Chapter Fifty-Seven: On The HuntInterior of Northern Mauritius
Gerbald silently beckoned his posse to pause at the edge of the wide valley stretching before them. It was well past midnight, following the trail through the gravelly pass with only the flashlight's slowly fading beam to see by had been a frustrating process. Gerbald stalked along the edge of the meadows they had reached, looking for his next sign while his men took a much-needed breather. At last he found the spot where they had carried Pam into the tall grass. He allowed himself a small sigh of relief. It would be an easy trail to follow even in this moonless night, and they might regain some of the ground they had lost in the pass. Moving as fast as he dared, Gerbald led the way, followed by the posse, every man tired, but intent upon recovering Pam.
One of the Marines borrowed from their Swedish military escort, Muskijl, a wiry-built, well-seasoned soldier in his late thirties named Järv, worked his way up to Gerbald.
"Sergeant!" he whispered to the grim faced German, "Do you smell it?"
Gerbald stopped, opening his nostrils wide to the cool night air. There was a certain tang there.
"Water! Well done, Järv, you noticed it before I did." More than a little surprise could be heard in his voice.
Järv grinned, pleased to have impressed his commander. "That's why they call me Järv. It is the name of an animal in the far north where I am from, a creature known for its sharp senses and cleverness. My father was a trapper who feared nothing, but he taught us all to respect the järv, which is far more dangerous than its size would indicate."
Gerbald was approaching exhaustion and needed to take a breather himself. He covered this by asking the eager Marine to describe the animal. Upon hearing that he was fairly sure that the man was talking about the wolverine, which was not native to the Germanies, but he had read about them in Pam's books.
"An imposing creature indeed! Keep that wolverine nose of yours open wide, my friend. We will need whatever aid nature provides us with." Gerbald favored the man with a smile, but then his face turned grim again. "This might not be a good thing. Let us see how smart these bandits are."
They continued across the grassy expanse. Gerbald began to hear the gurgle of a slow moving current off to the right, along the bottom of a dark mass the flashlight revealed to be a densely wooded hillside. Gerbald's frown deepened as the trail brought them inexorably closer to the waterway.
Soon Gerbald's fear was realized; the trail ended at the river's edge, muddy footprints could be seen leading into the water. He scanned the far side with the light searching for signs of passage, but there were none.
"They are smarter than I like," he announced to the men in dark tones, "They have either moved upstream or downstream. The river is slow enough for either option. A hard trail to follow."
Torbjörn came to Gerbald's side, staring into the darkness beyond the river's far side.
"Is it impossible?" he asked, his voice low and filled with a heart-breaking sadness.
"No, my friend, never impossible. Difficult, yes. However, it is not something we can do in the darkness, even with the up-time light, which is already beginning to lose its power. We must stop here and wait for first light. It is only a few hours away. Besides, we need a rest. No doubt they have taken one by now. If we don't regain some of our strength we won't be able to do Pam any good anyway." He pointed the light to a copse of trees some twenty yards back from the bank. "We will camp in there, the trees will provide us some cover in case there are spies about. Come, let us eat and sleep while we can."
After finding a path in through thick underbrush they found a pleasant open space beneath the trees. Soon a small campfire sprang up, the copse being dense enough to hide its presence, and the men gathered around its sparking cheer. They ate their meal in silence. Dore had packed well, giving them far more than one day's worth of food to carry, the woman's intuition was uncanny. The men savored the simple, but delicious fare, eating enough to regain their strength, but reluctantly putting away the lion's share to save for the next day.
Gerbald leaned against a tree trunk, fairly sure that without its support he would keel over into the thick mat of leaves and twigs at his feet.
"I will take first watch," he said, forcing his drooping eyes to open wide in a futile bid to look hawkishly alert.
Doctor Durand stood up from his place by the fire and strode over to Gerbald in the officious and no-nonsense gait that an experienced physician learns to use when approaching a reluctant patient.
