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The Hume Hunters

Three shots rang out in rapid succession, then silence.  Gorru rubbed the drowsiness from his eyes and called out, "Did you hit anything?"

His partner, Muto, yelled back, "I think so, but it's too dark to be sure."

The two hunters rejoined in a small clearing in the forest.  "We'll camp here for the night," Muto said.  "We can track them in the morning.  They won't travel far after the sun goes down."

Later, as their meal cooked over the open fire, Gorru growled and shook his wide shaggy head.  The other hunter looked up from the flames and asked, "What's the trouble?"

"I never thought it would be so tough getting a hume.  From what the guys at the office said, I figured we'd have gotten all we wanted the first couple of days and would be able to spend the rest of our time taking it easy at the lodge."

Muto rubbed his grizzled jaw with the back of his hand and chuckled quietly.  After a pause, he said thoughtfully, "Yeah, those humes aren't quite as easy to bag as a lot of people think.  Sometimes, it almost seems like they're intelligent."

The younger hunter glanced up irritably at this remark.  He had heard stories like that before, about how the humes had outsmarted hunters with some fantastic trick, and even how they were supposed to have killed a hunter now and then.  It was all a little hard to believe.  After all, they were just animals - fairly smart ones at that, but still just animals.  He promised himself that he wouldn't return home until he shot one.  With their meal completed, the hunters cleaned their weapons, then stretched out by the smoldering fire for an uneasy night's sleep.

Gorru awoke shortly after dawn, but Muto had been up long enough to gather a hat full of berries.  Neither one spoke as they finished their breakfast of dried meat and fresh fruit, washed down with cool spring water.  As they packed their equipment and slung it on their backs, Gorru asked, "Where do you think they're headed?"

The older hunter buckled his last strap, then answered, "I'm not sure, but if I did hit one of them last night, they'll probably head for the caves over on that next ridge.  There are springs in some of them, and if they make it that far, we might never scare them out."  As he spoke, Muto shrugged his pack to a more comfortable position, then strode easily into the brush toward the place where he had last seen the hume the night before.  Gorru followed, not quite as effortlessly, but making a minimum of noise.  The tough undergrowth that fought for growing room beneath the towering hardwoods was bothersome, but did not slow the progress of the bulky hunters appreciably.  They angled cautiously up the steep hillside for about 300 yards before Muto signaled to stop.

Gorru eased alongside his companion and whispered, "Do you see anything?"  Without answering, Muto raised his arm and pointed to a bare rocky outcrop further up the slope.  Gorru could barely make it out among the flickering patches of sun and shade.  Now Muto replied softly, "That's where he was when I shot at him.  He took off running into those scrub pines to the left and I lost sight of him."

The younger hunter looked over the terrain thoughtfully, then asked, "Are we going to pick up his trail or circle around to cut him off before he gets to the caves?"

"He has too much of a lead now for us to follow him.  We'll have to head for the ravine and hope we can get between him and the caves."  Muto eyed the ground ahead of and below them, to where a steep bank fell off to a dry stream bed.  "We have to move fast, so don't worry too much about the noise."  Heeding his own advice, he began the descent with long rolling strides, letting gravity maintain his momentum, and changing direction only when the undergrowth was too thick even for his bulky body to force its way through.

Gorru followed eagerly, feeling that today for sure they would be successful.  He swore as a branch whipped back into his face, snapping him across the forehead.  Muto, however, seemed unaware of anything except pushing ahead, so Gorru held his weapon vertically in front of him to deflect the branches and jogged a few steps until he was once more on the heels of his more experienced companion.  He could see the white band of water-rounded cobbles in the stream bed glinting through the trees below. Soon, the two hunters were striding along a path, probably an animal trail, that wound along the edge of the stream.  The trail stayed just above the high-water mark, and sometimes was nearly eaten away where the dirt bank had been eroded more than usual.

After about an hour, the trail disappeared.  They stopped to get their bearings.  The once gradual slope of the hill was now a looming cliff, an enormous curved wall of rock that blocked their progress as efficiently as it blocked the sunlight.  Muto peered intently at the opposite side of the gorge.  It wasn't quite as steep, and he thought he could make out another trail winding through the shrubs that clung to the face of the incline.  His eyes followed the faint line upward, lost it, picked it up again, then lost sight of it for good as it rounded the curve. 

The experienced guide now noticed a towering battlement of rock jutting out from the hillside.  He motioned to Gorru and pointed out the formation to him.  "I'd be willing to bet that the path on the other side leads right up to those cliffs, and that the place is riddled with caves."  Muto studied the uninviting terrain once more, then asked, "Do you want to cross over and try to find the caves, or wait for the humes on this side?"

