March, 2024

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Issue #174

Welcome, Western Fans!

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
You're at the right place.


Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

Slater's Choice
by Robert Collins
He was out-gunned, but Slater would do whatever was needed to save Victoria's ranch. He owed her much, and would see the debt paid.

* * *

The Mountain Man's Testimony
by Richard L. Newman
A Mountain Man tells about his surpising encounter in the high country—and its aftermath.

* * *

The Vaquero
by Ralph S. Souders
A young vaquero visits a saloon to wait while his stagecoach gets fresh horses. A cowboy begins to aggravate him. Will he try to ignore the cowboy and leave town on the stage, or defend his honor and risk the local jail?

* * *

A Bullet for Christmas
by Jason Crager
A ne'er do well ex-convict is determined to finally become the husband and father his family deserves. He's made a Christmas promise that he intends to deliver on, by any means necessary.

* * *

West of Eminence
by J. Daniel Camacho
In the Old West, a sheriff faces down a marshal, his country, and an offer he can't refuse.

* * *

A Ghost, A Jezebel, and a Bank Manager
by Michael Shawyer
As a trailherder wakes by the campfire, a spooky message arrives from his long-gone mother. Why does she want him to compose a story about a picture of three people?

* * *

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

All the Tales

West of Eminence
by J. Daniel Camacho

Next to his tiny brown deputy, old Sheriff Jimmy "Kid" Tunney looks past the saloon and the brothel and the hotel to the rows of his people: dirtied boots, sweated slacks, tightened waistcoats, shawled shoulders, dusted beards, and awed eyes under wide-brimmed hats staring straight through a hole in a man's head.

"A great many come here wanting what we have, Montana."

Mini Montana nods. "I see, sir."

The tall, burly Kid Tunney holsters his army revolver, gestures to the undertaker, and sees the crowd disperse.

"But sir, why do they call you Kid?"

"What do you mean?"

"The townsfolk, they call you Kid, but you're full grown."

"That's something they've called me since I was sixteen."

"Sixteen, sir?"

"A long time. No longer a kid, but the name stuck."

"I see."

"Confuses the hell out of the outlaws that come here, though."

"Like that man there?"

"What's left of that man there."

"What do they expect, sir?"

"They expect to find a young sheriff on his first job."

"His first job . . . "

"They expect to find you."

"I see, sir."

"What they find instead is a man of experience, timing, vitality."


"A man full of life, Montana. A man that will protect the independence of this town no matter what. And a man that knows how to do it. The name 'Kid' is a problem for them. It's not a problem for me."

Kid Tunney and Montana walk from the center of their town to the porch outside the sheriff's office.

"What happened to your last deputy, sir?"

"Well, he went rotten, many years ago."


"He went a few towns over, stole some money."

"A thief."

"A robber. Thought he could get away with it."

"Did he, sir?"

"He was well-ahead of the local sheriff when they realized what had happened. He got to the last vineyard before the desert and filled up on water. Then he ruined the vineyard, shot up all the tanks. That was a problem, and not just for the vineyard. When the sheriff and his searchers arrived, there was no water. They had nothing for the desert trail. So that was it—they didn't follow. I was stunned he would do something like that. I knew he was man of action, but not that kind of action."

"So he got away, sir?"

"That's not what the vineyard owner said."

"What do you mean?"

"The owner said he filled the guy's canteens with wine, not water."


"Wine won't help you in the desert."

"I see, sir."

"Without realizing it, he was dead as soon as he left the vineyard."

"Did they ever find him or the money?"

"They found a body out there in a hand-dug hole."

"Was it him?"

"Clothes torn or stripped. Cooked skin. Torn nails. Nose full of sand."

"But was it him?"

"Hard to say. Wasn't a man anymore. No vitality."

"And no money."

"No, no money."

"Terrible, sir."

"I blame myself."


"Give a good kid a badge, a gun, some power—"


"Authority. It can make this rich fantasy life in his head."

Mini Montana thumbs the dirt off the metal badge on his chest.

"You try to tell him about independence, compassion."

"And what did he take away instead, sir?"

"He gets captured by the idea of independence."

"Independence of the town?"

"Independence of the self. And that the only way to get there is money."

Then a pale young woman on white horseback trots up to the sheriff's office. She comes armed: a stylish pistol on her waist and a rifle on her saddle. She smiles under her sombrero. "I'm looking for Kid Tunney, and I'm feeling good that that's you, the tan fella with the mustache. Am I right? Let's have a drink."

* * *

While Mini Montana waits outside, Kid Tunney empties the saloon and sits in a stiff, wooden booth across from the armed woman. He smells the leftover sweat of exited bar-goers who came for a drink after the noontime shootout. He watches the woman remove her sombrero and bare a toothy, knowing expression.

"So you're Kid Tunney, the famous ol' outlaw sheriff."

"Well, I don't know about famous—or outlaw, for that matter."

"We have a record on you, confirmed by that showdown I just saw."

"And who is we, Ms.  . . . ?"


"Burke? Battling Belle Burke? The gunslinging marshal? That's you?"

"Thank you for saying that. Yes, that's what they insist on calling me."

"But that name's a problem for you?"

"Just 'Marshal' is fine, thanks."

"Marshal. Okay, then."

"I don't mean to be so serious, Sheriff, but I'm here on serious business."

"And what business is that?"

"Your nation wants to buy your town."

"Come again?"

"This town, West of Eminence—we need you to sell it."

"I've seen a great many come here and ask for all sorts of things."


"And that's a first. Marshal."

She jostles in her seat, jangles the gun cartridges along her waist, and places her hands at her side. "So you won't sell it?"

"It's not for sale."

"I was prepared for you to say that. I ride here, ask you to sell the town, and that's the funniest thing you've ever heard. But this is nothing to giggle at, Sheriff. Your country is prepared to pay you and all your people good money to buy this place outright."

"That's a tremendous thing you're asking. What kind of money?"

"Each person would make more in an afternoon than they would in a decade."

"A decade?"

"They could retire, or buy new horses, new cattle. Live someplace else."

"For the money."

"For the money, Sheriff. For more than fair money."

"Why does my country even want this place?"

"You know what happened here, on these plains in the shadow of that mountain."

"The Great Battle."

"The westernmost battle of the War. Right here."

"And what would you do with it?"

"Build a memorial."

"Why? To what?"

"The Great Battle was not just one of the great battles of this nation but of this world. So many on each side came, so many ready to die. And so many did. Their bravery, their heroism—we should never forget it. And we can learn new lessons in war by never forgetting this tragic battlefield on which West of Eminence now sits. So I'm being so serious because this is a serious matter, Sheriff, one that you have some say in as the, the 'guardian' of this town. But surely, not the ultimate say."

"I know all about the Great Battle."

"Sure you do, Sheriff. Because you were there."

"I was."

"For a time."

Kid Tunney swigs his bitter drink, rises from his seat. "So what would you have me do, Ms. Burke?"


"Marshal." Kid Tunney turns and walks over to the bar, his back to Burke. "What would you have me do?"

"Ready your people to move. Convince them to leave peacefully, with their wallets full."

Kid Tunney finishes his drink, thumps his metal cup on the bar. "And if they refuse?"

Burke whips out her pistol and fires and clangs the cup clean off the counter. "They won't. Not with you telling them."

Kid Tunney pauses.

"I'm feeling good about this talk of ours, Sheriff. I'll return in two days."

"What then?"

"By then, you should have an answer."

Kid Tunney turns and watches Burke rise, re-attach and re-adjust her sombrero, and step back into the hot afternoon light outside the saloon door where her white horse neighs its greeting. She has left a letter on the table, filled with words and numbers.

* * *

Kid Tunney stands on the steps of his office, a few feet above the assembled townsfolk: hotel clerks, paper-writers, ranch-hands, stable-hands, prospectors, millers, miners, schoolmarms, sex-sellers, shopkeepers, innkeepers, cowboys and cowgirls, all waiting intently like parishioners before a preacher.

Mini Montana poses on a step below with his hands on his belt.

Kid Tunney removes his hat, glimpses down before addressing the crowd. "I thank you all for gathering now, for the second day in a row. For those who have put down their roots here, it shows a great trust in me, it really does. Without realizing it, we have become dependent on each other in this town of ours. We have a problem, we solve it together. Stable burns down, we build another one. The school needs supplies, we go get 'em. And if the problem is a man with a gun like yesterday, well, I get to do something I've wanted to do since I was young: protect good people like you."

The townsfolk cheer.

"Just after yesterday's excitement, I was visited by a young woman in a sombrero. You might have seen her—the white horse captures the eye. Tremendous animal. That's why I cleared out the saloon, so me and her could chat. Turns out this lady was a U.S. Marshal, and she asked me the strangest question that I've had in the great many years I've served this community."

A ranch-hand asks what was asked.

"She told me that our national government wants to buy this town."

The townsfolk prattle and chatter.

"She wanted to know if we would sell it. It's a tremendous question. It's a question that left me stunned, it really did. But it's not a question that I can answer alone. This town belongs to each of you just as much as it belongs to me."

A miner wants to know what was offered.

"The Marshal, she left us a short proposal, written copies of which I worked on yesterday and that Mini Montana is passing through the crowd."

A schoolmarm cries out that she was raised in West of Eminence.

"Yes. I'm looking you right in the eye there. I see myself in you. This is our home. I've been here for a generation. After the War, we made this place our own. We live and grow together. We make choices together."

The townsfolk whoop and clap.

"But one of those choices is this one. I wouldn't be being fair if I didn't tell you the offer. You can see the numbers on those papers, but for those that need to hear it, the Marshal told me that each of us would make more in an afternoon than in a decade."

A sex-seller asks if that includes everyone.


The townsfolk remain quiet for a moment—until another and another and another yell that this town is their home, that they don't care what the Marshal has to say.

"No? Is that how the rest of you feel?"

The townsfolk clamor and nod.

"I'm captured by your passion. I care about the independence of this town, the freedom of it. There's strength, vitality in community. I really believe that. And I'm happy to hear that the rest of you believe it too. Some of you know that the Great Battle took place here, just beneath that mountain. Some of you may even know that I fought in that battle. But you probably don't know that I walked away from it, that I abandoned my men at our most important hour."

There is a pause.

"But I will not abandon this town. I will not abandon you."

The townsfolk shout approval.

"Tomorrow, I'll tell that Marshal to turn her white horse right back around—that West of Eminence is our town!"

Again the townsfolk cheer and whoop and clap and yell and clamor and nod and shout.

Kid Tunney exhales, looks around at his people. He sees most in celebration, but sees others in silence. And then he peeks to his left at his deputy and sees the same.

* * *

In the fading orange sunlight and beneath the creeping purple of night, Kid Tunney and Mini Montana ride on horseback to bring three escaped brown horses back to town from the base of Eminence Peak. They clop past ridged green cacti and craggy red boulders and crippled wagons and cracked cannons on the bushy, pocked mountainside. They have said little to each other since the town discussion about the Marshal's proposal earlier that day.

When they spot the loose animals, the deputy takes action. He speeds up his horse to a gallop and leans forward on its neck and readies his lasso and cocks his wrist and swings and swings and swings and slings the lasso around the neck of the first. He hands off the roped animal to the sheriff and repeats until all three horses fall under their control. The deputy ties the three horses together and leads them in a line back toward the town. Beside the sheriff, the deputy looks ahead and breathes out. He briefly bites his lip, shakes his head.

"Something wrong, Montana?"

"Sir, do you really think selling the town is a bad idea?"

"Lying was something I'd thought I'd grown out of."

"So what you said to the people—that's the truth?"

"It's not fantasy, it's truth. Can't say I'm stunned they feel that way."


"Guys like outlaws, or trappers, or even marshals—they're a problem for me. They don't see the world the way we do. They don't appreciate community the way we do. I left the War because I couldn't see myself fighting for something as big as the country anymore. It happened, and I regret it tremendously."

The deputy says nothing.

"I looked through this old book of mine last night, Montana. It's in some language I can't read but it has tremendous drawings. After that, I dreamed of dead soldiers. They were men of action. They were my friends. I should have fought for them—not for the country, but for them. Just like I should fight for the town. I realize the vitality here. I see myself here. The people do, too."

"But I don't know if I see myself that way."

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"Sir, I fled my homeland because those in charge were making bad choices. Other countries were taking turns taking over, passing around my people like toys. Like they didn't mean anything, sir. I didn't see it as a boy. I just saw their ships and wanted to be a sailor. I was stupid, sir. They made choices that left my family with nothing. I came here to start over. I didn't help my family there, so maybe I could help others here. I think you saw that in me too."

"I did, yes."

"Those who conquered my homeland left us with nothing."

"I'm sorry."

"But sir, now your country wants to give us everything!"

"Money isn't everything, Montana."

"Why not?"

"What have I been trying to tell you? Without realizing it, you've ignored what I said today, what I said yesterday, what I've been saying all along. Money is something that I wanted when I was younger. And it helps people, yes. But community, Montana, freedom—that's what's important."

"Sir, what's more free than getting paid fairly? More than fairly?"

"A free community. Free to create our own lives, make our own decisions."

"Why can't I do that by myself?"

"Because we can't do everything alone."

"Sir, I do not understand."

The sheriff rubs his mustache with his gloved knuckle.

The deputy grips his reins tighter.

"A great many come here, Montana. Why do they stay?"

The deputy pauses.

"Why did you stay?"

"You took me in, sir. I warned you about an outlaw."

"He pointed a gun at me and I didn't see it."

"Yes, sir."

"You saved my life."

The deputy pauses again, nods, and quickly scrunches his nose.

