Killer What?



            Dan Fransworth stood over the dead body, calculating what to do.  It was springtime and he had been planting seeds on the small island of usable soil that he and his family had created around his home when he had noticed the corpse laying near the edge of the sandy expanse of natural terrain beyond.  One look at the remains revealed that the unfortunate soul's death was not from natural causes.  The corpse was that of a young man dressed in green overalls, who had a mortal wound to his throat and a look of horror on his face as his unseeing eyes stared at the clear blue sky above.  And he was a stranger.  Dan wondered what a stranger was doing on the edge of his claim.  He figured he could leave the body where it lay and report it.  That would mean going to town while the body lay where it was.  Dan did not have time to go to town, not when there was planting to be done and he had four children to feed.  He could recycle the body and mind his own business.  He had to make his own soil in order to grow anything and the body could be part of the mix.  That's what typically happened to the dead.  People mourned the dead as much as ever, but soil is soil.  But then, he would never find out who the stranger was or what had happened to him.  Could mean a threat to his family.  It would also be a nasty thing to do to anyone who knew and cared about the man who had died.  They deserved to know why he had disappeared.  Better tell Nittie, he concluded.

            Dan left the body, gathered his tools and went to look for his wife. Normally, he left his tools where he had been working as nobody was around to take them, but now he was not so sure.  He left his tools in a pile inside the shed attached to his house and found his wife in the back, checking and cleaning the water system.  Their youngest daughter Tam was with her.  She was only three, too young to be unsupervised, and had questions about everything, which her mother was answering as she worked.  Natasha, Nittie to her friends, was a sturdy blond woman who had acquired the lean look and weathered face of a settler, as had Dan. She looked up from her work and saw her husband.

            "What's wrong?" she asked.  She could see that her husband was tense.

            "We need to talk," Dan said quietly.  He knew she would understand that what he had to say was not something for innocent ears.

            Nittie hastily sealed the water tank she had been examining and took Tam into the house while gently answering the child's protests.  Dan followed.  Soon, Nittie and Dan were in their kitchen while Tam was in the other room.  Nittie prompted her husband with a concerned look.

            "There's a dead stranger on the edge of the new field," Dan blurted. He was always a little surprised to hear his wife swear.  She was normally gentle and relaxed no matter what. 

            She sighed, sounding frustrated.  "How fresh is it?" she asked with an intense look.  Dan hesitated.  He had not thought to determine that.

            "Few days I guess," he speculated.

            "We don't have time to go to town," she pointed out.

            "Yeah," he agreed.

            "We could add him to our soil," she proposed quietly, as if planning a crime.

            Although the same thought had occurred to him, it sounded ghoulish coming from someone else.  "We should tell someone," he countered.  "And it looks like maybe someone did him in.  Someone who might still be around."

            Dan could tell by her face that she had dropped disposing of the body as an option, although he knew she was thinking along the same lines he had been. If they were to survive, the family could not just skip planting food.  "One of us could visit the Jenners," she suggested.

            "Yeah," Dan said, mulling it over.  The Jenners were the nearest neighbors.  On the one hand, they were doing well enough to afford a connection to a local internet which Dan could use to report the dead man's presence, but on the other hand, traveling to their claim would take a day and then some. There and back would mean spending three days and two nights traveling instead of working at home.  And he had no way of contacting the Jenners to let them know he was coming, which meant that there would be no guarantee that they would be home when he arrived.  "Um, we do need to finish planting," he decided.

            "But what do we do with the body?" Nittie asked.

            "Nothing for now," Dan concluded.  "Hopefully, someone will come looking for him.  If not, we can deal with it after the planting."

            Nittie wrinkled her nose.  "Just leave him out there?" she gripped.  She glanced in the direction of the other room where Tam was playing.  "The children will see him."

            "I know, sweetie," Dan mumbled.  "And we will have to be watchful."

            Nittie's look of realization backed up his sentiment.  "Not just for anyone trying to find him, but for anyone up to no good," she calculated.  "We'll have to lock up and have lookouts."  Her face was grim with the knowledge that they could not be as relaxed as they had been when they knew they were alone on their claim.

            "The children and I can take turns watching from the roof," Dan pointed out.  His roof was equipped with a flat surface surrounded by a railing, where they had placed some outdoor furniture.  His children Steven, Cass and Jeena were old enough to watch and raise an alarm if they saw someone.

            Nittie began to list things to do.  "We'll need to check all the doors and keep the kids inside, make sure the guns are charged, secure all our tools..."

            "How much power do we have?" Dan asked.  The family had solar panels and wind turbines set up near the house and stored the electricity in batteries until needed.  Dan squatted and opened a cabinet next to the stove, checking the meter attached to a pair of house batteries.  "There's plenty," he said, relieved. 

            "We'll be ready to defend ourselves," Nittie observed.  She was already in the hallway, opening the gun cabinet with her key.  Moving with intent, Nittie strode over and squatted next to her husband with a zap gun in each hand.  The weapons were light-weight plastic longarms designed to deliver a beam of electricity when the trigger was pulled.  One quick pull would make a man collapse in a quivering heap, but the weapons were not lethal unless the user were to hold down the trigger and successfully keep the beam in contact with the target.  Dan took each weapon and removed the battery from where the ammunition would be held if it were a firearm, more or less, while his wife watched.  Each battery fit a port connected to the house batteries and had its own gauge on the underside.  Dan and his wife stood when they were finished.

            "Where are Jeena and the boys?"  Jeena was their oldest at fifteen.

            Nittie shrugged.  "I'll ring the bell," she decided.  Dan did not have to tell her that he would load the guns and come find her.  Nittie went out the front door and Dan could hear the bell ringing a moment later.  On a normal day, someone would ring the bell that the family had placed on a pole in their front yard when it was time to clean up and work out who would do what while making supper.  The children would know something was wrong when they heard it at an odd time of day.

            "Mommy's ringing the bell?"  Tam had come into the kitchen, her eyes wide.

            "Yes, sweetie," Dan said gently.  He thought for a moment.  "Something bad might be happening and we need to have a family talk." She just stood there, looking frightened.  "There might be strangers around," he explained.  "Might be nothing, but you know that Daddy likes to be careful."

            She giggled with relief.  "The planting's not bad!"

            Dan realized that one year's bad spring planting, which meant extra work and tight rationing, was the only hardship his little daughter had experienced. "The planting's fine," he reassured here.  "This is a different thing."  He checked the batteries, sitting down and getting comfortable in the process.  Tam walked over and climbed on him, putting her feet on his thighs and one hand on his shoulder.  "Will we be alright?"

            "Sure," said Dan.  "Might be nothing, nothing at all, sweetie.  We will just have to be careful for a while, just in case."

            "In case of what?" she prodded.

            Dan calculated.  "Uh, we'll have to lock the doors, put the tools away, keep watch and Mommy and Daddy will keep the zappers handy.  Just to be careful, you see."

            "Why?" The little girl asked.  Daddy had not answered her question.

            Dan thought for a moment about how to explain the situation to a young child without frightening her.  "When someone is a stranger, you don't know if they will cause you a problem or not. Most people will not and a person would have no reason to be unfriendly, but we can be careful without causing someone else a problem."  Tam nodded and Dan could see another question coming.

            "How do you know there are strangers?" Tam asked.

            "Um," Dan intoned with hesitation.  He decided to tell her.  He wanted to protect the girl's innocence but she was bound to find out anyway.  "Sweetie, uh," he began, uncomfortable.  "I found a dead man just outside our claim."  To his surprise she barely reacted, as if corpses turned up every day.  He paused, thinking of what else to say.

            "Dead as a fried chicken?" Tam asked.  Living on a farm, she had seen a live animal being made into food. She had had questions about that, too.

            "Looks like somebody made him dead, maybe," he said as gently as he could, looking at the floor.

            Tam was shocked.  "Someone made a person dead?"

            Dan's voice became defensive.  "That might be what happened, Sweetie.  We don't know.  It could have been an accident or something, but we still need to be careful."

            Tam just looked at him, frightened.  He realized that life had changed for her as she had been given a new and scary realization.

            "Dan?"  It was Nittie.  Dan checked the guns and stood, picking them up.

            Nittie had come to find him.  Jeena, Steven and Cass were clustered around her as if for protection.  She glanced at Tam and their eyes met.

            Dan walked to his wife.  "I told her," he said quietly.  She nodded and he handed her a zap gun.

            "We should talk," she decided.

            Dan knew what she meant.  The family went into the main room where chairs and a couch faced each other and a computer was set up on a desk, facing the wall as if being punished.  It was unplugged as the family had a limited supply of electricity, but was still a useful device occasionally.  Dan took a seat, sitting up straight rather than reclining.  Jeena and the boys each took a chair and Nittie sat on the couch.  Tam came and sat next to her, resting her little head on her mother's shoulder.  Nittie put one arm around her daughter and held the zap gun, pointed toward the ceiling, with the other.  As soon as all were settled, Dan spoke.

            "I found a dead man in the desert, within sight of our claim," he began.  "Might have been murdered, might not."  He paused.  His family looked concerned but confident and Dan was relieved to see that none of them seemed about to respond irrationally.  Tam was watching, but she knew enough to keep quiet during a talk.  "It's possible that there is a killer in the area. For now, we will have to take precautions."  He saw Nittie nod in agreement.  "One of us will have to keep watch on the roof and ring the bell if we see anyone and all tools are to be locked up when not being used."  He held up the zap gun which had been draped across his lap.  "Your mother and I will keep a gun handy in case of trouble.  Also, we will all have to change our work schedule.  When working outside, we need to stick together."  Dan paused and his look prompted responses.

            "What did you do with the body?" Jeena asked, looking unpleasant.

            "I left it were it was," Dan answered.  "And I want all of you to stay away from it.  There might be an investigation, so we should leave it as it is."

            "This is why we need an internet connection," Jeena interjected.

            "It costs too much to have a cable strung from town," Cass countered cuttingly.

            "Everyone else is connected to an internet," Jeena said with a pout.

            "Not this far from town", he answered.  "You just want it so you can waste our power talking to strangers!"

            "Shut up, Dork!"  Jeena's teenaged voice had become shrill.

            "Brat!" Cass responded.

            "Hey!" Dan said sharply.  Jeena and Cass stopped fighting immediately.  "Cassimere Fransworth, that is no way to talk to your sister," he grumbled.  "And we're not getting an internet connection.  We don't have enough money or power.  Telling your brother to shut up and calling him names will not change that."

            "We will do the planting?" Steven asked.

            "We do need to," Dan pointed out, calming himself.  He saw agreement in the faces of his family.  They all knew it was necessary to finish planting on time, so that their plants would not be too young to survive hot weather.  It was a lesson the family had already learned, once.

            "And we should have guns," Steven suggested tentatively.  "Especially when we're on watch."

            "Nice try, Steven," Dan scolded.  "Guns are for adults only."

            "You know the rules," Nittie added, backing her husband.

            "What do we do if a stranger comes?" Steven asked.  "Make faces?"

            "You let us handle it," Nittie said in a gentle but cross tone.

            "If you are on watch, ring the bell.  The rest of the time we stick together and if you are not within sight of me or your mother, come get one of us."  Dan thought for a moment.  "And don't just assume any stranger is a problem.  Someone might come looking for the unfortunate man and we could give the impression that we did him in if we run off any strangers."

            Jeena brightened.  "Do you think the militia will come by?"

            Cass laughed derisively and received a disapproving look from his mother.

            "Maybe," Dan said.  He did not add that he wished he could send them an e-mail.

            "Mommy", Tam piped up.

            Nittie shifted slightly to look at her.  "Yes, sweetie?"

            "I'm hungry," she said.

            Nittie stood and held the zap gun casually.  Who's had lunch.  Nobody answered and soon they had moved to the kitchen and were negotiating over chores, which meant discussing who would do what while planting as well.  Dan sat waiting at the table, looking out the window and calculating.  He figured that the family would have to do one chore at a time instead of dividing them up the way they usually did, if everyone was going to be in the same place at the same time.  And they would always be one person short, since someone would have to be on watch.  Out the window, he could see the patch of topsoil that the family had created in the desert.  It grew larger every year, but it still looked small and out-of-place from where he sat.  The whole planet pretty much looked the same, or it had until people had arrived.  Nothing but sand and jagged rock and no colors but brown, gray and yellow.  Dan remembered the Earth, which he had left behind.  It had been a beautiful green and blue but people seemed to be turning it gray using buildings and pavement.  Here, people were turning the planet green, or so he hoped.

