What was it his StarCraft professor always said? A millimeter here is five billion miles out there? Something like that. Of course, you had to go some distance to turn a millimeter into a five-billion mile miss. When Johnny arrived today he would have traveled some eighty miles total. So even if he missed the town, it should at least be within sight. Probably.
Heat waves shimmered all around him. The dust kicked up by his passing lay along the ground, suspended in a still, miles-long cloud. The sprawling, low-rolling countryside was dotted here and there with scrub mesquite and creosote, Russian sagebrush and the occasional cactus.
He should be getting close. He looked around. The town might be anywhere.
The sun continued to bear down, but his yellow straw, wide-brimmed hat should protect him. It was similar to those worn by early 2oth century banditos in the American West. The crown was tall and peaked. Four indentations ran vertically from a few inches above the brim to just beneath the top of the crown, which was a scant two inches in diameter.
The man at the store had said it was “the best protection a man can get for the money, and you can take that to the bank.”
Johnny wasn’t certain about the bank reference, but he had looked up the word. Apparently a “bank” was a place where people in a particular geographical area kept their money.
The whole idea seemed ludicrous. Why not simply keep it in one’s own pockets? Why pool it with the funds of others and then draw bits of it when necessary?
But if he were required to keep his money in a bank, nobody had mentioned that requirement as yet. Still, if it came down to that, probably he would be in style if he wore his hat when he went there. Maybe that’s what the man meant.
He wasn’t entirely certain the man who sold him the hat knew what he was talking about anyway. Protected or not, he was hot. A peculiar sensation—wet, slick and sizzling all at once—seemed to have afflicted the back of his neck. Yet he could still feel the hat, so he knew it was there. It hung from a thin strap across his throat, the way the man showed him. It moved with the rhythm of his mount, bouncing lightly against his poncho.
He’d replicated the poncho from a series of films depicting the same time period. They featured a man with no name who was nonetheless even more dangerous than he looked. And he looked very dangerous.
He hadn’t been able to replicate the man’s sneer, of course. But he had grown a moustache that hung over each corner of his mouth. That helped with the sinister look. It was almost to his jawline on the left, a little shorter on the right. He noticed the last time he trimmed it.
He had resisted the temptation to trim it back and forth, first one side and then the other. That was a “foolsh game,” as his other hero, 007 James Bond would say. Besides, most people would see it only from one side or the other. His left profile was better than his right, at least for his current role. He tried always to strike a pose that would enable him to showcase it.
Beneath the poncho he wore the standard brown dungarees and the round-toed, calf-high brown boots. The right one chafed his leg a bit when he moved just so, but it was a bearable price to pay.
Under the poncho, strapped to his waist on a broad gun belt, a Colt single-action revolver nestled in a holster. He had found exactly the holster he wanted on a movie poster in the archives. He’d copied the part with the holster and belt precisely. Then he fed the copy into the replicator and punched in “cowhide, 0.125 inches thick, long-Colt .45, 7 inch barrel” and “32 inch waist” into the keypad.
But it was a right-handed holster. He was unable to locate a picture of a left-handed one that was even adequate. And for some reason the replicator couldn’t reverse the arrangment even though he had tried five times.
The man behind him in line for the replicator waited patiently through the first two tries. He only shifted from one foot to the other, the toes of his Roman sandals scuffing across the floor. On Johnny’s third try the man audibly sighed, and Johnny looked back.
The man’s torso was covered in some sort of tunic. Below that, a sash held up what appeared to be a very short, pleated dun-leather skirt. In his hand were two photographs. One pictured a helmet, the lower part of which would cover his nose and his jawline on both sides. The other featured some sort of chain mail.
Johnny nodded and offered a slight smile by way of apology. If the chain mail were replicated at more than half-size, it would swallow the man’s narrow shoulders and concave chest.
The man frowned and Johnny turned back to his task. He made a half-hearted fourth attempt, then a fifth. Then he gave up, took the right handed holster, belt and revolver from the replicator, and stepped aside. He didn’t bother to offer the man his regrets or condolences again.
The next morning, the director rewarded his patience and perseverance. As it turned out, it was easier to keep the perfect holster and have his nerve impulses reversed.
