Slash and Pecos come face-to-face with the baddest hombre they've ever known: a kill-crazy mad man who's paving the road to hell—with bloodlust.
He blew into town like a tornado—a mysterious stranger with money to burn and a sadistic streak as wide as the Rio Grande. He says his name is Benson and he's come to invest in the town's future. First, he showers the banks and local businesses with cash. Then, he hires a pair of drunks to fight and get arrested so he can check out the local lawmen. After that, he warms up to a lady of the evening—with deadly results.
That's just the beginning.
By the time Slash and Pecos return to town after a quick-and-dirty cargo run, Benson has enlisted half the outlaws in the territory for his own private army. The local lawmen are quickly slaughtered and the US marshals are no match. With looters amok and killers festering on every corner, a person would have to be stupid or crazy to try to take the town back . . .
Luckily, Slash and Pecos are a little of both. They've been around long enough to see the worst in men—and they know that the best way to stop a very bad hombre . . . is to be even badder.
Release date: September 26, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 304
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William W. Johnstone
He liked what he saw.
Twice he glanced up at the neatly lettered sign by the roadside proclaiming this to be PARADISE. He wanted to be certain he copied the name properly. After he entered the name in a precise, small script at the top of the otherwise blank page, he carefully wrote “532” centered beneath it. The declared population of Paradise was 532. A few more observations about the condition of the road, and the likelihood of this being a prosperous town because of the well-maintained sign, were added.
He took out a pocket watch and noted the time it had taken him to ride here from the crossroads. All the data were entered in exactly the proper form. Nothing less than such precision would do. The Colonel expected it, and Benson demanded it of himself.
Harl Benson tucked the notebook back into the inside pocket of his finely tailored, expensive cream-colored coat, with beige grosgrain lapels and four colorful campaign ribbons affixed on his left breast. The pencil followed the notebook into the pocket.
“Giddy up,” he called to his magnificent coal-black stallion. The horse balked. It knew what lay ahead. He booted it into a canter. He was anxious to see what Paradise had to offer, even if his stallion was not.
After climbing a short incline in the road, he halted at the top of the rise. Paradise awaited him. The town lay in a shallow bowl. A river defined the northern boundary and provided water for the citizens. Straight ahead to the east lay open prairie. The next town over was far beyond the horizon. To the south stretched fields brimming with alfalfa and other grain to feed livestock. That told him more about the commerce in this peaceful Colorado settlement. It was prosperous and enjoyed a good standard of living in spite of the railroad bypassing it and running fifteen miles to the north.
Giving his horse its head, they eased down the far side of the incline into town. Into Paradise.
His sharp steel-gray eyes caught movement along the main street. He never missed a detail, especially the pretty young woman who stepped out of the grain store to give him the eye. He touched the brim of his tall-center Stetson, appreciating the attention she bestowed on him.
Benson was a handsome man and knew it. Handsome, that is, except for the pink knife scar that started in the middle of his forehead and ran down across his eye to his left cheek. He had survived a nasty knife fight, enduring only that single wound. His opponent hadn’t survived at all.
Most women thought that thin pink scar gave him a dangerous look. If they only knew.
He was a real Beau Brummel in his dress. The cream coat decorated with the mysteriously colored ribbons caught their eye, but he wore trousers of the purest black with a formal silk ribbon down the outsides. His boots were polished to a mirror finish, the leather a perfect match to his ornate gun belt. The six-shooters holstered there hardly looked to be the precision instruments of death that they were. Silver filigree adorned the sides of both Colt .44s. He wore them low on his snake hips, the butts forward on both sides.
Most of all, he was proudest of the intricate gold watch hidden away in a vest pocket lined in clinging velvet to prevent it from accidentally slipping out. A ponderous gold chain swung in an arc across his well-muscled belly. A diamond, the size of his little fingernail, which was attached to the chain, swung to and fro, catching every ray of light daring to come close.
He was quite the dandy and was proud of the look. It was only natural that all the ladies wanted to be seen with him—wanted to be with him.
Benson slowed and then came to a halt. He turned his stallion toward the young lady openly admiring him.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said. “Do you work at the grain store?”
“If you need to purchase some seed, I’ll fetch my pa. He owns the store.”
“No, dear lady, that’s not true.” He enjoyed the startled expression.
“Whatever do you mean? Of course he does. He’s Neil Paulson, and nobody else in these parts runs a store half as fine.”
