To Hell and Beyond
Series: Mark Henry Novels
Published by: Pinnacle
Release Date: May 30, 2017
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Here together for the first time are Mark Henry’s explosive Western epics that show the brutal, gut-punching American West in all its violent glory.
THE HELL RIDERS
During the bloody Apache Wars, Trap O’Shannon, Clay Madsen, Ky Roman, and a few others distinguished themselves with uncommon valor in the brutal Geronimo Campaign. Known as the Scout Trackers, this fearsome bunch of battle-hardened warriors rode hard, shot straight and plenty, and took chances no one else was willing to take. But times have changed and the brotherhood is scattered here and there in a changing land—until the past comes rolling back with a vengeance.
HARD ROAD TO HEAVEN
Reunited, the gang is ready to ride hard from Montana all the way to the Arizona Territory to enforce their fearless brand of justice. Killers of every stripe will stand in their way, but that only means Trap and his men will fight that much harder to bury every last one of them . . .
Montana August 18, 1910
Six days after the train groaned away from Boston's North Station, seventeen-year-old Angela Kenworth showed some resolution of her own and tossed two gray linen traveling skirts out the window of a swaying, horse-drawn coach.
Evidently, her father's idea of adventure had little to do with comfort. It was miserably hot inside the jigging vehicle that seemed to spend more time on two wheels than four. Angela leaned her head back against the smooth, maroon leather upholstery and tugged at the knees of her new canvas britches, regretting the loss of the airy skirts. The snug pants caused her to sweat profusely, confining and pinching in countless unmentionable places. Unable to do anything about it, she consoled herself with the fact that she was no longer confined to the elegant prison of her home in Boston.
Outside, what her father had described as rolling green hills of pine and hemlock had been reduced to charred rock and ruined black snags. Every few minutes the coach rolled over a scab of burned ground, some hundreds of feet across. Mountains of the Bitterroot range peeked up through a brown haze all around her, emerald isles above a sea of greasy smoke.
Her father hadn't mentioned the fires, and she had yet to see him so she could ask about them. A tall, strapping German fellow with soap-scrubbed skin had met them at the station in Saltese and introduced himself as Fritz Mueller, her father's representative. He had white-blond hair, sun-bronzed skin, and chiseled features that made Mother's representative, Betty Donahue, trip on her skirts to fawn over him.
Betty drooped beside Angela, fanning her face with a lace handkerchief. She was a fleshy woman, prone to copious sweating even in cooler weather. Beads of perspiration pasted blond curls to her high forehead and glistened over a moist upper lip. She had a dark, if somewhat alluring, smile of a stain at the scooping neckline of her robin's-egg dress. Mother considered Betty her spy, but at twenty-four the flighty woman was only a few years older than her charge and not much more mature than her five-year-old son, Shad, who sat at her knee playing with a toy wooden horse. Betty did a marvelously irreverent impersonation of Mother by plugging one nostril while she spoke.
"I despise the fact that you've dragged me out to this godforsaken wilderness." Betty's put-on whine harmonized perfectly with the chattering coach wheels. She used the hankie to dab at the sweat that sparkled like a beaded necklace and pooled into a clear jewel at the center of her abundant bosom.
"What does despise mean?" Shad said, wiping his forehead, without looking up from the toy horse. He had blond hair like Betty, and shared her tendency to wilt in the heat. Mother had thrown her weight in on the matter of his traveling clothes as well, and he wore an absurdly frilly white shirt with ruffled cuffs, brown knickers, and white knee socks that made him look like a sweaty little George Washington out for a visit to Montana.
Betty let her own brogue slip back while she continued to press the lace against her cleavage, though all the sweat had long since been dabbed away.
"Despise describes the way you feel about turnips, dear." She spoke to her son, but kept a hungry gaze on the handsome young German across from Angela. Betty's late husband had been a fisherman out of Gloucester who was lost at sea. She was heavily in the market for another, and the bosom dabbing was her not-so-subtle method of advertisement.
Shad curled his freckled nose and rolled his toy horse across the leather seat between him and the gentleman. "I despise turnips," he said.
"Mr. Mueller, how much further to my father's mining operation?" Angela asked, as much to rescue the poor man from Betty's heaving flirtations as for any desire to have a short journey.
"One half of one hour," the young man said in a clipped accent. "Please to call me ..."
A sharp crack outside the coach cut him off, and he cocked his head to one side, listening. Panic seized his blue eyes, and he tore his gaze away from Betty to stare down at his chest. A crimson bloom spread rapidly across the pressed fabric of his shirt.
He blinked, opened and closed his mouth like a fish out of water, gasping for air. "I am shot." A thin sheen of blood covered his perfect teeth.
Angela heard the driver's shrill whistle, and fell back against her seat as the horses leaped forward into a frantic gallop along the tilted, hillside road.
"Oh, Dear Lord!" Betty put the hankie to her open mouth and gaped, wide-eyed, at the bleeding man. Angela turned to look out her window, and got a glimpse of approaching riders emerging from a cloud of dust behind them. She heard the German groan. His cool hand yanked back surprisingly hard on her shoulder. If not for the blood and the dazed look in Mueller's pale eyes, she would have thought this was all part of her father's idea of an adventure.
