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Rated: 13+ · Article · Sci-fi · #538450
Matter transmission has opened the universe to Man, and brought back the frontier spirit
with the advent of the Corson gates, operating on the mathematical principals described by Susan Corson, the discoverer of magneto-gravitic spectrum radiations, the physical distances between star systems became inconsequential. A person, animal, or materials could travel from one habitable planet to another as quickly as someone could walk from their bedroom to their livingroom.
With this new ability to move freely about the universe, mankind was quick to embark on a new phase of frontiersmanship, awakening traits useless in the modern hustle and bustle of the world-city of Earth.
Corson gates, of course, were extremely expensive to operate, in terms of precious energy resources, which a hungry Earth only reluctantly allowed to be used as a way to ease growing population pressure, and complained about the expense of having to be charged against the retail costs of the foods imported from the "colonies". It didn't help the matter at all that the physics involved were immutable, and, the greater the mass being passed through the gate, the greater the amount of energy was required.
Naturally, this meant that only the richest of pioneers could afford to bring more than the essentials with them to their new homes, and many manual skills long unused were reborne, as well as the "pioneer attitude" so often described in romanticized tales of the "Old West" written in the mid to late 20th century.

Brad paused to look at the sun, gauging the time until the false evening that would be caused by the high ridges to his west, then checked his compass again, secure in the knowledge he and his buckskin horse could make another 10 miles to Khagra Well before he had to make camp. On a planet with little to no discernable magnetic pole, compact inertial compasses were a godsend, as the fine machinery packed into the miniscule case was exact to a painful precision, yet massed almost nothing, and was damned near indestructable. Coupled with "The Bible", loaded with planetary survey maps and information, it was almost impossible for the most green of tenderfeet to get lost for long, to starve, eat anything poisonous, or otherwise succumb to the natural hazards that were only dangerous to the ignorant, as opposed to the downright stupid.
Of course, Brad, having been on Mesa for over five years, was no tenderfoot, and rarely had to refer to his bible anymore, except for locating shelter and waterholes in unfamiliar territory. As a matter of fact, for the jumbled and intertwined mass of canyons and arroyos amongst the tabletop mesas in the Texas (Earthside) sized county he called "home", he could have corrected a few mistakes, and added quite a mass of information to the official survey team's reports.
"It'll be good to get back home, old boy." he said aloud to his mount, in the manner of one used to being alone, except for the company of his horse. The buckskin blew through his nostrils as if agreeing, then bobbed his head, and flicked his left ear.
"Yeah, I know, you're tired, too, boy. Just another few miles, and we'll camp at the well.
"Long grasses, shade, and water. And enough natural cover that we can even have a fire tonight, without worriing about a xenocat attacking. No more bagged oats for you, and a cooked meal for me! Hoo, boy!"
The horse, seeming to understand this, picked up his pace a bit.
xenocat: (n.)pl xenocats [derived from xenofeliniae, new genus, planet Mesa, first identified by Capt Thom. Royers] any one of multiple species of semi-feline nocturnal predators found on the planet Mesa. Most species are extremely aggressive, solo hunters, though a few of the smaller polar species will form prides. Unlike most Terran felines, xenocats are unafraid of water, despite living in realtively arid climates. Most species of xenocat mass in the range of 600 to 1000 Terran pounds, have fully prehensile tails, retractile claws, and give evidence of a learning curve reminiscent of a Terran chimpanzee.
Xenocats are the primary native predators of Mesa, and are extremely teritorial, actively hunting intruders long after they have exited the animal's marked territorial boundaries. Their attack methods vary, by spiecies and experience, both. Xenocats are equally scent, sight, and sound hunters, and have yet to develop any reasonable avoidance reaction to humans. They are extremely dangerous to lone humans, or small groups. A solitary xenocat's attack is blamed for the 100% fatality rating of the Khumbara expidition down the Broken-Spine River canyon (13 well armed humans, and their pack and riding animals)
*Survivor's Bible, Mesa edition, Chap 4, "Dangerous Animals"

