David Starr Space Ranger (Page 8)

David moved as quickly as he dared, gauging his steps against the light gravity. He lunged clumsily (it was almost as though water were holding him up) and caught Griswold about the shoulder. He twisted sideways, avoiding the farmboy's knee. One hand reached to Griswold's chin, caught the nosepiece and yanked it up and off.

Griswold grabbed for it with the beginning of a thin yell, but caught himself and clamped his mouth shut against the loss of any air. He broke away, staggering a bit. Slowly he circled David.

Nearly a minute had passed since David had drawn Ms last breath. His lungs felt the strain. Griswold, eyes bloodshot, crouched and sidled toward David. His legs were springy, his motions graceful. He was used to low gravity and could handle himself. David realized grimly that he himself probably could not. One quick, injudicious move and he might find himself sprawling.

Each second took its strain. David kept out of reach and watched the twisting grimace on Griswold's face tauten and grow tortured. He would have to outwait the farmboy. He himself had an athlete's lungs. Griswold ate too much and drank too much to be in proper shape. The fissure caught Ms eye. It was some four feet behind him now, a sheer cliff, dropping perpendicularly. It was toward it that Griswold was maneuvering him.

He halted his retreat. In ten seconds Griswold would have to charge. He would have to.

And Griswold did.

David let himself drop to one side, and caught the other with his shoulder. He whirled under the impact and allowed the force of the whirl to add itself to his own thrusting fist which caught Griswold's jawbone at its socket.

Griswold staggered blindly. He let out his breath in a huge puff and filled his lungs with a mixture of argon, neon, and carbon dioxide. Slowly, dreadfully she crumpled. With a last effort he tried to raise himself, half succeeded, started falling again, tottered forward in an attempt to maintain his balance....

There was a confused yelling in David's ears. On trembling legs, deaf and blind to everything but Ms nosepiece on the ground, he walked back to the car. Forcing his tortured, oxygen-craving body to work slowly and with dignity, he buckled on his cylinders with care and adjusted his nosepiece. Then, finally, he took a shuddering drag of oxygen that poured into his lungs like the rush of cold water into a desiccated stomach.

It was a full minute before he could do anything but breathe, Ms huge chest rising and falling in large, rapid sweeps. He opened his eyes.

"Where's Griswold?"

They were around him, all of them; Bigman in the very fore.

Bigman looked surprised. "Didn't you see?"

"I knocked him down." David looked about sharply. Griswold was nowhere.

Bigman made a down-sweeping motion with his hand. "Into the fissure."

"What?" David frowned beneath the nosepiece. "This is a bad joke."

"No, no." "Over the edge like a diver." "By Space, it was his own fault." "Clear case of self-defense for you, Earthie." They were all talking at once.

David said, "Wait, what happened? Did / throw Mm over?"

"No, Earthie," Bigman clamored. "It wasn't your doing. You hit him and the bug went down. Then he tried to get up. He started going down again, and when he tried to keep his balance, he sort of hopped forward, too blind to see what lay ahead of him. We tried to get him, but there wasn't enough time, and over he went. If he hadn't been so busy maneuvering you to the edge of the fissure so he could throw you over, it wouldn't have happened."

David looked at the men. They looked at him.

Finally one of the farmboys thrust out a hard hand. "Good show, farmboy."

It was calmly said, but it meant acceptance, and it broke the log jam.

Bigman yelled a triumph, jumped six feet into the air, and sank slowly down, with legs twiddling under him in a maneuver no ballet dancer, however expert, could have duplicated under Earth gravity. The others were crowding close now. Men who had addressed David only as "Earthie" or "You," or not at all, were clapping him on the back and telling him he was a man Mars could be proud of.

Bigman shouted, "Men, let's continue the checkup. Do we need Griswold to show us how?"

They howled back, "No!"

"Then how about it?" He vaulted into his car.

"Come on, farmboy," they yelled at David, who jumped into what had been Griswold's car fifteen minutes before and set it in motion.

Once again the call of "Sand awa-a-a-ay!" shrilled and ululated through the Martian wisps.

