Face rode ahead, habitually scouting for danger at point as
they headed towards
The colonel allowed himself to daydream a little as they moved, confident in Face to spot any trouble and for the gelding to get him away in time. In fact, he was trying to figure out a way to not only build the dam, but to stop it from being destroyed again. He still hadn’t figured out the second part yet. According to the sisters, the local law appeared to be well in the pocket of the two Fishman brothers.
BA and Murdock rode behind, the captain humming something
tunelessly, often repeating similar parts over and over again, while BA did his
best to ignore the tedious noise.
Murdock rode a rented horse, a bay mare from the stables of
And BA…rode Van. The huge black horse dominated most others, both in size and in personality. While Face’s mare might have been temperamental, Vandal…or Van for short…was just downright mean. It mimicked its rider to a tee, liking those BA liked and attacking those he didn’t. Murdock had lost several chunks of his clothing to the black beast (the captain refused to call Van a horse -- the word was just too limiting). The bright red, feathered saddle that adorned Van’s back only seemed to add to the intimidating look of the thing.
And at that moment, Van was trying to take a bite out of the muzzle of the bay mare. She shook her head and tried to shift away, but Murdock forced her back in line. He had a reason for sticking close to the big man, and, from the look on BA’s face, it was about to pay off.
“Stop it, Murdock,” BA hissed finally.
Grinning inside, Murdock stopping humming, looking over at his best friend innocently, “What’s that big guy?”
“You know what,” the other growled. “Stop that horrible humming.”
“Humming? Was I humming?”
BA gave him full glare. In most men, that would have turned them to jelly. In Murdock, it made him smile even more brightly.
“Oh, that humming!” the captain nodded, “but that wasn’t humming, BA, that was invention!”
BA groaned and placed a gloved hand to his face -- he knew he shouldn’t have said anything.
“See, I realized something the other day, when we passed those rail workers laying those tracks….”
“I don’t want to hear it,” BA interrupted, recognizing the manic look in the captain’s eyes.
“They were singing while they worked,” Murdock continued undeterred, “You know what song I mean…” he cleared his throat, then began in a painful warble: “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live long day….”
BA grimaced, growled, and tried to urge Van faster. Murdock simply urged his own chestnut forward to match them, stopping his singing.
“And, well, I realized that they’ve got lots of songs to sing while they are working. And not just them. On the docks, you hear the longshoreman and the sailors sings too. Songs like,” he cleared his throat again, lowering it, “What can you do with a drunken sailor, oh what can you do with a drunken sailor….”
“I know what to do with a singing Murdock,” BA hissed quietly, “Hooray and up he rises….” He flashed a fist, mimicking an uppercut jab, then reined Van back, to slow him down and ride rear. Paying absolutely no attention to the threat, Murdock just followed suit. BA rolled his eyes. Murdock smiled.
“And cowboys, they sing those cowboy songs. And miners. And soldiers. And factory folk. You know that saying, whistle while you work?” He started whistling. He was actually very good at it, but BA was too annoyed to notice.
“Is there a point to this, fool?”
“Yes, yes, there’s a point!” Murdock said, about to explain, when suddenly Face shouted something from where he was in the forefront. The others instantly nudged their horses faster to catch up with him.
Face had reached the edge of a ridge, and was looking down a hillside. Nestled about halfway down was a small town, with only one road going through it. Clustered around this main drag were about twenty buildings, including the usual adobe jail and shop fronts. Other buildings, ranchos and the like, were scattered in other depressions in the surrounding hills, all with etched dirt trails leading towards the town. A little further down and off to the side, a narrow plain rested against the side of one set of hills, and therein rested the small convent. Water ran loosely past and around the simple building, flooding their grounds, rushing down from some place they couldn’t see from this vantage point. Beyond the convent’s plain, the hills sloped away even further, to collect in a low endless set of plains that ran well off into the hazy horizon.