Pa would sure be glad to see him, Brad was thinking, as he rode. It had been almost six months since he'd gone out to lend a hand on the High-C spread, two week's ride from the ranch, and Brad was sure that the yearlings were big enough to be worth driiving to Covenant Port, for shipment to Earth, by now. Pa'd be needing every able body he could scare up.
John High-C (Zhung Zhai-Tsi) had been a friend of Pa's when they were both working for the survey teams, out of Carson, the capital of Mesa, back when Brad was a boy. When word came that Johnny had been hurt, but not killed, when one of the small, porcine predators the locals called "Javelinas" after the Sonoran desert pigs on Earth, but more closely resembled an 80 pound buzzsaw wrapped in hardened leather armor, with the temper of a terran alligator with an abcessed tooth, Brad had set out that very day to be of what help he could, keeping his old family friend's ranch running productively.
He'd arrived to find that the High-C ranch was in good hands, that old John had hired himself a damned respectable foreman in Travis Kurisani, but that his help had been sorely needed, and much appreciated. It hadn't hurt that John's daughter, Jules, was getting about husband-high, and was as pretty as a four-horn antelope in the blooming season. Also, Brad had taken an immediate liking to Kurisani, with his self-effacing Nipponese manners, and his quirky sense of humor.
Now that old Johnny was back in the saddle at his place, Brad was on his way home, and glad to be so.
The buckskin colored horse Brad favored for long rides suddenly pricked an ear, as if he'd heard something, so Brad fell silent, and opened his senses further with some breathing exercises Kurisani had taught him.
At the extreme limits of his hearing, he could hear a slight rustle, as of something slowly moving through the hard-stalked, waxy leafed plants locals called "yucca", though they closer resembled short bamboo. He shucked his RemArms magnetic impeller rifle from its boot as quietly as he could, set the scope to "thermal signature", and took a comfortable stance across his saddle for scanning the area.
Finding nothing in a 180 degree scan, he replaced the rifle, but undid the snaps on both his pistols.
Brad did not fancy himself a gunman, and wore his dual H&K's in such a way as to demonstrate that. Where a gunfighter would wear two pistols strapped low, and easily accessible to each hand, even if he was only competent with one hand (for almost all "gunfighters" were comfortable with the "border shift", where pistols were tossed from one hand to another, to leave the heaviest loaded gun in the primary hand), Brad wore his pair in a way that spoke only of a man who intended to be prepared if trouble came to him, with one pistol close to hand on his right thigh, and the other set cross-draw in a holster on his belt, both arranged, putatively for right-hand draws.
There were not many people (living, anyhow...there were a couple dead rustlers who'd tried to dry-gulch him who could testify to this fact, though) that were aware that Brad could do a left handed "thumb-hook" draw of this second gun, spin it into place, and fire quite as well from his left hand as from his right, and nearly as quickly. With his right hand, he'd developed a strictly local reputation (local only because what shooting he'd been involved in was straightforward and unquestionably had been "fair shootings" on his part) of being "the fastest thing since the Corson Gate at moving a gun." This comment was often followed with "and damned accurate, too"
This state of affairs probably arose from his father's way of training him, which was to take him horseback riding with nothing but an old wheelgun and two loads, and making him go hungry if he couldn't get an animal for supper, from horseback, on the fly. It took very little time for Brad to discover he didn't like going hungry, so he practiced and practiced, until one day, right as a "doper", as the locals called their variation of a carnivorous rabbit, had no sooner broken cover to run to another bush, or den entry, before he'd cleared leather and removed half its head. His father was reputed to have said "That'll do, boy" and made no further comment on the issue, but all with them noted the "rabbit" had fallen dead no more than a foot from the edge of the bush it had been running away from. Some even noted they hadn't even realized anything was moving until after they were looking at the corpse.
Knowing he was fast, and accurate, were not things Brad took pride in. He didn't wish to kill men, nor to develop the reputation for gun handling that often brought men hunting a reputation after one. All he wanted was a reputation as a good hand, a good friend, and a hard worker.
Having simple desires like these, naturally, he had aquired all of them rather easily and naturally. After all, men love a man who will work as hard as they do (and sometimes harder) right alongside them day after day, without complaint, and Brad's nature was such that it'd never occur to him to not offer help to a friend in need, if at all possible. His quiet and unassuming ways not only gentled men, but beasts as well, which delivered him the third of his desires.
Wary, but riding relaxed, he kept his senses on alert, and both hands near his pistols, paying special attention to the buckskin's body language as he rode on.
About 300 yards downtrail, they came to the low point of a wash they had to cross to get back home. It was a spot the horse knew well, yet he seemed reluctant to go down into the shallow ditch, and blew nervously through his nostrils.
Brad carefully surveyed the area once again, and neither seeing, nor hearing, a thing, he urged the horse forward.
Almost as soon as the horse had taken his first step into the was proper, there was an explosion of dust from under a sandstone overhang across the wash, and towards Brad's left side!
Twisting as best as he could to face the movement head on, and leaning back as far as he could, while still viewing the area, he whipped both guns free of their holsters, firing the right hand one into the middle of the cloud of dust immediately.
Something musky passed over his body, and he felt a brush at his right shoulder he knew was going to hurt horribly in the next few minutes, and might cost hiim his life, if he didn't end this quickly and decisively. What had passed over him, missing him only because of his sudden backwards lean, was the largest xenocat of the "desert puma" variety he'd ever seen, live or dead! It had to measure 12 feet snout to ass, and was already turned around, and readiing for another lunge at him.
Leaning back yet further, and hooking his left knee over the pommel, Brad hung half suspended, and leveled both handguns at the beast, firing as rapidly as he could, while maintaining aim from his inverted position, and praying that the .40 cal rounds these creatures usually found to be no more than an annoyance singly, might be able to injure it enough, en masse, to allow him to get back upright and get the rifle free. Concentrating his fire around those hateful golden eyes, hoping the concussions to the skull would at least be disorienting, he unloaded both pistols, then wrenched himself upright, holstered the right hand gun, and grabbed his rifle again from the boot.
Turning to take aim at the creature, he was amazed to find half its head pulverized into ground meat, though the body, with its decentralized nervous system, was moving as aggressively as ever.
Knowing with no sight or scenting apparatus,it couldn't attack effectively, he relaxed, ready to urge the horse on up out of the bank before he made his killing shot on the creature, and turned his back on it to do just that.
Some unknown sixth sense made him twist once again towards his rear, wrenching his rifle with him, just in time to see the huge beast launch itself into the air in a trajectory perfectly aimed to intercept him. Without thinking, or even wondering how the animal had managed to locate him that accuarately, he fired from the hip. With the loud pop characteristic of the multiple-mach-speed rounds, and the whining electrical discharge sound of Gauss method impelled rifles everywhere, the gun fired, and miraculously, the slug impacted the flying cat almost head on. The inherent momentum of the 1/2 ounce hollowpoint slug stopping within the body of the creature was just barely enough to stop it...but it WAS enough. The cat stopped as if it had struck a brick wall, and fell to the earth with a thud. With the flechette/hollowpoint hybrid rounds Brad had been using in the rifle, there was no doubt that the animal was dead now, so he once again headed the horse up the other side of the shallow ravine, before addressing his own wounds.

