To the Mountain of the Beast

excerpt

by Christopher Stires


It began...

The spaceship sailed, corkscrewing, from the wormhole.

She was done, finished. That much she knew without question. She watched as the power grid on the ship’s computer faded to black. A moment later, the communication-panel and tracking unit arced. Tiny flames crackled upward then gray smoke curled into the cabin. Overhead, the booster panel imploded and shards of alloy and synthetic rained down on her.

The spaceship was a runaway. Uncontrollable.

All she had ever wanted was to beat Ja’Dona at something. Beat him at anything. She had explored seven worlds in two galaxies and been awarded two G’Omn Clusters and a Nova Bre. Still her older sibling remained the family’s favorite. So she had volunteered to map a wormhole. That had been attempted before but never accomplished. Yes, it would definitely put her name in the chronicle disks. Ja’Dona wouldn’t be able to top that.

But she had failed as the three explorers before her had failed. Her name would be a footnote — if that.

The spaceship hurdled past a small solitary moon. The craft was locked onto the gravity field of the third planet.

She secured her helmet in place. If she was lucky, and she hadn’t been thus far, the planet would be an oxygen-based world.

Over the helmet’s intercom, as the craft entered the planet’s atmosphere, she heard her two pets whimpering. She sighed. There was no way to explain to the male and female mag what was about to happen. They were bred for hunting and they had proven their mettle on four planets. This was a shame and a waste, even more so since the female was about to deliver. The sale of the pups would have netted her a tidy sum. Perhaps enough to...

An ungodly squeal vibrated along the hull’s shields.

She double-checked the chair harness.

And waited for the end to come.

1

Wyoming High Country: 1895

Hugh Preston believed that if you accepted a job, you worked the job to the best of your abilities until it was done. He believed in keeping your word when it was given and treating others with the same respect you wanted to be shown. He knew that you tended to your horse before taking care of your own needs and you never drew to an inside straight in poker.

He had also learned in his forty-one years that being honest and true was not a guarantee of success. Back in ’76, his older brother robbed a Wells Fargo stagecoach outside Galveston, Texas, then a freight office in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and a store in Prescott, Arizona. Edgar used most of the loot to start the first bank in San Corona, California. The last he’d heard, five years ago in a letter from his sister, was that Edgar had been elected mayor and was talking about running for Congress.

He wondered if today his old outlaw brother was in Washington shaking hands with President Grover Cleveland and passing laws for other people to abide by.

The moon glistened in the cloudless sky.

Preston eased his clay-colored mare through the thicket of Ponderosa pine toward the clearing. He spotted two nightriders among the cattle herd, and for a moment he considered high-tailing it all the way to the Canadian border, because he’d been shot at before and didn’t much like it. Granted he was nine years old the other time and a messenger for the Union army but he didn’t figure the sensation was much different because the shooters were rustlers instead of Confederate soldiers.

But he couldn’t run.

No, he couldn’t. He had accepted the job of gathering up Mr. Andrews’ livestock that were scattered across the mountain high country and that was what he intended to do.

He twirled the end of his rope, thinking, considering the situation.

Reno Gallen nudged his pinto pony up beside Preston.

The handsome, young cowboy wiped the sweat on his forehead onto his shirtsleeve then whispered, “Why is it so quiet tonight? It’s never this quiet. I swear yuh can hear the crickets breakin’ wind.”

Preston scanned the herd again then the small campfire off to their left. Three men were there. Two were stretched out on bedrolls; the third sat near the fire poking at the embers with a stick. “There’s five of ’em.”

“We’re out-numbered, Pres.”

“Yep.”

Reno shifted from side-to-side in his saddle. “Maybe we should go back to the ranch for help? Or maybe get the marshal?”

“Could do that,” Preston replied. “Doubt they’ll wait for us to get back though.”

“We ain’t the law.”

Preston twirled his rope again. “No, we ain’t the law. But we’re here and I figure if I let some fellas steal Mr. Andrews’ cattle with me watching that I’m not doing my job.” He glanced at his partner. “You don’t need to come along though. You can go and tell Mr. Andrews what’s happened. No shame.”

