Colin P. Davies
Johnny Mephisto was a boy out of time, an anachronism, a tick of a backwards tock. While his peers filled their days with specious spectacle and synesthetic thrills, Johnny read novels. While his classmates studied astrogation and alien anatomy, indulged in exotic stimulation and flits to the moon, Johnny rode the purple sage. Not for Johnny the crystal towers and orbital elevators of 2089. No, he preferred his chamber, an armchair, and Max Brand.
Professor Strict, feeling somewhat guilty for introducing the student to the dusty pleasures of the college library, determined to cure the lad of his romantic illusions. This could best be achieved by first establishing a rapport -- that is, it takes an outlaw to catch an outlaw -- so he strapped on a sidearm, marched stiffly to Johnny’s room, and knocked three times on the freshly-chalked sign Mephisto Gulch.
The door slid to the side.
He found the sixteen year old student smoking a cigarette, wearing a cowboy hat, and reading a book. The professor coughed and wafted a hand through the trails of smoke.
With a finger, Johnny raised the brim of his hat and examined his visitor.
“You ‘n me need to talk…Pardner,” Strict drawled. “Seems like I ain’t seen you in town for….” His voice trailed off as Johnny produced a colt and aimed it at the octogenarian’s heart.
“You’re mighty brave showing your face round these here parts…old timer.”
The professor flicked back his lab coat. “I’m carrying heat.”
Johnny scowled and slipped his colt back into his belt. “Wrong genre, Professor.”
“Oh….” Strict sat on the edge of the bed. “Johnny…I’m a little concerned about your studies. You’ve been skipping lessons and you missed your jaunt into orbit.”
“I don’t like heights.”
“And you’re smoking a cigarette.”
“And drinking…..” Johnny hoisted a bottle of whisky. “I’m in character for the period.”
“This is the twenty-first century. I really can’t allow….”
Johnny was reading again.
“This obsession is unhealthy. I’m duty bound to help you.”
Johnny turned the page.
Strict’s voice took on a softer tone: “I can show you how it really was.”
Johnny bookmarked and closed the book. The professor had his attention.
“I propose to send you on a field trip...back to the real Wild West.”
Johnny stared at his teacher, eyes round as silver dollars.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” asked Strict.
A smile split Johnny’s face. “Yee-ha!”
# Johnny knew the cow was landing the moment he felt the thudding of hooves on the ground. It could not have come at a more welcome time -- the blind pressure of warm flesh in his face had set his skin sweating. He turned his head ready for the escape. His throat was dry and desperate -- he hoped Kayleigh was waiting with the canteen.
Johnny released his grip on the loose folds of skin and pushed. He squelched out of the kanga-cow’s pouch like a new-born joey and dropped to his knees. It was only now in the heavenly scent of grass and lavender that he became aware of the animal stench in his nostrils. He took a kerchief from his pocket, wiped his face, cleared his nose, and looked up. The brilliance of the high Arizona sun was muted to beige by the huge hydrogen bladder which extended up from the back of the creature.
He stood and patted the flyer’s hairy flank in a gesture of congratulation. They had cleared the top of the mesquite tree -- possibly thirty feet -- before Johnny’s weight had become too much for the cow.
He turned. Kayleigh was running towards him. She tossed the canteen. He grasped for it, but her throw was way off. The bottle bounced on the dry grass and came to rest within an inch of a pool of putrid dung. Johnny bit his tongue on an outburst; he didn’t want Kayleigh weeping again. He’d only known her for seven days -- since he’d tumbled down the years to materialise upon a Queen Anne chair at a polished wood table in a palatial dining room -- but he’d come to like the neurotic little elf. “So what do you reckon?” he asked. “Can we reach the top of the tower?”
“I’d say so,” the cow told him. “Even better if you could shed a little weight.”
“If I was any thinner the wind could carry me like a tumbleweed.” Johnny retrieved the canteen, drank, and screwed back the top. “Let’s have more enthusiasm and less criticism.” He handed the canteen to Kayleigh.
She laughed. “Between you and me, maybe it would be easier if we trapped and tortured Doctor Frankenstone to find out what’s up there.”
“Between you and me?” the cow mimicked. “Am I not here?”
Kayleigh ignored the animal. “I’d love to repay him for yanking me out of my world, away from my parents.” She sniffed, and Johnny thought she was going to lose it again.
“At least you knew yours,” he said. “Anyway, I’m here to find the real West, not battle sorcerers.”
“I used to be a real cow,” the hybrid told no-one in particular.
Johnny read disappointment in Kayleigh’s face. But this wasn’t only about revenge; she wanted the old mage to reveal the secret of his power, the secret she believed he hid in the wooden cabin perched at the top of a forty foot pole. Johnny was not interested in power, but he did suspect that what he was looking for was up there -- it was the only place he hadn’t looked. He stooped to bring his face closer to hers. “I was sent here to learn…and the Doctor has been kind to me, considering I’m an uninvited guest.”
“Okay!” she said, and she flicked Johnny’s soft brown hair.
“Mooooo,” said the kanga-cow. “See…I can still do it.”
