WARM THERMALS rose from the vast grassland that rolled below. Far to the west, the mountains were but a shadow even at the greater heights among the sparse clouds that sang of rain before nightfall. For now the blazing sun dominated the sky and the shifting winds carried the birds higher. Gray Talon shifted his flight with a flick of his tail and a tilt of his wings to angle over toward the others who surveyed the plains below. For almost a week, the Comanche flyers searched the plains for the herds of buffalo that normally roamed the area. Their treaty with the Arapaho expired in three days, when the moon was full. By that time the tribe had to finish its hunts on the Arapaho lands and be on its way, out of their territory. For the second year in a row, the hunting on their own lands had been poor enough to force the Comanche to make treaties with other tribes to find enough food to get through the winter, which had been unusually long and cold of late.
The winter before last, Gray Talon gained his warrior’s name. The glimpse of the mountains brought back the memories of his disastrous fall down Bald Peak as a child when the tribe journeyed there for a great gathering of many tribes. That day had also seen the death of his blood brother, Trey’s, parents. None of the tribe, other than the occasional flyers that carried messages between the tribes, had gone near the place since that time. He heard the dragon who lived on the peak had banished all humans from her realm, and even the Utes who lived in the area stayed well away from her territory.
“Shift farther east,” Screaming Eagle called to the other flyers as he angled away toward the eastern horizon.
Gray Talon adjusted his flight again, catching a different thermal and soaring off with the rest of the flight.
Glancing over his shoulder, he could barely make out the hunters following on the grasslands behind them. He couldn’t make out Trey, although up close his man’s blond hair stood out among the raven-haired Comanche tribe. The ground hunters would adjust their path as well to be as close as possible when the flyers found the herd. That way they could move quickly.
The past couple of weeks, soaring around looking for prey in the warm sun and easy thermals, had given Gray Talon time to think. He and Trey were both old enough now for the tribal elders to allow them to go in search of the bandits who had killed Trey’s parents. If they were able to find the herds and the kill was large enough, the tribe wouldn’t need them for hunting at the winter camp. And Trey was far enough along in his magical training with Singing Crow that he could take some time away and not worry about being a danger to himself and others. Gray Talon remembered well how Singing Crow had forced the tribal elders to accept the orphaned Trey into the tribe.
“Large herd to the south.” Laughing Hawk’s voice called out through Gray Talon’s thoughts.
The rest of the flyers angled toward the south. Spread out before them was one of the largest herds of buffalo Gray Talon had ever seen. But then, it had just been the past two years he had seen the herds from above. Always before he’d followed with the ground hunters, and the sights weren’t nearly as awe-inspiring as they were from the air. He wished he could share the spectacle from the air with Trey. Unfortunately Trey was not of native blood, and even with the vast knowledge the shaman was passing along to him, he’d never be able to change shape. Gray Talon reflected on how lucky he had been when, after the accident on the peak, they’d discovered he could assume multiple shapes instead of being limited to the mountain cat form he had first assumed as a child. Gray Talon could change into any animal he’d ever seen. There were tales of it happening before in the Comanche tribe. But there hadn’t been anyone in many generations possessing that gift. When they announced the news, right before his naming, the unwed girls had come around in droves, and their fathers and uncles had all approached his mother proposing marriage. All had been disappointed that his heart and bed belonged to Trey. If it were possible for his beak to smile, it would as he remembered the look on Trey’s face when Gray Talon told him no woman would share his bed as long as Trey wanted him. He couldn’t imagine that a wife could bring him the pleasure and joy Trey did. Trey felt the same way, and they both spoke of spending their days together for the rest of their lives.
He glanced over his shoulder again and saw the cloud of dust the trailing hunters left as they raced to the herd the flyers had found. As they always did, Screaming Eagle would be speaking to Jumping Hare to decide the best method to make the most of the banquet they had laid out before them. Gray Talon’s sharp eyes raked the horizon, trying to find the edge of the herd. In the distance he could see the shadow that might be a small canyon or river cutting through the landscape. It would make a great place for the killing field when the rest of the tribe showed up. They would need a big kill to have enough to also pay the treaty price the Arapaho requested.
