May, 2024

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Issue #176

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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!

You Lincoln County Son of a Bitch
by Virgil Cain
When two killers ask you to take a ride, saying no is harder than you might think. Pony Diehl was given the choice between riding the trail with outlaws—or not. One seemed to lead to an early grave, the other to an instant death. He knew which one he preferred.

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by John Blanchard
Frank Ivy hungers to take his revenge on the deputy who killed his younger brother. But Frank is locked up in Yuma Territorial Prison and can't make things right—or can he?

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And Some Will Be Gray
by Chere Taylor
Our young hero simply wants to live in peace with his difficult father and unpredictable brother. When his father orders him to shoot all Confederate Soldiers—will our hero find the strength to murder his own brother?

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Banks of the Rio Grande
by Joe Stout
Abigail journeys across Texas only to find her brother has been murdered. Her only hope is to win a shooting contest run by a former Confederate soldier searching for the Union sniper who put him in a wheelchair. But is this the first time Abigail and the contest sponsor have met?

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Stubble Wind
by Marc Neuffer
Noah and Jeremiah are trapped by bandits. The desperados want the supplies the pair are mule-packing to a wagon stop. Outgunned and low on water, will the pair stay alive in the harsh desert?

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The Cold Heart of War
by James Burke
As the Civil War rages, a vicious blizzard grips New Mexico. Confederate soldiers huddle against the cold, while a corrupt landlord exploits his daughter to curry the invaders' favor. A small band of local militia members brave the bitter cold to dispense their own brand of justice.

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

All the Tales

The Cold Heart of War
by James Burke

"Can hardly feel my fingers!" Corporal Seth's Carver's voice trembled as he held them up to the campfire. Outside the cave the frigid wind howled. Occasionally stray snowflakes whipped in to stab the six of them in the eyes. Between the Injuns raiding them all the way from El Paso, the Yankees digging their heels in and making them pay for every inch of Valverde, the roaming Mexican militia brigands, and the bone-chilling blizzard, Carver and the others got the feeling they weren't welcome in New Mexico.

"Shoot! The way I'm feeling right now, If you told me we was desert dwellers, I'd be skeptical!" Private Damon Burns huffed a bitter laugh. The fire did little to warm them, but it staved off the blue inferno of frostbite. "Ain't we got no bacon left?"

"No!" Sergeant Bill Devlin snapped. "And if we did you'd be the last to get a slice!"

"Why all the abuse, Sergeant?" Burns demanded.

"A private ain't one to be asking no questions!" Devlin hissed. "And if you lot were half the soldiers a Texan ought to be, I might not be in this predicament!"

"Oh, shoot, Sergeant! We was all the worse for wear after Valverde! Each of us to the man got his hoss shot out from under him! Half of us was shot and the rest got the cursed runs from the filthy water of this here territory! T'aint our fault General Sibley thinks this God-forsaken land is the key to beating the Lincolnites!"

"The General was drunk as a fish all through the battle too!" grumbled Private Dunn.

"Is yonder bottle full of coffee?" Corporal Carver asked with a trembling finger pointing accusingly at the whiskey behind Dunn's back.

"That ain't the point!" hissed Devlin. "Even in victory we ain't won nothing but to get our noses bloodied by a bunch-a wretched Mexicans!"

"Shoot! I hear tell them Mexi-boys we faced was led by the Mountain Man Kit Carson! That should explain them fighting like wildcats!" Burns chuckled.

"Carson! Good golly, I heard of him!" Dunn gasped. "He's killed more Injuns than smallpox!"

"Well we ain't no Injuns!" Devlin growled. "Hell, my daddy died at the Alamo with Crockett and the others! We Texans ain't gonna be brought down by no Mexicans!"

"Crockett and others sure were!" Burns said with a harsh laugh. "That Carson feller didn't let no Mexicans surrounding him bring him down! Shoot, he scurried right on out under their noses at at Mule Hill and fetched back the army to rescue General Kearny's boys!"

Devlin sneered. "He's a Lincoln-lover and that's all there is to it!" Venom burst from the sergeant's mouth with a vulgar hiss. His body trembling as much from tension as cold. To Corporal Carver, he resembled a human rattlesnake. "I hear tell he even took up their praying! Wretched rosary-rattlers! And all to please one of their greasy little hussies!"

Burns whooped with laughter. "Shoot, Sergeant! You ain't gonna deny one of them pretty little things ain't never worked their magic on you? Wasn't you with the Rangers when they rode on into these parts back in '41? Word was you was a devil with the little señoritas! Or rather you'd been them the devil!"

"Careful, Burns," Carver snapped, his body stiffening with disgust. "You went too far."

"Shoot! You think there's a woman of sound mind and body from here to Richmond that would cuddle him willingly? I hear tell while we is shivering out here, the Captain's down in yonder village having a fiesta to wed his own little señorita! Daughter of some banker trying to worm his way into Davis' good graces. And ain't no way she'd be saying 'I do' if daddy wasn't twisting her delicate little arm!" he trailed off in a wicked chuckle.

Carver leapt up with both revolvers drawn and cocked. Leveled them at Burns and Devlin, both with Bowie-knives drawn and ready to leap through the flames at each other. "That's enough!" he barked. Both turned to him. Burns' face softened as his wicked giggling resumed. Devlin snarled like a caged wolf.

"You threatening a superior non-commissioned officer?"

"No, merely a higher-ranking one. You can have me shot after the blizzard, if'n they don't throw us all at another hill full of blue-bellies!" Devlin tucked his fangs away as he sat down and sheathed his knife. Burns did the same. None of them noticed the shadowy figure standing in the mouth of the cave.

"Hell! That almost became interesting!" In an instant Carver's pistols turned on the stranger in the entrance. Devlin and the other four had their shotguns in hand within seconds. The shadow's hands went up. "Don't shoot, friends! I'm one of your number!"

"Who are you?" Carver demanded before Devlin could.

"Name's Jones, I'm with Captain Frazier's Rangers!"

"Shoot! What you Arizona boys doing all down here? Thought you'd all scurried off to Tuscon?" Burns asked.

"Nah, some of us lost our mounts to the militias round these parts. We bedding down for the blizzard up in the hills. We saw light from yonder fire, I came to see if y'all had any bacon or baccy to trade, is all!"

"Keep your hands up high and come on in slowly," Carver ordered.

"And he means, molasses-like!" Devlin snarled. Jones obeyed. Soon the firelight revealed a young man with long blonde hair, shiny blue eyes, and a warm boyish smile. Wide-brimmed black hat, black coat with thick gloves.

"Shoot! Looks like one of ours to me," Burns shrugged before lowering his double-barrel. Carver and the others followed suit. Jones let down his hands with a sigh.

"Ain't got no food, or tobacco!" Devlin grunted.

"That's too bad. Mind if I get warm before heading back to camp?" Devlin grunted approval and Jones took a seat between the sergeant and Dunn. Jones held his hands up to the fire and gasped with comfort at the precious heat. Carver finally sat back down as Dunn offered Jones a swig of his bourbon, which he accepted graciously. "Couldn't help but overhear as I approached. You say there's some kind of hoe-down happening at the village down the mountain?"

"Captain Peter Polk's getting hitched," Devlin grumbled.

"Shoot! Peter Polk's getting a poke, what he doing!" Burns cackled.

"Local señorita?"

"You know it!" Burns said. "Say what you will about the greasers, but their little ladies is cute as button on an angel's night gown!"

"Must be one of the well-bred ones, to win her a captain!"

"Local banker, I hear, name-a Maria Madrid." Carver blinked at what he thought was a flash of anger in Jones' eyes. In an instant the flash was gone. The corporal shook his head. Cold must have been getting to him.

"Madrid? Ain't that a city in Spain?" Jones asked no one in particular as he gazed into the flame.

"Shoot! Word has it they is Jews. Came here better part of two hundred years ago. Since Valverde, some of the locals been getting all sweet-like on us. Figure we're winning! Wish they'd tell the weather! Her daddy arranged it, I hear. What you'd call a business transaction!"

"Shut up, Burns!" Carver snapped. "It's disgraceful, arranged marriages! That went out with kings and queens!"

"Yep!" Burns nodded. "Went out all the way to New Mexico! Shoot, these backwards little greasers still think it's the days of knights and dragons and such nonsense! It's a wonder the Injuns ain't killed 'em all off for us!" Jones' face was blank as a blackboard as he stood up, as if to leave.

