rant Johns turned at my hail and waited by the mouth of the gorge. There was an angry, impatient look on his handsome face. "What in hell do you want, Shrimp?"
I felt my already feeble courage crumbling away and inwardly I quaked, but my voice was firm when I said, "I'm going with you."
"Andy, this is going to be rough enough as it is. I won't have time to look after you, too."
"I'll take care of myself, thanks, Grant. Look, I'm going, and it'll be easier on both of us to work together instead of quarrelling. We don't stand a very good chance as it is."
The big blond youth with the relaxed attitude and the bulging muscles looked down at me with almost visible contempt in his eyes.
We were barely on speaking terms at the best of times, though we had of necessity been friends of a sort as boys. The advent of the Redhead reaching mating age had ended that phase in a hurry. Big, handsome, husky Grant Johns seemed a natural choice for her, and most of the colony thought I was wasting my time trying to compete with him, but as yet she had not chosen him and settled the matter. Grant was one of the most promising young men in the colony, but I was doing as well in my chosen field as he in his. Grant was in the hunting corps and had already made the rank of Hunter, a feat equaled by few of his age. I had gone the other way, taking on the dullest and most prosaic job in the community, that of junior Keeper of Records. In my spare time I helped the two selected women teach school, the same school out of which I had recently graduated at the top of the class in scholastics and the bottom in useful skills. However, Old Weariden, the Keeper of Records, was
getting so feeble and uncertain in his actions there was talk among the people of compelling him to retire and live with his children. When this happened I, Andy Carter, would become Keeper, a job which entitled me to a seat on the Board of Governors, the ruling body of the colony.
“I can be of more help than perhaps you realize," I went on persuasively. I'm small, and not in Grant's class when it came to a fight. "Do you remember, two seasons back, when we captured two of the Uglies alive and kept them in the brig for a while? Weariden and I haven't spread it around, but we got a fairly good working know¬ledge of their language before they went on that hunger strike and starved themselves to death."
rant was silent for a moment. Then a sly grin touched his lips. "You wouldn't make one good bite for an Ugly. Andy. Why put yourself in their jaws? Afraid it will make too good an impression if I rescue her alone?"
“Don’t talk nonsense! " I said angrily. “You know darn well the odds are a hundred to one against our getting her out and getting back alive. Captain Jamie told me you tried to organize a rescue party, and no one would come. I heard the whole story when I came in from the fields at noon, and I hurried out here to catch you. What more do you want? "
"Nothing," soothed Grant. "Nothing at all.... Except that she's going to marry me when we get back, or my name isn't Grant Johns.”
"Maybe. If we get back," I said grimly. "And now if you agree for us to work together, let's get going. The Uglies are far enough ahead of us as it is."
For an answer Grant turned and moved off down the gorge at an easy lope, the pack on his back swinging slightly with his movements, his hand always near his belt and the long knives hanging there. The survivors of the shipwreck had named this harsh and inhospitable world Chaos, and here a man's weapons were always best close to hand.
"Have you learned to shoot that bow yet, Shrimp?" asked Grant as we jogged steadily along. "You were the lousiest shot in the entire class under Hunter Armstrong."
"I'm not as good as you. but I can hit an Ugly at a hundred paces," I answered quickly, concentrating on my running and breathing. I didn't bother to add that I had been practicing since my graduation two winters back, although a bow was not one of my required tools. I could practice all my life and not be as good as Grant, to whom physical skills came naturally.
"Grant, how did it happen that Redhead got caught?" I asked a moment later, as I got used to the steady trot and my breathing eased.
"The Uglies sent a few scouts ahead this time." said Grant, talking without apparent effort. "The watchman at the South Pass wasn't on his toes, and they got him before he could sound the alarm. The
Redhead and a couple of friends were picking berries near the trail just this side of the watchman's tree. The friends got away. She didn't."
here was silence for a few moments as we concentrated on our running. We were almost through the North Pass now, and ahead of us the country looked nothing like the valley we were leaving. Shipwreck Harbor was a huge pocket in the surrounding mountains, a high-level grassy valley crossed by one spring-fed river. The Southern entrance was a narrow defile, not over forty feet wide, with sheer rock faces rising to an imposing height on either side. Beyond the defile, the country dipped sharply downward, into mile after mile of timberland, trees growing tall and strong in the hot sunshine. The Northern entrance from which we were emerging was somewhat wider and the walls were less sheer, though extremely rough and broken. It opened onto a high, rocky plateau. which in turn gave way to small, rocky hills, then an immense grassy plain. The survivors had suffered heavy losses the first two times the Uglies came through. Only the steel walls of the ship had saved them. After the second attack they had realized the beasts came into the valley from the South at roughly the spring of the year, and returned from the North in the fall.
Obviously the Uglies were migratory animals, and the valley where the ship crashed happened to be the easiest way through the mountains from their winter to their summer quarters. During the second generation there had been an attempt to blockade the
valley and compel the Uglies to hunt another path north, but the creatures had come in such numbers the defenders had finally exhausted their small ammunition supply and found themselves fighting the animals hand to hand. The humans were beaten back and had suffered a severe loss of lives.
