|Tracking Blackheart Bart|
(Originally published in the Rogue Blades anthology Reach for the Sky, in November 2020)
by Stan Dryer
I’d been trailing Blackheart Bart for three days. From the tracks, I could see his horse was limping badly. There had been smoke still drifting from the embers of the last fire he had made.
The land was getting rougher and dryer. I’d filled my three canteens at Lastwater Springs, but Bart must have been running dry, what with grabbing the first horse he could find outside the Dustville Jail. I don’t know where he had gotten the gun, but he hadn’t been afraid to use it. I suppose if you’re about to go rope’s end for two murders, a couple of more don’t make much difference.
Deputy Crocker was definitely dead, and it hadn’t been clear if Sheriff Banshaw was going to make it. He had been conscious enough to gasp out a couple of words to me. “Marshal, he’s heading for the badlands. Don’t bother to bring him in alive. Just gun him down on the spot.”
The sun was noon high when I saw Bart’s tracks turning off the ridge and heading steeply down an arroyo. I followed. Goldie braced his forelegs against the slope and half slid along. We came to a turn in the canyon, and when the land levelled out, there was Bart’s stolen horse, tied to a creosote bush. Just beyond it was the strangest object I never hope to see again. It was like a great silvery upside-down prospector’s pan, perhaps a hundred feet side to side. I couldn’t see any legs under it, but it hung there steady a couple of feet off the ground.
They say I have a quick draw, but that moment must have been my fastest ever. I had my Colt in my hand before I even started to reign in Goldie. I was down out of the saddle in a moment, keeping my eye on that crazy dish. I tied up Goldie to a convenient bush and started forward. Believe me, I knew I should have skedaddled out of there, but I figured Bart might just be inside that thing. I wanted this to be the last time I had to hunt him down.
I had gone about ten careful paces forward when a door slowly opened downward in the side of the dish and a creature came down the ramp the door made. I’ve heard of strange animals they have in places like Australia or Africa, but this was not anything from anywhere on Earth. This critter was sliding along on what looked like a dozen octopus tentacles and waving a bunch more which might pass for arms. Its body was smooth and silvery with what must have been a head on top as it had a slit of a mouth, three little holes which might have been ears and a bunch of eyes strung out in a row.
Then I saw it had a kind of a belt around its middle, and hanging from the belt was a shiny purplish cylinder. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it could well have been a weapon. I reacted in the way that has saved my life a dozen times.
“Reach for the sky!” I shouted, making the upward motion with my gun barrel that any hombre who valued his life would understand.
“You wish me to extend my appendages to the upper regions of your atmosphere?” the thing said in a little squeak of a voice.
“You got it,” I said. “And pronto.” How in hell did this critter know English?
Then things started getting strange, really strange. Two of his upper appendages shot upward and stretched right out of sight above. Then the world started getting dark. The sun became just a dull spot in this blackness that kind of came down all around us.
“You wished I bring down what you call sky for you to inspect?” the critter said.
“No, no,” I said. “Just put it back.” I had figured out pretty quick that whatever these beings were, their savvy went a bit beyond the telegraph or the railroad locomotive.
“Okay, as you say in your vernacular,” said the creature. He apparently let go, for his tentacles came back in sight, and the sky brightened back to sun-blazing normal.
I put my gun back in its holster and raised my right hand in what dime novels call the universal sign of peace. I’d seen it work with some injuns, but I’d also seen men who used it gunned down on the spot. Here it seemed to work, for the critter stepped closer and raised a couple of tentacles in response.
I was getting real curious about this whole pony show so I said, “I sure would like to know one thing. How come you folks speak English?”
“We have come to your planet many times in the past to collect venom. On one of our earlier visits, we encountered a learned gentleman of your species and probed his mind. In addition to acquiring his vocabulary and speech patterns, we learned many of your scientific misconceptions. This information has caused much amusement when recounted to the citizens of our home planet.”
