Sexy Snippet: THE RUBY KISS

It all started with a magic knot, a mystical ring that contains the essence of its owner’s body, mind and spirit, an item capable of bonding two souls as one.

In The Ruby Kiss, the 3rd title in Helen Scott Taylor’s award-winning Magic Knot Fairies series, the fairy courts are off-balance, and only the fated bond between a powerful nightstalker and a fiery mortal can make things right.

Read on for a steamy glimpse into the magnetic relationship between Nightshade and Ruby, guaranteed to leave you wanting more—but don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long. The Ruby Kiss comes out later this month!

Warning: this sexy snippet is for mature readers only!

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Western Wednesdays—OUTLAW TRAIN by Cameron Judd

Outlaws, fugitives, rustlers, bank robbers, and all other villainous, adventuring characters roll through the small towns of the Old West in nearly every Western. But it’s not every day you encounter a Middle Eastern carnival—a travelling show full of the strange and unusual as well as the mythic and legendary—come to town in old time Kentucky.  Cameron Judd challenges the rough and tumble cowboys of the Old West with just such an outfit, led by a showman whose true ends are veiled by the stagecraft he orchestrates in Outlaw Train, an awe-inspiring Western blended with exotic mystery.

And what Judd does so well in this prologue is to provide the calm before the storm, to portray the mundane details of a mundane meal at the local saloon, with patrons harping about nothing in particular, taking for granted these peaceful days of their lives. And then, enter Professor Percival Raintree and his outlaw train…

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

PROLOGUE

Bug Otis looked past Ben Keely toward an obese man who sat in the far corner sloppily eating from a bowl of potatoes, beef, carrots, and onions. “Dry stew,” the proprietor of the place called that particular dish, the specialty of this dank and dirty dining establishment in the backwoods of western Kentucky. Most days, including this one, it was the only dish served.

Bug, a very skinny man with leathery, furrowed skin and bulging eyes that accounted for his nickname, swiped a filthy sleeve across his mouth and sighed.

“Lordy, Lordy,” he said. “I’m just like my old daddy, I reckon.”

“How so, Bug?” Keely asked. “I remember your father well, and you ain’t like him at all. You’re your mother all over again.”

“Yeah, but my old daddy, he always said it made him hungry to watch a fat man eat. And I’m the same way.”

Keely looked back over his shoulder toward the man Otis was watching. He turned back again, amazed and repelled. “Bug, are you trying to tell me it makes you hungry to watch that big old boar back there slopping himself?”

Bug frowned. “Well … yeah. Don’t it you?”

“You’re a sick man, Bug. Sick in the mind. Loco, as the Mexicans say it.” Keely tapped a finger against his temple.

Bug looked annoyed. “We’re all different, I reckon, but that don’t mean I’m crazy. Hell, Ben, me and you been different since we was boys.”

Ben Keely took a bite of corn bread and didn’t reply. But Bug was right. Ben always had been different from not only Bug, but most of the folks he’d grown up among. Didn’t think like them, act like them, want to be part of them for longer than he had to. Which, he supposed, was part of what had driven him away from home so early. He’d gone west when he left Kentucky, because that was the direction a man went in the post–Civil War United States of America if he wanted to get to something new and better and bigger. Always west. Ben had crossed the Mississippi with no firm plan to ever make a return trip. And until the death of his father two weeks back, he’d not done so. Once free of Kentucky, he’d settled and stayed in the little town of Wiles, Kansas, hiring on as town marshal (nobody else had wanted the job, and he’d been willing to lie about his credentials) and trying to forget his past.

Not that he’d had a bad life growing up. Good parents, intelligent, his father a schoolmaster and devotee of history, his mother educated as well. They’d raised him and his sister, Bess, with a respect for learning, a tolerance for difference, and a belief that they could rise above their narrow little backwoods world. The world is big, Ben’s father used to tell his children. Don’t let anybody keep you small in a world this big.

Ben had left home at age seventeen, hoping that big world his father talked about really was out there, and had wandered about for years looking for it. Sometimes he believed he’d found it, but most times had to admit that life as a town marshal in a little railroad stop Kansas town was not much bigger or better than the life he’d left behind in Kentucky. A more open landscape, certainly, a broader view and more distant horizon … but the world right at hand, the streets he trod while making his rounds, the saloons he dragged rowdy drunks from, and the simple little jailhouse where he kept his meager office and locked up his prisoners, these were as small and strangling as anything he’d left behind in Kentucky.

Ben was distressed when he pondered that he was living a mostly solitary life at a time when his youth was beginning to pass away. Before he knew it, he’d be halfway through his thirties, still unmarried, still tied down to an unproductive and unpromising job he’d intended to keep only for months, not years.

Ben refocused his attention on his food, trying not to hear the disgusting mashing and gulping noises made by the obese eater in the corner. For his part, Bug couldn’t resist staring hungrily at the hideous spectacle. Each round of observation brought him back to his own bowl of beef, potatoes, and onions with invigorated appetite.

Ben picked at his food and tried not to feel queasy.

Bug finished his victuals, wiped his forefinger around the bowl, and noisily sucked the finger clean. With that, Ben’s appetite died fully and he simply stared into the remnants of his food.

“You ain’t going to finish that?” Bug asked.

Ben shoved his bowl across the table. Bug’s eyes were all but bulging out of his skull. “You letting me have this?”

“Enjoy it, Bug. I’ve had my fill.”