Ah, the town was coming into view.
He slowed his mount to a canter, though he had to try three times. Obviously the man with no name was more practiced than he at slowing his mount. He had made it look far easier than it was.
In the first place, Johnny had a rough time finding the right switch. There were three of them under there, after all. And then why didn’t they make it a little larger? Even if it forced the hide up a little, it would hardly be noticeable, located as it was directly beneath the pommel of the saddle.
There was a right, outer switch. It was toward the front of the mount, only a few inches behind the neck. It would automatically lubricate any joints that had begun to grow stiff. The left, inner switch, which was well beneath the pommel, would re-shoe the mount. He definitely didn’t want to hit that one accidentally as he reached for the center one.
And the center one, the one that would serve better by being a bit taller, had four settings. All the way to the right, it would move the mount to a full, look-out-honey-we’re-comin’-home gallop. At the next setting to the left it gentled to a canter. Or a lope. They were the same thing, weren’t they?
Whatever. The next setting would ease the mount to a walk, and the last position would cause the mount to take five more steps and then stop. It was a drawback of this model—the 1842—that it didn’t have reverse. So most afficionados parked it at a shallow angle to any hitching rails. Not that it had to be hitched to anything, except to add another thin layer of verisimilitude to a three-dimensional fiction.
As he moved the switch to the canter (or lope) position, the hide-covered gelatinous back of his Cayuse Inc. mount gentled beneath him, but not so he actually noticed. The countryside just stopped going by quite so quickly. The gait remained the same.
At the Cayuse Inc. factory they’d factored in his height and weight; the length, breadth and thickness of his torso, neck and head; and the distance from his waist to his feet. They’d measured his thighs in three places, his calves in two, and both ankles. One ankle was almost a half-inch less in circumference than the other.
Then they determined his precise center of gravity and how much of his weight was skeleton and how much was musculature. They fed all the information into Cayuse 1842’s mental function banks. As a result, his mount remained constantly apprised of shifts in Johnny’s balance and made adjustments to his musculature and tone as he rode. Sensors embedded in the saddle, which was part of Cayuse 1842 although it looked as if it could be removed, constantly monitored his blood pressure, pulse and respirations.
He hit the switch again and slowed the 1842 to a walk to dodge a tumbleweed as he passed in front of a small barn. Above the wide double door, a faded, hand-painted sign read Livery Stable, Stalie Springs. That was the right place. At least it sounded right.
The interior of the barn was shrouded in shade. It appeared cool, but he couldn’t make out anything inside. There was a forge out front, but it looked cold and fairly new, as if it had seldom been used.
The town itself began a block or so later with a worn, two-story clapboard hotel. From there on through town, both sides of the street were littered with clapboard buildings housing both occupied and abandoned businesses and shops. Neat boardwalks lined the dirt street on both sides.
On both sides, the buildings were punctuated occasionally with small alleyways. There seemed no rhyme or reason for the spacing between those.
Few people were moving on the boardwalks. More were inside the buildings, their faces framed in windows. A few were in between, parked as casually as they dared in doorways. A few others had positioned themselves, equally as casually, in the alleyways.
He paid them no mind. He had to focus on the job.
On the near side of the street, there were two apparently abandoned buildings and then a bank. Perhaps he’d visit there later and try the hat trick the man had mentioned. According to the signs extended above the boardwalk, there was also an assayer’s office, a rooming house, and a bathhouse.
Those few citizens who were on the boardwalks watched surreptitiously as he passed.
As did those in doorways and in the alleys.
The citizens whose faces were framed in the windows watched him openly, their eyes wide. As if the windows offered them some level of anonymity or protection.
Very strange. Well, maybe. If he lived in this town, wouldn’t he be that curious about a stranger?
He continued his search, resisting the urge to nod or otherwise recognize their presence. That would not be in character.
On the other side of the street, Restaurant was painted in a white arc on a broad, square window. The message was repeated on a smaller window inset in a small white door. Next to it was a saloon, judging from the authentic batwing doors, and then yet another hotel.
On the other side of the hotel was a photography studio. In large letters the sign read Tintypes. Beneath that in smaller letters it read Made to Order While You Wait.
