Authors: Jory Sherman
No guts, no gloryÂ .Â .Â .
Brad pulled on the leather thong around his neck until the rattles were just out of sight inside his shirt.
Abel spread his legs in a gunfighter's stance and held his arms out like a pair of parentheses, ready to draw.
“Snake,” Brad shouted and looked down at Abel's feet.
He shook the rattles, and Abel jumped three inches off the floor. His face drained of blood as he looked around. The two men at the table scraped their chairs and lifted their boots off the floor. They, too, were looking for a rattlesnake crawling around somewhere.
Abel's right hand streaked for his gun.
Before Abel could clear leather, Brad snatched his pistol from its holster. He thumbed back the hammer on the rise as he brought the barrel up to bear on Abel's gut.
Brad held his breath and squeezed the trigger.
TheÂ .45 Colt bucked in his hands as its blue-black snout spewed lead, orange sparks, and white smoke.
The bullet smashed through Abel's belt buckle, cracked into his spine, and blew a hole the size of a small grapefruit in his back. His blood spattered the two men at the table, Curly and Nels.
Abel slumped to the floor, wild red blood gushing from the hole in his stomach. The stench from his ruptured intestines filled the air.
Berkley titles by Jory Sherman
The Vigilante Novels
SANTA FE SHOWDOWN
John Savage Novels
THE SAVAGE GUN
THE SAVAGE TRAIL
THE SAVAGE CURSE
The Sidewinder Novels
NEST OF VIPERS
THE DARK LAND
THE SUNDOWN MAN
A SIDEWINDER NOVEL
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
NEST OF VIPERS
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley edition / December 2012
Copyright Â© 2012 by Jory Sherman.
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The men rode out of a white fluffy cloud.
There were three of them. They all bore scruffy beards on their lean, hatchet-sharp faces. Their eyes burned like dark coals as they urged their horses to the edge of the precipice. Mist rose up around them. Their horses were festooned with ropes and quirts, extra pistols dangling from worn leather holsters. Rifle butts jutted from their saddle scabbards.
They halted their horses at the top of the sheer bluff and looked down at the lush valley below.
One of them lifted the pair of field glasses dangling from his grimy neck and adjusted the lenses after he put them to his eyes. He scanned the valley with the binoculars, from right to left and then back again.
“Most of the horses are in a corral just at the edge of the timber,” Nels Canby said. “Some are grazin' over by the crick yonder. Maybe two or three.”
“Let me take a look, Nelson,” Abel Avery said. He reached an arm out.
Nels slipped the sling from his neck and handed over the binoculars.
Abel swept the magnifying glasses down at the house where a thin tendril of smoke spiraled from a brick chimney. Then he worked the glasses in a circular motion to take in the barn, a bunkhouse. He stopped as he stared at the bunkhouse for several moments. It, too, had a chimney, but there was no smoke rising from its metal stack. He lingered there for a few more minutes, then swept his gaze over to the far creek and down to the end of the valley and back up on the other side along the timberline. He paused when he saw a gap in the timber about a half mile down from the house.
“Well?” Canby said as Avery took the glasses away from his eyes.
“Pretty quiet, Nels, like you said it would be.”
“What in hell are we waitin' for, then?” the man in the middle asked. They called him Curly, but his name was Dan Jimson, and he was as bald as a porcelain darning egg.
“You can see where Storm and his hired hand rode out. They left a pair of swaths right through that wet grass,” Canby said.
“I see it,” Jimson said, “and there, over yonder by the bunkhouse and barn you can see where some of the hands rode out to that cut in the timber.”
“Yeah, that's where Storm ranges his cattle in the spring and summer,” Canby said.
“So, the nighthawks will be comin' back to sleep,” Jimson said. “We'd better get to it, if we're goin' to rustle them horses.”
Canby turned his horse to the right. The two other men followed him. There was a talus slope where the bluff ran out, and it led right down to the valley. They rode down it, their horses braking with their hooves to keep from sliding or pitching forward. The ground was wet there and the iron horseshoes made little sound.
“Somebody must be in the house,” Nels said. “Man wouldn't leave his fire a-burnin'.”
“His woman,” Canby said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Well, we got to take care of her,” Nels said. “She might come after us with a scattergun.”
“Or a broom,” Jimson said, a wicked smile on his face.
“Shut your traps,” Canby said. “You boys get your ropes unlimbered at that corral while I check the house.”
“We always get the shit jobs,” Nels said.
“I'm takin' the dangerous one,” Canby said. “If his woman's got a Greener a-settin' by the door, I might just get my balls blowed off.”
“Likely she'll hit you with a fry pan,” Avery said.
The other two men chuckled under their breaths.
“Shhhh,” Canby warned as they reached the bottom of the wide slope. He turned his horse away from the other two men as they continued riding toward the corral. He kept his horse to a slow walk, straight toward the small porch and the rough-hewn front door. He kept his gaze fixed on the door as he let his horse creep up on the house. He dropped his right hand to his pistol and lightly grasped its butt.
The horses in the corral whickered softly as if murmuring among themselves as the two rustlers approached. Canby stiffened and halted his horse for several seconds. Then, he continued on, making his horse step out, one hoof at a time.
He looked over at Abel and Curly. Abel shook out a coil of rope he had detached from his saddle. He began to build a loop. Curly untied the thong that held one of his ropes and shook it out. It slithered on the ground like a galvanized snake.
Canby rode up to the porch and swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted. He tied his reins around a post that held up one corner of the slanted roof that shaded the porch. He stepped onto the porch from the side and walked to the door.
He stood there for several seconds, his head bent to hear any sound from inside.
He thought he heard something from the rear of the house. Inside. Perhaps the kitchen. The sound was like a soft tinny clang. He touched the latch and lifted it with great care. The latch released, and the door eased open on leather hinges.
Canby tiptoed through the door. The front room was deserted. In the hearth, a fire blazed. The wood crackled as it released pockets of stored gases. He stepped into the center of the room and heard the clank of a pot from somewhere down the hall. In the dim light of the room, he could not see much beyond the doorway that led down a hallway.
He heard another clank and stepped into the hall. He drew his pistol and eased along the passageway. A floorboard creaked under the weight of his boot.
He stopped as he saw a ghostly figure in the room beyond the hallway.
“Brad, is that you?” Felicity called from the kitchen.
Canby held his breath and flattened himself against the wall.
She held a coffeepot in her hand and stepped toward the hallway, her hazel eyes narrowed to pierce the dimness.
“This isn't funny, Brad,” she said. Then, she entered the hallway.
“Julio? Is that you?” she said, her voice softer and this time, with a slight quaver to it.
She froze as she saw the shadowy figure of a man pressed against the wall.
Canby stepped away from the boards and the blued steel of his revolver flashed with a glimmer of light.
Felicity screamed when she saw that the man in the hallway was not her husband, Brad Storm.
She heard the click as the man hammered back his pistol to full cock. The sound was a snick that resonated in her brain like a knife blade jabbing into a bone in her skull.
She screamed again and there was rage in her voice, rage and a deep fear that she was going to die.