Credit and thanks for making this book availabe for publication at RGL go to Paul Moulder, who donated the scanned images of the original print version used to produce this e-book.
THE sun, an hour risen, flooded the Mountain with brightness. The morning wind whispered softly through the forest that cloaked the mountain with a robe of living green. Within the cool underbrush-shadows of the forest scuttered the small woods creatures; the chipmunks, the rabbits, the field mice. The forest walled the clearing with the dark brown pillars of its boles, with the shining green of its foliage, and out of the clearing rose a unison of young voices.
"We pledge allegiance to our Flag…" the voices chanted in unison.
Before the Fire Stone at one end of the clearing, Dikar stood, straight and tall and proud. The sun dusted with gold his bronzed limbs, his muscle-banded torso. It made golden his silken beard, his shock of yellow hair. There was strength in his broadly sculptured face, solemnity and thoughtfulness in his high brow In his blue eyes was a light that did not come from the sun.
Braced against Dikar's taut belly was the lower end of a straight, white pole that a week ago had been a birch sapling in the woods. Dikar's great hands grasped the pole, holding it slanting only slightly forward, the muscles swelled under the smooth, brown skin of Dikar's arms. Above Dikar's shining head the flag hung from the pole. The folds of the flag lifted a little in the morning wind, settled down, and lifted again.
Red-striped the flag was, and white-striped, and in one corner of the flag was a white-starred square of blue deep as the cloudless sky at dusk. The sun's light lay on the flag, but the brightness and the glory of the flag seemed to come from the stuff itself of which the girls had sewn it.
"And to the country for which it stands…"
High and clear and youthful, the voices of the bunch chanted the words Johndawson had taught them. Row on row the boys and the girls of the Bunch stood in the grass of the clearing, facing Dikar and the flag, their right arms upraised.
To the right of the Bunch was the long, low, weather-grayed wall of the Boys' House, to their left that of the Girls' House. Behind them was the post-propped roof of the Eating Place and beyond that the mountain lifted high and green and shining into the shining blue of the morning sky.
The Girls made the forward rows, their slim forms robed in the lustrous mantles of their hair. Rounded shoulders, sun-browned flanks, peeped through those black and blond and russet robes. Waists were clasped by thigh-length skirts plaited from reeds, deepening breasts were hidden by circlets woven from leaves for the unmated, of gayly-hued flowers for the wed.
Behind the Girls were the Boys, a few full-bearded like Dikar, some hairless as yet, their faces rashed with pimples, the faces of most fuzzed with the sparse beginnings of beards. All the boys were naked save for small aprons of twigs split and deftly intertwined, all were clean-limbed, narrow-hipped, their hollow bellies and deep chests plated with flat, lithe muscles.
In the eyes of boys and girls alike, was the same brightness that glowed in the wind-lifted stuff of the flag.
"One nation, indivisible…."
ONE nation. On this shining morning it was a nation enslaved. From the circling base of the mountain, far and far to where the sky and ground met and unthinkably far beyond that meeting, yellow-faced men, black-faced men, were masters of the land for which the starry flag stood. Ravening, brutish hordes. They had come out of the East and out of the West and up from the South in a long-ago time of fear that Dikar recalled only dimly and most of the Bunch not at all. They had come with a rolling of thunder, and a death-hail that rained from sea and sky, and though the people that dwelt in the land had fought them, desperately, frantically, when their thunders rolled to silence and their death hail no longer shook the earth they had made themselves masters of the land, and of those of the people that still lived in the land.
"With liberty and justice for all."
No liberty was there in all the land, no justice. Only the whips and the guns of the green-clad men who were its masters, only their barbed-wire fenced prison camps and their hangman's nooses, their driving and their cruelty.
In all the vast land there was liberty and justice only here on the Mountain to which, in the time of fear, the Old Ones had brought the little children who now were grown to be the Boys and the Girls of the Bunch, and had hidden them here from the green-clad hordes.
High, twice and three times as high as the tallest tree in the woods, a drop circled the base of the Mountain.
The face of the drop was sheer rock that gave neither hand nor foothold to an unaided climber, and circling the base of the drop was a wide space of tumbled stones. While the death-thunder still rolled in the flaming sky, the Old Ones had brought the little children to the Mountain and had blasted away the one narrow, slanting hill atop which ran the road by which they had reached the Mountain.
The Old Ones themselves had been crushed under the falling stones of the narrow hill, but they had left with the children Musts and Must-nots that the children obeyed, and because they faithfully obeyed the Musts and Must-nots of the Old Ones, and because the woods screened them from the far land below, and from the planes in the sky above, the children had grown tall and strong on the mountain.
They who were masters of the land knew nothing of the children on the mountain. And the children had known nothing of the far land below and nothing of Those who were masters of the far land until Dikar had ventured down the drop and into the far land, and had learned the terror that stalked it, and had brought back from the far land two, Marthadawson and Johndawson, who had taught him more.
And because of what he had learned, and because of a dream he had dreamed all the time he had lived on the mountain, a dream that was not a dream but a memory of the long-ago time of fear, Dikar had added to the pledge Johndawson had taught the Bunch, another pledge, that the Bunch now were chanting.
"We pledge ourselves, our strength, our lives," the clear, young voices of the Bunch proclaimed, "to drive the invader from the land and make our country free again."
The chorus ended, but for a moment longer the brown arms remained outstretched to the flag, and there was a lump in Dikar's throat, in his eyes a stinging of unaccustomed tears.
THE arms fell. Dikar dropped the butt of the pole to the ground, catching on his arm the folds of the flag that they might not trail the ground, and as he did so, Marilee, Dikar's brown-haired, gray-eyed mate, came lithe and silent from the front row of girls.
Dikar rolled the flag smoothly about its staff and slanted the staff down so that Marilee might draw over it the long bag of black cloth she had sewed for that purpose, and tie its mouth about the peeled, white wood of the staff.
The Bunch broke up into chattering groups that moved off to the jobs Dikar, Boss of the Bunch and of the Boys, and Bessalton, black-haired Boss of the Girls, had given out at breakfast. But Dikar went into the woods beyond the great oak whose spreading, leafy top canopied the fire from the eyes in the sky, and Marilee went with him.
It was cool and shadowy in the woods as Dikar and Marilee went towards a new little house that the Bunch had built there, away from the clearing.
"Dikar," Marilee said, "do you think we ever will?" Her eyes were grave in her elfin face, her tanned body was slim and supple within its ankle-length mantle of lustrous brown hair, though in that body Marilee carried her child, and Dikar's.
"Do I think we ever will what?" Dikar asked, smiling tenderly.
"Ever free America from the Asafrics?" That was the name by which Johndawson called the masters of America, explaining to Dikar and Marilee that it was a shortening of the long words, Asiatic-African Confederation, that was the real name of the green-clad hordes. "We are so few, Dikar, and they are so many," Marilee worried. "What can we do against them?"
Dikar's eyes were shadowed. "I don't know, Marilee." The brush rustled about their bare legs, and the forest seemed to darken with a kind of dread. "I don't know," Dikar repeated, after they had gone a space in silence. "But we can try. We've got to try." His white teeth flashed in a wide grin and his voice was young again, boyishly confident. "We'll make a good try, too. You just wait and see."
"I know you'll try, Dikar." They were coming to the little log house in the woods. "And I want you to try."
The house was like those in which the mated pairs lived, in the woods behind the Eating Place, but it was larger than the rest and up from its roof rose a strange network of wires that glinted red-yellow where the forest foliage had been cut away to give them space.
"But I'm afraid," Marilee whispered. Dikar stopped to lift down the flag from his shoulder, so that it might go through the doorway of the house.
"Not for me am I afraid, but for you. I've been afraid for you ever since I saw them, down in the far land, ever since I saw their long guns and shining knives, and their cruel eyes."
Dikar held still, his face troubled. "But, Marilee—"
"Marilee," a new voice said from inside the little house. "You've been afraid for your man two weeks." Marthadawson came into the doorway. "I've been afraid for mine for so many years that I have forgotten what it is not to be afraid."
HER skin was tightly drawn over the bones of her face, strangely pale by contrast to Marilee's. Her unbound hair was brown as Marilee's, but without luster, and it neither fell unbound nor was braided as the girls braid theirs while working, but was piled, straggly and thin, on top of her head. Her scrawny frame was clothed in a gray and shapeless dress, her feet in broken, shabby shoes.
"Long ago, Marilee," Marthadawson said and put a hand on Marilee's shoulder, "my John went off to fight the Asafrics, and that was when I began to be afraid for him." Her voice was a tired shadow of a voice. "All the time the fighting kept on I was afraid that he would be killed. And then the fighting ended, and news came through of what they were doing to our men who had not been killed, and I was afraid that John had not been killed."
Marthadawson stopped talking for a moment, the woods were very still, and Marthadawson's eyes remembered agony.
"One night," she began again, telling what her eyes remembered, "there was a scratching at my door. I opened it and a thing fell in that I thought was the scarecrow from the cornfield. Then I saw that it was John.
"Before I dared do anything for him," Marthadawson's low, tired voice went on, "I had to carry him up two flights of stairs to the attic to hide him. He had been a big man when he went away to fight, and I am not strong, but what there was left of him I could carry easily.
"When I had brought him back to life, I wanted him to flee with me to the woods, as many had done, to live there like hunted animals or to die, but to live and die free. But he told me he had been chosen as an agent of the Secret Net that works always, blind and in the dark, against the invaders, and we did not flee.
"That was five years ago, Marilee. For five years I hid John in the attic, and for every minute of those five years, every second, I was afraid, afraid as you cannot be who do not know what they do to the agents of the Secret Net whom they catch. For five years, my dear, I lived with fear, but never once did I reproach John for the work he had chosen, or ask him to give it up.
"Reproach him? Ask him to give it up?" Marthadawson straightened, and her head was high and proud. "I would have cut out my tongue first. I would have killed myself with my own hand."
Marthadawson's voice had risen to a fierce, ringing note.
"Oh, Martha!" The name was a sob in Marilee's throat, and Marilee's arms were around the older woman, Marilee's face buried in the other's flat breast. "I'm so ashamed. I—"
"Now, honey," Marthadawson crooned, stroking the girl's back. "Now, my dear. There is nothing for you to be ashamed of in being afraid for your man. Only you must learn not to let him know that you are afraid. And you'll learn that lesson fast enough, for it is the hard and bitter lesson the first woman learned when the first man went into peril, and it is the lesson every woman has learned ever since."
"NO!" Marilee's hands pushed her away from Martha. "No!" Marilee cried again, her gray eyes flashing, red mouth rebellious. "When he goes into danger I go by his side, and you and no one here has the right to tell me that I shall not go with my mate, to share his peril, to share whatever comes to him."
"What's going on here?" a cheery voice said, and Dikar turned to the man who came around the end of the house. "What are you three talking about with such long faces?"
Johndawson was tall, taller than Dikar. His hair was gray and his cheeks sunken, and his eyes were deep-sunken in hollow sockets, but there was quiet courage in them and a flame of new hope.
He was stripped to the waist. The cage of his ribs pressed through pale skin that was netted with old scars.
"Where have you been, John?" Marthadawson asked. "I couldn't see you, after the pledge, so I came right back here." They did not touch each other, those two, but Dikar sensed the love between them, a love too deep for touch or for words or kisses.
"Just walking in the woods." John's thin nostrils flared as he pulled in a long breath. The way he did that, the way his scarred chest swelled and swelled, made Dikar aware in a new way of the familiar forest smells, of the green smell of the woods and the tangy smell of the pines, the stinging smell of some crushed leaf and the warm, deep life-smell of the dark loam underneath it all.
"Feeling free space about me, Martha, and the free wind on my skin. Feeling the free spring of the earth under my feet." His long-fingered hand made a little gesture. "After five years— But I'm keeping you standing with that heavy flagstaff in your hands, Dikar. Come inside, son, and put it away. I've got something to show you two."
"You've got it finished, John?" Dikar exclaimed.
Johndawson nodded, his thin mouth smiling clumsily, as though it was just learning how to smile again. "I think I have, Dikar. I haven't had a chance to test it yet. But come along."
The dimness and the smell of the forest was inside the little house, and the clean, sharp smell of new-hewn wood, of the pine boughs that, piled butt-ends down, needles up and covered with blankets of white rabbit-fur, made the bed at one end of the room.
There were in the house two stools—half-logs footed with short lengths axed from saplings, the gray, moss-blotched bark left on them; and a small table similarly fashioned. Into the wall above the bed, wooden pegs had been driven to hold the few clothes John and Martha had been able to bring with them from the far land. All this save for the clothes, was the same as it was in the houses of the mated, but there were things in this house that were different and new and strange to the mountain.
Into the wall opposite the doorway, for instance, had been driven two longer pegs, high up, across which Dikar placed the flag. Beneath these ranged still more pegs, row on row, and on these rested eight long things of shining wood and dull-gleaming metal, things that were silent now and harmless-seeming but that could speak with a loud, frightful voice, the voice of death.
Long guns, these were, or rifles, as Johndawson called them, and the Asafrics to whom they belonged lay dead down in the far land, in the ruins of the house where Johndawson hid from them for five terrible years.
From one peg each, beside the rifles, hung nine little guns, automatics, that also once belonged to the Asafrics, and on a shelf beneath the eight rifles and the nine automatics were piled belts that held in many little pockets the cartridges that all the weapons needed to give them the voice of death.
