When someone with a pistol meets someone with a magic wand, the pistol loses.
From Nicole Givens Kurtz comes a collection of weird western short stories nestled in the often horrific American past and tucked into the parched future. Here are tales of talisman, magic, and the power of ancients wielded by those strong enough to endure the harsh new frontier. These rugged individuals brought not only their belongings but their eastern beliefs with them.
They weren't ready for the west.
Saddle up. Escape to a West as weird and wonderful as one might imagine.
New Mexico Territory
Francine "Frankie" Mules was born in a gospel tent. That April evening, the raging New Mexican wind ripped about the pinned back flaps, whipping them about the poles plunged deep into the dirt. The poles anchored the makeshift structure to the earth but allowed enough of the spirit to roar out in hot Biblical truths and tongues. Mother Nature's raging melody of whap, whap, whap served as a base for the music spilling out of the tent.
In the tent's rear, Frankie's momma, Jet, squatted and then collapsed to her knees, sweating through the anointing oil and the deacon's palm print on her forehead. She ignored the pangs of Eve's curse, choosing instead to mutter prayers through cracked lips and cotton mouth. Once her water broke, a shot of pink, watery rivulets raced down her thighs and into the dry earth. Jet's sister, Joan, buried her fingernails into her flesh of her arm, and prayed for Jesus to take over.
Before anyone could fetch the doctor down in Wild Sage, Frankie slipped out, smacking the hardened desert floor with a thack. Joan scooped her up all slippery and pink, mouth balled up as if sucking on the already sour air of life. Joan took out her hunting knife with one hand, and severed Frankie's attachment to Jet, figuratively and physically. Being part of some traveling revival, fetchin' and singin' for white folks wasn't the life Lincoln wanted for freed slaves. It wouldn't do for her niece neither. She clutched the baby tight with determination. Not this one. Not no more.
"Joanie, give 'er here…" Jet reached out with shaking hands and pained eyes.
"We done talked about this." Joan steeled her bleating heart. She'd never be able to understand how others found the iciness to break up families and snatch babes from mommas without emotion. It filled her with dread and unease. Her heart pounded and the roaring in her ears made her feel like she was drowning.
"She still mine…and his." Jet whimpered, letting her arms drop.
"Yeah. Ain't nuthin' gonna change that, but she can't go with ya' and that revival. You know it. I know it," Joan said, her tone softening. "Sorry."
With that, Joan set off, away from the tent and the others gathered there to fetch water to clean up the baby girl and Jet. As she moved quickly through the brush, she hugged the little round baby close to her, smearing blood and bodily fluids all over her shirt. "You gonna wail like babies supposed to do?" she asked.
Frankie wrinkled her nose and opened her mouth, and let the world know she had come into it. Instead of crying and wailing, Frankie sang, pitch perfect and like a grown woman who didn't know the words to the song but sang with abandon anyway.
"My, my, my," Joan said, with a small smile slicing through her sorrow.
"Ya ain't shut that mouth 'ever since," Aunt Joan cackled now from her spot on the porch, telling the tale once more to a now 18-year-old Frankie. "Your birth was as surprisin' as finding an uncoiled snake in the wash tub."
She smoked her pipe as she rocked in the chair on the weathered and worn wooden porch. The sweet tobacco smoke wafted across to Frankie, seated on the lowest step, hunched against the New Mexican wind.
The cabin had been abandoned by some soldiers. Some folks said they had died in the war. Others said the Apache warriors had got the Anglos off the land. When Auntie Joan rolled into town with a baby and a shotgun, folks shunted her to this abandoned cabin. The town sheriff used to live here, but now he rented out to those seeking shelter. Some wanted her to work in the saloon or in Madam Clay's house, but Joan wasn't living to please no man.
"Windy like that night. That one when ya 'ere born." Aunt Joan puffed, eyes narrowed as she peered out across the land. On a clear night, she could see all the way to the trading post. After she said those words, she didn't say more, but had fallen into one of her long silences. Smoking. Watching. Listening.
The sunset's blush stretched across the horizon. A few mesas broke the skyline, but Frankie could see far, much further than she had ever been. She spread her arms wide as if embracing all of the visually lush landscape of Dinétah in front of them, the Navajo homeland. Yuccas scented the dry air. She wanted the strong wind to sweep her up into its arms and swirl her around before setting her back down on the sparse earth. But she knew even that wouldn't chase away the boredom.
Only singing did that. It fed her, nourishing Frankie better than food, filling the gaping holes that living left inside her. The Psalms revived her spirit, and then she was gone, like she disappeared into the notes, the spirit of the music. Inside her song, she was reunited with the family she'd never met, the ones lost to the sea, to the fields, and to the heels of hatred.
Only Auntie Joan remained. Her momma had died just after her birth in a neighboring tent. The prayers of Frankie's daddy and others did not save her from bleeding to death. No. Those cries, pleas, and songs had hastened her momma's crawl into the grave, for none went to fetch a doctor. Not for the colored woman.
Despite the President setting people free, some of 'em still in shackles—in the head, her auntie said.
Out in the high desert landscape, despite all appearances to the contrary, this desolate stretch was alive. Frankie could feel the energy creep all over her skin, raising the hairs along her arms and the back of her neck, scuttling across her belly, making her shudder. The wind ruffled the hem of her skirt, tugging on it as it slipped past. The rustle of tumbleweeds and the whimpering of foxes as they scampered across the expanse added to the desert serenade.
"Zara say the wind be wicked," Frankie said, more to herself than her auntie. Zara was her only friend in town, a washerwoman. "Been stories of the wind picking up folks and taking them off to beyond the mesas. To talk to the spirits."
