Excerpt for Hong on the Range by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




HONG ON THE RANGE


By


William F. Wu


Copyright @ 2017 – William F. Wu


Cover Design by Linda Cappel




This novel is dedicated to some of my traveling companions:


Rob Chilson


Michael D. Toman


Lynette M. Burrows


Tom Meserole,


Whose annual William F. Wu Going Away Parties finally got me out of town;


&


To the memory of Dorothy M. Johnson,


this homage to all her fine work.



Acknowledgements:


Special thanks are due in writing this novel to David M. Harris, Byron Preiss, Brian M. Thomsen, and Ellen Datlow.


Support, suggestions, and other contributions also came from Rob Chilson, Diana G. Gallagher (previously Diana G. Wu), Chelsea Streb, and Wicket the doggie; thanks to all.


Chapter 1


I had been trudging across the prairie under the hot sun for days, ever since Independence, when I saw the buzzards circling overhead in the distance. They were wheeling high, not expecting to feed very soon. With a tired hitch at the straps of my pack and bedroll, I changed direction just enough to find whatever had drawn them.

First I could only see that something large was displacing the tall buffalo grass ahead. Then I reached the spot and found a steerite lying down with his steel legs neatly folded underneath him. They gleamed silver in the sun and his hinged metal tail swished back and forth, its brush swatting the flies that buzzed around the natural hide of his meaty, biological middle. As I pulled my battered hat off by the brim and squinted at the steerite, he turned his steel bovine head toward me, short horns and all.

"Hi, there," I said.

"Hello," he answered pleasantly. He had been programmed with excellent enunciation and a trace of a Boston accent. "Good day to you. Where are you bound?"

I untied my red bandana and wiped off my forehead with it. "I'm going to Femur to look for a job. Pardon my asking, but…have you lost your herd? What are you doing here?"

"I am merely waiting. Have I lost my herd? More accurately, my herd has been rustled."

"Rustled?"

"I dutifully escaped. None of my comrades succeeded in this endeavor. Since our trail crew ran off, I have no trail boss to whom I must report. Nor am I honor bound to join the herd after it has been rustled."

I nodded toward the mark stamped onto the shining metal base of his tail, where it extended from his natural hindquarters. "Waiting for what? You still have your serial number."

"Oh, yes. I am fully programmed and ready to report to any authority who can restore me to my legal owner."

"Who's that?"

"I don't know. We get basic programming for herding, pasturing, and speech, but little precise data. Of course, we can accumulate information as we go, but no one ever told me the owner's name or where to locate him."

"I guess the trail crew was supposed to get you there?"

"Indeed they were, those cowardly louts." He lowered his head modestly. "I am led to believe that my mechanical parts are quite expensive. Not to mention my beef."

"And you're just waiting? How long are you going to wait before you do something?"

"Until I think of something to do. My owner's insurance has an expiration date embedded in my programming. When his time to file a claim on my theft is up, then my programming changes and I become a maverick without ownership restrictions."

"Would you mind visiting the town of Femur? Perhaps someone there can check your serial number and return you." I didn't add how much I would like the ride.

"I would appreciate being taken there. Would you be so kind?"

"Of course," I said, putting my hat back on. I retied my bandana and eased the straps of my pack off. The bedroll was tied to it. "Would you mind carrying me?"

"Be my guest. Shall I rise now or wait for you to mount first?"

"Uh–go ahead and get up."

He rose with that awkward half-jump that cattle seem to have. I then put both hands on his back, half-jumped myself, and clambered on. The straps on my pack could just be stretched to hang from both of his short horns, leaving the pack resting neatly on the back of his neck, bedroll and all.

"In which direction shall we locate the town of Femur?" he asked politely.

I leaned forward, hanging onto one of his horns, and pointed with one arm down low where he could see it. "Straight thataway. It's a long cluster of wooden buildings on the stage route right in the middle of rolling prairie, or so I'm told. The largest town in the area."

"We shall see if the information is correct." He swung into a walk.

I jerked backward from the start and grabbed onto my pack. The pull on his horns didn't seem to bother him, so I held the pack as a kind of handle, like the straps were reins. His middle was broad and well-fed, making my straddle more awkward than I would have liked, and his gait was completely unfamiliar. My moccasined feet dangled out to each side. Still, any ride beat walking, even on a steerite.

"By what name may I address you?" he asked over his shoulder.

"I'm Louie Hong."

"My serial number is ST 4006."

"Pleased to meet you."

"And I, you."

After walking for my entire trip so far, riding was even more of a luxury than I had expected. We fairly seemed to eat up the ground; in fact, periodically, my mount did pause to munch on the ground cover. When one such break had been concluded and we were on our way again, I offered a little conversation.

"You seem to be in good condition," I observed. "Those buzzards would have had a long wait. You weren't even out looking for water when I found you."

"I wasn't thirsty," he said mildly.

"How long have you been on your own?"

"Two days and a fraction more."

"Which direction were you headed in? Your herd, I mean."

"Northwest, approximately. I surmise we were destined for the high plains to the distant north, but I may have been incorrect. Perhaps we were meant to feed the railroad crews to the west."

"I haven't seen the railroad in these parts," I said. "I hear the stage that passes through Femur stops at a railroad depot."

He nodded courteously, but had no further comment.

"Serial numbers are hard to remember," I said. "Would you mind having a name?"

"Not at all. As a matter of fact, I always wished to be called Chuck. I think it an elegant play on words, considering the ultimate destination of certain portions of my middle. What do you think?"

I laughed. "Glad to meet you, Chuck."

"And I, you."

"Do you sing, sir?"

"Uh–sing?"

"Yes. Occasionally the cowboys would entertain the herd with archaic cowboy songs, I believe sometimes evolved to reflect modern times. They seemed to consider it a duty based on folk beliefs."

"You want me to sing to you?"

