February, 2023

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Issue #161

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!

Showdown at Silver City
by James Ott
Silver City had lost its shine. Gangs ruled. Banks closed. The gleaming metal became local currency. But mined silver was loaded with impurities. No deal was certain. Every transaction on gaming tables was suspect. Will a pistol-packing assayer from the East put a shine back into Silver City?

* * *

by John H. Dromey
A man who does odd jobs around town may seem like an odd choice for a sheriff in need of an extra deputy. Can Homer prove himself right for the job?

* * *

On National Road, 1869
by William Baker
Elijah prepared for life in the West by practicing with horse and gun, reading the literature of the time. But his first encounter is not as he anticipated.

* * *

The Dangerous Type
by Austen Burke
Harrison Frittata has been run out of Arrow Creek County for some extra-legal career aspirations. Thinking, "Perhaps it's time for Mexico" he follows the time-worn tradition of escaping south of the border—right into a civil war.

* * *

Feckful Mirror
by Ginger Strivelli
A broken magic mirror with multiple personalities comes in handy on the wagon train.

* * *

Rolle's Rangers
by George Kotlik
May, 1777. British loyalist Rolle, disgusted by the lack of organized protection from the French, decides to form a militia that comes to be known as Rolle's Rangers. What could possibly go wrong?

* * *

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All the Tales

The Dangerous Type
by Austen Burke

Harrison Frittata was not exactly what you would call a capital M Master criminal. What successes he had were, almost assuredly, in spite of himself and also due in large part to the ineptitude and laziness of the Arrow Creek County law enforcement community. In this instance his grand escape was due in large part to excellent timing. He was holed up in what he thought was a safehouse with Emily, one of his lady friends. The Marshall and his posse, under cover of darkness, stealthily surrounded the house but there were parts of the property that they overlooked. When they started hollering for Harrison's surrender he took a peek through the outhouse door and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. As quietly as the posse had crept up on Emily's house Harrison slipped into the woods. He paused just long enough to use the crick as a natural bidet before angling towards the canyon in nothing but his long underwear. He spent the rest of the night splayed out on a rock with a great view of the surrounding country.

Come sunup he started making his way back to Emily's house. He took his time to make sure he wasn't walking into a trap, so he didn't get there until ten or so. He snuck in through a window and, listening intently, went into the kitchen. He didn't hear anyone so he sat down and started to pick the burrs from his long underwear. Presently Emily came downstairs and started cooking breakfast. She lit the fire in the stove and started some eggs and bacon, in no time the kitchen smelled like comfort.

"Are you going to sit there all day like my laundry," she asked without turning around.

"Huh," he grunted.

She spooned some eggs and bacon onto a plate then slid it to him, "Flapping in the breeze."

"Oh," he smiled, "I've just got a couple left."

When he finished with the burrs he tucked into his breakfast just a flapping in the breeze.

* * *

Emily was seated at the table resting her head in her hand, "You've never warranted a posse before," she mused laconically.

"Maybe I pissed off the wrong person," he said.

"Maybe Arrow Creek County is done with you," she said.

"I think I might be done with Arrow Creek County," he replied.

Emily helped him gather up his few things and saddle his horse. She watched him hop up in the noonday heat.

"If Johnny Churro or Frankie Sopapilla comes by tell 'em I lit out," he said.

"Yeah, alright," then "Hey . . . come here."

She kissed him hard, and she kissed him long. She wanted to remember his clean taste (he didn't smoke or chew). When she was done she looked in his eyes and smacked him lightly on the cheek. He wheeled his horse around, and that was that. She didn't watch him ride away for very long, a bandit's woman is as adept at moving on as they are, besides it looked like rain and she had laundry to get off of the line.

* * *

When most individuals with a career in unlawfulness moved on from Arrow Creek County they usually chose to manifest their destiny and headed west. That's why Harrison thought he'd head north into Utah. He knew the Mormons would give him a hell of a time, but as much crap as he'd get from them the Marshalls would get even more. He didn't have a plan beyond that. Maybe Missouri. Hell there was always Mexico.

