Craning his neck, Frank could just see the second set of brothers a stone’s throw away, crouching in the tall grass. He imagined the line of his tribe spread along the trees, the hills unfolding before them in an open span of prairie – resting, waiting.
A sudden breeze blew against his cheek, pregnant with the sweet smell of early autumn. The grass seemed to whisper, pale waves chased one another around the sullen hills.
Frank wondered if he would be afraid. Grasping his bow, he gave it a tug.
“Relax, Bear Runner. You’ll spook ‘em,” Motega said, his comment bringing Frank back to the prairie. Motega rolled over, put his hands behind his head and looked up at the sky. “Besides, it may be a while.”
Frank shifted to a sitting position. He looked down at his friend. “Do you think you will get one?” he asked, trying to keep the nerves out of his voice.
“Huh? A buffalo? Sure. You will too. We’ll both leave here as men.”
Frank smiled. Motega’s confidence was contagious. “As men,” he echoed and lay back like Motega to look at the stars.
The night seemed to pass twice before a dim yellow glow lined the horizon. Frank couldn’t believe they had waited all night. He wondered how much longer it would be.
Then he felt a low rumble. It was soft at first, but it grew rapidly.
Frank scrambled to one knee and looked at Motega. His friend sat up with exaggerated slowness, eyes sharp and alive.
Frank buried his fingers in the dirt, where he could feel the vibrations.
In the east, a cloud of dust rose to lose itself against the dark hues above the horizon. A brave’s yelp echoed across the plain. Another joined it before the rumbling became all Frank could hear.
The crashing form of a massive beast passed in front of him. He hadn’t even seen it coming. Frank swallowed and stood to his feet. The sheer size of the animal! Had it really been that big?
Before Frank could picture it in his head, a larger form hurtled past. Wind blew his hair back. Frank took in the deep smell of musk and overturned prairie mud.
The rumble under his feet intermingled with the fear in his knees. Frank pulled on his bow, unsure if he could pull it back far enough then looking down to see he’d fully extended it. His mouth was bone dry. Moving his jaw to make spit, he bit his tongue and tasted iron instead.
The open hills below flooded with black shapes.
“Trllllllii.” Motega’s cry startled Frank, but ripped courage into his heart.
Frank gripped his bow and let out a cry of his own. He could do this. He lifted his arm and set his feet.
“You need an arrow for that thing to do any good.” Motega pulled back on his bow, arrow notched. He let a shaft fly into the passing bulk of a hulking male. The beast grunted and changed direction. Frank could see Motega’s shaft protrude from the rear flank, a pale stick against the dark sky. Perhaps the bull would pass near the line of braves and make one of them a man.
Frank fitted an arrow, pulled back, and let fly. He hissed as the arrow crossed the field and disappeared into the murky morning.
“Aim before you shoot.” Motega smiled as he let another bolt fly. Its curving arc brought it into contact with the shoulder of a large male. The bison flew past, giving no indication it noticed Motega or his arrow.
Frank fitted a second arrow, braced his shoulder, and pulled the bow with all his might. He took careful aim then let fly. The arrow grazed the shoulder of a passing bull before it ricocheted into the sky.
Frank frowned and thought about the braves who had failed their first hunt. They reminded him of a rooster with no tail feathers. What about those who had never returned? Had there been too much disgrace?
Frank could feel disgrace hang around him now. It stunk in the air and threatened to bury him where he stood. Would he be able to live through another year of eating with the boys?
“Watch this.” Motega pulled back on his bow. He followed the speeding form of an animal then let it pass and tracked another. On his third sight he let fly with a confidence Frank could feel. The bolt passed into the flank of a mid-sized cow. The mark was good. The cow careened into the ground. Motega let out a shrill shriek of victory.
“There!” Frank clapped his friend on the shoulder. It had been a magnificent shot. Frank smiled. His friend was a man now.
“Your turn, Bear Runner.” Motega pushed Frank forward.
Frank stepped to the edge of the run and copied Motega’s form, set his shoulder and sighted his bow. He followed a passing bison, then another.
A large male veered from the herd, turned by the dead body of the cow’s Motega had shot. It headed straight for Frank. He sighted in on it between the eyes. With each passing breath the animal grew.
“Frank!” Motega shouted.
Frank steadied his sight and braced his legs. He pulled back as hard as he could. Time slowed as he stared. The large shoulders, black eyes and flaring nostrils would have sent terror down Frank’s spine any other day – not today. He narrowed his brow and squinted his eyes.
“Shoot it!” Motega’s voice came from another world.
Frank let his breath out and released the bolt. It struck solidly and sunk into the large head. He could see a red blossom from beneath a curl. The sleek fur on the bull’s face seemed so serene. Then the muzzle went into the mud and the body turned over the head. Before Frank could realize it, it was too late.
The back legs rolled up and over. Black fur came crashing around him. A thump-thump knocked Frank in the shoulders. Crushing weight forced him down and into the mud.
“Let that be a lesson to you.” Motega’s bright eyes greeted his bewildered look. “Good shot, Bear Runner!” Frank felt Motega’s hands fasten around his wrists and dig in. Then Motega leaned back and pulled for all he was worth. Frank’s arms protested with sharp pain all the way down his sides.
“Um, I don’t know if I would…!”
Motega ignored his protests and pulled again. Frank was sure his arms would leave their sockets, but all at once, the mud gave way and he was being dragged across the damp prairie grass. His legs felt warm and cool at the same time.
Motega’s laughter echoed in the early morning, the victorious melody of manhood. A half-crazed ecstatic glow surrounded the man. Frank took a deep breath and rested his hands on his knees. Motega looked larger than life against the dawning sky.
“We did it!” Motega pushed Frank’s sore shoulder then grabbed at his head with both hands. He shouted and spun in a slow circle, raising his arms against the rising sun.
A last buffalo hurtled past. Frank looked down at his own hands, a man’s hands.