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.

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

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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

The Mountain Man's Testimony
by Richard L. Newman

Come fall and time to head down out of the mountains. I'd had a real fine season trapping up high, found some country that hadn't already been worked over, and got me a lot of plews. So many that I'd had to cache some, but even so, I was coming down out of the high country well laden with beaver. Me and my horse and then two pack mules, each of them topped up with hides. Course I wasn't down and safe yet, no sir. I hadn't seen anyone, and hadn't heard any news, but I could smell it. Something was coming. Trouble was up and about and moving.

Indians, I figured, had to be. But which and whom I couldn't say. Nor could I say why I felt it so strongly. There hadn't been any sign of any of the tribes, no hunters coming through, nothing. But I felt it. I knew it down to my bones. So I rode real lightly, always alert, trying to look every which way at once. I was alert for the sight or smell of smoke, and watchful for birds as they flew. The whole world seemed hushed, waiting.

I was well armed—had my two rifles loaded and primed. Each was a single shot, of course—it's all we had back in them days—but I had two of 'em, and I figured some Indians would be mighty surprised when I fired that second shot just when they thought I was done. Hawkens, both of 'em. I got the second off my compadre Evan when he died up near Two Forks last winter. He was a good man and fine friend, and I was sorry to see him go. Thankful for his generous gift of that rifle. It shot straight and true. So, I had that second rifle, and kept her ready. And I had a brace of horse pistols strapped right over my pommel. Now, the way I figured it, a big enough band of Blackfeet, say, or Shoshones, could salt my hash—but it would have to be a pretty big band, and they'd have to be pretty determined. And I'd take more than one of them with me, when I crossed the veil. So I was as ready as a poor pilgrim could be. And while I wasn't looking for any trouble, I wanted to be ready if it found me.

It was an overcast day, and the aspens, which were already golden, had started losing their leaves. That was surely a fine sight to see, hundreds of them gold leaves fluttering down amongst the white-ish trunks of the aspen. I still had some smoked meat, but I was keeping an eye open in case a deer drifted across my path. And as for a shot? Well, it'd make noise, that's for true, but I hadn't seen hide nor hair of any Indians yet, and even though I sensed trouble coming, I wasn't about to let my fears of the "might could" outweigh my need for food. But no deer did I see. I saw a bear once, pretty far off. A black bear, rolling logs over looking for grubs, or mice, or whatever it could find. Now bear is good eating, I know that, but somehow, I'd always hated to shoot a bear. I'd done it of course—you don't think twice about shooting if Mr. Griz starts charging you. But I wasn't that hungry, and so I just drifted on past that old bear. He'd be heading up into the mountains to den up for the winter, and I was heading down out of the mountains to do just the same.

We came down a little saddle, and around a bend past a small stream, when here it was—the trouble I'd been sensing. They was five of them sitting there. Indians. An old lady, all gray haired, and a young woman, and a brave in his prime, it looked to me, and two kids, a boy about twelve I guessed, and a little one maybe five, six years old. Now what in the world were they doing here? They didn't have any horses that I could see, so how in the world had they gotten here? I couldn't tell by the beadwork, so I wasn't sure which tribe or which band they was, neither. Well, wasn't this a particular mystery—five little Indians, way out to hell and gone, by themselves, with no horses, and no reason I could see for being there.

The buck saw me first, as you'd expect, and stood up to meet me. He had a spear or a lance, and he held it ready. But I could tell that he wasn't looking for a fight, although he stood ready to defend his folk if the need arose. But I wasn't looking for a fight neither, so I stopped my horses, and held my hand out, palm facing forward. I was still looking closely at them, and the leggings he wore, and the moccasins they was wearing, and while I couldn't be sure, I was now thinking that they were Crows. Which made a little sense. The Crows were mostly south of here, but they roamed up this far from time to time. So they might well have been crows. Which was fine with me. I hadn't heard that they were on the prod, and I had no particular quarrel with any of them.

