: THE GUN ON THE ROOF.
"Who's there?" Dikar cried again, and then the shadows were coming out into the light, and they were Jimlane and Billthomas.
"Marilee told us you wanted us," Jimlane said. "We waited till everyone was asleep in the Boys' House."
"Did anyone see you come here?"
"No. They were all asleep."
"All right," Dikar said. "Listen, Jimlane and Billthomas. I have a job for you, but I am not going to order you to do it. I'm going to ask you to."
"We'll do it, Dikar," Billthomas said. He was shorter than Jimlane, yellow-haired, blue-eyed, his skin as smooth as any of the Girls', his movements as graceful. "We'll do anything you ask us."
"Anything at all," Jimlane agreed.
"Wait, youngsters," Dikar warned, "You may not be so ready to promise that when you hear what it is. I hate asking you to do it, but it needs to be done, for the good of the Bunch. It won't be easy. You may be hurt doing it, you may even be killed. Nobody but Marilee and me will know that you're doing it."
Two pairs of bright eyes were fixed on his face. "If it's for the Bunch, we'll do it," Jimlane said. "Whatever it is. Tell us what you want us to do, Dikar."
"Before I tell you, you must promise, cross your hearts and hope to die, that you will say nothing about it to anyone. Whether you will do it or not, you will always keep silent."
"Cross my heart and hope to die," Billthomas said solemnly. "I will say nothing." Jimlane said the same and then the two spat over their left shoulders to show that they could never take back what they had said.
"Now listen," Dikar said when they had done that. "The job is to watch Tomball, by day and by night. You sleep in the Boys' House with him, and I'll always make sure to put you on the same jobs with him, so that part ought to be easy.
"If he slips off any time, day or night, by himself, I want you to follow him without his knowing it. Do you think you can do that?"
"We once followed a deer all day," Jimlane said, "All over the Mountain, and it never knew we was anywheres near."
"I know that," Dikar nodded. "And that's why I picked you to ask first to do this job. I also know you two are champeens of the Bunch at shooting with bonarrers, an' that's another part of the job."
The eyes of the youngsters widened, but they said nothing.
Dikar went on. "Keep your bonarrers near you all the time, and if Tomball does go off by himself, take 'em along. If you see him start to make a fire where it can be seen from the sky, or from the kind of woods that will make a smoke go up through the tops of the trees, shoot him in the legs, right away, and out the fire. If he starts to go out of the woods to the edge of the Drop, in the daytime when they who live in the far land might see him, shoot him in the legs and drag him back. Stop him if he does anything else that might show Them that someone lives here on the Mountain. Do you get me?"
"We get you, Dikar." Billthomas looked puzzled. "But all those things are Must-Nots of the Old Ones. Why do we need to shoot him to stop him from doing them? If he tries to, the Old Ones would wake from their sleep under the rocks at the bottom of the Drop and strike him down. He wouldn't dare to do 'em, and if he tried, the Old Ones wouldn't let him."
"Look, Billthomas." Dikar put his hand on the kid's shoulder. "Do you remember the time when the Bunch stoned me away from the clearing and made Tomball boss?"
"And you came back with a little gun that made a noise and killed our fawn, and you made the Bunch listen to you while you proved why we shouldn't have stoned you away. And then you threw the gun up on the roof of the Boys' House and fought Tomball who should be boss, and licked him. Sure I remember."
"Well, between the time I was stoned away and the time I came back, I went to the edge of the Drop, and I climbed down the Drop to the rocks under which the Old Ones sleep. That is the most terrible of all the Must-Nots of the Old Ones, but they didn't wake from their sleep, and they didn't strike me down. Nothing happened to me. I went into the far land, and I came back, and the Old Ones did nothing to me."
"You went into the far land," Jimlane repeated in awed tones. "Dikar! Did you see Them?"