The buckskin was still skittish, nervous reaction to the recent rush of activity, which Brad understood completely, seeing as he was experiencing the empty-stomach nausea feeling of post-adrenal letdown himself. He found a nearby patch of the waxy surface "grasses" common to sun exposed area, and ground-hitched his horse there, dismounting to take care of his own wounds, which were, as yet, still unexamined.
When he actually took the time to look at the shoulder of his shirt, still fearing what he might find, he discovered four surgically precice slashes in the fabric of the shirt, but was able to tell only that he had bled, not how much, underneath, since the relative darkness of the shirt's color, and the amount of persperation he'd lost throught the day, made it impossible to tell what was actual dampness, and what was simply old stain.
Moving gingerly, to avoid renewing any bleeding which may have already begun slowing, or even stopped, Brad removed his shirt for better examination in preperation for cleaning and sealing the wounds.
The skin of his shoulder had been cut in four straight, neat lines by the puma, that gave no hint of their depth, simply being black lines with a thin red outline on skin tinted by the blood that had layered on it, thinly. The cat had got him from the upper ridge of his left pectoral muscle right to the peak of his shoulder joint, which indicated that the wounds had to be pretty deep in their relative centers, but the fact that he wasn't spraying blood, and his arm still moved easily said he hadn't lost any tendons or arteries to the claws. His hand seemed to be feeling completely normal, as well, so he didn't even consider nerve damage a possibility.
Reaching into his left saddlebag, he pulled out his emergency kit, and withdrew a spray-on, all-purpose disinfectant, an aerosol sealant to use as a bandage over any stapling he found necessary to do, and a pair of spate-ended probes, to use almost like chopsticks to open and examine each wound individually, in the process of cleaning.
The worst of the wounds turned out to be the one on the inside right of the set, next-to-the-closest to his collar, which was as precise as the rest, but at its deepest was almost three-quarters of an inch deep, exposing muscle tissue cleanly, and barely having missed opening a minor artery, which was exposed, partially, along one wall of the cut, when it was pulled open.
Brad dealt with each of the clawed incisions calmly and methodically, and the only indication an observer would have been able to note that would indicate he was working on himself, rather than an inanimate side of beef, was the involuntary hiss of a breath taken every time he sprayed the somewhat caustic antiseptic into a wound, or when he would tighten his lips into a grim line every time the staple gun made the metallic click that spoke of the insertion and locking of a small piece of surgical steel over the deeper parts of each wound.
When he'd done all of the inspection, cleaning, and surgical sealing of the wounds, he slapped a sterile pad over the area, and sprayed the aerosol gel sealant over it, to create a self adhesive bandage.
This done, he poured some water from his canteen into his ruined shirt, and used it to moisten the nostrils and lips of the buckskin, and then to mop some of the sweat and grime from his own face and body before digging in his pack for a semi-fresh shirt.
Undoing the ground-tie he'd used to restrain the buckskin, he re-mounted, and they continued on their way to Khagra Well, despite Brad's knowledge that there was now no way they'd make it before sundown. It was still the best place for shelter and rest for the night, and worth the extra risk of an hour's exposure to the possibility of another attack by a xenocat, who would have an even greater advantage against them if it was hunting them after sundown.

