Vengeance Is Mine
They've already started coming across. The drug dealers and the petty criminals. The terrorists and the parasites. For one man on the West Texas border, the time to stand against them is now. John Howard Stark, a Vietnam vet whose family has worked their ranch for generations, has set off a trip wire--and an ambush has exploded all around him. A Columbian drug cartel commander, with the help of an ex-special forces hit man and his own deadly army, has killed three Americans--including Stark's uncle and his neighbor--and will slaughter anyone else who stands in his way. The local law is in his pocket and the Border Patrol is powerless to help.
Now John Howard Stark is about to wage a one-man war. And he's got the best kind of reason to fight to the death. But for this American, there's one thing more dangerous than the enemies slithering across the border--and that's the second enemy standing behind his back: His own government. . .
William W. Johnstone is the USA Today bestselling author of over 130 books, including the popular Ashes, Mountain Man, and Last Gunfighter series.
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Read an Excerpt
VENGEANCE IS MINE
By WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE FRED AUSTIN
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2005 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Del Rio, Texas
"Damn it!" John Howard Stark crumpled the newspaper and flung it away from him.
"What is it?" his wife, Elaine, asked from the stove where she was frying bacon. "The Cowboys do something you don't agree with again?"
"Worse'n that. They found another of those damn mad cows up in Washington."
"Oh." Elaine had been a rancher's wife for over thirty years. She knew how something thousands of miles away, like in the Pacific Northwest, could affect life here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Every time there was another outbreak of mad cow disease anywhere in the country, it made beef prices go down, and that hurt ranchers everywhere.
Stark thought the smell of bacon cooking was just about the best smell in the world. He also thought his wife, still slim and straight with only a little gray in her blond hair despite her five-plus decades on earth, was the prettiest sight. But neither of them could cheer him up now. There had been too much bad news for too long. No real catastrophes, mind, just a seemingly endless stream of developments that made things worse and then worse and then worse again. Stark was fed up. Why, for two cents he'd-
He'd do exactly the same things he had done in his life, the rational part of his brain told him. Regrets were worth just about as much as a bucket of warm spit.
Sitting around and moaning wasn't a trait that ran in the Stark family. John Howard's great-great-grandfather had been a frontier judge, a man who had dispensed justice just as easily with a six-gun as with a gavel and a law book. His great-grandfather had worn the badge of county sheriff until settling down to establish this ranch up the Rio Grande from Del Rio. He had faced down some of Pancho Villa's men to keep it. The generations since had hung on to the Diamond S through good times and bad. John Howard himself had left the place for only one extended period of time in his life-to take a trip for Uncle Sam to a backwater country in Southeast Asia where little fellas in black pajamas shot at him for a couple of years. In the more than three decades since then, he had returned to his home, married his high school sweetheart, raised two boys with her, seen both his parents pass away, and taken over the running of the ranch. It was a hardscrabble spread and a hardscrabble time, here in the first decade of the twenty-first century. And Stark wasn't as young as he used to be. Fifty-four years old, by God. He had gone to Vietnam at the ripe old age of eighteen, little more than a boy. But he had returned as a man.
That was a long time ago now. For the first few years, Stark had sometimes woken up in the middle of the night shaking and drenched with sweat. He never could remember the dreams that provoked that reaction in him, but he knew they must have been bad ones. He had seen so many men that the war just wouldn't let go of, so they tried to escape it with drugs and booze and God knows what all. Ruined past, ruined present, ruined future. He'd been one of the lucky ones. He had Elaine and his folks and the ranch. Later he'd had the boys, David and Peter. They all got him through the nightmare landscape that had claimed so many other men, and these days Stark seldom ever thought about Vietnam. When he did he thought not about the dying but about the friends he had made there.
He'd been too busy lately to think about the past. Like all the other ranchers in Val Verde County, he was struggling to make ends meet. In the summer this part of Texas resembled the ass end of hell-hot, dry, and dusty plains dotted with mesquite trees, scrub oaks, and all-too-infrequent patches of grass. The old saying was that hereabouts it took a hundred acres of land just to graze one cow ... and if the summer was bad enough, you could count the ribs on that cow. Now, to top it off, beef prices were in the crapper, and ever-spiraling taxes and overbearing government regulations didn't help matters, either. Most of the time he felt older than dirt.
But like the old saying went, gettin' old sure as hell beat the alternative. Most of the time Stark figured that was true.
Elaine put a plate full of bacon, biscuits, and scrambled eggs in front of him. The eggs had a lot of peppers and cheese in them, just the way he liked them. He poked at them with his fork and said, "This ain't some of that egg substitute stuff, is it?" He would have used a stronger word than "stuff" if not for the fact that Elaine didn't allow any cussing at the kitchen table.
