He was afraid. Deep within the marrow of his spirit, terror clawed like the talons of a hunting eagle. It savaged the back of his throat with words that he dared not speak: Run! Flee across the Land of Grass! Save yourself! Spirit Sucker rides the Four Winds! Death is coming for you out of the yellow sky!
In thong-laced, calf-high moccasins and loincloth cut from the spotted belly skin of a saber-toothed cat, Dakan-eh, Bold Man of the Red World, fought to keep himself from screaming as he stood with his fellow bison hunters and their dogs at the edge of a deep, mile-long ravine under the ominous shadow of an approaching storm.
Never--not even in the sun-scorched mesa country of his faraway homeland, where summer thunderstorms had once been a common occurrence--had Dakan-eh seen such a sky or such towering, tumultuous squall lines.
And never had he seen so many bison. The herd was about a mile away, directly between the ravine and the oncoming storm. The animals were no longer moving steadily forward across the wide, rolling, autumn-reddened plains; they were milling restlessly within strategically positioned ranks of spear-carrying men clad in robes of bison hide. With their summer-tanned skin lathered with bison dung and urine to mask their human scent, these drivers and callers had spent the last four days and nights skillfully manipulating the herd toward the bison jump, where Dakan-eh and his fellow hunters were now waiting for the final phase of the hunt to begin.
Squinting into the rising wind, Bold Man scanned the open grassland between him and the herd. It was a wide expanse. To close the distance, a man would need as much time as it took a woman to flay and butcher an antelope. If the bison broke and ran now, they would have the distance necessary to build a momentum that would make the speed and direction of their run completely uncontrollable.
Dakan-eh felt sick. It was the month of the Dry Grass Moon, and the bison were fat after a full season of summer grazing. The bulls were still with the cows and calves. The shaggy humps of the largest males crested some eight feet above their hooves, and their massive heads were weighted by a good six-foot spread of laterally aligned horns. If the herd stampeded, any man in its path would be trampled.
The ravine was in their path.
He was in their path.
And with the storm behind the beasts, the squall lines, not the hunters, were driving the herd now.
Again Dakan-eh fought back the need to scream. He did not know what terrified him more--the threat of an imminent stampede or the configuration of the approaching storm. Amazing things were happening to the clouds. From horizon to horizon, the flat bellies of the squall lines were churning, thickening, turning as dark as smoke rising from a greasewood fire. One moment the midmorning sun was there; the next it was gone, swallowed, and the world went dark and cold.
Yet, as the herd circled and snorted and pawed at the earth, Dakan-eh found himself transfixed. He barely felt the sudden chill or noticed the onset of darkness. Somehow the clouds were giving off a light of their own . . . a strange, grayish, threatening illumination that bathed both earth and sky in the livid, purulent colors of an old, yellowing bruise.
"Aiee ay! Under the yellow sky, the bison will run! The whirling wind will come!"
The exclamation came rasping from the inverted seam that was all that remained of the dry, withered lips of Nachumalena, one of several holy men among the People of the Land of Grass who had assembled for the annual autumn bison drive. Standing directly in front of Dakan-eh, the old man threw back his shoulders. He stood with head held high, hip-length hair streaming in the wind, and camellike nostrils splayed wide to scent the mood of the herd and of the approaching storm. Using his long-shafted, stone-tipped, feather-festooned spear as a staff, he took one bold step forward. Then he took another, noticeably less bold. It was obvious that he was afraid to take a third when, without warning, the southwest wind shifted hard to the northwest, and the air was filled with the strong, bitter smell of ice.
Ordinarily Dakan-eh would have been contemptuous of the old man's cowardice. But caught in the unenviable position of sharing the fear, the young headman from the Red World assured himself that on this day, under this sky, with a herd of long-horned bison about to stampede toward him, even he, the boldest and best of all men, might taste the bitter bile of fear and remain unashamed.
He shivered. The whirling wind . . . What, he wondered, had the old shaman meant by that? Although Dakan-eh had no idea, he sensed an unimaginable horror lurking in the meaning of the words. A mammoth began to trumpet nervously in the distant, storm-shrouded mountains to the west, and a pack of dire wolves bayed a high, restive answer. Their communication seemed to express Dakan-eh's own unvoiced terror as the howls echoed back and forth among the folds of the rolling land.
Death is coming! If the bison stampede and catch you on this side of the ravine, you will tumble into it and be crushed. They will try to leap across, but, failing, will fall on top of you! Bison have died in this place for generations since the children of First Man and First Woman first came walking over the mountains into the Land of Grass. Driven by hunters, the beasts never see the ravine in time to avoid it. But you see it! You know the danger! You are a man, not a bison born to be driven and butchered and turned into meat! Run! Death is coming! Why do you stand rooted like a mindless tree to the earth?
