Things have been a little quiet on the site for the last few weeks, I know. The writing of this book has taken longer than expected. Partially because this is an all new world and all new characters and has required more research and creation time than I thought it would. Also partially because I am in the middle of trying to sell my old house and purchase the one we have been living in the past two years, (A long story that I don’t need to get into here.) Thus, the release date has been pushed back a bit. I’ll tell you know something more specific when I am close to being finished.
In the meantime, as an apology for the delay, here is a second preview chapter of Noose Jumpers. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first one, (The Death of Bobby Estrella) it’s here. https://trevorhcooley.com/noose-jumpers-preview-chapter-the-death-of-bobby-estrella/
Also if you haven’t seen the short film that I wrote based on the concepts in this book, you really should. It was directed by my brother, Jared Cooley (who you might recognize from the cover of War of Stardeon), and stars some great hollywood actors. See it HERE. https://trevorhcooley.com/noose-jumpers-short-film-and-book-trailer-premiere/
One last thing. Narration is underway for Protector of the Grove. We hope to have the audiobook available for purchase by the end of the month.
Now here you go. Preview chapter 2.
A Glassful of Worms
An excerpt from The Tale of Luke Bassett
“A bit o’ the devil in every bottle!” – Promise made by a horned cherub in an ad for ‘El Diablo Fine Spirits’ placed in the Tombstone Epitaph, June 21, 1886
The mid-summer sun blazed overhead as Luke reigned in his horse atop a dusty hillside just outside of Luna Gorda. He paused to peer down into the town below and a frown tightened his brow. So much had changed.
The town, which had already doubled in size in the twelve years since Estrella’s hanging, was quickly growing. The railway station in Luna Gorda had only been complete for just a few short months, but a whole new street of buildings had already been constructed. The builders weren’t finished, either. Luke saw the pale skeletal frames of several structures and could hear the rap of hammers and nail.
He supposed that the changes were a positive thing for the locals. More people passing through would mean more money brought in. His mother would be busy running the schoolhouse and with all the new construction, his stepfather was likely bringing home a lot of money. What Luke didn’t like was the possibility of Luna Gorda turning into a major town. More people meant more law.
Luke wiped the back of his arm across his brow and sighed at the muddy streak of sweat he left behind on the sleeve of his duster. The weather on his journey had been hot and windy. Dirt coated him like a gray blanket.
He slid down from his horse and removed his duster, shaking the road dust off of it. Luke folded it and put it away into his saddlebag, then beat the dirt off of his hat and pulled out a small mirror to examine his image. He saw that the duster had protected his finely-tailored blue suitcoat and vest against the majority of the dirt but, except for the one clean spot in the center of his forehead, his face was filthy.
Luke untied his canteen from the saddle and shook it. He had filled it at a creek early that morning and it was still half full. He took a quick swig, then used some of the water to wet down a clean bandana. He began to wipe the grime off of his face, keeping an eye on the mirror to be sure that he was getting all of it.
The face that appeared from under the dirt was still as freckled as it had been when he was a boy, though his face had filled out some. A thick red goatee now grew around his lips and prominent jaw. The green eyes that looked back at him had seen a lot in the past few years and there was a hardness in them that Luke noted with satisfaction.
“Primping?” asked a deep throaty voice.
A black horse appeared next to Luke’s, forming into existence with an audible whoosh. The Stranger sat astride it on a saddle red as blood. A black mist wafted around them for a brief moment before evaporating into the air. The Stranger wore his familiar black duster and black hat and, unlike Luke’s, both were clean of dust. He cocked his head and gave Luke a questioning look with his good eye.
Luke spared his theatrical arrival little more than a glance. He continued to wipe the dirt and sweat from his neck. “Aren’t you the one who told me how important appearances are?”
“It’s true folks should see you’re not some common dirty outlaw,” the Stranger conceded. “But no need to polish up standing out here in the open.”
“No one’s paying me any mind right now but you,” Luke replied. Satisfied with his appearance, he put the mirror and damp cloth away. He then reached down with his left hand and drew his revolver.
It was a well-used Smith and Wesson top break revolver with a smooth action and mahogany grips. It was his favorite gun, purchased with the money from his first big score. Quickly, Luke inspected it, wiping a thin coat of road dust off of it. He cracked the weapon open to spin the cylinder. He had cleaned it the night before, but it never hurt to check again.
Nodding in satisfaction, he slid it back into the holster at his waist. Then he reached his right hand into his suitcoat to withdraw his spare gun from its shoulder holster under his left arm. Luke knew it had probably been protected from the dirt, but he checked it anyway. This one was also a top break revolver, as he preferred, but he wasn’t sure of the manufacturer. It had a short barrel and a five shot-cylinder. The dead man he had taken it from had claimed he’d had it custom made, but there were no markings on it that Luke could find.
