Cowboys

Cowboys
By James Goodwin

This story just came from the first line which, for years, came to me every time I would think about writing a short story. Apparently this is what comes after that line...

The three men sat on their horses atop the towering mesa, looking out over the huge empty valley. Empty except for the thin column of dust trailing behind tiny figures in the distance, moving towards them. The oldest man in the group, slightly stooped with age, sighed and said “Well, they’re coming, just like I said…” he spat into the scupper that ringed the inside of his helmet, a red noxious mixture of tobacco juice, phlegm, and blood “...this is going to fucking suck.” He turned to look at the young man beside him, a tall thin guy, with a relatively new atmosphere suit, helmet still shiny and not hardly pockmarked, unlike his own. The young guy looked at him nervously, shifting in the saddle of his horse. “Horse” was local slang for the all-terrain walking robots that they rode on, the atmosphere on the planet would burn the lungs out of a horse and it’s rider in a matter of hours. “Enjay” was the name of the planet derived from the name assigned to it by a humorist in the first wave of settlers, short for “New Jersey.” In fact the mesa that they were atop was the opening of a giant open pit mine, now abandoned, the city of Paramus was dug into its wall below them, safe from the scouring storms and blasting solar radiation. Nobody called the city by its name they just called it “The Dry Hole” or just “The Hole.”

The third man looked at the old guy and the kid and shook his head, he was wearing a weathered  helmet that one could just distinguish a star pattern inside a circle on the back and the letters “SHER” and “DITSON.” He said “I’d rather deal with them before they get to the city, last time they made a mess and lots of civilians got caught up in it and hurt.” The older guy whose damaged and heavily modified helmet was labeled “ROSS” said “Jesus Christ Tom, what the fuck are we going to do with them out in the wasteland, they fucking live there, they’re armed to the teeth and you’ve got an old man and a fucking infant on your side…” he jerked his thumb at the kid who’s helmet plainly read “LONGLEY.” Mark Longley shot him an irritated look. He’d been taking crap from Charlie Ross for weeks now since he’d arrived to be the newest deputy working in The Hole. He wondered what he’d done in his life to merit this kind of punishment.

Sheriff Thomas Ditson looked up to the sky as if an answer was going to be written there, he didn’t see one, instead he noted that the second sun was rising. The radiation meters on their horses started to ping quietly. Without speaking they all grabbed the handles that protruded from the backs of the horses, kicked them into motion and turned towards the descending ramp that led into the city and its radiation shielding, their suits provided protection, but nobody put them to the test unessesarily.

A short time later the three of them attired in matching jumpsuits colored “I’m a cop blue” cinched at the waist with a belt holding blaster/stun gun, cuffs, first aid kit, radio, and extra power modules walked into the Sheriff’s Office on the middle level of The Hole. Charlie’s jumpsuit looked like it had never been cleaned, it had spatters of his and other’s blood, maybe other fluids, and a couple of holes where blaster bolts had burned their way through it and him. People had tried mentioning that he should wash or better yet burn the uniform, on good days they were answered with a “fuck yourself” on bad days with gunfire. In the office was the other deputy, Seath Holman a short dark haired woman wearing the same jumpsuit and equipment. Seath looked up from her desk and saw all she needed to know in their faces, she muttered “Fuck me…” under her breath.

Everyone got to work packing gear for the trek across the plains to meet the cowboys. They were called cowboys because they were herders, of people, not cows. They would come to a city and abduct people and transport them to other cities and sell them to employers who needed workers. It wasn’t strictly illegal on Enjay, because they weren’t enslaved, they just had to raise enough money to afford to get back home, so they had to work. It was just the most aggressive sort of recruiting… The problems came because inevitably people resisted being “recruited” and violence ensued. Seath said “I suppose I’m left policing the entire goddamn city again…” Tom flinched like something had hit him in the back… “I’m afraid so, you’re the best qualified with all of the comms equipment and you have the contacts on the company ships to call in reinforcements…” his voice petered out at that point seeing the fury in Seath’s face… “I hope they get here, I will absolutely fuck them up if they do…” she said, and returned to packing.

Tom Ditson was a tall thin man in his forties, he had short grey hair and usually a day or so of stubble, and intense brown eyes that conveyed his authority. He’d been Sheriff in The Hole for 15 years, he was a deputy for 10 more when his father Hugh Ditson was Sheriff. Originally the position was appointed by the company that had colonized Enjay for the purpose of extracting the rare earths. Once the yield of the mines dropped below their goal the company backed away. After that the role became hereditary, most of the inhabitants of the planet had fled democracy and didn’t think much of government and laws in general. The Sheriff and his deputies provided both policing and adjudication of conflicts of all kinds that hadn’t already been sorted out some other way, mainly trying to avoid escalations that would impact orderly business continuing. 

