Last Chance – a small town set on the edge of the far frontier. It is a place of gentle manners and common civility. After all, it should be since more than three quarters of its residents are women. However times change when a Talent Master runs rampant, savages threaten war, and an illegal militia from an alternate universe plans invasion and empire. A hero is needed. A Savior. Meet Aaron Turner, the small unassuming man who runs the Last Chance General Store. He is this town’s–this world’s–only hope. Unfortunately for the town, Aaron also happens to be a soldier and Militia spy whose job is to prepare the ground for the Militia’s invasion. To help him with this task, he has a cellar filled with advanced weaponry and the unique ability to teleport between the two worlds. However after a year of living within Last Chance, Aaron is no longer sure in which direction his loyalties lie.
The three Bayne children were anxiously waiting when he got back to the store. At fifteen, Cathy was the most useful. A hard worker, she made sure eleven-year-old Missy and seven–year-old Doyle stayed out of Aaron’s way while she worked. An hour’s labor dusting shelves, sweeping and arranging earned them six coppers seven bits, just short of the ten coppers needed for a half gold.
Cathy seemed unusually nervous. Looking at him out of the corner of her dark brown eyes, she dusted for half an hour, voice tense as she admonished Missy to be sure to straighten all the jars and Doyle please stay off the shelves. “Take the broom and sweep please.”
Aaron watched her performance until his nerves could not take it anymore.
“Miss Bayne,” he finally said, “could you come here please?”
Eyes twitching, fingers trembling slightly, she hurried over to him. Aaron noticed for the first time that she wore pressed clothes. Her long brown hair was braided, and she smelled strongly of lye soap. Nervous hands patted and brushed at the new creases in her faded pants and blouse, pushing material back in place, accentuating her almost painfully thin body and rather impressive breasts.
“Miss Bayne, you seem nervous.”
“Oh.” She bit her lower lip, smearing cheap lipstick. “It’s just…well…I hear Mistress Townsend starts training you tomorrow afternoon, and you will work with the militia too.”
Aaron shook his head. “News travels fast. You don’t have to worry. I’ll still pay you to do your chores.”
“Yes sir. I know. I mean that’s what I want to talk to you about. About work.” She stamped her foot in frustration. “Ohhh. I am doing this all wrong. I’m sorry, Mister Turner. I won’t bother you. Doyle! Keep the dirt outside the store.”
Aaron sighed. “Come out with it Miss Bayne. I promise I won’t be angry. Is it money? Do you want more?”
She turned back to him, her motions quick and jerky. Her mouth opened, closed, and opened once again.
“Yes,” she finally said, “or no. I mean you pay us twice what you should, and we really thank you, and Mistress Halfax said I should do more only you haven’t let us, and I feel bad, and your store needs to be open to sell so—” Pausing, she drew in a deep breath.
Aaron fought down an impulse to grab her shoulders and give her a shake. He succeeded, remembering he had to observe the proprieties.
“Well,” she began again, “if you can’t be in the store, I wondered if I could. Run it I mean. While you are gone—and I can be here when you breakfast too. I know what you charge for almost everything, and I can be trusted. Please?”
She bounced on her toes, mouth pursed hopefully. Missy and Doyle were suddenly quiet.
Sometimes, Aaron realized, changes happen very quickly in Last Chance. Unfortunately, some of those changes required him to make a decision. How would it look to the town if he accepted? What would they think if he refused? What about the Militia’s plans?
“I’d like to think about this for a bit. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll let you know.”
“Oh yes sir. Of course. Thank you.”
Thank you? Almost as if he had already accepted her offer. Did his saying he would think about it imply acceptance?
“Hello Storeman.” Haarod Beech entered through the doorway and approached Aaron. “Got my orders in, and thank you for all your help. Looked at the goods you sold me. Everything looks fine.”
Forcing a smile, Aaron nodded. “Service is the motto here at the Last Chance General Store.”
“Sure it is, and I’d like another look at that knife.”
Wordlessly, Aaron unlocked the case and retrieved the knife. Handing it over, he stepped back.
Beech studied it intently, turning it around and once cutting his finger on its edge. Pulling a stick from his back pocket, he carved free a few slivers of wood. Then he pulled a rock from his right trouser pocket and tapped the blade.
Beech cocked his head, listening, tapped the blade twice more and paused to let the stone rest against the metal.
“A very curious thing,” he said, handing the knife back. “Perhaps I could see a couple of the others.”
“Certainly.” Aaron put the knife back in the case and reached for another just as Cathy released a small cry and fell onto the milk urn.
Instantly abandoning his task, Aaron jumped forward to catch her, changed his mind and grabbed for the tipping urn. He missed, banging it with the back of his wrist, furthering the speed of its fall. It hit with a sharp thud, splattering milk across the floor, drenching Beech’s legs from thigh to ankle.
“Hey,” Aaron exclaimed. “Miss Bayne! Sir. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—.”
