The two lawmen have a common problem: a dangerous criminal must be captured before he can harm any more innocents. It just so happens that one is a sheriff in Arizona circa 1890, while the other is a policeman from a distant galaxy. — ed, N.E. Lilly
“I—I just don’t know what happened, Mr. Mayor. One minute, McGavin and his gang were right in front of me, goin’ through Horton Canyon. They rounded a corner and, when I got there not two minutes later, they were gone. Nothing.”
Sheriff Chuck Mills hated the words as he spoke them. They sounded like excuses—and making excuses wasn’t his way. For nearly 15 years, Sheriff Mills had protected Dos Diablos, Arizona, from bank robbers, highwaymen, cattle thieves and any other trouble to come through the small ranching town.
But he was telling the truth; he had no way to explain what had happened just moments earlier. The McGavin gang just disappeared into the desert, like water drops evaporating in the Arizona heat.
“Nothing. And you expect me to believe that?” Mayor Fate Thomas practically spat his disgust onto his cluttered oak desk. “I tell you this, Mills—Hunter McGavin is the most wanted man in the territory. He killed three men in a robbery in Tucson. Now he’s here and raising Cain in Dos Diablos! That’s just not going to happen in my town!”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Well, understand this—if you can’t find McGavin, I’ll get me a sheriff who can!” The mayor’s jowly face blushed in anger as he pointed a thick finger at the tall, stoic sheriff.
“Yes, sir.” Mills fingered his dusty brown hat and quietly shuffled out the City Hall door. His horse, Clovis, looked up from his hitching post, obviously recognizing its master.
“Hey, boy; I’m glad to see you, too,” the sheriff whispered, scratching the horse’s ears with a gentleness that belied his hard, weathered face. “Why don’t we go for a little walk?”
If nothing else, Mills needed to get away from City Hall for a while. He had known Mayor Thomas since he was a boy. They had always enjoyed a good relationship, at least until McGavin and his gang got to town three weeks ago. Since then, the once-pleasant mayor had been a tight bundle of anger and anxiety, bellowing at anyone unfortunate enough to share his small office. Maybe the mayor, who owned the town bank, feared his business would be the next target.
But despite his hurt, Mills knew that the mayor was right. McGavin was a menace and should have been in the town jail days ago. Knowing that such a dangerous criminal continued to threaten his home and neighbors hurt far more than the mayor’s blustering threats ever could. McGavin had to be caught, alive or dead, before he could harm another innocent person.
Mills knew he needed a plan. Too bad he didn’t have one. The best he could come up with under the circumstances was to go back to Horton Canyon and look for clues. Maybe he could find something, some small shred of evidence, that would tell him where to find the brutal outlaws. It wasn’t much hope for a man used to dealing in hard facts.
BLAM! Before he could turn his horse toward the canyon, Mills heard a gunshot from the other side of town.
“Geeyap, Clovis!” he yelled, snapping the reins with a sharp crack. Maybe his luck had turned, he thought. Perhaps the McGavin gang had saved him the trouble of tracking them down.
“Are you sure about that, computer?”
“Probability: 94.6% that Doa’Lah remains on Class M planet. Engine exhaust residue analysis indicates ship of Ram’Cadian origin landed at the following coordinates within the past 20 days.”
La’Ath tapped an oversized keypad and glanced at the monitor. “Hmmm…looks like this place isn’t live’—it’s just inhabited by non-intelligent life forms. The area we’re entering appears to be sparsely populated, save for a few clusters here and there. It makes sense Doa’Lah would go to one of those clusters.”
On their homeworld, Doa’Lah was known as a notorious, cunning smuggler and killer. La’Ath had chased the criminal across countless star systems, never quite getting close enough to the elusive Doa’Lah. A tip at a bar on Logos XII, a docking report at the Sosolias Space Station—every clue kept the chase alive, but none brought him to his quarry. So the hunt continued.
Somehow, they had ended up here, to this uncharted world in an unknown system somewhere on the other side of universe. But now, La’Ath was close. Closer than he had been in months. He intended to make the most of this opportunity.
The afterburners hissed, bring the small spacecraft small spacecraft to a quiet landing beside a small corn patch. La’Ath pushed open the hatch—the dry, hot air nearly pushed him back. “Ugh. How can anyone stand this aridity?” he thought, longing for the thick rainforests of his home. “I’ll need to stay hydrated.” So would Doa’Lah. It makes sense that the criminal would need to stick close to water. Maybe he could use that knowledge to track Doa’Lah. If only he knew….
