Bud let the brake go, and the windmill set right to spinning, a stiff breeze coming from the south. Jorge stood nearby, dark face squinting up at the contraption the boss had been working on ever since he got back from California.
Bud, Jake and Jorge all stepped away as the windmill picked up speed. Water gushed out of the pump, cold and clear, into the watering trough. Jorge stopped, then stepped back toward the base of the tower, looking at the meter.
Lean young men, all three, jeans and work shirts, leather gloves either pulled on their hands or tucked in their back pockets. Their faces were still smooth and handsome, not yet lined by age and work, not old before their time, like their fathers.
The windmill squeaked rhythmically, sounding like a birdcall.
“That’s twice the output than normal, boss,” Jorge called out.
“Time’s the test,” Bud said.
“The blades are set too sharp,” Jake countered, “Come a gust and it’ll tear up.”
“No,” Bud gasped and pulled his Stetson off, slapped it against his thigh. Dust billowed away. “I told ya’ Jake, the blades adjust accordin’ t’speed. Windmills are always a compromise, the blades set t’some happy medium, and the good ones have brakes that keep a rotor from spinning too fast so’s it doesn’t blow all to pieces.”
Bud knew it sounded like a lecture, and he knew that must grate on Jake’s pride, but he wanted so badly for his friends to understand. The young rancher pointed emphatically at his machine.
“That’s all wasted energy. This system adjusts the blades so they’re always close t’ optimum. Low wind, the blades tighten up, the wind picks up, the blades adjust. Too much speed, the blades lean out, speed drops, the blades sharpen up. See? Just like that.”
The current of air, running its fingers through the Gramma Grass surrounding them, delivering the pungent clean smell to the three men, gusted a bit, and the rotor spun harder for a second, then each blade squeaked as a handle connected to the rotor pulled back, and the blades opened up some. The rotor slowed down, then picked up again as the handle trimmed the blades sharper again.
“So we’re gonna replace our perfectly good ‘mills with this contraption?”
“Look, Jake, listen to me. This is just an experiment. I don’t see it pumping water at all. I ’m thinkin’, hookin’ it up a generator and pumpin’ electricity.”
Jake snapped a look at his life-long friend.
“Now, what the hell would we do with electricity?”
“Jake, you’re exasperating me. It’s 1935! People are lighting their homes with electricity, radios, motors...”
“Motors for what? Pumpin’ water when the windmills we got are already doin’ that?”
The blades were twitching and adjusting constantly now. The rotor was spinning too fast, then slacking off, then gusting forward again, no longer in rhythm with the wind. The rhythmic squeaking was sounding more like a screech.
“Three time normal output,” Jorge called back to the men who’d stepped even further back up the grass-covered swell. “But boss, something’s not right. She’s goin’ too fast.”
The screeching built in intensity, a jarring scream.
“Get away from there, Jorge,” Jake called out.
“I’m going to throw on the brake,” the Mexican answered, reaching up to where the cast-iron control was.
The screeching turned to a howl, and the rotor suddenly exploded.
Jorge fell forward into the interior of the tower as the blades came down like daggers.
Bud leaned on the hitching post in front of the ranch house, staring west toward where the sun had set upon a range of hills a bit to the north, maybe a quarter mile away, the boundary line of the Lazy M Ranch. Not a cloud in the sky, the hot air that gently moved around him scented with palo verde and the distant Rio Bravo.
To the immediate north, the big barn with the tractor and plows and all the tools of dry farming slipped into silent dusk. The horse corrals abutted one side of the barn, pig stalls, chicken coup and goats on the other. To the south, the vegetable garden, Lynn’s domain; corn, squash, lettuce and spinach, tomatoes and onions.
Past the garden, on a small swell, the ranch’s cemetery. With each grave, the headstones got bigger, until it got to the most recent one, Frank McCord, which looked more like a monument than a stone to mark his final resting place.
The bunkhouse, empty right now, except for Jorge, Jake and Bud himself, lay south and east of the main ranch house. A regular little town, with a blacksmith shop, his-and-her outhouses, and a garage for the new truck, right next to the buggy and the wagon. From the ranch house itself, telephone lines ran north past the horizon, following the road to the nearest town and train depot.
Bud’s realm now. His empire, besides fifty thousand head of cattle, most of it on its way to market, forty acres in oats and hay, quickly getting lit by a rising full moon, and thirty thousand acres more for grazing. All his, and as much a ball and chain as if he were in the penitentiary.
Jake slipped through the front door of the ranch house, making sure the screen door set behind him. He strode out to the hitching post, and lowered his elbows to the top rail next to Bud.
“Go ahead, say it,” Bud said, “I got it comin’.” Jake lifted his eyebrows, and Bud continued. “I nearly got Jorge killed with my infernal contraption.”
