March, 2016

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Issue #78

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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!

The Burden of Absolutes, Part 1 of 3
by Robert McKee
Bobby Joe Thomas confessed to the murder of Lenny Lukather, but was he lying to protect someone? Young Joleen knew the truth, but she was too frightened to tell her story. Only the skills of Jeb Blake, the court's stenographer, could save Bobby Joe from both himself and the hangman.

* * *

Buffalo Soldier
by Keith G. Laufenberg
Black Eagle stood up slowly, his knee dripping blood. He clenched the knife and slid it underneath his buckskin shirt, then spoke to the soldiers in Cherokee. "Today is as good a day as any for me to die; I never liked the cold."

* * *

Robert's Rules of Order
by Jesse J Elliot
Sheriff Jones was hired to support the law by arresting those who break it, but she discovers that the killer is a victim of a horrific crime carried out by the man he killed. When justice is no longer black and white, do the rules of order change?

* * *

That Day in Jefferson City
by P.D. Amos
The Civil War is done and the South is in ruins. A young veteran, heading West in search of a new life, must ride through the dangerous but strangely alluring town of Jefferson City, Missouri, where a chance encounter at a boarding house provides him with a big surprise, and more than a little education.

* * *

Pointed Gun
by Robert Gilbert
"You the marshal?" Jacob Flowers' gun is pointed in Marshal Brothers' face. The marshal responds peacefully-he knows Flowers' kin were murdered and blame is on the three Waverly brothers. Their chase ends in the town of Little John where the marshal and Flowers face the guilty trio. Guns blaze. Is justice served?

* * *

The Killer and the Doctor
by Charles Rector
Patrick Runde figured he had it made. He'd killed his father, securing his right to the family's ranching operation, and done it so well that everyone took his word that his father had died peacefully in his sleep. But the doctor had voiced his suspicions about the whole affair. What's a killer to do?

* * *

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The Burden of Absolutes, Part 1 of 3
by Robert McKee

Jeb Blake watched from the hallway between the judge's chambers and the courtroom as Sheriff Collins shoved the scrawny man in chains into a chair behind the defense table.

"Sit down," Collins said. He jabbed a thick finger into the man's face. "I don't want to hear a squeak out of you unless Judge Walker asks you a question. You got that?"

The accused was Bobby Joe Thomas. He was a mostly grown man whose cheeks were cratered from teenage acne, but who was still young enough to have a few red clusters of pimples on his forehead and chin. He looked from the sheriff's finger up into his eyes, made a noise like he was sucking something out of a tooth, then gave a mossy smile.

"You best listen to me," the sheriff said. It was possible that Bobby Joe, who did not appear too bright, missed the threat in the sheriff's voice, but Jeb did not.

During the two years since he became the judge's stenographer, Jebediah had come to know Collins well, and this was the first time he'd seen the sheriff ever be harsh with a prisoner. Usually it was just the opposite. Collins was tough and big—well over six feet—but gentle with animals and people alike.

"Are they ready in there yet, Jeb?" Judge Walker asked from his chambers' door. In his right hand the judge held his spectacles; in his left, he held the papers that charged Bobby Joe Thomas with murder.

"The sheriff just brought in the defendant. Earl's coming in now." Earl Anderson was the local prosecuting attorney. He was a prissy little fellow without many friends, but he won the election for county attorney because there was only one other lawyer around, and he didn't want the job.

"Looks like the sheriff doesn't have much fondness for Bobby Joe," Jeb observed.

"I expect not," said the judge as he straightened his Masonic tie pin. "Few do." The judge wore his usual dark suit. He never brought his robes when he and Jeb made their bimonthly circuit ride into the judicial district's smaller communities. He was fond of reminding everyone that things were lots less formal on the prairie. It was common knowledge that the amiable old judge liked the relaxed manner here in the small town of Douglas more than he did the stuffy confines of the Casper courthouse.

"Looks like they're ready," Jeb said over his shoulder.

"All right, let's get started so we can get you out of here." Once they finished arraigning Bobby Joe, Jeb would begin the return trip to Casper on his new motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson Silent Gray Fellow. Tomorrow was his and Julia's first wedding anniversary, and he wanted to get home as soon as possible. The judge would spend the next three days hearing minor cases that did not require a court reporter to make a verbatim record, then catch the weekly train on Friday.

"All rise," Jebediah shouted as he and Judge Walker entered the courtroom. The judge climbed the two steps to the bench. Jeb sat at his small desk and took up his pencil and lined note pad. Jeb wrote in Pitman Shorthand and prided himself on being fast and accurate.

