The tracks went up one row and down another, and in those rows the vua plants had been sheared off an inch or two above the ground. The raider had been methodical; it had not wandered about haphazardly, but had done an efficient job of harvesting the first ten rows on the west side of the field. Then, having eaten its fill, it had angled off into the bush—and that had not been long ago, for the soil still trickled down into the great pug marks, sunk deep into the finely cultivated loam.
Somewhere a sawmill bird was whirring through a log, and down in one of the thorn-choked ravines, a choir of chatterers was clicking through a ghastly morning song. It was going to be a scorcher of a day. Already the smell of desiccated dust was rising from the ground and the glare of the newly risen sun was dancing off the bright leaves of the hula-trees, making it appear as if the bush were filled with a million flashing mirrors.
Gavin Duncan hauled a red bandanna from his pocket and mopped his face.
"No, mister," pleaded Zikkara, the native foreman of the farm. "You cannot do it, mister. You do not hunt a Cytha."
"The hell I don't," said Duncan, but he spoke in English and not the native tongue.
He stared out across the bush, a flat expanse of sun-cured grass interspersed with thickets of hula-scrub and thorn and occasional groves of trees, criss-crossed by treacherous ravines and spotted with infrequent waterholes.
It would be murderous out there, he told himself, but it shouldn't take too long. The beast probably would lay up shortly after its pre-dawn feeding and he'd overhaul it in an hour or two. But if he failed to overhaul it, then he must keep on.
"Dangerous," Zikkara pointed out. "No one hunts the Cytha."
"I do," Duncan said, speaking now in the native language. "I hunt anything that damages my crop. A few nights more of this and there would be nothing left."
Jamming the bandanna back into his pocket, he tilted his hat lower across his eyes against the sun.
"It might be a long chase, mister. It is the skun season now. If you were caught out there...."
"Now listen," Duncan told it sharply. "Before I came, you'd feast one day, then starve for days on end; but now you eat each day. And you like the doctoring. Before, when you got sick, you died. Now you get sick, I doctor you, and you live. You like staying in one place, instead of wandering all around."
"Mister, we like all this," said Zikkara, "but we do not hunt the Cytha."
"If we do not hunt the Cytha, we lose all this," Duncan pointed out. "If I don't make a crop, I'm licked. I'll have to go away. Then what happens to you?"
"We will grow the corn ourselves."
"That's a laugh," said Duncan, "and you know it is. If I didn't kick your backsides all day long, you wouldn't do a lick of work. If I leave, you go back to the bush. Now let's go and get that Cytha."
"But it is such a little one, mister! It is such a young one! It is scarcely worth the trouble. It would be a shame to kill it."
Probably just slightly smaller than a horse, thought Duncan, watching the native closely.
It's scared, he told himself. It's scared dry and spitless.
"Besides, it must have been most hungry. Surely, mister, even a Cytha has the right to eat."
"Not from my crop," said Duncan savagely. "You know why we grow the vua, don't you? You know it is great medicine. The berries that it grows cures those who are sick inside their heads. My people need that medicine—need it very badly. And what is more, out there—" he swept his arm toward the sky—"out there they pay very much for it."
"I tell you this," said Duncan gently, "you either dig me up a bush-runner to do the tracking for me or you can all get out, the kit and caboodle of you. I can get other tribes to work the farm."
"No, mister!" Zikkara screamed in desperation.
"You have your choice," Duncan told it coldly.
He plodded back across the field toward the house. Not much of a house as yet. Not a great deal better than a native shack. But someday it would be, he told himself. Let him sell a crop or two and he'd build a house that would really be a house. It would have a bar and swimming pool and a garden filled with flowers, and at last, after years of wandering, he'd have a home and broad acres and everyone, not just one lousy tribe, would call him mister.
Gavin Duncan, planter, he said to himself, and liked the sound of it. Planter on the planet Layard. But not if the Cytha came back night after night and ate the vua plants.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Zikkara was racing for the native village.
Called their bluff, Duncan informed himself with satisfaction.
He came out of the field and walked across the yard, heading for the house. One of Shotwell's shirts was hanging on the clothes-line, limp in the breathless morning.
Damn the man, thought Duncan. Out here mucking around with those stupid natives, always asking questions, always under foot. Although, to be fair about it, that was Shotwell's job. That was what the Sociology people had sent him out to do.
Duncan came up to the shack, pushed the door open and entered. Shotwell, stripped to the waist, was at the wash bench.
