Jandrax 44

The barges were loading for the hunting kraals upriver. Scouts had brought word that the main herd had arrived along the Lydia. Two-thirds of the able bodied men in the colony would be out hunting, nearly three times as many men as there were firearms. Of course the rest of them would not be unarmed, but a bow is a poor weapon with which to face an adult trihorn or a prowling longneck.

Jean had nearly reached the wharf when he heard Chloe’s footsteps. She was coming from the north end of town, not from her parents’ house. That puzzled him; later he would see greater significance to the fact. He stepped into an alleyway with her so that their good-byes could be private.

***

They were thirty to a barge, but none rode. Twenty strained at the traces like dray beasts, dragging the obdurate devices against the current, while ten stood guard – four with the offworld double rifles, six with Levi-Stuer’s muzzleloaders. Once they were beyond the town, they would be fair game for leers, trihorns, humpox, and longnecks. There were six barges, their crews assembled by lot. Jean had been chosen to man the third outpost, seventy kilometers upstream; he pitied the unlucky ones who had been chosen for outpost number six.

They made twenty kilometers a day and at night anchored in midstream. After the first day they saw animals everywhere, vast herds that came en masse to water at the river. The herds seemed as endless as the stars, but in three weeks they would be gone, chasing the melting snows southward, leaving the bushes and gluegrass churned and mutilated behind them.

Outpost three was simply an earth and stone enclosure four meters high and twenty meters across with no openings to the outside. The crew entered by climbing the rough walls.

Lone hunting was almost a sport, and had aspects of glory. Not so the communal hunts. They were all business; they put meat in the locker. As soon as the barge was moored and their meager supplies were inside the circle, it began. One man, rifle-armed, would set out with two others, to make his kill. Then he would stand guard while his companions butchered. Load the meat in the hide, drag it back to the enclosure, and trade off, one of the butchers taking the rifle, the former rifleman taking up his knives. And so on, from earliest morning until dusk gave the advantage to the longnecks.

At night they ate cooked meat. When hunger overtook them on the hunt, they ate as they butchered, raw. It was brutal, mankilling work and it was dangerous; for each trihorn or herby the hunters killed, they had to kill at least one krat or longneck intent on robbing them. The nights were punctuated by gunfire and the men praised the three moons for the light they gave. The plains became littered with bones and entrails as the colonists gathered a years meat in three weeks.

Anton Dumezil was among the men assigned to outpost three. Jean saw him in the course of his work, but exchanged no word. Anton’s earlier irritability had hardened into a sullen hatred. Why, Jean did not know. Three times the two were assigned to hunt together and did so without comment, but the strain was noticeable. more tomorrow

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