“You misunderstand me, miss. I meant that you own everything within your sight. How can such beauty not dominate everyone who chances to cast his gaze on your female loveliness?”
She blinked and pushed back a strand of mousy brown hair. The surprise turned into a broad smile—a smile that promised Benson anything he wanted. Then she looked discomfited. Quick movements brushed dust off her plain brown gingham dress. Her clothing was no match for his finery, and here he had ridden into town off a long, hot, dusty summer road.
“Do I take it you are Miss Paulson?”
The wicked smile returned and she nodded slowly. She carefully licked her ruby lips and tried to look coy. Eyes batting, she gave him a look designed to melt the steeliest heart.
“Clara,” she said. “Clara Paulson.”
Harl Benson took his notebook from his coat pocket and made a quick notation in it. He looked up from her to the store and made quick estimates of the store’s size and its inventory. As enticing as it would be to have the girl give him a tour of the store and detail its contents, in private, of course, he had so much work to do and time pressed in on him.
“You want to check the grain bins out back?” She sounded just a tad frantic. A quick look over her shoulder explained it all. A man so large his shoulders brushed the sides of the open door glared at Benson.
“That is a mighty neighborly invite for a stranger,” he said.
Another quick entry into his notebook completed all the details he needed about Paulson’s Grain and Feed Store, and its burly owner. Benson caught sight of the shotgun resting against the wall just inside the door. The feed store owner had the look of a man able to tear apart anyone he disliked with his bare hands, but that shotgun? It showed intent.
“I must go, but one parting question, my dear.”
“Yes?” Clara Paulson stepped a little closer, leaning on the broom. She looked expectant that he would offer to take her away from this small town and show her a city where all the best people dressed like Benson—and she could show off a fancy ball gown and flashy diamond and gold jewelry like European royalty. “What is it?”
“Do you have any brothers?”
“What? No, there’s only Grant and Franklin working here, but they’re cousins. I had a brother, but he died when he was only six. He fell into a well. It was two days before Pa found him.”
“Good day,” Benson said, again pinching the brim of his hat. He glanced in her father’s direction and evaluated the man’s barrel chest and bulging arms. In a fight he would be a formidable opponent. But did he have a box of shells nearby to feed the shotgun after the first two barrels were discharged? Benson doubted it.
Benson had faced off with men like Neil Paulson before, men who toiled moving heavy sacks of grain or bales of hay. Their vitality often required more than a single bullet to stop them, even if the first shot was accurately directed to head or heart.
As he made his way down the middle of Paradise’s main street, he took note of the buildings and their sizes. How far apart they stood, the construction and position. Quick estimates of the employees in the businesses were probably within one or two of actual employment. He was expert at such evaluations, having done it so many times before with great success. Not a single man walking the street or working in the businesses along the main street slung iron at his side. Perhaps this town really was Paradise and men didn’t have to strut about carrying iron.
Harl Benson made more notes in his precise script.
The horses tethered outside the stores generally had a rifle thrust into a saddle scabbard. Travelers into town needed such firepower out on the plains and especially when they worked their way into the tall Front Range Mountains to the west. Dangerous creatures, both four- and two-legged, prowled those lonely stretches.
He dismounted, checked the horses’ brands to find out where the riders had come from, and entered a new notation. All these horses belonged to punchers from a single ranch. Where the Double Circle ran its stock, he didn’t know, and it hardly mattered. The hands probably carried sidearms in addition to their rifles and had come to town to hoot and holler. They’d be gone by Monday morning.
Benson entered the saloon. The Fatted Calf Saloon and Drinking Emporium looked exactly like any other to him. Eight cowboys bellied up to the bar, swapping lies and nursing warm beer. That meant they hadn’t been paid yet for their month of backbreaking labor. Walking slowly, he counted his paces to determine the size of the saloon.
It stretched more than forty feet deep, but was narrow, hardly more than fifteen feet. He settled into a chair with his back to a wall where he had a good view of the traffic outside along the main street.
“Well, mister, you have the look of someone who’s been on the trail long enough to build up a real thirst.” A hand rested on his shoulder.
Benson turned slightly to dislodge the woman’s hand and looked up at one of the pretty waiter girls. She wore a bright red silk dress with a deep scoop neckline. White lace had been sewn along the cleavage, since the dress was so old it was coming apart at the seams. If she had let the seams pop just a little more, she would have shown her customers for free what she undoubtedly charged for in private. Benson quickly evaluated everything about her. Her worth matched the cheapness of her dress.
