The meeting was not going well.
“I appreciate you taking the time, Sergeant Barnes,” the businessman, Travers, said kindly as he leaned forward in his chair and linked his hands on the table before him. It was the sort of earnest gesture that was undoubtedly meant to seem warm. “We have reviewed your plan most carefully, and because we will adopt some of the recommendations you’ve suggested, I will insist that we pay you a fee for your help.”
As much as he wouldn’t admit it, those words actually took some of the sting out of what Edwin Barnes knew was coming next.
“But for the mission itself, we have decided to go with a different provider of security.”
There it was. As he heard the familiar words, the ex-Sergeant – who still wore his khaki, perhaps in defiance of some regulation, but not one ever enforced on the new world – sat back in his chair, withholding a sigh.
“Again, Sergeant, I do apologize for having spent so much of your time on our expedition. But the costs ultimately forced us to go in a different direction.”
At least Travers did seem genuinely displeased about the situation. After nearly a month of having Barnes’ outfit review plans, prepare manifests, and write reports, the New Horizon mission in search of coal deposits on the grasslands would undoubtedly hire some clumsy American gunmen for protection.
“Sir, might I ask what service you have chosen?” Barnes’ deep voice – strengthened by many years of soldiering for Queen Victoria in Africa – made that question sound most ominous, and the businessman shrugged somewhat uncomfortably.
“I don’t believe that would be appropriate…”
“Sir,” Barnes might have been out of the army, but he had not surrendered the ability to make his orders felt. “After a month working for you, I believe my men and I have earned the right to know why we have been released.”
Travers appeared truly sympathetic, and Barnes supposed that meant the decision about what security to hire might have come from above. There was always a superior officer, or businessman, to mess around with operations in the field. Rarely did those higher-rankers want to know the real cost of doing the job right.
Now Travers looked away, scanning the inside of his rented office before returning his gaze to Barnes, “An American outfit came together and made the bid, Sergeant. Not the Pinkertons, but men with experience fighting Indians. They asked for the same pay as you and your men, but they came with their own supplies.”
Of course they did. Edwin Barnes had never been an accomplished liar, and now he made no effort to keep the disdain off his face. Perhaps had he been an officer and a gentleman, he would have been more inclined to politely absorb the news, but neither of those words applied to the career soldier. He was a veteran of many colonial wars, and his men now relied upon him to find them a living on this new planet.
“Sir, your board has made the wrong decision,” he made his words direct. “The cost of real security cannot be cut. Cowboys who protect wagon trains might get your expedition safely beyond the clutches of a few bandits, but it takes soldiering to protect a column out as far as you mean to go. If your board cannot pay for real protection, I suggest you do not take part in this mission. Mister Travers, you have been a gentleman in dealing with us, so I advise you not to risk your life that way.”
It was perhaps a very blunt and forward thing for a Sergeant to say to a gentleman, but Barnes had never been good at masking the truth, and the new world seemed to encourage forthrightness. On this planet, any man was supposed to be able to make his fortune, and while Barnes didn’t fancy himself a miner or homesteader, he and his men had figured some of those seeking wealth would require their skills.
But in the midst of the feverish hunt for gold and riches, it seemed as though every gunhand who’d once ridden in the wild west – or wished they had, since that territory was now becoming civilized – had come to offer protection. All of them made bold claims about guarding people and businesses, and they promised to do so at prices that were patently ridiculous.
Sergeant Edwin Barnes had spent too many decades wearing red, then khaki, to give up on his professionalism now. He had been stubbornly waiting for an employer who would spend what was necessary for true security… but after many months, that stubbornness continued to keep him and his outfit from finding work. They were always – always – underbid, and sometimes the companies that opted for the cheapest price turned up in newspaper headlines: expedition goes missing.
Now, Barnes’ candid prediction darkened Travers’ expression, “I appreciate that you are disappointed, Sergeant, but it hardly seems necessary to make such claims. The outfit we have hired does have savage experience, and this afternoon, I will be riding out to see their camp…”
Barnes’ expression must have soured further, for the businessman let his words trail off. Again deploying only the most limited diplomacy, the Sergeant offered another opinion: “Shooting up a few savages that wander into a town is not the same as protecting an expedition in the field, sir. We know very little about these savages. They look like white men, but the stories of how they fight are fearsome. Just because they seem primitive does not make them weak, or foolish. Only experienced soldiers who have faced real warriors can understand how mighty a supposedly-savage foe can be.”
Though he himself had only seen a few savages since arriving in the new world, Barnes knew enough about the creatures – who did indeed appear to be feral white men – to realize that American gunmen casually expecting to shoot up wild animals were bound for a rude surprise.
In years past, the Sergeant had heard some men dismiss Africa’s black ‘savages’ – including warriors of the Ashanti and Zulu Kingdoms – as primitives. Those men had learned hard lesson, Isandlwana most famous among them. Prudence and planning were the only way to ensure survival when facing such adversaries, but when it came to the savages of the new world, men gripped by a lust for fortunes seemed only too willing to be dismissive.
And Travers was not immune.
Finally pushing himself to his feet, the businessman shook his head: “I certainly hope you’re incorrect, Sergeant. But I will remember your warning. Thank you for your care about our expedition. My clerk will provide you a cheque in the amount of $150 for your troubles. Please see him on the way out.”
At least there was the money, because God knew, the men of Barnes’ outfit were nearly broke. The Sergeant had insisted that none of them pick up jobs on the side, so that the reputation of their little company would not be impugned by talk that his veterans were unhireable at their own work. Soon, there might be no option… but $150 would help keep them going a little longer.
“Yes sir,” Barnes came to his feet, and though he knew Travers to be naïve, he recognized he had no further case to make. One thing a veteran Sergeant in Victoria’s army well understood was when to quit trying to get an officer to abandon a foolish idea. This businessman was just like an officer – he was being polite, as was his place, but he was also making it clear that his orders wouldn’t change.
“Thank you,” Barnes then added, remembering his wife’s instructions that he be polite, no matter what.
“And thank you, Sergeant,” Travers replied, then extended his hand across the table. Barnes looked at that hand for just a second, then reached out and took it before leaving the room – and the long-desired contract – behind.