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The top of the hillock which the tribe was climbing was studded with boulders, some so big that they overhung both sides of the hill. The rank scent of feeding bison was borne over the hill and down the side by a shifting wind.

Hawk, the Chief Spear-Maker, licked his lips. Though the tribe had seen much game in the past few days, most of it had been either too agile or too fierce for the hunters to attack. Even the mammoths had learned that only in numbers lay safety from human hunters, and aside from occasional small game the tribe had seen nothing except herds of big, dangerous beasts. It was suicide to attack a herd of mammoths, even with fire, for one such animal was capable of engaging every hunter in the tribe. But the giant bison were a different matter.

Hawk licked his lips again. In eight days they had eaten only seeds and wild fruit which the women had gathered, and one doddering old camel that had been about to fall from old age when the hunters overtook it. Seeds and fruit were all right when nothing else was to be had, but a wandering tribe needed red meat to maintain its strength.

As they drew nearer the top, the smell of the giant bison became stronger. It was a herd of more than two hundred animals, and had not yet taken alarm. That was good, for not in four seasons had the tribe run across a herd of bison as big as this one. If they were successful in the hunt, there would be all the meat they could eat, and much left for the scavenging wild dogs, dire wolves, and saber-tooth tigers that always gathered wherever game was killed.

Wolf, the Chief Hunter, remembered and spoke of the time when such herds had been fairly common. Tribal legend recalled when the earth had trembled to the pounding hooves of countless giant bison, but that was no more. Hawk had never wondered why.

Like all the rest, he was ruled by simple tribal laws and taboos, which were the accumulated wisdom of generations. It was tribal law that Hawk should be Chief Spear-Maker, because he was the most skilled in the methods and rites of spear-making. Similarly, the tribe must have a Chief Fire-Maker who thoroughly understood the magical properties of fire, their greatest protection. Aside from the Chief Fire-Maker and the Chief Spear-Maker, the rest of the men were, most of the time, hunters, for the demand for food was never-ending. And all food, whether meat brought in by the hunters or seeds or berries gathered by the women, must be shared, no matter who had found it. When the tribe was in danger, everyone, women and children included, helped defend it. Most important of all, the tribe must always live and travel as a group; one human alone was at the mercy of wild beasts.

Other than that there were few laws, but these few were inflexible. The tribe was a unit, and every member must contribute his share. If anyone failed, all might die.

Hawk paused a moment, and glanced backward to take mental tally of the women and girl children. The boy sons of hunters, armed with spears and clubs to fit their size, were at their fathers’ heels, up ahead. But, as Chief Spear-Maker, Hawk’s place was not with the hunters. It was with the women and children, and he did not like it.

For a second his eyes dwelt on Willow, daughter of Wolf, and his face lightened. Willow was lithe and swift, and already skilled in basket-making and a knowledge of seeds, roots, and fruits. The only reason she had not yet been taken by a hunter of another tribe lay in the fact that not in two moons had they met another tribe. All were scattered, desperately seeking the fast-disappearing giant bison.

Hawk grunted his annoyance. He was a man in his own right, for he had seen sixteen summers. Eight years had he sat at the feet of his father, to learn the mechanical details, the rites and incantations, that went into spear-making. Now he was Chief Spear-Maker himself, for less than a moon ago his father had fallen to a saber-tooth tiger. But though Hawk had a man’s responsibilities and privileges, he could not have Willow, because it went without saying that she must be taken by a man of some other band.

Suddenly Hawk stiffened, and sniffed another breeze that blew in from the north. The tribe was being shadowed by a pack of wild dogs, which hoped to scavenge after the hunters killed. But the dogs seemed to be merely following; there was no indication that they would attack. Hawk returned his attention to the bison.

They were grazing in a meadow, and remained unsuspicious. Turning around, raising his right hand as a signal that the rest must halt, Wolf, the Chief Hunter, went on alone. He seemed to melt right into the earth as he approached one of the big boulders and peered around it. Hawk watched keenly.

It had never occurred to him to question why there had once been numberless giant bison and why there were now so few. He knew only that his tribe were bison hunters, and that they lived largely on bison flesh. Because the tribe’s sole idea was to get enough food any way it could, Hawk had never considered the hunters wasteful in spite of the fact that they often wiped out an entire herd of bison with one fire drive. They might kill hundreds when they could use no more than ten, but that was their way of life.

For an hour, while the sun approached its noon-time high, Wolf remained silently in position. He was watching the bison, and because he had not yet signaled the hunters, Hawk knew that the herd was not in position for a fire drive. He turned around to place the positions of the women and seven girl children.

As Chief Spear-Maker, he could not hunt, but he could wield a club or spear in common defense, and when the hunters went out for game, it was his duty to help protect the tribe’s more helpless members. Hawk sniffed the breezes from all directions, but could detect no alien scents save those of the giant bison, the pack of wild dogs, and, faintly, the odor of a wooly rhinoceros. There was no immediate peril.

