A Common Oath of Vengeance (Preview)


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Chapter One

“It’s him!” shrieked Adelaide, her eyes wide and terrified, boring into his. He wanted to look where her finger pointed, to someone behind him—he needed to know who stood there—but couldn’t tear his view away from her beautiful face. He knew it was the last time he would see her alive.

Then came the explosion, with blood splattering across her face and then gushing upward to cover it. Her face and body grew dim and receded. She reached for him.

And then she was gone.

If only he had looked behind him, he would have seen her murderer.

John Harrington found himself sitting upright in bed, shaking as he always did after that dream, staring ahead without seeing. No color ever appeared in his dreams except the red of the blood in that one. He had awakened in darkness; only a pre-dawn glimmer peeked around the window shade. He wouldn’t bother with breakfast since he wasn’t hungry. Scout was, though. He leaped excitedly onto the bed and threatened to slather John’s face with slobber.

Finally, John pushed the border collie aside and forced himself out of bed to face this bleak day, Friday, April 2, 1886—the third anniversary of his wife Adelaide’s death.

After feeding Scout and completing his ablutions, he dressed in his best black suit with a matching waistcoat, white shirt with a club collar, and black tie. He never wore that suit except on this special day. Taking the single rose he had bought the previous day from the vase in the kitchen, he went out, ignoring the early spring chill. With Scout at his side, he walked the three residential blocks of Henry Street to Hillcrest Cemetery’s entrance, then up its steep lane to the simple stone near the top of the hill.

He lay the rose reverently on the familiar grave of Adelaide Evelyn Harrington and knelt there with bitterness clutching his heart. She had been his wife for six days.

When the gunmen had leveled their guns at them and the other passengers in their railroad car, John had turned to Addy to reassure her that all would be well as long as they complied with the robbers’ demands to give them their money and other valuables.

But she had shouted, “It’s him!” and pointed over his shoulder. Before John could turn to see who she meant, the shot rang out and she toppled backward. He grasped her hand without understanding why she’d fallen, trying to keep her seated, the echoes of gunshots and the screams of terrified passengers surrounding them. Even when she lay on the floor, he wouldn’t accept that her glassy-eyed stare and cessation of breathing meant she was dead, though her grip loosened and her hand slipped out of his.

Finally looking around, he saw only someone running out the door, a man dressed in black with dark, curly hair, someone she had recognized but whom he had never seen before.

He was vaguely aware of additional weapons fire and other people lying dead or wounded, but for him, only his love lay dead before him. Of course, she wasn’t covered in blood as she had been in his dream. There was only one hole, not all that big, right in the middle of her chest.

From then on, he’d felt hollow inside. When Adelaide died, a piece of him went with her.

From this high up the hill of the cemetery, the rectangular blocks of Cottonwood Springs spread out below, including his house on Henry Street where he had been born, with the stable behind the garden. Another block beyond his home, Henry Street reached Main Street, where Harrington Mercantile, his dry goods and men’s clothing store, sat. But he looked at the scene without seeing it as he knelt there, wrapped in grief. Scout lay quietly beside him as though sharing his pain.

At last, he became aware of the ground’s chill against the knee touching the ground. He stood and went down the hill to his house. After forking hay into Buck’s manger, he continued to the store with Scout trotting beside him. He didn’t care that he was late opening on that particular day.

As he turned from Henry Street onto Main, he saw a horse at the hitchrail in front of his store a block away, and a man John took to be its rider from the duster he wore. Crossing the street, he recognized the man as Fleming Smith, the boot drummer. Smith took his watch out of the fob of his waistcoat, frowned at it, and then looked up at John.

As John reached Smith, he forced a smile and said, “Morning, Flem. You’re here early.”

Smith’s frown deepened. He didn’t like the nickname Flem. “No, I’m not. I’ve only been up waiting for you for an hour. I spent the night in the Hosford Hotel down the street here. You slept in this morning, huh?”

“Nope. Had some business to attend to.”

As John unlocked the door, Smith looked him over. “I see you’re all duded up. Musta been important business.”

“Most important thing I do all year long.” He opened the door and ushered the drummer in with a sweep of his hand. The border collie followed, looking up to be petted. The drummer ignored him.

Inside, Smith put aside his peevishness to turn salesman. “John, I’m excited to show you this latest line of footwear the Monday Morning Boot Company is offering.”

He opened his catalog on the counter as John went through the morning ritual: opening the drapes, turning the gas light on in the rear of the long, dark store, and placing the “open” placard in the window. When John came over, Smith continued.

“See this Ranger shoe with speed hooks above the laces? Real leather, fits firmly over the ankle, reinforced toe.” He showed pictures of more shoes, boots, and belts, with their prices.

John shook his head. “These are good-looking products, Flem, but the people around here are ranchers and coal miners. They can’t afford these fancy boots. They go for your Frontier line. They’re rugged and the men can afford them.”

“What about my Townsman dress shoe? You’ve sold some of them.”

“Yeah, but to the few rich men in town and they already have a pair. You know, like the banker and lawyer.”

“A pair of Townsman shoes would go good with that fancy suit you’re wearing.”

“If I wore them, customers would think I was rich and quit trading with me.” I have precious few as it is, he thought.

Smith persisted in showing John more of the Monday Morning Boot Company’s footwear and leather products. They dickered for a while until John finally ordered what he decided he could sell. Then Smith closed his catalog and began a friendly conversation to show he was a good old boy and not just another itinerant drummer. He reached down to scratch Scout’s ears.

“So, when did you take over the store from your dad? You’ve had it quite a while now, ain’t you? Before I started working for Monday Morning Boots.”

“Yes. He retired four years ago, and I took it over then. Unfortunately, he was pretty sick and died a few months later.”

Smith said, “I’d say from that sturdy build and those rugged-looking hands, you did something besides merchant’s work in your twenties.”

“Yeah, when I got out of school I wanted to see the country, so I poked cows for a while, then got a job as a gandy dancer and—”

“Gandy what?”

“Trackman for the railroad, straightened track, repaired bridges, that sort of thing. Then I was a bartender and bouncer in a mining town in California.”

“That explains the scars,” Smith said, pointing to John’s face. He quickly added, “I don’t mean they detract from your looks. In fact, they make you look mature.”

John grinned. “At thirty-five, I should look mature by now.”

They talked about inconsequential things for a few minutes, until Smith said, “I only recently heard tell about your wife. So awful—”

“Sorry, Flem,” John said abruptly, “but I gotta get busy, sweep the floor…” Don’t mention her today of all days.

“Sure, John, sorry, I was… I got to get down the road, anyhow.”

Seeing that the drummer recognized his faux pas, John smiled and said, “Good to see you again, Fleming.” He offered his hand to shake.

Smith shook it, looking relieved that John had forgiven him. “You’re a good guy, John. Maybe next time I’ll come later when you’re about to close and we can go get a beer.”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

After Smith left, John did sweep the floor. Customers gradually sauntered in and for a while, he could forget what made the day so awful.

But in mid-afternoon, when the last cowboy left with a pair of Levi Strauss waist overalls, John found himself alone with his memories in the dusty confines of his small shop. Everything there, from the meager goods he sold to the photograph of Adelaide hanging on the wall, reminded him of her and their brief life together.

And of that day as they returned home by train from their honeymoon in Denver. Six or seven masked men had entered their passenger car with drawn pistols. They’d moved around among the passengers so quickly he couldn’t be sure of the number. Two guarded the front and rear doors and two passed among the passengers holding bags, directing them to deposit money, watches, jewelry, and other valuables into them.

John later learned from the police report and what other survivors said why the chief outlaw turned murderer after promising not to harm anyone if they complied with his demands. One of the passengers, a man in late middle age whom the outlaw had apparently disregarded as a threat, had leaped up from his seat and yanked the leader’s mask down, exposing his identity. The outlaw had shot him and everyone he thought had seen him. That included Adelaide and three others. Only one survived.

Then the robbers fled. John remembered the aftermath, interviews by railroad detectives and other law enforcement agencies, as a blur. The robbery had happened so fast and the outlaws disappeared so quickly, none of the passengers had gotten a good look at the leader. No composite drawing could be developed from their descriptions.

