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The Loner: Hard Luck Money
By J. A. Johnstone
Pinnacle BooksCopyright © 2012 J. A. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTexas State Penitentiary, Huntsville, Texas Quint Lupo knew something was wrong. Five years spent behind the thick walls, barbed wire, and iron bars of the prison had honed his instincts to a keen edge.
He figured somebody was going to kill him.
He had plenty of enemies in there, that was for sure. A man couldn't stay locked up for very long without getting on somebody's bad side. Look at a man wrong in the yard, bump into some fella in the mess hall by accident, and the strain of being in prison made everything seem worse than it really was. When that happened, pride often turned it into a killing matter.
When you got right down to it, pride was just about all a locked-up man had left.
As Lupo walked across the yard, his eyes moved constantly, searching for the first sign of trouble.
It was a hot day, and being outside for a few minutes caused him to sweat through his gray convict's uniform. Squinting against the sun's glare, he glanced up at the brassy Texas sky. He looked at the guard towers in two corners of the yard, where guards with Winchesters were posted, ready to open fire instantly if they needed to.
It was Sunday afternoon and convicts were scattered around the yard. Any other day, most of them would have been out working in the fields. The penitentiary raised an assortment of crops, some to feed the prisoners, others to sell. The convicts had to work hard, but truthfully, it wasn't much harder than it would have been if they'd been trying to eke out a living for their families from their own hardscrabble farms.
It wasn't the work, it was the lack of freedom and the memories of being able to come and go as he pleased that got to a man. Lupo remembered vividly how it felt to race across the plains on a good horse. He'd loved it ... even when there was a posse on his trail.
"Hey, Lupo," someone called behind him.
Lupo stopped and turned.
A convict named Leroy Boozer was coming toward him, followed by several of Boozer's friends. The man was tall and burly, with massive arms and a black beard. He looked even bigger and more threatening compared to Lupo's lean build and gray hair.
"What do you want, Boozer?" Lupo asked, thinking once again his instincts had proven accurate. Boozer was a troublemaker, plain and simple. He spent a week or two every month in solitary as a result of the problems he caused.
With a murderous glare, Boozer said, "I hear you been sayin' things about me. Bad things."
Even though he knew it probably wouldn't do any good, Lupo shook his head. "I haven't said anything about you. We have never had anything to do with each other."
"Yeah, because some fancy bank robber like you thinks he's too good to associate with the likes of me!"
Lupo wasn't going to admit that and make the situation worse, but Boozer was right. The man had been sent to Huntsville because he had beaten his own wife and his brother to death with his bare hands. He'd thought they'd been fooling around with each other.
There was no truth to that suspicion, the way Lupo understood it. He figured the real reason Boozer had killed those two people was because he was blind, crazy drunk at the time. He'd been lucky to escape hanging and sentenced to life in prison instead.
Quint Lupo, on the other hand, might have robbed banks and held up trains from one end of Texas to the other, but he had never killed anyone in his life and prided himself on that fact. It was one reason he was determined to serve the remaining ten years of his sentence and then walk the straight and narrow once he was released.
The other reason was his daughter Kate.
"Boozer, I don't want any trouble with you," Lupo said. "I give you my word I haven't been talking about you, and I don't intend to. Whoever told you that was just trying to stir up a fight."
Boozer's glare darkened even more. "Are you callin' my friends liars?" he demanded as he stepped closer. His big hands balled into knobby-knuckled fists. "Are you callin' me a liar?"
It was looking more and more like there was no way out, but Lupo shook his head and tried one more time to ward off violence. "I'm not calling anybody a liar. I'm just saying that someone is mistaken."
"That's the same thing!" Boozer bellowed.
Lupo glanced around. Several guards were in the yard, and they usually kept their eyes on prisoners like Boozer who were known to start trouble.
On that hot afternoon, however, they all seemed to be looking elsewhere.
Lupo wondered suddenly if that was a coincidence. "Listen—"
"I'm tired of listenin' to you!" Boozer yelled. He lunged forward, swinging a big fist at Lupo's head.
The punch would have taken his head off if it connected, so Lupo made sure it didn't. He ducked and let Boozer's fist whip harmlessly over his head.
Boozer wavered, a little off balance.
Stepping in close, Lupo hammered a left and a right into Boozer's midsection. It was almost like hitting the wall of a log cabin. He was quick, and straightened up, driving the top of his head into Boozer's face.
Blood spurted hotly as Boozer's nose flattened under the impact. He roared in mixed pain and anger as he bulled forward, flailing punches that would have done a lot of damage if they'd landed.
Lupo darted this way and that and avoided the big fists. He couldn't match Boozer's strength or reach, but he had superior speed on his side. He landed a couple jabs on Boozer's nose and sprayed more blood into the air. Boozer tried to catch him in a bear hug, but Lupo stepped quickly to the side, thrust his foot between Boozer's ankles, and with a hard jerk of his leg upended the bigger man.
Dust flew in the air as Boozer crashed to the ground.
Before Lupo could take any satisfaction from that, Boozer's cronies were on him, punching and snarling. Lupo blocked as many blows as he could, but some got through and slammed into him. The impact rocked him back. He fought to keep his balance. He knew if he fell, they might kick and stomp the life out of him.
Where were the guards? Why hadn't the men in the towers fired any warning shots? Usually a fight was broken up almost as soon as it started, as long as so many men didn't join in that the fracas turned into a riot.
Lupo got his feet set and drove punches back at the men attacking him. He was badly outnumbered and couldn't hope to win, but his goal was to stay on his feet and fend them off until the guards arrived. His fists cracked against jaws, knocking Boozer's friends away from him, and giving him a momentary respite.
It ended as someone tackled him from behind and knocked him to the ground. A heavy weight pinned him down. Foul breath gusted in his face as Boozer panted, "Now we'll teach you a lesson, bank robber!"
Boozer heaved to his feet and brought Lupo up with him. Lupo's arms were pinned to his sides, so he couldn't defend himself as Boozer's friends closed in and slammed punches to his head. He tried to kick at them, but he couldn't keep them all away.
"Get back! Get back, damn it!" roared a harsh, commanding voice.
Finally, the guards were going to step in. It was about time, Lupo thought. The convicts fell away to the sides, clearing a path for a brawny man in a blue uniform who was carrying a club. Lupo recognized him as one of the guards named Hagen.
He expected Boozer to let go of him, but that didn't happen. Instead the big prisoner's grip on Lupo tightened. Hagen stepped closer, raising the club.
"What are you ..." Lupo managed to gasp out.
"Start a fight in my yard, will you, Lupo?" Hagen yelled. "I'll put a stop to that!"
The club rose and fell. Lupo saw it coming, but there was nothing he could do, nowhere to go. The club smashed against his head with stunning force.
Red light exploded through his brain.
"But I didn't—" That was all he got out before the red light turned to the black of oblivion and claimed him.
Chapter TwoThe Menger Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, several months later
The man called Kid Morgan woke up and stretched his right arm. The redheaded woman cradled in the crook of his left arm stirred as well.
"Is it morning?" Lace McCall murmured in a sleepy voice as she snuggled against him.
The Kid squinted at the bright yellow light coming in around the edges of the curtain over the hotel room window. "Actually, I'd say it's closer to noon."
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He asked himself how long it had been since he'd slept this late, this well, and woke up with a beautiful woman in bed beside him.
Actually, not that long, he thought wryly. The previous morning, to be precise. And that's what he'd done every morning for the past two weeks.
But it still seemed like a novelty. After all the danger that had dogged his trail over the past few years, all the grief and tragedy that had haunted him, to spend even a little time in pleasant surroundings was unusual. To spend a month that way was unheard of.
And yet that was exactly what he'd been doing. Ever since he and Lace had arrived in San Antonio and had their final showdown with the outlaw they'd been trailing, they had taken life easy and enjoyed being with each other.
The Menger was San Antonio's finest hotel, and staying there for such a long time certainly wasn't cheap. Financier and industrialist Conrad Browning could afford it, though. Since Kid Morgan, the young gunfighter with a growing reputation as a fighting man, and Conrad Browning were actually the same person, The Kid didn't worry too much about the expense. The hotel had orders to send the bill to Conrad's lawyers in San Francisco, and they would take care of it.
That allowed him to enjoy himself ... although he did have one worry nagging at his mind.
Lace turned in his arms and raised her head so she could kiss him. The Kid responded eagerly.
Before things could progress any farther, she pulled back slightly. "We can't just go on being this decadent forever."
The Kid grinned. "I don't see why not."
"Well, for one thing, I'm not rich like you are. I have people depending on me."
The Kid frowned, and Lace instantly looked like she regretted the words. They were a reminder that Conrad Browning's wife was dead, and the only family he had left was his father, the notorious gunfighter Frank Morgan.
The Kid pushed that thought away, unwilling to let it intrude on his good mood. It had been a long time since he'd been happy for more than a moment here and there, so he was going to hang on to the pleasant interlude as long as possible.
"Any time you need to send money to your mother and your little girl—" He stopped abruptly, knowing right away he had said the wrong thing. Lace McCall was a prideful woman, something The Kid considered a good quality for the most part, but it sure made her stiff-necked sometimes. It certainly did on the subject of her career as a bounty hunter.