At that moment the outer door opened, spilling murky sunlight into the dim interior of the log building from the drizzly, gray day outside. The muted backlighting allowed Ben a relatively clear view of the unusual man who entered.

He was clad in loose brown trousers that were tucked into high boots. Not the cattleman’s boots Ben saw so frequently in Kansas, but moccasin-styled boots that were strapped to the calves, nearly to his knees, canvas trouser legs plunging into them. His shirt was big and loose and made out of highly worked supple leather, styled like an old hunting shirt. The man’s face was smoothly shaven and had an olive tone that might have been Indian, Egyptian, or Mediterranean. Hard to judge in the light.

Oddest of all, the man wore a turban. Ben had seen pictures of turbans before in some of his father’s history and geography books that showed images from the Far East and the biblical lands, and he knew similar headgear had been worn by Indians in the region years earlier, and in times past by older slaves farther south. Ben did not know which kind of turban he was seeing here. Whatever it was, it was nothing he would have expected to encounter in rural Kentucky.

Bug noticed Ben’s distraction and turned to investigate. He gave a soft grunt. “Huh! Man’s got a rag tied around his head! And look there at his ears.”

Bug had noticed something Ben had missed. The edges of the stranger’s ears were discolored … blue. Tatooed, Ben decided. But the door closed, the light became as dim as before, and he couldn’t see clearly enough to verify it.

“Wonder who that is?” Bug said a little too loudly. Ben wished he hadn’t. He had an inexplicable bad feeling about the new arrival and didn’t want to draw his attention. Too late. The stranger heard Bug and looked in their direction.

But he didn’t approach. He found a table close to the door and sat down. Mutton Smith, who ran this establishment, came around and informed the stranger that the only item on the menu today was dry stew, but by gum, if you had dry stew available, what else could you want anyway? The man nodded to confirm his order. One more dry stew coming up.

At that moment, Bug stretched his legs and accidentally kicked over a closed crockery jar that sat under the table near Ben’s feet. It clunked and rolled. Ben bent to the side and quickly grabbed it, setting it on the tabletop.

“I be damned, Ben!” Bug exclaimed loudly, staring at the jar. “That’s the Harpe head jar, ain’t it! I didn’t know you had brung that with you!”

At Bug’s words, the man in the turban suddenly turned his full attention toward Ben and Bug’s table.

“Ain’t no call to tell the whole world about it, Bug,” Ben said, noticing and not liking the stare he was getting from the turbaned man. Something unnerving in it. “Keep your voice down, would you?”

Bug answered as loudly as before. “Hell, Ben, that there jar of bone ain’t no secret around here! Everybody knows that the Keely family has Harpe’s head! That’s been printed in newspapers before! I ain’t saying nothing everybody don’t already know.”

The man in the turban rose and walked toward their table. Ben tensed and put his hand on the jar, at which the man’s dark eyes were staring. It roused in Ben a strangely intense protectiveness toward his possession. This was a family heirloom, something his father had prized for its historical value and closely guarded all his life. The contents of the jar were unique and irreplaceable, and if they had no inherent monetary value, they were of value as a relic.

The turbaned man reached the table. Ben and Bug looked up at him, silent and unwelcoming. Bug studied the newcomer as if he were an oddity, a man with three heads or four eyes.

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Western Wednesdays—STRANGER IN THUNDER BASIN

The life-defining moment of a hero, the catalyst that molds the man and sets his life course, is never so powerful as when it manifests in childhood. His path inevitably becomes a tightrope, one precariously balanced upon through adolescence and into adulthood until fate, as she always will, tips the scales. Spur award-winning author John D. Nesbitt forges just such a character and just such a moment in this tension-fraught opening to Stranger in Thunder Basin. Can justice and vengeance cohabitate in a man’s heart? Will they destroy him or set him free? Find out in Stranger in Thunder Basin.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

From the beginning there rose a memory ancient as blood.

The long, cold wind had quit blowing, but the sun was still shut out. Under a gray sky, the dunes of snow lay hard packed—domed and smooth on the windward side, ridged and sculpted on the leeward. The boy could walk up on top of a drift and, it seemed to him, stand in the sky. When Pa-Pa stood on the next drift over, he looked taller than ever.

All morning, Pa-Pa dug walkways from the cabin, first to the outhouse and then to the barn. Pa-Pa worked with a steady motion, carving out snow and tossing it to one side or the other. Orly the dog watched, looked up at Eddie. Pa-Pa was quiet, no sound but the slice of the shovel and the thump of the snow when it landed. At one point on the way to the barn, the passageway was higher than Eddie’s cap.

Pa-Pa worked on. When he cleared the door of the barn, Eddie and the dog followed him inside. The air was as thin and cold as outside. The horses whoofed and snuffled. Pa-Pa gave them grain from a burlap sack, hard pale sliding seeds that he called oats.

Pa-Pa carried the round-headed shovel and the square one. Eddie walked beside him, and Orly trotted ahead. A big drift lay across the road. Pa-Pa said he was going to have to clear it out before they could go anywhere. He started digging, first with the square shovel and then with the round one. He began on the right and worked across, then went to his right again and cut deeper into the drift, carving out slabs of solid white cake. As loose snow gathered at his feet, he scooped it up and tossed it as well.

Now with his shovel he held a big square piece in front of Eddie’s eyes. It was cleaner than lard, cleaner than the whitest ice cream. Then he tossed it, and it fell apart when it landed.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I throw it all to the right side here.”

Eddie looked at him without saying anything.

