Under the Vultures Moon, page 12
“Find a gate,” said Jed. “We need to cross this land so we’ll do it the right and fitting way.”
He felt a pang. He and Horse would have just flown over it without so much as a downward glance.
All the more reason to cross this here land...
They asked Jed which way they should go: left or right; they were set against the idea of splitting up and going in both. No one wanted to be in a smaller group with Flint; neither did they want to be in the group without Jed’s protection. So they lumped together and plumped for whichever direction the gunslinger deemed fit.
Jed was all for tossing a coin but he couldn’t risk them haring off in the wrong direction, adding further delay to their journey to Tarnation. If Horse had been there, he would have informed Jed’s decision with his telescopic vision or infra-red or ultraviolet scanning - Jed wasn’t wholly sure of Horse’s capabilities.
But Horse wasn’t there and there was no point hankering after him.
Jed scratched his chin. The rasping of his stubble was the only sound as the group held its collective breath.
Jed used his noggin. It had been a year since the dark dust, the ravening plague that consumed everything in its path, had got out of control - or rather, had got under the control of Farkin Plisp. Plisp had rustled the genetically modified sheep that had kept the dust at bay. After Plisp’s defeat, the scourge had been purged from Vultures’ Moon - for good as far as anyone could tell - and the lengthy process of rebuilding and of reclaiming the contaminated land had commenced. The property in front of Jed now showed signs of regeneration. Now, the gunslinger mulled it over, if’n I was the owner of dust-eaten land, I’d start work nearest the homestead and work my way out from there. I’d want the land closest to my home, and perhaps my family too, to be cleanest and safest...
To his left, the ground bore scars of dust infestation. The grass was pockmarked with grey and yellow patches but you had to be looking for them to see them; the landowner was fortunate. The recovery here was going exceptionally well. To Jed’s right, the grass was lusher, greener and better tended.
“This way,” he said, pointing right. No one questioned Jed’s decision. They trooped along the fence, like obedient and deferential schoolchildren on a field trip.
After half an hour they came to a broad gate with a sign tacked to it, declaring the property to be the DRESSING RANCH. Miss Dupree put a gloved hand on the gate as though to open it.
“Wait!” cried a couple of the men in skirts. Everyone looked to Jed.
“We going in, Jed?”
“It still don’t say nothing about shooting trespassers.”
Jed strode to the head of the group, pulling Jackson Flint along with him like a recalcitrant puppy. “It’d take days to walk around a place this big,” he said. “We’re going through. But we stay on the track and soon as we see somebody we beg their pardon and clear our passage with them.”
The men in skirts nodded.
“I’m awful thirsty,” said the showgirl. “Maybe we can prevail upon their hospitality?”
The men in skirts liked the sound of this idea.
“I got money.”
All heads turned to the bounty hunter, for it was he who had spoken. “I got money,” he repeated. “Take it. Offer it in exchange for vittles and water.”
All eyes turned to the gunslinger: everyone wanted to know how they should react to this unexpected offer.
“Hell,” said Miss Dupree with an ugly scowl. “We should just take that lowdown varmint’s cash anyhow. Compensation.”
“Yeah!” the men in skirts chorused.
Flint didn’t flinch. He told them they were welcome to his every last cent. Two stepped up as if to ransack the prisoner’s pockets but Jed intervened.
“Maybe there’ll be no need,” he said. “Maybe folks here, who look like they’re doing well, will be hospitable out of the generosity and the kindness of their hearts.”
The group thought about it; stranger things had happened...
For the time being, Flint’s money remained where it was. The bounty hunter tried to catch the gunslinger’s eye but Jed wouldn’t look at him. Instead he organised three of the men in skirts to push open the gate and to close it again when they were all through.
As Jed had surmised, the further into the property the track led them, the more ordered and cared-for the land appeared on either side. Scrub gave way to pasture; pasture gave way to crops. Moonflowers with their silver heads drooping in the heat of the afternoon were a prized cash crop. Their seeds were healthful animal fodder and could be made into an oil that had excellent properties of illumination and lubrication. Why, most places on Vultures’ Moon would grind to a halt and be plunged into darkness were it not for this miraculous indigenous plant.
The track became less rugged and around the homestead and its outbuildings was even paved. Of inhabitants there was no sign. They could be working on the far side of the ranch, Jed supposed. Place is so danged big you could fit Silicon County in it twice over and still have room to roll around.
“Ain’t nobody home,” said a man in a skirt. He unfastened his bonnet and fanned himself with it.
“They’s in the fields,” said Jackson Flint, startling them all. “I seen two men, no bigger than dots in the distance, working the land.”
“Then why in hell didn’t you say nothing?” Miss Dupree rounded on him.
Flint met her glare. “I’m saying now. I ain’t in no position to be waving helloo.”
“Well, did they see us?”
The bounty hunter smirked. “Maybe. Maybe not. One was waving something but it could just have been the work he was doing.”
The showgirl snorted in contempt and looked likely to brain the object of her hatred for a second time, but then one of the men in skirts fainted and collapsed. The others hurried to his aid.
