Discovery

This one came to as a gift from Henry Ram, regular reader of this blog, who has a story in the collection and whose weird westerns I’ve reviewed.

Since it had a story by Daniel J. West who had a piece in Tales of the Al-Azif, I decided to read it now.

Review: Discovery: A Challenge! Series Anthology of Heroic Tales, ed. Jason M. Waltz, 2017.

Challenge
Cover by V. Shane

Sword and sorcery or, as it’s called now, heroic fantasy, is not a genre I read a lot of. I don’t have anything against it. It’s just that I’d rather read other things. I do have fond memories of reading some of Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords anthologies in the 1970s when I was a kid. They led me to Michael Moorcock’s many novels. But, apart from those, I haven’t read a lot of it.

These stories have all the things I want out of sword and sorcery stories: heroic figures, beautiful women, giant spiders and snakes, mysterious ruins, meticulously described violence, and devious sorcerers. The writers all put me in their worlds to smell the dust, sweat in the jungles, freeze in winters, and gasp at wondrous magic.

The heroes and heroines sometimes fight to save whole peoples and sometimes just a single person. Sometimes they survive. Sometimes they don’t

Sometimes the worlds of the stories are in our past, sometimes our future, sometimes in a some when where the names have a familiar ring.

The challenge of the title was that every single author had to, somewhere in a heroic story, incorporate the cover image by V. Shane. Writing to a cover illustration is a fine pulp tradition.

A couple of stories may have stayed in my memory for only a couple of days, but I had a good time reading every single one.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a weird western here. “Someplace Cool and Dark” by Frederic Durbin has a couple of treasure hunters in the American West. They battle strange critters in caves to retrieve gold left behind by a mysterious and vaguely Lovecraftian race called the Old Ones. But the real enemy is a criminal gang seeking that same treasure and who ambushes the pair in town. It’s a tale of blazing guns, laconic men, and deep if understated friendship and loyalty. Durbin also contributes the sole non-fiction piece in the book, “The Writing of ‘Someplace Cool and Dark’”. It doesn’t add much and is half the length of the story.

And there’s a third Durbin piece, “A Fire in Shandria”. The old queen of an Amazonian society has been overthrown by her sister Azanah. Something like a police state has been created, and our heroine Ragaan runs afoul of it when her secret meetings with an imprisoned dragon she has a telepathic link with are discovered. Azanah fears it is the fulfillment of an old prophecy predicting her downfall and tries to kill Ragaan who then has to go on the run from her still loyal old comrades and free the deposed queen.

For me, both of Dubin’s tales were highlights of the book.

Keith J. Taylor’s “Witch with Bronze Teeth” doesn’t take place in the jungle setting you might expect from the cover illustration. Given my interest in the Crusading orders, including their spinoff in the Teutonic Knights, I was hoping they wouldn’t be the villains here. But they are, and medieval Lithuanians are fighting for their lives against them. Taylor focuses on the Knights as viewpoint characters though all will come to bad – and memorable –ends.

In heroic fantasy, you’ve got your warriors and your wizards, And, of course, you have thieves. Liridonia is one of the latter in Richard Berrigan’s “Fire Eye Gem”. At first she just wants the titular rock to bring her lover, who accompanies her as a panther, back to human form. Time is running out, he tells her. He’s growing more like an animal every day. But an African tribe is dying, and they need to the gem to survive. They’ve sent a legendary warrior to get the gem before Liridonia does.

I would argue that John Kilian’s “Inner Nature” doesn’t exactly fulfill the heroic remit. The narrator is a dying man from sort of a Roman-like Empire that has penetrated into kind of a sub-Saharan Africa. He’s the sole survivor, mortally wounded, of that expedition. I suppose his relations with a woman in a fabled jungle city represent a sacrifice of a sort, but most of the story’s vigor comes from hearing about what happens before he lays dying.

The Ash-Wood of Celestial Flame” by Gabe Dybing was one of the book’s stories that left my mind quickly. Heroine Wuf-Pei is sent on a quest to find the celestial light that can save her fellow women back home as they are threatened by something coming out of the village’s quarry. I suspect the story’s jumping about in time and having two lovers as living symbols of cosmic forces may account for it not sticking with me longer.

The challenge that created the book came with prizes, and Frederik Tor’s “World Inside the Walls” got third place. A man fleeing from thugs in a city enters a deserted compound where the remains of the previous inhabitants, slaughtered years ago, are still about. But he does meet one lone survivor, a girl. It’s a simple and poignant love story with lots of fighting.

I liked the background for Daniel R. Robichaud’s “In the Ruins of the Panther People” in what seems to be a future where advanced science (though still nothing we can do and with a steampunkish air about it) is indistinguishable from sorcery and many of the names sound like corruptions of those from the European Middle Ages. The story has a set up similar to “Inner Nature” – the hero is the sole survivor of an expedition to a jungle city – but goes on to include raiders from the sky and an army that becomes smoke when killed only to reform. One of my favorites in the book.

David J. West’s “The Serpent’s Root” is a somewhat humorous tale with some unexpected plot twists. Its heroine is a thief that needs the tooth of a cockatrice to remove a curse on her sister. The help she gets along the way is surprising as is her helper’s fate.

Nicolas Ozment picked up well-deserved second place with “Cat’s in the Cradle” which is something like heroic fantasy crossed with film noir. Telarra, a Warrior of the Higher Law who lives in poverty and travels the land dispensing justice and protecting peasants (sometimes from their own foolishness), is hired by a dodgy sorcerer to find a gem needed to ransom his son. Said son just happens to be an old lover of Telarra, so she takes the job despite her well-founded misgivings.

You wouldn’t expect to see Vikings in the plush jungle implied by the cover image, but that’s what you get in Henry Ram’s well-done, first place winner, “Attabeira”. A group of Vikings search the Caribbean for a Northmen expedition that vanished 20 years ago. It even finds the expedition’s remains and some survivors. They include one who now thinks she’s a god and is at the center of a power struggle. The story ends on a nicely gloomy note of sacrifice and future doom and, like “Inner Nature”, the idea that heroism can be an essence apart from action.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Science Fiction Trails #13

It’s time for another weird western review.

Review: Science Fiction Trails #13, ed. David B. Riley, 2018.

Science Fiction Trails 13
Cover by Laura Givens

To be honest, this issue was a disappointment. It was shorter than usual and a higher percentage of stories were ho-hum though there were a couple of bright points from two of the magazine’s old reliables.

I’m afraid the two newcomers don’t distinguish themselves.

Cynthia Ward’s “Six Guns of the Sierra Nevada” is actually a reprint of a story that first appeared 20 years ago in Pulp Eternity Magazine #1. It belongs to a time travel theme running throughout this issue. Carl Rhein seems to have been sent back in time by a shadowy cabal from the future in order to poison future American race relations by wiping out the Robin Hood Gang composed of all blacks. You have to be really good to get me to care about yet another story centering on what I’m told is the cause of all evil – racism, and this story isn’t, and its ending is a trifle murky.

There’s some racism in Paul J. Carney’s “The Warden of Chaco Canyon”, but it’s main problem is just that it’s kind of bland. It takes place in an alternate American West where prospectors have been hunting meteors with “star iron” – sought because of its use in protective amulets and bullets that will penetrate anything. However, the strikes have petered out after five years and prospector Hewitt wants to know why. He falls in with an Indian shaman who has his own ideas about what to do with “star iron”, and there are the ghosts of the town wiped out in the first meteor strike. Continue reading “Science Fiction Trails #13”

Science Fiction Trails #12

Lately, I’ve been thinking about narrowing the scope of this blog and, as I put it, reading more like a normal person. In other words, reviewing less of what I read.

I’ll probably continue to do the weird western stuff though. It gets a moderate amount of interest, and it’s an area not a lot of other people cover

Review: Science Fiction Trails #12, ed. David B. Riley, 2017.Science Fiction Trails #12

In 2017, David B. Riley gathered the posse for another ride in Science Fiction Trails.

That magazine’s successors, Steampunk Trails and Story Emporium, didn’t generate a lot of interest, and Riley wanted to still provide an outlet for writers of weird westerns.

Counter to that was Riley’s perennial problem in even getting enough submissions for the magazine.

So, it’s no surprise that all the members of the posse are old reliables from previous issues.

Not only this is a shorter issue than regular, but it’s even got a couple of reprints.

First up is “Belfrey’s in Your Bats!” from Aaron B. Larson. There is nothing wrong with the story. It gives a hat tip to probably one of the most popular weird westerns of all time, the tv show The Wild Wild West (the other being, perhaps, the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter). But it’s not the best of the stories collected in that powerful parcel of weird western fiction: The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones which I’ve reviewed at length elsewhere. Continue reading “Science Fiction Trails #12”

Story Emporium #1

In 2015, Science Fiction Trails publisher David B. Riley experimented again with the annual magazine he put out. The weird western tales of the defunct Science Fiction Trails and the steampunk of Steampunk Trails were combined into Story Emporium.

Review: Story Emporium #1: Purveyors of Steampunk & Weird Western Adventure, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2015.

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Cover by M. Wayne Miller

A lot of the usual contributors to Science Fiction Trails’ publications are here and a lot of those writers continue their long running series in the magazine.

But let’s start with the writers new to me.

Dan Thwaite’s “The Duel” is bit Sergio Leonish in its ever-slowing pace and repetition of details as the climax nears. But it’s not very effective. A gunfighter come to town. His high noon opponent is a clock in a tower. He shoots it but dies. I suppose this is some kind of metaphor about how time and death catch up to us all.

K. G. Anderson’s “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse” is a secret history and a good one at that. Jewish magic and the Kabbala are spliced into the conventional history of Billy the Kid. It’s narrator, a woman named Shulamit, flees her home to escape an arranged marriage to a man she never met. With her, in the trunk on the stagecoach, is a golem made by her grandfather. Others want the golem, and Billy the Kid intervenes to save Shulamit when an attempt is made to steal it. Continue reading “Story Emporium #1”

Steampunk Trails 2

Review: Steampunk Trails 2, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2014.

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Cover by M. Wayne Miller

 

Like its predecessor, it has an article, “Tumbleweeds: Western Icon or Martian Invaders” from editor Campbell. It looks at the hardy tumbleweed aka Russian thistle, an invasive species into the American West.

Beth Daniels, an author I’ve never read, offers an interview on writing steampunk, advice that can also be found in her Geared Up: Writing Steampunk.

This being a Science Fiction Trails publication, there’s a dog story. Here that’s Campbell’s “RCAF (Royal Canine Air Force)“, inspired by the cover illustration. It’s a slight story with dogs and cats dogfighting in the air, and the dogs blasting a factory. Airships, machine guns, and plasma cannon included.

More steampunkery is supplied by the heist/rescue story “Shell Games: A Hummingbird and Inazuma Con” from Peter J. Wacks. It, as the title implies, involves a couple of conmen and seems to be part of an intended series. Inazuma is a “brilliant swordsman” (though he’s not called a samurai). Hummingbird is a gunfighter. The story takes place in Canton, China, but, of course, a steampunk alternative. Here the technological divergence is the invention of the “airjunk” in 1890. There are the usual iconic sorts of things like “clockwork carriages”. Hummingbird herself is a cyborg with a “clockwork right arm”, specifically a smaller variant of the one used in the West. It uses acupuncture needles connected by steel threads to serve as musculature. Hummingbird is accomplished at tai chi. Our two con artists are sent on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the police commissioner. There are some historical figures here. The villain is Grigori Rasputin. Winston Churchill shows up too as a lieutenant in the police force since this section of China is occupied by Britain. Hummingbird and Inazuma’s con is complicated and precisely timed. The bits with Churchill were nice. Rasputin is set up to be a running series villain, but I wished he was on stage more.

Another story that reads like part of a series is Jessica Brawner’s “Bad Altitude”. The story has a great opening with our naked heroine falling from an airship over Paris. The ending doesn’t entirely explain the villain’s motives for wanting her airship. Still, the stuff in between is entertaining enough. This is set in a 21st century world where Douglas Adams is a “great philosopher of the last century”.

