Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
 
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Five Cent Pictures


by Joel Doonan




The thunderstorms that towered skyward in the late afternoon produced both dry lightning and translucent veils of precipitation, falling like satin curtains across the plain. The welcome showers made damp patches around the windward sides of wiry desert brush while small pools collected in the depressions of exposed rock.

It had not been a good day for hunting. Two of their horses had been spooked by a scavenging bear as they hunted on foot, tracking mule deer across a ridge. Now the three men walked together with a single horse pulled along by a length of braided leather, and the day's only successful catch was a single rabbit. From their current location it would take more than a full day to find their way home through the hills and ravines to their tribe's encampment.

The sun was low against the horizon and they would soon need a suitable place to settle for the night. With little drinking water left, the small puddles left on exposed rock ledges from the brief afternoon showers would have to suffice.

"We will most likely go hungry tonight," said Chayton as they walked. "Not much daylight left and only one rabbit between the three of us."

"I've had worse," commented Kele." A single skunk divided between four."

They continued over the top of a rise, looking for a smooth place to settle, when something caught their attention. Lower down the slope in the shadows lay an unusual silvery shape. They walked faster to investigate.

Partially obscured by brush and sand, a large metallic and flattened circular object lay embedded at an angle in the earth. It had a small entry, a hatch that was dented, bent, and attached by a broken hinge. It was nearly symmetrical with a slender outer rim, and a central area that was less than twice their height. On one side they could see charred metal, evidence of a lightning strike, still hot and steaming from the recent afternoon rains. Two of its five windows were shattered and glossy fragments in the shape of tiny hexagons were spread across the surrounding sand and brush, sparkling deep blue while reflecting the evening sky.

Nearby lay two of the strangest looking creatures they had ever seen. With four skinny arms and two larger legs, each was about three feet in total length. Bony ridges lined their heads from front to back while each limb ended with four fingers and long black nails. Large glassy eyes with narrow reptilian pupils were open to the sky and their complexion was a yellowish gray with a scaly roughness like fish or snakes. Their simple silvery garments were torn and ripped, and a thick, yellowish brown liquid seeped from numerous cuts and gashes.

The sun was already below the western horizon and it would soon be too dark for a proper investigation.

"Let's camp here for the night," said Kele. "We can figure all this out tomorrow."

The others agreed.

Three Crows gathered stones for a fire circle while Chayton and Kele searched for anything that would burn. As an evening fire was started, they lashed the single skinned prey to a straight stick.

"This skinny one is not much for the three of us," said Three Crows, sharpening his small hand ax against a damp stone.

A thought simultaneously crossed their minds and they glanced toward the strange creatures. Chayton looked at the others for a quick opinion. Three Crows gave a disapproving frown. Kele shrugged and said, "Already dead, and I do like snake." Three Crows handed him the ax.

* * *

Sparks rose from the evening fire and little lights drifted like fireflies scattered by the lightest breeze.

Suspended above the flames beside the rabbit were a pair of four-toed legs and an arm. The fire flared as fat dripped on the glowing embers and the smoke that rose around them carried a peculiar odor.

"That thing definitely stinks," said Three Crows, turning the rabbit to better face the heat.

"Sometimes we must be brave," returned Kele, as he removed a spit with one of the roasted legs. He blew on an area and then bit in. There was a loud crunch like the sound of crushing egg shells.

"Nasty!" he said as he spat the bite out. "Even worse than skunk!"

He rose, swung his arm and threw the leg far off into the darkness. "The wolves can have it."

Chayton also rose and tossed out the other limbs as distant coyotes began to howl.

"Here," said Three Crows, "let's share the rabbit." He held it out for each to take a portion.

* * *

Morning's first light fell on a pair of vultures feeding on the remains of the creatures, drug away from the crash by coyotes overnight. Several crows dodged between them, snatching their share.

The hunters began to explore the crashed vehicle. Three Crows tugged and pried on the damaged hatch to more easily get inside, twisting and turning until he tore the hinge loose. Kele walked on the outer rim removing damaged window fragments while Chayton slipped in and began to search through onboard bins and containers.

Three Crows continued around the outside of the craft, lightly tapping the outer rim with his ax while listening to the sound. He found a hollow area and began to pound an indentation, then chopped with the tip of the blade until he punched a hole completely through. With a leather thong strung through the hole he tethered their horse, then retrieved the damaged hatch to use as a shallow dish. Kele had found containers of fresh water inside, and they filled the damaged hatch to water their animal.

The hunters continued to rummage through numerous interior enclosures. Kele used his knife to remove the lid of a container filled with thick yellow paste. He smelled it, wrinkled his nose and tossed it outside. Chayton bit the leathery end off a flexible tube and gave a firm squeeze. Dark red goo sprayed across the floor. He tossed this away as well, along with anything that served no useful purpose.

They used knives to pry open the craft's technical utility panels, opening several until they found a power distribution junction with several modules and a complex array of color coded cabling. Three Crows came close to examine the interior.

"You can see where this little black shape has been pulled out of its position," he said, holding the module by its connected cable. "It should be inside this space with the same outline."

He positioned the module over the open metallic contacts and with the butt of his hand forced it back into position. It snapped into place and suddenly a series of ascending notes emerged from a console on the opposite side of the craft. The three men turned around in the cramped space to investigate.

Several small lights brightened across the otherwise featureless panel as harmonic tones emerged. The lights seemed to hover and move just above the surface, and then the illuminated shape of a four fingered hand appeared, glowing bright green within a circular area. Cryptic text and icons began to slowly circle around it.

They watched and puzzled at the moving symbols; but if they could have understood the meaning it would have read:

Global reset required. Firmware recovery initiated.

The symbols then faded away as the rising arpeggio of soft tones continued.

The cipher suddenly reappeared and began to circle once more around a glowing hand print. The message this time read:

Enter pilot code for full control or register new student to begin low altitude test and training.

It was Three Crows who suddenly had an idea. "One should place one hand to another," he said, "as we do when we meet, show faith or begin an agreement."

He placed his open hand firmly against the smaller, four fingered glowing print. Within moments the cryptic text shifted from green to blue:

New student operator registered. Student Pilot code Sky-143. Low altitude training only.

Another short series of rising tones emerged as more areas of the control surface brightened.

Now the men began to touch, slide, and press the various illuminated control elements with little effect. Only Three Crows was able to make the craft's console respond in any substantial way and when his fingers crossed a small orange circle, the craft suddenly jolted and began to vibrate with a low resonance that shook the floor.

He had activated a feature that was designed for axis and alignment control, and they quickly grabbed the edges of the console to steady themselves as the craft rose and became level with the ground. Sand and desert brush fell away as it continued to shudder, turning a few degrees one way and then the other, reorienting itself. Their horse backed away to the full length of its tether, frightened by the unpredictable motions.

Three Crows glided his fingers slightly forward and backward across the orange circle and the craft swiftly responded. Soon he discovered how to raise and lower the craft, turn it around and move in any direction. He lowered the craft to the soil, and as he removed his hands from the controls and stepped away, the console lights faded and the humming sound quieted as the craft powered down.

"I have a new plan," announced Three Crows. "Kele, will you stay here with your horse while Chayton and I go out for a quick mission? This won't take long. We'll be back soon."

