A standard Western trope is the one where an outsider rides into town, fixes a problem, and rides off into obscurity. Captain Ayers fills the role admirably. — ed. N.E. Lilly

Captain Jason Ayers couldn’t help but notice that the office of the Territorial Governor of Cimarron was as small as his was on the Victory. Ayers sat next to the Justice Bureau’s special agent in front of the Governor’s desk, despite the breach of protocol. Ayers wasn’t bothered; he rarely insisted, and he knew colony worlds often couldn’t afford to.

After the introductions and greetings Ayers said, “We have met, Governor Martin, at conference on colonial politics about five years ago.”

“Oh, yes, I remember.” A smile brightened Gerald Martin’s grizzled face. “As I recall, you gave a good speech, albeit a parsec or two ahead of the Admiralty. Well, Captain, this old lion is hoping your young mind can figure out how to resolve our problem.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Our problem is fairly straightforward. Local stock ranchers are engaged in a dispute with settlers moving to this planet.”

“Sounds like something out of an ancient movie.”

“It is, but with a few modern twists. Not all the ranchers have clear title to their range areas, but the newcomers do have titles. The ranchers engage in open-range methods, and nothing is persuading them to change back to fenced-range ranching.”

“How bad is the situation?”

“There’s been fights, vandalism, threats,” said Special Agent Wanda Allsbury. Ayers could tell that the strain of her job was aging her. “I’m afraid I’m about to lose control. I asked the Governor to call you.”

“The Bureau hasn’t sent any help?”

“We’re spread thin as it is, and until there’s a more serious crime committed, the Bureau can’t send more agents.”

“Agent Allsbury’s idea was to interpret this situation as bordering on an attack on territorial authority,” the Governor said. “We need to get both sides to live together, to prevent them from taking the law into their hands, and we need help to do all that.”

“Well, Governor, I can’t intervene unless there is an actual rebellion against the territorial government. But I think the Admiralty will allow us to stay to monitor things, considering how you and Agent Allsbury don’t have much assistance. I don’t think there would be anything unethical in me talking to the leaders of both sides in this dispute. Maybe if they know Victory is here and keeping watch, they’ll put a lid on the problem. A week or two of calm might be enough help.

“I will need permission to stay. The Admiralty can’t take us off our regular duties lightly. If you can compose a statement, Governor, it would help. Agent Allsbury, I’d like to you to assemble your own report, and say why the Bureau can’t send backup. Maybe we can help you get the situation under control.”

I’m glad you’ve agreed to meet with me,” Ayers said as he shook Delbert Stopka’s hand. “I know I don’t have any authority. But I think it’s in everyone’s interest that this mess get straightened out.”

“I appreciate your time, Captain.” Stopka waved at the living room chair across from the couch. “Please, sit.” Stopka sat down on the couch, stretching out slightly. “I take it Governor Martin told you our problem.”

“Yes. May I be direct, Mister Stopka?”

“You may, but so shall I.”

“It seems to me that some farmers are being a little zealous in their assertions of title. The Terran Federal Republic was founded on a system of laws, and colonial land laws are part of that system. But there is precedent for the idea that the first planetside should be the first landowners.”

“No one is trying to force the stock owners off Cimarron.”

“Not intentionally, and I understand that some titles aren’t as clear as they should be. But this area is good for raising stock.”

“It’s just as good for farming, Captain.”

“True. You do want to get along with the stock owners, right?”

“Yes.”

“Would you, or your fellow farmers, be willing to move from one place on Cimarron to another, if that was necessary?”

“Only if necessary.”

“Okay. Here’s my proposal. Everyone on disputed claims will present copies of their titles to me. I’ll also want statements on how much land a claimant needs to make their livelihood.”

“And you decide who stays and who moves?”

“No. The first step will be to get the parties to sit down in each dispute and negotiate face to face. It will be an informal process with myself acting as facilitator. I will get the Bureau of Colonial Affairs to approve of any settlements. Where there is no agreement, I’ll get the Bureau to send an arbitrator. If there are still any disputes left, I’ll get a federal judge out here to deal with land title lawsuits.”

“It sounds a fair enough process. Informal, to formal, to legal. Why hasn’t the Governor thought of it?”

