Gunsmoke and Danger (Preview)


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Chapter One

Benjamin Bamford shook the reins, the two horses pulling the heavy wagon slowly westward. A red-tailed hawk circled above, ominous even from so high up. Benjamin had heard that such raptors could drop out of the sky and attack virtually from nowhere. It sometimes seemed that no place in the new nation was safe, even the clear blue sky. Death could come from out of anywhere, even from above.

He shared a glance with his wife, Marla. She offered him a courageous little smile, but he knew she was worried about the trip. Benjamin gave her good cause. The trip from Boston had been treacherous, but they’d managed to survive. And in many ways, the trail west had been no less dangerous than life in one of the biggest cities on the East Coast.

Benjamin took a deep breath of the fresh, clean air over the new state of Missouri, part of the United States since eighteen-twenty-one, just short of thirty years before. Halfway through the nineteenth century, things were changing fast. There was talk of great division, though the country hadn’t even come near its first-century anniversary. The young nation was at war with the great nations, with Mexico to the South; even Great Britain had tried to reclaim their colonies, the war which had inaugurated Benjamin’s life almost forty years before.

Marla wouldn’t be born for another ten years, and her youth was their family’s hope. She could still have another child but would not even consider it until they arrived in California.

Marla’s green eyes and red hair were still full and colorful. The years had seemed to largely ignore her, and she seemed as beautiful to him as the day they’d married five years before when Boston had seemed so exciting and full of promise.

The sun was hot above them, though the spring had not even passed. The snows of winter were gone, and the season’s rebirth was in full bloom all along those vast plains and low foothills. The mountainous Ozarks were caked with white oak and shortleaf pine. The peaks rose, and the crags became deeper, clutches of hickory and black walnut more dense in places. The grass seemed almost impossibly green, shimmering with the reflected sunlight. The fire pink, larkspur, purple coneflower, and columbine were in full bloom, splashing great swaths of blue, pink, and purple over the oceans of emerald green.

The hawk cried out overhead, a wordless warning not to be entranced by the landscape’s natural beauty. There were road agents everywhere, bloodthirsty men who lay in wait for travelers like the Bamfords. They hovered near the towns, increasingly small the further west the couple went, and Benjamin expected to hit Springfield after not too long.

Further from the points of white civilization, Indian attack was the greater danger. Osage, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Otoe, Ioway, and Delaware nations vied for dominance of the area, and they prized white women like Marla. They would also use the two horses and the Bamfords’ goods, and a small raiding party of Otoe had tried just that. Benjamin had left their bodies on a wooden platform facing west.

Benjamin could still hear the gunshots. He could still recall the sight of Marla Bamford, the Winchester repeater in her arms, cocking and shooting and cocking again. No cowering wallflower, she’d been keen to use the years of training Benjamin had invested in her. It had been time well spent, and it would go on to be crucial in the miles to come, Benjamin felt certain.

For all the danger of the open country, entering any city, town, or camp would have its own dangers. The landscape was large, but the towns were small and compact, with hundreds of cutthroat killers packed into a single area, working with each other to concoct any number of schemes and scams.

Benjamin’s years as a marshal had put him into contact with the worst men the nation had to offer, doing the worst things they could concoct to do. Crime upon crime upon crime, from the lowliest street thief to the loftiest politician, there had been nothing Benjamin could do to make anybody’s life better, particularly his wife’s or his own.

But those skills had made him the wrong person to target for an ambush. Sitting in such proximity to two of the most valuable things he traveled with, his wife and his horses, he wasn’t likely to be shot from the bush. Even a keen-eyed Delaware warrior wouldn’t risk killing Marla from a distance. She was a prize to be taken alive and unhurt.

Still, that would attract predators, and they had ways of ambushing a party to great and terrible effect. And Benjamin’s instincts were also telling him to be on his guard, though they often told him that.

They were just as often right.

The Ozarks felt like a maze of deadly traps, and the trail climbed the sharp side of one hill. The rocky face rose up on their left and dropped off to a densely forested incline below. An oriole sang in the branches of a nearby pine, and a gentle breeze blew from the south. It seemed like paradise, peaceful and natural, a stark contrast to the crowded, urine-sopped streets of Boston or Philadelphia.