* * *

The settlers' rural farm was nestled among low hills, constructed of rough-sawn lumber and sod, with a garden plot bordered by split rail fencing. There were several rows of vegetables along with a few poppies and a line of hollyhocks. Tall cottonwoods shaded the cabin, and a water well lay nearby. Just past the garden stood a mule shed and chicken coop. The out-buildings were built with gap-board sides, shingle roofing, and a row of pickets spaced just close enough to keep the animals inside.

All was peaceful on this summer morning until Chayton and Three Crows suddenly emerged from the coop door, letting it bang shut amidst raucous squawking and flapping. Three Crows had a plump chicken under each arm while Chayton used his shirt to hold a half dozen eggs. "Never take too many," said Chayton as they ran, "that way we can come back another time for more."

A bearded old man, shirtless and barefoot, heard the commotion and swiftly emerged from the cabin. His baggy, well-worn trousers were held up by a single suspender strap and he raised a double barrelled shotgun as a younger woman and two barefoot children ran out and stood behind him.

"Damn Injuns again!" he shouted. "Stay off my farm or you'll pay the price." He fired just as Chayton and Three Crows disappeared over a nearby rise.

Within moments the metallic craft rose from the other side of the hill. The two men howled and the chickens squawked as they quickly accelerated, speeding away between the tall cottonwoods.

"What the hell?" said the farmer, lowering his shotgun.

* * *

Chayton, Three Crows, and Kele piloted their discovery slowly back toward the village with the horse in tow, remaining only a few feet above the ground. Kele sat in the open hatchway, his legs across the craft's smooth outer hull, while Chayton sat in one of the open window frames to catch the breeze.

Three Crows, the only one who was able to operate the craft, stood at the control console with fingers close and steady above the glowing orange circle.

* * *

In 1862, when Union General James Henry Carleton issued an order to force all Diné people into internment at Fort Sumner in Eastern New Mexico Territory, a few small groups evaded capture and remained elusive. Later, even as their people were ordered onto the Bosque Redondo Reservation along with the Mescalero Apaches, a few bands remained free, living as semi-nomadic. They continued to traverse the margins of their ancestral lands even after the 1868 treaty that established the Navajo Indian Reservation. Careful not to draw attention, they blended in with others on the reservation when necessary, and moved often to maintain their cultural freedom even into the late 1890's. Chayton, Kele, and Three Crows belonged to one of these.

* * *

Back at the village, everyone gathered to see the mysterious object. Three Crows demonstrated the craft's flying and maneuvering ability. "We call it Skypony," he announced, lowering the craft to the ground at the village center for all to examine.

It was not long before they began to personalize the small alien ship, making it their own by painting angular lines and symbols of daily life around the perimeter in dark iron red, white, and ocher yellow. They added pictographs representing wildlife and the spirits of nature, and every village member included palm prints and family symbols. One tribesman used an iron railroad spike to hammer small holes in several places around the outer rim while others attached leather-bound clusters of bird feathers and strings of glass beads through the openings. An elder produced a prized buffalo skull, and with wire scavenged from a rancher's fencing, bound it securely to the front of the craft.

Over the following weeks, groups took the Skypony out to hunt or for a quick raid on a settler's farm. Chayton often sat on the front edge straddling the buffalo skull—a position with the broadest view—while others inside stood by open windows with rifles in hand. Three Crows was always the pilot on these outings, and no one at the time understood why only he could cause the craft to rise and move.

While they were never able to fly the craft much higher than the treetops, they would effectively and silently follow the contours of the land, following game. They flew down into valleys along small streams and up over rises to chase faster prey. It soon became common for these hunting parties to return with deer and rabbits, and as the tribe lived well, the Skypony became a treasured asset.

* * *

Alban Tallfeather was a young photographer who had been traveling through reservation areas taking portraits and documenting the people's living conditions. He was Choctaw and French, naturally adept at learning languages, and was freelancing for a Chicago newspaper. The publishers had promised him a nickel for each print-worthy photo, plus a five cent royalty for each reprint or copy.

While listening to stories shared about the reservation, he heard rumors about a few bands of Diné still living free, and following several leads, hauled his gear in a small one-mule wagon in search of the last wild Indians.

His Lincoln-style top-hat was decorated with a single, large black vulture feather, and his long black hair coursed down the back of his fringed buckskin jacket. He was polite and charming, and with a limited knowledge of their language was able to quickly set the village at ease.

Chayton was the first to pose beside the Skypony in front of the photographer's wooden portrait camera, proudly holding a rifle. Three Crows joined him by the open hatch as Kele took the rifle and crouched on the rim beside the buffalo skull, reenacting a hunt. Kele's spouse, Malia, arrived with their young daughter and sat together in the entryway as more members of the village joined in, striking ever more dramatic poses, regardless of authenticity, at the photographer's creative direction.

Alban stayed the night, entertaining them around a campfire with stories from back east while sharing a meal, then departed by first light on his search for other free tribes.

* * *

The craft had a tendency to build up a static charge on the metallic outer shell and internal frame, particularly when flying through a light rain. In combination with its powerful onboard energy storage, an electric arc would sometimes flash between the ground and the bottom of the vehicle to restore an electric balance. This phenomenon was observed often enough to become known by them as Sky Fire due to its resemblance with natural lightning.

One afternoon while Three Crows was waiting inside the craft for the hunting party to arrive, he continued to explore the many control elements and symbols that appeared across the console whenever he stood close. A small triangle, barely larger than a fingertip, glowed pale blue at the far upper right of the console. He held his thumb against it.

The burst of lighting that flashed from the craft to the nearest hogan set its wood frame ablaze. An elderly couple came running out through a cloud of smoke, cursing at Three Crows after being startled by an electric shock. Neighbors joined together to extinguish the fire and calm nerves as the other hunters arrived.

Three Crows had just discovered the control for electrical equilibrium and manual static discharge.

That afternoon the hunting party was out later than usual, and as night fell they were still far from the village. With the rough terrain brightened only by a thin sliver of a moon, they proceeded slowly and cautiously to avoid collision or other mishap.

They crossed the top of a long, boulder-strewn ridge, and off to the left far below, they noticed a gridwork of torchlights brightening the valley floor. Three Crows shifted the craft around and dropped lower to investigate.

Troop 305 had been out all week on a routine patrol. In a secluded river bottom they engaged a band of renegade Mescalero Apaches and took many captives in the process. Several Indians who sat under guard beneath the torches noticed the dark craft moving silently overhead as it blocked out the stars. They glanced at each other and nodded, having heard stories about a Diné flying disk, but made no other motions or comments. In contrast, the armed sentries charged with maintaining security and control were oblivious to the vehicle passing quietly above.

"I've seen this group of soldiers before," Kele quietly mentioned. "I know their flags and markings, and the different wagons they use for supplies. Some are for food and water, but that small one behind the big tent," he pointed, "is special. No one is watching it. We should put Sky Fire on it."

Three Crows' eyes brightened as he nodded and shifted the craft around. He carefully hovered directly above the unattended wagon and lowered until they nearly touched the canvas-covered wood crates filed with gunpowder, firearms, and lead shot. He held his thumb firmly against the manual discharge symbol and it only required a moment for the artificial lightning to flash.

The wagon exploded violently and the eruption of fire and smoke sent burning pieces of wood in every direction. The craft formed a protective shield beneath them, but smoke and embers still blew inside, singing hair on their arms and faces. Three Crows moved as fast as possible, and as they sped away, howling loud from the achievement, sentries stood stunned and shaken. Numerous Apaches took advantage, jumped to their feet and quickly disappeared into the night.