“Well, I don’t want the wind to blow it back in. If I throw it to the left and a big wind comes, all the loose and crumbly stuff’ll fill in, and I’ll have to come back tomorrow and do the same thing.”

He stabbed the shovel in the snowbank and took a deep breath, then opened and closed his hands. The creased leather gloves looked like part of him, as did the canvas coat and the sweat-lined hat. Pa-Pa, solid and tall against a gray sky, his weathered face like deer hide, his silvery hair flowing to cover his ears and touch his collar. He took another breath and went back to work.

Eddie rolled in the loose snow, tumbling with Orly and teasing him. Above, the gray sky went everywhere, and Eddie could not tell where the sky ended and the world began. Here below, his coat was a dull black, and his mittens, itchy as the coat, were dark gray. Orly was black and white, but the white was almost yellow compared with the snow.

“Here,” came Pa-Pa’s voice. “Stand up. You’re gettin’ too much snow on you.”

Eddie felt himself being pulled up in the scratchy coat. Pa-Pa took off the stocking cap, shook it out, then pressed it back over Eddie’s ears. With his leather gloves, he brushed the dry snow off the boy’s coat, turning him one way and the other. Eddie felt snow melting on the back of his neck, then a relaxing of the coat.

“I wonder who this is.” Pa-Pa’s hands let go.

Across the top of the snowdrift Eddie could see a man on a horse—a dark, narrow shape against the bleak background. Pa-Pa held the shovel at rest and watched the rider come closer. Sound carried as the horse’s hooves rose from the snow and punched in again.

The stranger came to a stop on the other side of the drift. Both horse and rider loomed dark. Wisps of steam floated from the animal’s nose and mouth. The horse’s body carried a dull color between black and dark brown. A lighter brown showed along the edges of the nose, the forehead, and the ears, while the mane and tail ran to pure black. The rider wore a flat-brimmed, flat-crowned black hat, dull with old dust. He had a narrow face with a long, thin nose; a pair of beady, close-set eyes; and thin lips. The lower part of his face, tapered, lay in shadow-like stubble, and a dark neckerchief covered his throat. He wore a scratchy-looking coat the color of a burned-out fire log.

Pa-Pa’s voice came out in the cold air. “What can I do for you?”

The thin lips moved. “I’m lookin’ for Jake Bishop.”

“That’s me.”

The stranger cast his beady glance at Eddie, then back at Pa-Pa. “Need to talk to you. Just you and me.”

“The kid’s no harm.”

“Little pitchers have big ears.”

“I said he’s no harm. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

The stranger came off his horse, slow and stiff-like. When he turned around, he had his coat unbuttoned and his gloves in his left hand. “I’ve got a message. Not for the ears of little boys.” With his right hand he touched the hem of his coat.

Pa-Pa turned to look at Eddie. “Here, sonny,” he said, reaching into his coat pocket and bringing out a piece of pale, hard candy. “Take this, and go get me the hatchet I use to split kindling.”

Eddie looked up into his face and saw nothing to understand.

“Here, take it, and go get me the hatchet.”

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Sneak Peek—Pinborough’s BREEDING GROUND

Hi All,

It’s the last full week of Ah!-Tober, and I like to think that we saved the best for last! Author Bill Vaughan once said, We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics.” If creepy crawlies creep you out, then have I got the book for you… and you’ll just have to keep reading to find out if the spiders are grateful.  The larger-than-life, intelligent, pseudo-psychic spiders in Sarah Pinborough‘s Breeding Ground truly epitomize my greatest fears about bugs! Pinborough creates an atmosphere perfect for hostile takeover. So it’s my #1 must-read for Halloween! Read on… if you dare!  Tune in tomorrow, as we have a great interview with Sarah, and we’ll be giving away a copy of Breeding Ground to one lucky commenter!

PROLOGUE

I wish I could tell you that I saw lights in the sky. Or shooting stars that turned out to be alien spaceships falling to earth. That’s how Armageddon stories normally start, isn’t it? Some great portent signaling the oncoming doom, some clue that They have done this to us, whether the guilty party are the Russian They, the American They, the British They, or the all-time favourite, the They from outer space.

I don’t know why it started. I don’t know if it was the work of the government, a visit from space or an act of God. If I had to put money on it, I’d pick the first option; after all, they never stop adding chemicals to food and there was always going to be payback. But at the end of the day, I don’t know why it started, and even if I did it wouldn’t make a damned bit of difference now, would it?

My name is Matthew Edge, and at some point last year, the end of the world as we know it started. And I figure my version of events is going to be as clear a record as anyone’s, so here goes. I hope that you’ll read this through to the end. I hope there’s a you out there to read it, and hell, I hope that I’m still alive when you finish, and I hope I get to shake your hand adult to adult, once you’re born and grown into a person of this new world. Hope is all we have, after all, isn’t it? Some things will never change.

CHAPTER ONE

“I can’t believe it! I’ve put on three pounds!”

When Chloe called out from the bathroom I was still in bed, lazily enjoying the extra half an hour I had left before work pulled me into the outside world. I grinned at her indignant exclamation. She was hardly what anyone would call fat. Huffing, she padded back into our bedroom, dressed in only her knickers. She looked perfect to me, all slim curves and soft skin. Pulling the pillow next to me under my chin, I raised an eyebrow.

“Oh no, not a whole three pounds.”

She flashed her dark eyes. “You’re not funny, you know, Matt.” A familiar twitch in her chin betrayed her humour. “That’s five pounds I’ve put on in two weeks. God, at this rate not even my underwear will fit me in a month.”

