by Gustavo Bondoni
“It’s a ghost!” Francois yelled as he ran past.
I sighed and dismounted. I’d parked my landcrab a good distance from the edge of the cliff. The newer models had much better steam engines, but stopping suddenly was as unpredictable as always.
The plateau ended in a drop of eighty yards to the valley floor below, but it was difficult to spot what had spooked my colleague from New Orleans.
I walked to the edge. The cliff wall under my feet didn’t seem solid. There was something in the wall, an overhang or a cave. If it was a cave, it was the biggest I’d ever seen. The dusk light wasn’t bright enough to make out the details.
The sound began suddenly: a moaning and a rattling of chains, and then a higher-pitched wail. A white, shining apparition appeared in front of me, fangs bared for action. It glowed as if illuminated by an inner light.
I took a dozen steps back and studied it. The thing seemed content to keep me at a distance, because it made no further move to approach. And then it caught fire and burned like a phoenix before disappearing.
There was no sign of the trail that had drawn us to this place, so I walked back. Francois was hiding behind the landcrab; the vehicle’s heavy construction would be able to absorb anything short of an artillery barrage.
“Did you see it?”
“I saw it.”
“Was it a ghost?”
“It was something very unusual, that’s for sure.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I want to have a better look.”
“Hopefully during the daytime.”
I nodded. “Yes, we’ll come back with better light. Now, tell me again about how you’re the bravest hunter in the bayou.”
“I’ll take on any living thing, even gators. But not ghosts. It’s not cowardice to run from ghosts. That’s just plain sense…”
The landcrab picked up speed, its eight metal legs working in harmony as we headed east towards Durango. At speed, it would take half an hour to cover the fifteen miles to the town.
Discussing the definition of bravery was better than contemplating how quickly this assignment had gone to pieces. First, tens of thousands of heads of cattle had disappeared without a trace after being removed from their rightful owners at gunpoint, and now I was being plagued by self-immolating ghosts.
Business as usual, sadly.
Like all boom towns, Durango changed every time one turned around. Last time I’d been there, the mines had just started to produce and the town consisted of a railroad depot, a general store with a post office and a hotel for miners on their way into the hills. Now the main street was lined with saloons, stables and at least one steam mechanic. By the look of some of the landcrabs on the street, he’d soon be rich if he was any good. Some of them looked like my grandfather could have driven them.
None of that mattered to me. My concern was to see whether they’d connected the telegraph in the store.
We were in luck. Even though it was nearly ten o’clock at night, the store was open. They put my wire through to Grand Junction, very impressed that I was with the government, and even more impressed with what I was asking for.
“I’d really like to see one of those, Mr. Edwards. You must be real lucky if you can just ask for one and have them send it right over,” the proprietor told me as I paid for the cable. “But I’ll believe it when I see it.”
I smiled and walked into the night. We needed to find a hotel. Sleeping under the landcrab was fine for open land, but if you tried that in a town like this one, you were liable to wake to find your boots missing.
We found a decent place which looked clean and which had a room with a window that faced the street. I was asleep before my head hit the first real pillow I’d seen in over three weeks of hunting cattle thieves.
The sound of the street filtered through the window I’d left open. When light woke me, I listened to the murmur of the crowd. It sounded like a normal day, so I turned around and went back to sleep.
At ten-thirty, the buzz of the crowd intensified and I heard people shouting in the streets. One woman just beneath my window called to another to hurry or she would miss it.
That had been even quicker than I expected. I put my boots on, paid the hotel owner and walked in the direction the people were going. Francois was already gone. There was no sign of him or of his belongings in the room.
The entire town had turned up to watch the show. I made my way through the thick crowd, stopping only to accept a handshake from the owner of the general store who apologized for his doubts. The two sentries at the foot of the gangplank saluted when they recognized me.
I liked what I saw. Every plank on the boat-like gondola, every piece of brass, and every window gleamed. The crew was not only a good one, but they had a sparkling new airship to exercise their talents on. This was one of the larger models. Probably built that very year. Or in 1881 at the latest. The models from two years ago had a slightly shorter prow design.
And then my heart sank. Of all the airship captains…
“Howdy Richard. How come you never look happy to see me?” Theresa Bowes shouted down from thirty feet above me. She was clutching the rigging with one hand and waving with the other. “I’m almost beginning to think you don’t like me.” She swung down like a monkey, with no regard for life and limb, and fell the final six feet to the deck.
“Hello Theresa. I like you well enough. But I find that you are much better company on solid ground than in the air.”
“Your problem is that you don’t have a sense of adventure.”