"Please do not feel pressed if you find the activity onerous. After all, they only did it in the evening after supping. And you are not a cowboy." He plodded on a few steps and then added, "I always found it comforting, personally."

"I…don't know."

"Allow me to demonstrate. Let me see." He cleared his throat and started singing.


"'Oh, roast me not on the lone prairie' --

These words came low and mournfully

From the stainless lips of a young steerite

As he malfunctioned at the fall of night."


He waited modestly for a moment, still ambling along, and then asked, "What do you think?"

I hesitated, rocking back and forth on his bony spine. "Very moving," I said finally. "I'm not familiar with, uh, this version." I raised my head to adjust my bandana around my neck and saw something on the horizon. "Hey, I think I see it."

Chuck lifted his head and turned it slightly to the side to eye the uneven cluster of shapes in the distance. "A modest settlement, at best. Nevertheless, we shall arrive shortly."

We had been crossing trackless prairie, but Femur was, as rumored, a long string of wooden buildings lining a strip of road. It was smaller than I had hoped. The narrow road ran across our path, meandering slightly to avoid small rises in the terrain. I could see the dry ruts cut into the bare earth of the road by wagon and stage wheels.

"Do you know where to go in town?" Chuck asked me.

"No, I don't. Maybe if we go around one end and walk down the middle of the street, we can read the signs."

"Quite so." He changed his direction slightly, aiming for the left end of the little town.

When we got to the road, he made a right turn around a small pigsty by the side of the livery stable and started down the middle of the street. On both sides, rough boardwalks fronted two-story wooden buildings erected side against side. They all had distinctive false fronts on the top story. Nobody was on the street.

Ahead of us, somebody came stumbling fast out of a pair of swinging doors, propelled by a boot just barely visible between the doors. A moment later, another guy strode out, obviously in stern pursuit. Chuck halted so fast that I fell forward over his horns.

"Oh, my," said Chuck.

I pushed my hat up so I could see.

Both guys were standing the street ahead of us. The first guy out was a bulky fellow, shaped something like Chuck, scowling in the sunlight as he clenched and unclenched his fists. He kept them high as he circled his opponent warily on Model C-5 Abilene Accordion Ankles.

The other guy was a bit shorter and of medium build. He had straight, shoulder-length brown hair neatly brushed back, and a fancy black frock coat with tails whipping slightly in the breeze. His black ribbon tie was also fluttering over his white shirt and silver vest. If he had any special parts, I couldn't see them, but he wore his gun low and strapped down to his silver pants.

"Fisticuffs?" Chuck asked. "Pugilism?"

"Looks that way," I said. "At least."

"I request that you please dismount. I intend to depart the immediate vicinity until the belligerence has ended."

"Okay." I pulled my pack free of his horns and hopped off. "Thanks for the ride."

"You are of course welcome." Chuck trotted away with his ears flattened against his head, his legs scissoring quickly beneath the boxcar body.

The guy in the fancy clothes stood still, composed, turning just enough to keep the other fellow in front of him.

"It don't make you clean!" The big guy was yelling. "You can't deny it. We all know who you are." He sniffed loudly.

The gunfighter said nothing.

The cowboy suddenly quite sidling around and reached for his gun. The gunfighter's hand went real quick to the handle of his, and the cowboy jumped back. In fact, he jumped so hard that he triggered his Model C-5 Abilene Accordion Ankles. The mainsprings went off together, propelling him backward through the air a few feet, where he hit the hitching post just over the small of his back, flipped around it with his legs a spinning blur, and thumped face down on the boardwalk.

You got to watch those sensitive reflexes.

Loud guffaws from inside the swinging doors echoed up and down the dusty street before the guys inside turned away. It was the kind of town that would mostly have folks come in from ranches after sundown or on Saturday night. Nobody else seemed to be around.

The gunfighter sauntered up the street, not dallying and not hightailing, either.

Clutching my pack, I headed cautiously for the saloon, keeping an eye on the cowboy across the street. He was just starting to recover from his close nasal examination of the wood grain. When he rolled over on his side and looked at me, I stopped.

"What do you want, scrawny?" He demanded.

"Nothing."

He turned his head and tried to spit into the street, but his mouth was dry. Instead, he wound up making a weird face for nothing.

Apparently his Abilene Accordions were okay. He got up and leaned against the hitching post to dust himself off. I was already forgotten.

That was normal enough for Louie Hong, control-natural. It was also why finding a job was tough.

That was why I had headed west to Femur.

I stopped outside the saloon doors and squinted into the dark interior. It was the only place with a sign of life. The crowd inside turned out to be only five guys sitting around one big table looking bored. I was glad to see the crud on the floor, though.

I pulled open one of the swinging doors as slowly as I could, hoping to slide inside on my moccasins without making any noise. As soon as the door opened, more sunlight hit the assorted sawdust, dead bugs, and dried mud on the floor. All five guys looked up immediately in case further excitement was forthcoming.

They still watched me as I walked over to the bar and laid my pack on the table.

The barkeep was a burly guy with thinning curly brown hair. He had shining silver Pan-Brite Steel Wool sideburns on fleshy, sun-reddened cheeks. As I stood there, he dried his hands on his spotless white apron and then shoved my pack onto the floor beside me.

"This bar is for drinks, sonny," he said. "Name it."

"I am an honest young fellow looking for employment," I said politely. "I will do anything."

"Sorry, sonny." He turned away.

"I could sweep up in here," I called after him. "Swamp out the floor after you close."

"I do that," he growled over his shoulder.

"You said anything."

I looked to see who had spoken. It was one of the guys at the table. I picked up my pack. "That's right."

He was sitting in the center of the group, lounging back in a chair tilted up on its two rear legs. He was a tall, heavy guy in a battered, wide-brimmed brown leather hat and a long sheepskin vest. His shirt was a deep red with gold buttons and his bandana was bright yellow, except for the dust it had collected. He was clean-shaven and rather decent-looking, over all.

