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

The Vaquero
by Ralph S. Souders

The westbound stagecoach from Fort Collins had arrived early in Wide River that morning, almost thirty minutes ahead of schedule. The weather was beautiful with sparsely cloudy, blue skies and a light breeze coming from the northwest. The air temperature was cool. It had rained earlier in the week, so the dust on the area roadways was minimal, making travel pleasant. The passengers were enjoying their journey, although they all appeared eager to stretch their legs and walk as they left their seats and disembarked from the coach. The stagecoach would be in Wide River for the next hour or so. The horses needed to be exchanged for two fresh pairs. The driver and the guard also needed to eat their lunch. When they finished eating, the stagecoach would continue heading south before stopping in Grand Junction where the passengers would again disembark. Unless this was to be their final destination, they would then need to transfer to another coach traveling either west to the Utah Territory or south toward the New Mexico Territory.

There were four passengers in the stagecoach. One was a local man named Cy Townsend. As he exited the coach, he collected his suitcases and proceeded to leave them with Dan Anderson at the general store. One of Cy's ranch hands would collect them later in the day. Cy then walked toward the livery stable. As soon as he could saddle and bridle his horse, he planned to ride to his ranch just north of town. He was pleased to be almost home. Two of the other passengers were a matronly schoolteacher and an elderly gentleman. The man's attire indicated that he was from back east, possibly experiencing the American west for the first time. Both the woman and the gentlemen intended to be on the stagecoach when it began its scheduled run to Grand Junction. The fourth passenger was a young, Mexican cowboy, dressed in the traditional clothing of the vaqueros of south Texas. His skin was of olive shade, weathered by many years in the southwest sun and wind, and his hair was long and dark, almost black. Perhaps he was from south of the Rio Grande, there was no way to know. He wore a medium rimmed sombrero that hung loosely upon his back between his shoulder blades. His boots were worn but still in good shape. He wore a 38-caliber handgun in a leather holster attached to his hip.

Sheriff Jim Larson had left his office upon hearing the arrival of the stagecoach and had walked across the street to the general store. This was his routine on the days when he was in town. There was no stagecoach station in Wide River, but tickets for the stagecoach line could be purchased inside the general store. There were wooden benches located outside the store where passengers could wait for the stagecoach to arrive. Jim Larson liked to welcome the local citizens back to town from wherever they might have been. He also liked to personally scrutinize any strangers who were arriving in town. He would subtly determine for himself whether a stranger might require any special surveillance while in Wide River. This strategy had proven to be effective at times in the past. Today, after welcoming Cy Townsend home, and briefly chatting with the teacher and the eastern gentleman, Jim directed his attention toward the vaquero. It was unusual to see an individual such as him in Wide River. Jim pondered if this man might warrant some additional attention.

Sheriff Larson noticed that the man had not collected any luggage from the stagecoach. This indicated that he was either traveling lightly or planning to leave Wide River on the stagecoach when it departed for Grand Junction in about an hour's time. Jim watched curiously as the vaquero proceeded to walk the short distance to the Northern Lights saloon located next door to the general store. He observed the man walk across the wooden boardwalk and into the saloon through the swinging, wooden doors. Jim immediately walked to the saloon himself where, in an authoritative manner, he followed the vaquero into the building. Once inside, he spotted the man already standing in front of the bar located along the back wall of the barroom. Two other cowboys were also there, standing apart and not drinking together. The bartender was preparing to pour the vaquero a drink. Jim Larson continued walking subtly toward the bar. The man did not notice him approaching.

"Mornin', Charlie," said Jim to the bartender. "How's business?"

"A little slow," replied Charlie. "It'll pick up this afternoon, I'm sure. It always does."

Jim nodded his head in agreement.

The bartender did not attempt to continue the conversation. He believed that he understood the sheriff's purpose in coming into the saloon. He proceeded to finish pouring a glass of rye whiskey for the vaquero.

"Buenos dias, señor," said Jim Larson, addressing the vaquero. "Cómo te llamas?"

The man immediately turned around, surprised to discover the local sheriff standing behind him. An apprehensive expression immediately enveloped his face. He wondered if he was about to be harassed by the local law enforcement. He had done nothing wrong, and he was not looking for trouble. Hopefully, he hadn't unexpectedly found himself some.

"Mornin', sheriff," responded the vaquero politely in excellent English. "My name is Luis Navarro. I'm just passing through your town on the morning stage. I wanted to have a couple of drinks before I got back on board. I'm just killing some time."

Luis Navarro spoke with an unusual accent, a combination of Mexican dialect and south Texas drawl. It was strangely pleasant sounding, not at all difficult to understand.

