Mace Brown wasn’t his real name. He used to be one of the deadliest gunfighters in the Southwest, but eventually he grew tired of the “kill or be killed” lifestyle, rode off into the desert—and simply disappeared.
When Boston archeologist Dr. Jemima Carstairs arrives in Oneida, Texas to survey and study ancient Indian ruins in the Palo Duro Canyon, Mace reluctantly agrees to lead the expedition.
Unaware that a gang of outlaws is dogging their heels, and a Comanche war chief and his band of renegades are also roaming the plains south of Oneida, Mace and his crew set off with the archeologists into Palo Duro country.
Their scholarly quest for Native American artifacts will quickly become a struggle for survival.
“The Treasure of Peta Nocona is a historical thriller about an archaeological expedition turned into a desperate fight for survival. Master gunfighter Mace Brown (not his real name) reluctantly agrees to lead a team to survey and study ancient Indian ruins in the Palo Duro Canyon, unaware of the dual threats of a gang of outlaws and a renegade Comanche war chief. Tautly written, The Treasure of Peta Nocona is suspenseful and exciting to the very end, and a treat for fans of the genre.” — Midwest Book Review
“More than an ‘A-Z Guide to Gunslinger Lingo,’ the robust characters balloon far bigger and grander than a single dimension, freeing the reader from any previous stereotypes they may have of people and places in the Old West. Pierce’s quick-draw dialogue lends authenticity to the dusted-up action and drama at play between the characters.” — Jennifer Leeper, author, Padre: The Narrowing Path
“Pierce draws an unflinching parallel between the desperation of Old West characters and the harsh topography and weather of the Texas panhandle. It keeps you guessing until the end, as people, relationships, and locales are rarely as they first appear.” —James M. Jackson, author, Seamus McCree Mysteries
The young man wrung the brim of his hat with clenched hands. “Mr. Trask is in jail, ma’am.”
A woman dressed in the latest in eastern travel clothing looked up at him sharply. “In jail?”
“Yes, ma’am. He used the money you sent him to go on a roarin’ drunk. Fact is, most of his men are in the hoosegow with him.”
“How long do you expect them to be incarcerated, Mr. Montrose?”
“Could be a week, Miss Carstairs. Maybe longer.”
“That is not satisfactory, Mr. Montrose—and my name is Dr. Carstairs.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The cowboy had a hard time looking into Dr. Carstairs’s eyes. The lady archeologist intimidated the hell out of Randy Montrose. In all his twenty-four years, the tall, slender cowboy had never met a female who shook him up like Jem Carstairs… Dr. Jem Carstairs.
“You are our wrangler, correct?” she continued.
“Yes, ma’am. I‘ll be takin’ care of the horses.” Trask had said the woman and her group were from some big, fancy university in the east. They might be odd but their money was good. And that assistant of hers, Lucinda Pennywell, was doggone good-looking…
“Mr. Montrose, are you listening to me?” Jem Carstairs’s nose almost touched Randy’s.
Randy jumped like he had seen a coiled rattler. “Ma’am?” He was almost shaking. Calm down, cowboy. Pull yourself together. Think of something quick.
“I said we can’t wait a week for Mr. Trask and his men. We must leave tomorrow morning. The university allowed us one month to prove my theory. Time is of the essence.” Jem jerked the wide-brimmed hat from her head and slapped it against her leg.
If she had been the foot-stomping kind, Randy thought, she would have danced a hole in the hard-packed street.
“Excuse me, Jem.” A slight man with short, thinning hair stepped up next to the frustrated young lady. “Perhaps Mr. Montrose knows of some other men we can hire to assist us.” He looked around. “It appears to me there is an overabundance of hearty souls in Oneida. How difficult can it be to guide our party to Palo Duro Canyon? I perused our map. The canyon doesn’t seem far from here at all.”
“As usual, you are right, Freddie.” Jem shook the hat in her hand. “I don’t believe I could survive without your level head and analytical mind. Thank you.”
Freddie Watson, Jem’s lab assistant, smiled and stepped back. “Mr. Montrose, are there other men—trustworthy men—whom you can find to replace that bunch of rounders?”
