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On a cool spring day in the middle of May, Aaron's broom cast small swirls of dust into the air while he swept the boardwalk in front of his store. The dust rose around him, small particles hanging in the air, glistening beneath a noon day sun, but Aaron did not care about the beauty of a tranquil moment. Instead, he swept and sweated while Wagon Master Beech watched Marshal Townsend hang two of his Mover women from the tall oak tree outside the bank. Trouble was unlikely. This batch of Movers were mostly Zorists, believers in a single god, and Zorists were not normally known to cause difficulties, but this wagon train also contained a number of Opportunists and even a few Elitists. Because of this, town militia stood on roofs, in doorways, and in the street to stop any trouble the other Movers might cause. Last Chance had learned long ago that it always paid to be safe.
Sarah Townsend's sun darkened features were set into hard lines when she instructed six randomly chosen citizens to haul on the two ropes that were wrapped around the condemned women's necks. The women rose high, kicked, and struggled, and then they died because women in Last Chance protected their sons. Looking lost and confused, Pate Moody stood off to the side, fourteen and strong, his bruised face a study of guilt and relief. He watched the women die and with their deaths he became free again.
Pate was a farmer's son. His job was to milk cows. When the cows complained earlier that morning of full udders, Mistress Wim Moody realized her son had troubles. Knowing there were Movers nearby and not being a fool, she called her two co-wives and her husband, and they followed the road for threemiles until they saw mules ground hitched near a small woods. Deep inside the woods they found their son tied to a tree, his face twisted in pain while he tried to break the thick ropes holding him. A young blond Elitist woman and her older companion stood by his side, garlands in their arms, smiling while they said the words of a common law marriage. Hard branches applied liberally to his bare back assured that Pate voiced his part of the ceremony.
Once discovered, Pate was soon freed of the ropes, but the words had been said, and so he was irrevocably bonded to the two women. Laughing, the captured women confessed that they were Movers who belonged with Beech's wagon train. Despite the capital nature of their crime they were positive that their Elitist beliefs and family connections would win them free of any repercussions from this backward town.
But they were wrong.
And so Aaron swept while two women died because in this land where women were four times as plentiful as men, there was no such thing as divorce no matter the conditions in which the bonds were formed. Because of this, death was the only option the law allowed when a man was forced into marriage against his will, and the Moodies demanded justice.
Beech nodded when the women stopped kicking, and then he turned his dark-eyed gaze to Mistress Golard, the mayor. Scowling, he ran work roughened fingers across the thin short graying bristles of his two day old beard. "Are we straight now?"
Mistress Golard's narrowed eyes roamed over the length of wagons filling the street. Her frown drew the creases near her lips into deeper lines when her gaze shifted to the hanging women. "We're through."
There were twenty-one wagons, Aaron knew. He had counted them and then counted them again because Movers and wagons made him nervous. During the year he had lived in Last Chance he had heard the stories. Two years earlier, Movers from a train just like this had attacked the town, burned buildings, and killed people before the town rallied and fought them off. When questioned, the surviving captives admitted they wanted easy land. They did not want to travel on through Banner's Loop, the only known mountain pass, because even though the Loop led to rich land, it also led to savage tribes and early death. Rumor said less than half of all Movers who made the journey survived a year. Very few people returned through Last Chance to say if those rumors were true. Beech, a few other Wagon Masters, and two wagons holding six children were the only returnees Aaron had ever seen.
"They were two of my best people," Beech said. "I had plans for them."
"Now you can bury them," Sarah Townsend told him. She gestured towards her conscripts. "Lower the ropes."
Wheeling away from the bodies, Beech saw Aaron and spat on the ground. Aaron frowned and swept while worms of worry churned in his gut. A year previously, on a hellishly hot day shortly after Aaron had arrived in Last Chance, he and Beech had shared hard words within minutes of Beech leading a much smaller batch of Movers into the town. The matter had begun with little more than a brushing of shoulders that Beech, large and burly, had barely noticed. Aaron had fallen from the contact because he was slight and small and had not yet built up his strength after years of being a cripple. After painfully struggling to his feet, Aaron gave his temper full rein at Beech's expense. Beech had listened for a few moments and nodded agreeably before shoving Aaron back to the ground with contemptuous ease. The next day Beech had deliberately swerved from his path to bump into Aaron again.
Four days later, his Movers in tow, Beech continued towards the mountains. Aaron had not seen him since, but apparently, Beech still held a grudge.
Still attached to the wagons, mules snorted and shifted in their traces while flies droned around their heads. Movers stayed in their wagons. Some looked quiet and subdued. Others appeared angry. All held weapons. Staffs, spears, some bows but only three women in Aaron's sight carried a sword.
"Mamma," a voice called from inside one of the wagons, "Harbor keeps hitting me!"