"No, it's the real thing, John Howard," she said. "I've given up on trying to feed you healthy food. You kick up a fuss just like a little baby. Besides, you're going to be just like your daddy and your uncle and your granddaddy and all the other men in your family. You all pack away the red meat and the grease and you're still out reshingling the well house and roping steers when you're ninety-five."
"Yeah, but I don't drink much and only smoke one cigar a year, on my birthday."
She patted him on the shoulder. "I'm sure that's the secret."
She started to turn away, but Stark reached out, looped an arm around her slender waist, and pulled her onto his lap. Despite her appearance, she wasn't a little bitty thing. She was tall and had some heft to her. But Stark was six feet four and weighed two hundred and thirty pounds-only up ten pounds from his fighting weight-and his active life kept him vital and strong in spite of the aches and pains that reminded him of his age. He put his other hand behind Elaine's head and kissed her. She responded with the eagerness that he still aroused in her. In fact, she was a little breathless by the time they broke the kiss.
"That right there, that's the secret," John Howard said.
"What, that all you Stark men are horny old bastards?"
She laughed and pressed her lips to his again and when she slipped out of his arms he let her go this time. "Eat your breakfast," she said. "We've both got work to do."
Stark nodded as he dug the fork into the eggs and picked up a biscuit. "Yeah, I've got to go over to Tommy's in a little while. One of his cows got over on our range yesterday and bogged down in that sinkhole on the creek. I had to pull her out, and I've got her and her calf out in the barn. I need to find out what he wants to do about them."
"You be sure and tell him hello for me. And remind him that we're expecting him and Julie and the kids over here tomorrow evening."
Stark nodded. He couldn't answer. His mouth was full of bacon and eggs and biscuit by now, and somehow his bad mood of a few minutes earlier had evaporated.
Tomas Carranza-Tommy to his friends-owned the ten thousand acres next to John Howard Stark's Diamond S. It was a small spread for Texas, but Tommy had a small herd. The ranch had belonged to the Carranza family for generations, just as the neighboring land had belonged to the Starks. There had been Carranzas in Sam Houston's army at San Jacinto, fierce Tejanos who hated Santa Anna and the oppressive rule of the Mexican dictator every bit as much as the Anglos did. Later the family had settled along the Rio Grande, founding the fine little rancho on the Texas side of the river.
John Howard Stark had always been something of a hero to Tommy Carranza. Tommy was considerably younger. When Tommy was a little boy, Stark was the star of the Del Rio High School baseball team, belting a record number of home runs. Tommy loved baseball, and it was special to have a godlike figure such as John Howard Stark befriend him back then.
But John Howard had graduated and gone off to fight in Vietnam, and Tommy had feared that he would never see his friend again. He had prayed to the Blessed Virgin every night to watch over John Howard, and when Stark came back safely from the war, Tommy felt a secret, never expressed pride that perhaps his prayers had had something to do with that.
Over the years since, the age difference between the two men, never all that important, had come to matter even less. They regarded each other as equals and good friends. John Howard and Elaine were godparents to the two children Tommy had with his wife, Julie. Hardly a month went by when the families didn't get together for a barbecue. In fact, one of the get-togethers was coming up the next day, the Fourth of July.
On this morning Tommy wasn't thinking about barbecue. He had driven the pickup into Del Rio to get some rolls of fence at the big building supply warehouse store on the edge of town. His land stretched for nearly five miles along the Rio Grande, and Tommy tried to keep every foot of it fenced. The fences kept getting cut, though, by the damned coyotes who trafficked in human cargo and the even more vile drug runners who smuggled their poison across the river.
Sometimes Tommy thought it would be easier just to give up and let the animals take over. But the spirits of his Tejano ancestors wouldn't let that happen. A Carranza never gave up the fight.
He wrestled the last roll of wire from the flatbed cart into the back of the pickup and then slammed the tailgate. He rolled the cart to one of the little corral places scattered around the big parking lot, and as he turned back toward his truck he was surprised to see a man standing beside it. The fact that the man stood there was less surprising than the way he looked.
The guy was wearing a suit, for God's sake!
Part of a suit, anyway. He had taken off the jacket and had it draped over one arm. He had also rolled up his sleeves and loosened his tie. The man was stocky, with thinning pale hair. His skin was turning pink in the sun. The suit and the shoes he wore were probably worth more than the battered old pickup beside which he stood.
Tommy thumbed back his straw Stetson with its tightly curled brim and nodded to the stranger. "Hello," he said. "Something I can do for you?"
"Are you Tomas Carranza?" the man asked bluntly.
"That's right. Oh hell, you're not a process server, are you? I told Gustafson I'd pay that feed bill as soon as I can!"
"Oh no, I'm not here to serve you with a lawsuit, Mr. Carranza. But I am a lawyer." The man took a business card out of his shirt pocket and extended it.
