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Ken McConnell

She came in looking like death warmed over and dragged herself up to my bar. She held up four fingers and then pointed down. This was her way of telling me she wanted four shots lined up in a row.

“Make them Quickies Matt,” she said. She took a stool and rested her head in her arms on the bar.

“Sure Captain, long day on the desert?” I asked.

Her dirty blond head nodded in her arms. Captain Devon Ardel was not very talkative until she was drunk. I set up the shot glasses and started filling them with the hardest liqueur I had. She called them quickies because they got her smashed faster than anything else in my inventory.

As soon as I had finished pouring, she lifted her head up and started slamming them one after another as if they were medicine. By the time she tossed back the last one, I could tell she was feeling a buzz. Her eyes rolled back into her head and her whole body shuddered.

She sat there for a moment letting the alcohol charge through her system like electricity through a circuit. A playful smile broke across her thin red lips. Look out.

“Much better, thanks Matt.”

“Anytime,” I said.

My attention was drawn to a group of aliens sitting at the farthest table. They were pounding on the table and hollering in some kind of garish dialect that I had never heard before in these parts. I was keeping an eye on them before Devon came in, but now I was less concerned. She was the Stellar Ranger, if they got out of line, she would handle it.

One of the aliens, the biggest and ugliest beast I had ever seen stood up and tossed his chair behind him onto the stage.

“Captain, are you going to let this get out of hand?” I asked.

“I’m off duty,” Devon said. She pulled out her blaster and handed it to me butt first. I took the heavy weapon from her and set it on the counter along with the other patron’s weapons.

“Where’s Hap then?”

“Hell-if-I-know, out on patrol I reckon,” Devon said.

Her voice was already slurring. She held up three fingers and waited for me to finish pouring before slamming them down.

The aliens all stood up, shouting and tossing wooden chairs all around the place. They were angry with a human who stayed seated and calmly took the verbal abuse.

“Where’s the band?” Devon asked.

“That’s them,” I pointed to the vulgar aliens.

Devon’s face curled up in a question mark and she turned around to look at them for the first time.

“Where’s their instruments?”

“Hell if I know, they said they could do four sets of ballads. I didn’t ask for credentials. If they stink, my customers will let me know.”

Devon agreed, “Damn strait.”

The big alien took out a laser tube and pointed it at the chest of the human. This action got Devon’s attention. She turned back to me and gave me two fingers. I poured. The bottle had never left my hand. She slammed both glasses and then took one and pitched it at the lead alien it caught him right in the area of the face normally reserved for a nose. This guy only had a slit. The glass beamed him dead center and fell to the floor breaking.

The alien pointed his weapon at Devon and growled something at her that I didn’t hear because I had ducked down behind the bar.

“Start playing some music, Ugly!” I heard her call out to it. I crawled back up and poured the last shot for Devon.

The human turned in his chair to see who was talking. He must have recognized the brown pants and leather boots of a Stellar Ranger.

“Ranger, please let me handle this,” he said.

Devon reached back for the last drink and emptied it in one long draught. Then she pitched the glass at the alien again, this time it knocked the laser tube from its hands. The weapon clattered on the floor and came to a stop a few feet from the table. The alien let out another roar and picked up the table above its head.

I put the bottle down and fetched Devon’s blaster, offering it to her. She waved it off and started swaying her hips as she walked over to the group. It was time for the swing shift to finish and the tavern was beginning to fill up with tired and hungry miners. I motioned for Trix to get her butt out on the floor and start taking orders. She was loitering over by the kitchen with the cook, smoking a long, thin cigarette.

Devon stopped a few feet from the group of aliens and put her hands on her hips.

“Put up or shut up fellas. We got about sixty hungry, tired and lonely miners coming in here and if you don’t start playing something that will take their minds off this barren rock, we’re going to have a much bigger problem than you may currently be experiencing.”

The human looked back to the alien and said something in a submissive tone. The alien looked around at the ragged and dirty miners filling up the tavern. Slowly it put down the table.

Devon flashed her characteristic wide smile.

“Excellent, now git up there and start strumming or banging or whatever the hell you do to make music.”

She looked down at the scrawny man and said, “What the hell do they play anyway?”

“Themselves,” the man said.

