website design software

Story 4

  Mel. White

I could say Small Spirits from Mel. White is a gritty, supernatural Western, and I would be right,but that hardly scratches the surface of this tale . For one thing, you can be sure that all the  historical and anthropological references are spot on. It is fantasy, but fantasy rooted in authentic folklore.

I asked for a short story from Mel a long time ago. She sent me what she referred to as a "weird Western". I sat on it for a long time because I had already published a fantasy Western story and didn't have a slot for Mel's story. Then COVID happened, and I lost track of Mel entirely. My co-editor Googled her,  and we were able to get a good email address for her. A few exchanges later, and we are proud to present for your reading pleasure: Small Spirits.

Scientist/author/artist Mel. White (yes, there's a period in her name) was raised by Coyotes, which is why everything in her stories tends to be true for the culture and the time period -- except for the parts that she makes up, of course.

"I think that covers the basics," she said. I couldn't agree more.


By Mel. White

Sam Voss lay dying, face down in the dry Rio Grande riverbed underneath a hot Texas sun, his last breaths whispering across the dust.  

"Is this the one?  T’aint fit for coyotes," a voice said.   The assessment was impersonal; a judgment delivered from a very bored god who wasn't too interested in the soul of poor Sam Voss, Boston accountant.  Something tapped against his foot.  "Not dead yet." 

"Ah-yuh."  A second voice responded. 

Sam wondered vaguely if they would try to rob him.  The joke would be on them, because he had no money, no watch, no guns and no jewelry.  Even his shoes weren't worth taking.

"Not from around here" First Voice observed. "Might be one of them drunks from the saloon at Langtry."  Whoever they were, they seemed to be a gossipy lot.  He wished they'd just check his pockets and then go away to leave him to his task of dying.

"Don't smell like no drunk."  First Voice commented.  "Must have got hisself heat stroke."

A shadow flickered over his face.  Maybe it was buzzards that were arguing over him.  "Naw.  Face ain't red enough.  Looks like discouragement and discombobulation.  What's good for discombobulation?" Second Voice asked.

"Water," said First Voice.

Hands lifted Sam up towards heaven.  Light bathed his closed eyes, and he felt his spirit rise and reach for the clouds, soaring on angel wings.  He was flying.

Then he was landing, face down, in something liquid.  There was a noise that Sam's brain interpreted as a splash.   Sam's body immediately made the entirely independent decision to rise and attempt to levitate out of the wet stuff while his brain was still trying to figure out why Heaven was wet and whether he'd been sent to some sort of fishy afterlife in revenge for all the trout he'd eaten during his lifetime. 

Then there was air for his lungs.  He lay on a stretch of muddy ground, gasping.

"Yup.  That done it," Second Voice said, sounding satisfied.

Sam looked up and around.

Wherever this was, it wasn't Langtry, Texas -- a town so small that any building outside the saloon might be called an outskirt.   He was still outdoors, but he seemed to be lying in front of a shallow cave at the edge of a pool of water; a place that was too hot to be Heaven, but too cool to be Hell.  Several hopeful-looking buzzards perched in a nearby tree.  A few feet in front of his head, two very large lizards were eyeing him critically.

"Not much to work with.  The Cihuateteo must be gettin' desperate after all these years."  First Voice Lizard inflated its throat sac briefly.

"Well, that’s what comes of telling her that wailing down by the river don't work.  Now she sends us after a grifter who's so bad at it that he can't even get properly lynched,” Second Voice Lizard said flatly.

"Nah.  He's no grifter.  He's an a-ccounter turned writer."  First Voice Lizard was doing pushups at Second Voice Lizard.  Second Voice Lizard flattened against the limestone.

"So how we gonna get him to the Hog Farm?"

"I have a plan."

There was a low, feral growl from behind, and Sam rolled, twisting to escape.  As a large, spotted paw pinned him down, Sam heard Second Voice Lizard saying, "Oh, not THAT again!"

And all went black.


The waning moon dappled pinpoints of light on the dirt floor of the tiny shack.  Rosa sat wearily on the edge of her rickety bed as her visitor left without looking back at her.  It was payday for the soldiers at Buffalo Pools, which meant a busy week for the whores at the Hog Farm.  The officers and sergeants spent money on the women who lived in the Big House, but ordinary enlisted men took their needs to the “Abandons” – Rosa and the women like her who lived in tiny “crib” shacks at the back of the Hog Farm.  Too old, too ugly or too poxed to win a berth in the Fancy House, they serviced the men who were too drunk or too desperate to be picky. 

 Rosa scraped the coins off her dresser and dumped them into the leather pouch that she kept hidden behind the bed’s headboard.  She'd have fifty cents left over after Madame Pleasant took her cut.  The last customer left behind a half-empty glass of beer, and she drained it in quick swallows, hoping he’d forgotten about it.  Madame Pleasant would have her whipped if the man complained.

