Yes, despite launching a new series last month and all the associated work that’s gone into that, Brannigan’s Blackhearts #5 – High Desert Vengeance is coming soon.  The preorder should be up shortly.

You might remember from Frozen Conflict that Gomez was having some troubles at home.  Well, they got worse…

Juan Gomez was elbow-deep in the old F-100’s wiring bus when a yell from the house startled him.  His head snapped up, cracking his skull on the underside of the hood.

He didn’t swear; it wasn’t his way.  None of his children had ever heard a word of profanity pass Juan Gomez’s lips, and even fully grown, they were often the targets of his dire glare when they indulged in his house.  Even Mario, Marine that he had been.

Rubbing his head, he glanced up toward the house.  Emilio was standing on the porch, shading his eyes as he stared south, pointing with the other hand.  “Dad!” he called again.  “Look!”

Juan almost didn’t have to.  Slowly, heavily, still rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head, he turned and looked.  Sure enough, there were three plumes of dust coming up the valley.  Coming from the south.

Nothing good ever came from the south, these days.

“Get inside, and make sure your sister’s with you!” he barked.  Reaching down, he picked up the worn, battered Remington 870 he’d had leaning against the truck’s tire.  The wood was dinged and scratched, and the bluing was wearing off, but the weapon was reliable and well-cared for, the action smooth as butter.  He’d taught his boys to maintain their weapons the same way.

That 870 was good for coyotes, snakes…and the more dangerous kinds of predators prowling the southern New Mexico desert.

By instinct, he checked the shotgun’s chamber, then let it hang at his side, as he faced the oncoming plumes of dust.  The door slammed behind him; Emilio was thirteen and rightfully frightened of what was coming.  He wished, just for a moment, that Mario had come back.  But Mario was doing other things, finding work that he was sure he wouldn’t approve of.

Madre de Dios, pray for me, here at what I am sure is the hour of my death.  Watch over my children, and pray for their souls, whatever happens.  Especially Mario’s.

The trucks that pulled up in clouds of dust only a dozen yards away weren’t anything he could have afforded, not in fifty years.  The extremely modified Ford Raptor was more ostentatious, but Juan knew trucks well enough to recognize that the Denali dually just behind it was almost as expensive.

Both trucks stayed there, their engines rumbling, as the dust cloud settled.  Then their doors swung open.

The first seven out were all young men.  They were uniformly dressed in jeans and t-shirts or polo shirts.  Several wore flashy aviator sunglasses.

All were armed.  Juan knew guns; he recognized several Beretta 9mms, a MAC-11, and one CZ-75.  They walked toward him, spreading out to encompass him and the truck in a half-circle, their guns either thrust into waistbands or dangling easily in their hands.  They moved with a swagger that he knew all too well.

An eighth man got out of the Raptor, stepping down to the dirt and shutting the door behind him.  He fit the truck; dressed in tight-fitting jeans, snakeskin cowboy boots, and a wide-collared western shirt, he also wore gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses.  The checkered wood grip of a revolver stuck out from behind his belt buckle.

The man spread his hands as he walked toward Juan, gesturing toward the shotgun in his hand.  “That is not very welcoming, amigo,” he said.  He had a faintly high-pitched voice.  There was a mocking note in his words, though that was common enough among his kind.  Young, violent men who had never been taught respect.  “Is this how you greet your neighbors, come for a visit?”

“I am not your friend,” Juan said shortly.  “And I am pretty sure there is a border between us.  We are not neighbors, either.”

“What is a border between friends?” the man asked.  He stopped a few feet from Juan, his eyes hidden behind the mirrored lenses of his sunglasses.  He stood a few inches taller than Juan, and was considerably trimmer than Juan’s somewhat dumpy frame.  Juan had work to do; too much to worry overmuch about his appearance.  “I know you are a good man, Señor Gomez, a hospitable man.  What better way to become friends than sharing hospitality?”  He stepped past Juan, who had to turn to face him, and put an arm around the older man’s shoulders.  “You will not come to visit us, so we have come to you.  Come on, let’s see what you have.”

Even with the shotgun dangling in his right fist, Juan had never felt so helpless.  Or afraid.  Not so much for himself; he’d given up on worrying about himself a long time ago.  Ranching in southern New Mexico while raising three children, one of whom was often a violent hothead, had burned any self-regard out of him a long time before.  No, his fear was for Emilio, Sonya, and Cocheta.  They were all back in the house, but if these monsters went inside…

He briefly considered just making a last stand of it.  He knew who the man with his arm around him was.  He could kill him, at least.

Or could he?  Stories of the man called El Destripador said that he was as fast as a snake, and he was always looking for a reason to kill.  Could Juan bring the shotgun up before El Destripador drew that revolver and shot him through the guts?

