Saturday, September 28, 2019

Chapter 14, The Amazing Adventures of Ralph Kroder

        Ralph kept the golf cart at twenty miles an hour on the stone road. The landscape changed a little after the first hour, with clumps of oak trees and willow trees dotting the grassy plain. Around eleven-thirty, Ralph topped a small hill and then left the road and parked in the shade of a large willow about fifty meters south of the road. As he expected, the willow was beside a small pond, about twenty meters across.
Ralph drank the remainder of his already-opened water bottle. “Too bad the seats don’t adjust. I could lean back and relax.” – We’ve been driving for around ninety minutes, and you’re already tired? – “I’m not tired. I just like to relax when taking in the scenery.” – You got grass and trees. – “I know, but there are variations. We’re beneath a willow tree.” He pointed with his right hand. “Over there are several oak trees.” – Two bad they’re not pecan trees. – “Yeah. We’ve got Twinkies and Hostess Cupcakes, but they won’t last forever.” He raised his head at a sudden noise from the northwest. He said, “You hear that?” – If you mean that chuff like a steam locomotive, yes.
Ralph turned in the cart, his feet resting on the ground. He was prepared for movement, should the sound mean presence of danger. He watched the top of the hill over which he had driven only a few minutes before.
White smoke rose above the hill. The top of a smoke stack appeared. Ralph said, “I don’t think it’s a train.” – Ya think? – “Smartass.” – I am you. – “I’ve been meaning to talk about that. When we have time.” – We’ve had nothing but time since we got here. Well, except when those six dudes decided to kill us.­ At least you recognized the right priority. – “Kill or die. Not much choice there.” – You’re not as fast as you used to be.­ – “Who is?”
Both Ralph and Inner Ralph stopped talking as the circular front of a steam tractor appeared at the top of the hill. The two-meter-long boiler was painted bright red, with gold-colored highlights on the front seal. The chuff sound grew louder, and then the remainder of the tractor came into view as the big vehicle began its descent of the shallow hill.
“It’s bright,” Ralph said. The roof of the cab was the same red as the boiler, as were support members. A short wagon as tall as the tractor was attached to the tractor and was painted a gleaming black. “That’s the wood wagon,” Ralph said. – Do you surmise that, or are you suddenly an expert on steam tractors? – “I can see firewood.” – Oh. Now that you mention it.
The tractor followed the road, turning right and paralleling Ralph’s position beneath the willow tree. Four wagons carrying large, bulging burlap-type bags followed the tractor and the firewood wagon. Ralph stood from the golf cart and raised his right hand in greeting. The sudden movement seemed to startle the tractor driver, who first raised a hand, and then pulled a string, sounding two sharp toots from a steam whistle. The tractor then slowed, coming to a full stop after a few meters.
Ralph walked toward the tractor. The tractor driver’s hands disappeared inside the cab, probably setting the brake, Ralph decided. The driver stepped from the tractor. A young man took the driver’s place at the controls. Steam hissed from a valve. Ralph was surprised when the driver took off a thick blue cotton cap and shook her long blonde hair into place. “It’s a woman!” he said. He heard a laugh in his head. – Amazing deduction, Sherlock.
Ralph and the driver met halfway between the road and the golf cart. The two stood about a meter apart. He figured the driver to be five-nine, four inches shorter than his six-one. She wore dark blue overalls, a long sleeved blue shirt and brown lace-up boots. And, Ralph particularly noticed the brown leather belt around her waist, and the automatic pistol in the flap-style holster.
Ralph put out his right hand. “Ralph Kroder,” he said.
“Hali Langley,” the drive said. She took off her brown gloves and firmly shook Ralph’s hand. She looked over his shoulder. “You have an interesting conveyance.”
Ralph studied Hali’s green eyes, but not for an unmannered time. “Your tractor is seldom seen on my world.”
Surprised by Ralph’s comment, Hali said, “My Farlow is the second-most popular long-haul tractor in the country.”
“I did not mean to disparage your tractor,” Ralph explained. “I only meant the style is seen generally in museums and at expositions of historical farm and transportation equipment.”
“In museums?” Hali said. “I purchased my Farlow less than two years past.”
Raising his hands palms out, Ralph said, “It seems we have gotten off on the wrong foot.” The Inner Ralph commented, If she is always this argumentative, she and we should get along famously. Ralph said, “I apologize if I have offended you.” -- You’re apologizing for offending somebody? How many times have you said you don’t get offended, you get pissed off? A hundred dozen?
“I am not offended,” Hali said. “I don’t get offended.”
Ralph broke out his best smile then and said, “I’m glad to hear that, because I don’t get offended by anything. I get pissed off, but I do not get offended.” He stuck out his hand.