Madame Pleasant never let her girls have alcohol, but she did give them a daily ration of syrup of poppy.  Rosa always saved her dose and traded it to Slutty Mary or Big Lizzie for their leftover beer. The ghosts that lived in the tiny cemetery behind the whorehouse warned her that poppy syrup might help you forget better, but it made you ugly and stupid and then killed you. On nights like tonight when the Big House was ablaze with light, she began to believe that a fast death would be much better than a never-ending calendar full of unwashed men, and mindless, uncomfortable sex.

It would take more than a swallow or two of beer to erase the memory of the last two clients.  Reaching into the glass jar beside her bed, she fished out a pinch of locoweed leaves.  They crumbled like dust in her hands.  Tomorrow she’d walk down to the little meadow behind the garden and harvest a handful of leaves from the plants.

"That stuff'll put a begoozler in your thinkin' bits." 

She eyed the scruffy creature in the doorway.   "Maybe it'll begoozle me into thinking you look like a real coyote instead of an oversized lizard wearing a bad rug, Tchalak."

He sidled through the door, shrinking from fox size to lizard size. "It ain’t easy bein’ a spirit.  I can't help it if I'm bad at shapewalking.  Besides, I gots other talents I'm better at.” 

“Like ‘borrowing’ dresses’ from the clothesline?”

“That weren’t my fault.  I was on a mission o’mercy an’ th’ dress kinda got in my ways.” Tchalak looked around nervously.  

Rosa pulled a few more leaves from her jar.  “That’s what you said last time.”

“Did it sound more convincin’ this time?”


 He flattened against the rug with a sigh.  “Gotta practice on my innocence. “

She splashed water from a bedside jug into her wash basin.  “So why are you here?  And where’s Yahxa?”

His color brightened.  “We got a present for you.  Well, sort of a present.  It's a man. The Cihuateteo brought him here to help you.  He's kinda discombobulated right now so Yaxha an’ the Cihuateto are watching over him so he don't flounder into something.  You need to come talk to him."

Rosa dipped a towel into the wash basin and began cleaning herself.  "The old jaguar ghost-woman got me a man?  I don't need a man unless he's gonna give me enough money to buy me outta here and ship me where I can start over." 

Tchalak sat up on his haunches with a shrug.  "He gots no money after the Chambers boys over at Langtry bushwhacked him, so he’s not much good for bail."

Rosa rolled her eyes.  "She sends me a no-money, beat up wreck from Langtry to help me out?  Go tell her thanks but I don't need him."

“She sez he's an a-counter from somewhere back East who wants to be a writer.  She sez he's not too bad with money as long as he don't get beat up and robbed.  Besides, if you don't go along with it, the Cihuateteo will find another way to reward you.”

Rosa tossed the towel into the washbasin.  The ghost’s message wasn't quite a threat -- but it wasn't a comforting thought, either.  She yanked her dress on.  "Lead the way," she said wearily.


Her knight in torn and dusty broadcloth was sitting with his back against a large limestone rock, looking like a lost puppy.  Tchalak's twin, Yaxha, still in lizard shape, clung silently on the rock above the man's head, while a ghostly shape in jaguar form paced the ground in front of him.  The Cihuateteo turned her head as Rosa climbed the stony slope. 

"This one is named Sam.  He knows about cheating.  He will help you," the Cihuateteo announced with a self-satisfied purr and a nod toward the man.  He opened his mouth in an apparent effort to protest that he was honest, but a look from the ghost stopped him.

 She twitched starlight-frosted whiskers in amusement.  "I have made the sacrifices in heaven and have done the divination.  The signs are clear.  This man can discover how to free you from your debt to the cruel woman.  I give him to you as your reward for moving the bones of myself and my baby to a safe hiding place."

The man's eyes strayed from the jaguar-ghost to Rosa and back again. "Uh… as a citizen of…" he began. 

The Cihuateteo rose, starlight-speckled and pony-sized.  The words died in his throat. 

"Omens do not lie,” she hissed, lowering her head until she was nose-to-nose with him.  “They say you can free Rosa from this woman.  Once you do this, I will help bring justice to those who hurt you." Her canines glinted in the moonlight.  "I was the wife of a Jaguar Warrior of the Aztecs.  I may only be a ghost, but I still have power in this world and the next.  Being beaten and robbed and left for dead is not the worst that can happen to you." 

With that she faded, leaving only wind and starlight and the night.  Everyone stared at Sam.  Sam stared at the place where the Cihuateto had been.

"It'll look better in the mornin’," Tchalak said confidently.  "He can stay at your place, Rosa, an’ the two of you can jaw amongst yourselfs about what's going on."

Rosa gave a long, detailed and obscene reply about would happen if Madame Pleasant found a man staying in the crib. When Sam looked blankly at her, she told him about a wandering drunk who moved into one of the shacks without permission and was forced to be a specialty act in a pig show to pay off his debts.   Sam turned pale, clenched his knees together, wrapped his arms around himself and stared at her with horror-stricken eyes. 

Yaxha scurried down the rock and sat on Sam's knee.  "There’s no call for getting’ all spookety on us," she said confidently.  "Ol’ Whiskey Maller didn’t have nothin to trade for rent but his body.  You’re a countin’ man, and that’s useful.”

Sam’s expression didn’t change.  Yaxha patted his knee with her tiny paw.  “Madame wants to buy a house in town an become respectable,” she said.  “That means she’s gotta do a lot of wranglin’ an bargaining, cause the hoity-toity ‘decent folks’ of the town think she’s a low-down, dishonest, mean-spirited old harridan.” 

“An’ she’s all of that and a box of biscuits, too,” Rosa snarled. 

“That’s beside the point,” Yaxha replied.  “She don't trust nobody she don't own, so that’s where Sam here comes in.”

Sam raised his head and glowered at the lizard.  “I’m not going to be a specialty act for anyone.”

“You don’t have to do nothing like that,” Yahxa reassured him.  “Old God Coyote says to just go up to the house an say that you’re an accounter an got robbed and throwed in the middle of nowhere an how you need help getting back to Boston, an she'll go after you like a trout after a fat fly.  Once you’re in, you can figger out how to help Rosa."

Tchalak bounced up and down furiously. “Old God Coyote? You been talking to Old God Coyote?"  he huffed. 

"I never quit talking to him like you did.” 

“I didn’t quit talking to him – he left!”

“That was him bein’ all dramatic,” Yaxha said cooly.  “He still comes out for flute music.”

 “He tol’ all of us that he was gonna walk with the other gods.”  Tchalak bounced furiously.

"He was just fussin’.  He never left.  He prognosticated that Sam would figger out how to buy Rosa free.  When he does, the Cihuateteo will help him get revenge and everyone’ll be happy."

"I kin see he might like that better than being the star of a pig show,” Tchalak observed.

Sam nodded forcefully and enthusiastically, sealing his fate.


The hard stare of the afternoon sun had bleached the sky milky white by the time the lizards led Sam to the back door of the Hog Farm’s biggest house.  Rosa sat by her window and watched the lacy shadows of the mesquite tree stretch across her porch, reaching for the oncoming night.  Madame emerged from the Big House and lit the red lamps on the porch, more from habit than from hope of new customers.   It was four weeks until the next payday.  There’d be no customers for the women in the cribs tonight. 

She turned from the window and found the two spirit lizards sitting beside the washbowl.

"We stayed with your hero till he got settled.  It's all good now,” Yaxha announced. 

“He didn’t have problems?”

"Nope.  Happened just like we thought it would.  Madame welcomed him and fed him and then handed him the bill.  He told her his story and she says she can't afford freeloaders.  Then he says that he’s an accountanter an he asks if he could do her books for a-while to work off his debt.  She was most pleased."

Rosa snorted.  "Did she take him to her bed, too?"

"Nah.  He's sharing a room with ol' Greasepaint, the cook."  

"That’ll be quite the eddycation," Tchalak said.

Yaxha and Rosa stared at him owlisly.

"He can learn to cook," Tchalak continued breezily. 

Rosa blinked in confusion. “Why?”

"Well everyone knows writers don’t make no money an he can't spend the rest of his life workin' for no madame, so he needs to learn new stuff to get him rich.  Like horses."

"Horses?"  Yaxha blinked. 

"Catchin’ horses for the army.  Of course, he needs ta learn ta ride without falling off.  And how to tame them so’s they don't buck an bust their riders to bits.  Or he could get over his unmanly fear of guns, learn trick shootin, and join a traveling show. A fancy shootist ain't much, but it pays better than writin'." He gaped his mouth in an imitation grin.

"Tchalak, shut up," Yaxha snapped.

Tchalak blinked, “I'm just sayin..."

Rosa glared at him until he scuttled under the washstand.


After that night, Rosa saw almost nothing of Sam.  She didn't like admitting that the Chiuateto's promise had gotten her hopes up, but as the moon waxed and then began to wane again, there was no word from Sam.  Her spirits sank into darkness.  She began eating more of the locoweed and when that wasn’t enough, started drinking poppy syrup so that she could lose reality in a web of dreams.  The days became a litany of sameness; a drug dream interrupted by soiled and smelly customers.  Yaxha and Tchalak clung to the rafters, silent shepherds of her misery.


On the last night of the old moon, Big Lizzie came to the door of Rosa's shack with tears streaming down her face.  "It's Mary," she said without preamble.  "She's hung herself and died.  Ol' Greasepaint found her just a bit ago.  They told her she had the French Pox so she couldn't have men any longer so she'd have to go to the work farm and work the fields.  She cried when she told me.  She was so scared.  Poor little Mary... so little... so little."  Big Lizzie collapsed in tears, her palms covering her face.  Rosa knelt beside her, crying with her, crying for all of them. 

"There's no place but here or the grave for any of us," Big Lizzie sobbed.

Footsteps scraped on the dirt outside, and Sam emerged into the feeble candlelight.

"I came to tell you about Mary," he said, hands twisting his handkerchief nervously. "Greasepaint and two of the soldiers are digging her grave now.  Some of the girls are cleaning her up and wrapping her in a blanket so she can be buried decent."  

Rosa sneered at him.  "Decent?  We're too sinful to be buried in church graveyards like decent folks," she said bitterly. "At the farm they throw us to the coyotes and buzzards.  Here we’ll just throw her in the dirt and cover her up without even a marker to her name.  Because nobody knows her real name."  A sudden roaring rage overwhelmed her and she rose, fists clenched. "Is that how you're gonna free us?  Bury us out back without names?"

Sam took a hasty step backwards.  

Big Lizzie paused in the act of blowing her nose on the hem of her petticoat.  "Free us?"

"Yeah," Rosa snarled, still advancing on Sam.  "He got into trouble, and the lizard spirits rescued him.  He's supposed to pay them back by getting me out of here.  Only as far as I can tell, all he done is follow the madam around and stare at her booty and books."

Sam backpedaled, waving his hands in front of him.  "No -- wait!  I know how she cheats to keep you here.  I just don’t have a plan yet."

Lizzie stumbled to her feet.  “You knowed we was cheated and kept it to yourself?"  She loomed over him like a ship's mast, tall and lean and hardwood solid.  Her fists looked like a pair of fleshy anvils. 

Rosa pulled her away.  "Don’t do that.  We all know that Madame cheats us. The lizard spirits warned us long ago.  If Sam knows how she does it, mebbe we can fix it."

Lizzie scowled and rubbed her knuckles.  “I'd feel better if he was lyin' at my feet and bleeding lots."

“Won’t do no good.  The Chiuateto says that if he’s no help, then she’ll keep sendin’ heroes until there’s one who can fix things,” Rosa replied. “I don’t know how much more of this kind of help I can survive.  I’m figgerin’ our only hope is to make him into a hero.”

Lizzie eyed him.  “Not much to work with.” 

Rosa gave a short bark of laughter.  “Fits the rest of us.  Broken down whores, a cook who don’t know salt from saltpeter, and loco spirit-lizards.  None of us is much to work with.  But if we wait for a handsome hero to come save us, we’ll die here alone and old.”

Big Lizzie fisted her hands on her hips and leaned forward until she was nose-to-nose with Sam.  “Well, Mr. Accounter, explain it to us.”

Sam heaved a long sigh.  “The story everyone’s heard her tell about buying a house in Laredo is just that –- a story,” he said wearily.  “There’s a journal in her desk. I got a peek at it one day.  It’s got her private accounts along with a letter from a bank showing that she made a down payment on a house in Chicago.  As soon as she gets another two hundred dollars, she’s going to go to Chicago and leave everything about her past here –- you, the judge, this whorehouse, everything.”

“No doubt when they find she’s gone, they’ll ‘clean up’ the Hog Farm by sendin’ the sheriff to arrest everyone,” Rosa said bitterly.

“Oh, not all the girls is gonna get arrested,” Big Lizzie growled.  “Remember how Doris kept hinting she was gonna be a lady’s dressmaker real soon an’ how Madame’s been givin’ her th’ best clients?  Don’t take no scholar t’ figger out that the two of ‘em are in cahoots.” 

“Look,” he said carefully, “I can’t just run in and shoot up things and run off with seventeen girls and a cook.  I need to make a plan!”

“How close is she to getting her grubstake?” Rosa asked.

“A month and a half if she pays all her bills this month.  More likely scenario is that she’ll leave next week, after the Farman trail drive comes through,” he said quietly.

“T’ain’t much time,” Lizzie observed.  “We gonna need one good plan.”

Tchalak flicked his tongue at a passing fly.  “Iffn’ you…”

Four voices said simultaneously, “Tchalak, shut up.”


Greasepaint was muttering to himself and flailing at a lump of dough as Sam came through the back door of the Big House, coffee cup in his hand.  “I tole her,” he snarled as he slapped the pastry onto a floury board and began kneading it roughly, punctuating each word with a thrust of his shoulders.  “Tole her again. She don’t lissen.  Not at all.”

 “Told her what?  What’s going on?”  Sam asked as he lifted the coffee pot.  Something in its depths sloshed wetly, and he felt a surge of hope.  This afternoon’s batch of coffee was drinkable, which meant that the judge was visiting.

Greasepaint pounded the dough with his fist.  “Madame Pleasant is lettin’ them thievin’, lyin’, swindlin’, no-mannered Chambers boys in here.”

“Chambers boys?”

