Fifty-Fifty O'Brien

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by L. Ron Hubbard

  Fifty-Fifty O’Brien, humph. What had been eating him, anyway? Maybe he enjoyed being slung across a horse and carted off to a ceremony called the “cut of the vest.”

  Win Smith went up the trail, groping in the blue whiteness of the night, hoping those goonies would stick to their fire. What if they had a guard along this trail?

  But he couldn’t leave the trail. Although he was only six or seven miles from Company K, he could not afford to get lost. And you didn’t walk straight through that tangle. You had to have machetes to do that.

  God, he wished those damned neguas would go lay their eggs in some goonie’s hide. It might even feel pleasant at first, but when the sores began to spread from the broken sacs …

  Something moved between him and the moon—a blurry shadow coming down the steep trail.

  Smith petrified. He could feel the blood go up to his throat and hammer at his windpipe. It was almost straight down from where he clung to the ravine side. He would have to pass through bright moonlight to go back.

  And the native came on, slipping skillfully and quietly over the loose rocks. Smith braced his feet and moved the muzzle of his Springfield up. But he did not quite dare fire. That flicker of red was too close and he was too weary to run far at any speed.

  Ten feet, eight feet—he could see the man’s eyes, his mouth, the shimmer of moonlight on the machete which banged the white-clad thigh. He could hear the man grunt as he lowered himself down the steep trail.

  Five feet, four feet. Smith gripped his stock and lay very still. It was impossible to strike up at the native’s head. Maybe … maybe …

  Smith laid the gun aside and reached slowly out with his hands. Seeing something dark move along the ground before him, the goonie paused, muttered something under his breath and, not yet afraid, moved back to better study this thing.

  Smith reached out and gripped the bare ankles. The man screamed, snatching at the machete. Smith tried to throw his captive over his head and to the ravine floor below.

  Scrambling back, doubled up and clawing at the rocks, the native tried to slash at the unknown shape and hold on at the same time.

  Smith reared up and the native jumped straight at him.

  They skidded out into space, hit the trail, holding hard to each other. They struck again and fell apart. Smith, with only one thought in his tired head, clutched the native once more as they struck the bottom. The goonie was underneath, lying still.

  A hot, salty stickiness ran out from under the woolly hair. Smith fumbled all about him for his rifle. He could hear the calls along the ridge, he could hear the slap, slap, slap of bare feet over the path.

  He cut his fingers on the sharp lava and knew it not. He banged his head against a boulder and merely shook the sudden dullness out of his brain. He scrambled in a widening circle, striving to find his Springfield.

  And then he remembered that he had laid it aside higher up the path. Heedless of the noise he made, he scrambled partway up the trail. The rifle tripped him and he rolled back, clutching its sling.

  A large rock offered ready protection from sniping above. He braced himself against the rough face and watched, breathing hard from his struggle and search.

  Men stopped against the sky, staring down.

  A man called, “¡Oye! ¿Que pasa?”

  Men muttered to one another for several seconds. Then, “¡Oye, Ramón! ¿Donde estás?”

  But Ramón was lying quietly in the wash, staring up at the moon, eyes flinty and wide open.

  Bare feet pattered briefly, then, “¡Mira! ¡Mira! ¡Yanquis!”

  Win Smith leaned hard against the boulder, waiting. They had found his hat up there.

  Metal clinked, and a creak and snap told of a gun being cocked. But still nothing happened. Smith momentarily considered backtracking, but when he thought of two nights and a day with nothing but silence, and when he remembered that horses could catch him easily enough, he pressed against the boulder and waited.

  In a few moments a light appeared at the top of the trail—a torch. It came through the air like a comet with its trail of sparks and landed in the middle of the wash not ten feet from Ramón, still burning.

  They could see the dead man in the glare—and they saw something else.

  “¡Solo!” It went up with a roar. Shadows danced along the crest. A rifle crashed a ribboned line of sparks. The slug yowled out of the wash like a broken banjo string.

