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Authors: John Christopher

Dragon Dance

BOOK: Dragon Dance
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to C. de P. jnr

1

A
S THEY HEADED OUT, THE
white mist thinned and finally went; it still hid the shore, but otherwise visibility was good. In fact, there wasn't anything to see but water, stretching blue and unbroken north and south, and westwards to the horizon. The breeze had stiffened, and the sea became choppy. This was an unwieldy vessel, more raft than boat, made up of half a dozen dugout hulls lashed together beneath a bamboo deck. It rolled heavily, and several of the Indians were sick, in a businesslike fashion, over the side. Simon repressed an urge to follow their example.
Brad was looking his usual imperturbable self.

The morning was warm, a sign that spring was well advanced. Not that the winter in coastal California had been severe, but there had been plenty of damp miserable days in which he had been glad of the shelter of the palm-thatched Indian hut. It was surprising, he thought, how one got used to things—smells, for instance.

He asked Brad: “What kind of fish, do you think?”

The Indians were used to the pale-skinned strangers talking in their unintelligible tongue, and the remark aroused no interest. Brad shrugged.

“From the length of the poles, I'd guess something sizeable. Dolphin or tuna—perhaps swordfish. I hope not dolphin.”

Simon, too, would once have been repelled by the idea of killing an intelligent creature for food, but that was a long way back. The thought of food of any kind at the moment, though, was nauseous. He said: “Do you still think it was a smart idea to come on this trip?”

“If we're hoping to become members of the tribe, it is.”

This, of course, was the big question over which they had wrangled since reaching the Indian village, soaked and half-starved, a couple of months earlier. Despite that last remark, Brad had been in favour of moving on, Simon of staying. Brad always was in favour of moving on—an inclination which had carried them halfway round the world and led them into more hot spots than Simon cared to count.

It was not that he found the life of the tribe particularly attractive. Apart from the occasional hunt for antelope or red deer, the routine was basically one of idleness. The braves, when they were not kippering themselves in the smoke hut, occupied themselves with intricate basketwork, making feathered costumes and headdresses, and painting rocks—pursuits for which Simon and Brad lacked both skill and aptitude. They were also given to singing, especially late in the evening: songs which at best were long, incomprehensible, and boring. When the braves were high as a result of smoking dried thorn-apple flowers, the songs took on a wilder note, sometimes resulting in violent scuffles. After the first, they had steered clear of the thorn-apple parties—all Simon got out of the one pipe he tried was a blinding headache.

All the same, he favoured staying put, at least for the time being, and Brad had reluctantly agreed. The tribe provided food, shelter, and protection from external hazards, advantages which past experience had taught him to value highly. There was in fact a good case to be argued for remaining with the tribe permanently, provided this was permitted, and Simon had argued it. That argument had been inconclusive. It would probably be renewed with the coming of summer. Meanwhile it made sense to go along with the tribe's way of life.

Night Eagle began rapping out commands. He was the chief, an Indian of above-average height with unchallenged authority over the rest of the braves. That authority was much more dubious where his chief wife, Little Green Bird, was concerned. She was a small but ample lady, lavishly decked in bright cloths, feathered ornaments, and bone bangles, who was always capable of putting a worried look on her husband's normally impassive countenance. She had an affectionate nature, and had taken a fancy to Brad. Her fondness for embracing him partly accounted for his eagerness to move on.

The bamboo poles, between ten and fifteen feet in
length, carried long lines fitted with large barbless bone hooks, on which the braves now impaled chunks of unsavoury-looking meat. They came from an antelope carcass so rotten that even the village dogs had turned up their noses at it.

Once the hooks were baited, Night Eagle cast the lines from three poles in turn, handing each pole over to a pair of braves who slotted the end into a hole recessed in the deck. It was obviously customary for the chief to make the cast—though it didn't seem to involve any great skill—and Simon and Brad kept well out of the way while this was going on. They had learned the importance of ritual in Indian life, and how easy it was to offend against it unwittingly.

A member of the tribe who would not be at all sorry to see them land in trouble was Night Eagle's son, Stone Blade. He was perhaps a year younger than they were, and had shown his dislike for the two strangers. Especially for Brad, which could be connected with his mother's partiality for him. Stone Blade had been moved out of the women's quarters to live with the braves a few days after their arrival, which probably made things worse.

Watching proceedings beside Simon in the stern, Brad said: “I don't see two men holding a really big one.

Brad's habit of sounding knowledgeable about everything could still rile Simon, and seasickness did not help. He said: “I suppose deep-sea fishing was another of those sports you practised back home?”

Brad shook his head. “No, but it stands to reason. A big tuna can weigh as much as two thousand pounds.”

Before Simon could respond to that, a cry went up from one of the braves. The deck lurched, and the line tautened towards a point on the port bow. A large hump rose, then resubmerged. The boat veered in that direction.

