Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Handsome Stranger."
Ann-Margaret: "That's a strange name."
Arnold: "My mother said I was named after my father."
Ann-Margaret: "What was his name?"
Arnold: "We don't know."*
Chapter 3, 6: The Kid
Honestly, Charlotte never knew that sabretooth tigers hunted in packs. She did know that lions did, tough, because she’d read about it in The Big Book of Cats. Mr. Vezina bought her that book for her 9th birthday, and she’d read it until the pages had not only fallen out, but until they couldn’t find the pages around the trailer when they’d moved across the street in Grade Seven.
She missed that book, and she felt a tear leak out as she vaulted the pasture fence, keeping low, the Pearl Harmony Sword giving a low hum and casting its pool-light-under-water glow across a forest lit smoky-bright by the summer dawn. The point was that the book said that when lions hunted, the young males would charge the prey to drive it towards the females, who waited downwind to make the kill.
Charlotte was running downwind, now, having taken a moment to put on her Tatammy uniform, with its hood mask, using her quick change ring. The first sabretooth must have come up the draw that the XYZ Creek ran through. It had dashed at the horses from the brush to start a stampede, but only one horse got away, running free –towards the rest of the pack.
She was in the close cropped pasture, now. A group of cows were clustered in one corner, backs to the fence, with two bulls facing out, and ranch-hands standing on the second rung of the fence, their shins braced against the top rail, rifles, cradled in their arms, pointed out at the field. They yelled at her to get out of the way.
Silly cowboys; they wouldn’t hit anything like that, and they certainly wouldn’t hit her! But maybe they didn’t mean to hit anything. They probably knew the game, in fact.
Another sabretooth, skinny with the ranginess of youth, came bolting out of the far side of the pasture. Probably snuck up in the drainage ditch, Charlotte thought. Bullets whistled overhead. They wouldn’t hit anything, the sabretooth wouldn’t catch anything. That wasn’t the point. The ranch-hands didn’t want the cows to stampede, and the sabretooth wanted the horse to keep going.
It was the horse that was dinner. The thought made Charlotte feel awful. It was a pretty little thing, a mare, white along its back giving way to grey dapples on its side, with a long, white mane and hairs over its feet. If this were a horse book, Charlotte thought, the narrator would be talking about how many hands high the horse was, but Charlotte didn’t really think that way. Although she figured it was 15 hands, a little small for a draft horse.
The poor thing was a good jumper, too, going right over the pasture fence into a field lined with saplings in rows –a starting orchard, Charlotte figured. Charlotte took the fence after the horse, flying through between first and second rungs, because she was nimble that way, and because there were still bullets whizzing by overhead. The dirt in the orchard was soft and crumbly, cut in deep tracks by the front-end loader they must have used to prep the ground. Easy for someone who wasn’t an expert in Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu to turn an ankle as she ran.
And more. Charlotte flexed her hands. She shouldn’t need Dim Mak to take out a sabretooth, not when she had the Pearl Harmony. She shouldn’t need Dim Mak at all. It was dark magic. That was what Chris kept saying, anyway. It was what her Dad used to kill her aunt, after all. But surely it was just a tool? Overhead, Ginger cawed. A warning. The orchard ended abruptly, in another draw. Charlotte went over the edge.
No, not a draw, a gully. Deep, with full grown trees lining the side, and steep slopes going down a hundred feet at least. Below her, the horse was running, or sliding, its hooves throwing up dust and dirt and pine needles, like a cloud that followed it downhill. The bottom. That was where the females would be waiting. She had to get there first!
Charlotte jumped, aiming for a branch overhead and down. At the top of her leap, she caught it with her free hand. In a moment, her feet were above her, pulled up in a dizzying spin by the force of all that physics that Bruce liked to babble about. With all of her strength, Charlotte pulled in and down and around, and she was flying, again, this time almost level, towards the next branch. She concentrated on her breathing. This kind of thing flowed from the energies of Earth and life. It was mastery of wuxia that allowed the practitioner to run through the forest, twenty feet off the ground, going from branch to branch with light feet, following the contours of the ground towards the bottom of the gulley.
As she passed over the horse, she smelt the warm smell of dust and the bite of pine. Her eyes, her attention, was focused on the bottom, where the ambush would happen.
Which was why she was surprised when something huge and massive smashed into her from the side. Fangs and teeth skittered against her, not quite managing to penetrate. That was the Pearl Harmony’s doing.
Charlotte fell towards the Earth, twisting in the air to come down on her feet, rolling with the momentum in the Eight Spirit Dragon Style to come up. Of course, she thought now. Cats were good at catching birds that thought that they were too high and too fast to worry about a paw slashing out of the bush. She caught her breath, almost knocked out of her by the blow of the ground against her feet, and put her sword across her body in a guard position against the foes she knew would be facing her.