Waiting would seem an appropriate pastime in this place.
In the next block on the near side of the street there was a small general store, a gunsmith’s shop and another saloon. Cliché. Boring. He glanced again across the street. There were a few other businesses there, but he couldn’t make out the signs. As if it mattered.
At the far end of town a small square building seemed to have sprouted in the middle of the street. Above an open tower that housed a bell, a pointed steeple reached skyward.
The faces in the windows were beginning to wear on his nerves. Maybe he should report in.
He glanced at a point between the Cayuse’s ears. He cleared his throat. Then he mumbled in the same dramatic fashion the man with no name might use, “They knew I was coming. They’re waiting.”
An implant tingled and a quiet voice sounded just above Johnny’s left ear. “It’s all right. It might just be that you’re a stranger in town. Plus they don’t see many of us there. Did you locate the sheriff’s office yet?”
Johnny shook his head slightly, then remembered to speak. “No, but there’s only the one street.” He chuckled. “I passed a livery stable a little ways back. That’s a little much isn’t it?”
The voice took on a defensive tone. “If you had bothered to look inside you would have seen it’s a state-of-the-art factory service center. They service both Cayuses and—”
Johnny mumbled, “That makes it worse somehow.”
“Nothing. So what’s the sheriff’s name again?”
“Striker.” There was a pause, then, “Checking his file now.” Then came a low whistle. “Wow. He’s been there longer than most sheriffs. Eighteen years. Most of them are replaced after ten. Anyway, he shouldn’t give you any trouble.”
“Okay. So when’s the next carriage come through?”
“It’s called a stage coach. Not a carriage, a stage coach.”
“You have to use the correct terminology just in case. Anyway, it should arrive around— Let’s see. Okay, six p.m. tonight. It will overnight there and pull out in the morning.”
“Sounds almost perfect.”
“Almost. You’ve still got to get him on it.”
Johnny nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
He glanced again to his left front across the broad dirt street at the generic “other businesses” he had ignored a long moment earlier. Sure enough, in front of the third storefront a sign dangled from a beam protruding from the wall: Rinçon County Sheriff.
He shifted on the Cayuse, which quickly provided the quiet sound of creaking leather. Quietly he said, “Guess I’ve arrived. Talk with you later.”
He guided his mount slightly left. A few paces farther he shifted the gait lever, as he had come to think of it, all the way to the left.
Four paces farther he was closer to the hitching rail than he expected. His thighs tensed slightly as he anticipated the collision, or else a sudden lurch as the Cayuse stopped short.
But the mount shortened its final stride, brought its back legs up under it, and generated a quiet neighing sound. Then it stopped.
On the left flank a short bar—an aid to assist shorter persons in dismounting—protruded a few inches behind the stirrup.
Johnny quickly tapped the end of it with his left boot heel and it retracted. Then he swung down, his left hand cupped around the pommel and his gaze riveted to the front door of the sheriff’s office. That’s how the man with no name would do it, he was certain.
As his right boot, then his left hit the dirt street, his poncho swayed slightly around him.
But he’d forgotten the cigar. He would look much more formidable with a short, ragged smoke clenched between his teeth near the right corner of his mouth. It would add considerably to the rough look provided by his moustache. And his lips, parted slightly around the cigar, would even indicate the sneer he wasn’t quite able to duplicate. That was important.
He quickly fished a cheroot from somewhere beneath his poncho, then placed it just so between his teeth. He struck a phosphor stick on his stubbled cheek and lit it. He drew once, twice, a third time. It would look better with ash hovering at the end. Then he stepped around the front of his Cayuse.
Fortunately he remembered to reach up and stroke the fake neck and mane with his right hand. For effect, he growled, “You wait here, boy.”
The sole of his left boot made no noticeable sound on the edge of the boardwalk as he stepped up from the street. But the heel of his right caused the boards to resound with a satisfying, if muffled, thud.
He put his left hand on the nearby upright and glanced left, then right. In both directions he flashed a menacing look that was intended to warn away any curious onlookers.
But there were none. Apparently the citizens had lost interest.
He crossed the boardwalk—thud, thud, thud—and grasped the door knob, then turned it and pushed it inward.