“What the devil is that thang?” A rough voice shouted from behind the ship. “Lookit! Some kinda…creature is coming out! I swear, it looks like a compost heap!” La’Ath turned at the noise. Two men in greasy, ragged work shirts and dungarees kept a cautious distance from the craft and its passenger. One of the men pointed a shotgun at the surprise visitor in their cornfield.
“Hairless mammals, by the looks of them. Computer didn’t say anything about that. And I bet those objects they carry are some form of weapons, perhaps a projectile launcher of some sort. I hope the computer’s translator works better than its scanners.”
La’Ath reached for the device, which was on his side. “Its going for its six-shooter! Shoot it!” Jacob, the older of the Donaldson brothers, screamed to Eli, his younger, shorter sibling. BLAM! The buckshot ripped at La’Ath’s side, pellets embedding in his marshy hide. “AAAHH! That hurt!” he cried in what he hoped was his assailant’s tongue, his computer’s translator being somewhat testy. “Just calm down. I’m not here to hurt you!”
Eli Donaldson peered at La’Ath through sweat-soaked bangs. “It can talk?!?” He looked over at his brother, uncertain of what to do next.
“Don’t listen to it! It’s just trying to confuse us, Eli!” Jacob said.
La’Ath waved all four of his stalk-like limbs in the air. “Now wait! I’m a…lawman. A lawman from far beyond your world. I’ve come here to apprehend a dangerous criminal. A criminal who would want to hurt you and your kind.” He hoped he was getting through, but he wasn’t sure that he was. The two men seemed awfully agitated by his appearance. In his mind, the Donaldson brothers were every bit as frightening as he was to them, but then again, he wasn’t the one holding a weapon.
“Shoot, Eli!” Jacob muttered. “He’s bound to use some kind of outer space mind tricks on us!”
“But…he said he’s a lawman?” Eli said, looking over at his agitated brother.
“And you believe this monster? Does it look like any lawman you ever seen? Now fire before it gets any closer!” Jacob screamed. Eli looked back at his brother, then turned toward La’Ath and lined up his shotgun.
“I wouldn’t do that, Eli,” Mills said as he and Clovis rode into the cornfield. As shocked as he was at the shambling creature in the middle of Donaldsons’ field, he figured that anything that flew in from space already could have done them harm if it intended. Plus, he knew the Donaldson boys would fight their own grandma just for fun.
“But sheriff! Just look at this thang! How come we can’t shoot it?” Jacob screamed. Sheriff Mills half expected him to start stomping his feet like an angry toddler.
“ ’Cause I want to talk to him…it…whatever,” he replied. “Now, you boys run along ’fore I dig up an old warrant or two!”
As the grumbling Donaldsons departed, Mills turned to La’Ath. “I heard you talking about a dangerous criminal. Tell me more.”
La’Ath blinked his large, yellow eyes. “Wait a minute. You—you want to help?”
“ ’Course I do. I’m Chuck Mills, sheriff of Dos Diablos, Arizona. And if there’s a criminal here, it’s my duty to bring him in.”
La’Ath thought for a moment. “I appreciate the offer; really, I do. But let’s face it—bringing in an interstellar criminal might be a bit more than you can handle.”
“Maybe so. But I know this area better’n anyone. Better’n any gizmo you might have, that’s for sure,” Mills said. “Plus, you owe me. Those two polecats would’ve blasted your swampy carcass into compost if Clovis & I hadn’t come along! B’sides, I’m thinkin’ you might be able to help me crack a tough case of my own.”
La’Ath thought for a second. Sure, this “Shurf Meels”, as he called himself, was a primitive, but he made sense—a local guide might come in handy on this strange, barren planet. Still, he thought it strange that the man’s partner had not even acknowledged him since they arrived.
“What do you think, Clovis? Can we work together?” La’Ath extended a tentacle to the horse, who simply sniffed the brown, marshy appendage. La’Ath looked to Sheriff Mills. “Your partner isn’t very talkative, is he? In fact, I find him positively rude!”
“And you wonder why you might need me….” Sheriff Mills allowed himself a brief smile. “Now, c’mon—we need to get you outta sight!”
“What in tarnation are you talking about? Why are you wasting my time with this foolishness?”
