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O’Darby and the Ducks (1988)

O’Darby and the Ducks (1988)

©1988, 2013 b Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1988). O’Darby and the Ducks. Unpublished short story.






O’Darby and the Ducks

A Short Story by Dallas Denny


Battle-scarred and weary, me and O’Darby hit dirt on Vancha IV and proceeded to raise pure-D hell. After a while we were broke and scabbed-up from fighting and screwing and we still had ten days of leave. As there was no telling when we would have any more R&R, and as there had been some difficulties with the Ground Patrol, we weren’t anxious to hurry back to the Nelson Mandela. We fled the hastily-erected fleshpots for the flat green fields which lay just outside of town.

Vancha IV was a farm world which had the advantage (or disadvantage, according to some of the natives) of lying some distance behind the front lines. It had been hastily equipped to handle the recreational needs of tens of millions of fighting men, human and otherwise. There were no end of tent cities, filled with alcohol, drugs, gambling, and play-for-pay, but underneath the tinsel there was the rich smell of dirt, and beneath the tin-panny sound of synthesized piano, crickets—or what passed for crickets on Vancha IV—chirped. We found ourselves in a lot of outdoors: mile-square fields with straight lines, in which grew Earth products such as watermelon, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, mangos, potatoes, wheat, corn, beans, peas, okra, pineapple, and soybeans, and bioengineered produce such as totapples and Mingfruit.

We slept the first night amidst corn rows and made a breakfast of roasting ears. Come morning, we pushed on toward a row of low hills, getting there about midday. We found ourselves alongside the muddy brown waters of a river, watching it flow sluggishly past. After a time, O’Darby spotted a rowboat lying in the weeds, and nothing would do but we put it in the water and see if it would float. It did. O’Darby cast about until he found the weathered paddles, and we shoved off, floating downstream. Soon we had left the orchard-covered hills and entered a wilder area. Steep bluffs passed on either side of the bow. Tall Earth-style trees overhung the banks. O’Darby dozed in the shade, and I sat quietly, occasionally rowing a bit to keep us in midstream and watching the wildlife and foliage as we drifted.

An hour or so after we set out, I heard gunshots in the distance. O’Darby did too; his battle-honed nerves caused him to jump up, nearly upsetting the boat.

“Damn!” he growled. “Why didn’t we bring weapons?”

“Maybe because we weren’t allowed to,” I suggested mildly. O’Darby just grunted at me.

The shots grew louder. When we judged them to be just downstream, O’Darby stood, and pushing his oar against the bottom, guided us into a huge ball of roots and leaves along the shore.

I peered through the tangle, but could make out nothing. O’Darby scrambled up a ladder of roots, peering over the top. After a minute I joined him.

“Recreation at work,” he said, in staccato fashion. “Prosaurians.”

We pushed away from the bank and rounded the bend. The bluffs fell away on both sides, and on a spit of land, I could see the aliens. They were lizard-men— Vegans, from the look of them. Our allies. Soldiers, like us, on furlough, looking like crocodiles on two legs. One of them was holding an old Earth-style double-barreled shotgun. He wore an orange hunting vest filled with .12 gauge shells. The other bent down and picked up something small and white and fuzzy. After a second, he tossed it into the air. The other prosaurian raised the gun and fired both barrels. The fuzzy something, which I could see was a newly-hatched chicken, dissolved in a mist of blood and bone and white fuzz. Orange Vest broke the gun, pulled two shells from the loops in the vest, and reloaded. He held up two fingers. His compatriot reached into a box and picked up two chicks. He tossed up one and then the other. Orange Vest hit the first one in midair, missed the second. He broke the gun, reloaded hastily, and shot the second in the water. It had been swimming gracefully, not thrashing about as a chicken would have. It was, I realized, a duckling, liberated, doubtless, from one of the locals.

We had floated closer, and the two lizard-men saw us. They stood quietly, facing us. O’Darby raised his palms to them and told me to pole us ashore. I didn’t like it, but I did as he ordered.

“Evening,” O’Darby said pleasantly. One of the lizard men said something in a high-pitched voice in a language I didn’t understand.

“You gents speak System English?” he asked? “Farsi? Spanish?” They just looked at him thickly.

O’Darby brightened visibly. “It’s obvious they don’t,” he said to me. Then to them: “You scuzzbuckets never mind us. We’ll sit right here and watch.”

One of the lizards said something. O’Darby nodded his head up and down. “And the horse you rode in on,” he said cheerfully. “You boys drew your share of ugly units, didn’t you?” He pointed to a spot on the bank and sat there, nodding and grinning. I remained in the boat, my pole holding the boat against the current. I wanted to be out of there. Vegan Prosaurians have a nasty reputation. They were armed, and we weren’t, and I didn’t want them getting any notions—like about what they were going to use as targets when they ran out of baby ducks. But mostly, I was sick of killing. I did it when I had to, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to be on down the river, away from this scene, away from the violence, floating peacefully along. Floating forever. No guns, no sergeants, no routine. Just floating.

The lizards conferred, and then turned away, ignoring us. Orange Vest gave the shotgun to his counterpart and continued the game of duck-skeet.

