January, 2015

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Issue #64

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Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

by J. M. Shinpaugh
The stage driver was dead, the stage burned, and the woman was badly beaten. She wore a nun's habit, but $100,000 was hidden in its folds. What was she? A nun, a thief, or even a killer!

* * *

Lorny's Burro
by Dionna L. Mann
The drought took away the extra feed that her burro needed and little Lorny fretted as he grew skinnier. Could she muster the courage to stand up for him?

* * *

New Beginnings, Part 1 of 2
by Jesse J Elliot
Bad luck and bad men can take away your security, leaving you with few choices. Unfortunately, people tend to look down on a young woman who lives in the whorehouse.

* * *

by Gary Ives
Niles Olson had a hankering to rob a train and get away from his many "responsibilities." It would be as simple as pie, if only he could keep his big mouth shut.

* * *

The Stolen Brooch
by C.A. Simonson
Her Precious had been stolen and the lady from back East wanted everyone on the stage coach arrested on the spot. What did she have up her sleeve?

* * *

Want all of this month's Western stories at once? Click here –

All the Tales

by J. M. Shinpaugh

"Shhh! Be still! You're safe now, Sister!"

The low voice rumbled across my shattered body: the pressure of the sound painful. As he lightly touched my left shoulder, I moaned!

The sound came from a dying animal. But that's what I was right now: more animal than human.

With my eyes swollen shut, a roar drowning out most noise, and a salty metal taste in my mouth; the only comfort I had was the sound of his Texas voice: warm and golden like fresh honey from the hive; and strong: as if he could summon God from Heaven with a whisper.

"I'm Sheriff Nate Hawthorne, here in Crockett County, Texas. We're just across the state line from Oklahoma. You down from Memphis or up from Austin? That's about the only stagecoaches we get through here on a regular basis. Of course, we get freight wagons in every week."

The soothing voice continued, pulling me into the security of his presence. He didn't expect any answers.

I couldn't see or move, but could feel the slight breeze of his body heat as he settled on the rocky ground beside me. A cool wet cloth gently wiped my face, around my eyes, across my forehead, over my cheeks. When the movement stopped, I could hear the water in a canteen slosh as he wet the cloth again.

The wet cloth was dabbed gently between my exposed breasts, trying to mop up the blood which oozed from the jagged G carved between my breasts. I gasped as water painfully mixed with the blood.

"I'm sorry. I know it hurts. I'll be as gentle as I can. These old rough hands of mine aren't used to handling anything delicate," he apologized. "I'm putting a little water on my finger to wet your mouth."

That drop of water on my cracked and bloody lips was manna from heaven. Every other minute, he would drop a bead of water onto my lips.

"My deputy, Chester, has gone back to town for the doctor, and a buckboard, and to put a posse together.

"We're about five miles away. You are hurt too bad to ride on my horse with me. You'll like the doctor. He's my brother, Thomas. His wife, Morning Star, is Cherokee, and helps with his medical practice," he continued: using his voice to anchor me to this world. Silence would have been kinder.

"Are you a nun? You're wearing a nun's outfit," he asked while adjusting what remained of my black nun's habit over my naked and torn body.

"Chester and I found the stagecoach and the driver about a mile up the road. The driver is dead: shot once right between the eyes. The stage coach is nothing but ashes now! They took the horses. Everything was destroyed. We don't know who you are. The stagecoach company only keeps track of numbers, not names," he said. "But I'm gonna give you a name until we find out more. We can't go around calling you Sister all the time. Irene is a good name. It was my mother's name."

His mother's name was an unbreakable ribbon binding the two of us in thought. I wanted to give the name back: having a name made dying harder.

He took my right hand, and as he was placing it on my chest, I wiggled my fingers to lightly touch his hand, even through the pain.

"You're awake! Do you understand what I'm saying?" He asked.

I managed once more to move my fingers.

After he gently squeezed my hand, then released it, I heard water slosh in the canteen again as he wet the bandana, and wiped my face again.

"Let me get some water on your face for a moment, then I'll ask you some questions and if you can, answer," he said. "Your right arm is badly bruised, but I don't think it's broken.

