SMALL TOWN TEXAS. BIG TIME TROUBLE.
It’s hard to be a woman in the Wild Wild West. And if that woman is wearing a badge and slinging a six-shooter, it’s even harder. Especially for any foolhardy man who gets in her way . . .
The frontier town of Ring Bit, Texas, has a way of attracting trouble. Shootouts. Showdowns. Shady drifters. But it’s never seen anything like the mysterious gunman Hawkshaw. Is he good or evil? As the town marshal, it’s Tennessee Smith’s job to keep an eye on him. Which is okay because he sure is easy on the eyes . . .
Of course, Tennessee needs another man in her life like she needs a hole in the head. This mail-order bride-turned-widow is raising three young stepsons on her own. And now she’s taking the boys to Austin to get married again. Between outlaws and in-laws, she’s got her hands full. When Tennessee’s stagecoach is ambushed—and she’s taken hostage—she could use help to shoot her way out. Even if that someone is a dangerously mysterious gunman named Hawkshaw . . .
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Tennessee "Tennie" Smith Granger looked out the jailhouse window. With a Comanche moon shining above, she could see the sign on the butcher shop across the street almost as clearly as she could during the day. The saloons had finally shut down. The raucous laughter had ceased, and the loud banging of rinky-dink pianos had quieted. Everyone was asleep except the small shadows she could see scurrying in and out of the alleys.
Smoke began to billow upward from the middle of the road. The dark phantoms scampered to another spot in the street. A match was lit, and more smoke began to rise. Tennie left her place by the window and made her way to the jailhouse desk, stubbing her toe on its corner.
"Ouch," she whispered, hopping on one foot. Fumbling for the matches, she reached for the lantern hanging on the wall next to the windows. She lit it, taking another look through the glass. The flickering light showed only the reflection of a sleepy browned-eyed eighteen-year-old wearing a slightly vexed expression.
She headed back to the living quarters, passing through the hallway that held the staircase to the cells above, into the one large room she and her stepsons lived in and the alcove where she slept. She glanced at their empty beds before drawing back the curtain to her bed. Pulling off her nightgown, she slipped into a dress, trying to hurry with her shoes and stockings.
A roll of thunder reverberated overhead. Tennie paused, remembering the cloudless sky she'd seen earlier. With one last twist, she had her shoes buttoned enough to stay on and went out through the office and onto the wooden sidewalk in front of the jailhouse.
A stench like rotten eggs filled the air. The smoke rising up and down the street was becoming so thick, Tennie could barely make out the inhabitants of Ring Bit exiting groggily from their homes, holding lanterns and making their way up the street to the "bad" part of town. A tall, rather lanky newcomer held himself away from the others.
The noise of rolling thunder increased, and the sound of hoofbeats could be heard coming from high above their heads. Tennie's eyes searched the sky and the tops of the store buildings. She couldn't see anything except an orangey moon and a few stars.
The murmurs of the crowd increased as acrid smoke filled the night air, and the smell of sulfur began to choke them. The voices of confused people became louder and louder until one woman, staring at the sky, began to scream between crashes of thunder.
"It's the death angels coming to get us!" she hollered, clutching her face. "The Lord is sending down fire and brimstone!" "It's the end!" another woman cried.
Something belching smoke and rattling like the wheels of Hades rolled down the street while the hoofbeats coming from above became a frenzied stampede. People jumped away in turmoil, stumbling in the smoke. Women screamed, clutching their shawls and beseeching the heavens.
"Jesus save us!"
"It's the devil come to get us on his fiery horses!" A rangy fellow, not quite sober from his previous revelries, beat on his chest, looking up at the sky and proclaimed, "I'm ready to meet the saints."
Another woman fell to her knees, clasped her hands together and began to pray. "Lord, I confess! That traveling salesman ..." she cried.
"Tennie!" a stern voice said, cutting through the night and interrupting any more revelations.