Devon stared at him for the longest time before she looked up at the stage where the aliens had gathered in a tight circle. There was a low, rumbling sound emanating from the lead alien’s throat. It was joined by similar tones from the other alien’s throats. The music was ethereal sounding and not half bad. The creatures started humming and whistling a tune that was like an old ranch song if the ranch were on some alien world and the cattle were alien beasts with bass tone growls. One of the aliens started singing mournfully about leading cattle on some dusty dirty trail.

Devon was speechless, as was nearly everyone in the tavern. The place got quiet as a ghost town as the ugliest aliens this side of the outer rim played a slow driving range song. One or two musicians in the crowd hopped up on the stage and picked up their strings to accompany the aliens. I moved down the bar to where the stage lights were and directed a blue spot light on the stage as I dimmed the house lights.

It was the strangest music I have ever heard but it really got everyone’s attention and before long, the orders were coming faster than we could fill them. Devon stood their tapping her boot and nodding her head to the beat. Her blond hair hung to the side as she swayed her head slowly. It was like she was in a trance. The next time I looked she had taken her usual seat at the rear of the tavern, where she could keep an eye on the whole place. That was a good sign. It meant that even though she was off duty, she was still an officer of the law and prone to watching her world with a paranoid eye for trouble.

It was a good hour before the aliens finished their first set. The place was packed and we were filling orders faster than a Friday night. Several patrons asked me who the aliens were and where they came from, I told them they just showed up one afternoon out of the black and offered to play. They called themselves the Range Tones. Their manager was the human, a man called Wayne. Said he found them on some other back water world out in the rim that I had never heard of. Didn’t matter to me where they came from so long as they entertained my patrons and didn’t bust up the place.

Wayne came over to the bar and motioned for a drink.

“Do you have any Ramarian Whiskey?”

“Nope, strictly rot gut and star shine,” I said.

“Give me something hard then.”

I nodded and poured him from the Quickie bottle. I wanted to ask him more about his band, but I had other customers to attend. The alcohol was flowing as fast as I could pour it.

When I looked up again, it was after midnight. The place was still pretty full and the band was taking a respite. Ranger Ardel was still at her seat though she had ordered a hot sandwich and had taken off her calf length boots. One of her bare feet was resting on the table top. She may have been the law in this town, but that didn’t mean she was any more proper than the majority of the town’s citizens. This was a frontier planet and we just didn’t waste time or energy on manners.

She had taken off her tan shirt and was wearing a dirt red tank top. If you didn’t know who she was, you might not realize she was a Ranger. Why she didn’t go up stairs to her room and change is beyond me. Too lazy I guess. Maybe the Quickies were actually working for her tonight.

I took the towel off my shoulder and wiped the bar with it, taking a few extra minutes to clean up after the rush. That was when old Bart came in through the swinging doors and stood in the entrance like he owned the place. He was a rancher by trade and he rarely came out at night to mix it up at Downers.

I looked over at Devon’s table and realized that she had seen who had entered the tavern. She glanced at me but didn’t make eye contact. Bart strode over to the bar and ordered a whisky. I poured him one and he kicked it back in a single gulp. I don’t know how these people can slam liqueur like it was water or something. Bart was dressed like a typical rancher with work clothes and boots. His range hat was wide brimmed and well worn. He carried a piece on his right hip, but it was nothing fancy like a shooter would wear. It was a work gun, used for shooting varmints and self defense.

“Matt, I’m looking for a cattle thief. Have you seen anyone odd come in tonight?” Bart asked.

“No sir. Only new faces are the band members tonight.” I pointed to the table where they sat eating with their human agent.

Bart squinted like he was out on the range. Then he put a bill down on the bar and walked over to the band’s table, unsnapping the cover to his pistol.

I looked back over at Devon’s table to see if she was watching. She was eating her sandwich, meat juice dripping from her chin. I waved at her and tried to point out what was happening. She chewed in big satisfying motions for a time and then saw my gestures. Bart was standing at the alien’s table his hand on his blaster.

“You boys fly a squat starship over on the Southern range a few hours ago?” I heard Bart ask.

Wayne looked up at him, slowly chewing his diner. The aliens were not too concerned, until they saw Bart’s hand on his pistol. The one who had drawn his gun at Devon, stood up and rested his paw on the handle of his blaster.

“Listen mister, we’re just a band, passing through these parts,” Wayne said. He slowly put down his fork.

“Someone’s been mutilating my cattle and last night I saw them in the act. Do you fly a frigging flat cerulean starship, sir?”

Wayne nodded. “Yes, we do. What’s that prove?”

“Is it parked on the flats just out of town right now?”

“I believe so, yes,” Wayne said.

“It’s got the blood of my cattle all over it.”

Bart slid out his blaster and pointed it at Wayne’s head.

“I accuse you of cattle mutilation mister. I want reparations for the head you have destroyed.”

Wayne stared at the business end of Bart’s blaster and then spoke on the alien’s behalf. “I tried to tell them not to do it, but they wouldn’t listen. It’s a ritual where they come from to kill something before they perform. It was either your cattle or someone in town. Let me pay you for your troubles sir.”

Bart charged his blaster. “They didn’t just kill one head they started a stampede that sent my entire herd over a cliff. They owe me for two hundred head of cattle.”

Wayne looked back at the lead alien. He spoke something to the creature that sounded like an explicative. The aliens seemed pleased to hear the translation. They raised their drinks in a group cheer and started harmonizing in deep baritone sounds. They finished their cheer and stood there with what passed for smiles on their ugly faces.

Bart stood transfixed as did nearly everyone in the place. I noticed that Devon had made her way up to the group, still chewing her diner. “What’s the problem here gentlemen?”

“Captain, I didn’t know you were here. These aliens are responsible for killing my herd. I want reparations.”

Devon looked at Wayne as he stood up to explain himself. “Captain, my clients were simply indulging in a pre-show kill ritual. Something that they do on their home world. They don’t sing unless they’ve had a successful hunt. I know it’s crazy, but that’s apparently how they operate. I figured it would be harmless if they killed a few cattle instead of harming any citizens. We had no idea that our actions would start a stampede and take out the entire herd.”

“You do know that killing someone’s cattle, even just one, is a crime on frontier planets don’t you?” Devon asked.

“I was going to repay the owner after our gig, double what the cow was worth in fact,” Wayne pleaded.

Devon moved past Bart, lowering his blaster with her hand. She stood up Wayne by the arm and guided him out of the saloon. I don’t know what she said to him, but he came back in and met Bart back at my bar. Devon went back to her table and sat down to finish eating.

“We’re going to buy you a new herd, mister. But you’ll have to wait until we can get back to Prahan. I can give you ten thousand now with another fifteen when we deliver. How many head did you say you had?”

Bart cocked his hat back on his head. “You can’t just replace Ochervan cattle mister. They are a special breed designed for grazing on this moon only. You’ll have to go to the breeder and request replacements. That’s likely to take months. In the mean time, how am I supposed to make a living?”

Wayne looked at me and frowned. “You can pay Bart here what you would have given us for playing. It looks like we’ll be playing on this moon for a long time.”

I nodded curtly. “So I can expect that your boys will be the house band for the time needed to replace Bart’s cattle?”

“Yup, just pay him our wages.”

Bart looked at me. “How much you paying them anyway?”

I checked my screens to be sure. “Five hundred a night.”

Old Bart sat down on the bar stool and ordered a beer.

“Give me a cold one Matt, looks like I’m taking a few months off.”

He had a smile as wide as the horizon. Wayne pushed off and headed back to his table with sunken shoulders. His band shouldn’t have to kill anymore for at least two hundred nights, but he was stuck on this dirt ball moon for longer than he would have liked I’m sure.

A shot rang out and the place got quiet as a grave yard.

I looked out across the room and saw a miner holding a smoking rifle. The man he shot fell over on the floor in a puff of red dust. The dead man had a hole the size of a planet in his chest. Devon was watching the scene but made no move to intervene.

“That sack of shit was cheat’en!” The miner stated loud enough for all to hear.

He put the rifle on the table and sat back down. The other card players all looked a little uneasy. On most civilized planets shooting a man for cheating at cards was against the law and would get you arrested for man slaughter. Here on the frontier it was not a crime to dispatch a cheater. Unless of course, he was truly innocent, but dead men usually had no defense. I placed a call to the undertaker, before I could say how many bodies, two more miners were dead.

The same miner had quickly dispatched two more card players at his table. One was still sitting in his chair the other had tried to run and was laying on the floor by the door. This time Devon got up, clearly annoyed with having to take care of another unruly customer. She came up behind the miner with the rifle and brought him to the floor with a move that happened so fast I can’t even be sure how she did it. Next thing I saw was Devon sitting on the miner’s chest holding his own rifle to his nose.

“Don’t you think you’re a mite quick to kill tonight bud?”

The miner didn’t respond, but I could see the rage in his eyes from across the room.

“Matt, call dispatch and have them send someone over,” Devon said to me.