The colonel had them ride around the small town, to avoid being spotted as they neared the convent. A quick command sent Murdock and BA away to scout the surrounding hills, to seek out the area where the sisters had said the Fishmans wanted to open their mines.
Thus Face and
“This is no good, colonel,” Face said, picking his way through muck up to his ankles. “We should keep the horses back against the hillside. They couldn’t move through this stuff quickly in any event.”
The back of the convent was marked by a wrought iron gate, shaped in a gentle arch, between two thick pink walls. A large flagstone courtyard was on the other side, which until recently had probably been kept clean and free of debris. It was probably about thirty to forty feet from the gate to the door, and that space was now filled with half broken pots of ruined plants and completely ruined flowerbeds. Water at least four to six inches deep swirled and eddied through the gate and over the courtyard. The entrance on the far side was up two steps, which was the only reason the water probably wasn’t inside. Of course, when the water first crashed through the blown dam, it had probably easily flooded the inside until the water leveled out. The fact that the back door appeared to be half off its hinges and was open was more than enough evidence to support the notion.
When they looked up again, three nuns stood in the doorway watching them, all wearing full habits. In the center, a tall woman with sharp blue eyes stared at him, holding a broomstick in her hands almost defensively. To her left and right, Antonia and Frances stood quietly.
“You are Colonel Hannibal Smith?” the tall woman asked.
“Yes mother,” the colonel said, bowing his head, recognizing her authority as the mother superior without being told. “And this young man to my left is my lieutenant, Templeton Peck.”
“Mother,” Face bowed his head as well, though he allowed a little of his usually dazzling smile to peek through. A hint of a smile appeared on the mother superior’s face as she saw it, then she instantly hid it again.
“I am Sister Ethel,” she replied, still not relinquishing the broomstick, “and, as you have both guessed, I am currently in charge. Let me tell you now that, had we not been forced to ask for your help as a last resort, you would not be here.”
Face glanced askance at
“We need the dam rebuilt, and quickly,” Ethel continued. “You know that we can pay you nothing, but Antonia told me that you are willing to accept that. For that, we thank you.”
A tiny shudder ran through Face’s frame at the reaffirmation that they weren’t being paid.
“Now, there are some other conditions….” Ethel continued,
“Mother, perhaps we could continue this inside? My lieutenant and I are ankle deep in cold running water here, and, after our long trip to get here, I’m sure that we would greatly appreciate a chance to clean up a little and perhaps get something to drink?”
Her face hardened, but there was a softening to her eyes as
she saw another shudder wrack the thin younger man’s frame. This time, he was reacting to the water
swirling around his boots, reminded of that fact by
“We don’t allow men inside,” Ethel began, her voice hesitant. “Besides our own vows, there are other considerations and…”
“Mother, we don’t need to go deep inside. Perhaps the kitchens?”
Ethel sighed, closing her eyes. When she opened them a moment, later, she nodded.
“You are not to go anywhere inside this place except with me, understand?”
Face sighed, and
“Please, if you would follow me….” She waved them inside.
“How much did Antonia tell you?” Ethel asked, setting water
on the small wood burning stove to boil.
Ethel nodded. “That’s all true. We did try to reason with them at first, offered to let them mine the hills if they promised never to come near the convent and they gave us part of the profits, but, besides the fact that they laughed at the idea of sharing any profits, they told us that the only way to get the equipment to the mine area would have to be over this plain, which is infeasible. We can’t have that kind of disruption, plus it would destroy our crops.” She frowned, realizing that they were all pretty much destroyed now anyway. “Also, we…have a woman here, Hannah her name is, whom we take care of, and who reacts very violently to the sight of men. We couldn’t do that to her.” She sighed, “They also told us that they needed to change our water supply, basically cutting off our streams and wells, because they wanted to use the river’s power to make water cannons to blast the hills.” She shook her head, “obviously, though we have too much of the river now,” she gave a small smile, “we also need it desperately to survive.” Her eyes rose to meet Hannibal’s, and the man nodded.
