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Hell TownThe Last Gunfighter
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe kid was obstreperous. That was the way Johnny Collyer thought of him anyway, since Johnny had once been snowed in for the winter with nothing but a dictionary to read and he had gone through that sucker from cover to cover and memorized a lot of it.
But it would have been just as easy to say that the kid was an asshole, because that was true too.
Johnny moved the bar rag in circles over the mahogany, even though the wood already shone in the light from the oil chandeliers in the Silver Baron Saloon, and listened to the kid's braying laughter. He'd been drunk already when he came into the Silver Baron half an hour earlier, and he hadn't done anything since then except get drunker and more obnoxious. His friends, a couple of hard-faced hombres in range clothes, had tried to persuade him to control himself, but the kid wasn't having any of it.
Now he stood over the table where Professor Burton had been nursing a drink and demanded in a loud, arrogant voice, "What the hell are you dressed up for, mister? Goin' to a weddin'-or a funeral?"
The professor, who was always dapper in a suit, vest, and bowler hat, replied in his fluid, cultured voice, "This ismy normal attire, sir."
The kid laughed again. "Then you must be one o' them strange fellas who don't like women. That what you are, mister?"
Burton's middle-aged face, usually tranquil, flushed with anger. "Even if that were the case-which it's not, by the way-it would be none of your business. Now, if you wouldn't mind taking your questions elsewhere ..."
The kid drew himself up as straight as he could, not an easy task considering how drunk he was. "Are you tellin' me to get the hell away from you?"
"In a more polite fashion ... yes," Burton snapped. Most of the time he was the mildest of souls, but even he could be riled and he was well on his way to that point now.
Behind the bar, Johnny Collyer hoped that the professor wouldn't say anything else to annoy the kid. The youngster wore two guns, both in low-slung holsters, and clearly thought of himself as a badman. He might not be all that much of a shootist really, but he was more dangerous than the professor, that was for sure.
Johnny didn't want to see Burton get hurt, and he didn't want any gunfights in here. He hated scrubbing bloodstains off the floor, something he'd had to do several times in the past month, since the word had gotten out that the Lucky Lizard Mine had reopened. People started flooding into the former ghost town of Buckskin once they heard about the silver strike, eager as always to try to grab some of those riches for themselves.
And as always, more people meant more trouble.
The batwings swung open and Thomas Woodford stepped into the saloon. A thick-bodied man in overalls, flannel shirt, and battered old hat, Tip, as he was known to his friends, looked like a down-on-his-luck prospector. Nobody would guess from his appearance that he owned not only the Lucky Lizard, but also the Silver Baron Saloon. Tip had started the saloon with some of the money from his first strike, later sold it, then took it over again when the man he sold it to left town. Nearly everybody had deserted Buckskin at that point, because the silver veins had petered out and the boom was over.
Not long ago, though, Tip had found the vein again, and Buckskin had once again become a boomtown, with all the progress-and problems-that came with such a development, including this drunk, hotheaded, kid gunslinger who pounded a fist down on Professor Burton's table and yelled, "Who the hell do you think I am, talkin' to me like that?"
"An imbecile who doesn't understand when a man wants to be left alone?" Burton responded in a cool voice that just infuriated the kid even more.
Tip Woodford backed out through the door and vanished into the night. Johnny muttered a curse. Looked like his boss was leaving him here to handle this mess alone.
Or maybe Tip was going for help. Johnny clung to that hope as he started to reach under the bar, to the shelf where he kept a sawed-off Greener. He couldn't actually fire the scattergun in here-too many innocent people might be hurt if he did-but the threat of it might settle the kid down.
Before Johnny could touch the shotgun's smooth stock, one of the kid's pards shook his head and said, "Leave it be, drink juggler."
Johnny swallowed hard. The kid's companions were older and more experienced. They had the lean, cold look of true gunmen about them, and Johnny knew he would be committing suicide to cross them.
He had already narrowly avoided one death sentence in his life. He took his hand away from the Greener.
"Conwell's just blowing off steam," the other gunman said. "He won't really hurt that old gent."
Johnny wasn't convinced of that.
The kid-Conwell-glowered at the professor and said, "On your feet, Fancy Pants. You and me are gonna settle this with lead."
He backed away, his hands hovering over his holstered guns, ready to hook and draw.
Burton shook his head. "I'm unarmed, and even if I wasn't, I don't make it a practice to engage in duels."
"This ain't gonna be no duel," Conwell said. "It'll be a killin', plain and simple. But you'll have a fair chance." He drew his left-hand gun and placed it on the table in front of the professor. "There you go. I'll let you reach for it. Hell, I'll even let you pick it up before I draw. What do you say to that, you-"
He unleashed a stream of vile invective that made Burton turn pale with rage. The professor's hands were lying on the table. Johnny held his breath as he saw the right one twitch a little, like Burton was struggling not to grab at the butt of that gun.
"Don't touch it, Professor."
The deep, powerful, commanding voice spoke from the saloon's entrance as another newcomer pushed through the batwings. He was medium height, maybe a hair above, and powerfully built without being muscle-bound. His face was a little too rugged to be called handsome. His clothes were nothing special: well-worn boots, denim trousers, a buckskin shirt, and a broad-brimmed brown hat that sat on thick dark hair touched with gray. The high crown of the hat was pinched in a little on the sides.
Two things were impressive about the newcomer-the holstered Colt Peacemaker on his right hip, and the badge pinned to his shirt.
"Leave the gun alone, Professor," the newcomer went on. "In fact, it might be a good idea if you got up and found another place to sit."
Burton nodded and started to scrape his chair back, but Conwell snapped, "Keep your seat, you son of a bitch. I ain't through with you yet."
"Oh, you're through all right, kid," the lawman said. "You're through in Buckskin. You're leaving town tonight."
Conwell faced him and sneered. "Who in blazes are you to be tellin' me what to do?" he asked. "You think I'm gonna pay any attention to what some broke-down old geezer of a star-packer tells me to do?"
Conwell's two companions were studying the newcomer more closely than Conwell was, and signs of recognition and surprise appeared on their faces. As their eyes widened, one of the men said, "Hold on, Conwell. You don't know who that fella is."
A harsh laugh came from the kid. "I don't know and I don't care! Nobody threatens to throw me out of town and gets away with it!" He stepped away from the table, giving Burton the opportunity to stand up and hurry out of the line of fire. In a gunfighter's crouch, Conwell went on, "I'm gonna kill me a marshal!"
"You damn fool," the other gunman said in a tight voice, "that's Frank Morgan!"
It was Conwell's turn to let his eyes go wide with shock. Even in his drunken, troublemaking state, he recognized the name. "Morgan?" he repeated. "The Drifter? What the hell's Frank Morgan doin' totin' a badge?"
"I'm the marshal of Buckskin now," Morgan said. Without taking his eyes off Conwell, he asked the kid's two companions, "You boys want any part of this?"
"Not hardly," one of them said without hesitation. "If the kid wants to push it, then it's his fight, not ours."
"Damn right," the other man agreed.
Conwell glanced over at them. "Fine pair o' partners you two are," he said in disgust.
"Shoot, kid, we'll back your play in most anything, you know that. But not this."
A faint smile touched Morgan's lips. "That puts it up to you," he told Conwell. "You're leaving one way or the other. But either way, you'll leave quiet."
His message was unmistakable.
For a long moment, the youngster stood there, nostrils flaring, breathing heavily. Then he muttered a curse and said, "All right. I don't feel like dyin' today."
"Always a wise decision," Morgan said.
The fancy spurs on his high-heeled boots clinking, Conwell stalked toward the door. Morgan moved aside to let him past. Conwell said over his shoulder, "You two bastards just steer clear o' me from now on. We ain't ridin' together no more." His ire was directed toward the two men at the bar.
One of them grunted and said, "That's fine with us. We're tired of pullin' your chestnuts out of the fire, anyway."
Sneering, Conwell slapped the batwings aside and went out into the night. Everyone in the saloon heard his boots stomping on the boardwalk outside as he walked off.
Frank Morgan came over to the bar and gave the kid's former companions a curt nod. "Appreciate you not taking a hand," he told them.
"We got no quarrel with you, Morgan. You the town marshal?"
Morgan nodded. "That's right."
"Well, we ain't broke any laws in your town and don't plan to, so you don't have any reason to worry about us."
Morgan's smile was genuine. "I'm glad to hear that."
Johnny Collyer noticed that the men didn't claim not to have broken any laws elsewhere, but Frank Morgan only had jurisdiction here in Buckskin, although he might stretch a point every now and then and deal with problems in the heavily wooded foothills around the reborn ghost town.
Morgan continued. "I think I know you boys. Hap Mitchell and Lonnie Beeman, right?"
The men nodded. "Yeah, that's us," one of them said. "But like we told you, we're not hunting trouble."
"Fact of the matter is," the other one said, "once we finish our drinks, we'll probably be movin' on."
Morgan nodded. "That sounds like a good idea to me."
Now that the trouble was over, Johnny said, "You want a drink, Marshal?"
"No, thanks," Morgan said. "But if there's any hot coffee left, I'd admire to have a cup."
Johnny smiled. The lawman's response didn't surprise him. Morgan took a shot of whiskey or a cold beer every now and then, but for the most part he preferred coffee.
"I reckon we can manage that," Johnny said as he started down the bar toward the cast-iron stove at the far end. The weather was mild these days, but he kept a fire banked in the stove anyway so the coffeepot would stay warm on it.
He was just reaching for the pot when something crashed on the boardwalk outside and then an instant later, a man riding a horse burst through the doors, knocking the batwings off their hinges. The horse didn't want to come inside the building and was fighting against its rider, but the man raked his spurs against the animal's flanks, making it whinny in pain as it lunged forward. The man in the saddle let out an animal-like howl of his own as he sent his mount plunging toward the bar and the men who stood there. The guns in his hands spouted lead and flame.