The buildings along Main Street sat cheek by jowl on twenty-five-foot-wide lots and stretched back a hundred feet or more. Thus, the one housing Harrington’s Mercantile was long, narrow, and dark in the rear. And dusty. He now looked upon the store as a sepulcher, a monument to the life he once hoped to share with Adelaide, so he no longer felt the need to maintain it. Who kept a tomb clean and orderly?

Scout got bored when people quit coming in, especially those who gave him a little attention, and went to the rear to lay on his blanket. John refilled his water pan.

As the afternoon wore on, John considered closing early and going home to sit under the big maple tree in his backyard and have a couple of fingers of Old Overholt Irish whiskey. His grief hadn’t led to alcoholism, but sometimes he looked forward to the numbness a little alcohol could bring. The clock’s ticking became sonorous in the afternoon’s silence, and its hands seemed to move slowly. When they told him the time had reached four o’clock, he would lock up and leave.

Just before that, the little bell over the door weakly tinkled. Tall, lean, stooped old Thaddeus Walker entered, not John’s favorite customer, and he used the term loosely. He seldom bought anything. He had a vast mustache that concealed his mouth and wore clothes that had seen better days, from ragged-brimmed hat to cracked boots. Few would guess he owned a prosperous ranch.

John greeted him and Walker nodded back, then looked around at the merchandise through rheumy eyes. Scout came forward to sniff the old man, but neither man nor dog found anything of interest in the other so Scout returned to his blanket.

After a time, John asked, “Can I help you find anything, Tad?”

“Oh, not right now.” With an index finger, he brushed the dust off a shelf holding snuff boxes. “I might have a question for you, though.”

When he hadn’t elaborated after a few minutes, John said, “And what would that be?”

“You know, I thought with your wife gone….”

Jesus, thought John, not another reminder. “With her gone, what?”

“I was thinking maybe you’d be wanting to sell out.”

“She didn’t die yesterday, Tad. It’s been three years. If I wanted to sell, wouldn’t I have put it on the market before now?”

“Sorry, John. I didn’t mean to get your dander up. I was just wondering, that’s all.” He opened a snuff box, looked inside, and closed it. “It’s just that I might be in the market for such a store.”

“What would a successful rancher like you do with a place like this?” Maybe get a new pair of boots, he thought.

“Well, you see, I got a couple of boys…”

“Yes, Richard and Robert, as I recall.”

“Yep. Now, Dickie is a born rancher, hard worker, a trustworthy boy. Bobby, not so much. A shirker, hates going out in bad weather. Lets Dickie and me do most of the work.”

“That’s too bad.” John wondered why Walker thought he would be interested in his family’s difficulties.

“You see, I was going to leave the ranch to the two of them, but there’s a bit of strife growing betwixt the two boys, and especially between Bobby and Dickie’s new wife, Darlene. And with Bobby courting that Cleveland gal, I can see all kinds of problems coming down the road.”

“I see.”

“So I thought I’d buy a business for Bobby to run, like a store, that wouldn’t take all that much work and Bobby could be inside during spells of bad weather. And since you lost your wife and all, I thought you might want—”

“I don’t have any intention of selling out, now or ever, and my wife has nothing to do with it.”

“I’m right sorry, John. I didn’t mean to make you mad.”

“Never mind. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to close early and take care of some business elsewhere.”

After Walker left, mumbling apologies on his way out, John took the money out of the cash drawer and locked up. Soon, with the border collie at his feet, he was taking care of that other business sitting under the maple tree in his backyard holding a glass of spirits.

Chapter Two

Early Saturday, Sheriff Sam Perkins took his morning stroll down the streets of Cottonwood Springs, stopping to chat with people. He liked for them to see him as friendly and approachable and willing to help them whenever they needed it. He did it partially to make his life easier, to gain the trust of the citizens after his election six years before. Because of the disreputable sheriff who preceded him, they had grown to distrust lawmen. Through his easygoing though firm manner, he had won them back.

As usual, he stopped in the Courthouse Coffee Shoppe for his morning coffee and joined John Harrington, who ate breakfast at the counter. He hadn’t seen John for several days but knew at this time of year, he got gloomy in the lead-up to the anniversary of his wife’s death. When Sam saw John climb the hill to Hillcrest Cemetery the day before, he knew the date had arrived.

