16: The Wild and the Innocent
Gus fell short of the cargo container and screamed in agony as her leg gushed scarlet. Delilah clattered to the floor, just out of reach. The bastards had their beams tuned poorly - that meant no cauterization. As the Deiopean hunter and fourth bull exchanged shots from cover, Gus’s sparring partner stood and smiled. With his rifle held high, he approached Gus with a look in his eyes that told her he was eager for the up-close kill. She dragged herself behind the container and waited.
“What’s the matter, little girl? Start something you couldn’t finish?” Cold irony dripped from his voice as he stalked closer. “You know, I’m kinda glad I missed the kill shot. How’s that leg feel? Hurts, doesn’t it? I’m going to put another beam through the other one. Then your arms. One at a time. Make you suffer for this.”
Gritting against the pain, nausea, and urge to pass out, Gus eyed Delilah. The big beam-shooter was only a few feet away but going for it meant leaving what little cover she still had. Desperate, she fumbled on her belt for anything she could use. All she had on her were coolant caps for Delilah, and Tilly’s whistle.
“Gotcha!” the bull shouted. He stepped around the cargo container and leveled his rifle at Gus. Without thinking, she shoved the whistle into her mouth and blew with everything she had. The high-frequency shriek cut through the air as cleanly as any laser beam. The bull screamed and dropped his rifle to cover his ears. The cruel, ugly gun landed in Gus’s outstretched hands. Without hesitation she aimed and fired a sizzling green beam through the bull’s chest.
She spat the whistle out into her hand and tossed the rifle aside in favor of Delilah’s familiar grip.
The final bull was in complete cover, firing and ducking from a position neither Gus nor her companion could reach. His radio squawked. Tunk. If he called this fight in, they’d all be dead. But the little hunter was already on it. They aimed their slug-thrower over the bull’s shoulder and tracked the wall’s edge, hunting for the best angle.
“Frasier to command!” the bull shouted into his radio. “Shots fired! Officers down! I repeat: Shots-” The hunter found their angle and fired. The metal slug ricocheted of the wall – twice - before striking the last bull square between his shoulder blades. He fell forward before finishing his sentence.
The hush of post-battle calm fell over the stables. After a hesitant moment, the eight captive Deiopeans slowly reappeared from their hiding places. As they huddled around Gus and the hunter their eyes flashed a new pattern. This one Gus took to mean “thank you.”
“Okay, okay. You’re welcome.” Gus’s head swam and she barely stayed on her feet. The wound on her leg was bleeding badly and screaming with every step. With a gust of wind and swirling dust-like gases, Tilly arrived at the stables and lowered her airlock lift. “Everybody onboard!” Gus said. “It won’t be long before reinforcements show up!” But they all just stared at her and didn’t move. “Let’s go!” Gus pointed at the lift, but still no one moved. Finally, Gus’s companion seemed to get the idea and flashed out a translation to the others.
As they scurried about the lift, Gus turned to the carriage the bulls had been escorting them to. Hoping to buy them a little extra time, she hobbled aboard and limped to the saddleroom. She dropped in the seat and looked over the controls. “Come on, come on. There!” She jabbed at buttons, gave the reigns a jerk, and set the thing to capsize in the dense atmosphere. By the time she made it back to the boarding ramp, the carriage was already beginning its automated departure sequence and was hovering a few feet from the stable floor. She stood in the hatch and braced herself for what she knew was going to be a rough landing, but before she could jump, the carriage lurched forward. Gus stumbled and fell from the hatch. She landed on the stable floor hard, with her wounded leg crumpled beneath her.
The world exploded in white-hot pain. Gus squeezed her eyes shut against the agony and fought to stay conscious, but it was a battle she was losing. Tiny hands groping at her injured calf brought her back from the brink of blacking out. It was the Deiopean hunter. They had a small octagonal box in one hand, open to reveal an assortment of tools and cloths. She didn’t recognize a lot of what was in the small box, she saw enough she could identify to realize it was a first aid kit – of a sort. Carefully, Gus’s small friend pulled a bandage from the kit and sprayed it with a sickeningly sweet-smelling foam. They then pressed it against the gash on her calf.
She hissed through gritted teeth, but it didn’t sting as she had expected. Instead, a cold, tingling sensation slowly spread from the wound, replacing the pain with soothing calm. A moment later whatever drug was on the bandage reached Gus’s brain like a shot of adrenaline. In an instant, she was on her feet and fully alert.
