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The Fight At The Bayou







From: The Fire People

Miela proceeded to explain our plan in detail to these fifteen hundred
enthusiastic allies. It was my idea to build several platforms similar to
this one on which Mercer and I had been carried up here into the
mountains, only somewhat larger. We then proposed to seize these
emissaries of Tao--there were not more than eight or ten of them
altogether in the Great City--capturing them at night, without alarm, if
possible, and transporting them summarily into the Twilight Country. My
theory was that if they were to disappear thus mysteriously the people of
the Great City would have no particular cause to make trouble afterward,
and we hoped that the affair would soon be forgotten.

Miela thought it practical for us to carry them in this way across the
Narrow Sea. The Lone City, from which Tao was operating, was located near
the edge of the sea, and if we gave them food they would be enabled to
reach it in safety in a day or two. The girls agreed enthusiastically with
this plan, and we selected a number to carry it out.

Meanwhile we planned also to organize a system of aerial patrols, and
detailed some two hundred of the girls, who in varying shifts were to fly
back and forth along the borders of the sea over its Light Country shore,
to make sure that Tao did not attempt to make a crossing by water.

"Can't they fly over as well as we can?" Mercer objected. "Their women
fly, too, don't they?"

The women of the Twilight Country did fly, but for two reasons we did not
fear an attack from them in the air. First, Miela doubted that the women
would concern themselves in the affair; they were stupid and
apathetic--fit only for child-bearing. The men might, of course, force
them to the attempt, but even in that event, Miela explained, it would
result in little; for generations of comparative inactivity and the colder
climate had made them inclined to stoutness. Their wing muscles were weak
and flabby, and with their greater weight of body they flew very badly.

"Suppose Tao should come over?" I suggested to Miela. "I don't believe he
will--but if he should, how could we stop him?"

"By water he would come," she answered. "In boats--small they are, I
think, those he has. We could not stop him, for the light-ray he would
bring. But our women, flying over the ocean, would see him coming, and
tell our king. More we could not do now."

"You mean this patrol would give the government the warning it won't
obtain for itself? There would be war then? The people would arm to resist
invasion?"

Miela smiled sadly.

"There would be war, Alan. But our government--our people--do not look for
it. They are like the peeta bird, that hides its head under its wing when
it is threatened."

The time of sleep was now nearly over, and we thought it best that the
girls should fly back at once, so that their arrival at the city would
cause as little comment as possible.

Mercer and I seated ourselves on the platform as before; the twenty girls
grasped its handles, raising it until they were all upon their feet; then,
at a signal, we left the ground. The trip back seemed shorter than coming
up. The girls all left the valley together, flying up helter-skelter, and
circling about us as we flew steadily onward.

Near the Great City the girls spread out, so as to approach it from
different directions and thus attract less attention, although the time of
sleep was not yet over and we knew that few would be stirring about the
city.

When we reached home we greeted Lua, and dismissed the girls, arranging
that they were to come back again that evening--fifty of them this
time--to carry the larger platform we were to build. We then had
breakfast, and after telling Lua the result of the meeting--at which she
was greatly pleased--we went immediately to bed, for we were worn out.

It was about noon, I suppose, when we awoke. Mercer and I spent the
afternoon building the platform on which to carry Tao's men--a framework
with fifty handles instead of twenty. Miela and Anina disappeared for the
whole afternoon. I did not know what they were doing at the time; later I
found out Anina was devoting it to learning English.

During the evening meal we planned it all. Tao's men were living in a
house near the edge of the city--the house Tao had occupied before he was
banished to the Twilight Country. It had no other occupants at this time.

We had learned where they kept their boats in one of the bayous near by,
and in it we intended to take them to the sea, where we would meet the
girls, who would then fly with them to the Twilight Country. But we could
not figure out how to capture them without alarming the city. We were sure
they were unarmed; they had been carefully searched by the authorities
when they entered the country. But they were ten to our two.

Mercer voiced the problem most emphatically.

"Ten men in a house," he declared. "Maybe we can catch them all asleep.
But even if they are, how are we going to get them out? There'd be a row,
and we don't want any noise. Besides, there's always this confounded
daylight here. If we tied them up somebody might see us when we got
outside. How do we get them out of that house without any rumpus, and down
to that boat? That's what I don't see."

"I--do--that," said Anina suddenly.

She had spoken in English, and we looked at her in amazement. She lisped
the words in her soft, sweet voice, haltingly, like a little child. Then
she turned to Miela and poured out a torrent of her native language.
Mercer stared at her in undisguised admiration.