After Utah he worked his way into Colorado and spent some time working in a mineshaft, but that wasn't for him so he moved on. He helped run some cattle across the state and into Kansas. He spent a little time in Topeka gambling, and trying to set up a score that never materialized when he remembered about Missouri. He sold his horse and scraped up his money then bought a train ticket. If it didn't work out there was always Mexico.

Missouri suited him alright. He had a couple of successful robberies and was making decent money but it never felt like home to him. The obvious progression was to move down the Mississippi, and Harrison, never one for excessively creative thought, followed this literally natural course down to New Orleans. He spent some time doing a little bit of this and that but New Orleans didn't suit him either. He was relieving some of the pressure from a night of carousing against a wall outside the bar when he saw an ad for passage across the Gulf and thought, "Well. Maybe it's time for Mexico."

* * *

Pretty soon he found himself in Tampico with too much time on his hands and dwindling money. He spent his nights in a cantina called Ve a Ver's eating Puerco pibil, getting drunk, and pissing off the locals by making up English lyrics to Cielito Lindo or whatever else the musicians were playing. Sometimes the night ended in a fight and sometimes it ended with him sick in the street. Both outcomes felt like success to Harrison depending on whether he was in a drinking mood or a fighting mood; they usually bled into each other.

"I had me a gurrlll
I had me a gurrlll
We go swimmin' in the lake
Together; sometimes
Without clothes
Heh, heh. You know what I mean

She was a great gurrlll.
I mean she was a GREAT gurrlll.
I thought we were in love.
But I'm an ass.

Harrison was wailing slurrily much to the annoyance of the other patrons when he was tapped on the shoulder.

As he was turning, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man behind him cock his arm back, so he switched his turn to a duck. As he righted himself under the man's blow he used his momentum to land a hefty punch to the man's stomach and simultaneously push him into his friend standing behind him. The pair knocked several chairs over and spilled quite a bit of beer. Harrison took the scene in in a flash and tossed some pesos at the bar before dashing off cackling maniacally. The next night he was caterwauling away when he saw in the bar mirror two men approaching him. They might have been the same men from the night before, or just the fairly regular occurrence of individuals trying to forcibly shut him up. In any case, he reached into his pocket and gripped a handful of pesos, braced his feet against the bar, and when they got close enough he pushed himself and his chair into them. His hand flew out of his pocket scattering pesos everywhere in anticipation of the spilt beer. Unfortunately for Harrison these less than gentlemen were familiar with these sorts of tactics. One of them wrapped him in a bear hug as the chair was sliding out from under him. The other one punched him in the stomach as he was trying to wriggle free to no avail. Pretty soon his priority changed to getting his breath back. When that happened his assailants dragged him outside.

"Gringo, are you looking for work," the one who was bear hugging him asked. When Harrison stopped struggling the bear hugger nodded to his compadre who thoughtfully stopped hitting Harrison in the stomach.

Harrison did some quick estimates in his head and thought that maybe he had enough money for another two maybe three months, "I guess I am," he coughed.

* * *

They told Harrison the job was in San Luis Potosi, which meant nothing to him. The views from the train, on the other hand, well those were gorgeous. Harrison hadn't realized how much he missed that rugged landscape. He hadn't realized how lethargic the Gulf humidity had made him. He felt a sense of, well not really ambition or direction, return but a spontaneous energy that had left him when he rode away from Emily. His recruiters lead him through a hacienda to the well appointed study of its hacendado.

Harrison was not someone who was predisposed to taking orders from a boss, but everything about Fermin's appearance spoke to his competence and efficiency from his trim moustache and goatee, to his perfectly knotted tie, to his constantly calculating eyes. Fermin seemed like a jefe he could get along with. Harrison was so magnetized by him that he didn't notice that he and Fermin were staring at each other until his recruiter pushed him into the room and shut the door.

"Please sit," Fermin gestured to a chair as Harrison approached the desk, "Can I offer you a cigar?"

"I don't smoke," Harrison said.

"Ah, I see. Clean lungs. Are you a drinker? If I offered you tequila would you accept," Fermin asked.

"Now that I'll gladly accept," Harrison replied.

Fermin pulled two glasses from his desk and a bottle of tequila, "Excellent," said Fermin as he poured the tequila and slid Harrison his glass, "My men tell me that you're the dangerous type."

Harrison took a sip of his tequila, "Oh I don't know . . . "

"Very well. I need brave men, would you say that you're a brave man," asked Fermin narrowing his eyes.

"I like to think of myself as a brave man, but if you polled my friends they'd probably describe me as foolhardy. To my discredit I think that's probably a more accurate description," Harrison said.

Fermin sighed, set his glasses on the desk, and began rubbing his eyes, "Oh so you're the humble type. Are you at least a pistolero?"

Harrison took his time, "I might have been in the past."

Fermin put his glasses back on, "Hmm. Circumspect as well as humble. We'll get you set up in the bunkhouse. I think we'll have some work for you before too long."

* * *

Harrison was perched precariously on the pile of timbers he and his gang had heaped on the railroad tracks. He had robbed a train or two during his bandit apprenticeship but it had been quite some time, since then he had focused more on stage coaches and occasionally cattle rustling. He checked his watch and hoped he still had the knack. When he heard the train he whistled so that everyone would be in position.

The train slowed to a halt in front of Harrison he drew his pistol, fired it in the air, and said, "This is a stick up!"

Curious as to why the train had stopped the soldiers riding it stuck their heads out of the windows. When they saw a bandit they ducked their heads inside then popped them back out with their rifles. Harrison fired in the air again and nervously shouted, "Now". When the first shot from the soldiers barely missed him Harrison leapt down from the timber and started running towards the train shouting, "Now! Now! Goddamnit Now!"

He had made it to the front of the engine and he was still taking heavy fire. He caught his breath then climbed to the top of the engine and ran towards the cars. He steadied himself on the smokestack and burned his hands. He jumped onto the top of the first car and lay down flat depriving the soldiers of a target. Soon enough their shooting stopped because the rest of the bandits had snuck up on the soldiers from the weeds and disarmed them. The rest of the robbery went without incident.

As soon as Harrison got back to the hacienda he went to Fermin's study and banged on the door. He immediately yelped in pain. He tried the door handle, found it was unlocked and went in. He strode over to Fermin and slammed his hands down on the desk. He immediately yelped in pain, "I've got to stop doing that," he thought.

"Hey," he howled fueled by the pain in his palms, "That train was guarded."

Fermin gave him a bemused smile, "Yes well it was a train robbery. Were you expecting it to not be guarded?"

Harrison looked confused for a moment, "I . . . well . . . no. But your men didn't respond. Am I just a convenient big gringo target or are you trying to get me killed?"

Fermin looked at him incredulously, "If my employees get killed I have to find new employees. What did you say?"

"Now! Now. Now. I was screaming my head off for five minutes but bupkiss," Harrison said throwing his arms in the air.

"I see," Fermin chuckled, "They don't speak English. Try "Ahora" for the next robbery. In the meantime I'll have my wife Renata help you expand your Spanish."

"But those were soldiers," Harrison ventured the fragment of a thought taking shape before trailing off.

"Uh huh. Who were you expecting to guard . . . " Fermin trailed off himself before chuckling, "Wait did you come to Mexico and not realize that we were in the middle of a war?"

Harrison looked sheepish, "I . . . no. Maybe. What, what, what are we doing then if it's not a secret?"

"We're depriving the Porfirite forces of cash on behalf of Lerdo Tejada," responded Fermin.

"So are we robbing the rich to feed the poor," asked Harrison hopefully.

Fermin instinctually reverted to his wry smile, "No I don't think so. It's more likely that we're robbing the rich to feed the rich. But I get a cut, you get a cut, I keep my hacienda, and I can keep paying the people who work for me slightly more money than what poor people are paid."