“Holy tunk!” She felt incredible! So good that she didn’t recognize the approaching voices as the reinforcement they were until it was almost too late. With the Deiopean hunter tugging anxiously on her poncho, Gus came to her senses. They had to be gone before the bulls’ backup showed up. Again, her companion was way ahead of her, and already pulling her towards Tilly.
She shook her head and tried to clear the euphoria as the lift brought them inside. But the drug’s effect was in full swing now – she’d just have to try to ride it out. Gus pushed through the crowd of small bodies that had gathered in Tilly’s cramped engine room. In a practiced motion, she swung herself into the saddle, clicked her spurs into place, and yanked on the reins. Tilly’s atmo-thrusters fired, and she climbed away from the Deiopean mining village into the cloud layer above.
Gus hitched Tilly up in the engineering corral stable where she had been since they arrived, bribed Emmitt’s crew with most the tobacco she had left (“My pony never left, and you never saw me.”) and herded her small group of natives towards Ray’s office. She led them down a dark alley in the fading light of the overcast afternoon to Ray’s office backdoor and banged on it as hard as she could. Her strength was fading. The drug’s initial effects were starting to wear off.
The door opened and Ray’s weathered face appeared. “Whose there?” he grunted. The barrel of his beam-splitter poked from the door jamb.
“It’s Gus, Ray. Open up,” she said, panting. There was still very little pain, but she had lost a lot of blood and was getting weak as the euphoria faded.
“What’s going on? Marshal!” Moe called from his cell.
Ray ignored him and opened the door, the concern on his face turning to surprise when nine small, hairy bodies pushed passed him. “What in tarnation?” His face screwed into a look of irritation. “Gus, what are you doing? Laszlo barely tolerated the natives being in town at all, if he finds out I’ve got… one, two, three… nine! Nine of ’em back here, there’ll be hell to pay!” He turned back to her just in time to catch her as she stumbled over the threshold. “Tunk, girl! You alright?”
“Gus!” Moe shouted. “Marshal, let me out. I can help!”
“Would you can it, Maurice?!” Ray shouted. He grunted as he half-carried, half-dragged Gus into the cell she had been calling home. When they made it to the cot, Ray finally saw the blood-soaked leg of her flight suit. “Christ’s blood, what the hell happened? You guys get into some kind of trouble on the hunt?” he asked. He gently pulled at the sticky material to get a better look at the Deiopean bandage.
“You could say that.” Gus groaned. She leaned back against the bars and told them everything that had happened since she had left the jailhouse early that morning. She admitted to the deal she and Tuco had made with Laszlo to keep Ray busy. And her discovery of what that deal really entailed. As she spoke, the eight would-be captive natives huddled together in another vacant cell, flashing complicated patterns of light and color at each other. The one who had asked for her help, the hunter, retrieved Ray’s translator from the desk and came to “listen.”
The tale was short and brutal, and when she finished a heavy silence hung in the cellblock air. Moe shook his head and was the first to break the silence. “Those bastards. The boss was right.”
But Ray was less convinced. “Right about what?” he said gruffly. “What exactly did you see? An empty village? So what? Maybe the spiders abandoned it themselves?”
“What about Emmitt?” Gus asked dryly.
Ray’s lips trembled and his eyes darted around the small cellblock, but he said nothing.
“Marshal, they plan to kill you next!” Moe protested.
Ray shook his head. “No. Laszlo and I go way back. He wouldn’t do this. He needs me here to keep Las Ráfagas legit. You heard him wrong or… or misunderstood. And then you killed four of his men! You don’t know what you’ve brought down on us.”
“Ray, Junior threw me out of a rutting wagon! What about Emmitt? This wasn’t some ’misunderstanding.’ The coward killed him and tried to kill me!”
But still Ray shook his head and wouldn’t accept it. “There must be some kind of rational explanation!” he insisted.
A new, unfamiliar voice cut it. It was synthetic and electronic: Ray’s translator. “It’s true,” the hunter said through the small device. “You soft-skins have taken our skies, refused to trade with us, and now, stolen our technology and kin. I must stop it now, before any more of my people’s lives are lost.” They turned to Gus. “You have helped us once. Will you help again? We can offer rubidium-87 as payment.”
The jailhouse was silent. Gus was getting sleepy and finding it hard to think. Emmitt was dead, likely putting the engineering corral’s fuel out of reach. And as far as anyone not in that room was concerned, she was as dead as the old engineer. It seemed like her options were limited now. But it was still an awful lot of risk for little reward.
