Jarrett Pekoe cares about two things: his ranch and his family. So when rustlers kill his kin and burn his land to the ground, Jarrett won’t rest until the men responsible have their necks caught in the hangman’s rope. He’s willing to cooperate with the law if it’s on his side—and willing to work outside it if it’s not.
Lem Beauchamp is a stranger with a mysterious ax to grind when it comes to the bandits who razed Jarrett’s ranch. Despite Jarrett’s suspicion of Lem, he isn’t about to refuse the help of an experienced gunman—even if Lem plans to hand out more punishment than the law dictates.
And when the hunt for justice turns deadly, Lem and Jarrett may be the only ones willing to risk everything to defeat the lethal criminals before more innocent lives are lost...
More Than Six Million Ralph Compton Books In Print!
About the Author
Marcus Galloway is the author of numerous novels in the Ralph Compton series.
Read an Excerpt
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
Flat Pass, Wyoming, 1884
Some men had families. Others had their work. While most folks had both, they could never love them the same. Early in his life, Jarrett Pekoe made his choice and never looked back. He loved his kin with all his heart, but all of his sweat, blood, and soul had been poured into the Lazy J Ranch. It was a small operation. From careful planning, hiring on the best hands, and building partnerships spanning several states, his ranch didn’t need to be large to make a profit. It had taken years to make certain he was the only rancher driving his herd to some of the most selective buyers, and now Jarrett could reap his reward.
It was a cool spring day and the sun was high in the sky as Jarrett rode the perimeter of his land. Although his official task was to make sure the fence had been repaired in three spots that had rotted away, he barely kept one eye on the wooden rails. His gaze wandered along the horizon, savoring a comfort that could only be granted by contented solitude. Years ago, he’d been a hired hand who needed to make the rounds without taking a moment to lift his eyes from where they needed to be. When he’d ridden as a regulator at the Hard Luck spread up in Montana, his days were filled with chasing rustlers and rounding up strays. Naturally plenty of other men working the same jobs at those same places took time to indulge in simpler pleasures. These days, they were still at those jobs while Jarrett had clawed his way up to being the man who slept in the big house on his own patch of land.
Just as a smirk had gotten dangerously close to becoming a smile on his face, Jarrett spotted a portion of fence that didn’t quite meet his standards. He immediately pulled back on his reins and climbed down from his saddle.
“Easy, Twitch,” he said while patting the white nose of his otherwise brown gelding. “Just checking to see if I need to tan anyone’s hide when I get back.”
Judging by how much the horse shook his head and shifted on his feet, one might think the animal was worried that it was his job on the line. Of course, that very thing was how he’d earned his name. All of the fidgeting in the world, however, wouldn’t have dimmed Jarrett’s view of the horse he’d ridden since his regulator days in Montana.
Knowing his horse didn’t need to be tied up, Jarrett approached the fence and placed his hand on the top rail. He gave it a shove, gripped it with both hands, and put his whole body into it as he shook the sturdy posts. When he kicked the lowest rail, he scowled down at the length of wood.
“I suppose it’ll do,” he grumbled. As he climbed back into his saddle, he was still thinking of new ways to improve the fence’s longevity so even fewer repairs would need to be made in the future.
All fanciful thoughts from a few minutes ago were gone as Jarrett continued his ride along the fence. That sort of single-mindedness came easier to him without needing to concern himself with a wife and children of his own. If he was going to succeed the way he wanted, he would need to devote himself fully to the cause. He couldn’t do that if he was also pulling the weight of a missus and young ones. Of course he knew plenty of ranchers who raised a whole mess of children on their land. Those men also needed more hired hands to keep their heads above water. More important, they had to be content with taking a lesser part in the growth of their ranch. If Jarrett was going to do something, no matter what it was, he wasn’t going to do it halfway.
Jarrett’s clean-shaven face was almost always set into firm, straight lines. His light brown eyes weren’t cruel, but there wasn’t a lot of forgiveness to be found within them. The only thing about his appearance that was consistently unkempt was his hair, and that was only because it made more financial sense to cut it himself with a razor instead of paying some barber in town to clip it while yammering on about the weather. As soon as he’d spotted the pair of riders coming his way, Jarrett sat tall in his saddle and stared out at the approaching men with all the authority of a sea captain surveying his crew.