Easing himself onto the seat next to John, Sam let out a groan.

After greeting him, John said, “Morning, Sam. Your knee’s bothering you more than usual, huh?”

“No, about the same. Just wasn’t careful enough when I bent it to sit down.”

“Too bad they couldn’t have fixed it when they took the bullet out.”

“It did too much damage. But not as much as my bullet did to that rustler’s skull.” Sam grinned.

Sam’s injury didn’t allow him to ride the long hours required by the Colorado Rangers, so they and Sam had decided it was best for him to quit. It just so happened that he’d also won the election for sheriff in his home county.

“Do you miss the Rangers?”

“Sure. Especially the friends I made there, but I was glad to come home as a law officer. I have a deep sense of duty to this town.”

“Everyone’s happy with you as sheriff. That’s why we keep reelecting you. Dad said he thought you’d settle down and get married once you left the Rangers.”

Sam chuckled. “No, I’m not the marrying kind. When I was young, I had too much of a roving eye. Now that I just hit fifty-five, I’m too set in my ways. No woman’d have me.”

John would have a chance at remarrying someday though. Despite his strikingly ordinary features—average height, neatly combed light brown hair, clean-shaven—he was a man of principles who valued honesty and hard work. Women would find that attractive. Only his blue eyes, which Sam remembered as innocent and considerate, had since his wife’s death betrayed a deep-seated melancholy. The right woman could cure that, too.

Having finished breakfast, John pushed his plate back and drank the last of his coffee. “Nonsense, Sam, you’d make some woman a wonderful husband. Look how much the people of this town love you.”

Sam shook his head. “I look forward to that empty house in the evenings. I got to talk to too many people during the day to come home to a chattering wife.”

He had already finished his coffee. They both got up.

“I’ve got to open the store,” said John. “If you get bored, drop by to see me. God knows I’m never overrun by customers.”

Sam returned to his office where only one deputy, Dusty Rhodes, awaited him. All others were out in different parts of the county on assignments.

“Looks like a pretty easygoing day,” said Dusty.

“Let’s hope it stays that way,” said Sam, leaning back in his chair and opening the newspaper.

~  ~  ~

A little after noon on Saturday, Jane Maddox rode into Cottonwood Springs. When she’d first started tracking Sneed, she’d found it odd that he was headed toward the home of Meld County’s government.

It would have made sense when Cyrus McGonigle was sheriff. He wasn’t against letting a rustler, bank robber, or even a murderer not only hang out there for the right price but walk around as an ordinary citizen. He even drank and played cards with them.

But those days were long gone. She had heard an honest sheriff had taken over and cleaned up the town. That was, of course, good for the citizens but bad for someone in her business. After she thought it over, his destination made sense if he only wanted a place to hide and rest for a few days. Who would look for him in Sheriff Sam Perkins’ staid town?

Since she hadn’t been to Cottonwood Springs for years, she would have to familiarize herself with it, but first, dinner was in order. She took Lincoln Boulevard into town, past fine two- or three-story houses with painted iron railings, bay windows, and turrets that drew the eye upward to ornate gables and stately pitched roofs. The street represented the money people had made from catering to ranchers and coal mine owners.

The square looked the same as it had on her last trip, the courthouse centered with businesses facing it on all four sides, which she examined with food in mind. She rejected the Courthouse Coffee Shoppe because she needed a beer or three to wash out the dust of that long ride.

She turned left at the corner and saw what she looked for in mid-block: The Pioneer—Fine Food and Drink. A smaller sign under that warned, “No firearms allowed.” She looped Crapshoot’s reins around the hitching post, unstrapped her pistol belt, and put it in a saddlebag. The sign didn’t mention other kinds of weapons, so she left her hunting knife in its sheath inside her boot.

She crossed the wooden sidewalk and went through the butterfly doors. The saloon was long and dark, with the bar on the right and tables to the left. No one played the piano in the back. Cowboys filled the place. They had nothing to do but drink and play cards until the spring roundup that would begin in about a month, after the spring grass started.

She found a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. When the bartender brought it, she said, “I don’t suppose that ‘fine food’ your sign mentioned includes steaks.”

“Yes, ma’am. We serve them every weekend. Just got a big ice box filled with them this morning.”

“Then give me the biggest one you got with potatoes and whatever else goes with it.”

“I’ll have Irma put one on right now.”

“Might as well bring me another beer too. This first one’ll go down pretty quick.”

He went back to the kitchen to order her steak and by the time he brought her another beer, she had finished the first one. He looked at her empty mug in surprise as he took it away but said nothing.

Several others sat at the bar watching her. She had been too busy slaking her thirst to pay much attention to them but felt that the closest cowboy, separated from her by one bar stool, had kept his eyes on her since she sat down.

He said, “You must’ve had a big thirst, little lady, to put away that beer so fast.”

“Yep.” Little lady, my ass, she thought. She was tall for a woman. Her immediate thirst assuaged, she took her time drinking the second beer.

“Hey, Woody,” said the cowboy, “did you see how fast this little lady drank that beer?”

Another cowboy had walked up behind her and her heckler.

“Yeah, Josh,” said the newcomer. “I’ll bet she could outdrink you. You wanna have a drinking contest with us, girl?”

She ignored him. They had already had too much to drink.

“You know,” said the one called Woody, “we ain’t used to seeing gals coming in here on their lonesome and waltzing up to the bar all by theirselves.”

She sipped her beer without acknowledging him.

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Didn’t you hear me, girl?”

She shrugged his hand off and said quietly, “If you touch me again, I’ll break your hand.”

“Whoa,” said Woody. “Looky here, Josh. We got ourselves a fire-breathing mama.” He grabbed her shoulder more firmly to turn her to face him.

She swiveled around and looked into the eyes of a man grinning through yellowed teeth with a three-day growth of beard. She grabbed his wrist with her left hand, laced the fingers of her right through his, and bent his hand back.

She had taken him by surprise. Holding his wrist, she forced his hand backward until he dropped to his knees. The seated one, Josh, reached for her.

She stood, grabbed her half-full beer mug, and slammed it against the side of Josh’s face. Beer drenched the cowboys. Josh fell on Woody, who had been struggling to stand, and sent the two sprawling.

The bartender appeared behind the bar. “What seems to be the trouble here?” he said, though he must have witnessed the whole thing. Although to be fair, he may have been busy tending to another customer. The whole confrontation hadn’t lasted more than a minute or two.

“Just a little disagreement,” she said. “Though this one,” she pointed to Josh, “made me spill almost a full beer so he owes me another one.”

She saw the bartender suppress a smile, proving he had seen the encounter. He said, “What about that, Josh? Maybe you each owe her a beer.”

Both the beer-splattered drunks now stood. She noticed with satisfaction Josh’s swelling red cheek. He cursed at her, grabbed his hat, which had fallen on the floor, and stumbled toward the door, followed by Woody.

“How’s that steak doing?” Jane asked the bartender.

“Should be about ready. Irma will bring it out when it is.” Looking back toward the kitchen, he added, “Here it comes now.”

A half-hour later, she stepped out of the saloon, replete, and almost pushed the door into a pedestrian. What the hell was he doing, lurking behind the door of a saloon? Then she noticed it was the sheriff. Uh-oh.

~   ~   ~

When the clock in the sheriff’s office reached 3:30, Sam left Dusty in charge to take his final walk of the day down Main Street. He went farther than usual, paying special attention to the town’s five saloons. After dark, he would make another patrol of them. He remained on duty on Saturday nights until the cowboys left for the spring roundup because of their propensity for overdoing their exuberance once they started drinking. As he had done in the morning, he greeted people on the street and stopped to visit with some.

As he passed the Pioneer, two cowboys from the J Bar J Ranch, known troublemakers Josh and Woody, stumbled out onto the street and got on their horses with difficulty. He hoped that meant they wouldn’t be back so he wouldn’t have to contend with them that night. Josh had a bruised and swollen cheek.

After finishing his circuit, he made a second one past the saloons. As he went by the Pioneer again a half hour later, he listened just outside the door as he had the others but didn’t hear any sounds portending trouble. The piano was still quiet; it was too early for Otto to start playing.

