Authors: James Axler
Baron Al Siebert of Siebertville, commander in chief of the Uplands Alliance Army, was a man as big as his blood-foe Baron Jed was small, Ryan saw as the companions were ushered into the command tent under guard. Baron Al was also as unkempt as the rival general was fussily neat. He wore canvas trousers with the fly unbuttoned, held up—if barely—by suspenders stretched over a big gut. They looked as if the Baron had slept in them, and his wiry black beard and the hair around his gleaming sunburned skull were wild.
The troopers with the companions were casual. They kept their carbines slung. Though their longblasters were stashed with their packs in the tent where they’d spent the night after Lieutenant Tillman Owens’s patrol had brought the companions inside the lines, they still openly wore such sidearms. And accordingly they hadn’t been frisked at all, to say nothing of the half-assed job Jed’s sec men had done earlier in the evening. Both the fresh-faced young lieutenant and whatever superiors he reported to had accepted the newcomers as what they purported—truthfully enough—to be: mercies seeking gainful employment with the Uplander Army.
Now the sun stood high over a surprisingly clear sky. A good breakfast, hot and plentiful and with lots of chicory in lieu of the hard-to-come-by coffee, still warmed Ryan’s gut. And by the looks of it, the Uplander general had only just recently hauled his mass up off his cot.
Baron Al was bent frowning over a map spread on a low table. Old and faded though it was, Ryan recognized a U.S.G.S. contour map, no doubt of the terrain he and the Protectors were currently facing each other across. He didn’t look up as they entered.
Several men were clustered around the map table. In the daylight Ryan had noticed that the Uplanders seemed more casual in their approach to uniforms than their opposite numbers. Most of the troops he’d seen obviously wore whatever they left home in, with a green armband, often nothing more than a random handkerchief or scrap of cloth, tied around one biceps to denote affiliation. At most, some of the officers and the odd noncom wore a green uniform blouse or tunic, although these were of a sufficient variety of patterns that “uniform-like” would probably hit closer to the bull’s-eye. The baron himself wore not a scrap of green, evidently trusting his substantial height and distinctive appearance to identify his own allegiance.
Unlike their boss, the obvious junior officers—aides and subcommanders, or so Ryan reckoned—who studied the table with Al did wear uniform uppers, tailored-looking and even reasonably clean. Only the man who hovered at the baron’s right elbow wore a complete set: spotless green tunic with a double row of double-shiny brass buttons, crisp green trousers with yellow stripes down the sides, brown boots polished like mirrors.
“You overslept again, General,” the fashion plate was saying in a prissy tone of voice. He was good-looking enough, if a person went for that type: fine features, long nose, keen brown eyes, black hair. The only thing that spoiled his handsomeness was the fact that, though clearly Al’s junior by a decade or two, the man had a bald spot on his narrow head almost as big as the one the baron sported. “Are you sure that’s the example you want to set your men?”
“Who gives a rat’s ass what kind of example I set, Cody?” Al rumbled, running a stubby forefinger along a terrain contour. “The men know why we fight. Better for them if I get enough sleep so I can think straight. It’s not as if our pickets wouldn’t warn us if Jed tried a sneak attack. Not that he’d take the ramrod out of his skinny ass long enough to try any such unorthodox maneuver.”
He raised his head, lacking only a set of short horns to look like an old, if admittedly pattern-balding, bison bull. “Dammit, where’s my chicory?”
A young man in a gray shirt and baggy pants rushed into the tent bearing a big mug of white-speckled blue steel with steam coming off the top.
“Sorry, General!” the youngster said as he bustled up to Al. “Cookie wanted to make sure you got first mug from a fresh pot of coffee!”
“Chicory, son,” Al corrected without heat. “Call a thing what it is.”
He offered thanks as he accepted the mug, though. He took a sip and grimaced as the youngster retreated from the tent with evident relief.
“Brr,” Al said, shaking his big head, this time like a dog trying to dry his ears. “Tastes like cat piss, and I’m sure it’s got no more go-juice to it. But I can’t think straight in the morning until I got a gulp or two in this big old belly of mine.”
The fussy-looking specimen called Cody pinched his mouth like an asshole and squeezed his fine brows together. It looked like a well-practiced expression to Ryan.
