The Incident at Women’s Town

Sarah shot the emissary on a blazing hot day in the middle of a Cycle. She weren’t wrong. He’d got fresh. Only the thing was it was hard to tell just how fresh he’d got acause the girl was dying herself.

Proof, that was what the Men allus needed. Proof, proof, proof. As if it wasn’t enough finding the emissary in there every day with the fever patient. On her last legs she was, warm as the sun and breath so sour of sick and starvation your nose curdled as you walked in the door. Weren’t a thing to keep you in that room unless you was a doctor, but swear that emissary was in there every day, a-talking and a-touching on her. She weren’t even of childbearing age!

Sarah’d tried to do it by the book. The day she’d got back from finding herbs, the blue-yellow columbines down beyond the rivers, she’d rode back that noon and gone straight in the doctor-lady’s shop. She’d brought her medicinal flowers in, only there weren’t no one in the front room. Sick of wasting a day she coulda had for hunting, that she’d used up just getting these weeds, she’d hopped the counter and gone in the hall. She’d barged into one of the back rooms there, snapping, “got them already, now weight them an be done so I can” and then she’d saw: the emissary, a-lying full length on that bed, on his side, one hand under the blankets; the girl close-eyed and red-faced and mewling.

Well Sarah dropped them flowers and pulled her revolver, held it with its mouth pointing at the ceiling. “You get your hands on back to you, sir.”

And what’d got her–why, in the end, she’d shot him–was how he smiled. Oh, how he smiled. He looked a cat with a cream. “You can’t shoot me. I’m an emissary.”

He might’ve been a man, and that might’ve swayed another, but Sarah was bare and she didn’t see why any bearer might be above the law.

“You just take your hands on back, sir, an come with me out this room.”

The emissary smiled like a mule chewing on briars and slowly–slowly–pulled his hand back. The girl coughed a few times and turned from him, eyes still closed, mouth still puffing fever into the room. The emissary looked down at her, wiping his hand on his pants, and lowered his face to her hair –

Sarah clicked the safety off and pointed the revolver at him. “You just step outside with me, sir.”

The emissary looked at her, then shrugged and got lazily up from the bed. He sauntered on round it and past Sarah like she was a wooden post, out the hall. He started to make a break out the back door but Sarah’d got behind him, and she tripped him up so he fell on his chin. Then she’d got his collar and dragged him up, out, and round the building, into the street.

Main Street had people, even in this hot time. Women going about their business in shops and behind walls. Girls with their hats pulled down, wide brims shading them from the worst sun. “Hear me!” Sarah called, in a loud, ringing voice. “Hear me now! I’ve caught a criminal and I am now about to do him justice!”

It was the ‘him’ that brought them. Women looked up, came to their doors, stood on their porches. Some even came down and near, pulling on hats or shirts agin the sun. A good few of them wore the white kerchief of bearers somewhere on them, tied round arms or necks, or folded poking out from back pockets–subtle, but so’s you knew. Girls came to cluster round. A few raced off to spread the news.

Sarah waited til she had enough of a crowd. She let the emissary’s collar go and pushed him so he stumbled a few steps away. He couldn’t run–the women saw to that. They gathered round behind him, looks of opprobrium on their faces.

Sarah took a gander at him as he recollected himself. Wearing the emissary’s white, he was, white cotton suit that stood well on him and set off his skin nicely. He was a pretty-faced one, but some women liked them like that. Emissaries came young, anyhow. He hadn’t got a weapon, which also figured–it was why he was allowed to walk freely in town.

The emissary stood himself up straight, tugged at his hems, and settled himself. He looked up at her. “Well?”

Sarah looked round. “Any willing to jury?” She saw nods, curious looks, excited jumps from the little girls. “All right. I have here a snap jury of more’n five. Do you see this? Is this justice?”

Heads nodded in the crowd.

“Then I will begin it now.” Sarah turned back to the emissary. “Emissary!” she pointed at him. “I stand you accused of taking liberties with a girl!”

“Do you now?” The emissary shrugged and checked his nails.

“I do! I accuse you of been taking liberties with her a long time now! That fever patient –” she looked aside into the crowd, where someone muttered ‘Clarabell’–“Clarabell! You been in her room most every time I’ve been by there, you been a-touching and fondling her since you arrived, and today–today you was in there with your hands on her! Do you deny it?”