As Miela explained it, Anina proposed that she go into Tao's house alone,
and decoy his men down to the boat where we could capture them.

"But how will she get them there?" I exclaimed. "What will she tell them?"

"She says she can make them think she is one of those few of our women who
sympathize with their cause," Miela explained. "And she will say that the
earth-man who escaped from them she has seen lurking about their boat;
perhaps he plans to steal it. She will go there with them, and they can
recapture him."

"They might not all go," said Mercer. "We want to get them all."

"It is Anina's thought that they will all go, for they fear this earth-man
much--and all would go to make sure of him."

I could not feel it was right for us to let Anina do so daring a thing,
and Mercer agreed with me heartily. But Anina insisted, with a fire in her
eyes and flushed cheeks that contrasted strangely with her usually gentle
demeanor.

In the end Mercer and I gave in, for we could think of no better plan, and
Miela was confident Anina would not be harmed.

It was about what would correspond with ten o'clock in the evening on
earth when the girls began to arrive. We waited until all fifty of them
had come in. Miela named a place on the shore of the sea known to them
all. They were to take the platform--starting in about two hours, when the
city would be quiet--and there they would wait for us to join them in the
boat.

We four started out together, but soon Anina left us to make her way to
Tao's house alone. Mercer, Miela and I then hurried as fast as we could
through the city down to the marshlands, and to the secluded spot on the
bayou's bank where the boat was lying.

The bayou here was about a hundred feet wide, a winding, brackish stream,
lined on both sides with trees whose roots were in the water and whose
branches at times nearly met overhead. Its banks were a tangled mass of
tree roots, huge ferns, palmettos and some tall upstanding kind of water
grass. Half submerged logs jutted out into the sluggish current, making it
in places seem almost impassable.

A narrow metal boat--a very long and very narrow motor boat with a
thatched shelter like a small cabin over part of its length--lay fastened
to a tree near at hand. I noticed at once some mechanism over its stern.

We had come up quietly to make sure no one was about. Now we hid ourselves
close to the boat and waited with apprehension in our hearts for the
arrival of Anina with Tao's men.

Half an hour, perhaps, went by. The silence in this secluded spot hung
heavy about us. A fish broke the glassy surface of the water; a lizard
scurried along the ground; a bird flitted past. Then, setting our hearts
pounding, came the soft snapping of underbrush that we knew was the
cautious tread of some one approaching. I was half reclining under a
fallen tree, with a clump of palmettos about me. I parted their fronds
carefully before my face. A few yards away a man was standing motionless,
staring past me and apparently listening intently.

He moved forward after a moment. I feared he was coming almost upon us,
but he turned aside, bending low down as he crept slowly forward. Sounds
in the underbrush reached me now from other directions, and I knew that
the men had spread apart and were stalking the boat, expecting Mercer to
be in or near it.

Had they all come down here? I wondered. And where was Anina? I looked
down at Miela warningly as I felt her move slightly.

"We'll wait till they're all near the boat," I whispered to Mercer.

I saw Anina a moment later soaring over the bayou just above the treetops.
I sighed with relief, for it was a signal to us that everything was all
right. We continued to wait until the men had all come into view. They
went at the boat with a sudden rush. Several of them climbed into it, with
shouts to the others.

With a significant glance to Mercer I leaped suddenly to my feet. I was
perhaps twenty feet from the boat, and the space between us was fairly
clear. A single bound landed me beside it, almost among four of the men
who were standing there in a group. Before they had time to face me I was
upon them.

I scattered them like nine-pins, and two of them went down under my blows.
The other two flung themselves upon me. I stumbled over some inequality of
the ground, and we all three fell prone. This was the first time I had
come actually to hand grips with any of the Mercutians.

I felt now not only their lack of strength, but a curious frailness about
their bodies--a seeming absence of solidity that their stocky appearance
belied. These two men were like half-grown boys in my hands. I was back on
my feet in a moment, leaving one of them lying motionless. The other rose
to his knees, his face white with pain and terror.

I left him there and looked about me. Miela was fluttering around near by,
as I had instructed her--just off the ground and with the whole scene
under her eyes. It was she on whom I depended for warning should any of
the quarry attempt to escape us.

At the edge of the water another man was lying, whom I assumed Mercer had
felled. There was a great commotion from the boat. I ran toward it. A man
was standing beside it--an old man with snow-white hair. He stood still,
seeming confused and in doubt what to do. As I neared him he turned
clumsily to avoid me. I passed him by and bounded over the boat's gunwale,
landing in its bottom. The first thing I saw was Mercer struggling to his
feet with four of the Mercutians hanging on him. One had a grip on his
throat from behind; another clutched him about the knees.

