A trip in the desert takes a turn
Jase and Takoda were only two of the four passengers riding in the bright blue stage from New Surat to Winston. Across from Jase, sat a wreny woman in a long black dress with an emerald green bow. It matched her crisp green eyes and long black hair. She was on her way to visit her daughter and new grandson. Beside her, sat an aged metals buyer with his bright yellow jacket folded neatly on the seat beside him, a silken handkerchief clutched in his hand as he dabbed sweat from his brow.
Despite their incessant questions about Earthly goings-on, Jase found himself enjoying the ride. Jase was mesmerized by every aspect of the journey and his drifting attention did more to stifle conversation than anything he could have said.
The slow bobbing rhythm of the horses as they ate up the distance, the sudden stark cliffs which hugged the road before dwindling into open vistas of green hills on one side, and the always present Moscoviense sea on the other. The water glinted like sapphire diamonds beneath the shimmering noonday sun and conspired to press Jase’s nose to the window over every passing meter. Even the great capering leaps of jackrabbits scurrying into cover captured his attention more completely than any idle conversation. Before Jase realized it, the sun was sinking on a cloud strewn horizon and flooding the plains with pools of plum textured shadow.
Bam, bam, bam.
The conductor hammered on the stage’s wooden side before swinging down and poking her moonish face in the window. She was a young woman, her already dark skin tanned a polished mahogany by years on the road. “Everyone awake in there?” She studied them good-naturedly as the metals buyer snorted to wakefulness. “We’re less than half an hour from Winston,” she said, “I hope everyone’s had a nice trip?”
Without waiting for an answer, she went on. “Once we pull in, the hotel will be directly across from the stage office,” She looked to the metals buyer. “Mr. Abaza, we telegraphed ahead, and they’ve got your room waiting.” She looked to the others. “I expect they’ll have space for you folks as well, but if they’re runnin’ short, just ask for May. She’ll make sure you get set up proper at another of Winston’s fine establishments.”
“Oh, don’t worry ‘bout me, dearie,” the new grandmother tittered. “My-son-in-law reserved a room and will be meeting me once we arrive.” She looked to Jase with a self-assured nod. “He’s quite respected you know. Owns over 12,000 head of buffalo on the Vernadskiy plains.”
They rounded a final hillock and began their descent towards the sea. The town of Winston lay below them in toyish perspective. As they worked their way along the switchback curves, Jase saw Winston was a fishing town. Extensive wharves on the north shore were filled with boats of every size and configuration while dozens more rode in off the shimmering sea, their red sails filled with the evening's cooling breeze. Great boxy warehouses clustered like mushrooms beside the two and three-story businesses before the twisting streets worked their way up the bay’s surrounding hills on the south side of town were the residential neighborhoods and their clusters of single-story homes glittered in the deepening gloom.
“Where will you two be staying?” the metals salesman asked. “I’m sure I could get you a discount at my hotel.” He’d slipped on his jacket and pulled at his lapels importantly. “I’m quite well regarded at the Jackfish inn.”
“Sir,” Jase said. “I would be honored.” He checked his watch and frowned. “It’s been a long day, and I’m sure everyone is tired, but I’d be honored if you’d meet us for breakfast.” He looked to the grandmother and bowed. “And, m’lady, if you and your son-in-law have the time, I’d love for you to join us.”
Jase folded his napkin and rose from his seat at the head of the table before escorting Mr. Zebula Abaza, the metals dealer, to the front door. The grandmother, Gail White, and her son-in-law, Seth, had left only moments before, lauding Jase with praise and a request he stay at their ranch next time he was in town.
Returning to his chair, Jase waved for the waiter to clear the table and consulted his watch.
“Looks like we’ve got time for another cup of coffee,” he said to Takoda, “before starting for the station.”