Randy scratched his cheek, deep in thought. “Yes, ma’am. I think I know just the men we need. One’s a half-breed Comanche named Jimmy White Crow. The other one is a friend of mine I’d trust my life with. Matter of fact, ma’am, I ‘spect them two will do a sight better job for you than Bodeen Trask and his bunch. I never have felt comfortable around him, anyway. Seems to me—”
“Mr. Montrose, do you ramble like this all the time?” Jem popped her hat back on, adjusting the fit to her satisfaction. “I need men who can get a job done, not tell me their life story.”
“Oh, sorry ma’am, I’ll get right to it. Won’t take more’n two shakes of a coon’s tail.” He turned on his heel and strode off toward the Dog’s Leg Saloon.
Jem watched him for a moment, then turned to her entourage. “People, don’t get discouraged. Remember, we will be the first archeological team to search Palo Duro Canyon for evidence that the ancient Indians who left ruins in New Mexico and Arizona also settled in North Texas. If we accomplish our goal, we all will be honored by academia. Now, quickly, collect our baggage. Our expedition may be arduous. We must find a hotel and get as much rest as possible.”
Lucinda, Freddie, and Henry, Jem’s black personal assistant, scurried around gathering their belongings. When Dr. Carstairs said jump, her people didn’t stop to ask how high. They just jumped.
* * *
Unconsciously, Randy hitched up his gun belt before entering the saloon, a sign he was anxious. Stepping through the batwing doors, he eyed the man he had come to see.
Standing with his back to the bar, Mace Brown surveyed the inside of the small saloon. The job of bouncer and peacekeeper in the place was easy, but the pay was almost nonexistent. Times were hard for a man who had lived by his gun for as long as Mace had. On the backside of fifty, he’d always figured he would die by the gun. He’d even come to accept that. Now the odds of dying with his boots on looked pretty damn slim. He had to get out of this podunk town before he died of sheer boredom.
“Howdy, Mace,” said Randy, waving as he approached the big man.
Mace didn’t look his fifty years. Well over six feet tall and ten pounds over two hundred, the broad-shouldered old gunfighter looked like he could hold his own against whatever came along.
“What’s doin’, kid?” Mace’s voice rang deep and resonant.
“How’d you like to make some easy money and get out of this whiskey pit?”
“I’d like that a lot.” Mace fingered his thick moustache. “Tell me about it.”
Randy waved the bartender over and ordered a beer. He began to tell Mace about the lady archeologist, stopping only long enough to blow the foam off the top of his beer. He chugged half the cool brew and continued with his proposition.
“That’s about it, Mace. Two weeks of fresh air and easy money. You know that Palo Duro country, don’t you?” Randy rested elbows on the bar and studied his half-full mug.
“I know the canyon. I’ve been all through there. Ain’t no old ruins around that area. Supposed to be a treasure in gold hidden in a cave somewhere thereabouts, but I don’t believe it.”
“Gold!” Randy jerked his head up.
A young gunny named Trey Bascombe, standing nearby at the bar, looked discreetly in Randy’s direction, drained the remainder of his beer, and quickly headed for the batwing doors.
“That’s what I said.” Mace surveyed the room while he talked and noticed Bascombe trying hard—and failing—to look inconspicuous.
Four men played cards at a far corner table. One of them, a self-proclaimed hard case Mace had twice thrown out of the saloon, started yelling. Mace strode to the table, stopping next to him.
“Y’all okay over here?” he said, staring at Gabe Stover, the upset man.
“Hell, no, we ain’t okay,” said Stover. “This tin horn just won the last of my pay, and I think he’s cheatin’. What are you gonna do about it, peacekeeper?”
“I don’t need to cheat to beat you, Stover. You’re probably the worst card player I ever saw,” said the gambler, Chance Pryor.
“The hell you say,” said Stover, jumping up.
His right hand streaked for his six-gun. He had it halfway out of the holster when the blue barrel of a Colt .44 climbed up his left nostril. Stover turned loose of his pistol and it dropped to the floor. The front sight of the .44 gouged a furrow inside his nose and blood spurted out. His eyes crossed and he danced up on his tiptoes, staggering like he might pass out.
“Damn you, Gabe Stover,” said Mace, twisting the Colt deeper into Stover’s nose. “I’ve thrown you out of here two times. You ain’t smart enough to figure out we don’t want you here.”