A bit of wind-borne down tried to land on my upper lip. It gave me a sick feeling. I blew it away and looked around. The rocks and vegetation were splashed with blood. How many ducks had they shot? Fifty? A hundred? I stood, rating an annoyed glance from the vestless lizard. I saw four empty crates and perhaps ten ones full of baby ducks. All of them were quacking. How could I have missed the noise?

I picked up a stick as it floated by and poked O’Darby in the back with it. “Let’s go,” I said to him. He just shook his head.

The lizards emptied the box of ducklings and started on another. O’Darby seemed to be having a good time. Well, to each his own, I thought. I’d seen enough gore in the Rigelian system to last a lifetime, and the blood-and-gunpowder smell was making me sick.

O’Darby just sat there until they finished the box. As they began on the next, he cleared his throat in a sort of mild-mannered way. It was a small sound, and doubtless an alien one to the lizards. I’m not sure why it rated a reaction from them, but one of them turned to look at O’Darby.

“Let me,” he implored them, holding his arms out with his handd up, opening and closing them. “Let me try it.” He seemed tense and strained. The lizards put their heads together, and then answered by turning away: no. O’Darby cocked his head to one side, thinking, and then reached into his pocket and pulled out his harmonica. He thumped it against his palm and blew a few notes on it, and then set it on the rock at arm’s length. Orange Vest walked over and picked it up and put it to his broad mouth. After a time, he was able to get a sound out of it. He took it out of his giant maw, regarded it skeptically for a moment, and then held the shotgun out at arm’s length.

You’ve got to understand about O’Darby and his Marine Band harmonica. He’d carried it since he was a kid. He played it daily. You can’t find them anymore. It was without a doubt the only harmonica in the quadrant. I’d seen him refuse to part with it for sums a hundred times its worth. I couldn’t begin to understand why he was trading it to these ratbastard reptiles.

O’Darby took the gun, broke it, and held his hand out for shells. Orange Vest removed one from a loop and thrust it at him. O’Darby didn’t like that. He put up two fingers. Orange Vest just looked at him. O’Darby shook two fingers in front of the massive head. The prosaurian just stood there, immobile as only a reptile can be. O’Darby did a little dance, stamping his feet and waving his arms. Orange Vest remained motionless. Finally, he reached for the gun. O’Darby jerked it away.

“All right, you sumbitch,” he said. “I’ll go with just the one shell. Throw the damn duck.” He stood back and raised the shotgun to firing position, turned three-quarters away from the prosaurians, the gun pointing out over the water. No-Vest picked up a baby duck.

“Pull, Goddammit,” O’Darby said. No-Vest tossed the duckling into the air. O’Darby tracked it in its arc, and then deliberately swept past it, away from the river and right past No-Vest. He let Orange Vest have it right in the kisser.

The blast took off the back of the big lizard’s head. It made a sort of sighing sound and crumpled, and O’Darby bent to grab a shell out of the vest.

“Look out!” I yelled, but it was too late. No-Vest had raised and swung his massive tail. As O’Darby looked up, it caught him full in the face. I heard his neck snap. He was thrown violently backwards.

No-Vest turned to face me.

“It’s cool,” I said, sweating. “No problem.” I dropped the pole and put both arms above my head in what I hoped was a universal gesture of surrender. No-Vest picked up the shotgun, and I knew I was dead. I scrambled out of the boat and through the water and across a section of ankle-deep mud and went on all-fours up the river bank, expecting at any moment to get it full in the back. But no shot came. I took a quick look back as I reached the top of the bank. No-Vest hadn’t moved to load the weapon. He was staring sadly at his cohort. After a moment he turned and swung the shotgun heavily against a rock, splintering the stock. Again and again, he smashed the gun against the rock. Finally he stopped, walked over to the river’s edge, and dropped the battered barrel into the water.

I stood at the top of the bank and watched No-Vest to see what he would do next. He reached into a box, picked up two baby ducks, and looked at them for a minute. Then, bending, he placed them gently in the water.

I made my way to his side and helped him put the rest of those ducklings in the water. There were a lot of them, and as it was a warm day, it was sweaty work. Finally, we were done. No-Vest turned to me and said something in his high-pitched croak, waving his arms expansively. “Yeah, I said. “Damn shame, war.” I don’t know exactly what he said then, but I’m sure he agreed with me. Then he turned and picked up the body of his fallen friend and trudged away up the bank.

It was a difficult pull upriver without O’Darby’s help. I had a lot of time to think.

I’m still not sure why O’Darby did it—whether he wanted to shoot those baby ducks so badly he was willing to give up his mouth organ— or whether he wanted to get the shotgun in order to somehow stop the slaughter. Maybe he shot the lizard in a momentary rage because he was denied an extra shell to shoot ducks— and maybe he’d been outraged at the slaughter and had planned to take out both of the saurian. I would like to think the latter, but war does strange things to men. Compassion wasn’t a quality for which O’Darby was famous. Still, I would prefer to think he was revolted and repulsed by the slaughter.

And that’s how I came by this harmonica, and why I’ll never sell it.