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He made for the rise at the southern point of the pile of rocks masking the installation. A brindled shape slunk out of his path, showing fangs. The dire wolf trotted on to the nearest carcass, where the women had stripped only the choicest meat, to seek food for which it would not have to fight.
Travis worked his way along the foot of the rise. The main path of the stampede was to the west and he believed himself in the clear, when snorting exploded before him. A bulk heaved through small bushes and he found himself confronting a bison cow. A broken spear shaft protruded too high on her shoulder to cause a disabling wound. And the pain had enraged her to a dangerous state.
In such a situation even a range cow would be perilous for a man on foot, and the bison was a third again larger than the animals he knew. Only the bushes around them saved Travis from death at that first meeting. The cow bellowed and charged, bearing down on him at a speed which he would have thought impossible for her weight. He hurled himself to the left in a wild scramble to escape and landed in a thorny tangle. The cow, meanwhile, burst past him close enough for her coarse hair to rasp against one outflung arm.
Travis' head rang with the sound of her bellowing as he squirmed around in the bush to bring up his heaviest spear. The cow had skidded to a stop, gouged matted grass and turf with her hoofs as she wheeled. Then the spear haft in her shoulder caught in one of the springy half-trees. She bellowed again, lurching forward to fight that drag. The broken spear ripped loose and a great gout of blood broke, to be sopped up in the heavy tangle of shoulder hair.
That slowed her. Travis had time to get on his feet, ready his spear. There was no good target in that wide head confronting him. He jerked off his supply bag, swung it by its carrying thong, and flung it at the cow's dripping muzzle. His trick worked. The bison charged, not for him, but after the thing that had teased her. And Travis thrust home behind her shoulder with all the force he had.
The weight of the bison and the impetus of the animal's charge tore the shaft from his hold. Then the cow went to her knees, coughing, and the big body rolled on one side. He hurdled the mount of her hindquarters, fearing that the noise of battle might attract the hunters.
Forcing a way through the brush, he made most of the remainder of his journey on hands and knees. At last he crouched in the shelter of the rock pile, his ribs heaving, careless of the bleeding scratches which laced his exposed flesh.
With his body pressed to earth, Travis scanned his back trail and saw that he had been wise to leave the scene of battle quickly. Three of the hunters were running across the plain toward the brush, trailing spears. But they showed caution enough to suggest that this was not the first time they had had to deal with wounded stragglers from a stampeded herd.
Having scouted the brush, the brown men ventured into its cover. And seconds later a surprised shout informed Travis his kill had been located. Then that shout was answered by a long eerie wail from some point up the hill above the rocks. Travis stirred uneasily.
The spear he had been forced to leave in the body of the cow resembled their ownbut did it look enough like theirs for them to believe the kill had been made by a tribesman? Had these people some system of individual markings for personal weapons, such as his own race had developed in their roving days? Would they try to track him down?
He snaked his way into the crevice of the rocks. The alerting signal was there, a second box set in beside the radar guide which now hummed its signal in his ear. He plunged down the lever set in its lid, then moved the tiny bit of metal rapidly up and down in the pattern he had been drilled on only the day before. In the desert of the twenty-first century that call would register on another recording device, relaying to Kelgarries the need for a hasty conference.
Travis edged out from the rocks and looked about him warily. He flattened against a boulder taller than his wiry body and listened, not only with his ears but with every wilderness-trained sense he possessed. His flint knife was in his fist as he caught that click of warning. And his other hand went out to grab at an upraised forearm as brown and well muscled as his own. The smell of blood and grease hit his nostrils as they came together chest to chest, and the stranger spat a torrent of unintelligible words at him. Travis brought up the fist with the knife, not to stab the other's flesh, but in a sharp blow against a thick jawbone. It rocked the shaggy black head back for a moment.