The emissary’s lips curled up in a smile and he did not respond.

“Do you deny it?” Sarah said again.

“I was only checking to see if she might be biddable,” the emissary yawned. “Surely there ain’t no harm in that.”

“You check that,” Sarah growled, “by asking her mother, you whore.” Murmurs in the crowd. “You check that by asking another, or by waiting til she’s of age, and not having at her like she was after you!” Gasps behind her.

“But she was after me,” the emissary said. Sarah’s gun-arm snapped up, but the emissary waved his hand. “Oh, leave off. You wouldn’t shoot me. I’m here to provide you the one thing you women need, at least the bearers of you. I been father of five already, you wouldn’t dare.”

Sarah gritted her teeth but pulled the gun back. “It’d be justice.”

“What’s more important, justice or a living child?” the emissary smiled smugly. “You wouldn’t shoot me. You need me.”

“It is true,” the crowd murmured behind her. “We do need a stud.”

“We can get another,” another woman snapped. “They’ll trade. They have before.”

“They’ve at least two others,” another voice said. “I’ve saw ‘em –”

“When did you see that?”

“Last Trade–walking around in their whites, they was–”

“Hear that, little man, you’re replaceable!”

“But I’m here now, and they ain’t,” the emissary said. “You want the trouble of going through a whole nother Trade? Or you want to just leave this all behind us and go on? Come now, it don’t matter none. She ain’t my child.”

“-still a girl–”

“But she won’t be, soon enough,” the emissary said. “Her blood’s coming soon enough, an she’ll be after me again, right as rain, like as any of you women. Or maybe–” he shrugged. “Maybe it won’t, an she’ll be bare, an then what’s the harm done?”

“The harm is in what you done,” snapped Sarah above the crowd. “A child, emissary! A child, she is!”

The emissary just smiled. And that smile, that smile like a mule eating saw-briars, that smile like he done over the girl’s own body–

Sarah whipped her revolver up and shot him.

Well, as it so-just happened, the crowd of jury round Sarah agreed with her that day, or agreed it was right and true justice. There was indeed some temporary dissenters–bearers, most of them, using the emissary’s face and figure to argue it a waste, killing him right there, instead of getting a last ride before shipping him back off to Men’s Town, or to the Center for justicing–but not a one of them disagreed that justice had needed to be done. Even the mayor, as she arrived and was told the story, took up longside Sarah.

“Though I’ll warn you this,” she told Sarah that night at the tavern, huddled in a corner of the bar for quiet, “Men’s Town, they ain’t gonna like it. You shot one’a theirs, an no matter how right you was–an I ain’t saying you ain’t–they’ll be after you in the next Trade. You just watch.”

And sure enough, that next missive from Men’s Town called for a justicing at the Center.

It couldn’t be right away, of course. Those out on the hunt’d just called back in with a new-bagged screecher and two whole wurms, and anyone hale and able had to head on out and pick the meat from them now and early afor the scavengers descended. They lost a week on that, picking the meat and returning to town, then another in preparing it, smoking and salting and pickling and stuffing the rest in the town’s freezer, as full as it’d have. Meanwhilst, the girl Clarabell died of her fever, and without opening her mouth none on what, exactly, the emissary’d done with her. They lost another week interviewing round, gathering evidence and compiling interviews from the girls the emissary’d had his hands on. There was more than one. Women’s Town got angry at that, all of them, and there was some missives back and forth with Men’s Town raising some serious ideas.

Finally, though, there weren’t no more putting it off. On another blazing hot day in what’d been forcibly turned into Between-Cycles, Sarah, the mayor, and a few other women sent a last missive to Men’s Town, then rode on out to the Center.

Three days’ ride brought them in. The Center was a white and shining building, bright and conspicuous here in the red and purple rocklands. It was one of the few places with a wide enough flatland to commodate a shuttle, so a shuttlepad was set up there behind it, up on the butte, radio towers belled and electric-fenced agin wildlife.

They made it in good time afor sunset. That was a piece of luck. The Men from Men’s Town didn’t arrive in til after, and looked as if they’d run their horses hard the last few miles. Sweating and bad-tempered they was, all the same but the colors of their skins. Men’s Town allus did send the same Men to deal at the Center. Big ones, arrogant ones, stolid, with weathered faces–nothing like the emissaries, who were a varied lot but mostly young, and mostly good-looking.

