The Warrior Sheep Go West (10 page)

21

The Devil's Stovepipe

Why've you stopped?” cried Holly, kicking the mule.

It didn't respond. It just stood where it was, quivering with fear. The Boombergs were at the top of the steeply descending track behind the sheep, and Holly could see them some way below.

“They're just
standing
there,” she said, twisting around to talk to Stanley, who was riding pillion just as he'd done on the motorbike.

“Maybe there's something stopping them going on any farther,” said the Professor, peering over his wife's shoulder.

There was. And not only the claw print. The track in front of the warriors widened out slightly into a tiny clearing, which was littered with boulders and branches, ripped from the hills above by the recent sandstorm. Filling the narrow clearing between the cliffs, standing on its hind legs like a human, poised ready to attack, was a monster. It had black fur, black eyes, bared yellow teeth…and a red tongue.

Jaycey was speechless. She wanted to squeal her loudest-ever squeal but she couldn't. Her voice, like the rest of her, was melting into a jelly of fear.

The great beast raised its head and roared. It lashed out, its claws slicing the air, and the warriors jumped back. To Wills's amazement, the beast didn't follow. It just stood there, swaying and roaring and slashing the air in frustrated anger. And pain.

Wills was trying to remember the pictures he'd seen in Tod's school books.

“I think it's a bear,” he said.

“IsthatbetterthanRedTongue?” blabbered Jaycey. “Dobearseatsheep?”

“Man, it's big enough to eat a horse,” gulped Links.

The bear roared again, and this time they all heard the pain.

“What's the matter with it?” asked Oxo. “Why doesn't it come for us?”

“Stuck, eh.” Links nodded and for the first time the other sheep noticed the fallen tree trunk lying in front of the bear. The animal's hind paws were trapped beneath it.

“Well that's all right then,” said Oxo briskly. “Onward?”

“We can't just leave it!” cried Sal. “It'll die of hunger!”

“Oh,” said Oxo, for whom dying of hunger was the worst fate imaginable. “Right.”

“But it could kill us all, man,” pointed out Links. “And we ain't never gonna find the Red Tongue dude if we's dead.”

“Nevertheless,” said Sal, taking a deep breath, “it is a fellow creature. Jaycey, stay here and do something.”


Do
something?” squeaked Jaycey.

“Yes, dear, distract it. While the rest of us move that log.”

With her body pressed against the cliff, Sal began to edge past the bear. The others followed. The beast snarled and growled and twisted from side to side, and they all felt the rush of air as its fearsome claws swept past their heads.

“Ohmygrassohmygrass…” Jaycey tried to be distracting. She tossed her pretty head and examined her front hooves. “Um…how d'you keep your claws sharp?” she inquired.

The others lined themselves up behind the bear, which had now turned away from them and was growling suspiciously at Jaycey.

“Ready!” cried Sal. “Charge!”

Oxo was a bit cross that she'd used his word but this was no time for petty jealousies. The warriors lowered their heads and charged the fallen log. The bear swiveled its head to see what they were doing and lashed sideways with a paw.

“Again!” shouted Oxo before Sal could speak.

The sheep ignored the huge teeth and the hot breath on their shoulders and rammed the log a second time. It rocked and rolled, but with their heads down, they didn't see the bear writhing free.

“One more…” shouted Oxo. “A longer run-up this time.”

Jaycey was still bravely bobbing about and chattering about keeping claws and hooves trim when the huge creature lurched toward her.

“Ohmygrass!” she screamed. And then, “Ohmygrass…” again, as the ground behind the bear seemed to open up and swallow her fellow warriors.

They'd done as Oxo instructed and backed away a little farther to get a longer run-up at the log. And since they were moving backward, they hadn't seen the huge hole behind them.

“Ohmygrassgrassgrass…” whimpered Jaycey.

She'd heard her friends' cries as they disappeared. Now she could only hear the snuffling, grunting noise as the bear leaned forward and closed its huge jaws around her neck.

Jaycey became speechless again. Frozen. But there was no bite. No pain at all. Jaycey felt herself being lifted off the ground and carried very gently in the bear's mouth. Then she was looking down into a deep, dark nothingness. The bear opened its jaws and Jaycey's hooves scampered in thin air.