The men riding toward him were two of Jarrett’s regulators. Matt and Pete were good workers and mostly trustworthy. Although they tended to partake in a bit too much liquor for Jarrett’s liking, they had proven themselves on more than one occasion, which was good enough for him. Pete was the taller of the two and Matt had enough whiskers on his chin to evenly cover his face, his partner’s face, and a good portion of Jarrett’s. All of those whiskers weren’t enough to hide the uncomfortable frown he wore when he caught sight of the Lazy J’s owner.
“Howdy, Mr. Pekoe!” Pete hollered.
Waiting until he was close enough to respond without shouting, Jarrett asked, “You men on your way back to the bunkhouse?”
“A bit early in the day for sleepin’, sir,” Matt said.
After giving his partner a quick swat, Pete added, “Thought we might get a bite to eat before taking a ride into town.”
“So that means your work is done for the day?”
“More or less. All that’s left is some bits of repair work and then taking our turn at patrolling the perimeter to make sure none of them vagrants show their faces again.”
Jarrett nodded. Even though the vagrants in question had only managed to steal one horse for less than a day before being tracked down, he wasn’t about to give them a chance to take another run at the place. Still, his men had put such a scare into those two filthy thieves that he doubted they’d return anytime soon. “You two have the night patrol, right?” Jarrett asked.
Matt nodded. “Yes, sir. We should be back from the saloon in plenty of time to—” The next swat he received from the man beside him was almost hard enough to knock him from his saddle.
Before Matt could say another word, Pete said, “We don’t intend to get drunk, Mr. Pekoe. Just thought we’d play some cards and have a bit of fun in town. That’s all.”
While Jarrett might not have been one to drink much liquor himself, he wasn’t the sort who would harbor bad feelings against those who did. For the purposes of keeping his men on their toes, he kept his expression severe and waited a few heartbeats before nodding. “You’d best be riding your patrol and have enough of your wits about you to see a jackrabbit bolt from its hole or there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Naturally, Mr. Pekoe,” Pete said while tapping one finger against the rim of his hat.
Neither of the two men was much younger than Jarrett himself, but they treated him with an earnest respect. Jarrett repaid that by not treating them like anything less than the men they were. “Tell you what,” he said. “I had a look at a portion of fence that you two were responsible for repairing.”
“We were just headed back that way,” Matt said. “We patched it up, but I didn’t think it was sturdy enough, so we’re just about to finish the job.”
Having already spotted the tools, lumber, and bag of nails being carried by the men, Jarrett dug into a pocket while saying, “I guessed as much already.” He then tossed a silver dollar to each man. “Do the job right and there won’t be any need to pay me back.”
They smiled and caught the money in callused fists. “We’re good for it, Mr. Pekoe!” Pete said.
“I know. You see anything else while you’re out here?”
“Matter of fact, we did. There’s a wagon coming in from the east.”
“Yes, sir. Weren’t you expectin’ company?” Pete asked.
“Yes, but not for another day or two,” Jarrett replied. “How many were in the wagon?”
When Pete looked over to him, Matt said, “Couldn’t say for certain. There was two in the driver’s seat and at least one horse riding alongside, but they were a ways off and taking their time in getting here.”
“Any children with them?”
Furrowing his brow a bit, Jarrett asked, “Could it be another damn salesman?”
“After the way we chased the last two off this property, I sure doubt it,” Pete replied with a laugh. “That wagon we just saw has probably been riding hard for a good, long while. The team was tuckered out. A blind man could have told you that much.”
Slowly Jarrett’s smile returned. “Then that could be Norris.”
“That your brother?” Matt asked.
“It sure is. And it’s just like him to try to get here early to give me a bit of a surprise.”
“You want me and Pete to ride out to greet them?”
“No,” Jarrett replied. “You said they were coming in from the east?”
“Then I’ll go see them myself. If Norris worked this hard for a surprise, there’s no good reason for me to spoil it.”
“So, you’re all right with us two heading into town?” Pete asked. “After we finish with that fence, of course.”
“Sounds like a plan. You two have a good time and try not to fall off your horses on your way back.”
Unaccustomed to seeing their employer in such good spirits, both of the hired hands waved to Jarrett and snapped their reins to ride away before he added some other bit of hardship to their workload.
Jarrett not only snapped his reins as well, but tapped Twitch’s sides to coax a little more speed from the gelding. The horse was all too happy to comply since he always seemed more comfortable when his hooves were churning through the dirt and the wind was in his face.