Holy shit. A whole lot now made sense. A year or so ago, this crazy Professor Stimlay had showed up in Dustville, got all the sober citizens together at the Town Hall and had given this crazy account of how some beings he called aliens from some distant star had kidnapped him and messed with his head. Well, everyone pretty much agreed the Professor was a bit loco, but we figured he’d just been out in the sun too long without a hat. I did a quick rethink on that theory. These must be those very same and very real aliens.
“Well welcome back to our planet,” I said. “What did you say you were doing here?” I figured if they were planning a land grab of half of the Territory, I should let the Federal Land Agent in on the secret.
“We come only to collect the venom of what you call rattlesnakes. It is the only cure we know for a fever that ravages our planet. You do not mind our collecting venom from these snakes?”
“Fine by me. Take as many rattlers as you like.”
“Oh, we release the snakes after we extract the venom. Thus there are always plenty when we come back for more venom.”
“Great,” I said. Kind of nice of them to make sure we didn’t run out of rattlers.
“But you have come into your dry lands on some mission?” my new alien buddy now said.
I pointed at Bart’s stolen horse. “I’m actually looking for the gent who rode in on that animal.”
“Perhaps you inquire about a male citizen who claims the nomenclature of Pureheart Bart?”
“Well most folks back home call him Blackheart Bart, but I think we’re talking about the same piece of worthless shit.”
“We have taken him aboard our craft and rehydrated him. We have also done what we call a brain probe. It appears he has performed many acts converse to the regulations of your civilization. If you are the one he denotes as ‘that chickenshit marshal’ you are the one he fears will unjustly terminate his vitality.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that politely,” I said, “but I am definitely that gent. Bring him on out and we’ll be on our way. We won’t bother you no more.” I figured I wouldn’t pump Bart full of lead until we were far enough away that these aliens couldn’t hear the shots. I wasn’t sure what they thought about quick justice, but I found out in a hurry.
“I wish we could comply with your request,” said the alien, “but Pureheart Bart has requested what you call asylum. As your society has decided his acts require the termination of his vitality, we must judge whether there is justification in that determination before we place him in your custody.”
This alien gent was definitely pushing it. I knew I should have kept up the politeness bit, but I probably spoke with a smidgen of ire. “This hombre was about to be strung up for two murders and he just killed at least one more gent—a lawman, no less—in busting out of jail. He was tried fair and square for the first two murders and was scheduled to swing two days ago.”
“Many of those facts we have already obtained from Pureheart. However, he has stated that the vitality terminations for which he was condemned were misrepresented by the person you call a prosecutor, an individual he says was biased toward him personally.”
“I’ll bet he did,” I said. “There wasn’t a person in that courtroom except Bart who didn’t want to see him hanging from the nearest tree two days before yesterday. A kid who thought he had a fast draw had challenged Bart to a shootout. The kid was pacing off the distance when Bart guns him down in the back before he even turns around. Learning about that killing got the crowd even more riled up then when they heard how Bart had shot the Wells Fargo guard after he had dropped his gun and raised his hands.”
“Pureheart Bart claims the child had already turned and was attempting his termination and that the guard was similarly about to use a weapon to damage his person. It is our understanding termination of vitality in those situations is acceptable in your society.”
“Not when you’re robbing a mail car,” I said. “There were three witnesses to the shooting of the kid and about a hundred folks who saw his body with the two bullet holes in the back. Look, isn’t there some quick way you can decide you’re ready to turn him over to me?”
“Oh, certainly yes. We can convene a decision confrontation with our Leader, and you and Pureheart Bart can state your cases. Then our Leader will make a decision which I think you call final.”
I wasn’t keen on going on board the big gold pan, but it seemed the only way I had a chance of getting my hands on Bart. They first made me hand over my gun, which was fine by me as it meant Bart had lost his as well. He probably wasn’t packing that derringer in his boot, as we’d taken that away when we first corralled him.