"I saw Them, Jimlane, an' I saw many things that made me know how very terrible it would be if they found out the Bunch lives on the Mountain. But the Old Ones did nothin' to stop me. The Old Ones sleep under the rocks, Jimlane, an' under the water that foams over the rocks, an' they cannot awaken to stop Tomball from lettin' Them who live in the far land know that the Bunch is here on the Mountain."
"But Dikar!" Billthomas broke out. "Tomball wouldn't do anythin' like that!"
"I hope not," Dikar answered slowly. "Honest Injun, I hope that he wouldn't. But I must be sure, an' I'm askin' you two to help me be sure--No wait," he said as he saw their mouths start to open. "Before you answer I want you to remember how strong Tomball is, an' how he said he would kill you, Jimlane, that time when you wanted to tell the Bunch why they were wrong in stonin' me away, an' how afraid of him you were, that time. I want you youngsters to think of that before you say that you will do this job."
"I've thought about it, Dikar." Jimlane stood very straight in the firelight. "I won't say I'm not afraid of Tomball, but afraid or not, I will watch him, an' I will do my best to stop him from doin' anythin' that will hurt the Bunch."
"Me too, Dikar," Billthomas said his voice clear and steady, his eyes steady as Dikar's own. "I am afraid of Tomball, but I will do this job the best I can."
"Good kids," Dikar said. Something had him by the throat, so that it was hard to say it, and he could not answer when the Boys wished him and Marilee a good sleep and slipped away, their naked young bodies ruddy one moment in the firelight, then merged with the noiseless dark.
"Oh Dikar," Marilee's soft voice said in his ear. "They're so young. Are you right in what you are doin'?"
"I don't know," Dikar sighed. "I don't know, Marilee." And then he said, "It is a hard job to be boss of the Bunch. A dreadful hard job."
Her hand reached up to his cheek, her cool fingers touched it, lightly, "A hard job, Dikar," she said softly. "But it is night, an' just past these bushes is our little house, an' there you are not boss of the Bunch but my mate..."
He drew her close to him, her softness close against the hardness of his body. He looked into her eyes, and then his head sank and his lips found hers.
A little later they knelt by their bed of pine boughs covered with a white blanket of rabbit fur. "Now I lay me down to sleep," they said together. "An, should I die before I wake..."
What was it like to die, Dikar wondered. He had seen death, of course, a deer killed by his arrow, a squirrel stiff and glazed-eyed under last year's leaves. What was it like to lie stiff like that, never seeing again the flaming colors of the sunrise, the shimmer of sunlight on water, never feeling again the coolness of the wind on one's skin, the warm touch of the rain? "God bless the Bunch," he said, along with Marilee. "God bless Marilee..."
Marilee rose but Dikar stayed on his knees. He heard the piping of the insects outside the little house, the peep of the nesting birds, the whisper of the trees. They were trying to tell him something, but he could not quite make out what it was.
"Poor Dikar," Marilee said. "You're so tired you've fallen asleep on your knees."
"No," Dikar said, rising, nor could he sleep, even with Marilee in his arms, their cover of rabbit-fur warm over him. Something was troubling him. Something that he must do, and he could not think what it was.
He lay wide-eyed, watching the open door of the little house grow pale with the light of the moon that was rising over the Mountain, watching the leaf shadows dance in the pale moonlight. With the moon a wind rose in the forest and the rustle of the treetops was louder, and bough-tips tapped on the roof-- The roof! That was it! Billthomas had spoken of the little gun Dikar had taken from one of them down in the far land, a black faced one, and had thrown up on the roof of the Boys' House and forgotten. Dikar had seen what that small thing could do, and Tomball had seen what it could do. Dikar must get it. Now. Tonight. Get it and hide it...
Marilee stirred in her sleep as Dikar slowly took his arms from about her. She muttered something, but she did not awaken. Dikar stole, more silent than the shadows, through the woods, reached a tree whose boughs overhung the Boys' House, swung himself up into those boughs and from them to the roof of Boys' House.