"Please, don't, Miss Kenworth," Mueller said through clenched teeth. Pink spittle foamed at the corner of his tight lips.
An arrow whistled through the same window and lodged in the wall directly above Mueller with a reverberating thud. Shrieking whoops echoed amid rifle shots and the thwack of more arrows outside the coach. A shadow flew past Angela's window as the burly man riding shotgun tumbled from his perch.
The coach careened wildly as it picked up speed, bouncing over rocks and ruts. Shad clutched his toy horse, his eyes locked on the German's glistening red shirt. A crackling wheeze racked the poor man's body at each ragged breath.
Mueller pressed a hand over his wound. It seemed to help some — just enough for him to speak.
"Not much time," he groaned, risking a weary glance out his window. "These highwaymen ... seek money ... still dangerous. I promise ... keep you safe. Please ..." He held a hand out to a cowering Betty to pull her and her son across the coach, leaving the seat next to Angela vacant. Mueller's wheezing grew worse by the moment, his voice little more than a whispered croak. "Behind you ... in seat ... is knob. Push ..." Mueller's eyes clouded, fluttering in a vain effort to remain conscious.
He was drowning in his own blood.
Angela's mind raced while she groped in the crease of smooth leather where the bench met the backrest. It was a tight fit, even for her small hand, and made more difficult by the jigging coach.
This was all impossible. A bone-numbing scream pierced the window as surely as any arrow and made her blood go cold.
"I can't find anything." Angela's voice rattled with the coach. She was almost in tears. Searching frantically, her hand finally closed around a cool metal knob. She gave it a push and the leather padding next to her tilted up and forward toward Betty to reveal a hidden compartment the size of a small coffin.
Another bullet smashed into the paneling next to Mueller. Splinters of yellow wood shot across the crimson mess that covered the front of his shirt and oozed between his fingers. He didn't have enough energy to flinch.
"Your father uses ... to hide precious cargo." Mueller rasped. "Today, you are such cargo."
Angela looked at the dark box and then up at Betty's pleading eyes. "But there's only room for one. I can't ..."
"No time ... to argue ..." The German pulled a black pistol from his waistband and stared resolutely out the window. His breath was shallow, his face sickeningly pale. It seemed a struggle for the once-powerful man to hold the heavy weapon.
"They are upon us." His voice was no more than a whisper now — hardly audible above the melee. "It is your father's place ... to decide ..."
A volley of gunfire shattered the air. Betty flinched at each report, and Shad pressed his hands against his ears. Above them, the driver gave a muffled yelp and the coach began to slow.
A chorus of hoofbeats grew louder and drowned out the coach wheels amid the yelping shouts of approaching riders. Angela looked again at Betty's panic-stricken face.
She refused to believe this was happening. "I don't care what my fa ..."
Mueller's head lolled forward: chin on bloody chest. He was beyond arguing.
The shooting stopped.
"Shad, honey," Angela whispered. She turned the trembling boy's face away from the gore-covered German. "I need you to lie down in here and be very quiet." Her voice was higher than normal, tight and overflowing with urgency.
Shad looked up at his mother and sucked his bottom lip. The tips of his small fingers pressed white as he clutched his toy horse.
"Hurry, sweetie," Betty said. Her eyes were awash, and her tremulous chest now heaved with terror and grief.
Harsh voices milled outside the slowing coach, mingling with the protestations and snorts of horses jerked to a stop.
Angela looked down at Shad in the compartment. "Quiet now. No matter what you hear."
The shadow of men on horseback flashed past the window. Moments later, heavy footfalls approached.
The seat snapped shut over little Shad Donahue with a resounding click at the same instant the doors flew open. Rough hands dragged the women from their seats on opposite sides of the coach. After the dimly lit interior, the blazing daylight combined with the shock of their circumstances proved blinding and Angela saw only a dark silhouette. Brutish men with stinking breath pawed at her body and threatened to yank her arms from their sockets.
She struggled against her captors, but bit her lip to keep from screaming.
Betty had no such compunction, and her mournful wails rocked the carriage between them.
Montana August 19
Except for the spot where the blue-eyed mare kicked him above the left knee, Trap O'Shannon woke feeling reasonably pain-free for someone who'd spent most of his forty-eight years sleeping on the ground. He pulled a thin cotton sheet up around his bare shoulders to ward off the morning chill, and tried to nestle deeper into the feather mattress. A twenty-year-old knife wound, puckered and white, decorated the tan flesh over his left shoulder. The injury had gone all the way to the bone, and it troubled him from time to time, particularly if the weather turned cold. Trap was getting to the age where he babied it a little.
Maggie had insisted on three windows in the bedroom when they built their small log home in the shadow of the Bitterroots. Ever a practical man, Trap was sure two windows would be enough, but like most times, he'd let his wife have her way. This summer had proven hotter that normal, and he'd ended up glad she'd cajoled him into that particular luxury. The night before had been so hot, they'd left all the windows open to try and catch a little of the smoky cross-breeze. It seemed a better choice to choke to death on cool, smoky air than bake in confined hot air with the smoke settled out of it.
