Last Chance For Retaliation (Preview)

Chapter One

Catarina, Texas 1875

He smelled the smoke drifting over the flatlands on a breeze from the southwest. They had tracked it for most of the day, like a dog following an elusive scent. Campfire smoke or wagon trail kitchens carried the aroma of cooked meat. Sometimes the chugging and belching train from Pecos — the nearest town, a two-day ride east of Catarina — sent coal smoke and charred steam vapors into town when the wind caught it. 

As did the other volunteers in his posse, Atticus Stevens knew what they smelled wasn’t from cooking fires or train breath. Following the fumes, that morning in early May put them on a rutty trail overland toward the Rio Grande. Traveling from Catarina on the Pecos River to the world’s edge took more than three days over the challenging country. They weren’t going the whole way, only to the next township. 

“You think it’s coming from Watkins?” Willis Beasley asked. 

Willis rode closest to Atticus, on a two-year-old that wanted to run and not walk. The green-broke horse needed more training, but Willis was the kind of patient man who understood horses better than people. 

“I mean, ’cause that’s a long way if we’re catching the draft from way out there.”

“I don’t think it’s coming from Watkins,” Lewis Reeves said. “That’s ten miles from town. It’s got to be closer than that.”

Lewis had about ten years and forty pounds on Willis. A heavy-handed barman at the Bent Rock Tavern, Lewis was the kind of fellow Atticus wanted around if there was trouble. He couldn’t shoot straight, but no one needed to aim with a double-barreled shotgun with a nine-pellet cartridge at close range. In close quarters, Lewis didn’t need a gun to intimidate people. He’d been the first to volunteer for the expedition once someone reported the smoke on the horizon. 

Atticus didn’t have a lot to say about their destination. They had agreed to follow the incoming wind. Once away from Catarina, away from the cooking fires and coal stoves, they picked up a better scent. 

They followed Vincent Wise’s dogs, two brindle-colored deerhounds intent on following the trail through fire or sand. Wise had sense enough to keep the dogs harnessed to the buggy on a slanted beam that kept them away from the horse and cart but still in control, so they didn’t run off. Atticus paid more attention to the dogs than the trail. Any time something caught their attention, they paused briefly. If it wasn’t part of the scent, they had sense enough to dismiss it. 

Atticus knew better than to ignore anything that made the dogs pause. They were five miles or more from town, in unfriendly territory. The region west of the Pecos River had limitations because eventually, the Rio Grande’s cliffs closed the area off from the west and the south. 

It took the very brave or the most foolhardy to live in towns like Watkins and Longfellow. The land yielded nothing except red rock and salt. Most of the adobe housing material used for fortified Catarina structures came from places like Longfellow or Red Barn. The trailhead townships had rutty paths branching between each of the towns. Most of them were at least a day’s ride apart. 

The slice of ground where the Rio Grande and Pecos River split had deep pockets of salt. The proper businessman with hardy workers got a lot from the ground. It was an unforgiving profession. Digging up salt didn’t take a lot of thought, and the mining towns were little more than tents, wagons, and mining tools. If mines went deep, they used coal carts on rails. But timber was expensive. Reinforcing the mineshafts didn’t happen if the owners didn’t want to pay for the imported wood. But salt mines collapsing didn’t cause long-range fires. Mostly, people died quickly, and new workers dug out the dead miners before they harvested more salt. 

Watkins was a salt mining community made up mostly of Chinese immigrants that had been pushed off the railroads. After the war ended, and Chinese laborers proved their tenacity for menial and back-breaking work, they found temporary homes along the rails. Whistle stops had growing communities of immigrants. But as the soldiers came back from the War Between the States, rail barons passed off the work to former soldiers without a care for their prior careers. 

The Chinese immigrants found new professions in gold and salt mining. Mine owners saw them as expendable laborers. And since the government wasn’t making a fuss about their freedom, they earned pennies a day for work that took years off their lives. Gold mining needed more security than salt mines. Owners tended to keep laborers under armed guards, but at the salt mines, they had more liberties. 

