Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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Pilgrimage to Coahuila

by George Schaade





"Anyone want some chocolate?"

All heads turned toward the young man sitting on the far side of the campfire. The travelers watched silently as Tommy rummaged through a canvas bag until he found a paper sack.

"It's probably melted but it..." He froze when he noticed the blank stares coming from the others. The light from the fire washed across their expressionless faces, swept past the horses and wagon, and was swallowed up in the darkness of the desert night.

"What? What is it?" he asked cautiously.

Manuel, the old man from Chiapas, broke the silence. "We don't know what chocolate is."

Tommy didn't understand at first. His eyes moved from person to person. When it finally sank in, he was embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he told the group. "It's food. A sweet food. You'll love it."

Tommy walked around the circle of travelers, handing each a piece of chocolate wrapped in wax paper.

CortÚz was the first to unwrap his. "This looks like crap!" he exclaimed with disgust. "Where'd you get this, boy?"

Still smiling nervously, Tommy made his way back to his seat near the fire. "A man in my village makes it. He grows sugar cane and trades some for cocoa beans. I don't know the whole process but it sure tastes good."

Manuel gave his piece of melted, dark chocolate a cautious smell then ran his tongue across it. Immediately his eyes lit up and he announced to the others, "It's good. Very good."

The old man's pronouncement was enough for the others. Each began to nip and lick at their chocolate, except for CortÚz who sat it on the box beside him.

The twins seemed to enjoy the candy most of all. Angela and Maria finished off their chocolate by licking the paper.

"Mmmmm," moaned Angela.

"Food of the gods," added Maria.

"Gods?" snarled CortÚz. "You mean those aliens you worship?"

"We don't worship aliens," answered Maria. "They are the salvation for mankind. We have to prepare ourselves for their return."

CortÚz shook his head. "There's people like you back where I live. They watch the sky and pray for aliens to take them away to a far off planet. There's even an old guy that claims to talk to aliens." CortÚz snorted, "They're just fools that can't find anything better to put their faith in."

Before the twins could reply, Conway, the party's guide, tried to defuse the conversation.

"We've finished our first day of traveling and all of you now know the routine of making and breaking camp. I've taken several groups through this area before, so I know we'll have to pick up the pace to avoid bandits and get to the next fresh water.

"Mr. CortÚz, in the morning I want you to help Mrs. Sutton hitch the horses to the wagon. That should speed things up."

CortÚz cringed then angrily replied, "You mean on top of all the other things I'm suppose to do? Let that lazy daughter of hers do it. They don't do much as it is." The crusty CortÚz looked hard at the frumpy woman and her teenage daughter. "Why are you even going to Coahuila? The rest of us want to see this alien crap, but what about you?"

The older woman twisted in her seat and hung her head but the young girl, Sophie, was quick to speak up.

"We're going there to find my father. He went to Coahuila three years ago and we haven't heard from him since."

An evil laugh burst from CortÚz. "You mean you lost your man to this crazy spaceship cult." He laughed again.

Tommy sprang to their defense. "Hey, leave them alone. They've got a real reason for going to Coahuila, but what about you? You say you don't believe in aliens or spaceships, so why are you going?"

"Look, kid," CortÚz leaned forward putting his elbows on his knees, "some two hundred years ago a war devastated this planet in a blink of an eye. At the same time a spaceship, or whatever, is found. It doesn't take a genius to realize that if...IF...this is an alien craft then they caused the war. Yet we've got people like these," he motioned toward the twins, "that have made the saucer into a shrine and the aliens into gods." He threw his hands up. "I'm going to Coahuila to show that it's all a big hoax."

"Well, se˝or, which one is it?" asked Tommy sarcastically. "Did the aliens destroy Earth or do they not exist at all?"_

The stubborn CortÚz missed the conflict in his argument. "Precisely, that's what I want to know."

Tommy shook his head in dismay and stared into the flickering fire. He understood that it wasn't worth it to argue with people like CortÚz.

After a short silence, the old man, Manuel, spoke up. "Actually, the crash of the spaceship, or whatever," giving a small concession to CortÚz, "happened at least ten years after the war. Which means it's less likely there's a connection between the two. I've talked to a lot of people that have been to Coahuila and from what they describe the spacecraft isn't from this world. Then there's the stories of the aliens that died in the crash."

"Not just stories," said Angela, as she opened the handmade book that sat in her lap. "The seer Michael..."

