In this compelling new installment of bestseller Ralph Compton's The Gunfighters series, a man driven by the destruction of his family seeks to protect a woman and her children from a band of desperados.
John Stockbridge was once a peaceful man of medicine. Now, he's better known as Dr. Vengeance, a man who is as fast with a shotgun as any other gunfighter is with a six-gun. The murders of his wife and child left him with an aching hole where his soul once was. His only solace comes from wandering the West.
Along the way, he encounters a woman and her two children searching for their missing fur-trapper husband/father in the Rockies. In the process, they run afoul of some foul former Confederates who have amassed money and local power by robbing those traveling west through a mountain pass. While searching for the missing trapper and aided by a Mexican mountain man and an independent woman who works at the local hotel Stockbridge must take down the vicious highwaymen one by one.
About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six foot eight without his boots. He worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist. His first novel, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was the USA Today bestselling author of the Trail of the Gunfighter series, the Border Empire series, the Sundown Rider series, and the Trail Drive series, among others.Jeff Rovin is the author of more than 150 books, fiction and nonfiction, both under his own name, under various pseudonyms, or as a ghostwriter, including numerous New York Times bestsellers and over a dozen of the original Tom Clancy's Op-Center novels.
Read an Excerpt
The black bear bore the scars of a life lived in the mountains.
The animal lumbered on all fours under a fading sun, his leather-bottomed paws and long blue-gray claws sure on the granite-and-gneiss surface.
He was not yet ready to winter. There was a presence-mostly scents but also sounds and movement-that was unaware that this was his territory. It was unafraid. That meant danger to the bear, his mate, and their cubs.
The threat had to be chased away or destroyed.
The foothills sloped north from the Onhe'e River, where the bear made its home. The terrain was treed and still free of the snows that had fallen in the higher elevations. The soil, already frozen, bore no tracks, but that did not matter. The bear's sense of smell was greater than that of its prey, greater than even that of the gray wolves that stalked him in packs. None challenged him in what the Cheyenne had named Nhkohesvse-the Bear Paw Mountains.
Yet in his sixteen winters, the bear had learned that no animal, not even one that weighed four hundred pounds and could rear to a height of six feet or greater, could afford to be careless. His fur was marked by conflicts with other bears, with mountain cats, with wolves. If not the wolves, then a dislodged rock or storm-weakened tree or landslide could deliver instant death. The bear's head bore the scar of a tumble on slick rocks by the river near his den.
But this was not a wolf the black bear sought. It was a different scent, a different enemy, one who walked upright and could kill from a distance, from behind a boulder or atop a tree. A foe who dressed in the skins of his kind but was otherwise frail and easily broken.
The last of the full moon threw a pale ivory cast over the pines and oaks that stood above and below him on the gentle incline. An occasional cloud briefly blanketed the entire landscape in darkness, and the crunch of fallen leaves now and then dulled his hearing. That did not stop the large nose from dipping, rising, seeking the scent he had picked up by the cave, the smell of the upright killer, the stench of dead hides upon its weak shoulders-
The double-spring steel trap clanged shut an instant before the bear howled. He fell, writhing, swatting at the sharpened metal teeth that chewed through fur and flesh, digging into bone. The creature roared as it twisted on its back, each move causing the teeth to bite deeper, wider. The more the bear struggled, the more its wound opened and the more blood spilled onto the crushed leaves. It coated the animal's lower leg and poured onto the exposed rock, making it slippery for the men who emerged from hiding. They appeared suddenly, as if the trees had suddenly birthed them, and slowly converged on the fallen beast. Even though the bear was held fast in a trap that was securely chained to a tree trunk, they were not incautious.
They would not have survived the Civil War and eighteen years in the wilderness had it been otherwise.
There were six of them, all in furs and most with caps-fur or Confederate 1st Virginia Infantry. With a seventh, the cook, back at their mountain compound, they called themselves the Red Hunters-just that.
The one man who was bareheaded came forward with a drawn Bowie knife, its blade a spectral white in the light of the moon. He was Captain Promise Cuthbert, and he was here to kill. Like climbing, logging, lovemaking, it was a skill that waned the less it was practiced.
There was a lean six feet of Promise Cuthbert, with black hair that covered the back of his neck and tumbled over two eyes of different colors, one blue, the other hazel. His mouth was a slash cut into a face that had the cheekbones and complexion of a skull.