"Harbor Patton, I've had enough of you!"
Four, Aaron counted silently to himself while more worry worms writhed in his belly. Three other groups of Movers had traveled through the town in the past month. Last Chance fit its name well. Past this town there were no settlements before the trail reached the mountains. This town was their last chance to buy supplies, to rest their mules, and repair their wagons, and it was their last chance to change their minds.
Aaron tried to act relaxed as he swept and watched. A person never knew when trouble was coming at the best of times. Colonel Klein and circumstances had taught him that. This was not the best of times. Two Movers had been hanged, and the people of Last Chance wore too many scars because of Movers and savages. Almost every townsperson's nerves had to be raw.
"We've covered a fair piece of ground these last few weeks," Beech said. "Mules are tired. Wagons need repair. We're asking permission to set up camp outside town for a few days. Now, we'll move on if you insist, but there are people and mules here what need the rest. We got children, and I promise nobody else will cause problems."
Frowning thoughtfully, Mistress Golard looked toward Marshal Townsend. Miss Townsend nodded, but her eyes were narrow.
"Same place as before," the mayor said. "Quarter mile down the road. Plenty of graze last I saw, and the water is still clear. Keep to the clearing. No more than six men can enter town at a time. Unarmed women and kids are welcome in any number."
"Obliged." Returning to his wagon, Beech climbed in. He grabbed his reins, clicked his tongue, and his mules groaned as they leaned once more into their traces. Their pace was dispirited, but they pulled, and the other wagons followed.
Aaron smiled at two children peering from under raised canvas walls. Walking a dozen paces down the boardwalk so he could catch up with them, he reached into his apron pocket and tossed half a dozen wax wrapped packets of lemon drops into the back of their wagon.
"Harbor, let me have some. Mammaaa! Harbor is taking all the..."
Turning, Aaron walked back to his store and allowed the twisting worms in his belly to settle. Trouble was averted, but two women had died. There would be tears tonight and silent curses in the town because Last Chance was a quiet place and peaceful. Its people were not used to serious lawbreakers and hangings except when Movers arrived.
Hard heels rapping sharply against the floor, Mistress Golard entered his store moments later. Aaron nodded to her as she squared her shoulders and sucked in the slight bulge of her middle-aged gut.
"Mister Turner, it's a wonder how you make a decent profit from this place when you keep giving your goods away." Her voice sounded subdued, sad. "I believe I saw you passing candy off to some children not too long ago."
"I get by, Mistress Golard," Aaron said. "I wanted the children to remember something besides a hanging."
She nodded and frowned. "I'm not sure anything can make this day look brighter. That was a bad business, sir. Bad." Gesturing slightly, she looked around the store and then back at him. "Mister Turner, you've been here for a year now. You've run your business and minded your business, and people generally like you. Now I'll admit that I had some doubts at first. You looked like a sneaky sort of fellow, all thin and wasted and not willing to look people in the eye, but I've been proved wrong--and not for the first time."
"I was sick for a very long time," Aaron explained. "More than a decade."
Mistress Golard tried to smile, failed. "I helped hang two people today, and I don't feel good about it so I have to do something to improve matters. I wanted to wait another couple days to tell you this, but I have to do it now."
Aaron stilled. "This sounds important."
Steady eyes pinned him. "You're no fool. Some people have approached me with a complaint. It seems that in all the time you have been with us you've never attended a town meeting. This is considered very antisocial around here, Mister Turner. Very antisocial."
"Town meetings set town policy," Aaron said. "You made it evident early on that you didn't want a newcomer there. I agreed with the sentiment. A person should not have a say until they have proved themselves."
She snorted. "Excuses. If you had been at the last meeting you could have protected yourself. Now it's too late. A proclamation has been passed against you."
He raised an eyebrow and felt the worms return.
"You are ordered to present yourself at the next meeting. Understand?"
"Completely," Aaron said, and the worms bit down because this could be nothing less than his unofficial acceptance by the town's leaders.
"Good." The weight of Mistress Golard's eyes lessened. "See you at the next meeting."
She left just as Mister Moody came through the door with Pate in tow. Moody was a large man who farmed and earned extra money by building outhouses and selling milk. Though usually affable, his expression was dour while he arranged to sell Aaron fifty gallons of milk. Moody hung around the store afterward. He talked of the different styles of outhouses, the proper construction and placement, the types of wood best used, and the best sized holes to cut for the seat openings. Meanwhile, Pate remained silent. Risking a glance, Aaron saw that guilt resided in his eyes.
Moody left just before Aaron's next customer pulled up in a flatbed wagon.
The Wagon Master looked around the store and then fastened his eyes on Aaron. Rancid waves of stale sweat and the heavy scent of mules rose from him. "Every time I see you, you're looking. You some kind of spy?"