***

From their seat on the mule, the Boombergs had watched the sheep's rescue of the bear in open-mouthed wonder. Stanley was impressed and alarmed in equal measure.

“Honey, maybe these creatures are
really really
too clever? I mean, we wouldn't want them kind of taking over the project. Messing up the experiments or anything.”

His wife was sitting bolt upright, only half listening, her mind racing.

“I don't think we need worry about
that
, dear,” she said. “Don't you see where we are?”

Stanley gazed vaguely around. He hated questions he couldn't answer.

“Arizona's where we are, dear,” he said.

“We're at the top of the Devil's Stovepipe,” declared Holly, turning to him.

Stanley looked blank.

“Close to home!” continued his wife. “It's a natural air vent. It goes all the way down to our place. I can't remember quite where the bottom is, but that hole is quite definitely the top.”

“Uh-huh,” said Stanley, but he was no longer listening.

He was watching the bear. Since dropping the sheep down the hole, it had been squatting at the edge, looking down, and making weird little noises. Stanley fancied it was saying thank you, which was ridiculous and unscientific. But now it had straightened up and turned to face
him
. The Professor instantly forgot that today was B-Day.

Holly wasn't looking at the bear. Stanley obviously hadn't grasped the true significance of what he'd just witnessed.

“A natural air vent, Stanley…” she repeated. “A fissure in the rock? A hole that drops down a very, very long way?”

There was still no response from her husband, who was staring over her shoulder, his face chalky white.

“I'm afraid your sheep are now a heap of very broken bones at the rocky foot of the Stovepipe,” said Holly. “Really really clever, but history.”

But if Holly still wasn't aware of the now advancing bear, both Stanley and the mule certainly were. The mule suddenly whinnied in terror, wheeled round, and galloped off, while Holly grappled with the reins and Stanley hung on for dear life.

“But don't worry,” yelled Holly. “Your entire life's ambition is not down the tubes!”

Stanley's fingers dug deeper into Holly's sides as he felt himself slipping backward.

A whimpering, “It's not?” was all he could manage in reply.

His wife turned to him. Her eyes were sparkling, despite the bumpy ride as the mule careered off the track.

“Not one bit of it,” she shouted. “We must replace the sheep, that's all. How about a couple of humans instead? Two very disposable humans!”

22

High Noon

Sheriff Tiny had never known a morning like it. Suddenly, he'd been required to do real sheriffing all over the place.

Only ten minutes ago, he'd met up with a hungry bear and frightened it off with his shotgun, which he hadn't had an excuse to fire in years. Then he'd come across a bitey varmint of a stray mule and bravely captured that. So what with bears and mules and gold rushes and illegal explosions, he'd forgotten all about the little old lady and the boy and their sob story about lost sheep and rhubarb. And now, to cap it all, a couple of strangers had appeared, hurrying out of a side track toward him: a thin, sweaty little man wearing filthy trousers and a strong-looking woman, wearing high-heeled shoes and carrying a briefcase.

On seeing Tiny, the woman waved vigorously.

“Yoo-hoo…” she called pleasantly, as if she were on an afternoon stroll in the park.

As the sheriff reined in Lightning and the mule and waited for the strangers, Holly nudged Stanley.

“Be careful what you say,” she warned. “He's wearing a badge. Don't mention Back of Beyond Ranch.”

Stanley had no intention of mentioning anything at all. He rubbed his bruised bottom and stared miserably at his wrist computer.

“They've switched to final countdown mode,” he muttered.

“Howdy,” said the sheriff. “This mule belong to you folks, by any chance?”

“It does indeed,” cried Holly gaily. “It got spooked by a bear and threw us off.”

Stanley winced at the recent memory.

“Thank you so much for finding it,” continued Holly.

She took the mule's reins from the sheriff, jumped on, and helped Stanley up. In front of her this time, as he was always falling off at the back. With a little wave, she turned the mule and headed back along the main trail. Sheriff Tiny ignored the wave and trotted alongside.

“Nice day for a gold rush,” he remarked cheerfully as they rode. “Did you see the mess they made back here?”

Holly nodded.

Tiny chuckled. “Just like the old times…” he said. “You folks touring?”

Holly nodded again.

“Where you headin' next?”

