Originally titled "Ahead of the Storm", the first rough half of this story was originally written to a prompt challenge earlier this year and posted as a Minds Plus exclusive. It is a direct sequel to "Monty Crow's Homestead," both in its original form and this expanded version.
This selection appeared on my short fiction blog in two parts after I revised and expanded it, bringing the total count of Monty Crow entries to four. I don't know if I'll revisit the character, but I've since written other stories for the blog set on Botched Ravi, including some hinting at the use of the planet's hostile environment and wide open spaces as a test range by the secret (in 2949-50) Project Juno.
(Banner art by Toyan Chen.)
- - - - - - -
David Montero adjusted the makeshift veil shielding his face from the brutal Botched Ravi sun as he emerged from the escape tunnel. He’d left home with only the clothes on his back and the guns he’d been carrying, with not even a canteen to help him on the open badlands. Grif would want proof of David’s death and would find the tunnel looking for his body, but the gang would be sifting through the collapsed ruin of his house for hours before they found the trapdoor. Hopefully, that would be enough of a head start for Botched Ravi to erase his tracks.
Fortunately, even without a canteen, David had preparations of another kind. The tunnel he’d dug years before emerged in a stand of corpse trees clustered in a blind defile a few hundred meters behind his house. The trees’ leathery flesh, revolting to the eye, concealed a mass of spongy, water-storing flesh which a human could suck on to obtain moisture, even if the alkaline taste would make any but a local gag. He drank from the trees until he couldn’t swallow any more, then used his belt knife to cut a six-foot length of one tree's stiffening rib to use as a walking-stick. Anyone foolish enough to brave the Ravi badlands without a walking-stick was as damned as if they were without a veil and a canteen.
David’s would-be assassins hadn’t been lying when they’d claimed a storm was coming as a reason to be let into his homestead; every gust and eddy of fickle wind told him that his stretch of the wastes was about to suffer a big one. Botched Ravi’s furious storms drove swirling clouds of razor-dust which could strip human flesh from bone, and he’d been dressed for the stifling heat of the morning, not these late afternoon premonitions of a howling night. He would be reduced to a well-armed skeleton in mere minutes if he couldn’t find shelter before it hit. The tunnel mouth and gorge offered some protection from a storm, but Grif and his men were still too close for comfort.
Though he briefly considered making an aboveground dash for his homestead to retake the freshly blasted ruins, David abandoned this mad scheme. He’d called Sherriff Deering when the pirates appeared and would need to leave clearing his destroyed home of the ruffians to the ragtag posse that passed for local law enforcement. He didn’t envy the outsiders their inevitable gun-battle with Deering and whoever else the lawman could scare up in short order, especially with a storm blowing in; most of his neighbors were reformed upstanding citizens like himself. They would relish the excitement offered by a firefight with a gaggle of overconfident space pirates.
His best chance to make it through the day alive would be to make it to the home of one of his neighbors - Old Man Palumbo was the closest, but the pirates had been there already, so instead he set a course for the Mendel home three klicks in the opposite direction. Leopold and Phyllis Mendel were the newest settlers on the badlands, and he’d only met them twice, but they would probably let him call Deering to check in and ride out the storm in their parlor. David might do the same for them, if he was in an obliging mood.
Peeking out of the gully and seeing no sign of his pursuers, David scrambled topside and set off toward a brilliantly white speck on the eastern horizon. With the nearness of the dusk and its promised storm, his feet itched to run, but he moved with deliberation, tapping the ground in front of his feet firmly with the end of his cut walking-stick. The Csorba Basin where he’d made his home was one of the flattest places on the planet, but flat and open did not make it safe. If he put his foot into the mouth of a ringbiter he’d never get it loose before the storm overtook him, and ringbiters were among the least deadly of the creatures which prowled the area. If he happened to cross into a tunnel cat’s stalking-ground or a songbird run in his haste, neither Grif nor anybody else would ever find his remains.
