Something deadly has awakened on the remote planet Aletha III, a nightmare creature that shouldn't exist, and no one except teenage cowboy Travis McClure believes it is real.
Bored with his life on the terraforming project, herding cattle and doing homework, Travis longs for adventure but gets more than he bargains for when he is attacked by the creature.
Now it's kill or be killed as Travis is forced to defend himself and the other terraformers against a threat they don't believe in. Armed only with his dad's old rifle he heads into the wilderness to track down the beast before it kills again. It's a deadly game and survival is the only prize.
"Feels like Alien for kids in the way it builds tension, creates heroes and never pauses for breath."– Publishing News
"Space Cowboy is the brand of science fiction common in the 1950s and 1960s; upbeat, fast-paced, and exciting. A enjoyable story, it updates the western in a believable manner."– Mark Lardas, Ricochet
Travis McClure turned his tired horse west, away from camp, away from cool water and soft sleeping bags, away from everything he so desperately wanted. He glanced at the sky, greenish gold, not blue like the skies back home on Earth, streaked with pale clouds that twisted and streamed in the unending wind. Two suns hung low, bloated red Beta and tiny Alpha, so white it hurt his eyes. Twin suns that burned and bleached and stole the spit from your mouth if you let them. Travis tugged his hat down, the brim floppy and torn, and nudged his horse in the ribs.
"Let's go, Deuce."
Deuce snorted his displeasure but broke into a laggardly trot, hooves smacking the rust-red trail. The narrow path was packed tight by the scattered bands of cattle and wild sheep the terraformers had released decades ago, an attempt to jump-start millions of years of evolution and create a living planet in a galactic heartbeat. Someday, long after Travis and his family had gone home, colonists would arrive with their factories and schools, cities and farms. But for now, only the scattered camps of geologists and stockmen, too desperate or too stubborn to leave, covered the awakening world. Aletha Three was a harsh planet, desolate and arid. Someday, the Company claimed, it would be a paradise of green meadows and shadowed forests. Someday, but not today. And not tomorrow, and not for as long as Travis could imagine being stuck here.
"Just one more season," Dad would promise. "One more season, two at the most, and we'll have saved enough money to pay off the loans on the ranch. Then we'll go home." Travis sighed. He was starting to think his dad's promises were as empty as the wind. He'd been eleven when they landed. Now he was sixteen. Five years chasing cattle from pasture to pasture, five years wondering if he would ever see Earth again.
The trail grew steeper as it climbed into the foothills. Travis urged his tired horse forward as they slipped around boulders big as starship hangers. Scraggly patches of sagebrush and juniper poked out of the dry soil. The climatologists at Base Camp had been promising rain for weeks, but so far, not a drop had fallen. No surprise, Travis thought sourly. Like everything else on Aletha, nothing quite followed anyone's carefully laid out plans. Weather satellites failed, burned up by the harsh radiation that streamed around the planet. On the surface, radios became useless for days at a time after solar flares or during the sandstorms that swept in from the deserts to pummel the grasslands. Even simple machines like vid-games and clocks tended to die early in the harsh environment. He glanced at his wristwatch, not certain if it was keeping time correctly. His legs and stomach certainly felt like it was getting close to suppertime.
As if he had read his mind, Deuce stopped, refusing to go forward, and stood flicking his ears back and forth. Travis frowned and glanced down at the trail in front of him. He had been following the stray cattle all afternoon, hoping every time he topped a rise or turned a corner he would run headlong into them. So far, though, he was always one jump behind. The tracks were fresh, a few hours old at most, long scuff marks trailing where their toes had dragged. The little herd had been moving fast. So had something else. An odd footprint covered the cow tracks, the impression perfect in the soft red dust.
"Whoa, Deuce." He swallowed, his mouth so dry his voice cracked. "This isn't right."
Travis stepped out of the saddle and crouched beside the strange tracks. Three toes, spread wide like a hawk on the grab. He'd seen tracks like these the year before and shuddered at the memory. Three yearlings ripped apart, shattered bones covering the blood-speckled ground. He had been riding alone when he had heard the scream, a keening wail of rage and animal triumph. No one had believed him then. They said it was a pack of coyotes or feral cats. But Travis knew better. He patted Deuce then fished his radio out of the saddlebag.
