Spurlock’s Bar, Torton
February 25, 873 AF
Samuel Richard Merchantson, presently known as Sam Martin, looked around the barroom with a smile on his face and his six-shooter prominently displayed under his pulled back white coat. It was midafternoon and the voting was more than half done.
Sam was leaning back against the bar and Maggie Spurlock was behind it, offering pominade to the voters. Sam lifted a mug to his lips, never letting his eyes move from Sims. It was very refreshing, tart and sweet, but without a hint of alcohol.
Across from the bar there was a knuckle-wood booth with a curtain in front, and next to the booth a long table were Walt Grange sat, with the citizenship book before him.
A woman in a long gingham dress stepped to the table and Walt Grange looked up. “Afternoon, Mrs. Sales.” He flipped a few pages over on the citizenship book, found her name and made a check mark. “Ed will give you your ballot.”
She sidled over a step to Ed Wilton, who said, “You just mark the little box next to the names of your choices. You can only mark one of the little boxes in each section or your vote won’t count.” He pointed at the sample ballots on the table. “And if you need help, you can ask Sir Emily or Jack Davis.”
“I got my letters,” Mrs. Sales snapped.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ed agreed as passively as he could manage. “But it’s better to tell folks, just in case.”
Mrs. Sales sniffed and turned away from Ed, but had to wait till the curtain opened and an old man came out of the voting booth and slid his ballot into the box.
Mrs. Sales went into the booth and the next person in line got checked off the book and received their ballot.
Everyone living in the free city of Torton was congregated in and around the bar, because this was election day.
Sam’s eyes flickered around the room, but always came back to Sims before he had time to react to Sam’s apparent distraction. This was Sam’s way of warning Sims. He didn’t need to watch Sims. Alen would tell him if the sheriff went for his gun.
Sheriff Sims was standing near the swinging doors, in his fancy white shirt with green embroidery. The white of the shirt was yellow where it wasn’t stained and the green was faded to a drab olive color, but the round shield of a law man was prominently displayed on his right breast. He had a new pair of cragbeast leather boots, made right here in Torton. He also wore a glower under his brown, dented, stove pipe hat.
That glower was turned on any citizen of Torton who had a kind word or friendly look for Sam, Maggie or, for that matter, Walt and Ed. It was partly intimidation, but only partly. The other part of Sims’ glare was sheer frustration.
The last election, a bit over two years earlier, had more ballots cast for Sheriff Sims than there were citizens of Torton. But since no one could prove which of the votes were real and which were fake, the election stood. That was the ruling of Baron Wright, as the highest noble in the immediate area.
Sims assumed the same thing was going to happen this time until Hiram Bray arrived three days ago, with a big box of ballots that were printed in Buckley Homestead, Sam’s homestead. Every carefully printed ballot had the name of each candidate and a check box beside each name. They also had complex scroll work along the top and sides, making them difficult to fake.
The names on the ballots were; Sam Martin and Edgar Sims for sheriff, Maggie Spurlock and Sir Emily Everhall for mayor. Walt Grange and Betty Danvers were running for judge and Walt was running unopposed for city clerk. There were several people running for the additional seats on the city council; Ed Wilton, the former sheriff, Thomas Borland, the grocer, Susan Cartswain, the school teacher, Jane Danth, a mine owner, and another of Wright’s knights, Sir Jason Whitaker, who owned property in town, for city council. The two people with the most votes, and the mayor, judge, and sheriff would form the city council.
Each citizen was getting one ballot, and only one.
Sam smiled a little wider as he thought about that. In response, Sims glowered harder and his hand crept to the double-barreled flintlock pistol in a holster at his right hip. Sam’s smile didn’t get any wider, but it got a little harder as he watched Sims hand creep.
The hand stopped. Sam had a reputation as a gun hand, and his six-shot caplock had an even bigger reputation. At that thought, Sam’s smile dimmed a little. He didn’t like that his pistol had a reputation, even though it was unavoidable. Sam’s pistol, like the ballots, came from Buckley Homestead and were produced by a computerized shop run by an artificial intelligence named Alen. That AI made Buckley Homestead the most valuable piece of real estate on the planet. Unfortunately, the secret of that valley was going to get out. Sooner, rather than later.
There was a commotion at the door, and Baron Wright—with his oiled pompadour and lace cuffs—strolled in behind two bodyguards, with two more behind him.
Walt lept to his feet, but Sam didn’t take his eyes off of Sims. Alen would warn him if one of the baron’s bully boys reached.
Instead Sims reached.
Sam let Sims put his hand on the double-barreled flintlock before he reacted. He had time, partly because Sam had a computer-operated spring in his holster and partly because a flintlock was not as quick firing as a caplock. A flintlock had to light the powder in the pan and that powder acted as a fuse. A short fuse, but a fuse. One that took as much as half a second to ignite the powder in the barrel of the flintlock. When the hammer fell on the cap in a caplock, the fire was shot into the chamber and the shot came immediately, so far as human senses could tell.