            "What's funny?" Jeena asked, interrupting his thoughts.

            "Just thinking about Earth," Dan said.  He had told her about the Earth many times as he had raised her.  Both of them looked out the window thoughtfully.  The claim was not green, yet, but black.  A carpet of topsoil had been spread over the desert, with the irrigation system running through it like veins through a hand.  That was a chore that needed doing, fixing up the irrigation system and making absolutely sure that none of the pipes were clogged or leaking.

            "Will we ever be able to go back?" Jeena asked.  She asked him that every now and then, usually when she was disappointed.

            Dan chuckled.  He had left Earth in an experimental spacecraft sponsored by the Colonization and Natural Terraforming Corporation.  It was one of the first spacecraft that could go faster than light, which meant nearly instantiations travel, and it had been thrown at a far away planet that looked Earth-like enough to be habitable.  He knew that the company had sent a spacecraft full of colonists once before, but it had been an older vessel and was missing and presumed lost.  Dan had been alone among strangers until he met Natasha and was seduced by her dream of becoming something like a cowgirl-rancher on a vast frontier.  After arriving on their new world, the two of them had really clicked together as the passengers and crew had disassembled their spacecraft and salvaged anything useful.  They had worked together during the watering.  There was no water on the surface, so the people had to find it where it hid underground as if it were oil or something.  The greedy desert air still lapped up water quickly if one was not careful and it never rained.  A cloud in the sky was a major accomplishment.  When it came time for the people to choose where to live, Dan had proposed.  He had no wedding ring and if there were any preachers on the planet, he did not know it.  Nittie could not have cared less.  She had said "I do" on the spot and embraced him.  Jeena had been conceived that night in one of the makeshift homes that someone had left behind for anyone who needed it.  A local surveyor had borrowed one of the shuttles that had been on board the CANT spacecraft and helped them stake a claim and move.  "I don't think anyone will be able to go back," Dan said with a gentle smile.

            Nittie sat down at the table while Steven and Cass served chicken and cabbage, with a cup of water.  "I wish you could be happy here."  Nittie looked slightly hurt.

            "Earth sucks!" Cass commented.

            "Language!" Nittie scolded while Jeena played with her food.

            "Grace," Dan reminded.  The family bowed their heads as he gave thanks for simple food, a simple life and a simple planet.  Dan had killed the chicken himself the day before.  She was an old hen who had spent her life in the chicken corral by the house.  The birds spent the day roosting in a shed made of the same composite stone material as the house. Some of the local minerals could be mixed, heated, shaped into anything and allowed to harden.  It was all they had to build with.  The chickens only came out at night and the corral was just a sandy area around the shed.  The only thing that kept the chickens from escaping was the harshness of the surrounding land and the promise of food from the same family that took their eggs regularly.  Of course, their live feed came from the cockroach cellar where leftovers went when they were too old to eat. The chickens gobbled up the scavenging insects with enthusiasm.  As he ate, Dan suppressed the urge to wonder how many cockroaches that hen had gobbled up on the way from hatching to his plate.

            After eating, the family worked out the details while cleaning up.  Steven eventually agreed to take the first watch and went to the roof.  Nittie and the others worked on the irrigation system as Dan planted seeds nearby while watching Tam.  They went inside together when the sun was about to set but decided against posting a watch at night.  Anyone on watch would not be able to see, so they locked up and agreed to sleep in the family room.

            The family adopted the new routine and went to work.  They were alerted by the sound of an aircraft two days later.  The distant noise made them pause and look around while they were spread over one field, digging holes and planting seeds.  It sounded like a windstorm, but it was a calm day and the wrong season.  As the source of the sound approached, they were able to recognize it as a shuttle engine and could soon see the combination fixed-wing aircraft and short-range spacecraft moving through the sky toward them.  As far as they knew, the only aircraft on the planet were two shuttles, both of which were operated by militia, although it was commonplace for them to let citizens borrow a shuttle whenever the need arose.

            The sound of the bell ringing mixed with the noise of the aircraft.  Jeena was taking her turn on watch and the rest of the family was together, so Dan and Nittie hurried to the front of the house while herding the other children.  Jeena was standing by the bell when they arrived.  Meanwhile, the shuttle moved overhead, lower than would be expected if it were simply passing by, and turned.  Jeena pointed at the shuttle with urgency.

            "Seen anything else?" Dan asked.

            "Just the shuttle," she said simply, shaking her head.  Dan nodded.

            Nittie was watching with her hand shading her eyes.  "What are they doing?"

            "Searching," Steven said, making the observation sound ominous. "Don't know whose on board."

            Dan fidgeted with the zap gun he was carrying.  "Everyone inside," he commanded.  "I'll go."

            Nittie opened the front door and waited with a look of expectation.  The children hesitated.  Jeena had picked up Tam and they all watched as the shuttle passed low overhead, turned and hovered near where the corpse had lay undisturbed since Dan had found it.  Dan started to walk in that direction while the rest of the family went inside.  As Dan strode toward it, the shuttle landed and he could hear the engines idle.

            By the time he arrived, Dan could see three men in uniform standing around the corpse.  Dark blue uniforms and straight-brimmed hats meant local militia.  The three were armed with zap guns, handguns unlike Dan's, which were in their hands while they stood watching as a fourth man, dressed in civilian clothing, squatted over the body.  Dan was relieved to see that they had arrived.  One of the militia men waved and started to walk toward Dan.

            "Ah, hey Joe," Dan said, recognizing him.

            "Dan," Joe said with a smile.  He paused to holster his gun.  "Armed?"

            Dan moved his gun so that he held it by the butt with the business end pointed over his shoulder.  "Took up the habit after I saw that body," he explained.  "I have a family."

            Joe smirked in response.

            "Don't know what a stranger was doing here," Dan wondered out loud. "I thought I knew everyone."  Behind Joe, the man in civilian cloths stood and looked in their direction before walking over.  The other two militiamen, who Dan did not recognize, stayed where they were.

            "Not since that ship arrived," Joe pointed out.

            "Ship?" Dan asked, wrinkling his forehead.

            "Haven't heard," Joe acknowledged.  "It landed near Adele's Landing without notice a couple of weeks ago.  CANT sent it.  They left Earth long before us, but it's an old ship and it took them years to get here.  About a hundred people on board."

            "We've been organizing claims for everyone," the man in civilian cloths said, having joined them.  "Bert Lanier," he added with a friendly smile and an extended hand. 

            "Dan," Dan said as he shook hands.  "I live nearby."  Bert was wearing work cloths and a set of binoculars hung on a strap around his neck. The lenses were long gone, but the equipment identified him as a surveyor.  When the ship Dan had come on had arrived, qualified personnel had been hired as surveyors.  They had organized usable land into claims, kept track of who would occupy each claim and mediated any disputes.  Apparently, they were doing the same job for the newcomers.

            "Fransworth?" Bert asked, letting Dan know he knew the area.  Dan nodded.

            "You found him?" Bert asked, gesturing to the corpse.

            "Yeah," Dan confirmed, expecting questions.

            "You didn't tell anyone?" Bert accused.

            Dan bristled slightly.  "No," he said.  He knew he was under no obligation to report anything and would have been within his rights to recycle the body.

            "His place is not wired," Joe added.  "To far."

            "But, um," Bert mumbled.

            "But what?" Dan asked with a forced smile.

            "Nothing," Bert conceded, also acting good-natured.  "His wife hired me to look for him."

            "Found him," Dan observed.  "We left the body alone."  He considered asking what more Bert wanted, but decided not to be snippy.

            "Know what happened to him?" Joe asked.  "I'm sure his wife will enter a complaint."

            Dan shook his head.  "He was stiff by the time I found him."       The callous comment made Bert wince, but he did not object.

            One of the militia men made a hand signal and Joe gestured in response. Dan and Bert both knew to be quiet and watch.  The militia man pointed. The men could see a rooster watching from a hiding place in a nearby cluster of rocks.  The militia man gestured with his gun.  "Yours?" Joe whispered.

            Dan shook his head.

            Bert squinted at the bird.  "Big one," he observed.  The rooster was about twice the size of a typical domesticated chicken.

            "Some of mine get away every now and then and breed wild," Dan explained quietly.  "Don't know how they get by in the desert."

            "Our ecology is expanding," Bert said.  He was enthusiastic enough not to keep his voice down.  As a surveyor, Bert had helped plan the colonization.  All CANT ships carried a variety of plants and animals for release.  Only a few plants had taken hold on the barren planet, but it was a start.  For any species of animal to make it as wildlife was exciting news, especially a bird.

            "I'm thinkin' of a free meal for us," Joe announced, lustfully. He did not bother to say it quietly. The rooster did not seem inclined to bolt, anyway.

            Dan chuckled.  "Go for it!"  Joe nodded to the other militia man, who took a moment to aim before pulling the trigger.  The zap gun made a brief static pop, the sound it was named after, as a blue-white beam connected the weapon's barrel to the rooster.  The bird flapped unevenly, causing it to roll onto it's side as it's body jerked. After a few convulsive twitches, it lay still and the militia man picked it up by one leg and began to carry his prize to the shuttle.  Suddenly, the bird came to life with a flurry of panicky motion.

            "Ah!" the man exclaimed, dropping the bird and swearing.  He looked at his hand, surprised to see a nasty gash on his wrist that the bird had given him.  With revenge on his mind, he took a quick shot at the rooster.  The bird raced upward, flapping.  Although unable to actually fly, the wild cock could have easily jumped over a grown man.  The bird landed and rolled on the ground, still unsteady from having been zapped once.  Both militia men took shots at it, but the bird avoided being hit by moving randomly and quickly.  It bolted with a terrified cluck.  The wounded militia man was chasing the free meal when Dan shouted "Down!"

            Both men dropped immediately as Dan took aim and shot.  His zap gun had more range and power than the sidearms that were popular with militia and townsfolk and he easily dropped the bird.  A militia man rolled to his feet and pounced on the cock with a vengeance.  As he carried it to the shuttle, one could see that the bird's neck had been broken by the way it's head hung unevenly.

            Joe was taking a look at the other militia man's wounded wrist.  "He got you pretty good, Gary," he observed. Dan put down his gun and produced a soft, cotton rag from a compartment on his tool belt.  Cotton was one of the crops he grew.  He went to the wounded man and said "Here" as he dabbed at the cut and then wrapped it, looking intently at the man's hand.

            "We have bandages at the house if you want that cleaned and dressed properly," Dan offered.

            Gary smiled.  "Thanks!"  Dan shrugged.  He picked up his zap gun and started to walk back to his claim.  "The rest of you are welcome to come along," he told them. They would have to wait for Gary anyway and it would have been unfriendly to just leave them out.

            Once they reached his house, Nittie and the children dropped what they were doing and followed.  Soon, Bert, Joe and the other militia man, Howard, were sitting at the table while Dan and Nittie changed the makeshift dressing on Gary's wrist using a bandage. Jeena, all smiles, had offered them water and a snack.  She was always enthusiastic to have someone outside the family to talk to.

            "Will you fellows be around while you investigate?" Jeena asked hopefully.

            "Maybe," Joe answered.  "Depends on what we find out."  His voice was neutral and he glanced at the teenaged girl's father.

            "Must be exciting serving in the militia," Jeena said.

            "Sometimes," Joe answered.

            "We're always recruiting," Howard added.  "Men and women."  He was a young man, five years older than Jeena at the most.

            She leaned forward.  "What happened to his hand?" she asked quietly.  The family had politely refrained from asking.

            Howard ginned an amused grin.  "A chicken got him."

            Jeena sobered slightly and nodded.

            "Do you see a lot of wild chickens," Bert asked.

            "One every now and then," Jeena answered. 