“We’ll head into Watkins,” Atticus finally said. 

He’d watched the deerhounds pause their sniffing as something in the high rocks caught their attention. Atticus scanned the area, his eyes hidden under the wide-brimmed hat. He knew better than to make it obvious. He got the same impression as the dogs. For over an hour, it felt like they weren’t alone. 

“We need to water the horses,” he added. “We’ll head back tomorrow if we don’t find anything.”

“You know Mr. Hartman ain’t going to be happy that I’m out all night,” Lewis said, shaking his head. “He’ll find someone else to work. I’ll lose my $1 for the day’s work.”

Atticus sighed and rubbed the scruff on his cheek. “I’ll make sure Mayor Finley covers the loss to your wages.”

“Can you do that?” Vincent asked. “I’d sure like to get something for loaning my dogs.”

“Yes, I can do that,” Atticus assured him. “I’ll make sure each of you gets a $1 for a day’s work.” He didn’t know if Mayor Finley would agree to it, but Atticus needed the help. He’d pay them out of his stipend at the end of the month if the town mayor refused. 

Atticus wanted to say more about how they complained about payment when there was the possible loss of life on the line. But Atticus wore the tin star on his chest. It sometimes felt like it weighed as much as the world around him. Five years, and it never got any lighter. 

His father had taken a bullet as a lawman in Houston when Atticus turned nineteen. It was the only reason why his father hadn’t fought in the war. The man wasn’t a coward, and the government needed lawmen to protect property and people while soldiers had picked sides. His father had taught Atticus the value of life over property. If Atticus had to choose between the two, his father had warned, sometimes people would fight harder over their property than their lives. But it was up to Atticus to remind them that without the one, the other was useless. 

“Hold up,” Bruce Snider said. 

He leaned back in the saddle and removed a brass spyglass from its protective pouch. Snider was the kind of man who didn’t want to loan out his nautical spyglass, a holdover from his days as a sailor on the Pacific Ocean. Snider was the first mate and told tales of the angry sea. The spyglass came in handy when traveling overland as well as on the sea. He scanned the horizon and pointed.

“Yup, I see the smoke trail there. It looks about over,” Snider said. He carefully put the spyglass back into the leather case hanging on the strap. “It’s a mile or so ahead.”

Atticus wanted to use the maritime instrument when they went searching. But Snider didn’t let anyone else touch his spyglass. If it went, so did he, and he wasn’t interested in rescuing anyone. The man had spent three days adrift at sea on flotsam after the ship capsized in a heavy storm. Snider had carried that leather case with him from the west coast and as far from the ocean as he could get, vowing never to return once he survived the ordeal.         

They started riding again, no one pushing the horses too hard in the open sun. Nightfall brought chilly wind from the mountains. When the sun rose and baked the land, the wide-open sky poured heat over everyone and the bridle countryside. May showers infrequently happened closer to summer. Soon, they’d have long hot days and short cold nights. 

The arid landscape didn’t offer much to people other than salt and building bricks. The railroad stretched as far as Pecos City on the confluence of the namesake river and the Rio Grande. The rest of the skeletal towns that relied on industry created from access to the railroad still had to haul wagonloads of salt and stone over rough terrain. 

“It looks like about eight wagons, Sheriff Stevens,” Snider said once they had stopped again for another look. Atticus nodded grimly at the prospect.   

Remains of the wagon train looked like charred portions of landscape as the sun dipped past midday. Atticus felt the weight of the sheriff’s badge on his chest increase as his stomach tightened at the sickening and familiar stench. Burnt shells of dry planks looked like ribs from overturned covered wagons. Salt piles covered the ground. Dead horses lay where they dropped after being shot. Raiders had heaped the people together in one place. 

“Vince, can you keep your dogs back here?” Atticus said. “We’ll go in on foot. You can stay back and watch over the horses.”

