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The Last Gunfighter Montana Gundown
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was nice to be home.
Of course, a man like him didn't have a home in the strictest sense of the word like most folks did, Frank Morgan reflected as he and his friend, the old-timer named Salty Stevens, rode through a valley with majestic mountains looming over it.
There was a good reason Frank was known as the Drifter. Every time he had tried to put down roots in the past thirty years or so, something had happened to prevent it.
Often something tragic.
Despite that, he had grown to regard the entire American West as his home. Recently he had spent time in Alaska and Canada, and while he had to admit that those places were spectacularly beautiful, it was nice to be back in the sort of frontier country where he felt most comfortable.
Cattle country, like the places where he had grown up in Texas, even though this particular valley was located in Montana. Frank saw stock grazing here and there on lush grass. This was his kind of territory, and his kind of people lived here.
"Pretty, ain't it?" Salty asked, as if reading Frank's mind.
Frank nodded and said, "Yep."
"Well, don't get all carried away and start waxin' poetical about it."
Frank grinned. The expression softened the rugged lines of his face ... a little.
He was a broad-shouldered, powerfully built man who had been wandering the West for more than thirty years since coming home to Texas as a youngster after the Civil War. It was not long after that he discovered, through no fault of his own, how fast and deadly accurate with a gun he was.
Other people became aware of that natural talent of his. Some tried to use him to their advantage. Others just wanted to test their own skills against his in contests where the stakes were life and death.
And with each man that fell to his gun, Frank Morgan's reputation grew. He left his home in search of peace, but gun trouble followed him, and as years passed and men died, the reputation became more than that.
It became a legend.
He was tagged with the nickname Drifter because of his habit of never staying in one place for very long, but some folks had started calling him the Last Gunfighter. In these days when the dawn of a new century was closing in fast, most people considered the Old West to be finished.
Hell, it had been more than twenty years since Jack McCall put a bullet in the back of Wild Bill Hickok's head in the Number 10 Saloon in Deadwood. Wes Hardin was dead, too, also shot in the back of the head by a coward; Ben Thompson had gone under; Smoke Jensen was living the peaceful life of a rancher in Colorado; and nobody quite knew what had happened to Matt Bodine.
So it was understandable that people considered Frank Morgan to be the last of a dying breed, that of the shootist and pistolero. In truth, he wasn't. There were still quite a number of men in the West who were quick on the draw and deadly with their guns. They just didn't attain the notoriety such men once had. The newspaper and magazine writers liked to write about how modern and civilized everything was.
Only the dime novelists still cared about the frontier. They never got all the details right, but there was some truth in the feelings they conveyed. Even Frank, who had been cast as the hero of a number of those lurid, yellow-backed, totally fictional tales, had come to this realization.
Clad in worn range clothes, including a faded blue bib-front shirt and a high-crowned gray Stetson, Frank rode easy in the saddle of a leggy golden sorrel stallion he had dubbed Goldy. He was leading the rangy gray known as Stormy, and a big, wolflike cur called Dog trotted alongside the horses. Frank, Stormy, and Dog had been trail partners for a long time, and although Goldy was younger, he had fit in with them, too.
Salty wore a fringed buckskin vest over his flannel shirt with a battered old hat pushed down on his thatch of white hair, which matched his bristling beard. He rode a pinto pony and led a sturdy packhorse. The packs were full of supplies given to them by Bob Coburn, an old friend of Frank's and the owner of the Circle C ranch where they had spent the past few weeks.
Dog, Stormy, and Goldy had been watched over by a livery owner in Seattle for months while Frank was off adventuring in the Great White North. But on receiving a telegram from Frank, the man had put the animals in a livestock car and a train had delivered them to a siding near the Circle C. Frank and Salty had ridden down from Canada to pick them up at the ranch, and the reunion between Frank and his old friends had been a happy one.
For a while, Frank had been content to stay there and visit with Bob. He got a kick out of demonstrating gun and rope tricks for the rancher's ten-year-old son. Salty spent hours telling wild, hair-raising stories to the youngster, who seemed to have a knack of his own for yarn-spinning. It was a pleasant time.
Eventually, Frank got up one morning and knew it was time to move on. That was why he and Salty were now ambling along this valley in a generally eastward direction. Where it would take them, Frank had no idea.
He didn't figure it really mattered all that much.
"Are we still goin' to Mexico?" Salty asked. "We been talkin' about it for a good long time."
"We said we were going to spend the winter there," Frank pointed out. "It's not winter anymore. It's the middle of summer, and a beautiful one at that."
"Yeah, but Mexico's a long ways off. Take us a pretty good spell to get there, especially since you don't believe in gettin' in no hurry. I figure we should start thinkin' about headin' in that direction."