Hand held close to her side, Cathy huddled in on herself. “I’m a clumsy fool. Sir—I’m sorry about your pants. I can—I can clean them or—”
“Never mind! I’ve seen what I need to see.” Scowling, the Master stamped out the door, drops of milk shaking free with each heavy step.
“Miss Bayne, are you injured?”
“No, Mister Turner.” Cathy straightened. Her face showed satisfaction and a touch of gloating, but anger narrowed her eyes. “I’m not hurt. I just—I had to get rid of that man. He’s bad, sir. Real bad. He had a Talent Stone.”
“Stone?” Aaron shook milk off his sodden feet, only now noticing the small figures of Missy and Doyle hiding in a corner. “What about the stone?”
“A man with a Talent Stone killed my daddy.”
What the hell is a Talent Stone? Aaron wondered.
Sweat beaded faintly on Cathy’s forehead. Her bottom lip quivered and her fingers trembled. “I’ll clean up the mess, sir, and pay for it.”
“No.” The girl was the next thing to broke. “Clean it up, and I’ll cover the cost. You start tomorrow. Come early, and I’ll show you what to do. Two and a half gold a day.”
Talent Stones? Obviously, this was something General Field needed to know about. How much other information was Aaron missing? He needed an oblivious information source, and by the looks of it, Cathy Bayne would do. An employee could answer questions and not be suspicious. A young employee too afraid to question the ignorance of her boss was perfect.
Relief shinning from her eyes, Cathy flashed him a bright smile. Aaron smiled weakly back. The thought of using her to help promote Field’s plan made him feel like shit, but that was the lot of an inept military spy.
“Peterson! You shoot like that in a fight, and you’ll be nothing but dead. Pull the damn thing over to the bull and settle down.”
Peterson squeezed off another shot.
“I told you to settle down.”
Looking up from his prone position, Peterson glared at Johnston. “I didn’t miss by that much. It would have killed a man.”
Smiling grimly, Johnston nodded. “Yeah, it would have hit a man in a fight—if you had pointed that thing straight and not flinched any more than you did just now. Do you think you can hold still when the savages are closing in, when crossbow bolts and arrows are pouring around you, when some savage wants to shove a sword into your gut? Can you remain steady when you’re sweating and shaking and your bowels want to blow? Do you think you can trust yourself right now, knowing that your life, and the lives of your buddies, depends on your ability to hit a target hard on the first shot?”
“I won’t freeze,” Peterson insisted, but there was sweat on his brow.
“I’ve seen it happen, boy. I’ve counted the bodies. I’ve seen where one weak man got an entire squad killed.”
The boy glared defiance. “I have it. When the time comes, you’ll see that I have it!”
Johnston glanced at the other recruits. “What do you think?”
They looked at each other uneasily. Paxton shrugged and smiled insolently. “He’ll have it. We all will. We already have it.”
“Do you have it?” he demanded of Peterson again.
“Yes sir, Sergeant.”
“You think so?” Johnston smiled wickedly. “Are you willing to put your faith to the test? I’m telling you right now that you better not. I think you won’t cut it. I think you’re a coward.”
Peterson glared, but Johnston saw his fingers twitch and his face pale. “Just try me.”
“There’ll be no backing out. I won’t allow it.”
Peterson spat. The other recruits gave him the eye, reevaluating him. Johnston could almost see Peterson’s thoughts. If he backed down now, he would be forever on the bottom of the Militia’s testosterone hierarchy.
“I can take anything you hand out,” Peterson said with firm determination.
A paternal smile crossed Johnston’s face. “So be it. Stay here. The rest of you wait by the mess hall. You’ll see everything from there. Go on.”
“Sir?” Paxton asked.
“Just do it.”
Appearing uneasy, they looked at one another, nodded, and made their way to the mess. Johnston noted that two of them refused to lay down their weapons when they moved away. Showed promise, those two. Most of the lads showed promise, unlike Peterson. That lad lacked nerve and the ability to listen.
“Stand up. Wait there,” he ordered Peterson. Peering up at the sun, he judged its angle and walked directly in its direction. Since there was no breeze the air felt still against his skin. The temperature was cool, the way he liked it during these moments, still and quiet, with a chill snap and a sharp tang that made his nerves sharp.
After walking thirty yards he turned to look at Peterson. “All right lad. Here’s the time to show your nerve. Prove yourself a man.”
“Sir,” Even from this distance, Johnston could see Peterson’s sweat. The man shook, shading his eyes with one hand so he could make Johnston out in the sun’s glare. The sight made Johnston want to puke. Peterson was the worst of this lot, a dreamer driven by ideals instead of pragmatic self-interest. Of course, that was why Johnston had chosen him. Different instructors used their own methods to get across the point that Field’s Militia was serious business. Johnston had decided long ago that he preferred this method. It was, he thought, the most effective one of all. It had the added benefit of making his blood flow faster, of making the day just a little bit brighter.