“You expecting trouble?” the Stranger asked, his voice filled with irritation.
Luke gazed down the hole in the barrel and spun the cylinder again. “You’ve always demanded I be prepared.”
“Still shouldn’t check your gun so often,” the Stranger said. “Makes you look nervous.”
“You seem awfully particular today,” Luke replied with a chuckle. He snapped his spare gun closed and put it away. He looked the Stranger in the eye. “Is there a problem I should know about?”
“Problem?” A cigar appeared in the Stranger’s fingers. He lifted it to his lips and blew on the end. The tip of the cigar burst into flame. He turned his eye to the streets of Luna Gorda below. “It’s this town. I don’t like it when you come back here. It’s a weakness.”
Luke snorted and climbed back up onto his horse. “It’s just a town, Stranger. No different from any other.”
The specter took a deep draw from his cigar. Smoke curled around his lips as he said, “Bobby Estrella told me the same thing.” Then he and his horse disappeared in a burst of black mist.
Luke winced. He had grown used to his mentor’s dark and demanding demeanor, but that last remark had hit a bit close to home. He shrugged it off and rode down the hillside towards Luna Gorda.
The new section of town was busy with people strutting about, some of them in fancy dress. These weren’t locals, but travelers stopping in town along the way. From the dearth of horses, many of them were likely passengers perhaps waiting for the next train to Albuquerque. The newest buildings were inns and shops built solely for the purpose of catering to the needs of these visitors.
For some reason this made Luke’s skin crawl. This place reminded him of other towns, bigger ones. It seemed wrong for something like this to spring up in Luna Gorda. He quickly turned down an alleyway and headed for the old main street.
Some of the tension left his shoulders as the familiar buildings came into view. Yet even here there were changes. The windows of the old barber shop were boarded up, the barber pole taken down. The street wasn’t even as well maintained as in years past. The huge ruts left by carriages on rainy days past hadn’t been filled in.
Luke paused outside the sheriff’s office, noting that there was no rocking chair in its place in front of the jailhouse. Old Sheriff Paul had retired a few years back and his replacement, Sheriff Dale, had decided to part with tradition. Luke’s eyes were drawn to the bounty board outside the office and a smile crossed his lips as he saw some familiar faces.
A peal of raucous laughter from across the street caught Luke’s attention. He slid down from his horse and tied it up outside the saloon. This, at least, would be a place where he could feel at home. His smile faltered when he saw that the old saloon sign had been taken down. In its place was a newly painted sign that said, Hank’s Saloon. Luke pushed his way through the swinging doors and stepped inside.
At least the interior hadn’t changed much. He found the familiar jumble of mismatched chairs and tables comforting. The only surprise was how empty the place was. Even though it was only mid-afternoon, the place was usually at least half-full of travelers and the sound of piano playing could be heard from the street. Today, the piano at the back of the room stood vacant and there was only one table occupied.
The three men sitting there were talking loudly and laughing like they had been drinking for a long while already. Luke’s eyes gave them a practiced glance. There were two bottles of liquor opened on the table and they were playing a game of cards but there was no cash at stake. The two of them with their backs to him wore pistol belts, but he dismissed them as a threat. Their clothes weren’t dirty and the fact that there hadn’t been any horses tied outside told him they had likely come by train.
Luke walked up to the bar and eyed the old barman who was facing away from him, cleaning a glass. “When did you start calling the place ‘Hank’s Saloon’?”
The barman spun around, rag and glass in hand, and blinked in surprise at his sudden appearance. A reproachful smile lit up his weathered face. “Well, hello to you too, Luke.”
Luke raised an eyebrow in response. “The hello was implied.”
The old man chuckled. “Got the new sign done last week. Some railroad tycoon built a saloon of his own next to the station. Don’t want folks to get confused.” He cocked his head. “You been to see your momma yet?”
“Just pour me some mezcal, Hank,” Luke said.
The men at the table behind him chose that moment to burst out in a round of laughter. Hank shot them an irritated glance, but returned his attention to Luke. “You should see her. I saw her over at the church just this Sunday. I heard her telling the pastor how worried she was, you know with that bounty on your head and all.”
“If I was looking for a lecture I would have been to see her first,” Luke interrupted with a glower. “Mezcal.”
The barman shook his head and placed the glass on the counter in front of Luke. He turned around and grabbed a bottle off of the shelf. “Just see her before you go. I promise I won’t tell her you came here first.”
Hank pulled the stopper and went to pour, but Luke placed his hand over the top of the glass. “Uh-uh. The real thing.”
