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read sci-fi short stories from the pulp era

The Barbarians

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There was no one among the nobles to drive as well as Geoffrey could—certainly no one who could keep up with him at night, in country he knew. He could probably depend on that much.

He lit the carbide lamp over the panel.

Geoffrey looked at the crest worked into the metal, and laughed. He had even managed to steal Dugald’s tankette.

BY MORNING, they were a good fifty miles away from where the battle had been fought. They were almost as far as the Delaware River, and the ground was broken into low hills, each a little higher than the last. Geoffrey had only been this far away from his home a few times, before his father’s death, and then never in this direction. Civilization was not considered to extend this far inland. When a young man went on his travels, preparatory for the day when he inherited his father’s holdings and settled down to maintain them, he went along the coast, perhaps as far as Philadelphia or Hartford.

Geoffrey had always had a lively interest in strange surroundings. He had regretted the day his journeyings came to an end—not that he hadn’t regretted his father’s passing even more. Now, as dawn came up behind them, he could not help turning his head from side to side and looking at the strangely humped land, seeing for the first time a horizon which was not flat. He found himself intrigued by the thought that he had no way of knowing what lay beyond the next hill—that he would have to travel, and keep traveling, to satisfy a perpetually renewed curiosity.

All this occupied one part of his mind. Simultaneously, he wondered how much farther they’d travel in this vehicle. The huge sixteen-cylinder in-line engine was by now delivering about one-fourth of its rated fifty horsepower, with a good half of its spark plugs hopelessly fouled and the carburetor choked by the dust of yesterday’s battle.

They were very low on shot and powder charges for the two-pounder turret cannon, as well. The tankette had of course never been serviced after the battle. There was one good thing—neither had their pursuers’. Looking back, Geoffrey could see no sign of them. But he could also see the plain imprint of the tankette’s steel cleats stretched out behind them in a betraying line. The rigid, unsprung track left its mark on hard stone as easily as it did in soft earth. The wonder was that the tracks had not quite worn themselves out as yet, though all the rivets were badly strained and the tankette sounded like a barrel of stones tumbling downhill.

The Barbarian had spent the night with one arm thrown over the cannon barrel and the fingers of his other hand hooked over the edge of the turret hatch. In spite of the tankette’s vicious jouncing, he had not moved or changed his position. Now he raised one hand to comb the shaggy hair away from his forehead, and there were faint bloody marks on the hatch.

“How much farther until we’re over the mountains?” Geoffrey asked him.

“Over the—lad, we haven’t even come to the beginning of them yet.”

Geoffrey grimaced. “Then we’ll never make it. Not in this vehicle.”

“I didn’t expect to. We’ll walk until we reach the pass. I’ve got a support camp set up there.”

“Walk? This is impossible country for people on foot. There are intransigent tribesmen all through this territory.”

“How do you know?”

“How do I know? Why, everybody knows about them!”

The Barbarian looked at him thoughtfully, and with just the faintest trace of amusement. “Well, if everybody knows they’re intransigent, I guess they are. I guess we’ll just have to hope they don’t spot us.”

Geoffrey was a little nettled by The Barbarian’s manner. It wasn’t, after all, as if anybody claimed there were dragons or monsters or any other such oceanic thing living here. This was good, solid fact—people had actually come up here, tried to bring civilization to the tribes, and failed completely. They were, by all reports, hairy, dirty people equipped with accurate rifles. No one had bothered to press the issue, because obviously it was hardly worth it. Geoffrey had expected to have trouble with them—but he had expected to meet it in an armored vehicle. But now that the mountains had turned out to be so far away, the situation might grow quite serious. And The Barbarian didn’t seem to care very much.

“Well, now, lad,” he was saying, “if the tribesmen’re that bad, maybe your friends the nobles won’t dare follow us up here.”

“They’ll follow us,” Geoffrey answered flatly. “I slapped Dugald’s face.”

“Oh. Oh, I didn’t understand that. Code of honor—that sort of thing. All the civilized appurtenances.”

“It’s hardly funny.”

“No, I suppose not. I don’t suppose it occurred to you to kill him on the spot?”

“Kill a noble in hot blood?”

“Sorry. Code of honor again. Forget I mentioned it.”

Geoffrey rankled under The Barbarian’s barely concealed amusement. To avoid any more of this kind of thing, he pointedly turned and looked at the terrain behind them—something he ought to have done a little earlier. Three tankettes were in sight, only a few miles behind them, laboring down the slope of a hill.