The remainder of the ride to Khagra Well was tense. Brad and the horse both nervously aware of the emenient and everpresent possiblity of a xenocat on the prowl, and their hatred of humans in their range. Rider and horse were both skittish, alert to every sound, and scanning as much ground as possible, looking for anything that triggered their respective sense of wariness. Be it a familiarly shaped sihouette, or an indistinct impression of movement in a shadowed area, it was scrutinized as closely as possible. There were times on Mesa where the quality referred to on Terra as "paranoia" paid off hugely, by rewarding those who exercised it prudently with the right to continue living.
After eight tense, and unreasonably wearing, miles the two rode into the overhung box canyon that was known as Khagra Well. Both were bone tired, sense-dulled, and all-around exhausted, but had not been molested any further, and knew they were now safe for the night.
Brad hitched the horse to a low tree branch with a long enough length of riata (lariat rope) that he could graze a large circle of both succulent and soft grasses, which grew in the shadows of the canyon, and the spicier, and well-liked leaves from the short trees around them. There was also enough rope for the animal to walk into the well fed pool that gave the canyon its name almost to his foreknees, to drink his fill.
After this was done, he curried the horse with a rough brush, shook out the saddle blanket, rinsed it in the pool to wash out any sweat salts, and hung it over another branch to dry, then did the typical checks and maintenance of all his other gear, including reloading his spent pistol magazines, and replacing them in their pouches under his left shoulder.
All of the necessary operations of maintaining the equipment that kept him alive from moment to moment taken care of, Brad finally built a fire, rinsed and refilled his canteen, washed himself in the cold waters of the pool, and made himself a hot dinner soup of salted beef, dried vegetables, and dehydrated pasta, and some coffee over the fire, alays careful not to look full into the flames, and ruin his night sight.
It was during this period, after all the things he must do to survive were done, and he was doing things that gave him comfort, as opposed to just allowing him to continue breathing another day, that he finally conciously noticed how much pain he was in. Saddle-sore, his back wrenched from when he slung himself over backwards, his inner knee bruised from the jolt it took hooking the pommel, and the abuse his shoulder had taken both from the xenocat and his own medical ministrations afterwards.
Had he been one whit less self disciplined, he might well have decided to lay lazy at the Well for a few days, and "heal up", but he figured he was probably needed at the home place. Thus his only concession to his pain was to take some light anti-inflammatory and pain suppressant pills with his coffee, and sling himself in his web hammock, rather than his usual hard-ground bedroll for the night.
The evening was totally unremarkable, and without incident, aside from a minor encounter with one of the land-bound crustaceans that Mesa residents called "scorpions" because of their poison-barb equipped tails. Aside from the fact that they slung their tails over their backs, and stung in that fashion, they had nothing else in common with Terran scorpions, since they had twelve segmented bodies, with two pairs of legs per segment, and a twelve segmented tail with a double stinger on the final segment, which was quite a bit larger than the others, also being the poison sack. The legs on the segment closest to the head were thinner and longer than the others, and ended in pronounced three-pincered "claws", that despite their small size, were quite able to inflict a painful wound theselves, as they were designed to tear into the flesh, or through the carapaces of the creature's victims, so it could insert its tubular proboscis and drink the glutenous mass that has once been the vital tissues of whatever creature it had stung. Its venom wasn't so much poisonous itself, as deadly in its secondary effects, as what it really was was a powerful digestive enzyme that liquified tissues it came into contact with. Thus a Mesa "scorpion's" sting was rarely fatal in itself to humans or livestock, but the wounds it created could easily become gangrenous, abcessed, and painfully damaging. Once in a while, though, some of the "venom" was carried by the bloodstream to the heart or brain before it had been neutralized by its own natural actions, and in those cases it was, of course, fatal.
Brad's reaction to seeing one crawling across the sand from one grassy patch to another was typical of Mesans. With an intestinal wrench of disgust, he strode quickly to the creature, and stomped on it repeatedly with his hardened leather bootheel, leaving not much more than a slightly discolored smear in the impacted sand.

Brad slept well, and hard, but from long habit, awoke as the sun crested the eastern ridges, despite the fact that his camp was still fully in shadow.

The morning had brightened into day by the time he'd broken fast, and Brad rode steadily towards home as the temperature rose with the sun. In the midmorning, an avian the Mesans called "grouse" ran out from under a bush, startled by his passage. Almost without thinking, Brad slapped leather, and fired a shot.
"Well, now" he thought "There's both lunch AND dinner, if I don't make the spread tonight." He dismounted, gathered up the now headless carcass of the four-legged, flightless "bird", and plucked it as he rode on, letting the buckskin pick his own footing, as they were now in territory known well by horse and rider alike.