As he started to move on, one of the opening butterfly doors nearly struck him. A cowpoke with a lean, muscular frame pushing through it pierced him with startlingly green eyes, surprised to have almost hit him.

“Oh, sorry, pardner.” The voice belonged to a woman. “Oh, uh, I mean, sheriff. I didn’t see you there.” She had an angular though not unattractive face, with wavy chestnut hair pulled back and fastened at the nape of her neck and a sprinkling of freckles on her cheeks.

“That’s okay. I shouldn’t have stopped right in front of the door.” He was trying to place her. He might have heard a description or seen a picture through some law enforcement service. He started to move on.

“Say, Sheriff,” she said, “where’s your office? I figure it oughta be around here somewhere, this being the county seat.”

That was an odd question. Most cowpunchers, if that was what she did for a living, avoided lawmen as much as possible on weekends.

“Sure. A block west of the square, on Bartlet Street.”

“Fine.” She took a sleek sorrel horse from the hitchrail, mounted, and rode off.

While Sam had supper at La Cocina, he continued to think of the red-haired woman, dressed like a man in denim pants, cotton shirt, and leather jacket. Her intense gaze and curiosity about his office’s location made him wonder if she was the bounty hunter he had heard of, Jane Elizabeth Maddox, often known as Hawkeye because of that steely gaze. If she was indeed and was chasing someone in or near Cottonwood Springs, she’d want to know where the jail was located to deliver her quarry as soon as possible after capture.

He returned to the office and relieved Dusty. He hated thinking of an outlaw, unknown to him, at large in his jurisdiction. He might soon have more action than he wanted.

~   ~   ~

At least once a week, John had dinner at the Pioneer, his favorite saloon, especially on Saturday night when Wally offered fresh steaks. He also liked visiting friends he had known in his childhood. Though he had been away for over ten years after his school days, he’d quickly rekindled friendships after he came back. Also, at that time of year, before the spring roundup, out-of-work cowboys hung out there. He enjoyed talking to them because it reminded him of his cowpunching days.

That Saturday, though, was too soon after that fateful anniversary to spend time with acquaintances. He planned to go home early after his steak and a couple of beers. As he sat at the bar waiting for it, Wally came over, wiping a beer mug he had just washed.

He said, “Did you hear about the ruckus we had in here this afternoon?”

“No, I spent the day in the store.”

Wally told him about the woman who’d whipped the two cowboys. “I wasn’t here, of course,” said Wally, “but my daytime bartender Mack told me about it. His description of the girl made her sound like Hawkeye Maddox. He said she had piercing green eyes that could bore a hole right through you. I heard of her when I was bartending up in Laramie. Hawkeye’s a bounty hunter, always gets her man. Or woman, as the case may be.”

John shrugged as he saw Irma bringing his steak out. “Glad I’m not an outlaw then.”

After eating, he only stayed long enough to say hello to Earl, Albert, and other acquaintances and then left for home.

em>”A Common Oath of Vengeance” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Once a prosperous merchant, John William Harrington’s life suddenly takes a tragic turn. When the most notorious outlaw of the West orchestrates a devastating train robbery, the result is the death of John’s beloved wife. Haunted by this loss and driven by revenge, his path takes an unexpected twist when a sharpshooting bounty hunter with a formidable reputation, gallops into his life…

Can he bring an end to the lawlessness that plagues this land?

Enter Jane “Hawk-Eye” Maddox: feared, revered, and unmatched in her sharpshooting prowess. The wild terrains of the West are her hunting grounds, and she’s on a personal quest for retribution. With every bullet she fires, she seeks justice for the wounds that shaped her, hoping each shot brings her closer to settling a score from long ago.

Is it justice or vengeance she seeks?

Amidst gunfights, John and Jane grapple with their intertwined destinies, personal demons, and the heavy weight of their mission. As the bullets fly and tensions rise, will justice finally be served on the unforgiving frontier? Join them in a gripping tale of retribution, alliances, and battles against the odds!

“A Common Oath of Vengeance” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!


Grab my new series, "Legends of the Lawless Frontier", and get 2 FREE novels as a gift! Have a look here!

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