* * *

Three Crows had a young son, barely four years old, who sometimes joined him at the controls. One afternoon following a successful raid he sat with his child and demonstrated how he had pressed his palm against the control panel to make the Skypony come to life. His young son placed his own hand beside his fathers and suddenly a circular area brightened around both of their hands. Once more a green print appeared and a cryptic cipher circled around:

Register co-pilot? read the text.

Three Crows took his son's hand and held it firmly against the glowing print. "This is how I made friends with the Skypony," he explained.

The text quickly shifted to blue:

Co-pilot registered. Student Pilot 2 code Sky-144. No further operators permitted until level 5 master reset.

Three Crows showed him how to use the orange circle to raise the craft and let it hover in place, but his son was more interested in climbing out an open window. The boy soon stood atop the hovering vehicle with his arms in the air, calling like a wolf.

His grandmother was gathering firewood nearby and looked their way. She set down an armful of sticks and pointed toward her grandson.

"Your son has found a new name," she shouted to Three Crows. "He has now become a Skypony Rider."

As days went by, the new name was adopted across the village for the child. Unfortunately during this time of freedom and plenty, events happening more than one hundred miles away would soon change the tribe's fate forever.

* * *

Following an act of Congress, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had been established nationwide, and an office was opened in the town of Fort Defiance—a settlement rapidly expanding around a US Army fort established in 1851. A message arrived at the Indian Affairs office that was soon forwarded to the army post's acting commander.

The uniformed courier stood patiently and at attention beside the desk as Colonel Jason Talbot unfolded the page for review. He slapped the document down atop his desk.

"What the hell," he said, "Now it's some sort of Indian magic. Flying Indians? My god. Is there nothing that people won't imagine? This is ridiculous. We have another conflict brewing back east and more concerns around here than we can deal with."

"They do say that some of these settlers are fond of the bottle," added the courier, "but there are some odd looking photographs in the Chicago Times. Some sort of contraption the Indians may have strapped together. Could be nothing, though."

"We'll have to look into it," said the commander. "That's part of the job. Keep the Indians under control. Notify Sargent Stafford; we'll need to assemble a scouting troop and conduct a proper investigation. If Indians are on the loose again and up to something, we'll need to round them all up. Get them back on the reservation and put this matter to rest."

* * *

Back at the village around an evening fire, Three Crows was called to come and sit with several elders. An old iron teapot lay atop coals at the fire's edge, and tin cans were passed around to serve as cups. T hey shared a drink made from coffee beans and sage root.

"We have all had dreams about this, and have come to a very important decision," one elder said. He blew the steam rising from his tin can, cooling it off. "The Skypony has been a great help, but looking forward, it will only serve to draw unwanted attention from the soldiers and other whites. Too many people have seen it."

"We must hide it as soon as possible," added another elder, "Tomorrow. In a place where it cannot be found."

The only woman among the four of them set down her cup and turned to address Three Crows directly. "We all benefit from the use of the Skypony," she said, "and we know that you are particularly fond of it. But we also know that its makers will some day come to retrieve it, and many problems will quickly follow if it belongs to the whites. The world is changing, and the soldiers will find ways to use it that we cannot imagine. They must not be allowed to possess it until its makers return."

All were in complete agreement, and as with most decisions, their wisdom was seldom questioned.

* * *

By first light the craft was lowered into a deep, dry ravine and wedged at an angle into the narrow bottom. It settled into place and the buffalo skull was untied from the front. Villagers gathered around and began to toss weeds and brush, sticks and rocks on top. By the time the morning sun was high enough to fully brighten the neighboring hillsides, the Skypony was completely hidden. Dry brush was used to obscure their footprints and any marks left from digging as they walked away, and the craft was completely abandoned.

It was only a few days afterward that their encampment was discovered by an Army scouting party, and the entire village was forcefully relocated within the reservation. No mention was ever made about the alien craft to anyone outside their tribe, how they had used it for hunts and raids, or where it was finally hidden.

* * *

The epidemic of 1918 was particularly challenging as it spread unabated through reservation territory. Little effective medical assistance was ever offered by Indian Affairs, and with the loss of many elders, knowledge and stories of the past were fast disappearing.

Due to government policies of intervention and reeducation, children were being removed from family homes and sent to Indian Schools in order to learn what were considered useful trades. This caused a further loss of language and culture, and the story of the Skypony completely faded from memory. Almost.

It was only the boy originally named Skypony Rider that still vaguely remembered a few details from his early childhood, as well as the stories shared around evening fires in the years that followed. Now attending an Indian School, he was given the more common name of Jason Rider.

In 1934, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Indian Reorganization Act, part of which promoted merit-based higher education. As a promising young engineer, Jason Rider was able to attend Swarthmore College, located in Eastern Pennsylvania. After two years of study in the recently established field of Applied Electrical Science, he earned an associates degree in Practical Applications of Electricity. With the intention of promoting electric lighting and other modern improvements across rural reservation lands, he moved to the town of Fort Defiance, not far from the New Mexico state line.

For the first time in many years Jason felt he was finding his own path and living in a territory that seemed like home—the smell of the dry air, the stars so bright at night, and the overall character of its people. There was the feeling of freedom and possibility, and he soon found employment with the city's electric utilities, hired primarily as a design assistant, calculating transformer impedance and transmission line losses. But the pay was just enough to cover food and rent, and little was left to pursue his vision of bringing electric power to the more rural reservation areas. He would need a government grant to help.

* * *

The nameplate on her lapel read: "Instructor Nancy Doli—Fort Defiance Elementary". She shared the same native heritage and was close to Jason's age, perhaps a little younger, with long black hair held back with a hand-worked silver clasp. She was handing in several forms to the desk clerk as Jason passed by on his way toward the applications office.

He held up his hand, paused and smiled, but she did not notice as she turned and departed through the tall oak and etched-glass doors of the Indian Affairs office.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in part to aid the modernization of native peoples, but the bureaucratic process of requesting funding for specific improvement projects was not easy to navigate.

"The wheels of government turn slow," said Kennith Wilkes, the appropriations and dispensation manager who sat behind a long desk that nearly spanned the cramped office space. "You must use the established process." His feet rested atop a trash can as he chewed the short stub of a cigar. A large framed photo of President Franklin Roosevelt hung on the wall behind him, and a gallon-sized coffee can sat nearby to serve as a spittoon.

There were file folders and piles of documents atop the desk, some in wooden trays marked "In Process", while many others lay in another tray marked "Denied".

"You must clearly present a request like yours in writing," he continued. "Fill out the proper forms 155-A and 235-B. You can get them at the front desk. Submit each in duplicate, with a notary seal if possible, to the Office of Finance for Indian Affairs in Washington. Here is the address." He slid a printed note card across the desk.

"It is best to include photos to document specific examples of utilities that are in need of repair or installation and the amount of funding that would be required for each. Include bids from contractors. Expect to wait five or six months for a response, and don't get your hopes up. Funds are pretty tight right now."

Jason was not deterred by the bureaucratic process and gave a respectful nod before he departed the office. At the front clerk's desk he found the necessary forms before leaving the bureau's district headquarters. It would be a challenge, but he was determined to receive funding in order to expand the city's electric service to encompass a larger rural area.

* * *

He noticed her again, just ahead, as she stepped outside a small shop whose large glass window read, "Nathan's Jewelry & Accoutrements Supply". He hastened his pace to catch up.

