I woke at 4:30 as I always did, and pulled on my insulated camos. I stepped out of the cabin and into a bone-chilling pre-dawn wind, ducking my head into the collar of my coat to keep my cheeks warm. I thrust my hand into my pocket and pulled out my keys. The truck door slammed as a gust of wind came up, and I slipped the key into the ignition. After a few seconds, the “Wait to Start” light blinked off and the diesel engine roared to life. I flipped the heat/defrost switch to “High,” then tucked my hands back into my pockets and watched my breath condense on the inside of the window as the vehicle warmed up.
It was 5:00 by the time I made it to the main camp. The fire was burning in the center of the mess hall and the heat hit me as soon as I stepped through the door. I nodded toward Jim, the cook, and noticed my clients were at a table next to the fire with their metal plates of eggs, ham, and toast. I piled some food onto my own plate and took a seat next to them.
“Are you ready for today?” I asked as I salted my eggs.
Flip looked at me with his large watery eyes. “I can hardly wait.”
I looked at Chaz.
“Barely slept a wink last night,” Chaz responded. “We’ve been waiting our whole lives for this experience.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve been seeing lots of elk, but you’ll still have to put in your work.” I turned back to my plate and shoveled the food into my mouth.
Both would-be hunters were from the planet Saiph in the Rasalas system. It was obvious that they were not accustomed to our cold weather and high altitude; I could see them shaking underneath their layers of fur coats. When they had first arrived, their pebbled skin was a lush dark green. But overnight it had faded and grayed; it reminded me of sagebrush.
“So tell me a little about your home world,” I said between bites.
Flip smiled and folded his slender hands on the tabletop. “It’s not without its charm,” he explained. “The closest thing I can compare it to is your Serengeti. Grassland for as far as the eyes can see.”
“And flat,” Chaz interjected. “Very flat. We don’t even have hills.”
“Well, you’re in for a treat today.” I smiled and finished my breakfast.
I took the pair to a spot that I had scoped out a few days earlier. It was a private section of the Shirley Mountains with a lot of wide draws filled with aspens. The leaves were just turning their fall colors and splashes of red, green, and yellow painted the hillside. I parked the truck at the bottom of the hill and shut off the engine. I turned to the aliens.
“Grab your guns and supplies. We’re walking from here.”
They looked at me quizzically and then at each other. They shrugged and grabbed their equipment. I figured that since this was their first hunt, and they were natives of a land without mountains, I would give them an authentic Western experience. It would have been easy for me to drive around on the roads and look for elk, but that wouldn’t give them their money’s worth. I wanted them to feel the wind, smell the sagebrush and pine, hear the animals as they snapped and bugled their way through the trees, and fill their lungs with the cool mountain air.
The trek to the top took a little longer than I expected. I had to slow my pace so that Chaz and Flip could keep up. Not only were their coats heavy and cumbersome, but their pencil-thick legs were not used to walking on uneven terrain. When we finally reached the summit, Flip placed his hands on his hips and sucked in long breaths. Chaz set the butt of his rifle on the ground and used the barrel to hold himself up; he coughed between wheezes. When they caught their breath, they scanned the horizon over the tops of the trees.
“I don’t think my doctor would be too happy to know I just hiked up that hill,” Flip smiled. “I did just get three of my five hearts replaced earlier this year.”
My eyes grew wide and I stared at him for a moment. “I really wish you would have told me that before we started walking.”
He just shrugged.
Chaz found a rock and sat down, his breathing was still heavy. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his coat and scanned the area. I noticed that something over his left shoulder caught his attention and he stared at it for a long while. He turned back to me and placed his hat back on his head.
“There’s a road right over there,” he pointed. “We could have driven up here.”
It was my turn to shrug. “Yeah. But don’t you feel a sense of accomplishment by walking up here?”
He huffed and directed his attention to his boots.
“So where are these elk we’re looking for?” Flip asked.
I turned toward the trees and brought my binoculars up to my eyes. I scanned the horizon but didn’t find anything. After a few minutes, I dropped the glasses and pointed into the trees.
“They’ve probably taken shelter in the trees. What I think we should do…” I paused and looked at them for a moment, my hand falling limply at my side. “What I should probably do is head over a couple of draws and drop down into the valley. I’ll slowly make my way back up here to you. Hopefully, that will push the herd right in your direction.”
Chaz had joined us at the edge of the incline and gazed to where I had indicated. Both aliens nodded their agreement and asked what they should do. I placed them on a stand on opposite sides of a rocky outcrop that had a game trail that ran through the middle and told them to wait for the elk to appear, then it was up to them. I headed down the ridge toward the dry reservoir at the bottom.
The slope was a lot steeper than I expected it to be and several times I lost my footing and slid part of the way down. When I finally made it to the bottom, I glanced at my watch and realized that it had taken me almost an hour. I grabbed my canteen and found a rock. I sat for a short time and while I rehydrated and caught my breath, I listened. I heard a few bugles in the distance and knew that I had come down at the right spot. If I had been over one draw, I would have spooked the herd during my descent and pushed them the wrong way. When I had enough to drink, I placed the canteen back in my backpack and headed to the draw directly below the game trail and my hunters.
