JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. VENGEANCE IS HERE. A good man like Perley Gates knows that when you race with the devil, you’d better cross the finish line first—or you won’t finish at all . . . They rode into town like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Four armed outlaws bringing their own brand of hell to Paris, Texas. First they rob the First National Bank. Then they take a woman hostage as insurance. When Perley Gates learns that local waitress Becky Morris is in the hands of these tough customers, he rides alone to get her back. Problem is, the outlaws are heading toward the Red River—straight into Indian Territory. That’s where the ranch hands draw the line. But Perley won’t give up. He manages to rescue the girl, but not before killing the gang’s leader. Now he’s incurred the wrath of the other three . . . The race is on. Come hell or high water, Perley has to get Becky across the Red River—before three vengeful devils make it flow with their blood . . . Live Free. Read Hard.
Release date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 304
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Red River Vengeance
William W. Johnstone
“How do you know that?” young Link Drew asked. “He just said he wanted to see the new hotel.”
“I know ’cause he always eats at Beulah’s place when he comes to town for supplies,” Sonny replied. “Why do ya think I volunteered to drive the wagon in?”
“I bet the food won’t be a whole lot better’n what Ollie cooks,” Link said. It was his honest opinion. The gangly orphan had never eaten as well as he did now, ever since Perley brought him to live at the Triple-G after his parents were killed. Although most of the crew at the Triple-G complained good-naturedly about Ollie Dinkler’s lack of compassion, they had to admit that he had taken a special interest in the welfare of the young lad.
“It’ll be a whole lot fancier,” Sonny said, “and it’ll look better comin’ from a pretty woman, instead of an old man with tobacco juice in his whiskers.”
Ahead of the wagon, Perley reined Buck back to a halt and waited for Sonny and Link to come up beside him. “They built it right next to the railroad tracks,” Perley stated the obvious. “That’ll be handy, won’t it? Get off the train and you can walk to the hotel.” He nudged his horse and rode up to the rail in front of the hotel and stepped down to wait for the wagon. “Park it on the side, Sonny,” he directed. “You and Link go on in and get us a table. I’m just gonna walk through the hotel and take a look.” The hotel had been completed while Perley and Possum Smith were down in Bison Gap, and he was curious to see what kind of place it was going to be. According to what his brother Rubin told him, the fellow who built it made his money in cotton. Amos Johnson was his name, and he thought the little town of Paris was ready for a first-class hotel. Rubin said he had talked Beulah Walsh into moving her business into the hotel. Perley figured what Rubin had told him must have been right because the little Paris Diner building was vacant when they had ridden past.
When Sonny drove the wagon around to the side where the outside entrance was located, Perley walked in the front door. He was greeted by a desk clerk, smartly dressed in a coat and vest. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Howdy,” Perley replied. “I’m on my way to your dinin’ room and I just wanted to get a look at the hotel. My name’s Perley Gates. I work at the Triple-G, and your hotel opened while I was outta town.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the young man said. “I’m David Smith. If you’re looking to see the owner, that’s Mr. Johnson. He’s in the dining room eating his dinner.”
“Oh no,” Perley quickly responded. “I don’t need to bother him. I just wanted to see what the hotel looked like on the inside. It looks like a first-class hotel.”
“Would you like to see what the rooms look like?” David asked. “I’d be glad to show you one.”
“No, no thanks,” Perley replied. “I won’t have much occasion to rent one, anyway. I’ll just go on to the dinin’ room, but I thank you for offerin’.” He pointed to the entrance to a hallway. “That way?” David nodded. “Much obliged,” Perley said, and headed down the hall.
The first door he came to wore a sign that said it was the entrance to the dining room. Perley stepped inside and stood there a moment to look the room over. Still looking and smelling new, it was about half again bigger than Beulah’s original establishment. Unlike Beulah’s original location, there was no long table in the center of the room, only little tables with four chairs at each one. He saw Sonny and Link sitting at one of them over against the outside wall. He started toward them but stopped when Sonny waved his arm and pointed to a table beside the outside entrance, holding several weapons. Perley nodded and unbuckled his gun belt, looking toward the kitchen door as he walked over to leave his weapon with the others.
He was curious to see if Becky and Lucy had come to the hotel with Beulah, but if they had, they must all be in the kitchen right now. He rolled his holster up in his gun belt, and when he put it on the table, he noticed there were three others there. One he recognized as Sonny’s six-gun. It was easy to guess who the other two belonged to. He glanced at a table near the center of the room where two men were attacking the food in front of them as if they were afraid someone might try to take it away from them. One of the holsters caught his eye. It was a well-oiled fast-draw holster. He glanced again at the two strangers and tried to guess which one belonged to that holster before going over to join his friends. “I thought you would already be eatin’,” he said when he sat down at the table.