  Win Smith watched the flare of powder above him and thought about a row of gas candles which could be put out with the whisper of a bullet. You got a baybee dawl if you hit fifteen, fifteen.

  He began to put out the candles, moving along his boulder to keep them from pulling the same trick. The Springfield’s jar was soothing to his weariness, its noise a balm to his silence-outraged ears.

  One candle, two candles, three candles—and they didn’t light again. One came tumbling over the edge, long and white and screaming. Win Smith knew then that it was steep everywhere but on the trail. That was lucky until they got into the wash some other way.

  Rock splinters slashed into his eyes. He wiped his sleeve across his forehead and drew it wetly away. Then he took what remained of his tie and put it about his brow.

  How many of the devils were there? That Guardia captain had been very, very right. These men were too close to Company K for a holiday. He wondered whether Company K knew it.

  Maybe this rifle fire … but you don’t hear a rifle for six or seven miles in the mountains. Too many walls to block it off.

  He moved on down his boulder and discovered it to be longer than he had supposed. The face of the canyon was slanting back, steeper and steeper, until he was shooting almost straight up.

  A fist of lead slammed into his arm and sent white lightning ripping through his side. With a sense of relief he saw that the limb still responded to command.

  Men were arriving up there—many, many men. Before long they would find their way down, take him on the flank and rear and it would be all over.

  What would O’Brien say?

  In some ancient period, when the volcanoes had spewed forth their flame-digested rock, a bubble had been left in the ravine side. Now, cut by rain, it was a cave.

  Smith looked at it and was afraid that his eyes told him wrong. It was set flat under the cliff edge and was a perfect protection against bullets. He had to cross twenty yards of moonlight to get to it, but then, so would the goonies.

  He raised up and snuffed another candle and heard the rifle come clattering down. Then, bent over like a quarterback, he dived toward the natural fort.

  Stone splinters cut his ankles. A slug caught in his pack and almost threw him. He slid the last ten feet, heels foremost, and pressed against the back of the cave.

  The firing on the cliffs stopped. Voices racketed excitedly. Then there was silence.

  Smith laid himself at length in the narrow entrance of his burrow and watched the rocky expanse which went out from him in three-quarters of a circle.

  Now what?

  The moon was sliding down toward the rim and the blue shadows were growing long across the wash. Smith, numb with exhaustion and feeling lightheaded from his shoulder wound, shook his canteen and heard a few forlorn drops rattle and slosh inside.

  A creek was murmuring not thirty yards away. The soft sound of it made him thirsty, the soft music made him grit his teeth against slumber.

  The goonies hadn’t forgotten him. They would be back. Then he knew. They were waiting for the few minutes between moonset and sunrise—minutes which would be inky black.

  It was cold and he shivered. The rocks were shining with dew. He nodded at the long shadows. When it was dark, he would crawl out and scramble to another position. Perhaps he could even sneak through them and get to Company K.

  He began to be anxious about the company. With so many gooni
es so close, something was in the air. A sudden attack would be murderous, even if it wasn’t fatal. Company K ought to know about it. Yes, he’d have to get through and tell them.

  Darkness was almost at hand. A rock rolled up on the ravine edge. Something hard crunched before the cave entrance. Instinctively, Smith ducked.

  The world turned red and white. The blast was physical in its violence. Fragments spattered like bullets, whistling and screaming as they ricocheted from rock.

  Dazed and numb with shock, Smith pried himself away from the ground and stared out at the darkened wash. That had been one of those dynamite bombs. They were dropping them from overhead. They knew he’d try to get out in the dark.

  The sides of his neck felt wet, and he discovered that his ears were bleeding. Red lights, big and round, cavorted before his face. His body ached as though he had suffered from a beating with clubs.

  Minutes ticked past. He knew he’d have to get out of there. He summoned every latent ounce of strength and crawled to his knees.

  He heard the crunch, and threw himself down again. Once more the world rocked and blazed and shuddered. Flying stone and glass had almost ripped the shirt from his shoulders. He bled from a score of abrasions.