Tennie's eyes searched until they found Shorty, the stationmaster from next door. In the glowing dark, she could see him getting ready to explode.
She turned to the tops of the buildings before he could really start yelling at her. "Rusty! Lucas! Badger! You get on down here this minute. You stop that and get down here right now."
A small voice called from the roof of the butcher shop. "Aw, Miss Tennie," Lucas said.
"Don't you 'aw Miss Tennie' me," she yelled. "You get on down here and put these fires out."
Like a gassy mule after a whiskey and ginger treatment, the tension in the crowd released.
"It's just those gol-durn Granger boys again," a man grumbled.
The woman who had been about to confess her sins jumped to her feet.
"What's this here about a traveling salesman?" her husband demanded.
"That weren't me hollering," she said, looking innocent. "That were the widow over yonder. Everybody knows why she keeps her door hinges so oiled."
Tennie gave a sigh of relief when the husband pulled on his wife's arm. They would take the fight home, and she wouldn't have to worry about blood being spilled on the street.
People continued to cough and wipe their eyes. Pigs squealed, grunting and running in confusion at the commotion. The dogs and cats had fled and were hiding under buildings on the far side of town. The horses in the stalls and corrals next door began to make a racket as the smoke curled its way to the livery. The dark figure of the newcomer had long since headed in that direction. He either didn't have a conscience or had nothing to confess.
"Do what Miss Tennie says," one of the merchants hollered at the boys. He stopped to hack smoke from his throat before adding, "You fork-tailed little infidels."
Tennie looked at the glaring eyes surrounding her, watching in dismay as the undertaker's wife approached, her lips in a thin, tight frown. Instead of her usual somber black dress, she clutched an expensive paisley silk robe to her stout frame. The colorful robe surprised Tennie, as did a head covered in a dozen or more rag rolls. At the moment, the rolls were shaking in fury, and that wasn't surprising.
"Mrs. Granger," the undertaker's wife said. "I don't know why the men of this town swore you in as marshal and have kept you in that position despite your obvious incompetence, but I can tell you one thing. You can forget about those disreputable stepsons of yours getting back into school."
Wincing as the woman flounced away, Tennie guessed it wouldn't do much good to remind the undertaker's wife that every male marshal preceding her had been killed or left town in a hurry to keep it from happening to them. She turned away, seeing the dark outline of a large muscular man just before he dived into the alley to escape notice. She didn't know why he had the look of someone guilty. It was her stepsons who had terrorized the town.
Looking up, she saw the boys scampering from the rooftops. Lucas looked as happy and proud as a roadrunner carrying a three-foot rattlesnake in its beak. Tennie wanted to cry.
Two days later, with the townspeople quieted down and the smell of sulfur dissipated, Tennie could once more appear in public. She swept the wooden sidewalk in front of the redbrick jail, stopping to push a strand of curly, light brown hair away from her face. Looking along the main street running through the town of Ring Bit, she saw drunks lurching from saloons, and a new wave of transient cowboys with their gun belts held low swaggering along the sidewalks.
Pausing the broom, she watched as one of the latest men to arrive exited a saloon, recognizing him as the tall newcomer who had observed the boys' smoke and thunder performance without comment and had left, she supposed, to check on his horse. He stood with ease, leaning one shoulder against a post and wearing a well-cut dark suit with a gray silk vest. A raven-haired man with a thick black mustache, his hat was also black and shaded his eyes. Nevertheless, the noonday sun outlined his somewhat coarse features.
Tennie noticed several men cross to the other side of the street rather than walk too near him. The dogs in town didn't avoid him, but they didn't try to win a pat from him either. Even her three rowdy stepsons hadn't pulled any of the usual tricks they tried on new arrivals.
Shorty walked outside, peering above rimless glasses at the dawdling stranger before joining Tennie. "Why is it every time I step out the door, he's there?"
