March, 2024

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Issue #174

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!

Slater's Choice
by Robert Collins
He was out-gunned, but Slater would do whatever was needed to save Victoria's ranch. He owed her much, and would see the debt paid.

* * *

The Mountain Man's Testimony
by Richard L. Newman
A Mountain Man tells about his surpising encounter in the high country—and its aftermath.

* * *

The Vaquero
by Ralph S. Souders
A young vaquero visits a saloon to wait while his stagecoach gets fresh horses. A cowboy begins to aggravate him. Will he try to ignore the cowboy and leave town on the stage, or defend his honor and risk the local jail?

* * *

A Bullet for Christmas
by Jason Crager
A ne'er do well ex-convict is determined to finally become the husband and father his family deserves. He's made a Christmas promise that he intends to deliver on, by any means necessary.

* * *

West of Eminence
by J. Daniel Camacho
In the Old West, a sheriff faces down a marshal, his country, and an offer he can't refuse.

* * *

A Ghost, A Jezebel, and a Bank Manager
by Michael Shawyer
As a trailherder wakes by the campfire, a spooky message arrives from his long-gone mother. Why does she want him to compose a story about a picture of three people?

* * *

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

All the Tales

A Bullet for Christmas
by Jason Crager

A three piece band of retired cowpokes in suspenders and floppy hats played magnificently, blaring out their festive melodies on banjo, fiddle and hand drums while couples serenaded one another in front of the low stage, men's boots and ladies' stockings scooting and twirling across the lacquered floor. Whenever the beat fit, certain young lovers amongst them would pause beneath the mistletoe long enough to share a kiss, to the cheers and clapping of all.

The elders sat at small tables to one end of the ballroom and watched the annual celebration, with the women speaking in admiration of the strapping young lads and the quality of catch they'd made with the girls, and the men drinking from mugs of frothy eggnog blended with whatever their preferred spirits were. The joy of children's laughter spread through the room as they chased each other around with their best efforts at mocking the dance of the adults and the littlest of them played with their wooden trains or painted dolls.

The halls were decked with bunches of holly and streams of tinsel, and a giant wreath of evergreen adorned with pine cones and a bright, red bow held sway over all from the mantel piece above the fireplace that burned the yule log. Outside, lanterns of colored glass dangling from the overhang threw greens, reds, blues and yellows through the sparkle of steady snow dust falling from the sky to join the covering of white below. Another hearty cheer and applause erupted from within as a horse neared the building at a slow and unheard gait.

The rider in cloaks of wool and a hat lined with the same came alone, bedroll and other supplies of the trail strapped to the horse's back behind him. With only a grunt as command from its master, the horse halted before the building with the prancing shadows in its lit up windows and the music carrying on into the night. Leaning heavily on a stirrup, the rider swung his other leg from over the horse's back and dismounted. He tied the tired horse off to a hitching post in front of the building and climbed the steps to the boardwalk at its front.

The indoor festivities jolted to a sudden stop when the unexpected stranger made his appearance through the doorway. All eyes cast looks upon him, some of suspicion and some of confusion. Some even gave looks of greeting and welcome in this season of hospitality. The stranger's eyes scanned over the gathering, one by one, young and old, without emotion. He had a strong chin and a prominent jaw line, and a determined way of carrying himself. He cleared his throat.

"I'm looking for Christmas."

After the pause of silence from a group of people who knew not how to answer, a young man dressed in a suit of mismatched tans with his upper lip hardly covered by a thin, blond mustache came forth from the dance floor, drink in hand. He looked through circle eye lenses at his fellow partiers and then, over the rest of their decorated surroundings. He put his hand up in reference to the display.

"Well, you found it!" He said, loudly and with a cheerful smile.

A collective, jovial laugh filled the ballroom with its echo and as if on cue, the music kicked in again with a lively rendition of Up on the House Top that caused the dancing to resume with renewed vigor. Unamused, the warmly dressed stranger stepped closer to the clever young man in spectacles and unseen by the rest of the party, drew a long bladed knife from the sheath at his hip, pressing it into the other's ribs.

