The dogs started barking long before dawn. Buck Stevens opened one eye and shut it again quickly. He’d stopped by a couple saloons on his way home. Maybe more than a couple. He couldn’t remember. But the dogs kept on barking. Probably a coyote after the chickens again.
The eye opened again, joined shortly afterward by the other one. Holding his head in place, he pulled himself out of bed. He got his pants and boots on, picked up his shotgun, grabbed a few cartridges and stomped out the door. “If you’re out here, you miserable coyote, I’ma gonna blow your head off.” he said to the night, slurring his words a little.
Movement off to his right caught his eye but it was too close to the kennels. He wasn’t going to shoot his own dogs. He stumbled in that direction. Something was crawling toward him. He couldn’t make it out very well but he saw hands and a head. Christ! Somebody got lost out here. It happened a few times each year. A newcomer would go prospecting and get turned around. Then he saw the gray shapes just beyond the man. Coyotes. Four or five of them.
He fired a few shots at the desert dogs and they scattered. When he reached the man, he lifted him up, pulling an arm over his shoulder. The arm seemed to be extraordinarily long as did the man. With a lot of swearing and grunting, Buck got the stranger in the house. He laid him on the old sofa and put his feet up. The feet hung over the arm. There wasn’t much light but Buck thought the man had three eyes. He looked closer. Sure enough – three eyes, all closed at the moment. The strands of hair on the man’s head were moving up and down, the ends rising up as if to sniff the air. He started giggling. He was a lot drunker than he had thought.
“You sure is one ugly Indian, Chief.” he said as he gave the man some water. The stranger drank thirstily and motioned for more. Buck gave him another couple of cupfuls and then cut him off. “You drink too much” he said with expansive gestures intended to convey some sort of meaning “and you’ll throw up.” With that, he fell back into bed.
The smells of coffee and bacon woke him. He sat up, looking around. There at the stove was the man he’d pulled out of the desert last night. Apparently the guy knew how to cook. Buck said “Smells good.”
The man turned around and Buck began to scream. He was redder than any Indian Buck had ever seen with black hair that swirled around his head. It kept moving in a lazy wave. And there really were three eyes – one above the regular two in the middle of the forehead. His arms nearly reached the floor and seemed to bend in more than the usual places. And he had to be close to seven feet tall.
Buck scooted back against the wall, looking for a way out. A demon had come to get him.
The demon looked at him and put his fists on his hips. “Stop that stupid noise.” he ordered.
Buck shut up. “That’s better. Now – do you want breakfast? I’m just about to scramble some eggs.”
Buck’s jaw was hanging open. “You can talk.” he said observantly. The demon grinned and Buck wished he hadn’t done that. The grin extended from one pointy ear to the other and was full of sharp teeth. Buck’s eyes moved from the window to the door and back to the demon. He couldn’t remember where he’d left his gun.
The demon said “Aaww, c’mon, Buck. Don’t be afraid of me. I won’t hurt you. You saved my life last night.”
Buck was still looking for a way out when the words penetrated. “Huh?’
“Yes. If you’d left me out there with those beasts, I’d be dead by now.” He glanced back at the frying pan. “Look. Do you want breakfast or not?”
Buck’s stomach growled. “Uh. Yeah. I guess I could use some food.” He hesitated. “What the Hell are you anyway? Some kind of demon come for my soul?”
The thing started making loud noises and Buck scooted back again on his bunk. After a moment he realized the demon was laughing. He managed to gasp out. “I’m sorry…Buck. But…your soul’s…just…not important…enough.”
Buck managed to feel relieved and insulted at the same time.
The monster was dishing out fluffy yellow eggs, crisp strips of bacon and perfectly done buttered toast. Buck got up, watching the demon closely. Keeping an eye on the door, he sat on the edge of his chair. He took a bite of the eggs. Delicious. This guy could cook. The demon poured coffee for both of them and sat down awkwardly in the other chair. “No. I am not a demon, Buck. Or any other kind of supernatural being. I just come from a long way off.”
Buck squinted at him. “You sure don’t look like no Chinaman.”
A rumble emanated from the stranger’s body. “That’s because I’m not a Chinaman. I come from a lot farther away than that.” He was silent while they ate. After he cleared the dishes from the table, the strange being walked to the door. “Come here, Buck. Look at the sun.”