The news spread by sand-car radio, leaping across the empty spaces between the glass-enclosed stretches of farm lands. While David maneuvered his vehicle up and down the corridors between the glass walls, word of Griswold's end made its way across all the expanse of the farm.

The eight remaining farmboys of what had been Griswold's sub-section gathered together once again in the dying ruddy light of Mars's sinking sun and retraced the early-morning drive back to the farm dome. When David returned, he found himself already notorious.

There was no formal evening meal that day. It had been eaten out in the desert before the return, so in less than half an hour of the completion of the checkup, men had gathered before the Main House, waiting.

There was no doubt that by now Hennes and the Old Man himself had heard of the fight. There were enough of the "Hennes crowd," that is, men who had been hired since Hennes had become foreman and whose interests were tied thoroughly to those of Hennes, to insure the fact that the news had spread in that direction. So the men waited with pleased anticipation.

It was not that they had any great hate for Hennes. He was efficient and no brute. But he was not liked. He was cold and aloof, lacked the quality of easy mixing which had marked earlier foremen. On Mars, with its lack of social distinctions, that was a serious shortcoming and one which the men could not help but resent. And Griswold himself had been anything but popular.

All in all, it was more excitement than the Makian farm had seen in three Martian years, and a Martian year is just one month short of being two Earth-years long.

When David appeared, a considerable cheer went up and way was made for him, though a small group well to one side looked glum and hostile.

Inside, the cheers must have been heard, for Makian, Hennes, Benson, and a few others stepped out. David walked up the foot of the ramp which led to the doorway and Hennes moved forward to the head of the ramp, where he stood, looking down.

David said, "Sir, I have come to explain today's incident."

Hennes said evenly, "A valuable employee of the Makian farms died today as the result of a quarrel with you. Can your explanation remove that fact?"

"No, sir, but the man Griswold was beaten in fair fight."

A voice called out from the crowd, "Griswold tried to kill the boy. He forgot to have the weight-rods included in the boy's car by accident," There were several scattered squawks of laughter at the final sarcastic word.

Hennes paled. His fist clenched. "Who said that?"

There was silence, and then from the very front of the crowd a small, subdued voice said, "Please, teacher, it wasn't I." Bigman was standing there, hands clasped before him, eyes looking modestly down.

The laughter came again, and this time it was a roar.

Hennes suppressed fury with an effort. He said to David, "Do you claim an attempt on your life?"

David said, "No, sir. I claim only a fair fight, witnessed by seven farmboys. A man who enters a fair fight must be willing to come out as best he can. Do you intend to set up new rules?"

A yell of approval went up from the audience. Hennes looked about him. He cried, "I am sorry that you men are being misled and agitated into actions you will regret. Now get back to your work, all of you, and be assured that your attitude this evening will not be forgotten. As for you, Williams, we will consider the case. This is not the end."

He slammed back into Main House and, after a moment's hesitation, the rest followed him.

David was called to Benson's office early the next day. It had been a long night of celebration, which David could neither avoid nor break away from, and he yawned prodigiously as he stooped to avoid hitting the lintel.

Benson said, "Come in, Williams." He was dressed in a white smock and the air in the office had a characteristic animal odor that came from the cages of rats and hamsters. He smiled. "You look sleepy. Sit down."

"Thanks," said David. "I am sleepy. What can I do for you?"

"It's what I can do for you, Williams. You're in trouble and you could be in worse trouble. I'm afraid you don't know what conditions on Mars are like. Mr. Makian has the full legal authority to order you blasted if he believes the death of Griswold can be considered murder."

"Without a trial?"

"No, but Hennes could find twelve farmboys who would think his way easily enough."

"He'd have trouble with the rest of the farmboys if he tried to do that, wouldn't he?"

