Sunday, May 26, 2013

BELATED Serial Saturday: "A Writer's Tale", Pt. 9

I whirled around; Charlie stood behind me, just in the act of peeking into the storeroom!
            “What are you doing here?” I demanded of him.
            His Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped. “I’m sorry if I startled you,” he apologized, though between the two of us, he was definitely the more conscience-stricken, “I just came in to see if I could get some food.”
            I hadn’t even realized till that moment that I had never seen Charlie with the other pirates for a meal. I tried to keep the horror from my face as I asked, “Charlie…do you eat on your own?”
            Charlie shrugged, “When I can get food—well,” he flushed bright red and hung his shaggy head, “my friend gets food for me.”
            I blinked quickly. The pieces fell together in my mind. I ducked inside the storeroom, coming out with a few rolls, some fruit, and a small pot with the lid tied on. I spread it all out on the table.
            “This friend of yours doesn’t happen to have four paws and a tail, now, does he?” I nudged the pot toward him.
            Charlie was very confused till he lifted the lid. His eyes lit up as the mangy monkey sprang from its prison and flung itself around the neck of its master.
            “Marquis!” Charlie greeted him warmly, “I wondered where you’d got to!”
            “I caught him sneaking food behind my back,” I said, free to laugh now at the monkey’s antics instead of being angry or scared. “If I had known he was on such a noble mission, I wouldn’t have prevented him.”
            Charlie caught my meaning and gave me a grateful smile. I winked and nodded.
            “I’ll always make sure I have food for you, Charlie,” I promised.

            Lucky enough, I was able to keep my promise. Whenever we would dock, Captain Gale would send me out with an escort, to purchase supplies, but all I had to do was say something like, “And she bought all she needed for far less coins than she carried, and in short order everything was loaded into the ship’s storeroom,” and the next minute, I would be standing in the galley looking at a full larder while Jerry took the remainder of the gold back to Captain Wendy. I made sure at each meal to set aside a portion for Charlie, and every meal, while I washed the dishes, Marquis would come swinging into the galley to pick it up.

            In this way, I grew accustomed to my new post as galley-maid. Everything seemed to go well for me. I could remain on the ship while Wendy and her pirate band plundered and pillaged, and she would return happy from a successful raid. Keeping her happy, too, was my imagination full of all sorts of delectable, rich dishes. Of course I could never leave the galley, but I soon became a general favorite around the ship; some of the pirates even began to regard me as a sort of good-luck charm, as they experienced good food and fortune beyond what they had gotten before. After a few days, my green dress from Phantom Gulch became excessively soiled and worn, so, with Charlie’s help, I traded it for a leather jerkin, trousers, and sturdy boots like the other pirates wore. I even tied my hair back in a kerchief. It was much easier to move in this outfit, and I felt like a real pirate!
            Only one pirate frowned on my association with Charlie: the first mate, Jerry. In spite of how well he had treated me in the beginning, he still barked orders to me and to Charlie, calling us “galley-maid” and “cabin-boy,” and he absolutely hated Marquis.
            “That blasted devil-screecher!” he would fume, with many more foul oaths, “I’ll wring its neck if I get my hands on it!” But he never did.

            One day I was just “dreaming up” a supper of fried chicken and steamed vegetables, when the lookout raised a cry.
            “Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!”
            I dared to stick my head out of the door at the top of the ladder. Every pirate stood leeward, with Captain Wendy out of her cabin, standing on the poop deck with a spyglass in her hand.
            “I see…” she called out, “Her Majesty’s colors! It’s the Phantom!
            The pirates answered her cry with venomous oaths. The Captain began rapping out orders.
            “All hands to the sails! Let’s get the wind at our backs, boys! There’s enough distance, they can’t cover it in time!”
            Jerry barked out orders to various pirates, and the ship turned out of the wind and began burrowing through the sea at a quick pace. Captain Wendy stood proudly at the door of her cabin, enjoying the breeze that swept over the ship, spurring it onward.
            “That’s my pretty!” she murmured, “That’s my lively girl!”
            “Captain!” the lookout hollered from the crow’s nest, “The Phantom’s spotted us! She’s giving chase, ma’am!”
            Captain Wendy didn’t budge. “Let her come!” She challenged brazenly. “She’ll never catch us! The Admiral’s tried too hard every time, and every time we’ve managed outdistance him!”
            “Who’s the Admiral?” I asked Charlie, who was curled up behind some barrels, out of sight of the Captain. Marquis tumbled about his lap, frequently diving into Charlie’s collar in spite of the young man’s attempts at keeping him out of there.
            “A seaman in Her Majesty’s service,” Charlie answered, “Captain Gale’s mortal enemy. He usually goes after the smaller pirate vessels, minor miscreants, which we can then sneak in and overhaul from the other side, and get away before he can get the Phantom away from the other ship.” He chuckled, probably remembering some of the trickier “overhauls.” His smile faded, and he glanced toward the stern pensively. “We’ve never come across him in the open sea like this, alone as he is,” he remarked. “It may not take him long to catch us; the Phantom is the best ship in the Royal Navy.”
            Sure enough, it wasn’t more than half an hour before the lookout cried, “Captain Gale, they’re gaining on us! The Phantom is signaling us to slow down, or they will shoot!”
            “If it’s a fight he wants,” Gale shrieked back brazenly, “It’s a fight he’ll get! All unnecessary hands get below decks! The rest of you swabs prepare the cannons!”
            “Aye-aye!” the pirates chorused, and I took the hint: I was an “unnecessary hand.” I dove down to the galley, while Jerry got his hands on Charlie’s collar.
            “Cabin-boy!” he barked, “Make yerself useful an’ get below with the cannons! Make sure the gunwales is fastened tight!”
“Aye-aye, sir!” I heard Charlie reply, then his quick, light step across the deck to the hold where the cannons waited. I cowered under the table in the galley, listening as the ship heeled and bucked, the cannons blasted, and the pirates shouted at one another. At some point I could hear the distinct sound of another ship coming very close alongside ours. Lucky for me, the cannons on the HMS Phantom were trained on the upper part of the ship; for some reason, I didn’t think the Admiral wanted to mar the ship, only to beat it into submission. Captain Wendy, on the other hand, couldn’t care less for the Phantom, and directed the cannons to blast it on the hull wherever they could score a hit.
            As the fight wore on, I heard a distinct change in the tone of the shouts coming from above. A pirate managed to stagger to the top of the ladder down into the galley before he collapsed onto the deck above and expired. His cutlass fell from his hand and clattered down the steps. Quickly, I leaped from my hiding place and grabbed it, never knowing when or if I would need to use it.
            I heard Captain Gale call, “All hands to the planks! Let’s bring this battle to the Admiral himself!” The pirates whooped and hollered, and I heard the sounds of their voices carry beyond the rail of the pirate ship. They were boarding the Phantom! Surely that meant the battle would be over soon! I stood up to perhaps be able to watch the battle from my hiding place in the galley. I froze as soon as I could and caught my breath.
            A red-coated soldier stood in the galley, scanning the shadows carefully in search of something! I ducked back behind the counter, hoping that he had not noticed me. I heard his careful, quiet step on the floor, and decided that confrontation might be a better plan than hiding and waiting. I gave a fierce (I thought) yell and stood, holding the cutlass in both hands over my head.
            The soldier stumbled back a few paces in fright. He recovered quickly, though, and brought his bayonet around to block my blow. I, of course, had no idea how exactly to fight with a sword, much less a blade as heavy and curved as the cutlass. What I lacked in skill, though, I made up for in sheer willpower. I hacked and lunged at that soldier, who had little recourse but to give way before my onslaught. He tried to get some blows in himself, throwing things at me and jabbing at me with his bayonet, but I simply whacked everything that came within two feet of me, and continued advancing on him. Further and further I drove him, wondering all the time what exactly I would do if I ended up killing him, when a large hand erupted from the shadows and cold-cocked the soldier in one blow.
            I gasped as Jerry himself strode into the light. He had saved my life, but all he did was sneer at me.
            “You’ll end up killing yerself with that thing, the way you’re using it,” he said, reaching for the cutlass, “Give it ‘ere.”
            His arms were longer than mine, so, shirk as I might, he got hold of it and I had to give it up.
            “What else am I going to use, then?” I asked.
            “Take this,” Jerry casually flipped a small dagger over his shoulder, and it buried a good half-inch into the table in front of me. “It’s about the only weapon you’ll ever be able to use!” he chuckled as he ran up the ladder and back into the fray.
            I followed him, intent on getting in on the action myself, and proving to him that I was no clumsy coward, when something dark and furry landed on my face. I screamed and swiped at it with the dagger, but a hand closed around mine, and a voice said, “Laura! It’s okay, it’s me!”
            I opened my eyes to see Charlie and Marquis (the thing that had grabbed my head). He completely ignored the melee going on across the decks as he looked at me very seriously.
            “Something is wrong,” he said.
            I scratched the kerchief on my head. “What is?” I asked him. He pushed me back down the ladder into the galley, where we could watch the fray without having to be a part of it.
            “Watch carefully,” he said, “you see those pirates?”