“It’s on the way,” Sonny replied, and nodded toward the kitchen just as Lucy Tate, carrying two plates, came out the door. “We’re havin’ the pork chops, since we don’t get much pork at the ranch. It’s either that or stew beef today. You don’t usually have a choice at the midday meal, but Lucy said today you do because it’s Beulah’s birthday.”
“Well, how ’bout that?” Perley replied. “Don’t reckon she said how old she is today.”
“Nope, and I sure ain’t gonna ask her,” Sonny responded. Perley had to laugh at his response. Beulah had reached the age where she was no longer young, but she didn’t consider herself old. And only she knew how many notches she had actually acquired.
“Well, there you are,” Lucy Tate greeted him. “You haven’t been to see us in so long, I figured you’d found someplace else to eat.”
Before Perley had time to answer, one of the men at the table in the center of the room blurted, “Hey, Red, where the hell’s that coffeepot?”
“Keep your shirt on, cowboy,” Lucy yelled back at him. “Got a fresh pot workin’ and it’ll be ready in a minute.” Back to Perley, she said, “I heard you had been gone for a while. You back to stay?”
“Far as I know,” he answered. “At least I ain’t plannin’ to go anywhere right now.” He looked at Link and winked. “I expect my brothers are thinkin’ it’s about time I did my share of the chores at the ranch.” Back to Lucy, he said, “Those pork chops look pretty good, I expect I’ll try ’em, too.”
“Right,” Lucy replied, “I’ll tell Becky to bring you a cup of coffee.” He hadn’t asked, but she figured he was wondering where Becky was.
As she walked past the table with the two strangers, one of them stated loudly, “The coffee, Red.”
“I told you,” she replied, “it’s making. And don’t call me Red. I don’t have red hair, and my name’s not Red.”
“I reckon she told you what’s what,” Leonard Watts japed, and reached over to give his partner a playful jab on his shoulder.
Not to be put down by the cocky waitress, Jesse Sage called after Lucy as she continued on to the kitchen. “What is your name, Sassy Britches?”
There were only a few other patrons in the dining room, but Lucy didn’t respond to Jesse’s last attempt to rile her, sensing an air of discomfort among those diners already. When she went into the kitchen, she met Becky Morris on her way out with a cup of coffee for Perley. She knew the young waitress must have recognized Perley’s voice when he joined Sonny and Link. “He wants the chops,” Lucy said.
“I heard,” Becky said, “but I thought I’d take him some coffee while Beulah’s fixing up his plate.”
Lucy chuckled, unable to resist teasing her. “You do have good ears,” she japed. “I could have waited on him.”
Accustomed to her friend’s joking, Becky didn’t respond while she went out the door, hurried over to Perley’s table, and placed the cup of coffee down before him. “I know how you like your coffee,” she said, “so I brought it right out. It’s the first cup out of a new pot. Beulah’s fixing your plate right now.”
The warm smile she always caused to form on Perley’s face blossomed into a beaming grin of embarrassment as he tried to think of something intelligent to say. Failing to come up with anything, he settled for, “Howdy, Becky.”
His response was not loud, but it was enough to be heard at the table several feet away. “Yeah, howdy, Becky,” Jesse demanded, “where the hell’s my coffee? If anybody got the first cup, it oughta been me. Hell, he just walked in.”
Leonard chuckled. “I swear, Jesse, you sure are feelin’ ornery today, ain’tcha?”
“Damn right I am,” Jesse said. Then to Becky, he ordered, “Tell that other gal, Miss Sassy Britches, I want some fresh coffee right now.”
It had already gone too far. Perley was not happy with the obvious disrespect shown the two women, and now he could see that same resentment building in Sonny’s eyes. Afraid Sonny might get into an altercation with the two drifters, he thought he’d better try to see if he could defuse the situation before it blew up. “Hey, there ain’t no problem, friend,” he called out to Jesse. “Becky, here, didn’t know you were supposed to get the first cup. You can take this one and I’ll wait for the next one. We don’t talk to the ladies here in the dinin’ room like you might talk to the ladies in the saloon, so it doesn’t set too well with ’em. Whaddaya say? You want this cup of coffee?”
Both drifters looked at Perley in disbelief for a long moment before Jesse responded. “Mister, in the first place, I ain’t your friend, and it ain’t none of your business how I talk to a woman anywhere. So you’d best keep your mouth shut and mind your own business. I don’t want your damn cup of coffee. If I did, I woulda already come over there and took it. Whaddaya say about that?”
