Codger On Kansas

Codger on Kansas

by Joseph S. Brown III

Codger rarely made it clear to anyone except Jane Hansen, where his tasks would take him. Learned over the years it was better that way, and for the most part his arrival anywhere was a surprise. Ben flagged him down. “Hi Sheriff”, said Lepsen. “Can you give me a hand?” He pointed to a copse of trees that hid the side road as it bent behind the growth. “My wagon is around the corner, and it lost a wheel.”

“Sure Ben.” Codger was investigating the suspicious disappearance of a kitten. He dismounted and led his pony as the two walked down the side road toward the trees. His job required caution and inquiry, which was also part of his consciousness. “What happened?”

Ben looked thoughtful. “A wheel nut came loose, nothing more serious. I retraced my path and found it in the dust.” Ben Lepsen had a history of minor neglect for his equipment that the sheriff had both been told of and had observed. Ben went on talking about all sorts of agricultural things as they moseyed around the bend.

Codger sized up the sight of the wagon: not too heavily loaded and on a flat road. Ben had a tree trunk properly levered on piled rocks to lift the wagon. “… and I can’t hold the wagon up with the lever and put on the wheel at the same time.”

“I don’t see any difficulties,” replied the sheriff, and went about raising the wagon while Ben installed the wheel.

Being idle, Codger spent his time inspecting the wagon contents and the surrounding area: quality produce – Lepsen did not neglect his crops, and no kitten in the wagon. It was always good practice for the sheriff to gather-in a spot for the future. Ben had pulled the felled tree from the spot of mashed grass where it lay within the copse, and by custom it would be left in sight about five feet off the roadside. He found no signs of any tree cutting here, which would have meant a fine. Satisfied, he turned his attention to the songs of the birds.

Planet 473A-MKK3-773R-AAA2-3. The groundswell among the settlers leaned toward naming it ‘Kansas’ and ‘Splendor’ and ‘Diligence’. Children had taken to calling it ‘Gee Whiz’, and a pair of families in the hills lobbied for ‘Hatfield-McCoy’. Two families had each taken one name, and the “feud” consisted of pranks and practical jokes. The sheriff had to keep an eye on them, and there had been quite a brace of stern lectures with a few minor fines. Part of his authority included the study of the planet’s birds. The thought was, in his job he traveled more than did any settler. While most settlers would come out of the woodwork once in a week or in a month, the sheriff would travel almost every day. Lepsen was bringing goods to market, and traveled so little, he did not think to inspect his wagon before heading out.

The wheel was on, the tree and fulcrum rocks moved off the road. “Ben, I think you might consider checking your wagon each time before you go.”

“Guess you’re right, Sheriff. Wheel never came off before so I didn’t think about -“

“Ben, we’ve got company!” Mounting his pony, Codger was watching the sky and did not look away. “Will you please warn everybody?” he settled into the saddle for a long, fast run. He pulled his field glasses and looped them around his neck.

Ben had been stowing his tools as he talked. His arms stopped in midair at the sheriff’s alarm, and he looked to see him staring skyward, saw the streak himself. “Sure, Sheriff, you have my word.” Then added, “You be real careful. If they’re from Break, they might be up to anything.”

The sheriff’s gaze far into the sky did not waver. “Thanks, Ben. I’ll do that”, and he spurred his pony. Without looking behind, Codger was confident Lepsen was already in action. Both knew what the descending spaceship might mean, and both knew it might mean more than they could imagine. He needed to focus everything only on the streak that followed the ship now descending through the atmosphere, or he would lose it. Thankfully he had been facing that way when it had appeared: looking down into the bushes for a kitten might have prevented detection.

There were half a dozen steeds in his stable. Two were strictly ‘packers’ for heavy transport. Of the others, knowing about the kitten he had chosen the ‘puncher’ which was small but more wily and agile. The pony was a better choice for moving among the brush and forests. The two thoroughbreds would have been a better choice for the distance he had to now cover, but they were back on his ranch and there was no time. The puncher was on the road and moving fast.

