It’s almost Christmas and my third book is nearing completion.
So I figure I’m gonna put this out there. It’s unedited and unpolished… but it’s the first dozen or so pages of the third book.
SPOILER ALERT. (obviously)
TAMING PREHISTORIC – Third in the West of Prehistoric Series.
Erik ‘Tracer’ Testerman
Smith Ranch, State of Wyoming.
It was dark when I reached my ranch on Lieutenant Daniel’s borrowed horse. Just enough snow was falling to cover the ground with a thin layer, but still enough to tease a hard winter to come.
I was glad to be home.
It’d been an eventful couple of weeks since I was here last.
During that time, I was briefly jailed for murder, narrowly evaded a hanging, then returned to Prehistoria to fight at the fall of Fort Jipson. There I was left for dead, in an explosion of my own doing, blocking a tunnel that the survivors of the fort were escaping through. It took me three days to crawl out of the prehistoric forest filled with angry apes and savage dinosaurs to reach the Shimmer and make my way back to our side. Then, after executing our crooked Sheriff, I headed home to where my beloved mourned my untimely death. A bit pre-emptive if you asked me, but you couldn’t blame her for figuring I was dead.
I was pleased to see during my absence that the barn had been mostly completed, except for trim and some windows, and from the looks of things the little, sheep sized, Protoceratops were still being kept inside. Hopefully, they were staying warm and laying lots of eggs for my little herd of dinosaurs to grow with.
Thin tendrils of smoke rose from the bunkhouse, where my hired hand, Bo, would be sleeping inside. I’d check on him later, but first things first.
Carbine, my dun mustang, was standing with his front half sticking outside of his pole shed, pawing at the ground. Seeing me, he stopped, ears flicking, then he bounced forward. Sprinting across the corral, he jumped the fence, narrowly clearing the top rail.
I laughed as he reached me and leaned over in the saddle to give his ears a scratch while he gave my borrowed horse the stink eye. He didn’t seem to appreciate me riding another horse. Dismounting, I grabbed the reins in one hand and patted Carbine’s neck as he shoved his head against me.
“Good boy,” I rested my forehead against his shoulder. “Thanks for taking care of Skyla. I owe you a bushel of apples.”
Carbine neighed and stamped his feet in agreement.
Giving him a final pat, I crossed the yard and turned Lieutenant Daniel’s horse loose inside the corral. With some coaching and a few muttered threats, I managed to get Carbine to go back in as well.
Hearing a door open, I turned and saw Skyla standing on the porch, her trim outline framed in lantern light. Sara, our adopted baby triceratops, peeked her horned head around my favorite paleontologist and bellowed lightly.
I grinned and waved a hand like an idiot.
Skyla rushed across the yard and threw herself at me. I could only catch her and fall. The sound we made landing awkwardly was one of laughter and a grunt of pain from my battered body. She kissed my dirty, stubbled face passionately.
Kissing her back, I pushed myself upright only to be knocked down again as Sara butted her bone shield into me. Laughing, I gave the little triceratops a hug around her leathery neck.
“You’re alive,” Skyla said softly, tears trickling down her pretty face and wetting the snow sticking to her shirt. As happy as she was to see me, I got the sense that something was wrong.
“Sorry that I’m late.” I apologized as I looked behind her at a pair of shadows stretching towards us in the light of the house.
Charles stood just inside the doorway, a slight smile playing across his lips. Stitches ran along the gash in his face from the battle. Beside him was Elizabeth Stratten, Skyla’s mother. She pushed past the Brit and stalked across the moonlit snow-covered yard; her face twisted in fury.
Dusting myself off, I stood, helped Skyla up and grimaced in anticipation of a tongue lashing for allowing her daughter to go into harm’s way once again, “Good evening, Mrs. Stra-”
The unexpected force of her open palm slapping against my face made me stumble.
She held up an old, faded piece of paper with her other hand. On it, a terrible likeness of myself stared back. My wanted poster.
“Explain this, Orville!”
