Western Wednesdays—THE RELUCTANT ASSASSIN by Preston Darby

Imagine, if you will, that the infamous John Wilkes Booth actually survived his flight from the nation’s capitol after assassinating President Lincoln. When two men find a body and the lost memoirs of Booth himself, the clues lead to the development of a conspiracy more dramatic than Ford Theater’s production of Our American Cousin (for those of you who aren’t crazy history buffs like me, this was the play that Abraham Lincoln was attending the night of his assassination. Dramatic, indeed).

The Reluctant Assassin spans from Lincoln’s assassination to 1903, with many a colorful historical figure making an appearance along the way. But of course, John Wilkes Booth is the star of the show, and you’re sure to see a side of him you never thought possible.

If you’re into the National Treasure films, the Da Vinci Code, and other conspiracy-solving books and movies, then The Reluctant Assassin is sure to please!

PROLOGUE

“What I want to know is …is it human?”

In fifty years of medical practice I had encountered many peculiar experiences, but the most bizarre event occurred soon after I retired. It involved a man long dead, a man known to history as John Wilkes Booth.

Ken Casper, long-time friend, neighbor, and noted author, had recently acquired some long-abandoned ranch property along the sluggish Concho River near San Angelo and was busy renovating a dilapidated rock storage building.

Ken soon recognized a disparity in the measurements of two walls enclosing an interior room and suspected a concealed space between the partitions. When he had initially confided his suspicions to me, we had jokingly speculated over the possibility of hidden treasure. From the tone of Ken’s voice when he phoned me to come out right away, however, I knew whatever he’d found wasn’t treasure and it had rattled him.

“I don’t know what it is,” he answered my first question, his voice half an octave higher than usual. “Come see for yourself.”

Ken had been correct in his measurements. A double wall had been constructed between the rooms. Fragments of white limestone and mortar were piled below a manhole-size opening Ken had pick-axed through one wall. Without a word of explanation he handed me a flashlight and stepped back.

I hesitated. “What about snakes?”

Ken clucked his tongue. “With all the racket I’ve been making around here the last few days, any snakes have crawled to Mexico by now. Look in there off to the right.”

I flicked on the light and stuck my arm in the hole, then cautiously inserted my head and peered in the direction of the beam. Motes of dust obscured the flashlight’s rays, and at first I saw only the outline of an old wooden chair and what looked like a deteriorating black suit draped over it. I raised the beam slightly and jerked back so quickly I struck my head on one of the protruding bricks. There was something in the suit—something with shrunken hands protruding from the coat sleeves. Curiosity overcame my apprehension and I squeezed through the opening, then played my light up and down the apparition.

“My God, Ken, it’s a mummy.”

Ken snorted. “I figured that. What I want to know is …is it human?”

“Hold on, let me get a better look.”

I moved closer to the mummy. The withered hands certainly appeared human, four fingers—or what was left of them—and an opposing thumb. I attempted to move one of the hands from its resting place on the figure’s pants leg. With a whispery sound the entire arm separated from the shoulder, decayed cloth fell away, and I dropped the creature’s bony appendage as swiftly as if I had grabbed a rattler.

I forced myself to be calm, then squatted and focused my light where I expected the mummy’s face should be. The neck was flexed, but enough flesh adhered to the skull for me to know the discovery was human. As I backed out of the opening, I picked up the loose arm and called out to Ken.

“Congratulations. You’ve found a real human mummy. Here, let me give you a hand.” I extended the withered remnant out to him.

Ken recoiled, his eyes wide. “Oh, great. You’ve really screwed up now. I’ve written enough detective novels to know better than to disturb a crime scene.”

I reached inside the opening and laid the arm back in the mummy’s lap.

Ken nodded. “Oh, that’ll help.”

“We don’t know this is a crime scene,” I said. “Whoever he is, he’s been in there for decades. Maybe he’s a relative of somebody who owned this place. He was dressed, placed carefully in the chair, and walled in. So somebody went to a lot of trouble to hide him, right?”

“No doubt about that.” Ken shook his head slowly and walked over to sit on the window sill. “But what am I supposed to do? Wall him up again? That’s like Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’.”

“Aw, Ken, that’s a murder story. I’d bet this guy was dead long before he was put in there. Anyway, we have to call the justice of the peace. First, he has to pronounce him dead”—I smiled wryly—“though that shouldn’t tax the JP’s neurons too much, and then he’ll probably order a forensic autopsy. The pathologist will try to identify the body, determine cause of death, find any evidence of foul play, get tissue samples for DNA testing. . . .” I trailed off, embarrassed at my oration, and shrugged. “What am I doing telling you about all this? You know the procedure better than I do and make a dern’ good living writing about it.”

“Just listening to see if you know your stuff.” Ken grinned and rose from his perch at the window. “Now let’s go call the JP and see if he knows his.”

After a cursory examination and considerable deliberation, our justice of the peace concluded that Ken’s mummy was indeed dead and could be removed to Foster’s Funeral Home. Attempts to encompass the mummy in a standard receptacle resulted in frustration for the attendants and further minor trauma to the body. Therefore, he was seated on a chair in the cooler to await the arrival of a forensic pathologist from San Antonio, the esteemed Dr. Nasir Taboor.

Three weeks passed. Only a small paragraph mentioning the mummy’s discovery made our San Angelo Standard Times. Somehow the newspaper’s brief account was relegated to the sports section.

Then I received a phone call from an uncharacteristically excited Ken Casper.

“Pres. I’m picking you up in five minutes. The pathologist just called. I could hardly understand the man’s accent, but he said he had found something ‘veeery interrresting’ in the mummy. See you.”

He hung up before I could speak.

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Western Wednesdays—DARK VOYAGE OF THE MITTIE STEPHENS

I have to be honest, I chose today’s book solely because of its title. While not nearly the cardinal sin as judging a book by its cover (and I know I’m not the only one who does that), I do feel a little guilty. However, I have to say that the book lived up to its ominous and intriguing title. Dark Voyage of the Mittie Stephens by Johnny D. Boggs pulled me in from the get go just as I’m sure it will you. Enjoy everyone!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Creeping clouds blanketed the bright moon like a shroud, covering the City of the Dead in darkness. The deep blackness came as an answer to Bobby Randow’s prayer as he squeezed between two tombs, one granite, the other marble, and tried to catch his breath, afraid the men trying to kill him would hear his heart pounding. Gripping the butt of the Dance revolver in his right hand, Randow listened, chancing a quick glance skyward, knowing the clouds would soon pass, and the cemetery would be bathed in moonlight.

He’d die here in this century-old, above-ground graveyard, die in the midnight fog, die violently and alone, and no monument would note his passing, no newspaper would publish his obituary. No one would know he was dead, not even his mother, except his killers—and the catfish feeding on his remains after his murderers disemboweled him, filled his insides with stones, and sank his corpse into the Mississippi or Pontchartrain.

Well, it was his own fault. No one else to blame. He had tossed in his ante in a crooked game because of greed, decided to become a criminal instead of a wandering gambler, justified it with claims that the Yankees owed him plenty for four years of suffering, for the deaths of his father and brother. $100,000 in gold had lured him, but some deep-seated honesty, or the quiet Episcopal morality inherited from his father, had broken its spell, and he had tried to back out of this deal. Randow could have left New Orleans, simply slithered out of the city like a serpent, and would have been sitting in the saloon on a stern-wheeler heading upriver now, dealing draw poker, but he had decided to face his comrades, tell them why he wasn’t going through with the plan. Southern pride. Texas stubborn streak. Lunacy. Whatever the reason, it had likely gotten him killed.

He had known that was coming, too. That’s why he had cleaned and loaded the revolver before leaving his hotel, why he had placed six percussion caps on the Dance. Most men, scared of blowing off a toe, kept the nipple underneath a revolver’s hammer naked. The memory caused him to check the pistol by feel, for the night remained black. His thumb rested on the cocked hammer, finger twitching inside the trigger guard. He had fired three rounds, put two bullets in Victor Desiderio’s stomach when the shooting commenced, sent another shot chasing three other killers. Or had he pulled the trigger four times? He bit his bottom lip, tried to concentrate. His memory kept fading. He. . . .