“I don’t know. The law prohibits colonial governors from taking part in negotiations on world’s they administer. Maybe he didn’t think of it because he doesn’t have the options that I do.”

Stopka nodded. “Tell you what. Our group has our next weekly meeting in three days. Make this proposal to all of us then, and we’ll go along if the majority approves of it.”

Ayers shook his head. “I won’t go along with that, if the meeting is simply a means of rejecting it without anyone saying no to my face. I cannot have my authority undermined, Mister Stopka. This uniform, and my rank, can’t be ignored if someone feels it’s inconvenient to do so.”

“I see your point. What do you suggest?”

“How about us talking to a few of your most influential farmers? Help me persuade them, then encourage them to persuade the rest.”

“All right. What about the stock owners? Or are we to go first?”

“I’m meeting with Galbraith after we’re done. I want this to be as mutual a process as possible. No one goes first. Everyone goes together.”

“That is the sort of talk my friends want to hear.”

Ayers went to Galbraith’s home after the Captain had finished talking to Stopka. They met in Galbraith’s home office, where Ayers presented his proposal. After considering it for a moment, Galbraith leaned back in his chair. “Interesting suggestion, Captain,” he said. “You do realize, however, that in some of these disputes there will be two or more farmers against one stockman.”

“That can’t be avoided. Any negotiation must have all the parties at the table. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter how many of one faction or the other is party to a dispute. I have a feeling that in some cases members of one faction will be facing off against each other as much as against the opposing faction.”

“Maybe. But it still might be a problem.”

“That can’t be helped. Every case has to handled in the same way. There can’t be any bias, real or perceived.”

“What did Stopka say?”

“He seems to like the proposal.”

“What about his people?”

“We’ll talk to the most influential farmers next. I want their backing before it comes up at the next farmers’ meeting.”

“Well, Captain, if they go along, I’m certain that the Association will too.”

Ayers shook his head. “As I said to Mister Stopka, everyone has to go together on this. No one can be first.”

“Captain, I might be able to secure you an informal agreement beforehand. But the Association will not take any action before we see what the farmers do. We aren’t going to agree, only to be undermined by the majority.”

Ayers folded his arms across his chest casually. “I would have thought your people would want to sign on first, Mister Galbraith.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I thought as the first residents you’d want to be first on this. Or maybe that you’d want to compel the farmers to go along by agreeing before they did.”

“Yes, well, be that as it may, I think I can get most of the stockmen to agree to this solution informally, before the farmers vote. Beyond that, I can’t make any promises.”

“But you do support my proposal, Mister Galbraith?”

“I do.”

“I’ll see if that’ll be enough. If so we’ll move forward, and if not I’ll be in touch.”

A  few days later Captain Ayers was talking to his executive officer, Commander Nina Reggio. He had given her the task of assembling the data needed to work out solutions to each land case. They were meeting in his office so that she could give him a preliminary report on her findings.

“I can see why some of the stock owners are so upset,” she told Ayers. “It looks as though more of them have titles that we thought.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, sir. The problem seems to be in the specifics. I did a search for grazing rights, and found that few actually employed the term. I haven’t read through every single title, but I think several were intended for general settlement. Others appear to be vague, like allowing for ‘agricultural production’ without stating what it should be.”

“That is within the law. Interpretations are to be made by the individual landowner. Keeps the government from imposing unrealistic conditions.”

“True. But the farmers are coming with titles that only allow raising crops on their land. What’s more, some of the older titles have terms like ‘enough property for the owner to receive income,’ or ‘allowable area for owner’s use.’ No fixed boundaries or property lines.”

“How the Hell did that happen?”

“Most of the stock owners bought their titles two administrations ago, when settlement policies were pretty open.”

Ayers shook his head. Those policies had gotten humanity on a few more worlds than would have otherwise. But they had caused problems with other races and governments, and led to similar troubles on other worlds. It wasn’t for nothing that the president behind them was ousted after one term.

“Very well,. Find the disputes that would be the easiest to deal with. Maybe we can give the process some momentum...”

“Captain,” cracked the intercom, “urgent communication coming from Governor Martin.”

“Down here, Simmons.”

“Captain Ayers,” Martin said, his voice strained, “a serious situation has just popped up.”

“What’s wrong?”

“One of the farmers shot several horses belonging to one of the stock owners last night. He claims that the horses were stampeding on his land.”