It filled Benjamin with a renewed sense of hope. Though he looked out over the horizon at an endless series of perils, that hope struggled to remain.   As long as he could hold onto his beloved Marla, everything would be –

The massive bear lurched up from the incline out of the dense forest. It moved with incredible speed for its massive size, black fur, tan face, white fangs, and black snout. It leaped out of the sycamore at just the right moment, its hunter’s instincts not failing it. The bear lurched up on its hind legs and pounced on the horse nearest to it, a paint called Dollar. The bear’s jaws locked onto the back of the horse’s neck, not far above the shoulders. The horse cried out and tried to rear up, but the bear’s weight clearly had it pinned. The paint tried to back away, but it was secured to the wagon and the other horse. Both jostled with the sudden struggle. The other horse, a sturdy quarter horse, tried to flee to the side, but the mountainside’s sharp, rocky side only reminded them that there was no escape.

The bear wrenched at the paint’s neck, and the horse’s hind legs buckled. The animal was done for; Benjamin knew it. The bear was already backing away, pulling its prey down and into the forest and threatening to pull the other horse, the entire wagon, and the Bamfords down with it. Even killing the bear would not prevent disaster.

Benjamin jumped off the wagon’s helm and pulled a hunting knife out of the leather sheath near the front of his gun belt.

Marla cried, “Benjamin!” But it was too late to stop him.

Benjamin jumped onto the flanks of the stricken horse to cut the leather ties to the tongue of the wagon. The whole thing shook around him, every second bringing them closer to the edge of the trail. The paint struggled, the quarter horse held back, the only force keeping them on the trail while Benjamin tried to free the doomed paint.


The leather separated, and the last tether to the paint released it. Marla wrestled with the reins from the helm, holding the quarter horse at bay.

“Steady, boy!”

Benjamin jumped off the paint and onto the trail, grabbing the quarter horse’s bridle. In front of him, the paint’s hind legs kicked and flailed as the bear dragged it down into the redbud and dogwood bushes. It cried out, huffing, whinnying, and whimpering as the bear growled and the flora crackled and crunched beneath the weight of predator and prey alike.

The moment calmed, the violence gone with as much sudden ferocity as it had arrived with. The animal’s struggle was still faintly rustling in the background until there was no sound at all. Only the red-tailed hawk dared cry out overhead.

Benjamin took a moment to calm the quarter horse, rubbing its neck and snout and gently tapping the shoulders. He climbed back onto the helm and sat next to Marla, taking the reins as well.

Marla collapsed into Benjamin’s embrace. Her tears came quickly, her breath becoming panted. Benjamin wrapped his arms around Marla to pull her close, rocking her gently. “I know,” he said softly, “I know.”

“So much …” Marla said, panting to breathe, “so … much … death …”

“It’s okay, Marla, we’re okay.”

Marla pulled gently away and nodded. Benjamin knew she was determined, resolved, and with the strength and courage of her convictions. Boston was behind them; their future lay in the West.

If they survived the journey.

Chapter Two

Marla Bamford’s body, mind, and soul were still quivering from the sudden bear attack on their wagon. She’d never seen anything so frightful, not even the dead Otoe she saw fall by her own hand further east on the trail. The animal had been a reliable stalwart and had a pleasant disposition. It had become a friend on the trail, one of a precious few. And it had died horribly, in a way Marla knew she would never forget.

But it was a reminder of how dangerous the open country was. For all its grand beauty, it could not be taken for granted. The dominance of nature had to be respected at all times, as well as the delicacy of life. Every moment was precious and had to be valued.

Benjamin was calm beside her, holding the reins as she held onto him. His brown hair was getting long, the breeze pushing it back from over his brown eyes and handsome face. He let her lean against him, and she needed it after the terrible episode. She felt weak and vulnerable, and he had been courageous and clever. Marla knew they all would have been dragged down the hill if he hadn’t acted so swiftly and bravely. The wagon would have toppled; the quarter horse dragged down in the rolling debris as well. None would have survived it.

