March, 2024

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Issue #174

All The Tales

Slater's Choice
by Robert Collins


The snow fell heavily and was more than a foot deep. His horse plodded forward even though he couldn't see more than a few feet in front of him. The man had been riding along the range for several hours and hoped he would be able to get below the storm before dark. Dusk was falling and he knew he had to get out of the weather soon. A gust of wind blew up from the valley, he caught a glimpse of light. He turned his horse and began working his way down in that direction.

As he rode into the valley the snow lessened. He could see the outline of a building a couple hundred feet ahead of him. It was a small ranch house with a barn and shed behind it. A snow-covered rail fence disappeared into the night.

He dismounted, tied his horse to a post and was about to step onto the porch when the door opened and a figure appeared pointing a pistol.

"Hold it right there, mister", a woman's voice cried out. "Don't take another step."

The man stepped back and held his hands out in an unthreatening manner. The woman's shape was illuminated by the back light of the house.

"No ma'am. I'm not moving," he said.

"What do you want?" she demanded.

"I didn't mean to disturb you. I was just looking for a place to bunk out of the snow." he said.

"I don't take in strangers," she said. "Move on."

"Yes ma'am. I understand. Maybe I could bunk in your barn till morning. I'll be no bother. I just want to get out of the storm and rest my horse." he pleaded.

She looked him over for several seconds.

"Can you pay me?" she asked. "It will cost you a dollar."

The man took off his hat and slapped it against his leg. Water and wet snow splashed to the ground. He looked at the figure in the doorway. "I have no money, ma'am. I only need shelter. I mean no harm."

The woman waited a moment, not saying a word. In the dim light she could see the snow stuck to his shoulders like paint and his clothes were soaked through. He had not shaved for several days and his dark hair was plastered to his head. The horse was exhausted. The pony's head was hanging low to the ground and steam was rising off his back and neck like a simmering kettle.

"I want you out of here at first light. Put your horse in the barn. There's a bunk in the tack room with a stove. You can sleep there."

"Much obliged ma'am. I appreciate—"

The woman stepped back into the house and shut the door. He stood there for a moment and then moved away from the house leading his horse towards shelter.

Once in the barn, he fed his horse some old hay, watered and bedded him down. He found the tack room. It was small with no window but had a bunk with blankets. As the woman said, there was a small stove with wood. In minutes, the fire was heating the room and he was in the bunk fast asleep.

* * *

The next morning the woman was up and making coffee, getting ready for breakfast. She heard the whack of an ax and looked out the kitchen window. In the dawn light she saw the man splitting wood.

She went to the door and opened it to the cold. "Hey," she yelled from the porch. The man turned toward the voice.


"When you finish splitting the wood, come in the house. I'll have some breakfast ready."

He waved and worked the axe for another fifteen minutes. He planted the axe into a log and made his way to the house. He stepped up on the porch and knocked and stood at the door for a moment and looked at his muddy and snowy boots.

The woman opened the door. "Don't worry about that. Come in and shut the door. You're letting the heat out."

He noticed she was wearing work pants; something he had not seen very often. But it certainly made sense. Working a ranch in a dress had to be an inconvenience. He hung his coat on a hook by the door.

He nodded his head in thanks and sat at the kitchen table. The woman was setting it with bacon, eggs and biscuits. She sat and poured coffee for both of them. He removed his hat and revealed a head of black hair with streaks of gray and dark eyes. He put his hat on the back of the chair.

"I appreciate the breakfast, ma'am. I haven't had a hot meal for some time," he spoke.

"I wouldn't normally, but it was kind of you to split the wood."

"You didn't have to let me stay in your barn, either. It was quite comfortable. I'll be sure to stack the wood as soon as I'm done here. Then I'll be on my way." he said.

They ate in silence for some time and the woman set her knife and fork on the table and looked at the man. "What's your name?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I've forgotten my manners. They call me Slater."

"Nice to meet you Slater. Is that your first or last name?" she asked.

"Just Slater." he said.

She looked him over. He was clean shaven now and wasn't as young as she thought; mid to late thirties was likely and taller than most men. He looked strong and she liked his disposition.

"Well, Slater, I think I had you wrong. My name is Victoria Miller". They shook hands across the table. "This is my ranch. My foreman, Carlos, is in Santa Fe and I'm a little short on help."

"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Miller. I was glad to help with the wood." he said.

"Call me Victoria. I run this ranch. If that's what you want to call it. My husband was killed three years ago. He fell off a horse."

"I'm sorry to hear that Mrs.  . . . Victoria."

She regarded him and said, "Would you be interested in some work?"

Slater looked her over. She was in her mid-forties he guessed; thin and almost as tall as him. Her eyes were blue with light brown hair pulled back into a bun. Her face was a little weathered from life on the ranch but in an attractive way. She was a handsome woman.

"Don't know." he said. "I was heading for Santa Fe, too."

"There's a lot of snow out there. You might be better off here for a little while until it becomes more passable. I'll pay you a dollar a day and keep, but I can't pay you until the weather breaks. You could escort me to Santa Fe." she said. "That's where we'll meet Carlos."

"You don't know me. How do you know I'm a good man?" he asked.

"I don't." She said. "Most men wouldn't have split the wood. They would have been gone at sun-up."

"Well, the weather's still disagreeable. How 'bout if I give it two or three days of work and decide then?" he asked.

She sat back in her chair, crossed her arms and looked into his eyes. "All right Mr. Slater, fair enough. I can agree to that." she said. He saw her smile for the first time. He guessed that was relatively rare.

* * *

Slater had stayed longer than he anticipated. After a week, he repaired a number of fence rails, cleaned out the barn and replaced some siding, collected more firewood, fixed a leak in the roof of the house and chased a family of raccoons from living underneath.

Victoria was happy with Slater's work and hoped he'd stay until spring. Once the snow began to melt, there would be a tremendous amount of work; almost too much for one man and one woman. How Victoria was able to keep the ranch running was a mystery to him. He was getting a general feel for the place and found the work was agreeable. It was the first real work he had had in over a year, ever since he left Kansas City. He was a deputy sheriff there and was involved in a fatal shooting. It was self defense and he was completely exonerated but was unable to put it behind him. A short time after he was cleared of any wrongdoing, he packed the little belongings he had and left Missouri. He had spent what little money he had and the prospect of food and keep was agreeable to him.


His stay became four weeks and the weather began to break. Slater was beginning to get a real feel for the ranch. He had ridden over most of it and realized it was quite an endeavor. He was returning from the north portion of the property and saw two horses tied-up in front of the house. He saw no one and assumed there were two people in the house with Victoria. As he approached the dwelling, he pulled a double-barreled Cimarron Coach twelve-gauge shotgun from his scabbard and laid it across his saddle. It had side-by-side barrels and was a favorite of stage coach teamsters. Just the sight of it made people take pause. It was a constant companion during his time as sheriff. It was a lethal weapon from close range. Two clicks broke the silence as he pulled back both hammers. He stopped about ten feet from the front porch.

"Anyone in the house?" he yelled.

A moment later, Victoria came out onto the porch followed by a middle-aged man in a sheepskin coat. He stepped forward facing Slater. Victoria stood beside him with a look of dread. The man was tall and slim with a long white mustache. His eyes were black as coal.

"Who are you?" the man in the coat asked dryly.

"I work for Mrs. Miller. And you?" asked Slatter.

"I'm a friend, stopped by to visit.

Slater looked at Victoria. "Is there anything I can do for you Mrs. Miller?"

"No Slater, tend to your work." she said tersely.

Slater saw an image pass in front of the kitchen window but made no indication he saw anything. He didn't move for a moment and eyed the man carefully.

"You heard the lady. Get back to your work." The man growled.

"Go ahead, Slater". Said Victoria. "Stop back at supper time."

"I'll be heading to the west pasture, Mrs. Miller. There are some fence posts that need tending." Slater said.

Slater slid the shotgun into its scabbard and pulled the reins and moved away from the house. He felt very exposed with his back to the man but slowly made his way past the barn and into a copse of trees. Once out of sight, he tied his mount to a low branch and made his way to the rear of the barn. Carrying his shotgun, he went to the tack room and lifted his six-gun and holster from a hook.

From inside the barn, he opened the door a couple of inches so he could get a good look at the house. He was about a hundred feet from the side of the dwelling and had a full view of the porch. He waited. A few minutes later two men stepped onto the porch with Victoria between them. The man with the white mustache was first and a young man in his early twenties was behind Victoria. He was carrying a single barrel shotgun. Though, dusk was beginning to fall and shadows were long, Slater recognized the younger one at once. He was from Kansas City and Slater had arrested him a number of times for drunkenness and petty crimes. He must not have seen Slater when he was talking to the other man, he thought, or there would have been trouble then.

The older man grabbed Victoria's arm and pulled her down the steps. The younger man hung back on the porch.

Slater quietly opened the barn door enough and slipped out. He moved along the wall in the shadows and stopped at the edge of the barn. Leaning against the wall, he saw the older man push Victoria to the ground. She sat there in a sitting position with a look of defiance on her face.

She swatted her arm at the man. "Leave me alone," she shouted. "I don't have any money".

"OK, Mrs. Miller. I know you are lying. Now is the time to tell me where your money is hid. I know you are too far away to use a bank in Santa Fe". He then slapped her across the face and she fell on her side to the wet ground.

Slater saw that both men were looking at Victoria. He quickly moved towards the house raising the shotgun and pointing it at the younger man who was standing at the top of the porch. He was the one that concerned him most. He had a weapon in his hands and would be able to move the quicker of the two.

As Slater moved in, the younger man turned and began to raise his shotgun but Slater was a split second ahead of him. He let go a blast from the twelve guage and the buckshot tore into the man's upper right chest. Blood splashed from the wound and he disappeared from the porch.