“Okay, Mace,” Stover said, his voice sounding strange being that his nostril was full of six-gun. “Let me loose and I’m out ‘a here.”
“This time, Stover, I want you out of my town.” Mace holstered his pistol and grabbed Stover by the throat.
Stover’s eyes popped out and he started making strangling sounds. His hands flailed at Mace’s arm with no luck. The big gunfighter’s massive hand held tight.
“Stover, I want you out of Oneida in one hour. If you’re still here when your time’s up, you won’t see the sunset. Move your eyes if you understand.”
Gabe Stover’s bulging eyes rolled around like loose marbles. Mace pushed the terrified man hard with both hands, and Stover flew backwards, ass over teakettle, rolling to an abrupt stop when he hit the wall. He shook his head and lurched to his feet.
“I need my six-shooter,” he said, wiping blood from under his nose.
“No, you don’t, Stover.” Mace retrieved the iron from the floor and stuck it in his belt. “All you need is to do what I told you to. Now git.”
Stover grumbled under his breath, but he crawfished out the saloon door and disappeared down the street. Mace turned to the three remaining card players and nodded.
“Much obliged,” said Chance Pryor. “That boy’s dumber than a stick.”
Mace walked back to the bar and handed the errant six-shooter to the bartender. “Same deal as always, Baldy,” said Mace. “Sell it for what you can get, and give me half.”
The shiny-headed barkeep smiled and placed the pistol under the bar. He pulled another beer for Randy and poured a shot of mescal for Mace. Both men accepted their drinks. Randy sipped his beer, while Mace threw the spicy Mexican liquor down his throat.
“Ungh,” he shuddered. “This last batch of the devil’s brew you picked up, Baldy, tastes worse than panther piss.”
The round bartender smiled. “Drank a lot of that panther stuff, have you, Mace?”
The old gunfighter stared hard at Baldy but said nothing.
“You ain’t got no complaints, ol’ son. You don’t pay for that firewater, anyway.”
Mace sighed and turned to Randy. “All right, kid, looks like you just hired yourself a hand. When do we leave?”
“In the morning, Mace. I’ve got to find Jimmy White Crow. He’ll be our guide.”
“How many pilgrims are we guiding?”
Randy chugged the last of his beer. “There’s four of ‘em. The professor lady and her three assistants—two men and another lady.”
“How many of us are gonna be takin’ care of them?”
“Me, you, Jimmy, and Bull McCoy to drive a wagon. Why? You think we’ll need more?”
Mace pushed his hat back on his head. “Best I can recollect, neither you nor White Crow can cook your way out of an early grave. I’m passable with the vittles, but I ain’t good enough to cook for a bunch of Eastern dandies. ”
“Hmm,” said Randy, scratching his neck. “I hadn’t thought of that. We’re gonna need a cook. You know anybody?”
“I reckon I can scare somebody up by the mornin’. What time we plannin’ to leave?”
“What about supplies?”
“We’re gonna need to fetch everything we need this afternoon.”
“Well, hell, son, what are we waitin’ for? Let’s get to it.” Mace turned, his eyes searching for the bartender. “Baldy!” he hollered. “I’m gonna be away for a couple of weeks. Hold down the fort while I’m gone.”
Before the startled bartender could reply, Mace and Randy were out the batwings, headed for Marx’s General Store.
* * *
Snuff Worley was snoozing behind the sheriff’s desk when Trey Bascombe stormed up on the sidewalk and kicked open the door. The jailer almost fell backwards out of his chair, then scrambled around, barely keeping his balance.
“Snuff, let me in the back room,” yelled Trey. “I gotta see Bo right away.”
Snuff Worley scratched both of his chins. “Now, Trey, you know I ain’t supposed to let nobody back there for six more days. Sheriff Pollard would have my head.”
Trey Bascombe whipped a .45 out of his right holster and pointed it at the startled jailer. “Open the damn door, Snuff, or you won’t have a head to give the sheriff.”
Snuff Worley nearly gagged on the stomach bile surging into his throat. He fought back the urge to wretch. Unable to speak, he nodded and fumbled through a desk drawer until he found the keys to the back room. He wobbled on shaky knees to the door separating the office from the jail cells and, after two tries, finally managed to stick the key into the lock. Before he could turn the key, Trey stepped up and shoved him aside.
