February, 2017

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Issue #89

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
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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!

Ain't No Shootin' Here
by Avan Stallard
Merk, a hard-working miner, just wants the Sheriff to return what's his—what's shiny and heavy and every-ounce-his. But after the Sheriff shoots his horse and both empty their guns, Merk has to get creative. Some string, a bowie knife, a stand of green saplings . . . sounds to Merk like the ingredients for justice.

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The Brown's Park Assignment
by Dick Derham
What must a rancher do when the law is ineffective in protecting his property? In turn-of-the-20th-century Wyoming, men like Chris McKay were prepared to meet society's need for their services. But market forces of supply and demand can sometimes produce unexpected consequences.

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The Kiowa Springs Incident
by Dave Barr
The Trail Boss Ben Crawder had eleven men and two thousand head of cattle to move to Kansas. But something in the Texas scrub was slaughtering his cowboys one at a time, and it was up to Ben to end the killings and solve the mystery!

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by John Du
Absalom rode into Manasseh, Wyoming, to visit his family. But when he found their bodies in the ashes of the farm, Absalom craved both answers and vengeance. Trouble was, who deserved his frontier justice?

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Bound by Duty
by Trey Smith
A young US Marshal hunts three wild brothers accused of robbing stages. A straightforward job that he means to see through until justice is served. However, when blood is involved, things are never straightforward.

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Squire Canyon
by Robert Gilbert
Marshal Brothers rides through Squire Canyon, heading to Buckskin Pass. Halfway is Raynor, homestead of Crandall and Clara Moss. Brothers' telegram has informed them of their daughter's killing by her husband. But at Buckskin Pass, Warren and Crandall meet a stranger who tells them there's more to the story than they know.

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All the Tales

Squire Canyon
by Robert Gilbert

A day's ride out of Cheyenne River took me northwest into the upper country of Squire Canyon. About a mile before the canyon I kept staring at the dawn side of Crow Pass. The morning sky was screaming with color to the far ends of canyon country. A swirl of pale yellow and shades of deep smoky purple painted the heavens, a backdrop against a range of lavender peaks.

In the opposite direction, a line of red stones in a cluster were awakening, returning to their natural hues of rust along the daybreak side of Tongue River Gorge.

In front of me were snow-covered high sage and small trees that had curled downward in shape from the devastating winter storm that blanketed this region. It caused towns like Rayner, on the upper high plains near the Pawnee River, to close up business for nearly a month.

Approaching Rayner, I purposely stopped at the homestead of Crandall Moss and his wife Clara, friendly folks I'd known for many years. Most times my visits in these parts were an excellent get-away from my rowdy cow town duties, but today it was strictly business.

"Warren Brothers," Crandall yelled from his porch in my direction. "Nice to see a lawman passin' through here now and then." Their dog had met me upon my approach.

He invited me in for coffee after I dismounted. He also suggested I stable my roan, away from the biting chill, which was much appreciated.

I crossed their wood floor and after removing my duster I shared conversation in front of the hot coffee served at their table.

"Jus' real bad off, Marshal," Crandall admitted. "Blame this storm and I've lost ever'thing." Everything except his wife and their friendly dog, Temper. Friendly dog he was until anyone came too close to Moss or his wife. Then a beginning growl would lead to a serious bite that would need to be tended by a doctor. Absolutely, a really mangy family dog.

The stage road between Rayner and Crowley had been virtually splintered in half with downed trees and drifts of snow, making the approach from either direction completely impassable.

I was enjoying my coffee, watching Clara pour a second cup for herself. Crandall liked to blend a nip of whiskey in his brew. Said it warms you up before having to do what chores can be done in this bitter situation. I passed on the whiskey, despite having tried it before, because I'd got miles ahead of me before dusk.

I thanked them for their hospitality and at the same time retrieved a telegram from my work shirt pocket. I'd already read it several times after it was handed to me by Will Barnes who runs the telegraph business, down a-ways from my office in Cheyenne River. Barnes was a little nervous about the telegram, and knew that I would understand, which brought me to the Crandall Moss spread. Something told me that my words would bring tears to Clara after my reading it aloud and I was correct. I did my best to keep my tone sincere and that's all I could do.

"Says here that in Buckskin Pass, Ellis Feber . . . he killed his wife, Joleene, and . . . " Before I continued, Clara covered her face with her hands, sobbing.

"Our daughter is dead," Clara screamed. "No good shit! That marriage was awful from the beginnin'."

Immediately Crandall comforted his wife. Visible tears had formed in his eyes.

"She was found with a knife protruding . . . " I was halfway through the telegram.

"Stop!" Clara forced the word out, louder in the hatred coming from her lips. Fury had choked her.

"That where you're headed?" Crandall said. He looked at me with teary-eyed vision.

"Happened sometime last night," I said. "Word got to me this morning."

"I'm ridin' with ya, Marshal," Crandall said. He moved in the direction of a loaded Winchester resting above the fireplace.

"I'm deeply sorry for both of you," I said. "Got a job to do and I'll find 'im." The folded telegram I tucked away in my pocket and never brought it out again in the presence of this family.

"You'll have to excuse me, Marshall," Clara said, sobbing, wiping the tears from her face.

I was concerned for both of them, listening to their rant.

"She run off with that bastard years back," Clara spat, breathless with rage.

"Sweet talkin' sonsa-bitch, he is," Crandall said. His lips thinned with even more anger.

"She didn't know no different," Clara expressed in a glowing mask of hate. "Was hooked on this feller passin' through. Said he was good with sellin' horses."

"That's what he said," Crandall admitted. "I 'member to this day. Doin' horse business 'tween the Pawnee Buttes and Cheyenne, Wyoming. All grassland."

"We was fools to put 'im up several days," Clara recalled. "Really bad rain was comin' down at the time and he was lookin' drenched."

"And so we did," Crandall voiced, his timbre cold and lashing.

"Stayed here longer than we wanted," she said.

Crandall nodded. He took a long swig from the whiskey bottle.

"Immediately took a likin' to Joleene," Clara voice was cold. "We could tell she was favorin' him a whole bunch. They was together more than they wasn't."

"Joleene was actin' like being struck with a blazin' romance," he said. "Didn't take long for her decidin' to take off with him."

"The next thing we knew was them gettin' married," she said.

"Somebody passin' through knew where we lived and gave us the weddin' news," Crandall said, fighting the anger.

Clara momentarily stopped her storytelling.

"We wanted to see Joleene," he said. "See if ever'thing was the way Ellis told 'bout his horse business. Me and the wife had a feeling he sure sounded to be all brag and no fact."

"Damn truth about that," Clara chimed.

"So we went up to Buckskin Pass." Crandall shook his head. "That's where Ellis mentioned in the very beginnin'. Said ever'thing was somethin' special up there."

"When we got there," Clara said, "all of those happy stories didn't sound so good."

"We found their spread alright. And it was . . . "

"Say it, Crandall," her temper flared. "You tell this marshal what it was."

"Nothin' but a shit hole, Marshal. Place looked plumb rundown. There was no corral of o' them sellable horses. Plain lyin' bastard."

"Joleene was there," Clara said with strength. "She'd aged real bad."

"She didn't talk much," he said. "Continued to side with Ellis and told us to go home."

"We told Joleene to grab what she wanted and come back with us. She didn't listen."

"And now you say she's dead, Marshal?" Crandall said. "She shoulda known better than to run with that varmint."

"More daylight is around me," I said. "Be to Buckskin Pass maybe by noon."

"I'm comin' with ya, Marshal," Crandall insisted.

"I can find him myself," I said. "No need to put yerself in harm's way."

"Shit with that idea," he said. "According to that telegram, Joleene is dead. Me an' Clara want him found and hanged. Ain't no backin' me down." His determination was like a rock.

"Get yourself ready and let's ride," I said. "I'm sure sorry 'bout Joleene. Gotta find Ellis and arrest him for murder." Beginning to stand, I studied both of them. Clara was still in tears.

It didn't take but a handful of minutes before Crandall was ready to ride. He was dressed for the conditions outside, heavy coat, thick scarf and a battered Stetson. His bay had aged significantly in comparison to my roan and the other few horses in the stable.

We said our goodbyes to Clara who was standing on the porch wearing a heavy shawl to try to keep warm. I watched her shiver and suggested she needed to get back inside.

Crandall and I mounted up and from my distance to the house I continued to voice a thank you for the coffee. Clara probably heard me but was showing chills watching Crandall and me disappear into the cold surroundings. As we moved away I also said my thanks to him but he paid no attention. My father always reminded me to be nice to people, whether or not you had a grudge, just in case you needed help sometime and they were the only ones around. It sounded pretty good then and just as much today. After all these years of wearing a badge, it took me this long to know he was right.

Dad was a preacher and had a short circuit of three different churches. Services were Saturday night, Sunday morning and religion school Sunday evening. He was a hell raiser standing in front of those congregations, making sure everyone stayed awake during his various services. If you nodded off, he would slam his fist down so loud that even those sitting in the last pew were not to be caught snoozing. He suggested I follow in his steps to preach his religion, to be a straight and level man, but something years back told me to follow the side of the law. I've had to kill a man or two in my life wearing this badge. To this day I don't know if Dad would have sided with me for what I've done, but when confronted with a person pointing a gun in my direction, it's a quick decision to make, to live or die. I chose the honest decision to defend myself. I'm sure Dad would understand, after listening to my honest opinion.