Nor were these things all.
"Come here," Johndawson called from the other end of the house. "In two minutes it will be time to make the test." He was seated on a third stool, and his voice was not loud, but there was a quiver of excitement in it, and in his gaunt neck the cords stood out, rigid.
DIKAR went, with Marilee close beside him. Martha stood on the other side of Johndawson, her hand on his shoulder.
In front of them was a long shelf that ran along the endwall of the house, from one sidewall to the other. Under the shelf were little black boxes—and Dikar recalled how heavy these boxes had been when he had helped to carry them through the woods from the house of Johndawson to the top of the high, steep drop that circled the mountain.
On the top of the shelf was a jumble of wires, and small black boards standing up and lying down, and round things marked with little white lines, and a row of pear-shaped things that you could look through and see a lot of tiny wires inside of. These, Johndawson had told Dikar, were called bulbs.
Against the wall above all this hung the almost flat disk that Dikar had remembered, when he first saw it in the attic of Johndawson's house, was called a radio. And from one end of the shelf, and from the radio, wires ran up to the roof, and through the roof to the maze of wires glinting red-yellow against the green of the foliage that had been cut away to make room for it.
Right in front of Johndawson lay a little round thing with a white face. There were black marks around the white face, and two thin black lines that were joined at the center of the face. The little round thing was a watch. It made a ticking noise, and the thin black lines moved, very slowly, and Johndawson was looking at them, and a tiny muscle twitched in his cheek as he looked.
Johndawson pulled breath in between his teeth, the breath hissing, and touched something on the shelf. Little lights sprang to life in the bulbs, little yellow lights.
"One minute now," he said, "and we shall know if we can hear and be heard."
"Suppose the Asafrics hear you," Dikar said, because he had to say something, "instead of the ones you want to talk to. Won't they know what you say? Won't they be able to find out that you are talking from the mountain here?"
"No, Dikar. When the Secret Net was first set up, they did both those things, and because they did a great many of our agents died, but we found a way to scramble our signals so that they are meaningless until unscrambled in a way only we know, and we learned how to mask the sources of our signals so that they cannot be traced. The Asafric Intelligence will know a new station is talking, but they will not know what it says nor where it—time!" he broke off. "It's time now." He reached out to one of the round black things with white lines, moved it a little. His face was masklike, but where his shoulder pressed into Dikar's side, Dikar could feel it quiver.
There was no sound in the dim room. There was no sound except the ticking of the watch and the rustle of leaves outside, and the soft breathing of the four who listened.
There was no expression at all on Johndawson's face. But on the edge of the shelf his left hand was fisting, very slowly, and very slightly it was quivering.
The silence in the room was quivering….
A SOUND broke the hush, a high-pitched whine that came from the disk on the wall. Marilee shrank against Dikar, her eyes wide and startled.
The whine broke, started again. It was no longer a straight, thin thread of sound in the silence. It flickered, like a loose bowstring plucked by uneven fingers. It rose and fell, and Dikar knew that it was a voice that talked to Johndawson, though Dikar could not understand what the voice said.
"Zee-prime is calling for the roll of the stations in the district," Johndawson murmured. The whine broke, started again. No, this was another, only a little different in tone. "That's Zee-One," Johndawson said. "I'm glad Hen Parker is still okay. He's a good man. And there's Zee-Two." Dikar noticed the difference in the sound from the radio. "Zee-three," Johndawson said, "and—" He cut off. The whine had stopped. There was a gasping sound in Johndawson's throat.
"Zee-four doesn't answer the roll," Martha whispered. "Something's happened to Tomparker. And we thought Tom was safest of all, in the cellar of that bombed silk mill in Patterson."
"None of the Net is safe," Johndawson said, bitterly. "As long as there are crawling, black-hearted whites to spy on us and betray us. But—" His hand darted forward to a black, hinged rod on the shelf as the wall-disk spoke again. "There's Zee-five reporting all clear. I'm next. Now!"
His fingers, clutching the end of the hinged rod, tightened—were working it up and down, up and down, very fast. "Zee-six," Johndawson said aloud what his fingers were saying. "Reporting—" And then he broke off, and he was staring up at the round disk on the wall. The whine was coming from the disk, and Johndawson's lips were gray.
"They don't hear me," he whispered. "I can hear them, but they don't hear me."
"Never mind, John," Martha whispered, touching his cheek. "You'll fix it—"
"Hush," he hissed. "I want to hear who answers. There was a blank for me and one for Zee-seven. I got the news that Edstone was raided, you remember, Martha, just before Dikar and Marilee showed up. Zee-eight's reporting. Zee-nine—I'm glad Hankorbett is still working. His unit's done fine work up there in Rochester. They even blew up a munition factory last month."
"There was near a hundred of our people killed in that explosion," Martha said.
"And they're better off than slaving under the whips of the blacks," John answered grimly.
The whining sounds went on and on. The sound wasn't just a high-pitched noise to Dikar any longer. It was a voice coming out of the sky, coming out of the far land. It was the voices of men who, skulking in cellars, in attics, in caves, harried and hunted by the masters of the land, betrayed even by groveling traitors among their own, still hoped to bring freedom to the land.
The radio whined into silence. "That was Zee-twenty-three." Johndawson sighed. "Zekrandall in Bangor. He's the last."
"Twenty-three," Dikar said. "Even allowing for those who didn't answer, that's a lot."
"You've only heard the roll call of District Zee," John answered. "The seaboard states from Delaware to Maine. Other districts of the Net cover the whole country. Zee-prime is the leader of this district. None of us knows who he is or where his station is located. We—"
"What's happened to the radio, John?" Marilee broke in. "It isn't saying anything."
"THAT'S because Zee-prime is on another wave-length, answering a roll-call of the district primes, called by National Prime," the gray-haired man replied, smiling. "Even the primes don't know anything about him, although I have an idea he's somewhere in the Rockies. Yes, Dikar, the Secret Net has a fairly good organization, but it hasn't been able to accomplish much in the six years that it has been functioning.
"We rescued many from the prison camps in the early days, but that was quickly stopped. Since then we've managed to send some warnings of raids, to accomplish some sabotage, to keep up the courage of our people a little bit, and that's about all.
"We have no arms, no means of transportation. All our old leaders are dead or imprisoned, and as fast as new ones arise they are captured and join the others in the concentration camps or the grave. Sporadic revolts break out, it is true, here and there, but they are quickly put down, and mercilessly punished. When we started we had some hope, we haven't got much left."
The whine of the radio began again. "Zee-prime is back." Johndawson told them what the flickering whine was saying. "He's rebroadcasting to the District Net the daily bulletin of news being sent out from National Prime."
The trees rustled outside, and from far away came the faint sound of laughter, and the dull sound of chunking axes where the boys cut down trees for next year's fires. "The Ministry of Mines has announced that the production of coal from the Pennsylvania fields must be increased by twenty-five percent," Johndawson said. "Hours of labor there are lengthened from twelve hours a day to sixteen, and the miners will not be permitted to come to the surface at all, except on Sundays… Due to the industrial demand for power, the use of electricity for lighting white homes is further restricted to one hour at night. Windows must not be shaded in any way, so that the Asafric local patrols may observe any infraction of this order. Punishment for such infraction will be administered on the spot by the patrol leaders. You know what that means, Martha."
"Whips," Marthadawson whispered, "for the men. For the women—" She broke off, but Dikar read horror in her eyes.
"The new wheat crop is a bumper one," Johndawson droned on. "Therefore Viceroy Hashamoto has decreed that beginning next Monday, twenty percent of wheat flour may be added to the potato-bread rationed to whites, instead of ten. But, beginning next Monday also, whites will be permitted meat only one day a week."
"Why such saving in food?" Dikar asked. "You have told us how rich America is in those things."
"Rich, yes," Johndawson replied. "But not so rich as to supply the teeming millions in the homelands of the Asafric Confederation and the whites of our country too. They drain America. They bleed her white… Good Lord." He was abruptly intent on what the radio was telling him.
"What, John?" Marthadawson asked.
"There's been a riot in the concentration camp at San Antonio. The prisoners killed their guards with their bare hands. Before they could get through the barbed wire, planes bombed them to pulp. One white escaped—reached Tee-eleven. The refugee was raving mad after he'd told his story. His screams would have betrayed Tee-eleven, so the agent—shot and buried him…"
"How awful!" Marilee gasped. "He must be a devil."
"No," John said, a white line about his mouth. "He had to do it. Life is cheap in America today, Marilee— Here's news that will show you how cheap life is. In Minnesota an Asafric troop train was wrecked, night before last. The wreckers escaped, but Hashamoto has ordered that every tenth white man in the county where this happened be publicly flogged to death as a warning that sabotage must stop."
A LITTLE moan came from the girl. Her hand crept into Dikar's. It was icy cold, and Dikar was cold all over. Though the sun still struck through the forest roof, its leaf-filtered light dancing in through the windows and the doorway of the little house, it seemed to Dikar that a chill wind moaned in the sky.
"Hello!" Johndawson exclaimed. "Martha!" There was excitement in his voice. "Normanfenton is alive. Wait!" His lifted hand checked Marthadawson. "All this time he's been in Dannemora Prison. Now the Asafrics are moving him to Newyork."
"Oh, John," Martha breathed.
Johndawson was listening so intently that he forgot to repeat aloud what the radio was saying. "Who is Normanfenton?" Dikar whispered to Marthadawson.
"He led the Adirondack Uprising last year," she answered, keeping her voice low. "He had gathered a thousand mountain men and more were flocking to him, but they were trapped in Ausable Chasm and annihilated. Or so we thought. Fenton is a great man, a great leader. He might have saved America if they had not caught—"
"They're not taking him down by plane," John interrupted. "Martha! Do you know what those devils are doing? They're bringing Fenton through the state, chained in an open truck, so that everyone can know what happens to leaders of revolts against them." His eyes burned with rage. "And then they're going to hang him from the peak of the skeleton of the Empire State Building. Damn them! Oh, damn—"
"Isn't there going to be an attempt to rescue him?" Dikar demanded.
"Rescue? How can he be rescued? He'll be heavily guarded. If there was time perhaps something might be done, but there isn't. The caravan has already left Dannemora. It's swinging around to go through Watertown, then back through Syracuse and Utica. Fenton will be exposed in his chains in Utica all night, then taken to Albany and shown there till noon. At noon they'll start bringing him down river towards Newyork, through Kingston—"
"On this side of the river, John?" Marthadawson seemed excited. "They'll pass near here—"
Johndawson nodded, still listening. "Yes. They'll reach Newburg late in the afternoon, will display Normanfenton there till dark, then they'll rush him—"
"Along the Storm King Highway—"
"No. They're still having trouble with landslides there, even though it's so long since they bombed West Point. No. They're going inland from Newburg, on old Route Thirty-two. That will bring them nearer still—"
"Nearer!" Dikar interrupted. "How near, Johndawson?"
"Even nearer than my house was to here. But—"
"And when? Can you tell me when?"
"Not yet, except that it will be after dark, but the Net is sending reports on their progress, reports of the effect of all this on our people, and tomorrow—" Johndawson broke off, a strange look on his face. "Why, Dikar? Why do you want to know all this?"
Dikar smiled, but there was no smile in his eyes. "Because, Johndawson," he said slowly. "Because I an' the Bunch might have somethin' to say about their hangin' Normanfenton."
"YOU might—what do you mean?" A sudden light flared in Johndawson's face. "What do you mean, Dikar?"
"I'm wonderin' if we can't take Normanfenton away from the Asafrics and bring him here to the Mountain, like we did you, an' hide him—"
"If you could." Johndawson came up to his feet, and his face was shining again. "If only you could. It would show our people that their conquerors are not invincible. It would give them new heart— But we're talking nonsense." He made a despairing gesture.
"When you rescued us there was only Li Logo and a half dozen Blacks, and they expected no opposition. There will be hundreds of heavily armed Asafrics guarding Fenton, and they will be on the alert against any attempt to take him from them." The light was out of his eyes and his voice was flat. "Skip it, son. It can't be done."
"No, Johndawson, I will not skip it till I have thought about it some more. Many times all of the Bunch have told me something could not be done, but when I thought about it, I found a way to do it."
"But, Dikar," Marthadawson said. "Even if by some miracle you could take Fenton away from them, the Asafrics would search every inch of the countryside, on the ground and from the air, and never rest till they found him or his dead body. They would surely search this Mountain, and that would be the end of your Bunch, the end of everything for you."
"You see, Dikar," John said, drooping and tired-looking. "It's a hare-brained idea. There's no use thinking about it."
The smile was no longer on Dikar's lips, and there was defeat in his eyes. "Well," he conceded. "Perhaps you are right—"
"No, Dikar!" This was Marilee. "They're not right." She stood tall beside him, her hand trembling on his arm, its soft touch thrilling him, as always. "They're terribly, terribly wrong."
"But, Marilee," Dikar argued, unhappily, "even if we do take Normanfenton, that will be the end of safety for the Bunch."
"Sure," she answered him. "Sure it will be the end of safety for us. But if we ever do anythin' except make beautiful pledges to the Flag an' talk about what we're going to do for the Flag and the Country for which it stands, there will be no more safety for us. Today or tomorrow or a year from now, the choice will always be the same, hide here on the Mountain in safety, or go down off the Mountain an' say goodbye to safety. You've got to choose sometime, Dikar, an' it might as well be now."
