March, 2023

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Issue #162

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!

Cow-Boys and Calf Fries
by Maggie DeMay
I have been told calf fries are tasty. I've never been hungry enough to put that to the test. But I can't help wonder who the brave man was that first looked at a calf's testicles and said, "I bet there's some good eatin' on that calf nut. Let's have a contest!"

* * *

Broderick "Brock" Felton, Deputy
by Tom Sheehan
The day Brock Felton got his deputy badge, it was tossed into his lap by the current sheriff of Stockwood, Colorado, Deke Withers, on the job just three weeks and looking for help. Brock was a fine young man, but would that be enough for the good folks of Stockwood?

* * *

Bring Him Back Dead!
by Christopher M. Reynolds
Deputy Sam Fenton had faced down the guns of many outlaws—but now it was his ex-best friend aiming a Colt .45 at his heart.

* * *

Tommy and Tack
by Sumner Wilson
A lonely old man and his mule do battle with painfully lengthy nights and a pack of marauding wolves.

* * *

The Crossroads
by Ralph S. Souders
While chasing a steer that has wandered off the ranch, a young cowhand stumbles across a robbery in planning. Suspecting the involvement of a corrupt local landowner, a defensive plan is set in motion to thwart the criminals and bring them to justice. The cowhand learns an important lesson from this experience.

* * *

by Lily Tierney
"Clem, you have to make a decision," Martha said in a high pitched voice in her parlor.
"I told you over and over Martha that I am not the marrying kind," explained Clem.
But was he right?

* * *

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

All the Tales

Tommy and Tack
by Sumner Wilson

The old man hated nights as much as anything in life. Some nights, he slept poorly, other nights he slept briefly.

Tommy Goodloe had heard wolves raising hell in the far pasture during the night. He hoped his cow and the six-month-old calf were safe. This caused him to shiver with dread. He got out of bed and cooked his bacon, eggs, and coffee, sat at the table, and chomped down his bacon then supped his coffee till there was only a cup left. He planned to down it for dinner. He decided to ride his mule, Tack, over to his neighbor, Elbert Carter, to warn him that he'd heard wolve creatures prowling around last night. First, he would check on the mule, cow, and calf. The cow and calf should be in the barn or in the barn lot by now. If so, he would milk Della.

He washed the few dishes he'd messed up, then stepped to the coat rack, slipped into his jumper, and stepped outside onto the porch. It was late autumn and had turned chillier in the past two weeks.

His old mule, Tack, brayed his good morning greeting as he stepped from the porch.

He heard the cow moaning low in her chest inside the barn. Tommy didn't like the sound. He grained Tack and then stepped toward the barn to check on the cow and calf. He stopped at the entrance. The sun streamed in the interior and revealed a constellation of dust motes that danced like mad and brought to his mind a snowstorm. The cow bawled again, louder this time.

He stepped deeper inside the barn and passed rows of stalls he no longer had a need for. He walked toward the stall he'd heard her sound off from. He leaned over the half wall and peered inside.

Seeing its provider, the cow moved up to him and stopped where the wall prevented further movement. Tommy noticed the lameness with which she walked. This was not good. He looked to the far side of the stall and to its full length as well. No six-month old calf.

"Drat it," he muttered. His leathery old cheeks drew inward with his frustration and made him appear older than his seventy-five years. His eyesight had nearly left him now and his hearing had fled along with his sight. He still walked about fair enough, that is, if he didn't walk over three miles.

"Where's the calf, Della?" he asked. He had the answer already but needed to do something but stare at the pain-stricken cow. He reached out a hand and scratched the flat space between her eyes, then shoved off from the wall and entered the stall. Last year, Della had practically given up all her milk. He'd walked her over to Elbert Carter's bull when she started bulling. He now had a fresh cow, but no calf.

Della tried to swerve to meet him, but he reached out and pushed her back until she showed her rear end. He knelt at the tender leg. He hoped that she'd picked up a thorn or perhaps a mild hoof disease that he could doctor with oil of juniper. In this he wasn't lucky worth a darn.

He saw where the teeth of a predator had tried its best to cut her tendon. She allowed him a short look, then jerked her foot out of his grasp. He got up and walked to the tack room and fetched a bottle of Friars liniment and a clean rag.

Done with the doctoring, he shut her stall door and went back into the house and fetched the milk bucket. He stripped the cow and took in the milk and strained it into a large crock. Afterward, he stopped at the closet and took forth his Winchester with four extra cartridges.

Tommy took down the pole gate and allowed Tack to walk with him across the pasture. There was seldom a move Tommy made that Tack wasn't aware of. They kept a good eye out for each other. Sorta like brothers.

