Zol, a Clovis boy of the Ice Age, sets out to prove he is not afraid of the woolly mammoth.

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Would Zol have the courage to carry out his plan?

Zol crept out of the hide-covered shelter without waking Father and Mother. A blanket of fog hung over Mammoth Camp. In the dimness, the shelters looked like large hairy animals hunkered down for the night. Zol shivered and pulled his bison robe tighter around him.

Silently he trotted out of camp and toward the hills. He had to do it before he changed his mind. He could no longer live with the fear that gnawed at his insides like a rat.

Zol was eleven summers old, the age when boys in his Star Dancer clan joined the men to hunt the mighty mammoth. But Zol knew something he could tell no one: he was afraid to go on the hunt!

What if he ran away as he had done when he saw the elk? A hot flush of shame crept up Zol’s face as he remembered. He had been out alone, searching for chokecherry branches to make into spears. Suddenly he had seen the great-antlered elk drinking at the lake. Like all Star Dancers, Zol was prepared; he carried his spearthrower and stone-tipped spears.

But he stood there, staring, while fear twisted his stomach. Then the giant elk had sensed Zol and spun around, lowering its massive antlers as if to charge. Zol squeezed his eyes shut now, trying to block out the memory. He had run as fast as he could back to camp! His father did not know he had a coward for a son.

They were giants!

Zol always listened in awe to the stories told about hunters who had been trampled by mammoths or tossed on their giant tusks. But he thrilled to the story, told again and again, of one ancient hunter who had shown amazing courage by creeping up and marking a mammoth’s hind legs with red ocher! The Star Dancers had watched the marked mammoth for days, studying its habits, and the hunt had been successful.

Nobody had dared to try it since. Until today, Zol thought. He touched the elkskin pouch at his waist in which he carried a horn cup of red ocher mixed with fat.

Morning light was chasing away the fog. Zol’s fear eased as he ran over the damp grass. Why should he fear Mother Mammoth? She gave the Star Dancers her meat for food. She gave them her hide for shelter from snow, wind, and rain. She even gave them her bones for their tools. She gave them life.

Zol stopped to catch his breath. He pulled a dried berry cake from his pouch and bit into it to quiet his growling stomach. The sun had burned away the fog now, and Zol inhaled the sweet scent of sage. Sunlight glimmered on the distant mountains of ice that never melted.

Suddenly a shrill trumpeting pierced the morning calm. The mammoth! Zol’s heart jumped to his throat.

He could still change his mind and go back. He could say he had gone out early to search for chipping rocks. But something made him go forward toward the sound. The men in his clan faced dangers every day; they did not run away. To be a Star Dancer meant to have courage.

He saw the herd over the next hill. The mammoths moved slowly along a wide stream, browsing on sedges and young willow trees. Watching them, Zol swallowed hard. They were giants! A Star Dancer could easily run under one. And the tusks!

Zol’s legs felt weak. What he had come to do seemed as impossible as sprouting wings and flying over the treetops. He shook his head. He could not do it. He could not touch a mammoth.

But what if he just went closer and watched? Then he could report back to Father, as a scout would. Zol moved forward.

At the stream, he crouched down and moved silently toward the herd as he had been taught. He knew mammoths had poor eyesight but very good hearing. He remembered to stay downwind so they could not smell him.

A crunching, grinding noise made Zol freeze. The willow tree next to him shook and bent over. Zol’s heart hammered against his chest, but he remained perfectly still—like a quail in the underbrush. A young mammoth had strayed away from the herd and was feeding on the tree! Spotting Zol, she stopped chewing and pointed her trunk at him as if trying to smell him.Do not run!

Do not run, Zol told himself. Do not run! The mammoth was close enough to reach out and grab him with her long trunk. He stared at the monstrous pointed tusks that curved out at him. The mammoth began to chew again, slowly grinding up the fresh willow shoots in her giant teeth.

Then she took a step toward Zol, stretching out her hairy trunk. Zol closed his eyes and held his breath. Something touched his hair. A tingle zapped through Zol’s body like lightning. Then he felt a blast of her warm, smelly breath on his face.

A blaring cry split the air so suddenly that Zol screamed, too. He clapped his hand over his mouth, wild-eyed with fear. The young mammoth tossed her head, trumpeted an answering call, and lumbered off to follow the herd.

Zol collapsed like a skin without bones. He crawled to the stream and splashed water on his face. Drinking from cupped hands, he felt the sun on his back.

“I did not touch the mammoth,” he said to the chuckling stream, “but the great mammoth touched me.” A smile of wonder stretched across Zol’s face. “And I did not run away!”

The warmth on his back spread to his insides. Zol turned away from the stream and trotted toward Mammoth Camp.

Who Was Zol?

Zol was a Clovis boy whose people lived in North America during the Ice Age (ten to twelve thousand years ago), when beavers were as big as bears and the screams of saber-toothed tigers still pierced the night. From artifacts found in excavations, scientists think that Clovis people hunted woolly mammoths with stone-tipped spears. But we can only guess how they did it. Perhaps they drove herds of mammoths over cliffs, the way the Plains Indians hunted bison. Maybe they herded them into swampy areas, where the mammoths would sink into the mud, helpless to defend themselves. Or perhaps Clovis hunters learned from the wolves how to hunt animals much larger than themselves. They might have seen how wolves silently studied an elk herd for days until they could separate a young or weak animal from the others. Then, working together, the wolves would quickly bring it down. Living in small groups of about twenty people, the Clovis would have been smart to follow the wolves’ example. Since one mammoth would provide them with food, shelter, and tools for months, this method would have avoided needlessly killing off a future food source. “To Touch the Mammoth” is fiction. It did not really happen . . . or did it?