“And so, when money and intimidation didn’t work,” the colonel continued, “they went ahead and blew the dam.”
Ethel nodded, “it flooded most of the first floor, and
completely flooded our basements stores.
One of our sisters, who was down in one of the rooms taking an
inventory, was nearly drowned.” She
shivered, her eyes now looking towards
“And Hannah was nearly apoplectic,”
Ethel looked back at
“And what you would like us to do…”
“To rebuild the dam,” Ethel said. “None of the townsfolk will help us. They’ve all been promised greater prosperity for themselves and the town should the mines happen. The Fishmans have essentially bought them, including the poor excuse for a sheriff here. I’m almost surprised he hasn’t evicted us, though…truth be told…all of this land, including the town, belongs to the convent. He has no right to evict us…we’ve more right to evict him…except that, for all our great estate, we have no real money or power…at least not in the physical sense.” She shrugged, and that small smile was back.
“And what happens after the dam is rebuilt?” Face asked.
She looked at the younger man, and shook her head. “Then your job is done.”
“But,” Face frowned, “what is to stop them from blowing it again?”
“Well, we’ve written letters to the territorial governor and to the bishop. We hope one or the other might be able to provide us with some help. Protection once you leave.”
“Governor Hopewell is governor of this territory, I think,” the younger man replied, shaking his head. Ethel frowned at the slight communication.
“You don’t think he will help us?”
“Maybe if he’s replaced, he might,” Face replied darkly. “But the bishop, on the other hand, he might be able….”
“I admit, I do not place great faith in his ability,” Ethel interrupted. “He has no real clout here. The church is not what it once was, and we’re so far out of the way. I once wrote to him, asking for aid to take care of some local poor, and we received a form letter addressed “Dear sir.” I wonder if he even knows we’re here.”
“He might, if he knew what the Fishman wanted this land
“Well, regardless,” Face said, looking at the colonel, “any dam that can hold back as much water as we’ve seen outside is going to have to be pretty strong, colonel. When you told me we were building a dam, I was thinking something a lot smaller. I’m not sure the four of us can build it on our own.”
“Four?” Ethel looked at them.
“Two more of my men are scouting around, mother,”
“No, I meant…there are only four of you? From your reputations, I thought you must be a small army.”
“We are what we are,”
“Who are you talking about,” Ethel asked.
“There is a town north of here,” Face said, “protected by seven men who….”
A small frown etched itself into both men’s brows.
“No. I’m sorry. I can’t allow that. Under no circumstances can I allow you any contact with the men there.”
“Why?” Face eventually stammered out. “They are good men, honest….”
“I made a promise to someone and, beyond that, you will simply have to trust me.” She stood up, brooking no further argument. “If you wish, either Sister Antonia or Sister Frances can take you up to see the dam area now.”
“That won’t be necessary, mother,” the colonel said, “we can find it on our own.”
“There are two other items I need to discuss with you,” Ethel said, “before you go.”
“First,” she said, “I would appreciate it if only you or Lieutenant Peck ever come here, and that only rarely. I will recognize you now and it’s simply easier that way. And if you could avoid…coming unannounced, I would appreciate it. There is a little boy in the village who often comes out here. If you need a gofer, you can use him. His name is Miguel. You’ll probably come across him on your way to the dam. He’s often about. His English is poor, but we have been teaching him and he has been practicing….”
“And two?” Face asked.
“Two,” Ethel licked her lips, “I would ask that you never use your guns. I do not want anyone dead or hurt because of this. We would leave and beg for hospitality somewhere else before we ever do that. Although, with Hannah, we may not be likely to get it. Still, even as vagabonds we would be better off than if we knew anything we had done had caused harm to another.”
“The only purpose of a handgun is to kill, colonel. I will not have that on my or any of my sisters’ heads.”
“And if someone attacks us, or you? What do you expect us to do?”
