The trio were quickly relieved of their weapons and handcuffed to their seats as the Sheriff and his deputies commandeered the bus and started back to town.
The crew was kept under careful watch by a young bespectacled deputy with murder in his eyes who looked all-too-ready to give them both barrels of his battered shotgun. A bandage on the boy’s head spoke to a recent run-in with trouble and it was obvious he was nursing a grudge. Sheriff Ellis Dayton (as he introduced himself) remarked that "you cons are getting bolder by the day, but if you decide to pay a visit to Evans City you’ll get more than you bargained for.”
As diplomatically as possible, Johnson pointed out that the three of them weren’t exactly sporting prison tats and the regulation shaved heads.
“Then what were you doing out there?” was the Sheriff’s response. Not wanting to cop to an illegal salvage rap, Johnson stayed quiet for the rest of the trip.
Evans City turned out to be a rather optimistic name for a collection of ramshackle buildings at the base of a steep ridge. A large corral kept a few scrawny head of cattle penned in. The tallest structure in town was a shabby-looking church with a battered water tower coming in a close second. The settlement wouldn’t even qualify as a one-mule town was it not for the crew’s bus driving up the main street. Evans noted a couple of gun-toting sentries standing on the rooftops as the bus got closer to the sheriff’s station, a blockhouse that sported a hastily-erected gallows out front.
What grabbed Johnson’s attention though was the shipyard at the far end of town. The familiar shape of a Firefly transport seemed to be craning its neck out over a scattered fleet of weather-beaten boats and parts of boats in an effort to get herself noticed. Blocking the path to the shipyard was a fine manor house, the only two-storey building in town that wasn’t a place of worship. The house looked to be worth more than the rest of the town’s real estate put together.
There was a gaggle of angry-looking ranchers led by a Shepherd waiting for Sheriff Dayton outside the blockhouse as they rolled in, immediately complaining about being forced to stay in town (in the church, no less) when they had their families and homesteads to think about. Dayton responded by saying they were all safer in town than they were in the countryside.
Once the crowd laid eyes on Johnson, Evans and the Doc, their mood changed from irritation to rage. “Are those more cons? String ‘em up!” the shout went out, and the townsfolk immediately started cussing and throwing stones and horse apples at the unlucky PCs. The Sheriff hustled the trio into the blockhouse and slammed the door on the mob.
The police station was open concept, a few desks pushed together in the centre of the room across from which sat an uncomfortable-looking metal bench, a high-tech computer console in one corner and a small jail cell in the far corner. A few doors led off to unknown locations. The crew could see the cell was already occupied by a handful of sunburned, dust-caked ruffians whose orange jumpsuits looked all-too-familiar.
While one deputy trained his gun on the cell’s occupants, another opened the door and the trio was ushered in. Three of the cell’s occupants were over-muscled brutes, but the fourth was a bookish Chinese man with a bandaged leg who was sitting by himself on a bunk in the corner of the cell. All four wore dirty orange jumpsuits. The three bruisers were giving the smaller man a wide berth, which Evans found interesting, so he waltzed over and sat down next to him. Johnson gave the man a closer look and noted that he had small kanji tattoos across his cheeks. He translated the characters (義和團) as “Righteous Harmony Society.”
The Chinese man was sizing up the new arrivals as well, saying “I don’t recognize you from the Jailbird, so I can only assume your incarceration is the result of mistaken identity on the part of these yokels.”
After hearing the man speak, Johnson recognized him as Li Shan, the leader of a tong-backed paramilitary organization known as the Boxers who had made common cause with the Independents during the Unification War. Based on a number of rim worlds and claiming descent from an organization of the same name back on Earth-That-Was, the Boxers were anti-colonial agitators who were opposed to ‘carpetbaggers’ and Alliance interference beyond the core. The Boxers were considered terrorists by the Alliance and regularly featured in propaganda broadwaves. In the case of the Boxers, the reputation was well deserved as they regularly hit soft, civilian targets. Independent faction representatives were always quick to decry the Boxers’ tactics. At the end of the war the Boxers were promised amnesty but when they laid down arms the Alliance branded them ‘unlawful combatants,’ locked them up and threw away the key.
Li Shan was interested to know how the trio wound up in lockdown, and one of the crew mentioned the hijacking. Li Shan apologized for any inconvenience, and then asked if the hijacking had been successful. The crew’s positions on board the ship were then brought to light, and Li Shan found Johnson’s admission that he was a pilot very interesting.
As for Li Shan, he admitted that his compatriots had taken down the Alliance Jailbird after realizing the trip was going to be “one way.” He claimed the Alliance was going to vent the containers into space during a ‘routine prison transfer’ and then cover things up. The ship crash-landed before the rioting prisoners could seize control of the bridge, and the survivor Boxers and other cons immediately began working on a Plan B.