Moving as fast as he dared, David watched the speck on the horizon grow into the top of a white stone monolith jutting into the sky. Despite having a squared-off shape and resisting even the patient teeth of the wind, the structure was a natural outcrop. Its base lay in the bottom of a broad canyon at the intersection of several of the defiles and gullies which channeled the basin’s seasonal rains. Despite being warned that their chosen spot would turn into a lake once every thirteen T-years, the Mendels had raised their home at the base of the monolith.
In three more T-years when the rains returned, David meant to deliver a long-awaited told-you-so to the flooded-out homesteaders. For the moment, though, their ill-advised choice of building site didn’t bother him. He only needed shelter for a few hours.
Reaching the edge of the Mendels’ dry lakebed just in front of the storm, David didn’t have time to appreciate the lush greenery which carpeted the bottom. Even in the interminable dry season, the water table lay close to the surface at the bottom of the white-stone pillar, and Leopold Mendel had built piping to irrigate an extensive garden of exotic plants. True, he could only plant crops that could resist the wind-whipped razor-dust, but even that bit with far less force on the lakebed. Between the couple’s sprawling house and the numerous outbuildings around it which sheltered the pumps and farming equipment, the Mendel homestead had enough roofs to look like a whole town, rather than a single house.
David started down the switchbacked trail to the bottom, but stopped after only a few steps when he heard the rasp and click of a cartridge-rifle’s bolt sliding home somewhere nearby. Raising his hands and walking-stick, David turned around. “Mendel, is that you?”
“Montero.” The gruff settler’s voice echoed crazily among the rocks, and David couldn’t figure out where he was. “Go home.”
“Wish I could. With this storm. I’d never make it back.” Already the horizon to the south had darkened, and the sky above had turned the killing coppery color every Botched Ravi settler knew meant it was time to seek shelter. “I don’t want any trouble. Just shelter and to drop a line to Deering.”
After a long, tense moment, Mendel emerged from behind the rocks, raising the barrel of a long hunting rifle to point skyward. “Damnation, Montero, you should have called ahead. I could have shot you at fifteen hundred meters. Haven’t you heard? There’s a mess of outworlders about, and they’re baying for blood.”
David looked up at the monolith, realizing that the peak would be a perfect place to put a ring of surveillance cameras; with good optics, the Mendels could keep an eye on their neighbors even from many kilometers away on a clear day. “Yeah, I heard.” How closely he was affiliated with those outworlders would be a story best kept to himself. “They attacked my house. Blew the place to all hells. Birds know what for.”
Mendel looked up at the approaching clouds, then beckoned down into the lakebed valley. “Come on, let’s get under cover. This is going to be a rough one.”
As soon as they were inside, Leopold Mendel gestured with his gun for David Montero to sit in one of the wickerwork chairs in the big house’s anteroom. David eased himself slowly down, not wanting to make any sudden moves. He had never been in the Mendel house before, and he had to admit that what he could see so far impressed him. Though the place was built to nowhere near the level of precision which had been the norm in his own recently-destroyed house, the sprawling compound oozed a feeling of homey security.
Though the plank floorboards were covered by Ravi dust blown in underneath the door and between the joints of the stiff metal panels of the outer siding, the wickerwork furniture and cloth wall-coverings gave the anteroom a cozy, quiet atmosphere entirely at odds with the winds which at that moment had just begun to rush down into the basin outside. The storm blowing in was as multi-edged as the dust particles it carried - it would blind whatever security system Mendel had, but it would also prevent David’s would-be killers from following his trail.
“I’ll let you call the Sheriff as soon as the storm lets up.” Mendel shouldered his rifle and turned a crank on the door, which pushed a set of heavy deadbolts into place. “Transmitter sure as all hells won’t work in that mess.”
“Will your crops be all right?”
“Crops?” Mendel frowned as he sat down in a chair opposite. “Oh, the garden. Yeah, I think so. That’s Phyllis’s project. Not sure how she can get anything to grow at all."