Hushed voices. Moments later, footsteps tapped the stones lining the cemetery’s path near Randow’s sanctuary. Then silence.

Randow lifted the .44 and waited. The clouds cleared, and the moon, just a couple of days past full, soaked the thickening fog and cold, damp houses of the dead. He pressed his body against the granite tomb, and pushed wet bangs off his forehead. Somewhere along the way, he had lost his hat.

“There he is!” A bullet’s whine followed the shout. Randow crouched, pivoted, and answered the shot, firing blindly. Two rounds left.

“There!”

“I saw it.”

Too late he realized his error. They hadn’t seen him, couldn’t have, until he panicked, and they spotted the muzzle flash. It had been a bluff, not even a good one if he had played his hand smart, shown a fip’s worth of patience. Rifles cracked repeatedly, lead chipping the marble tomb, ricocheting off it and the granite over his head, behind him, in front of him, peppering the cramped quarters, and a fear swallowed him that he had not felt since 1862, when he had been caught in the federal enfilade at Corinth. Death had hovered near him that day, and again this night. Instinctively Randow covered his face with his arms, although only the grace of God could protect him now.

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Western Wednesdays—OPEN RANGE by Lauran Paine

I have to admit, I saw the movie Open Range before I ever read the book by Lauran Paine. In my opinion, the film was successful in many ways in adapting the source material to the big screen. But, Lauran Paine is Lauran Paine. He’s a hell of a storyteller. His books have a rhythm all their own, and his words create a unique experience that film simply can’t replicate. I’m previewing two chapters of Open Range today because, well,  I’m of the opinion that the more time spent with Paine’s characters, the better.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

A Gray World

Everything had a uniform drabness: the sky, the earth, and everything in between was gray. Sudden downpours from squall winds added to the dreary sameness. Even glimpses of some distant mountains showed them also to be gray.

The old wagon blended into the gloominess. There was a waterproofed texas someone had made by raising a pole underneath the cloth, high in the center so water would run downward instead of accumulating in the center of the top, causing a hazardous sag. There was a shallow shovel-width trench completely around the wagon, which carried off most of the water. The ground beneath the texas was wet but not soggy.

Everything seasoned rangemen could do to mitigate wetness had been done, but after the second day of steady rainfall nothing could keep the moisture out completely. Even the air inside the wagon was damp.

There had been very little warning. One night when the men bedded down they saw a few fleecy clouds in the sky. The clouds looked soiled around the edges but they were not numerous. Sometime during the night the storm had arrived. Its intensity gradually built up from one of those customary summer showers that cattlemen welcomed until it became a genuine gully washer that had not slackened for two days and nights.

The cattle were out there, invisible to the range-men whenever the cattle were more than a hundred yards away. The same with the horses—two half-ton bay harness animals and eight saddle horses.

This kind of a storm, out in the middle of a thousand miles of rolling-to-flat grassland with a monotonous view in all directions, had an effect on men whose thoughts, habits, and customs had made them individuals who coveted wide open spaces. Suddenly the weather had forced their horizons to shrink way back to the perimeter of the old wagon, along with most of their activities. By the second day of the downpour they had gone from inhabitants of an almost limitless world to being prisoners of an area no more than sixty feet long by about twelve feet wide.

They played poker with a greasy and dog-eared deck of cards. They slept as often as they cared to. They talked about other times, other places, other people and events. Finally, they took to smoking beneath the texas, coat collars turned up, shirts closed all the way to the gullet, hat brims pulled in front and back so water could run off down the sides. The rangemen buckled their chaps into place, leaving the part below the knee swinging free, because leather kept water out, for a while anyway.

The eldest of them was Boss Spearman. Sixty-odd years earlier his mother had named her beautiful little chubby baby boy Bluebonnet because his eyes were the color of the flower, but no one had called him anything but Boss for about half a century.

His mother wouldn’t have recognized him now. Boss was a little under six feet tall, lean, scarred, lined, craggy with a shock of rarely combed iron-gray hair. Like all orphaned Texans left on their own in the wake of a ruinous war, Boss Spearman had reached manhood by clawing his way. Whatever was said about him, he was resourceful. He was taciturn among townfolks and strangers, and he was as shrewd as they came, tough and sinewy. His thoughts, movements, and actions were those of a much younger man.

The youngest of the rangemen was a waif called Button, which was a common name for youngsters. Boss and Charley Waite had rescued Button from an alley fight where townsmen in western New Mexico had pitted him against another boy and placed bets on the outcome. Button was getting whipped to a frazzle when Boss and Charley broke it up and took him out to the wagoncamp with them.

Now Button was sixteen, doing a man’s work in a man’s world, growing like a weed, thin as a rail, with hair the color of dirty straw.

Charley had trailed cattle west with Boss Spearman. He was a little less than average in height, had muscle packed inside a powerful frame, had dark hair and eyes, and could do something few other men ever learned. He could rope equally well with either hand. Charley’s full name was Charles Travis Postelwaite. Before he’d reached twenty he shortened it to Charley Waite. He looked to be about forty-five but in fact was thirty-five.

The last of them was well over six feet tall and weighed better than two hundred pounds. He had nondescript dark hair and deep-set gray eyes, a wide mouth, and scars. His name was Mosely Harrison. They called him Mose.

Big Mose, leaning against the tailgate beneath the canvas, was the first to see the rent in the sky far eastward and say, “It’s goin’ to break up. Look yonder.”

But the storm didn’t break up. Not for another twenty-four hours, and then it ended the same way it had arrived, silently in the soggy night. When they rolled out in the morning to get a cooking fire started with damp wood, there was only a misty dampness to the air. The downpour had stopped.

For another few days, though, the ground would be too treacherous underfoot to do much, and there were seepage springs everywhere that underlying layers of rock would not allow water to penetrate.

Charley was frying sidemeat. The old pot held the last of their coffee. When the others squatted to eat in silence, Charley rationed out soggy fried spuds, meat, and three baking-powder biscuits to each plate. He sat down with his tin dish. “Nice little rain,” he said. “Grass’ll be strong all the way into July maybe.”

No one else spoke. They chewed, swallowed, and raised more food to their mouths. They washed the food down with the coffee, then put the tin cups and plates aside to roll smokes. The smoking was a ritual. It signified something: the end of a meal, the end of a day, the spiritual or philosophical girding up for something ahead. Maybe a self-reward for having survived a particular event.

Boss tipped ash into the little fire. “My maw used to say don’t anything happen it don’t bring some good with it.” He pointed with his cigarette hand. They’d been having trouble with the wagon’s wheels through a month of hot weather. “Them tires and spokes and felloes is as tight as when they was new.”

The next morning the sun arrived, huge and orange-yellow with a single cloud in its path toward the meridian. An hour later the ground steamed; the men shed coats and still sweated. They loafed around the wagon doing minor chores until the kid found the horses. One horse anyway. He’d gone out on foot with a bridle draped from one shoulder and a lariat in his right hand.

Boss walked out a ways, remained out there for a while, then returned to lean on the tailgate, scraping mud off his boots as he said, “Not a sight of anything. I got a feeling we’re going to set right here for maybe a week before we find all those damned cattle.”

Mose Harrison was rubbing mold off a saddle fender. “If the ground was harder, we could take the wagon wherever the cattle are instead of was-tin’ days finding them and driving them back here.”

Boss gazed at the hulking man. “Yeah,” he said dryly. “If. All my life it’s been, If.”

Charley went up front where the wagon tongue was held off the ground by a little wooden horseshoe keg. He sat up there until he saw distant movement, then returned to the tailgate area. “He caught one.”

Boss finished cleaning off the mud and pitched the twig into the dying coals of their breakfast fire. “You want to find the other one, Charley?”

When Button finally got back, mud to the knees and leading a roman-nosed, rawboned big sorrel horse with feet the size of dinner plates, Charley went out with an old croaker sack to dry off the animal’s back before saddling up.