He frowned suddenly. "You ain't a natural, are you? A control-natural?"

Everyone around him bristled slightly.

"Yeah." I started for the door.

"Hey, where ya goin', cowboy? I just might have a couple newbits for you."

I hesitated, looking back. They were all grinning real big. "For what?"

"You're too choosy, fob," said the guy on his right.

I started to look at him, but the first guy let his chair fall to the floor with bang and stood up. The others followed his lead.

"Run down to the livery and pick up seven horsites. Tell 'im they're Duke's horsites and give 'im this." He flipped a coin toward me.

It spun fast in a rainbow arc, sending yellow flashes across the room to sparkle on the wooden walls. I caught it and looked it over. It was a solid gold double bison, the kind with the charging buffalo on one side and the dead one with its feet in the air on the other.

When I looked up in surprise, he winked at me.

"We're goin' over to get our pay at the bank. You meet us there double-quick, I'll let you keep the change."

"Yessir!" That could be quite a bonus, depending on how long they'd been in town. From the looks of them, they hadn't been off the road long at all. I high-tailed down the street, my pack slamming against my back, remembering the livery stable I had passed riding Chuck.

I skidded to a halt in front of the stable, throwing up little clouds of dust with my moccasins. Nobody was in sight. Just before I started inside, I heard a faint whimpering sound from around the back of the stable and a quiet voice. It sounded like Chuck.

The horsites could wait another minute. I made a long detour around the pig sty to get behind the stable. Back here, I could see down the rear view of all the buildings on this side of the street.

At first I didn't see him and when I did, I almost didn't recognize him. He was lying in the shadow of the stable against the rough wood grain, a tangled pile of stainless steel head, skeleton, electronics, and tail. All the meat and hide was gone. A large pool of syntheblood blackened the ground under him.

"Those ham-fisted clods!" He wailed. "Those mitten-fingered slobs!"

"What happened?" I edged closer, staring at him. Whoever had done the job had been quick and sloppy. I had never seen the innards of a steerite before.

"I've been slaughtered by experts! I've been butchered by the best! Those thieves couldn't cut steaks by a blueprint! They couldn't trim fat with a scalpel! I'm just so embarrassed…." He began to cry.

"Well–I'll be right back, okay? I got to do something. You just hang on right there." I ran back around the pig sty again and into the front of the stable.

"Hey! Anybody home?" I demanded.

"Quit yelling, quit yelling." A short, ragged guy in a gray beard came stumping out of one of the stalls holding a shovel, walking with a stiff-legged, side-to-side motion. His beard stuck out in all directions like he'd been struck on the head by lightning and never got over it. The walk was more telling, though. Underneath the baggy blue pants, he had a pair of Prairie Village Grippers. They were an early model of specialized thighs marketed toward professional wranglers. Nobody had ever been able to walk right in them.

"Duke wants his seven horsites," I said firmly, backed by the authority of the coin in my pocket.

"Those stalls there," he said, tilting the handle of the shovel as a pointer. "Forty-seven newbits."

I tossed him the double bison as casually as I could. He snapped it out of the air, gave it a glance, and stuffed it into his pants pocket. I watched carefully as he counted out the change, which was considerable.

I split the change between my pants pockets and my pack. Then I gathered up the horsites, which of course were designed much like Chuck except that they didn't have his intelligence or his ability to speak. Unlike steerites, horsites normally had a rider or driver to guide them individually.

As I led the horsites up the street, I saw more signs of life than before. At the far end, some people were piling into a stagecoach. I read the signs over all the storefronts until I found "First Ferric Bank of Femur," which didn't look any different from the other storefronts that I could see.

The horsites didn't want to stand still. I kept getting tangled up in the seven sets of reins as they shuffled around and turned sideways and nudged each other. I was just ducking under some of the reins and trying to shift some of them from one hand to another when a bunch of guys ran out of the bank yelling and hollering and firing guns in the air.

The horsites all started and shied as the guys started jumping into the saddles, yanking the reins out of my hands. I dodged out of the way and found the stagecoach barreling down on me, its team spooked by all the shooting and shouting. When I stopped and whirled around, I found the last of the horsites I'd been holding pulled away riderless and more guys bursting out of the bank, yelling and hollering and shooting at me.

I spun around again and leaped high for the stage as it rolled past. My hands slid and scraped helplessly on the smooth surface for a moment before I got hold of one of the straps holding the boot shut. I hung on hard, bouncing against the back of the stage with both feet kicking wildly for a footing as we raced out of town.



Chapter 2


Duke and his gang were riding out of the same end of town as the stage. The only difference was that as soon as they had cleared the last building, they cut around it and lit out north over the open prairie. The stage, of course, stayed on the road winding westward.

I had finally managed to get both feet braced on something firm; I couldn't tell what and didn't care. Behind me, a spontaneously formed posse was just mounting up and thundering out of town. In the heat of action, they all turned at the end of town and went after the gang. So far, I had been forgotten.

The stage was still bouncing along at high speed, maybe just for good measure. I was still afraid of being shaken off, especially as my hold on the strap began to tire. So I leaned my head around the corner of the stage to see if there was any chance of working my way inside.

One of the passengers saw me and started in surprise. He was a young guy with sandy hair, maybe my age, but tall and thin.

"Say! There's someone out there," he shouted.

Another guy immediately stuck his head out the window, along with a gun leveled at me. It was the gunfighter I had seen in the street, only he was bare-headed now and his long hair trailed in the wind. His eyes were deep set and shadowed, his face lined and dried by the sun. After an intense, momentary stare, he withdrew again.

I was relieved, but still hanging on precariously. The first guy, though, opened the door. It swung back toward me and I looped one arm through the open window. When I shifted my weight to it completely, the young passenger took my outstretched hand and pulled me in close. He helped me inside and a moment later I fell into a seat beside him with the gunfighter across from me.