Hawk toyed idly with a spear shaft he had been fashioning. It was a well-balanced, carefully scraped piece of wood, with a curiously flattened knob on one end. But the shaft was just a little too slender and flexible for a hunting spear. Something in that very quality had kept him from casting the shaft aside.

Four days ago, entirely by accident, he had thrust the knobby end of this shaft into a litter of loose pebbles and leaned on it. The shaft had bent under his weight, then the end had snapped suddenly out of the pebbles. Hawk remembered vividly what had happened, and was still puzzled by it.

When it had snapped away, the end of the shaft had shot a small pebble straight into the middle of a pond. Afterward Hawk had picked up a similar pebble, and tried to hurl it into the pond. He could not throw such a light object half as far as the shaft had snapped it. There was something in the flexible shaft, some mysterious power which he lacked, and he had spent much time wondering about it.

After an hour and a half, so slowly that he seemed scarcely to move, Wolf raised his hand. At once Kar, the Chief Fire-Maker, went to his side. Hawk quivered eagerly.

The time was here; the bison had evidently moved into a suitable position and the fire drive was about to take place. One by one the hunters moved up beside Wolf and Kar, the boy hunters imitating exactly everything they did. The sight made Hawk writhe with impatience. He, too, wanted to be with the hunters, but he dared not join them. Whoever violated tribal law was banished from the tribe, and banishment meant sure death, for no lone human being could survive in this savage wilderness.

Kar and Wolf disappeared over the top of the hill. One by one, in order of experience, the hunters and their sons crawled past the boulders and down the other side. Presently, their spears and clubs with them, all were out of sight.

Hawk glanced once more at the women and girl children, who were sitting and lying in the tall grass. They were safe, for the wild dogs were still far away in the deep forest, waiting patiently. The dogs knew that they had almost no chance of making a kill should they attack the giant bison. But they were an experienced pack, familiar with humans. Always, after a fire drive, there were numerous dead animals that the hunters did not use. The dogs could afford to wait.

Since there appeared to be no danger threatening the women, Hawk was unable to restrain himself any longer. He could not join in the hunt, but he could watch it. If danger came, he could reach the women and children in time. Crawling toward the top of the hill, he lay prone behind a boulder. Cautiously he peered around it.

He looked down on a wide river meadow where rank grass grew shoulder high to a man. But no men were in sight. Hawk knew that they were crawling through the grass, dispersing themselves at strategic intervals to intercept any bison that tried to break through their encircling ring. As they advanced, they gave no sign of their presence. Nothing but a stray breeze that carried their scent to the bison could betray them now.

Hawk turned his eyes toward the bison. The entire herd, bulls, cows, and calves, was feeding toward the river. Hawk looked toward the river, and uttered a puzzled grunt.

Getting enough food was an always-present problem, and an opportunity such as this could not be missed. But was Wolf not risking too much in his present preparations? The herd could be ringed with fire, but there was only a six-foot embankment at the edge of the river. Driven down that by the flames, more bison would escape than would be killed or injured. Maybe the entire herd would get away. Hawk wondered if it would not have been wiser to follow the herd and wait until it could be driven into a deep canyon or over a high cliff.

Reluctantly Hawk put his doubts aside. Wolf was a mighty hunter; it was unlikely that he would fail.

The unsuspicious bison fed on, moving slowly nearer the river as they did so. To all outward appearances the meadow was a peaceful one, containing nothing save the herd of bison and a few bright-colored birds that flitted about the tall grass. Even the wary birds had not yet detected the hunters.

Then, after another hour, a wisp of smoke arose.

Hawk’s excitement mounted, and he burned with an inward tension. The fire drive was under way.

Several hunters were on their feet now and running as fast as they could, flaming torches of twisted grasses in their hands. They paused at twenty-foot intervals to touch their torches to the dried grass, and ran on.

Leaping fire crawled up the grass where the hunters had first lighted it, and long tongues of flame licked hungrily out toward more grass. In a matter of seconds, behind the racing men, a curving line of fire sprang up and began to spread both ways. In a frenzy of excitement, Hawk leaped to his feet and shouted hoarsely. Then he was aware of the women and girl children beside him.

Now that there was no further need for concealment or quiet, they had come up to watch. Their faces were alight with anxious hope, for they and their men would eat well only if the savage scene below worked to their advantage.

A great, rumbling bellow came from the besieged herd. Cows with calves at their heels trotted nervously toward the river. Massive bulls stayed in the rear, shaggy heads lowered toward the approaching flames, alert to meet any danger. Watching, Hawk scarcely breathed.