“That’s a mean thing to say to me.”

“My apologies, pard,” he said. “But I’d head back if I were you.”

Reno drew his old Navy Colt .45 revolver from its worn holster. Slowly, he slipped a round into the empty chamber under the hammer. His hands trembled.

Preston tapped his fingers on the stock of the Winchester .44-40 rifle in his saddle scabbard. He might have to kill a man tonight. Didn’t relish the idea. Not at all. It was bound to change him. Something like that had to. Whether justified or not. Could he live with it and put the incident behind him? Or would it plague him for the rest of his days? Or would he turn braggart and embroider the tale in the retelling? Damn.

“Never shot a man before,” Reno said.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” replied Preston. Then he decided. “And I don’t intend to break that streak tonight.”

Reno looked at him, puzzled.

He raised his coiled rope.

Reno understood instantly. Holstering the Colt pistol, he stepped down off his pony.

Preston studied the herd. The rider nearest to them was slumped down in the saddle. His chin rested on his chest. The second rider, a broad-shouldered individual, rode along the outside rim of the herd on the far side of the clearing. That rider was singing, in a low voice, to the cattle. Preston listened for a long moment as the song floated across the grassy meadow. It sounded like Oh My Darling Clementine, Preston decided. And the rider had a sweet, pleasant voice. It was a shame that they’d taken up rustling.

He looked back at the camp and frowned. Only two men were there now. One bedroll was empty.

If we’re going to do it, he thought, we have to do it now. They’re going to spot us soon.

Reno climbed back onto his pony. In his right hand was a thick, two-foot-long tree branch.

The wind whispered across the treetops.

A bullfrog croaked nearby.

Preston pointed at the first rider. “After I knock this here fella out of the saddle, we’ll stampede the herd.”

“Okay,” answered Reno. “How far are we gonna run ’em?”

“Till they decide they wanna stop.”

Reno chuckled silently.

Preston knew they were both ready. Ready as they were ever going to be.

Above them, a fireball streaked across the clear night sky.

2

Laci McCulloh stood on the schoolhouse porch and watched the fireball arc across the night sky in the distance. She made a quick wish on the falling star. It was the same wish she’d made every evening. She wanted Hugh home. She knew he had a job to do but, still, she hated it when he was gone.

The sky was an incredible swirl of stars.

Laci started to repeat the wish but stopped. She had already been given her best wish and to ask for more seemed ungrateful.

And she was very grateful.

Yet she had never expected her life to turn out as it had. She had grown up in the city, Boston to be precise. It was a happy and contented childhood. At one time, the only frontier she knew personally was the wilderness of Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain. She was the youngest of six children and her father was a police constable who everyone it seemed to her young eyes knew and admired. Her school grades were always first in her class because her dream had been to be an instructor at Harvard or Cambridge. That was her dream despite knowing full well that there were no female, or Scots-Irish for that matter, instructors at either university.

When Father became ill, and Mother suddenly became helpless and indecisive, she became the caregiver because she was the youngest and unmarried. When her parents passed away, within weeks of one another, Laci’s brothers and sisters debated on who would have to now “care” for their unmarried sibling. None the answer turned out to be.

Laci saw a notice about a two-hundred-square-mile ranch in Wyoming that needed a schoolteacher for the children living there. She wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. She had no expectations that it would come to anything. But they wrote back. She was perfect for what they needed. So, at the age of thirty, Laci packed her family mementos and precious books and headed west to the Leaning A Ranch. She would learn six months later that she was the only person, male or female, to respond to the Andrews’ advertisement.

By then it didn’t matter. Not a whit.

Because by then she knew she was meant to be a primary grade teacher. Yes, helping a child master their letters, to comprehend basic arithmetic, and to understand the history of their country filled her with immense satisfaction. Because by then she was enraptured by the rugged beauty of the Wyoming high country. The landscape here was like none she had seen personally or in books. Because by then she was completely and totally in love with Hugh Preston. Yes, she was.

She smiled at the memory.

