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The Loner: TRAIL OF BLOOD
By J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 J. A. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe men boarded the train at different stops as it rolled through West Texas: three at Sweet Apple, four at Sierra Blanca, the final pair at Pecos. Each group gave no sign they knew the others.
Yet those who were familiar with the signs could tell the men were cut from the same cloth, whether they were acquainted or not. They had the same hard, watchful eyes, the same air of tension about them that was mindful of a coiled spring. Their hands never strayed far from the guns on their hips.
Nearing the dawn of a new, modern century, fewer men packed iron than had twenty years earlier, and fewer still did so openly. Since the men were spread out on the train, no one really paid much attention to them despite the guns.
That is, until one of the men in the second of two passenger cars stood up, balanced himself against the slight swaying and rocking of the coach, and reached up with his left hand to yank on the emergency cord. Passengers were flung forward in their seats, some tumbled to the floor and most cried out in sudden fear as the engineer up in the cab of the smoke-spewing locomotive threw on the brakes. Outside, sparks flew in the air as drivers locked and skidded on the steel rails.
The man who pulled the cord braced himself for the jolt by grabbing the back of the bench seat beside him. He was still on his feet when he lifted the bandanna around his neck up over the lower half of his face. He drew the Colt from its holster on his hip and yelled over the hubbub, "Nobody move! Do what you're told and nobody gets killed!"
The menacing revolver drew more screams and shouts. A male passenger, red-faced with anger, leaped up and yelled, "By God, you can't—"
The man with the gun shot him.
The Colt's roar was deafeningly loud in the close confines of the railroad car. The slug smashed into the red-faced man's shoulder, slewing him halfway around. Crying thinly in agony, he slumped against one of the seats as blood welled from the wound.
"I said, nobody move!" the gunman repeated.
"Is-is this a holdup?" a woman asked in a quavering voice.
Under the bandanna, the outlaw grinned. "Yes, ma'am, it sure is, so you might as well go ahead and fork over that fancy bracelet you're wearin', along with any other jewelry you got."
A similar scene was playing out in the first passenger car, although none of the passengers had been foolish enough to leave their seats and threaten the gunman who had taken over that car. The outlaws began collecting watches, wallets, jewelry, and anything else of value they could find.
Up at the engine, two members of the gang had scrambled over the coal tender and invaded the cab as soon as the train jolted to a halt. They covered the engineer and the fireman to make sure the train didn't move again until they were gone. One man was in the caboose, keeping his gun on the conductor and the two brakemen. That left two men to loot the express car and two more to take over the private car that had been added to the train between the express car and the caboose.
"Who do you think this fancy rig belongs to?" one of the outlaws asked the other as they paused in the private car's vestibule with their guns drawn. "The president of the line, maybe?"
"Who else would be rich enough to have his own railroad car?" the second man asked. "This is a real stroke of luck. I knew there was money in the express car, but I didn't figure on bein' able to grab somebody we can hold for ransom!"
They made sure the bandanna masks were secure over their faces. It wasn't their first train robbery, but so far the law didn't have good descriptions of any of them. They boarded the trains at different places, they didn't bunch up so as to create suspicion, and when the time came to strike, they moved with practiced ease and efficiency.
As they liked to congratulate themselves when they were holed up in their hideout, celebrating their most recent holdup, ol' Jesse James didn't have anything on them.
One of the outlaws threw open the door leading into the fancy car. Holding their guns tightly, thrust out in front of them, they charged into the car and found themselves in a sitting room with a thick rug on the floor, an overstuffed divan, several armchairs, a writing desk, and a hardwood bar. Everything was richly appointed, and the car itself was trimmed with gleaming brass. A door on the other end of the sitting room led into a short corridor with a sleeping compartment on either side.
The man standing at the bar smiled and said calmly, "When the train made an unscheduled stop, I thought someone might be coming to call. Would you gentlemen care for a drink before we get on with the business at hand?"
The outlaws stared at him. His reaction wasn't at all what they had been expecting. Usually folks either screamed or begged for mercy. Often they did both. They didn't stand around offering drinks.
The man was tall and broad-shouldered. He wore an expensive but not ostentatious black suit with a dark gray vest and white shirt. Black boots and a string tie gave him a Western look, although his voice wasn't a Western drawl. His sandy hair was longish, his tanned features rugged enough to be handsome but not pretty. He had to be rich, sure enough.
He held a wide-belled glass in one hand, a bottle of cognac in the other. He cocked an eyebrow quizzically as he lifted both items and held them out toward the robbers as if offering them.
"Damn it, we don't want a drink!" one of the gunmen burst out. "You're comin' with us. I bet your family will pay plenty to get you back in one piece!"
The man's easy smile went away as his face hardened. "You're going to kidnap me and hold me for ransom?"
