Conflict at Fish Rock (a Virtuous Anne Radcliffe Story)
The tiny Chicken settlement of Fish Rock looked much like all the Bird settlements in Cool Ranch: dry, dull grassland with few trees but carefully irrigated fields. An orange dust coated everything save the row of dark green trees beyond a northeast ridge. To the north the ridge became a mountain peak, the very top covered with snow and ice. A sizable stream spilled from the mountain to cut a deep gully through the red earth plain, while machines drew the water from the gully to spill into the irrigation ditches that fed rows upon rows of corn, now brown-gold in maturity.
All this Captain Anne Radcliffe saw when she came with Bonnie Anne and Sarah Steele to take on fresh water and supplies for her ship. Past experience with the small settlements in the Cool Ranch skyways had taught them that the locals tended to be wary of males. Thus the village folk relaxed when they saw that the strangers were a young woman fox with a large rifle (recognized as a sensible precaution), and two female teenagers. The three were neatly dressed, spoke softly and politely, and quickly considered ‘nice young’uns’ by the local people. The locals would have been surprised to learn that the three were highly skilled fighters and considered notorious pirates by some.
The Chicken people were glad to see weapons offered --weapons Anne and her crew confiscated from defeated enemies-- and fresh wild buffaloon meat, and so were pleased to settle on a fair trade for squashes, peppers, buffaloon jerky, butter, cheese, and cornmeal. Anne missed the rice that had been her daily diet growing up in Mooshu, but had become fond of the local equivalent of cornmeal mush, particularly when garnished with a good lump of butter.
That might have been the end of their visit, had not Anne been curious. “Why is the name of this place ‘Fish Rock‘?”
“Well, there’s two reasons for that,” obliged one of the town leaders, a Rooster named Rafe Jenkins. “First, ” he pointed towards the stretch of dark green to the northeast, “the great river comes down from the top of the mountain yonder and brings fish out of the mountain lakes early in the year. The fish travel to the deeps, and then later in the year some return, fine and fat, to spring up to the waters where they came. In fact, I expect it‘s nearly that time now.”
“But we go and net them towards the end of their return,” a Hen added, who had been introduced to Anne as ‘the Widder Smith’ and had introduced herself as Harriet. “The Bison folk usually come when the fish return, and we don’t truck with them. Too dangerous.”
Anne nodded. While she liked the Bison people, and accounted more than a few as her friends, she knew that they tended to be fierce and proud.
“And when they leave, the fish are still coming, even if in smaller numbers, so there’s still plenty for us,” another Rooster, Karl Brown, added with an accepting shrug.
“What is the second reason for the name?” Anne still wanted to know.
“Well, if you go up towards the shales, where the good pools of water are, and head further up the northeast side, you’ll come across some bones of ancient critters trapped in the rock. One of them’s a huge fish, bigger than…” He frowned as he spread out his feathered hands. “Aw, never mind, you can see for yourself. I’ll show you the water pools -- you’ll want that for your ship, instead of the dusty stuff that comes through our canyon.”
Anne and her companions were led by Rafe Jenkins, Harriet Smith, Karl Brown, and a couple of other roosters who had been hanging around out of curiosity up towards the mountains. The chicken folk carried rifles, explaining that they usually did when traveling out of the village, but they all arrived without incident to the mountain side. Rafe was right: the water from pools scattered among the sloping shale rocks was pure and deliciously cold. Anne climbed up to the northeast to see the famous fossil skeleton.
It was indeed huge, perhaps even larger than the great fossil in the rock cut on the hill slopes of Gold Creek Island. Anne marveled as she traced with her hand the visible tail fins, still showing the outline of scales the animal had borne in countless millennia past. As she examined more of the exposed rock, she found more impressions. She fingered pretty little creatures with coiled shells; curious animals with multiple segments and spade-like heads. Anne wondered what they had looked like when they were alive.
Her curiosity had led her around higher, so when she turned to return to the others, she saw something she had not before. They had seen small plumes of smoke from over the ridge before, signs of the Bison folks’ encampment. Now Anne saw that the smoke was much darker and thicker than one would expect. Frowning, she hopped down a few outcroppings of the shale to look down the ridge.