"That's me," Aaron admitted, knowing he would not be believed. "Aaron Turner, International Spy. I'm planning on taking over the world."
"More likely you work for the savages," Beech said. His eyes flicked to a bronze sword hung on the wall behind the counter. "You use that, or is it just for show?"
"For sale," Aaron answered. "If I tried to use it, I'd end up hurting myself."
"Figures." The Master grunted disapproval. "Thing like that ain't just for show. Man owns a sword he should be able to use it. I need supplies."
"It's what I'm in business for."
"Wasn't sure if you were still mad at me about that little spat we had. I need three hundred pounds of flour and two hundred of potatoes. You got that?"
"It's in the back."
"Good." Curling his upper lip slightly, the Master spat on the floor. "I need twenty hams too, and I've a harness to replace. Need a couple of spare wheels, a bit of canvas and some wheel grease."
"Everything can be provided locally." Although distaste curdled Aaron's stomach when he looked at the wet spot on his floor, he decided not to say anything. Beech had reason to feel surly today. "But a couple of the items will take a bit of effort to get."
"Now I won't be paying no jumped up prices to this town. Do you hear? I'll pay fair and not one copper more. I won't allow no thieving townies to steel me blind after they hung my best people."
"You'll get the same price from me that I charge the locals," Aaron said shortly. "And I'll tell you what, the other locals will treat you just the same unless you go insulting them in a like manner or steal their sons."
Frowning, Beech shook his head slightly. "Fair 'nough, I suppose. Seems like a man places an order this large he should get some kind of discount." He gestured toward a display case. "Those knives look fair different." Leaning forward, he peered at them more closely. "Damn near look to be made of silver."
"It's a new metal," Aaron said stiffly, feeling offended by the man's attitude and his use of foul language inside town limits. Hanging or not, Sarah Townsend would have fined or jailed Beech if she had heard him curse. "They call it steel. Supposed to hold its edge better than bronze. Won't bend or break as easily either."
"Well now, do you suppose I could have a look at one of those things?"
Aaron unlocked the case and opened it. The Master reached in and pulled out an eight inch knife, sharp edged and saw toothed along a third of its back spine.
"Supposed to be this and supposed to be that," he said. "I've heard sale pitches before. How does it stack up in real life?"
"It's good enough to cost six full silvers, one and a half gold. Expensive, but a leather sheath comes with it."
"Six one and a half! Damn! I can buy a good custom-made knife sixty times over for that price."
"It's a rare knife."
"Too rare for me." Beech set the knife back on top of the case. "I'll leave the wagon out front for loading. What do I owe?"
"One moment." Aaron figured prices quickly, added an extra ten-percent despite what he had said earlier because he really did not like the man. He passed the figure over. Appearing satisfied, the Wagon Master nodded.
"Better than I expected," he reluctantly admitted. "Look, sorry about how I sounded a bit back. I ain't the best when it comes to talk."
Aaron refused to touch the subject. "The harness maker is five doors to your right on this side. The wheelwright is at the far end of the street. He will have your canvas, too. The hams will be harder to come by. I'll have to send out word at the inn. It will be tomorrow before I get an answer back."
"Good 'nough. I'll be back in a couple hours." Beech stuck out his hand. "Name's Haarod Beech."
Aaron reluctantly shook the hand. "I know. I asked around the last time you were here. Aaron Turner."
"Then good day to you, Master Turner."
Beech left, and Aaron spent the next twenty minutes putting the order together. He spent another fifteen minutes loading it. Finished, he locked up the money box just as Cathy Bayne stepped in. She was fifteen, brunette and thin as a waif, and her voice lacked its usual good humor.
"Do you want me to watch the store today?" Cathy studied the store shelves a moment and then turned her eyes back to him.
"Just for an hour," Aaron answered.
"Good, Missy and Doyle will be here by then, and sir, could I speak to you later? When you're not busy."
"Sure." Aaron watched her put on an apron before he stepped out of the store and saw a wagon roll by, two bodies laid out in the back.
The Traveler's Rest provided meals and had a few rooms to let. For the most part, the rooms mostly remained empty except when an unmarried pairing wanted someplace private and discreet. Mistress Flo Halfax, co-owner of the inn, never spoke or spread rumors, and the town, as a whole, preferred it that way.
As usual, the Rest smelled of hot bread and spices. Aaron gratefully breathed in the aroma when he walked through the doors. Moments after he sat down, Flo arrived at Aaron's table. "Ann's got the day off, and Dan's already fixing your usual. Did you hear? Three more wagons joined the Movers already. That makes twenty-four wagons at the clearing altogether. Pretty big group."
Aaron frowned. "No, I hadn't heard."