The heat had been steadily, muggily building up for over two hours. It would have helped if there had been a little air stirring, but the air was stone-still. Visibility, however, was excellent as Charley reined away heading on an angling northwesterly course. Because there were no tracks, finding any animals would be by sight alone.

They would eventually find them. They’d been through worse situations than this many times. Grazing cattle constantly moved, and this sooner or later brought rangemen face to face with just about every inconvenience or obstacle nature or man could devise.

It was simply a matter of finding which way the cattle had drifted, with their heads down and their rumps to the force of the storm.

What made it unlikely that Charley Waite would find the cattle soon was the duration of the storm. The cattle could drift one hell of a distance in two days.

The roman-nosed horse sweated even at a steady walk. Charley did too. So did the ground, but its sweat was a rising faint mist as hot sunlight cooked soggy earth.

There was a lot of territory on all sides. The only barrier was a range of haze-distanced mountains to the north. They seemed to form around the big prairie in a long-spending curve, like a huge horseshoe.

There were no signs of two-legged life, but there were plenty of pronghorns and deer. Charley came up over a landswell and startled a young, tawny yellow cougar eating a rabbit. They looked at each other in surprise for a couple of seconds before the cat broke away with his belly hairs scraping the ground as he fled eastward. Charley could have shot him. He had his saddlegun along. Instead he turned northward along the rise and stood in his stirrups seeking movement. A rising heat haze shortened visibility a little but he could still see for miles.

The land was empty.

He zigzagged over a mile or two looking for tracks. When he found them, finally, he was about ten miles from camp. From this point on he followed cow sign toward those distant mountains. The cattle would not have got that far, but he loped a little anyway. He needed reassurance that they hadn’t got up in there, because if they had, it was going to be hard work finding them and driving them back to open country.

The mountains did not seem to be getting any closer no matter how far he rode toward them. What he sought was a sighting or, failing that, the scent of cattle.

What he found was a big calf lying dead. Squawking buzzards surrounded the corpse, too engrossed in feeding to notice his approach until he was close enough to yell and startle them. Most of the birds ran along the ground to get airborne, but several ignored the proximity of the man to tear at the carcass, too hungry to depart immediately.

They finally left when Charley was about a hundred feet from the carcass. He rode closer, sat his saddle studying the dead calf, trying to figure out what had killed it. He gave up on that because the body had been torn and dragged until there was little semblance of its original self. Charley rode northward on the wide, perfectly visible trail of a lot of cattle.

He had not found the brand back there. If he’d cared to dismount and roll the carcass over to expose the right side, he probably could have found it. Boss Spearman, for some private reason, used one C-iron to make three letter Cs on the right rib cage of his cattle. Charley Waite had been with Spearman six years and still did not know what the three Cs stood for.

Some coyotes appeared through stirrup-high grass following the scent of blood. Charley saw them, then lost them, only to see them again in other places. He thought there were about fifteen of the varmints. There was no doubt about what they were seeking and would ultimately find. When that happened the buzzards would leave, and would stay away.

With the sun coming down the far side of heaven to make Charley tip down his hat to protect his eyes, he finally detected dark movement far ahead.

The cattle.

By count there were supposed to be four hundred cows, mostly wet ones with sassy-fat calves, along with about two hundred and fifty big marketable steers and something like fifteen bulls, a bigger ratio than most cattlemen used. But then, most cattlemen had particular ranges; their cows were not always moving.

Charley turned back, satisfied with this part of his mission. Now he concentrated on locating the horses. With them a man could never be as certain of eventual success. True, there had been no lightning and thunder to spook them out of the country, but they could still be a long way off.

Chapter Two

Getting Back to Normal

He found the horses by riding the course of a crooked creek that had the only tree shade for many miles. The horses were absorbing filtered sunshine while simultaneously stamping and flailing their tails at myriads of flying insects.

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Western Wednesdays—GALLOWS by Robert J. Randisi

There’s not many who could ride into danger as calm and collected as Robert J. Randisi’s iconic hero, Lancaster. But Lancaster’s found trouble he’s not yet known when he comes to the aid of a widow in Gallows. While his actions are on the side of the law, those sworn to uphold the law have their own corrupt interests—interests that have Lancaster facing the hangman’s noose. Preview the first two chapters below!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Lancaster spotted the house and felt lucky. His horse was in need of water and some rest. He’d passed a sign post a few miles back that told him he was twenty miles from the town of Gallows, but the horse was worn out. All he needed was a couple of hours and then he could make the rest of the trip.

There was a well right outside the house, but he knew how people were about their water, especially on a small spread. He needed to get permission from the owner before he tried to use it. He’d seen men die over less than a bucket of water. He also noticed that there were three horses tied off in front of the house. He didn’t know what he was riding into. All the more reason to ride into it carefully.

He wanted his horse to walk slowly toward the water, but the animal could smell it and was headstrong to get to it. Lancaster took strong hold of the reins, though, and kept the animal from rushing in. They could wait the few minutes it would take to find the owner.

As he approached the house, though, the feeling of luck quickly turned to something else as the door to the house opened and three men dragged a dark-haired woman outside with them.

“Bitch!” one of them shouted. “I never did trust her.”

“We’ll make her pay now,” another man said.

They dragged her toward the well. Lancaster wondered whether they were intending to throw her in. He found it odd that while the men were shouting at her, cursing and taunting her, the woman was not resisting, and was not making a sound. Then again, she probably felt that, as outnumbered as she was, it was futile to fight them.

All three men were wearing trail clothes, minus hats, and were carrying sidearms. If he intervened on behalf of the woman he was going to have to be ready to deal with three armed men. On the other hand, he didn’t have much of a choice. He couldn’t just watch them chuck her down the well, or worse, kill her.

He gigged his horse and trotted the last fifty feet, which brought him right up to them. At the sound of the horse the three men stopped and looked at him. They all released the woman, who slumped to the ground. Lancaster could see that her eyes were open, but he took his eyes away from her and put them on the three men. Looking at the woman too long could end up getting him killed.

“Looks like some excitement,” Lancastersaid. “Mind if I water my horse before you finish up?”

“Get outta here, mister,” one of the men said. “This ain’t none of your business.”

“I know that,” Lancastersaid, “I was just asking to water my horse.”

“Go water it someplace else,” the second man told him.

“Where’s the nearest water after here?” he asked.

“A town called Gallows,” the third man said, “’bout fifteen miles.” He was the youngest of the three, maybe twenty. The other two gave him annoyed looks.

“Fifteen miles,” Lancastersaid. “See, that’s too far. My horse needs some water now. If you’ll just let me water him, I’ll be on my way and you can finish.”

The three men exchanged glances. The woman moaned once, but Lancaster didn’t risk a look at her. The men all turned to face Lancaster squarely. Any chance he had at surprising them was gone. In the old days he would have rode in with his gun blazing. But no…in the old days he would have waited at a distance for them to finish and then watered his horse.

The old days were gone, though. Even though the old ways may have been easier.

He wasn’t the old Lancaster, anymore.

Lancaster turned his horse slightly to the left, exposing his right side to the three men, but keeping his horse’s head from being a factor when he had to snake his own gun.

“What do you boys have against the lady, anyway?” he asked.

“We told ya,” the first man said, “this ain’t none of your affair. Now ride off before ya get hurt.”

“I’d really like to oblige you boys and ride off, but my horse has already caught the scent of that water. I don’t think I could get him away from here if I tried.”

The woman moaned at that point and the oldest of the men kicked her lightly in the ribs and said, “Shut up. We’ll get back to you in a minute, bitch.”

“Hey, come on,” Lancaster said. “That’s really no way to treat a lady.”

Lancaster noticed that the youngest of the three kept looking down at the woman. He was the last one he’d have to worry about. The oldest man had taken the time to kick the woman in the ribs. It was the middle man, the one who kept his eyes onLancaster, that he was going to have to worry about first.

“Mister—” the oldest man said, and then drew his gun.