Slater then turned his attention to the older man who was turning toward him. Slater dropped the shotgun knowing that Victoria was too close to the old man to use it and would likely be wounded from the spreading charge. Slater fell to the ground and rolled once while retrieving his Colt from his holster. At the same time the man tried to reach for his gun but his heavy coat slowed his movement. Just as he drew his weapon and began to raise it to fire, Slater pulled back the hammer on his gun and fired once. The slug hit the man in the stomach but did not slow him and he was able to fire back. The bullet creased Slater's right shoulder. Slater was able to fire a second time, hitting the man square in the chest. The man dropped his gun and put his hand to the wound and looked down as blood ran through his fingers.

Looking at Slater he said. "You kilt me." He dropped to his knees then pitched forward in the mud. Slater walked over to the splayed man and nudged his head with the toe of his boot.

"Is he dead?" Asked Victoria.

"He's dead. And so is the other one on the porch. Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine."

Slater knelt down next to Victoria and put his arm around his shoulder. "Let's get you into the house and put some ice on those bruises."

She leaned against him to get to her feet. "Thank you, Slater."

The End

Robert Collins is recently retired from Connecticut and living in North Carolina. He has been writing short stories for decades and have had a few published. He mainly writes about the old west but some of the more current west as well (post 1900).

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The Mountain Man's Testimony
by Richard L. Newman

Come fall and time to head down out of the mountains. I'd had a real fine season trapping up high, found some country that hadn't already been worked over, and got me a lot of plews. So many that I'd had to cache some, but even so, I was coming down out of the high country well laden with beaver. Me and my horse and then two pack mules, each of them topped up with hides. Course I wasn't down and safe yet, no sir. I hadn't seen anyone, and hadn't heard any news, but I could smell it. Something was coming. Trouble was up and about and moving.

Indians, I figured, had to be. But which and whom I couldn't say. Nor could I say why I felt it so strongly. There hadn't been any sign of any of the tribes, no hunters coming through, nothing. But I felt it. I knew it down to my bones. So I rode real lightly, always alert, trying to look every which way at once. I was alert for the sight or smell of smoke, and watchful for birds as they flew. The whole world seemed hushed, waiting.

I was well armed—had my two rifles loaded and primed. Each was a single shot, of course—it's all we had back in them days—but I had two of 'em, and I figured some Indians would be mighty surprised when I fired that second shot just when they thought I was done. Hawkens, both of 'em. I got the second off my compadre Evan when he died up near Two Forks last winter. He was a good man and fine friend, and I was sorry to see him go. Thankful for his generous gift of that rifle. It shot straight and true. So, I had that second rifle, and kept her ready. And I had a brace of horse pistols strapped right over my pommel. Now, the way I figured it, a big enough band of Blackfeet, say, or Shoshones, could salt my hash—but it would have to be a pretty big band, and they'd have to be pretty determined. And I'd take more than one of them with me, when I crossed the veil. So I was as ready as a poor pilgrim could be. And while I wasn't looking for any trouble, I wanted to be ready if it found me.

It was an overcast day, and the aspens, which were already golden, had started losing their leaves. That was surely a fine sight to see, hundreds of them gold leaves fluttering down amongst the white-ish trunks of the aspen. I still had some smoked meat, but I was keeping an eye open in case a deer drifted across my path. And as for a shot? Well, it'd make noise, that's for true, but I hadn't seen hide nor hair of any Indians yet, and even though I sensed trouble coming, I wasn't about to let my fears of the "might could" outweigh my need for food. But no deer did I see. I saw a bear once, pretty far off. A black bear, rolling logs over looking for grubs, or mice, or whatever it could find. Now bear is good eating, I know that, but somehow, I'd always hated to shoot a bear. I'd done it of course—you don't think twice about shooting if Mr. Griz starts charging you. But I wasn't that hungry, and so I just drifted on past that old bear. He'd be heading up into the mountains to den up for the winter, and I was heading down out of the mountains to do just the same.

We came down a little saddle, and around a bend past a small stream, when here it was—the trouble I'd been sensing. They was five of them sitting there. Indians. An old lady, all gray haired, and a young woman, and a brave in his prime, it looked to me, and two kids, a boy about twelve I guessed, and a little one maybe five, six years old. Now what in the world were they doing here? They didn't have any horses that I could see, so how in the world had they gotten here? I couldn't tell by the beadwork, so I wasn't sure which tribe or which band they was, neither. Well, wasn't this a particular mystery—five little Indians, way out to hell and gone, by themselves, with no horses, and no reason I could see for being there.

The buck saw me first, as you'd expect, and stood up to meet me. He had a spear or a lance, and he held it ready. But I could tell that he wasn't looking for a fight, although he stood ready to defend his folk if the need arose. But I wasn't looking for a fight neither, so I stopped my horses, and held my hand out, palm facing forward. I was still looking closely at them, and the leggings he wore, and the moccasins they was wearing, and while I couldn't be sure, I was now thinking that they were Crows. Which made a little sense. The Crows were mostly south of here, but they roamed up this far from time to time. So they might well have been crows. Which was fine with me. I hadn't heard that they were on the prod, and I had no particular quarrel with any of them.

It still didn't explain what they were doing out here all by their lonesomes, and that was what had me worried. Because I could just imagine a whole group of their kin and clansmen riding up over yonder rise in a minute. So I was acting calm and peaceful, but I was staying as alert as I ever was, I can tell you.

Only nothing happened. Nobody came riding up over the ridge. Just the five of them on the ground in front of me, and me sitting up here on my horse. My horse stamped and snorted, and I knew she was thinking, 'Well, we're stopped—why don't you get down and let me get to grazing?' For that matter, the pack mules hadn't waited but had their heads down picking at the grass as fast as ever they could.

Well, hell and tarnation. I noticed that they looked awful thin. Awful thin. Now your Indian in those days was, by and large, almost always pretty thin anyway, but this was different—this group looked liked they'd been leaned down pretty far; like it had been a couple days since they'd et. Aw, hell.

So I got down, and picketed ol' Sally, who commenced to eating like them mules was. And while they watched, I opened up a pack on Lucy, and pulled out all that smoked meat I had. And after a minute of trying to think a little more, I grabbed my cook pot and my canteen, too.

They didn't have a fire, but you could tell that they knew what a flint and steel was, because when I showed them, the boys ran off and came back in a few minutes with firewood—downed aspen for the most part.

I knew a little bit of sign language, and so did Elk Ear. Ain't that the damnedest name you ever heard? Well, maybe not, but I always did get a kick out of those Indian names. Anyway, Elk Ear understood what I was about doing, and you could see that it was fine with him. He set to making the fire, and I poured the water into the pot and set the smoked meat into it to boil. It wasn't that much meat, but I figured with some broth made along with it, it would give these folks some nourishment, get them along the trail little farther.

He gave me the names of the others. The old lady was Cloud Veil (I think—I'm not sure if veil was the right word). The younger woman was Spotted Deer, or Fawn, maybe; and the two boys were Bull Horn, and Egg. Egg is another pretty good name, I reckon. I later learned that the boys are given new names when they become warriors, men. Maybe Bull Horn had been a loud baby, and maybe Egg had been bald when he was born—I don't know. Still, Elk Ear and Egg and the others were my new compadres.

Well, we sat there, watching the pot boil, you might say. We weren't able to talk too well—neither of us had much sign language. The boys came and sat right near me, staring—I don't suppose they'd ever seen a trapper before, nor a white man, nor anyone with a big thick beard like I had then. They stared and stared, and I made some faces and made them laugh. They were fine boys, although I noticed that Egg was missing two fingers on his left hand. Of course, I didn't say anything, and it didn't slow him down any. And when I showed him the missing finger on my left hand, where that trap had snapped it clean off, why, after that we were buddies.

Well, there's not much more to tell. We ate, or more really, they did. I had a bite or two to be polite, but mostly I wanted that food for them, and they made short work of it. They ate all of it, and I was glad to see it. They'd been hungry, really hungry, and now they had something in their bellies.

It wasn't much, and they were still in trouble, up in the mountains by themselves, but at least they'd had something to eat. And as for me, I figured I'd find game further down below, and so I wouldn't have any trouble eating. The afternoon was wearing along, and the sky was clearing, and truthfully, I wasn't too keen on sleeping near these people, friendly or not, so after we ate and rubbed our bellies, and generally agreed how good the meal had been, I scooped up the cook pot, and unpicketed Sally, and we rode off down the hillside.

I never did see them folks again, and never did learn how they came to be up there, all by their selves, without horses or anyone else, and to tell you the truth, I never really gave it any thought. Just one of those chance encounters you get out here in the West, you might say.

But to me they was fine people. I liked those little boys. So when you show me the body of a dead redskin, and tell me that you've brought in the corpse of the great warrior Storm Cloud, who was at war with the white people; when you act like you've done the world a favor, well, all I can see is the missing fingers on this man's hand, and even though it's been nigh onto thirty five years, I know I'm seeing the hand of my young friend Egg, and I don't like how we got here.

The End

Richard L. Newman, known to his friends as Rick, has traveled widely throughout the West, and is always in search of good biscuits and strong coffee.

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The Vaquero
by Ralph S. Souders

The westbound stagecoach from Fort Collins had arrived early in Wide River that morning, almost thirty minutes ahead of schedule. The weather was beautiful with sparsely cloudy, blue skies and a light breeze coming from the northwest. The air temperature was cool. It had rained earlier in the week, so the dust on the area roadways was minimal, making travel pleasant. The passengers were enjoying their journey, although they all appeared eager to stretch their legs and walk as they left their seats and disembarked from the coach. The stagecoach would be in Wide River for the next hour or so. The horses needed to be exchanged for two fresh pairs. The driver and the guard also needed to eat their lunch. When they finished eating, the stagecoach would continue heading south before stopping in Grand Junction where the passengers would again disembark. Unless this was to be their final destination, they would then need to transfer to another coach traveling either west to the Utah Territory or south toward the New Mexico Territory.

