Steel and Six-Shooters (Preview)

Chapter One

Caroline holds out her arms to him and looks at him with longing. He asks, “Why did you leave? Will you stay with me now?” She smiles sadly, shakes her head, and seems to say, “You must come find me. You promised.” He reaches for her, but she moves away, arms still extended. She grows pale, no, begins to fade away. Somehow, he knows she’s desperately trying to stay. “I have to leave now, Charlie.” Her figure attenuates to translucence. “When it’s your time, come find me. Promise me.” He can scarcely see her. She smiles wanly. “Then I’ll always be with you.” And then she disappears.

He awoke suddenly, haunted by Caroline’s sad, slowly fading smile.

Yes, love, he thought. You bet I’ll come find you when I leave here.

Charlie Collins sat up. The ghostly pre-dawn light gave the boarding house’s bedroom furniture vague shapes in the dark. He didn’t need to open the smithy for over an hour, so he had time to sleep. But he never could after that dream.

A half-hour later, he entered the kitchen and greeted Mrs. Mason as she prepared breakfast.

“Morning, Charlie,” she said. “You timed it right. The coffee’s just ready.”

“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver.” He poured a cup and sat at the table. Though part of him had died with Caroline, thinking of her had become less painful. Except when he had that dream. 

“Bad dream again, huh?” she said, turning the bacon.

“Something like that.

“I miss Caroline, too. How long’s it been?”

“Three years. And I didn’t say anything about a dream or Caroline.”

“You didn’t have to. I’ve known you since you was a littlun. And don’t be so grouchy. I know how hard it is. I lost my Claude seven years ago. You need to find another sweet young thing to start a family with. I think that dear Agnese, who runs the restaurant, has a thing for you.”

“She’s too young for me. I’m thirty-two years old.”

“She brings you pastries and coffee every morning. You said so yourself.”

“That’s because she and Caroline were best friends. and she wants to take care of me.”

“But in a different way than you’re thinking.”

Just then Rufus, the barber, came in, followed by Miss Watkins, the retired school teacher. Old Phineas, the last of the boarders, entered while Mrs. Mason took biscuits out of the Dutch oven. She began dishing up plates of food for them. Butter and jam were already on the table.

After breakfast, Charlie walked the two blocks up Oak to where it crossed Main Street. Caroline remained with him. And their little girl. She would have turned out as strong and beautiful as her mother. He knew it. He had never thought of her as the newborn who killed Caroline. Babies, the only innocent people, didn’t kill.

He crossed Main and went into the stable where old Boudreau Cox, who loved early mornings, tossed hay into the stalls for the horses.

“Morning, Boo. Any new business this morning?”

“Not so far, Boss. But say, I’m about due to see Doc Haynes over in Orville again for my lumbago. Can I have Thursday afternoon off?”

“Sure. Roger and I can handle it. I pay him to work in both places.”

Boudreau shook his head. “Wish we had a doctor here in town.”

“Lyndonville’s too small.” 

“It being small’s a good thing for you. You got the only stable and the only smithy, and the town’s so small nobody’s likely to open another one.”

“Yeah, and good people to work with me. See you later, Boo.” 

He went through the door into the blacksmith shop. Buck was there, firing up the forge. 

“Hi, Buck. You don’t need to do that. It’s Roger’s job.”

“I got here early, so I thought I’d help the kid out. I got a big job out of town this morning, so I needed to get my tools together and get going anyhow.”

“Good for you. To you, a big job’s usually just a farmer’s team and a couple of riding horses. That means you must be shoeing at that drayman McCluskey’s place.”

“Yep. That many teams give me a nice chunk of money every four months or so. What were you jawing with old Boo about?”

“He wants Thursday off to go see Doc Haynes in Orville.”

Buck laughed. “He’s out of ‘medicine’ for his lumbago again, huh? What a good old man to give up drinking for Nellie in exchange for laudanum.” Which they knew was a tincture of alcohol and opiates. Going to his corner of the shop to assemble his tools, he called back, “S’pose it really does help his lumbago?”

“Who knows? But it keeps both Boo and Nellie happy and him out of the saloon.” 

Just then, Roger came in. He looked from Charlie to Buck and then noticed the fire already burning in the forge. “Hey, I ain’t late, am I?”

“No,” said Charlie. “Buck and I got here early.”

Roger went over to watch Buck. “You need all them tools just to shoe a horse?”

“Yes, even for one horse, but today I’m going to shoe about twenty, mostly draft horses but some for riding. See how I get to traipse across the countryside while Charlie here’s stuck with his forge? Come summer, it’ll be hot as hell in here. You sure you don’t want to be my apprentice instead of roasting in here with a blacksmith?’

Charlie said, “But you don’t want to spend the winter riding a horse that’s belly-deep in the snow while I’m in this toasty-warm blacksmith shop.”

Roger looked thoughtful for a minute, then grinned. “I’ll be both of you guys’ apprentices, Charlie’s in the wintertime and Buck’s in the summer.”

Buck shook his head. “Fourteen-year-olds are full of smart-ass answers.”

“I’ll be fifteen next month.”

“Then,” said Charlie, “he’ll be unbearable.”

Having filled his satchel with tools, Buck buckled its strap and slung it over his shoulder. He pointed to a peculiar-looking metal stand and told Roger, “This is the only extra tool I’m taking along, a hoof holder I’ll use to finish the shoeing. I usually kneel and hold the hoof on my knee, but twenty-odd horses would kill my back.” He picked up a covered basket carrying his lunch.

“I’ll carry the hoof holder out for you,” said Charlie, picking it up and following Buck into the stable. They slung the panniers over Buck’s pack mule’s back and put the tools, Buck’s lunch, and a few other items in it.

Buck said, “You seem kind of gloomy this morning, Charlie.”

“I didn’t sleep well.”

“You regret coming back to blacksmithing?”

“No, I like being my own boss. And having a friend like you who welcomed me back like I’d never been gone.”

Buck grinned. “Why wouldn’t I? We were friends, like we are now, rode horses together, went to school, and courted the Harris sisters—”

“One of which you married, Mary Lou. And thanks for not asking me if I miss that life of crime. I left that when I met Caroline and hung my Peacemaker up in the smithy. That’s where it’ll stay.”

Buck had started saddling his mare. “Two others never asked if you missed your gunslinger past: your dear Caroline and Aggie, who seems quite interested in you.” 

“Yes. Have a good trip, Buck.” He turned back into the smithy. Buck was the second, after Mrs. Mason, to mention little Aggie and him together that morning.

Chapter Two

He’ll like these little popovers with apples in the center, thought Aggie as she took them out of the oven. Hearing the little bell over the front door chime, she turned to see old Miss Applewhite come in. She was the banker’s mother and one of the town’s wealthiest and nosiest busybodies. She usually came to drink coffee and gossip with her friends in the afternoon. Aggie’s heart sank. If Mrs. Applewhite wanted to talk as long as she did with her friends, Aggie wouldn’t have time to take popovers to Charlie and Roger.

“Oh, my dear Aggie,” Mrs. Applewhite trilled as she approached from the door. “I just dropped in to tell you my little group won’t be with you this afternoon so you wouldn’t be upset at not seeing us. We’re having a meeting of the garden club.”

Aggie smiled. “I’ll make it one afternoon without you.”

“We’ll be in tomorrow. Don’t worry. I came for one other reason, to settle a disagreement. Mrs. Dearborn says you’re Eye-talian, but I said you’re no such thing with a name like Agnes Anthony. And have such a light complexion and blue eyes. I told her you couldn’t possibly be Eye-talian. They’re all so dark.”

“I’m afraid Mrs. Dearborn’s right. My name is Agnese, pronounced Ag-nees-a. It’s Italian for Agnes. And the last name’s Antonelli, not Anthony. They spelled it wrong at the bank, and I never bothered changing it. My parents came from Northern Italy, where a lot of people are fair. My father was a coal miner who worked in the mines there.”

“Oh my, I didn’t know. Don’t you have a brother?”

“Sal is deceased. Would you like a cup of coffee while you’re here, Mrs. Applewhite?” She wanted to change the subject from that of her family as soon as possible.

“Oh my, no. I must run. But what are those pastries you just put in the showcase? They look and smell so wonderful.”

“Apple popovers. They’re something new I’m trying.”

“Why don’t you wrap me up a couple to take along? And a loaf of your fresh homemade bread.” While Aggie worked, Mrs. Applewhite read the menu board. “I see dinner today is peppered fillet steak with parsley potatoes. That sounds delightful.”

“It has been popular before.”

“How do you do it, dear,” said Mrs. Applewhite, “by offering your baked goods and only one dish per meal?”

Aggie shrugged. “They either like it or don’t order it. And since I’m the baker, cook, waitress, and chief dishwasher, I don’t want to work any harder.”

“Well, you can count on me for two or more loaves of bread a week, pastries, and coffee with my ladies. And then Harry and I drop in for a meal once in a while.”

“Indeed you do, Mrs. Applewhite,” said Aggie as the lady paid for her purchases, “and we sincerely appreciate your business.”

“You’re a resourceful young lady, Aggie. Not like certain other business owners that come from lawless backgrounds.” She gave a disparaging look toward the blacksmith shop.

“I always say a person’s background isn’t nearly as important as what they do going forward.”

The old lady “hmphed!” and walked out. Aggie saw by the clock she had time to take popovers to Charlie and Roger before the lunch rush. She never knew when Buck would be there, so she never took him one, but he seldom was there in the mornings. That’s when he did most horseshoeing needed away from the smithy. She took two popovers and a cup of coffee—Roger didn’t drink it—to the smithy, which lay catty-corner across the street.

Charlie had opened the front double doors of the shop to allow fresh air in. Despite the cool days of Colorado’s early spring, Charlie’s face and bare forearms gleamed with perspiration because of the heat as he held a glowing iron strap in the forge with tongs. Roger, manning the bellows, sweated more profusely. 

He moved the iron from the fire and onto the anvil to beat it into shape. His sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, exposing powerful muscles flexing in his forearms and the little tattoo from his gang days. She admired those broad shoulders when he turned to quench the metal in the tub beside the anvil. Caroline must have swooned when she saw him at work, Aggie thought.

“Okay,” he said to Roger, “that’s enough for now. Then you need to start cleaning tools.”

He hadn’t seen Aggie waiting outside until he finished. His brows were knotted in the forlorn expression they sometimes took, perhaps because he was thinking about Caroline. Aggie was glad those moods had begun to occur less often. Without realizing it, she took a step toward him, wishing, as she often did, that she dared to comfort him.

 The movement attracted his attention. He looked up, his expression instantly warming.

“Ah,” he said, “there’s the light of my morning. Roger, it’s time for a break. Come in, Aggie, and sit.”

He poured water from a pitcher into a pan, splashed water on his face, and washed his hands.

Roger came to the washstand and, after Charlie finished, did the same. “I was fixing to go to work for Buck, Miss Aggie, but then I’d be gone in the morning and miss your cooking.”

She took the saucers from the washstand’s lower shelf, put the popovers on them and Charlie’s coffee next to his, and took her accustomed chair.

Charlie said, “I see one of my fans just left your place, Mrs. Applewhite.” He nibbled a bit of his popover. “You’ve done it again, Aggie.”

“Yes’m,” said Roger. “This is wonderful.”

“Thanks, gentlemen.”

After they finished, Charlie said, “Breakfast is over, Roger. Start cleaning those tools, the rasps first, then the tongs.”

Roger went to the rear of the shop to begin the chore.

“But don’t worry about Mrs. Applewhite, Charlie. I don’t let her criticize you to others in my restaurant.”

He waved her concern away. “I’m used to Lyndonville folks not liking me. I’m not planning to run for mayor next year.”

She said quietly, so Roger couldn’t hear, “We all have our family secrets. Nobody in town but you know mine. I told Caroline because she was my best friend and then you when you started courting her.” 

“But your dad reformed and your brother….” His voice trailed off.

“Sal’s dead. Go ahead and say it. And I’m glad. He brought dishonor to our family. I’m sure grief about him caused my mother’s early death. That’s why I moved here, so nobody would know he was a thief and murderer.” Remembering Charlie’s earlier gloomy expression, she took his hand. “And Charlie, I miss Caroline, too. Horribly. She was my best friend, remember? Even though she was so much older than me, something just clicked.”

“Don’t worry about me, Aggie. I’m a born loner. I only need a few good friends like you and Buck. And Mrs. Mason, even though her other boarders don’t have much to say to me. And Roger, of course. I offered to take him as an apprentice because his dad said he was getting in trouble.”

“It’s taken six years, Charlie, but others are taking a cotton to you, too. Several came in to loaf with you by the heat of the forge last winter, including Carl Simmons, Roger’s dad.” She squeezed his hand and got up. “Hopefully, I’ve got a bunch of hungry customers coming in for dinner, so I’d better get to it.

Chapter Three

At noon, on his way to Mrs. Mason’s boarding house for dinner, Charlie reflected that Aggie’s family and his had similar criminal histories, though with a major difference: In hers, the miscreant had been her brother. In his, it had been Charlie himself.

Charlie’s parents had died young, his mother during a cholera epidemic in the crappy little village in southeastern Colorado where he was born, and his father of a bullet wound after a poker game disagreement in another crappy little Colorado town. At age six, Charlie ended up at the ranch of his mother’s older brother, Aidan Douglas, and his wife, Lilly, near Lyndonville. They let him know from the start they didn’t want him. 