"Good," the stranger whispered into an ear, his breath stinking of cured meat and tobacco. "I got a present for him."

* * *

Having been christened at birth with the name of Mary from parents of devout Catholicism, she'd long ago given up the religious practices of her upbringing and been shunned by the Church in return. It was a decision she always intended to make, even as a young girl, and one that brought only the result she would have expected.

For as long as she could recall, all she ever wanted to be was a loyal wife and a nurturing mother. After being subjected to the strict, unyielding dictations of the Catholic Church growing up, there was no way she planned to raise her own children under such conditions. So, leaving the Church had been done with best interest of her future family in mind, and it brought on no regret.

Not only did she always have the desire to be married, but she knew precisely who it was that she would wed. Maybe not by name or introduction, but she knew who he would be, nonetheless. He'd be tall and handsome, well built with dark hair and a romantic, southern drawl. He'd come from the long line of a family well off, but not wealthy enough for silver spoon raising. He'd have a rugged side to him, a man with the know how and unafraid to get his hands dirty in providing for his family. He'd be loving and caring, with good morals and strong values. Everything a real man should be, he'd magically sweep her off her feet and they'd live happily ever after. Of course, love is a mysterious thing, though.

Aside from the loving and caring part, the man she went on to marry was none of the above. She'd known Jim nearly her entire life and never once had any inkling of affection for him outside of friendship. Short, blond and quite awkward in a clumsy sort of way, Jim was just mildly attractive and derived from a family of little means. He was kind of a loafer who only took on odd jobs when absolutely necessary to keep the wolves at bay.

She and Jim had attended elementary classes at the same school house in their younger days, two children connected by the burdensome bond of never fitting in with their peers. They'd grown up studying and playing together, just the two of them, ignoring the hurtful insults and ridicule directed their way from classmates. Theirs was a friendship born of necessity and when they graduated to adulthood, a love empowered by friendship.

Hard times were the norm and through them all, their togetherness persevered. The lack of understanding from extended family, the strife of poverty. His trial, conviction, and time spent behind bricks and bars. The premature birth of their sickly daughter, the truth that she would only be with them for a short number of years. None found success in fracturing their unity.

In the tiny, sparsely furnished living room alit by dying hearth fire and a single lantern with flame low to preserve kerosene, just a couple decorations that would never have been met with the Church's approval. No manger scenes depicting the birth of Jesus, God's eternal gift to all of humanity. No wise men, no glorious angels. Instead, a small and drooping spruce brought in from the outdoors and placed on a stand, decorated with colorful ball ornaments and kernels of popped corn strung together. Hanging crookedly on the wall behind it, a large portrait of the holiday's father, not in his capacity of holy old Saint Nicholas, but of the king of the elves, that most pagan of all personas.

Wrapped in a thin flannel night robe and kneeling on the cold wood floor, Mary set one by one the presents she'd prepared for sweet Annie beneath the tree. Under the tissue paper there were no toys, treats or trinkets. A cap, mittens, and slippers hand knitted with soft pink yarn, adorned with silver bells and fuzzy pompoms.

When asked what she'd like this year, little Annie had boldly wished for a unicorn. Though that particular wish would have to remain in the realm of fantasy, even these meager surprises would bless the child's heart with joy. She'd patter from her closet sized room at the break of dawn to hover excitedly over the presents until given permission to open them. Then, she'd do so delicately, trying her best not to tear the paper too badly so that it could not be reused. Each item, she'd praise as if it were the grandest thing she ever held, hugging the soft material to her cheeks. Mary could see it all now, and she smiled. A smile that faded with the thought that Jim would miss it all.

For nigh on a month her husband had been painfully absent. Gone offering his labor in exchange for pay from a well to do cattle rancher. Now, here it was the eve of the big day and not a word from or sign of him after having left with the promise of returning to deliver the most special treasure to ever grace a family holiday. Another broken promise for which she'd readily forgive him with open arms, grateful just to have him back.

* * *

"Once a thief, always a thief."