"You're in pretty bad shape right now. But I'm not a doctor and don't know what all is wrong. From what I can tell, your left arm may be broken, and your left leg, too. You've been badly beaten around the face, and are covered with massive bruises. You probably have a concussion. It looks like someone took a hunting knife to your pretty red hair. There are curls everywhere. It will grow back," he hesitated. "I hope there are no internal injuries. Thomas will know. Did they . . . uh . . . did they?"

He couldn't even say the words I didn't want to remember. Even without seeing his face, I could tell he was ashamed. There was no need to answer. He knew!

He picked up my hand again, gently laying my palm on his, and patted the top of my hand with his other one.

"When I ask you a question: if you can and if you know the answer, just lightly squeeze my hand, or touch my hand. Do what causes you the least pain! Okay?"

I lightly touched his strong fingers.

"Do you know your name?"

Nothing! Almost everything before I woke was gone.

There were several more questions about where I was from, and if I knew anything about myself.


When he asked if I remembered the attack, my fingers almost touched his.

"You remember bits and pieces, but not everything?" He asked, as I slightly touched his calloused hand.

"Was there more than one man?"


Behind my swollen eyes, faces screamed like nightmare demons.

When he reached the number four, I touched his hand again.

"Were they white?"

After I briefly touched his hand twice, he asked. "Two white? Is that right?"


"Were the other two Mexican?"


"Hmm!! That sounds like the Del Rio gang. They hang out down near the Mexican border around Laredo. I've never heard of them traveling this far north before. But since their leader was killed last month in a shoot-out in El Paso, there have been reports of the four gang members in different parts of the state," he said.

As he wiped my face, and dribbled drops of water on my lips, the questions continued, but I didn't have any answers: not for him, not for myself.

I must have lost consciousness again, for I moaned and jerked as the vibration of horses' hooves and wagon wheels moved through the earth to where I lay beside the river on the gravel bed. I could feel the hot sun baking my body. The heat felt good as I shivered.

Beside me, the sheriff raised up from his seat on the ground. I could hear his hand slap at the holstered gun by his side. Then he sighed, and sat back, patting my right shoulder.

"It's okay. It's the posse from town and my brother, Thomas and his wife," he said, rising in a rush of creaking leather, as the sound of horses and a buckboard came nearer, then stopped.

I couldn't understand words, just sounds as horses snorted, stomped the muddy river bank, and drank from the rushing mountain stream. Men were talking, and I could hear the sheriff's low rumble. There must have been several men.

I could sense some people walk toward me. I knew instinctively one was the sheriff.

Another man knelt on one side of me, and a woman sat on the other side.

"It's all right, Sister Irene. I'm Dr. Thomas Hawthorne, and this is my wife, Morning Star. We're taking you back to our hospital," the man said, in a voice not unlike the sheriff's, as he easily touched my face.

I moaned again as he ran his hand over my left arm.

"Your arm isn't broken, but it is dislocated. I'll have to reset it. This is going to be extremely painful, but the pain won't last long," the doctor said. "Star, if you will hold her head, it won't take but a second. It needs to be done before we move her."

Then more fingers. Cool slim fingers eased the pain behind my eyes, as she held my head with both hands. Morning Star!

The scream of an animal in pain ripped through the river clearing, as the doctor set my arm. Then the pain eased.

Morning Star continued to lightly caress my forehead with her fingers as she uttered words in her native Cherokee. After she placed the palm of her hand on my forehead, and said something else, she asked the deputy to bring the buckboard closer and get some blankets out of the back.

"The men can help us ease her onto the buckboard," she said. "We will try to place her gently on the blankets, and then lift her to the buckboard."

After that I remember very little. The sheriff wrapped one blanket around me, then lifted me onto two other blankets as four men grabbed the corners, lifted the blankets up into the back of the buckboard. My head was lying on the woman's lap, where she continued to wipe my face with the cool bandana, and whisper strange mystical words under her breath.

The last I heard was the sheriff telling the others they were going after the men, and plan to meet up with the sheriff in the next county later today. Chester had telegraphed that sheriff. Nate would return to Cherokee Springs in about a week; leaving the deputy in charge.

