Please enjoy this excerpt of Cowboys & Aliens by Joan D. Vinge, the novelization of the eponymous movie. If you’re interested in the inspiration behind the writing of this book, take a look at Joan Vinge’s piece detailing what drew her to this unique story and led her to release her first novel in a decade.
Spring had come and gone in the desert lands of New Mexico Territory, with all the subtlety of an iron fist in a green velvet glove. For a few weeks rain fell, usually fretful, with frequent rainbows, and the land that had been bleached of color put on a cloak of verdant grass—in a good year, even a show of wildflowers. It was a thing of beauty for weary human eyes to behold.
But already the mantle of green was withering, laying bare the scarred, spectral face of the desert, its true face, amoral and pitiless.
There were some who found peace—or at least possibility—in the desert’s truth: A man who had never seen any other place, or a man who never wanted to see someplace else again. Even a man who saw the chance to get rich, in a land where the treasures of the earth often lay right on the surface, marking the spot where veins of rich ore—silver, copper, and especially gold—lay waiting to be sucked dry like bone marrow.
A smart man on the road to a nearby destination—with a good horse and just enough food in his saddlebags, a canteen or two filled with water—might be glad it wasn’t raining.
But the man on whom the sun shed light as it rose over the distant rim of a mesa didn’t even have a pair of boots. From the heights of the sky, he was no more than a speck in an emptiness as vast as the sky itself, lying like a dead man in the middle of a dusty trail. His dust-colored pants were torn out at the knee, his tanned skin and short tawny hair caked with sweat and dirt. The large red stain on his torn Henley marked the place where something had left a deep wound, still fresh, in his side.
The man who might have been dead twitched and moaned softly, as the full-bore heat of a new day struck him. The unforgiving light of the sun shone in through his closed eyelids and reddened his skin like an open oven. Discomfort prodded him toward consciousness; he shifted again, growing more restless.
Abruptly the man sat up with a terrified gasp, like he’d been wakened out of a nightmare. He sat sucking in air as if he had been running all night, staring at the land around him with the empty eyes of someone who had no idea what he was doing there.
The buzzards that had been circling on the thermals overhead, watching him with more than casual interest, canted their wings and flew off, disappointed.
The man, dazzled by the light, never noticed, seeing the land around him in double vision. He kept blinking, until finally he knew—within a range of several thousand square miles—where he was. In the desert. Lost in the desert.
He stared at his bare feet, protruding like strange plants from the bottoms of his pants legs. Where the hell were his boots? And then he grimaced, abruptly aware of a sharp, deep pain in his right side. He covered it with his hands, leaning over.
That only made it worse. He sat up straight, taking his hands away. They were red and sticky.
. . . the hell? He looked down at his shirt, seeing the deep red stain; watched it blooming brighter as fresh blood oozed from its center. A wound . . . bullet wound? He pulled up his shirt, looked at the blood-caked gouge in his side. He made a face and pulled his shirt down over it again.
Nothing vital hit. He exhaled in relief. Wasn’t even bleeding bad, considering how bad it felt. Wiping his hands in the sandy dirt, he took another long breath—consciously, cautiously, this time. Lucky, he thought, not wondering how he was so sure of that.
He looked at his hands again, as something out of place nudged him further into the reality that was now.
Around his left wrist he was wearing a wide, thick piece of metal. A manacle—? Too big to be a handcuff, it looked more like an iron . . . but it wasn’t heavy enough.
He studied it, already sure that he’d never seen a shackle like this before. It was made from chunks of different-colored scraps of metal, somehow forged into a single band with a kind of precision that ought to be impossible.
Who the hell would make a thing like this? Even if it wasn’t a shackle, it looked too much like one for his taste. And more to the point, what was it doing on him? Had it been put there by whoever had wounded him?
He’d been wounded, he was lost in the desert without a hat, or even boots. His feet were stone-bruised and cut like he’d come a long way; his right arm was scraped raw and the right leg of his pants had a hole in it big enough so that he could see the ugly bruise on his knee.
He must look the way he felt…and he felt like shit. But he couldn’t have been lost out here that long, or he’d be dead.
