July, 2020

Home | About | Brags | Submissions | Books | Writing Tips | Donate | Links

Issue #130

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
You're at the right place.


Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

Coming Home
by Dick Derham
In the troubled range of Johnson County, Wyoming, the independent ranchers who ran their cattle west of the red wall united into a protective community. Let the Syndicate fulminate, the men of Hole-in-the-Wall took care of their own.

* * *

To Become a Horse
by David Curran
The real-life Andrew Dawson, a major of the American Trading Company in the Montana Territory from 1956 to 1864, boasted to the Mountain Crow he had magical powers. Because of this lie, he found himself in a dangerous situation when his close friend, Blue Feather, asked Dawson to use his magic to turn Blue Feather into a horse.

* * *

The Outlaws' Outlaw Chief
by Tom Sheehan
The saga of Bailey Bastion and how he became Hard-Ass Harry and single-handedly destroyed a town.

* * *

Hard Bread
by Paul Grella
Little Jackie Fortunati, a poor New York kid with ambitions, was a baker like his father. But Jackie loved to gamble, which cost him an undignified move West. He plied his trade there, too, with lots of luck and cunning moves. But, in the end, he dished out one move too many.

* * *

Angel Gabriel
by Bob McCrillis
An angel is always welcome, especially when he can save you. But not all of them are avenging angels. Sometimes, vengeance comes from within.

* * *

To Cheat the Hangman
by W.D. Clifton
Bill Tolliver yearns for vengeance against the outlaw that killed his son. The only problem is that the man is in jail facing execution for another crime. That's not good enough for Bill, who decides that there is only one way forward . . . to cheat the hangman.

* * *

Want all of this month's Western stories at once? Click here –

All the Tales

Hard Bread
by Paul Grella

On the Shawnee Trail

Jackie Fortunati had the magic touch of a sorcerer in his stubby white hands. So his immigrant father taught the kid how to be a baker like himself. And Jackie became a great baker. Unfortunately he hated it so much that he taught himself another, more adventuresome trade. He learned how to be a gambler. And Jackie became a great gambler.

When he wasn't standing in front of a fiery oven shoveling out hot loaves of hard crusted Italian bread he was sitting in a fiery snake pit trying to steal a gold-laden pot with nothing more than a moth-eaten pair of fours; this from a table full of thieves just like himself. At the tender age of seventeen he was proclaimed by one and all as the ghetto poker king of the Lower East Side.

Jackie's enormous Roman nose told him in which direction to look for the most profitable game in the neighborhood. Instinctively, he always found it. And curiously, his luck was always phenomenal much to the dismay of a cast of disgruntled gamblers as had ever gathered. Jackie never faltered. Cursed by the losers always, he never failed to leave them with two kind words. Mostly, it was "Thanks." The second word was implied: "suckers."

But, one dismal, rainy spring day, his winning ways came to an abrupt and tragic end. In the dank, stinking cellar of a New York ghetto tenement a heated game came to a sudden halt when Jackie was caught slipping a card from his sleeve to enhance his hand. He rued the act, an amateur mistake he had never made before and promised he would never attempt again. His opponent, Desmond O'Sullivan, a giant of a man with wrinkles on his pasty face that looked like melting candle wax, pulled a very large, rusted handgun from his coat pocket and aimed it directly against Jackie's sweating forehead.

"You cheatin', fookin' little bastard," he roared. The other players fled to safety into the dark corners of the rotting room when they saw O'Sullivan's cold eyes bulge. "I'm gonna blow your greasy little head off." He cocked the hammer menacingly.

Jackie did the only thing he could aside from wetting his pants. He admitted guilt and pushed all his money toward O'Sullivan's end of the table. "Here," he said, shivering, "take the whole friggin' pot. You beat me fair and square you shit-faced Mick."

"That's better you smelly little greaseball. But you better do yourself a great big favor. Get the fookin' hell out of town. Way the fook out. To fookin' Texas. They don't know fookin' shit about poker or anything else. They all smell just like cow shit. He raised the pistol high above his head, waved it wildly, and shot an explosive round at the ceiling and then put the smoking piece back in his pocket. "You hear me?" he roared. "If you ain't out of this fookin' town in two hours I'll come and blow your fookin' greasy nuts off."

