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Author's Note:

The beginning of the second chapter is interesting within the context of the trilogy, because it marks only the second instance of actual time travel, which is the trilogy's overall theme. As the chapter opens, we find ourselves in a long-gone version of middle America, on the virtual eve of a mass exodus from the east to the west of this new nation of ours. Originally, this story was to be a suspense/western about locals of a country "watering hole" making a stand against visiting guests from outer space. However, following the release of Spielberg's "Cowboys & Aliens," I decided to reinvent the story I had only just begun, so as not to hack the godfather of popular cinema. At the same approximate time, I was beginning the sequal to Lazarus Cane, and decided to fold the story into the novel, removing the focus on it deigned for singular projects. Now the "cowboys & aliens" angle was no longer the center of attention in the story, but only a passing stop.

The following scene ultimately reveals the destination of Malabar, Preston and Gonzalez from Langely on the heels of their disappearance, over a hundred years in the future.

 

 

"Foreigners & Aliens"

(Chapter 2 from Running the Infinite)

 

Colorado Territory, 1843 (The Present)

 

The locals had taken to calling the place “Crazy Hour” for the reputation of its owner, an ex-Franciscan with the given Indian name of Crazy Feathers. For those of you who enjoy the reasons behind things, Father Crazy Feathers was named so for his practices of gaining the attention of his intended converts. Back then, in the early years of the Great Rush west, a missionary’s toughest task was not convincing the natives that his Almighty Father was irrefutable, but convincing them that their gods were not. To do this, he would tell his clientele at the Crazy Hour, he needed to stage certain “theatrical displays.” To assist with such miracles, he would usually enlist from the more desperate Overlanders, soliciting them, usually, with little more than a pint bottle and two bits.

The point is that Crazy Feathers wasn’t actually crazy, just a con man with grand talents. This is why he was first to spot the kid’s game—but let’s keep the cart behind the mule, if you don’t mind.

The place was a watering hole for transients, of whom there were always at least three a night. On the night the kid strolled in, there were four. Two were recent stakeholders returning from California to retrieve their families, who were waiting in Independence. One was heading in the opposite direction, toward a claim he was hoping to make in Oregon. One was a converted Pawnee native, who was hoping to hire himself out as a westbound guide. The fourth was a soldier recently discharged, and holding no plans for immediate destination; in other words, a drifter.

These were the four transients. Besides them in the Hour that night were two local boys, mainly just there because they weren’t close enough to passing out yet. Crazy Feathers didn’t throw out the transients who passed out in his bar, but any local man had long ago reached his limit. Transients were gone in the morning and you never saw them; most of the locals you wouldn’t want to see more than once, let alone host them every night, all night.

The kid, at first glance, looked like he was on the run. That was Crazy Feather’s first impression. He looked like he’d been over the Rockies and back in a single fortnight and maybe on foot, for good measure. He certainly didn’t show up with a horse. He was covered in mud, he had no hat, and his hair was long and greasy. The first thing Feathers always looked for was a sidearm, and on the kid, he spotted nothing. This didn’t mean he wasn’t armed.

Just before the kid arrived, Feathers was telling his guests about the time he’d used a trained bear from a traveling show to convince his congregation he had the God-given power to tame wild beasts. His plan had been to have the bear stumble into the midst of his Sunday meeting, get spooked by all the people, and raise up on its hindquarters as if to attack, at which point he would personally give the signal for it to heel, thus securing their faith in him and the Good Lord Above. He was just about to tell them what had happened instead when the kid staggered into the Crazy Hour babbling, “Whiskey, whiskey, please, or anything you have.”

Right away, Feathers didn’t like him. The kid had no respect for a story, and no regard for the desires of his fellow man to be entertained. The local boys had heard this one before, but the passers-through had been enjoying it. If it hadn’t been a lean week, Feathers might have thrown the kid right out on his tail. The transients were even less captivated by the sight of one more of their own. Out here, a new face was as likely to rob you as tip his hat.

Feathers asked the kid if he was carrying a weapon. The kid said no. “But I would like to buy one!”

