September, 2020

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

Blessed are the Peacemakers
by Curtis H. Stratton
The Good Book says "Blessed are the peacemakers . . . " but was that a sentiment shared by all?

* * *

The Phantom Terrace
by Edward Sheehy
It's 1876, and a city boy arrives in a Colorado mining town and soon discovers the terifying truth about an Indian spirit said to guard the trail leading up to the Continental Divide.

* * *

Why God Created Cowboys
by Paul Grella
The truth behind the legend. "It's the economy, stupid!"

* * *

Just Death
by Robert D. McKee
Being a deputy sheriff in the Old West was no job for a coward, and Tom Mason had been a coward all his life.

* * *

A Gunfighter's Last Call
by Tom Sheehan
When they left the gunfighter, shot to pieces and lying dead in the dust, they headed to the saloon to celebrate. Last call would come late that night.

* * *

Belle Saves the Day
by Larry Lefkowitz
Big Brett Tunney entered the saloon and faced the sheriff. It was time for a showdown. Belle, watching from the stairs, knew Tunney was deadly when he was sober, and he was as sober as a judge. What could she do to save the sheriff?

* * *

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All the Tales

Blessed are the Peacemakers
by Curtis H. Stratton

  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." —Matthew 5:9

  The Massacre

Against the backdrop of true wilderness, the ambush turned into a massacre. Hollowed with years of war and haunted by the failure of their lost cause, the captors were gaunt. A new life once waited south of the border, Old Mexico way. Now, with Emperor Maximillian dead and the South overrun by scalawags and carpetbaggers both, the soldiers turned to what they knew best. After all, Brazil always needed good soldiers and new slaves; why would they mind a few dead Yankees and captured freedmen more?

The soldado pleaded for his life. Crawling backward on his elbows, he reached up with broken fingers. Boots crunched against discarded shells and broken bones. Uniformed corpses littered the valley. The occasional cry of pain met a coyote's howl.

He reached up toward the approaching figure. "Por favor . . . por Dios, ayudame," the boy of no more than eighteen said.

"You're missing a rifle," came the careful drawl in response. A revolver clicked its hammer back as the man crouched down. "Where'd the niggers go?"

The soldado stammered in Spanish. A bloody cough rose from the ravine. "He don't speak English, amigo." Grey coattails dragged across jagged rock as he inspected the Pinkerton, like a hunter does its prey.

"Pinkerton," the man said.

The Pinkerton looked at the man's uniform. "War's been over for some time, Colonel."

"Not if Dom Pedro has anything to say about it."

Saturday—as a drunken father named him—grimaced against a bloody laugh. "I know who you are. You've already fought two losing causes. Is that what you're doing this far north, Colonel? Leading some of your fucking redskin half-breeds back through Old Mexico? And for what? To keep on fighting?"

The colonel flicked through his revolver, loading and unloading the bullets. "A keen eye you have, Pinkerton."

Saturday fell back onto the ground. "What a regular Moses you are. It's true what they say about Southerners: y'all don't know how to pick a goddamn fight."

The butt of the revolver whipped Saturday before he could react. The young colonel was a wolf in blond sideburns. He leered at the sight of an oncoming column of mounted rifles. Between them, shackled freedmen marched.

"I don't hate Pinkertons as much I do Yankees, so I'll give you a chance to choose between your profession or your yellow-bellied heritage." The colonel paused. "Where did the negroes go?"

Saturday eyed the colonel. "What negroes?"

The colonel sighed, gesturing over his aide-de-camp. "Search the hills. They can't have gotten far." The aide saluted and handed him his stallion, which the colonel mounted with his gold-plated spurs. Giving Saturday one final look, he fired a single shot, smoke billowing from the barrel.

"Send my regards to President Juarez, wherever he burns."