Jackie didn't wait for him to finish the sentence. Before the gunsmoke cleared the air he left the dank cellar, raced up the stairs out into the street. A driving rainstorm that brought the stench of the poor out of the cobbled gutters of New York's ghetto didn't deter him. He kept running until he found the train station and bought a ticket to anyplace with whatever money he had been able to hide from O'Sullivan. He was soaked to the skin and secreted the stench of the Lower East Side from every pore in his little body. And now his black derby hat, soiled white shirt and black vest were all sagging like sludge from his panting body and his black, high button shoes sloshed as he raced breathlessly across the wet cobblestones.

He ran to the tracks and saw a train beginning to move, chased it and jumped on at the very last possible moment. He hoped and prayed the train was heading west because he couldn't read and he had no idea what the signs meant. Luck, the kind he enjoyed at the gambling tables, was with him. Days and many trains later he found himself in Bandera, Texas. By then his clothes and shoes had dried. But he still stunk.

"Not much different than the Lower East Side," he thought. Except the streets here weren't cobblestone, everybody wore guns and absolutely ridiculous high, felt hats with brims as wide as umbrellas and no one spokeYiddish.

He walked slowly into the center of town on a creaking wooden sidewalk. The dazzling, clear blue sky made him squint. The air was as pure he had ever inhaled. A warm, gentle breeze was blowing in from the hills west of the town cooling the pressing heat of the day. It gave him sudden comfort. As he ambled down the street his nose picked up a familiar scent, the bitter odor of stale beer. Instinctively he knew a saloon was nearby. And, if a saloon was nearby, so was a card game. He was dead right.

Jackie edged closer to the swinging door of a saloon bulging with noisy, drunken cowboys and sneaked a look. He pushed one of the swinging doors open slowly and slid into the smelly, smoke-filled room. The noise almost overcame him, the shouting, arguing, the laughing and the off-key tinkling of a piano. They instinctively vibrated his senses.

Quickly, he looked around the large room. There were several card games in progress. An almost imperceptible smile lit his well tanned face. He slithered quietly over to one table where there appeared to be an empty seat. After a hand was played he asked politely if he could sit in. No one really cared. He looked like another contributor so they all accepted him like a blood brother.

In half an hour Jackie walked out of the saloon with all their money, eleven hundred dollars. From that moment on, Jackie Fortunati sporting a smile so broad that his yellow teeth glistened in the Texas sun, came to the conclusion that he never had to worry about money again.

So many cattle drives were being organized it became senseless to try to count them. As a result the town was full of highwaymen, busted miners, and carpetbaggers who were all ready to evacuate some poor, bedraggled rube's hard earned cash without working for it. Jackie was one of those, ready, willing and more than able to collect anything that resembled money. His palms itched he was so eager to get into some real card table battles. And when Jackie Fortunati got the itch, he scratched.

He had made a deal with the blacksmith on the very first day he arrived in town. If he cleaned out the horse stalls every morning, he had a place to bed down. He made himself a comfortable hutch above the stalls in the hay loft.

Coincidentally, another newcomer, named Skip Slodraugh slipped into town and quietly did the same thing several days later. He humbly asked for and got the same trade-off that the smith had given Jackie Fortunati. The blacksmith knew a good thing when he saw it. Now he had two suckers to keep his place clean. Skip climbed up the ladder in the stable to find that it was handsomely decorated even for a pile of hay. Some old feed boxes and lots of empty burlap sacks were strewn around the hay mounds to make it look almost livable.

Jackie had left bright and early to find a card game so Skip automatically thought the decorating was done by the blacksmith just for him. He took off his gun belt, loosened his bandanna and promptly sank into a pile of hay covered with burlap and fell fast asleep.

Jackie returned at dusk, rich but tired. His pockets were bulging, full of sucker's money. He climbed the ladder and promptly threw himself on the bed he had made for himself. Unfortunately, he pounced on the sleeping Skip who woke up screaming bloody murder. He reached for his gun but Jackie had his own piece already leveled at Skip's forehead.

"Who in the hell are you and what the hell are you doin' in my bed?" Jackie shouted shaking the pistol in Skip's startled face.

"Names Skip. Skip Slodraugh. The smith let me sleep here if I kept his stable clean."

"That's just what I'm here for, to do the same thing," Jackie countered.

"Well, mah friend, somebody's playin' games with us." Skip said. "And put that dang gun down, will you? It makes me nervous even though you still got the safety on."

"I was here first," Jackie scolded. "This place is automatically mine. You dirty rotten thief." Jackie was incensed.

"Hey, wait, buster, I didn't mean no harm. I'm just lookin' for a place to stay when I'm too tired to take these drover rubes at poker," Skip said

Jackie eased back, startled. He looked long and hard into Skip's baby blue eyes. "You play cards?" he asked. His eyes glazed. His breath became labored.

"Yeah, an' I never lose," Skip answered.

"My fat greaseball ass! Wanna bet?" Jackie challenged.

"Watta you mean."

"Only one of us stays here. Let's draw to see who keeps this place," Jackie commanded, knowing full well that the deck of cards he had in his pocket was marked. "I play cards a little bit myself," he said proudly.

"Well, alright," Skip responded. "You got cards?"


"Shuffle 'em up."

Jackie quietly drew the deck from his back pocket and shuffled them three or four times. He found a box and set it between them. He placed the deck on the box.

"We draw. High card gets to stay. Then you can take a walk back to where you came from," Jackie said triumphantly waving his thumb in the stranger's face. "You go first, and you better pray for more than just plain good luck."

Skip looked at the deck in the pale light of sunset. He took a long time before his hand reached for it.

"My God," Jackie said, shivering as he looked at Skip's stump that was once his hand. It was so mutilated that he couldn't open his fingers.

"And you said you play cards? With a hand like that?" Jackie's voice quivered. He couldn't take his eyes from the awful stump.

"Hey, my left one is even worse." Skip said without wincing. It was more mutilated than the other. He held it up to show Jackie.

"And you play cards?" Jackie questioned.

"And I win," Skip answered.

"Well, you met your master, stumps or no stumps," Jackie growled. "Now draw."

Skip reached for the deck gingerly. But, stump and all, he was able to lift part of the deck effortlessly. "Ace of spades." He held it right in Jackie's face. "Beat that wise ass." He put the cards back on the deck except the card he had picked.

Jackie didn't waste an instant. He grabbed for the deck and quickly picked up half the cards. "Ace of diamonds, shit on you. We draw again."

Skip gathered himself and drew once more. "Oh, no. Four of hearts," he whined like a babe with a full load in his diapers.

"I think I got you by the gonads, you bag of wind," Jackie laughed. He picked up a thin pile and held it skyward. "Oh, no. Four of clubs." He whined like a babe with a full load in his diapers.

"That was the shakiest draw I ever seen. You're so good how come you couldn't beat a lowly four?" Slodraugh screamed.

"Shut up wise guy. We draw till there's a winner."

Skip drew. "Jack of hearts," He moaned.

Jackie drew "Jack of clubs," He moaned louder.

The drill went on and on. The result was always the same, a draw. Neither could beat the other even though they pulled out all the stops trying to cheat. When Jackie drew first the result was the same, a draw.

Jackie, too tired to count, finally said, "Look, I got an idea. You play poker. I play poker. We each got our cheatin' ways. I seen yours, you seen mine. Why the hell don't we team up and get us a system of signals. You teach me how you cheat and I'll teach you how I cheat, that way we can't lose. Now make yourself at home."

"You got a mountain of an idea," Skip answered. His bright eyes twinkled in the dying light of the sun. "Can I really share this space with you?"

"Yep! Might as well. That way I can keep my eye on you 'til I learns to trust you. The name's Jackie. Jackie Fortunati."

"And mine's Skip. Skip Slodraugh."

At that instant a, never-say-die team of gamblers was born. They shook. Jackie grabbed Skip's stump and held it gingerly. "Long as we keep each other honest we ain't never gonna lose," he said. "Now let's get to sleep."