“Brothers an’ as mean a set of rowdys as you’ll find anywheres.  Just waltzed right in through my kitchen an’ when I tries to stop them, they throwed my own taters at me an’ kept goin’.  Madame, she’s busy with the Judge an don’t pay no nevermind.”

“Are they from around here?”

“Nah.  They’s from ever’ place an’ noplace.”  Greasepaint spat on the floor.  “I hear tell they come from around El Paso, but they likes to ride the Rio Grande.  They allus spends their time with Dirty Doris.  Doris, she don’t like ‘em much, but she likes their moneys.”

“So why doesn’t Madame throw them out?”  Sam took a cautious sip.  It was mostly chicory and some unidentifiable weeds, with a hint of real roasted coffee.  The judge must have brought some of his beans with him.

Greasepaint wiped his hands on a smudged towel.  “Madame keeps them because they does things for her.  On the last week of the month they come in t’ act like peace enforcers.  That’s the week the cowboys and the soldiers get paid, an’ they finish any fights that start.  But they’re rough an’ the customers don’t like ‘em.  I tole her t’ give ‘em the gate but she sez they keeps the peace as well as any officer.”  An’ she says their money’s allus good here.  I don’t fathom her reasonin’.”

“You’d think she could find someone else to handle it.”  Sam said as he fished an apple from the bin. 

“Families ain’t eager t’ have their menfolk guardin’ a whorehouse.  But the Chambers boys ain’t that particular.  They got money of their own, so they take their wages in trade.”

“Seems strange that they don’t take money.”

“Well, that pair makes a habit of takin’ advantage of folks.  Mostly at card games, but word is that they been stealin’ from folks acrost the border.   You keep outta their way, Sam.  They’d shoot ya fer amusem’nt and laugh as they picked your pockets.”

“I’ll be careful,” he said as he eased down the short hallway towards the parlor.

 Loud laughter spilled from the main room, punctuated by gunshots and screams and more laughter.   Someone started playing the little parlor piano rather badly, and two or three voices joined the musician in an awkward rendition of a popular tune.  Sam peered around the edge of the doorframe.

A handsome, unshaven blonde man in rumpled clothing was standing in the middle of the parlor room, recklessly twirling a gun around one finger while a group of prostitutes and clients watched.  At his side stood a taller blond man who held a watch -– a watch that Sam recognized as his own -– at the audience.  “So after he done insulted us with his turrible manners, we figgered t’ teach him a lesson,” the orator declaimed.

The man with the watch nodded.  “Now Frank an’ me, we couldn’t leave someone like that wanderin’ around insultin’ fine folks, could we?”  A round of cheers went up at his rhetorical question, fueled in part by Frank swinging the gun casually towards the spectators.

“Jason ‘n me, we waits until we sees an openin’, an then we snuckt up on him. Jason planted a board up alongside his haid. Then he laid down an’ moaned.” 

“Frank checked his pockets to see iffn’ he could pay the fine, an’ he wuz so pore that mice couldn’t find crumbs in his pockets.  But he did have this here little watch with a fine chain.”  Jason held the watch up for others to see.  “We flipped fer it, an’ I got the watch an’ Frank got the chain.”

“It’s a right pretty chain, too.  Make a fine present.” Frank grinned and waggled his eyebrows at Doris, who smirked.

 “Worms don’t need no gewgaws nohow,” Jason laughed.  He gulped his beer as Frank whirled the revolver around his finger again.

Even the most pathetic worm has a turning point, and there was something about seeing his gold pocket watch in the hands of a thief that made Sam’s inner worm stand up in outrage. He shoved the door open and charged forward, noises coming from his mouth that somehow framed the words, “Give me that!”

The other participants in the drama stood frozen as he lunged, reaching for the prize and missing it by fractions of an inch as Jason Chambers laughed and swung his hand away.  “Why look-a here, Frank.  It’s th’ worm hisself.” 

Frank aimed a kick at Sam’s legs as he went stumbling past.  “An’ still a runty calf what thinks he’s bad medicine.  Tole’ ya we shoulda aired him out when last we seen him.”

“It’d be a waste of a good bullet.”  He aimed idly at the floor near Sam’s feet, and fired.   Sam hopped aside as a second bullet snapped past him and shattered the leg of a coat tree.  Overburdened and overbalanced, it toppled onto a table, knocking a kerosene lamp to the floor.  Jason swore loudly at his brother as the puddle of lamp oil caught fire.

“I’ll have it out in a second,” Frank laughed as he grabbed a fallen greatcoat and began flailing energetically at the burning carpet.  The coat, wet with kerosene, promptly caught fire.   Frank yelped and threw the flaming bundle of cloth toward the office door.

 Sam froze in horror as flames danced toward the desk.  If the fire reached the books and papers on the desk, it would destroy all the evidence he’d collected.  He lunged for the door. 

A dark-skinned woman that he didn’t recognize grabbed his arm.  “Don’t go in there.  You need to save the others instead.”

