Bloodthirsty hired guns are out to ruin a lawman’s plans for progress in this action-packed Western from the award–winning author of Sharpshooter.Born out of the grit, sweat, and drive of a cattle ranching empire, U.S. Marshal Chet Byrnes is turning the savage and lawless Arizona desert into a homeland. To some he’s the hero that the West needs. To others, he’s a moving target.
Chet is spearheading a stage line from Gallup to the Colorado River. It’ll be a boon to Navajo trading posts, and lay out the territory for new settlements. Unfortunately, it’s not Gerald Hall’s idea of progress—killing Chet is. The mysterious Texas gambler has hired three kill-crazy assassins—and counting—to bury Chet under a storm of bullets. To turn the tables on a game of revenge, Chet must match the deranged Texan play by play, body by body, and bullet for bullet. Come hell or high water, that stage line is going through—even if it’s forged in blood.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The sulfurous smell of gun smoke plus sagebrush stung his nose. Chet Byrnes rose up to look over the upset buckboard bed and with his Colt .45 blazed away at the distant shooters. Behind him, Cole Emerson, the young man who rode with him, was crawling back uphill, attempting to keep low in the sagebrush and bunchgrass after recovering the rifle thrown from their buckboard wreck while they tried to outrun the would-be shooters.
A few infrequent wild shots from the attackers kicked up dust around Chet, and one struck the wood of the bed. They were too far away to do much damage with handguns. Belly-down on top of the rise east of them were the three masked men who, on horseback, had charged the two of them on the buckboard traveling west. Mid-day the glaring sun bore down hot. Their racing buckboard must have struck something, upset and threw both men and the bed off the frame. Their team of horses lost no time heading west with the empty trucks hitting the high spots.
Cole took a seat on the ground behind the upright bed and levered a cartridge in the rifle's chamber. "This gun appears to be all right. Where are they at?"
"There is tall stalk standing up there; one of them is on your right side of that stem and belly-down. Aim low." Chet finished reloading cartridges in his own Colt.
Cole nodded and gained his feet to standing behind the upset wagon bed. He laid the rifle barrel on the wood side, took aim, and fired.
Results were a man screamed in the cloud of dust set off by the bullet on the rim line. "I'm hit, boys. Get them."
Another stick figure rose with a smoking revolver. Cole took aim and his second shot struck the shooter and sent him down. He ducked to reload with a smile at Chet. "You see number three?"
"No, not yet. Bet he won't expose himself now we have the rifle. My dad always said don't send a boy when you needed a man. Good shooting."
"He may have fled."
"Yes. I think he got the hell off that ridge." Chet listened and could hear a horse running off, no doubt with the last attacker aboard.
Cole handed him the rifle. "I'll go try to catch our horses."
"Meanwhile, I'll go see if they can talk and tell us anything."
Cole gave him a concerned frown. "Watch them. Wounded snakes can bite."
"Oh yes, I know all about that. Wonder why they tried to rob us?" Chet asked.
Amused by the question, Cole chuckled. "We must have looked rich. Damned if I know, Chet."
"Maybe we both should go up there and check on them. I'd bet their saddle horses are up there. That team ran off maybe as far away as Center Point waiting for us by now."
Chet laughed. "How much of these so-called robberies are we going to have when we are up and running this stage line that we're trying to get ready for?"
"This whole road is isolated, and I guess the criminal element holding out up here has no one to stop them until we take a hand in doing that."
"Your brother-in-law at the Windmill Ranch, Sarge, covers part of this route driving contract cattle every month to the Navajos for us. Does he have much trouble?"
"I bet Sarge just handles them if they are dumb enough to try him. He probably leaves them for the buzzards."
Amused, digesting Chet's words, Cole nodded. "I bet he simply does that. Your sister's husband is a tough quiet guy, and he takes the ranch's monthly cattle drives damn serious."
"He sure does a great job of getting them there on time at it too."