There were four passengers in the stagecoach. One was a local man named Cy Townsend. As he exited the coach, he collected his suitcases and proceeded to leave them with Dan Anderson at the general store. One of Cy's ranch hands would collect them later in the day. Cy then walked toward the livery stable. As soon as he could saddle and bridle his horse, he planned to ride to his ranch just north of town. He was pleased to be almost home. Two of the other passengers were a matronly schoolteacher and an elderly gentleman. The man's attire indicated that he was from back east, possibly experiencing the American west for the first time. Both the woman and the gentlemen intended to be on the stagecoach when it began its scheduled run to Grand Junction. The fourth passenger was a young, Mexican cowboy, dressed in the traditional clothing of the vaqueros of south Texas. His skin was of olive shade, weathered by many years in the southwest sun and wind, and his hair was long and dark, almost black. Perhaps he was from south of the Rio Grande, there was no way to know. He wore a medium rimmed sombrero that hung loosely upon his back between his shoulder blades. His boots were worn but still in good shape. He wore a 38-caliber handgun in a leather holster attached to his hip.

Sheriff Jim Larson had left his office upon hearing the arrival of the stagecoach and had walked across the street to the general store. This was his routine on the days when he was in town. There was no stagecoach station in Wide River, but tickets for the stagecoach line could be purchased inside the general store. There were wooden benches located outside the store where passengers could wait for the stagecoach to arrive. Jim Larson liked to welcome the local citizens back to town from wherever they might have been. He also liked to personally scrutinize any strangers who were arriving in town. He would subtly determine for himself whether a stranger might require any special surveillance while in Wide River. This strategy had proven to be effective at times in the past. Today, after welcoming Cy Townsend home, and briefly chatting with the teacher and the eastern gentleman, Jim directed his attention toward the vaquero. It was unusual to see an individual such as him in Wide River. Jim pondered if this man might warrant some additional attention.

Sheriff Larson noticed that the man had not collected any luggage from the stagecoach. This indicated that he was either traveling lightly or planning to leave Wide River on the stagecoach when it departed for Grand Junction in about an hour's time. Jim watched curiously as the vaquero proceeded to walk the short distance to the Northern Lights saloon located next door to the general store. He observed the man walk across the wooden boardwalk and into the saloon through the swinging, wooden doors. Jim immediately walked to the saloon himself where, in an authoritative manner, he followed the vaquero into the building. Once inside, he spotted the man already standing in front of the bar located along the back wall of the barroom. Two other cowboys were also there, standing apart and not drinking together. The bartender was preparing to pour the vaquero a drink. Jim Larson continued walking subtly toward the bar. The man did not notice him approaching.

"Mornin', Charlie," said Jim to the bartender. "How's business?"

"A little slow," replied Charlie. "It'll pick up this afternoon, I'm sure. It always does."

Jim nodded his head in agreement.

The bartender did not attempt to continue the conversation. He believed that he understood the sheriff's purpose in coming into the saloon. He proceeded to finish pouring a glass of rye whiskey for the vaquero.

"Buenos dias, señor," said Jim Larson, addressing the vaquero. "Cómo te llamas?"

The man immediately turned around, surprised to discover the local sheriff standing behind him. An apprehensive expression immediately enveloped his face. He wondered if he was about to be harassed by the local law enforcement. He had done nothing wrong, and he was not looking for trouble. Hopefully, he hadn't unexpectedly found himself some.

"Mornin', sheriff," responded the vaquero politely in excellent English. "My name is Luis Navarro. I'm just passing through your town on the morning stage. I wanted to have a couple of drinks before I got back on board. I'm just killing some time."

Luis Navarro spoke with an unusual accent, a combination of Mexican dialect and south Texas drawl. It was strangely pleasant sounding, not at all difficult to understand.

"Where are you coming from, Navarro?" asked the sheriff. "Where you headed?"

"I've been in Fort Collins," explained Luis. "I'm on my way home to New Mexico. I own a small ranch near Santa Fe."

"Santa Fe?" replied the sheriff in a surprised tone. "You don't sound like you're from that region."

The young vaquero nodded his head in understanding. "I'm originally from Texas, just south of San Antone. That's where I lived before the war. After the war, my brother, a friend and I bought property in New Mexico. It seems that I've never lost my south Texas accent."

"What were you doing in Fort Collins?" Jim inquired. "It's a long way from Santa Fe."

"My brother got married there," replied Luis. "He's still in the U.S. Cavalry. I'm the only family member who was able to attend the wedding."

The sheriff nodded his head in understanding. The vaquero's explanation sounded plausible enough. Jim's curiosity was satisfied. He did not believe that the vaquero posed any threat to the town. He found the young man to be a likeable fellow.

"Enjoy your drinks," said Jim friendlily. "I'll tell the driver that you're here. You don't want to miss this morning's stagecoach. There won't be another until the day after next."

"Thank you, sheriff," said Luis gratefully. "I'm much obliged."

Jim Larson nodded his head in return. Then tipping his hat to Charlie, the bartender, he turned, walked to the swinging doors and exited the saloon before walking next door to speak with the stagecoach driver. Once this was done, he intended to walk back across the street to his office. He still had some work to do.

With the sheriff gone, Luis Navarro thanked the bartender for the drink and proceeded to take a short sip. He planned to drink slowly, having no desire to become intoxicated. His sole intention was to relax until it became time to get back aboard the stagecoach. Hopefully, a couple of drinks would help him sleep once he was back in his seat. It was still a long way home to Santa Fe and a couple hours of sleep might make the ride to Grand Junction seem shorter. This was his short-term strategy.

For the next few minutes, Luis stood at the bar sipping his whiskey. Eventually, the cowboy standing nearest to him began speaking. The cowboy was young, probably in his mid-thirties, with dark hair and a stubble of dark whiskers on his face and chin. He was wearing brown pants and a blue shirt. He had a thick, leather belt with a customized, brass buckle featuring an eagle. His boots were relatively new. He was wearing a 38-caliber handgun in a leather holster against his right hip and a brown Stetson on his head. He had the cocky demeanor of a smart aleck.

"So, I reckon you must be from down Mexico way," said the cowboy. "How do you like it up here in these parts?"

Luis was surprised by the cowboy's surmisal. Surely, the man had just overheard his discussion with the sheriff.

"No, I'm not from Mexico," said Luis. "I'm from New Mexico. Santa Fe. There's a difference."

"Whatever," replied the cowboy dismissively. "I've always considered them to be the same place. They seem to be about the same to me."

The cowboy seemed to be subtly denigrating Luis' heritage. If his intention was to annoy Luis with his words, he was succeeding. Nevertheless, Luis let the remark pass without a response. The stagecoach would be leaving town in just over an hour and Luis wanted to be sitting inside it when it did. He did not intend to be delayed in Wide River due to a confrontation with a local troublemaker. He had things to do on the ranch and he needed to get home.

"Yes, I do like this area," said Luis in a pleasant tone, hoping to change the subject. "I like it a lot. This is beautiful country."

"Yes, that's a fact," agreed the cowboy. "It sure is."

Luis was not eager to continue the conversation, so he said nothing more. The cowboy, however, continued talking.

"Well, welcome to our town, señor," said the cowboy. "As long as you're here, I think I'll let you buy me a drink. How about it? What do you say?"

Luis was taken aback by the cowboy's audacity. He sensed that the man was eager to intimidate him. He realized that he had only two options, neither of which was particularly palatable. He could either buy the cowboy a drink or he could decline to do so. If he purchased the man a drink, he knew that he would feel coerced and would look foolish. He also suspected that the man would be requesting another drink in a few minutes. If Luis declined to purchase the cowboy a drink, the man might feign an insult and become belligerent. Luis was a visitor in a strange town whereas the cowboy was probably a well known local. If there was to be a fight, Luis was concerned that he would be blamed as the instigator and might find himself in trouble. The sheriff had seemed to be a nice enough guy, but Luis didn't know him. In settling a conflict, the sheriff quite likely would side with the local man, somebody he possibly knew quite well.

Unexpectedly, the bartender intervened. He had been listening to Luis and the cowboy conversing and he sensed the tension that was slowly developing. He hoped to prevent it from escalating.

"Hold onto your money, my friend," he said to Luis. "I'd like to buy a round for everyone." He placed three shot glasses on the bar and filled them with rye whiskey. He then gave one of the glasses to Luis and one glass each to the cowboy and the man standing further down the bar.

"Thank you," said Luis gratefully, understanding the bartender's strategy. "That's very nice of you. I appreciate it."

The cowboy lifted the glass to the bartender and nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Gracias," he said facetiously.

"Thanks, Charlie," said the other man.

The three men standing at the bar lifted their glasses in unison. Together they consumed their shots of whiskey in one quick swallow before placing the now empty glasses back upon the bar. The bartender collected the empty glasses, washed them and placed them on a shelf against the back wall. He then came out from behind the bar and began walking toward the swinging doors.

"Give me a couple of minutes," the bartender said to his customers. "I'll be right back."

With the bartender temporarily gone, Luis resumed slowly sipping his whiskey. He still had plenty of time, but he was not sure if he wanted to remain inside the saloon. He was beginning to wonder if he had made the wrong decision in trying to kill some time there. Perhaps he should have elected to wait for the stagecoach with the other passengers outside the general store.

