The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 18)

“You men, stop ‘im!” Waldon bellowed, charging after him. Altman forced himself into as quick a run as he could manage, and was quite surprised when he managed a brisk jog that only made him a little nauseous.

“Kaylene, your staff—” The words were barely out of his mouth when Kaylene, supporting him in the jog, gripped the staff.

“We’ll stop ‘im, catch us up when you can. An’ try not to make yerself sick, runnin’ too hard!” And with that she was off.

With grim determination Altman pressed on; thankfully he didn’t have far to go. After a minute of dizzying exertion he came upon the struggling man. Waldon and one of his men had the suspect pinned to the ground, Kaylene’s staff held down across his shoulders, keeping him from moving. He smiled grimly and caught his breath. “We’ve got you! What are you playing at, causing all these accidents?”

The man struggled and thrashed. He couldn’t move; he was a rather slight man in comparison to the other workers. “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Kaylene growled, “You’re a filthy, red-handed liar!”

“That’s ridi—”

“You’ve got the evidence all over you,” Altman cut in. “I spread red iron oxide over all the roofs and high places in this town; there’s nowhere else you’d have gotten covered in it.”

He stopped struggling and turned his face to the side out of the dirt. “Look, I swear I didn’ come here jus’ to cause trouble, I was put up to it! E’s the one you want.” There was a wheedling note of desperation in his voice.

Altman frowned. “And who is ‘he?’”

The man gave one final effort to push up against the staff pinning him down and gave up. “’E’s some Mitchell bloke back in ‘ol Holdswaine, a high-up rich type with plenty ‘o influence. ‘Ad his thugs visit me after I ‘ad some … troubles … payin’ a debt. Them’s the ones set me up with this job an gave me the … er … extra instructions.”

Altman felt a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach at Mitchell’s name, and he was sure it had nothing to do with the blow to his head. With the reputation of the town ruined, Mitchell would have no problem denying them the manpower to build. The workers themselves might demand that they not be sent to help. That would make Mitchell’s Conclave friends very happy. “That’s a tough position you found yourself in,” he said finally.

The man was shrewd enough to sense the change in Altman’s attitude towards him. “You’re tellin’ me! I carried th’ bruises for days after that, an’ I didn’t even give ‘em any trouble. Them’s bad sorts.”

“What’s your name, fellow?”

“Moyle, sir. Ewen Moyle.” His voice was calmer, but he definitely sounded nervous.

“Did you leave family behind in Holdswaine, Ewen Moyle? Friends?”

“Nah, just me mates at the waterin’ ‘ole, but thems that ain’t ‘ere won’t care. Uh … what’re you plannin’ on doin with me?”

Kaylene took the staff back, passing it to Altman, who leaned on it gratefully. She eyed Moyle, a considering look in her eyes. “They’ll kill ‘im, or make ‘im wish they had if we send ‘im back.”

“It’d be no better’n a death sentence,” Waldon agreed. It wasn’t clear to Altman whether Waldon thought this was a good thing or bad. He and the other workman dragged Moyle to his feet none too gently.

“You can’t send me back there! It’s like she said, I’m as good as dead if I show my face in Holdswaine!” He looked on the verge of trying to fight free again.

“No, you can’t go back to Holdswaine.” Altman paused in thought a moment. “But we can’t keep you here, either. Mitchell has too much influence over the union men. You haven’t exactly won yourself any friends here, either.”

“One o’ the northern cities?” Kaylene asked.

“The bigger the better, I think. Big enough to have its own unions, where Mitchell has no power.”

“You’ll let me go? Oh thank you sir! I won’t forget this, see if I don’t!”

“Yes … But this isn’t a free pass, Moyle. Before we escort you out, I’d be appreciative of anything you can tell me about Mitchell or his union work gangs. If he’s sent you to cause problems, he can and will send more, and I think you can help us be ready for it.”

They retreated back to the house for a long talk while Waldon spread the word about the source of the ‘bad luck.’ The story spread like wildfire; it wasn’t long before a sense of relief replaced the growing dread around the work sites.

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 17)

The smart thing would have been to approach him calmly, but Altman’s head was throbbing something fierce. Before he realized what he was doing, he found himself shouting to the man. “Stop!”

The man whipped around, and seeing the group headed his way and the dark looks of their faces, immediately bolted. The men around him looked on in confusion, but seeing Waldon present, decided they were best off getting back to work until told otherwise.

Kaylene bellowed in a strident tone, “Get ‘im!” This had no effect at all on the men working around them, but Waldon took off after the man. By the time he added his own shouts to the commotion, the fleeing man was almost clear of the rest of the workers.

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 16)

The three set off for the work grounds, the normally quick walk slowed by Altman’s pace. He kept an arm around Kaylene’s shoulder as they went; she held him with her left arm, the right sporting a short, thick-hafted staff.

As the work site came into view, Altman counted the working men off. “About a dozen I’d say. That would be about half, Waldon?”

The other man spat on the ground and nodded, eyes intent on the scene before them. “It would, yeah. Don’t see any who ought not t’be there, don’ look like none’re missin’ either.”

Altman cast his gaze over each man in turn, but it was difficult for him to focus. “I don’t see—” just then a man with stood straight, distinctive red marks covering his side where he’d wiped his hands. “Wait, there, that’s him. See the rust on the clothes?”

Kaylene shifted his weight a bit on her shoulder, readying her staff. She was getting ready to fight, he realized. “Kaylene You don’t have to strain your—”

“Shut yer mouth right there, husband. You aren’t as strong as you let on, an’ you’re dizzy on your feet. You need me when you catch this man, ‘specially if it comes to fightin’.”