But for emissaries and pictures, most Women never even got to see what a Man looked like, and prolly the same on the Men’s side towards Women. It weren’t a wonder the emissaries was so popular–the center of every Trade, and the reason for Cycles.

The Men came up past the labs and into the second-floor court-room. Center-folk chivvied them over to their fenced-off side, then set up guards along both Women’s and Men’s fences, blank-eyed, heavy-vested, and hands casual on their belts, close to their guns.

They were mostly bearers. This much time inside and anyone would be. Asides, Center-folk had to bear more Center-folk.

“Ready?” the Judge said. That one was neither man nor woman, a type you didn’t hardly get out in the Towns, and if you did they got snapped up by the Center soon’s they was identified in the womb. They was perfect as Center-folk: couldn’t be said to be biased Men’s ways nor Women’s.

The Women took their eyes off the Men, turned forward, and nodded. The Men took their eyes off the Women, turned forward, and nodded.

“Then,” the Judge said. “I’m here to justice the case of the shooting death of Davie-of-Mora-and-Avery, by way of execution by Sarah-of-Maisie-and-Jem. To recapitulate the case, though I’m sure of it you all know it by now, Sarah alleges that Davie was handling the young girl Clarabell-of-Vella-and-Bryce. As it’s known, the handling of any not yet childbearing age is a fatal crime, and the shooting of Davie would then be a lawful one. Sarah, aught to say on this?”

“Yes’n,” Sarah nodded, and came forward. She launched into the whole of it, sparing nothing, not a single revolting detail. The Judge nodded after they finished.

“Have you proof? Women, open speech.”

“The proof of witnesses ain’t come along,” the mayor said, taking up some papers she’d brought. She kept one and handed two to a guard, who gave one the Judge and one the Men. The Judge bent over the paper. The Men crowded round theirs, lips moving as they read.

“These are eyewitnesses as seen Davie round not just Clarybell, but a number other girls. Additional to that, he took awful fond to the younger bearers, without an eye for the older.”

“Ain’t hardly a surprise,” someone muttered from the Men’s side.

“Order!” the Judge snapped. “You will shut your mouth, Jessro-of-Alvina-and-Avery, else I’ll have you out this Center! Am I clear?”

The man the Judge’d yelled at nodded.

“Then,” the Judge said. “There’s witnesses. That’s clear. Aught from your side, Men? Closed speech, Women, open speech, Men.”

There was a bit of a huddle-and-whisper on the Men’s side. A good bit of argument was cut off, and a few smiles and frowns and muttered invectives. Then the Men broke up and turned forward, and one came to the fore.

“We have come to an agreement an accept this evidence. Davie allus was over-eager for his time, an anyone arguin it weren’t in him to take to those ain’t old enough would be lyin to himself.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Love for a brother ain’t make it right,” he said to one of them, then looked back at the judge. “Still, it’s justice been taken out of his brothers’ hands an essecuted by an outsider.” Here he turned to look at Sarah. “An that ain’t right, neither. So we’ll be taking her life for the Trade.”

Ten Women snapped and sware at once, an ten Men snapped right back at them, an there was cussing an carryin on without pause til the Judge turned up the mic and overrode them all. “WILL YOU BE SILENT,” they ordered, and both sides recollected themselves and backed off. Little muttering left, but nothing that the Judge, mic still on, couldn’t talk right over.

“Aside that interruption. Men! Have anything more to say?”

The Man in the fore was sweating with frustration. He nodded. “As I was goin to say, but I weren’t done. We do understand the justice she done–”

“It’s a sickening thing,” an older Man averred behind him, and the Man at the fore looked back, then nodded out of the way. The older Man stepped up. “Bein a son of Men’s Town, we did have love for him, but so heinous a thing as he did–I did read the missives,” he nodded at the mayor, then looked back up at the Judge. “Nobody should be left alive of doing such a thing, an were he at that in our own Town, we’d’ve dealt him justicing our ownselves.”

The Judge nodded.

“So,” the older Man looked back to the Women. “We’d overlook the strictest life-for-life only in the case of two-for-four Trade, an a new Cycle. Give it a tie-out and two-for-four, an we’ll call it a fair justice.”