  Springing a Lawman

Mark Oliver was born with a death wish. Growing up, his hero was William Travis of Alamo fame. On the banks of the Red River, he would reenact the man's final moments alongside the band of boys he invariably led—a de facto leader throughout his childhood. His brother would play Davy Crockett, swinging a tree limb like a rifle's butt at imaginary Mexicans streaming over the walls. As for Mark, his back was always against the wall, slowly and dramatically clicking and firing his fictional revolver while bullets riddled his body. He not only understood the value of a final stand in defense of one's duty: he cherished it.

Duty once compelled him to serve under Colonel Davis of the 1st Texas Cavalry alongside other Texan Unionists. Four long years later, General Lee surrendered, and men like Davis now governed the recently readmitted Texas. Once again, duty took Oliver across the state on Governor Davis' orders. It was some hundred miles south of the massacre that the posse formed on the shores of the sin city itself, Galveston.

There, the war was once a distant occurrence, with a sporadic naval engagement to brighten the distant night's sky. It shocked Mark Oliver to find freedmen continuing to walk the streets as house servants and sharecroppers, years after Appomattox Courthouse. Here he was, thinking the war was over.

"I'd be careful with the water here, Captain," Mr. Ladd cautioned as the two rode through the streets. Men with pallor staggered from dirtied watering holes.

Oliver looked over at the former slave and nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Ladd," he said, mindful of his courtesies. In truth, he heard many men call Ladd his first name. "Washington" sounded foreign on his tongue, especially for a man like Ladd. Eight years ago, Oliver might've seen him working in the same fields his family tilled by the Red River.

In any case, he came to appreciate the man's attentiveness to his health on the ride across the state. Despite cholera not being what laid Oliver on a hospital bunk in Fort Griffin the month prior, much as Ladd thought, a keen eye was a worthy trait. Cholera sounded official enough, but the pox had taken him all the same. With their mission, it seemed only appropriate that the price of coffins seemed likely to rise.

A paper boy's cry from the courthouse steps announced to the unknowing city that Governor Davis authorized a posse. Its task: to hunt down the former commander of the infamous Mississippi Mounted Rifles, ex-Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Wyatt. Oliver and Ladd dismounted to join the gathering crowd. Several cast Ladd, who dressed as a Southern gentleman with a rifle slung across his back, a peculiar look, but he and Oliver paid them little heed.

"Grant gives amnesty to former Confederates! Davis sends State Police to hunt Wyatt! Connors set to hang," came the shrill boy's cry as he brandished yellowed newspapers.

"That last piece of news might interest you the most, Captain," a raspy voice whispered from behind. Oliver and Ladd turned to see an ashy man in a bowler wincing as he offered his hand in greeting.

"Joe Saturday, if it please you," the man said. Oliver nodded, remembering the orders he received from Governor Davis.

"You must be the Pinkerton," Oliver said. "Allow me to introduce my companion, Washington Ladd."

Saturday eyed Ladd but shook his hand all the same.

"Tell me, Mr. Saturday—" Ladd began before Saturday held up his hand. "Saturday, boy, that'll do."

"Very well," he continued. "Saturday, do the people here not know times have changed? I see negroes walking around like chattels, seven years after Lincoln, and to hear the talk on the streets, Lee and Kirby Smith never surrendered."

"Now is not the time to press the issue, boy. The last thing we want is to be thought of as carpetbaggers or scalawags. We need a few guns more before we take on the whole damn state."

Oliver watched the exchange with displeasure, interjecting before Ladd could respond. "Mr. Ladd is a welcome member of this posse, Mr. Saturday, and I have no problem finishing the job Wyatt did on you should you call him 'boy' one more time." To emphasize his point, he flicked free his dual holsters, a six-gun each.

Saturday eyed the revolvers with a gleam of respect. "The new Peacemakers, is that it?"

Oliver nodded. "And so, they will make peace." He glanced over his shoulder at the commotion emerging from the courthouse doors. "As you were saying, Saturday, it appears we'll have to spring a lawman from the gallows to make this posse complete."

