Greetings and Salutations, faithful readers! Welcome back to Story Time With Tim! This week’s offering is part of a broader story that I call the Red Star Timeline. We follow a man by the name of Jules who is after an escaped criminal and is bringing him back to serve his time for the murder of a young woman. The story itself takes place a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War and sets the stage for a tale of the ages and how humanity fits into the universe!
As consequence, this story seems a little bit incomplete. The ending is somewhat abrupt and the story hints at a broader plot than what is available here. However, at just under 9000 words, it’s a really brisk read heavy with the promise of things to come! So, I hope you enjoy and thanks for taking a moment to read this tale! Come back next week for more Story Time With Tim! And look for the links after the story to tell you where you can go and purchase this tale and support the cause of a writer just wanting to write.
Without further ado, ‘The Long Ride Back’:
LONG RIDE BACK
BY TIMOTHY S PURVIS
The rolling plains of Texas.
IT WAS A rare occasion for Jules to come out this way. His prey didn’t typically make it this far. Especially on foot. Making the run to Mexico from Denver was a difficult trek. And yet that’s what his current quarry had done. He had been mounted at one point, but he’d found it dead some dozen or so miles back. Now it was just uneven hills and plain and Jules wasn’t going to endanger his horse over one murderous thief.
Jules leaned back, his duster creaking in the process and stared up into the painted evening sky. He would have to make camp soon. The tracks he was following would still be there in the morning, that he had no doubt. And if the man he was hunting wasn’t dead or willing to simply freeze during the cool, autumn night, then, surely, he’d see the fire and come to him. He’d have to sleep with one eye open.
Jules leaned back forward, tugging his brimmed hat lower across his brow. The steady thump of his horse’s hooves reverberated outward. He was riding just right of the trail he was following. The random footprint set hard in the dirty ground. Torn flowers and grasses showing someone had been racing through recently, and in quite the hurry. Early that morning, Jules had even found the remains of his quarry’s campsite. Remains that suggested he was running low on rations, water, and, importantly, flints. Tonight would be the night he finally got desperate. There would be no keeping at this pace any longer. Not when the hunted knew he was being tracked and the one tracking him had a horse.
Jules stopped his mount and let him grab some of the grasses and rest. He scanned the horizon as a subtle wind cascaded across the myriad vegetation running all the way towards the silhouetted mountains far in the horizon. He’d yet to see the killer. But he knew he was gaining on him. Knew he was close.
His eyes set on a series of ditches and creeks a few miles ahead. Trees were growing in a bushy row contrary to how plain the rest of the landscape was. There were no other trees in the viewable distance. Though it was starting to darken, it was a foregone conclusion that where he was looking was likely a small lake or pond. With a series of dried or drying creeks running off from it. That was where his prey was. Waiting for him to come, let down his guard, water his horse, then attempt to cease the opportunity.
A small smile creased his umber face. They always thought they were smarter. Always thought he would fall into their traps, be caught unaware. And there had been a few who’d almost brought him down. A few intelligent prey whom he’d been surprised by. But this was not one of them.
“What say we make camp here, Copper?” Jules said and dismounted. His horse, Copper (so named for his shiny red sheen) snorted and continued chomping up patches of grass and roots.
Jules pulled his bed roll from behind the saddle and rolled it out in a relatively flat spot. Then removed a spike that was stored within. He went near where Copper stood eating and drove it into the ground with a pick hammer. Then laced the reins on Copper around its looping hook.
“Be good and do not go losing this one. I’m getting tired of chasing you all across of creation because you think the grass is greener on the other side.” He pulled a bowl out of the saddle bag and reached for one of his four canteens. Then dumped the water inside into the bowl and placed it near Copper who lapped at it eagerly. “Once we have our friend in custody, we’ll head over to whatever water source that is and refill our canteens. Should only take till the morning. Unless he freezes to death over the night. Which would be a shame. He’s worth less to us dead. Let us hope this man is not as stupid as I believe him to be.”
Jules went about setting up camp, starting a roaring fire, and making himself some dinner out of a rabbit he’d hunted earlier in the day. Afterwards, he leaned back into his satchel he was using for a pillow, folded his arms across his chest, crossed one leg over the other at the heels, and tugged his hat down over his eyes to wait. It probably wouldn’t be until early morning when his prey would strike. Plenty of time for some rest. Though thoughts kept him awake.
He was comfortable out here. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But always he had to return. Because his masters demanded it be so.
Jules was still a young man. Not quite thirty (or so that’s what he’d been told). When he was a very young child, his parents had been murdered by prospectors looking for new mineral sources out in what was now New Mexico. His parents had chosen to leave the tribe (his Hopi ancestry) and live solitary lives for some reason no one knew. All that he himself knew, was that the prospectors let him live and took him to trade in San Diego. How he managed to get from there to end up in the ‘employ’ of the Wilson Bureau was a (suffice it to say) long, sad story. One he tried not to dwell on as it always weighed heavily on his heart. That he was still there was something that kept him awake some nights.
