In the brutal, unforgiving wastes of the Arizona desert, Chet Byrnes built a cattle ranching empire with his bare hands, steel will, and a fast draw. As the U.S. marshal, he risks his life to bring law to a lawless land.
When a new railroad route is planned to pass through Navajo territory, Chet fights to get the Indians a contract to supply the locomotives with coal. But the corrupt politicians in Tucson and D.C. have other ideas. The coal contract means millions, and the ruthless Tucson Ring will do anything to get it—even if it means killing a U.S. marshal. Battling bandits, the railroad, and a corrupt gang of millionaires, Chet won’t back down until the desert is painted red with blood.
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On one of those Sunday afternoons when they were caught up on the ranch, work-wise, Chet Byrnes was seated in his spacious living room in the new morris chair that his wife, Lisa, had recently bought for him. The slender woman in her early twenties who had taken on the job of being Chet's wife only months before, was in the kitchen busy making coffee and slicing her sweet raisin bread for the gathered company of some of his top men. They were in the living room, discussing ranch matters and other things that came up.
The lanky Cole Emerson was slumped on the leather sofa with his dusty boots stretched way out, and Jesus Martinez was seated on the other end of the sofa.
"I know we have heard lots of rumors about some real remains of the first pure Spanish horses, but do you reckon there are any left?" Jesus asked.
Cole shook his head to dismiss the idea. "If there had been, they'd've been found and reported."
"Hell, Cole, they haven't looked in every back canyon for them."
"Then where are they hiding?"
"Maybe on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon."
Cole drew up his lanky legs when Lisa, a tray of coffee cups in her hands, came into the room. He said, "Smells great to me, Lisa. Yes, Jesus, if there is one place undiscovered it has to be that land north of the great hole."
"How did that land get cut off from Utah, anyway?" Jesus asked.
"Well," Chet began, "the story goes that Washington, DC, was angry with the Mormons in Utah over their bitching and fussing and ran the survey straight west instead of making the Grand Canyon the border between the two territories."
"That's why people have to go out of state through Nevada to come to Preskitt to their county seat." Jesus took his coffee cup off Lisa's tray and thanked her.
"It wasn't drawn to be easy."
"It really is the lost land for the Arizona Territory."
"I overheard someone say, while I was out in the kitchen, there might be real wild horses up there?" Lisa asked.
Chet shook his head. "Lisa, no one knows much about what is up there."
"I say, since we have the cattle all worked and the hay up, that we go up there and explore it," Cole said.
Lisa set the tray down. "I'd like to tag along. I've never been up there."
"Jesus, would your wife let you go along?" Chet asked.
"If I went with you, she would."
"So would mine." Cole chuckled
"Several years ago, Lisa, Jesus, along with Cole and me, nearly froze to death coming off of there with some criminals we were bringing back from Utah."
"That was midwinter then," Cole said. "We are just going exploring in the summertime. We are not staying up there that long."
"Who else do we need to go with us?" Jesus asked.
"Me?" Lisa pointed at herself.
"You sure can tag along. But it is not a peaches-and-cream place to explore," Chet said. "There are no hotels or cafés."
"That doesn't matter. I'd just love to see it."
Chet agreed. Lisa had come a long way since he laid his orders out to the snobby girl who'd been living with outlaws. After they had captured the gang of marauders who'd attacked one of his stage stations on the Marcy Road, this tough-acting girl told him she had no means or way to get out of that desolate Four Corners country now that her ex-boyfriend was Chet's prisoner and faced several years in prison. Chet let her know right off she was not his responsibility, but if she would work hard with the cook and do her part in camp, he'd find her a packhorse to ride back with them. She had bowed her head and thanked him.
From that time on, that girl carried her share of the load. On the second day, without saying a word to Chet, Jesus found her a saddle to ride. Back at the ranch she worked even harder and married one of Chet's foremen. Then she took over the job of running the big house when his wife's majordomo, Monica, suddenly died from a heart attack. Lisa taught the Mexican ranch children English so they could attend the Cherry School. Then her husband was killed in range war shoot-out over east at the Wagon Wheel Ranch, and terminal cancer swept Chet's wife, Elizabeth, away as well. Lost in their own personal sorrow the two soon found each other to lean on, and he married her. Ten years or more his junior, he never noticed the difference except when their ages were mentioned.
"Can we get Hampt to go along?" Cole asked.
"May might not let him go with you all," Lisa said.
Jesus shook his head. "She would if Chet asked for him. She'd do anything for him."
Lisa quickly agreed. May was Chet's widowed sister-in-law who'd later married Hampt, one of his original ranch hands, and the two were raising a second family. She nearly didn't come along when he packed them up to go from Texas to Arizona. His second wife, Elizabeth, once said his sister-in-law probably expected Chet to marry her out there — but she settled for Hampt and they were very happy.