The two others let go of him when they heard me land in the boat. One had
evidently had enough, for he dived overboard. The other waited warily for
my onslaught. As I got within reach I hit at his face, but my blow went
wild. He hit me full in the chest, but it was the blow of a child.

At that instant I heard Mercer give a choking cry, and out of the corner
of my eye saw him go down again. I could waste no more time upon this
single antagonist. The man had his hands at my throat now. I seized him
about the waist and carried him to the gunwale. He clung to me as a rat
might cling to a terrier, but I shook him off and dumped him in the water.

I turned to Mercer just as he was struggling to his feet again, and in a
moment more between us we had felled his two assailants. Mercer's face was
very white, and I saw blood streaming from a wound on his head; but he
grinned as he faced me.

"Have we--got 'em--all?" he gasped. He dashed the blood away from his eyes
with the flat of his hand. "I fell--damn it--right at the start, and hit
my head. Where are they all? Have we got 'em?"

Miela alighted in the boat beside us.

"Two are running," she said. "They are together. Hasten."

We jumped out of the boat. Miela flew up, and we followed her guidance
through the dense woods. We could make much better speed, I knew, than the
Mercutians. "We'll get them all, Ollie," I shouted at Mercer. "They're not
far ahead. See up there--Miela's evidently over them now."

We came up to them after a few hundred yards. It was the old man, and one
of those whom I had first encountered. They did not wait for us to attack
them, but stopped stock still, flinging their arms wide in token of
surrender.

Miela came down among us, and we went back to where we had lain hidden in
the palmettos. There we had left a number of short lengths of rope. While
we were tying the arms of these two prisoners behind them and fettering
their ankles so they could not run Anina joined us.

"Two--in water," she cried; and then added something to Miela.

"Two were in the water. Now they are in the woods, running. Anina will
show you."

Miela stood guard in the boat over our first two prisoners, while Mercer
and I rounded up the others. It was half an hour or more before we had
them all trussed up, but none of the ten escaped. We were a long time
reviving two of those we had injured, but finally we had them all lying or
sitting in the boat.

Mercer's head had stopped bleeding. He washed it, and I found his injury
no more than an ugly scalp wound.

"I fell and cut it on something," he explained lugubriously. "Couldn't see
for the blood in my eyes. But we got 'em, didn't we?"

Under Miela's direction Mercer and I shoved the boat out into the stream.
I need not go into details regarding the propelling mechanism of this
craft. Miela explained it hastily to me as we got under way. It used a
form of the light-ray from a sort of strange battery. The intense heat of
the ray generated a great pressure of superheated steam in a thick metal
cylinder underneath the keel.

This steam escaped through a nozzle under water at the stern of the boat,
and its thrust against the water propelled the boat forward. The boat was
constructed to draw very little water, and when going fast its bow planed
upward until only the stern of the hull touched the surface. It was
steered by a rudder not much different from some of those types we are
familiar with on earth. When we got out into open water I found the boat
was capable of great speed. This I attributed not so much to the efficacy
of its propelling force as to the lightness of the boat itself. It was
built of some metal that I may perhaps compare with aluminium, only this
was far stronger and lighter. The boat was, in fact, a mere shell,
extraordinarily buoyant.

Miela sat in the stern, steering and operating the mechanism. I sat with
her. Mercer was farther forward, beside Anina, talking to her earnestly.
Our prisoners lay huddled in various attitudes--frightened, all of them,
and obviously in no condition to give us further trouble. They were, I saw
now, not ruffians by any means, but rather men of superior intelligence,
selected by Tao evidently as those best fitted for spreading his
propaganda among the people of the Great City.

We made slow progress down the bayou. Some of its turns were so sharp and
so overhung with trees, and obstructed by fallen logs, we could hardly get
through. During the latter part of the trip the bayou broadened rapidly,
dividing into many channels like a delta.

We came out into the open sea finally--a broad, empty expanse, with a
mirrorlike surface. The curvature of the planet was even more apparent
now; it seemed almost as though the water should be sliding back downhill
over the horizon.

We turned to the left as we came out of the delta, and for the first time
Miela put the boat to the limit of its speed. The best comparison I can
make, I think, to this rapid, noiseless, smooth progress, is that of
sailing on an iceboat.