“Now that’s a thought.” And it really was an image that sent tingles down my spine. We’d been together for five years, outlasting all our friends’ twentysomething relationships, and at the ripe old age of twenty-nine the sight of her naked body was still a glorious thing to me. To most men, I’d reckon. She was way too good for me, but until she noticed I had no intention of telling her. I ran my eyes over her. “Hmmm. I can just imagine you in a nice executive business suit with nothing on underneath. Except perhaps hold-ups.”

A flying bra hit me in the face. “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”

“I try not to. I am a man, after all.”

She tucked her blouse into her skirt and smiled. “You certainly are. You’re my man.”

“Come here and give me a kiss, then.”

She perched on the bed and I pulled her forward, ignoring her shriek and then giggle of protest as I rolled her underneath me. Her skin was glowing and as yet free of makeup. She looked gorgeous, smiling up at me with all that love, her hair spread out beneath us on the rumpled bedding, and my heart tightened.

“I love you, Chloe Taylor.”

She touched my face. “I love you too, Matt.”

I kissed her and she kissed me back, our tongues meeting, mine no doubt tasting of sleep and hers of toothpaste, but still within a second or two I could feel myself hardening. Still exploring each other’s mouths as if they were new territory, I tugged at her blouse, needing to feel her naked skin.

“What are you doing? I’ve got to get to work. I’ll be late.” Panting the words, she made an attempt to wriggle free, but it was only halfhearted.

Her shirt undone, I kissed her slim stomach, mumbling my reply. “Yeah, but I won’t. And anyway, I’m thinking of you. What better way to work off those extra pounds?”

“Bastard.”

We smiled through our kisses and then made love.  To my hands and touch there was no sign of any extra weight, not that I’d have cared. Not then. It was beautiful. I got to work five minutes late and she must have been half an hour behind time, but I’ll tell you one thing: we were both smiling on arrival.

Often at night, that flash of memory still runs through my head, painful and sharp. I don’t mind, though. I think it’s important to try and remember Chloe like that. Like she really was. Before everything that came after. Yeah, for others it may have started earlier, but for me that day signaled the beginning of the end. I digress.

Back then, all fourteen months ago, when work and money were what counted in the world, I was a mortgage advisor for a small estate agency on Stony Stratford High Street. It was family-owned, which was its saving grace, and although I’d started out selling houses, Mr. Brown had soon seen that I’d want to move on and he pushed me to learn about mortgages and take over that side of the business. Seems funny to think about now, all that time sitting behind a desk calculating figures to see what people could afford, not ever suspecting that none of those loans would be getting paid back in full, and in the future that was fast approaching, there wouldn’t be any banks left that would care.

The job paid quite well, I didn’t have to travel far and I was content. I’d worked there since I was twenty-two, and although I occasionally felt bored and restless, I wasn’t ambitious enough to move on. It was Chloe who had the big plans and dreams and the drive to fulfill them. She was already making a bit of a name for herself on the local legal circuit as a barrister to look out for, and her salary was more than double mine.

All that and six months younger than me, but I can honestly say I didn’t care. I was proud of her. I wanted her to be happy, and as far as I could tell her work and me did that for her, and that alone made me the luckiest man alive.

We lived in a renovated cottage at the top end of High Street, close enough to walk to all the restaurants and pubs the old coaching town had to offer without either of us having to drive. We would sip wine and beer and laugh together about the days behind and ahead. As lives go, it wasn’t a bad one. We had village life on the edge of a thriving new city, and London was only forty minutes away on a train, just in case we felt like trying to regain our early twenties. We were settled, and that may sound dull to some people, but then I suppose they never had the good luck to settle down with Chloe.

When I got in that evening at six, she was already home, sitting on our oversized, overindulgent sofa, her legs tucked under her, thick Mediterranean hair pulled back in a ponytail. She looked about sixteen, and that made the thoughts running through my head barely legal.

Undoing my tie and top button, I sat down at the other end. “Hey, gorgeous. You’re home early.”

Her eyes flicked momentarily at me and then back to the exposed brick wall above the fireplace. “I didn’t feel well. I came home early. I wasn’t in court this afternoon, so it didn’t really matter.”

She did look tired and pale, and I stroked her hair.

“You work too hard, babe. Why don’t I get you a glass of wine and run you a hot bath?”

“That won’t change it.” She let out a weary sigh. “I went to the doctor on my way home.”

Shuffling in closer, I felt the tension coming from her slim frame, and my heart tightened. Sometimes late at night, when she was sleeping curled up in the crook of my shoulder, I would quietly wonder when it was going to go wrong. It was too good, you see. She was too good for me, and what we had was too special. Maybe everyone in love feels like that, but when it’s a first love that lasts, you can’t help but wonder what may come along to destroy it. She’d been to the doctor. Doctors meant sickness. How ill was she? My mouth dried as a wave of suggested diseases flooded my brain.

“What’s the matter?”

She looked at me and sniffed, her brown eyes impenetrable. Her bottom lip quivered as she spoke.

“I’m pregnant.”

I’m pregnant. The world spun on its head for a moment, then froze as I tried to take it in. The words punching the air from my lungs, the best I could manage was a half-breathless laugh, my flesh tingling at every pore as I stared, no doubt with my mouth half-open and looking like a dribbling idiot, at her beautiful face.

“What?” At last I squeezed out a word. Not a particularly clever or appropriate one, but it was the best I could do, sitting there on the leather sofa, a month or so away from thirty and feeling like a big kid with my heart pounding too hard against my chest.

“I’m pregnant.” Tears welled up, threatening to spill onto her cheeks. “And scared.”

I could feel tears pricking at the back of my eyes, too, and as soon as I could get my body to do as I wanted I pulled her closer to me. “What are you scared for? You’re pregnant.” I paused for a moment, needing to say the words to make it real. “You’re pregnant.” Real was good.

The grin on my face stretched until it almost hurt.

“You’re going to have a baby.” I paused again. “We’re going to have a baby.” I laughed out loud. “We’re going to have a baby, Chloe.” The giggles wouldn’t stop and I sat there chortling to myself. “That’s fantastic!”

 

Staring at me, she pulled back slightly. “Are you sure about this? Are you sure you’re happy about it? I thought you might…well, I thought you might want me not to have it.”

For a moment, the fear crept back into my heart. I’d never really thought about children, not in any imminent way, but now that circumstances had overtaken planning I knew that I wanted this baby to come. It would cement everything that we had. But maybe she didn’t feel that way. After all, it was a bigger step for her. It was she who had the big career ahead of her.  Maybe she felt that her job was more important than a baby right now. The laughing stopped.

“Why? Don’t you want to keep it?”

She smiled hesitantly, flashing her perfect white teeth. “Yes, yes, of course I do, I was just worried you might think it was too soon, that we should be married or—”

My mouth silenced hers and we kissed until the gentleness turned to passion right there on the leather, our child only a few weeks old inside her, our perfect day ending as it had begun.

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.

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All About Audio(books)—H.P. LOVECRAFT

The Dark Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft are perhaps the perfect treat this Halloween season. Six volumes of short stories filled with suspense, intrigue, horror, myth, cosmicism, and the arcane by a writer Stephen King has called “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” Add to that the aesthetics of oral story telling, and you have yourself the perfect scary story for the campfire.

Treat yourself with to a sample listen of “Haunter of the Dark” from volume five of the Dark Worlds collection, a story from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, in which Lovecraft spars with a character created by his contemporary, Robert Bloch. Layered and complex, “Haunter of the Dark” pulls you in from the first line. “I have seen the dark universe yawning…where the black planets roll without aim…where they roll in their horror, unheeded, without knowledge or luster or name.”

Visit Maynard and Sims’s ghostly BLACK CATHEDRAL

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, disturbing reports have begun to surface around the globe. The ficticious tales of horror that so many readers enjoy, particularly during this ominous time of year, are often born from the imaginations of their authors, but some are born elsewhere. Some’s true origins lay in fact. Today we share the beginnings of just such a tale, that of Black Cathedral, brought to you by two masters of the realm of horror, Maynard and Sims.  

Chapter One

It was what had happened here, and what was about to happen again, that made it obvious this was the start of it all.

There was nothing very special about the house—a medium sized English suburban semi-detached, built some time in the 1930s, complete with bay windows and a stained glass panel depicting sunrays, set in the solid green-painted front door, so that it looked like sunlight captured on grass; nothing much to set it apart from its neighbors. Except for what had happened there.

The tree lined avenue was the picture of normality; cars parked either side against the neat verges, hedges precisely clipped, a child’s bicycle on a front drive, the sound of an electric mower buzzing like a sun lazed bee. The house they were visiting looked welcoming, and would have been a pleasant place to spend the afternoon. Except for what was going to happen again.

Robert Carter hesitated, pushed open the front door and, after taking a deep inward breath, stepped into the house. Sian Davies, his assistant, followed close behind, her pad in hand, pen poised to take down notes and to keep an accurate record of events as they unfolded. Both of them were certain events would unfold.

Carter carried a small device, holding it out in front of him, sweeping the air in broad strokes, like a warrior brandishing his sword. The device looked very much like a photographer’s light meter. It was no more than three inches square and an inch deep. On one end was a small white dome, on the front a dial with calibrations from one to one thousand. But while a photographer’s meter measured light, Carter’s machine could detect the slightest changes, the tiniest fluctuations, in magnetic fields. Perfect for suspected hauntings.

Carter was thirty-five, tall and slim with an athletic physique he owed to the four hours a week he spent at the gym, combined with regular games of squash and racquets. The exercise was complemented by a healthy diet, apart from far too many cigarettes, a light intake of alcohol, and occasional sex with willing partners.

Sian Davies had none of these attributes, and none of the virtues of a healthy lifestyle. She was short, dumpy, with spiky black hair and a small tattoo of a rose on her shoulder. And she had a crush on Robert Carter the size of a small country. Yet despite their close working relationship, Carter was a total mystery to her. There were rumors of a great love affair—some forbidden passion that had ended and left Carter a scarred, emotional wreck. Some of the rumors had even linked him with Jane Talbot, Department 18’s brightest star, but Sian was not sure she set much store by them. She liked and respected Jane Talbot—aspiring in her own small way to be like her—and she knew Jane was happily married.

Sian was worldly enough to know that men like Robert Carter were always the targets for the mythmakers and rumormongers. The scurrilous stories told around the Department’s water coolers were fed and nurtured by jealousy and envy. Sian preferred her own fantasies. They sustained her during long lonely nights and gave her a reason to get up every morning. Often they weren’t the type of fantasy to share around the coffee machine at work.

“Ambient temperature in the house low and dropping rapidly.” Carter was speaking into a small microphone attached to the collar of his shirt and wired to a digital recorder he carried in his jacket pocket. As if to prove his point his breath was starting to mist in front of his face. There was also an oppressive atmosphere in the house. An atmosphere that couldn’t be measured with meters but one that was almost palpable.