And, speaking of clockwork, there’s O. M. Grey’s The Clockwork Heart”, a nicely done story which metaphorically puts that imagery to use in something of a feminist tale. It’s told by one woman and relating the story of another “woman”, Eleanor. Eleanor is a clockwork woman, but she used to be a regular woman as evidenced by the scars around her wrists (a suicide attempt) and neck and chest. The latter seem to be surgical scars from her one-time lover, Dr. Clague. Another woman, Penelope, is Clague and Eleanor’s daughter though the two were never married. Eleanor has been revived after her suicide attempt to hang about the house as a governess for Penelope. Emotionless during her second round at life, she wants to feel again, and Clague helps her have emotion again. Just in time to experience them when another man enters her life.

Lyn McConchie does no harm to her reputation as a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails publications. Here it’s with “The Steam Powered Camera”. The fantastic element here is slight. Was it really necessary to have a steam powered (in effect, a movie camera) with a wide-angle lens instead of just standard Victorian-era photographic equipment? Probably not, but it’s a fairly clever horror story in which a photographer doing psychic investigations comes across an impetuous youth, also with a camera, who mocks his equipment.

Lesbian lovers seem to be (or, at least, were back in the heyday of steampunk and judging by Amazon browsing) something of a steampunk cliché. Jeffrey Cook’s and Katherine Perkins’ “Opening Night” features two. Cliché is doubled by making one a warrior babe. The story intercuts between Emily’s stage performance as a clockwork doll (her own body has damaged limbs encased in mechanisms and she’s missing an eye) and Luca foiling an assassination attempt in the opera house.

The rest of the stories are kind of amalgams of steampunk and weird western.

Henry Ram gives us another installment in the life of Potbury the Necromancer in “The Courtship of Miss Henrietta”. The rich and dying Mr. Seven has his airship Azincourt parked above Name Pending, Wyoming. He’s hallucinating from products of “advanced science” put in his body and brain, and he needs Potbury to do his resurrection thing on him. Potbury says that’s not possible. Seven’s already been resurrected once. Another time is going to be technically difficult. Seven, not taking no for an answer, starts to threaten Miss Henrietta, the former local prostitute Potbury is in love with. Another engaging entry in the series with appearances by regular characters like the rapacious and two-faced madam Mrs. Broadhurst and worthless town marshal Wainscot.

I liked Liam Hogan’s “Horse”, a first person tale about a 15-year old boy and his mechanical, steam-powered, intelligent horse inherited from a beloved professor killed in a faro game. What the boy finds in a town — a gunsmith interested in the horse, local bullies, and a prostitute — makes an interesting story, but it’s not a coming of age tale.

The (Almost) Entirely Untrue Legend of John Henry”, from David Boop, starts in 1855 with John Henry being sold for a 20 year period to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad. The story then shifts to the end of the ballad – John Henry pounding away at the end of a mountain tunnel. However, the mountain collapses on him since they tunneled through to an unmapped mine. John Henry and several men are trapped. We then get a different version of the famous John Henry vs. the steam drill story with a lot of exotic machinery. A nice bit of steampunkery and secret history.

Eric Aren’s “A Cure for Boundary Pirates” is set in a vaguely defined Old West of airships (with helium no less) and electric rifles where trade seems to be prohibited between the natives of the west coast and the people of the plains. A portion of the Great Plains has been turned into “the Colony” for those suffering from tuberculosis. The Colony forbids alcohol and tobacco. Simon, a pharmacist, smuggles “airflower” (seemingly marijuana given its analgesic properties) to the Colony. He’s been blackmailed by a couple of airship pirates who live in the Boundary (aka Rocky) Mountains into helping their smuggling. But the relationship is getting troublesome, so Simon takes steps.

Of course, this being a Science Fiction Trails book, David B. Riley channels karl, the dinosaur sheriff to introduce a collection of flash fiction about fog making machines.  Karl, in “Some Protection“, talks about meeting one H. G. back in the Cretaceous. H. G. thought his time machine’s fog generator would protect from the vicious local fauna.

Eric Aren’s entry “Victory!” is a rather confused entry about a war between Russia and Germany.

P. R. Morris’ “English Waters” is a grisly alternate version of the Boer War with the Boers trying to prevent Gordon from reaching Khartoum.

Pressure” from Guy Anthony De Marco is just jokey and underdeveloped.