  He heard the rolling of rocks after a moment. Men were charging across the open space.

  He chunked his rifle into his shoulder and began to shoot. The flare of the powder was like a torch. Men in white were coming on at a fast run.

  He sent a clip scattering into the magazine and fired as fast as he could work his bolt, fired by instinct alone, expecting the downward slash of a machete every instant.

  The third clip showed a deserted front. Two men were sprawled loosely on the rocks.

  Smith wormed back into his cave and pushed gravel up before him to lessen the danger of the next bomb.

  How long could he keep that up, he wondered? A lucky missile would, sooner or later, hit the top of the cave, ricochet and drop him.

  His ears rang and he had a sweet, salty taste in his mouth. His body felt like unstable mercury. Lights flared before his eyes where he knew no lights should be. He felt suffocated and he could not hear.

  A third bomb slapped in front of the cave. Sharp missiles ripped through his shoulders and sliced flesh from his back. The concussion shoved him back a yard. Dizzily, he rose up, fumbling for his bolt, head hanging too heavy to raise. Drooping there on his hands and knees, he fought a wretched nausea.

  A rifle ripped at him from across the stream, a horizontal streamer in the blackness, reflected in the water. He got his left hand off the ground and sank back on his heels. The rifle was too heavy to support and red glare hid the sights.

  And they were coming again.

  He began to fire, but his shots struck rock not fifteen feet in front of him. The muzzle would not stay up, hands were pulling it down. He slid back and found the cave wall supporting him. Clenching his teeth, he braced the muzzle on his knees and pulled the trigger time after time without seeing whether or not he hit.

  Shouts, shots, noise and bedlam. But he felt more than he heard. The blood ran unheeded from his ears and shoulders.

  A torch soared, sputtering, and landed in a geyser of sparks just in front of the cave entrance. A bullet hit him in the ribs. He tried to shoot out the torch, but he could not see it. The world swam in a black murk.

  Once more the night exploded—sharper this time—and again. The torch blazed and flared and lightning struck again. Win Smith slid silently forward, across his rifle, cheek damply pressed to the cold stock.

  He was jolted time after time before he finally awoke, surprised to find that day had come. He was staring down at the trail and he was unable to move. But the jolting continued. Fascinated, he watched the legs of the horse not two feet away from his eyes.

  He was riding across a saddle, lashed into place. For a moment he wished that he had been killed back in the cave. Then it would be all over. Now it only had to be done again. The goonies had him.

  But no. He could see a horse in front of him—just one horse, no more. And no horse behind him. The one in front was shiny black, and riding erect in the saddle he saw Fifty-Fifty O’Brien.

  The top kick did not look back. He was intent upon forcing his pony to its best speed. From his shoulder dangled a musette bag lately filled with hand grenades.

  That was all Win Smith could see before the pain in his back pushed him into blackness again.

  Then he knew he was lying on a cot without knowing quite how he got there. The corpsman was putting away a hypo needle and stacking up gauze and a long roll of adhesive tape.

  “Hello,” said the corpsman. “Want anything?”

  “Hello, gob,” said Smith. “I got back, didn’t I?”

  “Yeah, thanks to O’Brien.”

  “What happened?”

  “Oh,” said the corpsman hazily, “we heard something that sounded like artillery, maybe dynamite bombs, and the guys were all for taking a look-see. But O’Brien got sore as hell when the rest wanted to trail along, and he pegged off alone with a bunch of grenades and an extra horse. He seemed to know all about it. And then he came back with you. That’s all I know.”

  “How am I?”

  “Hell, you can’t kill a Marine, they’re too dumb to die.”

  A rumble inquired from the doorway, “How is he?”

  “Okay,” said the corpsman.

  O’Brien came in looking somewhat tattered but otherwise very happy. “Howya feelin’, kid?”

  “Okay,” said Smith.

  “Look,” said the corpsman, “you got a cut on your head, top. You better let me fix it.”