"Movers make me nervous," Flo confessed. "I was here that day they attacked. Marshal Townsend saved my life. She killed a man who wanted to stick me with his sword, and then I killed a woman with my cleaver." Her voice lowered. "I never killed nobody before. I should have nightmares about it, but the truth is I'm glad I killed her." Flo's haunted eyes saw something distant, and her voice died out. "Bun helped me get through it."
Shaking herself, she forced a smile. "Sorry. This hanging thing got me. How's business been?"
Mistress Halfax obviously needed a change of subject. Shrugging away her question, Aaron watched her, noting the uncomfortable way she moved. "Do you still take aspirin for your back?"
Dramatically rubbing her back, Flo chuckled. "Ha! Do I ever. Aches day and night."
"I might be able to help you some, but I'll have to talk frankly on some very personal matters."
"Honey," Flo said archly, "I'll give you a minute by minute account of how I gave birth to my three dead boys and a second by second account of how I came by them if you can help me take the ache out of this thing."
"Well--uh." Feeling warm and prickly, Aaron suddenly wondered if this was a good idea. "I--uh--I noticed that you are somewhat more--well, more blessed than most women. Quite a bit more blessed."
She laughed again, drawing eyes and making Aaron even warmer. "Love, everyone has noticed my blessings. It's hard to miss that I got the biggest dugs around. Been times I thought these babies put bruises on my knees." She looked fondly down at herself. "Still, these old ladies made me first wife to two different husbands, an' ain't many gals who can claim that."
"Uh--right," Aaron said, wondering who was embarrassing whom with frank talk. His face felt hot. "I have some apparel in the store that might help your back some. At least that's what the ads say. It's supposed to hold your--umm--hold you--and distribute the weight so you are not being pulled forward all the time. I'll give you a free sample. It might help, and if it works you can tell your friends. If I don't sell any we will just call the garment payment for all the meals you served me."
"As if you haven't paid for them and more. I'll try it though. Mind you," she said, gazing once more at her front. "I won't have you putting this thing on me, not unless you got intentions for something more."
"Never--I mean I wouldn't presume."
She patted Aaron's cheek with a heavy hand. "You're fun to play with dear, but I like you too much to get serious. Bun and me, we're done with all that now. Spent thirty years as co-wives and are happy just being friends. Besides, if you tumble me you have to take her too, and honey, old as we are, the two of us would kill you."
Aaron released a sigh when she left. The people watching them turned their eyes away and continued with their conversations.
She brought him pancakes, lightly buttered, with strawberry jam. Two eggs rested on a separate plate and warm milk filled a pewter cup. Along with breakfast came a two copper dreadful he had worked on for the last week. Only halfway through the book, he was sure the gardener was the culprit, but the peddler seemed to show up at suspicious times, and there was a mysterious stranger hanging around town.
Aaron devoted only half his attention to reading. As always, this was his chance to observe normal people living normal lives, something he'd had little personal experience with until he'd left Field's Militia in Jefferson and arrived in Last Chance.
The customers in the inn reflected the surrounding population. More than three quarters of its patrons were female. The low birth and high mortality rate of male children made women the more numerous sex. Even with the custom of multiple wives, barely more than two out of three women ever got married. The other women either found female pair-mates or lived alone.
Warmth and friendliness permeated the environs, reflecting the general good cheer throughout the entire town. Even after living in Last Chance for more than a year, Aaron found himself slightly bemused by the whole thing. Normal everyday life was a mystery. People confused him.
He mentioned the Wagon Master's need for smoked hams to two farmers. Three people asked if he was going to the dance and smiled when he answered with a shrug. When they left he turned to the neighboring table and spoke to Mister Townsend, the miller and the Marshal's father. Besides ordering another five hundred weight of flour and two hundred of meal, he learned that he had been drafted into the home militia. Since he owned one of only five swords in the town, Sarah Townsend would give him lessons in its use every other day for the next few months. She had spent two years on the New Madrid border so she had more personal experience with swords and combat than anyone else in town.
The miller winked at Aaron when he gave Aaron the news. "Should be interesting for you. My daughter's a fine looking woman."
"An almost married woman," Aaron replied. "I heard Steven Knight has been hanging around her of late."
"Mister Knight can hang around all he likes," Mister Townsend said firmly. "He better not be thinking of any more than that. I won't have a hotheaded wastrel like him in the family. I doubt Sarah would accept him anyway. No, I'm afraid she's going to be one of those gals who stay single their entire lives. The Lord and Lady knows she ain't exactly young anymore. The gal is right near thirty as it is."
"If it weren't for irritable fellows like you," Flo said as she passed by, "half the people out there wouldn't want to be single. Now Aaron here, a man like Aaron could make an old widow swoon. A couple winks from his liquid brown eyes would make me feel young again. Just you wait. Once Sarah gets used to seeing them she won't see nothing else."