            "Have you seen anything else?" Bert was intensely curious.

            "Just bugs," Jeena responded.

            "There's a few plants growing outside our claim and we see insects and wild chickens occasionally," Steven added, guessing at what Bert wanted to know.

            "That's good news," Bert responded brightly.  Most of the planet is still barren and it's a relief to know that an ecology can get started.  Plants mean more oxygen.  Water too, maybe.  And the newcomers brought more plants and animals with them.

            "Newcomers?" Jeena asked.

            "A whole shipload of them arrived a week ago," Bert explained. "It's up to us to keep track of claims.  We were going to organize new claims on the edge of existing ones, but if an ecology is taking hold, they can take their pick of the entire planet and found new towns.  Also, some areas should be set aside to stay wild."

            "You mean we might have neighbors?" Jeena was excited.

            "Might," said Bert.

            "There's not much useful land here," Nittie added from across the room. She and Dan were done dressing Gary's wrist.  "Don't get your hopes up."

            "All that has yet to be worked out," Joe explained.  "When they arrived, their ship had been in space for years.  Sensors and communications were dead, so they just picked a spot and came down.  They crashed, kind of."

            "Were they hurt?"  Cass asked, worried.

            "You were there," Joe prompted.

            "Yup," Howard confirmed.  "No serious injuries.  They secured the ship for impact and put on their seatbelts before they came down.  Besides, the crash was not so bad.  Skidded a bit."  He chuckled.  "I was on duty when it happened.  The whole town heard it.  Whoosh!  Bam!  No one saw it coming.  Three of us hauled ah... ourselves to the crash site and opened a hatch.  Sure surprised the passengers.  They didn't know anyone was on this planet and they put their hands in the air when they saw that we had guns.  Some of them laid down on the floor."

            "What did you do?" Jeena asked, delighted to hear a story.

            "First we asked if they spoke English," Howard continued.  "Most did.  Then we offered to help and asked if people were hurt.  We also tried to explain who we were. They asked if we were something called soldiers or cops."

            "Police or military," Dan interjected.  "Earth jobs."

            "They were afraid we were going to detain them."  Howard favored his audience with a mock-perplexed look.

            "Why?" Steven asked sharply.

            "They seemed to think that we have laws, which they broke when they crash-landed."

            "They thought they crashed their space ship into someone's law?" Jeena asked, trying to sound like she knew what a law is.  The adults snickered and Steven gave her a dirty look.

            "Back on Earth, a law is a rule made by the government and breaking one is something like violating another person's rights," Bert explained, grinning.  "There were a lot of them and people would be punished if they did not obey the laws.  Usually by detaining them in a prison."

            "They had laws for everything, right down to where you could plant a tree," Nittie added, disapprovingly.

            "Wouldn't that violate the rights of the person being detained?" Steven protested.

            "It was decided in court," Bert pointed out.  "Instead of making an agreement between people and having the militia enforce it, a jury would say someone was guilty of breaking a law and then a judge, something like our court clerk, would make the punishment official."

            "They must have had a lot of trials," Cass observed.

            "Courts would be operating all day and people still had to wait for their turn," Dan commented.

            "And there were professional lawyers," Bert reminisced.  The children looked curious.  "A lawyer is a person who speaks for you in court," he added.

            "People weren't allowed to talk?" Steven asked.

            "They were," Joe said.  "But the rules were so complicated that people had to go to school and learn them all.  If you didn't know them, you could end up being punished by mistake."

            "Sounds like a lot of extra work," Steven said with a pout.

            "And cost," Bert added.

            "Earth sounds strange," Jeena said, intrigued.

            "You would take a gun with you and they would detain you forever," Steven taunted.

            "Right!" Jeena snorted.

            "That is right," Nittie corrected.  "It's one reason why so many people leave."

            "Earth people must defend themselves somehow," Jeena argued.  "Or anyone with a gun could do whatever they wanted."

            "Police and soldiers were allowed to have guns," Dan pointed out. "Everyone else had to go to them for protection."

            "What's a soldier?" Cass asked.

            "Something like militia," Joe explained.  "On Earth, there were different governments making laws, each with it's own jurisdiction, and they would fight if they had a disagreement.  Soldiers did the fighting."

            "They couldn't just hire a mediator?" Steven wondered.

            "They would usually try to work things out, but they did not always succeed," Joe answered.  "There were also sneak attacks on occasion, so soldiers had to be ready all the time."

            "I'm glad we live here!" Steven declared.  There was an awkward silence.

            "Did the newcomers bring soil?" Dan asked, greedily.

            "A little," Howard said.  "They brought a lot of plants and animals we've never seen and we're helping them incubate.  They had some live domestic animals on board, too.  I tried meat from something called a pig and it was really good."

            "They gave copies of their inventory to any of us surveyors who were willing to help them work out claims.  They have live pigs and sheep, which also means wool for clothing. They also have a nice supply of fertilized eggs ready to grow and they brought the equipment with them.  Birds, bugs, spiders, lizards, fish, cattle, horses, rabbits, ducks, turkeys, the list goes on."

            Dan thought for a moment.  "A horse would be nice."

            "What's a horse?" Jeena asked.

            "A big animal that can be trained to help with the chores," Nittie said with a grin.

            "Like a robot?" Jeena wondered.

            "Better," Nittie answered.  "People also train them to be ridden, so you can go places faster than walking."

            "They must be huge," Cass observed.

            "Did they bring robots?" Steven asked.

            "No, but they have an on-board factory and might be able to make some," Howard answered.

            Dan shook his head.  "Any robot big enough to be useful uses more power than it's worth," he groused. "We all found that out early on."  Bert nodded in agreement.

            "We'd be better off with a horse," Nittie observed, looking to her husband.

            "Still have to grow enough to feed the animal," Dan countered.

            "They eat grass," Nittie pointed out.  "And they make manure."

            "I hope we can have a horse," Dan conceded.

            "It'll be a while before they're available," Bert said.  "They're growing the eggs, but they will have to raise the animals and start breeding them before they'll be able to sell any.  And we don't have anyone who knows how to train a horse."

            Nittie began laughing.  "I've worked with horses.  I'm not an expert or anything, but I might know enough."

            Bert's face lit up.  "Do you have time to help?"

            "I should after planting, definitely after harvest," she decided. "Take that long to grow foals, won't it?"

            "Longer," Bert responded with a nod.  "I should be able to get you hired."

            "And they can pick you up in a shuttle," Joe added.  "The newcomers have eight of 'em."

            "I'll do it for pick of the litter," Nittie offered.

            "Sweetness," Dan began.  "We still don't know if we can feed a horse."

            "I'll throw in seeds so you can grow hay or something to help feed your horse. Water, too.  If the newcomers won't take the deal, I'll pay for it myself.  Worth it to have trained horses."

            "You have yourself a deal," Dan said.  He looked to the militia men.  "You witnessed the bargain?"

            "Absolutely," Gary said.  The other militia men nodded.

            Gary turned to Nittie and Dan.  "Thank you," he said, indicating his bandage.  The two of them leered at him.  Bert and the militia men stood and expressed their gratitude for the family's hospitality as well.  Jeena followed them to the front door and took Howard aside.

            "Will you be coming back," she asked with a grin.

            "Probably," Howard answered.  "Depends on how our investigation goes.  If not, maybe I'll see you again when your mother comes to train the horses."

            "I go to town any chance I get," Jeena said.

            Joe cleared his throat.  He was outside with Gary and Bert, waiting for Howard.  The Fransworth family went back to work while Bert and the militia men headed toward the shuttle.  At Bert's Request, they wrapped the body and loaded it into the shuttle's cargo bay before flying back to where they had come from, which was Adele's Landing, the closest settlement to the Fransworth claim.  The shuttle put down in the fenced yard outside the militia house, an ordinary residence that the militia had converted into a headquarters.  Bert shook hands with Joe, Gary and Howard in turn and thanked them for their help before explaining that he had to meet with his client.  Meanwhile, the militia men contacted a local funeral home and made arrangements to store the body.

            Bert went back to his office, which was a room in his home with a door leading to the street.  A sign said "OPEN, come in unless the door is locked."  When he arrived, Rashta Almira was waiting quietly in a seat next to the door.  She rose when he entered and Bert could see by her expression that she was bracing herself for bad news.  Their eyes met and Bert let his sympathetic feelings show.

            He ushered her into the seat in front of his desk and sat across from her. She was a plump, middle-aged woman who had been from India before leaving Earth, with the traditional red mark on her forehead indicating that she was a married woman, dressed in denim overalls augmented with a light green cloth around her shoulders.  She sat and Bert took a chair across from her.  She gave him a worried look.

            "We have found your husband's body," Bert said as gently as he could. He had let her know that a body had been sighted before leaving to investigate.

            "You are sure?" she asked in an unsteady voice.

            "Nearly certain," Bert answered.  "The militia may ask you to identify the body."  She began to cry and Bert went to his desk and found a soft cotton cloth to offer her.  As she wiped her eyes, Bert put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her.

            "I want to see my husband," she declared quietly after composing herself.

            Bert nodded with understanding eyes.  "His body has been brought here by shuttle.  Militia procedure is to hire a local funeral home to store remains," Bert explained as gently has he could.  "With your permission, of course."

            She breathed deep.  "Will they not keep him as evidence?"

            "No," Bert responded.  "Actually, that's up to you as next of kin.  If you'd like, I'll arrange it with the funeral home on your behalf."

            "Thank you," she answered.  "Can you tell me what happened to him."

            "Um," Bert hesitated.  He did not want to blurt out that her husband's throat had been cut.

            "I want to know," she persisted.

            Bert thought about how to put it.  "He was found with a fatal injury to his throat."  She cringed only slightly.  "We do not know how it happened."

            "No one saw?" she asked.

            "A local farmer found the body but left it untouched," Bert told her. "We spoke to him."

            Mrs. Almira stiffened with anger.  "He did not report it!" she observed, shocked.  "Why has he not been arrested?"

            Bert sat back.  "He's under no obligation," he tried to explain as the widow gave him a dirty look.  "Besides, he is not connected to an internet and there's no way for him to contact town.  It's not unusual here."

            "Under no obligation!" she repeated.  "I don't understand.  How can the police just let someone leave my husband laying dead?" She was upset but controlled, careful not to lose her temper and Bert's cooperation along with it.

            "The militia are not police like they have back on Earth," Bert informed her in an apologetic tone.  "We don't have police here.  Our militia are volunteers with the same rights and freedoms as anyone else. No more or less."

            "I can do nothing?" she said.  She was starting to cry again.

            "May I explain?" he asked gently.

            "Please," she prompted, looking to him for answers.

            "Each militia serves it's subscribers and is funded by subscription fees and donations in some cases.  It's part of the annual fee that people agree to pay when they accept citizenship in a town or jurisdiction, along with utilities and other services.  When a citizen feels that there has been a violation, the militia's job is to record the complaint, investigate and store evidence.  Of course, anyone can investigate on their own or hire someone and it is customary for militia men to cooperate with anyone investigating the same case, including militia from other jurisdictions.  Militia men also patrol and keep the peace.  They have the same freedom to act as anyone and any resulting complaints are worked out later."  Mrs. Almira was listening, thoughtfully.  "It's not as formal a system as on Earth, with written laws, police and judges, but it works for us.  When we arrived, we agreed to recognize four basic rights, as opposed to an Earth-type legal system.  Right to life, which includes freedom from any sort of physical harm, right to liberty, to make one's own decisions so long as one does not violate someone else's rights, the right to own property, including the ability to make the rules in one's own home or establishment, and the right to honesty, which applies to any agreement or contract."

            Mrs. Almira frowned at the floor thoughtfully as she absorbed what she had been told.  "I'm not a citizen," she pointed out.

            "I am," Bert said.  "Any citizen can complain about any violation, against themselves or others, although it is customary for citizens to try to work things out first if possible. In fact, our militia has already recorded my complaint that your husband may have been murdered.  We're working on it together."

            She brightened slightly.  "They can investigate now.  No evidence required?"

            "The militia has a duty to record all complaints," Bert answered. "Whether or not they investigate and for how long is entirely up to them."

