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by J. H. Malone

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


The horses were loaded and ready to ride. I rolled up my bag and added it to Molly’s load, retrieving a couple of sticks of jerky from the saddlebag in front of my nose. I joined the others at the fire.

“Your friends don’t eat much,” Slim said to me.

“They’re not from around here,” I said.

Joan and John sat arm to arm and thigh to thigh. Neither spoke. John’s expression varied like a landscape with wind-blown clouds covering and uncovering the sun. No sign on Joan’s face of her aversion to his unenlightened plumber’s mind. Shortly, biscuits were again browning in the skillet. Three of us filled our cups with coffee. The cowboys added a slug of whiskey to theirs. They drank and smoked, and we all ate biscuits. I consumed my jerky.

The sky brightened. Songbirds tuned up in the grass. The Smiths focused on the cowboys.

“I’m not letting you men ride off with Joan alone,” John said to them in the voice of a plumber announcing a surprising find in a blocked commode.

Slim and Tex conferred, seeming to continue their argument from the night before.

“Maybe it is best to take you boys along,” Slim said. “No sense having you ride back early and alarm the ranchers.”

He seemed jolly in a way that suggested anticipation.

We mounted up and rode south. The grass around us grew taller, saddle-high in places. John and I trailed behind, our voices masked by a susurrus of wind in the grass. Birdsong increased as the day established itself.

Slim and Tex kept Joan between them. She seemed content with that, chatting with the men in a way that appeared to warm their blood but chilled mine.

“You and Joan obviously talked last night,” I said to John. “Telepathically, I mean.”

“At first she didn’t want to, but she was realistic,” John said. “She needed information. I explained human reproduction and male urges to her, like you suggested. She hadn’t paid much attention to the subject previously.”

“Does she understand what might happen to her if we don’t do something?”

“I believe I made that clear.”

“I’m not sure she got the message. She’s acting too friendly with them.”

“I think my explanation of the situation made her curious, not afraid. Also, she’s preoccupied with saving the animals.”

“You need to correct that,” I said. “Also, we’ve got to contact the authorities. Did you bring your portal?”

“No, but look: I tried to make her understand the common human indifference to the suffering of others. I told her that cooking animals isn’t the only thing she needs to worry about.”

“The cowboys have guns, and we don’t. That’s what I’m worried about. What’s going to happen if they try to, uh, interfere with her?”

“That would count as a human marital function, correct?” John said. “Which cloaking supports even when an official marriage is absent?”

“Yes. Many of our guests enjoy the experience, although not when they’re forced into it. Or not usually.”

“I don’t know how she’ll react.”

While we thought this over, I dug a handful of trail mix out of my saddlebag.

“Another thing,” I said. “She mustn’t mention gold. Who knows what could happen if she does.”

“She wants all the cows. They wouldn’t take her credit card.”

“She’s not going to get the cows, even if those two get the gold. We need a plan. What can we do? You don’t speak human, but can you get a hint of what they’re thinking?”

“Their minds are turbulent, almost chaotic with excitement, like my dogs when they smell a poodle in the customer’s home. The human mind is connected to the glands. What’s the worst case here, do you think?”

“If they go too far with Joan,” I said, “they may decide to cover it up. Worse case, they kill us all. Although if she promises them gold and they believe her, they’ll probably hold off while she gets it.”

“That would take her five minutes max, if she’s got the proper device in her traveler’s belt.”

“Fine. You’re the superior race. Think of something. What happened with you two last night?”

“My friend, we spent it together.”

“I saw.”

“I mean, we spent the night together.”

“But you didn’t—”

“With the superior races, it’s all mental. No friction required.”

“Huh,” I said.

“Like she told you, she came here to escape the networks. To find a vocation based on the individual. She knew about human carnivorousness, but she got a shock when she experienced it first-hand. Now she wants to fight the good fight.”

“One cow at a time?”

“She’s got twenty-four.”

We rode on.

“I’m going to talk to her,” I said.

I dug my heels into Molly’s ribs and shook the reins. Her ears stood up, but she continued at her steady pace.

“All right then,” I said, “we need a plan.”

“Let’s see what the situation looks like when we get where we’re going,” John said.

Later, Joan dropped back to join us.

“I’m worried for your safety,” I said to her.

“I’m not leaving my cows,” she said.

“John warned you about these guys, right?”

“I am not concerned about that,” she said.

“Would you be concerned if they were wild tigers or gorillas?”

“They’re not.”

We rode on while I mulled over possible arguments I could use to influence her. I didn’t mention gold. Around noon, the cowboys stopped at the top of a rise and waited while we caught up. Once there, we looked down on Joan’s purloined stock, mingled with a small herd of bison. The prairie stretched flat to the horizon. A copse of box elders stood beyond the mixed herd.

“That’s them?” Slim said.

Joan nodded with a fond look on her face.

“Looks like bison and cattle get along,” John said.

“They interbreed,” Joan said. “Cow DNA keeps sneaking into the restored bison herds.”

“Damn,” Tex said. “She knows her husbandry.”

“Breeding,” Slim said.

“Interbreeding,” Tex said.

We dismounted.

“Let’s have lunch,” Slim said.

No campfire for this meal. Tex and Slim sat on the ground, rolled cigarettes, and passed a bottle back and forth. Nothing further on their menu. Their gaze rarely strayed from Joan. They ignored John and me. Presently they motioned Joan over to join them and when she was settled between them, Tex handed her the bottle. She took a healthy swig and passed it along to Slim. Both men grinned in appreciation.

