When Galen Benitez killed Mike Donohue’s wife, Mike vowed to get his revenge that very day. But it took five long years before he tracked the outlaw down to the inhospitable region known as the Cauldron. Here, Mike meets the beguiling Lucy Reynolds who is searching for the legendary lost city of Entoro, a place rumoured to have its streets paved with gold. As Mike suspects that Galen might also be searching for the treasure, he decides to help her. With Galen still at large, and now Lucy’s jealous admirer determined to kill him, Mike will need his trusty six-shooter to ensure that he isn’t the one who is dead by sundown.
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Dead by Sundown
By I. J. Parnham
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2006 I. J. Parnham
All rights reserved.
Beyond the next outcrop the buzzards were circling.
With a hollow feeling growing in his gut Mike Donohue hurried his horse on and rounded the outcrop at a gallop. And sure enough, ahead stood an abandoned stage, horseless and incongruous on the otherwise deserted plains.
Mike slowed, running his gaze across every rock and gully as he searched for the attackers, but the only movement came from the buzzards and the drifting shadows of these messengers of death.
Closer to, Mike saw the bodies.
One man lay on the seat of the stage, his head thrown back, gunfire having converted his chest to a bloodied wasteland. A second body dangled upside down from the seat, the arms swaying in the breeze as an entangled leg trapped the body in this undignified position. And from the bullets that had mashed his face to an unrecognizable pulp, Mike reckoned that whoever had raided this stage had fired into this man for long after he'd died.
These two men had been the lucky ones.
When Mike pulled open the doors, frozen grimaces of anguish beyond bearing confronted him, confirming that the man and woman inside had provided the raiders with lengthy and ugly entertainment before they died.
'Galen Benitez,' Mike whispered to himself, uttering the name of the only man who was cruel enough to have perpetrated this senseless atrocity.
One last time Mike strode round the stage, ensuring he missed no details. The flies had found these bodies, but the buzzards had yet to start feasting and that meant he was just hours behind his quarry, perhaps less – the closest he'd been in two years.
With his stride assured he headed for his horse. But then he heard a noise – the barest shifting of pebbles, the sound almost lost in the wind.
He tensed, but avoided looking towards the direction of the sound and instead turned to face the stage. He rubbed his chin and cocked his head to one side, feigning an interest in something in the stage, then paced around it again. But when he reached the other side he slipped his gun from its holster, then threw himself to the ground.
On his belly he fast-crawled beneath the stage, then lay flat. Behind a wheel he thrust his gun out as he stared at the tangle of rocks from behind which the sound had come.
Long minutes passed with the sound not repeating itself.
With Galen getting further away with every heartbeat Mike was considering whether he'd been mistaken, when he saw a flash of a red shirt as a man glanced up from behind the rocks.
In the man's brief appearance Mike saw that this person was shaking, but he still stayed on his belly beneath the stage.
'You over there,' he shouted, 'show yourself.'
Mike listened to the breeze rustle by. When a minute had passed and still no answer had come he spoke again.
'I'm guessing you're one of the survivors. But you got ten seconds to come out or I'll assume you're with Benitez's raiders. What's it to be?'
'I ain't no raider,' a wavering voice shouted. 'I ain't. I ain't.'
'Then stand up and prove it.'
The man who stood was young, perhaps eighteen and, from his hunched posture and shaking limbs, Mike judged that he represented no danger. So Mike rolled out from under the stage and gestured for him to approach.
The young man opened his jacket and turned on the spot to show that he didn't carry a gun. Then, in a tentative voice, he volunteered that he was Patrick Hancock.
Mike shared his name then gestured back at the dead men. Patrick followed his gaze, winced, then lowered his head.
'All dead?' he whispered.
'Except you.' Mike lowered his voice. 'And I ask myself why.'
Patrick shuffled from foot to foot.
'I ain't proud of myself, but I ran when the shooting started.'
'And you're telling me that Galen Benitez didn't come after you?'
'I am.' Patrick shrugged. 'I figured he was enjoying himself with the woman and ...' Patrick snuffled '... I wanted to help, but I reckoned there wasn't much of anything I could do.'
Patrick looked up, his beseeching eyes imploring Mike to speak and perhaps provide absolution for his cowardice, but Mike sneered.
'There was. You could have died.' Mike paced sideways to his horse, ensuring that he still watched Patrick.
'And what do I do now?'
'But you got to get me to safety.'
'I got to do nothing. Green Springs is eighty miles that-a-way.' Mike rolled into the saddle then pointed down the trail. 'It'll be one hell of a journey, but on the way you might work out what you did wrong back here.'
Patrick looked down the trail, then in the direction towards which Mike was turning his horse.
'You're not heading to Green Springs. That mean you're going after those raiders?'
'Sure am,' Mike grunted, then glanced at the jagged peaks to his side that surrounded an area known as the Cauldron and towards which Galen had been heading.
Patrick stood tall, a flash of fire in his eyes.