The ship inside was all shiny metal with strange pieces of hardware all over the place and the air had a funny kind of sticky smell. I had to watch my head as the aliens were a foot or so shorter than your average human hombre. We ended up in a big round room with a floating disk in the center which I took to be their idea of a table, with round stools all about. My alien friend and I sat down next to each other. A bunch more of the aliens appeared and flopped down on the stools with their tentacles spread around.
Then an alien appeared with a medallion about the size of a rodeo first prize hanging round his neck. This fellow must have been their leader, as all the others popped up off their stools, slapped their tentacles together and made hissing sounds which I took to mean, “Howdy, trail boss.” Mr. Big Shot seated himself at the end of the floating disk and everyone got silent. A couple of the aliens now appeared with Bart in tow and seated him across the disk from me. We glared at each other. If I’d had my Colt right then I would have blasted him away on the spot. I suspect his feelings were mutual.
“Chickenshit Marshall,” said the head honcho, “has requested this decision confrontation to decide if you, Pureheart Bart, should be turned over to his custody. You may both state your cases. I shall determine what should be done.”
“For starters,” I said, “just call me Marshall. No need for the first part of the moniker.” I then laid out the facts of Bart’s misspent life in as grisly detail as possible. Then Bart came up with a bunch of nice sounding lies that wouldn’t have fooled a soul in Dustville but may have taken in this bunch of tenderfoots.
When we had finished, Big Gun was silent for a couple of minutes, then spoke. “I am unable to determine the absolute truth in this situation. Therefore, I have decided a permanent separation of the two contesting individuals is in order. You, Marshall, will be allowed to return to your home place. You, Pureheart Bart, will remain on our ship to return to our planet with us.”
I wasn’t exactly wild about this decision. Although we would no longer have Bart around to hand out free cases of lead poisoning, I had the problem of returning without his body. It would look pretty much like I’d failed to find him. I’d be about as popular around town as a nester’s vegetable pie on barbeque night.
Bart had obviously been thinking the deal over in what passed for a mind. “Hey, just a minute,” he said. “How come I don’t get to stayand you take Chickenshit here back with you?”
“It is evident,” said the chief honcho, “that you have more desire to exert unnecessary violence upon the other citizens of your planet than does Chickenshit Marshall. He appears to terminate vitality only in retribution. In addition, you have already accepted asylum with us. Our decision is final.”
“And just how long is the trip back to your planet going to take?” Bart demanded.
“Using your clumsy decimal system of measurement, it will take approximately one point seven years of your planet time.”
Bart shot up out of his seat. “No way!” he shouted. “I ain’t gunna be cooped up in this smelly tin can for seven years. I’m out of here.”
Before anyone could lay a tentacle on him, he raced across the room and pushed open what he must have thought was the door to the big outdoors. The space beyond was in darkness, but he plunged ahead anyway. The door slapped shut behind him. There was a crash from inside then a scream like a wounded coyote. “Oh shit! Get them off of me!”
“That is most unhappy,” said my alien friend. “That area is where we keep the rattlesnakes.”
“The ones before or after you extract their venom?” I asked.
“Before. Unfortunately it appears that several of the snakes are now depleted of their venom.”
Bart died three hours later. It wasn’t pretty. He begged for an antidote, but, seeing as how the aliens were not affected by the venom except as a cure for disease, they had none. Then he begged me to get my gun and put him out of his misery. I pointed out the aliens frowned on vitality termination on their ship except by natural causes. I reckoned a rattler bite was kind of natural.
That about sums it up. The aliens helped me tie Bart’s body on his horse and we headed back to Dustville. I told the folks in town Bart had found himself a cave full of rattlers, which was pretty close to the truth. I would have liked to tell them the rest of the story, but I never did. I didn’t want folks thinking I’d been out in the sun too long.
[JMW1]RBE uses italics for internal/unspoken dialogue and single quotes for words/phrases such as this – these are our standard formats but wanted you to see the change.