"That's right, you fancy-pants son of a bitch!" the second gunman said.
"I don't like that. I've been kidnapped by outlaws before, and it wasn't a pleasant experience at all."
"Stop flappin' your jaw!" the first outlaw said. "Put that booze down and give us anything you got on you right now!"
"If you insist." The man dropped the glass and the bottle.
The eyes of the two outlaws instinctively followed them as they fell. Before the delicate crystal shattered as it struck the floor, the man crossed his arms, sweeping aside the tails of his coat to grip the butts of the two short-barreled revolvers the garment had concealed. Faster than the eye could follow, he drew both weapons and fired. Flame spat from the muzzles, the shots shockingly loud. Despite the relatively small size of the guns, each packed a .38 caliber punch.
The two outlaws were taken completely by surprise. The first pair of slugs drove into their chests and knocked them back a step. Their guns sagged as pain coursed through them. As they tried to lift the weapons again, the man fired a second time. One of the outlaws dropped with a bullet in his brain, the other reeled to the side as he clutched at his blood-spouting throat. He collapsed after a couple steps, pitching forward onto his face. Blood began to pool around his head, soaking into the thick rug.
"That rug's going to have to be replaced. On the other hand, this new cross-draw rig worked very well." The man holstered his left-hand gun, sliding it butt-forward into the leather on his right hip, but kept the other gun in his right hand as he checked on the two outlaws, making sure they were dead. Then he turned and called through the open door, "You can come out now, Arturo. It's safe."
A slender, pale man in his thirties emerged from one of the sleeping compartments and stepped into the sitting room. He wore an expression of disapproval as he looked at the two corpses sprawled on the floor. "Really, sir, was that completely necessary?"
"Yes," said Conrad Browning, "I think it was."
He took a couple of cartridges from the loops on his gunbelt and replaced the rounds he had fired from the Colt Lightning still in his hand. As he reloaded the other gun, he went on, "I'm certain these two didn't stop the train all by themselves. I think I'll go have a look for their friends."
"Sir, are you sure you should—"
Conrad snapped the gun's cylinder closed. "Yes. I am."
Chapter TwoThe gang would have taken over the caboose, too, Conrad figured, so he might as well start there. He stepped around Arturo, leaving the nervous-looking valet in the car with the two dead outlaws. Knowing the man—or men—in the caboose probably heard the shots from the private car, and would be alert for trouble, Conrad swung down from the private car's rear platform instead of stepping across to the caboose. He dropped lithely to the ground with one of the .38 Lightning double-action revolvers in his right hand. Crouching low, well below the level of the windows, he ran to the rear of the train.
Silently, he climbed onto the caboose's rear platform and put an ear against the closed door. What he heard reminded him of why he hated outlaws so much.
Years earlier, as a young man, he had been kidnapped by lawless men with a grudge against his father to go along with their greed, leaving him with a mutilated ear—a permanent reminder of the pain and terror he had endured. He wore his hair long enough to cover it, and most of the time it didn't hurt anymore, but he had never forgotten what had happened.
Of course, he had suffered much greater pain since then, and that tended to dull the old aches.
As Conrad listened, he heard a man's loud, angry voice inside the caboose—one of the outlaws yelling at the conductor and the brakemen. He waited until he had a pretty good idea of where the man was standing, then wrapped his left hand around the doorknob and threw the door open.
Instantly, his keen eyes took in the scene. The conductor was sitting at his desk, off to the left, and the two brakemen stood near him, their hands lifted in the air as a single outlaw menaced them with a drawn six-gun.
The train robber wore a bandanna over the lower half of his face like the two men Conrad had killed in his private car. The man's head jerked toward the door where Conrad had made his unexpected entrance. The eyes above the bandanna bulged in surprise. He tried to shift his aim and bring his gun to bear on the newcomer.
Conrad's gun blasted twice. The first slug punched into the outlaw's gut, doubling him over. The second bullet caught him in the center of the forehead. It left behind a neat black hole as it bored into his brain. The train robber crumpled into a lifeless heap.
"Mr. Browning!" the conductor exclaimed as he recognized their unlikely savior. "How—"
"Was there just one of them?" Conrad asked sharply, interrupting the conductor's question.
"Yeah, just one man came in here, right after somebody pulled the emergency cord. I tried to get my gun out, but the bastard winged me."
Conrad noticed for the first time the conductor's left hand clutched a bloodstained right arm. "He won't hurt anybody else. Do you know how many more of them there are?"
The conductor shook his head. "No idea."
"All right. Stay here."
The conductor started to stand up as he protested, "This is my train, damn it—"
"And I own a considerable amount of stock in this railroad," Conrad pointed out, "which means you work for me. You're wounded. Stay here." He added to the brakemen, "See if you can patch up that arm for him."