"So, you strike me as a former military man," remarked the cowboy, wanting to restart their conversation. He slowly perused the vaquero from top to bottom. "Am I correct? I bet you were in the army during the war, weren't you?"

Luis was quickly becoming tired of the cowboy's attention. He had hoped to be able to quietly relax for a while and enjoy his drinks. Apparently, this was not going to happen.

In asking his questions, the cowboy was no doubt trying to subtly determine in which army Luis had served, union or confederate. This was obvious to Luis, but he did not want to respond. Not knowing the man's political sentiments, he knew that there was only a fifty percent chance of him answering the man's questions correctly.

"Yeah, I was," replied Luis matter-of-factly, "but I don't talk about it. I've done my best to put that part of my life behind me."

"Why that?" asked the cowboy in a surprised tone of voice. "Those should be easy questions to answer. Are you ashamed? Are you hiding something? It makes me wonder."

The cowboy had a quizzical expression on his face as he awaited the vaquero's response.

"No, I'm not ashamed," replied Luis while looking directly at the cowboy, "not at all. I was proud to serve. I have no regrets whatsoever. I just don't like to discuss it."

"But why?" asked the cowboy. "It seems to me that—"

"I just don't!" interrupted Luis in a stern tone of voice. "Let's just leave it at that. Okay?"

The cowboy was taken aback by the vaquero's outburst, and he did not take kindly to it. It annoyed him to be cutoff while speaking. He straightened his stance and turned his body toward Luis, glaring at him. His face was slowly reddening with anger.

"What's your problem, señor?" he asked. "You've had an attitude since you walked in here. If you can't be sociable, maybe you should leave. You might want to learn some manners before you come into another place like this. Just a suggestion."

Luis turned to face the cowboy who had already stepped back a couple paces and moved a couple feet away from the bar. It appeared that the man wanted to have easy access to his gun if he should decide to use it. The other man at the bar, not wanting to be in a potential line of fire, grabbed his drink and walked to a nearby table where he set it down. Luis straightened his posture and prepared to draw his gun in case he should need it.

At that moment, Charlie, the bartender, re-entered the saloon accompanied by the sheriff, Jim Larson. Charlie had sensed trouble brewing minutes earlier and he had decided to find the sheriff. Sheriff Larson had been in his office across the street, and he readily agreed to come to the saloon and intervene before a potential confrontation between the vaquero and the cowboy could fully develop. As Charlie and Jim stood inside the saloon doors, they immediately observed the two men facing each other. Neither man noticed them. Although the eruption of gunfire did not yet seem imminent, the sheriff was not taking any chances and he wasted no time.

"Hey, you two!" shouted the sheriff in a loud, authoritative voice. "Stand down! Now!"

The two men instinctively reacted to Jim Larson's order. Luis backed further away from the cowboy, turned and faced the sheriff. Immediately, the cowboy did the same.

"Both of you, remove your guns from your holsters and place them on the bar," instructed the sheriff in an irritated tone of voice. "Do it now!"

Luis immediately complied with the sheriff's order. He carefully placed his six-gun on the bar. The cowboy did not immediately react, obviously wanting to maintain control of his firearm.

"Now, Hobson!" shouted the sheriff. "Don't make me ask you again."

It was obvious to Luis that the sheriff knew the cowboy. This did not surprise him. He watched as Hobson withdrew his handgun from its holster and placed in on the bar as instructed. Then, as Jim Larson walked to the other end of the bar, Charlie, the bartender, collected the two handguns and placed them on the bar where Jim was now standing. Charlie then went back behind the bar and reassumed his position as the bartender.

"Okay, Hobson," instructed the sheriff, "go across the street and wait for me in my office. I'll be there in a bit, and you and I are gonna have a little discussion. Don't go anywhere in the meantime. I'll give you back your gun when I get there."

Jim Larson authoritatively pointed toward the swinging doors, indicating to Hobson that he needed to leave the building. The cowboy complied with the sheriff's order and left the saloon without looking again at the vaquero. He apparently knew better than to try arguing with the sheriff. As soon as Hobson was gone, the sheriff lifted the two handguns from the end of the bar, walked the short distance to where Luis was standing and then placed the guns on the bar at that location.

"I'm sorry for the problem this morning," the sheriff said to the vaquero. "Sometimes, I don't know what to do with that guy. We like to treat our visitors to Wide River better than this."

"That's okay," replied Luis. "I don't want any trouble. I'm sorry that you had to come back over here."

"Don't worry about it," said Jim. "It's not your fault. Lee Hobson can be difficult at times. One of these days, he's gonna stir up some trouble and I won't be around to stop it before he gets himself hurt."

Luis nodded his head in understanding but said nothing. He was not sure how to respond.

"What was he saying to you?" asked the sheriff. "Was he talking about the war? I bet he was. That's a topic that he can't seem to let go."

Luis again nodded his head. "Yes, sir. He was. He wanted to know if I'd been in the army, and if so, which one. Not knowing the man, I didn't know how to reply. It's a difficult subject for a lot of people."

"You'd have been okay. His two older brothers were killed in the war fighting for the north. He's had problems dealing with their deaths. He's okay with union vets such as yourself."

"How do you know if I was in the union army?" asked Luis. "I never said that."

"It's not too difficult to figure out," replied Jim. "You told me that your brother is in the U.S. Calvary. If he had fought in the confederate army, there's no way the U.S, Cavalry would have accepted him. I assume you fought on the same side as your brother. Am I wrong?"

"No, you're not wrong," said Luis. "We both fought with the 2nd Texas Cavalry under Colonel Edmund Davis. The 2nd Texas fought with the north, of course. After the war, he decided to stay in the army. He plans to retire next year. He'll then be joining our partner and me at our ranch near Santa Fe.

"I'm a union vet, too," said Jim proudly. "I was with the 3rd Iowa Volunteer Cavalry under Colonel Henry Clay Caldwell. The regiment mustered out after the war. That's when I came to Colorado, and I've been here ever since.

The two men proceeded to have a pleasant conversation during which the sheriff gave the vaquero back his gun. Luis promptly placed it back inside the holster attached to his hip. Soon thereafter, the driver stepped inside the two swinging doors of the saloon and announced that the stagecoach to Grand Junction would be leaving in five minutes. Luis had already finished his drink and was ready to leave.

"So long, sheriff," said Luis as the two men stood and shook hands. "It was a pleasure meeting you. If you're even down Santa Fe way, stop by my ranch. You'll always be welcome."

"Thanks, Navarro," replied the sheriff. "It was nice meeting you, too. I'm sorry again for the trouble you had in our town. That should never have happened. Have a good trip home."

With that, the two men exited the saloon and walked to the waiting stagecoach. Luis nodded his head again at the sheriff before approaching the stagecoach and climbing inside. He was the last passenger to board. As soon as he was seated, the driver closed the door and climbed into his seat at the front of the stage. The guard was already seated. Once he was comfortably situated, the driver picked up the reins and prompted the horses to start moving. They immediately responded and quickly accelerated to a moderate speed.

Luis looked out the window as they passed the Northern Lights, and he observed Jim Larson crossing the street toward his office. He was holding Lee Hobson's six-gun in his hand. Luis was certain that Hobson was going to receive an angry reprimand from the sheriff. The cowboy had not broken any laws inside the saloon but what would have happened if the sheriff had not arrived when he did? There quite likely was going to be a fist fight. Would this have escalated to guns being drawn? It was difficult to say. Fortunately, the fight never got started, so it never got out of hand.

Within a couple of minutes, the stagecoach reached the edge of the town. Heading south, it left Wide River behind. Although the whiskey he had drunk made him feel drowsy, Luis knew that the bumpy ride inside the stagecoach would not be conducive to sleep. Using his sombrero as a buffer, he leaned his head into an interior corner of the coach and closed his eyes. He would try to make the best of the situation. The stagecoach would be arriving in Grand Junction by late afternoon. If all went well, he expected to be in Santa Fe on the day after next. He looked forward to being home.

The End

Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novels: Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. He has also written a movie script and his short stories have appeared in "Bewildering Stories", "Frontier Tales", "Gadfly Online" and "The Penmen Review" magazines. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is happily married to his wife of thirty-six years. The are now retired and reside in Middle Tennessee. His website is

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A Bullet for Christmas
by Jason Crager

A three piece band of retired cowpokes in suspenders and floppy hats played magnificently, blaring out their festive melodies on banjo, fiddle and hand drums while couples serenaded one another in front of the low stage, men's boots and ladies' stockings scooting and twirling across the lacquered floor. Whenever the beat fit, certain young lovers amongst them would pause beneath the mistletoe long enough to share a kiss, to the cheers and clapping of all.

The elders sat at small tables to one end of the ballroom and watched the annual celebration, with the women speaking in admiration of the strapping young lads and the quality of catch they'd made with the girls, and the men drinking from mugs of frothy eggnog blended with whatever their preferred spirits were. The joy of children's laughter spread through the room as they chased each other around with their best efforts at mocking the dance of the adults and the littlest of them played with their wooden trains or painted dolls.

The halls were decked with bunches of holly and streams of tinsel, and a giant wreath of evergreen adorned with pine cones and a bright, red bow held sway over all from the mantel piece above the fireplace that burned the yule log. Outside, lanterns of colored glass dangling from the overhang threw greens, reds, blues and yellows through the sparkle of steady snow dust falling from the sky to join the covering of white below. Another hearty cheer and applause erupted from within as a horse neared the building at a slow and unheard gait.

The rider in cloaks of wool and a hat lined with the same came alone, bedroll and other supplies of the trail strapped to the horse's back behind him. With only a grunt as command from its master, the horse halted before the building with the prancing shadows in its lit up windows and the music carrying on into the night. Leaning heavily on a stirrup, the rider swung his other leg from over the horse's back and dismounted. He tied the tired horse off to a hitching post in front of the building and climbed the steps to the boardwalk at its front.

The indoor festivities jolted to a sudden stop when the unexpected stranger made his appearance through the doorway. All eyes cast looks upon him, some of suspicion and some of confusion. Some even gave looks of greeting and welcome in this season of hospitality. The stranger's eyes scanned over the gathering, one by one, young and old, without emotion. He had a strong chin and a prominent jaw line, and a determined way of carrying himself. He cleared his throat.

"I'm looking for Christmas."

After the pause of silence from a group of people who knew not how to answer, a young man dressed in a suit of mismatched tans with his upper lip hardly covered by a thin, blond mustache came forth from the dance floor, drink in hand. He looked through circle eye lenses at his fellow partiers and then, over the rest of their decorated surroundings. He put his hand up in reference to the display.

"Well, you found it!" He said, loudly and with a cheerful smile.

A collective, jovial laugh filled the ballroom with its echo and as if on cue, the music kicked in again with a lively rendition of Up on the House Top that caused the dancing to resume with renewed vigor. Unamused, the warmly dressed stranger stepped closer to the clever young man in spectacles and unseen by the rest of the party, drew a long bladed knife from the sheath at his hip, pressing it into the other's ribs.

"Good," the stranger whispered into an ear, his breath stinking of cured meat and tobacco. "I got a present for him."

* * *

Having been christened at birth with the name of Mary from parents of devout Catholicism, she'd long ago given up the religious practices of her upbringing and been shunned by the Church in return. It was a decision she always intended to make, even as a young girl, and one that brought only the result she would have expected.

For as long as she could recall, all she ever wanted to be was a loyal wife and a nurturing mother. After being subjected to the strict, unyielding dictations of the Catholic Church growing up, there was no way she planned to raise her own children under such conditions. So, leaving the Church had been done with best interest of her future family in mind, and it brought on no regret.

Not only did she always have the desire to be married, but she knew precisely who it was that she would wed. Maybe not by name or introduction, but she knew who he would be, nonetheless. He'd be tall and handsome, well built with dark hair and a romantic, southern drawl. He'd come from the long line of a family well off, but not wealthy enough for silver spoon raising. He'd have a rugged side to him, a man with the know how and unafraid to get his hands dirty in providing for his family. He'd be loving and caring, with good morals and strong values. Everything a real man should be, he'd magically sweep her off her feet and they'd live happily ever after. Of course, love is a mysterious thing, though.

Aside from the loving and caring part, the man she went on to marry was none of the above. She'd known Jim nearly her entire life and never once had any inkling of affection for him outside of friendship. Short, blond and quite awkward in a clumsy sort of way, Jim was just mildly attractive and derived from a family of little means. He was kind of a loafer who only took on odd jobs when absolutely necessary to keep the wolves at bay.

She and Jim had attended elementary classes at the same school house in their younger days, two children connected by the burdensome bond of never fitting in with their peers. They'd grown up studying and playing together, just the two of them, ignoring the hurtful insults and ridicule directed their way from classmates. Theirs was a friendship born of necessity and when they graduated to adulthood, a love empowered by friendship.

Hard times were the norm and through them all, their togetherness persevered. The lack of understanding from extended family, the strife of poverty. His trial, conviction, and time spent behind bricks and bars. The premature birth of their sickly daughter, the truth that she would only be with them for a short number of years. None found success in fracturing their unity.

In the tiny, sparsely furnished living room alit by dying hearth fire and a single lantern with flame low to preserve kerosene, just a couple decorations that would never have been met with the Church's approval. No manger scenes depicting the birth of Jesus, God's eternal gift to all of humanity. No wise men, no glorious angels. Instead, a small and drooping spruce brought in from the outdoors and placed on a stand, decorated with colorful ball ornaments and kernels of popped corn strung together. Hanging crookedly on the wall behind it, a large portrait of the holiday's father, not in his capacity of holy old Saint Nicholas, but of the king of the elves, that most pagan of all personas.

Wrapped in a thin flannel night robe and kneeling on the cold wood floor, Mary set one by one the presents she'd prepared for sweet Annie beneath the tree. Under the tissue paper there were no toys, treats or trinkets. A cap, mittens, and slippers hand knitted with soft pink yarn, adorned with silver bells and fuzzy pompoms.

When asked what she'd like this year, little Annie had boldly wished for a unicorn. Though that particular wish would have to remain in the realm of fantasy, even these meager surprises would bless the child's heart with joy. She'd patter from her closet sized room at the break of dawn to hover excitedly over the presents until given permission to open them. Then, she'd do so delicately, trying her best not to tear the paper too badly so that it could not be reused. Each item, she'd praise as if it were the grandest thing she ever held, hugging the soft material to her cheeks. Mary could see it all now, and she smiled. A smile that faded with the thought that Jim would miss it all.

For nigh on a month her husband had been painfully absent. Gone offering his labor in exchange for pay from a well to do cattle rancher. Now, here it was the eve of the big day and not a word from or sign of him after having left with the promise of returning to deliver the most special treasure to ever grace a family holiday. Another broken promise for which she'd readily forgive him with open arms, grateful just to have him back.

* * *

"Once a thief, always a thief."

That was the mantra playing repeatedly in the mind of Jim Christmas as he urged his horse through the narrow woodland passage with steady heels to the steed's flanks. The very words accusingly spoken to him by his dear brother John when he'd finished his stint in the Braylon County Jail for stealing from the till at York's General Store, the same day he'd been forever demoted to the status of black sheep. A condemning notion coming from one who proclaimed himself a forgiving, religious man.

The horse determinedly plotted on through thickening snow despite exhaustion overtaking it, leaving a clear trail of prints that couldn't be covered behind. Their pace was slowing and soon, Jim knew he would have to carry on by foot.

He was getting close now, but running out of time just as quickly. The comfortable lead that for a while had given him such encouragement was diminished profoundly as a result of his circling back at the worst possible time. There was never any choice, though. It had to be done. When he realized that the stuffed animal tied to his saddle had abandoned him at some point, he simply had to go back for it. That, or all would be lost and everything for nought.

He discovered the animal half buried by a slop of muddy slush in the street of Braylon proper, just across from the Grand Ole Ballroom. It must have come loose from its tether when he stopped near that exact spot just to look and listen to the traditional celebration taking place inside the ballroom. He'd never consider going inside, but something compelled him to stop.

When retrieving the stuffed animal, he was met with a vision of eminent doom, and how close to him it now was. Outside the ballroom, an unmistakable horse present at the hitching post. A big bay with black leather tack, rifle in a saddle boot on the right side. The mount of Mister Guthrie's rider. He who killed faithfully and received handsome reward for his unfailing service.

Jim pushed on through the woods, oblivious of the horrific scene which unfolded inside the Grand Ole Ballroom. His brother John laying in the center of the dance floor, his guts pouring from a gaping slash to his abdomen. The screaming. Women crying while they shielded the eyes of children. John's closest friends trying desperately to revive him.

Jim pushed on even as his energy diminished along with that of his horse's. Pushed on as the snow fell heavier and hope for escape vanished.

Such a fool he'd been, drinking too much and squandering his savings away at the faro table. So much worse, attempting to make off with the Guthrie Ranch payroll and getting caught in the act by Mister Guthrie's nosey nephew.

The horse continued to slow. Jim slipped a hand underneath the front of his coat and it came back stained a wet crimson. He was bleeding badly now, and had no chance of stopping it. With every movement made, the slug shifted more, ripping at tissue and organs, carving its way deep inside him.

The horse inevitably came to a complete halt. Jim tried to spur on, but the worn out beast refused to budge. He slipped from the saddle, bringing the stuffed animal with him, his boots sinking into the snow, coldness enveloping his toes.

In a distance through the trees ahead, he caught sight of a faintly glowing yellow. In the air, just barely, there wafted the scent of wood burning. A horse whinnied nearby. Jim scoured his surroundings and saw nothing but the night woods brightened by a carpet of white.

He abandoned any use of the horse and scrambled forward in high knee steps with not enough speed. Split seconds ticked by like drawn out hours. His hat flew off and he left it where it landed. His lungs ached. His eyes watered and his nose ran. The sound of hoofbeats seemed to come from all around him at once.

Finally, the glowing yellow grew bigger. The trees gave way to a small clearing from the middle of which a startled whitetail deer bolted. Jim stumbled and fell, his face suddenly awash with freezing snow. Frantically, he dug around and located the stuffed animal. With great effort and much pain, he climbed to his feet and proceeded toward the light emanating from the cabin's window. At this, he was determined for once not to fail.

He fell ahead again just as he reached the bottom of slanted steps leading up to the small porch attached to the front of the cabin. He went up the steps on hands and knees, animal clutched in his fist. Within an arm's length now, he reached for the doorknob. Then, a metallic click and he stopped, unmoving except for a turn of his head.

The killer, an ominous form towering at the edge of the porch like a reaper come to claim his spoils, long barrel of a rifle leveled with a trained eye behind it. Silence.

Jim Christmas released a long, burning exhale and when he found his voice, it was defeated. "Please . . . not like this. Not where my little girl can find me."

The only response given was a very slight jerk of the rifle's barrel to indicate an agreement made.

* * *

Mary finished stoking the hearth fire after adding another dry log to it and leaned the poker up against a wall. She pulled her robe tighter around her collar and lowered herself onto the floor. The chill of the wood on her cheek felt good against the heat thrown by the flames. She shut her eyes and relaxed to the soothing sound of the fire's crackling.