When she turned and glanced toward him, he held up the easily recognizable forms he had just received from the Indian Affairs office. She smiled. "You seem excited. First time going through the process?"

"Wish me luck," he said. "I'm trying to have electric power brought to areas north and west of town. Too many folks live without electric light."

"They usually tell you that there's no funding available at this time, and to try again next year," she said as they continued together. "I've been trying to get a water line extended to the edge of town where we plan to build a community center. We have volunteers to do the trenching if the city will help with the permits and run the pipe.

"I see you are with the city electric service?" She motioned toward the embroidered patch above his left shirt pocket. "You can add my mother's place to the list for electric power."

She paused when they came to an old flatbed truck that was parked beside the curb. Dark green letters across the side read, "Sahale Goats & Sheep". With some effort and a loud creak, she pulled opened the sagging driver's door.

"It's Friday and we're having a fundraiser tonight at Bethel Presbyterian. You're welcome to stop by if you want. We'll be in the lower level. Best to use the side entrance and go down the steps. The event starts at seven, and tonight we'll have music!"

She slipped inside and reached through the open window to grab the door by its outside handle, and with a lift and a squeak the door began to close. Jason helped push it tight.

The opposite door was missing its handle and a short length of twine was tied around to keep it closed. Beside her on the seat was an open cigar box filled with files, needle-nose pliers and other jewelry-making tools. "I'll see you there tonight," he said.

* * *

She wore blue—not just one shade of blue, but several, and her silver necklace, arm bands and hair-clasp were decorated with blue and green stones, freshly polished. She wore ankle bracelets with many small bells that softly chimed as she walked, and the patterns of tiny silver stars and birds in flight that lay around her shoulders reminded him of an evening sky.

She was busy greeting and shaking hands while adding small donations to the gallon-sized glass jar on the lunch counter. Jason waited his turn and then stepped close holding up a five dollar bill.

"Now that will get you a personal tour," she said, taking him by the arm. "You're new to town, so let's go meet some people."

Four amateur musicians had set up in one corner beneath several strings of colored Christmas lights. With three low notes on an old upright base and two quick taps on a snare drum, they began a popular swing tune as a young couple took the floor and did their best to follow the quick pace. Others applauded the effort and another couple joined in.

Bethel Presbyterian offered a free lunch to those in need during weekdays from Monday through Thursday, and the small kitchen in the church basement was busy this evening providing a generous buffet for the fundraising event. In addition to local business owners, Nancy introduced Jason to prominent members of the Navajo community. It was a welcome opportunity to share his plans for expanding the city's electric utilities to encompass a broader rural area.

"You must make your own jewelry," he said as they stepped away to a quiet side of the room. "Amazing work. Actually quite stunning."

She slowly held up a hand as if modeling for an advertisement, her ornate wristbands shining, then slowly brushed back her hair to reveal long sparkling earrings in the forms of feathers and birds.

"When I'm not teaching or helping my mom with the ranch," she explained, "I make jewelry. Style and form are somewhat traditional, but mostly my own. Helps bring extra cash during the summer.

"And if your plan for installing electricity works out," she added, "we could really use a water pump at our ranch. Tending animals by hand is tough, and my mom is getting older."

"I'm without a vehicle at the moment," he said, "but I would love to stop by for a visit. Take a look at your property and water situation to see if running power lines from town would be practical."

"I'm free tomorrow," she said, "And I'd be happy to stop by and pick you up."

The event began to wind down by 10:30; the food was gone and the musicians were starting to pack their instruments. Several women and one older gentleman were cleaning up the buffet counter as Jason and Nancy stepped out for a walk around the town's small central square.

"I could use a camera," he said, "to help document the condition of homes and ranches in the area. I've never used one before, and don't know much about operating one."

"I can help," she replied, "My camera is not the fanciest but it works well. I use it to take photos of students and events during the school year."

They arrived at the town's only movie theater, Nickle Cinema. Many of the bulbs that circled the main marquee were either missing or burned, and the change-copy letters beneath the theater name read: "Matinees Monday Thru Thursday Only 5 Cents."

"Perhaps we could see a show sometime," he said. "Oh, and my treat of course!"

Nancy smiled and nodded. "How could I turn that down. But I have to warn you; the ticket price goes up to $1.05 on Fridays and weekends when the newer films are out."

A full moon was rising above the eastern hills, brightening a few passing clouds in a pale, dusty yellow and softening the light from stars. The glow from several neon signs reflected off the pavement ahead of them and brought tiny blue and red flashes from Nancy's jewelry as they walked.

They shared stories of travel and experience until they arrived at the entrance of the boarding house where Jason roomed. There they parted company, but not before she agreed to meet him at sunrise for an early breakfast just across the street at Hobart's Diner.

* * *

Morning light flooded through the diner's east-facing windows, over the booths and bar-stools to send silhouettes across the floor's checkerboard linoleum. Pancakes, eggs and bacon were the usual special, and steam rose in soft curls from pots of hot coffee.

Weekends were busy serving shopkeepers and travelers, dining amidst the clamor of waiters, bus-boys and cooks. Jason was waiting as Nancy arrived, and they sat together at a west-facing booth with a view of the city limits and beyond—a land of color and contrast that stretched to the horizon. After breakfast they were on the road in the old ranch truck, soon past the town's final stop sign with windows down for a rush of cool dry air as they traveled northwest.

Sahale Ranch was a modest outfit with a small home and barn, an old windmill and several outbuildings for feed and supplies. Nancy's father had passed away many years before, and her mother always appreciated help with the livestock. The ranch covered substantial acreage, and the long dusty drive that led from the main road was perpetually in need of maintenance.

His visit included help with chores, and an opportunity to examine their waterworks with its well and windmill. Their system often ran dry during the late summer and they frequently had to truck water from town.

"You should have a deeper well," he said, climbing the loose rungs of the Aermotor windmill. Nancy looked up as he surveyed the surroundings. "It will take long transmission lines and many poles to bring electricity all the way from town. The same lines could service several homes in the area, though. Might be a bit expensive, but it would be possible."

A row of goats suddenly appeared atop a brush-covered rise behind the barn, herded by Nancy's mother who had been out most of the morning rounding up strays that had slipped into a dry wash.

They prepared lunch together and afterward looked through family photo albums and shared stories from their earlier days. Near dusk, he and Nancy departed for an evening in town.

* * *

An elderly photographer stood with his tripod and camera beside the theater's box office entrance. His camera was an outdated wooden portrait model from an earlier era, and he wore a faded, Lincoln-style top-hat. Tucked into the hatband was a large black feather from the wing of a vulture, and there was a hand-lettered cardboard sign suspended beneath on a short length of twine that read: "Quality Portraits Only 5 Cents."

Nancy waved as they approached. "Meet Alban Tallfeather," she said to Jason. "He develops and prints pictures for the school. Five cents a print is a great price. And he's also showing me how to set up my own darkroom."

Jason and Nancy stood together in front of his camera. He motioned them closer. The box office lighting set a warm glow against the chiseled sandstone behind them as he sharpened the focus.

"It will be another nickel for each print," he said, adjusting the camera for a second image. "Give me a week. You can pick them up here at the box office."

Alban took a small pencil and notepad from his coat pocket. He opened to a fresh page and wrote the day's date. "Jot down your name and number of prints that you would like," he said to Jason.

He turned to Nancy. "Always good to see you, dear." He tipped his hat as another couple arrived to stand in front of his camera.

