"Then for the sake of your two headed frog-faced gods, shut up and listen to me."
"Look. In a minute our Banning will be in action," his voice was drowned out by the scream of tortured air as the Banning cut loose. "Now there is a sweet sound. What do we do next, O'Shaughnessy?"
One of the row of buildings across the square glowed red briefly as the beam from the Blaster caught it; glowed red and then burst into a ball of fire. O'Shaughnessy's mouth was open wide, his chinless face resting on the edge of the sandbox and his little black bead eyes were as large as they could get.
"What do we do now, O'Shaughnessy ... come on...."
The Narakan made a thrusting gesture with his carbine, "Bayonet ... we go in with bayonet now," he said.
O'Mara slapped him on the seat of his khaki pants. "No, no. You got to get this stuff straight."
The whine of the Banning interrupted him again and it was joined by the chatter of machine guns and rifle fire and answered by the rapid clacking of spring guns. Bolts dug into the wall of the schoolhouse and showered them with plaster. Others shattered the front window. Terrence wiped plaster off his visor and tried again. "You've got to get this straight, O'Shaughnessy, because ... well, because you may be getting an independent command pretty soon and there won't be anyone around to tell you what to do."
The Narakan was listening to him but wide-mouthed and uncomprehending. "We're going to burn them out of those huts; burn them out or burn the houses down over their heads. About the time Polasky gets to the third one, those guys are going to break and then they'll either rush us or...."
Norton was yelling something from the Residency. There was a noise of clanking armor behind him and he could hear Fielding's voice cracking out orders as he came up with twenty hastily armed and armored clerks, cooks and radiomen from the HQ unit.
"O'Mara! O'Mara, they're breaking! They're running! Let's go!" Norton was on the porch of the Residency pouring Tommy gun slugs at the rear of the burning row of houses.
"Okay, let's go," Terrence said, lurching to his feet. The Narakan sergeant blew his whistle and the riflemen swarmed out from their shelters and started at a run across the square with Norton, Terrence and O'Shaughnessy at their head. The rest of the Terrans in full battle armor lumbered along after them.
One or two bolts whistled overhead and Corporal O'Brien dropped his rifle and fell forward clutching his leg. The smoke from the burning buildings obscured their vision but Terrence had a momentary sight of Rumi radiation clothing and emptied his clip at it.
Someone from behind threw a grenade which fell short of its target and rolled in front of them. Norton took two quick strides and kicked it into one of the flaming buildings.
There were about twenty Rumi, less than they had thought, fleeing across the open fields behind the burning huts. They were firing as they ran and giving out those queer yelping cries of theirs. Three or four of them fell and then Norton was shouting, calling back his men to organize fire fighting parties.
"Captain! Captain, let's go after those guys. We can cut them off before they get to the grasslands," Terrence yelled.
"Get your men after these fires, O'Mara. We can't let them spread."
There was nothing to do but obey but he delayed long enough to empty his automatic in the general direction of the fleeing Rumi. Then he turned and yelled, "Harrigan! Sergeant Harrigan! Where in the devil is that...." There was a crashing sound behind him and Harrigan stumbled through the smoke and came down on his foot, all three hundred pounds of him.
Later, as the last smoking embers of the fire were being smothered by industrious squads of Narakans with buckets and shovels, Terrence limped back across the square with Bill Fielding.
"We should have gone after those lousy scum," Bill said, "They may cut back around the town again and give the battalion some trouble on the river road."
"Don't you think I know it! As fast as the Greenbacks can move when they want to, we could have caught the lot of them before they got into the grasslands. But Norton was worried about the fires! Of course, we're going to burn all these buildings tomorrow or the next day but Norton was afraid the Residency would catch fire."
"Probably didn't want his sweetie's fancy clothes to burn."
"They got Wilson, you know."
"Good Lord! Dead?"
"Right between the eyes. They almost got all four of us."
Fielding took his heavy battle helmet off and pushed back the glass visor of his radiation helmet to wipe the perspiration and dirt off his face. "Well, maybe Norton didn't want us to catch those damn cats. Maybe he figured he owed them that much."