We sped along some five or ten miles, keeping close inland. I saw some of
the small thatched shacks along here, though not many. For a while the
shore remained that same palm-lined, half-inundated marshland. Then
gradually it began to change, and we came upon a broad beach of white
sand.

We landed here, and found the girls with the platform waiting for us.
Miela took Anina and one or two of the older girls aside, and gave them
last instructions.

"What do I do--just dump them on the other shore?" Mercer asked me.

"That's about it. I don't know the lay of the land over there. Anina does.
You do what she tells you."

"You bet I will," he agreed enthusiastically. "Some kid--that little girl.
We get along fine. She understands everything I say to her already. I'll
have her talking English like a streak by the time you see her again."

We had removed the cords from our prisoners' ankles. I motioned them to
get out of the boat. We crowded Tao's men on the platform. They were
surprised, and some of them alarmed, when they saw how we proposed to
transport them over the water. Miela silenced their protests, and soon we
had them all seated on the platform, with Mercer at the rear end facing
them.

The fifty girls grasped the platform handles. Another moment and they were
in the air, with Mercer waving good-by to us vigorously.

Miela and I, left alone, watched them silently as they dwindled to a speck
in the haze of the sky.

We were about to start back when we saw a girl coming toward us, flying
low over the water. One of those we had directed to patrol the coast,
Miela said when she came closer. She saw us, and came down on the beach.

The two girls spoke together hurriedly.

"Tao's men in the Water City have caused great disturbance, Alan," Miela
said to me.

"Where's the Water City?"

"Near the Great City--across the marshlands. We must get back. And when
Anina and our friend Ollie have returned we must go to the Water City. It
is very bad there, she said."

Our trip back to the Great City was without unusual incident. We followed
the main route at the best speed we could make.

"We shall tell our king, of course, about this disturbance," said Miela.
"Perhaps he will think there is something he can do. But I fear greatly
that unless he appeals directly to the people, and they are with him--"

"He's an old man," I said, "and all his councilors are old. They're not
fit to rule at such a time as this. Suppose he were to die--what would
happen? Who would be king then?"

"A little prince there is--a mere child. And there is our queen--a younger
woman, only married to our king these few years. His first queen died."

I questioned Miela concerning her government. It was, I soon learned, an
autocracy in theory. But of later years the king's advanced age, and his
equally old councilors whom he refused to change, had resulted in a
vacillating policy of administration, which now, I could see plainly, left
the government little or no real power.

Only by constantly pandering to the wishes of the people could the king
hold his throne. The supreme command was held by the king and his aged
councilors. At stated intervals the more prominent men of each city met
and enacted laws. The cities were each ruled by a governor in similar
fashion, paying tribute to the central government somewhat after our old
feudal system; but for practical purposes they acted as separate nations.
They were united merely by the bonds of their common need of defense
against the Twilight People, and of intermarriage, which was frequent,
since the virgins, flying about, often found mates in cities other than
their own.

There were courts in each city, not much more than rude tribunals, and
jails in which the offenders were held. The police I have already
mentioned. They, like the king's guards, were inclined in an emergency to
do, not so much what they were ordered, as what they thought the people
wished.

It was all very extraordinary, but like many another makeshift government
it served, after a fashion.

Hiding the boat in another bayou, we took our way home on foot. That is to
say, I ran, and Miela followed me, alternately flying and walking. We made
our best speed this way, and very soon were back at home in the Great
City.

We crossed the garden and entered the front door, expecting to find Lua in
the living room, but she was not there. The house was quiet.

"She would wait up, she told me," Miela said, and, raising her voice,
called her mother's name.

There was no answer, although now I remember I thought I heard a footfall
upstairs.

We went up to Lua's room hurriedly. It was empty, and our loud cries of
anxiety throughout the house evoked no response. We entered our own
bedroom, and before I could make a move to defend myself I was seized
tightly by both elbows from behind.

At the same instant an arm hooked around my neck under my chin and jerked
my head backward, and another pair of arms clutched me around the knees. I
struggled vainly to free myself, shouting to Miela to run.

But there were too many holding me. A moment more and my arms were tied
behind me and a rope was about my legs. I was pushed into a chair, and as
I sat down I saw Miela standing quietly near by, with two Mercutians
holding her by the arms and shoulders.

The man who had pushed me to the seat bent down and struck me across the
cheek with the flat of his hand. His grinning, malevolent face was only a
few inches from mine. I saw that it was Baar!





Next: Revolution

Previous: The Fire Planet



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