Blood Washes Out, Bullets Don’t – a weird west flash story

There were four dead bodies in a room above Ernie’s saloon. Big guys wearing spurred boots and solid gun belts. Two looked to have been shot. One’s head had been smashed in against the doorpost. The fourth had his neck bent like a neck just wasn’t meant to bend.

From the doorway, Ernie looked at the room’s two living inhabitants. Lizzie Wayne, the woman he’d rented the room to, looked defiant, her arms folded across her chest. Laughing Wolf was emerging sheepishly from under the bed, clutching some fancy stick covered in ribbons and feathers.

“Didn’t figure you for the sort to make a mess,” Ernie said, making no effort to hide his resentment.

“Sorry,” Laughing Wolf said. “They started it.”

“It’s always the dead ones who did.” Ernie pushed over one of the bodies and peered at the wall behind him. “Clearing up costs extra. Double for gunfights.”

“She’s paying,” Laughing Wolf said.

Miss Wayne glared at him, then back at Ernie.

“I’m not paying extra because they brought guns,” she said.

Ernie pointed at a hole in the wall.

“Blood washes out,” he said. “Bullets don’t. Pay extra or fix up the room yourself.”

“Fine,” Miss Wayne said. “Add it to my bill.”

Ernie would have made most customers pay up front, but Wayne wore big city dresses and tipped at meals, so he didn’t have to worry whether she was good for it. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone could leave this town. That was the curse his business was built on.

He went to fetch old blankets to wrap the bodies in. By the time he returned, the killers were deep in conversation.

“No, this makes it even less my problem,” Miss Wayne said as she dragged one of the bodies onto the landing. “Now I can just wait it out.”

“You’re saying no other trouble could come your way?” Laughing Wolf said, piling pistols and ammo belts on the bed.

Ernie kept quiet and tried to ignore them. It didn’t do any good to get drawn into your customers’ problems.

“Somebody’s got to take down King,” Laughing Wolf said. “We’re the only two in town with the power to try.”

Ernie slowed his work, making a show of labouring over carrying the body, buying himself time to listen. Mister King would pay well to hear about this conversation.

“It won’t just be him,” Wayne said. “Alfonse has a gift for finding wretches to do his dirty work.”

Ernie glanced up. His heart was in his throat. Were they looking at him? Had that been an implication, the beginnings of a threat?

Hurrying to get out of the room, he tripped on the doorframe and dropped the body with a thump. Now they were definitely looking at him. His face glowed like dawn across the plains.

“It’s not just us, either,” Laughing Wolf said. “As long as no-one can leave town, people’s pasts will keep catching up with them. What happened today, what you felt meeting King again, do you want to force that on others?”

“Fine,”  Wayne said, rolling her eyes. “If – and only if – you have a plan.”

“Got to get soap and a bucket,” Ernie blurted out, bolting from the room.

He hurried down the stairs and around behind his bar. The breakfast crowd had fled at the sound of gunshots, leaving the place deserted.

It was strange to hear other folks talk about their pasts catching up. That was what had brought Ernie out west. It was the reason he’d accepted Mister King’s deal – service for protection.

He crouched behind the bar, opened a small cupboard, and peered inside. The thing inside could have been a chequers board, except that Mister King used it for more complicated business. Instead of nice simple disks it had chess pieces, odd figures whose names Ernie struggled to recall.

Which one had King said to move in an emergency? The one meant to summon his men…

“What you got there, Ernie?”

Ernie jumped so hard he slammed his head against the bar. Laughing Wolf stood barefoot beside him, that crazy stick in his hand and a stern look on his face. There were footsteps as Lizzie descended the stairs, a pack of cards in one hand and a six-shooter in the other.

“Nothing,” Ernie said.

He tried to slam the cupboard shut but Laughing Wolf thrust his stick in the way. The indian peered inside.

“Games, huh?” he said. “I should have noticed the smell of magic was strong here.”

“I’ve got friends,” Ernie said, backing away from the furious native. “Powerful friends.”

“See this?” Laughing Wolf said, raising his stick. “This is my game. This is my magic. We play coup and I can take control of you. You want that, Ernie?”

Ernie shook his head frantically, backing toward the shotgun stashed beneath the cash box.