CortÚz groaned and muttered something to himself.

"The seer Michael," continued Angela, "says that the two visitors on the ship didn't die. Their bodies dissolved but their spirits were raised up and returned to the home world." Angela began to thumb through the book looking for a passage.

"The great holy seer Michael," CortÚz ridiculed. "What garbage!"

Maria calmly said, "He was there. You weren't."

"The Book of Michael has some very creditable information in it," interjected Manuel. "But much of what he wrote is symbolic and open to interpretation. I fancy myself a scientist and, with all due respect to Michaelites, symbolism just doesn't satisfy me. I want facts. I want to examine the spaceship, test its workings, analyze its structure, and experiment with its components. I want the facts."

Conway scratched the old dog that lay at his feet then motioned to the young man across the fire. "What about you, Tommy? Why are you going?"

Tommy gave his answer a few seconds of thought. "Well, I guess it's something like Mrs. Sutton and Sophie. I'm going because of someone else. My grandfather visited the ship when he was a kid. I grew up hearing all kinds of fantastic stories about the place. I want to see for myself." Tommy looked at the stars sprinkled in the night sky. "It's incredible to think that people out there have come here. I've just got to see it."_

"In one way or another it's fascinating to all of us," said Sophie. "But one of us has already been there."

All eyes turned to Conway who continued to stroke his dog's head.

"Coahuila is bigger than anything any of you have ever seen," said the guide. "About thirty thousand people live there and it's growing every day. You'll be bombarded with sounds, smells, and things to see. People will try to sell you stuff or steal what you have. Be careful."

"But what about the ship?" asked Tommy.

The old dog sat up and rubbed its muzzle against Conway's leg. The guide looked around the campfire.

"All of you will likely find what you're looking for in Coahuila." To the twins he said, "There's a lot of Michaelites there. They'll take you in, instruct you on the aliens and Michael, and then show you the ship. It'll probably be the most moving experience of your lives."

Angela and Maria broke into big smiles, as Conway turned to CortÚz.

"Don't worry, se˝or, the town isn't full of Michaelites. When you visit the town square, you'll see that there's an open forum with people debating the issues about the spaceship, and in the evenings, the critics and cynics retire to the bars to argue with each other. I'm sure you'll fit in nicely."

"And scientists?" asked Manuel. "Are there scientists there?"

"Oh, yes," answered Conway. "They've been going over the ship for some time now. Once you've proven that you're serious about studying the spacecraft, they'll open their records to you and you'll learn all that they know. There's enough to be discovered to keep you busy for a lifetime."

Conway looked to Sophie and her mother. His face became very serious and his eyes saddened. He looked into the fire and said, "Mrs. Sutton, I can't tell you that you'll find your husband. The chances are you probably won't, but for a price, you can hire people to look for him. I would suggest you stick with Tommy. He can not only protect you but also show you the sights of Coahuila." Looking up from the fire, "Together the three of you will enjoy your visit. As Tommy learned from his grandfather, there's more to Coahuila than just the ship."

The little group sat in silence, each contemplating what their guide had told them; each immersed in dreams of the adventure ahead of them.

The following morning, as the sun rose on the horizon, the pilgrims broke camp, saddled up, and headed out across the Chihuahuan Desert. Mrs. Sutton, Sophie, and the twins manned the wagon while the rest road horses. There wasn't much talking among the group except for occasional grumbles from CortÚz about everything from the weather to the food.

As the day wore on Tommy relieved Mrs. Sutton and took the reins of the wagon. He had hoped to talk to Sophie but the twins wanted to talk about aliens and the seer Michael. The old man, Manuel, rode alongside the wagon listening closely and asking questions.

Just before noon Conway lead them into a shallow gully where they stopped for lunch. Tommy and Manuel gathered wood and started a fire. The twins heated water for the beans, while Sophie and her mother pulled out jerky and hardtack. It wasn't long before they all settled down for a quiet lunch.

In the middle of their meal, the dog rose and stared at the edge of the gully. He let out a low, deep growl and arched his back.

"Easy, Sparky," said Conway. Then to the others, "Keep your guns close but let me do the talking."

Coming over the rise were three men on horses. They were hard men with sun-baked skin, unshaven faces, and an angry look in their eyes. When they neared the pilgrims one dismounted and approached the guide.

"I know you," he said. "You've brought people through my territory before."