“S’awful hot out here, Jed,” one pleaded. “Cain’t we get under cover at least?”
Nearby there was a structure: a roof supported by struts, a kind of wall-less barn where bales of hay were stashed. Jed nodded. The prone figure was carried into the shade where his face was fanned and patted until he revived. Jed gave Flint’s rope a yank.
“Anything else you seen that we should know about?”
The bounty hunter smirked but said nothing. Jed shoved him into the shadow provided by the structure’s roof.
The sun went low behind the trees, casting long shadows across the yard. Jed warned the others to keep back and out of sight as a group of men strolled up the path, heading for the house at the centre of the property. Jed stepped out of the hay store where he was fully visible. He waited until they were within earshot before he spoke. He touched the brim of his hat and said howdy.
The men stopped. Some of them nudged each other. They were burly, these men, Jed saw. Their faces were red from their labours and a lifetime working outdoors. Their clothes were baggy and crudely made but their developed muscles, especially in their upper bodies was no less apparent. There was a striking resemblance between them. They all had thick, curly hair and broad foreheads casting their wide set eyes into shadow. The eyes were large and brown, with thick lashes and their noses were both broad and flat.
“Howdy,” replied one of these men, stepping forward from the others. There were nine of them, Jed counted without staring. Jed approached the speaker.
“My party and I wish to traverse your property.”
“Do you now?” The spokesman sent an amused glance over his shoulder. “Ye’re already halfway across it and only now you make yourself known.”
“We waited out here,” said Jed, “only taking shelter from the sun.”
The spokesman nodded. Behi
“Has he been up to the house? Ask him if he’s been up to the house.”
The spokesman knitted his wide forehead. “Well, have you?”
“No, sir,” said Jed. “Some of us got a mite overheated. We could sorely use some water.”
“Water...” the spokesman ruminated.
“That’s right,” said Jed.
“How many of them are there? Ask him how many of them there are.”
Jed gestured to the rest of his party to come out of the shadows. The burly men gasped to see a girl with a parasol, followed by eight older women all in black, emerge from their hay store. The mood changed for the better at once.
“Well now,” the spokesman said, admiring Miss Dupree with brazen openness. “I reckon the view around here done improve a lot. What do you say, brothers?”
The others grinned and laughed. They came forward to welcome the strangers, pairing off one rancher per stranger.
“You must come up to the house!” declared one. This met with the approval of the others. They made a show of etiquette, mock-bowing to the women and ushering them up the path. Jed watched them go. He was having misgivings. There was something odd about the numbers matching, nine for nine... He guessed it could get mighty lonely working this land with only your woolly-headed brothers for company. His stomach sank - the newly born good nature of their hosts could only turn sour as soon as they discovered that eight of the ladies weren’t ladies at all.
“Getting slack there, gunslinger,” said a voice from the hay store.
Jed had all but forgotten about him. He snatched the rope, yanking the bounty hunter from the shadows. His captive only laughed.
“I could have had it away pretty easy there, Jed,” Flint smirked. “Sure I wouldn’t have gone far before I found me something sharp to cut these ropes. And then you wouldn’t see me for dust.”
Jed gave the rope another sharp tug, pulling his prisoner nearer. “So why didn’t you go?” he breathed into Flint’s face. The bounty hunter’s thin moustache twitched.
“Maybe I’m enjoying being cared for by you, Jed. You won’t see me come to no harm. Why make things tougher for myself? The day ain’t done yet.”
Jed snarled. “I ought to tie you to yonder pole and leave you to get sunburned. But I won’t. We’re going inside and you’re going to be on your best behaviour or so help me...”
“So help you, you’ll what? You’re softer’n a rotten orange, gunslinger,” Flint’s eyes flashed with hatred. “Y’ain’t going to hurt me because you don’t want to be like me. But you already are and that sticks right in your craw, don’t it, Jed?”
“I ain’t nothing like you,” Jed’s voice was a low rumble, like a distant prelude to a coming storm.
Flint smirked again. Jed pulled him roughly up the path and through a screen door to join the rest in the kitchen.
The building was made of logs - some of them appeared new; the dark dust must have infiltrated the heart of the ranch. Around a long, central table, the travellers sat on rough-hewn chairs, each attended by one of the burly brothers. Jed walked into a convivial atmosphere. He remained near the doorway until someone noticed he was there.
“Welcome, brother Jed!” The first rancher Jed had spoken to approached the gunslinger. “There’s plenty moonflower-shine for everyone.”
“Ain’t staying,” said Jed.
“The decision’s been taken,” the rancher clapped a hand on Jed’s upper arm as if the gunslinger hadn’t spoken. “The ladies are tired; they’ve walked far enough for one day. Let them take the weight off their feet and let their hair down a while. Tonight they can have our bunkhouse - you’re welcome to spend the night there too, of course - and then come the morning, after breakfast, y’all can be on your way, rested and refreshed.”
Behind him, the brothers were calling for a song from Miss Dupree. The showgirl didn’t need much encouragement and so after a token display of false modesty, she stepped up onto the table and regaled them with one of her saucier numbers.
