January, 2017

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Issue #88

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
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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!

Nevada Stage Ride
by Larry Garaschia
The stage carried fresh gold dust heading to a bank, while two desperate robbers contrived to rob it high up in the treacherous and snowy winter mountains of Nevada.

* * *

Death Wears a White Shroud
by Jesse J Elliot
Sheriff Iragene Jones and Father Agustin lose their way in a blizzard and take shelter in an isolated church where they find a pair of young runaways. But their evening is interrupted when two brutes break in and take everyone hostage. Can Iragene overcome their captors and save everyone, including herself?

* * *

Why Tom Waltz and Me Settled in Great Benefice
by John Gronbeck-Tedesco
Friends since boyhood, Tom and Jinx have been drovin' beeves since their stint in the Civil War. The war and six years on the cattle trail have taken a toll on their friendship and their sanity. Together they face a decisive moment that will make all the difference in both men's lives.

* * *

The Yampa River Incident
by E. P. Fierro
Eduardo Brown, late of Tucumcari, New Mexico, was leaving Steamboat Springs after a gunfight with town bully Ben Marchland. The town marshall had declared the killing a case of self-defense, but that didn't hold any sway with the dead man's three brothers . . . and now they'd found Eduardo.

* * *

Downwind of Murder
by Tom Sheehan
As Sheriff Corbin rode into the canyon in the heat of the day, he came across a pair of vultures and a putrid odor. In one drawn breath he caught the ripe smell of death. As he wondered what might have drawn the attention of the scavengers, a shot rang out. Bushwhacker!

* * *

Jus Sanguinis, Part 3 of 3
by Matthew Caldwell
Joe Vanek came to the prairie with his wife and infant child to escape the brutal life he'd created back east. But when he tries to run from his past, guns and all, Joe realizes that some crimes can't be committed and left behind—they're carried in the blood.

* * *

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All the Tales

Death Wears a White Shroud
by Jesse J Elliot

“Are you still with me, Father Agustin?” Iragene turned her head and yelled, hoping to be heard above the shrill screams of the wind and the blowing snow. At the end of the lead rope, an invisible voice shouted back, “Yes, Sheriff, I am fine. I just wish we could see beyond our noses.”

Iragene Jones, sheriff of El Brazo County, smiled briefly then resumed her onslaught against the swirling snow that continued to block her vision. She looked around, glad that her friend, Father Agustin didn't see the fear on her face, though he too knew that they were totally lost, and the lead rope was only there to make sure they wouldn't get separated in the blizzard.

The two riders struggled on through the sea of snow for another few minutes. Suddenly, she and her horse smelled it at the same time—smoke. Mixed in with the blowing snow, it was impossible to separate the snow from the smoke as visibility remained pure whiteness, but abruptly, her horse stopped. Iragene turned around to her riding companion. “I think we found a structure. Can't tell if it's a house or what.”

“It's a morada, a Penitente church. I know where we are. We must have gotten turned around—going east instead of west to Santa Fe,” he shouted to her with relief in his voice. “It's not the best place to stay, but it will at least save our lives tonight.”

They both got off their horses and walked around the structure, feeling their way around the building. Next to what appeared to be a chimney was a fair sized indentation where one horse was already picketed. They took their saddles off their horses. Rubbed them down with some straw that someone had conveniently left, fed them, and then covered them again in their saddle blankets and saddles to keep the heat in.

“Are you sure it's all right to go in, Father? I heard the Penitentes are prickly about strangers using their churches, even deadly,” she spoke loudly to her companion.

“In this weather, no one should censure us for taking succor in a house of God,” and he put his saddle bags over his shoulder and took Iragene's free arm. They held onto the walls and each other as they walked around, looking for the entrance. Finally the adobe gave way to heavy wood, the door.

They pushed the door in and were surprised to see two youngsters huddled in front of the fireplace. The teenage boy and girl both jumped up as the two wayfarers entered the church. Their eyes were wide open and their mouths agape.

“Relax, my children, we are just two travelers who lost our way. I am Father Agustin, and this is Iragene Jones who was kind enough to accompany me to Santa Fe as she had business of her own to deal with. We are here to escape the storm and for no other reason. Now, may we join you and warm ourselves by the fire that you so generously fixed?”

The young girl spoke first. She stepped forward awkwardly, looking contrite. “We're so sorry we didn't invite you in, Father. We were just surprised. We weren't expecting anyone to be out in the storm,” she responded, wringing her hands and looking back over her shoulder at her companion. “We haven't done anything wrong!” she added.

“Children, I am sure you have done nothing wrong, please don't fret.”

Iragene, still half frozen decided to forego the girl's confession and try to thaw out, “Father, let's get some coffee going so we can warm up a bit. Then we'll get the cheese out and heat up the tortillas. Are you two hungry?” she asked the youngsters. “We have enough for four if you're interested.”

“We sure are,” the boy almost shouted out. “I'm afraid we didn't plan very well. Thank you. Can we help, Father?”

“There's probably more wood and some cooking utensils in the storage room. Why don't you light the two lamps over there in the corner and see what you can find?”

Both kids walked over to the lamps and the boy lit them with a burning twig from the fire. They then disappeared through the door of the storage area on the far side of the room, leaving one of the lamps in the main room.

“So what do you think about our young Romeo and Juliette?” Iragene asked as she angled her head toward the storage door.

“Well, he's Anglo and she's Mexicana. I suspect that the difference in their family backgrounds may be the cause of their running away. I have a feeling that we'll know their story before the night is over,” he looked at her with a twinkle in his ebon eyes. “She's obviously used to confessing to priests.”

* * *

The well-built fireplace was slowly warming the front part of the room where everyone was camped. Iragene had just taken off her coat when the boy and girl re-entered the room. Once again both of them looked at the woman and stared, remaining silent. She wore a brown riding skirt that barely covered her boots. Her heavy woolen sweater stopped just above her holster and guns. Instead of being pinned up, her hair hung low, falling in waves down her back. She was like no one either youngster had seen. She was feminine but not in any sense did she appear vulnerable. The girl said nothing, but the boy's gulp was quite audible. No woman in 19th Century New Mexico dressed like that or wore guns in a holster.

Iragene caught their glances, and decided to diffuse their discomfort. “Ah, I see you found more wood and a flat pan to heat up the tortillas. Wonderful. In the meantime, let's just relax and get to know each other better,” and she smiled and looked at her companion.

“Let me begin again. I am Father Agustin, and I am on my way to visit my sister who lives in Santa Fe. When I found out the sheriff had to make a trip to the capital as well as pick up a prisoner, I thought having some good company with me on the long ride would be more pleasant and safe,” and he turned to Iragene.

“My name is Iragene Jones, and I'm the sheriff of Los Brazos, as Father Agustin already mentioned,” and she nodded to the clergyman with a smile, while placing four small tortillas on the hot pan. “Now, who are you?” she added kindly.

Neither made a sound, but then the boy looked up and spoke, “I'm Aiden Wilson.” He placed his hand on the girl's and then continued, “This is Paola Salort Jimenez. We're running away to be married.”

Father Agustin looked kindly at each of them. “Do your parents know where you children are right now?” he asked knowingly.

“No,” Aiden said angrily, “we're not allowed to see each other even though we grew up on ranchos right next to each other.”

“Ah, I see,” and he turned to Paola. “And how old are you, my child?”

“Father, I am no child, I am almost fifteen, old enough for a Quincinera and old enough to know I love Aiden,” and she grabbed the boy's other hand to affirm her words.

“I assume your parents don't know where you are. What do you imagine they're thinking right now with both of you gone in the middle of a blizzard? Aren't you afraid they're worried?”

Iragene continued to work on the tortillas, adding cheese and some chili verde to the meal. She tried keeping busy to hide the smile that came to her face as she listened to the youngsters justify their behavior. With the metal plates the youngsters found, she dished out food to everyone. “Father, let's eat. I don't know about you, but I'm famished,” and she gave a knowing wink to her friend the priest.

They sat before the fireplace, silently eating their food. Finally talk turned to the duration of the storm and the question of how long they might be there. “Luckily these storms blow out as suddenly as they come, but in my entire life, I don't think I've seen one this bad,” Aiden informed them. Both the sheriff and the priest tried not to smile.

“And how old are you, young man?” Father Agustin asked innocently.

“Seventeen, Father—a man,” he said quickly, waiting for any challenges that might come.