"Irritable," Mister Townsend said, his voice disbelieving.
"Irritable I said, and irritable I mean," Flo reiterated, but her eyes were laughing, and the hand she chucked his chin with was gentle.
Smiling, the miller left. Others stopped by to chat far more frequently than even good manners could account for. The attention made Aaron nervous. Although he had studied how to be openly friendly, he had little experience with having people seek him out. Three women passed his table in a group. Pausing briefly, they looked at him speculatively and moved on. The questions behind their looks made him even more nervous. His job was to make these people like him. He did not want to like them back.
The end of breakfast was almost a relief. Murder at the Manor was only ten pages closer to being finished. He gave the book back to Flo to keep for him. Being an incessant reader, a book in the store would not last Aaron a day. Reading for his own pleasure was a recently gained experience, and he did not want anything to rush his enjoyment. The town possessed very few books, so he needed to preserve the ones he owned and draw them out to a slow conclusion. Maybe he should buy a few more and stock them in the store. They might not sell for full price, but he could always read them before he set them out.
The three Bayne children were anxiously waiting when he got back to the store. At fifteen, Cathy was the most useful. A hard worker, she made sure eleven-year-old Missy and seven-year-old Doyle stayed out of Aaron's way while she worked. An hour's labor dusting shelves, sweeping and arranging earned them six coppers seven bits, just short of the ten coppers needed for a half gold.
Cathy seemed unusually nervous. Looking at him out of the corner of her dark brown eyes, she dusted for half an hour, voice tense as she admonished Missy to be sure to straighten all the jars and Doyle please stay off the shelves. "Take the broom and sweep please."
Aaron watched her performance until his nerves could not take it anymore.
"Miss Bayne," he finally said, "could you come here please?"
Eyes twitching, fingers trembling slightly, she hurried over to him. Aaron noticed for the first time that she wore pressed clothes. Her long brown hair was braided, and she smelled strongly of lye soap. Nervous hands patted and brushed at the new creases in her faded pants and blouse, pushing material back in place, accentuating her almost painfully thin body and rather impressive breasts.
"Miss Bayne, you seem nervous."
"Oh." She bit her lower lip, smearing cheap lipstick. "It's just ... well ... I hear Mistress Townsend starts training you tomorrow afternoon, and you will work with the militia too."
Aaron shook his head. "News travels fast. You don't have to worry. I'll still pay you to do your chores."
"Yes sir. I know. I mean that's what I want to talk to you about. About work." She stamped her foot in frustration. "Ohhh. I am doing this all wrong. I'm sorry, Mister Turner. I won't bother you. Doyle! Keep the dirt outside the store."
Aaron sighed. "Come out with it Miss Bayne. I promise I won't be angry. Is it money? Do you want more?"
She turned back to him, her motions quick and jerky. Her mouth opened, closed, and opened once again.
"Yes," she finally said, "or no. I mean you pay us twice what you should, and we really thank you, and Mistress Halfax said I should do more only you haven't let us, and I feel bad, and your store needs to be open to sell so--" Pausing, she drew in a deep breath.
Aaron fought down an impulse to grab her shoulders and give her a shake. He succeeded, remembering he had to observe the proprieties.
"Well," she began again, "if you can't be in the store, I wondered if I could. Run it I mean. While you are gone--and I can be here when you breakfast too. I know what you charge for almost everything, and I can be trusted. Please?"
She bounced on her toes, mouth pursed hopefully. Missy and Doyle were suddenly quiet.
Sometimes, Aaron realized, changes happen very quickly in Last Chance. Unfortunately, some of those changes required him to make a decision. How would it look to the town if he accepted? What would they think if he refused? What about the Militia's plans?
"I'd like to think about this for a bit. Just give me a few minutes, and I'll let you know."
"Oh yes sir. Of course. Thank you."
Thank you? Almost as if he had already accepted her offer. Did his saying he would think about it imply acceptance?
"Hello Storeman." Haarod Beech entered through the doorway and approached Aaron. "Got my orders in, and thank you for all your help. Looked at the goods you sold me. Everything looks fine."
Forcing a smile, Aaron nodded. "Service is the motto here at the Last Chance General Store."
"Sure it is, and I'd like another look at that knife."
Wordlessly, Aaron unlocked the case and retrieved the knife. Handing it over, he stepped back.
Beech studied it intently, turning it around and once cutting his finger on its edge. Pulling a stick from his back pocket, he carved free a few slivers of wood. Then he pulled a rock from his right trouser pocket and tapped the blade.
Beech cocked his head, listening, tapped the blade twice more and paused to let the stone rest against the metal.
"A very curious thing," he said, handing the knife back. "Perhaps I could see a couple of the others."
