Deep in the western desert, some trick of the underlying geology formed a wide if somewhat shallow, spring-fed lake. Great sheets of solid stone fitted tightly together to form its bed. Sweet, clear water seeped up through the cracks to keep it filled in the hottest of weather. Long ago, wanderers of that dry and dusty waste found the oasis around the lake and settled on the shore under the trees. Over time, some left and others came bringing seeds and young plants in pots to grow in the fertile soil they irrigated around the shore until the small, thriving town grew into a garden spot at the desert’s heart. When the travelling circus broke down in the vicinity and decided to stay, adding the color and excitement of people to the color and variety of the plant life, Funtown as it exists today came to be. Anyone is welcome to stay or visit as long as they mean no harm. For those with mischief in mind, Funtown has its Sheriff…the Moose called Moric.
Moric liked plants and people. He could juggle and walk the high wire with his cowboy boots in the air. He could rope and ride with the best of them. He was slow to anger and his equally slow smile worked particularly well with children. A better candidate for Sheriff and keeper of the peace could scarcely be imagined, but his gentle manner could be deceptive. Moric would always be a Moose of the Valley sort. He had little tolerance for injustice or malice. Almost nothing could arise that he could not handle and heavens help you if he called in the sort of cavalry he had access to.
One of the greatest bits of genius and wonder that kept people of all sorts travelling from all over to visit the Funtown Circus lay in its school. The greatest, most famous, most wondrous acts in travelling circuses from all over that world and a few others trained, taught, and/or had kin who gave up travelling to settle in that little desert town, if they were not simply born there. The off season from so many circuses kept a steady flow of new visiting teachers to the school. The current batch were wrapping up their classes with a great juggling extravaganza before they departed with the next east bound caravan. By invitation Sheriff Moric attended their morning rehearsal.
This particular band of jugglers was favorites in town. They all had kin among the resident circus folk and made Funtown a fixed stop on their ever changing route. This stop lasted longer than usual by design. Several of the troupe members traded places with their sedentary kinfolk. The town gained two expert jugglers and a tumbler, extraordinaire and the troupe planned to depart with two new clowns and an acrobat, steadily improving as she grew up. She worked best with a performing dog. He told the most amusing stories in a cheerfully clear if gruff voice as he danced and jumped through hoops or walked the high wire.
The Sheriff strolled down the wide main street, his dusty boots making little sound on the dry ground. He whistled snatches of the music from the rehearsal as he exchanged nods and raised his hat to the people he saw in the street, depending on their preferences, until the first runner, followed quickly by two hard pressed riders, charged up to him with wide, panicky eyes and lost breaths.
It took some time to piece together the two ranchers and the herder’s story. All three came from different steads, but their testimonies all formed parts of the same tale. One of the great Titans, this one a lizard in shape, awakened from its centuries long sleep beneath the sand not far east of town. As one might expect, it woke very, very hungry, devastating flocks and herds, eating every plant and animal it could find.
The caravan must be warned and a plan devised for dealing with the problem. Titans are always huge, destructive, and very dangerous. They can not be reasoned with as they never recognize figures smaller than themselves as anything but obstacles or food. It would not be long before such a mammoth appetite brought the great lizard to attack the town. That, the sheriff could not allow. With purposeful steps and a stern demeanor, the sheriff of Funtown set out to find Georgia, the caravan master.
Sheriff Moric found the caravan master just where he expected her to be, but even before the pale young woman in her brief but practical sunbathing costume came into sight around the corner of the Guest Bath House, Moric knew she would not have to be told the news. Rabbits tend to have rather high, shrill voices that penetrate quite a long way without having to be raised and the sheriff knew, without being told what must have happened to bring just that note of near panic into Alfred’s usually so calm and cultured voice.
Alfred, with his pale pale fur, polished manners, neat waistcoat, and the neat glove and fan set he always carried at his belt but never used, had come to town from far beyond the desert on the run from a former life he spoke very little about. He stayed when he found in the delightful mishmash of clownish nonsense mixed with precise, cowboy practicality stirred together with tall tales, a new life in which he could rest his soul.