‘The savage makes the best tracker,’ Mr. Wilson had recently said to a group of prospective investors. ‘But it takes careful work to instill in him loyalty and commitment to cause. Else, he’s likely to wander aimlessly and lead himself to rot!’ The laughter had followed.
Why am I still there!? Sure, they’d send out the ‘hounds’, like they did to poor Lucas… He growled inwardly. …Damn.
He felt himself drift off into a troubled sleep. When the footsteps slowly crunched across the campsite towards him, he was never so relieved. Another day was coming and he could put the conflicting thoughts away. He sensed the hand reaching across him and he bolted upright grabbing the man by his hair. Jule’s hat went flying off somewhere and it gave him his first good look at his prey. A white man with dark brown hair and a wild look. His face was smooth not long ago, now sported a week’s worth of growth. He brought his knee up into that face, heard a crack and a protest, then doubled him over to thrust his meaty fist into the man’s stomach. He went down in a whining heap.
Jules walked over to where his hat lay and picked it up. Dusting it off he looked over at Copper who was busy pulling at the grass again.
“You know, if you weren’t so busy stuffing your face, you might had let me know we had a guest.”
Copper snorted and shook his head, his red mane flopping rapidly. Jules put his hat on and walked over to his satchel to pull out a rope. The man was busy trying to stand up and get away.
“James Smith, you waited a long time. I expected you hours ago.” Jules walked over to the man and then pointed to the far horizon. “Look, the sun is starting to rise.”
“Go to hell, Indian!” the man spat getting to his feet.
Jules grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and placed his booted foot on the back of the man’s knee. He fell back down hard. Jules began binding his arms and legs.
“You should save your strength, James Smith. We have a long day ahead of us. I’ll restoke the fire. Make breakfast. I’m sure you are hungry after such a long night of freezing.”
James didn’t reply. Only sat there and grunted while Jules went to work. Once his tasks were complete, Jules rearranged James’s knots so that his hands were in front of him. As he was doing this, the man tried to strike out at Jules and found himself falling face first into the dirt. Jules shook his head.
“Where do you think you are going? Your feet are still bound.” He picked James up, bound his hands again. Then drove a spike into the ground nearby and attached his ropes to it. “If you wish to be treated like the horse, I’ll be happy to oblige.”
He placed a bowl of oatmeal into James’s hands then went over to the other side of the fire to eat his own. James stared at him with contempt.
“How in the hell am I supposed to eat this with my hands tied!?”
Jules nodded, “With your face. As I said, if you want to be treated like the horse, I can do that.”
James scowled then shoved the bowl towards his lips to lap at the oats vigorously. Jules stared off into the distance and let him eat. After a while, he put his own empty bowl to the side and spoke.
“Speaking of horses, I saw what was left of yours. Why did you shoot it?”
James scoffed, “Thought you were a tracker.”
“You must be implying then, that I should have seen the broken leg. You know, these lands are dangerous. Uneven and ragged. Only a fool would seek to push his mount too hard out here. You might lose your horse in some accident. Oh. Wait. I’m beginning to see what the issue was.”
James snarled and Jules offered him a slight smile.
“You should know, Mary Elizabeth sends her regards. She said, after what you did to her daughter, she’d see you hang personally. Assault, theft, rape… murder. This is not the way to treat a lady.”
James gave a slight grin, “Bitch had it coming.”
“Oh? What could she have done that was so bad to you that violence was the only answer? Surely you could have found a more noble solution to your problems?”
“Spare me your dissertations on morality!” James dropped the bowl, oatmeal falling from his lips. “You know nothing about me or what I’ve been through! You know nothing of what really happened! You spend years building up your reputation, attending only the most elite of universities. And then the woman you are promised to, gives herself over to some potato eater from the ghetto! Everything worked for…tossed out because she thinks that man is worth the finery of her life! So, to hell with her! And to hell with you!”
Jules sighed, “So. An educated man then. A real shame. An uneducated man, such as which you deride, I could understand. When aggression is all one knows, aggression is all one can wield. But you, you have wealth and knowledge to command. Yet give in to primal urges.”
“You know nothing.” James said and looked away with a tense expression.
No other words were spoken and, after breakfast was said and done, Jules packed everything up and tied James to the back of Copper via a length of rope.
“You’re going to make me walk!?”
Jules looked down to him from the saddle, “Of course. What did you think, that I would carry you?”
They pressed on, Jules going slow so that James wouldn’t fall down. Neither said much of anything until around noon when Jules glanced back at him.
“So, tell me, James Smith, where did you go to University?”
“Oh, for the love of… Just call me James or Smith! Stop with this ‘James Smith’ nonsense!”