He lifted the remains of a Danish and nibbled at the edge. All in all, a quite satisfying meal, Jase thought. He sniffed importantly and studied the crowded room. Given where he was, the climate seemed almost civil. Granted, it didn’t pass muster when compared to dining at home, but when it came to roughing it in the field, the meal and service hadn’t been half bad. In fact, it was nice visiting with the peasants and local gentry. He supposed it must be like this in the remoter regions of Texas, though he hadn’t spent as much time there as he should. When he returned, he’d remedy that.
“Well, genius, now that you’ve alerted every bandit in the region.” John Gage dropped into the chair beside him causing Jase to leap in surprise. “What’s your next tactical move?”
“John!” Takoda’s face lit up as she reached across the table to clasp the big man’s hand.
“You,” Jase said with unconcealed disgust. “I’d thought we were done with your degenerate presence.”
The lines around John Gage's eyes tightened at Jase's words, but he refrained from looking at him. Jase noted the John Gage seated across the table was much changed from the wretched old man they'd left back in New Surat. He was paler than Jase remembered though his scruffy beard was gone, and his shaggy mane clipped. Gage wore the garb of a traditional Solar Knight; high leather boots, armored shin greaves, layered breastplate, and black shoulder pads. Well-worn, and scarred, the ebony armor gave way at its edges to worn silver and white where age and use had etched away the paint. Twin handles of the Solar Knight’s traditional weapon, the kukri blade, protruded in an ‘X’ over Gage's back, while on a bandoleer across his massive chest, he carried two decidedly nontraditional weapons, a pair of single-shot flintlocks with matching bejeweled grips.
“I've come to talk you outta followin' this lunatic.” John’s gaze never left Takoda. “There was talk all over New Surat 'bout some crazy Earther leavin' thousand credit tips to waitresses and walkin' the streets wearing platinum rings and a solid gold watch.” He cut his eyes to Jase and snorted. “They said he left with a monk servant en route for Winston.”
Despite himself, Jase lifted his wrist and shot a glance at his expensive but rather plain timepiece.
“Jase does not wear a gold watch,” Takoda said. “Though there is some truth in the story of the thousand credit tip.” She looked to Jase with a smile. “Jase seems unfamiliar with purchasing goods for himself, though I have little experience in such matters myself.” She looked to Gage and shrugged. “I thought his excessive tip some idiosyncrasy of royals.”
Gage rotated his head and considered Jase. “A thousand credit tip?”
“Look, I get it,” Jase said. “I way overpaid. I won’t do it again.”
Gage shook his head. “And you told everyone where you were going?”
“Of course not.” Jase raised a hand waving away Gage's accusation. “That would be foolish.”
“Then how is it the stable boy knew the King of Texas was headed to Olcott to catch a paddlewheel?”
“The…the stable boy?” Jase gulped looking around confused.
“I never said anything.” Jase lowered his eyes. “Though I may have mentioned it during my conversations with Lady White and Mr. Abaza. But I told them under the strictest of confidence.”
“Really?” Gage’s eyes drifted to the bar and its rows of half-filled bottles. He licked his lips dryly and went on. “You told an old woman whose most interesting gossip is that the mailman spends too much time with the widow on the corner, that the King of Texas has arrived on Luna as special envoy for the church? And you expected her to keep that to herself?” He shook his head with a snort. “You haven’t even been here a day and already most of the town knows your destination. You're setting off across some of the most barren terrain on Luna with no more protection than an untested monk and a pair of third-hand pistols.”
“Third hand?” Jase sputtered. “How'd you …?”
“How’d I what,” Gage prodded. “Find out Wu finally sold those crappy pistols he’s been tryin’ ta get rid of all season? All I had to do was listen to the latest chitchat at the local barber.”
He pushed up from the table, his chair scratching noisily across the hardwood floors. “Look, Takoda. The only reason I'm here is because I consider you a friend.”
He adjusted his bandoleer and looked about the room. His eyes lingered on a table in the corner where two seedy men sat watching.
“That and your master would have a cow if he knew what you were up to. Have you considered what Achak would say ‘bout all this?”
“I believe he would tell me to follow my vision,” Takoda said. “Come, John. Join us. Can you not hear the holy mother's call?”