He answered his terror without speaking. I will run when the others run! Not before! I am Dakan-eh, Bold Man of the Red World! I am not afraid!
In that moment a flash of lightning named him Liar. Thunder cracked and rolled, while long, eddying fingers of cloud began to poke downward out of the churning black underside of the nearest squall line. Dakan-eh winced. He had never seen anything remotely like them. He stared, gape jawed, fighting against panic lest it prod him to break and run for the protection of the village.
The village! Yearning caused him to cast a quick look over his shoulder across the wide, twenty-foot-deep maw of the ravine. The bones of many a bison littered the bottom. Old bones . . . sun-bleached, time-whitened bones--and bones still fresh enough to be scabbed with the desiccated remnants of connective tissue. Stripped of hide, meat, and tendon, the skeletons lay where they had fallen, one on top of another--cows, bulls, and calves tangled in the pitiless embrace of death. Some had been dismembered; all had been picked clean by the butchering tools of men and by the fangs, beaks, and talons of the carrion eaters of earth and sky. Bold Man imagined his own body lying dead and broken amid the remains of past carnage.
Dakan-eh's long, angular black eyes narrowed, and he clenched his teeth and scanned the top of the ravine. On the far side, three miles of open grassland stood between him and the many tall, brightly painted hide lodges that had been raised close to the steep, cottonwood-shaded embankments of the river. His woman, Ban-ya, was there, with Piku-neh, their nearly two-year-old son. His mother, Pah-la, was with them, as was Sheela, his slave. His heart quickened with longing to be safe with them.
Again thunder growled. Dakan-eh flinched, suddenly aware of a palpable tension among the ranks of men and youths who stood to his right and left. Their spears were at ready and their faces set, but the hunters were afraid. He could sense it, smell it! And yet shame burned him as he realized that not even the dogs were looking back toward the security of the village. He forced himself to face the herd and oncoming squalls. As he did, he caught the eyes of the man standing closest to his right.
Scalded by his father's open glare of rebuke, Bold Man instantly broke eye contact. He knew that Owa-neh had no wish to be there; had it been up to his father, they would still be snaring lizards and eating grubs and ant eggs in the drought-stricken Red World. But it has not bee up to Owa-neh. Dakan-eh was headman of their ancestral village by the Lake of Many Singing Birds! For the third autumn in a row, he had chosen to hunt with the Bison People in the Land of Grass; and this year, at the invitation of the great war chief Shateh, he had brought his entire band north with him to stay. Until this moment Bold Man had found no cause to regret his decision.
His gut tightened. Drawing a deep, steadying breath, Dakan-eh consoled himself with the reminder that he was a great warrior. He had proved himself in battle against the seasoned fighters of the marauding People of the Watching Star. The bison hunters of the Land of Grass had been his allies in that bloody war. They had shown him a better way to live, and he had chosen to make a new life among them. But he was still considered a guest and a foreigner in this land. He had a reputation to uphold and status to win if he and his people were going to be allowed to remain permanently in this game- and water-rich country of bison and mammoth hunters. For as long as they stood bravely before the oncoming storm and threat of stampede, he could not allow himself to do less.
Raising his head and slitting his eyes against the wind, he continued to glare definitely ahead. Surely Shateh knew what he was doing. Besides, the odd, fingerlike whorls of cloud had disappeared into the squalls. Dakan-eh was relieved; he had not liked the look of them any more than he appreciated the sharp, imperative nudge that now came from a young man of his own band.
Bold Man looked down and to his left. Na-sei's dark eyes were full of troubled questions for which Dakan-eh had no answers. Na-sei's loyalty and open adoration usually caused Dakan-eh to smirk with pride; now they annoyed and compromised him. With a warning snarl, he prevented the youth from speaking. Na-sei had yet to accept that in the Land of Grass, Dakan-eh was only one of many subordinate headmen. Shateh was chief above all chiefs. For now, at least, even Bold Man of the Red World must hold his tongue until Shateh told him what to do.
Dakan-eh looked back to the herd and the storm. Lightning veined the sky. The young headman held his breath. One moment passed, then another. Thunder growled before he counted the passage of a seventh second. Close! He thought. Much too close. And coming closer. Why does Shateh keep silent? What is he waiting for?
Fear rippled through the herd. A few bison skittered and bucked. Cows bawled, bulls bellowed, and calves bleated; but somehow the mass of animals held together.