No.  No, he couldn’t.  And even if he managed it, he would have bought his family a bare couple of minutes, after which the rest of these Espino-Gallo animals would swarm into his house, drag them out, and…

Even then, he couldn’t bear to think about it.

I have to buy time.  They aren’t shooting yet.  Maybe, if I play this right, they’ll settle for pushing us around a little and leave.  If I don’t give them an excuse…  Deep down, he knew it was a forlorn hope.  El Destripador would invent an excuse if he wanted one.

Together, they stepped up onto the porch, into the shade.  The porch and its posts were painted white, in contrast with the pale tan of the plastered walls of the house.  It wasn’t a fancy place; it never had been.  But it was home, and Juan had built it with thick enough walls and high enough ceilings to keep it cool enough in the summer.  Now, as winter neared its end, Cocheta had a fire going in the big fireplace in the center of the living room.

The living room was empty and neat.  Two rustic chairs and a couch were gathered around the fireplace, with a Navajo rug on the plank floor, and antelope hides draped over the couch.  A copy of the San Damiano cross hung on the whitewashed wall above the heavy plank kitchen table, and a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe stood in the corner of the living room.  The door to the master bedroom, at the end of the short hallway along which the kids’ rooms and the laundry room were set, was shut, and he hoped it stayed that way.

“This is a very nice place, Señor Gomez,” El Destripador said, looking around and nodding appreciatively.  He had not taken his sunglasses off, and somehow Juan found that ominous.  Of course, there was nothing about this situation that wasn’t ominous, as more of the Espino-Gallo thugs came through the door and into his house, looking into corners and peering down the hallway.

El Destripador didn’t glance toward the master bedroom, but sat down at the table, taking the revolver out of his belt and placing it on the tabletop.  Every bit of the weapon’s metal had been engraved with a scaled, taloned dragon, its jaws breathing fire down the barrel, its tail wrapping around the contoured grips with a skillful bit of inlay.  The dragon’s talons had been inlaid with gold, its eyes with tiny rubies.  It was clearly a very expensive weapon.

Knowing what he did about the man who carried it, Juan knew that it was no decoration piece, though.  He didn’t want to know how many people had been murdered with that beautiful firearm.

“Well, sit down, Señor,” the well-groomed killer said.  “Call your wife and daughter to get us a beer, or tequila.”

“I can get us whatever we need,” he said, his own voice sounding thick in his ears.  The last thing he wanted was for these savages to set their eyes on Cocheta or Sonya.  “I think they went to town.”  It was a lie, but he hoped that God would forgive him, if it saved his family.

El Destripador tilted his head to one side slightly, studying him from behind those mirrored glasses.  He didn’t say anything, but just watched him, like a rattler watching a kangaroo rat.  Juan was sweating, fighting not to tremble, still all too conscious of the weight of the 870 in his hand.

Behind him, the door to the master bedroom creaked, and Juan closed his eyes.

“What is this?” El Destripador asked, without turning away from Juan.  “I thought you said they had gone to town?”

“Ay,” one of the gunmen said.  “What do you think you’re doing with that, muchacho?”

Juan turned.  Down the hall, the door to the master bedroom stood halfway open, and Emilio was standing in the doorway, Juan’s AR-15 in his hands.

He fought back despair.  If Emilio had just stayed back there, stayed quiet, he might have gotten through this, gotten El Destripador to leave with a minimum of fuss.  But now it was going to be a fight.  He knew it.  As much as he hated it and wished it could be otherwise, he knew it in his bones that before this was over, there was going to be gunfire in his house, and people were going to die.

The man called El Destripador leaned forward, his elbows on the table.  “I am starting to think that you are insulting me, Señor Gomez,” he said quietly.  “You keep your wife and daughter hidden away, where we cannot see how pretty they are.  You and your son threaten us with guns.  I am starting to think that you are being unfriendly.  When we have simply come here to get to know our neighbors.”

Juan just stared at him.  It was all he had left.  He had no words, his mouth and throat as dry as the desert outside.  He could feel what was coming.  But he wouldn’t flinch in front of it, wouldn’t give this devil in man’s flesh the satisfaction of seeing how afraid he was.

“I think that you and your son need a lesson in manners,” El Destripador said.  “Maybe we take those guns away from you and show you who is in charge down here, huh?”

The shotgun felt even heavier in his hand.  Juan was desperately wracking his brain, trying to find a way out, a way that appeased this psychopath enough to make sure at least the rest of his family survived.  Even at the time when he knew he should simply stand defiantly, he couldn’t.  Not while Cocheta, Sonya, and Emilio were still alive.

“We didn’t mean to insult you,” he said quietly.  “We were just afraid.  The border is close, and there are lots of bad men who come across it.  Just two weeks ago…”  Even as he spoke, he knew it was a mistake.  There had been a killing two weeks prior, near the Arizona border.  And as he felt every eye in the house turn on him, except those who were still watching Emilio, he knew that these men had had something to do with it, or knew who had.