I frowned as I looked from the poor sketching to Skyla and then to her mother. My name wasn’t on the wanted poster, Skyla must have told Elizabeth about my past over the few days I was missing.
Damn the luck of being thought dead.
Holding my hands up to placate her anger, I started, “Well, Mrs. Stratten, about that-”
Thundering hoofbeats came from the forested wagon trail behind us.
In surprise, we all turned to see a shadowy group on horseback barreling towards us. A gun blossomed fire from the lead rider followed by the sharp crack of a bullet as it passed by overhead.
More flashes came as the other riders opened fire.
Without thinking, I shoved Skyla away from me, towards the house, and drew my twin Colt Peacemakers.
It was too dark to use the sights, so I didn’t. I just pointed in the bad guy’s general direction and began side stepping towards the barn as I lit the group up by pulling triggers. Horses, men, whoever. It didn’t matter who or what got hit, just so long as they stopped shooting.
A rider slid from the saddle and crumpled into a heap on the ground. The man behind him leapt his horse over the body.
There was a loud cry to my right, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Elizabeth stagger as she rushed with her daughter towards the house.
Gritting my teeth, I fired as fast as I could work the brace of pistols.
A rider fell, then another. From the house came a loud boom as a rifle returned fire. It was probably Charles getting into the fight.
I didn’t know who these people were coming towards us, but I was desperate to draw their fire away from the unarmed ladies.
The riders rushed between the barn and the house, firing in both directions.
I hit a horse with a bullet, and it tumbled, going down with its rider in a terrible crashing of limbs and flesh. The surviving attackers raced across the remainder of the yard, into the tree line, and out of sight.
Then they were gone in the dead of night with a lone boom from Charles’ rifle fired after them.
The door to the bunkhouse burst open and Bo appeared in his underwear and socked feet, pistol in hand looking around wild-eyed and confused.
“What in the hell is going on? Wait… Jed, is that you?” he shouted while quickly stepping into a pair of boots.
“It’s me,” I called back as I began dumping cartridges from my pistols and reloading while keeping an eye on the forest and walking to the rider who had gone down with his horse. Reaching the man, I stood over him with a loaded pistol pointed at his head. The downed horse screamed in pain and thrashed side to side as it tried to rise. Seeing that its front leg was twisted and shattered, I finished the unlucky animal off with a shot through the skull then jerked the gun back to cover the rider.
“Who sent you?” I asked the motionless man.
I kicked him with the toe of my boot.
Dropping to a knee, I felt his chest for any movement. There was none.
Too bad. I could have used some answers.
“Jed!” Skyla cried out.
Leaving the corpse where it lay, I rushed over, watching the misshapen lumps at the far end of the yard to see if the other downed riders were still alive. Neither one moved.
Skyla was crouched over her mother on the porch, Charles beside her, and Sara nudged Elizabeth with her hooked beak. “She’s hit!” Charles shouted as he pressed a hand against her wound.
In the lantern light, I could see a spreading dark mass staining her dress around her abdomen. Sara bellowed lightly, and I shoved the young trike out of the way. Bo rushed over, gun still in hand as he watched the darkened tree line for any returning riders.
“Give me a hand, Charles.” I grabbed her under the arms and hoisted her up with the Brit’s help. Between the two of us we moved her into the house. She screamed in pain as we set her down on the bed. In the lantern light her face was pale, her eyes wide and fearful, and she trembled as shock set in.
Charles ripped a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the wound, staunching the flow of blood.
“Bo! Get the doc!” I shouted out the door as he peeked into the room. The hired cowboy spun around and sprinted towards the barn without a word. I knew he’d do his best to get the Doc here come hell or high water.
Charles was better at first aid than I was and stayed in the house watching over Elizabeth with Skyla. Leaving Sara in the building with them, I quickly crossed the yard, jerked my rifle out of the borrowed horse’s scabbard and ducked into the barn.
If the riders came back, we’d be fortified and ready to hit them from both buildings.