            I saw them, but the particular group he designated didn’t seem to be fighting the soldiers as much as they had in the beginning. I noticed the clothes didn’t quite seem to fit as they used to, either. Come to think of it—
            “Those aren’t pirates!” I cried.
            Charlie nodded, “I knew something was strange when it seemed like the Admiral wasn’t putting up as much of a fight; the soldiers are taking pirate clothes and smearing scum on their faces to masquerade as pirates, while the real pirates are all boarding the Phantom.”
            “They’re trading ships?” I cried. “What good will that do?”
            Charlie shook his head, “Well, for one thing, I’m sure Captain Wendy and her crew are thinking that they are cutting down the Admiral’s forces over on the decks of the Phantom; meanwhile, the Admiral’s men are all on this ship—there’s no telling what they’ll do with it, once they have it.”

            Charlie and I waited in the shadows. It wasn’t long before we found out just what the Admiral intended to do with the pirate ship. He boarded it himself, right under the pirates’ noses. He stood proudly at the helm and shot off his pistol to get everyone’s attention.
            “This ship is now the property of Her Majesty the Queen,” he yelled, “All supplies and—spoils are subsequently confiscated!”
            “Oy!” I heard Captain Wendy screech from the decks of the Phantom, “I’ve got your man ‘ere! What’ll you give to get ‘im back, eh?”
            The Admiral waved his hand, “Slit his throat for all I care! But know that when you do, I will in turn sever these ropes connecting our two ships, and leave you with my empty vessel, while I sail away in yours—which, judging by it’s low-hanging decks, is quite full.”
            I winced at the foul protests of the pirate crew. The Admiral and the militia still hadn’t noticed the two figures cowering just out of sight below decks.
            The Admiral fired off his pistol again, silencing everyone. “Surrender!” He barked, “Or we’re weighing anchor!”
            We didn’t hear any reply, but Wendy must have given the order to drop their weapons, because the next thing we heard was the Admiral dispensing orders to bind the whole crew and lock them in the brig of the Phantom. Some of the militia left the pirate ship, while the others set about moving the vast amounts of gold and treasure the pirates had amassed, which Captain Wendy had stored in the empty cabin adjacent to hers. The Admiral stood right next to the door to the galley as he gave orders to his captain.
            “I wanted this ship only as long as it held anything of value,” he said, “once the last of that gold is off, it holds nothing for me. Stow the gold in the hold, right next to the brig, just to tease the pirates, and once it’s done, sink this measly plague-hole.”
            “Aye-aye, sir.”
            Charlie and I looked at each other in alarm.
            “We’ve got to warn the others!” he hissed at me.
            An idea formed in my head. “You wait here,” I said, “I’ll take Marquis and sneak onto the Phantom. When I signal, come on over.”
            The monkey obliged and perched on my shoulder.
            “How are you going to get off?” Charlie asked, but I ignored him and crept carefully up the ladder and out of the galley.
            Only Marquis heard the words I whispered as I did so. “Silently, she made her way over the deck. No one noticed her. Presently, she arrived in the ship’s hold, where Captain Wendy and all her crew languished in irons.”
            I made it across the deck without being seen. Rather boldly, I stepped onto the gangplank and calmly walked across to the deck of the Phantom. Not one person so much as glanced in my direction. I was completely invisible.
            I crept into the hold. The crew indeed “languished,” having no hope of escape as they sat behind iron bars, thoroughly shackled. I saw the soldier posted to guard them greedily wolfing down a chicken leg.
            “He ate hungrily,” I murmured from the shadows, “but his bites came so swiftly that one part of the meat slipped too easily into his windpipe, and quite suddenly, the guard discovered that he could not breathe.” The man suddenly stopped and looked up, and I wondered if, instead of the scenario I had described, he had actually heard my voice, but suddenly he began pounding on his chest and opening his mouth wide in a futile attempt to dislodge the obstruction.
            “No amount of coughing or pounding could move it,” I murmured, “gurgling softly, the man slowly suffocated and sank noiselessly to the deck.” I looked on in satisfaction as the man did just that. Finally, I stepped forward into the open, knowing that there would be no fear of my discovery.
            “What—the galley-maid?” Captain Stormy burst out, unable to contain her surprise. She glanced at the guard in a heap on the deck. “He just…passed out,” she murmured.
            “I know,” I said. “I saw it.”
            I was already bent over his ponderous form when the captain recovered her composure enough to start behaving like her old self again.
            “The keys!” she hissed needlessly, for I was already in the act of slipping the ring off the man’s belt. I tossed them into the cage.
            “Unshackle yourselves,” I instructed, “but don’t open the cage just yet.” I could see a few of them glancing hungrily toward the crates piled high with the treasure that “belonged” to the pirates. “I will get you all weapons.”
            “Are you bloody mad?” Captain Gale insisted, “The whole deck is crawling with militia! How is a galley-maid supposed to know anything about fighting?”
            I frowned at her, “I’m sorry; here, give me those keys back and you can figure out how to get out of the cage and get past the militia all on your own!” Wendy clutched the keys close to her chest in case I was serious. I shrugged, “I have a plan. And I have reinforcements.”
            Wendy glanced around the cell. “What reinforcements? My whole crew is here!”
            I glanced toward the rafters, where Marquis had been amusing himself. He dropped down to join me, waving amiably at the prisoners.
            “That blooming monkey!” Jerry was heard to swear at the sight of him.
            “Yes, a monkey and a cabin-boy,” I answered. “The three of us are going to help you escape…” and as a bonus I added, “—with the gold.” That did the trick. I had their attention now. I raised a finger, “But you have to do as I say, and right now, that means waiting in this cell.”
            I climbed back up to the deck. “Silently, invisibly, she snuck through the shadows,” I murmured, “across the deck to the armory. The militia still milled about their business, waiting till the ship was ready to sink before they would finally cut ties.”
            To make the process take longer for the militia, I sent Marquis over to the pirate ship, each time carrying a bag of gold treasure, which he would deposit in various places around the ship. Each time the Admiral commissioned “one last check” before they brought on the gunpowder, a soldier would discover the fresh cache, and that warranted another search of the whole ship while the cache was being delivered. The whole time Her Majesty’s militia remained completely unaware that just over their heads another cache came onto the ship as the current discovery left.
            I got to the armory (which I had placed directly across from the brig, making it easy for myself), used a belt I borrowed from the unconscious guard to string many swords together, and grabbed several pistols. The pirates were impressed beyond anything when I showed up and gave them their weapons.
            “Almost ready,” I said, “Just one more thing.” I carefully opened a porthole at the side of the hold and whistled, signaling Charlie. He did not respond for several minutes, then I saw his stringy form climbing the rigging—right over the heads of the Admiral and the remaining crew returning to the Phantom!
            “The Admiral’s coming!” I cried. “Get ready!”
            The minute Charlie’s feet hit the deck, I yelled, “Now!”
            The pirates were ready. They swarmed out as one body, flooding over the deck and driving the militia back across the ropes and the gangplanks bridging the two ships. I saw the Admiral’s dinghy weaving back and forth. Charlie joined me, breathing hard and wearing a huge grin. I pointed to the dinghy.
            “He can’t decide which boat to go to:  his own, or the one his crew is on.”

