Copyright 2010 All Rights Reserved

1

"Guess we'd better head on back to the bunkhouse, Clancy," Joe Morgan said to his partner, Mike Clancy. "Foreman'll have our heads if we're not ready to work at sunup."

"Aw, the heck with Bob Tate," Clancy grumbled, downing the last of his whiskey. "We ain't had a day off in almost two months. He can't begrudge us a little fun."

The two cowboys had spent the day and well into the night drinking their way through every saloon in Marfa. They were now thoroughly drunk.

"I'm ready to close up anyway," Paul Malone, proprietor of the Blue Marble Saloon, told them. "It's almost two in the morning. Time for you boys to call it a night."

"Guess we've worn out our welcome, Joe," Mike muttered. "C'mon, let's get outta here."

They stumbled out to where their horses were tied. Joe missed the stirrup three times before he finally managed to insert his foot into it, and drag himself onto his pinto's back.

"C'mon, Pokey, let's head for home," he urged, backing the gelding away from the rail. Alongside him Mike did the same with his appaloosa gelding, Gingersnap. Under their riders' uncertain guidance, the horses weaved their way out of Marfa. Upon reaching the edge of town, Joe and Mike gave the horses their heads, intending to let them find their own way home while they dozed in their saddles.

About three miles out of town, they were awakened from their stupor by a light on the far side of a jagged ridge, which illuminated the entire slope with an eerily luminescent shade of blue.

"What the devil is that?" Joe exclaimed. "Can't be the moon risin', since it's a new moon."

"Dunno, but it doesn't seem to have the horses spooked," Mike observed. "Figure we should check it out?"

"Reckon we've got no choice, less'n we turn back to town," Joe replied. "That'd probably get us fired for sure, if we got back to the ranch a day late with some wild story about a weird light scarin' us. Nobody'd believe us, figurin' it was the liquor we drank makin' us see things."

"And they could be right," Mike said. "Mebbe we are just imaginin' it. Only one way to find out."

He kicked Gingersnap into a trot.

The light grew brighter as they approached, almost blinding by the time they reached the top of the ridge. Their horses hesitated at the summit for just a moment, then started down the other side. Suddenly an intense shaft of red light shot through the blue veil, seeming to pull the cowboys and their mounts into a swirling vortex of multi-colored streaks of light. A moment later, they were once again back on solid ground, gazing around at an unfamiliar landscape, more stark than any they'd ever seen in Texas. Red rock ridges and spires reached into a deep azure sky, the only vegetation some scattered brush and weeds.

"Where in blue blazes are we, Clancy?" Joe puzzled.

"Dunno for certain, but it dang sure ain't Texas," Mike muttered. "Mebbe we're in Arizona. Seems to me I've heard tell it looks a lot like this."

"Sun came up awful fast, and it sure is hot," Joe stated, wiping sweat from his brow. "Reckon there's any water hereabouts?"

"We'd better hope so, and we'd best start lookin' for some," Mike answered. "Seems to be a trail headin' around that ridge, and a bit more greenery at the base of it. Let's check there."

"We'd better be careful. Dunno what kind of renegades we might run into," Joe observed. He loosened the Colt in his holster.

A short while later, they rounded the end of the ridge, and instantly pulled their horses to a halt.

"Now I know for certain we ain't in Texas anymore, Clancy," Joe exclaimed.

"I don't believe it's Arizona, either," Mike answered, astounded.

Approaching them was a fantastically gorgeous woman. She had flaming red hair piled high on her head and deep blue eyes. Her outfit, what there was of it, was a sleeveless, midriff revealing form fitting blouse of a shimmering silver metallic material, and very diminutive shorts of the same material, which showed off her long legs to perfection. The plunging neckline of the blouse displayed most of her full, rounded breasts, concealing just enough to rouse any male's imagination. A sparkling sapphire, the same hue as her eyes, depended from a gold necklace and was nestled in her cleavage. A blue star sapphire of the same color winked from her navel.

"Boy howdy, even the gals down at Miss Daisy's don't dare show themselves like that," Joe said, then whistled. "And ain't that a jewel in her bellybutton?"

"It sure looks like one," Mike replied. "Wonder how she keeps it in there?"

"She's comin' closer. You could ask her," Joe pointed out. "For that matter, there ain't much keeping those puppies from bustin' loose."

Mike blushed deep red.

"Not on your life, pardner."

