The trail unwinding before Smith was just the sort he liked. Quiet.
A crisp wind was cutting through the valley, on its way west from the mountains behind him, through the trees around him, and out to the grassy plains ahead. It was a good feeling, calming and fresh.
That was what this new planet did best: made a man feel fresh.
These valleys and the foothills and grasslands beyond were filled with men and women looking to make money. They wanted to find their gold mines, their coal deposits, anything they could take out of the land and send back to civilization to make a pretty penny.
Smith didn’t want any of that. No, he was a drifter. He’d come to this world with his horse and his gun because he wanted to be left alone, like the drifters who’d gone before him. In the old days of the American west, they’d roamed the states, herded cattle, lived with the Indians.
There were no Indians out here, though, just real savages. There were no states out here, either, just open land. That was as it should have been. Smith reckoned a man like himself would lose something if he got tied down by civilization. He had no inkling of what he’d have turned into if he’d been forced to live his life in a west that had filled up, where a man couldn’t just drift.
Sure it probably would have been more secure, more regular and predictable, but who wanted that? Not him. Some folk wanted that, and that was their right – he wouldn’t judge them for it. But it wasn’t for him, so by rights no one should judge him for his own wants.
He’d just roam out onto those plains again, see where this new trail took him.
Coming to a clearing, he slowed his horse and lifted his canteen to his lips, taking a deep swig of water before moving on. He was riding further north now than he’d ever been. The line that separated American territory from the British mandate couldn’t be too far away. In all his dozen years out here, Smith had never ventured north of that line, on account of having heard that the British weren’t too forgiving of men just looking to drift. The British didn’t see the new world as a place to explore and be at peace, they saw it as a place to civilize, or at least organize.
The savages didn’t seem much interested in civilizing. As much as some called them men, and as much as they looked like white men, those savages weren’t human in any way that mattered. They weren’t about to be sitting in schools and reading the Bible. No sir.
But the British could have their way. The north of this land was theirs by treaty, theirs by law, and Smith didn’t see any reason to disagree with that. He didn’t see much reason to disagree with anything that didn’t try to stop decent people from having their rightful peace.
Sometimes a reason to disagree did find its way to him, though. Days when it did, he tended to deal directly with the problem.
Right now, in fact, he was hearing two horses riding hard down the trail, a ways behind him. He slowed his sixteen-hand tall, brown-blanketed Appaloosa and cocked his head to listen, one hand slipping the thong off the six shooter on his belt, the other sliding the Winchester out of its scabbard and laying it across his saddle. He didn’t think he had trouble coming after him, but Smith was one who believed in caution. Kept him living.
Turning his horse, he edged her over to the side of the trail, finding some cover behind an outcropping of grey rocks covered in moss. He waited as the horses came closer, watching the bend in the trail behind him patiently, silently. As he sat, he thought about his last few days, coming out of the new town, Leeland. Nothing of interest had happened there, so the horses probably weren’t bringing men looking for him especially… but then Smith was a man who’d made enemies over the years. It wasn’t that he was a bad man, or at least he didn’t reckon he was particularly off-putting.
No, he’d just found himself in certain places at certain times when doing the decent thing was bound to make an enemy of someone. And Smith tended to do the decent thing.
That was his way, so now he sat on his mare and waited for the two riders to find him.
As it turned out, they didn’t even see him. Two young looking clean-cut types, neither close to Smith’s six feet in height. They were fresh off the train by the look of them, with the fancy new Colt magazine pistols – the 1911 guns – in their hands, and were riding quite carelessly.
The first rider looked to be the leader, and he was spending too much time looking over his shoulder. He could ride his horse, but he looked to be one of the old world types, trained in it as a sport, not as a way of living.
As he came along, Smith decided to announce himself, “You boys running from trouble or looking to make it?”
Smith was a direct man. The question surprised both the boys, and they reined in their horses, the second one nearly being thrown when he did. They were on a steep slope, and it took a sure hand and some skill to handle the horse on it. Both boys froze at the sight of the wiry drifter. Smith was whipcord lean and clean shaven, but he had the weathered, steady appearance of a man who’d been through trouble enough times to know how to get out of it again. He still wasn’t sure if the boys were going to point those fancy new guns at him, but if they did, he’d have to make use of his rifle.
“Sir, you better move – we have savages after us!”