Buck glanced at the sun. “Yeah? What about the sun?”
“Do you know that the sun is a star? Just like the stars at night except that the sun is a lot closer to us so it looks a lot bigger.”
Buck thought about that for a minute. A tree looked a lot smaller when it was farther away. “Okay. So what?”
“So I come from a faraway star. Actually not the star, but a planet that revolves around the star like your Earth revolves around the sun. We call the star Taila and the planet Firl. Taila looks very much like your sun. My world, Firl, is very different than Earth though. It doesn’t have the beautiful greens and blues that you have here, though. The sky is pink most of the time and the hills are yellow and red and brown with touches of green. The sea is a very dark brown.”
“If you came from a star, how did you get here? And why did you come?”
“I flew through space in a starship. I’ll show it to you later. I wasn’t coming here. To this planet that you call Earth. But my engines developed a problem and this was the closest habitable planet that I could reach. Now I’m stuck unless I can fix the engines.”
“You think you can do that?” The dogs were howling. “Look. I gotta feed my dogs.” He lifted up the pail of scraps he fixed for the dogs and headed out to the kennel.
Opening the door, he knelt in the dirt and hugged his dogs. They were jumping on him and licking his face when the happy yips turned to growls.
“I’ll get you out of there, Buck.” said the stranger as he raised the shotgun.
Buck saw the gun aimed at his dogs and screamed “No!” spreading his arms and jumping in front of his canine buddies.
The stranger’s lower eyebrows drew together. Then his hideous smile appeared. “Ah! I see. They are not captive beasts. They are pets.”
Buck leaned against a fence pole, suddenly weak. He shook his head as the dogs milled about at his feet, anxious for their breakfast. Buck’s voice was shaky. “They ain’t pets neither. They’s my partners. They patrol the property in the day. They hunt rabbits and bring me one sometimes. They’re smart and they’re my best friends.”
The stranger looked at the ground and shuffled his rather long feet. “I’m sorry, Buck. I thought they were hurting you.” Buck stared at the strange creature for a moment.
“Well, I appreciate the thought. But please don’t shoot my buddies here.” and he proceeded with dog breakfasts. He turned them loose when they had finished and all four raced over to his guest, uncertain, one growling. The stranger held out a long fingered hand and let them sniff it, then stroked the sleek heads as they checked him out.
“How come you know how to handle dogs? Come to think on it, how come you know my name and you can speak English when you say you just got here?”
The stranger was looking at the dogs and smiling, scratching behind ears and rubbing bellies. “I got the language and your name from your mind last night, Buck. And I have pets – excuse me – partners of my own back on my world.”
“You can read my mind?”
“Only in a very fundamental way. I can get your language and other knowledge from you but cannot probe your personal and private memories.”
“So that means you can read my mind.”
“Look, Buck. You’re a miner, right?” Buck nodded. “When you go looking for ore, you look for the big pieces, the big veins. You don’t want the tiny little bits that might be interesting but are too hard to get to. Besides, I’ve already got the information I need from you.”
Buck thought that over. It seemed logical. A dust cloud appeared around the bluff that cut off the view of the town from the canyon. He looked at the stranger. “What’s your name?” “Gull Vasper.”
“Well, get your butt inside, Gull Vasper. It looks like a whole bunch of people are comin’ to visit.”
Gull looked at him with his bottom two eyes, while the top eye focused on the dust cloud. ‘Why should I hide?”
“Because they’ll probably try to kill you.”
Now all three eyes were turned to Buck. “What? Why would they kill me?”
Buck looked at him. “Because you’re different. Because you’re ugly and scary. Because they’ll be frightened.”
“Why would they be frightened? You weren’t frightened when you dragged me in the house last night. And I’ll have you know that I am considered quite handsome on my world.”
“I was drunk, Gully. I thought I was seeing things. Now get inside! Hurry!”
Gully returned to the house. The dogs raced out to greet the visitors, jumping and barking. There were four men from the town: the Mayor, Jumbo Jim Jackson, who had earned his nickname; Phil Carver, the blacksmith; Alexander Grayson, the town’s only lawyer; and Doc Harley, the town doctor. They pulled up in front of Buck, faces flushed, all talking at once until Jumbo Jim waved a fleshy hand and they settled down.