The ridge sloped down more sharply on this side to a small plateau that was cut sharply by a canyon. Running through the bottom of canyon was a fast moving river, much larger than the one that the Chickens depended upon. This greater river produced a series of waterfalls that tumbled with a glittering spray and pounding noise into the river below. Below on the plateau thick black smoke and flames poured out of the remains of what Anne recognized as a temporary lodge house of the type the Bison people made when they were on the hunt. Drying racks and their fish were scattered, and several Bison were putting up a valiant fight against some wild-looking Horse people. Some very small Bison were also present, Anne noted with further alarm. She turned on her heel and scrambled as fast as she could back to the others.
“The Bison people are under attack!” she announced, half turning to run back quickly. Bonnie Anne and Sarah immediately ran up to her, but the Chickens hung back.
“Bandits are attacking those people!” Anne repeated urgently, gesturing towards the ridge.
The locals shuffled their feet awkwardly, but did not move otherwise. “We don’t have nothin’ to do with those Bison folk,” Rafe explained. “Their troubles ain’t ours.”
Anne was stunned. “But… but there are children there!”
A flicker of shame crossed several faces, but Karl answered for them. “They’re savages; dangerous and treacherous. This might be a better place without them.”
“It’s true,” Harriet added, shamefaced but earnest. “They’re not like us.”
Anne looked shocked and disgusted. “They’re your neighbors!” She turned to her companions. “Come on, let’s go!” She sprinted off, the others trying to keep up.
“What about reinforcements from the ship?” Bonnie Anne shouted.
“We’ll find out if we need them! No time to waste,” Anne shouted back. Then they were too busy running for further discussion.
Fortunately the shale outcroppings provided a number of stable points for the steep descent to the narrow plateau. Anne opted for speed over stealth, as it was unlikely the attackers would hear anyone coming over the noise of the waterfall, though the previous sounds of battle had dulled. She hid behind a nearby clump of pines and surveyed the situation while she awaited her friends.
The Bison looked to be members of a single family: probably they simply had been the first of many to come for the harvest of fish and alone, had been vulnerable to attack. The family had put up a good fight: one attacker was presently nursing an injured head, another lay moaning, clutching a leg that seemed to be broken. But the attackers had won in the end. No wonder, since there were enough of them.
Several members of the family were pressed back near the cliff side under guard by three ruffians who bore pistols. By the different style of their dress, Anne guessed these Bison to be females, save for a little boy calf. An elderly Bison woman had her arms gathered around a younger woman, who in turn clutched three frightened youngsters, the smallest a tiny girl calf. They gazed with helpless misery to where a Bison warrior was being systematically beaten by three of the bandits. Nearby, an adolescent Bison boy struggled uselessly against a horseman who was holding him. Anne had a sinking feeling he would be beaten next. She tore her eyes away from the scene and assessed the surrounding environment. Soon she heard Sarah run up behind her.
“What’s the plan?” Sarah whispered when she managed to catch her breath, Bonnie Anne coming up a moment later.
“There’s seven of them still hale,” Bonnie Anne commented grimly. “That’s too many,” she conceded reluctantly. She hated cruelty and injustice as much as Anne did.
“I think we can get allies,” Anne pointed to where the Bison people’s weapons were stacked, away from the burning lodge, along with some other goods obviously taken as plunder. The pile was near the captive women and their children. “Bonnie, if you can draw the fire of those guards, the Bison women can get to the weapons. Sarah, you try to get behind the men who are doing the beating. There’s not a lot of cover, but I’ll distract them when you get to the open area. I’ll give you the time of a verse and chorus of ’Over the Hills and Far Away’ to get into place, and then I’ll go forward. Wait until the leader makes his move, and then attack. Good?”
“Aye, Captain,” they chorused.
Anne gritted her teeth, hating to see the Bison man suffer while she inwardly sang the correct amount of the tune. Then she stood up, shoved her hands into her breeches’ front pockets, and sauntered out into the plateau clearing.