They were climbing up the steep slopes through the knee-high sagebrush and grass-clad slope to reach the ridge. Guns in hand, he and Cole both kept an eye on their destination on the top.
"You hurting?" he asked Cole.
"Not bad. But I bet we're both sore in the morning. Lucky we flew off through the air when that bed overturned in our wreck."
"My wings aren't as good as they used to be for cushioning a landing." Chet's hip was sore where he hit on it.
"Hell, mine too. I can see the first guy, and he looks alive."
Cole started to the left, leaving Chet with the wounded outlaw lying on the ground. He could see their two bay saddle horses grazing through their bits a short ways away. Good. He was not made for much walking after being tossed out of a wagon. They'd have something to carry them to the next stage stop on the route. He knelt and felt for the man's pulse on his neck. Nothing. The unshaven kid looked pretty ragged. He turned him on his back. Besides, he needed a haircut and a bath, which he'd probably not get before his funeral was held.
"This guy is alive," Cole shouted.
"Coming. This one isn't taking in air anymore."
Cole gave a head toss back to the other. "I made sure he was disarmed and asked him who he was. He said he ain't answering questions."
Obviously, from the bloody shirt, the outlaw'd been shot in the right shoulder. The scraggy bearded man in his twenties looked in pain seated on the ground.
"We can leave you here to die. We want answers or else ...?" Chet told him.
"Go to hell."
Bent over, Chet grabbed a handful of his shirt and jerked him up in his face. "How about some pancake cactus spines under your fingernails? I can make you real uncomfortable, and I am not messing around with saving you either. Now who are you?"
"Johnny Duncan — Texas — what are you bastards going to do to me?"
"Probably cut your throat. What were you three after?"
"A man said he'd pay us well if you two never got back to civilization."
"Who was that man?"
"I don't have a real name —" Pain cut his words off.
"Then how were you going to collect the money?"
"He said he'd meet us Friday and pay us a hundred dollars apiece."
"Where? At Horse Head Crossing?"
"Yeah. Longhorn Saloon. Wore a brown suit coat. Boss of the Plains Hat. Gray mustache. Maybe forty. I think he was a gambler."
"Top of his right hand been bad burned a long time ago."
"He never gave it."
"How much money was he going to pay you?"
"I told you. A hundred dollars apiece."
"It don't sound like anyone I know," Cole said.
"I can catch their horses and ride up to the next station. Get some help and bring back a conveyance for him in a few hours," Cole said.
"You do that. Who got away?" he asked the outlaw.
"A kid named Soapy Jones. I knew he had no guts for this deal, but he made an extra gun. Rod Place over there came up here with me from Texas. Heard they needed cowboys. Hell, there ain't no cows up here. We've about starved."
"How did you meet this guy in the suit?"
"We built some fence for another guy over by Saint Johns. When we met him the three of us really needed a drink and a little loving from a dove. He offered us twenty bucks apiece to start this deal. Paid us that money and promised us a hundred more to each of us if we stopped you and him — that guy just now went after the horses."
"How did you recognize us?"
"Oh, he had good photographs of you and some pretty little Mexican gal all dressed up."
"That was my wife. Was there a name of who made the photo?"
"I never noticed. He had another of that guy with you and another pretty woman holding a boy."
"That was his wife, Valerie, and my son Rocky who she is raising." Rocky was the boy Chet had fathered back in Texas.
"You looked like them pictures."
"Don't guess he ever said how he got those photos?" Chet asked him.
"No, but they were good pictures. He said you'd be coming back through here shortly on horseback or buckboard."
Cole was back leading the horses. "I'll ride on west. Get some help."
"Ride easy. Duncan here saw pictures of us that guy had. The ones taken of you, Valerie, Liz, Rocky, and me that we had made. I guess by the traveling photographer who came by Center Point. What was that a month ago?"
Cole shook his head. "About that long ago. Wonder how he got them?"
"The guy hired them must be moving up and down our stage line. I have a description ... now we need to find him. He paid them twenty apiece and promised a hundred more for each one of them if we were disposed of."