"You've got to choose now, Dikar," Marilee went on, not stopping to hear what he would say. "Because once you choose safety instead of duty, the next time it will be so much harder to choose different, an' each time it will be harder, an' pretty soon you will not be able to choose anythin' but safety."
"That's youth talking," Johndawson put in. "First, let me train your Boys in the use of rifles and pistols. Let me fix my radio so I can talk to the Secret Net as well as listen. Let me consult with Zee-Prime and National Prime, confer with them how best to act, decide on just how to go about the matter. Then we can wait for another opportunity—"
"Wait!" Marilee flung at him, her eyes, her voice, scornful. "You've been waiting for five years, Johndawson, plannin', conferrin', decidin' on just how to do things—an doin' nothin'! an' all the time your enemies have been gettin' stronger, your friends weaker. No! I don't want Dikar to wait an' wait an' wait, an' do nothin'. I want him to decide now, once for all. Dikar!" She turned to him. "You've got to decide now. Don't you see that you've got to?"
DIKAR looked at her, and he looked at Johndawson, and he could not decide. "I don't know which of you is right," he mumbled. "Marilee, I don't know. The safety of the Bunch—" A threshing sound broke him off, a threshing sound in the brush outside the House. He swung to the doorway and a thin, high voice was crying, "Dikar! Dikar!" from the brush, and then a brown form broke out of the brush.
It was Halross, and he was in the doorway, was holding on to the side of the doorway with desperate hands, as if his legs no longer had strength to hold him up.
"Dikar," Halross gasped, his cheeks twitching, his lips without color. "Oh, Dikar—"
"Steady, youngster," Dikar said, one long stride taking him to the panting youngster. "What's up?"
"Johnstone." Halross's eyes clung to Dikar's, and there was a little more of sense in them, of reason. "Chopping. A tree fell on him. He's—he's—" He shuddered.
"No. But it's crushing him an—an we can't get him out. We can't…" the Boy's voice rose to a scream, cut off, as Dikar plunged past him.
Dikar was running through the woods, the brush whipping his legs, the brambles tearing at him. Effortlessly he climbed the steep slope, till ahead there was a babble of voices and he thrust through a leafy screen into a small clearing and saw the fallen tree, twice as thick through as his own body, and the still form that lay under it.
"Here's Dikar," a Girl's voice said. "Here's Dikar, dear. Dikar will get you out."
Dikar saw Johnstone's red-thatched head on the ground, and Johnstone's red beard, and the tight-drawn lines of pain in the pale mask of Johnstone's face. The great tree-trunk lay across his chest, and its pointed, yellow butt was on the ground beside the stump from which it had been hewn. Beyond Johnstone, on the other side, the trunk was balanced on the rounded top of a rock. Dikar saw that if it moved on the rock, the least bit to either side, it would settle and crush the life out of Johnstone.
"We're afraid to touch it, Dikar," Bengreen said in his ear.
"I see," Dikar said, slowly. "I see." What he saw was that the bark of the trunk was pressing hard into Johnstone's chest, and that the slope of the ground lifted from Johnstone to the rock, so that there was only one place, halfway between, where it was clear of the ground by a space just high enough for a Boy to crawl under, if he dared.
"If we only had a block and fall," Johndawson said. "We could get a straight lift up."
Dikar didn't know what a block and fall was, but he knew that a straight lift up was the only thing that could save Johnstone. There was nowhere the Boys could stand above the tree-trunk to pull it straight up, but—Dikar was going to the place where the great trunk was clear of the ground by just a little more than the breadth of a Boy's body. Of Dikar's body. He was getting down on his knees there, facing the trunk. He was lying flat, face down.
"Good heavens!" he heard Johndawson exclaim. "What is he going to do?"
DIKAR rolled his head and said, "Danhall. Bengreen. Stand by Johnstone to pull him out, but don't touch him till he's free." Marilee's lips were tight and thin, but there was a smile in Marilee's watching eyes.
Inch by slow and careful inch Dikar pushed himself forward on the ground. There was sun on the back of Dikar's head and now there was shadow, and he knew that it was the shadow of the great trunk above him.
He squirmed forward, the ground rubbing his chest, his belly, the ground soft and cool against the palms of his hands. Now there was sun again on the ground and on the back of Dikar's head, and there was a tiny purple flower just where his eyes looked down, and on one of the petals of the flower there was a bug so small that Dikar could not have seen it if his eyes had not been so close to it. And Dikar stopped.
He turned his head so that he could see the tree-trunk, and it was gray-brown and huge over his back, and it seemed as big as the Boys' House.
Dikar pulled his hands back, back along the ground until they were flat on the ground either side of his chest and close to his chest. He pulled his knees, little by little, forward under him. That lifted Dikar's back, slowly, lifted it till he could faintly feel the touch of the tree-bark on the skin across the small of his back, lifted it till the touch of the tree-bark was firm and hard and rough against the small of his back.
Dikar pulled in a long, deep breath, and the green smell of the woods was in that breath and the warmth of the sun, and the life-smell of the black forest earth.
And there was strength in that breath, strength that ran tingling in Dikar's veins, that seeped into his muscles as the warm summer rains seep into the ground.
Dikar closed his throat on that breath, and the strength swelled in his muscles, pushing his hands and knees down hard against the earth. And Dikar's back was lifting. The weight of the trunk was the weight of the world.
Dikar lifted, lifted slowly, his arms straightening, his arms quivering with the weight upon them, his thighs quivering. The weight was too much, he could not lift it any more, could not hold it—
Somewhere there was shouting. Somewhere there were words, shouted, but dull in Dikar's ears. "All right. All right, Dikar. He's free. He's— We've got him out."
And Dikar started to let the tree trunk down. Slowly. He had to let it down as slowly, as carefully, as he had lifted it. He had to let it straight down, so that it would come down exactly on top of the rounded top of the rock, so that it would rest there exactly as it had rested before he lifted it.
Or it would roll on the round top of the rock, the great weight of the trunk would roll and come down, lower, lower, cradled on Dikar's back, till Dikar lay flat on the ground and the trunk lay on top of him, pinning him down.
Down. It was harder to let that weight slowly down than it had been to lift it. Down. Surely it must be down to the rock now.
SUDDENLY the terrible weight of the tree was a little less on Dikar's back, and the weight was quivering a little. Now there was only the touch of the bark on Dikar's back. Now there was only the pain where the bark had gouged his back and Dikar was lying flat on the ground, and the purple flower was against his nose.
Dikar's breath went out with a great whoosh, and blew the little bug off the flower.
Dikar pushed himself back and back, slowly, carefully, and the shadow of the tree trunk was on his head, and then the sun was on the back of his head again.
Dikar lay on the ground panting and blind, and about him there was a wild hurraying, but Dikar heard only Marilee's voice, "Dikar. Oh, Dikar." He felt only Marilee's soft hands on his back, taking away the pain and the hurt.
Dikar heard Johndawson's voice. "That was a brave thing to do, son. But it was a foolish thing, too. One slip and you both would have been killed. You should have thought of that before you tried it."
"I did think of that," Dikar answered Johndawson. "But I couldn't let that stop me. I had no right to think about danger to me when one of the Bunch was in danger an' I could help him. I—" Dikar stopped. He rolled, and sat up, and his eyes were wide.
"Marilee!" he exclaimed. "I see now—I see— That's the answer."
"What's the answer?" Marilee asked, squatting on her brown thighs. "What do you mean, Dikar?" she asked. But Dikar saw in her eyes that she knew.
"Just like I had no right to think about danger to myself when Johnstone needed me," Dikar told her, "the same way I have no right to think of danger to the Bunch when our country needs the Bunch."
JOHNSTONE would be laid up for some time, but he was not hurt bad. Dikar himself was sore all over, but Marilee had bound to his back certain leaves that would heal the wounds there quickly.
"The soreness is nothing," Dikar said to Johndawson. The four of them were back in Johndawson's little House. "It will be gone by night. I will be ready to go down to the far land as soon as it is dark."
"As soon as it's dark!" Marilee echoed. "But Dikar! It's tomorrow night They will be bringin' Normanfenton near here, not tonight. Why should you lead the Bunch down there tonight?"
Dikar turned his grave smile to her. "I'm not leadin' the Bunch down there tonight. Tonight I go alone."
"Alone!" The exclamation came from all three.
"Yes," Dikar smiled. "Alone. Marilee was right in sayin' that we must not wait to act, but so were you, Johndawson, in sayin' we must not act without plan. So I must go tonight to where Normanfenton will pass tomorrow an' see for myself how we must do to take him from the Asafrics, an' what chance there is that we can do so, or if there is any chance at all. I must see if there is any chance that, havin' rescued him, we can bring him back here to the Mountain without givin' away the secret of the Mountain to our enemies."
"Oh Dikar!" Marilee wailed. "You haven't changed. You're still thinkin' first of the Bunch."
"I'm thinkin' of the Bunch, my dear, not first, but as part of the job the Bunch must do. If the Bunch is destroyed, it can do nothin, an' all our fine words, all the years of our struggle to live here on the Mountain, all that the Old Ones did, long-ago, to save the Bunch, will be useless an' wasted."
"That's good sense, Dikar," Johndawson approved. "I'll go with you tonight, and—"
"No," Dikar said. "I go alone." He said it quietly, but there was in his voice, in his eyes turned on the gray-haired man, a something that the Boys and Girls of the Bunch had long known meant that what the Boss ordered to be done must be done, without talk or argument. "You cannot move as fast as me, nor, like me, without leavin' any trace that you have passed. You will tell me where to go, but you will not come with me."
Johndawson nodded. "All right, Dikar. I'll make a map for you."
"A picture by means of which I can more easily tell you where to go. Wait a minute." Johndawson rose from his stool and went to the doorway, and came back with a pointed stick he'd picked up from the ground outside. He squatted down and scratched round marks in the hard-packed earth that was the floor of the House. "Suppose you were high up in the sky, looking down. The Mountain would look like this, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," Dikar agreed, getting up from his stool and squatting down beside Johndawson.
"Now suppose," the latter went on, "that this is the direction of the rising sun." He pointed with his stick. "The name of which is East. Way over here would be the Hudson River." He scratched four long wavy lines in the dirt. "And about here," making a little cross between the wavy lines that were a picture of the River and the round picture of the Mountain, "would be the House where Martha and I used to live."
"I see," Dikar said. "If I wanted to tell someone how to go from the Mountain to that house, all I would have to do is show them on this picture, and they would know to go toward the rising sun. To go East."
"Good boy!" Johndawson exclaimed. "You learn fast. Now let's learn the names of the other directions before we go on. If this is East, toward the rising sun, this, toward where it sets, is West. Then this way is North, and the other South."
"East. West." Dikar's hand pointed. "North. South. Right?"
"Right. And in between is North-East, North-West, South-East, South-West. You see?" Dikar nodded, his lips forming the words Johndawson had said. "Now, Dikar. From the top of the Mountain you have seen that there are woods all around the Mountain, like this." Johndawson's stick roughened the dirt around the Mountain-mark to show where he meant.
"Before the invasion, this region was known as a Park, as the Palisades Interstate Park, and no one was allowed to cut down the trees in it or live in it. It was kept as a wild playland, and it has grown even wilder since the Asafrics came, so thick and wild, so full of ravines and caves, that men and women who have escaped from the camps have been known to live in these woods for years, though the Black trackers hunt them continually."
"Here, Dikar," Johndawson went on, "about twenty miles North and a little East of here," he made a big mark next to the wavy lines that were a picture of the River, "is Newburg. As I said before, the caravan will swing inshore from there, following a road that runs this way…."
The stick scratched a line that wandered along southwest from Newburg. "Through these little towns of Vailsgate and Highlandmills and Centralvalley and Harriman." He made little circles as he said the names. "And that road goes through the edge of the woods, right here, about four miles due west of the Mountain. If there's any place at all where a rescue might be effected, this is it."
"A road through the woods," Dikar pondered, low-toned. "An' not far, not too far, from the Mountain. Yes," he whispered. "Yes. I must see that. I must see that tonight…."
NIGHT brings no hush to the forest that cloaks the Mountain, brings rather new sounds, new life. Night brings a furtive, teeming, awakeness to the creatures of the forest, but the Boys and the Girls of the Bunch have said their Now-I-lay-me's and are asleep.
Every night it is the turn of two of the Bunch to stay awake, watching the Fire whose flames leap from the Fire Stone in the Clearing; feeding the Fire, or to putting it out at the first faint buzz that gives warning of a nearing plane, for the Bunch, too, is hunted.
This night two others of the Bunch stand awake in a little House of the Mated.
The form of the one, half-seen in the dark, is tall and stalwart, the form of the other slender and supple, warm and throbbing in the embracing arms of the first. "Why?" Marilee whispers to Dikar. "Why must you go alone? Why can't you take some of the Bunch with you, Bengreen maybe, an' Danhall?"
"Only one is needed for the job that is to be done tonight," Dikar answers, low-toned.
"But two or three could put up a better fight," Marilee urges, "if there is a fight. The more who go, the safer all will be."
