Friday, February 27, 2009

 

Free Fiction: Two Birds

Here's an odd one, at least considering the rest of my body of work. In the months after I quit my full-time job, in the fall of 2003, and the birth of Georgia in February of 2004, I wrote like a fiend. For the first time since summer breaks in college, I had all day to write. It was glorious.

The problem was, I very quickly had stories out to all the top science fiction and fantasy markets, and was waiting for rejections before I could submit to them again. And I already had a stack of unsold novels, so wasn't in any hurry to write another long piece without any idea where it would be going. So I decided to experiment a bit.

I tried different genres and subgenres. I tried my hand at a dark fantasy/horror story (which didn't sell), wrote a couple of short stories to submit to Boy's Life (which would have been a childhood dream come true, but those didn't sell either), and more others than I can remember. None of these experiments resulted in a sale, which convinced me that I was already working in the genre best suited to my talents. I trunked the stories, and never really thought about them again.

This morning, though, digging through some old files looking for a pristine version of a short-short I'm supposed to be revising, I came across one of the experiments that I was really sorry never sold. I've always loved mysteries, and tried on a few occassions to break into the mystery field, without any success. This short, written in those heady days when I first became a full-time writer, was submitted to all of the big mystery magazines I knew about, and bounced from all of them. Clearly, I wasn't cut out to be a mystery writer. But still there's a lot about this short that I enjoy, not least of which the trivia about the early days of aviation in Texas that I turned up researching it. I wouldn't be surprised to see elements of this story turn up in one of my sf/f stories, sooner or later. But in the meantime, it's a strange artifact from the trunk. Who knows? Maybe in some other branching worldline of the Myriad this thing sold to Hitchcock's or someplace similar, and there's an analogue Chris Roberson who decided at that moment to pursue a career as a mystery writer.


Two Birds
by Chris Roberson

May 1, 1911. Medina County, Texas.

Sergeant Calvin Reid wiped his face with a bandanna, and set his Stetson back up on his head. This was supposed to be the raining season, when the showers eased them out of the cool of winter and into the spring, but the rains hadn’t come. The ground was bone dry, and the air was humid and still. By midday, it felt like a man might boil out of his skin. Reid didn’t like to think what that said about the coming summer, a spring as cruel as this.

Reid looked down at the body in the dried grass, its face a red ruin, sightless eyes starring up at the brilliant blue sky. It was well past noon, and the shadows were starting to grow. Darkness fell across the victim’s mangled face, shade from the bulk of the aeroplane just a few feet from the body.

Reid looked over at the machine, with its sharp-bladed wooden propeller, boxy frame and canvas covering. He couldn’t help but whistle low in appreciation. He’d never seen an aeroplane before. He’d seen his fair share of dead bodies in his line of work, but never an aeroplane. He just couldn’t figure why someone would be willing to kill over one.

##

It had started that morning.

Sergeant Calvin Reid of Texas Rangers Company D had been investigating a murder on the eastern outskirts of the town of Hondo. The body had been found just outside the town limits, so it fell under the jurisdiction of the Rangers rather than that of the town sheriff. Sergeant Reid was responsible for all of Medina and parts of Uvalde and Bandera counties, and so when a local rancher had come across the body that morning, they’d sent for him.

Luckily, Reid hadn’t been far. He reached the scene less than an hour after the rancher had found the body, and by the look of things, the murder had happened only an hour or so before it had been discovered. It was ten o’clock by Reid’s watch when he hopped off his palomino at the scene, so the murder must have happened at about eight o’clock, if murder it was.

It was murder, though. That was clear enough.

The body was laying face down in the dust, at the middle of a small clearing, the back of its shirt blackened with dried blood. There were hoof prints all around, but with the ground so dry, it was hard to tell which were the newest. The prints heading towards Hondo could be a day old or a week, those heading out to the east could have been made that morning or a month before.

Another reason we need the rain, Reid thought, knocking the dust out of his hat.

A horse, presumably that of the victim, was lingering near a stand of cedars a few yards off, munching discontentedly on the meager grass. On the opposite side of the clearing a man in well-worn overalls and a wide straw hat leaned against a tree, contentedly working his way through a plug of tobacco.

Reid dismounted, and his palomino mare drifted over to try out the grass for herself.

“You’re the one found the body?” Sergeant Reid asked the man.

“Yassir,” the man drawled. “Name’s Culverton. I’ve got a little spread just south of here,” he pointed with his chin, wasting no effort, “and one of my calves went missing in the night, so I was out here looking for her. Didn’t find her, but I found this ‘un instead.” He pointed again with his grizzled chin, this time to the body.

“You didn’t see anybody else around, I don’t expect?”

“Nossir, I surely didn’t. I had my brother’s boy with me, and I sent him running into town to fetch the law.” Culverton narrowed his eyes at the glint of silver on Reid’s chest. “You a Ranger?”

“Yep,” Reid said, squatting down on his heels next to the body.

“Don’t reckon you’ll be needing me anymore, then.” Culverton leisurely pushed off the tree, and straightened.

“Hang on a bit, there,” Reid answered, holding up his hand. “I’ll need to get a statement from you.”

Culverton chewed his lower lip for a moment.

“That calf of mine ain’t going to find itself, now,” he said, contemplatively. “But you being the law, I reckon I can wait another minute or two.”

Reid turned his attention back to the body. The man had been on foot when he was shot, and the bullet had entered his body from the back. He’d fallen forward into the dirt, and hadn’t gotten up again. From the state of his clothes, the victim had been fairly well off, though Reid couldn’t find any wallet or papers of any kind in the man’s pockets. More telling, there was also no money on him, neither paper currency nor coin.

It could have been nothing more than a simple robbery, then. But who was the victim, and what had he been doing out here in the scrub?

##

Sergeant Reid didn’t have much opportunity to worry about the murder victim. Not long after he’d gotten a statement and the particulars from Culverton, the rancher’s nephew had returned. Reid and the rancher managed to arrange the victim’s body across the back of his horse, and for twenty cents the rancher’s nephew agreed to lead the horse into town to the mortician’s place.

Just as Reid sent the rancher and his nephew on their way, a rider approached from the south. It was nearly noon, and the sun blazed overhead in the clear blue sky.

“Ranger, you’ve got to come, and quick,” the man on horseback shouted, all out of breath. “I rode almost clear to Hondo to find you, but the sheriff’s deputy told me you were out this ways.”

“What’s the trouble, fella?” Reid asked, straightening up and dusting off his trousers.

“There’s been a murder!”

Reid glanced at the body laying in the dirt, and then back up at the rider.

“Another murder! Our near my place in Castroville.”

The man seemed a mite excited, especially after laconic Culverton. The victim must have been someone pretty close to him.

“Who was it, son?” Reid asked, whistling his palomino Bolillo over from the stand of trees. The mare came clopping over, reluctantly. He’d trained the horse well, but she had a stubborn streak still that he’d never yet been able to break. “Part of your family?”

“No sir,” the rider answered, catching his breath. “I’d never seen him before. But he was in a flying machine before he died!”

Reid grabbed hold of Bolillo’s saddle horn, stuck his foot in the stirrup, and swung up onto her back.

“A flying machine?” Reid repeated, his brow furrowed. “You mean an aeroplane?”

The man nodded, eagerly.

“How far?” Reid asked, looping the reins around a gloved fist. With his other hand, he checked the strap holding his holstered Colt at his hip. If he was to set off at a gallop, he didn’t want to jostle the gun loose.

“About fourteen miles thataway,” the man answered, pointing due east.

Reid relaxed a bit. If the crime scene was that far away, there was no need to rush. It’d keep.

“What’s your name?” Reid asked.

“Davis. Jim Davis.”

“Well, Davis,” Reid answered. “You mind leading the way?”

The man shook his head, and turning his horse’s head back to the east, kicked her flanks and set off at a trot.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Reid said, urging Bolillo to follow. “A real life aeroplane.”

##

Around midday, Reid and Davis stopped at a livery station, about halfway between Hondo and Castroville. They had another seven miles until they reached Davis’ place and the scene of the second murder, but Davis had been riding for nearly two hours flat out, and his horse needed to be fed and watered. Reid, for his part, hadn’t eaten much since lunch the day before, and he was starved.

Tied up outside the livery was a horse that looked like it’d just run a cross-country race, flecks of foam still dabbing the corners of its mouth at the bit, its flanks caked with dust and sweat. Reid and Davis handed their horses off to the hostler, and headed into the small ramshackle building next door, where the hostler’s wife served up strong coffee and more or less palatable meals every day.

Inside, seated at a rickety table by the far window, was a man Sergeant Reid recognized.

“Horace Greene,” Reid said, taking off his hat and pulling out a chair at a nearby table. “As I live and breathe.”

Horace Greene was a big man, running to fat. He’d had some run-ins with the law before, petty thefts mostly, but he’d kept out of trouble for a while. He’d done a few months behind bars in Hondo after breaking into Judge Miller’s house, and the fear of returning to captivity seemed enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. For the moment, at least. He still owned a small ranch on the far side of Medina County, out towards Uvalde, but folks said that Horace had run into money trouble, and might have to sell it. The way Reid had heard it, Horace owed the bank a fair bit of money, more than he could make selling off his scrawny herd.

Greene looked up at Reid’s greeting, startled, eyes wide in a face the permanent red of an embarrassed blush. On seeing the Ranger calmly sitting down to table, Greene visibly relaxed, but kept his hands tensed into chubby fists, resting on either side of his plate.

“Howdy, Ranger,” Greene answered, nodding slightly. He didn’t say another word.

Greene seemed winded, out of breath. Reid wasn’t sure if that was the extra weight he’d packed on in jail, or because of exertion. Was that Greene’s horse out front, ridden nearly to collapse?

The hostler’s wife served up biscuits and gravy and cups of strong, black coffee to Davis and Reid. The three men sat in silence, Greene gulping down the last of his coffee and mopping his plate clean, the Ranger and Davis taking measured bites. When Greene had settled up his bill with the hostler’s wife, he nodded a quick farewell to Reid, and then hurried from the building without another word.

“Quiet type, ain’t he?” Davis said, disinterestedly.

“Yep,” Reid said simply, but suspicion hid behind his eyes. He looked through the dirty panes of the window as Greene mounted up on the beleaguered horse and rode off to the west, towards Hondo.

##

Davis lead Sergeant Reid to the site of the murder an hour or so past noon. The body was lying next to the aeroplane, just as Davis had said, in an open field just west of the town limits of Castroville. No one had touched the body, or the plane, since the Ranger was sent for.

The victim was dressed in a military uniform, khaki jodhpurs and jacket, with leather goggles pulled down and hanging around his neck and a holstered pistol at his hip. He’d been young, in his early twenties perhaps, with fine blond hair that hung in short curls around his head like a halo. The body was lying on its back, sightless eyes staring up at the blue sky overhead, its mouth and nose a ruin of dried blood and gore. The victim had been shot in the face by the killer, who by the angle of entry must have been on horseback.

Reid squatted down by the body, taking a closer look. The victim hadn’t put up any kind of fight. The pistol was still secured in the holster, and the lack of blood or powderburns on the forearms meant that he’s had his arms to his sides when the shot was fired. From the look of things, the victim had just landed the aeroplane, climbed to the ground, and promptly been shot in the face.

“Sergeant,” Davis said, directing Reid’s attention to the east.

The far eastern edge of the clearing was bounded by a rode that curved off to the south and east. A wagon had appeared at the clearing’s edge, a wide cart pulled by two big draft horses. At the reins was a stout man dressed in military khakis, at his side a taller man in the same uniform.

Reid stood up, and waited.

“How do, fellas,” Reid said.

The stout man brought the wagon up alongside the aeroplane, his manner casual. When he saw the body stretched out in the grass, though, his eyes went wide.

“Lieutenant!” the stout man said, and leapt to the ground from the buckboard.

“Aw, cripes,” the tall man said, wincing. He pulled the handle to lock the brakes of the wagon, and then followed his stout companion to the ground.

“What happened?” the stout man asked, looking up at Reid, his expression drawn.

The tall man drew near, and leaned over to get a closer look at the victim, grimacing.

“You fellas know this one?” Reid said, pointing to the body in the grass with his chin.

“Yeah,” the tall man answered, standing up straight. “His name is Hopkins. Lieutenant Dan Hopkins.” He glanced back at the body, and shook his head. “Dang it,” he swore.

“And who might you fellas be?” Reid asked.

“My name’s Johnston, and this here is Bloom,” the tall man said. “We’re enlisted men, out of Fort Sam Houston.”

“That where this fella and his flying machine are from, too?” Reid asked. He’d heard that the Army base in San Antonio had gotten an aeroplane the year before.

“Yessir,” the stout man called Bloom answered, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “Hopkins was due back at the base a few hours ago, and so Johnston and me was sent out after him. We figured that… well, we figured he might have had trouble getting back up in the air. We didn’t know…” Bloom’s gaze drifted back to the body, and his voice trailed off into silence.

“You didn’t know he’d go and get himself shot,” Reid finished for him.

Johnston and Bloom both nodded, eagerly.

“You know of anyone who’d have a reason to kill him?” Reid asked.

Both soldiers shook their heads.

“He just transferred in last month,” Johnston answered. “And he hardly ever left the base.”

“He didn’t have any enemies I heard about,” Bloom said.

Reid looked over at the body.

“Well, he must have found one at the end, I suppose,” he said.

##

Davis and Reid helped the two soldiers wrap the body of the dead pilot in a tarp, and loaded it and the aeroplane onto the back of the wagon. Before they’d gone, Reid learned from them that the pilot had taken off just an hour before Davis had found the body. The plane had a top speed of forty miles per hour, and the base was about 20 miles away, so to their reckoning he’d been in the air about thirty minutes. That meant that the murder had likely taken place thirty minutes before Davis had come upon the body, or sometime around nine o’clock that morning.

There hadn’t been a murder in Medina county in well over month, and now there were two within an hour of each other, fourteen miles apart? Sergeant Reid was going to earn his pay voucher this month. Provided, of course, he was able to solve the murders, and bring to justice the people who had done them.

##

That night, Sergeant Reid stopped in to visit the sheriff of Hondo. The manager at the local inn had reported one of their guests missing that morning, and the sheriff had put two and two together and identified the missing guest as the murdered man found just outside the town limits that morning. According to the inn manager, the murdered man had been in town on business from Dallas. What his business was, the inn manager couldn’t say, only that it was some sort of real estate speculation deal, and that he’d left the hotel the night before in the company of another man. Of this other man, all the hotel staff could remember was that he was a large man, taller than average and heavier than most. A telegram was sent to the man’s next of kin in Dallas, and arrangements were underway to transport the body back north.

The next day, Reid was up early. He rode east into the city of San Antonio, some twenty miles away. He had some questions for the aeroplane folks at the army base. Whatever the reason the pilot had been shot, the fact that a flying machine was involved was simply too unusual not to have a bearing on his investigation. It had only been a handful of years since the papers ran the first reports of those two brothers making it up into the air back east. Reid had seen a short film of an aeroplane taking off at the picture show the year before, but hadn’t figured on ever seeing on in person. The one that he’d seen the day before had surprised him; he’d never figured they’d look quite so… flimsy.

Reid reached the center of town around midday, and decided to stop by the headquarters of Company D. He rarely had occasion to come back in from the field, and figured he’d get some official business out of the way while he was in town. On his arrival, though, he found that the Captain of the Company was down south in Starr county, investigating a large scale rustling operation, leaving the lieutenant in charge of the offices. Reid and the lieutenant had never gotten along too well, so after mouthing a few pleasantries, Reid excused himself and headed back out. He rode north through downtown, past the ruins of the Alamo, until he came to the big tower at the entrance to Fort Sam Houston.

The tower loomed a good ninety feet off the ground, making it one of the tallest buildings Reid had ever seen. Reid couldn’t see that it was good for much. It was only six hundred feet on a side, and seemed primarily to serve only to hold a clock way above the ground. He supposed that, in the event of an attack, the tower could serve as a good look-out point; but given the lack of fortifications around it, any attacker worth their salt would just know to ride around the side.

Reid was met at the front gate by a khaki-clad soldier with a carbine at his shoulder and a Colt holstered at his side. Reid was on foot, holding his palomino’s reins lightly in his hand

“State your business,” the soldier said, holding the carbine in front of him with both hands, finger near the trigger.

Reid thumped the star on his chest with his thumb.

“Sergeant Reid of Texas Rangers Company D. Here on state business. I’m investigating the murder of your aeroplane pilot.”

The soldier’s expression softened, and he quickly lowered the carbine.

“Oh, right,” the soldier said, nodding. “You’ll want Lieutenant Foulois. Come right this way.”

The soldier motioned for another to take his place at the gate, showed Reid where he could tie up his horse, and then led him across the grounds. It was only a few minutes before they reached a large building. The building was dominated by a single large room, filled with long rows of tables, hundreds of men crowded around the tables, eating with gusto.

“That’s the Lieutenant right over there,” the sergeant said, pointing to a table set aside from the others. There were fewer than a dozen men at the table, and their manner was much more subdued, much more somber, than that of the rest of the room.

The soldier returned to his post. Reid crossed the floor to the table.

“Lieutenant Foulois?” Reid said, addressing the table in general. He didn’t know enough about the ensigns of Army ranks to know which of the men he was looking for.

“That’d be me,” said a man at the end of the table. He stood up, and came around to face Reid. He was dressed in the same khaki uniform as the murdered pilot, jodhpurs and jacket, with high leather boots and an easy smile. “Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, flight detachment,” the man said, and stuck out his hand.

“Sergeant Calvin Reid. I’m with the Texas Rangers…”

“And you’re here about Hopkins’ death, I take it?” Foulois said, before Reid could finish.

“I wanted to ask a few questions about him, if you don’t mind,” Reid said, nodding. “The way he was killed, I’ve got to figure…”

Foulois raised his hand, apologetically.

“I’m happy to tell you whatever you want to know,” the lieutenant said, “but if you want answers, you’ll have to do some walking. There’s work to be done, and I’m afraid I don’t have enough time that I can be generous with my attentions.”

Reid nodded.

“Alright boys,” Foulois said, addressing the table. “Back to it.”

As one, the ten men at the table climbed to their feet, bussed their areas, and marched out the door. Reid recognized Johnston and Bloom, the two men from the day before, who each gave him a slight nod in greeting as they filed past.

“They’re a good group of men,” Foulois said, following behind and motioning Reid to follow. “A bit unruly at times, but at the moment they’re all shook up over losing Hopkins like that, and they’re not sure which way to jump.” The lieutenant paused, and rubbed his chin. “You know, we figure it’s only a matter of time before one of us flyboys doesn’t walk away from a landing, if you know what I mean. Flying that high and that fast, there’s bound to be a dustup that will be fatal. But I swear, none of us ever figured it would be a bullet that would put a pilot down. Not at peacetime, at least.”

“Yep, that’s one of the things I wanted to…” Reid said, and then paused. Foulois was leading him to the north away from the buildings, off into what seemed like open fields. “If you don’t mind me asking, exactly where is it we’re going?”

“Back home,” Foulois answered with a weary smile. “The rest of the flight detachment and I are billeted out of our hangar, at the end of the old mounted drill grounds, but we eat our meals with the other outfits. We used to mess with the troops of the 3rd Cavalry, and that was a walk of just half a mile for each meal, but ever since the 3rd shipped out, we’ve been messing with the 22nd Infantry, which means a trek of more than a mile each way. It’s seriously cutting into our flying schedule, but so far I’ve been unable to get the Army brass to do anything about it. Hell,” he chuckled, humorlessly, “we’d be better off buying our meals at the civilians home off base.”

After a long enough walk that Reid wished he’d ridden his palomino onto the grounds, they reached the hangar. It was little more than an old barn, roughly converted into barracks and a big open room.

“I’m worried about the Military Flyer,” Foulois said, as they drew near the hangar. “That’s the kite you saw yesterday. Johnston and Bloom are square guys, but I’m worried they might have bunged it up a bit on that wagon.”

Reid followed Foulois through the wide doors and into the hangar, a seed of confusion squirming at the back of his brain. Something about the way Foulois had described the aeroplane. Not as the plane, so much as a plane.

“There she is,” Foulois said, proudly. Sitting in the middle of the dusty ground was the aeroplane Reid had seen the day before. A couple of men dressed in pilot’s uniforms were working on the engine. Otherwise, aside from a large shape in the far corner covered with a canvas tarp, the large room was empty.

“We call it the Military Flyer,” Foulois explained. “It was built by the Wright Brothers themselves, and delivered to the Army back in August of Aught Nine. Its official designation is Army Aeroplane Number one, and it was the only one the Army had for a good long while. The Wrights were supposed to train me up on how to fly it at Fort Meyer in Virginia, but the winters are damned cold there, and it never got clear enough to get off the ground. In the end, the enlisted men in the ground crew and I were send south here to Fort Sam Houston and told to get the thing in the air.” Foulois smiled, ruefully. “I had to teach myself how to fly, in the end. I’d take off, fly for a while, crash it, and then put the damned thing back together again.” He paused, a cloud passing across his face. “But no one ever died. Not before now.”

“You did all that by yourself?” Reid asked.

“Well, I had the ground crew here,” Foulois admitted. “And I had to write to the Wrights a time or two to ask for advice, but otherwise we were on their own. And the crew and I made a few improvements on the design, too. They added wheels, so the plane could take off and land without a track. That’s what Hopkins had been doing yesterday, out testing landing and taking off again in real world conditions.”

Reid walked in a slow circle around the aeroplane. He still couldn’t get over how light and flimsy it seemed.

“When was the plane last away from the base?” he asked. “Before Hopkins took it out, I mean?”

Foulois scratched his chin, thinking it over.

“It’s been a few weeks, at least. We had a pretty bad dustup a few weeks back, and it took that long just to get the thing airworthy again.” Foulois paused, and smiled. “That one, though,” he said, pointing to the far side of the hangar. “That one I think we could drop it off the roof and it wouldn’t get dinged.”

Reid looked over, and saw Johnston, Bloom, and two other crewmen pulling the canvas tarp off the shape in the corner. The tarp came clear, and Reid stood there, gaping.

Reid looked back to his left, and saw the flimsy frame and canvas flying machine called the Military Flyer. Then he looked to his right, and saw a larger aeroplane, looking larger and more sturdy. From a distance, he might have mistaken one for the other, but up close, there was no comparison.

“You’ve got two aeroplanes!” Reid said. Not twenty-four hours before he’d never have thought he’d see even one, and now just a day later he’d seen two of the damned things. “I’d only heard about the one.”

“Yeah,” Foulois said, walking over to the larger plane, running his hand along the canvas-covered frame. “Last month the brass sent four more pilots, who had been training out at Glenn Curtiss’ outfit in San Diego. Around the same time, we got the first of a new Curtiss Type IV military pusher.”

Reid looked at him, blankly.

“That’s a kind of aeroplane,” Foulois clarified. “It’s a single-seater, with a tricycle undercarriage, and a lot sturdier than the Flyer. These new boys had been trained on similar kites out in California, so they’ve been clocking hours of flight time on the new Curtiss ever since.”

Reid narrowed his eyes. Something like an idea was maneuvering into position, behind his eyes.

“Has that plane been away from the base recently?” he asked.

“As a matter of fact, it has,” Foulois answered. “Just yesterday, in fact. It was out scouting landing locations for the Military Flyer.”

“Who was flying it at the time?”

“Hey, Kelly,” Foulois shouted, motioning to one of the pilots working on the Military Flyer. “Front and center.”

The pilot stood up from the engine, dropping a wrench in the dirt, and came strolling over, wiping his greasy hands on a rag.

“Sergeant Reid,” Foulois said, “this is Lieutenant George Kelly, one of our new pilots. He was the one up in the Curtiss yesterday.”

Reid and Lieutenant Kelly shook hands, and the Ranger took the opportunity to size him up. Like Foulois, and the dead man from the day before for that matter, Kelly was of average height and slender, with long delicate fingers. Reid supposed that piloting must be like horse racing, and that certain body types were better suited to the job than others. He couldn’t imagine someone with the bulk of, say, Horace Greene up in an aeroplane like that.

“What can you tell me about your flight yesterday, son?” Reid asked.

“Well, I was scouting locations for Hopkins to land the Flyer. Anyplace flat and dry would do. I must have flown about forty miles, more or less due west, and the best landing spot I saw was a strip of clearing about half way.”

“So you just flew out and back?” Reid asked.

“Yessir. At forty miles, I turned tail and came back.”

“What time would this have been?”

“I took off at 0730, on the dot.”

Reid looked from Kelly to Foulois and back.

“Come again?” the Ranger said.

“That’s seven-thirty in the morning, Sergeant,” Foulois explained.

“Thank you kindly,” Reid answered. He took off his Stetson, and scratched his head. “And how fast do you think you were flying?”

“The Curtiss can do fifty miles per hour, flat out, and I was going about that the whole time, coming and going,” Kelly answered.

“So when you turned around, it was what? Eight o’clock, would you say?” Reid asked.

Kelly nodded.

“And you were about forty miles from here, just about due west?”

Kelly nodded again.

“Tell me, Lieutenant,” Reid said. “Did you happen to see anything… unusual on the ground, out that ways? You had an eye out for good bits of ground, so you must have been looking down, I take it.”

“Well,” Kelly answered, rubbing the back of his neck. “Nothing too unusual, I don’t expect. A ranch or two, a dairy farm, a little town. Mostly I was looking for clearings and fields, and ignoring everything else.”

“How about right when you turned around, forty miles out? Anything out that way?”

“Well, there was a good sized clearing that Hopkins could have used, but it was pretty far out for the Flyer, which doesn’t have the ranger of the Curtiss. Besides, there were two men in the field, and horses, so I figured there might be obstructions if Hopkins tried to set down there.”

“Two men?” Reid repeated. “What did they look like?”

“Well, I can’t rightly say. I was a hundred feet up, you have to understand. All I really noticed was that one was dressed like he was a banker, and that the other was a really big fella. I mean, big. Tall and fat, both.”

Reid smiled, grimly.

“Thank you, lieutenant,” he said. “I think that’s all I need.”

Reid turned to Foulois, and set his Stetson back on his head.

“Well, sir,” he said, “I believe I know who killed your man. If I hurry, I believe I can have him in custody by tonight.”

Foulois dismissed Kelly, and ushered Reid to the door.

“In that case,” Foulois said, “I’m coming along.”

Reid stopped short.

“Begging your pardon, Lieutenant, but this is a Ranger investigation…”

Foulois held up his hand.

“I’m not going to interfere, don’t worry. I just want to observe. I can’t say that I knew Hopkins all that well, but he was one of my men, and I owe him that much, at least.”

Reid just shrugged, and headed back outside.

“You can’t say fairer than that,” he called back over his shoulder, and he and Foulois headed out into the sunshine.

##

It had taken a little while for Foulois to locate a horse on base that he could use, and a while longer to get used to being in a saddle again. He was uncomfortable on the back of a horse, he’d explained. Having spent so much of the previous year and a half up in the air, he’d pretty much forgotten how to ride properly.

“Don’t that beat all,” Reid had said, after Foulois explained the loss of his riding abilities. They were halfway to Hondo, not far from the town of Castroville, heading towards the setting sun. “Forgot how to ride?”

Reid couldn’t imagine such a thing. There were days when he spent more time in the saddle than he spent sleeping on his back at night. He sometimes thought he’d spent half his life, or more, on horseback, all told.

“Yeah,” Foulois said sheepishly, clutching the saddle horn, perched awkwardly on the back of his borrowed paint. “But I don’t expect I’ll be the only one, nor the last. What with more and more aeroplanes being built every year, and automobiles starting to dominate the city roads, I imagine that before long, some folks’ll never have been on horseback at all.”

Reid looked askance at the lieutenant. In the fading light, he couldn’t see if the pilot were joking or not.

“That’ll be the day,” Reid said, laughing. He’d decided it must be a joke. “That’ll be the day.”

They rode on, through the scrub, into the west.

##

Long past nightfall, they reached the house of Horace Greene. The fat man met them at the front door, a shotgun held loosely in his arms.

“Howdy, Ranger,” Greene said, outlined by the light of the oil lanterns burning within the ramshackle house.

“How do, Horace,” Reid answered, his tone level.

Greene glanced at the pilot riding beside Reid.

“Something I can do for you?” Greene asked.

“Well, sir,” Reid answered, leaning on the saddle horn with his left arm, his right hand resting near the handle of Colt at his hip. “I figure you could first put down that scattergun, and then maybe we could talk for a minute.”

Horace narrowed his eyes.

“What do we got to talk about?”

“Well, you might be interested to know,” Reid said, “that those boys over at Fort Sam Houston don’t have themselves just one aeroplane.” Reid paused, and shook his head. “Nope, turns out they’ve got two of the danged things. Don’t that beat all?”

Horace’s eyes widened, and he made to swing the shotgun up to a firing position.

Reid reacted faster than he could think, years of experience taking over his conscious mind. His Colt was clear of his holster in an eyeblink, and he shot without even bothering to aim. A bloom opened on the fat man’s shoulder, and the shotgun dropped with a clatter to the porch planks.

“That doesn’t seem particularly neighborly of you, Horace,” Reid said calmly, still in the saddle.

Greene howled.

“I don’t suppose you’ll want to hear this, but I’m guessing, if you’d left well enough alone and hadn’t ridden after that plane, you just might have gotten away with it.” Reid paused. “Gotten away with killing the real estate investor from Dallas. I figured you lured him down here on some pretense, probably using a phony name, led him out into the middle of nowhere, and then shot him in cold blood. He was probably carrying a fair amount of cash on him, am I right? You’d convinced him it was necessary for some reason, and he was damfool enough to go for it. And then that aeroplane flew overhead, and you figured you was on the spot.”

Greene clutched at his shoulder, and fell to his knees.

“Oh, stop moaning, Horace, you’ll live. Anyhow, you figured the fella in that flying machine had seen you gun down the real estate investor, and so you tore ass after the aeroplane to catch up. You figured you’d wait until it came back down, and the put a bullet in him, too. Only problem was, you lost sight of it, and rode for damn near an hour before you saw it again, sitting there on the ground.”

Reid paused, and leaned across the saddle horn, his expression cold.

“Only thing is, that wasn’t even the same damned aeroplane, Horace. You killed that boy Hopkins for no reason. And it turns out that the pilot who you were after didn’t see anything. Not anything really incriminating, anyways, just a fat man and a banker in the middle of a field.”

Greene howled again, like the damned.

“Alright, alright,” Greene said, tears rolling down his face. “I admit it, that’s just what happened. I paid the money to the bank this morning, to get them off my back. Now can you just get a danged doctor! I’m bleeding to death, here!”

Reid straightened up in the saddle, miming shock.

“Oh, my, is that right?” He turned to Foulois, who sat on his borrowed paint, looking on in grim amusement. “Lieutenant, would you mind riding back into Hondo and fetching the doctor. It appears that Horace here has injured himself.”

Foulois gave a little salute, and with some little difficulty turned his horse’s head and started back the way they’d come.

Greene continued to moan on the porch, but aside from telling him to keep pressure on it, Reid didn’t make a move to assist. He stayed on horseback, waiting for Foulois to return with help.

Reid looked up at the night sky overhead, dappled with stars. His father had been a cowpuncher, and had laid under those stars by night. Reid couldn’t help but wonder, now that men could fly into the heavens, if his own son might not one day fly up to those stars himself.

Reid could only shrug. His son or his son’s sons might someday fly up into the skies, but Reid was going to stay here on the ground. On the back of a horse, if he could help it. He was just more comfortable in the saddle.

(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.

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