Western Wednesdays—DAYS OF VENGEANCE

There’s nothing I like better in a good Western than a battle of wits, where the stakes are life and death and you’re praying right along with the protagonist that luck is on his side. Kent Conwell weaves just such a story of deception and mystery in Days of Vengeance. With the following preview, you’ll meet the players and the stage is set for what is sure to be a showdown. But just who’ll come out on top, and at what cost…well, it’s too early to call.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Ben Elliott clutched the wound in his shoulder, gritting his teeth against the searing pain. He could feel the warm blood seeping between his fingers. He lay motionless, gasping for breath and peering through a tangle of brittlebush and scrub mesquite at the big man wearing a Union blue uniform. A thick black beard covered the hombre’s face. His kepi was pulled low over his forehead, and a black eye patch covered his left eye.

A cruel grin twisted the renegade’s lips when he spotted Ben. He raised the muzzle of his six-gun and settled the sights on Ben’s forehead.

The wounded Confederate tried to crawl away, but his muscles refused to move. Without warning, the six-gun roared and an orange plume burst from the muzzle.

* * *

The blast of gunfire yanked Ben Elliott from a sound sleep. He stared groggily into the darkness above, reliving the same dream that had haunted him since the war; only this time, it was even more vivid.

Another sharp spatter of gunfire followed by the frightened bawling of cattle jerked him out of his bunk. The rumble of thundering hooves shook the ground.

This was no dream.

Clad only in his red long johns, he grabbed his .44 Colt and raced outside, anger and frustration washing over him. Shadows filled the valley below, flowing across the lighter background of the meadows—thick, dark shadows punctuated by yellow muzzle blasts. He started to throw off a couple slugs, then realized that some of his own nighthawks might be down there trying to turn the stampede.

Charlie Little stumbled to a halt by Ben’s side. “How in the hell they get past our hawks, Ben?” His words formed a frosty question in the chilly night air.

Ignoring Charlie’s question, Ben spun and raced for the barn. “Who in the hell knows,” he shouted over his shoulder.

The rumble of the stampede grew fainter.

Moments later, the two men, bareback astride their ponies, cut across the broad meadows and down into the valley. The pale starlight barely illumined the ground at their feet, but they had no trouble following the thundering herd.

Ben felt an icy hand squeeze his chest when he realized the direction the rustlers had pushed the herd. Suddenly, he knew the answer to one of the questions that had puzzled him since the rustling began some months earlier.

Charlie pulled his roan up beside Ben and yelled over the pounding of the hooves. “The bluff. They’re driving the cattle to the bluff.”

Ben leaned over his pony’s neck and the strong animal bunched his muscles and leaped forward.    

Abruptly, the gunfire ceased, but the thunder of the stampeding herd continued to shake the ground and stir up smothering clouds of choking dust. Ben grimaced and dug his bare heels into his dun’s flanks, driving the large stallion hard, trying to force his will on the laboring animal. He leaned forward, laying his hand against the dun’s lathered neck in an effort to extract every last bit of speed from the gallant pony.

Less than two miles ahead, the meadow ended at the edge of a six-hundred-foot drop to a rocky canyon below.

The dust thickened. The thundering grew louder. The two cowpokes were closing the gap, but as they swept past an ancient, twisted bristle cone pine near the end of the valley, Ben knew they could never reach the herd in time.

* * *

Even in the shade of the front porch of the Slash Bar, the early afternoon breeze was scorching, the chill of the autumn night burned away by the blazing sun. John Wills chewed furiously on the wad of tobacco. He glared at the three men before him, then focused his fiery eyes on Hank Ford, a middle-aged rancher whose body had gone to fat. That Hank had come to prefer good food to hard work was no secret.   

The gray whiskers on Wills’s jaw bristled as he shifted the chaw of tobacco into one cheek so he could speak. “There ain’t no way I’m selling the Slash Bar, Hank Ford. You got cockleburs for brains if you think I’m giving up ever’thing I worked for.”

 Hank Ford hitched his gun belt up over his belly and glared back at John Wills. “Reckon that’s up to you, John. That band of rustling Comancheros is going to rob us blind.” He looked at Chester Lewis who was squatting next to the front door staring at the plank porch beneath his feet. “What about you, Ches?”

Chester Lewis, a lanky, dried-up Rebel who came to Arizona Territory to start anew after the War of Secession, shifted his squat from one foot to the other and shrugged. “I … I don’t reckon I can say. I ain’t really thought that much about it.”

J. Albert Barnett, a giant of a man dressed in a hand-tailored suit, was as out of place with the other three ranchers as a crib-girl in a church choir. His polished shoes reflected the sun, and his plate-size hands held his western hat, a solid white Stetson, his one concession to the blistering Arizona sun.     

Barnett had listened patiently to the discussion, his face a mask of amused tolerance. “That’s smart, Ches. A man shouldn’t make hasty decisions he might later regret.”

