September, 2023

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Issue #168

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Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
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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!

The Travelers
by Jack Wallace
Two bedraggled travelers show up at J.T.'s barn asking for lodging. To his wife's dismay, he offers the extra room in his house. But J.T. begins to worry about the safety of his family, and takes measures to kill the men if they mean any harm. Will everyone survive the night?

* * *

The Last Appaloosa
by Perk Perkins
The great stallion kept kept the herd on the move. The Nez Pierce were starving and hunted the horses for meat. But the whites also needed the appaloosas to keep their town from starving. There were many enemies but the great stallion had no fear.

* * *

The Opposition
by Martin Suppo
A demented actor and his henchmen have taken the train hostage. One of the passengers, an aged sheriff, is compelled to play a senseless game with the leader. Will he survive?

* * *

The Rogue Cowboys
by Robert Collins
When Jacob Wright saw the rustlers stealing his scattered steer, he knew it would be him against the thieves. He had put too much many years and effort into building his little spread to let anyone take what he had worked so hard for.

* * *

The Dirty Stranger
by Katrina Young
As the door to the one room schoolhouse slammed open, Jennie the schoolmarm recognized the imminent threat. Could she alone prevent this dirty stranger from taking a child while keeping all of her students safe? Would anyone come to their rescue?

* * *

Stampede, Part 3 of 3
by John Robinson
The third and final installment of the tale of a U.S. Cavalry officer Edward Godfrey riding the twists and turns of this alternate history that explores the dangers of military life and some modern political realities.

* * *

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

All the Tales

The Travelers
by Jack Wallace

J.T. heard the beat of horses' hooves as he walked from the barn up the hill to his farmhouse. He stopped in the path and watched two riders appear in the late twilight of the spring evening. The horses were breathing heavily, their hides white with dried sweat, their legs speckled with mud.

"Hello," he called out and raised his lantern high. As they drew closer, he saw the riders' pants and their long duster coats were wet.

The riders stopped about ten feet away and dismounted. The shorter man had his hat pushed back above his haggard face. The taller rider seemed to almost stagger from exhaustion as he held onto the saddle, leaning against his tired horse. His hat was pulled low and his face was hidden as he looked at the house, then back towards the barn. Both men wore dirty clothes.

"Can a man have a place to bed down tonight?" The shorter rider asked. "We've ridden a long way and our horses need some rest."

"I reckon we can take care of you and your horses overnight," J.T. said. "You might need a little nourishment, from the looks of you. I'll check with the wife to see if she can warm up some beans."

J.T. led them toward the barn. His farm sloped away from the Mississippi River, with his frame house on the high ground and the fields in the river bottomland. The rich black soil produced a good crop of corn, cotton, and tobacco unless the spring floods wiped them out.

"You can put your horses in the pen next to the barn. There's water in the trough, and you will find some hay in the barn. Here, take this lantern."

"Much obliged," said the shorter man.

J.T. turned and continued up the rise towards the simple whitewashed farmhouse. He saw Martha silhouetted by the lantern light inside as she stood in the front doorway. Jimmy's head was poking around the edge of the door.

"Are those two men staying the night?" she said as J.T. stepped up on the front porch.

"They asked to." He stomped to knock off the dirt from his boots.

"I suppose they need something to eat. The beans are still warm. I can heat up some more greens." Martha turned to go to the kitchen at the back of the house and J.T. followed her.

"Who are those men?" asked Jimmy. "Where are they from?"

At age ten, Jimmy was curious about the world outside the boundaries of the farm. Visitors were not a common sight. The closest neighbor was at least a mile away, and the nearest town, Hornersville, was two hours' ride to the northwest.

J.T. sat down with Jimmy on the bench next to the kitchen table as Martha went out the back door to fetch wood to throw on the fire in the wood stove. The lantern on the table cast their shadows large on the board walls of the kitchen. Across the table, J.T.'s mother, Mildred, shelled peas in a tin bowl and little Sarah gathered up the hulls in a tin plate. They all listened for his answer.

"Well, I don't rightly know where they came from, son. They did not say. They look tired and hungry, so they've probably ridden a long way today."

Although there were few towns in the Missouri Bootheel, travelers often moved through the area by horseback or wagon between Memphis and Saint Louis. They usually sought lodging from farmers closer to the main road a mile further inland.