Iragene looked up from her food and decided to go back to the safe discussion of the weather. “My brother and I once got caught in a white-out like this in Texas. We were afoot, and the only thing that saved us was crawling into a haystack with our dog. We were there for a whole day and a night. That hay and our dog saved us!”

“How did the dog and hay save you?” Paola finally spoke, her eyes wide with wonder at this seemingly amazing woman, wearing a gun and sitting casually beside her.

“Well, I don't understand this myself, but two things kept us warm, the dog and the actual straw itself.”

“Huh, I don't understand. I know the dog makes a lot of heat. My old Sam could heat up my bed so much I had to make him sleep outside in the summer, but hay? How does that heat up?”

“Apparently, the hay does generate its own heat. One very hot, dry summer when I was a boy,” the priest added, “my sister and I were out riding on the rancho, and three of our haystacks caught fire—before our very eyes! We rode home as quickly as we could to tell our father so he could catch the arsonist. My father and his foreman were not even surprised though they were unhappy. ‘There is no arsonist, mijos, only the summer heat.' That night, the first of the summer monsoons began, and that was the end of the mysterious fires in the haystacks.”

They continued to eat in comfortable silence for a brief while. Then Paola looked at Agustin. “Father, we have lived near the Penitentes all our lives, but nobody seems willing to talk about them. They seem like Catholics, but they have some strange traditions that no one will explain.”

Iragene looked up into Father Agustin's face, “Father, that's a good question. Coming just recently from Texas, I have little knowledge of the Penitentes. I'd like to know how they got started. They're so close to all the Catholic churches, why did they start their own?”

Aiden put a log on the fire, then looked up, “All I've heard is to stay away from any of their buildings, especially at Christmas or during Holy Week or you'll be flogged—or worse. We were mighty desperate to take shelter here, and we weren't too happy to do so,” and he screwed up his face as he pointed around him.

“Probably a good idea to remember in the future,” the handsome priest smiled. “Well, if you're all so interested, I'll give you the history of the Penitentes.

“After Mexico proclaimed its independence from Spain, she withdrew all of her priests from New Mexico. In their place, they left some lay clerics to carry out baptisms and weddings, but these lay clerics for the most part were too few and too far from the communities. Many of them were corrupt and charged so much for these ceremonies, that the people turned to a group of dedicated men who had their roots in the old time Catholicism where flagellation and former traditions still existed. These were the Penitentes, and they allowed the church to survive as well as continue to forge a closeness to old Spain and some of its traditions. It wasn't until Father Lamy came to New Mexico, just a few years back, that modern Catholicism was re-introduced to the Southwest. But, as you see,” and he pointed around to the morada, “old customs die hard. Here we are nearing the end of the 19th Century, and still this morada is in current use.”

Gracias, Padre, that clarifies a lot,” Paola smiled shyly.

De nada,” he returned. “Religion plays a large part in our lives, mija. It is something that you and Aiden will have to discuss at length.”

Aiden looked over at the two of them. “We will, Father. We'll go back after the storm and talk with our parents. I want to be married more than ever, this isn't the way to start. I want our parents at the wedding,” and he looked at the young girl, “and I'm sure Paola wants the same.”

“I do, I do,” she said and leaned over and kissed Aiden on the cheek. “Oh,” she looked at the priest, embarrassment coloring her cheeks, “I'm so sorry, Padre.”

“Mija, there is no need for an apology. A chaste kiss is nothing to be ashamed of,” and he smiled.

They all pitched in to clean the dishes. Several trips were made outside to gather enough snow. The two youngsters were obviously tiring. They did have two blankets, but where to put them, they were too embarrassed to ask.

Iragene yawned but then saw their discomfort. “How about you and I sleeping over to the right of the fireplace, Paola, and Aiden and Father Agustin taking the left side? I'll put away the dishes if you men will check the horses. Paola, can you bring some more wood in so we can make it through the night and not freeze?” she asked smiling. Everyone nodded and went about their business of preparing for the night.

Iragene picked up the now clean dishes and pots. Looking about, it struck her that there was little furniture in the large room. There were different wood-carved crosses on each wall. The crosses were large enough for a man to be crucified on. She looked around and shuddered, knowing that the Penitentes did crucify a man every Easter. Were these crosses a decoration or the actual means in which a symbolic Christ was crucified?

Her thoughts were interrupted when Paola came back and quietly asked her, “How did you become a sheriff, and where's your star?”

“How I became a sheriff is a long story, and I don't always wear the star since sometimes I don't want people to know I'm a sheriff. Sometimes people talk to me more when I'm just Iragene Jones.”

“Are you ever afraid?” the girl asked, sounding like the child that she was. Iragene looked at her and smiled. She put the clean dishes and things down and attempted to answer the question as honestly as she could.

“Oh, yes, a lot of the time. That's what keeps me alert. Being a little afraid is a good thing, being very afraid is not a good thing—fear can often paralyze you, not allowing you to think clearly on how to react.” She turned her head and looked at the door. “Hmmm, don't you think it's taking those men a long time to check on the horses?”

Iragene had taken off her holster before settling down to eat, but out of habit, she placed the holster next to her sleeping area and covered it with her sleeping blanket. Within seconds, the door banged open, and a gust of frigid, blowing snow entered the room. Suddenly two men fell into the church, both bleeding about their faces and both with their hands tied behind their backs. Aiden and Father Agustin painfully looked up at the two men who followed. Each carried a gun and had it pointed at a man.

“Well, well, what have we got here, Little Brother, two women, so each of us will have our own blanket warmer. Oh, yeah, finding this building again was the luckiest thing next to my breaking you out of prison,” he laughed cruelly as his eyes looked up and down at the two woman, a lascivious grin on his face. “Found me some little virgins to keep us warm. Yeah, we've been, how shall I say it? Blessed, yeah, blessed by this building,” and an ugly laugh followed. Abruptly he kicked both men. “You, Padre, get next to the left wall! And you, sonny, get over to the right wall, away from the ladies!”

The younger brother had said little during all this. His hair, like his brother's, was stringy and greasy, and he easily stood six feet tall. Unfortunately, he was also the man on the wanted poster who Iragene was supposed to collect from the jail in Santa Fe. He had raped and murdered a young woman in her county before she had became sheriff. He was captured a few weeks ago when a deputy in Santa Fe recognized him by the wanted poster and the description of his slow speech and mannerisms. Though mentally slow, the law still held him accountable for his crimes, and he was to return to Los Brazos for a trial.

“I'm Big John and this here is Little Joe. Me ‘n Little Joe could use some warming up. Got some coffee in that pot?” the older brother demanded. Unabashed and not really caring to hear a response, he took out a filthy kerchief from his pocket and grabbed the handle. He poured some coffee in a cup from the pile of clean dishes and sipped it, looking at Iragene and then to Paola with a cruel grin that exposed a mouth full of brown and rotten teeth.

“Hey Big John, dis is the same place where I did that other girl I was telling you about. But I did her too hard,” and he laughed, sounding like a cackle.

Iragene tried not to respond at all, but her expression displayed the revulsion she felt. She tried quickly to hide her reaction, but the older brother had seen it. “So you don't like what you see or hear, huh, girly? Well, I'll show you, and I'll bet you'll like me then,” and he grabbed her by the sweater and pulled her near him. Little Joe just watched, and Paola whimpered.

Iragene looked at Paola, attempting to convey a shushing sound but to the stranger she showed no resistance but shivered. The big man ripped off her sweater.

“I'm cold, and I don't want to do this here. Can we take the blanket and go in the other room, please?” She waited, and since he didn't say no, she slowly moved toward her blanket, watching his expression, and tucked it in her arms. Paola whimpered again, while Father Agustin and Aiden lay quietly semi-conscious on the floor.

“Ha, you want me as much as I want you, huh, girly? Little Joe, keep your eyes on these three. It's your turn next,” he sniggered then abruptly yanked Iragene's hair. “Just so you know who's boss, Girly.”

Iragene tried to remain calm for the sake of the girl and the priest who was coming around, but he obviously had a concussion as he vomited where he lay. She was working out a plan in her head while being half shoved and half carried into the storage room. She knew the man's vulnerable spots and aimed to use them to her advantage.

They made it to the storage room. Both lamps had been removed to the main room, so there was no light. The smell of the man in the close quarters almost made Iragene sick. He was beginning to remove his clothes. So sure of himself, she could hear him take off his holster and lay it on the table. He then moved so his back was to the door to block the chances of her running out.

