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Authors: James Axler

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BOOK: No Man's Land
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Chapter Eleven

“So here’s where we are,” said the officer, bending over and pointing to an ancient contour map.

He was Lieutenant Tillman Owens, the fresh-faced blond kid who’d brought the companions into the Uplander camp in the first place. Ryan gathered that Baron Al liked to rotate his junior officers into staff duty and then back out into the field on a pretty much daily basis. It was an unorthodox system, even by the standards of the day. But Ryan saw the point to it, clear enough. And he reckoned the Trader, his old boss and mentor, would approve.

“And here,” he said, moving his finger south, “are the Protector lines. And back here’s where you struck the wag convoy.”

Ryan nodded. He and his people knew all this, of course. But the baron had told the lieutenant to get them up-to-date on the military situation, something that could be important to their continued survival. So it was important to Ryan. The kid was simply making sure they started on the same page; he had no quarrel with that.

“Now you’ll notice, as you no doubt did when you rode across the country both ways, there’s not much terrain of any kind of strategic importance we’re battling over here. Some high points, some low points, some streams draining into the Des Moines. But we’re both fighting on this side of the river, which is the only significant barrier to way deep in the Association territory.”

“Did make a bit of an impression, son,” J.B. said, polishing his glasses with his handkerchief.

“Well, the land you rode over, which our two armies are battling over, happens to be prime growing land, which was originally settled, years and years back, by what are now called Uplanders—us. But the cattle barons downstream, the ones who eventually formed the Association, grew bigger and stronger than we were. First they pushed us back into the Uplands. Then they actually conquered us.”

Ryan sat frowning in a folding chair. “Don’t see how all this history stuff loads a single magazine for us,” he said.

“Mebbe it doesn’t, Ryan,” J.B. said. “But then again, how will we know until we hear it?”

Ryan looked at his old friend in surprise. The Armorer seldom said much, never without a point to make, and the points he made were invariably good. That wasn’t the same as right, but Ryan wasn’t triple-stupe enough to imagine anybody was right all the time.

With his left thumbnail he scratched his neck beneath the turn of his right jawbone. “So how does knowing any of this help us?”

“Seeing as how we’re fighting alongside these people,” J.B. said, “just seems to make good sense to have some idea what their stake in the whole fandango is. All respect to you, Lieutenant, it’s good to know what kind of skin your people got in this game. Is it serious blood business, or just some baron’s ego-puffing party, and the people who got our flanks and backs are liable to vanish like an old white dandelion head in the first puff of wind?”

Owens shrugged.

“Fair enough, Mr. Dix,” Ryan said.

“Dark night! Don’t call me that, boy. Just getting my bones in motion each and every morning makes me feel old enough for any given day.”

Ryan felt his frown deepening. “All right,” he growled at last. “You’re right, J.B. I was blind not so see that.”

“Baron Al’s ancestor,” the young officer went on after a brief uncomfortable pause, “mebbe fifty, sixty years back, led the rebellion that drove out the Association overlords. His newly formed Uplands Alliance reclaimed the territory we sit in now, and a ways beyond it south. Two sides have been swapping off control of it ever since.”

“So it’s a pretty long-standing grudge,” Mildred said. “That’s like an underground fire, like in a root system or cool seam. You might not always see it, but know it’s there. Might not even smell the smoke. But one of those can burn forever, and there’s no telling when it might suddenly burst out in a full-on blaze.”

The lieutenant looked at her a moment with blue eyes wide, then he laughed.

“Never thought of it that way before, Miz Wyeth,” he said. “That explains a lot, though, now that you mention it. Especially considering how peace was concluded just last autumn after six months of stalemate.”

“How was that evidence of a long-simmering grudge, young man?” Doc wanted to know. He was focused and attentive. He saw the possible merit of this history lesson as clearly as J.B. did. Not too surprising, given his own training and history. It meant he was staying sharp and in the moment.

“Well, when talks began, both sides agreed to pull back and leave a no-man’s-land. Snow was coming on, and that always makes campaigning hard. An agreement was reached.

“But then at a midwinter gathering to celebrate the final signing of the treaty, Jessie Rae got in a screaming fight with Jed’s wife, and it was back on like donkey pong. Are you feeling distressed, Miz Wyeth? Should I call for an orderly to bring you water or something?”