"Maybe you underestimate them," his voice had darkened to a throaty growl. In a flash of motion, he drew two Colt Dragoons and fired both into Burns' and Devlin's heads. Before the shock faded, Jones tossed his left Colt into Carver's face, knocking him backwards in a daze. With a swift turn he brought his boot up into Dunn's nose while cocking his right Colt. He put a bullet in the next private's head and drew a machete with his left. The last private was bringing up his shotgun when Jones leapt through the fire to split his skull to the teeth. The double-barrel slipped from the dead man's grasp. Jones cocked the Colt and turned to finish the recovering Dunn with a single shot. Carver was moaning on his back, grasping a bloody nose, when Jones stooped to retrieve and holster his left Colt. Carver, still dazed from the impact, had regained enough sense to glare up at his attacker. "Filthy Tehanos!" Jones spat in Spanish before swinging his machete down, carving Carver's head from his shoulders.

Moments later, Captain Javier Rodriguez turned to the mouth of the cave to see his nine militiamen enter. "Well done, Capitano!" Sergeant Ramirez said. "Your performance was wonderful!" Behind him the men all chuckled in agreement.

"Sorry, muchachos! No food, and I must go! The rest of you get warm." Javier waved off their praises.

Ramirez stepped forward and put up a hand. "Where are you going, Señor?"

"To the pueblo down the mountain."

"It's crawling with Tehanos!"

"I must! Maria is there!"

"The Madrid girl?"

Javier nodded. "That worm father of hers is selling her to their captain!" he jerked a disgusted face at the dead Confederates.

"The disloyal swine! To think you had only just won his approval to wed her when the war began! Cowardly merchants have prostrated themselves before the Tehano dogs since the battle! Now they prostitute their daughters!" The nine militiamen grumbled and spat with rage as they listened.

"I will not lose her!" Javier seethed, trembling more from hatred than cold. "Even if we must lose our land, I will not lose her!"

"We are with you, Capitano!" Ramirez grunted, with a round of cheers from the others.

Javier shook his head. "No, this is my fight. And as many are in the town it will likely be a one-way trip. I cannot ask you all to risk your lives for me this time." Their faces twisted in despair but soon hardened in determination.

"We go where you go, Capitano!" Ramirez said firmly. "You are all we have now." Javier sighed at the truth. They were all his family's peons, even with his father's adoption of more enlightened views they still acted like peasants. All had followed him blindly off to war. Their pueblo was too small for the creation of a volunteer regiment, but organized into a militia. Colonel Kit Carson had generously donated old Hawkins rifles to arm his men. At Valverde they had fought as hard as they could, but with so little training and no experience they had been routed under heavy cannon fire. Volunteers and militia had been blamed by Colonel Canby and the other Angolo officers, prompting numerous desertions, more out of resentment than cowardice. For weeks Javier and his men had been ambushing Tehanos in the wilderness. His mastery of the English language and ability to ape their accent had been most useful. As much as he would have loved to spare them the danger of his mission, he knew they were all in this together.

"Glad to see you are all finally thinking for yourselves," Javier smiled.

"You and your father taught us well, Capitano," Ramirez said with a salute, mimicked by the other nine. Javier returned the salute and led them off into the blizzard.

The journey down the mountain was arduous and bitterly cold. The snow fell so thick and so hard it was nearly sleet. Javier squinted as the constant stream of white threatened to blind him. Only the constant downward slope assured they were going in the right direction. Occasionally the light of the pueblo broke through the falling sheet of white. If any of his men had fallen their cries were muted by the whistling wind. Forty of them had followed him to war at Valverde, several had been killed by Confederate cannon. More had died in skirmishes with the Tehanos and of exposure since the snow started. This had been the worst winter in many years. As if the cold heart of war itself had summoned the frigid storm. Javier shook the philosophy from his mind as he trudged on through the snow. Determined to rescue one of the few things truly worth fighting for in this land.