"Uh huh." Auntie Joan puffed like an old steam engine locked at the tracks. Unable to push on forward. Unable to go on back. Suspended right there in the desert's chilly dark. The rocking chair creaked on. Beside her booted feet a glass of whiskey. She didn't talk about the time on the plantations or where she and Frankie's momma had run from, fled with nothing but the clothes—and scars—on their backs and hope singing in their hearts.
Songs of freedom.
The West had freedom in big open spaces. Chances for everyone to live the life they chose, not one given by the white man. To Auntie Joan and her momma, it had been a revelation, a whole new world, but for Frankie, it was all she'd ever known. She'd been born here. Her first breath was of the New Mexican air scented with sun, Yucca, and chili peppers. Frankie hadn't known that life before, that life chained to white man's work and will, only this one, tethered to the desert and its magic.
She listened hard for the Diné or the Zuni scouts moving in quiet motion across the desert. They didn't like folks moving into their territory, and as Auntie Joan's cabin touched the outer edges of their lands, sometimes the night brought danger.
The nocturnal hush pushed against Frankie's flesh. When this feeling poured down on her, the silence, the loneliness, she closed her eyes.
Quivering at the onset, her voice became stronger as the other voices joined in. The song sailed along with the harmonious others rustling about the evening, coyotes, owls, and churro sheep. All making their sounds, their joyful noise in offering to the night.
After a few minutes, Auntie Joan tapped her with her cane just as she was starting the opening bars of Amazing Grace. "Hush now, girl! Somebody comin'."
Frankie tapered off to silence.
Sure enough, the dirt path that led through the brush and twisted trees was darkened by the long twilight-cast shadow of a person. Who would brave the on-coming dark to travel to their home? Wild Sage lay many wagon wheels from here.
It wasn't safe.
"Francine, chile, you really got the voice of a gospel choir," said Deacon Paul Whitley as he reached the bend in the path.
He grinned at her, as if he'd paid her a compliment. Perhaps he thought he had. Any time men said kind things to women, they expected some reward. A smile. A hug. A romp.
Pale with shoulder-length white hair, dressed in black shirt and jeans, he walked with purpose, seemingly unfolding from the growing darkness. Once he reached the foot of the porch, he stopped short and leered. Sweat poured down his face, and he mopped it with a handkerchief. He wiped the sweat clinging to his salt and pepper beard. He wore a dusty cowboy hat and boots. The Bible rested in the crook of his arm. He also wore his usual smug expression. The preacher was a thorn in the flesh, but he'd never come so far as their home before.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spied Auntie Joan's body shift. The elderly woman was readying to strike—or defend. Her thick lips, twisted and pursed, spoke to her displeasure.
"Good evening, sir." Frankie shot up from the steps. She dusted her hands off on her skirt and retreated inside to let the adults do their talking. The screen door smacked as it closed. Frankie hovered just inside the doorway, barely shielded by the screen door.
He had no idea the accuracy of his claim, Frankie thought as she turned back to the door to listen.
"The pastor been askin' us to come 'round and invite yous to our revival. That niece of yours got a good voice on her. We could use it," he said around the wad of chewin' tobacco.
"We ain't interested in what you sellin'." Auntie Joan rested her pipe on her knee.She blew out a stream of white smoke from the corner of her mouth. The rocking chair creaked in protest as it came to a pause.
The deacon's greasy smile faltered to a frown. In his smarmy voice, he said, "You misunderstand me, Joan. We ain't sellin' nuthin'. Just lookin' to help those like yourself find God. We all God's creatures. The revival is for all."
Auntie Joan eased to a standing position. She casually tossed down the saddle blanket decorating her lap. Beneath it was where she kept her shotgun. With a sigh, she moved her pipe and wrapped her gnarled hands around the gun, just holding it like she must've done with Frankie when she was baby, cradling it.
Frankie's eyes were all for the deacon at the foot of the porch. She swallowed hard.
"I know the way, deacon. We ain't interested." Aunt Joan voice sliced through the sharp howling wind.
"I see how you can feel that way, but Jet's death ain't the fault of the church. It was God's will, Joan."
A distinct rattling emitted from Auntie Joan. "And it's this God ya want us to give up ourselves to? I ain't gonna live beneath another white man's rules. I gots no masta, no more."
Frankie wasn't fooled by Deacon Paul's pious invitation. The expectation in his eyes when he first saw Frankie on the porch had conveyed something other than God's will. It made Frankie's skin crawl. She tried to control her labored breathing. How would Auntie Joan deal with the deacon's trespass of evil? She couldn't see her auntie's face, but the deacon could.
Deacon Paul's lips peeled back like a wild fox faced with a foe. "I see."
"I hope ya do." Auntie Joan stroked the gun in her lap. "We appreciate ya comin' round to see about our souls. Now, best ya get goin'."
Deacon Paul nodded, tucked his bible under his arm, and turned to leave. He stopped and looked back. Perhaps he could see Frankie's outline through the heavy screen door. He grinned, wide and without mirth.
"Good evening, Miss Frankie." He tipped his cowboy hat in her direction.
"Ya best be on ya way, deacon." The calmness Aunt Joan projected fractured in that moment. Her grip on the gun tightened.
"Ma'am." He nodded once more and proceeded back the way he'd come. His boots crunched the dirt beneath his feet. A few moments later, Frankie heard the soft whinnying of his horse.
"Auntie, what killed my momma?" Frankie asked, her voice soft against the velvety night, small as it pushed through the tiny screen mesh.
"Pride. Pride kilt your momma."
The rocking chair's creaking started once more. Frankie melted back into the cabin. The night settled back into the sweet scent of tobacco and the soft humming just beneath the wind's unsettled howling.