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Journal #789-

During the settlement of Cut ‘N’ Shoot considerable effort went into re-creating the ambience of “the Old West,” even down to details not strictly necessary to the functioning of the colony as a vacation spot. Evidently it was felt that tourists-on whom the colony placed much of its hope for income-would expect, upon a visit to the Old West, to encounter Indians, as the aboriginal inhabitants of that legendary territory were designated.

Unfortunately, the historical evidence on these people is rather contradictory. There were evidently three groups to whom the title was applied, and the founders of Cut ‘N’ Shoot were uncertain just which ones to incorporate into their re-creation. A committee chosen to solve the problem arrived at the Solomonic decision to invite all three groups to participate. And so, East, West, and Wild Indians all arrived and set up villages where tourists could appreciate their exotic lifestyles.

I for one could never understand how the founders could ignore the evidence, plain as the noses on their faces, that the aboriginals of a territory known as the Old West must have been the West Indians. This group, with its quaint traditions of cricket matches, carnival season, and rum-laced drinks, was easily the most exotic we saw during our entire visit.

“Man, you really look stupid,” said Do-Wop, pointing at Sushi’s furry chaps, fringed vest, and ten-gallon hat.

“Yeah, well, you’ll look even stupider trying to ride a robosteed wearing a Legion uniform,” said Sushi. “In fact, you look…”

“Don’t say it,” warned Do-Wop, cocking a fist threateningly. He looked mournfully at the bed, where his own Western outfit was laid out. Like Sushi’s, it had been provided-supposedly at no extra charge-by the stable that rented them the robosteeds they were going to ride west in search of the captain.

Sushi grinned. “I’ll just think it, then. Come on, bucka-roo. Get your duds on, and let’s go ridin‘.”

“You ever been on a robosteed before?” asked Do-Wop, picking up the hat. “I don’t like the looks of ‘em.”

“Just another kind of machine,” said Sushi. “Think of it as a hovercycle with hair. Chocolate Harry would understand.”

“Harry wouldn’t wear this crap,” said Do-Wop. He looked at himself in the mirror, then flung the hat back on the bed.

“I doubt they make it his size,” said Sushi; then he shook his head. “Cancel that-this is a tourist world. They’ve probably got it in all the sizes, patterns, and colors you ever thought of, and a few you wish you hadn’t.”

“I wish I hadn’t thought of coming here,” said Do-Wop, rolling his eyes.

“At least this once, it wasn’t your dumb idea,” said Sushi. “Blame it on Remmie and Armstrong. Or maybe on the captain, since it was his idea to come after Beeker.”

“Yeah,” griped Do-Wop. “How come he didn’t just call in some of his family connections? I mean, that’s what any Italian would do.”

“In case you didn’t notice, the captain’s not Italian,” said Sushi. “But I wondered about that, too. Seems like a waste of his time to come looking for Beeker when he could hire a whole team of detectives to do the job for him.”

“Well, maybe he just wanted to get away from the base for a while,” said Do-Wop, dismissing the question from his mind nearly as quickly as he’d asked it. “The real kicker is why he decided to come to this joint. I can only think of about nine hundred more interesting planets to come to…”

“Well, this place was Beeker’s choice, not the captain’s,” said Sushi. “Or maybe it was Nightingale’s-who knows? When we catch them, we can ask them why they came here.”

“Sure,” said Do-Wop. “Tell me again why we gotta wear these stupid outfits to catch ‘em.”

“These are special riding outfits,” Sushi explained. “We’re going to wear them so we don’t tear up our uniforms riding across the countryside. And we have to ride across the countryside because that’s the only way to get around on this planet-unless you just happen to be going someplace you can reach by stagecoach. Or unless you feel like walking the whole way.”

“Forget about that walking bit, anyway,” said Do-Wop. “I done all the walking I could stomach in Legion Basic, marching here and there and everywhere, as if there wasn’t any such thing as hoverjeeps or space liners. What’s the deal with those stagecoaches? How do we know there ain’t one going where we want to go?”

“We don’t, because we don’t know where we want to go yet,” said Sushi, patiently. “If we have the robosteeds, we can go anywhere, whenever we want to. With the stagecoach, we can only go to other towns on the route, and we have to go on their schedule.“

“Stupid freakin‘ world,” said Do-Wop, pulling on the chaps. “Hey, you think Beeker’s wearin’ these stupid fuzzy pants? That’d be a laugh.”