After what felt like hours the ground leveled off and the storm seemed to have lost most of its fury. Javier gasped a sigh as the light of the pueblo's cantina still shone up ahead, barely a quarter-mile away. It was a miracle! Javier obediently went to mass with his mother and father, but only through recent feats of survival in the face of danger had he truly begun to believe in such things. Heavy breaths gasped behind him and he turned to see Ramirez and eight of the others. The looks on their faces were grim, the ninth man was gone. Javier bitterly accepted the loss, struggling even to remember his face and hating himself for it. He shook the emotion from his head, no sense in tormenting himself. It was a miracle any of them had made it through at all!

Every other house in the pueblo was dark and shadowy as the ten men trudged up the road. Light blazed brightly from the cantina with muffled cries of drunken fervor. Not the usual revelry of the locals fighting back the rigors of a New Mexican winter. Voices yipped and howled in English in the country twang Javier was so good at imitating. Smoke billowed from the chimney and light glimmered from the glass windows, a luxury few of such establishments could afford. The Madrid family bank stood in silent shadows across the street. A cold, vulgar embodiment of the love of money. A love rejected by the God who embodies love most purely. Above the cantina's main entrance stood a sign reading "Cantina de Madrid." Javier sneered at the name of a traitor. Even love for the man's daughter would be hard-pressed to win clemency.

As the singing and laughing continued inside, Javier motioned for Ramirez and one of the others to take position on either side of the entrance. The remaining he quietly ordered to take cover beside the building's four windows, two on parallel walls adjacent the main double-doors. Javier knew there would be a service entrance at the rear of the building and stealthily made his way there, avoiding the light blazing from the windows. To little surprise the back door was unlocked and he entered to see a timid old woman scrubbing at filthy crockery. A finger to his lips prompted a knowing nod from the old crone. No love lost between employer and employee. Quickly, Javier checked and reloaded his weapons. Out in the main room the laughing and singing died down as a throaty voice croaked for attention.

"Gracias, muchachos! Muchos gracias!" Javier carefully approached the nearby doorway and glanced out to see the proprietor himself, Alberto Madrid, standing before the roaring fireplace. His daughter Maria standing with visible reluctance. Her arm grasped tightly by her father. Her face twisted in a wince of misery, but adorned in a dazzling gown of white. Her raven hair hung loose to magnify her beauty. Señor Madrid wore his best suit, stretched nearly to popping at its seams by his obesity. His face flush red with inebriation and sweat streaming from his thinning black hair. About thirty Tehanos gazed hungrily at the trembling maiden. All in various shades of gray and brown, as had become the Confederacy's uniform. Some wore darker coats to ward off the cold that pierced even the walls of the cantina. As always, none so much as raised an eyebrow as Javier stepped slowly out of the doorway. His fair skin, blonde hair, and civilian clothing a natural camouflage.

"Thank you all so much," Madrid went on in a heavily accented English. "I pray this celebration will be the start of a prosperous business relationship and a lasting peace in the freedom of your—OUR—glorious Confederacy!" He paused as the Tehanos whooped and cheered. "And now, to seal this partnership more fittingly, I call our dear Captain Peter Polk!" More cheers went up mixed with rude jokes and obscene gestures as a young man in a flashy uniform stood. His face reddened from drink and his glazing eyes fixed on Maria as he stumbled clumsily towards her. The poor girl recoiled at his every step. Her cackling father's grip tightened and his arm strained to keep her in place. Madrid took the Captain's hand into his and forced Maria's into the other's grasp. "As the acting master of this pueblo, I am proud to pronounce the marriage of you, Captain Polk and my dear sweet Maria!"

"Padre, please! I beg of you!" Maria cried as she forced her hand free of the leering Tehano. "I cannot marry him! My heart belongs to another!" Her voice was chocked off by a fat, grubby hand grasping at her throat.

"You will do as your Papa says!" Madrid snarled in her face. "You are mine! I will give you to whom I please! And I say you are his!" He thrust his flailing daughter into Polk's arms, which tightened around her like a serpent. Her pleas drowned out by the coyote howl of her betrothed.

"Easy there, girl!" Polk chuckled. "She's a lively one, ain't she Señor Madrid? Don't you worry, I have broken me a few uppity mares in my day!" The Tehanos roared with laughter. Their laughter died in shock as a dark-coated figure forced his way between the unwilling bride and groom. Before Polk could form a word of drunken indignation, a Colt Dragoon appeared in the interloper's hand. The roar of the gunshot shattered the windows. Frigid wind burst inside, snuffing out the festive mood. Polk toppled backwards in silence.

"JAVIER!" Maria gasped. The look of shocked hope on her face soon grimaced in confusion as her love grabbed her by the arm and tossed her to the floor aside. Javier spun to grapple her father and twist him around between him and the shocked audience. As if on cue, one of them clumsily brought up his shotgun and fired. Buckshot burst into Madrid's gut, prompting a pig's squeal. More shotguns blazed, peppering the fat banker with hot lead. Soon the unmistakable cracks of rifles came from the shattered windows. The double-doors at the entrance gave way to mighty kicks and more rifle shots burst into the drunken foe. Javier smiled darkly at the accuracy of his militiamen. Nine of the hated Tehanos had fallen, he had taught them well.

Buckshot peppered the windows and doorways. The man beside Ramirez fell in a bloody heap. Javier released his meat-shield, the dead banker's mutilated body fell to the floor. In an instant both his Colt Dragoons were up and spitting lead. A foe fell with each of his eleven remaining shots. Javier lunged to the floor as his pistols clicked dry. Narrowly avoiding a hail of hot lead. The rumble of footsteps assured him his men were not bothering to reload but charging the enemy. Coming to his feet, Javier drew his machete and joined the ensuing melee.

Ramirez swung his rifle-butt into a Tehano with full-force, dislodging his jaw. One unfortunate militiaman raised his rifle high to bring the butt down on an enemy's skull, only for the foe to send him flying backwards with his last shotgun shell. Javier swiftly avenged his comrade with a swipe of his machete. Tehanos drew their infamous Bowie knives and joined the melee with howls of fury. Bodies in rags grappled in frenzied combat. Some could only be told apart by hair-color and skin-tone. Blades cut flesh, fists pummeled bone. Necks were choked, eyes were gouged. No quarter was offered, none would have been accepted.

The fire began to die as the sounds of violence faded. Panting breaths replaced wails of pain and growls of wrath. Five bloodied victors stood amid the carnage. Ramirez and three others were all that was left of Javier's militia. The few red embers crackling in the fireplace did little to warm the frigid cold gusting into the once prominent establishment. Soft whimpers were heard and Javier turned to see Maria sniffling over the mangled remains of her father. Javier's blood cooled and his heart softened. Even after what he had tried to do, Madrid's daughter still loved him. Javier's fists tightened as he sheathed his blade, the swine was unworthy of his own offspring! He slowly approached his love, who looked up to him with sorrow in her eyes. He helped her to her feet and their eyes met in a long silent gaze. Her eyes welled with tears and she embraced him, burying her face in his chest without a word. However he had hoped to take her as his bride, this was not it! He damned the Tehanos and the Confederacy, and he damned the war for forcing this ordeal upon Maria. Javier turned to see Ramirez and the other three watching in somber silence. Moment later Ramirez snapped at the men to hurry up and find where the enemy kept their mounts. They rushed out into the snow, the sergeant hot on their heels.

Minutes later, Ramirez and the men had found the local stable and readied horses. The four of them stood mounted and ready in the snow outside the ruined cantina. Soon the somber couple emerged from the battered doors, arm-in-arm. Maria was wrapped in a thick woolen coat retrieved from the inner rooms. Javier mounted the stallion and accepted the reins from Ramirez before helping his love up to be seated behind him. Her arms wrapped firmly around her groom-to-be. "I have had my fill of this war," Javier said, almost shouting. As if addressing a multitude. "Let's go home," he said before snapping the reins and chirping a command to the mount. The beast began walking, he reined in a northerly direction. Ramirez and the others followed in silence. Next stop, El Pueblo de Rodriguez. There would be peace for the young couple. Javier fingered his Colts in their holsters. Let the Tehanos dare threaten him in his home!

The End

James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. After serving in the Navy he graduated University of Saint Francis in 2016. He has written several short stories for Frontier Tales Magazine since 2017, and has self-published his e-book anthology The Warpath: American Tales of East, West, and Beyond. He lives in Greenville County, South Carolina with his wife.

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