Six-Guns or Surrender by A.M. Van Dorn

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Lincoln's Lawman Book 1

Action-Adventure Adult Western

The Civil War is long over leaving in its wake the great emancipator belonging to the ages, but his legacy lives on in the man they call Lincoln’s Lawman.

The vanguard of a new breed of marshals envisioned by the slain president, the formidable Nash Riker upholds his sworn duty on America’s newest battlefield, the lawless West.

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Excerpt from Six-Guns or Surrender © Copyright 2023 A.M. Van Dorn

THE HIGH SIERRA
CALIFORNIA 1874

PROLOGUE

Nash Riker had known from the moment his murdered father’s pine box was lowered into the waiting embrace of a California grave the pursuit of law and order would be his life’s calling. In the time since his first badge had been pinned on his chest in the service of Lady Justice, his world had become a swirl of gunplay, girls, and grit. Some days they came his way separately but more often than not this trifecta rushed at him all at once. Now on this warm, sunny spring morning as he hiked up a forested hillside towards a clearing at its peak, that ever-present trio was only moments away from engulfing him once more. At least it would start pleasantly enough … with the girl.

The raven-haired beauty walking next to him, Sara Keene, could be more aptly described as a young woman at the age of twenty-five. Only minutes before had the pair abandoned the pretense of Riker showing her how to hunt to prepare for her new life in Oregon when she eventually arrived there after her travails of the last couple of months. Sara had eagerly accepted his suggestion that perhaps they cease tramping around and rest in the clearing atop the hill. As they made their way drifting up from their campsite below, they could just make out the faint sound of a guitar being strummed as it churned out cheerful melodies. Reaching the top, the pair strode out into the open, and he let his rifle drop to the ground and turned to her. The charge that had started building from the moment he had found her in dire straits the day before arced between them. Riker took her into his arms, his lips crushing against hers. When their lips had last broken free of each other’s, his hazel eyes had looked into hers.

For a brief moment, he had seen himself reflected but the image of his angular, handsome face quickly vanished from her emerald irises, replaced by the passion and longing he could see that burned within them.

“Nash Riker … who are you?”

The words came with a breathless quality as Sara looked up at him, greeted by his warm if not mischievous smile. His hand fell on her cheek, and he could sense it sent a ripple of excitement through her.

Sara continued to stare at him as the pair stood there at the center of the grassy crest of some nameless hilltop but in truth, they were actually teetering on an edge. It was a precipice men and women who were attracted to each other had found themselves on since the dawn of time, and it would take only the briefest of nudges to push them over. Slowly they dropped to their knees with Riker’s arms still encircling her.

Riker was a man of many talents, but mind reading was not one of them. If he could he would have taken a measure of pride at what she was thinking. This was all happening so fast, and she knew she was being swept away by it all, but she couldn’t blame herself. The last time she had laid with a man was back in Houston before she and her younger sister had set out on the wagon train from hell. But more than that it was this man, broad-shouldered, so muscular it looked like the fabric of his very shirt would burst rather than contain his strong arms and wide chest. However, it was that face most of all. Strikingly handsome, with those warm, friendly eyes, and yet at the same time, there was a hardness to that face she could sense. This was a serious man who meant serious business, and she and her sister Lilybelle couldn’t possibly have been more fortunate to have crossed paths with him when they did.

“Sara?” he asked questioningly, but he needn’t have bothered. It seemed like she was no longer able to contain herself, and she was more than ready. The Texan pioneer brought her head up and found the man’s warm and inviting lips again. The lingering kiss only served to stoke the fires within them further.  While still kissing him, she reached for one of his hands that were still plastered on the small of her back. Their fingers locked for a moment, but she had other plans. Gently she guided the man’s hand downward to the curve of her ass. Riker began to feel the tell-tale pressure building within his jeans as he brought his other hand back around to her front and slowly began to move it lower. With a devilish look in her eye, one of her hands reached down for the hem of her dress and hiked it upward to allow him unfettered access. As passion overwhelmed them neither of them had noticed that the distant guitar music had ceased in the middle of a song.

“I’m yours …” she said in a voice almost too low to even be a whisper, but he had heard. Taking a deep breath Riker said nothing, but the smile he flashed her was confirmation that he was more than happy to oblige.

Riker’s hand was just moving towards its prize when the solitary blast of a gun almost a quarter of a mile away from where the Keene family Conestoga sat echoed across the distance to their ears. The man was up on his boots in a heartbeat as Sara scrambled to her feet beside him, her eyes widening in a mixture of confusion and fright.

“What was that?” her voice, with a tremble rippling through it, questioned.