Sam Knight is a weird western writer I usually like, but his “A Pirate Fog” shows, at least here, flash fiction is not his thing with a slight piece of naval combat in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Steampunk Trails 1

I’ll be doing an actual review of the Steampunk Trails 2 in the future, so I thought I might as well put up this Retro Review.

From 2014 …

Retro Review: Steampunk Trails 1, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2013.515em6axcVL

“From the Editor”, J. A. Campbell — Brief statement by the editor stating how much she likes steampunk and the magazine’s commitment to articles and stories that capture the artistry and diversity of steampunk.

“From the Publisher”, David B. Riley — Publisher Riley’s brief statement that he had long seen steampunk stories of the western variety as editor and publisher of Science Fiction Trails and that he wanted to focus more on steampunk.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk Fashion”, Carrie Vaughn — An article by Vaughn about steampunk fashion in which she argues that, unlike most clothing we now wear, it is individualized and makes a statement about the character/persona of the wearer. I had no idea Vaughn was the author of a bestselling series until I looked her up. I’ve only read one thing by her.

Karl’s Korner, by Karl, the dinosaur sheriff”, David B. Riley — Karl, the dinosaur sheriff, is a running gag in Science Fiction Trails edited by Riley. Karl ruminates on their energy needs and fragile bodies relative to the pterosaurs he knew. Continue reading “Steampunk Trails 1”

Low Noon

Review: Low Noon: Tales of Horror & Dark Fantasy from the Weird Weird West, ed. David B. Riley, 2012.Low Noon

There’s a lot of strange and dangerous places in the weird west, and editor Riley assembles his usual reliable gang of writers to give us a look.

Mesilla in Arizona Territory is a nice town. It’s even got a town character: Old Man Foster. He comes to town once a month, drinks his whiskey, pays for it in gold, and leaves. Except Old Man Foster doesn’t seem to be a likeable old coot. More than once someone followed him home to find out about where he gets his gold. They’re never seen again. Emily Crawford, a talented artist, comes to town looking for her vanished fiancé. Naturally, she and Old Man Foster are going to meet, and Don D’Ammassa’s “Drawn Out” ends on a mysterious note with much revealed about Crawford and Foster’s true natures but not all.

Mysterious Dave Mather, who he last heard about in this blog when he was hanging around with Wyatt Earp, is on the “Trail of the Brujo” in a story by Matthew Baugh. The Brujo’s soul is the body-switching survivor of a man Mather’s famed ancestor Cotton hung once. A couple of centuries of living and sadistic pleasures have started to lose their luster, but the Brujo just can’t check out. His soul belongs to the Devil, and he doesn’t intend on dying. Mather and the beautiful madam of a Dallas brothel join forces to combat the Brujo. A memorable and entertaining story. Continue reading “Low Noon”

Gunslingers & Ghost Stories

I’ve read a lot of weird westerns lately. Most of them were, like this one, from Science Fiction Trails which seems to specialize in them.

Review: Gunslingers & Ghost Stories, ed. David B. Riley, 2012.Gunslingers and Ghosts

You get exactly what you would expect from the title: stories combining gunfighters and ghosts.

The majority of these 11 stories go past acceptable and into being memorable or well-done examples of typical ghost story motifs.

A couple of the standout stories were from series.

Joel Jenkins “Old Mother Hennessy” features his Indian bounty hunter Lone Crow. Here his partner is Six-Gun Susannah, a very quick draw with a gun if not a very good shot. In tracking down the vicious Hennessy boys to their mountain lair, they come across the graves of their victims. At the end of the trail is the beautiful and witch Mother Hennessy, the worst of the lot. As is usually the case in the Lone Crow series, Jenkins effectively mixes credible gunplay, magic, and characterization. Here Susannah pines away, in her unrequited love, for her partner.

Laura Givens “Chin Song Ping and the Hungry Ghosts” is a follow up to her “Chin Song Ping and the Fifty-Three Thieves”. Ping is a charming character given to romantic impulses and possessing equal parts of naivete, ignorance, and cunning. Here he gets involved hauling dynamite, and he and his partner camp for the night in the infamous Donner Pass. What better place to find hungry ghosts? And a band of Mexican bandits complicates things. Continue reading “Gunslingers & Ghost Stories”

Science Fiction Trails 11

I read a fair amount of weird westerns in 2017, and most were from Science Fiction Trails or its editor and publisher David B. Riley.

