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The Last Gunfighter Dead Before Sundown
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe storm blew up unexpectedly. At least, Frank Morgan didn't see it coming, but he was no sailor. He was at home on the back of a horse, not the pitching deck of a boat.
As the Jupiter made a run for shore, Frank stood at the railing, his hands clutching the smooth wood, and watched the dark clouds looming behind the ship. A hard wind blew, and the waves that jutted up from the water reminded Frank of gray fangs waiting to chew the life out of him.
Frank was a broad-shouldered man of medium height whose high-crowned, cream-colored Stetson was pulled down tight on his graying dark hair to keep the gusts from blowing it off his head. His faded blue shirt, jeans, and well-worn boots were the outfit of a cowboy, but except on rare occasions, he hadn't punched cows since he was a young man in Texas.
That was a lot of years in the past, and a long way from here, as well.
The holstered Colt strapped around Frank's hips told a different story. The revolver's walnut grips were worn smooth with use. The holster was oiled and supple.
Habitually, Frank's right hand never strayed far from the gun butt. Even when he was at ease, he was ready to hook and draw at a split-second's notice.
Frank Morgan was a gunfighter. People called him the Drifter, and that summed up his life pretty well. Considering his age and the deadly speed and skill he still possessed, some said he was the last true gunfighter, the last survivor of the era that had included such notorious pistoleers as John Wesley Hardin, Smoke Jensen, Ben Thompson, Falcon MacCallister, and Matt Bodine.
Hardin and Thompson were dead now, treacherously gunned down by their enemies. Smoke Jensen was living the peaceful life of a rancher in Colorado, the last Frank had heard. That made him a rarity among men who had lived by the gun. Nearly all of them had died by it, too. Frank didn't know what had happened to MacCallister and Bodine. He had lost track of them over the years.
As for Frank, he was still drifting, still winding up in one fracas after another despite his intention to avoid trouble, and lately his wanderings had carried him to the far north, to the gold-rich Yukon country along the border between Alaska and Canada. He had survived a harrowing adventure there and had returned briefly to the Alaskan port of Skagway to settle a score, only to find that fate had already taken care of that for him.
Now he was on the Jupiter, sailing south toward Seattle, Washington, but this squall had come up and forced the ship to turn toward the Canadian coast to avoid it.
A woman's voice came from behind him on the whipping wind. "Frank? What are you doing out here?"
He glanced over his shoulder and saw Meg Goodwin standing there on the deck. Her hands were thrust into the pockets of her jeans to protect them from the cold. It was summer, but in this part of the world when the storm winds blew, they were chilly, no matter what the season.
Meg was a mighty attractive sight, what with the blond hair that escaped from under her flat-crowned brown hat whipping around her face. She was dressed like a man in jeans, a buckskin shirt, and a denim jacket, but there was no mistaking the fact that her trim, shapely figure belonged to a woman.
Frank was old enough to be Meg's father, and because of that there was nothing romantic between them—although she had made it clear on more than one occasion that she wouldn't mind that in the least—but he was objective enough to know she was a very pretty gal.
She could shoot as well as most men, too, a fact she had proven during Frank's perilous sojourn to Alaska.
He didn't answer the question she had asked him. Instead he said, "Where's Salty?"
Their friend Salty Stevens, the third member of the unofficial trio that was traveling together, was an old-timer, even older than Frank. Salty had been knocking around the frontier for decades, working as a stagecoach driver, Army scout, and range detective, among other odd jobs he had held. He had run into some bad luck when he went north to the Yukon to prospect for gold, but then good luck had found him in the person of Frank Morgan.
"He's down in his cabin, like you should be," Meg said. "If that storm catches us and the ship starts pitching around, you're liable to fall off !"
Frank smiled. "Don't worry. If she starts bucking like a wild bronc, I'll go below. I reckon there's a good chance the captain's going to get us ashore before that happens, though."
He pointed to the dark line that was visible through the gloom on the horizon.
"Is that Canada?" Meg asked.
"I think so. I overheard one of the ship's officers telling another that we'd duck behind some island and run into a little port called Powderkeg Bay until the storm passes."
"I hope he was right. I'm not sure I have my sea legs well enough to ride out a storm."
Despite the potential danger, Frank was sort of enjoying the elemental drama playing out on this gray afternoon. He had never spent much time on ships during his life, and it was a new challenge for him.
But Meg was obviously worried, and Frank was curious about how well Salty was riding out the weather, too, so he said, "Why don't we both go below? We'll stop at Salty's cabin and see how he's doing."
"I think that's a good idea," Meg said with a nod. She held her hat on, pushing it down on her blond hair, as they turned toward the stairs that led below decks.
