The bar murmured as the cowboys drank. Even for mid-morning the saloon smoldered in an unusual quiet. So, when the parson suddenly erupted, the dozen or so mustachios lipping their whiskeys startled enough to slop themselves.
“Good Godamighty!” the parson yelped. “Good God!” He clenched the armrests of his chair, gaping through the windowpane.
Cowboys turned, squinted. A few sat transfixed. Some loosened the holsters confining their six-guns.
Then, “Jesus, Joseph ’n Maddy!” trilled the town Irishman. He too gazed out the window. “And teh mule!…teh mankey mule tey rode on!”
Parson and Irishman bolted then to their feet. At once they rushed to the plank porch. There, shock still they stared, the saloon doors rocking woodenly behind them.
“Did ye see tat’un?” the Irishman blurted.
“Godamighty,” the parson repeated. And, “What in tarnation kind a’ critter was that thang?”
One of the cowboys drinking in the saloon was Robert Wong, an incognito anthropologist from the future. He looked back from the goggling parson and Irishman to the photocopied newspaper clipping wilting in a whiskey splatter before him. Again Wong glanced out the swinging doors. Yet a third townsman had stopped now. The man stalled on the far side of Main Street just as dumbstruck and affrighted as the parson and Irishman.
“This must be it,” Robert Wong decided. He folded the news clipping into his denim trousers. He roughed back his barstool, careful of the sloshy spittoon.
A score of men had gathered in the middle of the dusty lane. Feverishly they conferred, as if mounting a posse, as if deliberating a lynching. Robert Wong leaned near, against the saloon’s hitching post, waiting, an eavesdropper.
“I’m tellin’ ya it’s a giant polecat,” insisted the parson.
“A brown polecat, Ezra? Couldn’t it be a ’coon?”
“Neether of them grows so big, fellers.”
“Oh-possum?” offered Irishman Higgins.
“More’n likely a runty calf, I spec’late.”
“Ain’t no prairie dog, anywho.”
Along the plank porch came then a-strolling the town belle, one Mabel Cavendish. The men cried a warning.
“Careful Miss Mabel, ma’am!” called Jeb Holcomb, the barber. “Don’t pass before that there alleyway. An ornery big she-wolf just walked right bewtixt the mercantile and the Sherriff’s.”
Brimley Crawford, the town druggist advised, “Pass round t’other way, Miss Mabel.”
But not till the crisply-dressed Will Bainbridge approached the dithering Miss Mabel did she curtsy to these counsels. Tipping his clean white Stetson, and allowing right generous berth to the alleyway entrance, Bainbridge offered a bent elbow.
“If you please, Miss Mabel,” he pronounced. “I believe this creature to be neither she-wolf, nor racoon. For wolves haven’t such snouts, nor do racoons carry such girth. However, it would perhaps be proper for you draw up your bonnet and step along with me.”
Bainbridge was a gent well-known for penning items of interest in the town gazette. So Miss Mabel, a lady enchanted by formal tones of address and reputations of finer note, vouchsafed his escort to Main Street’s far side. By the time Bainbridge returned from this gallantry the mob had swelled to fifty.
“The size of a colt,” ballyhooed a ranch-hand who had not seen the varmint.
“Ain’t no colt,” fussed an eyewitness.
“Too big, ya say?”
“Nay, smaller. Heaps smaller.”
“Never seen the likes!” proclaimed the ranch-hand, mysteriously.
But a scratching rattled then from the invaded alleyway. And a crude snort. And an animal’s throaty burr.
The chatter died.
Nervously, automatically, cowboy by cowboy cocked his Winchester, or drew his revolver, or unsheathed his bowie knife. Backwardly the men paced now, in concert, attentively fanning away from the alleyway’s entrance.
Robert Wong edged back to the saloon’s plank porch.