Ray had fallen quiet when the Deiopean had spoken up and now looked despondent. “I’m sure this is all some sort of misunderstanding,” he said again. “I’m sure if we go talk to Laszlo directly, he’ll be able to sort this all out. I know he’s a little rough around the edges, but I just can’t picture him as this villain you’ve made him out to be.”
Ray’s continued skepticism brought Moe to hysterics. “Are you crazy?” he shouted through the bars. “If you confront him, he’ll gun you down on the spot! Or let one of those weasels he calls sons do it for him.”
“Ray,” Gus was feeling weaker every moment, “Moe’s right, you can’t go. But I don’t know what I can do. And a little fuel is… not much…” she trailed off.
“Oh, for the maker’s sake. If you help them, and get me out of here, I’ll help you steal the copperhead gold. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Is that enough for you? I don’t think you’re going to get a better payday than that now that you’re dead!” Moe’s shouting forced Gus back from the threshold of passing out.
The gold. She’d almost forgotten about it.
And the damn rob was right. She wasn’t going to be getting paid any other way. Gus reached out her hand to the Deiopean hunter. “Do you guys have names?” she asked.
“Yes,” they replied, “my name is-” but the translator cut out as the hunter’s eyes swirled with patterns of blue, green, and yellow light.
Gus smiled as the Deiopean took her hand. “It’s beautiful. How ’bout I call you ‘Aurora?’” The native nodded. “Great, then Aurora, you’ve got a deal,” Gus said before finally giving in to the growing weakness. She slumped over onto the cell cot, out cold.
Gus woke with a start and sat up so fast she banged her wounded leg against the edge of the cot and sent hot knives of pain shooting up her leg.
“Easy, easy. You’re alright.” It was Daniel Park, the town medic. And he wasn’t alone. Her little cell was crowded with people. She propped herself up to look around. There was a collective sigh of relief from the group. Moe stood against the bars between the cells, while Ray and Aurora stood closest to her. Both Brother Richard and Oscar Vega were there too, vying for space to get a good look at her. Daniel had to elbow them aside for room to work.
Judging from the dark sky Gus saw through the office window, she’d been out for at least a few hours. Her head was pounding and there was an IV jammed into her arm. “What happened?” she asked. She pulled the needle out with a wince.
“You lost a lot of blood and passed out. Things were touch and go there for a little while, but I think you’re okay now. You should have died,” he said matter-of-factly.
“What are you talking about?” Her head hurt too much for games.
“The beam destroyed your posterior tibial artery. You should have bled out in minutes. This is what saved your life.” He held up the bandage Aurora had applied. It was stained a deep, brick red, but still smelled faintly sweet.
“How?” she asked, still a little groggy.
“I’m not sure, exactly. But I can tell you this: no human bandage or treatment can do what I’ve seen your wound do in the last two hours. Something in the bandage promoted accelerated tissue growth. It’s incredible. You may have some discomfort and walk with a bit of a limp. But I think if you stay off it even those symptoms should disappear,” he said, still marveling at what he had seen. “I can’t be sure until I get it back to the lab, but I suspect it’s a completely different approach to medicine from ours.”
Gus tried to stand and stumbled when she tested the leg. Half a dozen hands reached out to catch her, but she waved them off and managed to stay up without help. It was more than a little discomfort, but it would have to do. “Alright,” she said as she steadied herself against the cell bars, “we’ve got to get the Deiopeans out of here and somewhere safe.”
“Whoa,” Daniel said, “I said you’ve got to stay off it for it to heal right.”
“There’s no time for that, Doc. Laszlo’s not gonna like that eight of his prisoners have escaped to tell the tale. We need to move them, now.”
“I have a place I can take them, at least for now,” Brother Richard said. “But it won’t be safe for the long term. We must be cautious.”
“Gus,” Oscar said, his voice was low, worried, “is my family in danger? Ray said-”
“Yes,” Gus cut him off, “but I don’t know anything more than that.”
Oscar’s face fell. “Then it’s come to this,” his voice was tired but full of quiet resolve. “We’ll fight.”
But it only made Gus angry. “No! Don’t you get it yet? Whatever they’re planning, whatever deal they’ve struck up with the CCO, Ray and your little group of rabble rousers are the only thing in the way. If they kill you, the others fall into line and he gets everything he wants. Can’t you see that? Take your family and go. Before the copperheads get here.”
“And just when is that?” Richard asked.
“Four days. That’s all the time you’ve got to come to your rutting senses and run. The lot of you,” Gus replied. “Your principles don’t mean tunk anymore. If you stay, you die. And Laszlo makes money on your wife and son’s corpses.”