“Rye whiskey,” he said. “Don’t give me the cheap stuff.” He dropped a twenty-dollar gold piece onto the table. The tiny coin spun on its rim and then settled down with a golden ring that brought him unwanted attention from the cowpunchers at the bar.
That gave him a new tidbit to enter into his notebook. Twenty dollars was unusual in Paradise.
“For that, dearie, you can have anything you want,” the doxie said. She ran her tongue around her rouged lips in what she thought was a suggestive, lewd manner to inflame his desires. It did the reverse.
“The shot of rye. Then we’ll see about something . . . else.”
She hurried over to whisper with the bartender. The short, mustached man behind the bar looked more prosperous than the usual barkeep. Benson guessed he owned the Fatted Calf.
He sighed when two of the cowboys sauntered over, thumbs thrust into their gun belts. They stopped a few feet away from him.
“We don’t see many strangers in town,” the taller of the pair said. The shorter one said something Benson didn’t catch. This egged on his taller partner. “You got more of them twenty-dollar pieces?”
“Are you desperate road agents thinking to rob me?” Benson moved a little to flash the twin six-shooters. The dim light caught the silver filigree and made the smoke wagons look even larger than they were.
“Those don’t look like they get much use,” piped up the short one. “You one of them fellas what brags about how many men you’ve cut down?”
“I don’t brag about it,” Benson said. He took the bottle of rye from the floozie and popped the cork with his thumb. He ignored the dirt on the rim of the shot glass she brought with it and drank straight from the bottle. He licked his lips. “That’s surprisingly good. Thanks.” He pushed the tiny gold coin across the table in the woman’s direction. “Why don’t you set up a round for everyone at the bar? And keep the rest for yourself.”
“Yes, sir. And if there’s anything more you want, my name’s Hannah.”
He tipped his head in the direction of the bar in obvious dismissal. Benson looked up at the two cowboys and said, “The drinks are on the bar, not here.” He took another pull from the bottle and then placed it carefully on the table with a move so precise there wasn’t even a tiny click of glass touching wood.
“You ever killed anybody with them fancy-ass six-guns?” The short one stepped closer. “Or are they just for show?”
Benson didn’t answer.
“How many? How many you claim to have gunned down?” The man shoved out his chin belligerently. At the same time he moved his right hand to his holster, as if prepared to throw down.
“How many men have I killed? How many men and boys? Well, now, I can’t give a good answer about that.”
“Why the hell not?” Both men tensed now. Benson had seen his share of gunmen. These two might be good at rounding up cattle, or even rustling them, but they weren’t gunslicks. They’d had a beer too many and thought to liven up their visit to town by pestering a tinhorn dude.
“I stopped counting at a hundred.”
“A hunnerd? You sayin’ you’ve killed a hunnerd men?”
“Only with these guns. The total’s considerably greater, if you want a count on the total number I’ve killed.” Benson laughed at their stunned expression.
“Hell and damnation, Petey, he’s pullin’ our leg.” The tall one punched his partner in the arm.
Petey’s expression was unreadable. The flash of panic mixed with disbelief. A sick grin finally twisted his lips, just a little.
“We got drinks waitin’ fer us back at the bar,” Petey said.
“Yeah, right, thanks, mister. You’re a real friend. You got a good sense of humor, too.” The tall one punched Petey in the arm again and herded him away. They got to the bar and the free setup erased any intention of upbraiding the stranger. In a few seconds they joked and cussed with their partners from the ranch.
Harl Benson added a new notation in his notebook about the quality of the whiskey at the Fatted Calf. He knocked back another shot of the fine rye and started out the swinging doors. A thin, bony hand grabbed his arm. Again he shifted slightly and pulled away.
“You ready for more fun, mister?” Hannah looked and sounded desperate. “I got a room down the street. It’s a real fine place.”
“A sporting house?”
“What? Oh, yeah. That’s a mighty fancy term. Nobody in these parts calls Madame Jane’s that.”
He looked over his shoulder toward the rear of the saloon.
“What’s in the back room?”
“You wanna do it there? If you cut Jackson in for a dime or even two bits, well, maybe we kin do it there.” Hannah looked hesitantly at the bartender. “Better if we go to my place.”
Hannah bobbed her head.
“Ain’t much in the back room ’cept all the whiskey and other stuff. It’s crowded right now. Jackson just got in a new shipment.”
“Of the rye? How many cases?”
“Hustle the customers on your own time. Get back to work, you scrawny—” the barkeep bellowed. He fell silent when Benson held up his hand.
“ ’Nuff for a few months. Ten cases, maybe more?” Hannah looked back at her boss. “Listen, I’ll be outta here in another hour. You wait fer me at Madame Jane’s. There’s a real fine parlor and she bought a case of that liquor you’ve taken such a shine to. Fer the payin’ customers. Like you.”
Benson stepped out onto the boardwalk. A new description in the notebook and he was ready to check on the whorehouse. But first he had one final stop to make.
With Hannah calling after him to enjoy himself until she got to the brothel’s parlor, the finest in this part of Colorado, she claimed, he walked directly to the bank down the street. Benson counted the paces and made measurements of the street’s width and the location of other stores. When he stepped into the bank, his work was almost completed.
Bustling over when he saw his new customer’s fancy clothing, the bank officer beamed from ear to ear. A quick twirl of his long mustaches put the greased tips into points equal to a prickly pear spine.
“Welcome, sir. We haven’t seen you before in these here parts. What can we do for you?” The plump bank officer pumped Benson’s hand like he could draw deep well water. He released the hand when Benson squeezed down. Hard.
“I’d like to make a deposit.”
“A new account. Wonderful, wonderful. How much, sir? Ten? Twenty?”
Benson heard the pride in the man’s voice. Those were the big depositors in the Bank of Paradise.
“I was thinking more like five.”
The banker’s face fell, but he hid the disappointment.
“This way, sir. Our head teller will handle your deposit. Excuse me, but I have other business to—”
“Thousand,” Benson said.
This brought the banker up short.
“You want to deposit five thousand? That’s almost as much as Mr. Rawls out on the Double Circle has in our safe.”
“You have other deposits of equal size, I take it? I certainly do not want my money placed in a bank without . . . ample assets.”
“Five other ranchers, all quite prosperous. Yes, very prosperous. Come this way, sir, let me handle your account personally.” The banker snapped his fingers. The man wearing the green eyeshades and sleeve protectors came from the middle cage.
“You,” Benson said sharply. “I want you to show me the safe where you’ll keep my money. I don’t like to deal with underlings.”
“I . . . uh . . . underlings? Oh, no, not that. This way.” The bank officer ushered Benson to the side of the lobby and through a swinging door set in a low wood railing. “This is our safe. You can see how sturdy it is.” The banker slipped his thumbs into the armholes of his vest and reared back, beaming.
“A Mosler with a time lock,” Benson said, nodding slowly. His quick eyes took in the details, the model of the safe and how it had been modified. The safe itself wasn’t as heavily constructed as many back East, probably due to the cost of freighting such a heavy load into the foothills of the Front Range.
“You know the product, sir?” The banker’s eyes widened in surprise. “Then you recognize how sturdy it is and how, excuse the expression, safe your deposit will be. Five thousand, you said?”
“That’s correct.” Benson walked from one side of the safe to the other. It wasn’t any different from a half-dozen others of its ilk he had seen.
“Let’s get the paperwork started,” the banker said, rubbing his hands together. He circled a large cherrywood desk and began dipping his pen in the inkwell and filling out forms.
Benson seated himself in the leather chair opposite and made his own notations in the lambskin notebook. He glanced up occasionally as he sketched the safe. While not an artist of great skill, he captured the details quickly and well from long practice.
“Now, sir, your deposit?” The banker looked expectantly at him. A touch of anticipation was dampened by fear that Benson wasn’t going to hand over the princely sum. The banker positively beamed as Benson reached into his inner coat pocket and drew out his soft leather wallet. Making a big show of it for both the banker and his head teller, he counted out a stack of greenbacks onto the desk until he reached the agreed-upon sum.
Benson almost laughed when the banker visually tallied up how much money remained in that wallet. Only through great exercise of willpower did he restrain himself from asking Benson to deposit even more.
“Affix your signature to the bottom of the page. Here’s a receipt for the full amount. And a bankbook. See? The full five thousand dollars is indicated right here with the date and my initials to certify it. Should you wish to withdraw any amount at any time, show the passbook. Or,” the banker said, winking slyly, “if you want to add to your savings at any time. That will be entered and officially noted, too.”
Benson tucked the deposit book and receipt into the same pocket with his wallet. He stood and held out his hand to shake.
“I look forward to doing more business with your bank soon,” he said.
The banker hesitantly shook, remembering the bone-crushing grip. This time Benson made no effort to cripple the man. Sealing the deal with the handshake, Benson turned his back on the man, who babbled about what a fine place Paradise was and how Benson would prosper here, as long as the bank was part of his financial plans.