It was an alarmed herd, but not the panic-stricken one it should be. Obviously the bison had been in other fire drives, and refused to be stampeded toward the dangerous river bank. Some of the bulls wheeled in ahead of the cows, turning the whole herd. For a few moments they stood still, the calves in the center and the bulls and cows in a protecting outer ring. Then, at a swift run, the entire herd started away from the river, toward one side of the encircling fire ring.

Hawk turned his attention toward the hunters. They had leaped into the burned part between the blaze that was burning toward the bison and the fire that was running back into the forest behind them. They were advancing behind the fire, but something was wrong; the far side of the meadow was too wet to burn. Yellow smoke rose from it, but scarcely any flame. The bison, too much hunted and too wise to fall into the trap designed for them, were going to try to break through the weakest part of the fire ring.

The wind freshened, keeping the smoke low and blowing it toward the river. The meadow was covered by a thick blanket of smoke that rose halfway up the running bison, so that only their shaggy backs and heads were clearly visible to the watchers on the hill.

Hawk stood still, watching with growing despair as the running hunters raced toward the herd’s line of escape. Only one man blocked it. He was Short-Leg, one of the poorer hunters, and as the shifting smoke revealed him clearly, Hawk’s keen eyes could see that he was holding his spear wrong. He gripped it too high, so that he could not get the weight of his body behind any thrust he made, and he was sure to miss. Hawk looked anxiously toward the other hunters.

They were running as hard as they could to put themselves in position for a strike, but the herd’s sudden shift of direction had left them at a disadvantage. The bison had too much start and were running too fast. Hawk groaned in dismay as he saw Short-Leg stab at a huge bull. Neither well nor strongly thrust, the spear was pushed lightly aside by the bull’s ponderous leg.

Then the smoke closed in and quarry and hunters were lost to sight.

Hawk turned away, not having to see any more to know the outcome of the hunt. But the tense women continued to stare at the swirling smoke blanket, as though the very fierceness of their gaze would help the men who were trying to get the desperately needed food.

Moodily Hawk toyed with his spear shaft. He thrust the knobby end against a pebble, bent the shaft, and watched the pebble snap away. With respect that was close to awe, he picked up the shaft and twirled it between his fingers. He bent the slender stick, feeling the tensile strength within it. The shaft had life and power of its own, but he knew of no way to control it and make it serve him.

There was something about that mysterious power of which he was just a little afraid. His father had told him, over and over, that the spear-maker’s secrets lay in the strength of certain resilient hardwoods and the cutting edges of certain stones. These properties were strong magic, his father had said, and never, under any conditions, were they to be treated lightly or trifled with. Human skill could combine the wood and the stone to make a properly balanced spear, but if the spirit of each part was not treated with respect, the spear would not fly true.

His father had also said that there was a way, by combining a short piece of wood with a spear, to throw that spear a very great distance. He had been given such a magic throwing-stick by an old spear-maker of another tribe. Although Hawk had carefully preserved it since his father’s death, he did not understand the secret of its power, for his father had never felt that the time had been right to reveal it. The ways the tribe knew, and had always known, were good ways, his father had believed.

Now, handling the slender shaft, Hawk wondered if there was some connection between its power and the magic of the throwing-stick. Going over to his pile of extra spears, he picked up the mysterious implement.

It was the length of his arm, a carefully polished stick with a short piece of branch protruding at right angles from one end. The branch had been cut off so that only two inches remained. Where the branch joined the stick, a smooth hollow had been scraped or worn. Hawk looked at the throwing-stick in bewilderment. He grasped it at both ends, and bent it in his hands. It was stiffer than the slender spear shaft that had snapped the pebble, but he could feel the same living strength. But he did not know what to do with it; the magic would not reveal itself to him.

A bedraggled, discouraged little group, the weary hunters straggled back. After the bison had broken through their fire, they had chased the herd a long way without overtaking so much as a calf. There was no meat.

As the hunters joined their hungry women and children, the wind ruffled the grass, and a bouncing little antelopelike creature appeared suddenly. It stopped forty feet away, head alert and ears erect as it studied the group. One of the hunter’s sons threw a spear that fell short by ten feet. The little animal skipped away, and the boy listlessly went out to retrieve his spear. Except for Hawk, the hungry men paid no attention. From time immemorial they had lived chiefly on the giant bison, and other game was only incidental. The boy should have known he couldn’t hit anything so small and fleet.

Hawk stared intently at the place where the little antelope had disappeared. The problem of finding meat was becoming more and more serious. Except for large beasts such as bison, which could be trapped in fire drives, and were consequently becoming scarcer, the land was alive with game. But the tribe had never had much success in hunting the smaller animals because they were so agile; they could avoid the ordinary hurled spear. So, in the midst of plenty, the tribe was hard-pressed for food of any kind.

