BEHIND THEM THE HUBBUB of the meeting had stopped.
Silence fell over the war canoes lined with faces; the cluster of Raider chiefs on the shoreline; the people who had crept out to watch from the cliff. The sun was too bright to look at and was already boiling all the color out of the landscape. The world was holding its breath.
There would be no count, no signal. There were no rules, either. But there was tradition. The fight would start when the first man picked up his weapon. Mau’s spear and knife were on the sand in front of him. Ten feet away, Cox had laid down his guns only after a lot of argument.
Now it was just a case of watching the other man’s eyes.
Cox grinned at him.
Hadn’t every boy dreamed of this? To stand in front of the enemy? And they were all here together, under the white-hot sun, all the lies, all the fears, all the terrors, all the horrors that the wave had brought, all here and in mortal form. Here he could beat them.
And all that mattered was this: If you don’t dare to think you might, you won’t.
Mau’s eyes creaked with staring. He was nearly blinded by the fierce sunlight, but at least there were no more voices in his head –
It is a good day to die, said the voice of Locaha.
Mau’s arm shot out, hurling the handful of sand into Cox’s eyes. He didn’t wait – he just grabbed his knife and ran, listening to the cursing behind him. But you can’t cheat when there are no rules. He’d picked up his weapon when he’d put his spear down. He didn’t have to say he’d chosen the sand itself. It was a good weapon, too.
Don’t stop. Don’t look back, just keep running.
There wasn’t a plan. There had never been a plan. All there was was hope, but there was little enough of that, and there was something the ghost girl had taught
him on the very first day they met: Guns did not like water.
The lagoon was where he belonged right now, and he fled for it, dodging and weaving as much as he dared. The water was his world. Cox was a big, heavy man, and water would drag at his clothes. Yes!
He heard a shot fired, and a bullet sang past his head. But here was the lagoon and he dived in when the water was hardly above his knees. He would have to come up for air, but surely the man would not dare to come in after him?
Out toward the middle of the lagoon, where the damaged canoes were drifting, he stopped and made use of their cover to grab some more air. Then he peered around the canoe to find Cox – and he was right there on the shoreline, already sighting on him.
Mau dived, but Cox had expected that. Perhaps it was true. The man could see into people’s heads.
Mau turned to look back. He couldn’t help it. Men face their enemy, just once….
And what Mau saw was the bullet coming. It hit the water a few feet in front of him, trailing bubbles – and stopped inches from his face. He gently picked it out of the water as it started to fall, and then let it go and watched in wonder as it dropped to the sand.
How had that happened? Bullets really didn’t like water….
He climbed up to the surface for a mouthful of air and heard another bang as he dived again. He turned to watch the trail of bubbles head toward him, and the bullet bounced off his arm. Bounced! He hardly felt it!
He struck out for the gap into the deep water, which was half blocked with floating weeds today. At least it gave him some cover. But what had happened to the bullets? A bullet certainly hadn’t bounced off Ataba.