“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.