Riker grimaced as he turned to her, pulling out his Colt .45. He would know the sound of that one very unusual weapon anywhere. If McKenna had fired such a close-range weapon, then it could mean only one thing.

“Trouble! Real trouble! Stay behind me!” the lawman turned on his heels and his boots slapped the ground as he charged back down the wooded slope of the hill, drawing Sara along behind him.

CHAPTER 1

ATOP THE BEAUMONT ESCARPMENT

CALIFORNIA COUNTRYSIDE

THE PREVIOUS DAY

Rocks, dirt, and all manner of debris kicked up behind the hooves of the pair of black and white mustangs that thundered along the ridgeline of a rocky, limestone escarpment. The two steeds were nearly neck and neck, but the all-black horse ridden by the tall rider in the saddle was just a nose ahead of his compatriot of solid white. Like the pair riding them, they were siblings, but the difference was that Cain and Abel were brothers while the pair of twins in their early thirties that mounted them were male and female.

Laughter filled the air as the riders charged towards their destination, a lone pine jutting high into the air, now less than a quarter mile away. Suddenly, with no time to stop, both riders were caught off guard by the appearance of a fissure leading from the edge of the escarpment heading towards its center where it abruptly tapered to nothing. The riders shouted to their horses and slapped their hindquarters and the Mustangs vaulted through the air bridging the six-foot-wide gap and landing on the other side.

The horses didn’t miss a beat and charged forward but the brother and sister exchanged a quick look of disbelief at their close call before they both broke out laughing again. The woman atop the ivory mustang kicked in her heels trying to coax out a final burst of speed but it was to no avail. The man’s ebony mount shot past the tree first, immediately followed by the other horse. Both siblings brought their reins backward, breaking the two animals to a complete stop.

Marshal Nash Riker leaned forward in his saddle and curled his mouth into a wide smile as he looked at his bested opponent, his deputy and more importantly, his sister.

“Seems your lot in life, Mickey, to always follow just behind me, all the way back to the moment that I beat you into this world.”

McKenna gave him an equally brilliant smile, as she used her index finger to tilt her flat-brimmed hat back on her head, “Yes, yes, we know … by a whole three minutes, Papa used to say! By the virtue, of course, of you just happening to have been in the better position!”

He waggled his finger at her, “Now, Mickey, the fact remains I told you when we saw this tree way back yonder I’d beat you to it … and here we are!”

As she rubbed the back of her neck that was just barely covered by her wavy brown hair that was cut in a bob that ended at the base of her neck she snorted, “We’re both lucky to be here. If we’d been closer to the edge where that crevasse was at its widest we’d never have cleared it.  We’d be a bloody smear down the side of that cleft in the escarpment!” Riker didn’t disagree, but he couldn’t resist teasing his sister further.

“Talk of our latest brush with death isn’t going to change the fact that Abel and I won the race.”

“Cain here was just about to get his second wind!”

“What say we grab a snack and let these two catch a little rest from our race?” he said with a laugh.

“You don’t have to sell me on that! I’m famished as it is. I’ll rustle it up for us while you tie up the boys.”

As McKenna went about rummaging through her saddlebag, Riker busied himself tying the Mustangs up to the tree shaking his head. That was McKenna for you. It seemed she was always hungry, and yet not an ounce of fat found its way to her body that was equal parts curvy and sinewy muscle. He supposed they were both lucky to have been blessed with good health and the physiques to match, and their strenuous lifestyle upholding the law augmented keeping them in the prime condition that they were.

As he worked Riker inhaled the fresh mountain air giving himself a burst of energy. Traveling in the great outdoors was one of the things he enjoyed most in all the world, especially in the lands west of the Mississippi. Riker couldn’t imagine being happier anywhere else. He’d been all over the West in the years since the great man had tasked him to become the vanguard of what was supposed to have been an elite class of federal marshals. Originally, they were to have been legion in number, but the retort of a pistol belonging to a craven traitor had seen that and many other dreams die in those dark hours of an April morning.

Done securing the horses, he unscrewed the cap of his canteen and took a pull as he looked out over the edge of the escarpment they had been traveling along.  Looking almost straight down he saw some relatively flat terrain that lay sandwiched between the base of the cliff and a range of short, stubby, wooded hills.  Further down the gap between the escarpment and where the hills came to an end, there was what could have been a recent or hundreds of years ago a portion of the escarpment that had collapsed into an immense pile of rubble. His gaze left the barrier of rocks and traveled beyond the tops of the hills and saw the wagon train trail that cut through the wide-open valley that surrounded the trail. Once they came down off the Beaumont they would be heading northwest on that wagon train trail, first past the town of Bullet, then their route should take them near Fort Creighton. Continuing along from there, they would arrive at their ultimate destination of Pine Bluff.

