The American frontier comes alive in this blazing saga of Chet Byrnes and his family empire by Western Heritage and Spur award-winning author Dusty Richards…
Between The Living And The Dead
The Byrnes family has fought fiercely for its ranching empire. And with success comes the fate of empires: The Brynes have taken in far-flung family members, hired hands and folks looking for another chance at life. The Byrnes clan has taken their fair share of hurt, too, taking on outlaws too deadly and powerful for the law.
When a stage is robbed of a fortune in gold, the Byrnes boys set off on a wild race through the wilderness. But who are the men they are chasing? And where have they stashed the gold? In a harsh, unforgiving land, the Byrnes men face a mystery of gold and death--that could explode like a bomb in their hands...
"Dusty takes readers into the real west at full gallop." --New York Times bestselling author Jodi Thomas
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Pray for the Dead
By Dusty Richards
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Dusty Richards
All rights reserved.
The moon stood full in the northern Arizona sky and cast deep shadows from the nearby trees. Chet Byrnes wore his warm clothes against the cool night, riding single file with his crew through the towering, sweet-smelling Ponderosa pines. The occasional creak of saddle leather, a deep grunt or snort from one of the mounts, the clack of iron horseshoes on an exposed rock in the path underfoot, this was all that marked their passage.
Chet Byrnes would have liked to be back in his own warm bed at the ranch house instead of out on the rim country after five horse thieves. Behind him in the line, his wife, Elizabeth, rode a smooth-gaited strawberry roan. Never a complaining word spilled from her lips. Unlike most women he'd ever known, she simply enjoyed being along on trips like these. She'd become a regular partner in his travels during the first year of their marriage, helping run down criminals, find lost herds, and check in on their half a dozen ranches. Life as a rancher had been busy enough, but it was nothing compared to wearing the badge of a Deputy United States Marshal.
* * *
Chet had learned a lot since he'd moved here from Texas. Arizona's sheriff/tax collector system left large holes in the ability to enforce the law. The federal judges sitting on the territorial court benches had used the marshals to shut down much of the widespread crime in the area, holding publicity down while keeping violence to a minimum. His task force operated in southern Arizona, chasing outlaws coming across the Mexican border on horse-stealing raids. This early morning mission was aimed at doing just that.
The so-called Barrett Gang had been stealing horses and reselling them in mining camps and to passers-by on the Marcy Road that led to California farther north. The Good Lord knew in his book where they'd sold the rest. But Chet and his men had trailed the gang back to their hideout after their latest theft, and now it was time for a raid of their own.
Two of his men, Cole Emerson and Jesus Martinez, were especially skillful at this business. Cole, in his mid-twenties, came from Texas and had worked as a ranch hand on Chet's outfit before he became one of his guardsmen. Jesus was twenty-one and came from Mexico. He, too, had worked on the ranch, and his proficiency with Spanish and skills at tracking made him vital to the team. They were Chet's backups. If anyone saw him, they saw at least one of those men with him, too.
Chet twisted in the saddle and whispered, "We're getting closer."
No answer. None was required. They soon rode out in the edge of a great open meadow. A log house and corrals sat on the far end of the meadow bathed in moonlight, just as his paid informant had described. His source had also said to expect all four of the gang to be camped there.
"Liz, you stay here and tend to the horses. Keep low, though. And keep your gun handy. This crew might not want to rot in some county jail. Most of them are ex-convicts."
"God be with you, hombre." She crossed herself.
"Amen." Dismounted, he kissed her on her cool forehead.
They hobbled the horses, drew their rifles from their scabbards. Chet and his two men took off on foot along the edge of the timber.
Every team member knew their place to be in these raids like these. Cole was to control the back door to stop anyone from escaping that way. Chet and Jesus covered the front door. A couple of dogs went to barking. Someone inside the house, in a hoarse, sleepy voice shouted, "Damn you, shut up."
But the dogs didn't hush and Chet could only hope Cole would soon be in his location behind the building. He and Jesus took positions in the corral with a good view of the front door. A few loose horses in the pen were spooked by their invasion in the first pink light of dawn.
Chet fired his pistol in the air, holstered it, and took up his rifle. "U.S. Marshals out here. Throw up your hands and come out unarmed or die. You're surrounded."
"Like hell," someone shouted. A shot from out back told him that Cole was around there taking care of things.
"How many are there?" someone else called from inside.
"Damned if I know! But they've got both doors covered."
"Alright, listen to me," Chet yelled. "You have any women or children in there send them out. No tricks."
Wrapped in blankets, two women came out shouting, "Don't shoot. Don't shoot."
"Sit on the ground past the well," Chet said. Crying and moaning, they did what they were told, and the dogs joined them there. They even stopped barking, too.
"Now we've not got all day. You've only got a minute before I torch that cabin and cook you all. You come out with a gun in your hand, my sharpshooters'll gun you down. Surrender or die."
"How did you find us?" a voice asked from inside.
"That you, Barrett?"
"Hell, yes. Who are you?"
"My name's Chet Byrnes."
Someone else said, "He's that big rancher from Camp Verde."