Their evening ended with a late visit to Hobart's Diner, featuring a well-advertised weekend special of western-style spicy fried chicken and rhubarb pie. The neon sign out front with its red and yellow alternating arrows shone though the large windows and across the diner's tables. In addition, the glowing sign above the counter beamed green and blue.

"Hard to tell exactly how fresh this pie is," he said, raising his fork with a bite sized piece that appeared blue green on one side and red on the other.

Nancy laughed, "Perhaps that's why it's on special."

* * *

Within the week, Jason had completed the necessary documents for a grant request, along with photographs and contractor bids for three rural installations. He stopped by the Indian Affairs district office on his lunch break to let the clerk review the paperwork and make sure everything was properly noted and signed.

A pair of young men who worked as day laborers sat on the curb across the street beside their pickup, finishing sandwiches and beer as Jason stepped outside.

One of the men picked up a stone from the street and sent it toward him, bouncing swiftly across the brick pavement to ping up off the concrete curbing. "Go home," he said. "No more free lunch for you people." The other chimed in, "Try working for a living. Get a job!"

Jason noticed the out-of-state license plate on their truck and saw mud on their pants and boots from hard labor digging trenches. He shrugged it off to bad manners and intoxication, and continued toward the electric utilities office.

* * *

After two months, he received a promotion, up from being an assistant to a full-time design engineer. In addition to a modest pay raise, the new position came with a few benefits. He was now on the road more frequently, conducting field work, and was allowed to borrow a utility truck for personal use after business hours, provided he refill the gas tank. One evening he stopped by for a visit with Nancy and her mother.

"Nancy's real name is Haseya Doli," her mother explained, "and my real name is Aiyana Bly. Do you have a real name?"

"I do, but it's pretty odd. When I was young they called me Skypony Rider."

"What's a Skypony?" asked Nancy.

"Well this is going to sound very strange," he said, "and you may not believe it, but I assure you that it is all quite true. It began when I was about four years old …"

What followed was the scarcely believable story of a crashed alien ship and the small reptilian creatures that had piloted it. He explained how his father had learned to operate the craft and use it for hunts and raids …

"I was told that these creatures tasted worse than skunk," he added, "Of course I have no idea what skunk is actually like. Never tried one and don't know if I want to."

"They ate them?" Nancy wrinkled her nose with curiosity and disgust.

"From what I recall," he explained, "the men were hungry, on foot, and a great distance from the village. Even after roasting, they couldn't choke it down. Too awful."

"I believe your story," said Aiyana, "Many others have seen unexplained lights in the sky for decades. I have also seen these lights more than once. It's always out over open land, in places were few people live." she paused momentarily, collecting her thoughts. "And I also recommend that you do not bother with skunk. Not boiled, not roasted, not worth the trouble."

Jason glanced at Nancy but she turned away, hiding a smile. He continued.

"My father showed me how he was able to control and fly the craft," he said, "but soon the village had to hide it from the army. Don't remember entirely why, other than for their own safety. They drove it into a ravine and pushed dirt on top of it.

"The older folks used to tell stories about the 'times of freedom' as they called it, and what it was like to ride the Skypony. All of them have passed away, and I don't know for sure where the village was camped at the time. It was somewhere northeast of here. I do remember the move. I remember all the walking."

"This is an amazing mystery," said Nancy, "We should investigate and try to find where they hid the craft."

Her mother's interest was also piqued. She brought several road maps from a kitchen drawer and spread them out across the table. "First we need to figure out exactly where your village was located."

Jason ran his fingers across the printed drawings of mountains, rivers, and roads as if he could feel the different textures of the land. "Must have been around this area," he said, tracing a finger along a dashed line that marked a seldom used road, little more than a wagon trail. "I remember a mountain range to the west, like those shown here, and the small river that ran beside the village. There was a sharp bend in the river and a grove of cottonwood trees where all us children played, and there was a family of beavers who had made a dam and pond. Several dry washes led down to the river, and the Skypony must have been hidden inside one of them.

"I believe our community was in this area," he said, decidedly tapping his finger. "Everything looks right. The mountains, the hills, the river."

"School will soon be out for the summer," said Nancy, "and if you can get a few extra days off from work, we can pack supplies and camp along the roadside. Won't cost much, and it will certainly be an adventure."

Nancy's mother began staring at him with a flat gaze. "The two of you out there alone?"

He put his hands atop hers. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll do my best to be a complete gentleman."

* * *

They would need to keep the expedition's goal and purpose completely confidential, and not knowing what challenges to expect, the old ranch truck was stocked with extra cans of gasoline, tarps, blankets, canned fish, beans and crackers. Sun-dried tomatoes and dry figs were packed inside metal cookie tins, and they had plenty of rope, two flashlights, and several extra car batteries. Tied to the back next to a spare tire were shovels and a pick.

Jason was allowed to borrow electric test meters from work, along with clamps and cables. Fifteen gallons of fresh water finished off their supplies, and with Nancy at the wheel, they set off before dawn in the old truck, down the dusty drive toward the open road and a brightening sky.

After two days and 118 miles of traveling along winding gravel roads, they passed near the edge of a shallow bluff that stirred a sense of familiarity within Jason's memory. It was late in the afternoon as they pulled the truck to the roadside.

Mountains lay in the distance to the west, and below the bluff ran a small river, making a sharp bend. The river's sides were bordered by tall cottonwoods and willow brush, and one could see the remains of an old beaver dam farther down stream. To the north lay thin dark shadows across the land that defined the edges of several ravines.

The ground was flat and fairly smooth, and at one place there were several stone circles left from fires built long ago. They walked along the bluff following the river upstream until they came to the charred remains of an abandoned cabin next to a rubbish pile of household junk, worn leather shoes and rusty tin cans.

Not far away coursed a deep ravine that over many years had been used as a place for trash and refuse. There was an old car rolled down the embankment, peppered with bullet holes through fenders and windows from being used as target practice. The ravine was also a graveyard for wagon parts, old kitchen ware, broken furniture, and just peaking out from an eroded embankment, the curved edge of what might be a metal table top or old truck fender. It would have been easy to miss, but Jason had a peculiar feeling. He skidded down the sandy embankment to have a closer look.

"Probably just another old washtub," called out Nancy.

He used his hands to clear dirt and expose a little more of it, and the deeper he dug the more he realized that the object was much larger than it first appeared. He found a hole that had been pounded through the edge, rekindling another memory, but daylight was fading and they would need to set up camp for the night.

With a tarp tied to one side of the truck for privacy and windbreak, Nancy gathered firewood while Jason set out plates, crackers, and cans of sardines. Later they sat atop blankets and faced the bluff's edge sharing a tin of dry figs while they watched the sky turn from purple to black.

"A starry night for Skypony Rider," she said, watching sparks rise from their small fire.

"And one for Haseya Doli," he added, prodding the flames with a stick. They watched as sparks were carried high by a gust.

* * *

At first light they were down the embankment with shovels and a pick. Nancy began to toss old junk from the area just above while Jason continued digging, throwing the debris farther down the ravine. The more trash and dirt they cleared away, the more interesting their discovery became.

By mid-morning they uncovered enough to expose the frame of a window, and they began to clear a wider area to find a way inside.

Fortunately, the remaining intact windows, along with parts of an old wood stove, prevented the interior from being completely filled with silt over time. Once the entrance was uncovered, they were able to slip inside. The craft lay at an awkward angle, just as it had been placed long ago, but Jason was able to recognize the control console and remember the story of a glowing hand print. He ran his palms slowly across the dusty, featureless surface. Nothing happened. There was no power in the craft.