They walked down to the far pasture where the woods began. He would likely find what remained of the calf, blood if nothing else, although he figured the calf would be a bit more than the wolves would eat at one serving.

He found a dried spill of blood first. He knelt alongside it.

Tommy saw by the look in Tack's eyes he knew for sure what had taken the calf. Not only was Tack smart but he was stubborn enough to try the will of an angel. He loved to fight as well and scrapped with the best of them. He could jump the moon. There was no horse around could go head-to-head with a mule born to fight. He had bullied Tommy's last riding animal so much that finally he just gave up and sold the critter to his neighbor, though he had cherished it. However, he liked Tack even more.

So, when Tommy had company, which was a rare occasion, his friends would leave their riding animals tethered in the woods and enter the yard afoot. That way old Tack didn't rip the ear off one of their high necked, prissy, prancing animals. After all, many men were as fond of their beasts as Tommy was of Tack. They hated the idea of their fine riding stock coming out of the fracas with an ear dangling, or worse.

He found tracks.

"Good lord," he muttered. This wolf's track was huge, twice the size of his own hand. "That gent must be big as a lion."

There were four of them. He took the four smaller ones to be females. The critter that made the larger track was no brush wolf that was for sure.

"Been awhile since I seen a paw that big," he mumbled. "He's brought them ladies along with him too. No telling how far them rank beasts have traveled. It's a right smart of a wonder they ain't tackled the hens and the old rooster. Crimination, what would I do without my eggs?"

It was Tack who found the remains of the calf. The bones had a lot of meat and gristle still attached to them. Tack got too much of a whiff of the remains and skittered backward a couple feet. He then stopped and looked on. Tommy slapped him on the side of the neck and pushed past him.

He hunkered on his bootheels and studied the carcass. He filled his pipe and set fire to the tobacco and smoked in silence for a few minutes. Smoke exited his mouth and nose that soon joined the low hanging limbs of the trees. He rose and touched the animal's neck then and looked down at the leftovers at his feet. "I 'spect there's enough meat left for them bully beasts to return for it. Won't be tonight. If they was that hungry they woulda ate the calf whole. They won't be back until tomorrow evening.

"Let's you and me take a little trip. Maybe Elbert has some strychnine."

With that he battled aboard the mule's bony back, and holding the Winchester in his left hand, leaned forward, and tapped Tack on the right side of the neck. Tack turned and walked off out of the woods. He didn't need reins to command this animal, nor saddle either. Tack didn't like a saddle and long ago advised Tommy he wouldn't endure one.

* * *

Elbert Carter was as lean as a whippoorwill and tough as whet leather. His roughly lined face looked as if the man behind it had seen the wide world over, although he hadn't traveled any farther than Higgins. He and his three boys still ran a fair-sized herd and likely there were several calves in the bunch. Wolves would take the calves before trying any bigger creatures.

He told Elbert that wolves had taken his calf.

"You just heard them critters last night?"

"Yessir. Coulda been early morning. I usually step outside 'round two o'clock and my bladder had yet to force me from bed."

"Thank you, for ridin' over to warn me. The boys'll have to keep out a good watch."

The riding animals that old Carter held in the corral were skating around inside on nervous feet, whickering on occasion. Dust rose from the corral and lit out skyward. They had all run into Tack before and remembered the occasion.

"Well, that there ain't all I come for."

"Need somethin'? If I got it, it's yours."

"I need strychnine."

Clifford, Carter's eldest son looked on from the barn loft with one hand against the timbers that held up the entrance to the hayloft.

Elbert Carter spun on his heels and shouted, "Clifford, we got any strychnine left?"

His boy shook his head. "Used all of it last spring in the corn crib."

"Well, shoot," Carter said, and his face flushed red. What man wouldn't be embarrassed not to be able to fulfill a request from a neighbor? He removed his dusty old hat, ran a bare hand across his brow from habit. "We had a fierce attack of rats sometime back. The boys musta used it all up and then forgot to buy any more."

The cold wind tried to blow Tommy's hat away. He snatched it back just in time. "Think nothin' of it, Elbert. I remember when I was young and forgetful too."

They both chuckled for a second.

"Well, it ain't right," Elbert said. "Hate it I can't help you any, by golly."

"Tell you what, Elbert," he said, as if he were thinking out loud, "I'll sit out awhile tomorrow night and see if I can cut that big ol' feller down. I reckon then them ladies will light out when they need to cozy up some with a male."

"How much of that calf was left, Tommy?"

"I figure it'll be enough to bring them back to the scene of the crime."