“You don’t -–“

“Understand?”  A dusky ring-shaped pattern swirled across one cheek.  Some trick of the firelight made her eyes seem to glow.  “Books and records don’t matter now.  Get everyone out.  Things will sort themselves out.”

Her nails dug into his arm like claws.  “You can save them.  Trust me again,” she said, and by some strange trick of the night and the fire, she was both jaguar and woman. He glanced at the door and felt her grip loosen.  When he turned back, she was gone.

“Well, don’t just lollygag around,” he heard Tchalak whisper.   “We’ll take care of these-here things.  You take care of the people.  I’d do it mesself, but they don’t hardly listen to lizards.”

A drift of smoke made him sneeze.  He heard a breathy shriek, and a woman named Cajun Sally sprinted past him, headed back toward her room.  He grabbed her arm and wheeled her around. 

“You’re going the wrong way!  You can’t go back there –- you’ll burn up!”

Tears streaked her cheeks.   “Let me go!  I’ve got to get my dress!  It’s new and it’s the only nice thing I ever had.“

There were a thousand trivial things he could have said to her –- that dresses were less precious than life, that the dress was one that Madame had spent a few dollars on one night when she was drunkenly generous –- but the thoughts faded at the sight of the desperation in her face.  

She twisted in his grip.  “Let me go!”

“’ll get it,” he promised.  “You run to where it’s safe.  I’ve got to go upstairs and get the others out.  I’ll bring your dress with me.”’

“Promise?”  He could see the shape of a jaguar on the wall behind her.

“Promise.  Just run.”

Something about the way he said that last must have made her believe.  Cajun Sally turned and ran towards the front door and safety, hope bright on her face. 

Frightened patrons pushed past as flames licked at the carpet and crawled up the drapery.  Cursing himself for a fool, he rushed to Sally’s bedroom and grabbed the precious dress from her chair.  Then he sprinted for the staircase, shouting “Fire!  Fire!” and waving the dress like a battle flag.

He glanced upstairs. There was no sound from the group of private suites where Madame and her more expensive girls took the wealthiest clients for private shows.  The walls were heavily soundproofed so that the entertainment wouldn’t be disrupted by the raucous noise downstairs.  That soundproofing would have kept them from hearing the warning shouts. 

He glanced back toward the front door, wondering if anyone was trying to form a bucket brigade with washbasins and jugs from the cribs.  However, the river was several hundred yards distant, and from what he’d heard around town, most of the property-owning citizens didn’t seem to be particularly motivated to save the Hog Farm.  He knocked furiously on a door and heard a man’s voice growling something at him.

“Fire!  Get out of here!” There was no answer.  Sam pounded the door more forcefully, shouting “Fire!  The house is on fire!”

The door opened slightly, and he saw Pearl’s frightened eyes.  “Get your client out!  The house is on fire!” he shouted at her as he ran to the next door.   Behind him he heard Pearl scream something.  Acrid fumes began drifting up from the floor below as he woke the people in the next two rooms. 

The door to Madame Pleasant’s suite was ahead of him.  He wrenched the knob and lunged forward through the door, trying to not look at the bed… at the things on the bed… at the people on the bed… at what they were doing… at the frozen tableau of naked bodies in front of him.   His brain refused to cooperate, so he tried staring at the picture over the bed and pretending that his peripheral vision didn’t work.  He somehow managed to stammer “Fire!”  It came out more as a squeak than a shout.

Madame rose up from the bed like an avenging goddess.  “No!  Not now!” she howled.

He half-turned toward the judge.  “The place is on fire!  You have to get out of here.  The stairs won’t last more than a few minutes!”

The judge babbled at him incoherently.  Sam bolted for the door.  “Everybody out!” he yelled as he ran toward the last two doors.

It seemed to take ages to persuade the girl and her client in the first room to leave.  By the time he got to the door of Jadeline’s room, the smoke in the corridor was beginning to turn the air into haze.  He ran, and the ghosts of jaguars seemed to run through the smoky air with him.

Jadeline and her customer, a lanky sergeant from Fort Capril, lay tangled in an ungraceful sprawl on the bed, surrounded by empty jars of beer.  The sergeant opened his eyes and tried to sit up when Sam shouted at them, but Jadeline simply snored and rolled over, tangling herself in the sheets.  Desperation gave him a surge of strength, and he lifted one side of the bed, dumping them both on the floor.  The sergeant seemed to finally recognize that there was danger and fumbled into his pants. Sam folded the sleeping woman in a sheet.

 The room was hot and smoky and the fire was no longer a distant crackle, but a muted, savage roar.

“We’ve got to get out of here!  Help me carry her!” he barked as he grabbed Jadeline’s shoulders.  The soldier, who was hard-wired to follow orders even when semi-conscious, numbly picked up her legs and began following as Sam backed out into the hallway.  He glanced in the other rooms as he passed -– everyone had left.  Now it was just the three of them.