That was the mantra playing repeatedly in the mind of Jim Christmas as he urged his horse through the narrow woodland passage with steady heels to the steed's flanks. The very words accusingly spoken to him by his dear brother John when he'd finished his stint in the Braylon County Jail for stealing from the till at York's General Store, the same day he'd been forever demoted to the status of black sheep. A condemning notion coming from one who proclaimed himself a forgiving, religious man.

The horse determinedly plotted on through thickening snow despite exhaustion overtaking it, leaving a clear trail of prints that couldn't be covered behind. Their pace was slowing and soon, Jim knew he would have to carry on by foot.

He was getting close now, but running out of time just as quickly. The comfortable lead that for a while had given him such encouragement was diminished profoundly as a result of his circling back at the worst possible time. There was never any choice, though. It had to be done. When he realized that the stuffed animal tied to his saddle had abandoned him at some point, he simply had to go back for it. That, or all would be lost and everything for nought.

He discovered the animal half buried by a slop of muddy slush in the street of Braylon proper, just across from the Grand Ole Ballroom. It must have come loose from its tether when he stopped near that exact spot just to look and listen to the traditional celebration taking place inside the ballroom. He'd never consider going inside, but something compelled him to stop.

When retrieving the stuffed animal, he was met with a vision of eminent doom, and how close to him it now was. Outside the ballroom, an unmistakable horse present at the hitching post. A big bay with black leather tack, rifle in a saddle boot on the right side. The mount of Mister Guthrie's rider. He who killed faithfully and received handsome reward for his unfailing service.

Jim pushed on through the woods, oblivious of the horrific scene which unfolded inside the Grand Ole Ballroom. His brother John laying in the center of the dance floor, his guts pouring from a gaping slash to his abdomen. The screaming. Women crying while they shielded the eyes of children. John's closest friends trying desperately to revive him.

Jim pushed on even as his energy diminished along with that of his horse's. Pushed on as the snow fell heavier and hope for escape vanished.

Such a fool he'd been, drinking too much and squandering his savings away at the faro table. So much worse, attempting to make off with the Guthrie Ranch payroll and getting caught in the act by Mister Guthrie's nosey nephew.

The horse continued to slow. Jim slipped a hand underneath the front of his coat and it came back stained a wet crimson. He was bleeding badly now, and had no chance of stopping it. With every movement made, the slug shifted more, ripping at tissue and organs, carving its way deep inside him.

The horse inevitably came to a complete halt. Jim tried to spur on, but the worn out beast refused to budge. He slipped from the saddle, bringing the stuffed animal with him, his boots sinking into the snow, coldness enveloping his toes.

In a distance through the trees ahead, he caught sight of a faintly glowing yellow. In the air, just barely, there wafted the scent of wood burning. A horse whinnied nearby. Jim scoured his surroundings and saw nothing but the night woods brightened by a carpet of white.

He abandoned any use of the horse and scrambled forward in high knee steps with not enough speed. Split seconds ticked by like drawn out hours. His hat flew off and he left it where it landed. His lungs ached. His eyes watered and his nose ran. The sound of hoofbeats seemed to come from all around him at once.

Finally, the glowing yellow grew bigger. The trees gave way to a small clearing from the middle of which a startled whitetail deer bolted. Jim stumbled and fell, his face suddenly awash with freezing snow. Frantically, he dug around and located the stuffed animal. With great effort and much pain, he climbed to his feet and proceeded toward the light emanating from the cabin's window. At this, he was determined for once not to fail.

He fell ahead again just as he reached the bottom of slanted steps leading up to the small porch attached to the front of the cabin. He went up the steps on hands and knees, animal clutched in his fist. Within an arm's length now, he reached for the doorknob. Then, a metallic click and he stopped, unmoving except for a turn of his head.

The killer, an ominous form towering at the edge of the porch like a reaper come to claim his spoils, long barrel of a rifle leveled with a trained eye behind it. Silence.

Jim Christmas released a long, burning exhale and when he found his voice, it was defeated. "Please . . . not like this. Not where my little girl can find me."

The only response given was a very slight jerk of the rifle's barrel to indicate an agreement made.

