“…and here’s the settlement check. Have a nice day.”
I took the slip of paper with a polite smile. “Thank you, ma’am.” The window slammed shut before I could say any more.
I’d been serving in the armed forces for twenty years. I’d purchased a fixer-upper with my signing bonus in a small, distressed Missouri town. Every one of my leaves had me working on fixing it, until ten years ago, when I was shipped to Europe and cycled through the Middle East several times, with leave times too short to be able to make it back and work on the house, thanks to the total lack of anything resembling a family. I had shut off all of my utilities, and had arranged to auto-pay all of my property tax bills. I had done due diligence, and had assumed that my house would be here when I punched out at twenty years.
It hadn’t been. My property had been seized, razed, and buried under a new parking lot for the new Federal building while I’d been deployed.
No, I hadn’t been compensated. Or told. The first I’d known of it was when I’d gotten out, rented a car, and driven myself home.
I’d had to rent a room for the night, and had hit my bank to gather the documentation in my safe deposit box (including the agreement I’d signed with the city for the property tax—which had been paid, on time every year, including for the years when my house had ceased to exist). And then, I’d lawyered up, and demanded compensation to the tune of the value of my house, times the number of years that they’d taken ownership for, plus the pain and suffering of a veteran returning to discover he was homeless.
They settled without my case ever having made it into a court room. Apparently, my paperwork had somehow vanished, and they claimed to have thought that the property was abandoned. The individuals my lawyer and I had talked to was terribly embarrassed—and horrified, since I made a point to wear my dress blues every time we had an appointment.
The settlement that they granted was all of what I’d asked for, plus all of the property tax that I’d paid in the last ten years. And the knowledge that the person who’d done the deal on the eminent domain was being investigated rather closely, thanks to my cautious use of a safe deposit box.
Between the settlement check in my hand and my pension, I’d be able to buy a home and vehicle outright, and wouldn’t have to find a job unless and until I felt like it.
I’d always wanted to live in Texas. This would be a good change of scene.
I found a little hundred acre ranch, with water on the property and full rights, online. The house looked in excellent shape, and was a bit bigger than I needed, since I didn’t have a family. It was dirt cheap—much less than what I’d had budgeted for a smaller place—so I bought it, sight unseen, bought a ten year old, four wheel drive Ford F250, and headed south. More than I needed at the moment, but who knows how that could end up?
I made it to town, and headed to a little diner on the town’s main street, for a bite to eat, and gossip. I heard quite a bit. When the waitress found out I’d bought the ranch I had, she directed a few residents over to tell me why it was so cheap: apparently, it was on one of the main, local illegal crossings. Didn’t bother me much—I figured I could put up a fence, put up a bunch of No Trespassing—Violators Shot on Sight signs in Spanish, and get my furniture and books and guns shipped down here from storage.
Right after lunch, I headed out to get my state driver’s license, start figuring out what I needed for a concealed carry permit, and get utilities turned on. And get set up for phone and internet. Then, I set off to find my new place.
Come to find out, it was south of the border fence, even though it was north of the Rio Grande. There was a gap in the border fence for my driveway, but…yeah. No wonder my place was an illegal superhighway.
Also brilliant, I came to discover a few hours later, were the huge gaps in the property line fence, and well-worn foot-paths to the pond and creeks, then up to my driveway. I shook my head, and drove on up to my house, surprised to find it still in good condition, given the way the rest of the property had been used.
I pulled to a stop, pulled out the cheap, throw-away cell phone, and checked reception—enough for my purposes—before putting in a call to the storage and shipping company I’d worked with, to have my belongings sent to my new home.
That done, I climbed back into the Ranger, turned around, and headed to town. I figured I’d start by putting some basic cattle panels up around my house and yard, and up my driveway.
And a camp bed would be nice.
I got back, the truck bed completely full of fencing supplies, around midafternoon. I decided that there was still plenty of light to work by, so I put the camp bed in the house, and pulled the pickup around behind it. I decided it would be best to start the fencing around the house proper, and extend it up the driveway toward the gate.