He looked at the metal bracelet again, and a sudden reaction made his gut knot up—an emotion that went beyond confusion, beyond fear…closer to blind hatred than anything else he knew. He picked up a rock and hit the metal band with all his strength, hitting it again and again. Panic rose in him as the blows made no impression on it at all.
The metal was light, it should be soft—but it wasn’t. Hitting it only made his hands, his arms, everything hurt more; the rock he’d been beating the thing with hadn’t left a dent—not so much as a scratch—on its surface.
Cursing under his breath; he threw the rock away. He sat back, putting his hands over his knees, holding himself up and together. His throat was so parched he could barely swallow; his lips were cracked and his belly was tight with hunger. The weakness he felt was more than just blood loss—and yet, looking down at his arms, bare where he’d pushed up his sleeves, he could see that they weren’t badly sunburned.
Why was he here? How had he gotten here? Where the hell was here? He couldn’t seem to remember any of it. Closing his eyes against the glare, seeing nothing but darkness when he tried to look inside himself. He focused on shutting down his emotions, slowing his breathing, getting control of himself. He needed to be under control; always ready, watching and waiting for the perfect moment or the wrong move. . . .
At last he opened his eyes again, strikingly blue eyes that glinted like cut sapphire. He began to run his hands over his half-ruined clothes, searching his pants pockets for money, anything—
Nothing at all. At least he was on a track to somewhere . . . a long, unnaturally wide strip of packed dirt, running from one edge of nowhere to the other, hardly better than the bare ground between patches of rabbit bush and mesquite beside him.
In the far distance he could see the blue-gray, broken-toothed profile of a mountain range; in the nearer distance he saw the mesa over which the sun had just risen. On the other side of the trail there was a weather-etched cliff of reddish sandstone maybe thirty feet high. At least there were no Apaches on top of it. They’d be glad to make his day shorter, but a lot more painful.
He looked down again, this time searching every inch of the ground around him for anything at all that might have landed here with him. A spot of light caught his eye . . . something metal, half-buried in the dirt. Carefully, he picked it up, brushing the dust from it: A tintype, a portrait of a young woman. The picture was bent, battered around the edges, but not so much that he couldn’t see her face clearly. She looked sweet and loving, with her dark hair mostly gathered up in back but partly free, long enough that it spilled down over her shoulders in deep, shining waves.
She was a total stranger. Why the hell was he carrying around a stranger’s picture?
And yet….He looked at her face again, the sweetness of her smile, her eyes that seemed to be gazing only at him with . . . love? For a moment his heart seemed to stop, along with his breath. He stared at the picture like a mountain lion looking down at a doe, ready to spring . . . and finding himself unexpectedly lost in the depths of her eyes.
Unnerved, he stuck the picture into his pants pocket. He wished he had someplace better to keep it . . . a hat. Damn it, where was his hat? This day figured to be long and hot, and it had only begun.
He stopped looking, stopped moving as he heard the sound of hoofbeats on the trail. Riders—in no hurry, but coming his way.
His hand went to his hip, before he could form a coherent thought about why; searching . . . His hand made a fist as it came up empty, and he realized his final loss: his gun. It was the only thing he could think of that was worth as much to him as his own life.
He looked at his hand and couldn’t think of anything else to do with it . . . anything at all. Resigned, he sat staring at his bare feet, waiting for whatever happened next.
He didn’t have to wait long. He didn’t bother to look back as he heard the riders come over the hill: Three of them, he figured, from the sound.
He finally raised his head as the riders entered his line of sight, taking their measure as they circled around him and stopped their horses: three bearded men—tough, hard-looking men, dressed in typical dark, drab layers, with a black dog following them. Their clothes had a patina of dust on them, as if they’d been riding for a while. There was something about them, almost an echo, that told him they were family: a father and two sons, maybe. The grizzled older man had on a top hat; it made him look like an undertaker.
As the strangers closed in on him, the man saw a long, black-haired scalp hanging from the old man’s saddle like a trophy. Another scalp hung from the saddle of one of the sons. By then the man sitting on the ground didn’t need that much detail to know these three did more killing than burying.
The three riders stared down at him. At last the old man said, “We’re riding toward Absolution. You know how far west we are?”