‘There’s a monster loose nearby, Buck.” Jim said, wiping the sweat off his face. “Martha Stanley saw it when she was feeding her chickens last night.”
“You can’t depend on Martha’s word.” said Buck. “You know how she gossips.”
“I saw it, too.” said Grayson. “And I went in to grab my gun but it had run off into the desert.” “We followed some tracks and they seemed to be headed for your place so we thought we’d better warn you.” added the lawyer, whose brightly shined boots were now covered with dust.
“Well, I ain’t seen nothin’…”
Buck saw the open mouths and wide eyes as their gazes riveted on the house. He turned around to see Gully standing in the doorway. He heard guns being pulled from leather holsters as he ran to stand in front of the ‘monster’. Buck yelled at the men. “Put them guns away. This is Gully Vasper, my friend. He’s not a monster.”
He hesitated, throwing a look over his shoulder at Gully. “Well, he’s kind of a monster, but he’s a nice one. Now don’t you shoot him.”
The men were having trouble controlling frightened horses. They looked more confused than scared at this point.
Gully muttered “It’s Gull, not Gully.” but Buck paid no attention.
Slowly the men dismounted, holstering their guns as Buck continued to stand in front of Gully. “You sure he’s safe? He looks awful mean to me.” said the blacksmith, a man who stood well over six feet and had arms like small trees.
Gully spoke up. “I intend no harm to anyone. I’m stranded on your world and I need help.”
The men all backed up. “It talks.” the Mayor yelped.
“Of course he talks “ said Buck. “He’s a person. He made a great breakfast this morning. And the dogs like him. See?” One of the dogs was leaning against Gully, getting its ears scratched.
Carver said “Well, if the dogs like him, he can’t be too bad.” The others agreed and hesitantly they made their way into Buck’s little house for coffee. Gully insisted on making breakfast for everyone and by the time they’d finished eating, they had developed an uneasy rapport. “So you flew all the way from the stars by yourself?”
“Well, not exactly. My ship is run by what we call artificial intelligence. My ship is a person. It’s like being married.” he grumbled.
“You got lady…..” The Mayor was waving his hand, trying to find a word for female aliens.
“Lady Firlians?” Gully asked.
“Yeah. You got wives and girlfriends and all that?”
“Yeah.” said Gully. “And all that.” He shook himself. “Anyway, Asta is the name of both my ship and my AI. She’s got her own personality and attitude. Boy! Has she got attitude. That’s why I left the ship yesterday to find help. She’s driving me crazy.”
He looked around. “But she needs help. And I don’t know what I can do for her. All we do is argue. She won’t agree with one single thing I say.”
Jumbo Jim said “She sounds like my wife.” “It’s getting to the point where we can’t stand each other. She needs help but I think that only another woman can help her.”
The whole group looked at the lawyer. He was reputed to have a way with women. “So you think we need to get some women involved in this?”
Gully nodded. “I doubt that any of you would be able to understand her any more than I do.”
The Mayor said “Roberta.” There were nods all around.
“Who’s Roberta?” asked Gully.
“Roberta Sommers. She runs two saloons, a laundry and a boarding house in town. And she’s got part ownership in the bank.”
Gully nodded again. “Sounds like a smart woman.”
The doctor nodded. “She is. So is Maria Sanchez. And Andrea Two Horses. And Jennifer Lee. Sometimes I think the women in this town are a lot smarter than the men.” An uneasy chuckle passed around the circle.
“And we need to get Sam Levy involved. He’s brilliant even though he’s a little weird.” Alexander Grayson explained to Gully. “He’s an inventor. Maybe he could help with the engines.”
Looking around at the faces of the men, Gully began to have a little hope. “Why is an inventor way out here in the desert?”
Carver grinned. “From what I heard, one of his inventions didn’t turn out so good and blew off the back half of some rich man’s house back East.”
Gully’s hopes dwindled.
They decided that a frontal approach was the best way to introduce Gully to the town. There was no way that they could keep him a secret. They saddled up and rode for town. Buck introduced Gully to a big gelding, half mustang, half Percheron. The big animal was unflappable and let Gully mount without any fuss. Never having ridden before, Gully had some problems but only fell off twice.