After that it became the custom to post a watchman with a drum at each end of the valley, and when the drums sounded the people took refuge in the steel sides of the ship and watched the Uglies go trooping past. After a time the people grew until not enough food could be stored inside the ship, and a stockade had been erected around it. For the past two generations the people, twice a year, had spent a miserable week penned inside the stockade, watching the Uglies file by. Occasionally the animals, acting together, attacked the stockade walls, and there was sharp and bitter fighting before they were driven off. They stole any food left outside the stockade, whether in a house or in the ground, and for sheer devilishness not infrequently tore down the houses and other small dwellings the people erected outside the stockade. Since the warning system was set up, however, only a few people, stragglers and those unlucky enough to be caught outside, had been captured.
The Uglies had a very simple and economical use for the men they caught; they ate them. Any woman unlucky enough to fall into their hands alive was carried triumphantly out of the valley, and precisely what happened to her no one knew for certain. There were stories, unconfirmed and not in the official records, that
captive women were carried to their hunting grounds in the North and there used as victims in orgiastic ceremonies. These included the rape of the woman by every adult male, and her eventual end over a cooking fire when she was taken away from the males by the enraged females. How those stories came into being, and how much truth there was in them, no one could say. However, it was noticed that when the wolves returned on their next trek six months later the woman was never with them.
rant eased his pace and motioned me to silence as we emerged on to the high plateau. He surveyed the territory ahead carefully. The entire landscape was lifeless and barren, though there was abundant evidence on every side that we stood on a well-used trail.
Grant broke into a trot again as we reached the open land. From there to the end of the comparatively flat area he set a stiff pace, but again stopped and carefully reconnoitered the down slope, and the rising shoulder of the hill ahead, before starting the descent.
"How far ahead do you think they are?" I panted as we started down.
"Not too far. They came through early this morning, and that gives 'em about six hours start on us, but with the females and cubs along they always travel slow. I figure if we keep going after dark we should spot their campfire. After that it's up to us."
hadn't thought of the campfires. The animals were too primitive to make fire, but they used it by never letting it go out. In every group which passed the stockade two individuals carried a live firepot of some sort. They partially cooked their meat, and the keepers of the fire were important personages among them. The fires, and the large crude bags they always carried on their trips north, were their only signs of semi-civilization.
"You have any plan in mind to get her away from them?" I asked Grant.
"No. Figured I'd worry about that when I found them,'' he answered shortly.
“Grant," I said a moment later, " if something happens —if we don't get back, I mean—I want you to know I think that was a darn good speech you made at assembly the other night. They booed you down, but you were right and a lot of us know it. It's time we turned off that distress signal and accepted the fact we're going to be here. The only steps this colony has made so far are the ones they had to make in order to survive at all. If they'd turn their faces toward the future and start planning for it, instead of acting as if they're leaving tomorrow, we might get somewhere. Why would any¬one want to go back to crowded, cramped Earth anyway? According to our records the first generation emigrated in search 'of elbow room', though they seem to have forgotten that."
"Try telling the old boys it's time to buckle down," snorted Grant. He had tried at the last meeting, and got a lot of support, but lost in the end because he asked for too much in one bundle. The people had lived for sixty years with the hope of rescue foremost in their minds, and could not change their way of thinking overnight. That was what was wrong with the colony. All projects were based on the premise that rescue was just around the corner and they would have to be abandoned anyway. The people lived a hand-to-mouth existence and let the future take care of itself. Only the lack of contraceptives, and the resulting high birthrate, had forced them into farming and hunting as much as they did.
espite hardships the people had prospered, at least in numbers. Food was always in short supply, and this year's crop was going to be inadequate again. We had slaughtered the valley game so thoroughly the hunters now found it neces¬sary to make forays through the two passes and hunt the great Northern plain, where abundant herds of hooved graz¬ing animals lived, and the thick forests that coated the mountain slopes to the South. Just why it was necessary for the Uglies to leave their homes on the great plain each fall had never been quite clear, since, for eating purposes, the plain held more game than the entire Ugly population could consume in three lifetimes. There were quite a few mysteries about this world the colonists, despite sixty years impromptu residence, had not solved.
t was not, I reflected, entirely their fault. The colonists, born on crowded, decadent Earth, had had little enough training in
preparation for living on one of the already settled worlds. When the warper had failed on the first leg of their voyage and hurled them an unknown distance out of the known galaxy, melting into a useless lump of slag as it did so, the would-be colonists had felt their venture was ruined from the start. When the crew had wrecked the ship attempting to land on the only planet within the limited range of the rockets, their certainty of ruin had seemed confirmed. The jarring crash as the ship landed on its tail, and the smash-up when it tilted and fell full-length, had killed roughly half the hundred-and-sixty colonists and a third of the twenty-man crew.