“Who knows?” said Sushi. “The sooner we find him, the sooner you’ll find out. And the sooner you finish getting dressed…”

“OK, OK, I get the idea,” said Do-Wop. He put on his vest and hat and stood back. “How stupid do I look?”

“You don’t really want to know,” said Sushi, moving to the door. “Come on, the sooner we find Beeker, the sooner you can lose the fuzzy pants.”

“Best news I’ve heard all week,” said Do-Wop, following.

Buck Short took Phule down the wooden sidewalk outside the saloon to the local Andromatic livery stable to hire a robot horse for their expedition into Injun territory, as the area outside town was known. Far from being the backwater world Phule had been led to expect, Cut ‘N’ Shoot appeared to be a hotbed of economic activity. New buildings were going up on all sides, and there was a steady stream of delivery vehicles-Conestoga wagons pulled by teams of reliable roboxen and robohoss-drawn buckboards- coming down the main street from the spaceport and heading down a road out into the country.

Phule nodded, approvingly. “Looks like a lively town here,” he said. “Business seems to be booming.”

“Yep,” said Buck Short. “I been here two years, goin‘ on three, and the place has jumped up like a hound dog that set down on a cactus. Anybody lookin’ to make a little dinero, he ain’t got no business tryin‘ if he can’t make it on Cut ’N‘ Shoot.”

“That’s the kind of place I like to hear about,” said Phule. “Say-if you knew a fellow with a few dollars to put into an up-and-coming business, where do you think he’d get the biggest bang for his buck?“

“I can promise you one hell of a bang if somebody put a couple thou into my personal entertainment fund,” said Buck Short, deadpan. Then, seeing Phule shake his head, he shrugged. “Can’t blame a feller for tryin‘, can you? But I reckon the main business hereabouts, after the tourist trade, is gonna be the minin’. It was started out more or less for the frontier atmosphere, but I reckon it’s gonna end up being one of the major planetary commodities.”

“I’m not sure I’d want to count on that,” said Phule. “From what I know about mining, most planets have pretty much the same mineral composition. Most of the time, it’s a lot cheaper to mine something locally than to bring it in from off-world. So it’s very unusual for a planet to build its economy on mineral exports-not even precious metals or gemstones are likely to be worth the freight charges.”

“Well, Cap’n, that’s generally the straight-ahead truth,” said Short. “But conditions on Cut ‘N’ Shoot ain’t conditions anywhere else, y’know. What we got here is a mother lode of a u-nique metal you can’t get on no other planet in the sector.”

“A rare metal, eh?” said Phule. “That sounds interesting. What exactly is it?”

“Ah, well, maybe I shouldn’t say too much more,” said Short. “Folks that run the place, they got their trade secrets-and I reckon it might not be too healthy for a feller that stuck his nose in where it don’t belong.”

Phule shrugged. “That’s not the way I see it,” he said. “I don’t need to know their trade secrets-I just need enough to decide whether I want to buy some of their stock. If they’ve put together a solid business plan, I’m willing to bet they can pay me a respectable profit on my investment. But I’m not going to give them my money until I know what they’re going to do with it.”

“Well, I already told you what I’d do with it,” said Short, pouting. “I could put on a right good show if somebody give a piece of change to get myself started…”

“I’m sure you could,” said Phule, with a fixed smile. Then he pointed to the sign facing them. It read, BUDDY’S ROBOT LIVERY STABLE: SALES AND RENTALS. “But isn’t this the place we were going to find a horse for me? Let’s take care of that-I suspect we’ll have plenty of time to talk once we’re on the trail.”

“You’re the boss,” said Buck Short, and he fell in behind Phule, who’d already bustled through the door to the livery stable. The door led to a cramped front room decorated with riding tack and bales of hay; behind an antique steel-and-plastic desk sat a man wearing spurred cowboy boots, chaps, and red suspenders; in the pocket of his denim shirt was an antique ‘puter of the Palm Pilot variety. A battered Stetson and a wisp of straw between his front teeth completed the picture. Buck Short strolled right up to him, and said, “Howdy, Buddy. My off-world friend here got to rent him a hoss. Reckon you better give him a right tame one- don’t believe he’s done much ridin’ before.”

“Oh, I guess I’ve done my share,” said Phule, who’d spent many a long childhood summer at the family’s country estates, where riding to hounds was still a traditional pastime. Not even the most curmudgeonly of the family elders ever complained that the hounds and their quarry were all simulated, and most of the horses mechanical… tradition was tradition, even if it had to be helped along a bit by modern technology.