They both found spots in the hay loft and made themselves comfortable. Jackie was asleep in seconds but Skip just lay there quietly, and held his stumps up in the air. He looked at them strangely as the dismal light of a dying sun threw its last dregs of amber rays over them. He mused.

Taliaferro Slodraugh was blessed with a lucky charm the good Lord dangled above his angelic head. He was born in the back of a broken down wagon on its way to Chicago during a driving rainsquall that made the trail a quagmire.

His mother had an easy time of it because the infant weighed only four and a half pounds and grew so slowly that his parents had little hope for his survival. But the kid, strangely, almost magically survived. The family settled in the squalor of a tent camp near the stinking stockyards where his father got work as a butcher. The little kid never forgot the sorrowful but constant bellowing of thousands of cows penned, waiting for their great reward, just yards away.

They eventually migrated to better surroundings in the blooming metropolis of Chicago when Taliaferro was thirteen, and his father's business seemed to get better as new and more profitable jobs beckoned. They rented a flat above a saloon. There the enterprising kid became a tavern delivery boy for all the beer drinking wives and mothers in the neighborhood.

Each morning he took a large, tin pail and brought it to the back door of the saloon where the bartender filled it full of beer. If the fill was too sudsy Slodraugh politely refused it, complaining that he wouldn't receive his stipend if the suds overrode the liquid.

He worked up a decent clientele over time and, at three cents a pail, and often a tender hug with his head fondled between the ample breasts of most of his clients, he was collecting a sizable cache under his mattress. If the bartender was in a good mood, he let the likable lad sit around and watch the proceedings inside the bar. He had sharp eyes, quick hands and an enormous memory. So he watched the hucksters work their delicate charade with playing cards and convinced himself that he was going to do the same, only better.

One day he found an old, well used deck of cards in the back room of the bar. He slowly but surely began to imitate what he had seen the scam artists pull on unsuspecting suckers in the saloon. In no time he became so adept at manipulating and palming cards that he thought he would go out on the road and give scamming a try.

Soon he became a sideshow wonder on the Chicago streets because of his age, size and glib tongue. He rarely let anyone beat him at a game he invented. He laid out three cards face down on a box he had cleverly constructed. One of those cards was supposedly a picture card. If the sucker guessed which card it was, he won.

His victim no chance because Slodraugh mystically palmed the picture card and replaced it with a valueless card. If he felt sorry for a bettor he forced the picture card on him. But those instances were rare. Slodraugh wasn't in business to give money away. He was in it to make himself a millionaire.

He had the makings of P.T. Barnum even though he was just a skinny, little kid.

A friend, who saw something special in him, suggested that he break up his magic card act by dancing little jigs while he played the harmonica at which he was most prolific. He perfected a special dance step that made him look like he was skipping rope. That's how he came by the name, Skip. He was never particularly fond of his given name, Taliaferro, anyway.

He became a very popular character in Chicago. Royalty, in all their dinner finery, as well as foul smelling rabble gathered to let him take their money purposely just because he made them laugh with his whimsical gift of gab. He never grew taller than five feet, three inches, and weighed just under one hundred pounds. His pink cheeked face and a constant twinkle in his eye charmed legions of patrons. It gave many of his clients the impression that he was much younger than he actually was. Most felt sorry for him, a great mistake.

One chilly, spring day he was in the process of divesting dollar bills from three unwitting fools. They were a surly trio of tired cowboys in town after months of hard work driving cattle to market. Skip decided he was going to take everything they had because they were so rude. He never let them win and laughed in their faces when he did it with such ease. They walked away nearly broke, cursing and threatening Skip.

When he was tired of hustling for the afternoon he packed his little card table and started for home. The sun bade good-by for the day and a cold chill filled the air. The threat of rain helped by a strong wind off the lake hovered ominously. Skip passed a saloon but didn't bother to look in because he was too cold and tired. He should have.

Standing near the door in the saloon were the three cowboys he had scammed so callously earlier in the day. Apparently Skip had not gotten all of their loot because they were all drunk, hardly able to stand. One of them, though, spotted Skip as he walked by the open door. He instantly lit after him. Upon a signal the others followed. They caught the hapless kid and dragged him into an alley. While two held Skip down, the other one took a large rock and bashed Skip's fingers again and again against the cobbles until they were a mass of twisted flesh and bone and covered with blood.

They took all of Skip's money and ran, leaving him lying unconscious. He laid there almost all night until a patrolman on the beat found him on the ground shivering, nearly frozen to death. He quickly carried him to a doctor's office. There wasn't much the doctor could do for the poor kid. Every finger was broken in several places and horribly mangled. He tried to straighten out the joints the best he could.

But the resourceful medic found a wooden dowel, cut it to the sizes he wanted and put one in each of Skip's hands, forming a makeshift splint. He washed all the blood off each hand, dressed them and bandaged them. Convinced he had done his best he put his arms around the little kid and wished him luck.

Skip's hands finally healed although one would be permanently cupped like a fist from the savage damage done to it. Miraculously, he had some movement in the fingers of his other hand. But Skip was sure that his slight-of-hand magic was gone forever.

A short time later his father lost his job at the slaughterhouse. He was told that there were many opportunities in south Texas and to hustle himself down there while the pickings were right. He took the advice and the family rode all the way to Bandera. But, unfortunately, there was little work for him. The disappointment for his father proved to be a boon for Skip. There were card games everywhere there was a table and six slow thinking cowboys. And finding Jackie was a bonus he thought he earned because his folks quickly picked up stakes and moved to Victoria. Skip, though, decided not to go with them. Suddenly he was alone for the first time in his short life.

A bolt of lightning lit the barn, followed shortly by the rumble of thunder. It was a pleasant sound to Skip's ears. It had been a good day for him. He finally found a compatriot he thought he could trust. He fell asleep as a gentle rain made melodious sounds on the barn roof.

The success that Jackie and Skip enjoyed was phenomenal. They spent days practicing their signals and when they thought they had them down pat they went into action.

There were six saloons in town, each with at least three gambling tables so there was no drought when it came to poker. Sometimes they played at the same table. When they thought they could do better by splitting up they did just as well. Each night they counted their winnings and stashed it all in a small metal box that Skip had brought with him. It was kept hidden in the walls of the barn.

Weeks went by and the thirst for winning became etched in their very souls. Hardly a waking moment was spent doing anything else but turning up aces much to the chagrin of witless opponents.

On a wretched day that spilled rain like buckshot they were playing as a tandem at the prime table in one of the saloons. The town was bursting with cowboys looking for ways to lose what money they had. Of course, Jackie and Skip were there to take them to their knees.

While they were in the process of divesting some rubes of their hard earned money, a huge, craggy-faced Negro slipped into an empty chair and put a pile of money in front of him. Slowly but surely Skip and Jackie deftly divested him of his pile until he was broke.

He sat stoic for a moment; his cold eyes flitting back and forth between the two players who he was certain had scammed him. His brow furrowed like a plowed field as he reached for his pistol and held it against Jackie's sweating brow. When he smiled his gold teeth glistened like flintlocks firing at the British.

"Ya little greaseball punks. Ah know yo two mans got a good thing goin'. Ah bin watchin' y'all. But, guess whut? Yer bubble have jest come to the end. Ah wants all mah money back then ah wants y'all to march down the street an' git to meet mah friend Mister McCall. Y'all hears me?" he shouted and stood up.

Skip huddled against the wall and Jackie's heart pounded so loudly that everyone in the saloon could hear it as the black giant brandished the gun in his face.

"Who's Mister McCall?" Skip asked.

"None'a yer no account business," The Negro answered angrily. "Ah jest want yuh to know thet yuh played yer last game in Bandera, thet's all, podner," he laughed and the timbers shook. "Now git the fuck outta here 'cause I'mah followin' y'all down the street."

Skip and Jackie raced as fast as they could until they found Tall Mike McCall sitting at a table under the mercantile porch waiting for potential drovers to embark on a cattle drive to Omaha. Without a whimper, both signed up as the huge Negro breathed down their necks. McCall's eyes lit up like an iguana that had just swallowed a fighting mad centipede when Jackie told him he was a baker. He immediately became the cook's helper. Skip hired on as a catch-all. McCall winked at the Negro. The Negro tipped his hat politely to the trail boss, knowing he was in for a buck or two for his efforts.