It still didn't explain what they were doing out here all by their lonesomes, and that was what had me worried. Because I could just imagine a whole group of their kin and clansmen riding up over yonder rise in a minute. So I was acting calm and peaceful, but I was staying as alert as I ever was, I can tell you.

Only nothing happened. Nobody came riding up over the ridge. Just the five of them on the ground in front of me, and me sitting up here on my horse. My horse stamped and snorted, and I knew she was thinking, 'Well, we're stopped—why don't you get down and let me get to grazing?' For that matter, the pack mules hadn't waited but had their heads down picking at the grass as fast as ever they could.

Well, hell and tarnation. I noticed that they looked awful thin. Awful thin. Now your Indian in those days was, by and large, almost always pretty thin anyway, but this was different—this group looked liked they'd been leaned down pretty far; like it had been a couple days since they'd et. Aw, hell.

So I got down, and picketed ol' Sally, who commenced to eating like them mules was. And while they watched, I opened up a pack on Lucy, and pulled out all that smoked meat I had. And after a minute of trying to think a little more, I grabbed my cook pot and my canteen, too.

They didn't have a fire, but you could tell that they knew what a flint and steel was, because when I showed them, the boys ran off and came back in a few minutes with firewood—downed aspen for the most part.

I knew a little bit of sign language, and so did Elk Ear. Ain't that the damnedest name you ever heard? Well, maybe not, but I always did get a kick out of those Indian names. Anyway, Elk Ear understood what I was about doing, and you could see that it was fine with him. He set to making the fire, and I poured the water into the pot and set the smoked meat into it to boil. It wasn't that much meat, but I figured with some broth made along with it, it would give these folks some nourishment, get them along the trail little farther.

He gave me the names of the others. The old lady was Cloud Veil (I think—I'm not sure if veil was the right word). The younger woman was Spotted Deer, or Fawn, maybe; and the two boys were Bull Horn, and Egg. Egg is another pretty good name, I reckon. I later learned that the boys are given new names when they become warriors, men. Maybe Bull Horn had been a loud baby, and maybe Egg had been bald when he was born—I don't know. Still, Elk Ear and Egg and the others were my new compadres.

Well, we sat there, watching the pot boil, you might say. We weren't able to talk too well—neither of us had much sign language. The boys came and sat right near me, staring—I don't suppose they'd ever seen a trapper before, nor a white man, nor anyone with a big thick beard like I had then. They stared and stared, and I made some faces and made them laugh. They were fine boys, although I noticed that Egg was missing two fingers on his left hand. Of course, I didn't say anything, and it didn't slow him down any. And when I showed him the missing finger on my left hand, where that trap had snapped it clean off, why, after that we were buddies.

Well, there's not much more to tell. We ate, or more really, they did. I had a bite or two to be polite, but mostly I wanted that food for them, and they made short work of it. They ate all of it, and I was glad to see it. They'd been hungry, really hungry, and now they had something in their bellies.

It wasn't much, and they were still in trouble, up in the mountains by themselves, but at least they'd had something to eat. And as for me, I figured I'd find game further down below, and so I wouldn't have any trouble eating. The afternoon was wearing along, and the sky was clearing, and truthfully, I wasn't too keen on sleeping near these people, friendly or not, so after we ate and rubbed our bellies, and generally agreed how good the meal had been, I scooped up the cook pot, and unpicketed Sally, and we rode off down the hillside.

I never did see them folks again, and never did learn how they came to be up there, all by their selves, without horses or anyone else, and to tell you the truth, I never really gave it any thought. Just one of those chance encounters you get out here in the West, you might say.

But to me they was fine people. I liked those little boys. So when you show me the body of a dead redskin, and tell me that you've brought in the corpse of the great warrior Storm Cloud, who was at war with the white people; when you act like you've done the world a favor, well, all I can see is the missing fingers on this man's hand, and even though it's been nigh onto thirty five years, I know I'm seeing the hand of my young friend Egg, and I don't like how we got here.

The End

Richard L. Newman, known to his friends as Rick, has traveled widely throughout the West, and is always in search of good biscuits and strong coffee.

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