July, 2024

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Issue #178

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!

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.

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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.

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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

The Phantom Marksman
by Ralph S. Souders

It was a quiet afternoon in the Mountaineer Saloon as I stood at the bar drinking a glass of rye whiskey. The evening crowd would be arriving soon. I was wasting some time before heading back to the ranch for dinner and my evening chores. Nearby, a group of four men were playing a friendly game of poker around a table, enjoying the camaraderie amidst a meandering flow of casual conversation. Although I had been paying them scant attention, my interest piqued as I overheard them beginning to discuss the topic of the Phantom Marksman, a legendary figure in this region of the state. Although many of the details of the marksman's story were well known, his identity remained a mystery and a topic of much conjecture. To this day, everybody seemed to have a theory as to the shooter's identity. Only one person knew this for certain.

"In my opinion, I think he was a member of the outlaw gang," stated one card player. "He probably turned against his partners in an attempt to take all of the money for himself."

"No, I disagree," replied another while subtly shaking his head. "I think he was a bounty hunter. Once he killed the outlaws, he scampered back home to collect his reward."

"I bet he was a renegade lawman," suggested a third man. "His motive was justice, pure and simple. He never went public because he feared being charged with murder if other lawmen were to disapprove of his vigilante tactics."

"I think he was a hired assassin," offered the fourth player. "He probably worked for a rival gang. I picture him being an emotionless, cold-blooded killer."

Many years had now passed since the notorious event that had ignited this legend. Most people were resigned to the fact that the Phantom Marksman would forever remain unknown. As I listened to each man present his theory, I immediately recognized the obvious flaws in each. All these theories were implausible, even without considering other details that none of these men could have possibly known. Although I had intentionally given this matter minimal thought in recent years, the card players' discussion that afternoon had coaxed my memory. Reluctantly, as I slowly sipped my whiskey, I once again began to recollect the details of an important event that had occurred much earlier in my life.

* * *

It was a typical autumn in Millington, a small town located in the Colorado highlands in a sparsely populated area northwest of Leadville. The silver and phosphate mines in the area were busy. The miners came to town regularly to purchase supplies and to enjoy themselves in the saloons. Cowboys and ranch hands from the region's cattle ranches frequently came to town for the same purposes. The Millington area was a tight knit community by western standards and most of the longtime residents knew one another. Newcomers were easily identified by the locals, and they were typically viewed with suspicion until they gradually became familiar. Whenever strangers came into the area and remained for any length of time, the sheriff would make it his business to determine what their intentions might be. If they could not provide good reasons for their presence, the sheriff would encourage them to leave the area while strongly suggesting that they not return. Most strangers understood the sheriff's message and quickly went on their way. Occasionally, some did not.

One evening, three men had ridden into town, tied their horses to the hitching rail, and entered the saloon located beside the local hotel. This was not an unusual occurrence. Often riders would stop at the saloon, have a few drinks, perhaps ask for some directions and then be on their way. These three men, however, had remained in the saloon until late in the evening, patronizing the working girls before taking their horses to the barn up the street. They then retired to the hotel for the night. This routine was repeated over the next several evenings. Except for the women, the men kept to themselves and made no effort to converse or interact with any of the other locals. They had a sinister aura of hardness about them, and the townsfolk sensed that they were potential trouble and should be left alone. The sheriff was due back in town soon and everyone was certain that if these men were still around at that time, he would be having a conversation with them.

Meanwhile, during this timeframe, I had observed these men on the stage road about six miles east of town. They had been accompanied by a fourth individual. Living on my uncle's ranch and working with his cattle herd, I seldom ventured into town and, therefore, I had not realized that the townsfolk already had concerns about them. It was while looking for stray steers one afternoon on the western end of the property that I had first seen them. They were seated on horseback. I was confident that they had not seen me since I was on higher ground, well hidden by boulders and trees. As I watched them from approximately a quarter mile away, it appeared to me that they were studying the terrain, almost as if assessing tactical advantages in case of a future conflict. Since the Millington region was generally a peaceful place, the idea of any type of violent confrontation made no sense. More likely, it seemed that they might be outlaws planning an ambush, perhaps targeting the afternoon stagecoach from Leadville or perhaps a supply wagon belonging to one of the mines. The short section of road that they had chosen included a sharp turn with several natural barriers behind which the bandits could hide. Regardless of their ultimate intention, I believed that their actions deemed monitoring and I planned to carefully do this until the sheriff arrived back in his office.

Several days later while again patrolling the western sections of the ranch, I discovered these same three men standing in the road at this same location. Their horses were already hidden, and I suspected that they were preparing to put their plan into motion. The sheriff, as best I knew, had arrived back in town yesterday. I decided that I would observe from a safe distance, and if an armed robbery did in fact occur, I would provide an eyewitness report to the sheriff immediately. Other than that, I did not know what else I could do. I knew that the stagecoach sometimes carried payroll money for some of the larger mining companies destined for deposit in the bank in Millington. I suspected that the stagecoach was the most likely target of the outlaws' upcoming ambush.

After watching the strangers for the next half hour, I noticed dust in the air in the distance as the stagecoach approached this location on its way into town. I estimated that it was approximately one mile away. Using this as their cue, the three outlaws separated and went behind boulders in the tall grass, one on the near side of the road and the other two directly across the road from where I was positioned. Quietly, I walked the short distance to my horse and grabbed my Winchester rifle preloaded with 38 caliber cartridges. I grabbed a handful of spare ammo at this same time. Then walking carefully and silently, I moved closer to the outlaws than I had previously been, well secluded behind some large rocks and surrounded by trees. I was a skilled marksman with a rifle, having been taught to shoot by my uncle at a young age and having practiced often through the years. From my new position, I had clear shots at the entire stretch of road as well as the various hiding places that the men had taken. There was also a straight path back to my horse in case the situation got bad, and I would need to escape in a hurry.

As the stagecoach drew near, the two men across the road mounted their horses and rode out onto the road, stopping in the center and facing the direction from which it was coming. They were now wearing cloth masks, covering their faces except for their eyes. The third man remained hidden in the tall grass just below me. He had also put a mask over his face to conceal his identity. Adrenaline was seeping into my bloodstream, and I could feel my legs and arms shake in anticipation of what was about to happen. Hopefully, I could witness the crime without being required to use my gun. If I would need to shoot, I trusted that the nervousness causing my body to shake would subside quickly. I would need a steady eye and steady hands if I was to be able to shoot accurately.

Soon, the stagecoach rolled into view and came to an abrupt stop as the driver saw the masked gunmen on their horses in the road. To my surprise, one of the riders aimed his pistol at the stagecoach, pulled the trigger and shot the guard sitting beside the driver. The guard had made no effort to grab his shotgun before being shot. He tumbled out of the seat and fell hard to the ground below, lying bleeding and motionless beside the stage. I wondered if the guard was dead until I heard him moaning in pain. The driver slowly raised his hands and surrendered to the outlaws.

"Please don't shoot," the driver pleaded. "Take whatever you want."

"Get down and stand beside your friend," instructed one of the outlaws. He gestured at the wounded guard who was lying injured in the dirt. The driver immediately did as he was told, still holding his hands above his head.

"How many passengers are inside?" the other outlaw asked the driver.

"Just one today," the driver replied.

"Open the door and tell him to come out," he said. "Hurry it up. Don't waste time."

The driver again did as he was told, opening the door of the stagecoach and beckoning the passenger to come outside. The passenger complied with this instruction and exited the coach, stepping onto the road and not closing the door behind him. I gasped in surprise as I recognized the passenger. He was the fourth man who had assisted the other three in planning this robbery several days earlier. By leaving the door of the coach open, he was signaling to the others that there were no remaining passengers inside. The passenger stood in the road near the horsemen, making no effort to stand near the driver, nor was he instructed to do so. It did not appear as though the driver understood the significance of this. He obviously had other thoughts occupying his mind at the present time.

"Where's the cashbox?" asked the first outlaw.

"It's under my seat," replied the driver.

"Get it," instructed the outlaw. "Drop it right here."

The driver did as he was instructed, climbing back onto the stagecoach and pulling the metal cashbox from beneath his seat. He then lifted it and tossed it over the side, allowing it to land in the area where the outlaw had designated.

At this time, the third outlaw who had been hiding in the tall grass beneath my position, stood and walked onto the road. He knelt beside the cashbox, opened it and reacted in delight as he observed its contents. The other criminals behaved in a similar manner. The cashbox was filled with paper currency as well as a significant quantity of gold and silver coins. Even from my position on the high ground some distance away, I could see that the metal box contained a lot of money. I assumed that there had to be several thousand dollars, but I had no way of knowing this for certain. Nevertheless, I was confident that my estimate was close.

In my naiveté, I assumed that the incident was almost over. I anticipated the first three outlaws stuffing their saddlebags full of money and then riding away in the opposite direction from town, leaving the empty cashbox behind. They would share their heist with their accomplice later. The driver and the corrupt passenger would carry the wounded guard to the stagecoach and place him inside. They would then transport him into town where he would be treated by the town's doctor. Hopefully, his wound was treatable, and they would get him there in time to save his life. I had already decided that I would remain hidden in my location and allow the two men to assist the injured guard by themselves. I needed to remain anonymous until I could give my statement to the sheriff, enabling him to bring these outlaws to justice. Fortunately, the driver would be able to corroborate my story.

Unexpectedly, the situation changed entirely. The third outlaw, still standing in the road, pulled his six-gun from its holster and pointed it at the driver. "Go stand by your friend," he ordered the driver. "We still have some unfinished business here."

It was clear to everyone, including the driver and me, exactly what this unfinished business entailed. The outlaws were going to execute the driver and the guard, if he was still alive. I was not certain that he was. The driver, visibly frightened, did as he was told and walked over to the guard who was still lying on the dusty road. The driver had no alternative except to comply with this command.

"Kneel down beside him," instructed the third outlaw. "Why don't you grab hold of his hand? That might be a nice touch, don't you think?" The man smirked as he said this, obviously enjoying the power that he held over the defenseless driver.

The driver again did as he was told. He knelt on the road and grasped the wrist of the guard. The guard's skin was not cold, and the driver was able to feel a pulse. The pulse was not very strong but at least for the moment, the guard was still alive.

"Please, let us go," pleaded the driver. "I can't recognize you. I have no idea who any of you are. I won't be able to tell the sheriff anything."

"Sorry," replied the outlaw coldly. "We can't take that chance. We have no choice."

"Sure, you do!" begged the driver. "Please! Don't do this! Please!"

"Sorry," the outlaw replied. "I have no choice. Stop bellyaching. Try to have some dignity."

The driver resigned himself to his fate. As he knelt there in defeat awaiting the inevitable, he closed his eyes and began to whisper a prayer. I felt tremendous pity for him, and I decided then that I needed to intervene in his behalf while I still could.

As the outlaw raised his arm and pointed the pistol at the driver, I quickly raised my rifle and pointed it through a gap between two large rocks. This position would enable me to take an accurate shot without totally revealing my position to those on the road below. As the outlaw slowly prepared to shoot, I aimed my weapon at him, measured my shot and then carefully pulled the trigger. The rifle fired and a second or so later, the outlaw collapsed to the ground, his gun firing as he fell but missing its intended target by a wide margin. From my position on the high ground, I could see that he was suffering from a serious head wound. I surmised that he might already be dead.

Chaos erupted as the two outlaws on horseback, taken by surprise and reacting by instinct, pulled their handguns and began shooting in the general direction from which my shot had come. They were uncertain where I was, and they desperately wanted to know. The passenger was also armed with a six-gun, but he did not remove it from its holster. I carefully aimed my rifle again and easily shot one of the mounted outlaws out of his saddle. He also incurred a mortal head wound. The other horseman, caught in the open, turned his horse toward my general location and attempted to charge my position. He apparently had determined approximately where I was hiding. He must have believed that he could find protection among the rocks and from there, he and his surviving accomplish would be able to search for me, find me and kill me. Unfortunately for him, I was already waiting for him as he rode toward the exact location where I was hiding. As he neared the rocks in the tall grass below me, I targeted his chest and pulled the trigger. I felt the bullet leave my rifle and I saw it hit the outlaw. He fell backwards off his horse and was probably dead before he hit the ground.

At this point, I stopped shooting. I had taken three shots and the criminals had taken three casualties. The driver and the sinister passenger had taken refuge behind the stagecoach. Fortunately, the driver had applied the brake when the robbers had first accosted him on the road, preventing the startled horses from running away while pulling the stagecoach behind them.

For the next fifteen minutes, I maintained my position behind the large rocks on the high ground. From there, I could eventually hear the two men conversing behind the stagecoach, although I could not comprehend what they were saying. Initially, their voices sounded agitated and fearful, as they obviously did not know the intentions of the nearby assailant. Over time, their tones sounded more relaxed and normal. Perhaps they believed that the hidden shooter had left the area or perhaps they were convinced that the three dead outlaws had been his only desired targets. Eventually, they developed the courage to come out from behind the stagecoach and to stand out in the open. The driver was unarmed whereas the passenger's handgun was still tucked in a holster hanging against his hip. The two men were understandably apprehensive. They cautiously approached the wounded guard lying on the ground. Meanwhile, I remained vigilant with my rifle pointed between the two rocks.

The two men quickly examined the injured man and discovered that he was still alive. They carefully lifted him and placed him on the floor inside the stagecoach. The sinister passenger convinced the driver to enter the coach to pull the guard further inside so that they could securely close the door. The driver, of course, did not realize that the passenger was a cohort of the three outlaws. The passenger apparently believed that the hidden shooter was gone, and he was now standing in a more relaxed posture. Suddenly, as the driver disappeared inside the coach, the man pulled the handgun from its holster and moved closer to the still open door. He was obviously about to shoot the driver who was kneeling beside the guard while pulling him further inside. Before the passenger could fire his weapon, I quickly and accurately aimed my rifle and pulled the trigger. Immediately, the criminal lurched forward as the bullet from my gun hit him in the back of his neck. He fell heavily to the ground and moved no further. I suspected that he was dead.

The driver scrambled out of the stagecoach through the door on the other side, remaining behind it while ducking beneath the open windows. He remained there for several minutes until he could hear the unmistakable sound of my horse trotting away from the scene in the same direction from which the stagecoach had originally come. He waited until the sound faded in the distance before vacating his hiding place. Then wasting no time, he closed the doors of the stagecoach, lifted the metal cash box from the road and stowed in back under his seat. Then releasing the brake and prompting the horses, he began racing toward town at the fastest speed possible. He left the four dead outlaws lying in the road pending the arrival of the sheriff later. Upon the stagecoach's arrival in town, the driver intended to stop it in front of the doctor's office so that the wounded guard could be moved and treated as quickly as possible. Not knowing the seriousness of the guard's injury, the driver hoped that there was still enough time for the doctor to save him.

Before leaving the area, I had carefully recovered the four spent shells from the ground and placed them inside my pants pocket. Then retreating to my horse, I had placed my rifle back inside its scabbard, climbed into the saddle and ridden away. Confident that I had been unseen by the stagecoach driver or anyone else who might have happened along, I held the horse to a medium trot instead of a full-out gallop, wanting to remain as inconspicuous as possible. I rode through the adjacent range land as it contained numerous tracks from cattle and ranch hands' horses that had continuously trod upon it. I knew that this action would effectively conceal my horse's tracks as they became intermingled with all the others. Although this stratagem might indicate to investigators that the killer of the outlaws was perhaps associated with my uncle's ranch, they would not have the means to determine this for certain nor to establish the identity of the shooter. With no credible eyewitnesses, the shooting would be unsolvable.

When the stagecoach arrived in Millington, it created considerable excitement in town. The wounded guard was carried into the doctor's office where he received immediate care. The doctor examined the gunshot wound and although it appeared to be serious, he was able to extract the bullet from the man's chest and stitch the area closed. The bullet had hit a rib which prevented a serious injury to the guard's heart and lungs. It had also evaded all major blood vessels. Once the bone fragments had been successfully removed, the doctor was confident that the man would make a full recovery.

While the doctor was performing his surgery on the guard, the sheriff organized a group of men, and they rode east together on the stage road for six miles until they arrived at the site of the shooting. They brought an empty wagon with them. As they came upon the scene of the shootout, they were amazed by the carnage. They found the scene to be exactly as the stagecoach driver had described it. Four men lay dead on the dirt road with their handguns lying nearby. All of them had succumbed to a single wound from a bullet that had been almost perfectly placed. The sheriff profiled the killer as an experienced ex-military sharpshooter, someone who had probably trained in the union or the confederate army during the recent war. He was unaware of any such individual residing in the general area. Based on the details that the driver had provided, the sheriff did not believe that the shooter was guilty of any crime for his actions. This person was a true hero who had provided a public service. He had saved the lives of the stagecoach driver and the guard. The sheriff hoped to learn his identity.

The sheriff and his crew placed the bodies of the four outlaws in the back of the wagon and transported them back to town. They collected their handguns from the road and rounded-up the three horses. The sheriff would retain possession of the guns. The horses would be sold unless they were to be claimed by kinfolk of the deceased in the near term. Upon investigation, the sheriff determined that the outlaws had belonged to the McAllen Gang, a criminal group that had been terrorizing the eastern part of the territory. He identified them as the brothers, Jed and Wes McAllen, a cousin named Bud Walters, and an associate, George Rutledge. They were reputed to be mean, hardened criminals who were violent and ruthless in the treatment of their victims. They were buried together in the town cemetery that evening. The sheriff was relieved in knowing that they were no longer at large. Millington was a safer place by their demise.

As I arrived back at the ranch house, I had already decided to keep my participation in that morning's shootout a secret. I would entrust nobody with that information. All my life, I had been somewhat of a loner, and because of this, nobody except my uncle was aware of my exceptional skills in shooting a rifle. The sheriff was looking for the killer of the gang members and although I knew that the shootings had been necessary and justified, I feared that he might not totally agree with my assessment. I did not want to risk facing murder charges and ultimately hanging for a crime of which I was not guilty. Also, I expected that the surviving members of the McAllen Gang, should there be any, might seek revenge against me if they were to learn my identity. Unless something unexpected was to happen, I planned to forever keep my secret and to eventually take it with me to my grave.

The story of the Phantom Marksman was big news in town for the next few months. Over time, it grew in stature, becoming folklore in the local region. It had now been many years since the notorious shootout on the stage road east of Millington. The still unknown marksman had assumed the status of a Don Quixote or a Robin Hood in various versions of the story. As the legend grew, he became a much-revered figure. People imagined him to be a bold, confident character who would stop at nothing to uphold the law and defend the weak and the vulnerable. They would never know that this folk hero had been a shy, teenage boy who possessed no unusual character qualities and had no desire to ever be in the public light. Fate had placed him beside the stage road on that exact day at that exact time. Somehow, he had found the wherewithal to react as he did.

Today, I hope that circumstances will never again require me to fire my rifle at another person. Nevertheless, if I should ever again have the need to do so, I know that I will not hesitate. My intentions are still to live my life quietly, to mind my own business and to keep my secret to myself. I have every confidence in my ability to successfully accomplish all these goals.

* * *

Finishing my whiskey, I placed my empty glass along with some money on the bar. The card players had moved to a fresh topic in their conversation, and I was again content to stow the memory of the Phantom Marksman back in the deep recesses of my mind. Hopefully, it would be a long while before I would visit it again. Saying goodbye to the bartender, I left the saloon through the swinging, wooden doors, crossed the boardwalk outside and proceeded to untie my horse from the hitching rail. Then climbing into the saddle, I turned the horse in the direction of my ranch and prompted it to trot. It was a pleasant afternoon for a ride with a cool temperature and no threat of precipitation. I expected to be back home with my wife within the hour.

The End

Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novel, Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. He has also written a movie script and his short stories have appeared in Bewildering Stories, Frontier Tales, Gadfly Online and The Penmen Review magazines. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is happily married to his wife of thirty-six years. They are retired and reside in Middle Tennessee. His website is www.ralphssouders.com.

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