Hali laughed as she again presented a firm grip and enthusiasm. “It seems we have something in common.”
Hali’s fireman called out, “Are you now friends?”
“Yes, we are,” Hali replied.
The fireman said, “Than I shall return the rifle to its proper place?”
“Yes,” Hali said. “By all means, do so.” She said to Ralph, “Emma Lee is my apprentice. I decided to take no chances with meeting you.”
“I understand,” Ralph said. Leaning forward, he said, “Do not tell Emma Lee, but at first sight, I thought she was a young man.”
“Oh, no, not at all,” Hali said, laughing. Then, her demeanor became serious. “At times, we women find it necessary to be forceful.” She shifted her weight. “May I ask a question?”
“Of course,” Ralph said.
Hali said, “A few miles back, we came across an unusual sight.”
Here we go, Inner Ralph said.
When Ralph made no comment, Hali continued. “Emma Lee and I found the bodies of six prairie pirates about forty paces from the road.”
“Prairie pirates?”
“That is what the newspapers call them. I call them brigands and bandits. Murderers. People who allow their opinions to be formed by writers and such have begun to use the phrase ‘prairie pirates’ because of its alliteration and because they believe such usage makes them seem informed and important.”
Ralph squared his step. In for a penny, Inner Ralph said. “I killed them.”
“You killed them?”
“Yes,” Ralph said, nodding. “They saw me on the road. They pulled sabers and charged. So I shot them.”
“Each bandit had two bullet holes.”
“You fired twelve rounds.”
“I did.”
“From a rifle? And you had time to reload?”
“With a pistol,” Ralph said. “May I show you the weapon?”
“By all means,” Hali said. “I have never seen a twelve-shot pistol.”
Ralph glanced at the tractor and then said, “Emma Lee won’t shoot me, will she?”
Hali laughed. She called out, “Emma Lee! Check the brake and then join Mister Kroder and me.”
“All right,” the girl said. “You want me to bring the rifle?”
“No,” Hali said. “Just yourself.”
Ralph waited while Emma Lee walked from the tractor. He judged the girl to be seventeen or so. Like Hali, Emma Lee wore a cap of thick blue cotton, dark blue overalls over a long sleeved blue shirt and brown lace-up boots. And, like Hali, Emma wore a holstered pistol. She was as tall as Hali, but more slender.
Ralph took the Colt Commander from the holster at the small of his back. He dropped the magazine into his left hand, and then handed the magazine to Hali, saying, “Hold that please.” He locked the slide back.
Emma Lee picked up the ejected round. She held it between her forefinger and thumb. “It’s heavy.” She returned the round to Ralph.
“Thank you,” Ralph said as he took the round. “It’s a little smaller than eleven and a half millimeters.”
“May I?” Hali asked, extending her right hand.
“Of course,” Ralph said. He gave Hali the pistol and took back the magazine, inserting the ejected round while Hali inspected the pistol.
“It has good balance” Hali said. “May I let the slide go forward?” When Ralph answered in the affirmative, Hali held the slide with her left hand and released the catch with her right thumb. She eased the slide forward and then took a two-handed stance, aiming at the willow tree. She nodded. “Good sights.”
“It’s a smaller model of an old design,” Ralph said. “The older one had smaller sights, which some people find difficult to use.” She returned the pistol to Ralph.
Emma Lee said, “May I look at it?”
“Yes,” Ralph said.
The girl took the same stance as had Hali. She returned the pistol to Ralph, saying, “The bandits’ pistols are lighter.”
Ralph loaded the Colt, put the weapon on safe and returned it to the holster. He said, “You checked the bodies and weapons?”
“We did,” Hali said. She looked away.
Emma Lee said, “We had a difficult time dragging the bodies to the tractor and getting them loaded.”
Ralph glanced at the tractor. “The bodies are in the wood wagon?” When Emma Lee made no response, Ralph looked at Hali.
“We’re taking them to Riverport.”
“Where’s that?”
Hali nodded to the southeast. “About five more hours that way.”
“Huh,” Ralph said. “Is there a reward on pirates?”
“Reward?” Hali said.
“A bounty.”
“Oh,” Hali said. She nodded. “There is a bounty. Ten zlotneys for a dead pirate, fifteen zlotneys for a live one.”
“And for the weapons and equipment?”
“Ten zlotneys for each rifle, fifteen for each pistol, five for each revolver and eight for each saber.” She waved a hand. “We will get probably thirty zlotneys total for their boots. Around two hundred seventy zlotneys.” She looked at Ralph. “We will share the bounty, if you like.” She made a small shrug. “We’ll take seventy percent.”
“You want a seventy-thirty split,” Ralph said. Hali nodded. Ralph said, “I shot them.”