“Is he in custody?”

“Agent Allsbury is bringing him into Englewood right now. She told me she was going to keep him in a cell in her office.”

“Governor, this is Commander Reggio. Will Agent Allsbury require any assistance in holding the prisoner?”

“I don’t think so, Commander.”

“What about transporting him up here?”

“I’m not sure the other farmers would like that.”

“That might undermine local authority,” Ayers added. “Governor, is there anything that we can do?”

“Well, I’m not certain Wanda will have time to investigate and protect her prisoner. I think she’ll want to keep an eye on town, stop any gatherings from turning into more trouble.”

“Tell her we’ll handle the rest.” Ayers turned to Reggio. “Nina, turn your work over to Mister Breland. He’s doing nothing at weapons, and he needs the experience. I want you to investigate. Employ anyone in the crew you have to. Tell them it’s on my orders.” He turned back to the speaker pad on his desk. “Governor, is that sufficient?”

“I think so, Captain. I’m going to meet with Galbraith shortly.”

“Let me know when. I’ll go with you.”

Tens of thousands of credits have been lost,” Elden Galbraith insisted. “Those animals were irreplaceable. Horses aren’t as common as beef animals or sheep. And to have several lost at one time. I don’t think Kenneth wants to hear about formal processes, Captain.”

“Well, he’ll just have to,” Ayers replied. “If those horses were stampeding, as Mister Korchmer claims, then he was within his rights in protecting his crops.”

“If Korchmer wasn’t claiming so much land, this might not have happened.”

“That is a separate matter.”

“Not to me, not to Kenneth, and not to the rest of us.”

Ayers took a step towards Galbraith. “There will be an investigation to determine what happened. Evidence will be gathered, and if necessary, a grand jury will be convened. If Korchmer is guilty of something, he will be punished and restitution will be made.”

“Not if those farmers sit on your jury. And how much restitution can they afford?”

Ayers waved a forefinger at Galbraith. “The law will be followed, Galbraith. Do not interfere with this process.”

“Captain Ayers is right,” Governor Martin said. “Everyone must obey the law, Elden. I personally guarantee this will be a fair process for all concerned.”

“It will only be fair when Korchmer is punished for killing those horses.”

“Any actions on your part that undermine this situation may adversely affect your position on land disputes,” Ayers said. “I won’t sanction negotiations with parties that act in bad faith.”

Galbraith shook his head. “Oh, I’m sure you won’t, Captain. Get out of my house. You took their side the moment you arrived.”

Martin stepped between the two men. “Captain, let’s go.” He turned to Galbraith. “Maybe when you’ve cooled down, you’ll see that the Captain is right.”

Commander Reggio and her team worked throughout the day to learn what had happened in the Korchmer field. She reported her findings to Ayers early the next morning. It was so early, in fact, that the two ate breakfast during their meeting.

“The horses were lathered, there was evidence of exertion, and there was a trail meters wide and a some kilometers long leading into the field,” she said. “They were shot well into that field. I don’t think any claim question enters into this situation.”

“That’s a relief. How did the horses break through the wire?”

“They just ran through. The first two animals were pretty badly scratched but still mobile. I’ll have to show the evidence to an expert, but from my reading about horse behavior, these are all the signs of fright. Something got to them, and I guess they would have kept going until they tired.”

“So what spooked them?”

“That I don’t know. I’m hoping that with these facts in hand...”

“Captain, urgent message from Governor Martin.”

“I don’t like this, Nina. Okay, down here.”

“Captain, Korchmer is dead.” Martin’s voice was breathy with exhaustion.

“How?”

“Hanged. And Wanda, Agent Allsbury, is wounded.”

“How bad?”

“She was shot in the shoulder, then slugged a few times. Doc Richards says she’ll live, but she can’t go back to work for a couple days at least.”

“What happened, Governor?”

“Before the doctor sedated her, she said that hooded men burst into her office. They shot her, pounded on her, then dragged Korchmer from his cell. They didn’t say anything, and she passed out before they left.”

“Governor, I want you up here under my protection.”

“Captain, I think I should stay planetside.”

“I don’t have enough security people to protect you, and if I have to, it will be with officers that aren’t security personnel.”

“Then send who you can.”

