Vapor slipped away from the fire after half an hour. By that time he knew everything that could be learned from it. The aroma of the meat told him that it was hump ox and the absence of caterwauling nearby told him that the stranger had sense enough to make camp far from the scene of his kill. He carried a muzzleloading rifle, but of a different design from those Vapor had seen before.
The other wore a full beard and shaggy hair, neither yet streaked with gray, though his face was lined with worry or some great sorrow, giving him the false appearance of age. He had been injured at some time in the past, for he unconsciously stroked his left thigh in the manner of one remembering some old pain.
His clothing was of fur, of course, but much more conservatively cut than that which Vapor’s people wore. Also it was quite heavy and the fire was high. Perhaps this one was ill or he was not inured to the climate or he did not know how to avoid the carnivores at night. Perhaps a combination of these factors existed.
Vapor was curious, but Grandaddy Longneck was getting too close for comfort. Vapor could smell the creature upwind of where he lay. It would not do to become careless while watching the stranger. He slipped away into the night.
By first light he was backtracking the stranger and soon he reached the humpox. Only bones and tattered hide remained. Vapor made a large circle about the site in order to get beyond the area which the carnivores had churned. There he found the stranger’s back trail again and followed it toward the lake.
Vapor was amazed at what he read in the mud.
The stranger was a cripple! His right footprint was uniformly deeper than his left and showed a dragging trail where he lurched each time his left foot was down. His left footprint was shallow and smudged where he twisted to thrust his good leg forward. That such a one should be here was incredible.
He soon observed the lurching gait for himself as he came up behind Jean making his way toward the lake. Vapor followed close behind, chafing at the slowness of their progress.
The stranger reached the bluff overlooking the lake and turned north, worked his way to the beach down a stream and turned north again. Vapor stayed on the embankment out of sight. Then he saw how the stranger had come and at the same time realized that he was about to get a new insight into his character.
He had come by boat, but he would not leave in that manner, for the gig remained only as memory and a scattering of shattered staves and timbers. Vapor could read the story in the mud even from the embankment above. A small herd of trihorns had been spooked by a pair of longnecks and had stampeded down the beach, running over the boat in the darkness and in their panic.
The stranger broke into a lurching trot, then stopped dead. Vapor settled down to see how he would handle this new situation.
Jean’s emotions ran the gamut, from disbelief to anger, to self–recrimination, to fear, to grief, and back to disbelief. The gig was shattered beyond repair and scattered over three-hundred meters of beach.
He dropped down on a broken stave and sat inert. Slowly he forced himself to consider the meaning and implications of his plight. more tomorrow