They rode into Diamondback six across. At first no one noticed them except a couple of mangy dogs. Then came the double takes followed shortly by pandemonium. The group of six sat their horses quietly, waiting.
Eventually two people came forward. One was Roberta Sommers, the other Sam Levy.
“Mornin’, Roberta. Sam.” said Grayson, the lawyer.
“Mornin’, Alex.” said Roberta.
Sam was staring at Gully. “What are you?” he asked a bit rudely. “I’m a native of the planet Firl which revolves around the star Taila approximately 565 light years from here.”
The inventor was fascinated and had to be pried away from the extraterrestrial.
Half the town sat down in the Bad Cat Saloon, which was the biggest building in town. The rest sat out in the street, listening to reports from those in windows and doorways. Children and dogs ran around the outside of the crowd. Roberta, (who owned the Bad Cat), had jugs of water and pitchers of lemonade made up and served to everyone.
Gully explained what had happened to his ship. He talked about himself. He was an author and had taken on an assignment to write a travelogue about a planet halfway across the galaxy. It was bound to be a best seller. Firlians loved to travel. No. He wasn’t married although he had a longtime girlfriend and had been thinking about it. In an aside, he whispered to Buck that after five weeks with Asta, the idea of marriage didn’t appeal much.
An hour later a committee had been formed to go to the ship and meet with Asta. The ship was in a clearing in a mesquite bosque on the side of the mountain.
Asta was not pleased to see the natives arriving with her Firlian. It was a definite breach of protocol. One of the first rules of interstellar travel was not contacting primitive indigenes. She began a harangue that might have gone on for a long time but Roberta stepped up and introduced herself to the ship. Surprised, Asta thought her behavior was very polite for an aborigine. The woman began talking about her town and its people, life in the desert, especially from the point of view of the women. She was joined by three other sympathetic women and Asta found herself able to communicate with someone for the first time in five weeks..
The men, chiefly Gully and Sam Levy, were looking at the engines and discussing mechanical problems.
Clyde Two Horses, who worked at the general store, came thundering into the clearing and pulled his sweating horse to a stop. “The Sheriff’s in town! He’s looking for the monster! Says he’s puttin’ a bounty on the thing. $100, dead or alive.” He gestured at Gully.
Asta spoke to Gully. “I told you so. See what you’ve done, getting these nice people involved. Now they’ll be endangered. Things are just going to get worse because you never listen to me.”
jThe Mayor muttered. “She does sound just like my wife.”
Buck sat down, shocked. Someone must have ridden to Twin Peaks and notified the Sheriff, who was always looking for publicity. Chasing down a ‘monster’ would be just the thing to make him appear heroic and get re-elected.
People began gathering in groups, talking. Buck wondered if any of them were discussing the bounty. Most of them wouldn’t think of killing Gully. Well, they might think of it but they wouldn’t do it. At least he didn’t think they’d do it.
Grayson and Doc Harley came over to Buck. “What are we going to do?” asked the lawyer.
Buck leaned back against the side of the ship. “I think we’ve got to do two things. We’ve got to fix this here ship. And we’ve got to create a diversion to draw the Sheriff and the bounty hunters away from here.”
Doc Harley said “We left a trail when we rode out here that a blind man could follow.”
Buck sighed. “Yeah. I know.”
Roberta Sommers and Jennifer Lee had joined the little group in time to hear the last remarks. Jennifer said “We could make a trail leading off somewhere else and mess up the real tracks.”
Buck looked at the beautiful young Chinese woman whose presence always made him trip over nothing and become unable to speak actual words. “Uh…um…”he mumbled.
Those gorgeous black eyes regarded him, then crinkled as she smiled.
Grayson ignored the byplay between the two young people. “Good idea, Miss Lee.” He turned to the people behind them and yelled “Calvin Tall Bear!”
A rather diminutive Apache came trotting over. Grayson gave him instructions to divert the trail.
Calvin nodded. “I’ll take half of the group here and we can set up in the rocks by Moon Springs. When the Sheriff gets there, we can ‘negotiate’.”
Grayson frowned. “Look, Calvin. We don’t want anyone – anyone at all – to get hurt.”
The little man flashed a grin, showing off his new dentures. “Don’t worry, Alex. We’ll take care of it.” and he ran off.
Grayson watched him go, frowning. “Oh, Lord. What have I done?” and he hurried off after him.
