March, 2021

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Issue #138

Welcome, Western Fans!

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!

Abby's Gold
by Larry Flewin
Abby's dream of a ranch of her own is in trouble. She can't pay the taxes and greedy land baron Sullivan wants to buy her out. Joined in her fight by handsome drifter Colt McCord, is he the answer to her prayers and her heart?

* * *

Drifting West
by David Jobe
Ambushed by outlaws, an old prospector lay dying by the trail, interrupting my trip to California. And when the prospector told me of his hidden gold, the hope of finding it overcame better judgment. Following his direction seemed a easy thing to do, but the outlaws were also searching.

* * *

Husk Knoll
by Jason Crager
Frank Reno and his gang of outlaws have just pulled off the most successful train robbery in history, taking JM&I Railroad for close to a hundred thousand dollars and getting away with the law hot on their heels. Only this time, they may have more enemies than they expect.

* * *

The Turncoat
by Gabriel Stevenson
Ma was Indian, but Reid was raised by his white pa—until he was captured by Comanches. They taught him to be a warrior, but now he's grown and scouting for the cavalry as they close in on Victorio's Apaches. Now Reid will have to decide where his loyalties lie.

* * *

by Diana Richter
Molly's kindness to a badly wounded Apache may have saved his life. But when he disappears, she feels betrayed. Her son Jaime returns home with a tale of a horrible massacre that triggers an act of revenge Molly must accept in heartbreaking solitude.

* * *

by Kelley J. P. Lindberg
Pearl understood that the young reporter with his ridiculous tie flapping in the wind wanted to write a story about women living out here in the west. There just wasn't a lot to say. Was there?

* * *

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

All the Tales

The Turncoat
by Gabriel Stevenson

Reid was already a turncoat once or twice over before he had a hair on his chin, the way he figured it. Even though he was a half-breed—his ma was some kind of Pawnee, folks said—his pa had raised him as a white man until the Comanches rode in and killed all the grown folks on the homestead.

They took Reid and any other children they could catch back to their camp out west on the Pecos and made them work like dogs, most of them, but one old squaw took a liking to Reid, as he reminded her of her own son she'd lost just a year before. So she taught Reid to call her "mother" and her buck "stepfather," and his new red cousins taught him how to ride bareback and shoot a bow and arrow with the best of them. He knew it was wrong, but pretty soon Reid got to feeling he might make a decent Indian after all.

When he was thirteen, they sent Reid out into the bush with nothing but a skin of water and a handful of pinole and told him to pray to the Great Spirit, and he did, though he thought Jesus might not look too kindly on that. He didn't have any dream worth remembering, which he attributed to his being half white, but he knew how it was supposed to go, so he came back to camp and told everybody about how he saw a jackrabbit leap between the open jaws of a slavering wolf and come out alive on the other side.

They called him Jackrabbit after that, and told him he was ready to go raiding down in Old Mexico. Reid knew that was wrong too, seeing as Mexicans were almost like white folks, at least as compared to Comanches, but once he got a taste of blood—not to mention women and mescal—Reid figured there was no going back. If he was going to be an Indian, he'd be the best Indian he could be.

By the time he was sixteen, they couldn't raid in Mexico no more, since the Texas Rangers had started patrolling out west and killing whatever Indians they could find, before they could even make it to the border. The Comanches didn't take it lying down, of course. They raided every town and ranch from the Red down to the Rio Grande, and Reid was there alongside them, killing and scalping like a regular old Comanche.

But the tide was turning and Reid knew it. The whites had finished up their Civil War back east and now they were turning their full might against the Indians—not just the Comanches but all the tribes on the plains. General Sheridan, the one who'd burned every town in Georgia, came out west to burn every rancheria in Texas, and Reid was faced with a dilemma. He could let himself be herded onto a reservation like most of the Comanches to die slowly of smallpox and starvation, or he could follow Quanah Parker and live as a fugitive on the Llano Estacado until the cavalry eventually caught up with him.

