Friday Sampler: Unwanted: Dead or Alive by Gene Shelton

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In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle is showcasing some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Friday’s Sampler features an excerpt from Unwanted: Dead or Alive, by Gene Shelton. It is a vivid and stunning portrait of life during a rugged and unforgiving time when a man’s honor depended on how well and how fast he could shoot.

As one reviewer said: If Gene Shelton writes it, you know the story is filled with grit, courage, and damnation, which is what the Old West was all about. Only the brave came. The weak never got there, and the cowards never started. You follow a long, hard trail and can taste the dust in the wind. The novel reads as if Shelton was there when it happened, and, in his mind, he probably was. He has always written as if he had been an eyewitness to history.

The Story

Framed for cattle rustling and horse theft by the corrupt banker who foreclosed on their employer’s ranch, Buck and Dobie find themselves out of work, out of cash, and out of luck. So, they decided to try and live up to their reputation as wanted men—an idea easier said than done.

Buck Hawkins and Dobie Garrett are a pair of cowboys in the Texas Panhandle. They’re unlikely outlaws—until their ranch is stolen and the two cowhands framed for rustling and horse theft by a crooked banker.

Now with a price on their heads and hunted by the law, the two cowboys decide that if they have to ride the outlaw trail, they might as well be the best holdup artists in Texas. Problem is, they aren’t all that good at the trade.

Just when they thought it couldn’t get worse …

During a botched stage holdup, they meet Marylou Kowalski, who demands at the point of a derringer that Buck and Dobie kidnap her; she’s bored with her life and looking for excitement on the outlaw trail. Marylou convinces the two fugitives that the three of them can score the ultimate in revenge—holding up the crooked banker who posted reward flyers on the two cowboys.

 The Sampler

Gene Shelton
Gene Shelton

The sounds were almost on him now. The stage came into view, a four-horse hitch pulling a faded carriage that once had been red. The driver was an old man, stooped in the shoulders, with a wild gray beard that flared in all directions around a weathered face. Hawkins didn’t see a weapon, but the old man could have a rifle or shotgun beneath the seat. The canvas sheets that served as windows were rolled up to catch any breeze that wandered in through the heat.

Buck found himself holding his breath; the stage was almost alongside him now. He squinted through the open windows. It looked like only one passenger was inside the coach, a slender form barely visible through the shadows.

“Hold it right there!”

Hawkins started at Garrett’s sudden yell.

The sound of rolling wheels stopped. The driver glared at Garrett standing beside the cedars, shotgun in hand.

“What the hell is this?” the old man said.

“It’s a holdup, damnit!” Garrett barked. “What does it look like?”

Hawkins stood, his heart in his throat and his bladder about to burst, the Bisley pointed toward the coach windows.

The driver spat a stream of tobacco juice over the hip of the off-wheel horse. “Looks like a couple damn fools, is what it looks like.”

“Shut up, old-timer,” Garrett said, “and don’t reach for no gun. I’d just as soon not to have to shoot nobody. Throw down that strongbox.”

The Bisley trembled in Hawkins’s hand. The grips were so sweat-slick he could hardly hold the weapon.

“You, inside”— Buck heard the slight quaver in his words—“come out of there. Slow. Keep your hands where I can see them. We don’t want to hurt anybody. We just want the money.” He tensed as the slim, shadowy figure shifted on the seat inside. Whoever it was could be palming a gun.

“Idiots.”

“What’d you say, old man?”

“I said you’re idiots. There ain’t no money on this coach, you jackasses.”

“Don’t lie to us, old-timer,” Garrett said. “This here’s a stage. Got to be money in it.”

The driver looked disgusted. “The hell you say. I got one passenger who ain’t even supposed to be on board, a sack of mail, and two whole dollars in my own pocket. Where the devil did you two get the idea there’d be anything worth stealin’ on this run?”

Hawkins tried to ignore the conversation. The coach door swung open, two small hands gripping the top of the weathered wood. Hawkins could only hope the hands didn’t belong to somebody like Bat Masterson. He’d heard Masterson was a little guy, small hands, but quick with a gun and a crack shot.

“You ain’t funnin’ me, you cranky old coot,” Garrett said. “First stage out of Dodge carries money. Banker there told me that.”

“Damned if you boys ain’t dumber’n I thought,” the driver said, shifting his chew to the other cheek. “This ain’t the first stage out. It’s the second. You’d’ve checked the road for tracks, you’d see there’s been a coach through here already today.”

“Wasn’t no reason to check, and you’re lyin’ through your gums, you broke-down old codger. Now, throw down that strongbox or I’ll cut loose on you with this smoothbore.”

The driver snorted in disgust. ‘Told you, there ain’t no strongbox. There ain’t a dime of bank money on this rig.” He spat again. “Damned if the quality of bank robbers ain’t sinkin’ deeper in the outhouse pit ever’ day.”