Gully and Sam Levy were back at the engines. Sam made a suggestion that caused Gully to turn a pale pink. He had to hold onto the ship to stay upright. When he found his voice, he said “No, Sam. That wouldn’t turn out so well.” His hand swept from south to north. “Most of the land, people, plants and animals for about 100 miles around would be turned into a toxic vapor.” Sam squinted one eye. “Hmm. Well, I guess that avenue of approach is out.” He went back to studying the engine.
Buck was unsure whether he should go with the diversion party or stay close to Gully. Looking around and thinking about the bounty, he chose to stick close to his weird friend. Two Shot Higgins and Frenchie LaFont were huddled over by the remaining horses, with a really big Navajo. The Indian had a broad white scar that ran right through his left eye from his scalp to the point of his jaw. His eye was gone, nothing but a white socket there. Built like a Hereford bull, he looked like he could pick up one of the horses. Buck felt a chill as he observed the group. He was about to go talk to Gully when Two Shot looked straight at him, eyes narrowing.
Buck decided to take the bull by the horns and walked over to them. “Hey, guys. Who’s your big friend?” Buck was over six feet but the Navajo loomed over him.
Frenchie glared at him. “Whatcha want?”
Buck ignored him. Frenchie was always bad mannered. He stuck out his hand. “Yà’àt’ééh.”
Eyes widening, the Navajo reached out and enfolded Buck’s hand in his meaty paw. “Yà’àt’èèh.” The huge man smiled, teeth badly stained with tobacco. “I am called Ahiga Begay.”
Buck grinned back and introduced himself. He looked at the other two. “What are you three discussing?”
Frenchie snarled “None of your business. Get outa here.” Two Shot nodded.
Ahiga Begay said. “Well, actually they were trying to enlist me in a plan to collect that bounty. Preferably dead.”
Buck drew his gun while the two meanest men in town stared at the Navajo with dropped jaws. “All right. Take your gunbelts off. Left handed. Let ’em drop.”
Ahiga collected the belts and checked their boots and pockets, coming up with an assortment of knives. The two would-be bounty hunters cursed and threatened and protested the illegality of their detention while they were being tied up. Nobody paid attention.
Buck looked for Gully and found him deep in conversation with Roberta Sommers. He was waving his arms around and she was shaking a finger in his face. When Buck joined them, Roberta waved a hand at him and said “And he’s just as bad!” She flounced off with a swirl of skirts.
Buck stared after her. “What did that mean?”
Gully muttered “Women! Doesn’t matter what species, they’re all the same. She says I’m not treating Asta properly. What the Hell? She’s an AI! She’s not a woman. I’m treating her like an artificial intelligence.”
Rubbing the back of his neck, Buck said “I don’t mean to butt in, Gully…”
“It’s Gull, not Gully.”
“but if Asta’s all upset because you’re acting like she’s a artificial whatever, then maybe you ought to start dealing with her as though she really was a lady. You said she has her own personality and attitude. That sounds pretty human…er, Firlian… to me.”
Gully looked at him with his two lower eyes, while the third regarded the ship. “Hmmm. You think so, too? Maybe I’ll have to reconsider that.”
“Gully!” came a shout. “It’s Gull, not Gully.” Sam Levy came running toward them. “I’ve got it!” he yelled. “I’ve got the answer!”
Gully and Sam rushed off to the engines.
Buck had started to follow them when he heard gunshots. Grayson, Doc Harley, Calvin Two Horses and the rest of the diversion party burst into the clearing where the ship sat. “The Sheriff’s got at least twenty men with him. They pried us out of our hidey-holes.”
Buck yelled at them. “So you brought them here?” Grayson swung down from his horse. “We tried to lead them away but they have every trail blocked. They’re right behind us.”
Buck ran over to the ship. “Asta!” he yelled. “Stop being a bitch and get to work if you want to keep Gully alive.”
He turned to Gully and Sam. “Get that damned engine fixed now!” They looked at him somewhat blankly.
Organizing the rest of the townspeople, he got a well armed line of resistance formed across the trail just before it opened out into the clearing. Since the boulders came down sharply on one side and the land on the other side fell away for fifty feet, it was an ideal stop gap. They were still positioning themselves when the Sheriff and his posse came thundering up the trail. Buck looked at the faces of the men and women beside him. They could have been carved from granite. There were only ten of them but they were not going to let Gully be taken.