"They can sleep in my room. I'll sleep with Sarah up in the children's room," his mother said. Sarah smiled a sleepy smile and leaned against her grandma.

The steep stairs leading from the kitchen to the children's room were getting harder for his mother to negotiate, but she was not willing to admit that. Each year she seemed to get thinner and smaller, her back bent a little more.

J.T. stood up as Martha came into the kitchen with a load of split logs and sticks, kicking the back door shut with her foot. "I'll go see if the men are ready to come up for some supper."

"Can I come with you?" Jimmy asked.

"You need to stay right here. I need you to go out to the well and fetch a bucket of water." Martha said. Her face was red as she bent over the open door of the wood stove feeding the wood into the fire.

J.T. read the disappointment on Jimmy's face. He paused for a moment, then said, "After you fetch the water you can wait on the porch, son."

Jimmy's eyes lit up and he grabbed the pail and headed out the back door.

The lantern sat on a fence post near where the riders were brushing down the horses. As J.T approached the corral, he saw their saddles thrown across the rail fence and their saddlebags and gear on the ground nearby.

"Did you find enough hay?" he called out as he opened the gate.

"Yep," said one rider as he ambled over to J.T, brush in hand. He was the smaller of the two men and appeared to be younger and more talkative as well. "Those are two fine-looking horses you have in the barn." He leaned against a fence post, pushing his hat back to scratch a scab above one eye.

"I just bought them this year," J.T. replied. "My boy and I was getting tired of using the mules to get to town."

"What did you have to give for them horses, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Don't mind. I paid twenty dollars apiece."

"Seems fair enough."

"Well, it's a bit much, but good horses are hard to come by around these parts."

The other rider ambled over and leaned against the fence a few feet away, listening to the conversation.

"If you're ready, the wife has some beans and greens for you up at the house. Gather up your things and I'll put those brushes away. You can stay the night in the house."

J.T. grabbed the lantern off the fence post. As he walked in the barn, his horses nickered softly in their stalls, hoping for another ear of corn. The two mules looked through their stall doors at him without any response or movement other than the flick of an ear.

As he shut the barn door and walked back to where the men stood with saddle bags and rifles, he noticed for the first time that they both wore Colt revolvers in worn leather holsters belted around their waist. Jimmy had wandered down from the porch and was sitting on the top rail of the pen, studying the men as they gathered up their gear.

"Those saddle bags look heavy. Do you want me to carry one?" J.T. asked.

"No, we'll manage," the younger man replied as they turned to follow J.T. to the house.

Jimmy's eyes were big as he followed his father and the two strangers. "Where did y'all come from?" he asked as they neared the front porch.

"We were up river a piece." The reply from the younger stranger seemed deliberately vague.

"Jimmy, put this lantern in your grandmother's room," J.T. said. Then he turned to face the two men. "You can leave your rifles out here on the porch."

The older man said, "If it's all the same, we will keep them with us." J.T. didn't know what to say, but he began to feel uncomfortable with the men.

They followed him in the front door and through the front room to Mildred's room. J.T. pulled back the worn curtain that hung on a wooden rod across the doorway. He showed them a wash basin and towel. His mother had placed a pitcher of water on a stand. They dropped their saddlebags with a heavy thump in a corner and propped their rifles against them.

* * *

"Who are these men?" Martha asked in a harsh whisper when J.T. entered the kitchen. "Jimmy said they were wearing guns."

The table was cleared of the peas, and Mildred sat in a corner chair holding Sarah in her lap. Sarah was small for her six years, yet her grandmother's lap seemed hardly big enough to hold her. J.T. glanced over at Jimmy, and just as he suspected, the boy was trying to hear every word and tone.

"They did not say."

Martha placed a bowl of beans on the table. "Jimmy said that their horses were wet and muddy. Do you think they swam them across the river?"

"I doubt that. There are strong currents in that river. Not many men or horses can swim across. I would guess they went in the river on this side, then swam downriver a bit."

Before J.T. could say more, the heavy footsteps of the two men approached the kitchen.

J.T. stood by his wife as the two men walked in. He noticed they had removed their guns and holsters and washed the grime from their face and hands. Their dusty hats were tipped back on their heads. He drew Jimmy near him and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"This is my wife, Martha, and my mother, Mildred, and my daughter, Sarah. You met my boy outside, but I don't think I said that his name was Jimmy." He waited for the two men to respond, but they just nodded at his wife, mumbling an acknowledgment and tipped their hats towards his mother.

