by Danielle L. Parker
Nash Armitradge was a lean wiry former Texan with a gray head shaved to a military-approved buzz. A pair of old-fashioned projectile guns dragged at his hips. Blunt, appraising the bullets ringing his belt, estimated them at .50 calibers. Armitradge’s grip was leathery and strong.
“Need all the help we can get. You got a horse already? That big ugly paint? Good. Stick with Groban. There’s a lot more than crabbies to watch out for, though this is the biggest one we’ve ever seen. No place for greenies, but you look like you can handle yourself. Groban will keep you straight. Good man, Tom.”
Blunt touched the brim of his hat in reply. Armitradge, paying him no more attention,mounted his horse and swung to face his impromptu posse. A dozen men and two women waited, some already mounted on horses, others checking or loading various forms of weaponry with sober faces. A heavy-bellied, nervously grinning Chinese man on foot held two panting, drooling yellow dogs in check.
“Li’s got his tracker dogs. But he’ll need protection. Bud, Slamowir, I want you two to ride point. Your only job is to protect Li and his dogs. Remember crabbies are capable of ambush and tricks! We lost Arne Spencer learning that.” He pointed a long finger. “Bessie, Jason, I’m counting on you to keep the rear protected. That’s how that last crabbie got Arne, coming up behind. The rest, spread out and keep your eyes peeled. I don’t need to tell you to watch out for pards and nests of ganglions. If you get in trouble, fire three shots or three pulses into the air. Pick your buddy and stick with each other.”
Heads nodded. Horses snorted, tails flicked, reins jingled. Clicks resounded as riders with older style weapons chambered projectiles. Whines filled the air as those with power guns flicked them to readiness.
Groban patted the neck of his mule. “So we make a bigger monster, eh, Captain? We kill this one, make a meaner, bigger, next time? That what you’re telling us?”
Blunt adjusted his boot in the stirrup. For once, the paint discerned the seriousness of the moment. There had been no bucking or mischief this time. “Can’t see a way around it yet, Tom.”
Armitradge held up a long arm. “I’ve got the flares,” he yelled over the tumult of jibbing horses and muttering riders. “I’ll fire them when we see the monster. Then it’s everyone to the front, we’ll need every gun we’ve got! Ride!”
A surge of excitable horses and riders nearly swamped the Chinese man and his hysterically barking dogs. Blunt, controlling the paint with an iron hand, joined Groban, and his phlegmatic mule near the back of the swiftly lengthening rush. Ahead, Armitradge and his tracking team plunged out of sight.
Under the tall trees it was dark even at the noon. A woman’s voice called softly from behind Blunt.
“Keep an eye above, mister. Ganglions like to hang high out of sight. Then they’ll drop suddenly and have you.”
Blunt glanced back. The woman Bessie rode with a rifle at her knee and an energy pistol in her hand. She nodded to him. Her long gray hair was tucked up inside the bandana around her neck, and her leather vest showed four deep parallel drags from a past encounter with something with mean claws.
“Thanks for the tip, ma’am.” Blunt touched his hat brim again. “Name’s Jim Blunt.”
“Haven’t seen you around.”
“No, ma’am. I’m a space captain. I’ve never seen a ganglion, either. Mind telling me what I should look out for?”
She shrugged. Her eyes scanned, up, down, across. She swiveled in her saddle, her darting eyes never resting.
“I was born in Hawaii. Ever seen a Portuguese man-of-war? A jelly-fish? No? Well, a ganglion has an adjustable lighter-than-air bladder. It looks a brain on a long stretchy string, with more tentacles than you can count. It lives in colonies, and once it attaches its permanent base, it doesn’t move its tether, ever.”
Distant calls filtered through the great trees. Blunt heard barking dogs. Tom Groban’s deep voice came from behind.
“You walk under a ganglion, Captain, and you’re dinner. It drops, and it sucks out your brain. Then it’ll talk in your voice for days. Digests your memories somehow. Couple years ago, a pioneer family built ’selves a cabin in the valley. Ganglions ate the daddy. Daddy’s voice called the mother, then the two little kids, into the woods. Only it wasn’t Daddy.”
The woman Bessie chuckled hoarsely. “Don’t look so grim, Captain! Ganglions like to ambush loners. They’ve got enough smarts to sit quiet and hide in the treetops when there’s folk with guns. It’s only when one gets its hooks in your head it can’t be driven off. We’re probably safe enough. We’ve got more to fear from pards. They’re stupid dumb killers. They’ll jump anything that moves. Got brains the size of pebbles, but lots of claws and muscle.”
She pointed suddenly. “Li’s dogs know what they’re doing. See that torn brush? Something big squeezed through there. We’re on the trail of the crabbie, sure enough.”
Groban rumbled, “But are we on Nugent’s trail? That’s the question.”
“We’ll know soon enough.” Bessie jingled the reins on the neck of her barrel-chested buckskin. “If we keep going, we’ll be at Bart’s cabin in a few hours. Nugent and his sons ran a trap line just north of here.”
She nodded to them, and drew rein to fall behind. “You can’t miss the path. Good as a highway now, with all this traffic. Go on!”
After an hour, the trees thinned, and the path became stonier and steeper. Once again they climbed. The path narrowed to single file. Now and then Blunt dismounted and led the paint. On his left, the trail fell into tightening switchbacks. The sun beat upon his neck. He watered the paint from his canteen, drank a few swallows himself, and pressed on, hearing the rattle and click of the mule’s sure hooves behind.