Hank frowned and bent to fuss around under the counter. Bottles clinked and when he stood back up, he held a dusty clear bottle. He lifted it and wiped off the dust to reveal a gold label with a demonic skull on the front that read, El Diablo Mezcal. There was very little liquor remaining in the bottle and Luke could just make out the fat white worm sitting in the bottom.
“Don’t care what you say!” shouted one of the men at the table. He was the loudest mouthed of the three men, his voice gravelly and thick with whiskey. “I done worked the tracks on three different railroads and I say one injun’s worth ten of them lazy Chinamen!”
Hank rolled his eyes, but didn’t look directly at the men, instead focusing on wiping the dust off the neck of the bottle. He pulled out the stopper and sniffed at the liquid inside, his lips twisted in disgust. “I can’t believe you still like this rotgut, Luke.”
Luke watched as Hank poured the last dregs of the bottle into the glass, skillfully stopping just before the worm fell out. The bartender then started to set the bottle down, but Luke raised his hand. “Don’t spare the worm.”
“You know that thing’s not supposed to be in there,” Hank said, but Luke just gave him a dull look in reply.
Hank sighed. He tilted the bottle over the glass again and tapped the bottom. The pale plump worm tumbled out of the neck and plopped into the glass. Luke picked up the glass and tilted it slowly back, draining a good third of it. He swallowed and hissed through his teeth.
Hank winced. “Disgusting. This brand’s garbage. I used to tell Estrella that too. No decent brewer would let a worm into their liquor.”
“Nonsense,” said the Stranger’s deep voice. The specter appeared in a flash of black mist, leaning against the bar next to Luke. “Diablo is the only brand.”
Luke wasn’t surprised when the bartender didn’t react to the specter’s presence. No one seemed to be able to see or hear the Stranger except for him. He had learned that lesson early on, though it had taken several embarrassing episodes before he had been convinced.
A full glass appeared in the Stranger’s hand. Unlike Luke’s glass, it was filled with living worms. They squirmed in the clear liquor. He lifted it in front of his face and a grin parted the Stranger’s pale lips, exposing a set of yellowed teeth, several of them capped with gold. He chuckled. “A piece of the devil in every glass.”
Luke ignored him and took another swallow. “Don’t make any changes, Hank. That mezcal is why I keep coming back to you.”
While he nursed his drink, the men at the table behind him continued their argument. Evidently they weren’t mere passengers, but employees of the railroad; overseers of the workers. The gravelly-voiced one was highly opinionated and responded angrily to the quieter words of the other men at his table. “I tell you I seen ‘em every day! Sittin’ around the tracks in their stupid hats, layin’ down, beggin’ for water! Hell, the water boys spent half the day fillin’ Chinaman cups.”
“Pshh!” said another one. “C’mon, Gary! No way they’re lazier than any average Irishman. Half the layabouts in every town I been in are red-headed paddies.”
Hank shot Luke a cautious glance. When he was a child, Luke had been sensitive about his red hair and freckled face. He used to get into scraps with the other children when they teased him about it. But if the remark bothered him, Luke didn’t let it show.
“Bull!” said the one they called Gary. “That’s only if they’re drunk. You put a common sober Irishman on the line and he’d outwork any two Chinese!”
“What about the injuns?” asked the calmest of the three. “I used to work the chain gangs and they was always a problem.”
The Stranger growled and drained his glass in one big gulp. He slammed it back down on the bar and said, “Ain’t it a bit loud in here?”
“Damn right,” Luke said under his breath. He threw back his head and poured the last of the liquor into his mouth. The stiff worm tumbled across his tongue and he pinned it between his molars as he swallowed the liquid down.
The burning of the alcohol was nothing compared to the sensation when the worm burst. An acidic tang filled his mouth and the burning sensation travelled upwards from his throat into his mind, settling somewhere just behind his eyes. Luke shook slightly as he let out a slow breath. The Stranger grinned.
“ . . . and we hardly had to water the injuns,” Gary continued at the top of his voice. “Naw! I tell you it don’t matter if a man’s red, black, or brown. They’s all better than them yellow-!”
“Would you shut the hell up?” Luke shouted. He didn’t turn around, but just stared at his empty glass, processing the sensation in his head.
The men at the table were momentarily stunned into silence. Loudmouthed Gary was the first one to come to his senses enough to summon some outrage. “You talkin’ to me?”
“You’re the one hurting my ears,” Luke said, still not bothering to face the man.
The chair scraped against the wood floor as Gary stood. “What’s your problem, boy? Your momma a Chinaman?”
Luke said nothing. He wondered if the burning in his mind had really been caused by the worm or if it was the Stranger’s doing? He’d never had that particular reaction from eating a mezcal worm before. Whatever it was, he sure felt alive.