Kayleigh skipped and twirled so that her golden hair fanned out to reveal the cute pointed peaks of her ears. She gave him a smile. “And what have you learned so far, Johnny-boy?”
A weariness came over Johnny and he started down the path towards the ranch, then shouted back: “I’ve learned that professors can not be trusted.”
# The dining room was a marvel. From outside, the house showed the fading timber of the traditional homestead and, inside, the house was basic and barely-comfortable; but this room was classic luxury. Royalty could eat here. A thick crimson carpet was a festival for the feet and the two chandeliers were like frozen white fireworks. Fine artworks hung upon wood panel walls. Thanks to an attentive eye in art class, Johnny recognised Hogarth’s The Stage Coach and The Enraged Musician. Against the wall stood a piano, which the Doctor would play on occasion -- play being a rather generous appellation for the atonal aural assault generated by his frustrated fingers. Frankenstone had confessed to a taste for the finer things, but so far had managed to furnish just the one room.
Arsenic the Cook had prepared a meal of turnip, dried fish, bean soup and bread, and Johnny, Kayleigh, Mutant and the mage tucked in. Conversation was muted. Cutlery clattered. Mutant slurped. Doctor Frankenstone bit both his turnip and his lip. When he could hold back no longer, he said, “King Cactus uprooted overnight and has replanted himself still closer. He resists all my attack spells and shoots spines if I approach. My life’s work is at risk.”
Mutant peered over the rim of his raised bowl.
Kayleigh’s face was impassive. “That’s too bad, I suppose.”
Johnny sipped sullenly. This wasn’t where he was supposed to be. These weren’t the people he’d expected to meet. They didn’t even talk right!
“Johnny…” said Frankenstone. “I saw you jumping today. May I ask why?”
Johnny was ripping up bread with his teeth, so Kayleigh spoke for him. “I showed him the jumping game, but he needs to get over his vertigo and climb into the kanga-cow’s pouch feet first, not head first.”
“I don’t like heights,” Johnny mumbled.
“Give me a few more days,” Johnny told her, “and I’ll be able to jump as high as the…as high as you can.”
Doctor Frankenstone sat back in his chair. “Let’s hope King Cactus gives us a couple more days.” He sipped at his coffee and examined his lanky young visitor. “Johnny...tell me more about why you came here. I love your tales of ‘wagon-trains’ and ‘rail-roads’ and -- he sniggered -- ‘cow-boys’.”
“Well that’s what I was expecting to find here…not an eccentric sorcerer and his weird retinue and no other soul for a thousand square miles of dry wilderness.”
“Eccentric? I could take offence.”
“In the Old West, that would lead to a duel, a fight, one on one, and only one can be the one to survive.”
“That sounds confusing,” said the Doctor through a mouthful of food.
“It’s amazingly simple. A matter of honor.”
“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!” Frankenstone spluttered with laughter, spraying chewed turnip across the table.
“Tell me more.” The sorcerer composed himself, while Kayleigh wiped the table. “Tell me everything.”
# Johnny had to admit to some sympathy for King Cactus. The one-time apprentice of the sorcerer had hoped to elope with a substantial portion of Frankenstone’s wealth, but he’d been trapped, sliced, divided, blended and combined and eventually planted outside in the vegetable garden -- a man/cactus hybrid -- to grow quietly and dwell on his humiliation. A just fate, so the Doctor had decided, for a man with such a stupid name.
But King Cactus had pulled up his roots and fled, to grow taller, wider and stronger in the hidden hills. And now he was back.
Nothing would stop him from destroying Frankenstone’s Tower of Power and, with luck, the cruel sorcerer himself.
# Night fell like a door slamming. Johnny hid behind the water tank and watched as Frankenstone approached the mysterious tower. Not far away, a black space in the stars revealed where King Cactus loomed.
Same as every evening, the sorcerer placed his palms on the pole and ascended swiftly, pulling himself onto the narrow balcony and thus admitting himself into the cabin. Johnny had tried to mimic the mage, but the pole refused to hoist him -- hence his jumping practice.
Johnny slipped back into the kitchen to find Kayleigh plaiting Mutant’s tentacles. “I need to talk” he said.
Mutant turned a bloodshot eye in his direction.
Mutant slithered away to his kennel.
Johnny took the elf-girl by the arm. “It’s got to be tomorrow. Another day and King Cactus may topple the tower…and then I’ll never know the truth about the real West.”
“And when you do find out…what then?”
“Then I suppose I’ll be taken home.”
Tears glistened in her huge green eyes. “I thought that we’d always be friends.”
Johnny felt a hardening in his throat. He didn’t make friends easily and would be sad to say goodbye to Kayleigh, but what could he do? It seemed he was as trapped to follow his plot as any character in a book.
But didn’t characters live forever in memories?
“We will,” he said. “We will!”
# Johnny rose before the sun, chased Kayleigh out of bed, and they headed for the fields. Kanga-cow had been expecting them and had breakfasted sufficient to generate maximum lift. Morning dew glistened on the inflated hydrogen bladder as the sun crested the ragged hills.