The man behind the desk wasn’t listening. “City boy, huh?” he muttered, casting a skeptical look at Phule’s Legion uniform and rubbing his chin. “I guess we can find somethin‘,” Buddy said at last. “Worse comes to worst, we can recalibrate one of the spare cayuses so this boy won’t fall off and hurt himself. If’n we modulate the spirit circuits on these bots far enough down, we can make ’em so gentle they won’t wake up a sleepin‘ baby. Not that we get all that many sleepin’ babies askin‘ to ride, har har.“

“Uh, that really won’t be necessary,” Phule began again.

But Buddy had already picked up his communicator. “Hey, Jake,” he said. “Got us a city boy here, needs a hoss he won’t fall off of and get a boo-boo. Can y‘ fix ’im one up? Uh-huh. Yeah, that’s fine. All right then, stranger,” he said turning back to Phule. “It’ll cost you an extra five hundred setup charge. Jake’ll have it in just ‘bout an hour. Go on down to the tenderfoot bar and have a glass of sasparilly and it’ll be ready just about when you’re done. And I sure do ’predate the business.”

“Much obliged, Buddy,” said Buck Short, with a wink.

“But I didn’t…” protested Phule.

“Oh, think nothin‘ of it, stranger,” said Buddy. “Any friend of Buck’s gets the full A-Number-One treatment, and no mistake. You jes’ come on back in an hour’s time and Jake’ll have you the gentlest robohoss you ever laid eyes on, all ready to go.”

His eyes glazed over, Phule allowed Buck to lead him out of the livery stable and down the street.

“What makes you so certain my butler’s been captured by the Indians?” Phule asked the weather-beaten cowpoke on the robohorse next to him.

Buck Short spat into the weeds beside the trail. “That’s purty much the only plot option hereabouts,” he said, soberly. He sported a four-or-five-day growth of beard, a plug of tobacco in one cheek, and crossed eyes that made it hard to tell where he was looking-especially when he was about to spit. He looked more or less at Phule, and said, “Ain’t like there’s anybody ‘cept the Injuns in the capturin’ business on Cut ‘N’ Shoot, ‘less’n you done heard some-thin’ I ain’t.”

“I see,” said Phule, dubiously. “Let me rephrase that, then. What makes you so sure he’s been captured at all?”

“I reckon if he had any selection, he’d be back in the saloon, jes’ like the rest of the boys,” said the cowpoke. “He ain’t got a job, he ain’t in the saloon-you figger it out, pilgrim.”

“In other words, there’s nothing else to do in these parts,” said Phule. “Why is the planet trying to attract tourists, then?”

“Weren’t none of my idea. Alls they do is drive up the prices,” Short said, looking either at Phule’s left ear or somewhere off behind him. “And the stores is full of fancy-pants city stuff, cappychino ‘stead of reg’lar coffee, furrin wines instead of good ol’ country rotgut. Don’t know what the durn place is comin‘ to.”

“Sorry to hear that,” said Phule. “So if Beeker and his lady friend have been captured by the Indians, what do you suggest I do about it?”

“Same as any red-blooded hombre would do,” answered Short. “Git on yer horse and go find ‘em. Then make ’em sorry they done it.”

Phule looked down. “Well, it looks like I already am on my horse,” he said.

“Smart feller,” said the cowpoke. “I reckon you know what to do next, then.”

“Right,” said Phule. But almost before the word was out of his mouth, Buck Short had spurred Dale-8 toward the nearby town, and was out of earshot. Lacking any other plan, he sped up his own horse and rode to overtake Short. “Which way are the Indians?” he asked, as he pulled abreast of him.

“How the tarnation am I supposed to know?” said the cowpoke, testily. At least one of his eyes glared at Phule. “Do I look like an Injun to you?”

Phule couldn’t quite tell whether he’d grievously insulted Buck, but he hastened to calm the cowpoke down. “Sorry, friend, I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “I just need to find the Indians-and the fellow you think they’ve kidnapped. Do you know anybody I might ask who would know where they are?“

“Maybe you ought to ask OV Ben,” said the cowpoke. “He’s out on the range, usually. You jes’ head west out o‘ town, aud when you get to Brownsville, take that right-hand road. Then look out purt’ sharp, and when you see a big cloud o‘ dust off to the west side, that’s sure as shootin’ gone to be OF Ben’s herd. He’ll be there with ‘em. You tell ’im Jeb sent you.”

“All right,” said Phule. “Thanks, Jeb.”

