Title: The Stranger
Genre: Western, Fantasy
Thoughts: For some reason I know several people who have been discussing westerns recently. I don’t really like to write this genre though I know with my experience I could do it well, but I thought I would try something a little different. Hope you other western-writers don’t mind.
It’s said that when the Santa Anna winds blow, all bets are off.
The wind blew down on the town, blowing up column of dust and shaking the trees. Horses stomped their feet and closed their eyes into narrow slits. Men pulled bandannas up on their faces, making it look like a town of bandits. A few out of season tumble weeds rolled across the main thorough faire and then the wind died. As if a god of wind were taking a breath, for a moment everything was almost still. The blue sky stretched over head and a few men blinked up, looking for some strange sign. A woman hurried from one building to the next; who knew how long until the winds kicked up again?
One horse pricked it’s ears up, and looked off into the distance.
A horse neighed and a dot appeared in the distance, growing quickly larger.
Two men stood near a water trough, and squinted at the figure.
“Is that Robert?”
“Nope. Can’t be. He’s gone up to the city to try to find him a wife.”
The two men waited, watching the lone rider getting closer. He had buldging saddle bags and a rifle strapped under his leg. Despite the heat he wore a long, leather duster and his hat was pulled down low over his face.
“Good afternoon, gentleman.”
The two ranch hands jumped. They’d been watching the rider getting closer but hadn’t realized he was so near.
“Howdy.” One said. The other spit on the ground and then looked back up at the stranger. “You pass’en through or gonna sit a spell?”
“I’d like to find a meal and a place to stay.” He had a cultured voice and two bright, smiling eyes. Despite his dusty appearance, he was clean shaven and neat under layers of travel grime.
“Saloon has some rooms,” the talkative ranch hand jerked his head back to a brightly painted building.
“Wanna leave your horse here?” The ranch hand jerked his head towards the livery barn where people from the outlying farms and ranches left their horses and wagons while in town. It was also where the stagecoach stopped.
“Yes, please.” The stranger dismounted and pulled off two large, bulging bags and slung them over his shoulder. He pulled the reins over the horses head and looked the animal in the eye, “He’s a little spirited, but will mind his manners.” Smiling at the ranch hand, he handed over his reins. “Better get inside. There’s a storm coming.”
The two ranch hands looked up at the sky, brows furrowed. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
The stranger took his things and entered the Saloon. A random assortment of locals were gathered around the bar, to which the cheerful stranger smiled and nodded his head. “Hello.”
“Howdy stranger, what can I get for you?” The bartender leaned over the old, worn wood and grinned at his new patron.
“Food first, I believe.” He said thoughtfully and set his bags down on the floor next to an empty stool.
“Some beer second, and then a bath and a room if you have them.” He left the leather duster on and sat down on the stool, folding his hands one over the other and fixing the grinning bartender with a more subdued smile.
“Right – vittles out in a jiffy!” The bartender grabbed a glass and poured the parched stranger his whisky and then disappeared.
“You ain’t from ‘round here.” A young man with a swagger in his step leaned against the bar on the farthest side.
“No sir, I am not,” the stranger replied, still looking cheerful. Outside the wind began to rage twice as hard as before.
“Where ya headed?” The young man asked.
“I haven’t quite decided,” the stranger shrugged and his smile deepened.
“Are you chas’en some’thin?”
The stranger didn’t reply immediately. He tilted his head to the side and studied the ceiling as if thinking for a moment before his eyes drifted back to the hard stare of the younger man. “You could say that.”
“Here’s your vittles,” the barkeep announced, reappearing through a swinging door.
“Thank you.” The stranger picked up his bag, his plate and his cup and retreated to a small table near a window that was mostly blotted out with dust. He sat there, alone and unmolested, staring out of the window, his face hidden by the brim of his hat.
The young man with the swagger watched him but didn’t say another word.
When the stranger was finished with his meal he brought his dishes back to the bar. “I’d like to see about that room, please.”
“Sure thing!” The barkeeper produced a round of keys and motioned for the Stranger to follow him through another door that his a hallway. “Rooms back here,” he explained. Passing by a window he paused, “Sky sure is getting dark.”
The stranger gazed out past the man, his eyes caressing the clouds that rolled in on the horizon as if he were looking at a lover. “Yes, there’s a storm coming.”
“Well good thing you got here in time.” The barkeep said and continued down the hall.
He put the stranger in a room on the very end and told him where the bathroom was. No one saw the stranger for quite some time. The storm blew in quick and hard, sending people running for cover and before long the saloon was packed to capacity. Everyone was watching the storm rage outside; a few had started a game of cards, but most held drinks and peered out of the windows.
The stranger slipped in unnoticed and perched on an empty stool.
“There you are,” the bartender grinned. “You were right about this here storm. It’s raining buckets!”
The stranger merely quirked his lips and nodded. He’d showered and though he still wore the duster and hat, they looked to have been brushed off, the grime of travel removed. “Whiskey, please.”
