I disembarked onto a wide, sandy terrain. I took a deep breath as my eyes grew accustomed to the brilliant sun. Man, I thought, compared to that ship, this port is vast! I wondered if this was really Port Arriva, and why we had landed here. Perhaps Commander Gerald was—
As soon as it registered in my brain that what I heard was English, a hand latched onto my arm and yanked me over the space of two yards as a large vehicle clattered past with the noise of an engine.
But it wasn't an engine, it was a wagon, pulled by horses! I felt something metallic against my cheek, on the chest of the person who had saved my life: a silver six-pointed star with the word SHERIFF embossed on it. He released me when the dust settled, and I got a good look at him. Come to think of it, he looked exactly like Commander Gerald, only perhaps dirtier and leaner. But he had that same piercing gaze, the same wise face. He wore a brown hat, a plaid shirt, a leather vest, and jeans. His boots had spurs, and a gun in a holster hung from his belt.
"Are you hurt?" he asked gently.
"N-no," I could not keep my voice steady, "J-just a bit shaken, that's all. Thank you."
He smiled and held out a dirt-streaked, work-worn hand. "The name's Jerry Colson; I'm sheriff of this town."
I confess, after the impeccable environment of the space station, I hesitated for a moment before shaking his hand. "I'm Laura," I said.
Jerry raised an eyebrow; I knew he was suspicious that I didn't give a last name. But how do you expect a writer to behave when she meets her own characters in their own worlds?
"Where do you come from, Laura?" Jerry asked, looking over my grey space-station uniform as if he thought I was escaped from an institution or something.
"I—" I hadn't thought about giving my origins; on the spaceship it had been easy to evade it because they had their own conclusions. Here, they left it up to me. I didn't even know which state I was in, much less which towns existed! "Well, I'm not from around here—"
"Sheriff! Sheriff Jerry!"
A man came running up to us, and I had a distinct deja vu moment as his stocky stature and bushy beard reminded me of Galen the dwarf! Of course, he was about two feet taller than Galen had been, but it was unmistakable.
"Ingalls," Jerry greeted him, "What seems to be the problem?"
"Did you see that wagon roll by, Sheriff?"
Jerry nodded, "As a matter of fact, I saved her from it," he nodded toward me.
Ingalls squinted at me, "Who're you?" he asked, but did not wait for an answer. "That's beside the point. Sheriff, you've gotta chase that wagon down and arrest the men! They went and only paid half of what they owe me! Hundreds of dollars in stolen merchandise just sailed out of the city limits!" He shook his fist toward the hills, "Those filthy bandits!"
Jerry shook his head. "Ingalls, go back to your store; you know it is pointless to do anything against the bandits."
"But you're the Sheriff!" Ingalls spluttered, but he obeyed.
Jerry turned back to me with a twinkle in his eye, "Where did you say you were from, again?"
"I didn't, exactly," I admitted, my mind racing furiously; if I tried bluffing, would he call it like the Commander did? "I, uh, lived up there in the bluffs," I stammered, pointing vaguely toward the hills.
Jerry got that same knowing smile that Commander Gerald had worn. "All the way up there," he repeated slowly, "And you walked into town?"
As he spoke, a plan folded together in my mind. "Ran most of the way, actually," I corrected him. "Our home was attacked by the bandits; they killed my folks. I tried to escape on one of their horses like they do in the movies, but I couldn't ride very well in the dark and I only made it out of sight before the horse threw me and went back to its masters. I've been on foot since then."
Jerry's face filled with concern. "A girl alone, parents gone, no home..." his voice trailed off, and he extended a hand toward me. "You best come home with me, then. My wife and I would be delighted to have you."
"Oh," I took his hand, "Thank you, sir!"
"Just answer me one question."
"What is 'movies'?"
I blushed at my faux pas; I needed to be careful what I said around here! "Oh, just a newfangled...thing from back East. Nothing very important."
Jerry shook his head and said, "Come along, Laura of the bluffs."
I followed him down the street to a quaint red cottage with white trim.
Jerry strode inside and dropped his hat onto the rack just inside the door. He gestured to a small room off to the left. I saw a shelf with some dishes, a plain sofa with quilts spread over it, and a rocking chair.
"Just go on ahead and take a seat. My wife will be in shortly to give you a proper welcome." The way he looked me up and down as he said this plainly told me what he was too polite to say: he would send his wife in to welcome me and find me some proper clothes.
I saw Jerry enter the kitchen, and it was several minutes before a beautiful, matronly woman emerged, beaming at me. Jerry excused himself upstairs to wash up for dinner, and the woman stood at the doorway into the sitting room, obviously unsure what to make of me.
"I'm Carol," she stammered, fussing with wisps of her elegantly turned-up chestnut hair. Her blue eyes twinkled.
"My name is Laura," I responded.
"Well," Carol seemed relieved that at least I had a normal-sounding name, "Let's get you some fresh clothes then, shall we? Follow me." She led me into another room. I wondered if I was going to be wearing one of her dresses, which I was pretty sure we were not the same size.
"Please," I whispered, "please find something I won't look ridiculous in!"
"You're lucky," Carol was saying, "We just had a visitor who gave me some of her cast-offs, to distribute among the young ladies of the town. I think she was about your size, it shouldn't be a problem."
She held up for me a green calico dress with a full, frilly skirt and white smocked collar. I actually thought it was pretty. When I put it on, Carol gasped approvingly, and even I thought the girl in the green dress looked particularly grand. What luck!
Jerry joined us in the dining room for supper. He smiled approvingly at my dress.
"Welcome to Phantom Gulch, Miss Laura. Tomorrow Carol can show you around town. I hope you like it here."
I had to shake my head; first a magical world named Phantasm, and then a space station from the planet Phantessa, and now a town called Phantom Gulch. I was beginning to see a pattern here.
Carol set me up in a room all my own. The bed was short and relatively stiff. The quilt was warm, and the pillow was soft. I found it easy to fall asleep.
The next morning, I joined the Colsons for breakfast, and meek young Carol escorted me into the bustling world of Phantom Gulch.
At any rate, I knew a town like this should have been bustling. It had everything an old western town should have: A general store with stables attached, a saloon, a hotel, a barber shop, and a church. What it did not have was the expected brawling and calling out, the random species of livestock, or the music emanating from the saloon. Everyone scurried about, hushed and rushed, hurried and worried. Everyone kept their heads down and went about their own business, to say nothing of anyone else's business.
Carol saw my confused look and pulled me into the general store to explain while we shopped.
"It's those bandits," she said, "They've practically got the run of this town, and poor Jerry can't do a thing about it!"
"And nobody else wants to try?" I asked, somewhat incredulous.
Carol stared at me with wide eyes. "It's the Sheriff's job to protect the town! And those that have tried to stand up to the bandits have lost everything, even their lives, some of them!"
Carol made her selections and walked up to see Ingalls at the counter. He smiled at me and winked, just as Galen would have done.
"Well, if it isn't our mysterious maid from last evening," he remarked, "What's your name, young lady?"
"Laura," I told him.
He reached over the counter and grasped my hand, "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Laura."
Carol began chatting and discussing prices with the storeowner, so I meandered out of the store on my own. Ladies in long dresses like mine milled about, some accompanied by gunslingers, some alone. They all glanced at me funny. I found the stables. A few horses stood out front, probably an example of good old-fashioned advertising. One in particular, a fine white mare, stood patiently while the stable-hand picked her hooves. She reminded me of Jerak the unicorn. I approached her carefully, stroking her face as she whinnied softly into my hands.
“In my country we have an expression, Si lo toques, se compralo.”
The voice made me jump. The stable-hand grinned at me over the rump of the horse. He had a dark, round face, and slanted eyes. He looked Mexican. He gestured to the horse, coming around to her head. “She likes you; she must feel other horses in your touch. You enjoy horses, ma’am?”
I nodded, “Yes, I do; and this is a fine mare.”
The young man shook his head, “Not more than a filly, this one. Normally spirited, too. I guess she trusts you,” he looked me over in keen appraisal. He extended a hand, “My name is Marco.”
“I am Laura,” I said. “I am staying with the Colsons.”
Marco nodded, “Ah, the Sheriff; he is a good man.” He led the white filly to her place among the others and gestured to a couple keg-stools set outside the barn. I took one, and he sat on the other.
I couldn’t help but muse aloud, “It doesn’t sound like good men have much use around here, not against the bandits.”
Marco frowned, “Salvajes! Hombres peligrosos quien se corren despues de oro, y la potencia…y nuestras mujeres.” His voice grew soft and gentle at the last, and I saw a hint of pain in his face. I did not know all that he said, but I knew enough to see that the bandits were not welcome overlords.
“If they’re so awful, Marco,” I pointed out, “Why won’t anybody do anything about them?”