Mayor Thomas harrumphed at being interrupted in his office. But Jacob Donaldson wouldn’t let go of the Mayor’s coat sleeve, as he practically dragged him through town. “C’mon, Mayor! I seen it with my own eyes! There’s a space critter in Dos Diablos ”“ and Sheriff Mills is in cahoots with it!”
“Well, I want to see it with my own eyes then.” The mayor signed and knocked on the front door of Sheriff Mills’ small, wood-framed house. Mills tentatively cracked the door. “Can I help you, Mr. Mayor?”
“Sigh. The Donaldson boys are making noise about you harboring some sort of….” Mayor Thomas looked over at Jacob Donaldson. “Space creature!” Jacob said.
“Some sort of space creature. Do you have any idea what he’s talking about, Sheriff?” The sheriff stuck his head out the front door and shook it, “No.”
“Well, do you mind if we have a look inside?” Mayor Thomas pushed the front door aside to reveal…a non-descript man, wearing a plain white shirt and faded denim pants, standing in the living room. The man offered a shy wave and awkward smile to the leering crowd gathered on the front porch.
“Oh, Mr. Mayor, let me introduce my cousin—La, um, Larry. He’s from back East and just got into town.”
“Of course. Your cousin. From back East.” The Mayor gave Jacob his best glare as he turned around to leave. “Jacob Donaldson, if you ever….”
Mills closed the door and shook his head. “That’s a purty good trick you’ve got there.”
“Shape-shifting is a handy survival tactic,” La’Ath said. “My people have used it for millions of years. Probably evolved as a defense mechanism to save us from being eaten.”
“You looked at yourself lately? Not much appetizing about you!” Mills strapped on his gun belt. “Well, why don’t you keep being ‘Larry’ for a while—you’ll be a whole lot less conspicuous that way. Say, you ever ridden a horse before?”
“Never mind,” Mills said, donning his white Stetson hat. “I reckon you’ll just have to learn. Me and you are goin’ to Horton Canyon, ’cause I think the critter you’re looking for may just be calling himself Hunter McGavin!”
“So how you like riding a horse?”
La’Ath groaned. “Not to sound like a complainer, but these are the most awful creatures I’ve ever been around. And that Clovis—did you see him relieve himself out in the open back there? I’m sure he’s intentionally trying to offend—”
“Stop! Don’t go any farther!” La’Ath pushed his hand into Mills’ chest so hard that he nearly knocked the sheriff off of Clovis’ back. The alien pointed to the yipping, jittering device he carried. “I’m glad I recalculated my instruments to detect human life forms. Two of them are waiting behind the bend of that curve.”
Mills stared ahead at the narrow pass carved between two hills into the yellow dirt. “An ambush, huh?” He rubbed his stubbled chin and quietly pulled out the rifle strapped across his saddle. “That’s good to know….” He motion to La’Ath to dismount and follow him, and the lawmen slowly scaled the rocky peak on foot. Looking down from the top of the small hill, they saw two grimy men sitting behind some rocks, just out of sight from the path. One of the men sucked an unlit cheroot cigar, while the other polished a rifle with a stained rag. From their position, they could get the jump on anyone riding down the trail.
Of course, they didn’t expect someone to be right above them
“Howdy, boys — uh-uh, nice and slow now,” Mills cocked the hammer on his rifle to make a point. The desperados realized they were nabbed and meekly dropped their guns to the desert floor.
“Suppose you tell me where McGavin keeps his hideout and I’ll put in a word with the judge. After what you pulled in Tucson, you need all the help you can get!” Mills said as he hogtied the bandits.
“I swear, I don’t know!” one of the men said as Mills shoved the man’s arms behind his back. “Hunter always kept us blindfolded when we came through this pass—he said we wouldn’t believe it anyway.”
“Chuck! I have found something!” La’Ath said excitedly. Mills saw nothing unusual as he stared at the dusty canyon: “What?”
“This!” La’Ath pushed a button and a glimmering round doorway appeared in front of them.
“It is a trans-portal leading to pocket universe.” After seeing the blank look on Sheriff Mills’ face, he added, “Think of it as a hidden room.” That much Mills could comprehend. “So McGavin is in there?” he asked.
“I have to believe he is. Hunter—or Doa’Lah—is using this pocket dimension as a home base for his raids.”
“Good news—you can get off your horse now,” Mills said. “But draw your six-shooter, pardnuh—we’re goin’ in!”