I sat for hours on a cold metal bucket, waiting and listening to the noises of the little dinosaurs shuffling around behind me in the barn as I peeked out through one of the stall windows. Thin bits of lantern light strayed from cracks in the shutters bolted shut on my house, and I knew inside Elizabeth was fighting for her life with her daughter by her side.
Small bellows and the rustling of straw behind me made me glance at my dinosaurs before shifting in position to ease the numbing in my butt cheeks.
The Protoceratops were about the size of large sheep. But they looked like small, colorful triceratops with dirty white bodies and large red spots. Blue dabs dotted the frill that extended behind their skull, and their heads were adorned with a single small, raised horn bump between their nostrils, and a hawk-like beak used for ripping up plants from the ground. A mane of thick brown hairs rose vertically from their stout little tails. The dinosaurs were my ranches future, each one probably worth their weight in gold, and wore my brand of a circle with a horned trike in the center on their rump.
At a shout from the forest, I shifted my rifle barrel and watched over the iron sights as Doc and Bo came racing down the trail. They skidded their lathered horses to a stop by the corral and slid down from the saddles. Bo had thrown on a thick coat but was still in just his long johns and boots and had to be freezing by now.
Stepping out of the warmth of the barn, I shivered in my coat and followed Doc as he ran into the house.
Doc was hunched over Elizabeth when I closed the door behind me. Skyla’s eyes were red rimmed from crying, and Charles was squeezing water from a handkerchief onto Elizabeth’s chapped lips.
“She’s lost a lot of blood…” Doc muttered as he tore part of the dress to get a better look at the wound. “I’m going to have to remove this.” He gave Charles and me a wave with his blood smeared hand. “You both need to get out of the house while I work. I won’t have this poor lady’s dignity ruined because of you two standing around gawking.”
“Yes, sir,” I muttered and hugged Skyla tightly. “She’ll be okay,” I whispered into her ear.
“I hope so,” she whispered back. Her face was tear streaked and I knew that as much as she and her mother fought, there was still love there. I patted her on the back gently and let her go before turning to the Stratten family butler.
“Charles, get Sir Lancelot. It’s time to go hunting.”
“Damn straight,” the British family butler replied as he picked up his rifle and followed me outside.
“Jed!” Skyla called.
Stopping halfway through the door, I turned back.
“Be careful,” she blinked back more tears, and I could see she was barely holding it all together.
“Yes ma’am,” I said softly before closing the door behind me.
Bo was sitting in the rocking chair on the porch with a rifle across his lap. He’d managed to get some pants on and saw the looks of grim determination on our faces. “You’re going after them, aren’t you?” he asked, obviously already knowing the answer.
“I need you to stay here and hold down the fort. They may circle back to hit us again.”
He patted the rifle stock. “I’ll give them hell if they do.”
“Thanks, Bo.” Stepping off the deck, we crossed the yard to where Carbine and Sir Lancelot stood waiting by the corral fence. It was as if our horses knew what we had in mind.
After a couple hours of tracking the raiders in freshly fallen snow through sparse forests and across patches of open prairie, we found where they had turned suddenly and headed into a large stand of trees and dense undergrowth. Suspecting this was where they’d set up a camp, we dismounted and tied off our horses.
Charles looked at me strangely as I removed my boots and set them to the side. At my insistence he followed suit. His socks looked worse than mine, with a pair of toes sticking out of the gray fabric on his left foot. I guess butlering for the wealthy Strattens didn’t pay well.
Not enjoying the feeling of cold melted snow soaking my socks, I slipped through the trees, carefully stepping to make sure I didn’t break a stick or roll a stone to give away the fact that the raiders weren’t alone in these darkened woods. This was where walking in sock feet gave you an advantage. Moccasins would have worked, but I didn’t think to grab a pair from the house. And I doubted Charles had ever worn a set, much less owned one.
A stick broke behind me, and I heard a muffled swear from the Brit. I also doubted he had ever done anything like this before. But this was where my past came in handy.
We smelled the acrid scent of wood smoke and heard a soft knicker from one of their horses before we saw the flicker of flames in the darkness. I didn’t see anything resembling a look out. Whoever these gunmen were, they were lazy and assumed we wouldn’t be out for blood tonight.
