Heibai and HuckleberryVincent Cleaver / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction
Heibai and Huckleberry
By Vincent L. Cleaver
The world was a near twin of earth. Near enough that people, men and women, and later children, could thrive. They shared it with the native life, plus horses rabbits, cats, dogs, even rats, and all the other things of Man.
The debris field that orbited this world was more than fifty years old. Only the height of its original orbit had kept it from falling years before. Orbital mechanics and the expanded high atmosphere of a solar maximum worked to bring it lower and lower. The great remaining bulk of the starship wreck would persist for a little while yet, but a piece of spinning hull plate, with ‘USAFV Corpus Christi’ in bold white letters, had begun its final orbit. It tumbled lower still and turned to surf the thickening atmosphere as it was finally cast from the heavens.
The hull plate was tough, and held together a long time, skipping twice as it dipped into the thicker layers of atmosphere. Its fiery journey took it halfway around the world, approaching a land mass in the middle latitudes, flashing across the width of it in tens of seconds, as it skipped one last time. It passed over deserts and grasslands, several tired old mountain ranges, and arced towards the ocean again, almost making it. It finally broke apart in an impressive shower of other-worldly sparks, several miles northwest of the major human settlement, known in the most common local language as ‘By-The-Sea.’ Shanghai.
Ma Hei Bai looked up at the light show, as did others at the wedding reception. The guests were taking in a show of daring and gunplay, as the cowboys from the North River Valley and Bei Cheng, North Settlement, demonstrated their skill for the wedding guests. Men from the Clinkenbeard and Wallace outfits were reenacting a deadly little set-piece that had fortunately not lead to yet another range war between the CB and Bar-W brands. The respective Cattle Barons had instead pooled their resources and secured a line of credit with the merchants and factors of the House of Ma. Goods from By-The-Sea had helped to set up a new spread in the snowy foothills of the Tien Shan, Heavenly Mountains, on the northwest bank of the North River, away from the more settled, and contentious, southeast.
The Cowboys rode up to each other, blazing away with harmless blanks. They fell into two clumps, each side hamming up the shooting and dying until, at the urging of his cousins and ranch hands, the bride groom, Bruce Clinkenbeard, demonstrated how he had daringly ridden into the midst of the Wallace men and taken Jason Wallace III hostage. Amid the applause, Ma Hei Bai could just make out Bruce apologizing to the man.
“Sorry, Junior! Next time, you can take me hostage.”
Hei Bai noted that Junior laughed and clapped Bruce on the back, but when the groom turned away from Junior, his smile faded and was replaced, for just an instant, with a black look that was a little hard to identify. Hatred, jealousy and … shame? Hard feelings were easy enough to believe, and jealousy. Bruce had married Hei Bai’s oldest sister today, Chun Hua, ‘Spring Flower’, and she was both beautiful and rich. Bruce would be apprenticing with Hei Bai’s father and uncles, learning down-river business and acting as his own father’s local business manager. That point was annoying, since it meant that the sister-smothered only son would not be losing his older sister for the foreseeable future. If anything, she was now bossier than ever!
“Little Master, come away. Your mother has sent for you.” Hei Bai turned to see Jules, the family servant his mother had assigned to him. “She wishes you to keep one of the guests company.”
“But Jules, couldn’t you just tell Mother that you didn’t find me?”
“I will not, because she is standing right there,” pointing across to where Bruce was now talking with his new in-laws, Ma En Lai and his wife. Mei Zhen, ‘Beautiful Treausre’, nodded to them, and smiled a tiny little smile that seemed to spell doom for Hei Bai’s plans to have any fun. “And because I serve her, first, and not you, Little Master. Not for many years to come.”
Hei Bai could not be mad at that, and smiled fondly up at the great man-mountain. Hei Bai was tall for his age, 13 as his people counted it, 12 as the Clinkenbeards and other North River Valley folk would measure it. His people called themselves Han, Chinese stranded like the generally western people who had also been stranded on this world fifty years ago last spring, along with the aliens they had come to fight. This man, Jules, fit into the household like a jigsaw puzzle piece, but he was obviously of the western folk. His balding grey-haired head reached for the heavens and topped two meters, ‘six-seven,’ as he would say. The passive, craggy face hid intelligence and wit, but not the pain of a man who had constantly re-invented himself over the course of his seventy-three Earth years. Hei Bai was a quiet child, given to keeping his own thoughts to himself, and he had often wondered about the hidden depths of this man, the servant and bodyguard of the heir of the Ma household.
“Well, the show is over, anyway. What does Mother wish me to do?”
“One of the younger daughters of the younger Clinkenbeard brother is about your age. Her sisters are bridesmaids and part of the wedding party, and the littlest daughter was the ring-bearer. I believe Miss Hannah is, ah, bored.” Jules smiled blandly and did not mention his own thought, that the ‘Little Master’ would need a bride himself, someday, and George Clinkenbeard had a lot of daughters. It was better not to alarm him with that prospect. Just as well. Men such as En Lai made plans, and God laughed.