by David M. Korn


15,000 years ago, on what would someday be known as the Great Plains of Montana, not far from the Yellowstone River, a pack of wild dogs stood on a hilltop watching a group of Cro-Magnon men as they stalked their prey. The dogs were short-haired, running from all tan to all black, more like stout jackals than the larger, leaner dire wolves, their more dangerous rival. But they were still among the most cunning and feared predators of prehistoric North America. Man and dog kept each other at a cautious distance, aware of each other but never interacting, although they competed for the same food. Despite the vastness of the plains, game was never too far away. Herds of antelope, elk and bison ran into the millions, and the numbers of gopher, prairie dog, jackrabbit and other rodents were uncountable. Even in the dead of the harshest northwestern winter, or the dry, searing heat of the summer, no healthy, able predator starved on the North American expanse. But every creature instinctually feared starvation, and lived from kill to kill, as if it might be its last...


By the time the sun had passed overhead and it was late in the day, the hunters were deep into the passage of no man’s land that spread out and led them as far from their encampment as they’d ever been. There was still no substantial game within striking distance. Urk looked up at the darkening sky. Far above them, were the familiar, lazy circles of another of the Cro-Magnon’s rivals. Half a dozen large prehistoric vultures swam in the air. They floated on the warm thermals, casually following the hunting party. Urk felt his heartbeat increase and a sense of urgency creep over him. Vultures, he knew, waited for death. Their constant presence, no matter how distant, was a distinct sign of danger. The vultures would wait for an animal to be attacked and killed, and after the predator feasted and moved on, they would descend and claim what was left. Whenever a small band of men found itself in open territory, vultures appeared. They sensed that someone was far from home and might not return. Where there was isolation, there was death. Where there was death, there were vultures.

If they’d gotten a few of the larger hares, the men might’ve been tempted to go home. But the area promised a big kill, and Aloo was convinced that they would come upon bigger prey if they just kept going. It had been long thought that the great herds circulated around to this lower valley when they couldn’t be found in the areas above the camp.

The dogs, however, had now killed a small hare, trapping it mercilessly and letting the pups tear into it. The bloodthirsty thrill of a complete kill overwhelmed them and they ripped it to shreds in such a frenzy that there was hardly enough left to eat or bring back to their lair. The scene amused Black Foot, but he would not let this happen again. His pups would have to learn to appreciate every opportunity for fresh meat and not waste a morsel.

In the dimmer light of dusk, the hunting party startled two large, older hares. But in their impatience, the men lost another chance at a kill. One hare scampered away immediately, and they tried to surround the other as quickly as they could. Aloo barked orders as the hare’s nimble hops and sharp turns maddened its eager attackers.

“There! Quick!” he shouted. But the dark fur of the animal blended too well with the patches of grass all around them, and Urk’s frantic lunges with his spear missed flesh repeatedly. The hare dashed away, running straight towards one of the other men. But he was unprepared to strike so close to himself and the animal ran between his legs and disappeared into a stretch of taller grass behind him. Although they could hear it rustling the grass as it went, the men did not give chase. They knew that they could not catch it now.

Standing there in the sudden quiet of the coming evening, the men looked at one another with sour faces. They were tired and far from home, and in danger of losing the confidence to go on. They were becoming desperate.

Urk was disgusted and threw his spear into the dirt, where it stuck fast. “This is a bad hunt,” he spat. No one disputed the claim. Urk crouched down and ran his fingers through the dark dirt, trying to regain his composure.

Each man possessed the same thought. They feared being en- gulfed by a period of time when they killed nothing, no matter where they went. Regardless of the frequency of game and boundless opportunities to kill, there were still those inexplicable stretches when the herds always seemed to be too far away and the smaller animals managed to escape without a scratch. For all their experience and ability, the men could suddenly become cursed by clumsiness, disorganization and failure.

An awful notion crept into Urk’s mind, that they would never kill again.

The two parties moved on, aware that the day was coming to an end. For the men, food had to be obtained before the sun went down. For the dogs, there were more options. They could hunt at night, or secure themselves among the brush and taller grasses until morning. But the pups were tired from the long journey. They had spent much time and energy romping and exploring, rolling in the thick grasses and digging in the dirt. They were used to being close to home where they could curl up and sleep as soon as they needed rest. They were also getting thirsty, for they hadn’t been near water since that morning, just before they set out on the hunt. The area was drier than that around the camp, and they’d come upon no springs or streams. Even Black Foot had a pleasant image of that cool flowing water down past where the men lived, and wanted to be there again.