How often, in the wild, beyond pickets, had he drawn this blade and seen it shine. It almost had moods to him-calm and cold under the moon, fierce and bloodthirsty when used by the fire of a campfire, a flash of lightning when called upon in daylight. The shine attracted the bear's attention and, with effort that caused the chain to rattle, he stood awkwardly on his three good legs to face what looked like a big white fang. But the movement caused the trap to tug, and the three limbs locked in an unsteady stance-
"Stay down," the approaching man said, his voice deep and raw.
"Papa needs new shoes," said another.
The bear showed its own teeth in a mouth wide and foul from a recent kill, though it appeared to be more grimace than threat. Cuthbert showed his own wide smile back.
"You're gonna die," he said. "It's gonna happen."
As the man neared, the others closed in behind him. Four of those other men held Springfield short rifles in their cold, bare hands. One held a knife-not a Bowie like the captain's but a custom weapon that was 93/4 inches overall with a 518-inch drop-point blade and a bone ivory handle. There was no cross guard, just a three-brass-rivet attachment, so the cutting edge could be thrust in as far as the holder felt like pushing. The Springfields were new. They had replaced the old Sharps rifles the men had carried for more than a decade.
The guns had been the contribution of Woodrow Pound, the freed slave who had hooked up with Cuthbert and the others when, migrating west, they found him half dead by the Kansas River in Topeka. The slave had escaped before the War and kept moving west, aimless and alone. A six-foot-seven mass of man, with a long face and a big knob of a chin, Pound was a master with anything sharp or pointed, and he was too rich a find for even former Confederates to leave behind. They'd had plans and the ailing man had needed help. In the almost twenty years since then, the former log splitter had become invaluable to the team. Pound's initiation had proved that. His job had been to slip into the camp of a U.S. Army patrol one night, cut loose the horses, and make off with the new Springfield rifles while the men, half awake, chased their mounts.
Pound secured ten guns and stuffed a dozen boxes of ammunition into his canvas bag.
The men were happy to be rid of the worn-out Sharps. Anywhere else in the world-on a farm, on the sea, in the desert-a man was as strong as his sinew allowed. But here in the Rockies, in God's unfinished wilderness, he needed more.
His eyes narrow in his sun-blasted face, the fifty-year-old Cuthbert stopped just out of range of the bear. Holding the knife waist-high, he glared at the animal, his smile flinching wider with each weakening bellow from the big mouth, with each futile tug of the chain.
"You are not the master here," Cuthbert snarled. Without turning from the beast, he said to the men behind him, "Take it."
The four Springfields erupted as one and the top of the head of the big beast was lost in waves of red. Animal brain and bone were blown across the oak behind it. But only across the top of the head. The pelt would go to shoes and at least two coats, while the snout and the teeth had commercial value. Though the men lived off the land, they also bought the comforts they required. For that, they needed goods to sell in Gunnison or farther east in Denver. Bear teeth were popular for jewelry, the nose and other parts, dried organs mostly, for medical potions.
The bear fell on its big belly with a thump, its limbs splayed. The men lowered their rifles and came in closer.
"Already looks like a coat," barrel-chested Liam McWilliams snorted.
"Except for the parts that are my shoes," said the short, wiry Alan DeLancy.
"Brain over brawn," observed the hulking Zebediah Tunney, oblivious to the irony in the remark. He was more like the bear than he was like the others, a Texan who used to fight bulls for pocket change.
As the others stood around, Pound slipped his knife into the bear's mouth and began to remove the jaw. The teeth would come out later, with pliers, back at the cabin. Cuthbert took his Bowie to the animal's abdomen to empty the beast's torso.
The cold orbs above watched his grisly deed without judgment. It was impartial to the exposed red sinew, the still-warm intestines being carelessly tossed aside and sparkling with fake life. The meat and some of the edible viscera-the heart, the liver-would be harvested over the next hour. The paws, too, would be cut away for sale as candleholders. What was salvaged would be carried to the sprawling log cabin below, lower in the foothills. It would be carried by a thirteen-hand packhorse that always rode with them. The animal was standing mutely upwind with the other horses, in a glade, after having carried the trap up the winding mountain trail.
Ironically, it was easier when they hunted men up here. It took only one or two members of the Red Hunters to do that. Men did not have the sharp instincts of beasts.