Charlie was a quiet child who didn’t make friends easily. He only made one, Buck Graham, Uncle Aidan’s foreman’s son. Buck and his father taught him to love, care for, and ride horses. Uncle Aidan believed everyone west of the Mississippi River should learn to handle weapons so, despite their mutual dislike, he taught Charlie to fire a Colt revolver and a Winchester ’73 rifle.

The one thing Charlie and Aidan agreed on was that Charlie should move from the ranch as early as possible. When Charlie turned fourteen, Uncle Aidan took him out of school and apprenticed him to Todd Scott, Lyndonville’s blacksmith. Scott provided a closet in the smithy’s rear for him to sleep in, his meals, and two dollars a week. When Charlie asked for more money in his third year when he turned sixteen, Scott grudgingly raised his weekly income by ten cents and the following year by another dime.

Charlie remembered the days before and after he turned eighteen with clarity. 

A band of five young hoodlums in their early to mid-twenties hung around the Wenneker Hotel and the Lucky Dog Saloon for a few days before that. They hired Scott, who also served as the farrier, to shoe their horses and repair stirrups and other pieces of tack. The slick-looking guy who wore a fancy leather vest and a black, flat-crowned, flat-brimmed Spanish-style hat appeared to be their leader.

After work, when Scott went home, Charlie often sat on the bench in front of the smithy to cool off. He was there the evening after Scott shod the hoodlums’ mounts when the hoodlums’ boss approached him, stopped, and planted an expensive-looking boot on the seat beside Charlie. He wore a pair of pearl-handled revolvers and sported a broad, white-toothed grin.

He said, “I’m Bill Czerny.”

Charlie nodded. “Charlie Collins.”

“I seen your muscles when you sweated over them bellows and heated and bent that iron. Do you intend to do that all your life?”

“It’s all I know.”

“But you can learn to do other stuff, a bright, stout guy like you. This here vest cost me twenty dollars. Some days I make ten times that much.”

Charlie tried not to look impressed.

Bill Czerny said, “This vest is penny-ante stuff. Me and the boys are gonna hit the big time, but we need another guy, a smart one with muscles who wants to make a lot of money.” He removed his foot from the bench. “Think about it.” He left.

And Charlie thought about it every day after that.

People quickly got tired of the youths. The town had no stable, so they grazed their horses wherever they pleased and didn’t clean up the streets after them. Charlie heard several people say the marshal had been petitioned to run them off, but he lacked the courage.

Charlie visited Uncle Aidan’s ranch whenever possible. Buck and he rode horses together and had long talks, but Charlie assiduously avoided Uncle Aidan and Aunt Lilly. After their rides, they sat on the retaining wall behind the barn and drank beer. Jose Vargas, one of the ranch hands, bought it for them in two-quart galvanized pails.

Scott let Charlie have his birthday off. As always, on his days off, he spent it at the ranch. In the afternoon, as they sat on the wall passing the beer bucket back and forth, Buck asked, “Did you do it? You said you would on your birthday.”

“Yep. I asked for the raise first thing this morning.”

“And…?”

“He said no, times were hard, so he couldn’t afford it. If I wasn’t satisfied, he’d have his pick out of a dozen boys who’d take my place.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

Charlie shrugged. “I’m gonna leave town as soon as I get my shit together.”

“What all do you need to do to get your shit together?”

“Can’t tell you. Talking about something like that before you do it’s unlucky.”

The day after Charlie’s birthday, when Bill Czerny found Charlie alone in the smithy, he sidled up to him and said, “It’s about time for us to leave. If you want to go with us, you gotta decide pretty quick.”

“How soon?”

“By tomorrow.”

That night, Buck came to see him in his closet. “My dad’s going to get some guys together to run this Czerny gang out of town. Do you want to join us?”

“How soon do I have to let you know?”

“I’ll come see you tomorrow night and let you know. Let’s do this, Charlie. It’ll be good for the town.”

The next afternoon, Charlie told Scott he had an errand to run and went to the saloon. He had seen Bill and his men’s horses standing at the hitchrail.

Charlie said, “I want to go with you.”

Bill gave him his white-toothed smile, bought him a beer, and introduced him to the other gang members. “Then meet us at night at the cemetery, armed. We got an extra horse—”

“Yeah,” said the one named Andy with a laugh. “Good thing for you Shorty got hisself killed by his woman’s husband and left you his horse and saddle.”