"You can sit here at the table." J.T. gestured towards the narrow table with two benches in the corner of the kitchen, across the room from his mother and Sarah.

J.T. saw the younger man take another furtive glance at Martha as he sat down. His wife had taken the time to pull her hair back in a bun. Her gingham dress showed off her full figure. She's a fine-looking woman, even after two children, J.T. thought. He realized that he hadn't looked at her that way in quite a while.

Martha filled two plates with beans seasoned with pork fat, added turnip greens still steaming from a pot on the wood stove, and a slice of cornbread. The two men removed their hats, showing a white strip of forehead above dark, unshaven faces. As they hunched over their plates and proceeded to eat, Jimmy edged over near them to sit on the lower steps of the stairs.

"Did you ever shoot anybody with those guns?" the boy asked. The two men paused and looked at him and then at each other.

"Jimmy, that is not a polite question. I'm ashamed of you." Martha quickly scolded.

The shorter, younger man grinned at the exchange. "It's alright ma'am. Any boy would want to know."

"My granddad and my two uncles shot some northerners in the war before they was kilt." Jimmy, now emboldened, went on to tell.

The younger man said, "I'm sorry to hear they was kilt, but I'm glad to hear that it was for the southern cause."

J.T.'s mother spoke up from across the room. "They fought in that awful battle at Franklin Tennessee, back in '64. I was told they all died there and was buried nearby." Her quavering voice still carried her pain even after seventeen years. "My youngest boy, J.T. there, he wasn't old enough to fight in the war so he stayed to take care of the farm. He became a man right quickly. I don't know what I would have done if he had gone along with them and been kilt too."

The older man spoke for the first time. His voice was deeper and raspier than the younger man's. "It was an awful war. We southerners are still paying a heavy price to this day."

Nothing much else was said as the two men finished their plates of food, thanked Martha, and left the kitchen.

"I don't have a good feeling about them, J.T. They are up to no good. I wish you had told them to sleep in the barn." Martha said in a loud whisper after the men entered the front bedroom.

"That's not the way we should treat travelers. I remember Dad always fed strangers and gave them a clean, dry place to sleep. He felt it was his Christian duty." J.T. kept his voice low, not wanting the two men to hear.

"Your first Christian duty should be to protect your family," Martha said.

"It's done, and we will let it be," J.T. replied with a forceful tone.

"I will sleep on the floor in the children's room tonight. We are all counting on you to keep us from harm," Martha said as she walked toward their bedroom to gather blankets for her sleeping pallet. J.T. didn't look at his mother and children across the room, but he felt their silence and fear.

After his family had settled in for the night, J.T. went into his bedroom and lifted the shotgun down from the pegs in the wall. He checked to be sure both barrels had shells in them. He used the shotgun to hunt ducks along the riverbank, and sometimes to chase a varmint away from the chicken coop out back. The most excitement had been when a bear had wandered down from the Ozark Mountains and stirred up his mules by prowling around the barn. J.T. had to shoot the bear with both barrels to kill it. But he'd never shot at a man.

He stuffed some clothes under the blanket on the bed to make it look as if he were asleep. He then took a bench from the kitchen and sat in a corner behind the door, shotgun across his lap. He blew out the lantern and readied himself for a long night, listening carefully for any creaks from the bare pine floorboards.

He must have nodded off, but the slow creak of the door stirred him awake. He sat up and grabbed the shotgun to his shoulder. The door eased open a little further and J.T. could make out the outline of a head poking into the room beyond the door.

He cautiously lifted the shotgun to his shoulder and pointed it at the door. Should he shoot the intruder when he came into the room, or challenge him first? His arms were shaking as his finger tightened on the trigger.

"J.T.?" a voice whispered.

He lowered the shotgun. "Good lord, Martha, you gave me a scare sneaking into the room like that."

She turned to peer at the corner of the room where J.T. sat holding the shotgun, now pointed at the floor.

"I think they may be gone. I thought I heard them stirring, and then two horses rode off a short while ago. Will you check Mildred's room?"

J.T. walked quietly into the front room, still holding the shotgun. He saw that the curtain was pulled back from the doorway. The bed was empty.

"Yep, they have left.," he called back to Martha.

"Maybe we have managed to come to no harm," Martha said as she approached the bedroom.

"Look, they even spread the cover back over the bed. They do have some politeness," J.T. said, still defending his decision to let them spend the night.