The wide open plains were too dangerous for the Cro-Magnon to spend the night. They were getting anxious. Some wanted to turn back before it was too late. Urk could sense their impatience, and he knew that a decision had to be made soon. Either they gave up and went home, or changed direction and went somewhere else. Their tall leader stopped and stood in the middle of the plains, the dense, wavy buffalo grass rising past his knees. He looked around anxiously. The men halted around him and a steady breeze dried the sweat on their brows. Urk and the others could read the disappointment in his face. He was torn between determination and good sense. As hunters, the men hated to accept failure, which forced them to go home hungry and empty handed. But as survivors living day to day, they were also aware of the many things beyond their control.

Aloo scanned the green, grassy horizon, then seemed to find a renewed confidence. “We’ll keep going. There have to be herds out there."

Two of the men exchanged careful glances, including Yol. Urk could detect a lack of confidence in his posture. “We should turn back,” Yol offered. Where Urk was often impulsive, Yol was too pessimistic, especially for a man who imagined himself a future leader.

“Just a little farther,” Urk said firmly. “There’s still time.” The other two men shook their heads. One of them started to turn away, but Urk grabbed him by the arm above the elbow. His thick fingers squeezed and he pulled on the man with intimidation. “Wait."

He pulled away from Urk’s grip and looked at him, but Urk didn’t relax his expression. “It’s too late.”

Urk wasn’t sure why he wanted to keep going. And as the youngest among them, it wasn’t like him to be so defiant. But this vast, new territory affected him strangely. It was if he’d just realized that this too was their land and it was there to be explored and conquered. How could they resist the desire to hunt and claim it for themselves? How could they turn back now, when big game might be just over the next ridge?

* * * *

The dogs were not far behind, and they approached the humans slowly. When they were aware that the men had stopped, they stopped too. Broken Ear sat down and waited curiously, his ears up, his mouth open to taste the air, and his eyes fixed on the group of men in the distance. The other dogs followed his lead, lying prone, relaxed but alert. All but Black Foot, who remained standing as an example to his pups. He wanted them to maintain their vigilance, and not collapse in a heap and fall asleep. They stood around him, panting quietly and eagerly licking their small jowls every few seconds. They anticipated another kill and fresh meat.

Suddenly Broken Ear stood up again, leaning forward. His jaws snapped shut tightly. The other dogs in the pack recognized his concern and tensed up immediately. The pups, restless and agitated, started yelping anxiously and Black Foot silenced them with a quick growl. They gathered around him closely and lowered their heads in submission. Their father continued to stare out at the endless nothing of the plains before them. To their young senses, there was still nothing to see or smell out there, but Black Foot remained still and determined and would not relax. His ears were stuck up in the air and his nostrils were flared. Something... was not far away.

Then, after a few moments, Broken Ear made a brief sound that was somewhere between a snort and a growl. He flinched and his forepaws spread out to steady himself firmly. His fur stood up and his backside rose. This dog was not being alert. He was not being cautious. This was... fear.

* * * *

Urk and the men crossed the short field and approached the next ridge. They had decided to go forward and were moving without hesitation. The Cro-Magnon mistrusted those awful, quiet moments when nothing seemed to be happening. They knew that the silence and tranquility of the plains were not to be trusted. “Come on,” Urk had announced and started moving, snapping them out of their fearful inactivity.

He planted the blunt end of his spear in the hard ground and picked up his pace. The men walked on, their eyes sweeping the area for sudden movement. Then they heard something in the distance and stopped. Their simple, clear thoughts of hunting and killing flew from their heads like frightened birds from the trees. The sound came from up ahead, beyond the ridge, which until now had given the area a rolling, peaceful appearance.

Then the ground trembled.

The men felt the vibrations in their feet as the tremors increased. The ground shook and there was a rumbling all around them. Moments later the invasive sound filled their ears, a stomping that was much louder and closer. The vibrations ran through their feet and up their legs like electric current. The rumbling was violent and deafening, as if the Earth itself were about to split open.

It could be a hailstorm, which often blanketed the plains without warning and passed in seconds. But the sky hadn’t become darker or its smell heavy, so they knew this was different. This was the worst natural occurrence of all. Something was running towards them. At them? No. It was running away, fleeing for its life.

The men turned and ran.

A thick cloud of gray dust passed over them. Then the com- motion suddenly got much louder. It was just over the ridge, almost on top of them. They knew what it was and dropped their spears, running as fast as they could.