"You can forget that, Kid," she said in a flat, hard voice. "I don't mind letting you pay for hotel rooms and dinners at fancy restaurants, even though some folks would say that makes me a whore. But I draw the line at you taking care of my mama and my daughter. That's my job."
"Of course it is," The Kid said, but knew it was too late. The mood between them had evaporated.
Just as well, he tried to tell himself. The morning was nearly over. It would be time for dinner soon, and he was hungry.
Lace sat up, swung her legs out of bed, and stood. The Kid didn't look at her. She might not be what people would consider classically beautiful, but she had an impact on him like the smash of a bullet.
While they were getting dressed, she said, "Asa's liable to be downstairs waiting for you."
The Kid sighed. "I know. I owe him an answer. I promised I'd think about his proposition and let him know my decision."
"Have you made up your mind?" Lace asked. "Are you going to take him up on the job offer?"
"I don't know," The Kid replied honestly.
Three weeks earlier, in the aftermath of the deadly quest that had brought them all together, Texas Ranger Asa Culhane had come to see The Kid and Lace at the Menger. He'd had a proposition for The Kid. In his mind's eye, The Kid could still see the badge in the shape of a silver star in a silver circle Culhane had held out to him on an open palm.
"This is yours if you want it, Kid," Culhane had told him that day.
It wasn't everybody who was asked to join the Texas Rangers. The Kid had done a lot of things in his life, before he gave up his identity as Conrad Browning and after, but becoming a Ranger wasn't one of them. He'd never even considered anything like that.
He didn't think it was a good idea. He had gotten in the habit of drifting and being his own boss. If he was a Ranger, he'd be tied down and would have to follow orders. So he was leaning toward rejecting Culhane's offer.
On the other hand, he had a great deal of admiration for the crusty old lawman, and if Culhane thought he'd make a good Ranger, maybe he would. Culhane had talked his superiors into offering the job to The Kid, so in a way his own reputation was riding on The Kid's answer.
"I don't want to think about it right now," The Kid said as he reached for his black Stetson with the concho-studded band.
Lace shrugged as she finished buttoning the high neck on her dress. Whenever she was on the trail of a wanted outlaw, she wore boots, buckskins, and range clothes, but in town, when she wasn't working, she seemed to enjoy dressing like a lady.
"That's up to you." She turned to face him. "But if it makes any difference, I think you should know I'm going to be leaving pretty soon."
The Kid frowned. "What are you talking about?" "I told you, I have to take care of my family. I've heard a rumor that Jake Cisneros has been spotted down around Del Rio. There's a fifteen hundred dollar bounty on his head, and I could sure use it."
The Kid had to bite his tongue to keep from saying he could send a wire to Claudius Turnbuckle in San Francisco and have the lawyer send fifteen hundred dollars to Lace before the day was over. He could have ten times that much sent to her, and the accounts Turnbuckle managed for him would never miss that drop in the bucket.
But if he said anything like that, Lace would have her horse saddled and ride out of San Antonio so quick it would make a person's head spin. The Kid knew it, so he said, "I haven't heard of Cisneros."
"He's one of those border bandits who raid back and forth across the Rio Grande. The U.S. and Mexico both have rewards out for him."
"Sounds like a mighty dangerous man," The Kid commented.
"He is." Lace gave him a meaningful look. "But I'm dangerous, too."
The Kid couldn't argue with that.
Before leaving the room, he buckled a gunbelt around his hips. Most men didn't carry guns in a big city like San Antonio, but The Kid had gotten into a habit of it and found that habit hard to break.
The gun on his hip as he and Lace started downstairs wasn't the Colt .45 he had carried for the past few years. It was a Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol made in Germany that fired 7.63mm rounds. The Kid thought he might have trouble coming up with ammunition of that caliber while he was on the drift, so he'd stocked up on it while he was in San Antonio.
Lace had one of those Mausers, too. They had taken the pair off Warren Latch, the outlaw they had tracked to San Antonio. Being dead and all, he didn't need them anymore.
The foreign-made pistol held rounds in the clip that extended below its breech and could spew them out in a hurry. The Kid had ridden out of town several times to practice with the weapon and had taken quite a liking to it. If he needed to shoot a bunch of hombres in a short period of time, it would come in handy.
He had asked around and found a Mexican artisan who crafted custom leather goods. The old man had fashioned a special holster for the Mauser and equipped it with a spring that made The Kid's already fast draw even faster. In his hands the pistol was a supremely efficient killing machine.
Of course, some people said the same thing about Kid Morgan himself.
Excerpted from The Loner: Hard Luck Money by J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2012 by J. A. 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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