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Last Gunfighter Drifter
By William W. Johnstone
Zebra BooksISBN: 0-8217-6476-4
Chapter OneBrown County, Texas, and all the violence that had taken place there were a long way behind Frank Morgan now. He was riding southward toward the Rio Grande, taking his time, in no hurry to get where he was going ... wherever that was. Someplace where his past might not catch up to him. A haven where he could go unrecognized.
But as idyllic as that sounded, Frank Morgan knew there wasn't much chance that he would ever find such a sanctuary.
It was hard to blend in when you were the last of the really fast guns.
Some of the others were still alive-Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Smoke Jensen were three that Frank could think of right off the top of his head. Somehow they had managed to settle down. John Wesley Hardin was still alive too, but he was in prison. Bill Hickok, Ben Thompson, Doc Holliday, Luke Short ... They were all dead, along with most of the other shootists and pistoleers who had made a name for themselves at one time or another on the frontier.
It was a sad time, in a way. A dying time. But a man couldn't stop the march of progress and so-called civilization. Nor was Frank Morgan the sort of hombre to brood about it and cling to the fading shadows of what once had been. He looked to the future, not the past.
Now the future meant finding a warm, hospitable place to spend the winter. It was November, and up north the snow and the frigid winds were already roaring down out of Canada to sweep across the mountains and the plains, all the way down to the Texas Panhandle. Hundreds of miles south of the Panhandle, however, here in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the temperature was quite pleasant. Frank even had the sleeves of his blue work shirt rolled up a couple of turns on his muscular forearms.
He was a lean, well-built man of middle years, with gray streaking the thick dark hair under his Stetson. His range clothes were of good quality, as was his saddle. A Colt .45 was holstered on his hip, and the stock of a Winchester stuck up from a saddle sheath under his right leg. He rode a fine-looking Appaloosa called Stormy and led a dun-colored packhorse. The big shaggy cur known as Dog padded alongside him as Frank rode down a trail that cut its way through the thick chaparral covering the mostly flat landscape.
Frank didn't know exactly where he was, but he thought he must be getting close to the Rio Grande. Some sleepy little border village would be a good spot to pass the winter, he mused. Cool beer, some tortillas and beans and chili, maybe a pretty señorita or two to keep him company ... It sounded fine to Frank. Maybe not heaven, but likely as close as a gunfighter like him would ever get.
Into every heavenly vision, though, a little hell had to intrude. The distant popping of gunfire suddenly came to Frank's ears.
He reined in and frowned. The shots continued, coming fast and furious. They were still a ways off, but they were getting closer, without a doubt. He heard the rumble of hoofbeats too. Some sort of running gun battle, Frank decided.
And it was running straight toward him.
He had never been one to dodge trouble. There just wasn't any backing down in his nature. Instead he nudged his heels into Stormy's sides and sent the Appaloosa trotting forward. Whatever was coming at him, Frank Morgan would go right out to meet it.
Now he could see dust clouds boiling in the air ahead of him, kicked up by all the horses he heard. A moment later, the trail he was following intersected a road at a sharp angle. The pursuit was on the road itself, which was wide enough for a couple of wagons and a half-dozen or so riders.
Only one wagon came toward Frank, a buckboard that swayed and bounced as it careened along the road. The dust from the hooves of the team pulling it obscured the occupants to a certain extent, but Frank thought he saw two men on the buckboard, one handling the reins while the other twisted around on the seat and fired a rifle back at the men giving chase.
There were more than a dozen of those, Frank saw. He estimated the number at twenty. They rode bunched up, the ones in the lead banging away at the fleeing buckboard with six-guns. The gap between hunter and hunted was about fifty yards, too far for accurate handgun fire, especially from the saddle of a racing horse. But the rifleman on the buckboard didn't seem to be having much better luck. The group of riders surged on without slowing.
Frank had no idea who any of these men were and didn't know which side he ought to take in this fight. But he'd always had a natural sympathy for the underdog, so he didn't like the idea of two against twenty.
He liked it even less when one of the horses in the team suddenly went down, probably the result of stepping in a prairie-dog hole. The horse screamed in pain, a shrill sound that Frank heard even over the rattle of gunfire and the pounding of hoofbeats. Probably a broken leg, he thought in the instant before the fallen horse pulled down the other members of the team and caused the buckboard to overturn violently. The two men who had been in it flew through the air like rag dolls.
Frank sent Stormy surging forward at a gallop. He didn't know if the men had survived the wreck or not, but it was a cinch they were out of the fight, at least for the moment, and wouldn't survive the next few seconds unless somebody helped them. He drew the Winchester and guided Stormy with his knees as he brought the rifle to his shoulder and blazed away, firing as fast as he could work the repeater's lever.