"Certainly." Aaron put the knife back in the case and reached for another just as Cathy released a small cry and fell onto the milk urn.
Instantly abandoning his task, Aaron jumped forward to catch her, changed his mind and grabbed for the tipping urn. He missed, banging it with the back of his wrist, furthering the speed of its fall. It hit with a sharp thud, splattering milk across the floor, drenching Beech's legs from thigh to ankle.
"Hey," Aaron exclaimed. "Miss Bayne! Sir. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--."
Hand held close to her side, Cathy huddled in on herself. "I'm a clumsy fool. Sir--I'm sorry about your pants. I can--I can clean them or--"
"Never mind! I've seen what I need to see." Scowling, the Master stamped out the door, drops of milk shaking free with each heavy step.
"Miss Bayne, are you injured?"
"No, Mister Turner." Cathy straightened. Her face showed satisfaction and a touch of gloating, but anger narrowed her eyes. "I'm not hurt. I just--I had to get rid of that man. He's bad, sir. Real bad. He had a Talent Stone."
"Stone?" Aaron shook milk off his sodden feet, only now noticing the small figures of Missy and Doyle hiding in a corner. "What about the stone?"
"A man with a Talent Stone killed my daddy."
What the hell is a Talent Stone? Aaron wondered.
Sweat beaded faintly on Cathy's forehead. Her bottom lip quivered and her fingers trembled. "I'll clean up the mess, sir, and pay for it."
"No." The girl was the next thing to broke. "Clean it up, and I'll cover the cost. You start tomorrow. Come early, and I'll show you what to do. Two and a half gold a day."
Talent Stones? Obviously, this was something General Field needed to know about. How much other information was Aaron missing? He needed an oblivious information source, and by the looks of it, Cathy Bayne would do. An employee could answer questions and not be suspicious. A young employee too afraid to question the ignorance of her boss was perfect.
Relief shinning from her eyes, Cathy flashed him a bright smile. Aaron smiled weakly back. The thought of using her to help promote Field's plan made him feel like shit, but that was the lot of an inept military spy.
"Peterson! You shoot like that in a fight, and you'll be nothing but dead. Pull the damn thing over to the bull and settle down."
Peterson squeezed off another shot.
"I told you to settle down."
Looking up from his prone position, Peterson glared at Johnston. "I didn't miss by that much. It would have killed a man."
Smiling grimly, Johnston nodded. "Yeah, it would have hit a man in a fight--if you had pointed that thing straight and not flinched any more than you did just now. Do you think you can hold still when the savages are closing in, when crossbow bolts and arrows are pouring around you, when some savage wants to shove a sword into your gut? Can you remain steady when you're sweating and shaking and your bowels want to blow? Do you think you can trust yourself right now, knowing that your life, and the lives of your buddies, depends on your ability to hit a target hard on the first shot?"
"I won't freeze," Peterson insisted, but there was sweat on his brow.
"I've seen it happen, boy. I've counted the bodies. I've seen where one weak man got an entire squad killed."
The boy glared defiance. "I have it. When the time comes, you'll see that I have it!"
Johnston glanced at the other recruits. "What do you think?"
They looked at each other uneasily. Paxton shrugged and smiled insolently. "He'll have it. We all will. We already have it."
"Do you have it?" he demanded of Peterson again.
"Yes sir, Sergeant."
"You think so?" Johnston smiled wickedly. "Are you willing to put your faith to the test? I'm telling you right now that you better not. I think you won't cut it. I think you're a coward."
Peterson glared, but Johnston saw his fingers twitch and his face pale. "Just try me."
"There'll be no backing out. I won't allow it."
Peterson spat. The other recruits gave him the eye, reevaluating him. Johnston could almost see Peterson's thoughts. If he backed down now, he would be forever on the bottom of the Militia's testosterone hierarchy.
"I can take anything you hand out," Peterson said with firm determination.
A paternal smile crossed Johnston's face. "So be it. Stay here. The rest of you wait by the mess hall. You'll see everything from there. Go on."
"Sir?" Paxton asked.
"Just do it."
Appearing uneasy, they looked at one another, nodded, and made their way to the mess. Johnston noted that two of them refused to lay down their weapons when they moved away. Showed promise, those two. Most of the lads showed promise, unlike Peterson. That lad lacked nerve and the ability to listen.
"Stand up. Wait there," he ordered Peterson. Peering up at the sun, he judged its angle and walked directly in its direction. Since there was no breeze the air felt still against his skin. The temperature was cool, the way he liked it during these moments, still and quiet, with a chill snap and a sharp tang that made his nerves sharp.
After walking thirty yards he turned to look at Peterson. "All right lad. Here's the time to show your nerve. Prove yourself a man."
