Jim Cotton knelt between what used to be two rows of beets and stared in disbelief. His first thought had been that wild hogs had uprooted the sweet tubers. There were certainly enough cloven hoof tracks that closely resembled those of wild hogs. However, the snout of a hog hadn't made the deep grooves in the rich river bottom soil. The talons of an eagle might scratch out the earth like that . . . or a prankster with a stick.
He rose to his feet and surveyed the damage, contemplating the tracks. A person could strap hooves to their shoes and walk around to make tracks. He should know. The year his little brother had been so sick, Cotton had glued deer hooves to some boards and strapped them to his shoes. Then he'd climbed up on the roof and walked around in the snow. Crude, but it was enough to convince Michael that they were the tracks of Santa's reindeer.
Cotton grimaced. Nothing he or the doctors had done kept Michael from dying, but at least the prank had managed to take the boy's mind off his pain for awhile. For years Cotton had felt guilty because he was healthy and Michael was sick. Michael had finally escaped his suffering, as did their aging arthritic parents. Cotton's quest for the reason had zeroed in on beets; the vegetable Cotton loved and Michael hated. Of course, there was the question of insecticides as well. While others had shrugged the questions off, Cotton had used the family farm to continue his research. All of which brought him back to the current problem - and a third possibility.
Was someone investigating in this remote part of his field? But who knew of his experiment? Sure, people saw him fertilizing his field. What farmer didn't fertilize? They might even know he never sprayed his crop with insecticide - but they couldn't know about the tests he'd been conducting in the basement of the old farmhouse. Nor would the know that he had developed a fertilizer laced with herbs. Being a loner hadn't reaped many friends, but it certainly had its benefits in secrecy. The only thing they might know was that his field was relatively free of insects. One day he'd share his secret, but right now he wanted to see how well the crops would grow.
So, if no one knew about his experiments, why would anyone cross his entire field to vandalize part of two rows of crops? It had to be wild hogs. They must have entered through the tangled mess of brush and swamp that bordered this side of the beet field.
It might have been weeks before he discovered the damage, but he'd been curious about that red glow he'd seen emanating from the swamp last night. A campfire? From the kitchen window it had seemed too large for a campfire. At the time, he'd wondered if it was a small plane crash - wondered enough to call the sheriff. But it had taken Sheriff Monroe more than an hour to get a helicopter in the area. Nobody wanted to go into that swamp at night. No evidence of a plane crash was found, and there were no reports of missing airplanes, so the search had been called off. Swamp gas, they had concluded.
Well, maybe it was swamp gas. People were always making something sinister out of Mother Nature's mysterious displays, and Cotton wasn't about to let his imagination run away with him. There was a logical explanation for the glow, and there had to be an explanation for the destruction in his beet field.
He shrugged as he turned back toward the house. Maybe the county agricultural agent could answer a few of his questions.
The county agent examined the damage and insisted that wild hogs were responsible. The agent had no explanation for the gouges. Maybe he figured Cotton was stringing him along. Who could blame him for such thoughts? Cotton had pulled his share of pranks in his youth . . . but destroying his own beet crop?
Cotton watched the aging agent limp off to his truck and felt a little guilty. Maybe it was wild hogs. He'd seen a few of them in the swamp now and then, though this was the first time they'd troubled his crop. Had the herbs attracted the hogs? Maybe they weren't getting enough to eat. That was when he thought about the poor family that had reportedly taken up residence in the abandoned house across the swamp. Maybe the family had merely finished the damage the hogs had started. That might explain the gouges in the soil.
If they had waited a little longer and let the beets mature, they wouldn't have had to dig so many. Cotton was willing enough to look the other way for a family that was hungry, but twenty feet of beets? He kicked at a clod of dirt and headed for the house again. He'd let it go as long as it went no further. Otherwise, he'd have no choice but to call the sheriff out here again.
The following morning Cotton made his rounds again, starting out as the sun was staining the horizon crimson - when the hogs would most likely be feeding. Even from a distance he could tell there was more damage. Instead of ten feet of destruction on each row, there was now twenty. The same tracks and gouges surrounded the new site of destruction. In places the tracks were deep. Normally the weight of a hog would be distributed on all four legs. If these were wild hogs, they must be mighty big ones. Either that or they were walking upright on their hind legs. The thought brought a wry smile to his lips. Sure, and they dug for beets with a stick and carried them off in their arms. It had to be that poor family. His gaze lifted from the field to the wild swamp, and he shook his head. If they were that hungry, they could have the beets. In fact, he'd leave a little extra food for them.
At the house he put some canned goods and some coffee in a sack. The hogs couldn't smell the food, so they wouldn't bother it. Surely if the poor family found the food, they wouldn't be able to resist. He took the sack to the field and placed it in the middle of the destroyed rows. If it was the poor family, maybe they'd take a hint and leave the beets alone.