“Hey,” she announced herself loudly.
Sure enough, all eyes swiveled to her, save for the Bison warrior who moaned involuntarily as he was dropped to the ground. The horseman who had been doing most of the beating eyed her with a combination of suspicion and menace.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“A pirate,” Anne replied lazily. Usually she hated to admit it, but sometimes her acknowledged outlaw status came in handy. The horsemen visibly relaxed, and the leader turned his attention completely away from his prisoners. A pirate would not be interested in rescue.
“So you want a piece of the action, eh?” The horseman leader snorted derisively. “Well, I’m Jack James of the Wild Bunch, and we were here first. So shove off,” he finished rudely.
Anne’s stance became even more deliberately casual. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
Jack James snorted again. “What? Are -you- challenging me? You’re just a little pipsqueak, and a -girl- pipsqueak at that.”
Anne merely smiled. It took a lot to make her angry, and besides, she knew that her own calm, smiling response would be infuriating. “I don’t know. Do you think you are up for the challenge?”
The horseman whipped out his large bowie knives, and advanced on her menacingly. “You need to be taught a lesson, pipsqueak.” He charged.
To his surprise, Anne instantly dodged out of his way, and had her own slim blades drawn and at the ready. “Teach me what?” she asked, laughing.
The other Wild Bunch bandits were ready to be entertained by the promise of an unequal fight, but quickly found they were under attack themselves. The confusion aided Anne’s plan well. Soon Bonnie Anne had already disabled one of the bandits, and the Bison women had entered the fray - one with a bow and arrows and one with a staff. Sarah Steele was engaged in close combat, and the older Bison boy was doing his part by fouling his captor’s attempt to enter the battle himself.
As for Anne’s battle, she and her adversary were about evenly matched. Both were skilled with blades: Anne had the advantage of excellent training, while the Wild Bunch horseman had the advantage of greater experience. He was bigger and stronger, but she was faster and more agile. He was not adverse to using dirty tricks; she had learned enough by now to mostly avoid them. However, Anne had a particular weapon in her own arsenal.
“Oo, missed again,” she mentioned cheerily as she deftly evaded a wide slash from his bowie knife.
“You know, I don’t think ‘crime pays’ in your case, or else you wouldn’t have so many patches on your trousers.”
“Jack James is your name? Do they call you ‘J.J.’? ‘Cause that would be kind of cute, don’t you know?”
All the while she was carefully watching where her feet would land, assessing the next move he would make, and calculating her own moves -- Anne had practice at the art of being annoying without having to work at it. As he grew angrier, Jack James flung himself at her with full force, enough to knock her over or seriously wound if he connected. However, such a commitment on his part made it difficult for him to recover quickly to a defense posture, and Anne took every advantage. She darted, spun, jumped, and dodged every attack to riposte with a quick stinging poke before dancing out of range.
Another of the Wild Bunch joined the fight, and Anne found herself fighting both for a while, leaving her too busy to continue her mischievous commentary. Then Sarah was able to come in and engage the other’s attention, and Anne could return her full attention to the Wild Bunch leader. By now he was snorting nearly constantly with fury, his chest heaving with exhaustion and temper.
“I’m going to make you sorry you ever interfered,” he snarled.
“Ooo, a threat… how original,” Anne retorted with a cool smile and a polite inflection which made the insult worse than if her tone had been sarcastic. Predictably, her adversary lunged with renewed fury. Anne easily dodged and delivered a sharp kick to knock him down. But either his balance was too good or she was not strong enough, and he only staggered.
“Not so easy to fight someone who can fight back, is it?” she commented with icy scorn. “You‘re just a worthless coward. Only cowards pick on disarmed men held helpless - like you did.”
His eyes glimmered like black fire. “I’ll see how much you like it when -you- are disarmed,” he threatened darkly, and attacked furiously again. This time Anne moved forward and slightly to the side to entangle and trip, twisting while she did so to avoid his knives. This time, it worked: the Wild Bunch leader fell heavily. When he rolled to turn himself over, he found the tip of a sword resting gently on his throat.
