DO NOT OPEN FIRE UNTIL CHRISTMAS . . .
T’was the week before Christmas and all through the ranch, not a creature was stirring—because Shad Parker would fill it full of buckshot. Embittered by the loss of his wife and children in the Civil War, Shad relocated his sorry self to Gilead, Texas, where he planted a DO NOT TRESPASS sign on his land, his heart, and his soul. Intruders, beware . . .
Enter the Coats children: three scrappy runaways from the Faith, Hope, and Charity orphanage. Austin, Pet, and Davy are hiding out in a cave on Shad’s land. When the lonely rancher begrudgingly saves their lives, he’s stuck taking them in. But when a gang of bank robbers show up, they’re going to need a Christmas miracle—to stay alive ’til New Year’s . . .
Includes three bonus Andrew J. Fenady western stories as told by the Wise Old Man of the West.
“A good read . . . outstanding . . . Shad Parker literally pulls at your heartstrings.”
—Bob Anderson, Trail Dust Magazine
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It was a no-good time to be in Texas.
Just over six years ago, on February 1, 1861, Texas had seceded from the Union — the former Union — and joined the glorious Confederacy. But the machinery of war grinds exceedingly ingloriously and is lubricated by blood and money.
The War for the Confederacy drained Texas of both. By April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses Simpson Grant at Appomattox, Texas was bankrupt, and in the two years that followed things had gone from bankrupt to worse.
Cattle by the thousand swarmed all over the plains, valleys, and slopes of Texas. But there wasn't any market for beef because there was a lack of money in Texas ... and everywhere else in the South.
But Deek Keeshaw knew of one place in Texas that had money. A bank in Gilead, whose owner, Amos Bush, had been conservative in his financial dealings as well as his patriotism.
While the other banks in Texas had backed the Confederacy with every resource at their command, Amos Bush had played the game close to his ample vest.
Deek Keeshaw, who had never made a deposit in Amos Bush's bank, or any other bank, had planned to make a withdrawal, a substantial withdrawal, with dynamite. But at the moment, Deek Keeshaw was inside a formidably enclosed wagon on his way to the Oklahoma Territorial Prison.
Deek's two younger brothers, Tom and Bart, were strategically poised, waiting to unburden the formidably enclosed wagon of part of its living cargo, the part called Keeshaw. The deed would take some doing and some dying, but not on the part of the Keeshaws.
They were good at making sure that it was the other people who died. The best way to make sure was to back-shoot, or ambush.
The Keeshaws learned that lesson from Quantrill in Kansas when they rode alongside Frank and Dingus, the Daltons, and all the other young rebels who never charged a fortified position in military formation or maneuvered in open combat. They struck mostly in the dark and at the defenseless. What was left of Lawrence when they rode out testified to the merciless efficiency of William Clarke Quantrill's tactics and gave new emphasis to the epithet "guerrillas."
But for this ambush Tom and Bart needed daylight. They had to make sure of their targets. And they made sure of every other advantage. Concealment. Elevation. Surprise. Those advantages added up to death. For other people. Not the Keeshaws. And Tom would also get a chance to use just a little of the new dynamite they had lately acquired. Tom had been taught by Deek that it was dynamite, and not faith, that moved mountains — and banks.
Tom believed everything that Deek said. So did Bart. And Deek had said that their fortune was not west, but south. Mexico. All they needed was a stake. That stake was in the safe of the Bank of Gilead. Dynamite would also move that safe. But first they needed Deek to show them the way.
Tom studied the narrow road that snaked through the rocky terrain below. The December day was clear and windless. He aimed the rifle barrel down a long road toward an imaginary moving target. He squeezed the trigger but not hard enough to fire the rifle.
"Bam!" he whispered.
Tom Keeshaw smiled and looked north toward another vantage point across the leaden landscape.
Bart Keeshaw, skulking behind a boulder, held a rifle that would deliver the deadly crossfire when the moving target would no longer be imaginary. The wagon with the driver and guard would be advancing directly into the sun, another calculated advantage set forth by William Clarke Quantrill.