Hali set her jaw. “And Emma Lee and I carried the bodies and weapons to the wood wagon. Loading all that weight was not easy.”
Ralph said, “You both look like strong women.”
Emma Lee chimed in. “It wasn’t easy.”
“Huh,” Ralph said. “What about the saddles and bridles?”
“We loaded those as well.”
“And?” Ralph said.
Hali made an exaggerated sigh and put a hand on a hip. “We will get one hundred and twenty zlotneys.”
“So we are up to three hundred ninety zlotneys.”
“Yes.” Hali said. “Approximately.”
“Okay,” Ralph said. “Here’s what I will do. Considering your and Emma Lee’s work dragging the bodies and loading all the weapons and stuff into the wood wagon, and that you will handle delivering everything to the proper authorities or whoever, I will take one hundred fifty zlotneys.” – Don’t you want to find out how much a zlotney is?
Hali put both hands on her hips. “One hundred twenty-five.”
“No,” Ralph said, shaking his head. “I think a fifty-fifty split would be fair. But, considering the work you and Emma Lee have done and the administrative work you will do, I will agree to receiving thirty-seven and one-half percent. Yet you offer thirty-percent. That is not very charitable of you.”
“Charitable?” Hali said. “If you want charity, you should find the nearest poor farm and ask for work.” She leaned forward. “One hundred and thirty.”
“Not a chance,” Ralph said. “I’m out twelve rounds of forty-five-caliber auto ammunition, which I cannot replace here. Plus, I am owed something because my life was on the line.” He touched his chest. “The bandits tried to kill me. I killed them. All you did was pick up stuff I left for you. One hundred fifty zlotneys, and not a penny less.”
“What is a penny?”
Sighing, Ralph said, “It is the lowest value coin in my country.”
“Huh,” Hali said. “The smallest coin here is the zelazny.”
“That is good to know,” Ralph said, nodding. “For my part of the bounty, I will take one hundred fifty zlotneys and not one zelazny less.” – Inner Ralph laughed and said, Good move!
Hali said, “Would you consider one hundred forty?”
“No,” Ralph said.
“You are robbing me!”
“Not at all,” Ralph said. “I am not even taking what is my due. I am proposing a little more than one-third what you and I will receive for my ridding the country of six dangerous men.” He raised a hand. “Now if you want, I am certain you and I can argue our cases before a judge or magistrate or some other official who adjudicates disputes. I am sure he or she would take no more than ten percent or twenty percent of your and my bounty for settling our disagreement.”
In Hali’s eyes Ralph saw the math wheels turning. As a woman of business, Hali was familiar with a magistrate’s dealings. It could be, Ralph figured, each individual magistrate set his or her own percentage in cases concerning money. Or, the rate might be set by a regional, provincial or national parliament, congress or wearer of a crown. Whoever set the rates, Hali more than likely would receive a greater share from a private agreement with Ralph.
“Very well,” Hali finally said. “One hundred fifty zlotneys.”
Ralph grabbed her hand, shaking it as confirmation of his and her agreement, before she asked for addendum. “Good,” he said. “I get one-fifty, you and Emma Lee get two-fifty, or thereabouts.”
Hali let go his hand. “You pay taxes on your part, and I pay taxes on mine.”
“Agreed,” Ralph nodded. Inner Ralph said, What about the horses? To Hali, Ralph said, “What would the horses be worth, if we could round them up?”
“Thirty zlotneys each,” Hali replied.
“Dang!” Ralph exclaimed. “That would put our total at five hundred seventy zlotneys.”
“It would,” Hali said, nodding. She waited for Ralph to make a suggestion concerning the horses.
Ralph looked at Emma Lee. “What do you think?”
           Emma Lee looked confused. “About what?”
“The horses,” Ralph said.
“Well, uh, they’re out there.” Emma Lee pointed over her shoulder.
“What should we do about them?”
Emma Lee looked at Hali. “Do I get a say?”
“I don’t know,” Hali said.
Ralph said, “Why shouldn’t she?”
“She is my apprentice fireman,” Hali said.
“How old are you?” Ralph asked.
Blushing, Emma Lee said, “I am fifteen.”
“Do you think you should get a say?”
Emma Lee shoved her hands into her pockets. She looked first at Hali, and then at Ralph. “I don’t – No.” She shook her head. “I am not a citizen of standing. I don’t own property. I am not at an age of majority.” She shook her head again. “No, I don’t have a say-so.”
“All right, then,” Ralph said. “It’s pretty obvious we can’t do anything about the horses now.” He sighed. “There is plenty of grass. I hope they can find water.”
Hali said, “The river is about five miles from where you killed the bandits. The horses will find it.”
“All right, then,” Ralph said. “What’s our next step?”

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