Wolfpack Press ramrodded by Mike Bray is republishing my entire Sheriff Ben Stillman western series. The first book, ONCE A MARSHAL, is available now. (I've posted the book's gnarly prologue below.)
Another book in the series will follow every other week after this one.
At the tail end, in the spring or early summer, brand-new, freshly penned volumes will begin appearing.
I have been having a grand old time this winter, penning new tales in this series, the very first western series I ever wrote and which I started when I was a much younger man. It's been a fun ride, revisiting these characters and making them just as fresh as they once were, when I was in my late-twenties and everything in my life was so much different. I hope you enjoy these adventures as much as I have had writing them!
The first one is only .99 cents. BUY HERE
Stout as a fence post, the diamondback coiled around a tuft of buffalo grass, raised its head, and tested the air with its long, forked tongue.
Jody Harmon was relieving himself behind a fir tree, taking a break from his work. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't realize the fallen branch he was pissing on was a snake. When the rattles shook, he gave a start, splashing his boots and trouser cuffs.
"... Ho, now," he said tightly.
His pants hung open, exposing him to the viper's scrutiny. He wanted to cover himself but feared that if he so much as twitched, the critter would leap forward and sink its two-inch tines into his bare flesh.
The snake investigated the scuffed toe of his boot, pulled back, and increased its rattle. Jody flinched.
"Just hold still," a quiet voice said.
"I'm not goin' anywhere."
"Just... hold ... still."
From the sound of his father's voice Jody knew he was trying to get a bead on the snake, probably propping his old Sharps rifle on the windmill tower they'd been horsing together out of square-cut pine logs felled and dragged from the surrounding ridges that had turned a smoky blue green in the late-afternoon light.
The snake's arrow-shaped head glided sideways. Its rattle stuck straight up in the air. One of the horses whinnied.
The snake's mouth opened. The needle teeth shone. The coil sprang, and the viper shot upward as if propelled from a cannon.
Jody jumped, tripped, and landed in a juniper bush. Had he heard the Sharps' boom? He looked down.
The big snake lay in his lap with its fangs striking convulsively against his jeans, a hole the size of a silver dollar in its neck.
He flung the beast away and scrambled to pull up his pants. The rattler lay in the grass with its wrinkled, white belly heaving, its smoky eyes open, its jaws working. Its body spasmed, whipping its tail.
"Right through the neck." Bill Harmon smiled, walking forward with his smoking rifle slung over his shoulder—a big, grinning bear of a man in baggy coveralls and a sugar-loaf sombrero shading his bearded face. "Still got all your parts?"
Jody wiped his hands on his jeans and scowled. “Think it's funny, do you? You mighta shot sooner."
"What fun would that o' been? I was memorizing the picture of you standin' there offerin' your noodle to that viper so's I could detail it for my grandchildren."
The elder Harmon hooted and held the snake's blindly striking head down with his boot. The tail whipped his pants several times before the death spasms slowed.
Bill bent down, grabbed the snake by the neck, and held the long, curving body up for inspection. "That's a hog, there! I'll fry him up for supper."
"I ain't eating that."
"You'll eat skunk but you won't eat rattler?"
"I haven't ate skunk."
The elder Harmon gave a mischievous smile. "Sure ya have. That rabbit you had the other night was a skunk I trapped under the icehouse."
"That's disgusting! You sure as hell didn't get that out of Ma's recipe box."
Jody shook his head. He pulled on his gloves and walked back to where the windmill tower lay near a freshly dug stock well. "If you're through funnin', let's get this job finished. I got plans later."
Letting his laughter cool to a slow boil, the elder Harmon took the snake and his rifle to the tool wagon hitched to a stout, hip-shot gelding. "Those plans happen to be named Crystal Johnson?"
"What you got goin'?"
"Dance over at the Bitter Creek School."
"Sounds serious. You better head on back to the ranch and get cleaned up. It's pret' near four."
Jody shook his head and talked around the nails in his mouth. "You'll never get this done yourself by nightfall."
Harmon smiled at his son. The dark eyes and taut, determined jaw reminded him of his wife, Jody's mother, a Canadian Cree named Tah-Kwah-I-Mi-Nah-Nah.The name meant "chokecherry" in English; she'd been born during the Moon of the Ripening Chokecherries. A humble, bighearted woman whose easy nature and life joy had equaled that of her father, Chief Stick, she'd been a hard worker to boot. Bill remembered years ago waking at three in the morning and watching her sew moccasins by firelight in her hide-bottom chair while humming the ancient songs she'd learned from her grandmothers.
Jody didn't have her sense of humor, but he had her vigor and her practicality, not to mention her soulful eyes, sleek, coal-black hair, and quiet dignity.
"Who says we have to have it done by nightfall, anyway?" Harmon said. "Like I always told my old huntin' buddy, Ben Stillman—you're dead a long time."
