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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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

Mountain Mail Runner, February 1859
by Moss Springmeyer

Like a magnet seizing an iron filing, the California Gold Rush of 1849 dragged Jack west willy nilly. A myriad other iron filings were tumbled along too, jolted loose from their pasts, a brotherhood of zest for adventure and dazzling dreams of riches. He'd chased every whisper of a gold strike for five years. Some whispers were will o' the wisps. Others were real, but luck was not with him. Time for a change. One thing was sure: He'd learnt to live rough and he was going to stay in the West.

Then, one night in the saloon, the Mica, California postmaster said he hadn't laid eyes on Long Tom, the mail runner, since Tom snowshoed up the Emigrant Trail towards Beckworth Meadows three weeks before. The recent blizzard had likely killed him on the way back. Jack had jumped at the job. Later, he'd learnt the skills to carry it out.

He'd begun by stumbling, tripping, and falling in the heavy wooden snowshoes, called "rackets" for their likeness to tennis gear. The first dozen tumbles taught him that he couldn't just charge through, a humbling lesson for a man so tall and strong. He'd tried taking longer and shorter strides, raising his legs higher and lower, swinging the rackets wide and narrow. The first attempts with the high lift left the front of his thighs burning and swollen the next morning. Trying out the wide swings planted pain lurking to shoot up the insides of his thighs at the slightest sideways motion the next day. But those muscles grew strong and supple, high lift and wide swing became second nature.

The pinch of magic that pulled it together was a bounce. As each step landed, he bounced a little bounce, giving the opposite leg an extra lift just as it started to swing forward. That cured the stumbling. Breathing an explosive "Ha!" aloud every other step recruited the gut muscles to the heave and helped him find the rhythm.

The snowshoe struggle became the racket dance. It was still hard work, but joyful, too. That little bounce lifted his heart as well as his snowshoe. Out on his own, he'd quack now and then, just for the hell of it, imagining himself a long-legged duck waddling up the trail.

Now, after a week in town, too many cards and too much booze, Jack welcomed his mail-route routine. Five years had engraved it into his soul, but it was always a new adventure. At the snowline, he hopped off the Mica mail wagon and gulped the astringent tang of the pines. He scooped up his fur blanket roll, satchel, and snowshoes. Another dive into the wagon brought up a bundle of poles and a frame crisscrossed with rawhide mesh which he would assemble into a travois. Using the travois, he would move that huge mail sack, three times as much as he could have carried on his back. Lastly, he manhandled out the 200-pound waxed-canvas sack. He'd be taking it east up the Emigrant Trail over the towering Tormentoso Range through Swayback Pass and down to his friends and neighbors at the Fort Hotel in Beckworth Meadows.

He imagined the sack squirming with colorful living threads eager to connect far flung family and friends with the Beckworth Meadows folks. A letter hectoring the orphaned apprentice-lawyer to be born again would warm the boy with his uncle's love; the cutler would hear his sweetheart whisper of the stirrings of spring in South Carolina; the ranching trio of brothers would read into their father's wearisome tirade on states' rights his unspoken care and worries about their safety. The inn keeper would read the illiterates their letters. Their little community would hum with connections.

The mail wagon, the last wheels he'd hear until his return, rolled away with the usual hearty "Better you than me! Good luck!" The next human voices would be happy shouts greeting him and the mail at the Fort Hotel. Now, the silence was torn only by the harsh caws of the blue jays, the tinkling trills of the juncos, and the diminutive cacophony of "Chick-a-dee-dee-dees" darting and fluttering past. Behind it all, the susurration of the perpetual breeze in the pine tops, a sound so native to the mountain realm that it whispered below awareness.

The alpine sounds lifted his spirit as he worked, lashing the travois's two long poles onto a cross-piece just wider than his shoulders. He then tied the frame between the poles' other ends, the whole looking like an A-frame ladder. The mail would ride on the mesh-covered frame. He would push against the cross-piece with his chest, dragging the back ends along the snow, knee-high powder resting on packed snow deeper than three men standing on each other's shoulders.

