Jandrax 43

A week later they loaded the gig and set it free.  With the melt in full swing, the North River was high, deep, and muddy. There was a stiff silence between them.

They reached the lake in three effortless days, then spent two backbreaking ones rowing between the mouth of the North River and the mouth of the Lydia. There were half a hundred people waiting at the landing, but most of them turned away when it became apparent who they were. Those would be the relatives of the others who had gone north. Perhaps half a dozen parties of youths had gone out on advance hunts. They would bring back the first fresh meat that the colony had had in nearly a year, but that was not their true purpose in going. It was a testing of manhood, a rite-de-passage, though an informal one, entered into voluntarily. Such hunting was deadly dangerous and that, of course, was its appeal. The main meat harvest would come in another month when the herds crossed the Lydia.

By the time Jean and Anton had tied up, only their families and a few friends remained. Chloe was among them. They heaved up their bundles of furs and lightly salted meat. Jean’s father and younger brother loaded them onto a cart.

“A very good hunt, mon fils; you do us proud.”

“Thank you, Papa.”

It was good to be back, good to see Chloe again, but the edge was taken off it all by Anton’s reaction. After all, he had been Jean’s friend. He walked over to where Anton stood watching his uncle load his furs and meat. “A good hunt, Anton,” he said, “It was a pleasure going with you.”

“You did well enough, enfant.” Jean stiffened at the term, started to retort, then let it die. Something in Anton’s eyes told him that he wanted a fight, and whatever he wanted it would serve Jean well to deny him.

Jean entered the stockade with Chloe on his arm and returned his rifle to the city arsenal. All of the original cartridge rifles were held in common trust, as were a number of Levi-Stuer’s muzzleloaders. A man could rent one of the latter if he contributed a portion of his kill to the colony, but only a proven hunter could rent a cartridge rifle. It was a high privilege.

Of course, one could buy a muzzleloader from Levi-Stuer, but the price was more than it took to equip a farm. Jean, like every other youth, wanted one in the worst way.

It was LeviStuer’s standing lament that he could not get an apprentice; the young men preferred bolder endeavors and the older men lacked the steady hands. Jean had even considered becoming his apprentice, but pride kept him from it.

They walked through the stockaded city to the river’s edge. Chloe said she had missed him, called him by tender endearments she said were his alone (a declaration he tended to doubt), and they found privacy beneath the bank where prying eyes were not likely to come.

***

It was early in the melt when Jean and Anton went on their lone hunt. Around the colony the lal bushes were still in bloom. Now the siskal and greenhorn had both bloomed in turn and all three were fully leaved, only a few purple blossoms still clinging to the greenhorns. The gluegrass was a solid carpet as far as one could see.

Jean paused outside the Chambard’s door until Chloe’s mother appeared. No, she replied, Chloe was not at home but would probably be back soon. Jean was surprised and a little hurt, but not so much that he missed the strange look the older woman gave him. It made him thoughtful as he walked down to the wharf. more tomorrow

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