One more passenger was inside. She was a slender young woman sitting primly on the opposite seat of the stage but as far from the gunfighter as she could get. Her straight blonde hair was tied back under a small lavender hat that matched her snug, full-length dress. White lace lined the top of the tight collar around her neck. When she saw me looking at her, she turned her gaze out her window.

I remembered to take off my hat and hold it.

The gunfighter's hat was in his lap. He was studying me, but his gaze was casual, as though I'd already been dismissed. I looked away.

Out the window, I could see the posse just disappearing over a gentle rise in the distance. I wouldn't mind if they never remembered me. In the meantime, Femur could do without my services as a laborer.

"Late for the stage, huh?" The young fellow next to me called over the rattle of the bounding stage and the hoofbeats of the horsites pulling it. He smiled pleasantly. "Harris Nye." He held out his hand.

I looked at it for a moment, not sure what to do with it. Then I remembered and shook hands with him. "Louie Hong."

"Did they get your luggage loaded?"

"Uh–this is it." Belatedly, I remembered my pack, which I was leaning back on against the seat. I pulled it off and held it on my lap.

"Ah. You travel light, I see." Harris nodded approvingly. He spoke to the gunfighter. "Good planning, don't you think? Personally, I have a lot of extra specials with me, so I need lots of luggage. I'm Harris Nye."

The gunfighter nodded lightly before Harris could offer his hand.

By this time the stage was slowing down. Four horsites weren't going to pull this much weight very far at top speed, after all. Soon it had settled into a normal, swaying walk.

"Bit of excitement back there, huh?" Harris said happily, looking around at everyone. "I'd heard life was different west of the Mississippi. Oh, by the way…I'm from east of the Mississippi."

The gunfighter smiled faintly and looked out the window again. The woman looked at him like he was a piece of scenery.

"Does anyone know who they were? I wonder if I've read about them," Harris said.

"Duke Goslin," said the gunfighter, without turning his head.

"Really?" Harris sat up straight, wide-eyed. "I've heard of them. Carver Dalton and Tether Chen are in his gang, right?"

The gunfighter nodded, still gazing out the window.

"Wowee. Think of that."

Now that the gunfighter wasn't watching me, I kept sneaking glances at him. He was older than I had thought at first, and was probably someone else Harris had read about. I couldn't see any hint of specials on him, but I didn't doubt he had some.

For that matter, they were invisible on the woman, too. Of course, sitting like we were, none of us revealed any special parts–or lack of them–by our movements. I couldn't see any on Harris, either.

So Harris was an overeager young adventurer thinking he was going to have fun across the Mississippi, with bags full of special parts. The kind one could carry in luggage could be easily interchanged on expensive modular mounts that he would have implanted in various places. I had seen his sort passing through Missouri from time to time while I was growing up.

"Well." Harris settled into his seat, still grinning cheerfully. "This is quite a trip for me. Joining the great resettlement migration and all."

"I didn't see you purchase a fare," said the woman suddenly. She looked squarely at me with deep blue eyes–Finegrinder & Denton's Barbilou Bluebells, I was pretty sure, now discontinued.

"This is Miz Eulalie Prang." Harris swung his head back and forth between us several times.

I looked back at her without saying anything.

"I once read," said Harris, "that sometimes a driver will let somebody ride on top for free."

"Sometimes," I said. I leaned forward and put on my pack. Then I stuck my hat on again. Riding up top would be better than having a paid passenger demand that I be abandoned on the prairie.

I stood on the bench, leaning forward because of the ceiling, and opened the door. The stage was moving leisurely now, so maneuvering wasn't so dangerous. I reached up and grabbed the rail that ran around the outside of the roof and swung out.

Somebody shut the door behind me, probably Harris.

I pulled up far enough to see the backs of the two drivers. They might have let me ride along if I had asked, but I wasn't so sure they would like my joining them without that particular courtesy. Two big suitcases and a huge trunk were strapped onto the roof. Hoping to use all that luggage to hide in, I pulled all the way up as slowly as I could, lest my weight unbalance the stage too much.

I had just gotten one foot up over the railing when the shotgun rider noticed the tilt. He looked over his shoulder at me, scowled, and then started climbing onto the roof. My foot was stuck on the railing so I couldn't lower it, and I was suddenly in no rush to get all the way up there.

He was a tall, slender guy like Harris, but much older and not given to smiling in all directions. That was all I saw before he took my shirt front in one hand, my belt buckle in the other, and lifted me up into the air. The blue sky swirled around in a circle and then I thumped onto the ground hard, cushioned a mite by my pack.

I lay there with my wind knocked out, watching the back of the stage go on without me. Harris stuck his head out the window to look but didn't say anything I could hear. I closed my eyes, struggling to get my breath back.

By the time the creaking of the stage had faded away, I was able to roll over onto one shoulder and watch the swaying vehicle shrink in the distance. The sun was low in the sky over it.

Well, I was no worse off than I had been before I had reached Femur, except that now I was severely banged up, had nowhere to go, had a shotgun rider mad at me, and was wanted for bank robbery.

And my hat had fallen off.

I crawled over and got it, then stood up to dust myself off. The sun was still hot and this humid air wasn't going to cool off much. I looked around.

The tall grasses of the rolling prairie waved endlessly in all directions. At least I had a road to follow now. Since Femur no longer beckoned, except with a rope, I started west.

I was too tired to walk very fast. Harris had plenty of energy and I supposed that one's taste for adventure was higher if one had the money to ride during the day and sleep under a roof at night. Not being a control-natural, of course, made the big difference.

Walking made me think of Chuck, then, for the first time since I had left him. I had promised to come back and I felt bad about not returning. That was life in the west, though. Everyone was transient these days, this side of the big river. You made friends one minute and then never saw them again.