Codger had not wavered from watching the ship. Distraction now would lose it for him, and if that happened, he would need to ground track them – possibly for days. It had entered the atmosphere above him and even now he could estimate where it would come close to the surface. Depending on who they were and their intentions, the ship might come low and ride along the surface to hide. He wanted to get there before they could begin to sneak.

The ship had left behind its high-atmosphere vapor trail. He had his field glasses fixed on the hull. Clever device, these glasses were able to latch onto the distant object and hold it. He could watch the ship as the pony ran hard. In the motions of following the road and over bumps, the ship would momentarily jump out of view, and the glasses would bring it back. He kept the field glasses well serviced – and not for kittens! Though he had been looking at the ship for a while, it worried him that the type was not yet known to him. Would it be a new type of visitor as well?

The ship continued to descend, coming to the surface on his horizon. He was closing in on the landing area when it happened. Rounding a blind bend in the road, the pony immediately came upon an impala. The animal looked and behaved like the antelope species of Earth but this planet’s version was over three meters long and weighed almost two tons! At the beginning, someone had called up the record of a twentieth century automobile that weighed two tons whose model name was ‘Impala’, and the name stuck.

There was no time for much thought or to stop, and the pony shied to the left as they approached. Luckily, the startled impala jumped to the right, and the pony got by with no room to spare. Despite the closing distance with the craft, in the huge shifts and rapid jostle to avoid collision, the field glasses lost the ship!

Hunkering down in the saddle, he settled in for more speed and the pony moved a little better. Had he been riding one of the thoroughbreds, the meeting could have been a fatal collision for the thoroughbred, maybe for the impala, and maybe for the sheriff. If the larger hoss had been able to turn enough to avoid the impala, its lack of agility would have sent them careening full speed into the trees… Codger decided not to think about that, returning his focus to the ship. The glasses would chime if they found it again, but he did not expect them to see it before it slipped below the horizon.

Break was the local nickname for a nearby planet’s colony: shortened from earlier ‘Bad Break’. Most of the settlers had migrated here as the impossibilities of thriving there had revealed themselves over the last years. All settlers were welcomed with open arms, each given a grubstake, and like settlers everywhere, they dug in and took to building. Shuttle ships landed on the other side of the planet, so this was not settlers!

Some holdouts stayed on Break. It was to have become a space transport shipyard, and the planet held endless minerals of every kind. Planning models had appeared to all be sound and hopeful, but as it can be with any frontier, the unexpected things began to add up in the negative column for Break. Soon it was clear that the colony was doomed to fail, and each pilgrim came onto the decision and drifted. Most traveled here where there was open prairie and water for all, while other new worlds accepted the rest. Codger did not recognize the type of ship, and he guessed it to be a new model dreamed up by their engineers. It could be anything from anywhere.

He rode out the morning and through majority of the day, once stepping down to let his pony drink and chew grass for a spell. In his saddlebags he found the cakes Jane Hansen had packed. Widowed, Jane had come from Break a while ago. She was from farmer stock and had married a dashing test pilot. She went from fixing tractors to building control panels on Break. She arrived here in mourning, and Codger offered her a place to stay in exchange for house duties. The arrangement had worked well for a long spell and her whole grubstake was waiting for her in the bank. Her salary had permitted the financing of a small spread about twenty kilometers from his place. On the far side of the spread was wilderness, which she had optioned to purchase in the future. Colony Agricultural Services had contracted her extended spread and were training new settlers there. Each class of settlers cleared, plowed, and planted a new section for her, and the spread was expanding rapidly. She would do well.

Of late, there had been some big setbacks on Break and more than a few had died in the calamities. There now was a steady stream of arriving refugees and many were eligible men. Jane Hansen is an honorable woman, of good humor, and attractive. He sensed that her mourning was closing, and expected soon enough, she would start formally entertaining gentlemen. Codger imagined that the couple’s swing on the front porch was going to get a lot of business in the next few months!

A clever thought: when he got back, he’d paint the porch swing bright red. She would sure get real frosted about that! He imagined doors slamming and pots banging in the kitchen. A cold, tasteless meal or two and no words. The next day he would repaint it perfect white. She would calm down and sooner or later, laugh at his teasing. An honorable woman. He cherished the cakes, knowing that soon her cooking would feed another.