"Safer in the goin', perhaps, an' in fightin', if fightin' there is. But goin' or comin' back, two would leave more trace than one, an' three more than two, to lead the Black trackers to the Mountain. No, I must go down to the far land alone."
"An' you must come back, my Dikar," she insisted. "You must come back to me."
"I shall do my best to come back," Dikar murmured, his lips close to her ear, tingling with the cool touch. "But if I do not come back, you must remember that the Bunch will go on without me."
Dikar felt the slender form of Marilee quiver, hard against him. He heard the beginning of a sob in her throat. The rest was smothered by the hot, sweet tightness of his lips on Marilee's lips.
Dikar whirled to a sudden sound behind him, his great hands fisting, the muscles tightening across the back of his shoulders. A dark form blotched the pale glimmer of the doorway—
"Dikar," a whisper breathed from the doorway. "Marilee! Are you wake?"
"Annjordan!" Marilee exclaimed. "You—Johnstone is bad sick! He's worse hurt than we—"
"Hush," Annjordan hissed, gliding into the House. "No one must hear us. No one must know I've come to you. My mate's all right, Marilee, thanks to the brave thing Dikar did, an' that's why I have to tell you—" She broke off.
Annjordan was a shadow in the darkness. Her voice was a shadow. Dikar could not understand how by sight or hearing Marilee had made out who it was. "What are you talkin' about?" he demanded.
"I promised to keep it a secret. I swore cross my heart not to tell you and Marilee about it. But I must. Even if the Old Ones strike me dead, I must tell you, after the thing you did for my Johnstone."
"Who did you promise not to tell me somethin'?" Suddenly Dikar's heart was heavy. Was it beginnin' again? Secrets kept from him, whisperings behind his back? He had thought all that sort of thing had ended with the death of Tomball, whom he had had to kill with his bonarrer so that the Bunch might live. "An' what is it you have promised not to tell me an' Marilee?"
"The pledge—" Annjordan's whisper stopped, started over again. "Dikar. When we make the pledge in the mornin', we Girls, the mated Girls an' most of the un-mated, do not make it." Breath hissed from between her teeth, as though a long time she had held it, had held something within her that had fought to get out like held breath.
"Not make the pledge," Dikar repeated, puzzled. "But Annjordan, I hear you make it, each mornin' after brekfes. I see their hands outstretched to the Flag."
"You see our right hands outstretched." Annjordan seemed to speak more easily, now that she'd begun to speak. "But you do not see our left hands, hidden within our long hair—"
"Hidden, an' their first two fingers crossed."
"Crossed!" Marilee gasped. "Crossed fingers denyin' the pledge your lips say!"
Dikar's mouth was dry. He licked his lips. "Who got you Girls to do this, Annjordan? Who got you to do this thing, an' to keep it secret from me?"
IN the darkness the form of Annjordan was stiff, and Dikar sensed that her eyes were on him, but she sobbed only, did not answer. It was Marilee who answered for her.
"Bessalton, Dikar. Annjordan! It is Bessalton, isn't it?"
"Bessalton!" Dikar groaned. "But Bessalton's Boss of the Girls an' my right hand. She's—"
"Your enemy, Dikar," Marilee cut in.
"You're crazy, Marilee! Why should—"
"Why? My blind, blind Dikar. Why? Look Dikar. Bessalton loved Tomball an' wanted him for her mate, but Tomball wanted me, an' so Bessalton hated me. Then I mated with you, an' she thought she had her chance at Tomball, but he fought you an' you killed him, killed the Boy she loved, an' so she hates you an' is your enemy."
"But she's Boss of the Girls. Her duty—"
"She tries to do her duty to the Girls an' the Bunch in spite of her hate for you, but because of her hate for you, she cannot help but be certain that what is close to your heart is wrong, an' so—"
"I see," Dikar interrupted. "I get it. But— Look here, Annjordan. I thank you for tellin' me of this, but there is nothin' I can do about it tonight, so now you better go back to your Johnstone an' to sleep. A good sleep to you, Annjordan, an' good dreams."
"A good sleep to you both," Annjordan whispered. "Good dreams to you both." She slipped away, blotched the pale doorway like a shadow, was gone.
"Now there's no use your goin' down to the far land, Dikar," Marilee murmured, a sort of relief in her tone. "The Girls can stop the Boys from followin' you down to the far land, and so—"
"The Girls can stop 'em from followin' me, but the Girls will not. Tomorrow mornin' I call a Council—Tonight I go down to the far land." There was a tightness in Dikar's throat that would hardly let him talk. "Tomorrow mornin' I will have this out with the Bunch. It is late now. I must get goin'—"
Marilee's kiss warm on his lips, Dikar went through the woods like a drifting shadow. He made less noise than the rabbits that played in the brush, less noise than the rippling stream to which he came and by whose side he went down the dark slope of the Mountain, through the dark woods. Dikar came at last to where the stream leaped out over the brink of the Drop, and down, down into the dark depths to smash itself on the stones beneath which the Old Ones slept.
Dikar bent and felt with his hands for the rope of interwoven vines that was fastened to a tree here where the stream leaped out, and slanted down into the stream and hung behind its curtain.
Each time before that he had ventured down, Dikar had met with deadly peril and had escaped it, but he felt in his bones, in his chilled blood, that this third time he was to meet with dangers to which those others would be as nothing.
Down there in the far land Dikar had learned the meaning of fear. Fear rode his shoulders now, weighted him, as he swung himself down over the edge of the Drop, swung himself down through the battering roar of the stream, climbed hand over hand down the rope of vines, down and down and down into the depths.
This was the third time Dikar broke the most terrible of the Must-nots of the Old Ones. Was this the time that the Old Ones would choose to punish him for breaking their Must-nots?
THE brush through which Dikar moved was exactly the same as the Mountain's brush. The smells, even, were the same. But there was a difference between this forest of the far land and the forest of the Mountain. The difference tightened Dikar's skin on his body, bristled the hairs at the back of his neck.
A hush lay heavy in these woods, a brooding and fear-filled hush. No shrill chorus of insects came to Dikar's ears, no scutterings of small woods creatures, no twitterings of nesting birds disturbed in their sleep, no hoot of a hunting owl.
And this made Dikar afraid.
He stopped, suddenly. He shrank against a huge tree trunk, the black shadow enfolding him, and peered back.
There were shapes there, tongueless and threatening. There were eyes watching him, a myriad of pale eyes.
Dikar knew the shapes were only the shadows of trees, the shadowed bulk of bushes. He knew the eyes were only speckles of moonlight. He could see nothing to fear. Hear nothing. Nothing moved—
It seemed to Dikar that something had been moving, behind him, and had stopped in the instant he stopped. It seemed to him that something was watching him now, invisible in the fear-filled dark.
Invisible, perhaps, in dark or light!
A long time Dikar peered into the night, and nothing moved, and there was no sound in the thick and brooding hush.
After a while Dikar started off again, flitting noiseless through the forest. He must watch where he placed his feet, he must watch that he bent no leaf, left no trace that might be followed by the Black trackers of the Asafrics, back-tracking him to the Mountain. All Dikar's thought, every tingling nerve of him, was taken by this need, and he forgot to be afraid.
He came to a stream rippling between low, grassy banks. It was wider than any on the Mountain, its waters running across his course as fast as the Mountain streams run when they near the Drop and start hurrying to throw themselves over the Drop, but it was no more than thigh-deep to Dikar, and he waded across it easily.
Afterward Dikar was to learn that the stream had a name, the Ramapo River.
And now there was sound ahead of Dikar, a rumble like thunder far ahead of him, but Dikar knew it was not thunder, for it was low down, not in the sky, and it seemed to move, now to one side, growing, now straight ahead, now to the other side, dying away.
Dikar stopped, fright throbbing in his chest. He listened to the fading of the strange sound, and his brow knitted.
His nostrils flared to a new smell that drifted through the woods, a stinging smell Dikar could not remember at all, a smell that yet seemed queerly familiar like something out of a forgotten dream.
A dream? The smell belonged to Dikar's dream, in that dream of the long-ago that came to Dikar again and again and was not a dream but memory of the long-ago Time of Fear. The smell was strong in a part of that dream, in the part where Dick Carr, the little boy Dikar once was, rode in a truck crowded with the children the Bunch once were, and the Old Ones drove the truck. The smell did not belong to the children or the Old Ones. It belonged to the truck.
Was it a truck that had made the noise like thunder, there ahead from where the smell came? It must be. But, Dikar recalled, trucks go only on roads, so there must be a road not far ahead, the road Johndawson drew in his picture, the road for which Dikar looked.
He was near the road, and near the road the danger that some Black might come across his track was the greatest. Dikar knew how to fix that. He went up the trunk of the tree near which he had stopped, hearing the thunder. He went toward the road in the tops of the trees, running confident along swaying boughs as a squirrel might, swinging across the spaces between boughs in free, soaring leaps.
And he came to the road.
DIKAR lay along the bough of a tree that hung over the road, and looked down upon it. It was very wide and in the moonlight it glimmered like the pale night-things of the woods. It curved out of the dark woods and passed under Dikar's bough, and went on into the dark woods again.
On the other side of the road were woods again, their boughs overhanging the road like the boughs of the woods on this side did. Dikar shifted a little—shrank down close to his bough.
He had heard, far to one side, a low rumble begin, like that which he had heard before. The rumble grew louder fast, came nearer fast, and there was light on the road, a bright and glaring light, and the light streamed from two, great blazing eyes that hurtled toward Dikar, roaring.
The roaring battered at Dikar, and for terror of the roaring Dikar could not move, and the light was all about Dikar, the tree suddenly green in the light, Dikar's hands, clutching the bough suddenly brown and cord-ridged in the light. The deafening thunder was beneath Dikar. A monstrous huge thing was hurtling by, right under Dikar.
There was no light about Dikar any longer. The light was going fast, fast along the road away from Dikar, and the monstrous thing from whose eyes the light came. The thunder was dying.
Shaken, gasping, Dikar clung to his bough. The truck-smell was strong in his nostrils, truck-smell and man-smell. The man-smell was like the smell of the Bunch, and it was different. It was the smell of Li Logo's Blacks, from whom Dikar had saved Johndawson and Marthadawson. It was the smell of the Asafrics.
There had been Asafrics in that monstrous huge truck. Johndawson had said the Asafrics would bring Normanfenton along this road in a truck. Would rush him towards Newyork. Dikar's heart sank. The trucks went too fast. They came and were gone before a Boy could move. It was no use. The Bunch could do nothing with anything that went so fast.
Too bad. This place, otherwise, was a good place for a rescue. The woods thick to the very edge of the road. The tree-boughs overhanging the road…
If only the truck carrying Normanfenton could be made to go slow….
Dikar went through the treetops along the road, in the direction Normanfenton would come. He knew that direction from the picture Johndawson drew on the floor. Just beyond the curve a little stream brawled in the woods across the road. It vanished at the other edge of the road, but just below the tree where Dikar had paused, he could hear its swift rush. He peered downward, made out that the little stream came out again from under the road, had carved a deep gully for itself in its hurry to join the wider stream that he'd crossed.
Dikar's brows knitted. The road dipped here, and where the stream poured under it was the lowest part of the dip. The ground on the other side of the road was higher than that on this side.
Maybe this could be turned to use—
Dikar started to think about it, but it struck him that he'd been away from the Mountain a long time, and he'd gone far, and it was far back to the Mountain. He should be starting back, and besides, Johndawson might help think how the truck carrying Normanfenton might be stopped. Dikar started away from the road.
For a while he stayed in the tree tops, but he could move faster on the ground, so when he had dropped down again to the ground to cross the wide stream that ran across his course, he stayed on the ground. He went silently through the silent woods, not forgetting to watch where he put his feet, to watch how his body brushed the bush leaves, not forgetting to be careful not to leave a trace of his passing. Suddenly he was standing stiff, not breathing. His widened eyes were staring into the darkness. His nostrils were flaring.
He'd seen, or thought he had seen, a flicker of yellow light far off in the blackness. He could not see it now. He could hear nothing. But—yes—he could smell something.
Dikar smelled, very faintly, a tang of smoke threading the smells of the woods. Fainter, there was another smell that should not be in the night-air of these woods. A man-smell. Or was it man-smell?
Dikar was puzzled by this smell. It was not like that of the Bunch. It was not like that of the Asafrics. There was man in it, but there was animal in it too, more animal than man.
This was some kind of animal different from any on the Mountain.
What about the smoke-smell then? Smoke meant fire. No animal Dikar knew made fire. Men then? Beast-Men?
Dikar was afraid. Very terribly he was afraid of the Beast-Men whose smell was fear. Dikar wanted to run. He wanted to run away from that dreadful smell, from the creatures whose smell it was.
Whatever kind of men, or if men at all, they were between the Mountain and the road. If Dikar led the Bunch to the road, tomorrow night, he would have to lead the Bunch past them. If they were men, they would be a danger to the Bunch. Or even if they were animals, strange animals who made fire, who covered their fire—
DIKAR started off. He started going toward where he'd seen the light, toward where the smell of fear came from. Dikar was Boss of the Bunch. If there was danger here for the Bunch he must know it. If the danger took him, if he never went back to the Mountain, the Bunch would know there was danger here and would not come down here from the Mountain.
Dikar drifted like a shadow through the shadows of the woods, and the smell of fear grew stronger and ever stronger in his nostrils.