Ditson left the others to their work and walked into the control center where a wall of monitors showed a constantly changing array of views of the city, the computer chose what to show based on sophisticated pattern recognition. He zoomed in on a few interesting views, checking to see if they needed attention, this was normally Seath’s job, she was incredibly skilled with the system as well as being a savant at recognizing situations that were going to escalate. This was how a small force of four people were able to keep a lid on a city of more than 50,000 inhabitants. Nothing interesting was going on but he continued to poke around, looking for some of the people he had known to work with the cowboys in previous years, steering them to skilled workers they had bounty for. He wanted some clue as to where in the city they were planning to enter, and who they were after in case things got back to The Hole.

He found one of them, Elizabeth Sparrow, packing outdoor gear, just like his deputies, including an extra long range blaster. He told the computer to track her and her known associates. Given her location down on Level 1, South East, Block 23 he was able to have the computer identify the likely targets and start tracking them. She was probably going out to meet the cowboys so following her would be a good way to ambush them. It occurred to Ditson that she wasn’t trying too hard to avoid surveillance that everyone knew was there, so he had the computer start looking for someone on the cowboy watch list that it couldn’t locate. It turned up Ebenezer Thompson who had disappeared from surveillance two days ago, in Level 1, North West, Block 101. Ebenezer was the cousin of the cowboy’s leader, Roy Thompson, he’d been jailed after the cowboy’s last trip to The Hole for beating one of the resisters to death. Looking through his quarters it became clear that the only outdoor gear in there was old and worn out, he was probably already outside. The Sheriff set the computer to scanning all the exit footage from the last three days to look for people meeting Ebenezer’s form factor and gait leaving, it’d take a few hours. He also sent a requisition to the satellite network for updates on the approaching cowboys and to try to find someone exiting the North West side of the city matching Thompson’s description.

Mark Longley was cleaning and running diagnostics on his favorite gun, a long range blaster that was built to be able to hit a target the size of a grapefruit  four kilometers away, while hiding it’s own energy signature. The sensors and display were super high resolution and Longley’s scores in sniper school were extremely high. It wasn’t punishment that had gotten him to The Hole, it was Sheriff Ditson’s request for the best sniper in the company’s most recent graduating class in the security division. Ditson had been required to pay the company for the recruit since they no longer funded any services on Enjay, it wasn’t hard to drum up the funds from the city’s employers. For his own part Longley was young, but he’d already done a tour for the company performing ILR (Intelligent Life Removal) missions on other planets the company wanted to mine, so he knew for sure he’d seen and done a few things that Charlie had never imagined. He knew he had to take his lumps here until he earned his place, but he hoped this mission would be a big step forward.

Charlie Ross was in his 70’s, he limped from a blaster wound that had removed part of his leg muscle, he hunched a bit from a slash from a blade. His beard was grey and splotched with tobacco stains, his gums were bleeding from decades of too much radiation, his liver was enlarged from many years of drinking. His eyes used to be blue, now they were more dominantly yellow and bloodshot. The only thing in perfect condition on Charlie was his blaster and his blade, both more than 25 years old, both looked like they’d been manufactured yesterday. He hummed tunelessly as he put his gear together for the mission, pausing to spit tobacco juice from his wad into a can nearby. Charlie had a fatalistic view of the job, he figured he’d already lived too long, so this was all extra time. He didn’t hold back with his opinion or his blaster fire, and there were very few people in The Hole that weren’t afraid of him. He did hate going out of the city into the wasteland, he had done it a lot when he was younger and he had developed a loathing for the pocked terrain filled with structurally unsound mining tunnels, multi-legged scorpion like bugs with worse stings, searing radiation, and chemical dust storms. “Motherfuckers…” he growled as he put a molecular fine edge on his knife.

Seath Holman tried hard to not be downwind of Charlie, as she put the Sheriff’s kit together for him. She’d been working in the office for 20 years since her husband the prior deputy had been killed by a tweaked up miner with a laser torch. In those years she’d developed an intimate knowledge of who was who and what they were up to in The Hole. She’d also had plenty of field work in those years including getting the opportunity to put a number of blaster holes in the miner that’d killed her husband. She didn’t like the cowboys at all, in no small part because they liked to take women of all professions and sell them as sex workers in the other cities. Part of the reason the Sheriff didn’t want her to come on the mission was that he needed to try and dissuade the cowboys from their mission and not create a reason for the cities that hired them to send a strike team with the next bunch. He knew that Seath would castrate the whole bunch of them without any talking at all. She grinned as she put some HE grenades into his pack along side the non-lethal stun grenades, of course the Sheriff would look at a grenade before he used it.