I heard the hoofbeats and saw the dust ahead in the road before I could see the rider. As long as no one came up behind me from Femur, I was probably safe. I watched him come on.

His mount was an unusually large white stallion horsite that cantered casually down the road. He himself wore shiny black boots, gray pants, a long-sleeved matching gray shirt with fringe, and a white hat. From here, his face was a weird blur.

When he got closer, I could see that he was wearing a clown mask. The face was white with lots of red and orange and yellow, with blue trim. It was smiling goofily.

He pulled up in front of me. "Hi, there, fellow traveler. Are you in need of assistance?"

"Sort of," I said. "I could use a home, a job, and a girlfriend. Failing those, a fistful of double bisons would do. But I would settle for a ride west, or even a roof under which to spend the night."

He pushed his hat back on his head. Behind the mask, his hair was black. "You have reached a sorry pass, indeed. Do you know who I am?"

"No."

He drew himself up straight. "I…am the Long Ranger."

"Oh."

"And this is my fiery horse, Goldie."

I took another glance at the big white mount. "Goldie?"

He tilted his hat forward and leaned down at me. "Don't you believe me?"

"The real one lived in olden times. Everybody knows that."

"Yeah, well, never mind that part. I'm the new one. Understand?"

"Okay, okay. I mean, who cares?"

"Here. This'll prove it." He reached down to hand me something.

I took it. It was a red jelly bean. I ate it.

"Now, then. Exactly what, young fellow, has brought you to this unfortunate state of affairs?"

"Well…being a control-natural didn't help any."

"Oh. In that case, forget the whole thing. Gimme back my…aw, you chewed it up already." The Long Ranger shook his head and spurred Goldie. They took off down the road past me.

He would have found out sooner or later, anyway.

I plodded on. Around one bend, I spied a clump of low trees away from the road. It suggested some shelter and maybe some water for the canteen in my pack. I left the road for it just in time, since the horizon had turned red by the time I reached it.

The trees were cottonwoods, rather short and stumpy but taller in the sunken creekbed than they had looked from the road. The creek was nearly dry and offered nothing to drink. Since my spontaneous departure from Femur had left me without time to buy food, I had nothing to do but take my blanket out of my pack, use the pack as a pillow, and go to sleep in the waning light.

A weird hissing sound woke me up in darkness. It sounded like sniffing. That could mean anything from a fox to a coyote to something larger than that and even hungrier than I was. I felt around in the dark until I located a small rock. Then I sat up suddenly, threw it, and yelled, "Yah!"

Two guns clicked into cocked positions. Now that I was sitting up, I could see two silhouettes by a small yellowish fire. It had been hidden by a couple of tree trunks before.

One of them sniffed loudly.

"Come out of there, slow and easy," said the other.

I did. My habit of sleeping in my moccasins paid off again. When one lived the way I did, being ready to run was useful.

"Hey, it's our little buddy from the bar," said the one who had spoken before. He lowered his gun. "Come on over to the fire."

I got my first look at him by the firelight. He had a wide forehead under a reddish-brown hat, big wide round eyes and a face that narrowed sharply to a pointed chin. As he holstered his gun with his right hand, I caught sight of his left. Instead of a hand, he had a series of shiny blades on a Swissarmie Brand Swivel.

"Dalton's the name," he said, with a nod. "This here's Smellin' Llewellyn."

The other guy sniffed a few more times and holstered his own gun. They both sat down by the fire and I did likewise, not wanting to snub their invitation. They had meat on a little frying pan, just starting to sizzle.

"Say," said Smellin'. "This is the guy? I didn't get a good look outside the bank. He's the same one who rode the steerite I told you about."

I recognized him, too. He was the cowboy with the Model C-5 Abilene Accordion Ankles I had seen almost throw down on the gunfighter in the street. His friend was Carver Dalton. I had a vague memory of seeing him in the bar next to Duke.

"If you hadn't run off after that steerite," said Carver, "Duke wouldn't have had to hire him to do your job."

So that last riderless horse I had been holding had been Smellin' Llewellyn's. I looked at the sizzling steaks on the frying pan with a new prejudice.

"I got enough meat for the whole gang, didn't I?" Smellin' demanded. He sniffed again. "I found you all again, didn't I? And I shared it once we all got together again, didn't I? So's we could split up after that?"

"Yeah, all right." Carver jerked his thumb toward the fire and looked at me. "If that was your steerite, you're entitled to dinner. You did a right job for us with those horsites."

"Thank you," I said, still staring in shock at the portions of Chuck frying away in front of me. Eating him didn't quite seem right, somehow, but neither did starving.

Carver reached into a cloth sack of some kind and threw another hunk of Chuck onto the frying pan.

I looked over Smellin' Llewellyn. His nose was a bit large, unusually straight, and exactly proportioned. It looked a lot like a Hayashi-Chang Da Bizi, but I couldn't be sure. That might account for his odd nasal habits.

He saw me looking at him and sniffed again. "Hay fever," he said briefly. "That was your steerite, wasn't it?"

"We were just friends," I said, sniffing the steaks a little myself. They were getting more tempting every minute.

"I had to split the meat with the stable hand who helped me. Didn't have time to dally. But I didn't know you was hooking up with Duke and the boys. No hard feelings?"

"No." I shrugged. Chuck was still functioning, after all; he was just a lot skinnier.

"We figure we're safe for the night," said Carver. "The whole gang split up for the time being."

I nodded, relieved. After all, I was safer with a couple of notorious outlaws on my side than I was alone.

"Well…eat up," said Carver, throwing a steak onto a metal plate and handing it to me.

"Thanks." I pulled out my Cubby Scout knife and ate up.

Sleeping out under the stars was a lot more romantic the first couple of times I had done it, back when I was a little kid. It would have been more comfortable this time with a fire for company, but Carver and Smellin' had kicked it apart when they had finished cooking and heating coffee, leaving only coals that could stay alight till morning. Also, sleeping out under the stars would have been more reassuring with company than alone, except for the company.