Sparks flickered in the air.

The stairs were just beginning to burn as the three reached them.  Sam backed hastily down, afraid that if he fell, the others would fall on top of him, and they’d die there in the heat and smoke.  The office was completely engulfed in fire, and somewhere timbers were beginning to crack and creak.  As he reached the bottom step, he felt the ground shiver as something heavy fell.   He stumbled and caught himself as he staggered backward and then suddenly, they were all out of the house.

  Hands pulled them forward to safety as the roof of the Hog Farm collapsed in a shower of sparks and smoke.  Sam sat heavily on the ground.

The Chambers boys shouted and waved their hats as the sparks foamed upward.  “Right pretty fire,” said Jake, sticking his thumbs in his belt and grinning widely.

Madame Pleasant turned on him, her eyes glittering dangerously.  “You –- you IDIOTS!” she shrieked.  “You were supposed to burn it down AFTER we left!” 

“Nuh-uh,” Jake scowled.  “You said to start the fire after the accountaint came in.   We done just that.  Just like’n you wanted.  T’aint our fault if yer plan was plumb stupid.”

Silence fell over the crowd.  Heads turned.

Madame dropped the purse she’d been carrying and pulled a large pistol from the white froth of her petticoat.  “FOOLS!” she screamed, and took aim at Frank, who dodged behind one of the girls. 

Jason was slower to react. Madame Pleasant whirled on him and fired her gun.  He howled in fear and crab-scuttled backward as she braced her legs and pointed the gun. Onlookers later said that she would probably have killed him on the spot, but her aim was spoiled considerably when a large lizard that had been overcome by smoke fell out of the trees and landed on her head.  The bullet went wild, narrowly missing the onlookers from the Saturday evening prayer meeting who’d come to gawk, and thudding into the ground right beside the sheriff’s boot. 

The sheriff, who seemed to feel that the law needed to have some say in the event, promptly arrested Madame Pleasant and the Chambers boys to prevent further mayhem.  He also arrested the judge as an afterthought, much to the satisfaction of the judge’s wife and the onlookers.

After that, the scene suddenly seemed to wind down.  Sparks flickered through the air as the house began collapsing.  Smoke drifted through the crowd, but it was clear that the fire wasn’t going to spread to the town.  Satisfied that everything was in good order, the onlookers wandered back to their homes, leaving the cook and Sam and fifteen women standing in the chilly early morning air, with nothing left but their lives and whatever clothing they managed to save as they fled.

Shapes moved in the darkness as the women from the cribs came up from their tiny shacks carrying blankets and old clothing for the nearly naked women shivering in the night air. There would be no other sort of charity for them, Sam realized –- no food, no shelter, no help anywhere in the town for them.  The prettier ones might marry soldiers and get away from the life, but the rest were simply stranded to die or leave as best they could.

Something gently tapped his boot.  He looked down.  Madame’s purse was lying beside his foot.  He nudged it experimentally, and Tchalak scuttled out from underneath. Three bright silver coins fell to the ground. 

Yaxha peered out of the long grass.  “You oughta be able to settle accounts with that,” she said. “Madame’s private record book is in there, too.  It shows how much she took from each person in the last year or so.”

Tchalak poked his head out.  “An by some just amazing stroke of luck, that’s the exact amount of money that’s in the purse.”  And then the lizard spirits were gone, leaving Sam with a bag full of silver and hope. 

He looked southward.  In the deep shadows of a cottonwood tree beside the river, the smoke-like form of a jaguar sat.   Sam picked up the purse and wandered down to the water’s edge.

“So.  The answers are all in your hand, Sam,” the Cihuateteo said. “What will you do now?”

“What I want to do is sleep,” he grumbled.  “What I have to do is decide who gets how much of the money.  The place is a complete loss –- but Madame can sell the land after she gets out of jail.  There’s nearby ranchers who’ll buy it.  Most of the women in the Big House will find husbands or protectors.”

“Then Rosa is free.  You have fulfilled your obligation.”

“Technically.  There’s still the matter of the money.”

“I only asked that you free her.  Nothing was said of your money.  You can walk away now with all of it.”

“I could.”  He rose stiffly and sighed.


“But it’s not my money.  It belongs to the women who worked here, and to Greasepaint, too.  She stole from all of us.”

“What will you do?”

“I divided it up into twenty-seven equal piles –- we all get the same amount.  If I started trying to give people what they were actually owed, it wouldn’t be long before someone would mention how much they got, and someone’s feelings would get hurt and it’d be a big mess.  So I’m telling all of them that they will all have an equal share, and if they really want to feel insulted, they can argue it among themselves.”

The Chiuateto made a small purring sound.  “Well, then, my hero, my spirit friends tell me there is a horse in the willow breaks.  It belongs to the man who stole your watch -– a man who will be in jail for a long time.  It is a friendly animal and it has no one to care for it now.  Perhaps you and it can go see the world together and learn some stories to tell?”

