, about 30 for a buffalo, she will turn white again, and peace will come.
The pilgrims arrive daily, busloads in the summer, a steady trickle in winter. And the offerings pile up. Every month or so, Dave Heider selects a few for a small museum he maintains and burns the rest, as instructed by elders.
Miracle has been a boon for the local economy. And she has irrevocably changed the lives of the Heiders, who have been honored in American Indian ceremonies. They charge no fee to see Miracle, but many visitors contribute to a trust fund set up in the buffalo's name.
"You watch all these people standing here for hours and you see how she affects them," Heider says. "It makes you look at things a little differently, makes you not take things for granted."
As he speaks, another visitor arrives. She walks slowly to the fence, eyes brimming with tears. Her fingers reach through the wire mesh an inch from the buffalo's head. Miracle pulls away sharply. For a moment they lock eyes, worshiper and worshipped.
"Thank you," Blair whispers. "Thank you for letting me be here."