“Is it safe?” Snider asked, not ready to dismount.

With boots on the ground, Atticus handed off the reins to the dog handler. 

“It’s as safe as it’s going to get,” Willis said. 

He tied off the harness for the young stallion and its head shifted with irritation. The heat got too much for the horses. Little shady pockets came up on the east side of the large rocks poking from the ground. They had to wait until after sunset to get a reprieve. 

“Ain’t you going to take your rifle?” Lewis asked. The heavy blue steel gun looked small in his big hands. 

Atticus shook his head and left the rifle in the saddle sheath. The smell of the dead, the smoldering carcasses, and embers of the ruined wagons told him the only living things in the area were the swarming black-headed vultures. The leftover feast was too much to pass on for the birds. But the closer Atticus and the others got, the more birds took flight. 

They weren’t walking into an ambush if men knew how to read the region.     

Chapter Two

The dead lay in a heap — a pyre created by the marauders — that had burned down to ash and bones. Cloth and lamp oil had helped feed the fire; Atticus caught the striking scent of kerosene — a unique fluid that wasn’t readily available in the area. The empty steel can had bullet holes in it. 

All together, they found nine wagons — one hidden behind a giant chunk of sedimentary rocks that thrust up from the ground like enormous natural tombstones. It seemed fitting, given what had happened. 

Atticus branched off from the other three men walking slowly around the remains. Wise sat on the ground, keeping his whining dogs from getting close to the dead horses. That level of death made even the horses uneasy. 

“It was Comanches,” Lewis declared after quickly assessing the carnage. 

Atticus had had enough before it even started. He removed the hat from his head and ran fingers through his sweaty locks. He needed to talk loud enough for Wise to hear him, but Atticus wasn’t a man to raise his voice. 

“Mr. Lewis, gentlemen, I think it’s best if no one makes accusations at this time,” he said. His throat felt as dry as dust on his boots. Lewis, Snider, and Willis paused, looking through the burnt wagon debris and other detritus left over from the attack. “Hey, Vince, can you hear me over there?”

“Yes, sir,” Wise said, lifting his hand to acknowledge Atticus. He’d drawn the bandana from around his neck to cover his nose.  

“Okay, look, I know you want to point blame around here. But we don’t know what happened.”

“It was the Comanches.” Lewis cradled his shotgun, facing Atticus with defiance. “Look around here. It got all the signs—”

“It’s a raiding party attack, Mr. Beasley,” Atticus said with assertiveness. “This is an attack on people and property. It’s a statement.” He’d raised his voice enough to make the dogs stop whining from their roosts. “I appreciate that you’re uneasy. But what we got here is a lot of dead people and animals, and no one to blame.” 

He lifted his finger when Lewis opened his mouth. 

“What do you think happened?” Snider asked. He carried the spyglass with him as he surveyed the area. The strap over his shoulder held the leather box to his chest. “I count ten Chinamen in that pile.”

“You think it was a rival gang come to kill them?” Lewis asked hastily. His quick turn from an Indian attack made him look further out into the nearby rock cliffs, as if expecting another ambush.

Atticus shook his head. He hadn’t looked at the burning bodies on the pyre but got enough sense by the silk clothes and slippers that the bodies were immigrants making a delivery. If they’d had anything of value with them, it had left with the killers. 

Atticus followed a set of hoof prints until he saw the horse stopped long enough in the blood-soaked sand to leave full impressions of the hoof on the ground. He squatted to get a better look. Curiosity brought Lewis and Snider closer to Atticus. 

“See here,” he said, gesturing to the imprint. “Now, if this was a Comanche pony, you’d see the frog print.” He looked up from the mark. “Comanche horses don’t wear shoes. Their horses leave soft footing on the ground from the underside without shoes.”

“Well, sure, everyone knows that,” Lewis said. But his shifting eyes betrayed him as Snider nodded in agreement. “But maybe they stole some horses.”

