The Gun Never Forgets (Preview)


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Chapter One

Somewhere Between Bisbee and Tombstone, Arizona Territory

October 17, 1889

The way Colt Branch figured it, there was a time in every man’s life when he just had to trust his horse. Many times over the years, his success or failure had absolutely depended on his mount. And right now, not only his success but also Colt’s survival depended on the stallion beneath him.

In the daytime, riding through the mesas might not have been much of a problem. At night, with no moon to speak of, the darkness made the shadowy forms of the steep mesa walls and the sudden, cavernous drops into the canyons below impossible to see.

Normally, Colt would just hole up for the night and resume his journey in the morning, when daylight would bring more clarity to his surroundings, but he didn’t have that luxury tonight. Three men pursued him, and he was pretty sure they weren’t after conversation.

“Okay, Dodger,” he whispered. “Take us through.”

Dodger whinnied in reply and started ahead, moving carefully but confidently through the maze of canyons. They burst into sudden, glowing moonlight when they exited one canyon just as the clouds parted overhead. The moonglow on the plain created a stunning panorama of shadow and light. Arizona Territory had some of the most beautiful land on Earth.

Colt had seen too much of the violence and darkness that characterized the West in the minds of many, but his version of Arizona Territory (or, for that matter, Texas, New Mexico, and California) wasn’t what most people experienced. He saw the worst of people, the violence without the romance.

Despite this, it was an altogether different experience to be on the run. He’d made his living hiding, not running. Maybe if he’d had a little more experience with this, he wouldn’t have been so surprised when shots rang out behind him.

Well, why the hell wouldn’t they when he pranced around like a dandy admiring the moonlight? He cursed and rushed toward the next canyon up ahead. This particular part of the territory was unfamiliar to him. He really hoped the men after him weren’t familiar, either.

The wall of the canyon exploded in a burst of pebbles just as he reached it. He ducked low as Dodger thundered into the canyon, remaining surefooted in spite of the low light.

“Good boy,” he said, patting the quarter horse’s neck. The clouds shifted position, covering what little light remained. Once again, he had to trust his horse.

Without warning, Dodger skidded to a halt. He tried to urge the horse forward, but the animal refused to budge. When the clouds moved again, he realized they’d reached the end for Dodger—the canyon in front of them was far too narrow for the horse to navigate.

He turned around to gauge the distance between himself and his pursuers. They were still a ways off, but not so far that a lucky shot wouldn’t reach him.

“Damn it.” He slid from the saddle gave Dodger a firm spank on his haunch. “Git!”

As the horse moved away, Colt sidestepped into the narrow gorge. The clouds moved, the light disappearing again. In the dark, the tightness of the fit made him feel boxed in. His foot slipped on some loose scree, and his breath caught in his throat. His heart thumped in his chest, but he forced himself to keep moving, one step after another.

The clouds moved once more, and the light returned, but this time it didn’t make much of a difference. The path he was on could hardly be called a path. It was maybe a foot and a half wide and didn’t appear to get any wider as it continued down into the canyon. He still had to move sideways, pressing his back against the wall of the canyon to avoid plummeting to his death.

He heard shouting behind him. A gunshot rang out, and he heard the cry of a horse. His horse.

“Damn it,” he whispered again. “You sons of bitches.”

Thinking of his horse made Colt forget for a moment what the men would do to him if they found him. He stood still, plotting revenge he would likely never see. It wasn’t until the clouds dissipated once more and the moon showed him where the path widened up ahead that he remembered that his own life was in danger.

He reached the point where the ground widened and sped up into a run—for about eighty yards. The canyon went from wide enough to cautiously move forward to wide enough for three men to walk side by side to wide enough for three riders on horseback. Then, it simply ended next to an almost sheer cliff.

In daylight, he might have been able to leap from ledge to ledge and thus descend to the bottom of the canyon, but that wasn’t possible even with the now-bright moonlight.

“Colt!” a deep voice shouted. “We know you’re in there!”

He quickly crouched behind an outcropping, and one of the men stepped into view. Colt drew his gun and checked it. Only one bullet. As quietly as he could, he pulled more bullets from his belt and slid them into his revolver—a Colt, just like him.