Out of curiosity, Tommy took the card and glanced at it. The name J. Donald Lester was embossed on it in fancy black letters. The address was in Dallas.
"What's a Dallas lawyer doing all the way down here in the valley?" Tommy asked with a frown.
"I represent a client in the area. Across the river in Cuidad Acuna, in fact."
Tommy grunted. "A Mexican with a Dallas lawyer. Must be a rich guy. What is he, a drug lord?"
"His name," J. Donald Lester said, "is Ernesto Diego Espinoza Ramirez."
Tommy went stiff and tight inside as he drew air sharply in through his nose. "El Bruitre," he said in a hollow voice.
"Yes, yes, the Vulture," Lester said impatiently. "It's a very colorful name, but my client doesn't care for it, so why don't we just refer to him as Senor Ramirez?"
Tommy dropped the lawyer's card onto the concrete of the parking lot. "Why don't we just call him a murdering, drug-running bastard and be done with it? And I think I'm done talking to you, too, Mr. Lester."
Tommy turned toward the front door of the pickup, but Lester stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Please, Mr. Carranza, I just want a few moments of your time."
Shaking off the lawyer's hand, Tommy said, "I don't talk to snakes, and if you work for Ramirez you're just as big a snake as he is, in my book."
"It's a matter of money," Lester said, raising his voice over the squeal of hinges as Tommy jerked the truck's door open. "A great deal of money."
A voice in the back of Tommy's head told him to get in the truck and drive away without paying any more attention to the gringo. But the mention of money piqued his interest. Not that he would ever take one red cent from Ramirez or his ilk. Any money they had would be indelibly stained with the blood and suffering of innocents.
Still, he was a naturally courteous man. And his youngest, Angelina, needed five thousand dollars' worth of orthodontic work to make her beautiful smile even more beautiful. That was what Julie said, anyway.
"I'll give you a minute," he said to Lester, "but I can tell you right now, I'm not gonna be interested in anything you have to say to me."
"Ten thousand dollars," Lester said.
Twice as much as what it would cost for Angelina's braces.
"What?" Tommy asked.
"You're offering to pay me ten grand a month?"
Lester nodded his sleekly barbered head. "That's correct."
"I think you know the answer to that, Mr. Carranza."
"Yeah," Tommy said. That brief moment of hope he'd had came crashing down. No way would anybody pay that much money for something honest, especially not Ramirez. "You want me to look the other way while the Vulture's couriers bring that goddamn shit across my land."
"It would be a perfectly legitimate arrangement, an easement, if you will-"
"Easement this," Tommy said, and he brought up a hard fist and smashed it into Lester's mouth.
He struck out of anger, furious that this sleazy Dallas lawyer thought he could be bought off with drug money. And he struck out of shame as well, because he hadn't driven away without even listening to the bastard and because for a split second he had considered the offer. He didn't know whom he was angrier with, himself or Lester.
But it was the lawyer who got busted in the mouth. The blow sent Lester staggering back across an empty parking space. He slammed into another parked pickup. It had an alarm installed and activated, and the siren began to blare as Lester bounced off the driver's door and fell to the pavement. He looked up at Tommy, stunned, with blood on his mouth. His bruised lips began to swell.
"Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas, my daddy always said," Tommy told him, raising his voice so he could be heard over the yowling of the alarm. "Go back to Dallas, Mr. Lawyer." The words were filled with contempt.
Lester couldn't get up. All he could do was glare balefully as Tommy got in his pickup and drove away. Tommy didn't look back.
Chapter TwoStark knew Tommy Carranza well enough to recognize that something was on the younger man's mind when Stark visited the Carranza ranch that day. Tommy didn't seem to want to talk about it, though, so Stark didn't push it. A man didn't go sticking his nose in another fella's business without being asked to.
Tommy had just gotten back from Del Rio with a load of fence wire. Stark offered to help him stretch it in the places where his fences needed repair, but Tommy shook his head. "You've got your own work to do, John Howard. Besides, I've got Martin to help me."
Excerpted from VENGEANCE IS MINE by WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE FRED AUSTIN Copyright © 2005 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fast paced with lots of action and the spirit that made America great.
I just wished Elaine had not been killed! I cried at the horror in her death! It shows how brutal the war we are in with the cartels! Build the wall!
This is a typical Johnstone book. It did everything a Johnstone book does, but in this case, it takes longer to get everything done. This novel is very standard for Johnstone's post 9/11 contemporary novels. There are no surprises. The complete Johnstone formula is intact, only the book is a bit longer than needed.This is a stand alone, and no other knowledge of Johnstone is needed to read it. The main character, John Howard Stark, is a supporting character in Remember The Alamo, which was released after Vengeance Is Mine.