Tennie glanced at Shorty. A small, older man with slicked-back white hair, he looked perpetually aggravated. Wearing dark pants and a white shirt with a pocket watch hanging from his black vest, Shorty looked like a persnickety merchant who never handled anything more troublesome than a few drummers late for the stagecoach. Looks deceived the casual observer — he was a former Texas Ranger, and his glasses hid the glint of old and tested steel.
"I don't know what he's doing," Tennie said. "But that's been his favorite spot since he rode into town on a horse that looks like a million dollars."
"What do you know about horseflesh?" Shorty asked. "Or a million dollars, for that matter?"
"Nothing," Tennie replied. "But that's what Lucas said."
Shorty gave an almost imperceptible sniff. "He probably heard it from Lafayette."
Of the three stepsons she had inherited from a marriage that didn't make it through the wedding night, Badger, age six, was Shorty's favorite. Rusty, thirteen, and Lucas, ten, were the everyday cornbread while Badger was Sunday's light crust biscuit. Lafayette Dumont, the dapper owner of the ornate Silver Moon Saloon, stood way down on Shorty's list like hardtack, sometimes necessary but not particularly liked.
Shorty squinted at her. "Banned from school again?"
"Yes," Tennie replied. "Just when I thought the school board might let them back in, they had to pull that stunt."
Shorty's nose quivered and raised slightly. He had no problem making the boys behave when he felt like it. "Ashton let those boys run wild."
"He was ill, Shorty," Tennie said. "You know he had a bad heart."
A young cowboy wearing longish hair and cheap new clothes sauntered out of another saloon. He stopped to contemplate the man in black across the street. Glancing at the loafers in front of the saloon behind him, he grinned and crossed the road, approaching the man who leaned so unconcernedly against the post.
"Oh, no. Here it comes," Tennie said.
In Ring Bit, it was considered worse than pulling on a dog's ear to meddle in a fight, and even if Tennie had been a six-foot, two-hundred-pound male, people would still expect her to let the adversaries duke it out without interference. But sometimes, men would start fights just to show off in front of her. Although she didn't think the young cowboy had noticed her standing behind Shorty, she started to go back inside the jailhouse to avert trouble before it began.
It happened so fast, she hadn't time to turn around. The young cowboy said something and made to pull his gun. Before it cleared leather, the man with the black mustache shot him with a blast that echoed throughout the street. The force of the bullet sent the young cowboy backwards and down onto the dirt with a bloody hole gaping in his chest, a look of surprise in his blank eyes, and a mouth hanging open from the last shock he would ever receive.
Tennie gasped and glanced at Shorty. Even he looked stunned.
"I've never seen anyone throw lead that fast," she said.
"He's a professional," Shorty said, giving the dark-haired man a speculative stare.
The new owners of the butcher shop and slaughterhouse across the street ran outside and gawked. The shop, painted white with a false second story, sat up high, with many steps leading up to a tall porch. The backyard contained a maze of pens and a cacophony of mooing cows and squealing hogs. The impressive bricked two-story jailhouse, a product of a failed attempt to capture the county seat, looked as incongruous in the neighborhood as Tennie did. With livestock across the street and horses on the other side at the livery, the air around the jailhouse at times became a hard burden to bear.
Tennie had hoped with the death of the previous owner, whoever ran the butcher shop next would be a lot nicer, but unfortunately, that hadn't been the case. "Maggot" Milton's younger brothers "accidentally" shortchanged customers, worked only when forced to, and often nipped from bottles they had hidden in various spots outside. Middle-aged, popeyed, and slovenly dressed, there was nothing to recommend the men. The rumormongers of Ring Bit claimed the only way one of them was able to catch a wife was when he told her he and his brother had inherited a thriving business.
Neither brother appeared too enthralled with the marriage, however. Inga Milton, square-jawed and statuesque, had deceptively smooth angel wings of blond hair on either side of her face. She gave orders to both men in low menacing tones that frightened Tennie so much, she never felt the least desire to be neighborly.
