July, 2024

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Issue #178

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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!

My Birthday
by Richard L. Newman
When Jamie and his Pa go up into the mountains hunting bighorn for Jamie's birthday, things turn quickly—and violently—in an unforeseen direction.

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Rebel Renegade, Johnny Grey
by James Burke
Johnny Grey thought he could forget the Civil War out on the frontier, but the war found him! Now he must run, hide, and fight with tooth and nail. Oh, and a whole lot of bullets if he hopes to shake his Red-Leg pursuers.

* * *

Excerpt from Boetticher's Official Guide to Gunslinging
by Jon Gluckman
A novice gunslinger devotes himself to following the guidelines of a manual on how to behave as a gunslinger, and he narrates his exploits.

* * *

Mountain Mail Runner, February 1859
by Moss Springmeyer
A loser in the Gold Rush, Jack has triumphed as a frontiersman on a hazardous mountain mail run. But when a blizzard strikes, will he have what it takes to survive?

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Tales of Old Joe
by Phillip R. Eaton
Joe Bartholomew survived the Civil War only to return home to more tragedy. When he finds that his family and his home have been destroyed, he heads west. Every day he is faced with new challenges in his search for tranquility.

* * *

The Phantom Marksman
by Ralph S. Souders
The legend of a mysterious sharpshooter thrives within the town. Over time, he becomes a folk hero revered throughout the region. Everyone has an opinion as to his identity, but only one person is privy to the truth.

* * *

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

All the Tales

My Birthday
by Richard L. Newman

It was getting on to late fall; with snow already whitening the tops of the mountains off to the west of us. It was about time to slaughter one of the hogs for smoking, for ham and bacon. Time, too, to check the fences, make sure they's nice and tight before the big storms of winter come through. And best of all, my birthday was coming up in two days, which meant it was time to go off and up and out on the fall hunt. This year, Pa said we were going to try for a hunt up high in those mountains we could see across the prairie, lit up now by the rising sun. A sheep was what we were after. Leastwise, that's what Pa told Ma and Bartram, our hand. Only I knew better. I knew that Pa had that roaming urge, that urge to see the big, high, wild country once again, to put himself to the challenge. I knew because I had it too. Me and Pa were alike that way. Both of us loved the lives we led, loved raising cattle and tending to the ranch, but still, every once in a while, the urge would come up on us, and we'd have to bust out, get up into the far-off wild country, see the whole world laid down below us, and smell the fresh air blowing all the way down from Canada. An adventure, that's what we needed.

And well I knew that Pa was a dreamer. Oh, he was a hard worker, kept that ranch just shipshape and watertight, but he was a dreamer, too. Cause we'd talked about it, him and me. Maybe we'd find gold up there, or silver. Maybe discover a lost city. Who knew? The country hadn't been explored, not all the way, and, hell, anything could happen. So, I was as excited as could be, looking forward to this trip, leaving tomorrow, and gone for a whole week. Yes sir, I was ready.

It was cold and frosty when we headed out before dawn the next morning, me, Pa, the horses we rode, and a pack mule to carry our gear and the sheep that we told Ma we were going to bring back. I was up on Phary—his real name was Pharoah, but we all called him Phary—a big eight-year-old gelding; and Pa was on his old Cavalry mount, Bugler. That horse had to have been pushing twenty, and I guess Pa just rode him for sentimental reasons. Anyway, it warmed right up, and we rode in bright sunshine all day; camped that night in the foothills of the range.

Our plan was pretty simple. We'd ride up as high as we could, then hobble the animals, and climb up from there, packing our own loads on our backs. I had my Winchester and Pa had his old Sharps that he'd converted to centerfire. He swore it was more accurate than I could shoot my '73, but I took issue with that statement, and hoped to prove him wrong.

Real early the next morning, my birthday, Pa said, "Happy Birthday! Let's go up and get you that birthday sheep." We started up a'riding, but even before the sun was truly up in the sky, we'd gotten up to steep enough country that it was time to picket the horses and head up a'foot. Which we did. There was a little draw up to our right, and we headed up that way, looking always to climb higher. It was beautiful country up there, big rock walls rising high on either side of us, with huge, tumbled boulders scattered around everywhere, and green plants growing, and high overhead, the cawing of ravens as they watched us coming up. We were still well below the snow line, but already the air was cooler, and the breeze was so fresh that it made your eyes tear.

Neither of us had ever been in this range before. Until recently, there'd been real trouble with the Indians, and as it was, our ranch was just about at the edge of the country that might be considered safe. Now, though, with the most recent treaty, and the presence of the Army just twenty or so miles south of our place, well, now we figured it was safe enough to come up here and look around. As it turns out, maybe it wasn't so safe as we'd thought, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

We came up and around a rock outcropping, and way up high and off to our left we saw some sheep. Bighorns, I should say. Looked like a bachelor herd, congregating to start the rut. And though they were far off, with our glass we could see that two or three of the bulls were majestic, with a full curl of horns. Prizes, just waiting for us, if we were lucky enough and skillful enough to come up on them.

I remember, it seemed a little funny right then, because we had to go down to go up. To stalk those majestic rams, we'd have to cut downhill for about two hundred feet, and then make our way back up on the rocky route on the far shoulder. So, Pa nodded at me, and we headed down.

And ran smack into a war party of Indians. Fifteen, twenty of em, all afoot, like we were, but all painted up and clearly on the prowl.

I don't know who was more surprised, them or us, because neither of us knew the others were there. Pa and me were right up on them before anybody could react. Pa jumped, I jumped, about half the Indians jumped—and that was only because the other half hadn't even seen us yet. And when they did see us, why they jumped, too. One of them lowered his lance and lunged at Pa, but he swung his rifle up and over and batted the lance away to the side. I pulled up and aimed my rifle, but Pa yelled "No!" right at the same time that one of the Indians yelled out something, too, real loud. Everybody froze. All of us. Nobody moving at all for about a million years, as everyone tried to figure out what to do. Silence and stillness, except for a couple of their feathers, fluttering in the light breeze. I slowly lowered my rifle, and Pa swung his so it was pointing down; and the Indians lowered their lances and muskets and such weapons as they had. The Indian who yelled—he was the chief, I figured—and Pa stood there, sizing each other up.

We had no fight with them—not yet at least—but they sure looked like they was on the prod, hunting for someone or something.

Now, I knew that one time Pa rode with the cavalry, but I never gave it much thought—to me he was always just Pa, running the ranch. But now he held up his hand and started in to signing, talking to the Chief. I never knew he could do that. Without turning his head, he said real quietly, but firmly, crisply almost, "Jamie, I'm going to try to talk to these folks. You do like I do—if I sit, you sit. If I shoot, you shoot, and then run, try to get back to the horses. But for now, you just watch me." Well, sir, I was glad to. I didn't know what else to do anyway.

So Pa signed some more, and then the chief, who we was to learn was called Wolf Killer, signed back. Then they both sat down, facing each other. Some of the Indians sat, too. So did I.

I tried not to stare at them, but I wasn't about to back down none, either. They looked wild and fierce. Men dressed in their breech clouts and leggings, beads and bones and feathers. Painted, a lot of them were. Lean, wiry, with intent, piercing gazes. They varied in age, from young men about my age, up to men I thought were into their fifties. But all of them looked tough and fierce, and different from anyone or anything I'd ever seen before. I sat there and tried to look just as tough. But I don't know just how fierce I looked, because one of the older men looked at me, and then smiled. The sort of smile that said, "We could be friends, or I could kill you dead—just as easy either way." And I thought that his smile was true.

Meanwhile, Pa and the Chief, Wolf Killer, were signing away, their gestures punctuated every once in a while by a word or two mostly in English, but I guess Pa knew some Indian, too, because some of the words I didn't know at all.

Well, after a few minutes they finished up. Then, they clasped forearms, and I figured that we wasn't going to be fighting, not these Indians, not this day, anyway. And they both stood up.

"All right, Jamie," Pa said, "we're going to go back down to the horses now. You follow me and walk easy. Don't need to look back. Just walk on."

That was a jumpy walk, I can tell you. My mind didn't think that I was going to get a spear in my back, but my shoulders were mighty nervous anyway. But nothing happened. We walked back up the little trail we'd just come down not more than ten minutes ago, around the rock and so out of their sight. Pa never said nothing. We just walked our way back down, down to the horses.

Once we got back to the horses, Pa spoke. He said, "All right, Jamie, I'll tell you what Wolf Killer (which is how I learned his name) told me. Some slavers came past their camp the other day, stole three young women. Girls really. The Indians are tracking them, hunting them, and mean to deal most severely with them if they can catch them. Seven slavers, Texicans, Mexicans, maybe. Whatever. The Indians think that they're heading south, down into Nevada territory, maybe aiming all the way for the border with Mexico. They're well mounted and moving fast. And the reason why we're heading home and not hunting anymore is that according to Wolf Killer, it looks like they're heading right toward the ranch. So, we're going to get back there as fast as we can. You understand?"

Pa looked real serious, and I knew why. Ma and the little 'uns were there all alone, except for Bart, the hand, and I didn't think he was much of a fighter. They were just kids—my little brother Thad was eleven, and Ada was only eight. This was bad, and I figured it was up to me and Pa to get there fast, and first, and fend these bandits off.

"I told Wolf Killer where we ranch, and that he's welcome to come up behind us, trap these slavers between them and us, but meantime, we've got to move." And we did.

We'd come a fair way yesterday across the prairie, and more this morning climbing up the slope, but we now we moved as fast as was safe heading back. Once down out of the foothills, we set off at an easy lope. Not anywhere near as fast as the horses could run, but at a pace they could sustain for miles, which was what we needed now. I wanted the sun to stop, to just stay there, high in the sky; I wanted time to freeze, while we ran along across that immensity. But the sun kept moving, and the wind blew, and I worried.

We'd both spent a lot of time in the saddle, me and Pa, and I saw him checking his rifle—making sure it was loaded right. He felt around for the cartridges in his belt, too, and I could tell he was counting how many he had. I had my '73, and I unshucked it, and checked it. It was loaded, but with only 10 cartridges, not full up with 13. And Pa was wearing his old Colt. I didn't have a pistol, and wasn't even wearing a cartridge belt, although I had a spare box of ammunition packed away on the mule. Well, there was nothing for it—we'd ride on in with what we had, me with ten shots, and Pa with a single shot rifle and his pistol and those cartridges stuck in his belt. So be it. Course, if we made it home before those bad men, we'd be set. Pa had his own Winchester back home, and he had another Colt revolver there too. We could make a fine showing there, if only we got back safely and in time.

That land looked flat, only it wasn't, really. It was cut through with little gullies, washes, arroyos. We were getting close to our place, when Pa cut his horse off to the left and down into one of those little washes, one that I knew would lead us out right close to the cabin. I followed.

"Okay, Jamie," Pa said. "We got to try to stop and think for a little here. I haven't seen any tracks. Have you?"

I was ashamed to think that I hadn't even been looking for any, although Pa clearly had. "No sir," I said.

"All right,' Pa said. "We're not skylined right here. Wolf Killer said they'd been tracking those bandits for three days; went up into the hills to see if they could see any sign of them. Which they could not. But he said that their path seemed like, if they kept going the way they had been, it'd put them in sight of our cabin, and the ranch. So, the question is, what would they be likely to do if they see the ranch? They's seven of them, according to Wolf Killer, so they'd probably figure they outnumber anyone at the ranch. And they could get food, re-provision, rest the horses maybe, or steal some new mounts.

"But they'd be risking a fight with whoever is home at the ranch, and some members of their band might get hurt or killed. And stopping would slow them down, let the Indians come up closer to them."

Pa stopped and looked around for a minute. I'd never seen him look like that before: worried, fierce, resolute.

"Well, son," he said, "I don't think that we have much of a choice. If they're there already, then I pray to God that your Ma has forted up with the kids in the cabin. It's stout and she might could hold them off for a while. And if those bastards are there, why then us coming up from behind them gives us a little bit of an advantage. If they're not there, then the sooner we get there, the better. So, boy, I hate to put you in danger, but like I say, I don't see as we've got any choice. So, we're going to ride now. Ride as fast as ever we can, ride right up to the cabin. If there's anyone there, you shoot them. Once we're in the cabin, then we can settle down, and make ready to defend our family. You ready?"

"Yes sir," I said, and I was.

Pa never swore, but he'd called those bandits bastards. And he never called me 'Son," but just now he had. And now he surprised me once again. He stepped over and hugged me, hugged me real tight, and "Love you, James Allen. You're a good man, and a fine son. I'm honored to be your father."

We re-mounted, and just before we lit out, he said two more things. "First, you aim carefully, if you need to shoot, but it's more important that you stay in the saddle and get into the cabin. Second, I'll be fine, but if anything happens to me, you just keep riding. Get into the cabin. You got to protect your Ma and the little 'uns."

"Yes sir," I said.

None of it seemed quite real: The whole talk, the idea that we could be riding into battle, that I might have to shoot a man, or could be shot myself. Pa's warning about anything happening to him didn't even sound real. That was my Pa—nothing could happen to him.

And we took off. This was no easy lope. Not now. Now we were riding hell for leather. Pa left his Sharps in the sheath, but he drew his revolver, and held it ready. And I took out that Winchester, and held it ready, too.

And then I heard gunshots. One sounded like a pistol; then two more in quick succession—rifle shots. And I didn't think that Bugler, old as he was, had anything left to give, but he leaped ahead like he was a'fire, and it was all I could do to keep up with them. And then we were in among them. Or, I should say, Pa was. He came down on them like the wrath of God, charging up as close as he could get to each one of them and firing, with old Bugler turning on a dime and leaping over to the next one, and the next. Four shots, real quick and four of them down.

I heard a shot come past my ear from off to my left and saw one of them bandits holding a little girl and fixing to shoot at me again. So right then I disobeyed Pa, because I stopped Phary, to get a steady platform, and I took careful aim, because I didn't want to hurt that little girl, and I shot that bad man, and saw him fall. I heard more shots behind me, and a grunt, and saw Pa flinch in his saddle, and toss that pistol up in the air, and catch it in his other hand, and then, by God, he fired again, with his off hand. And a man dropped. I hadn't consciously been counting but I figured he'd just fired his fifth shot, which meant he only had one left, but I still had me nine shots, and I meant to use them. I galloped old Phary past a small fire with a body laid out next to it, and looked every which way, until I saw another one of them, crouching behind our wagon. And I shot him, too.

And then, all of a sudden, it was quiet. Real quiet. Just my ears ringing from the shots, and Bugler, blowing nervously—he was still ready to go, you could tell, just wanted more war. And Pa sat, swaying in the saddle, with bright blood on his shirt, and I knew he'd been shot.

"Cabin, Jamie," he said, his voice gone all hoarse and fuzzy, "Get to the cabin." Only I didn't, not before I took his reins and led Bugler up there with us.

"Ma!" I yelled, "Ma!" And a moment later (it seemed like forever), the door opened, and Ma stood there. And her blouse was red, too.

Before I could move, Pa was down off Bugler, and hugging her.

"Oh, Anson," Ma said.

Pa said "Laura, Laura, dear, are you all right?"

Back in the cabin I saw Theo and Ana, and Theo had my rifle on his lap.

Well, I can tell you what I learned from Ma and the little 'uns. It was Bart who'd warned them. Yelling from out back that they were trouble, right before they caught him. But he fought like a bear, Ma said, and gave her time to close the shutters, and fort up in the cabin. She set Theo to work loading the two Winchesters.

"They had Bart," she told Pa, not knowing I could overhear. "Oh Anson, it was horrible. They were torturing him, cutting and burning him, trying to make us come out. I'll never forget his screams. But I couldn't go out, could I? Not with the babies." She was crying now.

"Oh Anson, I didn't know what to do. It was Bart," she said, "who told me. Told me to shoot him. And oh Lord, I did." Sobbing, and Pa hugging her, holding her tight.

"And then, they started shooting the cabin. Trying to drive us out. So, what I did was, I'd shoot both guns, one right after the other, to make them think that there were more of us inside. I kept Theo busy reloading, didn't I, my fine boy?" She tousled his head, and I stuck my tongue out at him.

"And then, I got shot. Just a scratch, really, but it slowed me down a bit, so Theo and Ada were handing me the guns, and I'd go to one window and then the other, trying to keep them from getting close, or setting a fire."

And then she gasped and said "But, oh Anson, you're wounded."

Which Pa was. Ma was right, she had a little scratch, where a bullet had grazed her hip. It bled just a bit, but she was all right. Pa though, had taken one in his side, under the ribs. It had tunneled up under the skin, and was lodged up in back of his ribs, near his spine.

But he told Ma to leave it for now, when she started fussing over him. He had her wrap a bandage around his waist, to staunch the bleeding, and then he called me, and we went back out to see what we could see. Pa and I walked out and looked at the slavers where they lay, those wicked men, and we found the three little girls, too. They were scared pretty near to death, but they didn't seem to have been harmed. We brought them in, and Ma immediately took to fussing over them, and Ada thought she'd found some new friends, and so that was all good.

And then over near that little fire I'd seen as I passed, we came upon Bartram. He'd been our hand for as long as I could remember. I never thought much about him—he just seemed like sort of a member of the family. I got sick when I saw what they'd done to him, but Pa said, "I want you to remember this, James Allen: This man was a hero. He gave your Ma time to get to safety, and he died a hero. You could say he gave his life to save theirs. If you have a boy of your own, I think Bart would be a fine name."

And then Pa staggered and almost fell, and I had to help him back to the cabin.

A bit later, I was out digging a grave for Bart when Wolf Killer and them rode up. I saw them coming, and they were a fine sight to see, hair and feathers streaming in the sun, and the horses thundering. A fine sight, and also a little frightening, to be honest. I didn't really know what to do. Ma and Pa were back in the cabin. So I waved at them. And I called out to Pa.

Pa came to the door, just about the time that Wolf Killer rode up to me. Wolf Killer looked around, his men looked around, and he looked a little surprised and pretty well pleased. Then he said something which I couldn't understand, but I took it to mean that he was asking about those little girls that they'd ridden so hard to find. So I said, "they're up in the cabin," and pointed, and just to be careful, I yelled for Pa again. He understood right away, and stepped out, holding the hand of one the tiny ones, and there came Ma behind him, holding the other two, and behind them, Theo, trying to look fierce, and Ada, sad because she was losing her new poppets.

I thought that that was the end, the happy ending, but not yet, not quite. Because from off to the side, there came a commotion. One of the slavers wasn't dead, and the Indians had found him. A mess of them started whooping and screaming, and I didn't envy that slaver at all. Only Pa stepped forward and said something in Indian to Wolf Killer and the whole band. He said it like he meant it, and then he said it again. And then, limping, he moved over and stood in front of the slaver lying there on the ground.

"Jamie," Pa said, "These Indians have some sort of idea about torturing this poor man. I won't have it. I want you to go in the cabin with Ma and the little 'uns, and lock up, because I don't know what they'll do. But there won't be any more torture, not on my ranch; not on this bastard, not on anyone."

Well, once again, I disobeyed Pa. I shooed Ma and them back into the cabin, and whispered to Ma to lock that door tight, and make ready, and then I walked over, me and the Winchester which hadn't left my side since we got home, and I stood next to Pa. If there was going to be any fighting, I was sure as heck not going to let him stand alone.

Pa stood a little straighter, I think.

I took a quick look behind me and it was clear that the slaver was hurt bad. He wasn't going to make it, come aye or nay, but I agreed with Pa. I'd seen Bart—I had no wish to see any more of that.

Moving real slowly, while those Indians stood and watched, real slowly, Pa drew out his Colt, and put a bullet in the brain of that slaver, sending him to wherever his Maker had in mind, and ending his troubles in this earthly plane. I stood there, my rifle ready, not aimed at anyone, but ready. And I figured Pa had his five shots left, too. So—what were those Indians going to do?

Wolf Killer—that was a serious man, an intimidating man. He stared straight into Pa's eyes for about a year, it seemed. Then he said something, nodded, turned, and remounted. He put one of those girls up in the saddle before him, which was his granddaughter, I came to find, and then all of those Indians mounted, and whooped, and rode clear around the cabin, raising their lances, and shaking their rifles, and then they rode away.

"What'd he say," I asked Pa, watching them riding away into the failing evening light.

"Aw, I don't know, exactly," Pa said. "Something about that we were both great warriors, and very brave, and brave to stand over our captive and not let the Indians keep him, and that we were their friends forever. I think."

Pa put his arm around my shoulders. "Let's go in," he said.

We buried Bart and set up a marker over his grave. "Bartram Moses Anderson, 1832 - 1877. A good man, who protected the only family he had, and died very bravely."

The others, we dragged their carcasses out into the desert, and left them for the wolves and buzzards.

Well, I never did get a sheep, and Bart got killed, and Pa and Ma got shot; and so anyways, that was my fifteenth birthday.

The End

Richard L. Newman, known to his friends as Rick, has traveled widely throughout the West, and is still searching for good biscuits and strong coffee.

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