            Charlie laughed at some secret he held. “That doesn’t matter,” he said, “Soon, he won’t have to decide.”
            “What do you mean?” I asked, but just then, Captain Wendy began barking out orders.
            “That’s the last of ‘em!” she said as the last soldier leaped over the railing and into the sea. Those who did not fancy swimming had made their “escape” onto the pirate ship. Wendy had won!
            “Cast off!” she roared, and the pirates pulled up the gangplanks and weighed anchor.
            Charlie was still watching the ship.
            The Admiral stood nobly in his dinghy, shaking his fist at the retreating ship.
            “I will follow you, Captain Gale!” he cried, “You haven’t seen the last—“


            As he was speaking, a terrific explosion ripped through the pirate ship. Charlie laughed, and I had to join, seeing how pathetic the soldiers were, now that the ship was sinking and all they had left were the stock of lifeboats onboard.
            “A pity,” a voice spoke from behind us. Charlie and I turned guiltily to face Captain Wendy Gale herself. She continued, “I did so love that ship. She was a fast one, that.” She frowned at us. I could tell Charlie was beginning to regret his actions. Captain Gale stalked toward him till they were practically toe-to-toe. “I don’t think we could have escaped it, not in this tub!”
            Charlie’s shoulders sagged with relief as Captain Wendy threw back her head and laughed, tossing her arms over our shoulders from between us. “I couldn’t have thought of a better plan myself,” she said, “and to think that I had a cabin-boy after me own heart!” She reached around and pinched his cheek. “We’ll make a pirate out of you yet, boy!”
            I was about to add something, but Marquis caught my eye. He seemed to be carrying a mysterious object, one that looked surprisingly modern for a nineteenth-century ship such as this. I slipped away from Wendy and Charlie to follow the monkey. Marquis, whether he knew I was following him or not, moved quickly, as if he did not want to be seen. He opened a door and swung down into darkness. I followed. I carefully stepped down the ladder, but as the door slammed shut behind me, and the blackness enveloped me, I knew something was very wrong. Was it a trap?
            “Hello?” I called.
            My voice seemed to echo a long ways, much too long for a ship’s hold. Where was I?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Serial Saturday: "A Writer's Tale", Part 8

I raised my head. I could still hear the creaking of wood, like footsteps on the floor, but this time I heard the sound of rushing water as well. A man—tall, brawny, and wearing seaman's clothes—stood staring at my hiding spot, glaring and waiting for me to emerge. I decided to go with a more timid approach. I raised my hands.
"Please don't hurt me," I begged, "I was only looking for safe passage! I wasn't going to bother anyone!"
The man grabbed my arm so hard it hurt.
"Why couldn't ye take it up wi' the Captain then, eh? Yer nothin' but a measly stowaway, an' the Captain's got no time for those!" He twisted my arm behind my back and used his other hand to cover my mouth. "I could just slit yer throat 'ere, an' slip you overboard, quiet-like, see, then all my problems would be solved."
I was powerless against him, thoroughly petrified by fear. He shoved me toward a shorter keg I could use for a stool.
"Start talking," he growled, "What was you doing behind those barrels?"
I thought fast; what would a stowaway be doing on a ship? I hung my head and looked very sad.
"I'm running away," I whispered.
"What?" the sailor barked.
"I'm running away!" I screamed like a girl with nothing left to lose. The story seemed to tumble out of its own accord.
"I'm from Port Aida, I've been hiding on this ship since you left there. I am only a servant girl whose mistress had died, leaving me as property to her daughter, who from the day she was born only thought of how she could make my life miserable. I knew it was only a matter of time before you or one of the others caught me," the tears began to well in my eyes, "and I know I deserve to die for doing this, but I would rather die than remain in the service of that horrible woman!" I was so worked up with believing my own story that I was having trouble calming myself down after I finished.
A large hand steadied my shoulder, and the sailor himself knelt in front of me, all the suspicion and gruffness gone as he gently brushed the tears from my cheeks with his calloused hands.
"Aye," he agreed, "I'd ha' bought you off myself, if only just to spite the she-devil. No person should be passed handed around like a china tea set or a prize animal. I'll take you to Cap'n Stormy; if you're true about wantin' a place on this ship, Cap'n will find one for you." He beckoned for me to follow him as he left the room. I stood and stumbled after him as best I could on a rocking boat.
"Can you cook?" the man asked over the roar of the ocean.
"Sort of!" I replied. "Why?"
"I think I know just the post for you!"

He led me over the slippery deck. I saw a ragged bunch of scruffy sailors, many with earrings and head-rags. They all nursed weapons of some sort. Some swigged rum or grog. Men and women alike, they all looked strong, well-fed, and dangerous. These weren't just sailors, then; they were pirates! I had left the West behind and gone straight to a pirate ship on the high seas!
The man now leading me commanded a sort of silent respect from the others, I noticed; perhaps he was first mate, then? He rapped on the door to the captain's cabin. I heard muffled voices, but no one answered the door.
"Oy! Cabin boy!" the pirate barked.
A shaggy head with a smooth face appeared on the deck over the door.
"Aye, sir?" the cabin-boy (who did not look much younger than I was) responded.
"Somebody to see the Cap'n," he jerked his thumb at me. "Sounds like trouble in there."
The boy—or rather, young man—leaped lightly over the balustrade to land in front of us.
"I'll check on the Captain for you," he pushed the door—which really hadn't been barred in any way—open.
The mate shoved him inside. "Get in there, boy! Do your job!"
The door closed after him, and the mate turned back to me.
"A word of introduction while we wait," he said, "My name's Jerry, I'm the first mate on this ship; and you are—" He paused.
"Laura." Another Jerry! Somehow, now that he said it, I knew it couldn't have been anything else. He almost reminded me of Sheriff Jerry—if his manner was not so rough.
"What's the cabin boy's name?" I asked.
Jerry snorted, "Him? Ah, Charlie, I think it is; most of us call him cabin boy, his name's not worth much." A scowl darkened his face, "You'll want to keep a weather eye out for the Marquis, though."
"Who's that?"
Just at that moment, we both heard a woman's voice shrieking loudly at something from within, and Charlie poked his head out, looking like a freshly-beaten dog. "The Captain will see you now," he announced.
"Ah-ha," Jerry laughed as he strolled into the cabin, "They don't call her Captain Stormy for nothing!"
Her? The Captain of this deadly-looking crew was a woman?

A tall black armchair stood behind a desk strewn with maps, plates of old food, and dirty goblets. Jerry waited patiently behind me for the Captain.

"What are you doing here, Jerry?" a hard, heavily-accented voice asked slowly. "Did I not give direct orders that I was not to be disturbed until the next port?" Her voice rose to a shriek and she turned to face us.
Thick, heavy auburn hair framed a dusky, exotic face. Her eyes shone like emeralds, even as she glared at us.
"Who is this?" she demanded.
I stepped forward. "I'm Laur—"
"I wasn't talkin' ta you!" she thundered. "Jerry! You hidin' city girls in yer berth ag'in?"
I glanced down at the green dress I still wore from Phantom Gulch.
"No, Cap'n," Jerry responded quickly. "This'n I found hidin' behind some barrels in the hold. Stowaway from Port Aida."
"I have no use for stowaways," The Captain's voice was cold and inhuman as Captain Gayle's had been, "Slit 'er throat and leave her for the sharks." She turned around without a second glance.
Jerry waited.
Finally, the captain turned around again. She pursed her dark red lips in mild irritation. "Why are you still standing here?"
Jerry shoved me forward. "Per'aps ye should let the gell speak for 'erself."
Captain Stormy rolled her eyes, "What's yer name, girl?" she grumbled.
"Laura, Captain."
"Out of all the ships in the harbor, ye had to walk inta mine. What did you expect to find, eh?"
"Adventure, Captain Stormy, ma'am."


If I had even seen the dagger coming, I probably would have flinched and so lost a finger. As matters stood, though, I had no idea what the noise meant till I looked down and saw the razor-sharp silver blade buried in the stack of papers right between my outspread fingers. When I looked up again, the Captain's face was so near my own I could smell the wine and rum on her breath.
"You will never mention that name in my presence for the rest of your life, or I swear it will be the last thing you say." She dropped back into her seat. "The name's Gale, Captain Wendy Gale, Terror of the Main, and don't you forget it!"
I nodded, "Yes, Captain Gale."
Captain Gale pulled the dagger out of the desk and sheathed it. "So, my dimwitted first mate brings me a hussy," she addressed Jerry again, and turned her jade fire upon him. "What does he expect me to do with it?"
"She can cook, Cap'n."
Wendy turned her dubious gaze on me and raised her eyebrows. "Can she, now? Well, that'll save me the ducats if we can eat as well at sea as we do in port. Maybe my pigs-for-pirates won't spend so much spoil on port-victuals if they could get free meals for naught!" She waved her hand, "Very well; enjoy the adventures of being a galley-maid, Laura."
I nodded, and turned to leave the room.
"Wait!" Captain Gale's voice stopped me like the lash of a whip. I turned.
"Take the dishes with you; I'm finished with them. See if you can get me and my crew something fine for supper."
I turned and gathered the plates and goblets.
Jerry walked out behind me. "I'll show ye where the galley is," he said.

He led me aft, down a cramped stairwell to a tiny, unkempt area that smelled like rancid meat and rotten vegetables. I lifted the skirts of my green dress away from the nameless goo coating the floors.
Jerry snorted, "I s'pose first ye'll have ta clean the place afore you can use it," he observed, "The last cook ain't had time ta finish afore Storm blasted him overboard." He sniggered at his own pun. "Good luck, Laura!" he clumped back up the stairs.

I was at the brink of despair as I looked around at all the work I would have to do. Sure, it wasn't life-threatening, but still! There's not much adventure to be had scrubbing pans and floors!
            “Reluctantly,” I muttered, picking up the soiled sponge next to the basin of dirty water, “she fell to work. Once she finished, she stood back and surveyed the now-spotless kitchen.” I closed my eyes as the sponge came in contact with the goop.
            When I opened them again, I was staring at the clean, smooth surface of well-polished wood. My head spun as I stood to my feet. The dishes were washed, the surfaces were clean, and my arms were as sore as if I had done all these things—but I had no recollection of going through the motions. I glanced out a porthole to where I could see a patch of sky. It was about mid-afternoon at this point; time had passed, but to me it all seemed but a moment. What was going on?
            I recalled how my narration tended to have bearing on the events taking place around me. Here in the galley, I had narrated my own actions—and it came to pass, just as it did when I talked about someone else! I glanced around the kitchen, at the tiny door to the storeroom with its musty, foreign smells wafting from the room. What other miracles could I work out by narrating?
            I walked toward the storeroom. “Peering in,” I narrated, “she discovered among the rotted, old, unused vegetables enough roots, and a cured side of meat, to make a hearty stew, which she soon had simmering deliciously on the small stove.”
            Another head-spinning turn, and the next second, I stood over a large pot of stew, stirring gently and smelling the heavenly scent of cooked herbs and meat. On the table behind me sat the tall stack of used cooking implements, as if I had gone through the whole process of cooking the meal and preparing the vegetables, but I had no memory of it.
            “Oy!” Jerry appeared at the top of the ladder. “Cap’n wants to know if the stew is ready!”
            “It is,” I answered, quickly ladling the meal into a small pot with a lid apparently kept on hand for that purpose. I climbed the ladder with it, wishing to win favor with the captain by delivering it myself, but Jerry stopped me.
            “Gimme that,” he growled, snatching the pot from me. He hollered toward the bow, “Oy! Cabin boy!”
            The boy called Charlie obediently scurried toward the burly first mate. Jerry shoved the pot into his hands. “Take this to the Cap’n,” he ordered.
            Charlie’s eyes seemed to glint as he felt the warmth of the pot. I saw his sunken cheeks and wondered if the other cook had fed him as well as the rest of the crew before I joined the adventure.
            “Aye, sir,” he murmured, and scuttled back toward Captain Gale’s cabin.
            “All right, lads!” Jerry called, once Charlie disappeared, “Supper’s hot! Eat fast and return to your posts!”
            I realized that they couldn’t leave the ship completely unmanned, so the pirates would eat in shifts, leaving enough men on deck to maintain the ship’s course. I spotted a coil of rope beside some barrels that looked inviting enough. I went to sit down and rest my legs for a bit. Jerry snatched my shoulder.
            “Where do you think yer goin’?” He growled at me, pushing me back toward the ladder. “Get down there and draw us some ale, girl! We’re all thirsty!”
            The constant flow of pirates meant that I was busy the whole time, clearing mugs, moving dirty dishes, refilling pitchers, all in that cramped space below decks. At last, the final pirate wiped his mouth on his sleeve and stomped up the ladder to whatever job he had on the ship. I was alone with a mound of dirty dishes, bone-weary and a bit bewildered. Never had I imagined that this sort of thing would happen in my lifetime. I turned and began the daunting task of scrubbing pots and bowls.
            A scrabbling noise caused me to stop. Did this ship have rats in the vegetables? I scanned the shadows in the main area of the hold. Nothing moved. I whirled quickly—and came face to face with a monkey, hanging by its tail from the rafters as it plucked fruits from the bowls on the table!
            “Hey!” I yelled, and the monkey transferred the fruit to its foot-paws while batting me away with one forepaw. Gamely, I squinted against his onslaught and reached for the oranges in his claws, but he suddenly swung away from me, and I ran into the heavy table. The monkey chattered victoriously as it swung out of sight.

            At the next meal, I watched the pirates warily, trying to figure out which one would be the likeliest to keep a thieving monkey for a pet. The monkey was obviously stealing food, but not for itself. When I turned around after washing up following breakfast, the monkey was back, picking off rolls, and slipping out before I could get my hands on it. It would take cunning to catch this animal. I would catch it and hold it for ransom till its owner came to claim it.
            The next meal, I tied a string around a banana, and fastened the other end around my arm. Sure enough, I was just beginning to wash the bowls when my hand flew away of its own volition. Turning quickly, I did not even give the creature a chance to know it had been fooled before I pulled hard on the string (and the monkey), stuffing the little thief into a pot and tying down the lid so it couldn’t escape. I waited for supper.
            That evening, I was the perfect picture of innocence as I sent Captain Gale’s portion away with Charlie (who was looking worse than ever), and ignored the screeching protests coming from the little pot in the storeroom. None of the pirates seemed to be missing anything; they were their same garrulous selves. No one even glanced suspiciously in my direction.
            I watched them all till the last pirate stumped upstairs, laughing at the amount of alcohol in his system. My plan to unearth the monkey’s owner had failed. I went back to doing the dishes. I had nearly finished the last pot when I heard a suspicious creaking noise.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Hit List: Top 5 TV Shows

All right... in light of the fact that ALL of my favorite TV shows that I am currently watching had INCREDIBLE episodes in the last week... I figured it was time for a new Hit List! :)

In no specific order (just whichever one came to mind first), here are 5 of my Top Favorite TV Shows!

1. Psych
The Basics: Energetic, charismatic Shawn Spencer, the son of a retired cop, uses his eidetic memory and keen observation skills to help the local police department solve crimes. The Twist: in order to avoid being named a suspect himself, and unable to fully explain his ability, he has convinced the police that his dead-on observations stem from a psychic ability.

Where They Nailed It: Psych nails it for sheer variety. For most shows, after about five seasons, the pattern emerges and the arcs begin looking familiar and replayed or drawn out. Not Psych. It is well into it's seventh season, and I still have no idea where each episode is going to end up. The guest appearances are exciting, the characters are endearing, and the banter is first-rate.

Where They Missed: I'm starting to get a bit annoyed at the relationship uncertainty the writers keep playing up. It's cute to see characters get together; to tear them apart again when things are about to culminate seems more like a cruel twist of fate and a failed attempt at "spice." You'd think that writers who craft such unique seasons full of one inventive episode after another wouldn't need the added drama... But apparently there are those who disagree...

Overall: Fabulous show. It has the capacity to keep going as long as possible.

2. Person Of Interest
The Basics: In response to the events of 9/11, the government saw fit to commission the development of a program, The Machine, that can access any sort of electronic record: e-mails, documents, phone calls, receipts, with the purpose of detecting terrorist movements before they strike. A millionaire computer genius builds the program, then, to keep the government from controlling and manipulating it, seals it up so no one can access it. The largest issue with the machine is that though it can read everything, the government is only interested in those crimes related to terrorism. All the other crimes go unimpeded, which strikes the conscience of the inventor, who decides to go into hiding, erasing all record of himself, and figures out a way (with the help of a burned ex-Army Ranger) to remotely acquire the "irrelevant" data and perform the same "stop-before-it-happens" service with smaller, local issues. The Twist: this "backdoor" only provides the Social Security Number of a person (or group of people) involved—not whether they are victim, perpetrator, or witness. The two men must asess the situation, find the criminal, and protect the victim before the crime happens.

Where They Nailed It: As a series created by Jonathan Nolan, produced by J.J. Abrams, and starring Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel, you really can't get a better crime drama story. The storyline is compelling, and the writing shows the same judiciousness as the Machine, exploring the morality and ramifications of The Machine's existence only to the extent that it is relevant to a story arc. They don't get sidetracked or bogged down, the main characters are "dead" men and so they tend not to have many loose relationships (if any), and once again, the banter is spot-on. The supporting characters (a dirty cop and a good one) are also marvelous.

Overall: This series progression has been largely satisfactory. Jim is suitably kick-butt, while Michael's verbal rapport is quick and the humor is dry. The story-arc enemies have all stated very clearly their warped reasoning behind their choices, and it is relatively sound logic, if based on a faulty premise or ideology. But at least it's not "I'm a bad person, so I do bad things" or "You're a good person so I'm just trying to stop whatever you want to do because you're good and I want to be bad." And they aren't too stupid nor too smart. They are the perfect match for the show's heroes—every bit as smart and connected, only their purposes are very different.

3. Grimm
The Basics: Grimm is more than just a surname; it's an occupation. The descendants of the Brothers Grimm are all charged with maintaining order among the Wesen, outwardly-normal people with hidden creature natures. It's these creatures that ostensibly serve as the basis for the stories we know as "fairy tales"; a Grimm can see the creature nature within. There are evil creatures and harmless ones. The series follows one particular Grimm, Detective Nick of the Portland Police, and his encounters with Wesen and his unorthodox choice to weed out the bad Wesen from the good, rather than fulfill the traditional Grimm role and kill all the ones who merely look evil. Also involved are the Royal Family, a pure bloodline of Wesen aristocracy, who look upon other Wesen as dispensable masses and Grimms as their agents.

Where They Nailed It: Application of creativity absolutely carries this show, hands down. I almost wouldn't have chosen to watch it for reasons I will detail below, but once I started, man, I was hooked. Not many shows keep going this strongly. The closest resembling show to Grimm would be ABC's Once Upon A Time, which started fraying at the seams near the beginning of Season 2 (because of twisting the plot too many times, offering too many explanations, and going overboard with introducing new characters), whereas Grimm, at roughly a full season ahead of Once Upon A Time, still leaves questions unanswered for now.
Another area Grimm nails that other shows regularly botch is that of the romantic relationship(s) of the main characters. So many times, you have the main guy character who is in a relationship or forms a relationship with the main girl character, then after they've been together long enough that every fan is practically predicting that they just might make it "official"—which is precisely the moment when the screenwriters decide that the two of them should have a big fight over a little thing, and split ip over it, leaving both of them vulnerable to others trying to take advantage of the fact that they aren't working as a team.
Not Grimm; Nick doesn't have to bend over backwards to try and keep Juliette's affection, and she is still bound and determined to maintain and in some cases regain their relationship. All this, in spite of all Nick's enemies do to split them apart, even when it would totally make sense for her to just forget about him and welcome the pursuit of another, because her attachment to Nick is causing problems—she holds on for him. And he's a better man for it. They are the most emotionally-mature (and secure) couple I've seen in a TV show for a long time.
The banter is awesome, and the chemistry amid the entire ensemble of the main cast is marvelous. The writers do a good job of keeping something potentially over-complex to a manageable level of simplicity by functioning off a certain number of different creatures, introducing new creatures only ever so often and having a specific purpose for involving that sort of creature, beyond just filling out the ranks. There are even some creatures named but never featured, which lends an air of realism to the whole thing.