When they reached Salty's cabin, a feeble moan was the only answer to Frank's rap on the door. Frank opened it and stuck his head into the dim cabin.
"Salty? Are you all right?"
"I've rid stagecoaches that bounced over some of the worst roads west of the Mississippi, but I ain't never felt no bouncin' around like this dang ship does!" The querulous voice came from the cabin's bunk. "Ding-blasted thing needs better thoroughbraces!"
"And the storm hasn't even caught us yet," Frank said as he stepped into the cabin.
He scratched a match to life and held the flame to the wick of a lamp that hung on gimbals from a wall sconce. The lamp swayed with the motion of the ship, casting a shifting pattern of shadows over the small room.
Salty sat up on the bunk and raked fingers through his white beard. He swung his legs off and let his booted feet thump to the floor. His rumpled thatch of hair was as snowy as his beard. Keen, dark eyes were set in pits of gristle in his leathery face.
"We're gonna sink, ain't we?" he asked glumly.
"I don't think so," Frank said. "We're in sight of land. It shouldn't be much longer until we're in a bay, and the water ought to be calmer there."
"I hope this don't put us too far behind schedule. I'd like to make it to Mexico afore winter sets in. After freezin' my—" Salty glanced at Meg as he caught himself. He went on, "After freezin' in Skagway and Whitehorse last winter, from now on I plan to spend the rest of my days somewheres warm. I don't know what in blazes ever possessed me to go north to Alaska, anyway."
"Gold," Frank said. "The same thing that possesses just about everybody else who heads up there these days."
"Yeah, well, that didn't work out too good, did it?"
Salty had been robbed by a gang of criminals operating in the Alaskan settlement of Skagway. Frank had hoped to recover some of the old-timer's money when they returned to the settlement, but the leader of the outlaws was dead and the rest of the men had scattered. The chances of getting back any of the money they had stolen from Salty had dwindled to just about nothing.
That was a shame, but there wasn't anything they could do about it. As long as Salty and Meg were traveling with Frank, they wouldn't have to worry about money.
Despite his cowhand garb, Frank Morgan was actually one of the richest men in the West, owning half of the vast business empire founded by the woman he had once been married to, Vivian Browning. When Vivian had been murdered, Frank and the son he hadn't even known existed until recently, Conrad Browning, had inherited those lucrative holdings.
Conrad had run the business for a while and done a fine job of it, until another tragedy had changed the direction of his life. Now, firms of lawyers and financial officers in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco administered things and banked Frank's share of the profits. His needs were simple, but he didn't skimp on helping out his friends and other people who deserved help.
Now, Frank smiled at Salty and said, "Once you get down there south of the border, sipping on a glass of tequila some pretty señorita brings to you, you won't even think about Alaska anymore."
"Don't that sound good," Salty said with a sigh. He looked better now, but he still needed something to keep his mind off the ship's motion. "Why don't I set up the checkerboard? I reckon we got time for a game or two afore this boat hits land."
"Why don't you and Meg play?" Frank suggested. "I'll take on the winner."
"That'll be me," Meg declared confidently.
Salty slapped his thigh. "We'll just see about that, missy!"
Frank and Meg exchanged a quick, satisfied glance. They had succeeded in distracting Salty from his worries.
Salty got out his checkerboard and set it up on the room's small table. The ship's motion made the pieces want to slide a little, but he and Meg succeeded in playing a game. Salty won, much to Meg's apparent chagrin, and he was getting ready to play Frank when they all noticed how much calmer the water had gotten.
"We must have reached that bay," Frank said. "Want to go take a look?"
"Yeah, I reckon I wouldn't mind gettin' a little fresh air," Salty said as he reached for his battered old hat. "Don't think you're foolin' me, though, Frank Morgan. You was just huntin' for any excuse not to get whipped at checkers."
"You're too smart for me, Salty," Frank said with a chuckle.
The three of them went up on deck, being careful not to get in the way of any of the sailors bustling around. Some of the other passengers were emerging from their cabins as well. They clustered on the starboard side of the ship to look at the rocky-sided, pine-covered island that now protected the vessel from some of the wind's force.
Up ahead and to port loomed the mainland, which was also covered with pines for the most part. Lights on shore gleamed through the overcast, and as the ship sailed closer Frank began to make out the shapes of buildings clustered along the coastline. As a sailor paused nearby, Frank gestured toward the settlement and asked the man, "Is that Powderkeg Bay?"
"We're sailin' in it," the man said, "and that's the name of the town, too. Rough place."
"Yeah, we don't normally stop there." The sailor jerked a thumb at the gray, angry sky. "Like the old sayin' goes, though, any port in a storm."
