Jandrax 39

Chapter 8

For two days the party went overland, staying clear of the river. The fugitives still had some meat and Jan slipped down to refill their water bag as often as necessary, leaving no tracks to tell of his coming. Valikili walked with a makeshift crutch, Helene by his side. He was surly with pain and with shame that he had not been the one to rescue her.

Sabine Conners had discarded the name Adrian Dumezil. He told his companions that he had been on Hallam’s World during the fighting and they accepted that without further questions. Fighting had no place within the renegade group.

Jan found himself looking sideways at Conners from time to time, amazed at how thoroughly the plastic surgery had changed his appearance. Sabine did not tell them he had known Jan on Hallam and Jan was content to let it stand thus.

***

Jan and Sabine Conners were old hands at the business of living off the land under threat of an enemy force. The others were not, but Nur and Henri were strong young men and Helene and Marie were pioneer women. They stood the trek well. Valikili suffered from his wound and slowed their flight, but he was recovering. Marcel Damle Was an older man; he was doing all right while Val’s wound kept the pace slow, but he would be a burden later.

The food gave out on the third day of their trek, but they were far enough away not to fear the colonists, so they dropped down to the river, where they stripped the land as they passed, eating the few fruit pods that grew along the banks, picking the edible leaves of the greenhorn, and chewing siskal twigs for narcotic sustenance. At night they boiled siskal bark to make chota and Jan shot an occasional milik. They were eating less than their bodies were using and Jan watched with concern as their weight dropped daily.

The colonists who had gone to smelt iron and cut timber would be expecting them. They had taken a portable radio when leaving the lower colony months earlier and the lifeboat radio could reach them easily. Twenty men awaited them, armed with bows and two of the rifles.

On the nineteenth day they made camp below the upper colony and Jan took Sabine with him to go raiding. The other, younger men were no doubt surprised at Jan’s choice of partner and Jan realized that he would have to let them know more about his past if they were to remain together.

Sabine had a bow and quiver, but would rely on his blade. Jan had observed him closely during the trek and saw that his speed and strength were only marginally diminished by age.

Three days later they returned with a heavy load of frozen meat. Jan snapped when Marie asked him what had happened and spent the afternoon in a foul temper. Later Sabine took her aside and explained that the colonists would be digging two new graves, one of them for Raoul LaBarge, a man Jan had liked and respected. Jan blamed himself for that, thinking that his approach to the fortified position had been clumsy.

They left the river and cut overland to the south.

Some snow had fallen and Jan was careful to keep them to the bare rock so that they would leave no trail, though he doubted that they would be pursued. Their water gave out and they replenished it from snow. For three days they trekked south-east along the foothills, then turned up a valley into the high timber.

They made camp in a high, wooded valley where the snow was ever present. At this altitude no true melt would occur and trees lived only because they could take their moisture directly from the snow. Jan left the others in the valley and went out to hunt alone.

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