“No. I suggest you surrender and be disarmed,” Anne replied evenly. “Call off your men.”
But before he could say a word, the unmistakable clicks of rifles brought to the ready sounded in the clearing. “Lay off these good people, you varmints!” That was Rafe Jenkin’s voice.
Anne grinned. “Looks like reinforcements have arrived after all.”
In truth, it had pretty much been over before the Chicken people arrived on the scene, but they were heartily welcomed. The Bison women had strongly helped even the odds. The older children had done their part as well, the girl staying to defend her younger brother and sister with her bow and arrows, while the teenaged boy once free attacked his captor with fists and hoofed feet. Most of the combatants escaped with just some bruises, scrapes, and non-serious burns from the rifle blasts. The only real injuries were sustained by a few of the Wild Bunch ruffians, and the Bison warrior. Anne tended the warrior with some of the precious Yum juice she carried, while the Chicken folk set a guard on the Wild Bunch prisoners and started tending their injuries.
When Anne got up, she saw that Sarah Steele had suffered some cuts, but these were being mended by the Yum salve gently spread on them by Bonnie Anne. The younger Bison children huddled uncertainly nearby, still looking frightened and shocked. Anne sat on the ground near the them, and began to make a doll out of one of her handkerchiefs. The children turned their attention to her, peeking with shy curiosity. Anne cut off a bit of bandage and stuffed the middle of the handkerchief as a head. Bonnie Anne and Sarah now also watched, amused.
“Dinna you think you’re going to need that bandage?“ Bonnie Anne reminded her sardonically.
Anne flashed a wide smile. “I didn’t get hurt.”
Bonnie Anne grinned back. “That makes a pleasant change from the usual, Captain.”
Anne’s nimble fingers tied two ends of the handkerchief to become crude hands, while the rest suggested a baby’s long gown. The children, recovering from their shock as their curiosity grew, nudged closer. Anne fished in her waistcoat pocket for her needle case, took a threaded needle, and with a few swift embroidery stitches a very simple smiling face took form on the doll’s head. Playfully, she danced the doll towards the toddler Bison calf, and the children’s grave expressions began to melt into smiles. The doll was then made to dance on the little child’s hands, its very simple ‘arms’ opened wide. The small girl took the doll and clutched it to her chest, giving Anne a wondering look of joy.
The other children crowded around the youngest child to get a closer look at the toy. Anne stood up and brushed the soil off her breeches. She and her companions began to walk to where the Bison adults and Chicken folk were making diffident overtures to each other.
“Yours was nae a bad strategy,” Bonnie Anne assessed. “And that bandit leader was sure angered by your haiver, your silly talk.” Sarah gave a snort of appreciative laughter as Bonnie Anne picked up one of the confiscated Wild Bunch guns, and began to examine it. “Too bad that sort of thing wouldna work on enemies like the Armada.”
“True,” Anne admitted. “Though I can make Deacon quite angry,” she added in a very small voice, and for a brief moment a shadow passed over her face, vulnerable and scared.
Neither of her friends noticed. Bonnie Anne had opened the charging chamber for the gun, and Sarah noted her disturbed look.
“What is it?” Sarah wanted to know.
“This is odd,” Bonnie Anne replied slowly. “On the outside it looks like the sort of pistol popular in Cool Ranch, but the chemical charging chamber here for the energy bursts is like those of Armada weapons.”
Anne frowned. “So did the Wild Bunch steal some Armada weapons? But from where? I haven’t seen any evidence of the Armada since Santa Rana’s fortress in Santo Pollo.”
“Stolen, perhaps,” Bonnie Anne agreed. “But maybe the Armada sold - or gave- these to them.”
“But why?” Sarah wanted to know. “We know that the Armada is bent on eliminating pirates. Why would they help some?”
“Perhaps it is more in their interest to bring terror and confusion to a region by using such allies,” Anne considered somberly.
Bonnie Anne shivered. “It always seems that the Armada is so much closer than we think.”
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