Where They Missed: I tend to be squeamish when it comes to mangled bodies—and there seem to be a wide variety of Wesen who favor dismembering their victims. (I will say that the fact that I am still watching it is testament to the way the writers disperse the gory scenes widely among the story scenes; and I have only seen one creature in one part of one episode who could be termed as truly too creepy for me) That being said, not every victim dies a horrific death.
I've heard the objection that Grimm is more of a procedural drama than fantasy. I would agree—but that's not really a "miss" for me, personally. It's also relatively dark and intense, not for little kids.

Overall: I think it's a great show, in regards to writing and acting quality. It's dark, best taken in small quantities (so marathons would not be advisable) but the balance of humor is very tastefully done, and makes the series recommendable to those interested in that sort of thing.

4. Leverage

The Basics: A poor man's "Ocean's 11." A former insurance agent gets burned by his own company in a very personal way, so when a mysterious stranger sets him in charge of a team of professional criminals, he jumps at the chance to prevent anything like what happened to him from happening to other people—a modern-day Robin Hood to outwit the rich to gain retribution for the poor.

Where They Nailed It: Well, for starters, it may be set in Boston (for about the first four seasons) but it's filmed in Portland. So for me a small part of the entertainment factor cane from trying to figure out where they were in each scene (mostly the exterior shots.) The main ensemble are some great actors (for the most part; some characters more than others), and the periodic guest appearances by actors I recognized was always fun.
I like the intrigue of the challenges the team has to face, and how the members working individually is definitely not as effective as when they all work together. It's pretty much everything I liked about the Ocean's movies (the cons, the heist, the chemistry, the banter...) minus all the things I didn't like (the scantily-clad women, low moral standards and motivations, innuendo, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones...)

Where They Missed: They avoided it for a good long while, but even Leverage fell into the pitfall of over-dramatization. The two principal characters were in and out of the relationship for most of the show, and just when you think it really could happen and really be great, one or the other pulls a stupid and they fight and they're not talking...again. I did approve the pairing of two of the supporting characters, and their relationship was adorable to watch and I just wanted to slap the main characters silly and go "See? SEE???" But alas... Such uncertainty proved too much to hold interest in the show, and it ended just last year. Requiescat in Pace.

Overall: A good show, definitely recommendable. With only five seasons, it shouldn't talke too long to get through, and it's worth it.

5. Castle
The Basics: Murder mystery author Rick Castle has hit writer's block and is looking for inspiration. Imagine his surprise when he becomes the lead suspect in a case involving a serial killer who murders his victims and then stages them in scenes patterned after scenes from Castle's books. The head homicide detective is a very attractive woman who ends up inspiring Castle to begin writing again. Of course, then he contrives to be attached to the NYPD as the detective's shadow, claiming it is "research." He follows her around, they save each others' lives at various points, she grows to like him, and, working together, they solve crimes.

Where They Nailed It: Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. Odd names, but BRILLIANT actors. Fillion especially, as a master of comedy and lovableness. (Any Firefly fans out there would recognize Fillion as the unquenchable Captain Mal) I was intrigued to see how he might portray a celebrity writer—and I'll admit I relate to his behavior, fictional though it may be. The constant distraction of plot ideas and story intrigue, the penchant for wild, inventive theories, the apparent lack of ability to think logically (or at least real-world logic; our logic works just fine in a fictional universe!)
The supporting cast nailed it. Partnered cops Kevin Ryan and Javier Esposito help Castle and Detective Kate Beckett in various aspects of their cases. Ryan has to be my favorite out of the two, especially since he's the only one of them all who managed a successful relationship with a woman who starts the show as his girlfriend, he proposes to her, and by now they are happily married and expecting their first child. The kicker? Ryan's love interest is played by his real-life wife. It's adorable. I love it when actor couples act together. They just seem to have a lot more fun than everyone else.
My favorite character out of the whole ensemble would be Castle's daughter Alexis, played by the "unsinkable" Molly Quinn. She is beautiful without being overdone, smart without being sarcastic, funny but not ditzy—and the chemistry between Nathan and Molly is as close to father-daughter as I've seen two actors get. It's great.

Where They Missed: For a while before Beckett and Castle became an item, of course Castle is very narcissistic and loves getting attention from ladies—which made for some uncomfortable scenes in some episodes. But luckily by now he's gotten beyond that and he and Beckett are securely in love with one another and that's great to see. So far, the writers seem to be keeping tabs on their "misses" and resolving them into "wins." It is a procedural drama, but that isn't a miss in my book. Lately, too, there has been more of Awesome Alexis and not as much Annoying/Awkward Martha (Castle's mother who lives with him), which is more of a win than a miss. (If it had been the other way around...) There were a few attempts at a love triangle early on in the series, but once Beckett and Castle were positive about being together, all other potential relationships subsided. (and the fan base heaved a collective sigh of relief...) There was a vague attempt at a Rear-Window-esque episode a few weeks ago that I was not impressed with, but that's all.

Overall: Great writing, great acting, great banter, great show! It does have a overreaching story arc that involves Beckett's mom and some unresolved issues (basically her motivation for becoming a cop), but the show doesn't fixate on it too much, maybe for a few episodes per season then moves on. I call that good taste. Keeps the viewers watching, but doesn't drive them crazy.

All of these shows come with heart recommends from me, if you are interested in any of them. Feel free to voice your own opinion about these or other currently-running/recently-ended shows in the comments! :)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Serial Saturday: "A Writer's Tale", Part 7

“Jerry!” I cried, “I’m not a spy, you have to believe me! I didn’t know—are the bandits on their way into town already?”
            Jerry banged on the cell bars. “See that? How would you know what the problem was if you were really so innocent as you would like me to believe? You show up, out of the blue, make up some tomfool story about being attacked in the bluffs. You think you’re safe because I’ve taken you into my home, my wife gives you dresses and food and a bed—then you slip!” He stopped and folded his arms, glaring at me indignantly, “Talking with that Mexican stable hand, I heard from Mrs. Barber that you let slip that the bandits were planning to attack today. And now they’re here! So tell me, Laura—if that’s really your name—since you seem to know so much about their movements, what do they want? You? You’re one of them, aren’t you? You escaped, you weren’t supposed to get away, now they’re going to shoot up the town unless they get you back, is that it?”

