This is Jens Rushing’s second tale for SpaceWesterns.com. This time he brings us a tale of Lang: The Red Coyote — ed. N.E. Lilly
by Jens Rushing © 2007
illustration by Kaitlin McCullough ©2007
“Of course my employees have the right to leave at any time, with notice or without it, Mr. Lang.” Nolan’s unctuous voice filled the large office. “The deuce of it is, he took my favorite speeder.” Nolan leaned back in his chair, his soft hands gripping the polished oak desk. Real wood was a rarity here in the Sierra sector; Nolan had imported the desk all the way from the Middle Colonies, and it had been worth every credit. Few dared argue when in front of that expanse of glossy wood. But the current occupant of the opposite chair seemed immune to the desk. In his torn jeans, his grey duster, and his beaten leather hat, Lang was utterly out of place in the rich setting. It didn’t bother him much; Lang was comfortable anywhere. He leaned back, long legs crossed, hat pulled down. Nolan continued. “And that’s why I want you, the man they call the Red Coyote.” Nolan sniffed the name.
Lang cocked his hat with his thumb. “Because I’m the best?”
“Hardly!” Nolan’s laughter bounced off the walls. “Because you’re the cheapest!”
Lang shrugged. “I sometimes find it convenient to work for certain rates.” There was a picture frame face-down on Nolan’s desk. Lang idly picked it up. He caught a glimpse of a woman — blonde, a pretty young thing — before Nolan snatched it from him.
“Convenient, eh? Certain rates, eh? You mean no one will hire a stinking nimo.”
Without a word, the Coyote stood and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Nolan barked. “Just testing you. Got a tiger in a cage, here, Mr. Lang, and I can’t resist poking it. Sit down, sit down.” He waved to the chair, suddenly servile. The hairs on Lang’s neck prickled. Nolan’s grin twisted into a sneer. “And the fact of the matter is, Lang, that my man checked the fuel level in your scow when you arrived, and I happen to know you’re running on empty. He also informed me that your ship’s missing a couple solar panels — something no one would go long without, by choice. Can’t pay the mechanic, eh, Mr. Lang?” Nolan chuckled. His face flushed pink. “And I also happen to know — just because I make a point of happening to know — that you owe half a million credits to Brewster in Nova Cali, a quarter million to the Seljuks out Paiso way, and fifteen to your dear mother back in the Midworlds.”
“Wolves are at the door, all right,” Lang mumbled from beneath his hat.
Nolan’s voice grew low and deadly. “And I think you’re willing to snatch up any scraps I throw you, Coyote. So listen to me when I tell you, you Nova Texana piece of shit, that I’m going to call you any damned thing I like, and you’re going to call me ‘sir’ in return. You don’t have to like it. I just want you to be clear on that. Clear?”
“Take off your goddamned hat when you talk to me.”
Lang peeled off his hat and glared at Nolan. He brushed back his long coal-black hair and glared at Nolan with eyes the color of galvanized nails.
Nolan leaned forward and tugged at the thin solitary braid that hung over the right side of Lang’s face. “What the fuck is this?” he cried, delighted. “A nimo through and through. I’ve had you Indigs work on my ranch before, but none with the — what do you call it?”
“Taiyo,” Lang said. “It’s a remembrance of — ”
Nolan flipped the taiyo disdainfully. “Whatever. That’s your business. And as for my business! This cowpoke, dumb shit name of Parker, took off overnight. No notice, nothing, just took my Buceph M-5 and punched out. Don’t mind him leaving, just want the ship back. Of course… I want him prosecuted to the full extent of the law, what law there is in the Sierra sector. So you bring him back and I’ll throw you a scrap. Go see Chief. He’ll point you in the right direction, and you climb in your rustbucket and go get my man. Then you can go drink yourself silly at Saneway Station or get stoned on your nimoa. Any questions?”
Lang shook his head. He didn’t want to waste any more words on Nolan than he had to.
“Then get the fuck outta my office, you nimoa-stinking aborigine.” The door slammed halfway through the sentence.
Fuming, Lang stalked over to the hangar. It was a long walk. The Lazy J ranch was huge, the biggest on Mohav. There was only so much usable land to go around on the sun-stricken planet, and Nolan had bought up most of it two years ago after the government opened it for resettlement. Few trusted the shield generators that made the land (barely) habitable not to fail again; three years ago, they had overloaded and dropped their protection of the planet, and a hundred thousand settlers had perished in flames. So Nolan was able to purchase a ranch the size of a small continent at a bargain rate.