He felt around and found her face. He slapped it. “Okay, bitch, get down on your knees and listen to what I want you to do!” He smiled as he looked off into the darkness, never suspecting that the contact his privates were anticipating would be met with a hard knee. “GOD DAMMIT!” he screamed. “What the. . .” While he held his privates, Iragene hauled off and kicked him solidly in the shin. While he held onto his crotch with one hand, he reached out to grab his assailant by the hair or neck but found nothing. Iragene had crammed herself into a corner and pulled out her gun from the holster in the blanket. He reached out and found her gun, but he was too late, he could only botch her aim. Instead of his chest, she shot him right in the foot. The close range tore his boot apart and shattered his foot, turning his bones to splinters.

Little Joe was at the door, pounding and shouting to his brother, but his brother's shattered body was against the door, blocking the entrance. “Big John, Big John, are ya all right?”

Iragene checked her gun and was about to move the big man when she heard a thud on the other side of the door. Had someone taken Little Joe out because the man was no longer trying to get in? She heard her immediate attacker moaning, but all she wanted to do was get out of the small room. She tried opening the door but his heavy body became dead weight.

“Iragene, Iragene, are you . . . are you alive?” Paola cried through the door.

“Yes, can you push while I pull? I wish I had some light.” They both tugged at the door, one pushing, the other pulling. Finally light came through the crack, and then it got bigger. Just as Iragene felt the door about to open, a rough hand grabbed the ankle of her boot. “I got you, you bitch, and I'm going to kill you now.”

Iragene looked down quickly, her gun still in her hand. Luckily, Big John was so sure of himself he forgot that Iragene had a gun. Quickly she aimed and shot. He screamed in pain just as Paola pushed as hard as she could and the big man fell over, allowing Iragene to escape her hellhole.

When she finally got out into the main room, she bent over, held onto her knees, and took some deep breaths. First to get the man's stench out of her system, and second, to stop her own shaking—it had been too close a call. After what seemed to be forever but was only thirty seconds or so, she stood up and looked around. The men were slowly coming out of their stupors, and lying between her and the fire was the comatose body of Little Joe. On his head was the beginning of a huge welt.

Iragene looked questioningly at Paola. “How?” was all she asked.

“He was so busy trying to open the door that he forgot about me. I grabbed the pan and hit him on the head. Good reason not to put pots and pans away. Luckily, he fell away from the door or we would have had two brothers to move.” She giggled in an octave higher than was probably normal. Iragene sensed that the girl was close to hysterics. She walked up to Paola and took her in her arms and soothed her. The girl started crying, and Iragene stood there holding her until she stopped, sobbed a bit, choked a bit, and then relaxed. Paola finally lifted her head and smiled. Finally looking around, she realized that Aiden and Father Agustin were still tied.

Iragene wasted no time. She walked quickly over to her saddlebags and withdrew handcuffs. She put them on the two huge unconscious men. She took the rope that Paola took off of Aiden and Father Agustin and tied the feet of the younger brother. Both men were groaning, and even though Big John would probably never walk again, she tied him up as well.

Paola then went to Aiden and the priest and gave them water and put cold cloths on their heads. Each were now conscious and able, though fearful, to ask what had happened. Iragene and Paola briefly explained what had happened, editing the details. The story ended with each women taking out a brother.

Father Agustin attempted to smile, but it hurt too much, while Aiden was on the verge of tears, knowing that their little escapade could have ended in rape and murder, he just looked away.

“Iragene, are you going to check on Big John's wounds?” asked the girl.

“No, I have no bandages or medicines. He may die from infection or loss of blood, but I can't help him. We'll have to fetch a doctor when the storm lets up. In the meantime, I need to get some sleep. I think we'll be all right until tomorrow. Both men are tied and cuffed. Let's clean up what we can and get some rest,” she said after cleaning up the vomit, helping the men move closer to the fire, and taking back her blanket from the storeroom. Both brothers were now silent. She spread her sleeping pack, covered herself with her blanket and fell asleep.

* * *

The restful sleep was broken quite early with the sounds of shouts. “Help me!!! Dammit, give me something for the pain! When I get through with you, there won't be any pieces left to recognize you. I'll tear you limb from limb!!!!! Little Joe, where are you? Where's my brother?” The shouts were loud but slurred. Iragene clenched her fist tightly. She knew she had destroyed this man and put him in excruciating pain, but the alternative would have been worse.