I vaguely remember the sheriff's rough hand touching my face, as he bent over and whispered revenge on the men who did this to me. Then I heard the whinny of his horse and creak of a leather saddle as he swung up to lead the small posse away from the river clearing.

* * *

Sometimes, when you wake in the middle of the night, there's an owl hooting in the dark, a dog barking at elusive rabbits in the distance, and every so often, a train's lone whistle: letting you know the world goes on as usual. From those simple sounds, there's a comfort deep inside which can't be duplicated.

And you snuggle under your grandmother's quilt to keep warm as a cool breeze blows the fresh clean scent of just-cut grass and sage through an open window: stirring lace curtains, and creating patterns as moonlight invades your world.

Memories stirred, then vanished, as I shifted slightly to get more comfortable. The cast on my left leg made movement hard. My left arm was in a cloth sling.

The creak of the wooden rocking chair in the corner of my room made me gasp in panic.

"Who's there?"

"Nate. I'm keeping watch over you tonight," the low deep voice said. "How are you feeling?"

"Rough!" I said, my voice shaking from the sudden fright, as I struggled to scoot up a little and lean back on the wooden headboard. "When did you get back?"

"Earlier today! You were already in bed. I volunteered to sit with you. Tom and Star are both worn out. Mrs. Jefferson had her twins this morning. Tom said it was a rough delivery, even though she's already had four," he paused for a moment. "Sorry it's taken so long to get back. We finally caught up with them down around San Antonio."

"Did you . . . ?" I asked the barely-visible figure in the dark.

"We got three of them. The fourth one is still on the loose. That's why you need a guard," he paused to clear his throat, as the rocking chair creaked and he stood up, walked over to light the small kerosene lamp on the bedside table. The light was feeble, barely enough to dispel the nightmares in the corners of the room.

"Irene, have you remembered anything at all about yourself?" He asked, returning to the rocking chair to move it closer to the bed. A squelch of wood on wood echoed around the room.

It was the first time I had seen him. He looked about forty. Even in the dim light of the kerosene flame, his looks matched his voice: tall, muscular, with short black hair slightly tinged with white over his ears. He had a square face with a two-day growth of black beard below brown eyes which glowed with a promise of intense heat.

"At times," I replied, shaking my head.

"The harder I try, the more elusive the thoughts become."

"Before he died, one of the men asked if you were dead. That tells me the attack on you wasn't random. You were targeted. And you don't remember why?"

"No," I shook my head. "Why was I targeted?"

"He never explained, or even mentioned your name. He just called you the redheaded nun, and said you deserved to die. Actually, he used more colorful language, but it isn't for ladies to hear."

I just looked at him, trying to understand exactly what I had done to cause such hatred in someone I didn't even remember.

"Am I from that area?"

"I don't know. I've sent telegrams to the sheriff in San Antonio regarding any missing redheaded nuns. There's a Catholic church there with a school. I didn't specify whether you were dead or alive. I figured if certain folks knew you were alive, they'd come after you again. I should hear something back in a few days."

Not knowing if that was a good or bad thing, I didn't say anything.

We sat there in silence for a few minutes listening to each other breath, the distant sound of frogs croaking, and the soft rush of wind in the trees.

"How are you healing?" he asked.

"Both your brother and Star seem to think I'm healing on schedule. Star has a miracle ointment, which she rubbed on my chest. She said the scar may always be there, but the ointment will help eliminate the redness and most of the scar."

"Oh, yes, I know that ointment well. She used it on both Thomas and me after the battle at Shiloh. That was ten years ago, and the scars are gone now."

"The battle at Shiloh?" I asked.

"Yes, both Thomas and I volunteered with the 8th Texas Cavalry, or Terry's Texas Rangers as it is known. We were both injured during the second day of the battle, that was April 7, and our commander sent all the injured home. He didn't want any of his men to undergo the medical treatment at the battle site. The last I heard, over ten thousand Rebs were injured during the two-day battle, along with more than thirteen thousand Yankees. That includes the men who were captured and killed. After we were shot, Thomas grabbed a buckboard and since I had bullets in both legs, he drove while I lay in the back with some of the other injured soldiers from home." he sighed, remembering that day with pain. "Thomas had been shot in the arm, but he could still drive a buckboard.

"No one wanted to have the doctors there look at us. They'd take off an arm and a leg without even thinking about it. It was awful. I will never forget the sight as we drove by one of the medical tents as we left. Besides the wounded outside the tent, there was a stack of soldiers' amputated arms and legs beside the tent. The ground around the tent was red with blood. I swear the Tennessee River was nothing but blood that day, it was horrible, driving by and listening to the screams of pain. That was hell," he said, pausing to take a deep breath. "I never will get that smell out of my head."

The shadows of horror flitted across his face as he remembered.

"About a day later, we ran across a Cherokee village, and that's how we met Morning Star and her sister, Little Dove," he said.

"Little Dove was your wife?" I asked.

He nodded and closed his eyes for a moment: as if he could shut out the memories. You can never erase memories, no matter how hard you try. But then maybe we aren't meant to forget, because memories shape our destiny.

"They healed us, and the people were so kind. We stayed there about three months, long enough for both of us to fall in love with the two sisters," he said. "When we were able to travel, we both married the sisters in a Cherokee ceremony.

"When we got back here, Thomas, who was only twenty at the time, started reading medicine with the local doctor. And I became sheriff, and now ten years later; Thomas is a doctor and I'm still sheriff."

He closed his eyes again, and laid his head back on the chair. Memories played across his face: some good, some bad, some tragic.

After a few minutes, he sat up and looked at me.

"Sorry," he said. "I'm rather tired after the past two weeks."

"Don't apologize! You owe no one an apology or explanation," I said.

"No! I don't," He said. "I guess I better get back to business. Irene, do you think this attack on you had anything to do with the money?"

His brown eyes narrowed as he asked the question casually as if he were discussing the weather.

"Money?" I asked in shock. "What money?"

"Star found $100,000 in legal tender notes sewn into the seams of your habit. The dress was in such bad shape, she was going to cut it up to make quilt pieces. That's when she found it. It's mostly in large bills."

"What?" I shook my head. "I don't remember anything about money!"

A vague memory of sewing on a black dress flitted across my mind, then disappeared.

"I . . . I almost . . . almost, but it's gone now," I replied, shaking my head. "Do you think I stole it?"

"I don't know what to think, Irene. That's a large amount of money for anyone to carry around. Right now, it's in a safe place. It could be your life savings. If it was your church money . . . "

"Am I a thief?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said with a half smile. "I'd say no, you're not. We get a lot of wanted posters from around the area. And I've not seen anything on missing money, or redheaded female bank robbers or missing nuns between forty and fifty years old."

"Is that how old I am?" I asked.

"My best guess, judging from the laugh lines around your green eyes. But I'd say you haven't laughed in a long time."

Shaking my head, I remained silent, leaned my head back against the wooden headboard, and closed my eyes against his questioning gaze, fearing words would bring tears.

Our silence was a third person in the sparsely-furnished small room.

Who was I? Who had I been? A bank robber? A thief? A killer? A monster? I certainly didn't feel like a nun: not with the feelings and dreams I'd been having about the sheriff.

Nate cleared his throat, and I opened my eyes to look at him.

"Thomas wants you to get outside tomorrow. He had a wheelchair out in the barn that I brought out today. At least, being on the first floor here, we can get you out to the back porch for a little while."

"Good! I've gotten a little tired of looking at the world from inside," I yawned. "Excuse me."

"You need to get back to sleep," he said, rising up from the chair, and blowing out the lamp, then returning to the chair. "Go to sleep, and don't worry. I'm here."

* * *

Cherokee Springs wasn't very big, stretching about three blocks with a train depot at one end next to the stagecoach office: the Hawthorne Hospital at the other, and the sheriff's office and jail right smack dab in the middle of the one main dirt street.

The town's two-story saloon and hotel was across the street from the sheriff's office.

There was a big mercantile store next to the sheriff's brick office, along with a restaurant, and other shops. A livery stable was across from the train depot.

Wooden plank sidewalks ran down both sides. Four side streets lined with wooden, and maybe one or two brick houses, in the residential areas. The town's two-room wooden schoolhouse was behind the hospital.

The two-story Hawthorne Hospital wasn't very big, with two patient rooms on the ground floor, a front office, and a combination examine/ surgery room.