By mid afternoon, he rode into the landing region and stopped on a high spot in the road that permitted a long view. He chose a place that had a large rock behind it, so he could not be silhouetted on the horizon and easily spotted – an old trick. They were out there somewhere across the vast plain in front of him. Losing sight of the ship had opened the probable landing footprint to a size that was unmanageable, and he had been watching from this spot too long. He needed to move, but he did not yet know to where.

The afternoon was hot, and vapor caused most parts of the surface to shimmer in the heat. The ship was unknown and could have been from anywhere. Break engineers would have counted on everyone’s hesitation to engage a ship with unknown power and intentions. And it had worked: that ship could have been from another galaxy for all he could be certain, so additional caution was slowing his moves.

He saw something – smoke! Craning around in the saddle and raising his field glasses, he scanned the area from which the smoke had caught his eye, but it had vanished before the glasses settled in for viewing. After a moment, he saw a second gray puff against the green. Before it lifted from a valley to above nearby rock formations and trees, it dissolved as he watched: Ken & Martha Drury’s spread, and away from the house. It was too far for the glasses to cut through the heat waves shimmering between, so there were no details on the ground. He spurred for speed. Ken had children. A bunch of them were adopted so, if this was kidnap, it was serious in both crime and magnitude.

He rode in careful but not slow. As he got closer, he neutralized three remote detectors by stunning each, pulling their firmware to plug into his own remotes, then letting his units continue their tours. The drones reported as programmed, responded to every random hail from the renegade command, yet were also programmed to not see him or his pony. Old trick. Most importantly, humans made them.

He drew close and there was no open space here for the pony to navigate quietly. For the last two kilometers, he left the puncher in a thicket and advanced through stealth and training. Now closer, he poked his head around an upright boulder and saw it all. Lang!

In front of the man were a hundred or so children: one hundred and three, he counted. Drury’s lot along with the net of dozens of raids of neighboring ranches. As he watched, more wagons poured in, driven by Breakers, with bound settlers and children on the deck.

To the side, a single youngster was hog-tied next to a blackened pair of spots where patches of dry grass had been lit with remote detonators, now smashed and on the ground. This had been the smoke signal! The larger had been first, with a smaller patch the one that set the sheriff moving. The child had not been hurt, but was clearly tied as to be uncomfortable.

It was to be a grab-and-go affair. The ship had landed and dropped twenty or so Breakers. He could see a dozen and figured more were still out on missions. Children were corralled on the green field in front of the ship. A stockade had come with the ship, and it had been anchored to the ground on his left. The stockade’s shipboard weight was to be replaced by the children. Inside the barricade, grownups were pressed against the bars, emotionally magneted to their children. Some grownups were hurt, probably in fighting back.

At the founding of the colony, Lang began managing a great part of Break’s infrastructure and had been in high levels of command since. As times got tougher, he had grown tougher as well. This was too tough. Whether it was for ransom or was child stealing to fill some need, this raid was way beyond anything expected. The sheriff would have to stop it now, and the Breakers had options to make that tricky, hiding behind either the children or the adults.

Lang looked at his wrist comm and then straight up. There! Another ship! The field glasses revealed a ship descending out of space from directly above, with no pretense of its nature. It bristled with firepower and would be in position on the ground in less than twenty minutes. Codger did not hesitate to use his own comm to call out the posse. This situation had become more than he could handle alone.

Twenty minutes was not a long time, and he wasted none as he moved silently down to the valley floor, close to the action. The sounds became clearer of both parents and children crying, anger from parents, and the return of all the Breakers at the final completion of all the raids. The crew began to herd children toward the waiting transport, which heightened the voices of parents and children.

The Breaker battleship continued to drop from above. As it closed, suddenly it swerved to the South and rather abruptly dropped to the surface, appearing to crash, but with no sound other than its engine whine. When the wind cleared away the dust, the ship was almost two hundred yards away from the raiders, hovering a few feet above the ground.

