by Danielle L. Parker
|part 8 of 11|
The roar of portable power generators and the continuous squeals of zooks underlay the raucous celebrations of saloons and eating establishments in full swing. Bare naked lights strung on a single vibrating cable over the dirt road illuminated the dusk. As the weary travelers drew rein before a rustic red-roofed saloon with a long wooden porch, its double doors burst open. A squealing shape hurtled forth to a blast of masculine yells and cheers. The zook arced through the air and landed with an audible crack, almost under the hooves of the newcomers’ shying horses.
The drunken man in the doorway dusted his hands in triumph before lurching back inside. “Ain’t no rabbits served in here!” someone shouted, over the roar of laughter.
Teddy Bremner dismounted ponderously and knelt to examine the crumpled shape. The he straightened, frowning and wiping his hands on the sides of his overalls.
“Neck’s broken. Dese one’s dead.”
A shadowy figure standing on the raised porch advised laconically, “Ah, leave it! Old Cottle drives the dead wagon by ev’ry morning. He’ll pick it up. He always gets a good collection of rabbits.”
The old trapper stood irresolute. At his elbow, Blunt heard a sputtering hiss not unlike a teakettle boiling over. “This is an, an outrage! This—“
The silhouette on the porch stiffened. Its hand fell to the bulky shape holstered on its belt. “You got some kind of a problem, English? Love dem little pests, do you?”
Blunt stretched forth an iron hand to his companion. “It’s too late now, Professor. Bremner, mount up!”
The trapper nodded dourly. “Aye. Vat’s done is done.”
“We can’t just leave it in the street! It should be buried! Reported!”
“It’s dead, Professor. I’d rather not have you in the same condition.” Blunt’s keen eyes scanned his surroundings. Away from the main establishment — whose name, from the swinging sign, was Blue Ruin — the street lights vanished. But light glittered from windows vibrating to the music and shouts and laughter inside; on porches and in shadows eyes gleamed, human and other. For everywhere, too, were zooks.
Under the scrutiny of many speculative eyes, the small group clip-clopped on. The buildings grew smaller; the false fronts less ornate; the revelry and lights muted.
At last their guide drew rein before a shabby two-story hostelry with a pair of mules hitched to a post. Both animals lifted their long homely muzzles from the pile of hay they browsed to evaluate the visitors. A crudely painted sign swinging in the night wind over their heads advertised Groban’s.
Bremner dismounted and tied his mare up at the far end of the post, out of reach of the mules’ threatening heels. He stamped his boots, beat the dust out of his trousered thighs with a meaty clapping of his hands, took off his hat and shook it vigorously before ramming it back on his head. “Dis is it,” he said.
Blunt swung down. He sensed a certain wicked anticipation in the mules’ sidelong glances. Blunt tied the paint next to Bremner’s wearied mare. The paint, recognizing as well as Blunt the upcoming challenge, laid back his ears, wrinkled lips over strong yellow teeth, and cocked a hind leg in readiness.
Blunt nodded to his companion, who dismounted in evident silent misery with his newly earned saddle sores. “Better tie up that packhorse at the far end. Mules like to kick.”
Rutgers hobbled to obey. Teddy Bremner picked up a grinning zook by its mop of hair, set it out of the way, and stumped up the homebuilt steps. As Blunt and his companion followed, they heard an odd rhythmic rasping from within, along with a tuneless whistling.
Tom Groban was whistling, while he drew a steel scraper across a fresh skin tacked to his workbench. Groban was a huge baldheaded black man whose muscular forearms were thick as tree trunks.
He straightened, dropping his scraper and wiping his hands on the front of his stained apron. “Evening, Bremner. Who’s this with you?” His voice was deep and soft.
Teddy Bremner removed his hat, thrust his thumbs inside his suspenders, and nodded in greeting. “Dis here’s de captain come to take doze pard skins. And dis... ” Manifestly he looked for a place to spit, but decided against it. “Dis is de Professor. We picked him up on de way in. He come to save de world.”
“Well, well,” Groban replied placidly. “That’s a big job for one man.”
“Milton Rutgers,” the professor announced tightly. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Tom’s the name,” Groban said in the same slow calm voice. “Your horses hitched outside, Bremner? You know where the fodder is kept.”
The old trapper nodded. “Aye.” He clapped his hat back on his head and left.
Jim Blunt took off his own dusty hat and set it on the massive center table that, along with more scattered workbenches, an iron cook stove set with kettles and a wash pot, and a collection of handmade chairs, comprised the furnishings of Groban’s large, simple living room.
“Name’s Jim Blunt,” he said. “Glad to meet you, Groban. Mind if we help ourselves to some coffee?”
Groban’s laugh rumbled deep in his massive chest. “No coffee there, Captain. This ain’t Earth. But you can help yourself to whatever there is.” He took off his apron and hung it over the corner of the bench. As Blunt lifted the lid of the nearest kettle to investigate, Groban plunged his hands into the soapy wash water. “That’s soup. Do you good.”
Blunt ladled two cups of mushroom broth, handing the first to the still-subdued professor. Rutgers sat gingerly on a chair, adjusting his bottom to accommodate his misery. “Better butter up those sores before bedtime, Professor,” Blunt advised. “Bremner will have some grease.”
A scream, high-pitched and horrible, split the night. Rutgers leaped to his feet, knocking over his broth. The two men standing at the stove froze. Shouts and the sharp staccato echoes of weapons fire began. “That’s a woman! They’re hurting a woman!” Rutgers shouted. “We’ve got to help!”
“No,” Blunt said. “It’s a horse.” Slowly he laid down his cup, hitched his gun on his belt, and followed by the two men, stepped out on the porch.
Where the lights straddled the dusty road in front of the Blue Ruin was a crawling melee. For a moment, even from their vantage point, little could be discerned other than a boiling confusion of men.
Then over the shouting, gesticulating swarm, indifferent to the slashing bursts of orange fire, reared a crab-shaped head the size of a house. Its jaws held the midsection of a horse, dripping blood and entrails. The horse’s decapitated head spewed arterial blood in the dust.
The creature lowered its head and made a sweeping motion, and men scattered from its path. Then with hideous scuttling rapidity, it ran straight toward them, racing by the three men standing silent on the porch and the whinnying terrified mounts. Just after it passed, the monster swerved into trees, and was gone.
“What was that?” Rutgers’ awed voice trembled.
Blunt fingered Old Eliminator at his belt. “Well,” he said, “I have a theory as to what that is. But I’m going to need your help, Professor. I guess we’ll check it out in the morning. In the meantime, we’d better get some sleep.”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker