Luke Hadley never imagined he would be left for dead with a chest full of bullets on the day of his wedding. All he wanted to do was tend to his farm with his new wife, Audrey, and begin their lives together.
But when the Rhodes Gang crashes his wedding party, they wreak havoc and abduct his bride, leaving the lifeless bodies of his guests. Luke has only a sparse trail of clues to follow, but with help from a phony Pinkerton badge and a mysterious woman with many skills—including breaking him out of jail—he finally rides down those who’ve wronged him....
“The greatest Western writer of them all.”—The Tombstone Epitaph
About the Author
Jackson Lowry is the western pen name for Robert E. Vardeman, author of more than 300 novels. Multiple awards-nominated, Vardeman received the 2017 Western Fictioneers Lifetime Achievement Award. Western titles include Sonora Noose, Great West Detective Agency, and the weird western trilogy Punished. He was born in Texas and has lived in the wilds of New Mexico most of his life.
Read an Excerpt
You better have a strong stomach, mister, if you want to poke around in there." The stagecoach driver kicked at a piece of charred wood that had fallen from the way station after it had been set on fire. Curls of smoke still rose from sections of the devastated way station, betraying the sources of the most disgusting stenches.
Luke Hadley coughed and tried not to let the rumble in his belly bring up what little he'd had to eat that morning before riding up to the destroyed way station a few minutes after the stage arrived. The nose-wrinkling smell wasn't even what the driver meant. That was bad, but the sight of burned bodies in the building's still-smoldering remains was worse. He hitched up the S&W Model 3 Schofield slung at his right hip. His fingers settled on the wood butt and tapped nervously. He had arrived too late again, and it tore at him.
"Do you know what happened?" Luke did. He wondered if the driver had guessed.
The man shuffled over and stared up into Luke's deep blue eyes. He stood about four inches shorter than Luke's five-foot-ten but somehow had a commanding air about him. Whether that came from years of herding stagecoach passengers or maybe being an Army noncom once upon a time didn't matter right now. He was deadly serious as he drew himself to attention and gave his report to a fool who asked.
"Murder, that's what it was. Murder most foul." The driver's chapped lips curled a little. "That's from Shakespeare. A ghost is complaining about how he got hisself killed. Those folks that tended the station won't be complaining to anyone, so I have to. It had to be the Rollie Rhoades gang. Word of them scavengers has been floatin' around for more than a month. Yes sir, got to be them. No Injun done this. No call for them to. They've been peaceable for nigh on a year."
Luke sucked in his breath and held it until he turned a little wobbly. Forcing himself to let it out caused him to reflexively suck in another breath corrupted with the stench of burned human flesh. He looked past the driver to the way station corral. The horses were gone. They might have kicked open the gate and run off when the fire started. If he were a gambling man, he would place every cent he had on outlaws stealing the horses. This is what Rhoades and his cutthroats would do. The senseless killing and arson were trademarks of the baby-faced, always smiling Rollie Rhoades and the road agents that he called his family. No pack of rabid dogs matched their ferocity.
Especially Rhoades's right-hand man, Crazy Water Benedict.
Luke's fingers curled around the butt of his six-gun so hard, the muscles in his forearm protested. He forced himself to relax.
"That's about what I thought."
The driver stepped close enough to bump chests. The reek of sweat and horses and trail dust rising from the driver almost overpowered Luke. It was still better than the smell of death.
"You're not one of them," the driver said forcefully. "My boss made sure I seen the wanted posters on each and every one of those varmints. You a lawman? You don't have the look of one, but . . ." He squinted at Luke, sizing him up.
Luke had encountered this attitude before and had prepared for it. He silently reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a stained piece of latigo with a battered tin star pinned to it. The driver squinted and reached out to run his finger over the embossed letters, then looked up. He nodded curtly.
"Wondered when the Pinkertons would be hired to catch Rhoades. That owlhoot don't much care who he steals from." The driver looked over his shoulder at the burned station. "Or who he kills." He wiped his lips and turned to the stage. "Got to comfort the passengers. They took it well enough when I told them they wouldn't get no whiskey here, but then one's a peddler and the other's a gambler from the look of his hands. No tellin' how they will react."