"Court'll come to order," Judge Walker said. His baritone hit the back wall, and all the people in the room, except for Bobby Joe, who was hampered by his shackles, stiffened. The judge had an actor's voice. He once told Jeb how, prior to reading for the bar, he'd made a meager living performing Shakespeare in a theater down in Denver. "Be seated," he said as he slipped the thin wires of his spectacles over each ear.

"We are here today to bring Bobby Joe Thomas before the court on the charge of murder. Are you Bobby Joe Thomas?" He peered at the defendant over the tops of his glasses.

Bobby Joe lifted his cuffed hands and scratched an index finger along the side of his thin nose. "Yep," he said in a voice that sounded even younger than he looked, "that's me."

"Can you read, Mr. Thomas?" the Judge asked.

"Naw, never learnt."

"Well, what I have here—" He raised the document so Thomas could see. "—is something called an Indictment. That's a paper that this gentleman wrote up—" He nodded in the direction of Anderson. "—and filed with the court. I won't read the whole thing because, the truth is, it's written in language that's sometimes hard for even lawyers to understand. But what it says is that two weeks ago, on the 16th day of July, 1907, right here in Converse County, Wyoming, you killed a fella named Lenny Lukather by shooting him in his sleep."

He said these last words, then paused. Jeb liked working with the judge. Walker always spoke clearly and was an easy man to report.

The judge put the papers aside. "I need you to know, Mr. Thomas, that because you've been charged with murder in the first degree, the only punishment available if you're found guilty of that charge is death by hanging."

"So how's it done, Judge? Do you send me over to the pen in Rawlins and let them string me up?"

"If there's a conviction, the execution takes place right here at the jail in Converse County."

"That's good. I ain't never liked Rawlins. Carbon County's about the ugliest place on earth." Bobby Joe turned in his chair and grinned at a large, hard-looking woman who sat in the back of the courtroom. Jeb saw their eyes meet, but the woman did not return Bobby Joe's smile.

"So, sir, how do you plead to the murder of Mr. Lukather, guilty or not guilty?"

"It's like this, Your Honor: I expect I shoulda shot that skunk ten years ago when we's boys on the La Prele, but to my shame and discredit I never did. Though I reckon, like they say, late's better'n never."

"Does all that mean you plead guilty, young man?"

"I done 'er, Judge," Bobby Joe said emphatically, "and I'd do 'er agin with pleasure."

"Hold up there, Judge," said the woman in the spectator section. She stood and walked to the bar. "He don't know what he's sayin'. He's just a dumb kid."

"Who are you, madam?" the judge asked, his voice taking on a sharp edge. Judge Walker was a relaxed jurist, but he would not abide anyone disrupting his court.

"I'm this fool's mother." She lifted a heavy arm towards Bobby Joe.

"You stay outta this, Ma. This ain't got nothing to do with you."

"He didn't kill no one, Judge. He's only sayin' he done it. He's just a boy, and in his best times he ain't never had the brains of a sheep."

"She don't know what she's talkin' about, Judge."

"Quiet, both of you," said the judge. "How old are you, Mr. Thomas?"

"Twenty."

"When will you be twenty-one?"

"He won't be twenty-one till late next spring," the woman said. "He just barely is twenty."

"I don't suppose you've talked to a lawyer about how you're going to plead, have you?" the judge asked.

"I know what I done, Judge," Bobby Joe said, giving his mother a glare. "Talkin' to some lawyer ain't gonna change nothin'."

Jeb looked up from his notes and watched Judge Walker lean back in his chair. For a long moment the judge stared at the traffic passing outside the window. He then sat forward and peeled off his glasses. "All right," he said, "this is what I'm going to do: I'm not willing to accept your guilty plea, Mr. Thomas. I'm not convinced you fully understand the consequences. Instead, I'm going to enter a plea of not guilty for you. This is obviously a serious charge, and there's no need for us to rush into anything. I'll set it for a jury trial to be held in two months when Mr. Blake and I return.

"You're allowed to represent yourself in that trial, Mr. Thomas, but that's not a very good idea. Mr. Anderson here's an accomplished prosecutor, and I suggest you find yourself a lawyer."

"I don't need no damn lawyer. I killed him. It don't matter what this crazy old woman says."

"Court's in recess," said the judge as he stood. "You may take the prisoner away."

"Let's go." The sheriff placed his hand on Thomas' arm, but Bobby Joe jerked away.

"You ain't got no right buttin' in on this," Bobby Joe screamed at his mother. And he continued screaming even as Sheriff Collins lifted him by his collar and the chain around his waist and hauled him from the courtroom.

"If you don't mind, Mr. Blake," said the liveryman, "I'll wheel this beauty out front for you."

