A Mysterious Stranger

The stranger came to town on a palomino. We thought it a little strange that he didn’t carry a gun. It was close to a necessity in Ballard Station and the rest of the territory. As it turns out, he didn’t carry one because he didn’t need one.

The first thing he did was make a withdrawal at the bank. Pete Wallace told us over a poker game. He was in line right behind the stranger. How could he have an account there? Those of us that knew about it all wondered. But Jim Dustin, the banker, said it was an old account

The stranger checked into the Ballard Hotel, the only hotel in town, that evening, and slept for two days. Or at least, I’m guessing he did, because nobody saw him come out of the room in all that time. At least not that I heard. When he did, he headed straight for the saloon downstairs, and cleaned out pretty much everyone at poker. It took him about ten minutes to wipe me out. I’ve never seen such a hot hand in all my forty-four years.

I thought there was going to be trouble after that. Some men don’t like to be shown up like that. But the stranger could put a crowd at ease with just a smile. He stood up calmly, offered his chair to old Tom Brewer, and announced he was buying everyone a round. And as everyone was downing their whiskey, he roamed the room giving everyone back half of what they lost. I never saw anyone do that before in my life. You might think we’re all crazy, but we thought at the time that he was the nicest stranger that had ever visited. So did the saloon girls, who spent the next few days entertaining him. Pete even offered him a job on his ranch a couple of days later, but the stranger turned it down, saying he was on his way to the sea. The next morning, he left.

Now, you might be wondering why I haven’t described him to you. The truth is, none of us can remember what he looked like. All we know is that we really liked him, but we were a lot poorer after he left than we were before he came.

A week later, a U.S. marshal named Thomas came to town looking for the stranger. He told us the man was robbing towns all across the west using some powerful magic, and that he had to be stopped before he reached San Francisco. He wouldn’t say why, except that it was a secret. We told him what we remembered, which wasn’t much.

The weird thing is that no one can remember what Marshal Thomas looked like either. I’ve asked. And it was only after the marshal left that Al Dawkins remembered the stranger leaving the palomino behind at the stables. Al swears all of the other horses are accounted for.

The palomino? It comes and goes as it pleases, as if the stables have no gates, no doors. It’s not unusual to see it wandering down Ballard Station’s main street in the middle of the day, and no one has yet been able to catch it.

It occurred to me once that maybe someone ought to ride west to find Marshal Thomas. To tell him about the palomino. But Sheriff Barnes says if the palomino is important, the stranger wouldn’t have left it behind.

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Clinton Lawrence is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Galaxy, Reflection’s Edge, The Fortean Bureau, and a number of other print and online publications. He is a high school science teacher, and lives in Davis, California.

Other works by Clinton Lawrence

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