O'Mara shielded his eyes as he said, "Beta's setting. It'll be night in a couple of hours and we can walk around without this blasted radiation armor for a while."
"Yeah, and we can start looking for a full scale night attack as soon as good old Alpha hides his hoary head."
"If you see O'Shaughnessy, tell him I want to see him, will you? I'm going to stop at the schoolhouse for a few minutes."
Surprise spread across Bill's freckled face, "Not the school teacher? Not you! Buddy, you've been in Dust Bin too long. You've been on Naraka too long. You'll be attending services at the Chapel next."
Terrence muttered a few old Anglo-Saxon words under his breath and limped off in the direction of the school building.
The Reverend Ames Goodman was the smallest Narakan that Terrence had ever seen. The Johnathian missionary from Little Texas was somewhat under two hundred and fifty pounds which was slight for a Greenback. He also spoke the best English except for some of the big shots in New Chicago. Ordinarily he was a composite of superstitious reverence and natural dignity which Terrence had always found admirable. Today, however, he couldn't have appeared more ludicrous if he had tried. He was dressed for a visit to the Residency in a white duck suit which was too small and out of which he bulged in a number of surprising places.
He and Joan Allen were talking half in English and half in Narakan as the lieutenant entered. The minister had a painfully surprised look on his round green face.
"I hope we didn't bust up your school too much, Miss Allen."
"If you are quite finished with your shooting and cursing, Lieutenant O'Mara, perhaps you have time to explain to Rev. Goodman and me what this talk about evacuation means."
As she spoke, she brushed stray strands of black hair up under her radiation helmet. For the first time in the six months that she had been in charge of the orphan school in Dust Bin, Terrence decided that maybe she was pretty after all. He wasn't sure whether it was the high color which excitement lent to her usually pale face or if Bill Fielding was right in saying he had been on Naraka too long, but Joan Allen was beginning to look good to him. At the moment the feeling wasn't at all mutual.
"Is it true that the Defense Force is pulling out and leaving the rest of us to the Rumi?"
Terrence took off his helmet and let the rapidly cooling air strike his head. "Not exactly, teacher," he said, "The Fifth is pulling out but so are all the Terrans in Dust Bin. Everyone's being ordered back to Little Texas. That's why the Sun Maid is standing by."
"All the Terrans, Lieutenant? What about the people here who depend on us? What about my children?"
O'Mara somehow couldn't quite look either of them in the face. He muttered something about having to get back to his command post and started out the door. Joan called after him as she noticed his limp, "Lieutenant, I'm sorry, I didn't know you have been wounded."
"Oh, it's nothing ... nothing," he said, hurrying away, his neck reddening from something more than the attention of Beta Centauri. How in the name of Naraka's sixty devils could you tell a woman that one of your own non-coms had stepped on your foot and nearly broken your instep?
The battalion straggled into Dust Bin during the night. It hadn't exactly fought its way back from the river but had had enough casualties to make the men nervous and jumpy without tempering them at all. One of the casualties had been Lt. Colonel Upton. Now Major Chapelle was in command. The men of the battalion were nervous but Chapelle was riding on the thin edge of panic. He ordered everyone on board the Sun Maid at once and then countermanded the order and formed a defense perimeter around the town. He threw out patrols which were unable to contact any Rumi on the Dust Bin side of the river.
The next morning Terrence was summoned to Government House for an officers' conference. As he hurried along its single street, Dust Bin was in a state of confused and helpless excitement. The three or four hundred Narakans who made up its population were all in the street or square. Many of them were carrying their belongings on their shoulders and looked as if they were only waiting for an order of some kind to send them scurrying off toward the Suzi swamps.
As O'Mara reached the veranda of the Residency, Rev. Goodman was speaking with Joan Allen by his side. His words were aimed at Chapelle, Norton and a large gray-eyed man whom Terrence recognized as the Captain of the Sun Maid.
"When you came, you earthmen in your great ships, the Narakan was a hunted creature on his own planet and had been back as far as he could remember. You drove off the Rumi and took parts of the planet for your own use but you did not hunt the Narakan. You brought him out of his swamps and taught him much; to wear clothes, to till the ground and many other things. You even gave him your religion. But now the Rumi have returned and you say you are not strong enough to hold all the planet."