"I am sure Hampt would love to join us and he's a good backup. He saved many lives arming the black cowboys in the lost herd deal in Texas. Plus, he's the greatest expert at growing alfalfa in the Territory."
"Will you ask her, then? Thanks for the coffee, Lisa. I better get home and ask my wife if I can go, too."
"Cole, as well as you two get along you're going north with us," Lisa said, gathering up the empty cups.
"When are we leaving?" she asked Chet.
"Oh, three days or four. I want Tom and Millie to stay up here while we are gone."
She agreed and headed for the kitchen with her tray full of empty cups.
He stopped her by clearing his throat. With a head toss toward the stairs and a smile, he waited for her answer.
"As soon as I get these dishes on the sink I am coming up there. I thought you'd never think of doing that."
They both laughed.
Being married to her had brought lots of things back to his life. Their sessions at making love were just a portion as sweet as the other intimate things they shared, like swimming naked in the Verde River when they were alone together, checking on things, taking showers with each other under the sheepherder fixture out back before bedtime. They had settled into a good life together with few restrictions on things that they enjoyed.
Climbing the stairs, he smiled. What would they find on the north side of that big gorge? No matter. It would be mostly new country and he looked forward to going up there. Maybe his back would complain some, sleeping on the ground, but Lisa could get those kinks out with her powerful hands. Not much his missus couldn't do — though she wanted children or said she did. They were trying.
Those would come along, he felt certain. Raised by her father, he'd spoiled her when her mother died young, and Chet learned that when she was still a teen, she'd left home with an outlaw who'd promised to marry her. In their flight to escape Chet and his persistent posse, she discovered she was simply the outlaw's whore, but it was too late, too dangerous for her to leave him and strike out alone in the vast, tough land she did not know a thing about. And she had no money.
* * *
The next day Chet and Lisa drove down to the Verde Ranch to talk to Tom and Millie. The women were left at the house while the two men walked about the ranch pens to talk.
"We're going looking at the North Rim country in a few days."
Tom nodded. "Any particular purpose?"
"Jesus wants to find some pure Spanish horses."
"No, we'll just look. We're caught up with things and want to see some new country."
"Say, I have a top hand for you to take along. His name's Salty Meeker and he's a real sharp guy."
"Where's he out of?" Chet asked.
"Texas, but he is a guy who sees things and fixes them right there."
"I have to clear him with the guys, but sure, send him up. You and Millie willing to watch things from our place?"
"Aw hell, Chet, you know me. I'll do anything you need done. It ain't no big trick."
"Lisa will feel better with you and Millie looking over things up there."
"I understand. What will you find up there, do you think?"
"Oh, who knows? I think it is just a boy's-night-out deal. Lisa is a tomboy and of course wants to tag along."
"More than that. She makes a good woman for you."
"I agree. When I first found her in Colorado, I never expected her to amount to a hill of beans."
Tom shook his head. "She's taught school to those Mexican children until they knew enough English to attend that Cherry School. She took over that house when Monica died like she'd done it all her life. I hated when her husband got shot over there in that range war. He'd made a great foreman to replace the old man who'd retired."
"He was a real dedicated person. We all hated it when he was killed. But Lisa is a great wife, too."
"Oh, Millie and I both agree. She was the right one for you, and you needed a wife."
"Be sure to send this Salty up. I have to go see May and Hampt when I get back. We want him to go along, too."
Tom agreed. "I wish the railroad would get done up there. I need some new Hereford bulls to use in our purebred herd, and they'd need to be shipped out here, not driven from Kansas."
"You better get them hauled out here in a wagon. That track, at the rate it is coming, will be several years getting to Flagstaff."
"What is stalling them so much?"
"Money. They run out and don't have the business on the rest of their tracks to build it fast enough. I think freight is not coming on it like they first thought it would. The country they are coming through has not been developed. You and I know cattle ranching without the Navajo sales would be tough on us. Other ranchers on this dry land couldn't exist for long out here with no markets."
"I know you are right. But it won't get any better until they get tracks, pens, and cars to haul the cattle out of here."
"Tom, you and I have talked about markets since we took the Quarter Circle Z away from those bandits who had it. JD and the brothers down south are making cattle sales down there but it isn't that good and the Tucson Ring still has hold on lots of things, like the army and Indian sales. In time those rails at Flagstaff will make us rich but they are a long way off still. While I am gone I want you to handle all business like it was your own."
"Been a long time since you fed those starving Indians down on the Verde and had to get General Crook to straighten the agency out."
Chet laughed. "We've sure had some times."
"Cole shot his Apache prisoner you gave him, on that first cattle drive you made, and he feared you'd fire him over it."
"That was our first and last Apache war until we had to stop those wild ones over at Rustler's Ranch."
"How are Toby and Talley making it?"
"He's fenced more of those homesteads that Bo's bought for us. He'll have several hundred calves to wean this year from the cattle we got him. He expects to be at five hundred mother cows in two years and he'll have the feed to do it."