Remaining unruffled, Perley paused and shrugged. “Well, I’d say that wouldn’ta been necessary, since I offered to give it to you, anyway.”
Jesse looked at Leonard and asked, “Do you believe this mealymouthed jasper?” Looking back at Perley then, he warned, “Like I told you, keep your nose in your own business and stay the hell outta mine.”
“Don’t fret yourself, Perley,” Becky said. “I’ll run get the man some more coffee. There’s no reason to have any trouble.”
Jesse didn’t miss hearing the name. “Pearly, is that what your name is?” When Perley nodded, Jesse declared, “Well, it sure as hell suits you. Pearly,” he repeated, laughing. “What’s your last name? Gates?” He looked over at Leonard and gave him a playful punch on the shoulder.
“Matter of fact, it is,” Perley said.
That caused Jesse to pause for a moment. He was so surprised to find he had guessed right when he thought he had made a joke of the fellow’s name. He looked at Leonard again, then they both howled with laughter. “Pearly Gates,” he repeated a couple more times. “If that ain’t a perfect name for a jasper like you, I don’t know what is.” He paused then when it occurred to him that the innocent-looking cowhand might be japing him. “Or maybe that ain’t really your name and you’re thinkin’ you’re pretty funny.” He was about to threaten Perley but was interrupted by Lucy, who came from the kitchen at that point, carrying two fresh cups of coffee.
“Sorry to make you boys wait,” she said. “I had to clear my throat first.” She glanced at Becky and winked. “Now, I hope you two will settle down and act like you’ve been around decent folks before.”
Having caught Lucy’s quick wink at Becky, Jesse was at once suspicious. “I don’t reckon there’s anything in that cup but coffee, right?”
“Of course, that’s right,” Lucy answered. “Did you want something else in it?”
He looked at his friend and gave him a wink. “Then I don’t reckon you’d mind takin’ a little drink of it first,” Jesse said.
Lucy shrugged and without hesitating, picked up the cup and took a couple of sips of coffee. Then she graced him with a broad smile as she placed the cup back on the table. “Fresh out of the pot,” she said. “Satisfied?” She turned to Becky then and said, “Come on, Becky, let’s let ’em eat so they can get outta here. Perley’s plate is ready now, anyway.”
Becky started to follow her to the kitchen, but Jesse grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. “To hell with Perley’s plate. You can stay here and keep company with me and Leonard.”
That was as much as Perley could abide. “I reckon you’ve gone far enough to make it my business now,” he said as he got up from his chair. “We don’t stand for that kinda treatment to the ladies in this town. Let her go and we won’t send for the sheriff. You can just finish your dinner and get on outta here and let decent people eat in peace.”
Jesse gave him a big smile as he released Becky’s wrist. She shot one worried look in Perley’s direction before running out the door to find the sheriff. “Well, well,” Jesse asked Leonard, “did you hear what he called me?”
“He called you a dirty name I can’t repeat in front of these citizens settin’ in here eatin’. And he said you was a yellow-bellied, scum-eatin’ dog,” the simple man answered, knowing what Jesse was fixing to do. Judging by the foolish grin on his face, it was easy to guess he possessed mere childlike intelligence.
“I’m thinkin’ a man ain’t no man a-tall, if he don’t stand up to a yellow snivelin’ dog callin’ him names like that. Whaddaya think I oughta do about it?”
“I reckon you ain’t got no choice,” Leonard said. “A man’s got a right to stand up for his honor. If he don’t, he ain’t got no honor. Ain’t that what Micah always says?” They both got to their feet and stood grinning at Perley. “Maybe if he said he was sorry and admitted he was a yellow dog and crawled outta here on his hands and knees, you could let him get by with what he said,” Leonard added, excitedly.
Perley patiently watched their little parody for a few minutes before responding. “You two fellows are puttin’ on a good little show over one cup of coffee. If you think I’m gonna participate in a gunfight with you, you’re mistaken. I came in here to eat my dinner, just like the rest of these folks. So why don’t you sit back down and finish your dinner? Then you can go to Patton’s Saloon and tell everybody there how you backed me down. That way, nobody gets shot, and we can eat in peace.”
Since it was fairly obvious that Perley was not inclined to answer his challenge, Jesse was determined to force him to face him in the street or acknowledge his cowardice. He was about to issue his ultimatum when Sheriff Paul McQueen walked in with Becky right behind him. “What’s the trouble here?” McQueen asked as he walked up to face the two strangers still standing.