After riding for about a quarter mile along the fence, Jarrett turned north and rode for a short ways more. With every second that passed, Jarrett’s grin became wider. Pulling back on his reins, he stopped less than fifty yards away from the spot where a wide road pointing toward Nebraska met up with a gate in the Lazy J’s fence. Jarrett reached into his saddlebag and dug around for a pair of field glasses. When he found them, he brought the glasses to his eyes and peered through the lenses. The magnified view might have been somewhat marred by several scratches on the glass, but he saw more than enough.
“You sure are taking your time, little brother,” Jarrett said to himself. He then panned the field glasses away from the wagon he’d found until he spotted another horse keeping pace with the wagon while maintaining a healthy distance from it. Jarrett squinted through the lenses but was unable to make out much of the rider. “Scott’s getting bigger,” he mused. “I imagine he insisted on riding in on his own. Thought for sure Grace would be the one to scout ahead.”
On a hunch, Jarrett kept searching the horizon. Before long, he found the other silhouette he’d been looking for. “There you are,” he said.
The sun was just bright enough to cast a glare on everything below. Although it was the same ball of brightness that shone down on the rest of the world, it seemed to cast longer shadows in Wyoming than anywhere else. If he lived closer to Old Mexico, he surely would swear that it was hotter and he’d heard more than a few men from Montana tell him how their sun resided in a wider sky than the blue expanse that could be found over any other part of the country.
Having lived in Wyoming for years, Jarrett rarely pondered such things anymore. The harder he strained to get a better look at his approaching guests, the more he wanted to curse the sun for being too damn bright and his glasses for being too damn old. When his horse stomped the ground with one front hoof and shook its head hard enough to jostle the man on its back, Jarrett sighed and said, “You’re right. I already know it’s them.” While putting the field glasses away, Jarrett scratched his horse behind the ear. “My nieces and nephew are getting big. Before you know it, I’ll be hiring them on as hands for a summer or two. Then maybe one of them will want to work here for good.”
He flicked the reins to point the horse’s nose away from the fence and start moseying toward the road that led all the way to the center of the ranch. “Last time we saw Grace, she was nothing but a sprout with pigtails in a wrinkled dress,” he said fondly. “And Scott was kneehigh to a grasshopper. Ain’t even seen the baby yet, but that’s about to change.”
Jarrett took a quick look over his shoulder. The wagon in the distance was picking up enough speed to kick up a cloud of dust, and the horses accompanying it were drawing in closer. Surely the young riders were getting a few final instructions from their father.
Knowing how much Norris enjoyed his surprises, Jarrett had intended to ride all the way back to the house so he could play his part as the oblivious host. He made it less than a hundred yards before bringing Twitch around in a sharp about-face turn. “Eh, to hell with it,” he said. “Just because Norris is the baby of the family, that doesn’t mean he gets to have all the fun.”
In any family, being the youngest child had its advantages. The Pekoe clan wasn’t any different. Raised on a small Iowa farm, the children were doted on by their mother and worked harder than a rented mule by their father. Jarrett’s older sister lived with her husband in Virginia, and the next one in line was Kyle, who’d died of a fever in the winter of ’78. That had left Jarrett to maintain the family name in business and Norris to provide a few more branches of the family tree. Even if Norris had only contributed a few kind words at the occasional family picnic, their mother would have put him up for sainthood.
Surely Norris had put some small amount of thought into how he would announce himself while making his grand entrance at the Lazy J. No matter what idea he came up with, even if he’d cobbled it together in less time than it took for a nut to fall from a tree, Norris would expect it to be received with an abundance of enthusiasm from anyone within eyeshot. Jarrett took no small amount of pleasure from the thought that he was popping his brother’s bubble before it had gotten much of a chance to float. It did the baby of the family some good to be treated like the rest every now and then.
Jarrett amused himself with these thoughts after having opened the gate and positioning himself in the middle of the road directly behind it. He’d planned to stay there, staring at his brother to let Norris know that he wasn’t the only one who could arrange a surprise. The wagon rolled toward him, but at a snail’s pace. Both of the children rode their horses at least five yards away from it on either side and were keeping their distance. There was no possible way any of them could have overlooked the fact that Jarrett was waiting for them, and yet nobody had shouted a word to him.
Not one excited holler from Grace or Scott.
Not a single brotherly taunt from Norris or even a wave from his brother’s wife.