“Prove yourself,” Johnston called out. “You get two free shots, and then I’m going to kill you.”
“I’m serious. Start shooting.”
Predictably, Peterson did not shoot. Ashen faced and goggle-eyed, his rifle dangled at the end of his arms as if the thing were nothing more than a useless stick. Johnston wasn’t surprised. By design, all his victims were people who froze in a crisis. The last thing he wanted was to kill off one of the good ones. Peterson was not good. Hell, the kid probably thought inaction would win him a reprieve. Most of them thought that.
Causally pulling his pistol, Johnston leveled it, waited a moment, and then shot the kid in his leg. Yelping, Peterson leaped and cursed, and then he dropped his rifle and stood, staring with hypnotic fascination at the bore of Johnston’s pistol. The kid seemed mesmerized. No survival instincts at all. None.
Disgusted, Johnston tucked his pistol away. Peterson was a waste. That bullet had done no more than cut a little groove along the side of his leg, but it had been enough to make the kid’s mind freeze.
“The next one goes straight through your brain,” Johnston called across the distance. “I advise you to pick up your rifle and take your free shots.” He made sure to raise his voice loud enough so the recruits standing by the mess could hear.
Peterson licked his lips. “Sir, I don’t want to do this.”
Frowning slightly, Johnston shook his head sadly. “Sorry lad. There’s no way out for you. I warned you of that. You took the challenge. Now you have to be a man and carry it through. Start shooting.”
Moving with frightened deliberation, Peterson stooped and collected his rifle. Juggling it clumsily, he brought it to his shoulder, and stood there, the barrel wavering in Johnston’s direction. His hand convulsed. The barrel jerked inches sideways. The rifle did not fire.
Johnston smiled gentle encouragement. “Squeeze the trigger. Don’t jerk it. That little button by the trigger is the safety. Now why don’t you click it off? I’m not a monster, Peterson. I’ll give you another chance. Two free shots, just like I promised.”
Peterson fumbled for a moment and then looked down the length of the barrel.
“Do it!” Johnston ordered.
The gun fired.
Johnston nodded approvingly. “That’s better. Your rifle went boom, only you missed. Fortunately, you get one more chance. Why don’t you try aiming this time? God only knows where that last bullet went.” He allowed his eyes to flicker to the side. Yes, the other recruits’ attention was fastened on him. They noted his iron-jawed calmness, his courage, and they admired his casual attitude as he placed his solid six-foot frame directly in the path of danger. Best of all, they saw his refusal to flinch when Peterson’s rifle fired. This was part of the lesson. There wasn’t one damn thing they could do to intimidate him.
Peterson fired again.
Sighing disappointment, Johnston shook his head sadly and momentarily wished he smoked because a cigar stuck between his lips would have perfectly complimented the image he wanted the recruits to remember. “I really hoped for better from you,” he called for the benefit of his audience. “Too bad.”
Peterson’s eyes grew huge. With his rifle barrel swinging without a pretense of control, he jerked on the trigger once and then again.
Lazily raising his pistol, Johnston shot the kid between his eyes. His shot echoed directly after the kid’s fourth and last trigger pull.
Peterson’s head snapped, and then his knees folded and he crumpled loosely to the ground. Johnston nodded with silent satisfaction. His bullet had gone exactly where it was supposed to go. The kid had died very quickly.
Turning his gaze, he took in the remaining four recruits. One of them looked shocked and wary. Two others looked interested, and something that was almost lust gleamed deep behind Paxton’s eyes. Those last three were the ones he was interested in. They were the natural killers. Perhaps the most promising one of the group was Paxton. Though slightly built and not very tall, the man oozed bloodlust.
Walking slowly over to them, Johnston gave them a lazy once over. Even the frightened one did not wince. With a little work he might become something worth keeping too. A couple weeks would show if he needed to be weeded.
Stopping immediately before them, Johnston allowed the survivors to look into the dark orbs of his eyes. Their unemotional depths had cowed more than a few of these children.
“This is not a game people,” he snapped. “This is the real thing. In six months or a year you will leave Jefferson and teleport into another world. When you are there you will have to kill. You won’t kill one person, or two, or even three. You will kill them by the dozens and the hundreds. Most of those people will be women. Live with the idea of killing women. Learn to have wet dreams over it.”
“Some of you,” Johnston continued, “will wind up in a country called Chin. You won’t have to fight hard because the Chin groundwork has been well laid. Unfortunately, the Isabellan theater will not be so simple because Private Turner has not been very effective. Unlike Colonel Klein, his strength is not sufficient to carry the weight of another human being into Isabella. Don’t worry. We’re working on a way around his small problem.”
He gave them his sternest look, though anyone who needed more incentive to pay attention than the dead man he had given them was not the type of soldier the General wanted. In Johnston’s experience, dead bodies tended to be a fairly reliable focusing agent.
Copyright© Mark Eller. All rights reserved.