The moonlight was bright on that roof, every crack in its gray boards, every mark of them, distinct. There were faded, dried leaves on it, broken twigs...
But no gun.
: THE SOUND OF GUNFIRE.
The sun struck brightness through Dikar's eyelids and though the night had held very little sleep for him, he was instantly awake. He flung out his arm to waken Marilee--found only the fur of the bed-covering!
He rolled over. She wasn't there beside him. She wasn't anywhere in the little house. Dikar was on his feet, his eyes wide, his heart bumping his ribs. The door of the house darkened and Marilee stood there.
"Marilee!" Dikar exclaimed. "I thought--What's the matter?" She had hold of the doorpost, as if to hold herself up by it. There was green under the bronze of her skin and her forehead was wet with sweat. "Marilee!" Dikar made the single long stride that took him to her. "What's wrong with you?"
"Wrong?" Her eyes refused to meet his. "Nothin', Dikar." She laughed, but it was not the merry tinkle that her laugh always was. "Listen, sleepyhead. The Boys are already on their way to the bathing pool." Gay shouts, the threshing of many bodies through the brush, came to him. "Go quick, or they'll be through before you have rubbed the sand from your eyes."
"Marilee." Dikar's hand was on her shoulder. "What-?" She jerked free of his hold, faced him, her lips tight and white.
"Go, you fool!" she yelled at him and thrust past him into the house, threw herself on the bed. "Let me alone."
Dikar stared at her, unbelieving. Never before had she yelled at him in anger, never before had her morning smile failed him. She lay face down, unmoving.
"Marilee," Dikar named her. "If I've done somethin' to make you angry at me, I ask your pardon, but what have I done?"
"Nothin'." He could hardly hear her. "You have done nothin'," she sobbed. "But please go, Dikar. Please leave me alone."
Dikar turned slowly away, heard his name called from outside. "Comin'," he answered red-bearded Johnstone, who called from the little house where he lived with Annjordan, "Last one in the bathing pool's a yellow belly."
They ran through the dew-sprinkled greenery, downhill to where a stream leaped from a ledge into a shining pool that foamed with the flashing limbs, the brown torsos of the Boys of the Bunch.
Dikar dived low into the icy water, swam to the opposite bank, stood up, shaking his head to clear his sight, the shining drops spattering about him. He saw Tomball, squat and shaggy under the foaming waterfall, saw Jimlane swimming nearby. Dikar dived again, swam under water to where the drooping, slender boughs of a willow dipped into the pool and made a screen behind which he came up unseen.
The Boys' House was empty when Dikar went into it by the door away from the clearing, He darted to Tomball's bed, lifted the coverings from it, pressed hands on grass-filled bag under them. There was no hard lump inside the bag. He looked under the cot--a darkening of the light straightened him, whipped him around.
Tomball stood spraddle-legged just inside the open door from the woods. His hands were stretching a bow taut, and laid across the bow was a stone-pointed hunting arrow that could kill a deer--or a Boy.
"Got you," Tomball grunted, his eyes, small and red, hating Dikar. "This is Fredalton's bonarrer. Nobody saw me leave the bathing pool just like nobody except me saw you, an' I'll be back there before they find you." The head of the arrow was pulled back to the curve of the bow's wood. Dikar's muscles tightened to dodge the arrow, but he knew he could not hope-- Whang!
Tomball's arrow was broken in two parts, was clattering to the floor! Dikar threw himself headlong down the length of the Boys' House, tripped over the bow that Tomball had flung in his path. Thrust at the floor to get up and saw another arrow quivering in the wall toward the clearing, saw Tomball dive out of the door toward the woods, got to that door only in time to see Tomball vanish in the brush.
Dikar shook his head to clear it of its stunned surprise that he was still alive, that Tomball's arrow had broken at the exact moment it was loosed at him.
"Dikar!" Billthomas, slender brown body wet-shining, face gray-white, was suddenly there in front of him. "He didn't hurt you?" There was a bow in his one hand, the other reached out to Dikar. "He didn't-?"