Lancaster drew and fired. Despite the fact that the oldest man cleared leather first, Lancaster still shot the middle man first. He caught him bringing his gun up. The bullet hit the man in the chest. The man stepped back, tripped over the fallen woman and went down on his back.

The oldest man was bringing his gun to bear as Lancaster snapped off his second shot. As he did so he slid out of the saddle, falling behind his horse. He was hoping to get off a shot underneath the animal but the oldest man, as he fell to his death, managed to squeeze off a wild shot that hit the horse with a perfect killing shot. It was all Lancaster could do to roll away and keep from being pinned.

The youngest man had been startled by the gunplay and went for his gun way too late.

“Don’t do it!” Lancaster yelled at him, getting to one knee.

The young man paid him no mind, probably didn’t even hear the warning because of the blood pounding in his ears. Lancaster had to choice but to shoot him, which he did. He managed to dispatch all three men with three shots, which was the kind of shooting that had made his reputation many years ago, when he was plying his trade as a killer for hire.

“Damn it, I told you not to!” he shouted as the boy fell onto his face.

Lancaster got to his feet and quickly approached the fallen men, kicking their pistols away just in case, but he needn’t have bothered.

They were all dead.

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Western Wednesdays—OUTLAW LAWMAN by Paul Bagdon

Outlaw Lawman is a book that swept me up in the first chapter. The scene is set so perfectly, I felt as though I was there beside Bagdon’s enigmatic hero Pound as he rode into the unruly bordertown of Gila Bend, his true motives hidden from the reader, and perhaps even himself. The cast of characters that you meet in this excerpt only hint at the depth and complexity of the story to come.  If you want to feel the heat and the sweat, taste the dust in your mouth, hear the desolate sounds of an outlaw town, be transported to the Old West, then this is the book for you.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

I heard the baseball game before I even drew close to it: men whooping and yelling, guns firing, the occasional series of curse words that reached me even over the distance. A sign on a stout fence post told me I was in—or coming into—Gila Bend.

I topped an easy rise and looked directly down at the game. A fat man was at bat. The pitcher gave him a good throw, and the fat man swung hard and arced the ball over the pitcher’s head and into the outfield. It looked like an easy single, even though the heavy man waddled rather than ran. When he reached first base, the baseman swung at him, connected with his chin, and dropped him there in the dust, unconscious. A mixture of cheers and boos sounded as the fat man’s pals dragged him off to the side.

The runner who’d been on second base took off for third as soon as the fat man connected with the ball. The third baseman covered his base—blocked it, actually—and held a thick piece of a tree branch. The runner dove at the baseman, and the two of them rolled about in the dirt, raising a cloud of dust, punching, gouging, biting, and cursing. The runner managed to wrestle the club away from the baseman and beat him unconscious with it. At the same time, the runner who’d been on third was digging for home plate, running hard, knees pumping, head down, arms flailing. It was then that a loop sailed out from the group of observers. Whoever he was, he was one hell of a roper. His loop was small—exactly the right size to drop over the runner’s head and stop him very quickly—so quickly, in fact, that the wet snap of his neck was easily audible over the rest of the racket of the game.

If the baseball game was a fuse, the fight that followed was the explosion. Two masses of bellowing, drunken men met about midfield, swinging, kicking, and in some cases, shooting.

I’d seen lots of bar fights, more than a few gunfights where the loser ended up dead, but I’d never seen anything like this before. Baseball can raise a man’s ire, and a little pushing and maybe slugging is to be expected during a game, particularly when most or all of the players were drunk.

But damn: shooting a base runner? Snapping a fellow’s neck with a lariat? Anybody who threw a loop the way that cowboy had could have widened it a foot or so and made his catch around the runner’s middle.

My horse was getting antsy under me, catching the scent of the horses staked and hobbled down by the game. A slug whispered by my head, then another. A man never forgets that sound once he’s heard it, and I’ve heard it too many times to sit around and wait to hear it again. I heeled my good bay horse into a gallop, swinging back down below the rise, and made a big half circle around the baseball game. From there it was easy enough to follow wagon tracks and hoofprints to Gila Bend.

I swung off the tracks and rode a half mile or so out onto the prairie. The money in my saddlebags was in those waterproof canvas sacks banks and large mercantiles use. I triangulated a nice little rock outcropping with a pair of desert pines, moved some rocks around, and stashed my money. Then I went on back to the trail that led to Gila Bend.

The town looked like most of the little Texas towns of the time—splintered, unpainted wood buildings; hand-painted signs; and the usual array of businesses: a stable, a mercantile, five saloons, a restaurant, a furniture maker/embalmer/mortician, and what may or may not have been at one time a church. It’d been burned, but it looked as though some of the chairs inside may once have been pews.

There were two or three horses tied in front of each gin mill and a few men walking, going into the mercantile or a saloon. Every man I saw was carrying a sidearm, and some carried two.

Some of the men were wearing those big broad hats—sombreros—and I knew for an absolute fact that any cowhand, drifter, saddle-tramp gambler—any American at all—would prefer to have his head broiled over a campfire like chicken than wear one of those Mex hats.

Without being obvious about it, I looked more closely at some of the men under sombreros. I was certain that looking too long at any man in Gila Bend was a bad idea. There was no doubt the fellows were Mexicans.

I was real unclear as to where I was, Texas or Mexico. I figured that in a hellhole like Gila Bend, it didn’t much matter.

I put my horse up at the stable, had new shoes put on him all the way ’round, and paid in advance for a double scoop of crimped oats daily, plus all the good hay he wanted. That horse had done some hard and long traveling, and he more than deserved a respite, some good grub, and some time out from under the saddle.

I walked down the rutted street past the first saloon I came to. The beer and booze were singing out to me, but I kept walking. I was looking for a specific and recognizable man, and I knew I’d eventually find him.

I walked by what had once been a sheriff’s office. The front door was battered and broken and hung from its top hinge. It was riddled with bullet holes, too. I looked inside as I walked by. There was an overturned rolltop desk that was partially burned. A cut chain hung from what had obviously been a rifle cabinet. There was a Stetson on the floor near the desk with several bullet holes in it and flaking, dried blood around the holes. It’d probably been a fine hat at one time; Stetson didn’t make junk.

There’s always at least one of the bar-rags I was looking for in Texas towns; I figured Gila Bend would have a couple of them—Mexican or Texan—and perhaps three. They were hardcore drunks, who, since they were incapable of working and too stupid to steal, spent their days cadging or begging drinks. Sometimes they exchanged good information for a belt of redeye and a schooner of beer. Often the information was mindless babble or pure fabrication; once in a while it was good.

I almost passed a barber shop, but then took a couple of steps back and entered. A bath was thirty cents, which was kind of steep. The shave and the haircut came to two bits.

The barber was a surly oaf who smelled of pomade, talcum powder, and stale beer. Usually those fellows would talk your ear off about nothing, but this guy was an exception. He grunted every so often as he went about his work but said not a word. When we evened up, I added a nickel tip, which was customary.

The barber’s eyes opened wide in a parody of joyous surprise. “Hot goddamn!” he said. “Now I can buy me a few hundred acres of good land and a thousand head of prime, fat beef, an’ maybe even a runnin’ horse, an’ make yet more money!”

I took the nickel back from the counter and put it in my pocket. “Hey, Mr. …” he began angrily.

“Another word and I’ll step on your goddamn face real hard, you pile of shit,” I said. The barber snorted and glared but didn’t say anything.

I stood there a moment, trying to convince myself that doing what I had in mind made no sense at all. I couldn’t do it. There was a shelf behind the barber chair that held maybe ten or so bottles of various stuff—cologne and such. I drew and blew the living piss out of six of them. The barber had hit the floor and was curled into a ball like a dung beetle. I stood there while I reloaded and then went on my way.

There was a burned-out building next to the barber shop and the next business was a saloon with a broad, poorly lettered sign over its batwings that said BAR—DRINK.  Just outside was where the bar-rag latched on to me.