The trail crested on a small grassy plateau. A rude shack stood in the shelter of a few leather-leaved trees. Blunt needed no more than a glance to see Nugent had met a bad end. Something had smashed in the side of the little wooden habitation. The door lay on its back in the grass.
A bearded man in shirtsleeves dug a grave. Mangled corpses lay nearby. When the man saw Blunt and his companion, he stopped and wiped his face with a large dirty bandanna. “Nugent’s hounds died fighting,” he informed them. “They deserve a proper burial. Never had to say words over dogs before, but I guess I’ll find something decent to say.”
Behind him insects buzzed the pile of unrecognizable meat. The man pointed down the trail. “Go on,” he said. “I don’t think they’re far ahead now.”
An echoing boom split the stillness. Where the trail plunged once more down and into trees, a smoking flare arced high in the blue sky. The man dropped his shovel and swore. “That’s the flare! They’ve cornered it! Ride, boys. We’ll need every gun!” He sprinted for his drowsing horse.
Blunt touched his heels to the paint’s side. The big horse laid back his ears. Where the trail plunged down, the paint skidded and snorted, then went on delicately, ears pricked forward, almost prancing, his skin shivering with nerves.
Blunt heard shouts, barking and neighing horses ahead. In the dimness ahead he glimpsed a melee of men and horses. He rode through them, and drew rein beside Nash Armitradge. The Texan sat motionless on his horse, guns in both fists resting on his knees, pensively contemplating the same sight that met Blunt’s swift glance.
“Guess we arrived a bit late to do justice,” he said in his soft drawl. “It’s done, all the same.”
“I ain’t never seen so many damn ganglions,” a man’s awed voice croaked. “Ain’t never!”
Blunt looked up. Three figures hung high. Loose arms and denim-clad legs bobbed gently. But their heads were now huge pulsing blobs, wrapped with smoothly working tentacles. Nash Armitradge lifted one gun to point, and Blunt’s gaze followed.
A great mass lay half-hidden in a tangle of brush before them. No, not brush: what Blunt had taken for vines was more ropelike tentacles. What they swarmed over was still alive, and struggling feebly, but the relentless tentacles pried, slowly and surely, at the crabbie’s tough plating. The pulsing masses of its jellylike enemies slithered everywhere, seeking egress to what they craved.
Nash Armitradge holstered his guns. “We ain’t needed here, boys,” he said. “Justice has been done. We’ll have to come back tomorrow and clean out this nest of ganglions, once they’re finished with the crabbie. We’ll cut down Nugent and his boys for burial before we go, though.”
But Blunt stretched out his hand suddenly and seized the Texan’s wiry arm.
“Listen! Do you hear that?”
Silence fell except for the panting of man and horse. The gathered men listened intently. Words dragged, slow and hoarse.
“Free,” the voice whispered. “Free.”
The crab monster heaved. Through the inexorable grip of the tentacles, a stalked eye struggled upright, and swiveled toward them.
“Free,” the voice gasped. “Free!”
“Damn crabbie’s talking!” a man shouted through the confused eruption of cries. “How’s that?”
Blunt’s sober gaze lifted to the three horribly dangling figures.
“Maybe,” he said, “Maybe because of them. Ganglions are colony animals, aren’t they? Maybe they’re colony minds, too. Maybe that’s why this crabbie talks. Because that colony brain ate those human brains, and now it’s eating the crabbie’s.”
A second stalked eye, wrapped by a clenching gray rope, strained toward them. “Free!”
“It nabbed Bart Nugent and his boys!”
“His dogs, too.”
“Let it rot!”
“The blobs can have it!”
Nash Armitradge raised a commanding hand. Silence fell, except for the strange gasping voice, and the snorting of nervous horses, and the jingle of spurs and reins, and the angry mutter of men.
“You got something to say, mister,” he said to Blunt. “Say it.”
Blunt lifted his hat and mopped his sweat-soaked brow. He nodded toward the straining monster.
“I don’t live on this world,” he said. “You do. So it’s not my call. But it seems to me, that for the first time, you’ve got a crabbie that understands, and wants something from humans, besides dinner.”
The Texan’s pale gray eyes measured him. “So?”
“So maybe it’s a step.” Blunt replaced his hat. “I guess you decide if you want to take that step. Like I said, it’s your world.”
He drew rein, and as men and horses parted silently before him, rode back up the trail alone.
He was patting the last shovel of dirt firmly atop the grave when he heard a sudden thunder of weapons firing. He listened, leaning on his shovel. When silence fell, he straightened.
“Good dogs,” he said, and walked over to lean the shovel against the side of the ruined cabin. He sat on the part of the steps that was still solid, and felt in his vest for a smoke, rubbing one tired bicep with his other hand. The paint, browsing grass, lifted his head and snorted at him.
After a time, riders appeared up the trail, and one by one they passed. The headless corpses of Nugent and his sons rested across three of the mounts that passed.
Tom Groban was one of the riders, and he drew up beside the captain.
“It said thanks when we cut it free,” Groban said, and touched his hat.
The captain nodded. “It’s a start,” he said. “Maybe. That’s all we can do in this life, I guess. Take that first step forward, and hope for the best.”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker