Something Up in Barracuda Flats
by Jeff Baker
I inhaled on the cheroot and blew the smoke out the open train window. I stared at the scenery. “Travel” certainly came from “travail,” no doubt about it. I’d had easier rides on horses.
A conductor stuck his head through the door of the train car.
“It’s up ahead, Mr. Murdoch. We’ll be slowing down as soon as we cross the bridge.”
Great. I grabbed my bedroll and headed towards the door. I stood on the platform as the train clackety-clacked across the bridge. Sure enough, the train began to slow down, but not as fast as I’d expected. Well, it was now or never.
I took a breath, gripped the bedroll and jumped. I hit the hillside and rolled in the tall grass. The bedroll helped break my fall, but not by much. I stopped rolling against a bush. If it started burning I could use a message. But never mind. It had worked. I was in and nobody saw me jump off the train.
I ran down the hill, keeping low. The ranch was on the other side of the hill. It was a long walk but I’d get there.
Despite the hills, the place was called Barracuda Flats. I’d gotten a message a few months ago from somebody I used to know who worked there as a ranch hand; the owner, Brewster, who I’d known during the War had run to Mexico. Brewster didn’t have any family and the new owners were claiming to be his nephews. Brewster had been an orphan. He’d joked about that years ago. The new owners kept a tight rein on the hands who were still there. I pulled out my watch and checked. 4:00p.m. The Sun would set soon. I had an appointment at midnight.
In the starry dark I could see the huge tree at the edge of the ranch property. It was, I heard, a local landmark. I crept up closely. It was midnight. I was supposed to meet Old Griggs, the ranch hand. I wandered around the tree. No sign of Griggs. Or anybody. I thought of calling his name. Then:
“Mr. Murdoch. About time.”
I spun around. Then I heard a whistle. I looked up. In the dim starlight, I could make out a face surrounded by a frizz of white hair. Griggs. In the tree.
“Didn’t want to be seen,” he said. When I’d last met him Griggs had been the age I was now; fifty-six. Now he looked ancient, like some gnarled being from folklore who would blend in with the tree. I jumped, grabbed a branch and pulled myself up where we were concealed by the leaves in the night.
I’m glad you came,” Griggs said. “Something bad happened to Mr. Brewster. And these new people, they’re up to something strange. Something bad.”
“Brewster didn’t run off to Mexico?” I asked.
“No. I dunno where he is. These new people, they have us tend to the cattle but they cleared out the old pens and they’re building…something. Something a good God wouldn’t want built on his green Earth.”
“What’s this something?” I asked.
“You need to see it,” Griggs said. “You have a place to stay?”
I nodded. I had my bedroll and there was water on the other side of the hill. Or I could sleep in this tree.
“Come down to the house right around dawn,” Griggs said. “These people aren’t real ranchers. They sleep in. You can see the thing.”
I thought about sleeping on the other side of the hill where I’d be out of sight from the ranch. Instead I stayed awake hidden in the tree all night, glad I’d slept on the train. The next morning, before dawn, I crept out to the ranch. A ranch without a lot of activity around dawn didn’t seem real somehow. I followed Griggs’ directions and found myself by a fence toward the back of one of the buildings, a building that used to house cattle.
I stared at where the pens had been. Instead, there was a wood and steel framework that reminded me of a catapult we’d rigged-up during the War. But there was no spring that I could see. Instead, it seemed like a support for a large metal rod that glistened in the sunlight and was angled so it was pointing just above the horizon, like a spear. I looked more closely; the tip of the spear was translucent and was gleaming from the inside like a lantern.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Don’t have any idea where this is going! I’d been watching a few old Westerns on cable and I’d just finished writing a longer western story. I’ll write more on this some other day; I hadn’t planned on this going into steampunk territory but it may be doing that! I hadn’t planned on doing another serial story here either! By my count I have four official serial stories going, not counting series characters in short-stories! ——jsb, June 30, ‘21