Science Fiction & Fantasy

lightspeed-728x90-burstsoffire

Advertisement

Fiction

The Herd

As long as we’re waiting, why don’t I tell you a little story? You look like the kind of man who could profit by it.

Don’t take offense, now. I meant that as a compliment. You remind me of me, that’s all. I’m a cowhand myself. Or was, anyway. I’ve been up and down the Chisholm Trail so many times I could walk it blindfolded from Brownsville to Abilene.

That’s where my story starts: on the trail. Some time back, you see, me and a dozen other punchers were bringing two thousand head north for the Lone Star Land and Cattle Company. It was going about as smooth as a big drive can — by which I mean no one had died yet — but as we got near the Washita River a squall blew in the likes of which you never saw. The sky didn’t just turn black. It seemed to wink out all at once, like the sun was but a candle and God — or the Devil — had up and snuffed it. Just as quick, the wind went from dead still to near-twister, and the rains that came didn’t fall in drops but bucketloads by the billions. Thank god for the lightning, for though it spooked the beeves, without it we’d have had nothing at all to see by, and said beeves would’ve been wearing us as slippers within seconds.

Well, you know how it goes. The cattle bolted, and off we went with them, riding hell for leather hither and yon. When the storm finally ended and the sun decided to grace us with its presence again, I was relieved to see we still had one nice big herd as opposed to a hundred little ones scattered across all the West. We hadn’t lost a single hand, either, which I counted as a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes.

Of course, there were some strays to round up, and as we set about it, I noticed something peculiar about the terrain thereabouts. Something wrong. The bluffs were higher, the brush sparser and scrubbier and the earth rockier and more yellowed than as should have been. It was like we’d chased those cows all the way to New Mexico over the course of a couple hours.

I might have thought I was getting my dreaming done without benefit of sleep, I was so tired after all we’d been through. But when our cookie called us in at twilight, I discovered I wasn’t the only fellow feeling buffaloed.

“Anyone know where the hell we are?” one of the boys asked as he settled himself by the fire with his plate of frijoles and sinkers.

There was a lot of head shaking and shrugging and comments of the “Damned if I know” variety, and every man there turned to look at Riggs, the trail boss.

“I don’t know either,” he said. “But north is still north. We’ll head that way in the morning, and sooner or later we’ll hit the Washita. It won’t be hard to find the trail from there.”

It couldn’t have been easy — a trail boss admitting he was lost. Riggs just about pulled it off, though. He was a stern, taciturn man with a quiet strength we all respected. But there was a wee problem with what he’d said, and the fellows got to whispering about it as soon as Riggs was out of earshot.

Even from the highest hills, none of us had seen sign of any river.

What we did see come morning light, much to our surprise, was a town. It looked to be about three miles away, in a punchbowl valley with rocky, sloping sides. It wasn’t much more than one long main street lined with low, boxy buildings — a speck of civilization that would make your Peabody or your Lincolnville look like London or Paris — yet no one could figure how we’d missed it the day before.

“I should’ve caught the smell of women, at the very least,” my pal Jawbone said. “Why, I’m surprised it didn’t keep me up all night.”

For Jawbone to go a week without female companionship was like you or me going a month without breathing. And he wasn’t the only one who was girl crazy — or crazy for whiskey, beer, and cards. Which is why Riggs announced that he was headed into town alone. Cut us young bucks loose to pursue our vices, and we wouldn’t be back on the trail till Christmas.

As it was, we still got a bit of a holiday. Riggs’s secundo, a slow-moving, slow-thinking slab of fat named Foley, didn’t have half the backbone of his boss. So the second Riggs rode off, most of the boys were stretched out on their soogans catching up on their snoring while Foley and the cookie played dominoes and dipped biscuits in molasses. The rest of us were left to drift about on horseback keeping an eye on the herd, but the cows had no more mind to stir themselves than we did.

Our lead steer for that drive was a big, wily longhorn called The General. He was such a natural at the front of a herd he’d been spared the slaughterhouse and sent back south twice. As long as he stayed put, the other beeves did likewise, and the only rope I had to throw that day was on a heifer with a broken leg who wasn’t going to make it to market anyhow. We took her aside a ways and ended her suffering, and the rest of the cows were content to go on grazing and dozing while us two-legged types feasted on fresh steak.