Conway said nothing but gave the man a cold stare as he moved his hand to the pistol on his hip.

The bandit began to move among the group. He gave a long look to Tommy, Sophia, and her mom then moved on to Manuel and CortÚz. There was fire in CortÚz's eyes and he cautiously placed his hand on the hilt of his Bowie knife.

The man turned to his comrades and laughed, "Children and old men."

As he approached the twins, his smile faded. He grabbed the Book of Michael out of Maria's lap, looked at it, and threw it to ground.

"I hate Michaelites," he snarled. The girls hugged each other with fear as the man gave them a murderous look.

To Conway the bandit said, "Give me the Michaelites and the rest of you can go."

"Those girls aren't going anywhere," said CortÚz who was now standing beside the man with his knife drawn.

The two mounted men drew their guns and waited for word from their leader.

"Everybody take it easy," said Conway. "We can work out a deal."

Conway reached in his pocket and pulled out a gold coin that he placed on the hardtack box in front of the bandit.

"Most of the time that would be enough," said the man, "but Michaelites lured away my youngest son. My heart aches for revenge."

Just then, CortÚz tossed two more coins onto the box. The man's eyes widened and he stroked the stubble on his chin. Without a word, the bandit scooped up the coins and gave each a bite to test them. Satisfied that they were real, he mounted his horse. He gave the girls one last ugly look before he and his men rode off.

The twins immediately grabbed CortÚz and hugged him until he protested, "Enough, enough. I can't breathe."

Suddenly everyone was talking at once. They laughed away their nervous tension and congratulated each other on their courage. CortÚz got most of the praise which seemed to mellow his usually sour disposition.

The rest of the afternoon their trek across the wasteland was filled with bravado and congenial chatter. When they stopped along a shallow creek the talk quieted and everyone assumed their role to set up camp and start preparing supper. Following the evening meal, the pilgrims sat around the fire and watched the sun set and the stars appear.

"Should we take turns watching for the bandits through the night?" asked Manuel as he added another log to the fire.

Conway scratched Sparky's ear and said, "No. I know these bandits. This one is mean but he's a thief with honor. He took the coins so we won't see him again."

The twins looked at CortÚz and smiled.

"Mr. Conway, tell us more about Coahuila," said Tommy.

The guide looked into the nighttime sky and said, "One star in the sky is nice but when you can see billions of them they take your breath away. Each of you knows what you want from your trip to Coahuila. You'll see it through your own eyes. It will either be nice or it'll take your breath away."

The group fell into silence contemplating his words.

Finally, Conway rose and announced, "Well, Sparky and I are going for a walk. We'll be back in a bit. You can get ready for bed."

The guide and his dog strolled into the darkness and were soon out of sight of the others. A moment later Conway came across a large rock and sat down. Sparky curled up at his feet and looked back at the comforting campfire they had just left._

Conway noticed Sparky's gaze. "Don't worry they'll be just fine. They're a pretty typical bunch, don't you think? Humans are like that. All wrapped up in their own desires and never seeing the big picture. Yet a single event can unite them quickly and firmly." Staring at the stars. "If it hadn't been for that damn war of theirs, who knows where they'd be now. They sure kept us busy back then. Observing, recording, studying, and then that damn war."

A low moan came from Sparky. Conway said to him, "I know. We didn't help things by crashing that spaceship, but it's turning out to have its good side. It's what they focus on now. Despite their different points of view, the ship is what brings them together.

"The unknown creates a mystique. If there's something that humans can never know, they become fascinated by it. They seem impelled to find an answer, even if they have to create that answer from nothing. That's what makes them so interesting. That's why we're still here. Observing, recording, studying." Conway sighed. "What do you think, Sparky?"

The old dog raised its head, looked at Conway with sorrowful eyes, and said, "I think you've been on this planet too long. You're starting to sound human."

Conway gave a small chuckle. "Maybe you're right, but if we've learned anything it's that being human isn't such a bad thing."


THE END


ę 2015 George Schaade

Bio: Mr. Schaade is a former teacher that has been writing science fiction, fantasy, and humor most of his life. He loves exploring the quirks of human nature and pushing the  boundaries of his own imagination. His recent publishing credits include Anotherealm, Electric Spec, and several by Whortleberry Press. His last Aphelion appearance was Psi Language in our November 2014 issue.

E-mail: George Schaade

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