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The Loner: Crossfire
By J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 J. A. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAll roads lead home. Conrad Browning had heard someone say that once. He didn't understand it, and he definitely didn't agree with it. Maybe it was true for some people, but not for him.
In order for it to be true, he would have to have a home. And he didn't, not anymore. Looking at Carson City, Nevada, he felt nothing. Although he had lived here, it was just the place where his wife had been kidnapped, a crime that had culminated in her brutal murder.
He had been raised in Boston, but that wasn't home, either, as he had discovered on his most recent visit. It was the place where he had met Pamela Tarleton and become engaged to her, the single worst mistake of his life. The mistake that ultimately had brought him nothing but tragedy and grief.
Standing on the steps of the hospital in Carson City, Conrad gave a little shake of his head to break himself out of that grim reverie. He went inside, a tall, sandy-haired, ruggedly handsome man in his middle twenties wearing a black suit, black boots, and a black Stetson.
And a black leather gunbelt and holster that held a new Colt Frontier revolver with checkered, hard rubber grips embossed with an oval containing the Colt symbol.
It was a heavy, double-action weapon chambered for .44-40 cartridges, the same ammunition used by the Winchester Model 1892 rifle he owned. He had bought the Colt soon after he arrived in Carson City, and in the two weeks since, had practiced with it as much as possible, until he was able to handle the gun like it was another part of his body.
That was important, considering how often someone tried to kill him. There hadn't been any attempts on his life since he'd arrived, but he knew that was bound to change.
He took off his hat and went to the desk in the hospital lobby where a white-uniformed nurse greeted him with a smile. Conrad knew a lot of the nurses were smitten with him, but that didn't mean much to him.
"Good morning, Mr. Browning. You're here to see your friend?"
Conrad nodded. "That's right. How's he doing?"
"Mr. Vincenzo is doing very well," the nurse reported. "Dr. Taggart says he's getting stronger all the time. You can go on up to his room if you'd like."
"Thanks." Conrad returned her smile. He'd been raised to be polite.
Arturo's room was on the second floor. Conrad went up the wide, curving staircase, still holding his hat. Nurses and doctors passed him in the corridor, most of them smiling and nodding to him, occasionally speaking. He was a familiar sight. He had spent practically every visiting hour available at the hospital since he'd brought in his friend.
Conrad pushed open the door of the private room. It was a bright, cheery place, at least for a hospital. Morning sunlight spilled brilliantly through a window with the curtains pushed back. It was the finest room available, as Conrad had ordered. He could afford the best.
Arturo Vincenzo was sitting up in bed with pillows propped behind him, reading a novel by William Dean Howells. When he was healthy, he was a tall, slender, vaguely bird-like man with thinning brown hair. In the hospital, he was paler than usual, not having seen the sun for a while, and the ordeal he had gone through had etched some additional lines in his face and given him a certain gaunt aspect.
Arturo had suffered a bullet wound in the chest—a bullet intended for Conrad—and had come very close to dying. The local medico in Cavendish, Nevada, the small settlement where the shooting had taken place, wasn't much good as a doctor, but somehow he had kept Arturo from bleeding to death and had stabilized his condition enough so Conrad was able to get him on the train and take him to Carson City.
Once the train arrived, an ambulance wagon had carried Arturo from the depot to the hospital, and the doctor who had taken over the case had operated almost immediately to repair the damage caused to Arturo's right lung where the bullet nicked it. The slug had broken a rib, too.
Now it was just a matter of rest and recuperation, and Conrad thought Arturo looked a little better, a little stronger, every day. For a man who had never appeared to be much of a physical specimen, Arturo had proven to be surprisingly hardy and resilient.
He marked his place in the book and set it aside. "Good morning, sir."
Conrad smiled. "I think you can stop calling me sir," he said, although he knew it probably wouldn't do much good.
"I am still in your employ, am I not?"
"Of course you are. You've got a job for as long as you want it, either with me or Claudius Turnbuckle. Claudius made that clear in his wire."
Turnbuckle was a partner in the San Francisco law firm of Turnbuckle & Stafford. He and John J. Stafford were also good friends to Conrad and had been handling many of his business affairs for years, ever since Conrad had inherited half of the lucrative Browning financial holdings from his late mother Vivian.
The other half of Vivian's estate had gone to Conrad's father, the notorious gunfighter Frank Morgan, better known as The Drifter. Like Conrad, Frank didn't take any active interest in the business. He had never paid much attention to it. Frank was content to wander, as he had been doing for decades before he inherited a fortune, and most of the time Conrad had no idea where his father was.