According to the first Captain Jamie, still living but now retired from active work, the crash had resulted due to the exhaustion of the fuel supply as the ship was coming in. The suspense, I knew from old Weariden's account, had been almost unbearable when the ship's biologist had taken in a sample of the outside air and ran the tests that were to determine whether the survivors lived, or joined their friends in oblivion. They had lived, though always with the desire to leave the hostile world that was their unwanted home. Grant and I were of the third generation actually born on Chaos soil.
I brought my mind back to the present. Our steady, loping pace had carried us to the top of the last small hill. The bright edge of the sun was disappearing as we topped the crest, and Grant paused and looked long and far ahead. There was nothing to be seen but the open country of the great plain.
"We'll keep going, and hope they camp close enough to the trail for us to spot their fires," said Grant decisively. There was no question of conference or consultation with me. Grant was a Hunter, a man of action, trained to know his way and feel at home in the wilderness. He had hunted on the plain several times, and was familiar with the land along the edge. I had seldom ventured outside the stockade gates, except to work the fields with the other men.
There was no pause for resting. It seemed that we ran for hours, until the shadows unobtrusively thickened into the black web of night, and still Grant did not slow the pace.
hen I thought, at last, that I had about reached my limit, we saw the fires.
The great plain was level only on a comparative basis. Hillocks and small ridges, numerous gullies, many small streams and a few sizable rivers flowed across its green face. To protect their camp from plains-dwelling carnivores, some of whom made the Uglies seem like tame pets, this band had retreated into a deep gully, now dry and dusty, and built a line of fires across the entrance. This gully was a deep slash in the side of a low rise, where a waterfall had once tumbled over the brow and dug a hole and escape channel out into the open plain.
The side of the hill was toward the trail, and we had passed by it before we saw the protective fires. Simultaneous with the sight of
the flames a small wind blew softly over the plain toward us, and on it was the rank, animal smell of the Uglies.
We stopped and stared at the distant fires, breathing heavily. "Well, Shrimp, this is it," said Grant when he had recovered his breath.
I had to pant a moment longer. "What's your plan?" I finally asked.
"Let's get a little closer," said Grant. "The wind's in our favor."
Walking into the small breeze we approached the camp, coming at it from the entrance. When we were within a hundred yards we stopped and looked it over, lying flat in the high grass to one side of the trail. "We need to get behind them, on top of the bluff," Grant muttered. "Trouble is, they'll scent us if we move upwind."
"We can fix that," I answered, and wriggled my way back to the trail. I found what I wanted almost immediately and scooped up a double handful, returned to Grant and offered him half. “Rub yourself with that, all over your clothes. It should drown out our human scent."
"Whew! What in hell? “ demanded Grant, holding the stinking mess away from his face.
"Their own excrement," I answered, busy rubbing the mess over
my clothes. Grant hesitated, then saw the sense of my suggestion and followed suit. In a few minutes we smelled, to our own noses, like a pair of extremely unsavory Uglies.
"Let's go," said Grant when the job was done, and started off on his hands and knees, making a wide circle of the entrance fires. As soon as the shoulder of the small rise came between us and the bright flames, Grant rose to his feet and walked, as silent as a cat in the star-lighted darkness. I followed, as quietly as I could manage.
ith that instinctive sense of direction possessed by hunters and woodsmen, Grant found his way around the hill to the precipice. When we cautiously extended our heads over the sharp lip of the watercourse, we saw Redhead.
Directly under us the impact of the water had gouged a deep hole in the soft dirt. Some twenty feet deeper than the streambed in which the water had formerly run, it made a natural pit which formed an adequate prison. At the bottom of the pit was a small fire, and by it crouched the form of a woman.
I felt my breath catch in my throat as I looked at her. The genetic charts originated by the first generation limited the choice of any given member of the fourth generation to roughly eight possible mates. Started as a means of preventing inbreeding in the small community, the charts were now sacrosanct, the inviolable Law of
the Land. The Redhead and seven other marriageable girls comprised the total selection of mates available to me. Unfortunately, she was also available to Grant.
Redhead was a beautiful young woman by anyone's standards. Tall, full-bodied, she was alive with the vigor of young blood, healthy and happy and unconcerned about her expected role of mother to part of the fifth generation. Her face was lightly freckled, a dark tan in color, and she wore her distinctive hair long, letting it hang around her neck and shoulders in a russet cloud. Her breasts were full and high-held, her legs long and slim and delicately tanned. She had a mind as active and healthy as her body. If I could not have her, I was not sure I wanted to marry at all.
put my lips close to the big man's ear. "There are no guards posted! If we had a rope, we could let it down from here and pull her up to us."
"If we had a rope," murmured Grant, and was silent. Below us, Redhead had risen to her feet and was walking around the limits of her prison, feeling the walls with her hands.
