Killing Ground (Last Gunfighter Series #18)by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
The Lucky Lizard is bad luck. Not that the Nevada mine is empty; it's full of silver. But the man who thinks he owns it fair and square is in for a very unpleasant surprise--a ruthless, hard/b>/center>
A lawman, a drifter, a legend--Frank Morgan returns to the town he once called home and ends up in the middle of a killing ground. . .
The Lucky Lizard is bad luck. Not that the Nevada mine is empty; it's full of silver. But the man who thinks he owns it fair and square is in for a very unpleasant surprise--a ruthless, hard driving Easterner named Dex Brighton shows up with a seemingly valid claim. Town marshal Frank Morgan has his suspicions, and sends for some San Francisco legal eagles. They don't make it to Buckskin alive. . . Now, Morgan realizes that Dex Brighton from back East is straight from Hell--with an army of stone-cold killers waiting in the hills. For the town of Buckskin, and the men and women caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the battle now will be decided by lead, not law--with a final verdict written in blood. . .
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The Last Gunfighter Killing Ground
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone PINNACLE BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter One It was good to be home again, Frank Morgan thought as he reined in at the top of a hill overlooking the mining settlement of Buckskin, Nevada. A mighty pretty place, nestled in those pine-covered foothills as it was, with majestic, snowcapped mountains looming around it.
And it struck Frank, as it always did at moments like this, how odd it was for him to be thinking of Buckskin as home. For so many years, he had been on the move, wandering from place to place with a natural restlessness that had helped earn him his nickname-The Drifter.
Since he had settled down in Buckskin and accepted the job as town marshal, though, he had experienced a contentment unlike any he had known for quite a while. When circumstances took him away from the settlement, as they had recently when a dangerous job had sent him down to Arizona Territory, he was always anxious to get back.
"There it is," a man's voice said from behind Frank. "The famous Buckskin, Nevada. It doesn't appear to have changed much since our last visit."
Frank turned his head to look back at the buggy where his son, Conrad Browning, and Conrad's wife, Rebel, rode.
"The big silver boom is over," Frank said. "The settlement should keep growing, but it'll be slower and steadier now, instead of going from being a ghost town tobusting at the seams practically overnight."
"Especially since it has a famous town-taming marshal now," Conrad said, and Frank wasn't sure if there was a faint note of sarcasm in the words or not.
For years father and son had been estranged, even after the death of Vivian Browning, Frank's first wife and Conrad's mother. Vivian had left half of her vast business holdings to Frank, making him one of the richest men in the West even though nobody would ever guess that from his well-worn range clothes and the even more well-worn Colt .45 that was holstered on his right hip.
No, Frank Morgan was a gunfighter-some said the last real, true gunfighter in the West-not a tycoon. One of the few men faster on the draw than him was the legendary Smoke Jensen, who had, in these waning days of the nineteenth century, done what was almost unheard of. Jensen had put his gunfighting days behind him and was living a life of peace on his Colorado ranch.
That was the sort of thing Frank Morgan aspired to. That was why he had decided to put aside his drifting ways and settle down in Buckskin.
But the violence that had surrounded so much of his life kept trying to pull him back. Maybe it hadn't been a good idea to pin on a lawman's badge. Maybe as long as he wore it, there would always be some no-good son of a buck who needed killing. Maybe he would never know true peace, Frank sometimes thought during dark nights of the soul, until he was dead. Then he would have the peace of the grave ...
Sometimes things could change, though, he tried to remind himself at times like that. Just look at him and Conrad. His son had flat-out hated him when they first got to know each other.
It didn't help that Conrad had been raised by another man, his mother's second husband, and hadn't even known Frank until he was grown. But circumstances, namely their shared business interests, had led them to fight side by side on several occasions, and Conrad had developed a grudging respect for his father. Frank liked to think that at times Conrad was beginning to feel a little real affection for him. Time would tell about that.
"Perhaps I should visit more often," Conrad went on. "Since the Crown Royal mine started production again, though, I've had good men looking out for my interests, like Garrett Claiborne."
"And like your father," Rebel pointed out.
She was a beautiful blonde, a Western girl born and raised, and Frank thought that marrying her was just about the best thing that could have happened to Conrad. She wore a stylish, expensive traveling outfit at the moment, with a modish hat perched on her upswept blond curls, but give her a chance and she'd be in buckskins and jeans and a Stetson again, riding like the wind.
"Yes, that's right," Conrad said, his voice a little gruff. He and Frank got along better than they used to, but he wasn't the sort of man to get all sentimental. That was fine with Frank, since he wasn't that kind either.
He heeled the horse into motion and started down the hill with Conrad and Rebel following in the buggy. Frank hadn't taken either of his regular horses, the big stallions Stormy and Goldy, with him to Arizona, but the rented mount he rode now, a big blood bay, was a good horse. He would be glad to see Stormy and Goldy again, along with the massive, shaggy cur Dog, who had been one of his trail partners during many of the long, wandering years.
