Elf Boy's Friends - XI

by George Gauthier

Chapter 6

Three Forks

The next day, no longer needed as evidence, the skins and furs were destroyed in a fire rather than be sold. No one, not even the government, might benefit from such tainted goods. Two thirds of the proceeds from the sale of the mules, tack, air guns, and traps, less court costs, went to the exchequer of the forest rangers headquartered in Elysion. The judge did not levy a fine since that would simply take money from the rangers. Whatever other funds Marin might have were beyond the reach of the court.

Leon and Brand were awarded the equivalent of three golds in the smaller denomination silver coins, which were more convenient for ordinary purchases. They had never seen the Eastern Plains having bypassed them via a space portal on their journey from the Northlands to Elysion and the New Forest. So they decided to spend a few days touring the area. Their silvers would come in handy to pay for lodging, travel, and meals.

Although the shape shifters usually had little use for clothing, they did observe the proprieties by purchasing and donning skimpy breechclouts which were just a panel of white silk passed between the legs and flipped front and back over a pale leather thong tied low around the hips. Just as breechclout made of buckskin blended with tanned skin, white silk blended with their natural milky coloration.

The boys hung a sheathed knife from the leather thong. For them it was only a tool, not a weapon, not when their claws were always to hand, as it were. The boys also carried a small coin pouch on the opposite hip.

Their unusual looks certainly attracted attention. Some folks just wanted to confirm that they were the very same snow elves who had been written up in Drew Altair's best-seller about the Corps of Discovery. Others recalled news reports about how the snow elves had located the wreck of the downed autogyro and had been instrumental in the rescue of the survivors. Many of the younger males just wanted to chat with the exotic and sexy strangers and strike up an acquaintance which hopefully might lead to other things. The boys were chatty and outgoing but not really interested in a one-night stand with any of the locals.

A sign in the window of an outfitters shop caught their attention. It advertised the virtues of backpacks designed especially for shape shifters. They storekeeper allowed that they did cost a bit more but were worth every penny.The packs were roomy, lightweight, and waterproof, furnished with internal elastic loops for smaller items, and they closed with draw cords which kept their contents from spilling out no matter how they were jostled or what orientation they were in as their bearer moved or transformed. Fully adjustable straps in different sizes and configurations held them securely to any body shape ranging from the size of a wolf to a slash bear. In an emergency the packs could be dropped by tugging on a quick release.

Brand explained that their protectors the Kodiak bears were twice the size of any slash bear. They needed something larger. A nearby tack shop supplied the custom rigging for the new packs which the cousins would present to their protectors at their next rendezvous.

The boys also bought a single small pack which they would trade-off carrying whenever they went off by themselves. It would allow them to bring basic camping gear such as their new knives, a hatchet, a pan, skewers, and condiments plus a far-viewer tube. Thanks to their gift of electrum sparks the cousins had no need of tools such as a burning lens or flint and fire striker to get a fire going. With camping gear they might eat cooked food not just consume raw meat in their leopard form. Unsure whether their brothers would want packs too they held off purchasing more than the one.

Three Forks was the hub of three farm and trade roads and the railhead of a spur line of the iron road network in those parts which ran eastward to connect with the axial north-south which ran from the town of Harben south all the way to the army town of Dalnot.

The iron roads fascinated Leon and Brand. A freight train might have half a dozen wagons, passenger trains only one or two. Pair of fetchers called on their telekinetic gift to impart motion to the trains. It took a pair of powerful fetchers working in concert to overcome inertia and get a freight train going but only one to overcome rolling resistance and keep it going. On passenger trains only one fetcher was needed.

The freight trains carried lumber or whole logs, grain, and livestock or chilled meat. Grain was carried to local grain elevators by animal drawn transport and then by iron road to flour mills in the cities of the Commonwealth. Livestock on the hoof was shipped to slaughter houses situated on the plain, then the meat went by refrigerated wagons to the great cities. Timber from the north was mainly used by the populace of the largely treeless plains. The iron road also supplied the towns and garrisons of the plains. Militarily and commercially, the iron roads helped to knit that region to the Commonwealth proper situated in the alluvial valley of the Long River.

In the passenger cars seats were arranged in pairs facing forward on either side of a central aisle. Ventilators in the roof and large double hung windows provided ventilation. The accommodations on the passenger trains were not hard wooden seats or benches but were upholstered, if that is the word for it, in wicker over a wooden frame. That way the seats had some give to them yet did not absorb moisture nor stain as cloth covered cushions might and might be wiped clean after each day's run.