With every annual issue, Riley’s Science Fiction Trails magazine (at least starting with issue seven when I started reading them) packed an impressive variety into its literary saddlebags. Surprisingly, a lot of its stories didn’t go with the old store-bought plots of time travel and aliens.

Eventually, though, Riley couldn’t find enough contributors and the magazine went on hiatus.

Low Res Scan: Science Fiction Trails 11, ed. David B. Riley, 2014.SF Trails 11

Editor Riley has his usual gang of tried-and-true contributors here and some new hands too.

The work is sound, not really awful and seldom outstanding. But they’re all good enough to push you along the trail even though the destination is sometimes is a bit dry at that end.

Star performance went to Jackson Kuhl’s “Red River”. That’s red as in anarchists and red as in Martians. Kuhl has the Martian invasion, complete with tripods and red weed, of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds turning the trans-Mississippi American West into a war zone. The red weed seeks out moisture everywhere and that includes human bodies when it mutates to a lethal infection. The U.S. Army in airtight, modified Martian tripods wage war on the infestation. But that army needs money, supplies, and men, and the locals start to become real resentful about supplying them. It’s a dark, mosaic piece of different scenes and points of view that carom from killer plague to killer anarchists.

Paradigm Lost” from R. A. Conine seems incomplete. If the subtitle, “Episode 1 of the Chronicles of Red Blade”, is a clue, that’s because it’s probably the first in a series of one about Sans Arc Sioux warrior Red Blade who finds himself whisked away from victory at the Battle of the Little Big Horn to a world where Indians and whites live at peace – because horrible critters from another dimension, the Dead, have wiped out most people in America and the survivors live in squalid bands. Blade meets the cause of this, and the story ends with him in yet another war in our timeline. Red Blade has, improbably, a degree in mathematics from Oxford though that’s of no relevance to anything in the story. Continue reading “Science Fiction Trails 11”

Six-Guns Straight From Hell

For some reason, I’m in a weird western mood, so I thought I’d bring out this retro review from August 12, 2013.

Unfortunately, you’re probably going to pay a lot of money for this book in physical form, and the kindle edition, which I have, is no longer available due to rights issues.

Still, I’ll pass along the recommendation, and you should look up co-editor David B. Riley’s Amazon page if you enjoy weird westerns. I’m pretty fussy about what I regard as a good weird western. My criteria is they should be set in the historical American West and not fall back on standard supernatural creatures or time travel or aliens for their effect. Unsurprisingly, I don’t find many stories that fit that bill. However, Riley published Science Fiction Trails, and its stories often did. I’ve also enjoyed some of his own weird westerns.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get a lot of submissions that fit what Riley was looking for, so it’s no longer published.

And, of course, you can always seek out the work of the listed writers.

Review: Six-Guns Straight to Hell: Tales of Horror and Dark Fantasy from the Weird Weird West, eds. David B. Riley and Laura Givens, 2010.Six-Guns Straight From Hell

Oh, sure there are the usual vampires, werewolves, and ghosts as you would expect. But there are also a few Lovecraftian pieces, a bit of alternate history, and a bit of science fiction. And, of course, you do get plenty of gunslingers. It’s one of those anthologies with few real outstanding stories, some memorable ones, and no bad ones.

For me the best of the lot was Sam Kepfield’s “Ghost Dancers“. It takes perhaps the weirdest historical event in the Old West, the Ghost Dance, as its starting point, in particular the one place the movement broke into violence – Wounded Knee. It’s been a while since I’ve read James Mooney’s The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, but the history seemed dead on, the ending memorable.

I’ve enjoyed Lee Clark Zumpe’s Cthulhu Mythos stories so was pleased to see him in the table of contents. The Lovecraftian elements of his “The Man from Turkey Creek Canyon” are rather slight and, to be truthful, I found the end a bit unsatisfying, like the story could have been fleshed out more or belonged to a series. However, I liked its amnesiac gunslinger of “callous conscience” sent to protect a wagon train from ambush. Continue reading “Six-Guns Straight From Hell”