Deputies dragged a heavyset man wearing a sheriff's badge down the court steps. The sheriff shouted at the assembled crowd as they did so. "A jury of my peers, you say?" the sheriff yelled. "What 'peers' do I see here?"

Oliver glanced at Ladd and Saturday, fumbling in his pocket and handing them both glinting Texas State Police badges. "Put those on; we're going to need them. Free your weapons, and follow me."

Ladd unslung his rifle and put on the badge, looking uncertain with the weapon as Saturday loaded his double-gauge shotgun. Oliver pushed his way through the crowd to the makeshift gallows. Ladd whispered to Oliver as the crowd grew more boisterous at the potential hanging. "Who is that man?

Saturday piped up in reply. "A former sheriff, evidently."

Oliver continued. "A former bounty hunter, a Mexican War veteran, and an old friend."

The deputies had the man on the gallows' platform, firing their guns to silence the crowd. "Jacob Connors is set to die for the crime of aiding the enemy!"

"They're not the enemy, you idiot," Connors spat from his knees. "The war is long over."

A deputy cocked his revolver while the other punched Connors across the face. "Selling munitions to Republicans is a crime in these parts, sheriff."

"Not anymore," Oliver said as he mounted the gallows steps. The deputies recoiled in surprise at the sudden appearance of the three-man posse.

"Who in the hell are you?" the older deputy demanded.

"Captain Mark Oliver, and you're about to hang one of my men."

Connors looked up, his eyes widening at Oliver. "Well, Chrissalmighty, I'll be damned."

Oliver nodded to his old companion. "Jacob Connors is hereby deputized to aid in the hunt for Jesse Wyatt and his Mounted Rifles for the capturing and trafficking of freedmen."

The crowd swelled as one at the announcement.

"Like Hell!"

"Yankees, a bunch of you are, ain't it?"

"Hang the nigger!"

Saturday grabbed Oliver by the shoulder. "Captain, it might not be best to make our presence too known. These people remember when the country was bleeding."

"What a difference seven years can make," Ladd said. "And now the war is over and the people free. What could be better than that?"

"I've never heard better news said so poorly," Saturday hissed. "This isn't some time to proclaim forty goddamn acres and a mule for every fucking negro this side of Texarkana."

"Enough," Oliver said.

"This talk will get us killed!" Saturday insisted.

Oliver held Saturday's gaze for several seconds as the crowd continued to cry out, louder and louder. "Then, you can still leave, Mr. Saturday," Oliver replied. "The dance hasn't quite yet begun."

  Many Wounds

"Arrowhead," Connors said as he stuffed dip into his cheek.

"I thought the Coahuiltecans were gone," Ladd said as he inspected the dead horse and its rider, his grey coat tattered and bloodied. Oliver kept watch on the hills surrounding them.

"Not all of them," Connors sighed as he adjusted his straining belt. "Most of them are as bad as the negroes who ran off and started killing everybody a few years before the war ended. Savages and renegades is all they are. Some are old women and children."

"I still don't see why we came this way, Captain," Saturday said. "Wyatt would head down the coast. He's past Padre at this point."

Oliver shook his head. "Word is that he's friendly with the sheriff in Victoria, which has a large Imperialist Tejano population—men who still remember Maximilian's cause and despised Juarez. Wyatt needs to dump off some of his excess wares, restock, rest. He's been running south nonstop for weeks, trying to get back to Brazil. The man's tired."

"If you can call him that," Ladd grumbled. "Fifty dead, over three hundred missing."

"You don't need to remind me," Saturday said, lifting his shirt to show the raw scar.

"Plenty of numbers you got there, huh?" Connors laughed. "Never had much mind for figures."

Ladd and Connors began to bicker while Oliver sat on his horse, swaying in place.

"Fifty-one thousand dead at Gettysburg," he finally offered. The three men turned to face him. "Many more to die soon, it seems. This land needs a God, not more guns. It makes you wonder when enough will be enough."