There were roughly fifty Uglies in this particular band, counting females and cubs, and their long-haired bodies, sprawling in disarray about the crackling fire, were an odd and gruesome sight in the flickering light. Bipeds, they stood taller than a man, and were heavier of frame. Their bodies, roughly man-like in shape,
were covered with a thick coat of coarse hair, usually brown in color, and their feet were flat and possessed toes. There the similarity ended. The head of an Ugly strongly resembled that of an Earthly Wolf. Though they walked upright they did not possess hands. Their upper limbs ended in flat discs of skin-covered bone, from which extended four sharp, curving non-retractile claws. They fought by sinking them deep into the flesh of an enemy's shoulders and drawing him into the ravenous teeth. Once an Ugly locked his claws in flesh, only death could loosen them.
he creatures made no effort to form a real camp. They had a single large fire in the center of the camp area, with their large woven bags scattered in disorder around it. A few of the males were still awake, gnawing on some bones left from the night's kills. The Uglies were omnivorous, as we knew from the fact that they ate our crops, but seemed to prefer meat when they could get it. As we lay watching, one of the beasts, whose hair was grey with age, rose and walked to the edge of the pit. The bone on which he was chewing retained some scraps of meat. With a contemptuous movement he tossed it to the girl cowering by her small fire. It almost hit her. She started at the gnawed bone in revul¬sion, then kicked the loathsome thing to one side of the pit with one bare foot.
Above her, the two-legged beast growled an angry warning. The girl gave no sign she had heard. Stooping, the old Ugly scooped up a small rock in the semi-circle of his hands and clumsily dropped it in the pit. It hit the girl on the shoulder and she moaned a little with pain, but refused to look up.
Snorting and huffing, the beast stared at her as though minded to jump into the hole. Grant eased the bow off his shoulder and silently nocked an arrow. I placed a restraining hand on his arm and we waited, tense and ready. After a moment more the Ugly turned and walked back to the fire, where his companions had curled up to sleep. Still puffing and snorting, he shuffled around uncertainly for a moment, then opened one of the bags and drew out two large, round, hairy objects. Holding them clumsily in both hands he shambled back to the pit and tossed them at Redhead's feet. For the first time she looked up at her tormentor. There was hate and fury in her face, and an undying defiance. I felt a quick, strong surge of pride, in the girl herself and the race that had produced her. Unfortunately, there were not many in the colony like her.
rant put his lips close to my ear. "One of us must get to the edge of the pit," he muttered, keeping his voice above a whisper. A sibilant whisper would have carried far on the still air. "Our belts will make a long enough rope to draw her up. Take off yours and give them to me."
I quickly eased off my quiver and undid the strap that circled my
shoulders. When I removed my belt and tied the ends of the two together, I had a rope about six feet long. Grant was busy also. He wore a flashy double belt, one for his pants and another for the two hunting knives. Grant's three belts and my two made a rope almost fifteen feet long. He carefully surveyed the lay of the land as he buckled them together. "Can you climb, Shrimp?"
"Fairly well," I muttered back.
Grant hesitated for a long moment. I knew he would have trusted himself far more than me in the camp, but at the same time it was essential that the man on the bluff be an excellent shot, and I was notoriously poor along that line, at least to the best of his knowledge.
"I'll have to go down and get her," I said.
"Yes," he agreed, bowing to the inevitable. "Let's give them a few minutes, though." We settled back and waited for the Uglies to sink deeper into slumber. Like all animals, they slept lightly at best. I gazed into the red, fire lit shadows, at the hairy beasts I had to go among, at the long claws that might soon rip into my cringing flesh, at the yellow teeth glinting slightly in the uncertain light, and I was afraid, deeply and darkly afraid . . .
watched Redhead while we waited. She had picked up the two furry balls the old Ugly had thrown to her and was examining
them with a critical eye. Laying one on the floor, she raised the other high and brought it smashing down on top of it. There was a sharp crack! as the one she held split in two. The sleeping beasts paid no attention to the sound. The Redhead raised one-half of the ugly object to her nose and I saw her sniff strongly, sniff again, then begin eat¬ing the strange meat in the shell. She had obviously had nothing to eat since her capture early that morning.
When we judged the beasts to be soundly asleep, we eased along the precipice to a spot where climbing would be easier. I took off my shoes, then hung them around my neck by tying the laces together. One end of the strap in my hands, my knife stuck in my pants, I eased myself over the edge feet first. By the time Grant reached the end of the rope I had my feet on a small ledge. When I was secure I motioned to Grant and the big man dropped his end of the line.
1 gathered up the rope, coiled it about my waist, and started the slow, agonizing descent. A guard was posted at the mouth of the gully, feeding the fires there, but he was far enough away to be less of a danger than the lightly slumbering beasts not fifty feet away.
Painful moments later I was crouching on the bottom of the gully, knife in hand, my eyes on the nearest Ugly sleep¬ing not twenty feet away. The floor was sand and my bare feet made no sound as I crept toward the pit.
Easing my head over the edge, I stared downward at Redhead and almost cursed aloud. She was curled up in a ball by the fire, sound asleep.