“Att’a way!” The bartender laughed and poured his patron his drink.
“Howdy pard’ner,” the young man sidled up to the bar. “Fancy some cards?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have money to lose,” the stranger spread his hands apologetically and smiled.
“Well I’m sure you have other things you can wager.” The young man eyed the strangers jacket, but couldn’t see anything else. “You got a horse, don’t you?”
“Oh, but I need my horse. I can’t part with him.”
The young man pursed his lips. “You got a gun, don’t you?”
“You don’t need that, do you? Not with the law men around.”
The stranger looked thoughtful, “No, I suppose I don’t need the gun, but it is awful nice to have around.”
“Well let’s play for guns, then. My boys can put up theirs and you can put up yours.”
Outside the Santa Anna’s blew. The stranger looked up at the roof and then sighed. He leveled his smiling eyes at the young man and nodded. “Alright, you have a deal.”
Six men crowded around a table, a deck of cards sitting in the middle. They all held their hands close. One man held his near his chest, glancing left and right suspiciously. Another held his cards loosely and seemed not to care. The stranger’s cards were face down on the table, his hands folded over them. His gaze had drifted off to the window where lightning danced in the distance. The young challenger glared at the smiling stranger.
“Me too,” another sighed.
“Show’em.” The young man barked.
“Two pair,” the suspicious man said.
The other yawned and laid his cards down. “Straight.”
“Damn!” The suspicious one wailed.
“What do you have, stranger?”
The stranger flipped over his cards, “Nothing.” Indeed, he would have done better had he folded.
“Well I win,” the young man grinned and slapped his cards on the table.
“I hope you get better use out of my gun than I did,” the stranger chuckled. His chair slid noisily out from under him as he stood, shaking out his duster.
The young man was about to say something when several drenched souls tumbled through the door. There was a general commotion made and people began muttering about crops and bridges. The stranger slipped up to the doors and gazed out at the storm as if seeing a long, lost friend.
“I’ll be taking that gun, mister,” the young man drawled.
“Yes, it’s in the barn with my tack,” the stranger said quietly, only paying half attention to the young man.
“I’ll take it now, before you run off with my rightful property.” The young man folded his arms over his chest, glaring at the stranger.
“You don’t have much in the way of hospitality, do you?” The stranger shrugged and before the young man could sputter a response, he continued. “I’ll go get it now, if you must have it.” He flipped the collar of his duster up and ducked out onto the porch where a lonely old dog lay alone, unbothered by the storm. The stranger picked his way through the muddy street, water slicking his duster to his body and beating down the brim of his hat, but he made it to the livery no worse.
A few of the older patrons gave the young man disapproving glares but not anything else.
On the way back the stranger fought against the wind and the rain, his duster blown out behind him like wings. Suddenly, lightning lit up the sky, throwing the strangers shadow out behind him like some gruesome creature of the night. He lept onto the porch and stamped his feet, shaking off water and mud before pushing the doors open. He had not lost his cheerful twinkle, but he looked put out.
“Here, I believe this was what you wanted.” He pushed the wet mess of holster and rifle into the young mans arms and wiped more water from his face.
“Oh no!” Someone shouted. Outside the lightning struck close to town. Once, twice, and coming closer.
The third strike hit the steeple of the church; the blast knocked it off of the building, leaving a gaping hole where once the obelisk stood. It crashed to the street, rolling once, twice in the mud before stopping. Lightning did not strike again. It was hard to make out the lump of the steeple in the street but it let off steam.
“Was anyone out there?” A small voice said.
“I’ll go and check.” The stranger smiled, and strode back into the rain as if someone had invited him to go on a stroll rather than into a raging storm.
It was hard to make out his form from the saloon, but the stranger could see perfectly well in the near darkness. He held his breath and neared the fallen steeple. It was no longer an obelisk pointing at the heavens; in fact it was no longer straight or pointy. It curled into a small form and lay in the middle of the road. Gently the stranger knelt and put a hand on the lump.
The stranger grinned and pulled out of his duster. With one hand he helped the dazed woman sit up and with the other he slung his duster over her shoulders, hiding her.
“It’s you,” she looked up at him with eyes like the stars, rain washing away the dirt and mud.
“I told you it would work,” the stranger said and gently wiped her pale hair away from her face.
“But – how?”
“When the Santa Anna blows, all bets are off.”
She stood with his help, wobbly as a new born animal. “Are you real? Is this another – “
“I am real. Just as real as you are. We don’t have to live in dreams anymore.”
The woman sobbed and leaned forward into the man’s chest, the rain falling around them.
Behind the man someone called out, “Everything okay?”
The stranger turned a little and waved, “Just fine, thank you.”
“We – we have to get out of here.” She gripped the front of his shirt, her face lined with fear.
“We will.” The stranger put his arms on her shoulders and gazed down into her face.
“But how? They’ll come looking!”
The stranger chuckled and glanced at the barn where a horse neighed. “I borrowed the West Wind.”