January, 2016

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Issue #76

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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!

Wrath Rides a Dappled Gray
by Ruth Weeks
Consumed with wrath, Zane vows to ride through the fires of hell to rescue her mother kidnapped by an unknown outlaw. Only a stallion charred by Hades' smoke and brimstone can carry her there. No such horse walks the earth. Heaven, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.

* * *

Nothing but the Best
by Robert McKee
Stark despised the cold, and Wyoming in February was not where he wanted to be. He had a chore to do, however, and it was his plan to kill John Randolf and return to Texas by the end of the week. Seemed Randolf, though, had a plan of his own.

* * *

The Troubled Stranger
by Marguerite Doecke
Cade Garrett was a troubled stranger seeking redemption in the Wild West. There he encountered a beautiful distraction, Sarah Livingstone, but his past soon caught up with him, together with the notorious Sheriff Jesse Black. Can Sarah forgive Cade, or is he destined only to be the troubled stranger?

* * *

Betrayal, Part 1 of 2
by Jesse J Elliot
Bobby and Alonzo had been friends forever. Now both were involved in a life and death struggle over prize horses, as well as surviving the blizzard that caught them all in its deadly wake. Luckily, Sheriff Jones and her deputy Cruz arrive, but are they too late?

* * *

O'Grady's Last Stand
by John Hansen
Gus O'Grady was a soldier's soldier when he was sober but thirteen years of fighting and killing had taken its toll on him. His past accomplishments made no difference to Lieutenant Welch, a by-the-book officer. Gus had a gut full of Welch. It was time to act.

* * *

The Miners of Lightning Spruce
by Brian Biswas
When Stu murdered Sam's mining partner, Sam vowed not to rest until justice was done. Justice brought him to Fisher's Bar where Alice, Stu's girlfriend, realized the law was the last thing on Sam's mind. An hour later a body lay on the floor. But who thrust the knife?

* * *

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All the Tales

Wrath Rides a Dappled Gray
by Ruth Weeks

At twilight the mist stirred, touched the trees, leaves, and streams with icy fingertips. Silence covered the land so thick the flap of a raven's wing echoed through the wild. And from the chill a mighty horse with a coat of smoke and snow pranced forth. Pawed the ground with a black-stocking leg and snorted dragon smoke into the wind. Silk ribbons of a charcoal-streaked mane and tail glimmered in the frosty air. He had come for her this day.

For it has been said, Wrath rides a Dappled Gray.

* * *

"Hide!"

If fear had a face, it would be pinched, sweaty, and ghost-white just like Mama's. Something awful was fixin' to happen. Mama never got scared. Not even the time a brown bear lumbered into our yard after spring thaw. Or that brutal cold winter when snaring, rib-thin wolves raided our chicken coop. Fear feeds fear. I stood rooted to the spot. Frantic, she pulled me to her and shoved Grandpop's old war pistol in my hand.

"Zane. Run. Whatever happens, no matter what you hear, do not come out of hiding."

I gazed deep into brown eyes bigger than walnuts. The spit in my mouth turned to sand.

"You must not come for me. Understand?"

"No."

Even in terror, she couldn't stop a hint of a grin. "Stubborn to the bone. Always have been. Suppose ya always will be." Her hold on my arm tightened. "That ain't a bad thing, girl, as long as you temper it with the good instincts God graced you with."

The sound of hoof beats made her tremble. Tears dampened my braids when she hugged me to her breast and kissed the top of my head.

"Promise me, child. Swear you'll stay put. I mean it, Zane. Swear it!"

"I swear."

I swear.

The oath repeated itself like a silly nursery rhyme in my head as I ran full bore to woods. Sam, a yellow fur ball with four paws and a tail chased after me, no doubt thinking my flight was some kind of game.

I swear.

A vow whispered over-and-over while I sat in the bowels of the dingy, musty-smelling cave and clutched the cold iron of the pistol and the squirming warmth of the dog to my heart.

I swear.

A promise shattered to pieces with one scream.

At the wood's edge my trembling legs gave way and folded under me like a new born colt's. Black smoke turned day into night.

One rider.

A demon from hell threw Mama like a ragdoll across his saddle. Behind him the cabin spewed a death rattle into hot air and collapsed in a heap of charred wood and mortar.

I couldn't see the face of the outlaw who grabbed Mama and galloped past me, but I saw his horse. Milk white.

No. No. No.

It took two hands to pull back the hammer on the weighty gun and point it at the horse's muscled rump. The pistol's report stung my hand. Rang my ears. Blue smoke wrinkled my nose, blinded my eyes. The shot? Lost forever in air thick and arid with the scent of gunpowder, smoke, and ash.

The hot pistol fell to the dirt.

In a blink of an eye Mama was gone.