And at that moment, as though rivetted iron had a dramatic sense of its own, their tankette coughed, spun lazily on one track as the crankshaft paused with a cam squarely between positions, and burned up the last drops of oil and alcohol in its fuel tank.

Geoffrey and Myka crouched down in a brushy hollow. The Barbarian had crawled up to the lip of the depression, and was peering through a clump of weeds at the oncoming trio. “That seems to be all of them,” he said with a turn of his head. “It’s possible they kept their speed down and nursed themselves along to save fuel. They might even have a fuel waggon coming up behind them. That’s the way I’d do it. It would mean these three are all we can expect for a few hours, anyway, but that they’ll be heavily reinforced some time later.”

“That will hardly matter,” Geoffrey muttered. Myka had found Dugald’s personal rifle inside the tankette. Geoffrey was rolling cartridges quickly and expertly, using torn up charges from the turret cannon. He had made the choice between a round or two for the now immobile heavy weapon and a plentiful supply for the rifle, and would have been greatly surprised at anyone’s choosing differently. The Barbarian had not even questioned it, and Myka was skillfully casting bullets with the help of the hissing alcohol stove and the bullet mold included in the rifle kit. There was plenty of finely ground priming powder, and even though Geoffrey was neither weighing the charges of cannon powder nor measuring the diameter of the cartridges he was rolling, no young noble of any pretensions whatsoever could not have done the same.

The rub lay in the fact that none of this was liable to do them much good. If they were to flee through the woods, there would certainly be time for only a shot or two when the tribesmen found them. If the rifle was to be used against the three nobles, then it was necessary, in all decency, to wait until the nobles had stopped, climbed out of their tankettes, equipped themselves equally, and a mutual ground of battle had been agreed upon. In that case, three against one would make short work of it.

The better chance lay with the woods and the tribesmen. It was the better chance, but Geoffrey did not relish it. He scowled as he dropped a primer charge down the rifle’s barrel, followed it with a cartridge, took a cooled bullet from Myka, and tamped it down with the ramrod until it was firmly gripped by the collar on the cartridge. He took a square of clean flannel from its compartment in the butt and carefully wiped the lenses of the telescopic sight.

“Can I stop now?” Myka asked.

Geoffrey looked at her sharply. It had never occurred to him that the woman might simply be humoring him, and yet that was the tone her voice had taken. Truth to tell, he had simply handed her the stove, pig lead, and mold, and told her to go to work.

He looked at her now, remembering that he’d been hurried and possibly brusque. It ought not to matter—though it did—since she was hardly a lady entitled to courtesy. She hardly looked like anything, after hours crouched inside the tankette.

Her copper hair was smeared with grease, disarranged, and even singed where she had presumably leaned against a hot fitting. Her clothes were indescribably dirty and limp with perspiration. She was quite pale, and seemed to be fighting nausea—hardly surprising, with the exhaust fumes that must have been present in the compartment.

Nevertheless, her hair glinted where the sun struck it, and her litheness was only accented by the wrinkled clothing. Over-accented, Geoffrey thought to himself as he looked at the length of limb revealed by her short trousers.

He flushed. “Of course. Thank you.” He looked at the pile of finished bullets. There were enough of them to stand off an army, provided only the army did not shift about behind rocks and trees as the tribesmen did, or was not equally armed, as the nobles would be. Yet, a man had to try to the end. “You don’t expect this to do much good,” he said to the woman.

Myka grinned at him. “Do you?”

“No, frankly. But why did you help me?”

“To keep you busy.”

“I see.” He didn’t. He scooped the bullets up, put them in one pocket, and dropped the cartridges in another. He stood up.

“There wasn’t any point in letting you get nervous,” Myka explained. “You can be quite a deadly boy in action, if what I’ve seen and heard about you is any indication. I didn’t want you killing any of our friends.” She was smiling at him without any malice whatsoever; rather, with a definite degree of fondness. Geoffrey did not even feel resentful at this business of being casually managed, as though he were liable to do something foolish.

But he scrambled up to a place beside The Barbarian in a burst of tense movement, and looked out toward the approaching tankettes. What Myka had just said to him, and the cryptic smile on The Barbarian’s face, and a thought of Geoffrey’s own, had all fitted themselves together in his mind.