Directly ahead and slightly to the right a short, stocky man was sitting at a desk. To his left, his wide-brimmed hat hung from a peg on the wall. He was leaning slightly forward, looking over some sheets of paper. His leather vest hung open on the left side. Beneath it, pinned to his white shirt, was a five-pointed star. He smiled as he looked up. “Hey, pardner. What can I do for you?”
Behind him, mounted on the wall, was a wooden contraption that Johnny recognized as a gun rack. Behind a horizontal wooden dowel were two Winchester repeating carbines and a shotgun. A small padlock dangled, open, on the right side of the dowel.
To Johnny’s right near the front corner was a potbellied stove. Atop it sat a coffee pot and a pair of dark metal cups. Straight ahead and slightly to the left was a door. Probably that led to the cells. There couln’t be more than three as narrow as the office was.
Johnny clamped down on his cheroot. His lips barely moved when he said, “How many you got in the cells?”
The sheriff sat back in his chair and his smile disappeared. He shifted his hands from the desk to his hips. “Now what business might that be of yours?”
Johnny shrugged. “Wouldn’t want ‘em to starve. I mean, what with nobody to bring ‘em food or drink.”
“What’re you talkin’ about? I bring ‘em all that. Two squares a day, mornin’ and afternoon. Three on Sunday. Ladies’ Auxiliary drops by then and brings—” He stopped and frowned. Then his head tweaked slightly to the left as he said, “Wait. I mean hold on a minute. You ain’t threatenin’ me are you?”
His gaze firmly locked on the sheriff, Johnny deliberately and slowly moved his chin left, then right. “Time for you to go, Sheriff. Past time in fact.”
The sheriff put his hands on the edge of the desk and stood up. Stiffly. “What do you mean, time for me to go? I’ve been sheriff here for nigh on to—”
“Eighteen years.” Johnny glanced at his left palm. “Two months and thirteen days.” He paused. “Time for you to go. You know the rules.”
The sheriff frowned. “Rules?” He started around the desk. “What in the world are you talkin’ about, boy? I think maybe you ought’a leave.”
“C’mon, Sheriff. Back at the Center they’re surprised you’ve lasted this long. They couldn’t remember the last time you had a protein wrap. Your skin’s gone brown. And what are those lines there? Around your eyes and across your forehead?”
“What? Age and desert sun.” He moved his hands to his hips again as he glanced at the floor and shook his head. Then he looked up at Johnny again. “You can’t possibly be so stupid that you don’t know what a suntan is. Who are you exactly?”
That was a difficult question and he hadn’t expected it. By “exactly,” did the man mean in actuality or in character? To make matters worse, his director hadn’t given him a name. Then again, the script hadn’t required it. “Remember the man with no name?”
Again the sheriff frowned. “The who now?”
He’s dangerously close to blowing this. Johnny almost forgot to quiet his voice to a growl before he said, “The man with no name. I’m his brother.”
The sheriff turned his head a bit and looked sidelong at Johnny. “Ah, okay. Sure. That explains it. Listen, you were asking about the cells. Why don’t we step through that door over there and have a look?” He stepped aside and gestured. “After you.”
What? That wasn’t in the script at all. Then again, what harm could it do? The cells were supposed to be empty. He’d take a look, then tell the sheriff again it was time for him to go. He hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to lying. The thought of using a falsehood to convince someone of a truth didn’t ring honest. And above all, he wanted to remain honest in his role.
Still, he had a job to do and he would do it. If that meant taking a short detour from the script here and there, so be it. “I’d be happy to inspect the cells.” As he stepped past the sheriff, he said, “They’re empty anyway, aren’t they?”
“Up to a point.”
Johnny allowed a smug smile to curl one corner of his mouth. He maintained the cool growl as he said “Oh really? What point?”
A sharp, blinding light flashed across the space behind Johnny’s eyes. He sensed the floor rapidly approaching. Then he slept.
The sheriff looked down at him. “That point.”
Just then the door opened and a tall, thin man rushed in. “Sheriff Martin, you—” He stopped short and looked at the inert form on the floor. Then he looked up at the sheriff again. “Well, I guess you’re okay.” He gestured. “Who’s this?”