He smiled tiredly.  “After I make sure that everyone has gotten their money.”


It was mid-afternoon when he walked up to Rosa’s crib -- the final stop on his rounds.  She was standing on the porch, surrounded by a tattered suitcase and battered boxes; the driftwood of her life.  He poured silver and gold coins into the palms of her hands, and she looked at the money with the same grave expression as the others had.  He felt a sense of sadness wash over him.  They had won -– they were free of Madame and the life they’d led, but the future didn’t magically brighten.  In place of the dreadful certainty, they were left with a confusion of too many choices and no easy answers. It felt like a dry and bitter victory. 

Rosa dropped the coins into a pouch that hung from a stout leather cord around her neck and tucked it into her shirt.

“What will you do now?” he asked.

She looked southward to the river.  “The best time of my life was when I worked my uncle’s house, baking bread and cakes for the ranchero.  This here’s enough for a stagecoach to Del Rio, where nobody knows me.  I can find someone with an oven.  Start new.”  She smiled at him then; the first genuine smile he had ever seen from her.  “And you got a train to catch and stories to write.  Be well, Sam Voss.  Mebbe someone will read me one of your stories someday.”

She bowed her head and turned back to the river and it was clear that staying longer wouldn’t change things -– though he wasn’t sure what sort of ending he’d hoped for.  “Goodbye, Rosa,” he said as he put his hat on and turned back down the road toward the horse he’d “inherited” from Jason.

Beady eyes blinked at him from a vantage point between the horse’s ears.  “Y’know,” Tchalak whispered, “this whole story’d be somethin’ you could sell to them monthly story papers, or even the dime novels.  An’ when you done that’n, we could go see about some ghost stories. I know some ghosts around here….”

Sam gathered the reins and clucked to the gelding as Tchalak scrambled down to sit on the saddle horn.

“You could become world famous.  C’ourse, ya might wanna change yer name to somethin’ catchier.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“I think all the good ones like Bramthatcher Bumgeezler have been taken.”

“Yes, that will make it harder.”

“It’ll turn out real good.  You’ll see.  We’ll be podners.”


In the pale, aqua skies the Great God Coyote, whose left eye is the yellow moon and whose right eye is darkness, turned his face away from Earth and eyed the spirit lizard who stood in front of him.  She waved at the blue arc of atmosphere and put her flute in the pouch that hung underneath her throat.

“Well?”  Coyote stared at her.

"Too much happenin’ to make a good song of it," Yaxha said. “Can’t do it with less than forty verses.  Not even Grandfather Rattlesnake would sit through it.”

"Maybe I'm getting old and complicated,” Coyote sighed.  “Past my prime.  I did it better back when the world was younger.  Maybe Fox was right -- might be time to go walk among the stars with the Old Ones."

Yaxha flicked a tongue over her eye. "There’s drama, an’ there’s really bad Coyote-drama,” she observed cynically.  “You’re the worst liar around.  You don’t want to leave.  You just want people to pay attention to you.”

He rolled to his side, melodramatically limp among the dust of the galaxies. “It’s not like the old days when people lived in canyons.  Simple lives, simple stories –- it was easy to make songs about them.” 

Yaxha pulled herself onto his paw.  “A city is just a canyon with a lot of people.  Humans still need stories and songs and gods to help them deal with their new concrete canyons.  They still need gods."

His ears drooped.  "The last time I helped a city, no one appreciated it."

"As I recall, they had to rebuild the west side of the city after the circus clowns rioted and the elephant broke down the stockyard fences and cows ran loose all over the neighborhood," Yaxha suggested acidly.

"It was good for the lawns."

"Maybe you should stick with helping people instead."

"Helping people.  It's what I do best, isn't it?" he mused.

"Considering what happens when you help cities, yes," Yaxha muttered. 

The Great God wagged his tail as he pointed to a small track in the middle of a vast sea of grass.  "Look down there.  That small figure walking by that lame mule.  Woman pretending to be her brother.  She's been brung down, thrown down, tossed around, flamboozled, and bamboozled until all she's got is one suit and the wrong directions to Kansas.  We should go help her."

"Do you think she can survive a serving of your help?"

"It'll make a man of her," he grinned and faded into wind-blown dust. 

The woman walked on, head down, limping with the mule.   Half a mile ahead of her, a small dust devil traced circles and then collapsed, leaving behind the form of a lean and scruffy dog with bright yellow eyes.  The making and unmaking of worlds was nothing that interested the Great Jester God, but the making and unmaking of justice delighted him, for it was often the biggest joke of all.

He sat in the dust, ears pricked, tail wagging, and waited.


[Index] [About Us] [Stories] [Story 1] [Story 2] [Story 3] [Story 4] [Guest Art] [Editors Write] [Archives] [Contact Us] [Links]

Copyright © 2023 by 4 Star Stories. All Rights Reserved.