The man stared back at them, his eyes as empty as his mind was. Absolution? Was that a place you could find on a map? Or did the three of them figure if they rode far enough west, all their sins would be forgotten?
The three riders shifted impatiently in their saddles, waiting for an answer he couldn’t give them.
“Maybe he’s a dummy,” one of the sons said.
The father got down from his horse. He was a walking weapons rack—holstered pistol, skinning knife on his belt, and a Winchester carbine slung at his back.
The man sitting in the dusty trail pushed himself to his feet uneasily as the father stopped in front of him and said, “Some reason you don’t wanna answer my question, friend?”
The man didn’t answer that one either, not sure if he even had enough spit left to let him speak. It didn’t occur to him to ask for water, since it hadn’t occurred to them to offer him any. He was too aware of the way the sons were positioning their horses around behind him, cutting him off almost casually as they edged in to get a better look at him.
“Look there,” one of them said, “he’s carrying iron on his wrist . . . and he’s been shot.”
The father glanced at the man’s wrist, at the strange metal bracelet. His expression didn’t seem to see anything strange about it. The man was completely surrounded now.
“Could be he broke out of the hoosegow,” the other son said. “Might well be bounty money. . . .”
Bounty hunters. If the three of them hadn’t been before, they were now. The old man pulled his carbine over his shoulder and cocked it, aiming it at the man as he took another step toward him.
“Not your lucky day, stranger,” the father said, glancing down at the man’s bootless feet, then up at his face again.
The man’s expression had gone completely blank, like his mind. He stood motionless, his hands down at his sides.
“Turn around real slow,” the father said, “and start walking.” The man didn’t move, and the father took a few more steps, closing the space between them.
The man heard the black dog begin to growl, as if it sensed danger. He stayed where he was, not moving, with not even a flicker of doubt showing on his face. The carbine was now within inches of his chest.
“I said, start walkin’—” The rifle’s barrel struck the man’s chest.
Suddenly the man reacted like a striking snake. He grabbed the carbine’s barrel; it fired as his left hand jerked it free from of the old man’s grip. The shot went wild and the father fell back, but not before the man’s right hand had snatched his knife from its belt sheath.
The man kept moving, swinging around with the knife, and drove it into the thigh of the closest son, clear to the hilt. The son fell off his horse with a howl of pain; the man slammed the carbine butt against the side of his head, breaking his neck.
The man flipped the carbine as he caught movement out of the corner of his eye; he swung back to see the father struggling upright, raising his drawn pistol. The man cocked the carbine again with barely time to aim, and fired. The bullet hit the father in the chest, and he went down like he wouldn’t be getting up again.
The second son was already aiming his revolver. The man leaped, tackling him and dragging him out of the saddle. When the second son hit the ground, he still had the gun; before he could fire it, the man slammed his wrist down on a rock, and the pistol skittered out of reach. The son’s hands went for the man’s throat then; the man smashed the heel of his own hand into the son’s nose, and felt things break and give way. He hit him in the face again and again . . . until at last his blind fury began to clear, and he realized he was hitting a man who was no longer trying to kill him . . . he was hitting a dead man.
He fell back from the body, dazed, gasping for breath. Slowly he forced himself to get to his knees, and then to his feet.
The man stood in the trail, alone again, the only human being left alive. The silence around him was almost deafening; all he heard was his own heart still beating. His eyes moved from body to body, then back to his bruised, aching hands. He stared at them. They were covered with blood again, but this time most of it was the blood of strangers.
He wiped his hands on his bloody shirt, staring at the carnage around him, even more stupefied by the fact that he was the one responsible for it.
Only a stone-cold killer could have done what he’d just done. But he wasn’t . . . couldn’t be a killer . . . didn’t feel like a killer. . . . He was only a . . . he was . . .
Jesus God, what was he? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything at all about himself. He couldn’t even remember his own name—
He pressed his hands against his head, trying to keep whatever was left of his mind from vanishing before he could get a grip on it.