And my heart forever turned to ice.

This was Pa's fault. If he'd been here, none of this would've happened. But, no. He had dreams to chase after. Dreams that didn't include his woman and baby. A girl-child to boot. As if Mama had any say in that matter. I figured she tagged me with a boy's name in a desperate attempt to ease my gender, to appease her man.

She claimed, however, the name carried magic. Mama believed in all things mystical. She kept this to herself, however claiming folks wouldn't understand her peculiar ways and think her a witch. Many times I'd seen her eyes glaze and messages only she could hear spilled from her lips. Perhaps the voices in her head, her spirits, had forewarned her of oncoming danger. For all the good it'd done.

But none of her visions or spirit messengers made a lick of sense to me and didn't matter no how. Pa took off, never to return. I promised myself I would never leave her. To always protect her.

But. I failed.

She was gone, and here I was. Hollowed out like a pumpkin shell and all alone except for a snip of a puppy whimpering at my feet.

Where was the magic in that?

Don't know how long I sat in the dirt, staring into blackened logs of a home that would never be again. Not even the sound of wagon wheels made me stir. But hoof beats made my heart summersault, jarred me from my stupor. Quick as a rattler, I turned and raised the ancient pistol. Didn't matter it weren't loaded. The rider didn't know that.

Folks called Max Johansson "Big Sweed" 'cause he hailed from some hamlet in Sweden and was bigger than a grizzly. A blacksmith by trade, he didn't spook easy but the sight of a gun as big as a small cannon pointed at his chest made him blanch, that and the fact the hands holding it shook like a cornered rabbit. He stepped down easy from the blue roan and nodded to the woman sitting in the buckboard.

"Elsa, you best take it from here."

Elsa was Big Sweed's wife of twenty years. She and Mama were friends. Or as good as friends as they could be with ten miles of timber and wildness separating them. She hurried toward me.

Dishwater-blue eyes gazed at the smoldering cabin. "What happened here? Where's Sarah?"

No words came. Didn't feel like talkin'. Or Walking. Or Breathing.

"Oh, my God. Is she . . . was she in the house?"

A slight shake of my head.

No longer worried about getting his head blown off, Big Sweed took the gun. Looked like a pea-shooter in his meaty paws. A bushy eyebrow cocked. "Sweet mother of God. It's a wonder the damn thing still worked." His gaze traveled past me to the yard. "Where is she?"

"Gone. Stolen."

From the frown that crossed the big man's face I knew his wits were stretched tight as a bow string. His voice came as a whisper.

"Who could've took her?"

"The devil."

Before today his puzzled look would've threw me into a side-holding fit. But no more. Today laughter got flopped over a saddle on a white horse and disappeared—just like Mama.

He cleared his throat, shot a confused look at Elsa, and shrugged his big-bear shoulders. I struggled for a deep breath. Guess he didn't know.

The devil rides a white horse.

Elsa wrapped a blanket around me. "Nothing left here. We'll take her home. After all, it's the Christian thing to do."

Felt invisible sitting beside her. The spring seat and my belly yawed and pitched. I glanced back. Was never again gonna help Mama mix up a batch of sourdough and flood the small cabin with the scent of fresh-baked bread. Sleep all safe and cozy snuggled under Grandma's patchwork quilt. I peeked over at the hefty woman beside me and her ginger-haired grizzly-man who rode alongside. If she noticed my stare, she said nothing. Good people. But not kin. Might be they'd come to love me as one of their own and me, them. Weren't the same. No love can replace a mama's.

Later, alone in the dark, with Sam loyally curled by my side, I cried out every bit of sadness and fear I'd stored up.

I'd find her.

If I had to ride into the deepest roots of hell, I'd find the evil that stole Mama and fling its dark, twisted mangy-hide back into the lake of fire and brimstone from whence it was forged. The only law in town was whatever tinhorn yahoo could draw the fastest. But that didn't mean spit to me. Didn't need no law. I'd teach myself how to shoot. To fight. To kill.

Hate rides a red roan.

An itchin', scratchin', burning feeling seared my gut. What was it? Revenge? Justice?

Wrath.

Moss Adams was the town's undertaker. His sweat-stained high-collared shirts stank of embalming fluid for the dead and whiskey for the living. Mean. Ornery; crooked as a witch's wart-green nose and twice as ugly. I hid behind the coffins lined up like pine dominos against the wall and watched him crawl on top of Jake Wilkes stiff body. With a pair of pliers in one hand and a needle in the other, he yanked out Jake's two front teeth for the gold that framed them. Then, cool as a frosted dew, he sewed the gunfighter's lips shut so no one would know. Even hummed a little tune while he weaved the thread in and out of the thin skin. Sure hoped ol' Moss liked the heat 'cause it was gonna be hotter than billy-blue blazes where he'd spend all eternity.