I tied the rope to a shoulder of the rock on which I lay, eased myself over the edge and went down hand over hand, almost noiseless except for my breathing. She stirred slightly as my feet hit the ground, but did not awaken.
Redhead was lying with her face to the fire, and I approached her from the rear. I hesitated a moment, wondering how to awaken her without noise, then let safety be my guide and lay down behind her. I clamped one hand hard across her mouth, pulling her head back against my chest while encircl¬ing her arms and shoulders with my other arm. Before she could move I had thrown my legs around hers, holding her in an immovable vise.
She woke up fighting, as instinctively as any wildcat, but after a few seconds the frenzy of her struggling eased and I could whisper into her ear. "Be quiet! It's me, Andy Carter!"
She was still for a moment, as if hardly daring to believe her ears. I felt her body trembling in my arms and loosened my grip. "All right now?"
She shakily nodded her head, and I uncovered her mouth. " How—where did—?" she breathed uncertainly.
"No time for questions now. We've got to get out of here." I rose and helped her to her feet. Weakly, she leaned against me.
led her around the fire to the rope. "I'll pull you up," I whispered, and began climbing out. Just before emerging over the top I slowed my pace and cautiously raised my head to look around. All was quiet. I hastily untied the strap and, on my knees, got a good grip on the end. Below me, the girl clung tightly to the other end and, with me drawing the rope up hand over hand, placed her feet against the side of the wall and walked upwards to the edge.
I seized her hand and helped her over the lip. Hastily, I coiled the improvised rope about my waist again and leaned forward to whisper in her ear, "Grant is covering us from the top of the hill. Are you strong enough to climb that rock-face? "
The girl stared where I pointed, and weakly shook her head.
I hesitated a moment, trying to think, then realized I had no choice. "We'll go out by the front, then," I said. Stooping, I searched for a moment along the sandy floor, then found a pile of fresh excrement. The Uglies chose to foul their sleeping area, rather than risk the danger of going past the guarding fire onto the plain. I hastily but thoroughly smeared it over Redhead, especially her bare feet.
Knife in hand, I led her cautiously past the rough circle of sleeping
bodies around the large fire, keeping close to the walls, and into the narrow entrance gully. When we were close to the wall of fire, guarded by its lone sentinel, I stopped and told the girl what I wanted her to do, my voice shielded by the crackling of the flames.
I turned for a last look behind me, at the bluff now over a hundred yards away where Grant knelt, poised, I hoped, with an arrow on his string, then started toward the sentry.
The fires were burning bright and lively and the Ugly sat before them, blinking into the darkness beyond, where on occasion luminous eyes glowed and muffled rumbling growls burst from huge beasts stalking the fresh scent, stopped out¬side by the universal fear of fire. At the moment the night was quiet, the Ugly dozing slightly before his fires.
That sixth sense possessed by wild creatures and primitive people warned him of impending danger and he aroused, turning with a sudden snarl of awareness to confront me.
"Run, Red!" I snapped, and attacked.
he beast sprang to meet me, claws extended, his snarling mouth opening to bellow a warning to his sleeping tribe. Redhead streaked by him, as close to the wall as she could get, and vaulted the fire. I steeled myself, gathering all my nerve, and with knife in hand and heart in my throat I ran straight at the
crouching beast, directly into the hold he wanted. The long arms reached out to greet me, the claws biting deep into the flesh of my shoulders, and the Ugly drew me toward those glistening fangs.
With both arms clamped to my shoulders he had no means of protecting himself. He started his bellow, and made an awful sound in the still of the night, but then my knife plunged to the hilt in his unprotected throat and the cry was choked off short.
The damage was already done. With the quickness of wary animals the beasts around the fire rose to their feet, swiftly located the cause of the commotion, and came charging to their fellow's aid.
I pulled my knife free of the Ugly's throat and let the dying creature drop, to hang suspended by his arms. I had to take both hands to pull the embedded claws from my shoulders, one at a time. When I was free of the dead weight I had only time to jump the fire and turn to face the beasts before the leaders reached the flames and were springing over them.
he first one never made it. An arrow pierced him from back to stomach as he started to jump; he collapsed, dying, into the flames. There was a swift flare and a terrible stink of burning hair.
I was set for the second one, and ripped out his bowels. The next nearest had not reached the fire when an arrow skewered him in
the neck. During the short breathing spell I turned and ran for my life.
Redhead reached the entrance to the gully just as I caught up with her. Taking her hand to keep us together, I led her into the darkness, knowing Grant had seen us and would follow. The stars provided just enough light to let us run without hitting the occasional rock rearing above the grass. I guided her back toward the trail to home and reached it after a few minutes, just as Grant caught up with us. We paused to catch our breath, and I put my shoes back on. Grant had been running at full speed, but needed only a minute to recover. Redhead's breathing was still fast and labored, and she could not walk upright.
