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Chapter 5—Back to the Badlands

 

Badlands
Compensate 9, 862 AF

“Brownie, you’re the dumbest pig on the face of the earth,” Sam muttered. Actually, Brownie was a pretty good pig, but it didn’t have the AI whispering in its ear. Nor was it as bright as Porky or as flexible. The brown racing pig Sam bought was well configured with a fine pedigree. It was also as fast as he was promised. But, compared to Porky, Brownie was as dumb as a rock.

On Porky, Sam would have had more than transportation; he would have had a helper. Sam looked at the chimney rock sticking out of the desert. With Porky, he could have tossed a rope over that finger sticking out on the right and had himself an elevator ride to get started. Instead, he pulled out the pitons he’d had made in Gilden. It took several hours to climb the rock and place the sensor. He hoped it would be worth it. If what Alen told him held true, from here the repeater could pick up Porky in Gilden.

Sam took off his hat and wiped sweat off his face. “I hope this does it.” He listened. Good. Sounds that were typical in a stable. He had contact with Porky. Now for contact with Alen.

Badlands
Compensate 11, 862 AF

Two days later Sam managed to get Brownie about halfway up Charley’s butte, then the darn pig wouldn’t go any higher and Sam had to climb the rest of the way. But that put him in contact with Alen and in better contact with Porky.

“All right, Alen. Next time Hiram grooms Porky, have him give the signal to start moving the train back home. And build more repeaters. I’m headed home as quick as I can get there.”

Sam had the net set up as well as he could with what he had available. It was time to head for the valley and pick up more equipment.

Gilden City
Compensate 12, 862 AF

“Porky says it’s time to go.” Hiram leaned over and whispered it to Maggie at dinner that night.

Persuading the rest of the group that they should leave without waiting for Sam got to be interesting. As well, it gave Maggie a pretty good idea of what people thought about Sam. She wasn’t all that happy with what she found.

Walt was wondering if Sam had run out on them. Ed thought they should wait for him to get back and Dave figured they had already spent too much time waiting on the desert bum.

“Well, we can’t stay here forever.” Maggie stood and looked around at the men. “I want to get home and get back to normal. Sam can catch up with us. He knows we need to get back, and you know how much he thinks of that pig. He’ll be along as soon as he can.”

Walt nodded. “I’ll be glad to get home myself. We can leave Sam a message.”

“I’ll be sure and do that, Walt.” Maggie grinned. By this time, Sam was probably riding hell for pigskin for his valley and more equipment. Meanwhile, the wagon train had grown rather larger than they’d planned. Gold in Gilden bought more than they’d thought it would. It would take a few days to finalize the arrangements and packing, not to mention find and hire a few more drivers for the extra wagons they’d had to buy.

Buckley Homestead
Compensate 17, New Year’s Eve

“It’s about time they got moving.” Sam put the new saddle on Brownie’s sleek back. “If I had a little more time, I’d have you give this idiot pig a transmitter.”

“There was a lot to do,” Alen pointed out.

Brownie shied and reared at the AI’s voice. That was the reason Sam hadn’t had a transmitter implanted in him. One day in the valley just wasn’t enough time for a pig to get used to Alen’s disembodied voice. Especially not one as high-strung as Brownie.

Sam calmed the dratted pig. “Well, at least the new saddle gives me more range. Now I need to get back out there. What’s the latest you have on Baron Wright’s bullyboys?”

“So far he appears to be sticking close to Demon’s Face Ridge.”

“I’m a bit surprised by that. It’s just not in his nature to let go of a fight.”

“It does make a certain amount of sense, Sam. If he is unaware of the sensors, he has no way of knowing his movements are being observed. At the same time, if he wanders out into the desert without knowing the precise location of the wagon train, he could easily miss them, even considering their slow progress.”

In spite of everything Maggie could do, the wagon train was moving slowly, giving the baron plenty of time to set his traps. The train was winding its way through the desert on a course that would let it head either for Dover’s Gap or Crag’s Pass. They weren’t sure yet where the  baron’s men would concentrate.