“Mine’s a war game,” Laughing Wolf said. “The minute you pull that thing, that’s when it starts. You think you can shoot faster than I can steal your soul?”

Ernie froze. He was shaking so bad his muscles ached.

“Leave him,” Wayne said, heading for the door. “He’s nothing.”

“No I ain’t,” Ernie snapped, finding a surprise store of courage buried inside him. “I own this bar. I’m my own man.”

“Of course you are,” Wayne said.

She probably thought Ernie didn’t know sarcasm, but he heard it. It stung.

“Get out of my saloon,” Ernie yelled. “And don’t never come back.”

The other two exchanged a look.

“Fine,” Laughing Wolf said, heading for the door. “But think about this. Did you name this bar of yours?”

Ernie followed them out, telling himself it was to make sure they were gone. But when he looked up at the sign above the door he knew why he was really there.

“Pawn Sacrifice,” the sign said. Ernie had never understood what that meant, just that it was part of Mister King’s deal. Now the sign mocked him, a reminder that his life wasn’t his own.

He’d never been much for games, but he’d hated the idea of being someone else’s playing piece.

He went back inside to fetch a ladder and a saw. Five minutes later he was hacking the sign down. Next he’d deal with the bodies. And then…

Then he didn’t know.

“Hey, Ernie,” a familiar voice said.

Laughing Wolf was looking up at him.

“What?” Ernie asked, leaning on the sign.

“Can we come back in?” Laughing Wolf asked. “We’ve could use your help.”

“Fine,” Ernie said. It wasn’t like he wanted to turn down custom anyway. “But you’re mopping up that blood first.”

He heaved on the sign. With a crack, the image of the Pawn Sacrifice fell into the street.

* * *


This is the latest in a series of short stories I’m writing set in a fantasy western town. You can find the previous episodes, and about a hundred other free to read stories, over here. And if you’d like to receive stories straight to your inbox every week then just sign up to my mailing list for more like this.

Gathering Dust – a weird western story

Laughing Wolf woke up in the same small bed in the same small room above the same small saloon where he’d been waking up for weeks. He had the same hangover too.

In the corner of the room, his coup stick was gathering dust, a grey fuzz settling across its bright ribbons and dangling feathers. There was no point picking it up if he wasn’t going to channel the magic of the coup game. And there was no point fighting against the powers that held him here.

Besides, life wasn’t that bad.

He slid into his buckskin pants and loose shirt, then headed barefoot down the stairs. In the main bar, Ernie was laying out plates of eggs and toast for his regulars. Food kept coming in, even if folks couldn’t get out.

As Laughing Wolf picked up his plate from the bar, four hulking white men came in off the street, the saloon’s doors swinging shut behind them. Two of them were carrying axe handles and one was wearing brass knuckles. They all wore six shooters.

The Pawn Sacrifice Saloon, never the most exuberant establishment, fell deathly quiet.

The leading thug walked up to Laughing Wolf.

“Looking for a woman by the name of Lizzie Wayne,” the brute said. “You know her?”

Laughing Wolf pointed up the stairs. No point fighting, as he always said these days.

“Third door on the left,” he said.

As the men tramped up the stairs, Laughing Wolf took his usual seat by the window and started eating his eggs. The sun fell across the same patch of table it did everything morning. The eggs tasted the same as every morning. So did the over brewed coffee Ernie brought to the table. It was all comforting in a way that his wandering life, following the herds of buffalo across the plains, had never been.

The banging of a door came from overhead.

Laughing Wolf tried to ignore it, focusing on his eggs.

There was a rushing of feet, a shout of anger, and the sound of something smashing. A woman yelled in alarm.

Everyone looked down at their eggs. Laughing Wolf found that his had lost all their flavour.

A gunshot was followed by a bellowed curse and the woman shouting again.

Laughing Wolf’s table by the window didn’t feel so comfortable any more.

As the crashing and yelling continued, he pushed away his plate, got out of his chair, and walked up the stairs. He walked past the open door with the splintered frame, down the hallway to his room.

It had felt good to let his coup stick gather dust, not to accept responsibility for himself or his world. He would miss that dust.
He picked up the coup stick. It was as long as his arm, with a hooked end. He left his six shooter and his hatchet by the bed. Those were the rules of the game. You couldn’t count coup if you also fought to kill.

Barefoot, he padded down the corridor. The woman was cursing someone out at the top of her lungs.

“Where’s the money, bitch?” someone yelled.

There was a slap.

Laughing Wolf rounded the doorway and looked in. Two men were holding Lizzie Wayne against the wall by her arms. Curly black hair tumbled across her night dress. Blood ran from her lips. Another man stood facing her, while the fourth smashed up furniture and peered at the pieces.

“I won that money fair and square,” Lizzie Wayne said.

“That’s not how Mister East sees it.” The thug pulled back his hand.

The smasher of cupboards caught sight of Laughing Wolf.

“What?” the man snarled, drawing his pistol.

Laughing Wolf darted toward him. The gun rose. He twirled his stick. The shot went wild, the gun’s roar leaving a ringing in his ears. Then he reached out and tapped the man in the chest with the coup stick.

Immediately, the man froze. Glassy eyed, he gazed at Laughing Wolf.

“Protect me,” Laughing Wolf said.

The man turned sluggishly to face into the room.

Two of the others had drawn their guns now. Laughing Wolf flung himself to the floor behind the bed. Bullets ploughed into the wall above him and splinters of wood sliced his forearm.

The man he had touched with the coup stick fired at his companions and they fired back. Seconds later, Laughing Wolf’s protector lay dead on the floor, along with one of his former comrades.

Laughing Wolf rolled under the bed and stretched out with his coup stick.

“To hell with you, red man,” the lead thug said as he trapped the stick beneath his heavy riding boot. He bent over and peered under the bed, pointing his gun in Laughing Wolf’s face.

There was a yell and a thud. The man turned around just in time for Lizzie’s knee to collide with his face. He flew back in a spray of blood and teeth, his head hit the wall, and he slumped motionless onto the floor.

Laughing Wolf rolled out from under the bed. The man who had been holding Lizzie lay sprawled by the door, head lolling to one side, his face turning from red into the purple of a massive bruise.

“Thank you,” Lizzie said. “That was mighty kind.”

Laughing Wolf shrugged.

“I’m going back down for breakfast,” he said “You want to see if we can get sausages?”

“I thought it was always eggs,” Lizzie said, picking a dress up off the floor.

“I think it’s time to make a change,” Laughing Wolf replied.

* * *


This is the third in a series of flash stories I’m stringing together into something larger. Here are the previous episodes:

If you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.

Next time, there are choices to be made, with the fate of the town at stake…

The One Night Town – a weird western story

Lizzie tugged at the reins, steering Hunter and her little waggon into a side street outside the saloon. Already she could tell that this would be a one night town, a quick stop on her way to the mining settlements in the hills. There couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people living here. Tracking down the ones who knew about mineral deposits wouldn’t take long. Whatever her employers needed to know, she’d find it out tonight.

She got down from the waggon, checked the purse secreted in the folds of her dress, and tied Hunter up next to a watering trough. The horse guzzled eagerly at the filthy water, anything being better than the dusty landscape they’d been riding through.

As she walked along the creaking boards out front of the saloon, she noticed dust rising from a work site beyond the far end of town. It looked like the railroad was coming. Maybe there was something worthwhile here after all.

All eyes turned to her as she entered the saloon and approached the bar, a collection of reclaimed planks that had been proudly polished until they shone. She ordered a whiskey, to the surprise and delight of the moustached barman, and scanned the room while she waited for him to pour.

Only the middle of the afternoon, and already there was a poker game going on in one corner. Four men clustered around a table, cards in their hands and coins piled in front of them. One was a native, two labourers. The fourth man caught her eye. His suit might be dusty and patched, but it was better than most out here.

He’d be the company man.

“Room for one more?” she asked as she approached the table.

All four men showed the same mix of surprise and delight as the barman. The native pulled up another seat beside him. His smile was soft, but there was a hardness in his eyes. The company man grinned and ordered a bottle of whiskey for the table.

Even as she picked up her first hand of cards, Lizzie felt the power stirring in her guts. The same power she felt whenever she entered a game, the rituals of play letting her tap into her magic.

As she stacked up coins in front of her, she let some of that power flow into them.

The labourers didn’t interest her. Men like that understood the practicalities of mining, not the big picture. Instead, she started with Laughing Wolf, the native. His tells were subtle, but they were there. She could see by the twitching of a finger when he had a strong hand. Then she made sure to gamble more than she sensibly should, weaving her magic into the winnings as they slid across to him.

She knew that her power was working. Whenever one of the other men got lucky and won some of her funds, he would blurt out something about the resources she sought. Old Jim talked about a silver seam in the high hills. Ben, a lean youth with barely a wisp of beard, showed off his knowledge of how to dig coal.

But Lizzie wasn’t here for silver or coal. She was relieved when those two ran out of funds and had to leave.

Meanwhile, Laughing Wolf remained tight lipped. If he knew anything about minerals, then something else was protecting him from her power. Meanwhile, her funds were running dangerously low. As she watched her steadily decreasing pile of coins, she fought not to clench and give away her tension.

It was time to change tactics.

“Looks like I finally got lucky,” said Figgis, the company man, as he piled up winnings in front of him. “Reminds me of the day we found a gold seam out by Red Bend.”

Lizzie smiled inside. She played the next few hands carefully, challenging Laughing Wolf when he was strong, giving small bets away to Figgis whenever his eyes narrowed in triumph.

But things were tougher without a couple of easy marks to win hands against. For all that they had tells, Figgis and Laughing Wolf hid their feelings better than the labourers. Lizzie was struggling to win enough hands to stay in the game, and Figgis still hadn’t told her what she most needed to know.

The day was growing cooler, afternoon stretching toward evening, but Lizzie was sweating beneath her dress. She would hate herself if she’d given so much away for mere fragments of knowledge. Where was the win in that?

She had to take a real risk.

She dealt out the cards and watched the others look at their hands. Laughing Wolf’s finger twitched. Figgis’s eyes narrowed a little.

Someone was going to win big.

She glanced casually at the aces in her own hand. If she double-bluffed now, tried to signal that she was covering up weakness, maybe she could win a decent pot. But what if that didn’t work and she gave away her last real chance to lose to Figgis?

“All in,” she said, sliding her remaining cash into the middle of the table. As she did so, she chewed at the corner of her lip, a tiny gesture, but hopefully enough for Figgis to pick up on.

Laughing Wolf matched her bet. So did Figgis, barely suppressing a grin.

Laughing Wolf laid out his hand, a spade flush. His eyes gleamed behind his soft smile.

Figgis grinned wider as he presented a full house, jacks over threes, and the native’s face fell.

They turned to look at Lizzie, who in turn considered her own full house, aces over queens, enough to win the pot.

“Dammit,” she muttered, placing the cards face down in surrender. “I’ve got nothing. Was hoping you were both bluffing.”

Figgis drew the pile of coins across the table.

“Last time I saw this much gold, it was that big seam up by Blue Rock,” he said. “Gonna make a fortune off that when the time comes.”

“Fat good that does me now,” Lizzie said. Inside, she was beaming. Gold deposits were what her employers paid so well for. She’d head for a town with a telegraph office and let them know to come grab the claim.

As she stepped away from the table, the magic tying her to the game dissipated. For a moment, she thought she felt some other strand of power tugging at the table, but she shrugged it off.

“Pleasure playing with you boys,” she said. “But it’s time for me to move on.”

“Good luck with that,” Laughing Wolf said.

He too stood up, shovelling his winnings into a deer hide pouch.

“What, you giving up now?” Figgis grumbled.

“While I’m winning,” Laughing Wolf replied.

On her way out, Lizzie looked up at the sign board above the saloon. “The Pawn Sacrifice” it read. Strange name for a saloon, but then saloon keepers could be an odd lot.

She untied Hunter, got into the waggon, and rolled out toward the hills. As she rounded a bend, she saw another town in front of her, near identical to the one she had just left.


She smiled. As long as she could keep moving, who wouldn’t love this work?

* * *


This story marks the start of an experiment. Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to write a series of stories that connect together into something bigger. Hopefully, they’ll all be accessible on their own, but combined will make something more.

We’ll see.