Frank nodded slowly and said, "We can do that. Start thinking about it, I mean."
"You're a dadgummed deliberate cuss, you know that?"
"A man gets that way when the years start piling up on him."
Salty snorted and said, "There's been a heap more of 'em pile up on me than on you."
They could have bantered like this for hours, rocking along peacefully in the saddle in the midst of this spectacularly beautiful scenery.
Unfortunately, trouble reared its ugly head in the form of an outbreak of gunshots somewhere not far away.
Both men reined their mounts to a halt. Salty looked over at Frank and said, "Oh, Lord. You're thinkin' about gettin' in the big middle of that ruckus, whatever it is, ain't you?"
"I'm curious," Frank allowed.
The shots continued to bang and roar. They were closer now. Frank's keen eyes suddenly spotted movement in a line of pine trees about two hundred yards ahead.
A second later, four men on horseback burst out of the trees. They lashed at their mounts with the reins, urging every bit of speed they could out of the animals.
"They're headed for them rocks!" Salty exclaimed.
Frank saw the clump of boulders off to the left and knew the old-timer was right. The rocks offered the nearest cover for those fugitives.
They might not make it, because an even larger group of riders emerged from the pines about a hundred yards behind them. More than a dozen men were all throwing lead after the four fugitives.
Most of them were using handguns, and Frank knew the range was too far for such weapons. A few of the pursuers had Winchesters. The sharper crack of the repeaters mixed with the boom of the revolvers. A lucky shot might bring down one of the men fleeing toward the boulders.
"What're you doin'?" Salty yelped as Frank reached for his own Winchester.
"Figured I'd even the odds a little."
"We don't know who those hombres are," Salty argued. "Might be owlhoots, and that could be a posse after 'em."
"That's why I intend to aim high," Frank said as he levered a round into the Winchester's chamber and lifted the rifle to his shoulder.
He knew Salty was right. It wasn't very smart to get in the middle of a fight when you didn't know who the sides were or what stakes were involved.
But when Frank saw four men being chased by fifteen or twenty, the sense of fairness that was a deeply ingrained part of him kicked up a fuss. He just didn't like the odds.
"Aw, shoot!" Salty muttered. "Well, it's been more'n a month since anybody tried to kill us, so I reckon we're overdue."
He reached for his own Winchester and pulled it out of its sheath.
Frank aimed over the heads of the pursuers, who appeared not to have noticed him or Salty, and pressed the trigger. The Winchester cracked and spat flame.
Now that the ball was open, Frank didn't hesitate. He cranked off five shots as fast as he could work the Winchester's lever. Beside him, Salty's rifle barked several times as he joined in.
The pursuers must have heard the shots, or at least heard the bullets whistling over their heads, because they slowed suddenly and started milling around in confusion. The delay was enough to give the four fugitives a chance to reach the safety of the rocks. As they disappeared behind the boulders, the men who had been chasing them swung around to face the new threat.
They charged toward Frank and Salty.
"Uh-oh," Salty said as he lowered his rifle. "I don't think they're firin' warnin' shots, Frank!"
Salty was right about that. He and Frank were the prey now.
Chapter Two"Come on, Dog!" Frank called as he jammed the Winchester back in its sheath and hauled Goldy around. From the corner of his eye he had spotted a small knoll about fifty yards to their right. That was the closest cover he and Salty could find.
Leading Stormy and the packhorse, the two men pounded toward the little hill. It was barely big enough for all of them to crowd behind it. As they reached the knoll, Frank sensed as much as heard the passage of a bullet close beside his left ear.
The varmints were getting the range.
He swung behind the hill and instantly dropped out of the saddle, pulling the rifle from its sheath as he did so. His feet had barely hit the ground when he charged ten feet or so up the slope and threw himself down on his belly. He yanked his hat off so the crown wouldn't stick up over the top of the knoll and get ventilated by a bullet.
It was a good hat, and he didn't see any point in letting it be damaged.
Also, the grass growing on the knoll would make it harder for the gunmen to see where he and Salty hid. The old-timer bellied down beside Frank and thrust the barrel of his Winchester over the top of the hill.
"We still aimin' high?" Salty asked in a scornful tone that made it clear he didn't think that was a very good idea.
"Reckon we'd better," Frank said. "Those fellas could still be lawmen."
"Mighty trigger-happy badge-toters, if they are," Salty muttered. He squinted over the barrel of his Winchester and squeezed off a shot.
Frank did likewise. He had lowered his aim a little, hoping that some bullets whizzing around their heads would make the men think twice about continuing this fight.