“All right. Give me a few minutes. We’ll stay in touch.” Ayers tapped the keypad next to the speaker on his desk. “Second watch weapons and navigation officers, report to my office, now.” He turned to Reggio. “Hang on to that data, Nina. We’ll need it.”

Half an hour later the Victory’s command staff had gathered in the ship’s conference room. Ayers briefed the other officers about the situation on Cimarron to that point as quickly as he could. Once he was finished he turned to Reggio and asked, “In your opinion, who was behind this hanging?”

“Stock owners are the most likely suspects,” she answered. “Of course, there’s a chance that some farmers did it so that the stock faction would get the blame.”

“True, Commander, but I don’t think this was a frame-up. Most of the farmers have been pretty reasonable, and I think Korchmer was well-liked. For now we have to assume that the hanging was committed by stock owners, either with or without the approval of the association.”

“So what are we going to do, Captain?”

Ayers turned to his chief of communications. “Mister Simmons, I want you to tap into Galbraith’s comm system.”

“Captain,” Reggio snapped, “we can’t do that. We need a warrant.”

“I know, Commander. Simmons, I don’t want you to intercept any messages. I want that tap simply to detect an increase in outgoing traffic.”

Reggio inhaled. “You want to know when the next alliance meeting is.”

“Exactly,” Ayers said. He turned to the chief sensor officer. “Miss Shan, I want you to let me know about any movement among the stock owners. Specifically, any movement by several individuals to a single location.

“As for the rest of you, you’ll act as witnesses to this. Simmons, open a line to Governor Martin.” An instant later Martin’s image appeared on the room’s main screen. “Governor, we’re going to keep watch for the next meeting of the stock association. Do you have any news?”

“None, Captain, though I have had calls from a few stock owners. They all deny taking any part in the hanging.”

“Do you believe them?”

“The first three felt like genuine expressions of concern. The last couple have tried to blame farmers. I suspect you won’t have to wait long for another meeting.”

“Good. Governor, I’m going to ask you to do something you might not be comfortable with. It’s important, but if you’re not completely behind it, consider it dropped. I want you to send me a formal request for intervention, based on your concerns that the hanging might be a prelude to an attack on the colonial government.”

Martin leaned back in chair. “I don’t think the situation is that bad, Captain, and I’m not sure such a request is ethical.”

“It isn’t. Which is why I’m asking you for it in front of my command staff.”

“I don’t quite follow. If it’s unethical, why ask for it?”

“Yesterday you and I warned Galbraith not to intervene in the shooting incident, to wait for our investigation to uncover the facts. I think it’s pretty clear that he, or one of his association members, ignored that warning. I don’t think we can trust Galbraith or his association any more.”

“I agree, Captain.”

“But we can’t simply lock up all the stock owners. You said a few moments ago that some might disagree with what happened last night. It could be that most do. But I don’t see how we can sort this out without confronting the whole group. We have the manpower to confront them, but without a formal request we can’t take action.

“And if a few people can take the law into their hands this time, more can do so next time. If all sides don’t understand that there are consequences of such behavior, there will never be a solution to the dispute. We have to stop this now.”

Martin nodded. “Your reasons make sense, Captain, and I can’t see that we have any other options. You’ll have a formal request within the hour.”

“Thank you, Governor. Ayers out.” The screen went blank. Ayers looked at the faces of his other officers. “If any of you have any problems with this, speak up now.” He waited; no one spoke. He turned to Reggio. “How about you?”

She sighed. “It’s unethical, Captain. But I don’t seen that we have any other alternatives. Unless you want to call in the Justice Bureau.”

“It would be at least three days for more agents to be sent. In that time the situation could deteriorate. Either we act now, or we act later.” Ayers looked at his chief of security. “Velasquez, have the whole team assembled and ready.

“The rest of you, you have your orders. Dismissed.”

Early that afternoon Simmons observed a spike in signals eliminating from the Galbraith ranch. Less than an hour later Shan reported that all the members of the association were heading towards Galbraith’s property. Ayers printed out a hard copy of Martin’s intervention request, and when the association had gathered, he assembled his team to deal with the situation. He took personal charge of the force, which was comprised of his chief engineer, Simmons, Shan, Velasquez, and the ship’s eight security officers. They teleported to a spot a short distance from the Galbraith ranch and marched to the main residence.