It began to hum, and the harmonics reached Codger’s feet through the soil. Lang was yelling angrily into his comm: the ship’s crew had spotted the posse. That had prompted the last-minute dive to the surface and the hum, but everybody knew it was too late. The posse was coming and the raider ship had arrived from space. Their systems needed time to adjust to this planet’s gravitational fields: for much of the power systems, many components’ molecules must be realigned to conform to the planet so the protective shields could be projected with strength. This took precious minutes and time had run out.

Over the far mountains, roared the posse – Codger’s sixth steed. It measured a quarter-mile across and there was nothing but business about it. It had covered the distance of almost half the planet in thirty minutes, and slowed to steam down into the valley toward the battleship. Since it was of this planet, the fields were full and solid. As the huge disk came close, it began to glow and was soon covered in a thin veil of white. The Breaker battleship would maximize its alignment with the planet by not moving, and also began to glow, beginning in the violet, then green then red, but the color change stopped there and held. Not enough. The posse closed the gap until the fields touched, then held in place, ready for the order.

From the North, many dozens of wagons had begun to crest the near ridge, speeding down into the valley filled with armed settlers, ready for anything. Lepsen had moved the group to follow the Sheriff, and observing the posse’s path had revealed the last vector. The Breakers saw them and slowed to a stop in what each was doing to watch the wagons close. To Codger, settlers were a welcome sight and the nearest would be here in two minutes.

He rigged the deadman’s switch. If it triggered, the posse would move only a few centimeters closer to the battleship. With its superior command of gravity, it would send a signal beneath the Breaker ship, slicing all of the gravitational cords of power. The backlash into the invader’s systems would be slightly uneven beneath the spacecraft, which would flip the ship over, onto its back like a turtle. The force would be such that everyone inside would be dead before the fractured carcass of the vessel hit the ground. Lang could just stand there, helpless and in failure.

The sheriff stepped out of his concealment. “Lang, I am the Sheriff. You are under arrest. Surrender.” He watched Lang steel and turn to face him. Nothing but anger showed in his face. “Lang, nobody’s been bad hurt yet. Your battleship is done. You are facing charges and will be paying restitution. You and your men, put down your weapons and come quietly.”

The Breakers almost as a man dropped their guns and began walking toward the stockade – someone had already gamed out that possible move before they had landed. Children ran in every direction, mostly toward their parent as the stockade gate was opened. The battleship had shut down its field just after the posse touched it. Codger then idled but did not disable the dead man’s switch, and the posse’s hum diminished to a whisper. He could see the first ship’s crew was filing out and toward the stockade, and he expected the battleship crew would soon join them. The settlers’ wagons had arrived, forming a skirmish line all along the northern slope, only a stone’s throw from the Breakers. Though he did not look away from Lang, he expected all their eyes to be on Lang as well. There was no talk among the arriving troops, just thoughtful waiting for it to end.

Lang stood still and did not take his eyes off of the sheriff walking forward to make the arrest. Then, Lang moved.

The sheriff had anticipated it and began a dive to the right when Lang’s gun pulsed. The energy bolt hit him in the left arm, square above the elbow, and spun him. The shock of the blast was harsh and his leap to the right became an uncontrolled tumbling spiral. The energy tackled his nervous system, confusing his motor skills. He had no use of his left arm and could not balance. As he crashed to the ground, all he could do was look up for Lang’s second shot.

It never came. Blasts from many sources cut the man down where he stood. Then, silence. No cheers or words from the settlers. The Breakers who had stopped to watch, lowered their heads and turned back toward the stockade. There was only the quiet grimness that follows shock.

The next few minutes were confusion, with people swarming him, trying to help. He dully watched as someone began wrapping his arm. There was so much blood! All were chattering, until one firm female voice cut through the others. “Stand aside!” Movement stopped and space parted for Jane Hansen. “I’ll take care of him. You all go help the children.”

As she quickly got to him, the group moved to the families. She looked over the hastily bandaged arm. “Hello Codger. Think you can walk?”

“Yeah,” She helped him up and they made the short trudge to her spring wagon. She sat him down on the tailgate, activated the medical modules, and began the ugly task of removing the bandage placed moments before. There was worse ahead for him! Already he could feel changes in his whole body from shock and damage. He was still bleeding and there was severe mental confusion from the energy pulse hitting his nervous system. Jane was here.