Pain scored along Travis' own ribs as the two men broke apart. He aimed another blow at the jaw, brought up his knee as the native sprang in, knife ready. It was dirty fighting by civilized rules, but Travis wanted a quick knockout with no knife work. He staggered the hunter, and was going in for a last telling blow when another figure darted around the rocks and hit the back of the tribesman's head, sending him limp and unconscious to the ground.
Ross Murdock wasted no time in explanations. "Come on. Help me get him under cover!"
Somehow they crowded into the shelter of the transfer, the Folsom man between them. With quick efficiency, Ross tied the wrists and ankles of their captive and inserted a strip of hide for a gag between his slack jaws.
Travis inspected a dripping cut across his own ribs and decided it was relatively unimportant. He faced about as Ashe joined them.
"Looks as if you've been elected target for today." Ashe pushed aside Travis' hands to inspect the cut critically. "You'll live," he added, as he rummaged in his supply bag for a small box of pills. One he crushed on his palm, to smear the resulting powder along the bloody scratch, the other he ordered his patient to swallow. "What did you do to touch this off?"
Travis sketched his adventure with the bison cow.
Ashe shrugged. "Just one of those unlucky foul-ups we have to expect now and then. Now we have this fellow to worry about." He surveyed the captive bleakly.
"What do we do?" Ross's nose wrinkled. "Start a zoo with this exhibit one?"
"You got the message through?" Ashe asked.
"Then we'll sit it out. As soon as it gets dark we'll carry him out, cut the cords, and leave him near one of their camps. That's the best we can do. Unfortunately the tribe seems to be heading west"
"West!" Travis thought of that other ship.
"What if they try to board that spacer?" Ross seemed to share his concern. "I've a feeling this isn't going to be a lucky run. We've had trouble breathing down our necks right from the start. But we should keep watch on that other ship"
"And what could we do to prevent their exploring it?" Travis wanted to know. He was feeling low, willing to agree with any forebodings.
"We'll hope that they will follow the herd," Ashe answered. "Food is a major preoccupation with such a tribe and they'll keep near to a good supply as long as they can. But it does make sense to watch the ship. I'll have to wait here to report to Kelgarries. Suppose you two take our friend here for his walk and then keep on going to that ridge between the valleys. Then you can let us know in time to keep our men under cover if the tribe drifts that way."
Ross sighed. "All right, chief. When do we start?"
"At dusk. No use courting trouble. There will be prowlers out there after nightfall."
"Prowlers!" Ross grinned without much humor. "That's a mild way of putting it. I don't intend to meet up with any eleven-foot lion in the dark!"
"Moon tonight," corrected Travis mildly, and settled himself for what rest he could get before they ventured to leave.
Not only the moon gave light that night. The dusky sky was riven by the sullen fire of the distant volcanoor volcanoes. Travis now believed that there was more than one burning mountain to the north. And the air had a distinct metallic taste, which Ashe ascribed to an active eruption miles away.
Somehow, between them they got their captive on his feet and marched him along. He seemed to be in a dazed state, slumping again to the ground while Travis went ahead to scout out a group about a fire.
The Folsom menand womenwere gorging on meat lightly seared by the fire. The odor of it reached Travis and filled him with an urge to dart into that company and seize a sizzling rib or two for himself. Concentrates might provide the scientific balance of energy and nourishment which his body needed, but they were no substitute, as far as he was concerned, for the contents of the feast he was watching.
Fearing to linger lest his appetite overpower his caution, he flitted back to Ross and reported that there were no sentries out to spoil their simple plan. So they hauled their charge to the edge of the firelight, removed his bonds and gag, and gave him a light push. Then they quickly raced out of range.
If any natives did follow, they did not find the right trail, and the two made the ridge without further bad luck.
"We're the stupid ones," Ross observed as they drew up the last incline and found a reasonably sheltered spot under an overhang. It was not quite a cave, but had only one open side to defend. "Nobody in his right senses is going to gallop around in the dark."