Confident that his orders would be carried out, Conrad stepped onto the rear platform again. He checked along both sides of the train and didn't see anyone moving around. Filling his left hand with the other .38 he dropped to the ground, and ran forward toward the engine.
Two masked men carrying canvas bags leaped from the open door of the express car, obviously not expecting any trouble, though their guns were still drawn. Spotting Conrad right away they swiveled toward him, but both his guns roared as he instinctively veered to the side to avoid any possible lead flying at him.
One of his shots ripped a bloody furrow along an outlaw's forearm, making the man cry out in pain and drop his gun. The other bullet shattered the right elbow of the second train robber. He dropped to his knees, whimpering in agony. The bags of loot lay on the ground where they'd been dropped when bullets started to fly.
The first outlaw was still on his feet. Using his left arm he jerked a knife from his belt and lunged at Conrad, raising the knife and driving it down in a killing stroke.
Too close to the man to avoid his charge Conrad squeezed off another shot that missed as he ducked and twisted. The deadly blade whipped over his back, slicing a gash in his coat and shirt, leaving a burning trail along his skin. The two men collided and went down in a tangle of arms and legs.
In close quarters, the outlaw's knife was more dangerous than Conrad's guns. He threw himself aside as the cold steel swiped within a couple inches of his face. He rolled, trying to put some distance between himself and the outlaw, but the man threw himself after him, slashing back and forth with the knife.
Conrad thrust his right-hand gun up to block the blade. Steel rang against steel. At the same time, he saw an opening and his left-hand gun flashed up. Jamming the muzzle under the outlaw's chin, he pulled the trigger.
The bullet smashed upward through the man's brain and exploded out the top of his head in a grisly pink spray of blood, gray matter, and shattered skull. The man's eyes nearly popped from their sockets. Grimacing, Conrad shoved the corpse aside and rolled away.
A bullet kicked up dust in front of his face, spraying grit into his eyes and blinding him.
"You son of a bitch!" a man yelled.
Unable to see much of anything, Conrad blinked furiously and scrambled toward the roadbed underneath the express car figuring the voice belonged to one of the outlaws who'd been robbing the passengers. Another slug spanged off the steel rail on the side of the train. Rocks chewed into Conrad's hands and shredded the knees of his trousers as he dived forward into the shade underneath the car.
He blinked rapidly, suppressing the urge to paw at his eyes. Grinding the dirt into his eyeballs would do more damage. Better to let his eyes water and wash the grit out.
"He's under the train! The bastard's under the train!" The harsh shout was followed by the rapid thud of footsteps.
Conrad shook his head from side to side, his vision starting to clear. Spotting a pair of boots running alongside the train, he aimed at them and squeezed off a couple shots.
The man howled in pain and fell hard in an out of control sprawl as one of the bullets busted an ankle. He came to a stop staring at the space underneath the express car.
Conrad shot him between the eyes, turning the outlaw's face into a crimson smear.
"Move the train!" a man yelled. "Move the train!"
Conrad bit back a curse as he rolled onto his back and jammed both guns into their holsters. He could hear the train engine rumble and feel the vibration in the roadbed beneath him. It still had steam up. With a clash and clatter, the drivers engaged. Conrad reached up, grabbed one of the iron rods that ran underneath the car, and wrapped his legs around it. He lifted himself from the roadbed a scant second before the train lurched into motion.
It didn't go very far, just far enough he would have been revealed had he stayed where he was. When the train jolted to a halt again, he dropped to the ground and rolled out the far side, hoping the remaining outlaws wouldn't expect him to be there.
Surging to his feet he drew his guns again. He had lost track of how many men he had killed and had no idea how many more outlaws there were. Obviously some of them were up in the cab, or they wouldn't have been able to force the engineer to move the train. Conrad sprinted for the locomotive.
"Over there!" a man shouted from the other side of the train. "He's headed for the engine!"
A man leaned out of the cab and drew a bead on him. Before Conrad could react, someone jumped the outlaw from behind, tackling him and knocking him out of the cab. Both men fell to the ground. Conrad knew from the clothes of the man who had pitched in to help that he was the fireman.
The outlaw rolled over and swung his gun toward the fireman. Conrad got there first and launched a kick that slammed into the outlaw's head and drove it far to the side. The man's neck broke with a sharp crack like that of a snapping branch. The gun went off as his finger involuntarily jerked the trigger, but the bullet screamed off harmlessly into the vast West Texas sky.
Conrad holstered his left-hand gun and grabbed the fireman's arm to haul him to his feet. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." The man stared at him. "Good Lord! Ain't you Mr. Browning?"
Conrad didn't waste time answering him. "Do you know how many more of them there are?"
Excerpted from The Loner: TRAIL OF BLOOD 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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