Jody gave the final licks to a nail and sat back on his haunches. "Ben Stillman again. Pa, you're living in the past."
"Ben Stillman is not the past. He's alive and kicking—though I ain't seen him in twenty years."
"How do you know he's alive, then?"
"They used to tell about him in the Great Falls paper. But it's been a while. Might be dead now, I'll admit. The likes of me and Ben, we don't live long."
He paused, studying the ground in contemplative silence. Jody watched him, wishing he could read the old hide hunter's mind.
"Anyway," Bill said, slapping the boy's knee, "this tower isn't going anywhere, and we got some time before the serious powder flies, so you head back to the cabin and get gussied up for your girl."
"Let's both cash it in, then."
Bill shook his head. "Nah, I'll dally here, hammer a few more nails, and enjoy the sun goin' down. When you're scrapin' fifty and don't have women waiting for you anymore, you start appreciatin' things like the sun goin' down. Pathetic, ain't it?"
"You sure, Pa?"
"Sure as your noodle was just about snake supper!"
"Will you quit?" Jody set his hammer in the tool wagon
and rolled down his shirtsleeves. "Well, don't try to do too much and irritate your shoulder."
"Don't worry about me, youngun. You just worry about keepin' that little woman happy so she doesn't fall for one of those Dutchmen in Hungry Hollow." Harmon's dark blond beard broadened with a smile; his eyes glittered.
"Little chance o' that," Jody said. "Crystal Johnson likes her Dutch spiced with Injun." Grinning, he mounted his horse while his father held the bridle.
Jody nodded, giving his buckskin the spurs. "See you back at the cabin."
Harmon watched him ride off down the two-track wagon trail narrowing between fir-covered ridges, disappearing around a hill. Dust and the sound of his hoof beats lingered in the still September air.
That was quite a boy he and Cherry had raised. Bill wished she could see him now, practically a man. She'd died of pneumonia four years ago, and he'd wrapped her in deerskins and laid her in a tree on Mount Baldy, offering her back to Mother Earth and Father Sky.
He wondered if Ben Stillman was gone now, too. The prospect of it filled him with nostalgia, and he got out his Bull Durham and indulged in a smoke.
When the sun had burnished the southern ridge top, filling the valley with cool, blue shade, he ground the butt with his boot heel, donned his gloves, adjusted his hat, and picked up his hammer.
He was lost in his work when the gelding whinnied and shook its mane. He looked up to see a rider at the high end of the valley following the trail out from the pinewoods and curling around a tawny knoll studded with rocks.
The old, gray mule came on slowly, swinging its forelegs as though they were lead. Its head hung down, its ears twitched, its back sagged with the weight of the burly rider.
Harmon recognized the man's floppy, dark hat and the heavy, rounded shoulders. His head bobbed as though his neck were broken.
As the mule neared, Harmon saw the rider was packing a rifle, the butt snugged against his thigh. With the hand holding the reins, he took pulls from a quart jar.
Harmon continued hammering nails until he heard the mule pull up behind the tool cart. The gelding blew and whinnied.
"Easy, Chester," Harmon said to the draft horse. "Afternoon, Johnson."
The man's voice was slow and thick. "Howdy."
"Doin' a little huntin', are ya?"
"What's the quarry—coyotes, rabbits, or longhorn elk?" Harmon laughed and hammered another nail.
"Anything that moves. If I can hit it, I'm gonna kill it."
Bill considered the man uneasily, and Johnson parted his lips, grinning.
He was known throughout the Two Bear Mountains as a drunk and a laggard ten months out of twelve. He left his ranch chores to his five children and long-suffering wife and rode around the mountains drinking and taking potshots at fence posts and deer. Harmon's regard for the wretched soul wavered between loathing and sympathy.
Bill crawled off the tower and retrieved another log from the pile by the tool wagon. "Shootin' and drinkin' don't mix too well," he said, positioning the log over the tower legs. "You're liable to mistake your foot for a rabbit and shoot it plum off!"
Johnson ignored the warning. He smelled of liquor and rancid sweat. Staring dully at Harmon, his nose bulbous and purple-veined, his eyes red and swollen, he growled, "Where's your boy, Bill?"
"Where's your boy?"
Rolling his leathery cheeks up under his eyes, his stomach tightening as though he'd swallowed sour goat's milk, Bill met the man's glowering stare. "Why do you ask?"
"He was seen with my daughter again."
Harmon glanced off, setting his jaw tight as a wedge. So that's what Johnson's visit was all about. He'd had a feeling it was more than a social call. "Let's not get into all that again, Warren," he said despondently.
"Where is he?"
Harmon plucked a nail from the pouch around his waist and positioned it over the log. "None o' your business." He held the nail and tried to steady the hammer.
"If it involves my daughter, it's my business sure enough."