The two cowboys sat their mounts, waiting for the woman to reach them. When she did, she showed no fear, but instead smiled, revealing perfect white teeth behind her ruby-red lips.

"Greetings," she said. "Who are you, where did you come from, and what are those magnificent looking creatures you are riding?"

Joe tipped his Stetson.

"I'm Joe Morgan, and this is my ridin' pard, Mike Clancy."

"Ma'am." Mike touched two fingers to the brim of his hat in greeting.

"My name is Lahna... Lahna Perioux," the woman replied.

"We're from Texas way," Joe continued. "Dunno for sure how we landed here. Where are we, by the way?

"Texas?" Lahna echoed, clearly puzzled. "I've never heard of it."

"You've never heard of Texas?" Joe said. "I thought just about everyone'd heard of Texas."

"I haven't. It's certainly not near here," Lahna replied. "You have no idea how far you've traveled?"

"Not a clue," Mike confirmed. "We were headed home, saw a strange light, and next thing we knew we were here... wherever here is."

"You're on Junius 7, fifth globe from the star Mauniet 10," Lahna answered.

"Told you we weren't in Arizona, Joe," Mike snorted.

"Perhaps I can help you a bit," Lahna said. "What planet is Texas on?"

"Planet?" Joe repeated. "Earth, of course. Ain't that the only one with life?"

"Not at all," Lahna explained. "However, according to our astronomers, Earth exploded over twenty thousand years ago. In fact, the ancestors of everyone on Junius 7 left Earth hundreds of years before it was destroyed. That would explain why I'd never heard of Texas."

"I reckon those, what'd you call 'em, astronomer fellers were wrong, Ms. Perioux," Mike retorted. "We were just there this evenin.'"

"I'll take your word for that, and please, call me Lahna," the woman replied. "However, you still haven't told me what those creatures are."

"These? These are horses," Joe responded. "You mean to tell me you ain't never heard of horses, either?"

"They're not a creature which has ever been seen on Junius 7, of that I am certain," Lana answered. "May I touch them?"

"Certainly," Joe agreed. "This here pinto of mine is Pokey, and Mike's appaloosa is Gingersnap."

Lahna reached out to stroke both geldings' noses. They whickered with pleasure at her gentle touch.

"They are wonderful," Lahna said. "I wish they were native to this world, but I've never seen anything which even resembles them. I'm positive there have never been horses on Junius 7. Then again, a new species was recently discovered just a short distance from here, so perhaps there are horses somewhere on this world. It has never been fully explored."

"A new what?" Joe asked.

"A new species... a life form which had heretofore gone undiscovered," Lahna explained. "They've been named teryxglites."

"Funny name," Mike murmured, rubbing his jaw.

"They're funny looking, too," Lahna answered. "We have some at my family's primagenture. Would you like to see them? That way I could also introduce you to my family. I'm certain they'd be fascinated by the both of you. At the risk of being bold, your clothing is certainly unusual. What do you do for a living?"

"We're cowboys," Mike answered. "These duds are made for that line of work."

"Cowboys? What are cowboys?"

"We herd cattle... cows," Joe tried to explain.

"Cows, cattle?" Lahna repeated.

"I reckon you've never heard of them, neither," Joe continued.

"I haven't," Lahna admitted. "Listen, there's no reason to remain out here in the hot sun. Why don't you come with me? I'll introduce you to my parents, and you'll be able to clean up and refresh yourselves. Is that agreeable?"

"Looks like we won't be gettin' back to Texas anytime soon, Lahna," Joe answered. "Lead the way."

"My hastenbeame is right over there, under that tree," Lahna said. She led the cowboys to where a slim piece of machinery was leaning against the trunk of what appeared to be a variety of oak. The device resembled a bicycle, except there were triangular copper panels where the wheels should be. Lahna righted the machine, straddled it, and touched a panel on the handlebars. With the slightest hum, the hastenbeame rose two feet off the ground. Pokey and Gingersnap snorted in alarm at the strange contraption.

"What in the blue blazes?" Mike exclaimed.

"This is our mode of transport," Lahna smiled. She twisted a handle, sending the machine forward at a good clip. Pokey and Gingersnap, their dumbfounded riders too stunned to react, trotted along behind.

2

About four miles down the road, the trio approached a large, rambling structure, which appeared to be constructed of a material similar to Lahna's clothing, but in a burnished gold. There were outbuildings of the same style and material in the distance.