The boys took the train to the junction of the spur line with the main line and back again very much enjoying their excursion as the train whisked them along at the unheard of speed of twenty-five miles per hour. Prosperous ranches and commercial farms testified to the bounty which helped to feed the teeming millions in the great rift valley of the Commonwealth proper.

Back in Three Forks the boys strolled around town. They spent pleasant hours in the reading room of the public library. Much as they liked to read for pleasure and instruction, with their itinerant lifestyle books were only intermittently available. Leon and Brand and especially Gulo always took advantage of Count Klarendes library in Elysion every time they visited.

The local house cats recognized the cousins as kindred souls and were forever coming up to them, stropping their legs, and begging to be petted and stroked. The afternoon after their excursion on the iron road the boys had no sooner sat down on a bench in the public park next to the courthouse that a pair of calico cats jumped onto their laps. The one who had chosen Leon simply curled up with her face on her front paws and began to purr accepting his gentle caresses as no more than her due. Brand's cat braced her front paws on his chest and touched her pink nose to his, then rubbed the side of her face to his chin, marking him with her scent. Finally she settled down contentedly across his legs and purred, eyes little more than slits.

A dwarf of middle years smiled indulgently and told the boys:

"I know those calico cats from the neighborhood. They tend to be skittish with most folks. The way they have warmed up to you shows that you must be genuine cat persons."

"In more ways than one." Leon agreed pleasantly then explained why.

"Ah! Shape shifters. No wonder you fell under their spell."

"Spell?"

"Their charm then. You see there is a very good reason they try to make friends with sympathetic sorts who sit on these park benches. It is close to that food cart over there. From personal experience I know that the vendor sells excellent fish sandwiches. Indeed you can smell the delicious aroma from here. So can the kitties. They are hoping you will follow your nose, purchase sandwiches, and share your bounty with their own adorable selves. I have seen it happen time and again."

"Clever little minxes." Brand said.

The boys lifted the cats off their laps and set them on the ground. As they headed over to the push cart the calicos followed all aquiver with excitement and anticipation. The cousins purchased three hot sandwiches wrapped in paper and returned to the bench. Leon took the extra sandwich and broke the tender fried fish filet into chunks which he placed on the folded sandwich paper. The calicos hunkered down and began to eat, purring contentedly, from time to time pausing to gaze gratefully at their benefactors. The boys finished their sandwiches then took a knee and stroked the cats' fur enjoying the touch of the warm furry bodies and basking in the pleasure they had given to the friendly kitty cats. It was an endearing moment.

Their last day in town they headed toward the constabulary station to say goodbye to Captain Galathil, Sergeant Waldron, and the constables they had met and roomed with. As they crossed the town square they saw a party of nine riders dressed in linen dusters dismount and step into the bank, air guns held at the ready. Two of them held the horses ready for a quick getaway.

"That's gotta be bank robbery." Leon told his cousin who nodded his agreement.

A customer ran outside and shouted that the bank was being robbed only to get shot in the back. A woman who saw it happen screamed. One alert citizen ran to the watch tower and rang the bell to sound the alarm and the call to arms. A member of the town watch was the next victim of the robbers. He had tried to run off their horses and so strand the robbers on foot.

The robbers surged out of the bank with their loot and mounted up and charged across the square heading for the main street out of town only to run into a line of sixteen armed citizens which blocked their way.

Unfortunately for the townsfolk the robbers had a trio of heavy hitters with them. An air wizard sent a land spout at them which whirled the men in the middle into the air and forced the rest to scatter. Three townsmen on the far left stood their ground and shot at the air wizard with their airguns only to die a horrible death as a firecaster threw a great clinging ball of flame onto them. A mage threw lightning bolts killing two shooters who had taken cover behind a horse trough as protection from the firecaster.

The gang poured through the shattered line of defenders, air guns shooting at anyone who even looked liked he was trying to stop them.

"Too many guns and too much powerful magic, Brand. This is one fight we'd better sit out."

Suiting their actions to Leon's words, the boys took cover behind the plinth of the statue of the founder of the town. Just then the constabulary showed up. They were only four of them but they had a couple of heavy hitters in their own ranks. Captain Galathil was a powerful fetcher, and Sergeant Waldron could create ball lightning.

Leon and Brand saw a chance to help the constables. Their own powers were too weak to engage the robbers head to head, but as they rode past the statue the boys flung double handfuls of electrum sparks three times before ducking behind the plinth once more. The tiny balls of static electricity delivered a jolt from their electric charge while their intense heat inflicted painful burns. Horses struck by sparks screamed and reared and became unmanageable, especially with their human and elven riders themselves distracted by the sparks.

