The daughters of a New Mexican rancher must help their father recover a stolen herd in this thrilling new novel in the bestselling Trail Drive series.
In the early days of the Mexican Revolution guerrillas led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa raid a ranch in Doña Ana County, New Mexico Territory. They abscond with a herd of saddle horses earmarked for sale to the U.S. Army, wounding rancher Alejandro Aguirre and killing his only son, Eduardo, in the process.
When the army commander and his superiors in Washington, D.C. refuse to violate Mexican sovereignty with a punitive raid, Alejandro's twin daughters, Dolores and Yolanda, must step up. Together they lead a crew of ranch hands and friendly members of the Mescalaro Apache tribe to recover the herd. A perilous road lies ahead, but the sisters will stop at nothing to find justice for their fallen brother and reclaim what was stolen.
Release date: August 24, 2021
Print pages: 304
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Ralph Compton Terror Trail
Do–a Ana County, New Mexico Territory
The first gunshot-a rifle by its sound, no less than .30 caliber, fired at perhaps one hundred yards-woke Alejandro Aguirre from a fitful sleep precisely on the stroke of four a.m. He knew the time because an heirloom clock was chiming in the parlor of his ranch house, a familiar sound that rarely woke him even when his sleep was troubled as on most nights.
Lying wide awake and staring into darkness, Alejandro wondered if the shot had come from one of his vaqueros, taking out a stray coyote before it could raid the ranch's livestock, but that possibility evaporated with a sudden stuttering of gunfire, sounding as if someone had touched off a string of firecrackers.
Trouble! It could be nothing else.
Aguirre scrambled out of bed, the polished hardwood floor cool underneath his bare feet as he hastened to the window, drew back its curtains, and peered outside. Bright muzzle flashes winked at him like out-of-season fireflies, visible before the rattle of successive shots caught up, sound lagging for a split second behind the speed of light.
A seasoned rancher in this corner of the territory went to bed each night expecting danger, woke relieved at sunrise if the threat had passed him by, and then labored through his days prepared to do it all again. Aguirre knew what must be done now, only hoping that he would not be too late.
Returning to his large four-poster bed, he stepped into a pair of hand-tooled boots, not bothering with socks. Next, he retrieved the gun belt dangling from the nearest bedpost, buckling it around his waist, over the knee-length linen nightshirt that he wore. The pistol in its holster was a Colt New Service Model 1909, double-action revolver, chambered for the .45 Long Colt cartridge lately adopted by the U.S. Army.
Alejandro did not have to check the Colt. He always kept it fully loaded, ready to respond in an emergency. But with a raid in progress on his property, he also needed further firepower.
Rounding the bed, toward what had been his wife's side before typhus claimed her life, Aguirre reached a gun case mounted on the wall of knotty pine. Inside, their muzzles pointed toward the bedroom ceiling, were two Winchesters-a lever-action Model 1895 rifle, standing beside a Model 1897 twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun. He chose the rifle for its greater range, loaded with .30-06 Springfield cartridges that fired 220-grain projectiles at 2,500 feet per second, lethal well beyond three thousand yards in skillful hands.
And Alejandro rarely missed a man-sized target, never mind the time of day or night.
Aguirre cleared his bedroom as a brass bell started clanging on the covered porch outside. Its warning was superfluous, given the shooting still in progress, but his houseman, Manuelito Obreg—n, would stand his post-and join the fight himself, if necessary-until any danger had been quelled by force.
Passing the darkened dining room where he took three meals daily with his son and daughters, barring the rare trip away from home on business, Alejandro reached the front door of his casa grande, opened it, and stepped outside into the early-morning chill. New Mexico baked under a relentless desert sun by day, but after sunset, temperatures dropped twenty degrees or more, forcing vaqueros on the night shift into fleece-lined coats.
Aguirre scarcely felt that as he reached the broad porch of the home he'd built from scratch, expanding over three decades as he acquired more land, more stock, more money in a bank vault at the county seat, Las Cruces. He had built a reputation from the ground up, paying dearly for it, and was ready to defend it now at any cost.
"ÀQuŽ pasa?" he asked Manuelito.
Barely glancing back at his employer, Obreg—n stated the obvious. "Bandidos, jefe."
While he rang the warning bell with his right hand, the slender houseman clutched a double-barreled shotgun under his left arm, prepared to fire if any of the trespassers came into range. Aguirre knew it would be loaded with ball bearings, stainless steel, which Obreg—n preferred to leaden buckshot. Tucked beneath his belt, as if he'd risen fully dressed from bed, a Smith & Wesson Model 3 top-break revolver dragged the waistline of his baggy trousers down.
"How many?" Alejandro queried.
"Cuarenta, m‡s o menos, jefe."
Forty, maybe more, increased the danger to Aguirre's property beyond the petty skirmishes his night shift sometimes fought with drifters hoping for an easy score, perhaps escaping with a horse or two for sale across the borderline.
This was an act of war and must be treated with the rigor it deserved.
Descending from the covered porch, Aguirre moved across the yard with long, swift strides, calling his men on duty and their fellows scrambling from bunkhouses in a daze.
"To me, vaqueros! Rally here to me!"
Make haste,Ó Francisco Villa ordered his subordinate, Òbefore they rally and we have a full-scale battle on our hands.Ó
"ÁS’, general!" his aide replied. "Just as you say!"
In fact, Villa-called "Pancho" by his friends-was not a general. He held no military rank at all below the Rio Grande. Even the name by which most knew him was a lie.
He had been born Doroteo Arango, to rural peasant parents in San Juan del R’o, QuerŽtaro, Mexico, and raised in abject poverty around Durango until he had learned to steal and specialized in rustling livestock. As a bandit, he had used multiple pseudonyms over the past thirty-two years, eluding prison or a firing squad by guts and guile until he turned sixteen.
That year, his sister had been ravished, brutally defiled, by either the employees of a wealthy rancher or a squad of federales serving President Porfirio D’az. While rumors varied on that point, they all agreed that Villa-called "Arango" in those days-had hunted down the rapists, slaying each in turn before escaping on a stolen horse into the wild Sierra Madre Occidental. There, he joined a gang led by Durango's infamous Ignacio Parra, then organized his own pandilla of young rowdies like himself, supplying stolen animals and other goods to wealthy backer Pablo Valenzuela, adopting the surname of his maternal grandfather, Jesœs Villa.
In 1902, when the federales captured him at last, they spared his life but drafted him into the military service of D’az. Villa waited a year, then murdered his commanding officer and fled to Coahuila on the victim's stallion, forming a new gang under the nickname of la Cucaracha-the cockroach-and raiding as he pleased throughout the state he had belatedly adopted as his own. Only in recent months had Villa turned his thoughts to politics, a brooding hatred for el presidente's ruthless policies, and ways to profit from that loathing of his homeland's government.
The first answer that came to mind: horses.
Villa had known of the Aguirre ranch by reputation for some time, and finally decided it was ripe for picking. With his cadre of bandidos, he could steal its prized herd, spoken for under a pending contract with the U.S. Cavalry, whose troops had stolen so much land from Mexico during the war of 1846-48. Over the course of barely two years, the United States had claimed 530,000 square miles of Old Mexico, adding insult to injury with the pathetic "compensation" of five cents per acre.
Who in his right mind could blame Villa for punishing the gringo government and pocketing some pesos for himself in the process?
The problems: First, he had to steal the herd, roughly four thousand animals according to his spies. Next came the crossing in Mexico, only a few miles distant from the rancho he was raiding and across the Rio Grande, their escape facilitated by cutting the telegraph lines between Alejandro Aguirre's home and the county seat at Las Cruces. Finally, they must evade the prowling federales who might seek to intercept them and seize the stolen herd for President D’az's cavalry or else return it to the States, to curry favor with the gringo government in Washington.
As far as finding buyers for the prime caballos he was liberating, Villa had no qualms on that score. They would not be branded yet, so anyone across the borderline could claim them as his own, as long as he had ready cash on hand.
Defensive gunfire was increasing from Aguirre's men, a problem Villa had anticipated in his planning for the raid. He risked losing some of his own bandidos, but each of them had assumed the risk when volunteering for this mission, and the families of any slain along the way would be recipients of fair payment.
There would be time enough to count his losses later, weighing them against his gains.
Clint Parnell hit the ground running, first out of the small house that heÕd earned upon ascending to the rank of foreman two years earlier. He was accustomed to disturbances at night on the Aguirre spread, but not to waking in the middle of a full-scale firefight ninety minutes prior to his alarm clock going off.
Still, he was wide awake and ready to participate, whatever might be happening. There was no point in guessing what had happened when the situation should be clear to him in seconds flat.
And if it called for killing, Parnell reckoned that he was equal to the task.
