Read The Fabulous Riverboat Online

Authors: Philip Jose Farmer

Tags: #sf

The Fabulous Riverboat (33 page)

Now the boat was turning into shore, its paddle-wheels operating at full speed, the water flying, the wheels chuffchuffing, the deck trembling. John was turning the boat into shore, where a number of heavily armed men and women awaited him.
These would be the disaffected, the people who were angered because the lottery had cut them out of a place on the crew. Once they got aboard, they would sweep away the few left in Sam's party.
Sam had run along the hurricane deck after leaving the pilothouse ladder. He held a pistol with two ^hots left in it and his rapier in the other hand. He did not know how they had gotten into his hands; he had no memory of having removed them from his holster and sheath.
A face appeared at the edge of the deck on the ladder just ahead. He fired at it, and the face dropped back. He was on the edge of the deck then and shooting even as he leaned over to look down the ladder. The plastic bullet did not miss this time. The man's chest erupted red, and he fell back down the ladder, taking two men with him. But others on the deck below raised their pistols, and he had to jump back. The volley missed him, though some bullets striking the edge blew apart and the fragments stung him on the legs.
Joe Miller, behind him, said, '"Tham! Tham! There'th nothing to do but jump for it! They got uth thurrounded!"
Below, Cyrano, still wielding his rapier, holding off three men at one time, backed to the railing. Then his blade pierced a throat, the man fell, and Cyrano whirled and leaped over the railing. When he came up he began to swim strongly to get away from the starboard paddlewheel thrashing toward him.
Bullets struck the sides of the cabins behind Sam, and Lothar cried, "Jump, Sam! Jump!"
But they could not jump yet. They could not have cleared the main deck below, let alone the boiler deck.
Joe had already turned and was running with his great ax toward the men firing from behind the rear of the cabins along the hurricane deck. The bullets streaked toward him, wobbling, leaving a thin trail of smoke, but he was too far away to worry about their accuracy. And he was depending upon his terrifying aspect and his prowess, which they well knew, to panic them.
The others ran behind him until they came to the great paddle-wheel housing. This was about ten feet from the edge of the hurricane deck, and if they stood up on the railing and leaped out, they could grab hold of the big iron eyes through which cables had been secured when the housing had been lifted and then placed over the wheel by the crane.
They jumped, one after the other, while bullets screamed by. They grabbed the eye, their bodies banging into the side of the hard metal housing. But they pulled themselves up and onto the top of the housing and crawled over, stood up and jumped out. The water was thirty feet below, a height which would have made Sam hesitate under different conditions. This time, he went out, fell straight, holding his nose, and plunged into the water feet first.
He came up in time to see Joe jump off, not from the housing but from the main deck. He had fought down the ladder and out across the deck, scattering the pygmies before him. Even so, his hairy skin was splotched with blood. He went over the side in a dive with pistols booming and arrows streaking after him.
Sam dived then, because several of the steam machine guns had been depressed and the .75 caliber bullets were probing for him.
The boat turned back about two minutes later. John must have discovered that his chief enemy had escaped. By then, Sam was ashore and running, though he thought his legs would fold under him. The firing was not renewed. Perhaps John had changed his mind about killing him. He would want Sam to suffer, and Sam would suffer most if he were still at the site of his defeat.
John's voice boomed out from a bullhorn. "Farewell, Samuel! You fool! Thanks for building the Riverboat for me! And I will change its name to one which will suit me better! I go now to enjoy the fruits of your labors! Think of me as much as you please! Farewell!" His bullhorn-amplified laughter blasted Sam's ears.
Sam came out of his hiding place in a hut and climbed the wall on the edge of the water. The boat had stopped and let down a long gangplank on cables to permit the traitors to come aboard. He heard a voice below him and looked down. There was Joe, his reddish hairs black with water except where the blood was starting to appear again.
"Lothar and Firebrath and Thyrano and Johnthton made it," he said. "How you feel, Tham?"
Sam sat down on the hard-packed dirt and said, "If it would do any good, I'd kill myself. But this world is hell, Joe, genuine hell. You can't even commit a decent suicide. You wake up the next day, and there you are with your problems stuck on you with glue or stuck... well, never mind." "Vhat do ve do now, Tham?"
Sam did not reply for a long time. If he couldn't have Livy, Cyrano could not have her, either. He could endure the thought of having lost her if she was not where he could see her.
Later, the shame at exulting in Cyrano's loss would come.
Not now. He was too stunned. The loss of the boat had been even a greater shock than seeing Livy killed.
After all these years of hard work, of grief, of betrayal, of planning, of hurting, of ... of ... It was too much to bear.
Joe was grieved to see him cry, but he sat patiently by until Sam's tears had quit flowing. Then he said, "Do ve thtart building another boat, Tham?"
Sam Clemens rose to his feet. The gangplank was being drawn up by the electromechanical machinery of his fabulous Riverboat. Whistles were shrilling exultantly, and bells were clanging, John would still be laughing. He might even be watching Sam through a telescope. Sam shook his fist, hoping that John was watching him.
"I'll get you yet, traitor John!" he howled. "I'll build another boat, and I'll catch up with you! I don't care what obstacles I encounter or who gets in my way! I'll run you down, John, and I'll blast your stolen boat out of The River with my boat! Nobody, absolutely nobody, the Stranger, the Devil, God, nobody, no matter what his powers, is going to stop me! "Some day, John! Some day!"

 

POSTSCRIPT

 

Volume III of the Riverworld series will take Sam Clemens all the way up The River with Richard Francis Burton and the rest of The Twelve to the Misty Tower and the secret of the Ethicals. Technological Note: Potassium nitrate is prepared on the Riverworld by feeding a certain type of earthworm human excrement. The end product of this diet is crystallized potassium nitrate, which, mixed with charcoal and sulfur, makes black gunpowder.

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