Gorru didn't like the idea of crawling up the embankment without being sure of what they would find there, but he decided it would be better than sitting where they were, hoping they would see the hume when it tried to cross the ravine.  "Let's find the caves," he said.  "The humes might be farther ahead than we figured."

"Good," answered Muto.  "I saw a log across the stream bed about a hundred yards back.  We can use it for a bridge and save a little climbing."  The pair turned back, with Gorru leading the way now because the trail wasn't wide enough for one hunter to squeeze past the other.  Closer to 200 yards back they found the log bridge.  Once a huge and stately pine, the fallen giant now drooped ungraciously above the rocky stream bed, its naked roots forming an upright circle of gnarled claws and its crown lost among the debris and undergrowth on the other side. 

Muto clambered onto the trunk and extended a hand to pull his partner up behind him.  The broken stumps of branches offered many handholds, but just as often they were bothersome obstacles to be edged around, while the shredding bark on the main trunk made the footing less than ideal.  Inching forward cautiously, testing each footstep to make sure it was safe, the two finally reached the half-way point and stopped to catch their breath. 

Gorru was panting, partly from exertion and partly from tension.  Neither hunter looked directly at the rocky ravine floor forty feet below them.  Gorru glanced behind, then ahead.  Another twently to thirty feet to go, he thought, and the tree was getting narrower all the time,  He wished it was over already.  Why was it so important to get a hume anyway?  The meat wasn't that good and they made lousy trophies.  He supposed it was because they had a reputation for being really crafty.  Nine out of ten hume hunters received nothing for their efforts but trouble.

Muto straightened, flexed his shoulders and began moving again.  The trunk was bending upwards now in a gradual arc.  It was barely wide enough for their broad feet. Muto eased around a verticle stub of a branch. Gorru waited until the way was clear, then attempted to duplicate the maneuver, but the patch of bark beneath his foot suddenly began to move.  Thrown off balance, he slipped sideways off the trunk and reached desperately for a protruding limb. He didn't have time to yell, but when the full weight of his massive body jerked on the branch he had managed to grab, it nearly twisted the whole tree around.  Muto gasped as the strong sideways force caught him by surprise and threw him sprawling into the air.  His body hit the rocks below with a crushing thud and lay motionless. 

Gorru clung to the limb, not daring to turn to see how his fallen companion was.  With a touch of panic in his voice, he called out, "Muto!  Muto, are you all right?"  There was no answer.  "Muto! Can you answer me?  Are you hurt bad?"  Still no reply.  Gorru's gasping breath and the blood rushing in his head all but drowned out the usual forest noises, but one sound did penetrate.  It was the eerie wailing cry of a hume.  The hunter held his breath.  Muto had told him a lot about these strange animals.  That cry could mean only one thing.  It was a pack leader calling other humes together for a hunt.

That thought prodded Gorru into action.  Using what remaining strength he had, he hauled himself back up onto the log.  A quick glance to the stream bed below showed his companion lying face down, a thread of scarlet trickling from his head onto the white rocks.  Straddling the log, Gorru inched his way back to the base of the tree and dropped heavily to the ground.  He unslung his rifle, looked around to get his bearings, then headed in the direction of their last camp with hurried strides.

Another hume cry rang out, closer than the last.  Gorru quickened his pace, glancing warily behind him every few steps.  His mind was racing.  Muto had said that a hume won't attack an adult Ursian, even when cornered.  The thing to watch out for was a hunting pack.  Humes ordinarily lived and hunted in family groups, but they would call together all the adult males in the area if the group seemed to be threatened.  This didn't happen often, but when it did, there was little that could stand up to them.  A lone Ursian, whether armed or not, didn't stand a chance.  Gorru knew this.  He had heard stories of other hunters that had been attacked by a hume pack.  There usually wasn't even enough left to identify the body.  The coarse hair on his back bristled with fear as he pushed himself on still faster through the underbrush. 

Just as he reached the clearing where he and Muto had made camp the night before, Gorru heard the sudden outbreak of cries and howls far behind.  'They must have found Muto,' he thought, and felt a pang of guilt wondering if the guide had actually been dead.  Self-preservation took precedence, however, and the frightened hunter didn't even slow his pace as he crossed the clearing and found the trail that led down out of the hills. 