“But—”

Kaylene cut him off curtly. “No buts!”

Waldon cast him a sharp look. “She’s right, Mr. Dolet. Yer in no shape t’take on a child, let alone anyone on my teams. You’d best let us ‘andle it.”

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 15)

The morning was young enough for a touch of night’s chill to remain in the air as Altman, leaning on Kaylene’s arm, stepped out the gate in front of the house. “Good mornin’ Mrs. Dolet. I—by my—what’d you do to yer head, Altman!”

Altman grimaced and swayed a little on his feet. Kaylene caught his arm up more securely to steady him. “Good mornin’ Mr. Sias. My husband was feeling entirely too clever today and got himself hurt.”

Altman cleared his throat. “As though it were my own fault. I was today’s victim, Waldon. Luckily the injury’s not bad. Quickly … have you seen anyone on your crews this morning with reddish stains on hands, legs, clothing … anything? Red-brown, like rust.”

Waldon stared at the pair incredulously. “Um, Mrs. Dolet, are y’sure yer husband’s okay?”

“’E won’t be if he isn’t careful. If the culprit doesn’t get him, I may kill ‘im myself for not listenin’ to sound medical advice when ‘e’s given it. But for now we really must know, have you seen someone covered in rust?”

“Aye, I’ll take yer word for it, Mrs. Dolet. Can’t say’s I have, not today. This’d be what y’needed all that powdered iron for, then?”

Altman forced himself not to nod in affirmation. “It does; all of the ‘accidents’ have involved heavy objects falling from high places. I spent time dusting the roofs of those few buildings that have them with rust, and a good number of accessible, lower tree branches too.”

Waldon nodded slowly. “An’ then ‘oped whoever’s behind it didn’t wouldn’ ‘ave the time or inclination to wash up after.”

“A risk I had to take, and so the rush.”

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 15)

Altman fought the fuzzy mass of pain-filled clouds that seemed to be his mind. “I … I have to—I set up the trail—” He couldn’t seem to work his mouth correctly, but he thought maybe the words were understandable.

“Never you mind that, you’re not t’leave this bed till I give the say-so. Whatever you think you gotta do can wait.”

Another voice spoke up then, a familiar voice that soothed his head for just a moment. “It’s a good thing you’re so hard-headed, Altman. Never thought I’d have to admit to it bein’ a good thing! We’ll have you out of here in no time.” Kaylene was there, at least.

He opened his eyes a crack, then shut them again against the most brilliantly blinding light he’d ever seen. “No! There’s no time. I was setting up to catch the man responsible for all this, and if I delay, all the evidence will wash away! I have to get after him, there’s no time to waste!” He seemed to have gotten his mouth under better control.

There was a long pause. “You can go now if you must, though I’d rather you stayed. You ain’t gonna do that though, are you.” Cranford sounded 1 part resigned, 2 parts exasperated.

He finally got his eyes open; the blinding glare subsided after a few seconds. It was still morning, thankfully, the early sun pouring through a window by his bed. “No, I’m afraid I won’t. Dearest, with your help …? I must examine whatever it was that hit me, first. Is it still where it landed?”

Kaylene came into view to stand next to Cranford. “The stone? Yes, it’s still there. What of it? I told you when we moved in that the roof was in need of repair.”

“I didn’t get a look at whoever it was that dropped the stone on me, but that shouldn’t be of any concern.”

Kaylene frowned. “But if y’didn’t see who did it, why are we rushin’ to find ‘im? How’ll you know who to look for? You should be restin’!”

“I spent some time last night spreading iron dust over all the roofs in town; I’ve never been so thankful there are so few of those! Whoever did it will be wearing the evidence on his skin and clothing for the rest of the day, and with luck, we may even catch traces of it on the ground to help narrow the search. We’ll Waldon Sias’ help, after we’ve confirmed it wasn’t Sias himself.”

Kaylene’s eyes widened. “You suspect ‘im?”

Altman shook his head; the wash of painful dizziness made him regret it immediately. “In … in all honesty, no, but we must be thorough. And we do have to talk to him regardless, if we want his to help identifying the real culprit.”

 

The Price of Demand (Reintegration Edit 14)

He took his leave and, dust in hand, retired home to await the cover of night.

<>

Altman picked his way carefully through the darkness back to his home. He had to navigate by the light of the sliver of the moon and the stars; he’d supped and slept a while upon returning home, then rose during the small hours to set about the business of marking the high places of the new village.

His inability to see clearly forced him to move very slowly, picking his way through roughed-in roads and around worksites to the gates and front walk of the house.

The sounds of the night played tricks on his imagination. A sharp *CRACK* was definitely not his imagination though; he looked about, seeing nothing, then jerked his head up just in time to see a silhouette against the night sky above him in the branches of the tree in the front yard. Its hands were upraised, something held within. The hands and the object came down and then—

<>

Exploding pain. He felt like his head was on fire, or melting, or both at once. For an indeterminate length of time, that was all he was aware of. Gradually a sound entered his awareness. After another while, it began to sound like a voice.

“… his head. He’ll be fine now, though it was a nasty hit and he’ll be feelin’ it for some weeks I ‘magine.”

Some innate sense of self-preservation told him that now wasn’t the time to open his eyes, but he managed to speak, haltingly. “How … how long?”

“You’ve been out fer four hours.” The voice belonged to … Medic Cranford, he thought. That sounded right “That was a nasty crack on the head. Found you myself, lyin’ sprawled out on the steps right by the door, bleedin’ something fierce an’ a big stone fallen right from the roof beside you. Turns out the cut was worse than it looked, lucky fer you. Yer head ain’t broke, but you’ll be feelin’ like it is for a while.”