Major Chapelle was impatient, "That's right, Reverend, there's too many of them. The garrison just isn't big enough to hold everything and it's too far back to Earth for us to expect any reinforcements for a year or even longer."
Norton took over. "You're an educated ... ah ... man, Goodman. You see what the problem is. We can't hold everything so we've got to cut our losses. All of the most important resources and towns are in the Little Texas area and so we're pulling back into there."
"I see. Yes, I understand. The people of Dust Bin are part of the losses that must be cut."
"Now, now. Don't put it that way, Reverend. The natives can always take refuge in the swamps, you know."
"Yes. I suppose it must be so. Back to Little Texas for the Terrans and back to the swamps for the Narakans. Back to living naked in the mud, back to fishing for our food and back to thinking only of the next meal."
"It really isn't that bad," Chapelle said. "As soon as the situation adjusts itself, the Terran forces will be coming back. Then you can come out of your hiding places and resume your regular life again."
"Yes. And in the meantime our only problem will be to stay out of the way of the Rumi."
"I don't believe that they will go out of their way to harm you. It's the Terrans they want to drive out."
Suddenly the Reverend Goodman was shaking his fist in the Major's face, forgetting in his excitement both his manners and his correct English. "Not hurt! Not hurt, Mr. General? No, they not hurt, they just eat! They favorite food is Naraka steak."
"Now, now, calm yourself," Norton put a hand on Goodman's shoulder. "There's plenty of room in the Sun Maid for you and the rest of your people will be safe enough in the swamps."
"What about my children?" demanded Joan Allen.
"Children, Miss Allen? I don't know.... Oh, yes, you mean the poly ... the children. Why, I assume they will go with their parents."
Joan placed a small fist firmly on each of her slim hips. "Major, all the children in the mission school are orphans. They have no parents. None of them have ever lived in the swamps."
"Ah yes. But I hardly see what we can do about it, Miss Allen."
"Well, Major, I'm going to tell you what I'm going to do about it. Unless those kids are loaded on the Sun Maid in place of some of this junk," she waved a hand at the piles of luggage which belonged to Mrs. Wilson, "I'm going to stay with my charges and leave you with the problem of explaining to the Mission Board and to the Bishop of New Chicago just why you left me behind."
At the mention of the extremely influential Johnathian Bishop the Major looked more worried than ever. After a short conference with Norton, he turned to Joan.
"Very well, Miss Allen. The children will go in the airship. I'm sure that Mrs. Wilson will be only too glad to leave some of her clothes to make room for them."
"Thank you, Major." Joan said, making no attempt to gloat over her victory.
"Now, Captain, I understand that most of the military stores have been destroyed and that the men are ready for embarkation," Chapelle went on hurriedly, addressing himself to the captain of the Sun Maid. "We will have about three hundred and twenty, no ... about three hundred and thirty passengers for you."
The captain shook his head doubtfully, "It's a big load. I hope we can make it without any trouble."
"Well, then," Chapelle went on, "We'll go aboard during the day after we complete the destruction of the stores and facilities. The native troops under Lieutenant O'Shaughnessy will cover our embarkation and then convoy the civilians as far as the Suzi swamps. Afterwards they will march overland to Fort Craven on the Little Texas border."
Terrence had never had any urge to be a hero. He had always pictured himself retiring at a ripe old age as a Colonel or Brigadier and raising canal oranges on Mars, but suddenly the memory of the Narakan Rifles rushing down the street with bugles blaring and flag waving right into the Rumi line of fire rose before him. The thought of O'Shaughnessy, even with his new lieutenant's commission, leading the blundering troops along the two hundred miles to Fort Craven was too much for him.
"I beg your pardon, Major," he heard himself saying, "But as the Narakan Training Officer, I think that I should remain in command of the unit in its overland march."
The Major was dumfounded. Norton looked as if he were sure the Narakan climate had proven too much of a strain for the lieutenant.
"Lieutenant O'Mara, are you sure...." began Chapelle.
"Are you nuts, O'Mara? Do you know what you're asking for?" demanded Norton.
