Mick’s cowboy boots trudged through the thin layer of snow as his duster blew behind him in the wind. The air was frigid despite the sun shining overhead, but you’d have no idea it was a cold winter by the revelry and tack piano echoing out from the saloon.
Mick pushed through the batwing doors and took a quick survey of the barroom. Saloon girls roamed about while a poker game grew heated in the corner. Glasses of whisky and beer were raised in the air, but Mick’s focus honed in on the establishment’s owner as she approached him.
“Howdy, Gwendolyn,” he greeted her while tipping his hat.
She flashed him a sultry smile and flicked the golden badge pinned to the vest under his jacket. “I told ya before, Mick. You keep calling me Gwendolyn and I’m just gonna keep calling you Sheriff.”
There were few in this town Mick felt comfortable enough to let his guard down around, and he found it strange the local madam was one of them.
“I thought only customers are allowed to call you Gwen,” the Sheriff noted, coyly.
“For you I’d make an exception,” Gwen teased, playfully dusting a speck of snow off his shoulder. “After all, you’d only be a customer if I charge ya, and I reckon you deserve a little—”
Gwen gasped as her eyes fell upon Mick’s neck. “My gosh. When’d ya get that scar?”
Her warm fingertips tingled as she ran them against the scar tissue across his throat. Mick swallowed and forced his eyes to scan the room, a poor attempt to hide how much he enjoyed her touch. “Back in the war. Damn native nearly took my head off.”
“Well, you be careful with that thing. Be a shame to lose the pretty face attached to it.”
Mick expected her to caress his cheek and was a little disappointed when she didn’t. Gwen smiled at him instead, which meant a whole lot more. It wasn’t the seductive smile she flashed when he first entered. Just warm, thoughtful, and genuine, like that of an old friend. Mick allowed himself to smile back and basked in the warmth her bright, gleaming eyes showered upon his soul.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he eventually grumbled, snapping his collar back to business. “Enough sweet talkin’ the law, miss. You called me here for a reason, did you not?”
Gwen held onto her smile but stiffened her back to play along. “Sure did, Sheriff. Buck’s had a few too many and been harassing the girls again.”
She pointed to a corner of the bar where Buck’s hands were getting a bit grabby with one of Gwen’s employees.
Mick sighed. “All right. I’ll take care of him.”
He headed to the bar with Gwen following behind him. As he drew closer, the repugnant stench of body odor and stale beer grew stronger. A fresh coating of sweaty grime covered Buck’s face, and a small collection of empty glasses sat on the bar in front of him. A working girl stood beside him. From the cringed look on her face, Mick could tell she was too scared to sit on his lap but too polite to walk away.
“Let’s go, baby,” Buck urged her, his hands roaming freely around her thin dress. “Comp me a room. You know you get more outta our time together than me.”
Mick came up behind the stool and placed his hands firmly on his hips. “You can go, darlin’. I got him from here.”
Buck barely paid the girl any attention as she scurried away, focusing squarely on the lawmen instead. “Sorry, Sheriff, but you ain’t my type.”
“Come on, Buck. Time to call it a night.”
“What’choo talkin’ bout a night?” Buck swung his arm around to point at the window, knocking over several bottles on the bar along the way. “The sun ain’t even down yet.”
“It is for you. Now get a walkin’ and don’t make a scene.”
Buck lumbered his body back and forth to get off the stool. When he finally rose, he stood a good foot-and-a-half over the Sheriff’s hat. “Walkin’? Oh, I’ll show you walkin’, you uppity pile o’—”
He cocked back ready to swing, but Mick jabbed forward, popping the drunken brute in the nose. Buck stumbled onto the bar, again knocking over the empty bottles that crashed to the floor at his feet.
“Not exactly a native with a hatchet, is he?” Gwen pointed out.
Mick chuckled as he and Gwen shared another smile. The moment lasted a few brief seconds before a loud, ringing bell echoed into the saloon from outside. The startled piano player stopped as he, like everyone else, turned to the noise.
“What’s that?” Gwen asked.
“The bank alarm,” Mick said through gritted teeth.
He bent down, grabbed Buck by the shirt, and lifted him straight off the floor. The Sheriff threw the burly man back into a chair, which jolted Buck’s eyes open.
“You!” Mick commanded with a firm finger in Buck’s face. “Stay!”
Buck nodded like a scolded child, and Mick stormed back through the saloon’s swinging doors just in time to see two bank robbers already on horseback and riding through the town. They passed by Mick in an all-out gallop that kicked a flurry of snow in their wake.
“Dagnabbit,” the Sheriff cursed while drawing the six-shooter holstered off his belt.
He aimed at one of the riders and pursed his lips, quietly exhaling with the horse’s rhythm. Every second that passed took the rider farther away, but Mick didn’t panic. He relaxed his arm, focused down his revolver’s sights, and squeezed the trigger, clipping the rider in the shoulder and sending him tumbling off the saddle.
The horse continued with two large bank bags dangling at its sides. The other rider took a few more strides before realizing his partner had been hit and was lying face down in the snow. He eventually stopped at the edge of town, the last barrier separating civilization from the wilderness beyond.
While approaching the lifeless body in the snow, Mick could see the rider contemplating his future, debating whether to head back or keep going into the open frontier. He chose the former by dismounting from his horse and slowly walking back the way he came.
The downed rider was about halfway between them. Mick got there first and continued to keep the barrel of his handgun trained on the one still standing. The brim of his hat covered the robber’s eyes, and when he poked it up Mick recognized the man’s grizzled visage. His name was Luis, and although Mick had never seen him in person the artist’s rendering uncannily captured the robber’s menacing smile.