Even with the shields operational, it was damned hot. As the Coyote walked for the hangar, broiling in his own rage, the ranch was engaged in a mandatory siesta. Work was impossible under the enormous orange sun, and heat-limp vaqueros lounged in every scrap of shade. Lang could feel their collective gaze on him as he passed — felt them eye his taiyo, his leather hat, his nimoa pouch and black hair, all the things that marked him as an Indig. No doubt in cooler weather someone would want to pick a fight, or at least call some insult, but now — too damn hot.
By the time the Coyote reached the hangar, his fury had subsided. He shouldn’t let Nolan get under his skin that way. Nolan was no more capable of humiliating him than a turnip was. That fat bastard meant nothing to an Indig, to a palsano, one who lives by his paws. He flung open the hangar door.
“Get your lazy carcass off the floor, Chief.” He prodded the recumbent form with a pointed boot. “I got work to do.”
The short man stirred. “Whassish?”
The Coyote kicked him stoutly. “Your boss says I see you about details. On this Parker.”
“That.” Chief sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Yeah, Parker. Took off with the M-5. Sweet rig. Won’t make it far, though.”
“Why not? Where would he go, anyway?”
“He can’t make planetbreak with it. He’ll have to get a flight out in Shepherd Post, and our guys there haven’t seen him yet. If he tries to go through there, they’ll pick him up, no problem.”
“So why am I on this job?” Lang asked.
“Like I said, we haven’t seen him yet. And if he ain’t here at ranch HQ, and he ain’t at Shepherd Post, he’s somewhere else in a desert one thousand miles by one thousand miles. Give or take.”
“No tracker in the Buceph?”
“It’s the boss’s speeder, right? Why would there be a tracker?”
“In case someone — never mind. And how long ago was this?”
Lang cursed. “So he could be anywhere by now. You got eyes out for him?”
“Can’t really spare the manpower. Bringing the herd in this week.”
“What’s around here besides Shepherd Post?”
Chief shrugged. “Just some scattered camps out near water, tending parts of the herd. They don’t all have coms, though, so we can’t contact ‘em.”
“You run a tight ship here, don’t you?”
“Not much competition to worry about out here in the Sierra sector.”
“So you guys can take it easy. You can charge whatever you want for a head, and people will pay it.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Lang cracked his knuckles. “Glad I’m not a moral man, or I might take objection to that.”
Chief stretched. “Take objection all you want, Indig. What are you doing?”
Lang stood at the open hangar door, staring out into the hard-baked desert. The air shimmered with the intense heat of midday. It seemed that all straight lines in existence — the craggy outlines of the scattered boulders, the stark symmetry of Lang’s ship, the parallel bars of the corral — were melting and drooping under the sun. Lang closed his eyes and sniffed the air. “I’m scenting my prey,” Lang said. He lifted his head sharply, like a dog perking at hearing its name. A wolfish smile spread on his narrow face. “There he is.”
“Whoa,” Chief breathed. “Like a…”
“I get why they call you Coyote,” Chief said. “Why the ‘Red’?”
Lang patted the double-barreled Colt at his hip. “Things I’d rather not talk about.”
“Whoa,” Chief said. Lang hid his smile. Not entirely lies. He just gave Chief a little fodder for his imagination, and word would get around, and Lang’s reputation would increase. Of course he couldn’t scent his prey. He had an ion emission analyzer in his pocket that would lead him to Parker. As for the ‘Red’ — well, let Chief believe what he wanted to believe.
“Fuel up my Nelly,” Lang said. “I want to get out there and run this guy to ground.”
“Boss said any fuel comes outta your paycheck.”
Lang brushed back his duster just a little, let Chief get a good look at the long-barreled Colt hanging on his hip.
Chief raised his hands. “Or I don’t have to tell him. That’s cool.”
The Mercron Econocraft II streaked across the sands. It was an old ship, and had been a cheap craft even when it was new. Only attentive maintenance and a fair amount of prayer kept the thing aloft. It looked somewhat like an old pontoon boat. The two-seater cockpit was far back, almost in the center of the craft, and after the cockpit the fuselage split into two long pontoons. They also functioned as landing skids. To the rear was the stack of huge, powerful, and utterly unreliable engines. Lang had refitted the small cargo compartment to be pressurized and heated; it could safely and securely transport a single human being. Just below the cockpit Lang had painted “Nelly”.