What he wouldn’t give to be able to reload himself when he felt empty.

He brushed that thought aside. Now wasn’t the time.

“Branch!” the voice said as a second man stepped into view.

Colt lifted his gun, but the clouds shifted again and, once more, darkness filled the canyon.

“There’s no need for none of this!” the voice said. “Just hand it over and we’ll let you go!”

The hell they would. His pa hadn’t raised a fool.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on the sound of the man’s voice, moving his gun to aim in that direction.

“Colt, listen! Just—”

The man’s words ended in a shriek as Colt fired. He couldn’t help but feel a burst of satisfaction at that. He’d aimed in the dark and he’d shot in the dark. And he’d hit his target in the dark.

The hunters returned fire, and Colt decided he could celebrate later. He stepped away from the outcropping and moved closer to the canyon wall. It wouldn’t provide much cover, but not much cover was better than no cover at all.

When the clouds shifted again, Colt saw another shadowy figure and fired. This time, the bullet ricocheted off the rock rather than strike its target.

The outlaw cursed and shot back. Colt returned fire blindly, then took a breath to steady himself. He’d fired four times now. He had two bullets left in his gun and the clouds could give way at any moment. When they did, he’d be an easy shot. He fired once more before holstering his weapon and rushing toward the nearest outcropping.

What he thought was the nearest outcropping, anyway.

He realized his mistake just in time to know he needed to stop and just after it was possible to do so. He cursed as he stumbled and fell flat on his face, halfway over the edge. He tried to right himself, but his weight carried him slowly, inexorably over the edge.

By some miracle, the cliff wasn’t sheer as he’d originally thought. Rather than fall, he slid—rapidly, but not so rapidly that survival was impossible. He turned and tried once more to get his feet under him, but he only managed to tumble forward and roll a few times.

The canyon became steeper, and when Colt stopped tumbling, he gave up trying to stop his fall and just went with it, gritting his teeth against the rocks and dirt splashing up around him. The light cleared enough for him to see two cacti in front of him. He kicked to the side, avoiding the plants but tumbling end over end again.

He was grateful when the moon shone through the clouds again and he didn’t have to see the slope flying by in a blur. A drift of sand launched him into the air and he cried out, certain this was the end. He finally landed on the ground again, still alive but unable to breathe.

He gasped, struggling to avoid panic. It wasn’t until his breath returned that he realized he wasn’t falling anymore. He got to his feet, knees shaking, and looked up just as the light returned.

Damn it, make up your mind about the light already.

The cliff edge looked to be a good eighty or a hundred yards above him. He stared up, shocked. He couldn’t believed he’d survived that.

That was when he saw the silhouettes of the men at the top of the cliff. He hadn’t survived yet.

“Where is he?” one of the pursuers, the one with the deep voice, asked.

“I don’t know,” another replied. “He has to be dead, though. No way he survived a fall like that.”

The light brightened a moment, and Colt stood still and held his breath. The men kept their eyes on each other and didn’t look his way.

“I don’t want to try this slope,” a third voice said, “so we’ll go back the way we came, circle around and find another way down. If we don’t find one, we’ll wait ‘till daylight.”

“What if he gets away?”

“If he ain’t dead, he’s hurt bad. He ain’t getting away.”

“But my leg!”

Colt smiled at that.

“Your leg’s fine. You’re walking on it, ain’t you?”

They continued to grouse, but soon enough they were on their way. Colt waited until the light returned once more, leaving the canyon empty above him.

He took advantage of the brief glow of the moon to check himself. Apart from a few scratches, and what was probably a bad bruise on his back where the sand had chucked him into the air, he was fine.

He took a few steps. No new pain.

He checked for his gun. Still there. When it was light, he would need to clean it and oil it to get rid of whatever grit and dust had gotten in during the fall. But that would be a happy chore as far as Colt was concerned. He was lucky. That fall could easily have killed him. Hell, it should have killed him.

You’re not out of the woods yet, boy. You ain’t got no horse.

He felt a pang as he thought of Dodger. Those assholes had killed the best damned horse to ever live. He’d make them pay for that. If it was the last thing he ever did, he’d make them pay.

The last thing you’ll ever do is die out here in the desert if you don’t find a way to get out.

He could head to Bisbee for now. He was probably ten miles from town; not too far of a walk. Then again, Bisbee was almost a sister city to Tombstone, and he obviously couldn’t go back there. Hell, it might be better for him to walk the extra five miles to Naco, across the border in Mexico.

That was a problem for another day. First, he needed to get out of this damned canyon.

He walked slowly, hands outstretched against the returning darkness. Eventually, he bumped against the wall and navigated forward, keeping one hand on the wall to orient himself. With any luck, he’d find an exit from this lower canyon before his hand moved over a rattlesnake’s hole. He laughed lightly at the thought. It would be perfectly fitting, wouldn’t it, if he escaped those men, tumbled down a cliff, and ended up dying from a snake bite? It wasn’t out of the question. God had a sick sense of humor, after all.

He’d walked for maybe an hour when the walls parted. The clouds moved again, revealing an open landscape ahead of him. He was out of the canyon and in the desert. He looked up at the sky to orient himself, but that turned out to be useless. The moon was visible, but the stars weren’t. He had no way of knowing which direction he was heading until the clouds disappeared entirely or the sun rose and told him which way was east.

He couldn’t remain still, though. If the men pursuing him were smart, they’d hole up for the night and dress their wounds. If they weren’t, they would keep coming after him. That would make them fools, but fools got lucky far more often than Colt liked.

He had to put some distance between himself and the canyon. After giving one last painful thought to the horse he had left behind, he started forward.

He couldn’t tell exactly how much time passed but he knew it would be measured in hours rather than minutes. Only when the clouds parted once more and he saw that he was miles away from the canyon did he allow himself to relax.

He’d done it. He’d escaped his pursuers, survived a nasty fall, and made it to safety.

Then the ground gave way beneath his left foot, and Colt fell hard. His head hit a rock and his mind grew cloudy. He had enough presence of mind left inside of him to curse the little sand chipmunks, the antelope ground squirrels whose burrows caused more trips and spills than snake holes.

His last thought before darkness closed over him was that God had a sick sense of humor, indeed.

Chapter Two

Rattler’s Ridge, Arizona, ten miles northwest of Bisbee

The next morning

The soft light of dawn filtered through Mary Plunkett’s window and brought her gently to wakefulness. She opened her eyes, and, as she always did, she smiled at the painting that hung over the foot of her bed. Mary had hung the painting there and positioned her bed the way she did so that the first light of each day would fall on the canvas.

The painting was one of her mother’s and one of the only keepsakes Mary had of hers. It depicted the sun setting over a brilliant blue ocean, its rays shimmering across the cool, gently swaying water. The bottom third of the painting showed a white sand beach with a small crowd of people laughing, playing, and lounging near the water. A young couple sat together, arm in arm. An older couple walked hand in hand, their toes just within the surf. A mother and father laughed as they watched their children playing in the sand.

It was perfect.

As always, Mary’s cat, Salem, grew jealous of the attention she paid to this painting and expressed his displeasure by jumping on top of her and meowing irritably. She laughed and sat up, forcing Salem off her chest and onto her lap.

“Don’t worry, Salem. I’ll take you with me when I go.” She looked back up at the painting. “One day.”

But not today. Her father was still ill, barely fit to work, let alone travel. If she had her way, he would work less than he did now, but trying to convince Josiah Plunkett not to work was like trying to convince a… a… well, Mary couldn’t think of an analogy. Suffice it to say she couldn’t think of any way to convince her father that he needed to relax rather than kill himself working every day in the shop—or worse, on his runs to Tombstone a half-day’s ride northeast.

But she could convince him to let her help. That would have to do.

She rolled out of bed and nearly slipped on a pile of books. She cried out in dismay as one of the book covers tore. “Oh!”

She stooped and picked up the wounded novel. It was a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, one of Mary’s recent favorites. She carefully checked the damage and sighed with relief when she confirmed the book was reparable.

“No harm done,” she announced to Salem. “A little glue and a day to cure, and it’ll be good as new.”

