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Size Matters

by Jack Getz 4 months ago in Sci Fi · updated 4 months ago
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Love At First Shot

“Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.” As Luke Withers busied himself chopping and neatly stacking enough wood to last the long cold night, just as his Pop had taught him, he stopped from time to time to think about the odd statement that professor-type at the fort dropped on the the assembled crowd last week. Fort Cottonwood sat on the Platte River in Western Nebraska, serving as defense, and a supply depot, for the unending stream of hopeful settlers moving West to Oregon in mid-nineteenth century America. Anyone could easily draw an attentive group of pilgrims and half-drunk soldiers for a few minutes if their speech was colorful enough. And given the universal curiosity about the mysterious night skies, Professor Booth’s lecture about space assured that a large group of tired and bored travelers eagerly attended.

Luke was in that crowd, near the back, never asking questions, just mostly hung up on , the man’s first captivating sentence: “Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.” My guess from the way he said it was he didn’t know the answer, but he sure knew how to capture everyone’s attention. Was he saying space people existed? And if they did why would they scream if no one could hear them? For the tall, ruggedly handsome young Luke, the rest of Booth’s lecture was wasted, partially because of that thought and the rest due to his noticing several young women looking at him and giggling. ‘Have I got food on my face or a tear in my britches? Why are they gawking at me?’, completely unaware of his macho aura.

Fort Cottonwood was strategically located near the junction of the North and South Platte Rivers, so every pilgrim heading northwest on the Oregon Trail stopped there to rest and gather provisions. The journey through the plains to this welcoming place was certainly harrowing and fraught with danger, but the next phase of the road included a sneaky gradual incline toward the Rocky Mountain’s foot hills. That unseen foe of thinning air demanded a greater toll on everyone, especially the animals. Higher altitudes made a mile seem like a day’s journey. But that was part of the huge price settlers paid. Everyone who signed on for the five month trip had good enough reasons to believe the pain of going where they wanted to be was less than the pain of staying where they were.

Luke figured he was about two days ahead of the wagon train, heading toward the usually bustling Fort Laramie in the eastern Wyoming territory. Never having been this way before, he and his horse climbed a good-sized mountain to get a view of the land, hoping not to miss critical landmarks, or waste precious time. The train had to thread the needle between April and September or natural disasters could overcome them. Missing a trail sign would endanger his charges, and simple mistakes could easily lead to calamity and possibly death.

Out here word spread fast of the ill-fated Donner Party who in 1846 tragically doomed themselves by delaying their start from Illinois, arriving in Independence, Missouri several weeks too late. While desperately trying to makeup the time, they gambled on an unproven shortcut, putting them another month behind schedule and exhausting their food supplies. So when an unexpected, but not unusual November blizzard hit, dumping five feet of snow with drifts of 60 feet, they were marooned for months in the Sierra Nevadas. Everyone knows what happened up there so no caution was considered frivolous to scouts.

On the plains, as on the vast ocean, star gazing on clear nights was a favorite, often necessary, past time for trappers, plainsmen, pilgrims and indigenous natives. Luke’s other diversion while alone was watching the fire’s mesmerizing sparks floating into the night skies. ‘Who knows? Maybe those sparks are headed to space to become stars’, he mused.

Having chopped enough pine for the night, he sat close enough to his best friend, the campfire, to feel the heat but not the sizzle. Looking up from his lofty camp toward the cold black vault of the universe, he yelled loud enough to be heard in Denver, “Hey up there! Can you hear me in your space vacuum now?” With no response forthcoming, he figured the old professor might be right. If no one could hear him up here, or so he hoped, maybe he was high enough to test the space vacuum theory for himself? Continuing he yelled, “I’m close enough, you know, to stick my head through them clouds yonder to see if anyone’s listening!”

Chuckling at the absurdity of screaming at the sky, he poked the fire a few times before carefully adding two good-sized pine logs to cover the first shift of his plan to sleep warm, and to keep bears and cougars away. Luke was more than aware of the dangers of isolation, and his strategy was singing, whistling, stoking the fire or talking to the stars to scare away the creepy feeling of always being watched.

So now, after calling for some response from out there, hoping to rouse a sleeping celestial pony express rider, he tried again, mostly because it feels good to act a bit crazy where it was safe to do so: “Damn, if you can hear me now out there I could use a couple more blankets and a fresh pot of coffee!” With no response, or more blankets, Luke knew he was truly alone in his cozy dark mountain bivouac.

Ignoring the call of space was impossible on the Great Plains. It had the power to humble even a proud man. Luke had far more questions than answers about it’s size and dangers, and his own abilities. He felt humbled. Sure, his dad taught him survival and a little about using the stars to navigate at night, but his confidence was not high enough to take any silly chances out here. He knew the plains were limited, but here the expanse of the sky was different than back East. ‘Maybe the universe was like a prairie, vast, foreboding, intimidating and full of danger.’ “Silly,” he mumbled, lying on the pine branches of his little lean-to.

