“I’m a hunted man.” Jedediah Black sipped the beer the Man in Black named Will spotted him.
“What makes you say thet?” asked Will. He dragged off a cigarette.
Jed shook his head. “Don’t rightly know. But I feel it.”
The one named Ty put his feet on the table, his hat low over his eyes, empty bourbon glass in front of him. “Tell us about the off-worlders. What happened in their ship?”
“They put me inside some kind of vat.” Jed remembered the feeling, like wading in onion pulp, his eyes stinging and his skin raw. “Felt the life get leached out of me. ’Tweren’t just me. Men, women, and even a child.”
“What was the vat for?” asked Will.
“Don’t rightly know.”
“How long were you in it?” asked Ty.
“Don’t rightly know.” Jed took a heavy swig. “Felt like forever.”
Ty gave a sympathetic nod. “What about after?”
“I had this dead feelin’. Like watching someone else’s life. Like watching the world melt before my eyes.”
He pushed his empty mug forward and tilted his nose at it. Will picked it up and waved it at the barmaid.
“We all just stood there. I thought I could move, but I wouldn’t.” Jed winced at the helplessness, humiliated that he didn’t even try. His hands trembled as he took the stein from the girl. “We all just stood there as they cut into us. I wanted to scream, but I just stood there. They cut me, they cut the others, they tinkered with our insides.”
“Where’d they cut you?” asked Will.
“Not rightly certain, though once along the left edge of my ribcage.”
“Well, where are your scars?” asked Ty.
Ty dropped his boots to the floor. “There’s always scars.”
Ty tipped his hat back and raised his eyes at Will. “Doc should hear this. When’s he get back?”
“Hard to say,” said Will. “How long to treat Betty Harvey for consumption?”
Jed had stayed at the Harvey’s for a time and knew the house, a day’s ride or so away.
“What after that?” asked Ty.
“Don’t rightly know.”
Will scratched his stubble with the ring and pinky fingers of his cigarette hand, then took a drag. “What do you know?”
Jed’s beer was already gone, so he pushed it toward Will, who wrapped his hands around it.
Hoping to encourage a refill, Jed obliged him. “Went completely dark. Not like sleep, though. I was completely aware of myself. Awake in darkness. Nothing. There was nothing.” He kept repeating it, feeling almost as if they would understand it if he just said it with the right inflection. “And then I woke up in Tucson.”
“There’s no limit to their cruelty,” said Ty.
Will twitched his mouth and smacked his lips. “And the others?”
“Rightly know.” Ty finished Jed’s sentence. “What do you think it was all about, Will?”
Will adjusted his cigarette butt with his lips. “We gotta think like them. Think about impossible things. Think about—”
“Bait!” The young one they called Harold stormed into the tavern. “His body steeped in an alien scent in the vat. Gives his enemy something to snuffle up like a bloodhound.” He sat at the table. “They’re probably watching all y’all right now to see if they find you.”
“Maybe,” said Will. “How do you know for sure?”
“It’s a guess, really. But we’ll treat it scientifically,” said Harold. “Instead of letting the sledders use him, why don’t we use him?”
Ty shook his head. “That’d be a nice trick, seein’ as we don’t even know where to set the bait, but hows about we recon on something more than a guess?”
Harold leaned forward and pulled out his ledger. “These are off-worlders from some unknown star with unimaginable experiences. A guess is the best we’re going to get.”