He checked his emissions analyzer. The gadget was his secret weapon. There wasn’t another like it in the Sierra sector, and Lang never regretted stealing it. The analyzer could detect and trace any ion trail up to five days old; if his quarry had taken a ship, Lang could find him.
More accurately, he could find the ship. And if that ship had suffered an engine malfunction, lost altitude, and dug a hundred-yard furrow in the earth before colliding with a boulder, then the emissions analyzer could help him no more. He cursed and set Nelly down near the wreck. He was being paid to find the man, not the ship. Better check to see if Parker had survived.
Strange, the Coyote mused. Even before Parker had wrapped the Buceph around a boulder, it hadn’t been that nice a ship. In fact, Lang realized, it was strictly a budget craft, probably under ten thousand credits, hardly the sort of ship Nolan would prize. Maybe it had sentimental value. Not his problem anyway. He leapt to one askew wing, and from there to the cockpit. Empty. He scanned the shimmering desert. Just as empty. After further combing, he spotted shallow footprints, barely discernible and half-filled with windblown sand. He decided to follow on foot; by ship he might lose the trail.
Lang took two canteens from Nelly’s cargo hold, checked his Colt, and set off. The sun punished him as if he had made a personal enemy of it, but he paid no mind. Nova Texana was just as hot as Mohav, if not hotter.
The Coyote walked evenly and with purpose, his stride eating up the miles. Soon a low dark mass appeared on the horizon — trees? Buildings? No doubt he’d find Parker there.
As he approached, the wavering shapes resolved themselves into crumbling towers and walls. Buildings, then, probably the homes of the first generation of Mohav settlers, constructed of sandstone blocks cut from the desert bedrock. The last rays of the day fired the ruined walls in every shade of orange, purple, and red, and shadows played wild and malevolent in the corridors of the extinct village.
If this area had once held life, then it also held water, the Coyote reasoned. Parker would stay near the water until — help came? Until he starved? What plan could he have? Lang frowned; Parker had no plan. His speeder had crashed, further flight was impossible, and now he could only wait to die. Lang would have to be careful. He had faced this sort of desperation before, and it always ended ugly.
Colt in hand, he approached the village, ears pricked for the slightest sound. Ahead, tumbled in the lee of a low wall, he saw a blackened thing repulsively suggestive of a human form. His instincts screaming to the contrary, the Coyote prodded it with his foot and turned up a charred skull, tethered to the rest of the scorched skeleton by some lingering leathery sinews. He looked away. With a land grab to organize, of course Nolan couldn’t be bothered to come and clean up a few shreds of flesh way out here in the desert.
Lang stepped over the corpse and entered the city.
In the courtyard before him a stack of corpses perpetually, silently screamed their agony — two small ones, two big ones. A family, caught outside at the wrong moment. Lang stood transfixed. A shot shattered the calm, and stone chips pelted his face. The Coyote threw himself to the ground — where had that come from? He rolled behind a pile of rubble and ran over a mental photograph of the surrounding area. A second-story window — the slumped steeple of a church — any number of collapsed walls. All could hide a sniper.
“Parker!” Lang shouted. “Shoot at me if that’s you, Parker.” The crack of a rifle and the whine of a ricochet. Lang wished his pile of rubble were bigger. “All right, then!” That second shot had given him the shooter’s location; Parker was undoubtedly in the ruined belfry of the church, perhaps a dozen yards across the courtyard.
Lang rolled, firing two shots blindly at the church, hoping Parker would take cover, and dashed for a low wall. He dove over it as a shot kicked a spray of sand at his feet.
He scraped along on his belly the length of the courtyard, the whole time aware of Parker waiting for him to expose his head, a hair, a hand, anything for Parker to put a bullet through. The wall ended a few feet away from a window in the church wall. If he tried to spring across that gap, Parker would surely gun him down. “He’s in the belfry!” Lang shouted. “Flank him, boys!” He listened and waited.
After a moment he heard someone scuffling down stone stairs; Parker was abandoning the belfry. True enough, Lang thought; no one ever gave him credit for being smart. With a coil and explosion of sinewy muscles, the Coyote barreled through the brittle window, shedding shards of glass from his duster. Blindness seized him for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the utter darkness; as his vision returned he realized that he was not alone in the church. There must have been a service when the shields failed. The church was full. But these settlers had not been scorched by the sunlight; in their shelter, they had not burned, just stifled in the unfathomable heat, and the dry desert had preserved them…
He shut that out. Focus on the mission.
