Under the Vultures Moon, page 1
UNDER THE VULTURES’ MOON
Jed And Horse Ride Again
A Sci-fi Western by
Published in 2014 by
Andrews UK Limited
The right of William Stafford to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998
Copyright © 2014 William Stafford
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Any person who does so may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For Ellis: it’s too early for black pants
Jed and his Horse hovered over the wreckage. The shuttle had come off the rails and smashed into a heap of boulders - no! Correction: the shuttle had been derailed deliberately and you can bet sure as hell those rocks hadn’t been there the last time it made this trip.
Several people had been thrown from the caboose. Horse scanned them for signs of life and shook his head. He floated down towards the carriage. Jed heard the plaintive cries of a child. He hopped off the saddle before Horse landed and hit the ground running.
“You will be careful, won’t you, Jed?” said Horse.
“It had occurred to me,” the gunslinger muttered. He climbed into the overturned shuttle, bowing his head low.
All around, bodies were strewn in ungainly, uncomfortable positions - these folks’ days of discomfort are over, thought Jed. There wasn’t time to go from corpse to corpse to see if there was anything worth salvaging. Besides it was too far from the nearest quack who could perform the operation and the chosen parts would be useless by the time Jed got there - even travelling by Horse. Jed was glad to be whole and not in need of any replacements for the moment.
Time was a luxury he didn’t have. Sparks flashed and popped from cables, the torn-out guts of the shuttle. Jed reckoned an explosion would not be long coming. Under the fizz and crackle of the electrics, another noise: the sound of a child sobbing.
“Hey, there!” Jed called along the length of the carriage. The sobbing ceased: kid don’t want to be found, Jed reckoned and understood. “Hey, I ain’t going to hurt you, but it’s time to go, little one.”
He stepped over the body of a woman, trying to avoid catching the splayed fabric of her dress with his spurs - they were only for show, those spurs; a stern word was often enough to get Horse moving. That, or endless wheedling and cajoling.
“Come on, little buddy,” Jed maintained a friendly tone. “Let’s get you out of here.”
He heard a sharp intake of breath. The kid was close. Jed stooped.
Between upturned seats, eyes glinted in the shadows.
“There you are!” Jed awarded the kid a rare smile. “What’s your name, son?”
“Wyatt,” the boy replied with a wet sniff.
“I’m Jed. Give me your hand.” He reached into the gap but not too far.
“Who are you, Mister?”
“Like I said, the name’s Jed. I’m here to get you out.”
The boy crawled forwards then hesitated. “Your hands, Mister!”
Jed glanced. The sleeves of his blue shirt had ridden up revealing the neat but visible joins of Doc Brandy’s handiwork. The skin colour wasn’t an exact match but Jed barely noticed the discrepancy anymore and the new extremities worked as well as his original pair.
“They’re my hands,” Jed shrugged. “All bought and paid for.”
The boy giggled. He put his hot little hand in Jed’s. The gunslinger pulled him free of the seats.
“Can you stand?”
“I reckon so. Thanks, Mister.”
He led the boy to the exit, advising him to keep looking straight ahead. Wyatt yelped when a stray cable snaked overhead, hissing and spitting. A blast from Jed’s revolver severed it.
“Wowie!” said Wyatt. “Do that again!”
Jed climbed out then lifted the boy from the carriage.
“You took your time,” said Horse, masking his relief. “I heard a shot.”
“You heard right,” said Jed. “Come on.”
They hurried behind the fall of boulders. Wyatt’s eyes were wide with wonder. He had never seen a Horse before. They hunkered down and braced themselves. The explosion came seconds later. Shrapnel flew in all directions, whizzing overhead. More gruesome: chunks of the dead dropped wetly in a wide circle around the wreckage. A fine red drizzle hung in the air. Jed let the boy wear his hat. The kid was thrilled; the hat fell over his eyes but that was the point.
When all was calm, Jed lifted Wyatt into the saddle and then climbed on behind.
“Wowie!” said the boy, holding onto the hat as Horse galloped away from the scene, rising higher in the air with every step.
Minutes later, they set down on the prairie. Jed fixed a drink and offered Wyatt some trail biscuit. The boy didn’t seem to have much of an appetite.
“Thanks for saving me, Mister,” he repeated. “I guess you’d like me to tell you what happened.”
“Your guess is altogether correct,” said Horse. Despite his forlorn state, the boy chuckled.
“In your own time,” Jed prompted. The boy managed to take a sip before he spoke.
“We was travelling to Wheelhub,” he began. “My folks and me.”
Horse interrupted. “That shuttle doesn’t go to Wheelhub.” Jed shot him a dirty look.