Turncoat once again, Reid put on an old shirt and denim trousers and rode into Fort Stockton to sign on as a civilian scout.

"You a 'breed?" the personnel officer asked, eyeing Reid's sunburned face, narrow eyes and long, black hair.

"No," Reid lied, knowing full well that Indian scouts only earned half as much as their white peers. "My ma was part Mex. They say I got her coloring."

"Speak Spanish, then?"

"A little."


"Only Kiowa-Apache."

"Good enough, I suppose. You can read sign?"

"My pa was a mountain man. I can track a trout in a creek on a moonless night."

"All right then. Get yourself some chuck, but keep your boots on. We ride at daybreak. Victorio's on the warpath again."

Along with a handful of other white trackers, a Mexican Indian named Joselito, a couple Kickapoos—eastern Indians who whistled to each other instead of talking—and a dozen White Mountain Apaches, Reid led General Sheridan's Army through the dry gorges and across the trackless desert expanses of Apacheria. They crossed and re-crossed the Mexican border at will, burning every rancheria they found, killing any buck older than twelve or thirteen and sending the women and children back east in chains.

Once the scouts led them to the Apaches, the blue-bellies did most of the killing, but sometimes the scouts ran into small parties of hostiles and had to shoot it out on their own. And sometimes, they came upon little Indian villages, if you could call half a dozen leaky teepees a village, and killed the women and children and took their scalps to sell down in Mexico, where the greaser army was paying a bounty for them.

Not long after one such "engagement," as the soldiers and scouts had silently agreed to call such massacres, Reid and Joselito were camped out together on the open desert, about a dozen miles from Sheridan's camp, drinking mescal. Joselito had turned out to be a chatty drunk.

"You know," he told Reid in what he must have thought was a whisper, though there was no one around for miles, "they pay fifty pesos for a warrior's scalp in Chihuahua. They pay twenty-five for a squaw or a cub, but the soldiers can't tell the difference. I tell them they're all warriors' scalps. They can't even tell if they're Apaches or Mexicans, as long as the hair is black."

Reid had taken enough Mexican scalps when he rode with the Comanches that it shouldn't have bothered him, but the thought of a Mexican killing other Mexicans to sell their scalps to the Mexican army didn't sit right with him.

"Sometimes they ain't dead yet," Joselito said. "I bet you never heard a woman scream like that."

Reid had heard enough. The mescal had lit a fire in his belly and Joselito's bragging was fanning the flames. "Your mother screamed louder last night," Reid said.

Joselito went for his knife, but he was drunk and clumsy, and Reid was on him before it cleared its sheath. He beat the Mexican nearly senseless, but not quite, not so much he wouldn't feel it when Reid scalped him.

Once it was done, Reid put Joselito out of his misery with a clean cut across the throat. Then he tossed the fresh scalp in the campfire along with about a thousand pesos worth of Indian and Mexican scalps he found in the dead man's saddlebag. The stench was so bad he had to break camp early.

He didn't know which way to turn. If he headed back to the whites' camp, they'd ask about Joselito. He could tell them the damn Mexican'd been captured by hostiles, but then he'd have to explain how he got away unscathed himself. The soldiers might not care about a dead greaser, but then again they might. You could never tell with white folks.

But his own people were all on the new reservation in Indian Territory, some seven hundred miles to the northeast, in what by rights was Wichita country. He didn't know anyone in Apacheria, and didn't expect a warm welcome after what he'd been up to.

He soon realized he wouldn't have much choice in the matter.

Dark silhouettes followed him at a distance, barely showing themselves along the rims of the canyons and arroyos. They would wait until he stopped to make camp, or until he fell out of the saddle out of sheer exhaustion, or until he ran out of water. One way or another, they would outlast him, and then they'd do to him the same thing he'd just done to Joselito.

But Reid had an idea.