Grant handed me both our bows and quivers, then with one easy motion swept the tall girl into his arms and cradled her like a baby. Without any words spoken we began to run again, though not at full speed. Behind us we heard the sounds of pursuit. The beasts had our scent, and were only a few hundred yards behind us.
"That stream we passed about a mile ahead," I gasped to Grant. “Lose them there."
He nodded without answering. The Redhead was a full-bodied, sturdy woman, a burden even to Grant's magnificent strength. He led us off the trail, to hit the water at the nearest point. We made
good time, and when we reached the stream bed, though Grant was almost completely winded, we had lost the sound of our pursuers. Apparently they had been rushing headlong down the trail and had missed our exit.
rant stood Redhead on her feet and paused, his breath coming in great, heavy gasps. I used the time to encircle her waist with the rope and tie it roughly in the center, leaving two free ends for myself and Grant. I handed one end to him and the blond giant swiftly understood and grasped it. His breathing soon eased, and he led the way into the water. Holding my end of the line, the girl between us, I followed.
After a few minutes of stroking Grant paused and let the current carry us along. The stream was fairly swift, and we moved at a good clip. After about a mile the water grew shallow and we had to walk on the sandy bottom. A little further on we ran into a rock outcropping extending into the water. Grant decided to leave the stream, since the rock would leave no traces and very little scent.
he rock carried us about five hundred feet before it sank into the ground and we had no choice but to resume walking on the grass. We had barely started trotting again when we heard behind us, high and clear in the cool evening air, the hunting bay of the Uglies. Realizing at last that the scent they were following was the one we had made coming in, they had doubled
back and found where we had left the trail.
Grant quickened his pace without comment.
Redhead was running with us now, Grant saving his strength until she again reached exhaustion. "They're probably just running down the sides of the creek," I said encouragingly to the girl. "They aren't likely to find our tracks."
Several minutes later I knew I was wrong. Our time in the water had washed much of the dung off our shoes and clothes, making us easier to detect. The scent on the rocks, most likely the Redhead's bare, wet feet, was so fresh the Uglies had caught it.
The howling behind us grew louder by the minute, but it was obvious to Grant's trained ear that not more than a half-dozen of the big beasts were on our trail. I saw him glance sharply at Redhead. She was already stumbling with fatigue again. We would have to find a shelter soon and make a stand.
It was only a minute more before we saw a possibility. Ahead of us was a level stretch of ground, open and unbroken, clear in the star shine. On the left, a hundred feet away, a clump of chest-high rocks loomed black against the night. Grant led us past them on the right, about forty feet away, then swiftly doubled back to their protecting shelter.
We had barely time to put arrows to our strings before the Uglies came in sight, two of them running on all fours, noses to the trail, three more trotting upright behind them.
“Don’t miss," Grant muttered to me, and slowly tensed his bow. When the animals were at the closest point on the false trail he whispered, "Take the nearest one," and I heard his bowstring twang. Before the sound died I had released my own arrow. My long hours of practice paid off. Both arrows found a victim; two Uglies were suddenly rolling on the ground, biting and tearing at the wood protruding from their sides. The three remaining ones milled about a moment in confusion, uncertain of the direction of attack, and that gave us the chance to aim and fire again.
rant's was true to the target, and now only two Uglies still stood. My own whistled harmlessly by the head of a growling beast, and now the animals' sharp sense of smell had picked up our scent. With spine-chilling howls the two remaining members of the band charged the rocks, dodging and jumping as they came.
There was time to nock and fire once more, and both of us loosed arrows, but in the dim light the bounding, moving bodies were an impossible target. Before we could draw another arrow the beasts vaulted over the rocks and were on us.
Both of us dropped our bows and drew our knives. Grant, a blade in each hand, had little trouble with the one who attacked him. He countered the reaching claws with a knife slash that laid open the hairy arm, dodged a second bull-like rush and the grasping arms, then followed the animal closely enough that when it turned to charge again he was upon it. One knife went stabbing deep into the broad chest, even as the animal grasped him with one sharp claw. The other knife he jabbed straight into the gaping maw that was reaching for his throat.
did not fare as well. My thrust at the throat missed and the sharp fangs clamped into my arm, causing me to drop my knife. I went down before his heavy weight, fighting desperately to keep the snapping jaws from my throat. Redhead, not lacking in courage, had seized a rock and stood poised, ready to brain the animal if she had the chance.
Grant moved forward smoothly, knife in hand, and stood over our struggling forms. He ended the uneven fight by one swift, accurate thrust in the side of the Ugly's neck.
I pushed the dying animal off my chest and got shakily to my feet. My arm dripped blood from numerous cuts and punctures by the sharp canine teeth. Grant seized my arm and checked me over quickly. "Let it bleed for a few minutes before you bind it up," he said.
We moved out of sight of the dead Uglies and sat and rested. The sun made a lessening of the darkness noticeable in the Eastern sky. There was only the drip and spatter of the blood running off my arm to break the silence.