A black thing rose before Dikar, and Dikar stopped. The smell was strong here, so strong that he could swear whatever it came from was here, right here in front of him, but there was nothing here from which the smell could come.
There was nothing around Dikar except the black columns of the trees through which he'd come. He was in a little open space, brush-crowded, and the brush was more plainly moonlit here because of the break in the tree-ranks' roof made by the little open space.
The thing that rose in front of Dikar was moon-lighted. It was a sort of earth-bank, high as Dikar's chest. Leafy, vinelike trailers dripped over its top to cover its face.
Queer. The strange smell seemed to come out of the leaf-covered earth-bank itself.
Dikar peered at it, trying to make out how the Beast-Man smell could be coming from it. A muscle twitched in his cheek. Though the brush leaves at his feet were crisp and green, the leaves of the trailers that dripped down over the earth-bank's edge were a little wilted. Dikar moved closer—
Earth gave way under his feet and threw him forward! He fell into the face of the earth-bank—right through it! Through leaves, through something soft and awful. He was falling down into a space behind the seeming earth-bank, was blinded by reddish light, and there were shrieks all about him, and animal-like yowls, and a high, shrill wildcat scream!
Dikar hit hard on hard ground, rolled desperately, saw yellow fangs agape in a black-haired muzzle. He thrust at the ground to lift himself, was born down by a hairy body that hurled itself upon him. Other bodies came down upon him, hairy, rasping. He was smothered under a squealing mass, pinned down. He heaved, trying to throw them off him, trying to get free space to fight, to make some try to fight for his life, but the weight of the bodies held him down—
Dikar lay gasping for breath under that stinking mass, and somewhere there was a shrill scream, "Kill! Kill him!"
A VOICE muffled by the body that lay over Dikar's head shouted hoarsely. "Shut up, Mom! Shut that damyelpin!" The scream cut off. The voice went on, lower but short-breathed like Dikar's when something happened and he had to give orders quickly. "Pull them quilts together, someone! You, Ruth. Might as well have a beacon to tell where we are, the way the firelight's shinin' out. Chuck!" The voice was afraid. "Slip out the back way an' see if there's any more around. Walt an' me kin handle this bozo." Yes, there was fear in the voice.
The weight on Dikar lightened, but his legs were still held down, and he still could not see because of the body across his head. Fingers, rough, hurting, grabbed his arms.
"Marge," the voice said, still low, still afraid. "Gimme them ropes from the corner."
Dikar could hear a low, whimpering sound now. He could hear the crackle of a fire. The smoke-smell was sharp, even through the Beast-Man smell of the body that held his head down.
"Here, Nat," a woman's voice said.
Dikar felt something tightening around his wrists, drawing them together, cutting in. Around his ankles, too.
"That'll hold you," the voice said, and the body rolled off Dikar's head.
The Beast-Man was big, bigger than Dikar, bigger even than Tomball, who had been the biggest Boy of the Bunch. Feet spread apart on the dirt floor near Dikar's head were tied up in bunches of dirty rags. Spread legs were like tree trunks. Pants like Johndawson's covered them, but the pants were all torn, so that hairy flesh showed through.
Above the pants more rags fluttered about a deep chest matted with black, springy hair. The head of the Beast-Man seemed to be set neckless on huge shoulders so great was his black beard. Worst of all were the eyes that peered out of the hairy mask, the little red eyes that peered down at Dikar, hating him.
"Hashamoto must be bringin' over some new kind of savage to hunt us down," rumbled from out of that animal-face. "This guy ain't neither yellow nor black, an' look, Marge, he's naked as the day he was born."
"He's nice built though, Nat," a Girl said, coming up. "An' awful good-lookin' with that gold hair an' beard." She wasn't much older than Marilee, Dikar thought. Within the rags she wore her body seemed slender as Marilee's, but she moved heavily, as if there was some unseen weight on her. Her eyes were dull, her reddish hair tangled and dirt-matted like Nat's. "I could go for him."
"Oh, yeah?" Nat said tonelessly. "You could go for him, huh?" His arm swept up almost carelessly. The back of his hand hit Marge's mouth and she crumpled to the floor.
"Try goin' for that," Nat said, and for a minute there was no other sound except the little whimperings Dikar had been hearing.
Marge lay where she'd fallen, rubbing her mouth and looking up at Nat with no anger in her dull eyes. The fire from which the light came danced on the earthen floor near her, and wavered over little, blackened bones on the floor. The roof of this den curved low down where the shadows were, and the little whimpering noises came out of the shadows.
The whimpers came from a hunched, rag-covered Shape that haunched in the shadows. The Shape had an old, old face, a gray face wrinkled like the underside of the pale things that grow overnight in the woods. The eyes that looked out of that face were tiny as the eyes of a chipmunk, and as tiny.
"YOU shouldn't have done that to Marge." As Dikar's head rolled to look who said that, he saw that the curved roof of the den was of earth, and that thin, threadlike rootlets came down through the earth. "It isn't nice—"
"You keep out of this, Walt," Marge yelled. "I'm Nat's wife, an'—"
"Shut up," Nat growled. "I'll handle this."
Walt was smaller than Nat, and thinner. His hair was brownish and there wasn't so much on his chest or his face. His eyes were not as small or as red-hating as Nat's.
"I was only trying to say—"
"I've got all the say here," Nat rumbled. "Do I have to learn you that all over again—?"
"All right." Walt's shoulders shrugged. "You've got the say." His voice was flat, dead-sounding, as if he didn't care about anything any more. "What's your say about our visitor?" His hand jerked at Dikar.
"I'm waitin' to hear what Chuck finds out. If there's more of 'em prowlin' 'round—"
"There are no more," Dikar told him. "I'm the only—"
"Oh, you talk English, do you?" Nat leered down at him, his yellow fangs showing between thick, cracked lips. "An' good English at that. But don't expect me to swallow anythin' you give me."
"Swallow!" Dikar's belly muscles pulled him up to a sitting position. "You want to eat—"
"Eat!" the gray-faced shape in the shadows squealed. "Eat!" She went down on all fours, started to crawl out. "He's brought us somethin' to eat—"
"Get back, Mom," Marge said to her. "There's nothin' to eat."
"Nothin'," Mom whimpered, stopping. "Nothin' to eat." She clawed up one of the little bones from the floor, started to mumble it with toothless gums.
"Look," Walt said, and turned to Dikar. "What Nat meant was that you can hardly expect us to believe that you ventured alone into these woods."
Dikar's eyes widened. "But why should I lie to you?"
"Why?" a new, thin voice came from near where Dikar had fallen in. "That's funny!" The Girl stood by a big, raggy-looking thing, the soft thing Dikar had fallen through. She was about Marge's height but her hair was yellow and her face rounder. "That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time," she said, and started to laugh.
The way she laughed made Dikar feel creepy. She laughed with her mouth only, with her eyes she was afraid. They were all afraid, these Beast-Folk. They were afraid of Dikar, tied up though he was, but they had been afraid before Dikar fell in here.
They lived in this big hole and fear lived here with them.
Dikar was afraid of these Beast-Folk because they were afraid.
"Stop it," Walt was saying to the Girl who laughed. "Stop it, Ruth. It isn't as funny as you think. It isn't funny at all." She stopped laughing and Walt looked at Dikar. He looked puzzled. "Who are you?" he asked. "Where do you come from?"
"My name's Dikar. I come from—" Dikar stopped short. He'd almost said he came from the Mountain.
"Go on," Nat grunted. "You come from—"
"The woods," Dikar said. That wasn't a lie, it just wasn't all of the truth. "I live in the woods, over near the River."
"You're one of us, then," Walt said. "You're—"
"He's as much one of us as Hashamoto himself," Nat growled. "I know everybody that lives in these here woods. I know every tree an' bush, an' I knew pretty near every rabbit an' squirrel till they were all killed off by the guys that's hidin' out. I know what you are." His foot banged into Dikar's side. "You're an Asafric dog. You were sent to track us down, an' you have tracked us down, but it ain't goin' to do them what sent you any good. You ain't goin' back to West Point to tell 'em where we are." His knife slid out of his belt-rope and caught the fire light. It was long and very sharp. "You ain't goin' to tell nobody nothin'." The fire glimmered redly on the knife. Nat reached down and his free hand closed on Dikar's shoulder.
"No," Walt said. "You can't do that, Nat. It would be murder."
"MURDER?" Nat's thick lips pulled away from his yellow fangs, and the redness in his little eyes was flame. "Sure. An' what's what They're doin' to our people, all over the country?"
"Yeah, I know. They didn't shoot little Georgie or kill him with a whip. He just starved to death. I suppose that ain't murder?"
"Yes," Walt whispered. "Yes. But killing a man in cold blood—"
"We should let this ape go, huh? We should let him go back to West Point an' bring Them to round us up—?"
"Maybe even that."
"Yeah. You'd like to die. So would I. I'd like to die fightin' them black soldiers of Theirs, just so long as I took a couple with me. You 'n' me, Walt, we kin fight if the blacks come after us, an' die fightin', but Ruth won't die. Marge won't die. They won't kill them."
"Okay," someone said in the shadows beyond Mom, and then another hairy-faced Beast-Man crawled past her. "It's me. Chuck." He stood up.
"Well?" Nat grunted.
"There ain't nobody nor nothin' stirrin' within miles of here," Chuck said, clawing dirt out of his beard. "So you kin go right ahead with slicin' this yellar-haired bastard's throat. I heard what you said as I crawled through the tunnel an' I agree."
"Look," Dikar said. "Look. You don't want to kill me. I'm not an Asafric and I don't come from 'em. I swear, cross my heart, I don't. I'm white, an' I hate 'em as much as you do."
"You lie," Nat growled.
"Look," Dikar said desperately. "You said yourself an Asafric wouldn't come into these woods all alone. I live in these woods. I've lived in 'em ever since the Asafrics came to America. I—"
"Maybe he ain't lyin'." Marge was on her feet again. "Maybe he's tellin' the truth, Nat." She put her thin-fingered hand on Nat's arm. "I kind of believe him. I kind of feel, in here," she pressed her other hand against her flat breast, "that he's tellin' the truth, an' that it would be a sin if you killed him."
"Hell," Nat grunted. "You'd believe any man as pretty-lookin' as this."
"I'm inclined to believe him too," Walt urged. "He seems too simple, too naïve, to be one of Them, and he's certainly neither black nor yellow. I think you'd be making a mistake if you killed him."
"Mebbe," Nat hesitated, "Mebbe you're right." He scratched his head with the point of his knife. "I dunno but—"
"You're a fool, Walt." Ruth came away from the wall, her face tight, black flame in her eyes. "You're a pack of fools." She was standing above Dikar and she was pointing down at him. "You've only got to look at him to see he's lying."
"What do you mean, Ruth?" Walt demanded. "What do you see when you look at him?"
"I see someone that's well-fed, that's never known a hungry day." Walt's eyes opened wide. "He says he lives in the woods, and you know how all the creatures of the woods have been hunted out or frightened away. Do you know anybody in these woods who's not skin and bones like us starved rats? Do you—?"
"By all that's holy," Walt exclaimed. "You're right. You're altogether right, Ruth, and I'm a soft-headed fool. What are you waiting for, Nat?"
"I'm not." Nat's arm stiffened suddenly, throwing Dikar back on the ground. The big Beast-Man was down on his knees beside Dikar. His knife swept up, caught red brightness of the fire and already seemed to drip blood—
Dikar rolled, using all the strength of his muscles to roll him away from that dreadful knife—Chuck dropped, smashing his knees into Dikar's belly, smashing the wind out of him. Chuck's hands grabbed Dikar's head, forcing it around, forcing it back to tighten his neck for the knife. The knife was coming down—
"Nat!" Mom squealed. "Chuck!" Heads jerked to her. She was scrabbling out of the shadows. Not Mom! Some brown-coated animal—It rose—
"Gawd," Marge gurgled. "It's a girl."
Everybody was suddenly as still as if they'd turned to stone. The Girl stood slim and tall, the red firelight playing on her slim brown body, making red lights in her long hair, stroking the taut arms that stretched a bow, that held a stone-headed arrow straight across the bow.
"The first one that moves," Marilee said, "I will kill."
THERE was a gasping silence, with the crackling of the fire the only sound. Marilee had all the Beast-Folk in front of her, and her bow moved just a little, back and forth, back and forth, so that it seemed to cover all at once. Dikar could read in her eyes that if any moved the arrow would fly, and he knew they all could read that in Marilee's eyes.
Back and forth, back and forth, the arrow moved. A laugh shattered the throbbing silence, a high, wild laugh from the reddish-haired Marge.
"Injuns!" she spluttered through her laugh. "Save us, they're red Injuns. The Injuns have come back—"
"Injuns," Chuck choked out. "No wonder I couldn't see nor hear her!"
The corners of Marilee's mouth quirked. "I could hear you. You made more noise tramplin' around the woods than two fightin' deer. I kept behind you all the time an' followed you here, an' listened, back there in the long hole, to what was goin' on in here." There was amusement in her voice, but there was pity too. "But I'm not an Injun, nor is Dikar. We're Americans, white Americans, just like you."