It was still a shock to see them. Two massive sabretooth males, great manes bristling, fanged mouths open to show the great teeth. The Big Book of Cats said that the adolescents stalked the game and the females killed it, while the males were just good at fighting. Well, guess what: sometimes they were still useful. Like when some kung fu girl tried to crash the party.
That’s me, Charlotte thought. The party pooper. Well, I sure better do a good job of pooping, because here comes the horse. In a moment, the females would pounce and it would be too late. In the meantime, the Pearl Harmony snapped up, and Charlotte swung her body against the momentum of the cut. Cats thought they were tough. Time to show them who’s boss! Her sword flicked across the first male’s head as Charlotte came round with a roundhouse kick into the tender stomach of the pouncing big cat. Here’s blood in your eyes, she thought, and a foot in your nuts! Er, your “vitals.” Sorry, Mr. Picollo, I’ll try not to be vulgar.
Just the thought of her beloved Eighth Grade teacher (and retired supermage), made Charlotte smile. So did the baffled rage of the big male as it flew sideways into a very big tree, which shivered as the cat hit it. That’s got to smart, Charlotte thought. Only she had no time to savour her triumph, because the other male was coming at her from dead ahead, and Charlotte had just used up her momentum. This one was mano-a-mano. Bad for it, because she’d been able to get away with just spanking the first big cat. This one, she was going to have to put down.
The worst part was that it was too late. Even as the Pearl Harmony came up with a duck-and-weave that was going to end with the blade going right through the second male’s eye and up the optical nerve channel into its brain, the dappled mare hit the bottom of the draw, and three tawny bodies appeared out of nowhere, rearing out of the bushes, now that they had no need to be hiding any more. The mare, realising its danger at last, screamed. Dead horse, dead cats; it was terrible all around, Charlotte thought. I screwed up!
And then, over the scream and breaking the silence, an incredibly quick rattle of pistol shots. Someone else had been hiding down here. Someone with a gun. Only the accelerated vision of an Eight Spirit Dragon practitioner prepared Charlotte to see what had just happened. The bullets came from a tall boy, dressed in a Hudson Bay blanket jacket cut to belt length over tan, buckskin leather pants, wearing a cream cowboy hat in the same shade as the blanket coat, with a green band. He had a red bandanna pulled over his face, the colour of the red band on the jacket, and the pants, Charlotte noticed now, were just a little darker and complementary to the yellow band. Besides doing an okay choice with his colours, he also happened to be swinging down on a lariat from one of the high branches. He was holding a smoking revolver in his hand. A six shooter, it looked like.
And the six bullets? Six shots, three sabretooth females, all rearing to pounce, six paws, claws extended; all six now punctured, fountaining blood into the still-shadowed gloom of the gulley bottom. Even as the boy was still in mid swing, the big cats screamed as one, then turned as one, and ran away down the draw. The injured male followed them.
For a long second, Charlotte stared down the unhurt male. It looked like it wasn’t quite done with the fight; too bad, Charlotte though. I don’t want to kill you. Run!
And run it did, all in the moment before the cowboy touched the ground, right in front of her. “That’s that,” he said. “Thought I’d get a pelt out of it. Pardon if I don’t take off the hat, ma’am.” He had a strong jawline, nicely contrasted with a slight smile that played on his lips, as though he were having fun. His eyes twinkled blue.
“You wanted to kill the cats?”
“Nah. Wouldn’t a shot to wound. Thought it’d go that way, is all.”
“I, uhm, I’m the Redeeming Fist.” Inside, Charlotte cursed herself. What a stupid supername! She’d thought and thought about what she’d call herself when she was a professional superhero. “Fist” was the family theme, and “Furious Fist,” “Avenging Fist,” and “Daughter of the Fist” were all taken. She’d promised herself that she would come up with something better, but now it was too late. She was so embarrassed.
“Call me ‘Scout,’” he said.
“What are you doing here, Scout?” Charlotte asked.
“Friend of mine said some Earth superheroes were around. Told me to watch for ‘em.”
“I don’t need your help,” Charlotte said, feeling a flush go up her cheeks. What friend? How did he know?
Scout just shrugged.
“So what’s your deal,” she continued. “Good with guns?”
“Anyone can be good,” he answered. “I try to get better.”
“That’s it? Six shots, six hits, while swinging on a line, and you’re just trying to get better?”
He shrugged. “Can’t improve on silence, don’t talk.” His shoulders rippled when he shrugged.
“But weren’t you scared?” Charlotte wasn’t sure why she asked that, just knew that she wanted this boyo to keep talking. Whatever he said about talking.
“Being scared’s for when you need to be scared. ‘Tooths, when you’ve got a gun? Not scary. Well, reg’lar ‘Tooths.”
I wonder what he means by that? "Who's your friend?"
But all he said was, “Ma’am,” and raised the brow of his hat as though he needed to look up. Charlotte’s eyes followed his upwards. There, flying above the trees, was Dora, in her Tatammy uniform, with the aura of the Maid of Gold shining around her, and Rose standing on the platform.