The lull in shooting from the robbers gave the townsfolk a time to rally to back the constables who seized the golden opportunity to take the offensive. Galathil drew his edged disc from its holster and sent it flying at the air wizard who was so distracted by the sparks that he never saw it coming. Its keen edge took his head clean off.

In retaliation the lightning caster threw a tremendous bolt at the captain which the sergeant blocked with a globe of ball lightning four feet across. It turned blue for a moment as it absorbed the bolt humming and crackling menacingly. Keeping two balls up to shield himself and the captain Sergeant Waldron used as a third globe offensively, zipping it forward to engulf the lightning caster and turning him into a crispy critter, soldier slang for a burned corpse. Powerful as lightning bolts might be, they were all offense but no defense. Ball lightning was both sword and shield.

The firecaster threw a stream of flame at the pair of lawmen, but the good sergeant blocked that too. Meanwhile Galathil had directed his edged disk to circle wide and come at the firecaster from behind. It cut into his spine and knocked him off his horse.

The remaining riders tried to shoot their way into the clear but were cut to pieces by a withering crossfire from enraged citizens armed with air guns. Some were veterans of the Troll War. They were not about to let a gang of cutthroats rob and kill their fellow townsmen. It was all over in minutes. None of the robbers survived the battle. The citizenry was in no mood for taking prisoners, not that day, no way, no how. They kept shooting till all of the robbers lay silent and still.

Healers moved among the wounded, employing natural medicine where that would be effective and magical healing when nothing else could be done. All but two of the wounded survived. The cost to the town to stop the bandits was very high: eight dead and seven wounded.

The constables recovered the loot and collected the weapons from the bodies of the slain robbers while townsfolk rounded up their horses which had scattered hither and yon. When Leon and Brand walked up close, Captain Galathil nodded and said:

"Thanks boys for the timely assist. Your sparks were a real help, distracting the robbers at just the worst possible moment for them and the best possible moment for us."

"We're glad we could do something to help instead of just cowering behind that statue."

"No one would have faulted you if you had done just that. Three of the bad guys were heavy hitters and the whole bunch had air guns. I am just thankful that you thought of a way to use your limited powers to help us out at the critical moment. This victory took all of us: town watch, constables, townsfolk, and yourselves."

The duty sergeant seconded that endorsement.

"Folks often underrate the usefulness of the minor gifts, but electrum sparks are versatile in ways my own ball lightning isn't. I saw that during the Troll War. Sparks can start a cook fire or act as an incendiary in combat either directly or when used with fire globes. They can stampede enemy mounts or act as a signal. In hand to hand combat they are a force multiplier. The hurler can help his whole unit out by snapping sparks left and right to distract and disconcert his comrades' foes making them vulnerable just at the moment of contact when steel meets steel."

"Good points" Galathil agreed.

"But your ball lightning is versatile in an important way. It serves as both shield and sword. That lightning thrower found that out to his sorrow. About all a man can do with a levin bolt is electrocute a foe or set something on fire. Though I did serve in Amazonia with a soldier who had perfected an explosive technique. As trolls passed close by a tree, he would hurl a bolt at it. Now a white hot lightning bolt can flash boil the water in a tree and make it explode, accelerating wood chips and bits of bark in all directions like a volley of lead bullets from a bunch of air guns."

"I like to think that my own gift of telekinesis is the most versatile. Today I used it to kill, but I have also rescued people from burning buildings, and once I yanked a woman out of the way of a team of runaway horses. I never have to bend down to pick up something I dropped on the ground. You might say that with telekinesis I have the ultimate in a boarding house reach. When the missus asks me to chop firewood for her cook stove, I can tell her 'no sweat' and mean it literally. Splitting wood the way you do it is hard sweaty labor whereas I do the job seated on a stump smoking my pipe. I never touch the handle of axe or maul. In fact, my tools are all head with no handle. And my gift also holds the wood in place while I chop."

"Your ball lightning blocked that stream of fire all right, though with my gift I could have whisked both of us out of the line of fire, er no pun intended. With this yoke built into my service vest I can actually fly. And finally there are what I shall refer to obliquely as the romantic possibilities."

Sergeant Waldron and the boys chuckled and conceded that yes, his gift probably was the most versatile.

The next day the boys attended a memorial service for those who had fallen and to recognize the defenders, especially those who had been injured. The boys' own names would be included on the honor roll of defenders to be inscribed in bronze on a memorial to be built right there on the town square. The news report in the local weekly about the attempted robbery got picked up by the Altair New Service and was reprinted in news-papers everywhere. A brazen bank robbery carried out in broad daylight was news.

After a final night in Three Forks and a fine meal at one of the better eateries the boys headed back toward the Eastern Mountains and the New Forest.

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