"What in the hell is he doing up here?"
"You can talk all day, you're either going to surrender or die." He raised his voice. "Cole, you got the coal oil ready?"
"Got plenty enough to burn that fire trap, Chet."
Someone in the house swore, "Son of a bitch, what're we going to do?"
"Give up," Chet shouted at them.
"Live or die. I ain't going to no jail ever again — "
The fool ran out the back door firing his revolver. The single report of Cole's louder rifle silenced it.
"He won't go to jail," Cole shouted with a laugh. "Only feet first."
A glass window broke and Chet said to Jesus, "Get down, they want to fight."
He squinted down his sites at possible targets, then opened fire from between the corral rails, levering in a fresh load each time he squeezed the trigger. His bullets splintered the log wall, the wooden door, and broke more glass. He set down the rifle to go for his Colt.
Out of the twilight, a man with a six-gun in his hand staggered from the doorway. Jesus put his last rifle bullet in him, the slug striking the man's chest with a dull slap. The felon's knees buckled, and he tumbled off the porch.
Blinking burning eyes from the acrid gun smoke, Chet covered the doorway with his reloaded rifle while Jesus, still on his knees, shoved more cartridges in his own.
"Cole, you alright?" he shouted.
"I'm fine. How many more want to die are in there?"
"Just me — I give up — can't walk. Toad's dead, maybe."
Jesus leaned his rifle on the corral. He said, "You be careful; sometimes even dead rattlers can strike you."
"I'll go see."
He was over the corral fence with his six-gun in his fist. Chet kept his rifle up and at the ready, aimed at the door. The spooked horses in the pen behind him had kicked up lots of dust during the shooting and were still blowing devils out their noses. Both women seated on the ground were crying louder than the morning ravens cawing.
Damn fools made their own decision to fight — not him.
Jesus, in the doorway, had holstered his gun. Things must be alright in there. Chet took both their rifles and went out the gate, joining his men inside the cramped house. Toad — or whatever his name was — had died. The last man was shot in the leg. Cole cut up a blanket to make a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
"Big mess, huh, boss?" Cole said, binding the wound.
"They made it one." Three dead. One wounded. Two women left outside. One of them was moaning over the dead one in the yard, on her knees pleading with God. The other now sat on the porch bench, stone-faced and rocking where there was no rocker.
Jesus and Cole carried out the first corpse from inside and laid him out in the dirt beside the one already there. After that they went for the third one out back. One more to bring out — the wounded one. Maybe just leave him there for now. He can't run.
Chet heard a rider and horses coming up the meadow in a lope. It was Elizabeth, the string of horses trailing her. She slipped from the saddle and looked around. With a frown at the sight of the dead men on the ground she asked, "You alright?"
"Not a scratch," he said. "Gather these women and get them to making some food. We have plenty if they don't."
Liz went to work, spurring the two girls to action and unpacking pans from the packhorse. Food, at least, was in good hands.
Jesus and Cole brought the last dead one from in the house. Chet went back inside and found the wounded one on the bed.
"What's your name?" he asked the pale-faced outlaw.
"Who owned this place?"
"Barrett said he owned it."
Chet scoffed at the notion. "I doubt he owned much of anything."
"He said so anyway. Told us it was six hundred forty acres."
"That's probably a lie, too. Most of these homesteads are half that many acres or less. I know. I buy them all the time."
"All I know is he said it was his section of land, mister."
"How many horses are up here?"
"Close to thirty, I'd guess." The man winced and exhaled through clenched teeth.
Chet could see that wounded leg was hurting him, but he needed more information on their operation. "Who did he sell them to?"
"He had several buyers; I didn't know them all."
Chet got out his small notebook and pencil to write them down. "I want names."
"Cecil Brown up by Saint Johns. His ranch is the Circle Y. Jim Davis lives over by Hackberry took some."
His nephew Reg could find him. His ranch was near Hackberry, and his wife, Lucy, was raised in that country. She'd know this man Davis if anyone would. "Who else?"
"A guy named Lupine down by Tombstone. And Devore in Silver City."
Chet nodded, writing it all down. "What's Lupine's first name?"
"I'm not sure."
"I'm going to have one of these here ladies give you some painkiller. Think hard. I need every name."
"Oh, thank God. It's killing me." He gripped his leg and looked sick over it.
Everyone was setting up the cooking part, starting cooking fires in the yard.
"Someone give that wounded one some laudanum. Two tablespoons of it."
"I can do that, señor," one of the women said. Chet noticed for the first time that she was Mexican.
"Do that, Lupe," Liz said. She obviously had things firmly in hand out here.
"We're getting there," she said to Chet about the food business.
"No rush. I'll unsaddle the horses and hobble them. They should be grazing."
"The men can help you."
"I can do it. Tell them to find some shovels and start on a common grave."
"Oh, yes. We have that to do, too."
"The horses are easy. That digging'll be tedious and hurt my shoulder."
Then he heard a gunshot. His hand went to his holster. On a dead run he sped back toward the house. There in the gun smoke stood the pale-faced Mexican girl, spoon in one hand, medicine bottle in another. The rustler was on the bed, his blood sprayed across the wall. Suicide.