"Joe, Mike, that is my home just ahead," Lahna stated. "Once we arrive and you've met my family I'll show you where you can tidy up."

"We appreciate that, and all the kindness you've shown two strangers, Lahna," Joe replied. "We'll need to care for our cayuses first, though."

"Cayuses?" Lahna echoed in puzzlement.

"That's another name for horses," Mike explained. "Just like broncs or broomtails."

"I see," Lahna answered. "What are their needs?"

"They'll need to be brushed down, watered, and fed," Joe answered. "And a place we can keep 'em where they won't run off."

"We have several fenced areas," Lahna replied. "Will one of those do?"

"It should," Mike agreed.

"What do they eat?" Lahna next asked.

"Grain... oats and corn if you've got that. Hay, or we can just turn them out on grass," Joe answered.

"We have plenty of grain," Lahna said. "For more than ten years now we on Junius 7 have been living on a strictly plant diet. However, recently our scientists have concluded that type of diet is not healthy. They say some animal products must be added to our meals. Unfortunately, we have not yet discovered which animal would provide the most nutrients. "

"Don't look at Pokey," Joe exclaimed. "Horses are for ridin', not eatin'."

"Same goes for my Gingersnap," Mike added.

"You needn't worry. No one here would even consider such beautiful creatures as food. Well, here we are."

Lahna pushed a button on her hastenbeame, and the gate to her family's compound swung open. Once they were past the fence, Lahna pressed the same button, and the gate closed behind them. A few moments later they were stopping in front of the main house. As Lahna turned off her hastenbeame and dismounted, while Joe and Mike swung out of their saddles, several people emerged onto the front porch. They bore a strong resemblance to Lahna.

"Lahna, we were starting to become concerned about you," a woman who was clearly her mother said. Except for silvery hairs mixed in with the red, she could be Lahna's sister. "Who are these men with you?"

"I'm sorry, Mother," Lahna replied. "I met them on the trail from Porteron. Their names are Joe Morgan and Mike Clancy. Joe, Mike, my mother Queon, my father Noren, my older sister Verion, and my brother Wayhen."

Lahna's sister and mother were dressed similarly to her, Queon in a coppery material, Verion in gold. The two men were shirtless, clad in metallic blue trousers and buttonless, open metallic blue vests.

"Pleased to meet y'all," Joe drawled.

"Same here," Mike added.

The Periouxs nodded in return.

"I know you're bursting with questions," Lahna continued. "Joe and Mike claim they're from Texas, which was on the Earth. They say they were riding home when they stumbled across a strange light, then found themselves here on our globe."

"Earth? That planet ceased to exist centuries ago," Wayhen snorted.

"So your sister told us," Mike answered. "Believe us or not, we were just there last night."

"I've heard of such things, but this is the first I've encountered someone who has evidently been pulled into a space/time warp portal," Noren mused. "Queon, do you recall that instance several years ago?"

"Of course," his wife replied. "Several persons from the Argonaut system appeared on Junius out of nowhere. They remained for two months, then suddenly decided to go back to where they'd landed, and managed to find the portal again. Hopefully they made it back to their home planet safely. But, we can discuss all that later. You gentlemen are undoubtedly exhausted. We'll show you where you can clean up, then you can join us for the afternoon meal."

"We'd be much obliged," Joe answered. "We do need to care for our horses first."

"You mean the creatures you rode in on?" Verion broke in.

"Yep, Pokey and Gingersnap are mighty hungry and thirsty," Mike explained. "They'll do just fine on grass for now."

"I told Mike and Joe they could place their animals in one of our fenced areas," Lahna said.

"They're more than welcome to do that," Noren said. "Wayhen, show our visitors to the back area. Once they have their animals settled, bring them to the house."

"Gladly, Father," the youngster replied. "Gentlemen, if you would follow me."

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Once their horses were settled, Joe and Mike followed the teenaged boy back to the main house.

"Wayhen, can I ask where the outhouse is?" Joe questioned.

"The what?" the youngster replied.

"The outhouse... privy. The little buildin' that's real necessary," Joe tried to explain.

"Oh, you mean the internal cleansing chamber," Wayhen responded. "It's inside the house and down the hall, along with the showering and deionization chambers. Follow me."

Wayhen led them to a spacious room, which contained fixtures completely alien to the cowboys, except for the seat.

"That's the toilette," he explained. "It automatically cleanses and dries your derriere, then removes waste once you're finished."