"When all men are truly free, Captain," Ladd replied, removing his hat in reverence. "When all men are truly free, and this mission is but a continuing effort in Lincoln's own vein."

"That's not the kind of confident talk you want to hear from a Texas State policeman," Connors said, letting out a belch. "We're here for a good bounty, and killing Confederados is easy work."

"For God's sake, are all Texans such somber company?" Saturday said.

It was then that an arrow buried itself in his neck, with the Pinkerton jolting forward and falling head-over-heels to the ground. Connors lit up and began firing at the hills.

"Goddamn Injuns!" he roared.

Ladd ran to his horse in a panic, while Oliver reared his to get a better view at the band which encircled them. He fired a warning shot and shouted to the approaching shadows, "Texas State Police, do not shoot!"

The men did not lower their bows, but the one who appeared to be their leader held up a hand as he approached Oliver. A scowl etched itself across his face.

"Lawman," the Indian said. Oliver nodded, pointing to the badge on his, Ladd's, and Connors' chests.

"What are you doing on one's land?" the man said, glancing at Saturday's body.

"We are looking for an ex-Confederate officer by the name of Jesse Wyatt. He's headed toward Victoria through these hills."

The Indian was at Oliver's stirrup before he could react. He pointed at the dead ex-Confederates on the ground. "These would be more of Lawman's Greycoats then, would it not?"

Oliver nodded, trying to maintain a cool composure, despite being outnumbered. "It would."

The Indian sighed and said something to his men, who lowered their bows and knelt, eyeing the posse.

"Who are you?" Connors said, his finger still poised on the trigger.

"One's father called one Many Wounds."

"What are you doing in these hills?" Ladd asked.

"The Greycoats held one for three days. They killed the young ones. One came here to pray."

"Did you see where they were going?" Ladd asked.

Many Wounds allowed himself a faint smile. "One did, Blackskin. One will show you. But first, bury your dead man. Remember the dead. They will remember us."

  Bad Company, or, When Victoria Burned

"How are we sure he's here?"

The question bothered Oliver, but he kept his eyes firmly on the road heading through Victoria. Ladd shifted his body sideways, further down the ridge toward where their horses were grazing out-of-sight. Connors spat out some dip and shook his head.

"You know Wyatt has friends outside here, don't you?"

Oliver's gaze didn't waver. "How so?" he asked.

"Didn't you hear about those Mormons who turned savage up by the Colorado? Led by a nasty fellow—Hollister was his name, I think. Had to arrest a bunch of cattle rubes a year or two back, was it, and they told me about a fort north of Bishop's Lodge, toward the climb into the mountains."

"I did hear about Hollister," Oliver conceded. "But, I don't put him with Wyatt. Two very different men."

"Oh, sure, one was grey, one was blue, but Yanks and Rebs had their own types of renegades, didn't they?" Connors grinned a tobacco-stained smile. "Wyatt was the grey menace, and some folks considered a little group of Union Texan turncoats to be just like . . . him."

Connors pointed at a small retinue of men exiting a dark building off the main street, one of whom resembled Wyatt. Red crept up Oliver's neck at the suggestion. "Wyatt and I are nothing alike," he hissed.

Connors laughed. "War's over, Captain, and here you are, chasing your old phantom like it's still 1861. He burned homesteads, you cut down women—" Connors leaned in. "Not much difference there, if you ask me. Not that I'm surprised," he sighed. "Brothers tend to be apples from the same tree."

Ladd returned in time to see Oliver pin Connors against the ground, a Peacemaker shoved under one of his chins.

"Captain!" Ladd said in surprise.

"You never knew when to shut your fucking mouth, did you?" Oliver said, applying pressure to the revolver. Ladd ran up and pulled Oliver back as Connors rubbed the gun barrel impression left on his neck.

"Oh, sure, let the negro pull you back, Oliver." Connors spat out the rest of his dip. "Don't make the words any less true."