"Where are you coming from, Navarro?" asked the sheriff. "Where you headed?"

"I've been in Fort Collins," explained Luis. "I'm on my way home to New Mexico. I own a small ranch near Santa Fe."

"Santa Fe?" replied the sheriff in a surprised tone. "You don't sound like you're from that region."

The young vaquero nodded his head in understanding. "I'm originally from Texas, just south of San Antone. That's where I lived before the war. After the war, my brother, a friend and I bought property in New Mexico. It seems that I've never lost my south Texas accent."

"What were you doing in Fort Collins?" Jim inquired. "It's a long way from Santa Fe."

"My brother got married there," replied Luis. "He's still in the U.S. Cavalry. I'm the only family member who was able to attend the wedding."

The sheriff nodded his head in understanding. The vaquero's explanation sounded plausible enough. Jim's curiosity was satisfied. He did not believe that the vaquero posed any threat to the town. He found the young man to be a likeable fellow.

"Enjoy your drinks," said Jim friendlily. "I'll tell the driver that you're here. You don't want to miss this morning's stagecoach. There won't be another until the day after next."

"Thank you, sheriff," said Luis gratefully. "I'm much obliged."

Jim Larson nodded his head in return. Then tipping his hat to Charlie, the bartender, he turned, walked to the swinging doors and exited the saloon before walking next door to speak with the stagecoach driver. Once this was done, he intended to walk back across the street to his office. He still had some work to do.

With the sheriff gone, Luis Navarro thanked the bartender for the drink and proceeded to take a short sip. He planned to drink slowly, having no desire to become intoxicated. His sole intention was to relax until it became time to get back aboard the stagecoach. Hopefully, a couple of drinks would help him sleep once he was back in his seat. It was still a long way home to Santa Fe and a couple hours of sleep might make the ride to Grand Junction seem shorter. This was his short-term strategy.

For the next few minutes, Luis stood at the bar sipping his whiskey. Eventually, the cowboy standing nearest to him began speaking. The cowboy was young, probably in his mid-thirties, with dark hair and a stubble of dark whiskers on his face and chin. He was wearing brown pants and a blue shirt. He had a thick, leather belt with a customized, brass buckle featuring an eagle. His boots were relatively new. He was wearing a 38-caliber handgun in a leather holster against his right hip and a brown Stetson on his head. He had the cocky demeanor of a smart aleck.

"So, I reckon you must be from down Mexico way," said the cowboy. "How do you like it up here in these parts?"

Luis was surprised by the cowboy's surmisal. Surely, the man had just overheard his discussion with the sheriff.

"No, I'm not from Mexico," said Luis. "I'm from New Mexico. Santa Fe. There's a difference."

"Whatever," replied the cowboy dismissively. "I've always considered them to be the same place. They seem to be about the same to me."

The cowboy seemed to be subtly denigrating Luis' heritage. If his intention was to annoy Luis with his words, he was succeeding. Nevertheless, Luis let the remark pass without a response. The stagecoach would be leaving town in just over an hour and Luis wanted to be sitting inside it when it did. He did not intend to be delayed in Wide River due to a confrontation with a local troublemaker. He had things to do on the ranch and he needed to get home.

"Yes, I do like this area," said Luis in a pleasant tone, hoping to change the subject. "I like it a lot. This is beautiful country."

"Yes, that's a fact," agreed the cowboy. "It sure is."

Luis was not eager to continue the conversation, so he said nothing more. The cowboy, however, continued talking.

"Well, welcome to our town, señor," said the cowboy. "As long as you're here, I think I'll let you buy me a drink. How about it? What do you say?"

Luis was taken aback by the cowboy's audacity. He sensed that the man was eager to intimidate him. He realized that he had only two options, neither of which was particularly palatable. He could either buy the cowboy a drink or he could decline to do so. If he purchased the man a drink, he knew that he would feel coerced and would look foolish. He also suspected that the man would be requesting another drink in a few minutes. If Luis declined to purchase the cowboy a drink, the man might feign an insult and become belligerent. Luis was a visitor in a strange town whereas the cowboy was probably a well known local. If there was to be a fight, Luis was concerned that he would be blamed as the instigator and might find himself in trouble. The sheriff had seemed to be a nice enough guy, but Luis didn't know him. In settling a conflict, the sheriff quite likely would side with the local man, somebody he possibly knew quite well.

Unexpectedly, the bartender intervened. He had been listening to Luis and the cowboy conversing and he sensed the tension that was slowly developing. He hoped to prevent it from escalating.

"Hold onto your money, my friend," he said to Luis. "I'd like to buy a round for everyone." He placed three shot glasses on the bar and filled them with rye whiskey. He then gave one of the glasses to Luis and one glass each to the cowboy and the man standing further down the bar.

"Thank you," said Luis gratefully, understanding the bartender's strategy. "That's very nice of you. I appreciate it."

The cowboy lifted the glass to the bartender and nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Gracias," he said facetiously.

"Thanks, Charlie," said the other man.

The three men standing at the bar lifted their glasses in unison. Together they consumed their shots of whiskey in one quick swallow before placing the now empty glasses back upon the bar. The bartender collected the empty glasses, washed them and placed them on a shelf against the back wall. He then came out from behind the bar and began walking toward the swinging doors.

"Give me a couple of minutes," the bartender said to his customers. "I'll be right back."

With the bartender temporarily gone, Luis resumed slowly sipping his whiskey. He still had plenty of time, but he was not sure if he wanted to remain inside the saloon. He was beginning to wonder if he had made the wrong decision in trying to kill some time there. Perhaps he should have elected to wait for the stagecoach with the other passengers outside the general store.

"So, you strike me as a former military man," remarked the cowboy, wanting to restart their conversation. He slowly perused the vaquero from top to bottom. "Am I correct? I bet you were in the army during the war, weren't you?"

Luis was quickly becoming tired of the cowboy's attention. He had hoped to be able to quietly relax for a while and enjoy his drinks. Apparently, this was not going to happen.

In asking his questions, the cowboy was no doubt trying to subtly determine in which army Luis had served, union or confederate. This was obvious to Luis, but he did not want to respond. Not knowing the man's political sentiments, he knew that there was only a fifty percent chance of him answering the man's questions correctly.

"Yeah, I was," replied Luis matter-of-factly, "but I don't talk about it. I've done my best to put that part of my life behind me."

"Why that?" asked the cowboy in a surprised tone of voice. "Those should be easy questions to answer. Are you ashamed? Are you hiding something? It makes me wonder."

The cowboy had a quizzical expression on his face as he awaited the vaquero's response.

"No, I'm not ashamed," replied Luis while looking directly at the cowboy, "not at all. I was proud to serve. I have no regrets whatsoever. I just don't like to discuss it."

"But why?" asked the cowboy. "It seems to me that—"

"I just don't!" interrupted Luis in a stern tone of voice. "Let's just leave it at that. Okay?"

The cowboy was taken aback by the vaquero's outburst, and he did not take kindly to it. It annoyed him to be cutoff while speaking. He straightened his stance and turned his body toward Luis, glaring at him. His face was slowly reddening with anger.

"What's your problem, señor?" he asked. "You've had an attitude since you walked in here. If you can't be sociable, maybe you should leave. You might want to learn some manners before you come into another place like this. Just a suggestion."

Luis turned to face the cowboy who had already stepped back a couple paces and moved a couple feet away from the bar. It appeared that the man wanted to have easy access to his gun if he should decide to use it. The other man at the bar, not wanting to be in a potential line of fire, grabbed his drink and walked to a nearby table where he set it down. Luis straightened his posture and prepared to draw his gun in case he should need it.

At that moment, Charlie, the bartender, re-entered the saloon accompanied by the sheriff, Jim Larson. Charlie had sensed trouble brewing minutes earlier and he had decided to find the sheriff. Sheriff Larson had been in his office across the street, and he readily agreed to come to the saloon and intervene before a potential confrontation between the vaquero and the cowboy could fully develop. As Charlie and Jim stood inside the saloon doors, they immediately observed the two men facing each other. Neither man noticed them. Although the eruption of gunfire did not yet seem imminent, the sheriff was not taking any chances and he wasted no time.

"Hey, you two!" shouted the sheriff in a loud, authoritative voice. "Stand down! Now!"

The two men instinctively reacted to Jim Larson's order. Luis backed further away from the cowboy, turned and faced the sheriff. Immediately, the cowboy did the same.

"Both of you, remove your guns from your holsters and place them on the bar," instructed the sheriff in an irritated tone of voice. "Do it now!"

Luis immediately complied with the sheriff's order. He carefully placed his six-gun on the bar. The cowboy did not immediately react, obviously wanting to maintain control of his firearm.

"Now, Hobson!" shouted the sheriff. "Don't make me ask you again."

It was obvious to Luis that the sheriff knew the cowboy. This did not surprise him. He watched as Hobson withdrew his handgun from its holster and placed in on the bar as instructed. Then, as Jim Larson walked to the other end of the bar, Charlie, the bartender, collected the two handguns and placed them on the bar where Jim was now standing. Charlie then went back behind the bar and reassumed his position as the bartender.

"Okay, Hobson," instructed the sheriff, "go across the street and wait for me in my office. I'll be there in a bit, and you and I are gonna have a little discussion. Don't go anywhere in the meantime. I'll give you back your gun when I get there."

Jim Larson authoritatively pointed toward the swinging doors, indicating to Hobson that he needed to leave the building. The cowboy complied with the sheriff's order and left the saloon without looking again at the vaquero. He apparently knew better than to try arguing with the sheriff. As soon as Hobson was gone, the sheriff lifted the two handguns from the end of the bar, walked the short distance to where Luis was standing and then placed the guns on the bar at that location.

"I'm sorry for the problem this morning," the sheriff said to the vaquero. "Sometimes, I don't know what to do with that guy. We like to treat our visitors to Wide River better than this."

"That's okay," replied Luis. "I don't want any trouble. I'm sorry that you had to come back over here."

"Don't worry about it," said Jim. "It's not your fault. Lee Hobson can be difficult at times. One of these days, he's gonna stir up some trouble and I won't be around to stop it before he gets himself hurt."

Luis nodded his head in understanding but said nothing. He was not sure how to respond.

"What was he saying to you?" asked the sheriff. "Was he talking about the war? I bet he was. That's a topic that he can't seem to let go."

Luis again nodded his head. "Yes, sir. He was. He wanted to know if I'd been in the army, and if so, which one. Not knowing the man, I didn't know how to reply. It's a difficult subject for a lot of people."

"You'd have been okay. His two older brothers were killed in the war fighting for the north. He's had problems dealing with their deaths. He's okay with union vets such as yourself."

"How do you know if I was in the union army?" asked Luis. "I never said that."

"It's not too difficult to figure out," replied Jim. "You told me that your brother is in the U.S. Calvary. If he had fought in the confederate army, there's no way the U.S, Cavalry would have accepted him. I assume you fought on the same side as your brother. Am I wrong?"

"No, you're not wrong," said Luis. "We both fought with the 2nd Texas Cavalry under Colonel Edmund Davis. The 2nd Texas fought with the north, of course. After the war, he decided to stay in the army. He plans to retire next year. He'll then be joining our partner and me at our ranch near Santa Fe.

"I'm a union vet, too," said Jim proudly. "I was with the 3rd Iowa Volunteer Cavalry under Colonel Henry Clay Caldwell. The regiment mustered out after the war. That's when I came to Colorado, and I've been here ever since.

The two men proceeded to have a pleasant conversation during which the sheriff gave the vaquero back his gun. Luis promptly placed it back inside the holster attached to his hip. Soon thereafter, the driver stepped inside the two swinging doors of the saloon and announced that the stagecoach to Grand Junction would be leaving in five minutes. Luis had already finished his drink and was ready to leave.

"So long, sheriff," said Luis as the two men stood and shook hands. "It was a pleasure meeting you. If you're even down Santa Fe way, stop by my ranch. You'll always be welcome."

"Thanks, Navarro," replied the sheriff. "It was nice meeting you, too. I'm sorry again for the trouble you had in our town. That should never have happened. Have a good trip home."

With that, the two men exited the saloon and walked to the waiting stagecoach. Luis nodded his head again at the sheriff before approaching the stagecoach and climbing inside. He was the last passenger to board. As soon as he was seated, the driver closed the door and climbed into his seat at the front of the stage. The guard was already seated. Once he was comfortably situated, the driver picked up the reins and prompted the horses to start moving. They immediately responded and quickly accelerated to a moderate speed.

Luis looked out the window as they passed the Northern Lights, and he observed Jim Larson crossing the street toward his office. He was holding Lee Hobson's six-gun in his hand. Luis was certain that Hobson was going to receive an angry reprimand from the sheriff. The cowboy had not broken any laws inside the saloon but what would have happened if the sheriff had not arrived when he did? There quite likely was going to be a fist fight. Would this have escalated to guns being drawn? It was difficult to say. Fortunately, the fight never got started, so it never got out of hand.

Within a couple of minutes, the stagecoach reached the edge of the town. Heading south, it left Wide River behind. Although the whiskey he had drunk made him feel drowsy, Luis knew that the bumpy ride inside the stagecoach would not be conducive to sleep. Using his sombrero as a buffer, he leaned his head into an interior corner of the coach and closed his eyes. He would try to make the best of the situation. The stagecoach would be arriving in Grand Junction by late afternoon. If all went well, he expected to be in Santa Fe on the day after next. He looked forward to being home.

The End

Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novels: Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. He has also written a movie script and his short stories have appeared in "Bewildering Stories", "Frontier Tales", "Gadfly Online" and "The Penmen Review" magazines. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is happily married to his wife of thirty-six years. The are now retired and reside in Middle Tennessee. His website is

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