I was about to retort when Francois chimed in. “Remember yesterday’s ghost.” I knew what he meant. What good was protesting the fact that I was as brave as they came on the ground after I’d ridiculed him for running from the supernatural? I hated it when my own words came back to bite me.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“South. There’s a cliff wall I need to investigate.”
“Isn’t it easier to do that with ropes?”
“I have reason to believe I might need cannons. It’s hard to fire cannons when one is suspended from a rope.”
“You can’t shoot ghosts with a cannon.” Francois interjected.
“Ghosts, Frankie?” Theresa said.
“They’re real this time.”
“I’m sure they are.”
Flying with Theresa was always an experience, even in clear air. In fact, I think it was even worse in clear air. When conditions were less than ideal, she’d be a little – not a lot, mind you – more circumspect. Clear air gave her the excuse to scrape the bottom of the gondola against trees and to navigate in close-fitting canyons just because she could.
But that was preferable to the time she’d gone up as high as possible, to see what the earth looked like from a hundred miles up. I didn’t believe that we were really a hundred miles up, but I couldn’t read the instruments to tell if she was lying. Either way, I’d decided that it was high enough.
Her crew egged her on. Airship crews seemed to take perverse pride in serving the most unbalanced skippers. Theresa was among the honor roll: she was reputedly the craziest of the airship flyers who hadn’t been permitted to fly into combat in the last war. It was on account of her age, but she still seethed at the decision, and had publicly threatened to strafe the Capitol building unless congress let her into the next one.
This time, however, she seemed content to fly like a normal person. Her curiosity about what was going on overcame her natural tendencies.
“What are you working on?” she asked.
“I’m trying to locate a few thousand stolen heads of cattle. Seems entire stolen herds have been disappearing without a trace. Our trackers swear it’s impossible.”
“Why here? Terrain’s no good to herd cattle.”
I shrugged. “Saw some smoke on my way to Durango, came by to investigate. Someone wanted me to leave, so I thought I’d stick around.”
“And the ghosts Francois is babbling about?”
I described the thing we’d seen.
“And what do you think?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts, and I don’t believe in coincidence.”
“And you feel the need to poke your nose into it.”
“That’s what they pay me to do. If there’s no wrongdoing, we’ll apologize and go on our way.”
“And if there is, how will you prove it?”
“Well, I was just thinking that things that catch fire were probably designed to keep certain types of interest at bay. For example, if I didn’t want a floating fortress filled with hydrogen snooping into what I was doing, flammable flying defenses might be a good way to start.”
“You’re using us as bait?”
“I have complete faith in your ability to avoid anything they might send after us.”
“I should throw you overboard.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d been right about the overhang. There was a huge cavern just underneath the cliff top, and inside were the ruins of what looked to be an ancient town of dun colored houses. Would a criminal gang have built this?
Theresa was unsurprised. “Anasazi. Pueblo tribe. I always go down to have a look whenever I spot one of these cities. They’re amazing.” She saw my uncomprehending look. “Come on, even you must have heard of them.”
I dimly recalled one of my instructors at the academy telling me about the history and the original people of the areas I’d be policing, but I’d only listened with one ear. Extinct civilizations probably weren’t going to be my main problem.
We moved closer.
The unmistakable crack of a rifle broke the stillness of the air and one of Theresa’s sailors fell to the deck, bleeding from a shoulder wound.
“Take evasive action,” she shouted to the man at the wheel. “Go up, up, up!”
The craft lifted like it was connected to her mind, and immediately jerked to one side as the prow pointed into the air and the propellers spun faster.
We all ducked for cover and held onto whatever we could while searching the ruins for the sniper.
“There!” one man called. He was doubly brave, exposed to enemy fire while hanging from a rope. “Third tower from the right.”
Another member of Theresa’s crew took aim at the fellow. It was a good effort, but the motion of the gondola doomed it to failure. A plume of dust rose a few yards from where the gunman was. At least it sent him scurrying for cover.
We had other problems. A flock of Francois’ ghosts seemed intent on immolating themselves against the gasbag. Even Theresa was worried.
“Quick! Douse the bag with water. And push those things away!”
One of the ghosts drifted past and I reached out and grasped it. It tore in my hand as I pulled it aboard. I studied it and chuckled. It was a thin paper construction about half as tall as I was. There was a candle inside, and the exterior was painted with a frightening face.
“It’s a Chinese lantern,” I said.
“What it was doesn’t really matter anymore,” Theresa shouted. “We need to land, right now.”
I looked up to see that despite the crew’s precautions, the airship was smoking from several points – including the gasbag.
“Is it going to blow?” The fall down to the trees below looked painful, not to mention that I wasn’t looking forward to the explosion itself.