"Dark?" protested Travis, clasping his arms about the knees pulled tightly to his chest, and staring northward. His suspicion about the volcanic activity there was borne out now by the redness of the sky and the presence of fumes in the wind. It was a spectacular display, but not one to instill confidence. His only satisfaction lay in the miles which must stretch between that angry mountain and the ridge on which he was now stationed.
Ross made no answer. Since Travis had the first watch, his companion had rolled in his hide cloak and was already asleep.
It was a night of broken sleep. When Travis rose in the dawn he discovered a thin skim of gray dust on his skin and the surrounding rocks. At the same time a sulphuric blast made him cough raggedly.
"Anything doing?" he croaked.
Ross shook his head and offered the gourd water bottle. The small spaceship rested peacefully below. The only change in the picture from the previous day was that there was less activity among the scavengers below the open port.
"What are they likethose men from space?" Travis asked suddenly.
To his surprise Ross, whom he had come to regard as close to nerveless, shivered.
"Pure poison, fella, and don't you ever forget it! I saw two kindsthe baldies who wear the blue suits, and a furry-faced one with pointed ears. They may look like menbut they aren't. And believe me, anyone who tangles with those boys in blue is asking to be chopped up like hamburger!"
"I wonder where they came from." Travis raised his head. The few stars were dim pinpoints of light in the dawn sky. To think of those as suns nourishing other worlds such as the solid earth now under himwhere men, or at least thinking creatures, carried on lives of their ownwas a huge leap of imagination.
Ross waved a hand skyward. "Take your pick, Fox. The big brains running this show of ours believe there was a whole confederation of different worlds tied together in a United Something-or-other then" He blinked and laughed. "Mesaying `then' when I mean `now!' This jumping back and forth in time mixes a guy's thinking."
"And if someone were to take off in that ship down there, he'd run into them outside?"
"If he did, he'd regret it!"
"But if he took off in our timewould he still find them waiting?"
Ross played with the thongs fastening the supply bag. "That's one of the big questions. And nobody'll have the right answer until we do go and see. Twelve-fifteen thousand years is a long time. Do you know any civilization here that's lasted even a fraction of that? From painted hunters to the atom here. Out there it could be the atom back to painted huntersor to nothingby now."
"Would you like to go and see?"
Ross smiled. "I've had one brush with the blue boys. If I could be sure they weren't still on some star map, I might say yes. I wouldn't care to meet them on their home groundand I'm no trained space man. But the idea does eat into a fella . . . Hacompany!"
There was movement down in the valleyto the north. But what were issuing from the woods at a leisurely and ponderous pace were not Folsom hunters. Ross whistled very softly between his teeth, watching that advance eagerly, and Travis shared his excitement.
The bison herd, the striped horses, the frustrated sabertooth confronting the giant ground sloths, none had been as thrilling a sight as this. Even the elephant of their own time could generate a measure of awe in the human onlooker by the sheer majesty of its movement. And these larger and earlier members of the same tribe produced an almost paralyzing sense of wonder in the two scouts. "Mammoths!"
Tall, thick-haired giants, their backbones sloping from the huge dome of the skull to the shorter hindquarters, dwarfed tree and landscape as they moved. Three of them towered close to fourteen feet at the shoulder. They bore the weight of the tremendous curled tusks proudly, their trunks swaying in time to their unhurried steps. They were the most formidable living things Travis had ever seen. And, watching them, he could not believe that the hunters he had spied upon in the other valley had ever brought down such game with spears. Yet the evidence that they had, had been discovered over and over againscattered bones with a flint point between the giant ribs or splitting a massive spine.
"Onetwothree" Ross was counting, half under his breath. "And a small one"
"Calf," Travis identified. But even that baby was nothing to face without a modern weapon to hand.
"FourfiveFamily party?" Ross speculated.
"Maybe. Or do they travel in herds?"
"Ask the big brains. Ohhhlook at that tree go!"
The leader in the dignified parade set its massive head against a tree bole, gave a small push, and the tree crashed. With a squeal audible to the scouts, the mammoth calf hustled forward and began busily harvesting the leaves, while its elders appeared to watch it with adult indulgence.