“Is James Smith not your name? Did your mother and father not bestow it upon you? Is there no pride in you for your name?” Jules shook his head. “Then again, considering how easy it was for you to ruin it, perhaps not.”
“I thought you Indians were supposed to be silent and stoic!? You talk as much as my grandmother!”
Jules chuckled, “Ah, but I was raised to be a white man! I learned to speak like the swallows chitter!”
The man groaned and Jules laughed and they continued on across the plains, over the hills, and through creek beds and across rivers (the shallow parts of course. There wasn’t much trust in Jules that James Smith wouldn’t just choke him the second he put him on the back of the saddle). They traveled for three days and two nights in this manner. They were deep into Colorado territory (making for Denver) and near the rocky mountain range when they stopped on that third night.
Fire roared loudly, licking the night air hungrily. They could feel the cold setting in deeper and had to start using the blankets Jules had in his roll. Neither said much of anything as they ate and struggled to stay warm. As they sat there staring into the flames, James looked up into the sky (vivid with the void of space and the speckles of stars), and void of the moon’s light, his mouth falling open.
“What in the hell is that!?”
Jules looked back at where he was looking and found himself standing up. James joined him. Far off in the distance, high above the rising mountains, two starlike objects were doing a mad dance around one another. Bolts of colored light were flying off of each one. After several minutes, one of the stars erupted in a brilliant flash. The sound was like thunder only there were no clouds. They both felt an invisible wave hit them and both struggled to stay on their feet. It was like having an ocean wave battering across their torsos.
They stood silently as the other star blazed into a ball of fire and streaked down slowly towards the mountains below. It disappeared behind the silhouetted distance and they heard another crack of thunder. Only this time lower and cascading through the ground as if it had caused a minor earthquake. A low growling rumble that sent a shiver up their spines. Both men stood for several minutes silently waiting to see if anything more would happen. But there was nothing. Even the crickets seemed struck dumb.
After a few more minutes, nature regained its senses and started back up like nothing had happened at all. Coyotes howled. Late season crickets continued their serenades. Weird calls complained to the dark. Jules turned to James, mouth still catching flies (so the saying went, anyway).
“Shooting star?” James gasped. “How many shooting stars have you seen that take their time hitting dirt!?”
Jules frowned and shook his head, “It doesn’t matter. Whatever it was, it came down on our path. If there is something to see, we will see it. If not, such is the strangeness of life.” Jules went to his bedroll and laid down. “Get some sleep. Another two days and we’ll be in Denver.”
James sighed and went to lay down as well. But neither of them slept very well that night. And when morning came, they were still exhausted as they set out. Exhausted and full of trepidation. Whatever it was that came down, neither was sure they wanted to see. The day progressed and their eyes stayed fixed on one spot. They crossed the remainder of the plains and were nearly to the foothills of the Rockies when they saw smoke rising into the air some distance away. Coming closer, they saw that the thing had buried itself into the ground and left a mile long trench behind its final resting place.
“Jesus…” He heard James mumbling from where he walked. “What is it?”
“If I knew that, I would tell you, James Smith.” As they approached, Jules dismounted and hesitantly walked around the object.
It was larger than a locomotive engine both in length and width, and just as cylindrical. The edges were rimmed almost like his hat, but sharper like the blades of two knives placed together. The texture of the surface looked smooth. Smooth as polished metal and colored silver. With the exception of the scoring along the visible sides sticking out of the dirt and grass. The fire had died away but smoke was still billowing out of the topside where the hull looked sheared away.
“Well?” James called after him.
“I… I have no clue. It looks like a silver train engine. That has been thrown…no, shot into the earth.” Jules walked up an embankment formed by the trainlike thing and looked down into parts he’d never seen before. There was a room, almost a short hall down below but hard to see for the smoke and the flashing sparks popping out from every torn metal ridge.
He placed a hand out cautiously. Though it should be burning hot, it was cold to the touch. Jules dropped down inside of the silver train and looked around. He had to duck down to move through the hull and saw it entered a space with two empty chairs of a make he’d never encountered. But the chairs were loose, laying on their sides. The front of this new space buckled inward from the force of its crash. The cracked table that was inset into the curved front interior was full of inlaid devices he could barely begin to describe. Such as some long handles like that on a store register or the circular little buttons surrounding them.
Jules frowned and turned to exit the train. Whatever it was and whoever was in it, they were gone now and he had things to do. As he reapproached the torn orifice to the outside, he spied a wall to the end of the short craft that had been torn open as well. Something inside of it was glowing a strange blue. And he could feel a pulsating wave. Similar to the brief wave they’d felt the night before. He went towards the wall that was half torn out and reached for the panel hanging by but a few threads. This piece of wall felt strange. Like a cool, flimsy sheet of metal. He pulled it off and then looked inside to see an object on the bottom of the cavity glowing a preternatural blue. It looked like a bean can that had large portions of it cut out into squares. And what was shoved inside of it was like a blue flame, only swirling as liquid water and as intense as looking into the sun itself. As he pulled it out and held it before him, he felt a powerful thrum running up his arms and into his body.