He put the first couple of bullets over the heads of the pursuers to see if they would give up the chase. When they didn't but kept attacking instead, sending a couple of bullets whizzing past him, Frank had no choice but to lower his aim. Stormy's smooth gait and Frank's years of experience meant that he was a good shot even from the hurricane deck. His bullets laced into the crowd of gunmen in the road.
Frank was close enough now to see that most of the pursuers wore high-crowned, broad-brimmed sombreros. Bandidos from below the border, he thought. A few men in American range garb were mixed in the group, but that came as no surprise. Gringo outlaws sometimes crossed the Rio Grande and fell in with gangs of Mexican raiders. A man who was tough enough and ruthless enough-and good enough with a gun-could usually find a home for himself with others of his kind, no matter where he was.
Two of the bandits plunged off their horses as Frank's shots ripped through them, and a couple of others sagged in their saddles and dropped out of the fight, obviously wounded. The other men reined their mounts to skidding, sliding halts that made even more dust billow up from the hard-packed caliche surface of the road. Clearly, they hadn't expected to run into opposition like that which Frank was putting up now.
But the odds were still on their side, and after a moment of hesitation they attacked again, yelling curses and firing as they came toward the overturned wagon.
Both of the men who had been thrown from the wreck staggered to their feet as Frank came closer. He didn't know how badly they were hurt, but at least they were conscious and able to move around. They stumbled toward the shelter of the buckboard as bullets flew around them.
While Stormy was still galloping, Frank swung down from the saddle, as good a running dismount as anyone could make. He had the Winchester in his left hand. With his right, he slapped the Appaloosa on the rump and ordered, "Stormy, get out of here! You too, Dog!"
The horse veered off into the chaparral at the side of the road, finding an opening in the thorny stuff. The big cur was more reluctant, obviously hesitant to abandon his master in the middle of a fight. Frank didn't want to have to worry about him while he was battling for his life, though, so he added, "Dog, go!"
With a growl, Dog disappeared into the brush.
Frank ran to the wagon and joined the two men who were already crouched behind it, firing revolvers at the charging bandidos. The man who had been using the rifle earlier had lost the weapon when the buckboard flipped over. Both of them had managed to hang on to their handguns, though.
The buckboard was on its side, turned crossways in the road. The horses had struggled back to their feet, except for the one with the broken leg, and they lunged and reared in their traces, maddened by the gunfire and the reeking clouds of powder smoke that drifted through the air. A couple of them had been wounded by flying lead.
Frank rested his Winchester on the buckboard and opened fire again, placing his shots carefully now that he had a chance to aim. One of the raiders flipped backward out of the saddle as if he had been swatted by a giant hand, and another fell forward over his mount's neck before slipping off and landing under the horse's slashing hooves.
Bullets pounded into the buckboard like a deadly hailstorm of lead. The thick boards stopped most of them, but a few of the rounds punched through, luckily missing Frank and his two companions. The shots from the men fighting alongside him were taking a toll on the attackers as well. Less than half of the bandidos were unscathed so far. The others had been either killed or wounded.
The Winchester ran dry. Frank dropped it and drew his Colt. The range was plenty close enough now for an expert pistol shot like The Drifter. He triggered twice and was rewarded by the sight of another rider plummeting from the saddle.
The gang of bandidos had had enough. They wheeled their horses, still snapping shots at the buckboard as they did so, and then lit a shuck out of there. Frank and the two men threw a few shots after them to hurry them on their way, but the riders were out of pistol range in a matter of moments.
Frank holstered the Colt and picked up the Winchester, then proceeded to reload the rifle with cartridges from his pocket in case the raiders turned around and tried again. From the looks of it, though, the bandits had no intention of returning. The dust cloud their horses kicked up dwindled in the distance.
"Keep riding, you bastards!" growled the older of the two men from the buckboard as he shook a fist after the bandidos. "Don't stop until you get back across the border to hell, as far as I'm concerned!"
The man was stocky and grizzled, with a graying, close-cropped beard. Most of his head was bald. His hands and face had a weathered, leathery look, an indication that he had spent most of his life outdoors.
The second man was younger, taller, and clean-shaven, but he bore a resemblance to the older man that Frank recognized right away. He pegged them as father and son, or perhaps uncle and nephew. Both men were dressed in well-kept range clothes that would have looked better if they hadn't been covered in trail dust. They had the appearance of successful cattlemen about them.
Frank spotted the other rifle lying on the ground about twenty feet away. He nodded toward it and said, "Better pick up that repeater, just in case they come back."