She'd heard enough of them before to know the nature of the echoing bang that came from somewhere a way off outside. Her eyelids went up and she listened for a second shot. When none came, she sat, and then stood, going to the door for investigation.

Peering through a small, diamond shaped window on the door, she saw fresh footprints beginning to fill with blowing snow, some coming and some going. She unlatched the door's lock and slowly opened it enough for her face to fit through.

"Hello? Who's there?" She spoke loudly enough for her words to carry without being a holler. She listened. "Somebody there?"

Feeling somewhat safe and confident that the yard was deserted, she dared to pull the door open further. Looking around, the image before her was rather serene. Snow clinging like frosting to tree limbs, the sky a midnight blue highlighted by beautiful turquoise clouds, flakes glittering as they floated lazily to Earth. A lovely, perfect holiday painting manifested in real life.

Mary looked down at her feet to find the surprise of a stuffed animal left there. A grimy and sopping purple unicorn with long tail and rainbow colored horn. Confused, she again checked the wood lined perimeter, spotting not a thing out of sorts. Then, she picked up the unicorn and examined it closely. A little square tag folded over and attached to the unicorn's ear. To Annie, From Daddy. Her heartbeat paused and she sucked in a breath.


The voice, precious and unexpected. Mary twirled around and was met by a frail, more innocent version of herself staring up at her.

"Who were you talkin' to, Momma?"

Mary blinked several times and shook her head to gather her bearings. "Nothing, honey. I mean, no one." She turned to quickly push the door closed and reset its lock, and then faced her beloved little sunshine again.

"What's that, Momma?"

Mary looked down at the unicorn as if realizing for the first time that she held it in her hands. "It's a, uh, a present," she stammered.

"Is it for me?"

Hesitating, Mary held the unicorn out in front of her. "Yes, honey. It is for you."

The little girl came close enough to accept the unicorn, but didn't reach to grab it. She looked at it, squinting. "It's icky." She crinkled her button nose. "And it smells funny too."

Mary's shoulders sagged and she retracted the unicorn in its rough shape.

The child's round blue eyes then wandered about the room until coming to rest at the base of the miniature spruce and widening. "Santa," she gasped. Then, looking at her mother in awe, "He came?"

Mary nodded, speechless.

"I knew I heard you talkin' to someone. Where is he?" She bent to look curiously past her mother as if someone else might be hiding there.

"He's . . . " Mary cleared her throat. "He's gone now, honey. He left." Her eyes welled.

"Whatsa matter, Momma?"

"Nothing." She wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve before those tears could drop. "Go back to bed now. You can open your presents in the morning."


Annie turned to head back for her bedroom but stopped short of the doorway. "Momma."


"Merry Christmas, Momma."

Mary trembled and suppressed a sob. "Merry Christmas, honey."

The child returned to bed and the mother sat down on a wicker chair, ragged unicorn in her lap. She read its tag again. She turned the stuffed animal over to discover a hole torn in its belly, cotton protruding from the hole. She carefully stuck her fingers inside to feel a hard lump. Digging deeper, she extracted the lump. Her jaw dropped and her mind swam woozily as he held up a huge wad of tightly rolled bills. More money than she'd ever touched in her lifetime.

She flung the unicorn aside and leapt out of her seat, rushing to the door. She unlocked the door and threw it open, a blast of frigid air tumbling in. She stepped out onto the porch. The snow had stopped. She lifted her head to the heavens. The wintry clouds parted and a single golden star shone through, and that's when she knew he had come home for the last time.

The End

After getting his start in contemporary short stories, Jason Crager has since transitioned into primarily a writer of westerns. Aside from his western novels and short story collections, Jason's work has been featured in literary journals, a number of anthologies, and published in various magazines. He lives a happy and peaceful life with his family in the beautiful river and bluff country of De Soto, Wisconsin, USA

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West of Eminence
by J. Daniel Camacho

Next to his tiny brown deputy, old Sheriff Jimmy "Kid" Tunney looks past the saloon and the brothel and the hotel to the rows of his people: dirtied boots, sweated slacks, tightened waistcoats, shawled shoulders, dusted beards, and awed eyes under wide-brimmed hats staring straight through a hole in a man's head.

"A great many come here wanting what we have, Montana."

Mini Montana nods. "I see, sir."

The tall, burly Kid Tunney holsters his army revolver, gestures to the undertaker, and sees the crowd disperse.

"But sir, why do they call you Kid?"

"What do you mean?"

"The townsfolk, they call you Kid, but you're full grown."

"That's something they've called me since I was sixteen."

"Sixteen, sir?"

"A long time. No longer a kid, but the name stuck."

"I see."

"Confuses the hell out of the outlaws that come here, though."

"Like that man there?"

"What's left of that man there."

"What do they expect, sir?"

"They expect to find a young sheriff on his first job."

"His first job . . . "

"They expect to find you."

"I see, sir."

"What they find instead is a man of experience, timing, vitality."


"A man full of life, Montana. A man that will protect the independence of this town no matter what. And a man that knows how to do it. The name 'Kid' is a problem for them. It's not a problem for me."

Kid Tunney and Montana walk from the center of their town to the porch outside the sheriff's office.

"What happened to your last deputy, sir?"

"Well, he went rotten, many years ago."


"He went a few towns over, stole some money."

"A thief."

"A robber. Thought he could get away with it."

"Did he, sir?"

"He was well-ahead of the local sheriff when they realized what had happened. He got to the last vineyard before the desert and filled up on water. Then he ruined the vineyard, shot up all the tanks. That was a problem, and not just for the vineyard. When the sheriff and his searchers arrived, there was no water. They had nothing for the desert trail. So that was it—they didn't follow. I was stunned he would do something like that. I knew he was man of action, but not that kind of action."

"So he got away, sir?"

"That's not what the vineyard owner said."

"What do you mean?"

"The owner said he filled the guy's canteens with wine, not water."


"Wine won't help you in the desert."

"I see, sir."

"Without realizing it, he was dead as soon as he left the vineyard."

"Did they ever find him or the money?"

"They found a body out there in a hand-dug hole."

"Was it him?"

"Clothes torn or stripped. Cooked skin. Torn nails. Nose full of sand."

"But was it him?"

"Hard to say. Wasn't a man anymore. No vitality."

"And no money."

"No, no money."

"Terrible, sir."

"I blame myself."


"Give a good kid a badge, a gun, some power—"


"Authority. It can make this rich fantasy life in his head."

Mini Montana thumbs the dirt off the metal badge on his chest.

"You try to tell him about independence, compassion."

"And what did he take away instead, sir?"

"He gets captured by the idea of independence."

"Independence of the town?"

"Independence of the self. And that the only way to get there is money."

Then a pale young woman on white horseback trots up to the sheriff's office. She comes armed: a stylish pistol on her waist and a rifle on her saddle. She smiles under her sombrero. "I'm looking for Kid Tunney, and I'm feeling good that that's you, the tan fella with the mustache. Am I right? Let's have a drink."

* * *

While Mini Montana waits outside, Kid Tunney empties the saloon and sits in a stiff, wooden booth across from the armed woman. He smells the leftover sweat of exited bar-goers who came for a drink after the noontime shootout. He watches the woman remove her sombrero and bare a toothy, knowing expression.

"So you're Kid Tunney, the famous ol' outlaw sheriff."

"Well, I don't know about famous—or outlaw, for that matter."

"We have a record on you, confirmed by that showdown I just saw."

"And who is we, Ms.  . . . ?"


"Burke? Battling Belle Burke? The gunslinging marshal? That's you?"

"Thank you for saying that. Yes, that's what they insist on calling me."

"But that name's a problem for you?"

"Just 'Marshal' is fine, thanks."

"Marshal. Okay, then."

"I don't mean to be so serious, Sheriff, but I'm here on serious business."

"And what business is that?"

"Your nation wants to buy your town."

"Come again?"

"This town, West of Eminence—we need you to sell it."

"I've seen a great many come here and ask for all sorts of things."


"And that's a first. Marshal."

She jostles in her seat, jangles the gun cartridges along her waist, and places her hands at her side. "So you won't sell it?"

"It's not for sale."

"I was prepared for you to say that. I ride here, ask you to sell the town, and that's the funniest thing you've ever heard. But this is nothing to giggle at, Sheriff. Your country is prepared to pay you and all your people good money to buy this place outright."

"That's a tremendous thing you're asking. What kind of money?"

"Each person would make more in an afternoon than they would in a decade."

"A decade?"

"They could retire, or buy new horses, new cattle. Live someplace else."

"For the money."

"For the money, Sheriff. For more than fair money."

"Why does my country even want this place?"

"You know what happened here, on these plains in the shadow of that mountain."

"The Great Battle."

"The westernmost battle of the War. Right here."

"And what would you do with it?"

"Build a memorial."

"Why? To what?"

"The Great Battle was not just one of the great battles of this nation but of this world. So many on each side came, so many ready to die. And so many did. Their bravery, their heroism—we should never forget it. And we can learn new lessons in war by never forgetting this tragic battlefield on which West of Eminence now sits. So I'm being so serious because this is a serious matter, Sheriff, one that you have some say in as the, the 'guardian' of this town. But surely, not the ultimate say."

"I know all about the Great Battle."

"Sure you do, Sheriff. Because you were there."

"I was."

"For a time."

Kid Tunney swigs his bitter drink, rises from his seat. "So what would you have me do, Ms. Burke?"


"Marshal." Kid Tunney turns and walks over to the bar, his back to Burke. "What would you have me do?"

"Ready your people to move. Convince them to leave peacefully, with their wallets full."

Kid Tunney finishes his drink, thumps his metal cup on the bar. "And if they refuse?"