"Don't tell my wife ... she may want to collect it for herself."
"Cole Emerson, you know better than that."
He was smiling and nodding while handing Chet the reins to the second horse. No way that that boy's wife would take a reward for killing them. She might shoot the guys who did it but not him.
"There's a pint of whiskey in the right hand saddlebag on the horse you got," Duncan said. "I may need that."
Cole retrieved it, handed it to Chet, and left.
Chet handed it over to the man who used his teeth to get the cork out and then swallowed some of it. Chet loosened the cinch on the horse left behind and then hobbled him so he didn't run off. It would be a long, dreary day waiting on Cole's return and then them hauling the man to the doctor. This no-name man who hired them bothered him — especially how he got to possess copies of those photos from the traveling photographer. But it made sense if he wanted them assassinated to have good pictures of his intended victims.
By mid-afternoon Cole was back with a team of several Navajo boys who worked for their agent, Clyde Covington. They had brought a wagon to reload the bed, plus the truck, team of horses that ran off, and they set in to get things fixed. The spring seat got messed up in the overturn, and the crew of Navajo boys were laughing and having fun while they replaced it with a different one they'd brought along.
The wounded prisoner was treated enough to move, and the dead man's body was loaded in the wagon bed to go back west. Chet rode the other outlaw's horse with Cole and they went ahead of the wagons and team. A crewmember drove their repaired buckboard.
On the way to station number three they talked about Duncan, and Chet told his man again about the photos the man showed him.
"This guy Duncan have our photographs to identify us by?"
"Yes, he described the ones we had made up at Center Point of Liz and I and the one of Valerie, you, and Rocky. Copies of those ones that traveling picture man made of us a months ago. That was how those three knew who we were heading west in the buckboard and got after us."
Cole made a pained face. "That stranger must know us then."
"Or he has some other purpose for wanting us dead."
"Or so we fail to put this stage line in operation from Gallup to the Colorado River together and another party gets the mail contract."
"Call him Mr. X, but I want him and the sooner the better."
"What will you charge Duncan with?" Cole asked.
"Attempted armed robbery and murder."
"That's what they tried. Who got away?"
Chet shrugged. "Some kid named Soapy Jones. No telling where he went if he's smart. But I bet we run into him again."
Cole agreed and they'd reached the number-three station about sundown. Clyde Covington came from the corral area to meet them. A tall somewhat bent cowboy in his forties, he came shaking his head, concerned about their incident.
"You two got in trouble already?" His warm smile and laughter made a good ending to a helluva day. Chet turned to meet Clyde's straight-back proper wife, Iris, who reached up and kissed him on the cheek at the front door of the station.
"My lands. I heard they had shot at you, and you weren't here when expected, so I figured our boss has been killed. Whew, you have had some day. I'm glad too that that pretty wife of yours wasn't along as well."
"So was I. It has been a tough day, but we survived it."
"Why did they do that anyway?"
"I think so we couldn't start the stage line in six weeks."
"Can we still do that?"
"If I have to send all my cow hands up here we will do it."
"We're as ready, I guess, as we can be. They said we'd have the horses here soon."
"Last I had any word from the man in charge, Rod Carpenter, in Gallup, he said his men would move the horses in place in the coming week. There is a tack man coming too, and he will bring you the extra harness you will need."
"Your man Harold Faulk helped finish the corrals," Clyde said. "That is a hardworking bunch of men. Him, his son, wife, and daughter are sure scrappy. Why, they work as hard as the men he works. I never saw the likes."
"I hired them back earlier. He rode clear over to our place asking about work, and I'm proud because he's got all the stops ready over on this side of Center Point. Cole has another crew over west lining things up that are about ready too. You all will be earning your money in a few weeks."
"When will we be getting stages?" Clyde asked, showing them seats at the table.
"Oh, for now buckboards will do. It will take twelve months to move up to stagecoaches."