The forest shadows were stretching eastward and the first of the night insects were making hesitant chirps before Gorru was willing to stop.  The undergrowth was denser on the lower slopes, but the trail was clear from more frequent use so he had been able to keep up his pace.  While he stood on the path getting his breath back, the hunter nervously twisted his head toward every unrecognized sound.  His eyes searched intently for some sign of his pursuers, but the woods were too thick to allow him to see more than a dozen feet in any direction.  He had never felt more alone and vulnerable.

Ursians had a long history of being the dominant life form on their planet - eons ago as the largest and most powerful predatory animal, and in the last several millenia as the most intelligent, also.  Every Ursian had this knowledge bred into him, so it was a strangely unfamiliar sensation that constricted Gorru's throat and made him tremble.  He feared being caught by the humes as he had never feared anything before.

As a few minutes passed and his breathing slowed down, Gorru shrugged his powerful shoulders, adjusting the backpack, and started down the slope again.  He was beginning to lose the feeling of panic as he entered more familiar territory, but his determined strides still ate up the distance swiftly.  With his brain functioning more clearly, Gorru thought he remembered a deserted cabin not far from where he was, sitting a little way back from the path.  Muto had mentioned it on their way up the mountain.  'I better find it pretty soon,' Gorru mumbled to himself as he glanced back over his right shoulder toward the hazy red ball of the lowering sun.

Straining his eyes to see through the dense brush, hoping to spot the cabin, Gorru thought he saw a whitish streak disappear behind a tree.  He gripped his rifle with sweaty hands and quickened his pace.  The ruddy twilight made every shadow seem menacing.  As he hurried along the trail, glancing to all sides, his foot caught on a gnarled root and he stumbled.  As he struggled for balance, Gorru heard a twig snap off to his left, not ten feet away.  Terror crept along his nerves, finally taking control.  The hunter broke into a run, concentrating only on the trail in front of him.  Low-hanging branches were brushed away like cobwebs.  Blood-curdling cries broke out behind him as the humes gave chase.  Gorru's lungs burned with every breath and his legs felt like they were on fire.  Above the pounding of his own heart, he heard bodies crashing through the brush close behind and forced his exhausted limbs to give a last burst of speed.  The barely visible path dipped sharply, then curved around a rocky outcrop, forcing the pursuers to bunch together.  Gorru rounded the curve several steps ahead of the humes and saw the dark outline of a building looming above him.  His legs driving fiercely, he surged up the dirt bank, scrambled on all fours, dragging his rifle, and slammed through the cabin door.  With the plank door shut and latched behind him, the hunter took a position at one of the windows, rifle ready, and waited for the humes to come charging the cabin.

Gorru waited.  He heard nothing.  Ten minutes later, there was still no sign of the humes.  After a half-hour of tense anticipation, expecting the ferocious horde to attack at any second, Gorru began to wonder.  Maybe the sight of the cabin scared them off.  He had never heard of humes being seen near any sort of Ursian dwelling.  Then again, maybe they were waiting for him to come out, or to go to sleep so they could sneak in.  Gorru didn't know what to do.  His hunting experience was limited to the yearly vacation trip he made, always accompanied by a competent guide.  He had never been this far out in the wilderness alone before. Fear knotted his insides and dried his mouth.

It was now dark outside, and the one main room of the cabin was pitch black.  Worried that the humes might see him, Gorru knelt down, struck a match, and keeping it shaded by his hand, turned around quickly to see what shape his shelter was in.  He blew the match out.  Then, picturing what he could of the room after his one quick glimpse, he realized that the windows on either side of the front door would have to be barricaded somehow.  He shuffled across the room slowly, arms moving in front of him, feeling his way, until he bumped into a tall cupboard he had seen.  The burly hunter pushed and dragged the solid piece over to the window and braced it firmly against the wall, covering the entire opening.  Then he groped his way toward another corner of the room, stopping when his shin hit a low wooden cot.  He stood the cot on end and placed it against the other window. 

Feeling secure at last, Gorru slipped off his knapsack, took out his blanket and spread it out on the floor.  He then lay down, using his pack as a pillow.  In the stillness, all that could be heard were the breeze-blown leaves rustling against the roof and the chirping of the night insects.  It was peaceful and comforting.  Almost too peaceful, Gorru thought sleepily.  What happened to the birds that usually called to each other in the night?  Why were the bushes beside the cabin rustling so much when the trees above them were barely moving? 

With these disquieting questions rolling through his mind, Gorru sank into a deep but unrestful sleep.  The irritating, buzzing drone of a fly was the next thing he was aware of.  He mentally brushed it away several times, but it kept returning.  Finally, he opened his eyes, saw where he was and sat up abruptly.  As the incidents of the previous day replayed in his mind, he became increasingly alarmed.  He got up, went to the window and cautiously slid the cupboard to the side.