“We was sort of taking the long way around,” Wyatt resumed. “Stopping off to see relations, seeing a bit of the Moon. My pa...” he broke off to wipe a tear. “My pa had landed himself a new job and so we was celebrating, making a vacation of the trip. My ma was against it from the get-go. She reckons folks oughta stay put.” His chest heaved and he sobbed, “And I reckon she got that right.”
Jed waited patiently for the boy to continue. Horse was on tenterhooks.
“But what happened to the shuttle?” he stamped his front hooves.
“I don’t rightly know,” the boy wept. “There was a bang and we was all thrown around. My pa was brained by a suitcase but my ma stashed me under the seats for safety. And then these men got on. They - they shot everyone who was still alive. People crying in pain and begging for help. They just shot them. My ma -”
Jed figured he knew who the woman he stepped over was.
“I hid,” Wyatt composed himself a little. “They never saw me. They was searching for something; I don’t know if’n they found it but they was worrit the whole thing would blow sky high so they went. I heard them ride off but I stayed where I was. I was too scairt to move and I figured if the shuttle did blow up, why, I might be better off.”
“You from Hellion’s Grove, son?”
The boy nodded. “Yes, sir. How did you -?”
“Words you use,” Horse explained. “Like ‘scairt’ and ‘worrit’. Dead giveaway - oops!” If Horse could have blushed he would have, but mention of the D word hadn’t upse
Jed scratched the stubble on his chin. “I’m guessing there’s no use in taking you back there, is there? What about in Wheelhub? You got any folks up there?”
Wyatt shook his head.
“What about the relatives you visited on the way?” said Horse. “Maybe we could take you to them.”
Again, the boy shook his head. A troubled look clouded his brow. “Thing is, Mister, we ain’t never seen our relations. Everywhere we went it was the same story. Doors barred and bolted again’ us. Guns pointed in our faces. Keep moving, they all said, every man jack of them, there ain’t nothing for you here. My ma would plead with them but my pa was prideful and he pulled us away saying he would not forget this ill treatment when his fortunes was raised high, he would not forgive this shameful treatment, no sir, when the boot was on the other foot.”
His voice faltered as he remembered his father’s fate.
Jed took Horse aside for a conference. “What do you reckon?”
“Well, we can’t keep him with us,” said Horse, “I should have thought that was obvious.”
“Ain’t far. You got enough juice to get us to Tarnation?”
“That remains to be seen,” said Horse. “My tanks are running low. You’ve got that light in your eye, Jed. You’re thinking something’s up.”
“Weren’t no ordinary robbery,” the gunslinger paced in a wide circle, voicing his thoughts as he had them. “Those men were after something in particular.”
“You think?” Horse blinked.
Jed ignored the sarcasm. “Something they did not find...” He looked at the boy who, his story told, was now tucking into the trail biscuit with gusto and swilling it down with hearty swigs. “Saddle up! We’re going to Tarnation.”
The boy got to his feet. “What’s there?” He sprayed crumbs on his shirt.
“Friends,” said Jed. He lifted Wyatt onto Horse’s back. “People who’ll take care of you while I figure out what’s to be done. On the way, you can tell me the names of all the relations you visited since you left the Grove.”
Horse set off at a canter. He picked up speed. After a hundred yards, his hooves left the ground and did not touch down again until sundown when they arrived in the bustling but isolated town of Tarnation.
Billy’s ma was happy to take in Wyatt as a boarder and would accept no coin from Jed in recompense. The gunslinger had saved her family’s lives and Billy idolised him. Now with Horse connected to fodder pipes in the stable yard, Jed installed himself in a booth at the Last Gasp saloon. His money was no good there either; bartender Lem kept the hooch a-coming, free, gratis and for nothing.
On a break between shows, fading starlet Miss Kitty slipped onto the upholstery and, elbows on the table, propped her head in her hands.
“Been a long time,” she drawled. Jed emptied his shot glass in one swig.
“I doubt that, Miss Kitty; I doubt that very much.”
Miss Kitty’s painted eyebrows rose. “My, my! So ungallant! I mean since you last graced us with your presence. Looks like you got a mite ungentlemanly in your absence.”
Jed signalled to Lem to bring the bottle. After a significant pout from the showgirl, he asked the barkeep to bring a second glass.
“Something on your mind, gunslinger,” Miss Kitty diagnosed. “I got a few minutes until my next set.”
Jed poured her a shot and then a larger one for himself. “Don’t get no easier,” he said. “Saw a shuttle wreck today; so much loss of life.”
“You won’t catch me in one of those new-fangled things,” Miss Kitty shook her head. “Prone to accident they are.”
“Weren’t no accident.” Jed downed his shot and poured himself another. “Thing was derailed - or whatever you call it when a shuttle’s thrown off course.”