Neither morning, nor lunch was signifigant in any way, but as evening drew near, and Brad came ever closer to home, he realized he'd seen not a single mini-herd of cattle, or a cowhand, all day. This close to the homeplace, there should have been at least ONE small "subherd" out this way, unless Pa was working the east canyons for some reason lately. Unworried, but made more alert by the sense of something slightly wrong in the absence of any subherds, Brad rode on, until, slightly before dusk, he saw the house, and the biggest gathering of homeplace caddle he'd seen since the last sale drive. Th rim of the mesa he saw this from was still a good two hour's ride from the house, but he figured he'd brave an hour or so of darkness this close to habitation, in order to sleep in a clean bed, have a shower, and, most importantly, find out why Pa'd had the cattle brought in early.

It was an hour and a half later, full-on dark, when Brad heard the unmistakable sound of not one, but two magnetic rifles being charged in front of him, one from behind a large piece of sandstone alongside the trail, the other from some height in a tree on the other. At almost the same time, he heard the metallic clicking of two handguns being cocked from his rear.
Damn! He'd never felt any of that prickling he usually felt when he was being watched, at all! And now, here he was, about to be dry-gulched less than 20 minutes ride from his front porch! What kind of idiot was he, to relax, just because he'd seen home? He'd KNOWN something was off all damned day!
While he was still trying to make up his mind as to whether he was going to go for his guns, and try to take out the guys in front of him, and hope he survived the pistol rounds from behind, or jump, and use the horse for cover as he blasted at the man behind, he heard a voice he knew all too well speak from behind him, and immediately relaxed.
"Keep the hands where we can see them."
"Now, Big Red, is that any way to welcome the prodigal home?" Brad answered the small and deadly man he know knew to be behind him.
"Brad? That's you!? I'll be goddamned!" exclaimed a voice from the tree, as Brad smiled. "It's good to have you back home, son, it's good to have you home!"
"Nice to be home, Dancer." Brad responded "Though it'd have been nicer not to be greeted with bare iron from the dark. What's the bad news that causes that?"
"Brad, boy, it's bad news indeed, but it'll wait until you get to the house. Go let yer Pa see you, boy, but we gotta keep watching the trail, 'k?" said Red.
Dancer dropped out of the tree, soundlessly, and walked to Brad, showing every bit of the grace that gave him his nickname, as Tommy Jasen, "TJ", stepped from behind the rock. each of the men exchanged a smile, and a nod, and Dancer clapped him on the back, before he moved on.
Brad was troubled by the fact that there was apparantly a need to be watching the trails around home at night, but understood that if it was nessecary, then standing around jawing with the men doing it would place them, and the ranch, at a risk they were supposed to be abating. He mused to himself about the men on the short ride to the house.
M'waba "Big Red" Za'mishi was about as big as a gazelle, weighing in at about 105 pounds soaking wet, and with his trail gear on. His name was the same type joke that calling a large man "Tiny" was. He was small, and about as black as night, and about as harmless as a xenocat in a fight. The other hands added the "red" monker because even in the height of summer, when everyone else had sunburn on every exposed piece of skin, and some that were covered by insufficiently thick cloth, M'waba not only never changed color, but he didn't even seem to sweat. He claimed this was because his ancestors came from the hottest tribelands on old Earth's Africa, but his records showed he'd shipped to Mesa from New York City, and had been named Steven Jefferson until he'd changed it by getting a work card under the new name the day he'd been declared a freeman. M'waba was one of those who'd risked everything to get off Earth, and had indentured himself to the corporation in order to be shipped to Mesa, and work the slaughterhouses. An incredible two years later (most indentures can't pay their expenses in less than 6), Steven the indentured company man was M'waba, the free-for-hire cook. Six months later, he was a hand. And six years later, he had found work with Pa, and had earned a nasty reputation as the wrong man to back into a corner anytime.
Dancer was Dancer...he worked hard, played hard, and was as graceful as they came. He didn't speak much, and never about his past. All anyone knew was he was a good hand, a good tracker, and a dead accurate rifleman. Brad and Pa knew a bit more about him, from employment records required of every selling ranch, but they kept what they knew to themselves. Dancer had come to Mesa as David Stevens, as a transportee..a "get shipped, or get executed" convict who'd beaten the man who'd killed his wife to death with his bare hands, when the man was released after having his conviction set aside by a higher court on a technicality of law.
"TJ" was just an all-around good hand, who'd come to Mesa in order to "live with a bit more elbow room." TJ had been raised in a small flat, in Southwark, England, Earth, and had put in for training and placement with the interplanetary Job Corps as soon as he was old enough. TJ wasn't extremely educated, but he knew cattle, worked hard, and was friendly.