The Judge looked over to the Women’s side to see if this was going to be contended, but the Women were silent. Not a one of them looked at each other. They knew what was being said, here.

“So?” the Judge prompted. “Would this be acceptable to the Women?”

The Women but looked once at each other. Then the mayor stood forth, and nodded.

“Then justicing cleared, and passed.” The Judge struck the gavel down. “Now, if you can speak without getting your backs up, you may parley the terms. Open speech, both parties.”

Trade terms was set to the usual. Two-for-four wasn’t the fairest of fair, but it weren’t unusually bad–and there was enough Women back in town eager at the idea of trying some Men out for a Cycle that it was all able to be talked out with only the minorest of wrangling.

Of course, Sarah didn’t get to see none of it: immediate the justicing concluded, she got taken down to the lockup out back. That was outside the Center walls, though not outside the fences, nor past the Fence: evidently clear anyone getting locked up out here wasn’t valuable enough for them to waste their precious chemicaled air on.

It was all right, though, considering. No one took her belongings, excepting her gun and knife, so Sarah out with a deck of cards and laid out a patience game to keep herself occupied. Quiet and peaceful, with just a Center lady–probably a lady, couldn’t tell clearly in the protective gear–to watch over her. The mayor and the other Women got to see her a few times along the proceedings, allus bringing news on how the doings went. It got boring, cooped up, so Sarah perked up anytime someone’s shadow crossed the outer door. That always meant a good half-hour of talk. All and all, and given the deal, it weren’t so bad.

Eventually it come to the end of the dealings; the mayor did a last visit to take her farewells, and wish Sarah well; most of the other women came, too. And as night fell, Sarah settled in to a penultimate evening of reflection and just waiting.

And then come the afterclap.

Center-folk’d just taken away her dishes–awful good chuck for a prison, went down all right and stayed down–and turned on the blue safetylights when there came a knock. Real quiet knock, too, like it was hoping there wouldn’t be no one there. The Center-lady went up to the outer door and talked for a spell before finally letting that someone in.

That someone was the new emissary.

And how queer that was. Sarah left her spot on the bed and came on over to the bars, but the emissary hurried forward, “don’t, don’t stand up for me, it’s all right!”

Well, she wasn’t going to sit back down, but he stopped outside the bars as the Center-lady sat herself back down at her desk. Just stopped, outside the bars, and hesitated, looking at Sarah.

“I spose you’re wondering why I’m here, aren’t you?”

Well, sure, she was, but it looked like he was going to answer that for her.

And yes: “well, I just wanted to talk to you, really. I’m the new Emissary, one of them, anyway–but I spose you know that, don’t you?” He looked ruefully down at his clothing. Wearing the whites, of course, nicely fitted and well-dolled-up–well, of course they’d want an emissary to look as sweet as he could. This one was a little taller, a little meatier, with an honest, pretty face the bearers’d like, once they saw him. That skin might be honey-colored in the daylight.

“Anyhow–please! Please sit. I do feel like I’m entertaining, here–” and he perched on the bench outside her cell. Sarah sat herself back down on the ground, and waited.

Didn’t have to wait long. “I’d just–really, I just wanted to ask, I wanted to see what–what kind of woman could, could do that.” Was he blushing? “I thought I’d see, I’m curious, you know. I wanted to know before I went an lived there. I mean–all the other women’re–well, you know, they’re older, the ones you sent here, but I saw that picture of you they put out, an I thought, I thought–well, she’s too pretty to kill someone, that couldn’t’ve been her–”

He petered out under Sarah’s stare. “You disbelieved I’d shoot a man on account of how I look?”

“Well–well, I don’t know–I mean, I mean I do know, I do believe he’d do something like that, I knew Davie, he always was talking about, about–” he was blushing, and tripping over his words, now, “about women an their parts an what he’d like to, you know–but–well, it wasn’t what I–I ain’t surprised at him, just that a woman would do something like that. I mean I don’t think they should, should, you know–”

And that sentence never got finished, even with Sarah looking on. Just petered out into blushing and floor-staring. So she leaned back against the cell wall. “Believing in a pervert but not in the justicing. You’re a queer little bird, right enough.”

“I know.” The emissary looked down. “They’re always telling me. That’s why they’re sending me off, stead of Chuck. He’s a better stud, by the tests, but they wanna keep him back for something important. This’ just a minor Trade, an accident, like.”