“You really could drink real coffee, General,” he said. “You
the commander in chief, after all.”
Al took another hearty slug with more urgency than enjoyment. Then he wiped his bearded lips with the back of his hand.
“If it’s good enough for the men, it’s good enough for their commander,” he growled. “You nag me as bad as Jessie Rae does, Colonel Turnbull. And about the same rad-blasted things, too—commonly my late rising habits and my refusal to act according to my pree-rog-uh-tives—” he drew the word out to contemptuous length “—of rank. And my slovenly habits of dress, as I’m sure you won’t omit to get to shortly.”
Turnbull’s narrow cheeks flushed pink. “Appearances are important, General!”
“Obviously you think so.” He looked for the first time at the newcomers, then turned to Lieutenant Owens. “So what have you brought me today, Tillman Norbert?”
“These are the folks we brought in last night,” the young officer said. If he saw anything unusual at so superior an officer—the boss of the whole nuking army—addressing him with such familiarity, he showed no sign of it. Not even the prissy Cody showed visible offense, meaning it was either the custom among the Uplanders, or their general’s custom, so ingrained he’d given up getting his skivvies in a wad over it. “The ones who brought in the fine cavalry mounts from the Association herd. They say they want to join up.”
Al ran his gaze across them appraisingly. His eyes were a startling blue beneath beetling black brows.
“Ladies,” he said at length. “Gentlemen. I trust you’ll forgive my manners, which are execrable. That being stated and taken for granted, I will be moved to say that you are a mighty unlikely-looking assortment of blasters-for-hire. And that you have among you a fine-looking pair of fillies, blessed with abundant and indeed overflowing racks.”
Had Ryan been the sort to take offense at another man overtly appreciating his mate Krysty—as he was not, no more than he was about a man giving the eye to Mildred—the gleam in Al’s eye would still have drawn some of the sting. And the way the baron’s words made Cody turn bright purple and sputter in wordless indignation would’ve excused a wide variety of behaviors.
Anyway, Krysty caught Al’s eye and grinned back. “Thank you kindly, Baron,” she said.
Ryan glanced aside at J.B., who shrugged. Krysty was her own women and all, but Ryan was tempted to remind her of the risks entailed in liking a baron. Except he found himself more inclined that way than harsh experience would dictate, as well.
“I’m Ryan Cawdor,” he said. “These are my friends.” He introduced them in turn.
“We may not look like much, General,” Doc said when the intros were performed. “But our very unprepossessing appearances can lead foes to underestimate us. As I believe your opposite number discovered to his sorrow last night.”
A cloud seemed to cross Al’s big rugged features at that. “Speaking of which,” he said, with his beard sunk to his breastbone, “it seems I heard tell this morning that you killed Jed’s boy Buddy.”
“If we might say a word in our defense, General?” Krysty said.
He looked at her. “If you ladies want to sign on to shoot Protectors,” he said, “I’ll gladly pay you do to it. But if your men are the sort to hide behind your skirts—metaphorically speaking, of course—”
“What Krysty means, General,” Mildred said, “is
defense. Hers and mine. We were the ones who killed Buddy Kylie. We were tied-up captives in a storage tent. Buddy came in and tried to rape us. It was a bad misjudgment on his part all the way around. We managed to get free and it ended up that Buddy wouldn’t ever get a chance to repeat the kind of acts he was bragging about on another woman.”
Al’s brows went up, giving a washboard appearance to his tall forehead. “That surely does put an entirely different complexion on the matter,” he said. “My apologies, ladies. I had heard rumors to that effect—about that boisterous young man’s behavior—but never entirely gave them credence. What he attempted to do to you was unconscionable. Your response was altogether justified, and leaves this dirty old world a slightly cleaner place. So—” he swept them all with that penetrating gaze once more “—it appears I may have indeed underestimated the lot of you. Now, I understand that along with those fine smokeless-powder handblasters you carry, you brought some impressive longer arms with you, as well.”
“Which we should allocate to the appropriate individuals, General,” the colonel said. By which Ryan just knew he meant the well-born ones. “This ragged lot can enlist as common troops along with the rest. The females can serve as healers, perhaps, if they have the talent. Otherwise we can use cooks and washerwomen.”
