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by Justin Stanchfield
On the remote planet of Aletha Three, a genetically engineered creature with the unstoppable killing instinct of earth’s most ancient predators has begun stalking the struggling population. Armed only with his dad’s old rifle, cowboy Travis must find out where the predator came from and how he can stop it – before it gets a taste for people, instead of cattle.
“...feels like Alien for kids in the way it builds tension, creates heroes and never pauses for breath.”
Publishing News Bookseller's Choice, November 2007
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Travis McClure turned his tired horse west, away from camp, away from cool water and soft sleeping bags, away from everything he so desperately wanted. He glanced at the sky, greenish gold, not blue like the skies back home on Earth, streaked with pale clouds that twisted and streamed in the unending wind. Two suns hung low, bloated red Beta and tiny Alpha, so white it hurt his eyes. Twin suns that burned and bleached and stole the spit from your mouth if you let them. Travis tugged his hat down, the brim floppy and torn, and nudged his horse in the ribs.
“Let’s go, Deuce.”
Deuce snorted his displeasure but broke into a laggardly trot, hoofs smacking the rust-red trail. The narrow path was packed tight by the scattered bands of cattle and wild sheep the terraformers had released decades ago, an attempt to jump start millions of years of evolution and create a living planet in a galactic heartbeat. Someday, long after Travis and his family had gone home, colonists would arrive with their factories and schools, cities and farms. But for now, only the scattered camps of geologists and stockmen, too desperate or too stubborn to leave, covered the awakening world. Aletha Three was a harsh planet, desolate and arid. Someday, the Company claimed, it would be a paradise of green meadows and shadowed forests. Someday, but not today. And not tomorrow, and not for as long as Travis could imagine being stuck here.
“Just one more season,” Dad would promise. “One more season, two at the most, and we’ll have saved enough money to pay off the loans on the ranch. Then we’ll go home.” Travis sighed. He was starting to think his dad’s promises were as empty as the wind. He’d been eleven when they landed. Now he was sixteen. Five years chasing cattle from pasture to pasture, five years wondering if he would ever see Earth again.
The trail grew steeper as it climbed into the foothills. Travis urged his tired horse forward as they slipped around boulders big as starship hangars. Scraggly patches of sagebrush and juniper poked out of the dry soil. The climatologists at base camp had been promising rain for weeks, but so far, not a drop had fallen. No surprise, Travis thought sourly. Like everything else on Aletha, nothing quite followed anyone’s carefully laid out plans. Weather satellites failed, burned up by the harsh radiation that streamed around the planet. On the surface, radios became useless for days at a time after solar flares or during the sandstorms that swept in from the deserts to pummel the grasslands. Even simple machines like vid-games and clocks tended to die early in the harsh environment. He glanced at his wristwatch, not certain if it was keeping time correctly. His legs and stomach certainly felt like it was getting close to supper time.
As if he had read his mind, Deuce stopped, refusing to go forward, and stood flicking his ears back and forth. Travis frowned and glanced down at the trail in
front of him. He had been following the stray cattle all afternoon, hoping every time he topped a rise or turned a corner he would run headlong into them. So far,
though, he was always one jump behind. The tracks were fresh, a few hours old at most, long scuff marks trailing where their hoofs had dragged. The little herd had been moving fast. So had something else. An odd footprint covered the cow tracks, the impression perfect in the soft red dust.
“Whoa, Deuce.” He swallowed, his mouth so dry his voice cracked. “This isn’t right.”
Travis stepped out of the saddle and crouched beside the strange tracks. Three toes, spread wide like a hawk on the grab. He’d seen tracks like these the year
before and shuddered at the memory. Three yearlings ripped apart, shattered bones covering the bloodspeckled ground. He had been riding alone when he
had heard the scream, a keening wail of rage and animal triumph. No one had believed him then. They said it was a pack of coyotes or feral cats. But Travis knew better. He patted Deuce then fished his radio out of the saddlebag.
“Dad? Are you on the net?”
A burst of static preceded Jim McClure’s reply. “Where’re you at, Trav?”
“About five klicks west of Needle Point.” Travis paused. He didn’t want to say what he had to, especially over an open frequency. “Dad, do you remember those tracks I told you about last year? The ones around those dead heifers?”
“Yeah, I remember.” Even across the distance it was clear his father still doubted the story.
“I think...” Travis took a deep breath. Far away, too distant to be clear, a scream echoed down the canyon walls. “I think whatever made them is back.”
Justin Stanchfield is a full-time rancher, part-time snowplough driver, private pilot and occasional musician. He first began writing as a member of a local theatre group, and has had various short stories published in magazines and online. He lives in Montana on the family ranch with his wife, two children, and a menagerie including two cats, three dogs, a pair of llamas and a quartet of hermit crabs.