Chapter TwoFrank Morgan had only a second to recognize the rider as the kid called Conwell. Then he threw himself across the bar, rolling over it and grabbing Johnny Collyer. He hauled the bartender to the floor behind the bar as Conwell's shots shattered several bottles sitting on the backbar.
Frightened, angry shouts filled the air as the saloon's customers scattered. Some of them turned over tables and dived behind them, seeking cover as the kid's Colts blasted wildly and sent bullets flying around the room.
Gun in hand, Frank surged up behind the bar. He fired, but Conwell pulled his mount into a tight turn at the same instant. The panicky horse reared up and pawed at the air with its front hooves. Frank's slug plowed a furrow in the horse's shoulder instead of knocking Conwell out of the saddle. The horse screamed in pain, twisted and bucked, and came down hard. Floorboards cracked under its weight. The horse arched its back, sunfishing madly.
With a startled yell, Conwell flew out of the saddle. He came crashing down on a table, busting it to kindling. His left-hand gun slipped out of his fingers and skittered away across the floor.
He managed to hang on to his other Colt, however, and as he clambered up out of the debris of the broken table, he swung the weapon toward Frank.
Before Conwell could fire again, the Peacemaker in Frank's hand roared a second time. This shot didn't miss. It caught Conwell in the chest and threw the youngster backward. His finger tightened on the trigger and the gun in his hand exploded, but the barrel was angled upward by now and the bullet went into the ceiling without hurting anything. Conwell landed on the splintered tabletop. He gasped in pain, his back arched, and his boot heels beat a tattoo on the floor as death spasms wracked him.
Then with a rattling sigh, the life went out of him and his body relaxed.
The horse, still spooked half out of its mind with pain and fear, headed for the big window, rather than the open doors. It lifted off its feet in a leap and smashed through the glass, shattering the window into a million pieces and sending shards and splinters spraying over the boardwalk. The horse cleared the window, clattered across the boardwalk, jumped into the street, and bolted away.
"Somebody go after that horse!" Frank shouted. "It's bound to be cut up from the glass, and it'll need some attention."
A couple of the men who had been drinking in the saloon before the trouble erupted ran outside, and a moment later the swift rataplan of hoofbeats testified that they were giving chase to the runaway animal.
Frank helped a shaken Johnny Collyer to his feet and asked, "You all right, Johnny?" He knew the bartender had had health problems in the past.
Johnny nodded and said, "Yeah ... yeah, I'm fine." He gazed around the room with a dismayed expression. "But look what's happened to the place!"
There was plenty of damage all right, and all of it could be laid at the feet of Conwell, who must have decided that he couldn't live with backing down, even to the famous gunfighter known as The Drifter. He had gone outside, gotten his horse, given in to his anger, and charged back into the saloon, guns blazing.
The tactic might have worked. Most men would have been too shocked to see a man on horseback bursting through the batwings to react in time to save themselves.
But not Frank Morgan. His reactions were lightning-swift, and years of living a danger-filled life had honed his instincts to a razor-sharp keenness.
He came out from behind the bar and went to check on Conwell. Frank was confident that the reckless youngster was dead, but it never hurt to be sure. More than one man had been gunned down by a "corpse" that wasn't really dead yet.
Conwell was, though. Frank looked over at Mitchell and Beeman, who had ridden into Buckskin with the kid. They had dived to the floor when the shooting started, and they were just now picking themselves up.
"Sorry I had to kill him," Frank told the two men.
"I'm not," Hap Mitchell said with a snort of disgust. "He was a hotheaded fool who nearly ruined lots of jobs for us-"
He stopped short, as if realizing that he might be saying too much. Frank knew good and well that the "jobs" Mitchell referred to were robberies of some sort, probably bank or train holdups. He and Beeman were known to ride the hoot owl trail. But those crimes hadn't taken place here in Buckskin, and Frank didn't have any wanted posters on the two men, so he didn't have any call to arrest them.
"Anyway," Mitchell went on after a second, "you won't hear any complaints from us about you killin' that idiot, Morgan."
"He had it comin'," Beeman added. "Hell, the way he was throwin' lead around, some of those shots could've hit us!"
Still kneeling beside Conwell, Frank felt inside the dead man's pockets. He found a roll of bills and a leather poke with several double eagles inside it. He straightened and set the money on the bar.
"Reckon this should go to repair the damage he caused here in the saloon, and anything that's left over can go toward the cost of burying him."
Mitchell shrugged. "Fine with us. We got no call on that money."
Frank figured it was loot from some robbery, but he couldn't prove that. He pointed to the money and told Johnny Collyer, "Give that to Tip when he gets back here."
"He's the one who fetched you, right?" Johnny asked.
Excerpted from Hell Town by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2007 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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