Then he saw Parker standing before him for one half-moment, trembling hands gripping a rifle, face pale and drawn with panic. The Coyote was stunned; he was expecting a typical hard-bitten, weather-beaten ranch hand, but Parker was barely more than a boy, and a good-looking boy at that, with a full head of brown hair and a delicate, fine-featured face. Lang opened his mouth to say something, but the rifle barrel came up, and there was no more time for words.
The rifle spat a roaring plume of flame, and Lang lunged, ducking under the shot; a slower man would have taken the bullet. He closed the distance between them in two steps and whipped the barrel of his pistol up and into Parker’s skull. The blow sent the boy sprawling, and the Coyote was on him in a second, Bowie knife out and pressed to Parker’s throat. “I don’t have to bring you back alive,” he said. “I can say you resisted. You want that?”
Parker went limp and Lang removed the knife. “Good to see you act sensible,” he said. “First smart thing you’ve done in I don’t know how — ”
Parker’s hand shot to his pocket. Lang bashed the pommel of the knife into his forehead and he fell back, unconscious and bleeding. Lang took a pearl-handled derringer from Parker’s lax fingers. “Not bad,” he said, and pocketed it. “Compensation for dragging your stupid ass back to Nelly.”
The Coyote left the city, Parker slung over his shoulder. The night was cool and good for walking. As he walked, he turned things over in his mind. Something didn’t sit right with him. Parker’s youth and handsomeness, the face-down portrait in Nolan’s office, the evident worthlessness of the Buceph speeder… taken separately, none were too strange, but together they formed a lump that slid around in Lang’s gut and gave him no ease.
They approached Nelly, and Parker returned to consciousness with a few restive murmurs. Lang dropped him in the sand. “Christ, my head,” he moaned, touching his wounds tentatively.
“Yeah,” Lang said. “Helluva lot better than a bullet in the brain. You’re lucky in that respect.”
“You’re an Indig,” Parker said. “Why’re you working for Nolan?”
“Lots of Indigs work for Nolan.”
“Yeah, but you’re — you’ve — gone native. With the braid and the nimoa pouch and everything.”
“Hey, hey, that’s cool,” Parker said. “I respect that. You just seem like a good guy.”
“Got me figured out.”
“So why would you do this? I’m just wondering. Why would you help a guy like that? Do something like this?”
“You broke the law,” Lang said. “But I’ve got wonderings of my own. For one: why would you steal his speeder? It’s a piece of shit,” he mused. “Can’t even get you off this continent. And you’re a young guy, too young to throw your life away on something like that. Doesn’t make sense. And then when I give you a chance to come along quietly, you draw iron. I could’ve killed you. That was a stupid chance you took, and you took it to escape — what? Three to five years in the pen?”
“That what he told you?” Parker was pale again. “That I stole his — mister, that speeder is mine!”
The lump in Lang’s gut got heavier. “Then why’d he put me on your trail?”
Parker laughed bitterly. “Thought you knew,” he said. “I guess he didn’t mention Mrs. Nolan.”
“There was a picture on his desk… and you’re a fine-looking boy…” It made sense.
Parker rubbed his head. “You aren’t taking me to three to five years in the pen,” he said. “You’re taking me to my death.” A somber note crept into his voice. “Never known anyone so lonesome. That prick Nolan’s got no right to treat a lady like that. I was just putting a smile back on her face.” He chuckled. “I’d do it all over again, though. That woman can — ”
“Shuddup! I don’t want to know what she can do!” Lang felt numb. It made sense. Ineluctable sense. But Nolan had logic on his side, too, a heavier, more compelling logic — the logic of money, of thousands of credits with which to allay the murderers and brigands to whom Lang was indebted. To supply him with the fuel without which his ship would never get off this rock.
“What can we do?” he mumbled. “I gotta bring you in. Even if Nolan weren’t paying me, I need chlorate fuel to break gravity, and the Lazy J’s the only place within range where I can get that. I have to go back.”
Parker sank into a blue study, chin on fist. Lang saw that he would have to do the thinking. “If that’s your ship, it’s registered to you. So you didn’t steal a thing. I bring you in, tell him that I reported your arrest to Sierra circuit court, you should be safe. Your trial will come up and you’ll be free to go.”
“Will that work?” Parker asked doubtfully.
Lang turned it over in his mind. “I don’t see why not. We just make sure your arrest is on the books and make sure Nolan understands that so he can’t make you disappear. There’s no evidence to convict you.”
“I hope so,” Parker said. “I think it’ll work. You seem a smarter fellow than me, and if it sounds good to you, it sounds good to me. I trust you.”
