Previous Challenge Entry (Level 1 – Beginner)
Topic: The Importance of Being Earnest (not about the play) (08/04/11)
TITLE: The Stranger
By Margaret McKinney
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The wind was crippling the whole of that Wyoming winter and dusty too. If one could manage to warm themselves for a few spare moments, they would immediately need to remove the dust encrusted in their eyes, hair, and on their clothes.
I could think of no place more frozen than that edge of the world, the mountains rising like great giants to the West, the prairie rippling away to the East, and Cheyenne at the center. The ranching industry crawled during that bitter season, and the town’s inhabitants crept along as well, awaiting any form of excitement to brighten their expanse of gray.
The saloon I tended was a prominent one. It sat between the Express office and the feed store, and if the weather allowed, each day saw a steady stream of regulars. Most of them were good sort of men, with a few bad apples thrown in for good measure. I could usually hold my own against them, but that one day, I could not.
On any given day, I tended bar with Big Jim, whose enormous size and stern demeanor tended to keep the riffraff down. But he had taken sick the night before and I was alone at high noon when the crowd picked up. Three newcomers in black entered and sat in the corner. Malice fell away from them in waves, and I was immediately wary of their presence. For an hour or more I toted their drinks across the room as they grew increasingly unpleasant. The other patrons were nervous as well – they began to shoot anxious glances my way as shouts erupted from the dark corner. I felt helpless without the bulk of Big Jim at my side, and in a fit of anxiety propelled myself out the back door, to sit alone for a spell and gather my courage.
The icy wind gripped me in that small alley, stealing my breath and rendering me nearly senseless. I could hear the noise escalate behind me in the saloon as I begged God to send me a way out of the mess.
By then the cold had numbed me so that I could barely move, but I managed to glance up into the face of a handsome green-eyed stranger. His face was mostly obscured by a low-crowned hat and thick scarf, but those eyes glinted with an earnestness I couldn’t deny.
I stammered a response. “Yes?”
“Bit cold out, don’t you think?”
“Saloon’s getting a bit rowdy in there. You the missing barkeep?”
He politely waited for me to elaborate.
“I’m not usually alone. Those men in the corner….” I could find no dignified way to excuse my cowardice.
The green eyes shifted towards the door. “Come on with me, Ma’am. We’ll take care of this together.”
We re-entered the saloon and approached the offensive customers. The vagrants glanced at me and the blonde stranger. I felt a gentle prodding at my back and cleared my throat to speak.
“Time to leave, gentlemen.”
Their leader looked me over.
“Don’t think so, Missy.”
The new voice rose from over my shoulder.
“I do think so.”
I stood still as the men eyed each other. My stranger was outnumbered, yet the trio in black saw something they didn’t like. They wavered.
“Pay the lady what you owe her.”
The largest of the three stood, rising a head taller than me. He glanced at me, then at the stranger behind me. His hand twitched near his hip. The stranger spoke.
The next moment was a long, torturous one as their gazes locked above my head. The tension swirled about me as each man awaited the other. At length the man in black faltered. Nodding to his friends, he pitched a handful of coins on the table and strode towards the door. His companions followed suit. The room collectively exhaled as they left, and I would have sagged to the floor had not a strong grip secured my elbow.
He escorted me back to my post behind the bar. There he removed his hat, scarf, and long duster coat, revealing road-worn but dignified clothing and a friendly face.
I smiled shyly. “How can I thank you?”
Raking his hand through his blond hair, he flashed me grin that warmed the entire room.
“How about a drink?”
I laughed at the irony. “It’s on the house.”
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