"That's enough bleeding!" Redhead said, sounding near hysteria. "If he loses any more he won't be able to walk!"
rant took off his shirt and handed it to Redhead, who improvised a rough bandage and bound it tightly enough around my wound to stop the bleeding. She was correct in saying I couldn't afford to lose any more blood, but what she didn't know was that the bite of an Ugly was poisonous, due to the accumulation of rotten meat scraps between the teeth. Very often the difference between life and death lay in if the wound from an Ugly's mouth became infected.
When we were ready again, Grant led us swiftly along the inside shoulder of a shallow roll in the land, heading back for the main trail at a point several miles above the Uglies' campsite.
I was having a hard time of it. Already exhausted, the drain on my strength from the shoulder wounds received in the first fight, and now my mangled arm, was overwhelming. It took all my willpower to force my tired feet to move. I still had my senses about me, however, and when I realized Grant meant to lead us directly to the
trail I spoke up.
“Grant," I gasped, and stopped.
he two others turned and waited. “Grant, we ought to stay away from the trail. This was the first batch going through, but the odds are ten to one there'll be a couple of more parties coming through now."
Grant thought it over. "You're right, Andy. We'll parallel the trail from here to the pass and I'll scout ahead there until we know it's safe."
By the time we reached the plateau I was done, and 1 knew it.
When I proposed that they go on without me and send back a search party, Redhead was instantly indignant. "Do you think we'd leave you now, Andy? Grant can go after some more men. I'm staying with you."
Grant only looked disgusted. "You know damn well you couldn't get those fish outside the walls when the wolves are trekking, Shrimp.".
"Then you two go ahead and let me rest today; I'll come on in tonight," I said, knowing my weak voice made me a liar even as I
spoke. For answer Grant walked to me, picked me up as easily as he had Redhead, and started across the plateau, leaving the girl to follow. After a minute, though, he shifted me from his arms to across one shoulder, making it uncomfortable for me but a much easier carry for him.
rant carried me for the full mile across the plateau, and when we reached the rocky wall of the mountains he sat me down carefully in a rockfall and left Redhead to guard me while he scouted the pass. He had an all too good example of the wisdom of my advice. There was a tribe of Uglies coming through the pass when he reached it.
Grant told me later that he crouched behind a boulder, not a hundred yards from the shuffling, grumbling throng of Uglies, mates and cubs, and watched them file out of the pass and down the trail. He was taking a bad risk, since he was within easy scenting distance, but he had been that close when the first Ugly emerged into the open and was unable to retreat without being seen.
Grant returned to the rockfall and told us what he had seen. We waited there while he climbed a nearby high rock and gained a view of the trail where it vanished over the edge of the plateau a mile away. When the last straggling animal had disappeared into the hollow he led us, partially rested, back to the pass.
It was again necessary to leave us while he ventured through the defile alone, but this time he encountered no enemies, and from the inside edge he could see far enough down the trail inside the valley to know that it would be clear for at least an hour.
Now that we were out of danger for the moment, something I had noticed the night before returned to bother me. Grant had left his knapsack and we were eating while we waited, which perhaps was what brought the dormant memory alive.
"That fruit, or whatever it was the old Ugly threw to you last night," I said to Redhead. "Was it good food?"
She looked startled for a moment, then her face cleared. "I had forgotten about that, Andy. It was a large nut with a tough outer shell, like nothing I've seen before, and it was delicious. It was light, it couldn't have weighed more than a couple of pounds, but there was a tremendous amount of white nutmeat inside and it was very filling. One half of one was all I could eat."
“I saw that Ugly get those from one of the large bags. Is that what they carry in them? "
“Yes, mostly. They must grow wild somewhere in the South, and the Uglies carry a big supply of them when they start north. That was the main thing they ate last night. They did very little hunting along the trail."
rant returned and there was no further time for talk. On my feet again, I hobbled through the pass behind them. Once out of the narrow defile we left the trail and took to the woods.
Here Grant knew the country intimately. Before the sun reached midday he had led us to the fort's small back gate, where a single shout would bring us swift admittance.
However, there would have been no one there to answer our yell. While we stood in the edge of the woods, tasting and feeling our safety, there was a thin, screaming sound above our heads, a noise which swiftly grew louder. Seconds later, scanning the skies with shaded eyes, we saw the ship coming down, silver-bright and beautiful in the crisp air, riding the path to land on a horse of flame.
It landed directly in front of the main gate. Our old ship, wrecked though it was, reared far above the twenty-foot stockade walls. This newcomer was smaller, brighter, with slim, delicate lines, obviously capable of atmospheric operation.
he stockade gate opened and people poured out in a rushing stream even before the ground had time to cool and the grass fires go out. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that this was the long-awaited rescue ship, this was the answer to a million fervent prayers, this was salvation.
I looked at the ship and felt sick.
"They came—now that we're back," whispered Redhead tautly, in the hush that had enveloped us. Grant said nothing. I knew what he was thinking. I felt the same way.