Of the brothers Keeshaw, Bart was the youngest, thinnest, tallest, and the best-looking, except for the vacancy no longer occupied by two front teeth. All three Keeshaws were porcine in appearance, but Bart's boniness and height made him look the least piggish.
Bart smiled back at his brother, letting a current of cold December air seep through the gap in his mouth. He took a cheap watch out of his frayed vest pocket and looked at the timepiece. He held it up to his ear. Silence. A look of disgust passed across his face. He tapped the edge of the watch against a rock a couple of times and listened again. Silence. He banged the watch a couple more times and listened once again. Still tickless. But Bart heard another sound, from a distance.
He buried the watch back into his pocket and made ready with his rifle, at the same time nodding toward Tom, who was already aiming his long gun.
A two-up wagon appeared from around the shoulder of rock on the hard, narrow road that lay below, between the two brothers. Hoofbeats and rattling traces echoed and bounced across the basin and the sound of squeaky music cut through the rhythm of the rolling wheels.
The driver held the reins in both hands, but the shotgun guard wasn't holding a shotgun. The 10-gauge was straddled between his legs while he did his best to make music with the mouth organ without damaging his teeth. The potholed roadway didn't help.
The wagon was completely enclosed except for a small opening striped with iron bars on the locked door in the rear of the seal-tight carriage. Lettering along both sides of the wagon spelled out:
OKLAHOMA TERRITORIAL PRISON
There were Christmas wreaths nailed across both signs.
The tune the shotgun guard was playing bore some resemblance to "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," but not much.
"Jake," the driver said, "for Chrissake will you give it a rest?! You been playing that damn tune for twenty miles."
"You want me to play somethin' else?"
"I want you to keep your mouth shut and your eyes open. You make me nervous."
"Curley, you got no Christmas spirit."
"It ain't Christmas yet. Just save it till we deliver them two." Curley nodded back toward the wagon. "Then I'll drink my Christmas spirit. You hear me?"
"I hear you. Godalmighty, you'd think we was still in the army, the way you ..."
"Jake, just shut up!"
"Okay," Jake started to pocket his harmonica, "but I just remembered somethin'."
A barrage of shots rang out from two directions, ripping into both men. The driver fell dead between the team of horses. The harmonica dropped from the guard and he slumped lifeless in his seat. The smell of blood and death was already in the horses' nostrils as they stopped in their tracks.
Then one of the horses whinnied at the sound of hoofbeats.
"What the hell's goin' on?!" came a voice from inside the wagon.
Tom and Bart rode in from either side. Tom was leading an extra horse, saddled. A buckskin. The brothers reined up close to the wagon.
"Deek?!" Tom called. "You in there?"
"Where the hell you think I'd be?" came a second voice from the wagon. "Get 'em both?"
"Yeahbo." Bart grinned.
"Guard's got the keys." Deek's face came up against the iron bars.
Bart, still grinning, rode forward, pulled up the slumped and bloody guard, and lifted out a ring of half a dozen keys. As he did, Bart noticed a heavy gold chain across the dead man's vest. He reached over and tugged at the cold, gleaming chain. Attached to the end of it was a gold watch. Bart ripped the watch and chain from the vest. He pressed the stem and the lid flipped open.
"Hurry it up!" Deek commanded.
Bart tossed the ring of keys to Tom, who was off his animal. Tom caught the keys and hurried toward the locked door. Bart held the gold watch to his ear and listened to the staccato ticking of the timepiece.
"Ain't that purty," he muttered, snapped the lid shut, and attached the chain to his own vest while he threw away his played-out turnip.
Tom unlocked the door and two men handcuffed to each other jumped out. It was easy to tell which one was a Keeshaw.
Deek held up one of his cuffed hands, which forced the other man to do the same.
"Get 'em off."
"You bet, brother," Tom said as he tried to insert the right key into the eyelet of the handcuffs. The second try turned the trick.
"Johnny," Deek said to the other prisoner, a sunny-faced youth two months shy of twenty, "meet my brothers, Tom and Bart."