Walking slowly, Benson took in every detail of the buildings and how they were constructed. A few more notations graced his notebook by the time he reached a three-story building that might have been a hotel. He saw immediately this wasn’t the case. On the second-story balcony, several partially clad women lounged about, idly talking until one spotted him down in the street.
“Hey there, handsome, why don’t you come on in? I’ll show you a real good time.” She leaned far over the railing and shimmied about to show what she offered. “I’ll show you a good time if you’re man enough to handle a real woman like me, that is!”
The other Cyprians laughed.
Benson started to make a few more notes, but an elegantly dressed blonde stepped into the doorway. She had a come-hither smile that captivated him. Benson had seen his share of beautiful women, but this one ranked easily in the top five. She wore a shiny-green metallic flake dress that caught the sunlight and made it look as if she stood in a desert mirage. The shimmering only accentuated her narrow waist and womanly hips. For a woman in a brothel, she sported an almost-sedate décolletage. Only the barest hint of snowy-white breasts poked out.
He couldn’t help comparing her with the blatant exhibitionism of the whores on the balcony.
She tossed her head back, sending ripples through the mane of golden hair. Eyes as blue as sapphire judged him as much as his steel-gray ones took her measure. He liked what he saw. A lot. From the tiny upward curl of her lush, full lips, she shared that opinion.
“I hadn’t realized my reputation was that big. A complete stranger to town knows me? I’m flattered.” She batted her eyes. Long, dark lashes invited him closer.
“It’s my job to know things,” Benson said, slowly mounting the steps to the front porch. He stopped a pace away. A tiny puff of breeze carried her perfume to him. His nostrils flared and he sucked in the gentle fragrance. His heart raced.
“It’s French perfume,” Jane said. “I buy it from an importer in Boston.”
“And I thought it was your natural alluring scent that is so captivating. I am crushed. How could I have been so wrong?” He turned to leave, as if in abject defeat.
“Don’t go,” Jane said. “Come in. Have a drink and let’s talk. You might even persuade me to forgive you your . . . mistake.”
“I’ve already sampled the rye whiskey. There’s more that I want to sample, and my time is running out.”
“You don’t look like the sort of man who . . . hurries.”
“Not in all things,” Benson said. He stepped up and circled her trim waist with his arm. She leaned slightly into him. Their bodies fit together perfectly.
“I’m not cheap,” Jane said.
“ ‘Inexpensive,’ ” he corrected. “And I never doubted it. I’m willing to pay for the best.”
“I can tell that you’re a gentleman.”
Pressed together, they went through the parlor into an expensively decorated bedroom.
“My boudoir,” Jane said.
“A fitting place for one so lovely,” Benson said.
They worked to undress each other and sank to a feather mattress, locked in each other’s embrace. Afterward, Benson sat up in bed.
“I wasn’t wrong about you, Harl,” she said. Jane made no effort at coyness by pulling up the sheet to hide her voluptuous breasts. “You’re a real gentleman, and about the best I’ve ever found.”
“This town is well named,” Benson said, climbing into his clothes. “It might not be Paradise in all respects, but it certainly is when it comes to . . . you.” He turned and put his forefinger under her chin. She tilted her head back for him to lightly kiss her on the lips. “You are both lovely and skilled.”
“You come on back anytime you want. I don’t say that to just everyone.” Jane’s bright blue eyes watched as he completed dressing.
“Thank you for the fine afternoon. I enjoyed your company so much, I am going to give you something special.”
“More than my usual?” Jane glanced at the stack of ten-dollar gold pieces on the table beside her four-poster bed.
“More than I usually give, because you deserve it,” Benson said.
He drew his six-gun and shot her between those bright blue eyes.
Harl Benson settled his clothes, smoothed a few wrinkles, retrieved the fee from the bedside table, and tucked it away in a vest pocket, then walked quickly from the brothel. His work in Paradise had just begun, and he wanted to complete it soon.
“Let me drive,” James “Slash” Braddock said peevishly. “I swear, you’re hitting every last hole in the road. And them holes got even deeper holes at their bottoms. They might just reach all the way to the center of the earth, they’re so deep.”
Melvin “Pecos River Kid” Baker looked out the corner of his eye, then hawked a gob with admirable accuracy so that it missed—barely—his partner’s boot braced against the bottom of the driver’s box of their Pittsburgh freight wagon.
“. . .
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