"Yes, sir. I feel that since Colonel Upton appointed me Training Officer for the Narakan Rifles, it is my duty to stay with them until I am relieved."
Chapelle's look of astonishment had changed to one of relief. It would be far easier to explain the hurried abandonment of the Narakan Rifles to the native representatives at New Chicago if a Terran officer were to remain with them.
"Well," he said, "I could, of course, relieve you of your responsibility but if you feel that...."
"I do, sir." Terrence said quickly lest he be tempted to back out.
Later in the day as he sat in the shade of the command post's overhanging roof with his back against a stack of sand-bags, he cursed himself for sixteen kinds of an idiot as he watched the evacuation begin. Beta was dropping low over the pink Maldo hills as the long line of earthmen filed up the gangway into the big airship.
"Hello," said a voice behind him. He turned to find Joan Allen standing there clothed in radiation armor and holding a small canvas bag in one hand. "I thought ... I mean ... I came to say good-bye."
"Hello, yourself. I thought you were on board with the rest of them." He got up hastily.
"No. I got the kids on board but I wanted one more look at the schoolhouse before we shoved off."
Somehow he was holding onto her arm, "I guess it meant a lot to you, that schoolhouse," he said.
"Yes, it did. I ... I was afraid that I wouldn't get to see you when you get to New Chicago."
"There's no danger of that, Joanie. If and when I get there, I'll be looking for you ... that is ... if you want to see me."
"If you think you can stand an old maid school teacher, I'll be looking for you." She was very close to him now. "Why did you do it, Terrence? Why are you making the march with the Narakans? Fielding says your chances aren't very good."
"I'll thank Fielding to keep his big mouth shut! I don't really know why, probably kind of an Earthman's Burden, noblesse oblige ... you know ... something like the sort of thing Kipling used to write about."
"Hell," she said, surprising him with her vehemence, "you don't believe that guy any more than I do. It was old when Kipling wrote it and it's even older now. I think that somewhere under that tough Irish skin of yours, there's a sentimental fool hiding."
She was still closer now with her hands pressed lightly against his chest and suddenly his arms went around her, he lifted her protective visor and forced his lips down hard on hers. All of her primness had disappeared as she leaned against him, returning his kiss with a burning eagerness which a more experienced woman might have controlled.
There were tears running down his cheeks and he knew they weren't his. He released her slightly and looked down into her tear streaked face, wondering how it was possible for them to have been at the same post for six months without really knowing each other.
"I guess I'm kind of crazy about you, teacher," he said.
He had lifted her off her feet and she clung there with her arms around his neck. "Terrence, I can't leave you ... I...."
As Terrence bent over to kiss her again there was a loud cough and Bill Fielding was standing there dressed in full battle armor. He grinned and said, "Much as I hate to break this up, I don't think Chapelle is going to hold the Sun Maid much longer."
Terrence set Joan gently on her feet and she turned and fled toward the waiting ship. He watched until she was on board and then turned to stare at Bill. Still grinning broadly, Bill clapped him on the shoulder as he said, "I could never have faced those bartenders on Dobi Street if I had gone back without you. We better get going, hadn't we? Sergeant Polasky's down with the men. He couldn't bear to leave his Bannings."
"Well, I'll be damned!" was all O'Mara could find to say as he watched the big airship lift itself in the fading light, circle and pass through the smoke of Dust Bin for the last time.
Throwing their gear over their shoulders, the two officers crossed the parade ground to where the two hundred khaki clad figures of the Narakan Rifles stood waiting with Sergeant Polasky clucking slightly as he fussed over his Bannings.
O'Shaughnessy was wearing his new lieutenant bars and a pith helmet and was carrying a large piece of wood in imitation of Norton's swagger stick. Terrence took one look at him and at the two orderlies who stood behind him holding his field kit. He strode toward him scowling, placed his fists on his hips and stood glaring up at the Greenback as he roared, "So! It's delusions of grandeur you've got, is it? Where are Hannigan and O'Toole and their patrols? Why aren't they back?"
O'Shaughnessy stiffened to attention trying to pull in his great stomach. "They are back, Mr. Lieutenant Sir.... I forgot. They had nothing to report ... no contact."