Leaving his house, he'd flung a pistol belt over his shoulder, then retrieved his Browning Automatic-5 from where it hung on pegs beside his bedroom door. The twelve-gauge shotgun measured fifty inches overall and weighed nine pounds with four rounds in its magazine and one more in the chamber. Relatively new, the weapon was designed by firearms innovator John Browning in 1898, patented two years later as the world's first semiautomatic shotgun. Parnell kept it loaded with buckshot, the double-aught size, each round packed with the equivalent of nine .33-caliber pistol slugs, and he had yet to miss a target within fifty yards.
The pistol hanging underneath his left arm was old-fashioned by comparison, a Colt Peacemaker, Single Action Army model, eleven inches long, tipping the scales at three pounds with its half-dozen .44-40 Winchester rounds. In a steady hand it was a killer out to thirty yards if there was killing to be done.
Tonight, from what he'd heard and seen so far, Parnell figured there was.
He did not try discerning faces in the dark, of men either afoot or galloping on horseback. Some would be Aguirre hands, working the night shift or roused from sleep by sounds of battle on the property. Others-only the mounted ones, he guessed-were raiders, shouting back and forth among themselves in Spanish, straw sombreros on their heads, wide brims and pointed crowns, strapped underneath their chins to keep from falling off and getting lost.
Parnell watched them for two, perhaps three seconds, then decided he could separate some of the enemy from men he worked with daily on the ranch.
And once they were identified by type, if not by name . . .
He brought the Browning to his shoulder, sighted quickly down its barrel, index finger on his right hand taking up the shotgun's trigger slack. His first target, a husky Mexican aboard a leopard mount, was circling the main Aguirre herd, firing a six-gun overhead to get them moving in the right direction, southward. Parnell took his shot, rode out the Browning's recoil as his target vaulted backward from the saddle, giving out a breathless squeal before he hit the ground.
Call that a kill, with buckshot pellets rupturing the bandit's heart and lungs. There'd be no saving him, even if Parnell had a doctor standing by and cared to waste his time.
However many pellets found their mark, the deed was done, the Browning's empty shell casing ejected while Clint sought another target in the darkness before dawn.
The battle wasn't even close to being won.
He thought about the family he served, the twin sisters especially, and hoped that they would keep out of harm's way. A vain thought, Clint supposed, but it was all the human feeling he could spare just now, with gun work still remaining to be done.
Dolores Aguirre had never run from a fight in her life. She had been first into the world, nine minutes older than her twin, Sonya, and she had always felt it was her role to help defend the family, its property, against all threats from the outside. At times, that attitude displeased her father and her elder brother, Eduardo, but they had never managed to dissuade her from a fracas if she felt that honor was at stake.
Tonight, there was no question of it in her mind.
Instead of cowering inside the ranch house when gunfire had jolted her awake, Dolores rose at once, slipped on a robe she kept draped on a straight-backed chair beside her bed, and snatched a weapon from the top drawer of her nightstand. It was relatively small, a Colt 1877 double-action revolver, the "Lightning" model chambered for .38-caliber rounds, but she could score a bull's-eye nine times out of ten at thirty feet, firing one-handed from a classic dueler's stance.
So far, her target practice had been limited to rattlesnakes and empty bottles lined along a fence, but when she thought about facing a human enemy, Dolores felt no fear.
This morning, she expected to be challenged on that point.
Manuelito Obreg—n was still ringing the brass alarm bell of the porch, although it seemed that no one living could have missed that racket or the gunfire that threatened to drown it out. Scanning the yard in front of her, Dolores searched for targets, picking out her family's vaqueros whether mounted or afoot, distinguishing the raiders from employees of the ranch by torchlight. Moving toward the barn and seeking cover there, she had not traveled far before she saw her father standing in the open, looking almost humorous in boots and nightshirt, while his rifle tracked one of the trespassers.
Dolores waited for his muzzle flash, a body spilling from its saddle, but before that could occur, her padre staggered, reeling, dropping to one knee, and clutching at his shoulder. Fresh blood, black by moonlight, welled between his fingers as he toppled over backward, sprawling in the dirt.
"Papa!" she cried out, sprinting to reach him. She was almost at his side when a bandido galloped up and bent down from his saddle, leveling a six-gun at her father's supine form.
Dolores fired her Colt without a heartbeat's hesitation, barely taking time to aim from forty feet while on the run. Her bullet drilled the mounted gunman's left shoulder and pitched him from his saddle, and he twisted in midair as he went down.
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