Gage stared for a long, steely-eyed second.
“Well, I tried,” he said with a shrug. “I just pray people believe you've fallen in with a madman and leave you alone.” With a final look to Jase and a disgusted snort, he turned and left the room
“Perhaps,” Takoda said, “John Gage provides us with sage advice.”
“Yeah, and what was that?” Jase snapped.
“That we remain attentive to trouble and maintain a more inconspicuous presence.”
Jase sagged in his chair aware the old Space Knight was right. He'd been so blinded by Luna's beauty and novelty that he'd acted as if he were back home on holiday. He’d almost forgotten he'd landed smack dab in the middle of alien territory. Not just alien, worse. He’d landed in the middle of enemy territory. Weren't his uncle's allies only a few hundred kilometers away?
Surely, the bigger cities and science temples were in possession of sensor technology. He'd heard of radar in flight class and knew the church had already blessed its release. Which meant someone knew exactly where his shuttle had gone down.
Damn that John Gage, he'd been right about everything. How long would it take for his uncle's men to arrive at the Moscoviense Sea?
How long before spies arrived in the cities and towns along its coast and discovered the rumor of the flamboyant Earther on his way west? A week? Maybe less? And if his Aunt's informants found information about the Oracle, how much more did his uncle know? He shot a glance at the table in the corner. For all he knew, his uncle’s men were watching him now.
“Takoda, are the supplies loaded?”
“Yes, Jase Hildebrand. The porter arrived at eight and took them to the station.”
“You know you can just call me Jase.”
Takoda rose from her chair before downing the last of her coffee in two noisy gulps. “Thank you for your trust, Jase Hildebrand. I will certainly keep that in mind.”
The stage headed to Gavrilov was much different from the one they'd taken from New Surat. The wheels were larger, standing over two meters high and possessing wide rubber treads. They were mounted on great steel-encased shocks comprised of thick, hydraulic cylinders, and intricate, metallic gears. The interior was much the same as any he'd seen in other stages with the addition of added cushions and padding on the window frames and ceiling.
They left Winston following the Moscoviencse coast south along well-tended roads and through a handful of quaint villages before leaving the coastal road and moving out across a land of low scrubby desert and high craggy hills. Jase spoke little with the driver and his assistant, preferring to remain silent lest he let slip some further secret of his mission.
The following day, the reason for the coach's internal padding and shocks became abundantly apparent. At this point in their journey, the path to Gavrilov was more road by name than actuality. After the balmy moistness of the Moscoviense coast, the land grew angry and dry climbing steadily higher as the sun transformed the stage into an oven. A beaten dirt track wove between giant boulders and massive patches of agave in what seemed more a faded game trail than something leading to an actual destination.
Perched high atop the driver's box, the coachman and his armed assistant had a bird's eye view of the path ahead. Whenever they spotted a washed-out section of road or a particularly deep rut, they’d goad their six-horse team into a dead sprint. With a throaty, “Get on up there!” and a sharp crack of the whip, the horses catapulted over the divide as the entire coach went airborne, tossing everything not nailed down into the air. Jase found himself bouncing off ceiling and walls in these gut-wrenching leaps which had Takoda giggling like a schoolgirl as they hit the ground with tooth rattling booms. Then with a crack of the whip, and a loud, “Hee ya!” they were off once again.
By the time they'd finished their second day's travel and pulled onto a flat section of trail, Jase felt as if he'd been thrown into a cement mixer and left on spin. With a tired groan, he unlatched the stage door and stepped onto the rocky plateau of the Gavrilov plains. Even after centuries of erosion, the outlines of craters could still be seen beneath the scattered dunes and browned vegetation, their outer rims lined with dusky green tumbleweeds and low growing scrub.
As the sky deepened into shades of purple and pink and the eastern horizon and birthed the first evening stars, Jase and Takoda unrolled their bedrolls and helped the driver gather fuel for the fire.