            My heart pounded in my throat, and my brain felt like it was trying to fight its way down to my gut. I sat down, dizzy and gasping for air. His words hit me like punches. How did I know? Now they’re here—All because of one careless comment? Had it really been so careless? After all, I was living an adventure brought on by trying to be more free with my writing—
            My writing. My writing! I thought about the way I had been thinking more about this story as a work of fiction, as words on a paper, than the other worlds. All those petitions to a mysterious writer, as if I was in someone else’s story—what if I was really experiencing my own story? What if the things I said had bearing on the events of the world I was in?
            I blinked; Jerry was still standing outside the cell, a sheriff waiting for his suspect to spill. What exactly was I ready to commit to? I could feed him a story better than the one I fed Commander Gerald, but just how far could I go with that?
            “Sheriff!” A gruff voice hollered, accompanied by whinnying horses and gunshots and rowdy shouting, “Haul your scummy hide out here! Come out, come out wherever you are!” More gunshots, and mean laughter.
            Jerry didn’t budge.
            “Please,” I said, coming toward the bars, “you have to go out there. It’s time to face them once and for all, before they run everyone out of town.”
            Jerry turned on his heel and strode toward the door.
            “Wait!” I called, “You have to let me out!”
            Immediately, he turned around and began unlocking the door of the cell. “Why am I doing this?” he asked me.
            “I’ll get the women and children safe, and I’ll send the men out to back you up,” I told him. “You are going to take down the bandits together. No more sitting back and waiting for something to happen. Now you’re going to make it happen.”
            Jerry blinked at me as I walked out of the cell, my gaze firmly fixed on him. I could tell he was wondering if I was pulling his leg, or perhaps I was a lunatic (after all, he did find me in a grey jumpsuit!) making up some crazy situation.
            Finally, he nodded, “All right.” He checked his pistol and grabbed a shotgun off the rack in the wall and cocked it. “Let’s show those dirty buzzards that they don’t mess with Phantom Gulch!”
            I grabbed a gun, figuring that having a gun, regardless of whether I knew how to shoot it or not (I didn’t, but could I give myself the skill, as the writer?), was better than having no weapon at all.
            I slipped out the door as Jerry confronted the bandits. I counted ten of them. Very distinctly, I stated, “Ten bandits waited in the street; five waited on the rooftops. Big Tom Gregory had called out his whole gang. All attention was fixed on the lone figure coming toward them. Sheriff Jerry strode out with a purpose.” Marco had said no one knew how many bandits there were. I just figured that I’d put a number on them; not too big odds, but enough to warrant the whole town turning out. I saw Jerry—who had been carefully measuring his steps before—suddenly jerk up straight and take long strides to reach the middle of the street. I stifled a giggle; had I done that?

            The first place I went was the saloon.
            “Everybody quiet!” I yelled above the din. Instantly, everyone froze so still you could hear somebody swallow the swig of liquor he had in his mouth.
            “Sheriff Jerry is taking on the bandits,” I explained, “and he needs your help! Men, you need to arm yourselves and get into position behind the sheriff. Women and children, come with me! I’ll bring you somewhere safe from the fighting.”
            “Fighting?” one of the hussies upstairs yelled. “Who’s fighting?”
            “There’s no fighting yet,” I told her, “but there’s going to be! Everyone get ready now!
            “Where do we go?” A barmaid asked, ready to go with me. I had a few more stops to make first, so I said, “For now, you women take all the children you can find and head for the nearest storm shelter.”
            The men milled about, strapping guns, checking ammo supplies, and cocking shotguns. The women gathered close to me, eyes wide with fear.
            “Storm shelter?” one woman whimpered, “we don’t have anything like that around here!”
            “What about a cellar?” I suggested, “anyplace like a basement or cellar or anything like that?”
            “You mean,” one woman forgot her fear in the face of indignation, “all of us squished together, in one small room, just waiting for the bandits to find us?”
            “Of course not!” I tried to copy the easy movement of the men and cock the shotgun I held in my hands. It would not move. I tried again, and almost dropped the thing. The women were still watching me; a few frowned, trying to figure out what I was doing with the gun. Frantic, I whispered, “Firmly, she cocked the gun in one smooth motion.”
            That did the trick; I felt almost detached from my own hands as I watched them pull the hammer back and cock the shotgun like a pro. I tried to keep the pride but not the danger out of my expression and my voice as I stated, “I’ll be protecting you, and all the men will be our front line of defense.”
            One of the men passing by on his way out of the saloon chuckled, “You talk like a drill sergeant in battle, lady.”
            I turned to him, “And why not?” I countered, “After all, this is war!”

            I led the women out the back door, and we snuck around the perimeter of the town to get to the house. We were just coming behind a large building when a hidden door opened and a hand beckoned to me.
            “Come in! Come in quickly!”

            Ingalls, the kindly shopkeeper! He held the door for us and directed the flow of women and children down to the cellar. I noticed that more were sneaking in the front door, as well, ones who had not been in the saloon when I had made the announcement.
            I glanced over at Ingalls, and he winked at me again. “When I heard that Sheriff Jerry was going to make a stand, I knew that somehow you had a hand in it, so when the men began coming out of the saloon, I sent Marco around to all the houses to warn the men and gather their families.”
            I was so grateful I could have hugged him; no telling how long it would have taken me to get everyone organized, or how long the conversation between Jerry and the bandits would take to go south—which it undoubtedly would. Instead, I restrained myself to a simple handshake. Ingalls grabbed his own rifle from behind the counter and nodded toward the front.
            “It should come any time now,” he said somberly.
            “Señor Ingalls!” Marco called, coming to join us armed with two pistols, and more strapped to his sides. “The women and children are safe, señor,” he reported.
            I strained to listen to the voices outside. “Here it comes,” I murmured.

            Out in the street, Jerry and Big Tom were done negotiating.
            “Throw down your badge, Colson!” Big Tom snarled, “You ain’t sheriff no more!”
            “I certainly am!” Jerry retorted, raising his shotgun, “and I say it’s high time you get outta town!”
            Big Tom sneered at him, “You and what army?”
            I blinked; where had that comment come from? I didn’t know they used that sort of language in this time period.
            Jerry merely glanced over his shoulder and nodded. A shot rang out, and struck the ground right between the feet of Big Tom’s horse. The animal reared, and tossed the heavy man into the dust. Instantly, the bandits jumped off their horses and total chaos descended. One of the bandits shot toward where the first bullet had come from, but before he could find out whether or not his shot took, another rang out from across the street and caught him in the arm.
            Everyone dove for cover while watching carefully to be able to pick out the enemy. I heard a scream as one bandit tumbled off the roof of the hotel, and another as one of the men positioned on the balustrade of the barbershop took a hit.
            The bandits attacked, and the townsfolk defended. I sat and clutched my gun as Ingalls let off the occasional shot when a bandit would get too close to the store. Bandits were collapsing, but not dying or giving up as frequently as I would have liked. I hated it every time a man fell, knowing that probably many of them were husbands if not fathers. How would this end? I glanced to the other corner of the store.
            “Ingalls,” I called back over my shoulder, “Where’s Marco?”