“So you’re Sheriff Mick?” Luis asked, gleefully.
“Just Sheriff or Mick is fine. You don’t have to put them together.”
Luis dropped his hands in his pockets and playfully kicked at the snow. “I was hoping to be in and out of town before we had a chance to meet.”
“You and I have already been acquainted, Luis.”
Luis’s eyes perked up. “Is that so?”
“Certainly,” Mick confirmed with a nod. “I’ve been staring at your mug pinned to my wall for a couple years now. Right under the word ‘wanted’ followed by ‘dead or alive’.”
“Sorry,” Luis shot back with a regretful grimace. “We have other plans.”
Mick’s brow furrowed. “We?”
A loud click came from below, the sound of a gun hammer being pulled back. Mick didn’t take his focus off of Luis but could sense motion out the corner of his eye as the body in the snow stood slowly with a revolver in hand. Only when he rose to his feet did Mick realize Luis’s partner wasn’t a “he” at all. It was a woman named Samantha who worked at the bank.
Mick knew her a long time, or he thought he did. They’d both lived in this town for years, chatting whenever the occasion called for friendly banter. Never could he imagine such a kind woman teaming with a scoundrel, forever thrusting her life onto the wrong side of the law.
“You’ve gone and gotten yourself in a world of trouble, Sam,” he said.
Sam circled around to aim her gun at the side of the Sheriff’s head. “Exactly, Mick. It’s a big world out there, and I’ve outgrown this small town with its small-town trouble. It’s time for something new. And not you nor anybody else can stop me from—”
She was interrupted by another weapon cocking its hammer, this one louder than the last. Mick’s attention was drawn to it, where he discovered Gwen holding a rifle to Sam’s back.
“Don’t think about it, girlie,” she warned. “Be a shame to blow away something so beautiful.”
“Get back inside, Gwen,” Mick ordered, keeping his own gun fixed on Luis.
She shook her head as her sharpened eyes bore a hole into Sam’s back. “No can do, Mick.”
Mick huffed. “I can handle myself.”
“This ain’t about you,” Gwen shot back. “People stop in this town and visit my bar because they think their money’s safe at the bank while they’re having a good time. A teller that feels entitled to some of it is bad for my business.”
Mick let his focus drift in Gwen’s direction. He knew it was a mistake the moment he did it, and Luis swiftly drew two revolvers from his hip. One for Gwen. The other for the Sheriff.
“As long as we’re gonna have ourselves a party,” Luis said with a giddy shrug, “figured I’d join the fun.”
It would be an understatement to say Mick was unhappy with the situation. He had two guns trained on him with a civilian, a woman whom he cared about, all too eager to throw herself in the crossfire. But the Sheriff wasn’t really the type to dwell on his predicaments. He was more interested in how he was going to get out of them.
“It’s not too late,” he pleaded with the outlaw. “We can still settle a way out of this.”
“Only thing we need to settle…” Luis paused just briefly enough to spit in the snow, “…is which one of us is gonna pull the trigger first.”
A stale quiet filled the air, broken only by the light hum of the wind gliding through the town. Everyone’s body remained still, but their eyes darted suspiciously around the standoff. Mick ran through the scenarios in his mind, trying to plan for if and when the bullets started flying. He could see everyone else doing the same until their concentration was broken by a crunching noise behind them. The sound continued on like pitter-patter in the snow, and they all turned to find Buck awkwardly sprinting across the road.
Mick sighed at the pitiful sight. He would’ve been angry if it weren’t so pathetic, especially when the drunken brute stumbled and let out a grunt as he fell face first into the snow. The Sheriff snapped his focus back to Luis, knowing full well the gunslinger wouldn’t waste the moment.
The four of them simultaneously opened fire.
It happened so fast Mick could hardly keep track of everyone’s movements. He barely dodged Sam’s killing bullet, but Luis’s struck him in the arm, causing his own shot to veer off and find its way into Luis’s leg.
The women weren’t as lucky. Gwen took two shots, one to the stomach and another that tore off a chunk of her ear, before unloading into Sam’s back. The force of the bullet jolted Sam forward into Luis’s arms while Gwen stumbled backwards on the verge of collapse. Reacting quickly, Mick shuffled over and took a knee in the snow, catching her just before she dropped.
“Dammit, Gwen,” he cursed, softly. “Why’d you have to go and do something so stupid?”
Gwen smiled faintly and caressed his cheek the way he wanted her to earlier. “I lied before when I said it wasn’t about you.”
He matched her thin smile with one of his own. “I know.”
“Take care of my girls for me, will ya?”
“There’s no need for that kind of talk,” he replied, examining the wound surrounded by her blood-soaked dress. “The bullet missed everything important.”
“That’s…good to know.”
Gwen closed her eyes slowly, failing to reopen them. She wasn’t gone yet. Mick could still feel her shallow breaths against his chest and gripped her hand just hard enough to let her know he wasn’t going anywhere.
But the danger hadn’t passed.
Mick looked up and saw Luis across the way, kneeling in the snow with Sam bleeding in his arms. She wasn’t dead either. Mick could still see her chest rising and falling gently. Their situations were nearly identical, including the vengeful sneers carved into the men’s cheeks.
The cop and robber eyed each other. Neither said a word, but their thoughts were practically linked, their emotions perfectly in synch. Right down to the moment both of them lifted their weapons and opened fire.