I had already placed the call. “They’re sending someone now, Captain.” She sat on top of the miner, picking his nose with the rifle barrel. Everyone else had gone back to drinking and eating. The undertaker was the first to arrive with his assistant. They started dragging dead bodies out of the saloon one by one. Devon stayed on top of the man daring him to move. I watched her back until Hap arrived. She came in expecting a fight, her pistol drawn. She found Devon, holstered her gun and took out her hand cuffs. Devon rolled over the miner and Hap slapped on the cuffs.

“I thought you were off tonight?” Hap asked.

Devon grinned. “I am. This one shot three card players claiming they were cheating him.”

Hap forced the burly miner to his feet. “A mite twitchy tonight are we?”

The man said nothing as she led him out door. Devon came over to the bar and ordered a beer. I poured her a mug and she went back to her seat. It was quiet for about an hour or two after that and then around four in the morning, all hell broke loose.

It’s the most dangerous part of the night for a bartender in a saloon. Most of the customers are drunk and tired. You would think that they would be too fat and happy to fight with each other. But it never fails to happen when you think the night is done, a fight breaks out. I didn’t hear what started it, only a bunch of cursing and hollering from the back of the room. Next thing I knew we had a full fledged fist fight going on. As often happens in a bar fight, people tend to take sides at first but after a while, it seems like people are hitting each other without regard for loyalty or friendship.

Devon was staying out of it for the longest time. She knew that something like this had to work itself out before anyone could successfully intervene to stop it. She lingered in the back of the room, like a fighter waiting for the main event. It was killing her not getting in on the action. I don’t think I’ve ever known a woman who actually enjoyed fighting like Devon Ardel. After a while, the fight moved from fists to furniture and at that point I got involved. I took out my stun rifle and started taking pot shots. The weapon froze whoever I shot with it and brought them to the dirty floor.

Devon started applying force in her own way with a random kick and a few well placed punches. Together we started calming down the saloon. I never saw the alien that shot me. My attentions were focused across the room when I felt the sharp pain in my side. I dropped my rifle and fell behind the bar holding my side. I must have passed out at some point, when I woke up, I was wet and Devon was standing over me.

“Matt, you with me?” she was saying.

“Yes Captain, what happened?”

She had a cut on her forehead and her face looked like she had been beaten pretty badly. I felt a dull pain in my side where she was pressing me.

“You’ve been shot. Keep pressure to your wound and lie still until I can get the Doc,” she said.

I nodded and set my head down. She was rummaging around behind the bar for something.

“What are you looking for?”

“The Quickies,” she said.

“I can’t believe you’re still drinking!”

“It’s for you, man. You’re going to want it.”

I pointed to a brown jug and she reached for it and took off the cork. She lifted my head and gave me a few sips. It was warm and had a spicy taste to it. I had never actually tried the stuff before. You see, despite being a bartender in a saloon, I really didn’t have much need for alcohol.

She insisted I drink more while she popped up and shot her blaster at someone. I could see her sweaty tank top and her blood stained pants. It must have been one hell of a bar fight. She ducked down again and I could smell her perspiration and the alcohol.

“The flight’s still on, sorry about the mess. Looks like you won’t be open for a few days.”

I could hear the noise of a skirmish, hand to hand punching and an occasional shot from a blaster. I pulled myself up and the pain in my side shot through me like a punch to the kidney. I pushed on my side and looked down at myself for the first time. There was plenty of blood on the bar towel under my hand.

“Stay put, you have a slug in you and you don’t want to aggravate it,” Devon said.

“How long has the fight been going on?” I asked, setting my head back down.

“About an hour I’d say. It was coming along just fine until the band started shooting people.”

I almost laughed at how absurd that sounded. She had a grim smile on her lips as she spoke. I could tell she was having a blast at the expense of my saloon.

“Captain, stop the fight now while I still have a building left.”

“Don’t worry Matt, this will be over soon. Just lay still, I’ll be right back.”

She hopped over the bar, her blaster flashing. I heard her feet padding across the wooden floor, more shooting and what I thought was a scream. I looked up on the wall behind the bar and could see the main room in the full length mirror. I watched as Devon overran the alien’s position on the stage. She shot from the hip and took down one band member and then jumped on the back of another and rode it around the room, cracking its head with the butt of her blaster and screaming like she was riding the devil himself.