Simon immediately appreciated Brad's point. The bamboo pole bent into a shallow arc across the gunnel: so strong was the pull that the two men were bound to be plucked from their footing into the sea.

But something else happened before that. With ecstatic whoops, the Indians threw themselves onto the pole holders, securing themselves with hands and feet, fingers and toes, to the rocking deck. The boat sped on in the wake of the great fish. Simon and Brad had to dig in hard themselves to avoid going overboard.

“You didn't think of that one,” Simon gasped.

“It'll be all right as long as . . .”

Brad didn't finish the sentence. The boat tilted sharply, banging them against the deck again. Clouds spun across the sky, and Simon had terrifying glimpses of a shifting horizon and menacing sea. Then there was a shout from Night Eagle, and sea and horizon spun back to where they had been. The boat hit the water with a bang, and a splash that drenched them all.

It wasn't difficult to work out what had happened. The tuna had dived, threatening to capsize the boat, and the chief had taken emergency action. As he got to his feet, Simon saw Night Eagle replacing his knife—an obsidian blade traded from Indians of the interior—in its deerskin and bone sheath. The severed line dangled from its pole.

The Indians seemed to take the setback philosophically. As Brad suggested, it must be a not uncommon occurrence. He went on: “They could play the fish better with a longer line.”

“You tell Night Eagle,” Simon said. “I'm sure he'd appreciate being clued up on tribal skills by a visiting paleface. Bearing in mind tensile strength might have something to do with it.”

“Something in that,” Brad admitted. “I was thinking in terms of stuff like nylon. Coyote hair, even well plaited, doesn't really match up.”

The Indians had resumed tossing out ground bait. Simon felt a little better. The near capsizing of the boat, though alarming, seemed to have settled his stomach. And it was satisfying to have put Brad right about something.

There was a second bite within quarter of an hour, followed by the same procedure of the other Indians piling on top of the pole holders. But the initial shock was not so great this time, and the boat was hauled less swiftly through the water. A couple of times it tilted, but righted itself.

Eventually Simon thought he detected a slowing in the pace. Soon after, on a command from Night Eagle, two braves detached themselves. The gunnels carried struts with transverse crosspieces, and as the line fractionally slackened they hooked it onto one of them and went on winding it round, hauling in the tiring fish.

It finally broke water, revealing itself as close on seven feet in length, yellow finned, with a golden stripe down one side. It was pulled close in, and
Night Eagle leaned out, stabbing with his obsidian knife. Blood spurted, and the tuna heaved convulsively. He stabbed again, and the braves got together to drag it inboard.

Simon was standing close by, watching. Too close: a sudden impact of slimy wetness sent him sprawling. He heard a splash and thought the fish might have slipped back, but got up to see it still writhing on the deck. But Brad was missing.

He was in the water, several feet from the boat with the gap increasing. The Indians, preoccupied with the tuna, were paying no heed to him. Simon dived in.

Closing on him, he asked: “You okay?”

“Don't waste your breath. Swim.”

The gap had increased; the boat's primitive leather sail was filled with a strong southeasterly breeze. Simon called out, trying to attract the attention of the Indians.

Brad gasped: “Swim!”

They were making no progress—in fact, losing ground. One of the Indians at least was aware of their problem: Stone Blade had abandoned the fish to stare in their direction. Even at this distance, Simon could see the grin on his face.

He swam doggedly. He didn't know how far from shore they were, but guessed at least ten miles. He tried to recall the longest distance he had swum—a mile, maybe, in the school swimming pool? And would the Indians really abandon them? He had a nasty suspicion about the answer.

As the gap went on widening, he felt himself starting to flag. Their lives over the last couple of years had been strenuous, but strenuous on dry land. Swimming used different muscles, and theirs were out of condition.

The boat was more than fifty yards distant when Night Eagle at last looked towards them, and issued a command. The sail was brought about in the primitive tacking operation the Indians used. It lost the wind, and the boat idled while they slogged their way towards it.

The Indians offered no help as Brad and Simon dragged themselves on board. They had turned back to the tuna, and were skinning and dividing it.

When they had their breaths back, Brad said: “Thanks. You shouldn't have come in after me, though.”

From a practical point of view, that was
probably true. Brad was the stronger swimmer, and it was unlikely that the sight of two swimming for their lives rather than one would have influenced Night Eagle. Simon said: “There'd have been no need if you hadn't let yourself get knocked overboard by the tuna.”

“I was thinking that it might have been more useful to throw me a line. And it wasn't the fish that sent me over.”

“What did, then?”

Brad nodded in the direction of Stone Blade. “Our little friend caught me off balance.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. So was he.”

Simon wondered if Night Eagle had seen that; he didn't miss much. He wondered, too, how close they had come to being abandoned. The Indians had received them with the usual hospitality that was offered to strangers in need, but strangers were expected to move on in due course. Acceptance as members of the tribe was something else; and presumably the final decision there was up to the chief.

BOOK: Dragon Dance
3.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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