The black dog trotted over and sat down in front of him, as if it had recognized its new master. Frowning in disgust, the man turned away. His eyes went to the canteen hanging from the nearest horse’s saddle. He reached out and took it from the saddle horn, uncorking it. He was still alive. If he wanted to stay that way, he needed water, now.
At least there was nobody left to kill; he was glad to let his instincts do whatever they wanted. His hands shook as he raised the canteen to his mouth. He drank, forcing himself to do it slowly, until he’d quenched his thirst. The dog lapped at the spillage that dripped off his chin.
The man went through the horse’s saddlebags next, finding some beef jerky and hardtack, the only things there that interested him. He ate as he moved from horse to horse, collecting canteens and any other food he could find.
As his head cleared some, with his body feeling a little stronger, he faced the bodies of the three dead men again. He crouched down and went through their pockets, taking any money they had. They wouldn’t be needing that anymore, wherever they were now. He stood up again, considering. He needed boots, he needed a hat . . . and some clothes that didn’t have blood all over them.
The only dead man whose shirt didn’t look worse than his did was the one with the broken neck. Their sizes matched well enough. He stripped the jacket, vest, and shirt off the body, threw away his own ruined Henley. He moved carefully as he put on his new clothes; the wound on his side had opened up again during of the fight.
As he buttoned the light-colored linen shirt, he saw fresh blood already soaking through the cloth. He tucked the shirt into his pants and put on the dark vest, hoping that would be enough to hide it. He almost tossed the coat aside, because the day was already too hot. But then he remembered he was in the desert. If he lived through the rest of today, by tonight he’d be getting damn cold.
The last man he’d killed was wearing leather stovepipe chaps that looked almost new. He took them and buckled them on to cover his torn pants. He sized the sole of the stranger’s boot up against his foot; it was a decent match. He pushed his sore feet into the man’s socks and boots, beginning to feel like at least he might pass for respectable now.
Hat, he thought. If he died of sunstroke now, it would serve him right. He picked up the hat he liked best and tried it on. It fit just right. He settled the brim low over his eyes, shielding them from the light and other people’s curiosity.
He wondered exactly what other people he had in mind . . . suddenly he remembered the tintype he had found. Retrieving it from his pocket, he took off the hat and carefully wedged the picture into its crown. He resettled the hat on his head, satisfied.
But there was still one thing he needed: a gun.
He moved from body to body again, checking out the men’s pistols. They all had decent-looking revolvers. Good. . . . He spun the cylinder of each one, rejected the first two because the movement wasn’t smooth enough.
The third one was better: an army-surplus Smith and Wesson Schofield .45. Its cylinder moved like its owner had cared about his own life. Better luck in the next one, the man thought. The gun’s grip felt easy, well-balanced in his hand.
He took the gun belt that came with it and buckled it on. Whoever he was, the pistol made him feel complete in a way he couldn’t define.
Then he gazed out across the bleak, glaringly bright plain, feeling more like himself again. He realized that the thought was as completely out of context as he was, standing here in the middle of nowhere . . . and just as meaningless.
He checked over the three horses that stood grazing alongside the trail, waiting for riders who no longer had any use for them. They were all in good condition; he chose the only one without a scalp hanging from its saddle. He fastened the coat onto the back of the saddle, where a bedroll was already tied in place. He slapped the other two horses on the rumps and sent them galloping off down the road, trusting their intelligence to take them someplace better than this.
Still following his own instincts, he mounted the third horse and turned it in the direction the three men had been traveling. Absolution. He figured it had to be a town, and in that case, not impossibly far away. He touched the horse with his spurs. It set off at an easy lope, a pace his body didn’t find unbearable.
As he started to ride away, the dog got up and followed him. He reined in, looking back at it. Some kind of herding dog, he guessed. Its fur was long and shaggy, mostly black, with a white ruff around its neck that made it look like it’d been born with a collar on.
Maybe it had, because whatever kind of dog it was, it didn’t seem to have the sense to go off on its own, now that it was free. It looked back at him, panting with its tongue out, in that way dogs had that made them seem to be smiling.
He stared at it with the eyes of a cougar, passing judgment. Then he turned away again and rode on, not looking back.
The dog followed as he crested the next hill and rode into the valley beyond.
2011 © Joan D. Vinge