The American West was a famously open space, probably the size of Europe, most of it uncharted by settlers, but well-known to the dozens of Native American tribes, all of whom were territorial - to the extreme. After their introduction to the horse in the late 17th century, their diverse cultures often violently clashed as they pursued the bounties of countless millions of buffalo who, it might be said, were the original landlords of the plains.

Luke was gaining a growing understanding of both the opportunities and often hideous dangers of traversing this land, while leading a mostly helpless group of about 100 settlers. So when in their presence, he tried to look confident and strong, but he was secretly unsure of himself, especially when alone, as he was tonight.

Young men of twenty had no problem finding employment as ranch hands, or even farmers, closer to civilization. But no one ever cozies up to the idea of one Luke’s age scouting for a wagon train heading for the Pacific Northwest. A good number in the group thought it was suicidal trusting him to guide them into the wilderness, but the Scottish Wagon Master, Jedediah McKay, was not one of them. He was a pragmatist, a necessary quality to leading this critical effort. So having no other choice, other than turning back this late in the journey, he had to trust the kid. “Yessir,” he bellowed when others were near, “The kid is all right.” But where no one could hear him, he chuckled saying, “I trust the kid mostly because I got no other damn option.”

The plan, when starting out from St. Louis two months ago, was to follow the Platte led by Luke’s experienced, grizzled father, who came highly recommended as both tracker and scout. Those who knew him before the scalping incident kept calling him Curly as a joke, which fortunately for them, he thought appropriate. His real name was Josiah, but where his long curly locks previously resided, he carried an ugly scar from surviving a Pawnee scalping party a few years earlier on the Platte River three hours west of Omaha.

Well sir, as fate would have it, once again, on the same North Platte River near the great aquifer north of Ogallala, Nebraska, the Pawnees exacted their revenge on the bastard who got away three years earlier. They clearly remembered his huge 6’ 4” frame because he was impossible to wrangle without at least three stout braves. And almost comically, when streaking away from them with his sore bloodied head, he was so big his spotted paint looked like a small pony beneath him.

This time, while scouting a day or two west of the wagon train, feeling over-confident, he foolishly told Luke to ride back to the train and tell Jed things looked okay for following the North branch of the Platte, which was customary for pilgrims heading for the well-worn Oregon Trail. The Platte river, like the Missouri up north, was a convenient highway west, but, unlike Mighty Mo, this river was fickle, and in dry times it was only a braided stream which folks often joked was “…too thin to walk on but too thick to drink.”

Obediently, the boy supplied himself for the long dangerous ride back, never expecting he would not see his Pop again. Once alone, the Pawnees finished what they started and Curley went down after a legendary battle, which the Indians still talk about most nights around their fires.

So here, a month later, sat Luke, scared to death of failure but far too proud to let anyone else know it. In fact, people sometimes laughed behind his back because he tried too hard to sound tough like his daddy. He was big like Curly, and his long hair, buckskins and well weathered beaver skin hat made him look tough enough, but he got a high pitched voice from his momma, something he rued all his life. So Luke mostly opted for silence, speaking only when necessity demanded.

His relationship with women his age was awkward because, while his looks were most appealing to young ladies, his voice led them to suspect he might not be as well hung as his foot size suggested. Besides, most frontier women were already conveniently ensconced in marriage relationships, often bearing at least two children by the age of twenty. So for now, Luke was not romantically inclined, which was okay with him given his new lonely life as a frontier scout.

As midnight approached, despite the penetrating cold, he hoped he was weary enough to sleep. So having already stacked a half-dozen arm-sized branches near enough to nudge them into the fire with his booted foot, if he was lucky enough to sleep more than an hour or two at a stretch, he settled in for the night.

Reverie is the only constant companion mountain men and advance trail scouts can count on for company. Unlike most young guys, Luke’s mind wasn’t on real women, but instead on his two mistresses: the endless prairie and the mysterious sky. Both were boundless and could be intimidating, usually demanding more than he could give, unless he learned how to displace his fear with wonder. But Luke wasn’t like most young men. He was comfortable with silence, both in his interaction with people, especially young women, and with his encounters on the Plains. His thoughts wandered between his call to lead others and his unwillingness to engage in conversation or pointless banter with them. ‘Just do your job better than anyone else’ was his internal creed.

After twisting and rolling back and forth, Luke found a position where the twigs and small stones beneath his saddle blanket couldn’t act like the little demons they were. While resting, he tried to clear his mind but the urgency of locating the South Pass in time made him restless and blessed sleep let him stew awhile.