"They probably thought that we didn't have anything worth killing for," Martha retorted. She turned towards the kitchen. "I'll stoke up the fire and put on water for coffee. The cornbread is still in the skillet from last night."

"I'm headed down to the barn," J.T. called over his shoulder. He lifted his coat off the peg by the door and shrugged into it as he walked out on the porch.

There was a faint light in the eastern sky. Even in the dark of early morning, J.T. could see the white mist rising off the river below the fields. It looked to be a good start on a nice day. He had plowing and planting to do.

As he approached the barn, his eyes widened. He could see the two horses that belonged to the riders were still in the pen. He hurried over to the barn and pulled back the door. The doors to the stalls for his horses were open.

J.T. slammed his fist into the barn door. The reverberation startled his mules into snorting and flinging back their heads.

"Goddamn horse thieves," he muttered.

J.T. walked back out to the pen and studied the horses that were left behind. He could tell they were still exhausted from the hard ride of the day before. Maybe with rest and good grain, they would be acceptable saddle horses.

He brought the two tired horses into the barn and put them in the empty stalls. He gave them more hay and ears of corn. He led the two mules out to the pen so they could drink from the trough, and threw some fresh hay over the fence for them.

He walked slowly up to the house as the eastern sky began to lighten towards sunrise.

"What's wrong?" Martha said as she studied his face. His mother was easing down the steps to the kitchen, careful so as not to disturb the children. She stopped to hear his response.

"Those men are the worst kind of thieves. They's horse thieves!" J.T.'s voice was not loud, but it was emphatic.

"Oh no, J.T. Not our horses we just bought."

"That is what they did. They left their horses behind." J.T. slapped his hat on his thigh, frustration etched on his face as he looked at the floor.

"Are their horses any good?" Martha asked

"I guess they'll be good enough once they've rested and been fed well."

Martha stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at him. "I wish we had the forty dollars back we spent on those horses. We could use that money."

She had questioned his decision to buy the horses. She thought that they should save the money in case their fields were flooded this spring. They would need the money for extra seed and supplies for the farm.

His mother spoke up. "The Lord will protect us. Even if we did not have any horses, we are still better off than most."

Martha turned as if to give a sharp retort, then seemed to think better of it. "Mildred, do you mind checking your room to make sure they got all their things and did not take anything else?" Martha asked.

After his mother left the kitchen, J.T. sat down at the bench and table, resting his face in his hands. Martha poured him a cup of coffee.

"J.T. you were brave to sit up all night in that chair with the shotgun. I hardly slept for worry." She stood next to him and placed her hand on his shoulder.

J.T. looked up at Martha, not sure how to respond. He didn't want to tell her how close she had come to being shot by her husband. The thought of it still scared him. He stood up and put his arms around Martha, something that he hadn't done in a good while. After a moment, Martha wrapped her arms around his waist.

Before J.T. could come up with something to say, his mother called out.

"J.T., Martha, come look at this."

They hurried to the front room and found Mildred standing by her bed, the cover pulled back. She held a note and stared at something in her hand.

"I found these in the bed." She turned and handed two heavy coins to J.T.

He examined the coins. "These are twenty-dollar gold pieces!"

J.T. reached for the note in his mother's hand, but Martha, being the better reader, snatched it away first. She read it through, her lips moving, then her face turned pale.

"Oh lord, J.T." her eyes slowly rose to stare at him. "You will not believe this."

"Read it out loud, Martha," he urged.

She started reading in a whisper. "We did not steal your horses, we bought them from you." She paused, then looked up and said, "It is signed Frank and Jesse James."

The End

Author's note:
My grandfather grew up in Finley, Tennessee, along the banks of the Mississippi. He told me this story when I was a boy and said it happened to his uncle who had a farm across the river in the Missouri Bootheel area.

* * *

Jack Wallace holds degrees from Gateway College and from the University of Tennessee. He's written stories for many years about growing up in the "Christ haunted" South and has one published novel.

"I write about flawed characters, not heroes. I'm drawn to those who observe, the ones who seek to avoid conflict, who prefer to leave well enough alone. When events force them to make a choice, I like to examine what influences their choice, and how they deal with the consequences."

Jack lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Joanne, and his red Lab, Lucy. He also spends many long weekends at his cabin in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He is most at home on a trail or fishing a stream somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina or Tennessee.


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