Harrison opened his mouth, but Fermin cut him off, "You see yourself as a hero don't you? Well, I hope you survive this war," Fermin came out from behind his desk and clapped Harrison on the shoulder, "Come on. We'll get you set up in a new room while your hands heal."

* * *

The room that Harrison was lodged in was simple, it had a bed, a nightstand, and a dresser. It was easily a step up from the bunk house. The floor was covered in blue tiles that were cool on Harrison's feet. As he lay down he noticed the moonlight streaking through the window shutters and hitting the tiles. It reminded him of the stories that his grandpa told him about the pixies from his hometown in the old world. Harrison never believed in them but if you were going to see a pixie this was definitely the light that it would happen in. He got up, opened the window and looked outside, he could understand why his Pops believed in that. He suddenly felt overwhelmed and exhausted so he went back to the bed. Before he fell asleep he caught site of something scampering by the wall. It was probably a mouse.

As his hands healed he worked on his Spanish with Renata. She oftentimes doubled as his nurse and changed his bandages. She knew just enough English that she could understand Harrison's intent. He made up in energy what he lacked in linguistic aptitude. Renata's refrain, "En Espagnol" could be heard from the room repeatedly.

Harrison was put back in the rotation as soon as his hands had mended. He was the preferred raid leader for all of the pistoleros not because his tactics were the best but because he was a big gringo target and he always took more than his fair share of enemy fire. Still, he got results; his raids had fewer losses than anyone else's. Soon enough he was Fermin's right hand man, not just because of his success but also because Fermin truly enjoyed his company. He and an elite crew perfected the train robbery. His instincts were always to leap forward never behind the pile of timbers so he started wearing oversize gloves so he didn't burn his hands on the engine. His crew took to wearing them as well after successful heists and photographs from this period inspired Walt Disney's design of Mickey Mouse, and subsequently other gloved cartoon animals.

* * *

During their downtime most of the pistoleros gambled with each other or got drunk while they were waiting for the next raid. Harrison joined in on those festivities from time to time but found that he was at a disadvantage with the Mexican games due to his linguistic handicap. Most of the time when he was bored he would go help the campesinos with their vegetable plots, or muck out the stables. Sometimes he helped with the horses, or fixed a door hinge here or a window shutter there. Once he re-did a roof. He liked having something to do with his hands, so being a Jack of All Trades/bandit suited him.

His unostentatious helpfulness was not lost on Renata, nor was his easy friendliness, or naíve charm. She continued tutoring him in Spanish long after his speaking skills were sufficient for his tasks. This was a fact that was completely lost on Harrison. Renata found herself falling out of love with Fermin, it's difficult to love a man who spends his days at a desk plotting. Furthermore, Fermin took Harrison under his wing and started including him in strategy discussions. It wasn't Harrison's forte but he applied the same energy to analyses of maps and troop movements that he did to learning the language of his second home and he made progress. Renata transferred the qualities that she did love about Fermin in proportion to Fermin's success in turning Harrison into a military intellect.

* * *

It was the height of the summer and Harrison was sleeping on the floor. He had started waking up sweaty and tangled in sheets that offered no relief from the heat. The floor was hardly more comfortable but the tiles stayed cool all night long. He had the window open on faith to let the air circulate even though the summer atmosphere was stagnant. A man can dream. He was laying in the watery pixie moonlight when Renata woke him up with some very vigorous and pointed caresses.

"I . . . uh. Oh my God," Harrison exclaimed as she slid on top of him.

Renata leaned down and whispered, "En espagnol," while she nibbled his ear.

Eventually the tiles were just as warm and sweaty as the sheets would have been but slippery and treacherous. When they moved their unsportsmanlike conduct to the bed Harrison fell and bumped his ass. He didn't hit it so hard that it interfered with the night's athletics.

When their energy was finally depleted Renata was holding Harrison when she asked, "What's Emily like?"

Woozy and half asleep Harrison responded, "Oh she's a lot like you . . . " before trailing off into a snore. Renata took that as her cue to sneak out. Moving forward Renata made it a point to have a nocturnal rendezvous with Harrison at least once a week. They always ended the same way, with Harrison falling asleep before he could finish describing Emily.

* * *

Harrison was on his way to his weekly meeting with Fermin when Fermin himself stopped him in the hall, "Come with me. Why do you think the trains have been better guarded as of late?"

"I think it's probably because we're losing and it's freeing up soldiers to guard the cash," Harrison said.

"Perhaps . . . well perhaps," Fermin replied while still leading Harrison outside at a brisk pace.

They stopped at the bunkhouse which had several soldiers by it. Fermin signaled the soldiers to round everybody up. The pistoleros staggered out in clumps of two or three. The bunkhouse was basically a toaster for humans so most of them weren't wearing their shirts, they pulled on their suspenders as the soldiers got them in line. Some of them came out still hopping one leg after the other into their pants.

Fermin paced up and down the line twice before whipping Diego in the face with his pistol, "We have a spy," he yelled as he pointed his gun at Diego's head.

"No, no I'm n . . . ," screamed Diego but his pleas were cut off by Fermin's shot. Fermin nodded to the soldiers, who picked two of the pistoleros and marched off with them.

"Now," started Fermin, "If I find another spy. It won't just be two of us getting fitted for a uniform, we'll all be trying our luck in the regular army. Now . . . "

Fermin turned on his heel and walked back to the house at a rapid trot. Harrison had a hard time keeping up with him. When he caught him in his study Fermin was resting his elbows on his desk and he had his forehead in his hands. Harrison sat down as Fermin tossed his glasses on the desk with a sigh and began rubbing his face with both of his palms. Harrison thought he noticed . . . but maybe not.

Fermin stared blankly at the business cluttering his desk held in place by his pistol as he asked, "Who did they take?"

"Ramon and the other Fermin," Harrison said.

"Awww, Ramon was . . . alright. Alright," Fermin said looking directly at Harrison, "What the hell am I doing? I mean is there any GOD DAMN value in managing some low level partisans? You're out there disarming the enemy and stealing their money maybe killing a couple. I don't know that's something at least. What am I doing? Shooting my own men? What's the goddamn point. Huh? Huh?"

Harrison started, "I don't . . . I"

"When my father died I could have stayed in Mexico City like every other hacendado but I didn't I came out here. I could have hired a manager like every other hacendado but I didn't, I came out here like a goddamn asshole, and now I'm wasting . . . " Fermin breathed deeply and got a hold of himself. He opened up the bottom left drawer and pulled out his bottle of tequila. He poured two glasses and slid one over to Harrison.

"Have you ever been betrayed," he asked without waiting for a response. He idly began playing with the gun cocking it and un-cocking it. Harrison noticed that it had been pointed in his direction the entire time, "I think betrayal is actually more rare than people assume. I think in order to be betrayed it has to happen from someone you love otherwise it's just . . . what's your American phrase? Getting 'dicked over'. We were just dicked over today."

"Do you really think . . . " Harrison started.

Fermin cut him off, pulled out his ledger, and ran over the numbers, "I don't know. But we're ahead on human resources expenses so we could afford the loss and now they'll police themselves."

Fermin held his glass up to eye level and stared at the tequila as he rolled it around the tumbler. It seemed that he had forgotten Harrison was even there, "I am the dangerous type," he said to himself. Harrison backed out of the room without touching his liquor.

* * *

"If he finds out he's going to kill us."

"I know. Do you want to stop?"

" . . . no. Did you . . . "

"Of course. Of course I knew what he'd do when I started this."

"Should we . . . "

"Do anything? I think things will be alright."

* * *

As the war continued the soldier's visits became more frequent. Initially, Fermin was running three gangs of pistoleros. The army whittled it down to two, and then just the one. The war needed more and soon enough Harrison was running operations with a gang that was too small to safely rob anything. Even though it was made up of veterans little by little his casualties started to increase.