Jowls flopping, Hank Ford shook his head adamantly, and his belly popped back over his gun belt. “Ches, you and John there is askin’ for trouble. We all been hit two, three times by them rustlers. If Pickett and Weems was here, they’d tell you the same thing. We’re crazier than popcorn on a hot stove to try and hang on.” He paused and looked to the south across the grassy pastures and tall pines. “Where’s Ben? I thought he said he’d be here. After all, he’s been hit harder than any of us. How much has he lost, a hundred, two hundred head?”

John Wills grunted. “Thereabouts.”

“And you, Ches. At least seventy-five or so. Ain’t that right?” Before Ches could reply, Hank continued, pointing a fat finger at John Wills. “John, you probably lost about as much as Ben. Leland Pickett says he’s lost sixty or seventy. Colly Weems says about the same.” He pulled off his wide-brimmed hat and wiped his forehead with his bandanna. “All I’m gettin’ at, boys, is that unless we do something soon we gonna have nothin’ thanks to them Comancheros, and then the bank’ll take our places.” He jammed the bandanna in his hip pocket for emphasis.

Wills spoke up. “Dammit it, we don’t know them rustlers is Comancheros, Hank. That’s just the talk. Nobody’s ever cornered one of them.”

Ford grunted and nodded to Barnett. “Maybe so.” He poked his finger in his own chest. “Me, I’m at the little end of the horn … up to my neck in mortgages at the bank.” He looked around at Barnett. “I can’t hold on, and I sure ain’t ashamed to take Albert’s offer of two dollars a head andtwo fiftyan acre.”

John Wills snorted. “It ain’t a fair price. That’s what I paid for this spread eight years ago, Hank. What about the time and effort I put in. You’re loco to even consider an offer like that.” The crusty old rancher glared up at Barnett. “No offense intended, Albert, but your price ain’t nowhere near fair, all things considered.”

The well-dressed rancher nodded. When he spoke, his voice was smooth as oil. “You’re right, John. It isn’t a fair price, but you got to remember the risk I’m taking. Two dollars might not be much for stock, but if I buy your beef and those rustlers hit my place, I lose not only the cattle but I’m out whatever I paid for them.”

Hank Ford grunted. “Well, I’m taking Albert’s offer. I want something for all the work I done.” He looked at Ches Lewis. “What about you, Ches? You decide anything?”

Ches unfolded his lanky frame from his squat next to the front door of John Wills’s ranch house. He cleared his throat. “I … I don’t know, Hank. I got ever’ cent and eight years in the place. I don’t really know. Don’t seem right to chuck everything.”

Hank grinned sadly. “At least, you’d have something, Ches. We keep on going like this and every last one of us will be busted flat. I ain’t stupid. I’m selling out, and if you fellers was smart, you’d get rid of your spreads as fast as you can.”

Pushing himself away from the porch post against which he had been leaning, John Wills growled. “Not me. Not while I’m alive.” Tobacco dribbled down the sides of his lips and stained his gray beard. He spread his legs and doubled his fists. “And you, Ches Lewis. You don’t have nothing under your hat but hair if you listen to this hogwash falderal Hank is passing out.”

Hank Ford snorted. “Now, dammit, John, what I say makes sense. If you wasn’t so hardheaded, then …”

John spun on the large bellied rancher. “You go straight to hell, you fat—”

The drumming of hooves interrupted the argument. As one, all four ranchers turned to see Ben Elliott emerge from a forest of golden aspens and into the lush meadow of blue stem, a quarter of a mile below the ranch house.

“There,” snorted John Wills. “Now, we’ll see what Ben has to say. He ain’t no quitter like you two.”

Hank Ford rolled his eyes and remained silent.

Ben hitched his lineback dun to the rail.

John Wills waved. “Howdy, Ben. Coffee? We done had some,” said the old rancher. He glanced at the others, remembering his manners. “We got plenty if you boys want some more.”

They declined the offer.

Ben stepped into the shade of the porch, removed his hat, and wiped the sweat from his broad forehead. “None for me, John. Thanks.”

“Glad you made it, Ben,” said Hank, taking a step forward.

“Almost didn’t,” Ben replied, his dark eyes blazing from his sun-bronzed face, and his jaw rock hard.

A cold silence settled over the porch. “More trouble?” John Wills finally asked.

Ben tugged his sweat-stained hat back on his head and eyed the four men carefully. “Night riders run forty head of my prime breeding stock off the bluff. Killed every last one of them.”

“Damn.” John Wills leaned back against the porch post like the wind had been knocked out of him. “Comancheros?”

Ben shrugged. “Got no idea. All the boys saw was shadows.”

Hank looked at Ches and John as if to say I told you so. “That’s what I been saying. If we don’t sell out now, soon we ain’t going to have nothing left.”

