February 30, 863 AF
“Alen,” Sam subvocalized, “how are you coming with the pumps?”
“I have six of them that can be powered by a man using his legs to pump.” The AI’s voice was not petulant, but Alen wanted to use electricity to power the pumps and a windmill to get the electricity. That was too much tech, too soon, at least for now.
“Good. I’ll send Hiram out with a wagon to pick them up.”
“I would recommend Ed Wilton instead.”
“Why? Ed’s been a little off lately. I don’t think he really likes us that much.”
“I am aware of the prejudice. That is part of the reason that I think you should offer him the opportunity to see Buckley Homestead for himself.”
“You think that will help?”
“Possibly. At the very least, it will mean that he can’t expose us without exposing himself.”
“Also, the opportunity to have his basic medical needs seen to might encourage him to be more accepting of the situation.”
“Maybe,” Sam admitted, but he really didn’t believe it. He suspected that the more Ed got, the more Ed would figure he was owed. Still, it would get Ed out of his hair for a while. “You know he’s gonna want a six shooter and a hunting rifle?”
“That is entirely up to you, Sam. This is your valley. If you want to give Ed a pistol and rifle, that is your decision.”
“Go ahead and give him one . . . and while you’re at it, make one for Maggie, Walt, and Hiram.” Hiram hadn’t asked for anything on his trip to the valley. He’d simply taken a load of grain and come back with the ballots and other equipment that Sam arranged for. While he was there, Alen took the opportunity to rid him of a local set of intestinal parasites, give him a series of vitamin shots, and provide him with removable dentures to fix his teeth. They were removable because they didn’t want to make it obvious that Hiram had new teeth. “In fact, as you have time, start making standard hunting rifles and cap lock pistols. I have a bad feeling we are going to need them sooner than I would like.”
March 1, 863 AF
The wagon, pulled by two riding pigs, left town a little before dawn three days after the election. Ed Wilton had a phone in his pocket and a smile on his face. He was looking forward to seeing the valley. He had no firm plans, but Sam Martin was no more than a lucky bum who happened upon the cache of old tech. He figured once he was there, he could claim shider’s rits the way Sam had. He flicked the reins and the pigs moved into a trot. He wondered if it was true that the pigs he’d known his whole life were really a designed animal. In any case, they were making good time.
The wagon was loaded with grain and wool from the east that they’d brought back from Gilden.
Alen followed the wagon with the camera located on the roof of Maggie’s bar. The phone relay in the wagon sent encoded bursts of radio to the receiver at Maggie’s bar and the inertial compass and a small odometer on the right rear axle kept track of the wagon’s location.
Shortly after dawn, two riders left Torton, following the wagon’s tracks. Alen called Sam.
“There’s not much I can do about it, Alen. As long as they don’t attack Ed, they aren’t breaking any laws.” Sam looked down at the circle of silver with a crown inlaid in gold that he was wearing pinned to his chest. It was strange, but since he’d put it on he was a lot more concerned with what was legal than he had been in a very long time. “The badlands are open territory and they will remain open territory until claimed and improved according to the rules set down in Gilden and the emperor’s court on the coast.”
“That brings up the question of maintaining legal ownership of Buckley Homestead, according to local laws. While your ownership is well established according to my protocols, the legalities of the present government are an issue.”
“I know, Alen. But there is no way I want to have the valley under the authority of Baron Wright, King Jackson of Gilden, or Emperor Chang.”
March 1, 863 AF
Sir Emily Everhard looked down at the rocky earth and sand to see the slight depression that the wagon wheel left. In the distance, she could barely see the canvas top of the wagon. “We’ll wait here.”
“The baron wants to know . . . ” Lem Carter started, then trailed off at her look.
Emily climbed off Bacon and rubbed her butt before she answered Lem. “I know what Gordon Wright wants. I also know the stories about Demon’s Butte.”