Mildred waved him off. Her expression suggested to Ryan she was trying to choke back laughter. “I’m fine,” she said. “I just don’t know which hurts worse—the way you mangle a phrase from my own time, or the realization it somehow survived.”

He frowned his incomprehension. “Your time?”

“Her childhood,” Krysty said brightly. “Mildred has a nostalgic streak, you see.”

Mildred shot her friend a narrow-eyed look under lowered brows, then her face began to smooth as she realized she’d screwed up. The fact she was a freezie, born way back before the Big Nuke, wasn’t common knowledge, nor was it the sort of knowledge that would do her—or her friends—a bit of good. People feared and hated that which they didn’t understand.

“Uh, yeah,” Mildred said. “I grew up...someplace pretty far from here. Remote, too. So it always kind of surprises me when I, you know, hear or see something that reminds me of my...homeland.”

“Oh.” From his expression the lieutenant didn’t really catch what she was talking about. But he also pretty clearly decided it was his fault for not getting hold, and he’d rather plow on than look like more of a stupe, which suited Ryan down to the ground.

“ thing that sorta helps things along—and please don’t let on as to how I told you—the baron’s wife, Miz Jessie Rae, happens to be the younger sister of Joyleen Kylie.”

Ryan sat back. He felt his eyebrows crawling up his forehead.

“Wait,” Ricky said. “Isn’t that a security risk?”

J.B. looked a bit stern at that—the kid was his protégé, after all, and his habit of blurting ran directly counter to the Armorer’s taciturn nature and instincts. For his point, Ryan thought it was a double-good question.

But to his increased surprise the lieutenant burst out laughing.

“Sorry, no way you’d know,” he said, reining himself back into businesslike-briefing mode, though not without a smile tugging mischievously at the corners of his mouth. “Two women hate each other like owls and crows. They can’t spend longer than mebbe ten minutes in a room without one flying right up into the other’s face, screeching and clawing. And so it proved to be the end of the peace celebration.”

He sighed. “Also the peace.”

“You are a likely young buck,” Doc said, “to say nothing of a cavalry officer, one whom we’ve seen display the customary élan of the breed. Yet you seem distressed at the resumption of that very war that brings you the prospect of glory.”

Owens looked uncomfortable. “Well, glory has its place, I give you that, Professor,” he said. “But I’ve seen what war costs us. My family—all of the Uplanders. Nuke, I’ve seen what it does to the common folk in the Association, too. Most of them are just victims, got no more say in what their masters do than their dogs do. Less than some of the landowners’ favored hunting dogs, I’d say.

“Plus, I’ve seen what it costs my men. Glory doesn’t look so glorious when some kid who you grew up friends with your whole life is rolling around in the grass kicking and clutching at a ball through the belly. Nor sound nor smell so triple-fine, either.”

“Good for you, kid,” Ryan said. “Lots of people never notice that fact even when the blood and shit’s spattering the toes of their boots, which in the present case translates to you’re less likely to do something triple-ass stupe because it’ll make you feel like a big hero, and get us all chilled.

“You gave us the background, and I admit I can see that might be of some use somewhere down the line. But now, how about we get to counting blasters? What do they have? What do we have?”

Owens nodded. His smile quit trying to grab control of his face. He had no trouble going all-business now.

“Fact is, Mr. Cawdor—” he began.

“Rad-blast!” Ryan exclaimed. “J.B.’s right. That ‘mister’ shit just makes me feel old. Chill that, boy. Call me Ryan, if you feel moved to use a name.”

“As you will, Mist— Uh, Ryan. The fact is, the Protectors got the edge on us in pretty near every way you might care to put a name to. They got more land, and are richer. Hence, more men, more blasters. More horses and cannon, and more fodder for the lot of them.”

“But your people have managed to keep the war going since you won your independence from the lowland barons,” Krysty said.

The lieutenant nodded. He scratched a pink cheek that Ryan doubted would muster anything rougher than peach fuzz for another few years yet. Should the youth live and all.