“Did you notice the way they watch us,” Takoda asked over an armload of twigs.
She nodded across the separating distance where a fire cast its buttery glow on the stage’s dusty side and the hobbled horses stood silhouetted against the deepening velvet sky.
“What do you mean?” Jase followed Takoda’s gaze to where the driver and his assistant crouched above a simmering pot. Even from here, the faint aroma of boiled potatoes and brothy stew beckoned them back to the fire’s meager heat.
“I think they have been talking about us,” Takoda said, “though I cannot be certain. She leaned down and scooped up another branch, balancing it precariously on top of her already impressive load.
“The young assistant will not look me in the eye, Jase Hildebrand. I take that as a very bad sign.”
Jase turned away from the circle of light and examined the barren range around them. It was as absent of man’s presence as anyplace he’d ever been. He doubted there’d be any danger until they arrived in Gavrilov, but better safe than sorry.
“Maybe we should sleep inside the stage,” Jase suggested. “If they’re planning an attack, that will certainly eliminate any element of surprise. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be rolling into town.” He scooped up a branch watching a pocket-mouse bound away to find a new hiding place. “Once we arrive, we’ll lose ourselves in the city.”
Despite the driver’s protest, Jase and Takoda informed him of their desire to spend their final night inside the stage. Now that Takoda had alerted him to their peculiar behavior, Jase noted the way the assistant refused to meet his eye and the far too cordial manner in which the driver offered up their meal. When bedtime came, Jase situated himself in one corner of the stage, pistols at the ready. He finally slipped into a dozing slumber as coyotes yipped in the distance.
“Jase Hildebrand.” Takoda’s whisper had Jase bolting upright and searching the darkness. In the dim glow of a quarter Earth, he spotted Takoda peering out the stagecoach window.
“What is it?” Jase asked. “Trouble?”
“I do not know,” Takoda said. “I was awakened by the quiet.”
Jase’s brows creased his forehead. “The quiet?”
Takoda cocked her head, one hand upheld to her ear. “There is no sound but the wind in the weeds, Jase Hildebrand. I do not like it.”
Takoda was right. The far-off cries of the coyotes and the ululations of crickets were gone.
“Do you see the driver?” He asked.
“Their bedrolls are there.” Takoda leveled a finger indicating a pair of lumps beside the fire’s coals. “I’ve been watching for some time and I’ve not seen them move.”
“Hey! Wake up there.” Jase called.
The bundles didn’t move.
“Oh, shit.” Jase opened the door and slid to the ground. He stepped to the fire and toed the motionless lumps. There was nothing beneath the blankets but piles of old clothes and chunks of unburnt wood
“They’ve taken the horses,” Takoda said.
Jase turned and saw she was right. An icy chill, having nothing to do with the frosty air, crept slowly up Jase’s spine. He was a trained commander, a strategist, but in this desolate, alien place he was out of his element. He was lost. Shoving back on his gibbering pride, he turned to Takoda for advice,
“What should we do?”
Takoda strolled through camp bending now and again to examine the ground, then she turned and stared into the night. Jase was growing impatient before she finally broke the silence.
“They packed up not long ago, Jase Hildebrand.” She raised an arm and pointed back along the trail. “They lead the horses back towards Winston.” She turned to face him. “And I believe there are forces in the darkness preparing to attack.”
An attack. Finally, something Jase understood. His hand slipped to his pistol butt as he stepped up beside Takoda.
“Any idea how many we might expect?”
Takoda shook her head. “I’ve no experience in such matters, Jase Hildebrand, though I’d expect no less than ten.” She met his eyes and her lips tightened. “Probably more. Definitely, armed.”
Examining the camp, Jase considered his options. He possessed the one revolver and the break top pistol, along with a hundred .45 caliber rounds. The stage might offer some limited protection against a pistol but if the bandits possessed rifles, which they surely did, then holing up inside would only make them easy targets.
“You and Gage have both mentioned you’re a priest,” Jase said. “I assume that means the same thing here as it does on Earth.”
