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Between Hell and Texas
By Dusty Richards
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Dusty Richards
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTexas hill country looked winter drab all around him when Chet Byrnes pushed the big bay gelding he called Julio off the ridge. The leafless mesquite branches stuck out and the brown grass waved in the relentless north wind under the cloudy sky. Kind of a day a man hunched under his denim jumper and rode along dreaming about a crackling fire to warm his hands. Fingers encased in the goatskin gloves, the heat would still feel good to his digits. Being home would, too, instead of out checking on scattered range stock this far away from the headquarters.
One good notion crossed his thoughts. The buttermilk ceiling rolling in from the Gulf might bring some rain. Wasn't a day in Texas a man couldn't use more water.
Then the sharp report of a rifle cracked the wind's heavy breath. Without even thinking about it, he ducked down in the saddle and set steel spurs to Julio. They bailed off the steep slope into the dry wash bottom and the thicket cover of cedars and live oak. The powerful gelding slid to a stop amidst the tall, bushy evergreens. Chet jerked out the .44/40 rifle from the scabbard in a swift dismount. Rifle chamber quickly loaded with the lever action, his ears were tuned for another incoming round.
Where was the shooter? One round could draw a man's attention, but he needed the second one for a source and a direction where the shooter might be located. His heart pounded hard under his breastbone. Breathing came short at the realization of his tough situation. Alone and far from any aid or assistance from the ranch crew, he must wait out these back-shooters. For a short moment he'd forgotten all about the deadly feud that existed between his family and the Reynoldses—a sneaky bunch of cowards who with their relatives had killed his younger brother the previous spring. Dale Allen'd been up there in the Indian Territory on a cattle drive to the Abilene, Kansas stockyards.
Listening intently, all he could hear were some windswept crows calling. Three or four more hours of daylight until sundown. Another cold winter day. He could wait them out. No doubt they'd quickly get fidgety. Then they'd either charge down there to find him, or hang tail on their horses and ride like they were on fire for home.
After a breakneck run last spring up to the Indian Territory, he'd gathered most of the herd and later evened the score of his brother's murder with a gunfight in Abilene. But that never stopped a feud so deeply entrenched in revenge with ignorant people like the Reynoldses. If they came for him in this draw with its dense cover, he'd send some more of them to hell before they ever reached him.
Julio was busy snatching bunch grass through his small curb bit. He raised his head between bites as if testing the wind. Then, with a clang of the steel bit on his molars, he hurried to eat more, like he might not get another chance. Ground-tied by training with the dropped reins, the big horse would not leave him except to get more to eat—then the cow horse raised his head again and shifted around, looking south. Enough of a clue for Chet to belly down under the pungent-smelling boughs and try to spot the riders on the ridge above them, opposite of where he'd flown off the slope.
He caught sight of a red something, and next, through the limbs, he distinguished a rider huddled under a blanket jacket coming across the hillside. Armed with a rifle, the party stared hard down at the cedars for a sight of him. Satisfied this was one of the ambush crew, Chet took aim, the red cloth making a good target; drew a tight bead and fired. Then Chet rolled to the side and levered in a new cartridge. His shot had struck either the rider or the horse, for he left bucking and threw the man off on his back in a half-dozen short hops.
It was the others Chet worried about. If they'd seen his quickly dissipated gunsmoke in time, they might have him spotted. He needed to move aside from there and be certain they couldn't see him. There came another shot, but the round never came close to him. And he suspected the bullet originated from the same ridge, as he settled in a new spot a dozen feet away.
Muffled shouting. "Joe. You alright?"
"Stay down. We'll get him."
Don't be so damn certain. Still flat on the ground, Chet removed a fresh brass cartridge from his jumper pocket and slipped it into the side breech. His rifle reloaded, he tried to peer through the boughs for another sight of one of them.
"Come on," he whispered to himself, anxious to get this settled. The word "We" must mean more than one was left up there. Had he been daydreaming, riding along, to draw that many assassins? Or had they simply gotten lucky running into him? He was near the south end of —ITLITL range. No matter, there were still at least two more gun-happy yahoos out there.
A hard-breathing horse was coming at breakneck speed off the hill, and he could hear the rider urging him. He rolled over and drew his .44. When the one on horseback busted into the space where Julio grazed and spooked him, the shooter never saw Chet on the ground half-under the cedar, and two shots from his Colt belched death into the rider's shocked face and chest. The horse lurched sideways into the cedars and his rider fell off, face-down.