"You're not Indians, no." Ruth said, thin-lipped, her eyes burning. "You're not Americans red or white. You can kill us, but you can't fool us—"
"Because we're well-fed, an' you starvin'? I heard. But if Dikar had told you— Why didn't you tell 'em the truth, Dikar? Why didn't you tell 'em where you come from?"
"I didn't dare, Marilee. The secret of the Mountain—"
"Should be kept secret from our enemies, not our friends, you great silly. It's a good thing I worried about you, comin' down here alone, an' decided to follow you—"
"To follow! Then it was you—"
"Yes, Dikar," Marilee's eyes were laughing at him. "It was me followin' you all the way. You heard me once, didn't you? When you stopped an' looked back—"
"What's all this about a secret Mountain?" Marge broke in. "What—?"
"Not a secret Mountain," Marilee answered her. "But the secret of the Mountain. That the Bunch live on it, have lived there since we were children. The Mountain that is ringed around with high, straight rock—"
"Quarry Mountain!" Walt exclaimed. "But nobody lives on that. Nobody could get up there since the Asafrics bombed away the road to the stone workings, years ago."
"The Asafrics didn't bomb the road away," Marilee told him. "The Old Ones did that, and we were already on the Mountain. The Old Ones took us away from the City when we were little children, an' hid us—"
"By jingo," Nat grunted. "There is an old story about children bein' taken away from Newyork in trucks, just before it was blown up. But the trucks were all machine-gunned—"
"Not all," Dikar put in. "One escaped…."
HE TOLD about how they'd grown up on the Mountain, how they lived there. The six Beast-Folk listened, mouths agape, and belief came into their eyes. Marilee's bow lowered, and at a sign from Nat, Chuck and Walt worked open the ropes that tied Dikar. As the ropes came off Dikar there were a thousand stinging prickles in his arms and his legs, and he stopped talking.
"Go on," Nat grunted. "Go on talkin'."
"But I hurt," Dikar complained.
"Go on," Ruth said, coming down to her knees beside Dikar and starting to rub his arms with her hard hands. Marge looked at Nat, Nat nodded, and Marge started to rub Dikar's legs.
"Why did you come down off your Mountain?" Walt asked. "You might have run into one of Their patrols and that would have been the end of you. Why did you take the chance?"
Dikar told them why. He told them that he'd come down to find out some way to rescue Normanfenton.
Nat exploded. "You're nuts even thinkin' of that. You wouldn't have a chance—"
"We would," Dikar answered him, "if we could slow up their trucks, some way."
Dikar told how he'd thought out it could be done. "But we can't do it unless the trucks go slow," he ended, getting up on his legs out of which Marge had rubbed the stinging pains. "An' I can't figure how to do that."
"Look!" Walt grabbed Dikar's arm. "Look, Dikar." The deadness was out of his voice. It was excited, and his eyes were excited. "You can stop worrying about that. We'll slow them up. Look, Nat!" He wheeled to the big man. "You know where that brook from Lake Mombasha, west of thirty-two, runs under the highway through a culvert?"
"I know," Dikar exclaimed. "I saw it. It—"
"—runs through a deep, narrow gully, this side of the road, on its way to the Ramapo—"
"Gotcha!" Nat barked, slapping his thigh. "Gotcha, Walt! That'll slow 'em, all right. Tell him, Walt. Tell Dikar what you mean."
There were shining eyes in that cave as Walt talked, and when at last Dikar and Marilee were slipping again through the forest night, Dikar's heart was light within him.
"We'll do it," he whispered to Marilee. "Nothin' can stop us now. With their help—"
"With their help," Marilee breathed. "The poor, starvin' people. How they brightened with the first hint that there was somethin' they could do against the invaders! How eager they were at once, to help! But they could have thought it all out themselves."
"They've lost the habit of thinkin' for themselves," Dikar responded. "They've lost hope. An' that's the biggest thing we can do for them, for the people of this country. Give 'em hope again…."
DAWN was already breaking as Dikar and Marilee gained their own woods. Johndawson, his eyes red with sleeplessness, his face lined with worry, came toward them. "You're back!" he cried. "I'd about given up hope."
"We're back," Dikar answered him, "an' with great news. Look, Johndawson." He told him what they'd seen, what they planned.
"Your scheme's insane," Johndawson said when Dikar was through. "Mad as a lunatic's dream. But just because it's mad, it might work."
"It's got to work," Dikar replied. "It's going to work. But come on. We've much to do before tonight. First thing, I've got to call a Council right after brekfes—"
"After we make the pledge, you mean," Marilee corrected.
"No," Dikar said. "After brekfes. There will be no pledge after brekfes this mornin'. An' maybe there will be no pledge at all."
"No pledge!" she exclaimed. "But, Dikar—"
"Have you forgotten what Annjordan told us? I'll have a pledge without crossed fingers, Marilee, or I'll have no pledge at all."
"What's this, Dikar?" Johndawson demanded. "What's this all about?"
…The bright morning sun struck down into the Clearing, and a babble of voices rose out of the Clearing, a babble of excited, curious voices.
"Why no pledge this mornin'?" Steveland asked of Halross. "Why has Dikar called a Council this mornin'?" Ruthnisson asked of Billthomas. "Why does Dikar look so stern, this mornin'?" Carlberger asked of Alicekane. But neither Halross nor Billthomas nor Alicekane could answer the questions asked of them.
No one asked questions of Bessalton, Boss of the Girls as she went to take her seat on one of the two bench rocks that stood either side of the Fire Stone, under the great oak. Her slender height cloaked in the black mantle of her hair, her dark face was sultry, her red mouth bitter, and there was something about her that seemed to set her apart from the rest of the Bunch.
Dikar, watching Bessalton from within the forest green, whispered to Marilee. "She guesses what's comin', an' is ready for it. Except you, she is the finest Girl of the Bunch, an' I'm heavy at heart that it is she I must fight this mornin'."
Marilee laid her hand on his arm. "Be kind to her, Dikar. Be as kind as you can."
"As kind as I can, Marilee. I promise."
The forest green rustled as Dikar came from it and moved to the waiting bench-rock that stood at the right of the Fire, the Boss's seat.
Dikar stood for a moment, his face grave. For a moment he wondered if he was right in what he was about to do. But the moment passed, and he sank into the seat that was his by right because he was Boss, and the Clearing waited for him to speak.
"BOYS and Girls of the Bunch," Dikar began. "This is no ordinary Council I have called. For the first time, we shall not be bound by the Musts and Must-nots of the Old Ones, but be talkin' whether or not we shall break the most fearful Must-not of the Old Ones."
He paused, and the pause was filled by a curious, hissing sound, the sound of forty breaths indrawn.
"And yet," Dikar began again, "we shall still be guided by the Old Ones. Their Musts and Must-nots were laid down for our safety. Now we are no longer little children. We have changed, and the world has changed from what we an' the world were in that long-ago. We have outgrown the Musts an' Must-nots the Old Ones made for the children we were, an' so, this mornin', we think of what the Old Ones would say we must an' must-not do now."
Bessalton stirred at that and Dikar turned to her, gravely smiling.
"I want to ask you somthin'," she said, her eyes veiled. "Dikar, the Old Ones sleep under the stones below the Drop. They cannot speak to us. How are we to know what they would say if they could speak? Or"—suddenly her eyes, her voice, were mocking—"or are you goin to tell us that they have spoken to you in a dream?"
"Yes, Bessalton." Dikar smiled. "I am goin' to tell you they have spoken to me, an' in a dream.
Bessalton flung her hands wide. "Oh," she cried. "If you've called a Council to tell us your dreams—I have dreams too, but even though I'm Boss of the Girls, I don't call Councils to hear them. I tell them to the other Girls, when we've got nothin' better to talk about."
A Girl laughed, and another took up her laugh, and then the whole Bunch was laughing.
THE laughter beat at Dikar, but he sat quite still, quite expressionless. After a while, the laughter died down and the Bunch quieted.
"In a dream, Bessalton," Dikar said then, quite as if he had not been interrupted, "that is not really a dream but a memory of the long-ago, when the Old Ones brought us here and just before. Maybe you have the memory too, Bessalton. You should have, because you are in that dream-memory of mine. Can you remember, Bessalton?" Dikar's eyes took hold of her eyes. "Try, Bessalton. Can you remember that night?"
She wasn't trying to remember. She was trying to tear her eyes from Dikar's, but she couldn't.
"In that dream of mine, Bessalton, you are in a long, dim cave," Dikar's voice was even, low-seeming, but so clear that every ear in the Clearing heard it. "An' in that dream you are afraid. You are afraid of the thunder that smashes at the cave, of the thunder of death that rains on the City over your head. You are afraid of the way the whole earth shakes. You are clingin' to your mother, not cryin', just shudderin' as each new blast of dreadful thunder pounds you. Your arms are around your mother's neck, and one of her arms is tight around you. What is it your mother murmurs to you, Bessalton?"
Bessalton pulled a trembling hand across her forehead. "'No, poppet,' Muddy is sayin. 'No, Bess-love. Don't be afraid.' But it isn't what she says that helps, it's feelin' her tight against me, feelin' her hand on my hair."
"Then you remember how the thunders stopped," Dikar talked on, "an' how the Voice came, the tired Voice from the radio there in that cave. Do you remember what it said, Bessalton?"
"I—I almost do, Dikar. Almost—I can't quite—"
"I remember, Bessalton, because I hear it again and again, in my dreams. It speaks not to us children but to the mothers in the cave. It tells them that there is no hope left, that the hordes have conquered all America save our City, an' that our City is about to fall. An' it tells how there is still one gap left in the lines that circle the City, how if the mothers will fight to keep that gap open, we children may be taken out of the City through that gap, and be saved.
"'This is the dusk of our day,' the Voice goes on, Bessalton, 'of our America. If there is to be any hope of a tomorrow, it must rest in your little children. If they perish, America shall have perished. If they survive, then in some tomorrow we cannot foresee, America will live again….' Do you remember the Voice, Bessalton?"
Her eyes were wide, staring, and there was agony in them. "I remember the Voice, Dikar."
"You remember the Voice now, Bessalton," Dikar cried, his eyes releasing Bessalton's, himself turning to the Bunch, "an' now you all remember the Voice, Boys an' Girls of the Bunch. The Voice you remember is the Voice of the Old Ones. It is the Voice that sent our mothers out to die that we might live, that sent the Old Ones to give their lives that we might survive. Our mothers died, the Old Ones died, not for us, Boys an' Girls, but for the country for which the Flag stands, for the hope of a Tomorrow.
"An' that Tomorrow has come, Bunch. That Tomorrow is Today!"
THERE was no laughter now. There was no sound at all from the brown-limbed, straight-backed Boys and Girls. Dikar was talking again. In low, even tones he was telling the Bunch of the things he had seen in the far land, of the barbed-wire fenced prison camps, of the dried bodies hanging from poles where roads cross, and the whips of the Asafrics flogging white men and women to labor.
And then Dikar told of the Secret Net. He told of how leader after leader had been trapped by the Asafrics, and he told of the leader Normanfenton who had fought so bravely in the mountains to the North, and had been taken by the Asafrics, and would be hanged tomorrow.
"We can save Normanfenton," Dikar ended. "An our savin' him will give his people new hope, new strength, our savin' him may be the savin' of America. But to save him we must break the oldest an' most fearful of the Must-nots of the Old Ones. We must go down off the Mountain; we must become no longer Boys an' Girls of the Bunch, but Men an' Women of America.
"Once we do this one thing, my Bunch, there will be no turnin' back. We will not be able to find again the safety the Old Ones gave us here on the Mountain. We will live with danger an' with fear, an' if we all do not die, some of us surely must. Because of this I may not order you to follow me to the rescue of Fenton, I can only ask you to. The choice is yours."
Dikar's voice stopped, and there was a stillness in the Clearing, but in the brightening eyes of the Bunch, he read what their decision was. He had won. "Wait!"
It was Bessalton, who had risen and was standing before the Bunch. "Wait," she cried, "my brothers an' sisters of the Bunch, before you make the decision for which Dikar calls. You have listened to his story of the long-ago Time of Fear an' remembered it, as I have remembered. You have listened to his story of what the people in the far land suffer an' you have been filled with horror an' with pity, as I have been filled with horror an' with pity. You feel that you want to help 'em.
"But have you thought, as I am thinkin' now, of our life here on the Mountain, of how we work together? Have you thought how the Mountain gives us all we need, how we need nothin' that the far land can give us? Have you thought that we are the Bunch, that we have made our own life for ourselves, that the people of the far land are strangers to us?
"We are the Bunch," she cried. "Here we have liberty and justice for all. We may be struck with horror at what is happenin' to the people of the far land, we may feel pity for 'em, but what happens to 'em will make neither a worse nor a better life for us."
Dikar read the changing faces of the Bunch. He read that some already had swung to Bessalton, and some were in doubt, and some were still loyal to him…. Not to him!
Suddenly Dikar knew that the fight was not between himself and Bessalton, but between a way of thought that had spoken through him, and a way of thought that was speaking through Bessalton.
THE forest took her voice and swallowed it, and the rustling silence moved into the Clearing.
And out of the forest shadows came a man who once had been tall but now was bent, a man with the marks of whips on his gaunt body, with a gray, wrinkled face and gray hair. Johndawson stopped before them, and almost it was as if one of the Old Ones had come back from his sleep under the stones at the foot of the Drop.