"You don't care if I sift through the ashes?"
"Go on. If your Christian charity moves you, go on and bury them, too. What remains of them." The driver heaved a deep sigh and wiped his mouth again with his filthy sleeve. "The Tomlinsons been married for ten years and ran the way station for the past eight."
"You mean did they have young 'uns? No, thank the lucky stars. For them that was a continuing sorrow, but now it's a blessing. They had a stable hand, but he left a month back to marry the Willum girl. Ugly as sin, that one. The girl, not the hand. Don't know what he saw in her, but then I don't even recollect his name. That might have something to do with it. She noticed him and nobody else did." The driver shook his head and opened the stagecoach door. He pushed one man back in and started his spiel to keep the two passengers calm and in the coach.
Luke returned the tin star to his pocket, wiped sweaty palms on his pants legs and stepped carefully over some still smoking timbers. The way station had been a fair size. From the way bits and pieces of the roof scattered around, there must have been an explosion. Rollie Rhoades had been a Border Ruffian before the war and enjoyed blowing up buildings and bridges just to watch the blast. It wasn't much of a stretch to think of him planting dynamite and setting it off just to watch the destruction and hear the shrieks of the poor souls inside drowned out by the loud boom and rush of flames.
As he stepped on a plank, a sickening sound made Luke recoil. He kicked aside the board to reveal a man's charred body. It must have been Mister Tomlinson. Luke tried the best he could to roll the corpse into a singed blanket, but the cloth fell apart. A tarp pulled from under a box proved sturdier. He continued his distasteful task and dragged the stationmaster to a grassy area a few yards from the ruins. He returned to his heartbreaking hunt. His gorge rose when he found a woman's body not five feet from where he'd found the man's corpse.
"That there's Miz Tomlinson," the driver called from his position in front of the stagecoach team. He kept the horses calm in spite of the burned smells. "I never saw her when she wasn't wearin' that dress. Ugly pattern but she was partial to it."
Luke saw that the two passengers had exited the stagecoach and pointedly looked away across the Kansas prairie. Just because they didn't look didn't mean death and destruction hadn't occurred.
Perpetrated by Rollie Rhoades.
Since no one offered to help, he removed her from the ruins. He laid the woman's body alongside her husband and dug graves. His arms ached and his heart broke for the couple by the time he dropped the last spade of dirt onto the mounds. Luke said a silent prayer over the graves. That was all he could do for them, and he hoped it was enough.
Bringing in the gang who had murdered them was little enough justice. Luke added the Tomlinsons to the list of reasons for stopping Rhoades and Crazy Water Benedict and all the rest. The dead couple's spot on that list was far down and, truth to tell, near the bottom.
The stage driver finished watering his horses and had fed them grain found out back. He had to depend on tired horses to finish the trip into Preston. Tending them now was all he could do, but the man's antsy moves showed the driver wanted to get back on the road soon. Luke didn't blame him. The sooner he delivered his passengers to the depot in Preston and gave the postmaster a couple sacks of mail, the safer he would be. Like a monkey, he climbed into the driver's box and took the reins.
Luke started to ask to ride along. He saw no reason to keep poking through the ashes. The stationmaster and his woman were properly buried. Luke had said a short prayer over their final resting places, then decided they deserved some sort of markers. Something personal from their belongings made sense.
"Give me a couple more minutes, and I'll ride along with you."
The driver nodded as if his head was mounted on a spring.
"That's much appreciated. Having a Pink guarding me and my stage'd give a real sense of comfort. To the passengers," he hastily added. "Yes sir, them passengers'll be relieved to have you with us, scouting for outlaws. But hurry up. I don't want to be on the road after dark, and this team's not got the spunk they had when I first harnessed them this morning."
"I'll be quick," Luke promised. He used a long stick to poke about deeper in the ruins, then stepped back.
"You said the only ones here were the Tomlinsons."
"I did. You find another body? Must be one of them road agents." The driver dropped to the ground, came over and stopped at the edge of the destruction. He kicked at another burned stick, doing his best not to look.