“Tarnation, / ain’t Jeb,” said the cowpoke, glaring at Phule with an insulted expression. “What’s wrong with your memory, pilgrim? I done told you, my name’s Buck Short.”

“Excuse me?” Phule squinted, puzzled. “Then why do you want me to say Jeb sent me?”

“ ‘Cause that’s the word,” said the cowpoke, with the air of a man explaining the obvious. “Same as if you wants to start a robohorse movin’, you got to say gitty-up, instead of let’s go or move yer arse. You can’t go changing words around and ‘spect things to work like they’re ’sposed to.”

“I see,” said Phule. “I head west out of town, take the right-hand road in Brownsville, big cloud of dust-Old Ben’s there. I tell him Jeb sent me, and he can tell me the way to the Indians.”

“Yer durn tootin‘,” said Buck Short, with obvious approval, and with that he turned his robosteed and headed on into town, leaving Phule to find his own way to OF Ben and the Indians.

Chocolate Harry scowled at the requisition form Lieutenant Armstrong had just handed him, then looked up, and growled, “This is gonna be really expensive, y’know? I mean, none of this is standard Legion materiel. I’m gonna have to go to an outside supplier. And you gotta be kiddin‘ about when you want it by…”

“The captain’s footing the bill, and Lieutenant Rembrandt set the deadline,” said Armstrong, stiffly. “If you want to dispute an order from your commanding officers, it’ll be your neck on the line. You’d be a lot better off just getting everything ordered, first. Then if you want to waste your breath arguing with the captain, you can do it after he gets back without delaying the project any more. And if he does change his mind, you can send the supplies back afterward-and tell everybody you told them so.”

“Uh, right on, Lieutenant,” said Chocolate Harry, with a grin. Mentally, he was already calculating which of the supplies he could divert to his own purposes. Was there a way to make some kind of booze out of “fast-setting, low-watering, E-Z-Gro Kentucky bluegrass seed”? If it could be done, he wouldn’t bet against one of the Omega Mob figuring out a way… Harry grinned and reached for a Supply catalog as Armstrong left the Supply depot, apparently satisfied.

Twenty minutes later, Harry’s brow was furrowed, and a string of increasingly foul curses had crossed his lips. Finally he lifted his wrist communicator to his mouth. “Yo, Double-X, get your butt in here.”

“Uh, right, C.H.,” came the reply. A moment later his clerk ambled in the door. “Whassup?” said Double-X, leaning against the file cabinet.

“What’s up is the company’s going into the goddamn golf business,” growled Harry. “Armstrong brought this list of stuff over, and there’s next to none of it we can get from the regular sources, which means I can’t get my regular rake-offs. How am I supposed to make a living?”

“What’s supposed to happen is you get a Legion paycheck,” said Double-X, smirking. He quickly dodged behind the file cabinet as Chocolate Harry threw the catalog at his head.

“You ain’t so good at this job that I can’t get somebody else to do it,” bellowed the Supply sergeant. “Now shut up and listen. We got to get the stuff on this list, and I’m putting you on the case.“

“Aw right, Sarge,” said Double-X, taking the list from Harry’s outstretched hand. He glanced down the page, then asked, “Usual deal, right-biggest kickback gets the sale?”

Chocolate Harry paused a moment before answering. “Usually I wouldn’t even think twice about it,” he said at last. “But this time, no-it’s gotta be delivery speed.”

Double-X whistled. “Man, this has to be serious. I never knowed you to pass up a little extra pocket money.”

Harry shrugged. “Well, you know me. I like my gravy, just like the next guy. But the whole company’s under the gun, so just this once, I’m gonna take one for the team. Whoever gets us the stuff the fastest gets the deal, and that’s the whole story.”

Double-X nodded. “Sure, Sarge.” He paused, then asked softly, “Cap’n‘s in some kind of trouble, ain’t he?”

“Man, you didn’t hear it from me, OK?” said Harry, looking around the Supply shed that, as usual, was empty except for the two of them. “We got to play it close to the vest, Double-X. The rest of the company is gonna find out soon enough, when they have to put things together. But for now, we’re bringing this stuff in on the QT, and it’s gotta be smooth. I’m trusting you, ‘cause you’re the one dude I know can keep things quiet. Got it?”

Double-X’s face was serious, now. “Yeah, Sarge, I’m your man. I’ll get the stuff so fast you won’t have time to wonder where it’s comin‘ from.” He took the list and went over to his own desk. Before long, he was fast at work on his console.