Somewhere in his old life, Alfred had been servant to a tyrant of the first order and now he could not bear to receive so much as an injunction to “Look Out!” when a cart came up behind. He spent most of his time out in the desert, watching over a small lounge of the best riding and eating lizards in those parts. In the usual way he came into town once a week or so for some company and supplies. If you wanted one of his beasts for either reason, you had to go out to him. He said the lizards kept him from getting too lonely as they reminded him of some people he used to know, but he would not say if he meant the mounts or the meals.
When Sheriff Moric rounded the corner of the Bath House’s veranda, Georgia prodded Alfred, as if she were watching for an expected arrival. Probably she was. The sheriff always took time to exchange news with the caravans that went through his town.
Alfred charged forward to meet the sheriff in the odd, jumping, all but four-footed gate he used when really excited or upset. “Oh dear, oh dear, Sheriff Moric, something must be done, and done right away!” Alfred said, wringing his once immaculate gloves as he went and speaking before he quite reached the Sheriff’s side.
It turns out the sheriff was wrong, or only half right. The titan lizard had made a meal of a good portion of the rabbit’s herd, but what sent Alfred fleeing to town for help on the back of Bill, his fastest lizard came as the sequel. The new acrobat come to stay in town, a girl named Ima, had gone to visit the rabbit in hopes of finding a riding lizard of her own, some lessons in caring for and riding the same, and a friend. She had nearly completed all these things when the titan found them in the little box canyon where Alfred built his neat little house and kept his lizard pens.
The Titan’s first charge shattered the outer lizard pen and while snacking upon the poor beasts trapped or injured therein, Alfred and Ima had time to dart out of his house, which would withstand a blow about as well as the pen, towards the small cave mouth that led to Alfred’s cool storage.
Unfortunately, not content with the residents of the outer pen, the Titan went for the two saddled beasts waiting for Alfred to escort Ima back to town as the easier targets before taking out the inner pen. Without thinking, Ima ran back to untie their reins so that Bill and her own, newly purchased, Duchess could scatter.
Bill went straight over Alfred on his way into the cave while Duchess went up the opposite cliff to hide in a crevice. Ima followed Bill as fast as two feet could carry her, but it was not quite fast enough. The titan lizard made a snap at her and only a complicated maneuver in midair which involved a bounce off first the titan’s nose and then off the cliff face, kept Ima out of his mouth. Unfortunately, she landed on the great lizard’s back, just behind the head, where she could not get eaten but nor could she get off with any degree of safety.
Once out of sight and easy reach, the Titan seemed to forget about his unwilling passenger. However, there was no guarantee that would last through a dismount nearly two stories off the ground. As soon as it could be managed without simply adding to the titan’s menu, Alfred dragged Bill out of the cave and lit out at max speed for town and help before Ima lost her perch or the Titan lizard came across any less agile friends.
“And when I made it into town, Georgia here grabbed me before I went charging around in all directions searching for you. She made me sit and catch my breath once she caught the gist of the emergency. She pointed out one of the first things you would do when you found out about the monster would be to warn any caravans. And you would already know about it, so it should be soon, which it was,” Alfred concluded. His whole explanation came out at high speed in his slightly squeaky tone so that it sounded rather like a record being played too fast. He had to pant to catch his breath and force his hands to stop wringing his gloves before they tore.
“Am I right that this monster lizard is hunger driven and not just wantonly destructive?” Georgia asked rubbing the bridge of her nose with a work scarred finger.
“According to the tales I have heard so far, yes,” Moric said, making certain they understood the information came from other witnesses. They were all well aware of the effect fear could have on perceptions and the locals had great gobs of experience with the telling of tall tales. Moric tilted his head to one side and looked at the briefly clad human, waiting for the start of a plan to spring from one head or another.