For a moment, Ben studied the fat rancher before him. He glanced at John Wills suspiciously. “Is that what this get-together is all about? You old boys selling out?”

The old rancher squirted a stream of tobacco across the porch. “Not me.” He nodded to Hank and Ches. “Them two is. Colly and Leland ain’t here. Colly’s in Prescott, and Leland’s wife is ailing.”

“That’s right, Ben,” Hank Ford whined. “These rustlers is going to bust us all. Mr. Barnett is agreeable to buy our stock for two dollars a head, and—”

John Wills interrupted, his gray eyes boring into Hank Ford. “Which is too damned cheap.” The fiery rancher looked at Ben. “Ain’t that right, Ben?”

Ben stood hipshot, his wide shoulders relaxed, his arms loose at his side, the fingers on his right hand caressing the smooth walnut handle on his worn Colt. A bone-handled knife rode on his other hip. He shook his head slowly. “If I’d known this was what this whole kit and caboodle was going to be, I’d saved myself a two-hour ride. I’m staying right where I am. I started the Key eight years back, and I don’t plan on leaving.”

Hank Ford blubbered. “But, Ben. What about the rustlers? What about—”

“Hank, shut up,” snapped Ben. “To begin with, we got more than rustling going on here. Last night, forty head was run over a bluff. Rustlers don’t steal just to kill the stock. They steal because they’re too damned lazy to get out and work for their money. They can’t sell dead beef.”

Ben paused, studying the effect his words had on the others. Up until now, their trouble had looked like the work of rustlers, but last night put the whole problem in a different light. No, Ben felt certain there was more than rustling taking place beneath the Mogollon.

Hank shook his head. “It coulda been just a mistake on their part last night, Ben.” He cast a quick glance at Barnett. “Maybe they just wasn’t that familiar with your spread. You know that drop-off of yours is the only one like it in the valley.”

“I thought about that, Hank. And that could be, but I don’t think so.” He jabbed his finger at them. “I’ll tell each and every mother’s son of you that starting from the time I bought that place from old John here, I’ve worked day and night to build me a ranch. If I lose it, I’ll lose it fighting whoever I got to, rustlers, owlhoots, or the bank. But I don’t plan to give it away.”

A frown wrinkled J. Albert Barnett’s forehead, but he quickly erased it. He cleared his throat. “And I don’t blame you, Ben. Not a whit.”

Ben looked at the well-dressed man, remembering the first time they met eight years earlier. Then, Ben could have sworn he and Albert Barnett had met at some time in the past, but he later decided that it was Barnett’s ingratiating manner that had struck the chord of familiarity.

J. Albert Barnett was tall, almost six six, had a barrel chest and tree-stump arms. His physique belonged on a working man, not a wealthy cattle baron. His square face was solemn. “I feel just like you boys. Now, I know what I’m offering don’t seem fair, but that’s what they’re worth. Same as mine beeves. Sure, at the railhead, you’ll get a better price. But that’s the best I can do. I’m not chomping at the bit to buy you out. Truth is, I’d just as soon not, but all of us here have been friends these last six, eight years, and I’ve been a tad luckier, so—”

John Wills cut him off. “We ain’t friends, Albert. You know better’n that. I respect you, but we ain’t friends.”

Albert Barnett nodded, a tolerant grin on his face. “The war’s over, John. Eight years. Let it lie. We all have.”

The old rancher shook his head. His gray eyes hurled daggers at the big man. “I’ll never let it lie, Albert. You Yankees whupped us, and that was one thing. But when you all come in here and ride roughshod over us is another matter.”

“Now, John,” replied Albert Barnett patiently. “Did I ever try to take advantage of you?” He gestured to the others. “Or any of my neighbors here? I never tried to ride roughshod over anyone.”

John Wills glared at Barnett, a bantam rooster standing up to a red-tailed hawk. The anger faded from his eyes. “No. Dammit, to be honest, you never did, but a lot of them Yankees made up for you,” he added hastily.

Ben tried to pacify the old rancher. “Albert’s right, John. He’s always done fair by us. He doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with them carpetbaggers and scalawags. We can’t hold it against him just because he caught a few breaks we didn’t.”

Hank Ford nodded eagerly. “Ben’s right, John. You’re jumpin’ to conclusions about Albert here. He’s tryin’ to do us a good turn.”

Stroking his square jaw with his cigar-size fingers, Barnett said, “My offer still goes. I’ll buy whatever you got to sell, be it beef or land. And tell you what. You change your mind in the next six months, you can have it back for the same price.”

“Well, you got mine, Albert, lock, stock, and barrel,” said Hank Ford. He looked at Chester Lewis. “Better take the offer while it stands, Ches.”

Ches shook his head. “I got to think on it.”

“Not me,” barked John Wills. “I got to think on nothing.”

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