Feathers was used to emigrants asking if he knew where this, that or the other could be acquired, and he’d been asked for guns before, specifically, but never with as much immediacy as this kid. He asked as though he needed a weapon in his hand that moment or all Hell would soon be calling.

“Now, settle down, straight-shooter. You best not be bringin’ trouble behind you.”

“No … I think I lost it.”

“So you are in trouble? Take it right back out with you! I don’t harbor hideouts without at least two days notice.”

“I’m not on the run from the law, sir. It was just … I saw … I swear to you, sir, on my eyes, I’m just looking for some whiskey that won’t give me the runs and some food I can take with me.”

“You have cash on you?”

“Enough for drink, food, and a piece.”

“I can make you a sandwich. The piece …,” said Feathers, pulling out the six from beneath the counter, “… is gonna cost you forty.”

“I got thirty, all together.”

“Well, that makes you lacking, then, don’t it?”

The kid looked at the faces of those in the room who were still conscious enough to look back at him. “Oh, yeah, I just remembered. I got another ten in my boot.” He slapped down a bag of coin on the bar, and then knelt to begin taking off his right boot.

“Hope you got a few bullets on you somewhere you forgot, too, ‘cause you ain’t got enough left to buy ‘em from me. Sometimes I’ve been known to make a trade or two, of course.”

The kid looked at Feathers in bafflement.

“What’s chasin’ you?”

The kid finally caught on, but the look of bafflement stayed in place. “I don’t know what I saw. I think I seen something on fire falling out of the sky.”

Feathers asked him what the hell he meant by that.

“It didn’t fall fast,” the kid explained, “but slow, like a leaf falling off the branch in autumn. I thought it was on fire, but maybe it wasn’t. It was … shining.”

“And this is what has the devil on your ass?”

“It was big. Round. As wide as the Mississippi. I don’t know what it was … so, yeah!”

Feathers poured him a shot of the batch on the house as though warming up to the kid, but this, like the last, wasn’t the good stuff, thus the kid threw it back nonetheless and none the wiser. And, oh yeah, it would keep him busy tomorrow. Out of the corner of his eye, Feathers noticed the Pawnee was focused on the kid as though the news was about a squaw trader in the area.

The soldier asked him if he needed a guide going west, saying the Indian was the one asking even though said Indian hadn’t said a word.

The kid didn’t dawdle removing the concealed ten dollars from his boot, but he waited to answer until he’d stood up. “I know my way around these parts well as he does.” He picked up the six from the bar and loaded it from the rounds Feathers had procured from beneath the bar, hastily loading the chambers.

Feathers went out back to get the salted meat for the kid’s sandwich and heard, as he left, one of the other men ask the kid why his hands were shaking so badly. Feathers didn’t hear the reply. As Feathers came back with the sandwich on a plate, he was carrying, in his free hand, an oil lamp. It was because of this additional light that Feathers and the soldier both saw the terrible red splotches all over the kid’s face and the backs of his hands.

The kid took his sandwich and headed for the door without any last word, the six safely in his single hip holster. Feathers shrugged it off finally, and then tried to remember where he’d been in his story before he’d been so rudely interrupted. While he tried to recall, he refilled the various glasses, including his own. Finally, in vain, he said, “Somebody tell me where I was when—”

Outside, three shots cut him off.

As hastily as his clientele, Feathers armed himself, as the Pawnee took it upon himself to sneak up to the doorway and peek outside. From the bar, Feathers saw the Indian’s moonlit expression go from curious to completely perplexed. He could not look back at the others, his eyes held as though by some sight outside comparable to a grizzly bear subsiding to the command of a common man.

Feathers didn’t leave his place behind the bar, as there was no better place to seek cover if someone was about to rush the place. “Damn it, Chief, what do you see out there?”

The kid burst back inside then, and this time, when the light hit him, Feathers was able to see the red splotches a whole lot better still. The kid’s face was red, more than it was Caucasian. His hands, too; well, the one still attached to his arm, anyway. The other was quite completely shot off, and the kid practically fell into the Pawnee’s arms with what Feathers assumed was the last of his consciousness.