“I reckon OF Ben’s the only one ‘round here’d know thet, stranger,” said the cowpoke sitting on a wooden bench by the saloon entrance.

“OK, if you say so,” said Sushi. “Where do we find Ol‘ Ben?”

The cowpoke pointed down the street. “That-a-way, out on the range. Head west out o‘ town; when you get to Brownsville, take that right-hand road. Then when you see a big cloud o’ dust off to the west side, that’s OF Ben’s herd, sure as shootin‘. He’ll be right there with ’em. You tell ‘im Jeb sent you.“

“All right,” said Sushi. “Thanks, Jeb.”

“Tarnation, I ain’t Jeb,” said the cowpoke, exasperation personified.

“I don’t get it, man,” said Do-Wop, scratching his head. “If you ain’t Jeb, why you want us to say Jeb sent us?”

“ ‘Cause that’s the word” said the cowpoke. “Same as if you wants to start a robohorse movin’, it’s gitty-up, ‘stead of move yer arse. You can’t ’spect anything to work the way it’s ‘sposed to if’n you go usin’ the wrong words.”

“That almost makes sense,” said Sushi. “West out of town, right-hand road in Brownsville, big cloud of dust. Jeb sent me.”

“That’s the ticket, sonny,” said the cowpoke, benignly. “Say, you oughta buy a feller a drink when he gives you good advice like thet,” he said, turning one of his eyes on Sushi. The other seemed to be aimed somewhere off in the distance.

Sushi began, “I don’t know if we’ve got the-”

“Always time for a drink,” said Do-Wop. “Say, what’s your name, buddy?”

“Well it ain’t Buddy any more’n it’s Jeb. It’s Buck,” said the cowpoke, rising from the bench. “And this here’s the best place I know of for a drink. Not that there’s very many bad ones.”

Recognizing which way the wind was blowing, Sushi went to the bar and returned shortly with a pitcher of beer and three glasses. He set the glasses on the table but didn’t pour any beer. “All right,” he said, leaning forward on his elbows. “As long as we’re in the business of buying information, let’s make sure we’re getting something worth the price.

“Yo, Soosh, I’m on your team,” said Do-Wop, making a grab for the pitcher. Sushi batted his hand away.

“Yeah, so you can wait until I’m ready to pour the drinks,” said Sushi. “I want to find out what else Buck knows about Old Ben, and about where the captain might have gone-or maybe even Beeker and Nightingale.”

Buck Short frowned. “Nightingale? She some kind of singer?”

Sushi looked at Do-Wop and raised an eyebrow. “Funny-I don’t remember saying Nightingale was a she. Do you remember me saying that?”

“Hey, I wasn’t hardly listen-OOF!” said Do-Wop, as Sushi kicked him under the table. He shot a dirty look at his partner, then belatedly caught the hint. “Uh, no, Soosh-you didn’t say nothin‘ at all about Nightingale bein’ a female. Where’d you get that idea, Buck?”

“Well, it’s a girly kind o‘ name, ain’t it?” said Buck Short. ’“Sides, there was one young lady come through a while back, never did get her name, but she was with a kind of dignified older feller, and wearin‘ the kind of outfit you said she might be wearin’. So it kind of makes sense she’s the one you’re talkin‘ about, don’t it, now.”

“Maybe it does,” said Sushi, directing a doubtful stare at Buck. “But I think you better tell us a little more about this young lady you saw. Where did she and her ‘older feller’ go? Has anybody else been asking about them?”

“You want me to answer all them questions without a drink? My throat’s like to get awful dry…” Buck Short put on his most pitiful expression.

“Answer, and you’ll get your drink,” said Sushi, mildly. “Unless we don’t like your answers… My friend here can get mighty cross when we don’t like answers.” He nodded toward Do-Wop, who was scowling fiercely-most likely at the prospect of having to wait for beer, himself. But there was nothing to be gained by letting Buck know that.

It took a few more not-very-subtle threats, but before long Buck was drinking his beer-and talking up a blue streak. At last, the pitcher was done, and so was the cow-poke. He laid his arms on the table, set his head down on them, and fell almost immediately asleep.

“Well, I guess we’ve found out what we need to know,” said Sushi. “Let’s go see what we can do about it.”

“Ya sure?” said Do-Wop, looking at the empty pitcher. “If this hayseed wakes up, he might remember some other stuff.”

“And cost us a lot more time and bucks,” said Sushi. “Let’s get on the case while there’s still a case to get onto.” He grabbed his partner by the arm and out the door they went.

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