Chet holstered his gun and walked over to hug her shoulder. "What did he say?"
"I — have — my own medicine."
"Is everyone alright?" Cole asked, coming through the open back door.
"He must have had a gun. Cole, take her out of here."
"She only brought him medicine to help him," Liz said from his side.
"Not her fault. She was ready to give it to him. He couldn't face a future in jail and crippled." Chet's stomach soured. What a waste.
What started out to be a simple arrest and gathering of stolen horses they had on hand had turned into a tragedy. God help us.CHAPTER 2
Some black and white camp robbers boldly flew in to share their breakfast in the yard. Fried pork strips, biscuits, and gravy with German-fried potatoes made up the morning meal. The white woman was thirtyish, pock-faced, and hard looking. Her name was Ellen May Raines. Unlike Lupe, she didn't have much to say except to ask if they were going to leave the two of them there.
"Not my plans. We will take you out of here."
She nodded and thanked him.
After breakfast the corpses' pockets were gone through for money and any valuables.
His notes read like this —
Elrod Barrett, age 34. Six foot tall, lean built. Blue eyes, scar above his right one.
Willy Cameron, age 20-something. Freckles, red hair, green eyes.
Toad Franklin, age 20–30. Short 5-6. Black hair. Missing a thumb on his right hand old roping wound. Buck teeth.
Layman Collette, age late twenties. 5-10. Wavy black hair, fancy dresser. Thin mustache. One gold tooth.
Jesus removed it with a hammer.
The total money in their pockets was close to two hundred dollars. Four jackknifes, two large bladed ones. Two pocket watches with other men's names engraved in them. Cameron had a plain gold wedding ring wrapped in a handkerchief — no answer for that one. Neither of the women knew why he had it. They had an assortment of cap and ball firearms, and two Winchester repeating rifles. Their saddles, bridles, and spurs were not the shiny kind.
It took most of the day to dig the common grave, but by late afternoon they lowered the bodies down into it.
Chet asked for their silence.
"Father, we send these men to you, and do so for their mothers and fathers that raised them and hoped they'd do better than die in their boots and be buried in a common unmarked grave. Lord, may those parents find peace in their lives. Their children have been sent to you. Amen."
Chet nodded and turned away. The covering began, shovel by shovel.
"Tomorrow we'll ride over to the Windmill Ranch. You ladies can come along and in a few days we'll be back in Preskitt. I can buy you a stage ticket to the south if you so desire. Or I can pay you twenty-five dollars and give you a horse to ride out on here and now."
"How will we prove it's not stolen?" Ellen May asked, suspicion written in her dark eyes.
"I can give you a paper says you were awarded the animal by a U.S. Marshal."
"That ought to be good enough. I'll ride out in the morning then."
"Lupe? What about you?"
"If I may, señor, I would use your stage pass to go south."
"That'll be fine, but we'll have business to do on the way."
"That is no problem. I can work and help Ms. Elizabeth."
"She's a good worker," Liz put in. "So is Ellen May. Maybe we can find a place for her to fit in?"
"Oh, I will find a place, miss," Ellen May said. "Probably in some house of ill repute. I ain't no stranger to them."
"I will pray you do better than that," Liz said, looking very seriously at her.
Chet never laughed, but he would have had his wife not sounded so serious about Ellen May's choice of workplaces. No doubt that's where the dead men had found her, and she had few skills or good looks to expect much more than to return to such a life. The world around them was a tough, dangerous place to live. One day you were alive, the next your toes were turned up, with no one to mourn your passage. He silently hoped the girl found a better life, too.
After supper, they turned in at sundown. He promised the men they'd round up all the loose horses they could find the next day and head for the Windmill Ranch. Then, followed by his wife, Chet took his bedroll and they went off by themselves to find a place to sleep and have a few private words.
He found a level spot out beyond the house place. He scraped rocks and limbs out of the way with the side of his boot, and they rolled out the bedrolls on their hands and knees.
She looked over at him. "It has been a long day."
"Very long. I'll be glad to be back home."
"Yes, we have a wedding coming."
"Rhea and Victor's."
"Yes. I'm glad they will be in the big house on the Verde Ranch."
"So am I. And Adam will be close enough so we can drop in on them. It won't be like having him right with us, but we can go down there and stay if we miss him too much."
She undressed under the blankets. "You aren't upset that your wife didn't say, 'Oh I will take care of him'?"
He shed his boots, socks, and pants, laying them close by before joining her. "No, we've talked. You gave up a lot to be with me. Rhea is a good nanny, so she can raise my son. I am sure she would have him, anyway, if my first wife had lived."
"I didn't mean to bring up bad and sad things in your life. I love you, hombre. I love every day we ride together. I just don't want you disappointed in me."
"No chance of that happening." He rolled over and kissed her. At least on this hard ground he had her with him to cuddle and love.
Excerpted from Pray for the Dead by Dusty Richards. Copyright © 2016 Dusty Richards. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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