“I guess that gets back to, uh, J.B.’s concern about how motivated we Uplanders are,” he said. “The fact is it’s only that we’re willing to fight like badgers for every inch of soil that keeps them from rolling us right down like a buffalo stampede. Sure, we have pretty fair defensive terrain. Fairly broken country, good cover readily available. As the Association found out when we booted their asses back to the lowlands.

“But down here it’s just nothing but guts and mebbe being too triple-stupe to know when we’re beat that allows us to hang on to anything. We need this growing land to feed our people. But the open country that’s so fertile and all also allows their advantages in numbers to come into play.”

He looked from one of their faces to the next. “Mebbe I’m about to speak out of turn, here,” he said, “seeing as you’re hired mercies and all, but Baron Al trusts a man with the job he gives him, even us junior officers. He told me to brief you straight, so straight is how I’ll give it to you.

“It seems like only a matter of time until they bring us down, this go-round. Baron Al’s a shrewd old bast—baron. Oh, he may not look it or sound like it, and Jessie Rae and some of the better-polished officers like Colonel Turnbull are always on him to quit acting like such a hayseed. But he likes it that way, and not just ’cause it fits him like an old pair of shoes. It inclines people to underestimate him. He likes that.”

“But even his cunning has its limits, am I correct?” Doc asked.

“Baron Kylie doesn’t have triple-many flies on him, either,” Owens said. “I know he likely didn’t make the best impression on you-all, there at the outset. He’s got a short temper and isn’t a particularly kind man at the best of times. But he’s triple-smart, too. Got to be, to hang on to power in the lowlands like he does.

“Association isn’t like us in the Alliance. Political power’s a big prize to them. They play the game for blood—win or die.”

Ryan pressed his lips together. He wondered if in fact the Alliance was as immune to power games as young Owens so fondly believed. A baron’s son himself, he found himself inclined to doubt it. But seeing to that part of the youth’s education wasn’t part of his mission. Seeing to the welfare of his own was. Owens was a good kid, but he wasn’t an insider.

“So you told us your commanding general will trust a man to do his assigned job,” he said, “no matter how low in rank. Question is whether Al will listen to a kid like you.”

Owens frowned, considering. “Baron Al listens to anybody he thinks talks sense,” he said, “no matter how high or low. But he’ll help you if he thinks you
talking sense. High or low.”

Ryan nodded. That squared with his assessment of the man. But he hadn’t brought himself and his people this far taking anything for granted.

“Here’s the deal,” he said. “What if we had an idea of how to speed things up, win the war for your Alliance? Mebbe not all time—wars don’t usually end for all time, unless everybody on one side’s chilled—but for the time being? I reckon that’s the sort of thing he’d best hear first from one of his own, instead of what you so rightly term mercies.”

“Why would mercies want to speed up the end of a war?” Owens said. His face flushed beet-red. “Sorry, no disrespect. But I mean—”

J.B. chuckled. “At ease, kid,” he said. “Natural you’d think we’d want to spin the gig out, as long as we could.”

He paused to take off his glasses and wipe the lenses with his hankie.

“Natural but wrong. In our case, anyway. We’re not too fond of the whole fighting thing ourselves. As far as mercie work’s concerned, getting paid to guard stuff or keep the peace is miles more comfortable. Also survivable.”

“I calculate,” Ryan said, “if we can play a big enough role in bringing events to a satisfactory conclusion, a man like Baron Al might feel moved to generosity.”

“You bet he would!” Owens exclaimed, visibly nonplussed. “The baron might even be able to find land for them to settle in. Give you-all status among us Uplanders. A permanent place and stake.”

Not looking at Krysty, whose green eyes were on him big and as bright as beacons, Ryan slid past that comment by agreeing.

“I think I see a way to get the Alliance an advantage,” he said, “and how we can help you do that thing. And as I say, I reckon it’s best if somebody on the inside broaches that notion to Al on our behalf.”

“I’m listening,” Owens said, trying not to sound too eager—failing, but he was smart enough to try. Ryan reckoned he was a pretty good kid. Smart, committed to his cause. He might even live to a ripe old age. Not that the odds ever favored that outcome, in this here and now.

“Then listen close,” Ryan said, not failing to note the way all his companions leaned in tight, if anything more eager to hear what he was about to say than the cavalry officer was. “I got a plan....”

BOOK: No Man's Land
12.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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