“Ahh, my good friend,” he slurred as he stepped in front of me from where he’d been standing just outside the saloon. The man was a textbook illustration of what constant drunkenness, dissolution, malnutrition, and general booze-generated stupidity could do to a fellow. The poor sonofabitch wasn’t worth the bullet it’d take to put him out of his misery.

“You looking for a drink?” I asked.

“I don’t generally imbibe spirits, but I see that you’re new in Gila Bend, and I’ll be pleased to join you—on you, of course.”

I was more than a tad astonished at how well this rummy spoke. I pushed through the batwings and held one side open for the man. As he passed me, I got a closer look at him. His hair was gray—he wore no hat—and it seemed to have fallen out in lumps, leaving deathly pallid patches of scalp behind. It seemed to me that he was too gaunt to live; his wrists were like sticks, and his neck was so thin that his Adam’s apple appeared to be the size of a ripe melon. He wore a work shirt that at one time must have belonged to a shorter man—the cuffs barely passed his elbows. His coveralls—large enough to accommodate three men his size—hung from his shoulders like drapes. His feet were bare and horrible to look upon; the nails of his toes were long and a vomit-yellow hue, and the grime on his ankles and the upper length of his foot would be impossible to remove. It was part of his flesh, part of his being. The stench of his body was bad; I gagged as he walked past me. He smelled dead—long dead.

I picked up two schooners of beer, two shot glasses, and a bottle of Kentucky bourbon and carried all that on a tray to where my new colleague was sitting at a table. “My name’s Pound,” I said. “Yours?”

“I’m called Calvin,” he said, “although various bartenders and others have different names for me—bad names, names that sometimes hurt.”

I couldn’t help asking, “Then why not crawl out of the bottle and do something with yourself?”

Calvin poured a shot with a trembling hand, spilling as much booze on the table as he got into the shot glass. He drained his schooner in one long, gulping, gasping swallow. He followed the beer immediately with the shot. “’Cause I don’t want to,” he said. “Bein’ a bar-rag suits me. It ain’t the noblest of professions, but it works for me.”  He refilled his shot glass with considerable less shaking this time and dumped it down, smacking his lips as if he’d just had a bite of a crisp, tart apple. “I suspect you’re looking for information—or did you set up drinks to ask me the name of my tailor?”

I poured myself a shot. “Tell me about Gila Bend,” I said.

“It got started maybe twenty years ago when a fat vein of silver was struck. The vein didn’t play out, neither. It’s a little harder to get to these days, but she’s still there. ‘Course that strike brought lots of others: miners, gamblers, men running from the law, drifters still wearing Reb uniforms, whores, gunfighters, storekeepers, saloons, an’ so forth, just like any burg built on gold or silver does.”

“Why’d they name it Gila Bend?”

“’Cause there was a gila setting right where a miner hit the strike.”

“Let me ask you this: are we in Texas or Mexico?”

“Calvin laughed. “Texas—not that it matters much. You could throw a stone from here to Mexico.”

“What about the law here?”

Calvin grimaced and spat on the floor. “Shit,” he said, “you might have seen the sheriff’s office. He was the fourth one in less than three years. Got shot off his horse from a hundred or better yards away by a fella with a Sharps. The one before him was a little slower on the draw than a shootist who’d moved in. The one before that…well, I think he got a knife in his heart trying to break up a fracas in a saloon. I disremember what happened to the one farthest back, but you can wager he didn’t die from falling out of bed and cracking his head.”

I handed Calvin a pair of ten-cent pieces and had him fetch a couple more beers for us. When I sat down at the table again, Calvin said, “There’s a fellow by the name of Billy Powers. Billy runs Gila Bend.”

“How so?”

“It just happened, I guess. There’s paper out on him and most of his men. They rode in and decided to stay. None of them have much use for Mexico or Mexicans, so they didn’t care to cross over. There’s a bunch of Mexicans in Gila Bend, but they walk real quiet around Billy Powers.”

“What’s the paper on Powers for?” I asked.

“Murder and rape, robbery, the usual stuff. He’s a hired-gun type. He’d shoot his grandmother if the money was adequate.”

“Sounds like a swell guy.”

Calvin laughed, but it was a bad laugh, one with no mirth behind it.

“There’s paper out on maybe half the men in town, Pound. And the other half just haven’t killed or robbed enough to rate posters.”

“How’d this Powers come to take over the town?”

“Well,” Calvin said, “four—maybe five—years ago, Billy beat the piss out of a man who was feared by everyone in Gila Bend. This was a fistfight in a saloon, and it didn’t take but a minute or so.”

I nodded.

“The very next day, Billy was in a saloon where he fancied a whore. He wrestled her clothes off—everything she was wearing—in front of a packed saloon, mind you. Then he slapped her on the ass and carried her upstairs. In a minute she was screaming in pain. Somebody ran for the sheriff, and one of his men warned Billy. They met on the street in front of the saloon. Billy put three slugs in the sheriff’s chest before the lawman’s pistol ever cleared leather.”

I rolled a smoke and pushed my sack of tobacco and my papers across the table to Calvin. He rolled a cigarette that looked every bit as good as one of those fancy-ass store-boughts. He looked longingly at the sheath of papers and the sack of tobacco in front of him as I struck a lucifer and lit both our smokes.

“Keep ’em,” I said. “I got plenty more.”

His full smile showed how very few teeth he had, and the ones left were more brown than yellow, slanted like very old headstones in an ancient cemetery. His gums were a godawful greenish-pink that made my gorge rise hot and stinging in the back of my throat. I had to look away.

I took a long suck of beer. “Why doesn’t the law come in and tear this whole goddamned place down?” I asked.

“’Cause it ain’t worth the time nor the soldiers who’d be killed—and there’d be a whole lot of them.”

I needed to think for a time, and then I said, “You’re either diddling me or running some sort of a scam. I don’t like either choice.”

“I don’t know what you’re…”

“Talking about,” I finished Calvin’s sentence. “It’s this: your language. Your use of words swings from that of a drunken cowhand to that of a college professor and back, often in the same sentence. What’s going on here?”

Calvin poured us each another shot of whiskey. “I was once an instructor in a school in Massachusetts,” he said. “It was a good job, but I drank my way out of it. Then I came West and taught at a school in a town called Hempton’s Stop, and boozed my way out of that one, too. Somehow I ended up here after a couple of years.” He looked at me quizzically. “What was it that indicated to you that I—”

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Western Wednesdays—THE WAY OF THE WEST + Giveaway

Tomorrow marks the winter solstice, at least for those of us residing in the northern hemisphere. Hope everyone in the southern hemisphere is enjoying their sunny December solstice. In honor of the shortest day of the year, I’m previewing a novella by Elmer Kelton, part of the new anthology collection The Way of the West, that also includes shorts from Max Brand and Cotton Smith.

In Elmer Kelton’s Long Ride, Hard Ride, a retreating Confederate troop has seized a Union cache of munitions—only to find themselves surrounded by Apaches. But these soldiers are the unlikeliest of heroes, as you’re about to find out.

A broiling feud between two ranchers over water rights turns to blood in Cotton Smith’s Morning War. And The Desert Pilot by Max Brand is a thrilling tale of a quiet man who has to learn to stick up for himself in a lawless town.

The Way of the West contains three prime examples of Western adventure by the best writers of yesterday and today. Check out the preview below and be sure to leave a comment in the thread—you could win a copy of the paperback! Let us know what some of your favorite anthologies are. Have you discovered a new writer that was paired with one of your favorites?

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

I
“The Wagons of Munitions”

There could be no doubt about the sudden volley of gunfire that echoed from the ragged mountain pass to the south. For more than an hour the sixteen soldiers in gray had watched the mirror flashes on the high points. They had seen the  blue-clad Yankee cavalry patrol trot into the defile.

The rattle of gunfire tapered off. For a terrible ten minutes there was silence, a quiet as awesome as had been the screaming sound of death at Valverde on the Río Grande, or Apache Cañon in the Glorietas.