"Sir," Even from this distance, Johnston could see Peterson's sweat. The man shook, shading his eyes with one hand so he could make Johnston out in the sun's glare. The sight made Johnston want to puke. Peterson was the worst of this lot, a dreamer driven by ideals instead of pragmatic self-interest. Of course, that was why Johnston had chosen him. Different instructors used their own methods to get across the point that Field's Militia was serious business. Johnston had decided long ago that he preferred this method. It was, he thought, the most effective one of all. It had the added benefit of making his blood flow faster, of making the day just a little bit brighter.
"Prove yourself," Johnston called out. "You get two free shots, and then I'm going to kill you."
"I'm serious. Start shooting."
Predictably, Peterson did not shoot. Ashen faced and goggle-eyed, his rifle dangled at the end of his arms as if the thing were nothing more than a useless stick. Johnston wasn't surprised. By design, all his victims were people who froze in a crisis. The last thing he wanted was to kill off one of the good ones. Peterson was not good. Hell, the kid probably thought inaction would win him a reprieve. Most of them thought that.
Causally pulling his pistol, Johnston leveled it, waited a moment, and then shot the kid in his leg. Yelping, Peterson leaped and cursed, and then he dropped his rifle and stood, staring with hypnotic fascination at the bore of Johnston's pistol. The kid seemed mesmerized. No survival instincts at all. None.
Disgusted, Johnston tucked his pistol away. Peterson was a waste. That bullet had done no more than cut a little groove along the side of his leg, but it had been enough to make the kid's mind freeze.
"The next one goes straight through your brain," Johnston called across the distance. "I advise you to pick up your rifle and take your free shots." He made sure to raise his voice loud enough so the recruits standing by the mess could hear.
Peterson licked his lips. "Sir, I don't want to do this."
Frowning slightly, Johnston shook his head sadly. "Sorry lad. There's no way out for you. I warned you of that. You took the challenge. Now you have to be a man and carry it through. Start shooting."
Moving with frightened deliberation, Peterson stooped and collected his rifle. Juggling it clumsily, he brought it to his shoulder, and stood there, the barrel wavering in Johnston's direction. His hand convulsed. The barrel jerked inches sideways. The rifle did not fire.
Johnston smiled gentle encouragement. "Squeeze the trigger. Don't jerk it. That little button by the trigger is the safety. Now why don't you click it off? I'm not a monster, Peterson. I'll give you another chance. Two free shots, just like I promised."
Peterson fumbled for a moment and then looked down the length of the barrel.
"Do it!" Johnston ordered.
The gun fired.
Johnston nodded approvingly. "That's better. Your rifle went boom, only you missed. Fortunately, you get one more chance. Why don't you try aiming this time? God only knows where that last bullet went." He allowed his eyes to flicker to the side. Yes, the other recruits' attention was fastened on him. They noted his iron-jawed calmness, his courage, and they admired his casual attitude as he placed his solid six-foot frame directly in the path of danger. Best of all, they saw his refusal to flinch when Peterson's rifle fired. This was part of the lesson. There wasn't one damn thing they could do to intimidate him.
Peterson fired again.
Sighing disappointment, Johnston shook his head sadly and momentarily wished he smoked because a cigar stuck between his lips would have perfectly complimented the image he wanted the recruits to remember. "I really hoped for better from you," he called for the benefit of his audience. "Too bad."
Peterson's eyes grew huge. With his rifle barrel swinging without a pretense of control, he jerked on the trigger once and then again.
Lazily raising his pistol, Johnston shot the kid between his eyes. His shot echoed directly after the kid's fourth and last trigger pull.
Peterson's head snapped, and then his knees folded and he crumpled loosely to the ground. Johnston nodded with silent satisfaction. His bullet had gone exactly where it was supposed to go. The kid had died very quickly.
Turning his gaze, he took in the remaining four recruits. One of them looked shocked and wary. Two others looked interested, and something that was almost lust gleamed deep behind Paxton's eyes. Those last three were the ones he was interested in. They were the natural killers. Perhaps the most promising one of the group was Paxton. Though slightly built and not very tall, the man oozed bloodlust.
Walking slowly over to them, Johnston gave them a lazy once over. Even the frightened one did not wince. With a little work he might become something worth keeping too. A couple weeks would show if he needed to be weeded.
Stopping immediately before them, Johnston allowed the survivors to look into the dark orbs of his eyes. Their unemotional depths had cowed more than a few of these children.
"This is not a game people," he snapped. "This is the real thing. In six months or a year you will leave Jefferson and teleport into another world. When you are there you will have to kill. You won't kill one person, or two, or even three. You will kill them by the dozens and the hundreds. Most of those people will be women. Live with the idea of killing women. Learn to have wet dreams over it."