"Talley was one of those strays you brought back, too?"
Chet nodded. "And when Toby married her I thought she'd never straighten out of her sullen self. But she lent him a hand and their operation is going great."
"It started with Cole's woman. You sent her up here to help in Jenn's restaurant. Valerie didn't like that dove business after she got down there."
"Right. We brought the hardware-mercantile man Ben Ivor and his wife, Kathrin, back with us from Utah."
"And you rescued JD's wife-to-be, Bonnie, then down in Mexico."
Chet agreed. "You know, Tanner at the bank married the woman who about ruined JD. And they're looking for number two child. He must be twenty years older than her but he brags on her."
"And your land man Bo's building a family, too."
Chet laughed. "That woman was married to her first husband ten years and never had a child with him."
Tom agreed. "I know. Over the years we all talked about you and that tall Navajo woman."
"Blue Bell. Jesus even asked me about her. No, we never had an affair. She is so busy helping her people she didn't need a white man to court her."
"You went to Washington, DC, once to help them?"
Chet shrugged. "I went. Tried, but they gave the Navajo coal to some company to sell to the railroad. I sure lost that fight."
"You've won a lot of battles against outlaws and made Arizona a better place to live."
"Hell no. You led all those battles and we did stop lots of crimes."
"Enough of that. Tom, I am damn proud of that Hereford herd and what you've accomplished."
"We did that right. I never believed we could accomplish that, but now we are a large breeder of purebred cattle and we have good ones."
They stopped at the corral and watched a young wrangler sacking down a wall-eyed bronc tied to a post. The horse was having a fit every time the wrangler waved the sack at him, but he'd get over that.
"My kids are getting along fine over at your sister and Sarge's place. Cody's taking a herd every other month to New Mexico for Sarge, letting him stay home more. That boy is making a real hand. I saw him as the boy stealing my daughter and you saw him as a foreman — taught me a lesson there."
"He was cut out of the same wood as Robert, who runs the timber-hauling business up on the rim."
"I see those reports. He makes real money for this outfit and he isn't much older than my son-in-law."
"You know Robert's Mormon wife fixes coffee for us when we go up there?"
"He takes her to church, too."
"They kind of picked at her for marrying outside the church. But not anymore. He makes a real good living and she has a new house like yours."
"A good-paying job in Arizona is hard to find."
"Things will change when they get the tracks laid, but it won't be tomorrow. We'll have a small ranch party Wednesday night and leave Thursday."
"Millie and I will be up there at lunchtime Wednesday but I'm sending Salty your way in the morning."
They shook hands and Chet went for the rig he'd haul his bride home in. He already had Hampt set to go along, a camp cook borrowed from Tom, and some good hands — this Salty would be a good addition for the trip if he was half as good as Tom said he was.
The trip back up the canyon to the upper ranch ate up the rest of the day. Lisa told him stories she'd heard that were funny and when they topped out he let the sweaty horses stop and rest.
"Chet, I am kind of excited about this venture. Millie thinks there are some little people that live up there by themselves."
"I doubt we'll find them. People, beginning with the Spanish centuries ago, searched this land out with a fine-tooth comb, even up there."
She hugged him hard. "I don't care. I will be with you, seeing land not many others ever saw."
He kissed her. Damn, she was neat to love. How lucky could one man get? They'd have some fun exploring a new country.
The ranch crew at the home place knew how to have a party. Roast a big fat steer over a pit of dry hardwood for a long while. There were roasting ears cooked in a similar way. Fried onions, green and red sweet peppers, and lots of cooked hot peppers as well. Two giant kettles of frijoles, flour tortillas, corn tortillas, and several large Dutch ovens full of peach cobbler from the ranch orchards in Oak Creek Canyon.
All the ranch people worked shoulder to shoulder to get it set up and completed. Plenty of musicians and singers were there, their fiddles crying in the setting sun. Townsfolk and ranch people alike all came, and everyone enjoyed the comradery of the party. The Quarter Circle Z had a great reputation as the place to be when they hosted any event, large or small.
Salty had fresh-shod all their horses with a crew of two. He wanted to start out with everything fixed and both wagons' wheels were gone over and two spare wheels loaded. Harnesses were gone through and then even a collar was changed to better fit a draft horse. Chet had to agree this new guy was thorough and he'd added things to the load that they might need, including two spools of rope.
Chet had a good visit with both his sons and promised them they'd elk hunt with him in the fall. Rocky lived with Cole and his wife, Valerie. Adam lived on the Verde with Victor and his wife, Reba, at the big house down there.
Before Chet moved from Texas, a woman he'd had an affair with was murdered by members of the family that he had all the hell with. She used her own blood to name her attacker on the sheet. When he discovered Marla's body, he'd found a note she'd written to her husband earlier that she was quitting him for Chet. He never let anyone see the good-bye note but destroyed it instead.
Excerpted from "Sharpshooter"
Copyright © 2018 Dusty Richards.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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