Fortunately, he knew enough frontier history to comfort him. In the 1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, one group attempted the almost impossible northern path through the Bitterroot Mountains. The other southern expedition made friends with the local Shoshone Indians who told of the sage-covered prairie-like South Pass located in south-eastern Montana. This virgin journey was Luke’s chance to gain respect as a scout, on his own, something he desperately wanted. He figured the best way to honor his Pop was to become an even better guide than him.

In a sleepy stupor, both hearing and sensing danger, knowing the only possible answer was a night hunting mountain lion or a hungry bear, he was instantly awake and on full alert. Fearing attack, he adroitly fired three warning shots toward the suspected intruder. Gun still cocked, waiting to hear if he was lucky enough to have hit anything, he remained deathly still. Hearing nothing, he groped for a hunk of wood, laying it in the fire to ignite its tip, all the while peering intensely into the cold darkness.

No response. No growl. No movement. Yet he sensed something was there just out of the fire’s glow. Attempting to still his heavy breathing and calm his wildly beating heart, he could only hope dawn was close.

Normally he could make a good guess about the time from the relationship of the stars to the horizon, but while he slept, a westerly wind drove in a dense cloud cover. He could only sit and wait to see what happened in the dark, so he leaned back and rested, without sleeping.

After what seemed an eternity, the East-born morning sun swept over the endless, mostly shadowless prairie, and in an instant he was delivered from the evil darkness of the night. Eagerly welcoming the light and its heat, he stood slowly, stretching out his cramped muscles, yawning like a grizzly coming out of hibernation. After stoking the fire, heating water for coffee and washing, he kicked dirt over the smoldering campfire, dowsing it completely by peeing on the few remaining smoking embers.

Curiosity taking a back seat to his immediate needs, he reconnoitered the area to see if his shots did any damage in the dark night. Carefully leaning over the nearby ledge, he saw no sign of carnage below, so shrugging he said, “Well my boy, you survived whatever the hell that was.”

While self-congratulations were in order, Luke busied himself packing his gear, leading his sadly inherited horse to tall grass. Then peering toward the distant Northwest, he hoped he was right about his planned route. The wagon train would be following his trail markers, so their relative positions would be the same as it was earlier. If all went well, Jed would lead the train well into the Wyoming territories, heading for the Grand Tetons southern extension, where Luke was camped.

Until this point, the road was passable with only two primary concerns, water and avoiding the Crow, Pawnee, Sioux and other highly guarded Indian territories. A scout’s job was not riding along with the train but insuring both of those concerns were planned for in advance of their arrival. Luke’s priority was the long-range security of the train. The wagon master’s concern was the immediate defense of the mostly naïve settlers.

Still busying himself for departure, gnawing on some jerky, enjoying its juices, a familiar feeling of disturbance settled on him. Slowly, pulling his pistol from its holster, and hoping to see nothing, Luke saw a slight person, oddly, dressed exactly like him, with blankets draped over their left arm with a tin coffee pot in her right hand.

Naturally freezing in disbelief, wondering if he was still sleeping and dreaming crazy stuff, he shook his head quickly like a dog getting out of water. At that point, realizing the person was as real as his horse, who too, was momentarily spooked by the sudden appearance of the stranger, he froze again.

“Whoa!“ he said forcefully while extending his left arm with his palm directed at the stranger, gripping the handle of his still holstered gun with the other. “Where did you come from?” Before the person responded, he opened his eyes to maximum spread saying, “Was that you I shot at last night?”

Seductively, removing her beaver cap and shaking out her captive hair, flashing a million dollar smile, and a girl of all things, said, “Yep! That was me. And I must say, you are great shot in the dark.” Before he could form words she added, “You know you hit me three times with your bullets.” Stunned, Luke stammered out a high-pitched, “Huh?”

Fearlessly ignoring his warning to stand still, the unwanted guest set down the pot and blankets on the ground by the fire. Then with both hands stretching out her bullet-holed top quipping, “See, here’s where you got me, and the other one hit my head.” Almost in shock, Luke just gawked as she took his left hand gently depositing the slugs, as if returning lost jewels to a stupefied owner.

Luke took them, touching her fingers with his suddenly sweaty palm and then open-handed his left cheek with force enough to knock his beaver skin hat to the ground. The pain was instant and real, and for the second time in just a few minutes, he reckoned he was not dreaming but awake encountering something other-worldly, if not hallucinatory.

Now fully wet with sweat, Luke sat down on a log near where he had tried to sleep the night before, again shaking his head with short powerful movements. Gaining a touch of courage, he cocked his head to the right, hand still resting on the butt of his revolver, with the three lead slugs in the other, he asked, “How come you aren’t dead?”

