This is a short "Western" story I scribbled last year. I'm not seeking detailed critique at the moment, just overall impressions and opinions of the work.

White Lion of the Trinity River


Texas, 1875 A.D.

Penelope Jenkins held her brass-framed binoculars to her eyes and peered at the steamboat resting on the southeastern horizon. Even within the evening mist, the vessel’s blocky bright white form stood out against both the deep violet sky and the dark waters of the lower Trinity River, as did the lanterns that twinkled along its tiered decks. On the side of its hull read the words “The Lion’s Den” in thick black lettering.

Penelope could not resist a quiet snicker to herself. “If that ain’t his hideaway, I don’t know what would be.”

She dismounted her black stallion Ramses, hitched him to one of the oak trees that fringed the floodplain, and took out both her revolver and rifle from holsters attached to his saddle. Weaving her svelte figure through the thick reeds along the riverbank, she made sure to walk on tiptoes so that her boots wouldn’t squish too loudly in the mud.

The closer Penelope drew to the steamboat, the more audible was the vulgar banter and laughter of men on the bow of the boat’s uppermost deck. Amidst this played music like the squealing of a fiddle, the staccato twanging of a mandolin, and the buzzing of a harmonica. She could even catch a faint whiff of tobacco smoke mingling with the sweet scent of liquor. Whatever occasion these pirates were celebrating, they sure liked to party.

Looking through the binoculars again, she scanned the length and height of the ship for the likeness of the White Lion as she remembered it from his wanted poster. She could find him nowhere, not even among the noisy throng of revelers. Penelope recalled from the poster’s description that he had once been a gentleman of refined taste, so perhaps he would not associate with his own minions by dancing among them. He might have retired to one of the fancier cabins inside.

Regardless, Penelope’s plan from that point on was nothing elaborate. She would wade up to the steamboat’s stern, possibly climbing up its paddle wheel like a ladder, and sneak her way around until she found her prey and end his career of robbery and terror the way he deserved. In an ideal situation, she’d be able to accomplish all this and escape before the Lion’s men knew what hit them, but failing that…well, a few drunken pirates couldn’t be too difficult to take on or evade. Could they?

Something ice-cold and metallic prodded the dark brown skin on the back of Penelope’s neck.

It was the barrel of a rifle in the hands of a ruddy-faced white man, who sneered like a hungry coyote with yellowed fangs. “Didn’t stop to think that our boss would’ve sent patrols out to guard his whereabouts, did you, nigger girl?”

Penelope unholstered her own rifle and jabbed it into the pirate’s brow. “You don’t want to mess with me, boy. I’ve brought down many men bigger than you.”

He giggled. “Oh, I know who you are, Plano Penelope. Ain’t too many other negresses riding ‘round this state with guns on ‘em. But don’t think I’m the least bit intimidated. You shoot me here, and you’ll send all of us jumping onto you like a pack of wolves onto a doe. You understand?”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

The pirate licked and smacked his lips. “Come with us, dear. You’ll have to take your guns off, though…and your clothes, too. For, you see, we’re a little starved for nubile female company, even if it has to be of the swarthier persuasion—”

It did not take a scientist to figure out what that disgusting white pig had on his mind. Without even a second thought, Penelope pushed her trigger, blowing out his brains with an explosive report.

The music aboard the steamboat ended as the pirates all hurried to the edge of the deck to gawk down at her. One of them shouted while pointing down at her, and they all took out their guns and started banging away. She darted towards the cover of the oak trees, with bits of earth being blasted into the air behind her, until she slipped on the slick mud and collapsed face-first. Penelope did not waste her time getting back up. Instead, she crawled through the tall grass and bushes with the hope that the vegetation would hide her.

A pirate’s wet boot pressed down onto her back, while more of the bastards formed a tight ring around her, rifle barrels thrust at her like spears. Either this was another patrol, or the men on the boat were so much quicker than she had anticipated that they had managed to catch up to her on dry land.

“I got good news for you, and some bad news,” the pirate pinning Penelope down said. “Good news is our boss wants you alive. Bad news is…well, you’d wish you were dead instead.”

His diabolical cackling made her feel colder than the evening chill.

##

After stripping her of her guns, the men hauled Penelope like a slain doe about to be butchered as they waded back to their steamboat. She did not even want to speculate what they planned to do to here once they had her on board. Every possibility she could imagine would be more terrible than a quick death. At least a bullet to her head would have pained her for only a few seconds.

She should have never shot that patrolman back there, vile as his agenda may have been. Her impulsive recklessness had taken away any chance she had of accomplishing her mission and bringing home a bounty that would buy the food her family needed to survive. The people she cared about most in her life would continue to languish because of her.

The pirates dumped her onto the boat’s top deck. Towering before her was a white man in a white suit, who prodded her face with the curved ivory head of his walking stick while gazing down with icy blue eyes. The smooth, backswept mane of white hair that framed his wizened face bestowed upon him the aspect of a regal albino lion.

Small wonder they knew this man as the White Lion!

“Well, well, if it isn’t the renowned Plano Penelope,” the old man said with a subtle Southern drawl. “I see you’ve inherited your mother’s full lips and your father’s broad nose.”

Penelope bared her teeth in a snarl. “What would you know about my mother and father?”

“What would I know? Why, Miss Jenkins, it so happens that they were both my property…even if they ran away. Small wonder I’m familiar with their features.”

“Wait a minute, you mean to tell me you’re Col. Bruce Hartford himself? Why’d you go into hiding, then? Why sink into this miserable life of piracy and robbery?”

“It’s simple, really. You cannot even begin to imagine how the war last decade destroyed my entire livelihood. When everything you have, everything you need to sustain yourself, is taken away from you, you can’t help but find yourself in a desperate situation. Which brings me to your fate, Miss Jenkins. I present to you two choices. You shall either die a free woman, right now, or you shall live a life of servitude to me and my crew. Which shall it be?”

Penelope did not want to live any life like that her parents had suffered back on Hartford’s old plantation, let alone a life catering to these human dogs. She would rather die. On the other hand, if they killed her right on the spot, she would have no chance of escape like her parents had. No chance to escape meant no chance to launch another attack and take out Hartford, and therefore no chance to earn what her family needed to survive. But then, how would she escape in the first place?

“I’ll let you weigh your options overnight,” Hartford said. “Boys, throw her into the boiler room with the Wichita squaw. Keep an eye on them both.”

Two men dragged Penelope down to the bottom deck and tossed her into a dark room wherein only a single lantern glowed, its flickering light reflected on the curved metal sides of the boat’s boiler and pipework. After both pirates left and shut the door, they crossed their rifles together in front of its porthole, signifying that they would be keeping guard the whole night.

Upon detecting the pungent odors of human dung and urine, Penelope suppressed her desire to throw up and soil the room even more. They weren’t going to let her leave the room even to relieve herself! Though that raised the question, who would be shitting and pissing inside this room other than herself?

She heard nervous whimpering and noticed a pair of dark eyes gleaming wide with terror within the blackness away from the lantern’s halo of light. They belonged to a Native American woman huddled by the boiler’s far side, with purple bruises mottling her light bronze skin. Stains of blood and filth speckled the torn buckskin skirt wrapped around the Native woman’s stocky body.

“You look like you’ve been through a world of abuse,” Penelope whispered. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m a prisoner too.”

When Penelope reached her hand out to touch the Native woman’s shoulder, the latter slapped it away and shrank back into the darkness, shuddering like a frightened child.

“Why should I trust you?” the Native woman said, her accent identifying her as Wichita. “Your people are invaders just like all these palefaces.”

“My people? Girl, my ancestors were brought to this country against their will by the very same white men who have been stealing your people’s land. Again, I am not your enemy. Matter of fact, I came here to hunt down your enemies on this boat. These men kidnapped you, did they not?”

The Wichita woman nodded. “They burned down my whole village…killed almost everyone but me…and took me captive. They did to me…everything that they’re probably going to do to you, too.”

“I know. Which is why we share a common interest in killing their ringleader and busting out of here whenever we can.”

“Kill their leader? How do you plan on doing that? How do you even plan to get out of this room?”

Penelope paused. “I…don’t know yet. Hmm…maybe, when these men next want to ‘use’ us, we spring out together and—”

One of the two guards outside tapped the door’s porthole with his gun. “I better not hear any plotting between you two!”