One of the riders suddenly threw up his arms and half-fell out of the saddle, catching himself at the last instant. The man slumped on the back of his horse, obviously badly wounded.
Frank was about to say something to Salty about not following the plan, when he saw puffs of powder-smoke coming from the rocks where the four riders they'd seen earlier had taken shelter. Those fugitives were taking a hand in this game, and considering that they had been the object of the chase to start with, Frank supposed he couldn't blame them.
With the four men in the rocks and Frank and Salty behind the knoll, the gunmen were caught in a cross fire. First one, then another and then the whole group yanked their horses around as they must have realized the bad position they were in. They spurred their mounts and galloped back toward the trees.
Salty lowered his rifle and crowed, "They're lightin' a shuck!"
"For now," Frank agreed as the men disappeared into the pines, including the one who had been wounded. "We'd better be careful, though. They might double back and try again. I think we'll stay right here for a while."
"Really? I figured we'd go talk to those other fellas and find out what this is all about."
"If they want to palaver, they know where to find us. They're probably pretty curious who it was that pulled their bacon out of the fire."
Curious maybe, but definitely cautious. Long minutes crawled by with no sign of the four men emerging from their cover in the boulders.
But then one rider appeared, guiding his horse with his knees and holding his rifle ready in both hands, and the others trailed slowly out of the rocks behind him. They were on the alert for trouble as much as the first man was.
Nothing happened, though, as the four men rode across the grassy flat toward the knoll. Frank and Salty watched them come. When they were about twenty yards away, the men reined in, and the one in the lead called, "You still up there?"
"We're here," Frank said.
"Who are you?"
"Could ask the same thing of you, mister."
The man sheathed his Winchester. He took off a flat-crowned brown hat and sleeved sweat from his forehead. He appeared to be in his midtwenties, a well-set-up young man with brown hair and the sort of permanent tan that indicated he spent his days working outdoors.
Without putting the hat back on, he looked up at the top of the knoll and said, "My name is Hal Embry. My father is Jubal Embry. This is his range we're on, the Boxed E." Hal turned in the saddle and waved his hat at the other three men. "These are three of our hands, Bill Kitson, Ike Morales, and Gage Carlin." The young man put his hat back on. "Now you know who we are. Reckon it's only fair you return the favor."
"I'm Frank. My pard here is called Salty. Just a couple of rannies riding through these parts."
"Well, we're surely obliged to the two of you for taking a hand in that fight, Frank. If you hadn't, Morgan and his gunnies might've done for us."
At the mention of that name, Frank stiffened and glanced over at Salty with a frown. The old-timer shrugged. It wasn't like Morgan was such an uncommon name. There were plenty of hombres carrying it around, all over the West.
Hal Embry went on. "Why don't you come back to the Boxed E headquarters with us? I know my pa would like to thank you, too, and we can offer you a mighty fine dinner in partial payment of the debt. Our cook's the best you'll find in Montana." A sudden grin split the young man's face. "She's my ma."
Salty scratched his beard and said quietly, "I could do with a home-cooked meal. It's been a few days since we left the Circle C, and trail grub just ain't the same as woman-cooked."
Frank felt an instinctive liking for Hal Embry, and the men with him seemed to be sturdy cowhands of the type he knew well and admired.
Besides, he wanted to know more about this man called Morgan, who evidently led a crew of killers.
"All right," Frank called down to Hal. "Hang on, and we'll join you."
He and Salty went down the hill and retrieved their horses. They swung into leather and rode around the knoll, leading Stormy and the packhorse, and Dog came with them.
As they came up to the other men, Frank saw that the three punchers were keeping a watchful eye on the trees. They were being careful, too, in case the gunmen came back and started shooting again.
Hal Embry nodded and said, "I'm pleased to meet you fellas. Just passing through these parts, you said?"
"That's right," Frank told him.
"You don't happen to be acquainted with a man named Gaius Baldridge, do you?"
"Guy Us," Salty repeated with a puzzled frown. "What in tarnation sort of a name is that?"
"Latin," Frank said. "The ancient Romans used it some." He had unexpected bits of knowledge in his head because he was an avid reader and always had a book or two in his saddlebags.
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, it's Latin for lowdown snake," Hal said. "You don't know him, then?"
"Never even heard of him until just this minute," Frank replied with a shake of his head.
"That's what I figured, since Brady Morgan works for him and that was Morgan and his men you were shooting at. But since you just rode into this part of the country, it was possible Baldridge might have sent for you."
"To do what?" Frank asked, although he suddenly had a hunch that he might know the answer.
"To sign on as regulators for him."
Excerpted from The Last Gunfighter Montana Gundown by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2012 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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