He fell silent. That got Sarah all-overish. Just a few minutes of his yammering and she could already tell that silence meant bad news. A little girl doing this, she’d be two shakes from bawling her eyes out. Did Men bawl their eyes out? She didn’t know. She’d never talked to a man this much before. Hell, she’d never talked to a man before–not talked proper, nothing more than a passing word. How did you talk to a man?

“Here,” she said. “Chin up. You’ll do fine. You’ll see, you get into town an there’ll be girls making a mash on you in no time flat.”

“They might,” he said, not sounding like he believed it. “Anyway, they kept me up here long enough. Done some shuffling in my genes so’s I can produce better, fitter, they said. Asides, I like the idea of a woman, steada men. So I guess I’ll do alright.”

“I reckon you will,” Sarah agreed.

How did you talk to a man? Sarah waited a bit, but he never said anything, and it didn’t look like he would. Didn’t leave, though. So she was just reaching her cards out when he piped up:

“Just don’t think it’s right they’re going to kill you.”

Sarah looked up sharpish. He didn’t know?

“I mean, it weren’t what you did,” he kept on. “I mean, it was, you did, you shot him, but–given circumstances like that, I wouldn’t blame you, I guess. I mean, I know. I knew Davie. I just don’t–I don’t see why you’d have to die for this Trade to go through. I mean, there’s no feud anymore. Hain’t been since before my fathers. Men’s Town, Women’s Town, we’re civilized, we got the Agreement, we got our laws, so why do you–”

He didn’t know! The poor boy didn’t know they’d done her a deal!

He didn’t know–and she couldn’t tell him, not here. Not in the Center, where they’d be recording every whisper. Center upheld the laws, and if they were playing at lawfulness, she couldn’t spoil it.

So she stood up and reached out between the bars, to grasp his shoulder. “Don’t you worry, now. Don’t you worry about me.”

He looked up, and there was a funny look to his face. Sarah let him go, but he stood up as she did.

“I’d like it if I could invoke First Night with you.”

Sarah frowned in perplexion. “Why?”

“We–well, you’re, if you’re,” he stepped closer to the bars, “I do-,” he stopped. He shook his head, and then looked at her again. “I been soft down on you since I saw that picture. There was a picture they sent, on the records. It ain’t glamourous, an I guess it’s plain, but you–I just-” he took in some breath, “if you’re going to die, I’d like, I’d like to try you–”

“You’re plumb cracked,” Sarah said, and laughed with how strange it was. “I’m not even a bearer, I ain’t had stirring toward women nor men since I was born, I got the romantical sense of a hitching-post, an you–you saying you fell for me?”

He nodded, watching her intently. “I’m saying that.”

She couldn’t help it. She laughed again. Just in bewilderment, and at the idea of a bearer–no, not for Men, the Men called them generatives. A generative! A laughable word, for a laughable, procreative fancy.

“What d’you aim to get out of this?” she asked. “I am bare, you know. I got nothing you want.”

Bearers and generatives. Folks who could make more children. Who could keep this planet alive. Where did that leave people who didn’t want to procreate?

The emissary looked down from her face to her body, then down to the ground. He stepped back. “It’s all I can offer you,” he said. “An I’d like to.”

In the rest of the jobs. As everything else. As people living for themselves, what they wanted to be.

Sarah was a hunter. She was an explorer. She was a woman who’d rode out, far out, to the deep blue sea. Didn’t matter none that she didn’t want to make it with anyone. She’d done enough of her own to be worth something.

The emissary took another step back, then turned. Sarah said, “wait.”

He turned back.

“Could be interesting. Something I never done.” And she nodded. “They probably won’t let you in here, but you can try. Talk to her,” she nodded out at the Center-folk lady. “See if she opens the door. What’s your name, anyway?”

The emissary smiled, slowly, like sunrise over the rocklands. “I’m Ira.”

It took a powerful bit of convincing to get the Center-folk lady to let up the bars to Sarah’s cell, her chief logic being that Sarah’d just killed one emissary, and who was to stop her from doing in another? Ira finally talked her round, though–Sarah thought the lady’s finally given in just to be shut of his pestering–and he finally got in, and the Center-folk lady off outside to give them some time private.