“Hey, Charlotte,” Dora shouted. “Anyone call for the cavalry?”
“Nah, we took care of it,” Charlotte said, gesturing to her friends to come in and land. They did.
“We who?” Rose said, as she stepped off the platform.
“Me and---“ But then Charlotte realised that Scout had disappeared. Nice trick, she thought. Graydon McNeely liked pulling that one, but it was awfully hard for anyone else to pull off against Eight Spirit Dragon senses. “Uhm, I think I just met up with the local superhero scene.” As she said it, Charlotte stepped up to the mare and gently pulled its head down into her chest, scratching under its mane as she felt the hot, panicked breath puff up from her chest onto the bare skin of her chin.
“This one-horse planet? You probably met its only superhero,” Dora said. “What’s his schtick?”
“Hit six pouncing sabretooths in the paw with six shots while swinging on a line.” Charlotte said.
“So. Cowboy theme.”
“Well, maybe. No throwing lassos at bad guys and riding a motorcycle with a saddle or like that, though. Just really good shooting.” And a snappy dresser, in an outdoorsy-kind of way, Charlotte thought, but she didn’t say that, because her friends would just think she was crushing on Scout.
Charlotte took the mare by her dangling reins, and began to lead her up the gully side. Her friends fell in line with her. “So is he cute?” Rose asked.
Damn. Rose was way too smart to put that one past her. “Kind of,” Charlotte said. “Hard to tell. He was wearing a bandanna and a hat. But he had nice eyes.”
“His butt! What about his butt!” Dora asked.
“Hey, who made you the Samantha of the group?” Charlotte answered.
“What? It was, like, in my job application. Answer the question.”
“Wearing leather pants,” Charlotte answered. “So . . .yeah.”
“Who are you talking about?” Charlotte looked up at the familiar voice. It was Bruce, pausing from his job as he came up over the edge of the gulley. Jogging quickly, Charlotte thought, to be fair. Bruce could run pretty damn quick, if he wanted. It wasn’t his fault that he was kind of useless without the big family gadgets, the helicopters and crime cars and computers.
“Charlotte met one of the local superheroes down at the bottom of the gulley,” Rose said.
“A good looking one,” Dora added.
“So what?” Bruce answered. “Superheroes are good looking. That’s just a thing.” Charlotte looked at him, closely, examining the face showing under the Tatammy mask, which really was good at disguising people. She didn’t know what she was looking for, anyway. Some hint of jealousy?
“Well,” Charlotte said, “He had a pretty solid schtick. Cowboy outfit, six-guns. And he was good. Wounded three sabretooths with six shots.”
“Oh, Sweet Baby Cylon Jesus. We really are in a 50s Western. Next he’ll be shooting the guns out of rustlers’ hands.”
They were approaching the line between the orchard and the pasture, now, and could see ranch hands with guns, just beginning to climb over it. Time to duck for cover and get their alibis straight, Charlotte thought. She hit the mare lightly on the rump and headed it towards the fenceline, then stepped to the left, to steer her friends towards the right edge of the orchard, where the clearing trailed off into uncleared bush.
“Sweet Baby what?” She asked.
“Battlestar Galactica. Before your time. Or after it. Or, you know what, time travel is confusing!” Rose said.
“Tell me about it,” Dora answered. “And you’re a time traveller! So what the heck is Bruce talking about? And why is he blushing so hard?” Bruce didn’t say anything, just blushed even harder.
“Oh, there was a baby saviour character, and. . .” Rose stopped abruptly and smiled sweetly. Hunh, Charlotte thought. I wonder what Rose didn’t want to say? I should really look that show up on the Internet. The moment I get to a planet that has one.
“It’s nothing,” Bruce said. “So what did he say about how he ended up down there?”
“Said a friend told him that Earth superheroes were around. Didn’t say what friend, though.”
Bruce shrugged. “Colonial Bureau of Investigation, of course. There’s an agent around somewhere. Hmm. I’m betting our friend John the Ostler works for someone a little more impressive than a stagecoach company.”
“Yep,” said a familiar voice from the bush. It was John the ostler, standing in the shade of a pine tree, a pump-action shotgun cradled under his arm. “Hope you kids are going to be ready for the varsity by the end of this.”
“Why do you say that?” Bruce put his hands up, asking his question with outspread palms for emphasis. “Sabretooths might be impressive, but they’re just bigger lions that have to spend more on braces.”
“Yeah, funny thing about those cats,” John said. “Funny that they knew that the mare they were chasing could clear that fence. Now you kids better slip back into camp and get changed into your civvies, or I might not be the only one to put two and two together.”
Behind them, they could hear the ranch hands talking about how a bunch of superheroes had saved a five-hundred dollar mare. Well, you can’t save the world every day, Charlotte thought. Sometimes, though, ordinary fights turned out to be with the Big Bad’s hench –well, cats in this case. Just like Scout had suggested.