He soared off toward the shadow to see what it was and report back. It took several minutes before Gray Talon reached the midpoint of the herd. The mass of buffalo stretched almost as far as he could see. He knew it would take a while and be very dangerous for the hunters to get the great herd moving. Herds could move in unpredictable ways once they were frightened. Too often, if a hunter took off on his own or stopped too long, a large herd like this could close in around him and kill him in a stampede.
The shadow resolved itself into a narrow canyon with steep walls. Not narrow enough where the buffalo could jump it and steep enough that it would kill any that went over the edge. Gray Talon studied it a minute. There were enough large boulders around that some of the ground hunters could easily slip in and make sure the buffalo went down the way they needed to into the canyon.
“There is a good canyon over here just south of the herd,” Gray Talon called out with his mind to Screaming Eagle.
“Is there a spot to get some of the canines in there before we start driving the herd toward it?” Screaming Eagle replied as he linked with Jumping Hare.
“Easily. They can come up the edge of the canyon from the west and make sure that enough animals go over the edge.” He swooped down to confirm his assessment.
“Very good. I’ll send them ahead,” said Jumping Hare, the leader of the ground hunters.
“Good. Gray Talon, stay where you are for right now.” Screaming Eagle cut the mental link.
It seemed like hours as the canines worked their way into position. Several coyotes moved skillfully through the dense herd of buffalo, slinking toward the edge of the canyon. One group of wolves moved farther to the east while one group stayed on the western side of a gap in the rocks. The rest of the tribe would drive the herd between the gap and into the canyon.
Barely visible to the north, near the edge of the herd, the human-shaped hunters spread out in preparation to drive the herd forward toward the canyon. Those who didn’t have animal forms useful in hunting rode horses and carried either spears, bows, or both. Trey rode astride his paint horse with his long spear held out like the lance of the knights from one of the stories Trey’s mother used to tell the two boys of the lands where his forefathers came from.
Gray Talon soared farther upward and found a place between thermals where he could almost hover above the herd as he heard Screaming Eagle give the command for the ground hunters to begin driving the herd toward the canyon. The few times he had seen a stampede from above, it had never been a herd this large, and it had been both awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time.
The herd surged forward as the Comanche hunters screamed and howled at their flanks. The first thing the herd did was surge toward the south. The animals on the northern edge of the herd didn’t realize the canyon was on the southern edge of the herd, and that would work to the advantage of the hunters.
Near the edge of the canyon, one of the large bulls started to pull up and tried to turn the herd toward the east. Spears and fangs did not seem to deter the bull, and as Gray Talon watched, it tossed one of the wolves off and into the seething mass of buffalo. Gray Talon folded his golden brown wings and with a scream dropped from his hover toward the bull. He had hoped to be able to try this move. He had tried similar things in the past, but nothing this exciting. As he neared the bull, and he was sure of his trajectory as well as the bull’s movements, he shifted from his eagle form to a bear form. The impact with the bull knocked the wind out of him. His claws scrambled to find a purchase in the shaggy hump. He bit down hard as his hind legs raked the side of the beast, causing it to turn slightly. It was enough that the movement of the rest of the herd around it, and its own loss of footing, caused it to tumble into the canyon. The animals around it followed it down to their deaths.
As the bull began its plummet down toward the canyon floor, Gray Talon let it go and launched himself toward the next-closest buffalo, hoping to get clear enough that he could take to the skies again. He wasn’t about to risk getting injured between forms. The first time, back on Bald Peak, was enough for him. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get clear of the falling buffalo. He danced about to keep on top of them as they cascaded over the side of the canyon. It was like trying to run across a moving ice floe. He leapt from buffalo to buffalo trying to get above the fall. All it would take was the wrong move, and he would end up in the middle of the pile of carcasses accumulating on the ground below him. He regretted the bear form. After a dozen leaps and pulling himself free of two horns, he realized his cat form would have allowed him to jump clear long enough to assume his eagle form. The short, powerful legs of the bear could barely make the leaps from one animal to the other and still manage to avoid the hooves and horns enough to remain in one piece.