I let Crandall take the lead. If there was an existing trail away from their spread it had certainly disappeared. We were curled in our coats making our way through desolate territory that hadn't seen mankind in many days, if any at all. In front of us was higher ground with additional hard snow falling that had me guessing if we were headed in the right direction. The continual falling snow was bad enough but nothing compared to the angled tree branches and so much foliage blocking our ride forward. Suddenly the wind picked up, swirling around us, brushing against our skin with bits of snow stinging our skin. By my guesstimate, barely seeing anything in front of us, I didn't know if we'd even gone two or three miles. Our surroundings were unquestionably terrible. I knew that Buckskin Pass wasn't that far, but to get there remained extremely challenging.

Crandall knew this area better than me and we rode single-file for most of the way. Even looking at his back side ahead of me, I had to acknowledge that he was a big man. He was a mountain man and it showed. Burley and powerful, he exuded self-confidence. His face was rough with heavy lines, copper skin, thick chin hair turned gray and eyebrows full and bushy.

Within a half mile we finally came into a clearing. At last the snow had stopped and the landscape was somewhat open, allowing us to ride side by side.

I thought Crandall was a quiet man. The rugged type, and not much of a talker. I was overly wrong thinking that. He was a genuine storyteller, full of adventure stories from being everywhere his horse would take him.

"Ever been up in this direction, Marshal? Cold as it is. Bitter shit, is what I call it!"

"Up here in the summer," I replied.

"You just passin' through then?"

"Mostly. Like to get away from Cheyenne River for a while."

"Just to relax? Get to look at tall pines on this side and even prettier scenery around Squire Canyon?"

"You're mentionin' a lot o' great places and I've been to all o' 'em at least once.

"Took Joleene up here a lot. Always havin' a damn good time in these parts."

"Sounds like you two had a special bond," I said.

Cantrall's reaction seemed different than back at the house by his releasing a loving smile.

I caught his drift of happiness yet I couldn't help but also see tears well in his eyes.

"You never forget your daughter," Crandall slowly managed. "I'll guarantee to anybody that Joleene was a perfect tom-boy. She hated to get dressed up in all that fancy-lookin' pretty stuff. She wore outdoor workin' clothes and went huntin' with me ever'where. And she loved to fish."

"You ever bring her to Cheyenne River to show her a good-sized cowboy town?"

"We talked about it several times but nothin' ever developed. Joleene was raised in the high country and only knew the surroundings up here."

"Ellis saw her that way and wanted to marry her, right off?"

"He ain't nothin' but a low-life con artist," Crandall said, his voice heavy with sarcasm.

"Ellis took control of the emotions of your daughter?"

"More than that, Marshal." He swallowed hard, trying to offer a reasonable answer.

We shared conversation for another handful of minutes, seeing that we were approaching Buckskin Pass. Where we were headed was beyond this town, a bit northward into high timber country. These trees were so tall, I reckoned they were a good place to hide and never be found. I guess that's what Ellis wanted.

We stopped at the Eagle Nest Saloon and dismounted. It had been a long cold ride and we wanted to momentarily thaw out before dealing with the chill again.

We found the place wasn't crowded after entering and it didn't take long for those around us to know who we were. Crandall ordered whiskey, turned and squinted, peering around the room. I ordered coffee, faced the mirror in front of me, reflecting a glance from everyone.

"You're after Ellis, ain't ya?" It was a voice enjoying a drink at a far table.

That caused me to turn around.

"What do you know about Ellis?" Cantrall said. His voice cut the silence.

"He's waitin' up at his spread," the voice said. "Kill you like what happened to Joleene."

I walked over to where the voice was sitting, my duster open and the reflection of my badge visible. I lifted a boot onto a chair next to this man.

"Maybe he'll get you too, Marshall." The huskiness lingered in the man's voice.

"What makes you sure that's gonna happen?" I said. My voice was thick and steady.

"I'm just the messenger, Marshal. Heed my words. Ellis is full o' surprises." His eyes grew large and liquid. His laughter showed missing teeth.

"He's at his place?" I asked. My eyes narrowed on this stranger.

"Could be any place, Marshall. I rightly don't know. Maybe he decided to come to town. A lot warmer here than tryin' to keep warm in his small place."

"Since you know all the answers," I said, "where's Joeleen's body?"

"Was self-defense, Marshal," he related. "She was holding a knife. Ellis had a gun. They quarreled and accidently the knife ended up in her."

"Bull shit!" Crandall yelled, crossing the room to where I was standing.

"Ask Ellis," came the reply. "He'll tell you. Honest truth."

"How do you know so much?" I persisted.

"He and I've run horses together, going back a long time. Almost like brothers, but we ain't."

"Where's he at now?" I demanded.

"Try his place first," he said. "But he could be anywhere." His mouth twitched with amusement.

Crandall and I mounted up and rode north out of town. He had been there before and again in single file we followed a steep path upward across snow-covered timberland.

Although Crandall knew the way, it took us considerable time to get there. The trail was not easy to find, the latest snow having covered any existing location. Like the stranger said in town, Ellis could be anywhere.

Crandall was still in front of me as we approached, at a near distance.

Nearing a cutoff and extremely close to Ellis' place, I could hear the cocking sound of a rifle. My eyes glanced in various directions, searching for the gunman's whereabouts.

Instantly there was an explosion and a bullet penetrated Crandall's leg. He reached for the wound and immediately fell from the saddle. Despite the pain shooting through his body, he was able to pull himself away from the clearing behind a sizeable fallen tree.

Our horses were close enough for me to retrieve his Winchester and toss it in his direction. I quickly dismounted and lowered myself from sight, working my way to a separation of pine trees and loose vegetation. I took my time looking forward to identify where the rifle shot had come from. Moments passed and another shot whizzed by my location. Logic told me to watch any movement from a partially open-framed window to the left of the cabin front door, now visible through the sleet.

Although wounded and as strong-willed as Cantrall was, especially considering the loss of his daughter by the man in this shack, he was determined to make it to the back side with no complaint.

"Are you shot, too?" Cantrall yelled in my direction. "Got one in the leg but it ain't nothin'."

I yelled back that the bullets had missed me, while careful to not give away my location.

Suddenly came another round followed by then another. But this was different. The shot came from a different direction. Like maybe two persons with rifles were trying to flush us out.

Limping and in pain, Crandall made his way to the back of the house and quickly noticed a horse that had been ridden hard. Crandall eased back toward me and told me this through hand gestures.

Who was the new rider and was he the one shooting at me? Crandall and I moved in opposite directions, closer than before, hiding from sight.

Now even closer, my belly was soaked with cold wet snow, making movement that much more difficult. I could hear Crandall bitch because of the circumstances, working his way to the back door, wanting to find Ellis.

I zigzagged my way to a hidden location alongside the house. There was another window partially open on the side of the house and I cautiously crawled inside.

Ellis knew he was surrounded. He continued holding his rifle pointed through the window.

I was in the next room and could see Ellis. But where was the other stranger?

"Ellis, this is Marshal Brothers. Give up or be killed. What's it gonna be?"

"Ain't gonna be that way, Marshal!" Ellis yelled from his location.

Immediately Ellis turned in my direction and fired his Winchester. It missed me and I rapidly squeezed the trigger once from my .44 Colt. Hot lead instantly entered Ellis' gut. He tried to move back to the window, got halfway there when he fell. His eyes closed into death.

Crandall slowly entered from the back side and I informed him of one more person in the house. The only other location not investigated was in the bedroom.

The door to the bedroom was closed and I kicked it open, pointed my gun in his direction and yelled to drop his rifle. Immediately he followed my orders.

Strange as it was, the cowboy we met in the saloon was the same man before me. I guessed he knew a back way to get here. He came out into the main room where I stood, his hands in the air.

"I didn't catch your name," I said, "when we met in Buckskin. You seem to know all the answers."

"Don't matter about my name," he said. "You killed the right man but for different reasons."

Crandall walked to my side and we listened to the stranger.

"Joleene and I hit it off real good some time ago," he said. "She wanted to leave with me. Ellis found out and them two had a serious squabble. That led to the knife she was holding and things went too far. They struggled and she was too weak for his strength. He was just plain jealous. I sent the telegram to you, Marshal. Sorry 'bout me shootin' at ya but I wanted Ellis to think I was on his side. She was a real pretty woman that I would have chosen for my wife. It was all about the knife. All Joleene ever wanted to do was to leave and be with me."

It was a slow ride back to Buckskin. Crandall didn't speak much, not certain of his feelings other than knowing Ellis was dead. We'd found Joleene's grave in the backyard of the cabin. The man with no name rode behind us. Tied to his pommel was a rope pulling a bay with Ellis belly-down over the saddle.

The wind blew hard against my face on the return to Cheyenne River. I still had to pass through Squire Canyon and this time the evening shadows would turn the sky gray. The rustic canyon walls would sleep in darkness until tomorrow.

The End

Robert Gilbert, author of Westerns, romance and children's stories, lives near Chicago. Hooked on Westerns began when Gilbert lived in Hollywood, California as an entertainment writer. He spent numerous occasions on the Western back lot of Warner Bros. movie studio, His action packed Western heroes come to life on his computer and have been enjoyed worldwide. Several stories have been published in Frontier Tales: "Too Much of a Kid" in the December 2014 issue, "Pointed Gun" in the March 2016 issue, "Chase for Uber Mix" in the April 2016 issue, and "Run with the Outlaws in the December 2016 issue.

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