April, 2024

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Issue #175

Welcome, Western Fans!

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!

Five Points of Light
by Scott MacLeod
An aging sheriff haunted by the death of his son tries to solve two problems at once when dealing with a another troubled boy.

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Start With a Horse
by Alexander J. Richardson
Gun hands Elliot and James are hired to track down a stolen horse. But their task takes a complicated turn when they come across the thief dead on the trail, and the steed in question missing.

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The Short Fuse
by J.B. Stevens
Chewie always figured robbing banks would end poorly, but he had no idea how explosive that ending could be. When a job goes wrong and the bullets start flying, Chewie ends up trapped. As he stares at a burning fuse and a pile of dynamite, Chewie must find a way out—and fast.

* * *

The Devil in Foreign Boots
by Myles Robb
Cornelius Cain and his cousin Sidney English set off from home and their families to hunt gold in California. On the way, the two become outlaws and terrorize communities. Until a group of strange and mystical men begin to follow the cousins—but why?.

* * *

Texas Town
by Tom Sheehan
Sheriff Tollivan watched over Texas Town. It wasn't the kind of place that needed a constant law presence every minute of the day, but it had its moments. Right now was one of those times, and Tollivan knew a rancher's wife was involved. But how deeply was the question.

* * *

A Cowboy's Elegy
by James Lee Proctor
Silas Cain is a man driven by a strong sense of tradition and duty, both to his fellow man and the country they occupy. When his neighbor lets a horse thief go because the money doesn't add up, it's a calculation our hero just can't make.

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

All the Tales

A Cowboy's Elegy
by James Lee Proctor

Nobody wanted off that trail more than me, 'ceptin' maybe Elizabeth who said I shouldn't go in the first place, that the others would take care of it. And maybe Tidbit who would prefer nights in his stall munching dry hay and keepin' the cold wind and me off his back. But sometimes a man doesn't decide such things for himself. Circumstances deal the cards and they must be played out no matter how they come to ye. Least that's the way I was taught. Trouble is, sometimes not everybody's playin' the same rules, the same game.

Circumstances this time were Dub Crenshaw stole a pair of Hank Honeycutt's horses, prized specimens both, fleet and strong lookin'. Hank had been showing 'em off all over Palo Pinto County proud as could be, so it weren't no big surprise when they went missin'. It was less a surprise when Dub Crenshaw disappeared right along with 'em. I coulda told 'em Dub was to be avoided. Best to run a man like him off afore he ever gets his hooks in ye. Tell him straight out his prospects are few and his future's dim in these parts, so he best be elsewhere. I'm all for givin' a man a second chance. We all sit in the pews on Sundays singin' 'bout Amazin' Grace and such. But that's providin' the man you're givin' the second chance to is the kinda man who sees it the same way as you, as a blessin' and not some kinda weakness.

"Why can't you let the new marshal go after him, Silas?" Elizabeth said to me.

I was in the barn checkin' preparations, makin' sure my bedroll wouldn't drop off somewhere between home and Staked Plains. It seemed like a ridiculous question, one my ma would have never asked my pa, and I had the answer fixed in my mind like an undeniable faith, incomprehensible to nonbelievers, the whys and wherefores. And I'm certain my response to her was equally mysterious. "I'm obliged to go. 'Sides, the man ain't even checked in at the courthouse yet." I kissed her cheek, felt the bristle of my beard brush against her soft skin, told 'er to make sure Lee and Joe double up on their chores while I'm gone, then lit out with Hank to get a few hours of ridin' in afore dark. Lucas Bledsoe joined up when we passed through his place. He seemed a good young man, that his daddy taught 'em right.

Out here, word 'bout lawbreakin' seems to travel faster than anyone can on horseback. But fence cuttin' and pasture burnin's likelier to lead to violence nowadays. Hold up men had few opportunities in a town the Texas & Pacific decided to bypass. Indian raids weren't too consequential anymore. T'was mostly young'uns getting into some fire water. They'd get themselves terrible drunk and couldn't hardly stay atop their horses, endin' up doin' more damage to themselves than what they'd planned. There'd been plenty of rustlers come through Palo Pinto in the early years. These days, thieves hit us ever now and again for a dozen or so head. But we all take it serious, no matter how small the stealin', thinkin' the best deterrent was them knowin' it wouldn't be tolerated. We made sure Mr. Son had a good story for his newspaper too, so word got 'round. We always took out after 'em; a pursuit consistin' of ever able-bodied man in the area who had any association with raising livestock. Nobody ever died and most the shootin' was at game when the hardtack ran out. A few times they got away, but we give 'em a helluva run. When we catch up to 'em, we bring 'em back to the courthouse where, if there was any killin' to be done, it'd be the official kind.

Why Dub Crenshaw knew all this and still took the chance was a riddle preyin' on me those days followin' his trail. He was never the smartest man, but I never took 'em for someone truly bad at the core neither. Never had any real family or much chance. Dublin, all us call 'em Dub, his folks got themselves starved out of Ireland. His pa was sick when he got here, too weak to do a full day's work, and it only got worse. Took 'em nearly ten years to die. Ifin he'd a been healthy, I have no doubt he'd a been one of the toughest men around. Dub's ma died a blood poisonin' three days after he was born. He was more or less raised by the God-fearin' church people that took him in, or the ranchers that give him chores, a meal and a roof. I always hoped he had some common sense tucked under that filthy gray hat a his. And what he wasn't born with, I thought they would a taught him them three years he done at Huntsville for burgling the general store. Why he'd a come back to Palo Pinto after they released 'em is a mystery. No ma or pa, and after what he did, no friends neither.

Weather was comin'. Real weather. Not the blue norther that blew Hank and Lucas back home three days ago. They said it twasn't the cold and the wind and the rain. Said they were runnin' out of time to move their herds and he'd cut his losses with the horses, a calculation a man like me just don't know how to make. T'wern't nothin' they's hands couldn't a tooken care of; done it plenty a times afore in all kind a weather.

"I'll drop your horses on my way back," I said to 'em.

"You know, I'd stay if it made one lick of monetary sense," Hank said.

"It don't matter. Least we all ain't turnin' back."

Hank shot me a look and a nod of thanks. Lucas, bein' not much older than the man we was chasin,' had no words to say, no excuses to make, and stayed in Hank's shadow watchin' the horizon, the horned frog scurry across the sand, the red tail hawk fly above us, regarding everything else but me and our joint situation. I didn't take it personal. Times change. I watched 'em ride off east, back toward their places and the comforts they'd find there; comforts their daddies and mamas eked out of rock and dirt. Because I knew Dub didn't have the option to turn back, I didn't either.

The black on the horizon maybe had a blizzard buried inside it and both me and Tidbit would need a place to hole up 'til it passed. The storm's front edge started blowin' out the hot air, kickin' up dust and makin' room for what come after. I rode hard and fast toward the caprock to put it between us and what was comin'. By the time we reached it, I could see Tidbit's huffs in the cold. I unsaddled and hobbled him, sos he wouldn't run off from thunder, and got a fire lit faster than three men coulda done it, and all before the hail came down upon us. Chunks, some the size and hardness of pebbles bounced around the ground just past the bluff protectin' me and Tidbit. When that stopped, the rain came. By the time I woke up sometime in the early hours, my bedroll had a couple inches of snow on it and the fire was out.

The sky was gray and the snow fell light through mornin' mist when we set back on Dub's pursuit. Most woulda taken the weather as a sign of bad luck, another misfortune atop others. Hank and Lucas probably did. For me, it made cuttin' for sign all the easier in the snow and wet earth. Dub was at most a half day ahead of me and I figured to find his new tracks by midday. Hoped to lay eyes on him the next. But long about late morning, I came upon a set of tracks, unexpected 'cause it was just one horse and a rider, not the three horses, one rider I'd been followin'. I stopped and listened a while. But nothing in the desert's thick, cottony shroud of froze mist revealed itself. Above, the sun was tryin' its darndest to break through. It soon would, and the previous night would be forgot.

I found my crossin' spot over the Colorado just outside Runnels in the Bexar District. On the other side I stopped to give me and Tidbit a drink and a rest when the lone rider's tracks I was followin' ran out. That's when I knew we was bein' watched. 'Neath the sounds of water fallin' over stones and Tidbit's lappin', a sound like the sharp snap of a limb came from behind. Could a been dead cedar scrub castin' off a snow-covered branch, but seein' as there weren't much a that around, it sounded more like trouble. I stayed real still movin' my shootin' hand to the pistol strapped to my leg.