Besides, if this went down, it had to be clear that Sims drew first.
Sims pulled his flintlock, and as soon as it was clear that was happening, Sam drew and fired.
Sims didn’t quite clear leather before the bullet took him in the chest. Close enough so that when they examined the scene afterward, Sims’ gun was on the floor near him, not in his holster.
For right now, Sam didn’t have time to look. He spun as soon as he’d fired, and pointed his pistol directly at Baron Wright. “You know who I’m going to shoot if one of your men draws, don’t you?”
The baron looked at Sam. More specifically, he looked down the barrel of Sam’s pistol, now pointed right at him. He took a deep breath and made a little patting down gesture with both hands, a signal to the men to stand down. Of course, the bodyguards in front of him couldn’t see it. But they could see Sam’s gun, and they didn’t draw.
“Well,” said the baron, “I guess that’s one way to win an election.”
“Not at all,” Walt said before Sam could say anything. “The election will continue, and if Sheriff Sims is reelected, we will hold a new election in a few weeks.”
“That’s right,” said Ed. “The council will appoint an interim sheriff, and it won’t be Sam Martin.”
Sam wanted to look at Ed, but he couldn’t afford to take his eyes, or gun, off Baron Wright, not right now. Sam knew that Ed wasn’t his biggest fan, and he knew that Ed was sheriff before the rigged election that put Sims in the job. But he hadn’t figured that Ed would use this to get the sheriff’s job back.
Baron Wright looked over at Walt and Ed, and started to smile. “Cracks so soon? Another time, gentlemen.” He turned and left, the bodyguards trailing along.
Sam turned to look at Ed.
Ed looked back with an expression of belligerence that, it seemed to Sam, hid guilt. “It can’t be you for interim sheriff, Sam. It would look rigged.”
Sam nodded. It was a good reason. But it wasn’t the reason. Not really. Ed was humiliated when the election was stolen from him, and then he didn’t go up against Baron Wright and his bully boys. Then Sam came riding in on Porky and saved the day. It made Ed feel small. And since Ed knew about the valley and the advantages that gave Sam, he probably felt like Sam was cheating too. There wasn’t anything he could say to fix the problem, but he tried. “You’re right, Ed.”
Walt Grange looked at the tally board after the last vote was counted. “Congratulations, Sir Jason. I guess that party you held day before yesterday bore fruit.” He even managed to sound like he meant it.
Sam probably wouldn’t sound that way. He wasn’t the sort of man who could run a convincing bluff. The news on the tally board wasn’t all bad. Sam was the new sheriff, Maggie was still mayor, Walt was still judge. Ed had gotten fifty-seven percent of the votes for city council and Sir Jason only got twenty-three percent. But twenty-three percent was more votes than any of the other candidates.
Sir Emily stood and walked over to Maggie. “Congratulations, Miz Spurlock.” She didn’t offer her hand. Instead, she gave a little half bow, not much more than a nod, turned and walked out of the bar. The look she gave Sam as she left wasn’t any friendlier, but it was a whole lot more cautious.
Torton’s territory included the town proper and a stretch of ground that extended five miles north and south and almost twelve miles east and west. It was bordered on the west by the desert known as the badlands, on the north and east by Baron Wright’s territory, and on the south and east by Sir Emily Everhall, one of Baron Wright’s knights.
Sir Emily had a gold mine on her lands, but it was small and the vein was mostly played out. However, the mines in Torton’s territory—even in the town proper—were doing quite well. Emily, using some of the gold from her mine and some money from Baron Wright, recently bought a mine within the town’s territory, making her a mine owner and a citizen of Torton.
Jason, also using the baron’s money, bought a house in town, making him a citizen as well.
The town was on an island continent about half the size of australia on a partially terraformed world called Jorden by the humans who’d retreated there after the war, and simply “the world” by their descendants. The world had its own ecology that was close enough to that of Old Earth so that many earth plants and animals could survive on it. It was smaller than Earth, but a bit denser and a touch more volcanic. Rare earths weren’t quite so rare, but gold was still far from common. The badlands were an extinct super-volcano, and rich in rare earths and poisons thrown up from the mantle a couple of million years earlier. Mostly the reason the badlands were desert was the lack of rain, but part of it was the salts in the soil. The spine plants, the knuckle wood trees, and some other native plants, were mostly immune to the salts, but Old Earth plants, not so much. And while cragbeasts were edible as long as you stayed away from the liver, spine plants were poisonous to humans. Even riding pigs had difficulty digesting them.
All that said, the real issue was water. There wasn’t enough on the surface and there was too much a couple of hundred feet down. A couple of hundred feet is a long way up or down in a bucket-toting society, and the world of Jorden had sunk to that level of technology because of the Isith attack shortly after founding.