“Ain’t no trouble, Sheriff,” Jesse answered. “I ain’t got no idea why that young lady thought there was and went and got you for nothin’. Me and my friend, here, was just tryin’ to enjoy us a nice dinner. Then this feller”—he nodded toward Perley—“came in and started bellyachin’ about a cup of coffee.”
“That ain’t exactly the way I heard it,” McQueen replied. “I heard you two were disturbin’ the peace. We don’t stand for any rough treatment of the women who work in this dinin’ room, or any rough language, either.” He looked at Perley then, knowing he hadn’t started any trouble. “Perley, you got anything to say?”
“Not much, Sheriff,” Perley replied. “I think these fellows just forgot their manners. They’re new in town and don’t know how to act in a peaceful place of business. But there ain’t any need to lock ’em up, if they’ll just finish their dinner and get on outta here. That oughta be all right, wouldn’t it, Beulah?”
Beulah Walsh, who was witnessing the confrontation from the kitchen door, shrugged and answered. “I reckon, if they agree not to cause no more trouble.”
“Seems to me you ain’t hearin’ but one side of this argument,” Leonard Watts declared. “That feller, there, is the one oughta go to jail. He as much as called Jesse out, but we’ll finish up and get on outta here, anyway. Ain’t no need to put us in jail.”
“Leonard’s right,” Jesse added. “We ain’t gonna start nothin’, but I ain’t gonna back down if he calls me out.”
McQueen couldn’t suppress a little smile. “Well, that would be a different matter. If Perley called you out, you’d have a right to defend yourself.” He looked at Beulah to see if she was satisfied to let them remain.
She nodded and asked, “You wanna sit down and have a cup of coffee or something, Sheriff?” He had already eaten there earlier, but she figured it would ensure the peace if he stayed awhile.
“As long as I’m here, I might as well,” McQueen said. “I’ll just sit down over here.” He walked over and sat down at a table near the one that held the weapons. “I’ll make sure Perley don’t call one of your customers out,” he couldn’t resist saying.
“I’ll get you some coffee,” Lucy sang out, and went into the kitchen with Beulah and Becky.
Beulah fixed up a fresh plate for Perley, since the first one had begun to cool off. While she dished it out, Becky stopped Lucy on her way out with the sheriff’s coffee to ask a question. “I thought I knew why you winked when you said you had to clear your throat. Why did you take a gulp of that coffee when that man dared you to?”
Lucy laughed. “’Cause it was just my spit in it. I was just glad he didn’t want me to taste the other fellow’s coffee. Beulah spit in his.”
“That fellow was really puttin’ the challenge out on you,” Sonny said to Perley, his voice low so as not to be overheard at the table where the two strangers were rapidly finishing up their meal.
“It’s just mostly big talk,” Perley said. “He probably owns that gun on the table in the fast-draw holster, so he’s always lookin’ for some excuse to shoot somebody. I didn’t want it to be one of us.”
“I reckon it was a good thing Becky went to fetch the sheriff,” Sonny said. “You mighta had to meet him out in the middle of the street.”
“I wasn’t gonna meet anybody out in the middle of the street,” Perley insisted. “That’s one of the dumbest things a man can do.”
“I reckon you’re right,” Sonny allowed. He had heard rumors of how fast Perley was with a six-gun, although he had never witnessed it, himself. And he once overheard Perley’s brother John telling Fred Farmer about an incident he had witnessed. Fred was older than the rest of the hands at the Triple-G and had been with the Gateses the longest of any of the men. John told him that Perley was like chain lightning when backed into a corner. He said Perley didn’t know why he was so fast, something just fired in his brain when he had to act. John figured because he didn’t understand that “gift,” he was reluctant to use it. Thinking about that now, Sonny thought he would surely like to have been there with John to see for himself.
“Ain’t you afraid they might go braggin’ around town that you were too scared to face that bigmouth?” Link asked. Perley was his hero, and he didn’t like to think there was a flaw in his hero. The man called Jesse had openly laid down a challenge to Perley, and Perley just tried to talk his way out of it.
“Doesn’t make any difference to me what they say,” Perley told him. “It’s just words, and words get blown away by the first little breeze that comes along. Sometimes you might get caught where you ain’t got no choice. There ain’t much you can do then but try to do the best you can. Anyway, it ain’t nothin’ but tomfools that pull a gun on another fellow just to see if he can get his out quicker. The folks that count are the folks you see and work with every day. And they know who you are, so it doesn’t matter what some stranger passin’ through town thinks about you. You understand that, don’tcha?”
“Yeah, I reckon so,” Link answered, but he was still thinking he would have liked to have seen how fast Perley really was.