“They didn’t steal these horses,” Atticus said. “Whoever killed these people made sure to leave the horses.” He stood up and scanned the area again, keeping his eyes from the smoldering mass of bodies. “This doesn’t have any of the signs of Comanche. I don’t see scalps. If they meant to torture the Chinese, they’d burn them alive. Those men were already dead when the pyre started.”

“So, who did this?”

“I don’t know. We’re north of the Rio Grande. I can’t see how any banditos got over the river. There isn’t anywhere close to here that has access to the riverbank.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” Lewis said. “It’s all flat shelves and deep drops this side.”

Atticus stared at the southern mountain range, red and russet in the sunlight. “How far is it to Watkins from here? Another half-day’s ride?” he asked.  

“Yeah, about that,” Snider said. “You want to keep going?”

“I think it’s a good idea. But we got to deal with this first.”

“Deal with what?” Lewis asked. “They’re all dead. Ain’t nothing left to deal with here.”

“We need to bury them,” Atticus said. 

“Bury them? But they’re Chinamen. I ain’t wasting my time to bury no Chinaman.” 

Without Lewis expecting it, Atticus reached out and snatched the gunstock of the shotgun. Lewis was a wide man and a foot taller than Atticus — he wasn’t giving up the gun easily. But Atticus didn’t want the weapon; he wanted to prove a point by forcing Lewis to retract his arms, pulling the shotgun tight to his barrel chest. It was enough to make Lewis take a step backward.

In the same momentum, Atticus stepped into Lewis’ space, brought his right boot up between the man’s splayed legs, and caught Lewis behind the kneecap. His leg buckled, and Atticus shoved him. Lewis fell like a fat log in the dirt, kicking up dust around them. He’d released the double-barrel shotgun to keep himself from falling. Atticus still had it in his grip, facing Lewis on the ground. 

“That weren’t right, Sheriff,” Lewis said, picking up his bulk and dusting off his clothes.

“I am not interested in listening to your belly-aching about burying a dead man. I don’t care if they were Chinamen, soldiers, or even damned Comanche. We’re burying the dead because we’re civilized, and that’s what we do.” He handed the gun back to Lewis. “Now, if you got a problem with that, Lewis, you can head back to town right now.” 

“I found a shovel,” Willis said. He carried it toward the smoldering fire and used it to scoop soil on the bits still smoldering. 

Lewis and Snider got to work clearing space near where the men had died to excavate a mass grave. Atticus walked away from the three men to collect himself again. Getting through the ignorance was one thing, but making people believe they had a duty to the dead wasn’t an easy feat.

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Sheriff Atticus Stevens is determined to do the job that came with the badge pinned to his chest. Ever since his uncle’s sudden death, he’s been suspicious of the Comanches but he hasn’t had the chance to do anything about it—yet. His plans for revenge are postponed however, when the town is attacked by a Mexican gang. Atticus realizes then that he does not have the manpower to save the town from the face of danger and the clutches of death. If he’s going to keep everyone safe, he’s going to have to ask the Comanches for help and forget his own need for vengeance. It isn’t just his life that depends on this alliance, but everyone living in the region. Can Atticus defeat evil and save the people he’s sworn to protect, or will this unending battle cost him his life?

Fate seems determined to put Atticus in an early grave and a disastrous altercation leaves him with a gunshot wound. He barely escapes death thanks to Topsannah, a white woman adopted by the Comanches, who intervenes. Atticus will join forces with her in order to bring their two worlds together while fighting a mutual foe. Even though the journey is fraught with difficulty, he will start fearing for Topsannah’s safety and soon, his feelings for her will overwhelm him. Will love flourish between them, or will danger and death overtake the hopefulness of a truce?

Nothing in life is ever simple for a man unwilling to stand aside and let bad things happen to good people… When Atticus faces his greatest threat, he knows it means everything could change for the territory. Will he succeed in protecting Topsannah, the woman he’s come to love, or will his battle bring him at the end of his rope?

“Last Chance For Retaliation” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

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