Ross pushed the wind-blown tails of wig hair out of his eyes. "We may have a problem here. What if they don't move on? I can't see a crew working down there with those tons of tusks skipping about in the background."
"If you want to haze 'em on," Travis observed, "don't let me stop you. I've drag-herded stubborn cowsbut I'm not going down there and swing a rope at any of those rumps!"
"They might take a fancy to bump over the ship."
"So they might," agreed Travis. "And what could we do to stop 'em?"
But for the moment the mammoth family seemed content at their own end of the valley, which was at least a quarter of a mile from the ship. After an hour's watch Ross tightened the thongs of his sandals and gathered up his spears.
"I'll report in. Maybe those walking mountains will keep hunters away"
"Or draw them here," corrected Travis pessimistically. "Think you can find your way back?"
Ross grinned. "The trail is getting to be a regular freeway. All we need is a traffic cop or two. Be seeing you . . ." He disappeared from their perch with that uncanny ability to vanish silently into the surrounding landscape that Travis still found unusual in a white man.
As Travis continued to lie there, chin supported on forearm, idly watching the mammoths, he tried again to figure out what made Ashe and Ross Murdock so different from the other members of their race that he knew. Of course he had in a measure felt the same lack of self-consciousness with Dr. Morgan. To Prentiss Morgan a man's race and the color of his skin were nothinga shared enthusiasm was all that really mattered. Morgan had cracked Travis Fox's shell and let him into a larger world. And thenlike all soft creatureshe had been the more deeply hurt when that new world had turned hostile. He had then fled back into the old, leaving everythingeven friendship behind.
Now he waited for that smoldering flame of past anger to bite. It was there, but dulled, just as the night fire of the volcano was now only a lazy smoke plume under the rising sun. The desert over which he had ridden to find water a week ago was indeed buried in time. What?
The mammoths had moved, with the largest bull facing about. Trunk up, the beast shrilled a challenge that tore at Travis' ears. This was beyond the squall of the sabertooth, the grunting roar of a sloth prepared to do battle. It was the most frightening sound he had ever heard.
A second time the bull trumpeted. Sabertooth on the hunt? The Alaskan lion? What animal was large enough, or desperate enough, to stalk that walking mountain? Man?
But if there was a Folsom hunter in hiding, he did not linger. The bull paced along the edge of the wood and then butted over another tree, to tear loose leafy branches and crunch them greedily. The crisis was past.
An hour later a party guided by Ross climbed up to join him. Kelgarries and four others wearing camouflage coveralls, spread themselves on the ground to share the lookout.
"That's our baby!" The major's face was alight with enthusiasm as he sighted the derelict. "What can you do about her, boys?"
But one of the crew focused glasses in another direction. "Heythose things are mammoths!" he shouted. As one, his fellows turned to follow his pointing finger.
"Sure," snapped the major. "Look at the ship, Wilson. If she is intact, can we possibly swing a direct transfer?"
Reluctantly the other man abandoned the mammoth family for business. He studied the derelict through his lenses. "Some job. Biggest transfer we ever did was the sub frame"
"I know that! But that was two years ago, and Crawford's experiments have proved that the grid can be expanded without losing power. If we can take this one straight through without any dismantling, we've put the schedule ahead maybe five years! And you know what that will mean."
"And who's going to go down there to set up a grid with those outsize elephants watching him? We have to have a clear field to work in and no interruptions. A lot of the material won't stand any rough handling."
"Yeah," echoed one of the subordinates. Again the lenses swung to the north. "Just how are you going to shoo the mammoths out?"
"Scout job, I suppose." That resigned comment came from Ashe as he joined the party. "Well, I'm admitting right here and now that I have no ideas, bright or otherwise, on how to make a mammoth decide to take a long walk. But we're open for suggestions."
They watched the browsing beasts in silence. Nobody volunteered any ideas. It appeared that this particular problem was not yet covered by any rule on or off the book.
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