They were wrong.
Laughter drifted to us as we approached, and I began to make out bits and pieces of the conversation. Once I was close enough to make out full sentences, I held up a hand and Charles crouched down beside me.
From between the trees, I watched a man take a swig from a bottle and belch before asking, “How much you think them dinosaurs are worth?”
“A lot. He’s got the only ones this side of the Shimmer that can be kept in a herd,” said another.
I gritted my teeth. Was that what the attack was all about? Stealing my Protos? If so, they were the first dinosaur rustlers in existence. But I had more enemies than friends, and my paranoid side doubted it was so simple as that.
“We’ll catch a little sleep, then get set up outside the ranch before dawn. When they come out in the morning, we’ll kill them and torch the house and bodies. Then we’ll take the dinosaurs.”
“How many of them do you think there are?”
Something sizzled in a pan on the fire. Bacon from the smell of it.
“Jed, and a couple others. We got at least one of them.”
“Hell, they got three of ours. And surprise was on our side!” The man who spoke spat into the fire angrily.
“Yeah, Henry. Great plan,” another man spoke as he jerked a thumb towards the picketed horses. “Rush the house and kill everyone inside as they sleep, huh?”
“Shut it. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Jed walked back through the Shimmer around noon, looking more dead than alive. What were they doing outside like that in the middle of the night?” The man I assumed to be Henry swore bitterly from where he sat between the two others.
Luck appeared to have been on my side. Had I not ridden into town and kidnapped the Sheriff to execute on the prairie, I’d have been home earlier and sleeping by the time they attacked. It seemed killing Sheriff Beauford Johnson righted many wrongs and possibly saved all our lives at the same time. I silently congratulated myself on a good move.
“That Jed’s a tough one. But he can die like any man with a well-placed bullet. And the reward for his death is more than enough. That herd of dinosaurs would be worth a fortune to any buyer.”
I’d heard enough. Apparently, they wanted me dead. No surprise there, a lot of people did. But who sent them? That was the question I needed an answer to. Was it my father? I doubted it, he was never one for harming a woman and we’d just made something of amends.
Nodding over my shoulder to Charles, I carefully moved forward stalking through the trees with silent determination.
It was Henry I wanted alive. The other men didn’t matter.
I slowly shifted around until I was just outside the fire light and had a good view of the remaining three gunmen. Drawing both pistols, I lined up the dark sights on two of the men who helped attack my ranch.
Gently squeezing the triggers to keep the guns on target, I fired. Both bullets hit, and the men toppled backwards over the log they sat on.
Henry sat in the center, mouth open, startled at the sudden burst of gunfire from the darkness.
I shifted both guns to him and called out, “Twitch and you’re dead.”
His hands trembled a bit in his lap, but I let that slide.
Taking a few steps forward, I eased myself into the firelight. Charles followed me, his nickel-plated Schofield revolver shining from the dancing flames.
“Where are your boots?” Henry asked suddenly, as if that was the most important question to ask someone after having your buddies blown away in front of you.
“None of your damned business. Now, take off your gun belt. Slowly,” I told the raider as I inched closer to the fire to warm my cold wet feet.
The bearded man obliged and held it up by the buckle, gun hanging low in its holster.
“Toss it away,” I commanded.
I holstered my left Colt Peacemaker but kept the right one trained on the gunman. I may have carried two pistols, but I was vastly better with my right hand than my left at using them.
“Charles, check on his friends.”
The Brit edged around me, making sure not to get between my gun barrel and the man sitting across the fire. With his foot, Charles nudged one, then the other. The second one moaned slightly and curled up in pain.
“This one is still alive.” Reaching down Charles drew the pistol from the wounded man’s gun belt and tossed it across the fire where it slid beside my socked feet.
“Will he die?” I asked while keeping my eyes and gun barrel on the remaining seated raider.
“If untreated… certainly.”
Still staring at Henry, I arched an eyebrow. “Well, let’s not get between a man and his fate.”
