Henry sat at the bar. He had barely touched his drink. It was an extremely boring day and what he really wanted was something to do.
A father and son were having a conversation at the other end of the bar. It was early in the day and the establishment was pretty much empty customer-wise, except for the three of them. Henry couldn’t help but listen in on what they were talking about.
The son was droning on and on about seeing some “horror” movie at an up-timer’s house in Grantville. He was as an energetic as they came. His father was shorter and heavy on the muscle.
Henry pegged them as farmers and sure enough, he was right. The father was complaining, long and loud, about some mule that kept getting out of his barn. Every day the guy was having to go coax the mule back inside.
With a grin, Henry got up and walked over to them. “Hey,” he said, sliding into a chair next to them. “I think I can fix your mule problem.”
The son stared at him with a rather unfriendly expression.
The father grunted. “That so?”
“Father . . .” the son started but the older man stopped him.
“Let him speak, son.”
“Sure thing,” Henry assured them, ignoring the awkward exchange between the two of them. “I got something from one of those up-timers I’ve been itching to try out and see if it works. It’s supposed to be made for the exact sort of problem you’re having with your mule.”
“And how much are you asking to fix his problem?” the son asked as he continued to look Henry over.
“Not a thing.” Henry shrugged. “It’s a long afternoon and I got nothing better to do. Like I said, I have been looking for something try out my new purchase on ever since I got it. Just tell me where you your farm is. I’ll go get my device and we’ll teach that mule of yours a lesson.”
“What could it hurt?” the father laughed. “I’m Robert and this is my son, David.”
“Henry,” he said, offering Robert his hand. Robert took it. The man’s grip was firm and strong.
“Good to meet you, Henry,” Robert smiled.
“You sure you’re not an up-timer yourself?” David asked. “You sound like one.”
Henry chuckled and shook his head. “No. I just work with some of them.”
Robert gave Henry directions to their farm and Henry left the bar, promising to meet them as soon as he could.
When Henry arrived, Robert and David were waiting for him.
“So where’s this mule?” Henry asked.
“In the barn for once.” David chuckled.
“Good,” Henry said. “It’ll make it easier to get this on him.”
Henry produced a strange-looking collar from the sack he carried with him. He followed Robert and David into the barn, and they led him to a mule that looked nasty-tempered. Henry wrestled with it, snapping the collar around the mule’s next at last.
“What now?” Robert asked.
“We go outside and wait on him to follow us,” Henry explained. “Once he does, I’ll wager you won’t have any more worries about him getting out on his own again.”
The three of them took up a position a good distance from the barn door and waited on the mule.
“This collar?” Robert asked, “What does it do?”
“The up-timer who sold it to me said it was called a shock collar. It’s supposed to teach animals to obey.”
“But it won’t hurt him right?” The concern in Robert’s voice was clear.
Henry shrugged. “Not supposed to. At least nothing lasting. It’s just meant to teach him to stay inside.”
“Look,” David pointed at the barn. “Here he comes.”
Henry was fiddling with a small box-like thing he held.
“What’s that?” David asked.
“This is the collar’s controls, boy.” Henry showed David the remote. “You don’t have to use it. The collar has its own settings on it but from what the up-timer told me, I think one good jolt will be enough to teach your mule to stay where he belongs.”
The mule was fully out of the barn and on its way to them. Its eyes were beady and mean-spirited as it watched the three men carefully.
Henry stabbed a button on the controller. The mule stopped in its tracks. It let out a monstrous yeehaw as its body went rigid. It seemed to vibrate where it stood as if jarred about by some invisible force. Its ears pointed stiffly skyward. Its tail stuck out straight at an unnatural forty-five degree angle.
Robert appeared as stunned as the mule, his jaw hanging open in utter horror.
Letting go of the button, Henry said, “See? No harm done. Every time he heads out toward the fields, we just hit the button until he figures out going that way is bad.”
The mule swayed like a drunk man as whatever force had held it disappeared. Shaking itself, it let loose a series of angry noises and started for the field again.
“It didn’t work.” Robert sighed. “I tell you that mule is possessed by the devil. Not even that . . . that up-timer thing can make it know its place.”
“Hold on now. That was just the first time,” Henry adjusted the control he held, kicking it up to its highest setting. “Have faith,” he told Robert and David. “This time will teach him for sure.”