"I know you're there!" he shouted in Apache, hoping the Mimbreños would understand his northern dialect. He dismounted, then made a show of placing his rifle on the ground and backing away. "Come on down and talk."

After a couple minutes, a brave showed himself from behind a boulder not too far ahead. He approached Reid on foot, keeping his carbine at the ready. Reid was sure there were three or four more rifles trained on him from up above.

"My name's Jackrabbit," Reid said. "Who are you?"

"Snake Bite."

"You ride with Victorio?"

"Yes. You ride with Little Phil?"

Hearing Sheridan's hated nickname on the Indian's lips, Reid had to stifle a laugh. He just nodded.

"You don't speak like the other White Eyes," Snake Bite said. "You sound like Comanche."

Reid nodded again.

"I hate Comanches almost as much as I hate White Eyes. Tell me why I shouldn't kill you right now."

"I can help you."

Now it was Snake Bite's turn to laugh. "How will you help us? You can't even take care of yourself."

"You can kill me if you want. Little Phil will still have a dozen scouts to spy on the Mimbreños. How many scouts do you have to spy on the White Eyes?"

"I don't understand."

"Take me to Victorio and I'll explain."

Snake Bite led him through a bewildering maze of mountain passes and narrow canyons, until they reached Victorio's camp somewhere in Chihuahua. Of course Reid would be able to lead the whole blue-coat army there if he got out alive, but the Apaches would only let him out alive if they thought they could trust him.

Lucky for him, Victorio understood his purpose at once.

"You go back to Little Phil's camp and say you saw the Indians down in Los Juguetes, then you come find us here and let us know which route he is taking?"

"Exactly," Reid said.

"The White Eyes pay you greenbacks to spy on me. What do I have to pay you with? Why should I believe you won't go right back to Little Phil and tell him where I'm camped?"

Reid shrugged his shoulders. "I could, I suppose. I don't owe the Mimbreños nothing but my life, if you decide not to kill me. But something about this whole campaign rubs me the wrong way. The White Eyes make promises on Sunday and break them on Monday. I've taken their dollars because I have to eat, but I don't care to see them treat you like they treated Quanah Parker."

Victorio sat silent for a minute, then he called for his sister Lozen, the witch doctor. Victorio and Lozen exchanged words in the Mimbreño dialect, too fast for Reid to follow. She disappeared for a little bit, then returned leading a young girl by the hand.

"This is Desert Owl," said Victorio. "She will be your wife. You will ride with the White Eyes, Jackrabbit, but you will always return to her."

Reid looked at the girl, not particularly attractive of face or figure, but her hair was black as night and her eyes were indeed as piercing as an owl's eyes. He knew it was true. Once he had swum in those eyes, he would always be drawn back.

"Whenever you go, she stays," Victorio said, "and that way I know you'll never desert me."

So Reid was stuck now, not that it bothered him too much. It didn't seem to bother Desert Owl either. Her first husband had been killed up in the Sacramentos and she figured Reid was as good as any other. They just had the one night together, then Reid had to ride back to give his report to the blue-bellies.

"Manolo and his Apache scouts have found traces of a sizable body of Indians out to the Tres Hermanas," the scoutmaster told him when he'd reported in. "But you say you seen 'em down across the border?"

"With my own eyes," Reid said. "I don't know what them 'Paches found in the Tres Hermanas. Might be hostiles. Might be friendlies. Might be a trick, too."

"True," said the scoutmaster. "Can't trust Apaches to spy on their own kin, if you ask me."

The Kickapoos hadn't found anything to speak of, and of course Joselito had never come back, so Sheridan sent a small detachment to investigate around the Tres Hermanas while the main body crossed the border. Reid rode ahead, reaching Victorio's camp before the blue-bellies had even made it ten miles.

While Reid got caught up with Desert Owl, and the rest of the women started breaking down the camp, Victorio and the men built a bonfire and sent a smoke signal for Nana's band, twenty miles to the north in the Tres Hermanas. Of course, Sheridan's men would see the smoke too and send patrols, but Victorio was on the move as soon as the signal was sent, and Reid was on his way back to intercept the cavalry and lead them astray in the tortuous canyons.

This scene repeated itself more than once, as Reid got the blue-bellies close enough to their quarry that they never doubted his skill or trustworthiness, but not close enough to capture Victorio or his men. The Mimbreños raided homesteads and ranches across West Texas and New Mexico, and down into Chihuahua, capturing enough horses that every brave had a remount and so many rifles that they didn't even bother to take the old smoothbore muskets when they wiped out a platoon of Mexican rurales.

Still, all good things must come to an end, and the Mexicans, who were not privy to Reid's misinformation, hired wild Tarahumaras from the sierra to track the Apaches down. Track them down they did, with a whole Mexican regiment, and they treed old Victorio in the Tres Castillos, a collection of three piles of rock in the otherwise open desert, sixty miles from the border.

Reid was at Fort Quitman, telling the telegraph operator that he'd seen Victorio's band just over the ridge in Bandejas, when an urgent wire came in from Sheridan's liaison in Chihuahua City about the Mexicans' campaign. After he finished dictating his own message, which no one was likely to believe now, Reid high-tailed it out of Texas faster than a mustang through an open gate, but by the time he reached Tres Castillos two days later, the Mexicans already had the place surrounded.

Trying to get closer without being seen, Reid crept from one rocky outcropping to another until he stumbled on a pair of Mimbreño women hiding among the creosotes a few miles away. One of them was the witch doctor, Lozen.

The other was Desert Owl. And she was in labor.

Of course Reid had noticed her swelling belly over the past few months, but she was such a skinny girl it was hard to tell how far along she was. He'd been doing some arithmetic, and he figured if she came up pregnant on their wedding night, she shouldn't be due for a while yet. So even if the baby was coming early, there was no way it was his.

But looking at Desert Owl, her eyes wide and tearful with pain or fear or both, Reid knew he didn't care about that. She was his woman and this would be his child, no matter what color it came out.

"Stay with your wife," Lozen commanded. "I must return to the battle."

"Please," Reid pleaded, "you stay with her. Your medicine will keep her and the baby safe. I will distract the soldiers and, if the Great Spirit pleases, your brother and his people will escape."

Desert Owl stifled a groan as a strong contraction racked her narrow frame. She tightened her grip on Lozen's arm.

"I will deliver the child," Lozen said, "and take her someplace safe. You have strong medicine, too, Jackrabbit. Now you must lead the wolves astray so the owl and her chick may fly free."

So he did.

He gave Desert Owl a kiss on the forehead and another on her swollen belly, and then he rode off toward the Mexican lines, whooping like a Comanche.

Reid didn't believe much in medicine, not his own anyway, but Lozen must've been onto something because he rode right up on the greasers, shooting his six-gun, and no matter how much they fired back with their muskets and rifles the bullets whistled harmlessly by.

At first the Mexicans mounted a pursuit, a whole cavalry troop with lances and funny helmets. They followed him a few miles across the mostly open desert, but when Reid dismounted among some boulders and dropped a few of them with his Winchester, the Mexes scattered. A dozen or so dug in and tried to keep him pinned down with rifle fire, but the rest went to rejoin their compadres at the Tres Castillos.

They started to maneuver around his flanks, but Reid got away easily enough. He tried the same trick a few more times, but fewer of the Mexicans chased him each time, and they never broke the cordon around Victorio's band. As the day wore on, the Mexicans continued firing at the Mimbreños, but the return fire dwindled to a few shots per minute, then one shot every few minutes, until it ceased entirely.

Victorio was out of ammunition.

Reid's plan had failed, but he couldn't give up yet.

He washed his face and brushed the dust off his cavalry-blue jacket, and, waving a white handkerchief over his head, he rode straight up to the Mexican colonel.