The next morning they all met at the stable where the horses were refueled and the reagents that converted the atmosphere into breathable air were replenished in their suit packs. Everyone looked a bit under the weather, Charlie possibly the worst of the bunch. They grimly loaded the equipment onto the horses and suited up, testing the life support and shielding systems one last time before they left. Overnight the computer had figured out where Ebenezer had exited the city and the satellites had located him, several miles out on an intercept course with the cowboys. Ms. Sparrow had also left the city, officially bound for Newark aka The Stink. They kept a track on her with the satellites. They headed out on Ebenezer’s trail, their horses bounding over the broken terrain while keeping them relatively stable on their backs. The pinging of the radiation meters was continuous.

The good news for them was that their horses were much faster than the ones allowed to civilians, even with the illegal mods that most people applied, so they gained steadily on Ebenezer. The bad news was the satellite reports that Sparrow had turned in their direction and was headed to intercept. After they had been riding for several hours the Sheriff pulled along side Longley and leaned over pressing his helmet against Longley’s for several minutes having a private conversation. Charlie grumbled openly on the comm channel, “You fuckers dating now you gotta cuddle out here on the fucking trail ?” Ditson broke away and said “Don’’t be jealous Charlie, I love you too.” Charlie spat saying “Great! I feel so good now, cocksuckers!” 

A few more hours passed and as the second sun was setting they overtook Ebenezer. He was stopping to set up a shelter and rest for the night. They were in a good position, behind a huge mining waste pile where he couldn’t detect them. They waited for Ebenezer to inflate his shelter and anchor it to the rock and crawl inside, then they approached him from three sides. Ebenezer awoke from his brief sleep to Charlie straddling him and suddenly grasping his long beard and jerking his head back to press his blade to Ebenezer’s throat. “Hey fuckwit…” Charlie snarled “You give me any trouble I will decapitate you.” Ebenezer knew better than to resist and instead went limp and said “What is the problem Charlie, can’t a guy travel without interference anymore?” Charlie laughed “Gimme a break Eb, we know that Roy’s coming, and we know you’re going to meet him to tell him where to find the people he’s contracted to fetch. So quit fucking around and tell me everything you know about what he’s doing and I won’t start skinning you face first!” He shaved a thin layer of skin off of Ebenezer’s nose with his blade for emphasis. 

Ditson and Longley stood outside the shelter monitoring Sparrow’s approach on satellite, “He’s not going to kill him before we get any information is he?” Longley asked glancing at the shelter “Nope, Charlie knows what he has to do, it’ll be fine…” Ditson said as a loud scream emanated from the plastic and foil tent. A few minutes later Charlie emerged, his atmosphere suit sprayed with blood, he didn’t bother to close the airlock on the tent. He said “They’re coming for senior geo-engineers, no women, no grunts, special mission for The Stink, they had a mine accident killed all of their senior guys. They don’t have the cash to get anyone to come to The Stink, so they’re looking at our guys.” Ditson looked at his shoes, he didn’t have the money to get multiple senior geo-engineers either, best he could do now is redirect them to another city. He looked at the tent, “Ebenezer has been a pain it the ass too long, I took preventative measures…” Charlie said heading towards his horse.

They rode onward getting closer to Roy Thompson’s group coming towards them through the night. Just before first sunrise they pitched a camp and slept for a couple of hours. After they’d eaten some rations and popped a couple of stims, they packed up and continued. Sparrow was now only a few miles off their track and they would encounter Thompson in a matter of hours. It was at that point that Charlie turned to check their six and he realized that Longley was gone, his horse was trundling along but he was gone, gun, pack and all. Charlie realized he had no idea when he’d left. He saw Tom looking at him and the empty horse and realized he shouldn’t ask. They came upon the cowboys in the open, and rode up to them. “Hey Roy…” the Sheriff said “Hey Tom…” Thompson said, his hand resting on his blaster. “Look Roy, I can’t have you making a mess in The Hole again. I’m here to try and see if you can go to The Gulch or The Pit and leave us alone, I can pay…” Thompson waved his hand “I don’t have time, The Stink is down, not operating, The Hole is closest, best I can do is leave you one guy to get by.” The Sheriff raised both his hands “I can give you 100,000 units to just turn aside…” Thompson drew his blaster pointing it at Ditson “Why do you have your hands in the air ?” he said as a blaster bolt went right through Ditson’s right hand. Everyone freaked out, Ditson clutched his wounded hand under his arm, plugging smoking hole in his suit, reaching for a sealant tube on his belt to close it up and also stop any bleeding. A few seconds later they heard a woman scream on the common comm channel. Three of Thomson’s men dropped from their horses, smoking holes in their heads. “Turn aside, take the money Roy…” Ditson gasped against the pain. By now Charlie had drawn and was pointing his gun at others in Thompson’s band. 

Charlie and Tom rode back towards the city, the satellites confirmed that Roy was headed towards The Pit, 100,000 credits richer and a few guys short. They came upon Mark sitting on a rock with his gun, his suit had an arc of blood across it. Charlie dismounted and helped him stow his stuff on the horse and get aboard. Charlie grunted “Ok, so you’re good for something… fucker.”