"That'll be fine, Max."

teach me to ride it the next time you bring it to town."

"Certainly. I'd be happy to."

Jeb knew that the big liveryman only pretended to be impressed by his new motorcycle. He expected the man, like just about everyone else, found it loud and frightening.

Jeb stood in a stable stall pulling on a pair of denims. He'd already removed his suit, rolled it up as best he could to minimize the wrinkles, and stowed it in a bag that he'd tied to the back of the cycle.

He hated the idea of spending the night on the road. But at least he was only having to make the long ride one way. When he and the judge came to Douglas the previous week, Jeb brought the motorcycle in the train's baggage car. He had to make the trip tonight, though. It was important to Julia that he was home for their anniversary, and it was important to Jeb that Julia was happy.

Despite all the talk of great opportunity, he'd been anxious about leaving his home in Chicago and moving west. He expected it would be rough living compared to big-city life, which was the only sort of life Jeb had ever known. But after two years he didn't regret a bit of it. No longer did he have to wait for hours in the hallway of the Cook County Courthouse and compete with dozens of other stenographers for cases to report. Here in Wyoming, Jeb had his own court. And he also had Julia, whom he'd met shortly after arriving. She was working downstairs as a typist for the county clerk, and Jeb fell in love the second he stepped into her office. At first she ignored him as she made her fancy Densmore typewriter clatter like a tiny Gatling gun, but Jeb knew she was only pretending.

He smiled at the memory of how pretty she'd been. And how pretty she was still.

Hell, he thought, riding all night wasn't so bad. There would be a full moon, the mid-summer weather was good, and it was always a thrill riding the cycle. If he kept up a steady pace, he'd be home before Julia was out of bed tomorrow morning.

He was deep enough into this pleasant thought that he didn't hear the door open at the opposite end of the stable because when the woman said, "You're that court stenographer fella, ain't ya?" he jumped so hard his feet came off the floor.

"Good, God," he said as he spun around, "you nearly scared me to death."

"Sorry. Didn't mean any harm. I need to talk to you; that's all."

Jeb recognized her as the woman from court, Bobby Joe Thomas' mother. She had the same gruff manner she showed earlier, and now Jeb was close enough to catch the aroma of someone who spent considerable time with cattle.

He was about to ask her what she wanted when he realized he was standing there with his pants unbuttoned and only half way up his thighs. He was embarrassed, and he scurried to tuck everything in.

"Slow down, young fella," she said. "I raised myself four boys. I reckon you ain't got nothin' attached to you that I ain't seen danglin' from them."

She laid a flour sack she was carrying over her shoulder next to a hay bale, sat on the bale, and removed her hat. She was a large woman, dressed in a man's clothes. Her shoes were heavy, with thick soles and laces, and had the look of shoes that had covered many miles.

Jeb, who didn't care if she had raised a battalion of boys, finished buttoning his jeans and rushed to pull on his boots.

"My name's Dessie Thomas." She half rose from the bale and stuck out her hand.

"Jebediah Blake," Jeb said as he extended his own. The strength of her grip was surprising. This woman had experienced hard work up close. "I don't have much time, Mrs. Thomas," he said as he picked up his Stetson. He flicked a piece of straw from the brim. It was his good hat, but it was going to get plenty dirty before he was able to hang it on the hall tree at home. "I need to be getting on the road. What did you want to talk about?"

"It's my boy," she said. "He's lyin'. That worthless Lenny Lukather deserved shootin' if any man ever did, but Bobby Joe didn't do it. I know there's lots of people around think Bobby Joe's a wild one. And I admit his ways can get pretty raw, 'specially considerin' how civilized folks're gettin' these days, but he ain't never killed a soul."

Jeb had seen a lot of men charged with murder, but he didn't remember ever running across a mother who believed her son had done it. "Well, Mrs. Thomas, if he didn't kill the man, why'd he try so hard to plead guilty?"

"'Cause," she said, standing, "he's a damned fool, always was. But bein' a fool ain't no hangin' offense. I need you to help him. I been to see the sheriff and that weasely little prosecutor. They both run me out of their offices. I even went to see that other lawyer fella in town. He wasn't interested in helpin' neither."

As Jeb edged his way toward the door, he said, "Look, ma'am, I just write down what's said in the courtroom, then if there's an appeal to the supreme court, there's a record of what happened. I don't make the rules, and I sure don't make the decision about who gets prosecuted and who doesn't. There's nothing I can do."

"You know how this court business works, don't you?"

"Yes, I guess I do, some, and my advice is if you can't find a lawyer to represent your son, then at least go out and round up whatever witnesses you think'll help Bobby Joe's case. The judge'll let them tell their story even if there's not a lawyer there asking them questions. Judge Walker's a reasonable man."