“Back of B—”

“Back to civilization,” cut in Holly, giving Stanley a shut-up kick.

“Oh,” said Tiny, pleased. “Gunslinger City? Me too. Not that
I'm
on vacation like you folks, mind. Nosirree…Got a coupla prisoners to interrogate. Bein' a sheriff and all.” The thrill of suddenly being important was loosening his tongue. “Coupla non-residents I picked up at Back of Beyond Ranch.” He shook his head and chuckled again. “Claim to have lost a bunch of rare sheep and be friends of ‘Mr. Rhubarb.'”

The Professor almost fell off the mule, despite being at the front. Holly stopped him, her fist clenched tightly on his collar.

“How very interesting,” she managed to say. “We'd love to visit Gunslinger, wouldn't we, dear?”

***

A while later, in Gunslinger City itself, Tod's head popped up in the main street. He'd pushed out the last few inches of dirt like a mole hill. The tunnel from inside the cell was complete.

The sun blinded him and it was several seconds before he could see that the street was pretty much deserted: most tourists were in the café, keeping out of the midday heat. Tod scrabbled backward under the cell wall and rejoined Gran inside.

“Coast's clear, Gran,” he said eagerly. “You go first, then I can give you a push if you need one.”

Gran didn't need a push. It was hard on her old bones but she wriggled through the tunnel.

“We're free!” she exclaimed as Tod joined her outside.

They stood for a moment, blinking in the sunlight, not quite sure what to do next. And unaware that the decision was about to be taken away from them.

***

Holly Boomberg had no idea what they were going to do when they reached Gunslinger City. Breaking a couple of prisoners out of jail was going to be difficult, but it had to be done. B-Day had arrived. And as the sheep were dead, they had to get their hands on the human substitutes. She would not be beaten.

They were just entering the main street when the sheriff brought Lightning to an abrupt halt. Holly looked up and saw why. The old woman and the boy were standing there, talking earnestly outside the jailhouse.

“Well, I'll be hornswoggled…”

Sheriff Tiny leaped from his horse, intending to creep up on the escaped prisoners. But when Tod and Gran saw him, they didn't run away. Quite the opposite.

“That's them!” Tod was pointing as the sheriff strode toward him. “The people who kidnapped us!”

“That's Rhubarb!” shouted Gran.

Then they were both charging past the sheriff, toward the couple on the mule.

“What have you done with our flock?” they both yelled together.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” blustered Holly, looking down at the boy who was tearing toward her. “We've never seen you before in our lives, have we, dear?”

Stanley didn't have time to answer.

“Oh yes you have!” Tod turned briefly back to the sheriff. “He's got a wrist computer! A very clever one. Come and see!”

Holly took one last look at Tod's angry face, then one long look at the sheriff's frown, and knew for certain that the game was up. The man with the badge on his chest was going to be asking some very awkward questions. She slid from the mule, dragging Stanley with her.

The boy was right in front of her now and the sheriff was coming back too, breaking into a run. Holly looked around and grabbed the reins dangling from Lightning's back.

“Get on!” she screamed at Stanley.

She slipped her foot into the stirrup and leapt on to the great horse's back before leaning down, grabbing Stanley's outstretched arms and dragging him on behind her.

“Go! Go! Go!” she shrieked, slapping the reins and kicking her heels.

Lightning took off like a rocket.

23

Fool's Gold Canyon

Tourists were squeezing out of the café to see what new show was being performed in the street. They applauded as the couple on a large white horse galloped away, leaving the sheriff standing, wheezing for breath. The boy was nodding his head vigorously as the ancient lady at his side spoke to him. Suddenly, he turned and ran toward the tourists. A patient pony, harnessed to a trap, a small two-wheeled tourist carriage, was tethered outside the café. The boy untied it and helped the ancient lady on to the driver's seat.

“Hup! Hup!” she cried, slapping the reins.

The boy leapt on beside her.

“Hup! Hup!”

The pony responded and trotted away. The old lady whooped louder and the pony broke into a canter. The chase was on. The tourists cheered. Sheriff Tiny was left standing with the bitey mule.