Lt. Miles Overstreet, Confederate States of America, unfolded his spyglass with trembling hands and trained it on the pass. He stood tall, a lean, angular man in dusty gray, with futility weighing heavy on his shoulders. His hand-sewn uniform was frayed and stained from a thousand miles and more of riding and fighting and sleeping on the ground. A thousand miles since San Antonio. A thousand miles of sweat and thirst and blood.

The Indians came then,  fifty-odd of them, riding northward in single file. The clatter of their ponies’ bare hoofs on the rocks came clear as a bell on the sharp morning air. Exultant yelps ripped from red throats like the cries of demons in a child’s nightmare. Behind them the red men led a dozen riderless  horses, not wild mustang Indian ponies, but  well- bred mounts of the U.S. cavalry.

Overstreet’s leathery skin stretched even tighter over his jutting cheekbones. Despite the  knife-sharp chill left from the night air, a trickle of sweat worked its way down through the streaked dust and the rough stubble of whiskers. He lowered the glass and looked at the remnant of his command. Fifteen men, flat on their bellies in skirmish line.

“Load up,” he said. “We’re next.”

For this was New Mexico Territory in April of 1862, torn by civil war, with white man against white man, and red men against them all. Less than a year ago, fiery Col. John R. Baylor had led his 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles up from captured Fort Bliss to take New Mexico for the newly formed Confederacy. Then had come Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley and his huge brigade. These men were ill- clothed,  ill- fed, poorly armed, but through eight months of struggle and privation they had ridden to one victory after  another—Fort Fillmore, San Augustine Springs, Valverde, Albuquerque. At last, they had raised the Confederate flag over Santa Fé itself and envisioned a daring sweep across to California, to the gold fields, to the open sea.

Then came disaster in one flaming day at Glorieta Pass. Grim men in tattered gray turned their faces southward toward Texas, the sweet taste of victory now bitter ashes in their mouths. Men like Miles Overstreet, who had known the dream and now stood awaiting the futile end of it, had been wasted under a savage onslaught that no one had even considered.

He listened to the click of captured Yankee single-shot carbines as his men prepared for a battle that could end but one way. He saw one soldier flattened out in fear, without a weapon.

“Vasquez,” Overstreet called to a  dark-skinned trooper from the brushy cow country below San Antonio, “give Hatchet back his gun. His little mutiny is over.”

His men! The thought brought an ironic twist to his cracked lips. The sorriest soldiers in Sibley’s Brigade, and Major Scanling had saddled him with them. A thousand times he had cursed the day he stole a victory right under the pointed nose of the  glory-hunting major. Scanling’s lips had smiled as he read the communication. But his eyes never masked the anger that simmered in him. Scanling transferred Overstreet then. Gave him these men, prisoners all, to relieve their guards for action.

“We need a good officer like you to handle them,” he had said, his yellow eyes gleaming. “Take them. Delay the federals long enough for the main body of troops to get away. Hold every pass as long as you can, then drop back and hold another. We’re buying time with you . . . with you and these miserable scum who call themselves soldiers. Go on, Overstreet. Go on and be a hero.”

He had hated the major then, and his hatred swelled a little more every time he’d been forced to use his own gun to keep half the men from running away. Now, this looked like the end of it.

Beside Overstreet, young Sammy McGuffin  rose on his knees and lowered his head in prayer.

“Better flatten out there and spend your time getting ready for those Indians, son,” the lieutenant said curtly.

The boy looked up in surprise. “You don’t believe in prayer, sir?”

“I believe in a man taking care of himself.”

The Indians stopped three hundred yards short of the Confederates’ position. They shouted defiance and waved muskets and Yankee guns and showed the fresh scalps that dangled beneath the firearms. Then they wheeled their ponies and galloped away into the morning sun, shouting their victory to the mountains.

Overstreet stood watching  open-mouthed, hardly believing, hardly daring to believe.

Sammy McGuffin’s  high-pitched voice spoke out, almost breaking. “They’re leaving. They’re letting us live. But why?”

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Western Wednesdays—SHOWDOWN AT JUNIPER PASS by Kent Conwell

Kent Conwell’s enigmatic hero Jake Slade is a character that has resonated with readers from his first appearance on the page in Chimney of Gold. Slade’s journey has always been one close to the hearts of readers as he’s fought to avenge the family he lost and to keep hold of the family he’s made. Showdown at Juniper Pass brings us the next chapter in the Jake Slade saga. Dealing with loss once again, Slade struggles to honor his fallen brother while fighting for his own life and the lives of the innocent in a quiet mountain town faced with its own mortality. This two chapter excerpt sets the stage for an epic battle of wills in Showdown at Juniper Pass.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter 1

Slade had no choice. The young half-breed tightened his cinch and swung into the saddle, bound for the Texas Panhandle. The snow had fallen all night, a light breeze pushing it into gentle drifts.

Leaving the thicket of piñon, he paused on the crest of a shale ridge for one final look down into the valley at the lump of snow impaled on the charred limb of a bristlecone pine, the body of his Apache brother, Nana. His vision blurred, and when he refocused his eyes on the pine, the body had vanished. Only a slender black limb stood out against the snow.

* * *

Slade jerked awake and stared into the darkness above. In one corner of his small adobe, embers blinked like wolf eyes in the chiminea.

Despite the chill of the winter night, sweat beaded his forehead. The same dream. Every night since his return from the high lonesome in New Mexico Territory, the same dream, but this night would be the last.

Today he would ride out of Tucson for that valley high in the Sangre de Cristos to bury his brother.

* * *

Two hours later, shortly before the sun rose over the Catalina Mountains to the east, Slade closed the freight office door behind him and filled a tin cup with six-shooter coffee. He plopped down on an empty cartridge case in front of the potbellied stove.

Cupping a steaming mug in his hands on the other side of the stove, Three-Fingers Bent rocked back in the straight back chair and grunted. “Damnation, Jake. I know you left Nana so you could get back to New Gideon to save my hide. I can’t never pay you back for that, so that’s why I don’t mind saying you got rocks for brains heading out in this kind of weather.” He cut his dark eyes to Bill Harnden, Slade’s partner in the stage and freight line. “Tell him what you told me, Bill,” Bent growled.

With a crooked grin, Slade glanced up at his old friend. “Yeah, Bill. Why don’t you tell me?”

Harnden, his bushy brows knit, studied the lean half-breed. “Hell, I understand what you’re doing. I’d do the same thing. But the fact is, we’re smack-dab in the middle of one of the worst winters in years. Second, you left a heap of bad blood behind you up there in them mountains. And third, which oughta be the most important thing to you right now, is the stage line. The new route from Fort Atkins onto El Pasois running smooth, but there’s only been half a dozen trips. Who’s going to handle it if something goes wrong?”

“Besides,” Bent put in, “them Utes is thicker’n seven cowboys on a cot up there. They’ll have your scalp before you get within ten miles of that valley.”

The wiry cowpoke ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair and, with the unperturbed aplomb of the Apache, studied his two friends with cool gray eyes. He knew they had his best interests in mind, but he also realized he could never explain to them the intensity of family loyalty within the Apache psyche. A knowing smile ticked up the sides of his lips. “I can’t argue with what you say. I know the weather’s bad, and I know there’s them up yonder who would sell their own mother for my hide. But that’s my brother up there.” He glanced at Bent. “I left him because I had no choice.”

He paused, sipped his coffee, and reached for the bag of Bull Durham. While he rolled a cigarette, he continued. “Now I got a choice. I go now because I got me a sentir perdido.” When Bent arched an eyebrow, Slade explained. “That’s Apache for a feeling of being lost. What you and me call a bad feeling. Not about me, but that Nana won’t be there. I can’t shake the sentir, but I can do something about it. As far as the stage line goes, you can run down any problems. We got good men at each of the way stations. Besides, I won’t be gone more than a month.”

Cantankerous as a ringy longhorn, Bent snorted. “If you’re so damned bound and determined to go up there, then I’m going with you.”

Bill Harnden shot a surprised look at Bent. Slade chuckled. “Forget it. Paleto’s going.”