The tower cast a long shadow from the house to their feet and Johnny followed this path back towards his destiny.
As they approached the tower, they entered a second shadow; King Cactus was now so close to the house that Johnny could smell a hateful acridity on the air, as though Evil itself had a scent -- somewhere between an infected wound and mouldy cheese.
Close to the foot of the tower, Johnny patted the kanga-cow’s side. “Are you ready?”
“One belch and we’re airborne.”
Johnny slipped one leg, then the other, into the cow’s pouch. He wriggled around until his shoulders and head peeked clear of the hide.
Kayleigh laughed. “Right way up this time? Very brave.”
“I may cover my eyes.”
She reached forward and touched his hand. “Take care.”
There was a throaty groan as gas was released into the bladder and the creature rose into the air.
Despite the worrying chill in his stomach, Johnny kept his eyes upon the pole.
They rose with increasing speed and he began to fret that they would miss their target; but as the bulk of the cabin loomed, the cow snapped its teeth upon the balcony rail and they came to a halt.
Johnny reached forward for the rail, but found it too far away. He eased himself out of the pouch, averting his gaze from the ground, and stretched out a hand. No…still out of reach.
Summoning all his courage -- his very own High Noon moment -- Johnny grabbed fistfuls of the cow’s underbelly and lunged for the rail.
“Ouch,” the cow told him, through clamped teeth.
Johnny hauled himself onto the wooden balcony. “Sorry.”
He took a glance down and saw Kayleigh waving with excitement. He gave a wave in return. “King Cactus is moving!” she screamed. “Towards you!”
“There’s no going back now!” he replied.
Ahead of him was the door to the truth. Would he be able to handle the truth? Of course he would.
He turned the doorknob and walked in.
Sat either side of a desk were two identical old men who looked up as he entered. Each possessed wispy white hair and an unkempt beard. They wore small round spectacles and exuded the air of scholars. The desk between them was strewn with papers and pictures, pens and paints. A typewriter sat in front of each man.
Johnny glanced at the walls. Apart from the single window, the surfaces were covered with posters, sheets of paper, notes and images. A Spanish guitar was propped in the corner.
“All this,” he said. “What is it? And who are you?”
One of the old men smiled. “Tweedledim….”
“We make new….”
“…and make real.”
Johnny stepped up to the desk and shuffled through the papers. Here were stories: Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Custer’s Last Stand; Posters: wanted dead or alive; Paintings: Sitting Bull, the coming of the railroad…. “You’re creating the Wild West?” This was crazy! Could the Wild West have been built here; a mythic jigsaw born of the imagination of two fraternal freaks? “Paper lies!” Johnny yelled and shoved papers from the desk. A deception wrapped up in time.
“All fiction is….”
The cabin shook violently. Walls creaked, more papers flew to the floor.
King Cactus was attacking the pole.
Johnny rushed out onto the balcony. Kanga-cow, still hanging onto the rail, winked at him. Johnny peered over as far as he dared, but could not see to the rear.
He reached forward to pull the cow, and the pouch, closer, but the tower shook again and the creature lost its grip. It began to fall.
King Cactus must have seen this as an attack, for he fired several spines into the fragile bladder. With a POP, gas gushed and the cow tore off into the sky, whirling like a burst balloon.
The tower shook again and Johnny heard a cracking sound. The pole would not last much longer.
At that moment, Doctor Frankenstone came rushing out of the house only to dash back inside pursued by a posse of spines.
The air trembled with laughter; a malicious vegetable voice that shook the pole and stirred the dirt and…was cut short as the airborne kanga-cow, either through a heroic feat of willpower, or simply the laws of gravity, irony, and poetic justice, came hurtling back to earth to smash into King Cactus. Pieces of luxuriant green flesh showered in all directions as the bursting, disintegrating plant broke the cow’s fall.
Johnny was saved; the tower was saved; the West was saved.
As he turned to give the old scholars the good news, Johnny found them standing beside him.
They shoved and, screaming, he pivoted over the rail and fell into his future.
# Professor Strict hurried to Johnny’s chamber. Now that the boy had had days to absorb the lesson of the field trip, it was time to reinforce the necessity of cooperation and to receive his deserved plaudits.
He found Johnny sitting in his armchair, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and reading.
Strict could hardly get his words out. “I…I thought the lesson would be clear…. Unmistakeable…unavoidable.”
Johnny looked up from his book, his young face hidden behind a white beard and glasses. “Which lesson would that be, Professor?”
For a moment, Strict was stunned. “I showed you the Old West…the Real West.”
“You showed me somewhere else, a fantasy.”
“Exactly!” The professor nodded vigorously. “Yes, a fantasy. The whole mythology is a fantasy. I hoped to hammer that lesson home and kill this obsession with Westerns.”
“Your lesson was most impressive, Professor, and very effective.”
A modicum of pride returned to Strict and he threw back his shoulders. “How is it then that I find you still reading?”
“Tell me, Professor….” Johnny beamed and held out his garishly-colored book. “Have you ever heard of Terry Pratchett?”