I had never heard of Smellin' Llewellyn, but Carver Dalton was known for cutting up more than steaks. In fact, Smellin' was the one who had done that. I felt real safe from outsiders like posses and the Long Ranger and the shotgun rider.

In fact, I felt so safe that I lay awake most of the night listening to Smellin' sniff and snort in his sleep.

We were too far from any farm to hear roosters. At the first light of false dawn, Carver got up and tossed sticks on the coals, then poked the fire together again. The smoke woke up Smellin' and I got up because I had nothing better to do. Breakfast was the same as dinner, only I didn't want as much.

"I've been thinking," said Carver. "We can't just leave you afoot. Can we, Smellin'?"

Smellin' sniffed and shook his head. "I guess I owe him. What say we get him a ways from Femur, anyhow?"

"That's what I figure." Carver nodded. "Then we can tell him where to meet us later and between times --” He turned to me. "You'll be on your own."

I nodded, looking back and forth between them. As far as they were concerned, I was in the gang. Between them and the posse, this was no time to argue.

Smellin' kicked the fire apart and we were on our way by the time the sun first threw slanting yellow rays across the eastern prairie. Carver mounted the normal way. Smellin' took one little hop to land hard on his Model C-5 Abilene Accordion Ankles. The force of his weight triggered them, and he sprang off the ground right into the saddle. Then he grinned and leaned down to help me up.

I rode with my arms around Smellin's waist as we bounced along. They seemed to know where they were going. I still didn't want to pester them with questions.

They ignored the road. We set out overland, westward and slightly to the north. Since they didn't make conversation, I didn't, either. The chance of saying the wrong thing seemed too high.

Life was just moving right along. Yesterday morning, I had been Louie Hong, footloose wanderer seeking honest work. Now I was Louie Hong, footloose wanderer and wanted desperado.




Chapter 3


When the light picked up, we hurried into a canter. Every so often, we came across a small farm nestled into the prairie, but Carver and Smellin' were not too scrupulous about riding through plowed fields. Before long, I could see a thin line of smoke rising from a couple of low buildings in the distance.

The stagecoach was out front, the team still unhitched. Apparently the road wound among the rises and dips in the rolling country, following some olden-time route. If you knew where you were going and rode overland on a horsite, you could make up a lot of distance in a short time.

Cantering through the corn sprouts helped considerably, of course.

Just as we got close to the stage stop, we broke into a full gallop, I guess to make a dramatic entrance. At the front door, they both reined up sharply with a practiced ease and swung their legs back over the horsites's rear ends to dismount. Trouble was, I was still sitting behind Smellin', who knocked me clean off the horsite with his leg.

I landed on my back with a thump, looking up at the cool morning sky. This perspective was becoming all too familiar.

"I guess that's twice I owe you," said Smellin', taking my arm and hauling me up. "I forgot. I don't normally take passengers."

"Careful," said Carver, inclining his head toward the door.

Smellin' followed Carver, leaving me to catch my balance alone. I followed them crookedly, then had to stop in the doorway behind them when they paused.

The stage passengers were sitting around the room finishing breakfast. It looked like hot cereal of some kind–not too appetizing, but at least it wasn't more of Chuck. All of them looked up at us.

The gunfighter was sitting motionless on the hearth with the bowl of porridge on a plate in his lap. He and Smellin' were staring at each other. I edged away from Smellin' slightly.

"Got more breakfast, Louella?" Carver asked pleasantly, moving inside.

"Sure, Carver." A large woman standing off to the left stirred a big pot over a small cookfire in the corner. "Come on in."

The casual conversation broke the tension. Smellin' followed Carver with another wary glance at the gunfighter. Everyone relaxed a little. A minute later we were all standing around the wall eating some sort of tasteless mush. The seats were all taken.

Harris Nye was looking us over with a silly grin. He had mush on the front of his shirt. The blonde in lavender, Eulalie something, was eating in small, precise bites, not looking up. Her little feet were laced up in black hightop shoes with points. Then I turned and saw the two stagehands standing by the cookstove.

The tall, rangy shotgun rider was glaring at me over his bowl of slop. I was sure that only the presence of Carver Dalton and Smellin' Llewellyn stopped him from chucking me out the door. Next to him, a shorter guy with a Chilbob Retractable Horsewhip wrist was just dropping an empty bowl into a tub of dishwater.

I straightened around again, pretending to ignore them. My knees were shaking, though, and cereal fell off my spoon onto my foot.

"So, Louie," Carver said just a little too loudly. "I hear you intend to take a trip."

"Well, uh…."

Smellin' jabbed me in the ribs, hard, with his elbow. My bowl of mush slid off my plate and turned over on the floor.

"That's right," I said belatedly, picking up my empty bowl.

Louella came bustling over with a dripping, dirty mop and began by slopping it over my moccasins.

"Driver." Carver turned to the guy with the horsewhip wrist. "How much fare is required to take a passenger from this stop to the railroad depot?"

"The name's Creel."

"Now, you just hold on a minute." The shotgun rider pointed at me with a long, skinny arm and finger. "That there feller is a stowaway. I throwed him off the stage yesterday. We don't gotta take him."

"Easy, Snake." Creel nodded to Carver. "Fare's higher for a stowaway."

"I said, how much?" Carver shifted his weight and studied Creel.

"Oh…I figure two double bisons."

"What?" Carver straightened. "You're shorted. That's enough for a fair horsite. That railroad depot isn't very far."

"So take him yourself," said Creel calmly. "If you don't, it's a far walk. Posses usually ride."

Carver grinned, then, and so did Smellin'.

I sneaked a look around the room. Harris was staring wide-eyed at everybody. Eulalie was watching Carver carefully. Even the gunfighter was smiling faintly.