This thing is dangerous… The thought came to him matter-of-factly and he didn’t know why. He had no idea what it was let alone if it were dangerous or not. But he supposed anything that felt so powerful was likely dangerous. I should put it back…
However, he didn’t. Couldn’t. He looked back behind the wall panel seeing some sort of strapped cradle. It reminded him of some kind of holster. There was a cavity in the center that was shaped sort of like the cannister in his grasp. He pushed away the concern and placed the strange cannister in his right duster pocket and then reached in to see if the strange holster or harness (that’s what it looked like to him) would pull out. After a few minutes, it came loose and snapped out from the connections inside the wall. He looked at it turning it over and around in his hands. He wasn’t sure but he thought maybe he could hook it onto himself. With some alterations. Perhaps two across his shoulders, two straps beneath his pits. He furrowed his brow.
Why do you want this, Jules? You don’t even know what it does. If anything. And do you really need a new trinket? He sighed to himself. It was an impulse. Nothing rational. Just something pretty he wanted to pick up, as if he were a raccoon digging up some shiny object.
Jules made his way back outside still holding the four strapped harness and made his way back to his horse. To his surprise and amazement, James was still there waiting and this caused Jules to smile. Copper started stomping his foot and snorted.
“James Smith! You did not try to run!”
James quirked a brow as Jules walked along the side of the strange craft, down the raised mound of dirt (created ostensibly by the train thing itself), and closer towards them. Copper stomped his hoof again and shook his head with a plaintive whinny.
“I’m tied to your damned horse, remember? Besides… he won’t let me on him…”
Jules laughed and raised the harness in the air. “I found something strange inside. I don’t know what it is, but I found nobody in there. I think it’s—”
Jules had passed the rear section and was almost to them. The harness in his hand gave off a spark as he lowered the holster and tried to affix two of the strap ends together. Copper reared back on his haunches and gave a loud whinny that sounded like a scream and then ran past Jules at full speed in the direction of the rising mountain range behind him. James stared in horror as he got pulled off his feet and issued a yell of surprise and was dragged across the plains right behind the racing animal.
“Copper!” Jules screamed. “Copper! Stop! Damnit, horse! We’ve had this conversation!”
Copper did not stop. Instead he raced faster forcing Jules to give chase. His feet became a blur of motion as he ran as fast as he could after Copper. But Copper tore off even faster with a screaming James Smith in his dust trail.
“You blasted horse!” Jules yelled after them, his knees nearly horizontal as he raced after his runaway mount.
He could see James Smith bouncing erratically off the ground, swinging wide as Copper made his hard dash across the ragged terrain towards the massive mountain ahead. It was almost five miles later when Copper stopped near the edge of the Rocky foothills, the terrain there lifting steadily upwards towards the towering summit. Ten minutes later, an extremely out of breath Jules caught up to them. Copper was hard at work munching more grasses and acted like he was going to bolt again as Jules neared him, holding out his hands gently.
“Calm! Calm! Why did you do that? Just… hold still…” He reached out and took Copper’s reins. Copper jerked his head and Jules pet him on the neck gently. “It’s alright. You’re all right.”
Jules pulled a spike out of the saddle bag (a vice grip on the reins) and went to drive it into the ground before Copper and then tied the reins down around the looped metal ring of its head.
“Stay… stay… No more running, Copper. We have too much to do…” There was a little matter of his prisoner that needed to be attended to and from what Jules had seen catching up, he wasn’t going to like what he found.
He walked back to where James lay face down in the dirt. He was still attached to the rope, his head at an awkward angle (damn near diagonal in the opposite direction it very well should have been). Jules stood over the man a minute, cursing under his breath. The ropes on James Smith’s wrists had dug deep, blood pooling all over the ground. The flesh around them almost peeled off for the violent ride he had taken. Jules bent down and turned the man over. Then immediately let him drop back down and clenched his eyes to force himself from getting sick.
“By the Spirits, Copper! Look what you’ve done!” He stood up and walked back towards Copper, his arms held out wide in a pleading gesture. “He has no face! What am I to do with that? Take the body back to Mr. Wilson and say, ‘I caught him, here he is!’ First thing he’ll say is, ‘Where’s his face? How do I know it’s him? We all know how you savages are!’”
Copper thrust his head upward with a neighing bray and slammed his foot to the ground. Jules shook his head hard.
“Stomp all you want! He still has no face!”