            "And they want me to identify my husband?" she asked.

            "That's part of the investigation," Bert said delicately.  "A recorded identification would be useful, but you don't have to."

            "I want to," she said with intense eyes.

            "You're sure?" Bert asked.  "He's, um."

            Her face softened.  "I will feel better if I see him.  I need to be sure it is him and if he was murdered, I want to find the person took him from me!"  She sniffed and blinked, causing Bert to look away.  She's a tough lady, he thought.

            Bert led Mrs. Almira to the militia headquarters and through the front door to a desk just inside, where a militia man on duty was seated.  The uniformed man smiled in greeting as they entered, reached for his palmtop computer and activated it's camera.

            "Hey," Bert greeted the man.  "I'm Albert Lanier and this is Rashta Almira.  She's here to identify her husband's body."  Bert was addressing the man's camera, as checking in was a formality at militia headquarters.

            The militia man sobered slightly and addressed Mrs. Almira.  "I'm sorry to hear about your husband."  He waited until she thanked him before continuing.  "Ma'am, um" he began, uncomfortable.  "Your husband is waiting to be picked up by Robertano's Mortuary.  Um, he's in the basement."

            "Can you show me?" Mrs. Almira asked.

            The man looked down and mumbled, "I can't leave the desk unattended when I'm on duty."

            "I know the way," Bert pointed out.  He led the widow down the stairs to the basement, where her husband's corpse lay in a bag on a table.  Joe sat nearby.  He rose as the two entered the room.  Bert introduced Mrs. Almira and Joe expressed his condolences.

            Joe glanced at Bert and then back to the widow.  "You're sure you want to see him?"

            She nodded and Joe untied the rough cotton bag and opened it just enough to make the corpse's face visible.  Mrs. Almira began to cry quietly.  Bert put an arm around her but, after a moment, she stepped forward with a determined look and opened the bag further.  She examined the fatal wound on her husband's neck and looked up at the two men, her eyes smoldering with controlled rage.

            "His throat has been slashed," she concluded.

            "We have yet..." Joe said before she interrupted him.

            "I will have justice for my husband," she demanded.  "If you will not give it to me, I will take it for myself."

            Bert stepped forward, stood very close to her with his head bowed and whispered, "We will uncover the truth."  He turned to Joe and prompted him with a look.

            "I'll record a formal complaint whenever you're ready," he offered.

            "How do I..." Mrs. Almira asked.

            Joe took his palmtop from his belt and held it up.  "Look into the camera and say what you need to."

            She took a deep breath.  "My husband has been killed.  He was found on someone's property, someone who just left him laying where he had fallen for days with his throat slashed.  I do not know who else could have killed him."

            Joe paused the camera.  "That's enough for a complaint," he decided.  "I would like to interview you for our investigation but be advised that the complaint and interview will be saved as evidence."

            "Certainly," she said.

            "We could go to Adele's," Bert suggested.  "It's on me if we do."

            Joe shook his head.  "I'll pay.  Since we're doing an interview, I'll be reimbursed with militia funds."

            "Thank you, that would be more comfortable," Mrs. Almira said.

            The three of them walked to Adele's Diner, which was just down the street from militia headquarters.  It was a basic restaurant that a woman,  Adele, had established after the first ship had landed.  Other people had settled nearby and shared their resources as they farmed for subsistence.  As the settlement was organized into a town, they had named the place after their only restaurant, which was being used as a meeting hall.  It was a diner by day and a bar by night, surrounded by a jumble of residences along a makeshift street constructed of flat stones, many of which also housed stores.  The inside was one large room with a bar along three of the four walls and tables placed in the middle.  Most of the chairs had been looted from the first spaceship and re-purposed for restaurant use.  A sign by the door said "Please seat yourself," and another, less conspicuous sign said, "Anyone who starts trouble will have to leave."

            Bert led them to an unoccupied table and held a chair for Mrs. Almira while Joe placed his palmtop on the back of an empty chair so that it's camera would record the three of them. 

            "Ready?" Joe asked.  Mrs. Almira nodded.

            "For the record, what was your husband's reason for traveling into the area where his body was found?"  Joe asked.

            "I am not sure," she answered.  "I know that he was looking for a place for us to make a home. We are newcomers and we do not know where we will live, yet."  Most newcomers were living in the passenger cabins of their spacecraft and were still working out the sale of everything they had brought with them, how to divide up the credits they would receive and which local banks would keep track of their accounts.  Most people living in a town found it convenient to use bank credits, which meant online banking with a palmtop, although bartering for goods was a popular alternative, especially for folks who did not go to town often or were not connected to an internet.

            Joe turned and spoke to the computer.  "So he was most likely having a look at the area for future reference."  He turned back to Mrs. Almira. "Was there anyone who he did not get along with?"

            She shook her head.  "My husband was a gentle man.  If he did not like someone, he would simply avoid that person."

            "Difficult to do onboard a spacecraft," Joe pointed out.

            A waitress had walked over and gestured for attention.  "Hey, Rashta."

            "Jill?" Mrs. Almira said warmly.  "I did not know you worked here."

            "Just started three days ago.  I was sick of my parents cabin and Adele is renting me her guest room," the waitress answered.  She was a young lady dressed in Earth-style blue jeans and a tee shirt, with the close-cropped hair and un-tanned skin of a newcomer.  "Joe, Bert, nice to see you again."

            "Hey," Joe responded.

            "Pleasure," Bert added.

            Jill readied a palm-sized chalkboard.  "What would you like."

             "What's the house brew like today?" Bert asked.  House brew was an improvised alcoholic beverage that vaguely resembled beer without carbonation.  Adele distilled it herself on the premises.

            "Fruity," Jill said.  "Adele scored oranges a few days ago."

            "I, Um," Bert turned to Mrs. Almira.  "Is it OK with you if I have a brew?  I am on your time."

            She shrugged.  "Up to you."  Bert nodded to the waitress, who was scribbling.

            "I'm on duty, so I'll have orange juice," Joe added.

            "Tea?"  Mrs. Almira asked.

            "Sorry, we're out of tea," Jill said.

            "Brew," Mrs. Almira decided.

            "Two house brews and a orange juice," Jill confirmed.  "Anything else?"

            "For now, no," Bert said, looking to his companions for confirmation.

            Jill paused and turned to Mrs. Almira.  "Look, um," she began.  "We're all sorry to hear about Miguel."

            The widow smiled and fidgeted slightly.

            Jill lowered her voice.  "Have you found out what happened?"

            "We're still investigating," Joe protested for all to hear.  He glanced around, anticipating that other patrons were eavesdropping and ready to acquire something to gossip about.  The place was not crowded.  A local merchant sat alone at the bar, his attention on his palmtop, and four young people at a nearby table returned his look.

            Jill looked slightly disappointed but nodded before heading for the kitchen.

            Joe turned to Mrs. Almira.  "So, your husband did not have a problem with anyone."

            "If he was involved in a conflict that may have led to a fight, I'm sure he would have told me about it," she answered.

            Joe thought for a moment.  "Who did he tell that he was looking for a claim?" he asked.

            Mrs. Almira's eyes became intense.  "I do not know," she said in a frustrated tone.  "Look, I think we can guess what happened.  That farmer killed my husband, or he is protecting someone in his family."

            "Doubtful," Joe said.  I've known Dan and Natasha Fransworth since before we landed here.  Neither of them would just kill someone.

            Mrs. Almira sighed a frustrated, hissing sound.

            "A murderer would have disposed of the body," Bert added.  "He had plenty of time and they make their own topsoil."

            "And people here know each other and don't want to listen to a new person," she added, spitefully.

            Bert and Joe glanced at each other.  "We don't want to make hasty accusations," Bert said gently. "An investigation will find the truth."

            The widow steadied herself and looked at the table in concentration. When she spoke, she addressed Joe's computer and it's camera.  "All I know is that we were happy together when we were living in our cabin and trying to work out what to do next.  One moment we had plans for a future to look forward to and the next, my husband was dead and I had no idea why."  She began to cry quietly and Bert put a hand on her shoulder. 

            "We'll find out," Bert declared with gentle certainty.

            She took a deep breath and sat up.  "What else do you need to know?"

            "Um," Joe hesitated.  Jill brought their drinks and quietly place them on the table.  She smirked but did not interrupt and moved away when she was done.

            Joe sipped his juice.  "Only one thing.  Did anyone take an interest in your plans.  Maybe ask questions?"

            She shook her head.  "We only discussed them with each other and with Bert here, when we hired him as a surveyor."

            Joe looked to Bert.  "We hadn't made any real plans, yet," he added.  "We surveyors are just starting to manage everyone's land claims."

            Joe turned back to Mrs. Almira.  "Would you be more comfortable if I passed your case to someone else in the militia who's not a friend of the Fransworths?"

            "You would do that?" she asked.

            "Sure."  He glanced at his computer.  "You are entitled to an objective investigation and to make a complaint about me or the militia as a whole if you don't get one."

            "Complain to the militia about the militia?" She mumbled, making a cynical assessment.

            "The court clerk will take complaints directly," Bert explained. "It's only customary for the militia to record complaints and pass them on."

            "I'm not a citizen," she pointed out.

            "Everyone has rights," Bert countered.

            She looked relieved as she sipped her brew.  She gave the glass a surprised look and then took a hearty drink of the stuff.  "I'm sorry," she told Joe.  "Where I am from back on Earth, police cover for their friends and I would probably have to pay a bribe."

            "This ain't Earth,"  Joe said dismissively.  Bert chuckled.  Joe retrieved his computer, played back the complaint and interview and asked Mrs. Almira to decide what to keep when editing the footage.  She was surprised that he wanted to keep the footage in which she questioned his objectivity.  She decided it was fine with her if Joe stayed on the case.  Joe ordered a snack, a plate of chicken chunks to be shared and dipped in orange sauce.  Eventually, Adele came to offer her condolences and joined them.  Joe asked her if she had heard anything about the case, which she had not, and she persuaded him to tell her more.  There was a lot of gossip about Miguel's disappearance and Adele was always involved in talk about anything that happened in town. Soon, they were chatting with her about other matters and she offered to provide mixed drinks that were not normally on the menu.  Bert tried one after Mrs. Almira confirmed that he was on his own time.  More patrons were arriving and Adele went back to work while Joe, Bert and Mrs. Almira went their separate ways.

            Joe walked back to militia headquarters and resumed guarding Miguel's body.  On the one hand, it would be difficult for anyone to so much as take a look at the body without the militia knowing about it, whether or not a guard was posted, but on the other hand, he knew everyone in town would be gossiping about his investigation and he could keep working while in the room.  He was planning on asking around to find any possible suspects.  He did have a flicker of suspicion that the Fransworth family had done it, but he doubted that.  They had done nothing to conceal the body.  Who else could have done it and why?  He opened his internet connection and began sending e-mail using militia letterhead and a standard message asking if the recipient knew anything. He made it as obviously formulaic as possible so he could deflect comments that folks were being singled out. He was also planning to delegate some of the questioning.  Many people, especially newcomers, would have to be contacted in person as they were not connected.

            He checked his incoming messages.  The court clerk had notified him of an upcoming court appearance.  He was an elderly gentleman known as Old Jacob, who had been a bureaucrat of some sort back on Earth but had left that behind and had served as court clerk since the local court had been founded. Mainly, he managed jury duty. Every citizen, in addition to dues, was obliged to come for jury duty for one day at a time and Old Jacob kept track of it all.  The notices were sent out well in advance, either by e-mail or messenger, but if someone could not serve on a particular day, they could trade with someone else provided that they notified Jacob.  As long as there were eleven jurors on duty every day while the court was open, people could work things out between themselves.  A typical day for the jury began with the choosing of a foreman, who would decide procedure during hearings and propose sentences or decisions after the jury had voted on guilt or innocence.  Next, they would examine complaints, which included any evidence gathered by investigation, and decide if it would be heard or thrown out.  Old Jacob was obliged to present any complaint, no matter how trivial or unfounded, but a hearing would only be scheduled after a jury had decided that the complaint would be heard.  The jury could also declare complaints about a particular issue to be a waste of time.  Then it was up to Old Jacob whether or not to take subsequent complaints about the same issue.  The jury typically took a break, as Jacob tried to give them plenty of time to vote on complaints before the first scheduled hearing took place.  Hearings were fairly quick.  The jurists would simply view statements and hear out any witnesses.  Militia personnel or anyone else who had been investigating would appear as witnesses.  The defendant had the right to answer each presentation.  There was no back and forth, just a presentation and an answer. Often, the defendant was not there. Persons being complained about were under no obligation to show up for a scheduled hearing, they would simply give up their opportunity to answer presentations of evidence.  After hearing evidence, the jury voted yes or no, a simple majority, as to whether or not the complaining party's rights had been violated.  The foreman would decide on a solution to the problem and the militia would then be notified, as it was their duty to check and see that the agreement was adhered to.  Most hearings were brief and more than three hours was unusual.  Of course, the foreman had the option of ending presentations or answers if a witness or defendant was wasting the court's time.  There were also no lawyers, defendants were expected to speak for themselves.

