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there is."
"Yeah?" the other asked hopefully. "What is it?"
"That I was patrolling the island when you fell asleep and let the slave steal
a blaster."
"What?" the teenager shouted. "Gonna blame it on me?"
"No choice," the older man said in a flat voice, and slashed out with his
knife.
Gushing blood, the teenager reeled backward, his head almost completely
severed from his body. Clutching at his neck, the dying youth stumbled about,
then slipped and fell, tumbling into the spring, the red spreading out until
tinting the entire pool.
"Sorry, my son." The man sighed, sheathing the blade. "But it was you or me."
Only yards away, the bound slave hanging from a tree branch began to shake,
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convulsing as he wildly thrashed in his bonds. For the hundredth time, he
mentally relived that terrible night when he sold his own brother and his wife
into slavery to purchase a blaster only to also be taken into chains by the
laughing pirates.
Silently the traitor began to cry as he realized nobody with a blaster was
ever coming to set him free, and he would pay for that cowardly crime forever.
Chapter Nine
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"Mr. Daniels! Steady as she goes," Captain Jones shouted from the main deck,
through cupped hands.
Never releasing the wheel, Daniels nodded. "Aye, sir! Steady on course!"
"Follow this heading for another fifty miles. Then go ten degrees due east."
Startled, the sailor stared through the spokes of the wheel. "Fifty miles,
sir?"
"We're heading for the river. Only way we're going to get our
Connie back home."
Daniels swallowed hard. "Aye, skipper. Fifty it be."
Giving the man a casual salute, Jones walked past the mainsail and tugged on
the ropes to make sure they were properly secured. Then he went to the cargo
hatch to check that the lid was bolted tight. It was a four-deck drop from the
main deck into the hold where they stored cargo, and he didn't want some damn
fool peeking in for a look and getting chilled.
Satisfied for the moment, Jones went past the winches to the ragged hole in
the ship's deck. Dressed in loose clothing, Abagail was directing the women to
nail down strips of old tarpaulin across the opening, sealing it closed. The
work was progressing nicely, so Jones saw no reason to interfere. Some
skippers wanted to watch over everything like a chicken on an egg, which Jones
though was triple stupe. Train sailors to only do as they were told, and in a
real emergency they'd pause before acting and maybe sink the ship. Slaves and
bootlickers should have no part in a crew. It took brains and balls to sail
the seas. Jones paused, and mentally changed that to brains and heart.
Going to the farthest point away from their work, he looked down at the lower
level of the ship. Smashed debris covered the gun deck, busted slats and bits
of canvas everywhere. Working with brooms and shovels, Ryan and his friends
were busy clearing away the trash, tossing the odd body part out the gun
hatches and
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helping.
"Ahoy, gun deck!" he shouted over the steady creaking of the pounding of the
hammers. A ship was never silent, any more than a ville full of people.
"What's your status!"
Hefting a shovel full of miscellaneous wreckage, Ryan glanced directly upward
at the man. "Bad," he bellowed in reply. "Best come down and see!"
Jones frowned. That wasn't what he had wanted to hear. Going to the nearest
hatchway, the captain followed the companionway to the gun deck, nearly
breaking his neck when he tripped on a missing step. Working his trapped boot
loose, he stomped through an open hatchway in sour humor. Twisted remains of
iron hinges in the jamb still supported broken bits of planks. It had to have
been a hell of a blast.
"What's the problem?" he demanded gruffly, glancing around. "The cannons look
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fine."
"Made of solid cast iron, of course they're undamaged," J.B. agreed, stepping
out of a firing troth. "Need thermite to harm these blasters. And we got
plenty of cannonballs, and rope for fuse."
Impatiently Ryan interrupted. "Most of the powder barrels were crushed by the
concussion. We're lucky they didn't detonate and blow the ship into kindling."
The captain felt a surge of helplessness and forced it under control. Without
her cannon for protection, an attacker would simply sail in close and fire a
broadside that would tear them apart.
"No luck involved. Black Harry never kept the barrels near each other for just
that reason," Jones growled, hooking thumbs into his belt. "Okay, how much we
got left?"
"Roughly two hundred pounds," J.B. said solemnly. "Mebbe a little less."
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The sailor was stunned. "Two hundred! Shitfire, man, that's not enough to load
every cannon once!" Desperate, Jones gestured at the dirty floor. "Can we
salvage any of this?"
"Not mixed with all this sawdust, sea salt, blood, brains and other crap,"
Krysty stated, leaning on her broom. "Be easier to make new."
"If only we could," the captain growled, his fists clenched.
The companions exchanged glances. J.B. started to speak, and Ryan cut him off
with an abrupt hand gesture.
"Fucking black powder," the Deathlands warrior said in a consoling manner,
hoping for a reaction.
"Fucking lord baron is more like it!" Jones spit furiously. "That fat son of a
bitch guards the secret like his own balls! I once heard some asshole tried to
sneak on to
Maturo Island to steal the formula. The lord baron tortured him to death over
a full year. A year!"
"Diabolical," Doc rumbled, clearly disgusted.
"Advertising," Mildred retorted hotly. "He did it as a warning to others."
"Aye, that it was. Good one, too. Not a soul has tried since."
"And what if somebody discovered the formula and started making their own?"
Krysty asked casually.
Chewing a lip, J.B. remained stoically silent. "Make your own black powder,"
Jones breathed a few times before speaking. "Not worth the risk. Lord baron
catch ya, it'd be the Arena."
This the companions understood. They had often been forced to fight in
gladiatorial-type games for the amusement of barons or warlords.
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"Not afraid of death," Ryan countered gruffly.
"You should be," the captain said softly, then shuddered.
Krysty felt her hair tighten protectively. What could possibly be worse than
one solid year of bloody torture?
"Chill them," Jak stated bluntly.
The captain sneered. "Don't ya think folks have tried? Years ago, some of the
pirates and a few villes combined to send a fleet to Maturo Island. Fuckers
didn't even reach dry land before getting chilled. The lord bastard has got
steel boats called Peteys that don't need wind and move faster than eels. And
fancy rapidfires like yours, only much bigger. Plus, those triple-damn
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Firebirds!"
"Describe it," Ryan ordered.
Jones bristled at the command, then decided he was being a fool. The more
these outlanders knew, the better they could protect the
Connie
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