Yes, sir — it was just one big, happy picnic out there on the prairie. The only things missing were the girls in their white summer dresses and the iced cream.

And Riggs. No one was anxious for him to come back, yet none wished him to disappear either. But disappear he did. He’d left not long after dawn, and come dusk he still wasn’t back.

“Dammit. We shouldn’t have let him ride off alone,” the cookie fretted. “There could be Cheyenne out there. Kiowa. Comanche.”

“Oh, smooth your skirts,” Foley said. “No Indian’s going to stir up trouble anywhere near the Washita River. Friend Custer saw to that two years ago. Riggs probably just threw a shoe or something. Mark my words: He’ll be back tomorrow morning after spending a lovely night as the guest of Reverend Killjoy and his dried-up old Mrs.”

This was an enticing way of thinking — necessitating, as it did, no worry, action or self-recrimination on our part — and we were happy to follow Foley’s lead in it. That got harder to do twenty-four hours later, however, for Riggs still hadn’t returned. He’d given explicit orders that no one else should go into town. But that, of course, assumed that he’d eventually manage to leave it. Something had to be done.

And so it was that the next morning — two full days after Riggs had left us — Foley mounted up and set off to search for him. He still pooh-poohed the notion that our trail boss had crossed paths with a war party, but that didn’t stop him from mustering up an escort for himself: me and Jawbone.

Now, usually around a town you’ll find spreads and little homesteads clustered up like puppies crowding in around their mother’s teats. Not so here. We passed nothing more than scrub brush and the occasional stand of trees. There wasn’t even a trail into town, let alone a road. One second we were riding over tall, untrod grass, the next we were on a dirt street.

And about that street. I can’t say it was deserted, for there were people scattered along it from one end to the other, most of them rough-looking men of the sort you’d expect out in the middle of nowhere. Punchers, buffalo hunters, would-be miners and the like. What I didn’t see were wagons or drays or buggies or so much as a single solitary horse. The town didn’t even seem to have a livery stable, which is an oddity on the order of water lacking wet. Folks will crack jokes about one-horse towns, but there’s no such thing as a no-horse one.

“The locals sure must do a lot of walking,” I said.

But I was talking to myself. Foley and Jawbone’s undivided attention was affixed to a sign in a saloon window.

FREE BEER

ALL WELCOME

It was obvious where we’d be beginning our search — and perhaps ending it, as well. Riggs had more starch in his collar than your average drover, but could even he resist an offer like that?

Of course, I didn’t really expect the beer to be free beyond an introductory thimbleful, after which the price would rise considerably. Or perhaps the proprietor would explain that the beer was indeed free but there’d be a four-bit “cleaning fee” for the glass. When it comes to fleecing cowhands, saloonkeepers elevate deviousness to the level of genius.

To my very pleasant surprise, however, there seemed to be no catch. We walked into the place, asked for our free beers, and were given them, simple as that. The barman even told us complimentary sandwiches would be coming out shortly and we should feel free to avail ourselves of the gaming tables in the meantime. Or not. It was up to us.

And most shocking of all: The beer was good. So good the three of us polished ours off in a few chugs and were promptly given refills, still on the house.

“I’ll be damned if this isn’t the most hospitable saloon I ever set foot in,” I declared. “How can you afford to stay in business?”

The bartender took to “cleaning” glasses with a rag the color of piss.

“We’re under new management.”

Of course, it doesn’t pay to irritate someone who’s pouring you free drinks, so I did not point that the barman hadn’t exactly answered my question. Instead, I let Foley get to the matter at hand: Where were we, and had Riggs been here before us?

The answers were “Schultzton” and “No.”

“Schultzton?” I said. “Never heard of it. How far are we from the Washita?”

The barman shrugged. “Not close, not far.”