The sheriff looked down at Johnny and grinned. “Hey Mitch. Beats me. Says he’s the brother of the man with no name, whatever that means.” He looked up again. “Say, you wanna help me put him in a cell?”
The top of the man’s shirt peaked on either side as he shrugged bony shoulders. “Sure.”
The sheriff opened the door to the cells, then glanced to be sure a cell door was open. He turned around. “I’ll take his arms. You just get his feet.”
A long moment later, Johnny was lying atop a woolen blanket on a firm wooden cot. He didn’t hear the cell door clang shut.
As the two men exited the cell area, the sheriff closed the door behind him.
The front door was still standing open. The sheriff frowned. “What’s all the commotion about?”
“Come have a look. Then maybe you can tell me.”
“Lemme get my hat.”
Outside a crowd had gathered around the Cayuse, Inc. Model 1842.
MaryAnn Sarton peered up from beneath her bonnet as the sheriff and Mitch came out. “What in the world is this thing, Sheriff? As a tax-paying citizen and a god-fearing Christian, I have a right to know.” She gestured broadly around with her parasol, which she had closed when the crowd gathered too close around. “All of us have a right to know.”
“Looks like a roan horse to me.” He bent his knees a bit and peered underneath. “Gelding from the looks of it.”
Mitch said, “He ain’t no gelding, Sheriff. He ain’t no horse neither.”
The sheriff frowned. “What?” Unsure what Mitch meant, he drew closer to the mount and laughed. “Well, whatever he is he don’t deserve to starve. We need to get him down to the livery stable for a few days.” He reached for the reins, took them and turned toward the other end of town. “I reckon it’ll take that boy at least ‘til tomorrow to come around.”
His left arm jerked taut.
Without looking back, he tugged. “C’mon, now. We’ll get you some oats and—”
But again his left arm went taut.
He turned around and looked more closely at the horse. Then he frowned. He walked closer and slapped the horse on the rump. “Well I’ll be. What is this thing?”
Any sharp external stimulus on the Cayuse, Inc. mount activated the two-way communication device set between its ears.
In the lab on the ship, a light flashed next to a monitor.
Darelo Seven glanced at it. He mumbled, “What now?” He approached his station and was about to speak when Mitch said, “Like I said, Sheriff Martin, I don’t know what it is, but it definitely ain’t no horse.”
Darelo wrinkled his brow like he’d seen the humans do. He curled one of his three fingers toward his supervisor and companion-at-work. “Mastril, listen to this, would you?”
Mastril moved closer and nodded.
Darelo flicked a switch, then rotated a dial. Again someone said, “Like I said, Sheriff Martin, I don’t know what it is, but—”
Darelo flicked the switch again and looked at Mastril. “What do you make of that?”
“Did he say Sheriff Martin?”
“But he was supposed to replace Sheriff Striker, right? In Stable Springs?”
Again Darelo nodded.
Mastril shook his head. “Is there any way to get him out? Without alarming the locals, I mean?”
“I don’t think so.”
“All right. Do we have another Trimble makeover ready to go?”
“Yes sir. He can be on planet tomorrow morning local time.”
“All right. Outfit him with the newer Cayuse, Inc. offering. I don’t want anymore screwups.” He glanced at the monitor. “They’ll lose interest soon. When they do, distintegrate the 1842.” He paused. “And there’s no need to cause Trimble— what’s his designator?”
Mastril whistled. “That many already.” He shook his head. “No need to cause him any further distress. Recall his life force before he has a chance to wake up.”
* * *
Shortly after dusk, Sheriff Martin checked on his prisoner. He was still sleeping soundly.
He closed the door to the cells quietly and turned around. “He’s all right. Gonna have one hell of a headache when he wakes up though.”
Mitch grinned and nodded. “Maybe then we can find out what that thing is out front.”
They walked out through the front door. Most of the citizens had gone home. As he turned to lock the door, the sheriff said, “Hey, you doin’ anything Monday week?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“I’m supposed to get together with Sheriff Striker up in Stable Springs. Wanna ride along?”
“Sure. That’s only what, about twenty miles?”
“Twenty-two to be exact.”
* * * * * * *