Finally regaining what little poise he possessed around women, he fired off, “Why are you dressed like me? I don’t see a horse so how did you get up here? and finally, Where did you say you slept last night?” Having emptied his cluttered mind that quickly, he suddenly remembered last night’s frivolous request of the universe for blankets and coffee, and while a little late, here they were, delivered by what he only assumed was some sort of angel, like in the Bible. A shy smile parted his lips and his right hand reflexively covered it, lest this creature saw that he let his guard down because of her.

Then straddling the log to sit, she asked if he was ready to hear the answers to his three urgent questions. Watching her take over the log, Luke could only nod his head with his mouth hanging open as if his jaw was broken.

“Okay. Listen carefully. One, I am not dead because I am not from this planet. I simply choose to appear when and where your people gather so I can study your species. I assumed a female human form by watching your people at Fort Cottonwood and shape shifted to become like them. I especially studied the young ladies who all seemed to be looking at you all night. Did I do all right, or do you like men better?” she demurred. “I didn’t think your professor was very smart, by the way.”

It was impossible for Luke to open his eyes any further, but he tried. “Next, I am dressed like you because I just want to fit in down here.” Luke erupted, “What do you mean down here? We’re on a mountain for Pete’s sake! And those are men’s clothes you know! How on earth do you get someone to make those? Only mountain men can do that kind of work.”

After this second outburst, she politely shushed him, placing her finger to her lips. “Didn’t you ask me something about how I got here without a horse. Well, hold on, I didn’t get up here, I already told you I came down here.” Now speaking to a completely flummoxed young man, she explained herself. “You couldn’t see when I arrived through those clouds that blocked the half moon last night.” By this time Luke was sitting with bowed back, slowly shaking his dropped head, minus the beaver hat which he knocked off only minutes ago.

“And last, I didn’t sleep anywhere because where I come from, we sleep for a partial age, then stay awake for a full age. It’s a productive system.” Luke must have looked baffled and she heard him mumble, “Partial age?” Yes, a full age would be far more rest than we need. You sleep one night and then operate inefficiently for less time than that.”

With that Luke jumped to his feet, “Okay, moonbeam, let me look into your eyes because I think you are a lunatic…er…not a lunatic from the moon, but lunatic like someone who gets crazy when the moon is full.” As soon as he spoke, he remembered the moon was only half stage so crazy just got crazier for him.

Already half believing her story, Luke cautiously approached her, feeling confident he was big enough to defend himself - even from a crazy space girl if she took things to the next level of nuts. Luke clearly saw her delicate face and full lips for the first time, never believing in love at first sight…but this was anything but a normal encounter.

“I’m pretty sure you think all you say is true, and I admit I can’t explain those bullet holes and slugs yet, but maybe if you come closer, I can look into your eyes, and we can get to the bottom of this.” Rubbing his chin whiskers and projecting a much less strident tone, he added, “You wanna sit down here by me and tell me again how you came down to be on this mountain?”

Removing the imbedded hatchet so he could scoot closer to her on the fallen and weathered log, they trustingly gazed into each other’s eyes, as if in a trance. He saw that hers were blue, sparkling like a mountain lake in the morning. He never saw blue eyes before, but that’s wasn’t saying much for a guy who had spent most of his life with his Pop in the wilderness.

“Why did you seek me out?” he sighed, looking like he was facing a hanging judge in Dodge City.

“Well, I’m here looking for someone strong, someone who understands and embraces the beauty and mystery of space. You love these plains, don’t you?” With his slight nod she continued, “You don’t know this, but I followed you a long time. Since visiting your Fort Cottonwood, I noticed how well you do your job, you don’t brag, you know how to survive alone, and best of all”… she paused, coyly smiling… “I can see that you think I’m too good to be true. Am, I right?” “Well hell yes, you are all that!” he exploded.

In time he realized what she already knew. They mutually shared a love for the beauty, and the potential, of uncluttered open spaces; his the limited Great Plains, hers the limitless universe. Feeling a delightful bond, despite her wearing his clothes, the only difference being hers were rent by two 45 caliber bullet holes, they sat silently looking at one another.

After several hours of astonishing conversation, Luke realized this beautiful, so far nameless creature, was neither crazy nor human. What she was, was completely beautiful, engaging, intelligent, and very desirable. And the best part was, she never once made fun of his high-pitched voice.

Almost too much for him to believe, a guy who was notoriously afraid of girls, Luke suddenly and hungrily kissed his Moonbeam, many times. Tenderly holding each other, they accepted they were now other-worldly soul-mated, destined to be together, somewhere. He only wondered where that would be.

That said, he had covenanted with Jedediah McKay to lead the train safely to Oregon, and he would keep his word, even if it meant losing this treasure. But he wouldn’t allow himself to consider that a possibility. Perhaps she could help him finish his task before…before whatever would happen next.

Jack Corbin Getz

8/12/2022

Word Count 4067

Sci Fi

About the author

Jack Getz

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