He hurried on about his duties, leaving Frank, Meg, and Salty to watch along with the other passengers as the Jupiter sailed closer to the settlement.
Powderkeg Bay was in the lee of a small peninsula that jutted out from the mainland and formed a cove of sorts. It was a fishing community, judging by the number of small boats anchored at three docks. The thickly forested landscape rose sharply behind the settlement, looming over the town and giving it a rather gloomy aspect, as if it were trapped between those dark woods and the unforgiving sea.
Rain began to fall as the Jupiter approached the port. Most of the passengers hurried below again, including Meg and Salty. Frank lingered for a moment to study the settlement before following them.
Powderkeg Bay was a deep-water port, so the ship was able to drop anchor at one of the docks, rather than standing offshore a short distance. The captain came around to the cabins, telling the passengers that they would be staying here tonight, as a safety precaution. The storm would be gone by morning, he explained, and they would set sail again then.
He also advised them to remain in their cabins for the night, adding, "Powderkeg Bay has a rather unsavory reputation. It's full of saloons, gambling dens, and houses of ill repute. The fishermen, loggers, and trappers who live here are a tough bunch, and there are often drunken brawls in the streets."
Frank wasn't too worried about getting mixed up in trouble. He had visited some of the most hell-roaring places west of the Mississippi, places like Deadwood, Dodge City, and Tombstone.
But he didn't have any reason to leave the ship tonight, either. When Meg asked him if he was going ashore, he shook his head and said, "I never lost anything in Powderkeg Bay." The decision was that simple to him.
But that evening as he was in his own cabin, stretched out on the bunk reading a book of stories by Stephen Crane in the light from the lamp on the wall, someone knocked on the door. Frank looked up from the book and called, "Who is it?"
He frowned slightly. She didn't make a habit of coming to his cabin, so he wondered if there was trouble.
"Come in," he told her, and the look on her face when she opened the door and stepped into the room worried him even more. He swung his legs off the bunk and set the book aside as he asked, "What is it?"
"I can't find Salty anywhere," she said. "I've looked all over the ship for him. He's gone, Frank."
Chapter TwoAs he stood up and moved to Meg's side, Frank said, "I don't hardly see how he can be gone. He's bound to be somewhere onboard."
Meg shook her head stubbornly. "He's not, I tell you. I've looked everywhere except the crew's quarters, and he'd have no business being there."
"Unless he found a poker game or something like that going on," Frank pointed out. He sat down on the bunk again and reached for his boots. "Stay here. I'll go find him."
"Nothing doing," Meg said. Her firm tone left no room for argument. "I'm coming with you."
Frank shrugged and finished pulling on his boots. He knew that arguing with a woman was usually a waste of time, breath, and energy. It wasn't the wisdom of his years that told him that, either. He was smart enough that he had figured it out early on.
When he stood up, he hesitated, then picked up the coiled shell belt and holstered Colt from the stool where it lay next to the bunk. He didn't figure he would need the gun, but it was better to have it with him just in case.
He had learned that lesson early on, too.
He put his hat on and followed Meg out of the cabin. She started toward the stairs. They would have to go up on deck and follow it forward to reach the crew's quarters.
One of the sailors intercepted them as they crossed the deck. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, and the wind wasn't blowing anymore.
"Something I can do for you folks?" the sailor asked.
"Our friend is missing," Meg said. "Mr. Stevens? Do you know him?"
"The old-timer with the beard?"
The sailor scratched his jaw and frowned in thought under his short-billed cap. "I haven't seen him. The cap'n told everybody they ought to stay onboard the ship tonight, though."
The mist in the air gave the lights of the settlement a blurred look. Frank heard the faint strains of music drifting through the night air from somewhere as he asked, "You don't have a guard posted to keep folks from leaving, do you?"
The sailor shook his head. "No, sir. What the cap'n told the passengers was just a suggestion, not an order."
"That's what I figured." An idea had come to Frank when he heard the music, and he didn't like it very much. Still, they ought to make sure Salty wasn't onboard before checking out his new hunch. "Can you take us to the crew quarters? If there's a poker game going on anywhere, Salty can usually sniff it out."
"I can promise you, the old fella isn't there, Mr. Morgan. I just came from there to go on duty."
Frank didn't have any reason to doubt the man's word. "What about the officers' quarters?" he asked.
The sailor shook his head. "No, sir, he wouldn't be there. None of the crew is allowed to fraternize with the passengers. Cap'n Beswick wouldn't stand for it."
Meg sighed in frustration. "Then where could he have gone?"
"There," Frank said, tipping his head toward the settlement. That made some mist that had collected on his hat drip off the brim in front of his face.
Excerpted from The Last Gunfighter Dead Before Sundown by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2011 by William W. 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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