“Don’t — don’t say that.” Lang pressed a button in Nelly’s cockpit and the cargo door hissed open, revealing a horizontal space just large enough for a full-grown man. “Climb in.”
As Nelly glided across the benighted desert, Lang fired up his interplanetary communicator and dialed the Sierra circuit court.
“One George Parker, arrested on charges of grand theft, charges presented by Fitzroy Nolan of Mohav.”
“I can’t thank you enough, Mister Lang,” Judge Fitch said dryly. “If only every citizen were as vigilant and civic-minded as you — ”
“Stuff it,” Lang said, and clicked off the com. He brought Nelly in low over ranch HQ, buzzing Nolan’s manor house and rattling the windows with the guttural roar of the engines. The flyby brought a crowd to the landing pad, Nolan first among them.
“Got your boy,” Lang said, opening the cargo bay and hauling Parker out. Parker looked wide-eyed to Nolan, then Lang, his eyes wide with barely contained terror. Nolan’s expression of gloating never wavered. “It’s fine,” Lang whispered. “You’re on the books.” Parker nodded dumbly, and Lang shoved him to Nolan. Two of Nolan’s men led him away, leaving Nolan and three of his men. Lang wanted to see Nolan’s smugness curdle on his face. “I took the liberty of reporting his arrest,” Lang said. That should wipe the grin off, he thought.
“I know,” Nolan said, and Lang’s hands and feet tingled with the first frosty touch of dread.
“You know…” he muttered.
“Yes, I know,” Nolan said, voice oily and rich with self-satisfaction. “My good friend Judge Fitch gave me a call and informed me. Asked whether or not he should take you seriously. I said you were probably stoned on nimoa. You Indigs, you can’t help yourselves.”
The Coyote felt sick.
Nolan continued. “Now, I’ve gone ahead and deposited your payment. It’s in your account. I’ll have Chief fuel you up, and you can get out of my sight as soon as possible. Unless there’s something else you want to discuss?” The grin widened.
Behind the house a pistol cracked. The sound shook every bone in Nolan’s body.
“Is there anything else?” Nolan said.
“No,” Lang said. “No, I’m just leaving.”
The Coyote wanted oblivion, escape from his senses, a headlong fall down mental stairs. He wanted the stomach-twisting, brain-boiling punch of alcohol. He barely held on through the flight to Saneway Station, and there in the grimy cantina he threw himself into a frenzy of drinking. Men shied away from him, as dogs shy away from their diseased and dying brethren.
“Vaya,” Lang said to another man with black hair and grey eyes. “Vaya, palsano.”
The man smiled at the traditional greeting despite Lang’s condition. “Vaya, palsano, countryman. How’s life? What news from Nova Texana?”
Lang fingered his braid. “Where’s your taiyo?” he said. “It’s the duty and privilege of every Texana-loving countryman to wear a taiyo.”
The Indig stirred uncomfortably. “I got a job,” he said. “I’m a miner, and the bosses, they don’t take to that sort of — ”
“You’re a gutless coward,” Lang slurred. “A motherless, fatherless cur, a dog of a dog, a spineless shitheel.”
The man’s face hardened, and with an effort he smiled again. “You’ve had a bit to drink, countryman, you’re out of your senses.”
Lang spat in his face. The smile vanished, the friendly face clouded with anger, and the Indig rose, knocking over his stool. Lang swayed to his feet. “Sonuvabitch,” he snarled. “You idiot castrated sonuvabitch. No right to live. You got no — ”
The Indig lashed him with a right hook, catching Lang’s cheekbone and knocking him to the ground. Lang laughed savagely and bit the man’s leg. He cursed and kicked Lang, knocking him against the bar. Lang seized his foot and squeezed, feeling the bones grind against each other. The man howled in pain and kicked again, smashing his foot into Lang’s jaw, grinding Lang’s hand with his heel. Fury now possessed the Indig, and he bunched Lang’s shirt in his hand, hauled him up, and went to work with his free hand, crushing Lang’s nose and marring his face. Lang spat a red glob at him. Disgusted, the man dropped Lang and stalked off, leaving him a bloody and broken-toothed mess on the floor. The Coyote laughed, his laughter big and ragged and not really laughter anymore. “No right,” he choked. “Got no right.”
Jens Rushing is a native Texan living in South Korea with his wife and dog. He was hatched from an egg. Visit his website for his journal, some stories, and nightmare bursts of galimatias.