Badlands
January 12, 863 AF

“Another six are arriving at Crag’s Pass.” Alen’s voice was more clipped than usual. “The train is safe so far.”

Sam spent the last two weeks riding like a madman, setting up one repeater station after another. He’d divided his time between that and sniping at the bullyboys in Crag’s Pass, doing everything he could think of to convince the baron that he was trying to clear them out of there so the wagon train would have a clear path. “I’m going to run out of luck one of these days, Alen.”

“Apparently, Baron Wright is convinced. He’s with this group.” The plan appeared to be working. Every time Sam hit the pass, they sent more men. Two days ago, Sam made the decision, and directed the supply wagons to Dover’s Gap.

“No imagination. Should we hit Crag’s Pass again?” At Alen’s confirmation, Sam dismounted and led Brownie off the trail. He tied the reins so that the idiot pig would stay in the shade, then climbed up to a good position and started sniping at the men in the pass. They returned fire and Sam watched where their rounds were landing. He kept up his sniping until he was drawing quite a bit of fire, then slipped away and went back for Brownie. “Any idea what’s going on over there?”

“It appears that they are convinced that you, or someone, is desperately trying to force them out of the gap.”

Sam shrugged. “What does Dover’s Gap look like, Alen? Is all this mess working?”

“Approximately the same as it looked the last time you asked. Yes, the plan appears to be working. There is a small force at Dover’s Gap. Five men, suggesting that they are there just to delay the supply train while the main body of men returns. The size of the force indicates that the baron doesn’t expect them to be needed.”

Approaching Dover’s Gap, Badlands
January 12, 863 AF

Sam was well on his way to Dover’s Gap when the AI reported that there was new activity at Crag’s Pass. They appeared to be sending out scouts.

“What the hell is going on down there?

“Uncertain. They may simply be trying to push you farther away from Crag’s Pass or they could suspect something of our plan.”

“How far is the train from Dover’s Gap?”

“I estimate six hours.”

“How many people with the baron?” If Baron Wright realized that he was being watched, they were in trouble.

“Forty-three, not counting the scouts.”

Sam rode for Dover’s Gap, wondering if Wright had figured out the plan.

***

Sam crept up the rocks near Dover’s Gap. He found a rock that gave him good view of the position the baron’s men had taken. Then he waited for the supply wagons to come into sight.

He heard them before he saw them and so did the baron’s bullyboys. Four of them moved into positions that hid them from the train, but exposed them to Sam. The fifth man got ready to ride for Crag’s Pass and get reinforcements.

“Alen, give Porky the signal to stop.” Hiram had apparently been waiting for it because he pulled up immediately. The wagons stopped. Sam could hear the argument through his phone. It was almost loud enough to hear over the desert sands.

One of the men signaled the rider and Sam couldn’t wait any longer. “Damn.” He shot the rider’s pig. He hated to do it, but the one thing he couldn’t afford was to have word reach Crag’s Pass that they had been tricked again.

The pig screamed. The rider hid among the rocks and tried to determine where the shot had come from. Sam heard Maggie telling Ed, “I told you he’d be here.”

Sam laughed. Then he shouted. “We have you cut off and surrounded. Throw away your guns and put up your hands.” It took some persuading and a few more warning shots, but the baron’s men were in a losing position and they knew it. All five threw down their guns and walked toward the train. Ed and Walt looked to be having a fine time tying them up.

Sam climbed down and waited. Once they got here, they’d get the water barrels filled and the supply train on its way.

Maggie jumped off the wagon and landed so close to Sam that she nearly knocked him down. “Sam. Sam. I told them you’d be here.” Then she threw her arms around him and Sam forgot about filling water barrels for a while. He had other things on his mind. And, for a change, his hands were full of something besides a gun.

Finally he pulled away. “Listen up, folks. About seven hours ago Baron Wright was at Crag’s Pass with forty gun hands. I figure he’s still there but I don’t know that for sure. It took me four hours to get here from there, so at most he is five hours away from us. We need to get the barrels filled, the pigs watered, and out into the desert where we’ll be hard to track. In case anyone is wondering, it is the baron. I saw him this time.

