Shulawitsi, the Little Fire God, member of the Council of the Gods and Deputy to the Sun, had taped his track shoes to his feet. He had wound the tape as Coach taught him, tight over the arch of the foot. And now the spikes biting into the packed earth of the sheep trail seemed a part of him. He ran with perfectly conditioned grace, his body a machine in motion, his mind detached, attending other things. Just ahead where the trail shifted down the slope of the mesa he would stop -- as he always did -- and check his time and allow himself four minutes of rest. He knew now with an exultant certainty that he would be ready. His lungs had expanded, his leg muscles hardened. In two days when he led Longhorn and the Council from the ancestral village to Zuñi, fatigue would not cause him to forget the words of the great chant, or make any missteps in the ritual dance. And when Shalako came he would be ready to dance all the night without an error. The Salamobia would never have to punish him. He remembered the year when he was nine, and Hu-tu-tu had stumbled on the causeway over Zuñ Wash, and the Salamobia had struck him with their yucca wands and everyone had laughed. Even the Navajos had laughed, and they laughed very little at Shalako. They would not laugh at him.
The Fire God half fell onto the outcropping of rock that was his regular resting place. He glanced quickly at his watch. He had used eleven minutes and fourteen seconds on this lap -- cutting eleven seconds off his time of yesterday. The thought gave him satisfaction, but it faded quickly. He sat on the outcrop, a slender boy with black hair falling damp across his forehead, massaging his legs through the cotton of his sweat pants. The memory of the laughing Navajos had turned his thoughts to George Bowlegs. He approached these thoughts gingerly, careful to avoid any anger. It was always to be avoided, but now it was strictly taboo. The Koyemshi had appeared in the village two days ago, announcing in each of the four plazas of Zuñ that eight days hence the Shalako would come from the Dance Hall of the Dead to visit their people and bless them. This was no time for angry thoughts. Bowlegs was his friend, but Bowlegs was crazy. And he had reason to be angry with him if the season did not forbid it. George had asked too many questions, and since George was a friend he had given more answers than he should have given. No matter how badly he wanted to be a Zuñ, to join the Fire God's own Badger Clan, George was still a Navajo. He had not been initiated, had not felt the darkness of the mask slip over his head, and seen through the eyes of the kachina spirit. And therefore there were things that George was not allowed to know and some of those things, the Fire God thought glumly, he might have told George. Father Ingles didn't think so, but Father Ingles was a white man.
Behind him, above the red sandstone wall of the mesa, a skyscape of feathery cirrus clouds stretched southward toward Mexico. To the west over the Painted Desert, they were flushed with the afterglow of sunset. To the north this reflected light colored the cliffs of the Zuñ Buttes a delicate rose. Far below him in the shadow of the mesa, a light went on in the camper near the site of the anthropologist's dig. Ted Isaacs cooking supper, the Fire God thought. And that was another thing not to think about, to avoid being angry with George. It had been George's idea to see if they could find some of the things made by the Old People in the Doctor's box of chips and beads and arrowheads. He would make use of it on a hunting fetish George had said. Maybe make one for both of them. And the Doctor had been furious, and now Isaacs would not let anyone come anymore to watch him work. Crazy George.
The Fire God rubbed his legs, feeling a tightening in the thigh muscles as breeze dried the sweat. In seventeen more seconds he would run again, cover the last mile down the mesa slope to where George would be waiting with his bicycle. Then he would go home and finish his homework.
He ran again, moving first at a slow jog and then faster as the stiffness left. Sweat again dampened the back of his sweat shirt, darkening the stenciled letters that said "Property of Zuñ Consolidated Schools." Under the angry red sky he ran, into the thickening darkness, thinking of crazy George, his oldest and best friend. He thought of George collecting cactus buttons for the doper at the hippie commune, and eating them himself in search of visions, of George going to the old man at the edge of Zuñ to learn how to become a sorcerer, and how angry the old man had been, of George wanting to quit being a Navajo so he could be a Zuñ. George was certainly crazy, but George was his friend, and here now was his bicycle and George would be waiting.
The figure which stepped from behind the boulders in the red darkness was not George. It was a Salamobia, its round yellow-circled eyes staring at him. The Fire God stopped, opened his mouth, and found nothing to say. This was the Salamobia of the mole kiva, its mask painted the color of darkness. And yet it was not. The Fire God stared at the figure, the muscular body in the dark shirt, the bristling ruff of turkey feathers surrounding the neck, the black and empty eyes, the fierce beak, the plumed feathered topknot.Dance Hall of the Dead. Copyright © by Tony Hillerman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman
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