He was a husky, lumbering man with a saggy, sleepy face, and I got the feeling if we hadn’t been there to further dirty his glasses he’d have been under the bar sawing logs. There were maybe a dozen other people in the place — men playing cards, mostly, with a few chippies whispering to each other toward the back — and they all moved (when they moved) with the same droop-shouldered, heavy-lidded lethargy. And why shouldn’t they? It wasn’t free coffee they were swilling. Still, it struck me as strange, and I found the longer I stayed in the place, the more I felt like nodding off myself.

“I suppose we ought to try the local constable next,” I said. “Who you got around here?”

“Town marshal. Office is up the street,” the bartender told me.

“Thanks.”

I turned to go.

Foley and Jawbone didn’t.

“What’s your hurry?” Foley said. “The sooner we find Riggs, the sooner we’ll have to leave.”

“Yeah,” Jawbone threw in. “Might as well wait for the sandwiches, at least.”

It wasn’t the sandwiches my friend was drooling over, though.

I jerked my head at the saloon girls.

“I doubt if they’re on the house, amigo.”

Jawbone grinned. “That hardly matters with all the money I’m saving on liquor.”

I looked at Foley, but he just stared back at me and sipped at his beer.

“Well,” I sighed, “at least save a sandwich for me.”

“Take your time getting back,” Foley said.

Jawbone was already headed for the chippies.

Once I was outside, I turned to gaze at the far-off hills upon which we’d left the cattle and the other hands. But a haze had settled over the valley despite the near-noon sun overhead, and all I could see beyond the town were wispy swirls of gray.

I wasn’t too worried about the herd. There was plenty of green grass thereabouts, and a stream just big enough to keep thirst at bay. As long as The General was lazing around putting on fat, the other cows would be happy to, as well. The boys would be short-handed should another storm whip up or some braves pop in wearing war paint, though, and I resolved not to take Foley’s advice.

I started looking for the marshal’s office.

It didn’t take long to find it. Finding the marshal, on the other hand, wasn’t as easily done. The door was locked, and a handwritten sign in the window actually said, “OUT TO LUNCH.”

I stopped a passerby — a portly, shuffle-stepping gent who was either drunk or sleepwalking — and asked if he knew where the marshal took his meals.

“Take your pick,” he said, giving the hotels and lunch rooms and melodeons lining the street an airy wave of the hand. Then on he shambled toward a sign most fellows would only expect to see on the other side of the pearly gates: “THE WHISKEY’S ON US.”

I started to turn to someone else but found myself turning and turning and turning some more till I’d completed a full circle. All without seeing the man I’d meant to speak to. He’d been walking by on my right, I’d thought — a brawny, bearded fellow in a checked shirt. Either he’d streaked like lightning into some nearby dive or the beers I’d had were hitting me hard.

I looked around for someone more sober than myself to consult, but everyone I saw was of a piece. Moving slow, wobbling or weaving, and plump to boot. None of which could come as a surprise in a community where, it seemed, you couldn’t pay for booze or food if you tried. I was just dismayed I’d never heard of the place. You’d have thought every red-blooded man on the continent would be making a beeline for Schultzton, the paradise on the prairie.

I spent the next half hour popping in and out of saloons and restaurants (most of them offering free biscuits or complimentary slices of pie). But I never saw Riggs — or Jawbone and Foley, as they’d apparently restricted their search to the first bar we’d cozied up to. I did eventually spot a man I took to be the town marshal, though. He had a tin star on his coat and a chippie on his lap. Like most of the women I’d seen that day, this one was half-smiling in a tired, slack-faced way that suggested opium could be found as free for the taking as beer, whiskey and biscuits.

“You the law around here?” I asked the man.

He put a pudgy finger to his badge. “Either that or I’m wearing its clothes.”

“Well, I’m looking for someone. The trail boss from a herd not far from town. He should’ve ridden into Schultzton two days ago to — ”

The marshal burst out laughing. The girl on his lap tittered, too, but her half-closed eyes gave me the feeling it was pure reflex. The next sound I expected out of her was a snore.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“You must’ve been in that dump Schultz just took over,” the marshal said. “Sounds like he’s laid claim to the whole town now.”

“This isn’t Schultzton?”

“Nope. Goddard City.”

The girl giggled again, then belched.