"May I say something to the Bunch, Dikar and Bessalton? May I say something to help the Bunch decide?"
"No," Bessalton answered swiftly. "No. This is a Council of the Bunch an' no stranger has a right to speak."
A muscle knotted in Dikar's cheek. "What right have you to say no, when one asks to speak at the Council?" Dikar turned to the Bunch. "What say you?" he cried. "Will you hear Johndawson?"
There was a murmur in the Clearing, but no voice spoke aloud in answer. "I call for a show of hands," Dikar cried. "Those who do not want to hear Johndawson raise hands."
Hands rose, high-held. Many hands.
"Down," Dikar cried. "Now those who want Johndawson to speak, raise hands."
Hands rose, high-held. Many hands. "Down," Dikar said, and turned to Bessalton. "What say you, Bessalton? What has the Bunch decided?"
She looked at him with somber eyes. "They have decided to hear Johndawson," she said.
"You may speak," Dikar told Johndawson.
The old man faced the Bunch. "I have listened to what Dikar and Bessalton have said," he began. "This is no new problem you face. This is no new decision. Long ago, the people of the world beyond the seas suffered as the people of America suffer now, and in America there were those who wanted to go to their aid, and there were those who said, 'They are strangers to us. We need nothing from them. What happens to them will make neither a worse life nor a better for us. Why should we fight for strangers? Why should we die for them?'
"Aye, long ago we Americans had this decision to make, and we Americans decided, as Bessalton wants you to decide, that America was our land, that what happened to the strangers of other lands was no concern of ours. We decided so, and we stayed within the seas that encircled us, and we pitied the people of other lands, but we did not risk our safety to help them.
"We thought we did not risk our safety, but we thought wrong. For, Boys and Girls of the Mountain, when the peoples of the other lands had been enslaved, their conquerors came across the seas and invaded America. We fought them, we fought desperately, but we fought alone and we fought in vain.
"Now I do not say that if we had chosen otherwise, if we had chosen to help the people of other lands fight against the invaders, that we should have won. But I do say that we might have won had we fought with the other peoples of the world. Our strength might have tipped the scales for liberty.
"We know now, to our sorrow, that the choice we thought we had was really no choice at all. We know now that when we decided to leave the stranger peoples to fight alone, we decided that we, too, would have to fight alone, and doomed ourselves to certain defeat."
Johndawson stopped to pull in a long breath, and the hiss of his breath was the only sound in the Clearing. Then his weary voice was heard again. "I have only one thing more to say to you. You argue now about a choice you think you have, but you have no choice at all. You may stay here on your Mountain, encircled by your Drop, and think you are safe. But tomorrow, or next week, or next year, the masters of America will discover that you are here, and they will come up the Drop, they will come down out of the sky, and make themselves masters of you. You cannot divorce your fate from the fate of the rest of America."
Johndawson's hand made a motion as if it gave something back to the Bunch that it had held while he spoke, and he turned, and shambled wearily across the end of the Clearing and into the leafy shadows out of which he had come.
It was Bessalton who spoke first. "I was wrong. Bunch, I was wrong. The Mountain is not our home. America is our home. All America. I vote that we fight for it."
A great throbbing cry came from the throats of the Bunch. "We fight for America, Dikar! Lead us." And then suddenly the Bunch were on their feet, and they were standing straight and proud in the Clearing, and their right arms were lifting—
"We pledge allegiance to our Flag." Bessalton's voice rang out, and the voices of the Bunch joined it. "And to the Country for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We pledge ourselves, our strength, our lives, to drive the invader from the land and make our country free again."
There were no crossed fingers anywhere in the Bunch. There was no denying of that pledge.
DIKAR climbed over the last great stone of those that tumble about the base of the Drop and reached the black edge of the far land's forest. He shook from himself the water that had not yet dried since he'd come through the stream that screened the vine-rope.
Shadows drifted among the tumbled, huge rocks across which he'd come. Beyond, the Mountain loomed, the pale high glimmer of the rock-faced, steep Drop, the darker vastness that lifted high, high from the edge of the Drop into a star-sprinkled but moonless sky.
This was the other side of the Mountain from that which Dikar had come last might. Five white streaks sliced down the paleness of the Drop. Behind them, Dikar knew, hung the five thick ropes of vine that the Girls had woven, working busily all day. He smiled, thinking how Bessalton had driven the Girls to that work.
Bessalton had wanted to come with them tonight, but Dikar had forbidden it. He had forbidden Marilee too, or any of the Girls. There would be no use in their coming. There were deep bonarrers enough only for the Boys. The lighter bonarrers, used in hunting birds and rabbits and squirrels, would be of no use for the hunting the Bunch were going to do tonight.
The shadows among the rocks clambered nearer. Dikar could now see they were Boys. The shadows reached the black border of the forest. Vanished. Dikar made the sound of an owl hoot. Hoots answered from the woods either side of him. There was no nearby sound at all, no rustle of leaves, but there were shadows beside Dikar. The woods around Dikar were full of silent shadows and each shadow was a Boy, a quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder, a long bow in his hand, a knife stuck in the waist-string of his little apron.
"Danhall," Dikar said low-toned. "You four here?"
"Here, Dikar," a low voice came out of the darkness.
Fredalton, Bengreen, Johnstone softly answered their names. These five older Boys led groups of four others each. It had been Johndawson's idea to split the Boys up this way, into what he called squads.
"Gather 'round me," Dikar ordered.
The shadows moved. They huddled close around Dikar. "Now listen," Dikar said. "This is the last time I'm goin' to talk to you. It's the last time anybody must talk at all.
"We've gone over an' over what we're goin' to do, an' how, but I want to go over the signals again, because it's most needful that everybody knows what they mean.
"Now," Dikar said. "The first one's the owl hoot, that we've just used. That means to come together. Then there's cricket-chirp. If I or one of the squad-leaders want to know where you are, we chirp an' each Boy answers in order. The next one, the tree-toad peep, is very important. The instant anyone hears or sees anything at all that looks like danger he peeps once, an' everybody freezes where they are while I find out what the danger is, an' what to do about it. Two peeps means all right, start movin' again.
"If someone gets in some kind of trouble that doesn't really mean danger, like getting caught in brambles, or something like that, he'll give the bull-frog croak. Everybody will stop when he hears that, so we don't lose each other, an' the nearest squad-leader will go to help the Boy who's given the signal.
"Last of all, there's the signal to attack, the wildcat shriek." A thrill scampered down Dikar's spine when he said that and he heard quickly stifled gasps as the others thought of what would happen after he gave that shriek. "Everybody got those straight?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady.
"Yes," whispered out of the forest dark.
"Good," Dikar said. "Now only one thing more. You've all hunted in the woods for many years. You all know how to move through the forest without makin' a sound, without leavin' a trace. But you've got to remember tonight that the least misstep, the least little carelessness, will mean not just losing a deer but your life maybe. You've got to remember that it may mean not losing only your own life, but the lives of everyone of us. If you'll remember that, every minute, every second, we've got a chance to come back to the Mountain. If you don't, we've got no chance at all.
"And that's all, except—except that I wish you all good luck. All right! Spread out now, the way we decided."
THE huddle of bodies melted away into the darkness, left and right. The darkness took them. The weird hush of the far land forest settled about him, and Dikar was alone in these strange woods. Not quite. By turning his head to the left he could just make out a still shadow that was not a tree but Danhall. He knew that beyond Danhall, just within sight of him, was little Steveland, and beyond Steveland, Halross and beyond Halross the other two Boys of Danhall's squad, and then Fredalton, and the four Boys of his squad. To the right of Dikar was Henfield, beyond him, the four of his squad, each Boy just within sight of the Boy to the left and right of him, and then Bengreen and his squad, and Johnstone and his.
Dikar gave the shrill chirp of a cricket. Chirps answered him as the crickets answer one another in the night-woods, the chirping running away from him first to the right, then to the left, and when they'd ended he'd counted twenty.
"Peep-peep," Dikar gave the signal to start, and he was moving, and he knew that in a long line either side of him twenty Boys of the Bunch were moving through the forest, but, save for the drifting shadows that were Danhall and Henfield, either side of Dikar, there was no sight of any movement, and no sound of any movement at all.
The mouldering leaves of the forest floor were cold and damp against the soles of Dikar's feet. The smells of the forest were in his nostrils. He was as much a part of the forest as the trees and the brush and the night.
Always, when Dikar prowled the woods, he had felt that a sort of life flowed through the woods and the things of the woods, the trees and the brush and the creatures, and he had felt that life flow into him and through him. He felt that life flow in his veins now, and he felt something else—a tingling excitement that came of the hunting in this night forest, of the knowledge that he was hunting and hunted, that hunter and hunted were the greatest game of all, Man.
Dikar carried death in the quiver that hung from his shoulder, carried a death-knife in his waist-string. Death waited for Dikar in the forest, waited for the twenty and one naked Boys who drifted through it, silent, flitting shadows.
A little wind stirred in the forest. Dikar's nostrils widened to a taint on the wind. "Peep!" Dikar heard, and froze, motionless at the trunk of a tree, more motionless than the boughs of the tree that the little wind stirred.
The tiny peeps of a tree-toad, the tiny sounds that meant danger was sighted, came from the right. Dikar went that way, darting soundless from tree-trunk shadow to shadow, stirring the night less than the little wind stirred it, and as he went the taint on the wind grew stronger.
He smiled abruptly, and moved more easily, though still with the greatest of care. A bush bulked black ahead of him, and blacker against the bush was the crouched figure of Carlberger. Dikar touched Carlberger lightly on the shoulder.
The Boy looked up, his pimpled face pale in the dimness. One hand laid a finger against his lips, signaling silence, the other pointed past the bush.
Dikar nodded and went around the bush, crouching low, and he saw what it was that Carlberger meant. He saw a man standing by a tree, some five paces ahead, peering intently about.
The man jumped when Dikar's voice said, close behind him, "Chuck." He whirled, his knife flashing to his hand. "Oh it's you," he gurgled. "Gawd! I didn't hear—"
"How is it you're here, Chuck?" Dikar whispered. "I didn't expect to meet any of you till we got to the Ramapo."
Chuck's thick lips twitched in his hairy face. "You ain't goin' to get to the Ramapo. Nat sent me to see if I could find you an' stop you before you got near it. It's all up, Dikar. We're licked."
"Why? What's happened?"
"The Asafrics have outguessed us. They ain't takin' no chance on an ambush. They've got sentries, Blacks, posted in the woods all along the road, both sides. There's a soldier every thirty yards, an' you can't get past that line because the minute one of them sights anythin' wrong he'll fire his gun, an' that'll bring all the rest of 'em on the run."
Dikar felt the muscles in his face harden. "Every thirty yards," he muttered. "How far is thirty yards?"
"'Bout three times as far as to that big ash over there."
"Hmmm. An' they're in the woods, you say."
"Then each Black can't see the next one."
"I guess not. But they can hear them. Them Blacks can hear the snap of a twig for a mile, let alone a gun-blast— Say! What you got in mind—?"
"Come with me." Dikar slipped back to the bush behind which Carlberger hid. "You're in Johnstone's squad," he murmured. "Get him an' the rest of your squad, an' meet me here. Pass the word to the rest that they're to wait here till they hear somethin' up ahead. If it's a loud bang, they're to go back to the Mountain, quick as they can. If it's the scream of a loon, they're to come ahead, the way we've planned, till they meet one of us. Henfield's to be leader till we're together again. Get it?"
"I get it, Dikar," Carlberger whispered, and melted away into shadows.
"Gosh all godfrey," Chuck muttered. "I thought I was good in the woods but I never seen the like of the way you fellers kin sneak aroun'—"
"Listen, Chuck," Dikar interrupted. "Where's Nat and Walt?"
"In the woods this side of the Ramapo, but as near the creek from Lake Mombasha as they dare git. They're waitin' for me to get back an' tell 'em you've give up."
"Well, you get back there an' tell 'em it ain't time to give up yet. You wait there an' listen. If you hear a gun go off, you'll know what to do. If you hear a loon-scream, then you're to go ahead the way we planned. Understand?"
"Get goin'," Dikar snapped. "Hurry!"
Chuck went off. He's pretty good too, Dikar thought, but he makes a lot more noise than any of us would. Then Johnstone sifted out of the dark, and the four Boys of his squad, an' Dikar was whispering to them what he had in mind.
"It's takin' a terrible chance," he finished. "If there's the least slip-up we're as good as dead. You don't have to do it if you don't want to. You don't have to try it."
"Let's go," Johnstone whispered. "What are we waiting for?"
DIKAR crouched in the brush, eyes narrowed. Just ahead of him stood a huge black man in the uniform of the Asafrics. The black man held his rifle slanted across his shoulder and he kept looking around him. Dikar could see his eyes, strangely white in the blackness of his face as he looked around, and he could hear his breathing.
Dikar's right hand was clutched around the handle of his knife. In the fingers of his left hand there was a little pebble. Dikar's left hand threw the pebble past the Black. It made a little rustling sound, and the Black spun to it.
Dikar's left hand grabbed the gun, jerked it away. His right slid his knife cleanly through cloth and flesh, left the knife where it was and flashed to the mouth of the Black, clamping over the gurgle that was starting to come from that mouth, muffling it. The Black's body sagged against Dikar, and Dikar's left arm went around it, holding it, letting it gently down to the ground.