"It needs energy," he said, "Electric power. We'll need to bring down the batteries, some cables and clamps." He used a pocket knife to pry open several access panels and examine the advanced technology inside.

He had enough knowledge of basic electrical principals to recognize what must have served as the vehicle's power conduits and also knew that these must somehow connect to a high capacity power storage system. He traced several color-coded leads until he located a prominent junction.

With their extra batteries and connecting cables, he followed a hunch and guessed at the proper polarity. A bright spark flashed from the final connection and he used a current meter to confirm the transfer of power from batteries to craft.

There was no immediate response. No sounds or lights. But then slowly, images began to appear across the control surface and an indecipherable line of icons began to circle briefly around a central region. It read: Power accumulation mode initiated. Auto adjusting to irregular current source. Then the icons faded away.

They continued to dig and expose more of the craft while energy transferred to the alien vehicle. More rocks, broken furniture, and the rusted remains of an old bed-spring were all tossed farther down the ravine.

Even with the transfer of power there were no further signs of activity across the console. Jason stood next to the dusty surface and held his hand against it. "Say hello to the Skypony," he whispered.

A cryptic green cipher slowly brightened and began to circle around his hand. A rising series of tones emerged, and the text changed its message: No match found. Master reset required. The writing and symbols quickly faded away.

"This must work somehow," he said, taking a handkerchief from his back pocket. He spat on the dusty surface and again on his hand and wiped both as clean as possible.

He tried again, holding his damp palm firmly against the surface. This time, a four fingered hand-print appeared and he nudged his palm around to better align with it.

With the cleaner surface and perhaps even the use of his own saliva, a new line of alien icons began to circle: Comprehensive identity scan initiated.

Small lights slowly brightened and dimmed in precise intervals for nearly a minute as he held his palm steady, and then the text suddenly shifted to blue. A new series of symbols arced around:: Genetic imprint recognized. Sky-144 co-pilot approved for low altitude training. No additional operators permitted until level 5 master reset.

The control console began to fully illuminate, although somewhat inconsistently. He sensed that the power from the two batteries was hardly enough to operate the craft, and when he stepped away from the controls, all the lights dimmed out. It was apparent that the vessel could somehow sense both his identity and proximity to the control console. To increase the power, they had one final option; the battery used by the truck.

With all three batteries connected in series to output a higher voltage, the console lights were brighter and more steady as he stood by the panel. He began to move his fingers slowly across the surface and as he did, different zones became illuminated in turn. But he had no idea of what to do to make the craft move or rise out of the ravine. It was Nancy, standing beside him and examining the console, who noticed the small orange circle that remained steadily illuminated.

With only a slight motion using his fingers across the circle, the craft shuddered. It was still tightly wedged in the ravine, with dirt forming a snug fit around the lower half, but he moved his fingers gently back and forth in an attempt to jar the craft and break it free.

It was shaky at first, but the craft loosened and began to rise. They held tight to the edges of the console and as soon as the craft was high enough to clear the narrow bottom it began to reorient itself level with the surrounding land. Once up into full sunlight, the panel brightened completely and the indicator on the current meter switched directions. The craft was now gathering enough energy from sunlight to fill its reserve and also recharge their batteries.

The main objective of their adventure was complete at this point; they had rediscovered the lost spacecraft. But a new and even more daunting challenge presented itself as they realized the importance of keeping it hidden from passing ranchers or tourists. They must also transport the craft all the way home, and there was only one way to do this: they would need to fly.

With the battery reinstalled in the truck, Nancy drove off the roadway and turned sideways to block the view. They stretched out their tarp to make the barrier wider. They began to sweep out the sandy dirt and clean surfaces both inside and out, preparing the craft for travel. Both understood that it would be unwise to stay at this location for longer than necessary, and they should attempt to fly this night, all the way to Sahale Ranch.

With road maps spread across the truck's hood, they plotted the most direct path home. The truck would need to stop at least once for fuel, and they hoped that the craft's power reserves would be sufficiently charged for the entire nighttime trip.

Jason practiced hovering and maneuvering the craft to become familiar with the axis control, and by dusk they were packed and ready for travel. Skylight faded quickly with a moonless night ahead, and only the light from the truck's headlights against the road would help guide them safely home. As soon as it was fully dark, they departed, Nancy at the wheel of the truck while Jason followed in the air beside her or above.

They each carried flashlights and had worked out a series of signals to communicate if needed, and they traveled south along the small gravel road, eventually meeting a paved highway. Now they could travel faster, and at one point there was a soft glow above the hills ahead as they approached a small town. The truck would need to stop for fuel, and as they had planned beforehand, Jason turned away to circle around the community.

He continued unnoticed until a pair of alert watch-dogs began to bark and howl. Lights flickered on inside the ranch home that passed beneath him and a woman stepped out on the front porch with a lantern, but he was soon beyond sight, continuing across darker pastures.

Nancy pulled to the roadside at the far side of the community and flashed the truck's headlights on and off three times. Jason was waiting in a field nearby and signaled back with the flashlight.

* * *

It was nearly three in the morning when they finally arrived at the ranch.

Nancy's mother, by either intuition or faith, had prearranged a wide circle of kerosene lamps next to the barn. When she saw headlights coming down their driveway she went out and lit the lamps to mark a safe landing area. She moved to stand in the center of the circle, waving a lamp slowly left and right as a beacon.

There was space enough inside the barn between hay bales and roof supports for the craft to rest, and bales were arranged in a wide circle to support the outer edges and keep it level. The ranch was far enough from town for the spacecraft to be kept hidden, at least for a while, until they could figure out exactly what to do with it. From one perspective it was still tribal property, temporarily borrowed from the stars, and they would need time to figure the best course of action.

There were visible traces of hand-applied color on the craft's sides; decorations and hand prints left a generation ago. It was Nancy's mother, Aiyana, that first decided to restore the lines and icons using more modern, enamel paint.

Over the following weeks, while Jason concerned himself with cleaning the interior panels and restoring the power system, Nancy began to replace the leather-bound clusters of glass beads and feathers that had once been mounted through holes around the outer rim.

The interior of the craft was fairly cramped, designed and constructed for a smaller race of beings, and the control console was also awkwardly low. Jason found a short wooden stool used for milking goats, and with several leather belts, strapped it to the floor. Now with a more comfortable place to sit before the controls, he could try to decipher the craft's many attributes.

He shared a faint memory with Nancy and her mother, about how it had once been adorned with a buffalo skull. Aiyana had just what they needed, and from a dusty back corner of the barn retrieved the skull of a ram's head with amber-colored horns. Using baling wire, she attached it where the buffalo skull had been mounted long ago.

For a final touch, like artists adding their marks, they placed their hand prints around the outer rim in red and white and then added their names.

Proud of the Skypony restoration, one weekend they brought the refurbished vehicle outdoors for a photo shoot.

Aiyana sat on the craft's edge beside the ram's skull, holding a rifle and pretending to hunt. Jason posed with a fringed leather jacket and flat-rimmed hat that had belonged to Nancy's father. There were several photos of Nancy sitting in the open hatchway with shiny silver jewelry and traditional dress, and then several portraits of all three together, the women waving while Jason nodded and tipped his hat. These would be the first photos that Nancy would develop and print in her own new darkroom.