By the time Brad had finished thinking back on his memories regarding each of these men, their history, and incidents that they'd been through together, as a group, as individuals, but always as part of the "family" of the ranch, he was riding into the barn. "Horsey" Joe Franklin was in the barn, waiting, when he rode in.
"Lemme take that buck o' yourn, and treat him down after that ride, Brad. Ya'n gonna wanna get insie an' tawk t'ye Pa."
"All right, Joe," said Brad "but aren't you off the job once the boys are in?"
"Boy, doan' yah be tryin' tell me whin I can 'r cannuh work! I does mah jab th' way I sees fit, an yeh'r ol' man seems plenny hippy wit th' way I does i'! Naow GIT!"
Smiling, Brad let the cantankerous old ex-cowhand lead the horse off to be curried, knowing his tack would end up in its proper place, oiled and cared for, and his gear would be on his bed before he'd finished cleaning up and eating dinner, most likely.

As was their way since Ma'd died, Brad and Pa ate with the hands. Pa's excuse was it was easier on the help, having only to cook for all, and clean the kitchen, since the ranch hands were tasked with taking care of their own bunkhouse, and did so meticulously. Pa had a way about him that earned him respect and adoration from those under his employ, as well as respect in town. The result of this was anyone who did NOT care for gear Pa supplied his men in a proper fashion shortly found himself looking for work elsewhere, voluntarily, and Pa usually never knew there had been a problem. The men who stayed were a tight knit group, who, despite any differences between them, loved their work, admired their boss, and wouldn't accept anyone who didn't have these traits in common with them. As a group, they were quite adept at ostracizing anyone who didn't meet with their own standards, which they set at least one notch above Pa's own.
Talk during dinner was mostly the normal ranch business, who'd been up to what in town, what embarrassing incidents had happened to whom that day, or, if addressed to Brad, extraordinarily "funny" incidents that had passed in his absence. Funny in the peculiar sense of humor that these rawboned, hardworking men held in common...stories of pranks akin to the old "burr under the saddle" trick, and such.
Brad could sense some underlying tension in the men, and in Pa, but they were all so genuinely glad to have the friendly young man back that there was almost a party atmosphere to dinner despite it.

Seeing that he wasn't going to hear of it any other way, Brad broached the subject himself.

"Pa, why were Red, TJ, and Dancer watching the trail in, when I came up? There been trouble of some sort? I also see a few others aren't in for the night? they on the town, or watching other approaches?"

"Son, you always have been an observant little cuss, and curious as hell, to boot. I was trying to hold off on talking about this until you'd been back a few days, I remember how hard the trails can be, and you'll be needing to rest up. Anything interesting going on at Johnnie's place? And how was your ride back, anything interesting?"

"Johnnie's mended up fine, and histop kick is a top hand, quiet little guy, but strong as an ox, quick as a striking drake, and a good hand...Johnnie's place'll be fine. Julie's growing into quite the girl, herself, and nothing really interesting happened on the ride home. Now why are you dodging my question, Pop?"

"Nothing interesting? then why are you favoring that shoulder?"

"Little run-in with a midsized xeno on the way home. He ambushed me in a drywash. Buck and I got him fine, and I'll mend just fine, Pa, now give."

The older man sighed "You're as hardheaded as your mother was, Bradley. Ok, the truth is we've had a bit of trouble with a new outfit moved in west of here. They're trying to use some of our watersheds and rangeland, and we think they've got some men been rustling the ones too young to be tagged. There've been a couple fights in town between their men and a few of ours. It's really nothing serious, and I expect it'll calm down soon enough. I went and talked to Rit Waynard, their top man, as he said that David Burroughs, the owner, was in capital on business at the moment. He didn't try to negotiate usage of the water or range, but didn't commit, either, just said he'd tell his men to stay off our range until the boss got back, then have the boss call on me, and see what could be done. If he told his men anything about the rangeland, they ignored him. They're running an awful rawhide camp, too, and chose some poor range to try to keep thirty thousand head, which is what they claim to have."

Brad sat thoughtfully for a minute, then blew on his coffee, and took a sip.
"So it looks like a push for some of our developed range, then?"

"Might be, but I haven't got anything I can take to the commission, except some tresspass complaints. Might shape up to be trouble, might just be a new outfit trying to make it work when they took too big a first bite."

"What kind of trouble in town?"

"Well, a couple of their boys laid James Steaders in bed a couple days with a beating...one picked a fight with that hothead in Sally's, then the other blindsided him when it looked he'd win, from the stories. And there've been a few similar fights. Donny Brady from the Tumblin' Q was shot by one of their boys during a fight over cards...claimed Donny was cheatin'."

"Bullshit! Pardon my language, Pa, but it is! Donny Brady was as honest a card player as you ever met, I've played him myself, as you know. I know you don't like me pplaying cards, but small-stakes cards in town is no big sin, it's the boys who lose their whole check, and their gear, that need to avoid the tables."

"I know, son, and I didn't say a thing, this time. And, I know you're right, Donny was an honest man...not the brightest, but honest."

"So they're rough boys, over there, or are they pushing the Q, too?"

"Dunno...you know how folks 'round here don't talk about troubles unless they have something to back what they say with."

"Ok, Pa, well, then, I'll just keep my eyes open and my mouth shut, as far as this goes, until you say different. That goes for in town, too."

"I knew you would, Son, you've always been a steady one. I had no worries about you going off half-cocked, I just didn't want to add worries to you when you ought to be resting up a couple days."

"Pfeh! You know as well as I do I'm gonna be up and out with the boys come sunup tomorrow! And I ain't letting you tell me any different, Pa...work's to be done, and I'm not hurt bad enough I can't sit a-horse and handle a rope, if need be."

"Heh. Bradley, I'm too old to try to hold you down to make you rest up, these days, and I think if the men were forced to choose between backing you, and backing me, I might just find I'd lost my ranch to you before I had intended to retire and turn it over." the older man smiled, admiration of his son, and pride of fatherhood plain in his eyes.

Brad blushed and responded "You know I like working for you, Pa, and I'm too young to be ramrodding yet. Besides, the men ride for the brand here, and YOU are the brand. I'll whup anyone who says otherwise, my ownself!"

"Yes, Son, I know...but those men love you like you were their own son or brother, you know it as well as I. I don't think many of them ever were exposed to a son of a boss who worked right alongside them, as hard, as long, without taking advantage of his position."

"He's got us pegged there, Brad." said Amos Czyacheck, walking up to the two "I been with this ranch long's it's been runnin. Worked three others before that. Never seen a pair of owners treat their men so well's you two, and your Ma, before ya. Never seen an owner's son work 's hard as you do, or be as friendly to the men, learning from them. These boys'd fight for your old man, and this ranch, but I think they'd die to the last man for you."

Brad was getting so embarrassed over this he HAD to change the subject. He started out talking about the High-C, Julie, Johnny, and Kurisani, mostly about the last. The men listened, and asked questions, as intrigued as Brad himself was, over the things Brad recalled of Travis. Soon enough, though, the conversation drifted, guided by questions from the other cattlemen, to the ambush by the xenocat.
As Brad explained what had happened, there were various gasps, and muttered exclamations about his luck, and counter-statements about it being that inherent skill Brad often showed with his guns. But none denied it was miraculous that he'd been so minorly injured, or that he'd had to use the mag-rifle after unloading both his pistols into the animal's skull. As more and more men drifted off to bed, or reading, it was once again noted how hard to kill a xenocat could be. One man commented "For an animal smart enough to successfully hunt well armed men, those damned cats seem to be too stupid to realize when they're dead!"

As promised, Brad was up with the sun, and in the saddle by the time it had fully risen, the next day. he worked the 16 hour day of a cowboy for the next three days, without incident, often riding into the farther canyons of the range, watching for strays, hints from the terrain as to how bad the dry season would be this year, and all the other normal sign cattle workers watch for when working. He was, of course, watching for strange riders, too, but it wasn't topmost in his mind, or anyone else's apparantly.

Come Friday, after working, he decided to ride to town with Dancer and Tools, the ranch's machinist/blacksmith, snce the working schedule put the three of them off for the following two days. The work scheduel was rotated so men worked three days, then got one off, in round-robin, usually, but once a month, every hand was given a full weekend off. This was one of Pa's notions about keeping a happy crew, as it allowed one "shindig" a month, as the boys called them, that could take more than one day to recover from.

Tools was between Dancer and Brad in age, barely old enough to have graduated college with the engineering degree he held. He was as garrulous as Dancer was quiet, but in a friendly way. It often suprised folks who met him casually when they found out that the young man had a M.S. in general engineering, with a B.S. in electronics, but had chosen to come work as a machine repairman and horse shoer on Mesa instead of taking a high paying job on some more developed colony, where the company, or the colony itself, would have gladly paid his colonial contribution, to gain his services. When Brad himself had enquired about this, Tools had responded with a crooked grin on his younger-than-he-was face "Where else could I be allowed a free hand to solve mechanical problems however I saw fit? Most places, they want an engineer to design things their way, and make them work. On a ranch, they just want me to keep things running, shoe a horse when needed, and find a way to make something WORK. That's REAL design work for you! This is heaven for me, Brad, your Pa doesn't tell me how to drill a well, or rig a system, or get something done. He says "Tools, we need a steady water source in the northeast range." and tells me how much he wants to be able to store. HOW I do it is entirely up to me, as long as it works." Brad guessed he understood this way of thought, to an extent, but mostly, he just respected the fact that the young, curly-headed blonde man with the baby face could use any tool you handed him, there was NOTHING he couldn't fix or build, it seemed. On top of this, Brad genuinely liked the man, but there were very few he didn't like, so this was no suprise.

In town, they went first to the Emporium, that being one of two stores in town, and the only one that stocked the particular brand of tobacco that Dancer smoked in his hand-rolled cigarettes. After buying what they personally needed, and storing it in their saddlebags, the trio headed over to Sally's, which was the only place in town for entertainment unless one of the travelling acting troops had booked the Orpheus Theater (despite the grand name, it was a one-horse-town's little 90 seat stage theater, and the school plays and spelling and math competitions were also held there), which wasn't the case on this weekend.