It would be miserable again when the sun finally poked over the mountain east of O'Shannon's two-room cabin. Most of the fires had slept with the night, and though their smell still lingered, the air was slightly less congested. The cool shadows out the side window, nearest Trap, were green instead of gray, and he managed to take in a full breath of air without coughing. The day would be another scorcher, but with morning's chilly breath still lingering in the cabin, he was happy to have a warm bed and an even warmer wife to sidle up against.
Maggie was still asleep, facing away from him, her airy cotton gown bunched above her hips. Her knees were drawn up toward her belly. One bronze arm ran down in front of her, hand resting between her thighs, the other flung back above her head in careless abandon. Even as she slept, there was something feral about this woman that moved Trap like nothing else. She was still the same fierce creature he'd met when she was only fourteen — older now, with a little more meat on her bones — but just as wild.
Maggie had always been hot-natured. Even in winter conditions that left Trap's teeth chattering, she'd preferred to keep the tent wall rolled up a hair or the window cracked enough to ensure a steady draft.
Her side of the sheet was pushed down to a crumpled pile at her feet, and though the night's chill still lingered in the air, thick tresses of long, black hair sweated to the pillow ticking. She breathed the heavy breaths of exhausted sleep, belly rising and falling deeply with the slow, even rhythm of her soft purr.
They'd been up well past three in the morning playing midwife to the newest spotted mare while she gave birth to her first foal. It was a difficult delivery. Trap knew horses and he was no quitter, but twice, he'd sworn the mare was done for and started for his gun.
Maggie was a different story. A horse was not just important to the Nez Percé culture. It represented the culture itself, and saving one was worth all efforts. She'd refused to give up.
Prayers and mournful songs, helped heavenward by smoke from a bundle of burning sweetgrass from her medicine bag, had filled the dry night air.
The gods Maggie prayed to were a lot like Trap's father's God, who said somewhere or another in His Bible that a good deal of work had to be sprinkled in with your praying.
Maggie had prayed and sang and prayed some more, eventually working her small hand into the birth canal. As much communication as manipulation, whatever magic she'd done had worked.
Just before three A.M., two tiny hooves and a brown nose appeared under the mare's tail. She gave a moaning push and a dandy, spotted mule colt came sloshing out with a gush and a plop into the smoky world.
The coming of a new foal was always a magical event, and the O'Shannons had lingered for a time without talking, arm in arm, marveling at the beauty of it. Once the new baby was nursing well, they'd come inside and collapsed.
Now, Trap coughed quietly and rested a hand on the soft skin above his wife's hip where it melted into her belly. He wasn't sure of the time, but the smoke hanging lazily in the shaft of window light told him the fires were awake again. His grumbling stomach said it was late morning. He didn't care. He wasn't in the Army anymore. Wriggling closer, he nestled against the furnace of Maggie's body. His face buried in the dense tangle of her hair, Trap took a deep breath, drawing in the earthy aroma of ritual sweetgrass smoke that lingered there with the thousand other assorted Maggie-smells that held him together like glue.
He reckoned serenely to himself how retirement — or at least this change in job — had a lot of things going for it.
Maggie stirred. Though she faced away from him, Trap could tell she'd opened her eyes.
"You make coffee?" she said, the rhythm of her breath remaining slow and constant. "I can't smell any coffee."
For three decades, Maggie Sundown O'Shannon of the Wallowa Nez Percé had proven herself a devoted wife and mother, but since moving to their small homestead, Trap had spoiled her a little by making their morning coffee himself.
Trap snuggled closer and nuzzled the half-moon bite scar on the side of her neck, just below her ear. "Why would I want coffee when I can drink in the smell of my wife?"
Maggie's lips smacked as she woke up slowly. She stretched her head back with a groan, rubbing her thick hair against Trap's cheek. Bits of hay from the ordeal with the mare the night before still hid among the strands. "This old woman's smell will not warm and wake you like some good, hot coffee."
"Oh, I don't know, old woman. I think your smells are waking me just fine." He pressed closer to her, his breath heavy against her ear.
Slowly, she rolled over to face him. "Mmm, I can tell."
She didn't bother with her gown — a fact that Trap considered a promising sign. Fully awake now, she slid a leg over the top of his, drawing him closer with the crook of her heel. Soft, familiar fingers brushed a wisp of salt-and-pepper hair out of his face. He sighed when she touched him on the end of his nose.
"It's not too hot yet." She winked. "I still want coffee, but I suppose it can wait a ..."
Maggie stopped suddenly, and rose up on one elbow to look toward the east window.
"What is it?" Trap had learned over time to trust his wife's instincts even above his own.
"The horses," she said softly, craning her neck toward the window. She caressed Trap's shoulder over the puckered knife scar. "Our new mother is speaking."
"A visitor." Maggie withdrew her hand, letting it slide teasingly down his bare chest, stopping at his belly. "Someone's coming on a horse she doesn't know."
Trap threw back the sheet and gave his wife's bare rump a frustrated swat.
"It better be someone important. I hate to leave this behind."
Maggie snorted, but left the sheet where it was.
"Tell them we're not buying then, and come back to bed with me before the day heats up."