“All right.” I took a deep breath and started again. “I’m looking for my trail boss. He should’ve come into Goddard City two days ago. His name is Riggs, he’s just a shade taller than me, and he has black hair and a mustache. He was riding a dun mare with a diamond T brand. You know anything about him?”

“Sure. He was here. A disagreeable fellow. Not of a mind to be sociable.”

“He wasn’t here to be sociable.”

For the first time, the marshal managed to look like a real lawman. Which is to say he scowled at me.

“Are you here to be sociable?” he said.

“There’s nothing I love more than socializing, and I plan to do plenty of it . . . once I’ve found Riggs.”

The marshal smiled, but the glower lingered in his eyes.

“Feel free to look for him,” he said. “There’s plenty of places a man can amuse himself here. I can’t guarantee you’ll find this Riggs fellow, though. Unsociable folks don’t tend to stick around long.”

He lifted a mug to his mouth and focused all his attention on draining it. I took this as a dismissal and acted accordingly.

“Want another, Marshal Goddard?” I heard someone call out as I pushed through the saloon’s batwing doors.

I froze.

So the marshal was an even bigger son of a bitch than I’d taken him for. Never mind help finding Riggs — I hadn’t even got the true name of the town out of him.

I was simmering on that, tempted to head back inside and uncork a few choice turns of phrase I’d been saving for a rainy day, when a voice seemed to speak to me out of nowhere.

“Your friend tried to cause trouble. Don’t make the same mistake.”

I looked this way and that, but saw no one nearby. “Who said that? Where are you?”

“Down here.”

I looked down. The town had rickety wooden sidewalks raised a couple feet off the sod, and just enough sunlight pierced the warped slats for me to see a man staring up from the shadows below. He answered my next question before I could ask it.

“Saves me a lot of walking if I do my passing out down here. I’d just be back the second I was sober anyhow.”

I went down on one knee and tried not to feel too self-conscious about carrying on a conversation with a boardwalk.

“You heard me talking to the marshal?”

“Sure, when people weren’t stomping past overhead.”

“And you say you know what happened to Riggs?”

“No, that I didn’t say. I said he stirred up trouble, that’s all.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“The talking-too-much, talking-too-big kind.”

“Talking too much and too big about what?”

“Oh, you’ll see. I bet you already have seen it, actually. You just don’t know it. It’s the same for everybody, at first. They catch it out of the corner of their eye, and it’s like it didn’t happen at all. But when it’s right in front of your face, that’s different. You can’t ignore it . . . though you can do your damnedest to forget it.”

I shook my head in disgust as I stood up.

“That’s what I get for talking to a man under the sidewalk,” I muttered.

“You think I’m crazy?”

“I think you’re drunk.”

“Of course I am. But why should that make me wrong?”

I started walking away.

“Stop and take a good look around,” the man said. “Don’t move. Don’t blink. Then you’ll see I’m not crazy. You’ll think you are.”

“Go back to sleeping it off!” I called over my shoulder. Then I headed across the street, bound for the saloon where I’d left Foley and Jawbone. I figured it was their turn to wander around talking to S.O.B.s and lunatics. I’d earned myself a sandwich.

When I reached Schultz’s place, though, I paused before stepping inside. This town — whatever it was called — was without a doubt the most peculiar I’d ever come across. I gazed back up the street, half-expecting to spot a sign I’d somehow overlooked before. “WELCOME TO THE NORTH TEXAS SANITARIUM FOR THE INSANE,” it might say. Or perhaps “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” — though no description of Hell I’d ever heard had mentioned free eats and liquor. I thought Marshal Goddard would make a passable Old Scratch, however, so long as he took up a pitchfork and grew himself a . . .

I rubbed my eyes and blinked hard and rubbed my eyes some more.

A little pot-bellied dude in a checked suit had been walking toward me up the sidewalk. And then he simply wasn’t. Wasn’t walking. Wasn’t there.

I moved toward the spot where I’d last seen him, thinking maybe he’d ducked through a doorway so fast I hadn’t noticed. But there was no little pot-bellied dude and nowhere he could have gone.

The man under the sidewalk had been right about this much: I’d started wondering if I was losing my mind.