            Joe was surprised to see the hearing notice, as he had expected that particular complaint to be rejected.  It was fairly routine stuff and one hearing about the incident had seemed to have been enough.  Adele had complained about a young man who had refused to give up his zap gun one evening at her restaurant. In the evenings, Adele's was used as a bar and Adele put up a sign informing patrons that they were expected to check their weapons at the door and had hired security for the evening shift. A young man, maybe a teenager, maybe older, had been caught with a zap pistol hidden in a compartment on his belt and had refused to check it.  Adele's security guy had zapped him and hauled his stunned body outside.  Adele had complained that the kid, Larry Somethingorother, had violated her right to own property by bringing his zap gun into her place without permission.  Customarily, any time someone put up a sign on their property, anyone entering the premises was assumed to have agreed to what the sign says.  If you don't want to follow the owner's rules, no one's making you go inside.  The complaint had already been heard and the foreman of the jury had banned Larry from Adele's.  Fairly typical.  The militia would remove him if he came back. However, the second hearing was a result of Larry complaining that Adele had violated his right to own property by keeping his gun.  Larry had dropped it when he had been zapped and never gotten it back.  Adele said she did not have it and that she had asked her staff if they knew where the weapon was.  Citizens were within their rights to complain about a matter that had already been heard, but a jury normally rejected vindictive or contradictory complaints.  Joe was involved because Larry had requested, or, more accurately demanded, an investigation from the militia and Joe had turned him down.  If he wanted to keep the gun, he should not have smuggled it into someone else's place.  Joe wondered if Larry had submitted complaints about him, too.  On the one hand, the militia decided for themselves which matters they would take the time to investigate, but on the other hand, citizens were entitled to service by contract.  Citizens who had been turned down often went to Old Jacob with a complaint, many of which were rejected, but they were all presented to a jury.  Joe also wondered if Larry's parents would be involved.  Telling others how to raise their children would be a violation of the parent's right to liberty, but a complaint could be made against parents who let their children violate someone else's rights.  However, the community had never decided on an age in which a child ceased to be the parent's responsibility, so a jury would decide on a case by case basis if the parents were responsible.

            Joe had been thinking about how to better explain the court system to Mrs. Almira and the other newcomers.  They did expect a complicated system with rules for everything, as opposed to people simply making decisions based on what made sense to them.  As a militia man, Joe was often in the position of explaining it all, typically at a time when the person was upset enough to call in the militia.  One of them had even tried to bribe him.  Well, the militia does accept donations, but don't expect any preferential treatment in return and if anyone finds out that you offered, it would certainly be presented as evidence if there's a hearing.  As far as Joe knew, militia men did not take actual bribes, at least not in Adele's Landing.  The lack of objectivity would be obvious to a jury, anyway.  Bribing the jury was not an option unless you were lucky enough to guess who your jurors would be on the day of your hearing and, if the hearing had to be rescheduled, a different jury would hear the complaint.

            Joe finished sending his e-mail and decided to check and see if anyone was being detained.  There were rooms in the basement for that purpose, but detention was rare.  Technically, the militia could detain people as they saw fit, but if a jury were to decide that detention had not been absolutely necessary, they would uphold a complaint that the detainee's right to liberty had been violated and the individual militia man who decided to detain that person would have to pay compensation or worse.  Normally, the militia only used detention after a jury had made a decision and a citizen had failed to abide by the terms.  As for someone out of control to the point of being dangerous, well, a responsible person kept a zap gun handy.  The detention rooms were empty and unguarded, so Joe would not get to hear a story about today's action.  His computer chimed to let him know he had a message.

            Joe opened the message.  It was from Mitch Robertano and let him know that he and his sons were there to pick up the body.  Mitch ran Robertano's mortuary, but it was unusual for him to show up for a pickup in person.  He had three sons and a daughter working for him and he normally delegated pickups to them and one did not meet with him until it was time to go to the funeral home and plan a ceremony.  Joe figured that he had been lured by curiosity.  They were at the back door waiting to be let in.  Joe responded that he was on his way, notified the man at the front desk that he was allowing guests to enter without checking in, checked the bag that held Miguel's remains to make sure it was sealed and then opened the door and greeted Mitch and his sons Vin and Arny.  Joe knew Vin better than the others but had seen all of them around.  Vin and Arny were quiet while Mitch did the talking.  He was a short and slim old guy who always wore a suit and had a ready smile and a mild disposition.  He greeted Joe by name and shook hands while Vin and Arny waited.

            "I would like to have a look at the remains," Mitch offered.

            Joe nodded and gestured  to the body bag and then he, Vin and Arny all watched while the old man carefully exposed the corpse's head and neck and gave it a cursory examination.

            "I could start a forensic exam here, before we move the remains," Mitch decided.  "Assuming the militia will give me the go-ahead."  On the rare occasion of a suspicious death, the militia had always hired Mitch.  He had no formal qualifications, but he knew more than anyone else in town and he always documented his findings carefully.

            "I'll authorize," Joe said.  He shifted his attention to his palmtop and sent a message to the rest of the militia.  His palmtop chimed and he saw a reply from Commander Graiss that confirmed his decision. As in most militias, the Adele's Landing Militia had little in the way of ranking but had one person in command. The commander had been elected early on and had survived a few votes of confidence.  Any militia man under his command could ask for a vote of confidence, yes or no to keep Graiss as commander, and everyone serving was required to vote.  If he lost, another commander would be elected almost immediately and take over.  The militia was run rather casually, but so long as he was in command, Graiss's orders were to be followed.

            Joe, Vin and Arny formed a cluster and spoke quietly while Mitch worked. They gossiped about the investigation and about Mrs. Almira.  Joe was reasonably certain that the other two men could keep most of what he said to themselves.  They also discussed two other deaths, including a newcomer's rather public allergic reaction to something, that had struck him down at Adele's on a crowded night. Poor man.  Services were planned for next week.

            Mitch finished his examination and joined them.  On cue, Vin and Arny went and moved the body.  Joe assumed they had their improvised hearse outside.  The vehicle was basically a large cart made to be pulled by two men, covered and painted black.  Mitch addressed Joe.

            "I should work on him some more back at the office," Mitch said. He always referred to the mortuary and funeral home as "the office".  "My findings are not final, but the cause of death was exsanguination from that wound on his throat and I did not find any other injuries.  There was some decomposition and insect damage post-mortem."  Joe nodded and he continued.  "It's a mystery to me what made that wound.  Something pointy pierced his throat and tore it open.  Had to be a hand to hand weapon.  It would take a swing to do that but I did not find fragments in the wound like I would expect to."

            "Maybe an improvised weapon?" Joe speculated.

            "Maybe," Mitch said with skepticism.  "A blade would have cut, rather than tearing and a pointed object would normally be thrust, rather than swung with force."  Mitch pantomimed an attack as he spoke.

            Joe took on an air of concentration as he pictured various implements which could have been used.

            "I did not see any signs of his being zapped or tied up first," Mitch continued.  "I'll find out if he was drunk or dehydrated when I finish the exam.  I'll send my findings."

            "Could it have been a blunt object with a nail or something added?" Joe suggested.

            Mitch considered that.  "The nail would have to be sticking straight out the end," he observed. 

            Vin returned from outside, gave his father a look that said he was ready to go and waited patiently.  Joe shook hands with Mitch and thanked him before he left with Vin.

            Later that evening, Bert arrived at Adele's.  Jill was behind the bar and Bert went over to two fellow surveyors who were deep in conversation.  He said "hey" and sat next to them.  As they chatted, Jill came to take his order.  "Five-to-one screwdriver," he told her, leaning forward to be heard.

            Jill gave him a blank look.  "Five parts orange juice and one part ethyl."

            "Screwdriver?" she asked with a giggle.

            "That's what us old people call it," Bert said, grinning.

            One of the surveyors stood and politely disengaged from the conversation before leaving to do something.  The other turned to Bert.  "How goes, Bert?"  He was a small but rugged-looking man with an Australian accent.

            Bert shrugged.  "Heh."

            "Still investigating the big murder?" the other surveyor blurted, a bit tipsy.

            "Gordon," Bert said, looking taken aback.  "I don't think I should go into it."

            "Everyone else sure is!" Gordon was laughing.  "The town internet is seems to have forgotten everything else."

            "Typical," Bert said with a crooked smile.  "I'm not going to feed that fire, at least not until I know something."

            Gordon's look chilled as he shook his head.  "It's bad.  Newcomers and townsfolk are all pointing their fingers at each other.  Meanwhile, the land claim situation has yet to be worked out.  Not so easy with everyone squaring off."

            "There's nothing stopping the newcomers from moving on.  They don't need our permission," Bert pointed out.

            Gordon nodded.  "But it would be nice if we could keep trading.  Good for both."

            Bert shrugged.  "The truth will come out.  Most folks will settle down."

            "Most," Gordon agreed.  "If the newcomers don't go along with organized claims, there could be more trouble."

            "And they'd have no reason to hire us," Bert added.  The two men chuckled.  "Might not matter.  When I was at the Fransworth place, I saw a wild chicken.  I'm told there's bugs, too, and the cock was a lot bigger than a regular bird."

            Gordon considered this.  "Lord knows what else is out there."

            "It means an ecology," Bert decided.  "People might be able to spread out."

            "Not yet," Gordon said.  "We know what too much, too fast did on Earth and that was a viable ecology to begin with.  All the more reason to be organized when people move into the outback."

            "Not nearly as many people," Bert said dismissively.  "Besides, the newcomers brought wildlife."

            Gordon nodded.  "Still, better to be smart about it."

            "If people cooperate," Bert wondered.

            "No one wants to fail," Gordon pointed out.  "Not like we can go home."

            Jill brought Bert's screwdriver.

            "The newcomers are ready to start releasing plants into the wild," Gordon said, rambling.  "Desert plants first, then animals.  Now, I don't know exactly how they'll do it."

            "Mm" Bert began.  "That reminds me.  Nittie Fransworth offered to help raise horses for pick of the litter and seeds for horse feed.  I already agreed."

            "Nice," Gordon said.  "But they're not your horses."

            "I'll see what I can do about that."  Bert paused to sip his drink, looking smug.  "You've been working on cargo management?  Do you know who I can talk to."

            "That Nelson bloke is in charge, sort of," Gordon answered.  "I would wait 'till things calm down before I make a deal.  He's looking to blame the Fransworths for the murder."

            Bert sighed, exasperated.  "Mrs. Almira brought that up, too.  Newcomers don't know what it's like out there.  You can't just call someone and there's work to be done this time of year. A man has to feed his family."

            "And we need to find out what killed that poor bastard before we can deal," Gordon added.  "Know anything?"

            "Nothing helpful," Bert said, apologetically.  Gordon swore.  "Militia's working on it and I'm helping Mrs. Almira make it official."

            "Jacko!" Gordon shouted suddenly.  A tall, overweight man with a house brew in his hand joined them, causing a change of subject.  The three of them engaged in a loud conversation about nothing and had some more drinks before closing time.