Inga left the men and walked across the street, facing Tennie. "Aren't you going to do something?" She spoke in a deep voice with Slavic overtones and towered over Tennie.
Tennie blushed. "It was self-defense, Mrs. Milton."
Inga snorted. "I could be better sheriff than you."
"I'm not a sheriff; I'm a town marshal. And you are welcome to the job if you want it." Tennie wasn't going to be one much longer anyway, and she wouldn't have to put up with the Miltons much longer either.
Inga glared at her in contempt. "You don't even wear a badge."
Tennie looked down at her pink dress covered in little gold flowers with its ruffles and tiny bows. She had forgotten to put her badge on again.
A crowd had gathered around the dead man. Tennie's three stepsons jockeyed behind them, trying to see. Rusty, a slender boy with sandy red hair and freckles, craned his neck around the men. Lucas, little and wiry, bent his dark head down low, gazing with sharp blue eyes through gaps between the men. Pudgy Badger, also dark-haired and blue-eyed, ran in a circle trying to see until he finally got down on all fours and crawled through the mass of cowboy boots and spurs, his little black and gray fur-ball puppy, Rascal, right behind him.
Two men picked up the body and headed for the funeral parlor with it. Tennie found herself trembling. The three boys watched for another minute, then catching sight of Tennie and Shorty, they ran toward them.
Inga saw them, too. "You cannot restrain your stepsons. I don't know why anybody would think you could restrain town, too."
"Nobody can rein in Ring Bit for long," Tennie said.
"Disgusting town, disgusting name," Inga said. "What does this Ring Bit mean?"
Tennie answered in a distracted tone. "It's a cruel bit they used to use around here to train unmanageable horses. Don't ask me why they chose it as the name of the town. I don't know."
Her stepsons reached her, out of breath with excitement.
"Did you see that, Miss Tennie?" Lucas asked.
"Don't interrupt when grownups are talking," Tennie replied automatically, but Inga was already leaving to return to her shop.
Lucas put his thumbs in his ears and made a face at her back. Badger did the same thing, sticking out his tongue.
"Enough of that." Tennie turned to Rusty.
He was older and had asked to dress like the cowboy he hoped one day to be, wearing his pants tucked inside his boots, just like they did. "We saw Mr. and Mrs. Payton a while ago. They asked if it was all right if they stopped by for dinner."
"Of course," Tennie said. "I'll set the table." She gave the disappearing back of the gunfighter one last look before she turned to go inside the jailhouse, trying to quiet the sick feeling in her stomach. She didn't know if she was sad or glad her stepsons were better at taking things in stride.
Tennie liked the Paytons. Mr. Payton had wanted to visit his family in Alabama one last time, and he'd agreed to bring back a bride to any decent, upstanding man in Ring Bit who desired one. He had allowed several exceptions and ended up bringing back quite a few women. She had been in a hurry to leave Alabama and had signed on to his wagon train, thinking she was joining a group of missionaries. Instead, she found she was to be a bride for a man in Texas desperate to provide a mother for his wayward sons. She had wanted to leave the wagon train, but Mr. Payton insisted it was too dangerous. Hardhead that she was, she'd planned on running away anyway. Instead, she saw Indians about to attack and warned the others. Winn Payton believed she had saved them, and he'd bought her a new dress and shoes out of his own pocket because hers were in such dire condition. And she agreed to go through with a marriage to a man she had never seen before.
Winn Payton's kindness stopped short of inviting her and her nefarious stepsons to live with him after Ashton Granger's sudden death, however. His answer was to get married again, and fast. He distinctly disapproved of her decision to take the job as town marshal over making a hasty marriage. But that didn't stop Tennie from liking the tall, slender old man with the gray mutton-chop sideburns and his tiny white-haired wife.
Because of the heat, they ate at the big table in the front office instead of in the back at the kitchen table. The jail cells above their heads were mercifully empty for the time being.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Season in Hell"
Copyright © 2019 V. R. Rose.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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