I turned back toward the street and made myself stare stare stare, stock still, unblinking, for as long as I could. And just when my eyeballs got to itching and my brain was telling me not to believe what they’d supposedly seen in the first place and my throat piped up to say it was getting mighty dry, it happened again.

Three soldiers stepped out of a music hall together, but only two made it to the street. The third just winked out, disappeared, vanished without even the puff of smoke a sideshow magician would have felt obliged to supply. And I knew for a fact it was no mirage or imagining, for I saw the other two troopers react.

Not that they reacted how you’d want your comrades in arms to. They stopped, looked at each other, glanced over their shoulders, then shrugged and shook their heads and carried on across the street.

“My god,” I said. “What is this place?”

A pair of punchers staggering past heard me.

“You only find out when you leave it, we reckon,” one of them said. “In the meantime, you may as well enjoy the stay.”

The other cowboy stopped, looked at me as if he had some wisdom to impart, then hunched over and threw up.

I whirled around and tore off into Schultz’s saloon.

“Where are my friends? The men I came here with?”

Schultz was still behind the bar giving glasses spit shines.

“Now don’t go getting excited,” he began.

“Where are they, god damn it?”

Schultz waggled his chins at a door at the back of the saloon. “With some crib girls. But you know you shouldn’t interrupt a fellow when he’s — ”

I was already bolting toward the door.

Beyond it were four grubby little rooms. Stalls, more like. Small compartments with no doors of their own, just filthy sheets hung up to provide the illusion of privacy. I drew one back to find a glassy-eyed girl in a chemise counting out money on a cot.

“Finders keepers,” she said, clutching the greenbacks to her chest.

On the cot beside her was a hat and a pair of trousers I recognized. They’d belonged to Foley.

I went to the next crib.

Now you’re a man of the world, I’m sure. I don’t have to describe what Jawbone was up to in there. But I’ll tell you this much: He didn’t want to stop, even when I told him we were in danger. “Go away” was all he’d say. “I’m busy.”

“I tell you, we’ve got to get out of here! Now!”

I grabbed Jawbone and dragged him off the painted lady who’d been reciprocating his sweaty affections with all the ardor of a cigar store Indian. He allowed himself to stay uncoupled from her just long enough to slam a fist to the side of my face. By the time I was done staggering back, he was already “busy” again with the girl.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” he puffed. “But if you bother me again, you’re getting a lot more than a punch.”

It’s sad, isn’t it? Pleasure’s so irresistible a thing a man will leave his neck in a noose so long as parts due south are being pleased. If I’d just waited five minutes, Jawbone would probably have listened to reason. But I was feeling neither philosophical nor patient just then, and with a “Suit yourself!” I lit out.

When I got out front, I found no horses at the hitching post, though. Our mounts were gone. I didn’t bother running around chasing after thieves, for if you can pluck men from existence easy as you please, doing the same for some saddle ponies shouldn’t be hard.

No, there was but one thing to be done, so I did it: I pointed myself toward the hills and started running.

I headed out the south side of town. And not a dozen strides past the last building there was a moment of blackness, a blink I didn’t blink myself, and suddenly I was running into the north side. I whirled around, scampered out of town northward, and blink — there I was coming into town from the south.

It was the same story to east and west and southwest and northeast and southeast and northwest and probably, if I’d wings or shovel, up and down, too. Whichever way I tried to leave, I’d find myself coming back in again on the opposite side.

This provided great amusement to whatever fellows weren’t drinking their cares away indoors, and soon a little clump of a crowd was gathered out in the street to cheer and jeer me.

“Try it running backwards!”

“Try it skipping!”

“Try it doing cartwheels!”

“Five dollars says he goes another quarter hour before he gives up.”

“You’re on!”

I didn’t last the quarter hour. Another five minutes, and I got the idea. Whoever had us penned up wasn’t going to just let me leave. I’d have to make them let me.

The closest I knew of to someone in charge — Marshal Goddard — had come out to see what all the fuss was about. So I drew my forty-five and aimed it his way.

The men around him scattered. He just heaved a sigh.

I came toward him, my gunsight level with his eyes.

“Tell them to let me go.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Goddard said. “I don’t even know who ‘them’ is.”