Spurlock Bar, Torton
January 20, 863 AF

Maggie set the tray that held four cold beers in the new glass mugs down on the table. They had lost the baron in the badlands and gotten back to town. Now came the hard part, telling Walt and the rest of the council about Alen. They would need their help to keep it quiet as long as they could. After discussing it with Maggie and Alen on the trip home, they had decided that they would use Torton as what Alen called a “test bed” for reintroducing firster tech. Sam was nervous about the decision.

“Ed, Walt, I have something I need to tell you.”

They took it well. There was some of the old religious fear left, but not that much, at least not when there was a good explanation. Maggie even pulled out the phone he’d given her and let Alen tell them some things about the demons and what they really were.

“It’s not like back east out here, Sam. Not that much of the old beliefs left.” Ed sounded a bit sad about it. “Some, sure. But out here in the untamed, mostly folk can’t afford to give up anything that can make their lives easier.”

“But Sam’s right about the rest of it, Ed.” Walt picked up the phone like it was some rare jewel. “This is the kind of wealth that folks will kill for, and kill to keep others from having, too.” They looked at him and he looked back grim. “Don’t think King Jackson would be any more likely to let Sam keep Demon’s Butte than Baron Wright would be. Or Emperor Chang back east, either. Especially not Emperor Chang, considering how close he is with the church. You’ll have to go with your original plan, at least partly. Introduce stuff that people could have made, like those six-shooters on your hip. Keep the rest of it secret.”

Sam was nodding. “Alen says he can come up with some equipment to make mining easier.”

“Could we make a cache of stuff out in the badlands for Sam to have discovered?” Ed asked. “Not at Demon’s Butte, but somewhere else. A cave somewhere that had books and some other doodads in it. Let it leak out that that was where the stuff came from.”

Maggie shook her head. “It might work for a little while but not for long. It would focus attention on the badlands, then people would start thinking of Demon’s Butte, anyway.”

“Analysis indicates that that will happen, regardless,” Alen interrupted. “Hiram put it together with little difficulty. Others will. I have been giving warning before firing on trespassers, as I was instructed to do. That is the basis of the legends about Demon’s Butte. When tech starts appearing in the area of the badlands, others will reach the same conclusion. Certainly, they will become curious enough to trespass on Sam’s property.”

Sam suddenly realized that he hadn’t updated Alen’s instructions about how to deal with trespassers. Nor was he really sure how or whether he should.

“Baron Wright is entering town,” Alen announced. Sam and Hiram had climbed up on the roof of Maggie’s place and installed a sensor pack the night before.

Sam shrugged. “He can’t hurt the town, or at least can’t claim he owns it. Not with that.” Sam pointed at the gold-sealed proclamation from the king. Maggie had bought a fancy frame for it and it hung in a place of honor. More business got done at the bar than got done in Walt’s dinky little office. As well, Maggie had been acting mayor ever since her father died. The election next month would probably just confirm that.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of the first part of that,” Ed said. “He’s an angry man. As much as a massacre would hurt him in the capital, I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“How many people does he have with him, Alen?” Sam asked. The pocket phone that had been sitting on the table had disappeared into Maggie’s pocket, but that didn’t affect Sam.

“Six, plus the baron,” Alen told Sam and Sam told the others.

“Well, at least this time he’s coming to talk,” Walt said.

***

“Well, you folks sure put one over on me this time.” Baron Wright’s jovial expression was marred by the coldness in his eyes.

Sam smiled back with equally false joviality. “Well, that’s the way it goes.”

“I take it you’ll be riding off into the sunset now? Back into the badlands, hunting cragbeast?”

“You know, I was thinking on that very thing,” Sam drawled. “Much as I like hunting cragbeast, I’m considering a new line of work.”

“Oh? What would that be?”

Sam looked from the baron to Sims. “I thought I might run for sheriff.”

 

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