Dawn the next morning was still as Cotton hurried through the beet field. Not even a bird sang. An alarm sounded in the back of his mind, but he pushed on until he reached the area where the beets had been dug the day before.
The sack of food sat as he had left it in the middle of the rows - untouched. Yet more beets had been dug. As he stared at the deep gouges, a cold feeling crept up his spine. Could the tusks of wild hogs have made the gouges? They would have to be big tusks - big hogs.
His troubled gaze scanned the brush. He was consumed by the feeling that he was being watched. He stood still, searching the deep shadows of the swamp. Were the wild hogs waiting out there? His stomach lurched. He'd heard about the damage a wild hog could do to a man, and he had no weapon. He peered into the shadows, poised to run. Could a man outrun a wild hog? Something moved in the brush.
At first Cotton thought that sunlight reflecting off a couple of sumac leaves was responsible for the red glow - and then he saw the faint outline of the creature. His heart skipped a beat and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. It was no wild hog - nor any other animal he could identify. As it moved away from Cotton, the filmy crest on top of the creature's head absorbed the orange sunlight. A claw-fingered hand pushed the brush back for its hairy body to pass.
Cotton stood transfixed for a moment after it disappeared. Then he rubbed his eyes and stared at the brush. Was he imagining things? His first instinct was to run to the house and get a gun - or maybe call someone. But in the meantime, the creature would get away - and who would believe him anyway? Besides, he didn't want to kill it if he didn't have to.
Cotton stooped and grabbed a limb to use as a club. The creature didn't appear to be more than four feet tall, and Cotton was over six feet. It wasn't likely to give him too much trouble. It was probably some kid in a costume, anyway.
Cotton followed the tracks, marveling at the fine job someone had done with the footwear. Probably attached the hooves directly to the bottom of their shoes. But why go to so much trouble for a few beets?
Cotton stumbled over a root and fell forward, pushing a limb to the side. He suddenly found himself face to face with the creature. He gasped and stumbled backward. A shrill squeal, not unlike that of a startled hog, erupted from the slit of a mouth on the creature. It whirled, dropping beets from skinny arms, and darted off into the brush. A briar vine caught the fur on its leg, drawing an instant supply of red "blood" to the surface. The creature limped away, abandoning the beets.
Cotton whirled and wasted no time exiting the swamp. That was no wild hog; nor was it a child. But what was it? And what was it doing with the beets? Surely something that small couldn't eat so many beets by itself. The hair on Cotton's neck prickled again. Were there more?
At the house, Cotton first called the county agent. If there were more of the creatures, maybe someone else had reported them. If not, maybe the agent would have some idea about what the creature might be.
"Cotton," the agent replied with an edge to his voice. "I haven't got time for this. You're the only one in the valley that hasn't got an insect problem. Do you have to make up some other pest?"
"This isn't a prank. I swear. I've never seen anything like this creature in my life."
The agent snorted. "Well, you'd better send your little Martian back where he came from."
Cotton silently counted to ten before responding. "Are you coming out here, or am I going to have to call the sheriff?"
The agent laughed shortly. "Call the sheriff, or even the FBI. After all, it sounds like we've got an alien invasion going on."
Cotton groaned. "Fine. I'll call the sheriff." He slammed down the receiver and then called the sheriff, who wasn't any more receptive than the agent.
"Cotton, I don't know what you've been drinking lately, but the county can't afford to chase down all your hallucinations. My advice is to get in out of the heat - or lay off the corn whiskey.
Cotton bit back a bitter retort. He wasn't a drinking man and never had been. "Then you're not coming out to investigate?"
The sheriff laughed. "It sounds like a wild hog problem to me. Call the county agent."
At that point Cotton slammed down the receiver again. There was an explanation for what he had seen, and it wasn't Martians or corn whiskey. There was always an explanation. If no one else wanted to investigate, he'd find out on his own.
He glanced around the house. What could he use as a weapon? Not a gun. If it was a child, he didn't want to accidentally shoot it. Still, if it was some kind of beast . . . He frowned. But the creature was as afraid of Cotton as he was of it. No, it had to be some kind of beast.
His choice of weapon wound up being a spray bottle of vinegar. Sprayed into the eyes of anything, it would be a deterrent. That in combination with the club, he felt confident that he could handle the creature or kid, whatever it was. He headed out across the field and entered the swamp in the same place. He'd show them all.
He found the tracks again and followed them into the brush, pausing at the place where the briar had cut the creature. The lack of blood led Cotton to believe the creature-kid couldn't be hurt too badly. It wasn't difficult finding the sharp tracks in the moist ground. In fact, there were so many tracks that it was difficult to determine where the creature-kid was going. Was it lost? Most of the tracks were around an area of dense brush. Something bright reflected from the brush. Had someone built some kind of shelter there? Maybe some kids had built a fort out of scrap metal roofing.