"Need to put out a hen, too. Just to be cautious. Tie her up to a limb close to the ground so she'll flop around and squawk her head off. If that don't call that ol' boy up, he's likely a ghost."

* * *

Carter stood in the barnyard watching the departure of his neighbor. He filled his pipe and smoked as he watched Tommy and Tack diminish in size with each step made. In time, he finished his pipe, knocked out the dottle, went back to the ladder beneath the entry hole up to the hayloft. He helped the boys.

"What'd ol' Tommy say, Pap? He got rats too?" Clifford said.

"No, son. A wolf with bitches killed his calf last night. He wanted to poison them, but since none of us has any dope, he figures he'll sit up tomorrow night and try to pick off the male."

Clifford stopped work then and said, "We'll have to ride out with the herd then."

"You boys take turns. No need in all of you to be bleary-eyed next mornin'."

"All right, Pap," Clifford said. "I'll go out tomorrow night."

The old man said, "I want you to go over to Tommy's far pasture when you are out, right there where the woods take over. You check on him. He's as old as I am. Ain't no tellin' what kindly a mess he'll get into, him out there alone."

"I'll do 'er, Pap. You bet."

* * *

Goodloe rode away from his neighbor's place. Too bad he hadn't been able to borrow the poison he needed, but he'd get by. Anyway, it'd been a good long while since he'd spent time out at night. He'd watched the stars if it was clear. Do that while he waited for the big wolf to step out and show himself. He remembered what Elbert Carter had said about using a hen as extra bait. In the end, he figured sure he wouldn't offer up one of his laying hens as a sacrifice to the wolves.

The river bluffs were where the wolves were hiding out. He was sure of that. He shook his head, and allowed he'd seen the last of the river that had once watered his herd. He'd been shaken half to death in his days of riding horses, most of them eager to run like jackrabbits and swerve off one way or the other. He mainly went afoot nowadays. If he went to town or someplace, he rode old Tack. That is if the fierce critter would allow it.

Tommy still ran cattle when he first bought the mule. Had he known then that his friends would need to leave their riding creatures in the woods and hoof the rest of the way in to visit him he likely wouldn't have bought old Tack. But the two of them soon formed a wonderful bond of friendship. Tommy had no idea what he would do without him. He liked the notion that he could talk out loud to him and not call it talking to himself.

He was a lonely old man and Tack was a lonely old mule. They were a pair, and likely wouldn't fare well if one of them kicked off. Tommy's wife Estelle died a year after he bought Tack. They'd taken care of each other since that time.

"All critters need a good friend, don't they, Tack, you ol' rascal?" Tack didn't answer him, but there were many times when Tommy wished he could, and there were times he wouldn't have been all too surprised if he had. "Now if we can just shed ourselves of them wolves, we'll be doin' fine."

The next morning after he fed the mule and milked the cow, he decided Tack's pen needed to be a bit higher. He set to work. He had several new poles to raise the sides of the corral with. He figured that one more row would be enough to prevent Tack from leaping the fence. For tonight he meant to sit up and kill that thieving wolf. He for sure didn't want that mule along with him. If so, the wolves would scent him and wouldn't return to their kill, and that would be that, regarding what he owed the wolves.

As Tommy worked, Tack roamed about restlessly, pacing up and down and all around inside the enclosure. It was easy to see that the old mule didn't like what his friend was up to. Along about noon, he stepped over to the porch and sat on the top step, filled his pipe, smoked, and admired his work. He said, "That's higher than you can leap, I reckon, ol' man."

Tack snorted then whirled about and chased off toward the far side of the pen.

The air, already cold, had freshened even more. Tack entered his wind break, which was a heavy length of tarp that Tommy had set up to ward off the north wind and where Tack often slept on the straw that he had scattered on the ground. In fierce cold, Tommy lodged Tack in the barn.

He saw Tack inside the shelter, knees buckled beneath him, relaxing inside, with his head high, and his eyes on Tommy's every move. He must have decided that he'd have to learn to like the new height of the pen.

"He'll likely behave himself tonight when I walk down and set my ambush."

After supper, Tommy left the house with enough time before dark to walk down to the place where he would set his trap. He watched his mule, although Tack didn't watch back. Usually when he tried to leave the mule and go off alone, he would snort and chase about in the corral until he was out of sight, but tonight, he seemed unconcerned. This sort of set the old man's feelings awry. For it was as if Tack was deliberately ignoring him. He pushed the thought out of his mind and walked on, running through what he planned to do later as he went.