“Three of a kind! Beats yore two pair any day!” Hunter McGavin smiled as he stretched his cards out on the table, causing the other two men to utter a variety of colorful expletives. The “room,” as it was, looked like a cave with faintly glowing black walls, roof and floor. Other than the card table, the only items in the room were a case of whisky, a container of dried biscuits and sacks of money with “Tucson Federal Bank” stamped on the side of canvas bags.
McGavin threw back a shot of tequila and laughed as he raked in his poker haul. “Ha! Ha! I just can’t lose!”
“Funny, Doa’Lah; I believe you already have!” La’Ath said. One of the men at the table stood up, only to be shot down by Mills before he could draw his pistol. La’Ath quickly dispatched the other one with a right cross to the jaw as the man lunged for his rifle.
McGavin dove underneath the table and, using it as a shield, started firing at Mills. “There’s no cover here; he’s bound to get me!” the sheriff thought, desperately looking for some protection. But before the killer could fire the fatal shot, he seized up, grunted and slumped to the floor. La’Ath stood over McGavin, holding a small metal bar in his hand.
“Neural disruptor. I actually wasn’t sure if it would work on mammals, but I guess it does,” La’Ath said, poking the unconscious man in the ribs. “I’d say he’ll be out for a couple of your hours, at least.”
The alien stood up and assumed his real form. “But I am disappointed—this man is not the criminal I am chasing. If so, he would have reverted to his natural state when he was rendered unconscious. So I suppose Doa’Lah has ’gotten away,’ as you would say. He could be halfway across the galaxy by this point.” La’Ath sighed. “Well, at least you caught your criminal.”
Mills shook his head. “No, don’t give up just yet Lay-Ath. I’ve gotta feelin’ your man ain’t gone too far after all!”
“Here he is, Mr. Mayor. Just like you asked.”
The unconscious, hog-tied Hunter McGavin bounced on the hardwood City Hall floor like so many pounds of potatoes. The mayor stood up and gasped, astonished either by the fact Mills had captured the killer or the out-and-out audacity of the sheriff’s actions.
“You caught him! Is he…?”
“Naw, he’s just knocked out for a while,” Mills said, striding over to the mayor’s desk. “Sumpin’ called a ‘nurl disrup’ter,’ but you wouldn’t know nothin’ about that, would you…Doe-Luh?”
“What in tarnation are you talking about?” the mayor flustered. But Mills continued, “I reckon you did away with the real Mayor Thomas. That’s why you started acting so different. I figgered the stress of being mayor just got to you, but I was wrong.”
“You were in cahoots with this varmit,” Mills said, pointing to McGavin. “He robbed the banks, while you hid him out and kept the money in your bank. And when I started poking around, you tried to send me straight into an ambush! I could deal with the mayor being a space alien. But a killer and a crook? Naw; not in Dos Diablos!”
Mayor Thomas smiled. “You’re pretty smart—for a mammal,” he said. “This dustball may be primitive, but here, I can be king! And you aren’t going to stop me; who would believe your story anyway? So why don’t you just take a cashier’s check and ride off back east with that cousin of yours?” The mayor slid his hand into his desk drawer. “I’m sure we can work out a—AIEEE!!”
The mayor shrieked and fell to the floor, where he reverted into a four-tentacled pile of vegetation. The neural disruptor fell from his desk drawer and clattered across the hardwood floor.
“Hunter McGavin” stood behind the unconscious mayor holding his own neural disruptor. “I’ve got to give you credit; your plan worked perfectly, Chuck,” he said, reverting back into La’Ath.
“Heck, I’ve been in enough ambushes; I ought to know how to pull one off!” Mills responded
“Are you sure you do not wish to come along? You could see things you can’t even imagine!”
La’Ath hoisted Doa’Lah into the containment cell of his ship, which he had hidden a barn near Sheriff Mills’ house. “Naw. Dos Diablos needs me.” The sheriff patted his horse on the nose. “Besides, I couldn’t leave ol’ Clovis behind!”
Mills dug around in his saddlebag and flicked a metal star to La’Ath. “ ’Course, I can’t let you leave without saying thanks!” La’Ath looked at the inscription: “DEPUTY SHERIFF DOS DIABLOS, ARIZONA.”
“I will cherish it forever, my friend. Farewell—and adios!” Mills and Clovis watched the silver ship as it streaked into the desert sky and disappeared. After a moment, Mills turned his horse and headed back toward town.
“Aliens. Space ships. Ray guns. If that don’t beat all.” Mills shook his head and laughed. “C’mon, Clovis; I think I got a carrot for you back at the house.”