It had been raining the day she arrived at Fort Bates by stagecoach. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews had sent a man named Hugh Preston with a wagon to bring her to the ranch. She remembered a rain-soaked cowboy -- she assumed he was a cowboy because his attire matched the descriptions of cowboys that she had read about in the penny books. She recalled that he clutched his hat in his hands and stared at his feet every time he softly talked to her. She remembered thinking that he was handsome then scolding herself for having such an inappropriate thought.

She was a little nervous about the last leg of her journey however. More than a little actually. The trip to the ranch would take three days. That meant there would be two nights where she would be alone with this Hugh Preston. The man had to be reliable though or Mr. and Mrs. Andrews would not have sent him. Wasn’t that true?

Still she expressed her concern to the storekeeper’s wife. The woman laughed, a room-shaking laugh then called Hugh Preston over to them. She point-blank asked him if Laci’s virtue would be safe while they were on the trail together all alone. Hugh’s face turned a deep reddish-purple. He stammered, ’Yes, ma’am. You have my word on that.’ Then the storekeeper’s wife turned to her and asked another improper and crude question. She asked if Hugh’s virtue would be safe being all alone with her. She’d blushed and stepped away from the coarse woman.

But, by the time they reached the Leaning A Ranch three days later, she understood. During the trip, Hugh had never touched her or said anything inappropriate or looked at her in an unseemly manner. He had been an honorable, trustworthy individual in all ways. And he had captured her heart. She found herself having lustful, shameless thoughts about him. By the end of the trip, she could not meet his gaze without feeling the heat rise in her cheeks and neck.

She wanted to share her life, her body, and her soul with this man.

The first week at the ranch went by in a blur of activity and introductions. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews were warm and friendly. They had no children themselves and Laci quickly became part of their family. The two dozen children of the ranch were bright and eager to learn. The ranch wives accepted her into their fold. One cowhand, Crisp was his name, brought her bouquets of wild flowers. Another young cowboy, Reno, checked on her each morning and asked if she needed anything. The foreman, Tom Dallas, escorted her to the supper table each night that week and took her on a short tour of the ranch on her first Saturday morning. The only ranch person she did not see was Hugh Preston.

That first Sunday evening, as she and the Andrews sat on the ranch house verandah, Mrs. Andrews asked if Laci needed or wanted anything. Laci casually mentioned, that while on the trail with Hugh, that they’d had a cup of coffee before turning in for the night and that she had enjoyed that quite a bit. Mr. Andrews immediately ordered Cook to bring Laci a cup of coffee. She tasted it. She blushed as she said the coffee was good, excellent in fact, but Hugh’s had tasted different. Mrs. Andrews smiled. Mr. Andrews puffed on his pipe. No more was said on the subject.

The next evening however, as Laci and the Andrews sat again on the verandah, Hugh Preston appeared with two cups of coffee. Neither spoke for several minutes. Neither drank their coffee. Finally Laci asked Hugh if she had offended him. He said she hadn’t. Then why hadn’t she seen him all week, she continued. Hugh replied that he didn’t want to seem forward and pushing his unwanted attentions onto her. Laci inhaled deeply, considering her reply, then she said that it would have been neighborly to at least check on her well being during her first week at the ranch. Hugh responded that his best friend, Reno Gallen, had checked on her every morning and had reported her answer to him immediately.

Laci smiled.

Hugh sipped coffee.

Mrs. Andrews chuckled while Mr. Andrews puffed seriously on his pipe and shook his head.

Laci gestured at two empty chairs. They sat. Drank their coffee. She asked him to tell her about his day. He answered then asked about hers.

Now, when Hugh was at the ranch, they had evening coffee on the verandah. Sometimes the Andrews joined them; sometimes they were alone. It was a full month before Hugh took her hand for the first time and it was another month before their first kiss. But she had known long before that kiss that they were meant to be together.

Yes, they belonged together.

Laci stared at the mountains that the fallen star had disappeared behind. Hugh was somewhere up there. Her fingers touched her lips. She wanted him here. She wanted him to be kissing her. The storekeeper’s wife had been right. Hugh Preston’s virtue was not safe with her any longer.

“Good evenin’, Laci.”


Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Stires

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