As the mule was making its way for the field again, Henry stabbed the button to activate the collar harder.
This time, the mule didn’t just stop. All of its hair stood up at once. Its body shook and its lips parted, shrinking back and upwards around its mouth which seemed to extend forward from its face. The sound that came out of the mule was like the noise of a demon from Hell being set free upon the world of man might make.
“Holy mother!” Robert wailed. “Turn it off! Turn it off!”
David shouted a word that Henry didn’t fully understand. It sounded like he was crying out for someone named Allen.
Henry’s attention became glued on trying to find the collar’s off switch on his controller as David sprinted towards the small house where Robert’s family lived still screaming “Allen” or whatever, over and over.
The mule was dancing now. Its movements all messed up as its mouth sunk back to normal only to shoot out again like that of a monster every few seconds.
Finally, Henry managed to get the shock collar shutdown. The mule’s eye rolled up to show only white and it flopped over onto its side and lay there. One of the mule’s leg twitched, kicking into the air. He and Robert approached it carefully.
“Is it dead?” Robert asked as Henry and he knelt beside the mule.
Henry shook his head. “Just knocked out but I bet that was enough to teach it not to go where it’s not supposed to.”
Robert stared at him, wide eyed. “By the holy spirit, let’s hope so. It smells like burning chickens.”
Henry avoided asking Robert how he knew what burning chickens even smelt like. “Here,” he offered. “Let me help you get him back inside.”
The two men managed to wake up the mule and get it onto its feet. It wobbled back and forth between them as they led it inside the barn. When they were done, they stood watching the partially open barn door.
“I’ve set the collar as best I could to activate if it comes out on its own again without you here to turn the collar off. Doubt you’ll be having any more problems though.”
“Thank you, good sir,” Robert said.
David was running from the house, up the small hill, towards them with a gun in his hands.
“What is he doing?” Henry asked. “Looks like he thinks the devil himself is chasing him.”
“After seeing that,” Robert gestured towards the barn where the mule was, “Only our Lord in heaven knows.”
The mule poked its head out of the barn, unseen by the two men, who were watching David. It began its way toward the field, stubbornly determined to get there.
As the collar activated, the mule began its screeching dance, its mouth jutting outward, lips curled back in a deformed mockery of a snarl.
David shouted, “Get down! It’s got one of them inside it trying to get out like in the movie!”
Both Henry and Robert started to protest David’s wild claim, whatever it meant, but as the kid raised the rifle in his hands, they hit the dirt instead.
David’s shot rang out, whizzing over their heads. Thankfully, the shot missed the mule. It blew a rain of splinters from the wood of the barn, far behind where the mule stood. The mule took off across the field, fleeing for its life.
Henry watched as Robert leaped to his feet and charged David. He tore the weapon from David’s hands. “What in the devil do you think you’re doing?”
“I was just trying to save you, Father!” David was pleading. “If that thing had gotten out of the mule, we would all be dead!”
“What thing?” David demanded but then shook his head. “No. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. There’s nothing in that mule boy except stubbornness and the desire to drive me mad.”
Henry retreated a step as David’s fury fell on him next.
“And you,” David eyed him. “Take that infernal device of yours and get off my land.”
“I was only trying to help,” Henry said. Watching David reloading the weapon he had taken from Robert, he decided maybe it was time to go. Henry retrieved his shock collar and hurried off toward the road that led back into town.
Henry felt bad about the mule. As far as he knew, it wasn’t supposed to have caused all the pain it had and he was greatly relieved that Robert hadn’t shot the animal. Someday, when Robert cooled down, he would go back and offer his apologies for the whole mess.
Fiddling with the collar in his hand as he walked, Henry headed home, wondering what on Earth he was ever going to use the thing for now that he had seen how it really worked.
Suddenly, he doubled over in laughter as it finally hit him what movie the boy had seen and why David had tried to shoot the mule, remembering demonic jutting out of the mule’s mouth. It was called Alien. He had seen that movie himself at an up-timer’s house not long after he had arrived in Grantville, during a time the up-timers called Halloween. With teeth like that mule’s, Henry supposed he couldn’t blame the boy for reacting like he had. Still laughing, Henry picked himself up and continued his walk home.