After a few more seconds of the strange silence, Jarrett started to worry. Perhaps someone was sick. Maybe there had been harsh words passed between members of the family. One of them might have been injured during the ride. The longer Jarrett considered the possibilities, the more gruesome and terrible they became. Finally he forced them out of his mind completely.
“Enough of this,” he said as he snapped his reins. “Guess I’ll have to get a look for myself.”
As he rode closer toward the wagon, Jarrett realized how impatient he’d gotten in a relatively short amount of time. The wagon wasn’t really moving that slow. It was just being pulled by tired horses and driven by what was most likely a tired man. Within the space of a minute, he was able to make out the faces of Norris and his wife. Even from a distance, Jarrett could tell his brother was not his normal self.
Jarrett got such an uneasy feeling from the look on his brother’s face that he pulled back on his reins a little early so as not to draw any of the ire that was brewing on the faces of both Norris and his wife. Norris pulled his reins as well to slow the covered wagon before plowing straight over their welcoming committee.
“Imagine my surprise!” Jarrett said cheerily. “You all are early.”
The only responses he got were heavy breaths from the wagon’s two-horse team and the creak of the wheels as they rolled to a stop. Norris had a rounded face and cheeks that would perpetually make him look five to ten years younger than he truly was. His sandy brown hair might have been thinning a bit in front, but the rumpled way it framed his face still had a boyish quality. Whenever Jarrett thought about his brother, he pictured Norris laughing, shouting, or giving some other overly emotional display. That was a far cry from the weary visage he wore on this day.
“How was the ride?” Jarrett asked. “Did you run into any bad weather?”
Norris shook his head as if in response to a voice that only he could hear.
Shifting his eyes to Norris’s left, Jarrett wasn’t surprised to find a vaguely sour expression on his sister-in-law’s face. She never did like Jarrett very much, and the only time she’d done more than simply tolerate his presence was on her wedding day. After that, she’d endured the occasional visit only slightly better than before, which Jarrett had always assumed was for the children’s benefit. She wasn’t an ugly girl. Her thick black hair was always well brushed and couldn’t be contained by the bonnet she wore. A thin face gave her something of a mousy quality, which Jarrett had never found appealing in anyone.
“Good to see you, Jen,” Jarrett said to her. “You’re looking well.”
She scowled silently at him, which really wasn’t much different from her usual greeting.
“So,” Jarrett said, “did you take a shortcut or did you just whip those horses to within an inch of their lives?” Since Norris and Jen merely looked nervously at each other, he asked, “Where are the kids? Perhaps they’ll be more conversational.” Turning toward the sound of hooves beating against the dirt, he shouted, “That you, Scotty? You must’ve grown a foot since the last time I’ve seen you!”
“Jarrett,” Norris sighed. “I . . . I . . .”
“Well, now! He finally speaks,” Jarrett chuckled. “And here I was thinking the little woman had taken your tongue out.”
The brothers had weathered plenty of hard times together. They’d seen each other through as many trials as triumphs, but in all those years Jarrett hadn’t seen this particular expression on his younger sibling’s face. “What is it, Norris?” he asked.
Norris grew increasingly anxious as his children’s horses approached the back of the wagon. “I’m sorry, Jarrett. Truly I am.”
The bottom had never fallen out of Jarrett’s stomach so quickly. Although it was his nature to assume the worst of most any situation, he rarely thought those worries would come to pass. When he got a whiff of something terrible drawing closer to him and his kin, it was all Jarrett could do to compose himself. “What’s happened, Norris? Tell me.”
“They got to us yesterday,” Norris explained. “I tried to shake loose of them before bringing them here, but . . .”
Twitch was getting increasingly nervous and for a change Jarrett himself couldn’t blame him. Rather than try to rein in the animal, he allowed it to back up a few steps from the wagon. That little bit of extra space allowed him to get a better look at one of the riders that had been accompanying his brother. Norris’s son and daughter had both been taller than most anyone else their age, but the person holding the reins of this approaching horse was definitely no child.
“Who the hell are you?” Jarrett asked. “Where are Grace and Scotty?”
The man in the saddle had a slender build, which seemed even more so owing to his slouched posture and slumped shoulders. His skin resembled starched sailcloth that had been draped on a wire frame. He gripped his reins tightly in one hand while the other hung within a few inches of a holstered pistol. Grinning beneath a mustache consisting of irregularly spaced hairs scattered unevenly on his lip, he said, “They’re just fine. Don’t you worry none about that.”
Scowling at the stranger, Jarrett said, “You didn’t answer my first question.”
“Don’t get yer feathers ruffled. How about we all get on the other side of that fence so we can have a word like civilized folk?”
“Don’t give orders to me. This is my spread and these are my kin. Tell me who the hell you are before I send you away.”
“Send me away? Now, that ain’t no way to treat a guest.”
As those words were spoken, the second horse that had been traveling alongside Norris came around the back end of the wagon. This one had a slender build as well but made himself look even slighter by hunching over. Once he sat up fully and put on his hat, he looked to have a build similar to Jarrett’s and was at least eight years his junior. He drew his .45 without so much as a how-do-you-do.
Calming Twitch with a few subtle gestures and a nudge from one foot, Jarrett placed his hand on the gun holstered at his side. Unbeknownst to him, Norris had climbed down from the driver’s seat to approach him from behind.
“No,” Norris said. “Don’t draw that pistol.”
“I want an explanation,” Jarrett said. “Right now.”
“Just simmer down, Jarrett,” Norris said. “Let me explain.”
Jarrett wasn’t about to take his eyes off the two riders when he told his brother, “You’re not the one that needs to explain himself.”
“You’d best think twice before touching that gun again,” the second rider announced. “Or this little visit is gonna get bloody.”
“Shut up, Dave,” the first rider said.
Even though the second rider outweighed his skinny partner by a considerable amount, he deferred to him without a struggle.
“Where are the children?” Jarrett asked in a voice that was drawn tighter than a bowstring.
“They’re fine,” Norris replied. “They’re both fine.”
Finally looking away from the two strangers, Jarrett glanced at his brother when he asked, “You sure about that?”
“Of course I am.”
Comforted by the truth he saw in that familiar face, Jarrett shifted his focus back to the strangers. “Tell me who you are.”
The skinnier of the two riders shifted in his saddle to place his hand a bit closer to his holstered weapon. “We,” he said, “are the men in charge of this for the time being. That makes you the folks who will listen to what we say and do what we tell you to do.”
Because Twitch needed so much encouragement, the horse was finely attuned to a complicated set of Jarrett’s movements. All it took was a little nudge to get the horse slowly walking toward the skinny rider.
“I don’t want any trouble,” Jarrett said.
“Good,” the skinny man replied. “Neither do we.”
Another nudge steered Twitch so the skinny rider was between Jarrett and the second stranger.
“If it’s money you’re after, I’ll give it to you,” Jarrett said to him.
Clearly the younger gunman was getting anxious. He pulled his reins one way and then another to keep a clear line of sight fixed on Jarrett. “Damn right you’ll give it to us,” he snapped. “You ain’t got a choice.”
Turning to shoot a warning glare at his partner, the skinny gunman barked, “Dave, I told you to shut the hell up and that’s what you’ll—”
The instant the gunman’s eyes were on Dave instead of him, Jarrett tapped a heel against Twitch’s side. The gelding lurched forward with a start, giving Jarrett a bit of added momentum as he straightened both legs in the stirrups to send him flying at the closest stranger. Jarrett stretched out both arms and grabbed whatever he could of the skinny man’s clothing. They collided in a tangle of flailing limbs.The other man’s saddle horn gouged Jarrett in the ribs and took the breath from his lungs.
The two of them couldn’t have struggled atop that horse’s back for long, but Jarrett felt each moment stretch into an eternity. He guessed he was lying sideways across the stranger’s saddle but couldn’t be absolutely certain. It was all he could do to hang on to the other man to keep him from getting to his gun and keep himself from falling off. Jarrett lost the second battle fairly quickly but managed to win the first by dragging the stranger down with him.
They landed hard on the ground. Jarrett hit first, but the other man didn’t drop on top of him because one of his feet was still caught in a stirrup. Scrambling to get his legs beneath him, Jarrett reached for his holster and flipped away the leather thong that had kept his Colt revolver from slipping out during the fall.
“Drop the pistol!” Dave shouted.
Still wobbly on his feet, Jarrett took a moment to get his bearings. His hand was still pressed against the .38 at his side and he wasn’t exactly anxious to remove it.
Dave glowered down at him from his horse, taking aim over the top of his firearm. “I said drop it!”
This wasn’t Jarrett’s first scrape where guns had come into play, but it had higher stakes than any other fight of which he’d taken part. For that reason alone, he steeled himself with a quick breath and dropped to a knee while making a quick grab for his Colt. Dave was either surprised by the move or reluctant to fire out of fear of hitting his partner, because Jarrett somehow managed to draw the .38 before getting burned down in the process.
Jarrett pulled his trigger without taking a moment to aim. If he’d been an experienced gunman, he might have actually hit something. As it was, the only thing his bullet did was burn a trail into the sky.
That plea came from Norris, but Jarrett was too deeply invested in what he’d started to pull back now. Dave had swung down from his horse to position himself in a spot better suited to taking a clear shot. He fired once, sending a bullet whipping past Jarrett’s head toward the wagon. Terrified screams came from within the canvas cover, letting him know that the children were alive and well enough to know what was going on.
It had been pure instinct that caused Jarrett to glance toward the wagon. He caught sight of a young girl looking out, and when he snapped his gaze forward again, he was staring straight down the barrel of Dave’s pistol.
Jarrett’s entire world ground to a halt.
“All of you,” the skinny gunman said through a series of heavy breaths. “Just take a breath and stop this right now.”
Dave gritted his teeth while steadying his aim. “This one’s too much trouble, Clay. He’ll just take another run at us.”
“No. He won’t. Ain’t that right, hero?”
Jarrett’s heart was slamming with too much force against his battered ribs for him to form an answer.
“Turn around,” Clay said in a voice that was already steadier than it had been a moment ago.
As much as he didn’t want to do anything the gunmen said, Jarrett heard a muffled whimpering that convinced him otherwise. Rather than turn his back to Dave, he took a few shuffling steps so he could get a look at the wagon while keeping the younger gunman at the edge of his field of vision. He had to fight to maintain his composure when he saw that frightened little face he’d glimpsed not too long ago.
“Grace?” Jarrett gasped. “Honey, are you all right?”
The girl was indeed taller than the last time he’d seen her, but the terror etched into her eyes as she was held tightly by the skinny gunman made her seem small and all too vulnerable. Clay now stood behind her and slightly to one side. One of his hands was clamped over her mouth and the other held a pistol, which he pointed at her temple.
“Let her go!” Norris demanded.
Jen screamed from the driver’s seat, too frightened to move and now horrified by what she might find if she did.
“Shut up!” Dave barked. “You know better than to speak ’less you’re the one that’s spoken to!”
Jarrett didn’t have to see his brother to know what he was thinking. It was what any man would be thinking when he saw his family threatened.
“Everyone settle in before things get worse,” Clay said. Looking to Jarrett, he asked, “When are your men going to come this way again?”
“This is a small spread,” Jarrett explained. “I don’t have a lot of men working for me.”
“We know you’ve got regulators riding your fence line. Either tell me when to expect them or I’ll cut my losses here, starting with this one,” Clay said while jamming the barrel of his pistol even harder against Grace’s head.
Jarrett struggled to come up with another course of action, but he simply couldn’t find it. Reluctantly he said, “They’re repairing a section of fence south of here.”
“How many more are there?”
“Three, but they’re not all armed. Some are just hired hands. There’s no need to hurt anyone.”
“They may not be armed, but you are,” Clay said. “Do what my partner kindly asked you and drop that pistol.”
Every inch of Jarrett’s body wanted to let go of the Colt and do anything else that would result in Grace being released from that killer’s grasp. He knew nothing of these men, but he’d already seen enough to be certain they would have no problem doing something as cowardly as shooting an innocent child to get whatever the hell it was they wanted.
And yet there was one thing that kept Jarrett from doing what he’d been told. “If I let go of this gun,” he said, “that just means you’ll take another prisoner to do with as you please.”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Clay said, “we can already do what we please.”
“For Pete’s sake, do what they want!” Jen shouted. She must have been climbing down from the driver’s seat, because Dave took a few long steps in that direction while pointing his gun at her.
“You wanna die?” Dave snarled.
“You want me to believe we’ll live if I help you?” Jarrett said before he had time to stop himself.
As Jen sobbed into her trembling hands, Norris reached out to his brother and said, “Don’t do this. It won’t help.”
“Listen to him, hero,” Clay sneered.
“There’s more than just these two to worry about,” Norris continued.
Jarrett’s eyes snapped toward his brother. “How many more?”
“I don’t know.”