"Some of you," Johnston continued, "will wind up in a country called Chin. You won't have to fight hard because the Chin groundwork has been well laid. Unfortunately, the Isabellan theater will not be so simple because Private Turner has not been very effective. Unlike Colonel Klein, his strength is not sufficient to carry the weight of another human being into Isabella. Don't worry. We're working on a way around his small problem."
He gave them his sternest look, though anyone who needed more incentive to pay attention than the dead man he had given them was not the type of soldier the General wanted. In Johnston's experience, dead bodies tended to be a fairly reliable focusing agent.
"No Sir," Johnston said, "I don't think that was a little harsh. It was exactly what they needed to put some backbone into them."
Drumming his thick fingers on his desk for a few moments, General Field felt lost inside the interior of his own mind. Overall, Johnston was a good man. He was dedicated, and his total lack of ideals was perfect. In fact, the only fault Field could see in the man was that he lacked perspective. Johnston saw the trees but ignored the forest. It was that limitation that kept him a Sergeant.
"I wish," Field finally said, "that you had not killed the man." Raising a hand, he gestured Johnston to close his suddenly open mouth. "It isn't that I placed any value on him. It's just that there is always the possibility that we have a spy in the camp somewhere. I don't know who that spy is, but I do know that there must be one. Field's Everlasting Life Militia is too influential with all the other Militias for the government to ignore us entirely. All it will take for the bastards to invade us is for some unknown spy to report that we murder our own people. After all, the government and the press already think of us as crackpots since we leaked out word of our plans so we could draw in new recruits. It wouldn't take much for them to believe we're capable of killing our own."
"All our people have been screened."
"There are always turncoats," Field said pointedly. "Always. Some people are more impressed with money now than promises later."
"Turncoats." Johnston grimaced with distaste. "Like Turner?"
"Turner is a loyal member of this militia," Field insisted. "We raised the boy, so he only knows what we allowed him to learn."
"The damned cripple knows Isabella, and he refuses to carry people over there. General, I've seen them both work. You can't make me believe Klein is all that much stronger than Turner."
Running his finger across his graying goatee, Field studied his inferior. "As best we can determine, Klein is stronger, and we have the tests to prove it. Over the last year more than twenty scans have been run on Turner's brain while he transferred. Those scans are exact and thorough. They had to be. We're using their results to build up the software and set the configuration for the machine."
"How," Johnston asked, "is the project coming?"
Frowning, Field tapped a thoughtful finger against his chin. The Sergeant's tone almost bordered on disrespect. "It's coming slow, but we're making progress. We even have some people lined up who might have the technological know-how to pull the thing together. If things go as planned, we'll eventually have as much influence inside Isabella as we do in Chin. Maybe even more."
Field watched while Johnston rubbed the back of his neck and peered out the window. Night was falling. Right about now the new recruits were sitting at mess and telling the tale of how Sergeant Johnston had allowed Peterson to fire at him several times before Johnston put a bullet between the man's eyes. After today the legend of Johnston would grow even further. His nerve and judgment were legendary among the common rabble. Of course, that had been part of Johnston's plan, and it was clear the plan was working. Not once in all these years had anyone in the lower ranks realized that these confrontations never happened except with someone whose gun had been personally loaded by Johnston himself. The rounds in the weapon were always three live followed by four blanks, and then more live rounds. Field knew Johnston was a brave man. He was also smart--too smart to be suicidal or totally trusted.
"What if Turner is a traitor?" Johnston finally asked. "What if he's handing us nothing but lies?"
"He isn't a traitor," Field insisted.
"But what if he is?"
"If he is," said General Field, "I'll give him to you. You can kill him just like he's any other recruit or member of the militia who tried to leave the compound or contact the outside world without authorization.
Johnston gave Field a slightly confused look. "Forgive me for asking, sir, but doesn't shooting people for trying to leave give a spy as much reason for calling in the government as does my killing unacceptable recruits?"
"Well, we want to be careful, but there's no reason for us to be too paranoid about shooting somebody every now and again," Field explained. "Besides, it's safest if we just assume anyone trying to leave the compound without permission is the spy we've been looking for. They can't report us to the government if they're dead."
"Getting back to Turner, sir?"
General Field grinned and slapped Johnston's shoulder. "Traitor or not, before long you'll be able to do anything you want to him. Once we get the machine working I won't have any further use for the little cripple."
Johnston nodded and then frowned. "Not always a cripple. He looks pretty straight when he first comes back. I don't like that."
"Neither do I," Field supplied in a more subdued tone. "There's more to him than we suspected that he's not showing us. That's why I don't completely trust him. That's why I'm giving him to you."
Johnston smiled quiet satisfaction. "Thank you. That's all I ask."
"You'll have to beat the rush," Field warned. "Aimes hates him, and even Hill has made comments from time to time."
"I understand, sir. All I want is the chance."