Penelope cursed. These pirates continued to be better prepared than she had anticipated. Even if they wanted to take her and the Wichita woman out of the room for whatever loathsome purpose, they would probably send a whole gang down to overpower her in case she tried to break free. There had to be another way out. Alas, the lantern burning in the boiler room meant that the guards would be able to notice Penelope and her fellow prisoner searching for another exit route.

The Wichita woman’s eyes lit up. “Wait a minute, this boat is made of wood, isn’t it?”

Penelope blinked. “What do you mean?”

The Wichita woman grabbed the lantern and hurled it into the door, opening it as it shattered. Flames blossomed from the point of impact and spread over the door and its surroundings, flooding the boiler room with broiling heat. Outside, the guards hollered as they ran away from sight.

“What the hell are you thinking?” Penelope yelled over the roaring of the fire. “You’ll burn the whole thing down!”

“That’s exactly what I had in mind,” the Wichita woman said. “Now follow me and jump through the fire!”

Shutting her eyes and whispering a prayer to God, Penelope hopped through the burning doorway. She tried not to scream as the searing flames licked her arms and legs. Before her, the Wichita woman jumped off the boat and dove into the river. Penelope followed suit, immersing herself into the cold, murky black water before rising back to the surface.

They were not the only ones leaping off. As the fire swallowed up more of the steamboat, many of the pirates were abandoning ship the very same way while others perished into charred bits within the inferno. Looking back, Penelope glimpsed a white figure streaking down from the uppermost deck, shrieking the ugliest curses until it vanished into the river.

“We’ve gotta get out of here,” Penelope said. “Damn Hartford and his minions. If he’s still alive, I can always track him down later.”

She and the Wichita woman breast-stroked close together through the water, kicking their feet to propel themselves faster. Behind them, Penelope could hear the hissing and bellowing of alligators, the screaming of splashing men, and the crunching of bone. As comforting as those devils getting their just comeuppance may have been, it also meant she and her companion had to hurry before they themselves fell between reptilian jaws.

Upon reaching the riverbank, the two women staggered over to the oak woodland and stopped to regain their breath. Strain and pain racked every muscle within Penelope’s exhausted body.

“Thanks for that ingenious solution,” she said while wringing the water out of her dreadlocks. “Shame I didn’t get to kill Hartford myself like I had planned. Either the gators got him, or I’ll have to start all over again. By the way, I don’t think I got your name, did I?”

“You can call me Dawn Beaver,” the Wichita woman said. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have even considered escaping if you hadn’t suggested it. Instead, I would’ve given up all hope.”

Behind them, a white form erupted up from the water’s edge. It was none other than Bruce Hartford the White Lion himself, his face dripping wet and blood-red with rage. He hooked an arm around Dawn Beaver’s neck while holding a revolver to her head.

“I’ll make this simple,” Hartford said. “You leave me and what remains of my men alone, or I’ll send your newfound friend to Indian heaven!”

Dawn Beaver bit down on his arm. As Hartford recoiled with an agonized roar, Penelope tore the gun out of his hand and shot him in the forehead.

“Damn you, Plano Penelope Jenkins!” the White Lion croaked as he crumbled down onto the mud. “Damn you to the blackest depths of hell!”

Penelope found a holstered rifle slung over the back of Hartford’s corpse and retrieved it for herself while handing the revolver over to Dawn Beaver. There was a gaggle of more pirates, the few who had survived both the fire and the river’s alligators, charging up the shore towards them, whooping with vengeful bloodlust. Taking cover behind the trees, Penelope and Dawn Beaver picked them off with a flurry of gunfire until the last of them had fallen.

“I got to say, you’re quite a crack shot yourself,” Penelope said. “I think I might have you as a partner. Hell, I’ll be more than happy to split the bounty between you and me, fifty-fifty.”

“You mean you’re a bounty hunter?” Dawn Beaver replied. “Strange, I never knew a woman to do that sort of thing.”

“Ah, there’s quite a handful of us out there, trust me. It’s dangerous work, but I do it because my family needs the money even more than I do. Now help me carry the old man’s body over to my horse, and we’ll go back to Plano together.”

“I don’t know, they may not take too kindly to a ‘redskin’ like me showing up in their parts.”

Penelope winked at her. “If they do, they’ll have to mess with me first…partner.”

Together, the two women carried the body of Bruce Hartford, once the White Lion of the Trinity River, and began what Plano Penelope hoped would become a beautiful partnership.