“You are somethin’ else,” Tex said to her.

“Those are the steers I want to buy,” she said.

“We’ll sell you one,” Slim said. “Let’s go down and you can pick it out.”

“I want them all.”

“All right,” said Tex, standing up. “You can have them all.”

Slim looked doubtful.

“Isn’t that right?” Tex said to him with a wink.

Slim eyed Joan, tilted up the bottle. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he drank. He had a big one.

“Yeah,” he said.

“They don’t mean it,” I said to John, sotto voce.

“Hey,” he said, “I’ve been doing business here for twenty years.”

“My buddy and me and the lady,” Tex said to us, “are going to step down and check out the herd. We’ll be back shortly.”

Joan walked down the slope between the two men, slight and fragile to my eyes.

“There wasn’t anything we could do,” I said to John, “They’ll circle around the herd with Joan and take her into those trees beyond. Should we ride for help? No, that’s no good. Can’t you do something? Control them with your mind?”

“I can shout at them,” John said. “Out loud.”

“Too bad your cloak isn’t bulletproof,” I said. “If we survive this, I’m going to look into that.”

As Joan and the cowboys descended the hill, random horned heads, cow and bison, raised from the grazing herd.

“We can run down there,” I said. “Surprise those two from behind.”

“Not a good idea,” John said. “I’ve seen in the movies how quickly they can draw their guns.”

“Are you afraid?” I said.

“Vernernusians don’t experience fear,” he said, “but I know what it’s supposed to be. I’ve read about it. Are you feeling it?”

I didn’t answer. Below, cows and bison began to move on nimble feet, spreading out like members of a marching band. By the time Joan and the cowboys reached the bottom of the slope, the herd had formed a wall between the three of them and the trees.

Evidently Joan had learned to speak bovine.

“What the hell?” Tex said.

The cowboys stopped, each holding a Joan elbow. John jumped to his feet and started down the slope.

The animals stood shoulder to shoulder facing Joan and the cowboys, who craned about, looking for a gap in the line of animals. There wasn’t one. No quick way around or through them.

A bison bull pawed the ground. The air filled with the sound of snorts. The cowboys gaped. Slim pulled his revolver and let off multiple shots over the herd. The bull lowered its head.

“Hold your fire!” Tex shouted at Slim. “Spook them and they’ll run right over us.”

“Bull’s gonna charge anyway,” Slim said.

Joan made a motion and behind her, a gauzy patch of air formed, big as a barn door. Her portal. At the same time, the cowboys spun around, facing uphill in fear, ignoring the blurred air in front of them.

“I’m coming,” John called to Joan, and tripped and tumbled downhill, limbs scrambled.

Joan grabbed each cowboy by a bicep. Behind them, the bull started forward.

“Leggo!” Slim cried, trying to shake off Joan’s hand.

“Run!” Tex said, pulling to get free. “Before we get trampled.”

Joan hung on to both of them and dragged them into the portal. She was stronger than she looked, given their panicked attempts to escape her grip. The trio disappeared. John rolled to a stop. Coming to his knees, he brushed dirt and grass stems off his face as his cloaking slumped his shoulders.

The cattle and bison calmed down and formed into a column three abreast, marching though the portal like a battalion of four-legged marines. In minutes, John and I were alone. The portal disappeared.

“Where did they go?” I said, as John trudged back up the slope.

“Not to your office, I hope,” he said.

We assembled our belongings and those of the missing trio and packed everything onto the horses.

“Joan and I had something special last night,” John said.

“She’ll be OK,” I said. “Let’s head back.”

We mounted up but before the horses could take a step, the portal reappeared in front of us. Joan stepped out. The portal disappeared.

“Is your chip on?” I said to her.

“Not yet.”

John and I dismounted.

“I’m glad to see you,” John said to Joan.

“Where are the cattle?” I said.

“On a zoo planet,” Joan said.

“And the cowboys?”

“They know how to take care of cows, so I left them with the herd, to help out. On the way back, I stopped and spoke to your boss, Lou. EarthTours is OK with the zoo as long as I pay for the livestock and don’t do it again. The charges will go on my Black Card.”

“Gold was involved?”

“Your manager wasn’t greedy. It didn’t take much.”

“He’ll ask for more next time.”

“Next time I’ll have this time to hold over his head, but I’ll still let him wet his beak.”

“I like your translator. But listen, you did all this in the time it took us to pack up the horses?”

“You’ve heard of relativity?” she said.

“I thought relativity worked the other way around. You travel to the zoo planet and back and find us a thousand years older.”

“Yes, if I went in a ship, which would be like taking a Greyhound bus to Neptune. With the portal, I stand still and the universe moves.”

We boarded our horses. The Tex and Slim mounts followed along as we set out for the Hayes ranch.

“Now what?” I said to Joan.

“I’ll save animals. Pigs next. They’re so smart. I’ll also secretly share technology with businesses growing unconscious meat.”

“Just turn on your chip, please.”

“OK, it’s on.”

“What about you?” I said to John.

“Clogs await. I’ll also help Joan when she needs it.”

“Oh,” Joan said, “I’ll also finance vegan missionaries.”

“Most folks aren’t going to listen to the vegan message,” I said.

“She can speak cow,” John said. “Once she learns human, they’ll have to listen.”

Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone

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