Oliver shrugged Ladd off his back, straightening his coat and holstering his revolver. Ladd looked between the two men. "Is it true what he said, Mark?" he finally asked, somewhat timid in his tone.

The captain's eyes were piercing as he lifted them from the ground, tears of frustration welling in the corners. "What children our mothers have after us aren't ours to bear," he managed. Looking back at the town, it appeared Wyatt had left the building and headed in the other direction.

Oliver turned to Connors. "And it takes scum to catch scum. So, if you're still looking for a bounty, this is the time to come along. Until then, you'll keep your mouth shut," he said, pointing with emphasis. Oliver then walked toward his horse, not looking back at the remaining posse. "There's still some killing left to do."

Many Wounds told them he would gather his remaining warriors once the posse gave the signal that they had found Wyatt. Ladd rode into the hills to inform him as Oliver and Connors took the back streets into Victoria. The building they saw Wyatt exit was painted with large, bold lettering on both front and back: "The Alhambra."

"Most famous cathouse this side of the Mississippi," Connors said.

"Let's hope the girls know to cooperate with the law," Oliver replied as he dismounted. He gestured at Connors' chest. "Make sure your badge is showing, and ready your shotgun. We want to take Wyatt before dawn."

"I'm sorry, Captain," the madam apologized in the Alhambra's dining room. "I don't expect the man you described to be back before noon."

"And why is that?" Oliver asked. Connors fumbled around with the bottles behind the bar.

"It isn't polite to inquire too heavily into the affairs of our patrons," she elaborated. "But, I heard him mention Gonzales, which is at least a half-day's ride from here."

"See," Connors said, biting a cork out of a whiskey bottle. "He's headed north, just like I said."

Oliver ignored him. "Well, in any case, I thank you, ma'am."

"Not at all," she said. "You are your man are welcome to stay here until he returns, Captain. Complements of the house."

"We might just have to take you up on that offer," Oliver replied as Ladd entered through the front, flanked on both sides by Many Wounds and five warriors. The madam shrank back at the sight.

"And . . . are these men also part of your . . . posse?" she asked. He placed a hand on hers, smiling reassuringly. "I assure you, ma'am, they are just here to aid me in taking Jesse Wyatt peacefully. After that, we leave."

The posse was given two rooms on the second floor, both overlooking the main street. While Oliver complained about the small number of warriors Many Wounds brought with him, armed with only bows, arrows, and knives to boot, he was glad to bolster their ranks however he could. In stints of half-hours, the posse of nine took turns resting as the day came and the sun grew hotter, nearing the noon hour.

"How good are your men with those things?" Connors asked Many Wounds while they kept watch. Many Wounds sat quietly.

"Good enough, I'd imagine" Ladd said. "What bad company we're about to have, I'd take what we can get."

"That's because you're a dumb schoolboy who's never been in a fight," Connors stood, adjusting his belt. "Trust me, boy, this thing will get bloody, and we won't be fighting buffalo." He picked up an arrow and pretended to pick his teeth with it.

"Shut the hell up, Connors," Oliver said from the bed, his hat covering his eyes.

"All I'm saying—"

"Be quiet!" It was Ladd this time as he ducked beneath the windowsill. "There, look!"

Many Wounds leaned back from the window, and Connors and Oliver both joined them to see over one hundred mounted rifles riding into town.

"Chrissalmighty," Connors cursed. "How the hell did they know we were here?"

Oliver's jaw clenched. "Ladd, get the madam up here. Many Wounds, are your men ready?"

"Yes, Lawman," the man said. "One is ready to avenge the little ones."

"Good," Oliver nodded. Ladd rushed out of the room, only to return moments later with the madam, who looked flustered and terrified. "Captain," she said. "You and your men have to leave, now!"