One genre which has been long ignored in children's fiction is sci-fi. Once you look past the dinosaurs in space and the Doctor Who tie-ins, there's very little for the child that'll grow up reading Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Space Cowboy is exciting if only for the fact that it reads like a really classic SF adventure. The story sees Travis trying to defend his space ranch from a mysterious predator. The book feels like Alien for kids in the way it builds tension, creates heroes and never pauses for breath.
Publishing News - Bookseller's Choice - Jon Hancock, Borders, Warrington
There is something for everyone in this real boys-own adventure with such a great sci-fi twist on the classic Western. Confident readers (11+) should love this debut novel.
Science fiction and Western genres very entertainingly come together. Stanchfield is particularly good at depicting the tensions and rivalries of a small community thrown together, his descriptions of the Alethan landscape are also very impressive, as is his gentle indication of the first tentative signs of young romance. But best of all is the portrayal of the relationship between Travis and his father.
Robert Dunbar - Books for Keeps May 2008
The plot is well-paced but the action is combined with plenty of description so the novel is perfect for young people who are ready for a bit more texture in their reading. There is obvious appeal for boys here. Aside from the spacecraft and cowboys, Stanchfield captures male teenage angst well. There are also strong female characters. I would recommend this for confident readers wanting gritty, unglamorous adventure with a strong sense of place.
Write Away review website
A thrilling adventure full of danger and fear.
Ash & Farnham Mail 17th June 2008
Science fiction and western genre’s very entertainingly come together. Stanchfield is particularly good at depicting the tensions and rivalries of a small community thrown together, his descriptions of the Alethan landscape are also very impressive, as is his gentle indication of the first tentative signs of young romance. But best of all is the portrayal of the relationship between Travis and his father.
Books for Keeps
What could be more appealing to boys, the allegedly reluctant readers, than a story about a cowboy hunting alien predator, set in space and with danger and the suggestion of cruelty never very far away? This is an intriguing novel written in a clear, matter-of-fact way. Travis is a believable hero who keeps readers involved, and the tension is well maintained from start to finish.
Carousel: the Guide to Children's Books
It's the future and mankind's wagon trains to the stars are on the move in Space Cowboy by Justin Stanchfield. On the planet Aletha Three, which seems not unlike Nevada, young cowboy Travis McClure encounters a fearsome creature. His claims only make life tenser for a realistically depicted colony in which the ethics of "terraforming" another world for man are much discussed. So despite the sci-fi setting, and the sci-fi monster, we also have an intriguingly plotted tense drama with believable characters and motivations.
Space Cowboy is an unusual form fusion of science and western from author and cattle rancher Justin Stanchfield. Teenager Travis McLure spends his days, partnered with his horse, Deuce, driving his cattle on a remote planet which is being terraformed by the company his family work for. Life is pretty dull and mundane at base camp with few people his age and he longs for excitement. Whilst out on the arid plains of the planet he comes across strange tracks, three toes and bird-like but no-one believes him and the cattle kills are put down to coyotes or wild cats. After Tempke, the Boss hints that there could be a substantial reward for any solid evidence of a new predator. Travis heads out to investigate and finds that a pre-historic predator is on the loose. To complicate things, a father and daughter team arrive to stop the terraforming and all three end up being caught in a fight for survival against a creature that only knows how to kill.
With its reference to the ethics of altering a planet and genetic engineering it tackles subjects of concern in our own world. Despite the initially uneasy juxtaposition of the two genres, Stanchfield manages to pull off a cracking good read, a sci-fi adventure which gets tenser the further you get into it.
Frances Sinclair - The School Librarian journal
Space Cowboy is a brilliant contrast of western and sci-fi. The way the author combines modern-day problems with monsters in space is just wicked. I would give this book nine and a half out of ten. This book totally rocks, woo hoo!'
Tomas Gormley, Holy Rood High - Reviewed in Teen Titles, issue 42, September 2008
I thought that this book was very good. It painted a really good picture of the creature who was attacking the cattle. It is a teenagers' book.
Ossian Picton, Holy Rood High - Reviewed in Teen Titles, issue 42, September 2008
Sixteen-year-old Travis is one of a group of colonising ‘terraformers’ on the harsh, desolate planet called Aletha Three, his particular role being that of cattle drover. When ‘something unnatural’ takes up residence in the wastelands, he is involved in tracking down and confronting this avian creature, resulting in a narrative in which western and science fiction genres come together very entertainingly. Relationships in a small community riddled with tensions and rivalries are convincingly described, as is the barren landscape of Aletha itself: and there’s even the first, tentative signs of young romance!
BookFest Ireland’s Recommended Reading Guide 2008
What could be more appealing to boys, the allegedly reluctant readers, than a story about a cow-boy hunting alien predator, set in space and with danger and the suggestion of cruelty never far away? This is an intriguing novel written in a clear matter-of-fact way. Travis is a believable hero who keeps readers involved, and the tension is well maintained from start to finish.
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