"Hallelujah!" Johnny exclaimed. "Pleased to meet you fellas. Special under these circumstances. I thought we was goin' to spend Christmas in jail."
Deek and Johnny were both free of the shackles. Tom tossed the cuffs onto the ground.
"Nope," said Deek. "Gonna spend it in Texas." He swiftly took a gun from Tom and slammed the barrel across Johnny's forehead. As Johnny dropped, his head hit the iron rim of the wagon wheel. But he didn't feel it. He was already unconscious.
"Bring my pipe and tobacco?" Deek inquired.
Tom pulled a pipe and pouch from his coat pocket and handed them across to Deek.
"Matches?" Deek asked. "Guard wouldn't let us smoke. Afraid we might try to burn down the wagon."
"That'ud be a shame." Tom smiled as he pulled a handful of matches from another pocket and dropped them in Deek's palm.
"Unhitch the animals." Deek nodded toward the wagon team. As he started stuffing the discolored pipe with the dry hard flakes of tobacco, Tom and Bart proceeded to execute Deek's orders, as they always did.
Deek walked casually to Tom's sorrel, paused long enough to fire up his pipe to his satisfaction. It took three matches to satisfy him. He opened a saddlebag and looked inside at the collection of dynamite sticks. He took one of the sticks with him and walked back toward the buckskin. Deek and Tom mounted. Bart rode up alongside, slipped his freshly acquired watch out of his pocket, and proudly displayed his new possession to his kin.
"Ain't it purty?" He pressed the stem and the lid flipped open. "Real gold. Nothin' purtier than a gold watch."
"I can think of somethin'." Tom grinned. His two front teeth looked like they should be on a rabbit.
Deek took the pipe from his mouth and lit the wick of the dynamite from the bowl. He stuck the stem back through his thin lips into his mouth, then tossed the lit stick through the open rear door into the wagon.
Bart snapped the lid of his gold watch shut and the Keeshaw brothers went to their spurs.
Six seconds later the blast, even at the distance they had covered, sent splintered debris spraying down on the happy little band of riders.
William Clarke Quantrill would have approved of the operation — and its execution.CHAPTER 2
The next three days were short on daylight, but the Keeshaws rode from first light past sunset, stopping only for a cold noon meal of jerky and hardtack and when the animals puffed and slavered and shuddered beneath the riders. Straight south through East Texas, no-place country, raw with red flanked hills, unblessed, infertile land, grassless, ungreen, and winter grim. South toward a speck called, God only remembered why, Gilead.
During the days they rode mostly silent, but at night, by the flickering light and inadequate warmth of a mesquite campfire, while Bart admired his newly acquired timepiece, Tom urged Deek to tell them more about what lay ahead for them in Mexico. Deek spoke about women, wealth, and tequila just as if he had been there. Tom closed his eyes and listened, just as both younger brothers had listened to Deek since their daddy died drunk, stomped to death in a barn by a bay. They buried their daddy next to their long-dead mother, who had expired giving birth to Bart.
They shot the bay, stopped by to say "so long" to Frank and Dingus, who had a nearby farm in Clay County, Missouri, and rode off to join up with Quantrill, flower of Southern knighthood.
A few months later Frank and Jesse also joined up. The war was the worst thing that ever happened to bleeding Kansas, but the best thing that ever happened to the Keeshaws. But all good things must come to an end. For Quantrill it ended with a mortal wound near Taylorsville, Kentucky, in May of 1865.
Frank and Jesse went into the railroad and banking business, investing with lead and dynamite. For a time the Keeshaws rode along, but splintered off when Jesse started taking too many chances and giving orders for his band to take even more chances.
The Keeshaws decided to go into business for themselves. They hadn't exactly prospered. But things would be different in Mexico after they stopped off in Gilead. Deek told them so.
And the brothers believed everything Deek said.
Midmorning of the fourth day the three riders topped out on the crest of a hill curved along a moody sackcloth sky.
They paused at the rim and drank from a canteen in the order of their birth.
"Wish it was tequila," Bart said as he passed the canteen back to Deek.
"Soon will be," Deek said, and took another pull. Then he saw something on the road down below and pointed.