One of the reasons Moric headed her way first, besides his duty to the people in his jurisdiction, was this. Georgia had a very pretty wit and a quick mind under duress. Mooses are very good at dealing with things and very clever, but a Titan loomed so large and impervious to most things that a single moose could not reasonably hope to stop one alone, not with Ima to save and the town to protect. He could probably get it to go away, but that would just be making his problem someone else’s, someone probably less able to deal with it, and that option would not even occur to the Sheriff of Funtown. As things were, there could be no telling how much time he had before the Titan lizard’s appetite endangered another of his friends and neighbors.
At first word of a Titan on the loose, Moric sent word out to call in the Bunny Brigade, the moosey cavalry unit who customarily tackled titan problems, but there was no telling where they might be or how deeply embroiled in a situation as much or more perilous than theirs. With Ima’s and other lives on the line, Moric could not afford to sit and wait for the cavalry, even if he had the temperament to do so.
“I meant to ask your help with another matter before I left, and I think this could actually be used to take care of both problems at once if we can manage it right,” Georgia said, her eyes scrunched up with thought.
“The fire ants’ colony is growing, again. Their tunnels are getting to close to the river a few miles upstream from town,” Georgia said as if they should know just what that meant and why they should be concerned.
In fact, Sheriff Moric straightened up and pushed up the brim of his soft, tan cowboy hat. Then the Moose nodded slowly. He stroked his beard, joining Georgia in thought. Alfred, however, looked from one to the other and back again bouncing on his toes in panic tinged confusion piled atop his anxiety.
“What are you talking about?” he demanded when his limited store of patience ran out.
“There is no river anywhere around here! We’re in the middle of the desert. Even if there were, who would care if some little bugs made their hills on the banks of it?! How does this help Ima?” Alfred demanded, his volume rising as flashbacks from his past started to mingle with the current situation.
Georgia reached out a calming hand to pet the rabbit between his tall ears. “There is a river, Alfred, a very wide, powerful river that runs right across the desert from north to south and beyond. It just happens to run nearly a mile under the surface along most of its length. Right here, it almost makes the surface. In fact, if you count the part which feeds your lake, it does reach the surface here.
“The main portion of my caravan never leaves the water. It is too difficult to get a submarine that size over land much less up through the cave systems where they connect the river to the surface,” Georgia explained in a soothing tone and she smiled as Alfred studied the odd, entirely enclosed and self-propelled, tube-like conveyances Georgia brought to town with the idea of submersible cave divers instead of just wondering how Georgia managed to keep cargo and passengers unbaked in them under the desert sun. The burnished metal tubes had thick, wide windows on the bow end and ran across the sand on wide treads. Now that he looked, Alfred could see where the steering planes folded up flush with the hull and the edge of the plates that she slid down to protect the rudder and screw from protruding or falling rock while traveling through the caves.
In a smaller, calmer voice, Alfred asked, “And the ‘fire ants’?”
“We are not talking about the little insects you might have heard of here, Alfred. These things only look like ants more than they look like anything else, but one is about the size of one of Georgia’s gigs. Real ants that size would not be able to support the weight of their bodies with their legs sprawled out that way. Their legs are more under their bodies than the little insects and these things HISS constantly. At first we thought it was a stay away sort of sound, but then we were transporting a group of entomologists, who naturally fascinated, and they told us our fire ants must have a dynamic breathing system instead of the more passive thing bugs usually have, and hiss was just the sound of their breathing. It is not just their size that makes them trouble. The fire ants are venomous. Rather than having a glandular injection system like a snake, their venom drips constantly down their mandibles and it literally catches fire when exposed to oxygen. It seems to have something to do with their diet, but we know it helps them dig their tunnels through solid stone. The worry is that if their tunnels breach the cavern through which the river runs low enough, the flow will divert to flood their tunnels. The fire ants will mostly drown, since we know they have to breathe, but all of us who depend upon the river downstream will suddenly have no more water,” Sheriff Moric explained.