He’d been every inch the hero, daring and dashing, and not at all for the first time. His service in Boston had been an endless series of such heroics, increasingly futile in the face of mounting crime and a multiplying population. She’d wanted a more peaceful life, especially after losing little Willie.


Marla tried not to think about it. She could still hear the echo of the wagon wheels in her own memory, though they’d been moving faster, horses huffing as they turned that corner, seeming to come out of nowhere.

Marla held tighter to Benjamin’s side. He leaned his head over, his temple resting against the top of her head for just a moment. But after that, she knew he would say, “Best check the Winchester.”

Marla nodded and withdrew to pick up the rifle. It was cold and heavy in her hands, locked and loaded and ready. She wasn’t uncomfortable holding it or using it. She’d killed two men since leaving Boston but taken no joy in either act. They’d been tragic, pointless, inspired by the basest needs of men and the most basic needs of a woman … to survive, to preserve her liberty and her virtue, and to protect her husband.

Marla knew she was a danger to her husband. She knew what kind of element she attracted to their party and why. But she was long past blaming herself for the ungoverned desires of men with more strength than sense. Marla could only be grateful to have found a man as capable and courageous as her Benjamin. He was also gentle and kind, fair-minded and loving.

And the man wanted another son; Marla knew that. He did not dare ask, and he did not need to. In their years together, they’d come to be so close that simple words were, in fact, too simple. Their love gave them a bond secured with a glance, a touch. Each knew the other’s heart and the other’s mind.

Marla also wanted to have more children, her womb and body aching for him.

But the trail was too perilous for a pregnant woman or a newborn child, and she knew Benjamin agreed. And another loss would be too great for them; they knew that too, Benjamin as well as she. Their child needed a stable home, not a wagon traveling through the wilds of North America.

They rode on for the rest of the day and made a modest camp. The quarter horse was up to the task of pulling the wagon, where the paint alone would not have been. That gave Marla hope. And the mountains leveled off as they approached Springfield. Once it became visible in the distance, a cluster of squares rising from the slopes of the natural landscape, Marla dared hope for even more.

See a doc, she thought, just to know we’re okay, get a decent meal, and sleep in a fine bed!

But there were the perils of civilization to consider, the leers of men who would have her for their own, whatever her man might think about that, whatever she might think about it. But men of that sort wouldn’t be counting on facing a man like Benjamin Bamford.

The trail wound down the hills toward the town below, but something else grabbed Marla’s attention. Her back stiffened, her hands tightening around the Winchester. It was a potent tool but a frightening symbol of the new nation. The United States was even then being built by the rifle, as much as any ax or hammer or sawmill. But it was a tool which required the blood of men and women and even children to function, to grease its unseen wheels both large and small, in the heart of the mechanism and the heart of the nation.

It was a terrible necessity, but it was indeed necessary, especially as she and Benjamin rode up on a strange and troubling sight. It came into shape as they got closer. Benjamin glanced around, pulling a Colt pistol from one of the two holsters hanging from his gun belt.

The quarter horse, called Penny, pulled them closer to what was clearly a wagon, not unlike their own. It sat blocking the trail, its horse huffing and glancing around, clearly with worries of its own.

Benjamin’s attention seemed to be on their surroundings, and Marla knew why. It could be an ambush, a way to trap even more targets for murder, and worse. Marla’s hands tightened around the wagon as she looked around, too, catching no sign of anybody in the trees around them. It would be almost impossible to know for sure, until it was too late.

They rode closer, Benjamin slowing Penny before calling her to a halt. He climbed slowly down from the wagon, and every step further from Penny brought him closer to danger, closer to the grave. There could be enemies in the wagon itself, playing possum until the time would be right to spring out and claim their prize.

Marla was ready for anything. She knew there was no stopping her husband from investigating the scene. The marshal in him was always on duty. The wagon was blocking their path in any case.

Benjamin peeked inside the covered wagon. He peered around, then pulled back and stepped up to their own wagon, Marla at the helm.

Marla hardly needed to know the basics. She asked instead, “How many?”