I had to chuckle to myself, it was quite the sight to see. The alien finally grabbed her and flipped her over its head and onto the floor. I could not see her but I heard the shot and saw the alien’s head snap back from the recoil. It staggered backwards and fell through a table to the ground.

The place got quiet as a graveyard after that. I looked around at the damage and realized that it was mostly just broken tables and chairs. There were a few more holes in the walls and ceiling, but every decent saloon had its fair share of blast holes. Devon slowly rose and walked back to the bar, she was looking in the mirror at me as she spoke.

“Doc’s on his way, Matt.” she said. She wiped the blood from her mouth with the back of her hand.

A thin android appeared behind the bar. It was Devon’s droid, Thirty-seven. It bent down and scooped me up in its thin arms and put me gently down on top of the bar. Then it pressed my wound for me and started dressing it with a clean towel. Devon holstered her gun and started dragging bodies out of the saloon and into the dirt street. There were only a few wounded patrons, but two of the alien musicians were motionless on the floor. She piled them up in the center of the room. Then she started slowly up righting tables and chairs. You could tell she was exhausted by the way she could barely pick up a chair.

I looked around for Wayne and the other two aliens. I didn’t see them.

“Where are Wayne and the other band members?” I asked Devon.

“They lit out of here heading for their ship. Don’t worry, they won’t get far.”

Devon finished with the tables and chairs and started tending to the bruised and banged up miners sitting against the far wall. She made sure they were comfortable and even gave some of them beers. Then she came behind the bar to clean up the broken glass. Thirty-seven did an admirable job bandaging me up and then it grabbed a broom and started sweeping the floor.

The pain in my side was becoming unbearable. “Where the hell’s Doc?” I asked.

Devon shrugged. “He lives out past Silver Creek, take him a while to make his way in.”

“Thanks for cleaning up guys, I guess we’re closed for the night.”

Devon nodded. She had an Ocha weed in her mouth like a cigar. She slowly chewed on it, while she zoned out. Her android kept itself busy cleaning for a while and then tended to the wounded miners. The Cook and Trix were nowhere to be seen. They probably left when the fight broke out. It’s so hard to get reliable help on this damn moon. At least the kitchen was locked down so nobody could get back there and mess it up.

I groaned again from the pain in my side. Devon handed me the brown bottle of booze and I took another hit from it.

“Easy Matt, it’s only for medicinal purposes,” she said. She took the bottle back and sucked down a big gulp.

Devon sat down beside me. She put her head in her arms on the bar and fell asleep. I could see the first rays of daylight coming in through the front windows.

Shortly thereafter the front doors swung open and in came Seth, one of the Rangers in Devon’s Company. Doc was with him. I motioned for him to take a look at the injured miners first. Seth came over to the bar and pushed on Devon’s back.

“She just fell asleep,” I said.

“Hey, Captain! Wake up.” He pushed harder until she began to stir.

“Get lost, we’re closed,” Devon responded groggily.

“Hey, it’s time for your shift to start. Get the hell up and get out of here Ranger!”

I would liked to have punched the man for saying that, but I was in no condition to defend Devon. She lifted her head up and gave him a look that would have killed lesser beings.

“Hap and I want to go home it’s been a long night,” Seth said. He had no idea what had gone on here last night.

Devon pushed herself off the bar, patted me on the shoulder and stumbled out the door. Her android teetered after her ready to catch her if she stumbled on the way out. Doc came over and tended to my wound. He said it was nothing serious and that I’d be back to work soon enough.

“Must have been some fight last night,” Doc said. He pulled me off the bar and led me out the swinging doors to the dusty street.

“We’re just lucky we had Devon with us or it would have been much worse,” I said.

I heard a Scrambler engine idling and caught a glimpse of Devon putting on her helmet and climbing aboard. She was going up to chase after that band leader and his alien hell-raisers. After spending the night keeping the peace, she was flying off into the sunrise to find those aliens.

The doctor set me down in his hover cab and we both watched Devon’s Scrambler take off in a cloud of dust and thunderous noise.

I don’t know how she did it. Drunk out of her mind for most of the night, yet keeping the peace through fights and shootings. Then jumping into her plane and taking off to finish a job that surely someone else could have handled, without so much as a second thought.

“Do you recall what it was like before she took over the Ranger Company here?” I asked the doc.

“Shore do. Your place would have been burned to the ground and you would probably be dead after a night like that,” he said.

I nodded in agreement with him as we watched her Scrambler slip into the salmon colored morning sky.

“We are indeed fortunate to have her around,” I said.

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