"Good afternoon," he said in his best gringo Spanish. "I am a scout for the U.S. Army. I come to warn you that Nana is on his way with two hundred braves."

The colonel looked him up and down. "You have cojones, I'll give you that. But your yanqui clothes won't fool me, cacique. I know you're the one my men have been chasing all day."

"Listen to me," Reid said, pretending not to understand the accusation. "I came to warn you—"

The colonel held up a hand. "If you want to give a warning, go warn your friend Victorio that we're coming for him."

Reid started to ride away but a Mexican soldier grabbed the reins.

"On foot," the colonel admonished. "And leave your guns."

As he walked toward Victorio's refuge and certain death, Reid tried to figure a way out, but came up empty.

He was so lost in thought, he didn't hear the whistling arrow until it struck him in the shoulder, swift and sharp as a snake's fang. He staggered back in shock.

Already confused as hell, Reid was less concerned about the wound itself than about why the Mimbreños would be shooting at him. It had to be the cavalry jacket! They thought he was a soldier.

"Don't shoot!" Reid cried, as he struggled to remove shirt and jacket, with the arrow still protruding from his shoulder. "It's me, Jackrabbit."

But it was too late. Another arrow struck him closer to the heart, with enough force to knock him back into the dirt.

So this was it? Reid let out a laugh. He knew he should say his prayers or sing his death song or something, but he couldn't stop laughing.

The witch doctor had told him he had strong medicine, but here he was, shot down by the very people he was trying to help.

Lying there in the sand, looking up at the desert sky and the two arrow shafts sticking up like tree trunks, he laughed until his whole body ached.

He heard heavy gunfire and shuffling feet, war whoops and bugle calls. The final assault had begun.

A few hours later, after they'd massacred the Mimbreño men and most of the women and children, and tied up the few survivors to be sold like livestock to hacendados in Veracruz, the Mexicans found Reid, lying in the brush half-dead, two arrows still jutting from his shoulder.

"I guess you are a gringo after all," said the colonel. "I still don't trust you."

Trust him or not, the Mexicans patched him up and sent him on his way. They didn't give him his horse back, or his guns, but Reid was in no position to argue.

That night, sleeping under the stars, Reid dreamt of a wounded jackrabbit, surrounded by snarling wolves. The wolves growled and snapped, but the jackrabbit escaped through a thicket of spiny cactus, following a solitary firefly into the night while an owl hooted in the distance.

Reid plodded northward in a feverish daze, keeping his distance whenever he saw signs of Sheridan's army. As he neared the Rio Grande, Reid stripped off his blue cavalry jacket, his shirt and trousers, and even his riding boots. The Apache police picked him up on the edge of the Warm Springs Reservation, barefoot, naked, sunburned, and babbling about rabbits and wolves and owls.

They took him to Lozen.

"My brother?" she asked.

Reid shook his head. "My wife?"

Lozen gave a tight-lipped smile, though her eyes were wet with tears. She rapped on the wall of the wickiup.

Desert Owl entered with the newborn in her arms, wrapped up in rabbit skins. Reid smothered mother and baby with kisses, and held the little one up to inspect her ears and nose, fingers and toes.

She was perfect.

"What is her name?" he asked.

"You name her," said Desert Owl. "You are her father."

Reid looked at Lozen, who nodded.

"Then we will call her Firefly," said Reid, "and she will be a beacon of light in the dark days to come."

A few months later, the Indian agent came around.

"General Crook is recruiting scouts to go after Geronimo. His scoutmaster asked for you by name."

Reid furrowed his brow, as if confused.

"Aren't you the one they call Reid?" asked the agent.

Reid shook his head. "No, sir. My name is Jackrabbit."

The End

Gabriel Stevenson graduated from the University of Puerto Rico more years ago than he would care to admit, and has since wandered wherever Uncle Sam sends him. He currently lives in Delaware with his wife and children. His short fiction has appeared in 2020's Best Indie Speculative Fiction.

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