“Four,” Benjamin said, “Man, woman, two kids—”

“Oh, Benjamin—”

“I know, Marla, I know … I don’t suggest you look.” Marla felt ready to vomit, pass out, put the rifle to her head, and end the madness her life seemed to have become. But love stayed her hand, love for Benjamin, love for the family they would yet have if she could only be brave and strong, as her husband had helped her become and would continue helping her to remain.

Benjamin looked around. “Doesn’t make much sense. Lotta goods left in the wagon, but they’re gunshot, no arrows, no … no scalps.”

“Oh, Benjamin …”

“So much left behind,” Benjamin said, clearly thinking out loud, as he so often did. He shook his head, puzzling in a way that had made him a great investigator and a powerful force for good. “I dunno, Marla.”

Marla looked around again, too, the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. “You want to take them into town.”

“Have to,” Benjamin said. “Gonna have to let this wagon lead ’til we’re on a wider stretch of trail.” Benjamin helped Marla down from their wagon, and she helped him hook up their wagon to the other, which Benjamin and Marla then manned at the helm. He shook the reins, and she held the shotgun, leading their morbid party onward.

Marla turned slowly to look into the back of the wagon, drawn by a horrible curiosity. She knew what was there and did not want to see it. Even to have such a tragic foursome so close to her was unnerving.

“Don’t look,” Benjamin said, “keep your eyes on the trail.”

Marla nodded, took a deep breath, and did her part to ensure their survival. Two wagons and two horses were an even more slow-moving and vulnerable target, and Springfield was still nearly a day’s journey, perhaps more.

Chapter Three

Benjamin led the little party into Springfield, Missouri. Though he’d never been there, it was plain to see the town was growing fast. It had likely taken shape as a small camp and grown from there, wooden buildings lining straight, muddy streets collected around a central thoroughfare but branching out into each direction. It was a sloppy grid of activity, and Benjamin couldn’t help recalling Boston and other cities. It was a place of corruption and greed, where murder waited around every corner.

What a sad way to see life, Benjamin had to admit, occupational hazard for a marshal, even with marshaling left far behind him.

He wanted his wife to see a better world, to see the best in those around her and not the worst, hope for the best instead of bracing for disaster. But that life seemed elusive, just beyond their reach. He wanted his sons and daughters to see a better world and to grow up in a better nation. And they would, he and Marla were determined.

Strangers didn’t seem to take notice of them, just another small party among many heading west for a better life. The town had certainly seen as many as could be counted, some likely staying for one reason or another, accounting for the town’s size.

The day had waned, and evening was falling, lamplighters raising their wicks to the whale oil lamps on the tall, wooden posts lining the main street. There were fewer wagons and horses than could be expected during the day, making their passage a bit easier.

Buildings lined the main thoroughfare, elevated wooden sidewalks unleveled and rotting with the weather. Restaurants, hotels, and services dominated, mainly little shops like a hardware store, cobbler, tailor, sundries, dry goods, and other modern luxuries.

But Benjamin wasn’t interested in any of those. He scanned the shingles, finally finding the one he was looking for up ahead.

Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff turned as Benjamin led Marla into the office. He stood up from behind a small wooden desk, made smaller by the man’s considerable belly. The man smiled, his thin brown hair seeming to fall out by the second.

“Hello, yes?”

Benjamin recognized the nervousness, and he wondered immediately what the reason for it was. It was an easy assumption to make with four dead bodies in his care. But as a marshal, he knew better than to do that too quickly.

“Benjamin Bamford, marshaled in Boston, en route to California with my wife, Marla.”

She offered a pleasant smile and a nod, and the sheriff said, “Pleasure. I’m Carmichael, Alvin … Sheriff Alvin Carmichael. Welcome to Springfield.”

Benjamin and Marla shared a glance before Benjamin said to the sheriff, “We’ve brought in another party, a family, left on the trail coming in ahead of us.”

The sheriff’s round head leaned forward on his chubby shoulders. “On the trail ahead of you.”

“That’s right, family of four. Road agents, looks like, but … there was a lot left in the wagon; things were more or less in order.”

The sheriff seemed to give it some thought. “I see. And … and where are these bodies now?”

“In their wagon, with their horse, lashed to our own rig. We brought ’em straight in.”