The next morning, together with five thousand cows and a dozen hands, they sloshed out of the quagmire that was the main street in town primed to endure a six month voyage to Omaha. Both Skip and Jackie settled into the routine comfortably. The weather improved daily and the herd was responsive.

Eight days outside of Bandera the herd was feeding on the lush gift of emerald grass all around them in a broad, treeless, undulating valley. The drovers were able to relax while at work and soak in the pleasant warmth of the summer sun. Most slept in their saddles.

Jackie was atop the chuck wagon as it moved along slowly with the foraging herd, his mind filled with thoughts of faraway Omaha and the rewards that go with the freedom at the end of a trail drive, first a good card game, then a good bowel movement and finally to a barber shop for a haircut, shave and, with luck, a manicure and a cheap feel.

Far ahead, at the front of the herd, Tall Mike McCall was stopped suddenly in his tracks by three drunken Mexicans, all brandishing pistols. As their horses kicked up clouds of swirling dust they pinned McCall between them.

"We gonna tek hover these erd," one of them shouted. He had a huge, shiny black handlebar mustache that danced wildly as he spoke. "Juice mans ease good has dead eef jew don geeve hop." He waved his six-shooter violently.

McCall was taken completely by surprise. "Hey, what's all this about?" He was only half awake when he was rudely jostled by their sudden intrusion. When he was able to bring himself together he offered a quick bargain. "I'll give you all the beef you want. Just leave us alone, OK?"

He was looking for some excuse to buy time until the other drovers saw what was going on and would come to his rescue. "We ain't done nothin' to you, have we? Put that iron away before it goes off," he pleaded as his horse pranced about nervously.

"Naver mines, gringo. Juice are hall dad mans. Muerto! Hunnerstan'?" one of the other bandits roared back. The other two nodded in agreement.

At that moment, from out of nowhere, Skip, who had seen the altercation from a distance, galloped up to the group. His horse slid to a stop amid a plume of dust and debris.

"What the hell's goin' on here?" he shouted at the top of his lungs in a vain attempt to rouse other drovers and get them to join in. "Hey! What are you guys tryin' to do to us?" As his mount spun, Skip moved his gnarled hand close to his pistol. "Don't do nuthin' crazy or I'll blo—"

He never got the rest of the sentence out. The mustachioed bandit aimed his pistol at Skip and quickly pulled the trigger. The gunshot exploded like a cannon and resounded across the prairie. The herd shuffled restlessly. The slug hit Skip square in the heart. Its impact tore a large hole in his shirt pocket as it exploded into his body.

Skip's eyes rolled to the back of his head and his face turned suddenly ashen. He groaned softly and lurched forward awkwardly. Then he slipped off his saddle and fell backward on to the prairie floor, his arms splayed out like he was hung from a cross. His left foot was still locked in the stirrup and it made him look grotesquely misshapen, like a rag doll that had been tossed into a playroom corner by a mischievous kid.

The next few moments dragged on like an eternity. Not another shot was fired although McCall was able to pull his gun from its holster. But the bandits sensed that they didn't stand a chance when they saw the rest of the drovers speeding to the scene. They all took off like greased lightning, each in a different direction.

Tall Mike dismounted quickly and knelt over the stricken form of Skip who was being dragged around slowly by his nervous horse. McCall grabbed the reins out of the stumps of Skip's hands and held the horse tightly. Another drover quickly pulled his foot out of the stirrup.

"What in hell's bells happened?" one drover cried.

"Just another trigger happy bandito, liquored up on Tequila," Tall Mike replied.

"Will ya look at the hole that there slug made in Skip's chest? Wow!" another drover shouted.

"Poor Skip. His first drive an' he's deader than a bag 'a nails," came soft words from a buddy peering down from his horse.

One of the boys pointed down at Skip's lifeless form and shouted. "Hey, where's all the blood? He ain't bleedin'."

"You're right," Tall Mike answered. "Let's roll him over and see where the slug came out. There's gotta be blood somewhere. Skip ain't no vampire."