"No, Billthomas," Dikar said, guessing now the meaning of that second arrow. "Thanks to you." His voice was steady enough, but inside him he was shaking, knowing suddenly how close he had been to death. "That was as fine a shot as ever was made on the Mountain."
Billthomas' blue eyes shone with the praise. "It was nothin', Dikar. The sun was on Tomball's bonarrer through the other door, makin' it a good mark, an' I was only ten paces away. Any of the Boys could have hit it."
"How did you come here, just in time?"
"Carlberger ducked Jimlane," Billthomas answered. "While he was under Tomball got to shore. I saw him from the other end of the pool an' I followed, I stopped to pick up my bonarrer where I'd hidden it near by, like you told us to last night. That let Tomball get out of sight, but I tracked him. When I got to the edge of the woods he was already in here, was pullin' tight his bow. But why're we wastin' time? I'll call the Bunch to hunt him down--"
"No!" Dikar commanded. "No, Billthomas. I will not have the Bunch know that one of them has tried to kill an other. For then there will be only two things left for the Bunch to do. Either they must stone him from the clearing; an' that will make certain of his hate for the Bunch, with no hope that he will ever change; or they must kill him, which is worse. That the Bunch shall kill one of themselves coldly and with thought before, is more dreadful than that Tomball should have tried to kill me, excited an' angry."
"But nothin'! This is a thing I will take care of myself, in my own way, an' it will remain a secret between you an' me. You will not call the Bunch." Dikar said sharply, his eyes commanding. "You will call Jimlane only. The two of you must track Tomball an' keep him always in sight, but you will not let him know you are around unless he does one of the things I talked about last night, or unless he tries again to hurt one of the Bunch. If that should happen, stop him, but hurt him as little as you can help, an' tell me about it. Get me?"
"I get you, Dikar."
"Then call Jimlane, an' get busy."
"Yes, Dikar." Billthomas was gone into the woods and Dikar heard the trill of a lark from where Billthomas had vanished, three times, and from far off he heard the answering three trills of a lark, and he knew that Billthomas had called Jimlane, and that there would not be a moment from now on that Tomball would not be under the eyes of the two youngsters. But Dikar's forehead was furrowed and his heart heavy within him as he turned to pluck Billthomas' arrow from the wall and the pieces of Tomball's arrow from the floor, and went out into the woods to hide them.
It was queer, he thought, how he had talked to Billthomas the way he did just now, without thinking about what he was going to say beforehand. It was as if someone else had talked with his voice, someone much wiser than he was.
It was queer, too, how he knew now that what he had said was the right thing to say. How he knew now, sure as that his name was Dikar, that what he was doing was the best thing for the Bunch.
And for Tomball too. After what had happened Tomball would stay away from the Bunch, afraid of what Dikar would do if he came back. The youngsters would be watching him, but Tomball wouldn't know that. He would think he was alone on the Mountain, and he would learn what it meant to be alone, as Dikar had, and he would learn what it meant to be one of the Bunch and have a place in its life.
After awhile Dikar would send Tomball word by Jimlane or Billthomas that he need not be afraid to come back, and when he did come back he would be ready to take his place in the life of the Bunch, and he would give Dikar and the Bunch no more trouble.
That was what Dikar hoped would happen.
The Boys came back, shouting and happy, from their morning swim in their bathing pool, and the Girls came back to the clearing from their pool on the other side of the clearing, and they all ate breakfast at the long table of the eating place.
Marilee came to sit beside Dikar when breakfast was all on the table. Dikar looked sharply at her, but her color was all right now, her eyes bright again. She didn't say anything about what had happened in the morning, and Dikar didn't say anything about it, only too glad to forget about it and to let her forget.
It was Steveland who first said something about Tomball and Jimlane and Billthomas not being there. Across the table so that all could hear, Dikar told him that he had sent them on a special job on the other side of the Mountain, a job that might take them three or four days, and that they would not come back till it was finished.