One side of the building, which had three rooms, was where the sheriff lived. Besides his front and back entrances, there was a connecting door to the kitchen and dining area on the first floor. The doctor and Morning Star lived on the second floor, where they had two bedrooms and a large sitting room.

A big two-story porch wrapping around the wood-frame building served its purpose of keeping out the hot Texas sun.

"Morning Star, I need to leave," I said as we sat on the back porch snapping green beans which she had gathered earlier that morning from the garden. "I appreciate everything you and Thomas and Nate have done for me, but I'm almost healed now after three months."

After getting rid of the leg cast, I had mastered walking with crutches, and now I only needed them when I was tired. Fortunately, I had few internal injuries, and those had healed on their own.

She looked at me with dark eyes full of knowledge.

"You don't have to, you know. You are more than welcome to live here with us. You have been a great help to us both with Thomas' medical practice and around the house," she said.

"Ruining the cornbread and almost burning the house down wasn't much help," I laughed, with a touch of embarrassment.

"That can happen to anyone," she laughed, pausing for a moment. "Have you talked to Nate about this?"

"Not yet! I . . . eh . . . I plan to pay you and Thomas for my medical care and stay: and not with two chickens and a goat. Although those come in handy, it doesn't pay for the new medical equipment needed here," I said. "If that money belongs to the church, I'm sure the priest wouldn't mind a big donation to help others."

"Irene, you don't owe us anything. It's been our pleasure to have you here. And I know Nate feels the same way," she said.

I didn't want to think about how Nate felt, or how I felt. Since I still couldn't remember ninety-eight percent of my previous life, I had no right to impose what could be a very shady past upon anyone. If I really was a nun, then I was married to the church, and my feelings for Nate would have to take second place.

Since I'd been here, I had been happy. But happiness is like a morning mist: here one minute, gone the next.

"Do you still not remember anything before you were attacked?" She asked.

"I get a flash sometimes, but I'm still pretty much in the dark," I answered. Those flashes of insight had scared me: they weren't tea parties and fancy dress balls. Nor were they about morning prayers.

"Thomas and I are going to church tonight, so that would be a good time to discuss this with Nate. You will both have some privacy," she said. "I think he feels the same way we do. He likes you a lot, you know. He hasn't been interested in any one since his wife died three years ago in childbirth. There was nothing Thomas or I could do to save her and the baby. My sister was born with heart problems."

"He told me. It must have been horrible for all of you," I said, taking a deep breath and looking out over the back of the property.

There were trees all around the hospital property, cutting off the views beyond. There was peace here, as if nothing existed beyond that line of trees.

"You could stay here and teach school, Irene," she said, looking at me. "You're quite educated, and would be a great teacher. So far, the only ones we've been able to get are young girls, who can barely read and write themselves. And they leave as soon as they get married, because most rural schools don't hire married teachers."

"Teach?" The word flashed another memory: standing in front of a group of people. "I . . . I don't know. I just had a flash of doing something like that."

She looked at me. "I'm not surprised."

"Surprised at what?" Thomas asked as he stepped onto the back porch from the kitchen.

"Sister Irene teaching!" Star answered. "I think she would be a good teacher for our children here. And I'm trying to persuade her to stay and live with us."

Thomas walked over to one of the several hand-made wooden porch chairs, and sat down.

"Are you planning to leave, Irene?" He asked with his brother's eyes and voice. "I can't get used to calling you Sister Irene. Somehow it just doesn't fit."

"I . . . I thought it might be safer for everyone if I did. The longer I stay here, the more likely that gang will hear about it and come after me. I don't want to put anyone else in danger," I said.

"I think Nate could handle anyone gunning for you," he said, leaning back in his chair against the wall. "Where would you go?"

"I don't know," I answered. "If nothing else, I could go to the convent in Austin."

"I'd advise you to talk to Nate first," he said just as I interrupted him.

"Why is everyone telling me to talk to Nate first? I'm a free woman, and quite capable of making decisions," I was irritated. "I don't need some man to make my decisions. And I'm not anyone's property."

Star and Thomas looked at me, then each other. Star slightly shook her head.

"We're just concerned, Irene. We don't mean anything bad by it," she said.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't be so sensitive about this issue," I said. "It makes me very angry when men treat women like they haven't a brain in their heads. Don't take offense, Thomas. I'm not including you and Nate in that. You two are quite the opposite."

"What's for supper tonight," Thomas quickly changed the subject.

"You men and your stomachs," Star laughed and swatted him, before she stood up to hand him her metal pan of snapped green beans. "Come on, you can help me cook."

After following them into the kitchen, the three of us worked quickly to prepare supper.

Nate arrived just as Thomas was taking the cornbread out of the wood stove.

"Who made the cornbread?" Nate leaned over Thomas to look at the steaming golden dome in the iron skillet.

"I did," Thomas said.

"Good. At least I won't have to put out another kitchen fire because of Irene's cooking," Nate said, unbuckling his gun belt and hanging it over the back of a chair.

"Oh, you! That's not fair," I laughed and swatted at the sheriff with the drying towel.

"And I ain't even going to mention the cake you tried to make," he laughed, as we all sat down. "Not even the pigs would eat it."

"Yes, that cake!" Thomas laughed. "We had to air the house out for three days."

"You men just leave Irene alone. She's trying," Star said.

"Very trying," I said to the laughter in the room.

* * *

After supper, Thomas and Star left for the small Methodist church just beyond the trees. Nate and I cleaned up the kitchen.

"I need to talk to you," I said as we walked out to the back porch swing. Nate laid his gun belt on the porch floor.

"Do you really need your gun out here?" I asked.

"Yep! I never know when I might need it," he said.

As we both sat down, the swing began to gently sway back and forth. We both unconsciously kept up the motion with our feet. The motion created a feeling of safety: as if we were secure in our mothers' wombs.

Lightning bugs flickered in the cooling dusk, as frogs croaked mating calls at the creek running along the back of the property.

Just above the back tree line, dark clouds gathered with sunlit silver edges highlighted by the setting sun. Fireplace smoke from nearby houses lay flat above the treetops. The heavy humidity promised rain before morning. You could practically squeeze the rain out of the air.

As Nate stretched, he laid one arm on the back of the swing.

"Nate," I began, taking a deep breath. "I need to leave."

"Why?" He asked, patting me on my shoulder. "Don't you like it here?"

I looked at him. Those bright brown eyes stared a hole into my soul.

"I'm putting you all in danger," I said, looking away. "It has nothing to do with how I feel. If I am a nun, then my first duty would be to the church."

"Sister Irene. That just doesn't sound right," he said.

"Sister Irene, I'll be damned. She ain't no sister anything, are you, Gussie?" A harsh voice sounded behind us, as the barrel of a gun came between our heads.

"Oh, God," I gasped, as Nate reached over. I turned around.

"Don't move, Sheriff, or else I'll spread your brains all over the porch, and do the same with Gussie!"

Nate froze, cutting his eyes over at me.

"Hal!" I gasped, as all the memories I'd buried came rushing back.

"Yeah, you little thieving bitch. It's me, Hal. Miss me?" His laugh made my skin crawl, as he caressed the side of my face with the gun barrel. "Did you enjoy our little romp by the river, Gussie?"

"Gussie?" Nate asked, looking at me.

"Yeah! Gussie! The best little double-crosser in Texas," Hal growled, shoving the gun against the back of my head. "You make one move, Mr. Sheriff, and I'll blow her all over the porch, in pieces."

"It's short for Augusta," I said, not daring to look at Nate, who was sitting with both hands holding on to the bottom of the swing's edge. I could tell he was waiting for the right moment to reach down and grab his gun.

"Where's my money, bitch?" Hal growled as he shoved me out of the swing onto the floor.

Hitting the floor with a thump almost took my breath away. My old shoulder injuries screamed, but I bit my lower lip not to yell in pain.

"It's not your money, Hal. It was my father's," I said, rolling over to sit up and look at him. "I only took what rightfully belonged to me. You stole it after you killed him."

Hal hadn't changed his nasty clothes since I had seen him last: dirty jeans, a plaid shirt and a bullet clip hung over his shoulder. He was still wearing his big Stetson which was once white, but now covered with dirt and the dark brown stains of someone else's life.