  “Nuts,” said O’Brien. “Listen, kid, I thought you might want to know that I convinced the skipper that you’re too valuable a man to let loose in those hills. I told him about the guys you knocked off and he says maybe we can work you up to a gunnery sergeant. Anything I can do?”

  Win Smith, beaming but puzzled, shook his head and the top kicker went out singing “Bang Away, Lulu,” far out of tune.

  “What the hell?” said Smith to the corpsman. “He’s gonna rate me. I save him and he sits on me, he saves me and I’m tops. What the hell?”

  “You’re drawing expert pay, ain’t you?” said the corpsman. And then with a wise and twisted smile, he added, “It’s the nature of the beast and something else you might call obligation. It’s O’Brien’s boast that he don’t take nothin’ off nobody.”

  “Well, swab my decks,” said Smith, “I never thought of that before. I guess,” he murmured, “that it would be pretty hard to owe a guy your life.”

  And he lay back on the cot to marvel, and to drink in the clatter of pans in the galley, the yells from the tents, the tramp of feet, and the strains of “Bang Away, Lulu,” pouring raucously forth from the big mouth of Fifty-Fifty O’Brien, the guy who paid his debts.

  The Adventure of “X”

  Chapter One

  THE cell stunk of disinfectant and the unwashed bodies of all the drunks. A slit of dirty light struck the end of the wooden bunk, lending a sickly grayness to the enclosure.

  The face of Larry Grant was also sickly gray. But for all that it was a well-molded face. The cheekbones were high, the jaw well proportioned, and the blue eyes were alive and intelligent. The rumpled Legion blues did not fit the face. One looked for an officer’s cap, a riding crop and polished boots instead of the blankness on the arm which signified a private.

  Larry Grant looked across the room at the soggy hulk of Legionnaire Lipinski and drew back his lips from his teeth. “If that fool Sergeant Boch were here now, lord, what I’d do to him.”

  “Think of his stripes,” muttered Lipinski.

  “Stripes? Yes, his stripes. But if I were ever to meet that man without his stripes I’d hammer him into so much dirty filth.”

  “It’s a good id
ea,” muttered Lipinski.

  “Sure, it’s a good idea. What did I do? Nothing! What did he do? He struck me with his stick and slammed me in here.” The surge of bitterness in Grant’s voice made Lipinski sit up straighter.

  “You were out of uniform,” stated Lipinski.

  “Bah! Out of uniform! What do you fools know about a uniform anyway? Am I supposed to nurse a set of rags like these forever? What a fool I was to ever set foot in this outfit!”

  “Now you’re here, you’ve got to soldier,” said Lipinski.

  “Soldier? What the hell do you know about soldiering? If I had that man here, right here between my two hands, I’d throttle him until—”

  Something rattled outside the door. Both men whirled, facing the grate. A big jaw was there—a pair of close-set eyes. Sergeant Boch surveyed them very coolly.

  “So,” he rumbled. “Legionnaire Grant would like to throttle me, eh? He’d like me between his two hands, hein?” With a kick he sent the cell door flying open. He strode in, hands on his hips, glaring.

  Grant sat where he was and said nothing. Boch closed the door, locked it and threw the key into the corridor. Then he took off his tunic and tossed that through the grate. His stick and revolver followed.

  “Now, you yellow camel,” snarled Boch, “that’s Sergeant Boch out there, see? And this in here, this is So-and-so Boch, see? And what are you going to do about it?”

  Grant stirred restlessly, his mind flashing out a warning signal to him that this was some kind of trap. He looked at Boch’s throbbing neck muscles, at the hard, red face.

  “What are you going to do?” thundered Boch.

  Grant stood up. He took an uncertain step forward. Lipinski drew in his feet and melted into the wall. Boch’s eyes held a flame; his hands were clenching and unclenching. Grant took another step.

  Suddenly Boch struck. The smack of the blow was loud in the cell. Boch struck again. Tottering, Grant lashed out with both hands, striving to seize the towering hulk he saw in a blur before him.


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