“Sit down and shut up, Snuff,” said Trey as he turned the key and tugged open the heavy oak door. “Don’t move until I come back out.”
The trembling jailer fell back into his chair and tried to stop shaking.
* * *
Trey strained to see in the dim jailhouse light. “Bo, where are you?”
“That you, Trey? I’m here in the last cell. How’d you get in here?”
“Through the front door, Bo, same as you.”
“All right, you damn smart-ass,” Bodeen Trask cussed. “What are you doin’ in here?”
“Bo, we got a big problem. Those pilgrims are in town. They want to leave tomorrow.”
“What! God damn a bear. I thought they was comin’ next week. Trey, you have to stall ‘em ‘til we can get out of this shit hole.”
“That’s the problem, Bo. They’re leavin’ in the mornin’.”
“The hell you say,” said a man in the cell next to Bodeen’s.
“Shut up, Ollie,” Bo snapped at the fat, red-bearded man. “Trey, there ain’t nobody in town gonna guide those pilgrims. Everybody knows we got that job and they won’t take a chance of bucking us.”
“Yeah, well, word is that Montrose kid you hired on to wrangle the horses put a bunch together that plans to take them people out first thing in the mornin’. I also heard there may be gold in the Palo Duro. Maybe that’s what those pilgrims are really lookin’ for.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have hired that younker, but none of you boys wanted to deal with the horses. Too much work, y’all said.” He swiveled his head, eyeballing every member of his gang. None of them faced his stare. “Who did the kid sucker into takin’ the job?”
“He got that half breed, Jimmy White Crow, to scout, and I hear he’s tryin’ to get Wang the Chinee to do the cookin’.”
“Hot dang, that Chinaman can cook,” hollered Ollie Smith, licking his lips.
Bo Trask was turning purple. “Ollie, I swear to God, if you even fart one more time, I’ll kill you with my bare hands. Shut the hell up!”
“Bo, that ain’t the worst of it.” Trey hesitated, not relishing what he was about to say. He gulped in a deep breath and blew it out. “Mace Brown is the one leadin’ the bunch.”
For a split second, the jail got so quiet you could have heard the fleas in Ollie Smith’s beard jumping around. Then all hell broke loose.
“That old washed-up gunfighter!” screamed Bo. “I knew I should’ve killed that old man when he first got to town.” The swarthy gang leader took off his hat and ran a finger around the inside.
“Bo, what do you want me to do?” Trey looked puzzled. He rubbed his hands on his wool pants, flexing his fingers.
Bo sighed. “Trey, you’ve got to take out Brown.”
“You mean kill him?”
“No, boy! Go talk to him and ask him to please not take those pilgrims to the Palo Duro as a special favor for me. Hell, yes, kill him!”
“Aw, Bo, don’t make fun of me.” Trey’s ears reddened and he frowned.
“Do whatever it takes to stop him, boy. Unless you ain’t got the cajones.”
Fire sparked in Trey Bascombe’s eyes. “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him right now.” Trey started for the door.
“Make sure he makes the first move, boy.” Bo ran a hand down his pockmarked face. “It’s got to look like self-defense. I know you’re way faster than that old has-been. Make us proud, Trey.”
The young gunny never looked back as he stomped for the door.
* * *
After Randy and Mace arranged for the supplies, Randy headed for the livery to get the horses together. Mace walked down to the Chinese section of town.
Oneida had a small but industrious Chinese population. Most of the men in the settlement had worked in railroad crews throughout the West. They saved their money and migrated to an area where their yellow skin did not cause too many problems for them. It was the largest town in the Texas panhandle and a melting pot for various races.
Mace found the place he was looking for and stepped inside. He sucked in a long, slow breath, relishing the savory smells of Chinese and American cooking. “C.W., you in the kitchen?” he hollered, startling the handful of diners in the café.
After a few moments of silence, a razor-sharp meat cleaver was laid against Mace’s throat. Mace froze. “C.W., I sure hope to hell that’s you holdin’ that Chinese toothpick up against my neck.”
“You come in here and disturb my customers, Mace. That is not right.”
“I reckon you’re right, C.W., but I believe it would piss’ em off a lot more if you was to use that blade on me.”