Soon the pair were sitting on the edge of the escarpment munching on a pair of ham sandwiches McKenna had put together before they’d left Apache Junction early that morning. Their chatter as always was mixed with laughter. They’d been nearly inseparable their whole lives and at times could even finish each other’s sentences.  When Riker had been first offered the job all those years ago, he had seen to it that she be tapped as his deputy knowing she too held an interest in the law stemming from the murder of their father. The opposition, of course, had been fervent, but back then the man who had offered him the job in the first place was not one to be overruled … after all, he had been the sixteenth president of these United States.

After they finished washing down their meal with the water from their canteens, they sat quietly staring out at the beauty sprawling before them. Nash watched as McKenna pointed towards a distant waterfall she could make out and a thin ribbon that flowed out from it until it grew larger and larger as it became a stream not far from the wagon trail. Immediately, she had decided it would make a perfect subject for her to paint. His sister was an accomplished artist, and though their life on the trail didn’t often allow her the chance to practice her craft, she would inventory things either in her mind or on her sketch pad for the occasions when they made it back to her studio in their family home in Santa Barbara on the balmy southern California coastline.

Riker nodded his head in agreement that it would make an outstanding subject for one of her oil canvases when something caught his eye over in the valley beyond the stubby hilltops. He watched the ominous sign of vultures circling overhead, and as one broke off from the pack and spiraled downward, he followed its trajectory. What he saw next he hadn’t seen before when they first stopped at the pine tree for their impromptu break, but in the time they had spent dining, the sun had shifted casting its rays on the object below making it stand out.

“Mickey, you mind if I borrow your field glasses?” he said, bracing himself for her inevitable chiding. Riker had a very bad habit of leaving field glasses behind in places all over the west. McKenna was fond of needling him as to if he would be so careless with them if the Department of War, of which they were special operatives, didn’t foot the bill for them every time he had to replace them. His wry answer was always the same, he had very nearly, literally given the army his pound of flesh with the grievous injury to his back during the thunderous cannonade battle between Union and Confederate forces at Gettysburg. Surprisingly she had simply said, absolutely. Riker saw she had now spied what he had seen, and curiosity shown in her hazel eyes that matched his. A moment later, after plucking them out of her saddlebag, she handed them to him as they stood near the edge.

Scanning downward he moved his gaze from the wagon train trail that ran through the center of the valley, past it to a gully that ran nearly parallel to it. There under the magnification, somewhere between a quarter to half a mile away, the sight of the white canvas covering that had first caught his naked eye filled his vision. It belonged to a rear section of a Conestoga wagon that appeared to be sticking partially out of the gulch. Riker’s mouth drew into a tight line as another one of the circling vultures had broken off and had swooped downward only to disappear behind the walls of the gully. Death was in the air, but whose? He handed the glasses to McKenna who he knew would be keen to take a look. As she took in the sight, he saw her teeth clench below the field glasses.

“C’mon, McKenna. Let’s ride!”

***

It had taken the two a good half hour to reach the end of the escarpment and make their way down to the wagon trail only to have to double back to find the wagon. Riker kept his eye on the lone pine high up on the cliff using it as well as the circling birds of prey as a navigational point to guide them to the right place to veer off the trail and locate the Conestoga. When they reached what he believed was the correct vicinity to make the turn, McKenna pointed downward towards the tell-tale sign of wagon ruts marking its departure from the trail. How had this happened, he wondered as they charged towards the gully. Had the wagon fallen victim to a team of runaway horses that had sent it hurtling towards the gulch?

They would find out soon enough as ahead they saw the back of the wagon jutting above the edge at an angle. Bringing their horses to halt and dismounting, McKenna assumed the duty of tying their mounts to a gnarled, dead tree that protruded from the ground nearby. While she was doing this, Riker walked to the edge and shouted down at the wagon.

“Hello! Anyone around here?!”

The answer he got was one that he wasn’t expecting as a shotgun blast came from somewhere beyond the horseshoe-like opening in the back of the wagon. As he stumbled backward, Riker gave a quick prayer of thanks that the spray of buckshot had gone wide, not even coming close to him. Either the assailant was a lousy shot, or it had been the consequence of trying to fire off a shot from within the wagon. Maybe it was a combination of both, but at the moment he didn’t care. He turned to his alarmed sister and made a circular motion in the air. In tune with each other, McKenna immediately dropped back and ran far down the length of the gully intent on circling around and coming up behind their attackers while they had their attention focused on Riker.

Pulling out his sixgun, Riker drew close to the edge once more but remained back far enough that he would be out of the line of fire. He cupped his free hand next to his mouth and hollered.

“Hold your fire! I mean you no harm!”

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