As soon as Arturo was out of immediate danger and recovering from surgery, Conrad had gotten in touch with Turnbuckle and made arrangements to have all the medical expenses taken care of. He had also advised Turnbuckle that he would be arriving in San Francisco sometime in the relatively near future. Turnbuckle knew the details of the quest that had taken Conrad across the country from Boston, and Conrad knew he could count on the lawyer for help.
When Conrad broke his engagement to Pamela Tarleton in order to marry beautiful, blond Rebel Callahan, Pamela had been pregnant, something Conrad hadn't known at the time. She had returned to Boston and given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, naming them Frank and Vivian after Conrad's parents.
Then she had hidden them away before embarking on a campaign of vengeance against Conrad, whom she blamed not only for breaking their engagement but also for the death of her railroad baron father, a criminal who had actually been murdered by his own partner in corruption. Pamela didn't see it that way, and her lust for revenge had resulted in Rebel's death and in numerous attempts on Conrad's life, even after Pamela herself had been killed accidentally while trying to carry out one of her schemes.
One of her cruelest blows had come from beyond the grave, in a letter she'd written that was delivered to Conrad by one of her relatives. In that missive calculated to tear his heart out, she had informed him that he was a father and practically dared him to find his hidden children.
Since then, with the help of Arturo, a valet and all-around assistant who had come to be a good friend, Conrad had been on a cross-country search for the twins.
He knew Pamela had taken the children and set out from Boston for San Francisco. Fearing she might have stashed them somewhere, he had taken his time and asked questions about them at every settlement along the railroad. Because of that, he knew the twins had still been with Pamela when she had reached Nevada.
It wasn't far to San Francisco, and every instinct in his body told him she had taken them with her all the way to the coast. He had decided to bypass the rest of the smaller settlements and head directly for the city by the bay. Although it was a gamble, his instincts told him it might pay off.
Arturo broke into his thoughts. "You're brooding about Miss Tarleton and the children again, aren't you, sir?"
Conrad sighed. "Sorry. I should be more worried about you right now."
"Nonsense," Arturo responded without hesitation. "I'm feeling much better, and Dr. Taggart says my condition is improving on a daily basis. In fact, he told me there's no reason for you to remain here for the duration of my recuperative period. You can proceed to San Francisco any time you wish."
Conrad smiled. "Are you sure Dr. Taggart said that, or is that you talking?"
"It's true that I don't wish to delay you"—Arturo rolled his eyes—"and Lord knows the evidence indicates you have a difficult time taking care of yourself without me around."
"That's true," Conrad said, thinking of all the times Arturo had helped save his life.
"But you can ask the doctor for yourself if you'd like," Arturo went on. "He and the nurses are perfectly capable of looking after me, and since all the financial arrangements have already been made with Mr. Turnbuckle"—Arturo shrugged—"there's really no reason for you to stay, is there?"
"I suppose there's not," Conrad agreed. "Other than the fact that I'll miss you."
"I'll be well enough to travel in another week or ten days, according to the doctor. At that time, I'll come straightaway to San Francisco and contact Mr. Turnbuckle. You'll keep him apprised of your current activities and whereabouts?"
"I'm sure I will."
"Well, there you go. Good-bye. Have a good trip to 'Frisco'."
"I've heard the people who live there don't like that name," Conrad said with a smile.
"Perhaps not, but we don't live there, do we?"
Grinning, Conrad shook his head. "Nope." He put his hat on. "All right, I won't argue with you. I'll head for the train station right now and see when the next westbound is due." He put out his hand. "Thanks for everything, Arturo. I'm sorry you may miss out on the end of this."
"As long as your quest is successful, sir, that's all I care about." Arturo shook Conrad's hand.
"I'm going to find the doctor and talk to him before I go, just to make sure he thinks it's all right."
"I would expect nothing less from you, sir."
Dr. Liam Taggart, a middle-aged man with the sad face of a hound, nodded and agreed with Arturo's suggestion when Conrad talked to him a few minutes later. "Mr. Vincenzo's recovery is coming along splendidly. We'll take good care of him. You can go on about your business without worrying, Mr. Browning."
"I'm glad to hear that. If you need anything, Doctor, don't hesitate to wire my attorneys in San Francisco. They'll handle everything."
Taggart nodded. "Of course."
Conrad left the hospital. It was a beautiful day. The air was crystal-clear, and the mountains near Carson City seemed close enough to reach out and touch. As he gazed at the splendor around him, he avoided a certain area. He didn't want to look at, or think about, Black Rock Canyon, the place where Rebel had died. Unfortunately, once those dark thoughts entered his head, it was almost impossible to banish them.
The sudden roar of a shot and the sound of a bullet whipping past his ear did the job.
Chapter TwoInstinct took over, as it always did when danger threatened. Conrad's hand stabbed toward the Colt on his hip as he whirled.
