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The Slaves of Thrift

Watcher with a Knife

THE FULL MOON DOMINATED the cloudless eastern sky. Here, at 10,000 feet above sea level, the air was so clear and pure there didn’t seem to be a particle of dust or grime between moon and earth. Every feature on the moon’s surface stood out in sharp relief. Its light was amplified as it reflected off the still water of the small lake, the white boulders that circled the water and the granite faces of the mountains to the northwest.

A hundred lanterns could scarce have illuminated the campsite any better. Six two-person tents were pitched on a grassy verge by the southeast side of the lake. The campfire that had been burning robustly 45 minutes earlier had been doused, and not a hint of smoke remained in the air. The pack horses, tied up at the south end of the campsite, were largely still and silent.

Well concealed behind a clump of boulders 20 feet above the edge of the lake, the watcher with a knife sized up the situation for what must have been the tenth time in the last half hour. Cradling the knife in sensitive hands with long, thin fingers, the watcher went through a mental checklist point by point.

The campfire had been doused half an hour ago. In another 15 minutes, everyone should be asleep.

The moon was bright enough that no flashlight was needed.

There was no wind at the moment, and the stray breezes of the past half hour had come from the west to southwest. The watcher should be downwind from the horses.

The tents were laid out in a slight semicircle, and the one the watcher was interested in was second from the right. A tent at either end would have been better, but there was no helping that now. All the more reason for stealth and silence.

The luminous dial on the wristwatch indicated there were ten minutes left until strike time. Was there anything else to be considered?

Rattlesnakes.

The watcher jerked upward with a start. Probably not at this elevation, but there was no way to look it up now. But I’ll be stepping carefully to avoid making noise, the watcher thought. That should be enough.

Ten minutes slowly ticked by.

At last it was time. Sheathing the knife, which had been painstakingly sharpened, the watcher rose and began the approach to the encampment. The first obstacle was the descent to lake level. This involved traversing several patches of loose rock, planting a foot carefully with every step. Once, the watcher dislodged a couple of stones, which rattled as they moved. To the watcher, it sounded like cannon fire, but that was nerves. Nothing stirred in the vicinity of the tents, and the horses didn’t get restless, so the watcher continued the methodical advance.

The last patch of loose rock ended 120 feet from the camp, and the watcher was now on densely packed soil near the grassy verge. There was a temptation to speed up, but it had to be tamed. Every step had to be taken cautiously, and a constant vigil had to be maintained against someone coming out of a tent.

Finally the watcher reached the first tent on the left and paused to listen. No one was talking. No one was tossing and turning. Two low-level snores, distinct in timbre and cadence, were clearly audible, but it was impossible to tell from which tent or tents they were coming.

The plan had been to walk around the back of the tents, rather than in front, where the fire pit and tent flaps were. The watcher saw no reason to amend the plan and stepped cautiously to the gap between the second and third tents from the right. Only one of the snorers was still going, and otherwise all was as silent as it should have been.

Five more careful steps, and the watcher was kneeling in front of the flap of the second tent. Out of the sheath came the knife, and its blade glinted in the bright moonlight. After taking several deep, quiet breaths, trying to suck as much oxygen as possible from the thin mountain air, the watcher reached out to open the tent flap.

From behind, a hand clamped down on the watcher’s shoulder.

 

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