Jed opened his mouth, about ready to tell his hosts thanks but no thanks - and by the way, those ain’t exactly ladies you’re entertaining - when the rancher noticed a shadow over Jed’s shoulder.
“Who have we here? Come in; come in, brother.”
Jed stepped sideways to block the rancher’s view. “That’s a lowdown snake I’m taking in for justice. You don’t want the likes of him in your home.”
“Oh now, Jed,” Jackson Flint pouted. “You’re hurting my feelings. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister er...”
“Name’s Amos,” said the rancher. “Come in and set a while. Both of you.”
Jed growled. “We’ll be fine outside. Thank you. It’s a clear night.”
The briefest suggestion of a glower clouded Amos’s face but it was quickly replaced by the hospitable smile. “Suit yourselves, as you must. Bunkhouse is across the yard if ye fancy a roof and some walls around you. Nights can drop mighty cold around these parts.”
“Thank you,” Jed tipped his hat. He cast one despairing look at what was shaping up to be quite a party around the table then bundled the bounty hunter off the front porch and pulled him by his rope away from the revelry and into the darkness of the yard.
“Regular killjoy, ain’t you, Jed? Oh, I know how you feel. You don’t feel like you can be part of regular company, not when your job involves killing folk or dragging them off to be killed.”
“I’m keeping you away from regular company is what I’m doing,” Jed snapped. He couldn’t see it but he was sure the bounty hunter was smirking that smirk of his.
“Except they ain’t what you might call regular company, are they, Jed?”
Jed didn’t answer; he waited for the follow-up he was sure was coming. In the end, he had to prompt. Flint laughed.
“Of course, you noticed as well as I did the moonflowers everywhere.”
“Granted, but these good ole boys seem to have them a bit of a fetish for that miraculous plant, don’t you think? Come on, Jed; you did see the vases on every surface? The dried ones arranged and framed over the fireplace? The mats on the floor, woven from moonflower stalks?”
Jed gave a noncommittal grunt; truth was he was too busy disapproving of the group’s behaviour and the additional delay it gave to their journey to take in much of the décor.
“You know what it means, don’t you?”
“What does it mean? According to you, that is.”
Jackson Flint chuckled. Then he made a huge show of making the biggest yawn.
“Do you know, I’m beat? I could do me a lie-down on a nice featherbed. Maybe when I’m comfortable, I might be more inclined towards conversation. Oh, look; there’s a bunkhouse right here...”
Jed gave the rope a sharp tug until they were chin to chin and nose to nose.
“Tell me what’s on your mind and then we’ll see about getting you a bed.”
The bounty hunter’s eyebrows flew up. “For real? Why, Jed! Such compassion!”
“Speak!” said Jed.
“Well...” Flint was enjoying himself almost as much as the revellers in the homestead. “You don’t strike me as a superstitious feller, Jed. But you must have heard the old wives’ tales about moonflowers. Beyond the commercial properties, I mean.”
Jed frowned. He suspected Flint was about to waste his time.
“When the Pioneers first landed on this godforsaken rock, they had all sorts of run-ins with the locals. You’ve heard about those at least? Well, the glass heads was one thing but there were other factors at play. Folks began to change, Jed. I mean really change. It was as though Vultures’ Moon itself was reacting to their uninvited presence and was trying to make th
Jed, whose memory had only been restored a year ago, had heard nothing of this. He was of Pioneer stock himself and had been patrolling unchanged - apart from the occasional transplant operation - for decades. “What are you talking about?” he growled.
“My grandma used to tell me stories when she tucked me in at night,” Flint resumed. “About unwary folk suddenly finding themselves altered by night. They’d wake up the next morning having done all sorts of terrible things, until it was discovered that there was only one way to stop these changes from taking place: moonflowers. And that there house - this whole ranch - is chockfull of the things, Jed.”
“It’s their business; it’s how they make their living.”
“You reckon? Well, I hope you’re right, Jed, because in that there house, those friends of yours could be in mortal danger.”
“You ain’t making sense. If this yarn you’re spinning is true - and I’m inclined to believe it ain’t - all these moonflowers everywhere will keep them all safe.”
“Well, I ain’t no expert, Jed. I’m just telling you what I know. But you saw those fellers. Their heads! All that curly hair on their heads and their arms. And the way they walk! Tottering about in those boots - you did notice that?”
“You’re making it up.”
“Just reporting my observations is all. I wager if you lifted that Amos’s curly hair off that thick forehead of his, you’d see...”
“Horns, Jed! Or the makings of them. Without these moonflowers to counteract the effects of the changes, why, this band of brothers would be fully transformed.”
Jed was losing what scant patience he had left. He was certain Flint was blowing smoke but the bounty hunter had a way of putting things that drew you in.
“This is where you ask me ‘transformed into what?’”
“Go on. Get to the end of your nonsense.”
“Bullocks, Jed! That’s what these folks are. The hair, the horns - it’s all there. Why, I bet they’ve even got tails all coiled up in the seat of their baggy pants. I cain’t be the only one to see it.”
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