Save for Pound-who had learned all his lessons in bondage-that was something each of the men had relied on during the Civil War. The men had served under Colonel Patrick Moore. They had specialized in night raids on Union encampments: taking or scattering horses, stealing or disabling weapons, grabbing powder or food or clothing or uniforms, and killing whenever possible. Cutting a throat from behind or putting a knife in a man's back-anything that would have diminished enemy numbers and undermined morale. Their carte de visite had been a bloody palm print, left at the scene of the action.
The men had been barely twenty then. Moore had culled them from the ranks of outcast aristocrats: wealthy scions of great families who were gamblers, profligates, wags, womanizers. No drinkers, though: It would have been one thing if they had done something that had resulted in their own deaths. Moore could not allow one man to jeopardize the unit.
On the battlefield, the men had been filled with idealism and rage. They had gone from wayward colts to stallions ready to hurt you with both ends-biting, kicking, attacking. They had found their calling.
After the War, far from being spent, the men found themselves insatiably hungry. As Cuthbert had told the others around a campfire, while eyeing his Bowie knife, "Damn my eyes. I got nowhere to put it." It was a week after the dismal surrender at Appomattox Court House, and the men had still not gone home.
"To what?" their point man, Grady Ambrose Foxborough, had asked the departing Colonel Moore.
"To rebuild," the officer had replied. "There's not much else to do. Go back to your family in Canada."
It was good sense but spoken without conviction. When Moore had ridden off, the gaunt, narrow-faced, sandy-bearded Grady had spit at the idea of working on the family ferryboat. He had traveled south at fifteen to learn the tobacco trade. The only place he could do that now was Connecticut, and he would be damned if he would work for a Yankee.
The War had left most of their comrades tired and beaten. Like the colonel, they took Mr. Lincoln at his word, that there would be a general and kindly amnesty. Now that they had just learned he was dead, no one was particularly glad. No one knew what would happen next . . . especially with Andrew Johnson taking his place. He had been a fence-straddling Tennessee governor and senator who showed too little heartfelt affection for his native land. Less than Lincoln had, in fact.
The other reality was that four years ending in defeat had left them with humiliation and a hunger to destroy. They had talked about going north as bandits, living off the land and leading hapless Union soldiers into deadly ambushes.
But the focus of both the North and the South had shifted to the West, and the men decided to go that way. The wilderness held an appeal that the benighted North did not. So they packed their hate and gear and, unlike the James brothers, they did not strike at towns and institutions.
Instead, they withdrew. No longer guerrillas camping in the wild, they built themselves a fortress.
The six men were back at their cabin before the midnight owls had begun their nightly symphony. The meat and organs were placed, for now, in boxes that had been built and sealed with wax for that purpose, then set in the cold earth. Their cook, named Baker-Franz Baker, shortened from Diefenbach-would cut and cure the meat over the next two days, well before the snows came to their ledge and buried the crates. The bear would be for winter emergencies. Weather permitting, they would continue to kill smaller animals from squirrels to anything with feathers for food. When they needed something else, there were always settlers and frontiersmen, Indian parties and occasional military patrols, surveyors and wagons. The winter was easier on the plains below the foothills. There was never a lack of travelers.
The men did not hesitate to take what they required or just wanted-especially smoking tobacco and liquor-and, if necessary, killing to get it. Occasionally there were women with the mountain travelers. The Red Hunters did not kill them, though many died trying to get away.
The Red Hunters worked up here unmolested. The nearest law was in Buzzard Gulch, and gimpy Sheriff Tom Neal was not inclined to come after them.
Behind them, the remains of the black bear were already being scavenged by other predators-a scruffy, rogue red fox and an already emaciated raccoon, along with the insects the two mammals ignored. The feast would go on uninterrupted for days and would likely continue as wolves and foxes found and killed the family the bear had left behind.
And there was something else. Though the Red Hunters did not know it then, there was something ahead of them. Something they would not find so easy to snare as a bear.
There were three reasons why Dr. John Stockbridge had stuffed the newspapers against his chest, under his charcoal gray greatcoat.
One was warmth. Setting out from Gunnison three days previous-after a week of lying low, avoiding one Mr. Otis Burroughs-he found the air had turned seasonably cold. But not this cold. Folded in half, the dozen pages provided some insulation against the cold. Since it would take him a few days to make his way through the cold foothills of the Colorado Rockies, that was a major concern.