Kar, the Chief Fire-Maker, went into the forest and returned dragging a small tree for his night fire. He went again, bringing back an armful of dead branches and dry tinder. Kar stamped about the place where his fire was to be, one step sideways with his left foot and one with his right.

Hawk looked disinterestedly on. All this was fire ritual, and no business of his.

Short-Leg, the hunter who had missed his strike at the bison, had been standing moodily by himself. Finally he spoke.

“My spear failed me, Spear-Maker.”

“My spears do not fail,” Hawk replied shortly.

“I struck at a bull. My spear missed,” Short-Leg insisted.

“I saw you. You did not hold your spear as a hunter should, and it is your fault because you missed.”

Short-Leg’s eyes gleamed redly, and he snatched at the club dangling from his girdle. Hawk sprang to his feet, ready to defend himself.

“Peace,” Wolf commanded. “We have trouble enough, without you two fighting. You will make Short-Leg another spear?”

“I will.”

Kar and two young apprentice fire-makers had by now brought a great load of wood and piled it by the night fire. It leaped high, spreading welcome warmth over the hungry people who huddled around it. Kar passed his hand over the fire and it glowed blood-red. Hawk watched, and wondered.

The customs and beliefs of the tribe were deeply ingrained, a part of him, and it was not for him to question them. Yet, sometimes, he was puzzled by them. The incantations and rituals he himself used in the making of spears—just what connection did they have with the true worth of a spear? He knew that it had been Short-Leg, and not his spear, who had been at fault in the bison hunt. Yet he must make a new spear—and it must be made in a certain fashion, and in no other way. Puzzling over this idea, Hawk idly began drilling his slender spear shaft deep into the ground.

Wolf stiffened suddenly, his nostrils distended as he sniffed the breeze. A moment later Hawk had the scent, and almost at once the rest of the hunters were alert.

For three days, always maintaining a respectful distance, the wild dogs had been trailing them. But until now, as their scent had proven, they had been interested only in scavenging any excess game killed by the hunters. Now the harmless scent had changed to a threatening, dangerous odor. Hungry, and having failed to get any bison, the wild dogs were aroused.

Spears in their hands, clubs swinging at their fur girdles, the men arranged themselves in a protecting circle around the fire, facing outward toward the gathering darkness. The women and children snatched whatever stones they could lay their hands on and took up positions behind the men.

A fierce pleasure surged through Hawk. Forbidden to hunt lest his spear-making skill be endangered, he had to content himself most of the time with chipping flint heads, fashioning spear shafts, and binding the heads to them. He found action of the sort he craved only when the camp was attacked, and everyone called on for defense. He leaped erect, snatching up a spear, but still hanging tightly to the shaft he had drilled into the ground. Its supple length bent under the pressure of his hands and the weight of his body.

He looked beyond the ring of light cast by the fire, the only haven in the savage wilderness, into the brooding shadows. Most of the time the tribe was safe near the fire, but not tonight. Now the hunger-maddened wild dogs were stalking the camp. They knew that the tribe was not in a good position for defense; thick grass provided concealment right up to the light of the fire. The only visible evidence of the impending attack was an occasional ripple in the grass.

A sudden strange idea seized Hawk and he gripped the imbedded spear shaft so tightly that his knuckles whitened. The stick, the live green stick with so much supple strength! He had been looking for a way to make it hurl a spear, and now he had found it! Hawk bent the shaft back, and placed the butt of his spear against the flattened knob at the end. Supporting the spear with both hands, holding the shaft back, he searched the tall grass.

The next time he saw the grass move, he bent the shaft a little farther and released the spear. It shot from his hands into the tall grass, and disappeared without striking its intended target. Hawk groped for another spear.

The next moment the dogs closed in.

With no time to use the shaft again, Hawk grasped the second spear in his hands and braced his feet. Leaping gray shadows in the tall grass, the dogs appeared. Seeing one, Hawk hurled his spear. It flew as straight as the wood from which its shaft was fashioned. There was a shriek of pain, then a few bubbling growls.

Almost before the spear left his hands, Hawk snatched his club and sprang forward. A big black dog, a beast fully as tall as Hawk, leaped from the grass with jaws gaping wide. Its polished ivory fangs glinted in the firelight as it sought a throat-hold. Agile as a cat, Hawk side-stepped and smashed the dog’s skull with his club.

All the men, having thrown their spears, were busy with clubs. Hawk saw a hunter drop his club when a great dog sprang at him, and throw up his hands to shield his face. Wolf dashed to the man’s rescue.

The next instant Hawk pivoted on the balls of his feet and, club raised, raced toward the fire. He hadn’t seen any dog break through the line of men, but one had, for the women were smashing at it with their stones. Hawk whirled among them, and brought his club down on the dog’s head. The beast took two staggering steps and collapsed.

But he had not been quick enough. One of the girls was on her knees beside the fire, red blood bubbling from her mangled thigh.

It was Willow.

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