A story of sacred Indian rites and the land-greed of an expanding new nation. It was a time of bloody confrontation between the white man and the red man, a time when the pioneers of a new nation were pushing out across the Great Plains and yet the powerful spirits of an ancient mystical religion still held sway over the Indians. In this troubled, dangerous time, there is a man who has the privilege--and the curse--of belonging to both worlds. He is Gray Cloud, a disciple of the aging shaman Owl Carver. A handsome young half-breed, he is chosen by the Great Turtle to become the mystical leader of the Sauk people... and summoned by his French-born aristocratic father to inherit the vast estate of Victoire.
The black bearskin, softened by countless wearings, clasped Gray Cloud’s arms and shoulders, protecting his body from the cold that cut like knives into his cheeks and forehead. The upper half of the bear’s skull covered his head and weighed heavily on it, as heavily as the awful fear of the vision quest weighed on his spirit.
His moccasins whispered over the fallen brown grass that covered the trail. He had walked a long way, and his toes were numb in spite of the leaves stuffed into the moccasins.
Abruptly the path stopped, and he was facing sky. He stood at the edge of the bluff looking eastward over the frozen Great River. He gripped the deerhorn handle of his hunting knife.
For the feeling of strength it gave him, he slid the knife out of the sheath of hardened leather tied to his waist. The steel blade glistened, colorless as the sky above him, in the fading light.
The knife my father left for me, he thought. Where are you tonight, my father?
The clouds seemed close enough to touch. They rippled like snowdrifts painted with light and shadow. Upriver the sky was darkened almost to black, and Gray Cloud smelled snow in the air.
He saw the silhouette of a hawk, wing-tip feathers spread, circling over the Illinois country across the river, hunting in the last moments before nightfall.
Hawk spirit, help me to live through this testing. Help me to see a great vision and grow to be a mighty shaman.
The tiny spot of black dwindled in the sky, till he could no longer see it.
Perhaps it flies over the winter silence of Saukenuk village.
He sheathed the knife. Turning his back on sky and river, he looked westward over the way he had come. A prairie of waving tan grass almost as high as his head stretched as far as he could see. Killed by the cold, the grass yet stood, held up by the stiffness in its dead stalks. Like a fur cloak, the brown covered the hills that rolled away to the west.
He could not see his people’s winter hunting camp from here; it nestled back among those hills, sheltered in a forest that grew along the Ioway River. Looking in its direction, he saw Redbird in his mind. Her eyes, black as obsidian arrowheads, shone at him. He felt a powerful yearning just to see her, to speak to her and hear her voice, to touch her cheek with his fingertips. The thought that he might never see her again, never go back to his people, chilled him more than the winter cold.
O Earthmaker, grant that I live to return to Redbird.
He knelt and peered over the edge of the bluff, the bearskin cloak bunching around him. Gray limestone, wrinkled and pitted like the face of an old man, swept down to dark masses of leafless shrubbery at the river’s edge. His eyes searched out and then found an especially black shadow in the bluff wall. If he had come any later on this day, he might not have been able to find the cave mouth in the dark.
Then he might have had to wait till morning. Or, trying to climb down to it, he might have missed the way and fallen to his death. A cold hollow swelled in his belly. It would be so easy to slip.
Enough of what might have been. It was what would be that frightened him now. He might die, not of falling, but of what he found in the cave.
Or what found him.
Forcing that thought, too, out of his mind, he lowered his body over the edge of the bluff, dug his toes into footholds and carefully climbed sideways and downward. In places, the path along the bluff face widened out and was almost as easy to walk on as a forest trail. But then the crumbling stone would slant steeply, so that he had to grip hard with his buckskin-shod feet, feeling as if he were clinging to nothing at all.
A wide ledge spread before the entrance to the sacred cave. He let out a breath of deep relief as his feet stepped firmly on the flat stone.
From outside he could see nothing of the cave. But when he entered, he felt a sudden warmth, as if he were walking into a well-sealed lodge with a bright fire going. He could smell old fires—and something else. An animal smell that sent a ripple of cold through his bones. But not a fresh smell. He thanked Earthmaker for that, because he was sure it was the smell of bear.