She set the book on her small table, carefully navigating different piles of letters and books and photographs. Salem meowed reproachfully.

“I know, I know. I’ll get around to cleaning my room, but give me a break. It’s hard to clean my room when I have an entire general store to keep clean.”

Salem meowed and pranced to the door, pawing softly at it and glaring at her.

“Ah,” she said. “You want your food.”

The cat meowed again with relief and exasperation. Yes, you silly girl. Why would I care about your books?

Mary sometimes wished Salem could talk. It would give her some company to look forward to other than her father and his friend Hickory Willis. She loved her father and was fond of Hickory, but all Pa ever wanted to talk about was the shop. When he wasn’t pressuring her to find a husband, that is.

And Hickory? Well, she was sure Hickory could speak, but she’d only heard it happen a few times. The man was as stoic and surly as a grizzly bear.

“Hold on, Salem,” she said. “Let me finish getting dressed.”

She selected a plain cotton dress and an even plainer apron. All of her clothes were plain. Most days, she didn’t mind that, but it would be nice to feel like a girl every now and then and not a maid.

You’re twenty-four, she reminded herself. You’re far from a girl.

That didn’t make her feel better. It only reminded her of her father’s constant prattling about her needing to find a man to take care of her before she grew too old.

“I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

Salem meowed again. Do you think you could possibly take care of me?

She giggled and headed for the door. Salem eagerly jumped aside to allow her to open it. “All right, you anxious little kitten. I’ll get you some breakfast.”

She headed into the small kitchen and served Salem some water. The cat sniffed the water, then looked up at her. Really?

“Yes, really. You’ve had enough milk. It’s not good for kittens to have too much milk.”

Salem protested reproachfully that at the mature age of three, he could hardly be called a kitten anymore, but it was to no avail. Mary stood firm, and after another irritable whine, Salem began to drink.

Mary started the stove and set water to boil for coffee while she cracked eggs into a bowl and whisked them with a little cream and salt. She would share her eggs with Salem and give him a little of the beef leftover from yesterday’s dinner. If he was good and ate all of his breakfast, then maybe she would allow him a touch of milk.

Salem waited eagerly for the food to finish, whiskers twitching as he hovered just out of Mary’s way. He had learned the hard way that stepping on a hot stove due to impatience would end poorly for him.

When breakfast was finished, Mary gave Salem his share and took her portion along with a steaming mug of coffee to the dining room next to the kitchen. The small table inside had room for four, but it rarely sat more than two people. Hickory had insisted lately on taking his meals at the Wagon Wheel, refusing to eat any more of the Plunketts’ food despite Josiah’s and Mary’s insistence that things weren’t really that bad.

“One day, they’ll get better,” she said softly.

One day. The phrase that had once held such hope for her now seemed hollow in her ears.

She stood and opened the window, revealing the light of the morning as it fell on the community of Rattler’s Ridge. She gazed on the town a moment, and a smile came to her lips.

Rattler’s Ridge wasn’t so bad. It might be hundreds of miles from the ocean, but it was a quiet and peaceful town, and in the wilds of Arizona Territory, that was saying something. The outlaws of Tombstone and Bisbee gave Rattler’s Ridge a wide berth, viewing it as unworthy of their time.

That was fine with Mary. The less it was worth to them, the more it was worth to the kind and gentle folk who lived here. Her smile widened as she gazed on her friends and neighbors below. She could see Elizabeth Hesh feeding the chickens in their coop outside of her and her husband’s blacksmith shop. Across the way, Jane Whitmore was opening the curtains of her tailor shop, and down the street, the door to Doc Turley’s apothecary and clinic opened to welcome all who had need.

Mary’s smile grew wry. She wished her father would feel a little more need to visit the doctor instead of always finding reasons to be busy whenever he came to call.

Well, she would work on that.

Faint laughter drifted through the open window and she smiled toward the church house at the end of the street. The children of Rattler’s Ridge were marching to school, singing and laughing as they anticipated the lesson that Mrs. Cartwright had prepared for them.

It was a beautiful day in a quiet town. Mary had every reason to be grateful and none at all to feel sad.