“I ain’t buyin’ that. Set that wheel brake and step down. Easy-like.” Garrett sounded like a man who meant business. He also sounded like he wasn’t real sure of himself all of a sudden.

“I ain’t climbin’ down,” the driver said. “I got the rheumatic somethin’ fierce in my hip bones.”

Hawkins almost swallowed his tongue as the door swung wide and the passenger stepped out. The first thing he noticed was a slender ankle in high-button shoes. The second thing he noticed was that the passenger was a woman. There was no mistaking that.

“Dobie,” Hawkins called.

“Dammit, Buck, I told you not to use no names!”

“Idiots,” the driver said. “You two yahoos couldn’t hold up a beer mug, let alone a stage.”

“Dobie,” Hawkins called again.

“What the hell is it?”

“The passenger. It’s … she’s … a woman.” Hawkins swallowed hard as the woman stepped down and turned to face him. Beneath a little, curl brim hat with ribbon ties, auburn hair fell in waves to the shoulders of a green dress that nipped in at the waist. Or maybe it just looked nipped in, given what was above it.

“Well, keep her covered. Might be she’s got a gun.”

“Excuse me, sir,” the woman said to Hawkins, her words throaty and musical, “but what seems to be going on here?”

“It’s … this is a holdup, ma’am.”

Her large green eyes went wider. “Really? My, that’s exciting. I presume you’ll be wanting my purse—”

“No, ma’am,” Hawkins said hurriedly.

“And just why the hell not? Isn’t my money good enough for you?” Anger sparked in her gold-flecked green eyes.

Hawkins’s jaw dropped. He hadn’t expected a response like that. “But, ma’am,” he stammered, “we don’t rob women. It isn’t—wouldn’t be—well, it wouldn’t be gentlemanly.”

“I see.” A muscle twitched in the smooth line of her jaw. “The old chivalry idea. I suppose you’re from the barefoot-and-pregnant school, too.” She sniffed in disdain. “What the hell’s a woman got to do to get some respect these days?”

Hawkins couldn’t speak. He was totally flustered.

The stage lurched. Hawkins chanced a quick glance up. Garrett had climbed into the driver’s boot. He rummaged around for a moment and growled a bitter curse. “Ain’t no strongbox.”

“That’s what I been tryin’ to tell you, you hardheaded jackass,” the driver said in disgust. “There ain’t no money. If there was, wouldn’t somebody be ridin’ shotgun? Wouldn’t there be outriders? Wouldn’t I at least be packin’ iron?”

Garrett sighed heavily. “Thought somethin’ didn’t look right. Ain’t even a rifle or shotgun up here. Got anything in the back boot?”

“Nothin’ but a pouch full of letters. You boys are in a heap of trouble. Holdin’ up a mail coach’ll get you forty years in the pen, sure as there’s stink on skunk.”

The coach rocked again as Garrett stepped down. “Damned if it ain’t happened again. All that work for nothin’. Aw, hell, go on, old-timer. We ain’t gonna hurt nobody.”

The driver spat again. “Darned if I can figure what this world’s comin’ to. You boys new to this outlaw business, ain’t you?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “Son, I was robbin’ stores and stickin’ up stages while you was still hangin’ on your mama’s tit. Rode with the Daltons a spell, even.”

Garrett’s neck reddened. “So how come you’re drivin’ a stage, you’re such a famous owlhoot?”

The driver rolled his chew and spat. “Ain’t no money in owlhootin’, that’s how come. Like to starved to death. Take my advice, you’ll quit while you’re still amateurs. Greenhorns is mostly the ones gets shot. Or hung.”

Garrett’s face flushed a deeper red. “Listen, pop, we ain’t plumb greenhorns. We’re done wanted in three states.”

“How much you got to show for it?”

“Well, we been havin’ a stretch of bad luck here lately,” Garrett admitted.

“Figgered as much,” the driver aid.

The argument atop the stage barely registered with Hawkins. He couldn’t keep his gaze off those angry green eyes with the little crow’s-foot wrinkles at the corners. He tried to lick his lips. His mouth had gone dry. He instinctively pulled off his hat.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” Hawkins said lamely. “We sure didn’t mean to—to frighten you like this.”

“I’m not the least bit frightened,” the woman snapped. “Are you two really outlaws?”

Hawkins flushed. “Yes, ma’am, I suppose we are, at that. Sort of, anyway.”

“Oh, good. Then you’re going to kidnap me.”

“Kid—? Ma’am, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hawkins blustered. “We’ve never molested a woman—Christ!

“What is it, partner?” Garrett said.

Hawkins didn’t answer for a moment. His gaze was riveted on the twin muzzles of a small-caliber derringer held in a slender, steady hand.

“I insist, gentlemen,” the auburn-haired woman said calmly. “If you do not kidnap me, I will be forced to shoot you. In an attempt to defend my honor. And then I will go to the nearest peace officer and scream ‘rape’ as loud as I can. You should know what happens to men who molest a woman out here in the West.”

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