Word spread quickly among the crew. In fact, Benson discovered she was one of the last to hear the news that the surrounding land was rich in gold. Some of the Methodist women shared when bringing over food that in certain parts of the countryside you could literally reach down and pick up solid nuggets off the ground, if you looked for them.
In fact, most townfolk spent a good portion of each day panning the riverbed for gold dust and nuggets, or walking around the countryside looking. A staking system had been developed, and people mostly respected a marked stake. If they did not, they stood a good chance of getting shot. A few people already had been shot over disputed claims.
The really lucrative areas were rumored to be up in the mountains. That is where Darcy’s men and others spent most of their time. Supposedly there were caves with huge steaks of gold in the walls. Darcy was rumored to have a million credits in nuggets stashed away in several hiding places. He was widely considered by one and all to be the richest man on the planet.
All such talk increased the feeling of unease growing in Benson. Gold did things to people, she thought. Gold did things to entire governments. It made people act irrationally, and it brought out their baser elements.
She called a mandatory meeting after supper that night. When everyone settled down, sipping on tea or fruit juice, she stood up in front of the church and faced her crew.
Benson said, “We’re leaving first thing in the morning.”
Gasps and other surprised exclamations rippled across the group.
She narrowed her eyes at the sailors making comments.
She said, “This is the reason why. Already, discipline has deteriorated. You are League sailors. You’re not settlers, you’re not . . . forty-niners or anything like that. We’re getting in the transport and heading to Winthrop right after breakfast. There we will assist local authorities in their efforts to remain self-sufficient until such time as we are rescued.
“We are not staying. We are not going to become . . . prospectors, or settlers, or anything like that. There’s a war going on. We’re going to return to doing our part in that war as soon as possible.”
She heard grumbles, and she noticed a few dark looks cast her way, but her words struck home. Clearly some wanted to stay. They probably wanted to try their hand at panning for gold, she thought. Well, that’s not going to happen.
Someone raised a hand. Benson looked at the man and struggled to remember his name for a moment. Then she had it.
“Kang? What is it.”
Kang said, “We’re probably not going to be picked up until after the war, ma’am.”
Benson heard several gasps throughout the small crowd. To her knowledge, this was the first time the topic had been publically broached.
“I realize that, Mr. Kang. However, the war is still going on, and we are still in the Navy. Just because they might not be able to send someone to pick us up right now does not mean we are going to pretend we’re not sailors.
“Is that clearly understood? We are sailors. We will continue to act like sailors. Each and every one of us is in the League Navy until such time we are discharged. That time is not now. We are still in the Navy, even though we are marooned here.”
She looked at them, hands on her hips, and met the eyes of everyone. Some turned away, while others nodded.
“I realize you may not all agree with that,” she said, looking back at those who avoided meeting her eyes. “But, you will be on the transport in the morning, or charged with desertion.”
A few gulped. A few others nodded, reluctantly.
Benson woke up at first light, her internal alarm clock going off. She made her way to the front of the church, intending to check with the guard posted at the front door.
So far they had not had any trouble, but she maintained guards overnight in front of the church and outside the transport where a few members of the crew continued to sleep.
Before them the town spread out, wooden buildings hastily erected. Beyond that, the river snaked away in the distance toward the beautiful mountains, their craggy peaks reaching up into the sky. The view, Benson thought, was stunning.
Curly stood outside the door, turning his head as she exited. He saluted her with a smile, despite the bags under his eyes.
“Any trouble last night, Curly?”
“No, ma’am. Same as the other nights.”
She nodded, glad to hear it.
“You don’t want to become a prospector, do you Curly?”
The big bald man shrugged, then grinned at her. He said, “It’d be nice to pick up a few kilos of gold, if all it takes is digging. But, it occurs to me there’s not much to spend on out here.”
Benson chuckled. “That pretty much sums it up. Maybe you can buy stuff in their big city, Winthrop. But out here . . . out here there’s not much of anything.”
“Nope. But . . . I’m not sure that thought has occurred to everybody, Captain.”
She nodded, her face turning grim. She said, “That’s one of the reasons we’re leaving.”
Benson turned to go back inside when the sound of distant hoof beats broke through the morning. She turned and watched as a rider raced into the other side of town.
Benson squinted. She said, “Can’t see much at this distance.”
Curly grunted and brought his rifle into position, lining up the electronic scope.
He said, “The fellow looks rough. Probably been riding all night. He’s heading to City Hall.”
“Is he bringing news? Did something happen?”
Curly said, “We’ll find out soon enough. The mayor is heading this way.”
Benson watched as Carver ran out of the door of City Hall and headed down the street toward the church.
“Aim your gun up,” she said.
Curly nodded, abandoning the view his scope offered.
In moments, Carver ran up, breathless.
He said, “Captain, there’s been an accident in one of the mines! Someone’s been hurt, bad. Can you help?”
“How bad is the person hurt? What’s the nature of the injury?”
“They say he was crushed by falling rock. He’s barely hanging on. But if you have nanobots, he might stand a chance!”
“Is this one of Darcy’s men?”
Curly shot her a look when she said that. It sounded cruel, she knew, but she had to know.
“No, ma’am. This is the first big cave we found. Several people in town have a stake in it. Mickey Torrez is the fella who got hurt. Please . . . if you can do anything for him, we’d all be mighty grateful.”
Benson nodded, her mind made up. She said, “Curly, gather up six sailors. Be sure and get Kilmeade, she knows a thing or two about medicine. I’ll have the rest continue preparing for departure. When you come back you can pick us up.”
The mayor blinked in surprise. He said, “You’re leaving?”
“Yes. We’re headed to Winthrop as soon as possible. But, we’ll go see if we can help this man. Do you have coordinates for the cave you can give us?”
Fifteen kilometers away, in the foothills of the mountains outside town, two men crouched behind a boulder, their horses staked several meters away. They had an excellent view of Wallisville at a distance.
The first man was large, standing at least six foot four, or 193 centimeters. His brown hair was long and unruly under his hat, and his beard looked tangled.
The other man was shorter, and badly in need of a bath. He was covered in dust. He watched everything through an electronic scope, following the rider in the morning light, the mayor running to the church, and the Captain as they discussed things.
He said, “Looks like she bought it, Mr. Darcy. I see a group getting together, heading for the transport.”
The big man next to him nodded. He said, “Good.”