Thus satisfied, she returned to her place and finished her breakfast. The shop was closed today, as it was every time her father went to Tombstone to resupply. She had told him that she could watch the shop herself while he was gone, but he steadfastly refused to allow her to open the door while she was there by herself. “There’s no need for a woman alone to be entertaining strangers,” he would say, his bushy eyebrows pushed together in a scowl. “We ain’t so poor that I need to leave my daughter in danger.”

She had long since given up arguing that point and instead took these days as an opportunity to deep clean the shop. She could keep up with the chores well enough, but as her father’s health grew worse and worse, she often could do little more than a surface cleaning. She had to grudgingly admit that having an entire day to scrub and mop and dust was welcome.

She finished her meal and stood. “Well, Salem. Time to get to work. Do you want to help me today?”

Salem meowed and walked toward her room, his tail in the air. He would head for the window and spend most of the day on the roof, lazing in the sunshine. Occasionally, he would chase mice or squirrels around the town, but he would be back well before dark. He knew better than to be outside when the coyotes were out prowling.

“Very well,” Mary said. “I’m on my own again.”

She headed downstairs, and the cramped confinement of the living space on the second floor gave way to the somewhat more spacious arena of the shop. She took a deep breath and released it in a sigh that was half contentment, half exasperation. She didn’t remember the shop being this dirty last week. Dust lay thick on the shelves, tracks of dirt crisscrossing the floor. The curtains were coated in sand, and the windows were nearly opaque with grime.

Had she really let it get this bad?

She sighed again. “Well, no use moping over it. It’s nothing a little elbow grease won’t fix.”

She began with the curtains. They needed a wash, but she would have to save that for another day. She contented herself with hanging them and beating them with a broom. The cloud of dust that erupted from the poor tapestries nearly choked her, and she was forced to tie her bonnet over her mouth and nose like a bandana.

When that was finally done, she grabbed her feather duster. The duster was well-used and probably wouldn’t work for much longer, but it would do for today. When her father went to Tombstone next, she would ask for a replacement.

She danced around and sang to herself as she dusted the shelves and counters of the shop. The curtains were back where they belonged, but she had left them wide open to allow the sunlight in, which meant anyone who passed by would see her dancing like a girl.

She didn’t care. Let them look if they wanted to. They would see only a happy young woman taking joy in her work. Besides, people around here loved seeing a carefree spirit. It was another thing she loved about this town.

The dusting took about an hour to complete—longer than usual, but Mary wanted to be thorough. If she could give the place a good scrubbing today, then the following week, she could do the same to their living space above, and she could finally organize her room. She smiled as she thought of Salem’s reaction when he saw the place clean. He’d probably be confused and wonder if he’d returned to the wrong home.

She giggled and moved to sweeping. She would gather all the loose dirt and dispose of it outside. Then she would begin scrubbing. Enough of the shelves were empty now that she could scrub the cases from ceiling to floor before she moved on to the floors themselves. Then she would mop and use an old linen to dry everything. If she had time, she would polish the countertops before washing up and preparing dinner.

The windows! She’d forgotten the windows. Oh well, she could polish the counter another day.

She swept the dust into the pan and carried it to the back door. Behind the shop was a garden (or would be one if Mary ever had time to sod it properly and plant some vegetable seeds), a small stable that housed their dairy cow Vixen, and a coop for their five hens and one cantankerous rooster. Salem had learned—also the hard way—that it was unwise to tease Sergeant, especially late at night. He still had a bit of a scar under his right eye from that encounter.

Sergeant was civil to his humans, though, and greeted Mary with a polite crow as she dumped the contents of the dustpan over the low fence into the desert beyond. She nodded politely in return.

“How are the hens today, Sergeant?” Sergeant clucked twice, and Mary said, “Wonderful. Tell them I’ll be out to replace their feed before dinner.”

She was glad she had taken the dust outside instead of pouring it into the wastebasket. She had nearly forgotten about the animals. Vixen wasn’t lowing yet, but she would need to be milked at some point before the day was done. She might have to content herself with simply mopping the floor rather than scrubbing it.

“So much to do and never enough time to do it.”