“Not if I can help it,” Theresa replied grimly. “The outer sheath on these military models is designed to burn slowly, which should give us a few minutes. But we need to get down, now.” She sprinted to the back of the ship as it lurched from side to side.
I watched her, mouth agape. I was too frightened to loosen my grip on the outer railing, and here she was, running around as if there wasn’t a long drop to one’s death right beneath us. I’d never understand airship crews.
Theresa shouldered aside the man at the wheel and guided the huge floating monstrosity in the one direction I wasn’t expecting: right towards the cave. I was sure it wouldn’t fit, that the bag would rupture and we’d all die in a fiery, watery hydrogen explosion.
But against every law of common sense, she managed to fit the airship onto the roof of a building with nothing more than a loud screech from the bottom of the boat. The sandy brick ruin crumbled even more as our weight rested upon it, but then held.
Theresa shouted orders and her men ran to tend the fires.
But then shots rang out, echoing infinitely in the enormous cavern. We all hit the deck.
I pulled out my six-shooter. Francois swore by his pneumatic rifle, but I thought it was stupid, just technology for technology’s sake. Exploding gunpowder had been good enough for my father, and it was good enough for me.
The first order of business was to try to understand where they were shooting from, and how many there were. The cavern made it difficult to tell because the sound came from everywhere at once, and you couldn’t really be sure if you were hearing a new shot or the echo of the one before it.
I saw movement on in the passage between two buildings below us, took aim in that direction and had the satisfaction of seeing a man dressed in cowboy boots and shirt fall to the ground clutching his leg. I’d aimed for his head, but I wasn’t going to admit that to the two members of Theresa’s crew congratulating me on my marksmanship.
“Come on,” I told them, “We need to grab him.”
The three of us jumped onto a wall and then scrambled down a pile of rubble onto what passed for ground level but was actually a shelf in the cavern well above the trees in the valley. Francois followed, cursing as a bullet just missed taking his foot off.
We were too late. The cowboy I’d hit was nowhere to be seen. A trail of blood led off to the right, but soon disappeared.
The dust cover was crisscrossed by dozens of sets of footprints – recent ones, but the number made it impossible to follow our quarry.
“What now?” Francois said when he reached us.
I stopped, looked this way and that, and then chuckled.
“We follow our noses,” I said.
They looked at me as if I’d gone insane. “What?”
“Smell. When you have cowboys, what do you have?”
“Exactly. And when you have cows, what do you have?”
None of them wanted to say what they were thinking. But I tapped my nose. Francois sniffed the air and made a face. “That does smell like a lot of cows. But what would they be doing in this cave? Are you telling me someone brought them up here?”
“Let’s go find out, shall we?” I asked and let my nose lead me forward.
The guard had made it almost all the way to the back wall before he passed out. I left one of Theresa’s troops tying a tourniquet around his leg and we pushed on, staying under cover in case the guy with the rifle reappeared.
We were in luck. No one sniped at us from the rooftops as we reached a large crack in the back wall of the cavern. The crack seemed to be emitting the stench of a thousand cattle pens.
The sound of rattling chains sent us all to the ground, fearing attack. When this was augmented by an ethereal, endless and echoing moaning. I heard Francois praying for his immortal soul.
After nearly a minute, nothing further happened, and I got up, dusted myself off and took a quick peek into the darkness of the cave.
I laughed so hard that my companions were alarmed. They rushed to offer assistance, but I motioned them to look. They did, and then chuckled at themselves.
Francois, in particular, looked sheepish. I decided not to let a golden opportunity pass. “It seems that your ghosts have four legs.”
“Would you mind telling me what in blazes that is?”
I gave him a steady gaze. “I believe they are called cows.”
“I know that you buffoon. I meant underneath the cows.”
“Ah. That’s a conveyor belt. Newfangled invention.”
“What is it doing there?”
That was actually a good question. I supposed it had been built to move gold to the east from the California rush. It was a big thing to build, but useful. It would pay for itself with what it saved in taxes and lost shipments. Maybe the source of the illicit gold had run dry, or maybe they’d simply found a more lucrative way of distributing it, but the conveyor had obviously been repurposed.
I shrugged. “It’s moving cows.”
I explained my theory to the men and left them instructions to get the airship back to Grand Junction and make a full report of what we’d found. That would end this particular cattle rustling operation.
“Where’s it taking them?”
“I don’t know. Want to go have a look?”
I waited for a gap in the bovine cargo and stepped onto the moving belt. “Then hop on.”
Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Test Site Horror (2020). He has also published two other monster books: Ice Station: Death(2019) and Jungle Lab Terror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion(2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com