* * *

There were times when they took the craft out for nighttime rides across open country, always avoiding the lights of town. They flew silently through a land of tall natural monuments and broad valleys, with rough sandstone ledges and spires turned pale rose under moonlight. Long purple shadows were cast across the lowlands and nocturnal wildlife stirred beneath as they passed.

* * *

In his spare time, Jason continued to explore the craft's properties, and used meters to map the electrical envelope that completely surrounded it. While sitting before the controls, he found a way to produce a powerful rotating magnetic field, strong enough to pull iron garden tools off a rack and even draw a heavy engine block across the dirt toward it.

He rediscovered the control for static discharge, sending sparks to animals and objects and more than once set the nearby bedding on fire.

With magnet wire wound around an old bicycle wheel and placed beneath the craft, he was able to draw electric power from its rotating magnetic field. It was powerful enough to illuminate a string of electric bulbs, and with a flash of inspiration he ran a cable from the barn to the house in an attempt to provide electric lighting. It did work, as long as he stood by the craft's control panel. But unfortunately, when he stepped away, the craft powered down and the lights dimmed out.

Over all this time, only the most rudimentary capabilities of the craft had been discovered or used. No one could conceive of its ability for particle beam generation, genetic analysis, terrain mapping or automatic flight control. No one realized that the craft had originally, before the crash, even been capable of dimensional shifts in space-time.

Without anyone's knowledge it had also been recording everything around it: images and sounds, the faces of all those nearby and within, their words and language.

There were three-dimensional recordings of the craft being decorated long ago, of tribal dances around fires, and hunting parties as they traveled through lowlands and over ridges chasing game. Moonlight rides through dramatic landscapes were also saved, and even the mundane ranch activities of tending animals. All these sounds, images, and even smells were analyzed and archived.

For a faraway and unknown culture, the craft held a valuable record of genetic, geographical, and anthropological information.

* * *

The two young men, day laborers from out of town, were loitering one early evening outside the liquor store. Nancy passed them on her way toward the truck after shopping at Nathan's Jewelry & Accoutrements.

One whistled to catch her attention while the other made kissing sounds and other unseemly suggestive advances. She glanced briefly over and shook her head before opening the truck door. Both men grabbed stones from the street gutter and began throwing hard in her direction. They continued to taunt even as she drove away.

Jason had been invited to join them for dinner that evening, but as he stepped inside he found Nancy sitting at the dining table with a damp washcloth pressed to the side of her head. Another slightly bloody washcloth lay in front of her.

"What happened?" he asked, taking a seat beside her.

"It was nothing," she said, "It was an accident. Don't worry about it."

"Those two boys from out of town threw rocks at her," explained her mother from the kitchen, "when she would not pay them any attention. If they were my boys, we'd be having a talk right now. If Nancy's father was still here, they'd really be in trouble."

Frustration and anger welled up within Jason, feelings that were amplified by his past experience attending Indian schools, and later as a young man at a university. He gently pulled her hand away from her head to better see the gashes as her mother brought out a fresh washcloth. He began to feel flushed and dizzy. "I need to step out for a few minutes," he said, rising from the table. "I need some fresh air."

Nancy glanced up. "Don't go and do something stupid. Not worth getting into trouble. I've had worse things happen to me."

Her mother put her hand atop Nancy's and spoke softly. "Let the man go. He needs this for himself."

* * *

Jason stood by the front porch under a darkening sky, uncertain of how to react or respond. His hands were shaky and he began to pace. He paused for a moment and began to watch the evening star as it sparkled above the eastern horizon: a meditation that always seemed to calm him down. Soon his thoughts became more focused and determined. He headed for the barn.

Once inside the craft, the controls began to glow. He rose and hovered briefly, then continued slowly outside. Without an exact plan, he followed intuition, rose as high as possible, and departed the ranch. Soon the lights of town became visible in the distance and he turned north to skirt its limits.

He continued around the city's edge, staying well away from homes and ranches, until at one point he noticed a familiar-looking pickup pulled to the side of a gravel road. Even looking down from above, it was unmistakable. The engine was running and the headlights were on as two men stood in the road to urinate. Jason kept his distance to remain unseen.

As the two stepped back inside and closed the doors, Jason heard radio static as they searched for stations. He hovered above and then lowered directly down until the center of the craft nearly touched the truck.

He fully powered the magnetic field and the pickup instantly rose, making contact so solidly that it partially caved the truck's roof. The driver reacted by stepping on the gas, but the truck's wheels were already airborne. He revved the engine again without effect as they began to rise higher.

There was a flat-topped hill a short distance to the north, steep on the sides and with no road to the top. It was known locally as Lost Goat Bluff, and it lay in an expanse of thorn brush and eroded washes.

The men cursed and shouted, looking out the windows, intoxicated and confused.

Lifting the truck was effortless for the Skypony, up the sides to the very top of the bluff. Jason released the magnetic field and the truck fell several feet to the rocks and dirt. Now he held his hand above the control for static discharge, but he paused, momentarily uncertain.

"We put Sky Fire on it," he finally whispered, recalling a story from long ago.

The fiery arc that traveled the short distance from craft to truck created an electric shock that sent the two men running outside. While it wreaked havoc on the vehicle's electrics, it also had the unforeseen effect of arcing between the exhaust system and recently filled fuel tank.

Fire and smoke erupted. It curled up and around the craft, and even though Jason rose as fast as possible, the petroleum-fueled flames blew inside the open hatch and singed hair on his left side. He sped through the glowing cloud of soot and departed the bluff without looking back.

Once returned to the ranch, he parked the alien craft inside the barn. He was shaken by his own actions but felt a deep sense of emotional release. He sat down atop the low stool and placed his forehead against the control panel, concerned about the potential consequences that might unfold. With his forehead against the console, a previously unknown feature of the craft was suddenly activated.

Perhaps it was his emotional state coupled with his physical actions that triggered the new series of large icons rolling across the surface. This time the alien cryptography was bright orange in color, and Jason quickly rose and stepped away from the panel expecting the scrolling text to stop. But unlike every time before, the craft did not power down.

He touched the surface, ran his palms across it, but nothing he tried had any effect. The controls were locked and the orange icons continued uninterrupted even as he left the barn to rejoin Nancy and her mother.

* * *

It was two days later, one late evening as Jason and Nancy were about to close the goat pen, when they both had an unsettled feeling of being watched. They glanced around and looked up, then noticed that the stars overhead began to disappear. It soon became apparent that an immense disc-shaped object hovered some distance directly above them. Nancy's mother came out with a pair of lanterns to help pen the livestock. She stopped suddenly as green glowing icons began to circle around the base of the craft clearly marking its wide circumference, a spaceship that was easily five times the size of the entire barn.

The center of the disk began to slowly open like the iris of a great eye, exposing a yellow glow, then suddenly the barn roof directly beneath it burst apart, roofing tin ripped and peeled back as the wood framing shattered. Alarmed goats ran and scattered through the unlatched gate as the small spacecraft rose slowly through the gaping hole. The craft continued up until it entered the large ship, then the immense iris closed and the icons blinked out.

As predicted long ago, the alien craft had been retrieved by its makers, now decorated and ornamented with tribal markings and tokens from wildlife. For a while there was nothing but complete stillness as the three stood gazing up, Nancy's mother still holding the two lanterns. Onboard the large spacecraft, others gathered and puzzled over their long abandoned and oddly decorated scout vehicle, now adorned with bird feathers and the wired-on skull of a strange horned animal.