He had been scouting out the local terrain with a few other members of his organization when the sheriff and his deputies stumbled across them. The Boxers of old may have believed themselves impervious to bullets but Li Shan knew better and surrendered after taking a shot to the leg. Two of his men had been gunned down, but there were more Boxers out there, and many more escaped convicts with a lot less discipline and more unresolved issues roaming the countryside.
Li Shan made the group an offer. If they assisted him “when the time was right” and helped him fly he and his comrades off-world, they could keep whatever ship they commandeered from the shipyard just outside of town. Johnson said they’d think about it, and Li Shan told them they "didn’t have long to decide.”
At this point the deputies hauled out the trio one at a time for interrogation. Evans was first, and since he had no ID on his it was the perfect opportunity to bluff the Sheriff. However, he completely blew the opportunity by blurting out his real name. Having given up his name, Evans was otherwise uncooperative and was returned to the cell.
Johnson’s interrogation was next. He told the sheriff that they weren’t passengers on board the crashed transport at all, but that their ship had set down near the wreck earlier that day. When the sheriff started in on charges of conspiracy to commit illegal salvage, Johnson responded by saying it was a rescue operation and he, Evans and the Doc were merely victims of a hijacking. Remembering an earlier conversation with his late captain, Evans said that a regular customer of his salvage operation was a local by the name of Sai McKittrick who could vouch for them.
“Of course McKittrick would be involved,” was the Sheriff’s response. “All the same, we’re hanging onto everybody who walks in out of the wilderness until the Alliance gets here to sort things out. If you are who you say you are, then there shouldn’t be a problem.”
Around this time the paranoid Evans decided that one of his cellmates was looking at him funny and took a swing at him. He immediately found himself in a headlock, having seriously underestimating his opponent’s fighting abilities. As the Doc cowered in the corner the two men tussled, grabbing the attention of everybody in the room. The Sheriff started yelling at the men to break it up and Johnson seriously considered making a play for the lawman’s pistol before remembering that he’d just been fingerprinted and had his ID run through a scanner, so any shenanigans he was like to pull would end up on record, which was something he could not afford at the moment.
A blast from a stun rifle separated the pair of brawlers and a pair of deputies yanked Evans out of the cell while Li Shan looked on with raised eyebrows.
“Guy was looking at me funny,” was the groggy Evans’ only explanation.
Exasperated, the Sheriff said, “you boys want to see McKittrick, then we’ll go see McKittrick, as if I haven’t been yelled at enough today.” Chaining Evans and Johnson together the Sheriff took them out the back door of the blockhouse, leaving the frightened Doc alone for the time being.
It was a short walk up the town’s only street towards the mansion and shipyard at the edge of town. As they were walking a well-dressed man strode out onto the verandah, took in the approaching lawman and marched purposefully towards them.
“Dayton, I’ve a bone to pick with you!” McKittrick argued that Dayton’s men should be concerning themselves with the protection of his property given that his shipyard was the only reason people came to Evans City in the first place. Dayton responded by saying the ships were plenty protected, as the police had a landlock placed on all of them. McKittrick shot back that all it would take was someone to trash the police blockhouse for the ships to be vulnerable again, and Dayton replied saying that it wouldn’t even be an issue if McKittrick would authorize an emergency airlift of the innocent townsfolk to the nearest settlement, called Keyman’s Drift, as a precaution against the marauders.
A larger argument about expropriation and property rights was about to ensue when Johnson stepped in and told McKittrick that they had been crew members on Ox Grant’s boat, Ironmonger. McKittrick remembered Grant fondly and asked how the big Ox was doing, sobering somewhat after Evans told him about the captain’s untimely demise at the hands of hijackers earlier that day.
Taking the two aside for a moment, McKittrick made them an offer – he would vouch for the pair if in return they helped him protect his ships. If they played their cards right they might be able to pick up one of their own at a reasonable rate. McKittrick then told Dayton he’d go as far as to post a bond for the release of the orphaned crew of Ironmonger. Dayton said that wouldn’t be necessary and unlocked their cuffs then and there.
On the way back to the police station Dayton admitted that it was pretty clear from the get-go they weren’t convicts, but that after the ship had crashed, the rescue party sent by the townspeople hadn’t come back at all, and soon after ranchers and local travelers were being accosted by roving gangs in the countryside so everybody was a tad on edge.
Dayton figured that if the convicts got their act together they’d try to boost a ship from McKittrick’s yard. Dayton was concerned that the local townspeople would be caught up in something ugly should it come to blows, and offered the crew a pass on any illegal salvage charges if they would help him convince McKittrick to have the fifty or so locals ferried to safety in the Firefly transport.
With three offers on the table, two of which would see them with ships and one of which would see them with a clean record, Johnson and Evans had a lot of thinking to do. Plus they had to get Doc out of the jail cell before anything unseemly happened to him.