"The only person who knows what really happened is Lukather's wife, Joleen."

"So bring her in."

"She won't do it. She's got her reasons, I guess. I don't understand 'em, but she's got 'em, and she won't come in. But she is willin' to talk. I need you to go out to her place and write down what she has to say."

Jeb suppressed a smile. "I can't do that, ma'am. Have her write a letter. That won't be enough if we go to trial, but, who knows, maybe if she can offer the county attorney enough evidence that Bobby Joe's innocent, it'll convince him to drop the charges."

"She don't read, and she don't write. None of us do. Besides, what she's got to say I want somebody who understands the workin's of the courts to hear."

"Sorry, but she's going to have to think of some way to tell her story other than through me, Mrs. Thomas. I have a wife waiting for me in Casper." With that, Jeb turned and headed for the door.

"Hold on, I want to show you somethin'." She bent and lifted her flour sack. "Just give me a second here to find it," she said as she rummaged around inside. Finally she straightened and pulled out a blue Colt .44 that looked to Jeb to be the size of a mule's hind leg. "I done buried three of my boys, and I ain't fixin' to bury the last. It just ain't natural that a mother'd have to do that. So, Mr. Court Reporter, I wish you'd reconsider helpin' my Bobby Joe out."

Jeb tried to swallow but couldn't. The sound of the triple-click as the woman pulled back the big gun's hammer caused a knot to twist in his throat.

Dessie Thomas stayed behind Jeb all the way to the Lukather place. She was riding a crusty old mule that the Harley-Davidson could easily outrun, but Jeb figured no matter how fast the cycle was, it wasn't fast enough to outrun a slug from the .44 the woman still toted.

"I don't think the girl's exactly what you'd call crazy," Mrs. Thomas said as they rode along. Jeb kept the cycle's engine running at barely more than an idle. He did it not only so he could hear what the old crone was saying, but he didn't want her to think he was making a break for it and start taking pot shots at him. "But there's no denyin' she's mighty strange."

Mrs. Thomas seemed in high spirits. She hadn't stopped talking since they left the livery stable in Douglas. Jeb assumed she was feeling good because after kidnapping him onto this fool's errand, she must have felt as though she was accomplishing something that might help her son.

"I've known Joleen since she was just a girl of five, and I can tell you not once in all them years has she ever set foot off that ranch."

"Never?" Jeb asked, finding it hard to believe.

"Never," the old woman confirmed. "I don't know what her story is about the shootin'. All she'll tell me is that Bobby Joe ain't the one who done it. But when I asked her to go to town and tell the law, she refused. I even brought out this ol' Colt that belonged to my dead husband and tried to take her into town the same way I'm bringin' you out here, but that didn't scare her one bit. She just looked at me and said, 'Go 'head, Dessie, and shoot me down, if you want to.' She said, 'It don't matter to me.'"

Jeb stopped the cycle, turned in his seat, and gave the woman a look.

"Don't be gettin' no ideas," she said raising the pistol higher. "I didn't shoot her 'cause, even though she is kinda strange, I like the girl. And, too, she's the only one who knows the truth 'bout my boy." She waggled the gun at Jeb's chest. "You ain't got neither one of them things goin' for you, mister."

Jeb realized there was nothing he could do about his situation except to try and keep the old woman happy, take the girl's statement, and get the hell out as quickly as possible.

"How much farther?" he asked.

"Only 'bout another mile. We just keep followin' La Prele Creek on into them trees yonder."

Jeb gave the Harley-Davidson a little more throttle and said over his shoulder, "Well, kick your mule then, old woman, and let's get this chore over with."

To be continued next month


Robert McKee resides in Colorado. He has had a number of jobs, including four years in the military. He has also been employed as a radio announcer, disc jockey, copy writer, court reporter, and municipal court judge.

After school in Texas, Bob settled in Wyoming, where he has lived for over thirty years.

His short fiction has appeared in more than twenty commercial and literary publications around the country. He is also a recipient of the Wyoming Art Council's Literary Fellowship Award, as well as a three-time first-place winner of Wyoming Writers, Incorporated's adult fiction contest, and a two-time first-place winner of the National Writers Association's short fiction contest. One of his stories was selected to appear in the prestigious annual publication Best American Mystery Stories, edited that year by Senior Editor Otto Penzler and Visiting Editor Michael Connelly.

His first novel, Dakota Trails, was recently published by Pen-L Publishing.

When not at his computer writing, Bob can be found rummaging through antique stores in search of vintage fountain pens or roaming the back roads of Wyoming and Colorado with Kathy, his wife.

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