Damn me if it wasn’t hot work. Maybe it didn’t beat working in the sun in full battle rattle, in the sandbox, but it was certainly bad enough. I decided, after I finished the fencing around the house, that I’d have to leave a gap to put in a gate, so that I’d have access to the pond—which I was planning to check out soon, to see if I could gravel and/or sand the bottom for a swimming hole.
I knocked off at dusk, and checked to see if I had power, yet, which would mean water in the house. The shower came on fine, but the hot water was as cold as the cold—which was to say, the water was tepid.
At least the well-house pump and the lights worked. Which reminded me that I’d need to get some water storage, and get a backup generator to keep the water on.
After washing up, I headed back into town for supper. And an ice chest and some basic staples. And a memo book to start writing a list of things I’d need—like the generator and the water storage—down in.
I came back to find all of my hard work had vanished. I cursed a blue streak, stopped the truck, and jumped out to examine the ground where I’d painstakingly hammered steel posts into the ground, four feet apart, all afternoon.
All that was left was the holes. I scrubbed my hands through my hair, feeling frustrated, and a little nervous. And then I climbed back into the truck, and drove the rest of the way up the driveway, noting that all of the fencing was gone. Including the fencing around the house.
I was really feeling spooked, now. I pulled the truck into the garage, and closed the garage door. Went into the bedroom and unfolded the cot I’d gotten, and fell on it to sleep through the night.
I’d figure out what happened to the fence in the morning.
I woke with the first light of day, and dressed to wander around—including my heavy boots. No coffee, damn it, and I didn’t want to drive back into town yet to buy some (and a coffeemaker).
So, I wandered out the door, sans caffeine, and took a look around where I’d put my fencing in.
All that was left—anywhere—was holes in the ground where I’d pounded in the stakes.
I frowned, as I caught sight of something almost hidden under the dry, brown weeds, and squatted for a closer look.
Baby footprints? They looked human, or close to it, but were the length of my thumb. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t seen children’s bare footprints in the sand overseas more times than I could count.
I stood, and cast about to see if I could find more, and found that they were all over the place. I tried to follow them, but wasn’t a tracker, so that wasn’t happening.
Longer stakes, then. And more, and heavier fencing. It’s all I could think to do.
Three days, and three fencing attempts (with progressively longer posts and heavier fencing) later, I declared defeat. I’d had to chase people off my land a couple of times, but gunfire into the ground at their heels was pretty persuasive. I was a bit worried, though—without something around the house, I could imagine being surprised in my sleep by one of the “guides.”
I still didn’t feel I had much choice about giving up on the fencing. Seemed that nothing I did stayed put. Besides. My container of stored belongings had arrived.
I got most of it moved in successfully, but I’d either need three more strong backs or a forklift to get my gun safe (unloaded, since all of the guns were already in a closet in one of the bedrooms in the house) out and inside the house.
The gun safe was huge—half a ton, unloaded, and the measurements I’d taped to the side when I’d packed it let me know that it would easily fit in the back of the master bedroom’s walk-in closet. The exterior was a deep, forest green enamel that had dulled over the years I hadn’t seen it, but that was about it. I patted it, and then turned around, pulling the shipping container door shut behind me, as I headed for the Ranger.
It didn’t take long to find a place I could rent small forklift I needed, once I proved I could handle it by maneuvering it onto a small trailer that went with it in the rental. They watched me attach the trailer to the tow hitch on the truck, and waved as I pulled away.
I pulled into my driveway, and pulled up next to the shipping container, flipped it open, and stopped short. There was a trail of green metal shavings leading away from the container through the narrow crack that had been left when I hadn’t fastened the thing back shut. I closed my eyes and groaned, thinking that someone had broken into my empty safe, and went in. I had visions of drilled holes and popped combination locks.
Nope. The entire door was gone.
I closed my eyes and sighed. This was reminding me of the issue with the disappearing fences.
