Jandrax 79

Jean’s leg still hurt constantly, but not with the same intensity. He seemed to be getting into the swing of the long march and he felt good, save for a loneliness that became more intense with each kilometer.

Three weeks passed and the game became less plentiful, with a greater proportion of leers. Then he saw his first snow and he fell on his knees before it and gave thanks. He was marching faster than the melt! Overcome with relief, tears coursed down his cheeks.

Jean celebrated by killing a trihorn. He laid over for two days, curing the hide to replace the fast-failing one on his coracle and jerking the meat. Trihorn was a treat after a diet that had consisted almost entirely of herbies, which were easier to kill. If only he could find some way to conserve his ammunition, he would be satisfied, but so far he had been unable to kill with his bow. To come within effective bowshot of a wary animal required better stalking than his leg allowed.

He was only slightly worried, though. It would take, he figured, about two hundred days to reach the colony and he was killing only every third day, now that he had established a system of drying meat. With the coracle to sleep in, he had not had to fire in self defense in three weeks. That came partly from his increasing prowess as an outdoorsman; he knew now the little tricks of staying out of harm’s way. He should be able to get to the colony on his remaining ammunition.

But there was no margin for error. He must not shoot without scoring a kill and he must not get himself into a position where he had to fire to preserve his life, or where he had to kill more than one animal at a time. Leers were out and trihorns could only be taken when he found a solitary bull grazing away from his harem. Mostly he must live on the fleet but harmless herbies.

By the end of the second day, the vegetation around him had become slightly more lush and he had cured the hide, replacing the old one on the coracle. When he put out into the water that night he felt well satisfied.

***

Nightwind came to relieve Vapor of his self appointed guard duty. He dropped beside Vapor on the dry knoll and stripped off thigh-high waterproof moccasins. “What has happened?”

Vapor offered a piece of meat from the fire. “The stranger has decided that he is outrunning the melt and has laid over. He has smoked meat and is sleeping on the water.”

“What?”

Vapor explained about the coracle. Nightwind was incredulous and slipped away to see for himself. When he returned he laughed and called the stranger a crazy one. Vapor shook his head. “No. He does not have a warding amulet.” Vapor touched the aromatic bag that hung in the trees, giving off a scent which was faint to their human noses but horrific to the native fauna. “How would you sleep at night without one?”

Nightwind considered and agreed that the stranger was not so crazy after all. “Vapor, the council would hear you speak of this one. They wish to know whether it would be better to approach, ignore, or kill him.”

Vapor nodded. This was the message he had expected when Nightwind arrived and he was anxious to return. He had taken this reconnaissance on himself, nor would anyone have ordered him to it. The tribe consisted of individuals who cooperated readily enough but were violently independent. Now he wanted to milk his weary weeks for all the glory they would afford. more tomorrow

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