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The Loner: BULLETS DON'T DIE
By J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 J. A. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTexas was a long way behind him now, and with it the dangers he had faced while carrying out an undercover assignment for a friend of his in the Texas Rangers.
For the last few years, the man known as Kid Morgan had spent most of his time wandering the southwestern states and territories. True, he had crossed the country once during that time, going to Boston and from there all the way west to San Francisco, but at that time he had been involved in a quest that ultimately proved to be futile.
He didn't like to think about that anymore.
From Texas he had drifted north, through the territory of Oklahoma and on into Kansas, veering slightly west of north and heading away from the endless plains devoted to farming in the eastern part of the state.
Some good-sized ranches were out there, The Kid had heard, and he was toying with the idea of becoming a cowboy.
Why not? he had asked himself when that thought came to mind. A few years earlier, he had decided he was going to be a gunfighter, hadn't he? Millionaire businessman Conrad Browning had disappeared, and Kid Morgan, the Scourge of the Plains, the Pistoleer from Nowhere, the Deadly Shootist with the Tragic Past, had been born.
The thing of it was, he did have a tragic past, and his new identity as Kid Morgan had been designed to help him gain revenge on the men responsible. He had quickly discovered it wasn't just a pose, either. From his father, the notorious gunfighter Frank Morgan, he had inherited the speed, the coordination between hand and eye, and the cool nerves under fire that allowed him to be a dangerous gunman in his own right.
Kid Morgan had begun as fiction, but now he was fact.
That was fine with The Kid. Nothing was drawing him back to his old life as Conrad Browning.
So if he wanted to be a cowboy, indeed, why not?
There was, however, one distinction between the two situations. He had possessed the skills he needed to survive as a gunfighter. Other than being a good rider, he had no idea if he could handle the job of working on a ranch.
There was only one way to find out, he'd told himself, and so he rode aimlessly across the prairies of western Kansas, looking for a suitable spread where he could ask for a job.
The terrain was low, rolling hills, virtually tree less except for the places where a creek twisted its way across the landscape. The banks of those creeks were often lined with small cottonwoods.
The Kid spotted a line of those trees in the distance during the late afternoon and pointed his buckskin toward them, leading his pack horse. He could probably push on for another hour or so, he thought, but what reason did he have to do that? The creek up ahead would provide a good place to camp, and he was going to take advantage of it.
He was still a couple hundred yards from the trees when he heard a single gunshot. The pistol's roar was repeated in diminishing echoes rolling away across the hills.
The Kid reined in. He didn't think the shot had been directed at him, but still gave some thought to circling wide around the spot. He wasn't looking for trouble.
A pistol shot didn't always mean trouble. Somebody could have shot a snake. It was possible the person was hurt and was trying to attract attention, although three evenly spaced shots was the accepted frontier signal for a plea for help.
Mostly, though, Kid Morgan wasn't the sort of hombre who rode around anything. He hitched the buckskin into motion again and headed for the creek.
If trouble was waiting for him, he was well armed to meet it. A holstered Colt .45 rode on his hip, and in his right-hand saddlebag, within easy reach, was a semiautomatic Mauser C96 pistol, fully loaded with a ten-round clip. He had carried the German-made weapon for a while, but recently switched back to the old reliable Colt. The broom handle Mauser made a mighty fine second gun, though.
In addition, the butt of a Winchester Model 1894 carbine in .30-30 caliber stuck up from a saddle boot on the left side of the horse. The Kid had an old Sharps buffalo rifle strapped to his pack horse for long-distance shooting.
And if there was close work that needed to be done, a razor-sharp Bowie knife was sheathed on his left hip.
Some people might have said he was armed for bear, but The Kid wasn't really worried about bears, especially on the Kansas prairie.
Men, on the other hand ...
As he drew closer to the creek, he was able to see several figures moving around on the near bank. A couple men moved to the edge of the trees and watched him approach.
He lifted a hand in greeting and to show he was peaceful. He counted four men, but only three mounts were visible. That didn't bode well, especially considering the single shot he'd heard.
The Kid reined to a halt about twenty feet from the two men keeping an eye on him. One was painfully skinny, dressed in a threadbare town suit, a collarless shirt with no tie, and a battered old derby. The other was shorter and stockier, with a close-cropped dark beard peppered with silver. He spoke, nodding to The Kid. "Howdy, mister."
"Are you fellas planning on camping here?" The Kid asked. "Because I don't want to intrude."
"No, we just stopped to water our horses and let 'em rest for a spell." The stocky man thumbed back the black Stetson he wore. "Too bad, though. My pard Jeff's horse couldn't make it. Poor critter was plumb worn out. Jeff had to shoot it. It was hard on him, too. He'd had that horse for a long time."