Jules went back to the body and cut through the rope holding him. The body went slack and Jules sighed. Maybe they’ll just take my word for it? He grunted. Right, and maybe I’ll single handedly drive the White Man back to England. There wasn’t anything to do about the situation. He still had to take the body back. Face or no face. He looked down and saw the strange harness was still in his grip (his very tight grip it would seem). He didn’t think it would fit in his pocket like the can could. And he was afraid to put it in his saddlebag (how delicate it was likely posed a good question, but the more serious issue was just how much Copper hated the thing already. He knew deep down, that’s why Copper ran. The thing he insisted on keeping). And now his quarry was very, very dead.
There was only one thing he could think to do with the harness (and no throwing it away was not an option). He took off his coat and laid it across the saddle. Copper acted agitated but didn’t make to pull the spike and run. He turned and walked a few feet away from Copper, then went to work figuring out how he could strap the harness around himself. He tried a few ways, but his initial thought of just wrapping the two straps over his shoulders and two under his pits proved to be the most logical. He twisted the harness so that the straps were in front of him and looked for a way to affix them together. There was no obvious connection this way. Each strap had some strange clamp that looked like a vicious set of jaws. When he pinched them, they opened wide, seeming desperate to take something into their grasps. So, he made them grip each other. Doing so made a strangle tingle shoot up his body. Copper seemed to feel it too as he reared once more but didn’t get loose.
“You stay put. We’re doing this, so just suck it up.” Copper snorted in response. “You worry too much. Nothing bad is going to happen. Well…Unless you’ve done bad things to someone else. Then you’re likely to end up in the middle of some desolate wasteland with your face cleaved off.”
He looked back to the body of James Smith and shook his head. And then went to work trying to spin the harness around his body until the can like cavity was in front of his chest. It was a little loose but good enough o be out of the way. Jules nodded to himself and grabbed his coat to sling back on. It hid the harness for the most part. Only the slot strange slot that looked like it could hold the strange cannister was visible. Not that he was worried that anyone would see it or what they would say, but it was an interesting observation for him.
Jules ran his fingers into and around that cavity. He could feel all sorts of protractions and dimples for whatever purposes he did not know. He paused staring out towards the mountain just beyond them. Not focusing on anything in particular, just thinking about what that strange vessel was. And what the purpose of the thing in his possession served. There was still that slight thrum coming from the can in his pocket. He couldn’t think how to describe it more than a pressure. Like a hard wind blowing down from the mountains. But it wasn’t flowing from around his body but rather from within himself.
He reached into his pocket and pulled the can out, its vivid blue core still casting a brick blanket of light across himself and the ground despite the brilliance of the sun in the sky. He held it before him, his face bathed in the blue exaltation of power.
You were meant to sit in this cradle. I… am sure of it. He lifted the cannister to place into the cavity of the holster when Copper reared again, almost taking the spike out of the ground. Jules rushed forward and grabbed his harness again and settled him back down with shushes and pats. He put the can back in his pocket. Copper was not a fan of either it or the harness, that much was obvious. But why he responded so fiercely to them was something Jules was struggling to understand.
“You have always been difficult, my old friend. Never like this though. Why do you fear these so? Sure, there is a power in them, I know it. Do you think that so bad in our possession?”
Copper shook his head as Jules tried to pet him, his mane jerking out of his grip. Jules frowned and was about to turn back to James Smith’s body when something caught his eye. A shape of a person was halfway up the incline to the mountain summit and it was hunched down by a boulder up that gravelly way. Whoever it was, was watching him just a touch out of view, wearing clothing that seemed to merge into the environment around him. Almost making him (or her) looking like some disembodied head hovering above the dirt. The figure was bald with a dark shadow where the eyes should have been. The flesh a sickly grey.
“Hey! Do you require help!?” Jules called after the person.
Whoever it was quickly darted away, likely into the cave that was just barely able to be seen from his perspective. Jules furrowed his brows and went to drive the stake in deeper for Copper. He did not want him racing away this time. So, went back to the bag and pulled out another spike to double down against the rope. He went to Copper after doing so and rubbed his nose.
“You stay here and chomp down on the grass. When we return, we will deal with James Smith and take you home. Don’t be so tense. We are almost done out here.”
Jules turned and made his way up the detritus strewn decline towards the cave above. A few spots he was forced to put his hands to the ground to maintain his balance. Mostly, it was just a hard slog upwards. It took him almost ten minutes, he was certain, before reaching the cave entrance and looking inside. It was pitch black the deeper in the cave went and he had no way to make a torch. All of his supplies were in the saddle bag and he wasn’t marching back to get them.
“Hello? Don’t be fearful. I’m just here to see if you need help.”
There was no forthcoming response outside of strange drips from some water source and the subtle bustle of moving feet. He frowned. If they didn’t need help, they should just say so. Then again, maybe they were injured and couldn’t reply? Afraid that whoever attacked them had returned? Or they were outlaws themselves hiding out from an authority. Any way it was looked at, he knew he would have to make sure. Maybe he could still make some money out of this whole affair.