The sheriff’s beady eyes shifted around the little office. “I see.” Benjamin stood with Marla in a prolonged and worrisome silence. “Would you mind if I …?”

Benjamin stepped back and gestured for the door. “I suggest you do.” The sheriff stepped out of the office, Benjamin and Marla behind him. They followed the fat fellow out to the two wagons. He peered into the back of the rear wagon, flinching at the gore within. He stepped back and shook his head. “Pity.”

“It is,” Marla said. “Two children, a loving couple.”

Sheriff Carmichael said, “Oh, you knew them?”

“No, I … I’m just … presuming.”

“I see.” The sheriff asked Benjamin, “And what brings you to California? Marshaling?”

Benjamin’s experience told him that the sheriff’s first notions were of suspicion.

“Lookin’ fer a quieter life,” Benjamin said. “Thought of shipping, maybe, a route from China.”

“Shipping? Oh my, that’s … those are lofty aspirations.”

Benjamin wasn’t impressed with the man’s roundabout nature of questioning. He just shrugged.

Marla said, “My husband suspects road agents.”

“Does he, now? Well, I … road agents can certainly be a problem. Yet … road agents generally leave the bodies and take the goods, if you’ll pardon my being so frank.”

“My theory is that something chased ’em off before they could ransack the wagon,” Benjamin said. “There’s a big bear in the area, though it’s recently fed. I didn’t check for tracks.”

“Well, that certainly forces us to rely upon your word of honor, doesn’t it?”

Marla said, “You don’t suspect us in this? Why would we bring them in, along with all their goods?”

The sheriff asked, “What better way to deflect suspicion than to bring them in yourself? And who is to say you’ve brought in all their goods, Mrs. Bradford?”

“It’s Bamford,” Benjamin said. “And you can think what you want. We brought you the wagon and the goods and their horse. You can do whatever investigation you like, but there won’t be anything more than circumstantial evidence. As a lawman, presumably, you’d know that.”

Sheriff Carmichael nodded, little eyes shifting around in his round head. “Quite so, quite so. Innocent until proven guilty, eh?”

“Quite so,” Benjamin said.

“Though it’s worthy to note,” the chubby sheriff went on, “that marshals are commonly equipped and skilled in ways uniquely suited to working the other side of the street, as it were.”

“Noted,” Benjamin said. But he could see the worry in Marla’s pretty face, pale and freckled brow furrowed. “You might also keep in mind that some sheriffs in these little towns actually run the road agents themselves, splitting the booty and making sure their so-called investigations don’t bring in the guilty party. And those sheriffs hang when they’re caught, as accessories before and after the fact. How many murderers would that be, Sheriff Alvin Carmichael?”

“Well, I … of course, I wouldn’t be involved in anything of that sort.”

“No,” Benjamin said. “And if I conducted my own little investigation, I don’t suppose I’d come up with enough incriminating information to turn this town against you, bring your house of cards tumbling down.”

“I, um, I can’t imagine what you’d find, Mr. Bamford. I suppose you’re welcome to try your best. And I suppose I should ask you to stay in town for a few days.”

Marla turned to her husband. “Benjamin?”

“Just a formality,” the sheriff said. “Should you hastily disappear, that might give me … and the good people of Springfield … the wrong impression.”

Benjamin didn’t express any fear or nervousness, which he knew the sheriff was waiting for. “And you can keep in mind we didn’t know the couple, there was no conflict between us, and we’ve got plenty of goods of our own. If their goods are marked, you won’t find any in our wagon, which is the one in the back. Furthermore, you’ve got four bodies as the best evidence. I suggest you take them to the doc, have the doc pull the bullets, and see if they match up.”

“That’s … I will,” the sheriff said. “Where can I find you?”

Benjamin asked, “What’s the best hotel in town?”

“The Springfield Arms,” Sheriff Carmichael said, “if they have any rooms. If not, you might try the Grand Central.” Benjamin turned to lead Marla down the street. “Oh, and one more thing,” the sheriff said, Benjamin and Marla turning. “Welcome to Springfield.”