Two of the boys gently rolled Skip over.

"See! That slug didn't come out his back," a cowboy uttered in disbelief.

"Man, from close range a slug that size could go through a six-inch log and then right through Skip, too," said a drover as he hunched over for a closer look.

They rolled Skip over on to his back again as Jackie came bounding over in the chuckwagon.

"What's wrong? Skip! Hey Skip! What'd they do ta ya?" he screamed wildly when he saw Skip's still form lying in the dust. He jumped from the chuck wagon.

"Oh, some locoed varmints jest came up lookin' fer trouble and poor Skip here happened ta git into his way. That's all," a drover answered.

"Maybe he saved my life, come to think of it. Those guys were goin' to shoot at something. Skip drew their attention and he took the slug instead of me," Tall Mike said sadly. "Cost the poor kid his life."

"No, no, no!" Jackie moaned. He drew his gun and fired aimless shots into the air. The noise created a stir among the horses gathered around Skip. Clouds of fine, red dust swirled up into the sunny afternoon sky. "Skip. Skip." He hesitated. "He was my best friend. Now he's gone." Jackie dropped to his knees.

He looked at the pale face of his fallen comrade and shouted, "I'll kill those rotten, sonofabitchen' bastards." He raised his pistol high above him and fired off a few more aimless rounds. The herd shuffled nervously.

Just then, Skip moaned softly and blinked his eyes.

"Hey, look. Skip ain't dead after all," cried one of the drovers, smiling from ear to ear.

"Where the hell am I?" Skip asked as he squinted into the blazing sun. "What happened to me? I feel like I got kicked by a bucking bronco," he said as he grabbed his chest.

"Skip, I can't believe it. That slug hit you square in the heart from point blank range and you're not dead. Lordy, lordy! Take a good look at the hole that slug made in your shirt. It's so big I can almost put my hand into it," Tall Mike said in surprised astonishment.

Skip then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a thick slab of Jackie's hard, Italian bread. Embedded in it was the spent slug.

"Well, will ya look at that," one of the drovers said, staring at the bread. Others mumbled in complete surprise that Skip could still be alive after what hit him.

"What in tarnation are ya doin' with a chunk of that hard bread in yer pocket, ya dumb polecat?" asked the perplexed trail boss, as he sported a toothy, ear-to-ear grin on his face. "Glad you did, though!"

"Oh, I always steal one or two slabs of Jackie's good, hard bread and keep 'em with me so's I can nibble on 'em during the night watch when everythin's quiet and there ain't much excitement goin' on. When I finishes singin' a quiet lullaby or two ta keep the herd nice an' mellow, I jest break off a piece an' keep it in my mouth until it gets soft. Then I chew on it like a plug of tobacco only this tastes better," answered the now relieved Skip.

"Boy, that slug hit me so hard it knocked me clean out. But, look guys, Jackie's hard bread saved my life. I owe you, buddy." Skip waved meekly at Jackie who stood near the back of the group of drovers shivering.

Skip got up gingerly and brushed himself off. He walked over and pawed jokingly at Jackie who was sobbing softly.

"Hey, Jackie, good buddy. I'm OK. See! Yer too danged serious. Lighten up. Smile, man. Laugh!" Skip stretched out his arms and jumped up and down, whirling in the fine, red dust just like he had done when he was the most popular street urchin in Chicago.

With that, Jackie began to weep unabashed. Skip grabbed him gently and put his arms around him and held him tightly.

"Come on, Jackie. Cowboys don't cry."

The End

Paul Grella never rode a horse or roped a steer but he loved to tell about the foibles of the cowboy. Born in the cement of Newark, N.J. he didn't know about grass until he got to Phoenix in 1962. It was kind of a Western town then with cactus and horses, all of which proved to be fodder for Grella's fertile brain. During his time in Phoenix as a graphic artist, he designed the logo for the Fiesta Bowl. It was one of his crowning moments. He always thought that his tenure helped the town grow. He is now retired and lives with his wife in Scottsdale, where there is no sign of any rustlers or cowboys he enjoyed writing about. Hold your hats. He is 91.

Back to Top
Back to Home