Cotton crept up to the thicket, unsure of what he might find. If someone was hiding in the woods, they might have good reason. Maybe they were hiding from the law. That would explain the costume.
Pulling back a pile of cut and withering brush, Cotton exposed the side of a metal object. He rubbed his finger across its shiny surface, unable to determine what kind of metal it was made of or what it was used for. The object was almost egg-shaped, and had no windows. Some kind of water tank? He pushed through the brush and stopped abruptly.
Standing beside the tank was the creature-kid. Its red eyes were glowing and the crest on its head stood straight up. The creature grunted and then squealed, moving toward Cotton.
Without hesitation, Cotton brought up the bottle of vinegar and sprayed it into the creature's face. The creature squealed again and jumped back, wiping the thin mouth with the back of one hairy claw-like hand. A red tongue flicked out and dabbed at the vinegar - and then the creature looked surprised. It pointed to the vinegar bottle and squealed.
Cotton held his ground. "Yeah, you hairy little beast. Stay back, or I'll give you another taste," Cotton threatened, trying to sound convincing as he pointed the sprayer at the creature.
The creature held out one hand and pointed at the sprayer. Cotton pulled the bottle back. The creature was acting like it wanted the vinegar. Maybe it liked pickled beets. The thought was so ridiculous that Cotton chuckled in spite of the situation.
The creature took a step backward, paused, and then turned toward the metal tank, disappearing inside.
As Cotton approached the raised door, he could see that there was a lab inside. Something that appeared to be electronic equipment lined the walls. Cotton shook his head in disbelief. A spaceship? Somehow he found the idea as amusing as pickled beets. This had to be a dream. He was going to wake up and laugh himself silly.
But it was no dream, and the beast was obviously working on some kind of formula. Pieces of beets were strewn over the table, and bottles of red liquid were corked - ready for something.
The creature turned toward Cotton and again reached for the bottle of vinegar. This time Cotton surrendered it. The creature didn't appear to be aggressive. If beets and vinegar were its only weapons, it couldn't be too violent. Besides, Cotton was curious.
The creature opened the spray bottle and dumped some of the vinegar into a metal object. Then it added some of the beet juice. The metal object whirred for a few minutes, and then the creature threw in a glowing rock. The metal object whirred for a few more minutes before the creature shut it off. The creature appeared to take some readings off the machine and looked pleased.
Cotton shook his head. This couldn't be happening. But then, why not? He had never contested the idea of extraterrestrials, although he'd never set much store in the alien abduction stories. If this was an extraterrestrial, then it was stranded on an alien planet - unable to speak the language. More than likely Cotton looked as strange and ugly to the beast as it did to him. And yet, it obviously meant no harm.
Cotton frowned, remembering his conversation with the sheriff. What if the sheriff decided to investigate after all? What would happen to the beast? Certainly it wouldn't be allowed to leave in peace. There would be tests and questions - probing and whatnot. The ship would be disassembled to satisfy the curiosity of scientists. If the creature was lucky, it wouldn't be disassembled. Did the creature know what would happen? Was that why it was hiding in the swamp? Was that why it ran from Cotton?
Cotton turned on one heel and left the craft. He hadn't seen a thing. Wild hogs had ravaged his field and he'd best put up a fence to keep them out. Let the sheriff laugh about his Martian visitor. He'd made a fool of himself more than once in the past, and he'd likely do it again in the future. He'd survive.
He strode across the field. Would he ever see a glow in the dark without wondering if it was some alien craft? Life would never be the same after this experience.
A sharp whistle jerked his attention back to the swamp. The passing of the craft was so fast that he would have thought he was seeing things - except he knew he wasn't. The creature was gone . . . in a craft powered by beets and apples!
Cotton chuckled. How long would it take to convert a car to beet/apple cider? He shook his head again. Maybe there were a million other combinations that would work as well. After all, wasn't corn already being used? And what about the glowing rock? Did the beet juice and vinegar react on some kind of ore? Had the creature brought the ore with him, or had he found it on Earth? Had the creature substituted items from earth for something on another planet? . . . or even under the sea? Did the creature have some way of detecting that Cotton's beets were free of insecticide? Was there some other quality about his beets that had attracted the creature?
Cotton stared into the hazy horizon. So many questions unanswered. The world should know this story, but he wasn't about to tell. They wouldn't believe him anyway. And was it so important to learn from an alien? It hadn't been an alien that discovered sulfur and made matches. No one needed an alien to teach scientists to build an atom bomb. No, the problems of the Earth wouldn't be answered by the solutions of another world. They would only be solved by people with open minds and good intentions. The answer was there. It always had been. For him it had been beets - and apparently for the creature as well.