Oliver walked up to her. "Get your girls, and meet with them down in the lobby. We're going to try and talk with—"

A loud cracking sound accompanied a shattered window in the hallway. An oiled rag smoked around a piece of wood, small flickers of flame catching at the carpet. Wyatt rode brazenly down the main street, shouting at the townsfolk to get their guns in the name of Maximilian.

"Fucker," Connors said. "He's trying to smoke us out."

"Get the girls," Oliver repeated, his mind racing. "Ladd, go with them, and go through the back door. Connors—"

Connors was already exiting the room. "Where are you going?" Oliver asked.

Connors shook his head. "I didn't sign up for this, Captain. Keep the bounty. I'm going home."

Oliver tried to get in front of him. "We saved you from the gallows, or did you forget?" Connors brushed by. "You owe this country, Connors!"

Connors glanced over his shoulder from the stairs. "No, Mark. You do."

Oliver rejoined Many Wounds at the window as Ladd corralled the madam and her girls in the lobby. The smoke was filling the hallway as more torches were thrown through the windows. Oliver saw Wyatt talking with some of his men.

"Say the word, Lawman," Many Wounds said. "One will place an arrow in the Greycoat."

"Wait," Oliver said. "Let's see what they do with Connors." Connors walked down the front steps, his shotgun held over his head. Wyatt trained a revolver at him, and for a second, Oliver feared that Wyatt would gun him down. Then, Connors handed his shotgun to Wyatt, and Wyatt exchanged him a rifle. Without a word, Connors mounted a horse amidst the mounted rifles, aimed at the window, and fired.

"Son of a bitch!" Oliver yelled as the mounted rifles joined Connors in firing on the Alhambra.

"It seems Pigman sold one out," Many Wounds shouted. "Fire back, Lawman, fire back!"

Many Wounds flicked arrows from his bow in one fluid motion, picking off Confederates with each shot. Oliver steadied himself, adjusted his grip on his revolvers, and fired them at the street below. Victoria became a battleground. Ex-Confederates threw torches; the Alhambra blazed alongside the adjacent buildings; Oliver and Many Wounds' warriors returned fire. An occasional cry entered the air as one of the Coahuiltecans fell, and soon it was only Oliver and Many Wounds remaining.

"Did Blackskin leave?" Many Wounds panted, bleeding steadily from several bullet wounds. Oliver fared a little better, his ammunition belt nearly empty. He nodded, catching his breath. "I think he managed to get the girls out of town."

"And what of the other blackskins?" Many Wounds asked.

"I gave him orders to head north to Austin to tell Governor Davis what he knows. If Davis acts quickly, they ought to catch the freedmen before they cross into Mexico and are shipped to Brazil."

Many Wounds grew somber. "And what of you, Lawman?"

Oliver met the Indian's gaze, counted out the six remaining bullets he had, and loaded three in each revolver. He held out a hand to the man and smiled.

Downstairs, Oliver waited until Many Wounds began shooting arrows again before bursting out of the Alhambra doors, rolling behind several barrels. He yelled as he fired a single shot at a lieutenant, killing him and distracting Wyatt's men from Many Wounds.

An arrow flitted from overhead, taking a sergeant in the chest. Steadying himself, Oliver slid out and sprinted toward an overturned cart. Many Wounds covered him, taking Connors in the neck and sending him to the ground.

Two bullets remained: one for each Peacemaker. The townsfolk had joined in the fray, now surrounding the Alhambra on all sides and supporting the seventy-odd ex-Confederates still remaining. Oliver heard Wyatt shouting orders over the fracas, and Oliver imagined where the man was based off of his voice. Closing his eyes, he pictured the shot before he took it. Rifles crackled from down the road as Victoria made its way to him. Knowing he would soon lose the shot, Oliver stood up, fired, and roared, "Blessed are the Peacemakers, Jesse Wyatt."

The End

Curtis H. Stratton is the author of "War Coin," an acclaimed narrative nonfiction account of the history of mercenaries. A former military journalist and current historian, he lives in the Washington, D.C. area. For more, be sure to visit

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