I stepped out of the container, and noticed the trail of shavings leading away. I also noticed the same small, bare footprints that I’d seen near my vanished fence line.
I sighed, headed into the house to grab one of my rifles—an old Enfield I’d found at a pawn shop twelve years ago—and load it. I slid my arm through the sling and tucked a few more clips of .303 into the pocket of the cargo shorts I wore.
And then I followed the trail of metal filings to see where it would lead me. Thankfully, it was easy to follow—every time I lost it, I found it again after a couple yards, not by the footprints (which were lost climbing over rocks) but by more metal shavings dropped here and there.
The sun was high in the sky by the time I found it: a small…village…where all of the shacks were made from bits of scrap wood, brush, sticks, and straw thatching. A hoard of small…things…ran screaming, scattering into the houses. Out of one of them, a larger…thing emerged, squared its shoulders, and approached me.
“Good day, sir,” it said in a voice that sounded like a belt grinder with an unmistakable Texas twang. Resignation clear in its stance. “I wager you have come to evict us from our home.”
I squatted—the thing was knee high, and I was more than a little startled by the fact that it talked to me. I wanted a better look.
Its skin was a gray-brown, all over, and shiny like a nut shell. No hair. Huge ears. And small eyes under heavy, deep brows. “That kinda depends. I’m not going to be likely to use all of my acreage. You’re a ways away from my house. I have no problems with you as long as you stop stealing my fencing. And my fence posts. And my freaking safe door.”
It sighed. “I am truly sorry,” it said. “Our children are starving, and we are desperate to feed them. Even if it means appropriating all of the metal you leave outside of your house.”
Suddenly, I was very glad my truck got parked in the garage overnight. “I can’t blame you, but it still has to stop,” I said firmly.
“Help us, and it will,” the creature replied.
“What are you, anyway?” I asked. “I have been all over the country and the world, and I have never seen anything like you.”
It smiled. And sat down cross-legged on the ground, showing me the source of the small, bare footprints. Its feet looked human, but were the size of an infant’s. It also showed me that it—he—was male. “The man with whom we made the bargain to be permitted to settle here called us gremlins. We are the only troop that isn’t still migratory. We were beginning preparations to return to the ways of our ancestors.”
I blinked. Then blinked again. “Huh,” I said. “Gremlins. Never thought they were more than an excuse for lousy maintenance.”
“Oh, no. We do exist. Either deep in the earth, eating the metals we find there, or on the surface.” He had leaned forward, thankfully hiding his bits, which peeked out from under his loincloth as he’d seated himself. “Many do tend to cause…problems.”
“So,” I said, scrubbing a hand over my face, unslinging the rifle, and dropping to sit with it across my lap. “You said your people had a bargain to live here. Tell me about that.”
The little guy leaned back on his hands, stretching his legs out, and crossing his ankles in the manner of a story-teller. “Two hundred summers ago, my great-grandfather found a human child. She was lost, badly. He felt terrible for her, because the day was very hot. He had his troop build her a shelter, and then he back-trailed her to where she’d come from. The child was in terrible shape, though, not fit to walk back under the blistering sun, so he told his troop to wash her, and care for her, while he went back to find her people. He found her father looking for her, and led him to the shelter he’d had his troop build, and brought her out. In return, we have always lived here, and the family provided us with scrap metal to eat, in return for having us guard their livestock and home.”
I thought for a moment. “That sounds like a good thing. What happened?”
He shrugged. “We are…not sure. Perhaps the family left. Perhaps they forgot us. Who knows? All we know is that the metal quit coming, and the livestock left. We cleared everything, down to buried old nails and staples, and then the people started coming across the river, and walking across the land. They used to stop over there,” he said, waving a hand at a low ridge, “because there was a good place for a large group of humans to sleep, near the same creek we use for water.” He smiled, a glinting of silver startling in the dark face. It didn’t look too friendly. “They’ve stopped coming near us when we started looking for metal in their belongings.”