“What about the booze? The food? Someone has to bring it here.”

Goddard shook his head. “No. They don’t. It just . . . shows up.”

I stopped maybe six feet from Goddard, my Colt still pointed at the bridge of his nose.

“Like people just go,” I said.

“Exactly like that.”

“And you don’t do anything about it?”

Goddard shrugged. “Everyone tries to get away at first. You saw, though. It’s pointless. And even if one of us was to escape, what would he be escaping to? Just look around. You won’t see any Vanderbilts here.”

I did look around. And here’s what I saw eyeing me back.

Saddle bums. Soldiers. Homesteaders. Nesters. Drummers. Drifters. Whores. Every kind of dirt that gets picked up in that special wind that blows from East to West. All settled here. They’d stumbled in tired and hungry and beaten down, no doubt, and now they had everything they could possibly ask for — except freedom. Was that such a big price to pay for the good life?

I knew the answer for Goddard and the rest.

And I knew the answer for me.

I holstered my gun, turned, and started marching toward the edge of town again.

“You don’t want me here!” I shouted at the clouds. “I’m not like them! I’ll cause trouble, you can count on it!”

“Don’t do it, cowboy!” Goddard called after me. “Just hunker down and shut up and you’ll learn to like it here!”

I didn’t stop.

“You’d best let me walk up into those hills!” I hollered skyward. “‘Cuz I’ll burn this whole damn town down if you make me stay! I mean it! There’s nothing you can gain from keeping me here!”

The street ended, turned suddenly into grassland, just five strides ahead of me now.

Then four.

Then three.

Then two.

Then one.

I took the last step — and for once didn’t end up back at the opposite end of town.

No. I went somewhere a million times worse.

It was unbearably hot and unbearably bright and unbearably loud. I shut my eyes tight and clamped my hands to the sides of my head, but the light burned right through my eyelids, and the noise — the screech of a hundred trains blowing their whistles at once — pierced my ears like ice picks. The air wasn’t just lung-searing hot but noxious, too, and soon I was gagging and kecking. And just when I started to keel over, praying I was falling into a faint so the pain would stop, that’s when they grabbed me.

I never saw them. Even the quickest peek would have blinded me. But I could feel them. Like thick ropes slathered in jam, one to each wrist and ankle. They held me down while something else got to work. Of that, all I felt was the tugging and the cutting and then a burn like a brand fresh from the fire put where you’d least like it. Then it was over, and Goddard was leaning over me whispering “Jesus lord,” and the sky above him was blue.

I recovered fast, considering what had been done to me. In fact, just two days later I was able to help the rest of the boys from the drive see reason when they finally followed us down from the hills. And when the next gaggle of wayward punchers or deserters or pilgrims came into town, I gave them a good talking to, as well. Just like I’m talking to you.

You whisk a troublemaker away to god knows where, never to be seen again, and what does anyone learn from it? Not much. But you take that same man and you calm him down — the same way you’d calm a he-calf you don’t need for breeding — and then you send him back? That makes an impression.

So the cracks you’ve probably heard about me are true. I don’t have all god gave me . . . and I couldn’t care less. Just look at me! Fat and happy! Even going a little gray.

Yes, I’ve had a nice, long stay here. Because I’m sociable, you see, and I bring out the sociable side in others. It could be the same for you. All you’ve got to do is —

Finally! Here it comes! Lunch! Would you just look at the beef on those sandwiches? I can taste it already! But where are my manners?

After you, amigo.

Steve Hockensmith

Steve HockensmithSteve Hockensmith made his first professional short-story sale to Analog way back in the late 1990s. Soon afterward, he switched his focus to the mystery genre, becoming a regular contributor to both Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines. His first novel, the mystery/Western hybrid Holmes on the Range, was a finalist for the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony and Dilys awards. He went on to write four sequels as well as a pair of bestselling follow-ups to the international publishing sensation Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. More recently, he’s written (with collaborator “Science Bob” Pflugfelder) the middle-grade mysteries Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab and Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage. His corporeal form can usually be found in Alameda, Calif., while his Web presence lurks somewhere in the vicinity of stevehockensmith.com.