Before they reached the home they met a group of armed hired hands, most Galbraith’s employees. The leader tried to stop Ayers’ officers from entering. Ayers drew his sidearm. “Anyone who resists us will be guilty of engaging in rebellion against the Terran Federal Republic,” he shouted.

The hands glanced at one another. Their resolve melted in the face of Ayers’ threat. One by one they dropped their weapons and raised their hands. Ayers had his chief engineer, aided by Simmons and Shan, take charge of the “prisoners.” He led Velasquez and the rest to the Galbraith home.

Ayers was cagey enough that when he arrived at the front door, he tapped the door-alert keypad. But when Mrs. Galbraith opened the door, Ayers brushed her aside and marched in. “Where’s the meeting?” he demanded. She pointed to a closed door next to Galbraith’s office. Ayers led his team into the room.

“Nobody move,” he snapped as his officers circled the assembled stock owners sitting around a large wooden table. He strode next to Galbraith, who sat at one end of the table. “This nonsense ends now.”

“What’s going on?” Galbraith said. “You can’t barge in here...”

“Oh, yes I can.” Ayers took Martin’s “request” out of a uniform jacket pocket. “I have a request from the governor that we prevent an attack on his government.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Is it? What’s the purpose of this meeting? Considering the armed guards, I’d say that it isn’t to discuss feed prices.”

“We have a right...”

“No, you don’t.” Ayers looked at the other owners. “You may think this request goes too far. But right now I don’t give a damn about what might be ‘too far.’ I want to know who took part in the Korchmer hanging last night. Either you tell me, or I arrest all of you for attempting to overthrow the colonial government.”

“This is outrageous,” Galbraith said. “This goes against all that legal procedure you lectured me about last night, Captain.”

“And hanging an innocent man doesn’t?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Those horses were stampeding. They’d been running for quite some distance, and they were shot well within Korchmer’s property. In fact, they destroyed a pretty wide swath of wheat before he fired. If we’d been allowed to continue investigating, we might have determined what spooked those horses. Someone in this room is guilty of murder, or knows who is. If I can’t take the killers into custody, I’ll arrest all of you. Speak now, and no one else has to lose their land or freedom.”

A younger man seated two places left of Galbraith stood up and pointed to an older man across from him. “Pacheco and his men did it, Captain. One of my hands saw them riding home from town.”

Ayers walked to the man, the one who had also lost the horses to Korchmer. “Well?” The man lowered his head. “Speak up, Mister Pacheco.” The man turned his head away from Ayers. “Velasquez, take this man out and read him his rights. Find out if any of his men are here. If so, arrest them; if not, teleport there.”

Ayers looked at Galbraith. “Your stonewalling will not be forgotten when the matter of land disputes comes back up.” He glanced at the others. “You’re all going to have to leap through quite a few hoops to prove that you can be trusted. Keep that in mind over the next days and weeks.”

The investigation into the death of the horses was completed later that day. Reggio found evidence that a native reptile had spooked the animals, causing them to stampede. The next day she returned to the work of sorting through the competing land claims. That evening she met with Ayers to inform him of her findings.

She then asked a question. “Jason, are you worried about what the Admiralty will say about what you did yesterday?”

“Not really,” he replied. “We knew the request was bogus. That I didn’t make that known to the stock owners is questionable, but in the end it didn’t matter.”

“Why?”

“Nina, are you familiar with the old phrase ‘frontier justice?’”

“It means frontier settlers taking the law into their own hands, right?”

“Exactly. That’s just what happened here. I asked for the request so we could quickly escalate the situation. If we didn’t, well, we might have found out who hanged Korchmer, but the damage would have been done. Pretty soon someone would have to come to maintain or restore order.

“People are living on a new frontier, but doesn’t mean the old rules apply. There are authorities who can resolve problems. We can’t just remind colonists that they aren’t living in the ‘Wild West.’ Occasionally we have to compel them to remember. Otherwise, what’s the point of having laws and authorities in the first place?”

Robert Collins Robert Collins has had stories and articles appear in periodicals such as Tales of the Talisman; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine; The Fifth Di...; Wild West; Model Railroader; and the Wichita Eagle. He’s sold two biographies to Pelican Publishing, and six railroad books to South Platte Press. His first SF novel, Expert Assistance, has just been published by Asylett Press.

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