Burke whips out her pistol and fires and clangs the cup clean off the counter. "They won't. Not with you telling them."

Kid Tunney pauses.

"I'm feeling good about this talk of ours, Sheriff. I'll return in two days."

"What then?"

"By then, you should have an answer."

Kid Tunney turns and watches Burke rise, re-attach and re-adjust her sombrero, and step back into the hot afternoon light outside the saloon door where her white horse neighs its greeting. She has left a letter on the table, filled with words and numbers.

* * *

Kid Tunney stands on the steps of his office, a few feet above the assembled townsfolk: hotel clerks, paper-writers, ranch-hands, stable-hands, prospectors, millers, miners, schoolmarms, sex-sellers, shopkeepers, innkeepers, cowboys and cowgirls, all waiting intently like parishioners before a preacher.

Mini Montana poses on a step below with his hands on his belt.

Kid Tunney removes his hat, glimpses down before addressing the crowd. "I thank you all for gathering now, for the second day in a row. For those who have put down their roots here, it shows a great trust in me, it really does. Without realizing it, we have become dependent on each other in this town of ours. We have a problem, we solve it together. Stable burns down, we build another one. The school needs supplies, we go get 'em. And if the problem is a man with a gun like yesterday, well, I get to do something I've wanted to do since I was young: protect good people like you."

The townsfolk cheer.

"Just after yesterday's excitement, I was visited by a young woman in a sombrero. You might have seen her—the white horse captures the eye. Tremendous animal. That's why I cleared out the saloon, so me and her could chat. Turns out this lady was a U.S. Marshal, and she asked me the strangest question that I've had in the great many years I've served this community."

A ranch-hand asks what was asked.

"She told me that our national government wants to buy this town."

The townsfolk prattle and chatter.

"She wanted to know if we would sell it. It's a tremendous question. It's a question that left me stunned, it really did. But it's not a question that I can answer alone. This town belongs to each of you just as much as it belongs to me."

A miner wants to know what was offered.

"The Marshal, she left us a short proposal, written copies of which I worked on yesterday and that Mini Montana is passing through the crowd."

A schoolmarm cries out that she was raised in West of Eminence.

"Yes. I'm looking you right in the eye there. I see myself in you. This is our home. I've been here for a generation. After the War, we made this place our own. We live and grow together. We make choices together."

The townsfolk whoop and clap.

"But one of those choices is this one. I wouldn't be being fair if I didn't tell you the offer. You can see the numbers on those papers, but for those that need to hear it, the Marshal told me that each of us would make more in an afternoon than in a decade."

A sex-seller asks if that includes everyone.


The townsfolk remain quiet for a moment—until another and another and another yell that this town is their home, that they don't care what the Marshal has to say.

"No? Is that how the rest of you feel?"

The townsfolk clamor and nod.

"I'm captured by your passion. I care about the independence of this town, the freedom of it. There's strength, vitality in community. I really believe that. And I'm happy to hear that the rest of you believe it too. Some of you know that the Great Battle took place here, just beneath that mountain. Some of you may even know that I fought in that battle. But you probably don't know that I walked away from it, that I abandoned my men at our most important hour."

There is a pause.

"But I will not abandon this town. I will not abandon you."

The townsfolk shout approval.

"Tomorrow, I'll tell that Marshal to turn her white horse right back around—that West of Eminence is our town!"

Again the townsfolk cheer and whoop and clap and yell and clamor and nod and shout.

Kid Tunney exhales, looks around at his people. He sees most in celebration, but sees others in silence. And then he peeks to his left at his deputy and sees the same.

* * *

In the fading orange sunlight and beneath the creeping purple of night, Kid Tunney and Mini Montana ride on horseback to bring three escaped brown horses back to town from the base of Eminence Peak. They clop past ridged green cacti and craggy red boulders and crippled wagons and cracked cannons on the bushy, pocked mountainside. They have said little to each other since the town discussion about the Marshal's proposal earlier that day.

When they spot the loose animals, the deputy takes action. He speeds up his horse to a gallop and leans forward on its neck and readies his lasso and cocks his wrist and swings and swings and swings and slings the lasso around the neck of the first. He hands off the roped animal to the sheriff and repeats until all three horses fall under their control. The deputy ties the three horses together and leads them in a line back toward the town. Beside the sheriff, the deputy looks ahead and breathes out. He briefly bites his lip, shakes his head.

"Something wrong, Montana?"

"Sir, do you really think selling the town is a bad idea?"

"Lying was something I'd thought I'd grown out of."

"So what you said to the people—that's the truth?"

"It's not fantasy, it's truth. Can't say I'm stunned they feel that way."


"Guys like outlaws, or trappers, or even marshals—they're a problem for me. They don't see the world the way we do. They don't appreciate community the way we do. I left the War because I couldn't see myself fighting for something as big as the country anymore. It happened, and I regret it tremendously."

The deputy says nothing.

"I looked through this old book of mine last night, Montana. It's in some language I can't read but it has tremendous drawings. After that, I dreamed of dead soldiers. They were men of action. They were my friends. I should have fought for them—not for the country, but for them. Just like I should fight for the town. I realize the vitality here. I see myself here. The people do, too."

"But I don't know if I see myself that way."

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"Sir, I fled my homeland because those in charge were making bad choices. Other countries were taking turns taking over, passing around my people like toys. Like they didn't mean anything, sir. I didn't see it as a boy. I just saw their ships and wanted to be a sailor. I was stupid, sir. They made choices that left my family with nothing. I came here to start over. I didn't help my family there, so maybe I could help others here. I think you saw that in me too."

"I did, yes."

"Those who conquered my homeland left us with nothing."

"I'm sorry."

"But sir, now your country wants to give us everything!"

"Money isn't everything, Montana."

"Why not?"

"What have I been trying to tell you? Without realizing it, you've ignored what I said today, what I said yesterday, what I've been saying all along. Money is something that I wanted when I was younger. And it helps people, yes. But community, Montana, freedom—that's what's important."

"Sir, what's more free than getting paid fairly? More than fairly?"

"A free community. Free to create our own lives, make our own decisions."

"Why can't I do that by myself?"

"Because we can't do everything alone."

"Sir, I do not understand."

The sheriff rubs his mustache with his gloved knuckle.

The deputy grips his reins tighter.

"A great many come here, Montana. Why do they stay?"

The deputy pauses.

"Why did you stay?"

"You took me in, sir. I warned you about an outlaw."

"He pointed a gun at me and I didn't see it."

"Yes, sir."

"You saved my life."

The deputy pauses again, nods, and quickly scrunches his nose.

"This town is worth keeping together, Montana. Trust me that it is."

The sheriff places a hand on the deputy's small shoulder, and the deputy says no more. They ride on together and lead the escaped horses back to their community just as white stars begin to stud the night sky.

* * *

The next day, Kid Tunney again sits across from Battling Belle Burke at a booth in the emptied saloon.

"Sheriff, you don't have to clear out the bar every time I walk in."

"A great many walk in here. Not like you though."

"Well, this is a serious matter."

"Yes it is."

"On my way here, I'm thinking to myself: This Sheriff is smart."

"Is that so?"

"I'm thinking, This is a good deal. And it's for his country."

"Seems that way."

"I think, There's no way he gives it up. How'm I doin', Sheriff?"

"That was something I thought about."

"So, what's your answer?"

"It's not my answer. I'm not the only guy who has roots here."

"So what are you saying?"

"It's a great offer. A tremendous, rich offer. But our answer is no."

Burke laughs, pats her straw sombrero on the wooden table.

Kid Tunney pauses.

"This is tragic, Sheriff. Tragic circumstances."

"And why is that?"

"I was serious when I said this was serious. I wanted to see if you'd give us the land voluntarily. Consciously. You seem like a prepared person, a serious man. I was feeling really good about it, Sheriff. But I'm afraid this is not a choice."


"Your country can take this land. By force, if it needs to."

"No, I—no, that can't be."

"Told you this was serious, Sheriff. I came here to ask you politely."

"You shot a cup out of my hand."

"That was me being polite."

Kid Tunney pauses again, stares into Burke's cold, mud-colored eyes. "Without realizing it, I walked into a trap."

"No trap. This is just how it's going to be."

"And how's that?"

"The nation pays you and your people, and you leave."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"All this to build a memorial?"


"A fort would not be a problem for me. A post office maybe."


"But statues and tombstones?"

"This is not supposed to be funny, Sheriff."

"I wasn't saying it was."

"A memorial for the Great Battle enhances respect."


"Yes respect."

"Respect for whom?"

"Respect for the country. But I now see that you don't have it."

Kid Tunney hears the dust swirl and sprinkle outside.

"You haven't had it since you deserted the War, Sheriff." Burke places her hands at her side.

"Is this something you've wanted to do since you were young?"


"Yes, this. Threatening people like us."

"Threatening people . . . "

"In the name of the government."

"So is that what I'm doing?"

"A young kid finds a U.S. Marshal in their town. She sees the horse, the guns, the badge, the authority. It seems to create a rich fantasy life in her head. Is that what happened to you? Were you a young girl so captured by a marshal you saw—maybe a stranger, maybe your father—and it stirred a tremendous dream in you? Is that what happened?"

"It makes sense that you're trying to understand me. It really does."


"But it doesn't matter how I got here or the timing of it."

"It doesn't?"

"No, it doesn't. What matters is the message. Now, what are you going to do?"

Kid Tunney taps the table with his fingertips.

"As I said, Sheriff, these are tragic circumstances."

"Not yet." Kid Tunney pulls back his hand and draws his army revolver up above the table.

"Well forgive me, Sheriff, but you have me giggling."

"I thought you said this was serious."

"It is serious. But whether you know it or not, that gun means nothing."