"You most certainly will not! Just looking at you I can see that you have reached the point of exhaustion. You have traveled farther, and been awake longer than we have, you must rest, now!" There was a definite note of finality in the doctor's tone. Still, Gerbald attempted to raise a protest, which the doctor quashed.
"Sergeant Gerbald, with all due respect, we need you awake and in good health so that you may lead us once more in the morning! Pam has appointed me chief medic of your expedition, entrusting me with the health of her people. Now, I'm sure you know what she would say about this, so go lie down!" By now the doctor's prominent nose was well under the brim of Gerbald's floppy mustard hat, his brown eyes commanding all of Gerbald's attention.
Gerbald put up his hands in a gesture of surrender, and gave the intense Frenchman a weak grin. "Aye aye, Doctor, it shall be as you say. I know you are right, I'm just a stubborn old soldier."
Doctor Durand's tone softened having achieved his aim. "I shall take first watch, accompanied by one of these Swedish gentlemen in case your trust in me is still in doubt."
"I'll stay up with you, Doctor. I couldn't sleep right now if I wanted to," a tired but still alert-looking Torbjörn said, stretching himself up to his considerable height with a groan.
Gerbald smiled, nodded his assent, and went to pass out in the leaf-littered earth under the closest tree, not bothering to make his usual nest. It felt like the best feather bed in the world to him, and three breaths later he was out.
Gerbald felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He mumbled in German to his wife to leave him alone and let him sleep another hour, but the hand didn't go away. Slowly he realized someone was talking to him, a male voice speaking Swedish. He opened one eye to peer out from beneath the brim of his hat to see cheerful Åke, his long-time companion from Redbird's crew, bent over him.
"I'm sorry, but you must get up now, Gerbald. It will be dawn shortly!" The sailor grinned merrily beneath his shaggy, strawberry blond beard, obviously enjoying having the rare jump on always-first-to-rise Gerbald.
Gerbald muttered his thanks in Swedish and pulled himself the rest of the way out of the Land of Nod. It was time to go back to work. Åke, a sailor, and his Marine shipmate, somber, dark-haired Sten, were well-versed in Pam Miller's survival methods, and had brewed a pot of coffee in a copper kettle over the coals. Everyone had a small Chinese porcelain cup packed carefully in their "lunch sacks," and they all enjoyed the happy bitterness of a hot cup of coffee as they waited for the sun in the hushed pre-dawn darkness.
"I'll recommend you two to Captain Pam for promotions," Gerbald told the Second Chance Bird crewmen, having become just as addicted to the drink as Pam over the years.
Järv and wide-shouldered Reling from the Muskijl sipped at theirs with a bit of trepidation, but soon decided they liked the stuff. Doctor Durand nodded his approval, sipping carefully so as not to allow the steam to cause his mustache's immaculate curlicues to droop. Maintaining their precise shape throughout their journey was something of a small miracle.
"I now see what all the fuss was about!" the doctor exclaimed. "No wonder the Americans were so desperate for this 'coffee' when they arrived in a century that has not yet fully realized its delicious potential. It's a truly marvelous taste, bitter, but with complex subtleties. It also contains a mild stimulant, I feel most refreshed!"
"Caffeine," Gerbald told him. "You'll soon find you can't live without it."
That caused the doctor to raise his eyebrows. They all took a last, longing drink, and then began breaking camp. Doctor Durand gave the sailors a disgusted scowl as they put out the fire in the ancient male way. "Efficient, yes. Sanitary? No!" he hissed to Gerbald in English, but this only made the German hunter chuckle.
"I thought you were a woodsman, Doctor!" he teased Durand.
"One can be a woodsman and still embrace a certain level of civilization, even in the antipodean wilderness!" Durand's disgusted tone softened then. "Still, one must confess that in my youth I relied on that brutish, yet expedient solution myself on occasion." Both men shared a quiet laugh as they made their way out of the trees into the dim purple light of the dawn meadows. The hunt was on again.