Sheriff McCall wasn’t a big man and he had mean, little eyes that could spear you to the wall. He’d been elected on the force of his personality. He was charming, charismatic, good looking in a rugged, sleazy sort of way, and totally corrupt. He focused his dazzling smile on the women now. “Good morning, Miss Sommers, Miss Lee, Mrs.Two Horses, Mrs. Sanchez. You’re all looking very lovely today.”
“Shut up and get out of here, Joshua McCall, before I unload this shotgun in you.” said Roberta. “You are not going any farther so you might as well leave.”
A cloud passed across the Sheriff’s face and he lifted the crop he always carried. He frowned. “Now, Roberta, honey. You don’t want anyone to get hurt. So why don’t you all just step aside and we’ll take care of this monster and be gone before you know it.” His radiant smile reappeared.
Jennifer glared at him. “Why don’t you just get your skinny ass off this mountain where it’s not wanted?”
Buck stepped in front of the group, Ahiga at his side. “Get out of here, Sheriff. The person you’re after has done no wrong. You have no cause to arrest him or retain him.”
“You’re a lawyer now, Buck?” snarled the Sheriff. “I’m the law in this county and don’t you forget it. Now get out of the way!” He pushed his horse forward as if to run over the people standing before him.
Buck had anticipated this move and grabbed the horse’s bridle, halting it. The Sheriff lashed at him with his crop, catching him on his left cheek. Buck ignored the blow and those that followed, backing the horse up. He kept his head down so he didn’t see McCall draw his gun. Nor did he see the stone that flew from Andrea Two Horses’ hand, straight as an arrow, into the Sheriff’s patrician nose. But he heard the man yelp and let loose a torrent of verbal abuse. He looked up in time to see the Sheriff point his gun at Andrea while grabbing at his bleeding nose with his other hand.
Buck grabbed the gun which fired and he felt like someone had hit him in the shoulder with a board, but no pain – not yet. He pulled the Sheriff down from his horse and jumped on him, intending to punch the man. But somehow his arm didn’t work and the world was getting dark around the edges. He rolled over on his back and saw Jennifer Lee’s face as she gathered him in her arms. Then the pain started and he was sliding into a blackness where there was no pain.
He woke up a couple of times. Each time he saw Jennifer sitting beside him. Once she was reading, another time sleeping. She looked so much like a very tired angel that he thought he must have died and gone to Heaven. But the thought trailed off as he slid back into the dark.
The next time he woke, he was able to look around. He was in a room where the light shone diffusely although he couldn’t see any lamps. The walls were a soft blue and strange machines surrounded the bed on which he lay, It was the most comfortable bed he’d ever slept in. Jennifer was beside him again, her soft, black eyes watching him.
She smiled. “About time you woke up. You’ve been asleep for over a day.”
He tried to say something but his mouth was so dry, all that came out was a croak. She pushed a button and the head of the bed rose quietly, raising his head. He winced as the pain in his shoulder asserted itself and she looked stricken as if she had caused the pain. He managed a smile for her and drank a few sips of the water she offered him. “What happened?” he asked. “And where are we?”
“We’re in Gully’s ship. Gully and Asta fixed your shoulder. Gully says it should heal as good as new. But you missed the best part.” She practically bubbled. “Oh, Buck! You should have seen it. The Sheriff shot you and no more than a second later, here comes Gully, all decked out in a silver suit so bright you couldn’t look at him. It seemed like he’d grown another three feet. People were yelling and guns were being drawn when Gully shouted. I don’t know what he said. But his roar practically shook the leaves off the trees. Everyone stopped right where they were.”
“Gully picked up the Sheriff, flicking his gun away like it was a crumb. Then he put the man down and leaned right into his face. He asked the Sheriff if he would go away and stop bothering these people – meaning us – and the Sheriff started nodding. He was nodding so enthusiastically that I was afraid his head would fall off. Gully picked him up again and put him back in his saddle with one hand while he was holding the horse still. The Sheriff and his posse all turned around and raced back down the trail.” She giggled “They were jostling each other so much to get away, I was afraid one of them would go over the cliff.”