Breakfast was cooking on the stove, with an elderly native acting as cook.
Duncan strode across the room and took down the heavy rifle from its peg. He slapped the action open, slapped it shut again.
Shotwell reached for a towel.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Cytha got into the field."
"A kind of animal," said Duncan. "It ate ten rows of vua."
"Big? Little? What are its characteristics?"
The native began putting breakfast on the table. Duncan walked to the table, laid the rifle across one corner of it and sat down. He poured a brackish liquid out of a big stew pan into their cups.
God, he thought, what I would give for a cup of coffee.
Shotwell pulled up his chair. "You didn't answer me. What is a Cytha like?"
"I wouldn't know," said Duncan.
"Don't know? But you're going after it, looks like, and how can you hunt it if you don't know—"
"Track it. The thing tied to the other end of the trail is sure to be the Cytha. Well find out what it's like once we catch up to it."
"The natives will send up someone to do the tracking for me. Some of them are better than a dog."
"Look, Gavin. I've put you to a lot of trouble and you've been decent with me. If I can be any help, I would like to go."
"Two make better time than three. And we have to catch this Cytha fast or it might settle down to an endurance contest."
"All right, then. Tell me about the Cytha."
Duncan poured porridge gruel into his bowl, handed the pan to Shotwell. "It's a sort of special thing. The natives are scared to death of it. You hear a lot of stories about it. Said to be unkillable. It's always capitalized, always a proper noun. It has been reported at different times from widely scattered places."
"No one's ever bagged one?"
"Not that I ever heard of." Duncan patted the rifle. "Let me get a bead on it."
He started eating, spooning the porridge into his mouth, munching on the stale corn bread left from the night before. He drank some of the brackish beverage and shuddered.
"Some day," he said, "I'm going to scrape together enough money to buy a pound of coffee. You'd think—"
"It's the freight rates," Shotwell said. "I'll send you a pound when I go back."
"Not at the price they'd charge to ship it out," said Duncan. "I wouldn't hear of it."
They ate in silence for a time. Finally Shotwell said: "I'm getting nowhere, Gavin. The natives are willing to talk, but it all adds up to nothing."
"I tried to tell you that. You could have saved your time."
Shotwell shook his head stubbornly. "There's an answer, a logical explanation. It's easy enough to say you cannot rule out the sexual factor, but that's exactly what has happened here on Layard. It's easy to exclaim that a sexless animal, a sexless race, a sexless planet is impossible, but that is what we have. Somewhere there is an answer and I have to find it."
"Now hold up a minute," Duncan protested. "There's no use blowing a gasket. I haven't got the time this morning to listen to your lecture."
"But it's not the lack of sex that worries me entirely," Shotwell said, "although it's the central factor. There are subsidiary situations deriving from that central fact which are most intriguing."
"I have no doubt of it," said Duncan, "but if you please—"
"Without sex, there is no basis for the family, and without the family there is no basis for a tribe, and yet the natives have an elaborate tribal setup, with taboos by way of regulation. Somewhere there must exist some underlying, basic unifying factor, some common loyalty, some strange relationship which spells out to brotherhood."
"Not brotherhood," said Duncan, chuckling. "Not even sisterhood. You must watch your terminology. The word you want is ithood."
The door pushed open and a native walked in timidly.
"Zikkara said that mister want me," the native told them. "I am Sipar. I can track anything but screamers, stilt-birds, longhorns and donovans. Those are my taboos."
"I am glad to hear that," Duncan replied. "You have no Cytha taboo, then."
"Cytha!" yipped the native. "Zikkara did not tell me Cytha!"
Duncan paid no attention. He got up from the table and went to the heavy chest that stood against one wall. He rummaged in it and came out with a pair of binoculars, a hunting knife and an extra drum of ammunition. At the kitchen cupboard, he rummaged once again, filling a small leather sack with a gritty powder from a can he found.
"Rockahominy," he explained to Shotwell. "Emergency rations thought up by the primitive North American Indians. Parched corn, ground fine. It's no feast exactly, but it keeps a man going."
"You figure you'll be gone that long?"
"Maybe overnight. I don't know. Won't stop until I get it. Can't afford to. It could wipe me out in a few days."
"Good hunting," Shotwell said. "I'll hold the fort."
Duncan said to Sipar: "Quit sniveling and come on."
He picked up the rifle, settled it in the crook of his arm. He kicked open the door and strode out.
Sipar followed meekly.
Thank you for reading!