He trusted the readings on the various instruments he carried, and when they read that there were disturbances in the electromagnetic fields and unusual fluctuations in temperature he knew he had something definite to deal with. The instruments had their uses, but more often than not he preferred to rely on his own feelings; the vibes—primitive instincts inherited from mankind’s prehistoric ancestors, so dulled in the majority of people to be absolutely worthless. In him they were honed to razor sharpness. So much so that he rarely began an investigation like this without careful preparation, building his mental defenses as carefully as a bricklayer builds a wall. Sometimes he worried he had built the wall so high, so strong, that nothing could penetrate it, not even if he wanted it to.

The house had been decorated some time in the 1970s, but the browns, yellows and pinks had faded with age and looked more muted now than when they were first applied. The Fleming’s, the owners of the house, were a couple in their seventies, both retired. It was Mrs. Fleming who had taken the steps to bring in the Department. Her younger brother was high up in the Whitehall pecking order, and a frantic phone call to him had set the wheels in motion. Another phone call was made to Department 18’s head, Simon Crozier, with the request that the Department investigate the house. In deference to the request, Carter—the Department’s top field man—had been sent’, even if Crozier did hate his guts.

Carter reviewed the file in his mind. Six months ago the couple started hearing things that disturbed their prosaic little life. At first it was nothing more than a few scratches on the ceiling, the odd footfall on the bedroom floor when they were both downstairs, but nothing that couldn’t be explained away rationally; a loose board settling into place, birds or mice setting up home in the eaves of the house, nothing to be alarmed about. They were both getting old and the mind could play tricks.

The smells were more alarming. According to the Flemings, the kitchen was often filled with the reek of ozone that smelled something like an electrical short circuit. In the lounge it was the odor of sour cream, and in the bedrooms the musty mud and straw smell of an animal pen. But it was the entrance hall that had the most distinctive and most repellent aroma. Mrs. Fleming described it as ‘the smell of something washed up on a beach; dead and rotten’ and, standing there in the hall, Carter had to agree. ‘God, it stinks in here,’ he said. Sian made a note in her pad.

The needle on the meter twitched significantly, leaping a quarter of the way around the dial. He frowned. “There’s a huge amount of electromagnetic energy coming from the kitchen. Let’s go take a look.”

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Western Wednesdays—RANSOM by Frank Roderus + Giveaway

A kidnapping forces two enemies to work together in Ransom, a high-octane ride by the legendary Frank Roderus.  Now, usually I preview at least the entire first chapter, but I’m cutting this one short—for good reason. You’ll get a look at the two rivals, but I’m holding back a meet-and-greet with the woman that stands between them. So as to judging the true merits of these men and their conflict, you’ll have to dive into the whole of Ransom. Shameless ploy? Maybe, but I’m also offering a chance to win a paperback copy of Ransom. How ’bout it—what are some love triangles done right? Done wrong?

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

 Chapter one

A small, nattily dressed man came around the corner onto Hardesty Street. John Taylor saw him and immediately shrank back into the doorway of Swofford’s Farm and Ranch Supply. Taylor grimaced and hissed, “That son of a bitch.” His knuckles turned white from the force of his grip on the handle of the hammer in his hand. “Bastard,” he whispered. He felt an impulse to rush out into the street and use the hammer to smash Richard Hahn’s head.

“Did you say something, John?”

“I … no, Mr. Swofford. I didn’t say nothing.”

“Oh well.” The owner of the business hesitated, then gave Taylor a weak smile. “When you’re done repairing that facing, John, I have some paint in here for it.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll only be a few minutes more on this. Figure I can put on the first coat soon as I’m done pounding nails an’ the second coat this afternoon after lunch. How would that be, sir?”

A wagon rattled past, empty judging by the way the wheels bounced off the ruts they rolled over. The driver, Dean Caligan, raised a hand in greeting although whether to Taylor or to Swofford, John was not sure. Perhaps to both.

Taylor returned the gesture, Swofford did not.

“Fine, John. Fine,” Swofford said, sounding like he did not particularly mean it. He turned and went back into his store.Taylor peered into the street. All he could see of Hahn now was a glimpse of the SOB disappearing into the bank.

An image projected itself into Taylor’s mind, an image so vivid and unsettling that his knees buckled and he reeled back against the door frame that he was working on. The image was of Jessie. Jessica Taylor, damn it. Taylor. Not Hahn. Never would be Hahn if he had anything to say about it. He visualized Jessie lying naked, the way he had seen and loved her so many times through the course of their marriage. In his mind’s eye she lay open, loving, inviting. But the man she was inviting into herself was Richard goddamn Hahn.

Taylor squeezed his eyes tight shut against images he only imagined, but they remained. He could see them. Could hear Jessie’s little whimpers and moans. The way she used to sound for him. For him, damn it, for him. He could imagine Hahn…

John’s breathing quickened and his grip on the hammer tightened all the more. For one ugly moment his impulse to charge across the street and crush Hahn’s miserable skull was almost overwhelming.

“John.” Swofford had to repeat himself several times before he finally got Taylor’s attention.

“Sir?”

“Are you all right, John? You’re pale as a ghost. Are you sick?”

“No, sir.” Angry. Sick to his furthest depths, he thought. But he said nothing.

“If you’re not feeling well, John, you can finish this tomorrow. No harm done if you’d like to wait until then.”