He strove up the track into the green and white solitude, so familiar, but never the same. He thought, "I'm an otter back in the water. I'm a hawk climbing the sky!" Every muscle sang, strong and elastic, an ecstasy of motion.

As the sun sank behind him, the pines' pointed shadows stretched into spearheads, obsidian on the sparkling snow. He smiled that they pointed his way eastward up the Emigrant Track, the shortest route to his base at the Fort Hotel. The surface powder he toiled through would be three or even four feet deep before he reached Swayback Pass, 70 miles ahead and 9,500 feet high, the lowest dip in the Sierra Tormentoso's crest for miles and miles. Until spring, the steep snow-swathed slopes banished hoofed animals. Even the deer wintered in the valleys.

* * *

The third day brought Jack to Swayback Pass. The juncos stayed lower down, but up here at the edge of the sky, chickadee troupes chittered and swooped and jay caws boasted and argued. No matter how many times he came, the sheer wonder of this between-land cleansed his soul. What a miracle to be walking yards above the ground that was itself almost two miles in the sky,with the majestic peaks soaring even higher both south and north of the pass. Past his long climb up the west slope, but not yet into the steep descent down the the east side, he sped across the flat, his motion fluid, almost effortless.

There was something otherworldly about the pass, he thought, as though whatever was making the mountains had come roaring up from the south, paused to catch its breath here, and then raged on, rending and ripping and roaring north. An alien being, magnificent, hugely powerful, dangerously indifferent.

The blood sang in his veins and his whole body rejoiced as he danced east across the level pass. For a blissful moment, his starting point and his destination did not matter, he was in the landscape and of the landscape, and it was in him and of him.

Was that moment what heaven was like? Could a human soul bear it for long? He began to feel more separate again, still joyful, but more distinct. The crisply focused view before him ended abruptly five miles ahead. In the distance rose vaguer mountain ranges, flat like torn paper, the nearer ones dark, the furthest almost as pale as the lavender of the fading day. Below sight, in the gap between the end of the immediate crisp view and the nearest of the paper cutout ranges, at the foot of the Tormentoso lay his goal. The glorious solitude, the floating feeling of awe subsided as the homey prospect of arrival arose.

Each stride drew him closer to flinging wide the Fort Hotel's front door to devour the savory aromas of venison stew and fresh bread. Friends and neighbors would jostle for his news and smile that he had made it again—glad to share the victory, because they all knew that crossing the Tormentoso in winter was dueling with Death. That fellowship would gladden their hearts, feeling a little bit stronger when he was with them. And how the mail would rejoice them, renewing and strengthening their ties to absent friends and loved ones.

Catching a strange fresh whiff, the warning perfume announcing storm, he thrust on faster. The bright blue sky went white.

The cold sharpened till he could no longer smell the pines. Their murmur deepened to a growl. Up here, the snow pack rose so high that he looked into the midriffs of the trees—underneath the powder, the snow surface was solid, yet higher than a man on stilts.

The wind pushed harder and deeper into the the forest, filling and erupting where, moments before, chickadee calls had trilled. The little hairs inside his nose froze together, tickling and tugging at his nostrils.

Feathery flakes gave way to a fast, dense, swirling snow, disguising his way. Pushing against the wind was devouring his zest and strength. His alertness shifted into alarm. "The storm is taking too much out of me," he thought.

Even the jays hushed and hid. The wind roared and whipped from everywhere at once, stinging the bare skin around his eyes. Deeply thankful for the thick furs protecting him everywhere else, he strode on.

"Not going to be an everyday storm. Got to get the mail through somehow," he thought, pushing down the fear. He let himself imagine those colorful, living filaments of connection, reaching from everywhere through his mail sack to the people awaiting them.

He squinted against the driving snow. The lashes in his eyes' outer corners began to freeze together, so he popped his lids wide every few strides. But at the same time, the sting of the snow on his eyes triggered the lids to close. The snow surface on which he strode and the white sky merged into one close yet limitless blurry envelopment. "I'm in the cloud, now," he thought. In this alien white world, if he should stray, the familiar pines and rocks were so changed by the heavy snow and the sculpting wind that he might not find his way back.

The storm verged on blizzard and his hope flattened. Pitted against the storm, a dull ache in his thighs was ramping up. The muscle knot between his shoulder blades was cramping. How long could he fight the wind as well as normal exhaustion? Fear began to tingle outward through his muscles to his finger tips and toes. The mail runner before him wasn't the only man who had died in such a storm. He'd heard of people bewildered by a blizzard losing their way between their cabin and their barn, frozen to death just steps from their safe, warm kitchens. Smart folks put up a guide rope to follow between barn and homestead. There'd be no guide here. Grim determination was carrying him. "No!" he shouted, "I will not die!"

The wind roared louder and drove the snow stinging hard from every which way. The travois dragged heavier and heavier. Luckily it was low-slung, it did not catch much wind. Usually, somewhere near this point he could camp, but today the wind and the snow and the arctic cold would freeze anyone camping.

He strode on, his load heavier and heavier, laboring through the wind and deepening powder, guessing how far he had come. He could shovel out a snow shelter using his rackets, but he'd heard of people smothering in them. The Simpsons' abandoned cabin should be pretty close. He squinted and blinked into the snow, peering for the lightning-blasted tree that would mark the path to the cabin.

The flying snow seemed somehow both solid and intangible. When he shoved it aside, swiping a clear spot in front of his eyes, it did not resist. But the space filled even before he finished the gesture. "Like wrestling with a phantom," he thought. As he strove forward, panting displaced the deep even breathing that had steadied and accelerated his strides in the racket dance. He tried to recover the rhythmic breathing, but slipped back into panting whenever his thoughts drifted. Exhaustion extinguished the bounce in his stride. His thigh and rump muscles were shooting pain, his shoulders and back throbbing. Disorientation flashed. The heavy travois hindered him, demanding a ponderous struggle as the powder drifted and the wind shoved and pushed him and battered him with noise.

Just when he needed the smooth swift motion most, all he could conjure was laborious lumbering. Then he wobbled. Could his muscles be failing? No!

"Damn you, Mother Nature!" he thought. Then "Damn me! Cocksure that I knew every one of your twists and turns!"

Energy spurted through him, reviving the racket dance for another hundred yards. Then the bounce vanished again and he could not ignore the pain. He clenched his fists, punching with each stride. Maybe if he sat down, just for a minute, strength would flow back into him. No. He toiled on, gritting his teeth, clinging to the image of the glowing living filaments running through his mail sack, connecting his community to their far flung kin.

Could he have missed the scorched tree? The huge poles of the lower trunks of the pines were buried in snow. He slogged through an amputated forest of branch-clad middles and tapering tops, mostly white but shadow-smudged and accented in green. Snow swaddled trees materialized out of the swirling white as he passed—now and then one brushing his shoulder, behind them ranks and ranks dwindling and melding into the encompassing white of snow and cloud. Maybe he hadn't come as far as he thought. His gut knotted. If he should fall, he would be done. Suppose he was lost and didn't know it. A moment of vertigo left him uneasy, not confident about which way was up.

From the smothering-thick snow, on his right a man-sized dark smear emerged and took shape as the lighting-blasted tree. He wept and filled his lungs as he turned down the path, praising the builders of the cabin, constructed of logs discarded from clearing the Track. The snow whirled. Nearly blinded, on an axe's edge between hard-won caution and desperate haste, he slogged towards the cabin. A few more clumsy steps and he crashed into the log wall.

He loosed the straps and kicked off his snowshoes to dig out the door. The struggle to see beyond the relentless pain in his legs and torso was making him giddy. The luxurious pull of doing nothing tugged at him again and again, inviting him to take a break, rest his back against a tree, and let go. No. He accepted the near-death weariness and held firmly in mind the haven awaiting him. Shelter was within reach and people were counting on him. Those letters would renew and strengthen the threads of love, connecting the Beckworth Meadows ranchers and prospectors and even the ne'er-do-wells to their fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and lovers back East. It was up to him.

He began by flinging the snow far aside. The deeper he dug, the harder the work. Not only was the lower snow densely packed by the sheer weight above, but he also had to lift these deeper loads higher. He took for granted that his arms, shoulder, and back would answer his call to lift, but suddenly, they did not. He tried once more, but got nothing. Betrayal. Rage.

Rejecting the rising panic, he inhaled deeply, inflating his entire torso, accepting the pause, and looking past it to a vision of stepping through the door, into a still space with log walls deflecting the battering, roaring wind. Another deep breath and, yes, this time the body answered. But could he trust it? Very deliberately now, breathing and shoveling.

At last, the door gaped. He hauled his gear through and collapsed into the stillness of the shack. Safe, at last. His muscles suddenly slack. Shelter, haven, rest. He sprawled beside the door, weeping.

Spent, he focused on unfurling his hands, near-frozen into curving claws, now the numbness pierced by a riot of sensation mingling intense tingling with a sudden burning. The wind raged on outside.

As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, a darker piece of darkness took shape below the rafter. It looked almost like, it was, a man, a hanged man. Fighting the impulse to flee, Jack lurched up and staggered over. But the hanged man was cold and no pulse pumped through his wrist. Up close, Jack glimpsed a face distorted into a grotesque parody, a carnival mask. He almost screamed with disgust—Was that a fat snake hanging out of the mouth? No, it was just a tongue bloated huge with blood and the muscle gone slack after death.

Nausea rose, but extreme fatigue overwhelmed it. He stumbled back, loosed the fur blanket from the travois, collapsed on the mail sack and nestled into it. He forced himself to eat some pemmican, the frontier traveler's compound of fat, berries, and jerky. Then, settling the heavy fur over him demanded concentration. Exhaustion had exacted its price: his fingers were slow, his grip clumsy, he felt tipsy. Nonetheless, by habit and sheer determination he exactly arranged his clothing and the blanket to be as warm as possible—any exposed skin would freeze in the night.

A surge of horror at the hanged man thrust Jack up. Pause. He swayed. He knew that the blizzard promised death, so he must stay. Yet, the prospect of spending the night with the corpse spurred him to flee. In his delirium of exhaustion, an image of the friendly gathering in the wamrth of the Fort Hotel came to him and an insidious voice urged that hurrying away to summon help would honor the dead. He yearned to say, "Yes," but recognized the shimmer of falsity at the edges from past experience of tempting mirages of water in the Boneyard Desert. He recoiled.

He pushed the horror down, reminding himself that he had seen dead men before and that he had a job to do. But the dead men he had seen had died in accidents or simple violence. No face had ever looked like this. The horror stirred like a rabid bear in the cellar, but he kept it trapped. Being himself trapped in the shack made that hard. He focused on what he must do on the morrow, but his thoughts kept circling back to the hanged man. Who was he? Why had he hanged himself? Why here?

Subsiding, Jack nestled back into the mailbag. His mind reached for the blissful awe he had felt as he entered the pass, but he could not find it. As his eyes closed, he welcomed an imaginary guide rope—homemade cordage like his Beckworth Meadows friends fashioned—he could follow to the Fort Hotel. His focus shifted so the guide rope shrank to a tiny cord in a bird's-eye vision of the whole country with brightly colored, living threads stretching into the mail sack—short ones reaching east from California, long ones fanning out east, south to the Carolinas and north to Maine. It was up to him to keep those threads alive.

Sleep began as delicious, complete rest.

Then he found himself a mute, invisible, paralyzed, anguished observer. He watched the dream stranger clench his jaw, carefully knot the noose, climb a ladder to tie the rope onto the rafter, then descend weeping, fetch a tall, sturdy wooden stool, step onto it, and check the length of the rope. The dream stranger then shortened the rope, dragged the noose over his head, and took a deep breath.

Time stretched. The dream stranger's face melted into his friend Lucky's haggard visage after Dolly and the babe died. The pain of pity, like a thorny stem being dragged up his throat, went on and on. Then the face melted and took shape as his friend Matthew whose broken ankle kept him behind when his wagon train went on into ambush and slaughter. Only Matthew blamed himself. The face reshaped again as a despairing soul he had known in the mining camps, then as a dozen others in whom he had sensed a temptation of darkness.