'Course I'd sneaked in to steal the dead man's gun belt and holster, so was I any better? I told myself, yes. At least I hadn't defiled a perfectly good body. A fine line I know, but a line none-the-less.

Every morning I took the six-shooter to the woods and practiced until no twig or branch was safe. Didn't seem to bother Elsa that I wasn't around. Guess she figured I needed time alone to sort things out and come to terms with everything. 'Course, to be honest, with a passel of young'uns of her own to tend and care for she probably didn't even notice I was gone.

I think the horse jumped heaven's pearly gates and fell to earth.

It was one of those Indian summer days. Not quite fall anymore, but not yet winter. Sundown matched the red, orange, and yellow of the trees and the woodsy scent of bark and leaves soaked the air. Twilight ushered in a cool breeze. Icy fog dripped wet tresses from branches and covered the creek with a mist so fine it reminded me of the sugar crystals Mama dusted on birthday cakes. Air so clear and hushed, I heard the grass breathe.

I turned.

And there the stallion stood.

Black skinned, wearing a coat of iron-gray and silver flecks, he watched me walk toward him with dark eyes so wise and deep I could fall into them and never crawl out. A horse so noble and proud, Jesus Christ himself would've thrown a leg over and spurred into hell. Strong. Fast. Willing and brave enough to carry me all the way to Mama and bring me home again.

Big Sweed's barn busted at the seams with bridles and saddles. Didn't take but a few minutes to find a good one, tighten the cinch, and step up into the stirrup. I screwed my Stetson down low and gave the gray his head.

I trusted he knew the way.

* * *

Sarah's long fingers traced the name burned into the wood cross: Zane Montgomery

"Max said your father's old cavalry pistol back-fired. Killed her on the spot."

"Thank you, Elsa. For . . . for not leaving her there for the buzzards and wolves."

Elsa stepped away from the small mound of dirt and shook her head. "No need to thank me. You would've done the same if'n it been one of mine."

"You know, Elsa, that day . . . that awful day, I made her swear not to try and save me. No matter what." A sad smile. "But I knew. Knew before the vow left her lips she wouldn't honor it. After her father abandoned us she said was her duty to protect me. Claimed that's why God made her. Have no idea where she got that notion. Couldn't convince her any different."

Elsa chuckled. "She always was a head-strong child."

Sam whined and nudged Sarah's hand. She knelt beside the grave and stared into his eyes. "Poor boy, I bet you miss her something fierce."

"I'll say he does. That yella' hound comes out here every night and curls beside her. Rain or shine. Sometimes . . . well I know how strange this is going to sound, but sometimes he gets all worked up, barking, tail wagging to beat the band. Kinda like he sees or hears her. Silly notion, ain't it? Thinking the dead can still be around watching over us."

"Oh, it's not so foolish, Elsa. I happen to believe they are, and I find great comfort in that."

The big woman gathered her skirts and slipped down beside her friend. "You never did say how you got away."

"I prayed.

"Every night and day.

"Prayed God's wrath would strike my captor dead. Right where he stood." A deep breath. "Believe it or not, that's exactly what happened."

She pulled Sam into her lap and stroked his tawny coat, lost in thought. Her voice came low.

"We'd gone into town for supplies. Very rarely did he let me out of his sight, and when he did I was on a very short rope. Usually he'd follow me into the store and stand by the door while I got what we needed. For some odd reason this one particular day he let me go in alone while he stood by the hitchin' rail. There hadn't been a hint of a storm brewing but minutes after we hit town the skies turned a puke-green color. The wind stilled like death and lightning cracked sharp as a whip. All of us ran to the windows expecting to see a twister fall out of the clouds. Instead, we watched a stranger ride down the middle of the street, bold as brass."

"Oh, my. What did he look like?'

"Never saw his face, hat was pulled too low, but his horse was a most striking mottled gray I'd ever seen. He trotted right up, pulled out his gun, and shot that piece of oulaw vermin right between the eyes.

"Killed him.

"Right where he stood.

"Just like I'd prayed."

Elsa gasped. "Death rides a pale horse."

"And Wrath rides a Dappled Gray.

"Everyone ran out to the street. All except me. I climbed up into the buckboard and drove straight out of town. Never looked back."

"What happened to the stranger?"

"Disappeared back into the storm what birthed him."

"Merciful heavens."

Elsa struggled to her feet and patted Sarah's shoulder. "I best be seeing to supper. Stay here as long as ya need, honey." She walked a few steps then turned. "Too bad Zane will never know about that stranger. That he rescued you."

Sarah ducked her head. A knowing, secretive grin pulled at her lips and she whispered to Sam's flickering ears.

"Oh, I bet she knows."

The End

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