Chet was on his feet and headed for his own wide-eyed horse. In his left hand, he caught the reins and "whoaed" to him. The other mount tore out of the grove and clattered down the dry wash, wasting no time to escape. In an attempt to scramble up the hillside, the frantic animal fell over, then rolled back on his side into the dry wash off a chest-high side wall. Kicking and screaming, the horse finally righted himself and then bounded to his hooves. In lunges, he was going uphill with fear in his wide eyes, his tail tight to his ass.
"Damnit, did you get him?" someone shouted.
"No. He's gone to hell, too," Chet answered in a whisper, trying to locate the lastest one doing the shouting on the ridge. Then he saw the speaker and quickly drew a bead on him. Way too far away for a pistol shot.
There wasn't time to get his rifle off the ground, but he lunged for it anyway. At last, with the wooden gunstock of the oily-smelling rifle in his hands, knowing the shooter must have seen him, he scurried to the right on the floor of sticky needles for another knothole in the green boughs to shoot at him from. When he reached the spot where he could see the black gunsmoke blasts of the shooter's rifle, he aimed into them. Two quick shots expressed toward him and Chet raised the smoking barrel to look for the results. There was silence, save for the wind.
Chet found his feet, then swept up the pistol he'd dropped and looked it over. Save for some resin-sticky needles, the revolver looked okay and he jammed it into his holster. With slow intent, he studied the ridge selectively from his cover and reloaded the Winchester. Were there only three of them? By his judgment, that was all, but he wasn't taking chances—that Reynolds bunch was never easy to kill.
The twice-shot man on the ground had never moved. He rolled him over with his right boot toe. This dead man had a name. Carley someone. Did day work for ranchers. He wouldn't no more. He located Julio and swung into the saddle.
Julio acted upset when Chet rode him out of the thicket to the north. Twisted in his seat, Chet could see three saddled horses together, grazing on the ridge opposite his position. Their horses. It took fifteen minutes or longer to work his way over there.
He found Adrian Claus sprawled out on his back, rifle nearby in the grass. A brother-in-law to the Reynolds clan, he'd been the talker on the ridge. If he was alive, he'd not last long. He was unconscious, the wound in his chest pumping blood though Claus's fingers. Chet booted his cow pony over and rode downhill where the one in the red jacket sprawled on the ground.
No more than a boy in his late teens, the stricken shooter blinked up at Chet and made a gasp. His open jacket showed he was losing lots of blood. He reached vainly for his handgun a few feet from his fingers. "Better save those bullets for yourself," Chet said, resting his left hand on the saddlehorn. "They won't find you in time to save you from all the suffering. You a Clayton?"
He looked hard at the wounded one. "Are you boys that damn stupid?"
"Guess—" Joe's voice cut off and he closed his eyes against the obvious pain. "We figured we could take ya easy."
"You ain't the first or last to think that. Shame you won't be alive to tell 'em that."
Chet reined the bay around and struck out for the north. Half-sick to his stomach, he short-loped Julio for the house. Small patches of sunlight through the buttermilk sky swept the hill country, lighting the live oak and cedars on the slopes, and then the seams in the clouds closed in again. Another day and a chapter in his belly-souring life had come and gone. The taste of vomit was hard to swallow from behind his tongue. Three more of his enemies were dead, or would soon be when the last one slipped away back there.
He hunched his shoulders under the unlined jacket against the penetrating cold. Damn, was there no end to this killing and dying?
Chapter TwoSome lights were still on in the large sprawling ranch house and compound Chet called headquarters. Chet could smell the fireplace's oak smoke as he rode up the starlit valley. Julio acted as weary as he felt. Snorting in the road dust occasionally, the big horse at last awoke to the fact that he was close to the corrals, feed, and his associates. The two arrived at the hitch rail and Chet dropped heavily out of the saddle. He slung the wool army blanket over the seat of the saddle. He'd worn it for warmth most of the way home. His sea legs under him, he loosened the girths, picking with his fingers at the sweat-soaked leather.
Chet could hear his young buckskin stallion snorting at the buggers that shared his barn area. And then he smiled to himself. The quick-footed stud from the Barbarousa Hacienda breeding farm was one thing that always made him grin over his pride of ownership.
"That you, Chet?" his sister Susie shouted from the half-open lighted doorway.
"No, it's his ghost."
"The ghost looks lively to me." She laughed, then frowned at him. "You have trouble today?"
His 12-year-old nephew Heck must have heard him come in, too. "I'll put him up, Chet," he called out.
"You alright?" Chet asked the youth.
"Ah, sure. You must have rode him a long ways, he acts very tired."
"He earned his keep today. You better get some sleep. It's late."
"I will." With that, he led the horse off under the stars toward the corrals.
"Thanks," Chet said, and turned to his twenty-some-year-old sister. "Well, did it all go well around here today?"
