I re read this story recently and bits of it came back to me as I was reading. What stuck in my head most, and the part that came back first, was the showdown at the end. It’s very visual and the writing prompts vivid images.
This is the first story in Cosmic Kaleidoscope and the longest, running to fifty odd pages.
The Bibliography of Bob Shaw has this story as part of a series with Fire Pattern and Incident on a Summer Morning. I haven’t read the latter – it’s from an issue of Interzone I don’t have and hasn’t been published in book form as far as I know – but I don’t see how it can connect to Fire Pattern in any way. The only thing is the mention of The Prince, a baddie who is in Fire Pattern but other expositions in Skirmish don’t tie in at all to Fire Pattern in my eyes: unless it was all explained by Shaw in Incident On a Summer Morning.
The story itself starts off with the character, Gregg, coming across a pregnant woman being hassled by two cowboys he is more than acquainted with. The year isn’t named but it is set in the old west, involving cowboys and ranchers. Against his better judgement he gets involved and one of the cowboys is seriously injured, leading to a threat hanging over Gregg for the rest of the story. Shaw then goes on to develop the characters and plot, adding mystery to the young pregnant woman and pangs of yearning for a family life for Gregg.
Morna, the young pregnant woman who knows she is expecting a boy, is the enigmatic stranger who enters his life and changes its course. She miraculously eases the pain on his arms and later provides him with a powerful handgun to use in the fight with his enemies – the rancher – and her enemy The Prince.
Another character is Ruth, Gregg’s on off girlfriend, who acts as the midwife and who takes control of the birthing to the relief of Gregg. Soon after the baby is born the Rancher descends on Gregg with a bunch of cowboys, intent on killing him. This is when the Prince decides to appear.
This is a satisfying story and at a comfortable length. Shaw has stated that he always enjoyed – and preferred – being a short story writer but later on began to feel more at home writing novels. But this story is proof that he was also a master of the novelette.