If you enjoy this then you might also enjoy some of my previous stories set on the Gambler’s Frontier, a western setting where games power magic:

  • Betting Big – gambling, magic, and otters fighting an alligator – it all makes sense on the Gamblers’ Frontier.
  • Counting Coup – industry, magic and the clash of cultures.
  • The Making of Meredith Brown – slaves find a way to resist through magic.
  • Straight Poker – Rick came out west to leave magic behind, but the cards have other ideas.

And if you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.

Bringing the Weird West to Life with Doomtown’s Short Stories

‘Dammit, I’m the sheriff! Bring me my coffee and donuts or more bodies are gonna drop!’

The high noon standoffs.The crazy magic carnival. The steampunk capitalists with their mechanical horses. As I’ve mentioned both here and elsewhere, I love the weird western card game Doomtown, and one of the things that makes me love it more is the fiction.

Combining Game and Story

AEG, the company who publish Doomtown, regularly post short fiction based on the game on their website. As a way of keeping players’ attention and building excitement around a game, I think it’s rather nifty. It builds up the plot, gives context to some of the cards, and makes me a little more interested in the characters of the game.

As integration of game and story goes, it’s no Device 6. But it’s really cool to see a company playing with what they can do in already playful mediums – short stories and games.

Moments Not Stories

These Doomtown pieces aren’t always what I’d describe as stories in their own right. They’re there to show a character, action or item in context. Something usually changes over the course of the story, but it often feels insubstantial.

For what it is, that works. It strings together the existing material of the game into a more coherent narrative full of character and tension, not just coloured pieces of card. I’d be surprised if the writers thought this was going to draw in new fans. It’s about maintaining existing interest, not bringing in more.

That said, I think weird west fans might enjoy the little snippets even without the bigger context of the game and the scenes written for the card sets. This is a world full of atmosphere and dark ideas, perfect for those who like to see spells and six-shooters in the same place.

Art as Marketing

This fits with a wider trend at the moment, where marketing cultural products has become less about badgering an audience into buying and more about giving something away to grab their interest. It’s common for serial fiction to include a cheap or free first e-book. Instead of badgering people into reading, the creators give them something and hope they like it to pay for more.

Speaking of which, my own collection of science fiction short stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, is free on Amazon until Friday. So if Doomtown’s fiction doesn’t grab your interest, or you’ve read it all already, why not give that a go?

Writing Excuses 10.8 – character and extending a scene

Once again, I’m sharpening my writing skills with the exercises from Writing Excuses’s year-long writing course. This week was their last episode on character. The episode was a Q&A, and covered such interesting topics as how to work with character flaws and how to write characters with offensive views without alienating your readers – it’s well worth a listen.

This episode’s writing exercise builds on the previous two, which used a scene of a dead-drop to illustrate character. It also provides a bridge from discussing character to developing story structure:

Sketch out the events before and after your dead-drop scene from last week and three weeks ago.

In doing this exercise, I’m also going to think about how those events expand on the central characters in this fantasy western – Sarah, an escaped slave; Marcus, her Underground Railroad contact; and the local sheriff, our antagonist.

Before the Dead-Drop

Sarah’s pre-dead-drop narrative is the one that comes closest to writing itself. She escaped from the plantation where she was held, with the help of a man named Seneca, who also gave her instructions for contacting the Underground Railroad. This sets up the dead-drop.

To show more about her character, and how she copes on her own, I also want to add in a scene where she’s almost caught the night before the dead-drop. Sarah’s smart, but because of what she’s suffered in slavery she’s also timid and lacks self-confidence. Her response to being pursued isn’t to run or fight back, but to curl up and hide in a ditch. She uses her smarts to hide pretty well, covering herself in stinking mud to try to hide her smell from the sheriff’s dogs, but they almost find her. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t know that she has some magical power (I’ll work out how later) using the system of magic through games I’m using in this setting. The simple prayer she frantically mutters in the ditch is also a rhyme from a childhood game and taps into that magic, and that’s enough to send the dogs and sheriff in another direction.

So in one scene I’ve shown her character, foreshadowed a character arc of learning magic, and had a chance to characterise the sheriff through his dogged and foul mouthed pursuit of escaped slaves, as well as how he interacts with the other pursuers as they close in on Sarah – he’s jovial with those he likes, but vicious towards others.