Eventually Gray Talon lost count of how many buffalo he had vaulted over. He hoped they were nearing the end of the herd. His legs were getting more tired by the second. With each leap he feared it would be his last. Then he hit the side of a calf wrong. The animal was much smaller than he was, and they started to fall end over end. He frantically tried to find something to either grab hold of or push off from. He fell and tried to figure out the best way to get the least amount of damage when he hit the pile of buffalo. All he could hope for was it would be a soft part of a buffalo he hit and not a horn, hoof, or worse yet, a rock the buffalo had missed in their fall.
Then his descent stopped. He floated in midair, moving gently away from the last of the falling buffalo. He glanced up and saw Trey on his black-and-white horse at the edge of the cliff. His spear, with its obsidian point glowing with power, was raised high over his head. Once clear of the falling buffalo, Gray Talon shifted to eagle form and flew over to Trey.
The sun glistened off the sweat and blood that covered both Trey and the horse. It makes him glow like one of the spirits of legend, Gray Talon thought as he circled around for landing. The rest of the buffalo herd moved off to the east, the way the first bull had tried to drive them. The tribe was beginning to make their way into the canyon to start the long process of preparing the kill for transport to the winter camp. The wind shifted. The storms would come by nightfall. But no one would care since they now had the food they so desperately needed.
Trey McAlister jumped off his horse as Gray Talon landed and assumed his human form. Time roaming the grasslands with the Comanche tribe had hardened Trey, and nearly constant exposure to the sun had tinted his light skin to the point where it was darker than his sun-bleached hair. He wrapped his strong muscular arms around Gray Talon and picked him up off the ground.
“That was a bit too close, my love.” He kissed Gray Talon deeply.
“I knew you’d be there in time to catch me.” Gray Talon laughed as their lips parted. “You’ll always be there to catch me.”
Trey grabbed his horse’s reins in one hand and wrapped an arm around Gray Talon’s waist with the other. “That was quite a stunt you pulled, and lots of buffalo down there bear the mark of your claws.” He laughed as they peered over the edge of the canyon at the impressive pile of buffalo that lay in the dust at the foot of the cliff.
Gray Talon looked into the handsome visage for a moment. He could never get tired of looking at that face, so different than the others he looked at every day. Trey was determined to keep a smooth jawline like the Comanche men but had to shave every day, lest that golden stubble start showing on the crack in his chin and his round cheekbones. This time of year his shaggy eyebrows were almost white from the sun, and he was beginning to get faint lines around his eyes even though Laughing Hawk kept giving him an ointment from cactus gel to help them go away. Gray Talon thought they added character to his already beautiful face.
“You know me, always having to show off a bit. Helps make the girls more jealous of you.” He ran his fingers up through the thick yellow hair that covered Trey’s bare chest.
“Like they need any more encouragement to be jealous.” Trey pushed him away playfully. Gray Talon knew not all the women of the tribe treated Trey well since he had what they wanted. They all wanted to be the mother of his sons, who might be the next legend in the tribe.
“Anytime you two great hunters want to start helping with your many kills, you can.” Laughing Hawk soared over them and down into the canyon to help set up for preparing the buffalo.
“Better get on down there,” Gray Talon muttered, then stole another quick kiss from Trey.
“There are plenty up here to work on too.” Trey gestured toward the killing field above the canyon where dozens of buffalo lay in the midday sun. “You aren’t the only great hunter in this tribe.”
Gray Talon laughed as they started over to the nearest one, pulling out their skinning knives as they walked.