“Perhaps,” said the Chinese man holding the cleaver. “This time I spare your heathen soul.” He lowered the blade.
Mace turned around. “Heathen,” he said. “In this country you’re the heathen, C.W.”
“Ah, mebbe so,” said Charley Wang. “Who can say?” He slapped Mace on the shoulder and sat down at a close table, motioning for the rugged gunslinger to join him. “My friend, what you doing in my restaurant? You want to eat?”
“If I was hungry, I ain’t no more. I swear, C.W., you still can move quieter than any Comanch’ I ever saw.”
Wang smiled and waved to a waiter. The young man scurried to the table and bowed. Wang spoke to the youngster in thick Mandarin. The waiter rushed off, returning right away with an open bottle of wine and two sparkling clean glasses. While the young man waited, Wang poured a dram of the blood-red wine into his glass. He swirled the heady liquid around, sniffed, and put a bit of it into his mouth. Looking up at the waiter, Wang nodded and waved him away.
“C.W.,” said Mace, grinning, “how many times have you played around with that same kind of wine? All you ever drink is that fancy French cabernet sauvignon. It always tastes the same to me.”
“Mace, you have no culture.” Wang had a disgusted look on his face. “Each bottle of wine is different. Someday I hope to teach you the difference, but I fear I will not succeed.” He sipped from his glass and sighed. “You never come here anymore except to eat. Today you have no hunger. What is the reason you are here?”
Mace chugged his wine and pushed the empty glass toward Wang. As the glass was refilled, he explained his reason for being in Chinatown. When he finished, he took another drink of cabernet.
“You expect me to leave my restaurant, the safety of my home, and go with you to the wild country again,” Wang said, poker-faced.
Wang sipped his wine and looked around his small café. “I have been open for over three years now, Mace. I got strong crew trained, and most everyone in Oneida eats here. Business is good—only a crazy man would ride along with you on a wild goose chase to Palo Duro Canyon.”
“And?” Mace asked.
“Okay.” Wang smiled. “When do we leave?”
“Daylight tomorrow. Meet us at Haycox Livery.”
Wang nodded, and Mace swallowed the last of his wine and headed out the door. He was two steps onto the sidewalk when someone in the street called his name.
“Mace Brown, you ain’t takin’ them pilgrims out in the mornin’.”
Mace’s eyes narrowed. Ten paces away stood Trey Bascombe, his hands hovering over his six-guns. He didn’t care for the young gunhand, but he didn’t particularly want to kill the little snot.
“What the hell are you whinin’ about, Bascombe?” Mace kept his hand away from his .44.
“You heard me, old-timer. Bo Trask and us are takin’ them people to the Palo Duro. You try to go and I’ll have to kill you. No great loss, I say.”
Mace breathed in slow and emptied his lungs the same way. “I ain’t gonna pull iron on you, boy. Why don’t you go on home and find yourself a nice fat sugar teat.”
Bascombe turned the color of a ripe tomato. “That tears it, old-timer. I was thinkin’ about givin’ you some slack, but you just bought six feet on boot hill.”
Before Bascombe could make a move, Charley Wang stepped up beside Mace. “Trey Bascombe, shut your stupid mouth and leave here this moment.” Wang’s lips pressed into a thin slash.
“You ain’t the law, Chinee. You can’t tell me what to do.” Bascombe said with a sneer. But he took a step back and stole a sideways glance, as though he realized that things had just changed.
“Oh, but I am the law.” Wang stepped into the street. “You in my town, boy. If I say so, you disappear and no one ever know why. Look around. You the wrong color here.”
Bascombe turned his head left and right. Chinese men were staring at him from every direction, with blank looks on their faces. The young hotshot looked like he was about to wet himself.
“You… you got the high hand this time, Brown,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady, but still coming off like a twelve-year-old boy in the middle of a voice change. “You won’t always have your lackeys around to protect you. I’ll be seein’ you—real soon.”
Wang waved his hand at Bascombe, and the gunny backed down the street until he was out of sight around a corner.
Mace turned to his friend. “C.W., I’m sorry about that. Thanks for keeping me from killing that young fool.”
Wang gave Mace an inscrutable look. “Oh,” he said, “I thought I was keeping him from killing you.”