There was no reason, really, to believe that barbarians would be hostile to barbarians, and certainly the inland raiders could not have returned year after year withoutsome means of handling the mountain tribes. Friendship, or at least an alliance, would be the easiest way.

And out on the slope of the nearest hill, bearded men in homespun clothing were rolling boulders down on the advancing tankettes.

The slope of the hill was quite steep, and the boulders were massive. They tumbled and bounded with a speed that must have seemed terrifying from below. Tearing great chunks out of the earth, they rumbled down on the tankettes while the tribesmen yelled with bloodcurdling ferocity and fired on the tankettes with impossible rapidity. With respectable marksmanship, too. The nobles were swerving their vehicles frantically from side to side, trying to avoid the boulders, but their ability to do so was being destroyed by bullets that ricocheted viciously off the canted forepeak plating. All three of them were blundering about like cattle attacked by stinging insects. Only the lead tankette was still under anything like intelligent control. It lurched away from three boulders in succession, swinging on its treads and continuing to churn its way up the hillside.

Geoffrey saw the other two tankettes struck almost simultaneously. One took a boulder squarely between its tracks, and stopped in a shower of rock fragments. The track cleats bit futilely at the ground. The vehicle stalled, the boulder jammed against it. The impact did not seem to have been particularly severe; but the entire body of the tankette had been buckled and accordioned. Possibly only the boulder’s own bulk between the tracks had kept them from coming together like the knees of a gored ox. It was impossible to tell where, in that crushed bulk, the turret and its occupant might be.

The other tankette took its boulder squarely in the flank. It began to roll over immediately, hurtling back down the hill, its driver half in and half out of its turret at the beginning of the first roll. Tankette and boulder came to rest together at the bottom of the hill, the stone nosing up against the metal.

Geoffrey looked at the scene with cold fury. “That’s no fitting way for a noble to die!”

The Barbarian, who was sprawled out and watching calmly, nodded his head. “Probably not,” he said dispassionately. “But that other man’s giving a good account of himself.”

The remaining tankette was almost in among the tribesmen. It had passed the point where a rolling boulder’s momentum would be great enough to do much damage. As Geoffrey watched, the man in the turret yanked his lanyard, and a solid shot boomed through the straggled line of bearded men. If it had been grape or canister, it might have done a good deal of damage. But the cannon had been loaded with Geoffrey’s tankette in mind, and the tribesmen only jeered. One of them dashed forward, under the cannon’s smoking muzzle, and jammed a wedge-shaped stone between the left side track and the massive forward track roller. The track jammed, broke, and whipped back in whistling fragments. The tankette slewed around while the unharmed tribesman danced out of the way. The noble in the turret could only watch helplessly. Apparently he had no sidearm. Geoffrey peered at him as the tribesmen swarmed over the tankette and dragged him out of the turret. It was Dugald, and Geoffrey’s arm still tingled from the slap that had knocked the pistol irretrievably into the night-shadowed brush at the battlefield.

“What are they going to do to him?” he asked The Barbarian.

“Make him meet the test of fitness, I suppose.”

“Fitness?”

Geoffrey did not get the answer to his question immediately. The woods all around him were stirring, and bearded men in homespun, carrying fantastic rifles, were casually walking toward him. The Barbarian pushed himself up to his feet without any show of surprise.

“Howdy,” he said. “Figured you were right around.”

One of the tribesmen—a gaunt, incredibly tall man with a grizzled beard—nodded. “I seen you makin’ signs while you was hangin’ off that tank, before. Got a mark?”

The Barbarian extended his right arm and turned his wrist over. A faint double scar, crossed at right angles, showed in the skin.

The tribesman peered at it and grunted. “Old one.”

“I got it twenty years ago, when I first came through here,” The Barbarian answered.

“Double, too. Ain’t many of those.”

“My name’s Hodd Savage.”

“Oh,” the tribesman said. His entire manner changed. Without becoming servile, it was respectful. He extended his hand. “Sime Weatherby.” He and The Barbarian clasped hands. “That your woman down there?” the tribesman asked, nodding toward Myka.

“That’s right.”

“Good enough.” For the first time, Weatherby looked directly at Geoffrey. “What about him?”

The Barbarian shook his head. “No mark.”