Frank Morgan was a medium-sized, compactly built man with the broad shoulders and lean waist of a natural-born horseman. He wore comfortable boots, jeans, a faded blue work shirt, and a cream-colored, high-crowned Stetson with a slightly curled brim. Thick dark hair lightly touched with gray was under that hat. His features, tanned and weathered by years spent outdoors, were a little too rugged to be called handsome, but he was a man with a compelling, powerful presence anyway. Not a fancy man in any fashion. The revolver on his hip had plain walnut grips, and the Winchester rifle he carried in a saddle sheath had obviously seen plenty of use. When a grin spread across his face and his eyes twinkled with good humor, it was obvious that Frank was a good man to have as a friend.
When the grin went away and his eyes turned icy and hard as flint, it was equally obvious that Frank Morgan was a bad man to have for an enemy.
Frank was smiling now as he rode toward Buckskin, glad to be back, but wary, too. The only reason Conrad and Rebel were here was that the situation in Buckskin was rather unsettled at the moment. Trouble might be brewing that could affect the interests of the Browning Mining Syndicate-Frank and Conrad, in other words.
"There are rumors that someone is going to dispute the ownership of one of the mines in the area," Conrad had explained to Frank a week earlier, down in Arizona Territory. "I don't know which of the mines it is, though. I don't see how it could possibly be the Crown Royal. Our title to the claim is completely free and clear, as far as I know. But if there's a chance we'll have to defend it in court, I want to know about it so we can begin making preparations for the case."
Frank wasn't that well versed in legal matters himself. He had lawyers in Denver and San Francisco who looked after his business interests, and that was the way he liked it. He was perfectly happy to have Conrad and Rebel come back to Buckskin with him, though, and if there was any trouble that threatened the peace of the town, that was definitely his business as the marshal. He hoped the deputy he had left in charge, the crusty, capable old-timer called Catamount Jack, hadn't run into any problems he couldn't handle.
Frank pulled ahead of the buggy. His horse could make better time than the vehicle, which had to take the descent slow and careful-like. There was a road that the stagecoach from Carson City used, but it was narrow, twisting, and badly rutted in places.
The fresh scent of the pines, the arching blue sky, and the laughter of an icy, fast-flowing stream filled Frank's senses. The horse underneath him stretched its legs eagerly, and Frank let him run. The slope leveled out into a meadow covered with grass that came fetlock-high on the bay. Tiny flowers dotted the grass colorfully here and there.
Altogether, it was much too pretty a picture to have death intrude on it.
Or at least, it should have been.
But it was at that moment Frank heard a sinister whisper next to his ear and recognized it as the wind-rip of a bullet passing close by his head. Instinct made him haul back on the reins and yank the horse into a tight turn.
He didn't know where the shot had come from, but his first concern was the buggy following him-and its occupants. He saw that the buggy had just emerged from the trees and started across the meadow with Conrad at the reins. Frank sent the bay lunging in that direction.
"Get back!" he shouted to Conrad as he stood up in the stirrups and waved urgently. He knew that made him a bigger target, but he had to make sure that Conrad saw him and realized something was wrong.
Conrad must have, because the buggy suddenly slowed. The bay lurched at that same instant as a bullet smashed into its chest, and Frank immediately kicked his feet out of the stirrups.
It was a good thing he did, because the bay went down, its front legs folding up underneath it. Frank was thrown forward over the horse's head. If he hadn't freed his feet when he did, he would have been dragged down with the bay, and it probably would have rolled over on him or caught him with one of its wildly flailing hooves.
As it was, Frank flew through the air and landed on the ground hard enough that all the breath was driven from his body. He was able to roll over several times and break some of the force of the fall, though, and when he came to a stop on his belly he was shaken but not stunned. His brain was still working.
It told him he was in a bad spot, and that was confirmed a second later when another slug plowed into the ground beside him. He heard the sharp whipcrack of a rifle this time and knew the shot came from his left somewhere. The bay had stopped thrashing around, so Frank scrambled toward the fallen horse. Its lifeless body was the only bit of cover available out here in the meadow.
Another slug sizzled past Frank's head, but he was moving too rapidly for the bushwhacker to draw an accurate bead on him. He threw himself behind the horse corpse and hunkered as close to the ground as he could. Twisting his head, he saw that the buggy had vanished back into the thick pines on the hillside, and was grateful for that. Conrad and Rebel ought to be safely out of the line of fire now.
With that worry off his mind, Frank turned his attention to the son of a bitch who was trying to kill him. When he heard another shot and then the thud of the bullet into the horse's body, he risked a quick look. Powder smoke hung over a cluster of rocks at the base of the slope about two hundred yards east of the place where the trail reached the meadow.
Frank waited for another shot, then lunged up and reached for the Winchester that was still in its sheath strapped to the saddle. Luckily, the bay hadn't fallen on that side, or Frank wouldn't have been able to get the rifle out. As it was, the bushwhacker almost levered another round into his weapon too fast, because he got another shot off before Frank could duck back down. The bullet tugged at the sleeve of Frank's shirt on the arm he had extended to snag the Winchester and jerk it from its scabbard.