“No, sir, I … I’m fine. Really.”

“If you say so. But if you change your mind, just let me know.”

“Thank you, Mr. Swofford. I’m all right. Really I am.”

“Very well. I’ll be inside if you need me.” He returned to his sales counter to be available if he was needed there.

Two of the town’s respectable married ladies came by. They entered the store, their skirts swirling and trailing a delicate scent of powder. There was already one of the less respectable women shopping in there. That could lead to fireworks but probably would not. Each would ignore the other and very soon the soiled dove would fly out into the street and away to the edge of town where her kind stayed.

John crept a few feet forward, out toward the sidewalk, until he could see the front of the bank. There was no sign there of Hahn. No sign anywhere of Jessie. He felt, quite suddenly, like crying. But grown men of thirty-six with a wife and a child do not cry. Never mind where that wife and that child happened to be living at the moment. Never mind that the low-life son of a bitch Hahn was half John Taylor’s size. Never mind the fact that John could break Hahn in half without raising a sweat and then break those pieces in half too. Lordy, he did want to do that. He would have too except for the fear of what Jessie might do if he maimed the bastard.

John regained control of his emotions, plucked a light finish nail out of the pocket of his canvas carpenter’s apron, and went back to the job Mr. Swofford had hired him to do.

As expected, the lass of the evening came hustling out with her eyes brimming with unspilled tears and her cheeks red.

John whacked the finish nail. Hard.

* * *

Dick Hahn smiled and leaned across Randall Bonner’s handsome desk. He accepted the papers the bank president handed him, fussily straightened them even though they were already straight, then slipped them into his folio and fastened the soft leather folio shut. “Thank you, Mr. Bonner. Seventeen hundred this quarter, hmm? The bank is doing well.”

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Western Wednesdays—CROW BAIT by Robert J. Randisi + Giveaway

I love the title of Robert J. Randisi’s latest—Crow Bait. A phrase which connotes weakness, vulnerability, feebleness, and yet as a title, these two words gain power and strength and hidden meaning. As a title, it connotes underdog, and who doesn’t love to root for the underdog?

Preview the first three chapters of Crow Bait and let us know who some of your favorite underdogs are, be they in literature, film, sports, etc. and be entered to win a copy of Crow Bait.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

 

 

 

CROWBAIT by Robert J. Randisi

crow bait—an emaciated horse likely to become carrion and so attractive to crows.

Chapter One

The Mojave Desert, Colorado, 1888

He stared at the sky for a while.

Until he saw one buzzard joined by another, then a third.

Time to move, Lancaster. No time to die.

The problem was, he didn’t remember how he had gotten where he was—lying on his back with pain in quite a few parts of his body—especially his head.

Okay, he thought, time to sit up and take stock.

With a groan he worked himself to a seated position, looked around. Nothing but some shrubbery, a few leafless trees, and hard, cracked ground. No other people in sight. The only thing he could see was a dead horse—his horse—lying a few feet away from him. No saddle.

He looked down at himself, checking for bullet wounds. There was some blood but didn’t seem to be any holes. His head was pounding, his jaw ached, as did his ribs.

He gave some thought to trying to get to his feet, but his head started to spin so he settled back down on his butt and tried to remember what had happened to put him in this position . . .

He remembered riding through theNevadadesert on his way to . . . well, where he was going—and to do what—wouldn’t come to him. Maybe later. He could have used some water, but he looked around and there was no canteen anywhere . . .

. . . he was riding through the desert, heading somewhere, when suddenly there was a shot and his horse went down. Thinking back, he thought he’d felt the impact of the bullet on the animal beneath him. The horse barely had time to quiver before it went down and died. Luckily, he’d been quick enough to throw himself free before he could become pinned beneath the carcass.

But even as he went for his gun, he was suddenly surrounded by men with their weapons already in their hands. Three men . . .

. . . okay, now it was coming back to him. Without a word the three men attacked him. They could easily have killed him, but instead they began to kick him. All three of them, viciously inflicting pain and damage with their boots. No words, no explanation. At some point his gun had gone flying, and he mercifully lost consciousness . . .

He looked around now, but there was no sight of his pistol or his rifle. He held his head in his hands.

. . . he recalled regaining consciousness while the men were stripping his saddle from his dead horse. They then came to him and took his gun belt, and his boots . . .

His boots? He took his head out of his hands and looked at his feet. No boots, just socks. It was just getting worse.

. . . they rolled him over, went through his pockets, took whatever money was there, then kicked him a few more times for good measure . . .

 . . . he woke once more while they were talking, but for some reason he couldn’t hear them. And his vision was blurry. He saw . . . something, but couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

Then he heard . . .

“. . . kill him,” someone said. “It would be easier . . .bullet in the head . . .”

“No,” someone else said. “ . . . not the way . . .supposed to be . . .”

“ . . . desert will take care . . .

“ . . . awake . . .”

They noticed he was awake. He saw one of them step forward and knew another kick was coming, but couldn’t do anything to avoid it . . .

Somebody said, “Sweet, don’t . . .’

 . . . a kick to the head knocked him out . . . again . . .

He sat there, still trying to remember. It came to him in pieces, but the pieces wouldn’t fit together. He probed and prodded his body. His jaw hurt, but it didn’t appear broken. He couldn’t say the same for his ribs. Had to be one or two of them that were cracked. He flexed his arms and legs, found that they worked. Why hadn’t they broken one or more of his limbs? That really would have left him in bad shape.