“I’m coming in. Whoever you are. If you are a criminal, throw down your arms. If you are injured, I will find you.”
His footsteps echoed dully as he walked slowly into the cave allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. It wasn’t as pitch black as he thought. As he got deeper, light from the entrance cast a dim aura on the surfaces; high, low, and jagged. It was almost a tunnel leading back. He was starting to worry it was going too far back (that pitch black nature actually taking hold here) when he saw a slight, nearly imperceptible green glow around a bend just beyond.
He moved towards it and the glow grew brighter the nearer he got. He rounded the bend, climbing over a section of collapsed wall, and stopped when he saw a glowing green light sitting at the end of a short alcove. The cave here split into a few offshoots, a few too tiny for him to enter. The rounded alcove was nested just past the intersection to these offshoots. By the strange light (which was like a lantern. Only a three sided pyramidal shape with the light cascading out of three glass windows into its interior making up the central part of its column) was a makeshift bed. Whoever was sleeping in it, was smaller than him by a least two feet.
His voice echoed throughout the cave network. In response, came a strange grunting sound. Then he heard the growl before he felt the body leaping down and grabbing him by the back. Whoever and whatever it was, wrapped its arms and legs around his torso and bit him on the nape of his neck. He thrust his body against the cave wall, turned, and bent forward to toss the person over his shoulders. The individual landed on thrown out palms and somehow managed to kick out with both his legs and feet (firmly planted on Jules’s chest) and sent him flying backwards into the makeshift campsite.
Whoever it was came to their full height and raised their hands as if to claw Jules’s eyes out. It was then Jules pulled his gun because the thing that stood before him wasn’t any human he’d ever seen. It uttered a series of sounds and noises from the slit that was his mouth (what lips were there were essentially little more than tendons of flesh) and narrowed the sallow pits that were its eyes. Fleshy lids squirreled over black almond voids. Green light reflected from its snarled, chittering visage.
Jules got an up close and personal view of that greyish green flesh and the strange clothing it wore. Now rather than just being a part of its environment, the form fitting cloth took on a silverish sheen that was some sort of metallic like mesh running from neck to foot with heavy boots covering that material as it sunk into its depths. Words wouldn’t leave Jules’s throat (not even that scream of horror that was languishing deep within). The creature stared at him and stopped, its own eyes taking on the widened fear of Jules. It stared at his chest and uttered a long shriek, then charged.
The man thing went flying down the tunnel and away from him. He laid there in shock for a very long moment. Minutes even. Breathing heavily. His sounds the only ones competing for the waterdrops echoing throughout the cave network. Slowly, he got back to his feet and held out his gun. Pointed it at the thing’s body. It hadn’t moved since its chest stopped heavy several minutes earlier. He walked over to it cautiously and pressed his boot against its side. It didn’t move. Didn’t even blink, its hideous, onyx eyes staring up into the dark. Green light bounced off its flesh making it look not just sick… but very dead.
It is dead… He suddenly felt sad. And even ashamed. Was it even going to attack him? Of course, it was going to. It… he was afraid of you. And you gave him no reason to think otherwise. This was his den… His…
Jules stood above the weaponless form. He lowered his gun and the guilt settled in as he realized what he’d done. It had to have been true. There was nothing else for it. This creature was one of them. A starman. One of the Chuhukon. Jules may have been raised white, but over the years, he’d made contacts within the Hopi community. Traders. Hunters. Criminals even. Had learned over the years how to speak Hopi again. One of the more entertaining tales he’d been told came from a thief who was fleeing towards Mexico (they all thought they could get away if they just ran to Mexico. Sometimes, he even entertained the notion himself). It was a tale of the Chuhukon people, who came from the stars. You could see them in the night sky clustered together as seven bright tiny spots. That was their home. He had heard a few variations of it since. Some even said that the starmen came and gave life to the great turtle people and brought civilization to their ancestors. He’d thought it just silly tales. But now…
The being’s blood was pouring from the gaping hole in its chest. Blue black and reddish purple.
“I’m… sorry, Starfather. I responded just as they taught me. Without thinking. What is out there is yours then. A train for the skies. I promise, I will take care of it for you. I hope you will be able to forgive me…and the fear that is prevalent in my kind.”
Jules holstered his revolver and moved the green light. He intended to bury Starfather (which was now how he thought of the strange little being) in his bed and cover him with the stones in the tunnel. Once accomplished, Jules gathered the green light and a bag Starfather had with him and went back out to Copper who was still eating and looking as vexed as a horse ever had. Amazingly, no vultures had tried to land on James Smith. Though there were seven circling high overhead. Jules figured the feisty Copper wasn’t worth the risk just yet.
“Inside, I found a Starfather,” Jules said coming up to Copper and putting the green light (which he’d discovered how to switch off on the walk over) and the small bag (which he’d yet to open) into the saddlebag.
“Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication. I did not understand Starfather’s words and… well, I had to bury him and give him the only funeral rights I knew. Perhaps it will be enough. But what I do know is that we must do something about the sky train. Not yet, though. We’ll take James Smith back to the Wilson Bureau. And then come back.”
Jules took down his bed roll and used it to wrap up James Smith’s body. He then slung his lifeless form over the back of the saddle, mounted up (after unstaking Copper, of course), and headed up over the next ridge and rode for the rest of the day. When night set upon them again, he made camp. He removed James Smith’s body and the saddle so that Copper could spend a night without a burden (they’d been riding too long with that still on him and Jules was starting to get worried it would hurt Copper’s back).
Laying down, he looked to Copper, “In the morning, we’ll make the final leg to Denver. I can see the streetlamps in the distance. We are almost there, I promise. Then by evening we will head back to the sky train. So, rest up and no acting up tomorrow.”
Jules leaned back, dropped his hat down, and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep. Nor to be awaken when a pair of arms grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him to his feet. His hat flew off in the motion and Jules found himself surrounded by eight men. It took him a moment to focus his eyes, but he realized that he knew who these men were. Two of them grabbed his arms from behind and held him upright, preventing him from moving. He frowned and looked to the man in front of him. The one standing there with thumbs in pockets.
“What’s the meaning of this, Jenson? Why do you accost me so?”
“What’s the meaning of this, he asks!” One of the men behind him spat with a laugh. “The meaning is, we done found our little lost injun!”
“I’m not lost! I was returning with James Smith!”
Jenson chuckled, “Is that who’s corpse that is over there? You were supposed to bring him back alive. But I guess you savages can’t help yourselves.”
Jules pursed his lips. “That… was an accident. Got dragged across the country by horse.”
“Sure,” Jenson nodded to the other men not holding Jules and they started digging through all of his belongings.
“What are you doing!?”
“Mr. Wilson gave us our orders. You’re two weeks behind schedule with the dead guy over there.” Jenson smiled at him. “And now we’re seeing what all of value you got for compensation. And if it ain’t enough, well, that compensation comes out of your hide.”
“How can I be held responsible for that!? The man was already practically to Texas by the time I was given the assignment!”
“You injuns all have the same excuses,” Jenson said. “Keep telling old Mr. Wilson it’s a mistake to trust your kind.”
The man to his right started digging in Jules’s coat pocket.
“Hey! Get your hands out of there!”
The man pulled out the can from Jules’s right pocket, “Lookie here, Jenson! A right purty trinket!”
He tossed it to Jenson who turned it over in his hands staring deep into its glowing core. Jules was frantic and trying to get loose.
“Give that back! It does not belong to you, nor to me! It is Starfather’s!”
This prompted a laugh from them all, including the five other men who had stopped their search and were now surround the four and staring at the strange can like device.
“You hear that, Jenson!? Starfather! Jesus, these injuns!” the man to his left cried out.
Jules growled and jerked his right shoulder forward and down sending the man to his right over and onto his back. The man to his left turned Jules to him and drove his left fist into his stomach. Jules doubled over but immediately brought his head up and into the man’s jaw. There was a heavy crack and an oomph as Jenson saw that man falling and rushed forward. Jules brought his right fist up and into Jenson’s face. He went reeling backwards and Jules managed to grab the cannister from his grip in the process. The other men had drawn their guns and Jules stood there with his eyes wide, ready to fight as the three men on the ground were jumping back to their feet and rushing him.
If I die here tonight, so be it! I will not allow them to take Starfather’s gift without a fight! He jammed the cannister into the cradle on his chest. There was a bright, blue white light that shot out and illuminated the entire campsite. Everything looked in slow motion to Jules. Men charging him. Men firing their guns. Men rising into the air with him as he found that an invisible bubble was surrounding him. He didn’t’ so much see it as felt it. Felt a powerful energy flowing around him, out of him, and towards the men who were now off their feet as well and tumbling through the air, hats and guns flying through the night in a strange display of nature taking its time to watch these events unfold.
And a blue lightning cascaded outward towards those men. Towards the outer reaches of the campsite.
Jules sensed his eyes bulging, the bright light coming from his chest (My eyes! My eyes!) should have been blinding, but he could see everything crystal clear. Could see all the way to Denver even! Saw people walking there, even at this late hour! Saw the men before him and surrounding him catching fire, the blue lightning roiling through them like they weren’t even there. And his panic grew.
Oh no! Not like this, Starfather! He struggled to reach the cannister in its holster. Struggled to move his arms. It was like he was trapped in some kind of molasses, every move forward an eternity of pain. He screamed and forced his arms onward on their slow march to the core. And when his fingers finally reached it and wrapped around its still cool surface, it took all of his will, all of his strength to yank it out.