"I'll be glad to be started. I guess the way things are the stages must be really coming?"
"Oh, they will. These men I am working with were relying on help that talked big, but it took more than that to put a set of that many stage stops together. No way they'd ever gotten the stages and horses here in time to meet that first mail contract. I am guessing some others folks want that mail contract, so keep your guns handy."
"Who do you think might be bucking you?"
"Clyde, all I have is that outlaw's description of the man who had photographs of both Cole and I with our wives to point us out. We had those pictures made some time back by a photographer passing through. He must have sold more prints he made so that we could be identified by the ones he hired to come after us."
"Ah, you two will get him. I know and read about your law work. Yes siree, you'll get them."
"Wish I was that sure. Your food looks great. I guess Cole is coming."
"He's washing up on the porch," Iris announced.
"Good. We really got thrown off that buckboard when it overturned. I guess when a driver don't show on schedule, you will have to go look for him after some time passes."
"You bet, and we need to get rid of these holdup men," Clyde said.
Chet decided, in the morning, the pair of them should head back to Center Point and see what else had gone wrong. Clyde said the Yavapai County deputy at Horse Head Crossing would hold the would-be robber until the jail wagon came to pick him up and haul him for trial in Prescott, the county seat for all that part of Arizona in the 1870s. Of course there were only jackrabbits, a few scattered homesteaders, and ranches spread thin all over that land. Horse Head Crossing, St. Johns, and a few army posts pretty well summed up the whole area.
Maybe the stage line would develop more settlements. That was why Chet felt it so important to make this line work like the Black Canyon Coach Line did from Preskitt to the Hayden's Ferry and Mill. The connection of this new stage route there at the San Francisco Peaks to the military road that led down to Camp Verde was why he called that stop Center Point. All hands were there building houses, barns, corrals to be the central place for the stage operation running from Gallup on the east over to the Colorado River ferry, which made up the territory's western boundary with California.
They arrived at Center Point two days later and were greeted by both wives and his four-year-old son, Rocky. Damn, Liz looked great running to meet him. He hugged her tight and kissed her in a volley of hammers pounding and handsaws cutting boards.
"You have any trouble?" she asked.
"Oh, some. Someone hired three guys to kill us coming back. I can tell you more later. How is the boy?"
"Oh, he's fine."
"Hey, big guy, how are you?" He hoisted his son up. The boy was really growing.
"I am fine, Daddy. They were worried you were not back. What took you so long?"
"We wrecked a buckboard is all."
"I am as glad as they are that you came back. I better go tell Valerie that you are fine."
He set him down. Rocky, on the ground, hurried for his stepmother. Chet laughed. "You tell her I am fine."
"Who was the hombre wanted you dead?" Liz asked.
"Some guy in a bar at Horse Head Crossing hired three lost Texas cowpokes. He promised to pay them a hundred dollars apiece to eliminate Cole and me both. Worse yet, that guy had copies of those pictures of you and me, plus Valerie, Cole, and Rocky they took up here a few weeks ago. This guy showed them to those three would-be killers, but where he got them from I don't know."
"I never saw that photographer again, did you?" Liz asked, leading him to the large tent set up as a mess hall.
"No. I never saw him again, but when Jesus and Spud get up here, I'll go find the guy that hired them cowboys and he'll wish he never tried it."
"Now I have to worry about that meeting?"
"No, I'll kill him where he is at. Hell with bringing him in alive even."
"Oh, I am just so glad you are finally at home. I must tell you that the young man Shawn McElroy on the Force has been seriously writing to Reg's widow Lucy Byrnes."
"Well, what is wrong with that?" Valerie brought him a plate of food and bread. He acknowledged her.
"Nothing. But he wants to move up here to be closer to her."
"Lord, I don't know how, but I'll work on it. Maybe Ratchet Thornton could go down there and help Roamer. That Force job is still tough work but not near as bad as when I started it down there."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rage for Vengeance"
Copyright © 2019 Dusty Richards.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.