"Good enough. I was about to think you'd found a bed for the night."
He slung his arm over her shoulder and kissed her forehead, going inside. "Naw, no one would have me."
"You aren't trying hard enough." She smiled up at him, then pushed the brown wavy hair back from her face. "Food's in the oven."
Susie was attractive enough to have any fellar she wanted in the countryside. But, like himself, she didn't have time for one—running the big house was no small chore. He removed his gloves, then hung his wide-brimmed hat on a peg and took off his jumper to hang it beside on the wall pegs. At the large open-hearth fireplace, he stopped and warmed his fingers.
"Cold out there, wasn't it?" She shifted the woolen shawl on her shoulders.
In a quick check of the large room, he made certain they were alone. "Cold wasn't the problem. Three of them tried to ambush me today."
Her eyebrows hooded her blue eyes with concern. "What happened?"
He shrugged and looked hard at the overhead coal-oil lamp in the center of the living room. "They won't cause us no more trouble." Then, trying to revive her spirits, he smiled. "But that ain't no concern of yours."
"I knew something was wrong." She shook her head, leading him into the dining room. "Gut feeling. Worried me all day that something was wrong. This won't ever end. The killing, I mean?"
"Sis, we've talked about it enough. The only way to escape them is to clear out of Texas."
She used some hot-holders and took his heaping plate of food out of the oven and slid it before him. In a low voice she said, "I know, but our dad can't stand a long trip. I'd hate to bury a family member alone in some isolated graveyard and lose contact with them. Here we have our grandparents' graves, Mother's—"
"Sis, if we don't do something soon, there may not be enough of us left alive to even tend those graves."
"I know. I know."
Chet sat down and turned at the sound of someone coming into the dining hall. Dale Allen's widow, May, nodded and crossed to the table. May was on the chubby side, age twenty-three, and the past nine months had been hell for her. She'd lost Dale Allen's daughter Racheal as well, from what the doc called some weakness. Never a strong person, May did all she could to raise his other children and her own daughter—Chet's sister-in-law proved to be Susie's greatest helper. May's dark hair was thin, cut in a bob, and had no curl. She wore black, which did nothing for her appearance, but Chet felt certain she did all she could do.
"Did you have trouble today?" May asked, as he chewed on a piece cut from his slice of beef roast.
He nodded, not wanting to explain the day's entire incident. Susie filled his coffee cup from the pot she brought over from the stove. Then she took her place across the table and nodded to May. "He had more trouble with the Reynoldses."
Looking hard into her steaming cup, May nodded. "I thought so. Oh, I guess it won't ever stop."
Before taking another bite, Chet agreed with a head bob and went on eating. Finally he set his fork down and cradled the hot tin cup in his hands. "May, I'm planning on finding us a new place. We can't raise our families in this hill country. The place is full of mean people with no value in them for life."
"You still thinking about Arizona?" she asked, speaking subdued like usual.
"It could be the land where we could escape this madness. But—" He blew on the surface and the aromatic richness curled up his nose. "I don't know, Arizona may not be far enough."
May blinked her eyes. "When would we go?"
"I have no idea. Might take a year to sell this place and find another one out there."
She chewed on her thin lower lip, looking concerned before she spoke. "I need to go with you and the family. I don't have another. My people disowned me for marrying Dale Allen. I feel more a part of you all than I ever did growing up in that big house."
May's parents were the height of society in the area. They owned a large bank and several ranches. But May had never really fit in with them. Her younger sisters were charming young ladies in society, while Chet's brother's widow was always backward-acting and very tender. It didn't help that May, against their advice, ran off to get married. Dale Allen took her to a country preacher and they gave their vows with Chet as a witness. May was nothing like Dale's first wife, Nancy, a bright, laughing, attractive woman who died giving birth to their last child. At that moment in time, Chet figured that Dale simply needed a mother for his newborn daughter, Racheal, and the boys, Heck, twelve, Ty, ten, and Ray, seven. Racheal they later lost, and soon May brought in this world a baby girl of her own, Donna. She simply must have been a handy choice for Dale Allen.
However, Chet's brother had turned his back on May. He spent long evenings working on farm machinery in the shop, alone. While Dale Allen was a terrific mechanic, when Chet finally confronted him about his absent ways toward his family, both May and the boys, Dale Allen about cried. "The kids remind me too much of her."
Things were going better at last when his brother rode out ramrodding a fifteen-hundred-head herd for Kansas—then the last thing Chet ever thought about happened—the Reynolds clan attacked Dale Allen and the crew in the Indian Territory.
Excerpted from Between Hell and Texas by Dusty Richards Copyright © 2011 by Dusty Richards. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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