"That you, Silas Cain?"

"It's me." I said without turnin' round or movin' a twitch. Never know what'll set a man to shootin'. "That you, Gray Wolf?"

"Yes sir."

I slowly lift my arms up and away and turn to face a regal man atop a worn-out palomino and draped in a bear skin blanket. He's wearin' his chief's headdress like he's goin' somewheres special and got his Winchester rifle, his pride and joy, propped on his right hip. He's a picture of stoic gallantry, somethin' we both agree is lost upon our own offspring. I hadn't seen 'em in a coon's age and seein' 'em there brought a smile upon my face. Gray Wolf never smiles.

"What's an ole Suma warrior doin' round these parts? Ya'll done kilt all the buffalo already and the white men don't want any part of this here land."

"Same as you, old man. Passing through." He holsters the Winchester in a finely tooled leather scabbard and leans to one side, stretching out his back. "You chasing a law man, or is he chasing you?" He says it in Apache, seein' if I still understood. I still hear it, don't speak it.

"Why? You got one cookin' in a pot over yonder?"

This brings a grin, then a wail of laughter I'd never gotten t'see afore. It was good to see a man lighten up a little in his later years. He goads the palomino over and shakes my hand. "Don't make me fall off this horse, old friend. I might not survive it."

"Know the feelin'. This cold's got me brittle as a dead tree. Speakin' of which, your sneakin' up skills need some improvin'. Heard you comin' a mile off."

"Like you say, buffalo been gone a good while. Nothing to practice on. That marshal's headed to old Fort Concho tracking a horse thief rode through here yesterday. He's no buffalo, but he didn't hear me 'til I cocked my rifle."

"Probably shouldn't ought to a done that, Gray Wolf. Could a got ye kilt."

"Says he's after a man named Dub Crenshaw. And you say we have unusual names."

"Same man I'm chasin'."

"You should ride together. Better if there's two."

"I see him I'll tell him you said so."

We're silent for a few long moments.

"How's Elizabeth?" he said.

"Stubborn as ever. How's Little Dove?"

"Passed last spring."

His chin drops to his chest. I do the same. We say our separate prayers.

"Well, I best be gittin'. Which way you say that marshal's headin?"

Gray Wolf points south down the trail. "You will catch him today if that old horse doesn't die underneath you."

"Tidbit? Hell, he'll outlive you and me, both. Now, that ole nag a yours there, I can hardly believe is still drawin' a breath." I mount up.

Gray Wolf ignores my insult and says, "But the man you are chasing is headed west."

"Lancaster way?"

Gray Wolf nodded.

"How do you know?"

"I saw him double back just before the snow. A young man on a copper mare leading two good horses."

"You talk to him?"

"No. He didn't see me. He seemed nervous, like a man on fire. I avoid such men."

"Too bad," I said, "you could a picked up a replacement for that ole palomino. Take care Gray Wolf, and thanks for not shootin' me."

"Next time," he said.

* * *

Come 'bout sunset, I smelt the fire, then spot its glow and the white smoke of burnin' mesquite timber in the dyin' light. It's a ways up the slope headed to the mountains. Whoever it is, is camped 'neath the banks of an arroyo not wantin' to be seen. I stop and listen. I hear the sounds of more than one horse and figure it's Dub. I lead Tidbit off to a place behind a tumble of rocks near a mesa where we got protection from the wind and out of sight from Dub's position. I find a spot where I can keep an eye on 'em. When it's dark enough sos nobody'll see the smoke, I start a fire and make the last of the coffee. I reckon to wait fer his fire to go out, then I git the drop on 'em. That don't work, no matter, I'll snare 'em in the mornin' and start home.

All night he keeps the fire goin' and not gettin' much sleep. From what Gray Wolf said, I don't guess he's slept more than a few hours the whole time we been after 'im. Tryin' to figure out someone like Dub can be infuriatin' like guessin' a mad dog's next move. Ye don't want to shoot 'em, but you don't want 'em taken ye down with 'em neither.

First light I see Dub's fire's out. Vultures assemble in the pink sky. Mornin' then came full on and the sun's at my back and in Dub's eyes, ifin he looks my way. My shadow's long across the plain, an indiscernible shape pointin' at the arroyo, amblin' toward it slowly and careful like, watchin' for the crown of Dub's hat to be pokin' over the edge of his hidin' spot, my rifle tucked under my arm. I hear the horses. They seem agitated at somethin'. 'Afore I git to where I can see all the way into the arroyo, or where he can draw a bead on me, I call out, "Dub. It's Silas Cain. C'mon outta there and let me take ye back home." I wait a spell for a reply, but nothin' comes. "The only place those horses you stole will bring what they're worth is in civilized country. That ain't where you are nor where yer headed, son."

I see something scurry out of the corner of my eye. Might a been a jackrabbit or a prairie dog, but then I see it clear, bobbin up from behind the arroyo, the top of a hat, movin' in the direction of where I think Dub's hidin' himself. There's a shot, a dull report muffled by the banks of the arroyo. Then another comes, and another, then dust kicks up along the line of the trench with more shootin'. I'm figurin' the marshal circled back and was tryin' to corner Dub down inside the gulch. 'Bout all I can do is wait for the shootin' to stop.

The time passes. I hear nothin' outta the arroyo but snorts and whinnies. "Anybody alive down there?" I yell out. More time passes and I'm thinkin'; if theys both dead, nobody could answer. If Dub's dead, the marshal would surely answer—' but maybe it wasn't the marshal down there. If the marshal's dead, Dub might have reason not to answer. Killin' a lawman's far more serious than stealin' horses.

As I was considerin' all the what ifs and their consequences, and thinkin' 'bout the best way to finish the job without gittin' shot, ole Dub, on the back a one of Hank Honeycutt's show horses, scrambled up the side of the arroyo and lit out lickety-split toward the mountains. I ride up fast as Tidbit'l go and see a young man splayed on the dry creek bed, a brassy lookin' star pinned on his bloody chest, eyes starin' up at me and the vultures beyond. Dub's horse and Hanks other horse are stompin' and snortin' all agitated. He'd left them and all his supplies, 'ceptin his saddle, behind. I goad Tidbit down into the arroyo and up the other side, and ride him after Dub in a hard gallop. He's past his prime, but in a race, and especially when he's behind, ain't a lot a difference 'tween him now and the colt he once was. He just ain't gonna be able to do it too long.

Then I start thinkin' to myself, what the hell has Dub got on his mind? He cain't run all the way to the mountains. And even if he could, he ain't got nothin' to last him through the night. I know he ain't too keen on plannin' things out, thinkin' 'em through to their natural end. I ease up on Tidbit. It's a long way back home fer the both of us. After about five minutes of Dub goin' all out, and he's gittin' smaller and smaller in my field of view, a swirl of dust billows around him as his horse goes down heavy on the hardpan. Probably the first time in that young horse's life it'd been worked hard.

As I ride up on 'em, neither Dub nor the horse moved a twitch, and theys layin' there broke in aguish. Dub's arm bone, split to a jagged point, was pokin' through his leather coat, his ankle pointin' the wrong way in a stirrup. The horse was worse. I draw my pistol, cock the hammer and level at his head. Tidbit jumps a step when I pull the trigger. Hank's horse goes quiet.

"Sposin' I'm next," he said in a rasp, dust stuck to the blood on his lips.

"Can ye walk?"

"Don't rightly know 'til I get out from under this dead horse."

"You best hope that other horse ye stole's ain't run off yet, or you're lookin' at a long walk back to Palo Pinto County. Ifin you can."

"Just shoot me now Silas. Git it over with."

"That ain't my call, Dub. Tain't my job neither."

* * *

Five days later we come off the trail tore up and bedraggled. The new marshal was slung across his horse. There weren't nothin' on 'em givin' a clue to his name. Lucky for me he'd laid in a supply of coffee, hardtack and biscuits afore he set out after Dub. Although I splinted Dub's arm and put a torniquet on 'em, gangrene set in bad and he was fixin' to lose it, though in his case, that bad news wouldn't affect him long. Me and him talked a little 'bout it; would his arm be there when the noose took 'em, or maybe the doctor was away and the rot would beat the rope? Those are the kinds of choices men like Dub seemed destined fer their born day.

The streets of Palo Pinto were quiet that day. Most of the men were roundin' up their herds, gittin' 'em north to the yards or gittin' their bales to the gins. Mr. Son of the Western Star News sees us, sees the body layin' over his horse, sees Dub about half dead, and runs alongside, a round man with thick legs that work hard to keep up with an amblin' horse, askin' what happened. Wants a story for the paper. I don't tell 'em nothin' 'til I speak with the judge. I tell Mr. Son to fetch the doctor ifin he's around, and the undertaker, too. "These men need tendin' to."

I put Dub in the jail cell, lay him on a cot with a blanket, put a pillow under his head, make sure he's got some water and a crust of bread. He's burnin' with fever. I hoist the marshal over my shoulder and haul him up the steps of the courthouse and lay him out on a table inside the empty courtroom. I take the horses 'round to the livery stable and tell Jake they need carin' fer. When he asks who's payin' I tell him the likely payment's comin' in the form of an orphaned horse, the one the marshal won't be needin' anymore. I tell 'em not to git no lofty notions 'bout the saddle, though. "If none a that pans out, Hank Honeycutt'l pay ye. I'll tell 'em he has to."

Mr. Son rounds the corner of the livery in a huff, his thin gray hair is wild around his red face. His coat, once white and remarkable for this town, is now the color of the street. "Doc's at Little's place trying to save one of his bulls. Apparently, it got gored by a wild hog. Should be back by tonight, Lillian tells me."

"Well, ye be sure and tell 'em 'bout Dub in the jail right off, Mr. Son. Don't let 'em go nowheres without lookin' 'em over first." I mount up. "I'm goin' home."

* * *

A stuffed mattress and an indoor fire feel good. Elizabeth said yesterday she had one of her feelings, that I was gonna be ridin' up any minute, so she cooked an extra big pot a stew and some extra bread. "Joe and Lee ate most of it afore they rode off to join the drive," she said. No sense it goin' to waste, they said.

"Nice knowin' there's one person in this house cares 'bout when I come and go. Don't matter. I'm full as a tick."

"Your stomach must a shrunk out there," she said.

"I spose it likely did at that."

Elizabeth's sittin' next to me mendin' one a my shirts and I watch her hands work the needle and thread through the cloth. Her hair's down around her shoulders, a few strands of gray play in the firelight. She smells like the soap on the wash basin. I'm feelin' tired; not the worn-out, dog-tired a man gets from too little sleep and a lack of nourishment, but the kind that comes from knowin' he done what he could and saw it to the end.

"I saw ol' Gray Wolf while I was out there. Little Dove passed."

She keeps to her stitchin' without comment. She didn't particularly care for the woman, but I knew she commiserated with any woman livin' out on these plains. Elizabeth has her standards but she has sympathy, too. The only thing filling the quiet is the cracklin' fire.

"You ever feel like this whole place is dyin'?" I said to her.

She stops her stitchin' and stares deep into the flame. "It may feel like it's dyin' t'us, but that's just the natural way, Silas."

"I 'spose."

She turns and faces me. "I remember when we first come out here. This place was a bunch wilder and rougher back then. If we were alookin at it fer the first time with our ol' eyes, we'd be movin' on. Lotta people did. Thems that stayed were a different kind of people. But we did, and folks like us did, and we made it a better place."

"Seems like all them I could depend on are dyin' off, Elizabeth."

"Or maybe they're headed somewhere else. Somewhere they think a place needs 'em more than here."

* * *

That night I dreamed Elizabeth and me, and Gray Wolf and Little Dove had a springtime picnic on the bank of the Colorado, and the clear water passed over the stones. Then I was standin' in a cemetery over the marshal's grave. The headstone had no name, no writin' at all. Then snow started fallin'.

The End

James Lee Proctor writes in a variety of formats from novels and short stories to trade articles and treats fictional and non-fictional characters with as much brutal honesty as they deserve. His motto: If you're not laughing or crying, I'm not doing my job. Borderline is a Texas crime thriller published in 2014. The Rules of Chance, published in 2020, is a collection of eleven short stories about how automobiles bring people to destinations they could never have imagined. He writes from his home in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

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