Alfred looked out over the sparkling surface of Fun Lake. “No more water means no more Funtown, and probably all the outlying wells would go the same time as the lake,” Alfred said standing still, his voice small and sad. “Oh my ears…and whiskers,” he whispered almost under his breath.
“We will not let that happen,” Sheriff Moric stated unequivocally.
“I think I see what Georgia was thinking. If we could somehow get the Titan in amongst the fire ants it could satisfy its hunger and cull the growing population down to a more manageable level. That would give us time to work out a more long term solution to protect the river,” Sheriff Moric said and lifted a questioning eyebrow in Georgia’s direction.
“You followed my reasoning exactly,” Georgia said nodding. “I set some of my people to scouting out the colony entrances while we did the delivery run but do we try to get the ants up or try to get the lizard down? There is a series of galleries big enough for it that runs most of the way down in a roundabout sort of way. If we could open up the mouth at this end and open a new hole into the colony at the other, the lizard should fit easily. For a while I considered bringing my whole caravan up that way, before I built the gigs.
“Unfortunately, from what Alfred said, the lizard seems to go after the nearest easiest food, so running bait probably would not work. The only way I can think of to get enough ants to the surface would take blocking all the side paths and flooding the colony with water or a noxious gas which would take either diverting the river which is counterproductive or time and materials we do not have.”
“Do we have the materials and expertise to open up the ends of the series of galleries you mentioned without blowing anyone up or collapsing the areas around?” Moric asked, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
“Of course we do,” Georgia said a touch indignantly. “I always take a demolitions team with me on delivery runs in case of cave ins or other obstructions which might have cropped up since the last time we passed that way.”
Georgia turned to Alfred and added, “While we take the overland route, my crew moves the main ship further downstream to pick us up on the other side of town, so we need to keep both sets of caves clear.”
“Georgia, my dear, grab whoever you think you might need and your gear and start opening up the way. Please mark the path we will need to take very clearly anywhere the titan and I might get lost,” Sheriff Moric directed and she nodded but did not leave immediately.
The Sheriff looked at Alfred and paused to rephrase what needed done in a way that would not stress the bunny any more than he was already.
Before the Sheriff could finish his mental translation, Alfred spoke. “Just tell us what you have in mind and I am sure that all of us will do everything we can to help,” Alfred said. He straightened up to his full, surprising height and even managed to return the Sheriff’s encouraging smile almost naturally.
“I am thinking of the way we wrangle the young lizards every year, helping you get them adjusted to having a rider on their backs. Everyone keeps saying as how there is not a beast ever born that I cannot ride. It is time we test that, I think,” Sheriff Moric said as if he suggested stepping into the inn to see if there might be any roast chicken available for an early dinner. Georgia nodded and headed off to get her people moving in the right direction before she changed into something more practical for the tasks at hand.
“But Sheriff, the thing is as big as the bathhouse,” Alfred protested pointing at the two story wooden building next to them. “It won’t even feel you on its back any more than it does Ima.”
“That part is relatively easy to handle. I am not saying that I could hope to tame the big beasty, but I should be able to get it going the direction I want long enough to serve.
“The part that worries me is the lasso I’ll need. If we get together all the rope we can find and everyone works together, we might be able to braid it into something long enough and strong enough to do the job,” Sheriff Moric said, mentally sorting through any moosey talents and tools he had available that might come in handy for lengthening and strengthening the lasso.
“We will get you the rope you need,” Alfred asserted, “even if we have to unlace the big top to do it, but what about Ima? If she manages to hold on until we get to her, what are her chances once the beasty starts trying to buck and scrape you off?”
“That part of the plan needs a clown,” Moric said smiling, “and I have just the clown in mind.”
Alfred shook his head then shrugged. “I’ll go ring the town bell and get everyone started on the weaving project. We’ll have it done as soon as ever we can and then you can go ride your Titan.”