The face blurred into anonymity and the stranger sprang up from the stool. As he then plunged, the rope snapped taut and the neck broke with a crack that Jack could feel jarring his own bones into wakefulness.

The corpse still hung, beyond help. Jack closed his eyes. He imagined nodding to the corpse and strolling past it to the special map. Those thin filaments glowing red, blue, and yellow stretched from all over the country into the cabin. They joined into a single cable he was following hand over hand down the mountain to the Beckworth Meadows. He gave himself to sleep, less trustingly, but such bliss in the relaxing muscles.

The stranger's face materialized again, but this time the horrible protruding tongue transformed into a huge live snake that came slithering out of the stranger's mouth, its eyes fixed on Jack. Jack could not move as it slithered towards him, slow, sinuous, inexorable. It reared up its head, bared its fangs, and struck. In the split second before it bit, Jack jolted awake. Where had the serpent gone? Gradually the mundane, reassuring cabin came back to him.

There he was again, watching the suicide unfold, but this time the stranger's face was indistinct and Jack's heart was a battleground. He yearned to soothe the stranger off the stool and away from the rope. At the same time he was boiling with rage, wanting to roar at him, "I fought that blizzard beyond what I could do, but you, you just gave up and cast life away?!" Did that make his struggle so much trash, the ecstasy up on the pass a mere soap bubble? The rage took hold and he was no longer paralyzed. He brutally forced the stranger's head into the noose. As he kicked the stool away, he felt a spurt of dark joy at the snap of the spine, at the death, at his power.

And then desperate sorrow as he fruitlessly strove to tuck the stool back under the hanged man's feet, as if the hanging could be undone. Did he hate the corpse, hating it for his own revulsion and fear, was that why he had done this hateful murder? As he writhed in self-disgust, he felt the mail shift. This sack, although it weighed so heavy, how could it possibly contain all the love and rage and hope and despair that would sing along those filaments? He conjured the map with the glowing filaments again and stroked the sack. Keeping those filaments alive was up to him. He nestled onto the mail. He was not comforted, but he was surviving.

Suddenly he noticed an almost-silence—just a shiver of breeze in the tips of the pines. The blizzard had moved on, so at least he wouldn't be fighting the wind tomorrow. Sleep took him.

* * *

At last, daybreak pierced the cracks in the walls and door. The sky had cleared, so his journey would be dangerously cold. But here above where eagles soar, every second that the sun shone directly would warm the air. He waited, musing on the mystery of fibers, connecting or killing, till the light shifted pink and gold. He strained to hear the faint susurration of the pine tops. He startled and then smiled as caw followed caw, the jays reviving their raucous conversation. He began to stretch; every muscle complained.

He opened the door. Brighter and brighter, the sunlight revealed the corpse's eyebrows; reminding him strongly of Lucky, one of his neighbors. How could it be, when he'd never sensed any undertow, any yearning for darkness in the man? Terrible sorrow had afflicted Lucky, but his deep inner strength had pulled him through. He had survived and was building a new life. But Jack felt uncertain, because the face looked alien, so swollen and purple in the morning light. So the light didn't solve the identity problem. But it helped him make some sense beyond the night's horrors: the fat snake the poor man had appeared to be vomiting last night was really just an absurdly large protruding tongue.

Committing every revolting detail to memory so he could faithfully sketch the scene for his friends and neighbors, his gorge stirred, but he forced himself to eat some more pemmican. As he moved about, his aching muscles ached less. Even though the track led downhill from here, each step in the deep fresh drifted powder would devour time and energy. Yet he could feel the gentle, steady pull of the Fort Hotel gathering reeling him towards his goal, towards keeping those bright threads alive. He clung to that. He felt hollow, light headed. He was going through the motions numbly, but going through them nonetheless. He strapped on his snowshoes. Did the racket dance await?

The End

The Sierra Nevada range was the playground and sustenance of Moss Springmeyer's childhood. Deeply influenced by tales of the ancestors there, Moss is a passionate reader of literary and historical fiction and is starting on a journey fusing them in a particular realistic, albeit imaginary, setting.

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