'Then take me with you. The raiders only ran off the horses and we can round one up. This Galen Benitez couldn't have gone far and —'
'And I ain't taking you with me. I don't need no ...'
Mike looked away, deciding that despite the contempt he felt for Patrick's failure even to try to take on Galen, this young man didn't need to hear that contempt. He shook the reins and hurried his horse on.
'You got to,' Patrick shouted after him, 'because I know where Galen has gone and it ain't where you're heading.'
Mike yanked back on the reins and leapt down from this horse. With his fists clenched, he advanced on Patrick.
'Where?' he grunted.
'I ...' Patrick murmured, backing away. 'I won't tell you unless —'
'You will tell me,' Mike roared, breaking into a run. He pounded the last few paces and threw out a hand to grab Patrick's collar, then pulled him up tight to his face. 'Or I'll make what Galen did to those people in the stage seem like a night in paradise. Now, tell me!'
'I can't,' Patrick screeched. 'I got to —'
Mike slapped Patrick's cheek, rocking his head one way, then slapped his face the other way. But then anger got the better of him and he slugged his jaw, sending Patrick reeling.
'One more chance,' Mike snapped, looming over Patrick. 'Or I'll tear you apart with my bare hands.'
Patrick looked up, fingering his jaw. A blaze of defiance consumed his eyes.
'I can tell you, but the directions are lengthy. You might —'
'Why, you ...' Mike grunted while advancing on Patrick with his fists raised ready to pummel his years of frustration out on this man.
Patrick back-crawled away, but just as Mike loomed over him the realization hit Mike that Galen was getting further away with every second he wasted here. He lowered his fists.
Patrick gulped as he considered Mike's less belligerent stance, then rolled to his knees.
'I will help you,' he murmured. 'But I just want a way out of here.'
'All right. I guess we'd better round you up a horse.' Mike indicated that Patrick should get to his feet, but then glanced at his fist. 'But if you don't get me to Galen by sundown, I will tear you apart.'CHAPTER 2
Mike wasted only half an hour in finding a horse for Patrick to ride.
Patrick then wanted to bury the bodies before they moved on, but Mike's fierce glare and another reminder of the urgency of their pursuit silenced him, and they hurried away from the scene of the massacre. But despite Mike's irritation at wasting so much time, he discovered that Patrick was more use than he'd expected.
Although Mike knew Galen's general direction, he'd aimed to take a route via Last Hope, a frontier town on the edge of the Cauldron, but Patrick claimed he had better information and directed him through a winding pass.
And if Patrick did know where Galen's final destination was, Mike now had a good chance of catching him and completing his five-year quest.
'What you going to do when you find this Galen Benitez?' Patrick asked, breaking their silence.
As an answer, Mike just snorted.
'Arrest him?' Patrick persisted. 'Take him to the law and claim the bounty? Try to —'
Mike took a deep breath. 'You talk too much.'
'Yeah, I've heard that, but I don't reckon as I do. I reckon I just talk —'
'Be quiet!' Mike swirled round in the saddle and glared at his new companion until he lowered his head. Then he turned to face the front. 'When you ride with me, even for an hour, you're silent.'
For a full minute Patrick reigned in his exuberance, then coughed.
'If you ain't planning on arresting Galen, why are you after him?'
Mike winced as he weighed up whether he'd gain by answering this talkative young man's question. But despite seeing the potential in probing Patrick for details of what he knew about Galen's destination, even voicing his obsession might diminish the anguish that was his constant companion.
And until Galen was dead, he didn't want to lose that pain.
Five years had passed since he had made the fatal mistake that had made killing Galen Benitez his sole aim in life.
And it had all started over the seemingly minor decision to move a boulder.
Mike had owned 200 acres of farmland near the peaceful Kansas town of Prudence. On the edge of that land there had stood the boulder.
For three years he'd ploughed around it while dreaming up elaborate schemes to move it. Sometimes he dug around it so that he could try to roll it into the creek. But no matter how far he dug down, there was always more rock to uncover and the boulder just sat there, defying him.
Occasionally he chipped away at it, or slipped a lever beneath it and strained, but the boulder didn't move. Increasingly he came to view that boulder as something whose existence stood for more than just an irritating obstacle in his path.
Stella didn't understand his obsession, and perhaps it was his wife's apathy that made him so determined. The boulder was his project and, no matter what anyone else thought, he would damn well find a way to shift it if that were the last thing he did.
And so, one fine late-summer day when the sun filled his heart with harvest cheer, he completed his daily chores early and the long afternoon stretched ahead of him. And that day felt like it was the day when he'd finally move the boulder.
And he did. It took three levers, both oxen and a complicated pulley system that would have impressed Richard Jordan Gatling himself. But as the possibility of the boulder finally moving grew, he became excited. And he got careless. So, when the boulder rolled for its first and last time, it took him by surprise.
That one moment of stunned shock meant he didn't move out of the way fast enough and the huge bulk crushed his leg between the lever and the ground. His leg snapped like a twig, the sound deep and sickening.