He looked at his feet. Nothing wrong there, except for his toes peeking out of some holes in his socks.

He took a deep breath. It was finally time for him to try getting to his feet.

The first time he almost made it, but his head swam and he staggered, sat back down

Tried again, slowly.

Got to a bent over position, hands on his knees, then straightened up slowly.

Stood.

Stayed. It was a start.

Chapter Two

The three men rode up to the fourth and dismounted. One of the men—the largest—was carrying an extra saddle. Another man had extra saddlebags. And the third was carrying an extra handgun and rifle.

The man they were meeting was standing next to a buckboard. He was tall, ramrod straight even though he was in his sixties. His face was deeply chiseled with lines he had earned over a long, hard life. And though he currently was a wealthy man, his life was still hard. New lines were still forming.

The man with the saddle walked around and dropped into the bed of the buckboard.

The man with the saddlebags did the same.

The man with the gun walked to the older man and handed them to him.

“Done?” the older man asked.

“Done.”

The older man handed him an envelope with money in it, payment for all three.

“Do not ever contact me,” the older man said.

The man with the envelope looked inside, raised his eyebrows, and said, “You got it.”

All three men mounted up and rode off.

The older man with the chiseled face did not move until they were out of sight.

Chapter Three

A step . . .

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Western Wednesdays—RIO LOCO + Giveaway

Well folks, Barjack is back and you know what that means. Trouble. Trouble of the most amusing kind, at least for you, the reader. I can’t help but smile when I read a Barjack novel. The character’s got his own swagger and charm, he’s surrounded by the best and worst intentioned, and he can talk straight faced to someone named Owl Shit. And all that’s just the first chapter of Robert J. Conley’s latest, Rio Loco.

Giveaway: What do you think makes a good lawman on the printed page? Who are some of the characters who’ve worn the badge that have been your favorite? Leave a comment and be entered to win a copy of Rio Loco.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

I was just setting in my favorite chair in my own saloon, which was knowed as Harvey’s Hooch House on account of a previous owner, and I was drinking my favorite whiskey from a big tumbler, and mostly minding my own business, whenever Owl Shit come a-walking in and looking to me like as if he was a-looking for trouble. Course, there wasn’t nothing unusual about that. Owl Shit always looked thattaway. He was wearing his six-gun the way he always done. The holster on his loose-fitting belt was hanging right around in the dead center a’ the belt right smack in front, so it looked kinda like it was his damn pecker a-hanging down betwixt his legs. I reckoned he had done had him some whiskey somewhere on account a’ he seemed to be just a mite drunk already.

He kinda staggered up to the bar and knocked a couple a’ men sideways outta his way and banged his fist down on the bar. “Whiskey,” he hollered out. Aubrey was plumb down to the other end a’ the bar serving a drink to another feller. “Hey,” called Owl Shit. “Oberry. You hear me?”

“I’ll be right with you, Owl Shit,” said Aubrey.

“Now. I want whiskey now.”

“I’m coming.”

Well, I kinda scooted my chair back so I’d be ready to get up if it turned out to be called for, and I checked my Merwin Hulbert self-extracting revolver to be damn certain it was where I could get at it if I was to have need of it. I picked up my tumbler and had another long swig a’ that wonderful stuff. Damn, it was good. I begun to get pissed off that Owl Shit was disturbing my relaxing pleasure.

“Excuse me, sir,” said the cowhand on Owl Shit’s left, “but that’s my drink in front of you.”

Whenever Owl Shit had knocked him outta the way, he had stepped up to the bar right there where the feller had been a-standing. Owl Shit looked at the man and picked up the drink. “This’n?” he said.

“Yes.”

Owl Shit drank it down and put the glass on the bar in front a’ the man. “Thanks,” he said. Aubrey come up just then and set a glass in front of Owl Shit and brought out a bottle. He was about to pour a drink when Owl Shit grabbed the bottle outta his hand. “’Bout time,” he said.

“Owl Shit,” said Aubrey, “we don’t want no trouble in here today.”

“I ain’t going to start no goddamned trouble,” said Owl Shit. “Just leave the bottle here with me. That’s all.”

“You owe me a drink, mister,” said the cowhand to Owl Shit’s left.

“How’d you come up with that, dumb ass?” said Owl Shit.

“That first drink you had was mine.”

“I thanked you for it, di’n’t I?”

“Now, see here—“

But the cowhand never got nothing else out. Owl Shit whipped out his Colt and shot him point-blank in the chest. I think he hit him in the heart. Blood spurted out all over Owl Shit and all over the bar, and the poor cowboy leaned back on the bar with both his elbows and a real dumb look on his face. He was done dead. He slid down real slow till he was setting on the floor and leaning back against the bar.

I got up real damn fast and took about four long strides over to the bar. I come up behint Owl Shit as I was hauling out my Merwin Hulbert, and I whacked that damn bastard hard on top a’ his head. He stood there rocking for a minute, his head a-bobbing from side to side. Then he started in to turn his head and look at me, but just as he got his head around, he pitched forward, landing hard on the floor. I kicked his Colt across the floor on over to my table. My Bonnie come a-flopping down the stairs about then. “I heared a shot,” she said.

“It’s took care of,” I said. Then I turned to Aubrey. “Aubrey, go find my two worthless depitties and send them down here right away. Bonnie, sweet tits, you get behint the bar till Aubrey gets back.”

“Yes, sir, Barjack,” said Aubrey.

“And while you’re out, send the damn undertaker down.”

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