"It's not an outlaw, not unless a woman rode with the gang." Luke tried to take his eyes off the body and couldn't. The fire had reduced the body to little more than a blackened log, but the strips of dress and high-button shoes definitely identified a woman.
He swallowed hard. Crazy Water Benedict had stolen away Audrey during the wedding. Luke touched the wound in the middle of his chest. That had been the third shot the outlaw had taken. Looking up from flat on his back, the first slug having lodged in his shoulder, Luke saw nothing but a gun barrel so big he might have crawled into it. Crazy Water Benedict had laughed, pulled Audrey closer and planted a sloppy kiss on her protesting lips, then he had fired. Luke winced. The remembered pain went beyond the impact of the bullet in his chest. Saving Audrey from being kidnapped by Benedict and Rhoades and the others hadn't been possible.
Vision going dark, his last sight had been Crazy Water Benedict dragging Audrey away from the wedding bower and Rollie Rhoades shooting the handful of wedding guests one by one, smiling angelically as he committed foul murder.
"You all right, mister? It's like your body is here but your mind went roamin' somewhere far off."
"I have to be sure." Luke tried to move but couldn't. "Can you show me her face?"
To get a better look at the body, the driver kicked at a timber. It made a crunching sound. He wiped soot from his boot.
"What is it you want to be sure about? You Pinks got a missing person to find?"
"Yeah, a missing person."
His wife. His kidnapped wife!
"Well, the doc over in Preston is the county coroner. The undertaker, too. Ain't much call for any of his services. He's not that good a doctor. Folks get sick, they go to the vet. And gettin' buried in the town cemetery is something of a chore 'less you're a Mason. They got the best section all fenced off for their people. The rest of the cemetery is low-rent real estate, if you ask me, and it's better to get buried out behind your own house. That's what most of the folks around Preston do."
Luke shut out the voluble driver's torrent of words and forced himself to be as careful as possible rolling the woman's body onto another tarp. He dragged it free of the rubble and reached a level spot just behind the stage. A few quick turns securely wrapped the body.
"What're you fixin' to do?" The driver looked uneasy as Luke positioned the body under the rear boot.
"The only way the coroner'll look at the body is to take it to him."
"Not in my stagecoach!"
Luke said nothing. He faced the driver. The expression on his face spoke of trouble for anyone denying him. The way his gun hand moved restlessly. A small twitch in his eye. The set to his jaw. The driver saw a man ready to kill to get his way. So did the two passengers who came around to protest the long wait. They backed away and clambered into the coach. They slammed the door. The gunshot-loud sound made the driver jump a foot.
"Fifty cents. I'll pay four bits to put the body in the boot for the trip to Preston."
The driver turned cagey.
"That's not the cost of a ticket on this stage line, no sir."
"A dollar." Luke's cold blue eyes speared the driver.
"Done. But you got to load the body in all by yourself and take it out once we get to town. No way am I helpin' with that chore."
Luke fished around in his vest pocket and flipped a silver cartwheel in the driver's direction. The man snared it. With a move any gambler would envy, the coin vanished into a vest pocket. The driver untied the canvas flap over the boot. Two pieces of battered luggage were pushed to one side. Luke wondered if both belonged to the peddler or if the passengers each had a bag. Then the physical exertion of lifting the body, as light as the remains were, and placing it into the boot occupied his attention. He secured the body, tied down the canvas flap and stepped away.
"Mind if I ride up on top with you? I can fasten my horse to the back." Luke saw a flash of greed cross the driver's face. He had unleashed the avarice by agreeing to pay for the corpse. He headed it off. "You don't have a shotgun messenger. Like you said before, that'd make you a sitting duck for the road agents. Seeing two men in the box might convince them not to bother."
"Can't stop you from ridin' along, but up in the driver's box is another matter. Company policy, you know. No freeloadin' passengers allowed, no sir."
Luke's ire rose. The driver had already said he'd appreciate having a guard riding alongside. He pointed this out to the man.
"I know I said that, but you never said a thing about bein' in the box with me. The extra weight'd tucker out the team that much faster. Besides, two men'd hardly slow them owlhoots down. They'd have us outgunned three or four to one. However many they got ridin' with the gang is more 'n we can handle."