“Jane, why did they kill Lang? There was no need.”

Silently, she shortly reached a point in the unwrapping where she could hold the soaked bandage in place for a moment with only small increased compromise to him. She looked up. “Lang knew you were unarmed and not a physical threat. You had used your skill and courage – and by the book, to catch him red-handed, and to defeat him.”

“The need was a human need. A man who had already shown violence against us, shot a law enforcement officer in front of children. We showed our children the need to protect the law and those who keep it.”

“When you have thought it out, you will realize we had no choice. Not just for your sake, but for the sake of our children. Lang should have known when he made his move that we would have to stop him from killing you.”

She looked him square in the eyes, nodded, then went back to the arm. “I suppose this is all going to boil down to improving our efforts to get people off of Break. Guess there might even be a new discussion of starting a spacecraft industry here, importing materials from them. Those who want to stay there can create the components and we would build ships here.” Her voice trailed off as she became focused on the task at hand.

In the years of law enforcement, this was the first time he had been serious hit, and it was clear Lang meant to kill him. Drifting through a dozen settlements of new planets, it had never come to this. All had known human lives were too valuable for bloodshed, too important to waste even one future. He pondered what would make this ever change? What did it mean?

Jane had administered something. He felt it relax his body more than he mentally perceived it, which meant he was pretty bad off. It prompted him into other streams of thought. What was next?

“Did anyone find the kitten?”

Not skipping a beat. “Under their neighbor’s porch. Good thing you were down here too, and not on the other side of the planet.”

Codger recalled and quoted the twenty-first century poet, “On such small things may worlds bend” – the classic pun on Euclid – or was it Archimedes? He couldn’t recall properly. Then, his voice seemed to go away, like the drugs or the damage had silenced him. He sensed it was probably part of the cocktail meant to prepare him for field surgery.

The battleship as a vessel of war, was to be towed by the posse for impoundment. The transport ship landed on the Drury spread, which means that the Drury clan is instantly the very wealthy owner of a brand-spankin’ new spacecraft. Codger expected to see many more adopted children the next time he visited this loving family.

The posse’s intelligence had kept up with the events and its fields had gone inert when he had deactivated the dead man’s switch completely. The two thoroughbreds released themselves from stalls on the posse and were ferrying injured folk to nearby care centers. The packers would be used to transport the torn-down stockade off of Drury’s place as soon as possible. He looked over to see his pony had moseyed down and was grazing nearby. The puncher had carried him more than two thousand kilometers in the fast run, so he docked an order for it to board the posse for the ride home: the order would activate in a time when it had grazed on this good grass for a while. He would be riding home in the spring wagon, sharing its medical support modules. The sheriff accepted that the settlers could handle everything on the ground. He could presently go off duty, to bed rest until he was better. Accounts from all the witnesses would be enough evidence for now, so his reports could wait until his mind had again cleared after surgery. He mentally closed the few open issues and memory strands of the case, until he was satisfied.

As she worked, Jane Hansen’s thoughts went to the children as they scattered to their families. Parents with their tears the children could not completely appreciate. The battleship, and what it meant about the behavior of humans. Breakers who, though they had injured many and meant to do more harm, would themselves not be harmed through human grace and fundamental hope. Codger – to the love and respect she felt for this giant among men: he still needed to be saved from death. Also to Lang, who got himself killed within a logic she did not yet understand.

The sheriff gave Jane Hansen a fading smile and slurred, “I am going off duty… now.”

“Acknowledged,” for the record. She lifted the thumb-sized safety cover on a medical module and pressed a button to inject anesthesia – a move delayed by interplanetary law until Codger had released his Sheriff Augment Sensorium to ‘off duty’ status. In a few more minutes, she would have done it anyway and faced the courts for this man’s life.

Jane kissed Codger’s cheek as he slumbered, wiped her swelling tears on a sleeve, and continued isolating and unbolting his left arm from his torso. The medical modules had completely locked the arm to prevent spasms that would have the power to crush her, the waiting medical team, and the spring wagon.

Codger dreamed that Jane would think the red porch swing was funny.

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