“Jorge’s fine, little bruised and knocked about, but he’s flirtin’ with Lynn right now, so you know he’s all right.”
Jake kicked dirt with his pointy boots, smiled over at his boss.
“C’mon, Bud, out with it. What’s eatin’ you?”
Bud paused only a moment, then turned and faced Jake.
“I’ll tell you what it is. Pa sends me off to college. Not Aggie, no. Stanford. Business degree, that’s good. World’s changin’, and cattle raisin’s a business. Have ta’ keep up with th’ times.” Bud faced forward again. “Only I take physics, too, and astronomy, and math, calculus, and I love it all. I was soaking it up like a sponge, Jake. I was—expanding.”
“Always done good in school, Bud,” Jake said. “Botany and geography, always showed up the whole class.”
“That’s how you see it, Jake. Like I’m makin’ everyone feel smaller around me by being educated. It’s not about every one around me, its about me, and a thirst to know, to understand, ta’ think!
“Then Pa dies. I do my duty, I come home, but, Jake, I’m not—sated. I miss the learnin’, I miss the academia, miss the thinking, pondering, reasoning. It was required there, here, it’s just day-dreaming, because ever’thin’ is set here. Thinkin’s not a necessity. Sometimes it’s a liability.”
“It’s all right f’r you to be smart, Bud. You’re the boss, son of the boss. Makes sense for you. But even you have t’ remember your place. We all have our place, y’know.”
“And that’s just it.” Bud straightened up, and pointed loosely to the mountains. “I can stand here, and know what’s gonna happen to me for the rest of my life, like a map, its set like stone in the earth itself, ‘less’n an earthquake turns it all upside down. Make lots of money, sure, get married...”
“To Lynn,” Jake interjected.
“God willing,” Bud said. “Sit on the board of directors for the cattlemen’s association, the school board, maybe move up a couple degrees at the Masons, have kids, sons to carry on the name, the empire, and then I curse them with the same duty I carry. I get old, I die. I get buried right up there with Ma, Pa, Grandpa, Grandma Jessie, Grandma Dot, Eric, Mary and Suzy.”
Bud straightened up.
“I can stand here, and look back on my life as if I’ve already lived it, like it was already over. Jake, I’m not sayin’ it’s not a good life, but set like this, it’s not complete.”
“And yet all you gotta do is ask, and Lynn is your wife.”
Bud gasped a sigh, shook his head. After a moment he continued lamely.
“Like this, what kind of a husband, a man, am I?”
“Damned lucky, I’d say. Your lot in life is good, Boss. I ain’t sayin’ mine’s bad, but it’s not as good as yours. I know my lot, and I’m happy. Happy’r not, I’ll remember my place. I hear you complainin’, why, it rankles me. ”
“You really believe that?” Bud asked. “’Bout us all havin’ t’know our place?”
“Jorge,” Bud shot back. “What’s his place?”
“Here on th’ ranch?”
“Here, in town, before God.”
“Well, he’s a wetback, a greaser,” Jake said. “I didn’t make him one. Sure, he’s a real good friend, but he’s still not a white man, not even a Christian.”
“He’s baptized,” Bud countered with exasperation.
“Cat’lic. That’s just a quicker trip t’hell.”
Bud sighed and looked heavenward.
“Well, it could be worse,” Jake continued. “’Least he ain’t Irish.”
A shooting star came over the top of the ranch house.
“Glory be,” Bud sighed.
Aqua blue, big as a freight train, the smoke billowing out behind it, lit by the glowing star itself. An unearthly sound rumbled from it.
“Good Lord,” Jake said, looking heavenward.
The rocket slued over their heads, right across the face of the moon, arched down toward the ground, and slammed into the low mountains to the north, clear as if they were at the nickelodeon watching Laurel and Hardy.
And just as clear, lit by the burst of flame that filled the north-western sky, they could see a ripple coming at them six inches tall, as if the open plains were the surface of water. In awed paralysis they watched it shoot toward them, then under them, flinging them both into the air.
Horses screeched, dogs barked, pandemonium reigned.
“Madre mia!” Jorge staggered out of the ranch house, squishing his hat to his head. “What was that?”
Bud came to his feet, and a smile twisted his face.
“A meteorite,” he said. “And just inside our property line.”
“Say what?” Jake asked.
“Where you figure it hit, Jake?”
“’Bout a third of the way up the side of the mountain, maybe lower, right before the crease we caught that three-point buck last season.”
“I was thinkin’ a little more south.” Bud looked over at his two hands.
“Jorge, Jake, settle the horses down, saddle up two. Get the truck and load tarps and planks, shovels and fence gear. And lanterns. Lynn,” Bud turned toward the door, and there was Lynn, tall, straight, lean face with her hair in a bun, and a simple frock dress. She smiled sweet, yet strong, composed, unshaken, a rancher’s woman.