"Yeah," one of the men standing by the edge of the creek called. "Hate to lose that animal, but there wasn't nothin' else to do."
The Kid could see the dark shape of the dead horse on the ground beside the man. "Sorry," he acknowledged, without feeling much real sympathy. The three horses still standing were covered with drying sweat lather. Their heads hung low, and their sides were heaving. They hadn't been there long.
Men didn't come so close to killing their horses— by running them into the ground—unless they were in an awful big hurry. And men in that big a hurry usually had trouble hard on their heels.
The Kid kept his face expressionless and didn't let on that he understood that. Maybe he could still ride away without any gunplay, but he doubted it. He lifted the buckskin's reins with his left hand. "I guess I'll be moving along. Hope your luck takes a turn for the better."
"Oh, I reckon it already did." The stocky man tried to look like he wasn't doing anything, but his hand moved closer to the gun on his hip. "Our luck changed when you came along, mister. You've got two good horses there, one to replace Jeff's and one for a spare for the rest of us."
"Yeah," The Kid said, "but they're my horses."
The stocky man dropped the act. His hand flashed to his gun. Next to him, the skinny man in the derby clawed at a Smith & Wesson he wore in a cross-draw rig. Back in the trees, the other two men slapped leather as they split up and spread out.
The Kid took care of the problem right in front of him first. He palmed the Colt from its holster and fired, sending the bullet into the middle of the stocky man's chest, which was admittedly a pretty good-sized target. The man had barely cleared leather and hadn't gotten off a shot.
The buckskin was accustomed to the roar of shots, but even so the horse moved a short distance to the left. The Kid took advantage of that, lining himself up for a better shot at the derby-wearing gent.
The man in the derby triggered the Smith & Wesson, and it cracked wickedly. The shot was pretty accurate, coming close enough The Kid felt the pulse of the slug passing through the air near his ear.
An instant later his second shot ripped through the skinny man's body, spinning him around and knocking him off his feet.
Dealing with the other two was going to be trickier. They had gone in opposite directions and had the cottonwoods to use as cover. Muzzle flashes stabbed at The Kid from both directions. He had to choose, so he swung his Colt to the right.
Something struck him in the chest with stunning impact from the left. He felt himself falling and knew he was sliding from the saddle. He kicked his feet free of the stirrups and smashed into the ground, stunned and helpless.
Chapter TwoThe sensation lasted only a second or two. As a bullet kicked up dirt a couple feet away from him, The Kid recovered enough to roll toward the trees. The slender trunks of the cottonwoods wouldn't provide much cover, but they were better than nothing.
Bullets continued to zip and whine through the air and thud into the ground around him, kicking up sprays of dirt. He came to a stop next to one of the trees and tried to make himself as small as he could behind it.
His Colt was still in his hand—instinct had made him hang on to it—so he thrust the revolver around the cottonwood and triggered a shot toward the man on his right, who was also using the trees for cover.
He couldn't see the man on his left anymore, the one who had shot him, and that worried him.
Some men who lived by the gun preached the philosophy you had to believe you were invincible, that there was no gunfight you wouldn't win, no bullet that could kill you. The Kid's somewhat fatalistic nature, which dated back to before he had taken up the gun himself, made it impossible for him to adopt that attitude.
Still, he was surprised he'd been wounded. The men had the look of low-level hardcases, the sort who robbed general stores instead of holding up banks and trains, and he had figured his speed and accuracy would be enough to take care of all of them.
Clearly, he had underestimated at least one of them.
A slug chewed bark off the trunk above his head. The Kid snapped a return shot to the right and was rewarded by a grunt of pain. He had scored a hit, but it wasn't enough to put his opponent out of the fight. The man continued to fire at him.
As The Kid ducked his head, he tried to take stock of how badly he was hurt. The upper left part of his chest, as well as the shoulder and arm on that side of his body, were numb. It wasn't uncommon when a bullet first struck, but the wound should be starting to hurt, he thought.
He laid the Colt on the ground and reached over to explore the injury. He expected to feel the warm, wet stickiness of fresh blood, but all he found was a ragged rip in his shirt. Underneath it was the round, waterproof metal container he used to carry matches.
A grim smile tugged at the corners of The Kid's mouth. The bullet had come in at a very shallow angle, struck the metal cylinder, and glanced off rather than penetrating. The impact had been enough to knock him out of the saddle and make his arm and shoulder go numb. A couple inches either way and he would probably be dead.
The Kid had long since learned to accept the utter capriciousness of fate.
He also knew enough not to turn down good luck whenever he got it.