The tribesman nodded. “I figured, from the way he was actin’.” He seemed to make no particular signal—perhaps none was needed—but Geoffrey’s arms were suddenly taken from behind, and his wrists were tied.

“We’ll see if he can get him a mark today,” Weatherby said. He looked to his left, where other men were just pushing Dugald into the ring they had formed around the group. “Seein’ as there’s two of them, one of ’em ought to make it.”

Geoffrey and Dugald stared expressionlessly at each other. The Barbarian kept his eyes on Geoffrey’s face. “That’s right,” he said. “Can’t have two men fight to the death without one of them coming out alive, usually.”

THE TRIBESMEN lived in wooden cabins tucked away among trees and hidden in narrow little valleys. Geoffrey was surprised to see windmills, and wire fencing for the cattle pastures that adjoined their homes. He was even more interested in their rifles, which, the tribesmen told him, were repeaters. He was puzzled by the absence of a cylinder, such as could be found on the generally unreliable revolvers one saw occasionally.

The tribesmen were treating both him and Dugald with a complete absence of the savagery he expected. They were being perfectly matter-of-fact. If his hands had not been tied, Geoffrey might not have been a prisoner at all. This puzzled him as well. A prisoner, after all, could not expect to be treated very well. True, he and Dugald were nobles, but this could not possibly mean anything to persons as uncivilized as mountain tribesmen.

Yet somehow, the only thing that was done was that all of them; the tribesmen, The Barbarian, Myka, Dugald and he—made their way to Weatherby’s home. A number of the tribesmen continued on their way from there, going to their own homes to bring their families to watch the test. The remainder stayed behind to post guard. Dugald was put in one room, and Geoffrey in another. The Barbarian and Myka went off somewhere with Weatherby—presumably to have breakfast. Geoffrey could smell food cooking, somewhere toward the back of the house. The smell sat intolerably on his empty stomach.

He sat for perhaps a half hour in the room, which was almost bare of furniture. There was a straight-backed chair, in which he sat, a narrow bed, and a bureau. Even though his hands were still tied behind his back, he did his best to search the room for something to help him—though he had no idea of what he would do next after he managed to escape from the room itself.

The problem did not arise, because the room had been stripped of anything with a sharp edge on which to cut his lashings, and of anything else he might put to use. These people had obviously held prisoners here before. He sat back down in his chair, and stared at the wall.

Eventually, someone opened the door. Geoffrey looked over, and saw that it was The Barbarian. He looked at the inlander coldly, but The Barbarian did not seem to notice. He sat down on the edge of the bed.

“On top of everything else,” he began without preamble, “I’ve just finished a hearty breakfast. That ought to really make you mad at me.”

“I’m not concerned with you, or your meals,” Geoffrey pointed out.

The Barbarian’s eyes twinkled. “It doesn’t bother you, my getting your help and then not protecting you from these intransigent tribesmen?”

“Hardly. I’d be a fool to expect it.”

“Would you, now? Look, bucko—these people live a hard way of life. Living on a mountain is a good way not to live comfortably. But it’s a good way of living your own way, if you can stand the gaff. These people can. Every one of them. They’ve got their marks to prove it. Every last one of them has fought it out face to face with another man, and proved his fitness to take up space in this territory. See—it’s a social code. And they’ll extend it to cover any stranger who doesn’t get killed on his way here. If you can get your mark, you’re welcome here for the rest of your life. They keep their clan stock fresh and vigorous that way. And it all has the virtue of being a uniform, just, rigid code that covers every man in the group. These barbarian cultures aren’t ever happy without a good code to their name, you know.”

“Yours seems to lack one.”

The Barbarian chuckled. “Oh, no. We’ve got one, all right, or you’d never have had me to worry you. Nothing we like better than a good, talented enemy. You know, these people here in the mountains used to be our favorite enemies. But so many of us wound up getting our marks, it just got to be futile. Once you’re in, you know, you’re a full-fledged clan member. That sort of divided our loyalties. The problem just seemed to solve itself, though. We understand them, they understand us, we trade back and forth … hell, it’s all one family.”

Geoffrey frowned. “You mean—they got those rifles from you?”

“Sure. We’re full of ingenuity—for barbarians, that is. Not in the same class with you seaboard nobles, of course, but we poke along.” The Barbarian stood up, and his expression turned serious. “Look, son—you remember that knife of mine you borrowed for a while? I’ll have to lend it to you again, in about twenty minutes. Your friend Dugald’s going to have one just like it, and your left arms are going to be tied together at the wrists. I hope you remember what I happened to tell you about how to use it, because under the rules of the code, I’m not allowed to instruct you.”