“Propose!” a voice shouted within him.
“Gather up some grub, something we don’t have t’cook. I’m gonna get some use out of that telephone.”
Lynn nodded, and disappeared ahead of him into thekitchen as he got to the desk where the telephone gathered dust.
He tapped on it, didn’t recognize the voice that answered.
“I need t’place a call to Palo Alto, California, Professor Malcomb Smythe,” He opened his personal book of numbers. “His number is Helix 166.”
Bud looked toward the door, where he could hear Jake and Jorge talking at the horses, the horses not buying the humans’ soothing tones.
“If I can’t be at the University, I’ll just bring some of the University here,” he spoke out loud.
“Hello, Professor Smythe? This here’s Bud McCord. Remember... Yes, sir, calling from my ranch in West Texas! Don’t have electricity but we got a phone. M’Pa put it in.” To call me at school, Bud thought. “It’s good to hear your voice too, Professor...Listen, Professor, I got big news for you. Just now, and I mean th’time it took t’place a call to you, a meteorite slammed into some mountains less than a quarter mile away from here, on my property ... I said a meteorite, big blue thing, slow moving, slowest one I’ve ever seen ... a meteorite, sir, a shooting star that hit the ground ... airplanes don’t pick the ground up and send it out like waves, professor. I bet’cha every head a’ range cattle in West Texas is across the Rio Grande by now. Here’s my thought, Professor. I run m’boys up there and corral off the whole area, keep everyone away ‘til you get here. I throw tarps over as much of it as possible, in case it rains. Chance of a lifetime, sir. An untouched meteor strike ... Just rememberin’ what you said in class once, that sites have usually been picked over by the curious before a scientist gets there ... well, nosir, ya’ stay at the ranch, anyone you bring stays at the ranch, plenty’a room and nowhere else t’stay out here anyway.”
Lynn stepped up with train schedules.
“I’ll give him directions,” Lynn said softly, “You get out to your meteorite.”
On the way out the door, Bud grabbed his gun belt and strapped it on. You didn’t go out that far without a weapon, too many coyotes, mountain lions and banditos at night not to be prudent, although they were probably all across the Rio Grande with the cattle.
Outside, the flatbed truck rattled as Jorge pulled it up to the hitching post, Jake already on horseback, leading a second horse. They both had strapped on their side arms.
“Jorge, mount up, and you two get out there. Make sure no one gets near that meteorite.”
“I wanna drive, “ Jorge protested.
“Who’s gonna be out there, this time’a night?” Jake interjected.
“With my luck, th’whole El Paso marching band is strutting over the mountain right now, and Jorge, ya’ drive too slow. Ya’ ride fast, now git!”
Jorge sighed and climbed out of the driver’s seat onto the saddled horse.
A ‘c’mon’ and ‘snick’, and the two mounted men took off toward the mountain.
Lynn glided onto the porch.
“Y’er professor’s gonna be in Boesch on Tuesday,” she called out over the clattering truck engine. “We gotta be there ‘round noon t’pick him up.”
“Good work, Lynn,” Bud admired the tall thin woman for a moment.
“This could take all night, now. Go on t’bed.”
“I’ll keep the coffee hot,” she answered. “Be careful.”
“The danger’s over, Lynn. Now it’s just scientific procedure.”
Bud loved saying it, ‘scientific’.
The boys were out of sight. There was an old road, trail actually, that led to the base of the mountain, then around it to a line shack. Bud followed that until it started turning away from where he figured the meteorite had hit the mountain. He could see the fresh horse prints in the unnatural glare of the head lights, and at that point he drove onto the sparse ground, dodging creosote and cactus as he tracked his men, getting up a bit of the mountain before it got too rough. Hauling the tarps and wood could be challenging, he thought as he braked to a halt, then shut the engine down. He left it in gear, pulled on the emergency brake, and hoped it would all stay put.
He pulled a lantern out, then looked around at the moonlit landscape. Might not need this after all, he thought. He brought it anyway.
The day had been dusty and hot, and the rocks reflected stored heat, but whenever he stepped away from the boulders, the air was decidedly cool. He didn’t have to go far before he came up on Jake and Jorge.
Something was very wrong.
Both men had their six guns out. Bud caught the look of terror in both their wild eyes, their bared teeth as they crouched low behind rocks, working back from the crest of the rocky swell in front of them.
Bud pulled his Colt out and slipped to all fours all at once, then crawled up next to Jorge. Jorge looked over at his employer, the Mexican’s dark skin splotchy.
“A demon!” he hissed. “I swear on the grave of my grandmother! There’s a demon over the rise!”