“They got themselves shot.”
Miss Kitty gasped. The liquor tasted bitter as she pictured the scene.
“All but one,” Jed continued. “But, pardon me, Miss Kitty,” he took off his hat and ran a hand through his blue-black hair, “if’n I don’t tell you about him. I’ve an inkling the less you know, the safer you’ll be.”
Miss Kitty’s eyes widened in terror. “Why, Jed, why? You expecting trouble?”
Jed refilled his glass. “I’ve an idea the men who crashed the shuttle and murdered all those folks were looking for something and I ain’t entirely convinced that something ain’t the boy.”
Miss Kitty leaned closer. She dangled her shot glass between finger and thumb. “It’s a boy, then.”
“Stop fishing, Miss Kitty.” Jed tossed back his drink. “Go and sing something cheerful. Make life a mite brighter for these here folks.”
He got to his feet, snatched up his hat and put it on. He tipped the brim as a sign of respect to the lady and staggered from the saloon.
Miss Kitty sat thinking. He’s brought trouble here, to this town... Ain’t these folks been through enough?
It took a while before she became aware the crowd was clapping for her and the pianola was vamping her introduction on a loop.
Jed went to the stables to settle his bill. Ren, the stable hand looked insulted when the gunslinger tried to pay.
“I reckon the boss’d give my hide a tanning if’n I took your cash, Jed.”
Growing annoyed with these refusals, Jed peeled off a few banknotes and threw them at the stable hand’s chest. They bounced off and fell to his feet. “Make a charitable donation. Find an orphanage or a home for bewildered mules or something.”
The young man picked up the cash and stuffed it into the pocket of his overalls.
“Now, is he good to go?”
“He’s about full. Finest feed in this here sector.”
“You can quit the advertising,” Jed’s lip curled in what could have been the makings of a smile. Or a sneer. “Tell me: have you noticed anything... off about him?”
Ren’s mouth puckered in thought. “Well, there’s a lot of miles on him, Jed. Any other model would have clapped out years ago. But Horse is in great shape. Hardly needed recalibrating at all.”
“Were you expecting me to find something, Jed? Would you be happier if I had?”
Jed kicked at some straw with the toe of his boot. “It’s just that - well, I cain’t help thinking we could have got to that crash a mite sooner.”
The stable hand gave a sceptical snort. “Now, Jed, your Horse is a marvel. Best there ever was but I reckon you expect too much of him at times.”
Jed spat in the dirt.
“I hope you’re right,” he said.
Horse wouldn’t sleep. He pawed at the ground and walked in idle circles around Jed who was trying to get some shuteye.
“I’m beginning to regret,” the gunslinger muttered from under his hat, “my decision to kip out under the stars. This town is busting with hotels, you know. Any of ’em would welcome me with open arms and show me to their finest suites and I wouldn’t have to pay a brass razoo for any of it.”
“Am I supposed to be grateful for the sacrifice?” Horse blinked. “You know, Jed, you might get to sleep a whole lot quicker if you didn’t talk so much.”
Jed cussed and rolled onto his side. The truth was he couldn’t stomach the idea of a hotel. Not while he was so damned worried about Horse. There was something not right about the critter; Jed couldn’t name it or even describe it but Horse was changing. Ever-so-slightly, but it was happening.
If Doc Brandy wasn’t pushing up daisies in Tarnation Cemetery he’d be able to spot it right away and get it f
“I reckon we trace the boy’s steps back, place by place.” Horse walked into Jed’s line of vision and tilted his head. Jed swatted him away with his hat. “All the way to Hellion’s Grove.”
“My thinking exactly.” Jed rolled over onto his other side. “Now, get some kip; I want to start out at first light.”
But Horse had more to say.
“There’s a reason the relatives didn’t want that boy and his folks to come calling...”
“Yep. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“What I’m wondering is if it’s the same reason why the bad guys crashed the shuttle...”
“I reckon we’ll find out - Tomorrow!”
“...and murdered all those people!”
“Yes, I saw them too.”
“That child is going to be traumatised for years.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“I mean, imagine seeing your own mother gunned down in front of you.”
“Horse, please; be quiet.”
“I don’t know how you’d ever get over a terrible thing like that.”
“Billy’s ma will take care of him.”
“Well, she’s no head doctor, is she? Not that I have anything against the woman but she’s no Doc Brandy, is she? Now, if the Doc was here -”
“Yes, Jed. Will do, Jed. Shutting up right now.”
The gunslinger chewed the brim of his hat in frustration. “Give me strength!”
Jed eschewed his usual breakfast of beans; he chewed on some cured jaw-weed instead. The bitter taste matched the mission; Jed had a presentiment that whatever he and Horse discovered would not be to his liking.
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