“You know who I am, boy?” Gary pressed, his low voice threatening.
There was another slight scraping sound and Luke turned his head just enough to catch the man’s silhouette out of the corner of his eye. Gary now held a rifle in his right hand. The reason Luke hadn’t noticed the weapon before was that it had been lying on the ground next to his chair.
Luke’s jaw tightened. How sloppy. “Yeah. You’re the loud one.”
The Stranger chuckled.
Gary growled and strode forward. He gripped his rifle in both hands and swung it back, aiming to slam the butt right into the back of Luke’s neck. He wasn’t expecting his prey to be so fast.
Luke spun, his left hand drawing his sidearm in one fluid motion. He shoved the revolver between Gary’s upraised arms and jabbed the end of the barrel right into the base of the man’s nose. Gary flinched in pain and let go of the rifle with one hand as he stepped back, but Luke moved with him, keeping his front sight jabbed into the man’s septum.
The other two men’s jaws dropped in shock as Gary stumbled backwards. The back of his legs hit the table and he fell backwards across it, sending their liquor bottles spinning onto the floor. Luke didn’t let up, putting one knee up on the table and leaning over the man, his gun still pressing painfully into tender flesh.
Gary cried out in pain and Luke reached for the rifle with his free hand, attempting to pry it from the man’s fingers. Gary resisted until Luke pulled back the hammer with his thumb and pressed harder. Luke’s eyes were feverish with intensity and to Gary it seemed he was looking into the gaze of a madman. Gary let go of his weapon.
“Luke!” said Hank, alarmed. “Don’t pull that in here!”
At that point, one of Gary’s friends had gathered his wits enough to grab his own pistol. Luke sensed the movement and released the rifle. By the time the man brought his weapon to bear, Luke had drawn his spare from the shoulder holster and had it pointed at his face.
“I’d put that back away if I were you,” Luke advised, his intense gaze still focused on the man pinned underneath him.
Gary’s friend trembled. As Luke had drawn his spare, his jacket had flapped open, exposing the offset red star sewn into the silky black interior. He put his gun away, licking his lips as he said, “Red Star, Gary.”
Gary swallowed. “Y-you’re Luke Basset? The gunfighter? I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean nothing about your mama.”
Luke smiled at the recognition in the man’s voice. It was good to know that his reputation was growing. Luke Basset of the Red Star Gang had a $150 bounty and a tendency for challenging other gunfighters.
Luke let his expression grow eager. “So . . . Gary who? You were anxious for me to know. You anyone . . . famous?”
“N-no! I’m a nobody!” Gary promised. “Just a drunk railroad man is all.”
Luke looked at the other two men that shared Gary’s table. “Is that so?”
The two men nodded their heads, backing away. Luke pulled away from Gary and stepped back, letting the man sit up. He kept both guns trained on the men as Gary rubbed blood from his nose with one shaking hand.
“Then get out,” Luke said. “You bother me.”
Gary snatched up his rifle and he and his friends rushed out of the saloon. Luke smiled and put his guns away. He returned to the bar.
The Stranger shook his head and downed another wormy shot glass. “I’d have shot him.”
Hank wasn’t so pleased. “What’re you doing, Luke? Chasing away my customers? They ain’t even paid yet!”
Luke sighed and reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a stack of bills and peeled off a few. He smacked them down on the bar. “I didn’t want that loudmouth around anyway. I’m here to meet someone.”
Hank picked up the money and counted it quickly. “Fine, but what if those railroad men bring back the sheriff?”
“Dale?” Luke scoffed. “He won’t do anything. No one was shot.”
“Yeah?” Hank said. “Don’t forget that bounty of yours. What if they try to collect it?”
“Dale’s not so eager to bring me in. My bounty’s not big enough to make it worth his while.” He smiled. “Yet.”
The barman gave him a wary look. “Will you promise me you’re not going to shoot this person you’re meeting? Least not in here?”
Luke leaned against the counter and lifted his shot glass, gesturing for Hank to fill it. “I paid you enough to open another bottle.”
Hank frowned, but bent down behind the bar again. When he stood he was holding an even dustier bottle of mezcal, this one full. Luke could see two worms drifting lazily in the bottom. “This is my last bottle. You’re lucky I didn’t just throw it out.”
“Order more. You know we’ll be back for it,” Luke said, gesturing with his glass again.
“We?” Hank said.
Luke pursed his lips, irritated by his slipup. The Stranger chuckled again and vanished.
Luke didn’t correct himself, but waited until Hank had opened the bottle and filled his glass before saying, “Don’t worry. I’m not here planning to shoot anybody. The person I’m meeting here is an old friend.”
END OF PREVIEW CHAPTER
Let me know what you think!