In the distance, a two-up wagon, a buckboard. One of the rear wheels had fallen off. The buckboard was empty except for the driver, who was just climbing down. He walked toward the fallen wheel, which had rolled a few feet away.
"Looks like that man's had some bad luck," said Deek.
"Better him than us," said Bart, checking his timepiece again.
"Let's go down."
"What for?" Tom asked.
"Why, it's our chance to play the 'Good Samaritans.'"
Deek rode off toward the wagon.
"What's that mean? Sam-mar-samarisons?" Bart asked.
"Well," Bart grinned through his absent teeth, "I guess we'll soon find out."
Tom rode after Deek. As always, Bart followed.
Shad Parker rolled the wayward wheel close to the wagon.
And as the three riders, first Deek, then Tom and Bart, came closer, they sized up the man they approached. It wasn't hard to see that he was a powerful man, with buffalo shoulders and thickset arms under the gray jacket he wore, now faded to a washed-out bone gray. His face a sullen, dangerous mold. His eyes bleak, weary, bitter. From under the black, sweat-scalloped, flat-crowned hat, jutted twists of coarse dark hair grained with irregular ridges of gray. His cheekbones were high and hard. In spite of his powerful structure, he moved with a pantherine grace and ease. The barrel of a Walker Colt inched out of its holster from beneath the edge of his jacket against his dark serge pants. Without moving his head, Shad Parker's eyes appraised the approaching riders, but he went on with his task.
The Keeshaws were now in an almost straight line just a few feet from the wagon.
"Howdy," Deek greeted as pleasantly as he knew how.
There was no response from the man, who went on working.
"Deek Keeshaw," Deek said after a silence. "My brothers. Tom and Bart."
Shad paid no attention. He dropped the wheel near the rear axle, then proceeded to remove a pickax from the bed of the wagon. He placed the pickax on its head so the handle stood straight up near the rear of the tilted wagon.
"Looks like you need a hand," Deek tried again. "We'd be happy to help you, mister."
Shad ignored the offer. The three men let the silence settle in, then looked at one another.
Shad Parker squatted so the bed of the heavy wagon rested on his shoulder.
"Maybe he's deef and dumb," Bart whispered to Deek.
Deek didn't reply. His eyes fastened on to the man and what was happening.
Shad Parker strained for just a moment, then the tilted side of the wagon started to rise, slowly, steadily. It almost appeared that the man could have flipped the wagon over if he wanted to, but he didn't. Shad walked the wagon back, one, two, three steps until the rear end was directly over the ax handle.
The Keeshaws were justifiably astonished. Bart pushed the brim of his dirty hat back over his hairline and swallowed some cold air.
While Shad started to lower the wagon, one of the two horses hitched to the wagon nickered.
"Whatever he is," Tom said, "he ain't deef and dumb."
Shad gently lowered the bed of the wagon so it rested on the pickax handle that now acted as a jack. He lifted the wheel without much strain and slipped it onto the axle. He still hadn't even glanced at the three horsemen.
"Looks like you don't need a hand." Deek smiled. "If you're heading for Gilead, we'd be happy to buy you a holiday drink."
By now the Keeshaws didn't really expect an answer. They didn't get one.
"Come on, boys," Deek said to his brothers, "I calculate that Gilead is just beyond that next turn." The Keeshaws rode off toward the turn about a quarter of a mile south.
A few vagrant flakes of soft snow drifted uncertainly out of the amber sky but melted instantly on whatever they touched.
It wasn't until the Keeshaws were halfway to the turn that Shad Parker looked in their direction.CHAPTER 3
The croaking Conestoga with weathered buffalo hides stretching over the iron ribs groaned to a stop along the road within sight of Shad Parker's spread.
A man who called himself "Buffler Jones" held the reins of the four-up. Whoever designed his face had never heard of handsome, and growing older while letting a crop of spiky hair cover most of what went under his hat hadn't helped much.
Next to Buffler sat an Indian, older and homelier, but hairless, at least the hide on his face was hairless.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Christmas Trespassers"
Copyright © 2018 Andrew J. Fenady.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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