"Dad? Are you on the net?"
A burst of static preceded Jim McClure's reply. "Where're you at, Trav?"
"About five klicks west of Needle Point." Travis paused, the little transmitter next to his mouth. He didn't want to say what he had to, especially over an open frequency. "Dad, do you remember those tracks I told you about last year? The ones around those dead heifers?"
"Yeah, I remember." Even across the distance it was clear his father still doubted the story.
"I think …" Travis took a deep breath. Far away, too distant to be clear, a scream echoed down the canyon walls. "I think whatever made them is back."
Night fell as Travis reached camp. True night, not the long twilight of twin sunsets, the darkness menacing and grim. Glad to be back, he unsaddled Deuce and turned him loose in the corral. The horse rolled gratefully in the dust. Fewer tents remained tonight, the camp preparing to move again, gypsies on an endless trek. The geologists and hydrologists had pulled stakes last week. Soon, they would do the same. The grass here was finished, the water holes nearly dry. Time to drive the herds to greener pastures.
On Earth, animals like bison and wild horses had once covered the grasslands, their hooves churning the barren soil like a million tiny plows, spreading seed as they moved. Here, the scattered herds of hardy, more manageable cattle served the same purpose. Eventually, so the terraformers insisted, the animals would number in the millions and establish natural migration patterns as integral to the environment as rain. They were as much a part of the plan to bring Aletha to life as the weather satellites and water collectors scattered around the planet.
Travis wondered what other creatures the plan included.
He saw his dad near the cook-tent and hurried toward him. Most of the other herders had long since returned. One of them, a dark-haired man in his early twenties loitering outside the repair trailer, saw him and broke away from the knot of people waiting for supper. Travis grimaced. Bart Caddy was definitely not someone he wanted to see right now.
"Hey, Trav. Heard you found them tracks again." Caddy's voice was loud and piercing, about as musical as an untuned thruster pack. "They looked like bird feet, you say?"
"Yeah." Travis chewed on his lower lip. News had obviously spread fast. Out the corner of his eye he saw Caddy's friends approach, ringing him like a pack of feral dogs. "They look like overgrown bird tracks."
"Well, do you suppose whatever made 'em looked like this?" Howling at his own joke, Caddy raised a crude, hand-drawn picture of an enormous chicken, big as a jump shuttle, a struggling cow clutched in its beak. Travis blushed, but before he could reply, his father pushed through the little crowd. He cleared his throat, his voice dusty as his cracked leather chaps.
"Don't you all have chores to do, or should I find you some?"
"No, sir." Caddy stuffed the picture inside his tight-fitting jacket and left, followed by his pack of friends.
Travis looked away, embarrassed that he needed to be rescued, but grateful for it all the same. He followed his father toward their tent, a squat blue dome glowing with warmth and the promise of sleep. Travis paused outside the door flap.
"I really did see those tracks."
"I'm sure you saw something." His father pushed the flap up and ducked inside. The stiff fabric rustled behind him. Travis stood outside a moment and stared at the sky. He felt like a scolded child. Someone coughed. Startled, he spun around. A stocky man in an expensive parka waited behind him. Allen Tempke, the Company foreman, the man who signed the checks. The man who hired and fired. The boss.
"You saw something today, Travis?"
"I …" Travis was sweating despite the chill wind. "I think so."
"If someone has introduced a rogue predator into this environment, the Company needs to know about it. I don't suppose you recovered any physical evidence? You know, hair or droppings? Something we could test for DNA."
"No, sir." Travis didn't mention the scream he had heard. "All I saw were the tracks."
"That's unfortunate." A faint smile creased Tempke's lips. "I'm sure the bonus for that sort of information would be substantial." He nodded a goodbye, then left.
Travis watched him go, too stunned to speak, and not at all happy with the extra attention. Around him the night wind moaned low. Still shaken by the strange turn the day had taken, he lifted the tent flap and slipped inside.