“Faster, you galumphing great brute!” yelled Holly at Lightning, whose name, after his initial burst, was proving a bit of an exaggeration. She glanced over her shoulder, past her husband's scared face, toward the pursuing pony and trap. “Don't worry, darling,” she shouted.

“Of course I'm worried,” yelled back Stanley. “Today's B-Day! My only chance for success and fame and adulation and—”

“I know, dear,” yelled Holly. “And all will be well!”

The Professor held on tight. He had to hand it to his wife: pessimism was not her middle name.

***

There were bats in the barn at Eppingham Farm and, when not composing raps, Links had sometimes wondered what it must be like to sleep upside down. Not that he was sleeping now, but he
was
experiencing that hanging upside down thing. Several of the sheep were and had been for some time.

Having tumbled down the deep hole that was the Devil's Stovepipe, they'd been saved from becoming a pile of broken bones by a pile of broken branches. A matted tangle of dead foliage and fallen boughs had collected halfway down the narrow chasm, like a giant fur ball. And although it had creaked and snapped and slipped as, one by one, the warriors landed on it, the tangle hadn't given way completely, not even when Jaycey landed on top of the pile, dropped by the bear.

So there they were, snagged and dangling. Links began to wriggle and rap.

“This bein' a bat is only so-so,

We's hangin' doin' nothun

When we should be go-go.

We gotta finish Red Tongue,

At ole Aries End,

So we is outta here, man,

This forest gotta bend—”

The rap became a snap, then a crack, as Links struggled to dislodge himself.

“Whooaa…easy, twiggy tingies!” he cried, as the twisted mass around him began to slip.

“OhmyshutupLinks!” squealed Jaycey. “We're slippingslippingslipping!”

“Tuck your legs in, guys!” called Wills. “So they don't break when we hit the bottom…”

There was a rapid scraping of sticks against the rock wall, a lot of dry rustling and shrill bleating, then a heavy thump. And silence.

Links sat up. In the dim light at the bottom of the rock chimney, he counted four other sheep, which was good. And they were all on top of the woody, leafy, rafty thingy like he was, which was even better.

“Hey…” he said, nodding. “Cool ride, eh, man?”

“And not a broken leg between us,” pointed out Sal, struggling upright.

“Yeah, thanks a bunch, Links,” said Oxo, though he sounded a bit sarcastic. “But there's still nothing to eat.”

The warriors squeezed out of the Stovepipe through a feeble strip of wire mesh and found themselves in a cool, cave-like passageway, dimly illuminated by lights in the ceiling. There was no sign to Aries End but there was no way back either; they could never climb the Stovepipe.

Wills didn't know much about the inside of mountains, but the wire mesh and the lights were a surprise. He tried to sound positive.

“This way,” he called.

Everyone followed him as he marched off down the winding, rocky passage.

***

On the far side of the hill into which the sheep had fallen, Gran and Tod were beginning to gain on Lightning and the Rhubarbs.

They'd left the track from Gunslinger City now, and the ground was becoming rougher and steeper as the hills closed in around them. The four humans were alone. Holly turned her head and yelled at her husband.

“Open your eyes, Stanley! We're nearly there. Contact control. Tell them to open the doors.”

It wasn't easy for Stanley to dab instructions into his wrist computer whilst clinging to his wife's back, but he managed.

“Done…” he called, hoping she wouldn't demand anything else of him.

“Good.”

Holly turned to him again and to the Professor's astonishment she began to grin widely.

“They're all yours, darling,” she purred. “Flies buzzing into a web…”

Stanley didn't have a clue what his wife was talking about. He risked a peep ahead, over her shoulder, and a surge of relief flooded through him. Right in front of them a steel door, painted the dull-red color of the desert, was opening in the side of the hill.

An amazed Tod and Gran also saw the square gap appear. They saw Lightning gallop through, taking the Rhubarbs with him.

“What should we do, Gran?” yelled Tod, bracing himself for impact, expecting the doors to slam shut.

Gran slapped the reins and urged her pony on. “Too late to stop!” she shouted.

The pony and trap rattled through the doorway after Lightning and skewed to a halt. Tod leapt to the ground, ready to face whatever might be in front of him. He was aware of a massive concrete floor, a rocky cavern, and dim artificial light. Then a voice.

“Excellent, my dears. Welcome to Fool's Gold Canyon!”

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