I sighed as I looked up into the trees. The terrain was just as steep, but since I was heading uphill it was going to take me twice as long as it did to get down. I took the first step and shook my head. It was worth it. These creatures were here for a real Wild West adventure. They had traveled light years to shoot an Earth animal. I had already pushed them too hard that day and I knew they could never make this trek. The least I could do was make sure they got a chance at their elk.
The herd was directly in front of me. As I made my way up the mountain, I could hear them crashing through the trees and calling to one another. I pulled out my bugle and blew a couple of quick, awful sounding grunts into the air. I grabbed a dead stick off ground and began to whack brush and trees as I made my way up the hill.
After walking for another hour, I stopped to catch my breath and get a drink. I checked my surroundings and knew that I was about half way to the top and the elk had definitely been there. I knelt down and poked at a pile of fresh droppings with my stick. The tree cover was too thick so I couldn’t see the top, but I knew that once the trees thinned out, I only had about a half a mile left. I could still hear the elk in front of me and they sounded like they were right where my hunters were. My plan was working. I was going to drive them right to my clients. I put my canteen away and started up again, expecting a shot at any moment.
When I was about a quarter mile from the top, I threw my stick away and picked my way across the landscape, careful not to make too much noise and spook the herd. I was just on the edge of the clearing when I pulled out my binoculars. I scanned the horizon and found the rock outcrops. Just as I suspected, I had picked the trail that came up right beneath them.
I spotted Chaz and almost dropped my glasses. He was leaning against the back wall with his head angled backward. His mouth was gaping and his eyes were closed. His rifle was on his lap, but his hands were draped limply over it. I scanned the other side and Flip was not much better. His gun was resting on its butt, the barrel pointing to the sky, with his hands wrapped around the stock and his head resting on his arms. I dropped the glasses and shook my head before bringing them back up to my eyes to confirm what I was seeing. I knew that if I had been closer, I would probably have been able to hear them snoring.
Right before I made it to the top, I pulled my bugle out again and blew two more screechs into the air. I watched Flip’s and Chaz’s heads jerk up and they fumbled to get their guns in the ready position. When they noticed it was me, they relaxed and made their way down from the rocks.
“Did ya see anything?” I asked when they got to me.
They looked at each other and back to me before shaking their heads.
“Really? Nothing?” I scratched my head with my right hand and placed my left on my hip. “Because I heard a whole bunch of them in the trees. I thought for sure they would come up this way.”
“We didn’t see anything,” Chaz spoke.
I began to pace around, my gaze fixed on the ground. “That is so strange. Look at all this fresh sign.” I pointed to the pellets and fresh tracks on the ground before turning to face them. “You’re sure nothing came through here.”
Flip cradled his gun across his chest and his face turned the brightest green I had seen since he’d been here. He shook his head again. “Nope, we didn’t see a thing.”
I placed both of my hands on my hips and faced them. “You two didn’t fall asleep on me, did you?”
The two shook their heads vehemently and huffed. “No, no way,” they spoke in unison.
I suppressed a chuckle and shook my head. “Well, I don’t know how they snuck by you without you seeing them, but I guess that is why they are called the ghosts of the forest.” I sat down on a rock and pulled out my canteen. After taking a long drink, I squinted into the sky. “Well, it’s gettin’ pretty late. We’ll be hard pressed to find any elk in the middle of the day.” I turned toward the aliens. “We should head back and get some lunch.”
They both agreed and the three of us headed back down the hill. My legs felt like Jello by the time I got to the truck. Before starting it up, I leaned my head against the back of my seat and closed my eyes for a moment. I was half expecting to hear my hunters comment about wanting to get back to camp, but they didn’t say a word. After I was slightly refreshed, I turned on the diesel truck. Flip and Chaz were asleep five minutes into the trip, their heads bobbing with every bump in the road.
A week later, I stood with the pair at the spaceport. We reminisced about their time at camp, but that first day never came up. I felt bad that I didn’t get them an elk and I apologized, but they just waved their hands and smiled.
“We didn’t really want the meat anyway,” explained Flip. “It’s actually difficult for us to digest your food. We just wanted to come out here for the experience and you definitely gave us that.”
Chaz squeezed my left shoulder. “We really appreciate all the hard work you put in for us.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a few bills, which he pressed into my hand. “We’ll have a great story to tell everyone back home.”
© 2008 Pembroke Sinclair
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Discuss this story at ResAliens Forum at SFReader.com.
(Picture Source: Valles Caldera National Preserve)
Pembroke Sinclair is fairly new to the world of publishing, but already has several stories under his belt. He writes an eclectic mix of tales ranging from western to science fiction to fantasy; although his passion lies in science fiction and is currently working on a science fiction novel. Some his stories include "Guiding the West" (Static Movement); "Sadhu," "Mendicant," "Sohei," and "Dukkha" (The Cynic Online Magazine); and "Lonely Space" and "The Soul Collector" (NVF Magazine Issues 8). To read more or contact the author, visit his blog at Pembroke Sinclair.