            Early one morning, Rashta Almira sat in the court clerk's waiting room.  The only other person in the room was his assistant, a young woman wearing a militia uniform whose attention was on her palmtop computer.  Old Jacob arrived, formally dressed as always.  He was a tall, lean elderly black man with a fringe of white hair on the back of his head and thoughtful, lively eyes.  Mrs. Almira stood as he entered and he smiled, said "Good Morning" and offered his hand to shake.  He paused.

            "My name is Rashta Almira and I am hoping to submit a complaint."

            Jacob nodded.  "I was sorry to hear about your husband.  Please join me in my office."  He paused for a brief and businesslike conversation with his assistant before ushering Mrs. Almira to the room's only internal door.  He paused to unlock it, went in and turned on the lights, offered her a chair, took the seat behind his desk and turned his computer, the only desktop computer in town, on.  He smiled again.  "In just a moment I will have the camera ready."  Mrs. Almira prepared herself.

            After Jacob had attached his camera to his monitor and turned it toward her, she began.  "First, I would point out that I have already complained to the militia about my husband's murder."

            "I have the complaint on file," Jacob said while using his computer.

            "My husband's body was left unattended and unreported, even after it was discovered by a local farmer," she told the camera.  "His failure to report it is a violation of my rights."

            Old Jacob tilted the camera so that both of them could be seen.  "I will record this complaint, but are you open to an opinion?"  Jacob asked. 

            "Certainly," Mrs. Almira said.

            "There's little chance that an Adele's Landing jury will accept your complaint as stated," he informed.  "I understand that the Fransworth family does not have a connection but that they left the crime scene undisturbed.  Most of us know how it is for a family on a remote claim.  Any communication with town would mean leaving home for days and that would be a problem, especially this time of the year."

            Her eyes became intense.  "They just left him there," she objected.

            "Yes," Jacob countered gently.  "They could have easily disposed of the body, but they left the crime scene intact until the militia arrived.  They did the best they could under the circumstances."

            The widow gave an exasperated sigh.  "I don't know what to do," she mumbled.  Her eyes took on a pleading look.  "My future was taken from me along with my husband and I don't know why.  Now I am alone."

            Old Jacob spoke softly.  "You don't have to be alone, dear," he said.  "Our whole town is concerned.  I know that the investigation will take time, but our militia will find the truth."

            "Will they?"  Her face was distrustful.

            "I'll make sure of that," Jacob decided.  "You have my word."  He glanced at the camera. 

            Mrs. Almira relaxed visibly.  "I withdraw my complaint against the Fransworths, then," she decided.

            Jacob turned off the camera.  "I'll save the recording, however."  Off the record, he asked about her husband and listened while she talked about who he was and what the two of them had planned.  Eventually, he said a polite goodbye and led her out of his office.  Outside, the waiting room was full of people waiting to see the court clerk.  When the office door opened, all conversation stopped.  Mrs. Almira could see that many people recognized her.  She quietly exited as Old Jacob welcomed his next visitor.

            That evening, as soon as his office closed, Old Jacob went to militia headquarters to look for Joe.  Jacob found him typing on his palmtop, alone in an upstairs room that was often used for meetings.  Joe stopped typing immediately when Jacob entered.

            "Hi Jacob," Joe said, surprised by his arrival.

            Jacob smiled warmly.  "Nice to see you, Joe," he said.  "I'm here about the Miguel Almira thing."

            "I've got the duty on that one," Joe prompted.

            "Mrs. Almira came to see me," Jacob said gravely.  "She's anxious about the investigation."

            "She's a tough one," Joe observed.

            "Yes," Jacob said with a look of admiration.  "Made me promise I'd take an interest in the investigation," he said with a laugh in his voice.  "She's a newcomer and they are all still adjusting.  She's groping in the dark and I need something to put in front of her.  I could sure use an update."

            "This whole thing is out of hand," Joe groused.  "I am trying to make a list of suspects, but nobody has anything solid.  Newcomers and townsfolk are starting to take sides."

            Jacob nodded.  "I've been following that on-line.  Doesn't help anyone," he observed.  "Are there any suspects worth investigating."
            "Nobody I would put in front of Mrs. Almira," Joe decided.

            "You can tell me," Jacob pointed out.

            "I have a list, but I'm still going through answers to my inquiries and doing interviews.  Bert Lanier is helping out and I have as many men on it as we can spare."  He paused and worked the keys on his palmtop.  "There were rumors of a romantic rivalry over Mrs. Almira between Miguel and a Tony Ling from the journey here, Gary Notenheim had a minor disagreement over claim conflicts, some of the newcomers think that Jack Stimmer is after Bert for competitive reasons and the whole Fransworth family has been named for finding the body."

            "Nothing really worth investigating," Jacob agreed.

            "Just rumors, so far," Joe said.  "Mitch is doing an examination and I'll send you the results as soon as I get them."

            "Yes, please do," Jacob said.  "That's something I can give to Mrs. Almira."

            Joe smiled.  "I'll ask him to forward it to you."

            When Mitch had completed a thorough examination, he sent the results to Joe, Jacob and Bert, and announced that he had decided to post it on his internet site. Jacob examined it between meetings and gave a copy to Mrs. Almira along with some polite advice.  Bert saw it and rushed to militia headquarters in order to borrow a shuttle and Joe answered the message by asking Mitch what he was doing posting the results.  Mitch defended his decision by pointing out that the examination results, made public, might ease tension between newcomers and townsfolk or even convince them to help protect each other.

            Mrs. Almira went to see Mitch.  When she arrived at the funeral home, Arny, who was at the door, led her into the mortuary where Mitch was working.  She ignored the bodies and went to Mitch to introduce herself.  After a cursory exchange of pleasantries, she asked intensely, "So, my husband was killed by an animal?"

            Mitch decided against asking if she was sure she wanted to hear the gruesome details.  "My findings show that the wound on his throat was made by single claw, using a sideways stroke.  I found tiny fragments in the wound which turned out to be keratin."

            "Are there tigers on this planet?" she asked.

            "There's something around and it's dangerous," Mitch told her ominously.  "Look, um, I'm sorry it was your husband who was attacked.  We had no idea that this could happen."

            Mrs. Almira's face softened and she looked like she might cry.  "No one knew," she said softly.

            Meanwhile, Bert had rushed out to the Fransworth's claim in a militia shuttle. He was alone this time and the passenger seat was occupied by his zap gun.  He landed in the desert on the edge of their claim.  Of course, the Fransworths had heard him coming and dropped what they were doing to come and see.  Bert noticed that none of them were armed, which meant that they must have relaxed their guard.

            "Bert!" Nittie called as he exited the cockpit. 

            Bert smiled.  "Hi, Nittie!"

            "There aren't horses to be trained already are there?" she asked.

            "No, not yet," he answered.  "I'm here about the investigation, actually."  Dan and the children arrived and gathered around.  Bert greeted them and shook hands with Dan.

            Nittie leaned close to her husband and spoke quietly.  "He's here about the investigation."  Dan nodded.

            "Come to the house, Bert?" Dan invited.

            Nittie picked up Tam and herded the other youngsters toward the house as Dan made trivial conversation about farming and claims.  Soon, Bert was seated at the kitchen table with his zap gun leaning against his chair.

            "There's been a new development," he began.  "Miguel was killed by an animal of some sort.  Mitch did an examination and I came as soon as I received the results."

            "Thank you," Dan said. 

            "This is why we need an internet connection," Jeena piped up.  Dan gave her an unhappy look.

            "Any idea what kind of animal or how many?" Nittie asked.

            "At this point, we don't really know anything," Bert said sincerely. "All we have is Mitch's evidence. One claw."  Bert drew a finger across his throat and then looked at the kids.  He was receiving fearful attention from everyone except Tam, who was distracted.  "Have any of you seen anything?"

            "Nothing at all," Dan said.

            Nittie looked around.  "Tall enough to reach a man's throat and strong enough to kill with one swipe," she said thoughtfully.  "Sounds like a bear.  If any of you had seen tracks or strange poop, you would have said something?"

            "There's nowhere for a bear to hide out there," Cass pointed out.

            "We don't know it was a bear," Bert pointed out.  "Mitch found keratin fragments.  I wish we could do a DNA test."

            "Whatever they are, we'll find them," Dan said, confident.  "People can beat any animal in the end."

            "Them?" Jeena snapped.  "There's monsters out here.  We should go live in town.  You can take us, can't you Mr. Lanier?"

            Before Bert could think of a delicate answer, Dan spoke up.  "We're not moving to town and you should know better than to involve Bert in our business.  He doesn't need that."

            "But, Dad..." Jeena protested.

            "Listen to your father," Nittie added.

            Dan turned to Bert.  "Thanks again," he said.  "We'll talk about what to do later.  Stay for supper, Bert?"

            "I wish I could," he said apologetically.  "I came to you first, but I will be visiting everyone I can find.  I need to warn folks and I have to believe someone has seen something."

            "Walk you back to the shuttle?" Dan offered.

            "Please," Bert accepted.

            The two men rose.  "There's work to be done," Dan prompted.

            "See you 'round," Nittie said pleasantly before she began to usher the children back to their chores.  Dan and Bert left by the front door.  As soon as they were away from the family, Dan spoke gravely.

            "How bad are things in town?" he asked.

            Bert thought for a moment.  "Well, everyone's gossiping.  Some of us are blaming the newcomers and some of them are blaming us.  Report might help, might not.  Mitch posted it."

            "The militia let him do it?" Dan asked.

            "He didn't ask first," Bert observed.

            "Ah," Dan said thoughtfully.  He had stopped walking.  "You're a pro," he began.  "None of you saw anything when this area was surveyed, right?"

            "Complete surprise to us," Bert said helplessly.

            Dan took a contemplative look at the land around him.  "I wouldn't have thought a large animal could live out here at all, much less go unnoticed."

            "Might not be unnoticed," Bert countered.  "I'm not done asking around."

            Dan nodded.  He lowered his voice and asked intensely, "Could it be aliens?"

            Bert chuckled.  That possibility had not occurred to him.  "Let's not go there."

            "Um," Dan said, trying to think of a response.

            "Aliens would have contacted us, wouldn't they?" Bert continued. "I'd think it's best to complete our investigation before we bring up something that will provoke a strong reaction."

            Dan nodded with understanding.  Bert resumed walking to the shuttle.

            "What should I do if we do see something?" Dan asked.

            Bert thought for a moment.  He wished he could ask Dan to report it.  "Save any information as best you can," Bert decided.  "I or someone in the militia will check back with you."

            "Yeah," Dan agreed.  He offered a handshake.  "Good luck with your investigation."

            Bert thanked him and gave a polite goodbye before leaving on the shuttle. From there, he moved on to other claims in the area.  Nobody had seen anything and many did not know there had been a killing.  It was after dark by the time he made his way back to Adele's Landing.  Flying over town, he could see that something was going on.  The area in front of Adele's was packed with people.  He flew over to take a closer look.

            Meanwhile, Joe was on duty.  Mitch and Jacob had organized a town meeting at Adele's, but too many people had come and they had moved it outside.  At first, one speaker at a time had addressed the audience, but it had become unruly and commander Graiss had given the order that all available militia personnel should go to the meeting.  Joe followed the order, but he thought it was a bad idea to be provocative.  The newcomers were especially upset and nearly everyone was armed.  Mitch had attempted to give a conciliatory speech about coming together as a community and protecting each other from the animal, but one of the townsfolk had accused the newcomers of releasing predators without notice and accusations flew.  Jacob had tried to calm the situation, but when he promised to investigate all complaints, the newcomer's raucous comments had drowned out what he tried to say next, which was that investigation would disprove false accusations.  Newcomers were complaining about the lack of laws and townsfolk accused them of turning their planet into Earth.  When the militia arrived, both sides became more defensive.  Joe was in the crowd, holding a zap rifle, when Bert cruised overhead in the shuttle.

            A newcomer, a young man with long hair, shouted, "they're using a shuttle against us now!"

            "We all know the shuttles are unarmed," a nearby militia man countered. He repeated the statement in a loud but neutral voice one would use for addressing a crowd.