* * *

Clifford Carter gathered up his heavy coat, rain slicker, and small sack of egg sandwiches his mother had given him in case he got hungry during the night. He had his Winchester rifle along as well, which he carried across the bow of his saddle. He waved his father so long, swerved his animal to the right in a neat spin and got the critter up into an easy three-gait as he left the yard. He felt an urge of excitement working in his stomach and was somewhat happy at this veer from his usual duties.

He managed right fine until along about midnight. His enthusiasm faded then and finally flew off toward the stars. He decided it was time. He opened the sack of sandwiches and tackled the first one he located by feel. He ate it and unable to resist, ate the remaining one as well.

Half an hour later, the food worked its magic on him. He watched the frost float to the ground, flashing occasionally in the light of the half moon. He made a good fight of it, but some few minutes later he lost out. He hung his head until his chin rested on his chest and fell asleep.

Something awoke him. He jerked erect with the frost gathered about on the ground shining with the artistry of nature. At first, he figured he was dreaming. He reached out with a hand to draw up more covers thinking he was abed but then he felt the rifle slipping. He awoke in a rush and caught it with his left hand as it slipped down the side of his leg.

This spooked the horse, for likely it had been asleep as well. The gelding spun about as if to flee. Clifford halted it with a strong grip on the reins.

"Come on, you jughead," he muttered. "You're dreamin'."

Just then he heard what had awoken him. It was the unmistakable sound of a wolf howling way off toward the river. Again, the animal attempted to bolt, but he steadied it in time to prevent a runaway.

"Stop that, critter," he said. "Them cows ain't disturbed none. So just stop it."

He strained his hearing then to locate more sounds. But that was all. The wild creatures were now silent. A few of the cows were up and cropping the frosty grass, but the majority were still lying there with steam arising from their backs like smoke. Clifford thought by this that the wolves weren't up to menace yet. So, he got up the gelding more to exercise it and himself as well than to do anything useful. He rode all the way around the herd and when he made it back where he started from, he stopped and relaxed again in the saddle. He was already searching the eastern horizon for the rising of the sun, which at this hour was a profound waste. Just then the muscles of the horse fell slack and he took the hint and did the same thing.

The next time he awoke, he allowed it was somewhere around three in the morning but having no watch he had no true idea.

"Don't want to forget to ride over and check on that ol' man," he said. "We'll wait a few minutes yet though."

He stepped down from the saddle, melted a small patch of ground frost as he made water, then mounted again. The naps he'd taken had done little toward refreshing him. He soon grew bored and decided to go over and check on Tommy.

* * *

The old man had heard the two wolf howls earlier. The second one had been made in the same spot as had the first one, so he knew they were still hanging tight. Needing to relieve his bladder, though, he figured it was after two a.m.

"If they're gonna come," he muttered, "I wish they'd get after it."

He remained sitting up, back against an ancient pecan tree. His head began to droop, and he jerked erect again. Finally, the effort grew too troublesome, and he succumbed to sleep-an event that usually escaped him while in bed.

He dreamed of Estelle. She was shaking him by the shoulder. He allowed breakfast was ready. He made to sit up on the side of the bed and he was sure he smelled biscuits in the oven.

"Mr. Goodloe. Sir you done fell asleep. It's too frosty to be sittin' on the ground this away. Need to get up or you'll come down with the ague."

Tommy raised up. The welcome scent of hot biscuits faded away to nothing, and he was sorely disappointed, almost angry that what he thought real was just a misty dream. He recognized the voice of the eldest boy of Carter's.

"Wasn't asleep," he snapped in mild anger. He hated the thought of the neighbor boy catching him sleeping out with the frost falling slowly in the moonlight that looked like broken glass.

"Well, I reckon you were meditatin' then," Clifford said. He said it in earnest. For he didn't want to shame the old man.

"Them blamed wolves musta passed on out of the country," Tommy said. He fumbled in a coat pocket for pipe and tobacco. He rose to his feet, fired a match, and stood smoking. He was still a bit ashamed for being caught asleep. He finished his pipe, knocked the dottle into a hand and when it felt cool enough, he dropped it to the ground. Just then, back at the house, his mule screamed like a panther. He jumped fully awake and lit out toward the house as fast as he could go. Tack continued to bray loud enough to perturb the angels on high.

"Them wily beasts are after my hens." Tommy cried out, still running as fast as an old man can.

Clifford caught up with him. He kicked a foot out of the stirrup and said, "Catch on behind me, Mr. Goodloe."

It took him a few attempts to mount up but made it and when he did, he struck the rump of the horse and it leapt ahead in a full all-out gallop.

The horse reached the yard with dust from its hooves rising behind it in a long tail.