Meanwhile, Marcus is meeting to plan for Underground Railroad activities. I’d have to do research to write the planning, but what I’m mostly concerned with right now is characterisation and plot driven by the characters. The meeting is a way to show the magic of the setting. Marcus himself can’t use the magic, but is a leader who has magic users working for him. Like so many Railroad activities, their use of magic has to be subtle and low key, and though he works within these limitations it frustrates Marcus. He’d like nothing more than to be part of a full-on uprising against the slave owners of the southern states.

Though he’s not present in Marcus’s scene, the spectre of the sheriff hangs over all their decisions. They know that he’s looking for proof of their activities with growing ruthlessness. They recently lost a friend to him. Like so much else, not being able to punish the sheriff frustrates Marcus.

After the Dead-Drop

Now I get to bring Sarah and Marcus together. As they seem to be my central characters, I want to make things more interesting by developing a conflict between them, one that stems from their personalities.

Having received the note at the dead-drop, Marcus finds Sarah and takes her to a safe house. Waiting there, Sarah players chequers with Meredith Brown, one of the magic users from the dead-drop scene. In doing this, she inadvertently displays magical power, and Meredith realises that Sarah could be a huge asset for the local Underground Railroad. She tells Marcus, who obviously wants Sarah to stay – his whole motive is to grow resistance against slavery.

But Sarah’s scared, and she just wants to run away north to freedom. This leads to an argument with Marcus, who’s frustrated at her not wanting to help, and doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t. Because of her subservient, non-confrontational personality, Sarah backs down. But now she sees this potential ally as another bullying enemy, and is thinking about how to escape him.

Then news arrives that Old Sam, the other local Underground Railroad magic user, has been lynched. This ups the tension and creates an opportunity to show how the characters present react to this – Marcus with anger, Meredith with sorrow, Sarah with fear. We also get to hear about the sheriff’s reaction, which reveals more about his character. He’s furious, and now hunting the perpetrators of the lynching. Because while he might be a racist villain and antagonist of the story, there’s more to him than that. He really hates law-breakers.

On this issue at least, all the characters will be on the same side.

Reflecting on the Exercise

A lot of what I put into the characters wasn’t planned in advance, it emerged through outlining these few scenes, and I’m really pleased with the results. I think it’s a good illustration of what Robert McKee says in his excellent book Story – that plot and character aren’t really separate things, at least when they’re done right. Characters drive the plot, and the plot helps to show the characters.

Take the argument between Marcus and Sarah. That didn’t occur to me when I was developing their characters in the scenes before the dead-drop, but it made perfect sense based on those personalities. It adds a whole new plot strand, a conflict between them over Sarah’s fate, and it’s one that’s all about these characters and what motivates them.

Often, putting your character in a situation is a good way to develop them. I’m pleased with where these characters are heading.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or had a go at it yourself and feel like sharing the results, then please leave a comment below. Next week, on to plot structure.

Doomtown – Magic Poker and Mad Science

There are few things more awesome than seeing your passions combined in one great story, film or game. My pleasures include westerns, fantasy, steampunk, boardgames and clever design. Based on all of this, it was inevitable that I’d get into Doomtown Reloaded.

Doomtown Reloaded is a card game from AEG, in which you grapple for control of a lawless Wild West town. The factions involved include ranchers wielding mad science gadgets, a creepy magic carnival, ruthless outlaws, and of course lawmen. There’s a great mix of genre elements in the setting, and character cards that hint at so much more depth than they have space to describe.

But what really sold me on it is the game mechanics. Doomtown cards have suits and values like normal playing cards, and you win or lose shoot-outs by creating poker hands. It’s thematically perfect, not just because poker is so evocative of dark dealings in the Wild West, but because of the tension it builds. As each of you looks at your draw hand, deciding whether to take a risk on changing some of your cards, maybe trying to bluff the other player into a risky play, you can feel the tension mount. It’s like a shoot-out in a film, this long drawn out build-up followed by a sudden, swift moment in which everything is resolved and one side lies dead.

It’s a mechanic that elegantly captures the tone of the setting. And that, to me, is massively pleasing.