* * * *

Beyond the men the pups were afraid and wanted to be in their lair, where it was warm and safe and quiet, surrounded by the pack. They crowded Black Foot and yelped and licked at him frantically. Then he and the dogs turned and ran, and the pups followed as fast as they could. They were terrified as never before in their young lives. This was an overwhelming fear, as if the sky were falling. But they couldn’t keep up with the big dogs. Their small size and awkward youth slowed them down, and Black Foot had to keep stopping to let them catch up. The little dogs didn’t even know what they were running from, and could not look behind them. But Black Foot knew. He didn’t have to see what it was, because he’d seen it before.

The men, however, couldn’t resist their curiosity. Each of them glanced back, slowing down involuntarily. As soon as the thundering herd poured over the ridge, the men knew they were in serious trouble. The stampede was too close, and there was nowhere to run. The plains were wide and open as far as they could see. There was no cover, nowhere to hide. Not a single rock or tree to crouch behind. This was the kind of hopeless entrapment that always clouded the back of the Cro-Magnon mind. The stillness of the plains would be shattered in the blink of an eye and everything changed. The hunters had become as vulnerable as any weak, exposed prey, their legs not fast enough and their weapons suddenly useless.

From out of the dust emerged the herd of desperate bison, spilling over the ridge from one end of the horizon to the other, running for their lives. They were out of control and blind with fear. The last of them finally topped the ridge, their hooves pounding into the ground and kicking up enough dust to obscure their massive number. But there were over a hundred of the enormous black monsters, each one belching wet hot breath from its nose and mouth like exhaust, their single strides over fifteen feet as they hit a top speed of nearly thirty miles an hour.

A pack of gray dire wolves was right behind the fleeing herd, running hard with fierce determination. The sleek group of killers had chased it into an increasingly open area, and were now looking to separate the slowest animal from the rest. The bison towered over the wolves, and the adult males had horns of almost five feet from tip to tip. If a bison couldn’t crush a wolf underfoot, it could easily gore it and toss it aside with a quick snap of its head. But the bison feared the wolf and only fought when cornered, and never as a unified group.

The wolves brought down only one larger animal in three at- tempts, even if it was frail and thin, like an antelope. But wolves could be eluded for only so long. All it took for a bison or elk to be cut off from its herd was a moment of indecision. A wrong turn or a misstep meant death, for no fleeing animal ever came to the aid of another.

* * * *

The men knew there was nowhere to go. They suddenly lost their sense of themselves as a group and scattered, stumbling with the madness of fear. They no longer had any sense of direction. They might have narrowly gotten away had they realized that the herd was being driven to its left, towards a line of taller grasses. But the men ran in virtually the same direction as the herd, as if caught up in the vacuum of its energy. They were overtaken by the herd in seconds.

As the thundering hooves filled his ears, Urk glanced behind him for just a moment to see where the herd was, and stumbled. He was hit so hard by the flat head of a female bison that the wind was knocked out of him and he went down immediately. Urk disappeared in the choking, swirling dust and mass of thick black wool surrounding him.

But he didn’t stay down. Dazed, he was compelled to get up and keep running. He didn’t know where he was going and lost his footing again as the ground seemed to disappear from under him. Then Urk hit the ground hard, losing consciousness. Before he blacked out completely, he could feel the herd pounding the dirt above him for a few seconds. Then it grew fainter and died out, as if it were far away and he was left alone.

* * * *

The dogs ran ahead of the herd and instinctively turned out of its path. Since they were faster and had been farther away, they emerged safely and were now out of the area. One bison after another thundered past them, running as if the herd would never pass. Broken Ear had stopped nearby and he and the rest of the pack waited for the commotion to end. But Black Foot was not with them. Neither he nor all the pups had escaped the stampede.

The pups were frightened senseless and didn’t know where to run. Black Foot had to gather them up to get them to go in the right direction. He was able to get two of them to follow the pack. They soon emerged from the dust, and ran desperately towards Broken Ear. A third, the pup who looked most like Black Foot, was on his way when he heard his father stop behind him. The fourth pup was frozen with fear and wouldn’t budge. Black Foot had to go back for him. He snatched him up by the scruff of the neck, a loose wrinkle of fur firmly in his jaws. But when he lifted him up and turned to run, his side was pierced by a bison’s sharp horn. The bigger animal had spotted an obstacle and instinctively lowered his head to buck it out of the way.

Little Black Foot watched his father and brother get lifted by the bison’s huge head and thrown effortlessly above the raging herd. The young dog yelped, but he didn’t see either of them land, for the massive herd was upon him now. He was knocked aside immediately, the rock hard front hoof of a bison ramming into him without resistance. His vision became scrambled and his head hurt and there was dry dirt in his nose and mouth. The endless thundering of hooves soon trailed off in the distant reaches of his mind, and everything became dark and silent.

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