Then he was falling and hit the ground with a solid thud. He groaned and tried to sit up. He couldn’t. The core lay a few feet from him, still glowing vividly. He could still see clearly, but the clarity was starting to dim. He saw the burning hulks of men nearby. The two that were in his field of vision were nothing more than dismembered skeletons wearing burning, smoking clothes. The flesh that still hung there was burning too. But rather than turning to a cooked lump of roast, it was a gelatinous mass of yellows and reds, translucent blobs seeping off the bones as if they were creatures that had just devoured their host.
Jules wanted to scream and to cry. But no tears came. No sound ushered forth. His vision dimmed to black. And thought he could sense his consciousness slipping away, he could still see the people of Denver.
A TONGUE WAS licking his face, and Jules felt consciousness return. It was still a groggy sensation, as if he’d been drinking all night and was just now awaking into a stupor. He opened his eyes to bright daylight and lifted his hand to the high sun. Copper looked down at him with what might have been concern but was more likely a ‘hurry and get up, we’ve got things to do’ sort of way. Even more likely, ‘give me water’.
Jules rolled over onto his stomach and tried to push himself up. His mouth was dry. His voice little more than a grunt. The sandy dirt at his face blurry. It took a full ten minutes just to get to his knees and lean back onto his calves. He was dimly aware that his duster had been shredded, half of it still dangling off his shoulders. His whole body ached and felt like he’d been run over by a herd of wild stallions. And his muscles throbbed mercilessly.
He tried to clear his throat but it was too dry. Copper snorted and he tried to say something witty but it died in his throat as he took in the campsite. Bones in shredded clothing were scattered everywhere, the flesh long since burned away. All the way across the campsite where Copper had been staked down (apparently Jules’s little light show had scare him away for a while) still lay the lifeless corpse of James Smith.
He tried to swallow. It hurt. And he ended up sitting there on his calves for another twenty minutes before he could find it in himself to stand up with Copper’s help (he kept nudging him with his snout)). Stumbling to the saddlebag, he reached for the canteens. Took a long, satisfying chug. And poured Copper some out into his bowl. He went to sit down on a boulder by a bush and stayed there for another hour.
“Think I should tell Mr. Wilson what happened when we get James Smith back to him?”
Copper finished chugged his water, raised his head, and stared at him blankly for several long moments. Then walked to the other side of the campsite to eat grasses and bush twigs. Jules sighed and saw the cannister on the ground still glowing. He stood up and wobbled over to it carefully, trying not to fall over. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands.
“This… will have to be put away. It is far too dangerous.” He felt the harness on his chest. It was undamaged.
Two hours later, he’d picked up all his belongings and packed them into the saddlebag. He went over to the body of James Smith and found it stiff as a board. So, he kept it wrapped in the bedroll, tied it up to a rope, and attached it to Copper’s saddle. He mounted up and they moved out dragging the body behind them. They came to a rise of a large hill overlooking the plains below. Denver stood like a brown dot towards the center of the plains. He almost continued on but then stopped and sat there staring at the city below.
“Why am I doing this?”
Copper whinnied loudly in response. Jules leaned back into the saddle and looked up at the sky. The sun was bright, the sky itself a light blue. Cloudless. He dropped his head back down and placed his hand on the saddlebag behind him. He could feel the lump that was the cannister and he sighed and turned back around to look out at the plains before them. Thoughts rushed through his head as a herd of cows stampeding across the terrain. And then a smile crept across his lips.
Starfather’s gift… wiped them all out in seconds. Eight men brought low with but a thoughtless action…If I could learn how to use it…figure out its purpose… we could take back what is rightfully ours. Drive the White Man back to the hellpit from which he was spawned. He nodded to himself. But I will need allies. Those who are not afraid to fight back. Yes, Starfather, I understand now.
Jules reached back, pulled his knife out, and cut the rope attached to the saddle. The body went rocked onto the ground with the rope falling down before it and lay motionless. Jules resheathed his blade and turned Copper around in the opposite direction.
“Let us head back to Starfather’s sky train. We have another task more important to attend to.”
He kicked Copper into a run and they started the long ride back to Starfather’s ruined vessel.
Thanks once again for reading and I really hope you enjoyed! If you’d like to see where this story is available, check out these links:
Tales From A Strange Mind:
It’s own independent short story: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08F3WBB2R/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
And of course look at my author’s page for future works! https://www.amazon.com/Timothy-Purvis/e/B085Q62XRP?ref=sxts_sxwds-bia-wc-drs1_0&qid=1601237025&sr=1-1-f6b8d51f-2c55-4dc3-89ad-0c3639671b2d
I appreciate your support and look forward to delivering you more story telling in the future! Stay tuned and check back often!
~Timothy S Purvis
Also, check out my latest book offering, Tales From A Strange Mind Volume II, now available on Amazon Kindle!