“That very notion led to our disagreements with Baron Jed,” J.B. said softly. He always spoke mildly, seldom if ever raising his voice. From the look Al gave him the general wasn’t stupe enough to think that made the little man soft.
“They got advanced blasters,” Al said, “and on the evidence they know how to use them. If they got their own ammo to burn, I don’t see the sense in handing them charcoal-burners and wasting them on the line with the regular troops.”
“I believe you’re heading down the same path we are, Baron,” Ryan said. “We can serve you best acting as a unit ourselves, which we’re accustomed to doing. Small-unit stuff. Hit and run. Carrying out raids and reconnaissance, targeted to do the enemy the most damage.”
Al smiled. It was a big wide smile that overtook his whole vast and homely face. Still and all, it wasn’t an altogether pleasant expression, as Ryan suspected his own smile wasn’t.
“Come over here and look at this confounded map, my friends,” Al said, beckoning with a vast paw, “and tell me what you can do for the Uplands Alliance. I got a feeling I’m gonna enjoy this.”
“Reckon you will at that, general,” J.B. said. “I reckon you will.”
* * *
with the face like a wrung-out gaudy-bar rag and a shock of hair like sandy ash was ranting to a half dozen or so acolytes in spiffy blue uniforms when one of them finally noticed someone new had slipped into the Protector army headquarters tent unannounced.
It was a young dude in a hat with a pheasant-tail feather stuck in the band, of all the ridiculous things. He spun around, fumbling at the holster flap that protected his six-shooter—mostly from himself, apparently—with a hand encased in a buckskin gauntlet.
Snake Eye showed him his nice, even, white teeth. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, son,” he said.
The kid’s fever-bright green eyes never left Snake Eye’s lone orb. Sweat broke out on his forehead. The yellow gauntlet moved away from the heavy leather holster flap. He took a step back into a group of other obviously young aides and tried visibly to become invisible.
“How the name of a buffalo-fucking whore did you get in here?” the baron demanded, leaning forward and clutching the arms of what was a bit too grand to be called a camp chair. More like a throne, Snake Eye thought, amused.
“Skill,” he said.
The man who stood at Jed’s left elbow snapped, “How dare you come into the baron’s presence uninvited, bearing arms?”
He was a sawed-off little stick himself, as pale as a day-old chill and as dry and shrunken-looking as if he were halfway to mummification. The only hint of color to his face was the scar that ran down the length of its right side, which was a blue a couple shades lighter than his spotless uniform blouse. It was obvious what he was; and his eyes were as black as his sec-boss soul.
“If I wanted to chill the baron,” Snake Eye said amiably, “he’d be staring up at the tent roof this moment, wouldn’t he?”
“What do you want, barging in here like this?” Jed demanded. Curiosity seemed to have overwhelmed outraged fury. For the moment at least.
Time to pour some gas on the embers, Snake Eye thought with frank amusement.
“First off, I no doubt should mention that I just chilled your Colonel Erl Kendry. Not that his loss should be keenly felt.”
The obvious sec boss stared at him. His face, which had purpled with fury when the mercie announced himself, went white, as if a mask had fallen away. That meant he had gone from being nuke-red mad to fixing to do something about it.
Keeping his gaze locked on Jed, Snake Eye nonetheless kept his eye at soft focus. If his peripheral vision, which was triple-fine, caught any sign the sec boss was preparing to order his men to kill the intruder Snake Eye would drop him instantly.
He would count on the confusion that would produce among the stupe’s blue-coated bully boys to buy him the time he needed to do whatever needed done. As he would count still further upon the proved principle that it is indeed easier to get forgiveness than permission.
The sec boss’s mouth, which had no more lip than Snake Eye knew his own to have, compressed. He read the mercie’s intent loud and clear.
He turned. “You should order this impertinent piece of filth torn apart between horses, General.”
Snake Eye smiled. “Feel free to try, gentlemen.”
Jed waved his sec boss off as he would a mosquito whose whine had begun to irritate him.
“That’s enough, Colonel Toth.” He fixed his eyes on Snake Eye, and his forehead rumpled even further into a frown.
“I admit you got me curious. What the fuck
you want, outlander? And what in the name of
glowing night shit
possessed you to barge in here to announce the murder of a member of my general staff?”