            The wiry Mexican had vanished. Was he going to be the one to betray us? The bandits were deeply entrenched, not killing or wounding as much any more, but still causing plenty of damage to the town, if not its people.
            Just when I thought the bandits were going to make a break for it, we heard a thunderous crash nearby, and a herd of horses came galloping out of the stables. One of them carried a rider who whooped and hollered and whistled the mustangs into all kinds of frenzy. Marco!
            Some of the bandits were forced out of their hiding places as the wild horses crashed through the barriers and provided ample diversion for the townsfolk to get their wounded to safety and to move to better vantage points.
            A gun cracked, and Marco’s horse collapsed. I leaped to my feet. The last few horses were just bucking their way toward the edge of town. I saw his crumpled form lying in the dust.
            Without even thinking, I dropped the gun and ran out into the street for him. I heard Ingalls call after me, “Laura, you fool! Get back here!” but I ignored him.
            “Marco!” I called, “Marco!”
            He lifted his head from the dirt as I approached. He was not wounded, only battered and bruised, as evidenced by the labored movements. He coughed as I bent over him.
            “Are they still shooting?” he asked me.
            I looked up; I had been so worried about Marco that I had forgotten the whole thing about running into the line of fire. Now, as the realization dawned, I was keenly aware of the feel of sharp stings on my back and side. It almost felt like getting pegged with a paintball gun. I glanced around.
            What he said was true; they were still shooting, and real bullets whizzed at me—but none of them pierced me! I ignored it, “Not really,” I lied to Marco, “Let’s get you out of here.” He leaned on me as I stood with him, slinging one arm around my shoulder while I supported him with my arm around his back.
            “Laura!” Suddenly, who should appear next to me but Sheriff Jerry himself! The shooting increased, but he seemed as determined to ignore it as I was. “What the heck are you doing? Get back into the building where it is safe!” He endeavored to cover Marco and I.
            “I had to get Marco!” I protested. The stable-hand pulled away.
            “Never mind, señorita,” Marco said quickly, “I can make it! You go with the Sheriff!” He did not wait for my response, but stumbled his way toward the store. Sheriff Jerry led me toward his stakeout in front of the bank. I ducked and tried not to trip over the voluminous skirts and petticoat I wore. I felt Jerry’s hand at my back, pushing me toward the door, then he yelled in my ear and I was alone. I stopped and turned.
            “GO!” he roared, doubled over with a gunshot wound in the side.
            I dove into the bank and watched as he crawled toward the protection of a water trough. I knew that if I tried to help him, I would end up getting shot again. Not only that, but I’d left my gun in the store. I was unarmed, helpless, and I could see the bandits moving in to end the fight by killing the Sheriff. Big Tom finally emerged from the barbershop across the street. He had his rifle at the ready, and I knew it was all over. Shooting stopped as everyone watched this final showdown with bated breath.
            “I said it would be a lost cause, didn’t I?” Gregory mocked him. Jerry was out of my line of sight, but I could see the bandit leader standing over him, black and menacing. “This little patch of mud isn’t worth the muck I’m gonna scrape off my boots when I’m done with it!” He raised his pistol and pulled back the hammer with malicious deliberation. “You’re mine, Jerry!”
            Ka-chunk! “Oh no, he ain’t!”
            A new voice erupted down to Gregory’s right, on the same side of the street as the bank. The big man glanced over to see who it was—and I saw the flicker of astonishment in his face. Carefully, I peeked out the doorway.

            Carol Colson stood outside the door of the general store, shotgun at the ready—the same shotgun I had dropped to save Marco. She peered down the barrel at Tom.
            “You stay away from my husband, you lily-livered son of a yellow-bellied polecat!” She stepped toward him.
            As if seeing Carol Colson with a gun in her hands, handling it so capably, was not shock enough for the townsfolk, everyone refrained from gasping until Tom Gregory, terror of Phantom Gulch, stepped away from the wounded Sheriff!
            “We’ve had about enough of your shenanigans, Tom!” Carol chided him sternly, as if he was a misbehaving toddler, “Now you and whatever men you have left better drop your guns or so help me I will blow you to kingdom come!”
            I could see Tom’s eyes traveling over this daring little woman, wondering if she would really have the gumption to pull the trigger. In answer, Carol swung the barrel around and shot a window out of the hotel, right beside the head of one of the bandits.
            Do it now!” she ordered shrilly.
            Tom obeyed, and we all heard the clatter of falling guns as his men followed suit.
            Carol never budged an inch. “I want all the bandits down here in front of my gun,” she called out. “As quick as you can!”
            I watched the whole scene, numb to the action as if I was viewing a movie. Who knew that the nervous, mousy Carol Colson could have so much pluck in her? I couldn’t breathe or move as all eight men lined up in front of the sheriff’s wife. She glared at them.
            “You’ve had your fill of this town,” she said, “I’d like to think you’ve had your fill of this world, but that’s not my decision to make. You have ten seconds to clear out of this town and nobody better see the hide nor hair of you till the day you die, or we’ll end you! Is that clear?” The bandits stood in dumbstruck silence. Carol raised her voice and her gun, “Is that clear?”
            “Yes, ma’am!” Tom rapped out, and his men murmured assent.
            “Good,” Carol cocked the shotgun and began counting, “Ten…nine…eight…”
            My mind raced; something was wrong. There were eight—one was missing!
            My eyes raced to a movement at the hotel rooftop. I barely saw the tip of a ten-gallon hat.
            Gathering my skirts in my hand, I lunged out the door.
            Carol look out!”
            I didn’t make it to her as cleanly as I would have liked; instead, I tripped on my hem and did a perfect face-plant in the dirt right next to her in the same instant that two shots rang out. Holding my nose, I looked up. The hat was gone, Carol’s gun pointed toward a fresh mark in the trim of the roof. Big Tom held a small pistol in his hand, one he’d probably had concealed, and it was aimed at Carol—but as he dropped to his knees, I could see by the blood gushing from his side that he didn’t get the chance to pull the trigger. The second shot was Jerry’s.

            Marco and Ingalls raced toward us. Ingalls prised the shotgun from the stiff, frightened clutches of Mrs. Colson, while Marco supported me and very considerately inquired after the state of my nose.
            Carol regained her mental faculties and immediately raced to her husband’s side.
            “Jerry!” she gasped as the tears streamed down her face, “Oh Jerry! I was so frightened!”
            The other bandits had slipped away; Phantom Gulch was free again. The doctor scuttled out of his office and toward the wounded sheriff as Jerry consoled his wife.
            “Shh, shh,” he whispered tenderly, “You were magnificent, Carol.” He stroked her hair as she sobbed away the rush of adrenaline that left her trembling all over. “A man couldn’t ask for a better wife than I have in you. This town owes itself to you, my dear. You saved Phantom Gulch.”
            “I wouldn’t give two pins for the town if I had lost you, Jerry!” Carol declared staunchly.

            I stood at the edge of the crowd. A strange man in a dark hat stared at me with piercing eyes in a way that made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I tried to walk away calmly, but he followed me. Desperate, I broke into a run.
            I didn’t stop running till I got to the little red house. I dashed up the porch and inside. I could hear the stamp of boots following me. They stopped, and I thought I heard a single, careful creak on the porch step. My heart pounded wildly as I snuck into the furthest corner of the house, Carol’s well-stocked larder. I saw a row of barrels near the back of the room. I could see space between them and the wall.
            The hinges of the front door creaked only slightly as the intruder stepped inside. What would happen when he caught me? Would I be able to escape certain death, as I had escaped being shot? I tried not to think about the different ways he could kill me without bullets as I ducked behind the barrels. I desperately curled up with my knees clenched against my ears, trying to silence my breathing as much as possible. I heard the shuffling, slow step as the man following me entered the larder and stood before the barrels.
            “Hey you!” he yelled, and I knew it was all up with me, “come out from behind those barrels, there!”
            The floor swayed beneath me, and as I caught a deep breath and inhaled a whiff of entirely new smells, I came fully to the realization that I must not be inside a house any longer.