He got to doing things. It weren’t bad, nor particular good. She was mostly indifferent, excepting when he got so familiar she felt ticklish and uncomfortable, and had to tell him to stop. He backed down on a dime, though, never did never did try to incommodate her. Never did get fresh, just touchy, and clearly he did love touching. It was interesting–she could see how a woman who liked this might like a man or woman who could provide it. A nice passtime, if one wanted that. The most comfortable thing was when he fell asleep on her, head on her stomach, arms round her back; then Sarah herself cricked her legs more comfortable, threw her arms behind her neck, and leant back to sleep herself.

The next morning, they told him to leave. Like a dog with his tail between his legs, he did.

The day after that, they brought her to what was supposed to be her death.

Center-folk took her out, bound her hands, then walked her down along the Fence. Two tall, pale-blue-slatted fences either her; rolls of concertina around electrified wiring along top. A long, egg-blue tunnel, up and up the slopes, all the way up til they came out onto a tiny dais, just a couple rounds of electric wiring round it, a post in the center.

Center-folk took her up there, tied her to the post, and left.

And that was it. Exposure, here, to do the rest. Animals, maybe. The rocklands were good places for screechers’ nests. They’d wait til she was dead, or near enough, from the sun and the wind and the starving, and then swoop on down and pluck her apart.

That was what was supposed to happen. It probably did, to some. There was bleached bones about.

Sarah leant back agin the post and waited.

She waited. The sun was fierce, but she was dark-skinned enough it weren’t painful so much as bothersome. The wind was fierce, but that was just to be expected, up here. The thirst grew fierce, and ah, now that she had to wait through. She could, though. Some purroot’d be nice to chew on, so she wouldn’t dry out entirely, but–well, they didn’t put her here for her comfort.

She could see out, far out, unobscured, both sides of the Fence. Funny–only place you could see the Men’s Land and the Women’s Land both was at the place they both sent you to be killed. She looked out along the bordeau-and-red rocks, the long swipe down into valley, then up again into mesas out in the distance–and the pale-blue line of the Fence, running a straight shot down the center of things, white Center-buildings strung along it like beads.

It was a clear day, and long. Near after sunset–bright and blazing, the sun getting round and orange in a clear sky so dark blue it looked like deep ocean–near after sunset, she saw some figures riding. Off on her left, in Women’s country.

It took til fussed dark for them to reach her. The mayor and two others–Tabitha and Bridget, looked like. With them, an extra horse–Sarah’s own. Those two didn’t say nothing, just climbed off their horses, pulled out horse-blankets and hemp ties and rubber gloves, and set to making the wiring surmountable. Meanwhilst, the mayor scrounged in her saddlebags, then come up behind them, waiting til they could all wrangle their way through.

They did, in time. Tabitha got the cuffs off. The mayor went along the far side of the dais, and left a couple little-barrels fornent the edge. Then they all made tracks, left the post out there pointing like an empty finger at the great streak of stars.

It was only after an hour’s ride that they mayor spoke. Sarah was on her own horse, with her saddlebags packed as if for a long hunt out in the wild. They’d been delivered to her like that, and now she rode, waiting to hear the deal.

“A year,” the mayor said.

Sarah nodded. A year sounded right.

“Three barrels hard strap. Hardest of the hard, could last ‘em most of a year if they’re miserly. And we got a new Cycle out of it.”

“How d’you like ‘em?” Sarah asked.

“There’s one’s a finical one,” Tabitha told her. “Likes ‘is dressing up, ‘e does, likes hearing ‘e’s pretty. He is pretty, sure nough. Got a nice handful. He’s no fun, though. Just lies there, like, doesn’t try unless ‘e’s getting his. The other–”

“The other’s a right bit of fun,” Bridget grinned.

“Got a nice mouth on ‘im.”

“Sweet, yeah. Very sweet. Tries anyone, bearer or not.”

“Though you should know,” the mayor chimed in.

Sarah nodded. Well, here was luck, then. A year out in the rocklands–she could do that. She could do that on one leg. Live off the land and the animals. Maybe explore a bit, if they wanted mapping done. And after a year, she could go back–Men’s Town none the wiser, like they played at–go back home to Women’s Town. Maybe have another go at Ira. Maybe not.

A year on her own, in the warm wilds. Under the burning stars, as the first moon rose over the rocklands, she smiled and started planning.