Charles shot me a dark look that I caught from the corner of my eye, and I shrugged. “He earned this death. If it’d make you feel better, I can either shoot him again, or we can hang him.”
The Brit was silent as the wounded man moaned again faintly.
I took in Henry sitting across from me.
He had a scraggly beard and wore a dirty red shirt with tan pants. Stepping over to him, I knocked the hat off his head to get a better look at his face. I didn’t recognize him.
“Who are you, Henry?”
He spat into the fire. “No one.”
“Then who sent you and your friends to my ranch?”
He grunted but remained silent.
I glared at him as menacingly as possible. “You’re not making a very compelling argument for me to keep you alive.”
He squinted, confused. “What’s compelling mean?”
I sighed. That was my higher education coming out again. “Do you want to live?”
He tugged at his pitiful beard. “Yes.”
“Then answer my damn questions before I shoot you.”
“Okay!” He raised his hands defensively. “I don’t know who hired us. Someone left a note under the door at the hotel for me to meet them in the stables for a job. I went there… it was dark, I couldn’t make out who it was. I didn’t even recognize the voice! They said I should kill you and take your dinosaurs as payment. They said you had a little trike that would be worth a fortune to the right buyer!”
“Did the mystery man have a cane? Or was he wearing a badge?” That’d at least narrow it down to my mortal enemy and railroad tycoon Reydan White or one of the Pinkerton detectives that worked for him.
“No, sir. He stood in the shadows, and I couldn’t see his face beneath his hat. But when I left, he had a real ragged cough and was holding a red handkerchief, like he was a lunger or something.”
I stood still, thinking. It certainly sounded like Tuberculosis. The red handkerchief would help hide spots of blood coughed up. That wasn’t much to go on, but it was something. The wounded man to Henry’s right, thrashed once, then went limp.
Charles bent over, poked him a few times, then shook his head signaling the raider was dead.
I looked back at Henry, “So, you know nothing else about who hired you?”
“No! Promise I don’t!”
“Then what good are you to me alive?”
My bullet thumped through his chest. He toppled forward, narrowly missing falling face first into the fire.
Charles jumped up from where he crouched over the other dead raider. “What the hell, Jed? He was unarmed!” he shouted.
“He tried to kill me and shot a woman who may very well be dead now for all we know,” I snapped back. “And I already have to look over my shoulder for enough threats as it is. He was never going to walk out of here alive.”
“I wouldn’t have come along if I’d known you were going to murder everyone who crossed you!”
“Oh, shut it, Charles. You fought in the Indian Wars with the East British Trading Company. Don’t tell me you didn’t get your hands dirty when it needed to be done,” I told him angrily.
He frowned then quickly grimaced from the row of stitches that covered the side of his face, “That’s not who I am now.”
“Well, this is who I am. You saw the wanted poster. I reckon Skyla told you about my past while she thought I was dead too,” I kicked a stick into the fire and sparks shot up. “I’m a bad man trying to be good. And now I’m up a shit creek because of it.”
The night was silent except for the crackle of flames.
“This will pass, Jed,” Charles said quietly as he holstered his Schofield.
“Pass? Hell!” I gestured with my pistol at the corpses around the campfire angrily. “I’m just getting warmed up.”
I walked over to Henry and kicked him in the face to make sure he was dead. He didn’t even twitch.
“You need to calm down, and think with a clear head, Jed. You accused me of fighting in the Indian Wars… well I did. I did some awfully bad things, and I know what it’s like trying to make good afterwards. So far, I’ve accomplished it by protecting the people who mean the most to me. That includes Elizabeth, along with Skyla, and her father. You can too. Let’s check on Elizabeth and we’ll figure things out from there.”
“Fine,” I grumbled before bending over and patting down Henry’s pockets. I fished a handful of coins and some folded bills out from one and a handful of .44-40 cartridges from the other.
“What are you doing?” Charles asked in surprise.
“Robbing the dead. They were going to do it to me, but to the winner go the spoils.”
“Oh hell, Jed. You really are a bad man.”