"I know. I told Hennes that over and over again last night. Don't think that Hennes and I get along. He's too dictatorial for me; too fond, by far, of his own ideas, such as that private detective work of his which I mentioned to you the other time. And Mr. Makian agreed with me completely. He must let Hennes take charge of all direct dealings with the men, of course, which is why he didn't interfere yesterday, but he told Hennes afterward, to his face, that he wasn't going to sit by and see his farm destroyed over a stupid rascal such as Griswold, and Hennes had to promise to let the matter stew for a while. Just the same, he won't forget this in a hurry, and Hennes is a bad enemy to have here."

"I'll have to risk it, won't I?"

"We can run the risk to a minimum. I've asked Makian if I may use you here. You could be quite useful, you know, even without scientific training. You can help feed the animals and clean the cages. I could teach you how to anesthetize them and make injections. It won't be much, but it will keep you out of Hennes's way and prevent disruption of farm morale which is something we can't afford now, as you should know. Are you willing?"

With the utmost gravity David said, "It would be rather a social comedown for a man who's been told he's an honest-to-goodness farmboy now."

The scientist frowned. "Oh, come now, Williams. Don't take seriously what those fools tell you. Farm-boy! Huh! It's a fancy name for a semi-skilled agricultural laborer and nothing more. You'd be silly to listen to their upside-down notions of social status. Look, if you work with me you might be helping to work out the mystery of the poisonings; help avenge your sister. That's why you came to Mars, wasn't it?"

I'll work for you," said David.

"Good." Benson's round face stretched in a smile of relief.

Bigman looked through the door cautiously. He half whispered, "Hey!"

David turned around and closed the cage door. "Hello, Bigman."

"Is Benson around?"

"No. He's gone for the day."

"Okay." Bigman entered, walking carefully, as though to prevent even an accidental contact between his clothing and any object in the laboratories.

. "Don't tell me you have something against Benson."

"Who, me? No. He's just a bit-you know." He tapped his temple a few times. "What kind of a grown man would come to Mars to fool around with little animals? And then he's always telling us how to run the planting and harvesting. What does he know? You can't learn anything about Mars farming in some Earth college. At that, he tries to make himself seem better than we are. You know what I mean? We have to slap him down sometimes."

He looked gloomily at David. "And now look at you. He's got you all spiffed out in a nightgown, too, playing nursemaid to a mouse. Why do you let him?"

"It's just for a while," said David.

"Well." Bigman pondered a moment, then thrust out his hand awkwardly. "I want to say good-by."

David took it. "Leaving?"

"My month's up. I have my papers so now I'll be getting a job somewhere else. I'm glad I met up with you, Earthie. Maybe when your own time's up we can meet again. You won't want to stay under Hennes."

"Hold on." David did not release the little fellow's hand. "You'll be going to Wingrad City now, won't you?"

'Till I find a job. Yes."

"Good. I've been waiting for this for a week. I can't leave the farm, Bigman, so will you do an errand for me?"

"You bet. Just name it."

"It's a little risky. You'd have to come back here."

"All right. I'm not afraid of Hennes. Besides, there are ways for us to meet he doesn't know a thing about. Fve been on Makian farms a lot longer than he has."

David forced Bigman into a seat. He squatted next to Mm, and his voice was a whisper. "Look, there's a library at the corner of Canal and Phobos streets in Wingrad City. I want you to get some book films for me along with a viewer. The information that will get you the proper films is in this sealed.... "

Bigman's hand clawed out sharply, seizing David's right sleeve, forcing it upward.

"Here, what are you doing?" demanded David.

"I want to see something," panted Bigman. He had bared David's wrist now, holding it, inner surface upward, watching it breathlessly.

David made no move to withdraw it. He watched Ms own wrist without concern. "Well, what's the idea?"

"Wrong one," muttered Bigman.

"Really?" David took his wrist away from Bigman's clutch effortlessly and exposed the other wrist. He held them both before Mm. "What are you looking for?"

"You know what I'm looking for. I thought your face was familiar ever since you came here. Couldn't place it. I could kick myself. What kind of an Earth-man would come here and be rated as good as any native farmboy in less than a month? And I have to wait for you to send me to the library at the Council of Science before I tumble."

"I still don't understand you, Bigman."

"I think you do, David Starr." He nearly shouted the name in Ms triumph.