Knowing he wasn't going to bleed to death made him feel better, but he was still in a bad spot. He was caught in a crossfire ... or at least he would have been if the fellow on the left was still shooting.
The man's gun had gone quiet. The Kid hadn't sent a shot in that direction, so he knew he hadn't killed the man. He figured the hombre was up to something.
The Kid kept glancing back and forth, hoping to catch a glimpse of his enemy working his way around to a better angle. The creek twisted in his direction, making it easy for the man to slip along the stream using the bank as cover until he was practically behind—
The Kid's thoughts stopped abruptly as the realization made him roll in that direction just as the man stood up from behind the creek bank and pointed a rifle at him. The Kid brought his Colt around to try for a shot of his own, but knew he was probably too late. He might as well be a target in a shooting gallery.
The unexpected shout made the rifleman hesitate. He turned his head to look to his right just as a shot blasted.
The Kid saw the man's head jerk, saw the bright pink spray of blood, bone, and brain matter explode from the back of his skull. Somebody had drilled him right through the head.
As the rifleman collapsed, dropping out of sight, thudding footsteps warned The Kid the last gunman was charging him, trying to take advantage of the fact that The Kid had turned his back for a moment.
The Kid twisted around again. A bullet smacked into the ground and sprayed dirt in his eyes. He winced as he was momentarily blinded.
But he had already spotted the man running through the trees toward him, and he let his instincts guide his shots as he tipped up the Colt's barrel and triggered twice.
As he blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision, he heard the final man cry out. The shooting stopped.
When he was once again able to see, The Kid realized the man had dropped his gun and had both hands pressed to his belly. Blood welled between his fingers. He groaned, and then his eyes rolled up in their sockets. He went down like a puppet with its strings cut. Gutshot like that, he might not be dead yet, but it was only a matter of time and he wouldn't be doing any fighting in the interval before he crossed the divide.
The Kid climbed to his feet and leaned against the tree that had shielded him. Neither of the first two men he'd shot had moved since they fell, but that didn't mean for sure they were dead. As long as that uncertainty existed, he continued to regard them as potential threats.
The feeling was starting to return to his left arm and shoulder and he was able to hold the revolver in his left hand. Using his right to thumb fresh cartridges into the cylinder, The Kid quickly reloaded the empty Colt as he kept his eyes on the first two men on the ground. He was also very curious about the identity of whoever had called out and then shot the rifleman. That man had saved his life, but who he was or why he had taken a hand in the fight was unknown.
He snapped the Colt closed and walked over to the stocky man and the one in the derby.
The stocky man had fallen on his back with his arms flung out limply at his sides. He stared sightlessly at the sky with eyes glassy in death.
The derby-wearer was lying on his stomach. The Kid could see marks on the ground where the man's fingers had clawed against it in death spasms. Just to make sure, he kept the man covered, hooked a boot toe under his shoulder, and rolled him onto his back. His eyes were as glassy as those of his companion.
So it was a clean sweep, The Kid thought. Just one question remained, and it looked like it was about to be answered.
A man emerged from the trees farther along the creek and walked toward The Kid, leading a saddle horse with his left hand and carrying a Winchester in his right.
The Kid didn't holster his gun, despite the fact the stranger had helped him. It took more than that to earn his trust. He watched alertly, studying the man as he approached.
He moved along in a fairly spry fashion, but the man was getting on in years. Judging by the gray in his hair and the lines etched in his face, he had to be sixty, maybe even older. A mustache drooped over his mouth. He wore a gray Stetson and had a gray vest over his white shirt.
The Kid straightened a little as he saw the badge pinned to the stranger's vest.
The man gave him a friendly smile and asked, "Are you hurt, son?"
The Kid shook his head. "No, sir, I'm fine. A bullet glanced off the tin where I keep my matches and knocked me out of the saddle, but that's all."
"Well, that was mighty good luck, wasn't it?" The stranger chuckled as he came to a stop about ten feet away. "I've always said that a fast, steady hand and cool nerves are fine, but there's no substitute for pure, old-fashioned good luck."
The Kid returned the man's smile. "I can't argue with that, Marshal. Or is it Sheriff?"
"No, you were right the first time. It's Marshal. Marshal Jared Tate, from Copperhead Springs."
The name of the town was vaguely familiar to The Kid. He recalled seeing it on a map of Kansas pinned to the wall of an eatery in Dodge City. He'd examined it briefly while he was having his meal. Other than that, he'd never heard of the place.
As he remembered the map, Copperhead Springs was a good distance west of where he was. "I certainly appreciate the help, Marshal, but I'm curious. If you're a town marshal, what are you doing out here this far from your bailiwick?"
Excerpted from The Loner: BULLETS DON'T DIE by J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2012 by J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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