David frowned. True, the greenery around the Mendel homestead was unusual, but it was hardly the only green patch on Botched Ravi. The settlers of the world had engineered a few types of food crop that grew well enough, given water and some shelter from the storms. “Botch Peas? Wyrmroot?”
“Probably those.” Mendel shrugged. “Why don’t you tell me about those off-worlders who wrecked your house?”
David glanced toward the door, though the wind howling outside would flay him in thirty seconds if he decided to use it to escape the conversation. “Hells if I know, Mendel. They showed up pretending they were locals, and started shooting when I didn’t buy the ruse. I think they were at Palumbo’s before me.”
“And they demolished your house for shooting back?”
“For shooting back too well, I reckon. Bagged at least two of the bastards.”
Mendel nodded casually and glanced down at the gun resting on his knees. David knew immediately that his fellow homesteader didn’t buy the story. “How many were there?”
“Six at least, including the ones I holed. Could have been more hanging back.”
“At least four still after you, then.” Mendel frowned. “As soon as the storm lifts, they’ll follow you here.”
David shrugged. “I lost them, but other than Palumbo you’re the closest place I could have run, and they’ll be able to figure that out. Shouldn’t be too much trouble for the two of us, at least until Deering catches up, and I’ll help you see to anything that gets shot up.”
Mendel scowled. “My house is not a fortress, Montero, and I am not a gunman for hire. Whatever intrigue you’ve gotten mixed up in, you go out there and face it when this storm is over.”
David sighed. He could easily overpower Mendel and fight off Grif’s gang from within the house, but he hadn’t come to Botched Ravi to keep living a brigand’s life. “I’ll go out after I’ve called Deering. If they come here, tell them I’m headed for town.”
Mendel nodded, then looked up as a strong gust shook the house. “You’ve got at least two hours before that squall lets up. I’m going to go get some coffee.”
As Mendel exited the anteroom through an inner door, David scanned the space he’d been left in. Though a gun rack protruded between the tapestries near the door, it held nothing but an empty cartridge box. A few crates along the opposite wall looked to be full of foodstuffs. There was, in short, nothing worth stealing, at least not in his current situation. He wouldn’t steal from Mendel unless his life depended on it, of course, but old pirate habits died hard.
If it had been anyone but Grif, he might have tried hiding in the expansive Mendel homestead, but Griffon Baum never forgot a grievance, and he never gave up once he smelled blood. He’d tear the Mendels’ house to pieces and torture them for weeks on the slightest chance of finding his old adversary. Without Mendel’s help and without Deering’s posse, David would have to face the pirates alone in the open – a sure death wish – or watch them turn Csorba Basin into a charnel pit looking for him.
The door clicked, then opened to admit Leopold Mendel once more. He still held the gun, but it pointed at the floor, which told David that there was some sort of surveillance system in the anteroom which told Mendel he hadn’t moved. His other arm cradled two insulated carafes, and he tossed one across the room.
“Thanks.” David popped the seal and smelled the steam wafting out. “When this is over, I owe you a drink down at Talleyrand’s.”
“When this is over, I don’t want to see you for three T-years, Montero.” Mendel scowled. “Phyllis and I didn’t come here to get dropped into some hoodlum’s shooting gallery.”
David shrugged; if he went out to face Grif’s gang alone, Mendel would most probably get his wish and then some. “You want to know what this is really all about, Mendel?”
“Not in the slightest, unless it’ll get you off my property sooner.” Mendel broke the seal on his own carafe and sipped lightly.
“Smart play.” David smiled; though newcomers to Csorba, Mendel had seemingly internalized the madness that passed for local wisdom. “What’ll get me off sooner is a stormcloak, some goggles, and a decent rifle that’ll handle the dust for at least ten shots.”
Mendel narrowed his eyes. “You’re out of your mind.”
“Offer’s on the table. I’ll try to bring the stuff back, if I don’t get shot.”
Mendel sat wearing a silent scowl of deliberation for several seconds, then turned back for the door. “Out of your damned mind, Montero. I’ll be right back.”