The older man snorted contemptuously. "They won't be back! Bunch of no-good, cowardly dogs! They travel in a pack and won't attack unless the odds are ten to one in their favor."
"And we cut those odds down in a hurry," the younger man said. He hurried over to retrieve the rifle anyway, Frank noted.
The riders had disappeared in the distance now, without even any dust showing. Deciding that they were truly gone, Frank walked out from behind the buckboard and went to check on the men who had fallen from their horses during the fight. He counted seven of them. Six were already dead, and the seventh was unconscious and badly wounded. Blood bubbled from his mouth in a crimson froth with every ragged breath he took, and Frank heard the air whistling through bullet-punctured lungs. The man dragged in one last breath and then let it out in a shuddery sigh, dying without regaining consciousness.
Frank's expression didn't change as he watched the man pass over the divide. Any man's death diminishes me, John Donne had written, and in a philosophical way Frank supposed there might be some truth to that. Donne, however, had never swapped lead with a bandido.
Five of the men were Mexicans, typical south-of-the-border hardcases. The other two were Americans of the same sort. Frank checked their pockets, found nothing but spare shells for their guns and some coins.
A pistol shot made him look around. The younger man had just put the injured horse out of its misery.
Frank walked back to the buckboard. The younger man began unhitching the team and trying to calm the horses. The older man met Frank with a suspicious look. He asked, "Who are you, mister? Why'd you jump into that fracas on our side?"
"My name's Morgan," Frank said, "and I just thought it looked like you could use a hand. I never have liked an unfair fight."
The man nodded and wiped the back of his hand across his nose, which was bleeding a little. That seemed to be the only injury either of them had suffered in the wreck of the buckboard. They had been mighty lucky.
"Well, the boy an' me are much obliged. My name's Cecil Tolliver. That's my son Ben."
Ben Tolliver paused in what he was doing to look over at Frank and nod. "Howdy." He turned back to the horses and then paused and looked at Frank again. "Wouldn't be Frank Morgan, would it? The one they call The Drifter?"
Frank tried not to sigh. Just once, he thought, he would like to ride in somewhere and not have somebody recognize him almost right away.
And it would have been nice too if nobody shot at him.
Chapter Two"Yes, I'm Frank Morgan," he admitted.
Cecil Tolliver frowned. "I don't mean to sound ignorant, mister, but I don't reckon I've heard of you."
Ben came over and held out his hand to Frank. "That's because you never read any dime novels," he explained to his father. "Mr. Morgan here is a famous gunfighter."
Tolliver grunted. "I never had time for such foolishness, boy. I was too busy tryin' to build the Rockin' T into a decent spread. You was the one who always had your nose in the Police Gazette."
Frank shook hands with both of them and said to Ben, "Most of what's been written about me in those dime novels and the illustrated weeklies was a pack of lies made up by gents who don't know much about the real West."
"You can't deny, though, that you've had your share of gunfights," Ben said.
Frank inclined his head in acknowledgment of that point. "More than my share," he allowed.
"Well, we're much obliged for the help, whether you're famous or not," Tolliver said. "If you hadn't come along when you did, I reckon Almanzar's boys would've done in me and Ben."
"Almanzar," Frank repeated. "I'm not familiar with the name. Is he the leader of that gang of bandidos?"
"You could call him that. He runs the rancho where those gunnies work."
Now it was Frank's turn to frown. He waved his left hand toward the sprawled bodies of the raiders and said, "Those don't look like vaqueros or cowhands to me."
"That's because Almanzar's a low-down skunk who hires killers rather than decent hombres."
"Sounds like you don't care for the man."
"I got no use for him," Tolliver said stiffly. "Him and me been feudin' ever since I came to this part of the country, nigh on to thirty years ago. Almanzar specializes in wet cattle, if you know what I mean."
Frank understood the term, all right. It referred to stock rustled from one side of the river and driven to the other. Down here in this border country, a lot of cattle had gotten their bellies wet over the past few decades, going in both directions across the Rio Grande.
Young Ben spoke up. "You don't know that Don Felipe has been rustling our cows, Pa."
"I know all I need to know," Tolliver replied with a disgusted snort. "Almanzar's a thief and a bloody-handed reiver, and this ain't the first time he's tried to have me killed!"
Obviously, there was trouble going on around here, Frank thought. Just as obviously, it was none of his business. But by taking a hand in this gun battle, he had probably dealt himself into the game, whether he wanted that or not. If Cecil Tolliver was correct about Don Felipe Almanzar sending those gunmen after him and his son, then Almanzar would be likely to want vengeance on Frank for killing several of his men.
Excerpted from Last Gunfighter Drifter by William W. Johnstone Excerpted by permission.
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