“Run away. Leave. Besides, I do not believe they would ever harm us directly. We are not a danger to them. And, if you do not threaten them, perhaps by leaving your guns elsewhere, then I do not believe they will try to harm you either.”
“But,” Face was frowning, “what about the sister who was in the basement when the dam broke? What if she hadn’t gotten out? What if more of you were down there? And this Hannah, surely she’s already been badly harmed by all this. Mother, they have already caused harm to you, and the fact that you haven’t left will only make them more angry and desperate.”
“And if your bishop sends an army to protect you, you know that, just as the Knights Templar carried swords, so they too will be carrying rifles and pistols,” Hannibal shook his head. “What makes them different from us?”
“An army would prevent them from acting merely by its presence, colonel,” Ethel insisted. “not because of their guns, but because of their size. You, however, are not an army; there are, as you say, only four of you. You would have to use those guns if engaged. The Fishmans would not be foolish enough to engage an army.”
“Do not fool yourself, mother,”
Ethel shook her head, “Violence only begets violence, colonel.”
“Yes, I am aware of that, but the violence here has already
“It has not reached a level which would warrant escalation,” she insisted. “Please, I must insist on this point.”
Ethel looked down at the table, then back up at them. Her eyes were troubled now.
“Soldiers,” she repeated.
She frowned, then sighed. “Will you at least promise not to use you guns except…except when there is absolutely no other option, including running away?”
“Colonel?” Face was waiting. Could they really do that? Run away?
Face swallowed, his jaw tense. When
“That goes for all of is, lieutenant,” the colonel said darkly. “Consider it an order.”
Ethel and Frances both looked at Face as he tried to stare
She gave a tiny grimace, but nodded. “Yes.”
“This just keeps getting better and better,” Face groused as they rode along the ridge over the plain, in the direction of the ruined dam. “We’re not only doing manual labor for no pay, but if someone shoots at us, the most we’re going to be able to do is run away with our tails between our legs. Ever had a bullet in the back, Colonel? I understand they’re nasty.”
It was the third such comment since they left the convent,
Face sniffed, “I still can’t believe that….”
The lieutenant frowned; he knew that tone.
Perhaps it was the trousers. They were ruined beyond repair.
“I’m just saying…” he began.
“Now. Stop now.”
Or maybe it was the fact that the whole escapade had been planned in his absence.
“This is a right mess you’ve gotten us into this time,
“Christ, Face! Give it a rest! You’re whining would try the patience of a saint!”
Face took a breath, considered his options, then shook his head. He realized suddenly that this wasn’t whining. Thing was, something about this whole job had been gnawing at him the wrong way since they talked with Sister Ethel…
“Hell, even if we build the damn thing, they’ll just blow it again. And what will we do to stop them, huh? Do you expect me to talk them out of it?”
That did it.
As soon as he saw
“Colonel, I’m only trying to point out that I think….”
“I gave you an order, lieutenant,”
“We’re wasting our time, here, colonel! Without guns, you’re putting all of us at….”
“Shut up, damn it! The decision has been made, and you will follow orders!” The colonel’s stare would have frozen a basilisk.
“Fine! Lead us to a slaughter! That way you can use our bodies for the dam’s wood!”
“Or you’ll what? Risk my life? You do that already.”
Hannibal grabbed the lapel of the younger man’s dark blue
jacket and lifted him out of the saddle slightly, as if he were about to hit
him. Face looked down at the hand,
glared at his colonel, and ripped the jacket out of
“So, you want me to stop questioning you, is that it?” he asked coldly.
Face sprouted an impudent smile, “Then obviously my company also grows wearisome for you.”
“Yes,” he heard himself saying, “I think it has.”
Face nodded, “Fine. Then, after this is over, I will release you of the burden of my presence. Is that better?”
The lieutenant licked his lips. Damn it, where the hell had that come from?
And how the hell was he going to get out of it?