And Geoffrey was left alone.

There was a hard-packed area of dirt in front of Weatherby’s home, and now its edges were crowded with tribesmen, many of whom had brought their women and children. Weatherby, together with a spare, capable-looking woman, and with The Barbarian and Myka, sat on his porch. One of the tribesmen was wrapping Geoffrey’s and Dugald’s forearms together. Geoffrey watched him with complete detachment. He stole a glance over toward Weatherby’s porch, and it seemed to him that Myka was tense and anxious. He couldn’t be sure….

The fingers of his right hand gripped the haft of The Barbarian’s knife. He held it with his thumb along the blade, knowing that if he drew his arm up, to stab downward, or back, to slash, Dugald would have a perfect opening. It was his thought, remembering that razor-keen blade, that he ought to be able to do plenty of damage with a simple underhand twist of his arm. He did not look down to see how Dugald was holding the knife he’d been given. That would have been unfair.

The crowd of watching tribesmen was completely silent. This was a serious business with them, Geoffrey reflected.

The tribesman tying their wrists had finished the job. He stepped back. “Anytime after I say ‘Go,’ you boys set to it. Anything goes and dead man loses. If you don’t fight, we kill you both.”

For the first time since their capture, Geoffrey looked squarely into Dugald’s slit eyes. “I’m sorry we have to do this to each other in this way, Dugald,” he said.

“Go!” the tribesman shouted, and jumped back.

Dugald spat at Geoffrey’s face. Geoffrey twitched his head involuntarily, realized what he’d done, and threw himself off his feet, pulling Dugald with him and just escaping the downward arc of Dugald’s plunging knife. The momentum of Dugald’s swing, combined with Geoffrey’s weight, pulled him completely over Geoffrey’s shoulder. The two of them jerked abruptly flat on the ground, their shoulders wrenched, sprawled out facing each other and tied together like two cats on a string.

The crowd shouted.

Geoffrey had landed full on his ribs, and for a moment he saw nothing but a red mist. Then his eyes cleared and he was staring into Dugald’s face. Dugald snarled at him, and pawed out with his knife, at the advantage now because he could stab downward. Geoffrey rolled, and Dugald perforce rolled with him. The stab missed again, and Geoffrey, on his back, jabbed blindly over his head and reached nothing. Then they were on their stomachs again.

Dugald was panting, his face running wet. The long black hair was full of dust, and his face was smeared. If ever Geoffrey had seen a man in an animal state, that was what Dugald resembled. Geoffrey thought wildly; Is this what a noble is?

“I’ll kill you!” Dugald bayed at him, and Geoffrey’s hackles rose. This is not a man, he thought. This is nothing that deserves to live.

Dugald’s arm snapped back, knife poised, and drove downward again. Geoffrey suddenly coiled his back muscles and heaved on his left arm, yanking himself up against Dugald’s chest. He snapped his hips sideward, and Dugald’s knife missed him completely for the third and fatal time. The Barbarian’s knife slipped upward into Dugald’s rib cage, and suddenly Geoffrey was drenched with blood. Dugald’s teeth bit into his neck, but the other man’s jaws were already slackening. Geoffrey let himself slump, and hoped they would cut this carrion away from him as soon as possible. He heard the crowd yelping, and felt The Barbarian plucking the knife out of his hand. His arm was freed, and he rolled away.

“By God, I knew you had the stuff,” The Barbarian was booming. “I knew they had to start breeding men out on the coast sooner or later. Here—give me your other wrist.” The blade burned his skin twice each way—once for victory and once for special aptitude—and then Myka pressed a cloth to the wound.

She was shaking her head. “I’ve never seen it done better. You’re a natural born fighter, lad. I’ve got one of my sisters all picked out for you.”

Geoffrey smiled up at The Barbarian, a little ruefully. “It seems you and I’ll be going back to the coast together, next year.”

“Had it in mind all along, lad,” The Barbarian said. “If I can’t lick ’em, I’ll be damned if I won’t make ’em join me.”

“It’s an effective system,” Geoffrey said.

“That it is, lad. That it is. And now, if you’ll climb up to your feet, let’s go get you some breakfast.”

 

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