* * *

Mary finished stoking the hearth fire after adding another dry log to it and leaned the poker up against a wall. She pulled her robe tighter around her collar and lowered herself onto the floor. The chill of the wood on her cheek felt good against the heat thrown by the flames. She shut her eyes and relaxed to the soothing sound of the fire's crackling.

She'd heard enough of them before to know the nature of the echoing bang that came from somewhere a way off outside. Her eyelids went up and she listened for a second shot. When none came, she sat, and then stood, going to the door for investigation.

Peering through a small, diamond shaped window on the door, she saw fresh footprints beginning to fill with blowing snow, some coming and some going. She unlatched the door's lock and slowly opened it enough for her face to fit through.

"Hello? Who's there?" She spoke loudly enough for her words to carry without being a holler. She listened. "Somebody there?"

Feeling somewhat safe and confident that the yard was deserted, she dared to pull the door open further. Looking around, the image before her was rather serene. Snow clinging like frosting to tree limbs, the sky a midnight blue highlighted by beautiful turquoise clouds, flakes glittering as they floated lazily to Earth. A lovely, perfect holiday painting manifested in real life.

Mary looked down at her feet to find the surprise of a stuffed animal left there. A grimy and sopping purple unicorn with long tail and rainbow colored horn. Confused, she again checked the wood lined perimeter, spotting not a thing out of sorts. Then, she picked up the unicorn and examined it closely. A little square tag folded over and attached to the unicorn's ear. To Annie, From Daddy. Her heartbeat paused and she sucked in a breath.


The voice, precious and unexpected. Mary twirled around and was met by a frail, more innocent version of herself staring up at her.

"Who were you talkin' to, Momma?"

Mary blinked several times and shook her head to gather her bearings. "Nothing, honey. I mean, no one." She turned to quickly push the door closed and reset its lock, and then faced her beloved little sunshine again.

"What's that, Momma?"

Mary looked down at the unicorn as if realizing for the first time that she held it in her hands. "It's a, uh, a present," she stammered.

"Is it for me?"

Hesitating, Mary held the unicorn out in front of her. "Yes, honey. It is for you."

The little girl came close enough to accept the unicorn, but didn't reach to grab it. She looked at it, squinting. "It's icky." She crinkled her button nose. "And it smells funny too."

Mary's shoulders sagged and she retracted the unicorn in its rough shape.

The child's round blue eyes then wandered about the room until coming to rest at the base of the miniature spruce and widening. "Santa," she gasped. Then, looking at her mother in awe, "He came?"

Mary nodded, speechless.

"I knew I heard you talkin' to someone. Where is he?" She bent to look curiously past her mother as if someone else might be hiding there.

"He's . . . " Mary cleared her throat. "He's gone now, honey. He left." Her eyes welled.

"Whatsa matter, Momma?"

"Nothing." She wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve before those tears could drop. "Go back to bed now. You can open your presents in the morning."


Annie turned to head back for her bedroom but stopped short of the doorway. "Momma."


"Merry Christmas, Momma."

Mary trembled and suppressed a sob. "Merry Christmas, honey."

The child returned to bed and the mother sat down on a wicker chair, ragged unicorn in her lap. She read its tag again. She turned the stuffed animal over to discover a hole torn in its belly, cotton protruding from the hole. She carefully stuck her fingers inside to feel a hard lump. Digging deeper, she extracted the lump. Her jaw dropped and her mind swam woozily as he held up a huge wad of tightly rolled bills. More money than she'd ever touched in her lifetime.

She flung the unicorn aside and leapt out of her seat, rushing to the door. She unlocked the door and threw it open, a blast of frigid air tumbling in. She stepped out onto the porch. The snow had stopped. She lifted her head to the heavens. The wintry clouds parted and a single golden star shone through, and that's when she knew he had come home for the last time.

The End

After getting his start in contemporary short stories, Jason Crager has since transitioned into primarily a writer of westerns. Aside from his western novels and short story collections, Jason's work has been featured in literary journals, a number of anthologies, and published in various magazines. He lives a happy and peaceful life with his family in the beautiful river and bluff country of De Soto, Wisconsin, USA

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