"Sure feels like something."

"So what's your plan, Sheriff? You're supposed to be so prepared. Now you're trying to shoot a U.S. Marshal in public. And for what? For trying to give you and your people money? I walk in with my hand out, and you stick a gun in my face. You're supposed to be a serious man. But you're not ready for this moment. What will you do: shoot me? And then what? This is not my idea. This comes from the Capital. If you shoot me, another marshal will walk right back in here. And what then? Will you shoot them too?"

"I'm here to protect this town, these people. That's what I've wanted to do since I was young. And I'm here to protect them from any threat, be it a madman with a gun or a marshal with some numbers. These people don't want you here. They want to stay. So that means I don't want you here. I won't leave them. So you just need to put on your sombrero and hop on your white horse and—"

Something jars and clacks and smokes under the table.

Kid Tunney drops his weapon and clutches his gut and gnashes his teeth and wheezes until his mouth runs red and turns in his seat to see the arrival of Mini Montana.

The deputy touches his holster but pauses and looks to Kid Tunney and looks to Burke and to Burke's pistol now above the table and pointed in the deputy's direction and Montana does nothing, nothing at all.

Burke takes the sheriff's revolver from the table and smiles at the deputy. "Congratulations, kid. You're about to be rich."

The End

J. Daniel Camacho lives near Washington, D.C., with his wife and young daughter. He is a member of the Mythopoeic Society and the International Boxing Research Organization. This is his first published short story.

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A Ghost, A Jezebel, and a Bank Manager
by Michael Shawyer

The camp fire spluttered and sparked. Loose Limbed Larry (Big Loose to his friends) lay alongside, tucked up in his bedroll. One eye popped open. Loose Limbed Larry looked around. Cagey, wondering if the fire woke him or something else.

Injuns mebbe?

Big Loose eased his trusty Colt 45 out and looked around. The only movement from Squint, his one-eyed horse.

One eye Big Loose thought, but dang good ears. Lookit him, chompin' calm as you like. Sure nuff caint be no injuns. If'n they about Squint's one eye'd be rolling like he chewed some a that molasses grass 'n' gone nutty. The 'Shoot me in the head' kinda nutty.

Loose Limbed Larry sat up. Itchin' 'n' scratchin'. Dang bed bugs. Gonna give this bedroll a beatin' come sun up.

"Hey Cowboy."

Holy malolley! Big Loose spun around, his gun up and ready to start blasting. Where'd that come from? Who sayed that?

A picture like a leaf falling from a tree settled on his lap.

Wat in tarnation . . .  The picture like nothing he'd ever seen.

"Cowboy, what do these people say to you? Tell me their story."

The same voice and Loose Limbed Larry was flummoxed. He looked at Squint and shook his head. Dang hoss as much use as a three-legged donkey. Munchin', happy as you like.

The voice played back in his head and Loose-limbed Larry nodded. That's sure nuff long-gone Ma.

That explained why Squint was happy. He rolled a cigarette.

Ma, howza ordinary cowherd laik me s'posed tell a story from a dang picture? Three folks a'kissin' while I'm herdin' thousands o' ornery, stubborn, mule-headed longhorns to market? You want me to fickshunalize?

"Cowboy, there'd be plenty time in the saddle for thinkin' Looking for in-spy-ration."

Cowboy, she allus calls me Cowboy. Didn't laik it when the boys come 'round askin' for Big Loose. He grinned. In-spy-ration? Best kinda in-spy-ration comes from Kentucky's finest amber gold. Coupla noggins that 'n' I can spin a yarn right enuf.

Loose Limbed Larry was generally quiet as a possum without inspiration. Then he would hold a glass up to the sky, pause a moment and swallow it down. Slam the glass on the counter.

"Fillerup agin Jimbo. Aaah what the heck, leave the dang bottle."

Thinkin' o' amber gold always fired up Loose Limbed Larry.

Better do wat Ma says. Make up some story 'bout them three folks in that dang pichoor. Don't noways want her a'haunting me.

He'd become Big Runnin' in no time at all.

Sure as aigs is aigs there somint 'bout that grey ghostie woman in the pichoor. Standin', watchin', a'pouting behind other two that's lining up a smooch. She suggesting somint with that there pout? Dang if she don't have the look o' somun he knew. Daisy from down Denver way?

Daisy from down Denver way could make the grass grow in a desert that hadn't seen rain in a hundred days.

Nope this'un way too skinny for Denver Daisy. Loose Limbed Larry chuckled. Ah seen more meat on a trail herder's whip.

"Waitup! Waitup a hog-tying minute! Tie me to a waggon wheel ifen it ain't Jesse, that schemin' Jezebel from Juniper Crossin'!"

He scrutinised the picture. Eyebrows, eyes. Shore nuff fit Jesse, straight from Satan's locker.

One look from her could make a trail-weary cowherd fandango the night away. Come mornin' Jesse would be all fan-dan-go-ed out and heading for the hills. A lonely cowherd left behind with nothing but a headache the size of Tennessee, pockets wrong way out and money belt emptier than her cold, cold heart.

Ahma givin' up thinkin' 'bout pictures 'n' dang Jezebels.

Loose Limbed Larry changed track. Time I was a 'searchin' out four-legged critters a'munchin' when they shud be a' marchin'.

He rounded them up with a few 'Yee haws' and 'Yip, Yip, Yips.' Quick Draw Charley McGraw drew up alongside and they dropped to the back of the herd, eating trail dust.

Quick Draw, fastest gun this side a' Pecos, according to Quick Draw.

Loose Limbed Larry had a picture playing on his mind and studied the male wearing a suit. He shore was sum kinda fancy dan. Maybe he booted-up rodeo style. Cain't see no clodhoppers.

Loose Limbed Larry moved on to the blonde facing the 'Fancy Dan'. Holy schmoley she look like sum kinda nun. Dang eyes closed. Shame. Kin read a lot from eyes . . . 

He twisted the picture to one side and his breath quickened. Shore nuff somint strange as strange can be 'bout her face, eyelashes longer'n a pole cat's. Sly, schemin', upta no good. Defnit so.

He turned to the final face of the three. A grey-faced female watching the other two.

They don't know she a'watchin! Ah plumb gotcha! Ain't Denver Daisy, ain't Jesse the Juniper Crossing Jezebel! She a night-time, day-time, anytime you like time gen-you-wine heebie-jeebies spook!

Loose Limbed Larry shivered. Wat a spook at spyin' on would-be smoochers? What fer? She a Pinkerton spook? Or wanna mix in with that kissy-kissy stuff?

A heifer was straying from the herd and he nudged his horse off to the side. "Yeehaw, yip, yip."

Naa nunna that. Polterghosts get plenty socialisin', gotta be whole lot of them wandrin' 'bout. He nodded. Anyways get up close with a ghost whats gonna happen? Reach out 'n touch um . . . Goddam hand go straight thru!

Loose Limbed Larry smiled. Mebbe's she lost? How in tarnation a polterghost git lost? Don't seem right nohow. They'n just up and walk thru' walls. Wunder if they'n see through 'em an'all?

"I'ma gittin' there, workin' this picture out. Guessin' what these three muffins at."

His brain buzzed like a swarm of hornets.

She musta plumb wandered in. 'Splains the poutin'. She a rootin' tootin' ghost of a Wild West jezebel? One that done turned her toes up? Must be, only answer. Mebbe's made a fool a' some lonely cowherd 'n' he catched her up, long the trail outaways from nowhere. Reclaim his possessions, his hoss. Give her the old heave ho. The non-wake-up kinda heave ho.

Loose Limbed Larry chuckled. Now she a grey ghostie in a picture.

"Hey Big Loose."

He looked around, Quick Draw Charley McGraw, "I'll git these 'uns back in line."

Loose Limbed Larry nodded, his mind busy on suited maybe booted. He just a dope, bin hornswoggled by that there polecat nun. Bringing me a remind tho', Jimbo Fancy Pants Jackson. That bank manager down Kansas way. Him of the fancy cigar, fancier women and the biggest Stetson hat in all of the wild west.

"Hey Cowboy."

"Ma?" He looked at the sky.

"Keep your mind on telling me this story."

"Yes Ma." He touched the brim of his Stetson.

"You're doing OK so far."

He nodded. Last up, that there Blondie. Sly. A butter wouldn't melt, closed eye polecat of a nun. Cud be a whole lot more'n wat I see, mebbe a spell-making fire-breathing crank-pot witch?

His brain buzzed like a swarm a hornets.

Mixing up them herbs, leave's 'n twigs, bones. Chanting, 'Hoomagooley-gim-umchalla-cacannyah-cacallachoo.' All that rubbish. Abracadabry work just as well. She'd done magicked up Mr. suited maybe booted. Potioned him a bit. That's how I see it Ma. I gotta a Ghost, a Jezebel 'n' a Bank Manager.

"Well done Cowboy. Good story, I'll send another picture soon."

Loose Limbed Larry was pleased he'd made Ma happy. It was time to stop sleuthing faces in pictures, story-telling. Pick up the pace, might make Abilene first thing in the morning.

Git paid up 'n go visit Mr Kentucky Gold.

The End

Despite early signs of penmanship Mick's journey through life showed little sign of story-telling and it wasn't until 2018, whilst in South Africa, that he started punching the keys on his laptop. He hit some mid-table success with competitions and magazines started publishing his work. Lit eZine Magazine, Ariel Chart, Secret Attic, Neurological Magazine, Apricot Press, Shorts Magazine, Revolutionary Press, Fictionette Magazine, A Thousand Lives & More Magazine.

In December 2021 he moved to a Township in Kwa Zulu Natal. The only white person in a self-governing Zulu community. He is currently homeless in the UK.

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