But for how long? Wondered Dakan-eh, chafing against his need to take control of the situation. He looked down the line of men to where Shateh stood immobile, slightly forward of his two sons, Kalawak and Atonashkeh. Like most hunters born to the People of the Land of Grass, the sons of Shateh were tall, broad-faced, good-looking men--yet compared to the chieftain, they seemed insignificant. Envy made Dakan-eh scowl. Compared to Shateh, who was past his prime and dressed like every other hunter in loincloth and lightweight moccasins, everyone looked insignificant--especially the smaller, stockily built hunters of the Red World. Shateh's tall, battle- and hunt-scarred body seemed clad in an invisible cloak of power and authority that set him apart.
To be a man like Shateh . . . to be the one to whom all turn in times of danger . . . ah, yes! Someday it will be so. It was Dakan-eh's lifelong dream. He had led his band north with the unspoken hope that among the aggressive big-game hunters of the Land of Grass, he would become what he never had hope of becoming in the country of his grub-eating, lizard-stalking ancestors--a war chief, a hunter of bison and mammoth, and even a killer of men when they proved to be his enemies.
Suddenly Na-sei exhaled a moan of pure, disbelieving terror, causing Dakan-eh to look back to the herd and the storm. Bold Man knew at that instant that the dream was about to die. His life was over. Death was coming toward him out of the yellow sky. And Shateh was not doing anything to stop it.
From out of the black and bilious belly of the nearest squall line, a series of mammular extensions were shaping themselves into a single long, roiling, spiraling cloud of monstrous proportions that reached toward the earth like the trunk of a questing mammoth.
"Aiyee!" cried Nachumalena. "The whirling wind! It comes!" He invoked the storm spirits in a high, terrified wail and jabbed his spear skyward as though attempting to pierce the underside of the onsweeping clouds.
At last the chieftain gave a command. "Everyone into the ravine! Now! It is our only chance."
Dakan-eh could not believe what he had just heard. To his right and left, men were hurrying into the ravine and pulling their dogs with them. Wide-eyed with incredulity, he stared at them, then at the tornado. The bison had seen it, and on the flanks of the herd, so had the hunters. They were casting off their heavy camouflage cloaks and were running now, but their race for safety came too late. The bison surged forward and spread across the plain and, with the whirling wind cutting a massive, zigzagging path behind them, overran the men. Appalled, Dakan-eh watched them die and felt his will to be obedient to Shateh crack as though struck by a hammerstone.
Suddenly he was a headman again, in command again. Screaming to be heard above thundering hooves and the roar of the oncoming tornado, he held his ground and called down into the ravine. "Hunters of the Land of Grass, if you hide in the earth the whirling wind will find you. If it does not kill you, you will die in a rain of bison! Come out of the ravine, hunters of the Land of Grass and men of the Red World! Run with Bold Man before the whirling wind! Do not be afraid!"
Shateh, in a rain-drenched fury, came stalking up to him. The heel of a broad hand rammed Dakan-eh's shoulder and attempted to shove him back. "Into the ravine, Lizard Eater."
Fury met fury as Dakan-eh, Bold Man of the Red World, was stung by the unexpected blow and insult to his origins. By what right did Shateh shame him? He would not be humiliated or forced to obey the senseless command of one who had apparently lost his ability to reason.
Glaring defiantly at the chieftain, he shouted through wind and rain and the sound of the approaching herd, "There is still time to get to the other side of the ravine, to run before the storm and to find safety within the village. Or does Shateh command his hunters to face death because he is too old to race the whirling wind?"
Shateh's expression was lost to view under the long, graying hair whipping before his face. "You cannot run away from Thunder in the Sky, Lizard Eater!" he shouted back. "When the whirling wind comes, you must hide within the skin of Mother Below and hope that the fury of the Great Mammoth Spirit's twisting trunk will not find you and throw you away into the sky forever."
Shateh turned, suddenly distracted by a shrill, wind-torn shriek of a wail. He squinted back to where the old shaman stood, his spear still pointing skyward. The war chief uttered a sharp curse before shouting, "Come back, Nachumalena! Neither the bison nor the whirling wind will stop for you! And lower your spear before it brings lightning down upon you!"
The warning came too late. Dakan-eh would never know whether Nacumalena even heard or saw the lightning bolt that killed him. But Bold Man saw it. And then he saw no more, for in that instant the world exploded with light and sound and the electrifying stink of ozone. In the next instant the force field of the lightning blast hurled him backward into the ravine.
Excerpted from Thunder in the Sky by William Sarabande. Copyright © 1992 by William Sarabande. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.