The morning sun was warm and bright and it blinded him for a few minutes.  When his eyes finally adjusted, he stared unbelievingly at the pack of humes standing together about 25 yards in front of the cabin. Gorru fought down a wave of panic.  The humes just stood there, erect, looking right at him.  It must be a trick, he thought, as he quickly looked around the room to check on his defenses.  Everything seemed to be the way it was the night before.  When he turned back toward the window, Gorru noticed one of the humes step out from the pack and approach the cabin.  It's skin was almost completely free of hair except for around its head.  At first the hunter thought it must have been because of a disease, until he noticed a piece of cloth tied around the hume's middle and covering the body from its waist to the middle of its upper hind legs.  Gorru grabbed for his rifle, but the hume stopped about 10 yards away and stood watching him as before.  It was evidently an old one because its skin looked wrinkled and the sparse hair on its head and the patch around its jaw was nearly white.

Then Gorru was really shocked when the hume began moving its mouth and making a variety of complicated sounds.  'This is fantastic,' the Ursian thought.  'The creature actually looks like it is trying to talk to me.'  As it continued making the strange sounds, the hume gestured with its hands, first toward itself, then to the group behind it, then to the sky, and lastly to Gorru.  Dumfounded, the hunter's mind whirled frantically.  Could it be that these creatures are more intelligent than anyone has realized?  That might explain some of the wild stories he had heard about what tricky and cunning animals they were.  What if they weren't even animals?

Gorru reined in his imagination.  The old hume was probably just mimicking Ursians he had seen, like certain jungle birds do.  Thinking he had resolved this disturbing question satisfactorily, Gorru nerved himself to step outside to try to scare the humes away with a few rifle shots.  Before he had a chance to do so, the old hume turned around to the pack, made more noises and motioned to the group.  One of the younger humes walked toward the old one carrying a large, thin square board coated with a white substance on one side.  The young hume handed the board to the old one, then knelt down.  The old hume placed the board against the young one's back, took a thin black stick from the waist of his garment, and began making marks on the white surface.  After several minutes, he straightened up and held the marked surface toward Gorru.  The hunter could make out the crude outline of an Ursian, with several curved and straight lines arranged horizontally under it.  Beside the Ursian figure was one of a hume, again with short curved and straight lines under it, only this time making a different pattern.

The old hume rested the board against the younger one's back once more and wiped off all the lines with the corner of his garment, then began marking again.  By this time, Gorru knew without a doubt that he was witnessing something that no one else even suspected was possible.  What else but an intelligent being of some sort could do the things that these humes were doing?  Gorru remembered reading little articles now and then about some scientist or another believing that intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe.  He had been inclined to agree with them, but now, to find out there was another intelligent race on this same planet!  That will take some getting used to.

The old hume held the board out in front of himself again and Gorru saw the rough figure of a hume, but this time it was in the center of a circle.  From the circle, a dotted line arced to the upper right corner of the board where it joined a smaller circle that had a figure of an Ursian in the middle of it.  Halfway along the dotted line was a drawing of a kind of space craft with a hume inside. The space craft was pointed to the circle holding the Ursian.  Gorru immediately grasped the meaning of this drawing and motioned for the old hume to make another one.  In his excitement and curiosity, he forgot the fear he had of the humes.  He leaned his rifle against the wall and stepped out onto the porch of the cabin.  The rest of the story came quickly.  The spaceship, on an exploratory mission, made a faulty landing on Ursia and was unable to take off again or to contact its base.  Since Ursia was much like the hume's home planet, the crew decided to make the best of their situation and wait for the next ship that was sure to come, some day.

After many years, the hume crew members began to lose interest in their home planet and their original mission.  They paired off and went their separate ways, maintaining occasional contact with the others and passing on important knowledge, but letting the outward signs of civilization fall away.  During their eight generations on the planet, they had made repeated efforts to communicate with the Ursians, but they only succeeded in getting shot at and hunted, sometimes even killed.  Recently, the younger humes have been urging all-put war against the Ursians, using the weapons and scientific knowledge handed down to them by their forefathers.  This incident with Gorru was to be the last chance for the older generation to settle things peacefully. 

Gorru understood what was expected of him as go-between for the two races, and was afraid he would not be able to handle the job.  Determined to do his best, the one-time hume hunter with his one-time quarry sat down in the grass beside the cabin and began a force-fed education.  A nagging thought kept flashing through his mind, however.  How would the people back home take the news?  What would it take to convince them that the humes were at least as far advanced as they were?

The End of the beginning.

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