When the two drifters finished eating, they left money on the table and walked toward the door. As they passed by the table where the three Triple-G hands were eating, Jesse reached down and knocked Perley’s coffee cup over, causing him to jump backward to keep from getting his lap filled. He just managed to catch himself from going over backward with his chair. “Damn, Perley,” Jesse mumbled. “Sorry ’bout that. That was kinda clumsy of me, weren’t it? I’ll be down at the saloon if you wanna do somethin’ about it.”
Perley reached over and grabbed Sonny’s elbow when he started to jump to his feet. “No need to get excited,” he said. “I didn’t get any on me, and it needed warmin’ up, anyway.” He looked at McQueen and shook his head when the sheriff got to his feet.
As a precaution, the sheriff walked over to stand beside the weapons table while Jesse and Leonard picked up their guns. “You two are gettin’ close to spendin’ the night in my jail. You’re damn lucky the man you been pickin’ away at is a peaceful man or you mighta been sleepin’ in the boneyard up on the hill.”
“We ain’t gonna cause no more trouble, Sheriff,” Leonard was quick to assure him. “Come on, Jesse, we don’t wanna spend the night in jail.” They went out the door and McQueen followed them to watch them as they walked away.
When the two troublemakers reached Patton’s Saloon and went inside, McQueen returned to the dining room. He was met at the door by Becky Morris. “You should have put them in jail,” she said, “especially when that dirty-looking one knocked Perley’s cup over.”
“Perley’s after the same thing I am,” the sheriff told her. “And that’s to keep from havin’ gunfights in our street and endangerin’ the good folks in this town. I’m beholden to him for not answerin’ that saddle tramp’s challenge.” He glanced at Perley and nodded his thanks. He was well aware of Perley’s skill with a six-shooter, but he also knew that the young man’s lightning-like reflexes were not something Perley liked to display. He slowly shook his head when he thought about Perley’s dilemma. McQueen had never met a more peaceful man than Perley Gates. His father had placed a tremendous burden on his youngest son’s shoulders when he named him for the boy’s grandfather. McQueen could only assume that God, in His mercy, compensated for the name by endowing the boy with reflexes akin to those of a striking rattlesnake.
When he realized Becky was still standing there, as if waiting for him to say more, he thanked her for the coffee. “I’d best get back to shoein’ that horse,” he said, referring to the job he was in the middle of when Becky came to find him. It brought to mind a subject that had been in his thoughts a lot lately. The town was growing so fast that he felt it already called for a full-time sheriff, instead of one who was also a part-time blacksmith.
“Thanks for coming, Sheriff,” Becky said, turned, and went back to the table where Lucy and Beulah were already warning Perley to be careful when he left the dining room. “They’re right, Perley,” Becky said. “Those two are just looking for trouble.”
And like John and Rubin like to say, if there ain’t but one cow pie in the whole state of Texas, Perley will most likely step in it, was the thought in Perley’s mind. To Becky, however, he said, “Nothin’ to worry about. We’ve already got the wagon loaded with the supplies we came after, so we’ll be headin’ straight to the ranch when we leave here. Besides, I’ve got Sonny and Link to take care of me. Ain’t that right, Link?” Link looked undecided. Perley continued, “So, I’m gonna take my time to enjoy this fine meal Beulah cooked. By the time I’m finished, those fellows probably won’t even remember me.”
“I hope you’re right,” Becky said, and turned her attention to some of the other customers, who were waiting for coffee refills. The room returned to its usual atmosphere of peaceful dining.
Just as he said he would, Perley took his time to enjoy his dinner and some idle conversation with Becky and Lucy, plus a pause to stick his head inside the kitchen door to wish Beulah a happy birthday. Unfortunately, it provided enough time for his two antagonists to think of another way to entertain themselves at his expense. “We saw them two fellers ol’ Perley met with when they drove that wagon around to the side of the buildin’,” Jesse recalled as he and Leonard walked out on the porch of the saloon. “But he came from that inside door from the hotel.”
“Yeah, he did,” Leonard replied, wondering what that had to do with anything.
“Look yonder at that bay horse tied out front of the hotel,” Jesse said, a grin slowly spreading across his unshaven face. “I’m thinkin’ that’s ol’ Perley’s horse. I bet you he ain’t got a room in the hotel. He just tied his horse out there.”
Still not quite sure what his friend was driving at, Leonard asked, “Maybe, so what about it?”
“I’m thinkin’ about borrowin’ his horse for a little ride,” Jesse answered, his grin spreading from ear to ear now. “See if that don’t get . . .
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