“You haven’t seen them?”
“Damn it, why won’t you ever listen to me?” Norris said with mounting urgency. “You think I’d just stand by and let these two animals hurt my family?”
“No, but you were alone until now,” Jarrett said. “Not anymore. If we’re going to put an end to this, it’s got to be here and now before—”
Dave thumbed back the hammer of his pistol while snarling, “I’ll end it, sure enough.”
“No!” Clay said in a voice that hit everyone in the vicinity of that wagon like a sharp jab. “Not yet. Whatever you do, hero, this little girl dies first. Understand?”
Those words ignited a spark within Jarrett that burned through almost everything human within him to leave nothing but animal instinct and feral rage. Perhaps spotting that inside him, Clay shifted his aim with a simple flex of his wrist. The gun in his hand barked once and spat a single round through the meat of Jarrett’s thigh like the talon of a passing hawk. He felt a burn through that leg, but the grazing scratch wasn’t nearly enough to put him down.
“Please, Jarrett!” Norris begged. “Do what they say!”
Just then, Jarrett saw something in the icy depths of Clay’s eyes.
Clay might have been a killer, but he didn’t want to kill Grace. Jarrett was certain enough of that to want to keep fighting. His desire grew even stronger when he heard a voice carried to him on the wind from the direction of the ranch.
“Mr. Pekoe?” Matt hollered. “We heard the shot. You all right?”
Matt and Pete were riding back along the perimeter on the other side of the fence. They’d responded to the gunshot as they would on any number of occasions when such a signal had been used to call for a hand.
“Get the others!” Jarrett shouted desperately. “These men are trying to kill us!”
He couldn’t have hoped for a better sight than when Pete urged his horse to take off at a run toward the road leading to the center of the ranch and Matt reached for the rifle kept in the boot of his saddle. Pete only made it another couple of yards before a rifle shot cracked through the air, hissed past the wagon, and knocked him from his saddle.
Jarrett couldn’t tell if Matt had seen the other man fall or not. In the end, it didn’t matter. The next bullet from the rifleman in the distance snapped Matt’s head straight back and sent him to the dirt.
“No!” Jarrett shouted. When he drew his next couple of breaths, he expected to feel a rifle bullet punch through him as well. Some part of him felt it was only right that he tasted the same lead that had claimed both of his men.
“You’ve pushed this far enough,” Clay said. “You wanna push it further or should we all conduct ourselves in a more civilized manner?”
It wasn’t in Jarrett’s nature to give up. It also wasn’t in his nature to put good people at risk. Realizing he simply didn’t have any other options, he let the Colt slip from his hand. “Whatever money I got,” he said to the gunmen, “it’s yours.”
Clay nodded solemnly. “Money’s just the start, but it’s a good one. Now let’s get a look at this ranch of yours.”
Once Jarrett handed himself over to the gunmen, events passed by in a rush. His Colt was taken from him. He was roughly searched for any other weapons by Dave, who found a hunting knife hanging from his belt and claimed it before doubling Jarrett over with a solid punch to his gut.
“That’s for being such a pain in the ass,” Dave snarled.
As much as he wanted to fight back, Jarrett had already been shown the futility of that train of thought. Besides, he didn’t have enough wind left in his sails to do much by way of damage, so he remained bent at the waist until he was pulled upright and shoved toward his horse.
“You get any ideas,” Dave said while taking the Winchester from Jarrett’s saddle, “and the lead will fly.”
“So you keep saying,” Jarrett groaned.
“You think I’m foolin’ about?”
“Good,” Dave said. “Now get on that horse and introduce me to the rest of your men.”
“Why? So you can slaughter them like you did Matt and Pete?”
“I didn’t slaughter nobody. If’n you’d like me to start, then I’d be happy to oblige.”
“Tell me why you want to see the rest of my men.”
The wagon was only a few yards away, and from there, Clay said, “Just put the man’s mind at ease, Dave. It ain’t like he’s in a spot where he can do anything about it. It’ll make the rest go that much quicker.”
Unlike the younger gunman, Clay didn’t have to threaten Norris or his family with every other breath. The deadly promise lurked below each word just as surely as sharks circled beneath calm waters of the sea.
Jarrett hung his head and climbed into Twitch’s saddle. The gelding shifted as he always did, giving his rider a little dose of familiarity to let him know that not everything in his world had come undone.