Chapter Four

Marla pushed through another terrible night’s sleep. Only utter exhaustion allowed her to sleep through the night in their cramped wagon. Benjamin had decided they should forego the hotel. Sleeping in the wagon would be the best way to ensure the sheriff didn’t plant any evidence to pin the family’s murder on them.

It would be an easy victory for the sheriff, though it wouldn’t bring any justice to that family or security to Springfield’s people. Marla reviewed the facts, convinced her husband had been right again. The family had been shot, which meant human predators. But they’d been left behind. Even if a person had some personal animus against the man or his wife, perhaps some romantic entanglement gone south, they would have taken or scattered some goods to leave the right appearance. And those goods had value to virtually anybody in the area, the horses even more so.

But the horse was problematic, and they might yet trail any law from the murdered family to anyone riding it. That would be enough to hang a man and imprison a woman for the rest of her natural life.

Having returned it all, Benjamin had gone a long way toward securing their innocence, at least in the eyes of any jury. As the family had been traveling west, they seemed unlikely to know anybody in Springfield. The sheriff hadn’t seemed to recognize them as locals, though with the town’s size, that was reasonable enough.

Marla worried about the man. He was no physical match for Benjamin, but he had that badge and all the power it gave him. Her Benjamin had been a noble and honorable sheriff, but she’d seen many more who were just the opposite. Framing a pair of witnesses would be a good way to placate the populace and ensure that the killings could go on in relative peace.

There was also the matter of her own involvement as Benjamin’s wife. She was a danger to her husband on the trail and in town, where her beauty often attracted the attention of terrible, murderous men with more than murder in mind. It made her a target, and it made Benjamin a target. More than one corrupted public official would hang a man simply to get at his new widow.

But Marla lay in that wagon, worried more for Benjamin than herself. He would pit himself against any force and use all his skills to protect her. And she knew she owed it to him to rise to the mantle of the occasion, to use her skills and training as she had to. If those skills and experience could keep her free and Benjamin alive, she’d cut through hundreds of men if she had to.

It wouldn’t go on forever, she knew. They would move on from Springfield and finally make it to the deserts and coast. If any man could get there safely, it would be Benjamin Bamford. But doing it with an attractive white woman only made it more difficult. And though she knew that she was the reason he went on, the reason he lived, and he was the same for her, she couldn’t stand to be the reason for a tragic fate that may befall him in her name. He’d fight to the death for her, but just the idea of him having to do that broke her heart.

Marla had endured a terrible, ominous feeling as they’d approached Springfield. But she knew the feeling had trailed her all the way from Boston and even before that. It went back to Willie’s death that fateful morning of the accident. Since then, it seemed that danger lurked around every corner, that time and circumstance were determined to collect their due, one way or another.

But the bear, the dead family, and the suspicious sheriff all led Marla to believe her worries were well-founded. They’d been lucky and suffered few losses. But that luck seemed to have been running out, and Springfield could easily be the place fate had set aside for their early ends.

Marla would die by her husband’s side, and she would do all she could to prevent surviving him. She would die before winding up in the hands of men who would debase or abuse her. But she still had a crisp vision of her future, with more children who would survive and grow up and grow old, of her own decrepitude with Benjamin, the two stooped and graying and adoring their many grandchildren, sharing tales of their exciting exploits in a time that would seem a world away.

“Gunsmoke and Danger” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Benjamin Bamford, once a respected marshal in Boston, is now a stranger in a dangerous and unforgiving world. He and his wife embark on a journey to California in search of a new beginning, but fate has other plans. When they stumble upon a wagon with four dead bodies, their lives take a sharp turn toward a dark and perilous path…

To save himself and his wife from a sinister plot, he must use his wits…

Marla Bamford loves her husband more than her own life. While her husband is searching for a maniacal killer, she is taken in by a seemingly friendly couple. She’s fast wearing out her welcome though, and any minute she could be betrayed and turned over to a riotous mob…

Has her luck finally run out?

Through the trials and tribulations of this harrowing journey, the couple discovers the true meaning of love, loyalty, and courage. Will they be able to escape the clutches of the evil that surrounds them and find the justice they seek? Find out in this heart-pounding Western Adventure, a tale that will grip you until the very end!

“Gunsmoke and Danger” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 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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