Laura and I now play Doomtown most days. It’s not the most relaxing game, but it’s really interesting, and a whole lot of fun. And it’ll probably have me writing magic card game stories like ‘Straight Poker‘ for months to come.

Straight Poker – a #FlashFriday story

IMG_0780[1]Some folks thought the devil’s card hands were all about spades, full of death and darkness. Others that he chose hearts for men’s passions. But Rick had seen enough of the cabalist tables in New York to know better.

That was why Rick had come out west, to get away from the magic before his soul wore through. To play some straight poker – no weaving of power, no double layered games, just good hard bluffing and good cold cash.

It was getting on for midnight in a two shack town when he realised that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the wind whistling in through the door of the rickety saloon, or the candlelight flickering in the cheap gilt-frame mirrors.

It was the old lady’s play, sticking on a weak pair. That pair was fours, a match for the players around the table, revealed with the diamond on top – man’s greed and payment to the Beast. She played it cool, her other hand patting at her tight grey bun.

Too cool. Poker face even as she lost the pot. They’d all stuck, bound themselves to the game while their guard was down. Rick fought to keep his breathing steady even as his heart hammered. This here was some nasty goings on.

He played it safe for the next few hands, waiting for her to make her move. He didn’t like to be the dove at the table, but the stakes had just rocketed.

Not that the others realised. It was the Apache who went all in, giving his best dead-eyed killer look as he pushed forward a big heap of pennies.

The Indian’s face fell as the old lady’s full house beat his flush. His eyes went blank and he flopped back in his seat.

The old lady ran a finger along her cards. Clubs high, warrior’s cards, tapping into the brave’s soul and snatching it away. A glimmer of power flickered at the corner of her eye.

Rick’s blood ran cold. Not just horror at seeing another man’s spirit stolen but terror at the thought that it could be him next.

The black fellow, a railroad worker out of DC, tried to leap up and away. But his chair was stuck to the ground, and he was trapped just as surely in it. Fear filled his face.

Rick threw his blind penny out onto the table, nodded to the railroad man to do the same.

‘Just play to win,’ he said.

But the real game would be down to him, whatever became of the pot. Rick’s soul might be tarnished but he sure wasn’t willing to give it up easy.

A few more hands went around, the old lady’s eyes flickering with hellfire while Rick’s pile of pennies slowly seeped away. He had to find a way out before his pot ran empty and the witch had him trapped, able neither to win nor to leave. He’d seen zombies made that way, down in the Big Easy, men without a will of their own. Men blank-eyed as the Indian, feeling what was done to them but unable to prevent it. Better death than that.

But there was no way out, not without a good hand or knowing how bad hers was. He tried to buy his way out magically by sticking on two pairs, diamonds in both, but she countered with the three incorruptible men – club, heart and spade of jacks. No good playing diamonds against that.

Soon he had cash for just a few rounds. He watched Titus, the railroad man, blow his last chance on a straight. It might have freed him if the top card had been a diamond, but that nine of spades went down to the old lady’s club flush, and she scooped up his cash along with his soul.

The power in her eyes flared even as Titus went cold. No hiding it now.

Rick dealt, watching the cards fall on the table. He had the queen and ace of clubs, and matching spades in the hole. If he went all in on those pairs it might just about break the spell. But she had two kings on the table, and the ace of hearts besides. With a diamond to match either, she’d take his very soul.

Her eyes stayed steady as she looked at her cards, showing only an ember of their earlier glow. She was giving nothing away.

Then it struck him. Maybe, just maybe, there was no power in her eyes ‘cause her hand held no power. Because right now her magic was weak.

Maybe this was his chance.

It was a slim thing to gamble his soul on. Was he judging her right, or had he lost his touch out here in the west?

He hesitated for a moment, but what choice did he have? He slid his whole pot across the table.

‘All in,’ he declared.

‘You sure?’ she asked.

‘I’m sure.’

She matched his bid and revealed her cards.

No king, no ace, no fire in her eyes.

Rick laid out his two pairs, pushed out what power he had, and the spell broke.

The Indian looked at the table in confusion. Titus bolted from his seat and straight out the door.

Rick gave a sigh of relief. He felt drained, like without the tension he had nothing left.

The old lady shook her head, pushed the pot across to Rick.