"Well, I'll be danged!" Mike exclaimed.

"Before you use these facilities, let me show you the showering and deionization chambers, and explain how you use those."

Wayhen took them to adjoining, tile-lined rooms. One had chromium racks attached to the walls, along with several red-tinted glass panels. The other had faucets and vents at various levels.

"I apologize that you have to use the servants' and animal handlers' facilities. As visitors, you would ordinarily use the guest rooms which are indivual and more private; however, they are being renovated," he explained.

"This is where we take a bath?" Joe asked.

"Where you will be washed, yes," Wayhen concurred. "You'll remove your clothing and hang it on the racks. While you are washing, your garments will be purified by deionization, and all the stains and dirt removed."

"Even our boots and hats?" Mike asked. "How about our gunbelts?"

"Your boots and hats, yes, but nothing of metal," Wayhen responded.

"Beggin' your pardon, son, but I don't see any water," Mike objected. "How're we gonna wash up without it?"

"Once you enter the chamber and close the door, you will be automatically doused with water, then soap and water, rinsed with clean water, and then warm-air dried," Wayhen explained.

"Sounds better'n a dip in a cold, muddy river, or even in a barbershop's tub. Reckon we might as well try it, Clancy," Joe said, as he shrugged out of his shirt. Both cowboys quickly stripped and hung their clothes as indicated, then stepped into shower room. As soon as the door was closed, gentle streams of hot water flowed over them.

"Yipe," Mike yelped, when one of the streams hit him right between the butt cheeks, "Watch out, Joe... when they said you're gonna get washed, they sure enough mean all over."

In twenty minutes they had been washed and dried. They stepped out to find their clothes completely cleaned.

"Boy howdy, I still can't believe it," Mike said as he redressed. "We're prettier than speckled pups."

"Now that you've bathed, it's time for luncheon," Wayhen noted.

"If you mean grub, we're sure ready," Joe answered.

"The dining salon is just down the hall."

Joe and Mike followed Wayhen to the room indicated, where the rest of the Perioux family was already seated.

"I hope you gentlemen found the cleaning facilities adequate," Queon said.

"Boy howdy, they were something!" Mike exclaimed.

"Good. Now, I'm sure you are both hungry."

"We're plumb starved," Joe said.

"Good. We have wheat burgers, rice steaks, and plenty of beans."

"Beggin' your pardon, but no meat, ma'am?" Joe asked. "We're kinda used to bacon with our beans."

"We don't have much meat on Junius 7," Noren answered. "Our scientists now say we should eat meat, but we haven't been able to create the right animal. We were hoping to domesticate the teryxglites for meat, but so far most of them have eluded capture. We do have a few here, in a back field."

"That's enough talk of business for now, Father," Verion said. "Let's thank the Lord for our meal, and discuss things later. Don't forget, we have apple pie for dessert."

"Apple pie? Now you're talkin'," Mike answered.

"Good. Gracious Lord, we thank you for this food, and for our new friends," Verion prayed. "And for family."

"Mike, you and Joe take your food first," Queon ordered.

"Yes, ma'am," Mike agreed.

Not having eaten for trillions of miles and several light years, the cowboys dug into the unfamiliar foodstuffs, eating until their shirt buttons were about to pop.

"I've got to admit, that was a pretty tasty meal, ma'am," Joe praised.

"It sure was," Mike added.

"Thank you, but please, call me Queon. We're not so formal here."

"All right," Joe agreed.

"Would you men like to rest now, or perhaps see the rest of our primagenture?" Noren questioned.

"You mean your ranch?" Joe asked. "That's what this place would be called back on Earth."

"If that's what you prefer, certainly," Noren answered.

"Fine. Reckon we'd like to take a look around," Mike said. "Besides, we're kinda curious about those teryxglites."

"Then we'll ride out to their pen," Noren said.

Behind the house was a large, multipassenger hastenbeame.

"You sure this thing doesn't buck?" Mike asked dubiously, as he settled into a seat.

"If you mean jump about and up and down, not at all," Wayhen assured him, as he sat behind the controls. "It's also very efficient. We'll be at the teryxglites pen in less than two minutes, even though it's several krylos distance."

He twisted a knob, and the hastenbeame silently rose into the air. Wayhen then turned another handle, and the machine shot forward. Mike and Joe had to grab their hats to keep from losing them.