Tommy raised the rifle to a shoulder, ready now to fire on what had nettled his mule enough to scream out as if in pain. The hens in the loft were squawking loud enough to crush rocks. They were the target the wolves hoped for.

"There. See 'em, Mr. Goodloe?"

"Lord above," Tommy muttered, "that mule jumped my corral fence." He wasn't right sure if he was proud of the mule's leaping ability or disappointed that Tack had leapt his corral fence.

Tack had knocked off the top rail when he leapt from the pen and now at the barn's entrance had one of the wolves by the neck. He shook the creature like a feist with a rat.

Clifford fell back on the reins and the animal skidded to a stop and the dust that had trailed them caught up and hid them all three in a large cloud.

Tommy slid off the rear of the animal. He sighted his rifle and fired off a round. He hit one of the bitches. It leapt four feet in the air, turned over in a somersault and fell on its back, dead. He then searched for another target while the hens squawked for mercy.

Tack tossed his wolf into the air and scampered about and found another one. The big male. The animal screamed in surprised pain like a kicked dog as Tack clamped down on its neck, standing at the barn's entrance.

The remaining bitch emerged from the barn and ran with its tail tucked against its belly to flee from the death and utter defeat that was carrying on all about it. It flashed out of the barn and streaked for the open spaces of the pasture, then found the courage to raise its tail high as it fled.

Tommy once more raised his rifle. The boy, though, was much younger and had much better vision and much quicker reflexes. Clifford hit it in the side just behind the left elbow. It skidded in the dust much like its pack mate did earlier.

Tommy turned in time to see Tack toss the male high in the air. It turned a neat somersault and hit the ground hard. However, no one told Tack that the beast was dead. He commenced leaping high and coming down on the male with both front hooves. Again, and again, the angered mule leapt and landed square on the dead and ragged animal. By and by, Tommy stepped forth and laid a hand on the neck of his friend.

"Watch out, sir," said the boy. "He's got blood-hate in his nostrils. He could harm you."

Tack ran in three quick circles as if to set the earth back on its proper beam. He then stopped and looked at Tommy. He rolled his upper lip back as far as was possible, showed his long yellow teeth, and threw his head. A frothy spume of spittle fell across his back.

At last, he stopped his infernal racket and stood still for a few seconds then as if he'd just recognized old Tommy. He stepped up to him and lowered his head.

Tommy gave the ears a brisk rubdown. Finished, he hugged the old mule and spoke babytalk to it. "Saved my hens, didn't you? You are a good ol' scamp."

Soon they calmed down and looked about. The wolves were lying around in the barn lot like large dogs sleeping. The best thing about it he figured, was the blamed hens had stopped their fuss where a man could think straight once more. The mule had turned them from the hens, which was why they had come into his yard and faced such peril. They had taken a chance and it backfired on them.

The old-timer and young man gathered up the wolves and piled them together.

"What do you mean to do with these dead creatures, sir?"

"Toss them in a brush pile. They'll go up in smoke. Why?"

"I'd like to have them. I think I could make a fine coat outta them."

The old man said, "Well, I'll help skin them rascals for you if you carry off their carcasses."

When he finished the job and the lad had carried off the naked critters, daylight was chasing off the night's darkness.

"That male one is tore all to heck. It won't do to make a coat. But you got more than enough to do.

"Listen here, gent" he told Clifford. "Let's go in, wash up a bit and I'll scratch up breakfast."

"I reckon on makin' two. One for me, and one for a gal I know."

So, the boy was old enough to think about the women folk. He chuckled.

"I'll take that male and hang him by his hind legs from a limb of a tree down close to where them beasts killed my calf."

"As a warning, sir?"

"Yessir. To warn off any more wolves.

"By golly, I'm starved plum' to death. Come on, gent. Let's go find some breakfast."

They stepped up on the porch and he felt the warmth of the sun on his back.

He sighed and this tightened his chest. He and old Tack had made it through another bout of darkness, and best, had gotten rid of the wolf problem. He would sleep sound tonight. And this, to the old man, was a fine occasion.

The End

Sumner Wilson is a retired railroad trainman, switchman, and brakeman. He took up writing in motel rooms to bedevil time while waiting to "get out" on homebound trips. He is the author of the novel The Hellbringer.

Wilson's short stories have appeared in Cappers, published in Big Muddy—a journal of Southeast Missouri State University—and he's sold two dozen stories to Sterling/Mcfadden Publishing, Inc. He has been published multiple times in Frontier Tales. He and his wife reside on the Gasconade River in the Missouri Ozarks, where many of his stories take place.

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