He stretched out flat again. A fighting smile plucked at his lips. The odds were a mite more even now ... and he was mad. That bay had been a fine horse, and it deserved a better end than being cut down by some slimy bushwhacker.
Frank thrust the Winchester's barrel over the horse and opened up, cranking off three rounds as fast as he could work the rifle's lever. He directed his shots toward the rocks where the would-be killer was hidden. He didn't think he would hit the bushwhacker, in all likelihood, but if he could get some slugs bouncing around in there, it would make things mighty hot for the varmint.
Several more shots sounded, but these came from the trees where the buggy had disappeared. Frank knew there was a rifle in the buggy, so Conrad must be taking a hand in this fight. As always, it made Frank feel good to know that his son was siding him. He continued peppering the rocks with lead.
This must have been more of a fight than the bushwhacker expected, because after a few minutes, during a lull in the firing, Frank heard the swift rataplan of hoofbeats coming from the direction of the rocks. When he risked a look, he saw dust haze rising into the air. The bushwhacker was giving up and taking off for the tall and uncut.
Or at least, that was what he wanted Frank to think. Frank had too much experience to leap up and make a target of himself just because it appeared the rifleman had fled. He hoped that Conrad had sense enough not to come out of the trees just yet. Even if Conrad didn't, he figured Rebel would know better anyway.
Minutes dragged by. Frank waited with the patience of a man who knew his life might depend on it. The buggy didn't come out of the trees either, so Conrad and Rebel were playing it safe, as he had hoped.
After about ten minutes, Frank heard horses coming from the direction of Buckskin. He rose up enough to take a look and saw four men riding out from the settlement. Frank's keen eyes recognized the rangy, buckskin-clad figure in the lead as Catamount Jack.
If the bushwhacker wasn't already gone, the arrival of the men from Buckskin would chase him off. Frank decided it was safe to stand up now. He got to his feet and waved the rifle over his head, catching the attention of Jack and the other men. Then he walked over to his hat, which had flown off when he was thrown from the mortally wounded horse, and picked it up. By the time Jack and the others galloped up and reined their mounts to a halt, Frank had brushed off the Stetson and donned it again.
Jack's leathery, bewhiskered face split in a grin under the battered slouch hat he wore.
"When I heard all the shootin' from up here, I said to myself Frank Morgan must be back in these parts," he declared. "I surely did!"
Chapter Two Jack dismounted and stuck out a knobby-knuckled hand. Frank gripped it firmly, glad to see the man who had become his deputy and good friend.
"That wasn't a very friendly welcome," Frank said. "Downright hostile, in fact."
Jack nodded as his grin disappeared and was replaced by a dark frown.
"Yeah, that's the way things have been around here lately, downright hostile ... and gettin' hostilerer all the time!"
Frank looked at the three men who had accompanied Jack and recognized them as Amos Hillman, the owner of the livery stable, Henry Burton, the former professor from back East somewhere, and Junior Ledyard, who worked for Amos as a hostler. He shook hands with all of them, glad to see them, but noted that they shared some of Jack's grim demeanor.
"It's good to be back anyway," he said.
"You may not feel that way when you hear what's been goin' on," Jack warned. "We got all kinds o' trouble. You may want to turn around and ride the other way."
Frank said, "I doubt it. Help me get my saddle off this horse, and you can tell me all about it."
Hillman motioned for Junior to give Frank a hand, and as the hostler was doing that, Jack said with sudden alarm in his voice, "Somebody comin'."
Frank glanced up and saw the buggy rolling out of the trees.
"Don't worry," he assured the deputy. "That's my son and daughter-in-law."
Jack's bushy eyebrows lifted in surprise.
"Conrad's back? He didn't seem too fond o' the place last time he was here. He must'a heard about Brighton."
"Who's Brighton?" Frank asked. All he knew, and all Conrad knew, was that there was some question about the legitimacy of the ownership of one of the silver mines near Buckskin.
At one time, during the settlement's first boom days, there had been dozens of mines around here. But then the veins of silver had seemed to play out, the mines had closed down, and Buckskin had almost dried up and blown away. Only a handful of stubborn folks had remained in the settlement, among them Thomas "Tip" Woodford, the owner of a busted mine called the Lucky Lizard.
Then silver had been rediscovered, and with the advances in mining techniques that had been made since the first boom, three of the claims had become highly profitable again, including Woodford's Lucky Lizard and the Browning Mining Syndicate's Crown Royal. The third mine was the Alhambra, owned by Jessica Munro, widow of Hamish Munro. Jessica was an absentee owner, since some folks around here still held grudges because of all the gun trouble and bloodshed caused by her late husband. She had hired a competent superintendent to run the mine, and things had settled down again.
Excerpted from The Last Gunfighter Killing Ground by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
Copyright © 2008 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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