Before anyone could ask what the job was, Dikar started telling what everybody was to do that day, although he usually didn't do that till after breakfast.
There was a lot to do, because it was time to start getting ready for the winter.
Dikar sent some of the Bunch to hunt for deer whose meat would be dried over the fire, and whose skins the Girls would make into clothing against the cold days to come. He sent some to pick berries that would be cooked with the sugar that they'd gotten from the maple trees in the spring, and others to search for honey in hollow bee-trees, and he set some to stopping up cracks in the walls of the houses with mud.
He himself took four of the older Boys, Johnstone and Danhall and Henfield and Bengreen, up near the top of the Mountain, to where some big trees had been blown down by a storm last year, to cut them up into logs for the fire now that they were dried out and would burn well and without smoke.
When they went to the Boys' House to get their axes, Danhall said that it would be a good idea for them to take their bonarrers along too, in case they happened to see a deer or some squirrels, and Dikar agreed. They hung their quivers of arrows on low bushes, and rested their bows against the bushes, and set to work.
It was shady and cool where they worked, and the kerchunk-kerchunk of their axes was a pleasant sound. Soon Dikar had almost forgotten what had happened last night and this morning, and the day seemed no different from all the other days on the Mountain. He liked the way the flying chips shone bright yellow against the dark green of the moss and the almost black brown of the ground, and he liked the way little spots of sunlight filtered through the leaves high overhead and danced on the ground. He liked the smell of new-cut wood in his nostrils, and the smell of damp earth and of last year's leaves, and the sweet smell of the breeze that was like the scent of Marilee's breath.
It was grand to feel the swell of his muscles, their smooth swell in his arms and across his back, to feel the chunk of his axe into a great tree-trunk, to feel the wood break apart under his strength; grandest of all to feel the touch of the other sweaty shoulders against his own as together the five would yank and haul at a hewn log.
Marilee and Annjordan, Johnstone's mate, brought lunch up to the choppers--cooked rabbit meat and dandelion greens and blackberries big as the end of Dikar's thumb. Dikar and Marilee sat a little apart from the rest, eating their lunch, washing it down with icy water brought from a nearby stream in a cup of birch bark.
"Dikar," Marilee murmured. "I have often wondered about the Drop." Her finger touched a little blue flower that grew out of the moss by her knee, but she didn't quite seem to know she touched it. "It goes all around the Mountain, an' it's so high an' steep. We were very little, Dikar, when the Old Ones brought us here. How did they climb the Drop with us?"
"They didn't." Dikar recalled his dream, recalled the memory that gave form to his dream. "The Drop didn't go all around the Mountain then. A sort of narrow hill slanted up to the top of the Drop, left by men who had been cutting away rock from the Mountain, the same men who built the houses in the clearing an' left cots here, an' these axes an' all the other tools we use. A road ran on top of that narrow hill, an' the Old Ones brought us up that road."
"What became of the hill an' the road?"
"The Old Ones hid us on the Mountain from the terrible hordes who came out of the East an' across the continent from the West an' up from the South," (Dikar was repeating words a Voice had said in his dream). "But some of them came to the foot of the Mountain, so the Old Ones brought the narrow hill down, on them and on themselves," he told Marilee what his dream had helped him to remember. "That is why there is no road to the top of the Drop, an' why the Old Ones sleep under the rocks, down there below the Drop."
"I know you went down there once, Dikar, but you never told me how you got down there, nor how you got up again."
"I plaited a rope of vines, Marilee, as long as the Drop is high. One night I tied the rope's end to a tree an' let it down where a stream leaps out an' down, so that the rope hangs behind the white curtain of the stream an' cannot be seen from below. I climbed down the rope, an' by it I climbed up again the next night, havin' seen what they have made of the far land that looks so green an' pleasant from the top of our Mountain."