Moments later, the hastenbeame hovered to a stop alongside a sturdily fenced, grassy area. Once it was on the ground, the passengers disembarked, Mike and Joe still shaking their heads in disbelief.

"Boy howdy, that thing sure beats all," Joe said. "Now, where's those teryxyglite critters?"

"There are several of them in the shade along the back fence," Verion pointed out. "Do you see them?"

"Those... those are what you call teryxglites?" Joe exclaimed.

"Certainly. Why, have you seen them before?" Lahna asked.

"We sure have. Those are good ol' Texas longhorns," Mike explained. "They make real good eatin'. You can getr plenty of beefsteaks from just one of those."

"Do you mean they're a good source of meat?" Noren asked.

"They're where most everyone in the United States gets their meat from," Joe explained.

"But how do you capture them?" Wayhen asked. "There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them not far from here, in the defile where they were first discovered. We've tried catching them with our hastembeames, but they always manage to get into the brush and elude us."

A huge grin spread across Joe's face.

"Looks like we fell into the right place, Clancy."

"Sure does, pardner," Mike agreed.

"Do you mean you know how to capture those creatures?" Noren asked.

"We sure do," Joe explained. "Those critters are cows, cattle, and cowboys round 'em up and herd 'em to market. Our horses know exactly how to chouse 'em out of the brush. If you want, first thing tomorrow we'll start building a herd for you."

"You mean that?" Queon asked.

"We sure do," Mike confirmed.

"One thing first, though," Noren cautioned. "We've managed to catch quite a few more teryxglites than you see here. However, there are several men who keep misappropriating our animals. We haven't been able to stop them, since once they are out of the enclosure we have no way to prove ownership."

"Misappropriate?" Joe asked.

"Taking what doesn't belong to them," Lahna clarified.

"Well, first thing you have to do is brand those mavericks, so no one else can claim them," Joe said. "After that, we know how to handle low-down rustlers, don't we, Clancy?"

"We sure do," Mike answered. He lifted his Colt from its holster and spun the cylinder. "Don't worry, folks. Give me'n Joe a week and you'll have a good-sized herd of those critters right here. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Noren answered. "But may I ask? I assume that is a weapon you're handling?"

"It sure is," Mike confirmed. "The finest pistol Mister Colt ever produced. Let me show you how it works."

3

True to their word, Mike and Joe were up with the sun the next morning. The Periouxs and most of their workers watched in amazement as the men and their horses crashed through the thick brush of the remote canyon, chasing down and lassoing longhorns, which they herded to a box arm of the canyon. By mid-afternoon they had gathered nearly a hundred head. The cattle were kept there by a hastily erected brush fence and wood gate, prevented from breaking out by several of the Perioux's farm hands riding hastenbeames back and forth just outside the fence.

"Your horses are amazing," Neron observed. "We tried collecting teryxglites with our hastenbeames, but they would just disappear into the brush. Your horses don't seem to mind chasing after them anywhere."

"Well, my horse is named Pokey because he kinda just ambles along, until there's work to be done," Joe explained. "Then he turns into a holy terror once he's put to roundin' up steers."

"What about your horse, Mike?" Lahan queried.

"Gingersnap? He's named after his favorite treat. He loves gingersnap cookies," Mike replied.

"You mentioned branding these critters, to use your words, so no one else can claim then," Wayhen noted. "How exactly do we do that?"

"That'll be an all day job tomorrow, just for the cows we've already rounded up," Joe replied. "We'll quit a bit earlier than we usually would tonight, so I can make up a branding iron for you."

"A branding iron?" Queon echoed.

"Yeah. It's a metal rod with a brand on the end. A brand is a marking that's yours alone. Mike and I came up with a design for yours last night. It's a PX inside a triangle, so your brand will be the Triangle PX. We'll make the iron when we get back to the house. To brand, we build a fire, heat the iron until it's red hot, then lasso and throw a cow critter, press the iron to its left hip, and your brand is burned into the skin, makin' a permanent mark."

"That sounds like it hurts the poor creatures," Verion protested.

"It does for a bit, but they really don't mind all that much," Mike answered. "And it's the only way to prove ownership."

"If it must be done that way, so be it," Noren agreed. "How much longer will you be gathering teryxglites today?"

"Another couple of hours, then we'll call it a day," Joe said.

4

"Still can't get used to the sun comin' up in the South and goin'down in the North," Mike complained, as the next day drew to a close.