Takoda’s eyes narrowed. “I do not understand.”
“You know how to fight,” Jase said. “You’ve been trained in the arts.”
The big woman nodded, the Earthlight shimmering on her pale scalp. “Yes, Jase Hildebrand. I am proficient in the arts, as you say.”
He toed the sandy soil and a smile grew on his face. “Get the shovels out of the stage toolbox,” Jase barked, “and bring em’ here.”
As Takoda rummaged through the coach, Jase sprang to the harness gear left behind by the driver. From the lengths of lumber, the twelve-meter long steel tongue, the doubletree, and straps, he pulled out a leather harness consisting of several meters of leather joined by a two-meter length of chain. The links were pencil thin and hooked to the leather on either end. He cut away the leather strips and lifted the chain. Perfect.
Takoda appeared at his side shovels in hand. “What should I do with these?” She asked. “If you intend on using them as weapons, I prefer using hands and feet.”
“Not at all,” Jase said. He took one of the shovels and with Takoda’s help, scraped a ten-centimeter-deep, two-meter long pit into the dry, sandy soil beside the fire. On the opposite side of the flames, he scraped out a fist-sized hole.
Jase tied the leather pouch of bullets to the chain and buried it inside the hole, before smoothing it over with his hand and draping the chain through the coals so that its end dropped into the pit on the other side.
Jase’s heart hammered as he finalized his preparations. How long had they taken? Ten minutes? More? He shook his head. No, it couldn’t have been more than five. They still had time.
“Okay, we’re gonna turn the tables on these sons of bitches,” Jase said. He marched to the stage and examined the toolbox. A bit small, but it would do.
“Help me get the rest of these tools into the stage,” he said.
Unloading the toolbox took longer than digging the pit. As they worked, Jase shot furtive glances into the darkness wondering when the hammer would fall.
“All right,” he said at last. “Here’s the plan.” He marched to the pit and lay down. It wasn’t deep enough to cover him, but in the fire’s dim glow, he hoped it would be enough.
“Cover me with that blanket, then kick the sand over the top.” He pointed back to the stage. “Then crawl into the toolbox and keep quiet.”
Takoda looked skeptically to the stage as Jase pulled a blanket over his legs and began covering himself with dirt.
“I do not think I can fit, Jase Hildebrand. The box is too small.”
Laying back, Jase drew the blanket over his face and pulled the other end of the chain beneath the blanket with him “Just do it Takoda, and make sure you bury that chain too.”
The weight of soil pressed down the blanket as Jase formed a pocket of air to breathe. He heard Takoda’s grumbling complaint and the solid thud of the toolbox lid. Then silence.
Despite his sandy covering, Jase began to sweat beneath the musty blanket. The coals of the fire didn’t help as their dwindling heat contributing to the growing discomfort of his position. His only consolation was knowing he wasn’t alone. He chuckled thinking of the lanky Takoda shoehorned into the confines of the toolbox.
The air grew stale beneath the musty blanket, the fire’s coals and growing heat contributing to his discomfort.
The snap of a twig and a crunch of sand was followed by a whispered command: “Check in the stage.”
The scuffing sound of footsteps. The metallic click of a hammer drawn back on a weapon.
This was it.
Link over link, Jase drew in the chain until he was certain the bag of bullets lay firmly in the coals.
“There’s no one here,” a voice called from the stage.
“Then search the brush,” answered another. “They couldn’t have gotten past us.”
More thudding footfalls, the ringing clang of a shovel hitting the ground.
“Damn it, Dale, what the hell are ya doin’ over there?” The first voice called.
“Gettin’ these tools outta the stage,” the second voice said. “They’re piled all over the luggage.”
“Tools?” The first voice said. “What kinda tools?”
“Shovels, a pick. Pots an’ pans. That kinda stuff.”
Jase’s heart sank at the realization of his error.
“You idiots,” the first man called. “One of em’s hidin’ in the….”
He never finished his sentence because at that instant the bullets in the fire exploded.