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Early August – Hunting Harshness

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“A cliff!  They’re going to drive them over a cliff, and us too!”

Mariah cursed also, and much more fluently than Bookworm had.  “What do we do?” she called.

“We’ll have to angle off,” Bookworm yelled back, “and hope that we reach the end of the herd before they reach us… and before we reach the cliff.  Dump your pack!” she added, fumbling behind her at the straps that held her camera and equipment in place.  It was the new camera, the one she’d bought in New York–hardly been used, but now she dropped it without a qualm.  Their horses were at enough of a disadvantage carrying them; any extra weight might make the difference between life and death.  As Mariah released her pack from the saddle, Bookworm took another look behind at the long line of buffalo.  “This way,” she called, angling her gelding to the left, silently praying that she’d chosen aright.

For several minutes, the two of them were crouched low, urging their steeds on with hand and rope, grass whipping beneath the pounding hooves.  Every glance at the stampeding herd showed it coming closer.  “They see us,” Mariah kept saying, looking at the airships still driving the buffalo forward.  “They *have* to see us!  Why aren’t they doing anything?!”

Bookworm suddenly straightened up, peering forward.  “There’s the cliff!” she yelled, pointing at it.  “Turn!”  They angled their horses further to the left until they were paralleling the edge of the cliff… and running perpendicular to the buffalo.  Bookworm bit her lip as the snorting, thundering animals, mad with fear, came rapidly closer and closer…

In the end, it was a close-run thing, but they made it.  Mariah’s mare skittered forward just in time to avoid being broadsided by the last buffalo in the line.  As she and Bookworm pulled up the exhausted horses, they heard the despairing bellows of the buffalo as they plunged over the edge.  Even as they dismounted, the last ones went over, driven by the three airships, one of which buzzed right over them.  Luckily, the horses were too exhausted to bolt at that provocation.

Bookworm and Mariah looked back, truly seeing the area for the first time.  A river meandered down from the hills, and had cut into the plain, creating a sheer cliff.  It wasn’t huge as cliffs go–only about 25-30 feet–but it was enough to be fatal for the buffalo, either from the fall itself or from the animals falling on top of them.  As they watched, they saw a few buffalo–those who had been among the last to fall–stagger away from the piles of dead animals.  Some of them managed to make it into a nearby thicket before the airships arced around and descended to the beach.

A dozen or so men emerged from the large airship, with two more from each of the two smaller airships that had flanked the herd.  With well-practiced motions, they opened a large hatch on the airship and began moving machinery near to the pile of dead buffalo.  Before they got very far, though, Mariah roared down at them, “What is *wrong* with you people?  Didn’t you see us?  What the hell are you using for eyes?”  She continued on in the same vein, calling into question their collective ancestry, intelligence, and prowess in various areas.

Unfortunately, the men seemed more amused than anything else by her tirade.  When she finally wound down, one of them called up, “Serves you right for being where you shouldn’t.  What the hell *were* you doing so close to a herd?”

“We were *watching* it, and appreciating it, not hunting it to extinction,” Mariah yelled back.  “What are you going to do when there are no more buffalo?”

“Oh, there’ll always be something to hunt,” the first man replied, making a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“Yeah, maybe we’ll come hunting you,” called another man.  Even at that distance, the leer in his face and voice was plain.  The other men roared with laughter.

Bookworm could feel Mariah ready to explode beside her, and laid a hand on her arm.  “They’re not worth it, Mariah,” she said softly.  “Let’s go back to camp.”

With one last glare down at the men, Mariah followed Bookworm away from the river, both of them ignoring the last jeering jibes from them.  They led their horses through the trampled grass that marked the herd’s path, Bookworm scanning the ground around them.  Finally, she found a few splintered pieces of wood that were all that was left of the camera tripod.  Of the camera itself, the photographic plates, and Mariah’s pack, there was no sign.

“Damn market hunters,” Bookworm muttered, casting aside the wood pieces.  She clucked at her gelding to follow her.

“Market hunters?” Mariah asked.  “What do you mean?”

“Believe it or not, the only thing they want out of that large pile of dead animals is the hide.  Buffalo hide is much in demand, both for coats and for machine belts in factories back east.”

“But the rest of it–the meat, the horns?”

“Except for fattening a few scavengers after the ships leave, it’ll all go to waste.”

Mariah shook her head in disbelief at the waste.  Bookworm looked at her shrewdly.  “There are parallels in your world.  Whalers used to process only the whale oil and baleen, discarding the meat.”

“I was never in favor of such practices,” Mariah replied.  Bookworm looked at her with surprise, and then respect, nodded her head in approval.  The rest of their walk back to camp was spent in silence, each thinking about what had happened.

As they packed up the rest of their belongings, Bookworm said, “I’m sorry about all of that.  I hope the rest of our trip will be less eventful than that.”

“Ahh, it’s hardly your fault,” Mariah replied.  “Where are we going next?”

“Clarkton.  It’s a small town in the mountains, about two days ride from here.  I spent some time there several years ago; I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”  With that, the two mounted, and let their horses set their own pace northwestward.

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