June, 2024

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Issue #177

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!

The Sergeant and the Irish Lass
by W. Wm. Mee
Mary is newly widowed, with two small children, and in the middle of the Great Plains in a Conestoga wagon. The Indians are on the warpath, the local minister is eager to get her married off, and a crude, drunken mountain man wants her. Can the cavalry rescue her in time?

* * *

Tricks of the Trade
by Sharon Frame Gay
A young stranger ambles into town and meets his match at the poker table. His stake gone, all seems lost—or is it? Sometimes the lamb hunts the wolf.

* * *

by Jennifer McMillan
Shiloh Hart arrives at the Platt River Ranch, Wyoming, after surviving a great blizzard, a pack of wolves, and the worst crime of all—being a Yankee in the post-Civil War West. But will he survive Confederate veteran John Stonewall?

* * *

Renegade Sheriff
by Tom Sheehan
The town was young and growing, but the Proulx ranch has taken up robbing and killing with impunity. Blackwater Carrigan is hired on to be the law, but the Proulx crew decide to show the town who is really in control. Will the law prevail against chaos?

* * *

The Truth About the Incident
by J. R. Lindermuth
An old man reveals the truth about a famous gunfight. Will his listener take his word for it?

* * *

More Good Luck and Less Good Faith
by Eric A. L. Axner
Being a recent arrival in Good Faith City isn't easy, as Elwood Erskine finds out the hard way. When a ruthless outlaw threatens to take both his money and his life, it is up to his only friend in town to help him. But will he be in time?

* * *

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

All the Tales

by Jennifer McMillan

Shiloh Hart arrived, white with frost and just about as quiet, grasping his bedroll and Sharps rifle in the early hours of a blizzard that we heard killed 235 people by the time it ended. The Carbon County Gazette called it the Great School House Blizzard. What he was doing out there in the blizzard he never said, which was typical of his nature. Jasper said it shows no common sense, but what would you expect from a Union supporter, Vermonter nonetheless. But he hired Shiloh anyway. The ranch needed cowhands.

Most of the cowhands on the Platt River Ranch worked the cattle drives, but the winters are getting tougher, and so are politics. Last winter, 1887, saw the last of the open range cattle drives, and the hands had to get used to a new industry dependent on the railroads and barbed wire, which is ironic since Fort Fred Steele, Wyoming's guardian of the railways, closed two years ago. Not too many cowhands are staying on at the Platt River—giving short notice or none at all.

Stonewall glanced up when our foreman, Jasper, half carried Shiloh in the bunk house, limping, frozen, but uncomplaining. Jasper planted Shiloh in Callan's bunk, a mistake that the foreman wouldn't have made if he had taken time to think about it. We all knew trouble when we saw it, and the darkening scar on Stonewalls' face told of a storm brewing that would be worse than the one outside. A storm that got darker as soon as Shiloh whispered his thanks in a deep Yankee accent.

John Stonewall is a staunch Virginian, a veteran of the War of Northern Aggression, what the Northerners call the Civil War. His hometown is Falmouth, Virginia, and he is proud to have fought in the battle at Manassas early in the war, maybe even the first battle of the war, under General Beauregard. The Confederates defeated the Union army at the Battle of Manassas, gave hope to the South that their civilized way of life would not be overrun. He earned that scar on his face in that battle, an angry, jagged, red scar that drew a line from jaw to temple.

He also lost his best friend, Hall Callan, the man who befriended him when he arrived at the Platt River Ranch twenty years ago, taught him how to live on the Wyoming range, how to be a cowhand, survive stampedes, flash floods and droughts, harsh winters and hot sun. Callan and Stonewall enlisted in the war together, watched each other's backs as they did on the range, but only Stonewall returned to the Platt River. Callan caught the bullet full on, the one that grazed Stonewalls' face, the one that Stonewall wears around his neck—a memory of his friend and a reminder of the evils brought on by the Union army.

During the blizzard, Shiloh recovered, giving only his name, Shiloh Hart, his age, twenty six, where he was from, Vermont, and he said his rifle was his daddy's, his only inheritance. Stonewall gave that rifle a hard look like he knew it by name, but he kept his quiet, biding his time. The rest of us, nine cowhands left at the Platt River Ranch, did the best we could to keep busy and keep the peace. Cowhands don't do well inside, and Jasper had his hands full doling out unwanted and unnecessary chores, mopping floors, sweeping rugs, women's work the men grumbled, standing watch to keep the fire going, and braving the storm, keeping the roof cleared of the heavy snow, shoveling the way to the barn. We strung up a rope from the bunkhouse to the closest corner of the barn so we wouldn't lose our way in the blizzard as we shoveled, making our way to feed the horses.