“You’re gonna show me the rest of your men to keep them alive,” Dave said. “We can either round them up all at once or hunt them down one at a time. The more you make us work, the worse things’ll be.”
“Good. Now get moving.”
They rode across Jarrett’s land, touring the Lazy J while he made introductions as if Dave were a new hand that had been hired on through the summer. When each of the three remaining workers showed Dave the bunkhouse, they were knocked on the back of the head with the butt of a pistol and tied up. In what was surely a show of dominance as well as some kind of perverse thrill, Dave even made Jarrett help in dragging his own men to the back of the bunkhouse where they wouldn’t block the doorway. The process took just over an hour and when it was through, Jarrett wound up in front of the main house watching the wagon come rolling up to within a few yards of the porch. On any other time, such a sight would have brought a smile to his face. This day, however, it filled him with dread.
“I was hoping you might have gotten away,” Jarrett said as he helped Jen down from the seat atop the wagon.
She gripped his hand with desperate strength and still nearly toppled on her way down. “There’s nowhere to run,” she said in a shaky voice. “Lord only knows how many more of them are out there.”
Jarrett could still only see the two gunmen. Clay had a hold of Grace’s wrist, but at least he was no longer pointing a gun to her head.
Norris was at the back of the wagon doing his best to coax his son into the open. “Come on, Scott. You can’t stay in there forever.”
“I need to protect Autumn,” the boy replied from within the wagon.
“We all want to protect her. Now bring her out here to me, son. Come on now.”
Dave was tying the horses to a post near the house, and when he drew a breath to yell something toward the wagon, he was silenced by a sharp expression from Clay.
Without having a stranger bark at him, the boy poked his nose into the fresh air. His face was wet with tears and he held on to a bundle of blankets as if it were the most precious package in known creation. He was a small boy with his father’s eyes and his mother’s thick dark hair. If that hair remained as curly as it was now, he would have no trouble whatsoever in attracting female attention when he got older. Jarrett got hardly a glimpse of the pudgy little face wrapped up in all those blankets and couldn’t have been more grateful for it. The baby was quiet and blissfully unaware of what was happening around her. Where Jen had seemed on the verge of fainting away just a few moments ago, she regained all of her vigor when she saw her youngest two children.
“Come here, Scott,” she said while hurrying around to the back end of the wagon. “Let me get a look at you.”
The boy approached her as if they were the only souls left in the world. Jen lowered herself to the young boy’s level so she could wrap her arms around him and gently squeeze Autumn between the two of them.
“Aw.” Clay sighed. “Ain’t that just sweet?”
Jarrett couldn’t decide which would bother him more: if the outlaw’s words were a sarcastic mockery or if they held genuine sentiment.
When he approached Clay, Jarrett didn’t give a damn how anxious Dave seemed to get. Ignoring the pistol in the younger outlaw’s hands, he addressed the skinnier of the two when he asked, “What are you going to do with them?”
“Who?” Clay asked. “Those two little angels?”
“Yes,” Jarrett said through clenched teeth. “They’ve been through enough without you tossing them in with the others.”
“I suppose you’d prefer they not be tied up as well?”
Hoping to refrain from saying things like that where they could be heard by his niece and nephew, Jarrett quickly replied, “That’s right. It’s not like either them or their mother can pose much of a threat.”
“I suppose not. Still, however they’re treated, it depends on you.”
“Perfect. If it’s up to me, then let them all go.”
Clay let out a laugh that shook almost every inch of his bony frame. When he caught his breath, he said, “Tell you what. If you got any better suggestions, I’d like to hear ’em.”
“There’s plenty of room in the house,” Jarrett said.
Looking at the structure situated more or less at the center of the Lazy J, Clay scowled as if he’d just bitten into a rotten piece of fruit. “That really ain’t much of a house. I thought there’d be something a lot bigger, to be honest.”
“I have three bedrooms of good size. Two have doors with locks and windows that are too small to be of much concern.”
“Sounds like a fine sales pitch,” Clay scoffed. “So long as it’s accurate.”
“I know every inch of that house,” Jarrett assured him. “I did build it, after all.”
“All right, then. I’ll bring the girl upstairs myself. If the rooms are like you say, then I can lock her in so she’s nice and comfortable. If not, then I’ll tie her up so she’ll never remember what comfortable is.”
Excerpted from "Vigilante Dawn"
Copyright © 2014 Ralph Compton.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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