The posse had taken cover. Some crouched behind wagon wheels. A few skinnied themselves beside corral posts. One sheltered in the withers of an appaloosa mare. The rest assumed defensive attitudes behind water troughs or through cracked doorways or peeking around the windmill or weathercock. And each sited his firearm on the alien noise. None had strategized his position. A generation of gunfights had simply accustomed each man to his preferred vantage, and to that vantage he footily repaired upon facing an upset of town decorum.
The burring and scratching loudened then. A sensational sneeze-snort. Finally a ten-foot blonde aardvark waddled from the alleyway, nosing at the dirt.
“What th’ blazes?”
The posse held its fire.
But then, as the aardvark wobbled leftward, veering away from the mercantile and past the sherriff’s office, Erasmus Paquette, the town’s one-armed banker, simultaneously lost his nerve and forfeited all standing as a Kansan. Puffingly, the man spurred his boots into a high-kneed panic and clomped a yellow-bellied retreat down the saloon’s porch.
Paquette’s noisy running startled the aardvark; which, thus stimulated, bounced into its own lumbering trot. And a skedaddling aardvark, it seems, was just a mite too unnatural for the townsmen; as unwordly a sight, in fact, as any had ever seen.
“Demon!” whooped the overwrought parson. “Hellfire! Demon!”
The posse pulled the trigger.
A mob crowded the carcass now. The voices muttered, wonderish-quiet.
“That ain’t no ’coon.”
“We already knowed that, Elmer.”
“Zikes what a possum.”
“That ain’t no possum neither.”
“Like we said.”
Robert Wong knelt in the dirt beside the dispatched beast. Regretfully he stroked a flank, a flank unmarred by bullet or blood. But his sentimentality lasted only an instant. For one instant later Wong’s movements became the quick precise regimen of a long-rehearsed scientific protocol:
Wong removed a syringescope from a pocket of his fringed vest. He drew five mililiters of aardvark blood into its piston and lay the instrument aside with its shutters open. Wong stood. Once the syringescope’s DNA decoder began to blink he produced a folded meter stick from his rear pocket, and a digital camera. The meter stick he positioned beneath the syringescope. Several photographs, he snapped. Wong squatted. He drew forth a miniature caliper and an e-pad. He measured the aardvark’s nostrils, the aardvark’s cheekteeth, the aardvark’s paw print. Wong jotted these observations into the e-pad, completing them just as the syringescope’s DNA decoder ceased to blink. Wong detached the syringescope’s decoder apparatus from its syringe apparatus then. Very thoroughly he boot-heeled the syringe apparatus to smithereens. Very carefully he stowed the decoder into his front denim pocket. Wong paused. Wong felt at the decoder in his front pocket. Wong assured himself the decoder sat secure in his front pocket.
And so Robert Wong resumed his sentimentality. He lay his hand on the animal corpse and wrinkled his lips. He thought: “The day we can Warp together without mixing our DNA, brother, I’ll come back for you.”
A reluctant voice intruded then. Haltingly, from the tight silence of the entranced crowd, Jeb Holcomb queried, “You some kind’a veterinary or somethin’?”
“Well,” Holcomb pursued. “Is it a possum or not?”
Wong looked up. The raw maculinity he found in the hovering faces filled him with a shyness for his false mustache. Unconsciously he smoothed at the glued fibers. He answered, “It’s an aardvark, gentlemen. Orycteropus americanensis, to be exact. The last of its kind. The very last of its species. This species is now extinct.”
A man spit tobacco juice on the dirt.
“It’s what?” he demanded.
Robert Wong did not repeat his information. He sprung his pocket watch, judged of the hour, and clicked it shut anew. Hurriedly then he refitted his pockets with their caliper and e-pad, with their meter stick and camera. The cowboys watched him askance, growingly suspicious.
“Caint exactly remember seein’ ya round here before, doc,” the parson slyly said. “Where you from?”
Brushing dirt from his trousers, Robert Wong worried a moment, frowned. But after an inner shrug he spoke frankly:
“I’m from the future.”
The answer further consternated the posse. Shiftily the men glared at him, masking their confusion with ominous nods. Finally, searchingly, the ranch-hand asked,
“The future? Is that in Texas?”