In the evenings, we spent our time inside listening to the raging blizzard, Sam's guitar and bad cowboy songs, playing checkers, and being "educated" by Jake as he narrated passages from old newspapers.

"How well do you shoot that thing?" Stonewall asked Shiloh the first night. We were all curious about the Sharps, it being the nicest rifle we had ever seen, and a rare weapon on the range. A skilled man could load that rifle three times faster than a Colt, and the Sharps was deadly accurate 600 yards away, maybe even more. None of the rest of us would ask about it, though. Showing too much interest in a man's weapon was considered bad form.

"My daddy taught me well enough," Shiloh answered quietly.

"A huh. And how did he come by such a fine piece?"

Shiloh looked up and straight at Stonewall. "My daddy was a sharpshooter. Company H, the finest regiment of Sharpshooters out of Vermont."

We all quieted down, looking at the two men and feeling tension in the room. "Hart, your last name? I knew of a Captain Gilbert Hart. Led such a company all the way from Brattleboro, Vermont to my home in Falmouth, Virginia. Had no business being there." Stonewall spit his tobacco in the fireplace where it snapped loudly.

Shiloh held his gaze, not wavering. "He was gone three years. Came back, taught me how to fire that weapon in case it was ever needed again."

As Stonewall started to rise out of his chair, Jasper clamped a strong hand down on his shoulder. "The war's over and it will not be continued here. Understand me, both of you?"

"Yes, sir," spoke Shiloh, his voice quiet and as steady as his gaze.

* * *

Two days after Shiloh arrived, nature decided she had dumped enough snow in Wyoming. We woke to a serene white landscape. The horse corrals were covered hip deep, the barn doors half covered with drifts. Only a thin path went from bunkhouse to barn made by us in shifts. We wondered how many of the 2300 head of cattle we lost.

We emerged into this whiteness, all sound muffled, the glare on the snow blinding, but glad to be out in the fresh air despite the freezing cold. Jake laughed, said you could spit and it would freeze before it hit the ground. Sam said yeah, but at least the wind wouldn't blow it back to take out your eye. We laughed, giddy after being trapped inside. We got to it, a lot of work to do, clean up after the storm.

Martin and Jimmy, the brothers, and Jake and Sam went out to ride fence and make repairs, as much as they could, and Jasper took Stonewall to check on the cattle. Jasper, not sure yet of Shiloh's skills or stamina, set him out with Ernst and me to clear the corrals and widen the path through the snow so the horses and the couple of milking cows in the barn could get out. Horses don't do well inside, either. I believe he also wanted to keep Shiloh and Stonewall apart.

Shiloh worked hard, as hard as any of us. Kept his tongue and pulled his weight, had a way with horses noted Ernst grudgingly, said he might fit in on a ranch anyway.

In the afternoon, after the hands returned from fence repairs and the range with the cattle, Ma Cally brought us thick slices of bread, beans, bacon, and a peach cobbler from the main house. As we were eating, tired after the long work, we heard a shot, gunfire off in the East towards Shannons Ranch, maybe from Rawlins, or maybe even from the abandoned Fort Fred Steele, as unlikely as that might be. Riders letting us know they were coming in, but we didn't know how through the deep snow, or why, unless there was a problem. A bad problem to be riding out in this mess. Not much to do about it, so we finished our meal and got back to our work. News will come as it can, and we'd hear soon enough.

Just about dusk, dog tired, we ended all the cleanup and repairs we could in a day. Hard to say how many cattle were lost, Stonewall said, but it didn't look like too many. Boss was pleased about that, heard reports from the rest of us, then took Jasper aside and up to the main house.

When Jasper returned to the bunkhouse later that evening, he looked grim. Three riders from Shannons Ranch arrived, told Boss that a pack of timber wolves had taken down nine head of cattle just before the storm struck. Their boss and ranch owner, Henry Tillis, and his son Will along with another ranch hand went out hunting for them and didn't return, but one of their horses did. Doesn't look good, and they asked Boss for men to help with the search and hunt, which Boss readily agreed to, not only because Henry Tillis was a good friend, but because if wolves were on the hunt, they'd show up to take head from the Platt River Ranch eventually.

Wolves and ranchers don't mix well, especially since the buffalo, their main food, have been nearly hunted out in the last decade or so, and now the wolves are turning to cattle. Jake especially hated wolves, quoting Theodore Roosevelt who calls them "beasts of waste and desolation" because they kill for fun, much more than they can eat, and they have a habit of eating their prey while it is still alive. Wyoming is a rare place for timbers, they mostly stay down by Texas, so their appearance here in Carbon County is concerning.

The news hit us all hard, Jasper torn because of all the cleanup and repairs still needed at Platt River, but seeing that the need to look for the three missing men from Shannons as the more urgent piece of business. It hit me especially hard because Will is my closest friend, being fifteen and my own age. His father taught us both how to shoot and how to rope a steer without being gut kicked or skewered.

* * *

Despite the news, we all slept soundly that night. Jasper rang the dinner gong as the sun was still rising the next morning, and for once, there was no grumbling as the hands rose from their bunks and made their way to the grub set out on long table in the middle of the bunk house. Jameson, the cook, must have been up earlier than usual—we had fresh baked brown bread with raisins instead of flapjacks that morning to go along with our eggs and thick slices of ham. He even put out molasses from the stock he guarded closely to sweeten our coffee. As good as the meal was, it signaled a long, hard day ahead of us.

Jasper decided Martin and Jimmy would stay at the ranch to tend to what they could and do the chores. Boss, Jake and Sam would head over to meet up with hands from Shannons Ranch to search for the missing men. He and Shiloh, Ernst, and I would split up along the Platt River to hunt the pack. One gunshot fired in the air meant the men had been found. More than one meant the wolves. We'd all meet up at Fort Fred Steele before dusk, maybe spend the night there depending on what we found.

By noon, Ernst and I still hadn't found any sign of wolves. We were cold, the horses had icicles on their whiskers, and so did Ernst. It would take a few hours to make our way over to Fort Fred Steele, so we headed that way along the river, keeping watch on the ground for traces of paw prints or signs around the banks and rocks that could mean a den.

About a half hour's ride from Fort Fred Steele we spotted something laying on the snow, red and raw, hundreds of paw prints packed down the snow around it. The remains of a large steer lay in the deep drifts, dragged there by the pack, mostly eaten. The steer had a P and a wavy line under it- the brand of the Platt River Ranch. So, the wolves had come to the Platt River after the storm. How they had gotten the steer all this way was a mystery, a chase, maybe. Boss and Jasper would make the push for the hunt until the pack was found.

The prints led in the direction of the fort, and we followed them almost all the way there. They veered off on the outskirts of the fort, heading deep into the woods. It was almost dusk, there was no point in following the tracks, and the weather didn't feel like more snowfall, so we could easily follow the tracks to the den in the morning. Ernst and I headed inside the fort walls to meet up with the others.

A few of the out buildings were fallen in, and a section of the walls was missing, but the fort itself was still intact. We saw smoke rising from the chimney and were glad of it. Someone made it here before us and it would be warm inside, maybe even some coffee on. We heard the nicker of horses in the barn on the side of the fort and brought ours to join them. Everyone's horses were already stabled except for Jasper and Shiloh's, but we had no doubt they would be arriving shortly.

There were also three other horses, which meant hands from Shannons were there as well, and I recognized Will's bay. Good news! Ernst saw the excitement in my eyes and said he'd take care of my horse while I went to see my friend and make sure he was OK. Just then, Will came in to the barn. "Jeez- we heard ya coming in a mile away! Never could sneak up on a man, could ya, Cam!" I laughed; it was an old joke between us. Boy, it was good to see him.

As Will helped us brush down and feed the horses, Jasper and Shiloh came in, as cold and tired as we were. There was a white tailed deer across the back of Shiloh's saddle, already dressed, and as we took care of the horses, he readied it to cook for our dinner. They also had seen the wolf tracks, but since they came in from a different direction, they didn't find the steer from the Platt River. Jasper's brow darkened when he heard the news.

After the horses were cared for, we gathered our gear and headed to the fort to hear what happened. Henry, Will, and Charlie had gone off to look for the wolf pack after Charlie found the slaughtered cattle the morning that the storm started. The tracks led here towards Fort Fred Steele, then off into the woods. They followed the tracks into the woods a ways, but by then, the snow was starting to come down and they decided to return to the fort to weather out the storm. Just as they were about out of the woods, they heard a noise and saw a couple wolves behind them. They just had time to take out their guns when the pack was on them. Charlie shot one wolf, Henry's horse reared, threw him, and took off running. Henry landed wrong and his leg was broken. Charlie and Will got off a few more shots, got one more wolf, and scared the pack away long enough to get Henry and their horses back to the fort.