She shook her head. Lem was here as much to watch her for Wright as he was to watch her back. He wasn’t, in Emily’s opinion, the sharpest blade in the baron’s scabbard. Also, in Emily’s opinion, Gordon was much too fond of dull blades. She tried again anyway. “Lem, we need to know where they are getting the stuff they have, like that six-shot gun of Sam Martin’s. That’s more important than stealing a shipment of coastal wheat.” The wheat from the coast was expensive out here, but not that expensive.
Lem’s look made it clear he wasn’t convinced, but they waited anyway. Soon enough the wagon was out of sight. She whistled and Bacon lifted his snout from a stretch of sand he’d been snuffling. He looked in her direction, and at her wave he ambled over. Bacon was a fine riding pig, but he did like to express his independence in subtle ways.
“You oughta strap that pig, Sir Emily,” Lem said in disgust.
“You lay a strap to my pig, Lem, and I’ll lay a strap to you,” Emily said as she mounted. Bacon snorted his agreement. Pigs were smarter than Lem understood, and Emily was convinced that Bacon was smarter than Lem.
They rode on cautiously for the rest of the day, and that night made a cold camp.
Alen called Ed Wilton again that night. “I think they are still following you, but I don’t have any sensors along the route you are on.”
“Well, if I’d kept going straight, they’d already know I was heading for Demon’s Butte.”
“I am aware of that, but there is a sensor platform forteen miles to your northwest, and if you go by it I will be able to pick up anyone tracking you.”
March 2, 863 AF
They kept following Ed Wilton the next day, and he went off in a new direction. The day after that, the same thing happened. It was like had had eyes in the back of his head. Emily had known Ed since she was a girl, and he was no sort of tracker. More at home in a town, than in the wilderness.
She thought about the route they were taking. They would go along, then suddenly Ed would hie off in another direction. But each time they got a bit closer to Demon’s Butte.
“Lem, you keep following him,” Emily said the afternoon of the third day. Then she rode away. After she was over the horizon from Lem and Ed both, she headed slowly and cautiously to Demon’s Butte.
Lem watched Sir Emily leave with a mixture of resentment and relief. She got her knighthood on her back, and Lem knew that Baron Wright didn’t really trust her. At the same time, she was a sneaky one. She’d caught Lem out several times, and got him in trouble with the baron.
So for almost half a day, he followed along behind Ed Wilton, getting more and more angry. It was hot and dry and he was getting low on water, while Ed had a wagon full of water, beer, whisky and so on. Sir Emily, back on her lands, was drinking that fancy eastern wine she was so partial to. And Lem was stuck out here, watching a fat old man in a wagon going around in circles and never getting nowhere.
“Fuck Sir Emily and that fancy pig of hers too,” Lem muttered as the sun neared the horizon. “I’m getting me some of that beer.” He kicked his pig in the ribs and the pig squealed in complaint, but moved out smartly like. At least the pig knew Lem weren’t a man to be trifled with.
They were out of sight of any of Alen’s pre-placed desert observation cameras, so the first Ed knew of Lem’s approach was when he rode out from behind a rock spire about fifty yards behind the wagon. At that point, the mini cameras on the wagon picked him up and Alen informed Ed.
Ed didn’t react visibly, but he did tell Alen, “Let me know if he starts to draw.”
About the time he heard the pigs two-toed hooves on the packed desert sand, Alen warned him and Ed reacted. There was a long-barreled Cooper flintlock on the seat beside him. Shorter than a long rifle, but longer than the sort of pistol a man could wear at his side, the Cooper was just the thing to keep handy on a wagon. With his left hand, Ed grabbed the stock, and with his right, the curved butt. Then he rolled back to his left, brought the Cooper around. That was when he heard the boom of Lem Parker’s pistol’s first barrel go off.
That rushed Ed a bit, and he fired a touch low. The half-inch ball went in two inches below Lem’s ribs and an inch to the right of his back bone. It was a killing shot, but not a fast killing shot. Lem might get off another. Ed kept rolling, right off the side of the wagon bench and onto the ground. That knocked the wind out of him.