His keen eyes instantly spotted two men with guns about twenty feet from him. They stood next to a parked wagon, evidently intending to use it for cover if they needed to. Smoke curled from the revolver held by one man, and the other would-be assassin was lining up his shot.
Conrad crouched and fired as the second man squeezed off a round. The two reports blended together into one blast. The gunman's aim was a little high and Conrad heard the slug whine over his head.
Conrad's bullet slammed into the gunman's left shoulder. The impact was enough to make him cry out in pain and spin to the pavement as he dropped his gun and clutched at his bullet-shattered shoulder.
The first man fired again, but he was on the move. His shot went wild and missed Conrad by several feet. Someone screamed behind him and he knew the stray bullet must have found an unintended target.
As the gunman darted around the horses hitched to the wagon, Conrad held his fire. He didn't want to hit any of the animals.
The man he had wounded was groping for the gun he'd dropped a few seconds earlier. Conrad kicked the revolver as he dashed toward the wagon and sent the gun spinning along the street, well out of reach. The wounded man groaned and slumped on the pavement again as he appeared to pass out from the shock of his injury.
Conrad knew the man he had shot ought to survive. It was unlikely he would bleed to death since he was practically on the front steps of the hospital. Wanting at least one of the bushwhackers alive to question, Conrad ran after the one who had disappeared into the mouth of the alley across the street, between a saloon and a hardware store.
All along the street, people were yelling and scattering, getting out of the line of fire. He pressed his back to the front wall of the saloon next to the alley and listened.
He didn't hear running footsteps, but was pretty sure he heard harsh breathing coming from deeper in the alley. The man was waiting for him. As soon as he showed himself, he'd be silhouetted in the mouth of the alley and the gunman would open fire.
Instead of waltzing right into that trap, Conrad slapped aside the batwings and hurried into the saloon. People gawked at him and got out of his way as he headed toward the stairs at the back of the room. A bartender with a bungstarter gripped firmly in his hand moved to block Conrad's path. "Hey, mister, what do you think you're—"
He stopped short and stepped back from the cold-eyed glance Conrad gave him.
Taking the stairs three at a time, Conrad got to the second floor landing in a hurry. Turning to the right, beside the alley where the bushwhacker was hidden, he jerked open the closest door and found the shabby bedroom inside empty. He went to the open window and peered out cautiously.
He saw what he wanted to see. About a dozen feet from the street, the gunman crouched behind a rain barrel, watching the mouth of the alley. His gun was leveled over the top of the barrel, and all his attention was focused in that direction as he waited for Conrad to appear.
It would have been easy for Conrad to gun him down from the window. But when you shot somebody, there was always a risk you would kill them. He didn't want that. He wanted the man to talk and reveal who had hired him to murder Conrad Browning.
As if the answer would come as any surprise ...
The window in the next room was almost directly above the place where the gunman was hidden. Conrad hurried there and opened the door. He wasn't lucky enough to find the room unoccupied. A redheaded woman clutched the sheet on the bed to her naked bosom, which was ample enough that it wasn't easily covered. Beside the bed, a fat, pale, hairy gent was struggling frantically to get back into his clothes.
Conrad saw the anger on her face and knew she was about to yell at him. He held the index finger of his left hand to his mouth in a shushing gesture and showed her the gun in his right hand. Her eyes, as well as her mouth, opened wide, but the only sound that came from her was a frightened little squeak.
Half dressed, the redhead's customer rushed past Conrad and out the door, obviously determined to get as far away as fast as he could.
Conrad moved silently toward the open window and looked out. The bushwhacker was still below in the alley, crouched behind the barrel.
Judging the distance from the window to the ground, Conrad decided the drop wouldn't be too bad. He slid his Colt back in its holster and lifted a leg over the windowsill. He had just gotten his second leg out the window and was perched on the sill when heavy footsteps pounded into the room behind him and a deep voice bellowed, "Hold it right there, mister! You can't just—"
Conrad glanced over his shoulder and saw a big man with a lawman's badge pinned to his coat entering the room with a shotgun in his hands. Somebody had called the law on the loco hombre who had run into the saloon brandishing a six-shooter.
The man in the alley heard the shout, and jerked his head up toward the window. His eyes widened in surprise and he lifted his gun up, but Conrad had already let go and leaped toward him.
Conrad crashed on top of the man and drove him against the rain barrel, which turned over and sent water flooding into the alley. They rolled over the barrel and were spilled into the dirty lake that had formed. Conrad clamped his left hand on the man's right wrist and shoved the gun aside as a shot blasted from it. The slug thudded into the wall of the hardware store next door.
Excerpted from The Loner: Crossfire by J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2011 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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