“And you think that we did it?” El Destripador demanded.  “Who are you to pass judgement, huh?  You look at us and say, ‘Those are evil men!’  Why?  Because we carry guns?  You have a gun in your hand yourself!”

Juan knew what was happening.  He knew the game that was being played.  He wondered why.  There was no point to it.  There were no authorities this far south who were going to be impressed by any excuse that the sicarios made.  Why this elaborate sham?

Even though he couldn’t see El Destripador’s eyes, he could see why in the set of his face, the faint smirk that the man couldn’t quite entirely conceal.  This wasn’t about justification.  This was about tormenting him, forcing him to try to grovel and make peace, before they murdered him and did Heaven knew what to his family.

God forgive me.  He tensed, and snapped the shotgun up toward El Destripador’s face.

The killer’s hand moved in a blur, snatching the revolver off the table and stroking the trigger.  It had already been cocked, so the .357’s trigger broke cleanly, belching flame over the dinner table.

Juan staggered, the shotgun still pointed at the bench in front of him, as the bullet hit him just above the belt buckle.  He didn’t feel anything but the shock of the impact, at first.  But a moment later, as the strength started to drain out of his limbs, the pain started.  He folded over the tearing agony in his midsection, the shotgun clattering to the floor as his knees buckled and he fell.

Emilio screamed, and the AR thundered, but as well as he’d learned to shoot, the boy was still only thirteen, and hardly a professional.  His first rounds went wild, smashing pockmarks in the plastered wall and shattering the west-facing window.  He didn’t get a chance to follow up.

A MAC-11 chattered, ten .380 rounds tearing into the boy’s chest and throat.  The little bullets didn’t have a lot of punch all by themselves, but Emilio staggered backward, blood spraying from his torn neck, his body hitting the door and sending it shuddering inward into the darkened master bedroom.  A horrible gurgling sound from Emilio’s ruined throat was drowned out by the high-pitched screams from inside the bedroom.

The sicarios didn’t run inside.  They swaggered down the hall and out of Juan’s darkening vision, catcalling as they went.  One of them dipped his Beretta and put a final 9mm round into Emilio’s head as he writhed on the floor.  The bark of the shot was deafening, and Emilio’s skull bounced a little before he went completely still.

More screaming echoed from the darkened interior of the master bedroom, and then there was a gurgling yell of agony and an oath in Spanish.  A series of heavy, meaty thuds sounded from inside, and then one of the thugs was hauling Sonya out into the hallway, her arms pinned behind her.  Under other circumstances, he might have been laughing, but he just looked angry, cruelly twisting the sixteen-year-old girl’s arms as he forced her ahead of him.  More of his friends went past in the other direction.

Even through his agony, Juan guessed what had happened.  Cocheta had drawn blood.  She was full-blooded Mescalero Apache, and she wouldn’t have gone without a fight.

A moment later, Cocheta was dragged out between two sicarios, her head hanging down, her black hair obscuring her face, blood dripping on the floor.  They threw her on the rug in front of the fireplace.

“This puta stabbed Mateo, Angel!” one of them said in Spanish, spitting on the woman where she was huddled on the floor.  “And she cut Vicente, bad!”

El Destripador didn’t say anything.  He stood slowly and walked around the table, squatting down in front of Juan, eclipsing his view of Cocheta even as she lifted her head.  Her face was covered in blood, and one eye was already swelling shut.

Sonya was still screaming.  El Destripador looked down at Juan as if he was going to say something, then a flash of irritation crossed his face, and he looked up.  “Go put her in the truck!” he yelled.  “Gag her if you have to, but don’t bruise her up too much.  She’s got a long future ahead of her.”  The sicario nodded and dragged a struggling, screaming, kicking Sonya out through the back door and toward the trucks outside.  Her screams faded, and what little hope Juan had left faded with them.

“You should have been friendlier, Señor,” El Destripador said, his revolver dangling from his hand between his knees as he crouched over Juan.  The elder Gomez was biting back the moans of agony that threatened to escape his lips.  His entire world was a red haze of pain, centered on the battered form of his wife just beyond the killer squatting in front of him.  “Now it is going to take you a long, long time to die.  And I’m not going to end it quickly for you, either.  You’re going to watch what happens next.  And we’re going to make it last a long, long time.  This is our place now, and we will do what we want.”

He straightened and turned his back on Juan, his boot heels ringing against the planks of the floor as he advanced on Cocheta.  Through the haze of pain, Juan stared at him, though his thoughts were far away.

Mario, you should have been here…

He closed his eyes as the monster bent over his wife.

High Desert Vengeance Chapter 1

Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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