The wagon team stopped at that point, and looked around curiously.
Lem’s pig jerked sideways, then tilted like it was going to roll over on Lem. Lem came out of the saddle and the pig ran off.
Ed got up and headed over to where Lem was lying on the ground, groaning. Ed’s knee screamed at him as he climbed to his feet, and his back was almost as loud in its complaints.
“Well, you stupid bastard,” Ed said as he looked at Lem’s wound, “You’re gut shot and you’re gonna die.”
“The wound,” Alen told Ed, “is not necessarily fatal.”
“What?” Ed said out loud. He wasn’t used to subvocalizing. Besides, he had an earpiece, but not an implanted phone. Then, more quietly, he went on. “What do you mean it ain’t fatal?”
“With due use of antibiotics and my surgical suite, we can save him,” Alen said.
“Why the fuck should we?” Ed didn’t shout, but he wasn’t whispering, either.
“Who are you talking to, Ed?” Lem asked. He tried to lever himself up on his elbow and screamed. Back on his back, he panted. “Help me up, Ed. It ain’t right to just leave me here.”
Ed, still hurting, walked over and almost shot Lem with the last barrel of his Cooper. Then, in disgust, he grabbed Lem by the collar, dragged him over to a rock and propped him up in a half-sitting position, Lem screaming all the way.
There were tears of pain in Lem’s eyes, but he forced a nod at Ed, and said, “Thank you, Ed. Who were you talking to?”
Ed looked at Lem and considered. The man was dying. Who was he going to tell?
“I was talking to Alen. He’s the AI of Buckley Homestead.”
“The what of what?” Lem shook his head, then coughed out a not-quite-scream as the motion shifted his body a touch and his wound apparently objected.
“Old tech,” Ed said.
Lem made a sign of warding, then he got a considering look. “Was that thing talking about me?”
“You said ‘what do you mean it ain’t fatal?’ That was about me, weren’t it? That means I don’t have to die.”
“Oh, demons,” Ed muttered. He opened his vest and from the inside pocket pulled the black glass rectangle that Sam called a phone. He held it out and said, “You tell him, Alen.”
The phone spoke. “While an intestinal wound is indeed serious, with proper care they need not be fatal. There is a stockpile of preserved antibiotics at the valley, and with my extensions and the medical software, it is likely that I can save Mr. Carter’s life. That assumes he is transported to the valley in the next few hours and Ed uses the first aid kit under the seat as I direct. First, shock must be avoided.”
“That assumes we want to fix the back-shooting bastard.” Ed sneered.
“That is, of course, up to you, Mr. Wilton. However, I submit that there is a legal difference between shooting a man in self defense and shooting an unarmed and wounded man . . . or even simply leaving him to die.”
“No, there ain’t,” Ed said. “Ain’t no jury west of Albert’s Ridge that would convict me for killing the back-shooting bastard.”
“Ed, you cain’t,” said Lem. “That’d be murder.”
Ed lifted the Cooper, pointed it at Lem’s head, then couldn’t quite bring himself to shoot the terrified man in the head. “Oh, crap. Why the hell did you have to say anything, Alen? You know that if we keep him alive, the truth about you is going to get out.”
“I won’t tell,” Lem said. “On my maw’s life, Ed, I won’t tell no one.”
“Your maw’s been dead for the last three years, Lem, and she wouldn’t talk to you for five years before that. Because you’re a lying sack of pig shit, whose word can’t be trusted as far as I can throw you.”
“We can contain him in the valley,” Alen said.
“Won’t work. As soon as I left the valley, he’d claim shidder’s rights.”
“In modern terminology, it would be phrased ‘squatter’s rights.’ However, they do not come into play in this circumstance. When Sam wandered into the valley, it had no owner, Mr. Buckley almost certainly having been killed in the Isith attack several hundred years ago. Sam is still alive and he has registered and updated a will, so the title is not in question.”
That was deeply disappointing news to Ed.