When everything you love has been taken, sometimes all you have left is revenge.
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Recovering from the death of his brother, Chet Bowman is finally finding a sense of normalcy. He's through hiding from the world on his ranch, and he's tired of being alone. He's ready to act on his long-time attraction to Lil Kersey, the sultry saloon owner who runs his favorite watering hole.
While his relationship with Lil blossoms, their courtship comes under fire from the former marshal of Calico, now gone rogue. As Austen Riley ramps up his revenge on the cowboy who thwarted his plans to control Calico, Lil struggles to survive Austen's unwanted attentions.
When the dust settles after one final gun fight, will Lil and Chet find their happily ever after? Or will Austen's maniacal revenge tear them apart forever?
Sunlight streamed through Chet’s window, warming his face and boring under his eyelids. His head pounded. He turned over. “No,” he said to no one in particular.
The sun did not go away, so Chet dragged himself to a seated position and put his hand up to shield his eyes. Damn, why hadn’t he closed his curtains last night? He snorted. Because he had been drunk, that’s why. That’s why he was still in his clothes too.
Cradling his head in his hands, he replayed the night before. Banjo, the horses in the barn. And Lil. He raised his head as he smiled.
Coffee. He needed coffee. Chet stood and stretched. And a cook who would have that coffee brewing already. He simply had to take care of that today. He was damn tired of jerky, cornmeal and the bitter coffee he always seemed to make.
Stripping off his clothes, he grabbed up a towel and a cake of soap and headed downstairs to one end of the back porch and the makeshift shower stall he’d set up there. It was an interesting contraption, with a large bucket for a reservoir which, when the attached rope was pulled, would tip into a smaller bucket with a series of holes punched into the bottom. It worked pretty well, and he could manage it by himself without having someone stand on a chair and pour the water over him. Would probably be way nicer if he could figure out a way to make it work inside without tearing his house apart to install that newfangled plumbing they had in the east, though.
He gave a gentle tug on the rope to release a bit of water, then lathered himself. Once sufficiently soaped, he tugged again, and the remaining water sluiced down over his body, washing the suds away.
Returning inside with the towel wrapped around his waist, he climbed the stairs to his room, dressed quickly, and then went into the kitchen to make his coffee. While the hot brew perked, he stretched again and looked out the kitchen window. The open barn door drew his attention.
With his brow quirked, he gave his head a shake and thought hard. No, he hadn’t left the door open. Banjo wasn’t in the corral, so he must have gone inside. Chet stamped on his boots and went outside.
His frown deepened as he took the two steps down from the porch. Someone had been in his garden. Cabbage and lettuce heads were scattered across the dirt, carrots uprooted and the few potatoes still growing were yanked free from their hills. This was no accident.
With gaze fixed on the barn, he hurried across the yard and entered carefully. Damn him for forgetting his Colt. But how often did one need a gun when checking on his horses? He made a mental note to keep the holster near him from now on.
Nothing seemed amiss. Horses in their stalls, haystack at the far end intact, tack on their respective hooks. He moved deeper into the barn, gaze darting left and right for anything out of place. He knew every nook and cranny of his barn and left no place unturned for someone to lurk in the shadows and wait to be stumbled upon. His gaze fixed on a saddle askew over a bench on the left, near a rear side door. The varmint must have escaped through the side door when he heard Chet and Banjo returning the night before, and being so dark, and a little drunk, Chet hadn’t noticed the damage to the garden.
He secured the side door, then moved to Banjo’s stall. He rubbed the horse’s nose, then removed his saddle and headgear. Grabbing up a brush, he stroked the beast, cooing his apologies for sending him to bed with tack in place. Then, he led the horses out into the pasture for the day. Fortunately, none were injured. Just his garden.
Crossing to the chicken coop, he found nothing out of order there either, so he collected a few fresh eggs for breakfast and returned to the house for a cup of coffee.
He was just cleaning up his breakfast dishes when a dust cloud appeared, coming from the east. He dried his hands, belted on his holster, and with coffee mug in hand, stepped out onto the front porch to wait.
The rider came into view, and Chet relaxed. Leaning against a porch beam, he sipped his coffee, then raised the mug to the marshal.
“Matt, good to see you,” he said as the marshal dismounted. He came forward and looped the reins over a fence post, then climbed the steps to shake Chet’s hand.
“I heard you were lookin’ for me yesterday.” He took his Stetson off and pushed a hand through his neatly clipped brown hair. “Since you went all that way for nothing, I figured I’d come on out to see you before I go into town today.”
“Thanks, Matt.” Chet moved aside to let the marshal up onto the porch. “Coffee?”
“If you still have some on the hot plate,” he replied.
They sat across from each other at the kitchen table. Chet cradled his mug between both palms. “First of all, I need to hire a cook and some ranch hands. Thought you might know someone lookin’ for work.”
Matt pursed his lips, then gave a nod. “Chili Bob knows someone. He’s got a friend visiting from Lincoln County. Not getting much done with him around, so drop over to the ranch and meet him.” He sighed and raised his coffee mug to his mouth. After he sipped on the hot brew, he shook his head. “I miss Chili’s breakfast stew. Haven’t had much of it since Pete came around. They’re too busy talkin’ about old times.”
Chet rolled his mug back and forth between his hands. “I’ll drop by this morning then. Need someone here sooner than later.” He glanced up. “There’s more. I don’t know what’s going on yet, but something’s definitely happenin’ around here.”
“Oh?” Matt’s brows came up.
“Yeah,” Chet said. “Let me show you.”
He stood and motioned for the marshal to follow him.
They went out the back door and into the yard. Chet gave a half-hearted wave in the direction of his decimated garden. “This happened sometime last night. Barn door was open when I got home from Lil’s a bit after dark. You know me, Mallory. I don’t leave the barn open when there’s no one here.”
“Boot print,” the marshal said with a thrust of his chin. He knelt to examine the outline of the impression in the dry soil.
Chet nodded. “Found one just like it behind the barn yesterday morning.”
“Any idea who it could be? Seems kinda odd for this kind of mischief to start just out of the blue.” The marshal stood and continued his perusal of the yard.
Chet shoved his hands into his pockets and lifted his shoulders. “I don’t know. Yeah, it’s weird, but it’s been going on for weeks now.”
“Find anything else?”
“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “Not yet, anyway. Mostly just that feeling that something isn’t right.”
Marshal Mallory looked at the garden patch again. “You know, Chet, water works really well to grow vegetables.”
Chet laughed and clapped a hand on the other man’s shoulder. He nodded. “Yeah, I know. I had an epiphany yesterday. Decided it’s time to get back to living again. I’m done wallowing in my own pity. Was gonna water and get the garden in order today, but now… I almost have to replant it all.”
“No, not all,” the marshal said. “You can probably save some of the carrots and potatoes if you wet ’em and put them back in the ground. The cabbage and lettuce can probably be used early if you clear off the damaged leaves.” He started walking toward the house. “I need to get into town, but I’ll keep my eye open for anything strange. And I’ll get the word out. If this is happening at your ranch, it could be happening at some of the others’ too.” He waved as he headed around the house, to where his horse waited. “Don’t forget to drop by and talk to Chili Bob and his friend, Pete. Palomino Pete. Don’t ask him where the Palomino came from. You don’t want to know.”