She leaned back, eyes shining as she remembered the scene. “The rest of us just stood there with our mouths open. Then Gully picked you up and ran to the ship. Asta opened a door and he disappeared inside with you.”
She looked at him. “When we got to the ship, I told Asta that I was going to take her apart, bit by shiny bit, if she didn’t let me in. I swear she chuckled. Anyway the door opened and Roberta and I went in. Asta directed us to a kitchen and told us to sit at the table and wait – that she and Gully were working on you.”
Jennifer smiled. “I told her that if she was going to help Gully, she needed to go help him and leave us alone. It was then that I got an idea of what Asta is. She laughed at my order and told me that she was already helping Gully while talking to us. And she was running the air cleaning system, tending to the plants, monitoring the ship’s functions and a lot of other things. She’s a lot more than a person.” The beautiful girl laughed again. “I asked if she had a little sister I could take home to help me run the boarding house.”
“Asta tried to keep us entertained while we were waiting. She showed us moving pictures of her planet, Firl. It’s beautiful and very different and I see why Firlians like traveling. All that red and brown. But all I wanted was to know how you were doing.”
She looked away from him. “I was so worried.”
Buck stared at her for a long moment. “Why?” he asked quietly.
Now her eyes looked deep into his. “Would you be worried if I were hurt?” she asked.
“I’d be frantic.” He answered honestly. “I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Why?” she asked.
He looked around the room, at the machines, but got no help there. Sighing, he looked down at his hands. “I guess because I love you.”
She nodded as if she had known this all along. “That’s the same reason I have. Because I love you.”
He glanced up sharply. “You do? Really?” A huge grin split his face. “Will you marry me?”
Jennifer laughed. “Without even one date? At least you could buy me an ice cream at the general store.”
Buck leaned toward her, then had to sink back as his shoulder told him sudden movements were not a good idea.
So she leaned over him and kissed him. “Yes.” she said.
Gully burst into the room. “The Sheriff’s coming back with an army. I’ve got to leave.”
Buck started getting out of bed. “Did you get the engines fixed?”
“Yes, uh…maybe. You lie back down.” and he gently pushed Buck back. “I’ll carry you.” He hesitated. “Unless you want to go with me?”
Buck said “Did you say ‘Maybe’?” Then his eyes widened as Gully’s question registered. He looked to Jennifer. “Could we come back?”
“Yes. I could drop you off any time you wanted.”
Jennifer was silent for a moment, looking at the floor. Buck watched her and waited. Finally she looked at Gully. “Could you take two of us, Gully?”
“It’s Gull, not…oh, never mind. Yes. Two would be lovely.”
Buck looked at Jennifer. “Are you sure?”
She grinned. “He’s the Captain of this ship, isn’t he? So he can marry us.”
“Only if we can get off this planet alive.” said Gully.
He carried Buck outside where the couple told the crowd their plans. Grayson said he’d take care of Buck’s dogs and horses and Roberta promised to run the boarding house for Jennifer. Then Gully told everyone to get far back from the ship – just in case. Roberta and Andrea and Maria were bidding a tearful farewell to both Asta and Jennifer. Grayson was telling Buck to bring him some material from another world for a new suit while Sam Levy told him he wanted mineral specimens and Doc Harvey was yelling about plants and animals.
The Sheriff burst into the clearing with a troop of U.S. Army soldiers behind him.
Gully picked up both Buck and Jennifer and jumped through a hatch.
The soldiers were setting up a Gatling gun.
Asta told them to strap themselves in.
Buck said “Did you say ‘Maybe’?” Gully grinned at him. “Time to find out.” He pushed the button. There was a brief hesitation and then the engines started smoothly. The ship rose in a flash of fire and became a silver streak that disappeared into the sky.
Sheriff McCall wanted to arrest everyone but the Captain of the troop just kept staring at the spot where the ship had vanished and paid him no attention. The townspeople handed Two Shot Higgins and Frenchie LaFont over to the Sheriff, who had no idea what to do with them, and then packed up and headed for home. Meanwhile on a small interstellar ship a young human couple was being married by a Firlian with an artificial intelligence as Maid of Honor.
About the Author: Rhema Sayers is a retired ER doctor, working on a second career as a writer. Three daughters are grown and living their own lives. She lives in the desert near Tucson with three dogs and one husband.