She shook her head in exasperation and headed for the closet where she kept the lye soap and scrub brushes. She poured soap into the bucket and realized she had forgotten to draw water from the well.

This time, she felt real irritation. She didn’t mind the work, she really didn’t. It was just so much, and it never seemed to be done. If anything, she seemed to fall further and further behind.

It would be easier when Pa hired some help. Hickory could probably assist with the animals, but he wasn’t much help with cleaning. Most men didn’t understand the difference between clean and tidy. Besides, Mary wanted Hickory available to help Pa with stocking the shelves, organizing the storeroom, and chopping firewood. The less heavy lifting her father had to do, the better.

She squared her shoulders. “No need to be upset,” she said aloud. “Just go get some water and fill the bucket. It’s an extra five minutes.”

She lifted the bucket with the lye and started toward the back door again when she heard a knock at the front door. She frowned. Who could that be? It was far too early for Pa and Hickory to be back. It was barely lunchtime—not that she ever ate lunch.

Maybe someone had an urgent order that couldn’t wait until tomorrow. That hadn’t happened before, but they were the only general store in town, so it wasn’t out of the question.

She headed to the front door, wiping her hands on her apron. If anything, that only made them dirtier. Well, whoever it was would have to deal with seeing her a little grimy. She was in the middle of cleaning, after all.

She was so frazzled that she didn’t think to look through the window before it was too late. So she didn’t realize who was knocking until she opened the door and saw Hank Marquette staring at her with his pompous grin, one hand behind his back.

Her heart sank. Not again.

“Hank. What are you doing here? We’re closed today.”

“Well hello to you too,” Hank replied. “You look…” His smile faded a little. “Busy.”

She resisted the urge to smack the rest of his smile off his face. “I am. It’s cleaning day. We’re closed.”

“Yes, you said that already,” he said. “I thought I’d come see you. I was planning to ask you out to a picnic lunch, but seeing as you’re not exactly dressed for the occasion, I suppose I’ll just say my piece here.”

Oh no. “Hank, this really isn’t—”

“Ta da!”

He pulled his hand from behind his back to reveal a bouquet of brilliant purple and gold flowers. He grinned at Mary, waiting for her to take the bouquet and gush about how beautiful they were and how strong and manly Hank was, and would he please, please marry her this instant?

When she instead continued to stare at him in exasperation and made no move to take the flowers, a look of profound irritation crossed his face. “These are for you,” he said helpfully.

“Hank, the answer’s no.”

He blinked in surprise. “I haven’t even asked—”

“You’re here to ask me to marry you. The answer’s no. Again.”

He stared at her a moment. Then his surprise morphed into an ugly glare. “You can’t even be polite enough to accept my flowers?”

“If I do that, it might give you the impression that I’ll accept more. I won’t. You need to leave.”

“The Gun Never Forgets” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Colt Branch is a man on the run, battling not only the ruthless bounty hunters on his trail but also the fragments of his own shattered memory. After a perilous escape through the harsh landscapes of Arizona, a near-fatal fall erases his memory, leaving him to awake under the relentless desert sun with no recollection of his identity. Rescued by a benevolent trader, he is given a second chance at life in the small, dusty town of Rattler’s Ridge. But as parts of his past start surfacing, Colt is left wondering: Can a man truly outrun his old sins, or are some ghosts too persistent to escape?

The consequences of a life he can’t remember threaten to catch up to him…

Mary Plunkett, the spirited daughter of a local trader, dreams of a life beyond the confines of Rattler’s Ridge. Trapped by duty and the memory of her mother’s unfulfilled dreams, she yearns for the vastness of the ocean and the freedom it represents. When a mysterious stranger comes into her life, she sees a glimmer of the adventure she’s longed for. But can she trust a man with no past?

Is her heart safe with someone who might disappear as quickly as he appeared?

As Colt’s enigmatic past draws dangerous figures to Rattler’s Ridge, he and Mary must stand together against a relentless foe determined to destroy their newfound happiness. Can their growing love survive the harsh truths waiting to be uncovered, or will the shadows of their pasts tear them apart?

“The Gun Never Forgets” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

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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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