One night Renata came to him, told him to get dressed, and tossed him a burlap sack, "Throw whatever cash you've saved in the sack."

"Wait you're bleeding . . . ," Harrison started.

She cut him off, "It's not mine. Get your guns and a rifle if you have one here. Give me one of your pistols."

Harrison could hear gunfire and screaming in the near distance; it was somewhere on the hacienda. All of a sudden Harrison felt like he was out of his depth, the blue moonlight felt menacing. She lead him through the dark house. When his eyes adjusted he realized they were going to Fermin's study. When they got there Harrison could hear men demanding a combination to a safe. Harrison burst in before Renata could stop him. He saw one man with a gun on Fermin who had blood running down his forehead, one man working on a safe that had been dragged through a hole torn in the wall, and lastly a man with a gun on him. He put his hands up and let his pistol droop limply by his index finger. Renata cursed him under her breath as she listened to the excited chatter in the room. She closed her eyes so that she could visualize the locations of the voices better. When she opened her eyes she peeked around the door jamb but couldn't get an angle on the robbers so she threw herself into the study. When she landed she took a moment to aim and shot the bandit covering Harrison then used her last bullet on the safe cracker. Harrison twirled his pistol around and shot Fermin's attacker but not before Fermin absorbed two shots himself.

Fermin propped himself up on his elbow and looked from Harrison to Renata then back again. Then he looked at the burlap sack in Harrison's hand and his wry smile came to him automatically. He started to chuckle but it was interrupted when he began coughing up blood. He couldn't hold himself up and laid back down.

Harrison and Renata rushed over to him, Harrison taking his hand and Renata cradling his head in her lap. Harrison was afraid to ask but he couldn't stop himself, "Did I dick you over?"

Fermin smiled again and weakly told him, "No. You didn't."

Harrison began repeating, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," as they held him until he died. When it was over Renata grabbed the burlap bag and opened the safe. She started filling it as quickly as she could.

"Come on help me. We don't have a lot of time, they'll be looking for these guys soon enough and we need to get out of here while it's still dark," she said.

Numbly Harrison obeyed her. They took as much cash and gold bars as they could carry and snuck out of the house. On their way towards the edge of the property Harrison saw the bunkhouse on fire. It was surrounded by Porfirite soldiers who were firing into it indiscriminately. Thanks to their oversized fire gloves the pistoleros were holding their own but anytime one of them tried to make a break for it he was gunned down. It was only a matter of time. Harrison unslung the rifle from his back but stopped when he felt Renata's hand on his shoulder.

"Come on," she nodded towards the safety of the wilderness, "It's a lost cause."

* * *

Thanks to the goodwill that Harrison had built up with Fermin's campesinos as well as a hefty payment of cash he and Renata were able to lay low in San Luis Potosi for the rest of the war. When the Porfirites won and Diaz took office he issued a general pardon for all of the soldiers who fought on behalf of Tejada even the non-traditional ones. Still it wasn't long before the pair felt the unspoken but creeping antipathy around them and came to the conclusion that, pardon and their money notwithstanding, they were persona non grata. They decided that there was always Texas. Unfortunately no one would sell Harrison a train ticket so they were forced to saddle up their horses and ride north to the Rio Grande (or at least out of the range of his infamy).

As they got under way Harrison asked Renata, "Would you marry me?"

"Then my name would be Renata Frittata, "she said.

"Oh, I . . . " stuttered Harrison.

"It's ok. Let me think about it," she said with a smile, "So. Tell me about Emily."

With his own wry smile Harrison said, "In English."

Renata hemmed and hawed embarrassed with the reversal of their rhetorical situation until Harrison relented, "Oh ok. She's a lot like you; the dangerous type."

The End

As are most writers Austen has been a lifelong reading enthusiast. He'll take the Post-Moderns over the Moderns and is a devoted fan of Thomas Pynchon. He spent five years in Chicago performing improv and stand up. He is incapable of writing anything without a joke.

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