‘I’m heading west tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Care to join me? We could make quite a mark, my power and your smarts.’

Rick looked from his winnings to the dazed Indian, then back at her. It had felt good to play that way again. The game behind the game, gambling for life or death.

Other people’s lives. Other people’s deaths.

‘No ma’am,’ he said, scooping up his winnings. ‘Straight poker’s good enough for me.’



Doing the Writing Excuses exercise earlier this week, I developed an idea about magic using playing cards. It’s not the first time I’ve played with that theme, so it seemed like a good time to whip this story out.

Plus I’ve just started playing weird western card game Doomtown, so I’m all about the wild west this week.

If you enjoyed this then you might also like my other free to read Flash Friday stories, my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, or even my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which contains a couple of western flavoured stories.

I’m currently working on a fantasy/scifi idea suggested by Glenatron, but if anybody else has an idea for something they’d like to see me include in a Flash Friday story then let me know – I’m always open to ideas.

Oh it’s a jolly holiday…

Who doesn’t love a jolly holiday? From Noddy going to the seaside to the Famous Five getting into trouble with smugglers, books seemed to be full of holidays when I was a kid. For adults? Not so much.

Or maybe I’m just reading the wrong books.

As a writer, cutting myself off from work is a vital part of any holiday. If I have a computer or an internet connection then it’s hard to relax without thinking about all the things I should be doing, from freelance contracts to blog posts to the next chapter of my magnum opus.

So that’s what I’m about to do.

By the time you read this I will be on holiday – work, blog and other cares left far behind along with Shelly, my faithful computer. I had meant to schedule some posts ahead of time, but the hours ran out and I had other deadlines to meet before I disappeared. So this is it for a couple of weeks.

By way of a departing nod, here’s a guest post I wrote for FictionVale on why westerns and science fiction combine so well. Hope you enjoy it, and I’ll be back in April.

Have a fun couple of weeks – I know I will.

A hat like that – genre mashing westerns

 “Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly

Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.



Science fiction westerns

It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.

More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!

Steampunk westerns

In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.

Fantasy westerns

Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.

Back to the beginning

It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.


New story – A Sheriff in the Deep

I love westerns, and I love science fiction, so I’m pretty excited to say that my sci-fi western ‘A Sheriff In The Deep’ is out this week in Fictionvale.

Excitement, adventure and fishes

‘A Sheriff’ is the story of a lone man, your classic western small town sheriff, protecting a community of homesteaders against the encroaching bully boys hired by a big business. It’s about frontier justice. It’s about a lone hero standing up for the little guy. It’s about brains over brawn. And it’s about living underwater.

Yep, it’s Shane in the ocean depths.

But why this story?

So why did I write a story like that? Well, mostly it’s because I love westerns, especially sci-fi westerns, so the combination of the two was hard to resist.

But I’m also intrigued by trying to explore different sci-fi futures. Space exploration features a lot in sci-fi, but we don’t often explore the briny deeps even though settling there is starting to look more plausible than getting into space. There’s all sorts to explore around the practicalities of this and the international issues it would raise, which I’ve only glanced over in this short story. But I think there’s a lot to do in the deep.

As for the lone sheriff as hero, I’ve been a fan of that since my dad first got me watching westerns as a kid. I’ve previously had a steampunk western, The Cast Iron Kid, published in a steampunk anthology. And as in that story, I really enjoyed writing the part of the plucky underdog here. It’s a big part of the traditional western, and a theme almost everyone finds appealing.

The great folks at Fictionvale

It’s also been a pleasure to work with Jenna and Venessa, the editors of Fictionvale. They’re a relatively new magazine – this is only their second issue – and they’ve been struggling to get this one out amidst all sorts of distractions and setbacks. Despite that they’ve been friendly and helpful to work with, and managed to take a hands on approach to editing that improved my story – something many short story magazine editors don’t have time for.

Go forth and read!

Fictionvale is available for e-readers via their store or Amazon for only $4 American, which comes out around £2.50 for those of us carrying pictures of the queen. You can spend that much on a large coffee. Hell, you can barely even buy a pint for that any more. So why not give it a go?

If you do read the story then come back here and let me know what you think of it. Good or bad, I’d love to hear your opinion.