Free Luana by Alan Dean Foster

Book: Luana by Alan Dean Foster Read Free Book Online
Authors: Alan Dean Foster
household jobs, only to return later. The bearers had lunch, sat and watched. So did Isabel, Murin, and Albright.
    “How long can they keep it up?” she whispered, not knowing why she was whispering.
    “Depends on the men,” the Breeded replied. “And how evenly matched they are, and how great their reserves, and their determination. I once watched a pigana ua go on for two days. The loser got stung and died. He made one fatal mistake.”
    “What?” asked Isabel anxiously, fascinated by the spectacle despite herself.
    Murin took out a cigarette, lit it casually. “He fell asleep.”
    Nothing happened for an hour.
    Two. Three.
    Then, almost imperceptibly, Kobenene’s forearm began to dip, bending like a metal bar in a shaping press. It was a slow, gradual dip. Very slow. Not like earlier, when he’d caught Barrett off guard and unready. Both bodies wore a beaded coat of sweet, glistening. The sun flashed off Barrett’s back and the fat man’s forehead. A couple of the watchers murmured.
    Slowly the hand continued to drop. Five minutes passed. Ten.
    It was a few centimeters lower still. And in another five minutes, still lower. It dropped to within a thumb’s length of the scorpion on the other side. The ugly little arachnid seemed to dance impatiently in its cage of thorns, the deadly tail bobbing and weaving in the growing shadow.
    Kobenene stopped it there, gritting his teeth and putting all his huge bulk into it. Other than tightening his slight grimace a little, Barrett showed no sign of the effort he was expending. He couldn’t press the big man any further, but neither would he allow the other another centimeter’s breathing room.
    They lay like that, deadlocked. If Kobenene could raise his arm to the vertical again, now, he would gain a tremendous psychological advantage.
    He could. But Barret allowed him no respite, keeping an unrelenting pressure on, refusing to let the other man back up.
    “Tosha, tosha!” Kobenene blurted suddenly. His arm was vibrating with the strain like a too-taut rope. “Enough!”
    Slowly, carefully, Barrett released his grip, drawing his hand free and then pulling back. The chief darted forward quickly and cut the ropes binding the two men to the ground. Kobenene said nothing, only rose, rubbing his wrists, and walked away. There was no excitement among the dispersing locals, no cheering among the bearers.
    Murin tossed his partner a towel and Barrett began to rub the perspiration from his slick torso. He was completely exhausted.
    “Sunuvabitch was one strong character, Mur. He almost got me there at the start.”
    “Why did you let him up?” asked Isabel. Barrett hadn’t seen her approach, now looked down at her in surprise. He mopped at the back of his neck.
    “We settled what we had to settle. There was nothing to be gained by killing the man.”
    She didn’t seem convinced. “He wouldn’t have let you up.”
    “How do you know, Miss Hardi?” asked Murin.
    “Well, because he . . . he—”
    “Because he’s a native,” finished Barrett. “An African. A black man, maybe.”
    “I didn’t say that!”
    “I know,” Barrett sighed, “I know.” He took a long draught of water from a canteen, dumped the rest of it over his head. The village might be poor but the central well, thank god, was located far enough away from the huts to stay uncontaminated. The water here was good. At least they’d be able to fill up before starting the long trek into the jungle. The water trickled cool, cool down his spine.
    “But it’s what you thought, deep down. No, don’t bother to deny it. It wouldn’t matter. You’re not responsible for what you think.”
    No one so much as mentioned the incident when the troop got underway the following morn. This tacit avoidance in itself shocked Isabel. It wasn’t the way people were supposed to react following a fight to the death. For all the effect it seemed to have had, the men might as well have been playing cards. This was

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