"We might as well join them," said Grant finally, and his voice was toneless and dead.
We walked around the fort walls to the front. By the time we reached the open area between the fort and the ship the ground was alive with the shoving, shouting, jubilant colonists. We stood at the edge of the crowd, the girl who was the first woman lost to the Uglies ever to return, and the two men who had brought her back, and we were almost unnoticed.
We went quietly inside the fort and to the doctor's quar¬ters in the ship. They were as deserted as the rest of the fort, but since the doctor was only a very little better qualified to practice medicine than a Hunter anyway, Grant removed Redhead's bandage and treated my arm and shoulders as well as the inadequate medicine supply allowed.
Redhead stayed until the fresh bandage was on my arm and Grant was doctoring his own wounds, then said, " I'm beat, men. Done in. I'm going home and to bed. Tomorrow, when I'm back to my senses, I'll try to thank you two properly for what you did."
She turned and walked out, almost staggering from exhaustion, but still to my eyes the prettiest woman in the colony. I wasn't feeling much better, but there was something I had to know before I could sleep. With Grant half-supporting, half-carrying me, we staggered down the corri¬dor to the airlock and out into the compound. The people were gathered inside now, and a semblance of order had been restored. Only three men had left the ship, and they seemed oddly out of place among the rough-hewn, ill-clothed throng about them. They were all three small, the largest no taller than myself, and the resplendent blue uni¬forms they wore did not lend them height or stature. Captain Jamie, a second generation man, did not loom much larger as he stood beside them, but his son and the future Captain, standing by him, towered over them by a head. The average man in the crowd about them stood six inches taller.
Captain Jamie, by dint of bellowing commands at the top of his powerful lungs, finally got the people quieted down. As soon as the noise subsided sufficiently for his somewhat weak voice to be heard, the leader of the three spacemen mounted a hastily brought chair and addressed the crowd.
hat he said, in short, was that he had no room on his small scout for a single extra passenger, but he would see that their plight was reported to the proper authorities when he reached his home base. Steps would be taken to remove them from this rough and inhospitable world. He told them honestly that this would
take several years. In the meantime, he would leave them ammunition for their long unused weapons, and such power tools as he could spare.
We turned away from the crowd, and Grant helped me to my parents' quarters. We would have a little time, then. Grant and myself, and Redhead, and others among the young people who wanted to turn off the distress signal and forget our homeland, forget the crowded, gloomy cities, the artificial lives led by the habit-bound, pleasure-seeking people of Mother Earth. We had a world of our own here, and it was a good one. We had barely touched the surface of what this planet had to offer. With a little help from Earth in the matter of weapons and power equipment, we could expand out over the face of this bountiful world, wiping out the Uglies and claiming it for humanity. As a hundred other planets had done before us, we could relieve the crowded conditions on Earth a little by opening the doors to other people who were tired of the mechanical comforts of civilization, those who wanted a life where a person had room to breathe.
With a small pang I remembered that we were even now facing a temporary shortage of food, and that our swelling population had made certain the crop we had planted was going to be inadequate. At the same time something clicked in my brain with a snap I could almost hear, something that had been bothering me since I first saw the hairy nuts. There was a report in the records, one made by the first generation over fifty years ago, of an expedition that had gone
through the South Pass and explored the wooded hills beyond. They had penetrated farther than anyone had gone since, and seen many strange and wonderful sights, but found nothing particularly useful. One of their discoveries was an immense grove of short, stunted trees, a grove which covered many thousands of acres of hilly land . . . and I remembered now the description they had recorded of the trees. They were short, twisted—and furry.
here, before our eyes all these years, if we had had the wit to see it, was the explanation of the Uglies' annual migration. When the nuts ripened in the spring they came South through the pass and lived for the summer months on the succulent meat that was theirs for the taking. Lazy and shiftless creatures, they returned to the hard hunter's life on the Great Plain only after all the nuts had dropped and rotted. With the weapons the scout ship would leave us we could make an expedition in force and secure enough of the tasty nuts to tide us over the short season. In the future they would serve as a welcome addition to our annual food supply.
I realized, with a sudden quick lift of the heart, that I now had a valuable weapon in the fight that was to come, the weapon of a virtual manna of food to folk all too accustomed to doing without. With groves as large as the expedition reported, and probably more such groves not yet discovered, we could easily feed our population.
n the time before the first ship arrived we could wipe out the Uglies as an important force and expand the stockade into a real city. When the ship came I had a feeling that very few of the younger people would give up the only home they knew and return to crowded Earth. It would take re-education, and that was where people like myself and Grant came in, but it could be done.
My family was still outside in the milling crowd about the spacemen. I collapsed into a chair, and Grant turned to go. He hesitated, turned back and said "Andy . . . whoever Redhead chooses—we've got too much work to do from now on to be anything but friends."
I stuck out a hand and he clasped it, firmly, then walked away. The sunlight striking his blond hair as he stepped out the door was the last thing I saw that day.