When the storm ended, Charlie had left Will with Henry to get help from the ranch. He and several hands got a set up to carry Henry back to Shannons. After Henry was safe and in the doctor's care back at the ranch, Will, Charlie, and another hand met up with Boss, Jake and Sam, and they all headed back to Fort Fred Steele to hunt the pack in the morning.

They also brought grub, so we all had a good warm dinner with that and the deer that Shiloh got for us. Will told us they heard the wolves the night before, and it sounded like they were inside the walls of the fort, probably came in through the part that had fallen down. They saw tracks around the barn in the morning, one really big set.

The fort wasn't uncomfortable, bunks were still intact, a good fireplace, and good company. Sam entertained us all by getting Jake worked up again about the downfall of Wyoming Territory, starting off by saying how nice it would be when Wyoming joins the Union as a state. Jake pulled a long drink of his flask, and said he'd leave for Sewards Folly if that ever happened, plant his beans in the polar bear garden, and live off seal meat with the Eskimos. But what would you expect, he asked, of a place that granted women the right to vote—these women! Aww, said Samm, you're only sour because you ain't got a woman. We all laughed, and Jake said that would drive him to Sewards Folly just as fast.

When the laughter died down, Charlie asked Shiloh what brought him out to Wyoming Territory. Stonewall answered for him, saying the boy was just another Yankee once again ending up in a place he didn't belong and wasn't wanted.

"Aww," said Ernst trying to diffuse the situation. "He's doin' OK, works hard. And he got us dinner. Didn't see any of you bringing in meat for the pot."

"Never saw a shot like it," Jasper said. "The boy had his Sharps out and fired before I even knew there was a deer. Never saw anyone shoot that quick before."

"Just as long as he knows what he's aiming at," said Stonewall looking hard at Shiloh.

Shiloh's gaze never wavered, and in a low voice replied, "I do, always."

Jasper pulled out a deck of cards, tossed them at Stonewall, and said to deal. That broke the tension. As we played our hands, we talked about the wolf pack, wondering how many in it, and if it signaled more packs to come. Charlie said to go for the big one, the leader, and the rest would be easy to pick off. By the looks of its paw prints, he said, it could be six feet from nose to tail.

As the moon rose and shone in the high window of the fort, we heard a howl in the distance. Then another, and then another even closer. Jasper, Charlie, Stonewall, and Shiloh had their rifles and were heading to the door before that last howl came to an eerie close. The rest of us got ours, put our coats on, and headed out the door towards the stables. Jasper directed a few of us to stay guard where the fence was down. He, Charlie, Stonewall, and Shiloh headed towards the woods in the direction of where the howls were coming from.

We heard shot, a yell from Charlie that he got one, then a long silence. The hands returned, said they scared off the pack, and we all went to look in in the horses, make sure they were doing OK in their stalls. A few hands smoked their tobacco in hand-rolled cigarettes and pipes enjoying the crisp air and full moon.

"Bet you don't have sky like this in your Vermont," Stonewall said to Shiloh.

"Hush," said Shiloh going still.

"Don't tell me to hush, boy!" Stonewall turned, rifle in his hands.

Shiloh moved fast, bringing his Sharps up to his shoulder, taking the shot. Stonewall fired back an instant after, then gave a wild shout as a wolf bigger than we had ever seen, bigger than we could imagine, dropped dead at his feet from the roof of the barn, a hole from the Sharps piercing his heart.

"My god, boy, you gave me a start!" yelled Stonewall as he turned, then went white as a sheet.

We turned, looked at Shiloh standing in the moonlight, Sharps rifle in his hand, and a red blossom spreading over his chest.

Jasper caught him as he fell, closed his eyes as he took his last breath, the Sharps falling from his grasp.

We buried Shiloh the next morning outside the walls of Fort Fred Steele, digging deep through the snow and deeper still though the dirt. Stonewall carrying the body and placing Shiloh gently in the earth, the Sharps next to him, tears running, glistening on the deep scar on his face. Jake singing Amazing Grace, the rest of us too stunned to join in.

We didn't go after the wolves that day, just headed for home. Guilty about that, leaving Shiloh behind.

The End

Jennifer is an adjunct English Professor, retired from Marist College and now at Dutchess Community College. She grew up in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, loves her menagerie of four-leggeds, hiking, camping, kayaking, gardening, art, and of course, writing.

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