The black body lay on the ground, very still.
Dikar was sick. The dim forest whirled around him, and then it was still and a shadow was drifting out of the dimness. "All right," Carlberger whispered. "All right, Dikar. I got mine." And then there was another shadow there, and another, and all five of those whom Dikar had taken with him were there, and all five had said that they'd gotten a Black the way Dikar had gotten the one that lay so still at his feet.
Six of the sentries would give no alarm tonight, or ever. There was a gap of over two hundred yards in the line of sentries the Asafrics had posted to guard the road against an ambush.
Dikar's blood was suddenly hot and rushing in his veins. His lungs filled with air.
High and shrill with mad triumph, the cry of a loon screamed through the weird forest silence of the far land.
THE road from Newburg glimmered pallid in the starlight.
It came out of the woods to the North and sloped gently down to where a stream rushed under it and then lifted gently again to be lost in the dark shadows of the woods on the South.
Halfway up the slope to the North of the creek, the arm-thick, far-spreading lower boughs of three great oaks overhung the road. The foliage of those oaks was very thick, and the starlight could not reach through it. It could not reach the strange, silent fruit that clustered on the arm-thick boughs of those oaks and weighted them so that the light wind that swayed the boughs of the other trees could not sway these.
There was a rumbling of thunder in the North.
The strange fruit of the middle oak stirred, ever so slightly.
"Quiet," Dikar hissed. "Quiet," and the stirring stopped.
Dikar lay along the lowermost bough of the middle oak. He peered down the road to the bottom of the dip, and his eyes widened. A darkness was coming up over the edge of the road there. It was spreading across the road. A tiny red spark glinted on the darkness. Another.
The yellow sparks were the reflection of stars in water. The darkness that was reaching from both edges of the road, that already was joining in the middle of the road, was water. Water of the creek that rushed down the hill otherside the road and under the road, hurrying to the Ramapo.
Hurrying no longer. Under the road no longer. Nat and Walt and Chuck, as they had planned last night, had tumbled great boulders into the gully through which the stream ran. The boulders had blocked the gully, and the stream was rising. It was rising above the level of the road, was backing up and filling the road.
The rolling thunder to the North was a little louder, a little nearer.
It wasn't thunder. It was the noise of trucks. Of the truck that carried Normanfenton and of others. Dikar could tell by the noise that there was more than one truck. How many more?
The yellow-spangled darkness down there, that was water, was spreading sidewise swiftly, was deepening swiftly. But the rolling thunder that was the rumble of nearing trucks was also growing louder, nearer, swiftly. Would there be enough water in the road to slow the trucks, to stop them, before the trucks got here?
Dikar's heart pounded within his chest. He was afraid of what would happen when the thunder got here. His throat was dry, and the palms of his hands that held his bow, that held his first arrow, were wet with sweat.
Something moved in the black woods on the other side of the road, down there where the water was spreading in the road. The something came out into the road and it was a man, a black-faced man in the green clothes of the Asafrics.
The Black went to the edge of the Water, peered down at it. There was a twang in the tree next to Dikar's, a flash in the air. The Black pitched forward, splashed into the water. The water covered him, hid him. It was deep enough! But—
Light! A shaft of white light slanted up from the top of the rise, to the right of Dikar, to the North! Thunder! The thunder of the trucks was loud in Dikar's ears, was battering at him. Smells! The smell of the trucks, the smell of the Asafrics, stank in Dikar's nostrils.
THE light swept down, and the road was bright as day, and a huge, black mass was roaring over the top of the rise, was roaring down the slope. Another. And another. The first truck was roaring past the oak to Dikar's left. Someone shouted from it. It was slowing.
It was slowing, and Dikar could see that it was filled with Asafrics, black-faced and yellow-faced, that it bristled with their guns. The second truck slowed behind it. There were Asafrics in this, but not so many.
In the center of the second truck, bathed by the light from the third, squatted a white man, ragged, chains festooning him, clamped to his wrists, his ankles.
The trucks had slowed, were stopping right beneath the trees whose boughs were laden with the Boys of the Bunch. The third truck was filled with Asafrics, bristled with guns—
A yowling, furious shriek rose on the air, right over the middle truck. A wildcat's shriek, and it came from Dikar's throat, and then the air was filled with the terrible, blood-chilling shrieks of wildcats, from twenty-one throats.
The air was filled with the twang of bowstrings, with arrows that showered down out of the trees, that spanged into flesh, into the flesh of Asafrics. Wild, blood-chilling, were the wildcat shrieks in the treetops, blood-chilling the sudden rain of death that showered out of the tree-tops, that struck down the Asafrics, too terrified by that sudden caterwauling of death, by that sudden rain of death, to move, too terrified to use their guns, to do anything but yowl their terror.
Dikar dropped from his bough into that middle truck. His knife was in his hand and it sank and rose, sank and rose, slicing flesh, stabbing flesh. From the middle tree, from the other two trees, bronzed and naked and caterwauling Boys dropped into the trucks, knives flashing, knives slashing—
Somewhere a shrill voice screamed an order, somewhere gun-crash was beginning, but Dikar had whirled to the white man who had squatted, chained, in the center of the middle truck. Dikar's arms were around Normanfenton and he was lifting Normanfenton in his arms, was carrying him to the end of the truck.
A black face rose in front of Dikar, a gun was leveled at him. A knife flashed, and the black face was gone, and Dikar was dropping over the end of the truck, was lifting Normanfenton down to him.
Crash and crash and crash, the night rocked to the crash of the guns. Red fire streaked the night, death-jets streaked the night. Dikar was in the woods, Normanfenton thrown over his shoulder, and death was whistling all about Dikar, was clipping leaves from the trees, chipping bark from the trees, and from Dikar's mouth was coming the owl-hoot, and owl hoots were all around Dikar.
"Great work!" grunted the man who was slung over Dikar's shoulder. "Great work man, but I'm afraid it's no good. There was a tank following behind— Listen!"
A noise shook the woods, a deafening noise, and the woods fountained flame, ahead of Dikar. And there was the noise again, and again the fountain of flame, and this time the flame lit Bengreen redly, and then Bengreen was pulped mass on the woods floor, and the merciful dark shut down over him.
"The Blacks don't dare follow you," Normanfenton gasped, "but their guns—"
"The treetops," Dikar called to the shadows that were leaping through the woods all around him. "Quick!"
The shadows leaped upward into the shadowy treetops, and Dikar whirled to a tree; but he knew he couldn't climb it with Normanfenton across his shoulder.
The terrible gun-noise shook the woods again, and fiery death fountained. "Hand him up," a voice said, above Dikar. Dikar looked up, and Johnstone was reaching down out of the tree, and beside him Fredalton, and suddenly the weight of Normanfenton was gone from Dikar's shoulder.
And then Dikar could climb.
CRASH and crash, and the fountaining of death flames in the woods, and Dikar was up in the treetop, crouching on a bough with Johnstone and Fredalton, the three holding the chained Normanfenton between them, and suddenly there was no more of that terrible crashing.
But back from where they had come there were shouts, and a threshing of brush. "The officers are rallying what you've left of the men," Normanfenton gasped, "and are ordering them to scatter through the woods, to track me down. That's why the tank guns have stopped firing."
Dikar saw that Fredalton's side was red-dripping, that Johnstone's left arm hung awkward and loose. But there was no time to do anything about these things now, because of the threshing in the brush.
Somewhere in the dark there was the peep that meant danger. Twang! From that same place the twang of a bowstring, and a thud.
"That's one Asafric that won't look for us any more," Johnstone grinned through the white agony of his face.
"Peep," again, and twang again, and again a thud.
"Good Boys," Dikar breathed. "Most of the Boys have kept their bows an' are cuttin 'em down. The Asafrics ain't goin' to stand much of that."
"Hush," Fredalton hissed, and Dikar hushed, and right below them there was a threshing, and a dark form moved noisily below their tree. Dikar could make out a squat, dark form, and a pale face, and he knew that this must be one of the yellow leaders of the Asafrics. He crouched, very still. The three here had no bows, and they had Normanfenton with them—
A chain clanked! The yellow man below wheeled, peered up into the tree. "Ah," his thin voice said. "Got you!" His arm rose, and there was a little gun in it. The little gun pointed right into the tree, right at Dikar—
A dark something leaped out of the darkness and there was a flashy thud, and the yellow man was down. A voice grunted below: "You won't do no more shootin'—"
"Nat!" Dikar called softly. "Nat!" The man below straightened. "Come up here in the tree before they find you."
"The devil I will," Nat grunted. "I'm lookin' for Fenton. I got the keys to his chains."
"Glory!" Normanfenton exclaimed.
Dikar reached out a brown hand in imperious gesture.
"He's here. He's with us," Dikar called down. "Come up here!"
"Great jumpin' Jupiter!" There was the scrape of clothes against bark, and then Nat's hairy face showed in the dimness, and Nat was straddled across the thick limb. "Here," the fellow said, "Here's the keys. I caved in the head of the captain with a rock, an' I got them off him." He was reaching something across to Dikar.
"What are those?" Dikar asked, staring at them. "What do you do with them?"
Dikar stared at him solemnly, his deep young chest rising and falling quickly, his long fingers curled at his sides into loose fists.
"Holy—!" Nat grunted. "I forgot that you— All right, I guess I can hitch back here an' reach."
He did something to Normanfenton's chains and one of them came loose. "Well," Nat mumbled. "You rescued him, like you said you would, but what are you goin' to do with him now?"
"Take him back to the Mountain with us, of course."
"An' have Them trail you there?"
"They won't trail us."
"But they'll hunt this country, trackers an' planes, till they find him or know he's dead. They'll finecomb that Mountain of yours—"
"Wait!" Dikar exclaimed. "Wait. I've got an idea. Can you put those chains on someone, like you're takin' 'em off?"
"Then— Look here, Nat. There's poor Bengreen down there." A sob caught in Dikar's throat, but he forced his voice past it. "He's so smashed up nobody can tell who he is, but maybe he can do one last thing for the Bunch. I know he'd want to. Suppose—suppose we put those chains on what's left of him, an' these clothes that Normanfenton's wearin. He's about the same size. Then, when the Asafrics find him—"
"They'll think he's Fenton," Nat exclaimed. "An' stop huntin' for him. An' They'll figger the bunch that hopped 'em was some of our own people, hidin' in these woods down here, so They won't worry about lookin' over Quarry Mountain…."
Dikar nodded emphatically, and Nat fell swiftly to work.
DIKAR crouched at the edge of the far woods. Out there, the tumbled stones that ring the Mountain glimmered wan in the starlight. Beyond them rose the pale, steep face of the Drop, and from the top of the Drop the black Mountain rose, height on height, to the gold-dusted sky. Dikar was tired, dreadful tired. Pain throbbed in his every muscle, his every nerve, but he wasn't thinking of that. He was thinking of Bengreen—
He must not. He must think that here was the Mountain, and that he'd brought the Bunch back to the Mountain. He'd brought Normanfenton safely back to the Mountain.
How many others had he brought back with him?
Dikar chirped like a cricket. Chirps answered him, running away to the left and the right in the woods-hush. He counted them.
Three, then, of the Boys had been left behind in the far woods. Bengreen was one of the…. Who the two other were Dikar must find out. He must hoot the Bunch together and call the—
Dikar stiffened, jerked around to where that tree-toad peep of danger had come from. A blackness moved in the black brush, came out where he could see—
A slender brown form, bare arms lifting to him!
"Marilee!" Dikar said. "Marilee! What—?" She was clasped in his arms, she was trembling against him, and her lips were on his, were drinking thirstily of his.
"Oh, Dikar," Marilee sobbed. "Dikar."
"Marilee," Dikar whispered. "What are you doin' down here?" Another form moved into the pale light, and it was Bessalton, her black hair cloaking her, her face no longer sullen but happy. Smiling. "What are the two of you doin down here, Marilee?"
"I couldn't wait. We couldn't wait, doin nothin', while you Boys were out there in the dark, fightin'. So we came down the Drop an' went into the woods an' found the women of the Beast-Folk, Ruth an' Marge, an' brought them back here to our Mountain. But we didn't bring Mom, Dikar, because Mom, poor old thing, Mom died last night— But Dikar! You're hurt. You're—"
"I was hurt, my sweet," Dikar murmured, "an' tired an' heavy at heart. But I'm not any of these things any more, for I have you once more in my arms."
They got Normanfenton and the Beast-Folk to the top of the Drop, to the Mountain, though they had to make slings of the rope-vines to do it, and pulled them up the face of the Drop. Those of the Bunch who were not bad hurt stayed down till dawn brought light enough for them to make certain no traces were left in the far woods near the Mountain of their passage, and then these, too, climbed to the top of the Drop, and the adventure was over.
What that adventure of Dikar and the Bunch was to mean to America Dikar could not yet know. But this he knew, that at last the first step had been taken, the first try made toward the attainment of that hope for a brighter Tomorrow that a Voice had uttered in a despair-filled bomb shelter while death rained on a doomed City. This Dikar knew, that at last the first rift had been made in the dark cloud that overarched the once green and pleasant land for which stood the starry Flag the Girls had made, that the first thin beam of sunlight had fallen on that land….
The light would dawn once more.
And Dikar knew that never again would there be crossed fingers when the Bunch made their pledge to the Flag.