“So, you say you used to guard the house and the cattle,” I said slowly. “How did you do that?”
“If the grass and brush is rustling near your feet, you think snake, do you not?” he said, amusement clear in his tone. “How do you think they respond when a large canine comes from nowhere, and leaps for their throat?”
“Personally,” I said slowly, “I’d shoot it.”
“Some have tried,” he said, shrugging. “Most have died. The rest? Tend to scream and run away as fast as they possibly can.”
“I can see that,” I said, thinking. I fell silent, dropping to my belly on the ground as I heard a flurry of Spanish. Sounded like a big group. “Shh,” I whispered, edging up to the top of the small ridge on my elbows and toes, rifle cradled in my arms. I went prone, shouldering the rifle, and put the front site on the ground in front of the lead, then raised my head and looked back along the line of women and children, only to find a man with a gun trained on the rest, giving orders punctuated by sharp jabs of his rifle.
I moved my point of aim, and started to stage the trigger, when a medium-sized brown dog with silver-white teeth in a broad, square jaw on a broad, square head flung itself out of the brush and launched toward the gunman’s arm.
He didn’t get the rifle swung around in time—the dog mauled his arm bad enough he couldn’t even keep it between the dog’s jaws and his own throat.
The women? Snatched up the children, screaming, and ran back south toward the river.
The dog shimmered in the light, and the gremlin I’d spoken with cleaned a large, jagged bone knife on the now-dead gunman’s shirt. He gave a sharp whistle, and four other males ran out, stripping the Mexican of anything metal on his person. A sharp word I couldn’t hear saw the cash included in the take pile, and then the four picked up the body and carted it off after the women.
I eased to my feet, slinging the rifle behind me, and the leader of the gremlins glanced up, waving me over. “We have no need of this,” he said, waving his hand toward the cash—mixed American and Mexican currency.
“Little buddy,” I said, going to one knee, “I’d like to make a deal with you.”
The shiny-headed little guy looked interested. “Indeed?”
“You stop eating my fences, and keep these people off my land, and I will bring you scrap.”
“A bargain like this can be struck,” the gremlin said. “But…we will help you put up a rock wall around your home, instead of a metal fence. Some of my young males…” he trailed off in a shrug. “They get restless, and the fence was quite tasty.”
I sighed. “Yeah. Lots of work, too. Oh, and don’t eat my truck, or any future visitors’ cars or trucks, or any equipment I bring onto the property.”
“We will eat nothing within the wall,” he said, bowing. “And we would appreciate…an equivalent amount of metal as is in your…truck…once every two weeks, starting next week. The metal we have will suffice until then, and we will build your rock wall tonight.”
“Will you guys be able to cover all of the borders between my land and the river?” I asked.
He thought for a moment, then nodded hesitantly. “I believe we can. If I find that we cannot, I can contact others of our people—those who we have mating treaties with—and if you can offer the same thing for them, I can make sure they’re positioned to cover what we cannot.”
One of the others returned from dumping the body in the river, and growled out something that I couldn’t understand, or recognize. The leader growled back, and flung his hands in the air, then snarled something else. The other bent down and gathered up the cash, bringing it over to shove it into my hands. “Anything like this we find abandoned, we will bring to you.”
I nodded, automatically counting the cash in my hands, and noting that it would easily cover their next two months’ meals. “I think we have a deal,” I said.
We shook on it, and I went back to the house. I sighed, looking at the safe, then loaded it up on the forklift, and took it out as close to the gremlins’ settlement as I could get it with a forklift, and left it.
It’s not like it was useful for anything else at this point.
And then, after loading the forklift back up into the bed of my pickup, it suddenly hit me, and I had to sit down with a solid case of the shakes.
Gremlins were real.
They were living on my land.
And I had made a deal with them to guard my place in exchange for a sort of redneck setup in the back end of my property.
I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, closing my eyes. “Suck it up and move on,” I muttered to myself, shoving my back against the tire I’d squatted against. “And never, ever say a single damn word to any living soul.”