Harnden frowned at Slade. “Your brother?”

“Yep.” He grinned sheepishly at Bent, who picked up the moniker Three‑Fingered Bent because of the loss of his thumb and forefinger in a game of chance between him and a band of White Mountain Apaches at a drunken party on the banks of the Gila River. He was a distant relative of the Bent brothers, William and George, who built the fort near the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatory rivers in 1833, thirty-nine years earlier.

“In fact,” Slade continued, “I’m meeting him up in the Catalinas midmorning. Come nighttime, we ought to reach the Hayden spread at the edge of the Dripping Springs Mountains. By heading due east, we can avoid the heavy snows.”

Bent peered through the frosted windows at the brittle blue winter sky. “Well then, if I can’t change your mind, I reckon you’d best get a move on while the weather holds.” He flexed his left arm at the elbow two or three times. “My old bunk mate, arthritis, says we got us another cold spell coming in.”

* * *

The sun was a shimmering globe overhead when Slade gave the call of a whip-poor-will. Moments later, the coo of a dove drifted down the boulder-strewn slope of the Catalinas. His Apache brother, Paleto, rode out on a craggy slope high above.

Slade held up his right hand in front of his body, pointing the index finger at Paleto, then bringing the first two fingers to his lips, the Indian sign for “brother.”

With a faint smile in his eyes, Paleto returned the sign.

Slade reined up beside the wiry Apache who wore knee-high moccasins, leather leggings, and a fur-lined vest over a Yankee battle jacket. A bear-claw necklace hung from around his neck, his totem, his personal protector. A rolled bearskin was tied behind the cantle of his saddle. “You look well.”

His dark face impassive, Paleto nodded. “And you, brother.”

Gesturing to the north, Slade asked, “Ready?”

Paleto shook his head. “Your father wishes to visit with you.”

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Western Wednesdays—HARLAN by Frank Roderus

In one of the most dangerous and horrifying cases of mistaken identity, readers race against the clock alongside one of the most disreputable of heroes in Harlan, by Spur award-winning author Frank Roderus. Have fun rooting for the bad guy to win the day against the worst guy in this deceptive thrill ride of a Western!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Prologue

Vernon Kinder grabbed the dipper and tried for the third time to rinse the sharp, acid taste of vomit from his mouth, but water was not what he needed here. Whiskey might work but he hadn’t brought a bottle with him, dammit. He wondered if maybe Kenny had. Or…Vernon shook his head. It didn’t matter if Will Howard had any inside his soddy. Vernon wouldn’t set foot back inside that house even if he would get a lifetime supply of bonded whiskey for doing it. The sight of what was in there…Vernon gagged again just from thinking about it. He spun around and bent over with the dry heaves. Christ, he’d already lost everything he’d eaten for the past three days. A thin stream of mucus was all he could get out. Jesus! He straightened up and reached for the water dipper.

“D’you think they did the kid too, Vern?” Kenny asked, ignoring Vernon’s puking.

Vernon spat, rinsed and spat again. “I don’t know and I ain’t gonna look. I ain’t going back in there. Not for love nor money.”

“Somebody has to. They’ve got to be buried, you know.”

“Fine, but I ain’t gonna do it. Let the marshal come out and do that shit.”

“The marshal doesn’t have jurisdiction out here, Vern. That’d be the sheriff.”

Vernon scowled. “Then don’t hold your breath. That sonuvabitch ain’t been to this end of the county since just before the last election. And we’uns voted for Delton then so I don’t expect we’ll see our sheriff anytime soon.”

“Somebody has to do something though, Vern. Jesus God! Will is laying dead in there and both them kids and…and Margaret buck naked and…and…what all was done to Margaret wasn’t human, Vern. Wasn’t even human. It must’ve been Indians that killed them all. Must’ve been. Couldn’t be no white man cut…did all that shit to them. Couldn’t of been.”

“Maybe,” Vernon said cautiously, looking around as if he expected to see a screaming horde of wild savages spring at them from Will Howard’s hog pen or possibly the hen house. “Maybe it was Injuns at that. I guess, hell, it must’ve been.”

“What are we going to do about the bodies, Vern?”

“Shit, I dunno. But I’m telling you straight out, Kenny. I ain’t going back inside that house. No, sir, not never.”

“We have to tell somebody. Do something,” Kenny said.

“I told you what I think. We’ll ride back t’ town. Tell the marshal there. The justice o’ the damn peace too. An’ the doc. Prob’ly make him puke too when he sees what’s in there. That fancy college Doc went to the war, I bet he didn’t see the like of this in none of that shit.” Vernon shook his head. “Jesus God, Kenny. Jesus God!”

“I guess we ought to, I don’t know, shut the door at least. Keep the coyotes out and all them.”

“If you know a way to keep the stinking flies out, it’d be a blessing, you know that? Some of them flies crawled on me when we was in there, Kenny. Makes me feel like they was rubbing some of that shit on me. You know what I mean?” The thought made Vernon’s gorge rise again and he once more doubled over in an attempt to empty an already vacant stomach.

His friend Kenny quietly walked around to the front of the sod house and pushed the door closed. The latch was broken—there must have been a struggle—so he used Margaret’s churn to prop the door closed. It was the best he could do at the moment. And like Vernon, Kenny had no intention of going inside that place again. In his mind’s eye he could still see the ugliness within. For the rest of his life he would still see that, he suspected.

Kenny fetched their horses from the rickety corral that Will Howard had built and tried to lead them over to Vernon, but neither horse was willing to go near. Most likely they could smell the blood. Horses generally will shy from the scent of blood.

“Come on, Vern. Quit your puking and mount up. We got to go tell somebody about this.”

Chapter 1

Laura Hannigan felt a flutter of excitement. There was a man, a stranger, talking with Jim. They stood beside the barn, shielded from the ever-present wind. It was nigh onto suppertime and Laura considered whether she had time enough to freshen up and change into a nicer dress. Something with the color in the material not quite so washed out and…oh, good heavens, this old thing had a patch on the pocket. She could not allow the gentleman—and from the way he was dressed, this man was a very fine gentleman—she could not possibly allow him to see her like this.

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Western Wednesdays—RIDE FOR RULE CORDELL by Cotton Smith

It’s not often you come across a female antagonist in Westerns, but Cotton Smith’s villainous Lady Holt in Ride for Rule Cordell is a triple threat—she’s smart, mean, and ambitious to the point that she’s just about got the whole of Texas under her greedy thumb. Only the Texas Rangers stand in her way, and they’ll have to form an unlikely alliance with a notorious outlaw if they’re to break Lady Holt’s stranglehold on the great state and its people. Get in on the action with this preview of Ride for Rule Cordell by Cotton Smith.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Texas Ranger John Checker saw the two gunmen coming in the darkness before they saw him. Like a cat, he dove toward the short buffalo grass pushing against the right side of the ranch shed. He rolled until he was lying chest-down in a shallow creek fifteen feet away. His long black hair brushed along the shoulders of his Comanche tunic.

Moonlight shivered on the dark water that fed upon most of his pants. He laid his Winchester against the edge of the creek itself. Hidden from the gunmen until they got close. Swiftly, he lifted the thong from the hammer of his short-barreled Colt carried in a reverse holster on a double-rowed cartridge belt. His hand gripped the black handles, carrying an embedded elk-bone circle on each side, and drew the fine revolver.

If they saw him, the short gun would be faster to bring into action. He froze in place as they came closer. He was certain they hadn’t seen him. A shooting encounter now might prove fatal for his old friend, Emmett Gardner. The smarter move was to determine what exactly was going on and where.

He and fellow Ranger A. J. Bartlett had come as soon as they received the wire from the gray-haired rancher. The two Rangers had hit town and learned from a loose-lipped cowboy that Lady Holt riders would descend on Gardner’s ranch tonight. They stayed only long enough to get fresh horses.

Right now, Bartlet twas somewhere on the other side of the ranch yard, waiting for Checker’s signal to close in. If he wasn’t fussing with his new socks; things like that mattered greatly to his partner. He even kept a detailed journal of recipes of meals that could be prepared on the trail. Probably the result of growing up with schoolteacher parents.