For hours he lay writhing and screaming, unable to free himself.
For days he cursed himself as Doc Malloy gritted his teeth and tried to convince him that he wouldn't lose the leg. And it did mend, but as he hobbled around, with annoyance and pain and embarrassment vying for his attention, he wasn't fit enough to help bring in the harvest.
Other homesteaders rallied around and helped Stella, but with unseasonal rain making the task even harder, it looked as if they'd face a harsh and hungry winter. And all because of his foolish obsession.
But then Galen Benitez rode into town, looking for work.
The rough-clad itinerant sported a permanent grin that spoke of his utter contempt for his fellow-man and his bulging eyes appeared to size up everyone he met. And the cold malice in them suggested that the result of that sizing up wouldn't be enjoyable for his victims.
Stella took an instant dislike to him and, as Galen boggled and leered at her, Mike almost sent him on his way. But he had to admit that despite his misgivings he had no choice but to employ this unpromising worker.
Despite his initial concern, for three weeks Galen did everything expected of him. Neither Stella nor Mike warmed to him but, with the harvest coming in, a begrudging acceptance of his position grew. But then, with just a day's work remaining before they could release him, neither Stella nor Galen returned from the fields at the end of the day.
By sundown, Mike was hobbling across his land, calling out to her.
He didn't find her that night, and it was only when he fetched help the next day that he found her.
By a terrible coincidence she lay back against the very same boulder that had forced him to employ Galen in the first place. She was dead, strangled, the reason for the murder all too clear in her dishevelled clothing.
And Galen was long gone.
The townsfolk searched for him, lawmen arrived, then left; the occasional word drifted back that they hadn't found him but that they were still searching. But Mike was oblivious to everything but getting his leg fit enough to chase after Galen himself.
Sooner than he should Mike mounted his horse and rode off.
And now, after five years of searching, he was just hours behind Galen, perhaps minutes.
But Patrick had asked him a question.
Mike glanced at the sun as it dipped towards the distant mountains. Then, with a harsh smile twitching the corners of his mouth, he fixed Patrick with an icy stare.
'Galen Benitez murdered my wife,' he said. 'I intend to kill him.'
After hearing five years of pain summed up in those few terse words, Patrick was mercifully quiet.
Mike couldn't tell whether his constant prattle was a nervous reaction to the terrible things he'd witnessed, or whether it was his normal nature, but he was relieved to ride quietly and so leave his mind free to hone his plans for what he would do when he found Galen.
Presently the sun winked out of existence behind the mountains. Mike heard Patrick's pronounced gulp and saw him draw his horse back, but Mike had to admit that even if Patrick hadn't got him to Galen by sundown, he had been useful enough to avoid the promised beating. He didn't mention this, preferring to keep Patrick subdued.
And as they rode out of the pass and faced the barren terrain of the Cauldron Mike felt as if he was so close to Galen that he could see him sighted down the barrel of his gun. He licked his lips with anticipation and resolved, as he did at the start and end of every day, that Galen Benitez would be dead by the next sundown.
But then a gunshot echoed ahead, the sound close.
Mike didn't even glance at Patrick as he spurred his horse on. He heard pounding hoofs as Patrick galloped after him, but he didn't look back as he surged out from the pass and on to the plains. The landscape opened up to him, and before him was a scene of which he'd only previously seen the aftermath.
Gun-toting riders were circling a smaller group. These people had found decent cover behind a sprawling mound of rocks and were returning fire, but with over a dozen riders circling, the attackers were easily pinning them down.
Mike hurried on, his gaze darting between each of the riders. Their forms were too distant for him to discern who they were, but he searched for only one man – Galen Benitez.
Two of the riders broke off from their circling and nudged their horses towards Mike, but a loud voice from the group shouted them back, the voice too distant for Mike to confirm whether it was Galen's.
Still the men wavered but, from the back of the group, riders, one by one, peeled away from their assault, then headed off into the open plains. And, at their front, Mike saw the unmistakable form of Galen Benitez. A life lived constantly on the move had converted his form to a wiry frame and Mike reckoned he could see grey hair poking out from beneath his hat, but it was Galen all right.
With blind anger fuelling him Mike spurred his horse on.
To his side the defenders hurried Benitez's raiders on their way with a burst of gunfire, then hailed Mike. Mike didn't acknowledge them as he galloped past the sprawl of rocks and carried on. With each galloped stride, he closed on the line of riders. Galen was at their front and Mike heard him shout orders. He heard sufficient words to understand that Galen was ordering his men not to fall back but to stay and defend him.
But the backmost rider must have realized the ridiculously unbalanced nature of this pursuit, with one man chasing down more than a dozen. This man pulled back on the reins and turned to face the advancing Mike, who tore out his gun and took careful aim at him, the first obstacle for him to dismiss before he killed Galen.
This encouraged another four men to slow to a halt, then to head back, spreading out as they approached.
Excerpted from Dead by Sundown by I. J. Parnham. Copyright © 2006 I. J. Parnham. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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