"Yeah, should be up in the East and down in the West, like at home, Clancy," Joe agreed. "Reckon we can't do nothin' about it, though."

The partners, along with the Periouxs and most of their hired hands, had worked hard all day, sorting and branding the teryxglites, which by now all were referring to as longhorns or cows. They had discovered while hastenbeames were useless for chasing cattle through the brush, once the longhorns were in an open and relatively confined area they could easily be kept in check by a few persons on hasten beams. Young Wayhen had become especially adept at cutting out the animal Joe wanted next for branding, and had even taken to riding Pokey for part of the day.

"The sun?. Oh, you mean Mauriat 10," Lahna observed.

"Are we just about done for today," Verion asked. "I'm tired, dirty, and hungry... but also strangely exhilarated at all the work we've done."

"Soon as we get these critters bedded down we'll call it a night," Joe answered. His eyes narrowed at the approach of several men on hastenbeames.

"You know who those men are?" he asked.

"Yes. Those are two of the Marline brothers, Perou and Manus, along with two men who work for them, Xanius Porert and Zeuuhb Moneay. They're from the family which keeps stealing our longhorns, and are suspected of many other crimes," Noren explained.

"Evening, Perioux," Manus said, after dismounting his hastenbeame. "See you've amassed a nice collection of teryxglites for us. We'll just take 'em off your hands tomorrow."

"Those critters are the Periouxs', and no one'll be touchin' them," Joe warned. "They're marked and branded, so if you take any we'll know who you stole 'em from."

"Just who are you?" Manus demanded.

"Joe Morgan... and this here's my pardner, Mike Clancy. We rounded up these critters for the Periouxs, and no one's takin' 'em."

"You're wrong about that," Manus sneered. Before Joe could react, he pulled a slim silvery, short handled rod from the holster on his hip, aimed it at Joe's middle, and pressed a button on its side. An intense beam of red light shot from the gun, striking Joe right on the large belt buckle he wore. The beam bounced off the buckle at an angle, ricocheted again off a silver concho on Pokey's saddle, reflected right back at Manus. The ray drilled a neat hole in his belly, just above his navel. Manus screamed in pain and shock, doubled over, and collapsed.

Seeing Manus fall, his companions grabbed for their weapons, but by then Mike and Joe had already yanked their Colts. Mike shot Zeuuhb though the chest, while Joe put a bullet though Xanius's stomach. When Xanius jackknifed from the impact, he reflexively triggered his own gun. The ray from his weapon struck Perou squarely in the groin. He screeched in agony at the hot beam ripping through his privates.

"You get back to where you came from before we finish you," Mike warned Perou, dragging him to his feet. "You can come back for the bodies later. And if we see you or any of your kin here again we won't wait to shoot next time."

Still whimpering, Perou stumbled to his hastenbeame, thought better of straddling it, and trudged down the road. Joe picked up his gun, staring at it curiously.

"Dang if this thing didn't just make him a gelding," Joe chuckled.

"A gelding?" Queon asked.

"A male horse that's been fixed so he can't breed," Joe explained.

"Y'know, speakin' of geldings, that there thing would be real handy for geldin' a horse, or cuttin' bulls," Mike noted. "In fact, you'd have your prairie oysters already roasted before they were even off the calf."

"Prairie oysters? What are those?" Queon asked.

"We'll explain that later," Joe answered. "Right now we'd better get these cows settled."

"We have something else to worry about now," Noren said. "The Marlins won't let this affair go unanswered... and they're a large family."

"Don't care how many of 'em there, are," Joe snarled. "If they try anything, we'll show 'em some good ol' Texas justice."

5

Nearly two weeks passed after the killings of the would-be rustlers with nothing happening. Joe and Mike had discovered the nearest town, Peridot, was much like any town they'd visited in Texas. Except for the hastenbeames replacing horses, and the conveniences they'd never seen in frontier Texas, the people and businesses were quite similar. There was even a Genderamaine, or sheriff, who refused to become involved, claiming both the rustling and the killings, which he conceded had been in self-defense, had taken place out of his jurisdiction.

The partners had explained to their newfound friends how to sort out the teryxglite herd, saving the best bulls for breeding while castrating the others, making them steers to be grown strictly for meat, and keeping the cows until they were no longer dropping calves. In return, Noren had asked about breeding Pokey and Gingersnap, in order to obtain more horses to handle the cattle. When Mike explained the horses were geldings and could not breed, Noren had arranged for them to be cloned in the near future.