The lead boy was panicked, and not without cause. He was definitely from the old planet, based on his way of talking, so being chased would be new to him. And when the savages decided they wanted you, nothing stopped them coming for you. They weren’t men, they were animals that happened to look like men. And while Smith had heard that said of many men just because their skin color wasn’t white, it wasn’t the case on this new planet. Savages weren’t the Indians of Earth’s plains – they didn’t reason or have honor. As much as some folk said the Indians didn’t have honor, Smith had known some, friends of his father, who’d had plenty. No, savages looked like white men, like naked Americans or British, and they didn’t think.
They were vicious, too. They hadn’t gotten the name savage because some old worlder with a large self opinion and a poor understanding had decided they weren’t as good as him. They’d earned it by killing people, including the eastern scientists who came out to Pacifica to study them, certain that because they looked like white men, they could be civilized. The scientists had stopped coming after the savages ate the first few expeditions.
If these boys had come across a band of savages, they’d been found by trouble.
“How many savages is it?” Smith asked, pulling his Winchester off his saddle.
The lead boy, not really a man at this stage, was waving his fancy pistol up the trail as his horse sidestepped dangerously, “I counted at least five! Six maybe!”
Now Smith decided it wasn’t so much trouble after all, “Did you already shoot some?”
“No sir,” the second boy was looking at him now, and his panic was pretty obvious. “We kept missing.”
That sounded about right to Smith – these boys obviously hadn’t been out here long, and they hadn’t seen the savages move. Even if they were crack shots on horseback at home, and he reckoned by the look of them that they weren’t, they’d need some time to get used to shooting at savages, even with those new guns.
“Alright, they aren’t smart, those savages. They just come for you, see, so they’ll be down the trail. You come on down here past me, stay on your horses, but get set to shoot.”
The boys obeyed, not seeing much choice.
Trying to calm their horses, they came down to the rocks Smith was using for cover. Meantime, Smith steadied his trusty mare, who he’d chosen long ago for her calmness especially around savages, and lined up his Winchester, pressing the butt to his shoulder.
Six savages wasn’t many. On some bad days out here, he’d seen hundreds ravaging towns. Six was just a small band, probably lost from the group and looking for food. Savages loved eating.
And here they came. The boys behind him started to get twitchy, and Smith realized putting twitchy boys with shiny new guns behind his back wasn’t so smart.
“You boys get into the middle of the trail, I don’t want anyone acci-dentally shooting me in the back.”
Well, they were obedient enough, and soon their horses were sitting abreast of his and they were waiting with guns outstretched.
The savages didn’t make much noise, but Smith had been out here long enough to recognize what sounds they did make. His trusty mare, who knew the sounds of savages but never seemed spooked by them, stood her ground attentively. He had taken the slack off his trigger, so when the first monster came around the bend, he waited just a second, lined it up and squeezed.
As the first savage dropped, Smith was already levering the Winchester. It was his new gun, his 1892, and he was a better shot with it than with his father’s old ’73, which was still on his saddle as backup.
He shot twice more, fast, and the next two savages went down in a heap atop their leader. The boys were firing now, peppering the trail with .45 caliber lead, and not hitting much other than dirt. The last three savages came, and with one shot each Smith added them to the pile.
Now, the boys had said six, but he wasn’t so confident they’d seen all the savages, so he waited with rifle at his shoulder, eyes peeled. He didn’t hear anything. His mare relaxed too, and that was as good as proof that no more were coming. It was done. Just six, odd as that was.
“Alright boys, we’re all clear. You reload those fancy guns, don’t ever forget to reload out here. If it ain’t savages, it’ll be bandits,” Smith laid his Winchester across his lap, then pulled six rounds out of his belt and slid them into it.
The boys were still too fearful to be thinking clearly, but they did as they were told, and installed fresh magazines into their guns.
“Now, whereabouts are you boys going? It’s not all that friendly out here,” Smith slid the Winchester back into its sheath.
The boys looked at each other, holstering their pistols, the leader swallowing and getting his voice back, “We’re supposed to be prospecting. At the bottom of this trail is some land my father is investing in. We’re looking for gold.”
“I reckon there’s gold all around. Well I’m headed that way, I’ll ride with you that far if you like,” Smith offered. He wasn’t a man who sought much company, but he wasn’t going to abandon these boys without telling them some of the more important facts of life on this world.
“We’d certainly appreciate that, sir,” the second boy nodded. “We haven’t been out here long.”
“I could tell, no offense,” Smith nodded. “Come on, let’s ride down.”
They headed down the trail, and left the six savages behind them. The beasts always ate their own dead, better not to be around for that.