After that, Feathers came out from behind the bar, toting “Bertha,” the name he’d given to his sawed off double-barrel. He made it halfway to the doorway before the area just outside the Crazy Hour was abruptly bathed in white light, stopping him dead in his tracks. The kid, at that point, fully revived himself to yell, “Don’t let them get me! Please, God and Jesus!”

Nobody in the place moved, including the Pawnee, but his excuse was awe. For the rest of the bar’s inhabitants, you could blame shock or fear. Out of the light and into the Crazy Hour walked a man wearing clothes that immediately labeled him a “foreigner” in Feathers’ mind, but somehow that word didn’t seem to say anything in this case.

To the Pawnee, the man said something in fluent Pawnee. Feathers, who spoke the language of the natives, translated for himself but no one else, “Fear nothing, my friend. Those in the sky will not harm you?”

Feathers asked the stranger, politely, who the fuck he was.

“I’m a customer. What do you serve that resembles food?”

Feathers couldn’t answer. Nor, did he lower Bertha.

“Do you aim firearms at all your guests?”

Feathers set one foot forward, but the man held up a hand to stop him, and it might as well have been some kind of voodoo, since Feathers stopped with one foot actually in the air.

“You don’t want to step outside right now.”

The kid yelled, “Shoot him,” but no one took his suggestion. The kid stayed awake long enough to see the unpopularity of his request, and then went slack in the Pawnee’s arms. The Indian laid him down slowly, and stood, never taking his eyes off the stranger. Quietly, with unmistakable reverence, he asked the stranger in his native tongue if he had come from the sky.

The stranger nodded, obviously needing no translation.

The soldier was the one who finally broke away from the spell they all seemed to be under and bolted for the doorway. He surged past the stranger and left Feathers’ view. In the doorway, the stranger straightened his dark jacket like a high society oil man who’s been brushed hastily by some itinerant vagrant on the streets of New York, or London, or Independence. Feathers heard the soldier scream maybe five seconds after he’d left the Crazy Hour, and his eyes went back to the door. The stranger, jarring him back, said, “Food. Get me some. Enough for four. Now.”

Feathers nodded, and backed away, bumping into three of his guests who’d been standing right behind him unknown, on his way out the back door, where no bizarre light did shine. He was gone less than two minutes, his hands almost moving on their own, throwing together bread, salted ham, some squirrel jerky (no cheese; he was out), and then putting these inside a bag he used to move coin once a month. Wrapping the slack in the bag around its contents carefully, he carried the pack out to the stranger and handed it over.

The paper money that the stranger put into Feathers’ hands was like none Feathers had ever seen, and he’d taken currency from every kind of foreigner this wild country hosted in these days of such fervent westward expansion.

An old-hand con like Crazy Feathers had seen every kind of sleight of hand in his life, but he did not believe that the present circumstances reminded him of anything he’d ever encountered. There was no putting it off; he had to ask what the light was from.

“Ask your friend,” said the well-dressed stranger. “He will put it in terms you will best relate to.”

Feathers didn’t glance to the friend referred to, which was the Pawnee. The man walked out, and Feathers started to follow. What kept him from doing so was the sight of the soldier, kneeling out there bathed in that white light from above. The poor son of a bitch was down on his knees, head tilted skyward, shaking uncontrollably as though caught in the throes of a fit. Even from twenty feet away, Feathers could see the guy drooling all over himself. The pause this sight provoked in Feathers kept him rooted to the floor for, maybe, fifteen seconds. It was enough.

As the light abruptly vanished and the world beyond the doorway was plunged back into night, Feathers could hear the soldier out there, in the darkness his eyes still weren’t adjusted to, babbling something too low to be accurately deciphered from in here. Feathers’ ears tuned in more acutely in an effort to try anyway, and this made the gunshot somehow louder. The shot’s report made every man in the Crazy Hour jump nearly out of his skin, but Feathers was the first to recover, and rushed to the doorway, grabbing the lantern off the bar on his way.

The soldier, of course, had taken his own life.

Feathers looked at the body from the doorway. Behind him, he could hear the Pawnee praying low to his gods, and Feathers thought: whoever this new con artist staging “theatrical displays” in the area was, he was damn good.

 

 

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