“—but no gun,” Bill continued. “Andy fell heir to his hogleg. So you gotta have a gun.”

“But I don’t have a gun or the money to buy one.”

Bill put a hand on his shoulder. “Then show us how creative you are. If you ain’t got no gun, don’t bother coming.”

“And,” said Andy, “no tricks, like bringing a posse along to arrest us. There’s plenty of hiding places in the cemetery.”

***

In Charlie’s visits to the Douglas ranch, he hadn’t been in the house since he didn’t remember when. That day when he’d gone back, he’d hoped Uncle Aidan kept his Colt revolver and Winchester ’73 in the same places. The rifle on its rack above the fireplace would serve as the required weapon and the most easily stolen. The old, sound-sleeping man’s bedroom lay in the house’s rear. But the desire to show Bill his “creativity” made him determined to have the Colt as well.

Charlie saddled Scott’s old mare as quietly as possible in her shed behind the smithy and rode out to the Douglas ranch. He tied her in the orchard behind the house and slipped up to the back porch, where he happened upon his first danger of discovery. 

Uncle Aidan’s ancient border collie, Remy, raised its head and thumped its tail in joy to see him. Charlie dropped to his knees and clamped the dog’s jaws shut after the first yap, hoping beyond hope that Uncle Aidan or Aunt Lilly hadn’t awakened. He lay beside Remy, speaking and murmuring until the old dog fell asleep.

Ranchers didn’t lock their doors. He entered the dark kitchen and crossed it with extreme care to keep from bumbling against something. 

Moonlight through the parlor windows, with light from coals in the fireplace, made it brighter than the kitchen. He found the Winchester by touch, liberated it from its rack, and returned to the porch to prop it beside the back door.

Now, he thought, for the theft that would either get him shot, arrested and thrown in jail, or made a “creative” member of Bill Czerny’s gang. He felt his way down the short hallway to Uncle Aidan’s bedroom. Edging it open slightly made the hinges squeak. Hearing the uninterrupted snoring encouraged him to open it a little more, and then more, until he could slip through.

Success thus far did not make him less cautious. He walked toe to heel, knees slightly bent, body weight chiefly on the rear leg, to the bed. And there! A shaft of moonlight limned the Colt in its holster, on its belt, hanging from a hook on the bedstead. He reached for the belt ever so slowly, clutched and unhooked it.

He froze at the mid-snore interruption. A cold, shaking hand clutched his wrist. He looked down at the old face, skull-white in the moonlight, staring up at him with wide-open eyes and mouth.

Charlie put the index finger of his free hand to his mouth and said, “Shhh!”

He jerked the hand with the gun belt free of the old man’s feeble grip, raced to the back door, noise from the boots be damned, and grabbed the rifle on the way out. Remy thumped his tail goodbye.

Charlie returned, rubbed down and stabled Scott’s mare, and forked her some hay for good measure. The blacksmith would never know about her nighttime excursion. He reached the cemetery at the edge of town before midnight, but Bill Czerny and the others were already there.

“Let’s see what you got here.” Czerny took the weapons from him. He saw their make but not their condition in the dark. “I’m impressed, kid. You ended up with some mighty fine weapons eight hours after you told me you didn’t have guns or money.” 

“Is that creative enough?” Charlie couldn’t help feeling a little cocky.

 “But you didn’t get a rifle scabbard.”

“What?”

Czerny laughed, as did the others, then put the Winchester in the scabbard on the spare horse’s saddle.

“C’mon. Let’s get outta here.”


“Steel and Six-Shooters” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Charlie Collins, once an accomplice in Bill Czerny’s notorious robber gang, sought refuge in the fires of the forge, forsaking a life of ill-gotten gains. Yet, the townsfolk with their long memories refuse to release him from the clutches of his criminal past. Now, as the twisted hands of destiny conspire, his former gang emerges from the shadows…

Can he save the very community that rejects him?

Amidst the tumult, Aggie Antonelli, a spirited soul with an unwavering spirit, weaves her own tapestry of defiance. The dusty winds of her past though unleash a tempest of danger, as a shadow returns to haunt her and the entire city. Charlie will prove her only ally in this quest to shield their beloved town.

A storm is brewing on the horizon…

Amidst the sweeping plains, Charlie and Aggie navigate the twists and turns of an untamed frontier, with their hearts entwined amidst the chaos. In this tale of adventure and sacrifice, they dare to defy destiny, their resolve unyielding as they confront the shadows that threaten to engulf everything!

“Steel and Six-Shooters” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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