"This town is worth keeping together, Montana. Trust me that it is."

The sheriff places a hand on the deputy's small shoulder, and the deputy says no more. They ride on together and lead the escaped horses back to their community just as white stars begin to stud the night sky.

* * *

The next day, Kid Tunney again sits across from Battling Belle Burke at a booth in the emptied saloon.

"Sheriff, you don't have to clear out the bar every time I walk in."

"A great many walk in here. Not like you though."

"Well, this is a serious matter."

"Yes it is."

"On my way here, I'm thinking to myself: This Sheriff is smart."

"Is that so?"

"I'm thinking, This is a good deal. And it's for his country."

"Seems that way."

"I think, There's no way he gives it up. How'm I doin', Sheriff?"

"That was something I thought about."

"So, what's your answer?"

"It's not my answer. I'm not the only guy who has roots here."

"So what are you saying?"

"It's a great offer. A tremendous, rich offer. But our answer is no."

Burke laughs, pats her straw sombrero on the wooden table.

Kid Tunney pauses.

"This is tragic, Sheriff. Tragic circumstances."

"And why is that?"

"I was serious when I said this was serious. I wanted to see if you'd give us the land voluntarily. Consciously. You seem like a prepared person, a serious man. I was feeling really good about it, Sheriff. But I'm afraid this is not a choice."


"Your country can take this land. By force, if it needs to."

"No, I—no, that can't be."

"Told you this was serious, Sheriff. I came here to ask you politely."

"You shot a cup out of my hand."

"That was me being polite."

Kid Tunney pauses again, stares into Burke's cold, mud-colored eyes. "Without realizing it, I walked into a trap."

"No trap. This is just how it's going to be."

"And how's that?"

"The nation pays you and your people, and you leave."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"All this to build a memorial?"


"A fort would not be a problem for me. A post office maybe."


"But statues and tombstones?"

"This is not supposed to be funny, Sheriff."

"I wasn't saying it was."

"A memorial for the Great Battle enhances respect."


"Yes respect."

"Respect for whom?"

"Respect for the country. But I now see that you don't have it."

Kid Tunney hears the dust swirl and sprinkle outside.

"You haven't had it since you deserted the War, Sheriff." Burke places her hands at her side.

"Is this something you've wanted to do since you were young?"


"Yes, this. Threatening people like us."

"Threatening people . . . "

"In the name of the government."

"So is that what I'm doing?"

"A young kid finds a U.S. Marshal in their town. She sees the horse, the guns, the badge, the authority. It seems to create a rich fantasy life in her head. Is that what happened to you? Were you a young girl so captured by a marshal you saw—maybe a stranger, maybe your father—and it stirred a tremendous dream in you? Is that what happened?"

"It makes sense that you're trying to understand me. It really does."


"But it doesn't matter how I got here or the timing of it."

"It doesn't?"

"No, it doesn't. What matters is the message. Now, what are you going to do?"

Kid Tunney taps the table with his fingertips.

"As I said, Sheriff, these are tragic circumstances."

"Not yet." Kid Tunney pulls back his hand and draws his army revolver up above the table.

"Well forgive me, Sheriff, but you have me giggling."

"I thought you said this was serious."

"It is serious. But whether you know it or not, that gun means nothing."

"Sure feels like something."

"So what's your plan, Sheriff? You're supposed to be so prepared. Now you're trying to shoot a U.S. Marshal in public. And for what? For trying to give you and your people money? I walk in with my hand out, and you stick a gun in my face. You're supposed to be a serious man. But you're not ready for this moment. What will you do: shoot me? And then what? This is not my idea. This comes from the Capital. If you shoot me, another marshal will walk right back in here. And what then? Will you shoot them too?"

"I'm here to protect this town, these people. That's what I've wanted to do since I was young. And I'm here to protect them from any threat, be it a madman with a gun or a marshal with some numbers. These people don't want you here. They want to stay. So that means I don't want you here. I won't leave them. So you just need to put on your sombrero and hop on your white horse and—"

Something jars and clacks and smokes under the table.

Kid Tunney drops his weapon and clutches his gut and gnashes his teeth and wheezes until his mouth runs red and turns in his seat to see the arrival of Mini Montana.

The deputy touches his holster but pauses and looks to Kid Tunney and looks to Burke and to Burke's pistol now above the table and pointed in the deputy's direction and Montana does nothing, nothing at all.

Burke takes the sheriff's revolver from the table and smiles at the deputy. "Congratulations, kid. You're about to be rich."

The End

J. Daniel Camacho lives near Washington, D.C., with his wife and young daughter. He is a member of the Mythopoeic Society and the International Boxing Research Organization. This is his first published short story.

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