“Why you arrogant, void-drifting, daughter of a whore.” Oscar’s temper finally broke and he took a wild swing at Gus. Even in her weakened state, she was able to dodge his clumsy blow, and deliver a haymaker of her own to the rancher’s jaw. Oscar fell back against the far cell bars, his eyes wide with surprise as he held his jaw.
At first, he looked as though he would stay down, but a fire lit in his eyes and he got to his feet ready for a fight. Fine, Gus thought, if this is the only way to convince you…
But before the little cell could break out into brawling, a pair of voices yelled from the Marshal’s Office foyer, on the other side of the wall.
“Yo! Uncle Ray!” one called out.
“You back there? We’ve got some bad news,” hollered the other.
The heavy cellblock door rattled in its frame as Aaron and Junior started banging on it.
Gus and Brother Richard locked eyes. They exchanged a small nod and Richard led the eight would-be slaves out the backdoor to whatever hidey-hole he had in mind. Daniel packed his few medical supplies, carefully wrapped the Deiopean bandage for further study, and followed Brother Richard and his small flock out the back door. The medic spared Gus one final look before going. “Gus-”
She nodded. “I know. Stay off the leg,” she said, knowing full well it was a promise she couldn’t keep. Daniel returned the nod slowly – he knew too – and disappeared into the alley.
“Ray! Wake up, we got something to talk about!” Bang, bang, bang! The Leconte boys were getting impatient.
“Yeah! Yeah, I’m coming!” Ray hollered back through the door, “Don’t get your panties in a twist.” Ray looked around his small jailhouse. With the Brother, medic, and natives gone, it was much less crowded, but Gus, Oscar, and Aurora would still be hard to miss if the Lecontes came through the heavy door. “I’ll take care of this,” he said, dropping his voice to a whisper. “You stay here.”
“Ray-” Gus whispered, but it was too late. He was already through the door. She hobbled out of the cell and to the big door as fast as her leg would carry her. She reached it just in time and caught the door with the tip of a booted toe before it could close.
“What’s goin’ on back there?” she heard Junior ask through the cracked door. Tuco was with them too, but he was uncharacteristically quiet and seemed unusually interested in the toes of his own boots.
Ray, never one to lie when the truth would do, said “Just a little scuffle with some townsfolk. Nothing I can’t handle.”
“I bet it’s that rob-lover Vega, ain’t it?” Aaron sneered. “If you need a hand with that, Uncle Ray, you just let me know.” Oscar tensed visibly.
“I’ve got all the help I need, thank you boys. And speaking of, where’s my deputy at? I would have expected her back from your little outing hours ago.”
“That’s actually one of the reasons we’re here, Ray,” Junior replied. “There was an incident this morning.”
“What kind of ‘incident?’” Ray was faking his concern remarkably well.
“We were ambushed by a spider raiding party. I’m sorry to say we lost four of my brother’s best men - and your deputy - in the fighting. We barely escaped with our lives.” He tossed something shiny to Ray. It bounced off the old man’s chest and fell into his hands.
Gus’s deputy badge.
“I don’t believe it,” Ray said breathlessly.
Mistaking his disbelief at their lie for shock, Junior shook his head sympathetically and continued. “Horrific, I know. I only wish we had managed to kill them all in the initial attack. The savages that got away went on to steal a personnel carriage. I doubt they’ll show up here, but you’re officially under orders to turn any spider you find in town over to Aaron. Is that understood?”
“Now hold on just a second,” Ray protested. “You mean to tell me that not only is my deputy dead, if I find her killers in my jurisdiction, I have to turn them over to you? That’s not how this works, and you boys know it.”
Junior’s calm demeanor did not waver. “The four men who were killed were all close, personal friends of my brother’s.”
“My life will never be the same without them,” Aaron chimed in and did his best to look sad. He just looked constipated.
“Aaron’s claiming jurisdiction on this one, Uncle Ray.” Junior glared the marshal, daring him to argue. “If you don’t like it, you can take it up with our father.”
Ray’s moustache bristled as he snorted impatiently. “Is that all, or can I get back to my work? I’ve got a lot to do now that I’m on my own again,” he said and gave the Leconte brothers a stink eye of his own.
The boys exchanged a look. “As a matter of fact, there is one more thing,” Junior said.
Aaron smiled and clapped the quiet Tuco on the back. “Our friend Tuco here has agreed to turn his bounty-head over to our father. For a handsome sum, o’ course.”
Tuco didn’t look up from his boots.
“And what’s that supposed to mean to me?” Ray asked.
“We’re taking the rob, Ray,” Junior snapped. “Get the walking scrapyard ready to move.”