"It don't matter. You killed Big Pete, and stole that money from us," he said, as he walked around the swing to stand in front of me. "Where is it?"

"I don't have it," I said, drawing my feet up under my skirt, and adjusting it, careful not to look at Nate.

"I've got it," Nate said.

Hal swung around to point the gun at Nate, and at that moment, I made my move, swiftly grabbed a small derringer out of my ankle holster, aiming it in Hal's direction, and pulled the trigger.

Hal looked at me in surprise then at his chest where a small trickle of blood appeared to run down his dirty shirt, and then fell over backward against the swing.

At that exact moment, Nate jumped up from the swing, and grabbed his gun. But he didn't need it.

Hal's dead body hit the swing, knocking it wildly as he fell into the swing. The swing stopped, as Hal's feet hit the floor.

Nate and I both breathed deeply as he checked Hal's pulse.

"He's dead," Nate said, offering his hand to help me up. "That was some shooting, Irene, or is it Gussie?"

"Actually, you weren't wrong when you named me after your mother. It's Augusta Irene Williams. I'm not a nun, but I taught school," I said, starting to shake now. "Everything came back when I heard Hal's voice."

The horror of what I had just done hit me. I had actually killed someone: two if you count the man in El Paso. How could I take someone's life?

Nate grabbed me and held me close to his chest, as tears ran down my face.

Thomas, Morning Star, and Chester came running around the side of the house, and stopped in their tracks as they viewed the scene.

A dead outlaw lay in the porch swing, as Nate held me close to his warm chest.

* * *

It seemed like hours later, as the four of us sat around the kitchen table, drinking coffee, as I explained.

"I was teaching school in San Antonio when my father received word that his aunt had died and left him some money. When he went to El Paso, he got his money, $100,000, and was on his way home on the stagecoach when the Del Rio gang held it up, killed my father and stole his money. I quit teaching to travel to El Paso and find the men who had killed him," I said.

"In order to get close to the gang, I had to work in the Red Dog saloon. It worked for a while, and one day, I discovered where they kept the money. I got caught by the leader when I was searching for it. He was going to shoot me, when I hit him. We struggled for the gun and it went off, killing him. I grabbed the money and ran, disguising myself as a nun," I said, looking at Nate. "Am I under arrest for murder now?"

"No, sounds like self-defense to me," Nate said, looking at me intently and smiling.

"I really didn't remember any of that until Hal showed up, and then it all came back," I said.

"That has been known to happen," Thomas said. "But do you always keep a derringer strapped to your leg?"

"No, not really. But lately, I just felt the need for it," I said. "I bought it earlier this week at the mercantile store."

"Why?" Morning Star asked.

"I . . . I don't know. I've just been jumpy lately," I responded. "Every time I go out, I'm looking over my shoulder."

"Irene," Nate said, gathering me in his arms. "It's going to be all right. Don't worry, please."

Drawing back from his embrace, I scooted my chair back and jumped up.

"I've . . . I've got to go pack. I must return to San Antonio," I said, turning and running out of the room to my bedroom.

Hurriedly, I grabbed a valise out from under the bed, opened it, and started throwing in clothes from a dresser. I was panicking, and I wasn't sure why.

Hal was dead. I had money. I had a job offer. I had a home if I wanted to stay. And I really wanted to stay. But duty called and I knew there would be no rest until I had settled matters at home.

"Where are you going, Irene?" Nate said from the bedroom doorway.

"San Antonio. I have things to do," I said, not wanting to look at him.

"What things do you have to do?" He asked softly, his breath tickled my neck as he moved behind me, and placed his hands on my shoulders.

"Do you have a husband at home? Family? A maiden aunt who needs you to constantly dance attention?"

"No!" I said, as he slowly turned me around to face him.

"Then stay with me, Augusta Irene," he whispered, drawing me closer, pulling me into his warmth as he kissed me.

Pulling back from him, I looked into his brown eyes: eyes filled with promise, heat, and a lifetime of love. This man was willing to accept me as I was: despite the horrors I had suffered and had inflicted on others. Plain and simple, I was a killer. There are very few people who could have accepted that.

"I have business there, then I'll be back."

"Promise?" he asked, kissing me again.


The End

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