“They have tried, señorita,” Marco shook his head sadly. “A few of them died, and the rest decided that the best thing for them to do would be to leave the town. Those who remain are the ones who think that living here is not as much risk as it would be to strike out on their own. And then there are the business owners, such as Ingalls and Señora Mitchell, the owner of the hotel, and the others who have business here. The bandits let them stay, so long as they can come and take what they want. As long as Sheriff Jerry lets the bandits take from them, they live—we live.”
I shook my head, “I’ll tell you what: I would not be surprised if the bandits come riding into town to stage a coup against the sheriff, once and for all?”
A passing woman gasped when she heard my comment, but she kept walking. Marco shook his head at me, “You are a strange chica, Miss Laura,” he laughed.
I smiled in acceptance. “So, Marco, can you tell me about the bandits? How many are they? Does anyone know why they are here?”
“No, no one knows; there are ten of them, all family, some brothers, some cousins; they call themselves the Posse, and their leader is Big Tom Gregory. He is the father or uncle to the rest of the men. They just rode through one day, whooping and hollering and shooting and making demands and such. They are here only to cause trouble, really; no one knows of a real reason for them to be here, or where they go when they are not in the town.” His eyes lit up and he turned to me, “Except you; did I not hear that there was a new girl in town who lived in the bluffs, whose family was attacked by the Posse?”
I blinked; boy, for a guy who did not know who I was when we first met, he sure knew my story better than I did! I thought fast, “Well, yes, we were attacked, but that was where we lived; even I don’t know where they came from. They came out of nowhere.”
“And they’re going to take over the town, no?” Marco was almost laughing at me now. “I think you are like the old women who believe that every day the world will end.”
I was trying to come up with a reply, when Carol appeared. “Laura!” she called, beckoning me over.
I stood, and Marco stood with me, “It was good to speak with you,” he told me, “come by sometime and I will let you ride the white mare.”
“I’d welcome the opportunity,” I replied, “thank you, Marco.”
Marco waved to Carol, “Buenos dias, Señora,” he called.
“Yes, good day, Marco,” Carol replied cheerily. She nodded to me as I fell into step beside her. “I’ve finished my errands; were you really sitting there talking with the stable-hand the whole time?”
I shrugged, “I suppose I was.”
Carol shook her head, “You’re a mighty strange girl, Laura.”
Her comment struck me as odd; why was I strange for being friendly? Was it merely because of the people I’d chosen to be friendly to? Carol and I returned to the house, and I helped her in the kitchen. Jerry returned home by the time we had everything ready. He paused in the doorway and glanced at me, but said nothing. I sat and listened as the couple accompanied their meal with the typical Western banter.
Jerry shoveled potatoes in his mouth as he grunted, “More folks are saying that every day will only bring us closer to trouble.” Another sidelong glance at me; why the sudden suspicion? Had he heard about my conversation with Marco? I recalled how nervous Carol had been around him, yet then again, Carol seemed nervous around just about everyone, even Ingalls, the kind shop owner. Jerry continued, “Won’t be long now before folks start moving away in droves.”
I dabbed my mouth with a napkin and glanced at him, “What will you do? Will you and Carol move away?”
Carol glanced furtively at her husband, who sighed. “We’ll be the last to leave, Laura; that’s the law of the land. The Sheriff has to make sure that everyone else gets out safely in the face of a threat, before he moves out himself as a last resort.” He glared darkly at the thought of the gang of bandits who had driven the small town to such desperate measures. “Something’s gotta give—I just hope it ain’t us.”
Carol clapped a hand to her mouth and ran from the room. Jerry followed her, and I willingly cleared the table and washed the dishes in a miserable, somber silence. I could still hear Carol’s sobs as I lay in bed that night, trying to fall asleep.
“Please,” I begged the storyteller (whoever it may be), “please don’t let it come to that.” I closed my eyes, clenching them tight.
When I opened them again, it was morning.
I came into the kitchen, where Carol had breakfast set out for the two of us. Her face was clear, and she made no mention of the previous night’s conversation.
I sat and sipped my coffee, only nibbling at the eggs and muffins.
The door slammed, and a rough voice cried, “Where is she?”
Carol leaped to her feet, “Who, Jerry?”
In answer, Jerry grabbed me by the arm and hauled me out the door. He didn’t stop and he didn’t slow down till we reached his office across the street. He dragged me all the way back to the cells and threw me in one, closing the door,
“Start talking,” he snapped tersely, “How did you know?”
My mind buzzed; what exactly had gone wrong in this scenario? “How did I know what?” I inquired.“The bandits!” Jerry snapped, his grey eyes alight with fiery anger, “How did you know they’d be coming? You snake! You’re no victim, you’re a spy!”