Joe, Mike, Noren, and Wayhen were in the Take Ten Bar when one of the townspeople rushed in.

"Noren!" he called.

"What is it, Dekius?"

"Narone Marline is on his way into town, with all his sons and hired hands," Dekius shouted.

"Reckon this is what we've been waitin' for, Clancy," Joe said. "Best get our rifles and get the horses outta danger."

"What can we do to help?" Wayhan asked.

"Just grab a couple of them ray guns and cover us," Mike answered.

A few minutes later, they were in position to meet the raiders.

"There they come!" Joe shouted, when twenty men mounted on hastenbeames raced into town.

"They've got us outnumbered!" Noren cried.

"Don't worry about that," Mike answered. Once the riders came into range, he leveled his Winchester and fired at the front hastenbeame, his bullet piercing the machine's front hovering mechanism. The hastenbeame slewed sideways, then pitched up and down, spilling its rider before spinning into several of the following machines. Several hastenbeames and their riders went down like tenpins.

"There's a whole bunch outta the fight already," Mike yelled, then shouted in pain when a ray burned his left shoulder.

"You no good sidewinder," Mike screamed at the man who'd shot him. He shot the man through the chest.

"Guess you won't try that again," Mike chuckled in satisfaction.

"Behind you, pard!" Joe shouted. Mike whirled, and put a bullet into the belly of another raider who'd drawn a bead on his back. The man's ray shot went wide, burning harmlessly into a door post.

"What's wrong with you idiots?" They heard Narone Marline shout. "How can you let two men with those smoky, noisy weapons be smarter than we are. Get them!"

He rose up from behind a post and shot Wayhan in the leg. The boy went down, still firing, and his ray clipped Narone's side.

For several minutes the gun battle raged, .45 bullets against laser beams. One of Marline's men took shelter inside a store. Joe put several bullets through the wall, and the man staggered out, hands clutched to his chest, until he collapsed in the street.

"Guess he didn't realize while those light beams can't go through walls, a .45 slug sure can," Joe chuckled.

Now only Narone and one of his sons, Padrioun, were still in the fight. Narone stepped into the middle of the street, his son at his side.

"You givin' up?" Joe called.

"Not a chance, mister. We want you to come out here and face us," Padrioun shot back. He and his father slid their laser guns into the holsters on their belts.

"It'll be a pure pleasure," Joe replied. He and Mike shoved their Colts back into their holsters and walked into the road. They stood facing the two renegades.

"Whenever you're ready, Mister," Mike challenged.

Instantly, all four went for their guns. Joe's bullet took Narone in the left side of his chest, staggering him and spinning him half-around. Joe put a finishing slug into his side, and Narone pitched to his face.

Mike put three bullets into Padrioun's belly, the slugs going deep into the outlaw's guts. Padrioun jackknifed, and fell across his father's body.

"Reckon it's over," Joe said. "Let's check on the boy and get you patched up, Mike."

Epilogue

Mike's and Wayhen's wounds were painful, but not serious. They, along with the Periouxs, were relaxing in the yard and enjoying the warmth and greenish light from Mauriat 10.

"You look sad, Mike," Queon noted. "What's troubling you?"

"I'm kinda homesick for Texas," Mike answered. "Sure wish we could find our way back."

"That's impossible, I'm afraid," Noren said. "Those portals open and close at random, and they occur very rarely. However, Queon and I have a proposal which might help make you happier."

"What's that?" Mike asked.

"It's the custom on Junius 7 for women to be married by their 19th birthdays. Verion is already nineteen, and Lahna is 18. How old are you and Joe?"

"I'm twenty-one," Mike replied.

"And I'm twenty-two," Joe answered.

"Those are suitable ages. Lahna has already said she'd like to marry you, Joe... and Verion would make you a fine wife, Mike. What would you think of that?"

The two cowboys gazed with great intensity at the buxom, red-headed daughters. Their pulses pounded and blood raced in anticipation.

"Suddenly I'm not so homesick," Mike answered. "What about you, Joe?"

"I never was, from the minute I laid eyes on Lahna," Joe grinned. "No sir, I never was.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


James J. Griffin is the author of a series of Texas Ranger novels. Two of his latest books, Bullet for a Ranger and Renegade Ranger, are now available for Kindle.

To learn more about James J. Griffin and his work, visit his website at : www.jamesjgriffin.net

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