            The conversation around Joe quickly degenerated into shouting matches, with a few vocal people going at it while the rest listened.  People were starting to square off against each other and Joe braced himself for trouble while watching for the flash of a zap gun in the darkened street.

            "People, please!"  A woman's voice rolled over the crowd and the effect was immediate.  Mrs. Almira was addressing them and people were shushing each other.  Soon, the gathered crowd was listening with the reverence of mourners to what the widow was saying.  Even the shuttle seemed to relax as Bert had taken a cursory look and went to land near militia headquarters.

            "...certainly not smart!" she was saying.  "If we fail to come together and face this threat, whatever it may be, we will only harm each other.  All we need to do is relax and wait.  I have already made one big mistake in assuming that someone, another human being, murdered my husband.  I shall make no more assumptions.  I'll record another complaint only when I know what really happened.  Bert!"  She waved and the crowd turned.

            Having landed, Bert was on the edge of the crowd.  He had put on his surveyor's hat and turned on the light just above his visor, making himself visible.  Mrs. Almira called for him to be let through and the crowd parted. Bert went to her and they conversed quietly before he removed his hat and addressed the crowd.

            "Most of you know who I am," he said, stalling as he planned what to say to everyone.  "Mrs. Almira hired me to investigate her husband's death.  I spent today asking around, and nobody has seen any dangerous animals.  The ecology is just getting started and is not ready to support a large predator."  Dan's idea that there might be an alien on the loose had been on his mind all day, but he decided against bringing it up.

            As Joe listened, a thought struck him and he drew his palmtop and sent a message.  For the most part, people took Mrs. Almira's advice and the meeting broke up.  Still, Joe did notice that there were clusters of people who seemed to want to do something.  Joe made his way through the crowd to where Bert, Old Jacob and Mrs. Almira stood conversing.  He waited for them to acknowledge him.

            "I think I might know what happened," he said.  He explained his idea.

            "Are you serious?" Mrs. Almira asked.

            "I think it's worth looking into," Joe said.

            "Makes sense to me," Bert said, backing him.  "Farmers have reported seeing them.  I don't think it occurred to anyone that one could kill a man."

            "That would make 'em more dangerous," Joe added.

            Old Jacob took charge.  "I think we should investigate this quickly," he said with soft authority. "Find out and move on."  Joe and Bert both nodded in agreement.

            Joe addressed Bert.  "I'm setting up a meeting with Mitch and Gary for tomorrow morning.  You'd like to be there?"

            "Count me in," Bert said.  He gave Mrs. Almira a prompting look.

            "Let me know what you find out," she said.

            "Certainly," Bert agreed.

            The next morning, Joe, Gary, Bert and Mitch met at Adele's for breakfast. Joe explained his theory and Bert backed him.  Mitch laughed, but decided it was possible. 

            Gary grinned.  "So the perpetrator was caught and..."

            "Maybe," Bert said.  "We don't know if it was the same one."

            "We need evidence for court," Joe pointed out.

            "Come with me to the Fransworth place?" Bert asked.  "I told them I would check back in, and it is a good place to look."

            "Agreed!" Joe said.

            "Let me see your wrist," Mitch asked Gary.  The wound was nearly healed and was covered only by the sleeve of his uniform.  Mitch gave it a quick look.

            "A chicken did this?" Mitch asked.

            Gary nodded.  "The cock got me with a leg-spur."

            "You'll have a scar, but it is healing well," Mitch observed.  The four men finished their breakfast and chatted.  Bert and Joe went to militia headquarters.  Another surveyor was using the shuttle and they had to wait until the aircraft returned.  It was not too long before they were on their way.

            The Fransworths were just sitting down to lunch with the exception of Jeena, who was doing lookout duty on the roof, when they heard engine noise. Nittie went to the window.  Dan instructed the family to wait while he went to meet the shuttle.

            "Back already," Dan exclaimed cheerfully as soon as he saw Bert. Bert and Joe hurried to talk to him.

            "How goes?" Bert asked. 

            "Gettin' the planting done OK," Dan answered.  "How's the investigation?"

            "Joe here might just have solved the case," Bert told him.  He gave Joe a prompting look.

            "I think a giant chicken did it," Joe blurted.

            Dan's eyes widened and he looked away, surprised and amused, then back to Joe.  "Seriously?"

            Joe fidgeted.  "We've both seen them," he began.  "They're a little different from normal chickens.  Whole lot bigger, they can jump and they have sharp ankle-claws. Remember what happened to Gary?"

            "Yes," Dan said thoughtfully.  "But could one really kill a man?"

            "If his guard was down," Bert concluded.  "Might have been trying to catch the bird.  Could have happened to anyone.  Who would have guessed that a chicken could be dangerous?"

            "I know it's ridiculous, but no one has a better idea," Joe added.

            "No," Dan said in a calculating tone.  "It actually makes sense.  More sense than native wildlife or something from the newcomer's craft. They have not had time to grow any animals?"

            Bert shook his head.  "They had some livestock on board to feed themselves, but nothing with claws."

            "And it might be good news," Joe added.  "Just avoid wild chickens and everything's cool."

            Dan cringed suddenly.  "I should a' been more careful with my chickens.  That poor guy might still be alive if I had been more careful."

            Bert spoke reassuringly.  "Everyone out here has chickens.  Some were bound to get loose no matter what.  Evolution is a natural force..."

            Dan's voice took on a frustrated tone.  "Who would have thought they could change so much in such a short time."

            "Really not so different from the domestic bird," Bert speculated. "Intense competition and a few generations is all it would take I expect."

            Dan sighed.  "Um, if this planet turned chickens into killers, what'll happen when pigs, cattle and horses arrive."

            "Wouldn't worry too much," Joe said.  "Other barnyard animals are bigger and need more resources. Plus they breed slower."

            "There'll be dangers no matter what we do," Bert added.

            "How're they taking it in town?" Dan asked. 

            "Don't know," Joe answered.  "We haven't really announced it, yet."  He chuckled grimly.  "I expect the response will be something like 'killer what?'"

            "Show 'em one," Dan suggested.

            "That's why we're here," Joe said.

            "Come back to the house and I'll see if I can find you a box," Dan invited.

            Dan led the other two men to the garage-like shed where he kept his tools and, after a little searching, found a suitable crate with handles.  He excused himself and left the box with the other two men while he went inside for a brief conversation with his family.

            When he returned, Bert and Joe were in the middle of a practical discussion while examining the crate.  Dan joined them.

            "Can I trouble you for some rope or something?" Joe asked thoughtfully.

            "How much?" Dan asked, moving to find a coil of homegrown hemp rope and a large knife.

            "Just enough to tie the crate," Joe answered.  "None of us want a killer chicken loose in the shuttle."  Bert chuckled.

            Dan practiced tying the crate and then cut the rope, leaving a bit of extra length, before the three men walked out to the spot where Dan had found Miguel's body.  There was nothing around, so they moved on.  "There's some weeds growing that way," Dan informed before leading the other two men over a rocky rise and into a valley.  The sandy pit in front of them was speckled with green.  Bert drew his zap gun from the holster on his belt and slowly approached one of the many clusters of rock.  "Movement," he whispered.  Joe drew his own zap gun while Dan waited, holding the crate.  Nothing. Bert had seen an insect, probably a roach, scurry away as they approached.

            Dan paused, put down the crate, sat on it, pulled a cotton cap with a stiffened visor out of his pocket and put it on.  Bert and Joe poked around.  There were plenty of rocks for something to hide behind. 

            "Nest!" Joe announced sharply, looking into the center of a cluster of fair-sized stones.  Joe moved closer.

            "To your left," Bert warned.

            Joe turned left.  A big rooster stood motionless and staring.  The bird's feathers were the same light brown as the sand and rocks in the area and he was just sizable enough to seem unnaturally large.  Joe's zap gun sounded and the bird flopped ignominiously and lay twitching.  Dan was already rushing over with the crate.  Joe helped him put the upside-down crate over the chicken while Bert watched, ready to zap the rooster again.  Dan turned the crate and hastily slapped the top on, and then he and Joe tied it, looping the rope around the crate lengthwise and widthwise before making a tight slip not.  Joe carried the crate in the direction of the shuttle while Dan headed for home.

            "Wait for me?" Dan said as an afterthought.

            "Sure," Bert answered.

            At home, his family rushed to meet him as soon as he walked through the door. Nittie was holding a zap gun and gestured  with the longarm as she asked, "What's the news?"

            Dan grinned.  "We found the killer, or we may have."  The family waited in fascinated silence.  "Joe says a wild cock did it.  He remembered what happened to Gary when he grabbed one.  If that Miguel fellow stuck his head in the wrong place..."

            "You don't say?" Nittie commented.

            "Stupid," Cass added with a pout.

            "Hey!" Nittie scolded sharply.

            "It could have happened to anyone," Dan said, giving Cass a dirty look.  "Chickens weren't dangerous."

            "So," Jeena piped up.  "We have to be on lookout all the time, now?"

            Dan shook his head.  "Just stay away from 'em."  He turned to Nittie.  "We zapped and boxed one.  Joe and Bert took it to the shuttle.  I'm going to town to get this resolved.  I think a jury should decide whether or not to believe a rooster did it."

            "Can I come?" Jeena begged.

            Dan sighed.  "If there was less work to be done here," he decided.

            "But..." Jeena protested.

            "Mind your father," Nittie interrupted her.  She put down her gun and hugged her husband.  "Come back soon?"

            "I don't know how long it will take," he pointed out.

            "Take a basket of cotton and grain with you," she suggested.  "You should have time to trade for supplies."

            "Yup," Dan said in a tone that told her he liked the idea.  Dan and Nittie quickly filled a basket before Dan walked to the shuttle.  Bert and Joe were waiting when he arrived and took off as soon as he was on board and seated.

            That afternoon in town, Old Jacob walked into the courthouse and stood by the door next to a militia man who was acting as guard.  The courthouse itself was one large, open room.  At the far end, the eleven men and women of the jury were seated in a single row of chairs with the Forman, a small, elderly woman with a weather-beaten look, seated in the center behind a small desk.  A single podium face them, in front of several rows of chairs for an audience.  Most of the chairs were empty.  Two families and a few others were seated in the front row, and a uniformed militia man stood to one side, recording the proceedings on camera. Three more militia had seated themselves behind the other attendees.

            A woman was standing behind the podium, addressing the jury.  Jacob knew who she was, as she had been in court several times before.  She was a single mother whose adolescent son insisted on bullying other children, which resulted in fighting.  As usual, she made the case that other children had provoked him.  Jacob waited quietly as she finished what she was saying. When she did give up the podium, Jacob strode forward and took her place.

            "May I address the court?" he asked formally.  The foreman nodded and gestured to the podium.  "There is new evidence pertaining to the manner in which Miguel Almira died," he announced.  He paused as the jury and all present reacted.  "As this is a matter that hold's the interest of our community, I would prefer to present the evidence this evening."  He looked to the foreman for a response.  Asking a jury to stay late was unprecedented.

            The Forman stood slowly and turned to the rest of the jury.  "Who's willing to stay late?" she asked. Silence.

            A heavy-set man on the end stood and smiled.  "I know we all expected to be dismissed at the usual time but, in my opinion, the Almira matter has proven to be divisive to our community and I, for one, would gladly sacrifice an evening to resolve the matter before it goes any further," he stated while looking from one jury member to another.

            A young woman with a newcomer look stood.  "I want to stay but my little girl is at home and will be without a sitter if I'm not there on time."

            Old Jacob gestured  to a militia man seated behind him and the man brought him a palmtop computer. "Where's home?" he asked.

            "Onboard our craft.  Our cabin does not have a connection," she answered.

            Jacob stood quietly and typed as he sent a message.  "Does anyone else have personal matters to attend to?" he asked.

            A middle aged woman spoke up.  "I need to tell my employees," she said simply.  She began typing on her own palmtop and many other jurors followed suit.  The palmtop Jacob was holding chimed and he read a message before saying, "My wife can look after your little girl.  She raised three children back on Earth."  He began to type.  "What's your cabin number."

            "Is it agreed upon, then?" the foreman asked, interrupting.  "A free sitter in exchange for your time in the service of the community."  Jacob smiled an embarrassed smile.