So far, there had been no shooting. Most likely, this meant the old rancher and his sons had been surprised and subdued. Or it could signify something worse. A lone light in the ranch  house gave no clue to what was happening inside, but Checker thought it was encouraging. He wasn’t certain how many gunmen were at the ranch, but guessed it was ten to twelve. Bartlett was uncomfortable with any estimate, especially one like that; Checker reminded him they wouldn’t know for certain until the attack was over.

The two gunmen finally stopped and stood above him on the grassy bank. Their rifles were carried casually in crossed arms. Both were looking back toward the ranch  house. It appeared their only objective was to stay out of the way of others.

Checker dared not lift his head enough to see them any better. He had learned well from Stands-In-Thunder how a man could remain unseen by his enemies when actually in plain sight. No movement was the first requirement.

Courage was the second.

Third was to avoid staring directly at the person; such eye contact would often make the man realize he was being watched.

Ranger reports indicated Lady Holt had forty gunmen in her employ, including the notorious Tapan Moore and the half-breed Luke Dimitry. Were they all  here? He didn’t think anything near that, but  wasn’t certain. So far, his first guess of ten to twelve seemed right. Forty gunmen didn’t count all the regular cowboys who handled her vast herds. There was little in this part of Texas the English woman didn’t own—or control. There was talk of her employing the new devil’s rope to stop open grazing. Barbed wire would change everything, most agreed—and few liked the idea.

The two gunmen’s conversation was casual in the tense darkness.

“Looks like the ol’ lady’s gonna get her wish.Gardner’s spread’ll make it just about complete. The ol’ man’s got some fine water. Grazin’ land ain’t bad, neither. Sil said he’s gonna make him sign over his place—or start hangin’ his sons.”

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Western Wednesdays—NOT A RUSTLER by John D. Nesbitt

I’ll make this short and sweet since I hope everyone is on their way to visiting family and friends, or preparing to host the main event themselves. Either way, may this holiday weekend be filled with those you love and good food. Take a breather from packing or cooking and enjoy this preview of Not a Rustler by John D. Nesbitt, a story of a working ranch man falsely accused of being a rustler. Will the conspiracy be uncovered before it buries him? Find out!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

CHAPTER ONE

Spencer Prescott reined his horse to a stop when he saw a rider come over a hill on the trail ahead. The man was leaning forward and had his horse let out at a gallop, leaving a low cloud of dust in his wake.

Spencer moved his horse off to the side of the trail and waited. The oncoming horse was a common-looking sorrel, rigged for ranch work, and the man aboard, in addition to his intent posture, had the appearance of a seasoned range rider. His clothes were dusty, creased, and worn-looking in the sun.

As the man brought the horse to a jolting halt, Spencer recognized the upturned hat brim, the blond mustache, and the hard cheekbones of Kent Anderson, one of the men who rode for George Farrow. The rider worked his reins to each side as the horse, heaving deep breaths, shifted its feet and settled down.

“What news?” called Spencer.

“Nothing good.” Sunk into the flushed, sun-weathered face, the man’s blue eyes showed alarm. His chest moved up and down. “Someone’s killed the boss,” he announced.

Spencer felt his pulse jump. “When did that happen?”

Anderson’s voice quavered. “This morning, it looks like. He sent us hands out to gather horses. We left at first daylight and come back about noon. Looked like he’d been dead a few hours.”

“Right there at the ranch?”

“As he stepped out the front door. Hadn’t even pulled it shut.”

Spencer shook his head, slow and thoughtful. “That doesn’t sound good at all. Any idea who might have done it?”

Anderson gave a hard stare, and his eyes showed bloodshot. “Your guess is as good as mine.” He paused, as if to let the comment sink in. Then he went on to say, “You know as well as I do that anyone who isn’t part of the Association gets called a rustler and is liable to show up on a list somewhere.”

Spencer thought it sounded like an exaggeration, but he said, “I’m sorry for that.”

The upturned brim and the drooping blond mustache moved back and forth in an agitated motion, and Spencer couldn’t tell if it was from anger or fear.

With another heave of the chest, Anderson spoke. “Nothing personal to you, Spence. You ride for wages just like I do. But you know damn well, what they do to one man, they can do to another. Brand him a rustler, and take it from there. Now, you, you work for a member, so you’re on the safe side. For right now.”

Spencer frowned. “You think it would come around to me?”

“Oh, hell, who knows? I was thinkin’ of myself and the other two boys. If the big cattlemen put it out that George was rustlin’, then it’s a short step from there to say that the men who ride for him are doin’ the same thing. And it could happen to anyone, if the big shots had a mind to do it.”

“Well, I sure don’t have a part in it.”

“Oh, I didn’t think you did, or I wouldn’t have said this much.”

Spencer nodded and said nothing.

Anderson lifted his rein hand from the saddle horn. Worry showed in the blue eyes now. “Well, I’ve got to get along. I don’t like to be the one to do it, but someone’s got to carry the news to town.”

“Good luck.” Spencer raised his hand in farewell.

“Same to you.” The upturned brim leaned forward as the rider touched a spur to the horse’s flank, and the sorrel with three white stockings moved out in a rising trail of dust.

Spencer shifted in the saddle and nudged his horse forward. The dun stepped into a fast walk, and as Spencer settled into the rhythm, rocking in the smooth leather of the saddle, he went back through the news he had just heard. George Farrow was dead, shot down in his own ranch yard. Spencer recalled an image of Farrow—a quiet, dark-featured man with deep-set eyes and a bushy mustache. Now he was lying on his back, his eyes closed forever. His men would have taken him inside and laid him out with his hands folded on his chest, with his hat on a chair nearby.

Spencer brushed away some of the dust that had settled on his eyelids and cheekbones. He felt the warmth of the sun on his back, the energy of springtime as the grass was growing out and life was coming back to the rangeland. Raising his eyes to scan the country around him, he took a long breath and thought about the man who would not be able to see it anymore.

It was a bad way to go, even if Farrow had branded a few slick calves, which he might have done. Turnabout was supposed to be fair play, at least when it came to branding strays. The way Spencer had seen things in the last few years, everyone lost a few and picked up a few, and so it all came out even. That was the way things went on the open range. But now the men who ran the Association wanted to do things their way, and their way only. Cattlemen whose men mavericked through the winter, as Spencer had done for five dollars a head, wanted to outlaw anyone who didn’t participate in the Association’s roundups. Even a man who was branding his own stock could be called a rustler, while the Association kept all the mavericks in their gather so they could divvy up the proceeds among themselves.

Spencer tried not to concern himself with things that went on in higher-up places. A man who worked for a living liked to think that the man he rode for was on the square. As for branding stray calves or killing a steer that had wandered too far from its own range, those seemed to be common practice. Al Jerome had never asked his men to change a brand or slaughter someone else’s beef for sale. He had just followed the custom of the country. If he was a member of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, as he was, that was his business, and it helped protect his interests. As Spencer saw it, the bigwig politics didn’t reach down to the cowhand’s level. Besides, a man needed to work somewhere, and most of the good work was with men like Al Jerome.

Meanwhile, George Farrow was dead, shot down, and his hired man Anderson blamed the big ranchers. He made a point of saying he didn’t hold it against another ranch hand, but Spencer was left feeling uneasy. He felt the man’s bitterness, and he knew how the elite cattlemen hung together. Still, he was not going to jump to conclusions. He was in a position to stay calm and keep his eyes and ears open. Then, if he didn’t like the look of things, he could ease out and go look for work somewhere else.

Spencer had another fleeting image of George Farrow laid out, eyes closed, hatless, his weathered complexion fading into the pale forehead and tousled hair. He would never again see this greening rangeland, never again feel the warmth of the sun as the country came out of winter. Anderson said it could happen to anyone.

He also said Spencer’s guess was as good as his, and he didn’t mean all guesses were possible. It was clear that he meant there was one good guess if a man chose not to ignore it.

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