"I can spare one," said Carver. He flipped a spinning coin to Creel, who snatched it out of the air.

"Me, too," said Smellin'. "More where they came from." He tossed one to Snake, who bobbled it a few times and then dropped it on the floor before bending down to get it.

"And for that price, he gets to the depot. Period. No mistakes, no accidents. Right?" Carver snapped out one of the larger blades on his Swissarmie Brand Swivel hand and started cleaning the fingernails on his other hand with it.

"He'll get there," said Creel, watching Carver's blade carefully. "After that, he's on his own."

"And just in case anybody's wondering," Said Smellin', "we're only carrying a few of those on us, for luck, say. Most of 'em are on their way elsewhere." He looked particularly at the gunfighter, who had already returned to his bowl of cereal.

The gunfighter stopped moving and gazed into his bowl for a long moment. Then he looked up slowly with just his eyes. "Are you addressing me?"

Harris was looking back and forth between them with his mouth open.

Smellin' shrugged slightly and looked away. Then he went to take his dishes to the tub of water.

The gunfighter turned his attention back to his cereal.

Carver winked at me and grinned as he went to do the same.

Louella had picked up my dishes. Now I felt out of place, standing there alone. I went over to sit by Harris on the hearth.

"I saw your spill yesterday," he said quietly. "You must be pretty tough, huh?"

In the far corner, Carver and Smellin' were chuckling with Creel and Snake. I didn't want to stay with the outlaws, and I didn't want them to leave me behind, either.

"Are you new in the gang?" Harris asked. "I haven't read about you, I don't think."

"I'm not exactly in it," I muttered as low as I could. I had a suspicion that my new colleagues would not take kindly to my real feelings on this subject.

"What's that? Couldn't hear you."

"I'm not exactly in the gang," I whispered hoarsely, eyeing the outlaws across the room.

"What?" Harris said loudly, frowning in puzzlement. "You say you're not in the --"

"Just joined up," I declared heartily, aware that every head in the room except the gunfighter's had turned at the sound of his voice. "Just signed on, I did. Oh, yeah." I smiled real hard, till my teeth hurt from clenching them together.

"I see." Harris slapped his knee. "Well, don't worry, Louie. I bet within a few weeks, you'll be in every magazine east of the Big River. Your picture will be on every cover, your name on every -"

"Okay, okay," I said testily, glancing at the outlaws in corner. Carver was grinning big.

Harris's eyes widened in horror at my tone. "I'm real sorry, Louie. I didn't mean to make you mad. Oh, no. Not me. Nosirree, not me, I wouldn't do that." He put both hands up, palms forward, pushing air away from me.

The gunfighter finished eating and took his bowl back to the cookstove.

Harris kept his eyes on him all the way.

"Any more, Doc?" Louella asked him.

"No, thanks," he answered. He came back to the fire and sat down on the hearth again.

"Are you a physician, sir?" Harris asked. He had watched him walk all the way back, too.

Doc gave him a very long, steady stare.

I was just starting to sweat when he gave a hint of a smile.

"I used to be," he said quietly. He shifted on the hearth and gazed into the fire with that same ghost of amusement.

Carver and Smellin' walked to the door and Carver caught my eye. He jerked his head toward the door for me to follow.

I did, glad to get away from Harris even though I had gone to him in the first place to get away from them. Outside, they motioned me over to the horsites, away from the building.

"Don't suppose you know where to go," Carver suggested, leaning one elbow on a horse rail.

"Where to go?"

"We're all meeting out west to split the take," said Smellin'. "Between here and there, you're on your own, like we said. But you'll be safe once you make it out our way. And Carver and me, we figure Duke brought you in."

"I'll be shorted if I know why," said Carver. "We don't speak for Duke, you understand. But anyhow–you got anywhere else to go?"

That was more blunt than I wanted to hear.

"Could be," I said, squinting up into the morning sun at him.

"Okay by us. Just thought you might want to meet up." Carver shrugged and started to turn away.

"I didn't say I wouldn't," I added quickly.

"So you didn't." Smellin' grinned at Carver.

"So where is this place?"

"It's a hideout clear over yonder in the Sierra Nevadas." Carver nodded confidentially.

"The what?" I stared at both of them. "That's all the way across the country."

"Suit yourself."

"No posse ever formed would follow you that far," said Smellin' easily.

"Is that the only reason?" I demanded.

"It's near a mining town called Washout." Carver glanced over his shoulder at the house. "You get that far and ask around some. You'll find it."

"Is that the only reason you're going so far?" I asked again.

"Fact is," said Smellin', "that Femur posse won't follow you past the railroad depot. Make sense?"

I was about to ask them again when the door opened and they both stiffened.

Snake and Creel came out grinning at them, though, and went to hitch the horsite team to the stagecoach.

Carver nodded to me and touched the wide brim of his hat. "See you out there, eh?"

"Imagine that," Smellin' said as they walked away. "Us talking to a control-natural, of all things."

"Well, I didn't hire him on."

They both laughed as they saddled up. Several minutes later, they cantered westward across another sprouting cornfield. I stood there watching them go.

The Sierra Nevadas were a long way off. Still, getting on the train to dodge the posse made sense. Carver and Smellin' were probably too well known to risk a train depot themselves. When the stage was ready to go, I was on it, again sitting next to Harris across from the other two.

Creel cracked his whip over the team and the stage pulled out at a creaking walk. Doc and Eulalie both settled into comfortable positions and gazed out their respective windows. The rolling waves of prairie grasses began to pass by.

"Perhaps this would be a good time to take stock of my trip so far," Harris said cheerfully. He drew in a deep breath. "What fresh morning air. The magazines are right."

No one said anything.

"I said the magazines are right."

Doc and Eulalie gazed harder out their windows.

"The magazines say life itself is different west of the Mississippi. They're right, I say."