She looked at Little Joe. He was lying where they had left him. He heard the shouts of his brother, but he couldn't move. He lay there quietly after having spent a good part of the night before trying to remove his restraints.

Iragene and Paola went outside for their morning ablutions, bringing back snow for coffee. Father Agustin felt well enough to get the fire going. He started the coffee and began heating the tortillas. The four ate in silence, trying to ignore the yelling from the next room.

Once again they cleaned up, but left the clean dishes in a neat stack outside the storeroom. Iragene moved cautiously toward Little Joe. “I know you can both hear me. John, I'm riding to Santa Fe to find a doctor. I'm sorry I can't do more but I'll back as soon as I can.”

Big John and his brother, Little Joe, cursed Iragene every way they could. Anxious to leave the filthy language and smell of the brothers, Iragene and Paola helped Father Agustin and Aiden to the horses. They looked around in awe. The fresh snow looked like a sea of diamonds as the bright New Mexico sun shined down on it. The lapis sky, the snow covered pines, and the dazzling whiteness reminded every one how beautiful the world still was in spite of the ugliness that they had lived through the previous night.

Aiden looked at the tired priest. “We promise we'll make this right, Father. We're going to the Jimenez place and talk to her parents. Then I'll go home and talk to mine. Hopefully our parents will understand.”

“I know you will, my children. Now go with God, and have a safe journey back. You're sure you're both feeling well enough for the ride?”

“Yes, Father,” Paola replied, the cold causing her cheeks to turn dark pink in lovely contrast with her large brown eyes and black hair. “But I will make sure that Aiden is all right. I'll have my Tia check him. She's a curandera. She'll make sure that Aiden is well enough to ride home alone.”

Leading his horse, she turned a final time, “Good-bye, Father. Good-bye, Iragene. Thank you for everything,” and they headed east while Iragene and Father Agustin turned west.

By noon, much of the snow was gone. The temperature hovered in the 40s, and their ride to Santa Fe was pleasant and uneventful. The priest listened with relief knowing she and Paola had subdued the two brothers before . . . anything could happen. He looked at Iragene, trying to think of something to say.

“You know that there was nothing you could have done differently,” she said softly to him.

“I know, but somehow, I feel that I let you down. When I think of what those men could have done . . . ” he choked a bit.

“It's over, Father,” and she smiled sympathetically.

Iragene looked at the priest turn and ride on to the church, thanking God this kind and special man was her friend. She continued to look at him fondly, and then sighed and headed for the sheriff's office.

* * *

The next day, the Santa Fe sheriff, the doctor, and Sheriff Iragene Jones set off with a wagon to the isolated morada. Though the sun shined brightly, dark clouds were building up. Bundled up, the three took extra blankets and food for the men who had now been alone for two days.

They arrived and stopped the wagon in front of the morada. There were boot and horse prints all over the snow. “Maybe someone has already brought a doctor for these men. I hope they realize how dangerous they are,” said the sheriff, scratching his chin. Slowly they got out of the wagon, carrying in the supplies.

Nobody was there! They looked around the room and then in the storage room. No prisoners, no blood.

“Well then, I guess I'm not needed . . . ” but the doctor stopped short when he saw Iragene's expression. “What is it!?” She continued to stare at the walls in horror, her hand over her mouth—two crosses were missing. She knew she would be riding back without her prisoner—he and his brother were no longer in need of a doctor.

By the time they started back home, it was snowing.

The End

An eclectic reader at an early age, Jesse J Elliot grew up to be an educator, working in elementary schools, universities, and community colleges. She received her MA and Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico, and many of her descriptions of people and places derive from her actual experiences.

Her free time is spent traveling, dancing, and visiting family. She married her husband because he reminded her of Owen Wister's the Virginian. She is a big fan of westerns, science fiction, and the classics. Her goal was to publish a strong, feminist western series. Her dream is coming true as her first novel, Death in Gran Quivera, is about to be published by Torrid Press, a subsidiary of Whiskey Creek Press.

Four of her short stories have been published in Frontier Tales Magazine, and one has appeared in A Christmas Mail-order Bride called “Timeless.”

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