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Cowboys and Spirits 

Renowned Western writers are challenged to tackle the supernatural in 'Ghost Towns'

To compile this anthology, co-editor Russell Davis issued a challenge to a group of writers of Western fiction: Write a story about a real or fictional ghost town. Include, if desired, an element of the supernatural.

The writers took the challenge, drew and brought down, as Davis notes, some "good-uns."

The writers of these 15 stories are best-selling authors and/or award-winners, and several of them write in more than one genre, so there's an unpretentious ease in their styles. The tales have your standard cowboys, bar girls, whiskey, saloons, shoot-outs, sheriffs, bad guys, good guys and drunks. And then there's the requisite ghost town, often populated by the spirit set.

Some of the shoot-outs are more spirit-world than physical-world. In "Contention City, 1951," Southern Arizona writer Jeff Mariotte adds a light touch to his tale about a 20th-century drunk who gets caught up in a 19th-century gunfight. Since he finds himself an unexpected (and unseen) participant in a ghostly battle, our craven protagonist doesn't try to dodge the bullets flying around him. However, when a ghostly bullet hits him, it really does slam him into a wall, and he starts to bleed. Shocked, he says to his companion, "I thought they were just ghosts or something."

The only thing ghostly about the Louis L'Amour story (well, aside from the fact that he's no longer with us, and probably didn't get the editors' invite) is the place itself. In "The Defense of Sentinel," the local drunk wakes up one morning to find that he's totally alone in his frontier town. After helping himself to clothing from the Elite General Store, whiskey from the saloon, and ham and eggs from the restaurant, he tries to puzzle out why everyone took off. Stereotype-true, he gets his answer, and the Irishman squares off against savage Apaches.

Some of the pieces in the collection are more "natural" than "supernatural"; they're also more Native American-sympathetic. In Steve Hockensmith's "The Water Indian," Indian superstitions, as well as Mormon- and non-Mormon settlers, are at odds. It takes the "keen powers of observation and deductification" of Old Red, a Sherlock Holmes-reading cowboy with aspirations to be Holmes-on-the Range, to "deduct" mischief 'neath the menace.

Did I mention that a lot of these stories don't take themselves entirely seriously? Action-driven, most of the pieces are satisfactory single-reads, quick literary theme-park rides: Johnny D. Boggs' "Mr. Kennedy's Bones," for example, is a fast-action dramatic monologue told in a New Mexico cemetery by a crazy racist murderer with the lynching rope around his neck and a bag of bones at his feet ... talking, laughing, human bones.

Larry D. Sweazy's cool, creepy "Silent Hill" features a gifted, orphaned brother and sister ripped from their life of New York privilege. Separated and grown up, they seek reunion in a very peculiar ghost town. The end of "Silent Hill" has a twist, as do the endings of Deborah Morgan's well-crafted, double-existence "The Town That Wouldn't Quit," and Loren D. Estleman's jail-break-sparked "Now We Are Seven." (The carrion breath of one pale cowboy in the Estleman story gives him away early in the action.)

A few of the stories do, in fact, haunt the imagination and invite second reads. In "Iron Mountain," Candy Moulton fully develops a sinister character you want to keep away from the innocent. A hired gun with a trademark M.O. (leave the victim face-up, head resting on a rock), the first-person character is accused of shooting and killing the 14-year-old brother of a teenage girl he's been stalking. The author's note at the end of the story ("Much of this ... actually occurred.") sends you back to piece together what you missed.

Ambiguity haunts, too, and the ambiguous ending of Margaret Coel's masterful "St. Elmo in Winter" is hard to shake. An unconventional Western (that seems to be the nature of the evolving genre), "St. Elmo in Winter" features a 21st-century couple. Grad-student Charlie is trying to keep up with her history-buff boyfriend cross-country skiing to his favorite Colorado ghost town. A storm comes up; they become separated, and Charlie struggles to make it to the town. Coel's descriptions are vivid, convincing and suitably mysterious.

The "element of the supernatural" clause in the editors' invitation makes these stories: Playing with the supernatural clearly tweaked the imagination of these writers, and it brings shades of the fantastic into the world of dusty cowboys and bosomy barmaids. Ghost Towns entertains ... and, at $6.99, it's a heck of a lot cheaper than a trip to Frontierland.

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