"I think you told me that yesterday," I said as politely as I could.

"It's true today, too. You know, ever since I crossed the river and passed under the Arch, every place I have seen is steeped in history."

"Everywhere is steeped in history." I shrugged. "People just know more about some places than others."

He looked at me in surprise. "Really?"

I gazed out the window. This could be a much longer trip than I had expected.

"Of course, this part of the West is heavily settled, according to my guidebook." He relaxed back against his seat. "Only yesterday did I realize that the towns are growing smaller and farther apart."

No one spoke.

"It was the first area open to resettlement."

I shrugged again, watching the prairie grasses wave at me.

"The farms, too," he added. "I don't see any fields out there now at all, do you? Open prairie stretches in every direction."

I nodded wearily. Travel by stagecoach can wear people out surprisingly fast.

Pretty soon Harris fished around in a small leather valise and pulled out a worn little digest of some kind. I couldn't see the title and didn't want to ask. He started reading.

Glad to have the silence, I leaned against the side of the stage and closed my eyes. In some ways, this was even more uncomfortable than the ground I had spent the night on, but I was suddenly very sleepy. I drifted off before long.

Hoofbeats in the distance woke me up. I was sweaty from the heat. Across from me, Doc was also just stirring in response to the sound.

Harris was alert and eager for the next adventure.

The stage didn't stop. Soon the guy in the clown mask came galloping past us and then slowed up to hail Creel and Snake.

"Say! Was that who I think it was?" Harris asked excitedly.

Doc was leaning slightly to look out the window.

"Who do you think it was? I couldn't see," said Eulalie, from the other side.

"He wore an elegant gray suit," said Harris. "And a mask with the face of a clown. Who else could it be but the legendary masked rider of the plains?" said Harris.

"Who?" Eulalie wrinkled her nose.

He elbowed me. "Am I right?"

"He calls himself the Long Ranger, if that's what you mean." I rubbed my ribcage where he had jabbed me.

"Ha! I knew it." He slapped his thigh. "I knew it."

"Good morning, Creel," said the Long Ranger. "You, too, Snake."

The stage was still moving. The Long Ranger was riding at a walk alongside the driver's seat.

"Get lost," Snake growled.

"Morning, Long Ranger," said Creel.

I couldn't see any of them, but Creel's voice had a hint of laughter. If I had leaned out the window, I would have seen the Long Ranger plain enough, but I didn't want to attract notice. All of us inside the stage sat listening.

"Did you gentlemen know that the bank in Femur was robbed yesterday?" The Long Ranger asked.

Doc looked straight at me.

Creel cleared his throat. "Well, now, as it happens, we chanced to leave town to a lot of whooping and hollering and gunshots."

"Aha. So you know more of this matter than you are telling."

I didn't say that," said Creel.

"Why didn't you tell me about this last evening when I greeted you on the road?"

"Ya didn't ask," said Snake, in more of a growl than before. "Move on, willya?"

"I am asking you now. What did you observe during the holdup?"

"You got me," said Creel. "I thought they were just helping us out of town. A big send-off to get us on our way."

The Long Ranger hesitated. "Do they do that often?"

"Never," Creel said amiably.

I could almost hear him grin. Across from me, Doc relaxed and gazed out at the passing prairie again. Apparently those two double bisons really were worth something.

"You guys aren't very nice," whined the Long Ranger. "What did I ever do to you?"

"We didn't rob the bank," said Creel. "We can't help you."

"All right." The Long Ranger sighed. "Here. I have a jelly bean for each of you."

I couldn't resist. Twisting around, I leaned out the window to look.

"Git away from me with that thing!" Snake yelled. "Back off, you!"

"Easy, Snake." Creel was laughing.

"If you don't like red, you can have a different color. How about silver?"

"A silver jelly bean?" Creel asked, still laughing.

"I said back off! Creel, git us outa here!"

"I'll take it!" Harris shouted, leaning over me to stick his head out the window.

At that moment, however, Creel unleashed his whiplash wrist and cracked it over the team. The stage jerked with the sudden speedup and took off, throwing Harris onto the little floor space between the two benches. Doc and Eulalie looked down at him with benign indifference.

"Farewell," called the Long Ranger, making his horsite rear up.

I was pretty sure he was waving with his hat, but I wasn't going to look.

Even as we thundered along, creaking and bouncing, Harris managed to climb back into his seat. Once there, he just hung on without talking.

Nobody complained.

After a while, the stage slowed down again. We settled into the familiar rhythmic, swaying pace but now I was wide awake. As I watched the endless miles of grassland go by, I realized that Harris was right.

I should say, his magazines were right. Missouri had been one of the first areas of heavy resettlement. As we left its western border behind, signs of civilization were becoming scarcer ever hour.




Chapter 4


The depot wasn't much. The railroad ran across the prairie with a minimum of grading, and the depot was just a small rectangular wooden building with benches outside on a little boardwalk platform. A big overhead wooden water tank for the locomotive stood next to it. The place was silent and motionless except for the prairie wind across the tall grass.

I itched to get out when the stage creaked to a halt, but I waited for the others. Control-naturals got used to waiting. Eulalie climbed carefully out of the stagecoach first, fussing with her long dress. Harris glanced nervously at Doc, who responded with a slight nod and debarked next. Once Harris had stretched his long legs to the ground and made room, I finally jumped out.

The others went to retrieve their luggage. Snake got up on the top and started bouncing baggage on the ground. Creel opened the boot.

Harris had two very large brown alligator suitcases. They were heavy, judging by the thumps they made on the sod when they hit and the slouching, staggered gait he used to carry them, with his valise tucked under one arm. From the boot, Doc took a small black suitcase in one hand and a matching smaller bag in the other. Eulalie owned the solid wooden trunk, which Snake and Creel rolled off the top with a thud that shook the ground and kicked up a cloud of dust. They had to carry it to the platform for her.


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