"Your daughter is old enough to decide who she wants to see, and so is my son." Harmon gave the nail a tentative rap. "We have to stay out of it."
Johnson leaned precariously from the saddle, thrusting out his blunt face like a sledgehammer. "I told him to stay away from Crystal. I don't want him seein' her no more. It was one thing when they were kids, but they ain't kids no more."
Harmon gave the nail two solid raps and eased his anger back to a simmer, gritting his teeth. "The wars are over, Warren. We have to put 'em behind us."
"They ain't over," said the veteran of Beecher Island, shaking his head. "They ain't ever gonna be over."
"My Cree wife delivered all five of your children—including Crystal," Bill reminded the rancher.
"You're muddyin' the issue!"
Harmon raised his hands and shook his head in defeat. He knew from experience there was no reasoning with the man. "Okay, Warren. I'll remind him how you feel about it." He turned back to his work.
"No, I'll remind him how I feel about it. Where is he?"
Harmon looked at the rifle riding Johnson's knee—an old Springfield with a stock as gray and splintered as seasoned cordwood—and wagged his hammer at it. "You ain't goin' nowhere near my son packin' that iron."
"He at the cabin?" Johnson asked, wrinkling his red nose.
Harmon's chest rose with restrained anger. "You turn that animal around and go home," he said tightly.
Johnson scoffed and spurred the old mule. Bill grabbed the bridle with an arm as big and weathered as an old cedar post, nearly pulling the beast over sideways. "You hard o' hearing?"
Johnson brought the rifle down level with Harmon's eyes. "Let go that bridle, you squaw-screwin' bastard son of a bitch!"
Harmon grabbed the rifle by the barrel and threw it away. Then he grabbed Johnson by the collar and flung him to the ground. The drunk rancher landed with a grunt as the mule spooked off, snorting and kicking.
Harmon stepped over the man, balling his hands into fists. "If you go anywhere near my boy, Johnson, I'll cut your heart out and feed it to the crows!"
Wincing at the pain in his back, Johnson pulled a .31-caliber pocket pistol from his coat and wielded it uncertainly. He peeled back the hammer, blinked, steadied the barrel, and squeezed the trigger.
The pistol cracked like a branch snapping.
Harmon staggered backward as the bullet creased his shoulder. He looked at the tear in his shirt, amazed. "You son of a bitch!"
He glanced around for Johnson's rifle. Not seeing the carbine in the tall grass, he moved toward the tool wagon for his own Sharps.
The pistol cracked again. Harmon straightened at the impact of the bullet just above his kidney. Another crack and the feeling of a bee sting in the back of his thigh.
He took one heavy step toward the tool wagon before his knees gave. He sank to the grass, planted his fists. He turned to see Johnson getting to his feet, grunting and wheezing through gritted teeth, spittle stringing from his chin.
The man approached with his shoulders hunched, one hand on his back, the stubby pistol extended in a quivering fist. He swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing in his thin, swarthy neck. "Shoulda done this a long time ago, you old squaw dog."
The gun cracked, and a bullet tore into Harmon's chest, knocking him back with a grunt. He took a breath and lifted his head to watch Johnson move toward him, peeling back the hammer and firing another round.
Bill flinched, but the bullet whistled past his ear and slapped the grass. Knowing the miss was accidental, he suddenly realized he was going to die.
Between ragged breaths, he said, "You ... stay away ... from my son ... you sick..."
Ten feet away, Johnson raised the pistol, grinned, and cocked the hammer. He pulled the trigger. The hammer slapped the firing pin with a metallic click. He looked at the weapon, frowning, then pulled the trigger three more times.
The five-shooter was empty.
Harmon pushed himself onto his elbows, blood pouring from his chest and over the hand, trying to hold the wound closed. He heaved up onto his knees, twisted around, and crawled to the wagon, his knees smearing blood in the grass.
Behind him, Johnson stumbled toward him. Harmon reached into the wagon box for his rifle. His hand found the cold barrel.
Johnson tripped in the grass and fell, landing on his Springfield. He jacked a shell into the breech as Harmon turned from the wagon with his Sharps.
Johnson aimed and fired before Harmon could poke his finger through the trigger guard. The bullet ripped through Bill's neck. "Ahh," he grunted, and fell back against the wagon.
He sighed, feeling a chill, fighting to remain conscious. He smelled the alcohol and sweat, felt the shadow of the man standing over him. "You ... stay away from my boy."
Then his eyes closed and he sank sideways into the grass.
When he opened them again, Warren Johnson was gone and the sun was only a salmon wash over the western ridges. The first stars winked in the east.
He saw in a waking dream his son riding down the inverted V of the darkening valley away from him, the lad's body diminishing with each step of his horse.
Bill wanted to call a warning. He wanted to save his son as he had not been able to save his dear Cherry.
But he could manage only a grunt, a labored, raspy whisper. "Jody..."
Then the boy was gone.