CHAPTER ONE

The sun sinking into the distant mountains made the town of Baton Ridge appear awash in blood. Scarlet stained the encroaching shadows and sparkled from water in troughs like glittering blood rubies.

To Jeremy Trask, perched atop his horse, even the air smelled of the gunmetal scent of fresh-spilled blood. He could almost feel its silky wetness running through his fingers.

A prophesy, he reckoned, one that would be fulfilled in only a few fleeting moments. A fragmented laugh whispered through his thin lips. His scrubbed-gray eyes narrowed under a battered Stetson whose rim showed a hole where a bullet had punched through not two days ago.

He shifted in his saddle, nerves biting like fire ants under his skin, and glanced at the three others sitting atop their horses to his right. He'd reined them to a halt on the hill above the town, two men and one woman dressed in dusters and low-pulled hats. Each face held a look of vicious anticipation. These riders of his, they were as bloody a bunch as he had ever known, though anybody who knew him would have said they were greenhorns compared to their leader.

No, pa, don't hit me anymore…please…I won't do it again, I swear I won't, I swear--

Pain stabbed his skull as a black memory echoed from the past. His gaze snapped back to the town, a surge of-what? Fear? Yes, it felt like fear that swelled in his belly. But not present fear. No, something worse, the kind that crawled from the depths of a fella's mind, made him relive the times a boy had cowered beneath a father's pounding fists; made him recollect the awkward and indifferent faces of folks in a town who had turned their back on a child, folks who had given up one of their own to a bounty hunter sent to bring in a bank robber.

Another whispered laugh escaped his lips. Had they only realized the true extent of Jeremy Trask's evil, known of the men he had murdered just because watching a fella bleed his last gave him pleasure, or of the women he had raped because nothing felt better than that moment of utter dominance over a weaker helpless creature; had they but known, they would have strung him up before that bounty man arrived and spared themselves the horror that would soon take place.

But they had not. And now their mistake sat on a hillside, a Smith & Wesson at his waist, a Winchester in his saddleboot and a powerful rage surging through his veins. The time of reckoning was at hand. He was Fate's dark angel of vengeance.

"You sure we ain't better just heading out to New Mex?" came a voice beside him, shattering his thoughts.

Trask glared at the man, Decker, a tall angular owlhoot with dull green eyes. Decker had never been the brightest of his bunch but he did what he was told, no matter how brutal or bloody.

"We got time for this…" Trask's words trickled through teeth barely parted. "We'll make the time."

Decker shifted in his saddle, a tick stuttering near the corner of his lip. "Just sayin' after breakin' you out the law's gonna be on our asses. Hell of a risk stayin' 'round these parts a'cause you got a powerful mad over something that happened years ago."

The rage within Jeremy Trask nearly grew overpowering then. It took every ounce his willpower not to draw his gun and put a bullet through Decker's skull. But he couldn't rightly fault the man for stating the obvious and Trask knew he was likely right. It was risk. But that didn't matter a lick to him. What mattered was takin' care of something he should have years ago, and punishing those who had seen fit to ignore the circumstance that had given birth to the man Jeremy Trask was today. What happened was as much the town's fault as it was that of his pa, Jacob Trask. And they would answer for it now.

"Man in town named Jacob Trask…" He paused, the name stabbing his innards. "He's mine, you hear?"

"How we gonna know him?" the second man asked.

Trask glanced at Trompson, who was shorter, stockier, but smarter than Decker. Trompson's drawback was that his temper often fired a mite too quick, a trait that had nearly caused Trask to blow his brains out more than once.

"You kill him, I'll kill you, so you best figure it out 'fore you make the mistake."

"I don't see how-" Trompson started.

"Shut the hell up, Trompson. Now." Trask cast him a glance that brooked no argument and the heavier man clamped his mouth shut.

Trask's gaze went to the third member of his gang, a young woman with chopped off brown hair and sharp features who looked more like a boy. The duster, old trousers and loose shirt sure as hell didn't make her any more feminine.

"Get your skinny little ass down there, Trallie. Take out the marshal and any deputy you come across. We'll follow once we hear shootin'."

She flashed him a grin, and he reckoned that if any member of his gang came close in viciousness to himself Trallie Hicks was just a notch south of pure badger. She let out a "Yah!" and slapped her heels against the bay's flanks. He watched her charge down the hillside till she reached the outskirts of the town. The sun's scarlet rays bathed her and she became his blood herald, the harbinger of retribution.

Any fragments of fear in his soul dissolved in a rush of feverish anticipation and exquisite hate.

"I'm comin' for you, you sonofabitch," he whispered. "I'm comin' for you all.

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