            "Yes, ma'am," the woman answered.  Before long, all of the jurors had sent the messages they needed to send and agreed to stay late.  Then the foreman had them vote on the matter they had been hearing when Jacob arrived. They decided to require the mother to enter a formal admission that any fighting involving her son would be her legal responsibility until he became an adult, regardless of the circumstances, and that she would owe compensation.  She obviously did not like the ruling, but she knew better than to object and accepted the decision quietly before leading her son out of the courtroom.

            Old Jacob gave the palmtop back to the militia man and had a quiet conversation with him, prompting him to leave on an errand.  Jacob turned to the jury.  "Thank you so much for staying late," he said.  "We will begin presenting evidence as soon as the witnesses arrive.  Do you have the case files?"

            "Not as of yet," the foreman said.

            Jacob turned to the militia man who had been recording the proceedings. "Sam," he said simply.

            Sam had been using a court issued palmtop to film the proceedings and save them remotely on Jacob's office desktop, so he was easily able to access Jacob's hard drive and transfer the files.  He opened a summery of the case with links to video evidence and reports and then handed the palmtop to the nearest juror, who passed it to the foreman.  She read the contents.  Before she was done, Bert arrived followed by Dan and Joe.  Joe was carrying the crate and the suspect inside was struggling and squawking in protest.  Jacob yielded the podium to Bert and took a seat in the third row.  Bert waited while the foreman finished reading.

            "You have new evidence to present," the foreman prompted with a smile.

            Bert hesitated.  "Ladies and gentleman of the jury," he began.  He glance at Sam, who had moved to his usual position and was recording again.  "We have a new theory to present with regards to the death of Miguel Almira.  After investigating the mater, a post-mortem examination determined that the cause of death was a single strike to the throat with a claw.  We, Joe Warner of the Adele's Landing militia and myself, Bert Lanier, a surveyor in the employ of the victim's widow, have concluded that Mr. Almira was killed in an attack by a wild rooster."  As he spoke, people were arriving and filling the courtroom's chairs. Mrs. Almira was among them and Jacob stood and invited her to sit next to him.

            "We have captured a wild rooster of the sort we believe attacked Mr. Almira," Bert continued.  He gestured to Joe, who came forward and began to untie the crate.

            "Are you about to release a dangerous animal into our courtroom," the foreman asked sternly.

            "Under supervision," Bert answered.

            Dan readied his zap gun while Joe backed away from the untied crate.  The audience mumbled quietly.  The rooster jumped out of the crate with an enthusiastic flap, pushing the lid aside, and then walked casually about while inspecting his surroundings.

            "This bird was captured on the edge of Dan Fransworth's claim, not far from where Mr. Almira's remains were discovered.  Note the unusually large size and the well developed spurs on his heels."  Bert paused and unfolded a yard stick which he had had in a compartment on his tool belt.  "I know he looks like a harmless creature. Perhaps that is what made it possible for a similar bird to perpetrate a lethal attack."  He leaned over and poked the rooster with the yard stick.  The bird jumped and spun, lashing out at Bert with a clawed foot and flapping his wings to add a little extra lift. Bert jumped out of the way and the podium fell over with a clatter.  The bird landed and then rushed Bert again while crowing a single, discordant note. Dan's zap gun sounded and the bird lay stunned and twitching in a flash.  Joe rushed to put the rooster back in the crate.

            "As you can see, this is not an every-day domestic chicken," Bert concluded as he placed the podium back where it had been.  Dan and Joe tied up the crate and relaxed.  Bert favored the foreman with a prompting look.

            "Quite a stunt," she pointed out, disapprovingly.

            Bert grinned, "I thought that a demonstration under controlled circumstances was necessary," he said, bracing himself.

            A juror motioned to her and she turned to him.  "Personally, I'm with Mr. Lanier.  A demonstration was necessary and it was easy enough to stop that critter with a zap," he said.  "I move we vote, so we can settle the matter now."

            The foreman smiled.  "Sure," she acquiesced.  "Demonstration or stunt?  Thumbs up for demonstration, thumbs down for stunt, please."  She counted thumbs and turned to Bert.  "A necessary demonstration, it would seem.  Unless there are questions, you are dismissed." She looked at the other jurors and a young woman waved and stood.

            "Has the chicken been checked to see if his spurs match the evidence from the examination-of-remains?" she asked formally.

            "Not as of yet," Bert answered.  "Mitch Robertano is being asked to appear as we speak."  He turned to Joe. 

            Joe straightened up and spoke in a formal tone.  "I've sent him a message but he has not answered yet."

            Old Jacob stood and waited, smiling politely.  "There's little chance that this is the same bird that was responsible for Mr. Almira's death.  They brought it only to prove that such a creature exists."  He gestured to Dan.  "Mr. Fransworth and his family, who have a claim nearby, have seen them."  Dan stepped forward and put his gun on his shoulder.

            The foreman motioned for him to wait.  "Yes, Jacob?" she acknowledged.

            Old Jacob spoke up.  "I would like to direct the jury's attention to Dr. Robertano's conclusions. The victim's wound was caused by a single claw and is consistent with the spinning foot swipe we saw in Bert's demonstration."

            The foreman looked away as the jurors spoke quietly to each other.  Joe approached with his palmtop out and then stopped.  "May I present additional evidence?" he asked.

            After a moment, the foreman acknowledged him.  "Show us what you've got," she said simply.

            Joe passed the palmtop to the nearest juror.  "I have images of a scar on a colleagues wrist.  His name and militia ID are on the lower right.  His wound was also a result of a blow from a rooster's foot, acquired while attempting to capture the bird."  The jury passed the computer around. "The attack was witnessed by myself and Mr. Fransworth."

            The foreman turned to Dan.  "Come forward, please," she invited.

            Dan took the podium.  "I saw..."

            "Are guns allowed in court?" the foreman asked pointedly, interrupting him.

            "No, ma'am," he answered, handing the zap-rifle to Joe.  "The militia made an exception for me under the circumstances."  he paused.  "I saw the rooster, a different one than we have here, strike a militia man who was trying to catch him. My wife dressed the wound."

            "And where is that rooster now," the foreman asked.

            "The militia disposed of the bird," Dan answered, looking down.

            "Did our militia dispose of evidence?" she asked, looking to Joe for an explanation.

            "We did not know that the bird was evidence at the time," Joe answered. "We did find out that it was delicious."  A few jurors chuckled at that.

            A juror spoke up.  "So, we know there's more than one," she observed.

            "I and my family see them occasionally," Dan added.  "If you leave them alone, they're no trouble and we did not know they could be dangerous until today."

            "I move for a vote," the foreman decided.  "Shall we hold that Mr. Almira was taken from us by one of these killer chickens?  We could wait to hear what Dr. Robertano has to say, but I think we have seen sufficient evidence to resolved the matter now."  She looked to the other jurors.  Nobody objected and many nodded in affirmation.

            As the foreman prompted them, each juror stood in turn and said "yes" or "no".  All but two of the jurors voted in the affirmative and the foreman officially ended the court session.  As everyone was leaving, those present formed knots of conversing people.  Bert invited Dan to use his guest room for the night and to take a shuttle ride home the next day and then Dan, Bert and Joe went to Adele's for supper.  Dan was able to trade the goods in his basket for supplies before Bert ran him home.

             Nittie was in town several months later, after the Fransworths had finished their spring planting.  She had made the journey on foot and was still wearing her thin, cotton traveling cloak and wide hat and carrying a backpack with supplies.  She had brought Jeena along for company since the young lady was always eager for any excuse to go to town. She and Jeena had also brought some goods to trade and had sold them for local credits.  She had pretended to be stern when she had given Jeena shopping as an assignment and told her to make sure to spend all the credits, as they were temporary, before dismissing the girl.  She knew that the teen was just itching to go shopping.  Nittie had also sounded stern when she told Jeena to meet her at Adele's, knowing she was looking forward being there, too.  Then she went to find Bert.  He was in his office at his desk and rose to greet her as she entered.

            "I'm here about training horses," she said, after an exchange of pleasantries.

            Bert paused.  "There are only foals, so far," he informed her.  "The newcomers are growing all of the animals they have and it's not easy to generate enough power to run the equipment."

            "So I won't be moving to town yet," she decided.  "Will when they're grown."

            "I can put you up when the time comes," Bert offered. 

            "Thanks," she said sincerely, knowing that he was offering to feed her as well.  She chuckled.  "Guess I'll ride home after."

            Bert moved to the door.  "Want to have a look?"

            "Yeah!" she said, enthusiastically.  As they walked to the makeshift home where the newcomers were using artificial wombs to grow a wide variety of animals from the fertilized eggs they had brought, Bert questioned her about life at her family home.  He mainly wanted to know what there was of an ecology and how likely it was to take hold.  The Fransworths also had new neighbors, a newcomer couple who had established a claim and were about to start a family.  They visited often and the Fransworth family did not mind the company.

            Once there, Bert gave her a tour, stopping occasionally to exchange pleasantries and talk shop with the folks who were there.  The newcomers had grown insects and small land animals first and had set up an enclosed garden with new plants.  As Bert showed her the arrangement, he explained that they were slowly releasing the imported life in promising areas and residents had donated topsoil to give the new species a better chance.

            There were also livestock pens.  The newcomers had kept live sheep, pigs and chickens on board their craft for food and had grown more barnyard animals recently.  Nittie perked up as she saw four small foals inside one of the pens. She watched them adoringly.

            "They plan to grow these four females and then implant them with embryos, which will be born normally," Bert revealed.
            "Make's sense," Nittie concluded.  "Looks like it'll be at least a year before any are ready to be trained."

            "You're the expert," Bert conceded.  He waved to a stocky woman who was working nearby.  "Hey, Anna," he said in greeting. "This is Nittie Fransworth, the lady I told you about."  He turned to Nittie.  "Anna here has been put in charge of the horses."

            Anna's round face lit up.  "Bert told me about the deal," she said.  "Thank you so much, I don't know what we would do with our horses without your help."

            Nittie smiled sheepishly.  "I'm just happy to be in on it.  Helps us all to have horses."  Nittie and Anna chatted enthusiastically, planning.  Bert wandered about, looking around but staying within sight.  Anna showed Nittie around and explained how some of the equipment worked, then Nittie invited Bert and Anna to join her and Jeena at Adele's.

            "I have to talk to someone and then I'll be along," Anna said.

            Nittie and Bert went ahead.  As they were making their way down the street and talking shop, they met Rashta Almira coming the other way. 

            "Bert!  Hello," she greeted.

            "Hey!"  he said with casual enthusiasm.  Mrs. Almira gave Nittie a curious look.  "Nittie Fransworth, Rashta Almira," Bert said, gesturing to each.

            "Oh, ah," Mrs. Almira said awkwardly.  "Dan Fransworth's wife?  May I have a word?"

            "Shoot," Nittie invited.

            "I am sorry that I accused you and yours over my husband's death," she blurted.

            Nittie laughed.  "I wouldn't a known you had if you hadn't told me," she pointed out.  "Forget about it.  I'd a been just as upset if something had happened to my Daniel.  How are you getting along?"

            "I'm back on my feet," she said.  "I have a job here in town.  I hear you are going to train our horses."

            That got the two woman talking and Mrs. Almira accepted Nittie's invitation to come to Adele's.  When Anna joined them, it became apparent that Rashta was working with her, helping to grow animals.  That evening, Bert borrowed a shuttle and took Nittie and Jeena home, but Nittie returned to town when the horses were ready to be trained.  While working together, Anna and Rashta became her good friends.  Once the first generation of riding horses was ready, Nittie chose a strong-looking stallion as her pick, trained a co-worker to take over for her and said her goodbyes.  She rode home, taking with her as much in the way of supplies as her new horse could carry, including hay and seeds for crops that had not been available until recently.  As she rode, she noticed the clouds.  Normally the sky was always clear blue, as there had not been enough water for clouds to form.  She wondered if someone, somewhere had used a shuttle to wrangle a comet or something.  It had been suggested. 

            "Some day it will rain here," she mumbled to herself, smiling.



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