Minutes passed and the only sound was the creaking of twisted roofing as it flexed with an evening breeze.

"What are they waiting for," said Aiyana, "They already have their spaceship."

Time passed slowly as they continued watching the shadowy disk above them, then a soft voice began to echo down. It was in the form of a very old Diné dialect—one that only Aiyana could completely understand. The voice had a mechanical quality like a sound that had been reconstructed from recorded segments. The icons and cipher that once more began to circle around the base of the vessel shifted color with each phrase.

"Our great spirit mother," the voice said, "The mother of all things, informs us that you are in a position of need. We thank you for finding our Skypony and allowing us to retrieve it. Now we offer you something of value in return."

Once again the expansive iris opened and a gold glow that sparkled with particles like snowfall beamed directly down through the shattered opening in the barn roof. Within this diffused beam three large square containers began to descend, settling on the ground at the very spot where the craft had been parked.

The golden glow instantly blinked out and the iris quickly closed. The glowing cipher abruptly stopped and the large craft again became completely dark as it began to rise. It quickly became impossible to notice if not for the stars it blocked out, but soon this effect faded as the stars returned.

Nancy's mother was the first to step inside the shattered barn and examine the boxes. She hung the lanterns from one of the few central timbers that were still intact and tried to lift one of crates.

"Very heavy," she said, "We need to open these up."

They puzzled over the smooth metallic containers and latching mechanisms that seemed to offer no way inside. But atop each crate were icons forming a circle around the flat metal shape of a four fingered palm print. Jason had a sudden thought. He pressed his hand against the metallic print and within moments the crate unlatched and a removable lid became visible.

Inside lay many bars of silver, platinum and gold, tightly packed, and each stamped with the alien iconography. The metal gleamed in the lantern light as they held up several heavy bars.

"But what are we going to do with this?" said Aiyana. "How are we going to use it without getting into trouble? We can't take it to the bank; they'll think we stole it. Certainly take it away and perhaps even lock us up. Things like that have happened to our people before."

Jason shrugged and shook his head. Nancy's eyes suddenly brightened.

"We will hide it and make jewelry out of it," she said, " Slowly. Little by little. Over time, as we add our craftsmanship and polished stones, it will pay us back quite well."

And I know just where to keep it safe," added her mother.

There was an underground storage compartment toward the rear of the shed, right next to a substantial pile of manure. Its lid was constructed of heavy oak planks, strong enough to park a tractor on, and the space beneath was just deep enough to hide all three boxes.

"We put them inside and then shovel goat poop on top," she explained, holding the heavy lid open, "No one will ever know we have it."

* * *

At daybreak the following morning an olive-green panel van arrived at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one with U.S. Army Surveillance stenciled boldly in black on the two front doors. There was a large, hoop-shaped antenna mounted atop of the van, one that was slowly rotating. A uniformed officer with a stiff shirt and starched pants stepped out the passenger door as the driver, an enlisted army private, remained behind the drivers wheel. The shiny brass badge above the officer's left shirt pocket read, Lt. Remway, United States Army Intelligence.

"We need current maps of the reservation roads and ranches," he said to the desk clerk. "This is a confidential national security issue."

"Right away, sir," respond the clerk. He searched beneath the counter, opening several document drawers until he retrieved an area road and property map. "Are you here to look into the strange occurrence we've had recently?" added the clerk.

Lt. Remway rolled up the map. "Whatever is going on around here," he said, "We will figure it out."

In addition to the strange tale of a flying pickup, mysterious radio emissions had been detected over the last two days at a military base across the state line. From vector analysis using directional antennas, these emissions appeared to be originating from somewhere within the central reservation territory. There were code-like numerical patterns contained within the signals, undecipherable, and with the events unfolding in Europe at the time, concerns were raised that a secret spy ring might exist among native peoples. Soon the olive-green van was speeding northwest beyond town, stopping at each ranch to investigate.

It was not long before the van with its curious antenna was speeding down their dusty drive, dodging bumps and dips while leaving a thick cloud of dust. The hoop on top of the van turned slowly and constantly until they skidded to an abrupt stop in front of the house.

Nancy and Jason watched from their shady front porch, seated on a swing seat while Nancy's mother sat beside them in a rocking chair. The driver and Lt. Remway stepped out as the van's rear doors swung open. A civilian with a half dozen pencils in his shirt pocket stepped out the back holding a clipboard with the words "M.I.T. Radio Lab" printed on it. He wore a set of headphones and carried a portable, battery powered radio with a miniature directional antenna. He turned slowly left and right, listening for radio emissions, as Lt. Remway motioned toward the enlisted man to begin a search of the area.

The officer noticed them sitting together on the front porch. "Government business," he explained loudly. "We won't be here long."

The enlisted man peeked inside the barn, walked around the house and then climbed partway up the rickety rungs of their old Aermotor windmill.

"Have you folks noticed any unusual activity around here?" asked Lt. Remway, "Perhaps a truck with a tall radio antenna mounted to it? A portable transmitter?"

Nancy's mother shook her head while Jason and Nancy continued swinging.

The private returned from his inspection of the property. "Sir, I don't think they even have electric power," he said, "No poles or transformer. Nothing here but goats and Indians. And an old busted up barn," he added, pointing.

Lt. Remway glanced over and stared for a moment at the oddly twisted roofing and fractured beams. "What the hell happened to your goat shed?" he asked.

"Lightning strike," quickly returned Nancy's mother, rocking steadily.

He nodded. "You should get that fixed," he shouted back.

"Let's try the next ranch farther west," said the radioman, as Nancy came toward them with a tray of mason jars filled with lemonade. She handed one to Lt. Remway as the others helped themselves.

"Thanks ma'am," he said, "Most appreciated. We'll be on our way now. You folks have a fine day."

Without further explanation they climbed back inside the panel van and departed down the dusty drive, weaving left and right to dodge dips and bumps while the hoop antenna continued to turn. The thick cloud of chalky dust that rolled behind gradually drifted with the wind.

The rest of the summer passed without incident as the barn was slowly repaired, and even though the government grant for rural power had not yet been approved, funds were raised, and plans and preparations were still being made.

* * *

There was a sign painter atop a ladder at the outskirts of town, at a nice place with cottonwood trees and a field of wildflowers. With the final brush strokes he carefully completed the last of the lettering and drop shadows, and backed away for a better look at his masterpiece. "It's perfect," he said.

It read "Skypony Community Center", written in both English and Navajo, and centered beneath, "Est. 1939". The painter cleaned his brush in a tin can of thinner and wiped it dry on his overalls.

To the right of the cottonwoods, the framing of a new building was being erected, and not far away, the final stretch of a ditch for a new water line was close to completion.

Nancy's new camera equipment included a sturdy tripod, and gathered before her for a group portrait stood her mother Aiyana, along with six other community leaders.

Jason was hammering a stake in the ground to mark the location of the final power pole, and nearby sat a new flatbed pickup with white-painted oak side boards. Dark green and gold-leaf lettering read, "Sahale Goats & Sheep".

THE END


Copyright 2022, Joel Doonan

Bio: Joel Doonan owns and operates a small signs and graphics business in central Texas. A writer since childhood, his early formative years were spent in the Amazon basin area of eastern Peru.

Most recent short stories published by Aphelion Webzine include: Tin Indian, Jesus of the West, The Last Warrior, Three Oranges, Talking to Stones, and others.

E-mail: Joel Doonan

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