In Sally's, Brad saw a lot of familiar faces, from his own ranch, from town, and from neighboring ranches, as he expected, but he also saw a number of unknown faces that he tentatively assumed worked for the RR, the new outfit Pa'd told him some about. Taking a mental snapshot of each of the new faces, and mulling them over, trying to form an impression, as he absently greeted the many friendly faces whom he knew, Brad noticed something he didn't like about the situation. He realized that with the exception of a man at one of the tables playing poker, who was too well-dressed to be a cowhand, and was probably a drifting professional gambler, all the new faces had seemed to be looking specifically at him, not at the three of them generally, when they walked from the door to the bar.

Having made mental note of them, and reached a decision to be more alert than normal for trouble, though he couldn't decide quite why he felt this was a good idea, Brad reached the bar with his companions, and smiled when Tools immediately started talking the ear off Sandy Shelley, the daughter of the bar/club's owner, while Dancer laid a coupl hard plastic creds on the bar, ordered his usual double burbon on the rocks for himself, a single for Brad, and a Tequila Sunrise for Tools, who often took a ribbing for his taste for "girly drinks". Sandy was, as usual, right on the ball, and had Dancer's double under his hand before he'd finished speaking, and Brad's drink quickly afterwards, with a cold beer beside it, a nod of greeting, and a spoken response to one of Tolls' flirtatious passes, which she was expert in fielding, returning, and never committiing to, from many, many single, lonely cowhands and ranch workers she dealt with daily. Sandy was a nice looking woman, and knew it. She also seemed to be in no hurry to marry, and was known to be headstrong about a relationship.
Tools finally wore down a bit, and stopped for a breath, and a sip of something to wet his overused vocal cords when she passed him his drink.
This gave her the chance to greet Brad more personally, which she did.

"Hello, Brad, it's been a long time since you've been in. I was starting to think you didn't like me anymore." she said with a smile that showed she was teasing.

"Been out of the territory for a while, Sand. Had to help out an old friend."

"Well, Brad, you're definately the type of friend a man would want to cultivate...or a woman, for that matter. You look well, anyhow. It's nice to see you again."

"You too, Sandy. We'll talk some later, when it slows down a bit."

"'K." She went back to working quickly behind the bar, with her father, who made a point of looking over to Brad as his daughter turned away, and smiling.

"Boy, you're too smart to let her play her games with you until she's ready to steady down, aren't you?" Charlie Shelley called down the bar, making his daughter blush.

"No Sir, Chuck, I guess I'm just afraid to come off second best in all the competition for her attention." Brad called back, and smiled, as all three laughed. Several other patrons joined them in laugter, and even Dancer smiled. It was well known that Sandy had said many times that Brad was the type for whom she'd be willing to settle down some. Her schoolyard crush had turned into a comfortably flirtatious friendship with no expectations on either part, but it could fairly be assumed she'd never lost hope he'd decide to come a-courting.

The trio spent most of the evening roaming the room, sitting and talking with friends from town and other ranches, trading stories, drinking some, but none of the three had any tendancy towards drunkeness. All in all, they were having a grand time. Dancer finally got into a game at the same table with the dandy gambler Brad didn't recognize, when another player went bust and left. Brad had drifted back to the bar, and was talking genially with Sandy, when the shatter of glass to his right drew his attention, quickly followed by a bellow of outrage.

"Thet's my best shirt you just ruined, you idiot!" bellowed one of the men Brad had mentally marked as an RR man. This man was large, at least 260 pounds, with a fleshy face, and small, piggish eyes. He looked both stupid and brutish, but Brad was used to people being more than what they looked, so he'd made no assumptions. The man was also addressing Tools, who had apparantly spilled his drink and broken his glass.

Tools was about half this man's size, but he looked steadily and said calmly "I'm sorry sir, I didn't spill that drink, you knocked it over, yourself, when you turned back to the bar. However, I'd be glad to split the cleaning bill with you, and buy you a drink on it, as a gesture of goodwill. I work at the Lightning Ranch, that is, the Lazy ZZ, east of town. Come on down with the bill, and I'll pay you half. Or halve the cost of a new shirt with you, if that one's ruined."

"You little shit! You calling me a liar? I didn't spill that drink, YOU did, and you know it! I'm gonna take the price of this shirt outta your hide, you don't pay up right now, you yellow piece of crap!"

Charlie spoke up from behind the bar "Ben, I saw the whole thing, Tools is right, you spilled it, not him."

The large man glared at Charlie "Keep your ass outta this barkeep, or I'll be dealing with you next, I say the boy spilled it, and he did. And I'm gonna whup his ass GOOD for it. My best shirt!"

continued in Mesa Summer, Chap 2
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